Kassandra Kush

Archive for June 2013

Yes, that’s right! We’re up and live on Kindle!!! Get your copy here, and be sure to leave a review!!! :]

 

http://www.amazon.com/Guardian-The-Fallen-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B00DGVF6BS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371672513&sr=8-1&keywords=guardian+kassandra+kush

 

 

 

Image

For your viewing pleasure!! Just two days!!! 

 

Guardian

Kassandra Kush

 

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 or 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Thus should all your faithful pray in times of distress.

Though flood waters threaten, they will never reach them.

Psalm 32:6

 

            Saturday was a day with a routine ground in so hard I was sure that the three of us could do it in our sleep. We always dressed quietly, meeting out front after I had grabbed us an on-the-go breakfast. Today was no exception. We stealthily left the house, not wanting to wake up our parents, since they slept in late on the weekends; they stayed out late as well, occasionally bringing the party home with them, if the noises in the rest of the house were any indication.

And then we were off, walking as we rubbed sleep from our eyes and adjusted hastily thrown on shirts and socks. We began the long trudge up Broad Street, with a right on Grant, to the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. We all had our backpacks, since this was homework time. But when we were done, it easily turned into play time. Books and stories were something that could provide an escape from life, from the present, and that was something I had taught Colton and Grace. Though young, through my tutoring and determination, they both read at a level far above their age group.

            “That new Rick Riordan book is finally in on our reserve list,” I told Colton cheerfully. “We can finally continue the saga of Percy Jackson!”

            “Ca-an’t wait,” Colton said through a jaw cracking yawn.

            I ruffled his hair, pulling him against me and taking Grace’s hand as we crossed the street. I loved having them near me, around me. But even as we reached the middle of the long crosswalk, I felt my skin prickle and the hairs on the back of my neck begin to rise. My senses felt as if they had been switched to hyper-alert, and I looked around uneasily. It felt as though someone was watching me. But aside from a few other early birds, though it was already past nine, there was no one else taking an obvious interest in us. I looked behind us as well, but there was no one there.

            Calm down, I told myself. Its broad daylight. Even if someone was following you, nothing is going to happen.

            And it was true. It was a beautiful, crisp fall day. Dry, fallen leaves skittered and skated along the street, whispering in their own language, while the light breeze cooled the still-intense September heat. I watched the sidewalk as the shadow of a large bird flew from one building to the next in front of the bright sunlight.

            Maybe it was because of Austin’s attempted attack on me a week before, or maybe it was just because I was so protective of my siblings, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched. No matter how beautiful and clear the day was, no matter how many times I looked over my shoulder to confirm that there was no one behind us, I couldn’t reassure myself.

It was a relief to finally reach the big library and walk quickly inside, where the hushed whispers and strong scent of books made me feel safe and welcomed. Nothing could happen to us here. But even so, I kept Colton and Grace close to me until we finally reached our table and settled down, me and my flood of oversized textbooks and papers on one side, Colton and Grace on the other. It was a familiar routine as we quietly settled into our work, and I took comfort in it and allowed it to put my mind at ease.

            For a long time there was only silence at our table, the rustling of papers and squeaking of pencils. I grinned to myself when I saw Colton reading silently, his lips moving to form the words, and when I caught Grace wrinkling her nose and scrunching her face as she encountered something she didn’t fully understand right away. We had a solid hour of quiet time to work before Colton and Grace both began to fidget uncontrollably, and I looked up in relief when story time was called from across the room. I turned to my siblings.

            “Colton, do you want to go today?”

            Though technically he was too old for this particular story group, Colton loved the animation with which the readers read the stories.

            “Yeah,” he said, taking Grace’s hand and practically pulling her off the chair. “I’ll go with Gracie today.”

            I stood as well, following them across the room. Colton turned and walked backward so he could look at me while he walked, a giggling Grace imitating him.

            “You don’t need to walk us over there,” he pointed out. “It’s two seconds across the room!”

            “I know, but I… wanted to,” I said lamely. I knew he was right, but how could I explain an obsessive, motherly need to assure myself of their constant safety?

            Once they were safely ensconced within the story time room, I headed back to my books, only to get up half an hour later in hunt of a scientific dictionary.

            I found my dictionary on the second floor in the reference section and was heading back downstairs in minutes, heavy book in tow, when I found myself walking past the teen book section. Colton and Grace safely ensconced in story time, I allowed myself to dawdle and pick out several new books to take home. On my way back I stopped at the service desk to pick up our reserves, and finally headed back into the children’s area of the library. I passed the story room, hidden behind a large wall, and realized with a sinking feeling that it was silent. Silent and dark. I peeked behind the wall and saw that it was undeniably empty.

            Calm down, calm down, I told myself for the second time that day. Colton and Grace are probably just sitting at the table, wondering where you are.

            I walked quickly to the table, only a thin thread of self-control keeping me from running flat out all the way. I turned the corner and skidded to a halt when I saw that our table was empty of anyone. I darted over to the librarian station.

            “Excuse me,” I said to the woman sitting there. “Have you seen the little boy and girl I was sitting with earlier? They’re blonde, ten and six-years-old, very short?”

            “Not since you walked them over there awhile ago,” she said in a bored voice, pointing over to the story time room. But I was already gone, power walking up and down all the aisles in the children’s area. Grace and Colton were nowhere to be found. I stopped by our table once more, looking around wildly. They knew better than to go out into the main section of the library without me, didn’t they? Would I be wasting my time going out there to look? With a rush of dread, I remembered my eerie feeling of being watched. My panic hit a critical level and I dashed out of the children’s area. Please, Lord, help me find them. Let them be safe.

            I stopped at every service desk to see if anyone had seen them. I asked perfect strangers. A thin film of sweat from exertion and panic covered me as I headed to the second floor, and then the third. I couldn’t find them anywhere. As I stood at the top of the staircase, looking down to try and catch a glimpse of a blond head, I spotted a library security guard standing by the exit. I nodded. Much as I was absolutely hated to admit that I couldn’t handle this by myself, it was time to get some real help. I jogged down the steps.

           

            “The last I saw them was in the story room,” I said, now trotting to keep up with the long-legged security guard who was leading the way into the children’s area once again. “We usually sit at that table right over there, by the librarian station and-” I stopped dead, staring at the bathrooms.

            Because there was Colton, leaning against the wall by the women’s bathroom, his hands shoved in the pockets of his faded old jeans, kicking his feet against the wall and fidgeting with a classic case of ten-year-old ADD.

            “Colton!” I yelled desperately. I ran up to him, pulling his small, thin body up against my own, as if to reassure myself that he was actually real. And he was, a fact made abundantly clear as he pushed out of my arms with a scowl.

            “Where is Grace?” I asked, looking around wildly, very aware of the security guard who clearly thought I was now wasting his valuable time.

            “She’s in the bathroom,” Colton said, ruffling the hair I had smoothed only seconds before. “There was a big line after the story time ended, so we were waiting inside the bathrooms.”

            Just then Grace came out, and the security guard left, apparently deeming the mystery solved. I was much too relieved to worry about looking stupid for not checking the bathrooms. I clutched both Colton and Grace to me, kneeling on the floor so our heads were at the same level.

            “You just scared years off my life,” I whispered to them, my heartbeat finally slowing a little. “And I don’t have a whole lot to spare. I couldn’t find you guys! Next time, tell me where you’re going!”

            “But you weren’t at the table,” Colton objected. Older than Grace, he saw the unreasonableness in my panic and was trying to call me out on it. I was still too unnerved, from both Austin’s strange attack and the mysterious Rafael, to care. “And Gracie really had to pee!” he continued.

            “Gracie had to use the restroom,” I corrected, unthinking. “And I don’t care, no excuses. I was so worried about you. I thought something awful had happened. I was scared to death.”

            Grace was sucking her thumb, studying me. “Can we ride in the elevators today, Sissy?” she asked.

            I sighed, giving up on pressing this important lesson into them. After all, they had been only ten feet away from the table the whole time. I supposed that didn’t really put them in the wrong. Finally thinking straight with the relief that finding them brought, I gently pulled Grace’s thumb from her mouth and nodded wearily.

            “Yes, we can take the elevator so you can push the buttons. I need a dictionary.” I had only just realized that in my panic, I’d set the other one down and hadn’t a clue where it was.

            I took both their hands solidly in mine, even though they protested at being treated like babies. But I ignored it. It had been a good scare, one I was not about to repeat ever again in my lifetime. I was going to be a nervous wreck by the time I got over the bundle of nerves I’d acquired with Austin’s attack and following memory loss. We trotted quickly to the elevators, where I settled the button fight that was just as routine in our Saturday as studying; Colton was allowed to press the first one, while Grace got the one inside the elevator.

            Standing there waiting for the elevator to come down to our floor, the hairs on the back of my neck slowly began to rise once more, only stiffer this time. Even the hairs on my arms stood to attention, my whole body covered with chilly goose bumps. I could feel a pair of eyes on me.

Slowly, I looked up, into the foggy reflection of the stainless steel elevator doors. There was a blurred shape in them, standing behind the three of us. The air in my lungs constricted as I picked out dark clothing, dark hair, and an undeniable masculinity in the overbearing height and broad shoulders.

            I spun around with a gasp, but there was no one standing behind us. The large staircase blocked us from the view of anyone in the lobby, and there was no one nearby, nowhere for anyone to hide. I looked around franticly, and at the loud ding of the elevator, I jumped almost a foot into the air.

            “Lyla?”

            I looked down into Colton and Grace’s curious faces, pressing a hand over my furiously pounding heart.

            “Are you okay?” Colton asked seriously. “You seem funny today.”

            “I’m all right,” I assured him, looking behind us once more. “I just, I just thought that I saw someone. But it was nothing. Come on, we’re about to miss the elevator!”

            I led the way into the small box, hitting the second floor button and furiously jabbing at the Close Door until the doors were firmly shut and we were alone, safe from whatever was out there.

            “Lyla!” Grace shrieked. “I was supposed to press the button!”

            “Oh!” I felt a tremor of guilt go through me. “I’m sorry, honey! You can press both of them on the way down, okay?”

            While Colton fumed and Grace smiled at this deal, I tried to clear my head. I really was acting funny today. Maybe Austin’s attack had unsettled me more than I really believed it had. As we walked out onto the second floor, however, I tried to push away my unsettling thoughts. Because whatever – whoever – I had or hadn’t seen in the elevator doors hadn’t looked like danger. It actually looked a lot like… Rafael.

 

            We walked through the door of the house just as the phone began to ring. Colton and Grace both raced for it, while I followed at a more sedate pace and set my book bag down on the kitchen table, where I would undoubtedly spend the rest of my evening studying.

            “Hello?” Colton said breathlessly into the phone. He had beaten Grace to it. “Yeah, one minute.” He held the phone out to me. “It’s Natalie. She wants to talk to you.”

            “Thanks, Bub,” I whispered, accepting the phone. “Hello?”

            “Oh my gosh!” Natalie shrieked, and began talking at her usual speed: lightning fast. She didn’t even stop for breath. “So I was just talking to my mom and guess what? We can start talking about the missions trip tomorrow at youth group! She’s going to be on the committee again and said registration would start in two weeks!”

            “Really?!” I asked, my voice as high pitched as Natalie’s. “That soon?”
            “Well, it’s the first week of September! And keep it on the down low, but we’re going all the way to Alabama this year, too. You know, to help with the tornado relief and recovery and stuff.”

            My excitement deflated faster than a balloon. “Nat,” I said slowly, collapsing backward onto the couch. “I don’t know if I can go.”

            “What?” she screeched, and I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “It’s the Diocese of Columbus Youth Missions Trip, Ly’s,” she told me, putting extra emphasis on the diocese. As if I didn’t know. “You can’t just not go!”

            “I definitely can!” I protested. “Aside from the fact that I would need a full ride of financial aid, which would include money for a plane ride or bus ticket, what would I do with Colton and Grace?”
            “Easy,” Natalie said promptly. “My mom already said she would watch them, like the last time.”

            I inwardly cringed. It was one thing last year, when the missions trip had been an in-city project, cleaning all the churches by teaming up all the youth groups that could participate within the diocese, and also volunteering and forming food and clothing drives. I had simply left Colton and Grace with Natalie’s mom during the day and been able to take them home with me every night. But being hundreds of miles and hours upon hours away from them in Alabama was something totally different.

            “Now, Lyla,” Natalie said in an aggravatingly patient tone. “Remember the talk we had the other week about pride? It’s okay to admit you need help and ask for it sometimes. My mom totally loves Colton and Grace.”

            But how could you explain to someone that it wasn’t pride that kept you from asking for help, but the simple fact that if you let them help you, you began to trust them, depend on them, they would always let you down? I couldn’t let Colton and Grace form attachments to people that could possibly leave them. And there was the simple added fact that I was sure no one could look after them half as well as I did.

            “I’ll tell you what,” Natalie said, again easily breaking my tense silence. “I’ll talk to Mom, and see if she can do about the financial aid. Then, if things start looking promising there, we’ll talk about what to do about Colton and Grace again. Okay?”

            “Okay,” I agreed, instantly feeling a little bit better. “Deal.”

            “Fabulous. Okay, and then – what’s that noise on your end?”

            “The garage door is opening,” I said nonchalantly, and then bolted up from the couch when I realized what I had said. “Colton!” I called. “Who’s home?”

            He and Grace already had their noses glued to the window.

            “Mom,” Colton said, and they both turned around, looking serious.

            “Hey, Natalie, let me call you back later, okay?” I asked, getting into action.

            “Sure, I’ll talk to you later, Lyla. Bye.”

            “Bye,” I said, tossing the phone onto the couch and herding Colton and Grace toward the bedroom hallway. “Come on, guys. Why don’t you wait in the bedroom, and I’ll talk to Mom first.”

            “But what if she’s happy today?” Grace asked plaintively. “I want to see her! I haven’t for a long time!”

            I swallowed past the lump in my throat, trying to ignore the way her big blue eyes were slightly glassy, as though she was getting ready to cry. I couldn’t take the chance of letting her see our mother. Most likely, she would be in a bad mood, and I couldn’t, absolutely could not, allow Grace to bear the brunt of it. When my parents actually did bother to spend some real time at home, they generally preferred that we were not around. I was positive tonight would be no exception.

            “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t let you see her yet,” I told Grace, kneeling down to hug her.

            Grace wouldn’t have any of it. “I-I-I want my M-mommy!” She began to sob and then threw herself on the bed in full tantrum mode. I looked helplessly to Colton, who immediately ran and jumped on the bed, crouching down beside Grace’s head.

            “It’s okay, Gracie,” he said. “I haven’t seen Mom or Dad for a while too, but that doesn’t mean you have to cry about it! I’ll let you play with my toys if it will make you feel better!”

            I eased out of the room, entering the kitchen just as my mother slammed the garage door shut. “Hi, Mom,” I said cautiously, but I could already see from the glint in her bright blue eyes that she wasn’t happy to see me.

            “Who were you talking to on the phone all day?” she demanded, throwing her worn leather purse onto the dining table. “I tried to call twice on my way home, and the line was busy.”

            “I was just talking to Natalie for a couple minutes,” I said, circling through the kitchen as she walked into the living room, keeping the same solid distance between us. “She called when we got back from the library.”

            “I don’t care who you were talking to!” Mom suddenly shouted. “You should have answered! I wanted you to make me some dinner. I’m tired from working all day and I’m hungry!”

            “Mom, I’ll make you some dinner,” I said smoothly, trying to calm her before she could work herself into a frenzy. But it was too late.

            She had found the phone where I had left it on the couch, forgetting to put it away in my haste to get Grace and Colton out of sight. The moment she picked it up, I could see that she was beyond reason.

            “Every time I walk into this house, something is lying out of place!” she began to rage. “Your father and I work all day to keep this roof over your head and food in your mouth and this is the thanks we get!”

            I cringed and then ducked as the phone came flying at me. It hit the wall and broke into two pieces. When I straightened once more and opened my eyes, Mom stood in front of me, pressing me against the kitchen wall.

            “It is absolutely disgusting how you think you can live here and get by with things like this,” she hissed at me. “I only hope Colton and Grace don’t follow your example. One disappointing kid is enough. I can’t believe your father hasn’t been able to change your ways by now. Maybe I can finally get you to shape up.”

            She slapped me on the cheek, hard. I felt tears well in my eyes at the sharp sting, but bit my lips to keep from crying out. That was what she wanted. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.

            “Now, get your junk off my kitchen table, and get out of here,” she said, still quietly. She stepped away to allow me to leave. “You’re a disappointment, Lyla. I’m talking to your father about this when he gets home.”

            I didn’t respond, only grabbed my backpack from the table and hurried into the bedroom. Colton and Grace both looked up from where they were playing with their stuffed animals on my bed. I couldn’t meet their eyes.

            I felt a tear course down my cheek as I carefully turned my back on them and gently closed the door. I bolted all of the four locks I had installed over the years, and then, only when each one was tightly in place, just like my feelings, I turned to my siblings.

            Grace held out a stuffed unicorn to me. “Want to play, Sissy?”

 

            It was eleven o’clock and Colton and Grace were both sound asleep by the time my dad came home and he and my mother began their argument. It had begun just I had expected; my dad found the phone lying in two pieces on the kitchen floor, and lit into Mom for it. She protested, blaming me. Then, after she poured each of them a drink, the words flowed even more freely. I cringed when Dad threw a chair at the wall, complaining that my mother never did anything for him. I wanted to hide under the covers as Mom began to sob that Dad didn’t love her anymore. When he slapped her, I felt the pain of my own cheek sharp and fresh once more, and after he had finally shouted her into quiet, sobbing submission, I remained deadly silent as he came and rattled on our door.

            It was three in the morning before the house was totally silent, and that was when I slipped onto my knees beside my bed, letting Colton and Grace’s smooth, steady breathing wash calm over me, the sweetest music to soothe the savaged breast. I bowed my head and clasped my hands together, finally alone, finally able to speak my mind.

            Lord, I’m so scared. I wanted to scream it out loud, but had to settle for just shouting inside my head. The tears I had held back all evening while putting on a brave face for my siblings came like a flood, streaming down my cheeks as I buried my face in our faded comforter. I don’t know what to do. I need guidance. I know this isn’t truly my mom and dad. I remember when they were different. Why did they have to change? I just want to feel safe when I come home at the end of the day, not constantly on my guard.

I poured out my feelings to the only person I knew would listen. I told Him of my fear and panic when I had lost Colton and Grace at the library today, my secret wish to go all the way to Alabama with Natalie for the missions trip, how scared of my mom and dad I was, how I wanted things to be different.

            I wished things could change. I wished Colton, Grace, and I didn’t have to lock the door before we went to sleep at night. I wished the days when my mom made us dinner and breakfast and sent us off to school weren’t so distantly in the past that even I could hardly remember them. I wished I had family, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, that could help us. I wished I wasn’t the oldest, that this responsibility wasn’t mine.

            But more than anything, I wished there were people I could trust. People who would be there when they said they would be, help us when they promised, and give me a shoulder to lean on, to cry on. And as I crawled into bed next to Grace, that was what I prayed for, though I never, ever would have admitted it. 

 

A preview from later in the book!

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

EZEKIEL

 

            Two nights later I’m working the dining room, which is slow even for a Wednesday night, when Tony Stull steps in front of me, blocking my path back to the kitchen. We stare at each other for a long moment, and I take in his clenched fists and the weird light in his blue eyes. I have him by almost two inches and we’re in a public place, so he doesn’t scare me, but the crazy look in his eyes is almost as unnerving as the empty one in Evie’s.

            “You better stay away from Evie, Quain,” he finally says, and my eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

            “Excuse me?” The idea that he actually thinks I would go for someone like Evie Parker is laughable. Out of my league, and definitely not my type.

            “Don’t try to deny it,” Tony growls. “I’ve seen the way you look at her. You’re like a mutt eyeing another dog’s bone. I’ve got news for you; she’s taken, and she’s happy, and I want you to stay away from her. Quit bothering her, especially when she visits Jenny.”

            Ahh. So he must have seen the two of us talking at the dance studio at some point. I allow a smile to play on my lips, gleaning satisfaction from the way his whole body tenses because I’m not taking him seriously. It gives me the greatest pleasure to say, “Tell your girl to stay away from me, Stull. She approached me first. So maybe she’s not as satisfied as you think.”

            He growls. The boy actually growls at me, taking a step forward, and I stay still, staring at him without blinking. He’s nothing compared to Cameron, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to stand my ground. Finally, Tony seems to gain control of himself and steps back once more, allowing his eyes to flick over my uniform, focusing on the brand-new stains from tonight’s special of lasagna and spaghetti over veal that mottle my white shirt.

            “Don’t forget your place, Quain,” he whispers. “You’re trash, and you’ll always belong in the gutter.”

            I smile pleasantly at him, because I don’t feel threatened in the least. If he thinks he can make things worse for me, he’s seriously overestimating how much he thinks I have going for me in life.

            “Oh, I know my place, Tony. Just don’t blame me if your girlfriend is finding something in the gutter that she can’t find in the silver spoon stuck up your ass.”

            I expect a smart retort, but Tony’s face instantly flushes bright red and he turns sharply on one heel, storming out of the dining room. He nearly knocks a few people over, he’s going so fast. I watch him go for a long moment, and have a sudden quiver of uneasiness somewhere deep within me. It’s only just occurred to me that taunting an abusive guy about having an affair with his girlfriend might not have been the best idea. I force the emotions and feelings away, reasoning that if it brings Evie trouble, it’s her fault, not mine. I told her to tell someone, to get out, and she refused.

            Whatever happens next will be on her, not me. I don’t do guilt or pity. I haven’t for years, and I sure as hell am not going to start now.

            

CHAPTER THREE

            Val looked from the red Etnies jacket in her hand to her cell phone, which had a text message set up for Caiden My Lover.

‘U left ur jacket @ school today. I’m close u want me to run it by?’

She took a deep breath and hit send, closing her eyes. Val knew that she would do the same for any other person she knew, and she was doing her good deed for the day.

Caiden had left the jacket in the tutoring classroom today, and Val had happened to see it.

The thing looked very comfortable, and as she sat on the bench outside Eastern Gymnastics, Val couldn’t help but lift the jacket up and sniff it. It smelled like Caiden, hot (she’d finally admitted that to herself-there was no use denying it), spicy, sexy (okay, that was stretching it, she thought), and delicious. The scent, that was. Not Caiden himself.

She kicked her legs a little bit, watching her cell phone to wait for a reply. Evie didn’t have dance that night, so she was alone, and that was why Val had decided to actually text Caiden. Evie would have asked a bunch of questions; ones that didn’t need to be asked.

Val jumped as her phone rang, and looked down to see it was from Caiden.

‘Sure I’m 478 Collier Hill Dr. U know the neighborhood?’

She sighed. She’d been hoping that there would be no reply. No such luck.       Val replied in the affirmative, saying she would be there in a few minutes. Then she stood and quickly set off for the neighborhood directly across from the strip of businesses where Eastern Gymnastics was located. She knew exactly where Caiden lived, having gone to a party next door to his house once.

A wind blew up while she walked, and Val shivered in the cool evening. The only thing she had on was her shorts and her leotard. Although the leotard was a midnight blue velvet, it didn’t help keep her warm, and she looked with longing at the jacket she held in her hands.

No. She wouldn’t do it. No matter how cold she got, there was no way she was actually going to put on Caiden’s jacket. Val didn’t know what kind of commitment it was, but it was something when a person wore someone else’s clothes. For starters it meant that you were actually friends. She and Caiden were not friends.

The wind blew harder, and Val realized that it was going to rain soon. She could smell it in the air. She quickened her pace, hoping to get to Caiden’s house before she got wet. The result was only that the wind blew harder into her face and her eyes started to water terribly.

“Dang it,” She muttered, giving in, and flung the jacket around her. It was like a cocoon of wonderful smelling warmth. She even pulled the hood up to keep her hair somewhat under control.

And then Val felt the raindrop on her big toe. She flat out ran, but the rain caught up with her and within seconds, the stinging sheets had her soaked.

On any other day, if she was doing anything else, Val could have handled, maybe even enjoyed this. Now all she could think about was how she’d land on Caiden’s doorstep looking like a drowned kitten.

Perfect.

Val was slipping out of her flip flops by the time she made it onto Caiden’s porch, which was mercifully covered from the rain. Without even checking to see what she looked like, Val pounded on the front door of his house, relieved just to be out of the wet and cold.

It was a few moments before Caiden (luckily) opened the door. For a second he just stared at her, standing there dripping in her shorts and leotard, and his own jacket, shivering.

“Don’t tell me you were singing in the rain?” He asked, smiling a little bit.

Val’s response was her teeth beginning the chatter. The wind was now cutting through her wet clothes and slicing her bare legs.

“Come in,” Caiden said without further ado, stepping aside as he held open the door for her.

“T-t-thanks,” She said, stepping into the wonderful, glowing heated house.

“Stay right here, let me get you a towel,” Caiden said, taking her arm and moving her to the side of the door so she was dripping on the edge of the entrance rug. “No one else is home, so don’t worry that someone will walk in on you. I’ll be right back.”

Val nodded, her teeth still chattering, watching as Caiden jogged up the stairs that were right next to the front door. She almost checked out his butt, before she caught herself and looked around at what she could see of the house.

It was actually very nice, with wooden and beige tiled floors, the walls painted in rich warm tones. Pictures hung on the walls, and the glass table near the wall held a vase of fake but nonetheless pretty flowers.

It wasn’t what she’d expected from Caiden’s house. She’d known, of course, that Caiden had to live with his parents, but when she’d pictured his house, it had always seemed to be dark. Not the pretty, glowing rooms around her right now.

Val turned at the sound of Caiden coming back down the stairs. He looked much the same as he had that day at school; lightish colored, sagging jeans with one ripped knee, a black t-shirt that had a crossed out cigarette on it, saying underneath ‘There are cooler ways to die’(That had made Val laugh). Oddly enough, with the gold walls behind him, and the clean elegance of the house, Caiden just fit right in. There was no oddness to it at all.

“Here you go,” He said, handing her a large, fluffy white towel. Val took it, and realized that it smelled like him.

She gave him a look. “This isn’t yours, is it?”

He held up his hands in defense. “It came from my bathroom, if that’s what you mean. It’s clean though, I swear.”

“Thanks,” Val said again, and slipped off the jacket. “Here. Sorry about getting it wet, but I needed it when it started raining.” There was no need for him to know she had put it on sooner.

Caiden took the jacket and hung it from the doorknob so it could dry. “Doesn’t matter, it would have gotten wet if you were wearing it or not.”

Val, still shivering, pulled her long hair over one shoulder and rubbed it vigorously. It would become a frizz ball unless she could get her hands on a brush. Then she vainly tried to dry off her leotard and shorts. It didn’t go well.

“Why did you walk here? Don’t you drive?” Caiden asked, motioning for her to follow him into the kitchen.

“I was at gymnastics, and its like, a five minute walk from your house. I always walk everywhere to save gas,” Val said, wrapping the towel around her shoulders for warmth. “Could I use your phone to call my parents? I went over my minutes.”

Caiden laughed and pointed to the phone that was on the counter. “Help yourself. I’ll get us something to drink.”

“Okay,” Val said, and turned to the phone. She tried her dad’s phone first, since she would have been driving to his house that night anyway. He picked his cell phone up on the first ring.

“Hey Dad, it’s me.”

“Hello sweetie.”

“I was walking home from gymnastics, and got caught in the rain. I’m at, um, a friend’s house, do you think you could come get me?”

Silence.

“Dad?”

“Why,” He said in a growl, “Didn’t you tell me your mother had a date tonight?”

“Where are you?” Val asked, confused.

“Jean’s Bistro,” He answered, naming off the nicest restaurant in town. “Your mother is here also, with a man. I can’t get you, I have a date here too and I need to watch your mother.”

“Dad, don’t you dare go up and talk to her,” Val warned, feeling queasy.

“You know, that’s a good idea Val. I’m going to go and talk to her. I’ll call to find out where you are when I’m done, goodbye.” Click.

Val slowly hung up the phone, knowing it was no use to call her mom. There would be a scene at the restaurant tonight.

“Did you get a hold of them?” Caiden asked from further in the kitchen.

“Well, yeah,” Val said, moving more into the kitchen and taking a seat at one of the islands bar stools. “But they can’t come get me right now,” Val took a deep breath. “Do you think it would be okay if I stayed here for awhile? My dad said he would call when he was finished with his date.”

“Sure, I don’t care. I’d take you, but my parents are out of town tonight, and they have the cars.”

“It could be kind of late,” Val said, almost wishing he would refuse. But she knew that Caiden was just too nice for that to happen.

“It’s okay. I haven’t got anything else to do.”

“I’m glad you’re so thrilled,” Val said as he walked towards her with two steaming mugs. “Hot chocolate?” She asked.

“Sorry I couldn’t run out to Starbucks,” He said dryly. “But your lips are still blue and I thought you would want something warm.”

Val looked from him to the mug in front of her, and then back and forth one more time. “Thank you,” She said, and meant it.

Caiden took a drink from his hot chocolate and discreetly looked over at Valerie. She was still damp, and her hair was in a big tangle around her small body. He saw that she still had very large goose bumps on her arms, probably due to her wet leotard and shorts.

“Do you want a pair of sweatpants and one of my shirts?” He offered. “Since you’re going to be here for awhile.” He watched as she thought about refusing, but then practicality seemed to set in.

“Yes, actually. That would be great,” She said.

Caiden went upstairs and grabbed a pair of sweatpants and shirt and jogged back downstairs.

Valerie wasn’t in the kitchen anymore, and Caiden wondered where she could have gone. He didn’t have to search overlong. He found her on the stairs to the basement, leaning over the rail and looking at all his instruments.

“Hey,” He said.

Valerie literally jumped. “Oh! I’m sorry, I was looking for the bathroom and I found this,” She waved a hand towards the basement. “Do you play all these instruments?”

“Yeah,” Caiden admitted, and handed her the clothes. “There’s a bathroom down here if you want to use it.”

Valerie looked at the shirt he had given her. “You actually own Abercrombie?” She asked, sounding disbelieving.

Caiden help his hands up, defensive. “Don’t get all worked up. It’s from my aunt. I’ve only worn it once, when she came over. She hates the way I dress, and this was her not-so-subtle hint to go shopping. I thought you would like to wear it.”

Valerie looked touched. “Thank you, Caiden, that was really thoughtful,” She said, sounding as though she truly meant it.

Caiden smiled. “See? It’s not so hard to be nice to me, is it?”

Valerie made a disgusted sound and turned towards the bathroom. But outside the door, she paused and turned around. “Will you play for me?” She inclined her head towards the instruments.

“Sure,” Caiden said, coming up with a quick idea. “If you help me.”

Valerie frowned. “Help you?”

“I’ll explain after you change,” He said.

Valerie nodded and disappeared into the bathroom.

Caiden began turning on and connecting all the instruments. Valerie came out just as he finished, and when he saw her, Caiden knew his split second decision to play her song (or what he had of it so far) was right. His clothes nearly drowned her, and she’d rolled the pants up at the waist and the legs. And yet she still looked beautiful.

She was frowning at the smile on his face. “I hope you enjoy this while it lasts, because it is never getting out of this house. Ever.”

“Whatever you say,” Caiden agreed, still smiling. “Do you think you could wait for the music until I find my camera?”

“Haha, no,” Valerie said, “I’m not letting you out of my sight until I leave this house.”

“Good,” Caiden said, and he could tell from the silence that he had just severely agitated her. “Alright, are you ready to make some music?”

Valerie shrugged. “Fine, but you should know that I’m definitely not musically inclined.”

“It’s okay, I just need you to keep a beat for me. The keyboard has it recorded, I can play the guitar, but now I can hear it with a little drums. I can’t play two instruments at once.”

“Okay, what do I need to do?” Valerie asked.

Caiden took her shoulder, and marveling at how thin and small it was, gently led her to the drum set. “This is all I want you to do. Take a drum stick, and use this big drum in the middle, and tap this beat.” Caiden hit the drum three times, in a slow rhythm. “See? One, two, three, pause. One, two, three, pause. Just keep a beat.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Valerie said, and took both of the drum sticks in her hands. Caiden looked at her strangely.

“You only need one stick, you know.”

“I know,” Valerie said. “But holding both of them makes me feel cool.”

Caiden laughed as he sat down on the stool next to the keyboard and picked up his guitar. “Just be careful with those drum sticks, they’re my favorite ones.”

Valerie saluted him with one of them. “Aye aye, captain.” She said. “When do I start?”

“Right now is good,” Caiden said, and waited until she got the hang of it before starting the keyboard and beginning himself

Val closed her eyes, easily keeping up with the beat. The melody of the song was on the slow side, the guitar softer in the background, and the piano taking over for the most part.

They were midway through what she guessed would be the chorus, when the piano and Caiden stopped abruptly.

Startled, she hit the drum loosely and dropped the drum stick. “Oh, shoot. I’m sorry, Caiden!”

He was laughing. “It’s okay; they’ve been dropped on the floor a lot already.”

Val retrieved the stick and set it gently on the drum. “Why did you stop? I really liked that song.”

Caiden shrugged, setting his guitar down in the stand, next the acoustic one. “I don’t have the rest written yet. For the piano, anyway.”

“Wait a second, wait a second. You mean, you actually wrote the music for that?” Val asked, incredulous. That was just unbelievable.

“Well, yeah. I did,” Caiden admitted, and he actually looked uncomfortable, for the first time since she’d known him.

“No way. That’s so cool,” Val said. “Do you have words for it? Can you sing?”

“No words-yet. I’ve written a couple songs, and for me it always just seemed easier to get a melody going first. You can always adjust it later. I can sing, but I don’t sound too good.”

“That’s so cool. Why did you get all the gifts? I suck at everything I do,” Val said, and stuck her tongue out at him.

“No, you don’t. I’ve heard that you’re a pretty good gymnast, and I’ve seen your art. It’s amazing.”

“Oh, that,” Val said, and felt herself turn red to the roots of her hair. “When did you see my art?”

“I usually go to the art shows at school. A lot of my friends have stuff on display. After I saw your ‘Life Is Like a Box Of Chocolates’ piece freshman year, I always looked around for your work. I never actually knew who you were until the football game where we met.”

“You’ve been watching for my work for the past like, three years?” Val asked, amazed. The drawing he spoke of had been one of her favorites, a chocolate box with chocolates in it, along with Scrabble pieces that spelled out, ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ in the chocolate holders.

“Yeah, you’re really, really good,” Caiden said.

“Thanks,” Val said. “I’ve never actually known anyone who knew that I was an artist, besides my close friends. It’s not something I really talk about.”

“You should be proud of your skill,” Caiden said honestly.

“Thanks, and you should be too,” Val said, waving a hand around at the instruments that surrounded them.

There was a moment of total silence, and then Val’s phone rang.

It was her dad.

“He’ll be here in like, two minutes,” Val said after she hung up, and she felt like crying now. She could tell that her dad was extremely upset, and she knew that it didn’t mean good things for her. Homecoming was tomorrow; couldn’t they just give arguing a rest for once?

Caiden could tell that the conversation had upset Valerie, but he was afraid to overstep the cautious truce that they had set up. “Okay, I guess I’ll be seeing you around then.”

“Thanks for everything, Caiden. You’re going to Homecoming still, right?”

Caiden kept his tone light. “Yeah. Maybe you should save a dance for me?” It sounded like a joke, but deep down he wished he could be more serious.

Valerie laughed in his face as a car honked its horn from the driveway. “Yeah, right.” She said. “I’m still Val, and you’re still Caiden, therefore making it impossible. But I’ll look for you to say hi, though. Bye, Caiden, and thanks again.”

Caiden forced himself to laugh, and waved as she went upstairs.

Valerie would dance with every other guy in the school, except for him. And Caiden would be able to do nothing but sit there and watch


Follow me on Twitter

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Taste the rainbow: Macroon edition. -
-
#macroons #tastetherainbow #joymacroons #dallas #yum #roadtrip #texas Good friends know about your pug addiction; best friends aren't afraid to feed it with amazing travel pillows and pictures so you don't forget about them! -
-
-
#pugpillows #pugs #puglife #dogsofinsta #dogsofinstagram #dogsofinstaworld #catsofinstagram #travel #travelpillow

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.

Categories

Found Between the Covers

All things bookish!

COSBY'S CORNER

Home of Dr. Braxton Cosby A.K.A. "The Fat Doc"

Contemplating Love

My Roaring Twenties

Yamaha RX 100, Yamaha RX 100 History, Reviews

Yamaha RX 100 the legend in Indian roads.Yamaha RX 100 was one of the successors from Yamaha.Yamaha rx100 History, Yamaha rx 100 Reviews, Kerala, India.

UtopYA Con

The Con for Women Writers of YA and the Fans Who Love Them

10mh.net

Ten Million Hardbacks

mancakes..the blog

...SYRUP ON THE SIDE.

kylethegirl

FLUFF TO BUFF

alyshamichelle

Rantings and Ravings

Reading with Analysis

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting - Edmund Burke

The Girls in Plaid Skirts

Bibliophiles and Spies

Pray, Madam, are you a Millennial?

the question, to be sure, was strange

utopYA con

for female writers of paranormal fantasy & the readers who love them

Daily (w)rite

A DAILY RITUAL OF WRITING

Diplomatic Dog

Ramblications of a hairy pudding

Backstage Pass

My name is Matt Syverson, and I write rock-n-roll themed novels. I was in a grunge band in Seattle in the 90's. Now I live in Texas. Links to my books are at the bottom of the page. Thanks for visiting!

The Millennium Conjectures™

A Blog of the Ridiculous and Sublime, by Mark Sackler