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First Feather Book Series

Then Knight Angels

 

Feather Book Series

 

PREFACE

 

The Gods once created a being far greater than anything in existence. These beings, the highest form of human life, were closer to the Gods than even the Angels, and their beauty far more appealing than any earthly creation.

The Gods, upon seeing such a beautiful creation, grew jealous. The being needed no love, longed for no power, and hungered for no nourishment of either mind or soul. Their flawless creation was angelically perfect, and therefore appallingly wrong, for nothing could be more perfect than the Gods themselves.

As the being flourished, troubled by nothing, the Gods grew dark and vindictive. Fueled by their hatred, they plotted, and the plan they constructed was horrid, inhumane, and dark.  They chose to split the perfect soul for eternity, fore the Gods thought themselves ultimately endangered by their creations’ power and strength. In one swift movement, they ripped the being apart, creating two hearts; both sharing one soul.

One half was the creator, the life and energy of the Earth, and the mother of man. The other half was the power and protection, a warrior of worlds. In this, they created Male and Female.

As the Gods schemed in their eternal greed, they chose to make their creation a game, no more than mere pawns for their enjoyment. As punishment, they scattered the beings among the humans of Earth, both halves separated and eternally locked in hunger and longing for the love of their shared soul.

The female half was the holder of their life, the emotion and beauty of the soul. In her, she protected this delicate power, never abusing its energy, and forever giving to the Earth and nature. Despite her possessions, she was lonely and lost in love – weak, sad, and alone.

The male half, the powerful half, was left lifeless and drained of the energy only the soul could give him. In the male’s life on Earth, he searched for his strength, the female, and the power he could ultimately gain from it. Their lethal lust for that soul was so great, that it drove them into madness, anger, and despair. 

Upon meeting their soul mate, the male half was found hungry and vicious, murdering his other half in his greed, and ultimately leading to their demise. But despite their vicious love, many survived long enough to understand their power, and in finding each other, they unlocked the secret to their lives.

Together, the two halves created a whole, a life force greater and more powerful than anything on Earth. Though eternally tormented by jealously and hunger, they were better together than apart, the ultimate test of eternal love.

A NEW DAY

 

“Estella, take this.”

Heidi thrust a thick envelope toward me as tears of sadness filled her eyes. Her hand was trembling and weak as it floated in the air between us.

I looked at the envelope with caution.

“Oh, no!” I shook my head, my face contorted into a sad frown. “Heidi, no, I couldn’t.” I squeezed my eyes shut, unable and unwilling to accept the gift.

“Please, Estella.” She paused, her voice breaking. “I just want to see you happy. I am old and tired. My life is ending and yours is just beginning.”

Heidi walked toward me with a determined look on her face. The envelope was still stubbornly held out in front of her. Her eyes pierced mine, and I could see she loved me like her own.

 I grabbed the small, manila package between my trembling fingers, treating it with delicate care. The contents were beyond what I could ever deserve, but the needs reflected in Heidi’s eyes ran deep, and I found myself unable to say no.

“Thank you.” I looked at the ground as a familiar sadness pierced my heart.

Heidi leaned in and hugged me, her thin arms squeezing the breath from my lungs.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t have been more of a mother to you,” she whispered, her breath hot as it fell across my ear. She sounded responsible, as though the fact of my absent parents was her fault.

She was crying now, and I felt her tears seeping into the shoulder of my blouse.

“Heidi, you are the closest thing to a mother I’ve ever known. Don’t think any less of yourself.” I put my arm around her frail shoulders as she trembled against my chest, the guilt in me rising as I forced back my desire to stay, to save her from her lonely life.

She pulled away, a determined look now filling her tear-stained face. She was strong, I knew this, but she hated to say goodbye.

“You go, make me proud,” she said bravely. “And find your happiness.” Heidi patted both of my shoulders with surprising strength, her nails digging into my skin.

“I promise I will come back as soon as I can.” I tried to smile as I bent to pick up my last bag, but try as I might, I couldn’t summon the action. 

Heidi followed me to the car in her housecoat and slippers as I threw the last bag in the back seat of the old, rusty, green Datsun. I was finally able to afford the car after my summer working at the Market downtown. I did everything I could to scrape enough money together, to make my escape from the city.

Heidi’s eyes had dried and I looked at her with nostalgic love and admiration as I climbed into the car. The old vinyl seats yawned against my sweaty skin, and I winced at their searing heat. I squeaked the door shut, slamming it with as much force as I could muster before putting my hands on the plastic wood grain steering wheel. She waved to me with hopeless vigor as I coaxed the vehicle to life and forced it into reverse.

“I will visit soon!” I yelled out the window as I drove off. “The college is not too far.”

Heidi took a small step forward as she waved goodbye one last time. I would miss my foster mother, but this was my time to make something of my sad life. The upbringing she had given me was more than I could have hoped for, but something inside me was driving me away, pushing me to another place.

As I drove down the crowded streets, the shadows cast by the towering buildings of downtown Seattle always left me somewhat disappointed. The tiny house where I had been placed when I was ten glared at me in my rearview mirror as it disappeared between the apartment complexes of the west side.

I took a deep breath, exhaling with a heavy heart. I had decided the city was not for me. After years of adoption and rejection, I couldn’t stand its cold cement and moist, dirty air any longer. Why the city had let me down I was unsure, but as the depression in me grew deeper over the years, it had become a sort of cancer. There was death here, and everyone took their happiness for granted. I would have given anything to feel a smile, to muster out a happy laugh.

I rolled my windows up, closing out this world as I headed north toward the Cascades. As the hills of Seattle whizzed by, each growing less crowded with houses, I felt a sort of liberation. The stern grip I’d had on the steering wheel slowly eased, and soon I was casually driving with one hand. My lonely life had never granted me the experience that was ahead of me, the chance to be with nature as my heart had so longed.

The college brochure had promised a tranquil and secluded experience, and that was just the thing I was hoping my dark heart needed. College had always been a goal for me, and despite my graduation from high school with a bachelor’s degree that I had earned taking night courses, it still didn’t satisfy my insatiable need to learn.

The sun shone onto the serene valleys of northern Puget Sound, filling the basin with energy and warmth. As I crept further north, the dense forest began to creep ever closer to the road. Like always, I felt a strange pull from the plants that sat there, each bowing toward the concrete as though longing to escape to the other side. The cement was like a wall, much like the invisible wall in my heart that was refusing to allow me happiness. Despite the confines of the road, I still envied their freedom. They had a life of simple happiness, and the ability to adapt and grow. I, on the other hand, had never belonged, and despite how hard I tried, I always stood out in a negative way. The world hopelessly saddened me, as though somewhere in my past life, it had let me down, my soul now darkened by my mere existence. I felt like a mistake, and I felt like God had forgotten me, as though he were too ashamed to grant me a fair life.

I reached into my bag as I drove, retrieving a bottle of medication that seemed like my only lifeline. Keeping one hand on the wheel, I popped a small pill into my mouth, as I habitually did every day for the past twelve years. Each clouded thought was further stifled by the power of Prozac. I allowed myself a brief second to close my eyes as I once again opened my windows, so that the wind could whip through my white-blonde hair. As the sun touched my pale skin, it felt warm and soothing, like a bath of heavenly light. Opening my eyes, I felt discouraged that even a moment like this could not muster a smile.

Even as a baby I had never laughed, never let out even so much as a delighted coo. Smiling was something I did because I had to, in order to fit in. I learned what was funny from my peers, and practiced for hours in front of the mirror, my facial muscles stretching with pain in a way that came so naturally to everyone else. Tears never came, either. Though I knew what I felt was sadness, I never experienced that emotion in the true sense of the feeling. It was as though someone had taken my heart and stashed it away, someplace I could never find it.  

I thought about all my adoptive parents and how many times each tried to create a happy life for me, how relentlessly they urged me into activities designed to muster a laugh, though one never came. I was like a poisonous berry, beautiful on the outside, damaged and sick on the inside. It was an inevitable truth that each parent would fail, and so they sent me back to the social workers, apologizing for their failure as parents. After a while, I gave up hoping that I could find a place to fit in, hoping instead that I could just be in one place for longer than a few months.  It was that fact that I moved in with Heidi and her other foster kids, and for what I planned to be forever – or at least until I was old enough to strike out on my own.

I exhaled from deep within my charred soul as I finally reached the town of Sedro-Woolly. There, the road split and I turned onto Highway Twenty, heading east into the North Cascades. The small town of Sedro-Woolly was far north, close to the Canadian border and the San Juan Islands. It was just far enough from Seattle to make me feel like I could leave the past behind me and start anew. The town was the gateway to my future, a new life.

As I headed into the wilderness, the trees that edged the roadside seemed to welcome my presence, the branches swaying in the gentle breeze. The air seemed full of magic, and I saw the glimmer of bugs flying between thick rays of light, like fairies in the trees. With my windows opened, the gentle clamoring of water softly whispered in my ear as I passed spring after spring, cascading down the granite rocks and into the roadside reservoirs.

The mountains closed in around me like a blanket, casting deep shadows on the road, but not the same depressing shadows I had grown up around in the city. These shadows revealed a whole other world beyond the dirty streets and sadness, a world full of life. For the first time, I felt a soft warmth flicker in my vacant soul and I gasped, the feeling ripping the breath from my lungs.

Rounding the corner with caution, the trees parted before me like a curtain at the opera. Sun poured into the car, a fresh scent riding on the rays. The river that had followed the road burst open into a large lake that was held back by a small dam. The water sparkled clearer than I’d ever seen in Puget Sound, and the glimmer made my eyes water. The air that blew into the car was crisp and cool from the glacial waters, and I breathed deep, feeling reenergized.

I gazed in awe, wondering how I’d let this whole world hide from me for so long. As I followed the lake, I kept glancing toward it, afraid that it would disappear as fast as it had come, akin to a dream or a fleeting memory.

Like the meandering stream, the road wound to the right and I crossed over the lake on a small bridge. I felt a rush of something cold enter my body as though the water were pulsing through me, becoming a part of my blood and filling every vein. I allowed the feeling to control my thoughts, and I imagined a tidal wave washing through my wounded mind, cooling each burning gash.

Just when I thought I couldn’t have seen anything any more stunning, the lake expanded further, revealing an even larger dam before me. The structure was astonishing in its sheer size and power, solid as though the Earth had made it. I took in the complex structure and it amazed me to believe that man could create something so magnificent. As I tore my gaze from the structure, I saw that the college was now before me, nestled into the hillside on the other side of the dam. I was almost there. I was almost free.

As I turned from the main road toward the campus, I slowed my car as it rolled onto the quaint cobblestone roadway atop the dam itself. The gentle vibration was soothing as the cobbles shuddered under my weight. The college had utilized this dam as the crossing to the school, and I allowed myself to imagine that it was a bridge to my fairy-tale castle.

To my left was the lake that I had driven beside on my way up. As I peered over the ledge, I beheld the plunging drop, my head experiencing a gripping vertigo. To my right, the water churned, anxious and foamy in its attempt to escape its confines. The lake itself was crystal blue, and rich with minerals that added a milky consistency. Rocky peaks surrounded the water on all sides, reaching with open arms into an even bluer sky. The unique coloring was unbelievable and I recognized it to be Diablo Lake, upon whose shores the college was situated.

As I neared the other side of the bridge, I noticed a cascading waterfall drop like a graceful veil from a far peak and into the lake on its final decent. Its raw power humbled me, reminding me of my infinitesimal existence on this planet. I watched in silence as the falls misted the air around it, rainbows flashing in its wake. The wind whipped toward me across the water and I enjoyed the untamed beauty.

I tightened my grip on the wheel and held my breath as I heard a gust of wind tickle the small waves of the lake. The wind rushed toward me, unfazed by my position in its path. As it landed on the car, the cool breeze whipped through my long hair, making it dance. My skin prickled and I shivered from the chill, the hairs on my arms now standing on end.

When I reached the other side of the bridge, I released my breath, feeling refreshed and grounded as my car rolled onto the gravel drive, the water no longer flowing below me like a force of energy greater than I could control. I circled Diablo Lake and just a few hundred feet farther east, the road became even rougher.  My tires struggled to find their grip so I drove with caution up the hill toward the front of the small cluster of buildings. I tried to stifle the anxiety and fear I now felt toward this unfamiliar place. My mind was cautious, but also roaring with curiosity.

An anonymous donor had created the Cascades College a few years back. Its purpose was to provide a Masters in Environmental Studies through hands-on experience and practice. There were also primary classes but mainly it was a place to get your hands dirty and experience the real world, in its truest sense.

When I had learned about the college, I remembered that it was the first time I’d felt my heart truly beat. Something about its design, location, and description felt more like home than anywhere I had ever been. I needed to be close to the earth, close to the place where life began.

I was never the nature-loving type, yet my choice to come here had been motivated by nature and my desire to heal. Ever since I could remember, I possessed a strange talent for growing plants; a green thumb, you might say. But my talent did not simply involve using the right fertilizers and making sure to water regularly. My talents seemed to involve something much more magical and indescribable; something I was here to figure out.

Turning my car off with a heavy sigh, I sat in front of the main learning center, the large ‘Welcome’ sign looming over me. I felt something flicker in my chest as it had on the drive up, and for a second time, it stole the breath from my lungs. I was right to come here.

Taking in the small modern buildings, I again wondered if perhaps I was dreaming. I had been trapped by the city for so long, that I had never seen nature first hand. Though I coveted the magazines on every store shelf, I now saw that pictures could not give it justice. Nature was a sensory experience, meant to be enjoyed in its natural environment.

A lanky red-headed man, startled by my abrupt arrival, jumped up from a bench by the office doors and ran toward my parked car with a smile plastered across his face. He couldn’t have been much older than I, but his demeanor made him seem years younger. He came bounding down the hill, tripping with inherent clumsiness. He was quick to regain his composure with a small smile of embarrassment. He wore a green plaid short-sleeved shirt with hiking shorts and Columbia boots. I chuckled to myself, finding his outfit a cliché.

The man was breathing hard as he placed both of his hands on the window. He leaned down to my eye level, locking his gaze on mine.

“New arrival?” he asked, in a cheerful voice that was also winded.

I looked at him with nervous eyes as anxiety gripped my stomach.

“Yes,” I managed to squeak.

His eyes were a light blue like mine, but unlike mine, his were full of life and happiness.

“Great,” he exclaimed, sticking his hand through my window for me to shake. “I’m Scott.”

I stared at his hand for a moment, allowing my anxiety to subside. Finally, I deduced that Scott was harmless, and I grabbed his hand between two fingers and gave it a soft shake.

Scott yanked his hand back just as quickly as he had thrust it forward, unfazed by my reluctance.

“Well, it sure is great to meet you. Would you like some help with your things?”

He opened my car door, and I cringed as it shuddered and scraped, rust flakes falling to the ground.

“Um…” I was processing the information as quickly as I could. “Sure. That would be great.” I pulled myself out of the seat.

“Thanks,” I added, giving him a small, tight smile.

Scott stood there with his hands on his hips, smiling eagerly. He was like a dog, just waiting to be thrown a bone.

“So what’s your name?” As soon as I was out of the way, he jumped forward, lunging into my backseat and loading his scrawny arms with my three somewhat small bags, the makings of my whole life.

“I, uh….” I stuttered, grabbing my throat, willing it to stop. “My name is Estella.” My medications always caused me to think slowly, as if I were in a cloud. It was an unpleasant but unavoidable side-effect of the medication I needed to make it through my days.

“Hi, Estella.” He grabbed a sheet from his pocket, juggling his load as he struggled to bring it to his face. He squinted. “Looks like you got your own cabin.” His eyes widened with excitement. “Cool,” he crooned.

I nodded in agreement. I had worked a few extra shifts at the fish counter of the local market to make that possible. I wasn’t about to bunk up in a group dormitory again, like I had for a good portion of my life at the orphanage.

“Well, then.” He smiled with a sweet glow as he urged me forward. “Follow me.”

“Thanks.” I grabbed my shoulder bag from the passenger seat and rushed to keep up.

“So, Estella…”

“Oh, you can call me Elle,” I quickly corrected him.

He looked back at me as I followed behind him. “Okay then, Elle…What brings you here?”

I looked at him sideways.  What else would I be here for? “For the Master’s course,” I said softly.

“Oh, really?” He looked back at me again, this time scrutinizing my face more closely. “Aren’t you a bit young for a Masters?”

I shrugged, watching my feet as they struggled to stay on pace, nerves again gathering in my stomach. “I got my undergraduate degree while I was young.”

“Really?” He sounded shocked.

“Well…” I felt embarrassed and my cheeks began to flush. “It’s just that…it came so naturally.” I paused, breathing hard as we passed under a large pine that left a thick bed of needles on the ground. “It wasn’t very difficult for me. I had a lot of time on my hands.”

The fact that I never had friends made me resort to anything that could pass my time, and mostly that was homework and studying. I was a first class nerd and social reject. Even when I did try to make friends, my awkward personality eventually put them off. I knew that at some point, Scott probably would come to learn this as well.  But for now, he seemed to accept this. 

His eyes smiled at me when he spoke. “Then I am impressed. I’m in that program, too, but I’m not quite as young as you. I’m twenty-one. I kept pretty much on pace with things through high school.”  He eyed me with curiosity. “I suppose we’ll have the same classes. There aren’t many people here.”

I nodded, thinking that was how I’d wanted it, quiet and secluded. As we rounded the path, I finally spotted a small cabin nestled on the hill.

“So, that will be yours,” he announced. We approached fast, climbing onto the porch with our boots echoing beneath us. He threw down a bag so that he could open the door.  I noticed there was no lock.

“I will just set your bags here in the corner. Does that work?”

I nodded again. “Yeah. Thanks, Scott.”

He thrust his hand toward me again, still the same energetic spark to his face.

 “Well, good to meet you, Elle.” He still didn’t seem fazed by my standoffish behavior. “I guess I will see you tomorrow in class?”

I shook his hand and tried to give him another smile, though I was never able to succeed in getting it quite right. “Yeah, I guess I will. Thanks again.”

I shut the door behind him as he bounded down the hill with the same awkward gait as before. As I looked around the small, square cabin, I was pleased to see there was a lot more than I’d first imagined. I had my own bathroom with a small shower and a tiny kitchenette with a miniature refrigerator. My bed was full-sized, bigger than I’d ever had, and I experienced a small feeling of satisfaction at my turn of luck.

I reached in my bag and pulled out the thick envelope Heidi had given me.  I slid it in the crack where the fridge met the cabinet, thinking I’d save it for an emergency. I pulled my boots off, placing my stocking feet on the wood boards of the floor, testing the texture on my toes. I then circled the inside perimeter of the cabin, inspecting every square inch of my new home and opening the blinds as I went to let in the light. 

After deciding everything was in order, I sat on my bed and pulled one of my bags toward me. From inside I grabbed a small stack of moleskin journals and placed them on the shelf above my bed. I had began documenting my life the day I was able to write, a craft that soothed me.  The simple act of getting my feelings down on paper was cathartic, keeping my soul open for happiness to come in, though it never did.

Deep in the bag, nestled between my clothes, I found the framed note from my real mother. It was the only thing I had from her. I flicked on the bedside lamp so that I could see it more clearly.  The beautiful script and rough edges played at my emotions, and every day I read it in anticipation:

Estella,

     You are beautiful, and it pains me to leave, but some day you will find the beauty you seek living inside your darkest soul. You are safe now.

The poetic words puzzled and saddened me. I had searched for her when I was younger, but found nothing about her or where she’d gone or even if she was dead or alive.  And so my soul remained black.

Placing the frame on the wooden side table, I reached back into my bag and pulled a small, tattered brown box from its depths, treating it with extreme care. Opening it with caution, I retrieved a small pot containing a tiny purple plant that was snuggled inside. Grasping it with two hands, I set the purple clover on the sill and touched its butterfly leaves.  It reacted to the light and stretched its petals toward the sun like an opening umbrella. I had decided to take just one tubular with me from my vast garden in Seattle, just one child with whom to start my new life.

After unpacking the few clothes I had, leaving some in the bag out of sheer laziness, I finally laid on my bed, letting my platinum hair fan out around me. After a few moments of restful silence, I pulled myself back up and reached into my bag once again, grabbing a book.  I leaned back into my pillow and I began to read as the darkness of the night crept in around the cabin. Soon, only the light from the bedside lamp shone dimly across the room, casting eerie shadows against the walls of the unfamiliar place.

 I glanced away from the page to the windows and realized that the hours had passed faster than I’d expected. The blackness seemed infinite and my heart began to race anxiously as the world of my book faded away. I lifted my head off the pillow and sat up, sliding my legs to the floor. As I approached the window, I was shocked to see only a few faint lights glimmer from the campus that surrounded me. I had never experienced anything like it in my life: profound darkness and quiet, all at once. I leaned toward my lamp and switched it off, allowing the lights outside to magnify.

After a moment, I walked to my door and opened it, walking quietly onto the small deck, not wanting to disturb nature’s slumber. I squeezed my eyes shut and tilted my head to the sky, enjoying the tranquility of the night. When I opened my eyes, I gasped at the tiny diamonds that littered the sky, sparkling greater than I had ever seen and in far greater numbers than I could imagine. I had read about the stars, seen images and studied their matter, but never would I have expected the sight that welcomed me now. The city lights of Seattle and the almost constant thick shroud of clouds made star gazing difficult.

My body and mind felt clear as I stood there connecting with the night.  A light breeze swept playfully through my hair, gently caressing my face. I could smell pine and sage, and a feeling I had never experienced before slipped over me: peace.

For a moment I couldn’t help but feel I might at last smile, but then the wind subsided and my dark soul remained empty. As the stars twinkled ever brighter, I realized I was getting close. There was something out here I needed to see, something I was meant to do, but what that was, for now, would continue to elude me.

FEAR

 

The sun streamed through the blinds, waking me to the quiet of the cabin. My restless sleep had left me groggy. I reached to the bedside table for my medication. Putting one hand to my aching head, I felt unsettled and slightly queasy. I hadn’t expected the dead silence of the night when I was so used to the hubbub of the city. I knew eventually I would grow to love it, but the transition period was going to be a little rocky.

Urging my lethargic body to sit up, I scanned the cabin, realizing nothing had changed from the night before. I threw a pill in my mouth in one mechanical movement and forced it down my dry throat. Rubbing my eyes, the cloudiness began to fade and I was finally able to haul myself out from under the covers and place my feet on the cold wood floor. For a moment I struggled to gain my balance, placing my hand on the bed frame.

Finally staggering to the bathroom, I grabbed a wrinkled pile of clothes on my way. I locked myself inside and splashed a handful of cool water on my face. Outside the small window, the chirping of birds was deafening, but sweet, and I stood on my toes to peer through the dusty glass. Down the hill I spotted the cafeteria building, and my stomach rumbled at the thought of food. I had not eaten dinner due to my extended reading and dumbfounded amazement with the night sky, and I knew that it would be best to at least attempt something light.

As I slid on my jeans, struggling to force my tired legs through each pant leg, there was a sharp knock at the front door of the cabin. Startled, I jumped in fear, my body going rigid with dismay. I scanned the mess I had made unpacking, half hoping I had just imagined the sound. To my chagrin, there was another sharp knock, this time even louder and more persistent. I quickly threw my shirt over my head, catching the hem on my ears as I ripped it on. I then stumbled through the bathroom door, crawling my way toward the front.

When I wrenched the door open, the sudden burst of light blinded me. I squinted, shielding my eyes with my hand as my gaze finally landed on my visitor. I wasn’t really surprised to see Scott standing before me, smiling in the same eccentric fashion he had yesterday.

“Well, hey there, Elle.” He paused as he looked at my rumpled clothing. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”

I was still stunned from the sudden burst of light, so I just shook my head, my lips pursed in annoyance, but Scott’s smile did not falter.

“I was just going to go get some food before class.” He pointed down the hill toward the other building. “Just thought since you were new, you’d like to have a guide.” He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed.

I swallowed hard, still too tired to attempt an empty smile.

“Sure,” I said in a flat voice, cursing myself for my lack of enthusiasm. “I’m starving.” Although flattered, I was also perplexed: people usually tended to avoid me, but not Scott.

I pulled my long hair out of my shirt as I grabbed my bag. Giving the cabin one last scan, I pulled the door shut behind me. Grabbing my boots from the deck, I sat on the top step to pull them on while Scott stood on the path, whistling to himself and looking up into the branches of a large evergreen that shaded the path. I couldn’t quite understand him. He was so unfazed by my awkwardness, which was something I was not used to.

I finally stood, smoothing my navy thermal shirt over my jeans and collecting my thoughts. Taking a deep breath, I mustered what courage I had and walked off the deck toward Scott.

“Okay.” I paused a few feet from him and his attention fell to me. “I’m ready.”

Scott smiled again.

“Perfect.” He beckoned me forward. “You’re going to love the food here, I promise.” He attempted a wink, but instead it ended up looking like a twitch. I shook my head, suppressing my thoughts.

As we hiked down the hill, I took in my new surroundings. There were five buildings in my view, and I noted each carefully, eager to find my place here. The structures looked modern and clean, built in such a way that their surroundings had hardly been disturbed. The massive beam frames looked far stronger than necessary and the windows were at least an inch thick. I knew the winters here were long and harsh and the snow pack so great that most of the trees, even now in late summer, were still bowing from the painful weight forced onto their limbs. I guess that was why the buildings were so solid.

Scott noticed the curious look on my face and took it upon himself to elaborate.

“That over there is the bird and wildlife lab.” He pointed to the far left toward the bottom of the hill. “That will be our second class today.”

“Birds?” I asked, puzzled.

“Yeah,” he continued. “They really are an integral part of the ecosystem here.” He looked at me with wide, convincing eyes. “And down over there…” He pointed to the right. “That is the greenhouse.”

My eyes widened with interest. “That’s more like what I’m into.”

Scott watched me with an amplified look of interest on his face. He was pleased by the fact I was playing along and asking questions.

“And over in that cluster are the astrology lab, the water lab, and the hatchery,” he continued.

I nodded in comprehension. Despite the fact that I was nervous around people, I was thankful to have Scott, even if I was uncomfortable being this conversational. I had never managed to keep friends, or even really make them to begin with. My personality was too depressing to be around and most people mistook my silence for unfriendliness. I had always thought I was at least reasonably attractive, with my crystal blue eyes and smooth porcelain skin, but looks aren’t everything, and people still treated me like I was a pariah.

The gravel below our feet crunched as we approached the cafeteria. The front entrance was flanked on both sides by two large timbers and the walls were mostly glass, allowing the light to shine into the space. My skin glowed milky-white in contrast to the other students and visitors filling the hall. They had obviously spent most of their lives outdoors whereas I was always shielded in the city shade.

We walked to the counter and I grabbed a plate. There were droves of fresh berries and grainy breads, and what I deduced to be tubs and tubs of granola. I cringed at the sight. I hated granola more than anything, the needless chewing and tasteless texture repulsed me. Settling for a soft bran muffin, I placed it on my plate and then watched wide-eyed as Scott piled his plate high with berries and tofu-scrambled eggs.

“I can’t get enough of this stuff.”

Scott mounded another scoop of eggs on an already dangerously teetering stack and then grabbed some silverware. I followed him to a table in the far corner where the sun warmed my back as I sat.

“So what made you come here?” I asked, eyeing him with acute curiosity as I tried my best to be social. Scott looked at me over his glasses as he chewed on a mouth full of blueberries. 

He smiled, revealing his berry stained teeth. “My mother is an environmental researcher.” He paused, wiping juice from the corner of his mouth. “She’s out in the woods of Alaska right now, but she will be back in about six months. She was always my source of inspiration.”

I nodded as I picked at my muffin, my appetite somewhat diminished. “That’s nice.” I was saddened at the thought of what I had missed by not having a mother.  It sounded like Scott was close to his, and I wished, not for the first time, that I had known my own mother, even briefly. It seemed that most of the orphans had had at least some memory, even if it was the memory of their parents leaving; but I had nothing.

Scott swallowed a mouthful of eggs. “So what’s your story? What brings you here?” He was analyzing my sadness like a Petri dish. I understood, people usually found me interesting, at least at first. Once I told my story, though, that was when people usually lost interest in me.

I thought for a moment, finding the right words to say that wouldn’t cause him to turn and run.

“Well…” I flicked a sugar crystal off the table. “I was an orphan.” I watched his face for some sort of reaction, but one never came. So far so good.  No unnecessary pity or scorn.  “And I’ve always had this thing with plants, with nature,” I blurted.

He looked at me surprised, only a slight trace of confusion on his face. “Like what?” He laughed. “You make it sound forbidden, like a fairy tale.” He smiled at me encouragingly. “Or do you mean, like a green thumb?”

I gave him a small smile, finding his imagination refreshing.

“No, not like fairy tales.” I tore at my napkin as I struggled to explain. “More like a mother thing. The plants….” I paused, trying to see how I could explain without sounding like a complete nutcase. “…they love me. They react to me even when I don’t take care of them at all. No matter what, they still flourish under my care, just by being near me.” I held my breath after I said it. It had always been a strange talent of mine and certainly not something a normal girl could do.

He looked at me and I could see he hadn’t really gotten it. “Mother Nature then, right?” He let out a small chuckle.

 I rolled my eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. He had gotten it, and he hadn’t run away in the process.

He continued. “So then, you’re a tree hugger,” he said matter-of-factly, looking at me as though it were a typical occurrence. “We’ve got two types here: animal activists and tree huggers.” He chewed as he pointed at me with his fork. “And you are a tree hugger.”

I lowered my gaze, feeling somewhat hurt and very annoyed. I was no hippy, that was for sure. I had never been an obsessed recycler or taken to eating granola, yogurt, and tofu. I knew that what I had was a different passion, a real passion, not a means to fit in. Scott noticed my pained expression.

“Oh, sorry.” He looked concerned, “I didn’t mean to offend you.” He let out a nervous laugh in his attempt to erase his prior remark. I looked up at him.

“Don’t worry, you didn’t.” I felt bad for him. He was trying hard to be my friend. “I don’t really have feelings. Well, at least no feelings other than pain, so don’t feel bad.”

Again, he gave me the same confused stare, and I could see that he and I were going to become great friends. He didn’t seem to understand me but accepted me nonetheless, and that was good.

“Well, good.” A bubbly smile was again plastered to his freckled face, his glasses smeared with blueberry juice where he had grabbed the rim to readjust them.

He finished his whole plate while I stuffed the muffin in my bag for later, feeling an acute loss of appetite after the depressing conversation and having to watch him eat. Scott grabbed our plates, throwing them with expert aim into a nearby tub as we left the building.

“So, we’re off to the hatchery.” He looked at me with excitement in his eyes. “That’s my favorite class,” he whispered, as though there were anyone around to even hear or care.

It was a sunny day, the weather of summer giving way to fall, yet still somewhat warm. I followed him down the hill toward the crystal blue lake, watching as he hopped ahead of me. The hatchery building was old and water stained like an antique boathouse, and it was the full length of the dock, about eighty feet long. Once inside, I noticed how its shape reflected its function. To the front was a long, segmented tank that spread down the side of half the room, each filled with a dozen fish, divided based on their age and relative size.

Scott ran like a child to the edge of the tank and looked deep within.

“Hey, Elle, come see!”

I approached the tank with wary footsteps. I’d never really cared for fish, especially live ones. Anytime I got in any lakes or oceans, they would nibble at my feet as though I where I giant chunk of floating Wonder bread.

I peered deep into the turquoise water, the pearly green scales of the fish glittering like dark clouds as they twisted their way around their bleak confines. They were beautiful and silent, like clouds.

“Hey, look!”  Scott pointed to the fish now circling in anxious rings in front of me. “He likes you.”

I sighed, looking down at the struggling fish as it tried with all of its might to get closer to me. I felt sorry for the poor thing, a runt, stuck in a glass box for the rest of its life. With reluctance, I raised my trembling hand to hover above the water of my rippled reflection. I watched as the trout swam toward the shadow, following the shelter my hand was creating for it. I felt his warmth enter my palm, his rapid heartbeat pulsing in my fingers.

Scott watched in amazement, and I noticed his shocked expression out of the corner of my eye. Ashamed that he had seen what I’d done, I jammed my hand back into my pocket, feeling my pale skin blush to a dramatic red. The fish’s heartbeat left me and I no longer felt his warmth. I had let him go.

“How did you do that?” Scott came to my side, watching the once-anxious fish now swimming tranquilly, still as close to me as possible. “He was like, following you.”

I shrugged. “That’s what I was saying. They love me.” I felt like a freak and I was waiting for him to blow me off, call me a weirdo, and never talk to me again.

“Well,” he gave me a stupid grin. “Then I guess they do.”

I narrowed my eyes and stared at him in disbelief. How Scott had made it this far in life amazed me. With his unassuming demeanor and oblivious personality, he would never survive in the city; he’d be eaten alive. As I tried to calm my nerves, the room filled with students, each eyeing me with curiosity and wariness. I shrank to the back and stared at the ground. A few minutes later, a frumpy, frizzle-haired professor entered the room and began to preach before everyone was even settled, her lisp making her voice hard to listen to.

“The fith are our friendth,” she droned with passionate respect, and I could tell this was going to be a long hour.

I watched Scott as he stared in obedience toward the front, alert in his love for marine life. Soon, my eyes wandered to the other students. People of all ages filled the room, each as unremarkable as the next. I felt like I had a giant, flashing arrow pointing directly at me saying, “Which one of these things does not belong?” But then again, when had I ever belonged? My blonde hair was striking against the muted colors of the people around me. At one point, I noticed the teacher could barely stop staring at me, an almost entranced look on her face.

At the end of class, Scott turned to me with elated eyes.

“That was amazing,” he gasped, throwing his bag over his shoulder. His happiness radiated from him and I longed to know how that felt.

I gazed at him as a lump grew in my throat, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment for him.

“Yeah, sure was.” My tone was edged with sarcasm but there was nothing I could do to help it. I hoped he hadn’t noticed my unconvincing attitude. Luckily, he hadn’t.

“Well, Elle, time for the birds,” he said, giving me a playful nudge. “We’ll get to plants soon though, don’t worry.” He winked at me and grabbed my arm as he led me out the door and back to the gravel path.

As we walked in silence to the bird and wildlife lab, I began to doubt my presence here. Surely no one would take me seriously. Scott wasn’t absorbing the fact that my strange abilities weren’t just with plants, but with everything in nature. I just favored plants because the extraordinary pull I had for them was safe. With animals, you never knew what was going to come at you. Bulldogs were the worst; not that they wanted to hurt me, but the drool was gross.

Scott pulled the heavy door of the lab open and we walked into the stark classroom. Students were socializing in small groups, roaming from table to table. They mimicked the same roaming movements the fish had, circling in endless waves. I followed Scott to a station toward the back and we settled onto the tall stools. I scrutinized his face as he sat poised on the stool like a kid fresh from etiquette school, and I wondered why he didn’t have more friends.

Looking around the room, I noticed that all the windows were covered with grids and I assumed it was to prevent the birds from flying into them. To the far left was a large aquarium-like enclosure that stretched from the floor to the ceiling.  Inside I saw a squirrel scampering amongst the branches of its confined habitat. There were six rows of desk stations, all big enough to hold two to four students. The room felt sterile, like a doctor’s office, but I liked it.

Even though the overall space was bright and refreshing, it still did nothing to boost my sullen mood. After a few moments of idle chatter, the students began to settle, taking their seats in a routine manner. A door toward the front of the room swung open, the handle slamming against the wall before bouncing back.

A hush descended over the room, the students sitting up straighter in their chairs, suddenly alert.  I looked to Scott for an explanation as fear and confusion began to fill my mind. He shot me a nervous look, his hands folded neatly before him.

“Professor Edgar is very strict,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “You’ve got to remain as still as possible, as alert as you can be, or…” He cut off abruptly as the sound of heavy footfalls filled the room.

My eyes widened in alarm as a tall figure took the stage with a large hawk poised on his strong arm. What shocked me most was the professor’s apparent youth. I deduced that he must not be any older than twenty, possibly even younger. His face and eyes were like ice behind his tinted glasses, his imposing body encased in a lab coat. I shook my head as a sudden fog filled my mind, and I felt a flurry of anxiety grip my chest. My heart rate quickened and I struggled to remain calm, focusing on his face.  That proved to be a mistake.

The professor’s youthful skin was radiant and unflawed. He had a prominent chin and thick eyebrows that framed his strong face well. The glasses he wore shielded his eyes, making it hard to tell the exact spot at which he was looking. The pitch black of his hair created a striking contrast with his pale skin.  For the first time, I felt I wasn’t the only one that stood out.

My heart rate remained elevated and the flutter in my chest became a sharp pang. I winced as I struggled to control the pain, my head now ripping open in agony. It felt as though something was attacking me and drawing the very life from my bones. I found myself struggling to remain calm.

Scott noticed my trembling and he eyed me with a worried look, hoping I wouldn’t attract any attention to us. I shot him a tense glance.  My cheeks were flushed and my breathing was becoming erratic.  I was in dire need of help.  My panic attacks were not a pretty sight.

“Class,” the professor boomed. I wasn’t sure if he had even noticed me, but I prayed he wouldn’t. “The red hawk is a fierce predator.”

I noticed the squirrel in the tank leap from its branch and scurry into a small house in the far corner.  I understood its fear, as beads of sweat gathered on my forehead.

The professor suddenly froze, scanning the class with sharp eyes. His mouth was pursed into an angry line and his nostrils were flared. The hawk sat steady on his arm, unfazed by his carrier’s abrupt mood change. As his eyes landed on each student, I saw them squirm on their stools, each praying the following words were not directed toward them.

I was stifling my heavy breaths when his eyes met mine and halted, remaining locked on me.  He took a single step forward and then stopped. My whole body went weak. Placing my hands on the table to keep myself upright, the world around me seemed to slowly dissipate. I felt something inside him pulling me closer.

His eyes were burning in their intensity, paralyzing me with fear.  I prayed that it would stop, begged for anything to interrupt this painful and silent attack. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t look away from his perfect face. It felt like an eternity had passed as we stared at each other, but in reality it had only been a few seconds. His brows furrowed even deeper, the lines on his face now creasing his skin, making him seem years older. A student bravely shifted on his stool. As it scraped across the floor, the professor’s stare was broken, leaving him looking bereft. I inhaled sharply and the world around me returned in a rush of warmth.  I ran a hand over my face to steady my churning emotions.

“Elle,” Scott whispered, his voice frantic and scared. “Are you okay?” His throat sounded dry and his voice was cracking.

“Yeah.” I took a few heavy breaths, regaining what composure I could and summoning my courage.

The professor staggered to his desk, swaying a little and looking away from the curious stares to hide his faltering expression. He appeared, like me, to be having trouble regaining his composure. I watched with observance as he leaned one strong arm against the mahogany desk where the hawk still sat, steady and unfazed. After a brief moment, the professor turned back and I noticed that his eyes were now serene, devoid of the murderous black of before.

“Class,” he started again, wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow, “This hawk has been injured.” He motioned one shaking hand toward the hawk, clearing his throat.

I struggled to understand what had just happened as everyone else focused on the professor, somewhat confused but eager to move on. Why had we both reacted so strongly toward each other?

“Our lesson today,” he continued, “will be in the preservation and health of this creature.”

The professor began making his way down the aisle, his gait easy and graceful, reminiscent of another time.  In fact, he exuded a certain elegance that could only be achieved after a lifetime of confidence and practice, both clearly impossible given his youthful appearance.

“He has a broken wing,” he continued, his eyes focused on me as he spoke, full of emotions I couldn’t name.

As he approached our table, my heart rate quickened.

“And your name is?” He finally halted in front of me.

I pressed my palms onto the table in an attempt to steady myself, to remain calm. His eyes held mine prisoner, and even behind the tinted lenses, they seemed to glow.

I stuttered nervously. “El….” My voice was hoarse and low. “Estella.”

I saw his eyes react to my name, flashing a bright blue. He stood there quite still for a moment, and I noticed the students around me staring with looks ranging from pity to spite, all relieved to not be where I sat.

“Estella,” he repeated. A smile spread across his face and his voice was like honey as he breathed my name.

A strange part of me still felt a pull toward him, his almost floral scent wafting toward me and tickling my nose. Despite the fact that he was the most intimidating person I had ever encountered, I also felt a small amount of intrigue and admiration.

“Can you help heal this hawk?” His eyes were now a calmer grey as he looked at me, head tilted in contemplation.

I looked at him, horrified. If I even so much as touched the bird, people would immediately notice there was something different about me. I knew that my abilities to heal were not normal and far too obvious in a situation like this. The hawk stirred on his arm, its gaze piercing me in a way that unsettled me.

“I…uh…” I tried to gather my thoughts. “Wh – what should I do?” Fear filled my eyes and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the tension in the room filled me with terror.

The hawk tilted his elegant head at me as though he understood my words, mimicking his handler as his talons twitched on the sleeve of the professor’s dark shirt. Without warning, the bird turned its gaze from me to the professor, as the professor also looked toward the bird.  They appeared to be engaging in a silent conversation over the matter.

I blinked once and they both turned back toward me, causing my chest to begin stinging once again. I leaned back on my stool in an attempt to resist the professor’s pull, to get as far away from him as possible. The hawk jumped from his arm to the table and the whole class gasped. I took a few calming breaths, knowing the bird wouldn’t hurt me but my heart still pounded hard in my chest.

The hawk hopped toward me, its poise never faltering despite its broken wing and assured pain. I felt the bird’s discomfort sting my chest, and I winced. As he approached, I could almost hear his thoughts, filling my dark soul with a faint haze.

“Grab its wing,” the professor boomed as he looked down on me, startling me. “Feel the bone so you can share your findings with the class,” he demanded, a crooked smile crossing his smooth, young face.

I looked away from him as my throat grew tight, my gaze now locked on the warm, amber eyes of the hawk. Little by little, I released my grip on the table and raised my trembling hand toward the injured wing. The hawk watched me with confidence, never shying away from my advancing touch. His amber eyes glittered like coins as he looked into mine, finding calm there.

With extreme caution, I lowered my hand onto its powerful wing, stroking over the ridge of his elbow and down the length of his feathers. His warmth transferred to my hand, his heartbeat more prominent than that of the fish. The bird opened his beak, breathing deep as it relaxed its wing into full span. The students toward the front of the room rose from their chairs, anxious to get a better view. With slow movements, I again grabbed the bird’s wing, bringing my other hand up to cradle its chest as I felt the bone, finally finding the protrusion halfway down its bicep. Closing my eyes in regret at the reaction my performance was surely going to evoke, I felt the bone molding beneath my touch as it healed with shocking speed. My stomach churned with anxiety. I had never been confronted like this before and I was certain that this unfortunate incident would grant me a one-way ticket back home.

I looked to the professor with distressed eyes, begging him not to expose me further. He nodded in approval, his hungry stare locked on my hand as I continued to massage the hawk’s wing, now nearly healed. I jumped when the satisfied hawk clicked its tongue, ruffling the feathers on his back. He leapt away from me and repositioned his wing against his smooth brown body as though no harm had ever been inflicted.

The professor continued to stare at me, his face a solemn mask. He stood there for a brief moment while the hawk returned to its perch on his arm with its feathers puffed in happiness, both eyes glinting with a playful light.

Just as quickly as he had come, the professor spun on his heel and marched back up the aisle.

“That will be all today,” he boomed with a dismissive tone as he exited with haste through the same door he had entered, not another word or explanation offered.

My breathing returned to normal and the fog in my mind cleared. It was all a blur, the way he’d looked at me, the way the hawk had known something about me.

Scott put one hand on my back to support me. “Are you alright?”

His words came as though from afar, a buzzing rang in my ears, and my eyes rolled back into my head, the room fading to dark.

Knight Angels Series

 

Preface: Diary of Jane Taylor

 

When I think of death, I don’t see what everyone else does. There’s a soft whisper when you find it, and a voice telling us that it’ll be okay.

We never die alone, because they are always there watching over us, protecting us, and guiding us. They are silent, like a simple gust of wind, but it is in this wind that our world can change.

Mine did.

When the accident happened, and my father died, I was there. I saw them. I can’t remember their faces, but I knew they weren’t human.

There were two—one was the murderer, and one was my knight. I was spared. Ever since, the nightmares of death haunt me.

Somewhere deep inside, I know that I should be dead.

KNIGHT ANGELS: GUARDED

 

Max:

 

“Brother!” Erik’s laugh was boisterous—a refreshing, admittedly lively, sound.

I laughed in return, leaning down to give him a hug.

“It’s been ten years, Max. What brings you back?” Erik looked into my eyes, his face hallow and aged, but also concerned.

“Ten years went by fast.” I remarked.

He laughed. “Fast for you, perhaps.” He lifted one brow, now dappled with grey. “So tell me, why come back now?” He had a knowing look on his face.

It was hard to see him like this, and soon he would be gone. Soon, I would have to take him. “Erik, I had to come back.” I avoided his gaze, knowing he saw right through my attempts to deny my reasons.

Erik was my younger brother whom had survived the slaughter of my family. He survived because I’d given my life to do so. It was that day that changed my fate forever. It was the day I became what I am.

Erik laughed. “I always knew you would come back. You always do. No matter how hard you try, you cannot forget that little girl, can you?”

I sighed, thinking of her. “It’s not that, Erik.” I lied, hiding a smile. “And she’s not a little girl anymore,” I added.

He pointed at me, his hands wrinkled with age. “You cannot fool and old man, Max.” He grunted as he pushed his wheelchair away from the large mahogany desk in the study. “You failed to hide that smile, though you think you did.”

I let the smirk show. “I’m an old man too, Erik.”

“Ha!” he hooted, followed by a cough. “But look at you! You’re still seventeen and as handsome as ever. I always hated you for that.”

“No matter how I look, Erik, I will always be your older brother.” I plucked the picture of my sister-in-law from his desk and looked at it. “Besides, it was I that was jealous of you. You lived a normal life. You got to love, live, and soon…” My voice trailed, jealous of his eventual death.

Erik, on the other hand, hated the idea of death. He changed the subject. “You know I hate it when you call me brother. It makes me feel old-fashioned.” He rolled his eyes.

When I died, Erik had a hard time adjusting to the fact that he was now ageing, and I was not. The day he surpassed me was his worst, but it was one of my worst as well. I knew that one day he would be gone, and I would be alone, at least emotionally. He rolled over to me and took the picture from my hand.

“Meredith, my love,” he whispered.

I watched him stare at her image, his eyes filled with a feeling I finally understood. “She was wonderful, Erik. Like a sister and a mother to me.” Her laughter resonated in my head, warming my silent heart.

Erik laughed. “First a sister, and then a mother as she grew old, right?”

I smirked. “Something like that.”

I felt the presence of our real mother enter the room then, like a breath of life. I smiled. I could always feel her, but I was never allowed to see or hear her. It was the cruel torture I was put through as an angel, stuck somewhere between the two worlds, shut out from the thrill of feeling their reach.

Erik’s face sank. “Have you seen him at all?”

I frowned, losing the feeling of my mother as she slipped away at the mention of him. “No. Not for a very long time.”

Erik smiled. “Do you ever think he’ll come back?”

I placed the picture of Meredith on the desk. “I want to assume that he won’t, but I don’t think we’re that lucky. We’re never that lucky.” He was my twin after all, and in our state, we were bound together in thought and soul, both stuck in the in-between.

Erik said nothing as he rolled over to a window that looked out from the second story and onto the gardens below. “Well, I’m glad your back. I just don’t…” his voice cracked.

I shut my eyes, feeling his pain and hearing his thoughts. He was afraid of Greg—afraid that he would come for him in the end. “Erik, you know I would never let that happen. You belong with me. I will not let him take your soul. Not there.” Greg’s world was different than mine—darker.

Erik was again silent, but I could hear the whispers in his mind. “Is that why you came back? To take me?”

I exhaled slowly. “No, Erik. It’s not your time.” I lied, knowing it was within the coming months. No man should know when that time would come. I wanted him to enjoy what life he had left.

Erik turned then, a renewed sense of life in his eyes. “I do wish to be with Meredith again, but not yet.” He smiled. “What will you do with your time here? For how long can I expect you’ll stay this time?”

His questions were questions I was barely able to ask myself. I did not know how long it would take before I could no longer stand being here, but I needed to try—for her. “I’ll go back to school, I suppose. See how that pans out.”

Erik let one boisterous laugh leave his lips. “School? My dear Brother, just the mention of that word brings chills to my heart. Didn’t get enough before, did you?”

I laughed. “I realize that your academic experience was anything but enjoyable with all the deaths you endured. You were uprooted and scared—I understand. But trust me, dear Brother, I will be fine. I still have that senior year to finish, even if it is eighty years late.”

He lifted one brow. “I just hope you’re right. Senior year can be horrid.” His eyes were wide. “Especially these days. Things aren’t like they were eighty years ago.”

I laughed. “What do you know of high school these days?”

Erik shrugged. “Enough. Trust me.”

I looked at my watch. “Speaking of… I’m going to be late.”

Erik laughed with a cheery smile. “So soon! My, you don’t wallow in the mud do you? I haven’t seen you in decades, and here you are, back as though nothing had changed.”

I shrugged. “I have a long life ahead of me, Brother, and I don’t want to waste it.”

Sarah:

 

“Jane. Emily!” I slammed the cup of orange juice down on the counter. “Jane! Emily! Hurry up!” I looked at my watch. It was already 7:53 and I was late for my shift at the hotel. Being a single mother had never been easy, especially with two teenage girls.

I walked across the kitchen and grabbed a dry piece of toast from the toaster and shoved it in my mouth. I never regretted having the girls, but I did regret having them at such a young age. If I’d waited, my husband’s accident would have happened before they were as much as a glimmer in our eye, leaving me with more options. But that wasn’t something to think of—not anymore. My girls were my whole world now, and I loved them no matter what the burden.

Jane was seventeen, but that’s what made it hard on me. I’d been seventeen when I had her. I saw myself in her eyes. I understood that I was far too young to handle a child. I wished I’d known better.

“Jane! Get your sister. Let’s get going!” I yelled, crumbs flying from my mouth and onto the tile floor. Since it was their first day, it was important for me to drive them to school. I know it was embarrassing for them, but I needed my few moments to be a mother, and this was one of them.

Their father, John, had loved them regardless of the age in which we’d had them. It was a strange time when we were young, and the world was changing fast. After all, it was the seventies.

 Jane was a surprise, and I remembered the look on John’s face. He was so frightened to have her, but as she grew, she and John forged a bond so strong, it was seemingly inseparable. Emily, on the other hand—John had distanced himself from her, and I never understood why. There was always guilt in his eyes over the fact, as though the distance was painful to him.

I was jolted out of my daydreaming as the pounding of footsteps descended the stairs. My pain was replaced by relief. It was their first day, and I was excited to finally have them back at school. At least now I’d know where they were all day—especially Emily.

Jane:

 

I hated first days. I hated everything. I was tired of the same struggle to make friends, fit in and make grades.

I didn’t understand why I felt so lost, or why I felt as though I didn’t belong here anymore. And when I say belong, I mean the fact that I couldn’t shake the dreams of death I had every night, and the foreseen deaths of everyone around me. The nightmares followed me, and I knew it was because I should have died with my father.

“Jane, make sure your sister gets to all her classes, will you? I don’t have time to worry about her today,” my mother nagged, her hair falling from her lose ponytail. I knew how busy she was, and how hard she tried for us, but we were her choice.

I looked at my sister as she gave me a glare that reminded me to leave her alone. Today was her first day in high school. She didn’t need her bigger sister hanging over her like the overprotective freak that I was.

“Okay, everyone! Into the car!” My mother ushered us both out the door, handing us each a five dollar bill for lunch.

It was barely enough to buy a bagel and milk—not that Emily would buy anything anyway. Emily was your typical dark troubled teen, and a handful at that. Since she was thirteen, I’d relentlessly hunted after her, dragging her from one high school party after the next.

I couldn’t help but worry. I’d seen the nightmares with her in them. The image of her lying dead like that haunted me—her eyes blank, her body cold. I watched her walk in front of me with guilt in my heart. The scary thing was that now, she was in high school, making the task to protect her more of a challenge. The parties would be more accessible, the drugs like candy sold at a corner store.

“Want to give me your five?” She had halted, now leaning close to me as we lagged behind Mother. Her dark eyeliner smudged into her eyes, leaving them inked with grey.

I gave her a disgusted glare, knowing all she wanted to do with it was buy prescription drugs. I rolled my eyes away from her.

Emily was gorgeous—at least she was under all the makeup. She was tall and thin with plaits of thick auburn hair. She naturally walked like a model, attracting all sorts of attention, but mostly the negative kind.

“No. You can’t,” I hissed.

Emily glared, grabbing the handle of the car door and snapping it open.

I walked around to the other side, taking a deep breath before opening my own door and ruefully climbing in. I’d given up my life to play mother to Emily. My own mother was too overwhelmed with work to notice what really went on. I knew my mother meant well, but it was a burden that had destroyed my life.

I was tired of it.

Emily:

 

I slammed the car door for dramatic effect, showing Jane that I was pissed at her for refusing to lend me her five. She had plenty of money stashed up somewhere, I knew it. She was a goody two shoes, and it was starting to cramp my style. I pouted and looked out the window, hooking my palm under my chin. I saw the cute neighbor boy next door climb into his car, a mischievous thought entering my head.

I rolled the window down. “Hey, We—es.” I said his name as seductively as I could, and then batted my eyes in my effort to irritate Jane.

Emily,” Jane hissed, as she always did.

She elbowed me, and I let out a low scream, glaring at her.

“Hi, Wes.” She waved, leaning over my lap, hoping to cover up the embarrassment of what I’d just done.

Mother glanced at me in the rear view mirror with a look of concern on her face. She was sizing me up, wondering what troubled-teen-symptom I was displaying today. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms against my chest. Jane was still lying across my lap, pressing the button on the window to bring it back up. I hated that she treated me like a child. I shut my eyes, trying to forget the headache that had now set in from the exasperated thoughts in Jane’s head.

Mother spoke then, but not to me—she knew better than to do that. What she didn’t know was that it didn’t matter if she spoke to me or not, I still knew what she was thinking. “Jane, why didn’t you ever date Wes? He’s a nice boy.”

I laughed to myself, finding the hilarity in the fact that Jane would date anyone at all—her one exception being the fact that she had lost her virginity to Wes this summer, which I knew despite the fact she’d told no one.

I also knew that she did it out of pity, and now regretted it. That was her one and only romantic encounter. She was a history geek, and though she had good looks, she never used them for anything. Ever since father died she had been this way—large grandmother sweaters and baggy jeans, frazzled hair and a whole mess of split ends. Her skin was pale because she refused to go outside unless to snowboard, which she’s unsure if she’ll get the chance to do this year with me cramping her style. She thinks I’m too young to know what life is all about, but she doesn’t know what I can hear. Besides, I’m only a year behind her in age, just not school. There were two things I knew for certain:

Something about me is different, and freshman year was going to suck.

Jane:

 

I hated when Mother said that to me, as if I hadn’t already told her why I hadn’t dated Wes. I liked Wes, sure, as a friend. We had been friends since we were babies. He was practically a brother to me. Wes was the only person that seemed to understand all I’d gone through, and the responsibilities of my burdens. Sure, we had tried to be together, but it was awkward. I’d lost my virginity to him after all, but it didn’t feel right for me. There was no emotion, no great ta da. Besides, I didn’t have the time for a boyfriend.

“She’s afraid that if she dates him, he’ll end up dead like father,” Emily teased in a childish voice.

I felt the car rattle as she said it, my mother tapping the breaks in her sadness. Emily often referenced my father’s death that way, as though it wasn’t her father at all. She was too young to remember, but not me. I remembered everything. He had been my best friend—my only friend.

“Emily, please.” My mother’s voice cracked as she said it, suggesting the comment had hurt.

Emily let an annoyed breath escape her dark crimson lips. “Whatever.”

I tried to press back the images of my father as they welled up inside me like a nightmare. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened that night, but I knew what I saw—I saw the fire and the car. I even saw him take his last breath.

Blood. Emptiness. Horror.   

All I knew was that something had saved me. Some force of luck had decided I was to live, and my father was to die. Emily wasn’t there. She didn’t know. She barely even knows the outline of his face, but I remember. I see every wrinkle, every scratch as the blood pooled onto the pavement of the road, following the outline of his beard and staining the few grey hairs he had. I saw his eyes fade as the life left them, and I heard his last words, still echoing…

I love you, Jane.”

That was ten years ago, but it still felt like yesterday. I was so young, but in that instant, all the youth was stolen from me and our lives changed forever. In that instant, I’d become the mother, and Mother had become lost. I was too young to grow up, too young to worry, and now, it was all I knew—seventeen going on thirty-four, my mother thirty-four going on dead.

That’s how I saw it.

My mother was an empty shell, left broken on the beach.

Wes:

 

I waved as the car passed, rolling my eyes. Emily was a mess. Too young to realize exactly what she was doing. Jane though, she was something else. When she waved, it was as though the whole world stopped. I sighed. To her, though, I was just a friend.

I got in my car, rubbing my hand as it began to hurt. I looked down, my gaze tracing the bones as they molded the skin on my knuckles. They ached as though I’d been up all night playing video games. I flipped it over and looked at my palm, and then put it on the shifter of my 86 Camaro. I watched as my fingers shook. Shutting my eyes, I tried to stifle the pain.

For the last week the pain had been acting up. I didn’t know what it was from, but I had a hunch. I needed to lay off the hobbies. I suppose painting model cars had its dangers. I sighed. It wasn’t just that, though, I hadn’t felt at all spectacular, and the changes in my height and weight… that alone put me on edge. I no longer wanted to go outside. I was afraid someone would notice. I thought I was done growing two years ago, but this spurt had been the biggest yet. My stomach grumbled with nerves and a strawberry Pop Tart.

My parents gave me up for adoption when I was just a baby. I was forced to grow up fast, and when I was finally taken in, it still left me with a gaping hole in my heart. It was times like now that I wish I knew them. The pain inside me was something I hoped they could explain, but I’d never found them—no matter how hard I tried.

I started the car as my other hand shook on the keys. I usually took Jane to school, but this year with her sister being there, I figured her mother wanted make sure Emily at least made it to the front door. From there, it was out of her hands.

I would try one more time to get Jane’s attention this year—try at last to be the guy she dreams of. She was my only hope for happiness here.

I loved her.

With one last deep breath, I looked over my shoulder and backed out of the driveway. This was it, senior year. Things were bound to get better.

Jane:

 

We pulled up to the school in silence as Emily gave me once last glare. She snatched her black backpack off the seat beside me, rolling her eyes. She didn’t even bother to say goodbye to Mother as she slammed the car door behind her, storming down the walkway and into school.

I sighed. “Mother, I’m sorry. I’ll try to watch her.” I felt as though it were my fault she had misbehaved. I saw Wes walk by the car, glancing toward it but continuing on, understanding that my mother and I were talking about serious matters. My eyes followed him, inspecting his ever changing physique and spiked golden hair. I shuddered with guilt, training my eyes straight ahead.

My mother looked at me through the rearview with a gaunt expression. “Jane, it’s not your fault. I just don’t know what to do with her. I wish I knew what she was up to.” She shifted the car into park. “She’s not doing anything… illegal, right?”

“I…” I wanted to tell her, but the dark circles under her eyes reminded me that she had enough to deal with.

She gave me a pained smile. “Just keep your eyes open, Jane. That’s all I ask.”

Her words made me feel responsible. I knew I needed to tell her what was really going on, but what could she do? She didn’t need to know, and that was my decision.

I unbuckled, grabbing my bag and sliding from the car. “I’ll watch out for her, mom. I promise.” I smiled and shut the door, lowering my head as I walked around the car and toward the steps.

I heard her drive off behind me, my pace fast as I saw that all the students were already inside. When I reached the doors the bell rang. I exhaled hard—already late, and it was only the first day. I grabbed the handles of the doors and swung them open, walking briskly inside as my feet clapped against the linoleum floor, echoing off the lockers on either side. There was another echo in the hall as well, and with my head still down, I peeked up with my eyes. I allowed my hair to hide me in case it was a rule-hungry teacher, bent on disciplining stray students on their first day.

My eyes met the back of a boy that was up ahead, walking with poise and leisure. I quickly looked back down at my feet, turning as I reached my homeroom and grabbed the handle of the door. The echoes in the hall ceased at the same time my own footsteps did. Startled, I looked up, my eyes finding the boy as he stood by a locker at the end of the hall. He didn’t seem to notice me as he worked at the lock. He was new, that wasn’t hard to tell. We didn’t get many new kids in Glenwood Springs, at least none that looked like him.

He had a black t-shirt on, despite the fact that it was an unseasonably cool day. His jeans were dark and unmarked, a far cry from the designer jeans I was used to seeing here. I looked at his feet, noticing he wore a pair of brown leather shoes—a faux pas considering the black t-shirt.

I examined the profile of his face, noting the strong jaw line, a small freckle positioned near his ear. His lashes were long and natural, a dark brown that could almost be considered black. His hair matched. It was medium length and tossed expertly away from his face. His lips were pressed together in a concentrated line, revealing a dimple on his cheek.

He lifted his arms, exhibiting a string of muscles linking from his shoulders to his wrists. He placed a stack of books inside his locker and twisted his stance to position them, allowing me a glimpse at the inside of his forearms. I squinted. Upon closer inspection, I saw he had a tattoos inked from his elbow to his wrist, also something you didn’t see much around here—especially when most of us weren’t even eighteen yet.

There was something besides his looks that had seized me, though. It wasn’t as though he was dreamy as in High School Musical dreamy, but rather typical despite the array of attractive features. My brows were sewn together as I stood frozen for a moment, my hand on the handle of the door. He was too far away from me to see his future death, but there was something. A familiar image flashed across my thoughts, like a bit of déjà vu. I tried to hold onto the image as my breath dragged in my throat. The image slowly washed away before I could see what it was, and I was left struggling to make sense of it. The boy slammed the locker door and I snapped out of it. He turned away from me and walked down the hall, unconcerned by the fact I was gawking at him like a stalker.

I shook my head and opened the door to homeroom, walking in as everyone stared. Their eyes outlined the judgment I was sure was in their heads. My breathing stopped.

“You’re late, Ms. Taylor.” Mrs. West glared at me over her bifocals. She motioned me to sit. I scanned the room, finding Wes as I exhaled with relief. I quickly made my way toward him, sitting down at the desk he had saved for me.

“You made it,” he whispered. “And just in time for the Prom committee to preach.” He rolled his eyes. “Why do they insist on making us get involved? Besides, it’s like, months away.”

I nodded, taking out a piece of paper and eyeing the list of less-than-essential prom notes on the board. I blew at a strand of hair that had obstructed my vision. I was already anxious for lunch.

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