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The Time Stopping People

The Time Stopping People – Teaser I

Love is breaking all the boundaries

By Kristy Evans Beckwith

A Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2017

Discover other titles by Kristy Evans

http://www.TheTimeStoppingPeople.blogspot.com

All rights reserved. This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to peoples – living or deceased – is purely coincidental. Names, places, and characters are figments of the author’s imagination. It is illegal to reproduce this novel without written expressed consent from the author. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author.

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the artwork of this author.

Chapter One

Listening to the blue minivan hum beneath us, there was no time to push the rewind button. With the seatbelt strained across my waist, wind seeped through my half-cracked window and brushed against my face. Violet mists trailed into the sky and created the stage for this fresh reality. The road sign read ‘Welcome to Lakeville Forest’ when Kevin shoved his body through the window.

“Woooo! Welcome home, ladies and gentlemen!” He drummed on the hood of the van, and then gave Ohio the middle finger. Then he stretched his arms far above his head, until the bulk of his sweater lifted high above his waistline. His beady eyes were blue and curious, and his dimpled chin complimented the rest of his features. As he shot me a look through the window, I noticed he was chewing on gum like farmers chewed on tobacco.

Blue arose from her peaceful slumber and spat, “Kevin, you’re an idiot,” before falling back down again – she obviously felt there was something unique about the guy who carried a knife in his back pocket.

Their names weren’t very hard to memorize. Tre was the attentive black guy, with an English accent. Blue was the other girl besides me, who had countless piercings all over her body. Chris was the one who found his way into my life last night, at the La Traviatta operetta. He was rough around the edges and had vibrant black hair that ruffled when the wind hit it.

“Calise, is it?” she asked.

I nodded.

“My boss never meets new people,” she went on, turning in my direction. “If he does, he never brings them here. How did the two of you meet? Was it a stroll in the park?”

Chris adjusted the mirror, shooting her a look.

“I know, Coach,” she added. “We want to hear her side of the story.”

They waited, expecting some long juicy tale, and I certainly had one.

“Well,” I started. “For starters, I caught him watching me at one of my favorite performances,” I admitted. “I thought we must’ve known each other. So I followed him back to his car and asked him for an explanation. He told me he was in town at the moment, taking care of business, and we ended up talking for hours. By the end of the night, he told me to come away with him, to this amazing place called Ohio,” I answered. “Here we are.”

They blinked twice, except for Blue. She rolled her eyes and gave a short laugh. “Oh brother. So what. Are you guys like a thing now? Great. Absolutely perfect. Should I say congratulations?”

“Damn right,” Kevin interrupted in a girly voice, obviously answering on my behalf. “Chris and I are having such a good time together,” he admitted plainly, and then turned the other way and stared out the window. “He asked me to be here. I couldn’t resist.”

After they were done teasing me, I stared outside. For the next five minutes no one said a word. My mind wandered off to the fantastic night we’d just spent together and how wonderful it was to have someone like him to talk to. He was non-judgmental, and a really great listener. And he’d been so kind. In the little time we’d known each other, it already felt like an eternity.

It was then that Chris peered at me through the mirror and winked, letting me know we were both on the same page. I was relieved my bogus plan to stay in California and attend my second year of college hadn’t worked out, because now I got to be here, sitting behind this new intriguing individual.

He was, by far, the most interesting person I’d ever met.

*

“Are you hungry?” Chris asked, finding me through the rear-view mirror.

My stomach growled louder than the engine, which was a direct result of negligence since I forgot to eat something before we left LAX. I’d been too caught up following my bliss. Wondered if Mr. Carl even noticed I was gone yet. He was probably too busy escorting his beloved Laura to another marvelous theater performance.

I realized everyone else around us had fallen asleep. “Oh yeah, sure,” I replied.

As I stared at the lines in my palms, I pondered the line between chance and fate. It must’ve been fate that Chris caught my eye at the operetta, and introduced me to this whole new perspective, a perspective which I never knew existed less than 24 hours ago. All I knew was their ‘untitled profession’ had something to do with him being there. He explained he was on a business assignment, and found my curious eyes gazing around the crowd.

Afterward, he took me to his marble mansion in Laguna Beach and gave me a quick tour of his large estate, so I wouldn’t get home too late. For the entire night, he stared at me with soul-piercing eyes, like we’d known each other. Neither of us were surprised when he didn’t take me home. The way we spent our time together, alone in his mansion, there was no doubt in my mind, we were together.

*

Luckily Chris’s friends looked around my age so I didn’t feel too incongruous. Staring outside the window, I realized Ohio was the complete opposite of Los Angeles. The greenery was nice and easier to deal with than city traffic or angry drivers flipping each other off. Fiery waves dwindled from the sky. A thin fog smothered the windows as trees swayed on both sides of the road. The town was at ease.

I stared at the back of Chris’s head, which was firmly nestled in the seat in front of me. His hair fluttered in the wind, in an effortless, controlled way, and I imagined what the smooth texture would feel like sliding between my fingers.

Soon we pulled into a shabby old gas station. Prices were scribbled on scraps of white cardboard, and the moment we neared a pump, Tre was the first one to make his way.

“Need anything out of here, Coach?”

He replied, “The usual’s fine.”

Blue and Kevin trailed shortly behind. “Hurry up.” She nudged him further out the door.

Seeing them together was like watching an action movie – James Bond, but not on purpose. They moved toward the dimly lit mini market quickly and in a hurry. As soon as they reached their target, an old man slugged toward the van and tapped on the glass, as though he’d been sleepwalking.

“Who’s there? What are you kids doing around this part?” he asked.

Chris rolled down the window. “It’s me Sam.”

“Oh, hey Chris! How’ve you been? Ain’t seen you around since last February.” He turned to me with stretched eyes. “Oh look! What do we have here? You brought along a cute little penny, too. Ain’t she perty.”

Chris handed him a hundred dollar bill. “Thanks, Sam,” he replied and walked over to my window. “You should go get something to eat, Calise. You’ll be hungry later.”

Startled by those brown eyes, I almost forgot about the grumblings going on in my stomach. “Right,” I agreed and opened the door. “Want anything else?” I asked. “The least I can do is take care of you, after you’ve already done so much for me.”

He breathed slowly this time, and stepped closer. “Don’t worry. They’ll take care of it.” The edge of his hand brushed against mine, taking me by surprise. Soon, our fingers slithered together in a natural tryst.

I had to admit: holding hands with him was nice. There was an undeniable charm about standing next to him and wildlife, that made my heart petals open. Such a simple gesture triggered our own mysterious adventure. “So . . . this the place you were telling me about. It’s so refreshing. Do you stay here often?”

He peered around, wearing a look of satisfaction. “Yes. I feel more myself when I’m here . . . closer to everything. It’s good for now. Things change.” He started pointing all around us.

I knew meeting him wasn’t a mistake or a coincidence. Right now, he was my hero. So I tried making something up, anything to make him laugh again.

“Thanks for letting me into your world.”

That bit of gratitude was enough, and certainly made him smile for the first time since we landed. He stared off in front of him. “Don’t mention it.”

Before he could say another word, I climbed out of the van and grabbed the sliding door, snapping it shut. The others were already on their way back when our paths crossed in an awkward twine. They carried bags under their arms and a load of other stuff that was probably molded and gross from being locked inside the old Ohio cave; this store had to be at least a zillion years old.

Tre was talking to Kevin as they burst into laughter. I knew they were talking about me. Blue followed behind them with a pack of water bottles over her shoulder and seemed to be handling more weight than the guys.

Opening the front glass door, I observed a pile of orange baskets near the wall and grabbed one from the stack. Skimming over the food supply, I threw in candy bars, microwavable dinners, and every chip bag that was left on the shelf; the juice packs were out of my favorite flavor, so I didn’t spend much time in the beverage isle. The lady at the register slowly scanned each item.

“Is that all?”

I noticed the van was pulled beside the curb, which was probably Chris’s subtle way of saying put a move on it. So I grabbed my bags from the register lady and hastened out. Climbing into the back, I already started shucking one of my candy bars.

“Can we enlighten your new friend here on the rules?” Kevin asked.

Everyone stared at me.

“No chocolate,” Kevin answered his own question.

Tre grabbed my packages and peeked inside. “Yeah, we don’t eat trash. AKA anything with sugar.”

After a moment’s hesitation, I relinquished the ‘bar of sin’ and watched Tre shoot my dinner straight through the window.

“Whoop there it is.”

Kevin looked up. “Nah man, you missed.”

Tre tossed me a bag of nut trail mix. “From now on, you eat like the rest of us. If that’s a problem…”

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Blue added, finishing his sentence.

I frowned and nibbled on a raisin. This was going to be tougher than I thought. No candy? No rich, melted, chocolaty substance sliding down my throat? I’d have to start my whole life over and search for a new purpose.

*

Some hours later we pulled into a slanted driveway. Pebbles crunched under tires, and shadows emerged from the glare of the moon, showing off a pointed rooftop and medieval statues. The castle-like mansion stood concealed behind an eerie group of oak trees with the attributes of a haunted house.

“We’re here,” Kevin announced.

Chris turned off the engine and slumped back. Everyone fell silent. They seemed to be contemplating, preparing themselves for something unknown. Their unbroken glances confounded me, and I wanted to know what mysterious subject lingered in their thoughts. I knew this was their home and training ground. Chris told me this was the place they came to most often. So I wondered why they looked at the house strangely, like it was a foreign place.

Tre slid the door open, sniffing the air. “Mmm, smell that?”

“Smells like rain.” Kevin lifted the bag over his shoulder.

The air was crisp as I stepped onto the circular dirt trail. A small draft trickled down my back, and I clasped my jacket. “Is it always this cold?”

Chris smiled. “Only in the winter.”

It was mid-February, and I wanted to tackle him for the extra sweater he was wearing, but Blue rushed by so fast I nearly got whiplash. Her gray tank top showed off a cute heart-shaped belly ring with glittery stones. Loose gray sweats also revealed the butterfly tattoo on her left hip. She slowed down behind the guys and finally bullied her way through.

“Move.”

Leaves crackled under my shoes as I studied the new environment. There was nothing modern about this place – it looked like an old cemetery. Staying inside this house, hidden deep in the woods of Ohio where no one could find me, was going to be an unusual experience for sure. On top of that, it was going to rain soon. This wasn’t what I had in mind when Chris first described his abode. I imagined we’d be training somewhere sophisticated with high-class equipment and nice marble floors, like how it was at his mansion in Laguna Beach.

And yet, there was something engaging about its essence. I couldn’t refute.

My attention waned from the crow statue, faced down on the doorstep. I realized the others were inside already. Pushing the door forward and listening to the sound of old splintering wood, I noticed the interior was breathtakingly refined. Oak wood glistened, releasing the scent of ripe tangerines. Dim lights dazzled from the chandelier and filled the mansion with a low, mellow mood.

The other musketeers shuffled along the log staircase. While I followed behind them, our shoes squeaked, echoing against the walls. At the final step, they turned the corner, and I ended up following a subtle beam down the opposite end of the hall. There was some light seeping through a cracked open room.

“Hello?”

I walked inside and blinked twice. My blood flow reversed and turned my head into a light air bubble. Low snarls escaped. A white tiger was crouched beside the bed. Its eyes widened. Its lips curled over razor sharp teeth. I blinked again. This couldn’t be for real. I did not just get sucked into the Discovery Channel. The wild animal looked at me, alert, agitated, and probably hungry.

“Down, Girl,” the voice commanded, startling the both of us. A shadow magically emerged from the bathroom, and Chris walked in shirtless.

I gulped.

“Her name’s Missy,” he said. His back was broad, spreading out like eagle wings. Fur covered his chest and trailed down, and I wanted to twist my fingers in all of it. I felt savage watching this man like an obsessed onlooker, but I couldn’t turn away.

He stroked the tiger’s coat while looking directly at me. “Easy, Girl,” he whispered.

The command was for Missy, but the hairs on my neck prickled. The swirling warmth in my stomach made me feel enlivened, and I didn’t know whether it was coming from the vivacious white tiger, or Chris’s hot naked chest.

I cleared my throat. “Whoa . . . she just popped out of nowhere.”

“We have a caretaker, Ellen. She comes here to look after Missy whenever we’re out of town.”

“Really? I didn’t see her anywhere.”

He smiled. “She knew we’d be arriving soon. I told her to leave Missy in my room.”

“Doesn’t Missy have a cage? I’m kidding. I really do like animals, especially the ones that are usually at the zoo, most of the time. Anyways.”

He stared up at me. “She didn’t mean to startle you, Calise.”

It was pure heaven to hear him say my name the way he did. There was so much warmth beneath his tongue when he said it, so much heat in this small confined room. For the first time, I drew in the roasted almond scent emanating from his burning candles on the nightstand. The wooden walls were covered in simple, earthy art. Antique vases stood in corners. His brown and gold bedspread was the highlight, complimenting a tall triangular ceiling.

My attention was gripped by the portrait hanging above his mantel. It was the face of a girl who had brown hair, round eyes, and not a year over twenty.

She and I shared an undeniable resemblance, practically identical. I wanted to think more of it, to marvel at the coincidence of this girl hanging on his wall, but I was unabashedly absorbed with Chris pacifying the beast.

I watched her. The tips of his fingers spread through her coat and rolled across her skin . . . I barely missed him slipping on a black shirt and lifting my luggage.

“Come on,” he summoned, rambling down the hall and smacking his teeth twice for Missy.

She obeyed and snarled at me under her snout.

As we traveled up another staircase that was quite separate from the rest of the house, I realized we were drawing near an attic. At any other time, I would’ve been afraid; the path was so quiet and full of creaks. But Chris helped me overcome, as I stumbled here and there. Each time he rescued me from a wedge in the floor, he asked, ‘Are you always like this?’ before springing me up again.

Finally I stopped and turned to him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

He stared down. “Do you like me being nice to you?”

“Yes,” I confessed. “I like you brought me all the way to Ohio . . . and I don’t know anyone else in this house but you.”

He observed me with a careful eye.

Finally we reached the attic. It was a lively and creative room. The bed was layered with colorful quilts, the top one being yellow-spotted. Every dresser was covered in scarves and fictitious plants, and a line of framed sketches hung on the walls. Though it wasn’t the work of a famous artist, it was definitely by someone who aspired in the profession. Medieval statues sat in every corner. One was a pair of V-shaped wings resting on a stone platter. Music stickers crowded the headboard, and a deep-seated reverence flushed Chris’s countenance the moment we walked in, like he just opened up a treasure chest.

He stood by the door, waiting. “There’s another room downstairs if you’d like.”

“No,” I said. “I like it here.” My fingers trailed over a sketch. It was the drawing of a lake surrounded by thick willow trees. “Beautiful,” I whispered, admiring the delicate shading. “Who drew this?”

He posted one foot against the door. “Her name should be signed at the bottom. She was into pottery and sculpting as well. She liked making things on her free time.”

I glanced at the initials, and then looked over at Chris. “J.E.”

His eyes were tight lines, squinting, and seeking for something in my face.

I looked away, setting the drawing down. “Thank you for bringing me here, like you said you would.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We start in the morning,” he answered and waited for my reply. When I didn’t say anything else, he drew the door closed.

That’s when I noticed everything on the outside was vibrant and colorful, but something else lingered here . . . like an invisible current. The scarves, which were draped over the drawers, turned out to be head coverings. The scarlet silk piece appeared most worn around the edges. I tugged it from underneath the plant and saw a black spade knitted on the center, almost like it’d been hand-sewn.

“What’s up with that smell?” I grumbled.

It reeked strongly of mildew, and I made a quick trip to the bathroom to give it a good washing. The spade was such an odd shape for someone to randomly knit that I wondered who came up with the idea.

The scarf was a cute accessory, however, and an easy fit into my wardrobe. I played with the material some more, trying it on and making different styles in the mirror . . . until I ran out of ideas and snuggled under the covers, dropping the red scarf over my face. Then I dreamed.

 

Chapter Two

Chris kept his promise.

By the time shadows emerged from the light of dawn, he knocked at my door and escorted me away from this fascinating attic-cocoon. I’d already been dressed and awake most of the night.

“Follow me,” he said in a low muffled voice.

Today he wore a gray hoodie over his head. His shoulders were stretching out the material, which looked good on him. Then again, anything would look good on him. If he turned into an animal, he’d be an attractive lion, because ‘feral’ was his natural essence. The roughness and imperfection of his face made him unique looking. But anyone could see the round shape of his chin and the small scratch below his neck made him irresistible.

He was much more intense than yesterday, like something was on his mind other than our arms lightly brushing, as we walked on our tour together. I reminded myself it was only six in the morning. For the remaining time, I kept quiet, and allowed him to lead the way.

Right away, he showed me around his large estate and pointed out everyone’s bedroom, including Missy’s cage, which turned out to be some type of large stowaway tank. I was relieved to find the tiger locked inside of it, and not trailing after Chris’s leg. Her behavior yesterday hadn’t necessarily been a bad thing; it only confirmed how much she loved her master. Everyone in the house had a deep care (and awe) for Chris, which could only spring from their genuine respect for him as a person.

I respected him too for being my hero. I understood him in a different kind of way, like we were the only two people here.

Finally, he took me to his personal office and pointed out the phone I’d be using to make outside calls. He mentioned I’d also be getting my own ‘special’ phone soon, like everyone else in the house. Apparently these special phones were restricted in nature. We could only use them to call each other.

It was very ‘high and official.’

Lastly, we made our way to the basement. This section of the house was a gigantic gym containing benches, stability balls, yoga mats, balance beams, and weight-lifting equipment that made my dad’s exercise room look like props on Sesame Street.

From the looks of things, we were doing this the old-fashioned way. There were no treadmills, automated bikes, or workout machines requiring a plug.

As I posted against the gym’s wall, tapping my fingers and waiting for Chris to finish his phone call, I noticed Blue and Kevin were near the mirrors, reaching their arms out in front of them. They didn’t seem to notice I was here; they hadn’t spoken a word to me, or Chris, or to each other. Again, it was still pretty early.

Just then, Tre sauntered in, pulling a shirt over his head. “What up.”

He high-fived Kevin. They started chatting about some video game he’d won. Soon, they were wide awake, and cheering together. Tre must’ve been the life of the party, because now, none of them could keep their mouths shut.

I kept my head down, touching my toes. When I looked over again, Chris was striding through the swinging doors with a silver whistle hanging on a thread around his neck. My heart hiccuped at the sight of him. The crease between his brows was deeply focused. Missy trailed behind him and appeared to be growling in my direction. When I waved, he waved back, calling me over, and within moments, I was shuffling across the room, joining his side, along with the others.

He greeted us with a loud clap. “Good morning everyone,” he said and took a deep breath. “Things are going to be different today. As you know, Calise will be here, training with us for the next few months. If you can remember your first day, you can also remember how easy it was to feel left out.”

The three musketeers exchanged looks.

“Play nice,” he said in conclusion.

It would’ve been nice if there were other rookies around, so I wouldn’t be the only one feeling the pressure of being a newbie.

“Alright, let’s go!” Chris blew his whistle.

Everyone dropped to the floor and started doing crunches. I followed behind them, doing a series of push-ups, lunges, lifting, and short sprints. Their movements were all in sync, like Bally’s Total Fitness times fifty, and all I could hear was the sound of my own lungs gasping for air. Which was fairly noticeable, since no one else was panting. Their shoulders didn’t slouch. Their heads didn’t hang in fatigue. Even their faces looked serene, like they were headed to go skinny-dipping at the beach.

I thought I’d still be in shape with all my previous ballet experience, but halfway into practice I crawled into one of the corners and coughed up yesterday’s grilled cheese sandwiches.

“Have you eaten anything today?” Chris placed a hand on my shoulder.

“No.” I bent back over.

“Listen to me, don’t compare yourself,” he said. “It’s not a competition. That’s not what this is. It’s just you and me. Alright. Do the best you can.”

He sent me upstairs to eat from a fruit bowl he’d made himself earlier. It helped. The spinning in my head stopped and my stomach wasn’t floating anymore. These people really had their game together. I remembered Chris’s advice, to not compare myself, and to focus on being good at my own rate. Which made perfect sense.

When I got back to the session, the gym party was officially over. They were exiting with towels wrapped around their necks. Chris halted at my side.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Better.”

We followed his friends to the indoor swimming pool, which was located on the farthest end of the house next to Missy’s cage. He emphasized the indoor pool was for practicing purposes only, and the outdoor pool was used for our own personal leisure.

The sight of the pool immediately quickened my adrenaline. Swimming was another one of my fortes, next to ballet and tennis. So I was ready to reach in the direction of success, and at least end this day on a high note.

Everyone, except for Chris, started removing their first layer of clothes. As they dove straight into the deep-end and splashed water across my shirt, I eagerly tossed my shoes.

Chris pulled out a chair from the table, and tapped twice on the headrest. “You can relax for now. Have a seat.”

My shoulders slumped. My whole body turned into a question mark. “What? I can do this.”

“I know,” he replied simply. “Just watch for a little while and take some notes. Alright, let’s go!” He turned back around, facing the group.

*

For the next couple of weeks, I memorized their every move, adhering to Chris’s advice and jotting down notes. Watching them excessively from the side-lines did give me some insights into their personalities, based on the fluidity of their movements. Tre was the quick and impulsive one, while Kevin’s moves were more aggressive. Blue was smooth and daring, like a cat with nine lives. When they came together, there was no separation between them, and no way to distinguish the best from the worst; they were simply three bold personalities meshed into one.

Chris never trained with them, so I couldn’t detect his style. I knew he was the boss: simple, direct, and superior. And yet, he was didn’t misuse his boss-power. He was the caretaker and gifted to be in charge.

Ever since he confronted me at the pool, his instruction stayed the same; I stayed in the back seat, while the others took the front line. As a consequence, I started going to the gym alone after nightfall, and practicing without his permission. If he wasn’t going to train me, then I had to at least teach myself on my own time.

Tonight, I followed the same routine. After practicing in the gym, I ended up falling asleep near the warm-up mirrors. At a quarter past five in the morning, I opened my eyes and let out a short muffled yawn, extending my arms. My fingers slid over the edges of my notebook, which rested loosely across my chest.

Having slept on a stack of yoga mats, I stared over the cracks on the top of the ceiling, and continued listening to violin music on my i Pod. In the past, this was the same playlist I’d listen to right before ballet rehearsal.

My body was sore and numb in most places, but I liked waking up in the gym and being the first one here in the morning. This showed how sincere I was about being here.

Even though this was a drastic change from my life in Beverly Hills, I had a few reasons for going along with the dramatic location shift. For one, I was happy to give Carl and Laura the space they needed to enjoy their love life. For two, I could finally properly grieve Dianne without anyone else intervening or projecting.

For three, most of all, Chris was here.

Gratitude took over and replaced every complaint I ever had about anyone. Soon my eyes drifted and grew heavy. Voices emerged from the ceiling as I stood up and shook out my legs, circling the cranks in my neck. It sounded like Kevin and Blue were upstairs already, tossing around plates of food, which was enormously loud. The click-clacking continued. Usually they got here a few minutes before Tre, and did their normal routine like clockwork.

Before they showed up, I carefully rolled up the mat and carried the blue foam under my arm, walking towards the front of the mirror. For a moment, I stared at my lips, rubbing them together. Then something happened – something that should’ve been impossible.

My reflection didn’t move.

The ‘other me’ on the other side of the mirror wasn’t carrying anything, even though my arms were clearly (evidently) full. Her round oval eyes were widely fixed, staring back. I studied the image closer, until her lips moved . . . when mines did not.

“It’s in the water,” she whispered.

I woke up staring at the ceiling. I was still inside the gym where I’d fallen asleep, and lying on the mat, as though my life had rewound itself. Kevin and Blue’s voices neared the basement, and I leaped from the floor, gathering my mat and walking away from the mirrors. As I calmed my nerves, assuring myself it was only a dream and the girl in the mirror didn’t really exist, I realized there was nothing to be afraid of. Last night I must’ve too many bowls of vegetable chili.

Still, the hairs on my neck prickled, and before I had time enough to thoroughly examine what had taken place, Blue and Kevin were entering the gym. Their discussion halted when they saw me scurrying past them, but I was too to caught in my own train of thought to care much about their thoughts or reactions.

I ran down the hallway, straight into the bathroom, and quickly captured the edges of the sink. The dim light was comforting as I stood in front of the mirror, rinsing my face and staring at the large glass in front of me.

“Pull it together.” I patiently waited for the ‘other me’ to reappear. Nothing happened. Some silent moments past, and still, the impossible didn’t occur. My reflection didn’t alter like before, or change into something unfamiliar. As my breathing evened, I realized everything was okay. All I had to do was stand tall, shake off the dust, and go back to practice.

Everyone was already warming up when I walked back inside. At that point, Chris invited me to have a seat on the sidelines (as part of our usual routine). Grabbing my notebook, I sat on the floor in a corner and drew a bunch of triangular shapes. While the others were busy doing their daily run-through, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else except for that girl’s face in the mirror, mocking me, telling me ‘It’s in the water.’

“Pull those elbows in!” Chris ordered.

Blue climbed up the rope effortlessly. As soon as she reached the top of the line, she slid back down, letting her feet kiss the ground. “How bad I do, Coach?” she asked, as if it were possible for her to do a terrible job.

Chris studied the watch and tossed her the timer.

She gawked, and then shoved his arm, like she’d just won the lottery. “No way.” She ran toward the mirrors and started doing the cha-cha, making faces and cheering on her accomplishment.

This was a side of hers I’d never witnessed before. But now she was all in. The glitter in Chris’s eye was priceless, and rightfully so. One of his students just made a record-breaking time, and one she obviously worked hard on getting. There was no denying the excitement they both felt in her moment of triumph.

She jumped onto Kevin’s back. “Woohoo!”

“Hey, let me see that.” Kevin grabbed the timer. “This is serious business.”

Tre hovered behind them. “Nice work, Squirrel Cat.”

“Don’t be a hater, Tre. It makes you look bad,” she joked. “Oops. Forgot. You can’t look any worse.”

Tre rolled his eyes and continued with Kevin toward the indoor pool. After catching up with the others and sitting in my notable green chair Chris pulled out for me on my first day, I held my notebook in one hand and skimmed over notes I’d written.

“Alright, let’s get focused,” Chris watched them gather at the farthest end of the pool. “You know the rules. Stay inside your lane. Watch your arms. Remember, this isn’t a race.”

Kevin winked at Blue, which meant it was a race. For them, it was always a race. “Sure thing, Coach.”

“Got it, Boss,” Tre said.

“We’re ready,” Blue replied.

Chris explained our future assignments would include dodging beams underwater. The pool helped prepare us for that kind of security. Seeing yellow lasers shoot inside the pool wasn’t like seeing glow sticks in the dark. This was the real deal. They were much larger, brighter, and more consequential. And if anyone hit a beam, the line would turn red, and everyone failed the assignment.

Of course that never actually happened. They were such a skillful impeccable group, no one ever actually made those kind of mistakes, like missing the mark. Timing and form were the only things that mattered for Blue, Tre, and Kevin. Each of them swam over these beams so easily, with wide consistent strokes, throwing one arm in front of the other.

Their rhythm was dynamic.

“Keep those chins down!” Chris ordered. “You’re movin’ like molasses, Kevin, let’s go!”

The coach’s jawline flexed in a tight way. I should have been taking notes. Instead, I found myself curling my legs, listening to him give orders. Observing his backside from the corner of the table, I almost melted into a pile of dip in front of everybody. He must’ve heard my thoughts. He peered over his shoulder and grabbed my gaze for a beat longer than usual, pulling us closer in an invisible way.

“That’s enough for now.” He blew the whistle.

“What’s the matter, Coach?” Blue asked, swimming to the edge.

“Yeah, why’d you stop?” Kevin asked.

Chris turned to the others. “I said it’s not a race. If you focus outside your lane, if you take one glimpse off center, that’s it. That’s all it takes. Get out of here. I’m taking a break.”

We expected him to elaborate about his sudden change of mood and explain what prompted such strong emotion. But he stomped toward the exit, leaving the door swinging after him.

Once he was gone, Blue and Kevin started arguing and blaming one another for his calm outburst. Tre over-talked them, as though they were children, as though the outcome was entirely their fault.

I, on the other hand, used the opportunity to learn what was really brewing inside Chris’s mind.

*

Discovering his whereabouts wasn’t a hard feat. As he stood at the top of our main hilltop, scoping the horizon, I sensed he already knew I was coming. This was his usual place to visit whenever he wanted some fresh air and needed to be alone.

His back was turned in my direction, as I treaded up the stony pavement. On any other day, I wouldn’t let him enjoy his aloneness. Giving him space (sometimes) seemed like the right thing to do. However, this time was different.

Without saying a word, I reached for him, almost touching the back of his shirt. There was a moment I imagined my fingers grazing along his arm. I wondered if he could discern my closeness. With my body standing directly behind him, could he hear my heart speeding?

For a few moments, he didn’t move at all. Instead he watched the pear-colored sky with a sense of wonderment. Then he turned around with a smile on his face, staring me down with those alluring brown caves. Slowly, he positioned himself to the ground.

“Have a seat with me, Calise.”

I looked over in the direction of the castle, expecting the others to find us snuggling on the hill. When no one did, I knelt beside him and swallowed the small space between us.

“Hey,” I finally said.

“Do you know what you want?” His question made my hands warm.

“Yes,” I answered. Our exchange at the swimming pool immediately came streaming into my mind. “I respect your role as our coach. I’m really focused on my work, more than ever. I’m a complete professional…as soon as you start training me.”

He grew tense, taking in my words. “How do you like being here?”

“I love it,” I blurted. “I think your friends are really talented.”

For some reason, my confession brought him to tears. He couldn’t stop laughing. “It certainly looks that way. We think you’re really talented too.”

“How can you tell?” I pulled my legs closer, resting my chin across my knees. “I’ve only been sitting down and taking notes most of the time.”

There was long pause before he confessed, “I’ve seen you going to the gym, late at night.”

“Oh.” I turned the other way, biting my lip. “I was going to tell you about that.”

“It’s fine,” he said reassuringly. “Keep doing what you’re doing. I have something coming up soon that’ll whip you right into shape. You have to trust me. I know what’s best for you. I know what’s going to make you really good at this.”

I looked ahead, admiring the lowering sun.

He was right – I had to trust him more. Of course he knew what he was doing. I had to let go and accept the fact I was in good hands, after all.

“There’s a reason you’re watching them,” he continued. “There’s a reason you’ve only trained once. So I can see the kind of person you are.”

“What kind of person is that?”

“Delicate.”

My eyes moistened, taking in his word choice. “You think I’m delicate?”

He sighed deeply, changing the subject. “Aren’t you going to ask me what you’re training for?”

I was able to keep up with his quick change of subject. “You told me you’re a Collector . . . that you go on assignments and retrieve things of high price. I figured you would tell me the rest when you’re ready.”

“Yes,” he admitted, leaning back on his elbows. “We collect very valuable things for important people. I guess you could say we’re basically giving things back to their original owners.”

“What does that do?”

He started explaining himself, but my eyes were glued to the oval shape of his mouth, how it curved slightly despite the fact he wasn’t smiling. At that moment, nothing was more important than being by his side; we hadn’t been this close since our first night together.

“What do you get in return?” I rephrased the question.

“Balance,” he responded. “We keep the balance by helping them get what they want. In return, they help us, by keeping us above the radar, sort of speak. This is what keeps the peace. It keeps the balance between our kind and the outsiders.”

‘Outsiders’ was such a unique term for him to use, I had to pause and consider his point. It must’ve been easy for him to call other people ‘the outsiders’ when he and his crew lived amongst themselves for so much of the time.

“Do you ever keep these collections for yourself?” I suddenly wondered if he’d snatched items for himself. Was he able to afford his lifestyle because of it?

“No,” he clarified sharply. “We don’t steal. We have everything we need here. There’s nothing they could offer us from their world that would be more interesting than ours.”

The last word he spoke sifted oddly between us. There was some special code floating underneath his words, which I was meant to determine. But for the first time since I’d known Chris, I didn’t know the answer. It could’ve been the subtle way he distinguished ‘their world’ from ‘our world’ that made me feel bewildered, like there was more to him than what met the eye.

“What kinds of things do you collect?”

“I’ll show you everything you want to know,” he answered in a mellow tone. “In due time.”

‘I like it here mostly because you’re here,’ was a thought I wanted to confess aloud. Time didn’t allow it.

Chris stood up and stretched his body, extending his palm in front of me. “We should head back before they think I’ve left them for good.” His skin was cold and rough in my hand as he lifted me from the ground. I ran straight into his chest, accidentally this time, and heat rose to my cheeks.

So I walked ahead of him.

I could be a professional if that’s what he wanted. His eyes had been so sincere, so full of certainty that night in Laguna Beach. The windows to his soul had spoken volumes.

Now my heart was wistful, wishing I could rewind my life, back to the night when he almost kissed me.

Chapter Three

Something sounded like a stampede of dinosaurs coming through the window, as I yanked the scarf from my eyes and yawned. Glares from the sun beamed across the room and striped the floor with burgundy lines. I loved getting up for practice in the morning, full of vigor. I always had so much energy to share when my eyes opened again. I could start fresh and anew. Participating in these workouts and being so physically involved was the icing on the cake.

My hands stretched high above my head, strong and glorious. Waking up in other people’s houses was much different from what I’d grown accustomed to over the years. I didn’t even miss my old dungeon hole of a bedroom.

Today I was my day off – OH YES!

Chris said I could take a break and catch up on some good rest. Which I did without retort. Usually whenever I stayed inside the gym, their early intrusions would stir me awake and I’d never miss a practice. But last night, lucky for me, I came to bed right after my workout, instead going to the gym floor and camping out.

As I peered through the window, there was someone downstairs mowing the front yard. They were wearing blue overalls, strap suspenders, a gray cap, and way too far down for their face to be recognized. Whoever it was, they must’ve finished working out already – the screen on my pink i Pod read 2:13.

Even now, I wasn’t accustomed to being without a cell phone. My old one was still at the other house, somewhere between the microwave and the toaster. Laura said I couldn’t carry it to the operetta that night. She insisted my special accessory wouldn’t go well with the dress . . . neither would my palm-sized purse that Dianne designed for me when I was twelve, because she said the purse was ugly.

Needless to say, Chris bought me a brand new everything, so I didn’t have to take a step backwards in order to move forwards.

Tying on the scarlet scarf onto my head, I ran swiftly down the labyrinth and managed to find the front staircase, which still smelled of fresh tangerines, just as Chris and Kevin came through the front door with bags of groceries under their arms.

“Hey.” I scurried behind them.

Kevin made his way toward the kitchen, slicking his hair back between his fingers, or more like his mo hawk braid. Chris slowed down beside me. Then he paused in his tracks and stared down at my head curiously, as though it were a bushel caught on fire. “We missed you today,” he confessed.

My mind circled around our last conversation. “Really? I thought you said I could have the morning off.”

“I know. We still missed you.”

For a moment, we caught each other’s gaze. He was unabashed and unpredictable. “Is there something I can do, like an exercise or something? I know its my day off.” I asked. “I don’t mind.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.”

When we entered the kitchen, Kevin was already putting some of the food away, happily whistling to an unfamiliar song that was playing only inside of his head.

“Walking might be a good idea,” Chris replied, handing me a box of water bottles. “There’s still enough light outside. You can go to the town shop and see what they have. You’ll have to walk fast.”

“Yeah, she could pick up some scissors for me,” Kevin added his two cents. “I forgot to get a pair.”

While Kevin was going on about a pair of scissors, I couldn’t help think about dinner and the wonderful food we were about to eat when I returned.

“We forgot a couple of things,” Chris added. “I’ll make a list for you.” They continued putting things in the cupboards, and Chris finally handed me the paper with five items listed. “This walk is equivalent to our warm up today. Even though you didn’t technically miss anything, it could help you make up for the exercise.”

Kevin gave a short dark laugh and added, “Might take more than that . . .”

I shelved more bottles of water into the refrigerator, focusing on the task at hand. I wasn’t going to let his comment distract me from the real reason I was here.

“Cold water’s no good, Calise.” Chris cued for Kevin to arrange the bottles instead of myself. So before I could blink, Kevin was already at my side, snatching the box out of my grip.

“I got this,” he said.

Just then I noticed the line of piercings on his left ear and the tattoo on his forearm, and I knew he didn’t take himself lightly. The tattoo on his front right shoulder was another spade, like the one knitted on the scarf, which reminded me that everyone else in this house had one, except for me.

“How far is town?” I finally asked.

Chris balled the bags together, tossing them under the sink. “Five miles.”

Five miles. That was no big deal. I knew these guys were in shape and probably drank a thousand eggs for breakfast.

“I’ll go now then,” I replied coolly, loosening my shoulders. Sure I was the newest member here, but they were about to find out the truth about me: when it came to physical activities, I was a force to reckon with. I could handle their walk-a-thon.

“Alright,” he replied, studying me closely. “One more thing.” He grabbed a vitamin case from the cupboard. My name was written on the bottom. “Here are some basic supplements for you to take,” he added. “All of us have them. We get different vitamins based on our personal requirements. Once you get more familiar with your body’s needs, you can adjust them accordingly, and do whatever you feel is best.”

I tapped a vitamin on my tongue and took it down with water. As Chris started sketching a road-map on a piece of paper, I realized the path was simply made: one road, one direction. I couldn’t get lost on this route if I tried.

“There you are,” he said in a low voice, handing me the paper. A hundred dollar bill was wrapped inside.

“Thanks. I should probably get going now.” I waited a few beats for him to say something else. When he didn’t, I stuffed the money inside my back pocket, along with the map, and marched right out of the kitchen towards the front door, running straight into Blue. She was dressed in ragged overalls and a tattered gray cap. She’d been the one mowing the lawn only moments ago; the person I’d seen from the attic window.

“Hey,” I said without thinking. She kept walking towards the kitchen, until she saw the red scarf on my head and spun around like an owl, with great big eyes.

“Oh my God.” she gasped reverently. “Where’d you get that?” she asked simply, holding her hips.

“Uh mm . . .”

Suddenly Kevin emerged from the corner and motioned behind us, easing his way in Blue’s direction. “There’s my girl!”

“Look, Kevin!” she exclaimed with her eyes blazing over my head. “She’s wearing that girl’s scarf.”

“What are you talking about? I found this in the attic upstairs,” I answered. “No one’s name was on it.”

Chris appeared on the scene in his warrior splendor, owning the situation. “Everything alright in here?” He leaned against the wall, folding his arms.

It was the first time Blue took her attention off of me. She looked up at his figure, meeting his gaze, which instantly eased the course of her excitement. There seemed to be an unspoken volume happening between them, because she suddenly became perfectly calm. “No problems here, Boss,” she finally answered.

“We were just leaving,” Kevin added reassuringly, doing his best to settle her down. He then attempted to move his girlfriend towards the living room. She wasn’t budging so easily. “Right, B?” Kevin whispered in her ear again, fishing for her full cooperation. “Come on, let’s go.”

Finally they both turned the corner and disappeared like shadows behind the wall without saying another word. A funeral-like silence suspended in the atmosphere as I stood with my hands on my hip, trying to summons the right explanation for what just happened.

“Are you alright?” Chris asked.

I nearly laughed at the question. “Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t know this scarf was going to be such a big deal for her.”

Chris bit down on his lip. “It used to belong to an old friend. That’s all. But that friend isn’t here anymore.” His explanation was good enough for me, at least for the time being. “You can wear it as long as you want.”

“Cool, thanks. I’ll be back later,” I replied and walked out, shutting the door behind me.

Now that I was outside, I started contemplating if Chris meant five miles altogether, or five miles each way. He must’ve meant five miles altogether. He wouldn’t have made an estimate and said there was enough light outside if he knew I’d get stuck in the dark.

All I had to do was walk fast, follow his directions, and not get lost in the woods. I’d make it back here in time for dinner – I think he was cooking tonight; he usually did.

On the bright side, I was in the middle of nowhere with no parents around to tell me what to do, when to come home, and who to go to the movies with. Starting over was actually the best part of being here. I could draw my own painting. This new life was a blank canvas, full of possibility, and the outcome would be whatever I wanted it to be. No more past memories to sulk over. No more pressure from Laura. Or anyone else to be something I wasn’t. She wanted me to be exactly like her, throwing fancy tea parties in the yard and shopping at the most expensive stores in Beverly Hills, only to hear the sound of Carl’s credit card swiping a machine. She demanded I call her ‘mom’ as long as I stayed under their roof, since (according to her) it was their home and not mine.

Here, I had my own voice. I was as free as the birds.

Rays from the sun glared as I motioned forward, listening to a violin play through my I Pod. The heat now was overbearing, pulsating across the dirt trail. I kicked rocks to the side with my foot’s heel, trying to keep occupied, and I could already feel my shirt soaking from the inside out.

Already, it was almost five o’clock. I’d been walking through this scorching hurricane for at least two hours. I guess Chris meant five miles each way. If I’d known the journey was going to be of this nature, I would’ve snatched up one of those water bottles before heading out.

Looking upwards, I noticed the leaves were waving their noses in my direction, as I curled a finger around one of the branches, savoring the moment; I might as well enjoy Mother Nature for a little while, without any headphones.

It didn’t take long for a high ringing to start going off inside my head. The buzzing was a quick sputtering, like a low hum rattling behind my eye lids. I paused in my tracks and took immediate shelter in the shade. Even shade didn’t slow down the palpitation.

While steadying myself on the trail, another strange noise erupted. Girl’s laughter rippled through the atmosphere. “Hello? Who’s there?” I turned around.

Searching around the empty forest, I didn’t feel alone. Something with incredible speed was moving swiftly at my side, and as soon as I looked over to check on its proximity, there were only more and more overlapping trees. The tall stalks of bark seemed to stare down at me with an understanding nod, like they could sense this same odd activity.

“Okay, time to go.” I stomped down the road while the enormous heat sunk into my surroundings.

It didn’t take long to reach my destination. I found the supply store indicated on the map, and quickly dragged myself inside, listening to a cluster of bells jingle overhead. Stacks of machinery smelled like old rubber, and the potent scent of oil suffocated the walls. I wanted to forget the whole thing and turn back around to the house, empty-handed and safe. I could always come again tomorrow morning when the sun was first coming up. But that didn’t happen. Someone grunted from behind the counter and disturbed this train of thought.

“Can I help you?” a young man asked. His arms were stretched above him like he’d been in the middle of some great dream, and I’d interrupted his sleep.

Approaching him, I replied, “I need everything here on this list.”

He yawned and twitched his nose, sizing me up. Then he took the slip of paper and read the items, which was when I realized he didn’t have a shirt on. His bird chest was tanned and thin underneath his farmer overalls and silver suspenders. He smiled hugely, slicking his hair back and rubbing his stomach. The grin he gave me was crooked, and if it weren’t for his sandy hair sticking half to the side from sleeping on the job, he’d be an undeniable cutie. He wasn’t wearing shoes. His feet were mostly covered in soot marks. He probably smelled exactly like the shop.

The moment he neared a pile of equipment at the farthest end of the store, moving slower than a snail in salt, and I followed him, watching and waiting as he fumbled through the tangled cords. Listening to my foot tap the floor was a great way to keep my mind occupied on something else other than the heat.

Finally, he found the five items on the list and charged me ninety-two dollars. “Ohhhk. Here we are. There you go. All set.” The look of triumph spread across his face.

Knowing full well I was being overcharged, I handed him a hundred-dollar bill anyway and slapped it on the counter. “Keep the change.”

His smile softened. “You must be new around here.”

“Is it that obvious?” I looked over my shoulder at the door’s entrance. “You wouldn’t believe it. I walked five miles and didn’t bring something cold to drink. Do you have any water?”

His eyes widened. “Yeah, sure. I think I should have something. Let me check,” he replied, walking to the mini-fridge behind the counter. He returned with a cold bottle of water and handed it to me. “That’s a nice scarf you’re wearing, by the way. Another girl had one like it. There was a spade in the middle like yours, and it was the same color, too. Come to think of it, you look like her.”

I nodded and leaned in. This scarf was getting more attention than Charlie Sheen. “Do you remember her name?”

“Sorry. That was a while ago,” he admitted.

“It’s my first time in Ohio.”

He took a breath and sighed. “I know everybody in this town. I would’ve recognized if you’d been here before. Besides, I know you’re not that same girl – she’d be a bit older than you. But I remember she was real pretty. You can count on me to never forget a pretty face.” He winked. “Have a good day, Miss. Try to get home before the sun goes down.”

I realized I wanted to talk to him longer, and find out more about this girl who looked like me. But there was much time left for conversation. I continued out the door and waved. There was a hazy gleam lowering over the parking lot, forming shadows on the street. It suddenly dawned on me, I’d be walking in the dark woods alone. Chris warned me this would happen if I didn’t walk fast enough. There wasn’t enough light outside to go on a ten-mile walk; there was barely enough to finish five. Now the only thing left on the horizon was a strand of orange blanketing the clouds.

Following the distorted pavement, I marched on the road without streetlights and drew in a strong breath. There was still enough time to ask shop-boy to give me a ride, but I wasn’t sure how Chris would react to me bringing an unannounced visitor to his secret hideaway castle and playing hostess to some guy he didn’t know.

I’d take my chances walking.

Just as my mind was full of certainty, two headlights approached. It looked like the . . .

“Woo! Yes!” I nearly leaped out of my skin. Life was on my side. All the mental images of bears and wildlife quickly evaporated into thin air as the van wobbled in my direction and halted at my feet.

“Get in.” Tre tapped on the wheel, staring me up and down with his cool black shades on. He then flipped his phone open, and answered, “Hey. Yeah, I got her.”

I wanted to ask him if Chris was one he was talking to on the other line, but I knew it must’ve been him, otherwise Tre wouldn’t have known where to find me. Chris must’ve saw it was getting dark outside and requested for Tre to do the handy work.

I naturally wanted to thank Tre for his act of kindness, but before I could get the words out, he turned up the radio so loud, he drowned out any hope of us having intelligent dialogue.

So I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

In a matter of minutes we were parked in front of the mansion. By this time, it was dark enough I almost missed the outline of leafage looming over the driveway. They looked more like black blotches sealing the night. Even the moon was fuller, striping the sides of the roof with pastel lines and showing its elegant glow.

The aroma of cooked peppers filled my nostrils the moment we walked inside, reminding me I hadn’t eaten all day. As Tre shuffled upstairs, I made my way toward the kitchen with only one thing in mind – food. The rest of the house was undisturbed. The counters were spotless, except for a bowl at the center of the table, wrapped in aluminum foil. I peeled it back and found white rice mixed with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, and bell peppers. Chris had obviously made dinner, and saved a small portion for my tasting. It was nice coming back and finding I’d been remembered.

Afterwards, I made my way back to the attic and heard low mumblings coming from the end of the hall. They were barely audible at first, but I managed to follow them to the last room on the left. Checking both ends of the hall, I laid my ear against the door and found Blue sitting on top of the bed with her arms folded.

“Can you believe he put her in the attic? I could literally scream. He never brings anyone to this house, let alone the attic. He could’ve put her in the other room or something, and he didn’t.”

“Why are you so shocked?” He asked the question, even though his mind was already made. “He likes her. So what. That’s the main reason he’s not going to take her to a room where the furnace is busted so she could freeze to death. He’s thinking with his feelings, if you know what I mean.”

“That’s not the point, Kevin” she said. “I’m shocked because she’s wearing Jennifer’s scarf and he doesn’t care she has it on. It’s not weird to him. Did you see the way he reacted downstairs? It’s like he wanted her to have it on. He was so happy to see her. Both of them . . . in their web of bliss. We don’t even exist to Chris anymore.”

“Get over it.” Kevin snickered. “You heard what Chris said; this girl is one of us now. She is supposed to be here,” he added.

“Yeah, I heard what he said,” she agreed. “She’ll be one of us at some point,” Blue admitted nonchalantly. “She’s becoming. And based on Chris’s reaction tonight, I’m almost certain she’s the one we’ve been waiting for.”

“Now you’re talkin,” Kevin added. “That’s about the smartest thing you’ve said all night.”

When they stopped talking, I slunk away from the almost invisible crevice and quickly pounced to the other side of the house. Perfect. Early for what? I wondered. What exactly did Blue mean when she said I hadn’t ‘turned yet?’ Was this some kind of secret way of saying I wasn’t an official member until I had my first mission?

What did they mean when they said, I was the one they’d been waiting for?

What was up with the attic anyway? Even Chris looked at it strangely when he first took me up there, like the room had a life of its own. Its very stature seemed to liven up his spirits.

His choice to put them there made perfect sense. If the other rooms were taken up, and the other one was without a furnace, then the attic was the only one place for me to stay. Of course Chris would put me there. Anyone with a good bit of sense would’ve done the same thing.

However, I didn’t mind the accusations. Our deep feelings for each other probably did make us appear as though we were living in our own world. Which was true, and perfectly okay with me.

As I started heading back toward the garret, there weren’t any rooms along the corridor on my way to the attic. Cobwebs collected and weaved in sharp corners. Strings of them draped from the ceiling and made cryptic designs. Wedges in the floor made me stumble more than once, and this time I wasn’t doing it on purpose. The ends of the hall were a lit by artificial candles as I curved the last corner.

“Is someone there?” I paused, peering over my shoulder.

Had Blue followed me up here to talk me some more about the scarf? But when I turned around, no one was there. Still, I wanted to run into Chris’s bedroom and crawl into his king sized bed and dive into his arms.

Something was up with this house.

Ever since we’d pulled into this driveway, peculiar things had been happening.

An invisible girl laughed in the woods. To top everything off, the boy at the shop said I looked exactly like a girl who wore a red scarf like this one a long time ago. She’d be older by now.

These weren’t random coincidences. Someone used to stay in the attic. Her initials were J.E. And I was starting to think this girl I’d never met had something important to say.

Chapter Four

Half of my luggage consisted of pretty womanly things. The other half were punk rock outfits I snatched off the rack to fill up my bags with anti-color. Lately, I’d been in the mood for something earthy and sensual, like this new black sweater with hearts on the collar. I gathered silk dresses from the satchel, stuffing them into the closet and making a mental note to wear one for Chris, so he could see my lady-like side. I definitely didn’t need a skirt to train in. But now it was my day off, I had an excuse.

Rummaging through my luggage, I remembered the night he handed me these suitcases. Throwing on tights and my excellent black sweater, I pulled my hair into a bun and headed out. Strands of my hair were still damp from last night’s bath, with the scent of apricot shampoo tangled on the ends. Dianne shared that secret years ago when I was still learning about the birds and the bees; there was something undeniably attractive about a woman with fruit on her skin. Hopefully Chris would notice. Apricot shampoo did wonders, and I’d missed him.

The thought of soggy Fruit Loops had me racing toward the kitchen. Chris was already there, leaning against the counter, wearing his usual black sports gear. He was also drinking a tall glass of something, which strongly resembled a green leaf milkshake. As I slid onto one of the stools, folding my hands together, I stared over the sliced vegetables.

“Hey.” I sat on one of the stools and glimpsed over the finished product.

He rinsed off a glass, placing it in the cupboard. “How was your night?”

Besides hearing a girl laughing on a dirt trail, running away from an invisible something in the hallway, and living in J.E.‘s attic. “Really good,” I replied, seeing the bright side. “Thanks for having Tre pick me up last night. If you hadn’t helped out, I probably would’ve gotten here really late.”

“Do you want some?” he asked, pointing to the blender.

Browsing over the celery sticks, I replied, “Um, yeah, I’ll try it out. Looks very green-ish. Do you have any . . .” I paused and smiled. “Do you have any bacon around? I mean, avocados. I love avocados. By the way, your food was really good last night. It was perfect.”

He held back a very attractive grin. “That’s good. I’m glad you liked it,” he said, turning towards the sink. “You can relax today, Calise. The rest of us have a meeting in about an hour. Do you think you’ll need anything before we go?”

The fact that Chris was leaving me here alone in his house, was an honor, and an unexpected adventure. He was trusting me to overlook their things, and I was willing to show him I was ready to be service.

“I’ll be fine,” I replied simply. “Don’t worry about me. What’s this meeting for?”

“Just some inside business,” he replied. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” There were some rings around his eyes, most likely from a rare lack of sleep. “That’s a nice sweater you’re wearing,” he added seemingly unaware of my giddiness. “I’ve never seen you in it.”

“Oh.” My smile stretched far and wide. “This old thing. Actually, it’s not that old. I bought it not too long ago. Thanks. Anyways, yeah, I can stay here. It’ll give me a chance to get to know Missy. She’s in her cage right?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Don’t worry about feeding her or taking her out. She’s already eaten.”

“Fantastic. That’s fine with me.”

 

He grinned. “Perfect,” he added and leaned back.

“I’m glad you’re a health nut,” I admitted. “I’d always wanted to hire a (hot) guy person as my nutritionist but never got around to it.”

He studied a moment and asked, “Did you really ask where’s the bacon?”

I blushed. “I was just kidding.”

While removing the lid from the blender, an amused smile twisted over his lips. “We don’t eat meat this time of year. But there’s some other food in the fridge if you want breakfast. Lots of avocados.”

“Okay.” I spotted cereal on top of the refrigerator and reached my arms to the rim. Needless to say, my scrawny fingers couldn’t reach. “This is my thing right here.”

“Do you need help?” Chris beat me to the punch, grabbing the box of Fruit Loops and planting breakfast on the counter.

“Don’t worry about me.” I opened the bag. “I’ll be fine. I might even watch some television and catch up on the good shows.”

He shook his head, as though he were possibly happy with his decision to bring me here. “There’s something I want to show you later on, when we get back. I’ve been meaning to show it to you, but haven’t gotten around to it.”

“Cool. I’ll be here.”

He leaned forward and grabbed a bowl from the shelf, setting it beside the cereal box. This time when he hovered, it felt like he was purposely trapping me against the counter. I didn’t know if he had any intentions for doing this, but my mind raced with him so close behind me.

“Is there anything else I should do to prepare for tomorrow?” I asked, and a lump formed in my throat as I slowly turned to him.

“Just relax.”

As I faced him, I could feel my lips parting. Even with his face drained and weary, I wanted to touch him. I wanted to . . .

“Hey, Boss.”

. . . jump out of my skin when Kevin popped up out of nowhere, heading straight to the refrigerator. Where the heck did he come from? I didn’t even see him walk into the kitchen. I suddenly wondered how long he’d been standing there, and if he saw anything at all, like Chris fencing me against the counter. He probably saw the whole showdown. Now he was looking between us weird, like he’d caught his daddy kissing Mrs. Santa Claus.

Blue quickly rushed over and sat in one of the chairs, grabbing a pear from the basket and bringing it to her mouth. “Morning, Boss.”

Chris strolled beside them. “Good morning, Kevin, Blue.”

“Tre takes forever.” Blue rubbed her forehead. “Can’t we just leave without him? He always does this every time, and we’re always late.”

“Slow your roll, B.” Tre swung around the corner. “You know I’m always on time, Girl.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah right. Lateness is your eternal companion, Tre.”

Tre was wearing a jersey, heavy blue jeans, and a cherry cap with NYC on the flap. Red was a good choice for him, since it brought out his brown complexion.

“You can’t rush perfection,” he added and gave Chris a quick nod. “I’m ready, Boss.”

“See what I mean? It’s always when he’s ready. Never at the right appropriate time,” Blue complained, rising from her seat.

Kevin laughed and shook his head, leading Blue out the kitchen by her waist.

When Chris didn’t move, I drew near his side. He waited for the front door to shut before he pulled out a mobile gadget from his back pocket.

“This is for you.” The device was petite, upscale, and definitely not sold in stores. “My number’s stored in there for emergencies. This shouldn’t be used to call friends or your family, or for them to call you. If you want to speak to anyone, tell me. I’ll let you use the phone in my office.”

“I thought I wasn’t allowed to call my family?”

The look he gave me was quizzical, as though I’d told him something funny. “You can do whatever you want,” he clarified “It’s up to you how close you want to be with your parents.”

I nodded and looked down. The gadget he’d given me was a small, square box with nothing but a green button on the front. “How am I supposed to use this? I can’t see any of the numbers.”

He pressed the button and watched the square box turn into a regular cell phone. I didn’t know how to feel about getting permission to call my parents. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to call them at all. “Thank you for this.”

Staring down at his watch, he responded, “We’ll be back later. If something comes up, don’t be afraid to call. Also try to stay out of things,” he added, pulling the door behind him, as though he knew I planned on going through his things.

From the curtain’s edge, I watched him press against the gusts of wind and climb into the passenger’s seat next to Kevin. They spun out of the driveway in a hurry, swerving and going about their way. In the same breath, I turned around and listened to the forceful breeze whipping in all directions, making the house creak and groan. Evergreens swayed and crashed into each other.

A foggy mist blocked out the sun. I’d been looking forward to spending some leisure time with Chris, but the meeting came up, a meeting I hadn’t been invited to, and I was fine with it. The pretty black sweater was worn by me for less than ten minutes. No one was here long enough to notice the cool violet hearts on the collar, except for him.

Chris did notice. Which was more than enough to make me smile again. The apricot shampoo had worked. This was definitely something to be grateful for.

“Thank you, Mom.”

As I held my arms and rubbed them, I figured being alone would be most useful tonight. On the bright side, it was an opportune time to investigate. I wanted to revisit the portrait in Chris’s bedroom and find out why that interesting face kept popping up in my head, reappearing like an unending daydream.

But when I got to his room, the double doors were locked. A small device was cleverly camouflaged in the lumber of the door, a sort of electronic pad that required a pass code. I bit my lip. There were too many storage facilities and too many banks in America for someone’s room to be bolted up like this.

If something was that valuable, it should’ve been placed in a facility that specialized in locking things up, not systematically buried in his bedroom. Leaving the hall, I wanted to laugh at his request for me to ‘stay out of things’ as though I had any choice in the matter; he’d already made certain I couldn’t get inside his room. For now.

There were six rooms altogether, including the attic. I tried opening the other four rooms, but they were locked as well. There went my quest. At least they didn’t have an Inspector Gadget system like the one guarding Chris’s bedroom.

By the end of the day, I ended up treating myself to more cereal and a warm bath, wrapping the scarf around my head and soaking in the tub. Warm salts swirled around my body, melting away the accumulating thoughts. Foam kissed my chin as I stared back at my reflection in the tub’s chrome trim. This time, when I exhaled, it was deeper than usual. The tub could’ve swallowed me into oblivion, and I would’ve enjoyed the water engulfing me.

My string of consciousness glided into another world.

Sliding underwater, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of liquid filling my ears. Flashbacks from the the musical streamed across my mind. Within moments of being under, I could see the woman’s performance again. She had the entire audience spellbound with her riveting song, and it seeped into the core of me. Her voice climbed higher. Since the operetta originated in Italy and the cast spoke little English, her words were difficult to understand. But I comprehended beauty. This song was a rare gem, lifting me above the crowd and awakening my spirits.

Moments later, the flashback was over. I climbed out of the tub and grabbed a towel from the sink, wiping the mist from the mirror. My appearance was the same as it’d been yesterday, except there was a peculiar quality in my face; a slight glow lurked beneath my skin, making it almost transparent. There was also a strange mark on my top left shoulder, which I outlined with one finger, trying to remember if I’d bumped into anything that would cause the skin to break. But there was nothing; not even soreness to give it away.

After putting on black sweats and a t-shirt, I realized the door was cracked open, and I hadn’t unlocked it. Before I could think much about this occurrence, I hung the towel onto the door’s hanger and walked over into the hall. The attic door was closed, and my gaze narrowed to a trail of shoe prints on the ground.

“Who’s here?” I held the door and searched each end of the hall for a response.

Their stained prints led me straight down the eventful labyrinth. As I followed them closely, I listened to the wood groan beneath my feet. I realized being fully alert was a natural consequence of being inside such a colorful environment.

Thumping echoed from downstairs and vibrated against the walls. As they grew louder, it sounded like someone was pacing across the entrance. I reminded myself to take slow, steady breaths.

Turning the corner, I peeked through the large main hall. The door was open, and flapping against the wall; it’d been responsible for making the thumping noise. Once I turned around and saw the shoe prints were gone, I was led to believe I had imagined them. While seeking to find the marks that I’d been following from the bathroom, I ended up searching every room in the house. Sure enough, the prints disappeared. This house had a mind of its own, just like the attic.

Here I was, being welcomed by some strange apparition in an attrited mansion. Here I was, being trained to be a professional Collector . . . with this unidentified force hovering my trail. Something (or someone) was out there, watching me, waiting for the perfect time to make a move. I wasn’t wrong. I could tell by the way my neck hairs stood on end.

And yet, the logical part of my brain was convinced this was nothing but mere excitement, coming from the roaring winds which were pounding against the rooftop. That would explain the shoe print hallucination. I wanted to believe that more than I wanted to believe the shoe prints evaporated into thin air. Either way, I raced to the door with the intent of shutting it.

Instead of sealing the door, I took a breath of fresh air. The wind was harsher than it looked and blew me halfway down the steps. I ended up traveling across the driveway and getting a better view of the sky. Clouds of mist fused together and looked like the beginning of a tropical storm.

Right then, I made a hopeful plea that Chris and his friends would be okay out there, driving around in this kind of weather.

As I headed back inside, the scarf whirled above my head, circling and forming a mini twister. The draft carried it higher, out my reach, and I leaped up, almost snagging it between my fingers. Then the cloth escaped my grip, soaring into the forest.

“Great.”

Treading across loose gravel, I noticed there was a tunnel-like area on the path where foliage thrashed. Dust whirled and made a transparent screen. My foot crushed over sticks as I tried to find where the scarf had gone. That’s when I saw it lying on some boscage.

Taking a deep breath and dashing onto the open passageway, I quickly snatched the scarf from the shrubbery and wrapped it twice around my wrist. That’s when the murmurs began to take their course. Passing winds started sounding less like drums, and more like gentle whispers calling my name.

Calise . . .

Chapter Five

Music thundered. The smell of cinnamon woke me up. I was on the couch with one leg hanging from the edge and a comforter over my face; one I didn’t put there. This was enough to send me flying off the sofa. What the heck? Where’d the green-checkered quilt come from?

In one gigantic leap, I pulled the curtain back and saw the van was missing. The others weren’t back yet from the meeting, and couldn’t have turned on the radio or placed this blanket on top of me while I was asleep.

The antique clock above the television read twenty minutes passed noon. Hours passed since Chris and the others left me here with the double – 07 cell phone and the house full of personality. I remembered taking a bath and following the non-existent footsteps down the stairwell, chasing the red scarf into the woods and finding an mesmerizing cocoon along the road, only to discover the trail was watching me. An unseen force had been there, for sure, holding my legs down.

Then I came back here, grabbed my favorite novel and got comfortable on the sofa, in order to get my mind off things. I ended up reading myself to sleep. After wiping my eyes and sitting on the edge of the coffee table, I knew this wasn’t a dream. The book I’d started reading earlier was face-down on the floor, worn and curled around the edges. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which I proudly read more than eleven times, served as my tranquility in the passing storm.

Despite the van being gone, I felt someone was here in the house. And yet, I didn’t have much time to ponder who. The warm scent of cinnamon drew me down the hallway. Round fluffy cinnamon rolls awaited on a crystal platter, along with slices of bacon at their sides. I got right down to business, chewing on two strips at a time, until I realized what it wasn’t. I spit the gunk back out onto the plate. This looked like bacon and smelled like bacon. But this was not real bacon.

“What the heck are these people eating? PlayDoh?” I remembered Chris mentioning they didn’t eat meat this time of year. So what the heck was in my mouth? At least the rolls were edible, except for the frosting, which tasted like rubber goo from a sugar-free cookbook. “Geesh.”

I motioned towards the patio as a gentle waft passed through the curtains. The lights inside the pool dazzled through the surface, and rap music blared through the speakers. Tre was sitting at the poolside with his feet dangling in the water, talking on the phone. He didn’t seem to notice me standing there, because he was so excited about whatever topic they were discussing. There wasn’t any sign of Chris around. He must’ve dropped them off while I was asleep, and then headed back out to run errands. It would explain the van being gone. I also had a hard time wrapping my brain around Tre, Kevin, or Blue making a huge breakfast.

Later on when nightfall approached, I eventually changed clothes and returned downstairs. The music was off and the house was calmer now that the storm passed. My book was still on the floor near the couch, and when I went to pick it up, I could sense someone in my peripheral. Chris was in the entranceway with his head titled against the wall, wearing an open flannel shirt and rugged blue jeans.

He was most fine.

“When did you get back?” I asked.

This time, the black circles around his eyes were gone, and there was no trail left behind to be remembered. “I’ve been here,” he uttered. “Our meeting was shorter than expected, so we came back early. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You don’t startle me.”

“Do you like chocolate ice cream?” He waved a large carton.

I examined the treat and clasped my book shut. “Sure.”

I wanted to add, ice cream would perfectly take my mind off of the disappearing shoe prints I’d seen on the staircase and the whispers I’d heard in the woods, which I’d already vowed not to tell him about. I was here to be at his side, and to be a Collector. That’s it. That was my focus.

Making our way toward the kitchen, he noticed the book in my hand. “What are you reading?”

I revealed the front cover.

“Oh yes. I heard of that one,” he said enthusiastically. “How is it for you?”

“Only extraordinary.”

There was a comfortable silence between us as we entered the kitchen side by side. I pulled out a stool from the farthest end of the counter and watched him take down two bowls from the shelf.

“I like your tattoo,” I complimented the unusual dark inked shape. It was the same spade I’d found on Kevin’s arm. “What does the spade mean exactly?”

He didn’t answer right away, but served three scoops of ice cream into each bowl and brought the final serving to his mouth.

“I thought sugar wasn’t allowed,” I reminded him, openly recounting the time Tre threw my candy bar out of the window.

“It’s organic.”

“Cheater,” I joked. “Are your friends still here? I saw Tre hanging out by the pool earlier.”

He nodded and replied, “Yeah, they’re upstairs. You were asleep when we got here this morning. . . I didn’t want to wake you up, so I brought down one of my comforters.”

The thought of his gesture made me turn away to stare at the elegant vase of flowers on the table. “Thanks. I’m glad it was you and not some psycho ghost trying to scare me,” I joked again, even more easily this time.

“Ha.”

“I didn’t see the van outside.”

He peered over his shoulder. “Sometimes we park on the side of the house,” he replied. “It depends on who’s driving. Was everything alright here? Leaving you alone wasn’t on my to-do list.”

Shaking my head, I responded, “Yeah, it was fine. I was perfectly alone and incapable of meddling.”

“Missy didn’t escape her cage?”

I shook my head. “No.”

He watched me, taking me in. “What else did you do while we were gone? Besides read your book?” he asked.

“That’s it,” I confessed, circling my spoon. “There wasn’t much to choose from. Everything’s bolted up like a safe house.”

He laughed whole-heartedly. “I’ll be sure to leave everything unbolted the next time.”

Chris’s humor was dynamic enough to be on stage. “What’d you expect?” I asked. “There wasn’t a car to drive around. It’s not like I can go anywhere or call anybody.”

A simple squint captured the rest of his face. “You could’ve gone to the gym and practiced. Didn’t you say you used to be a gymnast?”

“Ballet.” The way he remembered the smallest of details about my life, was leading me to believe he was a properly nurtured socialite. “Wow, I did tell you everything. It’s true. When I was younger, Dianne signed me up for ballet classes. I was really into it when I was twelve. After she died, I stopped going altogether. Which was excellent news for Carl. Since he declared it was unladylike for a girl to be able to do the splits, or lift her legs in the air.”

Chris was amused by my old talent. “I think it’s very ladylike. It’s good to have that kind of experience under your belt in this line of work.”

I grinned at his acute forwardness. “I don’t know how useful it’s going to be for me now. You’ve seen me. Just a delicate blob of goo,” I teased and repeated, “Delicate. Delicate.”

He nodded reassuringly. “Give it some time. It’ll kick in.” With that motivational boost, he stood up from the stool and continued towards the living room. “Come on, I want to show you something.”

“Only if it has to do with lock-picking.” I said jokingly, batting my eyes and hoping he’d catch wind. “I’m kidding.”

“I think you’ll like this better,” he said.

Without hesitation, I jumped from the stool and trailed behind him at an even distance, ready to see what he had in store. If he had something cooler than jacking locks, I was eager to see what he was talking about. He obviously wanted to show me something cool, and I liked seeing cool things. Whether it was a pet beetle or a hidden burial ground; it didn’t matter one iota, as long as we were doing things together.

He led us toward another room below the basement. I didn’t know what to expect crossing into the storage room. The space was full of tools, worn out tires, and smells that reminded me of the old town shop, along with the boy who worked there.

Everything else was lined up along the wall and neatly stacked into piles. Trampling across, we came face-to-face with a door that had a security pad. It resembled the one on Chris’s bedroom. I was starting to think maybe he had a lock on his pillow as well. So far, he was meticulous about how he wanted his environment.

“The house locks on its own whenever we leave,” he finally said as though he knew what my mind was saying. “It’s an automatic trigger. Just so you know. It’s nothing personal.”

“Oh.” That was good news. Their regular routine was normal, and their house locked on itself (so-to-speak) whenever they left for errands, and apparently had nothing to do with me personally being here. “Great.”

He paused in front of the door and signaled for me to turn around so he could type in his oh-so-private password. Finally, the door snapped open. “Watch your step,” he said, following slightly behind me.

I walked over the ledge and continued down the corridor. When we reached the end of the hall, the extended room was a plethora of colorful lights glistening in four corners, flickering against the walls.

“What’s all this?”

He wandered to a luminous area. “Have a look.”

In each corner, there was a unique pile of diamonds. I couldn’t help following the rainbow of colors emitting from every side. “Can I touch them?”

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

My jaw dropped. I’d seen a lot of money in my day, lots of nice cars and jewelry, and I knew from experience having money wasn’t everything life could offer. It was a nice accessory. And yet, it was something about holding these many diamonds in my hand and seeing those stones glitter all around, all at once. It took my breath away.

Looking around, I saw another larger crystal sitting on an isolated stand in the center of the room, shielded in glass. By this time, Chris reappeared from the darkness and carefully removed the shell. The glow from the crystal shot upwards.

“Is this yours??

“Yeah, most of it,” he answered and crouched to the floor. “Some of it is for our clients.

“That’s right,” I said. “We collect things and return them to their original owner.

He smiled. “They pay us well for getting the job done.”

I slid my fingers across the sparkling glass. “Are diamonds the only things you collect?”

He shook his head. “Diamonds aren’t as valuable as they look. Not really,” he explained. “Sometimes we take gold, or paintings. Other times we take suitcases of – ”

“Money,” I finished the line for him. “Who gets to make all these rules? I mean, who gets to decide what missions you go on with these important people?”

He looked up, studying my face. “We have a certain ingrained order here. In this house, I’m in charge of running it. Everyone gets to do a special task. Once or twice a year we’ll go on an assignment as a group.” His explanation was thorough and clear. “Do you remember the first night we met?”

I nodded.

“After the show we talked for a while,” he continued. “I told you about the stash I’d taken from a guarded room. Well, here they are,” he confessed, instantly pointing to a large stack of lovely sparkling gems, which were as much beautiful as they were entrancing. “That’s when I saw you there,” he admitted again. “I would’ve left sooner. I could’ve made it out without you noticing. There was even a moment, a small gap in time, when I could’ve disappeared. But I couldn’t stop watching you.”

Suddenly, my mind drifted back to the time and place where I’d been sitting in the audience. As I opened my eyes, Chris was the first image I saw, and what a lovely image he was staring up at me from the lower level floor, like I was the his precious darling.

By the night’s end, we shared our innermost confessions. I showed him a picture of my deceased mom, which was enclosed in a blue locket around my neck. In return, he shared his reason for being at the theater, and all the benefits of being a Collector. He’d clapped his hands lightheartedly and said, ‘Welcome to my world.’

Now I found his gaze, searching from the remnants of what had transpired between us. “You’re so casual about this,” I admitted. “I could always run off and tell the cops.”

“I thought you’re here because you wanted to be.”

“I am,” I answered. “But I can always change my mind.”

“In that case, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

“For someone you don’t know?”

“That’s the thing,” he interrupted. “I know you quite well.”

The certain way he claimed to know me was mind-boggling. He had no doubts about our arrangement whatsoever. He was pure confidence. I could tell from the way he never hesitated. “Why the woods then? You and your friends can clearly afford to train somewhere more sophisticated.”

“We could.” He smiled and looked up. “But that would defeat the purpose, since we’re using the open space here to practice and train and do our best. I’m showing you this, because you asked me to,” he said, reminding me of this favor. “I’m showing you what you’ll be working for. You’ll see. Once you get into the groove of things, like how you’ve been doing, it’ll get easier.”

Browsing over my new sparkling environment, I replied, “Thanks for showing me your museum. It’s beautiful.”

Hearing this, he pressed a button on the wall, which allowed the ceiling to open wide. The night was strikingly boundless, twinkling in every direction. My gaze drowned in its luster . . . its perplexing formation. For several moments, I was in awe of the rainbow of darkness, exuding from the very ground we stood on.

“We don’t keep the stars in our pockets,” he uttered. “We look into the sky and stare at them.” When he said those words, as amicable as they were, I was surprised at my reaction. Tears swelled in my eye sockets and dared to force themselves down.

“What are you thinking?” He took my hand, and started drawing over the lines on my palm. “You’re not alone here.”

It was nice seeing his comforting side again. There was something so brave inside of him, so spirited, that was naturally being rubbed off on me. And I liked it. The intimate way he found my gaze was sexy. He was so grounded and rooted and intelligent. No wonder lovers were looking for the very thing we had.

Looking up to him and admiring him the way I did, was exactly the whole point to everything else. His sparkle made everything else around us sparkle.

“Is there anything else you want to show me?” I asked gratefully, wiping my eyes.

Suddenly he stood up and stretched, and then covered the crystal. “Nope,” he replied simply. “That’s it for tonight. You should get some rest.”

“Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.” I ran out before he could respond, or before he noticed my blushed face. I knew there was nothing he could do to bring Dianne back. I wouldn’t ask him to. She was shining bright in the sky tonight. So were we.

I was crying, because, lately, I was starting to feel her presence, more than ever before.

And I didn’t feel alone anymore.

Chapter Six

The sun nestled behind a line of trees, and I watched the three musketeers jog up the hill with Chris hot on their trail. Sitting on the porch steps, I admired their impeccable fitness. I wanted nothing more than to participate in their daily run, but Chris insisted I relax today and take notes.

As I stared at the crow statue sitting on the bottom step, the monument was grim resting on a platter that had the initials ‘JE’ carved on the back. I was about to study the statue further when I realized I’d left my notebook by the pool. The last thing I needed was for Blue, Tre, or Kevin to get their hands on my private workout journal – I’d written plenty of notes about them, amongst other things.

Without a second thought, I ran into the basement to the indoor swimming pool and found my journal resting on the floor beside my usual chair. The pen was clasped between the pages, so it was fair to assume no one had perused through them.

I took the notepad under my arm.

On my way to exit, I was boggled by the incredible sound of water splashing. The commotion was most definitely coming from the pool, and I quickly spun around to make sure what I was seeing and hearing made sense. After I dropped my notebook on the floor, loose papers sashayed in the air, back and forth, and landed on the ground.

As I carefully followed the noise, ready to see what was waiting on the other side, the same feeling of being watched came over me. I neared the edge of the swimming pool, in order to confront the spectacle. While browsing over each end of the natatorium, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. No one was here. No ripples met the surface to validate the splash I was hearing.

I moved closer to the edge. As soon as I looked down and saw a dark, anonymous figure floating beside the wall, I didn’t know what think. The figure was the size of a vase, facing up. I studied the wings made out of stone, wings that shouldn’t have been floating. With a slow cautious step, I leaned forward and saw the same crow statue I’d seen on the porch steps. Its weight should’ve made it sink straight to the bottom. But lo and behold, it was here drifting on the surface.

“What the? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Before I could blink, the crow’s eyes opened. Large, black wings flapped against the water. Its mouth dropped into an enormous shriek. “Gronnnkkk!”

I fell backwards and landed against the papers. Grabbing my sheets and throwing them back inside the notebook, I bolted for the exit. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” I expected the bird to fly over me and make its presence known, but as soon as I fled to the door, my hand turned over the knob, and a new, unusual silence settled over the room. The bird’s cry had stopped, and so had the splashing. There was nothing chasing after me.

I paid close attention to my chest going up and down. If the shoe prints weren’t real, or the girl inside the mirror, or the whisperings I’d heard in the woods, then this wasn’t real either. I was just gradually losing my mind.

With a fierce determination, I stomped right over to the exact spot where I’d been standing . . . where I looked inside the pool. My reflection was here, but the bird was gone. Great. I couldn’t believe I’d witnessed an inanimate object floating inside of Chris’s swimming pool. A blob of cement literally stared at me, introduced himself, and then flapped its wings like a real live bird, then disappeared into the realm of nothingness.

“This cannot be happening.”

I sprinted upstairs, straight out the front door. The crow statue was sitting on the porch step where it’d been the whole time. It hadn’t flown to the pool and back again. Something like that would’ve been impossible. Everything else seemed to be spinning out of control.

Seeking comfort from the sky, I proclaimed. “What’s really happening? Just let me see the truth.” I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts.

*

I ended up treading along the shapely path, towards the other end of the hill, which led inside the woods. As predicted, the others were warming up with Missy in their usual spot. Large trees enveloped the area and shielded us from the sun’s glare. I took a moment to appreciate the shade.

“All set?” Chris strutted over, stashing his cell phone into his pocket and tugging on the end of Missy’s chain.

I wondered who he’d been calling if everyone was here already. He said we were only supposed to use the cell phones to call each other. Did I miss something? He pulled rags from his back pocket and handed them out.

“I was born ready, Coach,” Blue answered, taking the blue rag. She stuffed the material into her back pocket and lunged forward, spiking her fingers in the soil. Looking behind her, she caught Missy’s gaze. “Bite my ass and you’re a dead kitty.”

Missy huffed and waited for Chris to loosen the thick silver chain around her neck, so she could give Blue something to really talk about. “Ready, set. Go!” Chris shouted. Dust swirled from the bottom of Blue’s sneakers, and she bolted headlong into the forest.

The object of this exercise was to collect the five black bags situated in the five neighboring trees without losing the colored rag hanging from their pocket. That meant we had to outrun Missy.

Missy’s job was to snatch the rag off their pockets and bring it back to Chris. They had five minutes to complete the task. It usually took them under three.

“Go get her.” Chris knelt beside Missy. The pearl-colored beast purred at the stroke of his hand, and in that split second, showed she was loyal to him. She wanted to please him in the same way we all did. As soon as Chris unleashed Missy, we watched her sprint forward like a cheetah on wings. He turned to me. “You’ll need to spend more time with her. It’ll make your training a lot easier.”

“Really?” Blue was warning Missy about biting her on the ass and they’d only known each other for years . . .

“You’re not afraid, are you? I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything,” Chris asked smoothly.

“No way,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Why would I be afraid of a tiger twice my size? No reason. Animals love me.”

“She’s lying,” Kevin said. “If Missy’s tail swings the wrong way, she’ll be getting on a plane to California. Aint that right, Valley Girl?” He stared at me, waiting for a response.

I shook my head and turned the other way. “You’re wrong, Kevin. And I surely won’t be walking around here with swollen teeth marks on my ass. Like I said, animals love me.”

Kevin smiled, stretching his shoulder. “Good one.” Then he turned around. “Here she comes! Woo! My girl’s on a roll!”

Chris checked the timer and frowned.

Like I said, they were fast. They almost never broke a sweat. Every practice was basically drubbed into their heads. But none of them were this fast. I hadn’t blinked enough times before I looked up and saw Blue racing in our direction. None of the black bags were in her hand, though, and there wasn’t any sign of Missy chasing after her. Then she did something that shocked us all. She stopped running.

“Hey, Coach!” she yelled across the trail, waving her arms. “You might wanna see this.”

*

Blue hadn’t said a word since we started following her, and I didn’t know what to expect, striding over to the other side of the forest. The perplexed looks on their faces said they didn’t know what was happening either. Her breathing was also heavier than usual. She was trying to appear in control and mimic the same calm expression Chris would have in this predicament, but it wasn’t working.

Stomping through damp leaves, and trying to keep a close distance beside Chris, I studied the arch between his brows. He appeared relaxed and patient, making us feel safe in this moment of uncertainty. It was easy to feel strong when he was around. But as we got closer to the destination, his expression tensed.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” Blue said.

We were standing on the special road, where the red scarf had blown, the night they’d left me here alone to attend their meeting. All of the memories came returned. The shoe prints I’d followed in the hallway, the laughing ghost in the woods, and the scarf I’d found in the attic; they were too closely linked to be a random occurrence. There was a message behind these occurrences. This house was probably trying to tell me something important.

Like ‘It’s in the Water.’

Missy was stationed in front of the left trail. Her tail was nestled behind her. Usually she looked up when we approached her or at least acknowledged our presence, but today, she didn’t turn around. She stared straight ahead into a different world.

“You guys can head back now,” Chris said in a low voice. “I’ve got it from here. I’ll take care of her.”

No one bothered to question him after he made himself clear. Maybe they didn’t want an answer, because they’d already started heading towards the opposite side of the woods. But I didn’t join them.

“What’s going on?” I hoped my definite stance would let Chris know my stick-to-it-attitude was an embedded trademark, and I wasn’t leaving here without an explanation. “Is she listening?”

“She’s always listening.”

I stared down, browsing over her black lined fur. “She hasn’t looked up once since we got here.” It was abnormal for Missy to completely ignore Chris in any situation. If there were a threat out there in those woods, she’d be talking more, or responding to Chris in some way. But right now she wasn’t doing either of those things.

He sighed thoughtfully and asked, “Have you ever watched a dog bark at the wind even though there was nothing there? Missy pays attention to things . . . sometimes, things we can’t see.”

“Like otherworldly things?” I asked.

“I guess you could say that.”

I shivered at the thought of Missy seeing things.

“You’ll be fine,” he replied. “You’re in the woods with a bunch of people you met less than a year ago. You’re going to feel like there’s someone out there watching you, and most of the time we are. But just look at this place . . . ”

“It’s perfect,” I added.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

“I’m not. We’re together.”

He didn’t answer. Instead, we both looked ahead at Missy; I knew she was probably staring at some unforeseen formless entity right now. But there was something else Chris wasn’t telling me, and I think it had less to do with his tiger having a sixth sense., and more to do with this sudden meeting in the road, where the red scarf had blown.

I didn’t know why, but I felt like he wasn’t giving me the total picture . . .

 

About the Author

Thank you for reading this first teaser!

TTSP is a remake of an old book I wrote a few years ago called SPADES, but never got around to finishing.

So thank you for partaking in its revival, and also its conclusion.

The Time Stopping People – Teaser II is also coming soon.

Be sure to leave a review on Amazon, sharing your thoughts and feelings. Don’t be shy. Your voice matters. The most important thing you can do for any author is to write a review. As a community of readers and writers, we should do our best to support each other.

For more information, visit

www.TheTimeStoppingPeople.Blogspot.Com

Kristy enjoys meditating, swimming, dancing, and singing. Eating food makes her happy, and so does writing near the mountains. Kissing this person she likes, who happens to have the most amazing lips, is another bonus.

She also likes yoga.

This book is represented by – The Turbo Team

Stephen Barbara at Inkwell Management

&

Glasstown Entertainment with Founders Laura Parker (Lauren Oliver) & Lexa Hillyer.

www.GlasstownEntertainment.com


The Time Stopping People

Calise Thomas looks through a crowded room. What she isn't expecting to find is Chris. He offers to take her home, but she doesn't leave his side so easily. She insists on joining him and his elite team at their special training grounds in the deep woods of Ohio. Without hesitation, she goes along with Chris to the farthest end of the state. Right away, she meets his mysterious posse. They start mocking her attendance and tease her for being new. But she trains with them anyway and takes on her role as a Collector. Meanwhile, a mark starts forming on her shoulder, one that matches the rest of her teammates. She's initiated. A magic cloud consumes her for the first time, and she discovers people (like herself) are living in a secluded structure underground, as well as collaborating with 'the outsiders'. The Collectors are one aspect of an entire new world she never knew existed.

  • Author: Kristy Evans Beckwith
  • Published: 2017-07-08 12:55:10
  • Words: 18589
The Time Stopping People The Time Stopping People