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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance

Genesis

 

 

 

 

genesis

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

First and foremost, to my Father in Heaven,

without whose inspiration and guidance this book would not have been possible.

To my husband, Patrick, my daughter, Jordan, and my son, Jackson.

Thank you for your love and endless patience.

To my best friend, Robyn, and her husband, Renato,

whose constant encouragement kept me going,

especially during those times when I didn’t want to keep going.

 

To my “eagle-eyed” nieces, Ally & Torri. You definitely have a future in editing.

To my newer friends,

Lisa, Andi, Leah, Ashley, Lynda, KayAnn, Melanie & Cathy.

Your indulgence in my dream meant more than you could know.

 

In the Beginning…

 

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

Revelation 12:9

 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

Romans 8:19

The Soundtrack of My Life

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

SECTION I – DAWN

 

1. IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT

2. THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

3. HOLD ON LOOSELY

4. JET AIRLINER

5. NEW KID IN TOWN

6. UNDER PRESSURE

7. JUST WHAT I NEEDED

8. YOU REALLY GOT ME

9. HARD TO HANDLE

 

SECTION II – DUSK

 

10. CAUGHT UP IN YOU

11. ALL DAY AND ALL OF THE NIGHT

12. LIFE IN THE FAST LANE (EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME)

13. SUMMERTIME GIRLS

14. SCHOOL DAYS

15. YOU CAN’T DO THAT

16. WILD WORLD

17. BORN TO BE WILD

18. HOOKED ON A FEELING

19. SATURDAY NIGHT’S (ALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING)

20. PLAYING WITH FIRE

21. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS

22. ON THE DARK SIDE

23. YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET

24. TWO PRINCES

25. CALLING ON YOU

26. US AND THEM

27. SIGNS

28. SHOW ME THE WAY

29. IT’S MY LIFE (AND I’LL DO WHAT I WANT)

30. MYSTERIOUS WAYS

31. FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

32. CAN’T YOU SEE

33. ROUND AND ROUND

34. SUPERMAN TONIGHT

 

SECTION IIIDARK

 

35. MOVIN’ ON

36. PEACE OF MIND

37. DON’T LOOK BACK

38. HERE I GO AGAIN

39. WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE

40. WILD NIGHT

CHAPTER 1

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Are you kidding me? When was this decided? Don’t I have any say in this? So many thoughts were going through my head at the moment, but I couldn’t deal with her right now. She was so good at ruining her own life, now she wanted to start on mine.

I stomped up the stairs of our crowded little house, kicking some of the items left on either side of them. Apparently, the stairs are an extra storage unit, I thought caustically. Nobody ever bothered to actually pick up the stuff that my mother put there to be taken upstairs. Thankfully, my brother and sisters weren’t home at the moment. I went into the small bedroom that I shared with my sister, Jennie, who was only one year younger than me, and slammed the door. I threw myself on to my bed and screamed into my pillow.

It was the first week of the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I had earned the coveted position of editor of the school newspaper. I was a straight A student. I had three best friends and a decent car that my dad had given me, probably out of guilt for not being around more, but I digress. Life was good. I didn’t want to start over. Not now.

What could she possibly be thinking? Ugh!

My mother, Caroline, was the younger of two daughters born to my grandmother, Muriel, a trendsetter of sorts back in her generation. Twice divorced with two girls from two dads, the apple didn’t fall far from that tree. From the little my mother had shared about her childhood, I was aware that Grammy wasn’t the best mother, although she was always great with me. Before she died, I’d slept over at her apartment on a regular basis. It’d been five long years since she passed away, but I could still picture myself brushing her hair — fifty-six years old and it was still mostly brown. Hopefully, I’d inherited that gene. She loved pea soup, and she’d let me make it for her. I never told her that it made me gag just looking at it. I was just so proud that she trusted me with that task. She always treated me like a grown-up. In the midst of my current anguish, those memories still made me smile.

Caroline always treated me like a grown-up as well. She depended on me for advice on any number of topics. Many nights, we’d sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee after the younger kids had gone to bed — her, sharing; me, secretly wishing she had another confidant. Today, however, she didn’t wait for our evening chat to tell me of our impending move.

Compose yourself, I chided. I sat up, pulled my knees into my chest, wrapped my arms around my shins and looked pensively around the bedroom that I had painted a dark cranberry more than a year ago. Jennie and I had twin beds separated by a shared nightstand that was cluttered with my laptop, cell phone and a picture of me, Jane, Peggie and Annie. A silver “Best Friends” ornament was attached to the bottom of the black frame. Great! Just great! I could feel the tears that wanted to escape, but I wasn’t about to give in to that reaction. No, crying didn’t help anything.

I decided to suppress my anger in my usual way so I grabbed my secret stash of Whoppers, then my phone, pressed the music icon, and hit play. “Love is All Around” was queued, just what I needed to feel empowered in my currently powerless state. I turned up the volume and let the music pulse in my brain, took a deep breath and, once again, studied the room. Under my current scrutiny, it looked as if an imaginary line had been drawn down the middle. A good part of the wall on Jennie’s side was covered with a huge collage in the shape of a butterfly that was comprised of photos of friends and family, pictures and words cut out from magazines, even a few greeting cards. By comparison, my half looked rather austere, with only two prints ― The Storm and Springtime by P.A. Cot ― that I had purchased during my last trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, tacked up on the ceiling over my bed.

Jennie was outgoing and easy to get to know. I guess it’s easy when there’s not that much to know, I thought, and immediately regretted the hurtful reflection. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with her; it’s just that there wasn’t much to her, nothing much below what you saw on the surface. We were polar opposites, especially when it came to unnecessary drama.

That’s why Jane and I were the best of friends. She wasn’t into drama either. But every group of friends had to have a drama queen and ours was Annie. Despite her sometimes irritating antics, we loved her. And then there was Peggie, our very own gossip girl. If there was something to know, she knew it, and she didn’t have a problem sharing it with anyone who would listen. She also had a tendency to exaggerate every detail of a story to make it more interesting to her listeners, who were usually hanging on her every word.

How was I going to tell them that I was moving to Georgia? the South? I couldn’t bear to think of it right now. Just listen to the music…

I had eclectic taste in music — currently into a lot of the stuff on VH1 Classic — thanks to my mother. She was born in the 70s, but went through various phases, from oldies to hip hop to classical to country. I’d tease her every time she decided she was bored with one genre and moved on to another because she wouldn’t mix it up. It was all or nothing for her. The hip hop period was particularly embarrassing. I mean, my mum’s just not that cool. But when I was in first and second grade, she was into the 50s. I couldn’t help but smile when I thought of her singing “If You Want to be Happy (for the Rest of your Life)”. She would make me laugh uncontrollably at the end of the song when she’d sing the “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” part. She could be crazy like that.

Reality check. She’s being crazy now. Georgia??? Georgia is so… southern! I could never fit in there. I didn’t want to fit in there. Why couldn’t she wait one more year? I’d be at UMass then and it wouldn’t matter where she moved the family.

Breathe. My main “go to” song was on now and it always calmed me down. Just listen and relax, I told myself. “Don’t worry, baby, everything will turn out alright…” I loved the way this song in particular travelled through my earbuds, different vocals and instruments came through each one. When the sounds met in the middle, it was like a Jacob’s Ladder in my brain and my whole head was happy. I closed my eyes.

I awoke, startled, when my phone rang, not having intended to take a nap. It was Peggie. Did she know? My brain was foggy at the moment. No, I didn’t think so. My mother hadn’t told anyone else yet. I needed a minute to wake up. Luckily, she was oblivious to my haze and prattled on without requiring any response from me. I would miss Peggie, I brooded, as my thoughts drifted to my new future.

Caroline was offered a big job as an administrator of some hospital in Savannah. She thought it would be the best thing for us. After all, she’d be making a lot more money. And that is what’s most important, I thought sarcastically. We’d have a big house in a small town called Eden. I’d finally have my own room. Peggie would be impressed. She’s an idiot, I thought, and, for the second time tonight, regretted the slight. I was in a foul mood. But Peggie would try to look on the bright side for me since I was obviously unable to see any bright side at the moment. After what seemed like an eternity of her talking and me feigning interest with an occasional “uh huh”, I was able to conclude the conversation by telling her that I’d call her back after dinner. Dread. I didn’t like to chat on the phone. That was the great thing about texting. It was abbreviated, quick. Save the chatting for when you’re actually hanging out. I knew, though, that I’d have to tell them soon and that conversation would be anything but abbreviated.

I felt only slightly less venomous after my brief nap and chat with Peggie. I needed to do something to snap out of this mood. I’d kept a journal for as long as I could remember, and now I leaned over to open the top drawer in the nightstand to retrieve my current one, along with my fake quill pen.

“What would Joan do?” I began scrawling in large, curly letters, taking up an entire page. One thing I knew for sure was that she wouldn’t cry. Joan Jett was a woman whom I truly admired. She was so cool and always did things her way, regardless of what other people thought. That was one thing I felt we had in common. Where we differed totally was in coolness. The sad fact was, like my mother, I just wasn’t that cool. I guess I was more conventional, but a Joan spirit lived in me, desperate to get out once in a while.

Music was also a calming influence in my life; everything was more bearable when I listened to my favorite songs. And songwriters were my favorite poets, authors, inspiration. Near the top of one of my many to-do lists was to create a short story based on one of my favorite songs. After digging my pen into the pages for several minutes and quoting Joan once or twice, I turned off “Don’t Worry, Baby” which had been on infinite repeat. I was ready to venture downstairs again. Ready to talk to my mother again. I’m calm. I think.

Caroline was making dinner when I walked quietly to the edge of the kitchen. I watched her prepare the evening meal for the six of us. A roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. That was the younger kids’ favorite. I guessed she was going to break the news to them over dinner. They probably wouldn’t even care. They’d probably be excited.

Laurie, Hollie and Danny were considerably younger than me. Laurie by five years, Hollie by six and Danny, my mother’s only son, by eleven. I had another brother, Nate, by my dad and stepmother. He was a year older than Danny.

I hated cooking. Maybe it was because it was such a chore to cook for so many. And it’s not like they were ever grateful. They were all picky eaters and never had much nice to say about dinner. How could someone have five kids? That’s about four too many as far as I was concerned. When my mother turned to get something out of the fridge, she saw me standing there. Apparently, she read the look on my face and instinctively knew better than to talk to me now. That’s right. I’m not ready. Instead, she asked me to set the table.

I set the plates down noisily as I thought about the fact that I had less than two weeks to pack up my life and say goodbye to my friends. I had so many plans for the summer — planning/research for the opening edition of my high school’s newspaper, sleepovers, parties at the lake — key word being had. Those plans were gone now. It was doubtful that I’d meet any new people over the summer in a small town. Two long, boring months in some southern hick town. Once again, I despised my mother.

As I doled out the silverware, I thought of her many hastily made decisions. The fact that my three youngest siblings had two different fathers, and different from mine and Jennie’s, was the first thing that came to my mind. My mother was pretty but, for some reason, she apparently didn’t realize she had so much more to offer. I didn’t understand that. She was bright and self-motivated. She began her career at the local hospital as a registered nurse and worked her way into management over the last fourteen years. Why couldn’t she see that she was more than a pretty face?

I was the oldest, and I exhibited all the common characteristics of the first-born child ─ a reliable, responsible, cautious, over-achieving control freak. Yay, me. Because of the maturity I had exhibited, even as a child, my mother always treated me like her friend instead of her daughter. I resented that more than I would ever admit. She depended on me to pick up the slack with my siblings when she was working. She confided in me things that she should have saved for her girlfriends. But she didn’t have any girlfriends. Between work, five kids, and three dads, she didn’t have much time to socialize.

As soon as all the kids arrived home from their various activities, we sat down to dinner. The usual arguments between the younger ones began. “I want a leg,” Danny whined, looking to Mum, as Hollie yanked one off the chicken. “You got a leg the last time,” Laurie gently reminded him, her tone sounding older than her eleven years.

I tuned them out and let my thoughts wander to Georgia. I knew it was hot there. I guess not having to bear another Massachusetts winter could go on the plus side of this life altering event. That’s one. Was there anything else that I could possibly consider a positive? Well, maybe a cute southern accent like Kelli Pickler’s. Would all the girls sound like her? Did they dress differently, like some of the girls in those country music videos on CMT? Was my wardrobe appropriate? Did I need to buy cowboy boots? By the time I found out, it would be too late. You know what they say about first impressions.

Geez! Stop already! I silently rebuked myself and tuned back in to the dinner conversation.

Mum had the kids’ attention now after her “Guess what? I have a big surprise for you” statement. “We’re moving to Eden, Georgia. I accepted a job at a hospital in Savannah and we’re moving in less than two weeks! Isn’t that great?”

Where’s Georgia?” Danny asked curiously.

It’s about 1,000 miles south, and close to the ocean, just like here,” she said enthusiastically. “Only it’s pretty warm most of the year there. You won’t need your heavy coats or boots or mittens like you do here,” she continued, doing her best to brainwash my siblings into thinking this unwanted move was some exciting adventure.

Of course, Jennie seemed to be on board immediately. “I wonder what the kids are like,” she mused aloud, sounding hopeful. It seemed to be so easy for her.

I’ll bet they’re just the same as your friends here,” my mother offered, “only with southern accents. I’ve been talking with a couple of people that I’ll be working with at the hospital, as well as our real estate agent. Their accents are precious.”

Cool,” all the kids said in unison. I, on the other hand, sat silently, pushing the food on my plate around. I couldn’t eat. I could only think. I wish I could just shut my brain off sometimes. It was working overtime at the moment.

So,” I began tentatively, “this is a done deal and we have less than two weeks to pack up our lives? What about the dads? Don’t they have any say in this?” I knew this question would bring the focus back to reality.

Of course I’ve already discussed the move with the dads. They’ve all agreed that this is a great career opportunity for me. They want what’s best for this family. And they’ve each promised to visit as often as possible. And it goes without saying that you’re all allowed to come back here to visit them and your friends as time and money permits.”

Well, that’s it, I thought, defeated. “The Dads”, as we referred to them collectively, wanted what was best for the family. Yeah, right. All they ever seemed to want was what was best for themselves. They were minimally involved in our lives up till now. It didn’t actually come as a surprise that they wouldn’t fight for us to stay close. I wondered what Sam, Jennie’s and my dad, would buy us to assuage his guilt over allowing 1,000 miles to come between us. I didn’t want his stupid presents, I wanted his presence. But I guess that was more than he was able to give. With his replacement wife and my little brother, Nate, there was little time left for me and Jennie. Would absence make the heart grow fonder?

After the expected question and answer session was concluded, I started robotically clearing the table.

When everyone was situated — doing homework, bathing, or watching tv — my mother joined me and started drying the dishes. We had a dishwasher now, but this had become our routine prior to the addition of the brushed steel appliance. Her silent companionship was comforting right now and I felt guilty for hating her earlier. Despite her many perceived screw-ups, she was always present. Always.

Essie,” she whispered, as she stopped drying and looked over at me cautiously.

I’m sorry, Mum,” I said sincerely. “I’m sure this was a difficult decision for you and I’m not making it any easier.”

She laughed a brief, quiet laugh. “That’s my girl. I can always depend on you to be mature and responsible. Thank you, sweetie.”

You’re welcome,” I sighed. Then I took a deep breath and cloaked myself in the mantle of maturity that she had bestowed upon me. “So, give me the details. Sorry for running off earlier before you had the chance.”

That’s okay,” she said, her face lighting up as she began. “Let’s see. The hospital is paying for the entire move. That means that professional movers will come in and pack everything for us, drive it down to Eden, and put every last thing where it’s supposed to go. Cool, huh?”

That’s a definite plus,” I agreed encouragingly. “Tell me about the house.”

Well, like I tried to tell you earlier, it has five bedrooms, five and a half bathrooms, and it sits on seven acres. I’ll show you the pictures that the real estate agent emailed, if you’d like. It’s beautiful, all brick with a huge front porch and back deck. There are even rocking chairs on the porch that the previous owner left for us.”

She had barely taken a breath. “That sounds amazing,” I admitted. “Did you have to look at many houses?”

Actually, that was the only house for sale in all of Eden, which I thought was very odd. But, apparently, it’s a pretty small town. I haven’t had a chance to google it yet. Maybe you could do that for me,” her voice ending on an up note that I understood to mean my job would be to find out as much as possible about the area that was soon to become our new home. Good thing I was a natural investigator of sorts, that same inherent trait that fueled my decision to pursue a career in journalism.

I’ll get working on that,” I said as cheerfully as I could manage as I finished wiping down the counter. She smiled. It was easy for me to make her happy and I was usually glad to do it.

“Why did you choose Eden?”

“I didn’t really choose it. I’ve been thinking that it chose us.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, one of the people that I’ve been in contact with at the hospital gave me the number of a real estate agent who’s a friend of hers. He’s the one that suggested Eden. He told me that it’s close to Savannah so my commute would be short, but it’s in the country so it’s a nice place for kids. He also said the schools were good. One other thing ― the price was right. I guess it was meant to be.”

“I guess it was.”

I walked up the stairs to my room, this time taking two armfuls of stair stuff with me. I put the items in the appropriate bedrooms, saving mine for last. I grabbed my laptop and plopped myself on my bed.

I googled “Eden, GA.” The first site listed was a community profile of Effingham County. Fact number one: We would be living in Effingham County. I made a note of that. The website, however, provided no further useful information. Companies and businesses? Click. Apparently, there are a whopping twenty-three companies and/or businesses in Eden, none of which looked promising as far as part-time employment was concerned. How many people lived in this town? I googled “population Eden Georgia”. According to one random real estate site, the population was only 837 and they kindly broke that down into white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Hawaiian, Indian and other, of which there were three. Others, that is. I wondered what an “other” was. Androids, I hoped. There were 412 males, 425 females and the median age was 35. This was not looking good. I worriedly wrote those details in my notebook. Wait. My mother said we’d be close to Savannah. That’s where her hospital was located. I needed to find out how close was close. I clicked on google maps and waited impatiently for the site to load. Please don’t be too far, I thought anxiously. I clicked on directions and entered Eden, GA to Savannah, GA. It made me wait for several long seconds before finally informing me that the driving distance between insanity and civilization was twenty-two miles. I had never appreciated my car the way I did at this moment. I scribbled twenty-two miles into my notebook and then decided to check out the high school. With a total population of 837, I was afraid.

As it turned out, I would be attending South Effingham High School, Home of the Mustangs, which was located in Guyton. This was obviously a very rural area, but my continued research indicated that there were more than 1,400 students at SEHS. Promising, I thought, encouraged. And not too far off from the 1,850 enrolled at Haverhill High School, my current alma mater. I added these facts to the growing list of information I had quickly been able to compile on my future home.

Sufficiently armed with all the relevant details, I reached for my phone and pressed the favorites star, where I found Jane, my bff. I could feel my heart beating faster.

Hi, Essie,” she said with a smile in her voice.

Jane, I have something really big to tell you and there’s no easy way to say it.”

Oh, my gosh. What?”

Like ripping off a bandage, doing it quickly might make this less painful. I blurted out, “My mother got a big new job and we’re moving to Georgia in a couple of weeks.” There, I said it. It was now real.

You’re… moving… to… Georgia?” She said each word slowly and with confused disbelief.

Yes,” was all I could manage at the moment.

When was this decided?”

Mum just told us over dinner. Well, she tried to tell me before dinner, but I lost it and spent the afternoon pouting in my room. I’m really going to miss you, Janie.”

I don’t even know what to say. I think I’m in shock.”

Me, too.”

Well, do you know any of the specifics? I mean, do you have a house already? Do you know where you’ll be going to school? And where in Georgia are you actually moving to?

We’re moving to a small town called Eden. I googled it before I called you. According to a real estate website that I found, the population is 837.”

Jane laughed loudly.

Hey, don’t laugh! It’s only twenty-two miles from Savannah, so at least we’re not too far from the city. And I’ll be attending a county high school with about 1,500 students. I’m sure it won’t be as bad as it sounds.”

Sure, it’ll be great,” she said convincingly. “Maybe your mother will let me come visit before school starts.”

I’m sure she will. You should ask your parents and we can start planning right away,” I said, excited for the first time since I heard the news.

I wonder if there are any cute boys in Eden,” Jane pondered. “With a population of 837, the potential is low.” She paused for a moment, then continued, trying to sound optimistic. “But I’m sure you’ll meet lots of people once school starts.”

Hopefully,” I sighed. “Listen, I need to call Peggie and Annie before they hear about this from somebody else. Let’s get together tomorrow, okay?”

Okay. I’ll call you in the morning. See you, Essie.”

See you, Jane.”

As soon as I hung up, I called Peggie. Of course, she freaked out. But I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was Annie’s reaction. She started crying and telling me that I was her best friend and that she didn’t know what she was going to do without me. I knew she was just being sweet; after all, she and Peggie were closer, but I didn’t care. After assuring her that we would never lose touch, she composed herself and agreed to meet me, Jane and Peggie in the morning. I was mentally exhausted by this time and felt like going to sleep. Could I sleep? My entire life had shifted from the course I thought it would take in just a few short hours.

I thought of my three best friends and how close we all were, always spending the night at each other’s homes, borrowing each other’s clothes. There were no secrets between us.

I thought of the day that Jane and I met at the bus stop on the first day of high school. We were unlikely friends. She was tough and would pick a fight with anyone who looked at her the wrong way if she was in a mood. She also smoked and cursed, habits she picked up from her older brother. But she had a sharp wit and could make me laugh till I cried, as well as a tender side that she kept hidden from most of the world.

I thought of seeing Peggie day after day in the C-Wing girls’ bathroom, smiling politely at first, engaging in small talk after a while, eventually trying out each other’s lip gloss, ultimately becoming friends. Peggie was chatty and made friends quickly. She had an easy way about her that could make you feel as though you’d been friends forever. Her mother did hair out of her home, and she always did ours for free.

I thought of the first time I met Annie, smoking a cigarette, wearing a trendy denim jacket, her curly golden hair swept behind her shoulders, perfectly framing her flawless face. She and Peggie were best friends, as unlikely a pair as Jane and I. Annie could put an outfit together like no one else. Every single thing was coordinated. She also had no problem breaking into song whenever the urge struck, no matter where she was. She exuded a confidence that was rare in a girl of only sixteen years.

I heard the door creak and Jennie bounded into the bedroom. She and I hadn’t had a chance to talk since Mum broke the news of our impending move. She walked over to my bed and bounced down next to me. Her whole face was smiling.

Why aren’t you excited, Ess?” she asked perplexed. Before I could answer, she continued, still bouncing slightly. “We’re finally going to have our own rooms! I can’t wait! And I just talked to Dad and he said he’d buy us a four-wheeler since we have seven whole acres of land. Come on, Ess. Get excited! This is going to be great. We’re going to have a whole new life!” She was talking so fast that her words were blurring together.

Why would you want a ‘whole new life’?” I asked slowly, hoping she’d get the hint and calm down just a bit. “I thought you liked your life here.”

I do, Ess. But now we’ll be able to meet so many more people and live in a whole different part of the country. The south! Can you stand it? I can’t wait to hear their accents. I wonder if they’ll think we talk funny. And, besides, Dad said he’d pay for us to come back and visit whenever we want.”

Still blurring…

I needed quiet contemplation. “I’m glad that you’re so excited, Jen. Really. And I’m sure I’ll be excited, too, after I’ve had some time to let this all sink in. Would you mind if I tried to get some sleep?”

Sure, Ess. You sleep. I’ll go downstairs and watch tv for a while. See you in the morning.”

Thanks, Jen,” I said softly as she got up from my bed, walked across the room, turned off the light and shut the door.

I don’t remember falling asleep that first night, the first night of my new destiny.

CHAPTER 2

The Final Countdown

I opened my eyes slowly and looked around my room, disoriented briefly. It was just a dream, I thought, slightly bewildered. I laid still for a long moment remembering the beautiful boy with the dark, chocolate brown hair and crystal blue eyes that played the starring role in last night’s dream. I had never dreamt that vividly in all of my sixteen years. It felt as though it really happened.

I was wide awake now. The sun was already bright, streaming through the slits in the horizontal blinds that were always open. It was June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the first day of summer. There would be a big party at the lake tonight. This was an annual event that was attended by almost everyone I knew. Was that fate? Or some cruel joke, perhaps? No, I wasn’t going to see the move as negative any longer. I had enjoyed my private pity party last night. Today was a new day and I was going to seize it. Although a fly on the wall might have seen it differently if it had been here last night, I wasn’t normally a negative or pouty person. I dealt mostly with facts and I was usually very logical. The fact was that we were moving to Eden. I had no choice in this decision. Therefore, I could accept it and make the best of my new circumstances or I could fight it and make everyone around me miserable. Those were my only two options. Either way, we would still be moving in less than two weeks. What kind of big sister would I be if I chose the latter? No, my mother depended on me and my brother and sisters looked up to me. I would smile and be helpful regardless of how I felt on the inside. I sat up, took a deep breath and practiced my smile.

Jennie opened her eyes. “Morning,” I said cheerfully with my newly practiced smile slowly making its way to my eyes. She wouldn’t notice if my eyes betrayed me, but my mother would. And so would Jane. I was determined now to commit wholeheartedly to my new life. It was the logical thing to do.

Mmmmornin…,” she mumbled sleepily.

I sprang up from the comfort of my bed and headed to the bathroom to get a drink of water and brush my teeth before doing anything else. After taking care of business, I found a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed my cell and walked quietly down the stairs. I wasn’t sure who was awake. I looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. 7:25 am. “Ugh!” I guess that’s what happens when you go to bed so early.

I retrieved the newspaper from the front steps and made a pot of coffee. This was another mother-daughter ritual that began several years ago, after my mother divorced her third husband, Danny’s father. I had shown an interest in current events as far back as I could remember. I used to ask so many questions that she finally ordered the daily paper so I could read the local news for myself. Along with perusing the headlines, I learned to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. When I was younger, it smelled so good to me. After much begging, my mother let me try some of hers one day. Yuck! I had to spit it out. She drank it black and it was so strong. After about thirty seconds of chortling, she made some for me with lots of cream and sugar and I was hooked. I’ve cut down on the sugar somewhat, but still require lots of cream. Sweet and blonde, Peggie calls it; just like her, she says.

The coffee was ready now. I poured myself a cup and put the carafe back to keep it hot. I took the rubber band off the paper, uncurled it and started reading above the fold, where the most important stories of the day were displayed. A fire consumed a historic building downtown late last night. That’s too bad. The president will be travelling overseas. I’d like to travel overseas someday. Maybe to Israel, the ancestral home of my dad’s side of the family, the Jacobs. The forecast called for hazy, hot and humid weather over the next few days. Finally! The weather hadn’t been very summerlike so far. It would be perfect for the lake party. I skimmed the paper till 8:00. Surely, my friends would be up by now.

I called Jane. We agreed to meet at our favorite breakfast place, the Depot Diner in Salem, New Hampshire, at 9:00. She’d call Peggie and I’d call Annie to let them know of our plans.

My mother had come downstairs while I was talking to Annie and had poured herself a cup of coffee. She pulled out the chair next to me, sat down and took part of the paper. After describing to Annie in excruciating detail what I was wearing — she always had to wear the right outfit for every occasion, but begrudgingly understood that I couldn’t care less — I told her I’d see her soon and hung up the phone.

Morning, Mum.”

Morning, Essie. Did you sleep well?”

I did,” I said slowly, apparently sounding slightly confused.

That doesn’t sound too convincing.”

No, sorry. I did sleep well. I was just thinking about the dream I had. It seemed so real.”

Tell me about it,” she urged.

Well, there was this boy…”

Y…e…s,” she said, drawing the word out with a teasing smile.

He was perfect — tall, with broad shoulders, dark, chocolate brown hair and crystal blue eyes,” I recalled with a sigh.

How unlike you to sound so enamored of a boy, especially one in a dream.”

I know, Mum. But, like I said, it seemed so real. He seemed so real.”

Okay, so go on.”

Well, the part that I remember very clearly was when we were in the most amazing garden I have ever seen. The area where we were sitting was large and rectangular with huge, ancient-looking trees on the outskirts. Their boughs were hanging low, touching the ground. We were in the middle of the garden, yet somehow I knew what it looked like from an aerial view at the same time. The grass was a bright emerald green and perfectly manicured. There was an incredible variety of lush plants and exotic-looking flowers all around us. We were having a picnic lunch and it was a beautiful, sunny day. A gentle breeze was blowing just slightly enough to keep my hair out of my face. It was kind of cliché with the red and white checkered blanket that we were sitting on and the woven wooden picnic basket, but it was nice. I think it might have been our first date but, at the same time, it was as if he knew everything about me. For lunch, he had packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salt and vinegar potato chips, diet root beer and malted milk balls.”

Wow, he really did know you,” she said laughing.

I know, right? And we talked effortlessly, like we’d always been friends. And when I woke up, I had the strangest impression that it was real. Wishful thinking, I guess.” I smiled. “Anyway, I’m going to meet the girls at the Depot Diner. And I’d like to see the building that burned down last night before that.”

Okay, Essie. Have fun. Will you be home for lunch?”

I’m not sure. Don’t count on me, okay?”

Okay, then.” She stood up and gave me a kiss. “I’m glad you’re feeling better today, sweetie. See you.”

I smiled, picked up my phone, took my car keys from the hook next to the door and walked outside for the second time today. The forecast was correct. It was only about 8:20 and it was already hot.

My car was dirty. It would be a good day to wash it. Maybe the kids would want to help later on. They were usually more than happy to use that as an excuse to soak each other with the hose.

I clicked the button on the key fob to unlock my door. I got in quickly and put the key in the ignition. The engine cranked and I was startled by the loud music. I obviously forgot to turn it down when I shut the car off yesterday. I had been listening to the Beach Boys, gearing up for the first day of summer and the annual lake party. My dad had given me a three-cd greatest hits collection when he gave me the car and I really liked it. He called it “heart music” because he said you didn’t have to think about, you just felt it. I agreed. I backed carefully out of our driveway and headed toward downtown.

I loved having a car. It’s not that my car was anything special, it was what it represented. Freedom. My dad proudly presented me with the tan Accord coupe on the very day that I got my license. It was used, but in good condition. To be honest, I wouldn’t have cared what it looked like, I just loved the fact that I was now able to come and go as I pleased. No waiting for Mum to get home and begging to borrow her car. And this car was sweet! It had a tan leather interior and a sunroof. Best of all, Dad had outfitted it with navigation and XM. I had immediately put essentials like a blanket and a towel and a football and a frisbee and a first aid kit and a pair of jumper cables in the trunk. I liked being prepared for almost anything.

My mind was wandering as I drove the speed limit through the town where I was born and raised. It was difficult to imagine what my life would be like in Eden, especially since Bradford, Massachusetts was all I’d ever known. I was becoming slightly annoyed once again. At that moment, I was reminded of a quote that I’d used in an article on character in sports that I’d written for the high school newspaper.

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

My thoughts definitely influenced my words last night which, in turn, influenced my actions. But that was last night. I had promised myself that I was through wasting time being angry at something over which I had no control. I turned up the cheery beach music and once again recalled my dream and the beautiful boy with the blue eyes that sparkled in the sunlight.

Before I knew it, my car had taken me to the block on which the refurbished factory building sat. I parked and stared. The developer had done a remarkable job of restoring the dilapidated building so that it looked better than it had originally. From a rundown, boarded up, plain, old shoe factory to an art deco style showpiece with unusual ornamental pieces on all four corners and above each window. The mayor hosted the grand opening celebration and most of the city joined him, glad that the former eyesore had been so beautifully renovated. The building housed an upscale restaurant and several offices. Darn, I thought sadly. That was the only decent restaurant in town. Not that we could afford to eat there often, but still. I wondered if anyone would bother to try to fix it up again. I got out of my car to survey the damage. At once, I noticed the smell of smoke that still permeated the air. I walked closer and took out my phone. I loved to take pictures of interesting architecture and landscapes. I didn’t have to get too close to see that the external brick was charred and all the windows were broken. Shards of glass littered the area and it didn’t appear that anything inside had survived. I studied the curious faces of the people assessing the once beautiful building for a long moment and then returned to my car. It was almost 9:00 and I had to drive all the way up Route 97 to Salem.

When I entered the restaurant, I found Jane and Peggie already there. Of course, Annie would be fashionably late. I joined them in a booth toward the back. As expected, they began to bombard me with questions as soon as I sat down.

Wait. We need to wait for Annie so I don’t have to repeat everything,” I explained impatiently.

Peggie dug around frantically in her oversized purse for her cell phone. When she located it, she quickly found Annie’s number. She tapped her fingernails on the table while she waited for her to answer.

Where are you?” Peggie demanded. After a few seconds, Peggie spoke again. “All right. Well, we’re all here and we’re waiting for you.” She hung up. “That girl drives me crazy sometimes. But she’s actually in the parking lot out back. She’ll just be a second.”

No sooner did Peggie finish speaking than Annie burst through the door of the restaurant. She came running toward our table in the back loudly yelling, “I’m here, I’m here.” Obviously not minding that the entire restaurant was now looking at all of us, she plopped down in the empty space next to Peggie.

What’d I miss?” she asked breathlessly.

Nothing. We’ve been waiting for you to get here before I said anything about the move. I didn’t want to have to repeat everything.”

Thanks, Essie.” She paused for a second. “Okay,” she blurted. “You can start now.”

I took a deep breath in, then slowly exhaled. I smiled my practiced smile and began. “Well, like I told you last night, my mother accepted a job as the administrator of a small hospital in Savannah, Georgia. She needs to start working there in about three weeks. We’ll be living in a really small town called Eden, but it’s just twenty-two miles outside of Savannah. She’s already found a house and it’s big enough for me to have my own room. And it’s on seven acres of land. Professional movers are coming to pack our stuff for us, drive it down there and put it all where it needs to go in the new house. They’re even taking our cars and we’re flying down.”

“Impressive,” Peggie mused. “Seven acres. And it’s about time you have your own room.”

Jane looked at me thoughtfully. “It sounds great, Essie, but I’m really going to miss you.”

I’m going to miss you, too. All of you. It’s hard to believe that we won’t be together for senior year.”

I know,” Jane replied quickly. “So we’re going to have to make the most of the next couple of weeks. Let’s do something every single day.”

And night,” Peggie said with a hint of mischief in her voice.

Did you have something in mind?” I asked curiously.

Well, let’s see… first of all, there’s the annual lake party tonight. We can start with that. And Sawyer will be there.” she added teasingly.

I rolled my eyes.

Ess, you know he’s liked you for forever,” Annie said matter-of-factly. “Since you’re leaving,” she began slowly, “maybe now’s the time to consider, well, you know.”

Oh, right! I can’t believe you’d even suggest that. When I’m leaving???”

Don’t act like you’ve never even thought about it. What are you waiting for?”

Truth be told, my mind hadn’t gone there yet. Sixteen years old and never been kissed. Oh, sure, I’d been asked out lots of times. In the past. Not so much anymore. Most of the guys thought I was a snob. But it wasn’t that. I was waiting for my very own Westley and, until then, I didn’t mind staying home or being alone.

Whatever, Annie,” was all I could manage to say. Just then, our server came by to take our order.

After we finished ordering, I changed the subject. “What time should we go tonight?”

Any time around 6:00 I guess. And if we want, we can bring stuff to throw on the grill,” Peggie answered. “Do you all want to bring food?”

Sure,” the three of us said in agreement.

Well, let’s each bring something different so we can all share,” Peggie suggested. “I’ll bring hot dogs.”

I’ll bring the diet root beer and malted milk balls,” I offered.

I’ll bring chips and salsa,” Jane chimed in.

Let’s see, we have protein, dairy, grains and vegetables, so I’ll bring double stuff Oreos for the dessert,” Annie added, laughing.

As we discussed who we thought might be there and whether or not we’d go swimming, our server brought our breakfast. I was hungrier than I had realized, not having eaten much the night before. The news of the move had taken away my appetite. When we had finished, we decided that everyone would meet at my house around 5:45 and I’d drive from there.

I wanted to spend some time with my dad before we moved, so I said my goodbyes to my best friends and walked to my car.

CHAPTER 3

Hold On Loosely

Dad only lived about ten minutes from the restaurant so I was there before I knew it. He worked from home a couple of days a week and this was one of those days. I walked up the stairs to the porch and tried the door. It was unlocked so I let myself in.

Dad…” I called.

Down here,” he replied from the basement that he had transformed into a huge, fully functional home office.

I was down the stairs in about two seconds. “Hi, Dad. Are you busy?”

Never too busy for you, Essie. What are you doing here? Do you need something?”

No, Dad. I don’t need anything. I just wanted to see you and hang out for a while before I’m gone for good.”

Don’t say that, Ess. You’ll break my heart. You know you can come visit anytime you want.”

I know, but it won’t be the same. I won’t be able to just drop by like this.”

I know. I wish you didn’t have to go. But it’s a great career move for your mother and she’s really excited about it.”

Yeah. And I’m happy for her. I am. It’s just that… I’m really going to miss you and all my friends and my senior year. You know I was going to be the editor of the school newspaper this year.”

Maybe they’ll need an editor at your new school,” he offered hopefully.

I just gave him a look.

You’re right. I’m sure they have someone in place at this point. I was just trying to be optimistic.”

Thanks, Dad. I’m sure it will all work out fine,” I said cheerfully and changed the subject. “What are you working on?”

My dad was an architect at a firm in Boston. “The city wants to expand the aquarium but there’s a limited amount of space, of course. I need to get creative.”

I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Will you email your design when you’ve finished?”

Of course. I love that you’re interested in architecture.”

I guess I got that from you,” I said smiling.

I guess you did at that.” He sounded proud. “Speaking of, did you hear about the fire at the old shoe factory downtown last night?”

“I saw it in the paper this morning and stopped by before breakfast to check it out. What a shame. I hope the owners will decide to restore it.”

“Me, too.”

Well, Dad, I’ve got some shopping to do, so I’ll let you get back to work.”

Okay, honey. I’m glad you stopped by. Let me give you some money for whatever you need.”

You don’t have to do that.”

I want to. Make me happy. Here,” he said handing me a hundred dollar bill.

Dad…” I protested.

Take it and buy something nice from me.”

Thanks, Dad.”

You’re welcome, Essie. I love you.”

Love you, too,” I said and turned to go.

Come back soon. I want to see as much of you as I can before you leave.”

I will, Dad. I promise. See you.”

Okay, then. See you soon.”

Back in the car once again, I put in an old cd soundtrack and cranked it. I loved the effect that music had on me when I was stressed. It made me temporarily forget about whatever was bothering me at that moment as I immersed myself in the lyrics. Linkin Park’s “Leave Out All the Rest” started playing. It always gave me pause when he sang, “I’m strong on the surface, not all the way through…” because that’s how I saw myself. I smiled now, remembering a t-shirt that my dad had bought me that said, “When I’m sad, I just stop being sad and be awesome instead”.

Just then, I arrived at the mall. Nice, I thought. A space up front. I parked and went in, now excited about the hundred dollars that my dad had given me, feeling guilty about the mean thoughts I had had about him last night. He really was a good dad, and more than minimally involved. Truth be told, I was probably more than a little jealous of his seemingly perfect, intact family. It was embarrassing to me that my siblings and I had three fathers between us, none of them currently married to my mother. I just wished that he had fought for us to stay, but, ultimately, I knew that it wouldn’t have made a difference.

After wandering aimlessly for about an hour and a half, I gave up. I couldn’t find anything worth buying. That always happened. When I actually had money, I could never seem to find anything that I wanted. I should probably go home anyway and start organizing my stuff so I won’t have to do it all at the last minute, I thought.

Arriving home, I found my two younger sisters and my little brother playing in the yard. It was finally hot and they had retrieved the old Slip & Slide from one of the boxes of summer stuff in the garage. They were taking turns backing way up and running as fast as they could toward the wet piece of plastic and then throwing themselves on it with reckless abandon. I went into the house, quickly changed into my bathing suit, and joined the kids.

Hey, you’re too big,” Danny joked, trying to push me away.

I am NOT too big,” I replied defiantly. And I definitely wasn’t big, except maybe to a five-year-old. I was five feet, four inches tall and weighed about 115 pounds. That wasn’t very big. I had always wished to be taller, but I was certain that I was done growing. I was already taller than my mother.

I playfully picked Danny up and sat him on the stairs then ran quickly toward the Slip & Slide before he could catch me. I dove head first and slid down the length of the plastic, ending up in the wet grass. I just laid there laughing for a minute until Hollie decided she couldn’t wait for me to move and came crashing into me.

It was nice to actually be enjoying time with my siblings. More often than not, I was put in the position of playing their mother. As the oldest, it was something that came naturally to me, but I resented it sometimes. It’s not cool to have to be the disciplinarian.

I flipped Hollie onto her back and started tickling her. I loved the sound of her laughter.

What a difference twenty-four hours had made. Yesterday, I thought my world was coming to an end. Today, I was playing with my siblings and looking optimistically ahead to an uncertain future. We continued to play for a long while, taking full advantage of the beautiful weather.

Jane pulled up around 4:45 with her stereo blasting. She got out of her car and stood in the driveway, hands on her hips.

What are you doing?” she demanded, sounding slightly annoyed. “I’ve been trying to call you all afternoon. We decided to go earlier. You need to start getting ready. Go inside and shower right now. We still have to go to the grocery store after Peggie and Annie get here.”

The kids groaned in harmony. “Don’t go, Essie. We want you to play with us.”

Sorry, guys. I made plans with my friends and, apparently, I should have been ready by now. We’re going to the lake. Jane, do you want to come in while I get ready?”

Sure.”

Once inside, she snapped, “I can’t believe you’re not ready yet! Tommy called me today and asked if I was going tonight. He’s going to be there at 5:30. I was hoping that we could get there at 5:30, too, before the competition arrives.”

Competition?”

You know that Katie’s been trying to get him to ask her out all year,” she said jealously. “When she gets there, she’ll do everything she can to keep me away.”

If he wanted to ask her out, he would have done it already. Let her keep making a fool of herself. You’ll just look that much better by not throwing yourself at him. Be cool.”

Easy for you to say. You’ve never been interested in anyone. Why is that again?”

Who is there to be interested in? I’m not going to settle just to have a boyfriend. I’ve lived in this town my whole life and haven’t met one boy who even comes close to my idea of what a boyfriend should be. Well, except for Sawyer. But I think of him more like a brother.”

Maybe your expectations are just set too high.”

Are you serious? Maybe your expectations are just too low!”

Whatever, Essie. I like Tommy. I like him a lot. And if he asks me out, I’m going to say yes.”

I’m glad for you, Janie. Really. I know you like him. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”

Don’t worry about it. I know you have this idea of the perfect guy in your head and… you’ll/I’ll know him when you/I meet him,” we said in unison and started laughing.

Get ready already,” she barked at me.

Fine.”

Fine. Do it.”

Twenty minutes,” I said, walking toward the bathroom.

Fifteen!” she yelled after me.

Fine!”

Fine,” she laughed.

Fifteen minutes later I was ready. A super fast shower and quick shaving of the legs, a little blush and lip gloss, and I was ready to go. I could get away with leaving my hair wet. It was fairly long with layers cut into it and it had a little wave to it as well. If I let it dry naturally, it didn’t look terrible.

When we went downstairs, Peggie and Annie were sitting at the kitchen table with my mother. She loved to hear all the latest teenage gossip from my friends since she didn’t usually get much of that out of me.

Hi, Essie,” she said cheerfully. “The kids said you were playing with them on the Slip & Slide earlier. They love when you play with them.”

It was fun. And I’ll probably be able to play with them everyday once we move. I doubt I’ll make any friends before school starts,” I said with just a hint of gloom.

Awww, come on. You’re a friendly girl. I’m sure you’ll meet people quickly,” she countered optimistically.

My friends agreed, nodding a little too eagerly. I rolled my eyes and half smiled to appease them.

Come on, let’s go,” I said quickly before that conversation had a chance to continue. Peggie and Annie got up from the table.

Bye, Caroline,” the girls said. She insisted on my friends calling her by her first name. She said the title of Mrs. made her feel like her mother.

Bye, Mum. I won’t be too late.”

Okay, sweetie. Have fun.”

I nodded as my three best friends and I headed toward the door. I was looking forward to seeing everyone at the lake tonight, but it would be bittersweet. Other than the Fourth of July party, this might be the last time I’d ever see some of these people. I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, I’d be going off to college next year anyway where I was sure to meet lots of new people, people I might actually be friends with forever. Other than Jane, Peggie and Annie, how many of the people that I was currently going to high school with would I remain friends with after high school? Probably none. So why couldn’t I stop stressing about leaving this place?

We reached my car and I was forced to re-focus my attention. I was driving tonight. I always drove. Jane called shotgun. She always called shotgun. Peggie and Annie never argued the call.

With the windows rolled down and the music turned up, we headed for the grocery store. After getting what we needed, we continued on to the lake known to the locals as Captain’s Pond. It was actually in Salem, New Hampshire, the next town over, to the north of Bradford, and right over the state line. Sawyer had moved there a few years ago. His family’s home was right on the lake with a dock in their back yard. They had a boat and he always invited us over to water ski. The first year they were there, they instituted the annual “First Day of Summer Party”. Most of the kids got there after dark, but Sawyer wanted us to get there early so we’d have time to catch up.

We pulled in, got our stuff, and went around back. Sawyer and a few of his friends were already hanging out on the deck. Always the perfect host, he came down, greeted us and took our bags. When he got to me, he gave me a big hug.

I’ve missed you, Essie,” he whispered in my ear.

Sawyer was the closest I had come to having a boyfriend. Before the move, we had grown up together, attending the same schools since kindergarten, often ending up in the same classes. He used to write me the cutest notes and shove them through the slits in my locker. He was not like the other boys. Sawyer was very sweet and kind and thoughtful and funny. My sisters and brother loved him; he was great with kids. Unfortunately, my feelings toward him were more brotherly than romantic. I wasn’t sure why that was. He was really good-looking — tall, blond, with an athletic build. But whenever he attempted to be more than friends, I pulled away. It just felt weird.

I’ve missed you, too. It’s been months since I’ve seen you,” I replied as I tried to end the hug that was beginning to feel awkward.

He led us up the stairs to the deck where we said hello to the guys we knew and Sawyer introduced us to two guys we hadn’t met before. After a couple minutes of small talk, we decided to throw some hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and take a ride in the boat while they were cooking. One of the new guys offered to stay behind and play grill master. It was still hot and the sun was pretty high in the sky. Being the longest day of the year, the sun wouldn’t set till about 8:30. Once people started arriving, though, the boat would be off limits. Sawyer’s parents didn’t mind him taking us out during the day, but they had strict rules concerning number of passengers and night boating.

We all made our way into the boat and Sawyer carefully maneuvered it away from the dock. As he headed toward the middle of the lake, my friends and I stripped off our shorts and t-shirts to reveal the swimsuits we had put on underneath. When the boat slowed down and Sawyer shut off the engine, we all jumped in. I didn’t particularly care for the lake, but when in Rome… I much preferred the ocean, the salt water and the waves. But the lake felt good right now and we were having fun treading water and trying to talk. After a few short minutes, Sawyer asked if anyone wanted to ski before we had to head back since people would be arriving soon. Of course, we all said yes.

Women and children first,” Sawyer called. A couple of the guys pushed Jimmy toward me, Jane, Peggie and Annie.

Go ahead, man. He said children first,” they joked. Poor Jimmy! He was about 5’2”, a couple inches shorter than me. The rest of the guys were at least six feet tall, Sawyer was 6’3”. With this group, it was painfully obvious that he was vertically challenged. “Ha, ha,” was all he could come back with.

Because I had history with Sawyer, my friends insisted that I be the first to make a fool of myself. I hadn’t skied since last summer and I wasn’t very good, despite Sawyer’s many attempts to improve my limited skills. After quickly getting into the skis and grabbing the rope, I leaned back, anxiously waiting for the slack between the boat and the handle I was desperately clenching to run out. “Please don’t let me fall, please don’t let me fall,” I prayed frantically. Too quickly, the handle jerked and I fought with everything I had to get upright. “Please don’t let me fall, please don’t let me fall,” I repeated. To my surprise and delight, I actually managed to stand and keep my balance for one trip around the small lake.

The others took their turns, and Sawyer offered to let me drive the boat, standing very close behind me, helping to guide the steering wheel, his huge hands covering mine. It was time to get back.

As we pulled into the dock, several people were there to meet us, and they helped secure the boat. Jane, Peggie, Annie and I jumped out and went inside to change out of our wet bathing suits and make ourselves presentable. As I walked out of the bathroom, Sawyer was there waiting.

Hi,” he said, grinning.

Hi.”

I’m so glad you came. I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Essie, I’d really like to take you out on a real date. I mean, I know we’ll hang out a lot over the summer, but I’d like to do something together, just me and you. What do you say?”

Well… I haven’t had a chance to tell you, but…” I trailed off.

What? Tell me what? Is everything okay?”

Everything’s fine. It’s just that, well, we’re moving. In less than two weeks. To Georgia.”

You’re moving to Georgia? Why?” he demanded.

My mother was offered a job as a hospital administrator in Savannah and she took it. It’s a great opportunity for her,” I said for what felt like the hundredth time.

Sawyer looked at me for a long moment and then looked down. “I blew it,” he mumbled.

What are you talking about?” I asked innocently.

Essie, you must know that I’ve liked you since kindergarten. But I should have said it out loud a long time ago. Now it’s too late.”

To be honest, I was glad he had never said it out loud. I was pretty sure of how he felt, but I liked being friends with Sawyer. I could always count on him to be around if I needed him. He’d escorted me to several school dances, picked me up once when I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be, taught me to water ski. Thinking about it now, I felt ashamed. I hated to think that I was using him, but wasn’t I? I knew he’d do anything for me and I took full advantage of that. But I truly liked being with him. Just not as a girlfriend. Should I admit this to him now? No.

Sawyer,” I began slowly. “You know how much you mean to me. I mean, I spend the majority of the summertime here with you. I’ve asked you to my school dances. We watch movies at my house. In fact, you’re the only boy I really enjoy spending time with. I hope you’ll still want to keep in touch after I move.”

You know I will, Ess. But it won’t be the same.”

I know,” I said, looking into his green eyes. And I gave him a hug.

Ahem,” Jane said loudly, forcing us to end the embrace. “Um, people are asking for you, Sawyer.”

He looked at me briefly and then walked toward the door, leaving Jane and me standing there.

What was that all about?”

I grimaced. “He told me that he’s liked me since kindergarten and that he blew it and that now it was too late because I’m moving.”

Well, that’s true, right? But it’s not like you ever wanted him to be your boyfriend so I think it all worked out for the best.”

You’re right, Janie. But I still feel bad.”

Well, get over it and let’s party!” Jane grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the door. When we got outside, the place was packed. We made our way to Peggie and Annie, caught up on what we had missed, and started making the rounds.

The night was a blur of talking, explaining, laughing and reminiscing and, before I knew it, it was time to go home.

Saturdaysundaymondaytuesdaywednesdaythursdayfridaysaturdaysundaymondaytuesdaywednesdaythursdayfriday.

The two weeks that followed The First Day of Summer Party were a blur — packing, cleaning, organizing, yard sale. In between those activities, I squeezed in as much girl time as I could with Jane, Peggie and Annie. I even managed a couple of dinners with my dad, just me and him. That had never happened in the past. But he obviously felt guilty that he wouldn’t get to see me very often and wanted to make the most of our limited time together. The girls were great sports and helped out with the moving process daily. It was actually a lot of fun to go through all of my stuff. So many memories.

All too quickly, it was July 4th, the day before we were scheduled to leave. Sawyer had, of course, invited us over to spend the day at the lake. Everything that had to be done was done. We would be flying to Savannah, Georgia on Saturday. It was still surreal to me. Even with the house packed up, suitcases sitting in the living room, and movers on the way, it was surreal.

 

CHAPTER 4

Jet Airliner

Friends and family gathered at our house early Saturday morning to see us off. The airport shuttle arrived promptly at nine and we loaded our luggage into the back of the large van. We each received extended hugs and lots of kisses from the crowd and the tears were flowing freely. Even though we had been talking about it everyday for the past couple of weeks, it was harder than I thought it would be to actually say goodbye. We promised to call often and, of course, keep up daily via social media and texts.

We lived less than an hour from the airport, but it seemed to take forever. Once again, I was feeling apprehensive about the move. One thing I had learned, though, was that school started much earlier in Georgia. The first day of school was August 6, three whole weeks earlier than Bradford. I’d have only one boring, friendless month in Eden instead of nearly two before facing the seniors at South Effingham High School. I figured I’d use some of that time to read, fix up my room and help my mother with the rest of the house. She would have only one week to organize before having to start her new job.

After arriving at the airport and checking our bags, we headed to the gate. Even though it was called Logan International Airport, which, to me, implied that it was an enormous facility, it was pretty small, and the entire process took us only a few short minutes. I anxiously checked the current time and our departure time. We had about thirty minutes before having to board. I took a walk to the newsstand to pick up a trashy tabloid for the flight.

It was time. This was it. I was leaving Massachusetts, my home of sixteen years. I walked with my family down the jetway that led to the airplane. We found our seats and I helped my mother get my younger siblings strapped in. It was going to take us five long hours to get to Savannah due to a one-hour layover in Atlanta. I dug through my purse and found my phone. I needed something mellow right now to calm my internal anxiety. Hmmm… some Queensrÿche, “Silent Lucidity”. I let my overactive mind take a rest while I listened to the music. “So here it is, another chance, wide awake you face the day. Your dream is over. Or has it just begun?” Darn! I can’t escape it. I closed my eyes when the captain announced that we were preparing to take off.

Surprisingly, the time passed fairly quickly. Before I knew it, we were being told to put our tray tables up and to be sure our seat belts were securely fastened. Now I was glad we had an hour in Atlanta. That would give us plenty of time to stretch our legs, use the restroom and get a drink and a snack.

When we got off the plane, we were directed to Concourse B. This airport is huge, I thought as I looked around. I helped my mother corral the kids and we headed in the direction we were told to go. After making all the necessary stops, we got to our gate. It was time to board. Only an hour to Savannah, an hour till my new life begins. Looking out the window, I saw a much smaller aircraft than the one that had carried us safely from Boston to Atlanta. I didn’t like the looks of this one. It wasn’t that I was afraid to fly in a small plane, necessarily. I was, however, afraid of hurling due to motion sickness, an issue that had plagued me since pre-school.

As we walked down the aisle looking for our seats, I was actually hoping to find my seat close to the lavatory, sure I’d end up there before the flight was over. Short flights made me especially queasy. “Eight, nine, ten…” I counted the rows under my breath. 15C. Yes! I thought excitedly. Wow, how lame was I to be excited that my seat was next to the bathroom? Hollie was assigned the seat next to me, the window seat. I let her sit down first, then I took my seat and situated my bag under the seat in front of me. Hollie was thrilled to have the seat next to the window and I was happy to be on the aisle. Even though it was a small plane, only two seats on either side with the aisle down the middle, I still preferred the aisle. I hated being confined in a small area and had a hard time sitting still for any length of time.

This is your captain speaking. We are third in the queue and should be taking off in about four minutes. We will land in Savannah at approximately 3:55. It’s a hot one today, folks. Currently about 96º with high humidity.”

For the second time today, I prepared for take-off.

The flight was short, the landing was smooth, and, although my stomach was a bit queasy, I had not needed to use the barf bag that I had placed in the front of the storage compartment located directly in front of me or the bathroom located directly behind me.

Once all six of us had retrieved our luggage from the carousel, we followed the driver that the hospital had sent for us. Were we being driven to Eden in a limo? I wondered to myself. How embarrassing! Thankfully, the driver showed us to a white, non-descript fifteen-passenger van similar to the one we had taken to the airport in Boston. He loaded our luggage in the back and we all took our seats inside.

Man, is it hot here!” I said out loud to no one in particular. We had done nothing more than walk outside for about a minute to reach the van and I was already sweating. I was impatiently waiting for the driver to hurry up and load the bags so he could turn the van on and get the air conditioner cranking.

The driver heard me and laughed. “First time in Georgia?”

First time in the southeast,” Caroline replied quickly before I had a chance to say something sarcastic. “We’re from Massachusetts.”

Yankees,” he said with a smile.

Afraid so,” Mum said, returning the smile.

As we drove the twenty-two miles from the “big city” to the middle of nowhere, as evidenced by the fact that there was absolutely nothing but blacktop and trees once we hit I-16, our driver answered every random question thrown at him. Turns out, his name was Tripp and he was born and raised a couple of towns over from Eden. He was twenty-five years old, unmarried, and poised to inherent his family’s car service business. We all agreed that his accent was adorable.

Before long, we were getting off the highway at Exit 148. I was making a mental note. A right here, a left there, and Tripp pulled the van into our long driveway. Wow! This house was really big! Mum’s new job must be paying well. It sat back off the road a ways and the driveway was lined on either side with what we were informed were Bradford pear trees. How appropriate, seeing that we just moved from Bradford. The house was brick that had been painted white, the many windows were flanked by working black shutters, and the front porch stretched the entire length of the house. Four big, white columns appeared to hold up a mini-deck that extended out from the middle of the second story and was enclosed by a short, black wrought iron fence. We couldn’t get out of the van fast enough. The kids ran around to the back of the house and we could hear them calling to each other, “Hey! Look over here!” My mother and I helped Tripp bring the suitcases up to the front porch on which had been left four black rocking chairs, two on either side of a red door, a couple of side tables, and several Boston ferns hanging between the columns.

I noticed what looked like a Star of David encircled with Hebrew letters painted on the house above the lintel over the front door. How odd, I thought, then shrugged it off.

The door had been unlocked for us earlier in the day by the real estate agent. Tripp opened the door and, just like the stereotypical southern gentlemen I had seen on tv, stepped back, drawled, “After you, ladies,” paused while we walked over the threshold, and finished with, “Welcome to your new home.”

Being an aspiring journalist, I wasn’t usually at a loss for words. Now it seemed that all I could say was “wow”. All my apprehension seemed so ridiculous. I couldn’t adequately explain what I was feeling at the moment, but I had this weird sense that I belonged here. This was definitely home.

CHAPTER 5

New Kid in Town

We’d been in Eden for a little less than a week and, except for our first trip to the local grocery store, the Piggly Wiggly, which was a couple of towns over, I hadn’t left the house. We had had a visitor on Sunday afternoon, Miss Ginny, the town historian, she told us proudly. She was a sweet, older lady whose gray hair was tied in a knot at the nape of her neck. She wanted “to be sure to welcome us properly”, that sentiment being conveyed through the homemade chicken and rice casserole and pecan pie that she handed off as she walked through the front door. This house, she told us in a manner that hinted at the possibility of a mystery, had once belonged to her grandparents. Several families had purchased the house after her grandparents had passed away some twenty-five years ago, but no one had stayed very long. While there was always a good excuse — a better job offer, family considerations, etc. — she had, nonetheless, found it strange and thought the house must be waiting for a special family to occupy it. The kids, of course, found this fascinating, and hoped aloud that we were that special family. “Me, too,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

When Miss Ginny saw that our furniture had yet to arrive, she quickly made a couple of calls and, within the hour, several people showed up with cots, blankets and pillows, setting them up in each of the bedrooms. Could these people be any nicer? By the time they left, it felt like we had known them for years. Our stuff finally arrived on Wednesday morning and, after arranging and re-arranging the furniture in each of the rooms too many times, I’d had enough. I needed to get out and explore.

Jennie wanted to go with me and I gladly brought her along, knowing that she would make any chance encounters less awkward. I usually ran out of things to say to strangers after the obligatory, “Nice to meet you”. We drove to the center of town, a mere seven minutes from our new home, where it took us all of two seconds to see MaMaws BBQ, the Dollar General store, the Eden, GA U.S. Post Office and, finally, Powers Baptist Church. That was “town”. All of it.

Well, it is a Wednesday afternoon,” I said to Jennie with a hopefulness in my voice that attempted to convey an expectation of more exciting times in the future.

Let’s just drive around and see if we see any kids our age,” she countered optimistically.

Okay.”

I turned up the volume on the cd that had been left in the player. It was the Beach Boys again, the cd we were listening to on the way to Sawyer’s 4th of July party. I let my mind wander back to that night as I drove down the main road that took us from Eden to Pooler, the road on which we found the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, but not much else. Where did the high school kids hang out? There was nothing here that even suggested a “hangout” — no movie theater, no bowling alley, no mall, nothing. We kept driving.

Caroline called and asked us to pick up a few things from the Piggly Wiggly so I made a u-turn at the first available place and headed back for groceries. As I was making the turn, I saw a billboard bearing the huge head of Dennis, our real estate agent. Well, his head wasn’t really huge, but on a 14’ x 48’ sign…

BROLIN REALTY

“Tell your friends!”

I had noticed how he looked at my mother when he stopped by a couple of days earlier to see how we were settling in. I wondered if he checked up on all of his clients or just the pretty, single ones. She claimed she didn’t notice and thought I was being silly. I thought she was out of practice. He was very handsome, for an older guy. I guessed he was around forty or so with mostly black hair, a dark tan, and blue eyes. He wore a cowboy hat and boots and had a friendly smile. Before he left, he handed Mum his card and told her to call him if she needed anything, emphasis on anything. What she needed was a date. I might have to intervene in her non-existent love life. Yes, a night out with Dennis, or DB as he said he preferred, would be a good thing. I had formulated a ruse in my mind by the time we reached the grocery store.

As Jennie and I walked up and down each aisle, carefully committing to memory the location of items that we would be purchasing frequently, we stopped to get more cereal. When I went to push the cart again, another cart was blocking my way. The guy had his back to me so I politely said, in a slightly raised voice, “Excuse me.” He turned around and flashed an amazingly bright smile, the kind you’d swear you saw sparkle. I was caught off guard and barely noticed that he was speaking to me. Jennie discreetly hit the side of my thigh with her fist, making me realize that I must have looked like an idiot, standing motionless and staring. I was saying something in my head, yet no words were coming out of my mouth. Our eyes met and locked. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t look away.

He spoke first. “Hi. You must be Essie Jacobs,” he said in a smooth Southern drawl.

How…would…you…know…that…?” I stammered.

Welcome to the small town of Eden,” he said, continuing to dazzle me with his smile.

Great,” I sighed. “Well, I’m at a disadvantage then,” I said, finally able to compose myself. “You know me, and this is my sister, Jennie. And you are?”

It’s nice to meet you, Jennie. I’m Ty. I’m sorry we haven’t been by your house to welcome you properly, but my family and I just got back to town last night. I’m glad I ran into you both here.”

Thank you. But it really isn’t necessary for you to come to our house. Not that you’re not welcome. I mean, a bunch of people from the church already came over the day after we arrived. They brought us food and everything. It was sweet.”

Hmmm,” he said thoughtfully, his smile finally fading. After a brief moment, he continued, “Well, then, you’ll have to come to our house for dinner. My mother loves to entertain and she’d be very disappointed to learn that I’d met you and didn’t invite you over. If you’ll give me your number, I’ll call you and we can work out the details.”

The look on my face must have translated as deer-in-the-headlights.

Please?” he asked sweetly.

Oh, sure, sure,” I said, slightly embarrassed. I was not used to people behaving this way, especially gorgeous teenage boys, and it threw me. Jennie had my back, though, and was already writing down my number.

When she handed it to him, Ty smiled again and looked directly into my eyes. “Thanks. I’ll call you.”

Okay, then,” I replied, still unable to look away.

Okay, then,” he repeated and slowly walked past me with his cart.

Holy crap!” Jennie whispered excitedly when he disappeared from the aisle. “He is beautiful! And he likes you, Essie!”

Ssshhh,” was all I could manage right then. My brain was trying hard to process what just happened. This beautiful stranger, who knew who I was, just invited my family to his home for dinner. Things like that didn’t happen in real life, at least not in Bradford. First, the church people; now the new face of Calvin Klein. What was going on in Eden?

We quickly got the rest of the items that we needed and drove home. Jennie, of course, couldn’t wait to run inside and tell Mum what happened. The first thing she asked me was if Ty was the guy from my dream. That hadn’t even entered my mind, since, even though he was gorgeous, it was definitely not the same guy. My dream guy had long-ish tousled brown hair and blue eyes. Ty had short-cropped, sandy blond, perfectly styled hair that was probably achieved with plenty of product and a blow dryer. And his eyes were a distinctive golden brown. But I was pleased to know that not only had my mother listened to me gush about my amazingly vivid dream, she actually remembered it. She surprised me sometimes, in a good way.

After dinner, my phone rang. To my utter astonishment, it was Ty’s voice I recognized on the other end. “Hi, Essie. It’s Ty Gregory.”

I waited too long to respond.

Uhm, we met at the grocery store this afternoon,” he continued, his statement sounding more like a question.

Yes, I remember,” I sputtered. Get it together, Essie. What is your problem? I chastised myself. Recovering quickly, I added, “I wasn’t expecting you to call so soon.”

Well, I told you my mother loves to entertain. And the minute she heard that I had run into you at the market, she insisted I call immediately to invite you and your family over for dinner. Are you free Saturday night at six?”

Seeing that we’re new in town and don’t really know anyone yet, we’re pretty much free every night.”

Great! If you have a pen and paper, I’ll give you directions.”

It took me a few seconds to grab a piece of paper and a pencil from the junk drawer next to the phone. “Ready,” I said and listened intently as he gave me step-by-step directions in a sweet southern drawl.

After I hung up the phone, the questions started flying.

Essie, who was that?” my mother inquired, trying to act nonchalant.

Yeah, Essie. Who was it? A boy?” Hollie giggled.

Essie, was it Ty?” Jennie asked anxiously.

Ty? From this afternoon?” Mum pressed.

Essie, who’s Ty? A boy?” Hollie said teasingly, as only a tween girl could.

I stood quietly, the irritated look on my face communicating my annoyance with the childish guessing game. After several seconds of silence, I filled my family in on our plans for Saturday night. My three youngest siblings were excited to be invited somewhere and began to wonder aloud at what would be served, what the house would look like, would there be any children their age, etc., etc., etc. Caroline was as bewildered as I was. This just wasn’t normal. At least not what I considered to be the norm based on my life’s experiences. As the kids continued to speculate amongst themselves, I slipped away.

It was only a little after seven o’clock and I needed to get out of the house for a while. The sun had started its downward journey and was just about to go behind the tree tops, so I decided to take a walk around our property. Although we had been in Eden for a few days, I hadn’t taken the time to survey the seven acres on which our house sat. That was mostly because it was ridiculously hot during the day. About ninety-five degrees and probably ninety-five percent humidity. The kind of weather that had you sweating before you could make it off the porch. With the sun behind the trees, this would be the perfect time to explore.

Our house faced east, so the front of our property was touched by the many hues of the sun as it rose slowly throughout the morning, while the back yard and the adjacent woods were suffused with bright yellow sunshine all afternoon. I headed west, following the setting sun.

Only a few feet into the wooded area, I spied an indistinct path littered with pine needles and pine cones. As I parted some low-hanging branches, a slight tingle ran through my body and I felt as though I was being drawn in. Obviously, I was not the first to venture into this forest, but the overgrown brush on either side of the path that threatened to entangle my feet if I wasn’t careful meant that it had been a while since anyone had traversed the area.

I continued cautiously, thinking about the events of the day, trying to quash the negative thoughts that had taken hold in my mind. If something seems too good to be true… Just because a super hot guy seemed to like me after one awkward conversation, was that any reason to be pessimistic? Was it so hard to believe that he could find me attractive? Compared to Ty, I was very plain. I had never cared much for makeup other than the occasional blush and lip gloss. I had been blessed with olive skin, long black eyelashes and a nice complexion so I never saw makeup as a necessity. My dark hair had a slight wave to it and hung below my shoulders. I had had a few layers cut into it in an attempt at some kind of style, but I usually just wore it down and tucked behind my ears. With my uniform of t-shirt, jeans and flip flops, I was the definition of plain. And here was this stranger, this beautiful stranger, appearing to be pursuing me. With a population of only 837, maybe he had dated all the other girls in town and I was the shiny, new plaything on top of his chest of discarded toys.

Just then, my cynical thoughts were interrupted by a soft whining sound. It was difficult to tell which direction it was coming from. I called out. “Hello? Is someone there?” I waited a couple of seconds and I heard it again. Yes, it was definitely whining. I followed the soft noise, which led me off the path. I had made it twenty feet or so when it felt like something stung me. “Ow!” I said angrily as I examined my foot which had several red ants crawling over it. “Damn it!” I cursed as I hurriedly stomped my feet, trying to get the ants off of me. I felt another bite. It was then that I noticed I had been standing in an ant mound. Great! Just great!

As I jumped up and down, flailing helplessly, I was tripped up by a root that had broken through the ground. Before I could right myself, I saw the source of the whining. It was a dog and it looked like he was stuck somehow. I approached him warily, crawling toward him on my hands and knees, ignoring the pain and itch of the ant bites.

Hi, doggie. I’m going to see what you’re stuck on and try to get you free.” As I was thinking how ridiculous I must look talking to this dog, his floppy ears perked up a bit and he tilted his head as though he were able to understand me. As I inched closer, his big, brown eyes revealed a trust that I was determined to live up to. I was pretty sure he was some kind of shepherd, although he was multi-colored and shaggy. He was very calm and allowed me to move him slightly in order to see the cause of his predicament. As I slowly and gently moved his fur around, I saw that he was entangled in the same overgrown brush that had tripped me up during my brief exploration of the woods. I carefully separated the fur from each strand of the thorny, spindly weeds that had captured him. He lay patiently, seeming to understand what I was doing. After several minutes, he was free.

Good boy,” I praised enthusiastically, as he got to his feet and vigorously shook his whole body, happy to be liberated.

Realizing that the sun was now setting quickly, I tried to head back to the path that would lead me home. With the sea of leaves and branches crowded around me like adoring fans around a celebrity, I found myself fighting my way through. Normally, I might panic a little bit, as each minute stole more of the faint light that was barely making its way through the thick canopy above. I didn’t like not knowing where I was going when it was dark. But I felt different in this place, almost empowered somehow. My new friend, I decided to name him Axl, followed closely and I felt safe.

A few seconds later, I stumbled onto the path, and Axl and I walked together toward my back yard. As we emerged from the pine forest, the kids saw us and immediately ran toward us, squealing with joy at the prospect of having a dog. I was certain that my mother would let us keep him. He was too adorable and too sweet to say no to.

While everyone was busy welcoming the newest member of our family, the evening passed quickly. As I laid in my bed later that night, thinking about the upcoming dinner, a feeling of dread came over me. I was excited that I had met someone so quickly, but apprehensive about our families meeting before we’d even had a chance to really talk. It still seemed strange to me. But maybe this was just the way all people treated strangers in the South. What was I going to wear? Why was I even worrying about that? I didn’t like the emotions that were consuming me. Go to sleep already!

I couldn’t sleep. My mother had insisted that I have the bedroom with the large bay window that contained a cozy built-in window seat. This was definitely my favorite spot in the house to sit and read, especially since it was too hot to be outside most of the day. With no friends around and an abundance of free time, I had already read two books in the short time we’d been here. My room was on the second floor in the rear of the house and through my bay window, I had a panoramic view of the back yard and the woods. The windows opened on to the roof of the back deck and, dragging a pillow and blanket, I decided to crawl out and stargaze.

Axl followed me out and stood there taking in the view. I hoped he wouldn’t decide to jump. I arranged my blanket and pillow and laid flat on my back, my hands clasped behind my head. Axl began beating his tail loudly on the rooftop, trying his best to lick my face, as I was trying my best to avoid his wet kisses. “I’m happy you’re here, too, Axl.” At that, he calmed down and snuggled up next to me.

My mind continued to race, even in this peaceful spot, and I realized that I needed to talk to Jane. I ducked back through the window and found my phone. It was late, so I texted, “You awake? Need to talk.” I returned to the rooftop and Axl and I made ourselves comfortable again. A few seconds later, my phone rang.

“I have to tell you about this guy I met today at the grocery store,” I blurted out before she’d even had a chance to say hello.

Axl picked up his head and looked at me as though he wanted to hear this story as well.

“Okay. Tell.”

“First, his name is Ty. Second, he is gorgeous, disarmingly gorgeous. He…”

“What does ‘disarmingly gorgeous’ mean exactly?” she interrupted.

“Well, he looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, with the kind of looks that make your jaw drop and render you speechless. Does that explain it clearly enough?”

“Describe, please.”

“He’s probably close to six feet tall. He’s pretty lean, but not skinny. His biceps looked good in the t-shirt he had on,” I shared with an embarrassed laugh. “He has dark blond hair that’s short in the back but it’s a little longer and kind of stands up on the top. It looks like he probably spends a good amount of time getting it that way. Anyway, his eyes are a gold-ish brown and when he looks at me, I literally can’t look away. It’s disconcerting.”

“Sounds terrible.”

“Haha. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying. He makes me feel self-conscious.”

“You? Self-conscious?”

“I know. But he is definitely the best looking guy I’ve ever seen in person. And he lives in Eden. Go figure.”

“Keep describing, please.”

“Well, he has a strong square jaw with a cleft chin. And he kind of has a baby face, perfect skin with slightly rosy cheeks. Oh, and full lips and sparkling white teeth. I’ll bet other guys hate him.”

“Do you have a picture?”

“How would I have a picture yet? That would be weird. I only met him today.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“So, that’s not even everything I needed to tell you.”

“What else?” she asked curiously.

“He called me earlier tonight and invited my whole family to dinner at his family’s house this Saturday night!”

“Shut the front door!”

“I know, right?”

“Are you going? What did Caroline say?”

“Yeah, everyone’s pretty excited about it. We’ve done absolutely nothing outside of arranging the house since we got here. I think Mum will be happy to have some adult interaction. She doesn’t start her job till Monday.”

“I can’t wait to hear how this goes. Promise me you’ll call as soon as you get home.”

“I will. I’m going to go. Talk to you later.”

“Ok. Good luck.”

“Thanks, Janie. See you.” I put my phone on the window’s ledge and resumed my stargazing with Axl for what seemed to be a very long time. When I finally made my way to the bed and drifted off to sleep, I dreamt of Ty, but it wasn’t a good dream. It felt ominous and was filled with images that I didn’t understand.

CHAPTER 6

Under Pressure

Saturday arrived too quickly. I was totally unprepared to be charming and witty. I wasn’t settled yet. I wasn’t comfortable in my new surroundings. It was different back home. What if my family embarrassed me? I knew that was extremely likely. Especially if the conversation turned to parentage. I hated the fact that the five of us had three different dads, plus another brother from my dad’s wife. Ugh! I’d do my best to steer the conversation away from that topic.

I fetched the newspaper from the front porch and sat in one of the rocking chairs, deciding to familiarize myself with the local news instead of stressing about our dinner plans. With my second cup of coffee in hand, I started reading the front page of the Pen Observer. Effingham County commissioners meet to discuss budget for upcoming fiscal year; curbside recycling coming to Pooler; blah, blah, blah. Holding these few pages in my hand reminded me that I hoped to one day be writing Pulitzer-worthy articles in a major market. Page three contained the first story I found to be even remotely interesting. “IS EDEN HAUNTED?” read the titillating headline. It seems there had been a series of unexplained events in Eden ― a motorist who swore that his car just drove itself off the road; a couple of public works employees who claimed that their backhoes had a mind of their own; a teen who believed she was pushed into the street by an invisible force, barely avoiding being hit by a car; etc. Hmmm. Dinner conversation? Perhaps.

I spent too long obsessing over my clothing options that afternoon. I didn’t want to look like I had tried too hard. But I also didn’t want to look like I didn’t care. Capris and a couple of layered tank tops? Some cute flips?

We all piled into the Suburban at about 5:45. I read the directions aloud as my mother navigated through the tiny town that mainly consisted of two-lane roads with no sidewalks. After about ten minutes, I spotted the blue house number sign on the right side of the road. She turned in to the tree-lined driveway, but there was no hint that a house was close by. It was a good thing Ty had warned me that their home was about a half mile off the road. The low hanging branches of the large trees crowded the SUV on both sides. Hollie and Danny were whimpering that they were scared and thought that the trees were going to get them. Mum and I laughed and assured them that the branches were not arms.

Much to the delight of all the kids, we finally arrived at the most amazing house I’d ever seen in my life. Because my dad was an architect, I was familiar with a variety of structural designs. This was a three-story American gothic style home with three large archways across the front — the middle one, slightly larger, showcased the large, arched door. The three third floor windows each had a small balcony at the base, and on the point of the front of the roof sat an imposing gargoyle. It appeared that he was staring right at us as we got out of the car that we parked on the edge of the circular drive. Even though the house and landscaping were beautiful, there was something dark about it as well, something eerie that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I was taking note of the ivy that was growing up the sides of this magnificent dwelling, the front door opened.

Ty walked out to greet us. “You must be Mrs. Jacobs,” he drawled, his perfect manners on display.

“Actually, it’s Rosen, but please call me Caroline,” she gushed, immediately impressed by his smooth southern charm. He flashed his amazingly bright smile and turned to look at me. And, again, once our eyes met, I found myself unable to break away from his gaze.

Essie, won’t you introduce me to your sisters and brother?” he said without looking away.

Of course,” I complied, wanting, yet unable, to take my eyes off him. “You remember Jennie from the Piggly Wiggly,” I said with a slight smirk and a shake of my head. It was still hard for me to say that name with a straight face. He nodded. “And this is Laurie, Hollie and Danny.”

It’s so nice to meet y’all,” he said politely, finally looking away from me. “Please come in,” he continued, as he led us in through the front door.

The foyer was truly grand. An antique chandelier hung from the high ceiling, its crystals sparkling as the sun’s rays, streaming through a half-moon window above the front door, bounced off various glass objects in the two adjacent rooms. Costly antiques placed tastefully here and there revealed one of the Gregorys’ interests. As Ty was leading us to the dining room, a large, ornately framed painting caught my eye. There was something vaguely familiar about it. When I stopped to examine it further, Ty noticed my interest and walked up behind me. The others kept walking. He startled me when he whispered, too close to my ear for comfort, “That’s Penemue. He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper; hence, the name of the local newspaper which, not coincidentally, is owned by my family. What do you think?”

Honestly, I couldn’t think with him standing that close to me. I purposefully cleared my throat and gulped, then stepped to the left and turned to face him.

Uhm…,” I started. Truth be told, it wasn’t my taste at all. But it was interesting. So that’s what I said. “…it’s interesting. And colorful. Is he an angel?”

Yes. Although, some say he was a fallen angel. And that symbol is the same symbol we use for the paper.”

That’s what caught my attention. I knew I had seen that somewhere.”

He smiled. “Ready to join the others?”

Sure.”

Joining our families in the huge dining room, Ty introduced me to his parents and his twin sister, Mara. They were all dressed in casual couture and everything about them screamed sophistication and refinement which did nothing to alleviate my self-consciousness.

Dinner went by fairly quickly, despite the fact that the prevailing thought in my head was how very strange this all was. Mrs. Gregory had their cook prepare a delicious southern meal consisting of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, a green bean casserole, biscuits, sweet tea, and peach cobbler for dessert. She said she wanted to be sure we were properly initiated to the South.

Being the owner of a newspaper, it was no surprise that Mr. Gregory asked each of us lots of questions, even the younger kids. They were excited to be included in the conversation and answered every question enthusiastically. When it was my turn, I explained that I was the editor of my former high school’s paper, or rather, was supposed to be, before the unexpected move. I suddenly realized that my disappointment might be seeping through, so I quickly forced a smile. At that, he graciously said that there was always room for eager young reporters at his paper. Of course, I was thrilled, but I doubted that I could seriously consider it. After all, I had no idea what was going to happen between me and Ty, and I certainly didn’t want to invade his turf if I wasn’t welcomed by him. Mara, trying to be helpful, suggested that I might want to write a piece on Eden from a Yankee’s perspective.

Mara. Where do I begin? Mara was tall and beautiful, with fluffy, blond hair, golden brown eyes like her brother’s, and a body that I’m sure garnered her much attention among the male populace. She was only sixteen, like me, but she could probably pass for twenty-one. When she spoke, I couldn’t help but imagine her in a sash and tiara. We couldn’t be more different, yet she mentioned several times how she just knew we were going to be “the best of friends”. With my possible interest in Ty, though, being friends with Mara might turn out to be a good thing.

I decided to mention that I had read the entire newspaper this morning and was intrigued by the article on Eden being haunted. It seemed to me that the Gregorys all glanced at each other knowingly, but quickly looked back to me and forced a laugh.

“What?” I asked, puzzled.

“You know, Essie, I wasn’t going to allow that article to be published. But I’m glad you liked it. I thought it was too silly. But Miss Andi insisted that it was in the public interest, so I relented. It will probably open the flood gates to all kinds of crazy stories now,” Mr. Gregory answered, seeming amused.

I had inadvertently ended any hope for normal conversation after bringing up that article, not that I minded. For the rest of our time there, the Gregorys entertained us, especially the little ones, with stories of hauntings and strange events around the area since the early 1700’s. We were also informed that Savannah had been named “America’s Most Haunted City”. Laurie and Hollie were so excited to hear that that Ty promised to take them on one of the many ghost tours offered daily.

That night, as I lay in my bed, my mind was racing once again. This was quite possibly the most bizarre and, yet, most amazing night of my life thus far. I had never met a boy who had had such an immediate impact on me. I didn’t like feeling this way, totally out of control. When he looked into my eyes, I couldn’t think. Not cool.

I woke to the buzzing sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand next to my bed. With my eyes still glued shut, I reached blindly for it. Despite having had a great time with Ty and Mara and their parents last night, I had another dark dream; this time I found myself wandering through their house all alone. Trying not to think of it, I attempted to open my eyes. The left one opened slowly, but the right one was stubborn. And when my defiant eyes finally surrendered to the inevitable, they looked like puffy marshmallows. As I forced the right eye open with my thumb and forefinger, I could barely make out the text message icon at the top of the screen. It was probably Jane. She had wanted me to call her as soon as we got back from dinner at the Gregorys, but I hadn’t felt like talking last night. Some time needed to pass and I needed to figure out what was bothering me before I could coherently recount the events of the evening.

My eyes refused to focus. I got up, got a cup of coffee, and went outside to the porch swing. I looked at the phone again and tapped the text icon. To my shock, it was a message from Ty. “Good Morning, Essie. Just wanted to say thanks for coming to dinner last night. My parents enjoyed your family’s company. Hope to see you soon.” I sat there for a long moment, not knowing what to think. I had never known a boy like this. What happened to the three day rule? Did he not care if it seemed like he really liked me? This was unchartered territory.

CHAPTER 7

Just What I Needed

I needed to talk to Jane. Now. I waited impatiently as the phone rang. “Answer, answer,” I whispered intolerantly into the receiver. Voicemail. Grrrrr! As I was preparing to leave a message, my phone beeped. Thank goodness it was Jane.

Sorry,” she said in a raspy voice. “I was sleeping.”

Well, wake up quickly because I have to tell you what just happened!”

What about last night? You didn’t call.”

Sorry. Okay. So, Ty’s house is *un*-believable. They must be very wealthy. His mother was so nice. She made this southern meal especially for us. His father, who owns and runs the local newspaper, was really nice, too. He even invited me to visit the paper’s office. We all talked the whole time we were there. No awkward silences. And he has this gorgeous sister who wants to be besties. And, then, this morning, he texted me.”

He texted you already?” Jane asked incredulously.

That’s what I wanted to talk to you about!”

He must really like you, Essie,” she said with a hint of teasing in her voice.

That’s what I was thinking. Do you think I should text him back?”

Well…” she mused. “What did the text say?”

I read it to her.

Yes,” she stated matter-of-factly. “He’s obviously very direct. And you usually are, too. What’s the problem?”

No problem, Jane. He just takes me off-guard and it’s messing with my confidence.”

Well, I think you should just go with it. Text him back and tell him thanks for the invite and you had a good time, too. That’s it. That’s just good manners. Nothing more. See what happens after that.”

All right. Let me go and I’ll text him now and let you know later on what happens, if anything.”

Okay. Don’t forget. Talk to you later.”

Okay. See you.”

“See you.”

I pressed “END,” then the text icon, and typed the following, “Good Morning, Ty. We all had a great time last night. Thanks again for inviting us. Essie.” Nothing more.

It was a beautiful morning. Not too hot yet. I thought I’d take the dog for a walk through a subdivision not far from our house. I finished my coffee and went inside.

Good morning,” I said to no one in particular, acknowledging the various family members sitting around the kitchen and family room.

I’m going to take Axl for a walk.”

Can I go? Can I go?” Hollie squealed impatiently.

No,” I said as nicely as possible. She didn’t usually take no for an answer, though, and I continued before she could start begging. “I’m going to walk him kind of far, over to that subdivision down the road. You know you’ll get tired halfway through and want Mum to come pick you up.”

She made that disappointed face that always got to me.

How about if I take you for an ice cream after lunch instead?”

She jumped up and down and sweetly yelled, “Okay, Essie.” She was so adorable. I really loved spending time with her.

I threw on some gym shorts and a t-shirt, pulled my hair back, and searched for an old collar and leash that I was sure was somewhere in one of the boxes we had yet to unpack in the garage. We’d had a dog, Dali, a beautiful Dalmatian with ice blue eyes, up until a couple of years ago. We had to put her to sleep because she got so old that she couldn’t function. It was traumatic for the whole family. Although we wanted another dog, we’d just never gotten around to it. Now Axl just appeared and was immediately accepted by all.

Here they are. Finally.” I huffed after spending a good twenty minutes searching through stacks of boxes. I grabbed them, whistled for Axl, and started off down the long Bradford pear tree-lined driveway. Hmmm. He didn’t come running. I walked back to the house. I opened the front door and yelled, “Has anyone seen Axl?”

“No,” I heard from the kitchen.

I assumed that he must have wandered off; after all, I had found him in the woods. Perhaps he belonged to another family, although he wasn’t wearing a collar. I decided right then that I would get him a new collar and a tag as soon as possible if he returned. Once again, I headed down the driveway. Before I had made it to the road, Axl came running up behind me.

“There you are,” I exclaimed happily. “Let’s go back and get your leash so we can go for a walk.” He seemed thrilled to comply.

About fifteen minutes later, I had made it to the nearby subdivision. I was totally sweating. I checked my phone, only to be discouraged to see that it was already 83° with a real feel of 91°. Ugh! Suck it up, I thought disapprovingly. Then, just as quickly, How can people stand it here? It’s sooooooo humid. It felt like we lived in a swamp. After I stopped the internal whining, I started noticing how cute the houses were. Each perfectly manicured yard had its own old-fashioned lamppost with a sign hanging from it indicating the owner’s name. Adorable! I walked along with Axl, admiring each house and waving to any person who happened to be in their yard. The people here were extremely friendly. As I rounded the first block, I saw a couple of guys throwing a football. Axl unexpectedly darted toward them, yanking the leash out of my hand. I didn’t know if he was going to attack them or what, and I ran after him, yelling his name. When he reached them, he just sat there, staring.

Is he friendly?” the big one asked in a heavy Southern accent.

So far. I just found him yesterday.”

I think he wants to hang out with us. How ‘bout you?” the leaner one invited.

Actually…”

Axl growled softly.

Undeterred, he continued, “Hey, are you from the new family that moved in down the road?”

Yes. And it’s really weird that everyone knows that. I’m Essie,” I said as I walked closer.

The leaner one offered his hand. “Jackson. And this is Colton.”

This time Axl barked and scooted very close to me. The guys stepped back. “It’s okay, Axl,” I said reassuringly.

Good to meet you, Essie,” Colton said with a shy grin.

You must go South Effingham High School, right?”

Jackson replied first. ”Yeah, we’re both seniors this year. You?”

I nodded.

That kinda sucks, huh? I mean, transferring your senior year?”

Very much so. But I had no choice in the matter, so I’m trying to make the best of it. But Eden is so small. It doesn’t seem like there’s much to do here.”

A bunch of us are going four-wheeling after dinner tonight. You should come,” Colton offered.

Yeah,” Jackson agreed. “At Black Creek. Do you have a four-wheeler? If not, we have one you can borrow.”

Surprisingly enough, my dad bought one for my sister and me right before we moved here. He figured we could use it since we had a little land and my sister’s not old enough to drive a car yet.”

Cool. You need directions to Black Creek?” Colton drawled, making Creek sound like Crake. I was getting used to the accent.

I nodded.

Give me your number and I’ll text them to you later.”

I complied. “Thanks,” I said, and quickly added, “I’d better get on with my walk. It’s going to be too hot real soon.”

See you later then?” Jackson asked uncertainly.

Sure. Later. See you.”

Bye, Essie,” Colton said sweetly.

I smiled and continued my walk with Axl, happy that I’d finally have something to do that didn’t involve a member of my family.

The day went by quickly as I helped my mother unpack and organize a bunch of the boxes from the garage. As promised, I received a text from Colton giving me directions to Black Creek. They seemed to be pretty straight forward. That being said, what was clear to one person, wasn’t usually clear to me. It was embarrassing to think of how many times I’d gotten lost. But I figured I’d find it eventually. At least it wouldn’t be dark.

After dinner, I struggled to push the four-wheeler up the makeshift ramp into the back of the used pickup that my mother had purchased a few days earlier. She figured we’d need it for any number of things, living out in the middle of nowhere as we now did. Apparently, she was right. I started the truck, cranked the radio, and headed for Black Creek. I was excited. Not only was I getting out of the house, but I’d get the chance to meet some more people before school started in three short weeks. At sixteen, there weren’t many things more awkward than walking into a new school, not knowing a soul, and enduring the inevitable stares and whispers. I felt guilty now, knowing that I had done that in the past, wishing for a do-over.

The only stations that the truck radio picked up were country stations. I hadn’t heard much of that in Bradford, but I thought I liked it, although I wasn’t sure I’d admit that to Jane, Peggie or Annie. I guess that, without thinking about it, we accepted the stereotype that country music equals redneck. But the people that I’d met so far were not like that at all, at least not what I’d imagined a redneck to be. Then again, most, if not all, of my information came straight from Jeff Foxworthy.

Amazingly, I found my way to Black Creek without getting lost even once. I felt proud. As I pulled in to the makeshift parking lot and found a space amidst a dozen trucks, I didn’t see Jackson or Colton, and I started feeling a little nervous.

“Please let them be here,” I whispered. I jumped out of the truck and headed around the back to open the tailgate. Just as it slammed down, I felt a huge hand on my shoulder. It startled me, and I turned quickly to see that it was Colton. Yay! I thought. They were here.

Hi, Colton.”

Hi, Essie. I saw you pull in and thought you could use a hand getting this down off the truck.”

Thanks. You’re a lifesaver. It took me forever to get it up there. I was afraid it might get away from me on the way down.”

He laughed. ”Let me.” He put the two wooden planks in place and rode the red machine down in about ten seconds.

It’s like you’ve done this before,” I teased.

Once or twice,” he replied shyly. “Come on. Jackson’s down there,” he pointed. “Everyone else, too. Gimme a ride?”

I looked around and realized he must have walked up to get me, since mine was the only four-wheeler in sight. “Why don’t you give me a ride? Full disclosure, this will be my first time riding in a long while. I’d hate to make a bad first impression by crashing this thing and permanently disfiguring you.”

He laughed and got on. “Jump on and hold on tight,” he said as he cranked it. He started out smoothly enough but then he hit the throttle really hard and accelerated, causing the front end to come up off the ground. I squeezed him tightly and muffled a scream, while he laughed heartily, let off the throttle, and returned my four-wheeler to earth. We drove for just a minute before reaching the rest of the group, hanging out around a large stone pit that looked as though it had contained many fires over the years.

CHAPTER 8

You Really Got Me

Colton revved the engine once before shutting it off, ensuring that we got everyone’s attention. I noticed Jackson sitting on a stump that appeared to have been carved into a chair of sorts, a cute blond sitting on one of his legs. He waved. She glared.

As we got off, Colton took my arm and steered me in front of him. “Y’all, this is Essie. Her mama bought the old Edwards house.”

Better not get too comfortable here,” someone shouted from across the pit. “People don’t stay long in that house.”

So I’ve heard. Miss Ginny came by to visit.”

They laughed. Apparently, everybody was familiar with the “welcome wagon”, otherwise known as Miss Ginny. I guess getting to know everyone would be helpful to Eden’s historian.

“Still, you’d better watch yourself,” the girl on Jackson’s leg warned. Just then, a snake slithered over her foot and she screamed and fell backwards into a pile of fallen leaves.

“It’s just a rat snake, Savannah,” Jackson said, laughing.

“It’s not funny, Jackson,” she whined. “Help me up.”

He reluctantly stood up and extended both hands. She grabbed them and pulled herself up. She looked around at the group and then at me.

“Are you okay?” I asked, trying to sound concerned.

“I’m fine,” she replied in a nasty tone.

We ridin’ or talkin’?” someone yelled out.

Ridin’,” Colton said, ignoring Savannah’s attempt to garner sympathy from the group. “But Essie hasn’t ridden in a while, so be nice. Don’t cut her off or nothin’.”

I smiled politely and walked toward my four-wheeler.

Just then, someone stepped out from the trees. When he took off his helmet, I saw that it was Ty. My heart jumped just a little and I hoped that my demeanor did not reveal my delight.

Essie? What a surprise. A pleasant one, of course,” he said in a tone that really didn’t sound that surprised.

Colton looked at me cheerlessly and began to walk away, looking at Ty. As he did, he tripped and fell on the ground, barely missing a jagged log that could have done a lot of damage.

Ty walked toward me, pausing to give Colton a hand, asking, “Hey, man. You okay?” Colton brushed himself off, looking embarrassed, saying nothing. As Ty moved closer, he fixed his gaze on mine and, as usual, I felt like I couldn’t look away. It was almost hypnotic.

I’m glad you’re here,” he said in a low voice, the sides of his mouth slowing curling into a slight smile. Without looking away, he reached for my helmet. “May I?” he asked, as he brought it closer to my head.

Sure,” was all I could think of to say.

As he carefully fastened the chin strap, he pressed his forehead to my helmet. In barely more than a whisper, he said, “I was thinking that since this is your first time here, you might want to ride with me for a while, familiarize yourself with the trails before heading out on your own.” He paused for a moment. “Yes?”

Yes,” was my brilliant reply. Surely, he must think me a dullard by now. But, if he did, he was hiding it well.

He extended his arm, indicating for me to get on his four-wheeler. Dubious, I questioned the motion. “Shouldn’t you get on first?”

Ladies first. And you should be in front. It’ll be easier for you to get the lay of the land.”

I eyed his sleek machine skeptically. It was seriously nice. A Polaris Predator 500, according to the lettering. Black, with a few red accents. It made my cute little Honda look sad. I definitely could not afford to do any damage. He put his hand on the small of my back in an effort to move me forward. I got on as gracefully as possible and he slipped on behind me. He pressed the ignition button and the engine roared to life. His chest was pressed hard against my back and his long arms wrapped around mine as he placed his hands gently on top of my hands, guiding my movements.

All the controls are on the handlebars. Ready?”

Ready,” I said confidently. Ready to ride, but not at all sure I was ready for Ty Gregory.

We rode all around Black Creek, over well-worn trails, and through open fields. Ty wanted to stop for a bit in one particularly beautiful field. I was happy to remove my helmet and let my head breathe, hoping that my shampoo’s fragrance of black raspberry and white tea was still sweet. Ty helped me off and I looked around. The ground was a carpet of deep green clover and the trees along the perimeter were draped in Spanish moss, looking like weathered fishing nets ready to be dropped on us as we moved slowly through the thick, wet air.

Did I tell you yet that I’m glad you’re here?”

Just once,” I said, smiling.

He gently brushed a few strands of hair back from my eyes and left his palm cupping my cheek. I lowered my chin and looked down. I could feel his eyes on me. In the silence of the field, surely he could hear my heart beating. After a long moment, he moved his hand, slightly, using his forefinger to slowly trace the line of my jaw, stopping at my chin. He lifted it. I didn’t want to look into his eyes, fearing they would give away every thought that was racing through my mind. In a hushed voice, he said my name, “Essie.” I looked up.

He brought his face toward mine. I stood perfectly still, unable to move, until I felt his lips touch mine. They were soft and full. He left them in place and I closed my eyes. I felt his free hand move to my other cheek so my whole face was in his hands. He brushed his lips tenderly over mine, bringing his thumbs in to touch the corners of my mouth. His kiss was so gentle. My heart was now thumping wildly in my chest. I thought I might pass out.

I ignored the lightheadedness that threatened to cause my legs to give out and kissed him back, following his lead, bringing both of my hands to his scruffy face. I loved the contrast of his rough stubble versus his soft lips as his chin rubbed mine. He momentarily left my lips to kiss my cheeks. When he brought his lips back to mine, he pressed a little harder. After several heartbeats, I pulled away. I stood motionless, my eyes still shut, trying to process what had just happened. That was the most amazing kiss I could have ever imagined. Granted, I had nothing to compare it to, but I was certain it was perfect.

When I opened my eyes, he was grinning. “What?” I asked breathlessly.

You are adorable!”

I shook my head, embarrassed. “We should head back.”

We should…” he drawled slowly.

Let’s go,” I said, finally crashing back into reality.

It seemed like we were gone for hours, yet, at the same time, it went by too quickly. We pulled back up to the pit and it looked like everyone else was already there. Someone had started a fire and most of the people were sitting on fallen logs or giant rocks that had been strategically placed around it. Ty took my hand and led me to an empty spot on one of the logs next to Jackson. They looked at each other, giving the guy nod. The conversation stopped suddenly and all eyes were on us for several seconds.

Awkward,” I sang, breaking the silence. The group laughed briefly, following Ty’s lead, and began chattering once again. I listened intently as stories of summertime adventures were swapped and gossip was excitedly shared.

Although I didn’t have a curfew, I was ready to leave by ten. I said my goodbyes to the group and looked for my four-wheeler. To my surprise, I learned that Colton had already put it up for me. I gave him a hug, which totally caught him off guard. He was like a giant teddy bear. At that same moment, something invisible seemed to have exploded in the fire and the flames leapt about ten feet in the air. Everyone gasped simultaneously.

“What the…?” Jackson hollered.

In a second, Ty had me in his arms. “Are you okay?”

“Sure. I’m fine. Really.”

“Come on. I’ll walk you to your truck.”

As I went to open the door, he spun me around. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re here tonight?” He smiled, making me immediately forget the explosion that could have seriously injured someone.

I laughed. ”Once or twice.”

Just making sure. Good night, Essie.”

Good night, Ty.” As we stood there in the moonlight, I couldn’t wait for him to kiss me again. He moved forward slightly, putting his hands on my shoulders and, to my surprise, kissed my forehead, leaving his lips there for a long moment. And then he turned and walked away.

It was all I could do to start the truck, back out, and make my way to the main road. I prayed that my mother wasn’t waiting up. All I wanted to do was crawl into my bed, listen to something mellow, and replay in my mind the events of this incredible night.

CHAPTER 9

Hard to Handle

I was still lying in my bed, although it was almost nine, remembering last night’s kiss — my first kiss — when my phone rang. I didn’t appreciate whoever was on the other end interrupting my reverie. The number was local and it wasn’t Ty’s.

Hello?”

Hey, Essie. It’s Mara. Ty’s sister?” she added the latter in the form of a question, as though I knew any other Maras or as if I wouldn’t remember the name of Ty’s twin sister.

Hi, Mara. What’s going on?” I asked, totally clueless as to why she’d be calling me.

I wanted to see if you felt like going to Savannah with me today. I need to do some serious shopping before school starts and it would give us a chance to get to know each other. Say yes!”

Sure. What time?”

I’ll come pick you up in an hour.”

Okay. An hour. I’ll be ready.”

Exactly one hour later, she pulled up in the most fabulous car I had ever seen. A shiny red two-seater convertible. A Porsche maybe? I walked over casually, opened the door, and situated myself in the tan leather seat as though I rode in one of these every day.

Hey!” she said in a bubbly tone.

Hey,” I replied, half-smiling, not really sure what else to say.

You ready to shop?”

I guess. But by the looks of this car, I’m not sure I can afford the same stores you can. What is it, by the way?”

It’s a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. And don’t worry about the stores, Essie. We can go wherever you’d like. Have you been to Savannah yet?”

Uhm, no. The furthest I’ve been is Black Creek.”

I heard you were there last night,” she teased, a big smile lighting up her flawless face.

You did?” I asked uneasily.

Ty told me he kissed you!”

He told you that?” I asked incredulously.

Don’t be mad. When he came home last night, he had this look on his face. I just knew that something had happened so I made him tell me.”

I’m not mad. Slightly embarrassed maybe.”

Well, don’t be. Ty and I are really close. We are twins, after all. We usually tell each other everything.”

That’s good to know,” I said warily, filing that bit of information away for future reference. “Anyway, it was no big deal,” I added, hoping she bought it. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of them sharing everything, at least as far as I was concerned.

No big deal? Really? That’s not how Ty described it.”

Apparently, you’re not going to drop this.”

Apparently not,” she said coolly.

Fine.”

Okay, tell me everything,” she insisted eagerly, the smile returning to her face.

What do you want to know?” I asked, resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to give up until I gave her what she wanted.

Start from when you arrived at Black Creek and don’t stop until the time you drove away.”

I thought for a second, knowing I’d have to choose my words carefully for fear that they’d be repeated to Ty verbatim. So I quickly related the evening’s events as matter-of-factly as possible, glossing over the kiss in the field, and trying hard to mask the excitement that was coursing through my veins.

Really, Essie?” she said, sounding concerned. “Ty likes you. He really likes you. And you’re making it sound like it was nothing. If it was nothing, then fine. I’ll let him know. But if you like him, why are you acting like you don’t?”

Mara, this is extremely weird for me. Do you not see that? You’re putting me in an awkward position. I can’t talk to you like a girlfriend when I know that you’re going to tell Ty everything I say. I don’t want him to know everything.”

I won’t tell him everything, Essie. I promise. And he didn’t give me any details, by the way. You know how guys are. He said he liked you and that he kissed you. That’s it. That’s why I need you to fill in the important stuff.”

She had an undeniable persuasiveness about her, just like her brother, and I was unable to maintain my original stance. “All right, then.” I took a breath and dove in. This time I recounted everything, just as I would have for Jane. She seemed pleased.

We made it to Savannah in about twenty minutes, thanks to Mara’s lead foot and her seeming lack of concern over the possibility of a speeding ticket. As we made our way through the city’s streets, I noticed that my new bff definitely did not mind the attention she garnered in her Porsche. Or out of her Porsche, for that matter. Men and women both appeared to fawn over her. I felt like the ugly stepsister. Wherever we went, she was the center of attention which, of course, had it perks.

Despite her assurance that I needn’t worry about her choice of stores, we flitted from one upscale store to the next; me, enviously eyeing all the beautiful clothing I couldn’t afford, but being a dutiful cheerleader; she, practically throwing items at the willing sales people without even trying them on. Mara had valet parked at a hotel called The Mansion in the historic district of the city and had had all her purchases sent to the concierge to be retrieved later.

After our whirlwind shopping spree, she treated me to lunch at the fancy restaurant next door to the hotel, where they didn’t bring a check, she just signed something. Maybe my initial assessment of this friendship was a little hasty…

Then the inevitable happened. It started with a subtle comment. “Essie,” she cooed as we were walking from the restaurant to yet another store. “I think you are naturally beautiful. You don’t have to wear any make-up at all. And your hair — I’ll bet you just towel dry it, run a comb through it and you’re done. And it looks great! But I was just wondering if you’d let me get you a makeover. I know this amazing place that…”

A makeover?” I interrupted. “I don’t think so, Mara. I don’t like people fussing over me. And I wouldn’t feel like me if I was all made up.”

That’s the point. It’s a fantasy, a break from the same old. Like I was saying, I know this amazing place that does hair and makeup. I’ll do it, too, Essie. And we can get a pedicure if you want.” She said this with so much excitement in her voice that I felt obliged to indulge her.

Before I could say anything, though, she grabbed my arm and pulled me through a door into this fashionably hip space that I guessed was the “amazing place” she had told me about only seconds earlier. Based on the stores we had already been to that day, this establishment was unexpected, someplace I might actually choose on my own. I love brightly colored objets d’art with a folk influence and this place had them in abundance. A girl with several visible tattoos and hot pink chunked hair greeted us cheerfully when she saw Mara.

Hey, girl. It’s been a while. Where you been hidin’?”

They hugged. “We just got back from Paris. And I brought you something, Nicole,” she said, reaching into her purse, pulling out a small box and handing it to the curious girl. Nicole brought the box up close to her right eye and she opened it slowly, squinting to see inside.

Oooooh,” she trilled, throwing the top off to reveal a funky bracelet replete with a variety of charms, all black. “I love it!” she said as she deftly fastened it on her left wrist. I could make out a mask, a book, a musical note, a heart. That was nice, I thought to myself. They hugged again.

After Mara introduced me, Nicole asked sweetly, “So, what are we doing today?”

Essie and I would like our hair and makeup done. And a pedicure, too.”

As Nicole and another girl, Christine, who sported short, spiky hair and diamond studs of varying sizes covering the outer edges of both ears, worked on us with meticulous care, Nicole asked Mara, “When are we going to karaoke again? It’s been too long.”

“It has. I’m free next weekend. I’ll text you.”

Two arduously long hours later, we were done. All made up and no place to go. Leaving the salon, I now felt ridiculous in my shorts, t-shirt and flips. But it was late afternoon, almost dinner time, and as we headed back toward the hotel where we had parked much earlier in the day, I assumed our next stop would be Eden. As soon as we walked through the hotel door, a young woman in an impeccably tailored suit welcomed us.

Mara! It’s so nice to see you again. Are you ready for your packages?”

Yes, Kari. May we use a room for a few minutes?”

Of course.”

I’d like all my packages brought in, please.”

Of course,” she repeated, and showed us to a small private room off the lobby. “Can I have anything else brought in for you?”

Maybe some sparkling water with lime. Thank you.”

Kari smiled and closed the door.

What are we doing, Mara?” I asked, totally confused.

I have a surprise for you. Don’t be angry.”

I’m not angry. I’m just wondering what the heck we’re doing.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Mara walked purposefully and made a grand gesture as she opened the door. A valet entered with her numerous purchases from the day’s shopping spree and placed them on the long table located on the opposite side of the room. He left for a second and reappeared with a silver tray holding two bottles of sparking water, two crystal glasses, and a crystal bowl containing several lime wedges. She discreetly slipped him a tip and then we were alone.

So, again, what are we doing here?”

Well…” she began. “I was thinking that since we look absolutely fabulous, we might as well go out this evening.”

I can’t go anywhere decent dressed like this. We’d need to go home first.”

That’s part of the surprise. I picked up a few things for you.”

What?!”

Yeah, I noticed some of the items you were looking at and I asked the clerks to wrap them up for you.”

Mara, I don’t know what to say. This is beyond generous. I feel really awkward right now. I mean, you’ve already insisted on paying for lunch and our makeovers. This is over-the-top.”

It’s only money, Essie, and I have plenty. Please let me do this. I really, really want to. Come on, we’ll have so much fun.”

I sighed, supposing she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Yay!” she exclaimed and started tearing through the bags, throwing several pieces of clothing my way. “Pick something.”

I chose a slim pink floral skirt and a loose-fitting pink tank top with satin edging. It was beautiful. I stared into the full-length mirror, admiring my shiny, flat-ironed hair and perfect, yet subtle, makeup applied in various shades of pink. I no longer felt like the ugly stepsister. All I needed were some glass slippers which, of course, the shopping queen had generously provided.

I twirled around for Mara, certain I must be glowing. “You look beautiful,” she encouraged.

Thank you,” I said quietly. “For everything. This day has been amazing.”

It’s not over yet,” she reminded me. “We’re at least going to dinner. And we’ll see what we feel like doing after that.”

I should call my mother. I told her we were just going shopping for the day. I need to let her know that we’ll be late.”

Good idea,” she agreed, as she slipped into one of the outfits she bought.

All eyes were on us as we made our way through the lobby. It was an exhilarating feeling, being the center of attention. One I was not used to, but loving at the moment.

Enjoy your evening, ladies,” said the valet stationed by the front door as he opened it for us.

“Thank you,” I beamed.

Although the restaurant that we were headed to was only a couple of blocks away, Mara informed me that we were taking a taxi; she didn’t want us to ruin our new shoes on the cobblestone sidewalks.

The cab let us out in front of a cute restaurant adorned with an alligator. As we were being shown to our table, I was looking around, admiring the décor, not paying attention. When we approached our table, I was shocked to see Ty sitting there, his dazzling smile lighting up the room.

Surprise,” Mara whispered, leaning in toward me.

Ty stood up and pulled out the chair opposite his, motioning for me to sit. I panicked for a moment, thinking that Mara might sit next to Ty and that all their attention would be focused on me. Thankfully, she sat next to me.

What are you doing here?” I asked him guardedly.

Mara called and told me how beautiful you looked and she didn’t think it should be wasted on her. She wasn’t exaggerating,” he said smoothly, staring.

Uncomfortable could not possibly describe how I was feeling. When I thought it was just me and Mara, I felt empowered. Being all of sixteen years old, dressed in haute couture, and having a new bff with unlimited disposable income was thrilling. Sitting across from this gorgeous guy with his perfectly coiffed hair and soulful brown eyes was terrifying. Instinctively, I looked down.

Our server approached to take our drink order and to see if we’d like any appetizers. Ty took the initiative to order a fruit and cheese course along with some fried green tomatoes and still water all around.

You haven’t had fried green tomatoes yet, have you?” he asked me.

Not yet, but I’ll try anything once.”

I’m glad to know that,” he said playfully.

I smiled nervously.

Mara excused herself from the table and Ty took the opportunity to sit in her seat. He turned the chair and brought it so close to mine that it touched. I turned slightly to face him.

I can tell that you’re nervous and I just wanted to tell you that you have no reason to be. You are beautiful, with or without all this,” he said gesturing with his hand toward my face and clothes, “and I’m looking forward to spending more time with you.” He paused. “One more thing…” He kissed me softly on my lips and I automatically closed my eyes. “I couldn’t wait to do that again. Forgive me.”

I forgive you,” I said quietly, my eyes still closed.

Awww,” Mara interrupted. Ty stood quickly, pulled out her chair, and returned to his original seat.

Feeling more at ease after the kiss, dinner passed without incident. Brother and sister peppered me with questions about my background, my friends, my family, my interests. They didn’t give me much of an opportunity to reciprocate. When our server came with the dessert menu, Ty declined. To be honest, I was slightly disheartened. During the interrogation, I had mentioned how much I loved chocolate — from malted milk balls to triple chocolate layer cake and everything in between. The food here was delicious and interesting and I was sure the desserts wouldn’t disappoint. As we were walking out, I began to think of the mmb’s that I had stashed in my room at home. I needed chocolate like some people needed drugs. Whether I was happy, or sad, or nervous, or whatever, chocolate was my friend.

We grabbed another taxi and I assumed we were returning to the hotel. When we pulled up to a place that was obviously not the hotel, I asked Ty where we were. He raised his index finger to his lips and shook his head. We stepped out of the cab and, to my absolute delight, we were at a place called Lulu’s Chocolate Bar.

I am so happy right now,” I gushed, standing on the sidewalk, staring in the window.

Ty laughed. “Why don’t we go in and see if there’s anything you’d like.”

Let’s.”

He opened the door for me and Mara to enter. The aroma of chocolate and coffee was wonderful. Mara immediately spotted a guy she knew at the bar and pranced away. Ty took advantage of the situation, finding us a table for two in a dimly lit corner, and we sank into a couple of high back leather chairs. From an internet jukebox, some old Motown played faintly in the background of the long, narrow space which was flanked by exposed brick walls.

When our server came over, Ty stood up and gave her a hug. “Mia. It’s good to see you.”

You, too, stranger. It’s been a while,” said the girl with the long dark hair and friendly smile.

“We’ve been travelling. Just got back a few days ago.” He turned to look at me. “Mia, I’d like you to meet Essie.”

“It’s great to meet you, Essie. Is this your first time here?”

“It is. I just moved to Eden a couple of weeks ago. Ty and Mara have been showing me around Savannah today. They obviously saved the best for last.”

“I’m sure you’ll love it here.”

Ty ordered for the both of us ― a chocolate espresso créme brûleé, a triple chocolate mousse, a chocolate layer cake, a couple of chocolate truffles and two coffees. In spite of how much I prided myself on my independence, I secretly loved that he took that liberty without saying a word. It was so Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair”.

He reached across the table and took my hands in his. “Now, where did we leave off? I don’t think you told me about your father.”

And you haven’t told me much about anything. You first.”

We’ll get to that. I promise. But right now, I want to know everything there is to know about you. So tell me about your dad. Please.”

It was becoming clear that Ty and Mara got what they wanted. So I acquiesced. “Well, his name is Sam and he’s an architect in Boston. I’m sure you’d like him. Everybody does. He’s one of those guys who never meets a stranger. Plus, he’s really funny.”

So, y’all were close?”

Yes,” I said in a tone laced with dismay.

You miss him.” It wasn’t a question.

I do. I was angry that he didn’t fight my mother to force us to stay in Massachusetts, but I guess it wouldn’t have made a difference. She was intent on taking the job here.”

Why didn’t you just stay there with your dad?”

I could never leave my mum alone. She needs me. The kids need me,” I said, realizing for the first time that I had never even considered that as a viable option.

That was awfully magnanimous of you.”

I loved the fact that he not only knew that word, but that he used it properly. My affinity for writing required a decent knowledge of vocabulary; however, I didn’t normally have the chance to use it in everyday conversation. “Hardly. Just pragmatic.”

He smiled his dazzling smile. “Modest, too.”

Mia returned with our coffee and the assortment of heavenly chocolate confections that Ty had ordered for us. I fixed my coffee and stirred it slowly, watching the spoon go round and round, contemplating the past few days. My total distress over the sudden move to Eden had turned to euphoria since meeting Ty. Present bliss aside, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. While everything about him seemed perfect, I was keenly aware that nothing is perfect. The old adage, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” came to mind again. But as he was bringing a spoonful of chocolate mousse to my mouth, I filed those thoughts away for another time.

So this is all it takes to make you happy?”

Mmm-hmm,” I answered, my mouth full of mousse.

This is going to be easy then,” he said mischievously.

What’s going to be easy?”

Making you fall in love with me.”

Oh. My. Gosh. He did not just say that. How was I supposed to respond? I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.

I don’t know what to say,” I finally said, honestly.

You don’t have to say anything. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

I heeded his advice and said nothing.

He held out a truffle.

Thank you.”

He watched me intently as I ate my truffle, and neither of us said anything for a minute or so.

So, what do you think of Eden?” he asked in what I imagined was his attempt to fill the now awkward silence.

I helped him out. “Frankly, I was expecting a date here to consist of line dancing at a local country bar.”

He burst out laughing. “I’m sure your expectations would have been met had you gone out with Jackson or Colton.”

Hey… They seem nice. They were the ones who invited me to Black Creek.”

They’re good guys. And I guess I owe them for that.”

Since we’re on the subject, what was going on with Colton when you suddenly appeared at the pit? I mean, all you did was say hi to me and he immediately backed off.”

I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his voice oozing with spurious sincerity.

So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?”

He quickly put a big piece of the chocolate layer cake in his mouth.

Mara came whirling over at that point. “Hey, brother. Are you behaving?”

Of course. Are you?”

Never!” she teased and she was gone.

The prior awkwardness had disappeared and we talked easily for the next couple of hours, slowly making our way through every last bit of chocolate on the table, and drinking cup after cup of coffee. There was no way I was going to sleep any time soon, but the chocolate bar was closing. We found Mara and caught a cab back to the hotel. On the way, Ty asked her if she minded if he took me home. She winked at me and asked if that was what I wanted. “I’ll be fine,” I assured her. Once at the hotel, we waited for her car to be brought around, put her in it, and waved as she drove off.

Do you have to be home by a certain time?” Ty asked me as soon as Mara was out of sight.

I don’t have a curfew, if that’s what you mean. What did you have in mind?”

I’d love for you to take a walk along the river with me. It’s a beautiful night.”

I’d like that.”

He took my hand and we headed toward the coast. As we strolled along the sidewalks lined with unique shops, he patiently indulged me as I stopped at almost every window to peer inside. Savannah was very cool. I tried to remember why I was so upset about moving here.

I could hear a cacophony of music spilling over from the bars on River Street before we actually got there. As we got closer, I could distinguish what sounded like an Irish sing-along. Ty put his arm around my waist and drew me close to him as we crossed the street, stepping carefully over the railroad tracks. The moon shone brightly and its reflection was beautiful on the calm surface of the water. Just before we reached the guardrail that separated the sidewalk from the river, we stopped.

Let’s sit here for a bit,” Ty suggested, moving me toward an unoccupied bench.

After sitting in comfortable silence for several minutes, watching a couple of container ships drift past, he asked if I was ready to walk some more. I was up for anything that allowed this night to continue. He jumped up quickly and extended his hand to help me up. He held on to my hand as we walked along the river’s edge, talking effortlessly, sharing our concerns about senior year and college applications. When the brick sidewalk ended, a destination that had looked very far off from where we began, we turned around and stopped at a small park containing a bronze statue of a woman with her dog. I didn’t have time to study it as Ty whisked me past. He wanted to sit down behind the image, conveniently out of the view of any tourists who might pass by.

“What are we doing?”

“I need to hold you.”

If that was a line, I was biting. He looked so sweet and sincere. I wished that I had thought to change into my shorts and t-shirt. I didn’t want to ruin the nicest clothes I’d ever owned. But I said nothing, certain he would have told me not to worry about it. So I kicked my shoes off and followed his lead.

He twirled me around with his right hand holding mine, as though we were on the dance floor, and stopped me when my back was against his chest. Carefully, he guided us downward on to the soft grass. Seated behind me, his legs were on either side of mine, his hands now on my bare shoulders, slowly moving them down my arms. Although it was warm, I shivered. He wrapped his arms around my waist, embracing me tightly for a moment. Suddenly, I felt his lips on my ear as he whispered, “I’ll keep you warm.”

I’m not cold.”

But you have chill bumps.”

Only because I’m so close to you,” I admitted reluctantly.

Without saying another word, he began kissing my ear, then moved to my neck, taking his hands from my waist and placing them around my biceps, squeezing gently. My body went from tense to limp as his lips moved from my neck to my shoulder and back again. His breath was warm on my skin. I wanted so desperately to turn around and kiss him back, but I was paralyzed. When he brought his hands to the back of my neck and ran his fingers up through my hair, grabbing hold of it with loosely clenched fists, we fell backward on to the grass. I positioned myself on my side, my head resting on my elbow, and laughed nervously. Before I could catch my breath, his hand was behind my head, pulling me to him, kissing me hard. This is too much, I thought. And then I felt his knee between my legs, his body moving on top of mine. I tried to stop him, to pull away, but he was so strong. When I was finally able to turn my head away, I yelled at him, “Get off of me! Stop! Ty, get off of me!”

Immediately, he jumped up. “Essie, I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I thought…”

Thought what?” I asked incredulously.

He just looked at me, speechless.

You need to take me home. Now, please.” I picked up my shoes and started walking.

Essie, I am so sorry,” he repeated. “Wait. Please.”

I have nothing to say to you, Ty Gregory, except please take me home now.”

I will. But give me a minute. Look at me.”

I didn’t want to look at him. I was afraid that, even now, I would melt when his eyes met mine. “Please, let’s go,” I pleaded, but without all the rage that I had unleashed just a moment earlier.

As soon as you look at me. Please, Essie,” he implored softly.

Just as I feared, every last bit of rage evaporated when our eyes met. “I am truly sorry, Essie. Please say you forgive me.”

What was this magnetism that drew me to him, even in a situation like this? I wondered. I had every right to be angry. He had gone too far. He had really scared me. Yet, when I looked into his eyes, I couldn’t resist him.

I forgive you,” I said compliantly, but not really meaning it.

Thank you.”

We made it back to the hotel pretty quickly, our conversation terse. The valet saw us approaching and he ran to get Ty’s vehicle. A minute later, he pulled up in a car that was even more outrageous than Mara’s. I saw the Prancing Horse and knew immediately that it was a Ferrari. I just shook my head. This was all too much.

We sped off from the hotel through the now empty streets of Savannah, Ty taking out his frustration on the gear shift. He drove even faster than his sister and we made our way quickly to the highway. Not that I minded, that just meant that I’d be home sooner. A few silent minutes later, he pulled into my driveway and shut off the engine.

I reached for my purse with my left hand and the door handle with my right. Ty gently put his hand on my left forearm. “Don’t leave like this, Essie.”

I glanced at his hand on my arm and then at him, being careful not to look too long. He removed it, seeming hurt. I opened the door and got out.

Thank you for dinner and for taking me to the chocolate bar,” I said without emotion, closing the door quietly. And I walked into my house.

A half hour later, as I was lying in bed unable to sleep, I got a text from Mara. “What the heck happened? Ty’s really upset, but he won’t talk to me.”

“I don’t want to talk either.” SEND.

“I can help.”

“No, thanks, Mara. I’m going to sleep.” SEND. OFF.

CHAPTER 10

Caught Up in You

I didn’t get out of bed until after noon. I had tossed and turned all night and was exhausted, but I finally dragged myself downstairs to see if anyone was around. The kids were outside playing with the water hose and Mum was on the back porch swing. I couldn’t face her right now. I needed to get out of here. I ran back upstairs, got dressed in a hurry, grabbed my secret stash of mmb’s, yelled bye to Mum, and flew out the front door. As I approached my car, I noticed a folded piece of paper stuck in the driver’s side window between the glass and the rubber guard. I snatched it out, crumpled it up, and threw it into my purse without looking at it. I whistled for Axl. A second later, he appeared and I let him jump in, over the driver’s seat and on to the passenger’s side, as though we did this every day. I love this dog!

I pulled out on to the road and just started driving, blasting my emergency song, “Don’t Worry Baby”. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was about this particular song that mellowed me out, but those perfect Beach Boys’ harmonies did it for me every time. I had no idea where I was going. I just knew I had to find somewhere secluded so I could lay on my blanket, jam the earbuds into my ears, eat mmb’s till I was sick, and eradicate every thought of Ty Gregory. I was driving for about ten minutes or so when I realized I was headed toward Black Creek. The guys had mentioned that no one usually rode there during the day. I figured I’d stop by and see if there were any vehicles in the lot. Five minutes later, I pulled in and was relieved to see that no one was around. I retrieved my blanket from the trunk, picked up my bag, and called for Axl to follow me. We strode down a randomly chosen path, eventually stumbling onto a field that resembled the one I had had my first kiss in just the other night. I surveyed the area briefly and decided on the perfect spot — in the shadow of the branches of a large oak tree, complete with the ubiquitous Spanish moss sprinkled over it like tinsel on a Christmas tree.

I spread out my blanket, the one I always kept in my trunk for times like this, and flopped down in the middle of it. I reached into my purse for my phone, finding the crumpled piece of paper instead. I opened it slowly, not sure I really wanted to read it. In neat block letters, it simply read: “My sweet Essie, I will do whatever it takes”. It was sweet and it made me happy, and yet, at the same time, angry with myself for feeling that way. I threw the note back in my purse, grabbed my phone, and opened the box of mmb’s. I perused my playlists, looking for something calming, meditative. I decided on some classical violin, my standard choice for serious contemplation. There was something about classical music, and especially the violin, that spoke directly to my soul. It could make me smile in an instant and then, just as suddenly, bring me to tears. It made me feel “floaty”. I laid back and closed my eyes, imagining the story Massenet had in mind as he was composing this particular masterpiece. The temperature had already reached ninety degrees, according to my phone, but there was a slight breeze that circulated the humid air just enough to make it bearable in the oak’s shadow.

Damn him!” I cursed out loud, as happy thoughts of last night ambushed my imaginary violin drama. I needed to be angry. I was insulted that he thought I was the kind of girl who would hook up on a quasi-third date, in a public park, no less. Yet, I had to admit that everything else prior to “the incident” was perfect. Maybe he was just used to girls who didn’t say no. After all, he was beautiful and charming and rich. And, to be fair, most girls my age were no longer virgins. He probably just assumed. Ugh! I was rationalizing on his behalf. Did I at least owe him the opportunity to mount his own defense? Maybe. But right now I turned my attention back to the music and I drifted off as Ty and I became the leads in the Victorian-era tale I had dreamt up.

When I opened my eyes, I thought I was still dreaming. Ty was sitting cross-legged on the blanket, petting Axl, watching me. I blinked a couple of times, then sat up abruptly.

What are you… How did you…” I stammered. He just stared at me as though he was studying my face for an important test to be given later. “How did you find me here?” I asked, finally able to finish a sentence.

I went by your house a little while ago to see if you were ready to talk to me and your mom said you ran off with the dog. I knew you weren’t familiar with the area yet, but you’d been here, and it’s a great place to bring a dog. Anyway, I took a chance. But if you weren’t here, I would have kept looking. I don’t want any more time to pass with you not speaking to me. Will you please let me explain?”

Go ahead.”

Thank you,” he said, his voice low and sounding earnest. He continued, “First, let me say again how sorry I am. I should have exhibited more self-control. I was wrong. But the way you kissed me…”

I gasped. “Are you trying to say that it was my fault?” I asked with all the accusation I could put into a question.

No. Absolutely not. That’s not what I was trying to say. Please give me a minute to talk without interrupting, okay?”

I stared at him, expressionless, saying nothing.

I like you, Essie. From the moment I saw you in the grocery store, I just knew there was something different about you. I have never invited another girl to my home for dinner with my parents. Never. I won’t lie to you and tell you that there haven’t been other girls, but I can tell you that none of them meant anything to me. I know it’s only been a few days, but I’ve never met anyone like you. I love how you interacted with my family, and yours, at dinner. I love how you randomly made friends with Jackson and Colton and came all by yourself to go four-wheeling. I love how you indulged my sister on her shopping spree, especially because I can tell it’s not something that you particularly care about. I love how you use big words. I love how much you love chocolate and coffee. What I’m trying to say, not very articulately, I know, is that all those feelings rose to the surface when you kissed me. And I just wanted you so badly. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I know that’s not an excuse for my behavior, but it’s the truth. If you’ll forgive me, I promise to keep my hands to myself in the future,” he vowed, repentance in his eyes.

Awww, he was so sweet. How could I say no to that? I thought, wanting to grant him absolution. Everyone deserved a second chance, right? “I forgive you,” I said softly, this time meaning it.

He smiled his dazzling smile. “I want to give you a hug.”

I’d like that.”

From his sitting position, he got up on his knees and moved toward me with his arms outstretched. I broke into a smile and followed his lead. He embraced me tenderly for a very long moment, and every bit of animosity that had consumed me mere minutes before melted away. When I rested my head on his chest, he began to gently run his fingers through my hair, picking up pieces and letting them fall. “I forgive you,” I whispered again. And he turned his head to kiss the side of my face.

As the afternoon wore on, he finally began to reveal some details of his life. His family’s wealth had been inherited through many generations. I laughed when he told me that his ancestors had originally hailed from the Middle East; he couldn’t look more all-American, with his blond hair, straight, smallish nose, and quarterback good looks. I also learned that he had travelled the world with his family; he loved fast cars and had had the seat and console of his Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano custom fit at the factory in Maranello, Italy; his family had a vacation home on Sea Island, one of Georgia’s barrier islands, south of Savannah; he loved to sail and to play golf. I wondered aloud why they had settled in the tiny town of Eden.

There are some things about my family that are better left unsaid at the moment,” he answered cryptically.

That statement will only increase my curiosity. You know I’m an aspiring journalist and I love a good story.”

Another time, Essie.”

I started to protest but he held his finger to my lips. “Another time.” And then he quickly changed the subject. “You must be hungry by now. Can I take you to dinner?”

Now that I thought about it, I was hungry. The only thing I’d had to eat all day were my malted milk balls.

I wish we had something here so we didn’t have to leave.”

I can go get something if you’d like. What are you in the mood for? And keep in mind that the local options are limited.”

Surprise me.”

Hmmm…” he pondered. Then he kissed my cheek and said, “I’ll just be a few minutes.”

He returned with Chinese food from the next town over, complete with chopsticks. I felt like we were acting out a scene from some romantic movie as we sat across from one another, sharing boxes of Chinese takeout, making each other laugh.

When it was time to open the fortune cookies, he handed me one and commanded, “You first.”

I cracked open the cookie and pulled out the slip of paper that had been tucked inside. “Discover the power that is within yourself.”

“Are you keeping something from me?” he teased. “What secret power do you possess?”

“Maybe I can fly! Now all I have to do is discover it,” I laughed. “What about yours?”

“Your smile brings happiness to everyone you meet.”

“Does it really say that?”

He handed me his fortune. I shook my head. “I’m sure that’s true.”

“But does it make you happy?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” I remarked evasively.

He flashed his dazzling smile again, but in a forced, comical way that made me fall over laughing.

“Is my smile bringing you happiness?” he inquired through clenched teeth.

“Yes,” I admitted, unable to stop laughing.

“I’m not convinced,” he continued, the smile still plastered on his face.

“You win. You win,” I relented. “Your smile brings me happiness.”

“Was that so hard?” he asked, finally returning his face to normal.

“Not so hard.”

CHAPTER 11

All Day and All of the Night

I was drinking coffee in my pajamas when I heard a knock on the front door. Caught off guard, I approached it cautiously, thankful that the small glass inlay was slightly above my eye level. Standing on my tiptoes, I could see it was Ty.

Just a minute. Let me put something on,” I yelled through the door.

Take your time.”

I ran up to my room and flung open the closet door, rooting through my drawers for anything acceptable. I found a pair of shorts and a tee and threw them on. After running the tooth brush over my teeth and pulling my hair back, I returned to the front door only to find Laurie and Hollie talking with Ty on the porch.

Good morning,” I said, slightly winded. “You coming in?”

Are you inviting me into your home?” he asked purposefully, his eyes locking with mine.

I am,” I answered, transfixed, unsure why he was being so formal.

Then I’d like to come in,” he said decisively, stepping over the threshold.

What are you doing here?”

I came to take you to breakfast. And maybe to lunch and dinner, too.”

I looked him up and down and bemoaned the fact that, although he was dressed casually, he had an elegance about him that I couldn’t match no matter what I was wearing. Regardless, I wasn’t going out for the day in jean shorts and a UMass t-shirt.

I need to change,” I sighed.

He looked at me sweetly, instinctively understanding that it was probably best to remain silent. I returned to my closet, wishing that the clothes fairy had brought something decent since the last time I checked. Alas, my wish had not been granted. I pulled out some khaki shorts and a chocolate brown fitted tee with a tan outline of some eco-tree design on it. That was the best I could do on no notice. I also decided to take my hair down, but I shoved a ball cap in my purse, just in case.

Ready,” I announced when I reached the bottom of the stairs.

He met me at the door and we said our goodbyes to my family.

You look great,” he said softly as he put his arm around my waist and closed the door behind us. In his typical gallant manner, he opened the passenger door and allowed me to get situated before closing it. When he got in, I asked where we were headed to first.

Waffle House, of course,” he said with a grin.

At one point during our hours of conversation at Black Creek yesterday, I vaguely remember mentioning that I wanted to eat at a Waffle House because we didn’t have them in Massachusetts. He had laughed and I assumed he had dismissed the comment as just another random thought in the many that I had shared. He was obviously very attentive. I would have to be careful about what I said out loud.

My breakfast was delicious. I ate my first serving of grits which, to me, tasted just like cream of wheat. And they had raisin toast with apple butter. Yum! I did take umbrage, however, with their claim to serve “America’s Best Coffee”. Ummm, no. I believe Starbucks has that honor, at least according to my taste buds. Our conversation centered on the food that we ordered as well as the many other items that we saw pictured on the menus that were left on the counter as placemats, and Ty appeared to be amused by my many observations. This would not be our last visit, I declared, as he slipped a twenty under the check. I could picture us being regulars.

You’re crazy,” Ty drawled as he shook his head slightly. But as we stood to leave, he called our waitress over.

“Donna,” he began, looking into her soft, blue, weary eyes, “we are going to be your new favorite customers.”

“Whatever you say, darlin’,” she replied in her thick country accent.

“See you soon, then,” he said with a wink.

Donna watched us leave, waving as we walked out the door.

“You’re unbelievable!”

“In what way?”

“In the way that you just put her under your spell! Do you do that with everyone?”

“You’re giving me too much credit, Essie. I was just being nice. You said you wanted us to be regulars so I wanted to be sure she’d remember us.”

I sighed and let it go.

Feel like taking a drive?” he asked as we left the parking lot.

Sure. Where are we going?”

You’ll see,” he said playfully.

Okay.” I figured that whatever he had in mind would be fun, based on what I’d seen so far. And, although I could sometimes be a bit of a control freak, I appreciated Ty’s spontaneity and his desire to show me a good time.

Less than an hour later, we arrived at his family’s vacation home on Sea Island. Of course, being on the beach, it was very different from the mansion in Eden. It was surprisingly “beachy” — a pale coral, Mediterranean-inspired, single level, sprawling, comfortable-looking house on the beach that was amusingly referred to as a cottage. We walked around the back to a spacious covered patio that blended seamlessly into the sand. The view was gorgeous. Large dunes spotted with clumps of sea grass had formed on either side of a walkway edged with stones that extended toward a deep blue-ish gray ocean. On the edge of the shore was a floating dock to which a couple of boats were securely fastened. After admiring my surroundings for a long moment, I fell into an overstuffed chair positioned next to a stone fireplace.

This is amazing,” I concluded.

We can stay as long as you’d like,” he offered.

I sat quietly for a bit in the comfy chair, not quite sure how I should respond. I would love to stay here, of course. It was beautiful. And it would be great to be all alone with Ty. So, that’s two items on the pro side. As for the cons, there was one disturbingly obvious one, being all alone with Ty. Yes, this item was definitely a pro and a con. My thoughts quickly returned to two nights ago and I was afraid that staying here would imply that his advances were now welcomed. But I really want to, I whined in my head like a three-year-old. I loved my family, but I also cherished time away from the craziness of a full house. That was a pro. But another con was my mother. I knew she trusted me. I had never given her reason not to. But she might not be cool with me staying at the home of a boy I’d known less than a week. When I thought of it like that, it sounded crazy to me, too. But I really want to, I whined again. I closed my eyes and breathed in the warm, salty air. I loved the smell of the beach. Bradford was only a couple of towns over from Salisbury Beach, although I much preferred the neighboring beaches in New Hampshire, Seabrook and Hampton. Hampton Beach was the place to go if you wanted to meet guys. It was overcrowded and under cultured, but it was the first place Peggie wanted to go when she got her license. We had even dreamed of renting a cottage there after graduation, despite the fact that the only thing we’d be able to afford would be one of the tiny, rundown shacks located several blocks from the beach. And now, I was invited to stay at a beautiful home on a private beach with an amazing guy. What was there to think about?

Even if I wanted to, and even if my mother doesn’t pitch a fit, I don’t have any clothes or toiletries with me,” I finally said.

We have all the toiletries you need here. And there are several clothing stores nearby. I’ll take you to get anything you want.”

That was too easy. I wanted to protest, but I knew that objecting to his solution would be pointless. And I really want to.

Give me a minute. I’m going to call my mother,” I said as I walked away, down the path that was laid out with thick wooden planks.

He nodded.

As I reached the ocean’s edge, the phone was ringing. “Hi, Mum. Listen, I’m at Ty’s house on Sea Island and he’s invited me to stay the night. I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be home tonight, okay?”

Are his parents there?”

No, Mum.”

I don’t know, Essie. He seems like a nice boy and you know I thought his family was great, but you barely know him.”

I know, Mum. I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons and I believe I can handle myself. I’ll be fine.”

Did you bring an overnight bag?” she asked, confused.

No, I didn’t know we were coming here. But, apparently, they keep the house stocked.”

Well, I trust your judgment, Essie. But I’ll feel better if you let me remind you not to compromise your values.”

I won’t. I promise. I love you and I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I love you, too, sweetheart.”

See you, Mum.”

See you, Essie.”

My mother never liked to say goodbye; she thought it seemed too permanent. Without consciously realizing it before now, I had picked up her habit.

I lingered there, watching the waves break, gathering my thoughts. Before I could tell Ty that I had decided to stay, I had to set some ground rules. We would not be staying in the same room, first and foremost. Actually, that was really the only stipulation. I headed back.

I didn’t even get halfway through my first sentence when he interrupted me.

Essie, I promised you yesterday that I would keep my hands to myself and I intend to keep that promise. You have nothing to worry about.”

Thank you.”

You’re welcome,” he replied and kissed me on the cheek. Changing the subject quickly, he added, “Would you like to go out for dinner or would you rather stay here?”

Actually, I’d love to see more of the island first.”

Then I’d love to show it to you.”

The way that Ty spoke made me swoon inside. His use of a more formal English was worldly and so unlike any other boy his age. The cadence of his sentences combined with his Southern drawl was completely irresistible. So I listened enthusiastically when he started telling me all about this beautiful place that his family had been coming to since before he was born.

Sea Island wasn’t the tourist trap that I had imagined island resorts to be. It was private, and much of it had been set apart to preserve the natural sanctuary for its wildlife inhabitants. Ty suggested that the best way to show me around was by boat. I was elated. We untied the smaller of the two boats that were tied to the dock and cruised leisurely through the barrier island waterways as he highlighted a few points of interest and continued with his overview of the tiny island.

When the sun began to set, we headed for home. As we pulled up to the dock, I could see lights in the house.

Is someone in the house?”

Ty jumped from the boat onto the dock and belayed the first of three lines to its corresponding cleat. Without pausing from the task at hand, he answered me. “Yes.”

That’s it? Yes? Who’s here? Is it your parents? Mara?”

He laughed. “It’s not Mara or my parents,” he said continuing to secure the boat.

Then who is it?”

We’ll be there in just a minute. Be patient, please.”

I wasn’t curious just to be nosy. I was concerned that it was getting late and it would soon become abundantly clear that we were staying at the house overnight. I didn’t want to be put in an awkward position. But, as requested, I waited patiently for him to finish.

When he opened the door to the house, I was apprehensive. I could hear soft violin music playing and could see that several candles had been lit. He ushered me in and closed the door behind us. With his arm around my waist, Ty escorted me to the dining room where we were expected at a table set for two. He pulled out my chair and motioned for me to take my seat. When he was seated, a man appeared from around the corner carrying a couple of salads.

Oh, my gosh, I thought. The man silently placed a plate in front of me and then did the same for Ty.

Thanks, William.”

You’re welcome, sir,” said the short, pale, older gentleman in an English accent.

Oh, my gosh, I thought again. When he was gone, I tried to verbalize at least one of the many questions that were whirling around in my head. I opened my mouth to speak yet words escaped me. Ty seemed to be enjoying my astonishment.

Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked in mock innocence.

With intentional force, I picked up my fork, stabbed a piece of lettuce, and took a bite. I chewed intensely and glared at his impressive face, careful not to get drawn in by his irresistible gaze.

He burst out laughing, breaking the conventional etiquette expected in this awkwardly formal setting. “You should see the look on your face. You are too adorable.” As I continued attacking my salad, he added softly, “I thought you’d appreciate staying in tonight since we’ve been out all day, so I texted William from the boat and asked him to prepare something simple for us. He’s a personal chef who lives on Jekyll Island. It’s no big deal.”

Not to you. Evidently, you’re used to living like this. But it’s a big deal to me. I’m uncomfortable with people fawning over me.”

He looked at me curiously, but said nothing.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I do appreciate your thoughtfulness. It’s just that I’ve never been around anyone with seemingly unlimited resources and I’m feeling diffident.”

Well, I hope you’ll get over that quickly because this is my life, Essie, and I want to share it with you. Good word, by the way,” he grinned.

After dinner, Ty lit the fire in the outdoor fireplace and we sat together in a loveseat. I leaned into him and he carefully turned his body so that the back of my head rested on his chest. As he played with my hair, I confessed my love of violin music and wondered aloud whether he knew somehow or if his choice of dinner music was purely coincidental, to which he remained predictably silent. I thought he might take this opportunity to elaborate on his family’s background, but instead he talked of his father’s desire for him to attend his alma mater, Emory, and to take over the family businesses. He, on the other hand, wanted to travel for a while and was unsure he wanted this predetermined life. His ambivalence surprised me. He came across as extremely self-assured and certain of what he wanted. He would turn eighteen next July, he told me, and had much to consider before then. Once again, he was unwilling to expound on this introspection. Although it made me slightly frustrated, I felt too serene to protest. We lazed in comfortable silence for a long while and he was running his finger up and down my arm when I heard him begin to hum softly. I turned suddenly to look at him in surprise and he quit.

Don’t stop,” I pleaded. I had yet to see him embarrassed about anything and he seemed the sort that nothing could bother. But, even in the moonlight, I could tell that he was blushing.

Oh, my gosh. You’re embarrassed!” I teased.

He smiled a humble half smile and looked down.

I’m sorry, Ty. You caught me off guard. No one has ever sung to me before. But I’d love for you to continue. Please?”

I can’t believe I did that. I guess I was just so relaxed that it slipped out. Now you know.”

Know what?”

After a dramatic pause, he continued. “With this confession comes a non-disclosure commitment. Are you ready for that?” he asked jokingly.

Hmmm,” I drew out in false contemplation. “Well, I am spending the night with you, so…” Dramatic pause. “Okay, I’m ready to hear your confession.”

I love power ballads by 80s hair bands,” he disclosed.

I burst out laughing. “I’m not laughing at you, I promise. Truth be told, I love them, too.”

He looked surprised. “You’re just saying that so I won’t feel so lame.”

I’m not and I can prove it. One of my favorites is Firehouse, ‘Love of a Lifetime’. And then there’s Skid Row, ‘I Remember You’ or Cinderella, ‘Nobody’s Fool’. I could go on if you’d like.”

Impressive.”

It’s my mother’s influence. So, do you sing or just hum?”

He hesitated to answer. “I guess I have another confession.” He paused again, but I said nothing, waiting expectantly. “I sing all the time. I’m actually shocked that Mara didn’t divulge that during your outing the other day. She and I often go to Savannah for karaoke.”

Are you serious?” I asked dubiously, thinking he must be joking. “But now that you mention it, her friend, Nicole, did ask her when they were going to karaoke again. In all the excitement of the day, I forgot to ask her about it.”

You think it’s weird, huh?”

Just unexpected. And, okay, it’s weird, but in a good way.”

Well, nobody in Eden knows and I’d like it to stay that way, please.”

Only if you’ll sing for me.”

It would just be awkward now.”

Then let’s resume our positions and we won’t talk and you can rub my arm again and we’ll see what happens.”

He laughed. “You’re crazy.”

I ignored his reluctance and repositioned his arm over my shoulder as I nestled against his chest once again. “There,” I asserted.

I could feel him shaking his head, although he said nothing.

Our comfortable silence resumed as we watched the ebb and flow of the tide. The fire he had started earlier was finally beginning to wane. I brought my legs up on the love seat and let my knees fall to the side as I snuggled in even closer. He stroked my hair slowly, gently. Then, ever so softly, he sang.

I love how your heart beats

whenever I hold you

I love how you think of me

without being told to

I love the way your touch is always heavenly

But, darling, most of all

I love how you…”

He trailed off. If this had happened at any previous time or with any other guy, I probably would have been horrified. But here, now, and as odd as this may sound, it seemed so appropriate. I closed my eyes and reveled in my circumstance.

I remained curled up in his arms until the sun began to rise over the ocean, enjoying the low, raspy tone of his voice during his sporadic serenades.

With the dawn’s light came the remembrance that Ty had said his eighteenth birthday was next July. At the time, I was so engrossed in his musings over the future that I failed to make the connection that it was currently July. Had his birthday passed before we met? I desperately hoped that it had because I couldn’t imagine having to give him a present. He literally had everything and I was certain that if there was something he did want, I couldn’t afford it.

Without turning to look at him, I said, “You mentioned last night that your birthday was in July. What date?”

The seventeenth.”

What’s today’s date?” I asked hesitantly.

The seventeenth.”

I jumped up as though startled by an intruder in the dead of night. “Your birthday is today?” I asked in disbelief. “You weren’t going to tell me?”

No, I wasn’t going to tell you. Listen, Essie, I know that saying this will sound cliché, but there isn’t anything I want more than to spend the day here with you. That would be the best birthday present ever. Will you please spend another day here with me?”

You don’t have to exactly twist my arm to get me to spend more time alone with you on this beautiful island. But it’s so awkward now knowing that it’s your birthday and I’ve done nothing to make it special.”

If any of the guys ever heard me say this, I’d never live it down; but, honestly, just being with you makes the day special.”

Would you mind repeating that?” I joked in my best reporter’s voice as I retrieved my phone from the table, pretending to press record.

But instead of laughing, he took the phone from my hand and placed it back on the table, never looking away from me.

I love being with you,” he said seriously.

Like a tractor beam, his eyes drew me in until I had forgotten what we were talking about. I couldn’t look away. He leaned in and kissed me sweetly, briefly. He had a way of making me feel so vulnerable, so transparent; I was certain he could read my every thought. Even still, I said nothing. I wanted to respond but I felt as though my heart was blocked by a bolted door and none of the words that were in there could escape. As amazing as Ty was, there was something about him that was messing with my gut ― an odd feeling that he was hiding something sinister, despite the fact that those feelings contradicted everything I had seen thus far, save “the incident” in Savannah. I was trying my best to reconcile this incongruity when he abruptly stood up.

He must have sensed my inner turmoil because he smiled and took my hand. “Let’s go for a walk and then we’ll have breakfast.” I was all too happy to comply.

We walked along the shoreline, stopping often as I bent down to check out every little thing that caught my eye ― from shells, big and small, to dead crabs, to interesting seaweed, to driftwood. Ty only picked up one shell, a tiny one with a hole in the top center. He looked at it for a bit, as though examining a diamond for flaws, and then put it in his pocket without saying anything. We talked about the ocean and sailing and the dwindling number of days that remained before school began. I shared my nervousness about being the new girl in my senior year and my disappointment over the loss of my position as editor of the school newspaper back home. Ty assured me that I would be welcomed by his and Mara’s friends, so I need not worry about being a social outcast. He also reminded me that his family owned the local newspaper and he was sure that an internship could be made available. That scenario, however, was unlikely. I would feel very uneasy being given a job at my boyfriend’s parent’s paper when unemployment was so high; no, nepotism would make me a pariah in the office. While I appreciated his reassurances, I also knew that I had to figure things out on my own. Like most guys, he wanted to fix things. But I was used to being the fixer and I wasn’t ready to hand over the reigns of my life to anyone, no matter how tempting.

When we got back to the house, breakfast was waiting on the patio, although there was no sign of William. I was still uncertain how I felt about this extravagant lifestyle, but I decided to embrace it for the moment. I was enjoying this time with Ty, enjoying the privacy, enjoying the beach, and looking forward to whatever his birthday had in store.

After breakfast, Ty showed me to a guest room where I could shower and get ready for the day. Not having taken him up on his offer to go shopping for clothes yesterday, I was surprised to see a brand new pair of shorts with a matching t-shirt, as well as some new flip flops, laid out for me on the bed. While I was sincerely grateful, this continued to make me anxious. Part of me wanted to jump up and down like a child on Christmas morning who just opened the very present she had wished for all year; while, at the same time, I wrestled with an uneasy feeling of foreboding.

Thank you,” I said politely, as I gathered up the items and went into the bathroom.

So, how are we going to spend your birthday?” I asked when I practically ran into Ty in the hallway after I was finished getting ready.

I have something in mind. I’m determined to show you a good time today.”

I’m already impressed, Ty. And I’ve been having a great time just being with you.”

Well, it’s my birthday and I get to do what I want,” he said, sounding a little bratty. “Let’s go.”

We got into the Ferrari and slowly made our way through the narrow streets lined with live oaks that were dripping with Spanish moss, ending up only a few minutes later at the island’s luxury resort. After the valet greeted us pleasantly and took the keys, Ty escorted me to the spa. I’m pretty sure it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been to. The floor was made up of many pieces of large, flat stones of various sizes and shapes. In the middle of the room was a pool made from the same stones, and there were trees and plants growing out of the floor.

“This is so beautiful, Ty.”

“I’m glad you like it. We’re going to spend the whole day here.”

“Yay!” I whispered excitedly.

We did, in fact, spend the entire day enjoying every treatment the spa offered, breaking only for a deliciously healthy lunch on a private balcony. I had never enjoyed someone else’s birthday so much.

When we got back to the house, Ty had one more surprise for me. Since we had spent the previous night talking all night long on the patio and had left for the resort right after having breakfast and getting ready, I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the whole house. Ty gave me a quick tour which ended in a theater room. It was so cool. It looked like it was outdoors. The ceiling was blanketed in stars that were twinkling, and the walls were covered with a combination of real and painted trees. Large columns were positioned on either side of a screen that extended from the ceiling to the floor. It was going to be tough to go home to a regular house where I had to prepare my own meals and watch movies on a thirty-two inch television.

We settled into a leather love seat that reclined and watched “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. I loved scifi/action/adventure/fantasy movies, especially ones based on comic book heroes, and Ty seemed to like tv and movies, in general, as much as I did. With all the busyness surrounding our move to Eden, I hadn’t had a chance to get to a theater in a long while. That was just one more thing that Ty had remembered from our conversation at Black Creek.

When the movie was over, he reached into his pocket. “I have something for you.”

“Ty, please! It’s your birthday. You’re killing me.”

“My day has been everything I could have wanted because you’re here with me. This is just a little something for you to remember our time at the beach. It’s nothing, really,” he said unpretentiously, handing me a small, sheer periwinkle blue pouch gathered with a matching ribbon.

I opened the pouch and poured its contents into my hand. It was the seashell that he had found earlier in the day during our walk on the beach. He had had it made into a necklace, the shell now suspended from a thin piece of leather cord. I sighed.

“What’s wrong, Ess?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s just that being with you is very overwhelming. I don’t know what to say, Ty. I’m sorry. It’s beautiful. I love it. Thank you. Really. Thank you.” I realized I was rambling. I did that a lot.

“You’re adorable,” he said, smiling, taking the necklace from my hand and gently fastening it around my neck.

“Look, Ty, while we’re on the subject of gratitude,” I broached, “I appreciate the house on a private island, the boat, the personal chef, the clothes, the spa day at a luxury resort…”

“But…”

“No, no but. I like you. I like you a lot and I just want to say that you don’t have to try so hard.”

“You’re a very easy girl to please and I love that about you. But have you ever stopped to consider that maybe I enjoy doing these things for you?”

I shrugged and raised my eyebrows, assuming he didn’t actually expect an answer to what I considered to be a rhetorical question.

“Then can I make a suggestion?”

“Sure.”

“Trust me and just enjoy the ride.”

CHAPTER 12

Life in the Fast Lane (Everything, All the Time)

We stayed at the Sea Island cottage for the next two nights, spending our days taking advantage of such nearby activities as horseback riding along the south end of the beach, marsh kayaking, a sea turtle walk, even skeet shooting. Ty used the evenings to introduce me to a couple of his favorite nearby restaurants, where we didn’t have to wait for a table, although the places were obviously working off a wait list. He simply walked up to the hostess, confidently, and said something in a low voice that I was unable to hear. We were always seated immediately. Wherever we went, we were treated like royalty, and I was beginning to relax and enjoy the many perks available to those who could afford such an indulgent lifestyle.

After dinner, on our last night at the beach, we walked for what seemed like hours, hand in hand, at the ocean’s edge. When I was so tired that I could barely stand, Ty walked me to the guest room and kissed my forehead, saying, “Good night, sweet Essie.” To my relief, he remained a total gentleman, honoring his promise to keep his hands to himself. As my head hit the pillow, I wondered why he never seemed to get tired. Maybe he was a vampire. That would certainly explain some things. I had about two seconds to ponder that before I was fast asleep. But instead of dreaming of vampires who required no sleep, I dreamt of the beautiful guy with the picnic lunch.

Feeling happy, but still groggy, when I awoke, it took me a few seconds to remember where I was, and who I was with. I was grateful that Ty had allowed me to sleep in this morning. I was worn out from too much fun and too little sleep, and I didn’t want to be grouchy or sleepy on our last day. I ventured through the house, finding him on the patio, drinking coffee.

“What time is it?” I asked, my voice gravelly, my eyes squinting in the bright light. The sun was well above the horizon, indicating that it was probably embarrassingly late.

“Good morning,” he said cheerfully.

“Sorry. Good morning. So, it’s still morning?”

“Sure. It’s only 11:45. Would you like some coffee?” he offered as he reached for the carafe that held the promise of reanimation.

“Please.” I watched him pour the steaming coffee into a large ceramic mug that looked like it had been handmade by some local artisan. “I’m so sorry that I slept so late. I hope you ate breakfast without me.”

“Hours and hours ago. And I went for a run on the beach, too.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m kidding. I just got up myself,” he said with a wink.

I picked up the mug and took a seat across the table from him. He looked at me for a moment, then got up and dragged his chair right next to mine. I smiled and proceeded with fixing my coffee.

“I missed you last night,” he said sincerely.

I laughed uneasily, not sure if I should read anything into his comment. As usual, he picked up on that and clarified, “I only meant that I really like being with you and wished we didn’t have to waste any time sleeping.”

“Funny you should say that. I remember thinking before I fell asleep last night that you might be a vampire because you didn’t appear to require any sleep.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. “Vampire, huh? And how would you feel about that?”

“I guess it would depend on whether or not I was breakfast.”

“Not today.”

“Then I’m okay with it for now.”

We lounged around for a long while, enjoying our coffee. Upon hearing my stomach growl, Ty ran out to get some breakfast. I used the time alone to go swimming, something we hadn’t done during our time on the island. The water was so warm here, quite unlike the frigid waters off the coasts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I swam out a ways, beyond the breaking waves, occasionally allowing one of the small swells to carry me gently to the shore. On one of my rides in, I saw Ty watching me from the patio. I didn’t want to leave the serenity of the ocean, but my stomach insisted.

Emerging from the water, I did my best Jinx impersonation. When I arrived on the patio and grabbed my towel, he quoted, “Magnificent view.”

“It is, isn’t it?” I quoted back before erupting into laughter.

“It sure is,” he said as he took the towel from me and proceeded to slowly dry my shoulders, my back, my waist. With his hands inside the towel that was now drying my right thigh, he stopped. I looked down and caught him examining my “beauty spot”, as my mother referred to it.

“Weird birthmark, huh?” I winced, as he touched the odd hand-shaped mark on my right hip. “My mother always said it meant that I was touched by an angel every time I asked her if I could have it removed.”

He regarded me curiously. “It looks like a hamsa, a sign of protection against evil.”

“Really? I thought it resembled a corn husk and was an omen that I would someday attend the University of Nebraska,” I joked.

He laughed and pulled out a chair for me to sit down in as he finished by drying my feet. “Hope you’re hungry.”

I thought he was going to the grocery store to pick up some breakfast ingredients and I’d make the meal, giving me a chance to do something for him. Instead, he showed up with sliced strawberries with crème fraîche, orange juice, and two gigantic baked apple pancakes.

“Wow! This looks amazing. Thanks.”

We devoured enough food for a family of four and I insisted on getting back in the water in an effort to burn off a few of the thousands of calories we had just consumed. We played till late afternoon, not wanting to leave this idyllic setting. But I’d been gone long enough; Mum depended on me at home. Plus, I kind of missed my sisters and brother.

  

Once back home, we continued to spend most of our time together. Mum was not very happy about this; she thought it was too much. “Essie, you’re only sixteen. I don’t think it’s healthy for you to spend every waking moment with your boyfriend,” she’d nag every other day. I, of course, knew better. Without Ty, it would have been an endless summer of lonely, boring days spent missing Jane, Peggie and Annie. Luckily, my mother could now afford to hire a nanny for my younger siblings so I wasn’t responsible for daily babysitting duty like I was in Bradford.

Ty picked me up every morning at exactly nine, always keeping the day’s itinerary secret. I could tell how much he enjoyed surprising me, sometimes taking me to places that I had mentioned in passing.

This particular morning, we stopped at the Waffle House where we had, indeed, become regulars, much to his chagrin.

“There’s my favorite couple,” Donna greeted us cheerfully.

I loved to sit at the counter and watch the waitresses call out their orders to the cook. It never ceased to amaze me how he could be in the middle of preparing one order, and a waitress would just start calling out another. And I had yet to see him make a mistake.

After breakfast, we sped off in the shiny red Ferrari and picked up I-16 West. “Are we going to Atlanta today?” I asked excitedly. Although he hadn’t given any clues as to where we were heading, I knew that 16W was the way to Atlanta.

You know I’m not going to tell you, so you might as well stop guessing.”

I looked at him with a fake pout at which he just grinned and popped open the glove compartment. A box of Whoppers! After retrieving them and mouthing “thank you,” I tuned the radio to classic rock, turned it up loud, and settled into my seat. He’d sing occasionally, but stop if I looked over, so I learned to just pretend I didn’t hear him.

I knew the trip to Atlanta normally took nearly four hours; however, with Ty driving, we reached the I-75 North exit in under an hour and a half, despite having been stopped briefly by a Georgia State Patrol officer. I was sure he was going to get a ticket, but the trooper seemed to be just as susceptible to Ty’s charm as everyone else. Lucky us!

Now I knew we were definitely going somewhere in Atlanta, but where? The High Museum of Art? The Georgia Aquarium? Either would be great. I smiled in anticipation. Less than an hour later, we were inside the city limits. I felt like a little kid on her way to Chuck E. Cheese’s. I had come to expect nothing short of fabulous whenever Ty took me somewhere. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but I was having the time of my life. Before I knew it, we were pulling into a parking lot on Hank Aaron Drive.

Are we going to a Braves game?”

He smiled broadly. “Yes. They’re playing Boston.”

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so excited. You know that Boston is part of the American League so they rarely play each other. This is going to be great.”

He took my hand and we walked to Will Call where he picked up our tickets. The game started at 2:10, so we only had a few minutes to walk around the impressive stadium. Ty knew a lot about Turner Field, the Braves, and baseball in general.

Did you know that the Atlanta Braves were originally the Boston Braves?”

“I did, actually.”

My dad is a huge baseball fan and I guess he passed his love of the game on to me. He even named me after Ty Cobb, The Georgia Peach. I’m Tyrus Cobb Gregory, born on July 17, the date of his death.”

That’s pretty cool. I love it when there’s a story behind a name. I wish mine was that interesting. I was named after my dad’s grandmother, Esther, but I think that was out of obligation. She passed away before I was born so I never had a chance to know her. Essie is my nickname, in case you hadn’t already figured that out. By the way, please don’t ever call me Esther. I don’t like it, despite the fact that my grandmother always told me that I should be proud of it. Oh, and my middle name is Claire, after a favorite aunt.”

He turned and took both my hands in his, saying, “Essie Claire. Now that sounds like a proper southern name to me!” It sounded lovely when he said it. But I’m sure he could read aloud a dissertation on quantum mechanics and I’d melt.

He smiled. “Are you ready to find our seats?”

Let’s go.”

Our seats were amazing, the front row of section #101, just slightly to the left of the catcher. The sky was clear and pale blue. It was hot, of course, being late July in Georgia, but the sun had shifted enough to allow the stadium to cast a shadow over our seats. Ty ordered us hot dogs and cokes, standard ballpark fare, and we watched the game from the opening pitch to the final out, thrilled when Atlanta won. On our way out, Ty insisted on outfitting me in a Braves t-shirt and ball cap, as well as getting one for each of my siblings and even my mother.

We filled what was left of the dwindling summer days in much the same way, taking day trips all over Georgia and whiling away the late evenings rocking in my back porch swing.

CHAPTER 13

Summertime Girls

My friendship with Mara flourished after Ty and I returned home from our beach adventure. She joined us on many of our outings, although we had to borrow their parent’s car when she did. She was a lot of fun and always up for anything, except the Waffle House. Kind of snobby about where she could be seen, she insisted we pick her up after our breakfast ritual.

“I don’t know why you love that place so much,” she scoffed as she slid into the back seat of the exquisite red Scaglietti one overcast morning.

“Their eggs are fluffy and I love raisin toast with apple butter,” I retorted.

Mara sighed audibly. “I have so much work to do with you.”

Ty glared at her disapprovingly, but I just laughed. “Give it your best shot.”

She shook her head.

“It’s supposed to rain all day. We should do something uplifting to combat the dreariness, unless you already have something planned,” I suggested.

“I did, but it involved being outdoors. We can always do it another time. Did you have something in mind?”

“Let’s do a spa day,” Mara proposed.

“We just did that when we were at Sea Island,” I reminded her.

“Can you do too many spa days?” she asked rhetorically.

“I can,” Ty concluded.

“What about bowling?” I suggested.

“We haven’t been bowling in a long time, Ty. Let’s do that,” Mara said authoritatively.

“Okay. Do you want to go to the place in Savannah that we used to go to or would you rather find another one?”

“We can go there. I think they had pool tables, too, if I remember correctly. Essie, are you a good bowler?”

“I used to be decent, but it’s been a while. That was always our rainy day boredom solution.”

We arrived at Savannah Lanes just as it was starting to sprinkle. We rented our shoes and were assigned to Lane 3. As we approached, I eyed the balls in the ball retriever skeptically.

“What’s wrong?” Ty asked.

“Um, I’ve never bowled with balls this big,” I answered, confused.

“What do you mean? What other kind of balls are there?”

“Small ones with no holes in them.”

“Never seen ‘em.”

“Then you’ve never been candlepin bowling in New England.”

“That’s a true statement.”

I picked up a lime green ball with white swirls and put my fingers in the holes. “This is heavy,” I noted. “I’m not sure how I’ll do with this.”

Ty had taken out his phone and was googling the difference between ten pin and candlepin bowling. He laughed out loud and enlarged the picture of a small, black candlepin ball in a man’s hand for Mara.

“That looks ridiculous, Essie,” she teased.

“I’m going to look ridiculous when I either drop the ball behind me or go flying down the lane when my fingers get stuck in the holes.”

“If that happens, please don’t get mad at me for laughing,” Ty begged.

“You won’t be laughing any harder than I will be,” I assured him. “Why don’t you two go first so I can see how it’s done.”

“Okay. I’ll start,” Mara said, picking up a pink ball. With perfect form, she approached the foul line, raising the ball behind her as though it was a balloon. When she let it go, it curved slightly to the right, then came back to the middle where it hit the one pin and knocked down all but the nine and ten.

“That was great,” I cheered.

She smiled and picked up another pink ball.

“Hey, why are the pins resetting?” I wondered.

“They’re not resetting. It’s just clearing away the pins I knocked over,” she explained.

“That’s not at all how I learned to play. The pins aren’t reset in candlepin.”

She ignored me and readied herself for her second attempt. Making it look easy, she knocked down the remaining two pins and smiled proudly.

It was Ty’s turn. Just like his twin sister, his form was flawless. He looked like a professional on his approach as his right leg dragged behind his left when he released the dark blue ball.

“Strike!” I yelled out, jumping up from my seat.

“Your turn. Would you like any assistance?” he asked as he strolled confidently toward me.

“Let me attempt it once and see what happens,” I said as I chose the lime green ball I had put back in the ball returner.

I tried my best to imitate Ty and Mara’s form, but their natural grace could not be replicated. The heavy ball dropped with a thud just a couple of feet in front of me and rolled slowly down the lane, drifting unhurriedly to the left, where it finally took out the four, seven, and eight pins.

“Not bad for your first time ever,” Ty praised, trying hard to stifle a laugh. “It didn’t go down the gutter.”

“I think I’ll take that assistance now,” I said, embarrassed.

He chose a baby blue ball and handed it to me. “This one is ten pounds. The green one was twelve. Does it feel any better?”

“I’m not sure,” I shrugged, as I turned it over and over in my hands.

“Lift it up behind you.”

I did as instructed and could definitely feel the difference. “This is better, thanks.”

“Now let’s work on your approach. You want to take four steps. Begin with your right foot, like this.” He demonstrated in slow motion and I paid careful attention. “You should start bringing the ball back on your second step; by your third step, the ball should be at the top of your backswing; the downswing begins with your fourth step; and, finally, release the ball as it’s beside your ankle at the end of your fourth step. Does that make sense?”

I nodded.

“Let’s see what you can do now that you’ve received expert instruction,” he smirked.

“So it’s all on you then,” I quipped. I replayed the lesson in my head and counted the steps to myself. I let the ball go just as it was about to pass my ankle, realizing that that had been my error the first time around. I had released the ball too late, hence the thud. Releasing it when it was close to the ground allowed for a much smoother transition from my hand to the lane. I watched with glee as it rolled down the center and hit the one pin straight on, knocking down all the pins but the ten.

“Yay, me,” I exclaimed, jumping up and down, my eyes still focused on the one remaining pin, admiring my achievement.

I felt Ty’s arms around my waist. “You’re a natural,” he whispered in my ear. I shivered, like I always did when he did that. “I love that I give you chill bumps.”

“You need to stop before Mara…”

“Do you two mind?” she groaned as she hip-checked us.

We played three games — Ty won the first one, Mara won the second. Of course, they couldn’t leave the bowling alley having tied. They insisted on playing a third game, claiming that it was to give me a chance to win one. While Ty’s coaching had helped tremendously, I was not even close to playing as well as they. I knew, of course, that it was only so that one of them could claim victory. They were very competitive. When it came to sports, I always thought it was about having fun, not necessarily winning, and that indifference used to drive Jane crazy.

Ty was in the zone now and beat Mara handily.

“Who’s the greatest at everything?” he taunted as only a brother could do.

“You were just showing off for Essie.”

“Always bitter, Mara.”

At that remark, she punched him in the arm.

“Children, behave or I’ll have to put you in time out,” I scolded as I took their hands and led them toward the door.

It was still raining so we decided to go back to Ty and Mara’s house. After watching three awesomely bad shark movies back-to-back on the SyFy channel, Mara invited me to spend the night when Ty had momentarily left the room.

“Your parents won’t mind?”

“Not at all. You know they love you.”

“But I mean… well… Ty and I are dating.”

“You’re not sleeping in his room, silly. You’ll stay with me.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I know. Hush already and stop worrying about perception. It’s all good, sister,” she said as she leaned over and gave me a comforting hug.

“What’s going on?” Ty asked as he reappeared in the living room, mid-hug.

“I invited Essie to spend the night. Now we can watch SyFy all night.”

“Great idea,” he grinned.

“Don’t get any ideas, bubba. I’m keeping her safe in my room,” she joked playfully.

“Whatever,” he said dismissively. “I’m calling to order pizza so we don’t have to go out. Essie, is there anything you don’t eat?”

“Anchovies. I think that’s it.”

“Does anyone eat those things?” Mara wondered aloud.

“Someone must, but not anyone I’ve ever known,” I answered.

While we waited on the pizza delivery, Mara took me to her room, a majestic space fit for a princess. She had a king size, four poster bed, complete with canopy and sheer curtains. The bed and dressers were made from a dark wood, while the carpet and bedding were cream colored. Throughout the room were placed muted pink accent pieces. I noticed an antique styled chaise lounge in a vignette set apart in a corner, a narrow window at the head of the chair providing a sliver of light. Next to it she had placed a round table with claw feet, on top of which sat a small candelabrum. What a lovely place to sit and read, I thought, envy suddenly creeping in as I recalled my many failed attempts to read just one whole chapter in my bedroom without being interrupted by a sibling.

“Let’s slip into something more comfortable since we’re in for the night,” she said as she threw a pair of yoga pants and a matching top my way. Mara had a huge walk-in closet filled with more clothes than my entire family owned, combined. She was always trying to give me stuff that she was no longer using. I appreciated the gesture, but she was very fancy and I was very plain. I often had to remind her of my list of no-no’s — no bows, no metallics, no bedazzled, no shiny, no low cut, no sheer, no crazy patterns, no polyester, no neon.

When we had both changed, we returned to the living room and found that Ty had had the same idea. He was now wearing grey gym shorts and a Braves t-shirt, looking a little more like your average high school senior and a little less like an Abercrombie & Fitch model.

“I love when you two dress down like this. I don’t feel so much like the pigeon among peacocks.”

“I must not have told you lately how beautiful you are. Forgive me,” he said sweetly. “Essie Claire, I think you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” He kissed me lovingly on my lips.

“I wasn’t trying to elicit a compliment.”

“And I wasn’t trying to flatter you, just making sure you know the truth.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I can’t be impossible; I exist,” he said seriously, quoting Sheldon.

“Good one,” I giggled at his reference.

The doorbell rang, announcing the pizza delivery person’s arrival. Ty got up to get the door and led the guy back to the living room. He set the warming bag on the coffee table and took out three large pizzas.

“Wow. How much do you two eat?”

“I just wanted a variety,” Ty said as he paid the guy and escorted him back to the front door.

Mara and I opened each of the boxes to see what he had ordered. Thin crust vegetarian, hand tossed meat lovers, and a deep dish with extra cheese and extra pepperoni. Sweet. Mara took one slice of the vegetarian and I took one of each.

“How do you stay so skinny and eat like that?” Mara asked, sounding cranky.

“Ignoring the fact that I’m not skinny, I don’t know. Just lucky, I guess.”

Ty rejoined us and squirmed his way into the non-existent space between me and Mara, forcing us to move to either side.

“What do you think you’re doing, bubba?”

“Just wanting to sit between my two favorite girls.” He settled in, putting an arm over each of our shoulders.

“Wait a second. Did you just call him bubba?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Why?”

“When I was little I couldn’t say brother and that’s what came out. It slips out from time to time, mostly when he’s being a pain in the butt.”

“I thought I heard you say it earlier, but then I figured I was mistaken. That’s so funny. Bubba,” I repeated. “It does not fit you at all.”

“I know. She does it just to annoy me.”

“You started it.”

“Oh, my gosh. You two are worse than Hollie and Danny.”

Mara picked up the tv remote and turned the volume up really loud. I just looked at her. She looked at me, then at Ty, and turned it down. I guessed that was her way of having the last word.

The movie theme had switched from sharks to natural disasters, my personal favorite. We got to see what would happen during a meteor apocalypse, an asteroid apocalypse, and when a super storm meets a tornado. By the end, we had consumed most of the pizza, Ty and I eating the lion’s share.

Tired and full, I needed sleep. “Come on, Mara. I’m beat. Let’s go to bed.”

“It’s still early,” she whined. “The next one is about an earthquake. We can’t go to bed yet.”

“I can. You two can stay up all night and do whatever vampires do,” I joked as I left them sitting on the couch and made my way to Mara’s room. I went in to her private bathroom to wash up and found that she had left an unopened toothbrush, toothpaste, and facial cleanser next to the sink for me. I was just going to put some toothpaste on my finger and do the best I could, but I should’ve known better by now. The Gregorys always had everything covered.

When I had finished with my nightly bathroom routine, I crawled under the covers on the left side of Mara’s bed. I assumed she slept on the right since the alarm clock was on the nightstand to the right of her bed.

“Oh, my goodness,” I gasped aloud. This was the most comfortable bed I had ever been in. It felt like I was lounging on a cloud. I extended my arms and legs as far as they could go in every direction and pretended I was making a snow angel. No bed could be more plush than this. I was in heaven.

“You are adorable.”

The words startled me and I bolted straight up. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I could see Ty, on his knees, his chin level with the bed.

“What are you doing in here?” I whispered as though there were anyone around to hear. His parents were in Brazil and Mara was either invisible or still downstairs. I laid back down on my side, propping up my head with my left hand so that we were eye to eye.

“You didn’t kiss me goodnight.”

“I’m sorry. I figured we’d already annoyed Mara as much as was allowable for one day.”

“That was thoughtful of you, but I won’t be able to sleep without a goodnight kiss. Not knowing that you’re so close…” he trailed off as he brought his face to mine and kissed me. Our lips met and parted over and over again until I thought that I might roll off the bed and into his arms.

“Do I need to get a hose?” Mara reprimanded as she turned on the light.

“Goodnight, sweet Essie.”

“Goodnight,” I breathed, closing my eyes and pulling the comforter over my head.

Two seconds later, Mara jumped on the bed and pulled the covers off me. “You’re not going to sleep after what I just witnessed.”

“What?”

“Don’t what me, sister. That was more than a goodnight kiss. It’s a good thing I arrived when I did.”

“I’m sorry, Mara.”

“What are you sorry for? You don’t have to apologize for being into my brother. I love seeing him happy like this. I told you before that he has never liked a girl the way he likes you. But he told me what happened the night I left you with him in Savannah, and we don’t need a repeat of that.”

“When you texted me that night, you said he was upset but that he wouldn’t tell you what happened.”

“He wouldn’t tell me that night, but I got it out of him after you got back from Sea Island, when he was happy again. He felt really bad about it, so you shouldn’t put him in a similar situation where it’s easy for him to misinterpret your intentions. Unless, that it, your intentions have changed?”

“Mara!”

“Well, have they? You were alone at the beach house and you spend practically every waking moment together.”

“Is there no topic that’s off limits for you?”

She laughed. “Not one that I can think of. But nice attempt at changing the subject. Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. Your intentions…”

I sighed loudly. “I have no in-ten-tion,” I enunciated, “of allowing myself to take things too far. It’s just that when he kisses me, Mara, my whole body tingles and sometimes I feel like we’re melting into one being. Does that sound weird?”

“What is weird is me listening to you talk like that about my brother.”

“Seriously? You’re the one who…”

“Just kidding. Not about it being weird, but, that aside, I’m glad you’re confiding in me. So let me tell you, from my experience, you cannot kiss a guy like that and not expect him to want more. I know that Ty is your first boyfriend so this is new to you, but you’re going to have to set some boundaries for yourself or you might find that you’ve done something you’ll regret. Not that there is anything to regret about my awesome brother, but I get the feeling that you’re a ‘wait till marriage’ kind of girl. Am I right?”

“I thought I was. Wait. I take that back. I am. Have you ever…”

“Just once.”

“What was it like?”

“Awkward. It just kind of happened, a heat of the moment thing. So I know what I’m talking about as far as regrets go.”

“What happened between you after that?”

“We went out a couple more times, but that’s all he wanted to do, so I broke up with him. He was in a fatal wreck a few days later. It was sad.”

Only she didn’t say it like it was sad. It came out matter-of-factly. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But, then again, I was never sure what to make of Mara, so I let it go and moved on.

“Hey, would you mind if we watched ‘Red Eye’? I’m wide awake now and it’s just about 3 a.m.”

“Sure. What’s ‘Red Eye’?”

“It’s the only news show I can watch without getting upset or bored. It’s three best friends, plus three guests, who talk about the news of the day. But they’re hilarious, especially Bill. He has crazy hair and he usually stares off into space when he’s introduced. You’ll love it.”

We watched tv for the rest of what was left of the night. And with the morning’s light came a fresh perspective. I would be more careful with Ty in the future.

CHAPTER 14

School Days

I hadn’t been looking forward to the first day of my senior year in Eden, but it was here nonetheless. Because I had spent every one of the scant summer days with Ty, I hadn’t made any friends other than Mara. I really enjoyed hanging out with them, but I needed a friend like Jane who lived in Eden. I’d have to work on that. Surely I could find one girl out of all the students at South Effingham High. But today I would be the dreaded “new girl”, a curiosity, a Yankee.

I had laid out my outfit the night before, in accordance with the school’s dress code — a pair of cropped khakis and a white polo. Unfortunately, flip flops, always my first choice in footwear, were not allowed.

Ty picked me up this morning, as he had every day since we officially began dating, also wearing khakis and a white polo. Embarrassing. Jennie was so jealous because she and the rest of my siblings had to take the bus. My mother wasn’t happy about this arrangement either. She would have preferred that I drive all the kids to school. But given the fact that the move to Eden was forced upon me, she capitulated; her only condition being that I had to come straight home from school to do homework before any extracurricular activities with Ty. Not that I would have anything else going on, at least not at school. The Student Media Club, which encompassed the newspaper, yearbook, and Mustang Radio & TV, was the only club I was interested in; however, it required one to register at the end of the previous year and perform various tasks over the summer.

The high school consisted of one large building and several portable classrooms housing the approximately one thousand five hundred students. My mother had brought me and Jennie here a couple of weeks ago to complete all the necessary enrollment paperwork so I was able to go directly to my first class, Literature — British & World Literature, to be precise — in Room 116. This was the only class I was excited about. Ty walked me to the door and wished me luck.

“I almost forgot. I got you a first-day-of-school present,” he announced, taking something flat and rectangular from his back pocket. As usual, it was wrapped. I loved that he put in the extra effort that it took to wrap his gifts. It added a level of excitement. I ripped the floral paper carefully, not wanting to ruin whatever was inside, just in case it was something delicate. It was a beautiful silver bookmark with pale blue and green ribbons hanging from it along with some beads and a silver faerie. It was inscribed with a quote from Helen Keller that read, “The most beautiful world is always entered through imagination”.

“It’s perfect. Thank you,” I said with a smile.

“You’re welcome. See you after class.”

Because it was the first day, I had insisted on arriving early. The last thing I needed was to walk into a classroom after all the other students were seated, bringing unwanted attention upon myself. Of course, that meant that the opposite was the case. I was the first to arrive. The teacher’s back was to me and I watched in silence as he watered some plants that were grouped in front of the one fairly large window located directly across from the door.

Without turning around, he called out, “Welcome!” in a cheerful voice.

Can I help with anything?” I offered, as I walked in and dropped my stuff on the desk in front of his.

Thanks,” he said as he turned around, holding out the watering can.

I took it from him, trying not to stare, but he was the best looking teacher I had ever seen. His wavy brown hair almost touched his shoulders and his blue eyes conveyed a genuine kindness. “I’m Mr. Joshua, by the way.”

Pleased to meet you, Mr. Joshua. I’m Essie Jacobs.”

You’re the new family in Eden, right? You bought the old Edwards house?”

It’s still weird to me that everyone knows that.”

He laughed. “That’s big news in a small town.”

I started watering the plants, anxious to complete the task before any students walked in and inferred that I was competing for the title of teacher’s pet. When I finished, I surveyed the room and surmised that, as I had thought, this would definitely be my favorite class. Posters of authors and poets adorned the walls and there were two bookshelves crammed with what I imagined to be Mr. Joshua’s personal literary favorites. I even spotted a poster from “Bright Star”, a movie about the relationship between the poet, John Keats, and his muse, Fanny Brawne. It was truly one of the most romantic movies I had ever seen, due mainly to the fact that it was set in the early 1800’s, and their longings for each other had to be sublimated to the socially accepted outlets of conversation and letter writing, unlike so many of the sexually explicit movies of today that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

As I was remembering “Bright Star” in my head, students began to trickle in, so I took my seat in the front row next to a beautiful Hispanic-looking girl with a welcoming smile. While most students seemed to prefer to sit in the back of the room, away from the teacher’s scrutiny, I liked to sit up front, acknowledging my tendency to be easily distracted. Mr. Joshua didn’t embarrass me by introducing me to the class, and I was appreciative, although my chatty neighbor whispered that her name was Karen in a slight accent that made her common name sound melodic ― Kah-ren.

Brit Lit was everything I had hoped it would be, and I was now looking forward to my school days beginning with this class. Mr. Joshua let us know that he would make himself available after school should anyone want to further discuss anything that was covered in class. I was sure I would be availing myself of his generous offer.

I could see Ty leaning against the wall as I walked out of Room 116. “How was your first class?”

Great!”

Wow. I didn’t think you were that excited about school.”

I wasn’t. But Mr. Joshua seems to love literature, as I do, and I really think I’m going to enjoy his teaching style.”

Well, I’m happy that you’re happy. Ready for History?”

Sure,” I agreed, allowing him to take my hand. We had World History together, as well as Biology, which left me to fend for myself in my remaining four courses — Statistics, French, Journalism and Fine Art. As we walked the corridor, it felt as though all eyes were on us. Everyone that we passed, guys included, greeted him like servile flatterers at the king’s court. At the same time, they all eyed me with unchecked curiosity, whispering to each as they walked by. It was disconcerting.

Lunchtime brought more of the same. Ty was waiting for me again after French and escorted me to the cafeteria. He led me to his table where he took his seat at the head, offering me the chair to his left, the Queen’s position. When Mara joined us, she took the chair to his right, the place of honor. Yes, to a newcomer like myself, it appeared that Ty was holding court, his loyal subjects all vying for a coveted seat at the table. Or maybe I was just a little too into The Tudors at the moment. Nevertheless, every available spot was quickly snatched up and several people even dragged chairs to form an outer circle. Everyone was talking at once, seemingly excited about their last year at SEHS. In the middle of the chaos, and to my dismay, Ty took the opportunity to present me at court.

Hey, y’all. Quit for a minute,” he shouted above the din, in a noticeably thicker drawl. When he had everyone’s attention, he announced, “I know y’all have seen Essie around today,” placing his hand on my shoulder, “but I wanted to formally introduce her. She and her family moved here from Massachusetts last month. She has a sister, Jennie, who’s a junior. I’m sure y’all will welcome them properly. That’s all.”

Everyone crowded around to say hi. It took several minutes for them to be seated again and for my face to return to its normal shade from the beet red that I knew it had become.

The rest of the day was a blur of fellow classmates tripping over each other to ingratiate themselves to me. The “new girl” brand that I had dreaded had been replaced by the “Ty’s girlfriend” brand, but I didn’t enjoy being the center of attention the way that Ty and Mara did. I desired true friendships, not ones that were sought for perceived personal gain. The only one who seemed normal was Karen, my Brit Lit neighbor. It was too bad she wasn’t in any of my other classes. I really needed to talk to Jane.

As soon as school let out, Ty drove me home, and I reminded him of my mother’s rule concerning homework. Even though it was only the first day, we were given a syllabus for each subject and I wanted to review it. I liked to know what was expected of me so that I could apportion my time and not be forced to cram at the last minute. Ty dutifully complied with my mother’s wishes, walking me to the door, kissing my cheek, saying, “I’ll call you later.”

The house was empty, except for Axl. I headed straight for the back porch, which was currently blanketed in shade, turned on the ceiling fans, and pulled out a chair. This would be where I would do my homework, listening to the birds chirping, surveying the woods from time to time, and enjoying the breeze generated by the overhead fans whose blades were shaped like palm fronds. I picked up my phone, leaned back in the chair and dialed Jane.

Essie!” she squealed. “How was your first day of school?”

Oh, Jane, it was surreal. First of all, my Lit teacher is gorgeous. His name is Mr. Joshua. He looks about thirty, and he has pretty blue eyes and long dark hair. It’s my first class of the day, so I’m psyched about that.”

Ooooh! You’ll have to find an excuse to take a picture so I can see him. What about the rest of your classes?”

Basically unremarkable.”

“Even Journalism?

“Even Journalism.”

Do you have any classes with Ty?”

Two. World History and Biology. But I have to tell you about lunch. That was the surreal part of the day.”

What happened?”

Oh, my gosh. Ty and Mara are like the reigning king and queen of the school. It’s ridiculous. The other students just fawn over them. And he actually stood up in front of his friends in the lunchroom and introduced me and told them to be sure to welcome me properly.”

Holy crap, Essie. Did you die?”

Just about. It was really awkward.”

“I can only imagine. But it’s still preferable to being the new girl with no friends.”

“I guess.”

“Other than that, how’s it going with you and Ty?”

“Well, you know how much I like him, and Mara’s been a lot of fun, too; but I can’t shake the feeling that something’s up with them.”

“Something like what?”

“I don’t know, Janie. He’s hinted at something mysterious a couple of times but would never elaborate. And the way that people do their bidding… I don’t know. And…” I trailed off.

“And, what?”

“And, I’d swear that they can make things happen.”

“Make things happen? Give me an example.”

“Like making someone trip and fall, for example. Or spill something. Things that people would chalk up to clumsiness or an accident. It seems more than coincidental that it frequently happens in their presence. Do I sound crazy?”

“Just a little, Ess. Have you been watching too much fantasy tv again? You know that people don’t have super powers in real life, right? Where is this coming from?”

“I’m not sure. Did I mention that I’ve had a few ominous dreams about them? Anyway, it’s just a feeling. I can’t explain it any better than that. Forget it. It’s stupid. Catch me up on what’s going on in Bradford.”

I slouched down in the comfy cushioned chair and happily listened to Jane prattle on about Peggie and Annie and the latest gossip.

I needed coffee. I had seen an ad in the Pen Observer for a coffee shop in Pooler, just a couple of towns up the road. I decided to check it out. While still listening to Jane, I got in the car and headed east. It only took about ten minutes or so to get there and we were still talking when I pulled up to the place. I sat in the car until our conversation was finished. I don’t know what I’d do without Jane, I thought as we said goodbye.

I was surprised that such a cute place existed so close to me. After all, there was literally nothing in Eden except for the MaMaws BBQ. I walked to the counter, eyeing all the tempting pastries artfully displayed in the case. My mother would kill me if I ruined my dinner, so I just ordered a coffee. As I looked around, I saw Mr. Joshua sitting alone at a table in the back. I waved hesitantly. He motioned for me to join him.

“Hey, Essie,” he said with a friendly smile. “How was your first day at South Effingham High?”

“Surreal,” I answered honestly, thinking of everything I had just told Jane.

“Surreal?” he repeated in the form of a question. “In what way?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It was fine.”

“Fine, huh?” He paused, but I didn’t say anything. “Did you like my class?”

“Oh, I did, Mr. Joshua,” I gushed. “And I’m not just saying that. Literature, in general, has always been my favorite class. I want to be a journalist and I love reading and I really love the way you have your classroom set up. ‘Bright Star’ is one of my favorite movies and when I saw your poster, I just knew that your class would be my favorite. I’m so glad that I have you first. It will start my day off happy.”

He chuckled slightly.

I realized that I was rambling. “Sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m happy to know that at least one person in my class wants to be there. Did the rest of your day not go as well?”

“It’s not my classes. It’s my…” I hesitated, not wanting to use the word boyfriend. “Do you know Ty Gregory?”

“I know of him, but he’s not in my class. Is everything okay, Essie?”

“It’s fine, but…”

“There’s that word again ― fine,” he interrupted.

“No, really. It’s not that there’s a problem with him, it’s just weird the way that people interact with him and his sister. Do you know what I mean?”

“I have noticed that.”

“So it’s not just me. It’s strange, huh?”

“Do you know anything about him and his family?”

“Well, I met him at the Piggly Wiggly the first week we were here. He invited my whole family to dinner at his house where I met Mara and his mother and father. They were really nice. I know they own the local newspaper and that they have a ton of money. I’ve been hanging out with Ty and Mara all summer. I think he’s been intentionally vague when talking about himself and his family, though. Why? What do you know?”

“When you have specific questions, I’ll have specific answers. But it wouldn’t be right to just gossip about them.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost five. I should get going. I need to get dinner started.”

“Do you have children?”

“I’m not married. It’s just me for now. But I enjoy cooking. It was nice to see you, Essie. You brightened my day with your enthusiasm for my class.”

“I meant it. And I have a feeling I’m going to have specific questions for you real soon.”

He smiled. “Take care, Essie. And be careful.”

Be careful? What did that mean? But it would have to wait for another day. He was gone.

I finished my coffee quickly. I needed to get dinner started as well. “More Than A Feeling” was playing when I started my car. “I lost myself in a familiar song…”

My mother didn’t usually get home until around 6:30, so if I hoped to eat before 8:00, I had to make it. The kids liked to help, especially Laurie, so that made the chore a little easier to take. She dumped the family-sized bag of frozen mixed vegetables in a large pot and I poured some marinade on the steaks that Mum had left defrosting in the fridge. While the grill heated up, we made a salad and set the table together. She was going to be a great mother someday.

After dinner, I returned to the comfy cushioned chair on the back porch, first turning the ceiling fans on high to help combat the insufferable heat from the setting sun whose rays now engulfed my sanctuary. As I looked over the Brit Lit syllabus, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Joshua and wonder what information he might possibly have about Ty.

CHAPTER 15

You Can’t Do That

One week into school and my life had become rote. Ty picked me up each morning and brought me home afterward. I’d do my homework, start dinner, eat with the family, and Ty came over at 7:30. This was a comfortable routine, but it was also boring. I decided I needed a job. Sure, whenever I was with Ty, he insisted on paying for everything, but I wanted my own money and something besides him to take up my free time. Although I would never admit it to her, I was starting to think my mother might be right about spending all my time with him. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she would say with a hint of I’m just saying in her tone.

When I mentioned it to Ty while driving home from school, his response was unexpected. “Why would you want to work when I can give you everything you want?”

Are you serious?” I asked, surprised. I suddenly felt like a housewife from the fifties.

Yes. I am serious. If you get a job, that will take time away from us,” he stated matter-of-factly. “You can’t get a job.”

I hardly knew what to say. He was obviously unaware of my uncontrollable compulsion to do the exact opposite of any unreasonable command given me. I could feel my whole body stiffen with resentment, and I sat silently for the remainder of the ride home, resolving to get the first job I could find.

When he pulled in to his usual spot in my driveway, I looked straight ahead and said icily, “I don’t want you to come over today.”

I felt his stare, but I refused to make eye contact, knowing the undeniable power he could have over me.

I sat there for a long moment, giving him ample opportunity to make this right, but he said nothing. I hmphed softly and shook my head as I collected my books and my purse from the floor and reached for the door handle. He grabbed my left arm too tightly. I turned my head and looked at him defiantly, saying nothing. He let go. As soon as I had closed the door, he slammed the Ferrari into reverse and peeled out of the driveway. I was thankful that my mother was at work and the school bus hadn’t dropped off the kids yet. Axl ran to greet me, excited as always that I was finally home, the commotion not seeming to bother him.

On my way to the front door, I picked up the newspaper that was thrown close enough to the porch stairs, anxious to see if there were any part-time jobs available for which I was qualified. I sprinted up the stairs to my bedroom, dropped my stuff near the bottom of my bed and flopped down hard on the soft mattress. I reached over to the nightstand and attached my phone to the dock, pressed shuffle, and, as I quickly found the page of want ads in the thin paper, the drama of a few minutes ago replayed in my mind.

Who did he think he was telling me I couldn’t get a job? I scanned the meager listings hoping to find something that I could apply for today just to spite him, all the while realizing how immature I was being. But I couldn’t help myself. I was so angry. If he thought I was the kind of girl who would just follow where he led and be happy that he was taking care of me, he didn’t know me at all.

And then I saw it. “Part-Time Help Wanted at Local Nursery, Afternoons & Weekends. Apply in Person”. “Perfect!” I said out loud. I jumped up and ran to the bathroom to floss and brush my teeth and run my fingers through my hair. With newspaper in hand, I flew down the stairs and out the door. I had barely driven my car since I started dating Ty and it took me a second to reacquaint myself with the interior. I glanced at the ad again, looking for the address, and realized that I must have driven by the place many times but had somehow overlooked it. Truth be told, the thought of working outside did not appeal to me at all, especially in Georgia, when it was ninety degrees in the shade for months on end. But I was determined to get a job and my options in Eden were limited.

The nursery was located on the right hand side of the main road heading toward Pooler. It took me less than ten minutes to get there. As I pulled in slowly, I noticed how beautifully the property was landscaped. How had I missed this place? The gate at the entrance had a rich green patina that made it appear to be ancient. It was flanked by two cherubim statues. A few yards past the entrance, on the left, was a koi pond; beyond it sat a large statue of a lion holding a weathered wooden sign with ivy twisting around its edges on which was etched, “The Gardens of Eden” in an elegant golden scroll. How clever! I decided right then that I really wanted to work here.

I parked my car in the fairly empty lot. Good, I thought. They won’t be too busy to interview me. I walked confidently toward the small main structure, shoulders back and a slight smile on my face. When I opened the door, bells chimed softly. I looked around for a moment and heard someone call out, “I’ll be right with you.”

Thank you,” I called back.

A few seconds later, the body that belonged to the voice appeared behind the counter. When I saw him, I stopped and stood frozen, staring. He did the same. It was the boy from my dreams. Was I dreaming right now? Why wasn’t he saying anything? Why was he staring at me? I felt an indescribable energy in the air, and as my brain scrambled to make sense of it, he spoke first.

Hi. Can I help you?” he said with regained composure in a sweet drawl a little thicker than Ty’s.

I wasn’t so fortunate. My brain had yet to catch up with my mouth, which was hanging open. I think I shook my head.

Are you looking for something in particular, miss?” he offered, in a gracious attempt to help me out.

I am so sorry,” I finally blurted out. “I came here to interview for the position you advertised. But you look exactly like someone I used to know,” I lied, “and you caught me off guard. Can we please start over?” I smiled and extended my hand. “My name is Essie Jacobs. Are you still looking for part-time help?”

We are, Essie,” he smiled back, taking my hand to shake it. When he did, a spark of electricity, like that light jolt you get when you slide your stocking feet over the carpet and then touch something, made me jump. He looked at me nervously.

Sorry about that,” he gulped, dropping my hand quickly and taking a step back. “My name is Michael. Michael Powers. My family owns the nursery. Are you interested in landscape design?”

To be honest, I’ve never really given it much thought. But I saw the ad when I got home from school today and I rushed right over. The hours are perfect for me. And the property is so beautifully landscaped that I think I’ve just developed an interest.”

He laughed. “You live here in Eden?”

I do.”

Why haven’t we met before?”

My family just moved here over the summer.”

Are you at South Effingham?”

I am. I’m a senior. You?”

He nodded. “I’m surprised we haven’t met at school yet.”

Me, too.” I agreed, noting to myself that the boy of my dreams seemed to be the only person who didn’t know I had moved to town. We compared classes, only to come to the obvious conclusion that, although we had several in common, we weren’t on the same schedule. We didn’t even have lunch at the same time.

He asked if I’d had a chance to make any friends.

Actually, I have. The first week that I was here, I met Ty Gregory at the Piggly Wiggly. He invited me and my family to his home for dinner. I’ve been hanging out with him and his sister, Mara, ever since. I also met Jackson Parry and Colton Jen one day while I was walking my dog and they invited me to go four-wheeling at Black Creek. I met some more people there. I was really lucky to have met a few fellow students before school began.”

Mmmmm. Lucky,” he agreed unenthusiastically.

What does that mean?”

What does what mean?”

You said that sarcastically.”

I did? I’m sorry.”

Sorry for what?”

For being sarcastic.”

Ugh! Why did you say ‘lucky’ sarcastically?” I asked, exasperated.

I apologize. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean to. Why don’t we just leave it at that.”

I can’t do that. Please tell me why. Please,” I implored.

Ty and I don’t get along. To be more precise, the Powers and the Gregorys don’t associate at all. And I really can’t expound on that right now. I just met you, Essie. Plus, you’re friends with them and it’s not right for me to say anything more.”

Actually,” I started, drawing out the word, “we’re more than friends. I’ve been dating Ty since we met.”

Of course you are.” He smiled somberly. “He’s a lucky guy.”

Does that mean you can’t consider hiring me?”

Not at all. I’d love to have you working here. Ty won’t like it, though. Do you need to talk to him first?”

Absolutely not! He didn’t want me to get a job in the first place and we argued about it earlier. And I certainly don’t want whatever’s going on between you to make matters worse.”

You might not have much of a choice in that matter,” he warned.

I ignored his comment. “When can I start?” I asked anxiously.

This weekend, then. Be here at eight on Saturday morning.” And he smiled a big wide smile.

I’ll be here,” I said, returning the smile as I turned and walked out.

For the first time that I could remember, I didn’t put any music on as I drove home. I thought my head might explode. I was sure that this was the guy from my dream. But I was with Ty. At least I thought I was with Ty. But I saw a side of him this afternoon that I didn’t like at all. He had never gotten angry with me before. And, from what Michael just told me, he would surely lose it once he found out that not only had I gotten a job, but I’d be working for the Powers family. I decided I needed to know what their feud was all about. Was this a part of the mystery that he was reluctant to tell me about? I wondered if Ty would now be forthcoming after this turn of events.

I saw him sitting in one of the rocking chairs on my front porch when I pulled in to the driveway, despite the fact that I had told him I didn’t want to see him. My heart sank as I imagined an antagonistic conversation, although I was somewhat hopeful now that I had something to counter with. I would deflect his argument against getting a job with questions about his relationship with Michael. I walked slowly toward him, formulating my retorts, and I could see that he was holding a present. Now I felt guilty. I sat down in the chair next to him but didn’t say anything. I began to rock.

After a long moment, he broke the silence. “I’m sorry that I lost my temper with you earlier. You have an effect on me, Essie, that…” He stopped mid-sentence and his demeanor changed. “I got you something,” he said playfully as he handed me the beautifully wrapped package.

I took it hesitantly, not wanting to be swayed by some extravagant gift. He grinned as I untied the bow. When I turned the box over to open the paper, something inside rattled. I shook it. I knew that sound. I ripped open the paper to reveal a box of Whoppers. I laughed. “Malted milk balls — the best present ever! Thanks.”

I loved that he gave me simple presents like Whoppers or the necklace with the shell that he had found on the beach or the bookmark. He did so much for me already ― all our meals out, all the places he took me, all the things we did ― extravagant gifts would have been unacceptable. It seemed as though he had me pretty much figured out. At least in that area.

I’m sorry I stressed you out. I hope they help.”

Me, too.” I opened the box and poured a few in my hand. “We need to talk.”

Oh, no. The dreaded ‘we need to talk’. What’s going on? Are you breaking up with me?”

No. But you might be breaking up with me. I got a job,” I said hastily, attempting to employ the bandage strategy. Rip it off quickly and get the pain over with.

Seriously?”

Yes. At ‘The Gardens of Eden’ nursery.”

So, I guess you met Mike.”

“I did.”

“And did he tell you that our families don’t associate?”

That’s exactly what he told me.”

Nothing else?”

No. I was hoping our conversation would be more enlightening.”

You can’t work there, Essie.”

That’s not the conversation I had in mind.”

I’m sorry. I am. But you can’t work for the Powers.”

And why not?”

Essie, please.”

I guess we have nothing else to talk about, Ty,” I said flatly as I walked into the house and slammed the door.

I was beyond frustrated and determined to use the investigative skills I’d honed over the past three years to bring this mystery to light, but first I needed to talk to Jane. I hurried to my room, barely acknowledging the kids who were home by now, reaching my hand into my purse to locate my phone as I bounded up the stairs. Before I even had a chance to unlock it, it started singing “Ballad of Jane”.

“Wow. I was just about to call you,” I said, foregoing a formal greeting.

“What’s up?”

“Did you have something to tell me or did you just call to chat?”

“Just bored. You obviously have something to tell me. What is it?”

“Do you remember me telling you about the dream I had that starred that beautiful boy with the dark hair and blue eyes? We were having a picnic?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Janie, he’s real.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I applied for a job today at a local nursery. I walked in and he appeared behind the counter. I was speechless. I just stared at him.”

“Why do you think it was him?” she asked skeptically.

“I don’t think it was him. I know it was him.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, first of all, sparks literally flew when we shook hands. After I composed myself, we talked for a few minutes and I got the job.”

“Congratulations. Did you tell him you had dreamt about him?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not. I covered my speechlessness and the stupid blank look on my face by saying that he looked like someone I used to know and he let it go. But it kind of seemed for just a second that he recognized me too.”

“Are you going to be okay working with him?”

“I’ll be fine. I was okay once we started talking. Plus, I told him that I was dating Ty.”

“That’s good. You wouldn’t want to mislead him.”

“Oh, that brings up another matter.”

“What’s that?” she asked with renewed curiosity.

“Well, he said that his family and Ty’s family didn’t associate but he wouldn’t explain why. Then Ty was here waiting for me when I got back and I told him about my new job and he said the same thing. He even went so far as to tell me that I couldn’t work there.”

“Uh, oh.”

“I know, right?”

“Wait. You didn’t tell me his name.”

“Oops. Sorry. His name is Michael Powers. His family owns the nursery. And, get thisit’s called ‘The Gardens of Eden’. How cute is that?”

“Very cute. But did you forget that you don’t garden? And you’re always saying how hot it is there. Are you sure you want to work there?”

“I’m sure, Janie. I need something to do. It’s only a couple of days after school, plus weekends. Besides, if I was apprehensive at all, you know I have to take the job now that Ty told me I couldn’t.”

She sighed. “I don’t know why you always have to be so contrary. You said you really like Ty, now you’re going to have a problem with him every time you go to work. Besides, you’re obviously attracted to Michael. Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”

It was my turn to sigh. “Who knows, Janie. But I already took the job. I’m starting this Saturday. Ty will just have to get over it.”

“Good luck then. I can’t wait to hear how it goes. Call me Saturday night, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks. I will. I’ve got to look something up on the computer so I’ll let you go for now. Talk to you Saturday.”

“Bye, Essie.”

“See you, Janie.”

CHAPTER 16

Wild World

I sat down at my desk, opened my laptop, and googled “Powers, Eden, Georgia”. Nothing, save the nursery and the local church. Were the Powers somehow related to the largest church in town? I’d revisit that trail later. Right now, I was looking for something more along the lines of the Hatfields and McCoys. I tried a few other combinations to no avail. Discouraged, I thought I might go visit Miss Ginny soon to see if she could provide some background information on the Powers family. Then I googled the Gregorys. Again, nothing. Remembering the newspaper, I tried “Penemue”, and I came across some startling results.

Penemue, (“Within” or “The Insider”) in Enoch lore, was one of the Watchers/Grigori, an order of 200 Watchers who fell by cohabiting and corrupting the people of Earth through revealing the “secrets of Heaven” (technology & divination). It was never recorded whether or not he bore Nephilim as the other Grigori did, but he was renowned for the secrets he taught and subsequently blamed for their ill effect on mankind. He is most known for revealing to mankind how to utilize the written word. According to Enoch, he “taught mankind the art of writing with ink and paper, and thereby many sinned from eternity to eternity and until this day. For man was not created for such a purpose.” Penemue also taught “the children of men the bitter and the sweet and the secrets of wisdom.” He was a scholarly angel before his fall, and is still given credit over wisdom and learning. He is one of the curers of stupidity in man mentioned in Bereshith Rabba.

And directly from the Book of Enoch:

“The name of the fourth is Penemue: he discovered to the children of men bitterness and sweetness; And pointed out to them every secret of their wisdom. He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper. Therefore numerous have been those who have gone astray from every period of the world, even to this day. For men were not born for this, thus with pen and with ink to confirm their faith; Since they were not created, except that, like the angels, they might remain righteous and pure. Nor would death, which destroys everything, have affected them; But by this their knowledge they perish, and by this also its power consumes them.”

~ Enoch 1 68:9-16

Ty had mentioned that their newspaper had been named after the angel Penemue ― The Pen Observer as in Penemue the Watcher. But was the rest of this a coincidence? Grigori/Gregory? So close. And what about fallen angels? Could the Gregorys possibly be descended from this order? That might explain the power they seemed to have over people. I googled Grigori. Most of the results had to do with either the Book of Enoch or angel lore, the latter seeming to have been compiled by people with way too much time on their hands. But I was grateful, nonetheless, for any information I could glean. Then I found a promising site that offered a view of the Grigori as being able to blend with humanity because they understood what it meant to be human. They knew why humans did evil, why they acted selfishly, and they knew how to influence them without taking away their free will. According to this site, they could even interbreed with humans. It also posited that they were comfortable on Earth but had become corrupted by their long stay. I re-read the part that said “they knew how to influence them without taking away their free will”. Although I was reluctant to even allow for the possibility, I had to admit, if only to myself, that this was certainly plausible. Were Ty and his family hiding in plain sight? I considered the long list of movies centered around angels and/or demons. Many were based in small part on biblical scripture, so I found an online Bible site and searched “angels”. According to this site, there were 281 verses containing the words “angel” or “angels”. And while I couldn’t find any that specifically referred to the Grigori, I did find an interesting one from Hebrews 13:2 that said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. If nothing else, I realized that, if the Bible was true, there were many instances of angels interacting with humans on Earth. But the Grigori were supposedly fallen angels. Hesitantly, I searched “demons”. I’m not quite sure why, but I was relieved to see only 71 verses on the subject, the majority concerning possession. Overall, this was not extremely helpful. My research raised more questions than it answered.

I slammed my laptop shut. What on earth was I doing? My head felt like there was a tiny tornado in it, whirling all my thoughts around so quickly that I couldn’t grasp hold of a single one. I moved from my desk to my bed, flopping face down and covering my head with the pillow. This did nothing to stop the spinning of words like “corrupt”, “fallen”, and “influence”, or erase my mental images of Ty and his family starring as demonic characters in some macabre horror flick.

I was being ridiculous. I needed to clear my head. I sat up and reached for my phone, along with the mmb’s that Ty had given me earlier. I had to get out of here, but I had no idea where I wanted to go. I yelled to my mother that I was leaving as I flew out the front door.

I jumped in my car, and, before I was consciously aware of it, I was headed toward Savannah. The sun had set more than half an hour ago, but the relentless summer heat persisted in keeping the temperature over ninety degrees. I had rolled all the windows down and my hair was blowing wildly as I cruised down the deserted streets. My tortured disposition needed some relief. I connected my phone to the auxiliary jack and located my Joan Jett playlist. I pressed play and rocked out, realizing in that moment that Ty brought out the rebel spirit in me like no one else had ever done. Sure, he infuriated me at times, but I also felt bolder and stronger with him.

I decided to go to the airport. I had done that with friends a few times in Boston, parked on the top deck of the lot and watched the planes take off and land. While I had never gone alone, it now seemed like the ideal activity to take my mind off of Ty and fallen angels.

I entered the hourly parking lot and drove counter-clockwise through three mostly empty levels until I reached the fourth deck. To my disappointment, there was no access to the rooftop. Now what? I drove around a bit until I found a vacant cell phone lot adjacent to one of the runways. Innumerable stars lit up the clear night sky. I laid on the hood of my car in solitude and marveled at the physics of airplane take-offs and landings, giving no thought to anything else as their engines thundered directly overhead.

The frequency of departures and arrivals decreased as it got later. I left around eleven o’clock, my head sufficiently cleared for the moment.

When I arrived home, the house was dark and still. Only Axl greeted me. I tiptoed to my room and slipped quietly into bed. I lied motionless, staring into the darkness, trying to picture the roaring jet engines that had soothed me only a short while ago. Within minutes, however, unwanted images once again invaded my imagination, preventing the sleep that I desperately needed. Those sleepless minutes turned into hours and, eventually, the sun peeked through my window, letting me know that I needed to get up and get ready for school.

Despite the way we left things the day before, Ty showed up to drive me to school just as I was making my way to my car. Surprised, I stopped in the driveway and just stared.

Were you going to drive yourself?”

Um, yes. I assumed you were still angry with me.”

I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you. We need to talk, Essie.”

Yes, we do.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Please get in the car,” he requested as he leaned over and opened the passenger door.

I complied, glad that I didn’t have to drive in my sleep deprived state. Before I could fasten my seat belt, he asked, “Did you not sleep last night?”

“How did you know?” I wondered.

“You have marshmallow eyes,” he said with a wink. “Do we need to find you some coffee before school starts? I can be in Pooler in less than five minutes.”

“That’d be great,” I said, rubbing my eyes.

As promised, we were at my favorite coffee shop before my third yawn. Always the gentleman, Ty went in and bought the coffee while I relaxed in the car.

“Thank you so much,” I said gratefully when he handed me the large cup.

“Anything for you.”

“Anything?”

CHAPTER 17

Born to be Wild

As we drove the route to South Effingham High, I told him all about the information I had found on the internet last night. He said nothing.

“Ty, if you can’t trust me enough to tell me what’s going on, then I can’t be in this relationship anymore.”

“It’s not a matter of trust, Essie. I do trust you. I’m just not sure you’d understand.”

“Well, I guess you won’t know until you try me.”

“Not now.”

“Then when?”

“I need more time.”

“Fine. Take all the time you need.”

“Please don’t be like that.”

“Like what, Ty? You just said we needed to talk.”

“Okay. After school then.”

We arrived at the high school, parked in Ty’s usual spot, and walked into the building without resuming any conversation. He walked me to my locker and, without saying a word, took my face in his hands, waited until my eyes met his, then kissed my forehead. I had closed my eyes momentarily and when I opened them, he was gone.

I arrived at Mr. Joshua’s class early, as usual, and tried to slip into my seat quietly in an attempt to avoid conversation.

“Good morning, Essie,” he called out from a corner of the room.

“Good morning, Mr. Joshua,” I managed with a feeble smile.

“Want to talk about it?”

“About what?”

“Whatever’s bothering you.”

“It’s just more boyfriend drama,” I volunteered reluctantly, squirming in the hard plastic chair.

“Maybe I can help,” he offered.

“I do have some specific questions this time. But I’m afraid you’ll consider committing me just for asking them.”

“Essie,” he said sincerely, “I’ve lived in Eden my whole life and I’ve seen a lot of things. I promise that I won’t consider having you committed for asking strange questions. You can trust me.”

Karen came through the door just then, heading for the seat next to mine. “Thank you, Mr. Joshua,” I whispered, pulling out the book we were currently reading.

“Hi, Essie,” she greeted me pleasantly, as she had every day.

“Hi, Kah-ren,” I responded in kind, trying my best to imitate her pronunciation. Our friendship had yet to develop beyond simple pleasantries; I was only peripherally aware of students other than Ty and Mara. Maybe today was the day to make an effort to change that.

“How are you today?” I asked with every bit of interest I could muster. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, but my mind was still reeling from the unnerving information I had learned from my late night internet searches.

“I’m good, thanks. You look tired, though. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind and I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“That sucks.”

I nodded.

The bell rang for class to begin. “Let’s talk more later,” I whispered.

She nodded and wrote her phone number on a small piece of paper she ripped off the corner of a page in her notebook. “Text me,” she whispered back.

After class, Ty was waiting for me, acting as though nothing had happened. The rest of the day passed in the same manner, both of us keeping up appearances, pretending that everything was just fine. He was much better at it than I, no doubt due to many years of practice, if, indeed, he was secretly an angel living among humans. When the final bell rang, I was anxious. I had spent much of the day imagining what Ty might share with me. I went by my locker to get my books and, to my surprise, Michael was waiting for me. My heart leapt inside my chest when I saw him. He was every bit as beautiful as I remembered, although I had tried my best not to think of him. Strange, I thought to myself. I could swear that the corridor appeared brighter around him.

“Hey,” he said with a big smile. After a moment, he asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I lied, and returned the smile.

“Can I walk you to your car?”

“She’s with me, Powers,” I heard Ty say from somewhere behind me. I spun around and glared at him, although he was staring at Michael.

“You can leave now,” he continued, not averting his eyes.

Michael looked at me. “I’ll see you soon.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, embarrassed.

He just smiled and walked away.

“What are you sorry for?” Ty demanded after Michael was out of sight.

“That was uncalled for.”

“He’s trying to come between us, Essie. Can’t you see that?”

“All I saw was my new boss being polite.”

“You’re being naive.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” I retorted. “Are we going to talk? Or, rather, are you going to answer my questions?”

He sighed. “Let’s go.”

Instead of taking me home, he drove to Black Creek. We walked to the pit and sat across from each other on the logs.

“Okay. What do you want to know?” he asked, finally breaking the silence.

“I want to know what you are ― if you’re descended from the Grigori, if you’re an angel,” I blurted out.

“Yes,” he replied softly, looking down. Normally, he never avoided eye contact. This was unexpected. And I had been certain he was going to deny my allegations. Now I felt bad and wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“Will you explain everything to me?” I asked gently, getting up and moving to sit closer to him.

“You don’t want to run away?” he asked, looking up at me. A single ray of sunshine had found its way through an opening in the thick foliage, lighting up Ty’s face, and transforming his golden brown eyes into deep amber bowls teeming with glistening gold flakes.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked, still fixated on his sparkling eyes.

He shook his head. “I just admitted to you that I’m descended from an ancient line of angels. Why wouldn’t you want to run away?”

“I don’t scare that easily,” I answered too quickly. “And besides, I at least owe you a chance to explain.”

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Neither do you.”

He looked at me and I saw a vulnerability in him that I had never seen before. In my head, I knew that what he was saying was dangerous, but in my heart, I didn’t care. I had heard him say yes, confirming what I had researched, yet I was choosing to ignore it. Logic and reason were just words at the moment.

“Do you remember when we were at Sea Island and I told you that I had some big decisions to make before I turned eighteen?” he asked, his face, the picture of innocence.

“I do.”

“Well, I have until my eighteenth birthday to decide whether or not I want to remain an angel or give it up and live out the rest of my human life as an ordinary man. That’s the way it works for everyone born into the Grigori line. See, we’re born with certain abilities which allow us to lead privileged lives. If I decide that I no longer wish to be an angel, I will be disowned by my family and I will lose everything that goes along with that.”

“That doesn’t sound like angelic behavior to me. And hardly fair. Why would your family disown you?” I asked, slightly irritated. I suddenly felt like his champion.

“That’s just the way it’s always been done.”

I was confused. “Why wouldn’t you want to be an angel?”

“I had never considered it before I met you. I love having special abilities. The downside is that in this age, we’re considered fallen angels, even demons. But it’s not like that. We’re ‘watchers’ ― that’s what Grigori means. It comes from the Greek word egregoroi and, before that, from the Hebrew word irin. You can see those words mentioned in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, chapter four, right alongside of ‘the holy ones’.”

“I did see that. But it was in the Book of Enoch,” I interjected.

“Anyway, I assumed that if you associated me with the words fallen or demon, you’d want to get as far away from me as possible. But we’re not the demons we’ve been made out to be. Everything we do is with God’s permission,” he explained. “You can find a perfect example in the book of Job. Lucifer was hanging out with a bunch of angels and they went to see God. He asked Lucifer where he’d been and he answered that he had been roaming the earth. God brought up Job’s name and asked if he had checked him out. Lucifer said that he had, but that the only reason Job was so good was because God had given him everything and had protected him, but should that protection be lifted, Job would curse God. So, God allowed Lucifer to do whatever he wanted to Job. In the end, Job never did curse God because he had free will and chose not to. But the point is that we’re allowed to tempt or provoke people and then God judges their behavior. It’s all under His direction.”

“I think I understand,” I interrupted. “It’s kind of like being a police officer. It’s not the officer’s fault if you commit a crime and land in jail. He’s just doing what he was hired to do. And you’re just doing what God told you to do. It’s not your fault if someone sins.”

“Exactly. But over the centuries, man has turned us into the personification of evil, blaming us for their bad choices. And our abilities…”

“But you’re not bad,” I interrupted again.

“I’m not bad,” he repeated flatly, his eyes now looking emptily beyond me.

After a moment, I admitted, “Since we’re being honest here, I should tell you that I’ve had an uneasy feeling about you since we first met, but I attributed it mostly to the fact that you’re so pretty. And rich. Plus, strange things seem to happen when you’re around.”

He laughed. “I’m pretty! Gee, thanks.”

I smiled a half smile, raised my eyebrows, tilted my head a bit, and shrugged.

He laughed again for a moment, but then was quiet. I watched him closely as he sat staring pensively into space.

I was the one to break the silence this time, afraid that he might have changed his mind about confiding in me. “You started to say something about your abilities,” I pressed.

“You’re not going to like it,” he warned.

“Tell me anyway.”

He took a deep breath. “I’m able to…” he paused for a second, appearing to be searching for the right words, then resumed “…to persuade people to do what I want.” He paused again, waiting for a response from me, but I said nothing. He continued, hesitantly, “All I have to do is touch someone or look into their eyes and I can make them think that whatever I want them to do is their own idea. I don’t even need to speak, but I usually do. Mara calls it ‘dazzling’. I prefer ‘pushing’.”

“I knew it! You know, I feel something draw me to you whenever our eyes meet. It’s like I have no willpower, even though my research indicated that you can influence people but you can’t take away their free will. Still, that makes me so angry, Ty, that you would… that you would try to… to dazzle me.”

“Essie, it doesn’t work on you. Whatever you feel is not from my ability. I swear. I don’t want to make you even more angry but I did try to push you a couple of times and… nothing. And that’s never happened before. At least not with humans.”

“When?”

“It didn’t work so let’s just leave it at that.”

“Whatever. I can’t believe that you tried to do that to me,” I said indignantly.

“Please forgive me. Honestly, though, I like that I can’t push you. It’s quite boring getting your way all the time. I have to actually try hard to make you like me.”

I looked at him in disbelief. “Puh-lease,” was all I could utter as I rolled my eyes.

“I do try hard, Essie,” he said softly, sounding earnest. When our eyes met, I couldn’t look away. My heart was racing. I knew I should ask him to take me home but, instead, I just sat perfectly still, letting his gaze pierce my defenses.

“I love you, Essie,” he said after a long moment.

My heart went from racing to stopping. I couldn’t breathe. He loves me? I had pondered this notion many times, certainly more than I would ever admit to. But we’d only been together for about a month. Shouldn’t these words be left unsaid for some customary period of time? And, if so, what was this unwritten customary period? I had no clue, but surely it was longer than a month. What I did know right now was that my heart wanted to repeat the words back to this lovely creature sitting so close to me. My brain, on the other hand, was reviewing its memory of the information I had found on the internet less than twenty-four hours ago.

Too much time was passing without me saying anything. As usual, Ty seemed to know what I was thinking. He tactfully interrupted my thoughts and said, “It’s okay, Essie. I just wanted you to know.”

I felt flush. I tried to conceal my embarrassment at my non-response with another question. “Is mind reading one of your abilities?”

“No,” he chuckled. “Why would you ask that?”

“Because you always seem to know what I’m thinking. Like you can read my thoughts.”

“I wish I could read your thoughts. You’re so different. I’ve really had to study you to even begin to understand how you think.”

I let that comment pass and continued the Q&A. “So is it only dazzling or pushing or whatever you want to call it or do you have other abilities as well?”

“I think we’ve covered enough for today. Let’s go get an ice cream.”

“We can get an ice cream, but I want to know everything,” I demanded.

“I don’t think you do,” he said warily. “I think it’s best if you let what we discussed sink in. Take some time to think about it. I need you to be okay with all of this.”

“I’m fine. And if you’ve really been studying me like you said, then you know that I’m not going to let this go. Frankly, I think it’s pretty cool that you can ‘push’. Especially since it doesn’t work on me,” I added with a wink. “And what did you mean by ‘not with humans’? What else is there?”

“Maybe Mike Powers will tell you about that some day,” he answered cryptically.

“What does he have to do with any of this?”

“I’m not going to get into that with you right now. Maybe you don’t need any time to let all this sink in, but I do. I’ve never even considered telling anyone about this and you need to let me do it my way. So let’s get out of here. Please,” he said, sounding annoyed.

I begrudgingly accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to get any more out of him at the moment, so I just glared at him briefly, got up and started for the car. It was getting late anyway and I had a long night of homework ahead. I was suddenly anxious to see Michael again. Maybe he would be more forthcoming than he was yesterday.

We drove home in silence, foregoing the ice cream, and I pondered our time at Black Creek. The “I love you” was definitely in the forefront of my mind. Was everything he told me true and was I actually willing to overlook the fact that he was a fallen angel just because he said “I love you?” I didn’t even know what that entailed, but I was determined to find out.

Pulling into my driveway, I noticed that my mother was already home. I was sure to get a lecture about responsibility and trust since I’d disobeyed her rule about coming home right after school. I’d have no defense, of course, as there was no way that I could tell her what I’d just learned. I would have to listen patiently and agree with everything she said. That would be the quickest way to get it over with so I could call Jane and tell her this unbelievable turn of events. I was still deep in thought when I realized that Ty had opened my door. He reached for my hand and helped me out of the car, not letting go. He deftly closed the car door behind me with his free hand, then took my other hand in his, all the while moving in close to me. With our fingers tightly entwined, he brought our hands down by our sides and looked into my eyes for what seemed an eternity. Then he kissed me softy, briefly, stepping back before my mother could make her way to the front door.

“I love you,” he mouthed as he walked around to the driver’s side, got in, and drove away. I stood there, watching him drive away, unsure of myself for the first time in as long as I could remember.

After the expected lecture from my mother, I went to my room. Before I could hope to get any homework done, I had to talk to Jane. As soon as she answered her phone, I blurted out, “He said ‘I love you’.”

“Did you say it back?”

“No. He really caught me off guard and I just kind of froze.”

“Wait a minute. Rewind. Start from the beginning.”

An hour later, she was caught up. “I still can’t believe you led with the ‘I love you’ thing as opposed to the angel thing. Call me tomorrow, okay?”

“I will, Jane. By the way, please keep this just between us. I don’t even want Peggie and Annie to know. At least not yet.”

“Of course.”

“See you, Janie.”

“See you, Ess.”

Despite the ton of homework I had yet to even look at, I had to do more research on what Ty had said. Were demons real and were they getting a bad rap? Certainly, Ty and Mara and their parents didn’t fit the stereotype of what I had imagined demons to be. Speaking of, I was sure that I wasn’t comfortable referring to my boyfriend as a demon. Henceforth, I would refer to him as an angel, until proven otherwise. I turned on my laptop and began the quest to understand who and what angels and demons really were.

I figured a logical place to start was with definitions. I found that in the original Greek, “demon” (daimon) simply denoted a “spiritual being”. The Hebrew word, satan, means “to obstruct” and was the one given authority by God to tempt humans and to report back to God, just like Ty said. Next, I googled “the devil” and found that Judaism doesn’t even contain the concept of the devil that is accepted by modern day Christianity; however, the Hebrew Bible does describe Ha-Satan as an angel who tests mankind, while the name Lucifer means “light bringer”. That all seemed innocuous enough. And it all corroborated Ty’s story. In addition, these facts allowed me to interpret the lore I had found on the Grigori in a new light, realizing it never actually said that the Watchers were evil, only that they imparted knowledge to man and that man was consumed by it. Did this prove that angels and demons exist? Time would tell. A quote by Eliza Cook came to mind, “Who would not rather trust and be deceived?” I certainly didn’t want to be deceived but I decided that I would trust Ty and consider him innocent until proven guilty.

Satisfied with my findings for the moment, I realized I was smiling, remembering Ty’s kiss when he dropped me off and how adorable he looked as he mouthed, “I love you”. His saying it again alleviated the pressure I would have put on myself to find the perfect time to say it back. He was obviously okay with it being out there.

I started in on my homework and didn’t stop until it was finished, two and a half long hours later. Mum had taken pity on me and had brought some food to my room since I had skipped the dinner break in order to finish sooner.

Once finished, and despite my total lack of sleep the night before, I was still too excited to go to bed. I took my blanket and pillow out on to the roof and Axl followed.

“My boyfriend’s an angel,” I whispered to my furry friend. He rested his lovable face on my stomach and exhaled loudly.

CHAPTER 18

Hooked on a Feeling

Things were perfect with Ty after my research had corroborated his claims that angelic history had been unfairly rewritten, thereby assuaging my fears of entangling my life with a demon’s. And he, having shared his secret, seemed lighter somehow; the shroud of mystery that had surrounded him had been lifted. The uneasy feeling I had had about him since we met was gone, although the ambiguous nightly dreams were not. The only thing causing a small rift in our relationship now was my impending employment at the nursery. I learned quickly not to bring it up, as it only caused him to become broody.

I had been anxiously anticipating Saturday. Perhaps it was this anticipation that caused me to dream of Michael Friday night. In place of the dark dreams in which Ty was featured, there was a rerun of the perfect picnic lunch in the beautiful garden on that bright, sunny day, another scene having been added. As Michael and I were laughing, tossing malted milk balls at each other, I was jarred awake by an annoying scream, “annt-annt-annt-annt-annt-annt”. I slapped the large snooze button located on top of my antiquated alarm clock/CD player. 7:00 AM. I laid in bed for a few minutes, contemplating my alluring dreams of Michael versus the real world where Ty was my boyfriend. I felt guilty because these dreams felt more like visions; they felt real, and I felt happy when I was there. But there was no more time to ponder any possible message I was supposed to be gleaning, at least not right now. Right now, I had to get ready for my first day at the nursery.

I pulled in to the parking lot about twenty minutes early. Michael was at the koi pond and, as I drove by, he greeted me with his good-natured smile. I chose the parking space furthest away from the main building and walked casually toward him, praying that I would be able to forget about my dreamy feelings and behave like a proper employee.

“Good morning!” I trilled cheerfully.

“Good mornin’ to you. You’re early.”

“Just trying to make a good impression.”

“It’s workin’,” he said with a grin. “Are you ready to meet the rest of my family? Except for my mama, that is. She doesn’t work here.”

I drew in a breath. “I’m ready,” I said confidently.

Michael’s dad and his two brothers were in the closest of the three outlying buildings on the property.

“You must be Essie,” his father exclaimed exuberantly the moment we walked through the door.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Mr. Powers. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work here. It’s a beautiful place.”

“I hope you’ll eventually love it as much as we do. Essie, these are Mike’s older brothers, Gabe and Rafe. And, please, call me Chris.”

They were every bit as handsome as Michael, as was their dad. They all had the same dark hair and beautiful blue eyes. There was no denying they were family, unlike me and my siblings.

“Hey,” they both said at almost the same time.

“Hey,” I responded in kind.

“Mike, why don’t you take Essie and show her how to open up.”

“Sure, Daddy.”

As we headed toward the main building, I asked, “So, your dad called you Mike. But you originally introduced yourself to me as Michael. Which do you prefer?”

“You know, I don’t really care, but I think I prefer Michael. What do you think?”

“I definitely prefer Michael. It suits you.”

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“You seem kind of noble and definitely respectful, and Michael sounds kind of, well, noble and respectful. Mike just sounds more like a jock name, like, ‘Yo, Mike’.”

He laughed. “Then, by all means, call me Michael,” he said as we reached the door. He unlocked it and swung it open, held it and motioned for me to enter.

“Thank you, Michael,” I said dramatically.

“My pleasure, Miss Essie,” he responded in an over-emphasized Southern drawl.

I walked to the counter, the same counter where Michael morphed from beautiful dream guy to real life problem, insofar as my relationship with Ty was concerned. He met me there and showed me how to run the cash register.

“You’re a quick study,” he encouraged.

I just smiled.

“Are you ready for the grand tour?”

“I’ve been looking forward to it all week,” I answered honestly.

He put his arm gently around my shoulder, and a low surge of energy coursed through me, as he led me down the first of several aisles of plants. I felt like I was on a Botany 101 field trip, with Professor Michael patiently answering every one of my questions.

Five o’clock came too quickly. I never would have imagined that I could like a part-time job so much. It seems that everyone’s in a good mood when they’re buying plants. Maybe it was their organic beauty. Maybe it was all the fresh oxygen they produced. Whatever it was, I was sad that the nursery was closing for the day.

After Michael showed me how to balance the register, we shut off the lights and locked the door. On the way to my car, we stopped to say goodbye to his father and brothers who had spent much of the day helping customers load their purchases into their vehicles and restocking the shelves.

“Good night, Essie. Great job today. See you tomorrow?” his dad asked expectantly.

“Of course. And thank you again for hiring me.”

“Well, Mike was the one who made that decision. I reckon he knows how to pick ‘em,” he said with a wink.

“Bye, Daddy,” Michael said, looking embarrassed.

“Bye, Son,” we heard him say after the door had closed.

Michael shook his head bashfully and looked straight ahead in the direction of my car, apparently not wanting to make eye contact.

“My mother loves to embarrass me, too,” I proffered, looking over at him.

Our eyes met for a brief moment and he quickly changed the subject. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.”

After the short walk, he said, “Like my daddy said, great job today.”

“Thanks,” I replied, reaching for the car door handle. He reached, too, and his big hand covered mine. Startled, I turned quickly to say “I got it”, but I tripped over his feet and just knew that I was going to fall flat on my face. Instead, in a flash, he caught me. I’m not sure how he did it, but I ended up cradled in his arms with him on one knee, my body buzzing with electricity.

“How did you do that?” I asked breathlessly.

“Do what?”

“Catch me so quickly!”

“I’m not sure what you mean. I just put my arms out when I realized that you were going to fall.”

I chose not to belabor the point, rather, I used this opportunity ― still cradled in his arms ― as an excuse to stare at his face, something I had been loath to do since we first met, certain he would know that I had been dreaming of him. While there was no denying that Ty was extremely good looking, Michael possessed the beauty of an angel. Which was a crazy thought, especially since I just learned that Ty was an actual angel. Now gaping, I could swear that a faint glow radiated from him.

His body felt even bigger than its 6’4” frame in this position. I continued to stare, imagining that a ladybug must feel this same way when cupped in my hands. Although I was fairly certain that only several seconds had passed, they felt as though they were passing in slow motion. Even the dust that I had stirred up seemed to be hanging in the air instead of falling back to the ground.

In one nimble move, he freed his right hand and used it to gently brush back the hair that had fallen in my face. I think my whole body erupted in chill bumps.

“Um,” I gulped. “I think I’m okay now.”

“Oh, sure. Here you go,” he stammered, returning me to an upright position.

“Thanks,” I said quickly, finally averting my eyes.

“I was wondering,” he began, shyly, “if you’re not busy, that is, if you’d like to come to my house for dinner. We have a big dinner party every Saturday night. You never know who’s going to be there. It’s very casual; you wouldn’t even have to change.”

“Thank you, Michael. That sounds great, but I already have plans with Ty. You know he’s not happy with me working here. He’d probably have an aneurysm if I blew him off to go to your house for dinner. But maybe another time?”

“Sure. I guess I forgot about Ty after spending all day with you. I’ll see you tomorrow then. Don’t forget that we don’t open till 1:00, after church and lunch. By the way, I haven’t seen your family at church. Do you go out of town?”

“No. We don’t go to church,” I answered truthfully, suddenly feeling guilty.

As if sensing my uncomfortableness, he quickly countered, while opening my door, “Well, if you ever decide you’d like to check it out, we’d love to have you. I’m sure you’d know lots of people from the high school. We have a youth group that gets together on Wednesday nights, too.”

“Thanks. I’ll think about it,” I said, sliding into my seat. “Oh, that reminds me. Is your family related to the people that own the church?”

“Nobody really owns the church, it belongs to the congregation. But it was my ancestors who originally planted it after settling here more than two hundred years ago. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious. Is your dad the pastor?”

“No. My uncle is, though. And my grandfather was before him.”

“Wow. Do you think you’ll be the pastor some day?”

He laughed just a little. “It’s a calling that I haven’t received. At least not yet. I always envisioned taking over the nursery some day. I think this is where I’m supposed to be.”

“You do seem at home here. Oh, one more thing.”

“Anything,” he said genuinely.

“Are you any good in math? Statistics, to be more precise?”

“Math just happens to be my best subject, and I took Statistics last year. Do you need help?”

“That’s an understatement. I’m terrible at math in general and Statistics is so boring that I’m lucky if I don’t fall asleep during class. Are you available for tutoring?”

“Sure. Do you want to start tomorrow?”

“Why don’t we wait until Monday. I’m trying to keep my weekends free from homework, if at all possible.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

We exchanged smiles as I inserted the key into the ignition and started the car. I could still see him in my rear view mirror as I stopped at the nursery’s entrance before turning on to the main road.

I sighed hard, thinking about being in his arms. I needed music to complete this mood. The first song that popped into my head was “At Last” by Daphne Loves Derby. It was my favorite song off of a random romance CD that Jane had found for our “No Boys Allowed Valentine’s Day Party” last year, a dreamy, romantic tune that matched how I felt at the moment. “You smile, you smile. Oh, and then the spell was cast…” I pressed the repeat button.

As I was slowly coasting down my driveway, music blaring, I saw Ty’s car. I immediately shut off the song.

“Crap!” I said audibly, jolted from my cozy contentment. As was his usual habit, he was sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the front porch.

CHAPTER 19

Saturday Night’s (All Right for Fighting)

I could feel the tension as I approached the porch steps, as thick and heavy as the air on this steamy Georgia afternoon. I said hello nicely enough, but Ty just stared at me and gave me the guy nod.

“What?” I asked innocently.

“How was work?” he asked sardonically.

“It doesn’t seem like you really want to know.”

“Oh, I already know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you with Mike!” he said angrily.

“What are you talking about?”

“I was going to surprise you by picking you up at work and taking you out to celebrate your first day. When I pulled in, you were lying in his arms! Neither of you even saw me because you were too busy staring at each other!” he said in a raised voice.

“That wasn’t what it looked like,” I tried to explain. But he stopped me.

“I saw you, Essie! I’m not stupid!”

“Let’s go for a walk in the woods before my mother comes out here.”

I started to walk down the stairs and he followed after a moment, silent. When we were safely hidden behind the large live oak that stood as a lone sentinel at the head of the path, his ugly side showed itself.

“I told you that I didn’t want you working there,” he yelled, gripping my bicep too tightly and spinning me toward him. “You have no idea what I wanted to do when I saw you with him.”

“Let…go…of…my…arm,” I warned. “I know you don’t want to hurt me.”

He ripped his hand away. “Sorry. What the heck, Essie?” he sighed.

“Ty, if you would give me a chance to explain…”

He was silent.

“Michael walked me to my car and we both reached for the door handle at the same time and it startled me and when I went to turn, I tripped and he caught me before I hit the ground, and that’s it,” I said all in one breath.

He looked pensively at the ground.

“Nothing happened,” I reiterated.

“It didn’t look like nothing,” he muttered, still not looking at me.

The sun was still fairly high in the early evening sky and it was hot. Sensing we might be there for a while, I sat down under the oak’s shade in a pile of fallen leaves and pine needles, hoping they would provide a buffer between my favorite jeans and the Georgia red clay that had already claimed several items of clothing from my siblings. I leaned back against the trunk, legs out straight in front of me, arms folded obstinately across my chest.

It felt good to sit and relax after running around the nursery all day. Ty hadn’t said anything else, but he was now glaring at me. Instead of glaring back, I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in the field at Black Creek, lying on my blanket, listening to “Meditation from Thaïs”. After about half of the song had played in my head, I felt Ty sit down next to me, his shoulder touching mine. I kept my eyes closed and my arms crossed, giving him the opportunity to speak first. After all, it was he who was being absurd.

Instead of offering the apology I was sure I deserved, he laid his head on my shoulder. Wait! That’s not fair! I remained stationary. He wriggled in a little closer, turning his head just enough to be able to tenderly kiss my neck. Uh, oh. My pulse quickened and my resolve softened. How was I supposed to stay angry when he was being so… so… beguiling?

I could feel his breath in my ear now, as he had slowly moved his mouth to my lobe. I was very still, concentrating on my breathing. I hated him for making me feel this way, ignoring, at least momentarily, the fact that he had behaved so badly.

“I love you,” he whispered.

I let out an audible sigh.

“I love you,” he whispered again.

I turned my head toward his, forgetting my anger, letting him kiss me. My body felt like a deflating balloon as I melted into his arms. This kiss felt more passionate, more urgent than his previous kisses. But as much as I was enjoying it, I was afraid to let it go on too long, hearing Mara’s voice now in my head, keenly aware that one thing can all too easily lead to another. I didn’t want a repeat of the night by the river in Savannah. I moved my hands from his shoulders and gently pressed them against his chest, wriggling a bit to free myself from his embrace.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, still trying to hold me close.

“Nothing.”

“Tell me.”

“Nothing,” I insisted.

“Do you not like kissing me?”

“Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed, finally breaking free. “That’s not it at all. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking how much I like kissing you.”

“Then what is it?”

“I just don’t want things to get out of hand.”

“Essie, you feel the same way I do. I know you do,” he bemoaned.

“Let’s head back,” I said in an attempt to change the subject and alleviate the growing tension.

He stood up quickly and, even though I knew he was angry, he extended his hand to help me up. He didn’t let go as we rounded the oak tree and walked back to the front porch.

“Let’s go back to the beach house for a couple of days,” he said as we reached the door.

“I can’t go, Ty. I have to work tomorrow at 1:00. Plus, we have school on Monday.”

“That’s another reason why you shouldn’t have taken that job. If you work every weekend, we’ll never be able to do anything.”

“Well, I like working. And maybe we shouldn’t be spending every waking moment together anyway. You know they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but they’re wrong. I think it’s more likely ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”

I sighed, feeling exasperated. “We still have Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning and Sunday night. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Well, I don’t see what the big deal is with you working.”

“I’m sorry that you don’t understand. And I really don’t want to argue about this any more. Why don’t we just call it a night.”

“I don’t want to leave like this,” he pleaded.

“Ty, I’m starting to feel like you’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute you’re loving and thoughtful and the next you’re angry and controlling. I don’t like it. I need to go now.”

“Essie, please. Let’s just go to Savannah for dinner. You have to eat.”

At that, I remembered Michael’s dinner invitation and wondered if it was too late to drop by his house. I looked at my phone. 6:18. Spending time with Michael and his family and friends would certainly take my mind off of Ty’s disconcerting behavior.

“I’m not hungry,” I lied.

“Do you have some place to be?”

“No. Why would you ask that?”

“You just checked the time,” he replied, sounding irritated.

“Only because you brought up food and I was wondering how late it was,” I lied again easily.

He stared at me suspiciously.

“I’ve had enough, Ty. I’m done. I want to go in the house.”

“Don’t do this. Don’t just walk away and leave it like this.”

“Ty, I don’t know how to resolve this. Here’s the thing ― you don’t own me. I’m not one of your possessions. You can’t tell me what I can or can’t do. You obviously don’t get that. And as much as I love being with you, I still need to be my own person. If you can’t let me do that and be okay with it, then we can’t stay together. Think about it over the weekend and pick me up Monday for school, if you want. We can talk more then. If you want.”

“I don’t want to go the rest of the weekend without seeing you, but if that’s what you want, fine.” He took my face in his hands. When our eyes met, he continued, “Essie, I can’t lose you.” Then he closed his eyes and leaned over and pressed his forehead against mine. After a few seconds of listening to him breathe deeply, I felt his hands glide from my face to my neck to my shoulders and around to my back, hugging me tightly. A long moment later, he released me and walked away in silence, not looking back.

CHAPTER 20

Playing With Fire

One tear from each eye rolled down my cheeks as I watched him drive away. I wasn’t sad, I was frustrated and confused. I was quite possibly in love with the Ty that was thoughtful and romantic and generous and sweet, the Ty that had just held me so tenderly. But I also had to consider the Ty that wanted to control my life. When he didn’t get his way, he could be a real jerk.

But it was Saturday night and I wasn’t going to be the girl who sat in her room crying over a guy. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and decided to shower away my frustration.

Mum stopped me before I could get to the stairs. “Essie,” she called from the kitchen. “Come tell us about your first day at work.”

She and my siblings were in the middle of dinner. “I’m sorry we didn’t wait for you, sweetie. I just assumed you’d be going to dinner with Ty.”

“That was the plan. But he’s still giving me a hard time about working at the nursery and I just didn’t want to deal with him tonight,” I admitted.

“Well, good for you,” she said in an encouraging tone. “Are you going to join us then?”

“No, thanks. Michael invited me to his house for dinner. He said they have a bunch of people over every Saturday night. I told him no because I already had plans with Ty, but since that’s not the case anymore, I figured I’d check it out.”

“Good for you,” she repeated. “You know I think it’s best if you don’t spend so much time with Ty. He’s a nice boy and all, but I’d rather see you doing some things with your friends like you used to back in Bradford.”

“I know, Mum. But I don’t have friends here like I did in Bradford. And on that note, I’m going to get in the shower.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

I was ready in fifteen minutes. Thankfully, Michael had given me his phone number earlier in the day in case I needed to get in touch with him for any work-related reason. I found the little square of paper in my purse and pressed each number carefully. The phone rang twice.

“Essie!” he exclaimed happily.

I was pleasantly surprised. Apparently, he had already entered my number in his phone. “Hey, Michael. I was wondering if it was too late to stop by your house.”

“Not at all. We still have plenty of food, if you’re hungry, and my mama can’t wait to meet you. My daddy told her what great job you did today. Would you like me to pick you up?”

“Thanks, but I’d like to drive. You can give me directions, though.”

“Sure.”

Two minutes later, I was on my way to the Powers’ residence. They lived about five miles or so from my house, not far from the nursery. Pulling into the driveway, I counted at least a dozen cars parked in various places around a large log cabin-style ranch. Behind the house, I could see a sizable pasture enclosing a few horses and a red barn in the distance. Michael was sitting on the top step of the front porch and jumped up when he saw me.

“I’m so glad you changed your mind,” he said earnestly, grabbing the car door and helping me out. As soon as he touched my arm, I felt a tingle that radiated out from under his hand. It wasn’t the jolt I had felt when we shook hands at our first meeting; this was more like the tingly vibration you feel from a massager.

“Ooh. Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“Nothing. Thanks again for inviting me.”

“It’s an open invitation. You’re welcome any time. Come on, let’s introduce you to everyone.”

“I’m ready,” I said with raised eyebrows and a faked smile.

He laughed, and led me toward the front door. From a few steps away, I could hear music. Yay, I thought happily to myself.

All eyes were on us when the door swung open and we stepped into the house. Michael’s mother quickly made her way through the crowd and took hold of my hands.

“We’re so glad you could make it, Essie. Come on in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Powers.”

“Oh, now, Mrs. Powers is my mother-in-law. Please, call me Angie.”

“Angie, then,” I smiled and she gave me a hug.

As she embraced me, she whispered, “I can already see what Michael sees in you,” in a beautiful southern drawl. When she let me go, she put a raised index finger to her lips to indicate that her comment was just between us, but Michael caught the exchange and just shook his head.

Angie was a naturally beautiful woman with the same dark hair and sparkling blue eyes as her husband and her three sons. They looked like the wholesome family that you’d see in the picture that comes in a new frame, great-looking, but not unattainable. She suggested that Michael introduce me around and get me something to eat.

People were sitting and standing all over the place, talking, eating; an older couple was even dancing in a corner of the great room as if they were the only two there. It was sweet. To my surprise, I spotted Mr. Joshua across the room from where we were standing. He was talking with Rafe, one of Michael’s brothers. I caught his eye and he waved. The country music that was playing provided the perfect backdrop for this event ― an informal dinner with friends in a log cabin in rural Georgia. Yes, this was perfect. I felt comfortable in this place.

While friends and family made their way to the kitchen to introduce themselves, Michael fixed me a plate. As a neighbor was telling me ‘‘bout him havin’ kin in New England,” Michael interrupted.

“Travis, would you mind if I borrowed Essie for a bit. I need to feed her.”

“Essie, it was nahs to meecha,” he said in a slow country accent as thick as maple syrup. You g’on, now, and eechur dinner.”

“Thank you, Travis. It was nice talking with you.”

Travis leaned in toward me, perhaps to give me a hug, I wasn’t sure. But as he did, I turned slightly and I was suddenly wearing his full glass of sweet tea. I jumped back, startled by the ice cold liquid that had drenched my top.

“Oh, mah goodness. Ah am so sorry, Miss Essie,” he apologized.

With all the grace I could muster, I smiled and said, “No worries, Travis. It was an accident. Actually, I think it was my fault.”

Michael had grabbed some towels and was awkwardly trying to help when Angie appeared.

“Oh, dear. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll take care of that,” she said sweetly.

I followed her into the master bathroom, Michael trailing closely behind.

“Michael, honey, would you please find Essie another top while I get her out of this one?” she asked as she ushered him out and shut the door behind him.

“I’m sorry to be so much trouble, Mrs. Pow… I mean Angie.”

“You are no trouble at all, honey. We’ll have you fixed up in just a minute.”

I took my top off and she handed me a warm washcloth to wipe off the remaining stickiness. A couple of seconds later there was a soft knock on the door.

“Don’t come in, Michael,” Angie said quickly. “Just set the shirt on the floor and we’ll meet you back in the kitchen.”

“Okay, Mama.”

“It’s so funny to hear him call you Mama.”

“What do you call your mama, honey?”

“Mum.”

“Well, here in the South, sugar, all children call their folks Mama and Daddy. Why, that’s what I still call mine. You’ll get used to it.”

“I’m still learning about Southern culture. It’s interesting.”

She smiled, then opened the door carefully, making sure Michael was gone. “Oh, that crazy boy,” she laughed. “I meant for him to get you one of my shirts, but he brought you one of his. Hold on a second and I’ll get something else.”

“Don’t worry about it. This is fine,” I said, taking the t-shirt from her and tugging it on over my head. “This must be really old, it practically fits,” I observed, glancing in the mirror.

Angie looked at me and smiled.

“What is it?” I asked curiously.

“That was Michael’s favorite t-shirt in middle school. Gabe gave it to him when he went to visit him at the University of Georgia. I had to make him take it off every so often so I could wash it. Whenever we’d go through our stuff to give things to the Salvation Army, he said he’d never part with that shirt. And that was the one he chose for you. Hmmm…” she mused through a knowing grin.

“I’m glad you told me that.”

“You probably shouldn’t mention it to him, though. I’d hate it if I embarrassed him.”

I made the motion of zipping my lips, locking them, and throwing away the key. Angie gave me a big hug.

“Ready to rejoin the party?”

“Sure. And thanks for helping me clean up.”

“You’re most welcome, honey.”

Michael was waiting for me in the kitchen with the plate he had made for me. “Would you like to sit while you eat?” he asked with a big grin on his face, trying unsuccessfully not to check me out in his t-shirt. “I don’t think anybody’s out on the back deck.”

“That’d be great,” I answered quickly. I was hoping to have some time alone with Michael to ask him what was going on between his and Ty’s families.

The deck was three levels with seating areas in various spots on each one. The top level looked like an extension of the great room. It was enclosed with screens, which was helpful for keeping out the ever-present summer insects. We took a seat on a sofa constructed of logs and twigs with cushions that were covered in a fabric adorned with grizzly bears and other wildlife. A large, old chest served as a coffee table, and Michael put my plate there in front of me.

“I hope you like sweet tea,” he said as he placed the large glass next to my plate, “drinking it, not wearing it, that is.”

I laughed. “I’d never had it before moving to Georgia, but I love it now. Thanks for fixing my plate,” I said, reaching for the barbeque sandwich he had made. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. I took a big bite and nodded in affirmation of its deliciousness.

Michael sat back in the sofa, tapping his foot to the beat of the music, occasionally looking at me as I enjoyed every last thing that he had put on my plate. He didn’t talk while I ate, but the silence didn’t bother me. Normally, I’d ramble on just to fill the void, but no fill seemed necessary here.

As I savored my last bite, I attempted to form my first question concerning Ty in my head. I didn’t want to divulge everything I knew, but I had to phrase my question in such a way as to elicit more than a vague or evasive response. On second thought, maybe I should just open with Ty told me he’s a fallen angel. Is that why you two don’t associate? I wouldn’t give him the chance to contrive a politically correct answer.

I swallowed hard and took a deep breath.

“Are you sure you really want answers?” Michael asked before I had even spoken a word.

“How did you know…”

“Let’s go somewhere else,” he suggested before I could finish my sentence.

I stood up when he did and followed him down the deck stairs to the back yard. He led me to a large, stone fire pit with adirondack chairs arranged around it. He pulled one out as though we were on a dinner date and motioned for me to sit. I obliged, all the while keeping quiet, in spite of the many questions that now wanted to explode from my mouth like a volcano whose eruption was long overdue. He dragged another chair close to mine.

“So… what would you like to ask me?”

“Are you going to be honest?”

“I’m always honest. Always.”

“Okay, then. Do you know about Ty?” I asked uncertainly.

“I know several things about Ty and his family. You can be specific, Essie. I’m sure you won’t reveal anything that I don’t already know.”

“It’s just that I don’t want to betray his trust or disclose any information that would make him look bad. He was reluctant to tell me anything as it was. I just need to know more because what he did tell me was huge and I need to understand it better.”

“Of course. And you do need to understand it better. Tell me what you know and we’ll go from there.”

I took another deep breath and, without looking at him, blurted out the statement I had in my mind only a few minutes earlier. “Ty told me he’s descended from a line of fallen angels, and that he’s an angel. Is that why you two don’t associate?” There. I said it. Out loud.

“Oh, is that what he told you?” he asked skeptically.

“Is it not true?”

“Using the term ‘fallen angel’ is being very generous. He and his family are demons, plain and simple. One of their traits is deceit and he’s obviously already deceived you into thinking that he’s not dangerous.”

“But he’s not dangerous, Michael. We’ve been seeing each other for more than a month now and he hasn’t been anything other than nice,” I protested, deliberately leaving out the incident in Savannah and his occasional mood swings.

“I’m sure he has. That’s all part of the ploy.”

“A ploy? To what end?” This conversation was not going as I had hoped and I was getting frustrated. “No. Never mind that for now. Please explain the demon slash fallen angel thing first.”

He looked at me intensely for a long moment, then began in a very serious tone, “This all started because Satan ― or Lucifer, if you’d like ― wasn’t satisfied with his position in Heaven. He was the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. But he became proud on account of his beauty. He wanted to be equal to God and worshipped like Him, so he started a war in Heaven. Lucifer convinced a third of the angels to battle with him against Michael and the rest of the angels, but they weren’t strong enough to overthrow them and God cast them out of Heaven and they now have dominion over the earth.”

He stopped at that point, apparently waiting for some sort of signal from me as to whether or not to continue. I sat still for a bit, contemplating what he had said. He had spoken with authority, as though what he said was actually true.

I studied his face. He wasn’t joking. He didn’t go on, instead giving me time to digest his words. Without saying anything, he stood up and got some logs for the fire pit from a huge stack of wood piled next to a small shed a few yards away. He set them down next to his chair and then went into the shed, coming back with some tinder and kindling which he arranged carefully in the middle of the pit. He lit the tinder with some matches that he pulled from his pocket. A small fire caught on the kindling after a few seconds, but he waited there, squatting next to the flames, fanning them until they had reached the desired proportion. Once that was accomplished, he placed some of the smaller logs around the kindling in the form of a teepee.

I was enjoying watching him build his fire. I thought of my dad, maybe because this was something I could never picture him doing. He was a brilliant architect but refused to do any work at all around the house. He wasn’t lazy, he just abstained from any kind of manual labor. He would actually tell me with a straight face that if he were to do “fill in the blank”, he would be depriving someone else of earning money for that job. He said he was performing a public service. Michael gave the impression that he could do anything.

During that time, I hadn’t thought about what Michael had just told me. But it came flooding back when he returned to his seat. The first thing that popped into my mind to say was, “How do you know this and how do you know it to be true?”

My right arm had been resting on the right arm of the chair and my body was turned slightly in that direction. When I asked my question, he picked up his left hand and placed it gently on top of mine. Bzzz. There was that vibration again, that tingle. I just looked at our hands for a moment, his large mitt hiding mine, before looking back at him.

“Please tell me you feel that or I’m going to think I’m going crazy.”

“I feel it.”

“Why do your hands give off electricity?”

“They don’t. Or, at least, they never did before now. I think it only happens when I touch you.”

“Wow,” I said, looking back at our hands, thinking.

I loved how he gave me time ― time to eat, to think, to observe, without rushing me. When I did look up, his piercing blue eyes were waiting for me, ready to answer my question.

“I’m an angel, Essie,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “That’s how I know that what I said about Ty and his family is true.”

This was too much. I removed my hand from under his and folded my arms over my chest. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, thinking about what he said before I responded and, again, he gave me that time. My initial reaction was to laugh to myself. Okay, you got me. Angels and demons are real and they live in Eden, Georgia. Maybe Ty and Michael were best friends and had nothing better to do than to play this elaborate joke on me. I hadn’t actually seen either one of them do anything that I’d consider angelic or demonic. But I hoped that wasn’t the case. My next thought was ‘why me’? If this were true, why would Ty be interested in someone as ordinary as me and why would Michael care? Surely, they must have more important things to do if they were who they said they were. Finally, I wondered how I really felt about this if, in fact, it was all true. While I had listened to Ty’s confession, and even researched it a little bit, it was still hard for me to believe that it was actually real. Maybe it was like winning millions of dollars in the lottery where you hear someone call your numbers and you see those numbers on your ticket and maybe you scream and jump up and down, but I imagine it must take a while before reality sets in.

So I didn’t laugh out loud and I didn’t ask ‘why me’. Instead, I just looked into Michael’s beautiful blue eyes and remembered that he had just told me that he was always honest, and I believed him. Something in those eyes told me that he was telling the truth and that all this was real and all I could say was, “Okay.”

He smiled the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. His teeth were big and white, but not perfect like a set of dentures. They were real teeth and they matched him. Everything about him was real. Just then, I realized, as I was doing it, that I was comparing Ty and Michael. That wasn’t fair. I suddenly felt like I was cheating on Ty. But in this moment, I could hardly help myself. Everything about Ty was perfect ― his teeth, his hair, his face, his body, his clothes, his car, his sister, his parents, his everything. Michael was so different. Without a doubt, he was beautiful, but in a more accessible way. He was big and brawny like a lumberjack and his style was very casual, a plaid shirt open over a white t-shirt paired with jeans seemed to be a staple in his wardrobe. His dark hair was longish with a slight curl and it always kind of looked like he just got out of the shower and shook his head to style it. I was certain that Ty took much longer than I did to get ready. And he was slick. Always “on”. Always wanting to show me a good time. Always busy. Michael seemed to be very laid back, at least based on the limited amount of time I had been around him.

“Okay, then. Did you want to know anything else or are you good for now?”

“Oh, my gosh. Where do I begin? I must have a million questions.”

“A million, huh? We might be here for a while then. Would you like some more tea?”

“Sure,” I said, handing him the glass that I had put down beside my chair. It was still quite warm outside and even warmer next to the fire.

He took my glass and said he’d be back in just a second. While he was gone, I tried to think what my first question should be. I think I wanted to know more about angels. My mother had a small angel figurine amidst the many potted plants she kept on the back deck. On it was written, “Angels gather where gardens grow”. I wasn’t sure why that just popped into my mind except that it reminded me that Michael’s family owned a nursery. How bizarre. Maybe I’d start with that.

I jumped when I felt an ice cold glass press against my bare shoulder. “You startled me. I didn’t hear you walk up.”

“You were deep in thought. Have you decided which of your million questions you’re going to open with?”

I told him about the angel figurine and wondered if that’s why his family had the nursery. He laughed just a little and then pursed his lips as if to keep himself from laughing more.

“Dumb, huh?”

“Not at all. It’s just funny that out of all the questions I’d imagined you’d ask, that wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t laughing at you. I promise.” He paused and arranged his face in a more serious look. “It’s not an angel thing, it’s a Powers thing. My daddy has a degree in horticulture from the University of Georgia. That’s where he met Mama. They were both taking an Intro to Horticulture elective their freshman year and it was love at first sight. Daddy had always been interested in plants; Mama was an artist interested in the beauty found throughout creation. So, that’s why they own the nursery.”

I nodded my head in understanding. “Still, it’s pretty cool that you’re angels and your nursery is called ‘The Gardens of Eden’.”

“Mama chose the name. Kind of an inside joke.”

“She’s clever. I like her already. And I like the way you say mama and daddy. It’s cute.”

He smiled approvingly. “Next?”

“Do you have special abilities? Like flying maybe?” I winked.

“Sorry, I can’t fly. But I can teleport.”

My whole face lit up. “Seriously? You can teleport?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Can you carry passengers?”

“Well… as a general rule, we’re not supposed to teleport humans. But I might be persuaded to make an exception. If it was an emergency. Or if you asked me nicely,” he joked.

“Wow. Can all angels do that?”

“Mmm hmmm.”

“What else?” I asked with unbridled enthusiasm.

“There’s strength and speed. And we’re pretty much invulnerable.”

“Like Superman!”

“A little,” he laughed. “And like Clark Kent, we need to be discreet in everything we do. We don’t use our abilities unless we really need to.”

“And it’s okay that you’re telling me?”

He nodded.

“Why?”

“I can’t say.”

“You don’t know or you literally can’t say?”

“Literally.”

“You know what? I don’t care right now. You’ve shared so much already. Can I ask some more questions?”

“Sure.”

“Can you read people’s thoughts?”

“No. Angels can communicate telepathically with one another if they choose to, but we can’t just randomly read each other’s thoughts or those of humans.”

“That makes sense. But I was wondering because Ty claims that he can’t, but I’d swear that he knows what I’m thinking the majority of the time.”

“Demons can’t read minds, Essie. He wasn’t lying about that. However, they are extremely perceptive because they carefully study everything you say and do. Everything. All demons study humans intensely, since the most successful predators know the habits of their prey. That skill probably makes it seem to you that he can read your mind.”

“You think I’m prey?” I asked incredulously.

“In a word, yes. Scripture warns you to ‘…be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour’.”

“That’s not fair, Michael. Ty already explained that to me. Everything they do is with God’s permission. That’s in the Bible, too.”

“That’s true, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a demon. He’s descended from the Grigori, the angels who were sent to watch over mankind after the war in Heaven, when Satan and his minions were cast down to Earth. But, instead, the Watchers chose to assimilate and corrupt man, against their directive.”

“That happened thousands of years ago. Just because his descendents did something wrong, that doesn’t make him a demon.”

“For your sake, Essie, I wish I was wrong. But I’m not. Ty will show his true nature in time.”

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. “We should probably move on.”

“Next question?”

“Why did you tell me the first day we met that your family didn’t associate with Ty’s family?”

“The short answer is that angels and demons don’t hang out.”

“I guess that should have been obvious. But why are both families here in Eden? And are there more? And if so, where are they?”

He laughed. “Three questions that time. Let’s see. There are a countless number of angels and demons and they’re everywhere. Some have chosen to take human form for a while and some remain as spirits. You see, angels and demons are immortal. We can choose to live as humans for a time if we want, but we must be born as babies and die as old people in order to blend in with the rest of the population. The exception to that would be if we were needed to deliver a message or perform a task, we are allowed to assume the human form briefly for a temporary assignment. As to why my family and the Gregorys both live in Eden, all I can tell you right now is that this is a very special place. When the Gregorys’ ancestors settled here in the early 1700s, my ancestors did the same. We have to keep things in balance.”

“Do you have any other abilities that you haven’t mentioned?”

“Let me see,” he said thoughtfully. “Oh, we can heal people.”

“Healing. That’s huge. Have you ever?”

“I haven’t yet, but my folks have. I’ve seen it done.”

“One last question for now,” I promised. “Ty has to choose whether or not to remain an angel on his eighteenth birthday. Do you think it’s possible he’ll give it up?”

He sighed. “Essie, I wish I could tell you what you obviously want to hear. But I don’t believe he will. It’s almost unheard of.”

Almost unheard of. Then it’s possible?”

“Sure, it’s possible. But not probable.”

“Thank you, Michael. For everything. I really need a friend like you.”

Being needed. That’s the next best thing to being wanted,” he said with a playful wink. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the fire.

“Hey, you two,” his mother called from the deck, breaking the silence. “Why don’t you come on in and have some cake.”

“We’d better go or she’ll come drag us in after a minute or two. She makes a great red velvet cake and she won’t let you leave here without trying it,” he said, offering his hand to help me up. There was that jolt again. I was figuring out that the severity of the charge depended on where he touched me, or maybe whether or not I touched him back.

“Is that because you’re an angel? Are we not supposed to touch?”

“I’m not sure. I promise it’s never happened to me before. I’ll ask my parents about it later on.”

“Don’t forget. I’m curious.”

I didn’t speak as I savored Angie’s culinary masterpiece. I had seen red velvet cake in the coffee shop and just thought it strange. What on earth could it be made of if it was red? Tonight, in addition to a lesson on angels, I also learned the history of this traditional southern dessert. I enjoyed watching Angie as she regaled me with little-known facts such as the red color of the cake being caused by the reaction of the buttermilk and the anthocyanin in the cocoa when combined. And that it wasn’t a true red velvet cake unless it was layered with a cream cheese icing, never vanilla.

Before I realized that it had happened, I was the last guest, other than Mr. Joshua, still at the house. In a few short hours, the Powers had made me feel like part of their family. I was so relaxed that I felt like I could go get something out of their refrigerator without asking. I didn’t want to leave, but it was getting late.

I started to say my goodbyes to everyone, when Mr. Powers yelled, “Come here and hug my neck, girl.” I was learning to love their southern colloquialisms. After that hug, I got one from each member of the family, even Mr. Joshua.

Michael walked me to my car. “Thank you for coming over tonight, Essie,” he said as he opened the door.

Thank you for inviting me. I had a really nice time. And thank you, too, for trusting me and explaining all the angel stuff. It’s very cool and I’m looking forward to learning more.”

“You’re welcome. Sweet dreams,” he smiled, closing the door.

Sweet dreams? Was that sentiment just a coincidence or did he know? He said he couldn’t read minds and that he was always honest, so I let it go. “Thank you. You, too,” I responded through the open window as I shifted into reverse. I waved when I had my car pointed in the right direction and watched him in my rear view mirror, standing there, hands in his pockets, watching me drive away, until he was out of sight.

I drove home wondering why I was allowed to know about angels and if I had a role to play in this celestial drama; but the peaceful, easy feeling I felt whenever I was around Michael covered me like a down comforter on a cold New England night and I wasn’t concerned at the moment.

CHAPTER 21

I’ll See You in My Dreams

It was relatively early on a Saturday night, if I was back in Bradford, that is. In Bradford, I had friends. Lots of friends. In Eden, I had a boyfriend, his twin sister, and the sycophants who pretended to want to be my friend because of my boyfriend and his twin sister. Jane, Peggie and Annie would still be out. I certainly couldn’t talk to Jennie about anything. I needed Joan. She’d help me forget what a wonderful time I’d just had with Michael and the excoriation I was in for when Ty found out.

I needed something hardcore; some Runaways, Joan Jett’s teenage girl band. I jammed my earbuds in and began my private head concert with “Fantasies”. It was a little slow, but the guitar was heavy and loud and just what I needed. I pounded my fluffy pillow to make a divot for my head and crawled under the covers.

The blaring rock and roll drowned out any warm and fuzzy thoughts I’d had about Michael as I concentrated on the angst-ridden lyrics. Song after song filled my head but sleep eluded me.

I opened my eyes to find myself in Ty’s house, sitting all alone on the sofa in the formal living room. What am I doing here? Where’s Ty? I sat for a few minutes but no one came around, so I got up and walked through the dining room to the kitchen. No one. I went to the front door to see if my car was in the driveway. I was surprised to see a driveway filled with cars, although mine wasn’t among them. Where was everyone? I continued to roam the expansive first floor, only to find room after room empty. When I came upon the library, I ventured in and took a seat in Mr. Gregory’s tall leather chair which was tucked neatly behind his large mahogany desk. The shelves on either side of the room reached from floor to ceiling and were stuffed with thousands of books.

After contemplating my situation for a while, I rose from the comfortable leather chair to examine the comprehensive collection. As I ran my fingers over volume after volume, my progress was halted by something that was protruding slightly. It was blue. Using my index finger, I tilted it cautiously toward me to get a better look. Peering over the top, I could see that it contained pages. It was a book. Unlike all the rich, leather-bound editions sitting perfectly on the many shelves, however, this felt like it was made of glass or maybe ceramic. I pulled it out a little more. Upon closer inspection, the cover looked like it could be made of sapphire and it was adorned on the back with a golden Star of David with Hebrew symbols in its center and in four of the six outer triangles. It was magnificent. I removed it and returned to the desk.

Carefully, I opened it, feeling the soft vellum pages, turning each one reverently. It took me a minute or so to realize that I should be reading it from back to front. Flipping to the last ― or rather, first ― page, I saw the words, “Sefer Raziel HaMalakh” in an Old English font, the Hebrew characters written underneath. Full-color illustrations adorned the left side of every page with what I surmised was the corresponding text on the right. Interspersed with the text were many unfamiliar symbols. I had never seen anything like this.

Totally engrossed in what appeared to be a grimoire, I was slightly startled when, in my peripheral vision, I thought I saw someone pass by the door.

“Hello?” I called out. No one answered. I closed the book and returned it to its place. Once at the door, I looked right, then left. No one. Since I had come from the right, I decided to go left, in search of the person I thought I saw. As I rounded the corner at the end of the hallway, I saw the figure again at the end of yet another hallway. It was a little girl.

“Hey. Wait up,” I yelled, but she disappeared again around the corner. I ran down the long hallway and, as I did, it seemed to get longer. The faster I ran, the further away the end seemed to be. Finally winded, I stopped and leaned against the wall to catch my breath.

When I looked up, I was suddenly at the end of the formerly endless hallway ― no passage to the right, around which the girl had vanished ― with a door now taking the place of what was, just moments ago, empty space. Timidly, I reached for the door knob and turned it slowly. It wasn’t locked. I pulled the door open, nervous when I saw the dark staircase. I stood motionless for a moment, trying in vain to peer into the blackness, when I thought I heard faint voices in the distance. Why would Ty leave me upstairs all alone?

I tiptoed down the stairs, careful not to trip in the darkness. When I reached the bottom and I was certain my feet were on the floor, I paused, seeing a pale light up ahead spilling over from another room to the left.

My eyes were adjusting to the minimal light and I could see well enough to make my way past the furniture in this very large room, toward the light in the adjacent space around the bend. As I walked, the voices got louder, only it sounded more like chanting than conversation.

My heart began to beat faster as I neared the light. I gulped hard and moved to the wall, not wanting to be seen just yet, edging ever closer to the clandestine meeting. When I ran out of wall, I stopped, certain whoever was on the other side could hear my heart pounding. Stop being such a big baby! I drew in a breath and forced myself to peek around the corner.

What the heck was this? It was a scene taken directly from one of the illustrations in the grimoire, or at least that’s what it looked like. I counted twenty-four people in red robes sitting around an enormous square table on which was etched a Star of David in a circle with unfamiliar ensigns in various places within and without the star. In each corner of the table, a bowl had been hollowed out and it appeared that each one contained an element ― earth, in the form of a small pile of red clay; water; air, which looked like a miniature tornado; and fire. Presiding over this assembly were Mr. and Mrs. Gregory, seated in what could only be described as thrones.

Should I stay or should I go? Just as I was deliberating that decision in my head, I felt a hand grab my shoulder and it startled me. I jumped.

“Essie, wake up!” Jennie snarled as she shook me.

“What?” I gulped. “Where…”

“You’ve been talking in your sleep.”

“Oh. Sorry. Was I that loud?” I said groggily, pulling out my earbuds and squinting from the too bright light of the ceiling fan that Jennie must have switched on when she came in the room.

“Not that loud, but I couldn’t sleep, so I could hear you. You’ve been talking for the past half hour or so. What were you dreaming about anyway?”

I shook my head vigorously in an effort to wake up. “I don’t remember,” I lied. I definitely didn’t want to share this with Jennie. I yawned a big yawn. “Sorry for disturbing you. I’ll try to keep it down.”

“You going back to sleep?”

“I was going to try. You?”

“I wish. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Anything you want to talk about?”

“Like you care.”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”

“You only asked because now you know that I couldn’t sleep and I just told you I have a lot on my mind. Otherwise, since my name isn’t Ty or Mara, I don’t exist.”

“Stop being such a drama queen and tell me what’s going on.” I paused for a second and waited for her to look at me. “Please?”

Her face was puckered in an angry expression. “Fine,” she huffed. “I like a boy who doesn’t know I exist. Happy?”

“Is it anyone I know?”

“Probably. He sits with your group at lunch.”

“It’s not my group. It’s Ty and Mara’s group.”

“Whatever.”

“Well, what’s his name?”

“Jace.”

“Jace Robinson?”

“Do you know any other Jace?”

“Just making sure. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. Do you want me to introduce you?”

“No! I mean… yeah, but…”

“Don’t worry. I won’t make it obvious. He usually sits fairly close to me, along with Jackson, Savannah and Colton. When you’re ready, just come over and ask me for money or something. I’ll take it from there.”

She smiled at me for the first time in a long time. “Thanks, Ess.”

“Do you think you can sleep now?”

“Doubtful. Now I’ll be stressing that I’ll trip or say something stupid.”

“You’ll be fine,” I assured her in my most motherly tone. “Now try to sleep.”

She flipped the light switch off and shut the door on her way out of my room. I laid on my back, staring at the ceiling, trying to fall asleep, wondering about the meaning of my latest dream, envisioning Michael as Clark Kent and Ty as Lex Luthor, ruminating on how I came to be caught up in this strange melodrama.

CHAPTER 22

On The Dark Side

Ugh! I was still staring at the ceiling as my bedroom gradually lightened. With the sunlight came the resignation that I would never again get a good night’s sleep. Michael’s narrative had obviously seeped into my subconscious, thereby affecting my dreams. Rolling on to my side to check the time on the clock, I noticed the t-shirt I had worn to bed, the worn gray t-shirt with the UGA bulldog on it that Michael had given me last night. I smiled, remembering that Angie had told me how much Michael loved that t-shirt since the day his oldest brother, Gabe, had given it to him after his visit to the University of Georgia. Under different circumstances, I could most definitely see myself with Michael. Truth be told, he was actually much more my type than Ty. Prior to this, I had never been attracted to those perfect GQ guys, ever. But Ty had aggressively pursued me and he was, admittedly, hard to resist. Yes, Ty is my boyfriend, I reminded myself, and I couldn’t allow myself to become captivated by Michael Powers.

As I laid in the bed, thankful that I didn’t have to be to work until one o’clock, I went over all the things I loved about Ty in my head and chose to focus solely on the fact that Michael said it was possible for him to give up the part of him that was demonic. Would he want to do that for me? That would be a requirement, of course, if he was the demon that Michael portrayed him to be.

I decided that I believed in the existence of angels and demons, but it was difficult to determine the exact truth. Maybe, just like politicians, Ty and Michael were each painting themselves in the best light. Maybe Ty was right in saying that Michael was trying to come between us. Did he have a secret agenda? Now that I had spoken with Michael about this, I wanted to hear Ty’s side. I regretted telling him that I didn’t want to see him until Monday morning. I was anxious to tell him what I’d learned from Michael. But it was probably best for him to take some time to get over me working for the Powers. He just had to, because I was sure I could successfully navigate between their diametrically opposed worlds.

I’m hungry, I thought, as I looked over at the clock. Eight-thirty. Hmmm. I wished that Ty was coming to pick me up to go to breakfast. I could call him, but I wouldn’t. I was stubborn. I said Monday and I would stick to that no matter what. I’d just take myself to the Waffle House. Maybe one of the kids would want to go with me.

After throwing on a pair of shorts and the Braves t-shirt that Ty had bought me, I ventured downstairs to see who was around. Hollie was still in her pajamas, sitting cross-legged on the couch eating Froot Loops out of the box.

“Have you eaten many of those?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Wanna go to the Waffle House with me?”

“I do, I do,” she answered excitedly.

“Alright, I’ll take you. But let’s get you dressed first, okay?”

“Okay.”

As we rummaged through her drawers, Hollie decided she wanted to wear her Braves t-shirt, too. A little embarrassing, but if it would make her happy, I’d deal with it.

We got to the Waffle House right about nine and sat in Donna’s section at the counter.

“And who’s this?” she asked in that super sweet tone that adults usually reserved for children and animals.

“Donna, this is my baby sister, Hollie. Hollie, this is Miss Donna.”

“I’m not a baby,” she said defiantly.

“I didn’t mean that you’re a baby. I should’ve said that you’re my youngest sister. I’m sorry. Can you please say hello to Miss Donna?”

“Hello, Miss Donna,” she complied.

“It’s nice to meet you, Hollie. Do you know what you’re going to have for breakfast?”

No sooner did she grab her order pad and pen from her apron pocket, than Ty came in. He spotted us right away and came over to where we were sitting, looking at us with approving eyes in our matching Braves t-shirts. I was glad now that I had worn mine, even though I had chosen it out of guilt, exchanging it for Michael’s.

With his arm on the back of the empty stool next to me, he asked, “May I?”

“Sure.”

Ty took the initiative to order “the usual” for the two of us and asked Hollie if she knew what she wanted.

She was so excited to be there with me and now even more excited since Ty showed up. She really liked him. All my siblings did.

“I do, Ty. I want scrambled eggs and I want bacon and I want toast with grape jelly and I want chocolate milk.”

“Got that, Donna?” he asked with a wink.

“Got it,” she replied and turned to call out our order to the cook.

“What are you doing here?” I whispered when Donna was out of earshot.

“I woke up this morning missing you, Essie Claire. I thought I’d feel better if I came to our usual weekend place. And then I saw your car… And now I do feel better.” He smiled that sparkling smile that always made me forget where I was.

“I wanted to call you,” I confessed. “But I thought you might still need time to think.”

“All I did was think. I laid awake the whole night, staring at the ceiling, feeling far away from you and really alone. I give up, Essie. I don’t like it, but if you want to work for the Powers, then I won’t give you a hard time any more. I promise.”

Wow, I thought. What a change from last night. But I simply said, “Thank you.” I didn’t want to discuss it further in front of Hollie at the Waffle House.

When we were finished, Ty asked if we could hang out before I had to go to work. I wanted to, but I was nervous. I knew he’d probably freak out about me going to Michael’s the night before. But I supposed it would be better to get it over with so I told him I’d like that. He followed me back to my house so I could drop Hollie off and leave my car there.

As soon as he shifted into third gear, he took my hand and squeezed it. “I really missed you last night,” he said contritely.

I felt so guilty, so I said nothing. I just looked at him briefly and sort of half smiled.

He drove to Black Creek and we walked the short distance to the field where I had forced him to open up to me. He had a blanket for us to sit on and he threw it out in front of himself, shaking it until it laid in a perfect square on the grass.

I sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the soft, plaid blanket. Instead of sitting next to me, though, Ty walked around and sat behind me, his legs stretched out on either side of mine. He put his arms around my waist and squeezed gently, resting his chin on my right shoulder.

“It felt like I spent a week away from you last night,” he whispered in my ear.

Even though it was hot out, I got chills when he did that. I sighed at the sweet sentiment and relaxed against his chest.

I had to tell him about last night before I felt even more serene, if that were possible. In a minute…

I loved him so much when he was like this. I couldn’t accept that he was evil, although I did believe that Michael believed what he told me was true. It just didn’t jibe with this guy holding me gently and whispering softly in my ear. He couldn’t be evil.

I broke from his arms and spun around to face him in one quick motion. “I went to the Powers’ house last night for dinner after you left,” I blurted. There. I said it.

He just looked at me for a long moment, confused, hurt.

“Say something,” I pleaded.

“I asked you if you had some place to be when you looked at your watch. You lied to me.”

“Ty, I didn’t lie to you. I swear. Michael had invited me to dinner after work because he said they had lots of people over every Saturday night. I told him that I already had plans with you. That’s the truth. It’s just that when you were being such a jerk, I was angry, and I needed something to take my mind off of our argument. I hadn’t eaten, so I figured, why not? But that’s not important. What is important is that I asked him why your families didn’t associate and he told me…”

“I can only imagine what he told you!” he interrupted. “Essie, I should have been the one to tell you everything. I can’t believe you discussed me with him!”

“I wanted you to tell me more. But you’re the one who said that maybe Mike Powers would tell me about it some time,” I said belligerently. “And so I asked him.”

All of a sudden, his long arms engulfed me and brought me close to him, and he held me tightly. “You’re right. I should have told you everything that day. I’m sorry.” And then he straightened his arms so that there was some space between us. He looked at me, intently. “I want to tell you everything. Now.”

“Okay. Can I tell you what Michael told me first?”

“As you wish.”

I giggled at his use of that phrase. We had watched “The Princess Bride” a couple of times over the summer and I had commented on how romantic I thought it was when Westley said that.

“He told me that he and his family are angels and that you and your family are demons and that you are dangerous and that you’ve deceived me into thinking that you’re not.”

“Is that all?” he scoffed.

“Oh, my gosh, no,” I answered enthusiastically, ignoring the sarcasm. “He told me all about the war in Heaven and that all angels are immortal and that you’re super perceptive and also that Eden is a very special place, but he wouldn’t tell me why.”

He was silent for another long moment.

“Do you think I’m dangerous and deceitful?”

I looked into his golden eyes, wanting to be certain that he believed me, and simply said, “No.”

He took my face in his hands and kissed my lips very softly and slowly, once, twice, three times. His forehead was now pressed against mine and I could feel his breath as he inhaled and exhaled deeply. It seemed that time was standing still. The sweet smell of jasmine wafted on the air around us. Birds were singing in the distance. I felt as though we might spontaneously begin to float skyward.

He interrupted my reverie when he kissed me again, this time a little more passionately. He moved one hand from my cheek to the side of my head and cradled me in the crook of his arm as we drifted down toward the blanket. We landed on our sides, facing each other. I left my head resting on his arm and he began playing with my hair with his free hand. He picked up a few strands at a time and ran his fingers down their length, letting them fall down my back as he reached their ends.

“I want to give you more proof that what I’ve told you is true, something that I’ll bet Mike didn’t tell you. The sixth chapter of Genesis is where the Bible first mentions my kind. It tells the story of the sons of God, that’s us, and how they found human women to be very beautiful and they married them. Their offspring ― half angel, half human ― were called nephilim. They were described as, and I quote, ‘heroes of old, men of renown’. It wouldn’t make sense for that to be in both the Torah and the Christian Bible if it were not true. I’d be surprised if a majority of the congregation at Powers Baptist Church had even read the Bible in its entirety. They just attend the service and believe everything the pastor tells them.

“Anyway, I like the abilities that I have, Essie. I also enjoy the privileged life that I was born into. I don’t know another way to be. But I’m not dangerous. Especially not to you. I’m glad you believe that.”

“I do,” I said honestly. I thought carefully about what else I wanted to know. “Tell me about all your abilities.”

“Well, I already told you about ‘pushing’. I can also, kind of, well, I can make things happen,” he confessed hesitantly.

“You know you have to explain that further.”

“For instance, remember the first night at Black Creek when Colton tripped and fell?”

“Uh, huh.”

He didn’t elaborate.

It took me a second, then I understood. “Oh, my gosh. Are you telekinetic? Are you saying that you caused him to trip? I knew it! I even said that to Jane a while back.”

He looked at me sheepishly. “Essie, he was trying to put the moves on you,” he offered in his defense.

“Tyrus Cobb Gregory!” I scolded, as though I was his mother. “Do you do that often?”

“Define often.”

“Un-believable,” I enunciated and shook my head. “Give me some other examples of things you’ve done when I’ve been around.”

“Not if you’re going to get mad.”

“Okay. Fine.”

“Promise.”

“I promise.”

“That same night, I might have caused the snake to scare Savannah.”

I laughed at that one. “Thanks for that. She was being ugly.”

“I thought so, too. And you’re welcome. Oh, and I also might have made the fire explode when you gave Colton a hug. I didn’t mean to do that. It just happened.”

“It just happened? You scared the crap out of everyone.”

“Like I said, I didn’t mean to do that. I guess I was jealous when you put your arms around him.”

“He was just being sweet.”

“I know,” he shrugged.

“So, basically, all the times we go to a busy restaurant and you’re able to get us a table right away or when you get stopped for speeding or when someone does something you don’t like, you use your abilities.”

“Basically.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know what to make of that. It seems kind of bratty because you can always get your way.”

“It’s hard not to do things when you can do things. And be honest. Wouldn’t you, if you could?”

I thought about it for a second. “I guess it would be cool. But I’ll just have to live vicariously through you.”

“For now.”

“What does that mean?”

“Do you love me?”

“You know I do.”

“You’ve never said it.”

“I’m sorry about that, it’s just that…”

“You don’t have to explain. You’ll say it when you’re ready. Anyway… if we were to, say, get married someday… you’d get abilities, too.”

Overload. That was too much to digest. Marriage and abilities? Marriage? Abilities? I was suddenly imagining myself as Jean Grey. I couldn’t believe he brought up the “m word”. I’m a high school senior. I have my life planned out and that life does not include marriage in the near future. Or maybe ever. After all, I’d seen my mother go through three marriages. I wouldn’t make her mistakes.

“Obviously, I’ve over shared. I’m going take a mulligan and resume our conversation where you said you’d live vicariously through me, if that’s okay with you.”

I remained silent for what seemed like an eternity. I knew Ty was stroking the side of my face, but I could barely feel it. I had closed my eyes because I couldn’t meet his gaze. Not yet. I thought I loved Ty, especially now, at this very moment. He was being so loving and understanding and forthcoming. Yet, every time I had those loving thoughts of Ty, Michael’s image would invade my bliss and those ominous feelings would creep back in. As if that weren’t bad enough, now I could also hear his voice in my head telling me that Ty was evil and deceitful and dangerous.

“Or not. I didn’t mean to freak you out, Esther Claire Jacobs.”

At that, I opened my eyes.

“Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “I knew that would get you.” He smiled his perfectly irresistible smile.

“You don’t play fair.”

“Are you just figuring that out?”

I shook my head in feigned disgust and rolled onto my back, letting out an audible sigh.

He used that opportunity to get up on his knees and crawl behind my head. From my current perspective, he looked like an upside-down giant. He moved his lovely face toward mine until our lips met. The brief, upside-down kiss felt strange, but in a good way.

“Now that you know, I want you to see my abilities in action,” he said, full of fresh excitement as he jumped up from his kneeling position.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Let’s drive a hundred miles an hour to Savannah and then see what kind of trouble we can get into, or out of, while we’re there.”

“I have to be to work by one o’clock, remember?”

“I didn’t remember,” he sighed. But he caught himself and recovered, continuing in an upbeat tone, “Let’s go after you’re through with work then, okay?”

“I’m not sure how I feel about deliberately getting in trouble, but I do want to see you ‘at work’, so to speak.”

“You’ll have fun. And if there’s anything you’re not comfortable with, just let me know and I won’t do it. I promise.”

“Okay. That’s fair.” And I smiled at his newfound constraint.

“Do you feel like eating before you have to go to work? Or would you rather just wait and have dinner in Savannah?”

“I think I’ll wait. I’m still full from breakfast. If I get hungry, you know I keep a few emergency nutrition bars in my bag.”

He shook his head and laughed.

“What? You never know what might happen. We could get stranded somewhere for days and the only thing to keep us alive would be my bars,” I said defensively.

“You’re already forgetting my abilities. If anything like that ever happened, and that’s a big if, my family and I are all kind of… connected. We’re able to communicate with each other no matter where we are. Therefore, we would never be stranded for long.”

“So, you are telepathic!” I exclaimed. “I asked you that already and you said you couldn’t read minds.”

“Wait a second. I can’t read minds and it’s not telepathy. It’s just sensing and communicating with our kind. All angels have that ability. Including Powers.”

“Sorry. He did say that. Go on.”

“Anyway, I also forgot to mention that I’ve gotten stronger over time. Just as infants learn how to walk and talk, our abilities develop in much the same way. We grow into them as we mature and are able to handle them. Right now, I have to be close to someone to push them. But once I turn eighteen, and I decide to remain an angel, the abilities I currently have will be unlimited. I’ll also acquire a couple more ― shape-shifting is a cool one that I’m really looking forward to, and I’ll also be able to extend my pushing to a visual and audio level. In other words, I could make somebody think they’re seeing or hearing something that’s not actually there.”

“I agree that shape-shifting is totally cool, but why would you want to make someone see or hear something that’s not real? That sounds scary. For them.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe just to disturb them if they do something wrong. I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s only temporary so it’s no big deal,” he said cavalierly.

“Um, that is a big deal, Ty. First of all, the person wouldn’t know that the hallucination was temporary. Second, ‘something wrong’ could be a covering over many things. If someone cut you off on the highway, would you make them see a person in the road so that they would swerve and crash? If you received poor customer service somewhere, would you make that person hear scary voices or whatever so that they thought they were going crazy?”

“Of course not, Ess. You’re blowing this way out of proportion. Besides, I always get my way, so that ability will probably be unnecessary,” he objected with a wink. Then his demeanor became serious. “Please don’t make me sorry that I told you. You can’t imagine how good it feels to share this with a human. With you. Don’t ruin this for me. Please.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to ruin your moment. And I’m so happy that you finally decided to trust me with your secret. But it’s a lot for me, too. It’s going to take more than a couple of minutes to digest all this. I guess that seeing you use, and not abuse, your abilities will go a long way toward making me comfortable with it. I hope you’ll be patient with me.”

He took my chin in his hand and brought his lips to mine once again. He kept them in place for a few seconds, then backed off slightly; and, although my eyes were shut, I could still feel that his face was very close. I was transfixed. He kissed me again, this time his lips were parted slightly. Light as a feather, his tongue brushed over my lips like an artist lovingly and carefully painting his canvas. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, he kissed the corner of my mouth, then my cheek, then my ear.

I used every bit of willpower contained in my body to try to shake myself out of the trance that I had been so easily led into. “Ty,” I mumbled. “Ty,” I repeated. My words were saying stop, but my inactive posture allowed him to ignore me. He was so good at this. “Really. You need to stop.”

“Do you really want me to stop?” he breathed flirtatiously.

“I do. Well, I don’t, but I do,” I responded quickly, my eyes still closed.

“As you wish,” he complied graciously.

“What’s up with you?” I asked skeptically, opening my eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“Why the sudden change of heart? Less than twenty-four hours ago you were adamant that I not work for the Powers. You were also angry when I stopped kissing you in the woods. Today you’ve been so… agreeable.”

He was now sitting a foot away from me with his hands folded in his lap. “I want you, Essie Claire. And, like I said, if it has to be on your terms, then I’m going to be fine with that. I told you that I thought about it all night long. The thing is, you know I’m used to getting my way. No one’s ever challenged me before, at least not more than once. You frustrate me, Ess, but that’s okay. The thing with the Powers is my deal and I’ll figure it out. I don’t want to fight.” He paused. “Now as far as the kissing goes…”

I’m sure I turned red as a Maine lobster at that turn in the conversation.

He noticed and continued, “I intend to persist in driving you crazy.”

“You’re pretty confident in that assessment.”

“Yes, I am.”

CHAPTER 23

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Ty dropped me at my house at about twelve-thirty, giving me a few minutes to say hi to everyone. I burst through the front door to find them all, including DB, sitting in the living room watching a movie and eating popcorn.

“Hello, family, DB,” I greeted them exuberantly.

“Hello, Essie,” Laurie and Hollie answered in unison.

“You’re very cheery,” my mother pronounced.

“Am I?” I replied evasively as I scurried up the stairs to change for work. Five minutes later I was out the door and on my way to face Michael.

I arrived at the nursery at about a quarter to one and Michael was already there, trimming one of the topiaries near the door of the retail building. He looked up and smiled as I drove past to my parking spot, but continued his task.

I was unsure if I should bring up anything regarding our conversation from last night. Thankfully, customers began arriving before I had even made it inside, which made it impossible to discuss anything personal with Michael during our short shift. They were bustling about, up and down the aisles, scouring each display for the perfect pansy or deciding which bulbs they wanted to plant now for a spring debut. We were able to do nothing more than that which our jobs required.

As five o’clock neared, I grew anxious, not wanting to get into a possibly lengthy discussion with Michael. Ty was going to pick me up at my house at six and I couldn’t afford to spare the time. Frankly, I didn’t care to hear anything else about him being evil. I was choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt and I would make that clear should Michael say anything.

I rung up the last customer at a couple of minutes after five and Michael turned the sign when he walked her to the door.

“Thank you, ma’am. I hope to see you again,” he said, flashing his beautifully imperfect smile.

“Oh, you will,” she replied, obviously charmed.

He caught me shaking my head. “What?” he asked.

“You have such a way with people,” I said sincerely.

“I genuinely like people.”

“Is that part of your job as an angel?”

“No. But it is why I chose to be here in human form.”

Why did I say that? Now we were talking about angels. “That’s nice,” I said dismissively.

“You know, Essie, just because I opened up to you last night doesn’t mean that we have to talk about angel stuff all the time.”

“How did you…”

He walked over to me and gave me a hug. Other than the soft vibration that was present wherever our bodies touched, which I was getting used to, it felt natural and comfortable to be in his arms. “Don’t worry about it. Whenever you want to talk, I’m available. Now, go on. I’ll see you tomorrow at school.”

“But how did you know what I was thinking,” I pressed. “You said you couldn’t read minds.”

“I can’t read your mind, but one of my gifts that I forgot to mention last night is empathy. All angels are empaths. We can actually feel other people’s emotions when we’re tuned in. I could feel that you were anxious about talking, that’s all.”

“So, you’re tuned in to me?”

“Apparently. I didn’t realize it until just now,” he said reflectively. “I must be tuned in to you for a reason.”

“Whatever the reason, thank you,” I said as I made my way to the door. As I reached for the knob, I was startled to find him already there, waiting to open it for me.

“Oh, my gosh.”

He grinned.

“Super speed,” he shrugged, still grinning.

“I’m impressed,” I said candidly. ”See you tomorrow.”

I made it home in just under eight minutes and jumped in the shower after yelling a quick hello to whoever it was still sitting on the couch. I threw on a variation of “the uniform” ― khaki shorts, a fitted t-shirt, and matching flips. My hair would just have to dry on the way. As I flew down the stairs, I heard a knock on the door. He’s never late, I thought to myself.

“Bye, anyone who can hear me,” I called out as the door slammed behind me.

“How was work?” Ty asked as we sped off toward Savannah.

“It was really busy. It seems that everyone in Effingham County wanted to plant a fall garden today.”

“So you didn’t have a chance to talk with Mike any further?”

“Not really. The only thing that was discussed was right as I was walking out the door. I said that he had a way with people and he said that he genuinely liked them. I asked if that was an angel thing and he said no, but that it was why he chose to take human form. Also, he told me that he’s an empath and that he’s tuned in to me.” I said the last sentence hesitantly as I didn’t want to begin our evening by upsetting him, not sure if the change I had seen in him this morning was permanent or temporary.

“Hmmm,” was all he said and cranked the radio up loud, the way I liked it.

Over dinner, he broached the subject again. “So, tell me more about Powers being ‘tuned in’ to you,” he repeated, using air quotes for emphasis.

“I don’t really know anything. I was feeling anxious because I wanted to leave and not discuss anything with him. But it came up anyway when I accidentally asked if his way with people was an angel thing. He told me not to worry about it and I asked if he had read my mind. That’s when he told me. Actually, he said he hadn’t been aware of it until just then. Weird, huh?”

“Essie, I intend to keep my promise concerning him. But you’re right. It is weird that his ability would be centered on you. I’m not happy about that, but it’s not your fault. Thank you for telling me. I need to be aware of these things.”

“I’m glad you’re not upset. Let’s forget about all that anyway. But don’t forget that you were going to show off for me tonight.”

“Show off? Hardly,” he bragged. “You’ll see. Do you want me to do it now?”

I nodded eagerly.

“Okay. I’ll get our server to come over right now with some more tea. And she’ll apologize for not bringing it sooner.”

I was on pins and needles and I wasn’t sure why. I felt a little guilty, but excited at the same time.

Our server approached our table with a full pitcher of tea. “Let me refill those for you,” she said with a smile. “Sorry it took me so long to get here. That big party over there is really running me around.”

No worries,” I said politely. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. As soon as she walked away, I covered my mouth and giggled silently. “That was awesome,” I gushed.

Ty looked proud as a peacock. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Do something else,” I prodded.

“As you wish,” he grinned. “Any requests?”

“See that old couple over there? I don’t think they’ve said two words to each other the whole time they’ve been here. Make them kiss.”

He shook his head but looked amused. “As you wish.”

The old man stood up and moved to the other side of the booth, scooting close to his wife. She looked at him curiously but said nothing. He put his arm on her shoulder and then planted a huge kiss right square on her mouth. I laughed again without making a sound. The wife’s eyes were wide with surprise at first, but then she closed them and appeared to be kissing him back.

“Awww. That is just the sweetest thing ever.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Thanks. That was fun.”

“Good. Let’s get out of here and see what else strikes your fancy.”

We walked the streets of Savannah and I grew more and more enamored of Ty as he performed for me. I mean, it was one thing to tell, quite another to show. I wondered aloud why his abilities didn’t work on me and he assured me that he had no idea. I assured him that I was thankful for the glitch. There was no way that I could date him if he was able to make me do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do on my own. Even as that thought formed, I was aware of my own hypocrisy; if I didn’t want it done to me, I shouldn’t want it done to others either. But it was harmless. We made one guy pick up the girl he was with and twirl her around. We made another guy buy a rose for a random girl that just happened to be walking by. I hadn’t laughed this hard since the girls-only VDay party. Totally harmless.

“Hey, this is one of the places that Mara and I do karaoke. Let’s go in,” he said, dragging me by the hand.

“I don’t sing,” I protested, trying to stand my ground.

“You don’t have to sing. We’ll just watch if you want.”

“Don’t you have to be twenty-one to be in a bar?”

He shot me a look that said, Really?

“Never mind,” I said quickly as I remembered who I was with.

We walked up to the door which was being guarded by a huge guy who looked like he spent all his free time at the gym.

“Ty,” he yelled as he stuck out his hand.

“Hey, Joe,” Ty replied as he shook his hand.

“Where’s that beautiful sister of yours?”

“She had other plans tonight. Joe, this is my girlfriend, Essie. Essie, Joe.”

“Great to meet you, Essie. Y’all gonna sing tonight?”

“She’s a little shy. I think we’ll just watch for a bit.”

“Go on in, man,” he said as he ushered us through.

We tried to make our way through the crowd but we were stopped every few feet by someone that Ty knew. He shook several hands, patted a few backs, and even kissed a couple of cheeks before the manager came over and told us that his table was now available.

Of course it is, I thought. One half of my brain felt badly because I knew that there had to be a lot of people who had been waiting for a table; the other half felt privileged and liked it.

“Sparkling water with a lime, Ty?” the manager asked.

“Thanks, Dan. Essie will have the same.” When he walked away, Ty asked, “What do you think?”

“Well, I’ve never been to a bar before. It’s really crowded. You’ve actually sung here?”

“Lots of times. Mara, too. We do an Ozzy and Lita duet that you’d love. You’ll have to try it some time.”

“I told you I don’t sing. And by that I mean I can’t sing. I wish I could because you know how much I love music. I sing in the car and in the shower, but I wouldn’t subject anyone else to that. Just Axl.”

“You’ll have to sing to me some time and let me be the judge.”

“I don’t see that happening.”

A gorgeous waitress that bore a resemblance to Jessica Alba in Fantastic Four brought our drinks. “Hey, Ty,” she said seductively as she leaned in close to him in her low cut tank top. At that moment, I knew without a doubt that if I had had Ty’s telekinesis, she’d be on her butt with our drinks on top of her. It’s a good thing he couldn’t read minds.

“Thanks,” he said quickly as he moved his chair closer to mine. “Chloe, this is my girlfriend, Essie.” He put a noticeable emphasis on girlfriend. “Essie, Chloe.”

“Oh, it is so nice to meet you,” she said in a sticky sweet drawl.

I just smiled politely and envisioned sending her flying across the room.

“She’s pretty,” I said after she had left.

“Not as pretty as you,” he countered.

I wasn’t insecure, but I wasn’t blind either. The girl was beautiful. And she obviously didn’t have a problem flirting with my boyfriend right in front of me. All of a sudden I went from feeling like a princess to feeling like a sixteen-year-old girl in a grown-up world in which I didn’t know how to compete. I wished that Mara was here to watch my back. Not that Ty wasn’t, but Mara would have known exactly how to handle Chloe. It was a girl thing.

We had been watching a few people sing for about half an hour. I was surprised to see a couple of people who were not very good get up there and perform as though they were stars. But I gave them credit for having the nerve to do it. And if it made them happy, then more power to them. Ty excused himself during one particularly bad performance, saying he’d be right back.

I was entertaining myself by people-watching when I heard the intro to “Love of a Lifetime”. That was my favorite 80s rock ballad, although I was pretty sure it was actually released in the early 90s, and I’d recognize those guitar chords anywhere. Under the table, my fingers automatically began to play along with the familiar opening riff. I looked over to the stage to see who would be attempting this song, hoping they wouldn’t butcher it.

My heart leapt. It was Ty. He was staring directly at me. When my eyes met his, I couldn’t look away. He started singing,

“I guess the time was right for us to say

We’d take our time and live our lives together day by day.

We’ll make a wish and send it on a prayer

We know our dreams can all come true with love that we can share.

With you I never wonder, ‘Will you be there for me?’

With you I never wonder ― you’re the right one for me.

I finally found the love of a lifetime

A love to last my whole life through

I finally found the love of a lifetime

Forever in my heart, I finally found the love of a lifetime.”

His singing voice was beautiful, kind of low and a little raspy at times. I had heard him sing many times before, but this was different. With the music backing him up, he sounded like a rock star. And his face looked so natural, not weirdly contorted like some performers get when they’re singing. I think I was literally swooning. I felt like a fangirl at a boyband concert. I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the song. My thoughts were elsewhere. I had always envisioned karaoke as cheesy, sung by American Idol wannabes desperate for attention. My mind was officially changed after tonight. I knew Ty had no reason to be up there other than that he loved to sing and he was good at it.

It wasn’t until he was finished and the whole place erupted in applause that I realized everyone was staring at me. I wanted to collapse under the table and slink away. Ty jumped off the front of the stage and headed back to our table, never taking his eyes off me despite all the people slapping him on the back and giving other signs of approval.

“Would you like to leave?” he asked, noting my pained expression.

I smiled gratefully. “Yes, thank you.”

Once we made it outside, I finally felt as though I could take a breath. Talk about surreal. I was at a loss for words.

When my brain finally caught up to my emotions, I grabbed Ty’s hands and squealed, “That was awesome.”

He let out a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad you said that. I was afraid I freaked you out, that the karaoke was too much.”

“It wasn’t that.”

“Then what?”

I gulped hard, wanting to choose my words carefully. “It was the song you chose. You remembered from the beach that it was one of my favorites. And you were soooo good. Combine that with you showing me your abilities tonight and I’m just slightly overwhelmed.”

He wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me off the ground, spinning round and round. “I want to show you everything, to give you everything. I’m so happy when I’m with you.”

“I’m so happy when I’m with you,” I repeated.

CHAPTER 24

Two Princes

I was in heaven. School was going well, except for Statistics; I had a fun job; Georgia turned out to be great; my family seemed happy; and I had a gorgeous, rich boyfriend with super powers. Life was, as they say, good.

It was autumn in Georgia and the nursery was now open only on weekends. That gave me time to take Michael up on his offer to tutor me in Statistics. I had put it off initially to placate Ty, although he hadn’t asked me to. But after he had completely opened up to me, I didn’t want to jeopardize our new-found closeness. However, the “C” I made on my first quarter report card now made tutoring unavoidable. Michael and I rendezvoused every day on my back porch about fifteen minutes after Ty dropped me off. He knew that we were studying together but preferred not to talk about it. I was only too happy to comply.

My grasp of data analysis was improving and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Michael. He wasn’t a “man of few words”; no, he could hold his end of a conversation, but his words were always well chosen and kind. He saw the good in everything and never seemed to get rattled.

“Essie, have you had a chance to do any more research on demons?” he asked out of the blue one day. So much for well chosen words. I didn’t like this question.

“I haven’t bothered. Why do you ask?”

“Why haven’t you bothered? Don’t you want to get to the truth?” he asked in a tone that affirmed his concern.

“And what truth is that, Michael?” I asked, slightly annoyed.

“That there are angels and demons in this world ― good and evil. Demons steal, kill and destroy. They masquerade as beings of light but they are tempters and deceivers whose only purpose is to keep humans from understanding the truth. Everything that Ty says and does is contrived to captivate and there’s not much you can do about it. I’m concerned that your feelings for him are blinding you to that.”

“The truth is that more research isn’t going to accomplish anything. I’ve verified everything that each of you has said. As far as I can tell, you’re both telling the truth, but that truth is up for interpretation. Ty and Mara are not evil and neither are their parents. It looks to me like you’re all part of the same league, just playing on different teams. And until I see something evil with my own eyes, this discussion is closed.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“What?”

“That you’ll become embroiled in something evil some day and it will be too late.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, Michael. I can take care of myself.”

“Just promise me one thing then.”

“What’s that?”

“Promise me that you’ll think of me if you’re ever in danger. I told you that I’m tuned in to you and that I can teleport. All you have to do is want for me to be there and I will be. And I promise you right now,” he said unequivocally as he took my hands in his and stared into my eyes, “that I will never let anything happen to you.”

“Thank…”

My thank you was unexpectedly interrupted as Ty burst through the back door.

“What the…?” he spewed as he pushed Michael aside and almost knocked him over in his chair.

I jumped up, startled. “Ty,” I yelled. “Knock it off. He wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

“He doesn’t get to hold your hands and be your protector. That’s my job,” he yelled back at me.

Michael had gotten up from his chair, prepared to defend himself. “Ty, calm down. Think about where you are. If you want to talk about this, let’s leave Essie’s house.”

“The only thing I have to say to you is, ‘Keep your hands off her’. I know what you’re doing, Powers. You think you can use the time at work or these tutoring sessions to fill her head with lies about me. Why don’t you just tell her how you feel so that it’s out in the open. She thinks you’re just being nice, but we both know that it’s more than that. You think she should be with you, that you’d be better for her. Go ahead, tell her.”

Michael looked at me, then looked down.

“Is that true, Michael? Are the job and the tutoring just a ruse?”

“You don’t believe that, Essie,” he said somberly. “We needed someone at the nursery and you were the first person to apply. You’ve done a great job there. We wouldn’t keep you on if that weren’t true. And as far as the tutoring goes, you asked me for help. I think you’ll agree that we’ve accomplished a lot during our sessions. I don’t need to try to deceive you. You’ll eventually see Ty for who he really is and I just want you to be forewarned. To be fair, he is right about my feelings for you. But I wouldn’t do anything underhanded in an attempt to steal you. I don’t need to. I told you before that I’m always honest and that hasn’t changed.

“You are meant for me, Essie. In your heart, you know it, too. You knew it from the first second you recognized me at the nursery. Ty knows it, too. That’s why he intercepted you before we had a chance to meet.”

“You see, Ess. I told you all along that he was trying to come between us. He just admitted it.”

I sighed heavily, not sure what to make of Michael’s admission. I looked at Ty, his face still twisted in anger. I looked at Michael, the embodiment of tranquility.

“Michael, I think it’s best if you leave now. Thank you for your help today. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

He looked only at me and smiled. “See you.”

“See you.”

In an instant, he was gone; his super-speedy departure leaving the plants on the deck rustling in his wake.

Ty collapsed into the chair that Michael had been sitting in. “I’m sorry that I had to do that, Ess. But you needed to know the truth.”

“Funny, that’s exactly what he said.”

“Tell me what he said. Exactly.”

“You mean you weren’t eavesdropping on our entire conversation?” I asked scornfully.

“I wasn’t eavesdropping at all. I came by because I was going to go to the coffee shop and wanted to see if you could take a break from studying. I didn’t know Powers would still be here. When I looked through the door and saw him holding your hands, I lost it. I’m sorry. I want to be okay with this, with you and him working or studying or whatever, but it makes me crazy, Ess. I don’t want him to have the opportunity to fill your head with all of his lies.”

“Is that how little you think of me? Do you think I could be swayed so easily?”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“Ty, I’m going to tell you the same thing I told him. As far as I can tell, you’re both telling the truth, but that truth is up for interpretation. I also told him that I don’t believe that you or your family are evil. I hope that’s satisfactory because that’s the best that I can do.”

He brought his hands to his face and covered it for several seconds, shaking his head. I held my tongue, giving him time to compose his thoughts.

Without looking up, he said quietly, “I want to kill him.”

I scarcely knew how to respond to that statement. Instinctively, I said, “You don’t mean that.”

“Yes, I do, but I can’t,” he continued, finally making eye contact. “I don’t want to lose you to him, Essie. I hate it that he’s able to remain calm when I know it’s glaringly obvious that he gets to me. I’m sorry for allowing that to happen.”

“I know,” I responded sympathetically. “Let’s go get that coffee.”

In the car, Ty brought up something that I had hoped slipped past him.

“You didn’t tell me that you recognized Powers when you applied for the job. Had you met before?”

This was going to be awkward. How could I possibly frame my response so that it didn’t seem that I found that first realistic dream of Michael pleasurable? And the first dream was definitely the only one I would admit to. How much time had passed since he asked the question? Hurry up and say something, I thought frantically.

“It was nothing, that’s why I didn’t think to mention it.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Where did you recognize him from?”

“Fine. I dreamt about him before we moved here, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. When I walked into the nursery, I was momentarily surprised because he looked like the guy from my dream. No big deal.”

“And you told him that?”

“Of course not! I said he looked like someone I used to know. He was obviously referring to the look on my face.”

“So, you dream about Powers,” he said heedfully.

“One dream, Ty. And it wasn’t my fault. I have no control over my dreams. Geez!”

“You’re right. Forget about it, alright?”

“Gladly.”

CHAPTER 25

Calling on You

We walked into the coffee shop hand in hand as curious passers-by gawked at the couple who arrived in the shiny, red Ferrari. I was used to that by now, no longer embarrassed by the attention. To my delight, I saw my Brit Lit neighbor camped out at a table strewn with books, diligently pecking away at the keyboard of her laptop. I interpreted this as a definitive sign that we were meant to be friends and squeezed Ty’s hand in excitement.

“That’s Karen, the girl from my Literature class that I told you about,” I whispered.

He nodded in acknowledgment. “Let’s go sit with her.”

“Let’s,” I agreed.

We approached the table and she didn’t look up, obliviously engrossed in her studies. This was good. “Hi, Kah-ren,” I interrupted, trying hard to make the r roll off my tongue the way she did.

“Oh, my gosh. How long have you been standing there? I’m so sorry,” she said, suddenly flustered.

“No worries. We just got here. Do you mind if we join you?”

“Of course not,” she responded, quickly gathering her books and putting them in a neat pile on the floor next to her chair.

Ty pulled out the chair directly across from Karen and waited for me to be seated before taking the chair next to mine.

“Karen, do you know Ty?”

“I know who you are, of course, but we’ve never been introduced. I’m Karen Canta.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Karen Canta. Essie’s spoken of you often,” he drawled, rising slightly to extend his hand, demonstrating his old-fashioned southern manners. When she extended hers, he clasped it and made eye contact. “There’s no need to be nervous. I just know that we’re all going to be great friends.”

“Great friends,” she repeated submissively, not able to look away.

“Great,” I chimed in. “Um, Ty, let’s go get our coffee.”

“Sure,” he agreed, letting go of Karen’s hand and turning his attention to me.

“Be right back, Karen,” I smiled.

When we were out of earshot, I squeezed his hand tightly. “You just dazzled her,” I declared.

“She was nervous and I wanted her to get past that quickly so that she could be herself around us. Plus, I wanted to be sure that she’d be a good friend to you. Now, she will be. You’re not mad, are you?” he asked innocently.

“No, I’m not mad,” I sighed. “It’s just different when you do it to someone I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize. I know you’re just looking out for me,” I said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Hey, do you think we could trust Karen with your secret? I could really use someone else to talk to.”

“Not just yet, Ess. Let’s give it a little while. And we’ll have to discuss it with Mara, too.”

“You’re right. I just miss Jane.”

He hugged me tightly. Without letting go, he ordered our coffees when the barista was available.

We spent the next hour talking and laughing with Karen as though we had all been friends for years. I didn’t want to leave but I knew I should get home to start dinner. Before we walked out, I offered, “You know, I study every day right after school. If you’re interested, you should come over.”

“I’d love that. Studying is so boring when you’re all by yourself.”

I smiled, satisfied. “See you in class tomorrow.”

“Okay, bye.”

On the drive home, we discussed the fact that I had already informed Jane of my interactions with angels, a matter about which Ty was unaware. I wasn’t trying to hide it from him, I just hadn’t thought to mention it.

“It started back when I first met you,” I explained. “I was always suspicious that something was going on with you so, naturally, I shared those feelings with my best friend. I had no idea at the time that I was falling for an angel. Had I known everything in the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have shared, at least not without making sure it was safe for her to know. Is it safe for her to know?”

“As long as she doesn’t say anything to anybody, she’ll be safe for now.”

“For now?”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. But the less people that know, the better.”

“Why did you say ‘for now’?” I pressed.

“Prior to the final battle, there’s always the risk that humans with knowledge of the angels could be hunted and destroyed by some of our kind in order to ensure our anonymity.”

“Why would they need to be destroyed?”

“Our cloak of anonymity is the only thing keeping our presence hidden from this world. They would hunt us if they discovered our abilities, à la X-Men. Also, if humans were aware of our objective, we wouldn’t be able to operate unhindered. It would be mass hysteria along the lines of the witch hunts of the 1600s. We function as intended because most people don’t believe that we really exist.”

“You said ‘some of our kind’. What does that mean exactly?”

“Inhabiting a human body makes us vulnerable to the same character flaws that plague the rest of humanity. A person motivated by power and greed is capable of anything.”

I mulled that over, reasoning that a person who would acknowledge that would not likely be the sort to engage in such evil behavior, despite Michael’s warnings.

“Do you know when the final battle will occur?”

“Not exactly. But I do know the signs that lead up to it, and several of them have already taken place.”

“Holy crap, Ty! Should I be worried?”

“You never need to worry as long as you’re with me. Never,” he repeated, clutching my hand reassuringly.

Ty dropped me off at my house where Axl was waiting patiently for me on the porch, wagging his tail briskly. He followed me into the kitchen, always looking for a treat, or any morsel that might accidentally fall on the floor during dinner preparation. My time in the South had taught me that you could make a decent casserole out of just about anything that happened to be on hand. Tonight it would be taco casserole, the kids’ favorite. As I stood at the stove, browning the ground beef, I thought of Michael’s statement that I was meant for him. Between averting a brawl and then seeing Karen at the coffee shop, I hadn’t had time to consider his words. And, he knew that I recognized him the day I applied for the job. I needed to talk this through with Jane, but when I called, her phone went straight to voice mail.

“Darn,” I said quietly, looking at Axl. He looked back at me as though he understood my frustration.

Then I remembered that Karen had given me her number a while back. I wondered if there was a way to discuss my dilemma without revealing any angelic secrets. I found the torn piece of paper on which she had scribbled her number in my Brit Lit book, added it to my contacts, then pressed it. She picked up before the third ring had ended.

“Hello?” she greeted me in the form of a question.

“Hi, Karen. It’s Essie.”

“Hey, Essie.”

“Listen, I know I just saw you but I could really use someone to talk to right now. Is there any way you can come over?”

“Sure. What time?”

“If you haven’t eaten dinner yet, you can come over now and join us. If you like taco casserole, that is.”

“Love it. Just tell me where you live and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I gave her directions and finished putting the casserole together, then stuck it in the oven to bake. As promised, I heard Karen’s knock a mere ten minutes after we hung up.

“Thanks so much for coming,” I said as I opened the door and invited her in. “I know we haven’t hung out yet, so I hope you don’t think me strange for inviting you over to talk out of the blue, but I felt like we were going to be friends the first time I met you. It’s just that I’m always with Ty or at work or studying and…” I stopped myself. “I’m sorry. I tend to ramble when I’m nervous.”

She laughed. “I do the same thing, so don’t worry about it. But why would you be nervous about talking to me?”

I paused for a moment, wondering how to phrase my reply. “I guess it’s because I don’t really know you and I’m a pretty private person. There’s only one person on earth that knows everything about me and that’s Jane. But she lives in Massachusetts and it’s been hard having so much happening in my life and no one here to talk to face to face.”

“I thought Mara was your bff. I always see you two together.”

“I love Mara. She’s like a sister to me. But I can’t discuss certain things with her because she’s also Ty’s twin sister and they’re really close. They share almost everything.”

“Understood,” she said, shaking her head contemplatively.

The door opened just then and almost hit us.

“Oh, my goodness. I’m so sorry, girls,” my mother apologized as she closed the door behind her. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be standing right here.”

“It’s okay, Mum. Karen just got here. Speaking of, Mum, this is Karen. Karen, this is my mother, Caroline.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Caroline,” Karen jumped in with a big smile.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, too, Karen. Are you staying for dinner?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That was the magic word. Mum loved how so many kids in the South used ma’am and sir. I’m sure Karen would be welcomed in her home forever after that.

“Dinner’s just about ready,” I informed anyone who was listening.

“I’ll be back in just a minute, sweetie. I need to change out of my work clothes.”

“Okay, Mum.”

“I’ll give you a hand with dinner, if you need it,” Karen offered.

“Thanks,” I smiled. She was a nice girl.

When dinner was through, I gave Karen a quick tour of the house and we went to my room, Axl following closely behind.

“So, what’s going on?” she asked as she made herself comfortable in the cushioned window seat.

“Boy trouble,” I revealed.

“I’m listening.”

“Michael Powers told me this afternoon ― in front of Ty, mind you ― that he and I were meant to be together and I haven’t really had a chance to process that.”

“Oh, my gosh, Essie. Right in front of Ty? What did he say?”

“I think he said, ‘I told you so’.”

“Where were you?”

“We were here, studying, Michael and I. He’s been tutoring me in Statistics. Ty stopped by unexpectedly right at the moment that Michael had taken hold of my hand. But all he was doing was reassuring me. Ty got upset and they almost got into a fight. Anyway, Ty told Michael to just admit how he felt about me and he did.”

“Again, oh, my gosh. Well, Ty seemed okay at the coffee shop.”

“Yeah, he’s fine now. But I’m not. I don’t know what to do. I work with Michael at the nursery, plus I really need his help with Statistics.”

“Can I say something that’s not at all helpful?”

I laughed. “Sure.”

“I wish I had your problems. I mean, Ty’s the cutest, richest, most popular boy in school and Michael is definitely the sweetest. And also totally cute. There, I said it. Back to you. How do you feel about Michael?”

“Michael’s great. Really great. Honestly, if I wasn’t already dating Ty, I could definitely see myself with Michael.”

“How do you feel about Ty? Do you love him? Is he ‘the one’?”

“Karen, I’m sure this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. This conversation stays between me and you, right?”

“I swear,” she said, making a little cross sign over her heart.

“Okay. Thanks. I do love Ty. At least I think I do. But I’ve never been able to tell him. He tells me all the time, but I just can’t get the words out and I don’t know why. He says and does all the right things. He takes me everywhere. We always have fun. And except for one incident when we first started dating, he’s a perfect gentleman.”

“Has that ever happened before, where you can’t say ‘I love you’?”

“I’ve never had a boyfriend before Ty.”

“Wow. Never had a boyfriend, then you end up with the two most eligible bachelors in all of Effingham County. How did that happen?”

“I have no idea.”

At that, she got up from the window seat and bounced on the bed next to me, putting her arm around my shoulder. “Let’s think about this logically. Now that you know for sure how Michael feels, do you think you should continue to work and study with him? You’ve already admitted that you’d be dating him if you hadn’t met Ty first. How would you feel if Ty was studying and working with a girl who liked him? I’m not saying that you’d let anything happen, I’m just saying that you’re adding unnecessary stress to your relationship with Ty by being around Michael.”

“I hear you, but I don’t think I’m ready to give up my job just yet. And I need the help in Statistics.”

“I’d want to be around Michael Powers as much as possible, too,” she said with a wink.

“It’s not like that,” I protested. But if I was at least going to be honest with myself, it was like that. Is it possible to love two people at the same time? Now that I knew how Michael felt about me, it was easier to allow myself to admit my feelings for him. The feelings that I had the first time I dreamt of him and the first time I saw him. The feelings that I had when he caught me and held me in his arms. The feelings that I had watching him build a fire for me. The feelings that I had when he looked into my eyes.

I sighed heavily. “Karen, what am I going to do?”

“I don’t know, Essie. You have a lot to think about.”

I changed the subject after that and asked Karen every question I could think of to get to know her better ― questions about her family, music, college, childhood, favorite foods, boys she liked, high school, movies, celebrities, cars, and sports. Turns out, she was adopted and had only been living in the States for five years. Her command of the English language was impressive, especially when compared to some kids I knew who were born here. Also, I learned that her last name, Canta, means “sings” ― Karen Sings. I loved it! We talked until we both couldn’t stop yawning.

When I walked her to her car, Karen gave me a hug. “Thanks for inviting me over. I’m sorry I wasn’t much help with your dilemma, but I’m always available to talk.”

I was so happy to have another friend besides Mara here in Eden. “See you tomorrow,” I said as she closed her car door.

CHAPTER 26

Us and Them

I wondered what Mr. Joshua would think of all this. He alluded to the fact that he knew things about the Gregorys. So much had happened over the last few weeks. I suddenly couldn’t wait to see him. Maybe he was somehow involved in all this. After all, he was at the Powers’ home that Saturday night. I hoped he would be an objective third party; neutral, despite his friendship with Chris and Angie. In his capacity as a teacher, wasn’t he charged with student enlightenment? Yes, I felt I could trust him to help me find the truth.

Monday morning, before Brit Lit class began, I asked Mr. Joshua if he was available to meet me at the coffee shop in Pooler after school.

“I was hoping you’d want to talk soon. How’s four?”

“Four is perfect. Thanks,” I said just as Karen was coming through the door.

“Hey, Essie. Thanks again for inviting me over last night. I had fun,” she said cheerily.

“Me, too. Were you planning on coming over to study today?”

“If you still want me to.”

“I do, but I have something to do right after school. Do you want to come over for dinner again and we can study after that?

“Is that cool with your mom?

“She has five kids. She barely notices one more.”

“Okay, then. See you at six.”

The day passed by slowly because I was so anxious to talk with Mr. Joshua. I wasn’t sure how to handle this with Ty. I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to tell him that I was going to confide in my teacher. Finally, the last bell rang and I ran to my locker to collect my things. Ty was waiting for me, as was his usual custom since the day he found Michael there.

“What’s the hurry?”

“Mr. Joshua is going to go over some of the stuff we’re working on in class with me. I asked if we could meet at the coffee shop instead of here at the school.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t think I ever mentioned that I had seen him there one day the first week of school. Anyway, he makes himself available to all the students. I’d just rather get out of here and get a cup of coffee. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all.”

“Great.”

Ty didn’t bring it up again on the drive back to my house, but I could sense a bit of tension in the air. I wished I could read minds. At least his. I had neglected to mention that Mr. Joshua was at the Powers’ during our conversation about that fateful Saturday night, not because I was hiding anything, but because I was more concerned with what Michael had shared. Should I bring it up now? It was probably better to get it out in the open sooner rather than later. If I expected Ty to be completely forthcoming with me, I owed him the same.

“Mr. Joshua was at Michael’s house that time I went over there for dinner. Also, the time I saw him at the coffee shop, he said he’d help me out with answers if I ever had specific questions regarding you.” That wasn’t so hard.

“I assumed there was another reason you were meeting him off campus.”

Time to man-up and apologize. I didn’t like feeling this way. I had never been a liar in the past. Why was it so easy for me to lie to Ty now? I needed to correct this immediately unless I was willing to accept half-truths and lies of omission from him in return.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say that to begin with.”

“Why did you think you had to lie to me?”

“Honestly, I didn’t really think about it. The lie just came out because I wanted to talk to Mr. Joshua about everything I’ve learned and I didn’t want to argue with you about it.”

“Essie, I told you that the rift between me and Mike was my concern, not yours, and I meant that. I believe in us and I’m confident that the only thing that can tear us apart is not trusting each other. I know that Mike will continue to try to come between us, and maybe now he’s enlisted your teacher to help him out, and that’s okay. I trust you to see through their lies, to do your own research, to believe in us like I do.”

“I do believe in us. And I believe that you’ve been honest with me. I’m just trying to figure out if I have a role to play in all this.”

I wanted to tell him right then that I loved him, to reassure him, but those three words remained locked in my closely guarded heart. Something prevented me from verbalizing my feelings and I still had no idea what it was.

It wasn’t until Ty opened his door that I realized we were sitting in my driveway.

“Oh, my goodness. We’re home,” I said, surprised.

“Earth to Essie,” he joked as he got out of the car and made his way around to retrieve me. He held my hand as he walked me to the door, kissed me sweetly as we stood on the welcome mat, and whispered “I love you” before he turned to leave me standing there with those same words stuck in my throat.

I arrived at the coffee shop right on time and Mr. Joshua was already there at the same table in the back that he was at before. I walked to the counter to order my coffee, but Mr. Joshua motioned for me to join him. As I approached the table, I noticed that there were two cups of coffee.

“Is this for me?”

“It is. Sugar and extra cream, right?”

I smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Joshua. That was very nice of you.”

“My pleasure. So, what are we going to talk about today?”

“I have a feeling you already know.”

“Why don’t you tell me anyway.”

“I have a question to start with. Are you related to the Powers? I was wondering because you were at their house and you have the same dark hair and blue eyes that they have.”

“You noticed that, huh? No, we’re not related. At least not related humanly.”

I could feel my face light up. “You’re an angel, too.”

He nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “Our side all have dark brown hair and blue eyes. The demons have blond hair and brown eyes, like Ty and Mara.”

“Why is that?”

“The first human women that mated with fallen angels all gave birth to children with blond hair and brown eyes, colors from the earth. Ever since then, when a demon takes human form, they have kept the familial trait of blond hair and brown eyes. Angels, on the other hand, have blue eyes like the biggest, hottest stars and dark hair like the heavens.”

“Is that in the Bible?”

“No,” he chuckled.

“Mr. Joshua, this world must have been opened up to me for a reason. I’m excited about all this, really I am. But I’m also confused. Why me? Do you know if I have a part to play?”

“I do, Essie. And it will all be revealed in time.”

“That’s just so frustrating. It seems that everyone knows what’s going on except me. Why won’t you tell me? Please?”

“I don’t want anything I tell you to influence your decisions. Every choice you make has to be made of your own free will. But believe me when I tell you that you’ll know everything you need to know when you need to know it. Does that make sense?”

“It does. But it’s still frustrating.”

“I’m glad you understand.”

I sighed heavily. “Just a hint?” I asked hopefully.

“I don’t know all the details, Essie. Honestly. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be right to tell you. Like I said, knowing the future could influence your decisions in the present. But I’m still here to help you in any way I can. What’s going on with you and Ty?”

“Well, he reluctantly confirmed my suspicion of him being descended from the Grigori line back at the beginning of the school year, which, by the way, I only stumbled upon in an internet search of the name Penemue. He explained it a little further and told me that he could “push” people; you know, use the power of suggestion to influence their behavior. Anyway, he was very angry when I got a job at the Powers’ nursery, but he wouldn’t say why.

“Michael told me a lot that Saturday night, including that he believes that Ty is dangerous and deceitful. Ty and I had gotten into an argument right before I went over to Michael’s. He was being a jerk because he had seen Michael and me in a compromising position, due only to the fact that I had tripped and he caught me, plus he just didn’t want me to get a job. But on Sunday, he was a whole different person. And when I told him what Michael said, he wasn’t angry. He actually apologized for not telling me everything sooner, before I had to hear it from Michael.

“He told me everything ― all of his abilities, the ones he has now and the ones he’ll acquire on his eighteenth birthday; about Genesis 6 where the Bible describes his kind as the sons of God, and how their children with the daughters of men are referred to as heroes of old and men of renown; and about Job and how Satan was just another angel and only did what he did with God’s permission. He even showed me how his abilities worked that same weekend in Savannah.

“He’s not a demon, Mr. Joshua. And while I believe that Michael believes what he told me is true, I just don’t see it. I’ve been able to corroborate everything that Ty has told me.”

I took a breath. “Are you on Michael’s side?”

“I am. And you should be, too, Essie. Despite the fact that Ty has been good to you so far, he and his family are demons and you will see their true colors eventually. I’m sorry that he’s been able to deceive you by taking scripture out of context. I can see that you’re infatuated with him and I’m not sure that anything I can say right now will change your mind, but one day you will have to formally declare your allegiance.”

I sat silently for a while and drank my coffee. I really liked Mr. Joshua, but I wasn’t happy with what he just said. Being an angel meant he would naturally side with Michael, but I was hoping he’d be more of an independent sounding board. I loved his interpretation of literature and was disappointed that this subject wasn’t up for debate; it appeared to be black and white, at least from the angels’ perspective.

I thanked Mr. Joshua again for the coffee and the conversation and told him I had to go home to study. I wasn’t lying, exactly. I was determined to learn more about my role in the angelic world and couldn’t wait around till someone decided the time was right for me to know.

CHAPTER 27

Signs

I gathered up my laptop, my pillow and my blanket and crawled through the access window in my bedroom on to the roof. I sat there for a long while, thinking over all the information I had already garnered from my sources ― the internet, Ty, Michael and Mr. Joshua. While I had learned much about angels, I still knew nothing about my place in all of this.

I was unsure of what I should even be searching for when I suddenly recalled the symbol over the front door of my house. The same symbol, well, close enough anyway, I saw etched into the table in the dream I had where I was wandering all alone through Ty’s house. How could I have forgotten about that? Perhaps it would provide a clue. It was a start.

Not knowing exactly what it was, I took a chance and googled “Star of David in a circle”. The top result was from Wikipedia which referred to it as the Seal of Solomon. Under the alchemy section, I found the following explanation:

“The combination of the fire and water symbols (up and down triangles) is known as the Seal of Solomon (Star of David). The symbol is representative of the combination of opposites and transmutation. By combining the alchemical symbols for fire (upwards triangle) and water (downwards triangle), the alchemical symbols for earth and air are also created. The downwards facing triangle is divided along the center by the base line of the opposite triangle. This is the alchemical symbol for earth. Conversely, the upwards triangle divided by the base line of the downwards triangle is the alchemical symbol for air. The Seal of Solomon is all that is unified in perfect balance.”

Hmmm. An hour later, I was more confused than when I began. Apparently, in medieval alchemy, the hexagram also stood for the fifth element, Spirit. Maybe the symbol was used to protect this house and its inhabitants from evil spirits?

Could our house be special in some way? Miss Ginny had made it sound mysterious that day she dropped by to welcome us. She said it was awaiting special occupants. I quickly checked the Effingham County Historical Society’s website only to come to a dead end. I’d have to pay Miss Ginny a personal visit some time soon.

I followed link after link to no avail until I typed in “The Gardens of Eden”. Instead of the nursery’s website, Wikipedia popped up again in the first position with the Garden of Eden from the Bible. Why not? I thought and clicked on it. What I found interesting was that it said that the Garden was located at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. That reminded me of something we had studied in geometry ― a vertex, the common point of two line segments. Being that we were in a place called Eden, maybe it wasn’t the house itself, but the location of the house that made it special. Michael had said that Eden was a “very special place”. I googled vertex and was given the auto option of astrology. Curious, I chose a site at random which posited that meeting significant people could activate a vertex and bring events to a pivotal point. Now I was getting somewhere.

Feeling revitalized, I pulled up Google Maps and searched the satellite images for my house. Found it. Next, I located Ty’s house; finally, Michael’s. Three dots on the map that formed a triangle. Eureka! This had to be it. Just like Miss Ginny had said, this house was waiting for me to move into it and trigger the vertex.

When I combined the hexagram and the vertex, it seemed plausible that the area within the triangle might be a source of spiritual power.

Wondering where to go next, I thought back on the strange dream I had had the same night I went to Michael’s house for dinner. I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the sapphire book. I saw myself opening it from the back and there it was ― Sefer Raziel HaMalakh. My fingers typed the letters as fast as they could. It was real! How could I dream about something that I had never even heard of?! I covered my face with my hands and shook my head. Deep breath. Sefer Raziel HaMalakh translated as Book of Raziel the Angel and there were 5,520 results. According to one site, it was a grimoire made of sapphire, or angel’s tears, and was the first book ever written. It was originally given to Adam by Raziel and contained secret wisdom and magic that was unknown to all other angels. Because of this, it was highly coveted by the fallen angels who stole it from Adam. My dream was starting to make sense, if Ty’s parents were really demons.

Armed with this new information, Mr. Joshua would have to tell me something. I felt like a bloodhound that had just been given a scent to track and I couldn’t wait until the morning to see him again. I found his number on the school’s website and called.

“Hi, Mr. Joshua. It’s Essie Jacobs. I’m sorry to be bothering you at home, but I just found some interesting information and I just have to talk to you about it right away. Can you please meet me again? Please?”

“I’m making dinner, Essie. Would you like to come over?”

“Thanks, yes.”

“Make sure it’s okay with your mother first.”

“Okay. Hold on one second while I ask her.” I ran down the stairs and found my mother in the kitchen. She was making dinner, too. With my hand over the phone, I asked, “Mum, can I please go over to Mr. Joshua’s house for dinner? I have something really important to discuss with him and it can’t wait.”

“Sure, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mum,” I said as I gave her a kiss on the cheek and ran out the door.

“She said yes, Mr. Joshua. Just tell me how to get to your house.”

Mr. Joshua lived in the direction of Michael’s house, just inside the triangle, only a few minutes away.

As soon as I pulled in to his driveway, I jammed the shifter into park, bolted out of my car and flew up the stairs of his modest home. Just as I raised my fist to knock, the door opened.

“Come on in, Essie.”

“Thank you so much for letting me come over like this. It’s just that I think I figured something out and I’m about to bust.”

He chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t want that to happen. Would you like to sit down? Dinner’s just about ready.”

“Sure,” I answered, pulling out a well-worn chair from his small kitchen table.

“So, that journalistic nose of yours has sniffed out something huge, has it?”

“I really think so, Mr. Joshua. If I’m right, do you promise to be honest with me?”

“I’m always honest, Essie.”

“That’s exactly what Michael said.”

“It’s true. As angels, we’re incapable of lying. We can avoid an issue, if necessary, but we’re unable to tell a lie.”

“Great,” I said enthusiastically.

“Give me a second to get dinner on the table and then you can tell me what you found.”

“Oh, sure, sorry.”

“No worries,” he grinned. “Here we go.” He placed a plate in front of me.

“Chicken and dumplings is my favorite southern dish. But you couldn’t have known that. And you also couldn’t have known that I was coming over tonight. So this is just a coincidence, right?” I said in a tone that was meant to reassure me more than it was a question that I expected an answer to.

He smiled. “So, tell me what secrets you’ve unearthed.”

“Avoiding an issue, check,” I teased. “Anyway, you know I wasn’t happy when I left the coffee shop today. I’m involved somehow in something supernatural and no one will tell me what that is. I understand why you don’t want to tell me too much, I really do. But you’re going to have to trust that I can handle it.”

“I know you can, Esther.”

“Essie,” I corrected.

“That’s your given name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but nobody calls me that. I don’t like it. It was my great-grandmother’s name.”

“It was also the name of a beautiful, young Jewish girl who was unwittingly thrust into an unimaginable situation, due to an unexpected turn of events. Does any of that sound familiar?”

I knew the biblical Esther he was speaking of. My family was Jewish, though not observant. We only went to Temple Emanu-El when my grandmother insisted. Her favorite holiday was Purim, which she referred to as the Jewish Mardi Gras because she said we were commanded to eat, drink and be merry. The temple held a huge celebration, so we never objected to attending.

“I know the story, but what does it have to do with me?”

“Nothing directly. But there are a couple of uncanny similarities, wouldn’t you say?”

“Other than my name?”

“Do you remember the part of the story where her cousin asks, ‘And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this’?”

“I’m not sure how to respond to what you’re saying.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what you came here to tell me,” he said reassuringly, his kind, blue eyes melting away my sudden anxiety.

I filled him in on all the details I had unearthed on the Seal of Solomon as well as the conclusion that I had drawn.

“You will make an excellent journalist someday. Of that, there is no doubt. I’m amazed at how you went from seemingly random topic to seemingly random topic and yet, somehow, extracted the facts and wove them together to arrive at the truth. I’m proud of you, Esther.”

This time, I didn’t mind him calling me that. “Thank you, Mr. Joshua. What can you tell me about the triangle?”

“The triangle is known as an Ataroth, which means crown in Hebrew. The Powers and the Gregorys built their homes at roughly the same time. When your home was built, it was situated to be the crown, or vertex, if you will, the common point of two lines. It’s not easy to detect because of the way the roads are laid out. You can only see it from an aerial view, as you did using the satellite image.

“As you surmised, the area within an Ataroth is a place of incredible energy; it is neither good nor bad, and it can be accessed by both. Feel free to explore it.”

“Now that you mention it, I briefly explored a bit of the forest when we first moved here. I remember feeling kind of tingly when I entered; also, like I was being drawn in. But then I heard Axl whining and I never gave it another thought.”

“That was the energy of the Ataroth that you felt. It recognized you as belonging there. If the average person was to wander in, however, they would feel nothing. Its power can only be accessed by those who have a role in destiny.

“As for the Seal of Solomon, it was put there to protect you from harm. The inscription is from Psalm 91:10-11, ‘No harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’ Have Ty and Mara been in your home?”

“Only Ty.”

“Did he ask to be invited in?”

“He did. And I remember thinking it odd that he was being so formal.”

“He wasn’t being formal. Because that seal is there, he has to be invited in by a resident of the house. Just so you know, you can also rescind your invitation at any time, but he has to be standing in front of the threshold when you do it. If he comes knocking on your door one day and you’ve changed your mind about him, just say, ‘You are no longer welcome in my home. I rescind my invitation’. He won’t be able to enter after that.

“Now, if you’re open to it, I’ll give you another definition.”

“Sure.”

“Another word for seal is sigil, derived from the Hebrew word segula, which means special treasure or jewel. You, Essie, are the special treasure, the jewel in the crown, who has been brought to Eden for such a time as this.”

“Wow. This stuff never ceases to amaze me.” I sat for a long moment, contemplating everything that I had just learned. “Mr. Joshua, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive about the part I’ll be playing in this, this…”

“Final battle.”

“Final battle,” I repeated glumly.

“You said you were familiar with the story of Esther. Don’t forget that she proved to be a woman of unusual wisdom and courage, who faced adversity and evil with confidence and grace.”

Being privy to angelic secrets and enjoying the benefits of Ty’s abilities was one thing; being a soldier was quite another. “I’m just a kid from Massachusetts. I’m not prepared to battle the supernatural.”

“When the time comes, you will be ready.”

I hoped he was right.

“Oh, one more thing. I almost forgot. I had a weird dream that Saturday night I saw you at Michael’s parent’s house. I remembered it earlier when I was searching for information on the Seal of Solomon. Turns out what I saw in my dream really exists ― the Sefer Raziel HaMalakh. Have you heard of it?”

“Yes,” he said gravely. “It’s a dark magic book which contains incantations that demons have used over the millennia to wreak havoc. That was not it’s original purpose, of course. Raziel was an archangel entrusted with keeping the Secrets of Heaven, but demons take that which is intended for good and pervert it for their own purposes. Tell me about your dream.”

I recounted the part of the dream that took place in the library. He sat perfectly still in his chair, staring pensively past me.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Joshua?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Esther. It’s been foretold that in the last days, sons and daughters will prophesy, see visions and dream dreams. I believe this is a fulfillment of prophesy and another indication of your involvement. Have you discussed any of this with Ty?”

“Not yet.”

“I think it would be prudent for you to keep this between us. I understand that Ty is your boyfriend and you desperately want to believe in him. But if there’s even the tiniest possibility in your mind that what you’ve heard from Michael and me is true, you’ll put yourself in danger by putting all your cards on the table, so to speak. I’m not telling you to lie to Ty, just keep your new-found knowledge to yourself. I’m sure it’s been imparted to you for use in the future. Don’t show your hand until all the cards have been dealt.”

I pondered his words. I guessed it wouldn’t be too difficult to keep it to myself. After all, it would probably be more of the same ― me, asking reasonable questions; Ty, crafting his answers in such a way as to appear totally innocent. Both sides excelled in that. I needed to continue to research and observe and draw my own conclusions.

“Thank you, Mr. Joshua,” I said appreciatively, getting up from my chair to give him a hug.

“You’re very welcome, Esther,” he said when I had let go. “Please feel free to come by any time you need to talk. Now that you’re pretty much up to speed on everything, it will be a lot easier.”

“Not everything,” I reminded him. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do exactly.”

“None of us knows what we’re supposed to do exactly,” he explained. “Scripture tells us that ‘of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.[_ Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come.‘] _But we have faith that all will be revealed at the appointed time.”

“Well, if that’s good enough for the angels, then it’s good enough for me. I’m not going to worry about it any more.”

I let myself out, feeling only slightly guilty about the little white lie I had just told. There was no way I was not going to worry about my involvement in a final battle. If the angels in my life didn’t have the answers, maybe it was time to visit the town’s historian. Unfortunately, it was now after eight, too late to call on Miss Ginny. It would have to wait until tomorrow.

CHAPTER 28

Show Me the Way

Although I continued to feel like I hadn’t slept at all, I knew I must have drifted into REM sleep at some point because I vividly recalled my dream before my eye lids could even open and glimpse the morning light. Added to the Ty mix last night were the Sefer Raziel and the Ataroth.

From my rooftop hangout, I saw Ty walking through my back yard toward the woods. I called out to him but he didn’t seem to hear me. I jumped off my roof and managed to land gracefully, as though I were Lara Croft and this was something I did every day. I followed him into the forest but could never seem to catch up to him. When he arrived at a clearing, others were there but I couldn’t make out their blurred faces, even in the brightness of the full moon. I stopped at the periphery, hiding behind the trunk of a large oak, feeling anxious. They turned to him all at once and one of them said something I couldn’t understand. He produced the sapphire book, Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, from a messenger bag that I hadn’t noticed before and handed it to someone in the group. They all began to chant and, as their chants got louder, Ty produced fire in his hands. A ball of fire about the size of a baseball was hovering slightly above each of his palms. He raised his hands and the chants became louder still…

…and then I was awake.

I reached for my clock and shut off the alarm before it sounded. I shuffled to the bathroom and avoided the mirror as I turned on the shower, getting in before the water had a chance to get warm. The cold stream shocked me into awakeness.

When I was ready, I went to the kitchen to have my usual cup of coffee while I waited on Ty. Since I hadn’t made him privy to any of my dreams, mainly because Michael was often the star, I didn’t think it would be a problem to keep last night’s dream, as well as my visit to Mr. Joshua’s house, to myself. I would be “prudent”, as Mr. Joshua had recommended.

Most school days flew by now that I was familiar with my classes, teachers, and fellow students, and complacent within the system. South Effingham High School, Home of the Mustangs, was where my life was still ninety-five percent normal. I was forced to concentrate on my subjects and was glad I was carrying a full load. Today was different, though. I couldn’t wait to see Miss Ginny and the day felt as though it was passing in slow motion.

“What’s up with you today?” Ty asked after Biology, only my third class of the day. “You seem anxious.”

“Probably too much caffeine this morning,” I shrugged. When we were at Sea Island over the summer, I had told Ty that I’d had trouble sleeping for as long as I could remember, so my caffeine excuse seemed plausible. He dropped it.

After the final bell, Ty was waiting for me at my locker, as usual. I was super tired and more than a little apprehensive about what Miss Ginny might have to say, but I did my best imitation of Savannah Stratton when she wanted something, as Ty approached.

“Hey, there,” I said too cheerily.

“Hey, there, to you,” he mimicked. Guess I was pouring on the mock Southern charm a little too thick.

“Just happy to see you, boyfriend. It’s been a long day.”

Angel or not, Ty was still susceptible to flattery. “I’m always happy to see you,” he countered, oblivious to my complimentary diversion. “Let’s get out of here.”

He grabbed my hand and we walked happily to his car. “Would you like to go to the beach?” he asked as we were driving. “Or anywhere? It’s a beautiful day.”

“Wish I could, but I have a ton of homework today. Rain check?” I smiled, not wanting to break the mood. Homework involved Michael and where Michael was involved, the mood could turn dark quickly. Oh, crap, I thought. Michael. He’d be over to help with Statistics. I didn’t have time for that today, but I hadn’t cancelled either.

“Sure,” he smiled back.

Ty pulled up to my front porch steps and ran quickly around the car to open my door, as he always did. I took hold of his extended hand and let him escort me up the stairs where he kissed me on the cheek.

“I’ll text you later,” I assured him as I hurriedly closed the door.

I put on a pot of coffee, desperately needing a fresh infusion of caffeine. While it was brewing, I sat on the back porch and waited for Michael to arrive. I closed my eyes and listened to the whirr of a hovering hummingbird that stopped by for a drink of the red sugar water that my mother always made sure was available in the flower-shaped feeder. Having dozed off ever so briefly, I jumped when I felt the buzz from Michael’s hand as he touched my shoulder.

“Still not sleeping?” he asked sincerely.

I shook my head. “Listen, I’m sorry to have to do this since you’re already here, but I really need to go talk to Miss Ginny today.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just seeing you made the trip worthwhile. Call me if you get stuck later. And good luck,” he added as though he knew what my visit to the local historian would uncover.

“Thank you, Michael. You’re the best.”

He gave me a hug and then disappeared with a whoosh.

I filled my travel mug to the brim and drove to the local library where Miss Ginny kept an office. As I walked past the front desk and down the main aisle that divided the small building in half, I couldn’t help but wonder if libraries would eventually become obsolete. With everything you could ever want online, it seemed that libraries were becoming less and less necessary, except as an acceptable excuse to get out of the house on a school night. I recognized a couple of students whispering at a study table in the reference section and I waved. Ahead, to the left, I spied the door I was looking for.

An ornate brass plaque, affixed at eye level to a heavy wooden door with a giant vintage key as the handle and an owl door knocker, indicated that I had arrived at the Effingham County Historical Society.

I lifted the owl slightly and struck it three quick times against the metal plate.

“Come on in,” Miss Ginny called out.

I opened the door and stood there for a long moment, the proverbial cat having gotten my tongue.

“Well, hello, Miss Jacobs. What can I do for you today?”

I suddenly questioned the wisdom of coming here. I swallowed hard.

“Miss Jacobs?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Ginny. I’m not sure I should be here.”

“Come sit down, dear,” she motioned to one of the two chairs that were placed in front of her desk, facing her.

I sat down obediently.

“Now, why don’t you tell me why you came to see me.”

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Let me help you get started then, dear. You live in a protected house situated at the vertex of an Ataroth and you’re dating Tyrus Gregory. Your turn.”

I was shocked at her directness. Hearing this information from the tiny old lady sitting across from me, in a plump brown toile wing back chair that made her appear even tinier, had left me speechless.

“It’s okay, dear,” she urged.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, trying to regain my composure. I breathed in deeply and opened with the first thing that popped into my head. “So, you know about angels?”

“Yes, dear,” she replied matter-of-factly and waited for me to continue.

From the initial dream I had about Michael while I was still living in Bradford, to Ty’s demonstrations in Savannah, to all the information I had gathered up to this point, to my chats with Mr. Joshua, I talked non-stop while Miss Ginny peered at me from over the top of the purple bifocals perched on the end of her nose. When I was through, she smiled.

“Well?” I demanded when she said nothing after several long seconds had passed.

“I do believe that Mr. Joshua is correct, Miss Jacobs, and I am here to help you.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, Miss Ginny, but how can you help me?”

“Why, my dear, I am the conservator of the secret knowledge. They call me the Guardian.”

“The Guardian?” I asked, sounding a bit confused.

“The Guardian,” she repeated. “And as such, it is my duty to protect the angelic manuscripts and artifacts that will be needed in the last days. Would you like to take a walk with me?”

“Sure,” I shrugged, puzzled as to why she wanted to go for a walk. I got up and turned toward the door.

“This way, dear,” she said, easily opening a door that was disguised as a bookcase. She flipped a light switch, illuminating a room that looked like a fallout shelter that had been decorated in the fifties or sixties, and motioned for me to enter. Once the door was closed tightly behind us, Miss Ginny asked me to give her a hand and we moved a dinette set from the middle of the room, stacking the four teal blue vinyl chairs against a wall. As I watched, she bent down and rolled up the small area rug that had been under the table, revealing a large heavy-looking metal disc built into the floor. It was covered in symbols. Without saying a word, she walked over to a retro star clock and took it off the wall where it had probably been hanging for decades, although it displayed the correct time. When she turned it over, my eyes focused on a Star of David that had been adhered to the mechanism box on the back. She pried it off carefully.

“That symbol keeps popping up everywhere lately,” I commented casually.

“Do you know what it means?” she asked seriously, interrupting the task at hand.

“Well, I’ve researched the Seal of Solomon. Does that count?”

“David preceded Solomon,” she said, then continued. “Originally, the Hebrew name _][_Magen David, literally Shield of David, poetically referred to God. It acknowledged that the Jewish military hero, King David, did not win by his own might, but by the support of the Almighty. The six points of the Star of David symbolize God’s rule over the universe in all six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down. This room utilizes the four cardinal points, as well as up and down, and the elements. Look,” she instructed, motioning with her hand toward the south wall.

“This wall faces south and its elemental association is fire, hence the star.” She stretched out both arms to her left as though she were Vanna White turning over a letter, then placed the star clock back on a protruding nail.

“Obviously, the opposite wall is north and its element is earth, hence the map.” An ornately framed print of the “Theatre of the World”, considered to be the first true modern atlas, was hanging there. I remembered seeing it in an Ancient World History class that I took as a sophomore. I followed her direction as she turned eastward.

“East’s element is air,” she motioned by raising her right arm and rotating her hand at the wrist, leaving it palm up, directly under a vent that was installed three quarters of the way up the east wall.

Underwhelming, I thought, but then acknowledged that ventilation was, of course, a necessity if you planned on being here for any length of time.

“The final cardinal direction is the west wall and its element is…” she asked expectantly.

“Water,” I answered, feeling like a five-year-old. A brass spigot jutted out from the last wall, above a tin basin. Another necessity, I guess. Still, there wasn’t any stockpiled food laying around if this room was supposed to be a shelter.

I asked, “Miss Ginny, where are all the supplies? I mean, this looks like it could be a fallout shelter, but there isn’t much to survive on in here.”

“This isn’t a fallout shelter, my dear. It’s a War Room.” She pointed up toward the ceiling.

I hadn’t noticed that, painted on the ceiling, was what appeared to be tattered pieces of an ancient Hebrew scroll. “Wow,” I said in amazement.

“That’s ‘The War Scroll’, dear,” she said emphatically.

In the very center of up, a solitary flood light not only washed the War Room in a harsh white light, I now noticed it also directly illuminated the metal disc in the floor, which was placed in the very center of down. I looked up again, walking slowly around the room, scrutinizing the manuscript. I wished I had a ladder, as I had a strong urge to touch it.

“‘The War Scroll’ is a text that describes the eschatological final battle in gory detail as righteousness is victorious and evil is forever destroyed; in addition, it lays out the framework for a three-stage conflict between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.”

“Wow,” I repeated, still looking up.

“There’s more to see, dear, if you’re ready.”

“I’m ready, Miss Ginny.”

She moved back to the metal disc, knelt down, and retrieved the Star of David from a pocket in her lavender polyester blazer. She placed it in the corresponding grooves in the center of the disc. When she did, I heard a series of clicks as different rings of the disc spun clockwise and counterclockwise, then retracted into the floor.

I peered into the hole which was about three feet across. From the flood light overhead, I could see a wrought iron spiral staircase that widened as it descended.

“Go ahead, dear,” Miss Ginny nudged.

I felt nervous. Not scared nervous, excited nervous. I would finally be privy to something tangible, something more than the opinions of adversarial angels.

I slowly wound my way down the staircase, getting a 360° view of the room from ceiling to floor, even as the light from above grew dimmer. When I reached the bottom stair, I surveyed the cavernous space which was illuminated by an unseen light source.

Lost in thought, I jumped slightly when I felt Miss Ginny’s light touch on my shoulder.

“Welcome to the Kodesh. This way, dear,” she said as she slipped her tiny hand from my shoulder to my back, moving me forward.

Everything appeared to be constructed from a dark granite ― the floor, the ceiling, and the built-in file cabinets that lined the walls for as far as I could see.

Miss Ginny led me to a large round table where she pulled out one of the seven chairs and directed me to take a seat. As she had in the War Room, she resumed my instruction succinctly.

“You are in the Kodesh, Essie. Think of it as a holy library, a sanctuary. In this place, Guardians have amassed books, letters, newspaper articles, artifacts, etc., anything and everything that pertains to angels since this land was settled. There are even items from other parts of the world, which were brought in as needed. Everything is stored alphabetically in the drawers along the walls.

“And this,” she said dramatically, “is the ‘Book of Knowledge’,” leaning over and pulling up on a sapphire blue knob in the middle of the table. When she lifted the rectangular covering, a large, thick book, at least six inches high, bound in worn leather rose up from within the table. She removed it from its base and placed it between us, opening it from the back.

“The ‘Book of Knowledge’,” she continued, “was entrusted to the Guardians for them to record angelic involvement in human lives for the purpose of arming the chosen ones with the knowledge they would need for the final battle. It is the history of angels on Earth. It also includes the true secret knowledge that was originally found in the Sefer Raziel. Unbeknownst to the demons, that book was altered when Raziel learned of their plot to steal it. There is nothing in that grimoire that can harm angels.”

Still feeling excited, I didn’t want to sit at the table. “Can I look in some of the drawers?” I asked curiously.

“Of course, dear,” Miss Ginny smiled.

I sprung out of my chair and bounced over to the closest drawer, giving the ornate handle a tug. Being in close proximity to the staircase, still in the A’s, I found the tab, “ARTICLES”, behind which were many file folders, each containing newspaper or magazine articles encased in sheet protectors. I imagined it was quite the task, putting all the clippings in their protective coverings, once they were invented. That duty had probably fallen to Miss Ginny. No wonder she wasn’t married. Being a Guardian must take an inordinate amount of time. On each folder’s tab was the name of a city in Georgia, beginning with Abac, Abbeville, Acworth, Adairsville, and so forth. Some were empty, some were bulging. The towns with empty folders had no idea how lucky they were to be devoid of demonic activity. Those that were fat with activity probably chalked it up to bad luck or ghostly hauntings. I’d have to look at Savannah’s folder another time.

“Do you only keep stuff pertaining to Georgia here?” I inquired.

“Yes. I was going to tell you that next. After you’re done browsing, of course.”

“I’m done. For now,” I assured her, pushing the granite drawer back into the wall and standing attentively.

“This way, dear,” she pointed, and began to stroll down the long, narrowing expanse. “Just as the Tree of Knowledge was found in the Garden of Eden, so, too, you will find that the ‘Book of Knowledge’ is found in the town of Eden in each state in the United States.”

“Wait a second,” I interrupted. “There’s an Eden in every state?”

“There is, although many of them are so small you couldn’t find them on a map and several were renamed long ago, but the Kodesh remains nonetheless,” she noted plainly. “As I was saying, each Eden keeps its own Book and its own files, although the Book’s secret knowledge is recorded in every copy. Each Kodesh is connected to the others by a derekh, the Hebrew word for pathway. Of course, it would be silly to think that one would walk along said derekh; it wouldn’t be practical.”

I nodded in agreement.

“That just about brings us to the portal,” she explained, thrusting her upturned hand in front of her.

I saw a door about thirty yards ahead that looked like an exact replica of Miss Ginny’s office door upstairs, minus the Effingham County Historical Society plaque. It was illuminated by the same unseen light source as the rest of the Kodesh.

We walked the remainder of the way in silence, although I was sure Miss Ginny could hear my heart pounding loudly in anxious anticipation. When we arrived at the door, she stopped and turned to look at me.

“You have been chosen, Essie. The Kodesh, the Book of Knowledge, the files, the derekhs, all of this I entrust to you. You must guard this information as though your life depends on it, because it does. I will show you how to access the derekh so that you can use it when the need arises.”

She gripped the vintage key handle and pulled, opening the portal. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see, but what I actually saw was nothing. Black nothingness.

“I don’t understand,” I said, confused. “There’s nothing here.”

“Patience, my dear. You didn’t give me a chance to explain.”

“Sorry.”

“What you see isn’t nothing. Behind every portal in every Kodesh is the ‘Seam’. The Seam is what unites all the derekhs, one to another. When you step into the Seam, say the name of, or simply think of, the state you’d like to go to and close the door. When you open it again, you will be there. Would you like to try it?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed eagerly. “Do I have to go alone or can you come with me?”

“I can come with you. There is no limit on the number of people who can travel the derekhs.”

“Good to know. Let’s go!” I grabbed Miss Ginny’s hand and walked boldly into the nothingness. “Arizona,” I commanded, as though to a cabbie, and pulled the door closed.

I felt a powerful whoosh, not like a strong wind blowing against me from without, more like a category one hurricane from within. Thankfully, it only lasted a few seconds. Wobbly, but having sustained no structural damage, I reached through the blackness to locate the door handle. Finding the key, I grasped hold of it and pushed.

Stepping out of the Seam proved more difficult than stepping into it. I was glad to have Miss Ginny there, who was prepared to catch me when my knees buckled.

“I forgot to warn you that traversing the derekhs upsets your vestibular system,” she explained as she held me up by keeping a secure grip around my waist. I was surprised at how strong she was for such a tiny, older lady. “You’ll be fine in just a moment, dear. And you’ll get used to it after a while,” she smiled.

She was right. The dizziness passed in less than a minute. Standing up straight, under my own power, I scrutinized the underground space, noting the same granite file cabinets built into the same granite walls, the same granite table in the distance.

“We didn’t go anywhere,” I frowned.

“Of course we did, dear. Every Kodesh looks the same is all. Let’s go upstairs and you’ll see.”

Out of curiosity, I stopped at the same file drawer that I had opened earlier. There was the same tab labeled “ARTICLES”. I was immediately disappointed and considered pouting, but then I noticed the first folder. Instead of Abac, it said Ajo which was followed by Ak-Chin Village, Amado, and Apache Junction. I closed the drawer and rejoined Miss Ginny, who politely said nothing.

We ascended the spiral staircase and she pushed a button which caused the familiar disc to retract into the floor above our heads. The same small area rug that Miss Ginny had rolled up in Georgia was now barring our exit in Arizona. I helped her shift the rug, back and forth, back and forth, a little bit at a time, being careful not to bring a chair down on top of us.

“We don’t normally have reason to leave the Kodesh in another state, at least not without the local Guardian, so this isn’t usually an issue,” she huffed, slightly winded.

“Here, let me,” I said finally, growing impatient. I pushed up on the rug, which sent the chairs tumbling, and crawled out under it. “Just a second, Miss Ginny. I’ll move the table for you.”

“Thank you, dear.”

Once we were both out of the Kodesh, I studied the War Room. It was remarkable in its likeness to the Georgia War Room. Although I believed Miss Ginny, I was dying to venture outside to see for myself. When she opened the door, I was shocked to see that we weren’t in a library. This structure looked as though it hadn’t been inhabited in a hundred years. Pieces of broken boards and chunks of plaster were strewn about, thick dust covering everything.

“Where are we?”

“In Eden, Arizona, dear. This is where you wanted to go, isn’t it?”

“I mean, is this an old theatre?” I asked, looking out from a raised stage at several decaying wooden benches stacked precariously against a wall.

“It was actually a church until the mid-1900s. This once thriving little town was established in 1880 when Mormon families from Utah travelled along what was then known as ‘The Honeymoon Trail’. The area eventually became commercial property and, in 1903, a three-story hotel was erected that boasted the Southwest’s largest swimming pool, which got its water from the town’s famous natural hot springs; people came from far and wide to rid themselves of all their ailments in the healing waters. A school, a general store, and a post office were also built. The ruins are over that way if you’d like to take a walk.”

“Sure.”

We stepped cautiously over more scraps of wood and bits of plaster that had fallen from the roof and ceiling, the holes through which the sunlight created an interesting lattice pattern on one half of the floor and up the adjacent wall.

Miss Ginny continued as we ambled through the ghost town. “This town was once known as the “Jewel in the Desert” and still occasionally plays host to those who wish to retreat into nature and enjoy its peaceful surroundings.”

It was really warm for this time of year, even compared to Georgia, although the air was very dry. I had never been to Arizona and thought this might be a great place to camp some time. I wondered if I could use the derekhs for personal travel. I’d have to remember to ask that later. Miss Ginny was lecturing again.

“This is, or was, the hotel. As you can see, it was constructed from brick and stone, but a fire broke out in the wooden interior in 2008, completely wrecking the entire structure.”

“That’s too bad,” I reflected, meaning it.

“So, this is Eden, Arizona,” she announced, extending both arms outward and slowly making one rotation.

I half expected to see tumbleweeds come blowing by, although there was no wind. Only a dried up town, its remains set amidst the picturesque beauty of an Arizona desert. I wanted to take a picture, but quickly remembered that I needed to keep all this to myself. I didn’t want a misplaced photo to give away my secret.

“The desert is beautiful, in its own way,” I observed. “Hey, by the way, am I allowed to use the derekhs for travel unrelated to angel research?”

“I don’t believe it’s ever been done before,” Miss Ginny contemplated.

“I don’t hear you saying that it’s not allowed.”

“Well, I thought you agreed that not telling Ty was prudent.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean Ty. I was thinking of Karen Canta.”

“Lord, child, how many people have you entrusted with this knowledge?”

“Only my friend from Bradford, Jane. But I’d like to tell Karen at some point.”

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”

“I understand your apprehension, but I think I can trust Karen. We’re getting to be close and I really need a human friend in Eden.”

“Of course, dear. I will defer to your good judgment; after all, you have been chosen for a reason. And I don’t see the harm in using the derekhs, as long as you’re careful.”

“Thanks, Miss Ginny,” I said, excited, throwing my arms around her in a hug.

“Shall we return then?” she asked, a little flustered by my exuberance.

“We shall,” I sang with a bounce in my step, already planning in my head future trips around the U.S. with Karen.

As we approached the church, whose exterior remained fairly well preserved, I noticed that there was no room behind it from which we entered.

“Uhm… where’s the War Room?”

“Oh, it’s invisible, dear. There are several War Rooms that were hidden inside structures such as this that are no longer used and have fallen into disrepair. Since the War Rooms are attached to the Kodeshes, they could not be moved, thereby necessitating a cloak of invisibility.”

“Is that something you did? Or some other Guardians?”

She laughed. “I wish I could take credit for that feat. No, dear, it was the angels.”

I nodded. “That makes sense. Guess I was just hoping that it was something you could teach me.”

“Would that I could, dear.”

“Thanks anyway.”

We entered the same way we had exited, once again cautiously stepping over the wood and plaster that littered the church’s floor. We stepped up on to the pulpit and proceeded to the door in the back. It was strange to imagine that the room we were entering was actually invisible.

Miss Ginny decided that we should rearrange the room a bit, since we wouldn’t be able to put the dinette set back on top of the rug. Instead, we pushed the table against the wall under the star clock, putting a chair at either end and two in the front, facing the wall. Then we dragged the rug close to the opening in the floor and descended the stairs. When our heads were safely below ground, we reached up and pulled the rug over the hole, doing our best to center it. Finally, Miss Ginny pushed the button and the disc closed, thus ending our adventure in Eden, Arizona.

Stepping into the Seam, I thought “Georgia”, wanting to see if, indeed, we would be transported over the derekh without speaking. No sooner had I thought the name than I felt the whoosh. And Miss Ginny was right; my insides felt more like they were being scrambled by a tropical storm than a category one hurricane this time. When the storm passed, I reached for the key, holding on to it momentarily, waiting for my balance to return.

“You’re learning quickly,” Miss Ginny said approvingly in the darkness.

She led me back through the cavern, to the table, where we had left the open “Book of Knowledge”. She closed it carefully and placed it back on its base, after which it withdrew into its hiding place within the table.

“I think you’ve learned enough for today, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, I would definitely say.”

I followed Miss Ginny up the spiral staircase and back into the Eden, Georgia War Room where we returned everything to its proper place.

“I’ll have to give the Arizona Guardian a call to let her know that we were there. I’d hate for her to enter the War Room and think the worst.”

“Good idea,” I agreed.

Back in her office, I slumped into the same chair from which this journey began only a short time earlier. What time is it anyway? I looked around the room for a clock. Judging by the setting sun which shone through Miss Ginny’s only window, it had to be nearly six o’clock.

“Thanks for everything, Miss Ginny,” I said gratefully. “It was amazing. I have a lot to think about, but at least I know where to come for answers the next time I have questions. I really appreciate your honesty and your trust in me.”

“It was truly my pleasure, dear. I’ve been waiting many years for you,” she smiled earnestly. “You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not here,” she added, handing me a key.

“Thanks again. See you soon,” I promised with a wave.

CHAPTER 29

It’s My Life (And I’ll Do What I Want)

It was getting harder and harder to act “normal” with everything I now knew was going on in the world around me. Sometimes I wanted to be like Ty and Mara so badly so I could feel as though I had some degree of control over my destiny; other times I wanted to slip away to some deserted island with Michael and retreat from this crazy world.

After earning all A’s on my second quarter progress report, including Statistics, for which I was still receiving tutoring from Michael, although we had cut it back to one day per week, I had persuaded my mother to ease up on her straight-home-after-school rule. Instead, Ty and I would go to Black Creek to hone his telekinesis. While I knew that his full potential would be reached on his eighteenth birthday, that was more than eight months away. I was consumed with stretching the current limits of his abilities, convinced of his goodness, and no longer expecting him to give them up for me. He would need them in the final battle, where he would fight against evil.

Initially, he was only able to do things that took just a second to make happen in one burst of energy, like knocking over a glass. But each day, we worked at moving a rock. At first, he was only able to turn it over, but with daily practice, he was eventually able to levitate it for an indefinite amount of time and then throw it across the field.

Once we had that mastered, it was time to move on to him levitating. I was determined to get him to fly, something he had never considered. I wanted to fly so badly, to know that freedom and total abandon that my car could never provide. Being a passenger would be the next best thing to being able to fly on my own. We worked diligently, but he could only manage to lift himself just a foot or so above the ground and only for a few seconds at a time.

We now used his abilities so often that I started to feel as though I had abilities, too. Once in a while I would catch myself waving my arm as if to cause something to happen, kind of like with TiVo where you get so used to being able to pause the action that you momentarily think you can do that with things other than the tv. Ty and Mara thought it was hysterical.

Between school, Ty, and the nursery, I was barely home. Not that my mother really noticed. She was super busy at the hospital implementing changes that she hoped would increase efficiency. When she was home, she did her best to spend quality time with the kids, and invited DB over whenever he was free.

One thing I hadn’t really noticed was that my absence had caused my relationship with Jennie to suffer. While we were never best friends, in the past, we were kind of forced to talk when we were both home, or sometimes we’d run errands together. Now, we were becoming strangers. She’d assimilated easily with a popular clique in the junior class. I had Ty and Mara and Karen, so it hadn’t seemed like that big of a deal to me.

One day, as she was going up the stairs and I was going down, I stopped her. “Hey, Jen. What are you doing?”

“Why do you care?” she quipped.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You haven’t talked to me in, like, forever. I’m sure you’re leaving again to go hang out with Ty. So just go.”

“I was just going to go to the store. Do you want to come with?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You’ve changed, Essie. I don’t really like you anymore.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ever since you’ve been hanging out with Ty and Mara constantly, you’re different. You’re impatient and bossy and you never make time for Laurie, Hollie and Danny like you used to. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but something has changed in you.”

“Wow. You know what? I think you’re jealous.”

“I’m not jealous. And if you were still the old Essie, you’d be able to see that.”

“Whatever,” I barked as I left her standing on the stairs.

That was so rude of her, I thought as I slammed the front door and slumped into one of the rocking chairs on the porch. Jennie had the distinct ability to bring out the two-year-old in me, probably because we were so close in age and had always, until a few months ago, been forced to cohabit. Growing up, before the little ones came along, I always heard, “Keep your eye on your little sister,” or “Include your little sister,” even though I preferred to play alone, using my vivid imagination to create scenarios where I was always an only child. As toddlers, my mother insisted on dressing us alike, albeit in different colors, me in pinks and purples, she in blues and greens, unintentionally exacerbating our embittered relationship. I stuffed my earbuds into my ears and cranked “Bad Reputation”. “A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s what I’m gonna do. And I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation.”

I didn’t care what Jennie thought. She didn’t know anything. She had no clue what was really going on in the world and that I had been chosen for an instrumental role in a final battle. I may even have to save her one day. Then I’ll show her how different I am, I thought angrily.

When the song ended, I called Mara. “Are you busy?” I asked.

“Not really. What’s up?”

“We need to talk.”

“Sounds serious. I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks, Mara. See you.”

Mara wanted to go to Savannah to some Mexican restaurant that she hadn’t been to yet. Food was the last thing on my mind, but I said that was fine with me. On the way, we chatted about school and about some boy that liked her. I wasn’t sure what was different about this boy. All the boys liked Mara. I could sense that she was holding off asking me what I wanted to talk about, waiting for me to bring it up. She was just as intuitive as her brother.

After we ordered, and our chips and salsa had arrived, I began. “I’m sure you know by now that Ty told me everything. And, by the way, thanks for acting normal. I’ve had a lot to think about and I’ve needed some time to figure out exactly how I felt about all this. You know, when I’m with Ty, everything he says makes perfect sense. But, then, I can say the same about Michael.” I deliberately left out my conversations with Mr. Joshua. “I just needed to talk to someone else, to a girl, to you.”

“First of all, let me say that I am soooo glad that this is finally out in the open. I’ve been dying to talk to you, but Ty made me wait until you brought it up to me. So, yay! Here’s to open and honest dialogue,” she said, raising her glass of water in a toast.

As our glasses clinked, I felt more at ease. I realized how much I desperately wanted someone to take Ty’s side. Mr. Joshua, Michael and Miss Ginny were definitely against him; Jane always tried to play devil’s advocate (no pun intended) in order for me to make up my own mind; and Karen didn’t have all the facts needed to develop an informed opinion. I wanted to be “Team Ty” and I needed an ally who wanted the same thing.

Mara shared that this was the first time that she was able to talk with a human about all things angel. It was as cathartic for her as it was for me.

“I know you like working at the nursery, and I’m not saying you should quit, but you might want to consider avoiding the topic of angels when you’re with Michael. He’s only going to persist in trying to persuade you that he and his family are good and that we’re evil. That will only serve to confuse you and put a strain on your relationship with Ty.”

She was right, of course. I had become so caught up in learning all there was to know about the subject that, without doing it intentionally, I was inviting discord into our relationship. That wasn’t fair to Ty.

“I think that’s a great idea, Mara. You are wise beyond your years,” I said sincerely, acknowledging her with a nod.

We stopped for an ice cream on the way home, where she “dazzled” the boy behind the counter into giving us extra large portions even though we ordered small cones. I had to admit that I had come to enjoy this and found it amusing.

Ty, Mara, and I were inseparable after that evening. I had even convinced them to let me invite Karen along on many of our outings, although she was not yet privy to their secret identities. But she was cool and fun and nice, so different from all the other kids at school who would do just about anything to be a part of Ty and Mara’s inner circle. Sometimes I would ask Ty to cause them to trip or something equally embarrassing just because they made me sick, the way they continued to fawn no matter how badly we treated them.

After one particularly funny incident, I called Jane to share the hilarity.

“You won’t believe what we did today, Jane. I wish you could have seen it.”

“What happened?”

“So, we were walking through the parking lot after school and Savannah was on the football field with the rest of the cheerleaders, practicing for the game. When they were doing their pyramid, I asked Mara to topple them. They all started blaming each other for the fall and a big chick fight broke out. You would’ve loved it.”

“No, I wouldn’t have. It’s not funny anymore.”

“You’re right, it wasn’t funny, it was hilarious. We couldn’t stop laughing.”

“What’s wrong with you? The Essie I knew would never have been a part of something like that. How many times have you calmed me down over the years because you didn’t want me to hurt anyone? You’ve always been a peacemaker. But every time I talk to you lately, you’re telling me that you’ve been a part of something mean. That’s not you, Ess. You’re not mean. Or least you didn’t used to be.”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Jane. They were fine.”

“That’s not the point and you know it. Where are you going to draw the line?”

“Ty already told me that if I’m ever uncomfortable with anything, he won’t do it.”

“That’s makes it even worse,” she snapped.

“How does that make it worse? Anything I’m not okay with, he won’t do.”

“Are you listening to yourself?”

“You know what? I really don’t want to listen to you anymore today. I called you because I miss you and I wish you were here and all I wanted was to share a laugh with you because I have no one else to talk to about all this. I wish I hadn’t called.”

“Ess, I want you to be able to confide in me. I’m just worried about you. I feel like you’re spiraling out of control.”

“That’s the thing, Janie. I’ve never felt more in control. When I’m with Ty and Mara, I feel alive and powerful. It’s exhilarating. And I’m going to need this confidence for whatever’s ahead. You keep forgetting about that.”

“I didn’t forget. I know you’re dealing with a lot. Listen, I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta go. My mother’s called me three times for dinner. You know I love you. Don’t be mad at me. We’ll talk more about this later, okay?”

“Okay. Love you, too. See you.”

CHAPTER 30

Mysterious Ways

Fired up after the intense exchange with Jane, I felt emboldened to finally investigate the Ataroth that Mr. Joshua had told me about. Emboldened, but not completely fearless. I called for Axl, my loyal companion and trusted protector, and, together, we walked heedfully through my back yard, toward the forest, keenly aware this time of its significance.

Once again, I brushed the low-hanging branches aside and stepped into the woods, feeling the same tingle I had felt the first and only time I had explored this esoteric locale. I walked along the same path, this time not veering off as I had done months ago when I found Axl. He seemed to be on high alert as we ventured deeper in, crowded on either side by an assortment of pines, oaks, elms, and maples. As I looked around, I realized how much I had learned working at the nursery. Before taking that job, I wouldn’t have known one tree from the next, the only exception being the birch trees that were common in northeastern Massachusetts, their discarded white bark being exceptionally useful when Jane and I wanted to start fires behind my old house in Bradford. I smiled, proud of my newly acquired knowledge.

I trudged along, pointing out various shrubbery to Axl, doing my best imitation of Michael explaining the local flora to me. He cocked his head, puzzled by my words. I imagined myself having the same bewildered look when Michael patiently educated me in all things botanical. Bluish-gray, spiky strands of Spanish moss completely covered some of the trees along the path, adding an ethereal beauty to the thick, green landscape.

About twenty minutes in, we came to a large clearing. I stopped at its edge, thinking it odd that such an immense space would be randomly located in the middle of a dense wood, for it looked as though it had been purposefully carved out. Then I remembered that this place was not a random space, but an Ataroth, a place of destiny, of supposed energy, ready to be tapped into by angels and their girlfriends. This could also be the place I had seen in my dream where Ty was able to conjure fire and druid-like figures chanted in the moonlight. I shook my head skeptically and stepped over the imaginary threshold into the waiting acreage.

My whole body quivered as I cautiously put one foot in front of the other, advancing into the expanse. Mr. Joshua was right; this place was electric. Excitement quickly replaced anxiety as I began to feel like I was floating, more than walking, over the ground. I twirled around and around, fantasizing that I was gliding above the field like one of the sandhill cranes that were commonplace in my new, marshy homeland.

After one twirl too many, I fell into the shaggy grass. As I laid there, perfectly still, I was certain I could hear the grass whispering, “Try it”. Or maybe my dizzy brain was telling me that I was tired; after all, I existed in a constant state of sleep deprivation.

When the dizziness had passed, I placed my hands on either side of my hips in order to push myself up. I was ready to explore this fantastical place further. But when I pushed off, I catapulted myself a couple of feet off the ground.

“What the…”? I shrieked as I landed gracefully on my feet. Axl looked up at me, confused. I stood motionless for a long moment, looking around as though people were going to start peeking out from behind trees, giggling; me, realizing I was being punked.

Feeling relatively certain I was alone after several seconds had passed, I jumped. Although part of me felt foolish for daring to hope that I could repeat the previous stunt, I did it nonetheless.

“Yeeeaaahhh!” I shouted as I bounced around like John Carter. Well, not exactly like John Carter. I wasn’t jumping football field distances, but definitely further than any long-jumper. It was as though I had springs built into my feet. If this was a mere fraction of how Ty and Mara felt all the time, I was officially jealous.

Wondering if this place afforded me any other enhancements, I leapt over to the clearing’s edge and peered into the forest, looking for a rock to throw. I found one the size of a baseball and launched it skyward. “Amazing,” I cheered as I watched the rock go up, up, up and then hurtle back to Earth, landing with a loud thud about fifty feet from where I was standing. I searched for a bigger rock and when I found the perfect one, I imagined myself as Tom Brady and fired that ball deep into the end zone, all the way across the field, its trajectory finally impeded by a large oak. “And the crowd goes wild,” I shouted, making the obligatory crowd noise, then segued into my very own end zone dance.

I had never felt so alive! I tapped my inner gymnast and attempted a tuck, then a layout; first, a single; then, a double; then, a triple. “Wheeeeeee,” I squealed happily. It seemed like all my senses were heightened. My eyesight was sharper; I could smell the distant marsh and the knock-out roses in my back yard; I could hear leaves rustling and tree frogs croaking.

Ecstatic, I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Joshua. “Come on, boy. Let’s go,” I called. As we began to run across the field, I realized that I was outpacing Axl. Sweet, I thought as I turned around and jogged backwards, waiting for him to catch up to me. Once we reached the path, however, I thought it prudent to walk, not wanting to run headlong into some outstretched tree limb waiting to smack me in the face.

Walking along, I thought of the fun Ty and I could have in this place and wondered if his innate abilities would be augmented as well. I pictured us in those ridiculous inflatable sumo wrestling suits, jumping high and crashing into each other in midair.

Lost in my daydreams, I was surprised when we seemed to have arrived so quickly at my back yard. I felt the energy seep from my body as we left the forest behind us. “Darn,” I frowned, staring longingly behind me, reluctantly acknowledging my return to normalcy. I called Mr. Joshua from my chair on the back deck.

“Guess what, Mr. Joshua”, I demanded, without waiting for a reply. “I just spent the past couple of hours in the Ataroth and it was incredible! I wanted to come over and talk to you about it, if that’s okay. Please say it’s okay.”

“Sure, Esther,” he chuckled. “Come on over.”

I wasted no time in getting there. “It was so cool, Mr. Joshua,” I huffed as I ran up his porch steps and through the open door where he was standing, waiting for me.

“You should have seen me. I could jump high and run fast and throw far and do flips and even my senses were improved,” I rambled without taking a breath.

“Let’s go sit in the kitchen. I put on some coffee; it should be ready,” he said cordially, closing the door and ushering me in front of him.

I chose the same seat I had taken last time and made myself comfortable. “Do I smell cookies?”

“Chocolate chip. I think they’re just about ready, too,” he smiled, opening the oven door to check their progress, allowing the aroma to fill the small kitchen.

“Yum,” I sang, waiting impatiently for him to ask me more about my time in the Ataroth. Instead, he busied himself with making coffee and taking the cookies out of the oven. After what seemed like an eternity, he brought me a mug of coffee, just the way I like it, and put a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies between us. He grabbed his mug from the counter and joined me.

“So, tell me all about it,” he finally requested.

I started from the second I entered the forest, recounting how I felt the same initial tingle as I moved the branches out of my way, and ending with the disappointment I felt when I left it behind.

He sat quietly, looking contemplatively into his cup of coffee. After a long moment, he exhaled through his nose, making a muffled hmmm sound as he did so. He rubbed his forefinger and thumb back and forth on his chin before he spoke.

“I imagine, Esther, that you’ve been allowed to have that experience to give you peace. Scripture says that we’ll have tribulation in this world, but we should take heart. You were troubled as to your part in the final battle; you’ve been given a foretaste, if you will, to assuage your anxiety. Obviously, you will play an important part and now you can take comfort in the fact that you’ll be an asset, not a liability. You’ll have superhuman abilities, Esther. That’s got to make you feel better, yes?”

“Yes, definitely,” I said unemotionally.

“What’s wrong? You went from exuberant to morose.”

“I think morose might be a little strong, but, before now, I hadn’t actually pictured myself fighting in the battle. You’re making it seem real.”

“Just because it’s a future event, doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

“I guess I know that. In my brain. It’s just more natural for me to think of it in the same vein as historical fiction ― sure, there are some facts in the story, but, ultimately, it’s still fiction. Kind of the same way I used to think of angels and demons.” I snickered and felt the left side of my mouth raise up as I closed my eyes. “Boy, you really know how to let the air out of a girl’s balloon.”

“I didn’t mean to do that, Esther. I apologize.”

“It’s okay.”

Mr. Joshua picked up a cookie and handed it to me. “On the bright side, now you have somewhere to retreat to when all this gets overwhelming. You should think of the Ataroth as your ‘happy place’.”

“Good idea,” I laughed, my mood suddenly elevated. “It is an awesome place, regardless of its future use.”

“That’s the attitude!”

I took a bite of my cookie, feeling proud, as though I was a dog and he had just said “good girl”. It was still warm and the chocolate chips were gooey. “Mmmm.”

“They’re my favorite,” Mr. Joshua agreed, picking up a cookie.

After I finished the last bite, I said, “Well, I guess I should get home. I have a lot of homework to do and I’m going to be up half the night at this point.” Not that I could remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep.

He got up from the table and began to rummage through one of kitchen cabinets. “This’ll do,” he said to himself, inspecting the medium-sized piece of tupperware. He then proceeded to place all the cookies inside, pressed down on the lid, and burped it in order to let out any extra air.

“Sustenance,” he smiled, as he handed me the container.

“Thanks, Mr. Joshua. You’re the best.” I gave him a hug and let myself out the front door.

CHAPTER 31

For What It’s Worth

Days had turned into weeks and my seventeenth birthday was fast approaching. I knew that Ty and Mara were planning something, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was. I couldn’t even get Karen to give me a hint.

A week before the big day, I went to work at the nursery as usual. However, when I entered the retail building, Gabe was there instead of Michael.

“Good morning, Gabe. Where’s Michael? Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Essie. Good mornin’ to you.”

“Why isn’t Michael here?”

“He should be here in just a…”

“Hey, Essie,” Michael called out as he bounded through the door. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here before you, but I have a surprise for you.”

“A surprise? For what?”

“Come with me.”

I followed him to his truck. He opened the passenger door and motioned for me to get in.

“What’s going on? Where are we going?”

“I told you it’s a surprise.”

“What about work?”

“Don’t worry about that. We’re covered.”

I had no idea what to make of this, so I just enjoyed the country music that was playing as we drove. A couple of minutes later, we were at Michael’s house.

“Why are we at your house? Did you forget something?”

He ignored my questions and hopped out, using his super speed to open my door before my hand had even reached for the handle.

I giggled. “I really love that.”

“I really love… I mean… Come on,” he blushed as he reached for my hands to help me down.

“This way,” he guided, keeping hold of my right hand as we made our way around the house to the pasture in the back. In the light of day, I could now see the horses that I had only barely made out the night I had been here for dinner. They were magnificent.

“Are we going riding?” I asked, full of excitement.

“That wasn’t the plan, but I’d be happy to take you riding later on if you’d like.”

“I’d like,” I said with a big smile.

As we walked through the pasture, I watched the late morning mist float upward toward the sun which, through the lens of my sunglasses, looked like a big, blurry ball surrounded by a rainbow halo. This is how I had imagined heaven would look.

We kept walking to the left, toward the large trees that served as a wall preventing the horses’ escape in that direction. As we got closer, I noticed an arbor that was all but hidden amidst the branches and vines woven through the latticework. A tall, thin wrought iron gate guarded whatever was waiting on the other side. Michael lifted the latch and pulled on the handle. It groaned and creaked as though it hadn’t been opened in a very long time.

“After you.”

I walked through the arbor and was astonished. This was the English garden from the dream I had had the night I learned we were moving to Eden. In the middle of the emerald grass laid the red and white checkered blanket on which sat the woven wooden picnic basket.

“How is this possible?”

“What do you mean?”

“I dreamt about this place, and you, before we moved from Bradford. I remember waking up feeling as though the dream was real, it was so vivid. That’s why I was so startled when I first saw you at the nursery. But you knew that I recognized you. You said that the day you and Ty had the altercation at my house. How did you know that, Michael? How did I dream of this place?”

“Let’s go sit down,” he urged.

I stood there for a long moment, still as a statue, remembering the ancient-looking trees on the outskirts of the large, rectangular area that I was now standing in. Lush plants and exotic-looking flowers were formally placed in several groupings and I could see two perfectly manicured hedges at one end of the garden that formed parenthesis around a small pond with a stone bridge crossing it. A couple of wooden benches were nestled in close to the hedges. There was so much more to it than what was revealed in my dream. This hidden enclave stood in stark contrast to the casual cowboy feel of the Powers’ home.

“Come on, Essie. Let’s go sit down,” he repeated.

I followed him this time but said nothing. We sat on the blanket. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was freaking out just a little bit. I had never experienced an extended déjà vu before; surely, that’s what this was. I had no special abilities, no psychic powers, although I remembered Mr. Joshua quoting some scripture about visions and dreams that he thought applied to me. When I finally looked at Michael, as if on cue, a gentle breeze blew just slightly enough to keep my hair out of my face. I shook my head vigorously, trying to make sense of this place, this picnic, this day.

“Are you okay, Essie?” he asked after giving me a couple of minutes.

“Uh, huh. What’s in the basket?” I asked slowly.

Before he had a chance to open it, I stopped him, placing my hand on his, enjoying the now common buzz that happened every time we touched. “Wait. Let me guess. You packed a lunch consisting of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salt and vinegar potato chips, diet root beer and malted milk balls.”

He smiled his perfectly imperfect smile.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

He nodded with raised eyebrows, still smiling, an encouraging look taking over his face.

“What? Please tell me what’s happening,” I implored.

He turned his hand over and squeezed my hand, the one that I had placed on his, then opened the picnic basket, taking out two neatly wrapped sandwiches. He unfolded the paper around one of the sandwiches and handed it to me, along with a red linen napkin. He retrieved two glass mugs and poured the root beer, setting them between us. He reached into the basket a third time and found the bag of salt and vinegar chips and a red bowl. He opened the bag and poured its contents into the bowl and leaned over to set it right next to me.

I looked at my sandwich, cut in half diagonally, peanut butter and jelly oozing out from between two pieces of wheat bread, crust missing. I took a bite and chewed slowly, looking at Michael, waiting for an explanation. I was on my third bite when he started talking.

“We haven’t really had a chance to talk since that day at your house and I’m sorry for that. I’m sure that was difficult for you to hear, especially in front of Ty. I brought you here for two reasons. First, to celebrate your birthday. I assumed that Ty had planned something for the sixth, and I didn’t want the day to pass without being able to wish you a happy birthday, just the two of us, without time constraints. So, happy birthday, Essie. We can hang out here until the nursery closes, or longer, if you want, and you’ll still get paid for the day. That’s your present from daddy.”

He raised his glass of root beer and waited for me to raise mine. “To your seventeenth birthday. May all your dreams come true.”

I grinned wryly at his well-chosen words, then we clinked our glasses and I thanked him. I was so happy that we were spending the day together, despite knowing how angry Ty would be when he learned of the deception. But I chose to put that thought out of my mind and enjoy the time with Michael.

“Second, I wanted to explain in detail what I meant when I said that you were meant for me. So, here goes.” He inhaled and exhaled deeply. “As angels, our soulmates are determined before we’re able to take human form. We are born at a specific time, in a specific location, to ensure the optimal circumstances for meeting and falling in love.”

I had to interrupt. “Does it always happen the way you plan?”

“Not always. Humans have free will and sometimes they act against what their heart tells them.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Yes. But let’s not discuss that right now. You were given that dream, or more accurately, that vision, to show you how perfect we are for each other. You felt that it was real because it is real, Essie. I’m proving to you, by bringing you here, that what I’m saying is true. It normally wouldn’t be allowed, but an exception has been made because Ty chose to let you in on his secret identity. I don’t know why he did it, unless he somehow knows that you will be instrumental in the final battle.”

“Ty mentioned a final battle when I told him that I had confided in Jane, but he didn’t give me any details. Mr. Joshua claims ignorance as well. And, come to think of it, I didn’t learn much in the War Room either. Do you know any details?”

“We win. How’s that for a detail? But there will be a lot of death and destruction before that because the demons, and all those on their side, will fight till the end.”

“How am I instrumental?”

“I don’t know that exactly. But even if I did, I’m not allowed to mess with your free will and telling you something that could affect your decisions in the future would do that. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, Mr. Joshua told me the same thing. But it seems to me that I might be making decisions without having all the facts.”

“You’ve been given all the facts you’ve needed to this point, Essie. And, to your credit, you figured most of it out without our help. You have a gift, an amazing ability to find truth. Listen to the spirit inside of you. You’ve believed Ty’s distorted biblical excerpts; believe this: ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil’. That’s from 1Thessalonians. You can’t pick and choose what you want to believe from the Bible. If some of it’s a lie, then it’s all a lie. As a journalist, you wouldn’t trust a source who lied about some of the details of a story, would you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s the same thing, Essie, only much more important.” He studied my face for a few seconds and continued. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. This day was meant to be a celebration. I’ll change the subject.”

“It’s okay, I’ll change the subject. Guess what?” I asked cheerfully without waiting for an answer. “A few weeks ago, I investigated the Ataroth in the woods behind my house. It was awesome, Michael. First, I realized that my senses were improved, then I found that I could jump high and do flips and run fast. It was truly amazing.” I could feel my countenance shift from worried to gleeful as I relived the adventure in my mind.

My revelation made Michael smile. “I’m glad you got to experience that. You only went once?”

“Yes. I’ve been meaning to go back, but I’ve been busy.”

I paused, assuming he’d have a few more questions. I was wrong.

“Essie,” he began seriously, waiting for me to look at him. “The moment I saw you, my heart kindled as I felt the sting of your name being etched on it. There will never be anyone for me but you. Your name is literally written on my heart.”

His profession came out of left field, stunning me. I was overwhelmed. Tears streamed down my face and dropped onto the half of the sandwich I was still holding. Michael reached across the space between us and wiped the tears with the back of his fingers.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

I forced a half smile. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Just believe.”

I closed my eyes and listened to my heart screaming that he was the one. I could easily imagine myself saying “I love you” to Michael. Being with him was as effortless as breathing. But it was too late. When the day was over and I had to leave this idyllic setting, Ty would be waiting for me. He had declared his love first and, honestly, I had come to enjoy the power and influence that was a part of that relationship package. “Do not quench the Spirit” I heard in my head. I fell back on to the blanket, weary from the endless battle within.

I could hear Michael get up, but I kept my eyes closed. I felt his large body lay down next to mine, heard the grass crunch beneath his weight. I didn’t want to open my eyes and look at him for fear of more traitorous tears forcing themselves through tiny cracks in the wall that I had so carefully built. Too late. I could feel him staring at me through closed lids and the tears made their sneaky escape and my thoughts began to focus on his presence so close to me. One of his fingers traced the tears’ path into my hair and then his huge hand was on my cheek. I turned my head, trapping his hand between my cheek and the blanket, and opened my eyes. He was lying on his stomach, propped up on his free elbow. I stared at him for several heartbeats, envisioning my name in a beautiful script on his heart.

Unable to control myself, I brought my face to his and kissed him. I had no idea what had come over me.

Kissing Michael was so different from kissing Ty. Ty’s kisses were exciting, maybe because I had never kissed anyone before, or maybe because I subconsciously knew there was something dangerous about him. All I felt right now was love. I didn’t know my closed up heart could expand this much. As his strong arms enveloped me, I was given a vision of us together in my mind. We were older, in our twenties maybe, sitting on the floor on a fluffy rug in front of a stone fireplace, playing with a baby.

We both stopped kissing each other at the same time. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, out of breath.

Still wrapped in his arms, mere inches from the lips I wanted to kiss some more, I asked, hesitantly, “Did you see what I saw?”

“The fireplace and the baby?”

“Oh, my gosh. That was crazy. How did we both see that?”

“They shall become one flesh,” he mumbled, looking away.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. It’s just part of a verse that popped into my head,” he whispered, letting go of me.

“Tell me.”

“They shall become one flesh,” he repeated.

“What does that mean?”

“It refers to marriage.”

“Oh. Was that a vision of us married?”

“I guess so. I’m not sure. Anyway, I told you that nothing can override your free will. So that vision is just a possibility. It’s not inevitable.”

“Are you upset by it?” I asked, confused by his apologetic tone.

“Not at all. You know I believe that we are meant to be, although that was intense. I just don’t want you to be freaked out by it.”

“Oddly enough, I’m not freaked out. It felt peaceful. Let’s try it again!”

He laughed. “Are you using me to get another vision?”

“Do you have a problem with that?” I teased.

“Not enough to stop you,” he said playfully, as he wrapped me up in his arms once again.

He waited patiently for me to kiss him; he wasn’t forward at all, maybe even shy. Instead, I took my right hand from behind his head and touched his lips with my finger. His eyes closed and I could suddenly feel his heart pounding. I traced his lips slowly. He remained perfectly still, letting me have my way with him. Pinching his bottom lip gently between my finger and thumb, I let my lips briefly touch his.

I returned my hand to the back of his neck and softly laid my head on his chest, right over his wildly beating heart, the one with my name etched on it. I felt responsible for his heart now, and I remained in that position until it resumed its normal rhythm.

“You don’t want another vision?” he asked after several long minutes had passed.

“I’m happy in the here and now.”

He squeezed me tightly. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For saying that you’re happy here with me.”

“You’re welcome,” I answered, squeezing him back.

“You feel like home to me,” he whispered, relaxing his grip on me.

“I know what you mean.”

“Really?”

“Sure. The night I left your house I remember thinking that I had a peaceful feeling when I was around you and I likened you to a down comforter on a cold New England night.”

“I like that.”

We ate our sandwiches and continued talking like best friends who’d known each other our whole lives.

“Would you excuse me for just about thirty seconds?” he asked politely after we had finished the chips.

“Sure.”

“It might be better if you closed your eyes.”

“Why?”

“I’m going to teleport,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Am I not allowed to watch?”

“You’re allowed. I just wasn’t sure if you wanted to see me disappear.”

“Oh, I do,” I beamed.

He chuckled. “Be right back.”

He vanished before my eyes. It was all of a sudden, different from what I had imagined. For some reason, I envisioned it being more like beaming from the transporter platform of the Enterprise where he would dematerialize and then materialize. In the middle of that thought, he popped back. It startled me and I jumped.

“That’s why I wanted you to close your eyes. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’m fine.”

It took me a second before I realized that he had an acoustic guitar with him. “What’s this?”

“I wrote you a song for your birthday.”

“You never told me you played the guitar. Or sang.”

“It never came up. But I do love music and I play all the time. Mostly in my room.”

“And you wrote a song for me?”

“I did. Would you like to hear it?”

“Please.”

He sat cross-legged, facing me, and began to strum his fingers over the strings. Looking down at the guitar, he sang,

“Looking at you

I see open sky

Looking at you

I don’t wonder why

My heart can’t fathom

being without you

Don’t let this time pass by

eternal, unfading

love is amazing

but it’s all only words

till you’re mine”

He looked up at me through his long, black eyelashes as he sang “till you’re mine”. The song was slow and sweet and his voice was soft.

“Looking at you

I see how you feel

Looking at you

I see you can heal

My heart can’t fathom

being without you

Don’t overlook what is real

eternal, unfading

love is amazing

but it’s all only words

till you’re mine

eternal, you’re mine”

I found myself crying yet again. Only this time, it was outright sobbing. I covered my face with my hands. What is wrong with me?

Michael scooped me up like a baby and cradled me in his arms, rocking slightly, front to back. “It’s okay,” he whispered over and over.

When I was finally able to compose myself, I apologized.

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Essie. I can feel what you’re feeling. You love me and that’s more than I could have ever hoped to know today. I also know that you think you love Ty. That’s okay, too. I understand and I won’t try to force you to make a choice you’re not ready to make. Eternal, you’re mine, so I’ll wait for you. Patiently. It’s okay.”

Why couldn’t I have met Michael first? We’d be happy now and I’d be oblivious to the demonic side of the supernatural world, at least for the moment.

I wiped my tears and relaxed in his secure arms.

“Your song was beautiful, by the way, in case you didn’t infer that from the torrent of tears. Does it have a name?”

“‘Eternal’. Oh, that reminds me. I have something for you.”

He used his right hand to reach into the picnic basket, keeping me cradled closely with his left, and presented me with a small natural-colored box tied with pink raffia.

I took it, nervously, anticipating what I would say if it were a piece of jewelry. There was no way I could wear it in front of Ty or Mara. I pulled on one end of the bow and the raffia fell away. I hesitantly opened the box and saw a bracelet laying on a cotton mattress. I picked it up and examined it. The bracelet was made from black leather cord which held seven square silver beads, each etched with a symbol that was unfamiliar to me. Between each bead was a small silver ball.

“It’s beautiful, Michael. What does it say?”

“It says ‘eternal’ in Malachim, the language of angels. And don’t worry about Ty seeing it. I bound it.”

I slipped it on and admired it. “Where did you find a bracelet with Malachim beads?”

He laughed. “I made it.”

“You made this? Now it’s even more beautiful! I love it. Thank you so much,” I gushed, squeezing him tightly. “Tell me more about this language of angels.”

“I don’t want to bore you.”

“I want to be a journalist, remember? I’m fascinated by all of this and I want to learn all I can.”

“Okay, then. There is an angel called Raziel, who…”

“Wait. I know this. He wrote the Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, the first book ever written. It contained secret knowledge that he gave to Adam.”

“How did you know that?” he asked, surprised.

“I dreamt about it, then I googled it and was shocked to find out that it was real. I confirmed it with Mr. Joshua.”

“You dreamt about it?”

I nodded.

“Hmmm. That’s pretty amazing.” He studied my face for several seconds. “Would you like to know the whole story of the book?” he asked, abandoning the subject of my prophetic dream.

“Definitely.” I backed up a few inches and sat up straight, awaiting his instruction.

“As you said, it was the first book ever written. Actually, it was originally inscribed on a stone made of sapphire. Raziel’s duty was to record all the secret knowledge that was given to him in Heaven. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, Adam was distraught and prayed for wisdom. His prayers were heard and Raziel was sent to give the sefer to Adam so that he could learn all he needed from the holy book. Upset that this secret knowledge was given to Adam and not to them, the fallen angels stole the sefer and threw it in the ocean where it remained for centuries. Eventually, the angel, Rahab, was sent to retrieve it and return it to Adam. It was passed down through generations of Jewish patriarchs, finally making its way into print, and wider circulation, in the beginning of the eighteenth century.

“Now, to the language. Because the sefer had been stolen by the fallen angels, the original angelic script was changed a bit before it was returned to Adam so that any knowledge that might have been gleaned by the demons would be confused by the new symbols, which were formed by the positions of the stars. Any magic that was attempted by using the former language could no longer be performed. The new language came to be known as Malachim.”

“Why has it ‘come to be known’ as that?”

“We, angels, that is, didn’t call it anything. It just was. But over time, as more people discovered the sefer, they decided to call it Malachim, after the Old Testament prophet Malachi. There is a verse that mentions a ‘scroll of remembrance written in His presence’ in the Book of Malachi. Prior to that, in the ninety-first Book of Psalms, or Tehillim in the Hebrew Bible, verse eleven declares that ‘He shall give charge to His malachim (angels) concerning thee’. Those two verses convinced the rabbis that the angelic language should be known as Malachim.”

“Cool,” I mused, looking back to my bracelet.

“Wait a second. Did you say that this is invisible?”

“Yes. Angels can bind anything to keep it protected. This bracelet is invisible, except to angels and those they allow to see.”

“But Ty and Mara are angels.”

“They are demons, Essie. Will you finally believe me when you wear the bracelet and they can’t see it?”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, Michael. I do. But it’s like I said before. I think you’re both telling the truth, and that truth is up for interpretation. And until I have empirical evidence, I’m not going to change my mind.”

“Then let’s go horseback riding,” he said, cheerfully accepting defeat.

I rose to my feet and offered him my hand, as though I could actually pull him up from his seated position. He indulged me and pretended to struggle to get up as I tugged. Once upright, he kept hold of my hand and we walked back through the lovely English garden, through the creaking arbor gate, and through the pasture to the stable. There were several horses grazing in the pasture who barely lifted their heads in acknowledgement of our passing. There were also a few horses in the stalls.

“How many horses do you have?” I asked curiously.

“A dozen. I think Trinity will treat you well. What do you say?” he asked as we stopped at the stall of a horse that looked like Black Beauty.

“Whatever you say. She’s beautiful.”

Michael opened her stall door and led her to a post where he tied her to keep her secure. She was magnificent.

“Would you mind brushing her while I get her tack?”

He handed me a long oval brush with a thick leather strap attached to it. “I’d love to,” I said as I slipped my hand under the strap and began to brush her back. He returned in a flash with her blanket and saddle.

I continued brushing her and he joined me. “Why is she named Trinity?”

“I found her a couple of years ago. Her and that guy over there,” he pointed to a stall on the other side of the stable which housed another black horse. “They looked so cool together, both black, and I thought of Trinity and Neo from ‘The Matrix’.”

“Good one,” I agreed. “So, you’ll ride Neo?”

“Uh, huh. They haven’t ridden together for a while. This will make them very happy.”

It took us about half an hour to get both horses ready to ride. As Michael went to give me a lift up on the saddle, he looked at my flip flops.

“I’ve been so busy looking at your face that I didn’t notice you were wearing flip flops. You don’t want to ride in those. Mama keeps her boots here, if you wouldn’t mind borrowing them.”

“Sure.”

He retrieved Angie’s boots from the tack room, I slipped them on, and we were ready.

We rode for a couple of hours over acres and acres of pristine pasture and along rough hewn paths through the woods surrounding their property.

I couldn’t remember when I had had a better time. I was being swallowed up by Michael’s infectious easy-going nature. The urge I had to keep my life orderly and under control vanished when I was around him. I wasn’t thinking or planning, I was just being, enjoying the moment. Try as I might to tip the scales in Ty’s favor, there was no down side to being with Michael. If everything that he said was true, it was perilous for me to be with Ty. If everything that Ty said was true, then the angel thing was a wash and I needed to make a choice. But how could I be expected to choose between chocolate mousse and tiramisu? Both were equally delicious, but totally different. Thankfully, I never had to; I could have one today and the other the next time. The rules of relationships, however, didn’t allow me to have both.

As we approached the stable, I could see Michael’s mama, as he called her. “Hey, you two,” she shouted when she saw us.

“Hi, Angie,” I responded when we got closer, still not totally comfortable calling her by her first name.

We dismounted several yards before we got to the stable, and Trinity shook her head upon seeing Angie, making a beeline toward her.

“Hey, sweet girl,” she cooed, scratching along her neck. Turning her attention to me, she asked, “Have you enjoyed your day, Essie?”

“Thoroughly. Everything was perfect.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Perfect was what Michael was going for,” she disclosed.

“He succeeded,” I confessed.

Her face conveyed the kind of pride that might be expected had Michael just won an event at a major equestrian competition. She was beaming as though she was saying, “That’s my son! Isn’t he wonderful?” without using words.

“I’d love for you to stay for dinner, if you’re free. I made a red velvet cake for dessert.”

“Well, I can’t say no to that.”

Michael had already put Neo up and now took Trinity’s reins from me, leading her to the post where he would tie her in order to safely remove her tack.

“Be right back,” I said to Angie as I walked to the little room where Michael had put my flip flops and purse. Sitting on the bench to pull off the boots I had borrowed, I grabbed my phone and quickly texted Ty: “Mrs. Powers invited me to dinner and I accepted. Call you later.” SEND. OFF.

I rejoined Michael and Angie and we walked to the house together. There were several cars parked in the driveway and I remembered that Saturday night was open house at the Powers’. Michael opened the front door and ushered me through. To my horror, I was greeted by a house full of guests with a resounding, “Happy Birthday!”

This was a wonderfully sweet gesture, but I abhorred being the center of attention and I now had every eye in the place on me. I wished I had Michael’s ability to teleport myself to a remote cave on the other side of the world.

“You don’t need to be embarrassed, honey,” Angie said reassuringly as she led me toward the crowd, each person waiting to give me a hug.

“Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked rhetorically once the last hug had been given and we made our way to the kitchen.

“Honestly?” I paused briefly. “No. It wasn’t bad. Your family and friends are so nice, Angie. And you always make me feel so welcome.”

“Well, honey, we just feel like you’re a part of the family. You’re always welcome here,” hugging me again. “I hope you’re hungry. Here, grab a plate and why don’t you get us started.” She turned away from me and called out, “Hey, everyone. Time to eat.”

I waited for Michael to fix his plate and we excused ourselves to the back deck where we ate the last time I was here.

“Welcome to the family,” he chuckled.

“Did you know your mama was going to do this?”

“I had no idea. All I planned was the picnic. I still can’t believe you stayed. Aren’t you going to be in trouble with Ty?”

“Probably. He’s been trying really hard lately to be cool about you, but I don’t see him dealing well with this at all.”

“Don’t forget what I told you about thinking of me if you’re ever in trouble.”

“That’s a little dramatic, Michael. Ty might get upset, but he would never hurt me.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Let’s change the subject, okay?”

“Good idea.”

We talked about horses for while; he was very knowledgeable, and I eagerly soaked up his many anecdotes.

Angie appeared at the glass door and waved for us to join the others. We put our dishes in the sink and headed toward the great room.

“Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday, dear Essie.

Happy birthday to you.”

There stood Angie, in the middle of everyone, holding a birthday cake, waiting for me to blow out the candles.

“Go on and don’t forget to make a wish,” Michael grinned.

For the second time tonight, I felt as hot as the flames on those seventeen candles. Thankfully, she had grouped them together on the left side of the cake which made it easier to blow them out quickly.

Everyone cheered when the last candle’s flame was extinguished. “Thank you all so much. Let’s have cake!”

I followed Angie as she carried the cake into the kitchen and set it on the island. She got a big knife and placed the handle in my hand.

“You cut and I’ll serve.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

I started cutting down the middle, then the middle of each half, and so on, to ensure the pieces were uniform.

“Thank you so much for staying for dinner, Essie. You know it meant the world to Michael. And to us, too, of course. We consider you family.”

I nearly started crying again. What was it about this family that made me so emotional? They were just so good and decent. “Thank you, Angie. I really appreciate everything you’ve done.”

“Aw, honey, it was nothing. You know we love you.”

Michael was last in line to get his piece of cake. “Mama, would you mind if Essie and I went back out on the deck?”

“Not at all, baby. Y’all go on and enjoy the rest of the night.”

When we sat back down again, he asked, “Are you okay?”

“Sure. Why?”

“I can sense you’re upset about something. Was the party too much?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Then what?”

“I wish I met you first, Michael,” I blurted out.

He lowered his head.

“You know how I feel about you and I just adore your family, too. But I can’t just break up with Ty. He hasn’t done anything wrong. I feel like I’m going crazy. I wish there were two of me.”

“I don’t. I want all of you, not half or a clone.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know what you meant. But you will have to make a choice, Essie. Probably sooner than later.”

The tears flowed freely now and I didn’t even try to stop them.

“Don’t be scared,” he whispered as I held on to him tightly.

CHAPTER 32

Can’t You See

I was thankful for the warm weather that continued to pervade coastal Georgia, even after sunset, allowing me to retreat to my sanctuary with Axl. I needed a few minutes to clear my head before calling Ty.

I spread my blanket on the roof, positioned my pillow, laid back and gazed at the stars. Contemplating the vastness of the universe, my problems seemed insignificant and manageable. I can do this.

When I turned my phone on, I saw that I had six missed calls from Ty. I also had six texts that became increasingly unhinged as the hour progressed.

“I thought we were going to the movies. Call me ASAP.”

“He probably made his mother ask you.”

“How long does dinner take? Call me.”

“Seriously?”

“I’m going to kill him.”

“If I don’t hear from you soon, I’m coming to get you. CALL ME!”

“Wow,” I said out loud. “Maybe I can’t do this.”

I took a deep breath and called. Before it rang twice, Ty answered.

“Where are you?” he demanded.

“On my roof. Nice texts. What’s your problem?”

“What’s my problem? You know how I feel about Powers and you went to his house for dinner again without even discussing it with me?”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t realize I was required to discuss my social calendar with you.”

“You are when it comes to him.”

“Can you calm down, please, so I can tell you what happened?”

He was silent.

I took another deep breath before I began. “Don’t freak out, but I spent the whole day there.”

“What?!”

“I said don’t freak out. Listen. I went to work this morning, same as any other day. When I got there, Michael asked me to take a ride with him. I thought he needed help getting something for the nursery, only we ended up at his house. Long story short, he planned the day as his birthday present for me.”

“I don’t want ‘long story short’. I want details.”

“We hung out in the garden, had a picnic, and went horseback riding. When we were through riding, Angie was at the stable and asked if I’d stay for dinner. She’s so sweet, Ty, and I would’ve felt bad saying no. But then dinner turned into a birthday party with cake and I guess time just got away from me. It wasn’t planned. Don’t be mad.”

“Maybe it wasn’t planned by you, but it was obviously planned by Mike. I’m going to kill him.”

“You’re not going to kill anyone, so please stop saying that. It’s upsetting.”

“He knows you’re with me and yet he does everything he can to insert himself into your life. That’s upsetting to me! Why would you stay there once you knew what he had planned?”

“I couldn’t just leave.”

“You could have called me to pick you up.”

“All right, I didn’t want to leave. They have this secret English garden and it was peaceful and beautiful and relaxing and I’ve been so busy lately and I was getting paid to not work and the weather was perfect and…”

I rambled when I was nervous.

“Enough,” he interrupted. “I can’t hear any more of this. I’ve got to go before I say anything else. Before you say anything else.”

“Wait, Ty. Don’t…”

“I’ll call you when I can. Goodbye, Essie.”

Before I could say goodbye, he had hung up. I exhaled loudly and stared at the stars.

“What am I going to do, Axl?” He tilted his head. “You’re right. I should call Jane.”

I picked up the phone again.

“Hey, Janie. Got a minute?”

“What’s up?”

I recounted the day’s events, replete with all the details I left out when talking to Ty.

Silence.

“Well? Comments? Suggestions?”

“Oh, I have a lot of comments. Do you really want to hear them?”

“I really do. I don’t know what to do any more.”

“Fine. I’m going to be brutally honest, Ess. Ty is leading you down the wrong path and you seem to be willing to follow. You just told me about the amazing day you had with Michael and how you feel when you’re with him; then Ty threatens to kill him, hangs up on you, and you’re confused as to what to do? I’m confused as to your confusion. You can’t possibly want to be with a demon ― yes, I said it; I believe he’s a demon. I’ve been doing a little research of my own and I’m convinced of it. Everything he says and does is contrived to manipulate you but you’re too enamored of his wealth and power to see it.

“We’ve been friends for a long time, Ess, and I don’t want to hurt you. I want to be here for you. I want you to confide in me. I’m not saying you belong with Michael, I don’t even know him. But…”

“You’re right, Jane. You don’t know him. And you don’t know Ty either. But thank you for being honest. I wish you could come down here and meet him. I think you’d change your mind.”

“I’d love to see you, Ess. Maybe over Christmas break?”

“That would be awesome!”

“Can I just say one more thing?”

“Sure.”

“Have you ever thought about the fact that, for the most part, Michael’s abilities are used for good and Ty’s are used for evil?”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it. What are Michael’s abilities? There’s strength, speed, invulnerability, and teleportation, all fairly innocuous. He’s also an empath and a healer, both benevolent. Ty’s abilities are pushing, which is mind control, and which, by the way, will get stronger in about six months from now, telekinesis, which he uses to hurt people, and shape-shifting, all of which are malevolent.”

“You’re right. I’ve never thought about it like that. But that’s because I don’t see it that way.”

“Of course you don’t,” she said derisively.

“Don’t be sarcastic. I’m just saying that I disagree that Ty’s abilities are malevolent. He uses pushing to get his way, not to control people’s minds; he doesn’t actually hurt people with the telekinesis, maybe just embarrass them; and I don’t know what he’ll do when he’s able to shape-shift since he doesn’t currently have that ability. At most, his abilities make him a brat, not evil.”

“Whatever you say. I’m not here to argue with you, I’m here to be supportive of my best friend. I said what I had to say and we can leave it at that.”

“Thanks, Janie.”

“So, do you know what Ty has planned for your birthday?”

“No clue, but I’m sure it will be something fabulous.”

“I’m sure,” she agreed. “Still, I’ll bet it won’t be as romantic as your day with Michael.”

“Don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to think about that.”

“Yeah, a tall, dark and handsome angel with Superman’s abilities, and, oh, yeah, he’s in love with you. Not much to think about there.”

“I’m with Ty.”

“Does Ty know you dream about Michael every night?”

“It’s not every night.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I have no control over my dreams.”

“But you’re obviously having them for a reason.”

“And I have no idea what that reason is.”

“In denial much?”

“What do you have against Ty?”

“Avoid much?”

“Stop that.”

“Hey, you called me.”

“Because you’re supposed to be my best friend. You’re supposed to be on my side,” I whined.

“I’m always on your side, Essie. That’s why I’m being honest. That’s what friends are for.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to break into song?”

“Shut up.”

We both laughed heartily. It felt good.

“I miss you so much, Janie. I wish you were here.”

“Me, too. I’ll ask my parents if that can be my Christmas present.”

“We’d have so much fun. We could go to Ty’s place on Sea Island. You’d love it there. Or we could do a ghost tour in Savannah. Or even spend time in Atlanta, if you’d like. Whatever you want to do. Start googling stuff.”

“Alright. Let me go and I’ll talk to my parents.”

“Thanks, Janie.”

“You’re welcome, bestie.”

“See you.”

“See you soon.”

I smiled as I thought of seeing Jane over Christmas break. I just knew she’d see things differently if she could spend time with Ty and Mara and get to know them the way that I had.

CHAPTER 33

Round and Round

Ty had never hung up on me before. I knew I would have to deal with the consequences of spending the day with Michael, but I had no idea where to go from here. Sure, he said he’d call me when he could, whatever that meant. Did he want me to at least try to call him, even if he didn’t answer, or should I take him at his word and wait for him to call me? This was all new to me and I was unsure of the protocol. When I had been angry with him, he came to see me with a peace offering of malted milk balls.

A peace offering. Of what? My mind was blank. If it were Michael, it would be easier. He found joy in simple things, like I did. I imagined buying a small terracotta pot and painting some of the words to his song on it, or maybe painting my heart with his name etched on it, or maybe something in Malachim, or whatever, then filling it with an Angel’s Trumpet. Point being, I wouldn’t feel stupid doing something like that for Michael, but Ty had a way of looking down on simple things. I don’t think he did it to be mean, he was just brought up with the best of everything. He thought it was “cute” that I liked the Waffle House or that he could melt my heart with Whoppers. No, there’d be no offer of peace from me to Ty. I would wait for him to call me.

In spite of our argument, I couldn’t help but be in a good mood after my day with Michael. It was Saturday night and much too early to go to bed. Maybe Karen would want to take a ride to the airport with me and watch the planes take off and land. It had been a while since I had done that.

“Hey, friend,” she answered cheerfully after several rings.

“Hey, I was just about to hang up. Are you busy?”

“If you consider folding laundry while binge-watching ‘The Tomorrow People’ busy, then, sure, I’m swamped.”

“That sounds awesome, but do you think you could tear yourself away and take a ride with me? I feel like hanging out at the airport.”

“Hanging out at the airport?”

“Watching the planes take off and land.”

“Cool.”

“Pick you up in ten?”

“Okay.”

I was desperate to confide in Karen. Unlike Jane, she knew Ty and Mara and Michael. Ty had told me that I couldn’t tell her about the angel stuff and I had respected that because I believed it was his secret to tell. But was it? I had a role to play in this story, too. I had no special abilities; didn’t I at least have the right to have a confidant? And now would be the perfect time to spill the beans. Ty was already mad at me. What was one more thing?

We drove the thirteen miles to the airport, listening to the country music station while Karen sang along to every song, living up to her name. She had a great voice. That gave me a chance to get my thoughts in order. I remembered that she had said she was watching “The Tomorrow People”. Maybe I could begin by asking what she thought about people with special abilities.

I parked in the cell phone lot, just like I had the only other time I had been here. We situated ourselves on the hood of the car just in time to see our first plane land.

“Now I see why you like it here,” Karen said approvingly.

“Mmmm. When the world gets crazy, there’s nothing like watching the physics of flight in action.” Our eyes followed the plane as it taxied to the gate.

“Speaking of flight,” I suggested, “you said you were watching ‘The Tomorrow People’ when I called,” trying clumsily to segue to the topic of angels.

“What does that have to do with flight?”

“Just an odd train of thought that went from planes flying to me flying to teleportation to ‘The Tomorrow People’.”

“That’s not too odd. I’d love to be able to fly or teleport. I’m not picky. Either one.”

“Me, too. So, you like that show?”

“I like the struggle that some of the characters have to deal with. You know, not using their abilities for personal gain. That would be tough. Plus, it would be so cool to have those powers ― telekinesis, teleportation and telepathy. Oh, the things I would do…”

“Like what?”

“For starters, there’s a couple of girls at school I’d like to mess with.”

“Yes! I knew there had to be an evil side to you. Do tell.”

“At the top of my list is that…” she paused for a second. “…that witch, Savannah Stratton.”

“Hah!” I laughed. “I don’t like her either. I first met her at Black Creek over the summer and she was nasty to me. I don’t think she appreciated Jackson and Colton inviting me to go four-wheeling. But she got hers.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can only tell you if you swear to never breathe a word to anyone, ever, under any circumstances. Are you willing to make that promise?”

“Why so serious?” she asked with a twisted smile.

“No joke, Karen.”

“Okay then. I swear,” she said solemnly, holding up her right hand, “to never breathe a word to anyone, ever, under any circumstances. I make this promise, being of sound mind and body.” She ended by making a little cross over her heart.

“I hope I’m not making a huge mistake by telling you this. I’ve wanted to confide in you for a while now, but Ty wouldn’t let me.”

She laughed nervously. “You’re kind of freaking me out just a little bit, Essie. What’s the big secret?”

“Ty and Mara are angels and they can make things happen. The night I was just talking about, the night at Black Creek when Savannah made her ugly comment, Ty made a snake slither across her feet. She was so startled, she screamed and fell backwards into some leaves. They do stuff like that all the time. They’re telekinetic.”

“I was not expecting that.”

I gave her a minute to think as I focused my attention on a plane that was about to begin its ascent into the endless sky above.

Once the roar of the jet’s engines had faded, I asked, “Well?”

“Well, I was not expecting that,” she repeated, her eyes staring at the stars.

“I got that. You know what? We can pretend I never said that and never speak of it again if you want. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Don’t be sorry. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard in my life and my brain is thinking of so many things right now that I hardly know what to say.”

“Phew!” I sighed in relief. “I’m so glad you’re okay with it. I desperately need someone to talk to other than Ty and Mara.”

“I can only imagine. Tell me everything.”

“It all started one fateful day at the Piggly Wiggly,” I began, and concluded with, “He was so angry that I spent the day with Michael that he hung up on me after saying that he’d call me when he could.”

“That’s epic.”

“Truly,” I sighed. “Anyway, now that you have all the facts, what do you think I should do about Ty and Michael? I mean, do you think it’s possible to love two guys at the same time?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure my advice will be much different now that I know the whole story.”

“Speaking of that, I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you sooner. It’s just that Ty said that the fewer people who knew, the better. Plus, I didn’t want to betray his trust, figuring it was his secret. But I’ve changed my mind on that point. I’m involved in this whole mess so it’s my secret, too, and I need someone to talk to.”

“Okay, so you want to know if it’s possible to love two guys at the same time. Hmmm. I think you pretty much know what I’m going to say to that. Of course it is, if those two guys are Ty Gregory and Michael Powers! Who wouldn’t love either or both of them? But I know that that’s not helpful so let’s weigh their pros and cons. First, Ty. Tell me what you see in him.”

“Well, the first thing I noticed about Ty, after his all over gorgeousness, was his eyes. They just drew me in and I still feel like I’m under his spell when he stares into my eyes. I love the way he gets excited when he takes me to places I’ve never been or shows me things I’ve never seen. I love that he’s travelled all over the world. I love when he orders for me at restaurants. And if you ever bring that up again, I’ll deny I said it,” I said as an aside. “I love when he uses his abilities to get what he wants. I love that he and Mara are twins and that they’re so close. I think I might even love that he’s jealous of Michael.”

“Are there things you don’t love about Ty?”

“Oh, sure. Some of the things are the same. I hate it when I feel like I’m under his spell every time he looks into my eyes. I hate that he’s so presumptuous that he orders my food and I hate that he’s always right about his choices. I hate that he uses his abilities like a spoiled brat to get his way all the time. I hate that he’s almost a metrosexual who spends more time preening than I do. I hate that he’s so pretentious and looks down on most people. How’s that for a list?”

“So what I hear you saying is that you kind of have a love/hate relationship with Ty. He drives you crazy, in good ways and in bad ways. Is that fair?”

“I don’t know. It’s not equal. The good definitely outweighs the bad. And I’m not sure that hate is the proper descriptor. He just infuriates me sometimes.”

“Let’s move on to Michael. First, the pros.”

“I love how big and bulky he is, even his hands. I feel like nothing could ever hurt me when I’m in his arms. I love his long, dark, wavy hair. I love his crystal blue eyes. I love his imperfect teeth. I love how much he loves the nursery and how hard he works there. I love that he calls his parents mama and daddy in his sweet southern drawl. I love his whole family. I love that he doesn’t flaunt his abilities. I love how honest and transparent he is with me. I love how respectful he is. I love how patient he is. I love that he wrote a song for me and made me a present. I love how comfortable I am with him.”

“Wow. I think I just fell in love with him, too,” Karen sighed, a dreamy look on her face. “Just teasing,” she joked. “Cons?”

I laid there on the hood, pensively staring into space, saying nothing.

“Cons?” she asked again.

“I don’t think Michael has any cons. I seriously can’t think of one single thing that I don’t love about him. Well, maybe just that he keeps trying to convince me that Ty’s evil. But I think that’s it.”

“Then tell me again why you don’t know what to do? It seems pretty obvious to me that in a head-to-head matchup, Michael’s the clear winner.”

“When I just list qualities, it’s totally different than how it is when I’m with Ty. He’s like rock and roll ― fun, exciting, sometimes dangerous. He brings out the Joan Jett in me. The rebel. Michael’s country music ― fun, but sweet and safe. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life and I think I might be ready for something more. I’m tired of being that nice, dependable girl that puts everyone else’s needs ahead of her own. That probably makes me sound horrible, doesn’t it?”

“Not at all. I’m an only child, Essie. I can’t imagine being the oldest of five and having all your responsibilities.”

“To be fair, it’s not as bad as it used to be. Since we’ve moved here, my mother’s been able to afford to have someone stay with the kids when she’s at work. That’s left me free to see Ty and to have a job. But it’s only been a few months. The burden is still fresh. And I still do lots to help at home. I’m just saying that I see Ty and Mara’s lifestyle and I’m more than a little envious. To be able to do whatever you want whenever you want is pretty cool.”

“That’s definitely cool. Driving around in a Ferrari, eating at all the best restaurants, going to all the best places. Very cool, indeed. And don’t get me wrong about my summation of your relationships. I really like Ty. He’s been super nice to me. Mara, too. I was just trying to help you see which way the scales were tipping.”

“No worries. I understand. On paper, you’re right. But a real relationship is so much more than words on a page. Do you think I should call him any time soon or wait for him to call me?”

“You should wait. You just told me that the last time y’all got into it, he came looking for you the next day. He probably just needs a little time to cool his heels.”

“That’s what I thought.”

We waited several minutes before the next plane came into view.

“That might be it for the night,” I guessed. “Do you want to go to River Street for an ice cream?”

“You don’t have to ask me twice! Let’s go.”

After my musical analogy, I was averse to listening to country music. “Do you mind if I change the station?” I asked the moment I cranked the engine.

“Your car, your tunes.”

“Thanks.”

I quickly pressed the hair metal button, needing a little head banging to help me stop thinking about Michael and all his amazingly sweet traits that I had listed for Karen. Cinderella’s “Gypsy Road” was playing. Perfect. I turned it up loud and Karen gave me the thumbs up right before she started thrashing her head to the beat. I couldn’t stop laughing as she whipped her hair around and around, devil’s horns extended.

We lucked out, finding a parking spot on a small side street a mere block from our destination. Still laughing, we practically skipped along the concrete sidewalk, making our way quickly toward River Street. Once there, we walked gingerly over the cobblestones that covered the road, not wanting to trip or fall and twist an ankle.

I spied the little gift shop that also happened to sell the most delicious Java Chip ice cream in the world. Ty had introduced me to this place on one of our many jaunts to Savannah over the summer. Thankfully, they were open late. We rushed to the counter in the back where a sweet lady with an Australian accent happily crammed two large scoops into a cup for me.

“Heavenly,” I slurred with my mouth full.

“I think I’d like to try…” Karen contemplated. “…birthday cake,” she decided. “In a waffle cone. Please.”

We walked the length of River Street, from West to East, enjoying our ice cream, ending up at the small park that featured the Waving Girl statue which overlooked the Savannah River, also the scene of “the incident”. We read the plaque that told the story of Florence Martus who, for forty-four years, greeted every ship that arrived and departed from the Port of Savannah by waving her handkerchief. Then we sat on one of the empty benches and resumed our earlier conversation.

“So, I have to ask. How do you feel about all this angel stuff?”

I think this was the first time anyone had asked me that. “You’re so sweet to ask, Karen. Part of me is super stoked to know that there are people among us with super powers. You know what a geek I am when it comes to comic book heroes. But this is more than that. Angels and demons are immortal spirits and what they do ultimately affects each and every one of us. I mean, a final battle? What the heck?! And, somehow, I’m involved. When I actually take a second to think about it, it freaks me out more than a little bit. So I try not to think about it. For now, I’m just loving the benefits.”

“Great attitude. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway, so why not just enjoy the ride.”

“Exactly.” I was so glad that I told Karen what was going on. I only hoped that I didn’t unwittingly put her in danger. She didn’t seemed concerned about it, so I decided not to worry about it for the time being.

“Hey, would you mind if we headed back? I have to work tomorrow and I need to do a load of laundry so I’ll have something to wear.”

“Speaking of, I have a big pile waiting on me at home. But it was worth it. I had a great time tonight. Thanks for coming to get me. And thanks for confiding in me.”

She gave me a hug, and we started on the fifteen minute walk back to the car.

“By the way,” she broached, once we were buckled up and heading back in the direction of Eden, “do you think it will be weird tomorrow between you and Michael? From the way you described it, today was seriously intense.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it. I think it will be fine, though. His empath ability senses how I feel now and he’s so good at making me feel comfortable. Yeah, it’ll be fine.”

CHAPTER 34

Superman Tonight

I could see the bright sunlight that streamed in through my bay window before I was even able to open my eyes. Per usual, I had tossed and turned all night, the peaceful sleep I longed for replaced by increasingly disturbing dreams. This one featured Michael and Ty battling in the Ataroth with swords, Michael’s blade appearing to be fashioned out of lightening, Ty’s out of fire. Very strange. I forced my eyes open in order to check my phone. Barely able to focus, I could, nonetheless, see that Ty hadn’t tried to call or text me during the night. Admittedly, I was surprised. He had told me in the past that he didn’t like time to pass with me being angry. Maybe it was different this time since he was the one who was angry.

My ego was bruised. I needed comfort food. I threw on some yoga pants and a long-sleeve, three-button henley and sleepwalked to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth and decided on a Red Sox ball cap instead of a ponytail, although I did run my hair through the hole in back.

Buttery grits. Raisin toast with apple butter. Waffle House.

Ten miles seemed like a hundred as my thoughts centered on Ty. I wondered what he did last night. Knowing how rebellious I am when I’m angry, I pictured him at that karaoke bar, throngs of girls throwing themselves at him after he sang “Love of a Lifetime”. Whatever. If that was the case, it was over. I didn’t need him. Help me, Joan, I thought. I queued my playlist and found “You Don’t Own Me”. Perfect.

I couldn’t help but survey the parking lot as I pulled into a space under a live oak. The Ferrari was conspicuously missing. I quickly dialed Karen.

“Hey, I woke up hungry and decided to go to Waffle House. Wanna join me?”

“Sounds good. What time?”

“I’m kind of already here. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’ll be there in less than fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks. I’m still in the parking lot but I’m going to go in and get some coffee if you don’t mind. I’m still half asleep.”

“Of course. See you in a few.”

“See you.”

Donna greeted me warmly, as usual, and I took my seat at the counter.

“Hey, darlin’,” she said in her gentle drawl. “Where’s your other half this mornin’?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” I quipped.

“Well, that doesn’t sound good, sweetheart.”

“It’s fine. Can I have some coffee this morning, Donna. I’m waiting on a friend.”

“Abso-tively. Comin’ raht up.”

“Thank you.”

I had just started on my second refill when Karen walked through the door.

“How many cups is that?”

“Only my third.”

“You’d better have a few more. You still have marshmallow eyes.”

“Another fitful night I’m afraid.”

“Those dreams have got to mean something.”

“I wish I knew.”

“Were you hoping Ty would be here?”

“Maybe.”

“You gonna have the usual, Miss Essie?” Donna interrupted.

“Yes, please.”

“And for you, little one?”

“I’d like a chocolate chip waffle with bacon, please. And a large chocolate milk.”

“Comin’ raht up.”

“As I was saying, were you hoping Ty would be here?”

“Ok, yes.”

“Was that so hard?”

“Yes.”

She laughed. “Just call him then. You obviously want to see him.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Suit yourself. I wish you didn’t have to work today. We could go to the beach at Tybee Island. Take a long walk.”

“That would be great. I’d love to be able to avoid seeing Michael today.”

“You said last night that it would be fine.”

“It will be. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather avoid him if possible.”

“Got it. Wanna do something after work?”

“Thanks, Karen. I’d like that. That way, if Michael asks me to do anything, I won’t be lying when I say that I already have plans. Also, I won’t drive myself crazy wanting to call Ty but not doing it.”

She laughed again. “You are crazy.”

It was a beautiful sunny day so I drove home with the sun roof open, blasting some more Joan, wondering again how I was ever against moving here. I’m sure it was freezing in Massachusetts right now, yet I’d be wearing a short-sleeve t-shirt to work this afternoon.

I arrived at the nursery my customary fifteen minutes early. Michael’s big, white Chevy truck was parked next to the greenhouse and I could see him watering the plants inside. So I nearly jumped out of my skin when he was right in front of me after I had closed my car door and turned to walk.

“Sorry. I couldn’t wait to see you,” he grinned sheepishly.

I couldn’t help but smile.

“Come on. I’ll walk you in.”

I said nothing as we shuffled along the dirt road that led to the retail building. Just before we reached the door, Michael stopped.

“I’m sorry that I’m making you feel uncomfortable. It’s just that it was so nice being with you yesterday and feeling how you felt about me and sharing that vision and riding the horses and celebrating your birthday as though you were already a member of my family. Honestly, Essie, it’s getting more difficult for me to act nonchalant around you. But I’ll do my best. The last thing I want is for our work environment to be awkward or stressful for you.”

“Sometimes I wish you weren’t an empath. I can’t hide anything from you.”

He acknowledged my statement with a simple nod of the head and we walked through the door. The work day was uneventful; we were busy, as usual, and, therefore, had no time to discuss feelings. A little after five, we closed up and Michael walked me to my car.

Before he could say anything, I blurted, “Karen and I have plans for tonight so I’d better get going.”

“Are you going trick or treating?” he joked.

“Oh, my gosh. It’s Halloween. I totally forgot about that. Well, that changes things. I’ve got to run. See you at school tomorrow.”

“Have fun.”

I called Karen as soon as I pulled out onto the main road. “Did you know it’s Halloween tonight?” I asked without saying hello.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Why?! We need to do something, that’s why. I love dressing up in costumes.”

“Of course you do,” she said snidely. “Well, we’re too old to trick or treat, we’re too young to go to a bar, and we haven’t been invited to any local parties. So, what’s the plan?”

“You know who would love to get us into a bar?”

“Ty?”

“Even better ― Mara. Are you up for it?”

“Sure. But I don’t have a costume and it’s too late to get one now.”

“I have several. Meet me at my house asap. I’ll call Mara right now.”

“Okay. See you in a few.”

I hadn’t spoken with Mara since Friday at school. Frankly, I was surprised that she hadn’t called to give me grief about spending Saturday with Michael. Maybe Ty had forbidden it. As I fumbled to find her number in my favorites list, I hoped she wasn’t angry with me.

“Hey, Essie. What’s up?”

She didn’t sound angry. “I just realized that it was Halloween and I was wondering if you wanted to go out with me and Karen.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“No clue. This is my first Halloween here. I’m open to suggestions. I figured you’d know the best places to go. And, by the way, costumes are a must.”

“Do you mind if I ask Nicole to come along?”

“Not at all. The more, the merrier.”

“What are you dressing up as?”

“I think I’ll go with Hit-Girl. I’m in a kick-ass mood. You?”

“Definitely angel.”

“Good one. I’ll pick you up since we can’t all fit in your car. What time?”

“Uhm, I’ll pick you up in my parents’ car at eight.”

“Okay. Karen will be here with me. She needs to borrow a costume.”

“See you at eight then.”

“See you, Mara.”

Karen pulled up just as I was about to enter the house.

“I’m so excited,” she squealed as she ran up the steps. “I’ve never been to a bar or an adult Halloween party. This is gonna be great!”

“I think so, too. Mara’s inviting her friend, Nicole, so there’ll be four of us. She’ll be here at eight so we have plenty of time to get ready. You hungry?”

“A little.”

“Good. Let’s grab something from the kitchen before we get started.”

After throwing together a couple of sandwiches, we headed up the stairs to my room.

“So, let’s see what you have for costumage.”

I flung open my closet door and pushed all the hanging clothes to the right, revealing several garment bags that had been hidden to the far left. One by one, I retrieved them, gently laying them over my left arm, then placing them carefully, side by side, on my bed.

“Those are all costumes? Why do you have so many?”

“I think the question here is, why don’t you?”

“Uhm, because I’m not a freak.”

“And you think I am?”

“Not before today.”

“You won’t be laughing after the time we have tonight. You’ll be begging me to help you start your own collection.”

“That remains to be seen. Let’s just see what you have.”

I picked up the first bag and began to unzip it slowly. “We need music,” I said suddenly, returning the bag to the bed. I found my “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” playlist and hit shuffle. “Build Me Up Buttercup” played first. This was going to be a good night.

I danced over to the bed and resumed my presentation. “Our first ensemble this evening comes all the way from Pandora. May I present Neytiri.”

“I’m speechless.”

“Good. I don’t want you to say anything anyway until I’ve shown you all my costumes. Next, we have the Star Trek 2009 Uhura uniform, along with these awesome boots. Followed by Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, guns and thigh holsters included. Then there’s Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica and I even have the tattoo. And last, but not least, is Trinity from The Matrix, complete with wig and sunglasses.”

“Holy crap, Batman! Where in the world did you find those?”

“I found most of the clothing in thrift stores and army/navy supply; some of the hardware I got online, and I just kind of put them together.”

“You did a fantastic job. But what on earth got you interested in this?”

“My mother used to make a big deal out of Halloween; I guess she just forgot about it this year, with the new job and being so busy and all. Anyway, she always insisted on making our costumes; she wouldn’t hear of buying one from a store. When I was old enough, she let me help make the younger kids’ costumes and I got pretty good at it.”

“Obviously. Which one are you going to wear?”

“Oh, let me get it.”

I returned to the closet and brought back one last costume. When I proudly revealed my choice, Karen stared at it with a blank look on her face.

“Hit-Girl? Kick-Ass? Really? You’re killing me.”

“I’ll watch it. I promise.”

“I wish we had time to watch it now, but we need to get ready. Which one do you want?”

“I’m gonna go with Lara Croft. She was a brunette, right?”

“Right. Good choice. Wait, we need to eat first.”

We polished off our sandwiches while I regaled my new confidant with the story of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. When I had finished, she begged me to let her don the purple superhero disguise.

“Hmmm. I was really looking forward to wearing it, but…”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she shrieked, preempting my official offer.

“No problem. I’ll go as Lara Croft. Let’s do it.”

Over the next hour, we carefully put on our costumes, piece by piece, working diligently to get them right, dancing to old songs like “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Mickey”, and occasionally throwing Whoppers at each other.

I opened the front door at precisely eight o’clock, just as Mara was coming down the driveway. We stepped on to the porch and waited for her to get out of the car, eager to see what she had on.

“Oh, my gosh,” Karen and I said in unison as we watched Mara sashay around the front of her parents’ car, stopping just short of the porch steps. We had thought we looked pretty amazing until we saw her. She was wearing a Victoria’s Secret Angel costume and she was stunning. The lingerie was black, as were the heels and opera gloves, while her wings gradated from white to black.

“Wow, Mara.”

“Y’all, too,” she smiled, returning the compliment. “Let’s go.”

Nicole lived in Savannah so that gave us about fifteen minutes to talk. It was as good a time as any to break the news to Mara that I had shared her secret identity with Karen.

“So, you went with the obvious, huh?”

“Not to everyone,” she cautioned, glancing at me with narrowed eyes.

“Well…”

“Essie, you didn’t.”

“I did. Please don’t be mad, Mara,” I implored. “Karen’s totally cool with it. I just had to have someone to talk to that wasn’t an angel. And, you know, I’m involved in this, too.”

“I know you are, Ess. And I guess I understand the need to share with an outsider.”

“You know I can hear you,” Karen chimed in from the back seat.

“Sorry, Karen. I didn’t mean to be rude,” Mara said sincerely. “Miss Essie here caught me by surprise. You do understand our need to be discreet, right?”

“Of course, Mara. You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll take it to the grave.”

“Ty doesn’t know about this, does he?”

“I’m sure you know what happened yesterday and that he’s not speaking to me at the moment.”

“Can you blame him? You know how he feels about Michael.”

“Can we not talk about this right now? I wanted to go out so I could forget about all the drama for a while.”

“Whatever you say. We’re just about at Nicole’s anyway.”

Nicole’s apartment turned out to be right around the corner from our destination so Mara left the car there and we walked. As soon as the bouncer saw her, his face lit up.

“Get your angel ass over here, girl,” yelled the heavily tattooed twenty-something with dreads, gauges, and facial piercings.

“Hey, Dekker,” she drawled coyly, stepping in front of several patrons who were waiting patiently in line to get in to the dive. “My girlfriends and I are anxious to get inside and dance. You’re not gonna make us wait out here, are you?”

“I’d never make you wait, Mara. You go on in, now, and have yourself a good time.”

“Thanks, Dekker. I’ll save you a dance.”

We waltzed through the door, past a couple of girls whining, “That’s not fair”.

A band was playing loudly and people were everywhere. I felt like a seal during migration, trying to make my way to the beach to find a tiny spot to call my own.

“This is crazy,” Karen yelled close to my ear.

Before I could respond, Mara was pulling us on to the dance floor. The band was covering an eclectic variety of songs, most of which I knew. The four of us danced to one song after another, laughing, having a great time.

The floor was crowded so I didn’t react when a hand landed briefly on my shoulder. However, when I felt two hands on my hips, grabbing on to me from behind, I let an elbow fly, Lara Croft fashion, making contact with a set of rock-hard abs. I turned to throw a punch, only to see Ty standing there, prepared to block, a huge smile on his face.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…”

“Of course you didn’t know it was me,” he shouted. “Nice moves.”

I took his hand and led him off the dance floor, away from the booming speakers.

“I can’t believe you’re here.”

“I can’t stay away from you, Essie Claire. You look great, by the way.”

“Thanks. Why aren’t you in costume?”

“I’m more of the spectator sort.”

“No imagination?” I teased.

“I’m going to be imagining you as Lara Croft from now on.”

“Haha. I’m glad you’re here, but I don’t want to bail on the girls. Come dance with us.”

“You go. I’ll watch.”

“Okay.”

I found the girls where I had left them. We danced till the band took a break, then made our way to the bar where Ty was waiting for us with Coke’s all around. We were hot and tired and it was good to stand still for a few minutes.

Mara forced us to enter the costume contest at midnight which, of course, she won. Every guy in the place was hooting and hollering when it was her turn to strut across the stage. As she stopped in the center, familiar music started playing. She looked out at the crowd as though she had no idea what was about to happen. When I heard the tambourine, I knew the song. It was one of my mother’s favorites and she played it all the time. Mara grabbed the microphone from the emcee and started singing.

“You keep sayin’ you’ve got something for me.[
__]Something you call love, but confess.[
__]You’ve been a-messin’ where you shouldn’t have been a messin’[
__]and now someone else is gettin’ all your best.[
__]These boots are made for walkin’, and that’s just what they’ll do[
__]One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you…”

She was amazing, every bit as good as her brother. After the applause died and she claimed her prize, a club t-shirt, it was time to call it a night. Ty wanted me to ride home with him, but I was uncomfortable leaving Karen to ride home alone with Mara.

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Go. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

“Thanks, friend,” I mouthed and gave her a hug. “See you.”

Ty ran to get his car and came back to pick me up.

“I couldn’t wait to get you alone,” he confessed after making sure I was securely fastened in my seat. He pressed his lips to my forehead, keeping them in place for a long moment, tenderly cupping the side of my face with his left hand as he braced himself on the seat back over my shoulder with his right. I could feel his passion, even through this modest show of affection, as though it was being channeled through him to me, and my heart beat wildly inside of my chest. I wanted to kiss him but I did nothing, remaining stoically in place, trying to calm my heart with deep breaths. When he finally broke the bond, he let his face slide slowly down mine until we were cheek to cheek.

“I want to scoop you up in my arms and carry you far, far away,” he whispered softly into my ear.

“I think I’d like that,” I breathed.

I didn’t open my eyes when he pulled back and let his hand fall from my cheek. I knew he was staring at me, but I didn’t care. I was momentarily lost in a fantasy where I was floating above the earth, wrapped up in Ty’s arms, our island destination in sight. Even when I heard the door close and the engine started whirring, I chose to remain ensconced in my flight of fancy.

When the engine stopped, I opened my eyes, sadly understanding that the evening was coming to an end.

“Hey, sleepy head,” Ty said sweetly, mistaking my fantasizing for sleep.

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was imagining what you said.”

“What did I say?”

“That you wanted to scoop me up in your arms and carry me far, far away.”

“Oh…,” he said knowingly. “Don’t move.”

I obliged. He quickly made his way around to my door, opened it, unfastened my seat belt, and scooped me up in his arms. With his foot, he kicked the door shut, then proceeded to carry me into my house, up the stairs, into my bedroom, over to the bay window.

“If I could fit through the window while holding you, I would. Would you mind helping me out?” he asked, setting me gently on the cushion.

“Of course,” I grinned, crawling through the window after he opened it.

He followed with the blanket that was folded neatly at the bottom of my bed, along with my two pillows.

“It’s not far, far away, but since we have school in the morning, it will have to do for now,” he conceded, spreading the blanket out on the rooftop and arranging the pillows next to each other.

We laid down, side by side, our bodies touching, hands clasped tightly.

“It’s perfect, for now.”

CHAPTER 35

Movin’ On

“Holy crap!” I shrieked through marshmallow eyes as I was jolted upright by the realization that I had fallen asleep on the roof with Ty. The sun was just beginning to light up the morning sky.

“Good mornin’,” he smiled, looking as though he had already been up and showered.

“Oh, my gosh. This is not cool. My mother is going to kill me when she sees you.”

“I’m pretty sure I heard her leave about fifteen minutes ago. She must have had to go into work early. Do you want me to check?”

“No,” I stressed in a what-are-you-crazy tone. “You stay here. I’ll be right back.” I crawled through the window, over Axl, who must have been sleeping on the bay window’s cushion all night. He wasn’t a morning person either. He lifted his head slightly to acknowledge me, but then laid it back down, just wagging his tail slightly.

I crept down the stairs, careful not to wake anyone. I could smell the coffee that my mother had made and hoped she’d left some for me. The digital numbers on the coffee pot told me that it was 6:27AM. Under an empty mug, she had left me a note.

“Good Morning, Essie, I know you were out late last night so I didn’t want to wake you any earlier than necessary. Hope you had fun.  I left you one cup of coffee to start your day. Sorry I forgot to tell you that I had to go in early today. Please wake the kids up at 6:45 and help them get ready. Thanks, sweetie. Love, Mum.”

Thank goodness. I went back upstairs to let Ty know that the coast was clear.

“You were right. She left early. I can’t believe how lucky we are.”

“I loved sleeping with you, Essie.”

“You know, that’s the first night in I don’t know how long that I slept peacefully through the whole night. Thank you.”

“Any time,” he winked.

“Yeah, like that can ever happen again.”

“I’m going to figure out a way to climb up here silently every night and hold you in my arms all night long so that you can sleep peacefully.”

I smiled. “Thank you for coming to get me last night.”

“Thanks for letting me take you home.”

If there was ever a perfect time to say “I love you” this was it. But, as usual, the words remained stuck in my throat. Instead, I wrapped my arms around his waist and gave him a hug. He hugged me back and I wished that music was playing. I envisioned him singing “Love of a Lifetime” and started swaying. He swayed along with me, without saying a word.

All too soon, the song in my head ended. “You need to go so that I can wake the kids up,” I said softly without letting him go.

He backed up a bit and bent down to kiss my cheek. “I’ll be back to pick you up at the usual time.”

“See you.”

He left my room quietly and walked lightly down the staircase. After I heard the door latch click, I quickly tore off the costume that I had fallen asleep in and threw on my pj’s, then I went into each of my sibling’s bedrooms and woke them. They knew how to get themselves ready, they just needed a little prodding to keep them focused.

As promised, Ty returned to pick me up with a large coffee.

“You’re a life saver.”

“You’re easy to please.”

The school day dragged by. The only thing that got me through was thinking about the best Halloween ever with Karen and Mara and Nicole at The Jinx. And, of course, sleeping with Ty on my rooftop refuge. Saturday seemed like forever ago. Until I got home.

I don’t know how it happened, but I totally forgot about my tutoring session with Michael. I was lazing on the back porch, the book that I was supposed to be reading spread out across my lap, when he appeared before me.

“You startled me,” I croaked, my book falling to the floor.

“I’m sorry. You looked so peaceful. I was trying not to disturb you. Would you rather not tackle Statistics today?”

“I can’t do this, Michael,” I said, meaning the words more seriously than they sounded.

“Don’t worry about it. Skipping one week won’t hurt you. If you come across anything you can’t handle, you can always give me a call.”

“I don’t mean Statistics. I mean us.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“It’s too hard for me to spend time with you. You know how I feel, but you also know that I’m not going to break up with Ty. Being with you is just too…”

“Oh.”

“I’m so sorry, Michael. I don’t want to hurt you. I love you. It’s just that…” I gasped and covered my mouth.

“I love you, too. But you already knew that.”

“I can’t believe I just said that. I’m so sorry. It just came out.”

“You don’t ever have to apologize for that. I’m glad it slipped out.”

“I’m not. It only makes this harder.”

“Then don’t do it.”

“It’s too late. I’m already invested.”

“If you knew for certain that everything I’ve told you was true, would you spend your life with a demon?”

“Of course not. But I don’t know that.”

“Could he see the bracelet?”

“Oh, my gosh. The bracelet,” I noted, glancing at my empty wrist, missing the beautiful gift that Michael had made for me. “I took it off last night when I put on my Halloween costume and I guess I forgot to put it on this morning. I’m sorry. But, honestly, it wouldn’t matter anyway. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I’m choosing Ty. I can’t see you anymore.”

“What about the nursery?”

“If you’ll have her, I’m almost certain that Karen will take over my shifts.”

“Looks like you’ve thought this through.”

“I’m not sure about that. All I know is that there’s a war going on inside of me and I’m battle weary.”

“I understand. I’d better go then,” he hesitated, walking toward me with his arms opened.

I stepped into his arms and he embraced me tightly.

I lost it. “I’m so sorry, Michael. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Ssshhhh. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

He did his best to console me, but I was inconsolable.

“Eternal, you’re mine, so I’ll wait for you. Patiently. It’s okay,” he whispered. And he was gone.

I collapsed into my chair. I continued sobbing until my tear ducts were empty. My head was throbbing and there was no way I was getting any homework done.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I reprimanded aloud. I took a deep breath. I needed to get out of here. I needed Mara.

After lying down with an ice pack on my eyes for a few minutes, then washing my face, I was calm enough to call her.

“Hey, girl. What’s going on?” she answered cheerfully.

“Just wondering if you’re up for a ride to Savannah. I could use a break.”

“Give me twenty minutes.”

“Thanks, friend.”

True to her word, she pulled up exactly twenty minutes later in her shiny red Porsche. I felt better already.

“What’s the emergency?” she asked offhandedly, shifting into first gear.

“I took your advice. Sort of.”

“To which nugget of wisdom are you referring?”

“Remember when you told me that my relationship with Michael was putting a strain on my relationship with Ty?”

“I don’t remember saying that exactly, but…”

“Well, I just told Michael that I couldn’t see him anymore. He came over to tutor me in Statistics and I told him that being with him was messing me up with Ty. I also quit my job at the nursery. I told him that Karen would take my shifts.”

“It’s about time! This calls for a celebration and I know just the place.”

She sped down the highway and through the streets of Savannah until we arrived at Lulu’s.

“Perfect!” I declared.

Over countless cups of coffee and every chocolate confection they offered, I filled Mara in on everything I had previously kept from her, with regard to Michael, that is. It felt good to be completely honest with Ty’s twin. I had always felt it necessary to hold back, knowing how close they were, certain she’d feel obligated to share with her brother.

I was liberated. Freed from the pressure I had put on myself of trying to be something that I wasn’t. Michael and Mr. Joshua were doing their best to make me believe that I was a player in some angelic drama. Heck, why on earth would angels need me? From now on, I was Ty’s girlfriend. No more, no less. Free to live my life on my terms.

CHAPTER 36

Peace of Mind

When I walked through the front door after Mara dropped me off, Axl wasn’t the only one waiting for me.

“Do you know what time it is?” my mother asked rhetorically.

“I’m sorry, Mum. I should’ve called you. I was out with Mara and lost track of time. Please don’t be mad. I had a really bad day and I just needed some time away.”

“Anything you want to talk about?”

“Not any more. I’m over it. Thanks, though.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie. Please don’t do that to me again. You’re usually so responsible; I was nervous. It only takes a second to call.”

“You’re right, Mum. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Listen, I’m really tired now so I’m going to go to bed, okay?” I lied in an attempt to extricate myself from the conversation.

“Sure, sweetie. I love you. Sleep well.”

I had spent much of the day recalling how nice it was waking up in Ty’s arms, wishing we could do that every night. My last memory of the evening was lying next to him, holding hands. I must have turned on my side at some point during the night and he was sweet enough to let me use him as a body pillow. Yet, as great as it was, I hadn’t seriously considered his promise to routinely scale the support posts that led to my roof, so I was startled when I opened my bedroom door and found him sitting on my window seat.

“Hey,” I said calmly, not letting on.

“Hey, you,” he grinned, patting the cushion beside him.

Amenably, I sat down and leaned into him, resting my head on his shoulder.

“Did you have a good time with Mara?”

“I did. Now it looks like I’m going to have a good time with her brother,” I teased. “You know, with all the chocolate and coffee that I consumed, I’m not sure I can go to sleep any time soon. Let’s go out on the roof again.”

The pillows and blanket were where we left them in our haste to get Ty out of the house unnoticed. I was too wired to lie down so I sat on my pillow instead and waited for Ty to situate himself.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to talk about. I was in such a good mood and I didn’t want to upset myself by talking about Michael. It’s not that I wanted to keep it from Ty, quite the contrary, since I knew how happy my not seeing Michael anymore would make him. But this moment held too much promise to ruin it with a story that could wait or, better yet, be told by Mara.

The night sky was clear and there was no light pollution in the area to mar our view. I looked up. The crescent moon was barely visible but Venus was shining brightly to its left. I fell back on my pillow, my hands clasped behind my head.

“Star gazing?”

“Mmm hmm. I love to imagine the number of possible solar systems in our galaxy and what life might look like on one of the exoplanets.”

“Come up with anything interesting?”

“I’m hoping for a planet of unicorns with a rainbow atmosphere.”

“I don’t think that’s asking too much,” he chuckled, positioning himself on his side, then leaning over to kiss my cheek.

He lingered there while I continued to stare into space. But when he ran his lips gently over my ear, I let out an involuntary squeak.

“I’m sorry. Am I distracting you? Do you want me to stop?” he murmured softly in my ear.

“You’re not distracting me,” I lied, suddenly feeling flush.

“Good. Then you just keep on star gazing and I’ll keep on not distracting you,” he whispered.

“O-kay,” I gulped.

His left hand slid across my waist, finding my right hand and clutching it tightly. He was now pressed so snugly against my side that I don’t think an ant could have found a space to crawl through. He ran his full lips over my jaw line, stopping at my chin, where he used his perfect teeth to playfully bite me. I went from flushed to full-on flames when his mouth found its way to mine. I was more than ready for his kiss, but it wasn’t offered; instead, he opened his eyes, his lips parted, hovering ever so close to mine.

“I love you, Essie Claire,” he purred, crumpling next to me, keeping hold of my hand when it was pulled on to my abdomen.

The afternoon’s drama with Michael came flooding back into my head as I was reminded how effortlessly those three simple words had fallen out of my mouth; yet, somehow, I was still unable to force them out in response to Ty’s declaration.

I tilted my head toward his and squeezed his hand, hoping the gestures would convey my feelings.

True to form, he let it go, and I breathed an internal sigh of relief.

“Is everything okay?” he asked knowingly, despite the fact that he couldn’t read my mind.

“How could everything not be okay when I’m with you?” I answered evasively, moving my head to his chest in order to avoid eye contact. “Hey,” I added. “Let’s set an alarm to wake us up before my mother gets up. How about 5:30?”

With the hand that had been holding mine, he got his phone from his pocket and set the alarm. “All set. Are you ready to fall asleep yet?”

“I think so. Although a serenade might hasten the process.”

“A serenade, huh?”

“Mmm hmm.”

He began to play with my hair which was draped across his chest.

[“Angel eyes
You have angel eyes
And a smile that lights up my life
You’re a dream come true
Now I’m holding you
And I’ll never, never let you go
I will never let you go]

[First time I laid my eyes upon you
All my dreams were answered
First time I kissed your tender lips
My love to you I surrendered]

[I’ll never let you go
You’re always on my mind
You’re the only one for me
You’re all I need
And I’ll never, never let you go]

[Angel eyes
My heart relies
On the love you give to me
You never let me down
You’re always by my side
And I’ll never, never let you go
I will never let you go]

[When my heart starts to crumble
And the tears start to fall
You hold me close with tender lovin’
And give me strength to carry on]

[I’ll never let you go
You’re always on my mind
You’re the only one for me
You’re all I need
And I’ll never, never let you go”]

It would have been impossible for me to feel more sedate than I did at that moment. His low, slightly raspy voice was in stark contrast to the original version of that song. But it was amazing. He was amazing. I drifted off as he hummed softly and played with my hair.

CHAPTER 37

Don’t Look Back

I awoke to “Love of a Lifetime”, Ty’s ringtone for me, once again cradled in his strong arms, having slept comfortably through another night. After a long hug and his assurance to return with coffee at the usual time, Ty shimmied effortlessly down the corner column, balanced momentarily on the top of the railing, then jumped silently to the ground. I hadn’t thought to ask him where he had left his car.

Thankfully, during my first class of the day, Brit Lit, Mr. Joshua decided to play a movie. He said nothing as I moved my chair alongside Karen’s and we proceeded to whisper back and forth the whole time. She agreed to take my shifts at the nursery but made me promise to fill her in on all the details after school.

“What did you think of the movie, Esther?” Mr. Joshua called to me as I tried to sneak out of the classroom after the bell rang.

I cringed and turned to face him. “Sorry, Mr. Joshua. I had something really important to talk to Karen about. I’ll try to find it on Netflix.”

“Don’t worry about it. It won’t come up on any future tests. Is everything okay?”

“I told Michael that I won’t be able to work at the nursery anymore and I asked Karen if she’d take over my shifts.”

“I see.”

“Please don’t make me feel worse than I already do. It’s just that there’s so much conflict between Ty and Michael and it doesn’t seem right to keep spending time with Michael, knowing how he feels about me and how I feel about him. You understand, right?”

“Of course, Esther. You’ve chosen Ty. For now.”

I shook my head. “I’ve got to get to my next class. See you tomorrow.”

“I’m always here if you need to talk. Don’t forget that.”

“Thanks.”

Ty was waiting for me in the hallway. “What was that all about?”

“Nothing, really. He just wanted to know why Karen and I were whispering during the movie instead of watching it.” I still wasn’t ready to tell him that I had quit the nursery.

“Hey, I have a favor to ask,” I announced, quickly changing the subject.

“Anything for you.”

I smiled, believing that to be true. “Jennie likes Jace but, apparently, he doesn’t know she’s alive and she’s literally losing sleep over it. Do you think there’s anything you can do about that?”

“As you wish,” he grinned with a wink. “Just let me know when.”

“I’m pretty sure it’ll be at lunch today. I told her to come to our table when she’s ready and I’d make the introduction. She told me before school this morning that she thought she could do it today. She’s really nervous.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks. I’ll owe you.”

“Ooh, I like the sound of that.”

“It was a figure of speech. Don’t get your hopes up.”

We walked hand in hand to World History and took our usual seats next to each other in the front row. Initially, Ty had resisted sitting there, but caved after I put on my best pouty face. I didn’t normally like to resort to such tactics, but I needed to sit in the front in order to minimize distractions. Even in an AP classroom, there were always plenty of distractions.

The teacher droned on about Imperialism and I was having a hard time staying awake, preferring, instead, to think about the past two nights. Rather than paying attention, I chose to daydream about Thanksgiving break when we would return to Sea Island and I could spend every night nestled in Ty’s arms without the fear of getting caught.

I had a test in French, which I knew I aced, and was the first one out the door when the bell rang. I met up with Ty in the corridor and we headed for the cafeteria. Halfway through this day. I had been feeling restless as of late and needed a pause from the banality of everyday life.

“What’s on your mind, Essie Claire?”

“Nothing, really. Just thinking about how much I need a breather.”

“From…?”

“From the day-to-day drudgery of school, homework, chores, etcetera.”

“Have you forgotten that your birthday will be here after three more days?”

“I haven’t forgotten. It’s just that my nights seem to go by all too quickly nowadays while the days flow as slowly as molasses in January.”

“Said the Yankee,” he teased, giving me a quick peck on the cheek. “I know what will help. Let’s blow off the rest of the day and go to Savannah.”

“I wish. I don’t know about you, but I can’t miss Biology. We have that test on Friday and we’re going over everything this week.”

“Let me take care of that. Come on.”

We walked quickly to our Biology classroom. The second bell hadn’t rung so Ty opened the door and we walked in together.

“Hi, Mrs. Carroll,” Ty said genially, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Essie and I have to leave now and I was certain you wouldn’t mind emailing us your notes from class today.”

“Of course, Tyrus. Will you be back tomorrow?”

“Yes. And one more thing. Be sure to mark us as present, okay?”

“Of course, Tyrus,” she repeated compliantly.

“Anything else?” he asked me smugly after we were back in the hall.

“That was awesome. I don’t need notes on any of my other subjects, but can we stop by the rest of my classes and tell my teachers to mark me present?”

“As you wish.”

We sped out of South Effingham High School’s parking lot, hair metal blaring through the Ferrari’s speakers. Our first stop was the shop on River Street that sold my favorite ice cream. Although we hadn’t eaten lunch, Ty said that it was an emergency and drastic measures were needed. We brought our ice creams back to the car to eat them “on the way”, although he wouldn’t tell me where “on the way” was.

I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at a beach front restaurant on Tybee Island. Understanding how the beach calmed me, Ty asked for a table on the deck to which, of course, the hostess was only too happy to show us. It was a beautiful day, but the place wasn’t crowded at all, probably due to the fact that it was a Tuesday in November. Ty ordered for both of us, as usual, always seeming to know what I wanted. Today it was fish tacos with grilled pineapple kabobs for an appetizer.

“Thanks again for taking care of things at school. You were right. This really helped,” I smiled contentedly.

“I’m glad you’re finally starting to take advantage of my abilities.”

“When you say it that way,” I grimaced, “it doesn’t portray me in the best light. I don’t ever want to take advantage of you. Or Mara.”

“Now, you know that I didn’t mean it that way.”

I turned my head to look at the ocean.

“Essie Claire,” he said in a stern voice, waiting for me to look at him. When I relented, he took both my hands in his. “I wish more than anything that you had abilities, too. I want you to want me to use my abilities to benefit the both of us. Ever since that Sunday night in Savannah, I’ve never been happier. I don’t have to hide who I really am when I’m with you. Besides, what good is it to have cool abilities if we don’t use them to have days like this?”

For a split second, I thought of Michael. He didn’t use his abilities for fun; he needed a reason. Heck, we’re only young once. This is the time when we’re supposed to be carefree and maybe even a little reckless from time to time. Technically, we weren’t doing anything wrong and we certainly weren’t hurting anyone.

“You’re right,” I concluded, smiling broadly. “Let’s go for a walk on the beach.”

“That’s my girl,” he beamed, seemingly pleased with my approval.

  

Barely having made it through the door, Jennie ambushed me before I reached the staircase.

“Where were you today?” she demanded. Before I could respond, she accused, “You skipped school, didn’t you? I’m telling Mum. You were supposed to introduce me to Jace at lunch, but, instead, I looked like an idiot looking all over for you and asking everyone if they had seen you.”

“Calm down, will you? Take a breath.”

“You’re not going to talk your way out of this, Essie. I’m telling Mum that you skipped school. You’re gonna be in trouble.”

“Come up to my room with me. Please?”

“Why should I?”

“I want to talk to you, Jen. I’m sorry about today. Just give me a chance to explain, okay?”

“Fine. And it better be good,” she huffed. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’m getting dinner ready.”

“Okay,” I yelled behind me as I sprinted up the stairs to my room.

“I need you to come back right away,” I ordered without bothering to say hello after Ty answered his phone.

“Miss me already?”

“Yes, but that’s not the reason. Have you turned around yet?”

“Just doing that now,” he said slowly, his words spoken concurrently with his u-turn. “What’s going on?”

“Jennie’s giving me a hard time about skipping school today. She’s angry because I wasn’t around to introduce her to Jace and she’s threatening to tell my mother.”

“So? Would you be in that much trouble if she found out?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to give her any reason to not trust me or to be less lenient. You know she thinks we spend too much time together. This could be just the excuse she needs to put a limit on it. Besides, there the matter of being marked present in all my classes. If she called the school, that could open a big can of worms.”

“Well, why do you need me there? Do you want me to try to talk to Jennie? I mean, do you really think she’ll listen to me?”

“I was thinking that you could may-be,” I stretched out the word for added emphasis, “do a little more than just talk…”

“Essie Claire, do you want me to push your sister?”

“I think so. I don’t know. Yes. I just don’t want her to ruin everything. I feel awful even suggesting it, but she’s leaving me no choice, really. Do you think I’m terrible?” I said in one breath.

He laughed. “Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way,” he said in his best James Earl Jones impersonation.

“Oh, my gosh. You’re right. What was I thinking? I can’t do that to my sister. That would be so wrong of me. I’m sorry for bringing you into this. It’s fine. Really. My mother will underst…”

I heard the doorbell. “You’re here,” I said flatly, running back down the stairs to get to the door before any of my siblings.

“I was only teasing you, Essie Claire. There’s nothing wrong with a little push,” he whispered reassuringly, holding my chin between his thumb and finger, after I let him in. “We just talked about using my abilities more this afternoon. I thought you were okay with it.”

“I am. It’s just… well… this is my sister we’re talking about. It’s like I’m crossing an imaginary line and I’m not sure how I feel about it.”

“It’ll be fine. Stop worrying about it.”

“Ty,” the kids squealed in unison as they came running into the family room, interrupting our conversation.

“Are you gonna eat dinner with us, Ty?”

“Not tonight. I just ate a little while ago. Maybe another time, okay?”

“Okay, Ty,” they sang happily as they clung to his legs.

“All right, you guys. You need to wash up for dinner. I think it’s just about ready,” I judged from the aroma wafting in from the kitchen.

“What is he doing here?” Jennie asked in a snarky tone, appearing suddenly in the family room. “I thought you and I were going to talk.”

“Hi, Jennie,” Ty said calmly, walking toward her, waiting for her to make eye contact. When she did, he continued, “It was good to see you at lunch today. You should sit with us more often. I’m sorry Jace was absent but I can’t wait to introduce you to him when he’s back in school. I’m sure you two will hit it off; you have a lot in common.”

Jennie nodded.

“I’ll let you get back to fixing dinner now, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” she smiled.

He took my hand and led me out of the kitchen.

“Oh, Ty,” I sighed, feeling guilty and happy at the same time.

“Problem solved. That’s all that matters.”

“I know you’re right. It’s harmless to her and helpful to me. Win-win.” I forced a smile.

“Exactly.”

“Thanks. Well, I’d better get started on my homework.”

“Yes, you’d better. See you later,” he winked, as he left me alone, standing at the bottom of the stairs.

CHAPTER 38

Here I Go Again

I opened my laptop and checked my email for the notes from Mrs. Carroll. There they were, as promised. I plodded through page after page. She was certainly thorough.

My thoughts kept jumping from the Biology that I was supposed to be studying to seeing Ty push my sister. Sure, I had seen him do it to strangers, kids at school, even Karen, before we became close. But this time felt different. Harmless to her, helpful to me. My own words rang in my ears, persecuting me. Wasn’t I being the same brat I had accused Ty of being when he first revealed his secret to me? Doing what was necessary to get my way?

You’re being overly dramatic, Essie, I admonished myself. Harmless to her, helpful to me. This time I thought it with a smile and it made all the difference. Win-win. Smile. And, hey, Ty was going to use his ability to get her and Jace together. Surely, if she knew, she wouldn’t object. Harmless and helpful. Smile. I felt better.

The evening wore on and I gave no more thought to “pushing”, choosing to concentrate instead on getting through my homework. When I had finished, I put on my violin music and started to straighten up my room. I had been so busy the past several days and nights that things were starting to get out of hand. I was neat and organized by nature and couldn’t relax when my stuff was strewn everywhere. Plus, I didn’t want Ty to think I was a slob. They had a maid at his house and nothing was ever out of place. I opened a drawer to put a pencil away and saw the bracelet that Michael had given me. I remembered taking it off Sunday night before putting on my costume.

I took it out now and stared at it for a long moment, wistfully recalling the amazing day we had spent together a mere three days ago. Between the airport with Karen, Halloween, and two nights in a row on my rooftop with Ty, it seemed so much further away.

I hadn’t tested the bracelet’s invisibility with Ty, unsure of its actual power. The last thing I needed was for him to see me wearing a gift from Michael Powers. Things were perfect between us now and I didn’t want to make waves.

I got Michael’s UGA t-shirt from the closet and wrapped the bracelet up in it, deciding to put both items under my mattress. I knew Michael wouldn’t take them back and I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing them away. I carefully shoved them all the way to the middle, not wanting them to accidentally fall out at some inopportune moment.

When my room was in order, I surveyed it approvingly, then fell back on my bed. Real or imagined, I was unsure, but I was certain I could feel the t-shirt and bracelet through the thick mattress with the added pillowtop. I squirmed around for a bit, trying to get comfortable, feeling like the princess and the pea. Axl jumped up on the bed, walked around in a circle several times, then plopped himself down right next to me. I began to pet his soft fur, then closed my eyes and listened intently to the soft cries of the violin.

I found myself in the English garden, lying on my back next to Michael, identifying shapes in the clouds as we discussed angelic things. He laughed exuberantly as I tried to make him see that the puffy cloud directly overhead was most definitely an elephant.

“Look. There’s his trunk,” I pointed, “and there are his four fat legs.”

“Whatever you say,” he allowed, pecking my cheek.

“I love hanging out with you,” I said playfully.

His face suddenly turned serious. “I love you, Essie.”

“I love you back, Michael.”

He wrapped me up in his arms and pressed his lips to my forehead, leaving them in place for a long moment. Then he lowered his chin so that we were staring into each other’s eyes. He softly caressed my cheek with the backs of his fingers, not looking away.

I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Ty sitting on the edge of my bed, the backs of his fingers softly caressing my cheek.

I gasped and sprang up. “Oh, my gosh. You just scared the crap out of me.”

“I’m sorry. You looked so peaceful and you started smiling when I touched your cheek. What were you dreaming about?”

“I don’t remember,” I lied. And then, “I’m so glad you’re here,” changing the subject and my tone. “What time is it?” I yawned.

“Just after midnight.” He scooted closer to me, forcing me to move to the middle of my bed to make room for him. “You’re obviously tired. Why don’t you lie back down,” he suggested slyly, putting his hands on my waist, trying to pull me toward him, “and I’ll help you drift off to sleep again.”

I felt dirty. I didn’t assist him in his attempt to draw me closer. I was dead weight and he could only manage to get me to lean slightly. Even though it was just a dream, I couldn’t escape the image of me staring into Michael’s eyes and telling him I loved him only two minutes earlier. And now Ty was in my bed. Yuck.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, picking up on my body language.

“Nothing,” I lied again with a forced half-smile. “I’m just not really comfortable with you in my bed. I mean, if my mother ever came in, she’d kill me. Somehow, the roof seems more innocent. Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” he joked. “Come on. The roof it is.”

“I need a minute, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course. I’ll get everything,” he assured me as he gathered up my pillows.

“Be right back,” I whispered as I opened my door, then closed it quietly.

I went to the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet seat, head in hands, and wept silently. It was just a stupid dream, I told myself. I got up and went to the sink, turning on the cold water. I pulled my hair back with a scrunchie as I waited for it to get as cold as it was going to get. I brought my head down to the faucet and splashed the running water on my face several times. After toweling off, I stared at myself in the mirror.

“You love Ty,” I scowled, ripping the scrunchie from my hair.

I marched back into my bedroom and found Axl sitting patiently by the open window.

“Good boy,” I smiled and scratched his neck. He followed me as I climbed out the window to join Ty on the roof. He had arranged the blanket and pillows and was reclining on his elbows, legs outstretched, waiting patiently as well.

I situated myself in front of him and relaxed against his chest. This was definitely the position I preferred. He could fold his arms around me and nuzzle into my neck, which I loved, while, at the same time, I could avoid his eyes. Those eyes that looked through me, understanding the unsaid. I needed to avoid those eyes right now, until I could put Michael Powers out of my mind.

He did just what I hoped, as if on cue, squeezing me tenderly, nibbling on my neck and right ear. Every thought in my head vanished as I began to melt like caramel in a fondue pot. When I was sufficiently melted, he slid his hands from my waist, over the sides of my torso, past my shoulders, and up into my hair, delicately taking fistfuls into his hands, then releasing them, over and over, gently tugging my head backwards. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I turned around to face him, kissing him passionately. Thankfully, Axl decided he wanted in on the action and just about knocked us over before things got out of hand.

“Wow,” I breathed heavily, moving quickly so that I was now sitting beside him. “So much for drifting off to sleep.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Me, too. Sorry.”

“Come here,” he insisted, wrangling me into position alongside him, guiding my head to his chest. As he ran his fingers through my hair, I drifted off.

CHAPTER 39

We Gotta Get Out of this Place

Tick. Tick. Tick. The second hand on the clock behind Mr. Joshua, which I was positive was moving in deliberate slow motion, taunted me relentlessly as I did my best to focus. We were discussing “Possession: A Romance” by A.S. Byatt but I was unable to answer even the simplest of questions. I had read the book. I had liked the book. At the moment, however, my mind was too preoccupied with Ty and Michael to concentrate. I struggled through the entire class to expel them from my brain and replace them with Roland and Maud, to no avail.

Of course, Mr. Joshua read my distress and called out to me before Karen had a chance to grab me after first bell.

“Hey, Mr. Joshua,” I grimaced.

“That’s two days in a row, Miss Jacobs. What’s going on with you? I’m sure you read the book. It’s unlike you not to participate.”

“Miss Jacobs? Why are you being so formal?” I asked in a lame attempt to avoid his question.

“Esther. What’s up?”

“It’s Essie. I just have a lot on my mind. I’m sorry. I’ll do better tomorrow. Can I go now?”

He studied me for a long moment then raised his left arm in the direction of the door, giving implicit permission to leave. I practically ran out of the classroom.

Karen and Ty were just outside the door.

“Are you in trouble?” Karen asked nervously.

“Do you need me to talk to him?” Ty asked audaciously.

“Y’all, stop. Wow! Did I just say that? You’re a bad influence on me,” I laughed.

“You’ll be a southern belle before you know it,” Ty teased.

“I do declayah, Ty Gregory, don’t you look dashing!” I quipped in my best Scarlett O’Hara imitation.

He grinned widely. Karen shook her head. “Even to me, that sounds like it needs a lot of work. A lot. You gonna be around at lunch today?”

“Yeah, sorry about yesterday. We took off at lunch and went to Tybee.”

“Nice.”

“It was. I needed a break. Still do, but I’ll be around. See you then,” I waved as she went left and Ty and I went right.

During the lunch break, Ty made good on his promise to introduce Jennie to Jace. “Jace,” he said in a low voice as soon as he saw Jennie approaching our table, “I know you’ve seen Essie’s sister, Jennie, around. You’ve been dying to meet her. She’s really cute and you two have so much in common. You should ask her out today.”

“She is really cute,” Jace repeated, staring in her direction. “Introduce me.”

“If you insist.”

Jennie weaved her way through the crowd, her eyes nervously fixed on me. When she made it, I casually said, “Hi, Jennie. What’s up?”

Remembering one of my suggestions, she answered, “I thought I had enough money for lunch, but I don’t. Do you have any I can borrow?”

“Sure.” I started digging around in my purse and Ty took the opportunity to make the introduction.

“Jennie, I don’t think you’ve ever met my good friend, Jace.”

Jace stood and waited for Ty to continue, a goofy grin plastered on his face.

“Jennie Jacobs, this is Jace Robinson. Jace Robinson, Jennie Jacobs.”

“I’ve been dying to meet you, Jennie. Would you like to go out with me sometime?”

“Um, sure,” she said hesitantly, looking at me, bewildered.

He reached into his pocket and took out his phone, saying, “What’s your number? I’ll call you later.”

She gave him her number and he stored it in his phone. “I’d better get going. Thanks for the money, Essie.” Turning to Jace, she said shyly, “It was nice to meet you, Jace.”

“My pleasure, Jennie. Talk to you later,” he said enthusiastically.

She shot me a look that screamed, “Oh, my gosh!”, but she said nothing, and my sister turned to leave. I hoped that this would be the beginning of a mended relationship between us. With everything that was going on, I didn’t need friction at home.

The rest of the day passed without incident, but I still felt like I needed some away time. With my birthday coming up in just a couple of days, I knew the weekend would be busy. The nights with Ty had afforded me some much needed sleep, but I needed some girl time.

After final bell, I met Ty at my locker. “Would you be upset if I spent the night with Karen? I mean, the last three nights have been absolutely wonderful, but I could really use some girl time. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”

“Thanks. I didn’t say anything to her yet, but I’ll give her a call when I get home. I’m sure she’ll want to get together. By the way, did Mara tell you that I told Karen about the angel stuff? I figured she would, but you haven’t said anything.”

“She told me,” he sighed.

“You’re angry.”

“I’m not angry. I’m disappointed that you did it after I told you not to, but I understand that you need a friend to share this with. I don’t know what I would’ve done without Mara.”

“Thanks, I think.”

He brought me straight home ― there was no time for Black Creek today ― so that I could get my homework done. I gave him a quick kiss, told him I’d see him at school in the morning, and jumped out of the car before he had a chance to get out and escort me up the stairs, as was customary.

As soon as I got to the back porch, I called Karen.

“Want to spend the night in Eden, Arizona?” I asked as soon as she picked up.

“Um, okay.”

“Do you have a sleeping bag?”

“I think so.”

“Okay. Grab that and any food or drinks you want for the night. I’ll be over in an hour.”

“I’ll be ready.”

I loved that she didn’t ask even one question. She was always ready for an adventure. I did only the homework that was absolutely necessary and then packed a bag. I found a sleeping bag and a tent in the garage and I threw everything into the trunk of my car. I ran back into the house to leave a note for Mum and the kids, explaining that I was spending the night with Karen to cram for an upcoming exam.

Karen was waiting on the porch for me when I pulled in to her driveway. She looked excited.

“I’m afraid to ask…” was the first thing she said after tossing her stuff in the back seat and closing the passenger side door.

“You won’t believe it until you see it anyway,” I assured her.

It only took two country songs to get to the library. When I pulled around to the back, not wanting to raise suspicion over my vehicle being left there overnight, Karen stopped singing long enough to ask, “Are you checking out a book for the trip?”

“We’re here,” I announced, turning off the engine and popping the trunk.

“Are we taking a trip using our imagination?”

“Haha. Grab your stuff.”

The library was still open, but we couldn’t very well trek through with our gear, so I used the key that Miss Ginny had given me to open the door to the Historical Society’s private entrance on the end of the building. Her office was empty; she must have left for the day. That was probably for the best. I didn’t want to waste any time making small talk.

I made a beeline for the bookcase and opened it just as Miss Ginny had done the last time I was here. While I had included the Kodesh in the information I had shared with Karen on Saturday night, I guess it got lost in the whole angel narrative, because her eyes were wide with surprise.

“Come on,” I urged, as I felt around for the light switch on the wall. Once I turned on the light, Karen joined me and we dropped our things on the floor.

“This is the War Room,” I told her, shutting the door tightly behind us. “I can explain the meaning of everything, if you’d like, or we can continue on.”

“I’ve had enough of school today; let’s get to the fun stuff.”

“Okay. We have to move the table and chairs out of the way first. And the rug, too.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

We made short work of the task at hand. Then I retrieved the Star of David from the retro star clock and placed it in the grooves of the disc in the floor. It opened, after going through its movements, and I picked up my gear. Karen followed.

After winding our way down the staircase, I stated formally, “This is the Kodesh.”

“Is this Arizona?”

“Not yet. We’re almost there. This way,” I laughed, leading her through the cavern. “If you have any immediate questions, just ask. Otherwise, we’ll have all night to talk.”

“I’m good.”

When we arrived at the portal, I opened the door. “I know this looks like nothing but darkness in here, but trust me.”

Karen was a good sport and stepped over the threshold with me, into the Seam. Before I closed the portal door, I warned her, “This is going to make your insides all jumbled, so hold on to me. But don’t worry, it only last a few seconds.”

“Whatever you say,” she said trustingly.

I closed the door and said “Arizona” out loud for Karen’s benefit. Since it was my third time, the internal tumult was minimal.

“Holy crap, Essie,” Karen yelled.

I gripped her arm securely and gave her a few seconds before I asked, “Are you okay?”

“I think so. What the heck was that?”

I found the door handle in the darkness and pushed it open.

“That, my friend, was teleportation à la the derekhs; one of the perks of being chosen,” I smiled boastfully. “And don’t worry about the turbulence. It diminishes every time you use the portal. And I intend for us to use it a lot.”

“So we’re really in Arizona?”

“Amazing, huh? Hot springs, here we come,” I shouted, as I grabbed Karen’s arm and sprinted through the Kodesh.

When I opened the disc, I was surprised to find that the Guardian hadn’t been by to rearrange the furniture, since we had been unable to put it back in its proper place. Better for us, I thought. We entered the former church and navigated through the debris that covered the floor of the crumbling structure.

Once outside, Karen finally acknowledged that we had, in reality, been transported from Eden, Georgia to Eden, Arizona. It was the middle of the afternoon here, since we were now in the Mountain Time Zone, and the sun was still high in the sky. I pointed out some of the ruins as we made our way through the ghost town to the hot springs.

We chose to make camp right next to a water hole that was in the shape of a guitar, decorated with many beautiful colored stones, which had a wooden sign that designated it as the “Source Well”. Close by was a bonfire circle where we’d be able to make a fire over which we could roast the marshmallows that I brought to make smores.

It took us a while to figure out how to put the tent together correctly and by the time we were finished, we were hot and sweaty. The Source Well was pretty warm, so we agreed to explore the other springs to find one that was just right. We stumbled upon a mud bath and decided to give it a try before relaxing in one of the springs.

Never having had the opportunity to be covered in mud before now, Karen and I had too much fun slathering ourselves in the warm, creamy balm, occasionally throwing some at each other. The only bare spots on our entire bodies were our eyes and our mouths. I wished I had thought to put my phone in a baggie so that we could take pictures of ourselves looking like the last surviving golems on a desert planet.

It didn’t take long before we started feeling tight and crunchy, so we walked like zombies to the closest spring. Dipping our toes in, the water temperature felt perfect. Bits of cracked earth fell from our bodies as we bent down to sit on the edge. We reposed there for a while, silently taking in our surroundings.

“I’m getting in before my face shatters,” Karen said in a small voice, her mouth barely moving.

“Good idea.”

As I slid slowly into the spring, I was glad that I had thought to come here with Karen. We’d only been here less than a couple of hours and my spirit already felt refreshed. Weeks and weeks of restless nights due to supernatural overload had left my tank empty, although I hadn’t realized how low it was until now.

We floated lazily around the spring for close to an hour and I answered all of Karen’s questions regarding the War Room, the Kodesh and the derekhs. We agreed to start googling some of the other Edens so we could plan our next adventure.

We noticed we were starting to prune, and starting to get hungry, so we left the tranquility of the hot spring to rustle up some dinner. Drying off, I felt silky soft and rejuvenated. We combed the area looking for tinder and sticks to start a fire. When we had gathered enough, I recalled how Michael had built his fire that Saturday night that now seemed like forever ago, and followed his method, step-by-step. Once we had the fire going, we changed into dry clothes and collected our food items from the tent, dropping them on one of the sleeping bags that we had spread out by the bonfire circle.

We feasted on a dinner of Lunchables and fruit snacks, washed down with a few juice boxes, and remarked at how amazing this all was. When the sun had set, we donned our hoodies, put some larger logs on the fire, and assembled everything we’d need to make smores.

The smell of wood burning was one of my most favorite aromas; combine that with roasted marshmallows and melting chocolate and I was in heaven. We savored our smores as we gazed at all the bright stars in the black cloudless sky.

“Are you scared?” Karen asked in a concerned voice.

I knew she was referring to the final battle. “I try not to think about it too much. I mean, it is what it is, right?”

“You know I’ll do anything I can to help you.”

“Thanks, Karen. I know you will.” After a brief pause, I changed the subject. “You know, I was thinking… maybe you and Colton? He’s such a sweet guy. Have you ever considered him as boyfriend material?”

“That came outta left field!”

“Well?”

“I don’t know. He is very sweet. And adorable. Like a giant teddy bear.”

“Haha. That’s exactly what I thought when I first met him.”

“What ever made you think of that?”

“Just thinking about a double date.”

“I doubt Colton can afford the places Ty takes you.”

“Hey, he takes me to the Waffle House.”

“True,” she laughed.

“Think about it, okay? You know Ty can make it happen. Actually, he can make it happen with anyone you want.”

“I hadn’t considered that, but I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks for looking out for me.”

“You’re my only friend. I have nothing better to do than obsess over your love life,” I joked.

“Great,” she groaned.

We enjoyed the fire for a little while longer, but then decided it was time to move into our sleeping bags in the tent, since the temperature had dropped to 65°. We picked up our food containers and stuffed them into one of the empty grocery bags, shook out the sleeping bag we had been sitting on, and turned in for the night.

I’m not sure if it was the mystical healing powers of the hot springs or the fact that I hadn’t had an evening free from family, boyfriend, homework, or internet in months, but I slept like the dead all night long. If I did dream, I had no recollection of it upon waking to my phone’s alarm which I had set for 5:00 am, two hours behind Eden, Georgia. After washing our faces and brushing our teeth in the spring, we quickly packed up all our gear, threw some water on the last of the embers, and walked swiftly back to the church, having to enlist the help of the flashlight apps on our phones to light the way, since it was still dark.

Doing everything in reverse, we found ourselves back at my car at 7:45, feeling a little blue as we faced another long, boring day at South Effingham High School. We had just enough time to stop by the coffee shop before first period. Thankfully, Mr. Joshua didn’t mind us bringing coffee into his classroom.

Having just beat the second bell, I didn’t see Ty until after Brit Lit. Karen and I had settled on a story which had us grabbing fast food in Pooler, followed by coffee and dessert at our favorite local coffee shop. Back at her house, we studied for a while, then watched “Mean Girls”, a movie both of us had seen multiple times. Hopefully, he wouldn’t press for details. Despite how easily I did it, I really didn’t like lying to Ty, but I did it because I was following Mr. Joshua’s advice to keep the Kodesh and the Ataroth secret. I’m not exactly sure why I still felt I should do that; it was just a nagging feeling that I couldn’t seem to override.

He was leaning against the wall directly across from the door of Room 116. His arms were folded over his chest and he didn’t smile when he saw me.

Oh, crap, I thought. I swallowed hard. “Hey,” I sang, forcing my face and voice to belie my nervousness.

He looked at me intently, but said nothing.

I walked right up to him, feeling certain he had checked up on me at Karen’s, unsure how to proceed. “What’s wrong?” I asked innocently.

“You want to know what’s wrong?” He paused for several beats of my pounding heart, then grabbed me and pulled me to him tightly. “I missed you,” he breathed in my ear.

The school had a “NO PDA” rule that they tried hard to enforce, but I didn’t care about that at the moment, as Ty brought his lips to my mouth and kissed me. I could hear students whispering and felt their stares bore into my back, but I just didn’t care. We kissed until the first bell rang for World History.

“Wow,” I panted. “I think I’ll stay with Karen more often.”

He didn’t say anything, but he picked me up in his arms and spun around in the now deserted hallway. He held my hand tightly as we walked to class and kissed my cheek sweetly before we walked through the door.

CHAPTER 40

Wild Night

Mara insisted on taking me shopping on November fifth, the day before I would turn seventeen. My birthday just so happened to be on a Saturday this year and now my weekends were free. As soon as school let out on Friday afternoon, we hopped in her car and drove to Savannah where she was determined to find the perfect party ensemble for Saturday night’s festivities.

So much had changed since the first time we’d been shopping. I no longer felt awkward when Mara used her money for our purchases. I had become part of the family and she was closer to me than my own sisters.

I still didn’t care about fashion the way she wished I would, but that gave her free reign to dress me. She knew that I wouldn’t wear anything too fancy or frilly and chose accordingly. I ended up with a beautiful sand-colored dress made of soft taffeta with a criss-cross top, sweetheart neck and spaghetti straps over an empire waist with a thick cocoa brown band that Mara said matched my eyes perfectly. The hemline was a couple of inches above the knee. She chose some brown leather strappy sandals with four inch heels as well as a double wrap leather bracelet with pave glass bead closures; she said the leather bracelet would allow me to wear the shell necklace that Ty had given me at the beach, since I never took it off. Mara relished the task of dressing me and explaining the couture. All I heard was blah, blah, blah, but I had to admit that my outfit was amazing. I could hardly wait to wear it.

After a whole afternoon of intense shopping, Mara wanted to go out to dinner, but I convinced her to get it to go so we could get back to her house and watch a movie. We’d be back in Savannah to get our hair and makeup done after lunch on Saturday and I really just wanted to go home. We got Chinese take-out and drove back to Eden at almost twice the speed limit. After all, we had to get home before the food got cold. It was exhilarating to know that we could do whatever we wanted without consequence.

Ty was sitting on the sofa in their enormous living room when we walked in. He jumped up to give me a quick kiss and simultaneously took the bag of food that I was carrying. He set everything out on the coffee table then excused himself to get us some drinks from the kitchen. I had told Mara that I wanted to watch “Bright Star” again, so she dimmed the lights and lit several candles to set the mood.

When Ty returned and saw the room, he just said, “Nice.” He put his arms around my waist and pulled me backward onto the sofa so that I was sitting on his lap.

“I don’t think we’re in a good position to eat dinner,” I said laughing, trying to roll my way off.

“I’ll let you up for now, but as soon as we’re finished eating, I want you right back here,” he insisted, smacking his thighs with his outstretched hands.

“Enough already,” Mara interjected before I could respond. She looked at Ty and pretended to stick her finger down her throat. “I’m going to start the movie now,” she said tersely.

My tears flowed unashamedly during all the sad parts as Ty held me close and stroked my hair. I nestled comfortably into the nook that was formed in the space between his anterior deltoid and pectoral muscles. When he was relaxed, and not trying show off his amazing physique, his chest was like a memory foam mattress that was perfectly fitted to my contours.

As the credits rolled, and I reluctantly reminded my favorite twins that I needed a good night’s sleep to be ready for my birthday festivities, Ty scooped me up in his arms and insisted on carrying me to his car despite my protests. “Bye, Mara,” I waved over his shoulder. “Thanks again for everything. I can’t wait till tomorrow.”

Bye, Essie. Pick you up at eleven.”

  

I was wide awake when my digital clock changed from 6:59 to 7:00. Despite my best efforts, I had spent another restless night dreaming about Ty and Michael dueling with swords in the Ataroth and I was sleep-deprived. Again. I was learning, though, to live on much less sleep than I truly needed, although my marshmallow eyes always betrayed me.

Since I was the first one up, I put on some coffee and retrieved the paper from the front porch. My mother’s and my morning routine hadn’t been followed in months since I was always either working, going to school, or having breakfast with Ty on Sundays. This would be a chance for the two of us to catch up if the kids slept in.

She breezed down the stairs just a couple of minutes after the coffee had finished brewing. “Essie,” she cooed. “It’s so nice to see you at the table. Happy birthday, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mum. I was just thinking how long it’s been since we’ve done this. But between school, work and Ty, well…”

“I know you’re getting older and you have your own life now. It’s okay, sweetie. But I do miss you.”

“I’m sorry, Mum. But I’m here now. Sit. I’ll get your coffee.”

“Thanks.”

“DB’s been around a lot,” I opened as I poured her a cup of coffee. “What’s going on with you two?”

“He treats me well, Essie. And he’s great with the kids. And he makes me laugh. I really like him.”

“That’s great. You deserve to be happy and if he makes you happy, then I’m happy for you.”

“Speaking of making someone happy, you and Ty seem to have worked everything out. Are you serious about him?”

“Oh, I am,” I gushed.

“On that note, I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m not exactly sure how to begin so I’m just going to say it. I’m afraid that Ty has had a negative effect on you. You’ve changed a little since you’ve been with him.”

“Did Jennie say something to you?” I demanded.

“No, sweetie. Jennie didn’t say anything. But if she noticed it too, you might want to consider what we have to say.”

“You know what, Mum, I don’t want to do this today. It’s my birthday and Ty and Mara have an amazing day planned for me. Don’t ruin it.”

“Essie, I certainly wasn’t trying to ruin your day. It’s just that we never get a chance to talk and I merely wanted to voice my concern.”

“Consider it voiced,” I said coldly as I downed the remainder of my coffee and went upstairs.

I rummaged through my closet for something decent to wear. Although I would never be the fashionista that Mara was, I had acquired a few nice pieces over the past few months, although most of them were hand-me-downs from her closet. As I was searching, my phone rang. It was Jane.

“Happy birthday to you,” she sang.

“Thanks, Janie. I wish you were here with me. I miss you.”

“Me, too, bestie. What do you have planned?”

“I know that Ty and Mara have planned a party for tonight that my family has been invited to, but I don’t know any details. Mara’s picking me up at eleven and we’re going for lunch in Savannah and then getting our hair and nails done at her friend’s salon.”

“That sounds like so much fun. I’m jealous. Promise to take lots of pictures and post them, okay?”

“I will. I’ve got to go for now, though. I need to shower and find something to wear.”

“No worries. Call me later if you get a chance.”

“I’ll try. See you, Janie.”

“See you.”

Just like her brother, Mara was never late. In an attempt to forget the tiff with my mother, I had danced around my room blasting my Joan Jett playlist through my earbuds for far too long. I hadn’t been paying attention to the time and almost jumped out of my skin when I turned around to see Mara standing right behind me. My mother must have invited her in. I ripped my earbuds out, embarrassed.

“Oh, please, keep dancing,” she laughed. “On second thought, we’ll have plenty of time for that tonight. Right now, we need to go if we’re going to be able to have lunch before our one o’clock appointment at Nicole’s.”

“I’m ready,” was all I could say, grabbing my purse and my jacket.

“Awww, don’t be embarrassed. I do that all the time. Just ask Ty.”

As we headed out the door, Mara asked, “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to your family?”

“Oh, yeah. Bye everyone. See you tonight,” I yelled without waiting for a response.

“Anything you need to talk about?” she asked once I had closed the front door.

“Like?”

“Like I’ve never seen you leave your house without saying goodbye before. Everything okay?”

“My mother and I got into it this morning, that’s why I was dancing like a fool. Just trying to erase it from my head. But I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay, Ess. Hey! Happy birthday!” she said animatedly, giving me a huge hug.

“Thank you. I’m so excited.”

“Then let’s get started,” she said as we got into her car.

She took me to my favorite Thai restaurant for lunch. It was never busy. I had no idea how they stayed in business. It was a bright, sunny day and when we walked in to the dimly lit restaurant, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw Ty standing next to a table where some girls were seated. What was he doing here? I wondered. I didn’t think I’d be seeing him until tonight. We walked toward the table and the girls all turned to look at me.

“Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh,” was all I could say.

“Just the reaction I was hoping for,” Ty said, smiling broadly.

It was Jane, Peggie, Annie, and Karen. “Surprise!” they shouted in unison.

“Oh, my gosh,” I said again, hugging each of them tightly. “I can’t believe you’re all here. This is the best birthday ever!”

After a few more oh, my goshes and I can’t believe its, I went to Ty, who had been hanging back, letting us do the “girl thing”. I threw my arms around him, squeezing him. “You’re the best,” I whispered in his ear.

“Happy birthday, Essie Claire,” he whispered back.

“Don’t make me get a hose,” Mara teased.

“Sorry. I’m just so happy right now,” I gushed, extricating myself from Ty’s arms and taking a seat between him and Jane. “So, you’ve obviously all met Karen, my only real friend here other than Ty and Mara. She’s made school bearable.”

We talked non-stop over lunch and I was excited to learn that all the girls were getting makeovers at Nicole’s. I was also informed that we’d all be staying at The Mansion tonight and we’d be able to hang out all day Sunday since the flight back to Boston didn’t leave until six o’clock.

We drove the cars to the hotel and checked in to our rooms so that everyone could unload their bags. It was an unseasonably warm day so we decided to make the ten minute walk to Nicole’s and give the girls an opportunity to see a little bit of Savannah. Ty stayed at the hotel, having no desire to sit around for hours in a salon.

No other clients were booked during the time that we were there and we were treated like royalty; Mara even had massage therapists brought in, a first for everyone except her. We were having a really good time and the afternoon flew by much too quickly. When we were all finished, we got a taxi to take us back to The Mansion. Mara didn’t want anyone to get “all mussed” walking back.

Ty had reserved four adjoining rooms and we decided to pair Annie with Peggie, Mara with Karen, me with Jane, and Ty would be all alone. We opened the doors between the rooms while we finished getting ready so that we could continue talking.

“Wow, Essie, you’re different,” Jane said quietly as we were getting dressed in the bathroom.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And you’re the third person to say that recently. Did my mother or sister put you up to this?”

She looked at me, confused. “No one put me up to anything. I had noticed things during our conversations ever since you found out that Ty was a demon. But now that I’m with you…”

“Please don’t refer to him as a demon ever again. That’s just rhetoric from the other side. He’s good. Look at what he’s done today. He flew you down here, put you up at this beautiful hotel, we did the salon thing, lunch…”

“Ess, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to diminish all he’s done for us and for you. It’s just that I’m supposed to be your best friend, the one who tells you the truth even if it hurts. And the truth is that you’ve changed. You’re kind of like… like Mara. Don’t you see that?”

“No, I don’t, not that there’s anything wrong with being like Mara. You’re not here. You don’t see how it is every single day. The Gregorys have been nothing but kind and gracious.”

“This isn’t about them, Essie, it’s about you. But, you know what? We don’t need to be having this conversation right now. I’m sorry. It’s your birthday and I’m here to celebrate. I love you,” she said contritely, giving me a hug.

What she didn’t know was that at that moment I wished I had Ty’s forthcoming ability to cause her to not be able to speak. What was wrong with everybody? Why couldn’t they see what I saw? Talk about being deceived. But since I had no abilities and I wouldn’t have really used them even if I did, I hugged her back.

“I love you, too. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Hey, you two,” Ty interrupted. “Y’all look beautiful.”

“Thank you,” we trilled at the same time. “So do you.” He always looked beautiful, but tonight even more so in his cocoa brown suit. Mara must have chosen it because it complimented my dress.

“Shall we?” he asked, extending his arms to escort us.

We each took an arm and strolled to the other two rooms to pick up Mara, Karen, Peggie and Annie. Dinner, I was just told, was to be next door at 700 Drayton Restaurant in a private dining room. When we arrived, everyone else was already there ― Mum and DB, Jennie, Laurie, Hollie, Danny, Mr. and Mrs. Gregory, Nicole and Christine, and several friends from school, including Jace, Colton, Jackson and Savannah, who had done everything she could to ingratiate herself ever since the first day of school when Ty introduced me to the Senior class in the lunchroom. I wondered now if Ty or Mara had “pushed” her into that behavior. She made sure she was the first one to welcome me and say happy birthday.

Dinner was course after course of the most delicious Southern-inspired food I’d ever had. Our servers were attentive and personable. I felt like a princess and leaned in to Ty to tell him so.

“I’m so glad you’re having a good time,” he said as he gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“I’m having the best time,” I clarified. “If I forget to say it later, thank you for the best day of my life. I couldn’t imagine anything better than this.”

“I have one more thing for you, but it’s a surprise that will have to wait until we’re alone.”

That sounded intriguing. I kissed him softly on his lips with my eyes wide open and whispered, “I can’t wait.”

When dinner was finished, we all went to the rooftop lounge that overlooked Forsyth Park. A section of the terrace had been reserved for our party and, as we made our way to the table, all eyes were on us. An 80s cover band was rocking the stage and I didn’t want to sit down. As I stood next to my chair, Ty stood behind me with his arms around my waist and we both bounced to the beat. When the song ended, the lead singer walked over to me and Ty.

“Everyone, this is Essie Claire and it’s her birthday. It’s in her honor that we’re here tonight. You know, normally, there’d be a blues band or a jazz band playing, but a little bird,” he paused for a second and looked at Mara, “told us that Essie loves classic rock and she got special permission for us to rock this place just for her. Come on up here with me, Essie,” he said through the mic as he took my hand and led me to the stage. With a huge smile on his face, Ty let me go. It seemed to be as much of a surprise to him as it was to me.

Once onstage, the band started playing The Beatles “Birthday” song. In an effort to save me from dying of embarrassment, Jane, Peggie, Annie, Mara and Karen rescued me from the stage and we all danced. It was difficult to walk, let alone dance, in those four-inch heels that Mara had picked out for me so I kicked them off near our table and danced my way back to the girls.

Needing a breather after back-to-back-to-back hair metal songs, during which Karen insisted we all thrash our heads maniacally, I searched the crowd for Ty and spied him sitting alone at a table for two, his attention focused on me. I smiled and wove my way through the guests, keeping his gaze. I hugged him contentedly and hung out for a while in the shelter of his arms.

I enjoyed watching Jennie dance with Jace, happy that she was happy. Jane was flirting with Colton, unaware that I wanted to fix him up with Karen, although she hadn’t said a word about my suggestion since I mentioned it three days ago. She was happily dancing with Peggie and Annie. Mara had attracted the attention of not one, but two ardent admirers who had joined our party and were both zealously fawning over her, something she was obviously accustomed to. Mr. and Mrs. Gregory were sharing a table with my mother and DB and they appeared to be enjoying each other’s company.

My life was a fairytale, replete with my very own handsome prince. Ty had always been thoughtful, intuitively knowing what would make me happy, but this was so much more than I could have ever imagined. Flying my best friends from Boston to Savannah so that they could celebrate my birthday with me was something that only happened in the movies. My insides were swooning as I considered how lucky I was.

What an unbelievable night! Mara must have given the band my classic rock playlist because they covered all my favorites. I talked with everyone. I danced with everyone. At two a.m., the band had to quit. With Ty’s arm around my waist, I said my thank yous and goodbyes to all the guests and then we sat and watched the band pack up their equipment.

Finally, everyone was gone. The rooftop was empty. “It’s time for my last present,” Ty said with a sparkle in his eyes.

“I can’t imagine anything I’d like better than just being in your arms after this amazing day.”

“Speaking of being in my arms, come here,” he said, summoning me with his index finger as he stood up.

I rose from my chair and walked into his waiting arms. He wrapped them around me tightly and said, “Hold on.”

As soon as I embraced him, he bent down slightly and pushed off as though we were going to jump. But we didn’t jump. We flew.

“You can fly!” I shouted excitedly above the rush of air all around us.

“I’m sorry for frustrating you all those days at Black Creek. But when I realized I could do it, I wanted it to be a surprise. I know I’m not an ikran, but I hope this will do.”

We flew high above the lights of Savannah, then headed toward the river.

“I have a surprise for you, too.”

He looked at me with eager curiosity.

“I gave my notice at the Gardens of Eden. Karen has taken over my shifts.”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded and an Emerson quote came to mind. He said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen”. As we glided above the water, I was confident that I could continue to successfully navigate between the two worlds, but I no longer wanted to.

- 299 -


Genesis

An unexpected move, an unexpected love, an unexpected world... Essie has been chosen "for such a time as this". An aspiring journalist, Essie Jacobs is your average high school senior─a good girl─who loves superheroes, Joan Jett, Whoppers and classic rock. When her mom tells her that they will be moving from Bradford, Massachusetts to the tiny town of Eden, Georgia in two weeks, the normally logical teen freaks out. Her life is mapped out, after all, and it doesn't include a move to some hick town in the South. When the inevitable happens, however, her expectations of a boring summer are pleasantly dashed when she meets Ty Gregory, an irresistibly charming boy from a wealthy family. He immediately takes a liking to her and they become inseparable. Bored with her routine once school begins, though, the independent Essie decides to get a job at the local nursery where she meets Michael Powers, the boy she had seen in a dream before moving to Eden. She learns that Michael's family and Ty's family do not associate, but neither boy will tell her why. Essie's curious nature takes her to the internet where she stumbles upon information about the Grigori. She's always had a feeling that there was something different about Ty and, when he finally admits that he's a fallen angel, she's anything but scared.

  • ISBN: 9781370269600
  • Author: Bonnie Berman Shores
  • Published: 2016-10-05 04:05:28
  • Words: 112597
Genesis Genesis