The following is the first five chapters of a book I may or may not finish someday. It’s a story about a girl disconnected from her parents, living on her own and blankly coasting through life. She ignores the signs in front of her, telling her she’s made for something greater, completely unwilling to accept her fate. It takes a stranger and even stranger incidents to force her hand and make her acknowledge what she’s spent years avoiding.
Chapter 1: My Father
Memories are a powerful thing. They are clouds of captured moments, drifting inside each person. Eternally encompassing passion and fear, joy and dread, love and loss. There is no telling which moments will remain with you forever and which ones will slowly dissipate as your years come to their final stages. The ones you hold onto in your mind’s eye are the ones that can stay with you the longest, but it is a tricky game to play. Some are better left untouched in the far corners of your mind until they slowly dissipate into nothing more than a faint whisper of something you cannot fully recall. Like a dream you desperately try to remember after waking. The memories you want to keep with you are like clouds that hang heavy in the sky, and as you name each one in the blue sea above, there they remain, recognized, familiar, cherished; but those you try to block out are like ominous morning mists that hold off the approaching dawn, creeping towards your window as you wake, forcing you to accept the scene before you. No light. No hope. No escape.
I remember my father. One memory in particular that remained with me through the years happened when I was a young girl. I was about ten years old at the time. We lived in a small town not too far from Jacksonville, North Carolina. It was a beautiful area: close to the Atlantic coast with hot summers, quiet falls, temperate winters and beautiful springs. It was just outside of Wilmington to the west of the main city. We could take Highway 74 and be in Wilmington in no time at all if we felt the urge. We were isolated, but it was a welcomed isolation. It wasn’t that we were averse to city life. Quite the opposite. We merely enjoyed having something that was just for us, something that the three of us could share together away from the outside world. We had all of the pleasures of privacy as well as the serenity of the surrounding nature. It was our sanctuary.
But my father frequently had to leave on business trips. I was never really clear on what he did, but what youth is really concerned with the details of her parent’s occupation? Whenever he had to leave on one of his trips, we would walk from our house to our secret place in the woods that surrounded our home. This refuge in the woods was an old oak tree, as large in size as it was in years. It was quite a hike from our little green home that rested in a plain surrounded by the woods, but I enjoyed these private moments I had with my father. We spent almost the whole day talking here, laughing, telling stories. Sometimes we would venture out into the woods looking for both real and imaginary things in the forest. Then, before nightfall, we would head back home to a warm meal with my mother. I’d share all of the adventures of the day until it was time for bed. Anything to keep my mind off of the fact that dad was leaving. And the next day, when I woke in the morning, he would already be gone.
On this day, we followed our normal routine. The first part of our journey into the woods was a dusty, beaten path that went through the middle of a large prairie. This road stretched for about a mile from our front porch to the surrounding wood. We were surrounded by wildflowers. I remember enjoying this portion of our walk the most as my father and I walked hand in hand, engulfed in the wonderful aroma of the surrounding foliage and in the comforting sounds of the vibrant animal life. The air was so sweet. It was like walking into a home that smelled of someone baking sweet, delicious treats in the kitchen. It was welcoming, comforting. I kept closing my eyes, so that my sense of smell could be heightened, so that I could enjoy each scent as much as possible. I laughed as baby deer bounded from the plain towards their mothers, hiding in the wood. And when I saw the small, brownish-grey rabbits following after into the wood upon our approach, I laughed with delight. Pictures of Thumper and Bambi playing on screen flashed though my head. I searched for a little black skunk to complete the comparison.
Eventually, the path led to a small stream that we had to cross to continue our hike to the tree. I can still recall the peace I felt when I heard the slow and steady beat of the water as it flowed across the river bed. It was as if the water flowed right through me, from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes, soothing me with its cool touch. Once we reached the stream, we took a few minutes to enjoy the change in scenery, dipping our feet in its coolness and taking long draughts of the freshest water I had ever tasted. Eventually we crossed over and took the path that led into the woods. The path that led us to our tree. A place meant only for my father and me; our little home away from home. This is where that memory fades for me as it blended so well with the routine trips to our secret place, our tree.
We always made this trek in silence; it was a welcomed quiet as we both prepared the things we would say to one another at our tree. Once we reached her, stories, laughter and tears were unstoppable. Dad often left me with a few captivating and elusive words before we headed back home that stilled my flowing tears and kept me thinking. I savored every word he gave to me more than any toy a little girl could want. He did this to ease the pain I felt whenever he had to leave home, but he also did this to sharpen my already precocious and perceptive nature. Though this same insightfulness helped me realize his tactic, even at such a young age, his ability to ease my worries worked all the same.
Every time we reached our tree it was like seeing her for the first time. The very image of her invited a sense of newness, of discovery. She was majestic, unrelenting, woeful. Though twisted, bent and uprooted at most of her base, she stood proudly, towering thirty feet above our heads. Looking at her straight on, it seemed as though her branches hugged the sky, keeping it in place. Many birds would rest on her arms and sing sweet songs as my father and I talked at her feet. To me, being with my father at this sacred place was almost like being in another world. Nothing else existed save my father and me when at last we got to play and to talk with her loving and watchful figure close by. I even remember pretending in my thoughts that no one but the two of us could see this tree, our tree. Like it was so strong and so full of mystery that, like magic, it kept the secret for us from the rest of the world.
This traditional walk was one that I both loved and loathed as passionately as any little girl could, for these moments with him were treasured yet bittersweet. For though this tree was a place all to ourselves, it was also a place that signified father’s departure. Though distracted by some riddle or tale my father left me with, my heart still hung heavily in my chest as we made our way back home. He never talked about when he was going to come back. Perhaps because he wanted me to be strong and to simply have faith that he would be back soon. Though my mother and I never knew where he was going, he always came back.
Like a strong, supernatural force between my father and me, I always knew the day when he was coming home. It was almost like I could feel it in the surrounding air. An electric current would spark within me and flow throughout my entire being, signaling my father’s return. My mother could never understand the bond I had with my father, but I knew it, and so did he, inexplicable though our connection was. She would always tease us lovingly as she pointed out the quarks in our strange relationship. She couldn’t understand why my father spoke to me the way he did, with such solemnity and seriousness at times, and even more so, she could not comprehend how I took it all in with the same mentality, being so young. Whenever she verbalized this, he would laugh heartily and say that it was a blessing for me to carry on his family’s greatest trait. Enigmatic to me though not so much that I missed the pained expression he made whenever he answered her in such a fashion. I simply smiled wide at my father and tried to forget the look on my mother’s face, pride and chagrin fused together in one small moment of clarity. Mother would simply shake her head, smiling, and continue with whatever activity she was engaged in at the time of scolding. My father and I could not help being connected so strongly. Though we both loved mother very much, our bond was undeniable, and, thankfully, my mother never felt isolated or ostracized.
But, like all things in life, every good memory must be countered with an unpleasant one.
I remember the last time I was with my father. A new morning greeted my opening eyes with the spring season again in full force, but the feeling of this one was not as inviting. Though the scene before me burgeoned with life anew, I could not help but detect an eerie silence. Some calm before a torrential storm. There were no sounds of birds to welcome in the new day. I looked out at the scene before my window: the flowers did not stand proudly but rather drooped as though weary from some invisible burden. Even the sun did not glitter in its normal tone of bells and chimes. Insecurity rising, I ran to the kitchen to find my mother in the same fashion as I found this new day. She was practically shivering, peculiarly quiet and tacit. Though she tried her best to mask it from me, I could not be fooled. I could recognize the emotion she tried to hide just as easily as I could recognize the fear rising within me. She was afraid. Of what? Suddenly, I realized my father was absent, and just as suddenly, I looked from my mother’s fearful eyes, poorly masked by her forced smile, to the table. He was supposed to be sitting there, waiting for me to meet them for breakfast. We weren’t supposed to make our hike for at least a few days.
I finally realized that I had been ignoring the signs that led up to this present moment:
After my father’s last return, I noticed that something had changed. From the way he looked at things, at mother, at me, to the way he spoke. He was saddened yet resolved. He looked the way I had always imagined him to look when we parted at our tree. The face he never dared show me. Now I understood why. To look on him in this state was to shake the very core of my confidence. I did not understand it. My father was supposed to be my rock, and he looked like he was falling to pieces. He kept talking to us like he was trying to let out everything he had ever held back from us. Like he wanted us to know exactly how he felt about us, so that we would never doubt the way he loved us. He was trying to be comforting, but as the days wore on with this kind of talk and attitude, I became more frightened than reassured. Strangely, my mother took on the same kind of attitude, trying to make the most of every moment we all had together. For once, my acuity could not break through to understand this strange behavior. I was simply a confused little child, trying relentlessly but to no avail to understand what was happening.
Or, rather, what was going to happen.
Had I known that the weeks of putting up with this new father was leading up to this moment, I would have tried harder to hold on to him. I would have begged him every night to tell me what he was thinking. I would have made him promise to stay home. I would have blockaded the path to our secret place. I would have burned down that damn tree.
“Where’s dad?” I asked, distressed. With the memory of my parents’ strange behavior remaining in my thoughts. “He’s supposed to be here.” I didn’t look like I had just woken up, anxious as I was. My parents’ current track record with odd behavior didn’t leave me a lot of room to be relaxed, sleepy or not.
“He’s out at that tree of his,” mother replied, straining, “He was a little restless last night, and early this morning, he decided to go for a walk.” I couldn’t believe what she had just said. It was like our years of ritual had simply been forgotten, as if they simply blew away with the passing wind.
“It’s our tree!” I yelled as I pushed past her, running to the front door.
That was the only answer I could manage, incensed as I was about her response. She knew perfectly well that the only time father went to that tree, our tree, was when we walked together the day before he had to leave on business. I couldn’t take standing still any longer. I ran out of the house into the open field, hoping to see father waiting for me there. He was no where to be seen. Though I did not want to believe it, I began to run down the path we took to our tree, and in doing so, I felt that the tradition was now somehow tainted. It would never be the same. I ran so fast that the colors of the flowers were a blur. I ran so fast that the wind rushing in my ears drowned out the sounds of everything else. I ran so fast, concentrated on finding father, that I could enjoy no sound. Everything blurred into one undeniable force that took me over: fear. I wasn’t ready for him to go.
I found my father at the stream, walking up the small bank towards my sprinting figure. I didn’t stop until he scooped me up, mid-leap, into his arms. It was then that I started crying inconsolably. And though I was relieved that my father had not gone just yet, I could only accuse.
“You went without me!” I accused between sobs. “You can’t do that! It’s our place. Ours. We don’t go without each other.” The last part came out like a command. If he was losing control someone had to take over. If he was going to forget the rules, I had to remind him.
He did not respond immediately. For the first few moments, he cradled me in his arms and held me tightly. My anger quelled as I felt my hair soaking up a wet heat. When I looked to find the cause of the moisture, I saw my father’s face swollen with tears. His resolve gave way to pure sadness. Upon seeing him in this state, I wrapped my arms around his neck and covered his face with kisses. He continued to hold onto me tightly, not wanting to let me go.
Finally he managed to choke out a simple, “Let’s walk.” But instead of walking home as I thought we would, he pulled me back towards the path that led to the woods. The path that led to our place. I was confused. He wasn’t supposed to be leaving. Not yet. But as tradition held for this particular hike, we walked on in silence, eyes now dried.
The silence was deafening. Each step I took rang like an ominous chime in my heart, begging me to turn around with father and head home. Run home. I could not think of anything we would say, anything we would laugh about upon our arrival to our tree. The timing was off. We weren’t supposed to be walking to her, but on we went, no turning back. This time, I could only focus on the fact that he would be gone when I woke up in the morning, not on what we shared before we walked back home for dinner. It felt like we were already parting. Like this walk was just a dream, and soon enough, I’d be waking up to a breakfast with mom, wondering when that electric current would signal father’s return home. Only this time, I wasn’t sure if he actually would.
When we reached our tree and I laid eyes on her, I could no longer submit to my father’s lead. I jerked my hand out of his in all the fury that I could understand to use. I looked at him sternly, crossed my arms over my tiny chest and said a firm, “No.” I did not scream. I simply remained definitive, immovable. I commanded in the same way that I had at the stream. I wanted a reaction out of him. Anything but this darkened and silent sadness. Even anger would be better than this, and anger I tried to elicit from father as I rebelled against his lead. I needed to fight. The look on my father’s face in reaction to my revolt instantly turned my legs to putty, and I immediately fell to the ground. He looked at me with a deeper sadness than I’ve ever known, and that sadness has remained with me to this day.
“Grey, we have to go. I can’t talk to you here on the ground,” he stifled a sob. “What I need to tell you is important, and though I am forced to tell you before the time I planned, it must be done.”
“Why can’t we wait if it’s not the right time?” I continued to fight.
“Just come,” was his answer. Confused, I got to my feet and followed after him, understanding at the very least that I would have to succumb for the benefit of something. Though I found new resolve to take on what I knew was coming, I could not help but notice that even our tree looked downtrodden, as if she understood the events to come and was preparing to share in my sorrow. I shuddered at the thought as we sat at her base.
“I want you to have this,” he began as we stood at the base of the tree. In my hand he placed a small, worn necklace. The chain was simple and unremarkable; dulled silver in color. Attached was a tiny circular trinket of the same color that hung from it, equally of no consequence. I looked more closely at the trinket and noticed it had small engravings upon its face. The engraving looked more refined though it was dulled like the color of the necklace from the wear of time. Each portion of the designs and writings on the tiny trinket glowed uniquely as the light touched it with each turn of my hand. The first design I could see were the letters I, R and E in a golden hue, but I could not tell if they were initials or the word, “ire” (odd as that may be). With another turn of my hand, the face of the charm beamed in a brilliant blue; this time, there were no engravings, just color. It seemed as if there were three more letters that had been coupled with this new color that had just revealed itself, but they faded too quickly for me to see what they spelled. I remember being particularly intrigued by this as no turning of my hand could make those letters reappear. And with another turn, glowing deep red was the figure of a heart that shined with the brilliance of the sun. The heart was contained by the outline of what could only be some land mass (country or continent) though it was a shape with which I was altogether unfamiliar. I did not understand how all three images could be contained on the same face, but I was too captivated by its simplistic beauty.
“Where did you find this?” I finally managed to ask my father, still turning my hand to see each image.
“That is not important. What is important is that I am giving this to you for a purpose.”
“What kind of purpose?” I asked while imagining what importance there could be in giving me a necklace that clearly was of no significance.
And then he explained:
“When I was younger, I became very restless. It was hard for me to concentrate on any one thing. I had passions, yes, ones that I still carry with me to this very day. But there was always something missing from me. I outgrew everything. Not to say that I was some kind of genius or some anomaly that could not reconcile itself with anything or anyone-I was simply different. Adaptable but never truly a member of any one thing, and no matter how hard I tried to fight that notion, I couldn’t ignore its presence. I always managed to fit into a lot of different places, but that restlessness always drew me away, made me drift to the next thing.”
“I’ve spent a great deal away from the two things I love the most because of this part of my nature, and I am so sorry for all of the times I’ve had to leave you and your mother wondering where I was going and when I would be back. I did all of this to protect you, I hope you understand, for I could never bridge the gap between these two parts of myself of my own accord. But it seems that my restless nature and the things I love have finally met, and this is not a thing I can readily welcome.”
“I gave you this necklace for you to remember me and to inspire you. You, like this necklace, will seem to the imperceptive eye to be something quite ordinary. Yet, when one takes a closer look, he will see how you can shine with such unique beauty. Don’t ever forget that. Hold that as close to your heart as you wear this necklace. We have to go back home now. Tomorrow I will be gone. I fear that the time for your own restlessness will be coming soon. In that way we will always be connected.”
“And with that,” my father concluded, “I pass on everything that I am to you. Now I must do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
“I won’t be safe unless you’re here with me,” I pleaded, eyes fixated on his face.
“I wish I could explain it all to you in a better way. Sometimes it’s good to stay in order to keep someone safe…but in this case, I need to go,” he answered.
“When will you be back?” I asked, breaking another rule. He never told me when he was coming back home. So many things had happened out of the ordinary that day. I needed to be reassured.
But he didn’t answer me. He simply stood up. And then did something else that was so out of the ordinary, I didn’t have the strength to fight against it: he walked away without me, in the opposite direction of home. Where was he gong? We were supposed to go home together. Mother was waiting for us there. He didn’t turn back to look at me, he didn’t say goodbye. I don’t know how long I sat there, too exhausted to cry, as I watched him walk away. I didn’t call out to him. I don’t think it would have made a difference.
“Please, don’t go,” I pleaded urgently as I began the slow progression towards the torrent of tears. He kept walking, not even reacting in the slightest to the dejected sound of my voice.
That misty morning with dark and clouded memories began to reformulate and store within my mind: the vision of my father as he walked away from me; the empty feeling growing inside of me. The words he left me with were running through my head at lightning speed. I was trying to understand each word he left me with, knowing that they might be the last words he would ever share with me. I clutched the necklace in my palm, something to remember him by, to “inspire me.” But it didn’t serve its purpose; it hung on my neck, a heavy burden, containing all of the fear and sadness taking over me. It represented everything I wished could reverse at that very instance. If that was the uniqueness I had to show to the world, I didn’t want it. I would gladly trade if it meant my father would come back. There was no stopping the tears now; they drenched my face as if a personal storm cloud hung right above my head.
My heart sank lower and lower as each deliberate step he made widened the gap between us. I wanted to run to him, to close the rift. As I was about to act on this impulse, this urge to stop the inevitable, I was rooted to my place beneath the tree by the image of my father finally acting on his impulse, breaking his resolve: he turned to get one last glance at my face. The act stunned me to stillness, silenced my sobs, quelled my tears. The look on his face made me accept what was to happen: he was never coming back. I stood now, resolute, and forced myself to look strong for him; he needed to know that I would make it, even if I wasn’t sure of it myself. I didn’t know what “it” was exactly. And though years have separated me from this moment, I still haven’t figured it out.
I returned home at some point though the exact time was hazy to me even in that present moment. I was thankful that I cried as much as I was able before returning home. I had an agenda. Mother knew something about this parting that I didn’t. The look on her face before I chased after my father was at the surface of my thoughts, overpowering the replay of events that were racing repeatedly through my head. She was going to tell me everything. I didn’t even wait for her to greet me as I walked through the door:
“Why isn’t dad coming back?” I demanded.
“Sweetheart, what are you talking about?” trying to keep her voice even.
“Where did dad go, and why isn’t he coming back?” I repeated.
“What has he told you?” she delayed. I fell for it anyway, thinking that she would fill in the gaps.
“He said he was leaving to keep us safe. He didn’t tell me when he was coming back. Even after I asked. What did he tell you?”
Finally, she conceded. “He told me to keep you safe, to try to remain unnoticed and to not talk about him leaving to anyone. We have to pretend that everything is the same and that nothing has changed.”
“You know where he is! You have to tell me, so we can go after him! We need to bring him back home.” I was starting to lose my composure.
“I don’t think he’s coming back, Grey,” she said, defeated.
“He is! He is!” I kept screaming over and over, stamping my feet. With the loss of my composure came another torrent of tears. I had forgotten my resolve to stay calm and get the whole truth from my mother. I was so angry that I didn’t care anymore.
My mother ran to me as I fell to the floor. She scooped me up in her arms and sat me down on the couch. Her arms never left me; she just cradled me as I let out all of my frustration and wiped my tears away as they came. She cried with me. We suffered together on our own little island of grief for most of that night.
Something died in me that day. Some purpose he tried to pass on to me was locked away in a far chamber of my heart. And though I could never fully ignore it, I buried it so deeply within me, just out of reach, that I could only acknowledge its presence; I could not understand it, and for once, I didn’t want to understand what was gnawing at me. It was like the token he left for me that last day at our tree. I could see the necklace, and it was with me always, but I could not understand the meaning behind the glow of gold, blue and crimson that made the necklace’s charm so captivating. The charm that carried a purpose, a purpose that I carried but ignored more severely each day father didn’t return.
It took me months to accept that he wasn’t coming back, and nothing mother could say or do could bring me consolation. I woke each morning hoping to have that feeling of electricity that connected me with father, that made me know he was returning, that magnetized our hearts together, but it never came. And day to day, mother could see how the pain of this slow and agonizing realization was weighing on me, changing me.
No matter how well we masked it, or rather, how well we thought we masked it, our family friends and neighbors began to talk. Rumors began to spread, each one more ridiculous than the last. It started with the speculation that father had to move to a more permanent residence because of his job, of which they also knew very little, and then it turned into crude gossip about our personal life. Father became a womanizer who had run off with someone. I remembered how much anger I felt for those who would quickly believe such an awful lie about such a good man. It only got worse. Once the idea of father running off with another woman died off as impractical and unlikely, a change I gladly welcomed, it moved on just as quickly to conjecture on his standing with the law. He was on the run, avoiding incarceration. I didn’t understand how they could even play with that idea as being anything close to possible, but somehow it was accepted. I grew more and more disdainful with each sympathizing eye we met in town.
We were going into town less and less. Anything to avoid the stares and whispers we knew were about us, about father. I was starting to be troublesome in school which was quite uncharacteristic of me. I couldn’t help it, and I didn’t want to. It was the only way I could act out against everything I was feeling: the emptiness of my father’s absence, the sorrow for my mother’s pain, the anger at people’s insensitive assumptions. I had become the problem child, only adding to the stress my mother had to deal with. Between keeping me out of trouble and keeping the incessant questions about father at bay, my mother had very little time to breathe.
After a year of enduring the town gossip, mother decided to move from our little green home in the woods. She sold almost everything we owned, for almost everything we had in our home from books to trinkets to pieces of rare furniture had some connection to father. It was clear that we needed a clean break. A break from a town that was once dear but now only reminded us daily of his absence, a break from anything that knew or reminded us of him.
We moved the little that we had kept to an even smaller home in Tampa, Florida, a city completely different from our small town in North Carolina. The feel of life there was so impersonal compared to our small town, and though it was what we needed at the time of the move, we couldn’t help but feel chagrined by the impersonal and disconnected lifestyle of the city. But we adapted. We had no other choice. And in this place, removed from the physical memory of a past life, I could finally see how the separation was affecting mother. If it seemed that I was taking it hard, it seemed twice as difficult for her. Our attempt to start new, to wipe our slate clean, to cut our losses and move on only veiled what we truly felt. We were lost and alone. Forever changed without father. But we quietly accepted our circumstances and moved on as best we could, at least in appearance. Somehow in all the years I spent growing up in Tampa, we managed to find little pieces of happiness that made our loss tolerable.
Though the separation always remained an ever existing presence.
Chapter 2: The Lady in White Light
Fast forward to the present.
I was startled awake in a cold sweat despite the warmth of the sun on my face. I always woke this way when I dreamt about the day my father left. It was not one I could easily escape, try as I might. In fact, it was a memory that haunted me almost every night. It was a dream I had when I felt restless, when I could no longer ignore the feeling inside of me that I tried to repress: the “purpose” my father tried to instill in me that day. It would build up in me until it manifested itself in my night-time dreams, forcing me to acknowledge its presence. I still refused to accept it fully. And so it was a cycle: I would repress what I felt, it would resurface, giving me nightmares of that last memory, and then I would repress it once again. I wasn’t ready to accept anything my father left me with that day. Despite my desire to pull the covers over my face and block out the light of the morning sun, I forced myself out of bed.
Next to my bed were papers strewn about as if a miniature tornado had wreaked havoc in my bedroom while I slept the night away. Remnants of last night’s activities. Though I knew what I would see on the papers, I looked at them anyway, hoping to be intrigued. My mind recalled the titles, the words of each song; some were of my own creation, some were not. I looked around at the wreckage before me, trying to wake up fully, until my eyes fixed onto one particular page:
I had a thought that made me fall,
Back to the heart with concrete walls.
And it silences my loudest calls.
And now, I can’t be free.
A twinge of regret and sorrow panged in my heart for seeking reminders to those thoughts I tried so hard to ignore. Was I being too dramatic? Or was I regretting facing the truth? I sighed and brushed the thoughts away before I had too much time to analyze, something I did way too much. It had more to do with what I would be forced to analyze, but I’d had years of practice ignoring even this recognition. I pushed each revelation back to its proper place in the back chambers of my mind where it belonged. The cycle beginning once again. I wondered how long it would take to resurface this time, shuddering at the thought. How long could I go on living this way? This was something I couldn’t beat on my own. Something big would have to happen before I could accept what I kept hiding from myself.
I pulled myself out of bed, ready to create a new task for the day. As I passed my desk, I recognized more evidence of the previous night’s activities. Books, notes, all of my marked attempts at keeping my mind inundated. This time around it was a look into religion. It was one of my many attempts to waken what was buried in me long ago. But no matter how much I studied, I still ended up with the same feeling: a restlessness to settle into a purpose. Surely, there was one for me. But why did nothing satisfy me?
Mind check. I caught myself before I ran away with this question. I had to be careful about what I chose to think; giving over to logic, I remembered, would help me cope with the intangible, the inner understanding that, like everyone, I existed for a reason. I just hadn’t found it yet, or, rather, had it simply not found me? How could I possibly answer that without acknowledging what I was trying to ignore? Once again, I reminded myself that I wasn’t ready to think about it. I wasn’t ready to find the purpose my father tried to leave with me. In any case, my inner thoughts were certainly not a big enough catalyst to motivate me to find whatever it was he wanted me to find.
It was too early to think this much. So I pushed myself to other, “healthier” musings. First at bat: what did I do last night? I remembered having dinner with some of my friends. I was so distracted last night, more so than usual.
At times, I can be a rather taciturn companion, and, last night, I was more quiet than usual. I generally like to keep most of my thoughts to myself and only speak when necessary. The friends I have don’t seem to mind. They are usually garrulous enough for an army of people, and I get along well enough. A little sarcasm here and there to lighten the mood or some small observation is usually the role I play in whatever group I happen to find myself in at the time. It’s my little place in any dynamic. Close enough for comfort but never too close. It’s the way I like to keep things.
But back to the question: what did I do? I was unusually reticent last night.
Sometimes I have these moments, when those questions I shut out with logic gnaw at me in different ways. They play on my emotions: I want to discover, but I don’t know where to go: I want to think, but I don’t know what of: I want to do something, but I don’t know which part of myself to put into action. And I’m too afraid to find the solution to these urges.
Feeling this way is like being submerged in an infinite ocean, equally surrounded by water on all sides. I want to go up, but I haven’t the slightest clue which way that is. The vibrations in the water tell me that “up,” wherever that might be, is reachable. I can feel creatures moving all around me in the water, but I can’t tell if they’re swimming up or down or across or diagonally; even more, one is not near enough for me to grasp in hopes of reaching up. And I’m running out of air.
After swimming in these thoughts throughout dinner that night, I decided to end my evening with the girls early. They were a little sad to see me go, but I knew they would be better off if they didn’t have to witness my brooding. They were used to these mood swings, so much so that they didn’t argue with me any more when I chose to go home from a night out with them. Sad, but true. I hated that they were so accustomed to my being that way, but at the same time, I knew there was nothing I could do to change that part of myself. It was a double-edged sword. Thankfully, one that they were willing to put up with.
I thought I had gotten back home around nine o’clock that night. I opened the door to my one bedroom, one bath apartment in hopes that this physical sanctuary would lead me to a mental one. I surveyed the living room and connecting dining room. Cluttered but neat. Clean. Colorfully eccentric. With deep blues and purples, mint greens, mustard yellows, fire oranges, blood reds, teals and wonderful textures and patterns; not one thing matched another, yet it all fit, somehow perfectly, together. I had achieved outwardly what I could not yet achieve inwardly. I remember it being so comforting to decorate and to furnish, and for a while, this home felt peaceful and serene. It felt like me.
I took off my shoes and threw them haphazardly on the floor, dropped on the couch and reached for the remote. I could lose my thoughts for a few hours in front of the tube. Innocent enough. I needed a break. As I lay on my side and pulled a nearby blanket over me, I began to flip through the stations. News? No, thanks. Comedy? Nothing on. Romance? I wasn’t in the cheesy mood. Cartoons? The need for nostalgia was not in me. After about fifteen minutes of perusing, I turned the television off, defeated.
I decided it was probably time for bed, or at least time to attempt to go to bed; I knew it wouldn’t be that simple for me this night. I sat at my desk and looked over the latest ideas I had decided to study. It was all interesting enough, but not exactly what I had a taste for doing on this night, so I simply looked over the notes I had made with vague concentration and flipped through a few books I had lying on the desk. I took a glance at the many notes to myself I’d jotted in the margins of these books. Not tonight. I didn’t have that kind of focus.
Eventually, I made it over to my bed. I picked up my Ovation: light colored wood glossed over with carvings in darker brown and red wood at the bottom part of the guitar that rested on my knee. I started to pick a little, playing familiar songs, some old and some new. I pulled out some tabs and score sheets of songs that I liked or songs that I had written. Last night, I stuck with the songs that were a little sad and contemplative.
Somewhere in that span of time, I fell asleep, finally free from the inner workings of my mind. Until I was rudely interrupted by my usual nightmare. How did I not see it coming this time around? After recollecting last night’s endeavors, I started to think again. How did I end up here?
When I asked myself this ever pressing question, I instinctively touched the charm on the necklace that rested on my chest. Remembering. I delicately traced my fingers over its smooth surface, and finally, unable to fight it, I looked at the charm, turned and bent it so that the light could catch it at each of its angles that made it shine in gold, blue and deep red. I looked over the writings and symbols. IRE; the blue face; the heart enclosed by the borders of some foreign country. I was no nearer to understanding why my father gave this necklace to me in the present moment than I was when it was given to me. I recalled what he said to me that day, and, like clockwork, pushed it away as best as I could into the far corners of my mind. Whatever the purpose behind this necklace was, it hadn’t happened, and I was beginning to think that it was just some fanciful story he told me to help me deal with losing him. If it did have a purpose, I wasn’t ready for it, and, since nothing had happened, I didn’t think it was coming anyway.
Back to the present. Saturday. What was there for me to do? I was sure I’d think of something. I walked to the kitchen to make something to eat for breakfast. I opened the refrigerator to take a look at what I had, but there wasn’t much to choose from. No eggs. That ruled out a lot of things I could eat for breakfast. There was bacon, but what was the use without eggs? I looked over to the fruit bowl, and there were only two, well aged bananas. I took one, peeled it and started to eat while looking through the rest of my kitchen for something more to eat. I looked in my freezer in hopes that I might have a lone frozen waffle or pastry to heat in the toaster; no luck. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in the freezer at all. To the cupboards I thought to myself. Also bare.
So I concluded what was obviously to be number one on my agenda today: grocery shopping. I threw the banana peel away and tore into the last one that was left. At least I was eating a healthy breakfast. While finishing off the second banana, I began to make a list of the things I needed from the store: milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese…
My focus was broken by the telephone.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Oh, hey Amanda! What’s up?” I said, relaxing. Why did I feel so on edge just before?
“Did you forget?” she asked placidly.
“Forget what?” I replied, confused.
“We have a show tonight, remember? You’re singing at seven o’clock tonight at La Ideal. We need to do a quick run through in about an hour,” she said, sounding a little more irritated.
“Why so early? Is there something wrong?” I responded, still confused.
“Wrong? No, we’re good to go. And it’s not too early. It’s almost five o’clock.”
Now she sounded really incensed. How did time get away from me so fast? So much for grocery shopping. I was glad that I hadn’t planned anything else to get done today.
“Grey, you there?” she asked, now sounding more worried than angry.
“Yeah. I’ll see you soon,” I said, distracted.
“Yeah, I’m fine…the time just got away from me today…can you pick me up on your way?” I asked, trying to sound more composed.
“Yeah, I’ll see you in an hour.”
The phone cut off before I could say anything more. I was relieved that I didn’t have to keep faking, convincing her that I was fine when I wasn’t because I didn’t want the conversation to lead into anything deeper than how we left it. Amanda was a questioner at times; she was one of the few people I knew who could read me so well, and I didn’t like it. My thoughts were exactly that: mine. And after a night like last night, I’m sure Amanda would be full of questions and probing if I gave anything away.
Where did the time go? I didn’t lay in bed that long. At least, I didn’t think I did. I tried to recount last night’s events to waking up in the present moment, and the time didn’t add up. Odd. I had this strange feeling that what was awakening within me was not like all the other times. I couldn’t distract these thoughts and feelings with the things I normally did, the things I loved doing. Singing tonight at La Ideal being an example of one of those distractions.
I couldn’t help but touch the necklace again.
I went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. As I lathered my hair, I started to hum. The humming soon turned into full fledged singing, practice for tonight’s gig. Suddenly, I remembered what was missing from last night’s restless activities.
Usually on nights like last night, I would see her: this silhouette of a woman covered in white light. They started coming to me after my father left. At first, I was terrified, too afraid to talk about her with anyone, not even my mother. Eventually, as I got used to these visions, I just brushed it off as best I could as some weird way of coping with losing my father and nothing more. Still, it bothered me that they continued happening to me. This woman I would see in my dreams would catch me in the moments between consciousness and unconsciousness. But they weren’t exactly dreams; they were more closely related to visions. In dreams you can move, interact. You can do fantastic things like flying or running at the speed of light. In these dreams, for lack of a better description, I could only do two things: see and hear. She appeared to me, usually by my bed, in the form of a great white light. She was always very still, and her thoughts seemed to bore into my own like there was some sort of wavelength our minds shared so that our thoughts were interchangeable; she never spoke to me in words. In these moments, I felt connected and whole. I felt like I had a purpose or like I was on the verge of finding one. With each encounter, I would wish to hold onto the vision of her long enough to know what that purpose was, but I never could. They disappeared too quickly.
I sometimes think she is trying to speak to me, but all I can hear is wind. In my heart, however, I know she’s trying to tell me something I need to hear, something important to my very being. Possibly about the reason behind my restlessness. Possibly about my father. I haven’t figured it out yet. All I know is that the more restless I’ve gotten over the years, the more intense these “visions” have become; and whenever I do feel restless, as my father had once predicted, she comes to me. Which brings me to this thought: why didn’t I see her last night?
Suddenly, my eyes felt a haze wash over them. It wasn’t the steam from the shower. I knew that much. My body felt stiff, almost like the feeling you get when one of your limbs falls asleep, but it wasn’t painful. It was numbing, yet relaxing. My head buzzed like an old computer screen in a quiet room, and although I knew the water from the shower head still rained down hot water on my back, my skin felt cold and clammy. I knew this feeling.
It was the feeling I had every time I saw her, but it couldn’t possibly be that. It never happened to me in my waking life. But then…I heard the wind. It blew gently against my shower curtain, moving it slowly, surreally. It was her. My vision. Even more, I could move. With all the same feelings that normally paralyze my body, I discovered that this time, I had full control over my physical self. How was this happening?
I turned off the shower and covered my body with a towel. Looking out of my bathroom into my bedroom, I saw the light. I saw her in all of her magnificent luminosity. The wind was blowing more strongly in my room, shaking the blankets on my bed. I blinked. It was still there, wind and all. I blinked harder. Still there. I rubbed my eyes. Still there! I slapped my arm. Pain. I wasn’t dreaming. I could almost hear the wind translate to a whisper, but it was very faint. There were distinct words, incomprehensible though to me…I knew she was speaking. Was she speaking to me? I caught a word.
“Tonight? What about tonight?” I asked, managing to quiver out the words. My heart was racing.
What’s soon? Words could no longer travel from my thoughts to my lips. Now I was frozen in place. Only this time by choice. I dared not move another inch.
Who’s coming? Man? Woman? Good or bad? I had nothing to draw from.
The haze in my eyes lifted, and when I blinked, she was gone. I shook with fear, with unintelligible thoughts. I couldn’t react. I couldn’t even breathe. The sound of my doorbell pulled me back into reality. Amanda. Oh, no. I had to pull myself together. There was no way she could see me like this; she’d ask too many questions, and this was one thing I refused to let her in on. She’d think I was a lunatic. By this point, I was already questioning my sanity; I didn’t need anyone else to point an accusatory finger at me. My own was enough.
The bell rang again, twice in rapid succession. I could tell Amanda was getting irritated. I threw on the first clothes I could find and pulled my hair back out of my face with a red headband. A quick glance in the mirror brought me back to reality. Aside from the obvious traces of fear still left in my eyes, I still looked like me. Plain, but not maniac material. I opened the door with my best game face, but nothing could escape Amanda’s intuitive nature. She looked at me questioningly. I smiled back weakly in response.
“Ready?” I asked quickly to keep her from analyzing me any longer, quickly averting my eyes from her stare.
“You okay? I’ve been ringing this bell for about ten minutes.”
Ten minutes? Why was the time escaping me so much today? I swore she rang my doorbell only twice. The first broke me out of my frightened stupor; the second got me to the door. Remembering my timing had been a little off this whole day, including last night, I refrained from questioning it further.
“Oh, really?” I said as smoothly as possible, “Sorry about that. I guess I got distracted in the shower. Sometimes it’s hard to hear anything when I’m in there.”
“I’m sure that’s what it was,” she said, unconvinced.
By the way she looked at me, I knew she could tell something was off. But was it really? Maybe it was just my imagination getting away with me. I mean, she had appeared right when I thought about her, something that had never happened in my life. I probably just got lost in a daydream, imagining what it would be like to see her in a different way. I had a tendency to let my daydreams run away from me. That seemed rational enough.
So I shrugged it off as nothing which helped me to relax back into my normal ease. This change seemed to relax Amanda too, and that meant, she wouldn’t pay as much attention to my mood. Danger averted. I grabbed my guitar case and headed out the door. By the time we walked down the stairs to her car in the parking lot, I was almost back to normal. At least the normal level I was at when I got out of bed. I felt like I was pulling myself back together more completely as we drove away from my apartment complex. I leaned my head against the head rest, closed my eyes and relaxed.
Yet I couldn’t fight this new, intense feeling that something was on the horizon. The picture of that light, fixed by my bed flashed fresh in my mind. I kept my eyes from popping open in surprise. My heart fluttered at the recollection of seeing her. I lifted my hand, gingerly rubbed my arm and felt a dull throbbing in the spot I had slapped earlier; there was still a sting of pain left. Enough pain to remind me that what happened was real. It wasn’t a dream. I had seen the lady in white light in a new setting, and I heard her. She was finally trying to speak to me, possibly warn me. I tried hard to remember what she said:
Could this be connected to the intuitive feeling I had earlier, the feeling that told me that this time I wouldn’t be able to ignore the reality of what my father tried to leave with me so long ago? For some reason, I knew that I was going to have to finally face whatever it was that was coming. My days of repressing and ignoring what I tried not to understand were numbered. And according to my vision, someone was going to be the reason I had to face this purpose.
But was this person going to be good or bad? Certainly anyone mentioned in a sentence with the same word as escape could not be good. Or perhaps this person was coming to help me escape? Whoever it was, there was going to be someone or something that I eventually had to evade. But who could that be? I didn’t have any enemies, at least not ones that I was aware of. I lived a simple life and mostly kept to myself. Who could possibly be coming for me? There were too many questions left open ended and no one to make any clarifications for me.
Amanda looked over at me, sensing that I had a lot on my mind. If she even saw the tip of the iceberg of these countless inquiries, she would certainly think I was crazy and overly paranoid. I tried to breathe as evenly as possible, once again keeping my eyes from meeting hers. I didn’t need to look into the side view mirror to know that every emotion I felt was definitely not hidden. At least not yet. I couldn’t compose myself.
“Seriously, Grey, what’s up?” she demanded more than inquired.
“I’m just off today, that’s all. Overslept. That’s why I didn’t realize how late it was until you called,” I explained away as evenly as possible. At least I had enough energy to make up a legitimate story off the cuff. She seemed to buy it for the most part.
“You sure that’s all? What’d you do last night?” She needed further convincing.
“I don’t remember exactly. Studied. Played some guitar. That’s about all. It was pretty boring. I guess I just stayed up later than I thought I did,” I explained, trying to sound nonchalant.
She left it at that, realizing that I wasn’t in the mood to talk about me. I turned my head to look out the window, laying my head back on the seat. I closed my eyes again and tried to focus on the atmosphere. The wind rushing in the car, blowing gently against my hair. My eyes popped open again in fear, as I was quickly reminded of my recent vision. I steadied my breathing and tried again to loosen up. I breathed in and out with more deliberation, counting as I took air in and as I expelled it from my body. I focused this time on the sun as my skin soaked in its rays. I tried to focus on each part of my body that could feel its heat, picturing each ray melting into my skin.
Despite the warmth of this summer day in Florida, I couldn’t help but shudder.
Chapter 3: A Stranger with Strange Questions
Being in the familiar setting of La Ideal eased my nerves. The entrance was on the main strip in Ybor where most of the activities took place, both in the day and at night. This particular place was of a decent size; it could fit about seventy-five to one hundred people comfortably. It served as a café specializing in Cuban dishes by day and a place for small venues by night.
The walls of La Ideal were made of aged, red brick from the floor to the middle of the wall; from the middle of the wall to the low ceiling, the wall was made of wood paneling, painted over by a golden yellow coloring. Along this portion of the walls were several elaborate picture frames, also antique-looking in nature, of various places and people, things of the past. It gave one the feeling of comfort. The setting gave the impression of all things aged and broken in, a place where people would automatically fit because it molded to you, no matter where you came from.
No wonder I liked this place so much.
Opposite to the entrance was a wooden dance floor of a decent size centered in relation to the wall farthest from the front entrance. Situated in front of this dance floor and against the far wall was a slightly raised level of flooring which served as the stage for bands, DJs and any other type of performer, depending on the audience and the time of day or night. Around this area were several small, round tables where people could sit and eat or drink. The tables were covered in red velvet cloth; in the center of each table was a small white candle inside a curved glass vase, tinted blue with a square opening at the top. The blue glow of each candle’s light through its vase gave an eccentric feel to the place by day and a mysterious, intimate feel by night.
Closer towards the entrance, on the right hand side, was a huge bar made of old, dull mahogany that almost stretched across the full length of its adjoining wall. Along the bar were several stools, two in front of the corner closest to the entrance, seven across the front of the bar parallel to the opposite wall and one in the corner closer to the dance floor and stage area; this part of the bar did not touch the wall, allowing easy traffic flow for the bartender, waiters and waitresses.
Facing the bar, on the wall opposite the entrance were elevated seating areas: tall chairs and tables where people could stand or sit in a setting that felt more private since most people would be concentrated at the dance floor and bar areas. Huge deep green curtains spilled from the ceiling, hovering over each table to add to this feeling of intimacy. In between the bar and the opposite wall were two huge columns with old news clippings plastered to every inch of them, again adding to the eccentric feel. Each column had black satin strips curling around them, matching the color of the tables and chairs in the room.
The wall adjacent to the entrance had a few comfortable looking seating arrangements. In the corner, resting diagonally so that each end touched each adjacent wall was a black velvet love seat. Next to the couch on the wall with the tall chairs and tables was a small bookshelf holding a few generic titles; a small comfort for people who wished to read next to the window.
There was one huge window, a single, clear pane stretched across the wall where the entrance was. It almost took up the entire wall space save for the area needed for the door to enter and exit, and a foot or so of actual wall space framing the window. Humbly written in blue cursive outlined in white at the bottom right corner of this window were the words, La Ideal. Looking through this window from the outside in was like looking at a huge T.V. screen. In this particular scenario, if a person liked what they saw on the inside, they were able to join the show. I sometimes imagined what it would be like if that scenario were true: entering another world like any person who enters this café. As simple as opening a door.
The more the time passed between my incident and being here, the more I felt myself flowing back into the ease of normality. Amanda and I walked into the rehearsal with a few minutes to spare. It was going to be a small set tonight; we were opening for another, more popular band. Not to worry though: a few hours of escape, singing to my heart’s content was more than I could ask for tonight.
Jess, the bass player, and Neal, the drummer, were ready and set up to start; they waited, a little on edge, for us to be ready to practice. Maybe Amanda and I were actually late; that wouldn’t be a shock to me given my current track record with time keeping. Oh well. Too late for apologies. I passively smiled at Jess and Neal as we approached the stage.
Jess was almost as quiet as I, but not in the same way exactly. He liked to keep his thoughts to himself not because he was a particularly secretive guy but because he really didn’t have much to think about or consequently, to share. Not that he was an idiot. Quite the contrary; he was one of the most talented and knowledgeable musicians I knew. Except that’s where it stopped. He loved all things music and could talk up a storm about anything and everything related; he just didn’t care to talk or know much about anything else.
Neal, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. He talked about the first thing that came to his mind the moment he acknowledged the thought. Most of the time, what he talked about was purely fictional. He was that guy; the one that talked about all the crazy adventures or “close calls” he happened upon in his life. Mostly too fantastic in nature to really believe. So whenever he told a story, we listened and “Ooh-ed” and “Ahh-ed” at the appropriate moments while inwardly we were rolling our eyes and sighing, waiting for him to be done. But overall, Neal was a more or less good guy to be around. Despite his many stories, fictional or real, he was the kind of guy you could depend on. The kind of guy who you knew would be there for you in a sticky situation.
Nothing would be new for me tonight, and, for once, I was more than happy for the onslaught of tedium; I had no need to feel restless again…for the most part. I fell back into the routine and let the numbness of monotony take over. I tuned my guitar and plugged in. We went through the first few seconds of each song, only practicing parts of each song that really needed specific attention. We were only going to play about four or five tonight.
Towards the end of our practice, I noticed someone watching from the window. It didn’t bother me very much, but for some reason, I couldn’t help looking at him, observing him. Usually, in this neck of the woods, we see the same people, more or less, on a weekly basis; so it is always obvious, and intriguing, to distinguish new faces. Probably some tourist visiting the area, checking out a possible place to hang out tonight, I thought.
There was something about the way he looked at us; no…the way he looked at me. He looked at me like I was some cryptic code he was trying to decipher. Like I was some kind of discovery he was waiting to look at more closely to ensure it was real. I tried to ignore it, but my surprise at being the object of someone’s observation threw me off; I forgot what I was doing, and in the process, trailed off in the middle of the song.
“Hey, what’s up?” asked Jess, rather incensed, so I knew I must have really screwed up the song. “You okay, Grey? You kind of trailed off there mid-song…and then you started singing in the wrong key,” he added.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just…I don’t know. Let’s take it from the top, but after a drink first, okay?” I said, trying to play it cool.
“I have to go to the John anyway,” said Neal, living up to his status as a sharer of unnecessary information.
Break time. I took a seat at a nearby table where a pitcher of water was set with glasses for each of us. I filled a glass and took a huge gulp. I heard the bell ring above the door, signaling a person’s entrance into the café. I looked over nonchalantly to see who came in, and to my surprise, it was that guy. I looked away quickly so that he wouldn’t catch my stunned expression at his entrance. I had the urge to get a better look at him. There was something about the way he looked at me that made me feel like I needed to know him. At the very least, I needed to get a picture of what he looked like deeply ingrained in my memory. For whatever reason.
Lucky for me, I had chosen a seat that wouldn’t make it obvious to anyone, especially to him, that I was looking, analyzing. He had stopped at the bar and was chatting with Candace, one of the girls who usually worked the day shift throughout the week. She was the typical bartender beauty; her stunning features worked well for her in this occupation. All she had to do was bat those long lashes over her crystal clear blue eyes and toss her long, full head of straight blonde hair a few times in a day, and any man was at her mercy. The money she made from her tip jar alone from these unsuspecting male victims was truly appalling. Sickening, really.
She could pay off my college loans after one weekend with a new haircut and a little mascara. That’s how good she was at her job.
Of course, I thought with a tinge of chagrin. He wasn’t looking at me at all. He was probably looking at her, and now he’s talking with her. Despite feeling slightly miffed, I still took some time to look him over. That was allowed, right?
He was tall, of medium build, and he had a mass of dark brown hair that settled at the tips of his ears and the edge of his eyebrows, curling slightly at the ends. It was unkempt but not unattractive. His brows were of no real consequence; they were simply the same color, perhaps a shade darker, than his hair. His facial features were sharp but not imposing; he had a defined jaw line, a straight and pointed nose. But it wasn’t intimidating; though he looked imperial, he did not seem unapproachable. Quite the opposite.
But his eyes. The eyes I had thought were looking at me. His eyes were the most captivating feature of his face. They were the clearest of blues. Like the sea on the coast of some recluse island. They were piercing, captivating. Full of an amalgam of mystery, hope, secrecy, confidence.
He was leaning over the bar towards Candace. Not surprising. She had a very welcoming personality; not in a lewd way; people were simply drawn to her because of her beauty and her naturally cheerful attitude. He was smiling, the kind of smile that made his eyes disappear beneath his dark, contrastive lashes. Beautiful and genuine. Yet, I could detect a twinge of urgency in his eyes. He was trying to figure something out.
As he said something to Candace, he quickly nodded his head in my direction, piquing my interest to know what it was he was trying to figure out. At this discovery in observing his interaction with Candace, I looked away from them but listened as hard as I could.
“Oh, her?” Candace said, realizing what he was getting at, and, with a quick glance, I saw his silent plea for her to be more discreet.
“Who is she?” he continued.
His voice sounded rough with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Like he was in a hurry to get somewhere. Though there was another tone of something elegant in his voice, almost regal, as if he were addressing someone and not simply conversing. It was accented, but not distinct to a specific place or country. Just markedly different from the voices normally heard in this area.
“That’s Grey. She’s a regular performer here with that band of hers she’s in. They’re not half bad. People enjoy the music and, mostly, her voice. It’s indescribable,” she answered.
I couldn’t help but beam inwardly at the compliment.
I’m not a great talent. Not at anything, really. There are many things I enjoy doing, some more than others, and there are many things I am good at doing; but, secretly, singing was one of my greatest passions. I never let my love for singing show entirely though; for fear of being disappointed in the end. And so, I never gave all of myself, even to the things I love the most because there was no guarantee that people would think or feel the same about the things you loved. In this case, her compliment was graciously accepted. Who knew there was someone who actually liked hearing my voice?
I quit these musings and returned to the conversation just in time.
“How old is she? Do you know anything about her family?” he asked, hurriedly, still maintaining that elegant tone.
I was taken aback by this question. Who was this guy and why did he care about me or my family? I had never seen this man in my life, and for someone like me, who is in no trouble with the law and really of no importance, it seemed like a pretty odd question to ask. I looked at Candace, who clearly felt the same way towards the sudden, invasive question. She looked highly uncomfortable. And she didn’t answer him. Thank goodness; she was sensible.
By Candace’s reaction, he quickly gathered that his question was too invasive and alleviated the suspicion he created, “I’m sorry. She just looks like someone I’ve met before.” I could tell he was lying, but his voice sounded so smooth, and he spoke with such ease that it seemed to take away any discomfort he created.
“She is pretty popular around here,” Candace replied, “There’s no reason why you wouldn’t have met her if you come around these parts every once in a while.” She looked him over though, knowing that this was the first time he had ever shown his face in this café. Before she could get suspicious again, he responded, “I think I might be confusing her with someone else…my mistake.”
But he didn’t leave. He smoothly, almost too smoothly, like he was trying to appear nonchalant, walked over to the couch next to the window. He picked up a book and read. Though every now and then, I caught him, most discreetly, glance in my general direction. Oddly enough, it made me more inquisitive than uncomfortable. At this point, any logical person would be running for the door. That is, after promptly hitting the guy with a club to knock him unconscious and calling the police.
But I couldn’t feel anything but the opposite of logical…not with him. It was like I was drawn to him in some strange, mysterious way. I didn’t have enough time to think over this because I was called back to reality with a sudden shouting of my name:
All of my band mates screamed this in unison.
Amanda came up to my table and said, “Geez. You’re really out of it today, huh? What did you do last night?” She smiled, mocking me amiably. I smiled and rolled my eyes.
“Nothing crazy or stupid if that’s what you’re getting at. I’m just having an off day, I think. Are we ready to do that last number from the top?”
They all nodded with hurried agreement. They were ready for practice to be over. I got back up stage, picked up my guitar and Neal counted us off. Every now and then, I glanced at the stranger, whoever he was, and every time I did, he was looking right at me without hesitation.
But it wasn’t a look that was seductive. Nor was it one that was trying to get my attention. Rather it was analytical, deep in thought. Like he was on the verge of solving his mystery, a mystery that was, for whatever reason, connected to me. His brow furrowed as he concentrated harder on a thought that led his eyes to finally look away from where I was standing. He looked like he was mumbling.
What a day. First, the restless night. I still couldn’t remember everything I did. Next, the realization that I hadn’t seen the “vision” only to be startled by it in a completely different setting. I shuddered at the memory. I wasn’t far enough removed from the recollection to believe it was all in my head. And now, this brooding stranger, asking questions about me and my family.
I had a strange yet confident feeling that this phase in my life that had been so mundane and so unsatisfying was going to come to an abrupt end. And soon.
Then I heard the words of my most recent visit from the woman surrounded in white light:
My heart stopped and missed a few beats at the connection. Whatever end was coming, as the vision forewarned, it was coming soon…tonight. Could the person coming be a he; as in “he’s coming’; as in the man that was sitting on the black couch in this very room? Am I supposed to be escaping from him? If that were the case, the urge to do so wasn’t coming to me at all in any way. If anything, I wanted to do anything but escape from him. I wanted to run to him. Despite all of that, I had a growing understanding that my life, as it was at this moment, was coming to an end.
Just what kind of end would it be? I wondered.
Chapter 4: That Night
We ran through the songs for about an hour and afterwards decided to head to a nearby restaurant to get a quick bite to eat before our gig. I was consumed in thought over the stranger that interrogated Candace. What did he want from me? I certainly didn’t think of myself as anyone important, nor did I have any connections to anything or anyone important; so why was there such urgency on his part to know who I was? From instinct alone, I absentmindedly toyed with the necklace around my neck, a remnant of the past.
“Seriously, Grey, what is wrong with you today?” Amanda prodded.
The others nodded in consent to the question, looking at me for a response. I didn’t know what to say to them. There were so many things that I couldn’t decipher; they all seemed to be interrelated, yet I couldn’t fit the pieces together.
“Did you notice that guy that came into the café while we were practicing?” I asked in turn.
No one seemed to have taken quite as much interest in him as I had. They all agreed that they had seen him come in, talk with Candace and sit down to read while we finished our sound check and practice session. They had nothing else to add to their unassuming observation of the stranger. Had they overheard the questions he asked Candace concerning me, they would have taken more interest, but they hadn’t. And I didn’t bother telling them. I didn’t want to raise any unnecessary suspicions. I needed to be sure that my worries were real.
“I think someone has a crush,” Neal teased. We all ignored this chide so as to avoid any elaborations he had tucked away, waiting to be spoken. I thanked my lucky stars that we all had an unspoken agreement in how we dealt with Neal.
“Maybe he’ll come to the show tonight,” Amanda encouraged.
“Yeah, hopefully. He was pretty cute,” I responded, complying with Amanda’s statement. I didn’t mention that I more than hoped to see him. There was something about him that I had to know. There was something that I had to figure out as well. And fast. I failed to mention this sense of urgency to the others.
Before we knew it, we were setting up in front of a decently sized crowd. Most of them friends or regular attendees that we had gotten to know over the year performing at the café. Playing for them was almost like breathing to me; it was the greatest release I had at my disposal. And to play for people I knew fairly well just made it that much sweeter. We played a few covers and a few songs of our own. I couldn’t have asked for a better night to play. After our last song, I was a little sad for it to end- a large part of that due to the fact that the stranger from earlier that day had not shown up.
The moment I’d waited all night for, since I first set eyes on that stranger, did not come. Slightly chagrinned, I helped my band mates clear off the stage to make way for the headliners. I couldn’t help but glance at the door every few minutes to see if he would come; he never did. We packed our instruments in our separate cars and headed back into the café to watch the main act. As we settled somewhere in the depths of the crowd waiting for the show to begin, I couldn’t help but scan the room to see if I might have missed him. With each place thoroughly scrutinized, I was once again disappointed to see that he in fact was not there…why was I so frustrated about his absence? There was something inside of me, like an electric current, that needed to see him, it expected him.
“You okay over there,” Amanda asked, again picking up on my strange behavior.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me so much okay?” I lied. I wasn’t ready to admit anything to her.
“Maybe he’ll show up another time,” she added, once again pinpointing exactly what was on my mind. Her ability to do that was both a blessing and a curse.
“Yeah, maybe,” I conceded, hoping she would simply end the topic at that.
Though I faked it as best as I could on the outside, swaying to the music, humming along to the words, I couldn’t fight the electric current running through me. Whoever he was and wherever he was now, I needed to meet him, to talk to him. About what, I didn’t know yet. As the band finished their set and the noise from the crowd faded with people heading home or to their next destination, I absentmindedly tinkered with the necklace that hung around my neck, picturing each symbol and color: the letters in gold, the bright blue face, the heart glowing like the sun.
“You joining us for some drinks?” Neal asked.
“I think I’m going to go home. Long day,” I answered, still toying with the charm, not quite receptive to my surroundings. I needed rest.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Amanda replied before Neal could complain, “I’ll drive you home.”
Luckily, Amanda left me to my own musings. I parted with a vague goodnight as she drove off to meet Neal and Jess back at the café or maybe at some other bar on the same street. I walked up the sidewalk to my apartment building while rummaging around in my purse for my keys. When I looked up, my eyes met something I would never have expected to see in my neck of the woods. Or even in Tampa in general…
There it was-the largest beast I’d ever seen in my life. I couldn’t quite identify his species. He was a mixture of several lethal predators that I was glad I would never have to cross paths with in my life. That is, until this moment. He was as large as a tiger, with paws that seemed to best that of a Grizzly. He had a long, hairy tail as thick as a tree trunk. One whip of that tail at the right angle and I would be flat on my back, wind knocked out of my lungs, awaiting my demise. His face was terrifying. He had eyes that shined waxy and yellow like a candle in a darkened room and a long muzzle that looked as if it could trap the length of my body within it with no effort at all. He had mangy, brown fur that was darkened by dirt and grime. He looked as if he had traveled a far distance to make it to my front steps. Though his teeth were not barred, I knew he bore ill will. I couldn’t even bring myself to fully imagine what was within that terrifying jaw of his. I suspected dagger-like teeth that could tear through my flesh like a knife through hot butter.
He looked at me like he recognized me, like he had been waiting for me for some time. I took one shaky step backwards and slipped on the curb. Almost falling backwards, I managed to keep my balance, my fearful eyes glued to this unexpected creature, watching me from the very steps that led to my apartment. He did not make a step towards me to match my own, but he continued to look at me, calculating.
I didn’t understand what was happening or what would happen. I could only stand frozen to the pavement, waiting to react to whatever this animal was about to do, survival instincts taking precedence over more logical trains of human thought. I saw his eyes divert to the chain around my neck, and wondered how an animal could observe me with that kind of intelligence; I grasped the charm on my neck, giving it some kind of protection from him, feeble though it was. He seemed to react to this as well; as if he were processing what I had just done, confirming the significance of the object. How could an animal be doing this?
And just as I thought he was about to make a step towards me, he perked his ears up and tilted his head, eyes still on me, like there was someone standing next to him whispering in his ear. His eyes slanting and his mouth sneering (was it possible for animals to sneer at you?), he turned quickly and ran off into the distance, disappearing into the darkness as swiftly and as quietly as a whisper. I shuddered at the agility, speed and subtlety with which this large beast could slip away into the night. He could come back at any moment just as covertly, leaving me with no time to escape.
My mind still could not comprehend what had just happened. Surely I had imagined it all. I stared from the place where the wolf had stood before me to the place he ran off to in the distance and could not absorb what I had seen just moments before. I stood on the road, still rooted to the spot, my mind racing. After a few minutes had passed, I managed to move towards to the door, a little shaken still, making haste lest that beast decided to come back…
Running up the stairs to my apartment, I quickly opened my door and shut it behind me once I was safely inside. Did he know I lived upstairs? Would he be waiting for me at my front door? With this thought in mind, I peered through the peephole in my door expecting to see that same mangy-looking monster. To my relief, there was nothing there but empty space. I pressed my back to the front door and slid down until I was sitting on the carpet, my head resting on my knees.
Was that the thing the lady in white warned me of? Was I wrong about the stranger from earlier?
Finally, after what seemed like hours of sitting at my front door, I flung myself on the couch and turned on the television. There was no way I could sleep in silence tonight.
Chapter 5: Animals with Strange Behavior
Ringing, ringing, ringing.
My eyes opened mutinously to the sound of my phone. I picked it up and looked to see who was calling…Amanda.
“Hello?” I answered, not having to fake the fact that I had been deeply asleep only moments before.
“Oh, hey! Sorry I woke you up!” she replied.
“Is it some weird hour of the day again, have I forgotten some prior engagement, or are you actually calling me early this time?” I responded, recalling her need to figure out the reason behind my odd behavior the previous day.
“Oh no, it’s actually early. Eight o’clock to be exact,” she laughed, dispelling my worries of her continuing to scrutinize me. “I just wanted to see if you were up and if you wanted to go out for breakfast.
“I am hungry, but I think I’ll eat here. Can I call you after I’ve woken up completely? I’m still a little groggy right now,” I answered, wanting more time to myself.
“No worries,” she said brightly, “I’ll talk to you later then.”
“Yeah, I’ll call you later,” I promised, debating whether or not I actually would keep it.
I hung up the phone and headed for the kitchen, glancing nonchalantly at my back porch. Something registered moments after, stopping me from perusing the contents of my refrigerator…I walked back to my dining room which was situated in front of the sliding door leading to the small back porch. A murder of crows was settled there, perched on the railings, on random chairs…but that wasn’t what made me do a double take to the scene before me. They were all quite still. Too still. And they were facing me, looking in.
My heart skipped a beat. Once again, I was rooted to the spot, trying to comprehend such odd animal behavior. And then one of the larger crows hopped closer to the sliding glass door barricading me from the murder, and pecked it. It was knocking on my door as if signaling me to let them in. In disbelief, I did not respond. It knocked again, this time more urgently, looking at me like it was irritated.
I took a step away from the door as if the increased distance would somehow change what was happening. Like they would magically disappear. The one crow continued to knock as the others stood as still as statues, waiting to see what I would do next. The knocking crow was becoming more irritated, and soon began to fly in front of the glass, eye level with me, pecking furiously now at the door that remained unopened to them. And I was quite sure that I was not mistaken when I saw the crow glance ever so slightly at the chain that hung around my neck. Quickly, I hid it beneath my shirt, away from its stare. The crow finally backed away from the glass door, mid-air, and abruptly veered off in the opposite direction, finally flying away from my sliding glass door. The others followed almost immediately after glaring at me contemptuously.
What was happening?
I rushed to my phone and called Amanda. She answered after one ring.
“Hey. Change your mind?” she asked.
“Yeah, meet me at my house. I don’t want to leave my apartment alone,” I said with an edge to my voice.
“What’s wrong, Grey?”
“We need to talk. I have to tell you something, and you’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I need to get it off of my chest. Come as quickly as you can.”
She hung up without saying anything. But I knew she’d be on her way. I could always count on her. I looked back warily to where the crows had just been and couldn’t fight the eerie feeling that this would not be the last encounter with strangely behaving animals. I rushed to my room and threw on the first things I could find, brushed my teeth and grabbed my purse.
Waiting nervously in my living room, I jumped at the sound of a knock on my door. I waited a few moments before asking who was there. I couldn’t be sure that it was not another strange animal trying to get into my apartment, trying to get to me; after what just happened, I now knew that it wasn’t impossible for an animal to understand the concept of knocking, if in fact they were real animals.
“It’s me, Grey!” Amanda shouted. To be sure, I looked through the peephole to confirm that it was her. Maybe these animals could talk and imitate voices even. They certainly performed other human-like behaviors with ease. Easing up a bit, I opened the door.
“Wha-” she started, but I cut her off.
“Not now. Let’s get out of here first,” I said tersely, shutting the door tightly behind me to ensure it locked properly and walking past her confused-looking stare.
The tension emanating from me was almost tangible as we drove silently in the car. I needed time to recollect my thoughts, to ascertain the best possible way to explain to Amanda what had happened to me since I came home the night before. How would I put it into words? There was no way I could word it or piece together the details without coming off as a complete lunatic. Even working out in my head what I needed to explain to her sounded completely nuts. I barely believed it myself!
“Where do you want to eat?” she asked with an edge to her voice. The ongoing silence was only adding stress to her racing mind.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like for us to keep driving. So there’s no chance of eavesdroppers, you know?” I answered shakily.
Although she looked confused and even more worried at this response, she did not object and kept driving, turning onto roads where she could drive with more leisure. I’m not sure how long of a drive it was, but I took as much time in explaining what had happened to me to make me so unnerved. The mysterious beast at my apartment building, the crows…I even told her about the vision I had of the lady in white. Surprisingly, she took this all in without once daring to question my sanity though she did have to pull over to park the car; she needed to mull over what I had just shared with her.
As she was about to speak, we turned our faces towards the hood of her car as a small thumping noise occasioned the response. It was a sleek looking cat, cunning even. It was of no large size though it was not small either by any means. It was entirely black. Giving my immediate history with animals in the past twenty-four hours, I watched the cat with suspicion, waiting for it to act in a very un-animal fashion. My observations were in vain as the cat merely romped about the hood and quickly jumped off of the car in pursuit of some unseen thing.
“Well, certainly nothing odd about that animal,” Amanda replied, a little smug.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Look, it’s not that…I’m just not sure what to think,” she consoled.
Thankfully, Amanda was open to such things as these. She wasn’t entirely devoid of regard for the possibility, and even existence, of things outside our understanding. She just had no experience; had she seen even one of the visions of the lady in white from my childhood, she wouldn’t be leaning anywhere near skepticism. There was always hope for her coming around to the idea eventually. And hopefully that time would come soon. I needed someone to confide in.
Another thump. This time it was a rather large, shabby looking grey cat whose yellow eyes pierced into mine in a most uncomfortable way. Once again, I had the notion from the body language of the animal that it was calculating. To confirm my suspicions, the cat crept slowly nearer to me towards the windshield that I was thankful served as a barricade between me and the mangy beast as it looked, very deliberately, at the chain about my neck. I pressed my hand over it to shield it from further view and turned to look at Amanda. She looked at me incredulously; she had seen the cat make its observation, the same observation I described to her just moments before. Then the black cat returned. It looked at the grey one, and to the astonishment of both Amanda and me, the grey cat gave a quick nod to the black one, as if confirming something they had discussed prior to standing on the hood of Amanda’s car. In synch, they both turned their heads toward me, moving even closer to the glass.
Horrified, Amanda locked her car doors, but could not gather the courage just yet to start the car. The cats, noting this reaction, peered at Amanda and hissed. They began to paw at the glass, scratch it, as if their efforts would soon be rewarded. Amanda finally found the strength to start the car and pull away despite the fact that the cats were still on the hood. They jumped down smoothly to the side of the road. Upon glancing at the rearview mirror, I could see that they were running behind our car trying to keep up with us. They soon stopped and gazed at us, rather ominously, as we continued our retreat, widening the space between us and them.
“What the hell was that!” she screamed.
“Now do you believe me?” I retorted.
“Whatever it is that happened to you, I have to say that that pretty much made a believer out of me.”
“Well…I’m glad.” It was all I could muster.
“Whatever you do, Grey, for goodness sake, hide that necklace. If you can’t take it off, at least make sure it’s hidden under your shirt at all times. That’s what seems to be drawing attention though I have no clue why.”
I obeyed and hid the necklace under my shirt. What was the significance behind it? My father gave it to me a long time ago, but made no real significance of it in his explanation to me though I might have misunderstood if he had, given my age at the time it was received. It had a very peculiar reaction when hit by the light at certain angles, yes, but to me that seemed to serve more as an amusement to the wearer than anything else. Though I could also be wrong on that part as well. I resolved to have a closer look at the necklace when I was sure I was in a safe place. I needed to find some answers, or, at the very least, figure out some clue that could lead me to some answers.
“Whatever it is you’re thinking, Grey, I’m in,” she said, reading my thoughts.
“I don’t understand how you could help me.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I want to help, and you can’t stop me,” she answered decidedly. I knew I had to let her in.
It was a comfort to me to know that I had at least one person on my side, someone I could confide in outside of my own thoughts. For some reason, Amanda adjusted so fluidly to the supernatural things now surrounding me, drawn like a magnet to whatever secrets were hidden in the necklace I’d worn since I was a child. At least I wasn’t alone now.