Fiction Long Reads

The Living Key

This is a story that is heavily in need of editing. I kind of use it as my "writing for fun" piece to get ideas out. I spend little to no time on crafting the story well...maybe one day, I'll go back, edit it and try to make it good. At least somewhat readable...

 

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.

“Grey?”

“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.

“You okay?”

“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…”

“Tonight? What about tonight?” I asked, managing to quiver out the words. My heart was racing.

“…soon…”

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.

“…’s coming…escape…”

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:

“…tonight…soon…’s coming…escape…”

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:

“GREY!”

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:

“…tonight…soon…’s coming…escape…”

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.

Chapter 6: Calm before the Storm

Great, just perfect. It was so ironic that after finally confiding my most hidden secrets to Amanda, catalyzed by the strange animal encounters, one of which she was a part, the strange occurrences would come to an abrupt stop. 

It took several weeks for me to recover, the mysterious disappearance of strange animals serving as an equally frightening occurrence as their physical encounters. I expected reappearance at every waking moment. I darted past ominous buildings, alleyways, you name it. I rarely went out at night or slept in silence, alone or in the dark. I tried to be with Amanda as much as possible, whether at her home or at mine, since she was the only person who could truly understand the apprehension I felt for the return of those strange creatures…or the appearance of something far worse.

Months passed before I could finally function as a normal person. 

“We need to do something,” Amanda said spontaneously, exasperated. Clearly, we’d been reclusive for far too long.

“You want to rent a movie or something?” I was trying to gear the conversation towards something I could handle. Though I was experiencing cabin fever as well, I was still hesitant to go out at night.

“No.”

“Amanda, I don’t know…what if…”

“Look, it’s been long enough, nothing strange. Take a chance and live for once,” she said, decisively cutting me off.

“Amanda…” I knew I was going to lose, but I whined nonetheless.

“Let’s just go to La Ideal. We’ll go out for a few hours, dance and come straight home.”

There was no way I could win this battle; half of me was dying to go out as well. That half would win tonight. According to Amanda, there was a really good DJ in town, though I had no opinion on the matter. As long as the songs were good enough to dance to for a few hours and forget about our worries, I knew I would have fun.

We got dressed and drove out to La Ideal. By the time we made it there, the place was already packed. Though there was a long line waiting to enter, we got in right when we got there; playing gigs there had its perks. As we entered the building, I could see that the dance floor was packed-a good sign; dancing at La Ideal was always more fun when you were surrounded by people. We headed straight towards the dancing crowd to find a spot. Through the crowd, we ran into Neal who joined us to dance.

“It’s good to see you guys!” he yelled over the music and surrounding conversations.

“Yeah, you too,” Amanda and I conceded in unison.

“You two have been M.I.A. for so long. I thought we wouldn’t see you until we had another gig lined up…” Amanda and I could only exchange a wary glance at each other. Luckily, Neal didn’t catch on to that quick exchange. 

It was so easy to let the music take control of all of my senses. Every beat that quaked through me seemed to chip away at the mountain of worry that had been building inside of me in the past few months. With each piece that chipped away, my body responded fluidly, succumbing to the melody. For the first time in a long span, I felt free. It was the same feeling I got when I sang: total release of anything that I’d collected in my mind. I was finally letting go…

The whole atmosphere was intoxicating. The people around me swayed to the music so fluidly I felt like I was floating all alone in the middle of a huge ocean. Thousands of lights in blues and soft whites swirled all around us, cutting into the otherwise darkened room. The lamps lit on the tables surrounding the dance floor glowed and flickered like tiny stars adding to the effect of being at sea. 

“You want a drink?” Neal asked after the song ended and was transitioning into another hypnotic, wordless song.

“Yeah, I do, I’ll come with you,” Amanda replied.

“I’m good. I’ll wait for you guys at a table,” I answered as we made our way off of the dance floor. I found an empty chair facing the bar and front window. There were other people sitting at the table, but they were so engrossed in conversation and sitting so closely together that my presence was not uncomfortable for them; I doubt it was even noticed.

There was a pretty decent wait at the bar, so I knew I’d be sitting for a while. I didn’t mind though since I was fairly tired from dancing. I occupied my solitude by people watching. I scanned the crowd, watching couples playfully banter with one another and groups laughing raucously. I couldn’t help but smile at all of the different dynamics. Eventually my eyes focused on the crowd outside, some waiting to get in, some loafing around trying to figure out their next destination for the evening. That’s when I saw him…

The inquisitive stranger. And this time, he wasn’t alone.

The man with my mysterious stranger was clearly older and dressed similarly-something inconspicuous but archaic in a way. He was taller than the stranger I’d seen before, slimmer. Though he was clearly in his mid- to late forties, he still exuded the air of power and strength. He had long grey hair with a few streaks of black. It was parted in the center and fell to his shoulders. His beard was the same color, somewhat long and pointed at the end. His brows were furrowed as he spoke to the younger man while his eyes darted from side to side. They were looking for someone…and possibly trying to evade someone unknown to me. They looked as if they were agitated in a way, like they had a limited amount of time to accomplish whatever it was they were trying to accomplish.

I sat as still as a statue, taking all of this in, and to my alarm, they looked as if they were trying to get into La Ideal. I watched as they talked hurriedly, almost anxiously to the security guards in front of the door. A handshake was exchanged, and they were immediately let in. I noticed a decent wad of cash in one of the guard’s hands before he quickly tucked it away in his pocket. As the strangers entered the room, they scanned through the crowd purposefully. I glanced quickly at the bar; Amanda and Neal were just getting to the counter to order some drinks. In a panic, I turned my back to the entrance, facing the dancing crowd, hoping that I blended in with the people around me.

There’s no way. They can’t be looking for me! I thought, trying to hide myself from scrutiny.

I risked a quick glance behind me: the two strangers found a vantage point by one of the newspaper covered columns in the middle of the room. They were talking in quick bursts to each other while still scanning the crowd. My eyes had lingered on them with just enough time for the younger stranger to notice me. We locked eyes for a quick moment, and recognition was clearly written in his eyes. His body gave a start in response, and he nudged his friend.

“It’s the guy!” Amanda yelled as she and Neal found their way back to me.

“What guy?” Neal asked, looking in the direction Amanda was gesturing.

“Stop! Don’t look at him! I don’t want him to come over here,” I scolded, hiding myself after stealing a quick glance at the pair. Though he had clearly noticed me and was still looking at me, along with his companion, they had not moved an inch from their spot next to the column.

“Let’s just dance, okay?” I took the lead towards the dance floor.

Agitated as I was, I tried to get lost in the music the way I had before I saw him, but it wasn’t working as effectively. Having tangible evidence of someone who I felt was linked to the strange things that were happening to me kept my mind too occupied with questions and memories that I had tried so hard to repress. After half an hour or so of dancing around with Amanda and Neal, I still couldn’t relax. My eyes would dart to him every few seconds. There he stood, quite content, though watching me closely. I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to confront him. End this uncomfortable tension building between the two of us. Maybe then I could find some peace of mind.

It all happened in the split second it took me to make my decision to confront him.

As I was walking towards the pair, I noticed that the crowd outside of La Ideal was stirring rather unusually. The people had gathered together, almost in a kind of semicircle, watching something approaching the sidewalk. I could only really make out the reaction of the people in the back of the crowd. They were peering over the shoulders of others that were more towards the front of the sidewalk. Whatever it was that they were looking at, it was coming towards them from the street. It was probably some limousine driving towards the street parallel to the sidewalk where the crowd stood; it was annoying how people reacted to a fancy car, thinking that it must contain some famous person, when really it was probably just regular people who wanted to indulge themselves for one night out on the town. My attention was just turning back towards the pair standing by the column, but it was drawn back to the crowd outside when I heard people screaming.

Looking back at the scene outside the big window, I saw the crowd dispersing rather quickly…and not at all calmly. They were running haphazardly in all directions, clearly evading whatever was coming towards them. My eyes darted nervously towards the strangers, and their attention was also drawn to the commotion outside. My eyes flew back to the scene at the front of La Ideal. When I finally took in what I was now seeing, my heart seemed to accelerate, reacting to the fear now building rapidly within me.

It couldn’t be.

The horrible creature that had haunted many of my dreams was finally back. That same mangy, dirty beast that waited for me at the front of my apartment building so many months ago. And this time, to my dismay, he wasn’t alone. He was flanked on either side by beasts that were similar to him in size, perhaps only a fraction smaller. One was an amazing white; there was not a touch or hint of any color on his fur. His eyes were a brilliant blue. If I wasn’t sure beyond a doubt that their presence was solely related to me, I would’ve marveled more at his overall beauty. The other was a deep gray. He, like the beast I had seen at my apartment, was dirty in appearance though not as ragged. His eyes glowed though they were a deep brown. They walked towards La Ideal with authority and purpose.

I looked back at the pair who was now making their way towards me. It was becoming more difficult for them to reach me since the crowd inside was reacting in the same way to the appearance of the animals as those who were outside. I looked at them in earnest, trying to close the gap between us. The door to the club opened, letting in the cool night air. My eyes froze to the front. How could anyone think to escape through that door where those awful creatures waited? I heard their fierce growls as the people who tried to escape through the front fell back, some on the floor, others on top of them, trying to give the creatures as wide a berth as possible. They didn’t attack, however. The first jumped quickly and agilely into the room followed by the other two. Their cunning eyes scanned the tumultuous crowd, searching for someone. If my instincts were correct, I knew they were searching for me.

I didn’t realize that the young stranger had finally made his way to me. He kept yelling at me, shaking me, trying to get my attention, but my eyes were glued on the terrifying monsters that were now only separated from me by a few feet and random people scrambling to leave. I didn’t want to be surprised if they managed to close the small gap that lay between us. In an instant the snow white beast locked eyes with me; I let out a choked scream. The young stranger who was trying to get my attention turned his eyes to where I was staring. The creature glanced quickly at him and let out a low growl, barring his unbelievable large, razor-like teeth. This seemed to get the attention from the others. Once they recognized me (How did they recognize me?), they repositioned themselves to face me, once again with the white and gray beasts flanking the brown one. The older stranger was in front of me in a flash, ready to fight for me. 

Finally, my eyes met with the crystal blue eyes of the younger stranger.

“Grey, we need to get out of here fast. Someone is coming for you,” he spoke calmly yet urgently.

“How…who…?”

“There’s no time. We need to get moving,” he cut me off. There was no way I could be coherent just yet. There was too much going on in my head to organize any real questions. There was too much going on outside of my head; three large monsters being held at bay by one man to be exact. Suddenly, the older stranger wasn’t looking so strong. Not now that I could see the muscles of the three creatures tensing, flexing right before my eyes.

I stifled another scream. Before I knew fully what was happening, I was being pulled through the back doors. I was only able to catch one small glimpse of Amanda and Neal scrambling to find a way out as well. For some reason, I had the strange feeling that I wouldn’t see them again for a very long time. I ran with a huge crowd through the emergency door that led to the back entrance of the club, out onto a back alley. The alley led back to the main road, where the sidewalk to the entrance to La Ideal was. He stopped abruptly to gauge where we would go next only to be startled by the sound of glass breaking and scattering onto the pavement. It couldn’t be. I turned my horrified eyes to the source of the noise. The three creatures were now on the pavement in the middle of a screaming crowd shaking the glass from their heavy coats. Luckily, they were distracted by the police cars and animal control vehicles that were finally driving to the scene of the disturbance. It was enough time for me and the younger stranger to get lost in the crowd.

“Where are you taking me?” I finally managed to choke out.

“I need to get you somewhere safe,” was all he managed to say.

“What are those things, and why are they after me?” I needed some answers.

“I’ll explain it all to you in due time. First, we need to get you to a safe place,” he answered quickly. I had a feeling that this ‘safe place’ wouldn’t be anywhere I was familiar with.

“I need to go home first,” I pleaded.

“There may not be enough time,” he debated more to himself than to me.

“Please, I just want to change my clothes and maybe get some important things.”

“You’ll need to be quick,” he added as he changed directions. We were heading to my apartment before I could even explain how to get there. How did he know where I lived? But I had other things to worry about that were more important than his inexplicable knowledge of where I happened to sleep at night. That was the least of my worries. Besides, my mind was so stressed out that it was good to have someone lead the way while I simply followed.

We got to my apartment in little to no time since I didn’t live too far from Ybor. It wasn’t exactly walking distance, but it wasn’t too arduous of a walk if necessary. Besides, I was too worried about other things to notice any fatigue I had from heading home on foot. We ran up the stairs to my floor and burst through my front door. My phone was ringing incessantly.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Grey?! Thank goodness! I’m so glad you’re okay.” Amanda sounded relieved. “I’m coming over right now.”

“No, no. It’s okay. Whatever happened at the club is sure to make its way here pretty soon. I’m going to leave in a minute. Just stay where you are.” There was no way I wanted Amanda to run back to danger. I wasn’t worth it.

“Grey, don’t be stupid. I can’t leave you there alone or let you go somewhere alone,” she sounded like my mother.

“I’m not alone…I’m with…” I looked at the young stranger blankly.

“Oliver,” he whispered to me.

“…Oliver,” I finished my paused sentence.

“Who’s Oliver?” she asked, sounding skeptical.

“We’ll come to you. How about that?” I tried to pacify her.

“If you’re not here in fifteen minutes, I’m coming to get you,” she said flatly, hanging up the phone.

I rushed through my room grabbing anything I felt to be important. Driver’s license, passport, extra cash. I stuffed this all into an orange backpack I had lying around for short trips. I threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I grabbed a long sleeve shirt and jacket and stuffed it into the book bag along with underwear, socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. The essentials. Everything else I could live without for the time being. I put on a pair of hiking boots and tied my hair back into a ponytail; I had a feeling that I would need something more or less durable. Better safe than sorry. The last thing I threw into my bag was my cell phone though I didn’t know if that would be a necessary item in the long run. I ran out to meet Oliver in my living room. He was pacing impatiently, clearly ready to be on the move again. 

Before heading out the door, I made sure that I had one last thing with me. The necklace. As I closed the door to my apartment, I instinctively grabbed the chain around my neck and pressed the charm, making sure it was still there. I didn’t miss Oliver’s quick glance at this reaction. Though his eyes darted quickly away, I could detect a sense of recognition there. Though it wasn’t the same greedy recognition of the animals that I had encountered recently. It was almost a look of relief.

“We need to get out of here now. They’ll be looking here next,” he answered plainly.

“We have to go to Amanda’s. I promised,” I stated warily, hoping he wouldn’t say no.

“It’ll have to be a quick stop. We need to get outside of the city. Find a safe place to hide for a while.”

Good, he didn’t say no.

“We’ll take my car,” I added, “and then you’ll need to tell me everything you know.”

“Fine,” he said tersely. “Let’s just get out of here. We need to get moving.”

For the first time in years, evading danger in the form of three large monsters that were like no other animal I’d ever seen aside, I felt something more like purpose. There was this newness building inside of me, something not altogether unknown. The dull, lifeless feeling that had rested inside of me all these years was finally bubbling away in effervescent sprays of excitement. Something awaited me on the horizon, and I couldn’t wait to meet it face to face. Had I known exactly where I was headed, I would run to it, arms wide open to embrace this feeling and expectation.

 I felt like my restlessness was finally waning.

Chapter 7: Game Plan

The tension in the car was so palpable it forced me to keep silent. There were so many things I wanted to ask Oliver, I didn’t know where to start. But the tension was so overbearing that I couldn’t fight against the force compelling my lips to stay shut tight. Instead, I nervously drummed the tips of my fingers against the steering wheel as I drove. I tried to concentrate on every aspect of the drive: the buildings, the street signs, the advertisements. I locked each detail away-anything to keep my mind from drifting into musings of the impending unknown. 

We got to Amanda’s house just in time. As I was pulling into her small driveway, she was exiting her front door, keys in hand, preparing to find me. I parked my car quickly, simultaneously putting it into park, pulling the keys out of the ignition and exiting the car. 

“Good. I’m glad you’re finally here,” she exhaled all in one anxious breath.

“Let’s get inside now,” I answered hastily. Who knew what secret eyes were watching me at that very moment.

Oliver was somehow there, right behind me, during the brief exchange between Amanda and me. It calmed me immensely. His nearness felt like a much needed shield from all of the danger that seemed to now be closing in on me. I wanted so badly to understand why all of this was happening to me. What made me so special? If special was even the right word to use to describe my current situation.

It was an unsettling feeling being forced into the epicenter of a conflict, being the focus of attention after so many years of living under the radar. I ignored this as the three of us walked hastily to her front door. As we were settling ourselves in her front room, she closed all of her blinds, warily assessing the scene outside before shutting each one. At that moment I wished that those blinds could do more than simply block those on the outside from seeing us within. I wished that it could create a magic shield, protecting me from what was sure to be lurking outside any door I happened to close in front of me. A childish thought, but at least it kept my mind occupied, distracted for a few fleeting seconds from the present.

“So…what’s your plan?” Amanda asked, breaking my thoughts.

“Umm…” I replied uneasily. What was the plan? I looked at Oliver, hoping that he would be able to say what I couldn’t. My only understanding was that Tampa was no longer a safe place for me to be. I didn’t know what my options were. I had some friends in Kentucky that would gladly house me, no questions asked, for as long as I needed. I started to weigh my options in case Oliver did not in fact have an answer to Amanda’s question.

Suddenly, it occurred to me. I couldn’t go north to Kentucky. I couldn’t go anywhere familiar. There was no safe place for me to go where I would find comfort in the known. Wherever it was that I was going, it couldn’t be predictable. And predictable definitely was anywhere I had been. I started going through the list of forbidden places: Florida, Kentucky, California, North Carolina…the list went on and on. Where was there left for me to go? I started picturing myself hovered over a pathetic campfire in the depths of some lonesome cave, battling against the fierce winter winds outside. I really could be overdramatic when I wanted to be. I chuckled ruefully at this thought.

Once again the silence of my thoughts was broken:

“I’m not sure exactly,” was his reply. Oh, great. Things were really looking up.

“Wherever it is, it can’t be anyplace that she’s gone to before,” Amanda stated, concern infused in every word she spoke. Sometimes I wondered how it could be so easy for her and me to be on the same mental wavelength. It was a thing I found comforting (and irritating at times) about our friendship. At this particular moment, it was comforting. 

“Wherever we go at the moment,” Oliver amended, “it will be somewhere nearby but hidden. There are a few things we need to work out before we can escape what’s after us properly.” He ended in an ominous tone. And did he just say we were escaping “what’s after us”? Were those strange creatures after Amanda too? That didn’t make any sense…or was he referring to himself? That seemed to be more likely, but what were they after from him? The only thing that these animals seemed drawn to was the necklace that was securely fastened around my neck. The knowledge of that one clear fact made this tiny trinket weigh down on me like I was wearing an anvil instead of an inconsequential charm…or so at least I thought it was inconsequential until now. 

And what did we need to “work out”? Escaping seemed straight forward enough for me: you run from what’s chasing you. You hide in a place where you can’t be found. You find something or someone that can stop what’s chasing you from finishing its job. But in this case, what would stop such a fantastic force? I couldn’t just stroll into the nearest police station and start babbling about monsters (and crows…and cats) having me on their hit list. I’d be laughed at. And then I’d be put away. 

There were too many questions and not enough answers.

Our thoughts on the next move were interrupted by a crash at the door. We all jumped in response, fright painted on mine and Amanda’s face but not on Oliver’s. He stood between us and the source of the noise with a quiet strength. For a split second I believed that he would protect us from whatever it was that was trying to get into Amanda’s house. Appreciation swelled within me. And trust. It was good to have someone else to trust. Someone stronger than me.

There was a faint but indescribable noise coming from the front door. Whatever was on the other side was fatigued, and I hoped, harmless. Fear still kept me frozen in place. I didn’t dare to go nearer to the door. Perhaps it was a trick. 

“Please, Oliver,” the voice on the other side finally gasped. “They’re coming.”

I felt instant relief and compassion, but they were soon replaced with undeniable dread. They were coming. How much time did we have to escape? My mind raced and my heart fluttered when I realized that we hadn’t even thought of a place to run to next. 

Oliver ran to the door to let the person in. I wasn’t surprised to see that it was his companion from before. I was surprised, however, to see his current condition: drenched in sweat, bleeding and breathing heavily. He had been injured. Possibly attacked. And for my sake. I didn’t even know his name.

“Clarence, what’s happened?” Oliver asked, sadness in his voice. 

“When you and the lady managed to escape the club, I ran to assess the scene to see where I would be needed most. Since the lady had gone safely with you, I wanted to do my best to ward off those beasts, to give the two of you more time to get away.” He sounded like he would slip away from us at any moment. Even through the weakness in his voice, he sounded regal, composed. 

He continued:

“I suspected that she would want to go to her home which was where I also figured those awful beasts would go next, so I pressed on ahead at a point that would intercept them. Needless to say, when I cut them off from getting to their next destination, they were pretty upset.”

He gasped for air. Tears began to well up in my eyes. Who was this man, and why did he forfeit his life for my own? I knew nothing about him. He could have a wife, a child, and I was the reason why he would not be returning to any of those comforts if he really did have them.

“Please, Clarence. You have to hold on. We need you now more than ever,” Oliver begged, clear strain in his voice. 

“I’m so sorry,” was the only weak reply he could choke out between his breaths which grew shorter and shorter by the minute.

“How will I know what to do? Where to go? How will I know what to teach her what she needs to know?” Oliver pleaded again. 

Wait. Now I was really confused. All of the questions that seemed to be overflowing in my mind, incapable of being vocalized now condensed into one thought. A thought that would somehow make all of my other questions pointless. “How will I know what to teach her what she needs to know?” came to the forefront of my mind. What was so important for me to know? Whatever it was, I thought hastily, I didn’t want to know. In fact, I was almost positive that whatever it was that he wanted to teach me would do nothing but bring more trouble to my front door than I already had. No, thanks. 

Clarence didn’t have much time left. That was a hard but clear truth to come to grips with. For all of us.

“I’m sorry,” his voice barely more than a whisper, “I know you’ll find a way. I’ve taught you enough. Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp. You will find the way.”

And then he was gone.

It happened in an instant. Too quickly. I blinked my eyes, and in the brief moment my eyes curtained the scene before me, his life had disappeared. I didn’t know him at all, but I couldn’t stop the tears that were welling up, brimming over, streaming down my cheeks because, whether I fully understood or not, he had given up his life for me. So that I could continue living. No matter who makes that kind of sacrifice for you-whether it’s a parent or a complete stranger-there’s no escaping the intense feeling of gratitude mixed with the intense feeling of regret for not being able to express your appreciation. I would never be able to look Clarence in the eyes and say my thanks to him. That bothered me tremendously.

In my haze of thoughts, I didn’t realize that I was now kneeling on the floor beside Oliver, arms around his shoulder, while he cried just as intensely as I. I felt awkward and awkwardly jumped to my feet, looking away from Oliver. I didn’t know him that well either. Why was I comforting him? Not that he didn’t deserve some kind of comfort; it was clear that Clarence was a dear friend to him. But I didn’t know him well enough to break the physical contact barrier just yet. I had a feeling that we would be in close quarters for the duration of the near future, but still, I had to have some boundaries.

The last sound I wanted to hear came next. A long, low howl from the distance. That could only mean one thing. They were near. Near enough for us to know they knew exactly where to find us. The three of us locked eyes and slowly turned our gaze to the front door.

“We have to get out of here!” Amanda screamed, searching for her keys again.

Oliver was more deliberate, calm. Perhaps he was still in shock from losing his friend; perhaps he was finding the resolve Clarence suggested to him in his last moments of life. He walked quickly and steadily to the window and pulled a few blinds down so he could see what was happening outside.

“We can’t drive. Not yet,” he confirmed, a slight tone of defeat in his voice.

“And why the hell not?” Amanda spit, more form anxiety than anger.

“Because they’re just outside. We’d never make it,” he responded, calmly ignoring her rude tone, “Is there any way to exit through the back?”

“We can try,” she responded more calmly, still the edge in her voice was recognizable. “My backyard is just connected to three or four of my neighbor’s backyards.”

“It’s the only chance we’ve got now,” he said calmly.

We quietly went out the back door and made our way towards one of the fences Amanda did not share with a neighbor. She and I were just about to reach this fence and assess our chances in getting over it quietly in our escape plan.

It was then that I heard the sound of those inexplicable monsters prowling outside one of Amanda’s walls. I stifled a gasp. Oliver was next to us in an instant. He signaled to Amanda and me to be quiet. He had brought something with him from Amanda’s small porch-it was too dark to tell what it was. Whatever it was, he threw it with as much force as he could over Amanda’s low roof. I didn’t believe it would work, but like the sound of the final bell releasing you from school for the day, a sound crashed in the distance and served its purpose. The three beasts were distracted. They ran to the source of the noise, away from us, growling fiercely. It bought us enough time to jump a wall undetected, unseen.

We ran to the nearest corner. Luckily, there were some decorative shrubs in addition to shadow that camouflaged our hiding spot. We sank as low in the dirt as possible and waited. Every breath I took sounded like a clanging bell; I tried with all of my might to breathe as quietly as possible. I shut my eyes, pretending that the blackness I now saw somehow helped me to become more invisible. Childish, I know, but it calmed me somehow.

And then they came back. I heard the low thuds as each of them in their turn jumped over the wall into Amanda’s back yard. The only other sounds indicating their unwanted presence was the light squish of the yard that was now soaked in chlorine-water. Other than the sound of their breath, we were surrounded by complete silence. The noiselessness of their movements was more terrifying than anything I could’ve imagined. It weighed on my entire body. It felt as if the air around me was getting heavier, crushing my body against the earth, and I was suffocating in this vice-like grip of unsettling stillness. I felt like they could be right behind me at any moment, and I would have no idea they were there. The thought alone made my body quake, and Oliver pressed one hand calmly on my back to help me keep still. It stilled my body but not my racing heart.

The sound of the three of them in Amanda’s yard sent shivers down my spine. Time seemed to move in slow motion. They sniffed around the yard, perhaps searching for our scents-or where they had gone. Each time they did so, the hairs on my arms, on my neck would stand on end and quiver. It felt like my whole body had gone numb. I could feel that they were getting closer to the actual path we took to jump the wall. What would happen when they reached that? I dreaded the thought. But as soon as they reached that spot, they moved on to the next just as quickly. I guess we didn’t leave significant enough water marks in the process of scaling the fence-thank goodness! I couldn’t celebrate just yet. No sigh of relief. I didn’t want to do anything that would even have the slightest chance of directing them to me. They were too close as it was.

Fierce growls exploded in the silent air. I couldn’t help but shiver violently in response. Oliver held me still again, not releasing me from his hold this time around, even when I had calmed down.

They left just as silently as they arrived. The only indication of their departure was the sound of three different bodies running off into the distance, but even those noises could have been mistaken for any, normal nighttime noise.

I breathed my sigh of relief.

“It’s not over yet,” Oliver cut me short. “We have to move quickly now.”

The three of us flew back into Amanda’s house. I searched frantically for my bag…I couldn’t find it anywhere! It didn’t matter what was in my way-tables, chairs, books; they all flew randomly about the front room as if I were a tornado wreaking havoc on all that stood in my path. Still no bag. How much longer did we have until they came back?

“You left it in the car,” Oliver answered my internal question, reading my mind.

One down. Now, my eyes searched for Amanda. I could hear her scrambling around in her room, probably doing as much damage in there as I had done in her living room. I ran to her door and began helping her sort through her things, making snap decisions on what was essential for her to take. She didn’t stop to acknowledge my presence. All the same, I knew she appreciated the help. We didn’t even take time to stow things properly; anything that seemed like an essential was thrown hastily into her backpack. As she was dressing herself, I ran to the bathroom to gather more things that she may need.

We were out of the house in no time at all. Oliver was already waiting for us, car started and on the road, facing the direction we would flee towards. Only I didn’t know what we were running to, and, to be honest, I was almost positive Oliver didn’t either. At that moment, it didn’t matter. The only important thing for us to do now was to get as far away from this house as possible. 

“What are you going to say to people, Amanda?” I asked. “Who’s going to watch after your things?” I wasn’t sure how long we would be gone. I noticed Oliver glance quickly at the two of us as I said these things. What was he thinking, and what was that look for? I didn’t like it. Something big was happening, bigger than I could’ve imagined. And I had a feeling that this kind of big would involve a lot of time away from the familiar. Not that I had anything to be overly attached to; it was just unsettling to think that I would be forced into the unknown for an even more unknown amount of time. Was I ready? 

My mind was spinning. There were too many questions and not enough answers.

“It doesn’t matter,” Amanda finally answered, resolved. “Whatever happens, happens. I can make a few calls if necessary, and that’ll be that, I guess.”

“You won’t need to make any calls,” Oliver interjected, slowing down at a small motel. 

Where were we? From the looks of it, we had stopped at some motel in a part of town I never ventured into-and for very good reasons. You didn’t come to this part of town unless you were looking for some kind of trouble. So naturally, I didn’t recognize anything around me. I looked at a small group of women smoking cigarettes on the street corner. They didn’t say a word to each other. A few of them drowsily looked in our direction with little to no interest. We didn’t have anything they wanted.

I resolved to get familiar with this feeling; the feeling of being completely and thoroughly overrun by the unknown; the feeling of complete discomfort in my surroundings. It would probably be the only familiar thing I could count on happening to me: not knowing where I was or where I was going.

As he pulled over in front of the tiny, shabby looking lobby, I noticed that he didn’t turn off the car. It didn’t register until I was kept from following Amanda’s lead in exiting the car. He held me back in the front seat. Oliver’s hand was gently, but firmly locked around my forearm, keeping me from exiting the car. I looked at him, completely confused as to what was happening. Then understanding hit like lightning. We weren’t stopping; we were dropping Amanda off. My confused look turned to one of earnestness as I turned my gaze towards Amanda. When I saw the acknowledgment in her eyes, I knew it was final. I’d be saying goodbye to her as well. She shut the door resolutely, trying to control her emotions. This was no time to cry. 

I couldn’t, however, stop the tears from streaming down my face. I wanted to struggle. To fight for the one piece of familiarity that was left for me to hold onto. Part of me wanted to break from Oliver’s hold and cling to Amanda. I wanted to yell at him. To tell him to go away and leave us alone. But somehow I knew that I needed him. Whatever it was that was coming after me was somehow tied to him as well. If I needed any answers anytime soon, I would need to go with him, even if that meant leaving Amanda behind.

“How long until I can go back home?” she asked, sounding too cool for the situation at hand. I knew she was trying to be calm for me. She knew me so well. 

“Give it a few days,” he answered, “They won’t go to your house again. They’re not after you. It’s us that they want.”

I shivered uncontrollably.

“Take care of her,” she demanded, passing the proverbial torch to this complete stranger.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe,” he promised, sincerity brimming over in his resolute answer. “She’s too important to lose.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. For some reason he needed me, and I would figure out the reasons why. Unconsciously, I began to play with the tiny trinket that hung around my neck. I looked at it mechanically, watching it change color, taking in each letter and symbol that appeared. When I looked up from my necklace, I was met by his eyes, looking curiously down at the trinket around my neck. His eyes were full of wonder and interest; he met mine for a moment. In that brief period our eyes locked, it was as if he was trying to communicate something to me, some secret that I had not realized I was a part of or supposed to be a part of.

“Amanda…” I trailed, incapable of finding the words to say to her, incapable of meeting her eyes with my own. I was terrible with goodbyes. I was terrible with anything that required me to say exactly how I felt. Luckily, she knew this about me as well. She stopped me short.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” she assured, still keeping her voice calm. “You can trust him.”

My eyes shot to her face. She trusted him. Why? From what I could see in her eyes, she was confident in what she had just told me. She wasn’t lying to comfort me. She really thought I could trust him. A wave of comfort settled over me. I gave her a quick nod, wiping the tears off of my face. I wanted to leave her with a good last image which meant no tears. If I never came back, I wanted her to be sure of at least one thing: I left with no fear. Even though I was screaming on the inside, I didn’t want her to worry. I couldn’t let her know how scared I actually was. Suddenly, I was reminded of my final parting with my father. It was so long ago, and yet, it was as if history was repeating itself. I was saying goodbye, somehow acting out both parts of father and daughter. I had to be strong, but this time, I also had to be the one leaving.

And for the first time in my entire friendship with Amanda, I think I was able to convey just that. She finally accepted what she saw on the surface and didn’t dig deeper for what I was truly feeling. Perhaps she did it on purpose, also trying to be left with one last comforting image of her best friend. I didn’t look back as we drove away and left her at the motel.

I had a feeling she didn’t look back either.

Chapter 8: The First Door

I could feel every cell in my body moving. It felt like every cell inside me was quaking in irregular patters all around the surface of my skin. The effect was numbing. I couldn’t see anything. I was in a dark void, grasping for anything concrete; it didn’t matter if it was recognizable – I just wanted some proof that I wasn’t going insane. 

There was a continuous rush of wind all around my head, though I could not figure out where it was coming from. It carried with it the sound of a multitude of voices whispering incomprehensible phrases. I stumbled in this black void, completely directionless. In vain, I tried to find the source of the whispering. There was no telling how long I was wondering; time seemed like something altogether lost. I couldn’t even figure out how I got there in the first place, much less how long I had been wondering around wherever it was I had lost myself. And quite suddenly, I began to perceive something slowly fading in and out of clarity: the woman in white light.

Grey…Grey…

“Yes!” I screamed desperately, relieved at having found some form of contact. 

“Where am I?”

Grey…Grey…

More whisper-filled wind. I was nowhere nearer to understanding what was happening or where I was. I expected more from the lady in white. Especially since it was her appearance that began the cycle of events that lead to my quick escape from everything I knew. I had to leave my home. I had to leave my friends. I had nothing left familiar, nothing left to make me feel stable or safe in any way. 

Oliver and I had been running for weeks, always being found out. Whoever these creatures were working for was a clever leader indeed. He or she or whatever it was that wanted me, and my necklace, was unstoppable. Most of the time, Oliver and I were lucky to get away when we did.

But where was I now?

The woman was becoming clearer, and she seemed to be getting closer to wherever I was in this abyss. I reached out for her, but to no avail; she faded slightly and the space between us grew wider. I tried to walk towards her, but she was like a mirage, mocking me with a promised respite that would never come. She was saying something, but it was caught up with the rest of the voices in the wind; I couldn’t distinguish her calls to me no matter how hard I tried to drown out the rest of the voices.

Grey…Grey…

I could feel some unknown force pulling me back, or at least in this void it felt as if I was being pulled backwards, further into the darkness. I tried to fight against it, but I was ultimately powerless to win this particular battle. 

Grey…Grey…

Those were the only clear words I could hear, someone calling my name as I was being pulled further and further into this black purgatory. I could feel a rush of anguish wash over me like a waterfall. There was no escape. 

Suddenly, I awoke. 

Oliver was hovering over me. As my vision became less blurred, I could take in the setting. We were in a bare room that immediately felt like a prison at first glance. The walls were a light gray that resembled concrete blocks. The curtains were a similar gray and covered a small window on my right. I felt beads of sweat dripping down my temples. I felt feverish and lethargic like I had been sleeping for days.

“Where are we?” I asked languidly still trying to wake from such a terrifyingly life-like dream.

“Did you see her again? Did she say anything?” Oliver asked hurriedly as if he knew exactly what I was dreaming about. 

I had nothing to say. I was thoroughly confused at this point. Oliver’s face looked so expectant as if this wasn’t the first time I had awoken in this state. He was beginning to look impatient for an answer I didn’t know I had.

“Grey, did she say anything?” he asked more calmly and deliberately.

I knew immediately whom he was referring to. 

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear anything,” I said faintly, resting my eyes, trying to gather myself and trying to remember something that I had clearly forgotten at this point.

“You were out for so much longer this time around, I was sure you had spoken with her directly,” he said.

I couldn’t speak anymore. I was still feeling incredibly exhausted and confused as to what I was supposed to hear from her. I was certain of one thing: whatever it was I was trying to figure out with the lady in white, I was getting closer. 

“Here, Grey, sit up. Drink some water and eat something,” Oliver directed me. I was too out of it to protest.

“We can’t leave this room until I figure it out,” I said plainly, finally understanding why I was in this tiny cell of a room.

Oliver simply nodded in agreement. We sat there for what seemed like hours in total silence. There was nothing to say really. We both understood what had to be done. I had to figure out where we were supposed to go, and the only one in the entire universe who could supply me with that information was the lady in white. There was no going forward and no going back until I could talk to her directly.

All of a sudden, I felt that same force I felt in the void tugging at me again. It was some invisible force beckoning me to go back to the darkness, to find the lady in white, to figure out where and what I was supposed to do. I succumbed to this force with no apprehension; I was determined to talk to her this time around. I immediately felt my body go numb. I’m not sure if I closed my eyes, but in an instant, I was no longer in the gray room, though I hadn’t quite yet reached the void I had been in before. It felt like I was suspended in mid-air, flying through a cool and colorless tunnel, and, just as instantly, I was planted in the dark and endless abyss. Unlike the last time, I understood clearly what I had to do. The whisper-filled wind surrounded me like a swirling tornado. I ignored it, focusing more heavily on a spot of clarity.

And there she was-slowly coming into view. I didn’t wait for her to close the distance this time around. I ran for what seemed like eternity towards her glowing figure, and before I knew it, I was planted right in front of her, amazed that my sheer determination finally paid off. It was the first time I had ever been this close to her; I was stunned into silence. 

She was breathtaking. I couldn’t explain it exactly. Although I could see her features and I could distinguish human qualities in her form, it felt as if she appeared to me only in that way because I wanted her to-it was the only way I could understand her or feel at ease with her. It was as if she knew this already. Every now and then, her human form would fade away, leaving me with something altogether alien to look at. Even in those moments, she was beautiful and comforting. I had never been in the presence of anything like her kind before. Yet I did not feel the urge to run away. Rather, it was quite the opposite, I couldn’t get close enough. I wanted to stay in her presence, forever in awe of her. I started to cry, not in confusion or anger or fear, but with the feeling that I had finally reached something I had been looking for nearly all my life. It felt as if she answered all of my inner thoughts and questions without uttering one word. I was finally free.

“Grey,” she said, sounding both happy and relieved to finally be face to face with me. She took on her human form, so she could take hold of my hand and quell my falling tears.

“Who are you?” I finally managed to ask.

“I am exactly who you know me to be. I am the one who can help you do what it is you were made to do,” she said simply.

“Do you have a name?” 

“I do not. But if you’d like, you may call me Elora when you need to find me again.”

“You mean you’re not staying with me?” I finally found what I felt I had been looking for. I didn’t want to lose it so soon.

“I am always with you, but I cannot show you every way to go. I can only help you when you need me most.”

“Where am I supposed to go?” I asked quickly. Something outside of us was changing the atmosphere. I could sense a presence, something unwanted pressing in on all sides of where we stood. I could tell from Elora’s face that she also understood our time was limited.

“Find one-zero-one-seven. It stands tall in the midst of everything. It is there you will find your first door,” she answered.

“Door? What door? Do you have the key?” I asked hurriedly, feeling the tension of outside forces rising.

“You are the key. Only you can find the door.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. What did the door look like? Was this one-zero-one-seven a building? A house? Was the front door to this place the door she was talking about? If so, how was I supposed to open it? She was fading away quickly and did not come back into view even though I yelled for her. I felt the whirlwind of voices surrounding me once again, and though I tried to fight against it, it carried me away from her, despite my efforts to get away. I could hear howling and snarling in the distance. It was where the invisible strength was now pulling me: back to consciousness.

I awoke to an incredible din. I looked at the small window on my left. There were shadows hovering in front of it accompanied by sounds of creatures prowling and pacing. I could feel their intensity and hostility emanating through the space that separated us, and I knew Oliver and I had been found out. We had to escape again. Oliver looked at me expectantly.

“One-zero-one-seven. I think it’s a building. We have to find it,” I said in a rush. 

I sprang out of bed and began rummaging for my things, but realized they had already been neatly packed away. I looked at my clothes and realized that I was already dressed. As I was looking for my shoes, Oliver made a quick noise to get my attention and tossed me my boots. I put them on hastily understanding that we had to leave immediately. I slung my backpack over my shoulder while running towards the door Oliver was already standing next to. Very quickly, by force of habit, I reached for my necklace to be sure that it was still securely fastened around my neck with the charm in tow. It was then that I realized that the charm was glowing. It was different from the normal colors that they shone in on a regular basis-blue, red and gold. This time, it was glowing and pulsing a bright white light, similar to the lady, Elora. I knew we had reached a breakthrough.

Leaving the room, I was not at all surprised to see a Spartan-like hall before me. The walls were gray like the room we had been occupying. There were a few pictures up, hanging listlessly, as if they had not been seen for decades, their features derelict and discarded.  I finally began to wonder where it was exactly we had been staying. And for that matter, I began to wonder where we even were.

“How long have I been out? And where are we?” I asked hastily, trying to keep calm. I could no longer hear the baying and growling of the creatures who awaited us outside the gray walls, but I felt their presence still. 

“We’re on the outskirts of a small town near Jacksonville. You’ve been out for days now. You weren’t even aware when we found this place to camp out in,” Oliver replied.

“And what is this place exactly?” I asked.

“Just some abandoned house of some kind. I’m not sure who lived here before, but they left very little behind as you can see,” was his reply.

I didn’t need to hear more. Now, I was focused on the goal: one-zero-one-seven. But if this place stood “tall in the midst of everything,” then being in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem to afford me any comforts. How were we going to get out of this one?

“Don’t worry – we have a car,” Oliver said, answering my silent thoughts.

I breathed a sigh of relief, but it lasted for a moment before I had my next anxious thought.

“It’s not far, but our timing in getting to the car from the back door will be crucial,” he answered again.

Right. I was determined to make it to this place. To find the door. Almost as it agreed with my inner resolutions, the necklace pulsated its white radiance ever brighter. There was no time for mistakes or missteps. We would make it out of here no matter what.

“The car is not far from this door, you’ll see it as soon as we open it. Run as fast as you can and don’t look back,” Oliver said, hand tensing in anticipation before the handle. I looked at him resolutely, hoping that I inspired some confidence in him. Though I felt a little uneasy and disoriented, I forced myself to look self-assured for his sake. I don’t know why, but I felt like I was protecting him as much as he was protecting me. He nodded to me and threw the door open. I didn’t think twice as I ran full speed towards the car. Luckily, we made it there with no hitches, though I was unsettled by the howling of wolves I could hear in the distance.

Oliver started the car just as quickly, and soon we were on the road, on our way to Jacksonville. All I could hear were Elora’s words, all I could think about was the number one-zero-one-seven. We had to find this building. There was no more time to hide away from the wolves. I’m not sure how long it took to get to Jacksonville, but we made it with little to no problems. As we neared the exit into the city, I could feel this strange sensation coming over me. It was like I was electrified, something was humming through my body, pulsating. It was the same feeling that came over me when I was a kid, and I knew my father was coming home. 

It couldn’t be possible. I hadn’t seen my father for many years now. However, there was no denying that strange sensation, that surge of electricity running through my veins which always signaled his return. I pushed this feeling aside, knowing that it wouldn’t help us now. It couldn’t really. We had to find this one-zero-one-seven, and we had to find it fast.

“I don’t mean to push, but what’s our next move?” We had been wondering around several blocks with no luck at finding anything related to the number. It was then that I noticed – the absence or near absence of something. That electric pulse that I tried to ignore was fading away, and by pure instinct, I felt that it was somehow not irrelevant, not a fluke that it had come back to me so suddenly.

“Wait!” I screamed out, not knowing if I was talking to Oliver or yelling out for that electric current to come back to me. Like I was screaming out for my father the same way I had all those years ago. Oliver screeched to a halt. Luckily, there were no cars on this particular stretch of road, so the sudden stop didn’t result in an accident.

“Are you okay?” Oliver asked, worry in his eyes. 

“I’m fine. I’m just…feeling something out,” I replied, semi-aware of the physical space around me. I was starting to use a different sense, one that I had repressed from an early age. One that, until this very moment I hadn’t understood, bore extreme significance. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and let the pulse through my veins take control over me. 

For the first time in my life, I let go.

There was something in the air, I could feel it all around me. It was like floating in a sea, feeling the waves ripple around me. I needed to find the source of these ripples, these pulses. And when I reached the focal point, the source from which I felt this electricity, I knew I would find what I was looking for, whatever that was. Elora said something about a door…

Suddenly, I caught a thread of energy. It pulled at me, called me in. I knew where we needed to go.

“We need to turn back around,” I concluded, “It’s this way.” 

“What’s that way?” Oliver questioned.

“The door,” I replied, my understanding riding on the cusp between physical reality and intuition. I expected to be met with consternation, confusion, but when I finally looked at Oliver to see his reaction, I saw something unexpected: excitement. As if he had been waiting for me to get to this place, to this understanding.

Without hesitating, Oliver turned the car around and drove on. He didn’t speak, and I knew this was because he was waiting for me to tell him our next move. I closed my eyes again, breathed steadily and allowed that other sense, that electricity to take me over once again. I could see things so clearly, even with my eyes closed. I didn’t quite understand this new sense, but I didn’t question it. 

“Left,” I breathed dreamily, feeling the car turn with my direction, as if I were controlling every motion with just my mind. 

“Keep moving forward…now right…” 

The pulses were getting stronger, almost too hard to handle. I could feel my entire body quaking with the effort of it all, but I didn’t want to stop. Though the discomfort I felt increased the stronger the current felt, I knew Oliver was relying on me to get us to the door. He put his whole trust in me; I couldn’t let him down. Something deep within me knew how badly he needed me to pull through, to not give up.

“Grey, are you there? Are you okay? You’re growing pale…” Oliver asked, concerned, slowing the car.

“I’m fine, keep going. We’re almost there…”

I was shaking all over now, unable to keep myself from quivering with the effort. The pulses were overpowering, almost too strong for me to handle. And just as I was about to give up, to do anything to make it stop, the electricity ceased. It was not the same as before, when I felt as if I was moving away from where I needed to go. It was like I fell into a pocket, a vacuum of stillness. We reached our destination.

“I didn’t think you could do it…” Oliver’s voice trailed off in disbelief, leaving something unsaid. My eyes were still closed. When I opened them, the very first thing I saw, right there in front of me, were the numbers: one-zero-one-seven. There was something else pulling my attention, and when I looked down at my necklace it was no longer hanging on my neck. Still radiating that brilliant white light, it floated in the air, pointing towards the building we had finally reached, like an arrow in a compass, directing us north. This was obviously what stopped Oliver short, and looking at him confirmed my suspicions. He was dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe it myself. I thought I was dreaming. Any moment now, I’d open my eyes, be in my bed and realize this was all a fantasy.

That’s when we heard the howls, not far off from where we were had stopped. Oliver and I looked back simultaneously – the wolves were coming, right on our heels. Without thinking, we grabbed what few things we had and rushed towards the building. Locked. Oliver and I were slamming our bodies against the door with all of our might, trying to get inside before the wolves got to us.

There was precious little time now. We could see the three of them running with all of their might to get to us, jaws agape and snapping, eyes wild with the anticipation of finally catching their prey. This would be our end surely. Over before anything could really begin. I’m not sure what came over me, but with my last fleeting thought I grabbed the floating charm, pressed it to my chest and begged for Elora to tell me what to do. You promised, I thought. And with that final thought, the door opened so smoothly, as if it hadn’t been locked after all. We were greeted by that same figure, both human and something altogether different – Elora – only this time, I could see her more clearly.

“You’re growing stronger, Grey,” she said, a hint of pride coloring her tone. Nothing else passed between us. With the last few yards separating the wolves from us growing smaller and smaller, Oliver and I lunged forward and closed the door with all the force we could muster, bolting is shut. 

“You don’t have long,” Elora whispered as she beckoned us further into the building. 

“Where do we go next?” I asked her.

“That’s for you to discover,” she said as she slowly faded away.

I didn’t have time to call out for her. I had hoped that she would lead us to the door, but I was understanding more and more how that was a task only I could undertake. She came to me when I needed her most as promised. Now it was time for me to fulfill my end of the deal. I didn’t take the time to wonder where she had gone. As the pounding at the door grew louder and fiercer, I knew I had bigger things to think about.

I closed my eyes, feeling for the ripple of electricity again, but I couldn’t find it. You can’t panic, I told myself. Breath, wait for it, it will come…and there it was. Rippling through the halls, through me, pulling me forward. This time around, I could sense where I was being called. I didn’t have to guess, didn’t have to move around to know. As I opened my eyes, I saw my charm, glowing white, pointing us is the direction we needed to go, confirming what I knew instinctively.

“Up,” I said as Oliver and I locked eyes on each other.

We ran towards the stairs. We were halfway up, going towards the roof when I heard it: pieces of wood shattering, finally giving way to the relentless beasts on the other side.

“Faster!” Oliver yelled at me, overtaking me on the stairs. I ran with everything in me, knowing that any hesitation or misstep would end in disaster. Though my body ached with fatigue, I pushed myself harder, fighting against my natural inclination to stop. We burst through the door leading to the roof, and while Oliver searched for something to blockade the door, I followed the path that led us here, moving towards the ledge and looking over, where the locket and my inner understanding pointed towards.

“No need to block the door, Oliver. We don’t need time to find the door,” I said flatly, already trying to gather the rest of my courage for what we had to do.

“Where is it?” Oliver replied, running towards me. He looked over the ledge, but I could see the disbelief in his eyes as he searched for something only I could see. It was right there, suspended just a few feet below us in midair. I looked over at Oliver, and he met my gaze with confusion and fear. He didn’t trust me because he couldn’t see it. I grabbed his hand in reassurance, resolve in my expression.

As the wolves reached the door, stalking towards us and ready to strike, I squeezed Oliver’s hand, took one last look at where the door suspended in midair and jumped.


Chapter 9: A Safe Interim

I really didn’t know what to expect. I prayed and begged whoever or whatever was in charge that I in fact had made the right decision. We were going to make it through that door. We were not plummeting to our deaths. 

As the rushing wind engulfed my body, as I skyrocketed towards the ground below, I focused on one simple thing. Getting through that damn door. We got closer and closer to what first appeared to be the faint outline of a door suspended in mid-air, but as we fell further, I could see the door more clearly – a relief to me that I could trust my intuitions. 

Before I knew it, everything went white, opaque, as if we were surrounded by a misty cloud. And in the next instant, Oliver and I were standing on solid ground, no longer falling, and trembling with joy that we made it through. Though relieved that we did not in fact die, I was surprised after taking in our new surroundings. Green. All green. Quiet, like death. As my eyes adjusted further, I realized we were in the middle of a thick forest of tall and strange looking trees. This was no wood familiar to me. The simple fact that I could hear no rustling of any sort or see any sign of animal life was an ominous beginning to our new adventure in this unfamiliar territory.

I looked down at my necklace knowing that it would now be lying lifeless on my chest. I couldn’t feel the vibrations, the electricity that drew us towards our door. For just a moment, I regretted not staying put, hiding out at home. Who knew where we even were now? I had no ideas, no suggestions as to what to do first. I looked at Oliver helplessly.

“I can take it from here,” he stated simply, as if reading my thoughts.

“Where are we?” I asked, taking in my surroundings, trying not to be overwhelmed by the unknown.

“This is my home. It’s a little more than a day’s journey to get to my family, but trust me, I know what I’m doing,” he answered.

Without hesitating, Oliver began walking purposefully in the direction that lead home. Well, home for him at least, I though with that aching pain one feels when completely surrounded by the unfamiliar. No matter how bad of a home yours may be for you, you may long for it all the same when nothing familiar is within arm’s reach. Just who or what was waiting for me at Oliver’s home, I had no clue. But there was no choice in the matter for me. Whether or not I would be welcomed with open arms was of no consequence to me at the moment. Oliver was all I had at this point, and I couldn’t very well wait in the woods to die. Or to be found and face an unknown worse than death.

We began our journey in silence. The woods seemed so still that, most of the time, I was unsure if we had even gained any distance from where we first started. But I trusted Oliver – even though I had no choice, it was like I didn’t need one. There was something about him that made me feel at peace. It made me feel like the direction we were going in together was the right one. Despite the inevitable bumps in the road, I just knew it was worth it, with Oliver leading the way. It felt strange trusting someone so completely in such a short time. It took me years to get that close to Amanda, and that was mostly due to the fact that she more or less forced her way into my life. She didn’t even know about the parts in my life – my father disappearing, Elora – that Oliver already knew about me before we had even properly met.

After several hours of walking, we reached a small stream. It was here that we decided to rest and eat the little food that we had managed to pack in all of the chaos before getting here. I took in my new surroundings, though they didn’t seem any different to where we had begun our journey to Oliver’s home. Everything was that same green. And everything was still eerily quiet. I couldn’t understand it. No matter how hard I tried to listen for something, anything, I couldn’t hear the faintest whisper of any animal noise. 

“Why is it so quiet?” I finally asked, breaking the silence.

“They’re gone,” was all Oliver said in response.

“What do you mean gone? The animals?”

“She took them. She’s taken a lot from so many worlds,” he replied cryptically. I looked at him, no follow up questions, waiting for him to elaborate. He took a deep breath and explained:

“We’ve been at war with Callista for quite some time. She has been trying to take over the seven kingdoms, of which you are a part. In the past few years, she has begun stealing things from each of these seven realms for her sinister purposes. She’s taken all of the animals from my home kingdom to do her evil bidding.”

Well, that explained the odd encounters Amanda and I experienced back home. But who was this Callista? Why was she at war with Oliver? Seven kingdoms? Where were they? How did one reach them? I didn’t dare ask any of these questions, feeling that they would be answered in time as I continued on this journey.

The rest of the day went by in a blur of continued silence and green. We made camp in a place of no consequence. Everything looked the same for me here. The night was hard to get through. Living for most of my life in Tampa, it was hard for me to adjust to sleeping in silence. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. Somehow I managed to drop off because the next thing I knew, Oliver was gently stirring me awake, and the sun was shining with a light heat. 

“It won’t be long now until we reach home,” he said to me, sounding relaxed and hopeful.

We continued our journey in much the same way. I didn’t mind the silence. It gave me time to compose and ready myself for the whirlwind ahead. I knew that once we reached his home, there would be even more information, confusion, plans. I knew a little more about what was going on with visions of this mysterious Callista forming in my mind. I just wasn’t sure about what my part was in all of this.

As Oliver said, in a few short hours, I could finally notice some difference in the woods surrounding us. The volume of trees was starting to thin, indicating that we were reaching some kind of clearing. We reached the edge of the woods and my heart began to beat rapidly. I was nervous to start this new part of our journey. I didn’t know what to expect. We took our final steps out of the woods, and the sight before me was breathtaking. 

Wide rolling plains of green grass and multicolored flowers before me. It reminded me of the flowered plains my dad and I used to walk through on our journeys to our special tree. There was a large, clear lake in the middle of all of these rolling hills. Along the shores of this lake, I could see houses, buildings full of life. There was a long bridge leading from the shore of the lake to one of the most beautiful houses I have ever seen. It was large, majestic, with creamy white walls and a beautiful rusted red roof. It was larger than the other homes around the shores of the lake. With about four or five stories, large open balconies on each floor.

“Welcome to my home, Grey,” Oliver said with satisfaction.

I almost couldn’t blink for fear of missing out on the beautiful scene before me as we took our final steps towards Oliver’s kingdom. As we got closer into the town that was built before the beautiful lake, I noticed that the homes seemed almost connected. Though they reminded me in some ways of the suburban homes I was used to back home, in the kingdom of Tampa, these homes were connected to each other in some ways. Some homes seemed more like buildings in traditional English towns – store fronts topped by living quarters or long, two or three storied townhouses sharing the one wall that divided a large building into two, smaller homes. Only these houses were more complex. What looked like store fronts connected to one or two homes on either side of it. In some doorways I could see comfortable courtyards that showcased even more buildings on the far end that looked like housing. There were even sets of these connected homes and stores that connected to other homes and stores through open-aired balconies or pathways on the second or third stories of any given building. There was no sense of separation in this town, no sense of individual, isolated living. I shuddered to think of what havoc this kind of architecture would instigate at my apartment complex. Privacy that can be easily interrupted wouldn’t fly well in my part of the world.

No one seemed to take too much notice of me or Oliver. They went about their days – children running, adults moving to and fro within their homes or out on the street. Though people didn’t seem oddly dressed to me, there was a subtle feeling of other-worldliness in their fashion. What that was exactly, I couldn’t say. They looked different but weren’t different. If they came to my hometown dressed the way they were, in other words, they would blend in just fine. After a while, people started to notice that we weren’t part of the general crowd. And more so than the fact that I clearly wasn’t a part of the town – it was a small enough community of people for them to notice a newcomer – Oliver’s presence seemed to resonate more for them than mine.

They didn’t revere him in the way I imagined. This imagination based solely on lords and subjects I read about in fairy tales. They were clearly in awe of him being there, but they were more elated at seeing him. Like he’d been missing or gone for some time. They didn’t bow or prostrate themselves. They didn’t use flowery words of address to acknowledge his presence. In fact, they didn’t speak at all. They smiled and nodded at him if he looked at any person in particular, but they kept going on about their day.

Eventually, we made our way through the densest parts of the town, and we were nearing that beautiful lake set before his home. What I hadn’t noticed from the woods was a small pier with three motor boats tethered to it. Taking in the lake from a closer viewpoint, I could tell why this was set up at the edge of the town – to walk around the lake would take quite some time. It was better to have an easier means of transport from the town to Oliver’s beautiful home.  

We strode up to one of the boats as if we’d done it a thousand times before. Though I’m not skilled in the way of boating, I’d seen enough on television and read enough about it in books to get the basic idea: one person gets in, the other unties the rope that anchors it to the pier. I left the untethering up to Oliver and got straight into the boat, making sure to stay as balanced as possible. There really wasn’t much for me to do besides that. I looked around for life vests at one point and decided to give it up. Falling in water and having to swim to safety would be the least dangerous thing I’d done in the past few days. Oliver got into the boat soon enough, got the engine going, and we were off to the other side of the wide, expansive lake, to his home. Who would be waiting there for him, I had no idea.

The ride was fairly short. At least shorter than it would have been to walk around the lake. I expected a huge reception for him there at the dock and bridge leading to the house’s entrance. Just like the forest we walked through just yesterday, all was silent. I didn’t want to pry, and I figured I would find out soon enough why it was so quiet on this side of the lake, so I got out of the boat and helped Oliver anchor it to the dock in silence. Though I could tell he knew what I was thinking by his looks, he kept silent, and so did I.

Soon enough, we were making our way up the bridge to the front of the house. The door was slightly ajar, and still that eerie silence. When we walked through the front door, we stepped into a large courtyard, much like the ones I saw connecting homes in the town. It was open and bright and aside from the gently blowing of the wind, all was silent. Oliver stopped at the door while I walked forward, making my way around this entrance area. I thought he was waiting for someone to greet us, or perhaps he was just giving us space. The room seemed to be a statue garden of some kinds. Varied and small groupings of stone people were scattered in all corners of the courtyard. It was like walking through an open air art space, and I couldn’t help but wander around, looking at the different statues. Men, women, children, all posed in some way. Some, as if running, others, prostrate. 

The more I walked around, and the closer I looked at each figure the more eerie the quiet became for me. Then I noticed a few odd patterns in the sculptures. They all seemed to be working together, setting a scene. And that seen was horrific, terrifying. Now that I was really taking it in, I could see how each group of statues collectively worked to show the viewer a scene of desperation. All figures seemed to be running towards the exit, to where Oliver was still standing, the only living statue to this composition. I could not see clearly that the groups furthest from the front door were lying prostrate in fear, submission or in anguish. They had been defeated. By what? Some looked unwillingly towards an unseen figure, fear clearly etched in their faces. Others seemed to be hiding their gaze from this unknown terror. I walked closer to one of the groups of figures, all looking in the same upward direction. And then I saw something even more terrifying.

The eyes that were looking up. They were moving!

They darted from side to side, so naturally, despite the bodies being complete and utter stone. They were alive…but how? What happened? I jumped back as one pair of eyes met mine straight on, begging me with just a gaze to help. But how?

I looked at Oliver in disbelief, unable to articulate words, questions.

“My family, or rather, what’s left of those who survived,” he said with a slight ironic twist on the last word. I didn’t know where to begin. What had I gotten myself into? Who could do such a terrifying thing? I knew I was so out of my depth now, fighting against something I had not yet seen, already knowing how pointless my role was in the face of someone that could do this. Who was I against Callista, the beast that could literally freeze the living into stone, forever, rendering them useless? 

I don’t know when it happened, but I crumpled into the floor, utterly defeated.


Chapter 10: The Stone Curse

At some point after collapsing, Oliver was by my side, slowly getting me back on my feet. I couldn’t take it. I was already afraid of Callista, not even having met her in person. The animal henchmen I could rationalize…somewhat. The terrifyingly close calls and escapes from them – sure that was doable with Oliver helping me through it all. Jumping to what seemed like my death through what I thought was an imagined door that led into another world, Oliver’s world – okay, that one was hard to accept as well. But seeing this, seeing living, breathing people cursed into stone figures! I lost it then, seeing how powerful Callista truly could be. And how evil. Was she stronger than this? Could she really make people disappear…for good? Looking at those figures, desperately darting their eyes around in fear, that hit home for me. Who was I? I couldn’t take someone on who had powers like this! What was I thinking?

“What…?” was all I could manage to get out.

With a large and solemn sigh, Oliver sat me up on the floor, took a seat directly across from me and began his story:

“We were really arrogant not too long ago. Our town was prosperous, trading well with other worlds. There was not much we were in want of – both my family as the ruling body of this land in addition to our people. We weren’t always the small community you saw today. We flourished across this land in several towns for miles and miles. We were prosperous, happy. We had little to no epidemic or crime. Very unlike the world you live in today.

Of the seven kingdoms, ours was one of three ruling bodies: Earth, of course, though your people there are unaware of this (we call it Unda), my world, Grerde, and Callista’s, Zon. A perfect combination – water, earth and sun. We convened each year to exchange information, modify policies and law, created new ones. Anything that was pressing, anything that involved all seven worlds, we dealt with as a democratic body. Much like your three branches of government, only we did not separate into different ruling classes amongst the three. We counselled as one unit in all things.

Callista wasn’t worrying at first. Her changes were subtle, on the fringe, not clear enough for us to know what path she would follow. Had we any idea of the new worlds she was convening with, outside of our knowledge, had we known that they even existed, we would have been better prepared. She started small. Pressing for minor changes in various diplomatic policies, all of which seemed to relate to the moral fiber of the contracts we upheld in each world and between all worlds. Things to do with trade, with jobs, with money. Of course, they were all refuted by vote. But even with our democratic counsels and even with the personal attendance and care we gave to Callista, it was clear that she was diverging from us, from our agreements, from our harmony. She started to get angry, rage-like, vengeful. If something didn’t go her way during a counsel, we started to notice a pattern of bad things happening across all of our kingdoms. People started going missing. Crime increased. Food was harder to come by. People were getting incurably sick, spreading unknown diseases everywhere. We didn’t understand how it was happening – we were upholding our laws and policies, we were in constant communication and care with our communities, and yet, we were failing for the first time in several thousand years.

By the time we gathered the courage to fight her directly, it was too late. Much of our land here and in the worlds of our kingdom became like the forest you were in just yesterday. Quiet, devoid of life. We were helpless, desperate, and Callista was beyond reason. So we fought, and lost more life through battling her and her newfound army – people from our worlds that she enslaved to her bidding by turning them into animals. Warriors from the worlds that morphed her into the hateful, terrifying beast she is now.

What happened here, that was the last outright battle my people fought. I knew she was coming for us, for my family. We had very few defenses from the remaining people of our villages, and they didn’t last long against Callista and her forces. She took many of them by night, morphing them into animals to do her bidding in battle with us and in other worlds. Some, I believe, she sent to find you. (I shuddered at the memory of those terrible wolves, partly sympathetic, knowing that they came after me against their wills.) The next morning, after her first night time attack, she tore through our village and its defenders, on the way to my home here, like a hot knife through butter. We knew we had the slimmest chance of stopping her. But we had to try.

I thought that was it for me, for my family. We would no doubt be turned into some strange animal that had to bend to her will, to her beck and call. How little I thought of her spite for me and my family. We had the most influence among the three ruling worlds, we held the power from her in her mind. It wasn’t enough to turn us into mindless dogs. She wanted us to suffer. She wanted a living death for us, frozen in time, unable to escape from her power and the knowledge of her control. Hence…my family you see before you here. Clarence and I were lucky enough to escape just in time, but not before I saw my family turned to living stone. Not before I saw my father in a last ditch effort distract Callista’s wrath upon himself to save me.

I looked at the entrance, seeing more clearly the figures there. I could see his father, eyes roving about like mad on his stone face, anger etched in his features. He was facing away from the door, with his arms frozen in a way to suggest he was holding something, some kind of weapon to thwart a now invisible terror. 

Images of my father came racing back to me. The last day we were together. The look of utter defeat and resolve on his face as he said his goodbyes. I could see a lot of those features in the stone face of Oliver’s father, and it made me weep all over again. There was nothing left to say after that. We sat there in silence for what seemed like hours, while I wept, while Oliver wept, both of us silently mourning the loss of our fathers. 

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“There’s more you need to know before we can move on,” he answered, “But, first, we need to rest.”

We gathered together what we could from the house for a food. It looked as if some things were fresh, and I thought of the townspeople across the lake who must have made voluntary journeys across the river to leave food for Oliver, not knowing when or if he was ever coming back. I appreciated with new gravity the distance they kept when we walked through the village earlier today. It was out of respect to Oliver. And out of respect to his family that they had to see every time they brought food to this home. Soon after our silent meal, Oliver showed me to the nearest bed. Exploring around, I discovered that this world had showers much like mine, though the water was cold. Nonetheless, I enjoyed washing myself clean, ridding my body of the horrible things I’d seen and learned since I met Oliver in my world. As soon as my head hit the pillow of the warm, soft bedding, I fell into a much needed and deep slumber.

I awoke to silence. The kind of quiet that is unsettling, brooding. I wished with all that was in me that I was waking up in my own bed, in my crappy apartment. I wanted my boring, unsatisfying life back. But only for one moment. Despite the terror and the disbelief, I constantly struggled with since meeting Oliver, there was a tiny spark in me that made me feel like I was finally on the right path. I was finally doing something that was meaningful. I was finally free. I was finally being myself. I didn’t know how to explain this feeling, I just knew it was there, like embers slowly burning, waiting for something to create the fire. I wanted that heat. 

Suddenly, I realized I was not alone in the room. I could sense something stirring on the floor next to my bed. I didn’t know how long that presence had been there, but I could feel it as clearly as the air around me. It was shifting, moving and breathing ever so slightly. I didn’t dare call out for Oliver. Looking desperately around the bed, I noticed a small silver object of some kind. Slowly, I reached my arm towards the object while keeping my body as still as possible in the bed. I grabbed the object and lifted it slightly, testing its weight. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as the object proved to be quite dense. It was short and spherical in nature, with an opening at the top. Like a small decorative silver bowl used for who knows what. That didn’t matter in this moment. It would serve just fine as a weapon, the kind of weapon that could incapacitate someone long enough for me to run away at least. 

Slowly, ever so slowly, I slid my body across to the other side of the bed. Body tensed, I readied myself to jump on my intruder and hold him down long enough to strike. The moment came, and I leapt out of bed with a gut-wrenching screech, something I did not expect, as I landed on my victim. He was large, and seemed a little confused at my action, something that confused me as he was obviously creeping around my bed to attack me while I slept. Before I could raise my right arm to strike a blow, I was suddenly on my back, right arm pinned down. It happened to quickly for me to feel anything. Then I remembered my left arm, sprawled next to me and left unpinned. With all the strength I had, I swung this arm, fist clenched, towards my victim, who for some reason was covered in a sheet, and landed a decent enough punch to knock him off of me. I was frantically looking for my weapon while he was on the ground and stopped dead in my tracks.

“Grey, what the hell are you doing?”

“Oliver? Oh, crap, I’m so sorry!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I thought you were an intruder!”

“Well, it’s good to know you’re prone to fight more than to flee,” he laughed. 

He wasn’t moving. I pulled the sheet from his body to check that he was okay. There was a slight bruise coming up to the surface of his skin, just under his right eye. Before I could check my reaction, I was instinctively leaning over him and gently touching the bruise; this was the first time I’d ever punched someone, and I immediately regretted acting on that impulse, especially on someone who meant me no harm whatsoever. A few moments had passed before I realized how quiet we both were and what I was doing. I looked into Oliver’s eyes to notice him studying me silently while I stroked his face and leaned over him. I quickly pulled my hand away from him, and slid back from his body.

“Sorry, I –“ 

“Don’t worry, Grey,” he said sitting up, “I just didn’t want you to be alone. I…”

There was nothing left to say. We both stood up, awkwardly removing ourselves from the situation we had created. Well, the situation I had created. With a few gruff noises and perhaps a laugh or two, we made our way out of the room, ready to start a new day.

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