Author Archives: Tara Maya
Dindi is kidnapped to be the bride of a shark... To escape she must untangle a terrible curse caused by a love and magic gone wrong.
This stand-alone novella is set in Faearth, the world of The Unfinished Song. Available here ONLY.
The Unfinished Song - This Young Adult Epic Fantasy series has sold over 70,000 copies and has 1,072 Five Star Ratings on Goodreads.
Author Archives: Tara Maya
After I finished Blood, Book 6 of The Unfinished Song, I realized I’d hit the half-way point of the series. Not coincidentally, I began obsessing about how to write solid “middles.” First I looked at three problems that commonly sag or even sink a series in the middle books.
I wrote: “My goal is to make every book in the series shine. Each one is a critical piece of Dindi and Kavio’s story, none is filler. So I will be outlining the next six books exhaustively before I even begin the revisions on my trunk draft of Mask (Book 7). I know this will frustrate some readers in the short run, and maybe I’ll even lose the impatient ones, but in the long run, the series will be stronger, better, and longer-lasting for it.”
I’m not through the gauntlet yet. I still have a huge amount of work ahead of me. But I thought it would be interesting to show how I have tried to handle the potential problems with “the muddle in the middle.” I’ll note my original thoughts in purple.
[Possibly some spoilers below for the series up to Book 6 of The Unfinished Song.]
As I said I would, I did spend months substantially outlining the last six books of the series. Then, when I thought I had things worked out, I finished a full draft of Mask (Book 7)… only to decide that the entire draft still lacked spirit. It depressed me that I hadn’t been able to spot the weaknesses in my outline. It’s sad but true: even a solid outline sometimes doesn’t stop you from wasting time writing a draft that doesn’t shine.
The problem, I believe is that the story was…adequate. So it looked fine in summary. But when it came to the execution, there were too many “moving the plot along” scenes and not enough “I want to re-read that over and over” scenes. It bored me. And if it bored me, how would my readers feel?
I tore the whole thing to bits and started over. This time I wanted to make sure I included all the juicy scenes, the ones I couldn’t wait to write.
I wrote those. And also more “moving the plot along” scenes, because I had to, or thought I did, to connect the juicy scenes together in a logical way. By the time I reached the end of Chapter 2 of the new draft, I’d already hit 50,000 words. My goal for the entire book was 100,000, and there are 7 chapters. Even my math-challenged brain sensed this wasn’t going to work.
Back to Outlining.
Let’s face it, in terms of story arc, it might have seemed as though the series should have ended with the climax of Blood Book 6. Big Battle against the Big Bad Guy, Big Secret Revealed…. So why didn’t the series end there? The reason (I have to tread carefully to avoid spoilers) is that the ending of Blood was really a classic Mid Point, an incomplete victory. Truly, the Heroine and Hero didn’t deal with the main issue and the main antagonist… Death. Dindi made a pledge to the Aelfae in Book 3, but in Book 6, she didn’t redeem that pledge yet. She only proved to the Aelfae that she was worthy to try.
My task in the next three books is a challenging one. In Mask, Mirror and Maze, Dindi may have proved herself to the Aelfae, but she has yet to prove herself to her own kind, the humans. And honestly, she has a lot of growing up to do yet before she’s ready to be a Leader as well as a Hero. The opposite of filler is growth. In filler scenes, the character essentially marks time. In scenes that force the Main Character to grow, real change takes place, and it’s that change that enables the MC to believably defeat villains as powerful as those Dindi must face, including Death herself.
This growth is so crucial that I am writing Mask, Mirror and Maze as one over-arching story. Of course, the whole 12 book series is one long over-arching story, but within that, the story has for Acts, each divided into a trilogy.
The technical challenges of that are that a book like Mask, which follows right after a “peak” book, like Blood, is going to be a tad less high-intensity than the book before it. Part of the work Dindi has to do takes time… Including, of course, learning the new, even more complex dances of the Rainbow Labyrinth tribehold. My job as a writer is to portray realistic, incremental growth that takes long stretches of time for the character without boring the reader.
Which brings us back to those dull “moving the plot along” scenes. In my second bout of feverish outlining, I restructured Mask yet again, this time looking for ways to combine three or four “necessary but too long” scenes into shorter, snappier scenes. To my delight, I found I didn’t have to sacrifice any of the juicy scenes after all. I could reduce worecount and even increase conflict between my major characters by stacking all the necessary bits into super-packed scenes.
Mask is still not going to be as adrenaline-rushed as Blood, but I believe that Mask now does what is should. Turn up the new tensions between Dindi and Kavio and the other major players that have resulted from the aftermath of the battle, tensions that are only going to increase and worsen in Mirror (Book 8), until everything explodes again in Maze (Book 9).
Lost memories are one of the recurring themes of the series, of course. Our memories make us who we are–don’t they? As for Kavio, he’s lost his memory, and he needs it back. Isn’t it nice that his good friend Finnadro is there to help out?
There’s another echo of the first trilogy that shows up as a new character. In the first trilogy, Rthan was haunted, so to speak, by a shining blue child who appeared to be his dead daughter…though she was really the Lady of the Merfae. In this trilogy, we’ll meet another, quite different, little girl. She’s one of those minor characters that originally had only a minor role to play in the first Outline. In the next several revisions, I cut her role out completely, because although she was cute and all, I needed the storyline to be more focused. Then I suddenly realized exactly what diabolical use a villain might have for her, and suddenly, she became critical to the whole book.
Oh, how I have struggled with this! On the one hand, I want my characters to grow and change. On the other hand, as they mature and the darkness closes in, and Dindi, in particular, has to become a much more ruthless person than she ever imagined possible, I want to keep some of the innocence and mischief of the first books. The pixies, for instance… in the first draft, I realized, the pixies disappeared. In this draft, they are still not as prominent as before, but they’re around, and even help out in an important scene.
Then there’s the romantic front, Dindi is finally reunited with Kavio. The easy way out would be to have Dindi and Kavio realize they both love each other and work together against their common enemies. Except, I hate when a Fantasy series starts out with a super hot romance between the Heroine and Hero but all the romantic tension is resolved by the end of the first book. Even if the rest of the series involves a good quest, without that element of “Will they or won’t they?” the series loses some of its zing.
I know what my One Thing is. Every storyline in the series ultimately flows into answering that single question, the riddle that Dindi learns in the very first book: Choose the Windwheel or the Maze.
Working on a long epic can be draining exactly because you have to write in the same spirit over a long period of time. One reason I do work on other stories in between major milestones of The Unfinished Song is to flex my brain muscles on other genres and characters. But because I know what my One Thing is, I always come back, re-energized to work on this series.
The answer used to be easy: blog. I used to blog fairly regularly about my writing process and progress.
Of course, that was before I had any readers.
And that’s the problem. Once I became conscious—or rather, self-conscious—about pleasing my readers, I felt shy about sharing my struggles to write. As long as I was an aspiring writer, I could moan on my blog, “I goofed off today. Instead of writing, I ate ice cream while watching a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon on Netflix instead of writing.”
But now, were I to confess that in public, I imagine angry fans shouting at their computers, “What? You lazy wench! Why aren’t you working on the sequel!”
So I fell silent.
I still feel shy, but I’ve decided to try blogging again, even if it means showing my hair in curlers before the ball. Even if it means that my readers will realize there are some days when I stare all day at my computer, unable to write, or that I might be re-writing the same damn scene for the thirteenth time in a month because I just can’t seem to get it right.
I’m also going to try reviewing books… in public. On my blog. The fact is, I read about twenty novels a month, and I keep a Book Log with my own private reviews. I’ve never shared them, because I don’t like giving a book less than four stars publically. Maybe that’s a silly attitude. I’ve decided to compromise, and at least share the 4 and 5 star books that I’ve enjoyed.
I realized that it might be helpful to other writers to see what at least one full time (sometimes part time) writer does with her time. All writers are different, so it doesn’t say anything about what a full time writer should be doing with her time.
You see, my philosophy is that a writer needs to do more than write. Other things are absolutely as critical to developing a strong writing career. Here are a few of the things I might discuss on my blog—t hings I do regularly because they improve my writing.
This is all on the “Writing” side of the business. All of these activities are directly related to (a) learning to master my craft, (b) keeping abreast of developments in the genre, and (c) creating new works.
Since a writer is an entrepreneur, there’s also the Management & Marketing side of the business. But that’s a huge area in and of itself, and therefore the topic of another day’s post. Just keep in mind that everything I’ve listed above is half my job.
I crave him. I need him. I love him. And that is the reason we will all die…
Emmy Baxter wishes for a more interesting, exciting life. Until her world is turned upside down with danger, drama and thrown into a world she never thought existed with angels and demons. To help the Guardians save the world, she must stay away from the guy she loves. Can they fight fate, beat time and change their destiny, or sacrifice everything for love?
Sitting there in the car, a part of me bitterly resented what she was doing to me. I knew it wasn’t her fault. But does she have to be so… alluring? I need to focus on something else besides the spot between her earlobe and neck. It looked so soft. Her lips were slightly parted as she looked out the window. I wanted to part them further with mine. I put both my hands on the steering wheel. I could not allow myself to let go until she was out of the car. Suddenly she leaned in and kissed me. It was far better than I could even begin to explain to you. I’ve fought and died a slow and painful death on earth. And nothing, NOTHING can compare to how hard it was for me to pull away from her lips. I don’t think any angel could to do it twice in a lifetime…
Lola StVil is a Haitian born writer and actress. She lives in Hollywood, CA., and welcomes online interaction with readers. Lola was seven when she first came to this country from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She attended Columbia College in Chicago, where her main focus was creative writing. In addition to plays, she also writes screenplays and short stories.
She has been commissioned to write for ABC, CBS and Princeton University. She won the NAACP award for her play “The Bones of Lesser Men”. In addition to being nominated for LA Weekly awards. Her work has also received positive reviews from The LA Times, Variety and LA Weekly. This is her first novel.
For more than a decade, Ivy Oliver has lived in a dark, crumbling orphanage where she was sent after her parents’ death. Her only hope for a life of simplicity and happiness is the trial, a test that frees her second form from where it’s been buried since her birth. That hope is dashed, however, when she transforms into a creature that rips her away from the only friends she’s ever had and ensures that her enemies are numerous. She is dragged unwillingly to a school that will discipline her in the ways of survival and defense. There, she makes both friend and foe. She discovers things she never knew about her past and her future. This tiny, insignificant girl is faced with a crushing destiny that might be too staggering for her to bear. She will have to abandon her shy, quiet demeanor and take on a fearless spirit if she wants to survive.
I awoke to darkness and silence, the cold biting at my nose and numbing my cheeks. I trembled under the thin blanket, the only thing I had to protect me from the bitter frost. I pulled it tighter against my small frame, but it was no use. If I wanted my body to warm up, I would have get out of bed.
Without stirring, I looked around the room. The eight other girls that shared it with me were sound asleep in their bunks. In the moon’s dim light, I could see the fog escaping from their mouths, like ghosts lingering in the air before disappearing into the coldness. To avoid making sound, I sat up slowly and slid my feet to the ground. I ignored the icy feel of the floor as I hurried to strike a match and set it against a candlewick for light.
The girl sleeping next to me shook in the cold. I tip-toed over to her, and laid my blanket across her body. Most of the girls were younger than me or new. I barely knew any of them, but the girl that I had laid the blanket over was the newest and the scrawniest. She would need the extra warmth more than any of the others.
I silently slipped to the chest at the end of my bed. It complained loudly as I lifted the rusted lid. I winced, afraid someone would wake up, but when no one stirred, I continued to pull out my warm winter clothes. I put on a long-sleeved, button up shirt, some worn out light brown trousers, a dark green jacket that had a few mysterious stains, two thick, leather boots, a pair of red gloves with several holes in the fingertips, and a woolen hat. I was grateful for the little bit of warmth that started to seep through my body, but I was still shivering with cold.
There was only one place in the orphanage that was warm enough to cut the sting on my cheeks, eyes, and the tip of my nose, and that was the kitchen.
Candle in hand, I crept to the door, shutting it softly behind me, and walked into a small, shabby sitting room. It was silent except for the haunting winds outside the shattered window. The only thing that let me know it was morning was the low coo of the winter dove, barely audible over the winds of a rising storm. I set a clipped pace toward the kitchens. Not surprisingly, it already had most of its staff up and working. I stood by one of the lit stoves. Just as I was starting to warm up, the head cook, Elna, stepped beside me, nearly scaring me to death. Her frazzled, gray hair stuck out in all directions.
“Good morning, Ivy!” she chirped, a wide smile spread across her face. Elna must have been in her late fifties, but she acted a lot younger than her years. It was one of the characteristics that made me love her so much. “I didn’t know you’d be up so soon, or I’d already have the hot chocolate made up for your birthday. As it is, it won’t be ready for a few more minutes.”
Hot chocolate was rare at the orphanage, but Elna had insisted on giving it to me every year after we met, which was almost four years ago. It had become a tradition, in a way.
“It’s really not necessary—” I started, but she cut me off by signaling to one of the kitchen maids and ordering her to bring the treat when it was ready. Then, not even acknowledging my protests, she turned back to me and asked quietly, “Are you nervous about your trial?”
I decided to abandon my argument. It was useless against Elna’s giving—but stubborn—heart. “Not yet,” I answered after a short moment.
She smiled at me as she lifted a lid off of a pot that sat on the stove. “When I had my trial, I was terrified. There were two other boys there that day… Unfortunately, I was the only one that managed to survive.”
I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to give that much away. It was forbidden for anyone under the age of seventeen to know anything about the trial, and both the talker and the listener could be imprisoned for such an offense.
Elna looked down at her creation and frowned. “Oh, I’ve burnt the porridge again.” The lid clattered onto the stove as she hurriedly stirred the goopy concoction, filling the air with a terrible smell.
I tried not to feel disappointed. The porridge was always burnt. Burnt or undercooked. I loved Elna, but her food was horrible. The other workers in our kitchens weren’t much better than her, but none of them knew what to prepare for when they were younger.
In all of the five kingdoms—Leviatha, Ginsey, Onwin, Pira, and Kislow—everybody is required to go to their region’s arena the week of their seventeenth birthday. By law, they are banned to enter the doors until then. For me, there are only two friends that are legitimate to watch my trial. Elna and Ayon.
Ayon is like my big brother. While he wasn’t an orphan, his mother was Madam Grant who was the main director of the orphan girls. Because of that, he was the only boy that was occasionally allowed to enter the girls’ side of the orphanage.
When it was Ayon’s turn to go into the arena, I had been devastated. I thought I would lose my best friend either to death or to an occupation that would take him away from Forlander. As it turned out, he changed into a horse and was therefore placed in the stables that his mother looked after.
It was hard to believe that I was the one going to the arena this time, the one that would discover what my second form was. My second form will determine what my occupation, and ultimately my life, will be like. If I had been a noblewoman, it would not matter as much. It doesn’t matter what nobles turn into because, in the end, they will always be a noble.
Long ago, the five kingdoms were ruled by a single young king, King Jaris, whose foolish decisions made him feared by his people. His second form was a dragon, and because he was a mighty beast, he thought that all other creatures were lesser than he. To make his power known, he changed the entire system of the government and replaced it with his own ideas, locking his people in a caste system that has stuck with them for as long as they can remember—that we can remember. Near the end of his life, King Jaris was overthrown, but his law is still inscribed on every courthouse, on every town sign, and on every school wall. Commoners must obey it, unless they have the favor of a nobleman.
Horses are always stable workers or carriage drivers and birds are tailors and seamstresses. Certain rodents, like Elna—a white mouse—are given the occupation of cooks and other kinds of servants. Furthermore, foxes and fierce birds are spies, canines and felines are soldiers, fish and other water creatures are sailors, and the list goes on. The poor can’t help but hate the system, and if we tried anything, the noblemen would have us arrested and probably flogged within an inch of our lives.
I can’t say that my life has been interesting thus far, but I can say that I am a good, law abiding citizen. Even though I don’t like the system, I will live with it. I have no choice but to live with it. Knowing this about myself, I can only hope that God will have mercy on me and grant me with a second form that will plow the path before me, like the men who spend every winter day shoveling snow off our roads.
The kitchen maid—the same one that Elna had given orders to earlier—interrupted my thoughts when she held a steaming mug of hot chocolate under my nose. “There you go, miss,” she said. No sooner than I had taken it from her hands, she hurried off to perform some other task that I had kept her from. A twinge of guilt settled in my stomach.
Elna had been thoroughly focused on spooning burnt bits of porridge out of her dish. She was mumbling to herself, but the words were too quiet for me to understand.
Since I didn’t want to disturb her, I snuck out of the kitchen through the door that led to the frozen world outside. I sheltered the drink from the sheets of snow and hastened to the stables where Ayon would be working. I entered and found him chipping the mud out of a horse’s hoof. He looked up and smiled. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Morning,” I replied. I knew that he had already been up for an hour or more. “I brought you something.” I held out the hot chocolate for him to take.
He set down the horse’s hoof and walked over to me. “What’s this?” he asked, grasping the hot mug in his cold fingers.
“Hot chocolate. Elna gave it to me, but I thought that you could use warming up more than I could.”
He cupped his hands around it to warm them and took a small sip, handing it back to me. “Thank you.”
“How’s your morning been so far?” I asked, taking my first sip of the drink. It’s wonderful flavor rolled over my tongue and warmed me from the inside out.
He waved his hand around, gesturing to the run-down, drafty state of the barn. “As good as ever.”
I smiled pityingly at him, and sat on a stray chair that was placed next to a rickety table, taking another sip from the steaming mug. I had a few minutes to spare before I had to get back.
Ayon started working again. I watched silently as he finished with the mare’s hooves and moved on to brushing her coat. Dust flew off her back in clouds and she nickered happily.
As he brushed, he said, “You know, I haven’t forgotten your birthday. I’m just waiting for the celebration after your trial to give you the gift.”
Assuming that I live through the trial, I thought to myself. I hated that my birthday was on the trial day itself, which always fell on a Monday. Had it only waited one more day, I’d have another week before my time was up.
“You don’t have to give me anything,” I said, knowing how poor we all were. Gifts were rare in the orphanage, just about as much as hot chocolate.
“I know,” he told me. “But I wanted to.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but was silenced by the bell ringing in the distance. Time had flown by faster than I would have liked.
I looked at the big gray building, barely visible in the pale light and through the snow. “I’d better go,” I said. “My trial won’t be long after breakfast.”
He nodded to me. “Go ahead. I’ll be there, watching.” He continued to work on the mare as I left.
I tried to run in the knee-deep snow, but couldn’t manage to accelerate beyond a walking pace. Once I got to the stairs, I carefully climbed them. They were small and steep and the compacted snow didn’t help much. The covered porch finally offered my shoes a grip on the cement. I hastily opened the door to the main entrance and walked in, cold air billowing inside the small amount of time the door was ajar.
I heard a great deal of chatter coming from the girls’ dining room. That meant that I was late. Madam Grant would be harsh with me.
I peeked into the room and saw that Madam Grant was currently scolding a girl next to her, probably for her table manners. I tried to sneak to my seat at the end of the table. Unfortunately, Madam Grant noticed. “Ivy?! Where have you been?”
I grimaced. “At the stables, Ma’am,” I answered honestly.
The other girls averted their eyes, even the girl that I had laid the blanket over earlier.
Madam Grant’s sharp eyes pierced into me. “And would you mind telling me why you were at the stables? You most certainly don’t need a horse to get to the Arena of Trials.”
“I was, um…visiting a friend,” I said nervously.
She took in a deep breath, her mouth barely opening past a stern line. I knew the scolding was about to come. “Friendship is discouraged here, Ivy, especially with young men. You’ve known that since you could talk. We don’t even know if you’ll live through your trial yet.”
I lowered my head, my face feeling hot. Although I wanted to make it clear that Ayon and I were just friends, I knew not to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered, hoping that she would move on.
She gave a curt nod. “Seeing as this is your last day here, I will let this slide. But mark my words; tardiness is not acceptable in the real world.”
I sat down, still tense, and began to force down my food. This was not only my last day, but my last meal before I had to get to the arena.
The custom for orphans and wards who are due for their trial is for them to pack up all their belongings, just in case they die. Then, their caretakers won’t have to bother with it. As for me, all my things were already in the trunk at the end of my bed. We orphan girls kept it that way, hoping, longing for the day that someone will take us in. Regrettably, no one in Forlander really had enough food to feed another mouth. Except for the noblewoman in the castle farther down the mountain…but we never saw or heard much from her. She already had a son and a daughter, and was too old to think about adopting anyway.
The breakfast porridge was bland and had the expected taste of ash. Some of the younger, newer girls had already turned their noses up to it and pushed their bowls away, but I had to keep my strength up. I forced it down.
Elna was perfect proof of how the kingdoms’ system didn’t work.
Once I had scavenged through the burnt bits to find any other edible morsels, Madam Grant noticed I was done and excused me by saying, “Go ahead and get ready for your trial. You should be at the arena in an hour to register.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” I said for the third time.
I left the table, but I was already ready for the trial. I didn’t have anything that I had to bring. Perhaps Madam Grant was taking pity on me, if she had any pity in the first place. Maybe she thought that I wouldn’t survive. It was true that I was small and thin, but did I really seem that weak?
Because I had nothing to do but think, I decided to go to my favorite place to do it. It was all the way at the top of the stairs in the clock tower, where no one ever thinks to go anymore…except for me. I’m probably the only person who has ever thought of it as a place of comfort.
I started the long climb up the stairs, finding the exercise mildly enjoyable. I liked to feel my legs burning, because in the climate of our northernmost island, they never got warm. In the summer, the temperature only gets up to seventy degrees, and that’s just for three months. Then the temperature gradually drops back down until it’s below zero again.
The long stairway was very steep. The ugly peach colored paint was molding and peeling off the walls, littering the slightly damp wooden stairs with tiny light-colored specks and drywall.
Before the stairs ended, I was out of breath. There the clock was, same as always, rust eating through the devices and gears. The clock hasn’t been working for as long as I can remember. I found it quite ironic that the clock was stopped, because just like the clock, our village is stuck in a way of living until someone finally decides to fix it. The short hand was frozen between the eleven and the twelve, and the long hand was right above the nine. Eleven forty-six.
The only light came through a circular window at the other side of the room. I sat down on the ground and rested my back against the wall, watching out the window as heavy snowflakes fell.
Ever since I was a little girl—and whenever Madam Grant allowed any of us off the orphanage grounds—I’ve heard the village boys bragging to each other. They say things like, “I’m not afraid of my trial!” or “Monsters don’t scare me!”
Whoever the monsters are, nobody under seventeen knows. We may not even be fighting. At least, I hope not. From all the deaths, however, it’s probable.
Unlike those boys, I have had a hard time looking forward to the trial, and now here it is. It looms over me like a starving predator, and I’m forced to accept the fact that this could be the day I die.
I drew my knees up to my chest, staying that way for about fifteen minutes before I decided that it was time to leave. I wished that I could procrastinate, but I would get punished for being late. I walked all the way down the stairs—which was much easier than going up—and made my way out of the orphanage and into the blustery day. I could hardly see where I was going.
The harsh wind was merciless. The snow pelted my face in sheets. I shivered and draped my scarf over the bridge of my nose, but my eyes were defenseless against the frigid temperatures. They stung. Luckily for me, I knew the way to the arena by heart.
The arena, where people go in and may never come back out. It had happened to two girls at the orphanage last year. I count myself lucky that I hadn’t known them very well. I tended to keep to myself most of the time, and it rewarded me with the lack of tears.
But today, the tables were turned. I could be one of those girls, and how many would cry over me?
I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or anxious when I finally spotted the barely visible dome that surrounded the entire arena, protecting it from the weather. Nevertheless, I stepped across the magic threshold and instantly, the snow stopped blinding my vision. There was a large crowd already gathered around the entrances. As I walked toward them, I noticed that there were five participants. Me, two other girls, and two boys. I pushed through the crowd to get behind them. All the adults were gradually forming a different line—one that led into the stands.
The girl in front of me looked back, and sneered in disgust. She looked like she was born into a wealthy family. I was the opposite of that, and I hadn’t had the luxury of a bath for days. The other girl in line and one of the boys both looked like middle-class. The last boy, who stood in the front, appeared to be as poor as I was. When I peered closer, he looked kind of familiar. Then, I knew. He was one of the boys from the orphanage. I had seen him playing outside my window one day. That was as close as Madam Grant allowed us to be with each other, and even that was stretching the rules.
I kept glancing behind me to see if anyone else was coming, but apparently, I was the last one. It wasn’t unusual to have five participants. One week, there weren’t any participants. The most that was ever documented in Forlander was twelve, but only because it’s the only arena on the island.
After a little while, it was my turn to sign the form. I grabbed the feather with my right hand, dipped it into the inkwell, and signed my name. It was the color of blood.
The woman who sat there, bundled up in a dull woolen sweater and scarf, explained to me where to go and what to do. She didn’t even look at me as she spoke. She was too busy writing down something on a piece of parchment. “Your cell is number fourteen. It’s on the right. When it’s your turn, two guards will escort you to the center of the arena. Then, you may attempt your trial.”
I winced when she said ‘attempt’, but took a deep breath and continued to go where she had told me. The rooms were walled with stone, but the doors were made out of iron bars. A man stood outside of door number fourteen, and opened it when he saw me. The keys clanked against the metal.
I shivered. It felt like I was being put in jail. I stepped in reluctantly, and waited. I couldn’t hear anything that was happening in the arena. There was only the heavy breathing of the guard.
At about noontime, my stomach growled. I looked out at the guard who hadn’t even glanced at me for the duration of my stay.
“Do we get meals here?” I questioned hopefully.
“No,” he said, and continued being silent.
I sighed heavily, and rested my head back against the cold stone wall.
An hour after that, they came for me. “Ivy Oliver?” one of the guards, a woman, asked.
The man finally turned around and reached for the keys at his belt. They rattled against the metal again as the lock was disabled with a barely distinguishable click. I stepped out into the hallway and we advanced.
We weaved through dozens of rooms just like my own, further and further into the monstrous building. I looked over at the female guard. Her eyes were fierce and her jaw was set. She noticed me watching her, and she frowned further. She was only a little older than me. The trial was probably fresh in her memory. The older guard, a man, just looked bored.
I focused once again on the path ahead of me when we turned a corner and a blinding light shone at the end of the hallway. My eyes adjusted to it slowly.
A metal gate clattered as it opened upward, and the sound of my boots went from the click-clack of tile to the silence of perfectly trimmed, arena grass.
Once a member of the Sorcerer Council-now an outcast, Blaise has spent the last year of his life working on a magical object to allow anyone to do magic, not just the sorcerer elite. The outcome of his quest is unlike anything he could’ve ever imagined-instead of an object, he creates Gala, and she is anything but inanimate. Born in the Spell Realm, she is beautiful and highly intelligent-nobody knows what she’s capable of. She will do anything to experience the world . . . even leave the man she is falling for.
Augusta, a sorceress and Blaise’s former fiancée, sees Blaise’s deed as the ultimate hubris and Gala as an abomination that must be destroyed. In her quest, Augusta will forge new alliances, becoming tangled in a web of intrigue that stretches further than anyone suspects. She may even have to turn to her new lover Barson, a warrior who might have an agenda of his own . . .
There was a naked woman on the floor of Blaise’s study.
A beautiful naked woman.
Stunned, Blaise stared at the gorgeous creature who just appeared out of thin air. She was looking around with a bewildered expression on her face, apparently as shocked to be there as he was to be seeing her. Her wavy blond hair streamed down her back, partially covering a body that appeared to be perfection itself. Blaise tried not to think about that body and to focus on the situation instead.
A woman. A She, not an It. Blaise could hardly believe it. Could it be? Could this girl be the object?
She was sitting with her legs folded underneath her, propping herself up with one slim arm. There was something awkward about that pose, as though she didn’t know what to do with her own limbs. In general, despite the curves that marked her a fully grown woman, there was a child-like innocence in the way she sat there, completely unselfconscious and totally unaware of her own appeal.
Clearing his throat, Blaise tried to think of what to say. In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined this kind of outcome to the project that had consumed his entire life for the past several months.
Hearing the sound, she turned her head to look at him, and Blaise found himself staring into a pair of unusually clear blue eyes.
She blinked, then cocked her head to the side, studying him with visible curiosity. Blaise wondered what she was seeing. He hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he looked like a mad sorcerer at this point. There was probably a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, and he knew his dark hair was unbrushed and sticking out in every direction. If he’d known he would be facing a beautiful woman today, he would’ve done a grooming spell in the morning.
“Who am I?” she asked, startling Blaise. Her voice was soft and feminine, as alluring as the rest of her. “What is this place?”
“You don’t know?” Blaise was glad he finally managed to string together a semi-coherent sentence. “You don’t know who you are or where you are?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Blaise swallowed. “I see.”
“What am I?” she asked again, staring at him with those incredible eyes.
“Well,” Blaise said slowly, “if you’re not some cruel prankster or a figment of my imagination, then it’s somewhat difficult to explain . . .”
She was watching his mouth as he spoke, and when he stopped, she looked up again, meeting his gaze. “It’s strange,” she said, “hearing words this way. These are the first real words I’ve heard.”
Blaise felt a chill go down his spine. Getting up from his chair, he began to pace, trying to keep his eyes off her nude body. He had been expecting something to appear. A magical object, a thing. He just hadn’t known what form that thing would take. A mirror, perhaps, or a lamp. Maybe even something as unusual as the Life Capture Sphere that sat on his desk like a large round diamond.
But a person? A female person at that?
To be fair, he had been trying to make the object intelligent, to ensure it would have the ability to comprehend human language and convert it into the code. Maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised that the intelligence he invoked took on a human shape.
A beautiful, feminine, sensual shape.
Focus, Blaise, focus.
“Why are you walking like that?” She slowly got to her feet, her movements uncertain and strangely clumsy. “Should I be walking too? Is that how people talk to each other?”
Blaise stopped in front of her, doing his best to keep his eyes above her neck. “I’m sorry. I’m not accustomed to naked women in my study.”
She ran her hands down her body, as though trying to feel it for the first time. Whatever her intent, Blaise found the gesture extremely erotic.
“Is something wrong with the way I look?” she asked. It was such a typical feminine concern that Blaise had to stifle a smile.
“Quite the opposite,” he assured her. “You look unimaginably good.” So good, in fact, that he was having trouble concentrating on anything but her delicate curves. She was of medium height, and so perfectly proportioned that she could’ve been used as a sculptor’s template.
“Why do I look this way?” A small frown creased her smooth forehead. “What am I?” That last part seemed to be puzzling her the most.
Blaise took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing pulse. “I think I can try to venture a guess, but before I do, I want to give you some clothing. Please wait here—I’ll be right back.”
And without waiting for her answer, he hurried out of the room.
Chained to a rock and tossed off a cliff by her boyfriend, Aranya is executed for high treason against the Sylakian Empire. Falling a league into the deadly Cloudlands is not a fate she ever envisaged. But what if she did not die? What if she could spread her wings and fly?
Long ago, Dragons ruled the Island-World above the Cloudlands. But their Human slaves cast off the chains of Dragonish tyranny. Humans spread across the Islands in their flying Dragonships, colonising, building and warring. Now, the all-conquering Sylakians have defeated the last bastion of freedom–the Island-Kingdom of Immadia.
Evil has a new enemy. Aranya, Princess of Immadia. Dragon Shapeshifter.
When Aranya’s eyes cracked open, it was to light upon the stars nestled between Jade’s crescent arms. A night bird flew by overhead. She saw that she wore the remains of her dress, and a mountain of chains.
For the first time in her life, she felt cold.
Torchlight flickered nearby. Drawn by the light, she turned her head on the cold stone. A grim throng rolled into view. Mostly Sylakians, they wore heavy red robes against the pre-dawn cold. She realised where she lay.
The Last Walk.
“We await the hour of judgement.”
Her eyes flicked to Yolathion. He stood ramrod-straight nearby; it was he who had spoken, but his voice had never sounded so devoid of life, Aranya thought. She could not speak. Her mouth was stuffed full of cloth. A rope tied it in place, pulling her lips back cruelly. They would not care for the comfort of a proven enchantress.
All she could do was watch and wait.
She would fly.
Now there was an irony.
Slowly, a perversely exquisite dawn fired the eastern sky. The stars became indistinct. The crowd stirred slightly to allow Beri, Zuziana and Nelthion through to the front. Aranya could not bear what she saw in their faces. She closed her eyes.
Her thoughts were choked with regrets. The dawn, her last dawn, had never seemed so evocative. She feared to watch it.
But when boots tapped the flagstones, approaching her, Aranya opened her eyes. From a distance of twenty feet or more, the Supreme Commander glared at her. It was a cold comfort that he kept such a distance for his safety. Aranya could not have summoned so much as a puff of smoke. Her inner fires were mute.
“My son lives,” he announced.
The crowd murmured. Aranya let out a breath she had not known she was holding.
The Sylakian spat, “But you burned him, Immadian enchantress. You cast the fires of your magic into his face and burned his sight from him. You killed four Sylakian Hammers.” The Supreme Commander addressed the crowd. “The penalty for an enchantress is death. The penalty for burning my son is death. Accordingly, I sentence you, Aranya, Princess of Immadia, to walk the Last Walk until your body is seen to fall into the Cloudlands. May there be nothing left for the vultures to pick over.”
Silently, Yolathion limped to her side. Aranya wondered how badly he was hurt. She had tried to protect him; trying to direct the fire outward while shielding him with her own person. Yolathion untied the rope and pulled the wadding of cloth out of her mouth. He helped her stand up. But he immediately put his dagger to her throat.
Yolathion proclaimed, “Let the last words of the condemned be heard.”
What could she say?
Aranya’s mouth was terribly dry. She rasped, “I regret not killing the Butcher of Jeradia as he so richly deserves.” Well, that certainly captured their attention. “Beri, you were a mother to me when I had none. Zip, a beautiful friend, when I had none. Take care of each other. Please tell my family–” she choked up. What could she tell them? “Tell them how much I love them, and how much I wished I could fly.”
She turned to face the Last Walk.
Yolathion put his hand on her shoulder. At the end of the walkway, Aranya saw a block of stone with a chain attached to it. They really wanted to be sure she’d drop straight into the Cloudlands, she thought. The old stories still held weight. No graceful dive off the edge for her. No enchantress transforming herself into a bird and flying away.
It should have been called the longest walk.
Ten Crimson Hammers processed with her and Yolathion. Perhaps they thought she’d make a break for the rajal pit. Her feet brought her alongside the block of stone. Her body and her mind seemed to belong on different Islands.
Yolathion knelt, clearly in some discomfort, to fit the manacle depending from the stone about her ankles, locking them together. “I’m sorry, Aranya,” he said, unexpectedly.
“Me too. I think I could have loved you, Yolathion. But your loyalty and your heart lie with Sylakia. I could never love that.”
Her words hurt him; she read it in his eyes. Just another regret she would shortly leave behind.
Yolathion lifted her in his arms. Two of his fellows hefted the block.
“On the count of three,” he said. “One … two … three.”
He tossed Aranya over the edge.
WHEN A GAME…
Feyland is the most immersive computer game ever designed, and Jennet Carter is the first to play the prototype. But she doesn’t suspect the virtual world is close enough to touch — or that she’ll be battling for her life against the Dark Queen of the faeries.
Tam Linn is the perfect hero — in-game. Too bad the rest of his life is seriously flawed. The last thing he needs is rich-girl Jennet prying into his secrets, insisting he’s the only one who can help her.
WINNING IS EVERYTHING…
Together, Jennet and Tam enter the Dark Realm of Feyland, only to discover that the entire human world is in danger. Pushed to the limit of their abilities, they must defeat the Dark Queen… before it’s too late.
Jennet faced the Dark Queen, her mage staff at the ready. Excitement fizzed through her blood like it was carbonated. This was it. She’d completed the quests, mastered each level of the game, and made it here. The final boss fight.
“Fair Jennet.” The queen’s voice was laced with stars and shadow. “You think to best me in battle?” A faint smile crossed her pitiless, beautiful face. Her dress swirled around her like tatters of midnight mist.
“I plan on it,” Jennet said. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, then shook off the sudden anxiety that settled on her shoulders, cold as snow.
She had no idea what this particular fight held. Feyland was the hardest sim she’d ever played, full of weird twists and turns. She thought about it all the time. The game filtered into her dreams, shaded the edge of her days. Sometimes the computer-generated world felt more real than her ordinary life.
“Very well,” the queen said. “I accept your challenge.”
Jennet couldn’t see any weapons on her opponent, and that dress was no substitute for armor. Safe bet that this was going to be a magical duel, spell-caster against spell-caster. Jennet flexed her fingers around the smooth wood of her staff. Anticipation spiked through her, tightening her breath.
Fantastical creatures watched from the edges of the clearing: feral-faced women with gossamer wings, dark riders with red-eyed hounds at their heels. The sound of drums and pipes wove through the shadows. Overhead, a sliver of moon tangled in the black branches of the trees. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, silence fell.
A dark figure stepped forward, forbidding in midnight armor and a wicked helm, and Jennet’s stomach clenched. The Black Knight. She’d barely beaten him in an earlier quest. If he got involved in this fight, she was in severe trouble.
He held his gauntleted fist high and grated out a single word. “Begin.”
It echoed eerily through the glade, and the fey-folk let out a rough cheer. There was no one to cheer for Jennet.
Meghan Elam has been strange her entire life: her eyes have this odd habit of changing color and she sees and hears things no one else does. When the visions and voices in her head start to get worse, she is convinced that her parents will want to drag her off to another psychiatrist. That is, until the mysterious Cade MacRoich shows up out of nowhere with an explanation of his own.
Cade brings her news of another realm where goblins and gnomes are the norm, a place where whispering spirits exist in the very earth, and a world where Meghan just might find the answers she has always sought.
I looked back up at the tall stranger, and feeling one of us needed to say something, I took a breath and said, “Thank you for helping me, and I am very grateful, but who exactly are you?”
He smiled, forcing the corners of his eyes to crinkle. I had to look away. Why couldn’t the boys at school be this attractive? It might make their taunts more bearable.
“You were right in guessing who I was earlier,” he said, standing up once again.
I had to crane my neck to keep an eye on his face. Even though he had the charm of a well-versed movie star, there was no way I was going to trust him. To wake up from a dream and find myself in the middle of the forest, surrounded by the living corpses of dogs, then to have him appear out of nowhere and chase them off with superhuman speed? Yeah, that was normal. Right.
He took a deep breath then ran both hands through his thick hair. I watched him carefully, not sure what his next move would be.
“Meghan, I’m afraid we’ve met under unsavory circumstances.”
He glanced down at me with those dark eyes. “Our first meeting wasn’t supposed to go this way. Those hounds,” he paused and grimaced, “let’s just say it was my job to take care of them earlier, and they slipped past me.”
I blinked, feeling myself return to my previous stupor. What was he talking about? He knew about those horrible dogs? It was his job to take care of them? What did that mean? And most importantly, how did he know my name?
I felt ill, as if I were going to throw up. I tried to stand, letting the trench coat slip off of me. All of a sudden it felt like a net meant to trap me like a bird.
“Meghan,” he said, reaching out.
But I cringed away from him, and offered him his coat with a shaky hand.
“Thank you again, but I really should get back home.”
“Not on your own Meghan, not with those hounds still lurking around these trees somewhere.”
His voice had deepened and that only made my stomach churn more.
“Please,” I whispered, feeling the first prickle of tears at the corners of my eyes, “please, I just want to get home.”
Suddenly he stiffened and his gaze intensified. “You are afraid of me.”
It was a statement, not a question. I knew I was doomed then. Wasn’t it true that if a victim revealed to her attacker just how terrified she was, then she had already lost the game? Sure, he had chased off those dogs, but maybe only to keep me whole so he could take me off to some bomb shelter somewhere to torture me slowly. I shivered both from the return of the autumn cold and from the knowledge that I was completely at his mercy at this point.
The man merely sighed deeply and said, “I fouled this up completely, but I’ll make it up to you somehow. Right now, however, I think it is best if you forget most of this.”
He held up his right arm, palm out, as if he was planning to hit me with some kung fu move.
“What are you doing?” The panic in my voice matched the racing of my heart.
“Tomorrow, this will seem like a dream, but in a week’s time I will send Fergus to you. Follow him, and I will introduce myself properly, at a more reasonable time of day. Then I’ll explain everything.”
I stared at his hand as he moved closer, wondering if I should try and fight him off if he reached for me. My mind seemed to grow fuzzy, my vision blurred.
Just before I passed out, I managed a barely audible, “Who are you?”
“You can call me Cade, but you won’t remember this, so it doesn’t matter.”
And then I was swallowed by darkness.
Ryana, a worthless girl-child, is sold to a mysterious woman who takes her to the home of the Shadow Sisters who are prized for their abilities as spies and assassins. She survives years of training in spite of being unconventional: adopting poisonous bats as familiars–something no one else would dare to do; choosing the blow dart as her weapon of choice–a weapon the Sisters don’t teach; and relying on intuition rather than logic.
As she completes her training, the Shadow Sisters are under attack. The senior Sister selects Ryana to find out who is killing Sisters and why–because her intuitive approach has proved effective, even though her youth and inexperience makes it unlikely she will survive.
As she travels through the kingdom as a member of a gypsy clan, she finds the only way she can protect the Sisters and hope to discover the underlying plot is through ever more violence and killing. As she proceeds through the provinces, her secret enemies come to call her the Sister of Death and become desperate to find and kill her. But in her desperate fight to protect the Sisterhood, the gypsies she’s come to love, and the kingdom, Ryana fears that she has destroyed herself and the only life she ever wanted.
I crouched on the gray, rock-laden ground, chickens squawking and my head throbbing with pain. My father stared down at me, his face twisted in anger, fist clenched inches from my face and nostrils flared as he sucked air to yell again. He was a small, thin man with leathery skin from long days in the sun, brown, scraggly hair, and a haggard face.
In my short life, he had taught me terror. It infested every fiber of my puny body. I wanted to run but lacked the strength. Besides, where would I run? No one in the village would help me. My father was an elder.
The area around Dunn Pass was rocky and the soil poor. The land fought the crops and barely supported the village goats. They would protect the goats but not me.
“Curse you, Ryana. That food’s for the chickens, not to be wasted on a girl-child. We can’t eat you. Work and you can have the scraps; otherwise leave.” His chest expanded as he sucked in air to yell again. I tried to scramble backward to avoid another blow but collapsed after a few feet – tired, hungry, and weak. As he turned and stalked away, mumbling, the chickens returned to me. I could feel their hunger.
No one cared what I did so long as I took care of my chores. My father and brother were gone all day, tending the village herd of goats. In the mornings I swept the floors clean of yesterday’s dirt and droppings, fetched water from the village well, fed our few chickens, and collected their eggs. Afterward, I was free until my mother began preparing the evening meal.
I carefully made my way around the village to a rocky area of shrubs and small trees, nourished by a shallow stream that appeared after a rain, and settled down near a clump of shrubs so I couldn’t be seen. I had just sat when I sensed a rabbit near and felt its hunger. I picked a few small leaves from above my head and mentally coaxed it to me.
It came willingly and nibbled the leaves, grateful for even this small meal. If I had been my brother, I would have killed the rabbit for the dinner table. My father thought him a good son. He thought me worthless. If he knew I hadn’t tried to catch the rabbit, he would have beaten me bloody. I was starving, but I couldn’t kill an animal that had done nothing to me.
A shadow crept over me. Whoever it was had approached as silently as a feather on the wind. The rabbit ran. I shut my eyes and sat trembling, arms around my thin legs and head down, awaiting the first blow.
“What’s your name, child?” a woman’s soft voice asked.
Terrified, I squeezed my eyes partially open and looked up. A scream stuck in my throat. Her head and face were covered in black so that only her gray-green eyes were visible. They pinned me to the ground. A tall and thin woman, compared to the village women, she was dressed in black.
A dead ancestor had come to punish me for not thinking of my family.
I tried to scramble backward but a bush stopped me. Its thorns dug into my back and neck. Although it felt like a thousand needles had pierced my skin through the thin rags I wore, I made no sound. She didn’t move.
“Can you call the rabbit back to you?”
I could but wouldn’t. No matter what she did to me, I wouldn’t hurt it. Feeling no anger from her, I breathed a small sigh of relief. She turned to her horse and got something out of a saddlebag. Reaching down, she handed me a piece of bread.
“I’ll not hurt you or the rabbit. The food’s for you to share. A reward for humoring me. The rabbit’s very hungry.”
Looking at the bread, my mouth watered. I broke off a piece for the rabbit and held the other piece toward her, unsure how much she would let me have. I was hungry, too.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice gentle, but her eyes sad. I mentally searched for the rabbit. When I found it, I coaxed it to me with the promise of food. Trusting me, it came and nibbled the bread from my hand.
“Eat, child,” she said. I stuffed my mouth full and gulped the bread down.
The woman reached down, pulled me to my feet, and, hand in hand, walked me back to the village. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I was in trouble. It seemed to be my destiny. For the thousandth time, I wished I had been born a boy-child. As we entered the village, the people scrambled away or disappeared into their huts.
They were afraid!
“Which is your house?”
I pointed to my father’s small mud and stone house. To my amazement, the men had left the herd and were returning to the village. They maintained a cautious distance from her.
They were afraid of a woman!
“Who owns this girl-child?” Her voice rang loud and clear. She showed no fear.
In every lifetime, there is a moment. A moment so clear, so profoundly unique that it stands out against billions of other moments. When you find a moment such as this one, you pay extra close attention to it. It will usually contain something that defines you in the future.
“Are you certain she’s the one?” Lily whispered.
Frost replied softly, “Pretty sure, she even looks a little like Freja. How old do you think she is? Four… maybe five years old?”
From the playground, came something remarkable. A little duplicate of the child lying in the grass. The other little angel plopped herself ungracefully onto the grassy bed next to her sister. They were mirror images of each other.
Grey said, “This is quite the unexpected little glitch… isn’t it? What does this mean? How is this even possible?”
Frost replied, “It’s not possible.”
Lily glanced at Frost and said, “It definitely complicates things.”
One of the freckled little girls noticed the three Ankh watching. She sprang to her feet and raced over to the fence and stood on her tippy toes. With a giant grin, she stuck her chubby little fingers through the rungs of the fence.
“Do you want to come in and play?” She squeaked.
Lily whispered, “Aren’t you the most adorable little thing in the whole wide world.”
“What’s your name? You delightful little creature,” Grey said with his thick Aussie accent.
“I’m not a thing or a creature. I’m a kid. My name is Kayn, that’s my sister Chloe,” she pointed a little finger adorned with messy sparkle nail polish at her sister.
The little girl had sand on her lovely white frilly dress and grass in her hair. She had a sticker of a frog on her cheek, and she radiated joy. Chloe sat up. She was now glaring at them. Chloe was clearly not going to be the one out of the two abducted by a random stranger.
Frost appeared to be so captivated by the scrappy child that stood in front of them. He couldn’t even manage to speak. He just stood there beaming like a fool.
“You guys look like movie stars.” Kayn gushed, and then turned her attention to her own hand, “I have nail polish on, see?” she said, her beautiful eyes gleamed with pride as she displayed her wiggling fingers for the rest to see.
“Very lovely,” Lily appraised. Just as a little boy with a mess of dark curls came running up to the fence and grabbed Kayn’s arm.
He glared at the group, then leaned over and whispered in her ear assertively, “Chloe says you’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
The little girl stated,” Chloe’s not the boss of me.”She then grasped the fence firmly and stuck her face right against it with her little upturned nose sticking right through to the other side.
Frost, quite obviously blown away by the feisty spirited child touched one of the little girls dainty fingers through the fence. He met her gaze, marveling at the innocence and vibrant intensity that shone back through the chain link barrier.
His expression changed briefly as he whispered to her under his breath. “It’s very important that you become strong.” He touched the tip of her nose with his finger gently.
The Moments Before She Sleeps
The humming of Kayn’s blood as it coursed through her veins seemed to sing along to the steady, almost tribal, beat of her feet as they pounded rhythmically into the dirt. A veil of earth flowed behind her; she resembled a flaxen haired angel attempting to outrun a cloud. The cloud of dust seemed to follow her for a moment or two longer than it should, with not one whisper of wind in the afternoon air. The smile that spread over Kayn’s lips while she trained showed that her heart was overflowing with so much joy that it could not be contained beneath a serious competitive demeanor. Watching Kayn run was a beautiful thing to behold and people would stop by the track after school simply to watch her before beginning their long walk home.
Kayn noticed in the moment of clarity that Kevin was not yet sitting in the grass to watch her run. She could picture Kevin as he rushed to his locker, and fumbled with the lock in an attempt to keep the facade going. She wasn’t stupid. She didn’t actually believe that he enjoyed watching her run in circles around a track. She knew here was a method to his madness. Her best friend was madly in love with her twin sister. He had been addicted to the mere sight of her since kindergarten. To anyone else this would make no sense, but Kayn understood. She was Kevins friend, and Chloe was his fantasy.
She could picture him shoving his way past a herd of students and prying his body through the single doorway that lead the gym. In her vision of why he was late for their daily routine. He was shoved up against the wall and his books fell out of his backpack. She found herself laughing aloud as she ran for thoughts of him always brought a smile to her face. His organizational skills had always left something to be desired. After taking a moment to collect his papers, he would zip up his bag and continue on his quest for his moment in the presence of her twin sister. The unattainable Chloe Brighton.
She noticed him out of the corner of her eye. He ran up the hill and unceremoniously plopped himself down in the grass beside her school bag and things were as they should be. She rounded the corner and kicked up dust like a champ. She saw him fiddling with his cell phone. He was going to time her next lap. She flashed by her best friend in a cloud of dust. Kevin smiled at her through the haze.
Her body, lean and freckled from exposure to the sun, glinted with sparkles in the sun’s rays. Kayn loved coconut sparkle tanning spray. She could see it on her clenched fists each time they flashed by her line of sight. She was a girl with a list of strange little rituals on her daily to do list. At the beginning of her run, she imagined that she did look magical, glittering in the sun, but not by the end of her run. By the end of her training, the glitter tanning spray would cause the track’s dust to stick to her whole body in a comical way. She would end up looking as though she had spent her whole afternoon rolling in it, not running on it.
As Kayn took off her blinders, allowing herself to appreciate the sun’s rays gently whispering across her skin. She experienced a feeling of pure joy that was transcendent. Kayn kicked up another cloud to outrun as she rounded the corner. Then came that pleasurable jolt of electricity that surged through her brain, ignited her soul, and set her afire with insurmountable joy. This moment in her run had always left Kayn with the sense that she had been given a gift or anointment of physical power. Her adrenaline rippled a winding path of pleasure underneath her skin.
Kayn hit the straight stretch feeling such unimaginable, euphoric, physical ecstasy that she felt baptized by the sweat trickling down her forehead to the sides of her face. Kayn Brighton was alive in that moment in a way only a runner could comprehend. Kayn was thankful for that moment, and every single time the experience had overwhelmed her as it had today; her soul felt stronger.
Every nerve ending was humming, “Faster, Kayn, go faster.” Kayn was an athlete born to push the limits of her body, programmed to be a powerhouse. Runners were a breed of their own; they had their incredible days and their horrible days in competition. Every day on the track, trail, or wherever a runner chose to run. The act itself was always a followed by a feeling of spiritual completion.
“Don’t Call Me Baby,” by Madison Avenue was cranked in Kayn’s ears. She kept pace to the beat, feeling powerful and strong. Kayn grinned and made eye contact as she ran past her best friend Kevin, signaling her acknowledgement of his presence.
Kevin sat listening to his music, plucking the long, green strands of grass out of the ground by their roots. Kevin glanced up from his grass picking duties the next time he saw Kayn approach and waved at her. He displayed a giant charming toothy grin. It was a funny thing that he had done since kindergarten. It never failed to induce laughter. She acknowledged that she had seen him sitting there being a goof by shaking her head and smiling with her eyes.
Kayn started walking to cool down her overheated body. Her heart began to thump and pound in her chest like an act of defiance to her now walking feet. Kayn licked the sweat from her upper lip, tasting its salty, pleasurable reward. She took her track dust covered hand and wiped her forehead to keep the stinging sweat from her eyes. Kayn wiped the sweat on her shorts noticing the streaks of dirt mixed with sweat and wondered if she had a streak of dust across her forehead.
Kayn turned in one fluid movement to greet Kevin, whose grassy scent signaled his arrival by her side. His giant grin told her that her face was most certainly covered in dirt, but he didn’t mention it to her. He always cheered for her as if she had just won the Olympics or something equally spectacular. Kayn yanked the earbud from one of her ears.
“Holy crap,” Kevin yelled. “That’s your best time this year. You are going to kick serious butt at the finals next month.”
“You know my earbuds are out, Kevin; I can hear you.” Kayn spoke quietly.
“Oh, you think you’re pretty cool because you’re fast. Well, young lady, plenty of people are fast, but how many people can do this?” Kevin retorted. He did a peculiar dance that involved a twirl and some kind of running man move as he laughed at her mortification.
“Please, stop,” Kayn said as she surveyed the track and surrounding area for witnesses.
Kayn Brighton was a pretty girl, but she really had no clue how beautiful she could be. Her naturally curly, wheat colored hair was damp with perspiration and always in a messy ponytail. Kevin often had told her with her face speckled with freckles and her cute nose streaked with mud, that she resembled an Amazonian sized forest nymph.
Kevin jogged beside Kayn now in order to keep up with her and was struggling because she walked with long, model length strides. He used to be the most adorable little boy on the planet, but there was a point where he stopped feeling adorable. That was when she had surpassed him in height. It was around the end of seventh grade. As a joke, their mothers had been plotting their nuptials since the second grade, so that was a complication that they had not anticipated.
Kevin had been in a painfully awkward, acne covered stage for at least three years now. He was still adorable, although possibly only to Kayn. However, she did notice that Kevin’s skin was looking pretty clear today. Kayn smiled at him as he valiantly attempted to run as fast as she was walking. Kayn affliction was very different. Kayn was invisible. To her this was a good thing. It was her preference to blend into the crowd.
“You are awesome. I mean that, and I’m totally not saying that to butter you up so you’ll put a good word in with your sister,” Kevin said with a grin that spread from ear to ear.
She loved him to death, but she had been letting him down easy for ten years now. She gave him a pat on the shoulder and then flung her arm around him.
She slowed down to a casual stroll and sweetly said, “There’s just this one problem, muffin. My sister is way too advanced for you.”
“Right… That’s what you say to all the guys stalking your twin sister,” he countered with a grin at the cleverly creative way of calling her sister slutty.
Kayn choked on a laugh and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact it is exactly what I say to every single one of them. I was forced to come up with one token line that I use with everyone. It just saves time, darling.”
Kevin’s face crinkled into a dimpled grin and he shook his head feigning his distaste. He responded in a flirtatious voice, “I can’t believe that after all these years, I am merely a number to you.”
She displayed a giant smile at his attempt at innuendo. Maybe she would have even been a little flattered if the conversation had been directed towards her.
Kayn gave Kevin a friendly pat on the shoulder and said, “Just do yourself a favor; take a hint. She is not the right girl for you.” Kayn slapped him on the butt. She teased, “At least have the decency to warn me if you ever find yourself wanting to wear my sister as a skin coat. I can try to get you some help.” Kevin let out a small yelp, and he jumped from the sting of her hand. He shot a dirty look back in her direction.
Kayn took on a fake serious tone and said, “How hard can it be to arrange an intervention or a creepy exorcism or something in your honor. I would hate to have to visit my best friend in a padded cell somewhere.” She sent him a sweet, innocent look and waited for his inevitable comeback.
“You’re really very clever, Candy Kayn. You should have a comedy show or something,” he shot back at her.
“It would be hilarious if it wasn’t the truth,” Kayn challenged.
Kayn’s twin sister, Chloe Brighton, was the perfected version of her. She was stylish and always the picture of popularity and perfection. Her twin was described with words like captivating, stunning, and provocative. Kayn, on the other hand, was blandly described as cute, funny, and a good runner. It didn’t seem very fair; however, she loved her sister with blind acceptance. They had always been extremely close but definitely did not hang out in the same crowd. To be honest, Kayn had no crowd at all; it was really just her and Kevin.
The only boys who ever had shown an interest in Kayn were usually after her sister Chloe. Kayn, being less sophisticated, would always fall for their games. She would think, maybe this time the guy liked her. She would talk to them on the phone for a while, and then inevitably they would ask to come over to hang out or maybe do some homework together. Kayn would invite them over and right when her heart would begin to flutter with the romantic possibilities of a goodnight kiss or how incredible it would be to have an actual boyfriend, it would happen. They would make their intentions obvious by saying something like, “Because we are such good friends could you introduce me to your sister Chloe?”
Friends… an uncomplicated word, it was also a word that Kayn had begun to hate at a very young age because of her sister Chloe. That one single word had felt like the wind from a breath that would blow out every single candle she had kept lit inside of her heart her whole young life to date.
Kayn would be blatantly lying if she said that the constantly repeating scenario didn’t breed some resentment toward her sister. Still, she would never let it show. Not once had she ever freaked out at her sister for stealing her imaginary boyfriends or simply for being completely morally bankrupt.
Kayn had learned at a very young age that Chloe didn’t follow the same ethical or moral codes that most people followed. Kayn had this thing called a conscience which included guilt and a little voice in her ear that repeated until she chose to listen to it, “Don’t do it, Kayn.” She was pretty sure the voice talking to Chloe said, “Do it,” every single time and there was really no need for sentiment or morality in Chloe’s universe.
The giant self-contained universe that seemed to revolve completely around Chloe was simply amazing. One could stand with mouth agape for hours listening to the stories of horrific events that Chloe had caused during a 24-hour period of time. It was as though her sister were protected in her own little snow globe completely by herself and life surrounded her. Once in a while someone stirred up her water, but it simply revolved around her like everything else did, never really touching her or swirling her around to lose a second of her control. Chloe was completely unaffected by the world around her and stood unwavering through life’s currents.
Kayn couldn’t get really get mad at the boys who fell for Chloe because she truly believed her sister had the mythical powers of a siren. Chloe was alluring, enticing, and seemed to have catnip for men on her somewhere. Kayn often had felt like patting her down and checking her pockets. She wondered how all of this game had ended up in one of the babies and not the other. They were in the same womb after all, and it didn’t really seem fair.
Kevin was one person whose opinion she valued. She could vent to him, and he understood. He understood the power that her sister held. They would joke about it on a regular basis, but as soon as Chloe was in a ten-foot radius of him, he wasn’t able to tell you his own name. It infuriated her to no end.
She stopped walking, and she looked behind her. The track was empty, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. She shivered as a gust of wind seemed to run a trail down the track behind her stirring the dust up into the air. I need a rest. I overworked myself today, she thought. She shook her head as she looked up at the trees that surrounded the span of the track. They were completely still. It was smoking hot outside. She knew a random cold spot in the middle of a sweltering hot track was more than a little bit strange. Kayn turned her attention back to her friend in an attempt to hush the nagging voice in the back of her mind that was repeating the words Something’s wrong.
“Did someone walk over your grave?” Kevin whispered in Kayn’s ear, breaking the silence between them. She smiled at his quote from Grandma Winnie. One of the token things Kevin’s grandmother always said if someone shivered in her presence. Kevin’s granny always said a sneeze was a ghost walking through you. If you shivered, she would say that someone had walked over your grave. The retort was always, “But I’m not dead, Granny.” Granny would answer with, “If only you knew how irrelevant the word dead actually is in the grande scheme of things.”
Kevin’s grandmother seemed to have a direct line to the spirit world. Nearly All of her random thoughts were more than a wee bit creepy. Sometimes his grandmother would spend hours just chatting with Kayn about her dreams. Granny Winnie was a quirky, warm, witty woman that had treasured her from day one. Kayn was a faithful member of Team Granny because she unlike the rest of the planet seemed to despise her sister Chloe. Granny Winnie couldn’t even breathe when Chloe was in the same room. Granny would pretend to gasp for oxygen or make some kind of foul stench related declaration referring to Chloe. She was believable enough to cause a “perfect in her own mind” Chloe to smell her own armpits. Chloe, being completely void of respect for her elders or pretty much anybody else, would refer to her as a crazy old bat or a witch. Often Granny Winnie would call Chloe out on an evil deed or two as if she could read her mind.
Strange weather we’ve been having lately, Kayn thought as she watched the clear blue sky change in a matter of moments from completely cloudless to a powder of fluffy white clouds. She could smell the scent of the fresh cut grass; it was almost overpowering to her senses. It was so potent that it was a little strange that she hadn’t noticed it until right this second.
The pair walked quietly for a second more when Kayn looked down at her feet; as she shuffled through the grass the sounds seemed to amplify. She could hear the grass rustling under her feet; it crackled loudly and whispered softly in her steps. Something feels off today. Kevin’s feet came into her line of sight. She raised her eyebrows at him and pointed to his untied shoelaces. Kevin bent over in front of her to tie up his shoes.
Kayn began to speak as if she were reading his obituary. “I can see the paper now; it would read something like this: Kevin Smith was a wonderful boy, so smart and good looking but a little clumsy. Had he only tied his shoes he wouldn’t have fallen down the stairs and found himself impaled on a janitor’s broom. Remember kids—tie your shoes—safety first.”
“Have I told you that you’re an asshole yet today?” Kevin stated when she finished her latest version of his obituary. Kayn didn’t have a comeback. She glanced behind her and then from side to side. She couldn’t shake the unnerving feeling that something was coming. There was a hollow ache in her chest. A strange feeling that lingered each time she swallowed.
Kevin leaned in to Kayn’s ear and whispered, “You sure you’re okay because you’re starting to creep me out a bit with this cagey behavior.”
Kevin’s warm breath in her ear made Kayn shiver again. Everything seemed heightened. She had the strangest urge to lean over and kiss him square on the lips. She was obviously going a little bit crazy today. Low blood sugar or something.
She replied, “No… just over tired I guess.”
“The way you’re swinging your head around, young lady, is frankly a little creepy,” Kevin said, raising his eyebrows in her direction in a moderately concerned fashion.
He twirled around in a circle and added, “Nobody is coming, I swear.”
“I know,” Kayn answered, “I’m feeling a little off. Maybe I’m coming down with something?”
“We should be more worried about your cagey behavior today causing a nasty case of whiplash.”
Kevin flung his arm around her shoulder and gave her a buddy-like squeeze. “You go have a shower, muffin; you’re kind of sweaty and nasty. What do you do? Do you cover yourself in bloody honey before you go for a run?”
Kevin chuckled as he smelled his hands and groaned, “Ewww, that’s not honey.”
Kayn sparred, “There you go talking all dirty again, literally; it’s kind of hot, all this talk of toxins and waste.”
“What was your boyfriends’ name again, Kayn?” Kevin asked innocently.
They were walking together, and she gave him a solid shove in jest.
“You should call up your invisible girlfriend and ask her what her name is love monkey,” she said and winked.
“I have a girlfriend. Her name is Chloe. She just doesn’t know it yet,” he teased.
He couldn’t help himself. She knew this. He was well aware that constant talk of her sister irritated her to no end. It was his easy smack down in a comedy standoff.
“Do you know what the difference between you and a stalker is?” she responded sweetly.
“Do tell, oh wise and mighty stalking connoisseur,” he sighed.
“It’s whether or not you’re wearing my sister’s stolen thong underwear right now,” she said.
She attempted to wrestle with Kevin a bit in order to catch a stealth look down the back of his shorts.
“Hey, hey, simmer down. I swear I will yell rape. I’m going commando. Pulling my shorts off is not a great idea,” he laughed as he fended her off.
“Like you could handle me,” She chuckled.
She cringed with pain as she shifted her bag to her other shoulder. It always had twenty pounds of books in it. She could never memorize her locker combination. She was utterly horrible with numbers. That was her excuse. The real reason probably being that she would be obliged to speak to the vapid girls that hung out around her locker. She liked to be left alone in her own little world. Kevin grabbed her heavy bag off of her without saying a word.
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I have been going commando since my first wedgie in fifth grade. Once they grab for underwear and don’t find any, they get very afraid and back right off,”He chuckled.
Kayn doubled over into a fit of giggles. She chuckled, “I honestly don’t doubt that for a second.”
“You learn lots of little things that help you maneuver through geekdom unscathed if you’re crafty, you know,” he said as they started walking again.
Kevin was carrying both of their bags. She knew he was being tough, but she knew how heavy her bag was. She smiled and took her bag back. It was in these sweet little moments that she wondered, Could they be something more? Would he ever make a move on her? She wasn’t sure if her friend Kevin knew any moves. If he ever had a second where he had allowed the thought to cross his mind, she had probably reacted as she had a bit earlier. She would have assumed it was some kind of joke. He caught her staring and knit his brow. This was stupid. What was she even thinking? She was hormonal or something today. He was her friend.
Kayn was beginning to grow tired of the fact that more and more of their conversations had become centered around her sister.
She shot a somewhat disapproving glance at Kevin and said pleasantly, “Let’s stop talking about Chloe all of the time. Frankly, I’m sick of it.”
“Shush,” he said as he put one finger directly over her pursed lips. “You know not to speak of her voodoo powers.”
The phrase “Chloe has a boyfriend” was easily compared to cursing out loud in the Brighton household. Her sister would find herself running like she was on fire from every boy she had ever attempted to date. Seemingly normal boys would gradually lose their marbles. It was as if the pressure of being close to her would make their sanity unfold like a reversal of an origami swan. It would start with a vehicle outside of the house in the middle of the night, and rapidly escalate. Once Chloe grew bored or annoyed by their obsessive behavior. She inevitably dumped them cold.
On occasion, random guys would break into their house and steal objects that belonged to her. In the beginning, the police thought Chloe must be doing something to bring this on herself, but after she went in for a couple interviews at the police station and full grown men couldn’t help but fawn all over her sister. They all understood what Kayn had always known.
“We shouldn’t even be joking about this stuff. The breakups with the last three or four of her boyfriends turned out to be pretty damn scary situations,” she said in a hushed tone. The last thing Kayn needed was to be caught talking about it by one of her sisters minions.
Kevin turned and gave her a strange look that said, think about what you just said for a second, and they both broke into a fit of giggles.
A giant stinging slap followed on her spandex running short covered butt. There stood Chloe. Kayns infamous, and moderately evil twin. A living breathing cover girl commercial gracing us with her badass presence. Chloe smiled at her, and gave a slight glance acknowledging Kevins presence. He turned ten shades of red as though she had whispered something dirty in his ear. He’s completely pathetic, Kayn thought, shaking her head.
Chloe threw an arm around her, then jumped away saying, “Ewww, yuck, gross, you’re all sweaty and nasty. Listen, you backstabbing witch with a B, I’m not feeling that hot today. I’m on my way home. Do you need a ride?” She said.
Chloe always donned a giant, gorgeous, show stopping smile. It was like every moment of her life was one strange, endless, beauty pageant.
She had a sarcastic sense of humor that Kayn never took seriously. “I’m not going home. I’m going to go have a shower, and then go to Kevin’s house for dinner,” Kayn replied.
Chloe leaned over and kissed her sister’s sweaty cheek, quietly whispering, “Yes, go have that shower.”
Chloe sighed, “I’m grounded again for no good reason. I will see you later Sis.”
“Shocking,” Kevin murmured as they walked away.
Kayn suspected that her sister Chloe got herself grounded on purpose. Just to have a forced break from her social responsibilities. If there were medals in the Olympic games doled out for groundings achieved in a three-year period of time. Her sister Chloe had the equivalent of a gold medal.
“Bye, Kevy.” Chloe yelled behind her as she flounced off.
“Yup, voodoo powers,” Kevin whispered to Kayn.
“I heard that Kevin. You’re a little stinker,” she yelled back.
Kayn smiled at Kevin, casually adding, “I bet when you thought of sexy nicknames she would call you in your fantasies, little stinker wasn’t one of them.”
She couldn’t help herself; he’d left it wide open, and she was on a roll. Kevin turned around and socked her in the arm.
She stopped, turned around, and said, “Seriously, you hit me. I can’t believe you would do that.” She glared at him and feigning pain rubbed her arm looking genuinely upset.
“I was just kidding. I didn’t actually hurt you, did I?” Kevin whispered.
He knew he had been had when Kayn’s serious look crumbled into a grin, and she said, “Woman abuse,” she smoked him on the arm twice as hard.
“What woman? I don’t see a woman anywhere around here. Oh, you mean you?” he countered as he rubbed his still throbbing arm. Kevin pretended to be looking around for a moment.
“I will butt you out like a cigarette, little man!” She made a fist for a joke duel.
Kevin glared at her. Oh, no—the expression. Game over. Whoops…She had gone too far. It was all fun and games until she made one too many short jokes with Kevin.
“I am not little,” he said. Kevin stomped towards the covered entrance to the facility.
“Okay, how about vertically challenged,” Kayn said innocently.
She was digging her own grave, and she knew it. Kevin could argue for hours. He could debate something forever and wear anyone out.
“I might look short to an Amazonian like you,” he countered.
“Touché,” she said smiling. She did know better than to push it anymore because if he kept it up, the laughter she had been trying to suppress would escape.
“I am still growing,” he said as his voice cracked a little. Kayn doubled over laughing. She couldn’t help it with the well-timed voice crack.
“Can you please be done laughing now,” Kevin said as they walked into the fitness center.
“I’ll see you outside in fifteen minutes, you sexy stud,” she whispered, sultry as a porn star. Kayn was still grinning as she pushed through the door to the girls’ changing room.
“Quit mocking me, Amazonian woman,” he yelled dramatically from behind her.
As she entered the changing room, Kevin’s last joking retort bounced off the marvelous acoustics of the concrete and tile room. Her feet were still throbbing from her well worn shoes. The tiles on the floor were icy and soothed her aching feet. In a matter of months, she had already worn her shoes out from running. She knew they didn’t have the money to replace her running shoes every five minutes. Both of her parents had jobs, but she knew that they were barely making ends meet. She decided she would wait awhile before telling her mom. She dropped her shoes. The sound as they landed on the tiles echoed. It repeated a few times as if someone had dropped more than one pair of shoes.
Kayn was just dying to sing in the shower but was afraid that someone would walk in on her. She pulled her tank top and bra off and looked into the mirror. With a clear view of the room around her, she could see that nobody else was there. She was alone. She thought of Kevin waiting. Then she remembered that there was a coffee machine in the lobby by the pool. Kevin was probably having a coffee and ogling the girls swim team; he was fine.
Kayn stripped down and stood naked in front of the mirror for a second. She pulled her hair out of her ponytail, and it fell in damp loose ringlets across her bare shoulders. She tilted her head to one side and posed seductively with a smile as she surveyed her reflection.
Kayn Brighton was not hard to look at, and she knew that she was a pretty girl. Maybe I should start wearing makeup to school, she thought. It frustrated her a little, being the funny kind of dorky twin. Her face was freckled and tanned from hours upon hours of training in the hot sun. In the winter time, all of her freckles went away, and her skin was porcelain white. I could look just like Chloe if I wanted to, Kayn thought, sucking in her cheeks and then plastering a giant pageant style smile across her face.
Kayn walked toward the shower stalls. She stopped and glanced over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror. The conversation with her sister flashed through her memory. Chloe was feeling sick today; that’s what was going on then. Kayn quite often had sympathy illness whenever her twin wasn’t feeling one hundred percent.
Kayn turned around, pulled the plastic curtain to the shower, and leaned in to turn on the water. It began to tap dance against the bottom of the stall, and when it was just the right temperature she stepped inside. She smiled as the water beat against her weary muscles. She began to lather herself up with the nice scented pump soap. Today was her lucky day; a fresh full dispenser of soap, shampoo, and conditioner. She didn’t even have to reach down and find her own in the bottom of her gym bag.
With her favorite running song still going through her mind, she started humming a few bars and then began to sing the words. Just then she heard the door open, and she became silent. She hurried through, rinsing herself off, and towel dried her hair. She ran her brush through her hair and put it back in a ponytail. As she passed by the mirror again, she wondered if Chloe ever wanted to be more like her. She quickly blew off that completely nutty idea.
Kayn was five minutes younger than her sister Chloe, but her twin acted five years older. Kayn had no voodoo powers with men; she was awkward and definitely possessed no game at all. She wondered if she asked Chloe how she did it if she would she teach her something…anything. It would be nice to have someone ask her on a date before she was eighty years old.
Kayn had to admit it bugged her that Kevin obsessed about Chloe, not that she seriously liked him or anything because that was most definitely not a good move friendship-wise; there was that ominous word again…friends.
Kayn towel dried her back again, feeling trickles of water from her still damp hair trail down her back. She stepped into her underwear and wondered why her mind kept travelling the road back to questioning her feelings for Kevin today. Kayn shook the thought out of her head and whipped her clothes back on. She grabbed her bag and hurried out the door, hoping he wasn’t too frustrated waiting for her. She forced open the door with an over-exaggerated grunting sound.
Kevin was sitting on the railing waiting patiently and looking up at the sky with his mouth agape in a totally comical way.
Kayn walked up beside him and teased, “Trying to catch flies?”
“Always,” Kevin sparred with a dimpled grin and quick wit.
“What are we looking at?” Kayn said as she stared up toward the heavens and made the same open-mouth face of awe.
“Come with me, and I’ll show you,” Kevin laughed. He grabbed her hand, and they started to walk toward the field.
Kayn had lived this moment a thousand times. Kevin lay down in the grass, and she lay beside him.
“Oh, wow I get it; look at how fast the clouds are moving. I noticed that earlier; it’s almost creepy. I wonder if there’s a storm coming or something?” Kayn whispered.
As Kayn lay peacefully in the grass, suddenly a sharp pain seared through her core. She grabbed her stomach, sucked a deep breath in and gasped, “What the hell was that?”
“You okay, Brighton?” He sat up and touched her arm.
Kayn winced again and doubled over, her insides afire with another strange penetrating pain. Kevin placed his hand on her stomach, watching her face calm. The pain disappeared again as quickly as it had begun.
He looked at her and stated, “You probably need a big glass of water, maybe some dinner?”
She stood up, trying to shake off a sense of impending danger that had been replaying in her mind. With the pain suddenly gone, she said, “Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“Did you skip lunch again?” he scolded with a disapproving look on his face.
“I do believe that I did not eat lunch today.”
There was a very simple explanation for the sharp undefined pain that she had experienced. Kayn was often practicing at lunchtime and would forget to eat. She felt the urge to look behind her again. She looked around in every direction trying to shake off the uncomfortable feeling that had been plaguing her all afternoon. Something in her mind was still whispering, Be careful, Kayn.
She shook off the anxious feeling, remembering that the last horror movie that she had watched with Kevin only days earlier had taken place at a lake. There they stood by the turn off to Lakeshore Drive. It’s all in my mind, Kayn thought. She started to laugh a little at her seriously overactive imagination. Kevin had looked a little concerned earlier, but he now had obviously recalled the hillbilly cannibal movie that they had watched the week before. He kneeled in the grass and picked up a handful of it and he smelled it.
“Just what I thought,” he said looking seriously concerned now.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s hillbilly urine; we had better get our tasty selves home before they come to eat us,” Kevin said, pointing toward home proving if there was ever any doubt that he had no acting ability at all.
“Let’s get out of here, you geek,” Kayn said shaking her head at him and smiling.
“Okay, let’s go to my house. It’s got to be like five by now; dinner’s probably on the table,” Kevin said and smiled again.
They looked at each other and smiled and started running through the field before the trails. This was the ritual race home they’d had since they had first been allowed out of their yards alone as children. Kevin had always been sneaky. He knew using fair play there was no possible way to beat Kayn in a race. He shoved her over per usual, and she fell with a gentle thud into the grass.
“Cheater,” she yelled, out of breath as he kept running away from her. She lay sprawled dramatically in the grass laughing. Kevin was laughing hysterically as he covered a good twenty feet.
“Cheater,” she yelled again and slowly rose to her feet spitting out the freshly mown grass from her mouth.
She would let him win; it was good for him to win sometimes. Kayn could take one for the team today, especially to see him this happy.
Kevin let out an obnoxiously loud cheer as he vaulted over the fence to his yard. He raised his arms in a silent fake fanfare and took a bow. He had never once won graciously in the whole ten years of their friendship.
Sure enough, they walked inside Kevin’s house to the amazing smells of his mother’s cooking. Her stomach began to grumble loudly the second that they walked into the house. The delicious aroma of Kevins mothers cooking filled her senses.
Kevin’s mom greeted her with a giant bear hug and said, “Hello there, beautiful. Go wash your hands and I’m not going to ask you why you are both just covered in grass.”
His mom raised her eyebrows curiously and added, “We are at the table ready to eat so hurry up, you two.”
She glanced into the mirror and pulled the grass out of her hair letting a little smile escape as she washed her hands in the bathroom sink. She started giggling as she thought about how wrong it looked when two teenagers of the opposite sex showed up covered in grass. Well, anyone else—with them platonic wrestling would be completely normal. Kayn was sure that if her dad walked in and they were wrestling on her bed. He wouldn’t even flinch.
Kayn sat at her usual spot at the table with his family. Kevins family mirrored her own. They were always cracking jokes, and talking loudly about their day.
She loved everything about the Smith house, from the mismatched frames filled with family photos in the dining room to the extremely outdated green shag carpet in the living room. The living room was completed with a mismatched, yet cozy, couch set with two fluffy lounging felines that could always be easily seen from the dining room table. Kayn swore they had not moved an inch in years.
Kevin’s granny sat at the end of the table, her wispy white hair wildly untamed. Kayn could envision Kevin’s grandmother as a beautiful younger woman. There was a black and white picture in the hallway. Beautiful didn’t quite encompass Granny in her youth, for she had been enchanting. She had rich crimson curls and exquisitely structured high cheek bones. There was obvious power, and immeasurable strength of spirit in her innocent wide doe eyes. Physically she looked as thin and frail as a newborn fawn. She had untold stories in her eyes. She was a girl with many secrets. The chapters were written in the creases of her smile. She was not the picture of pin up perfection, but she had an unexplainable quality that made you curious. You wanted to know more about her with one look into her eyes. Granny had worn the same shade of dark blood burgundy lipstick even then. She always wore lipstick ten shades too dark, and her teeth were worn, yellowed from age, always seeming to have something stuck in them. If she got some false teeth it would make her look ten years younger, but she didn’t seem to care in the least. She stared at Kayn the whole meal without speaking a single word to her. It was very unusual.
Kayn couldn’t help herself; she said, “Is there something wrong?”
“You know something is amiss, don’t you?” Granny whispered. It was as if she were afraid of the words that might slip from her lips.
“Kayn had some stomach pain earlier; she’s probably coming down with the flu or something,” Kevin answered for her.
“Perhaps,” Granny Winnie replied.
She glanced back down at her plate. Granny looked a little bit ill herself today. It looked as though she had more to say, but for once remained silent.
She looked directly into Kayn’s eyes with unmasked sadness and said, “Always listen to your instincts, child. They are never wrong.”
As Kayn was preparing to leave, Granny stood up and made her way over to Kayn, hugging her so tightly that she had to squirm away in order to breath.
Granny leaned in and whispered something in Kayn’s ear, “You survive. You fight hard.”
Granny Winnie always said very strange, random, and sometimes ominous things. Kayn knew that there would be a three-hour long conversation about spiritual things if she asked her what she meant.
Kayn excused herself to go to the bathroom. She attempted to call home on her cell. It went straight to voicemail. Chloe was probably on the phone; heaven forbid she ever had some kind of crisis and needed to talk to her own parents.
Chloe had a cell phone, too, but was always grounded from it; yet they still let her talk on the landline which meant nobody else could get through; heaven forbid, someone spend two dollars on an extra line or call waiting.
She sat on the toilet trying her mom’s cell; she was obviously going to be a few minutes late tonight. Then she put her phone down after leaving a message and sneaked down the hall to Kevin’s room for a quick prank or two before she went home.
Kevin’s mom gave her a bag with some fresh eggs in it for her mom. It was starting to get dark, so Kevin’s dad offered to drop her off at home. She thanked him with a huge hug as she got out of the car. The air smelled amazing, like cherry blossoms in full bloom. It must have been raining while they were eating dinner.
Kayn stepped out of the car, into a puddle, and twisted her ankle. Of course, she thought. Soaked foot, eggs and school bag in hand, she limped up the steep driveway toward the front door. The door was partially open which was not normal. However it was a little windy out and quite normal for the door to be unlocked, so maybe it was left ajar, flung open by the wind?
She turned around to see that Kevin’s dad had driven away. Kayn felt off, apprehensive as she walked toward the door that seemed to have a life of its own. The door shifted from cracked open then almost shut again with the wind. She looked at her cell phone. It was a quarter after eight. This was obviously a prank. They had left the front door open, and entrance lights off to freak her out. Chloe was probably hiding around the corner. Practical jokes were an almost daily occurrence in the Brighton household.
It was almost dark outside. She stopped again for a second time, feeling uneasy for some reason as she walked up the long gravel driveway. Her heart felt tight, and her chest felt hollow as she paused again. The surrounding giant trees made it extra dark in her yard. The slivers of light flashed through the trees as they moved in the wind.
They lived in a beautiful area but very isolated. Kayn shoved her cell back in her pocket, and pocket dialed Kevin by accident. She stepped toward the darkened doorway’s threshold and paused for a moment again before pushing the doorway completely open
“I’m home,” Kayn yelled as she walked in the door, kicking off her shoes and dropping her school bag.
She tried clicking on the front hall light; it was burned out or something. Kayn had seen lights on upstairs as she walked up the driveway, so she knew the power wasn’t out. It’s just a burned out light bulb, she thought.
As Kayn tried to pull off her wet socks, she tried to balance on one leg, but a small stab of pain from her freshly twisted ankle caused her to put her hand against the wall in order to balance herself. Her hand slid off the wall, and she struggled to pull her second soaking wet sock off.
She massaged her ankle for a second and noticing it was swollen, said aloud, “Great, there goes the track meet.”
“Kevin’s mom gave us eggs,” she said, speaking in almost a whisper, suddenly aware that she seemed to be alone in the house. Where would they have gone this late? Her mind began to sort through the possible scenarios.
“Mom…Dad?” she called out from the front doorway.
Kayn was answered by silence, and then touching the wall, she felt the stickiness on her hand. She held her hand up to the faint sliver of light streaming through the trees that made it to the doorway. The palm of her hand was covered in blood. Ripples of adrenaline coursed through her body. She felt as if thousands of spiders had run across the surface her skin. Kayn froze for a split second, paralyzed with fear, shivers of terror crawling across her flesh. She started to gingerly step backwards out the door. She saw movement in the form of a dark figure in the hallway.
She heard her sister’s voice scream, “Run, Kayn.” It was raw, primal, and shrill.
She turned and ran, bringing the eggs in her hand with her. She knew that someone was behind her. She could sense them there. She knew there was no time to look behind her. Kayn ran with no rhyme or reason in the direction that she was pointed in. She slipped in the wet grass, turned around somehow, and then she saw the opening to the trails in the distance. It seemed to beckon her toward its mouth.
The neighbor behind them was closer than the neighbors on either side of them, making the trails a somehow logical yet illogical split second decision. Kayn wasn’t able to think or breathe, and her basic animalistic instinct for survival was guiding her.
She had let go of the bag of eggs halfway across the back lawn, throwing them behind her, hoping to slow her attacker. Kayn sprinted toward the trail’s opening, its entrance overgrown with foliage. She burst through the branches which had partially hidden the familiar pathway. The branches of the prickle filled blackberry bush tore at her flesh as she pushed through. The pain heightened her survival instinct which now possessed her. It was only that which drove her forward.
Kayn barreled into the overgrown trail, forcing her way through where she instinctually remembered the trail had been. She had played in these trails as a child. She had found a place to hide a thousand times, but there was no time for strategy or thought. The crunching of leaves and twigs in the pathway behind her told her he was close; far too close to do anything but react.
Kayn slipped in the mud again, skidding yet not falling. She ignored the stinging of her knees, thrusting her body with a violent jolt as if starting a run on the track. Kayn had now lost that precious half a second lead; it had allowed her hunter to close the space between them.
Her heart pounded in her chest threatening to burst right through her skin as her tired legs propelled her body through the winding bike trail. The rocks and clay mud cut her bare feet. The sharp reaching twigs and branches slashed at her legs, and the prickle bushes sliced at her flesh.
“You have to run faster, Kayn, run faster,” her sister’s voice mind screeched inside of Kayn’s terror driven mind.
Kayn heard the branches crunching behind her; the dark figure’s rhythm, as steady as the rhythm of her running. He was so close behind her that she could feel his breath on her hair and neck as he panted. He was almost touching her. He was so fast, inhumanly fast; she needed a rush of adrenaline to edge her ahead.
Kayn could see lights from someone’s house peeking through the trees. She was going to make it, she thought as her bare feet pounded over the rocks and twigs slashing at her ankles and legs; she was almost there. She drove herself forward knowing she had only a half second lead from the hunter that pursued her. She was almost to safety…just over the creek. Her bare feet hit the small wooden bridge…she was almost there.
Kayn felt the elation of victory as she was about to burst through the bushes when she felt heat plunge into her back. Her eyes widened in terror as the knife plunged into her again; its blade seared a molten trail of excruciating pain through her body. A sweaty hand muffled her gasp of shock as she sunk to her knees in disbelief.
Her captor’s arms were slick with perspiration; like a python, they constricted around her neck crushing her larynx. Screaming and pleading for her life was now impossible. He continuously brought her to the brink of strangulation and then shook her awake, harshly reviving her.
Kayn tried to close her eyes; maybe he would believe her to be gone. He would leave her in the trails to bleed alone, allow her to slip peacefully away, becoming one with the forest floor around her. Instead every time her eyes slipped shut she felt the slicing, searing pain of his knife again and again in her stomach and chest until her eyes opened wide with terror. The next pain stole Kayn’s breath causing blood to sputter from her mouth. She gazed ahead of her and through the trees which were glimmering in flashing flickering light; she saw a figure in the distance.
Help me, oh, God, please help me; see me, please, I’m right here, Kayn’s mind screamed. She could see his shadow on his patio through the trees in the luminescence of his porch lights; he was so close. A man was on the back porch having a cigarette.
He punched her stomach or cut her…she was unable to distinguish one kind of brutality from another…only that something was searing a hot excruciating fire through her stomach. He’s killing me…please, her soul pleaded as her vision blurred from her tears. Kayn couldn’t speak; she tried to scream; her throat crushed, the only sound she could make was a gurgling as she choked and sputtered out her own blood.
Why, why are you doing this to me? Her mind cried to the stranger who breathed quickly with joyous excitement and stimulation in her ear. She felt the competing rhythms of their pounding hearts, her back against his chest. She saw the twigs and rocks on the forest floor around her. Kayn could smell damp moss and the scent of tree sap and the sweet metallic taste of her own blood.
On her hands, she could feel the warm stickiness that she bled out into the dirt, trickling down her arms as it escaped from her body. Her clothing was heavily soaked in her essence that moistened the earth around her. He let her go for a second; she landed on all fours and tried to crawl away, but she couldn’t will her body to move forward. She couldn’t breathe. Now on her knees, her breath came in short labored attempts. She tried to grasp ahold of the ground with her fingertips. His hot repulsive breath and quiet laughter echoed in her ear again and then he began whispering things that Kayn couldn’t understand. His hot sweaty body was behind her pressing against her back. She felt her stomach churning, revulsion mixed with blinding pain.
She tried one last struggling movement to get away from his grasp, and then suddenly felt some horribly blinding pain across her head and face. The lights flickered and then went out.
In the woods lay a bleeding angel in all her glory. Her arms posed gracefully above her head, and her hair soaked in the mud, blood, and feces in which she lay. Dying, fading into the other realm, her form was christened by the rain as though the trees had begun to weep upon her for the brutality she had endured.
There was someone waiting in the trails; a dark presence lingered nearby waiting for her to regain consciousness.
Kayn awoke in frigid darkness. The pain that pulsated through her seemed to recycle in waves until it began to slowly dull and became a tolerable numbness. She struggled to open and focus her eyes. She could smell a familiar scent; it smelled overpoweringly sweet but somehow like metal. Kayn could taste the sweet repulsive flavor of it in her mouth; it made her want to vomit.
She was lying in mud, and she felt hot stickiness behind her. She suddenly remembered what that taste had been. It was her own blood that she could taste inside of her mouth. Kayn could not manage a single breath. Shuddering, she began to relive the brutality that she had experienced. Her mind began feeding her slivers, flashes of inhuman savagery. Her mind numb and disoriented from blood loss clicked through scattered memories from her childhood.
Help me, please, her mind pleaded into the forest through the tapping sounds of the rain tapping the branches above where she lay. They seemed to be shielding her, and as her vision came into focus she imagined the lush green branches above as giant arms. They protected her, covering her from the elements allowing her one last peaceful moment. They are beautiful, she thought. Her mind wandered through mystical visions of the majestic cedar trees alive and somehow capable of offering her protection. The calm smile on her face that had been contorted with anguish signaled his essence back to her.
Her vision came into focus and once again the trees came to life. They cackled and mocked her.” You’re going to die, you silly bitch,” they chanted.
They waved their branches, howling as the wind whistled through the trails which had suddenly become icy cold. Kayn’s consciousness snapped back to reality; she had lost a lot of blood…none of this was real.
A man stood by that same tree whose imaginary arms had shielded her from the rain, still waiting, veiled in mist. The change in temperature had caused the forest floor to come alive with a dancing mist that seemed to add a thickness to the tapping sound of the rain drops.
Writhing in the mud, Kayn willed her body to move; her fingers clawed at the ground around her until she was spent. She lay in stillness for a moment, feeling like a half dead animal waiting to be finished off by its hunter. She concentrated on each breath…in and out…a little air. She was alive. It felt like she was breathing through a straw and somebody had pinched the end.
The streams of light from the moon that had been dancing through the dark stormy clouds had now vanished, leaving only a cold dark night with no final visions of beauty. Kayn longed for some light but was left with only the flickering of blurry dark images. She couldn’t see anything in the absence of light and began to panic again, for she could feel her grasp on her life being absorbed into the mist. I’m so scared; I don’t want to die; please help me, her soul sobbed. The only answer was the crackling quiet sound of the rain.
Kayn couldn’t see anything at all now with her vision clouded with tears, so she had to stop herself from crying. Her head pounded with the blinding pain that had abruptly returned. She could sense that he was still nearby watching her. His dark shadow loomed in the distance as it had in the hallway of her house.
Please, please, no more, Kayn begged in her mind as he came closer to her, standing a few feet away from her now, watching with his head tilted to one side. Her heart was begging, please don’t hurt me anymore.
Kayn was trying to wriggle, but no movement came from her now. She willed herself to grasp at the moist cold earth with her fingers. She was unable to move at all; now her body was nothing more than a broken shell. How cruel for her mind to still see; to still desire life at this point. Kayn looked into his eyes. In them, one easily read desperate plea, why are you doing this to me?
She was so cold her body gave an involuntary shudder. Kayn realized then that she was naked, completely exposed to the elements. Why was she naked? Her eyes were full of tears again; she felt instant, almost overwhelming shame. Kayn could still feel the sticky heat behind her as her blood drained from her body, soaking into the dirt. The pain in her head began to numb as the lights through the trees began to flicker again.
The dark mass of her violator suddenly appeared beside her, leaning in so close that she could smell his putrid breath, moist over her face. Every hair on her body was standing on end. The electrical power between Kayn and the man in the dark was like a charge.
He ran a finger over her exposed breast and said, “You were never to be born; this situation had to be corrected.”
Kayn saw his knife glint in the light from the moon. It was raised above her chest. Yes, she thought, let it be over now. She shut her eyes as the knife sliced into her chest. Kayn opened her eyes again with acceptance; she felt no more pain. She stared deeply into his eyes as hers filled with tears.
He tried to regain his composure and with a voice thick with emotion he said, “To this life unto the next.”
He slowly began to cut some kind of symbol on the skin on Kayn’s chest above her heart. She lay limp in his arms, still conscious of what was happening, yet free from the pain and fear now. He pulled her close to cradle her naked body in his arms like a baby, rocking her broken, violated flesh in his arms, stroking her blood soaked hair. He began to sob as if he were repentant in some way for how he had tortured her.
As her vision flickered one last time, the man was gone; it was her mother looking into her eyes. Her mother’s eyes were filled with so much love that it seemed to release her from her pain and fear as it had when she was a small child. Her mother cradled her as a baby, rocking her back and forth. She was safe now in her mother’s arms. She was at peace. Mommy, her heart sang, you’re here to save me.
The warmth of her mother’s love enveloped her tortured soul. She looked into her mother’s eyes. She touched Kayn’s face and started to sing a song that she had sung to her every night when she was very small.
Sleep, sweet sleep till the morning
Just dream away and close your eyes
My love you’ll be safe until the morning
Sleeping in my heart, all through the night
Although bad dreams come to scare you
My love will scare them all away
The lights flickered, the pain went away, and her mother was holding her, singing: “Sleep, sweet sleep.”