Beneath the Surface: A sneak peek of the first four chapters, just for you.
He was afraid it was too late, but he wouldn't give up until her soul absconded. With shaking hands, he hugged her frail, young body close to his chest. When he could finally compose himself enough to speak, he looked up at the cold, starry sky, and cried: “Return to me! Return to me!”
He met her vacant eyes once again, and a vast heat rose from his hands. But it was too late. She exhaled a last, trifling breath. He leaned over her, overcome with excruciating guilt.
But as he crouched there, holding her still body and surrounded by carnage, his eyes cleared, and his heart was lifted. He looked east to the rising sun and smiled, for he knew they would meet again. And he knew also that he would wait for her. That no matter the number of lifetimes they lived unknown to one another, when they finally met, they would be together. The next time, he would let no one separate them.
I’d managed to avoid talking about Jeff Philips’ party all day, mostly thanks to the looming deadline of our chemistry presentation, which my best friend, Chelsea, and I were immersed in finishing. But, at the stroke of 3:03 p.m., we were done, and there wasn’t much else to talk about. As we strolled out of class into the hall, our fellow grade twelves swapped details about the party with ear-splitting glee. Everyone I passed claimed to know something fresh-squeezed and juicy.
I knew Chelsea would want us to go for her birthday, but house parties were the kind of thing that took me thousands of kilometres beyond my comfort zone. However, when my best friend wanted something, she could be absolutely tenacious, so I wasn’t surprised when she cornered me in front of our lockers before I had the chance to bolt home.
“So. Tonight’s Jeff’s party.”
“Well, do you want to go? You haven’t said a word about it all day.”
“I dunno. I’d rather not.”
“Oh come on, what else are you gonna do tonight?”
“Pleeeeeeaaaaaassse!” she begged, holding my clammy palm, her grey, inquisitive eyes locked on mine.
I spotted a poster across the hall out of the corner of my eye, and inspiration struck. “Why go to the party when we can see that really cool laser show at MacMillan Space Center? You love that kind of stuff. I’ll take us out for sushi and then—”
“No way.” She turned her nose up and shook her head. “I really want to go to Jeff’s tonight. And it’s my birthday weekend, so I get to choose!”
We were back to square one. She was puckering her lips with irritation, but I wasn’t ready to wave my white flag yet, even though I was out of excuses and drained of ideas. I frowned and looked down at my seriously scuffed winter boots.
“What, Liss? What?” she demanded. “Why do you keep avoiding everything to do with grad? This is our last year of high school, and you never want to go anywhere except to the bookstore or the movies. You’re totally missing out, you know.”
I took a deep breath. “It’s just not my thing, that’s all.”
I looked up at the ceiling, hoping that some divine courage would rise within me, but I felt nothing when I looked back into her eyes. I swallowed hard and answered, “I’m sorry Chelsea. I just can’t.”
“Is this about that Kyle guy who was mean to you at some party way back when?”
My heart leapt into my throat at the sound of his name. I hadn’t heard it in months, and now I wish I’d never told her about him—even though what I’d revealed to her was mostly false. “I…I don’t know.”
She huffed, and tossed her backpack over her shoulder. “You know what, Liss? Forget about it. We’ve been friends for a year, and you’re not even willing make an exception for one little time when something’s important to me. So here’s the deal: I’m going. With or without you.”
I called her back as she walked away, but all I got was a grumble in return. She stormed out of the school, checking the door open with her hip as if it were one of her soccer opponents, and at that moment I had this sickening feeling that I’d finally managed to push my best friend away for good. Make that my only friend.
As I drove home, I realized that I should have feigned excitement the moment she asked me. I should have jumped up and down (okay, maybe not that enthusiastic), or cracked a smile instead of glowering. Chelsea hadn’t balked at my birthday movie last December—even though I knew she hated it. So fair is fair. But the second she brought up Jeff’s party, I’d shifted into survival mode again, even though it didn’t work. With her, it never did. Since my first day at Gladstone Secondary just over a year ago, she always had a way of getting under my skin, but in a really good way. That is, until today.
I parked my car in front of my house, slipped through the front door, and closed it as quietly as I could. I could feel myself losing control as I thought about what I was going to have to do tonight, and I needed a moment to pull myself together before Mom discovered me. My stomach had been summersaulting on the drive home, and the scent of lemon Mr. Clean I now found myself suffocating in wasn’t helping. I licked the salty sweat from my lip, and closed my eyes as I supported myself against the back of the door. My knees were shaking, threatening to buckle, but I willed myself to stay vertical.
I told myself to relax, clenching my teeth together and driving my nails into my palms to prevent the primal scream I felt building—the kind that’s long and loud enough to ruin your vocal cords for a day or two afterward. I hated how weak I was at those moments.
I pulled the invitation to Jeff’s party from my bag; it was a crumpled disaster. When I looked down at the sparkly plum cardstock, I wished again that I could have put Chelsea off with a convenient excuse, instead of waffling around, trying to avoid admitting the truth: I just didn’t want to go.
I don’t know why Chelsea’s enthusiasm for her first party surprised me so much. After all, I had felt the same way, once upon a time. I remember what the evite looked like, and how light-headed I became as I skipped around the house getting myself primped and polished. I’d changed my outfit ten times before settling on a blue chemise with a little daffodil embroidered on the bottom, a jean skirt with navy blue tights, and my beige Toms.
I shuddered suddenly at the memory, and grasped my head tightly as I attempted to shove the memories of that night back into the darkest corner of my mind, where they belonged. Where I hoped they’d never surface again.
Though I knew they would. They always do.
I couldn’t possibly let Chelsea go to Jeff’s alone. Not a chance. I was going to have to show up, and even though I knew she’d probably shoot me dirty looks all night, I just needed to know she was safe. The last thing I wanted was Chelsea getting taken advantage of by one of Jeff’s drunk ’roid monkey friends. Grade twelve boys here in Vancouver probably weren’t all that different from grade twelve boys back in Edmonton.
I took a deep breath and looked at my watch. Three forty-five. I had just under three hours. Why does time always speed up when you’re dreading something? Stupid Murphy’s Law.
I thought about texting Chelsea, but as soon as I bent down to reach for my purse, the door opened behind me, knocking me to my knees. When I yelped, a voice barked back, “Why are you standing in the doorway? Get out of the way.” It was my sister, Katherine. As I got up and turned around, the vanilla body spray she’d bathed herself in almost made me gag. She was holding her own purple invitation and fanning herself like she was just crowned Miss Teen Universe or something.
It looked like Katherine was going to the party, too. She saw the invitation in my hand and guffawed. “Where’d you get that?”
“Jeff gave it to me before first period.”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “Awesome.” She swiftly adjusted her purse onto her shoulder and marched past me. Her stiletto boots on the laminate echoed throughout the house, shaking the floor with each stomp.
Having a sister who is almost a whole year older, but still shares the same grade is completely overrated. It freaking sucks—particularly when you don’t get along. My stomach gurgled as she disappeared into the living room. It was time to get something to eat, because I certainly wouldn’t be touching any food or drink at the party—especially if someone else was getting it for me.
One cucumber sandwich and three Tums later, I felt marginally better. I grabbed my bag and headed toward my room, but when I got to the foot of the stairs, there were six boxes stacked, labeled and ready for the neighbourhood garage sale next weekend.
Crap. I’d forgotten about agreeing to help Mom.
“Hi Mom!” I called up to the second floor.
She came out, her hair held back by a bright green bandana, sweating through her tank top under her boobs and armpits, but smiling. She loved organizing and was clearly in her glory with the fall cleanout in full swing. Even though Mom and I look exactly alike—chocolate eyes and thick red hair (though mine is miles shorter)—I highly doubt I’m going to be as much of a clean freak as her when I get to that age. In fact, I know I won’t.
“Hi, Lissy!” She huffed and puffed to catch her breath. “How was your day?”
“Um…good.” I made my way up the stairs and past the ump-teen boxes stacked at the end of the hallway. How do you tell your mom you had a fight with your best friend, her other daughter needs a serious dose of happy pills, you have two hours of math homework, and the only words that came out of your mouth on the drive home had four letters? You don’t. She didn’t need to be burdened with my stupid problems, anyway. She had way more important things to think about, like keeping up with her medical bills. “I had a great day.”
“Great, honey.” She smiled at me. “Do you have a moment to help me with these boxes? My back is getting sore from all this lifting.”
She began to pick up a box of books with her free arm, clearly straining to stand upright, so I quickly stepped in. “Let me take those, Mom. You shouldn’t be doing all this by yourself. You know what the doctor said.” I snatched the box from her arms and balanced it on top of my shoulder. “I can carry these, go sit down for a while.”
“Thanks.” She bent around to loosen up. “I wish your father was here to help me, I hate not having him around all the time—though he did phone and say that he’d be home for turkey dinner on Sunday…”
“Oh, good. I was going to ask him if he could help me with my calculus.”
I lugged a few more boxes downstairs. Even though my stomach was still churning, it felt good to do something physical.
“I’m going to make some iced tea,” Mom called to me from the kitchen. “Would you like some?”
“Sounds bang-a-rang.” I headed back up to the next box, which hadn’t been labelled yet.
When I got closer, I saw books from my childhood sticking out of the top. There waiting for me with Go-Dog-Go, Wacky Wednesday and my collection of Robert Munsch, was my childhood favourite, Moonstone, Mae and Malion Tales. Its red cover had faded slightly, but the title was still a shimmering gold, and I could see the black ribbon bookmark. It wasn’t very heavy, and from cover to cover there were only five stories, but from the day Nan brought it back from Europe when I was four, it was the only bedtime storybook that had been read in my room. I flipped to the last story, which had always been my favourite: Jared and the Malion.
It had been Nan’s favourite story, too. When she visited us, she would help me dress up like Princess Alysia, and read the story to me over and over again until I finally fell asleep at night. My favourite part had always been when Prince Jared came to rescue Princess Alysia from the beastly malion, who had kidnapped her and taken her deep into the Black Forest, and their ensuing fight to the death.
My eyes shot up to Katherine, who was standing in front of me with her arms crossed, wearing her two-hundred dollar jeans (thanks to her rich arse of a boyfriend), a dark grey cardigan, and more of that freaking vanilla spray (excuse me while I barf). Her short blond hair flipped out at the ends like she had purposely styled it that way, and her makeup was layers deep—and damn perfect.
“You’re not going to sell that, are you?”
“I’d never sell this,” I replied. “Nan gave it to me.”
“No,” she fired back. “She actually gave it to me. I let you borrow it because I didn’t like the scary stories. But I’ll have that back now.”
I started to hand it to her, but she snatched it away, adding, “And stay out of my room!”
“I didn’t go in your room!” I stood up as she stormed away. “If I did, you’d know. I would have choked from the smell of that stupid spray and whatever’s growing fur under your bed.”
Katherine stopped suddenly and craned her neck around. She’d perfected her red carpet stance. “Why don’t you shut the hell up!”
She banged her door shut, and I glued my arms to my side to stop myself from chucking something at it. I despised the relationship I had with Katherine. It hadn’t always been like this between us; if I’d only stayed with her in the corn maze at that party two summers ago, things would have been very different between us today. Maybe we would have been making plans to go to Jeff’s party together. Maybe she would’ve offered to do my makeup and lent me some of her nice clothes.
“Ready for some iced tea?”
I jumped. “Mom—you scared me!”
She looked down at the box of books and handed me a full glass. “I didn’t mean to go into your closet, hon. I just wanted to bring it out so that you could decide whether you wanted to keep them or not.”
“That’s okay.” I shrugged.
“Well, I’ll be downstairs if you need help with anything else.” She turned to go down the stairs. “Judy and I are meeting for coffee at six, and then we’re going to see an early show together, so I’ll be home around ten thirty. Don’t forget to feed Duke—and bring him in before six tonight, it’s starting to get cold earlier now.”
“’kay.” I was listening, but didn’t make eye contact with her. I was still thinking about Katherine and how much she despised me. Then I realized Mom was still standing beside me. I could feel her eyes searching me.
“Is everything okay, Liss?”
I quickly looked up and smiled my best fake smile. “Perfectly fine, Mom—couldn’t be better.”
“What are you up to tonight?”
I sighed. “Well, I was thinking about going to this guy Jeff’s house. He’s having some people over, and he invited Chelsea and me.”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “Is this the same party that Katherine is going to?”
I circled my toe on the carpet. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Well, that’s fine. But stick together, please. I don’t know who this Jeff guy is, but I know that you’re responsible enough to look out for yourselves. Just keep your cell phone on, no drinking, and home by eleven—okay?”
She gave me a gentle squeeze, and I leaned into her as she pecked the top of my head. She smelled like her water lily and lavender deodorant. I loved that scent. And I loved her little hugs; the warmth of her skin always seemed to linger with me afterwards. “I’ll see you in a while, have fun tonight.”
She made her way downstairs, and I moped back to my room, only to find myself staring at my phone. I really needed to text Chelsea and apologize. I slumped down on my bed and opened up a new message, but my phone rang before I could finish. It was Chelsea.
I was surprised she wasn’t texting me; it had to be important if she was calling. Maybe she wanted to give me another piece of her mind. Maybe she wanted to get rid of all my stuff at her house. I took a deep breath and answered.
“Don’t hang up, Liss,” she cried. “Please don’t hang up.”
“I won’t Chelsea, I won’t.”
“I know you’re upset, Liss. And I just wanted to call you, and tell you that I’m sorry about today. I had no right to ask you about Kyle. He was a jerk to you, and I know you hate talking about it. Crap, Liss. I can’t believe what I did. I must be getting my period or something. I’m so sorry…I don’t know what got into me today!”
“Don’t worry about it, Chelsea. I’m sorry, too. I just…I don’t know…I just think that house parties are overrated.”
There was a little pause. “You know what, Liss? If you don’t want to go to the party, then I don’t want to go, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m serious, Liss, you’re right. There are so many better things to do in Vancouver this weekend. I looked up that laser show, and it sounds awesome, so we should totally go. And besides, Jeff’s just wouldn’t be fun unless we went together. I mean, I just know that if I went by myself, I’d be sitting in a corner thinking about our fight all night, stuffing my face with chips and hot dogs, and regretting how awful I’d been to you—”
I closed my eyes. She always rambled when she was nervous. And to save our friendship, she’d reneged on her plans, putting my feelings before hers. But it didn’t feel right to me; I knew how badly she wanted to go. So even though I knew I’d hate it, I gave in. This weekend was about her, not me. “Chelsea, let’s just go.”
“Really, Chelsea. I mean it. Let’s go, okay? I’ll pick you up and we’ll go together.”
She gasped. “Do you seriously mean that?”
“Yes.” I gulped. I’d officially sentenced myself to a night of socializing with my intoxicated peers. “Let’s go. We can drink a bunch of pop and laugh at all the drunkies if we get bored.”
Chelsea giggled. “I’ll pick up our sugar smorgasbord! We’ll also need some salty things, because I know you like salty stuff, so bring a backpack and we’ll stuff it full before we get there.”
I smiled. “No way. This is your night. I’ll pick up the goodies.”
“Tell you what, pick up some gummy bears, too, and then we can lick them and chuck ’em at your sister when she’s not looking!”
I burst out laughing as I opened up my closet and riffled through my sweaters. “So what time did you want to meet tonight?”
“Well, I have to stop by the gym at six and drop off my registration cheque for soccer, and then I was going to head straight there.”
“Shouldn’t we go in together? What if one of us gets lost?” She must have known I meant her, but I didn’t want to make it obvious that she sucked at following directions.
“We won’t, don’t worry. Colin Mansfield left pretty clear directions on the back of my invitation at lunchtime. It’s easy: right off the Sea-to-Sky Highway in Porteau Cove. Jeff changed the location to Colin’s parent’s vacation home when he found out they were going away this afternoon. There’s going to be signs up, too, in that same sparkly purple colour. You won’t miss it.”
I sighed out of frustration. It wasn’t at Jeff’s house, as I’d assumed. I hated going to places I’d never been to before. “Then text me when you get close and I’ll come out to meet you.”
“No, you can text me, because I’ll beat you there!”
“If it becomes a big sex fest, can we just leave?”
“I’ll already have the car warm, sister.”
“You’re the best, you know that?”
“Thanks, Chels. You’re not so bad, yourself.”
“And I wanted to tell you again that I love how you wrapped my locker this morning. No one else in the world knows how much I love rainbows.”
I smiled. I’d splattered every single rainbow sticker, streamer and bow I could find at the dollar store onto purple and yellow wrapping paper, and covered her locker door, in true Gladstone tradition. It took me almost an hour to complete, but she was worth it.
We said goodbye and I changed into my brown sweater and a pair of stone washed jeggings. When six thirty came, I had the dishwasher unloaded, Duke fed and in the house, a bit of my math homework completed, and my purse in hand. Katherine had already taken off, so I locked the doors behind me.
When I sat down in my Civic, I took out the invitation and my map book (I know, I’m old-school). My nausea was back in full force, something I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid, regardless of the fact that things should be—would be—just fine. Hopefully, once I arrived at the cove and sat down with Chelsea for the night, it would disappear.
I rummaged around in my purse, because I felt as though I was missing something, but I didn’t notice anything, so I headed toward the freeway after a quick stop at the gas station for a fill-up, candy, chips and gum.
When I arrived at the Sea-to-Sky Highway interchange, I rolled up my window and turned on the heat. The forecast said that it would be the coldest night in the Lower Mainland since the end of summer, and as I started twisting around the mountains, it didn’t surprise me that it was starting to become foggy. I also realized that I hadn’t turned on my cell phone. I hoped Chelsea hadn’t been trying to text me.
Usually, I could locate my phone by keeping one hand on the wheel and one in my purse. But after a minute or two, when I still couldn’t find it, I stopped the car and pulled over. It was becoming quite dark, so I had to put my interior light on to see inside my purse. I looked in and around the pockets, and unzipped every compartment. It wasn’t there.
That’s what I had forgotten.
It was seven fifteen when I pulled back on to the road, deciding to continue my search for the purple signs, but unfortunately, after another twenty minutes of twists and turns, I hadn’t seen a damn thing except for a sign saying “Entering Furry Creek.”
While I was trying to remember if my map book said Porteau Cove was before or after Furry Creek, my headlights illuminated another turn-off up ahead. There were no purple signs, but I was running late, and I began to wonder if maybe someone had just taken them down or if they had blown off in the wind. Whatever the case, I had a full tank of gas, so I turned right and headed up the hill to see if it could possibly be the one. The fog condensed as I drove, so I turned my lights down to see the road more clearly, just as I came to a fork. My first instinct was to get out and look for a fallen star, but I didn’t want to chance being attacked by wildlife in the mountains, so I slowed to a stop and turned on my bright lights. Nothing.
I decided to continue for another few minutes. If I still hadn’t found anything, I would go home to get my cell. I turned down my lights again, and turned to the left. At first, it was slightly wider than the road to the right, but as I continued, the road became narrow and dense with trees. The branches were so over-grown that they seemed to make an umbrella over the top of my car. And even though I had only been traveling at thirty kilometres per hour, I still couldn’t see, so I shut off my headlights completely only to find the road had become a little slippery as well.
And then there were no more reflectors. It was time to go home. Safety was much more important to me than making it to the party on time. I looked around, but the shoulder on the other side of the road was too small to make a U-turn, and on my side a large ravine had opened up. I didn’t want to stop, in case a car came up behind me, so I kept going, hoping that there would be a driveway or larger shoulder up ahead. I took a last look around--
Something collided with my car. Something huge. The impact spun my car around so fast that I couldn’t steer it back in the other direction. I tried not to panic as it approached the ravine, but the brakes were useless. Before I could take another breath, the car flipped upside-down over the edge and started to tumble down the embankment. I heard a blood-curdling scream—my own.
My car rolled, and then again and again, tossing my body around like a towel in a dryer. I tried desperately to cling to something, but the violent rolls threw me against the roof and cracked the side of my head into the steering wheel on the next turn. The last BANG—crunch I heard wrenched my neck around. That’s when I closed my eyes and stopped resisting…
A sharp burning tingle in my arm startled me, and I jerked into consciousness. I tried to move my head, but the strength it required from my neck was much more than I could handle. Every inch of my body throbbed, I couldn’t feel my legs, my whole body felt heavy—pressed—and my skull pulsed in time with a beeping somewhere off in the background. The last thing I remembered was driving up a dark road; everything after that was a complete blur—not a good thing.
I summoned just enough energy to open my eyes, and though my vision was fuzzy, I immediately found the light in the room. It was a candle. Three wicks in the center flickered intermittently, releasing enough light that I could make out a few shadows here and there. I blinked a few times.
I had no idea where I was.
As I looked around, my stomach churned and I lost control of my breathing as my chest tightened. There was nothing in the room that I recognized. It even smelled different, like burning incense, pine, and rosemary.
I suddenly realized that I must be in some stranger’s house. I couldn’t form a coherent thought; I just kept running through the different sorts of people who keep incapacitated teens in their homes: serial killers, sociopathic psychos…and rapists.
“Are you in pain?”
I gasped, startled. The voice was deep, and cracked on the last word.
I tried to swallow so that I could speak, but my tongue stuck to the top of my mouth, and I realized why I felt so confined: I was on an enormous bed, covered by what felt like a hundred blankets. Things were not looking good. “Where…” I coughed and attempted to clear my dry throat.
“Do not try to speak,” the voice whispered back. “Just rest, Melissa.”
I coughed again. “No! I…I…where—” I tried to pick up my arms, but the blankets prevented me. “Get me…” I wriggled around. “I can’t—”
“If you do not lie still, you will delay your healing. Now rest.”
I swallowed again, finally able to work up a small amount of saliva. “Tell me where I am!”
“You are below the city.”
“What?” I whispered. “How did—?”
“There will be time for questions when you have recovered.”
I was more awake with every second that passed, as adrenaline powered my limbs. I wanted to sit up.
“I know you are scared,” the voice continued in an almost whisper, “but I will not harm you.”
“I want to know who you are.” I tried to lift my chest up off the mattress. “And I want to know why I’m not at home.”
“My name is Rion. Be still, Melissa. We will talk about home when you are more coherent. You have a serious concussion, and I fear that you will not understand or remember if we discuss this right now.”
I felt as if I understood perfectly. “How do you know my name?” I asked with as much confidence as I could gather, trying to prevent my tongue from bonding to the roof of my mouth again.
“I found your identification in your purse when I pulled you out of your car.”
“Pulled me out of my car?” I began to cough again.
“Your car spun out of control and flipped down a ravine.”
I thought for a moment. I didn’t remember any of that. “How did you find me?”
He exhaled hard. “I…I saw the entire thing.”
I just stared at the ceiling with my mouth hanging open. I didn’t know how to respond.
“I sense that you are still frightened, but—”
“Because this isn’t a hospital!”
I gulped. I was shaking now. “How long have I been here?”
“Just a few days. We have a doctor who has been checking on you. It was better to bring you here than the hospital. You would not have made it that far, anyway.”
I felt better when he said “doctor” and “we,” but what I really wanted to know was exactly whom I was speaking with. That’s right. I wanted a last name, an ID number, and anything else he was willing to offer. “Where—” I coughed and tried to turn my head around, ignoring the pain it caused me. “Where are you?”
“Over here, by the door.”
I tried to turn my head in the direction of his voice, but it was behind me, and I couldn’t turn my neck that far. “I can’t see you.”
“I know. And I will keep my distance, if you do not mind. This is a strange place for you, and I do not want to upset you by coming any closer.”
That made me feel a little better; distance was good. And he could just stay over there. But I still had many more questions that I wanted answered. “How did I get here?”
“I carried you.”
“You were unconscious when I found you in your car, so you would not have remembered. And…it was upside down. You would have died of exposure if I had left you.”
“Oh my goodness.” I felt goose-bumps develop on my arms. He saved my life. “I—”
A low growl abruptly stopped me.
“You would not have been in such a condition as this, had you been wearing a seatbelt!”
His sudden change of tone startled me. “But I just—” Then I heard something slide in the background, like a chair moving across the floor. “Rion?”
“I am going to leave for a few moments to contact the doctor now that you are awake. Do you need something? A cup of broth? Are you hungry?”
If he was upset that he had to bring me here, well that made two of us. I looked around again to see if I could get a glimpse of him, but he purposely stayed out of my line of vision. “I’m really thirsty, actually. I would really—”
“Very well, then.” He was in a rush to leave.
“Thank y—” I coughed. A sharp pain suddenly pierced my chest, causing me to cry out. When I opened my eyes again, a giant black hood appeared above me and two large warm hands grasped my shoulders.
“Are you in pain?” the hood asked firmly.
I was frozen still as the mysterious hood above me waited for an answer, his hands moving slowly toward my neck. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t.
“Tell me if you are in pain!”
I winced, turned my head away from him, and began to shake uncontrollably. “P-p-please…I would just really like some w-w-water…please.”
Rion took his hands off of my shoulders, stepping back as if I had shocked him.
“You are only making things worse for yourself by not telling me…and the swelling on the side of your head will worsen if your blood pressure surges.” His heavy footsteps shook the bed. He was walking away. “If you are truly well at this moment, I will fetch you some water and return shortly.” More stomping. Each foot hitting the floor rang like a grandfather clock going BONG-BONG-BONG inside my head.
“Do not get out of bed. The doctor will be here shortly. I will answer your questions when your examination is complete.”
I shook my head. “Do you have a phone that I could use? I would really like to call home and—”
I picked my head up off of the mattress—it hurt but I didn’t care. “Please let me use the phone! Why can’t I—!”
The door slammed shut.
“Wait!” I wanted to say more, but I was back into another hacking fit.
When I was finally able to catch my breath, thoughts began running through my mind: Would he really not hurt me? Did he lock the door behind him? Why did he hide behind that hood? What if he never let me go?
“Screw this.” I didn’t care about his warnings anymore. I was getting the hell out.
I lifted my head off the pillow. The pain in my neck surged, but I ignored it and pushed back on my elbows to prop myself up and almost blacked out from sitting up too quickly. It was clear that I couldn’t stand, but as soon as I could, I was leaving.
I lay my head back down on the bed to rest for a moment, discovering that my eyes had finally adjusted to the room. I was frustrated that I was so weak, but there was very little I could do at the moment, so I slowly began to look around. There were piles of books, a desk, a laptop, and a clock showing six o’clock. The walls looked like they were made of stone, giving the room a rounded shape, almost as if it had been carved out like a cave. It was cold, but I had so many blankets on top of me, it was only my face and arms that sensed it. The bed was soft, and something furry underneath me softened it more.
I wondered how long Rion would be gone. I also thought about my parents and Chelsea; surely they were looking for me. And Duke, he must have thought he’d done something wrong when I didn’t come back. I had run away once before, but certainly everyone knew this time was different. I hoped they weren’t just waiting for me to come home, that someone had found my car and knew something was wrong.
Minutes later, the silence in the room was broken by muffled voices, though I couldn’t understand what was being said. I figured the doctor must have arrived. Then the voices became louder, as if someone was yelling. A loud clang made me jump, and then a growl made the hair on my arms stand up.
My heart sank as I considered the implications of a visit from the doctor. What if the doctor wanted to sedate me again? I resolved to not let that happen; I was going home. It was time to try standing again.
I sat up, gritting my teeth through the pain, and pushed the blankets away. I was dizzy from the position change, but I could see well enough to know I was not wearing my own clothes. I was dressed in some kind of a cotton wrap. I touched the side of my head where it had been pounding away; it was so tender, it made me cringe just to brush my fingers across it.
I looked down and saw an IV in my left hand, and a catheter coming from my privates. I remembered having something similar when my appendix was removed, only this situation was much different, and--
Oh my God.
Someone had touched me. There.
It was probably that complete stranger of a doctor, who may not even be a doctor.
Or it could have been Rion.
I lost it. My heart began to hammer my ribcage and my whole body blazed. I needed to escape—fast. No more pain medications, no more anything. The first thing I needed to do was get rid of the tubes, then I could search for something to defend myself with on the way out. I reached down and gently removed the catheter (it wasn’t the first time I was grateful for having an RN mother), and slowly began removing the tape from the needle in my hand, clenching my teeth when the little hairs were plucked one-by-one out of their follicles.
I looked around for something to put over the needle site before I took it out, but there was nothing within close range, so I stood up, intending to get a tissue from the desk nearby. But as soon as I put weight on my feet they gave out, and I landed on the bed sideways, crushing my arm and pushing the needle right into the bone. I screamed.
Rion ran in, clouds of steamy breath puffing from his hood. I could tell he was pissed.
Well, I thought, welcome to the club!
He dropped the tray he was holding, sending bowls of broth and food crashing to the floor, and rushed to my side, somehow still keeping his face concealed. “Melissa…I asked you not to get out of bed for a good reason. Just look what you have done!”
I pushed myself back up and glared at where I thought his eyes should be. Even though I was ready to pass out from the pain in my hand, I wanted to face him straight on. And I discovered he was a giant. He stood much taller than my six-foot father, and judging by the size of the cloak he wore, he was quite a bit wider, too. I was scared, but I also wasn’t going to sit there and let anything else happen against my will. I held my stare and hissed, “Don’t come near me…and…you…you get me a phone…right…RIGHT NOW!”
“You are in no condition to be arguing with me.” He was scornful. “Now lie back down!”
“The hell…” I closed my eyes for a moment as my head spun, and when I opened them again, Rion was spinning, too. “The hell I will. Stay away from me!”
“Melissa…stop this right now,” Rion retorted. “You are being ridiculous. Give me your hand, you are—” He reached out, but I leaned back.
“Don’t touch me!” I could feel something warm trickling down my wrist, and when I looked down at my hand, my vein was gushing red syrup everywhere. The pain of the needle in my hand suddenly became overwhelming as I focussed on it; it was time to get the thing out before it did any more damage. I took the plastic hub between my fingers, and tried to rip the damn thing out, only my hand was too weak; I lost my grip and the lights in the room suddenly began to blur.
Rion quickly scooped me into his arms, hesitated, and pulled the wrap down lower on my legs. I began punching and kicking with what little strength I had left. “Let GO of me!”
He laid me back down on the bed as I thrashed about and bucked beneath him. “Stop fighting me, y’ebesha maen,” he griped, “vi sectoni forez commu daren’ush bould—you are making it worse!”
“GET OFF ME!”
I made a fist with my good hand, as I’d been instructed in self-defence class, and when the moment was right, I connected it with something solid under that freaking hood. He stopped for a moment and then shook it off, snarling at me. I screamed right back. He pinned me down with his chest, so I arched my back and tried to kick him away, but then, as he tried to stop me from struggling, he reached over and grabbed my bad hand, pushing the needle even farther in. I felt the needle pop out through my palm and screamed again, just as the room vanished.
Intense voices startled me back into consciousness. One I recognized as Rion’s deep voice, the other wasn’t familiar to me.
“I did not—!” Rion sounded desperate. “She was just—!” He growled and muttered a few sentences I didn’t understand. He was speaking a completely different language. The other deep voice growled back in the same language. How many people were in the room?
The two deep voices argued viciously above me, but I was too weak to respond, and I felt myself drift away again.
The next time I came to was when a door slammed, but this time I heard what seemed like a female voice.
“She looks perfectly fine, Rion. Her respiration is naturally much faster than yours, because she’s human. Just calm down, you’re not helping her by getting worked up, remember? Her vitals have been completely normal, and she’s had three transfusions already.”
“Does she need more?”
That was definitely Rion. I thought I heard an edge of fear in his hard tone.
I tried to open my eyes, but they were so heavy I gave up my efforts, allowing myself to drift in and out of the conversation.
“…accepting it…no there isn’t…”
“She’s just weak now, but she’ll come around soon. It’s just syncope…”
Rion muttered something I didn’t understand, and the female voice replied, “You need to trust me, all right? I promise that I won’t hurt her, just let me make sure you wrapped her hand properly...It’s okay, Rion. You can watch everything that I’m doing…nee neena chembeas porvoctious, y vensa…cha coombidean y’ebesha maen tormehtu yoon pen tivis...y vensa Rion.” The woman’s accent was very strong, but I couldn’t place it because she spoke so softly, almost whispering, just as Rion had at first. I wanted to speak up for myself, but I was so weak, I couldn’t form the words.
“Can we not sedate her? What if she tries to get up again? I do not want her to hurt herself.”
“You can’t sedate a concussion patient, Rion, it’s very dangerous. You’ll just have to keep her calm in the very best way you can. And if that means giving her space, you need to find the strength do that.” There was a little pause and then a warm hand touched my shoulder. “Melissa …Melissa can you hear my voice?” the woman asked softly. “How long has she been out, Rion?”
“At least an hour and a half,” Rion grumbled. “But her eyes are fluttering. Maybe she can hear us speaking.”
I shook my head and blinked a few times, but I couldn’t focus.
“She’s opening her eyes, Rion. Maybe you’d better leave us for a few moments.”
“I am staying right here.”
“She’s probably frightened. Please don’t make it more difficult for me. I also need to examine her, and you will not be in the room for that.”
“I am not leaving until she is awake and settled. She is much stronger than you think, and I want to be here if you need me.”
“Very well…Melissa, dear, can you open your eyes? You need to wake up. We need to ask you some questions.” There was a shift on the bed, and then, “No Rion, wait—!”
Someone took my hand. Large, hard and calloused digits slipped between mine and squeezed tight. At the touch of that hand, what felt like the strongest static charge of my life shot through me. My eyes opened immediately and I gasped. “What…what was that?”
Two black eyes and one large smile greeted me. It was the woman who had been speaking. I was relieved to finally meet someone with a face, and someone female. I relaxed—a little.
“She’s awake. Give her some space, Rion,” the woman ordered. Then she looked back into my eyes. “Melissa, my name is Dr. Abeo Mubarak. I am here to help you.”
She was wearing a St. Paul’s Hospital tag with her photo on the front, and I recognized the name. Dr. Mubarak was one of the best trauma physicians in Vancouver, someone many other doctors wished they could be. Her name had been in the papers for saving lives in the most unlikely circumstances. Mom had spoken of her medical expertise on many occasions.
I hoped she had come to get me out.
“Something…just shocked me.” There was a moment of silence where she and Mr. Hood looked at one another and then again at me. I looked back and forth between them, waiting for them to say something, but they just stared. “Would somebody please tell me what’s going on?”
Dr. Mubarak took my bandaged hand, inspecting as she carefully unwrapped it. “Well done, Rion. Looks like it has healed well.” Rion nodded.
“Excuse me, my other hand?” I interrupted, staring into Rion’s hood. “What did you just do to it?”
“What’s most important is that you are awake,” Dr. Mubarak answered as she touched my forehead. “How does your head feel, dear?” She had the most beautiful black eyes, smooth dark skin, and when she smiled widely at me, I couldn’t help but smile back.
“I’m okay, I guess. Thank you, Dr. Mubarak.”
“Please call me Abby.” She shone a light in both of my eyes. “You had quite a bit of swelling on the left side of your head, but it has come down in the last twenty-four hours, and your pupils are no longer dilated. The anti-inflammatories are doing their job.”
“I want to go home, Abby.”
“I know you do, Melissa. But it is a dangerous time to take you home. Please don’t ask why, dear, I—”
“No, you don’t understand!” I said as loud as I could. “I’m not staying here—I just—I can’t—” I was breaking up and coughing.
Rion shot up to his feet, but Abby raised her hand to stop him. She turned back to me. “Melissa, please. I know you’re upset, but I can’t take you home right now. It is too dangerous at the moment, and there is a lot you need to know before that happens.”
I shook my head. “What do you mean? I don’t understand why you can’t just call an ambulance or something!”
“Let’s start with the basics, all right? Let’s get you up and see if you can walk first. Then we’ll talk about going home.”
“All right.” I felt slightly more relieved.
“Do not move too quickly, Melissa,” Rion said.
I glared at him. He was sitting in the corner, and I could feel his eyes on me, though I couldn’t see them. I was suddenly very irritated with him. I was irritated with this entire situation. And why wouldn’t he show me his face?
“How about you take my arm and we’ll sit you up first,” Abby said. “If you feel like you want to stand, I’ll assist you.” She let me hold onto her arm while I pulled myself up. I was light-headed and sore everywhere, but it seemed to fade after a few deep breaths.
“Just give me a second.” I was concentrating hard. “Then I’d like to stand.”
“Very good. When you’re ready, just hold onto my arm and we’ll go slowly. Remember, you’ve been lying down for a few days, so your legs will tire easily.”
“That’s fine. I’d still like to try.”
I took hold of her arm again. She braced herself, looking prepared to catch me. My arms felt weak as I strained myself to stand, but together we lifted my pathetically frail frame until I was upright. It took a lot of effort for me, but I willed myself through it. I had climbed the Grouse Grind many times the past summer, so this shouldn’t have been difficult, but it truly was. My legs were shaking from the weight of my body.
“Would you like to take a step or two? I’ll keep my arm here for you to hold on to if you need.”
“Sure.” I smiled at her. “It feels so good to get up.” I took a deep breath. As wobbly as I was, I took two steps with the help of her arm then another rocky one before I stopped.
“Have you had enough, Melissa?” She patted my hand gently. “Maybe we should sit you back down and try again later.”
I could tell that she wanted me to quit, but I wanted to leave; this was my ticket out. “No, I think I’d like to try a few steps on my own this time.”
“Okay,” she said warily, letting go of my arm and stepping back to give me some room. “I’ll be right here just in case you need me.”
I stood still for a second to balance myself. I knew that I could walk on my own, even if it wasn’t very far. I took one more deep breath and raised my left leg slightly, but as soon as I transferred all of my weight to my right leg, it gave out and I fell backward. Abby was standing too far in front of me to catch the hand I reached out for her, and I squealed thinking about my head hitting the rock hard floor. But I didn’t get that far; two giant arms were around my waist and legs instantly, lifting me before I could hit. I sucked in a breath, just as my face turned to the side, and my mouth dropped open—Rion’s bright green, almond-shaped eyes were staring directly into mine.
We stood there for a moment, staring at one another, both in shock. He was like nothing I had seen, or known to exist outside of the movies. The closest face I had seen to his was constructed of latex and makeup. I wanted to reach out and touch him to see if he was real, because his features were distinctly catlike: his nose was broad and square, just like a cat’s, and his upper lip was indented down the middle, like a cat’s, although it wasn’t split in two. His face was covered in golden peach fuzz, but the hair on his head was dark brown, long, and mane-like, hanging just past his shoulders. When I touched it with the tips of my fingers behind his back, it was soft and fine, not like a human’s. I couldn’t see his teeth, and wondered for a moment if they were sharp.
It was then that I noticed the scars. The tip of his left ear was missing, and there were two long lines that extended from the upper left corner of his forehead, to the lower right side of his bottom lip. I wondered who could have done such a thing.
He looked down as if he was ashamed of himself, and took a step toward the bed, whispering, “I will put you back on the bed now, you have had enough for today.”
I couldn’t speak. I was still in shock. This massive man seemed to be shying away in my presence, and the only thing I could do was swallow—hard. He turned around to leave. I was going to call him back, but he raised his arm and angrily swept a mug off the side of the desk as he stormed past it, and slammed the door behind him on the way out. I winced as the cup shattered into pieces on the stone floor.
I recoiled. I’d completely forgotten Abby was still in the room.
“I think we should keep you off your feet for one more day. Please excuse me for a moment, I need to speak with Rion privately.” She turned to leave. “We won’t be far away if you need something.”
She pulled the door open, but turned back and smiled at me; she had obviously known all about Rion and his home below the city.
“Is Rion the reason it’s not safe for me to go home?”
Abby nodded and smiled. “That’s part of it.”
“Is he human?”
“Partly, yes. I’ll explain very soon Melissa, I promise you that.”
“Do you think he’ll still let me go, now that I’ve seen him?”
“I believe so. But he’s struggling with the decision because you’ll be in danger above.”
The decision seemed obvious to me. I couldn’t stay here. And I could take care of myself; I didn’t need him. I didn’t need anyone. However, there were people at home that needed me, especially Mom, with Dad gone all the time.
I sighed. “Thank you, Abby.”
She raised her eyebrow, as if she was wary of my intentions, then answered, “You’re welcome, Melissa.”
“Are you coming back?”
I had more questions, but I knew she needed to leave, so I just smiled back as she softly shut the door behind her. As I lay there in that large room, I wondered if there were others like Rion, how many people there were like Dr. Mubarak, who else knew about this underground place, how would I ever tell my parents about this, and if I would ever be able to tell my parents about this. That could only happen if I managed to get out, and right then I didn’t have a lot of confidence in Dr. Mubarak. She seemed in on it, whatever it was.
I sat up and looked down at my weak legs. They were going to walk for me. I was going to try again. And then I was going to find a way home.
I hung my legs off the edge of the bed, wiggled my toes, and swung them up and down a few times.
“Now…you’re going to walk,” I told them. “Don’t fail me this time, all right?”
I stared at the door. It was approximately twenty feet away. I took one deep breath, searching for the last bit of tattered courage that remained in my heart, but the piney incense smoke from the burner stung my nostrils and I sneezed right before I could plug my nose. I liked the smell, but it was so concentrated in here.
I so needed to get home and far, far away from this place.
I wrapped my hand around the corner of the nightstand and counted to three before pulling myself slowly onto the balls of my feet. The rock floor was ice cold, sending shivers up my spine. But that wasn’t going to stop me, because when I felt sturdy enough, I was going to run. Running was going to warm me up when I got the hell out of this room. I transferred my weight on my right foot. Then my left foot. Before I knew it, I was half-way across the room. I was going to make it to the door without falling down.
When I reached the door, I leaned on the cold rock wall and rested a moment. I’d come this far, and my legs were actually letting me continue. The only thing that could stop me would be a locked door, and I didn’t remember hearing the click of a lock when Abby left, so I placed my hand on the lever and it quietly creeeeeaked open.
I stopped for a moment to listen, then poked my head out to see if anyone was guarding the door. There was nothing but a small gust of icy air. I shivered. It was freezing, but most importantly, the coast was clear.
I pushed myself away from the wall and ever-so-slowly let the door creak a few more times until it was open wide enough for me to pass through.
And I was out.
I looked both ways once again, and closed my eyes. I hesitated, trying to decide if I should be going left or right.
Deciding to go left, I opened my eyes and held onto the wall, seeing nothing but blackness in front of me. I was nervous, but I had to overcome that fear if I wanted to find my way home—stalling and worrying gets you nowhere fast. Reaching out with one hand to avoid colliding with rocks or walls, I started my way into the dark passage with my other hand on the wall for support. The smell of the underground was mustier now and much colder, almost like my Nan’s basement in winter. I trembled and pressed on, hoping that walking a little faster would warm me up.
But then I stepped in a puddle of water. I jerked back, biting my lip accidentally. The temperature pierced my toes, but I gritted my teeth and walked through it. When the water covered my feet entirely, I considered giving up and going back, to spare my throbbing feet, but I made fists and continued on, and within five more steps I was out of the puddle, shaking all over from the cold.
I couldn’t help imagining freezing to death in a deserted passage, never to be found. But I pushed those thoughts away; I couldn’t give up now. I was only fifty feet from where I started, and my legs were already tiring, yet I kept on. It was time to start moving faster or I was going to become a human popsicle.
Ten minutes later, my legs were numb from the cold, and I couldn’t feel my fingertips. I’d felt one fork in the passage and turned right, only to hit another roundabout of some sort, choosing passage number three—and all in complete darkness. There still wasn’t a single glimmer of light, and I suddenly began to wonder if there ever would be. I hated being cold, and I was mad at myself for not taking a blanket from Rion’s room, at least then I could have had something to sit down on, or wrap myself in. As tired as I was, I had to keep moving; it was the only thing that would keep my blood flowing. I shuddered against the frigid temperature, taking another few steps, and I felt the floor pulsate. My heart began to flutter. Something was behind me—or above me. I heard muffled sounds from further down the passage.
Rion must have discovered I was missing. Feeling a swift burst of energy, I started jogging away from the sounds with my hands out in front of me. I wasn’t going back to that room. I had no idea where I was in these passages, but something, eventually, I was sure, would lead me above and home.
I stopped for a moment to make sure no one was coming up behind me, and then I ran straight into something. And it wasn’t a wall. It was hard enough, but it was very warm.
Two glowing green eyes stared directly down at me.
“Ri—” I wanted to scream, but a giant hand covered my mouth first.
“Shhhhhhhh,” he whispered. “I am not who you think I am.”
I reached up and tried to pull his hand away, but he stopped me.
“I will not hurt you, and I will help you if you promise not to scream. He will hear us if you do.”
This was not Rion. His voice was deep like Rion’s, but much softer and sweeter. And when he took his hand away, I swallowed hard, composing myself enough to whisper back, “I-I-I want to go home.” I was trembling; not because I was scared, but because I was almost hypothermic.
“I know. And if you take my hand, I will lead you in the right direction.”
I couldn’t see anything but his glowing green eyes. “Wh-Who are you? And how do I know I c-c-can trust you?”
With one spark, a lighter lit and suddenly I was faced with another creature that looked identical to Rion, only without the scars. He was stunningly handsome, though not as large as Rion, and offered a sincere smile.
“My name is Rasadian. And your name is Melissa. And you do not belong here. Humans—especially females—do not belong in these wretched tunnels.”
Rion must have been talking about me, and I was sure that everyone down here knew my name by now, however many of them there were. “P-P-Please help me get home, Rasadian. I just want to g-g-go home.”
“Of course you do.” He reached out to me. “Come. Take my hand. I will even carry you, if you would do me the honour, but we must hurry, Melissa.”
I raised my eyebrow, wanting to trust him so badly, but I’d seen in the movies how lost girls were easily persuaded by men they shouldn’t be trusting. I hesitated. This was going one of two ways.
“Quickly now,” Rasadian whispered, letting the lighter go out and returning us to darkness. “They are coming!”
I looked back, and met his glowing green eyes again. Just as I was about to slip my hand into his and ask him to carry me, something growled behind us.
I jumped back and Rasadian stepped around me, placing himself in front. He growled a return threat to whatever it was that had found us. He was protecting me. I was relieved to have one of them on my side.
The other creature snarled, and it seemed as though they were arguing—in that same strange language. I couldn’t understand anything, but from their tones, it was clearly a heated exchange.
“Step away from her, Rasadian,” the other creature answered firmly in English. “She is not yours to protect, and this is none of your business. Now leave us!”
I recognized the voice immediately. It was Rion. He’d found us.
Rasadian hissed, “Perhaps you should learn a few lessons from the other males about how to speak to a female, Brother. You have absolutely no sense of—”
“YE VENCA KAMED Y’FORTOS JEM! Get out of my way!”
That’s when I stepped out from behind Rasadian. “You take me home right now, Rion!”
A torch bolted to the wall beside us suddenly lit, and both the passageway and the difference between Rasadian and his brother became clear: Rion was undoubtedly taller, in fact, he had to tilt his neck down to almost ninety degrees. I realized Rasadian was no match for his brother, and that I would have to deal with Rion myself.
“You are coming back to my chambers. Right now!” Rion snapped at me.
“I don’t have to do anything!” I snapped back. “I’m not staying here any longer. I’m going home, and Rasadian is going to take me, right Rasadian?”
Rion growled, and Rasadian laughed, adding, “Feisty one, is she not? Good luck, Krighven.”
I looked between them as they exchanged a few more words in their own language.
“Could somebody please speak in English?” I demanded. “I don’t appreciate being talked around.”
“I was just warning my brother, Melissa,” Rasadian said. “He knows very well that you cannot stay, but he seems to be struggling with the assembly’s decision.”
“ENOUGH!” Rion silenced us and I jumped.
“Spectacular idea, Rion,” Rasadian added sardonically. “Yell a little louder. She might not be as frightened.”
“Carsha TEN TENTAKAYS, RASADIAN!”
“You know what? I’m tired of this.” I pushed away from them.
“Melissa!” Rion barked.
“RION!” Rasadian scolded. He added a few more sentences in their language.
“Melissa,” Rion spoke in a much softer tone. “Come back to my chambers.”
“Pershav—” Rion stopped himself, and then sighed. “You have not eaten, and I need to discuss your return home tonight. Please come.” Then he gently touched my shoulder. I yanked it back but my heart leaped.
“I’m going home?”
“Yes,” he muttered, “but there are things you need to understand before that happens, and I would like to speak with you—in private.” He had come within a nose length of Rasadian when he spoke those last two words, but I knew very well he meant me.
I glared at him when his eyes returned to mine. “I want Rasadian to come with me.”
Rasadian snorted and Rion bared his teeth at him. They were sharp.
“I will be waiting outside.” Rasadian stared at Rion as he spoke. “If he does not keep to his word, there will be more than just myself helping him follow through. Is. That. Not. Right. Brother?”
Rion looked at me, and firmly replied, “You have my word, Melissa. I swear on the Creator that I will return you above this very night.”
I took a deep breath, suddenly ready to fan myself from the heat wave I was experiencing from standing in between the two giant creatures. “Fine. Let’s go.”
“May I carry you, Melissa?” Rion asked. “Surely your legs will not be strong enough to—”
“NO THANK YOU!” Though I was unsteady on my feet, the last thing I wanted was to be any closer to him than I had to be.
When we reached Rion’s chambers, he was huffing and sighing, infuriated because I refused his help each time that he offered. Rasadian kept to his promise and waited right outside, grinning from ear to ear.
“You should have let me carry you,” Rion said, opening his door. “Your legs are not ready for such distance, and your muscles will not be kind if you strain them.”
“Suit yourself.” He growled under his breath.
I didn’t bother to respond to his comment. Instead, I rolled my eyes, limped over to the bed, and slumped down. I was exhausted from all of the walking, but the only thing I was concerned about was this “discussion” of my return home.
“You must be hungry.” He turned around and lifted something from his desk. When he faced me again, he had a tray of food, a large mug and a moist cloth. “I brought this for you, only you were not here when I came back. I hope it is not cold, but I will have it warmed if it is.”
I looked at the tray of food when he placed it on the nightstand in front of me. There were strawberries, two bananas, grapes, various cheeses and a loaf of bread. Then I saw what was inside the mug and saliva surged into my mouth. White hot chocolate.
I hadn’t had it in months. I looked up at Rion, and swallowed.
“Please.” He gestured toward the tray with his hand.
I slowly reached out and took the mug, taking in the sweet scent. And when I took the first sip, it was everything I anticipated: rich, creamy—bang-a-rang.
“Take some food, Melissa. It may be a while before you eat again.”
“I am not taking you home until you have eaten something. Make your choice.”
I scowled at him. Apparently I wasn’t the only stubborn one here. “I’ll never be able to eat all of this.”
“Do not worry about that. I will eat what you do not.”
I ignored the food and put the mug down on the tray. Rion smacked his hand on the chair beside him and looked up at the ceiling. “Please, just eat something. You look very pale, and your stomach has been growling since we have been back here.”
Feeling embarrassed, I wrapped my arms around my stomach and eyed the plate.
“Go on,” he encouraged again.
I picked up a strawberry as Rion sat on the floor. He buried his face in his hand and took a deep breath. I saw him rub his forehead, as if he, too, was exhausted. True, I hadn’t been easy to deal with, but neither had he. Then I noticed a fresh cut above his eyebrow and remembered that I’d hit him. I must have scratched him in our little scuffle, too.
“I’m sorry about your eye.”
He immediately looked up, astonished, before recovering his composure. “It is just a scratch. And I deserved it. I should not have come after you like that. I apologize, too.”
“I just...” I trailed off. No sense saying why I hated people in my space.
“Is your hand all right?”
I looked down at my hand and rubbed it with the other; it was as if there had never been a wound there in the first place. “Yeah…I mean, what did you do to it?”
“Just wrapped it and washed it. The mark should be gone now, it was not significant. The needle just dislodged.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t even hurt…like, at all.”
He wasn’t giving me a straight answer. I could have sworn that the IV had gone through my hand or something, but I was also a little drugged, so it could have been my imagination. But that wasn’t important. I glanced at Rion again, noticing his under-eyes were swollen and puffy, and I wondered if he’d slept at all since I’d been here.
I ate the strawberry; it was sweet and juicy, the taste lingering on my tongue and it felt so good to have something in my stomach, but I didn’t take another. As much as I wanted to gorge myself, I needed more answers. “So when do I leave?”
Rion took a deep breath and shifted around on the floor in front of me as if he were trying to get comfortable. His chair was right behind him, but he chose the floor near me for some reason. “We have enemies, Melissa, and they walk among you. That is why we must take precautions when I bring you above tonight.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand, Rion. What enemies?”
“They are vykhars…hunters, in English.” His face hardened and he looked deep into my eyes. “They look like regular human beings. They are slightly larger and taller than average, but they also have special genetic advantages and gifts, like persuasion. Most humans do not realize when they are being persuaded, so it almost always goes unnoticed. They also have incredible strength and speed.”
While I listened to him, I tried to remember if I’d ever known anyone who fit that description. I thought of my old neighborhood in Edmonton, with all the larger-than-average farm boys, but they just did a lot of chores at home, and they were by no means persuasive; if anything, they were hard-working, well-behaved gentlemen.
“Do you have special abilities too?”
“We are stronger and faster than the vykhars, but they have the benefit of living above. They can get whatever they need without hindrance. We do not have that luxury.”
“Why doesn’t anyone know that you exist?”
“That is a long story, Melissa, and not important for you to know.”
“Well…what would happen if you were caught?”
“They would kill me.”
I gasped. “Why?”
“Years of misunderstandings.” He leaned back on his hands.
“All right,” I sighed. “So you have enemies.”
Rion held his finger up. “There is another issue that I need to discuss with you before we go any further.”
“Okay.” I took another strawberry. They were irresistible. “Shoot.”
“Melissa,” he swept off his hands and crossed them. “This is serious.”
“Then why are you smiling?” he growled. “Do you think this is funny?”
“No.” I glared at him. “I was just enjoying this strawberry.”
His mouth dropped. “Oh.”
“Is that all right?”
“Yes. Yes it is.” Then he looked down at the ground and blinked a bunch of times, almost as if he was trying to hide a smile.
“All right then.” I swallowed. It really was delicious. “What were you about to say?”
“I do not want to upset you, but it is necessary for you to understand.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t.” There wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle; I’d been through the wringer this weekend, and I thought I managed pretty well.
“I want you to know that you can still change your mind about going home. You are safe here with me, and no one would ever find you if you decided that you would rather stay.”
I shook my head. “Completely out of the question.”
“Very well,” he replied in a huff. He ground his teeth together again, but quickly stopped when he realized I was grimacing, adding, “I will tell you.”
He had this horrible look of dread on his face, and my heart overreacted in response; all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he had to say.
“If the vykhars ever found out that you had contact with us, they would simply hunt you down and persuade you for information about me. You would be powerless against it, telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, and then they would have everything they needed to find my people.” Then he rolled forward and came closer to me. “And then…they would kill all of us—and your family.”
I gulped. The thought of anything endangering my family was serious, but I couldn’t possibly stay here and let them think something horrible had happened to me. I loved my life back home, and so many things would be turned upside-down if I didn’t return—I could never put everyone I loved through something like that.
“So you see the risk we are taking by letting you return home unguarded.”
“Yes.” My mouth became dry again. “But they’ll never suspect anything. I’m a good liar. It won’t be an issue. You don’t have to worry.”
Rion rubbed his hand across his forehead and shook his head.
“I do not want you to leave, Melissa. You must know that by now. I am sick to death about it. I have never had to battle with a decision so much in my life. I do not want anything to happen to you…” Then he came closer to me and I moved back as he whispered, “I still do not know how I am going to let you out of this room, because it feels wrong. I am scared that the vykhars will discover you have been with me. The news issued a missing persons report on you an hour and a half ago.”
“Rion….” I tried a gentler tone, hoping to reach him that way instead. “I don’t belong here. Wouldn’t it be easier if we just left right now?”
He shook his head. “It is too light to go out now, and it is not safe. Just a few more hours, and then it will be dark enough to camouflage me. But when you return, the hunters might be suspicious. They follow up on all missing people who just magically return out of nowhere.”
“They’ll never find out,” I assured him. “I’ll never talk to anyone about this, ever. You can trust me.”
“Thank you, Melissa. That means a great deal to us. But it is them I do not trust.”
I rested my head on the pillow. “What am I going to tell my family? I can’t say I’ve been here.”
“No. Dr. Mubarak has constructed a story that you must adhere to. No one can find out about your being here, nor can you ever come back—or attempt to find us.” Then he turned away from me, and it sounded like he was grinding his teeth again. “I must not exist to you after tonight.”
That was harsh. I almost asked him if he really meant it, but changed my mind. “I…I understand.”
A few silent moments passed. I couldn’t stand the uncomfortable silence in the room any longer, so I decided to change the subject. “What are you, Rion? If I’m never going to see you again after tonight, will you tell me who you are and why you’re here?”
“No.” His hand hit the floor, startling me. “It is bad enough that you know this much about us!” He massaged his temples, heaving a sigh, before adding, “Please just eat, Melissa.”
Well, there was something else that I needed to do now besides eat, but I didn’t know how to ask. My bladder felt like it was about to explode. “Um, Rion. Do you think that I could, um…do you have a bathroom?”
His eyes shot up to mine. “Oh, yes, of course…you must want to…would you like to, uh…freshen up before we leave?” He began to wander aimlessly around the room, putting stuff this way and that. “The clothes you were wearing when I brought you here have been cleaned and folded in another room, I guess…so, uh, that would be good timing.”
“Thank you.” I sat myself up and smiled; typical guy, uncomfortable with girly-stuff. I guess he had more human male similarities than I originally thought.
“When you are finished, I am sure it will be close to the time that we need to prepare to leave.”
“How do I get there?”
Rion stood up immediately. “May I carry you? It would probably be, you know—”
“Faster.” We spoke at the same time.
“Yes, please.” I just hoped it wasn’t too far away. I sat up and he lifted me into his arms.
It was weird to be so close to him. Uncomfortable was a better word; I hadn’t been this close to guy in forever (while conscious, that is). But it was also kind of neat. I was so high up. So… sheltered.
We left his room, travelling through a branching tunnel that forked many times. The air was chilly, but I was warm as Rion cradled me. Every twenty feet or so a torch would light the passage then it would be dark for a moment until the next torch shone through. The tunnels looked hand-carved. I counted four left turns and a right turn into different passages—I think—then finally we stopped.
“Our lavatory is just through there, Melissa.” He set me down and pointed to another dark passage. “I will be waiting just around the corner. This will help you see.” He touched his finger to the tip of the torch, and it burst into flame.
My mouth fell open, and he—I had to look twice—smiled at me. I smiled back, as a wave of heat washed over me. “Thank you,” I finally managed to say.
“Take as much time as you need.”
The bathroom was small and it smelled of lavender (just like home. I missed home!), coming from the incense that burned on the ledge of the carved stone sink. After I’d relieved myself, I had my first chance to look in the mirror since my accident, and I looked hideous: my face was bruised and swollen, and when I brushed it with my fingers I shuddered, it was so sensitive. My mascara was either smudged around my eyes or they were just black.
When I came out, Rion carried me back to his room.
“I will leave so that you can change into your clothes. I set them on the bed for you.”
Rion promptly left. Everything was happening so fast; in moments I would never see this place again. But despite his warnings, I didn’t want to forget that he, and this place, ever existed—I couldn’t, it just wasn’t possible after everything that had happened to me here. I changed quickly and sat back down on the bed, when there was a knock at the door.
“Ready!” I called back.
Rion walked in and examined me with his eyes from head to toe, and his lip curled. I pushed myself to the edge of the bed and decided to return the same scowl, though inside, I was worried about his hardened face. “What?”
“You should not be in those clothes—I had not even thought of it. My scent is all over them, and if they catch wind of you before you get home, those manakackos will know!” Then he growled something in his own language and turned around like he was looking for something to throw.
“Do not,” he interrupted, still with his back to me, hand raised. “I am about to change my mind, slam that fenyeka dom and keep you in here forever. So do not say another word.”
“You have no idea what you have put me through in these last few days, and now you are…you are…!”
I didn’t understand what came out of his mouth next, but it was nothing remotely positive. Then he leaned both arms on the doorframe, looking down at the ground. There was no getting through to him; not with words, that is. I’d seen it time and again in Dad when my parents argued, which was pretty often lately. And though it seemed crazy, something forced me to limp over to him. Mom had this magic touch with Dad, and I wondered if, somehow, it would work with Rion. I desperately wanted to go home, and at that point, I was willing to try just about anything to keep him from changing his mind.
I snuck up behind him, and noticed that he was shaking. I held my breath, then ever so gently touched his back with my fingertips.
Instantly, he spun around, astounded. I flinched and stepped back, gaping at him. “Do you think it’s dark enough yet?” I managed to spit out.
He shifted away from me and looked at his watch, defeated. “Dr. Mubarak and I agreed on six thirty. We are a few minutes early, but I will take you above now. She will drive you the rest of the way home.”
Not wanting to waste any more time, I replied, “Let’s go then.”
He huffed then picked me up in one quick motion. I wasn’t sure where to put my hands or rest my head, and I had no idea how long it would take to get above from where we were, so I just sat still and hugged my arms around my waist. His irritation made things awkward again. Maybe I shouldn’t have touched him.
“Close your eyes, Melissa. It is best if you do not know where the entrance is. I will tell you when to open them again.”
I did just as he instructed, deciding to rest my head against his shoulder when he wrapped his thick wool cloak around me.
Twenty minutes went by then a burst of frigid cold stung my nose. We’d finally reached the outdoors, and I was dying to see where we were, but still I kept my eyes shut as he instructed. While he jogged, I thought about my parents, and what Dr. Mubarak was going to tell me. I was a good liar for small things, but this lie was mammoth; I hoped I could tell the story believably. Failure was not an option now.
“Open your eyes, Melissa.”
His weary tone surprised me; I had thought that he was upset with me, but now I wasn’t quite sure, so I didn’t look up at him. We were at the edge of a forest, standing on the tiny shoulder of a country road. A black SUV was parked across the street and Dr. Mubarak was waiting in the driver’s seat. She had seen us and smiled. It was almost dark and there were no streetlights, just the interior light from her car; the sun, which had almost set, gave just enough light for us to see one another. He set me down.
“This is it, I guess.” I hated goodbyes. And how do you say it to the person who saved your life? I actually felt sick to my stomach.
“I should never have brought you below, Melissa. I should have taken you to the hospital, like everyone said and…I am…I am sorry.”
My dad told me once that only a real man admits his own faults, so Rion’s words elicited new respect, regardless of his mood swings—which were something I was likely responsible for.
“Rion…” I honestly didn’t know what to say next, but then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.
“I know what I said before…”
He ran his hand over the top of his head and squeezed his hair. I had a moment of panic. Was he changing his mind? I took half a step back.
He swallowed like there was a humongous lump in his throat.
“…If you ever feel like you are in a situation that you cannot get out of, you can call this number. This is a human friend of mine, and he will bring you to me. But if you decide to come back, know that you will not be able to return to your family next time. We cannot risk exposure like this again.”
With a sigh of relief, I nodded and took the paper from his hand, only he didn’t let go of me right away. His thumb stroked my palm, and I felt that same heat from his hand, which made my skin tingle. This was the same hand that had shocked me into consciousness when I’d fainted in his room, and I was suddenly worried that he might not let go. I had to end this.
“Thank you,” I swiftly drew my hand back.
He looked down at the ground. “Dr. Mubarak is waiting and I cannot stay here any longer. Go.”
His words sent an imaginary stake into my chest—especially the last one. It physically hurt. I was suddenly unsure what to do, and briefly considered hugging him, but in the end I just stepped back. As I turned toward Abby’s SUV, I found myself fighting back tears; not because I was sad to leave, but because walking away was suddenly much harder than I thought it would be.
When I came to the faded gold line in the middle of the road, I stopped and looked back. Rion stood there, watching me with unwavering eyes. A few awkward seconds passed where we both just stared at one another, while I snapped mental photos of him. Despite his mandate that I erase him from my memory, I knew it wasn’t possible. He’d saved my life.
My trance was broken when he grabbed a thick branch beside him, almost as if he needed to restrain himself—or brace himself. Then he nodded, encouraging me to continue across the road. I didn’t want him to change his mind, so I hurried into the car.
Abby greeted me with a friendly smile. She must have known how I was feeling when I sat down, because she took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. I took one last look at the forest, searching the darkness, hoping I could see him just one more time, but he was already gone. I whispered goodbye to the empty bramble and trees.
Abby put the car in drive and I closed my eyes. I was never going to be the same.