Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Cambion Chronicles ( Book 4)



Hey guys!

Have you ever had a story in your head that you just had to get out? The characters you created are so lively and outgoing that you want their adventures to keep going? Well, I’ve had book 4 of The Cambion Chronicles in my head for YEARS and I’ve finally decided to do something about it. The goal is to post a chapter each week, like a summer mini-series. The feedback you give in the comment section will help steer the path of the story and the fate of the characters. So the more comments I get, the faster the next chapter will be up. Let’s spread the word and see where Sam and Caleb go from here.

Below is the first chapter of the allusive BOOK 4 (no title). It takes place a month after the 3rd book ended with a brief recap of what’s happened thus far, so those who haven’t read the first three books won’t be completely lost.

Enjoy!

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THE CAMBION CHRONICLES

 Book IV

By 

Jaime Reed



CHAPTER ONE

I sat on the floor in my room with my legs crossed and my eyes covered with a bandanna.  Approximately fourteen hundred miles away in a small hotel room, Caleb sat in the same fashion facing the other direction. How did I know this? I just did. It’s what played inside my mental picture show: two scenes running at the same time and divided by a split screen. The images lined up so that we sat back to back like two noble gentlemen preparing to duel.
Proximity didn’t factor into this exercise, and Caleb could’ve been on the other side of the world and still be in the room with me. Distance actually proved beneficial for the point we wanted to make, that the laws of science didn’t exist when it came to ‘soul mates’. I hated sappy expressions like that. So did Caleb, but that was our situation now in the most literal of terms. It was a new frontier we needed to explore.
“Your go,” I told him.
I could hear the rattle and clatter through the phone and I envisioned his fingers sifting through his box of supplies.
“Ready,” he said when he found what he wanted.
The low, throaty bass of his voice brought to mind satin sheets, candlelight and chocolate. It didn’t seem to match the lanky twenty-year-old on the other end of the line, but rather a voice over-dub by a man twice his age who promised a good time. Being robbed of sight only amplified the sensual illusion and I feared that I might be charged ninety-nine cents a minute for this call.
Shaking off the yummy sound, I centered my concentration to other parts of him, specifically what rested in his hand. I opened my own hand on my lap and felt the weight of something sitting on the palm. The item was round, firm with lumpy ridges running along both sides of it. My fingers closed around the phantom shape and tried to squeeze, but all I caught was air. The object was tossed from the left hand then back to the right as Caleb’s fingers traced the curves, reading its texture.
“A baseball!” I called out, giddy as a game show contestant.
“Good. Your turn.”
I reached forward and fingered the articles inside my box of shapes. My hands stopped over a small flat object and before I picked it up, Caleb said, “A book.”
I lifted the side of my blindfold and looked down at the small dictionary in my hand. I reached for another object.
“A pencil. A CD. An apple. A sponge.  A bottle.” He called each item out before I could hold them completely in my hand.
I patted the floor for my phone, snatched it up then yelled into the mouth piece, “Could you wait a second?”
“Not my fault you’re too slow. This shouldn’t be this hard, Sam. All you have to do is concentrate on me and let the shapes guide you.”
“Thanks so much, Yoda.” I rolled my eyes, knowing this speech by heart.
As a mated Cambion pair, we could feel each other emotionally and physically if we thought real hard about the other person. We weren’t telepathic, not even close, but if we could fine-tune our extrasensory abilities, we didn’t need to be.
I’d mastered a few of these exercises—mostly body temperature—and I could always tell whether he was in the shower or when he was outdoors. Caleb wanted to take it to another level by applying deduction skills, but like everything else between us, this had turned into an all-out battle of wits.
“My turn. Let’s try texture,” he announced and I could hear him pull another box closer to him. I had a similar box by my foot and I dragged it to me. A moment later, I felt something cool and grainy on my fingertips.
“Sand,” I whispered, rubbing my forefinger and thumb together.
“Correct,” he said followed by the feeling of something warm and gooey on my fingers.
“Mud?” I guessed.
“Nope. Peanut butter,” he answered with his mouth full. “Can you taste it?”
I closed my eyes — redundant because of the blindfold — but I concentrated better that way. I felt fingers pushed between my lips and a creamy dollop settle on my tongue. A warm thickness stuck to the roof of my mouth, but I couldn’t truly capture the flavor. All I had to go on was Caleb’s reaction to it.
They say that smell and taste were one of the more powerful senses to trigger memories. Testing that theory, I allowed my own memories to fuse with this new experience and fill in the blanks. All the PB&Js and random spoonfuls I’d eaten over the years gave the image substance. I licked my lips and enjoyed Caleb’s response to the butter, noting every nuance of this sensation.
Suddenly, I felt his body lay back onto the carpet, and instinct compelled my own body to follow suit. Totally concentrated on him, I allowed my mind to create a fully detailed picture of Caleb Baker. From his lean six-foot-two frame, his light brown hair, his small pouty lips, to his brilliant violet eyes that never failed to distract me. Or any other female.
Suddenly, a light trace of hands slid across my arms, my shoulder and up the side of my neck. His fingers danced around his ear where he was the most ticklish, and as a result, made me squirm. This was another reason my skills were rusty. We always got sidetracked with flirty shenanigans, which sucked because we were in two separate states. This was senseless torture and he knew it.
“This is not part of the training,” I whined in a weak, shaky voice.
“Sure it is,” he replied with a hint of amusement. “We’re both wearing blindfolds. We rely on touch to guess what the other is doing. Well, guess what I’m doing? Come on, guess.” His hands slid lower, dancing over the ribs, the belly, until his fingers skimmed over the inner thigh.
As much as I wanted him to continue, I had to be the brains in this outfit and call foul. I sat up and pulled off the bandanna. The enchantment had been broken and I was once again in the disaster area of my room. Blinking rapidly, I took a sweep of the crime scene counterclockwise, starting with the window to my left.
The door straight ahead was locked for privacy. The dresser appeared next, crammed to bursting with balled-up clothes, because folding laundry was against my religion. A full size mirror was glued to the closet door, along with a bumper sticker quote from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”  Books, old food, and several college applications covered my desk. A row of movie posters lined the walls, followed by another window and an overstocked bookshelf. Cheap jewelry and nail polish cluttered the wooden nightstand. The journey ended at my bed, which stood long-ways against the wall and served as a sturdy back rest as I sat on the floor.
I drank it all in with determined focus, reacquainting myself with the layout as proof that I hadn’t actually left the room. Being inside Caleb’s head like that always made me see double and it took a minute to regain my equilibrium. Clinging to the familiar was essential.
With a grunt, Caleb leapt to his feet — too quickly judging from the sudden head rush that made me sway. “You really are a sore loser, you know that?” he said.
“I didn’t lose. You cheated,” I huffed and rubbed my eyes.
“Um actually, you’ve gotten eight out of twenty where I’ve gotten a perfect score.”
I stopped rubbing. “You were keeping score?”
“Like you weren’t.”
I cut my eyes to the yellow notepad by my leg and the column of tally marks under each of our names. I couldn’t keep a thing from this guy, but that didn’t mean I had to admit anything.
“This isn’t all fun and games, Sam. This power we have can help us. What if we were in a hostage situation or one of us were kidnapped? I could feel out the location. I could tell of you were bound and gagged, tell whether you were tied to a chair or hanging on a hook inside a meat locker—”
“Okay, no more horror movies for you,” I joked to lighten the mood, which had gone from sizzle to fizzle in record time.
“I’m serious. This is a safety precaution that we can use.” Caleb insisted.
“What are the odds of something like that happening to us?”
The silence that followed was answer enough to a really dumb question. Near-death experiences were common occurrences in our town and last year was the weirdest and most dangerous time in our lives. Becoming a Cambion, having friends die, and being terrorized by a demon would make anyone paranoid. I wanted to get past that, but Caleb wasn’t so quick to let things go.
I sighed, then said, “Okay, fine. I promise I’ll work harder if you promise not to worry so much.”
I got more dead air as a reply, along with a tight knot cramping my stomach. I knew it was from him—the anxiety and dread hovered around us in a gloomy overcast. Or maybe he was just hungry.
“We need to take proper measures in case something happens,” he began. “Our lives aren’t our own anymore and we need to keep each other safe.”
Since this discussion was going nowhere fast, I decided to change the subject. “I like it better when you’re all wicked and pervy.”
“So do I, but we need to cool off before I fly back home and abduct you,” he replied.
“Why don’t you? I’m sure Mom won’t mind. I may be grounded, but she granted you visitation rights.”
“I don’t wanna press my luck with your mom, and what I have in mind shouldn’t take place under her roof.” He didn’t elaborate and he didn’t need to. “I miss you,” he said just above a whisper, but the desperation behind the words wasn’t lost to me.
“You saw me before your flight.”
“You know it’s not the same. We need to feed and I don’t want to consume anyone’s energy here if I don’t have to. I kinda need to keep a low profile.”
“Yeah, your sister wouldn’t appreciate you feeding on one of her bridesmaids.”
“Not at all. I wish I’d smuggled you on the plane with me. I’m sure you’re small enough to fit in the overhead compartment.”
I didn’t bother to suppress my laughter. “Good luck with that plan. Knowing my mom, you never would’ve made it out of the driveway.”
As if the woman could hear through walls, Mom yelled from the bottom floor, “Samara, come down here and take out this trash!”
“I gotta go. My breaks over and the warden’s calling me,” I grumbled.
“Back to the chain gang?” he teased.
“Yep. I’ll call you before I go to bed.”
After we said our goodbyes, I ended the call and trotted downstairs. Mom had disappeared into the kitchen, but three black jumbo trash bags waited for me by the front door. I gathered the bags and stepped outside. My pupils shrank from the attack of sunlight as the warm breeze caressed my cheeks.
Stubborn bits of gray snow hid in little crevices on the curb and tree trunks. Colonials and ranchers stood in wide gaps across the street. Neighbors washed the ashy snow residue off their cars and trimmed their hedges. Spring had definitely poked its head in, and everyone, including the birds chirping on my roof hoped that the balmy weather would stay.
I found two buckets of white paint, a few roller brushes and a drop cloth on the porch where I was to complete my assignment for the day. Cursing under my breath, I dragged the bags down the pebbled driveway to the plastic trash bin by the curb.
I flipped back the lid, shoved the bags inside then marched back to the house, unconcerned if the neighbors thought I was an escaped convict. And they had a good reason to assume that—not every day does one see a person in an orange jumpsuit and tattoos in the suburbs. I felt if I was going to be treated like a criminal, I might as well dress like one.
Mom’s disciplinary tactics were a step up from a labor camp, but not by much. She had me cleaning the house from top to bottom, which made me suspicious because she only worried about cleaning when someone was coming to visit.
I didn’t complain though — not out loud. Mom had been through a lot coping with a Cambion daughter and the quirky side effects of being the host of a demon spirit. The constant fear of killing someone I fed from, the random demon psychopath that happened to be in the area, or the odds of Lilith—my sentient being—taking complete control over my body would make anyone have a psychotic break. That part she could handle. Missing my appointed curfew; however, was enough to incite her almighty wrath.
My sentence:  thirty days of solitary confinement and the denial of driving privileges outside of school and work. You would think I tried to build a meth lab in the backyard for all the heavy-handedness, but Julie Marshall was not one to trifle with.
I began smoothing down the porch railing with sandpaper and thought about Caleb’s trip. His sister was having a shotgun wedding and she called him at the last minute to walk her down the aisle. With both of their parents dead, someone had to represent the bride’s side of the church. After years of radio silence, the request both thrilled and angered Caleb, because he was the only one of his three brothers she had bothered to contact. I had a feeling he wanted to use the opportunity to reconnect with the non-Cambion side of his family.
I never met the woman, but a part of me hated her for breaking Caleb’s heart and taking him from me on the same week as my birthday. It’s not like I missed him — he’d just left last night and we called each other constantly — but there was a heaviness that stuck to my ribs.
Our last conversation replayed in my mind and I zoomed in on the part about our lives not being our own anymore. The implications were more terrifying than losing our individual privacy.
The gut-clencher was that his 10:30 flight to Houston could’ve crashed and I would be dead before my prom. I wasn’t a big prayer person, but I made up for lost time last night, and I would do it again upon his return.
Caleb warned me of the consequences of mating before we took the plunge, but it was just now hitting home for me. I could die without him. One accident, one drunk driver on the road; one bad diagnosis would take us both down, which was why he nagged about safety and handled me like glass.
As mortality breathed down my neck, happier thoughts transported me back to early New Year’s Day and our first time together. I could still smell his skin on me and hear his word spoken in short gasps in my ear. The question of “was it worth it” kept looping in my head, demanding an answer. The “yes” that always followed didn’t seem to come as quickly as it used to. The whole thing was complicated, an ongoing theme that summed up our relationship.
I was a good hour into my task when a black luxury sedan cruised to a halt by the curb. I didn’t need to see through the tinted windows to know who it was. Detective David Ruiz climbed out of the driver’s side then made his way across the lawn with slow, powerful strides like he owned the block. His six foot height, his wide shoulders and dominating presence made you stop and take notice. It pained me to admit, but Ruiz was a good-looking guy.  His wardrobe was always on point and he spoke with decorum. Much like that Brooklyn accent that he tried so hard to mask, he had a rough and dangerous side that only came out when things got stressed.
He dressed casual in charcoal slacks and a white buttoned shirt, so I knew this wasn’t a business trip. He had been sent here before by the head Cambion family of the region to keep an eye on me and Caleb, but it was obvious that he was here for personal matters. And that “personal matter” was currently humming in the kitchen as she prepared Sunday dinner.
I squatted on the deck and slapped and uneven coat of paint on the baluster under the railing as Ruiz reached the porch. I wasn’t enthused about this punishment before, but having the “Cuban Necktie” make a cameo just made it cruel and unusual.
He propped his foot on the bottom step and rested his elbow on his bent knee. He removed his shades; his cold black eyes scanned my inmate gear from head to toe. “I see community service is treating you well,” he mused. “Do they sell those jumpsuits retail?”
“No. It’s Mom’s old paint coveralls that I dyed orange.”
Nodding, he said, “I assume the tattoos are fake as well.”
Balling my hands into fists, I looked down at the graffiti style lettering I drew on the back of my fingers. The letters on the left hand spelled out L.O.V.E and the ones on the right spelled out C.A.K.E., but Ruiz was more concerned with the ink on my face.
“You know, a tear drop on the cheek means you killed someone,” he said.
I looked up at him slowly. “Your point?”
He didn’t seem to have one, so he moved to the door. “Is your mom inside?”
Before I could answer, Mom rushed to the door and squealed on sight of the detective. “David! Oh my goodness! What are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you for another week. The house is a mess.”
“Well, I have two weeks’ leave and I thought of no better way to spend my vacation than to look at those baby blues.” He pulled mom in to his arms for a kiss. Mom returned the kiss with a moan and sank her fingers into his short black hair. Ruiz held her by the waist and dipped her in a back-breaking bow. Her swoon was interrupted by the sound of my gagging.
“Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just painting and inhaling noxious fumes while y’all slob each other down.”
“For heaven sake, Samara, take off that ridiculous outfit and wash that mess off your face. You look like a common thug.” Mom glanced around the neighborhood for witnesses and found plenty who did yard work and tried not to watch us outright. She pulled me to my feet and dragged me into the house. “Please excuse her, David. She has the only child syndrome.”
In an act of maternal duty, she wet her thumb with her tongue then wiped the tattoo off my cheek. I stood there in stark disgust as this woman shellacked ‘mom spit’ on my face. “Mom, stop please. I’m not a baby,” I whined.
“You are for the next eight hours, so hush.” Mom continued to scrub the top layer of skin off my cheekbone.
“Speaking of your special day, I’m helping with the arrangements for the ceremony,” Ruiz prompted.
“What ceremony?” My stare bounced between the two of them. Mom and Ruiz stopped and looked to each other, which confirmed that I was out of the loop. Whatever it was, it was big.
“Your debut is this coming Friday,” Ruiz spoke first.
The word “debut” was throwing me off. I was pretty sure Ruiz wasn’t talking about a new artist on a record label, so I looked to Mom for further insight.
“Honey, Evangeline and I wanted it to be a surprise; at least until the guest list was verified,” she said.
I lifted my hand to stop her. “Guest list? Whoa, back up. What’s going on?”
Instead of an answer, Ruiz reached inside his back pocket and pulled out a light green envelope with decorative designs on the torn flap. He handed it to me as if this would explain everything. I admired the quality of the stationary, and the letter-pressed calligraphy suggested that this was no casual affair.
EVANGELINE OLESIA PETROVSKY
REQUESTS THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY
TO THE DEBUT CELEBRATION IN HONOR OF HER ELDEST AND NEWEST HEIR
SAMARA NICOLE MARSHALL
FRIDAY, MARCH 20TH AT SEVEN O’CLOCK IN THE EVENING
3004 CYPRESS GROVE | ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA

I read the invitation three times to make sure I had all my fact straight before I flipped out. Angie, my Cambion guardian, was throwing a party in my honor without my knowledge or consent. Ever since her daughter’s death and Lilith’s sudden change of address, Angie had called dibbs on me. Although not my biological mother, she ran a close race with my mom in the smothering parent competition. She spoiled me rotten, denying me nothing except a thorough explanation of what I was. This at least explained why she hadn’t returned my calls in over a week.
“What exactly is this debut?” I asked after handing the envelope back to Ruiz.
“It’s a formal get-together that introduces you to the Cambion community. Most families of note throw them for their children. I had one when I was your age and it was terrible, but at least I had family around me to keep me company.”
“So Angie is throwing me a Cambion cotillion?” I guessed.
He considered his answer for a moment. “More like a bat mitzvah, debutant ball, for lack of a better description.”
I turned to Mom. “And you knew about this?”
“Of course I did. I helped Evangeline plan. I regret not being able to attend, but only Cambions are invited.”
I looked to Ruiz. “Then why are you going?” I didn’t mean for it to come out harsh. I was sure that was a sore subject, but I was just now introduced to this crisis without a warm-up.
Ruiz was once a Cambion, but a tragic accident caused him to lose his demon spirit. He was still technically a Santiago, the most powerful Cambion family on the east coast, but in name only. Even that was a stretch since he never used his surname publicly.
“My family is hosting the event, so naturally I would be invited. They recently bought an estate and some land in northern Virginia and it would be the perfect meeting place for the guests. The estate is in a remote area so not to draw unwanted attention. The only issue now is the guest list and security.”
The two went on about place settings and the menu selection until I cut in. “Why do I need a party? Can’t you guys send out a bulk email or put out a Cambion newsletter or however you guys communicate?”
“This is the event of the century, Samara,” Ruiz began. “Cambions from all around the world are buzzing about the first self-made Cambion in two hundred and thirty years. You weren’t born with the succubi spirit like other Cambion females, but adopted with the option to start your own lineage.”
Adopted was one way of putting it. Having a life-sucking, sex-crazed demon make a home inside my body was another.
“People want to know your story and see if your reputation precedes you,” he continued. “Social events like these are rare. Putting all of the key players in the same room at one time would be a networking goldmine. No Cambion worth his name would miss this opportunity.”
“So, I’m a tourist attraction and an excuse to hobnob. Yaaay.” The cheer was as flat and uninspired as my mood. “How many families are coming to this thing?”
Mom looked to Ruiz as if wanting to know that answer for herself. Since he was in charge of security, he would have to know who was coming and going. Given the prestige that the Petrovsky name held and the fact that security was deemed necessary, I knew some high rollers would be in attendance. Being around a bunch of uppity strangers didn’t improve my feelings, and Ruiz’s answer only made it worse.
His lips pulled into a wide, toothy smile that at any other time would’ve been charming, but now appeared almost cruel as he said, “All of them.”




Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Excerpt from KEEP ME IN MIND






CHAPTER
 ONE

LIAM
UNTITLED | PAGE …

At that hour, the beach was deserted save the fisherman manning their posts on each of the twin piers. The sun hid just behind the mountains in the east and a purple sky hovered over the Spanish rooftops beyond the dunes. To the west lay darkness, rolling waves and a half moon, but no view could compare to the one jogging by my side. She was a living, breathing celestial event and the closest star I would ever reach.

The she in question was none other than the Ellia Renée Dawson, a girl so gorgeous, so gloriously epic that it bordered on the absurd. Some celebrities went by one name, like Oprah or Madonna or Bono—they were just that iconic. But Ellia had achieved a level of awesome where she could be identified by a simple pronoun. To this day, legends of her reign echoed the halls of León High School and inspired a number of copycats, but Ellia was a force with no equal. One seriously had to wonder what she saw in a lanky bookworm like me.

That question had crossed my mind hundreds of times and it surfaced as I looked over my shoulder to see her struggling to keep up with me.  Her rich brown skin shimmered with sweat and a thick puff of black curls bobbed at the top of her head. She wore running tights and a cut-off sweatshirt that hung off one shoulder. The words I’m Not Lazy, I’m A Stay-At-Home Child were printed across the front and summed up her workout ethic perfectly.

Though she exploited the many miracles of spandex, the poor girl couldn’t run to save her life. Horrible posture, flailing arms—and her refusal to control her breathing made our fitness routine a work of comedic genius. It also showed she wasn’t the flawless deity her reputation had led everyone to believe. At the end of the day, she was just a girl. My girl. And she loved me enough to sneak out of the house to keep me company.

Her participation dragged my regimen out an extra hour and did zilch to improve my sprint time for track season, but who cared? It was a small price to pay for a few more minutes alone with her before the sunrise forced us to part ways.

“I won’t make it! Go on, save yourself!” Ellia gasped and clutched her chest, then collapsed on the sand and pretended to be dying.

“I’m not leaving without you!” I called back in my best action star voice, “We’re in this together!”
“Don’t be a hero, you fool! You’ve got too much to live for! It’s too late for me, but you still have a chance!” She fell back down and began twitching.

Laughing, I trotted to her side and towered over her sprawled form as she began to make snow angels in the sand. “Your acting skills are terrible, babe. Don’t quit your day job.”

She stopped and glanced up at the stars, which were still visible this early in the morning. “Liam, I don’t know how you can do this in and outside of school and not demand combat pay. All this running has to be bad for your joints. I can hear my bones crying. And that runner’s high you keep talking about is a straight-up myth.”

“It’s not a myth; you just have to keep at it. Running’s good for you. It gives you stamina and gets the blood flowing.”

“That might be how things go on your home planet, but us earthbound folk need a legit reason for strenuous work. Either you’re running from something or running to something. Whatever the case is, it better be worth all the huffing and puffing.”

“Quick, someone put that on a T-shirt,” I quipped. “It‘ll fit well with the rest of the Ellia Dawson Smart-Mouth Fall Collection.”

“Ooh! That’s actually a good name for a clothing line.” She patted the spot next to her. “Come sit and take a break with me.”

“A break?” I dug in my pocket and checked the running app on my phone. “We just started five minutes ago.”

“Yeah, I need to stretch some more. I think I pulled something.” She pouted.

Oh, she was pulling something all right, but then she looked up at me with her big, round eyes that always reminded me of a Pixar character. Saying no to her was close to impossible. I sat down on my bent knees and captured one of her legs in my hands. “Aw, my poor wittle baby. Where does it hurt?” I gave her slim ankle a light squeeze. “Here?”

“Nope.” She smiled and bit her bottom lip.

My fingers encircled the soft calf. “How about here?”

“Close, but not quite.”

I moved in for the kill and tickled the sensitive spot on the back of her knees.

Squealing, she wiggled and tried to scoot away, but didn’t get far. “Ah! Stop! Stop! I’m sorry!”

“Had enough?”

“Yes!” she cried out, giggling. “Stop!”

“Good.” I let go and then lay long-ways in the sand beside her.

She was still laughing and I kissed her through her smile. Her lips were full, soft, and carried the faint taste of toothpaste and cherry lip gloss. She raked her fingers through my hair and returned the kiss in earnest. All at once, everything became this great emergency where we couldn’t get close enough, but we were willing to die in the attempt.

Then it occurred to me that I should probably breathe soon, so I pulled my mouth from hers. Forehead on forehead, we rested against each other for balance; we were too dizzy.

“We should get going on that run. The sun will be rising soon and people will be getting up,” I warned.

“Nuh-uh. Don’t wanna,” She shook her head, making our noses rub together. “I could be home, sound asleep in my warm bed where I’m supposed to be, but nooo. I’m out here before the butt crack of dawn, messing up my hair and getting tortured by you.” Her lips dabbed around my cheek and jaw. “The things I do for you, sir.”

I lowered my head and planted a kiss on her bare shoulder. “I thank you for your sacrifice, ma’am.”
“As you should.” She shifted her body so she lay on her side to look at me fully. “My dad would kill me if he found out I snuck out here.”

“You mean he would kill me,” I corrected her.

“Whoever he could get his hands on first.” She shrugged, but her frown and the loud click of her tongue told me that something was bothering her. “It’s not fair having to sneak around like this, like we’re outlaws. It was cute at first—it was giving me all kinds of Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, On the Run realness. But now I’m just over it. I love you, you love me, and this shouldn’t be a part-time gig. We need to upgrade.”

I could understand her frustration. Her dad was a mean battle-ax and all of my visits to her house were heavily supervised and often cut short if I so much as kissed her cheek. Any real quality time was spent over the phone or online. Even in school, our meetings were brief, what with classes, teachers, and learning and all. Privacy was a rare and expensive piece of merchandise that we’d been forced to steal to keep from starving.

“Why does your dad hate me so much?” I asked after a long bout of silence. “You sure it’s not because I’m white?”

“Yeah, sure, play the race card.” She snickered. “You’re a boy and a cute one and I’m his only daughter. That’s enough for him. It’s nothing personal.”

“Well, it’s personally affecting me,” I replied. “I can’t wait until we graduate. We can finally do what we want.”

She watched me carefully then reached out to stroke the side of my face. “Hey, hey, cut that out. Stop brooding.”

I leaned into her warm palm. “I’m not brooding.”

“Yes, you are. You’re doing that bottom-lip thing and you got a line between your eyebrows. That’s definitely brooding. I sense another poem in the works.” She draped an arm over her eyes in a show of dramatized angst. “Life is so bleak and not my own / For my parents hound and gripe and moan / That only sports will pay off college student loans / Thus my dream to write is but a seed unsown / I am now and shall remain forever . . . alone.”

I glared at her. For the record, my writing was better than that, but my prose did lean on the dark and moody side. Only Ellia knew about that; she was the only one I ever allowed to read my work. Unlike my parents, Ellia could see my true calling and, by her own edict, her opinion was the only one that mattered.

“Ha-ha. Real funny. You’re in the same boat as I am, Miss Project Runway,” I replied, effectively wiping the smirk off her face. “Have you broken the news to dear old dad that you vetoed the whole engineer idea? I’m sure he was devastated to hear that his only child won’t be taking over the family business.”

Trash talk had always been our shtick, but my comment must’ve struck a nerve because she rose to her knees in a burst of movement.

“All right, that’s it!” she yelled and brushed the sand off her tights. “We are staging a coup! I refuse to spend the rest of our junior year hiding in shadows. We have a year and a half to convince our folks that we want different things. We are not puppets or avatars to live vicariously through.”
I lifted a power fist in the air. “Word.”

She cut her eyes at me. “Please don’t do that. You make it weird.” Then she continued, “Let’s form a pact, a promise right here, right now that from this point forward we live our own lives and pursue our own dreams and, no matter what, we will never be as uptight with our own kids. Promise?” She reached out her hand for me to shake, but I threaded her fingers between mine instead.

“I promise,” I said.

Her slender fingers closed over my hand and squeezed. “We won’t stop until your novel hits the New York Times bestseller list and a hot supermodel is wearing my gown on the cover of Vogue. If one of us gets lost and veers off the pathway, the other has to pull them back. Deal?”

“Deal. No matter what.” I nodded, knowing she meant every word and that alone gave me a valid reason to try. To hope.

If I had an answer to the question of what she saw in me, it would be the recognition of a person lost. We may have been from different backgrounds, but we spoke the same language and we each bore the weight of family expectations. Ellia hid it well with humor and sass, but those sad brown eyes pleaded for someone to set her free. I understood that feeling, and whether she knew it or not she held the keys to my freedom, too.

“Okay. Now that that’s settled, I’ve got a second wind, so on with the cardio! I’ll race you to the pier. Ready? 1, 2, 3—go!” She dashed across the beach before I could even get to my feet. With her typical clumsy strides, she headed to the winding bike trail leading up the hill. The path had a high peak that overlooked the beach below and served as the quickest route toward the docks.

She threw her head back with a wicked laugh of certain victory and then spun around and gestured for me to follow. Dusting the sand from my shorts, I took my time catching up with her. I could outrun her by miles and it seemed only fair to give her a decent head start.

Little did I know that these would be the last few minutes we’d have together. If I had known, I would’ve stopped her or told her to wait for me. That one small error in judgment would cost me dearly. The penalty came by way of a piercing scream ringing in the air.

“Ellia?” The name ripped from me in a startled breath and served as both a question and answer. It had to be her. My adrenaline spiked, and unleashed the darker parts of my imagination.

I poured all my energy into running at the sound, my heart pounding in my chest, my leg muscles burning from the rising incline. Ellia couldn’t have been too far ahead, but it was enough for me to lose sight of her. As I neared a bend in the path, it then became apparent that she hadn’t cried out again. There was no sound from her at all; the only footsteps I could hear were my own.

“Ellia!” I called out into the darkness again, but only crashing waves and my pounding heartbeat replied.

Panic quickly set in as my ears strained to pick up any sign of life: a whimper, a curse, another blood-curdling scream; anything other than the eerie quiet that made the hair rise on my arms. I begged for just one footprint, one small flash of movement to help me find her. I’d never begged for anything so hard in my life . . .

~*~*~

I lifted the pen from the page and ripped my reading glasses off my face. My eyes began to prickle and burn and I pressed down on the sockets with my knuckles. The tears came anyway, and kept coming as I tried to pick up the pen again. Even with blurry vision, it was obvious that what I’d written down was absolute gibberish. The letters dipped past the blue lines of the paper in squiggly waves and then trailed off at the margins. Not one single word was legible.

Every night this week had produced the same results. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get past this exact point in the narrative. These thoughts couldn’t stay locked in my brain, and for the sake of my physical health, I had to find rest at some point. For the past month, sleep came to me in three-, sometimes four-hour spells before I was up at my computer or scribbling in my notebook for the rest of the night. Now my old standby was working against me.

I closed my notebook and dropped it on the floor by my bed, resigning myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get any coherent writing done this morning. My thoughts were skipping around again and had completely jammed once I decided to commit that painful memory to paper.
My head fell back against the headboard and my stare bounced to various points around the room until it settled on my desk clock. I had an hour before I needed to get ready for school and a hard run would help to clear my mind.

I threw on some running shorts and a T-shirt then laced up my sneakers. Charging my phone, grabbing my keys, and ruffling my hair was the extent of my pre-workout ritual. I tiptoed downstairs so not to wake up Dad and, after chugging down a bottle of water, I headed out through the back kitchen door.

Thin purple streaks in the sky let me know dawn was approaching. The air was a bit cold for February in this part of California. Hopefully, the rapid blood flow would keep me warm. I headed west and ran like my life depended on it. The air sawed in and out of my lungs and I enjoyed the burn, craved it. My arms swung back and forth, propelling my movements like blades slicing through air. Once I attained a comfortable rhythm, my brain could finally shut down and my body operated offline. It was good not having to think for a while. I was aware that hard pavement lay under me, but my feet barely absorbed the impact and all I could see ahead was my destination.

The bad part about mental autopilot was that the body was left to follow its original flight plan. Repetition had programmed popular commands and navigation points into its system. The only way to override it was to make a conscious effort to change course, but that involved thinking, which would defeat the purpose.

This was the excuse I made for stopping at the curb across the street from Ellia’s house once again. It was simply a reflex. It couldn’t be helped.

My eyes drifted up to the second window to the left and, in a true act of self-torture, I waited in hope for my girl to appear through the curtains. I knew she wouldn’t, but I’d like to think that at any minute she’d turn on her lamp and signal that she was on her way down to join me. I could picture her scurrying around the side of her house, crouched low under her parents’ window, then racing across the grass to meet me at the corner. Wishful thinking can create a mirage of the highest caliber and the amount of power the mind wielded never ceased to amaze me. If pushed hard enough, it could make you believe almost anything.

On My Emo Days...

On My Emo Days...
Some days are blacker than others