THE MIRRORS OF FATE: OUT OF THE PAST
by: Cindi Lee
The Mirrors of Fate: Out of the Past Copyright ÂŠ 2011 by Cindi Lee
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To all of my loved ones who encouraged me and my editor Kelly! You all have been invaluable.
“You can’t always run, Maria. It got her because of you.”
That smile alone is reward enough for my inconvenient trip. When her eyes light up in unreserved delight, only then do I realize that coming here is all truly worth it. “How can you make the garden stay so beautiful?” the little girl asks with a smile so ebullient it spans from ear to ear. “It’s easy, but I don’t do the magic by myself.” And instantly her eyes begin searching mine. Her smile flees cautiously. “Who helps? Have I ever seen them?” But I know her question really translates to, Who else has this kind of power? and How can I be just like you? Of course I must oblige, answering her first question with, “It’s you, of course,” and then the second, “We both make this what it is.” Her eyes widen slightly and focus on mine in that childlike way of probing for sincerity because she’s understandably tired of the fakes who try, “Yes, baby, yes,” and “Of course that is possible, sweetie,” to pacify her creative imagination. (Maria always remembered just how creative that imagination was.) “Just so long as you believe, it’ll always stay pretty,” I reassure her, and she accepts that. I go behind her now and take the handles of her wheelchair. As we go down the paved path of glistening gray stone, we meander and admire what we have created with our minds. The garden is spectacular, believe me. Only God Himself can be responsible for such beauty, or at least for the imagination to conceive it all. “Do you know what horticulture is?” “Horti-culture?” The girl looks up at me. “What’s that?”
“It’s cultivating gardens. The art of it. Would you like to do that someday?” She falls silent, her head lowering discouragingly. My stomach knots because I’m desperately hoping for an enthusiastic response from her this time, but I realize I may not get my wish as her face continues to fall. “I would like to, one day. I like flowers a lot. But that’s only if I can walk again.” Maybe I should just be thankful. It’s better than all those other unredeemable responses like “I can’t” and “I can never” that I have become so accustomed to hearing from her. Any glimmer of hope she shows now is a vast improvement I suppose. Carefully I wheel the chair into the grass, ensuring we avoid crushing as many of the enchanted flowers as possible. We soon find a green spot that meets the girl’s approval, and I lie down on the ground after securely positioning her chair near me. She never wants to come out of that chair, here nor anywhere else, so why do you expect me to ask this time around? (Because hope never takes breaks.) “You know,” she says after we have relaxed quietly together for a time, “I really hate this hospital dress.” “Well, the sooner you start walking again, the sooner you’ll be in jeans and skirts. That’d be cool, don’t you think?” My closed eyes need not open to tell that she is staring strangely at me as I lie there comfortably, forestalling sleep. I know her gestures by now. I’ve heard over and over again how I say things like that too casually, as if defying the doctor’s predictions she will never regain the slightest feeling in her legs, let alone be able to walk again, was the easiest feat in the world. I should, I know I should look at her now and carry on with conversation because it’s respectful to a cripple—no, someone in her condition—but
instead I succumb to my urge to yawn. (No matter how many times Maria remembered, it was always, “I couldn’t have known any better.”) “I can’t wait to be out of the hospital,” she says. “I really don’t like being there, Maria. I like playing pretend with you better here. Do you know what the other children said today?” My head nods absently to everything she says, and I let out a breathy sigh and inhale the pleasant aroma of all the competing floral scents in the air. I haven’t quite figured out yet how to resist the sight of the peaceful flowers trying to draw my mind away. The garden goes on for miles. I remember once she called it “an alluring valley of a multi-colored sea of flora”...and I remember laughing at her choice of words. Every flower in the world, or at least every one we have ever seen from books or real life, has found itself in this wide expanse of garden, if even just one of a kind; but all types are here. The new flowers she created herself, jovial things with yellow gumdrop eyes, little brown ears and black licorice lines for mouths, are just as special as the natural ones. Roses are our favorites, so they are the only ones in complete abundance here. Red. Pink. White. Yellow. Silver ones and gold roses too. If you shake the gold ones, glitter falls on your hand. As usual, the forever sun that has never met night continues to shine here, without a drop of induced sweat to punish for the infinite morning we created. The breeze here is endless as well, always moving over the luscious green land as if an angel from the west forever orchestrates its natural dance with blessed holy hands. And faithfully, with warmly paintbrushed streaks of orange and red, and soothing strokes of sultry pink and violet, the sky remains that magnificent blue expanse above full white
plush clouds of cotton. Sometimes I look at everything together and wonder how this place is even possible, but then I relax and just breathe to stop myself from ruining the magic. Weaving through the center of the garden is a path designed for her to be able to wheel her chair along. Tears flooded her face when she first saw the gray paved path appear before her eyes, inch by magical inch. That and other magic tricks are my specialty. Do I really deserve such credit? Well, I can do anything merely because— (She was that poor girl’s everything!) I only wonder why I can never get her to imagine herself out of that chair. “Maria! I have an idea! Do some magic again! Please? I wanna see you change the clouds again and make the flowers dance! Can you make animals appear? We’ve never had animals appear in the secret garden before!” “So you want another magic trick, do you? Okay, see if you can handle this.” I wave a hand absently into the air and gesture toward the clouds. The little girl’s face beams as the cloud formations take different shapes. I instruct them casually with my hand, showing off now to prove manipulating this world is easy for me. The clouds respond obediently by moving about, forming bunnies, hearts and unicorns. Birds soon begin performing in the sky, creating their own splendid formations like some type of magical show designed for us, the audience below. I didn’t do the bird trick. She did. The final bout of magic has to be special. I hold up my finger and write her name in the sky, separating the white material of the clouds so they form letters. When I have finished the final letter she squeals in delight and begins clapping eagerly. “That was so nice, thank you Maria!”
My head gives a quick nod and I close my eyes again. What time is it? “Can you do more?” The bus might be here by now. “Please? More Maria?” “Enough for now, sweeting.” Because I want to switch gears. “I have some things I want to talk to you about.” She becomes quiet suddenly and starts fidgeting nervously with her hair. “Talk to me about what?” But she knows what. She knows the promise she made to me on my last visit. “Oh...about that,” she murmurs without me having to say anything. “A promise is a promise,” I say, sitting up. “You remember, don’t you?” “Yes, I remember.” But her face darkens. “I won’t force you. You’re a smart girl, and you know what makes you comfortable from what doesn’t, don’t you sweeting?” She blushes like I knew she would. Calling her “sweeting” is just one of my weapons to butter her up. I’ve even devised ways to calm her, but they’re not bad. All it takes is gentle persistence, holding her shaking hands if in fact they do shake, and giving her understanding eyes. I know what I’m doing may be wrong, but making her speak about how her family died seven months ago is the only way for her to get one step closer to recovery. I know I have no authority to do it. Who am I to act as a psychiatrist or a therapist? But I do it anyway. Anyone would too. I’m not selfish. (How many times had she sung that in her mind? Then and now?) “I was sleeping...so I don’t remember much about the wreck. I never woke up until the car was spinning.”
Ah, success! “There was a really loud sound, like a bird screeching or a loud train whistle blowing. I think it was the metal being crushed and twisted. The car was upside down and spinning on the back like a top. I was crying a lot. I was...screaming.” A bloodcurdling scream from the accident, tearing, slicing, pierces my ear. My shoulders jerk compulsively. My fingers check my ears for blood, but as soon as relief hits that the blood isn’t real, I start to see the accident all from her words—blinding yellow sparks flying—someone on foot dodging their oncoming car—the car overturning and its metal scraping the ground. I can’t grip the grass hard enough to calm my own dizzying head. “It was quiet. Mummy wasn’t speaking. She...Her head was snapped back. Daddy looked all crumpled, and his hair was red from the blood. I couldn’t move, but I tried hard, though. It wouldn’t work.” A shudder goes through me as the slightly restrained but still frighteningly real feelings of the snapped bone, dying arteries and crushed muscles in her legs make their way into my own. So real. Why does she have to make it so real? (Because that was how she was.) “Calm your thoughts down, sweetie.” I take a moment, then breathe, and try to speak again softly. But the words won’t come. Why did someone so young have to go through such a terrible ordeal? And then slowly, very slowly, my own near-death experience starts to scratch at the surface of my mind, reminding me that I know her pain. But I barely remember that incident, and the memory can only fade away into nothingness. Unlike her, I was fortunate enough to have my accident happen now as a teen. Only seven and she is so brave, so different
from anyone at school I called “friend” now. Her spirit in a way...completes what’s missing from my own. Inevitably, her tears pour over her eyelids, and I quickly embrace her, allowing her face to nuzzle in my chest and her tears to soak my long curly hair already frizzing at that first sign of moisture. “I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have made you talk about it.” “No, you’re my friend so I should share it. I just get sad sometimes.” But it isn’t sadness that starts to suddenly morph the little girl’s expression now. Her pupils narrow as if she’s just glimpsed the face of evil, and even when I smile and ask her what’s wrong, her strange expression goes unchanging. “Maria...I don’t want what got Mommy and Daddy to get me too.” “Sweeting, nothing’s going to get you. Why do you even think such a thing?” “Because someone hated us.” My heart stops in my chest. What in the world had she gotten into her head? That they might have had enemies? Been...intentionally murdered somehow? No. No. This is only a child’s ways of making up stories. I don’t want to hear any more. “But I have a secret plan,” she mentions now with eyes decisively serious. “Whatever got them won’t trouble me. I know if I stay happy, nothing will get me—— and I’m happy with you Maria. Please don’t ever leave me. Can we pinkie swear? Do you want to pinkie swear so we can be sure?” But I just give her a smile that does not reach my eyes and simply embrace the girl again. Why am I the one trembling? (Because those words were so—)
“I know my brother will take care of me too. Wherever he is.” Brother? She failed to mention a living brother. Her nurses said she had no more immediate family. They all died late last year November, including her only brother. But ah, I realize such wishing is simply from a child’s mind. If she wanted him or all of her family to be alive, I wouldn’t have minded. Hell, she and I were in this place, weren’t we? Just by thinking, I could bring her family into the secret garden, so long as she told me what they looked like. But I wouldn’t dare. That would be interfering too much in the mental state of this precious girl, if this place doesn’t already do that. “That big man saved him, you know?” she goes on, picking at a newly formed scab with the apparent intent to see the wound bleed. Her voice trails off, “Saved my brother...” “A big man?” “Mm-hmm. Big.” “Well, sweeting, I think you—” “No one believes me, but I saw him. But he wouldn’t help me. He wouldn’t save me.” Her eyes redden when the scab comes off in her fingers with blood. “He never helped me at all even though I was crying! He took him into his arms and he looked right past me as if I was invisible! He told me I had no chance! Why didn’t he help me too?! I am important just like he is!” I can say nothing despite how my chills remind me that talking about the dead in present tense is dangerous in any culture I’ve read about. And things only worsen when I see her reach into her pocket and pull out a folded up photo. It is old and tattered, evidence she has handled the picture a great deal. “I don’t have any more pictures of Mommy and Daddy, but I have one of him,”
she says. I hesitate to take hold of it, afraid to be overwhelmed with sadness, but when I finally do I realize the person is—was indeed her brother in the photo. The family resemblance is apparent straight away. But instead of giving it back quickly, as I expect to feel the urge to do, I hold the photo firmly between my fingers, compelled to stare into the young man’s face. A high school graduation picture. He looked older and more mature than most. He was probably around nineteen when the photo was taken. Through black hair and handsome dark brown eyes, I see their relation and where beauty translates as handsomeness in her family. His secretive, small, Asian eyes tell of what particular charm he must have had. Maybe, just maybe, his friendly countenance meant he was sweet and considerate toward his little sister. I find myself questioning what he was like when he was alive, and I smile to myself, barely realizing I am doing so. “Maria?” I look up at her anxious face and laugh a little. “Sorry,” I say and hand the picture back to her slowly. Suddenly a horn blares. Finally time to go. Wonderful news for me. “We need to get out of here now, sweeting. My bus has arrived.” Without argument she obediently agrees. Within seconds we find ourselves back in the white hospital room, as quickly as we had traveled to the beautiful garden of our dreams. All is blurry to me before I can focus on the all-white furniture and walls. I breathe deeply and check to see if she has returned safely as well. Once or twice she had gotten stuck there before. “Sweeting?” I check.
She weakly sits up in her hospital bed. “Thank you, Maria. You always make that place so magical and pretty.” I grin amid listening for someone to call me. Knowing that she enjoys our game of make-believe always does something to me that I can’t explain. I'm the only person in her life who can bring her this level of joy, and my God, who wouldn’t be thankful for that? To pay a visit to such a wonderful girl is a blessing. But at the end of the day, I’m still a high school student, and I can’t run my life around community service cases even if I wanted to. Her regular tests involve physical therapy; mine involve equations and essays. Her homework is to keep hoping to walk again; mine is to keep hoping I have a reason to hope for. We’re both living our lives....I am not selfish. (“I was never selfish to her!”) A rapping comes at the door and it opens a few seconds later. Nurse Nancy, or Old Nurse Saggings as we sometimes call her, walks in. She is one of the fakes who do not know about imagination. “It’s time for you to go home. The rest of your little friends have already gone on the school bus.” After I gather my things and go the door, sweeting calls to me with a hopeful, “See you next week!” I hesitate and rightfully so. She doesn’t realize this is temporary charity work, only compulsory for grades six to nine. How can I keep coming and entertaining her with imaginary places? Ninth grade is almost over. I shouldn’t have any commitments like this. I cannot guarantee if I will be back any at all. But I will try. “All right, sweetie,” I eventually say with a smile of reassurance. “I’ll see you later.
That’s a promise.” (But she knew her back was turning for good.) I close the hospital door, watching the corners of her mouth fall. This is the last time I know I’ll see her. (And the last time Maria ever wanted to remember her betrayal to Emma.)
CHAPTER ONE Two years later...
He was nineteen. His wind-combed, slightly tousled blonde hair sat on his head with uneven bits falling in loose disarray down his face and barely hanging over the sexy, merciless full line of his mouth. And oh God, what a mouth he had! Rightfully his lips should have been declared a national treasure. Without premeditation, he would shyly lick those gems of his and draw attention to his succulent mouth through the tastiest of invitations. His smile was utterly captivating. Innocent charmer or deliberate seducer? A flicker of a grin made you blush, but a fully dedicated smile sent white-hot sensations coursing through you. And his complexion! It should have been praised! Thankfully he wasn’t pale or overcooked like the other sorry excuses for men at the school. Every square centimeter of skin was kissed perfectly by the sun’s golden rays, a miracle considering where he hailed from. And as for his eyes, those beautiful emeralds were not only attractive, they were downright hypnotizing. If you did not shudder under that kind of penetrating gaze, then there was only one rational explanation: you had no pulse. Not one senior girl or even guy, for envy rather than admiration, in the entire Halimond Academy wasn’t talking about the new student who had arrived two days ago when school recommenced after the unpredicted long weekend and freak storm. The only person not hyperventilating over him was Maria who had missed the two days of school and the frenzy.
“Succulent mouth?” Maria grimaced distastefully at her friend’s choice of words. “God, he’s not a stuffed pig with an apple shoved in its mouth.” “No, no, no! Yet again you are underestimating what I’m trying to tell you,” Maria’s overly-excited friend stressed. When Gina’s blood got boiling, one had to watch out. Her shallowness always came packaged with a barrage of nonsensical comments. “This guy is gorgeous! You should’ve been here when he first arrived. He is foiiiine. And I don’t mean like a ‘Hey, that guy is pretty cute over there’ kind of fine, I’m talking about a ‘Wow, that guy is sooo hot he makes my teeth sweat’ type of guy.” Maria tightened her smile to a disinterested, cynical one as she continued filling her bag with books from her locker. “I spoke to him a bunch of times,” Gina went on. “He said he’s from...What was it? Iceland? No, hold on, wait. I think it was Finland. Something-Land! I don’t know why he came all the way out here to Kentucky, but thank God he did. Tall, handsome, an accent that could melt butter!” Gina swooned and dropped her pudgy chocolate-skinned body against the lockers with a girlish sigh. “An’ don’t fergit he’s a nice person,” Ellie added. Ellie Blake was Gina’s blondehaired sidekick, the real definition of a Kentuckian. “He seems so down-to-earth an’ intelligent.” “Yeah, yeah!” Gina agreed with eyes widening on her round face for emphasis. Maria should have laughed. Of course they had to conveniently slip in a nonphysical analysis, or otherwise face the label of superficial. She let them have their way. “I really want to get a chance to talk to him again,” Gina wished. “And you should too, Maria. You always complain no one around here likes your type, but maybe he’ll be the first in the academy to like our little brown, Miss Indian-Caribbean girl with no
proper accent from anywhere she’s affiliated with.” And as if given a stage cue, Gina and her sidekick began singing playfully. “No good ‘Hey ya’ll’ Kentuckian, no good ‘Tank u beri much’ Indian, and no good ‘Irie mon’ Caribbean voice.” As she was accustomed to doing, Maria smiled away their playful insults. Gina’s tone became slightly condemning. “But anyway, I seriously hope underneath it all he’s not stuck up and egotistical.” “I doubt it,” Ellie said, tucking her hair behind the protruding ears she had once been mocked for when she was a freshman. Gina’s considerable influence around the school, shaped from a big mouth and an even bigger desire to use it and tell you what she thought of you, made ridicule a thing of the past for her sidekick. “I got the feelin’ he’s pretty shy an’ mowdest. But then again, he does look you in the eyes when he speaks to you, so maybe he’s not that shy. He kinda looks partially Asian, though. When he smiles he’s got that slit-eye thang. But his eyes’re so green, though.” Gina grinned, her thick lips exposing all her gum over small white teeth. “I’m just so glad we’ve actually got some good-looking guys here now. I’m tired of the things we’ve got walking around here thinking they’re God’s gift to the female species.” And you both are just so above them all, Maria thought to herself. Listening to them go back and forth was her usual morning routine. As much as she did not mind gossiping with them every now and then, her friends often took their chatter to an annoying, imbecilic level she preferred not to participate in. This was the last year of high school. She had more things on her mind than “succulent-mouthed” men. She
wasn’t even allowed to think of them, to begin with. She wanted the conversation to steer in a different direction. And unfortunately for Maria, it did. “Oh my God, it was such hell gettin’ to school this morning. That’s why my hair looks like shit. I wish they’d given us more days off,” Ellie complained. “There’s still so much damage outside, an’ the traffic is terrible because of that thang.” The “thang” she was referring to was a storm that had hit over the weekend. The May storm was rainy enough, windy enough and ferocious enough to put many homes in White Crest into total darkness for twelve hours. The maelstrom hit on Saturday but school did not reopen until Tuesday. According to the reports, it was one of those freak, unidentifiable weather disturbances. But were storms ever like that? The suspicious clouds over the town had apparently not been suspicious enough beforehand to expect such a heavy-hitting storm, but it certainly came. Unfortunately for Maria, her house was the only one on her block to suffer any real damage. All the bathrooms got soaked, a small section of the roof came loose, and debris found temporary free lodgings in her room. But even with all of that, the storm did not frighten her like it seemed to do to everyone else. She wasn’t sure why. “I literally thought I was going to die!” Gina declared. “When the winds started picking up, I could swear my roof would blow off. I hid under my covers.” “You think that’s anythin’?” Ellie prepared to one-up her. “I hadta go to a shelter with my family for precautionary measures,” she said with hands delicately touching her chest. “Since this was the first major storm since like, whut, four years, my family an’ I weren’t sure our flimsy house would withstan’ it. Luckily I’m alive too.”
“What did you do, Maria?” Gina asked, turning to her. Maria’s stomach churned uneasily. Damn it. This was what she did not want. She hesitated for a moment. “I...was outside,” she murmured under her breath. But they’d heard and both of their jaws dropped open considerably. Soon they were exchanging looks of disbelief with one another. “Whut? You were where?” Ellie asked for clarification. The memory came back to Maria and she mechanically lowered her head a little to have her long, curly auburn locks fall down in front and protect her from their stares. She forced a smile to throw them off. “I was outside, I said. Nothing big. You guys should’ve—should’ve really seen it up close. The storm was, well, it was spectacular.” “See it? Up close? You didn’t stay inside? Girl, you could have died!” Gina was dumbfounded, and Ellie’s face read of the same shock and confusion. Maria raised her bony shoulders and quickly dismissed her actions with a shrug. “It’s no big deal.” She fleetingly glanced up at her friends and became vulnerable under their gawking expressions. “There’s nothing wrong with what I did,” she defended. I am not strange. “Yeah, yeah! Of course there’s nuthin’ wrong with it. That’s just a bit weird an’...” Ellie bit her lip. “So long as you’re fine, I guess.” Maria did not respond at first. Her eyes merely stared into the depths of her locker. “Yeah, of course I’m fine. But there’s nothing wrong with life being a little unexpected at times, just like the weather, school, family, friends.” She let out a weak laugh. “It’d be nice to...escape the shit once in a while though. Don’t you think?” She managed to look toward them again, but her heart sank into the pit of her stomach when she saw the impenetrable walls that had risen for them both. She suddenly realized what
she had been rambling on about. “Escape how? And from what exactly?” Gina searched. A smile scratched at the surface. “What the heck are you talking about?” The tone in Gina’s voice suggested something dangerous and prodded for the truth they knew she was hiding. “F-Forget it,” Maria dismissed accordingly, fearful of the conversation spiraling downward any further. “I’m just rambling on. So, yeah, like I was saying, the storm really was something else, huh?” But there was no recovering. An awkward silence had set in between her friends and was not going anywhere unless they were. “Well...hey, we’ve got to head to first period,” Gina interrupted with a smile. She took up her bag from the floor and Ellie followed suit. The two gave an absented goodbye wave to Maria and disappeared around the white corner of the senior hallway, whispering and giggling with each other. The uncomfortable tension weighing down Maria’s shoulders eased up when they left. Finally the overhead school bell rang noisily. Drawing in a sharp breath, she slammed her locker door. I’m such an idiot.
She had grown fearless over time; that is what she had come to realize. Fearless, or maybe rather defiant and reckless. Whichever, Maria was glad she had no remorse. She wasn’t afraid to skip a class anymore just because she could “get in trouble.” She was not afraid to talk back to most people when they pissed her off, except Gina and
Ellie—for some reason only them. Those childish fears were gone. None of them could do anything to her, not the faculty, not the principal, and more importantly, not her parents. Working hard at the Halimond Academy in White Crest City, a private preparatory school where grade eleven marked senior year, had always been her top priority because of growing up in such a strict household. Her father’s strict rules, and his announcement when she was just fourteen that an arranged marriage was in her future, sent her grades into a tailspin. When her interest in maintaining her grades worsened even more around tenth grade, they called it at first laziness, she, resistance. But that rebellion couldn’t have come at a worse time. She needed excellent grades to leave the places that stifled her. Getting into a university outside of the small, secluded White Crest City, and more importantly away from her father’s house, was the only way she could avoid that tradition which did not belong to her. With her cheek propped up on her fist and her long auburn tendrils of hair falling down her back, Maria sat by herself at a desk in an empty classroom. The sun warmed her caramel skin and full lips. Directly outside was her favorite tree, so she had turned the desk to face one of the glass-paned windows. She was glad to see the tree had survived the storm. For a long moment she sat there in her flared green jeans, trying to get her mind lost in watching the leaves fall gracefully to the ground by the isolated wind blowing outside. Staring vacantly at objects or out into space was a sort of ritual for her, or a part of a “bad habit.” Spacing out usually offered her a comforting solitude, but not this time. Her mind was too cluttered. In the empty white-walled, gray-carpeted room with its cleanly rubbed marker board at the front and its slowly whirring overhead ceiling fans, the atmosphere was
supremely quiet. As quiet as Saturday night had been before the storm came so abruptly. Dangerously loud. An empty house. No one at home except for her. The storm had come too suddenly, almost supernaturally. She was sitting on her bed, listening and observing. She refused to close the banging window above her bed. The side ones too she left alone as the surging wind viciously blew in leaves and golf ball-sized pellets of clumped dirt into her room. Lightning struck several times, illuminating her shelves of books and making stuffed animals look like the fearful things in horror films. She remembered feeling strange, as if those electric bolts wanted to come in, as if their mission was to strike her unmercifully where she sat. The storm seemed to carry a venomous personal vendetta against the town it unleashed its fury upon. She had gone outside to see that fury firsthand. She was drawn to its whirling winds and its pouring rain. And even when sharp whips of wind bruised her skin, when unknown debris sliced and pricked at her and caused her blood to trickle down her calves, she remained where she was. She could unmistakably feel something ominous in the air. But Maria would never tell her friends about how she felt. In fact, she barely told them anything. Speaking too much can only lead to hating yourself later on when you say something stupid. Today was more proof of that theory. She had ended up sounding like a damn fool this morning. But there were times when she would reach the limit of keeping all her feelings and stresses inside, and then a dream would manifest. It was either in the form of a nightmare or a strange reliving of a past event in her life. In the latter, she felt as if she had three selves: one who actually relived the event, one who witnessed it like an omnipresence, and one who told of the reliving to some other presence who acted as
therapist and condemner. The self who relived the event could feel the air and hear the sounds so amazingly. The omnipresent self watched and spoke helplessly, like a chorus from a Greek play, interjecting whenever it felt to and commenting on what was happening. The final self, such an intermediary presence, was the in-between who relived the event and commented on it as if she was laid down on a therapist’s couch, telling the sympathizer and judge every unadulterated detail about how she felt when it was all happening. The last dream like this seemed such a long time ago. Something about a garden. But the dreams all came because of one common denominator—mistakes. Mistakes of the past were like permanent knives stabbed into your chest with the skin long hardened around the wounds. If you wanted them out, you had to be ready to cut through flesh for it. Maria often looked for little windows of opportunity in which she could allow herself to open up to Gina and Ellie and say the things she felt. Each time was a failed, embarrassing attempt. Too embarrassing to forget and too embarrassing not to punish herself for later so she would not repeat such stupid sharing. When she got home she would have to remind herself of all her mistakes. “Damn it,” Maria cursed aloud and checked her watch. She did not plan on waiting all day for her teacher, Mr. Lohan. Almost on cue, the door opened and in walked the tall, middle-aged Mr. Lohan in a black shirt and straight-legged jeans. He barely looked around the room to see if he was alone before turning to close the door again. “Mornin’!” Maria shot out quick to scare him. He jumped, dropping a few of the files from the stack he was holding. She smiled.
“Hell!” he expelled through clenched teeth, then took a breath to calm himself. “Damn it, Maria,” he said looking back at her, “you’re like a ghost. I didn’t know anyone was in here.” He made his way over to the teacher’s desk, placed the heavy files down and picked up the ones that had fallen. “What are you doing in here all by yourself? I have Life Skills class in here for second period. Shouldn’t you be in math right now?” Maria would have answered straight away if his strong cologne had not struck her so suddenly. The assault to the nostrils made her nauseous. “Are you okay?” He smiled after realizing she caught a whiff of his scent. “You look stunned.” His pleased grin hid nothing. He was hoping for the same blushing reaction all the other female students gave him when he even entered a room. The hazel-eyed counselor with long brown hair was the “cool” teacher, the one young-at-heart who always opted for jeans and a nice shirt rather than a suit and tie. Mr. Lohan had become known for trying to seem younger than he actually was by rebelling against the “cliché chains of adulthood,” as he liked to elegantly put it. No teacher liked him because of his rebellious nature. “Do you like this scent?” he asked directly. “It’s a nice cologne, sir.” Her tone was neutral. “Anyway, I have to talk to you. You said we could discuss...” “Eh? Discuss what?” He scratched his perfectly trimmed beard and then exclaimed “Oh!” when his memory was quickly jogged. “About the universities, you mean. I’m sure I meant not during your class hours, but if anyone asks, I’ll tell them you and I were certainly not doing anything of the teacher-student-porn persuasion.” She did not give him the laugh he wanted. “Okay then, sir.”
“So, what is it you want to tell me?” “Not tell but show you.” She dug into her sweater pocket and pulled out a few pamphlets stuffed in there. She crossed to her bag lying in the corner and pulled out a few more crumpled ones. She set them down eagerly at his desk. “I’d like you to take a good look at these places and tell me what you think. Pay special attention to requirements. Do you think it’s possible I can get into any of these universities?” Mr. Lohan looked at the crumpled pile sketchily for a second, as if they were bothersome orphans dropped on his doorstep. But eventually he sat on the edge of the desk and began to read through them. Maria’s hands folded across her chest nervously. He looked for a good long moment, making the occasional grunts and nods which suggested he was scrutinizing what was in front of him. This time around, Maria felt slightly more confident. After a lengthy time of what seemed like careful consideration, he looked at Maria with his fashionable, black-framed glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Maria,” he began with a tone of gravity, “these schools are...pretty hard to get into.” Maria hesitated a moment, knowing ahead of time what he was going to say. It would be the same answers as last time: You really don’t have a chance/ I don’t think it’s possible/ Maybe you can just accept staying in White Crest. Disappointment swooped over her, but she had to plead her case. “Sir, I know they’re pretty hard to get into with my grades, but I think I could do it. I think some of them would accept me since they’re not as demanding as the other ones I showed you before.” Mr. Lohan was evidently skeptical and did a bad job at hiding it to make her feel
better. “Yes, some of the schools you chose this time around may not be as demanding, but sweetie, don’t let these ambiguous requirements on these pamphlets fool you. These schools aren’t supremely just for art. They’re schools that have the whole enchilada and require good grades from many other subjects, not just your C-ish, D-ish art grades that they’d already consider mediocre.” Mediocre? The word was like poison. “I know all that,” she said, frustration lighting a match to her easily-ignitable temper, “but for most of them it says all you need are pretty reasonable grades.” “Which you don’t have,” he added. “I know they could be better,” she strained to say through her building irritation, “but right now I know where I stand grade-wise in those classes. I know that if I do well in the final exams I can possibly up my grades to a ‘B’ at least.” He folded his arms across his chest and gave a lengthy sigh. “Are you sure about that, Maria?” Maria frowned a little. “Y-Yes, I’m pretty sure.” Mr. Lohan began to organize the pamphlets. She had seen him demonstrate the nervous habit numerous times. “Sweetie, I talked to your teachers. They don’t want to give you any recommendations, and they don’t see you getting anywhere remotely near an ‘A’ for any of your exams. And that’s what you’re going to need, an ‘A’ if you plan on even reaching a C-average for many of your classes, based on where you stand now. You need to receive an exorbitant amount of points in all your exams. It’s quite unlikely.” Maria felt her heart fall into the pit of her stomach. Oh God, why did he have to say that? Was her math that bad in calculating the possibilities? She was under the impression that if she did well in her final exams the scores would boost her subject
grades and her GPA. She had hoped that she could improve her GPA to make up for her low SAT scores. Had she really allowed herself to slack off to the point where everything was irrevocable? Mr. Lohan had to see the sadness washing into her face, so he softened the tone of his voice. “Look, Maria. You’re smart, eloquent, a great poet, and you’re one of the most gifted students I think we have at this school. It’s just your particular circumstances that caused all this to happen. If you do the SATs again, maybe they’ll overlook your GPA. Can’t you try for that? You’re good enough to do it.” But the hopelessness in her fallen shoulders went nowhere. “Ah, God, don’t look like that, Maria. You’ve come so far. Not many kids can start their school career as messy as you did and get their grades to where they were in the past. You can overcome this. You’re more amazing than you give yourself credit for.” And the tender, admiring gaze she could feel from his eyes confirmed his previously unspoken faith. “But all the same, I won’t lie to you. Your art grades as they are now aren’t good enough to get you into a good art school, and your GPA isn’t good enough to send you to a great school that has everything. You can’t redo the SATs in June since you haven’t registered, and I know October will be too late because of your particular home situation. All you can rely on is that GPA, but if you’re not going to a better school out of White Crest, then your parents are not going to pay for it. Sweetie, I know you may not want to hear this, but...” Don’t say it to me. “It looks like your only option is the community college down here in White
Crest.” A bullet exploded in her chest and her first reaction was to tremble. The words were a crushing blow. If Maria couldn’t convince her parents that a good university wanted her, they’d drop the idea of furthering her education altogether. But that was not the worst of her problems. If she stayed in White Crest City she knew what would become of her. She wouldn’t be able to stop the inevitable. “I still think you should talk to your father, or at least your mother, who’s more rational. I know your father is a stubborn man, but you need to let him know you don’t want to go through with this stupid arranged marriage backward BS. It’s the modern age, and you just turned eighteen, Maria. Stand up for yourself like a woman should.” He could say that because he wasn’t her. This man had no idea what he was talking about, and now she was regretting ever using him as the confidant of her greatest problem. Rationalizing with her father was impossible. He was too dogmatic—too hardheaded—too dictatorial—and for lack of any better words, too goddamn ignorant to listen to her. He was raised a stubborn boy and became a stubborn man. Her adoptive father’s family originally came from India, a country full of hard, no holds barred, no-nonsense workers. He wore his stubbornness like a winter coat to places that even had no winter. When her adoptive father’s family temporarily migrated to Jamaica in the Caribbean when he was in his teens, they carried those same hardworking principles to excel on the island. Their work ethic paid off, and her father was a product of that. From the moment Maria was adopted in Jamaica, he told her straight away that he was a no-nonsense type of man. When she and her parents left Jamaica a week later for White Crest City, he let her know there was no time for childish games. He beat any
trace of the island’s tongue from her and built her around White Crest City until her sixyear-old mind forgot everything about her birthplace. Her father was the kind of man who ruled with an iron whip and made no apologies for it. “Such a pretty brown girl would not go to waste,” she heard him say to her adoptive mother, his ever-smiling Caucasian wife, on that very first drive home. He had specific plans set out for her. He was going to be the one who determined what her life was like, and it did not matter if she carried no blood from his line. She was now a reflection of him. He would determine what her activities were and how she carried herself. He would determine who she spent the rest of her life with. Choosing a school outside of White Crest City was the only thing she could think of to escape that already determined future. If she could just get accepted to a university with a good-enough reputation, she could convince both her parents to let her go away, and then she’d easily lead them into believing she’d come back after her graduation to go through with his arranged marriage plans. And even if she did eventually come back someday, at least for a short time she would have been out of the place she felt so trapped in. With that much freedom, she could at least try to weave her own path. “Can I ask how it went?” Mr. Lohan interrupted Maria’s anguished train of thought. “Did it go on yesterday as planned?” In their spacious, porcelain-filled, two-story house, yes, it certainly did happen. She had been trying all day not to think about it. Her father had given her an introduction to her three potential husbands. That was why she had missed two days of school. Even the storm damage, which her parents fervently worked to repair on Sunday and Monday, wasn’t enough to stop the meeting from happening. Tuesday was spent going over etiquette and finding a dress, and Wednesday was spent meeting the three
possibilities. She remembered her father introducing them to her, but to say the least, the meeting did not go well. She had the bruise on her scalp from him to prove it. “I don’t want to talk about it right now,” Maria said between clenched teeth. She took up the pamphlets and stuffed them back into her bag. She felt defeated; she was defeated. “Sweetie, there must be something you can do. I will help you as much as I can and—” “I don’t need anyone’s help,” she objected stubbornly as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “Would you like me to call your parents for you? Maybe some teachers and I can get together and help.” “I said no, Mr. Lohan.” “Are you sure, Maria?” “Yes sir.” “But I’m sure something can be done here. I’m sure I can work up a little bit of magic. Give me a chance and—” Maria blew up. “No, damn it! I don’t need your help, so stop asking!” A throat cleared. Their attentions were captured. “Am I interrupting something?” came a voice. Maria looked toward the door and a pair of deep, translucent green eyes stared directly at her. “If I am then I can come back,” the figure standing in the doorway said with a subtle sedation to his words.
“Oh, Mr. Kristinsson,” Mr. Lohan acknowledged. Quickly and expertly he gathered his composure. “You’re late. Didn’t you get my message about the venue change for our meeting?” The tall, handsomely austere, broad-shouldered guy averted his gaze from Maria to Mr. Lohan. “Sorry, this school is bigger than my last,” he explained in his unique accent. “However, if you’re busy”—his gaze went back to Maria—“then I’ll come back later like I said.” “No, no, I was just finishing up. Oh, where are my manners? I’d like you to meet Maria Jaghai. Maria, this is Alan Kristinsson. Rather late in the school year, but he’s our new student.” She scarcely noticed the teacher had introduced her, let alone even spoken. All she knew was that time around her stilled. This guy, whoever he was, stared at her with eyes so ridiculously captivating that having become his prisoner, she forgot what it meant to breathe. Owning eyes like those had to be a sin. He was visually stunning with his perfectly symmetrical face and disarrayed blonde hair falling haphazardly down golden brown eyebrows. His immediate presence was undeniably impressive; it seemed even nature had acknowledged that truth as the sunlight shone in from the window and enveloped him in what looked like a divine aura. “This is Maria Jaghai,” Mr. Lohan repeated more loudly. Maria snapped out of her illusory daze with a jerk and was only able to muster up a faint “Hello.” “Maria, why don’t you go and we can talk about this a little later?” Mr. Lohan suggested with a stressing lilt. Maria absently nodded her head in agreement. She headed to the door, disgraced
to be walking up to the handsome intruder after the horrible display of anger he undoubtedly witnessed. She let her hair fall in front of her face. “’Scuse me,” she mumbled insecurely when her suddenly shrunken five-foot-eight frame came to stand in front of him. But the surpassing six-foot figure didn’t make a sound or move at first. He only stared at her with silent curiosity before finally responding with a “Sure” and stepping to the side so she could escape. Maria slipped out thankfully into the hallway and let out a deep breath she didn’t know she was holding in. Was that the new student her friends spoke about? The guy from Iceland? She didn’t know he was that attractive. And it was just her luck to have made such a terrible first impression. Like a complete idiot she had stared out of awe at him, but all she’d earned was a deserved look of strange curiosity and probably disgust from him. All the same, his expression did not erase her impression of him. She tried to bite back a smile but it came nevertheless as she headed down the hall. “Impressive,” she found herself exhaling.
She was exhausted by the time the bell finally rang at the end of the day. The last few periods had been tiring all thanks to her teachers’ unique ability to suck the life out of the room with monotonous speech and lame jokes. Walking the few feet to her locker to put her books away took all the energy she could muster. Everyone scurried out through the doors urgently and left the school corridor empty within a record matter of minutes. A barbecue and pool party was going on at someone’s house quite soon after, so everyone had somewhere to be. Except her. With a tiny compact in hand, Maria remained behind to look at herself in the mirror attached to the inside of her locker. When absolutely sure no one was around, she lifted the compact’s mirror to the back of her head, delicately separated her curly hair with her fingers and touched her scalp. The spot where her father pulled her hair was still red and tender. She wondered to herself how quickly it would heal. Don’t ever embarrass me like that again! She remembered his thunderous voice and how for that brief moment his anger scared her like nothing ever had before. But Maria knew she no longer cared about pushing his buttons. She tested him often and loved doing it, but this time at the expense of him getting physical. He must have been waiting so long for that moment. Sighing, Maria tied her hair loosely back in a ponytail and closed her locker. As she made her way down the empty hallway, her ears caught the sound of movement in one of the classrooms ahead. As she walked by the door, it swung open into her. She gasped and whipped her body back in time, narrowly saving her nose by a fraction of an inch. Someone emerged from the room. “Oh, wow,” came an apologetic voice. “Did I hit you?”
Maria looked up at the tall figure. Her chest tightened and her body seized. He was the same new student, staring down at her with those piercing green eyes. How ironic. She escaped sheer embarrassment with him earlier that morning and now God had to screw her over just once more before she could leave. “Are you okay?” His gaze searched her face for a moment and then a charming half-smile appeared on his lips. “Did I startle you that badly? I don’t look like a ghost, do I?” “Uh, sorry, no, I’m fine. I didn’t mean to stare,” she said, moving around him. “I should be sorry. I nearly hit that pretty face of yours.” The heat she felt rush into her cheeks from his comment, a comment she was sure was given out of courtesy, not honesty, took more than just a little effort to ignore. She walked toward the exit door at the end of the hall, expecting to leave their conversation at that, but he reached the door before she did, pausing long enough to drop a book out of the stack he was holding. The obvious ploy to gain her attention worked in halting her. Of course, his tall body suddenly in front of her was a pretty effective means of stopping her as well. “Damn, sorry. Clumsy, clumsy me. I’m never usually this careless.” And his gaze upon her confirmed that for him this was a special occasion requiring such clumsiness. Flattered by his bold gesture, she smiled and bent down to pick up the thin book. She felt it between her fingers. “Very light. I can see why you would drop it,” she teased with a slight grin. “Something’s come over me today, I suppose.” His Icelandic accent, noticeable but faint, struck her as being somewhat unusual, not precisely foreign, but rather like an artist who knew his craft. That subtlety worked to his advantage, she was sure. A thicker
accent perhaps would have made him the butt of every joke rather than the centerpiece of every girl’s conversation. “Hey, question. Aren’t you the girl I saw this morning with Mr. Lohan?” Maria’s grin faded quickly. “Yeah. I—” “It’s just that I never forget a face.” Maria looked away from him. “Yeah well, if that door had hit me just now I would’ve deserved it. Just to let you know, I’m not always like that.” He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so I caught you on one of your off days?” “Yeah, you could call it an off day.” And every other day. “Don’t worry about it. We’re sort of similar. I’ve been known to have a little temper myself.” He moved in close, bent his head to her and whispered quietly, “But I won’t tell your secret if you won’t tell mine.” Her ear lit on fire. “G-Good then.” He leaned away now with a sexy grin, revealing that he saw and fully liked the effect simply breathing near her ear had on her. “But anyway, let’s put that beginning past us. Hi, my name’s Alan Kristinsson.” He offered a hand and she took it. “Maria.” The innocent skin-to-skin contact made her palm tingle. Being this close to him made her see even more why Gina and Ellie had been so excited. His face was so easy on the eyes. She did in fact notice the presence of Asian ethnicity in his slightly unrounded eyes, as they had said. The arrangement of his messy blonde locks fit him well, and while the style might have looked sloppy on other people, on him it added a finishing touch to his striking appearance. And Lord, how he looked good in his clothes. Loose-fitting dark blue jeans
flattered already lengthy legs, and a long-sleeved green sweater over a black shirt hugged a well-built, well-proportioned frame. She wondered if underneath all those store-bought manacles of freedom he had a trim chest and stomach to go along with those strong, broad shoulders. “Sooo, it’s very nice to meet you Maria,” he said with a teasing lilt that snapped her fast out of her admiring daze. “S-Sorry. Was I staring again?” “You tell me.” A quick-dodge effort of nervously averting her gaze to the floor was the only way to avoid lightheadedness. “So, anyway, how does it feel to be the one everyone is talking about around here?” “Oh? Is that the case? I wasn’t aware. Is it because I’m new?” For the first time in a long time Maria smiled so broadly she forgot to conceal her peeking gum line. “Well, what do you think? That could be the reason. And you’re older than most guys here. A plus for girls.” He smiled modestly. “Mm, bad seeds like me get the luxury of repeating grades. Truth is, I’m just a regular guy. I doubt there’ll be a fuss because of me.” She doubted he really believed that. Anyone as good-looking as he was had to be used to people making him painfully aware of that fact wherever he went. “So you’re from Iceland, my friends told me,” Maria said. “That’s right.” She had barely heard of Iceland more than a few times on television, but at least the small northern country could not have been worse than the small White Crest City. “Well, for whatever reason you came here, you’re better off going back.” I’m just kidding! Stay! For the love of God, stay! “It’s really boring here, you know. Everyone
just really wants to leave as soon as they finish school.” “Is that what you want to do?” “More than anything,” she said with a resolute tone. “So, why did you come?” His expression hardened slightly, and with that hardening, came hesitation. “I guess you could say I’m here for school. I have other intentions for this place, though...and for people here.” She didn’t know what he meant but chose not to question the mask he had put on. Everyone had their own reasons for hiding things. She was no different. “Well, I’m sorry but I kinda need to get going. Home. Parents. Freaking out. You get the drift.” “It’s all right. Now that we’re acquainted, I’ll be able to start a conversation with you easier next time instead of my nifty book trick.” She giggled and shook his hand one more time. Finally Maria left the building, the most overpowering feelings of elation, nervousness and excitement bubbling in her as she did. As Alan watched her make her long journey to the parking lot and to her SUV, the smile on his face faded. Implacable anger knit like needle and thread into the lines of his face and wove his expression hateful. When dark coldness reached him he felt a small rush go to his scalp. He brought a piece of hair from the side of his head and over into his line of sight. The blonde lock of hair had turned black.
The moonlight shone in through her bedroom windows, outlining her body on the floral-sheeted bed. Slowly, very slowly, she allowed her gaze to roam aimlessly around her room. The night cast its melancholic blue-gray sheet over her lavenderpainted cement walls and pictures of her art hanging about. So strange how nature knew what you were feeling. The windows she hardly ever kept closed once again made her feel at ease. Soft sky-blue curtains on each of them comforted her whenever they blew in the open breeze and hovered over her bed from all three sides like one protective, ghostly blanket. Maria lay stiff and unmoving on her bed, every square inch of skin too sensitive from the hot water she allowed to cascade over her during her shower. She deserved the pain, she thought. Scalding water was her own way of punishing herself for the stupid things she had done or said during the day or the course of the week. She was failing miserably in school, her friends probably thought she had...problems, and she had shouted unnecessarily at her favorite teacher. And worst of all, she had made a fool of herself in front of Alan when they first met. He may have been smiling with her during their second encounter, but more than likely he was probably thinking, Wow, and even now she’s still a complete bitch. Alan. His simple name sounded flowery in her head. Since she got home she couldn’t get his face and the sexy reverberating depth of his voice out of her mind. He had been the one to make an obvious pass at her—something she was quite surprised and flattered by. No boy in her school had flirted with her. She couldn’t believe how her heart had been fluttering in his presence. Her reaction sickened her. As much as she hated to admit it, she was probably no better than Gina and Ellie.
A part of her wanted to go to both of them tomorrow and brag about his attempt to talk to her. But she knew they’d laugh in her face and tell her not to let the attention go to her head. Those two girls—who by any stretch of the imagination were far from pretty—were still confident enough to wrap boys around their little fingers. And Maria had seen such successful boy-baiting happen time and time again. They’d probably soon do the same to Alan. God, what a nauseating thought. How long had it been since she had a boyfriend? Maria tried to think back. The only “relationship” she ever had was a two-week, secret fling with a guy back in the beginning of tenth grade. It happened around the time of the birth of her rebellious phase, but the only thing she had done was mild kissing and fondling, and whenever more was initiated she chickened out quickly. She had wanted to experiment with many things back then and even more so now, but her inhibitions always got the best of her. Having a life like Gina and Ellie’s would have been nice. They had time to date, time to play, time to do whatever they wanted. With the real threat of an arranged marriage on Maria’s mind since she was fourteen, boyfriends were out of the question. She could not go on dates or mingle casually with guys without prior approval, scrutiny, and meticulous investigation from her parents. Everything had been so restricted, but she had fought not to let custom stop her. As powerful a thing as her father’s strict, imposed beliefs were, she still tried to resist. Conservative dress had always been expected of her, not only because long skirts and covered shoulders met with his ideas of what was appropriate, but because of what he called “men’s unavoidable reactions.” She detested the idea that a woman had to dress conservatively because she had to think not only for herself but also for the gaggles of men who were prone to acting vulgar due to lack of testosterone control. His ideas were
unreasonable. Maria sighed and closed her eyes. A headache was approaching, a headache stemming from pure frustration and aggravation. Then quite suddenly, without even a knock or a call, Maria’s door opened. Her mother, wearing one of her old tableclothlooking fruit dresses, entered and stood at the foot of her bed. Welcome, Stepford wife, Maria sneered. Her mother’s highly volumized, short blonde bob that curled underneath her newly-sagging white chin made her definitely deserve the title. That and the fact she was particularly known by everyone for striving for perfection but seldom ever getting it. “Hello,” was the dry greeting Maria received. In her adoptive mother’s pudgy hands was a plate of food that she placed down on a side table near the bed. Maria’s gaze rested blankly upon her. Her mother hovered over the bed, staring back at her critically. “You know you’ll be able to eat around the table again with your father and I if you just apologize for what you did.” Maria scoffed. “Number one, I don’t want to eat around the table with you guys. Number two, fat chance I’m apologizing for anything.” Her mother’s hands went to her hips as they always did when being tested. “You deserve to give him an apology, and not to mention those three nice men you treated so badly when they came to see you.” Her mother grimaced when a memory of the occasion seemed to hit her. “Uh, just thinking about it. Are you really not going to say something to your father? He’s completely embarrassed by what you did. And in fact, I’m putting it lightly. I’ve done everything in my power to prevent him from coming up here and murdering you!”
What did she want? A thank you for protecting her? Oh please. She was hardly such a saint. “What I did was all...necessary.” Her mother, though short in stature, always seemed to grow in height whenever she got angry. Her eyes widened as she rose upon the balls of her feet like a cat on its paws. “Necessary? Necessary for you to completely ignore the Chopra boy? Slap Singh in the face and cuss like a...like a drunken sailor at the other? You’re lucky your father even brought you three handsome men to choose from. I’m sure most times when they choose a partner for you, that’s it. End of story. He was going to give you a choice and you just wasted it!” Maria sprung up, her eyes glaring at her mother’s pasty white face. “We don’t need to go over this again. Just drop it. Of course I wasted it! I’m not chaining myself to someone I met for a blasted hour. The one I ignored didn’t want to be there once he saw what I looked like. It was obvious! The one I cursed at wouldn’t stop asking me stupid questions about dad’s money. And the one I slapped...” She had to tread carefully. “He was just too self-absorbed and old....That’s all. How can you even think for a moment that I want any man like that for myself? I may not be a beauty queen, but I sure as hell have goddamn standards.” “Again with this language! You’ve changed so much lately. This is a Christian household, Maria.” Maria sighed and gave up. She slumped back on her bed and mumbled, “Well, people change, Mom.” “What was that? Don’t you dare mumble! Speak clearly.” “I said people—change—Mom.”
Her mother became speechless for a moment but retaliated. “And you wonder why your father hates you so much. Just look how you’re behaving like a spoiled brat with no good upbringing.” Maria bit down on her bottom lip, trying to seal away the same rage she had unleashed on Mr. Lohan earlier that day. Her voice lowered and a frustrated sigh left her. “I don’t care, Mom. I don’t care about anything. Yes I’m selfish. Yes I’m spoiled. I’m really not worth much when you look at it.” Maria rolled onto her stomach, pulling the pillow over her head. “Oh so you’re just going to ignore me now, is that right? Fine then. You don’t need any dinner, I think.” Her mother slammed the door behind her and Maria cursed silently. She wasn’t going to apologize for her actions. Not now, not ever. But damn, couldn’t Mom have left the food?
It was way too early on Friday morning to start any type of forced manual labor, but regardless of that fact, the next day Maria found herself in the gymnasium, putting up decorations with the few members in the decoration committee. The hoopla was for some school pep rally...No, actually for a concert or something like that in the evening. Whatever it was, she didn’t know or care. She didn’t have any real intention of finding herself in attendance at such a stupid thing. She would’ve rather been doing that eye-straining senior project on forensic science due soon, and that was saying a lot. All Maria knew was that once an announcement came
over the intercom informing all interested persons to go to the gymnasium and help set up with the committee, she had to find herself there. Her participation in the preparation was for an entirely different reason, of course—ditching class. Maria took a moment to stretch lazily and put her hair back in a ponytail. “No slacking off, Maria!” A pair of blue eyes targeted her. Trisha, the committee leader, pointed an accusing finger at Maria from across the room. “If you don’t want to help then give your duties over to someone else! We’re low enough on people as it is!” “Calm down Hitler,” Maria mumbled to herself. “Hello? Maria? Did you hear what I just said?” came Trisha’s annoying voice again from across the room. Maria bent forward, holding her back in mock pain. “Wh-Why yessum mmassah! I-I be sure to get on it right quick for ya!” Maria tossed back. The scattered students around the gymnasium burst into laughter. Trisha threw down her notepad on a desk and stomped over to Maria. “Very funny, but I wouldn’t have to act like a slave driver if you didn’t slack off. So you think you’ve done a lot of work, huh? Show me what you’ve done so far.” This was just too dramatic for eight-thirty in the morning. “I...cleaned the bleachers.” “How many rows?” “A lot.” Trisha squinted at her. Her pointy nose crinkled. “Really, I cleaned a lot. Like a good...Let’s see here...” Maria’s voice lowered considerably. “Okay, maybe one. Or maybe just a single bench in a row. But I can guarantee you that the one I did—wait for it now, this is the best part—everyone is going
to want to sit on that one I cleaned.” She tried to hold back a smile. Trisha’s pale blonde eyebrows slanted together. “Don’t waste my time this morning, Jaghai. I don’t have the tolerance for it.” Trisha looked up at the gymnasium walls. “The walls are naked. Make yourself useful and put up some balloons. Now.” When finally Trisha walked away, Maria chuckled to herself. Aggravating such a hardworking girl really was wrong, but if there was so much work to be done, adding humor into the mix wasn’t a bad idea. But when she looked up at the walls and saw the challenge Trisha had intentionally placed before her, laughing was the last thing she felt like doing. Were the gym walls always this high and wide? After locating a large cardboard box of deflated balloons sitting on a desk in the middle of the gym, Maria pulled the box near to her to begin. No ladder was around, but she could worry about that later. She picked up a red balloon first, blew it up and then set it down. She did the second and third with similar ease. Ah, not so daunting at first. How tiring could it be to blow up a few balloons? But by the time her lips were on the sixth one, her face was swollen and painful. The task was too overwhelming for one person. Damn that Trisha. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Do you need some help?” a deep velvet voice said from behind her. A familiar heat shot up her face. She turned abruptly. “Hey you,” Alan greeted softly when her eyes touched his. Caught completely off guard by his presence, all she could manage was a breathy “Hi” in response. Alan smiled a sexy casual grin. “You’re a part of the decoration committee?” Maria shook her head all too quickly. “No, no. I’m just helping so I can skip
class.” Wait a second! Don’t admit that! Maria smiled her embarrassment away. “Wait, that wasn’t what I meant to say.” Alan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Well, even if it was what you really meant to say or not, it seems you and I think alike. I’m skipping class too.” He glanced back at Trisha. “That girl said I should help someone. I think she meant herself, but...” He looked at Maria and connected his sparkling eyes with hers. “I’d much rather help you if that’s all right.” She fought away redness threatening to stain her cheeks. Maria looked over her shoulder and glanced at Trisha, who was giving her a deadly glare. “Hmm, well I’d love the help,” Maria insisted, intensely satisfied with the image coming to her of Trisha foaming at the mouth from seeing them together. “Blowing up these balloons is giving me a serious headache.” “Really?” Without another word he valiantly took the deflated balloon from her hands, slightly brushing her fingers in the action. She fought back a quiver. “Wait, hold on,” she interrupted with a guilty smirk. “We don’t both need the wrath of Trisha on us. I really think she intends for me to do this one solo so she can see my blood, sweat and tears.” “That’s too bad for her. I want to help you. I can blow them up and we can hang them together.” His eyes told her he’d accept nothing less. If his insistence hadn’t come off as chivalrous she would’ve written him off as being too bossy for her own liking. Quickly he finished up her balloon and began work on the others. Maria stood for a moment considering where to put them on the wall, but she couldn’t help stealing a handful of glances at Alan’s handsomeness in the process. Oh God, even his profile was
amazing. He looked as good as he had yesterday, and with this being the third time she had seen him, she mentally gave him points for knowing how to dress. His quartersleeved, red and blue cotton t-shirt revealed tanned and toned arms, and another pair of loose-fitting jeans did well to compliment what kept his beautiful body standing at such a gorgeous altitude. She soon came to realize there was something different about his appearance, something she hadn’t picked up on before. His all-blonde hair now had a single black lock at the side. “Let’s put some of them up now,” he said, holding the box now full of balloons. She stared inside the box. Amazing. To get six done had taken her forever and already the box of twenty was finished after merely a minute or so. “You have some seriously good lungs,” Maria said, impressed. But the black streak in his hair, now more visible to her because he was closer, came back to her attention. He was worth giving a warning to. “Hey, I didn’t notice before that you had a streak in your hair.” “Oh. Yeah. I just put it in. Yesterday afternoon after I saw you, to be precise.” His green eyes flickered something strange. “Yeah...it looks cool, but it’s against the rules to dye your hair. They go crazy with that rule.” His eyebrows barely rose. “That may pose a slight problem for me. I’ll be changing quite frequently while I’m here,” he said with a slight airiness. Alan turned away from her and assessed the wall. “So how are we going to get these up? We may need a ladder for this.” “Yeah I know, but all our ladders are broken up crap. But if you stood on
something, you could probably get to a respectable height, since you’re already tall.” He took a masking tape roll from his pocket and then knelt on one knee in front of her. “Get on.” “Get on where?” “On my shoulders.” “You’ve got to be kidding.” “No, I’m not.” “Are you crazy? I’ll fall.” “No you won’t. I have no intention of dropping you.” She raised a doubtful eyebrow. “That may not be your intention, but gravity holds no conversations.” He smiled. “What’s there to worry about? Didn’t you ever sit on your father’s shoulders?” She dismissed the question mentally since she already knew the answer, but she was still reluctant. Nervously her gaze fluttered about the room to other students. Quickly, without giving away her real intent, she evaluated the girls who were smaller and slimmer than she was. Inevitably she resorted to scrutinizing herself, her deceptively thin arms crossed over a stomach that pushed against her shirt, and her bottom that filled jeans a few sizes larger than those worn by girls like Trisha. If he lifted her up he would realize how much heavier her body really was. “I promise I’ll hold on to you,” he said, getting her attention once again. His smile was so warm and inviting. “What? You think I’d readily stomp all over the fair maiden’s trust? For the moment at least, trust me, all right?” With those kind of eyes, who couldn’t? Maria finally agreed and sighed
dramatically. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she expelled with a breath and a smile. He bent his upper body low and she carefully positioned her thighs over his shoulders. “Hold on.” He stood up with considerable ease. She tilted forward unexpectedly and burst out loud with laughter, locking her hands together around his neck for security. “Oh God! Don’t you dare make me fall!” “I won’t if you don’t choke me to death,” he strained to say. Realizing her grip was too tight, she relaxed her fingers. He easily handed her the tape for the balloons and they began working. They did well as a team, although she wasn’t about to express her uneasiness caused by the back of his neck putting a specific pressure between her legs. But eventually she was able to relax on his shoulders, even with his hands clutching on to her thighs to keep her steady. He joked and talked with her as they worked and she loved every second of it. This Alan Kristinsson person truly was a good addition to the school, after all. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed with a boy. “Good, that’s it. Put the other one there,” he directed. “What are you two doing?” Trisha interrupted from behind. Alan turned with Maria on him. They stared at the resentful blonde girl. “Do you want me to get in trouble?” she continued. “That’s what they call PDA.” “Do you see us sharing saliva?” Maria argued, upset at her integrity being challenged. “Did you con our poor new student into holding you up? You’re going to break his shoulders, Maria.” Trisha smiled at Alan conspiringly, hoping to draw mutual agreement from him. “And anyway, there are things called ladders, you know.” Trisha
pointed to one barely peeking out from behind the bleachers. “Well, you couldn’t have expected us to see that! Someone practically hid the thing there.” “It’s all right,” Alan intervened easily. But the detached calm in his voice did not go unnoticed by Maria, or Trisha who helplessly responded to the sudden tension with a hesitant quarter smile. He let Maria down carefully and came back with the ladder a few moments later. Both of their jaws unhinged as they watched him. Alan easily picked up the large metal ladder by one of the rungs and slung it over his right shoulder as if it were no heavier than an empty suitcase. “Satisfied?” He shot Trisha a glower and dropped the ladder so close to her feet that she shifted back in her open-toed sandals. The clang of the ladder’s legs upon the gymnasium floor drew everyone’s attention. Trisha wobbled for a moment and was silent for the few seconds that it took to regain some semblance of composure. She left quickly, her legs unsure and confused when she retreated. “Wow.” Maria was breathless. “Congrats. You’re the first person I know who was able to scare away Trisha the Terrible.” He said nothing more about it and positioned the ladder by the wall. He held on to the sides for her and Maria steadily climbed it. She knew he was probably getting a full, unpleasant view of her ass, but that couldn’t be avoided now. He’d just have to suffer through it. “So, tell me more about you,” he said. “Me? I don’t know.”
“Come on, come on,” he urged. “There has to be something you can say.” No there wasn’t, nothing she could tell him about her life, anyway. The last thing she wanted to do was scare him away with details of her strange ways and her adoptive family. “I’m not all that interesting, really.” Her confession made her feel incredibly inept. “You’ve made friends with a dull person, Mr. Alan Kristinsson.” “I highly doubt you’re dull. I like you already, and I don’t like boring people.” Liked her? Ha! She caught him. She had only needed real proof he was a ladies’ man and she just got it. “You like me so soon? Wow, I’m fortunate.” “You don’t believe me?” he seemed to ask with heightened interest. “Not particularly, if you want to be honest.” Thankfully the levelheaded, frank girl in her came out. “You’re probably one of those guys who...” Wait! That’s too bitchy. “No please, go on. You can’t offend me. It’s next to impossible.” Next to impossible, eh? He’d have to prove that. “I was going to say you’re probably one of those guys who use that pretty smile of yours to get what you want. You probably have the King-of-the-World complex.” “I’m glad you like my pretty smile, Maria.” She grimaced at the admission she had just allowed to slip out, and at the teasing grin she could only imagine he was giving her now behind her back. But for some reason she dared steal a look at him. She blushed heatedly when she realized he had been green-gazing at her again. Well, at least he wasn’t annoyed with her. Only giggly schoolgirls swooned and sweated when a cute guy came around, and the thought of him putting her in that
category for any reason at all was stomach-turning. “Well, whatever, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “You have a decent smile. Anyways, I’m sure my judgments aren’t far off. Before you even got on that plane to come here I’m sure you knew all the girls would be stalking you, looking the way you do.” “I’m not into that whole stalker, childish bit. I like down-to-earth girls with a little more to them. I don’t need plastic girls who think they’re perfect.” “I’m not down to earth. I’ve always been in space.” A charming laugh left his lips. “On the contrary though, you’re a challenge. Also another thing I like.” She was incredibly flattered but hid the feeling behind an audible scoff. “You know you probably want a model.” That thought troubled her briefly. If a model was really what he liked, she did not fit the criteria at all. “You’re lumping me in a category. What guy wants a fake girl? Besides, a model wants a perfect guy. I’ll admit any day that I am far from perfect.” That’s debatable, Maria thought, but his humble comment gave him points. “Oh yeah?” she challenged. “What kind of imperfections could you possibly think you have?” He said with no trouble at all, “I have a bad scar. Certainly no model could have that. I busted up my arm and my back a few years ago.” His tone suddenly became coated with solemnity. Alarmed, Maria looked down and over her shoulder at him. “Badly? How did that happen?” “Doesn’t really matter. Just did.” He let go of the ladder, lifted the sleeve of his
shirt and turned. Maria was shocked to see a large prominent mark that began at the back of his left shoulder blade. “It continues all the way down to the middle of my back.” He looked at her now and seemed a little taken aback by the genuine, apologetic look she gave him. “I’m sorry. Could you have...died from it?” He glanced away only for a moment before returning his eyes to her. “Yeah, well...I could have died just from the pain of it.” A muscle tightened in his jaw and a disheartening expression darkened his already tanned face. “I guess shit just happens sometimes.” Maria became silent and awkwardly continued working. She did not want to stir up any difficult memories in him, and by the look on his face, troubling thoughts had invaded his mind because of her stupid inquiries. He gripped the ladder again, his eyes focusing in on his hands with pupils blinded by a slowly building fire. “You ever experienced pain, Maria?” His eyes watered slightly. “Well, yeah of course, but nothing close to something like that, though.” He felt his blood stirring. Eager hands tightened around the ladder, his teeth grinding away enamel. “I have a good tolerance for high bouts of pain.” ���Lucky you. Paper cuts are my limit.” Maria looked at the wall. “That’s the last balloon I’m putting up. Tough luck if Trisha hates it. Yippee for us, we finished! Good job, teammate.” “Everyone,” he began, his voice a slow rolling thunder, “should experience something painful just so they know how it feels.” “What?” she asked absentmindedly. The idiot was still staring dumbly at the wall.
“What did you say?” “I’m talking about real pain, Maria,” he muttered under his breath. “Real pain.” Alan shifted to the right. A cluster of noises came, a clatter and a loud bang. Eyes went searching and heads went turning. The students had heard but hadn’t seen. A sea of gasps became audible when they saw a ladder on the floor and Maria lying unconscious near it. Before their confused eyes could try to decipher what happened, he dropped to his knees with masterful urgency and started shaking Maria. So quickly she had been turned into an unresponsive shell beneath him, and strangely, but satisfyingly, it fueled something dark within him. Trisha was the first to run over, screaming, “God, what happened to her?!” They encircled Maria’s motionless body and the drops of blood that lay near her. He raised her head in his arms, wiping away the blood from the side of her head. “Don’t just watch damn it! Call the nurse!” he shouted.