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F.M.Pepper

Don t

Blink


CHAPTER I

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woosh! Swoosh! The muffled moan of air getting sliced. Fragmented. Swoosh! A city square. A circle of people. A street performer presenting a frightening knife- throwing show. His

concentrated stare growing strange, almost empty. The sparkling knives twirling with incredible speed. The performer approaching. Swoosh! The sharp blades collide, producing hypnotic sparks and screams of delirium from the crowd. The exhibitionist coming closer. The darkening sky, the intoxicating clinking and glistening of the knives, the buzzing of excitement and… my brain processing all these images with monstrous difficulty. The lethal blades arriving even closer. My trance abruptly ended by a piercing voice from behind: “Get down!” At that same moment, I sensed that someone had pulled me down and, as I turn to see who it was, I felt a chilling wind pass through my hair. It only lasted long enough to hear an ohh!!! from the people around me. Why was everyone looking at me? Stunned, I finally understood what had just happened: one of the knives had glided from the performer’s hand and flown straight at me. It would have definitely lodged right into my neck if my reflexes hadn’t been so… so unbelievably quick!? “Nina, are you okay? Are you okay?” screamed Stella nervously. “Oh my God, that was close!” “I’m okay, mom! Just a little dizzy.” Don t Blink

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“Come on, let’s go!” She grabbed me forcefully by the arm and led me away from the crowd. “My God, my God,” she mumbled, looking around frantically. “Calm down, mom. It was nothing!” I insisted, slightly disoriented. I didn’t understand why I still felt so strange, but I wasn’t about to mention this to Stella, given her current state of mind. Maybe my blood pressure was low. Once home, the anger brewing behind Stella’s eyes was evident! The damage had been done. “Get your things together,” she said shaking her head, disturbed. “We leave tomorrow! Time enough to organize some things.” “I don’t want to leave! Mom, we just arrived in Holland! This is messed up!” I replied hysterically. “I began the school year in Oslo, soon after we’re here in Amsterdam, and now you want to move again just because I’m the unluckiest girl on the face of the Earth? Can’t you see how this hurts me? Can’t you wait?” “No! I got an amazing new job offer outside of Europe,” her voice becoming wobbly. “I WON’T GO! We don’t need any offers!” “If I turn this one down doors will close for me. Remember that I was once at the top of my field not anymore. The market is so competitive it swallows up people who don’t adapt. We’re going!” “Why can’t I be like other girls my age? As soon as I start making friends it bothers you. I want a NORMAL life!” “What are you talking about? We’ve always had a normal life and… I’ve never had any problem with your new friendships.” But the guilty look in Stella’s eyes revealed the contrary. 2

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“Of course it’s no problem, I don’t have any friends! I don’t have time to get to know anyone! I barely learn my classmates’ names! Does that seem normal to you?” I inquired, my face sweating and shiny and my eyebrows so frowned they practically obstructed my view. “I get it!” I continued sarcastically, “Normal for you means starting the year off in Warsaw, moving right away to Vienna and then ending the year in Copenhagen. Kicking off the new year in Oslo, then moving to Amsterdam, and later going who knows where which we’ll probably soon leave anyway, then off to some other place, and then another, and yet another,” I howled into the air. “As a matter of fact, Stella, that’s probably why I’m so good at geography, isn’t it?” I asked, wrapping it all up furiously. “Don’t call me Stella! You know I hate that!” Then she continued, her voice choking, “Please, honey, just keep it up a little longer,” she took a deep breath with difficulty, “then we can settle in the city of your choice. Things just need to simmer down a little.” “What needs to simmer down?” “It’s no big deal, nothing! I’ll tell you when the time’s right.” She dodged the subject, as usual. “Hey! I didn’t even get the chance to tell you where we’re going. It’s a place you used to love when you were little. Want a hint?” Overcome with sudden rage, but out of respect I managed not to answer her asinine question belligerently. “You’re not even going take a guess?” Stella insisted as a cowardly smile spread across her face. I remained silent. “New York!” she shouted happily, waiting for my reaction. Don t Blink

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Bingo! Even though I was trying to stand my ground, my harsh expression quickly softened. If there was one place that I had good memories of, it was Manhattan. Not that I didn’t like Amsterdam, the amazing canals, bike rides through the city, its peaceful way of life. But something inside me was growing restless. I wanted more. I wanted more people, more excitement, even more car horns, sirens, pollution and escalators in my life. That’s it: I wanted more life in my life! “We leave tomorrow afternoon,” she finished, noticing my improved mood. “What’s the big rush, mom? Wait, you mean you’d already decided?” “Nothing was decided! The offer came up and that’s it, okay? End of discussion!” Her serious tone confirmed that her patience was wearing thin. There was no point in continuing the conversation, Stella had crept into her shell. Two triggers led her straight into that shell: the first was discussing any matter she had already resolutely decided upon, like suddenly moving from one city to another; the second, which bothered me more lately, was mentioning our family, especially my dad. Stella never talked about him. Our fighting had increased exponentially over the past two years because I wanted to know about him, anything. Didn’t she at least have a picture? I probably take after him in many ways. Stella is dark-skinned, short and stocky, with black hair, just like her little eyes. Totally different from me. My white skin, my lanky body, my thick lightbrown hair and my rounded eyes of the same color were all living proof of the genetic inheritance received from my father. From her, I had inherited never taking “no” for an answer and an untamable spirit. So why couldn’t she tell me about him? I wanted to understand why. Did he abandon us, was he dead? My distant stare was interrupted by Stella opening the door. 4

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“I’m going out to take care of some details for the trip. While I’m gone, pack your bags. We don’t have much time!” No matter how upset Stella could make me, my love for her was immense. I felt a heavy sense of indebtedness. The pain in her weary eyes silenced me. I knew she loved me, but it was a strange love, warped somehow. Maybe because we didn’t have a family. It was just the two of us. Maybe there was some other reason. Every time we argued like this, guilt would eat away at me. A while back, I even felt glad that she had never remarried. I never wanted to have to compete for her attention. Now, I honestly regret ever thinking that way. I realize that one day we will have to go our separate ways. How will she manage without me? This question tormented me. We lived on the top floor, in a spacious old loft. My room faced south and was brighter and colder than the rest of the house. Oddly, the North Sea glacial winds managed to find their way through dozens of tree-lined streets and hit my room head on. The loft was rented with furniture as old as the building. The only new things were my clothes, shoes and laptop. I pulled the suitcases out from under my bed and, not surprisingly, they were less dusty than I expected, since they were in constant use due to our nomadic lives. It took just over three hours to pack our bags. Experience has taught me what was essential. The determining factor was the weather and Stella often chose cold places. To my dismay, this time would be different. It was March, and New York would soon bake in the heat I ached for lately. I was satisfied with the news, but my conscience sent out warning signals like drops of acid into my bloodstream. I should have paid attention to them. Don t Blink

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We ate dinner in silence. Stella was more quiet than usual. “Did you go out after you packed?” she asked, poking around her asparagus soup with her spoon. “I went to buy Dramamine, you know I need it for the plane,” I answered unwillingly. “Hmm. Did you talk to anyone on the way?” From behind her glasses, her eyes observed me as she slowly sipped her soup. “No, mom! I didn’t talk to anybody... wait, I did!” She looked up, wide-eyed. “I talked to the cashier at the drugstore!” “Ah, Nina!” she sighed, relieved. I normally begin the conversations, which Stella then happily contributes to. She usually asks about my day, what I’ve learned, and if I’ve met anyone. Actually, I’ve noticed that she gets more worried lately any time I mention talking to some stranger. Since I was still bothered about our sudden move, I decided to keep quiet during the rest of dinner. “No problem. I’ll clean up. You’ve done enough,” she said sweetly. “Tomorrow we’ll leave after lunch. We have to hand in the keys to the car and the apartment.” We never bought anything like homes or cars. Stella always rented. “I’m spent. Good night.” It wasn’t the right time to chat. “Good night, darling. And... Nina?” “Now what?” I replied, with a bit of animosity. She came over, touched my choker and kissed my forehead. “I love you, baby. More than anything in this world.” “I know.” I felt my chest tighten. I shouldn’t have been so rude. I lowered my head and went to my room. 6

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I woke up sweating, with Stella hugging me tightly against her chest. “Calm down. It’s only a nightmare!” “Huh? Mom?” I asked, disoriented. “Yeah, my love. You screamed, almost scared me to death. You haven’t had nightmares for so long.” She looked me into the eyes. “What were you dreaming about?” “I don’t know,” I answered cynically. “It’s better that way.” She took a deep breath and hugged me again. “I’ll get breakfast ready. It’s getting time to go.” As she stood up, she added, sternly, “Get ready.” I lied. I did remember my nightmare, perfectly, and it was too painful to remind Stella of what I had bitterly put her through. I had had that nightmare many times before. When I was twelve, something happened that deeply scarred our relationship. I had sneaked away to go camping with two classmates. They had told their parents, but I didn’t. Stella would never have let me go. I wanted so badly to go out with other people, to have friends. We camped over a four-day weekend and when I came home, my mom was in the hospital, in a state of shock. She was so fragile! The strong and determined woman inside her seemed dead. She was delirious, saying strange and meaningless things. Her fever was high, mercilessly taking over her body and soul. The doctors had no idea why. But I knew the cause: me! Guilt ruthlessly pervaded my conscience. The moment she saw me, she was instantly cured, but her face was sad and disappointed. She accepted my apology, on two conditions: I could never take a trip without telling her beforehand, and I had to wear a necklace, some good luck charm of hers. According to Stella, it wasn’t Don t Blink

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jewelry. It was made of braided gold chains, simple and delicate. Hanging from it was a strange pendant made of some unknown stone. It wasn’t a precious stone, but it was certainly unique. Yellowish, very sparkly, it exuded a scent that reminded me of lemonade. Although pleasant, the constant scent initially nauseated me. My mom used to say that I had a sharp sense of smell, but my friends say I’m just fussy. The fact is that, since that day, I’ve never taken the necklace off. I believe some deeper bond grew between us after that horrible episode. From that day on, Stella senses whenever I’m in a difficult situation and always appears out of the blue to save me. I enjoyed her spectacular arrivals sometimes, but her “Wonder Woman” act has been suffocating me lately, provoking a lot of friction between us. It got to the point of getting rid of two cell phones just to keep her from embarrassing me. My classmates used to make jokes about me, which made it even harder to fit in. Less than a year ago Stella and I had a huge fight. After locking horns in a psychologically battle, we finally reached a deal after I falsely threatened to abandon her. Our relationship improved, a lot. There were a few relapses on both sides, but nothing could shake our new bond. We were at a happy point in our lives when we wandered into that damn square. But, even so, I wouldn’t tell her about the nightmare. Why dredge up the past? Our departure day went well. It was cloudy and Amsterdam bade us farewell with cold kisses made of raindrops. We handed over the keys to the old loft and the Peugeot, and took a cab to the airport. Sitting in a disturbing silence, Stella stared persistently into the old Mercedes’ rearview mirror. The taxi driver noticed her unease. “Is there some problem, mam?” 8

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“No, of course not,” Stella said, exasperated. And, realizing she was making me even more stressed, rushed to make an excuse, “Sorry, it’s just that we’re in a hurry.” “No problem,” answered the driver in a calming tone. “Traveling is always a bit unnerving, right?” “Uh-huh.” But I knew. My mother was a thousand miles away lost in those same thoughts that made us move constantly, the same neuroses that insisted on tearing me away from everything around me, isolating me. I should’ve been used to it by now, but it was becoming more unbearable every day. I needed other people to complain to, tell my secrets to. I wanted real friends! The few friends I had made got lost along the way, left behind. Friendship requires presence, and I was never around long enough. “Here we are.” The driver seemed pleased. I’m not sure if he was just a happy person or if he was just glad to get rid of us, two weirdos. The check-in would have gone smoothly if I hadn’t passed by a newsstand and seen something that grabbed my attention. “Mom, look!” “What?” I was shocked, terrified. “That street performer! He was… murdered! They found him floating in a canal, full of stab wounds.” Stella snatched the paper from me and silently read, not saying a word. Her body was stiff and her stare blank. I didn’t like her reaction. “Let’s go,” she said, in the driest tone ever. “We need to check-in.” “What’s going on?” I demanded. “Nothing. Why?” she answered ironically. “You look scared... I don’t know,” I mumbled. Don t Blink

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“It’s your imagination.” Something inside me insisted on asking ridiculous questions: Did Stella know about the murder and not tell me? Was that why we were leaving in such a hurry? No! Definitely not! Moving from one place to another was just her bizarre hobby, and I should have been used to it by now. BUT NO! In two months I would be seventeen and felt more excluded and lonely than ever. What I had always kept hidden, I was now too determined to show: I was unhappy! How could my mother think it was normal to live in twenty different cities and countries in my brief lifespan of seventeen years? Why did it have to be like this? I wanted a normal life! I thought of celebrating my birthday this year, something I never have the chance to do. There were various reasons: the first, although we had a comfortable life, there was no extra money. It’s not that I saw Stella squandering money on purses and shoes, but, somehow, the money vanished. I know she earns a good salary for being an expert in her area. My mom had specialized in a branch of contact lens production. I know she chose this because she loves me. I was born with a defect on both corneas. Even though I have perfect vision, my pupils have an uncommon shape, thin and vertical, like that of a snake, lizard or feline. I prefer the feline comparison. Scary, I know, but thanks to Stella, it has never been embarrassing for me. She knew that such an aberration could affect the way people treated me. As a protective mother and a very intelligent woman, she rolled up her sleeves and started researching different ways to make lenses. She discovered all the various types of lens materials, models and shades that existed in the world. She became such an expert that she was quickly snatched up by the ophthalmologic products industry. I was raised like any other normal kid thanks to the 10

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special contact lenses I used. It was our secret. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it was better to use them or not. They were so uncomfortable! But Stella never gave up. With time, more durable lenses were created and special-ordered for me. With everything done in secret, no one has ever noticed. Most people think I just use normal contact lenses for my normal light-brown eyes. I feel somewhat responsible for our nomadic, solitary lifestyle because anytime Stella heard of some scientific advancement in the area, there we went packing our bags bound for another city or country. I now know that this job of hers serves as a perfect excuse for her to keep making sudden changes, an escape valve for her abrupt mood swings. Another reason for never celebrating my birthday was that Stella gets tense and even somewhat insane whenever this time of year comes around. An age complex? Maternal neurosis? I never understood. Ah! I forgot to mention that bad luck is a constant in my life. For a single and neurotic mom this would have been almost too much to handle. Now, imagine an extremely superstitious mother. Whenever some abnormal event took place, it was a reason to move. Since I have always been unlucky, I learned to block out the odd occurrences that seem to constantly happen around me. I remember thinking that maybe it was some problem with my eyes or my contact lenses, but I finally realized that it was simply bad luck. “I’m going to buy a sandwich. Do you want one?” I snapped back to reality. “No,” I answered annoyed, wondering if my school year would be jeopardized. “What’s wrong?” Don t Blink

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“I could fail this school year, mom. Aren’t you worried at all?” “You’re an excellent student. You’ll be fine.” Her disregard unnerved me. “What if the classes are totally different? And if I can’t finish?” I asked hysterically. “You always get good grades and, anyway, there are worse things in life...” “Worse? Oh, no. Worse would be my mom living a normal life.” “You don’t get it! If you only felt what I feel.” Her words escaped like a scream from a tortured face. “I don’t get it? I live with you! I’m the one who puts up with your depression and selfishness! Do you even think about me?” “Of course! These moves are for you.” “What moves? I never asked to move!” “Look! It’s almost boarding time. Let’s go. I’ll eat on the plane!” She changed the subject and stood up quickly. “Let’s go, Nina. You’re so slow!” “What’s the big hurry?” “We’ll talk about it later, okay?” she grimaced. There she goes back into her shell. I threw my backpack over my shoulder, grabbed my laptop and got in line, Stella right behind me like a trained dog ready to defend me against any enemy. “How annoying!” I grumbled. She didn’t hear me. Or pretended not to. I decided to listen to my iPod and not worry what her reaction would be. Clumsily, I let my earphones get tangled in my hair and they fell out. When I squatted to pick them up, I felt a sharp pain in my back and a strong shiver go up and down my body. “Bizarre,” I murmured. I shrugged it off and kept walking. I turned around and saw Stella petrified with a persecuted look in her eyes. 12

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The flight attendant met us with a perky smile, pointing us to our seats which only fed my rage, — probably she was thinking we had some problem with numbers, some visual or intellectual deficiency. Yeah… I was definitely in a bad mood. And flight attendants weren’t to blame for me having to board yet another plane to another place where I had no idea how long I would stay. “Go, Nina! You’re holding up the line.” “Fine!” As I pushed ahead into the constricted space of the cabin, I felt the shiver again. I felt weak for a moment and then collapsed into my seat. Again Stella had that frightened look on her face. “Now what, mom?” “Nothing,” she answered grimly. She looked to both sides and seemed to be examining each seat on the plane, one by one. Then, she sat down, completely stiff. I blew off the freaky occurrence and started flipping through magazines. Tired of seeing ads, I read a few interviews, including a special one about the new compilation album of my beloved Pink Floyd and another one with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. So cool! After dinner, I took a Dramamine and slept, exhausted from our fugitive-style departure. When I woke up, the cabin lights were off. It must have been early morning because most of the passengers were asleep, even Stella. I pushed her limp legs to the side and, taking advantage of the calm, headed to the toilet. On the way back, I felt that cold chill move down my spine and back up again. I trembled. Instinctively, I turned around. Nothing! No one behind me. Still, I had the strange feeling I was being watched. I looked around and everything Don t Blink

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seemed normal: men snoring, babies sleeping and drooling in their exhausted mothers’ laps, some teenagers watching in-flight movies. “Idiot,” I said to myself. And I went back to my seat. Suddenly, I felt that strange sensation and, when I looked back, everything was the same, except that I saw a black figure entering the toilet. Perplexed, I decided to wait in the aisle until the person came out. Maybe it was ridiculous, but I needed to know. Time passed and no one came out of the damn lavatory. I was getting tired of waiting. “Whoever it is must be feeling really bad,” I thought. Just then, a seriously fat woman stood up and went towards the occupied lavatory. Great! Now the person inside would have to come out. What I then saw I couldn’t believe: there was no one in there! The woman entered and exited calmly. It’s not possible! I was furious with myself. This Dramamine is definitely too strong. “Are you looking for something?” “Huh?” I looked down and saw an elderly gentleman smiling widely at me. From above, I could see his bald head full of freckles, his lackluster skin. “Everything okay, Miss?” “Yeah, sure! It’s all good. I was looking for a flight attendant to bring me some water.” I lied. “She must be busy.” “Or taking a nap,” said the old man, jesting and smiling. “Yeah,” I said, smiling back. At that moment, the “fasten seat belt” sign turned on due to some imminent turbulence. “I gotta get back to my seat. Bye.” “See you later, Miss.” While pushing Stella’s legs to the side, she awoke, startled: 14

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“What happened? Everything okay?” “Everything,” I blurted with a long sigh. “I just went to the bathroom.” Stella looked at me sweetly and passed her fingers through my messy hair. “You look so pretty. My little girl is a woman now.” A happy look sprouted on her face which normally had a look of exhaustion due to some unknown suffering. At least, it was unknown to me. I gave up on asking. Today, I would accept my mother’s secrecy. If she didn’t want to talk about her past, there must be a good reason. “Now it’s my turn to visit the toilet. Won’t be long. It’s best not leave your seat or talk to strangers, okay, honey?” “But, why?”Before she could hear me, she was already out of my field of vision. “Perfect!” I griped. I suddenly began to feel my throat tighten, my tongue dry up and a strong thirst overcoming me. And, as if by magic, a person appeared next to me. Standing in the dark aisle, the person offered me a bottle of water. “Hello, Miss!” whispered the nice old man from the back of the plane. He had a distant gaze. “I remembered I had a bottle of water and have brought it for you. Are you still thirsty?” “Huh?” I asked, startled. “Wow! I... don’t know what the problem is, but I’ve pressed the call button tons of times and nothing. Probably it’s the turbulence. Hey, shouldn’t you stay in your seat? It’s dangerous!” “Take it then, it’s yours,” he answered. “Thanks.” I grabbed the bottled, tortured by my growing and agonizing thirst. From the moment I unscrewed the lid on the bottle and while lifting it to my mouth, I saw bursts of lights and shadows. A shadowy figure? Don t Blink

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A power outage? Then a loud sound, accompanied by a blow made the bottle fly through the air, spilling water in the aisle and knocking over the old man. The boom woke everyone up, scaring them. The lights came on. Stunned, I looked down and saw the poor man writhing violently on the floor. Then I heard a scream and saw Stella arriving in panic, her face wet and her pants still unzipped from using the bathroom: “Oh, no! Are you okay, baby? What happened? What’s that liquid? Did you drink it?” Stella said, yelping and stumbling over her words. “What? The water?” Irritation pulsed through my veins. “Yes, Nina. The water!” “I didn’t have time to drink any. The turbulence... What’s the matter, mom? Why are you upset like this? What’s happening?” I was outraged by her attitude. Chaos took over. Various flight attendants ran around trying to find a doctor among the passengers. “He’s having a heart attack!” screamed one of the crew members. We only saw the poor man getting quickly carried away to some private area of the plane. I shot looks of horror and condemnation at my mother. Was it really a power outage or had Stella’s hysterical scream provoked his heart attack? Did I see some figure or was it just the lights going out? Did the poor guy bite the dust just because he came to help me? Finally, the crew members stopped scurrying around and a deafening silence took over the passengers, especially Stella and I. What had happened to the man? A feeling of guilt engulfed me. “I killed him.” I muttered, deeply saddened. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Stella. “If he hadn’t gotten up to help me...” 16

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“Shut up! Everyone is looking at us. Stop, or else...” “Or else what? I want an explanation!” “I’ll give you one when it’s time.” But she never did.

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Don't Blink book - chapter 1  

Why did she have to live as a wanderer (or fugitive!), moving from one country to another at every blink of an eye? Why couldn't she know an...

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