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Vitality

Summary

What does it take to live? What does it take to love?
To Ava, love is about as real as fairytales. But it might be that fairytales, myths, and magic might have some truth to them after all. As well as the monsters that lie in the shadows. Everything changes when she clashes with a stranger with eyes as black as midnight and a terrifying sinister air. Her wishes to feel something again become granted. But Ava soon learns that not only is he as cold as he is beautiful but he brings something out of Ava, stronger than ever, like fuel to fire - something she's desperate to bury. He haunts her dreams and waking life and staying away becomes harder than she could ever imagined, risking her life, her humanity, and the people that she cares about. Not to mention the fate of the world.


Door

“We’re all blind and numb when we are closed. We’re closed when we are damaged. We’re damaged when we give up. Now, how do I open a door…”

Chapter 1 Missing

Her makeup ran down her face like spilt ink across a stony surface, her skin an ashen sickly grey. Her thin nose swollen, forehead bumped and bleeding. She was tired of looking at herself. Tired of everything.

Ava’s eyes flashed once again to the doorknob to make sure it was still locked. It was quiet now; Jason had quit trying to pound the bathroom door down. She didn’t remember all of what led her to here and now, but she was here, this way, and it all felt wrong. It was as if she lost herself completely and suddenly, as good as if she had lost the way to breathe.

The bough had finally broken.

She rested her pounding head against the cool mirror and the water dripping from the faucet caught her attention. It wasted its supply into the sink’s basin — if the leak kept on, it would dry out the well, and they’d have no water. There was already a thirst so strong in her, veins calcifying to extra bone, riveting inside like a hot rising sun in dry air. Expansion in awareness of suffering. No more.

Ava swiftly wrapped her fingers around the knife left dug into the old rotted wall and flung it across the room, hitting right where she wanted, right in the middle of a cluster of stab marks left when she was bored.

There was a severe need for something. Ava had woken up just an hour ago with no memory of how she’d gotten to bed, how she wound up with the burn on her hand, a bump on her head, and why it felt she was missing some integral part of her.

It was like she had no blood left really, no life. Her dry tongue licked against her cracked lips.

The dripping continued; it would dry out.

Her, Jason, Kayla, and Zo had all dug and built that well themselves. The night was cold and they were tired and it seemed like the idea came to all of them at once as they lay out on the floor of this abandoned shit show. It was a possibility to stay in one place for once. They all got up, scavenged some beer, shovels, bandanas, put on music, and got dirty and drunk like the misfits they were. They made a mess at first but eventually straightened out the works.

The plan then expanded. To make steady money, they wanted to sell out of a thrift store downstairs the items they usually stole from shit heads that could snap their fingers and replace it in an instance. Also, set up the automobile garage for underground car repair for killer prices. They all knew how to fix cars — courtesy of Jason — and they all knew where and how to get parts at extremely low prices. So low, they were free. Steal from the rich, give to the poor.

And living off the grid without the enforcement of society to tell you how to live and how much became more — not possible — they were already homeless, squatters, wanderers — but beneficial; they sure as hell didn’t belong to society. They migrated to a rural area in New York and found a long time vacant place miles away from the next neighbor.

They could live off the land with natural resources allowed to them by nature, not by a government of robots, and pull together a small business enough to live happily without the need to grow to live like kings so that kingdoms lived like peasants. They’d never get stuck in the sticky web where they were forced to work for the benefit of another — become enslaved and stripped of individual worth — most their lives, not just years — life — just to try to live comfortable and just to make the rich man richer; there was too much freedom to life for that.

Yeah, a thing called freedom… something she had always been reaching her fingers to the sky for. What did it even mean anymore? What even mattered, really?

There were no towels in the bathroom. She ripped off her Metallica t-shirt that had been cut into a flimsy crop top for summer months, drenched it with water, and brought it to her feverish head — it occurred to her then how cool the weather was. The way it is when it has passed into fall. Yet, she couldn’t even remember what she had done all summer. What was the last thing she could remember?

A storm rolled in outside. The moist chill drafted through the window. She looked out at the skies, voltaic with heavy rain and thunderbolts. The moon was full. Ava had always loved it when it was full — but tonight she didn’t feel that way. It was prickling her with unease. Nothing felt okay anymore. Why was she so lost? What was wrong with her? What had happened?

She grabbed the glass left on the counter for water and filled it — and ended up grabbing the sink with both hands, dropping the glass on the torn up linoleum floor. It shattered, spilling the water under her feet. She tightened her fingers over the porcelain as her body fluttered, feeling as though she might faint.

Something was changing...

The chill in the air deepened, and she could see her breath. Frost prickled across the mirror, and movement was felt behind, movement that didn’t belong there. It didn’t feel like a bathroom anymore. Nor did it feel like their world. The mirror showed nothing out of sorts; everything in the room behind her was as it had been. Though, her lips were dusty blue.

Then white noise. Her understanding crossed back and forth from blinding white to dead black, with every little pulse scratching on her nerve endings, unavoidable. It was painful to turn, painful to face whatever it was nipping at her neck, but she forced herself.

A blue cloud expanded in front of her, moving like water, as dark and frightening as the deepest ocean. It swallowed the room like a tsunami, rushing wind against her face, stopping before her, and terrifying all thought away, past or present. It was as if everything she ever was had separated from her just then, paused and hanging in an ethereal plain away from her, leaving only pure awareness, her pure self, the core — a part she barely recognized.

Cold wet tendrils found her wrists and slowly wrapped around her and the rest of her body, becoming a part of her. She couldn’t move. Her eyes, wide, stayed steadily and euphorically on the mass; air blowing, purifyingly, lifted hair into weightlessness. There was a face somewhere inside it, ireless eyes that held her. Though, she kept forgetting she could see them.

Her breath pulled out of her when the eyes became real, the sudden conscious fixation like a slap: breath swirling around her and away, along with her equilibrium. Her vision hardened on the edges as the thing in front of her continued to expand and bleach — brightening. It was bright in the room, too bright, snow bright. Heaven bright.

The realness allowed her a hold, and her feet scattered backwards through water and glass and the tattered Gypsy throw rug as the thing expanded. Her body flew itself into the mirror and into the sink, pushing as far back as it could, her skin grinding against sharp edges.

With a second look, it was different. Its features were more human now, in fact, a woman’s.

As the woman changed, the watery cloud that wrapped around Ava began to turn to stinging ice, her skin like inhuman sheen where it had touched. The room turned into blocks of ice building into each other, crashing and about to pound her into dust. It was because she didn’t belong there, wherever there was; she didn’t have access and its inconsistency with her was about to crush her. But she didn’t exactly want to lose the bridge. The looming threat reverberated indecently pleasant on her skin, a longing for something she didn’t understand. Trickery?

The woman reached out for her and Ava screamed; her own scream startled her quiet, not having been used to emoting her fears. The scream now sounded like a weak distant memory in the icy static, disconnected further in retrospect as if she hadn’t screamed at all. But an ear never forgets a scream, and her ears were ringing. The woman reached her hand out farther and released strained words from her mouth. It echoed off the surrounding ice.

“Don’t go,” it pleaded, as if to the very thing that had been at the front of Ava’s mind.

But she had to go… Somewhere…

With the last word, the face became clearer. Ava knew her. It was her mother. And before Ava could react to that — and try to grab for her desperately — the form broke into a hundred pieces of glass, breaking from her thoughts like violently being flown from a dream. Her hands flew up in cover, but the glass dissolved into sand as her vision became clear and sharp. And the sand disappeared until there were no remnants of it in the quiet room around her, only shards from the broken mirror behind her — the one she jumped into.

Ava’s pupils let go along with her body, and she slid from the mirror and sink, hitting the hard wet floor with a thud.

Noises.

Footsteps, fists on the door, yelling: growing quieter as it came closer, as if she was drifting away from the site. The door burst open, and Jason halted in the doorway at the mess for merely a fraction of time before finding his way to the her, shaking her body against the floor with shock clipping through him.

Ava didn’t respond.

She was a distance away now, with a phantom inside herself. As time kept moving, she clung to the past, a memory maybe, deep within that she couldn’t remember in waking life. Its presence kept her busy, kept her company. She was paralyzed.

Kayla and Zo had come running also, their footsteps overlapping each other’s before sliding into the bathroom, slipping in blood and water, just as Jason’s voice disappeared from his moving lips and consciousness drifted from Ava… though her eyes stayed open. Her mind had gone somewhere too far away now... where even she didn’t know.

Chapter 2 Lost

How do you find what’s lost, if you don’t know what’s missing? What do you tether to if you’ve never had an anchor? Are you forced to listen to a forgotten language from deep within and no longer without, closing the door to others? Forced to place the anchor deep inside, what will it take to come back up for air? Could the gurgled screams be heard? Can we make it alone? Are we made that way, or is it quite the opposite? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Do you follow that voice, or do you stay to loudly wither away for the comfort of the else?

And what is the strength you need that holds it all together and sets you free? How do you find it?

 

Ava stared out the window, deep into the labyrinth of her mind, where moments and time were lost even further. Though it didn’t look like it on the outside, as still as she sat on the chair in her bedroom for hours, her brain was still functioning.

From her distance, she couldn’t tell anyone she was still there — but at the moment, didn’t care to anyways; she was quite busy inside; there was a wall, you see, a wall she was trying to get through and that she only just realized was there, consuming all of her attention like a puzzle.

If she was made to believe that wall was right, suddenly, then everything else was wrong. But if the door was wrong, then everything else was still right.

The wall had a door as well, but that wouldn’t open. Its absurd presence tainted everything so wildly that even a tsking door seemed completely normal to her.

She was going to get through that door, she had explained to it. Not without the key, it laughed.

Sometimes she was screaming and clawing at the walls. On the outside, she remained quiet.

 

The ceiling was leaking water into the overfilled bowl on the floor again, its liquid spilling towards her, and the discolored and chipped paint on the walls seemed to worsen just as she sat there.

In a near thought, she could see Jason, Kayla, and Zo downstairs. The old automobile shop sign barely hanging was flashing what color and light it had left onto the cars slick from rain and onto her ghostly face in the window. Zo and Kayla were in his truck blasting music, his hat bopping around, and her fingers flying around with all her little-big attitude. Zo had snuck an energy drink earlier, and they’d be watching little Kayla chasing that bear around with a paddle all night, screaming at him in Hindi to see his eyes bulge out farther because he still couldn’t understand what she’s saying in it, despite all their attempts for him to learn.

Next to them, Jason was walking on top of a car, his head down in thought, beer loose in his hands, broken bottles on the side, white t-shirt, jeans, and boots dirty from a rough day. Their days were always rough. But that used to be fine. They were teenage survivors and did more than okay. But somewhere along the lines, that roughness rubbed her dull and chipped a valuable piece away.

Two gentle fingers glided over her face, softly sweeping the hair away, pulling her back to reality. A brilliant cherry red strand fell back over her eye. She turned her head to look as if coming out of a dream.

His sweet face.

“Jason,” Ava whispered, trying to gain happiness looking into his green eyes. She wasn’t even sure what to call them now. But they went together, simple as that. They were more than friends and more than a couple.

Jason smiled, and the soft crow’s feet around his eyes framed his ever so bright expression. He looked so happy to hear her say his name. His rugged appearance scrubbed over his sometimes more boyish and rather pretty features with stubble always on his chin, his hair a crew cut for simplicity. The thick, straight strands always looked good after whatever they did. (That always tripped her out, how it seemed not too many things could ruffle his feathers.) But lately he looked as if he’s been coming off doubles at an IC unit. She wondered if she’d done that to him as she looked him over, and as he looked her over.

Her lips raised in a snarl. “I need to go.”

They had thought she lost her mind, acting night and day that she might hurt herself or hurt someone else.

 It was partly true — something snapped — but she was nearing reality more than they knew, more than she had since she was a little girl, still innocent with all the reason to feel everything. It was red, hot, and sharp and waiting for her to feel it again. She wanted to feel again. And though a fugue state still trapped her often, she was beginning to come out of it more every day. And every day she was planning on flying away so she could follow the wind and the voice that called for her.

Most nights now, a breeze would slip into the room, carrying the salty smell of the Atlantic ocean, from a state over… bringing with it a delicate lullaby so familiar that it was hard to discern that it was not coming from herself. It was coaxing her to follow it and calling for her relentlessly, becoming more feeble as the nights went on. It was almost sad… she could almost cry… only she nearly forgot how to.

 

The ceiling leaked water into the bowl — though, when she looked, it was dry. Ava looked down in her hand at a paper held tight. It was a college enrollment letter from Agatha College of Aberdeen, Massachusetts — she had been accepted and had no idea how or when she managed it. There was an address handwritten on the back as well, different from the college. Apparently, some part of her knew where it wanted to go...

A sudden ruckus broke into the house from Kayla and Zo, startling her, and when she looked back down the letter was gone, and there was no bowl or leak. Ava looked at her door just as Jason, Kayla, and Zo walked through the threshold towards her, but she looked away and back out the window. It wasn’t long before her staring out the window had her drifting away back into her far away thoughts.

 

A flyaway raindrop came plopping on the window right near her face, bringing her attention back. She went to look at Jason, but Jason wasn’t there. She wasn’t in their room, but on a bus now, in a new town, and the woman in the seat to the left of hers was staring at her sideways.

Life could go by so quickly — sometimes in the blink of an eye, and she couldn’t let any more drift past her. So why not follow the little voice where her heart was supposed to beat? And this is the place it told her to go, a starved soul with a heart big enough for two…

 

Just as Alice in Wonderland had said, “But if I’m not the same, the next question is, ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

…It was time to start over and figure that out.

Chapter 3 Searching

“I could spend a lifetime searching… and looking for the one thing that might make me whole, that made the reason for my existence, even though, possibly, I could be forever lost in doing so. I could feel like that was the only way, even if it took a lifetime, an eternity, a forever. Or I could stay… where I was a person — only half, though still more than a drifting wind — only helpful to someone else’s existence. I could stay, starving and wilting, knowing each day that this pull, this grab from reality that I felt every minute of every day, could be seizing me... asking me... needing me to follow it — and knowing it until my last petal fell.” Ava.

 

 

Ava’s had awakening dreams since she was a little girl.

At first, they might have seemed harmless, they were twisted, lost, and cryptic. There was a taunting unreality to them. At first, it was only images of irrelevant objects in animation or movement. It wasn’t so much the actions that bothered her, or the objects themselves; it was the feelings she obtained from the objects or the object’s movement.

She would start to feel a distorted perception of fat and skinny reversed that would bring every unsettling emotion to surface; it was felt inside and outside herself as if she were becoming unlatched from her own body and no longer anchored completely to this world and to its rules. The image of a yo-yo going up and down would awaken her from sleep in terror as a child. She’d sit there in tears from the nightmare that had been but still was. It began in her sleep, but after she had awoken, she couldn’t figure out if she had been asleep at all. Was she picking up some channels she should not have? Was something trying to tell her something she just didn’t hold the key to encrypt?

That was only the beginning though. For many years, she went on dealing with it as if it were normal. Not every day, but sometimes it would creep up to haunt her and turn her world upside down. She was paralyzed from the awe of unreality and the draining of all her energy from trying to stay together.

Through time, voices began to join the hallucinations. They weren’t very clear but overlapping and determined. They brought fear; they did not come from a nice place; they were trying to break her apart.

When she became a little older, maybe only eight or nine, she lay there upon her couch one late night in the dark when it crept. All the objects and voices began a knotting, marching band toward her. No matter what she did, she couldn’t get it to stop. But then she heard a different voice, one she hadn’t heard before. It made her look away from the chaos, drawing her attention out the window next to her, to follow the whispers.

She sat up, first looking into the moving trees, and then in the sky she saw him… the moon. When she looked at him, the whispers became more alive, and everything else slipped away. They put her at peace. The moon whispered to her through the night; she’d sit there content. He helped her, and in some way, she felt she could understand him.

When Ava was in middle school, everything started again, but it harassed her when she was in the middle of life, during a bath, a conversation, and during a school exam where she had no choice but to endure it, and the moon wasn’t there to help her.

She didn’t tell her mom about it until then. When she did, it seemed to disturb her at first. Anytime after though, her mother brushed it off, saying, ‘You were dreaming,’ or ‘You had a fever — don’t think about it.’ No matter what she was told, Ava attested that she was not asleep. Ava began to understand the madness someone could see about that — and why that would scare anyone away — and why it should be kept to herself.

Those were some of the last days with her mother.

All those memories were foggy now, like looking through a glistening fun house mirror that’s been warped by time. Even the last image she had of her mother. Her mother stood half-turned from the kitchen counter, wearing her well-used jeans and black t-shirt, small dark hairs around her face that slipped out her long braid… a weary look eagerly suppressed as she waved to Ava on her way out for school.

“Bye, mom,” Ava called, holding a longer look than usual. Even the most dearest held memories fade though. And her hallucinations and voices faded too — until a year ago when she had seen her mother in the bathroom and her mind had slipped away from her from having gone through too much. They had gone away, but now they had come back. There had to be a reason for it.

 

Papers fluttered in the wind from Ava’s bag; she managed to catch two of them quickly, but the other — a drawing she had been sketching on the bus — was caught in the heavy drift and disappeared into the sky. She looked down at the paper containing her new school schedule to Agatha College and shifted the other paper on top containing the address she needed:

 

1847 East Clove Rd. - Dahlila Thompson

 

Ava looked up from the paper to the shabby house peaking into view: 1847 East Clove Road. An old New England Colonial house with semi-new partitions stood there at the mouth of Lake Clove, its charcoal gray exterior ghosted by fog.

Her new residence — for now.

She straightened out the band of her red suspenders, preparing to ascend the small hill to the house and through the growing mist, and slipped on her worn, red and blue flannel —  one which Jason had stolen all the time… It had been her mother’s once; that, aside from a picture of them when she was little, was the only thing she had left of her now. Ava’s hair hung almost completely loose and wild from the clip she had it in, but that was fine; she liked her hair messy. She liked everything a little messy, uneven, or mismatched.

The chaotic eastern winds turned, and she pushed through a crusted gate lopsided with weeds.

As she walked up the unkempt pathway, the weathered wood panels and warped windows on top stood out; their twisted reflections seemed almost like a person watching in the window, similar to the way she had done all this past year, trapped in a casing in which she feared to ever slip back into. She stepped up to the landing, under a small roof, and knocked on the door.

After a minute, Ava heard nothing, so she knocked again. Still, there was no answer. She checked the doorknob, and it was unlocked. She stepped in.

Immediately, she was hit by a breeze from the lake coming down the hallway from the back of the house. A very old must smell lingered, twined with thick foliage, earth, and moisture. The wood floors creaked under the weight of her feet, her steps leaving little impressions in dust.

“Hello?” Ava called, stepping farther into the small foyer, her voice seeming to disappear into the earth-beaten house. “Dahlila?”

The area was empty save for a big plant in the corner that had died long ago, and a C-shaped banister that led upstairs. There were no pictures on the walls or entry furniture there to welcome.

“Dahlila?” Ava called again.

To her left, the foyer arched open into a raftered living room that was dreary and abstruse. The couch was beat and draped in dank, old blankets and pillows. The fireplace was gray and cracked. The house seemed almost extinct, but still with so many secrets to share. There was an intimidating and weathered Grandfather Clock that reached almost to the ceiling, as if it watched over the room, like an odd fellow. The back of the room opened to a floor with a black and white — essentially cream — checkered design, a dining room table, and an old straggly chandelier above it. It was all odd and that was just fine.

Finally, she heard a car motor and laughter and looked out the living room window. It was Dahlila. She had just pulled up in a red convertible with a girl who was laughing hysterically. Ava recognized her instantly from a face chat they had just before she came.

She stepped outside to wait. As Dahlila straightened out her car, the other girl came to the porch, giving Ava an uncertain look as the girl bent to pick something up.

“Sorry,” the girl apologized. “I’m just getting my backpack. I was out collecting wildflowers for a project, and the woods here have so much plant life.”

Ava turned to her with a straight brow, wondering why she was apologizing, and this returned her an uncomfortable look. Ava turned to look back at Dahlila, and the girl turned and walked down the path that led to the dirt road after tripping over a small rock.

Dahlila looked up at Ava, instantly recognizing her as well. With a smile and a wave, she skipped up onto the porch. Ava’s stomach tightened uneasily. Was she sure this is what she wanted to do?

Her hair, a halo of sunshine, was pulled back perfectly into a ponytail; sweat lined her hairline and light blue t-shirt, and her feet were supported comfortably by a pair of hundred dollar Nike sneakers. “Hi! Did you just get here?”

“Yeah. The door was unlocked. I let myself in.”

“Oh, good.” Her voice narrowed into a higher pitch, intentionally sweetening it. Ava cringed. “I was hoping you would if I couldn’t make it back in time. I’m so sorry about that — my dance class ran later than usual.”

Ava thought about asking her about it, but she didn’t. Instead, she only stood there staring back, leaving an awkward moment of silence as Ava registered her.

She didn’t know Dahlila; that was reason enough to have her guard up, and she trusted no one — especially, people who gave off the ‘completely trust worthy’ vibe. But at the top, people as well put together and blissfully happy as Dahlila usually made her uncomfortable, for many reasons, like dragging nails across a chalkboard or waving a flashlight in night vision eyeballs.

Finally, Dahlila stepped into the foyer, and Ava followed, taking off her top layers; any chills from earlier were already dissipated from the heat growing from her body.

“Did you take a look around yet?” A quick but noticeable fleck of antipathy shone in Dahlila’s eyes when she turned and they met down Ava.

Ava’s clothes were maybe… curious and possibly found unwanting — maybe to a mind that was closed. Ava’s heart may be closed but her mind ran wild and open and it didn’t always stick to the ordered beat. Plus, she was resourceful.

 Sometimes, she would stitch together clothes from pieces that others didn’t want. Like the loose top that hung over her strapless black and lace corset was patchwork, and the side of her high waist, acid-wash jeans. She had liked the items when she found them, but only part was salvageable, so, she made the other part with different pieces.

Her sense of style was like water, with no hold, ever changing.

Even her ears didn’t hold much measure of order. Two different earrings embellished each ear: one side always longer when she wore on both sides, one ear laden with piercings all the way up. Today, she had a mini dagger hanging from the laden ear and a small star on the other.

She had always assumed it was a product of seeing too many disorderly things to find comfort in order.

 Ava easily ignored the reaction and plopped her flannel on her bags. “Started to.”

 “I know it’s old,” Dahlila said, squishing her face together, and spun a tiny ring on her pinky, encrusted with diamonds. “It’s been updated only a little here and there through the years and been in my dad’s family for generations. He left it to me in his will, it’s not too far from school, and I needed a place to live outside my mother’s house, so it works.” She laughed. “But I have so much optimism for it.” Her ponytail bounced as her head turned to look around inspiringly.

“I bet you do.” Ava glanced away. “It has character.”

 “So, let me give you the tour.” Dahlila smiled enthusiastically, rocking on her toes, her kind brown eyes softening her facial features.

Ava was counting the seconds until she could get to her room, shut the door, and disappear. But she had the feeling that Dahlila needed to be a good welcome committee more than Ava needed to be alone…

But maybe not.

Ava looked from Dahlila’s bouncing toes up into her waiting eyes. “Where’s my room?”

 “Oh. Umm.” Flustered, Dahlila waved her hands and turned spritely towards Ava’s bags, which only flustered her more. “Is this all you brought?” Her voice pitched annoyingly.

“Yeah,” Ava replied flatly.

“I know you said you were going to pack light but wow.”

Foot in mouth, Dahlila. Now. Not everyone has easy access to the honey pot — shut up, Ava.

“I made sure you had some furnishings just in case.” Dahlila grabbed her things and tackled the stairs.

Ava went to stop her — “Err. Ah… I got that —” But Dahlila was off and Ava stared from below before following after.

“It’s no big deal. Really!” she called back. “I want to make sure you get settled in as comfortably as possible on your first day here.”

I wouldn’t go with comfortable, Ava thought coming off the stairs and following into a room where Dahlila set them down.

“I guess all that dance keeps you fit. Gotta stay young and beautiful forever, right?”

“I wouldn’t go with forever. I have a hard enough time thinking about keeping it up for sixty years.”

Ava shrugged her shoulders, swinging her arms, as if she was shaking off energy building, anxiety. “Eh, well, forever always gets cut short, anyway. Just as always is only always until it becomes almost-always. And almost-always becomes sometimes. Sometimes becomes maybe. Maybe — never. Nothing’s guaranteed, is it? Hey, but we always got today, right?”

Dahlila turned around into an odd little giggle, wiping her forehead. “Until almost.”

Ava almost smiled at that one. “You catch on quick.”

She would have to learn to be vulnerable. Vulnerability was the most honest feeling there was and through it were genuine emotions. Unfortunately, though, vulnerability was the first thing to go for her when she had to develop a tough skin.

In her world, vulnerability could land a person a conniving comrade who was pulling your strings to take advantages, steal what little you had, or use you until you were worthless. Vulnerability could land you without food and blankets. Could land you lying naked somewhere with a broken skull.

And this interaction had actually begun to frustrate her. Ava wasn’t ready to open up so quickly and face the worse part of letting someone in your life — the moment they were gone — that very moment when your heart squeezed so tight it stopped beating because you needed them so bad, but you were alone, left dying inside like you were nothing to anyone — that moment was one of the worst feelings she’s ever felt. Could still feel the cold floor under her as she tightened in a fetal position, waiting for her mother in the empty house that used to be her home, alone, so alone.

Ava began shutting Dahlila out the door.

“Just let me know if you need anything.” Just before it closed completely, Dahlila turned back into the door, and Ava tried not to roll her head around a hundred times and vomit pea soup at her. “I’m ordering pizza later. I hope you’re not on a diet.” Dahlila gave a wink, then the door was closed.

Ava’s body almost relaxed as she looked to the window to see it was near dusk, her first day almost done. Right now, she needed to prepare herself for school. What the hell was she doing? Could she do this?

She could do it. And she would see where wind would take her.

Ava pulled out an old iPod, put on Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, and began pulling out everything she packed as if she was pulling tissue out of a box just for the sake of emptying it.

After awhile, she was getting distracted in nothing: pushing her clothes around like unwanted dinner as she continuously looked out the window at the dying light. There were thoughts about throwing everything away, but then she’d have a tough week in school naked. Plus, she liked her clothes and she didn’t let her things go easily. Not easily at all.

Ava put a different shoelace in one of her boots and afterwards pulled out her sketchpads and drawing utensils to see what she had left, then got lost in the music as she trailed around the room, checking out all of its imperfections: torn wallpaper, rusty pipes, old clinking heater. “Check,” she said, tapping on it with a stick from the floor, before finally, she pulled up a chair to the window and sat in the empty room, watching outside as the night lowered down over everything — waiting… waiting for the day to be gone.

Before Ava knew it, it was dark, and she was looking at a small picture of her mother. She exhaled sharply, looking out the window again at the trees and all the life around her, still waiting. What was she waiting for?

“A family member?” A voice sprung her back from her far away place. Dahlila was standing in the doorway.

Ava looked down at the picture, realizing she was still holding it. Her face flushed with heat, because the truth was, she didn’t like to let herself mull over it much normally. Her mother abandoned her when she was 14, and she was either alive or dead, and it didn’t actually matter anymore because it took years to stop hating the world and hating herself for it — mostly. It’s just that there were some moments when she couldn’t help but to linger there for a little while.

And now someone witnessing her doing it made it all the more real and all the more heavy, like her strength was quivering, and it made her agitated. She liked to hold onto her strength like a sledgehammer. She wanted to get up and slam the picture in Dahlila’s face and then hit her own head against the wall for leaving the door open when she went to the bathroom.

But instead, Ava put her head down for a moment and took a deep breath, got up, and slipped the picture into the drawer closest to her.

“Sorry,” Dahlila apologized. “I didn’t mean to pry. I just wanted you to know the pizza’s here.”

“It’s alright,” Ava said, grabbing her flannel. “Yes, it’s my mother.” She smiled fake but the pretty, damned good fake, the kind that didn’t matter if it was fake or not, because it had a point — and the point was to forget about it. “How ‘bout that pizza?”

Dahlila looked past Ava like she had just swallowed a sourball.

 

                                                            -

 

Ava lay in bed, knowing this long awaited day was finally behind her. She looked to the left of her and followed her hand where Jason would usually lay. She was used to him there now. You could get used to anything. Will get used to this.

Ava remembered the drawing she had been sketching on the bus then, wishing she hadn’t lost it. It was the first one she’s done of herself, sketching it from the bus window’s reflection, raindrops and all. To her, it reflected this person who was searching, searching in a ghostly abyss for a missing piece, someone who took a step into the frightening unknown to retrieve it.

As her mind drifted away, she imagined herself as that picture: taken high in the wind, this way and that way across town, to finally float down from the sky along with the setting sun, just to find itself on a high ledge about to fall over, and then snatched up by fingers coming out into the night.

Ava finally closed her eyes and fell away somewhere.

 

Chapter 4 Possibilities

Some time between the late of the night and the early hours of day, before the rise of the sun, Ava woke so uncomfortable to her surroundings that she checked for her Bowie knife under her pillow, looked out the window, and out into the hall at least three times before feeling comfortable enough in bed again. This was normal. She would adjust soon.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t get back to sleep and went to the bathroom where there was a chance meeting at the door. Dahlila was having trouble sleeping as well. About to go back to her room with barely an acknowledgement of it, Ava hesitated. The she muttered an offer to Dahlila to give that tour she had seemed desperate for. This seemed to wake Dahlila into a warm mood. It had chipped a piece of ice away between them.

They glided through the upstairs together, turning lights on and off, the wind strong from opened windows, their shirts wound tight in their fists over their chest. There was something nice about that moment Ava couldn’t quite put her finger on.

It might have been because Dahlila was telling Ava about options and plans for her future, and plans for the house with sparkles in her eyes. Ava wasn’t used to being near such enthusiastic optimism, such wide possibilities for the future. Possibilities… That nearly caught in her chest.

They went down the stairs in the back of the house, and to Ava’s surprise, came to a sitting room that looked very new. The walls were freshly painted though the room smelled like the lake and trees and wood, and bright white furniture laid through out it making it feel incredibly serene. So serene that she could picture the French doors to the outside wide open to beautiful weather and the two of them relaxing with the sun over them. That didn’t sit very well with her. But she wanted it to.

Before they went any further, Dahlila offered to make coffee, and they went into the room adjacent and open to the sitting. It was an old rustic kitchen that was spotted with new appliances. They were in there last night, but the house was dark except for a low light by the stove. Dahlila got busy with the coffee explaining how she was thinking of going into real estate, and Ava was distracted by the coffee maker.

It was a Technivorm Moccamaster in copper. They were said to make delicious coffee, brew fast, and were popular because of their attractive modern design. Ava had came across those before and knew they were three hundred and fifty dollars, and she could easily get two hundred for it if she wanted to… a job hazard, always having an experienced eye open for what she could get. And Dahlila could easily replace it in an instant. As well as that diamond ring on her finger.

 Dahlila continued boasting passionately about the tips she acquired from a very successful realtor, Theresa Giacometti, and mother to her best friend. It was likely she knew many successful people. And this particular one did her good, as Dahlila seemed very well versed, practiced, and confidant. Plus, there was a gift of focusing attention on pleasantries and pin pointing a person’s selling points. Scammers were good at that too.

With coffee in hand, they went through the French doors in the back of the sitting room that led onto a deck and cozy knoll of a backyard, which looked out onto the lake; tiny birds fluttered near that had just begun to chirp and tree leaves rustled high and low in the sky. The sun was just beginning to paint the horizon with light blues and purples, highlighting the stormy clouds growing over top.

“What are you going to school for?” Dahlila asked, bringing the coffee to her lips as they lingered against the porch banister. “What are your plans for the future?”

Ava glanced into the house, where she could see part of the kitchen and the end of the counter, which held the coffee maker. “I have no idea yet.”

For now, she was enrolled in Liberal Arts and Sciences, a broad program, designed to be flexible for people who are still exploring or who may want to change career choices. And at nineteen, she could blend in easily amongst the confused. Other than that, it was all up in the air.

Never had she actually worried about her education before; she had to learn just to survive; learning to cope was cultivating her future; her life career goal was to be able to look herself in the mirror everyday to go on living — that was what she had been telling herself, but maybe there was something out there for her.

So many times, she had looked to the other side of the fence and wondered how it felt where the grass looked greener. She wondered and longed for it, until she had denounced it all together. Now she had done something entirely different; she hopped the fence and left who she was behind her; part of her felt like a traitor; part of her felt relieved. It just wasn’t clear which part was the real her. Maybe neither. Or could it be both?

Ava looked to Dahlila’s cheerful face and out at the sun. Maybe, sunshiny Dahlila could help her blossom, help her become a normal girl in a normal life… Settle down… breathe again… No hallucinations. No destruction. No Wilting. That must be why she had chosen Dahlila to live with.

What beasts do we turn into when the flowers inside us have died? That was what Ava feared — what she would become when the last petal fell and all that would be lost forever.

Ava looked to Dahlila again and Dahlila smiled.

“I know exactly what my future has planned,” Dahlila stated. A couple raindrops fell and they began moving again as Dahlila went on explaining her future.

And she really did have it all planned out. She would have a masters in business, as well as her real estate business, and a small dance studio in town for the kids. She wouldn’t begin looking for love until age thirty in order to concentrate on her career first. Marry at thirty-two. Have three kids. Move to Paris, continue expanding her businesses, grow old, and die at age 95 — with significantly less wrinkled skin than her grandmother had.

Soon, they were at the end of Dahlila’s tour and had came to a room that Ava was extremely taken by.

Off to the left of the kitchen, they entered a dim room piled with so many boxes that she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. First walking into it, it looked like a regular room, if it weren’t for the discolored brick wall off the left of the door. But as they ventured farther to the center and right, it began to rain, pulling her attention above, and she could see it rounded out into a semi-oval conservatory, windows from floor to ceiling. Water cascaded gently down over, glistening through the cracks between the sheets meant to smother them out, and the small part of the ceiling left to the bleak sky. And all Ava could think about was setting up a station to draw, paint, and meditate. Her head began filling up with the prospect.

“There’s a glass door back here that leads you out into the side back yard and garden,” Dahlila said, pushing boxes, trying to make her way through. “I like to use the yard behind the kitchen though; it’s more contemporary.” Her voice strained more as she went, until she turned around quickly, giggling. “You know what — how about we do that another day? I hate this room.”

Finally, they went their separate ways, and Dahlila left before Ava for an early class. This gave Ava time to prepare herself for the next step in her new world while she sorted out her outfit: a long skirt that was layered with different black fabrics (that she made), shorter in the front, and was lofty and comfortable. Her shirt was a black and white stripe long sleeve that came down on the shoulders. She wore her red suspenders as well. And on top, an oversized, see-through olive sweater with a hood, had ribs cut all the way down it, front and back.

She ran her hand through her long layered hair to loosen it up and headed out the door to begin her long walk to school.

The school was small compared to what she had thought and quaint and sort of… personable. It was very old like everything else in town, and in a way felt private, like they shared some common inheritance the rest of the world didn’t. The air was thick with it. Unpleasantly thick.

Ava found her first class, Psychology 101, upstairs and on the other side of the building. When she took a seat in the back corner of the room — where she liked being because no one could come up behind her unexpectedly — she pulled out the school’s map and figured out where she should have a locker. Excited kids shuffled into class and settled in quietly to be taken under the exotic wings of the professor for an hour, wide eyes and eagerness that no amount of unsureness of the future could smother just yet. They still smelled new.

Ava had forgotten how hard it was to focus in class. It took so much from her not to simply get up and walk out. Ava’s head bobbed up from sleep and her eyes were met with a narrowed, sharp stare from Professor Green. It was hard to take him completely serious though, with spiky neon-yellow hair, a big bald spot at the front of his head, and a hilarious  — sometimes uncomfortable — droll sense of humor.

She had also met the violet eyes of a girl next to her, who wore a pentagram around her neck, and had a calm positive air to her, but seemed to aware of Ava. Ava almost felt claustrophobic under their attention. The girl smiled and looked back inquisitively at the teacher. He was now going on about statistics: students who sat in the back of the classrooms were less likely to finish the course. And she wondered if it would be more normal if she moved closer to the front. Her eyes glared back at him when she also wondered if he only said that to manipulate them into being more proactive; surely the kids in the back wanted to be less involved; that was definitely true for her and she definitely now wanted to prove him wrong. Very sly indeed, Professor Green.

 

Sitting there, Ava couldn’t help but think of a time when she was fifteen, sitting restlessly but very respectably beside a nun who took it upon herself to homeschool Ava. Sister Clare had caught her one night trying to pilfer their silver, so instead of getting her in trouble like the rest, she took pity on Ava. After some stern words of wisdom and trading a promise with Ava to come back and help, for the nun letting her go, Ava had found herself going back, bewildered and unsure why, especially when Ava had shut out adults completely at that point. For a little while, her worries for food and shelter were docile.

It didn’t take Ava long to squander that though. Her only friend, Zo, had run into problems with the biker gang he was an errand boy for. For the most part, the gang was his family, and his protectors, but there were some crueler than others, and there were some rules you just didn’t break. He owed them from damaging deeds, and the balance due was only part money. One part, neither she or he would ever talk of to another soul. The money part — well there was money at the church from a charity event… and with her inside knowledge, she orchestrated a way to break in and break out without ever being seen. And her and Zo high tailed it out of town after paying his debt.

Life wasn’t easy off the grid, as a scavenger, as a wanderer… soon it got to Zo, and one day, he disappeared back to his biker family and left her, alone.

Ava hadn’t forgotten Sister Clare though. Just so that the woman’s time on Ava hadn’t gone completely to waste, and as a kind of way to pay debt to her, the second Ava turned eighteen, she disappeared for a few months from Jason, Kayla, and Zo (who had wound up back in her life again), while she obtained her GED. That was a blurry time for her… It might have been just around the time of the beginning of her mental breakdown. She pushed the thoughts down.

 

When the psychology class ended, Professor Green said something quite ominous to part them with, “Remember it’s getting darker sooner now, so tread carefully in the dark,” and Ava knew then that this town was going to be something else. She gave him a lingering look when she couldn’t quite grasp him, and because of that, his little eyes latched onto her as she left, his neck never turning an inch, but his eyes followed her all the way out the door.

“The fuck?” she said under her breath and turned into the hallway.

The school crowd bustled innocently and energetically past her to its next classes, ready for the hustle to make a mark in life, and she couldn’t help gawking at all these busy little bright things.

Next thing Ava knew, she was running into Dahlila outside their two o’clock anthropology class. A surprising wave of relief washed over her when Ava realized it was her. But then guilt, of course — for being human probably.

“Ava!” Her tone was enthusiastic as usual. “There you are!”

Dahlila had traded in her informal wear for an elegant cream sweater, its softness so rich it almost seemed to shine beneath the fabric, a pair of tapered maroon pants, and subtle heels. There was a delicate gold necklace around her neck with a heart, pearl earrings, and a shiny minimalist watch. Her diamond pinky ring frosted the whole of the outfit, and her vibrant yellow hair lay silky in even curls around her shoulders.

 “I was looking for you,” Dahlila said to Ava, standing next to a guy with neatly combed back hair, black as oil, a crisp button down shirt snug to his stocky form, perfectly undiminished, dark denim jeans, and bright white sneakers, as white as his bleached teeth. His eyes were ice blue, his expression steady, watchful, and body still except for the piece of gum grinding in-between his tight jaw. “This is my friend Danny Giacometti who I mentioned yesterday.” She turned herself towards him. “This is Ava, the roommate I’ve been telling you about.”

“Hey. Nice to meetcha.” His words were perfunctory, and he flashed his brilliant teeth and winked just the same.

Ava smiled loosely, not sure what to think about that. She glanced in the classroom; the professor was standing near the door, watching kids enter the classroom with an unnervingly distant gaze. Her striking white and black hair fell out of her bun over her youthful face. Ava wondered if that’s how she, herself, appeared to other people sometimes. She looked away.

“Me and Danny have been friends forever,” Dahlila boasted.  

“Something like that.” His voice smoothed out with a cool tone and a light Italian accent, his eyes careful to stay on Ava.

Ava pulled out a piece of gum and started grinding down on it.

Dahlila leaned into her ear to whisper, a rich, untouched smell lofting from her. “He can be a real asshole sometimes, but he’s a good guy.” Danny eyed them down, and Dahlila winked at her.

Another wink. Ava was starting to suspect she’d see a lot more of those from them. And then frantically, her eyes wanted to go on a blinking fringe, and she was just about making the stink face to avoid it.

“Talk your junk. I know all your secrets, don’t forget.” Danny gave Dahlila a side glare.

“And I know all of your weaknesses.” She chuckled in a way that seemed outside of her character, and Danny wasn’t looking at Ava anymore.

Ava was all of a sudden amused. “You said you guys were only friends?”

He didn’t look interested in responding to that, but Dahlila clarified it immediately. “Yes, always.”

“Danny!” a gawky voice called from down the hall. A guy, to her quiet disbelief, was tripping and pushing through the crowd to get to them, as if he couldn’t get through fast enough. “Hey, guys,” he panted, finally making it over, while fixing down his shirt, though unperturbed, like that was the ‘norm’ for him. He had bright brown eyes and a wide toothy grin. His just settling attention was caught in a split-second by someone walking by; he snatched their hat, putting it on his own head backwards, and looked back into their group as if he had been part of the conversation the entire time.

“What the hell, Shane?” the person yelled, snatching their hat back, and sauntered off.

“What the hell?” Shane retorted like he was truly wounded. “I was gonna give it back.” He turned back feigning agitation and moped, but his eyes quickly opened up out of those feelings, and after going around, went in for a landing on Ava. “Oh. Hey. I’m Shane.” He put out his hand. “Stonebrooke. Shane Stonebrooke.” He grinned, suggesting that he was smooth — anything but the dork she saw before her.

“Ava.” She shook his hand cautiously. He was dizzying, like a bouncing goofy ball of light. “Dahlila’s roommate.” His hair was running amuck on his head and his resting eyes, which slanted down the slightest, expressed a smile’s glare. But when he did laugh, they squished up into precious little, half moons, and his smile became toothier and was sweetened by his dimples.

 “Yeah…” His finger pointed and nearly touched her, nodding casually and seriously; Ava would of probably snapped her teeth over it if it did; part of her was waiting for it. He pulled his finger back in; he might of realized it. “That’s right. I think I heard her mention you.”

“Shane’s my idiot cousin.” Danny’s lips tightened into a tired mock, slapping his hand on Shane’s chest, who was taller but lankier than him, and rocked the boy unsteady; Shane’s cheek’s colored. “And don’t let him fool you; he seen you in the hall earlier and went fuckin’ bananas.”

Shane fixed his pants, loose fitted on his hips and grabbed onto his baggy shirt that had a logo on it: everyone tells me to follow my dreams, so I’m going back to bed. He was obviously trying to find something to deflect with, but after a moment, all that came out was, “ Hea. Hea.” Putting one hand in his pocket, the other one held his pained abdomen, and his focus didn’t know where it wanted to go.

 “STONERBROKE,” a guy hollered, walking past them to the classroom. Ava’s energy went into the black, and Shane’s shoulders lowered briefly with meekness as his lips came together. The guy’s gray eyes glared rich against his cashmere button up sweater, rolled up to show off the tattoos up his arm and a big Rolex watch. His volumized and caramel highlighted hair was combed sleek to the side. “Crawl back into the trash where you belong.” His voice deepened into a sneer.

His eyes stopped at Ava and measured her clothes as if they failed in comparison to his neat ostentation. She followed his petty gaze with placidity. He gave a taunting look to everyone else and then shook his head at Danny with contempt before going into the classroom.

Danny and Dahlila looked at each other and snorted softly.

A whole clique followed close behind him of which either weren’t paying attention to anyone else or were sniggering at Jordan’s remark. One of the girls shot a cruel look over at Dahlila as she passed and gave a quick flirtatious look at Danny before entering while another girl laughed behind her.

The pretension stung Ava’s nostrils to a flare. Shane waved at them mockingly.

Dahlila leaned into Ava. “That used to be our friends.

“The Elite squad…”

“You’re joking. And they’re going into our class.”

Ava didn’t want anything to do with that. Their camaraderie was becoming less likely.

Dahlila sighed, watching them go into the room. “But now we’re the outcasts, I guess… Just like Shane.” Dahlila’s eyes raised to him and then slowly away into thought.

“You’re better off.” Ava turned from the door.

“I suppose so.” Dahlila turned with her with a gleam in her eye.

 Shane turned back to them and started goofing off like nothing ever happened. He switched mid-sentence to Ava after his mind finally caught up to his mouth. “Do you eat around here?”

Danny stopped him before he could go any further, putting his arm around him to tame him. “Don’t mind my cousin. Sometimes his head spins.” After a quick tousle of Shane’s hair, he pulled him the other way.

“He’s something else,” Ava said to no one, about to turn into class.

Dahlila laughed, and Shane’s mouth dropped open. “Did you hear that? She said I’m something.” Ava stopped to look at him.

“Take that how you want it.” Danny pulled Shane back by his shirt. “We gotta go.”

“Later, alligator.” Shane smiled at Ava woozily.

“After while, crocodile.” She shot back to him to give the boy something to chew on.

He shot his head back around in a quirky way to look at her again as he was pulled off, his mouth nearly drooling, and then turned around to hit Danny.

“I hate to sound like I’m warning you…” Dahlila flashed her teeth and raised her cheeks nervously. “But… I am. You’re going to see a lot more of them.”

From a distance, she could hear Shane, “Why’d you let me make a fool of myself, man?”

“You always do, dude.”

 “Awesome...” Just what she needed, more complications…

As they turned into the classroom, she caught a bulletin board that had a variety of papers pinned to it. It was over filled with missing person’s posters, mostly missing teenagers, papers so old they were tinged yellow. New papers over lapped older ones of the same kids, probably pinned year after year by their parents, marking the spot like a graveyard marker every year, even though they’ve really given up hope. Her stomach turned. What happened to all of them?

 

Chapter 5 Lithium

At the end of the school day, Ava stopped at her locker to pick up her things, feeling quite proud of herself that she made it through. On the inside of the locker door, she hung a drawing she scribbled during class that said — fuck yeah. Then shut the door and headed for the exit with a twisted smile on her face. How about that for the mundane?

In the car bend, just in front of the school steps, Dahlila was sitting there waiting in her convertible, Lady Gaga playing in the speakers. “Hey! Want a ride?” she screamed over at Ava, her eyes bright and hair shining softly in the sun.

Ava stopped at the top of the stairs.

“You getting in or what?” Dahlila signaled to the other seat with a hopeful and eager grin, biting her lip.

Ava sighed. “What the hell, why not?” She thudded down the stairs, threw her things in the back seat, and jumped in.

“Let’s go for a ride. Then we have to stop home and get ready for tonight.”

Ava raised a heavily arched brow. “What’s tonight?”

“You’ll see.” She giggled loudly and skidded off.

Ava tried not to give her the evil eye, but this only made Dahlila giggle louder.

 

                                                            -

 

Ava sat on a bench down at the Brewer Subway Station with Dahlila, Shane, and Danny — waiting.

What they were waiting for, she didn’t know; they wouldn’t budge. They were too quiet and jittery. She thought they were there to get on the subway, but they sat there while each train had gone. They stood up, looking nervous and conspicuously around, she followed suit, and they would sit down again. Over and over. It was getting bizarre, and her mind was playing in unwelcomed spaces.

“Alright. That’s it. What the are we doing?” Ava jumped to her feet, demanding sternly. “Drug deal or some shit? Just tell me. I don’t like not fucking knowing what I’m getting into.”

Dahlila and Shane broke into a tinkering of laughter, and she didn’t understand what was so funny. Danny, though, appeared offended as he eyed her down. “Why, you itching for a hit?”

Ava looked at Danny’s chilled, smug face, knowing this guy was anything but chill deep down. Her brows creased, and she held his eyes heavily. She felt a tremor in her hand and it was for a hit all right, but not for drugs. “Are you?”

All night, the two of them caught on each other’s steel hooks. But this time, even though Danny comprehended that she threatened to hit him, his supercilious armor fell, and his neck muscles relaxed as he fell back into a soft chuckle and looked away.

Dahlila’s eyes were scrunched up in fake amusement, trying to keep tension lifted.

“Hea. Hea. No.” Shane interrupted to come clean. “We have to wait until the entire platform is cleared of any witnesses.” He looked at Ava and burst out laughing from her expression. She blinked dryly. “When it’s clear, we’re going down on the train tracks.”

Quiet for a second, Ava’s face froze, and she wasn’t sure what face she was making this time, but she was highly interested now. She said simply, “Okay.”

Shane shrugged his shoulders. “Okay!” He stretched his lips from ear to ear at Danny. “Ha. Hea.” His eye twitched. It was unclear if he was excited or actually masking fear.

Finally, they looked up, seeing it was clear, and jumped up.

“Okay. Let’s go!” Danny hollered under his breath, ordering everyone to follow. They hustled in tandem up a narrow pathway for the workers. There was a ladder at the end to climb down onto the tracks. She was hoping they were going to just jump in. Danny stopped and turned to Ava in a serious manner — “Watch my steps. Don’t step on the third rail; it’s live. And don’t put your foot between rails; they switch. Just follow my path until I tell you you’re good, and you’ll be fine. Alright?”

She nodded, about to jump in herself if they didn’t go already.

A quick, panicked glance back at the platform to make sure they weren’t seen, and they dropped down the ladder. Staying close to the side, they hurried down the tunnel, hiding behind small concaves whenever a train passed. Then hurried again for two hundred feet. When they had to start crossing over the tracks, Danny reminded them of what he said and showed them the third rail. They crossed it, went a bit farther down, and then crossed one again, bringing them to a tunnel for an old abandoned Subway platform that was brightly lit.

 “Alright,” Danny said, going up the stairs to the platform and pausing a moment so they could take a break. “You’re good now.”

His voice echoed off the walls and all of the dead silence, shooting their ebullience back at them. No movement there except for the sudden train passing on the other tracks, piercing through the quiet like a screeching siren.

Shane was bent over trying to catch his breath as Dahlila fixed her backpack, completely focused. She and Danny had changed into sports gear; Ava and Shane hadn’t bothered to change at all. Ava looked at Danny under the light, and it was the first time she caught raw emotion from his usual guarded figure: brisk with eagerness to keep them on track.

The ceiling and four golden archways shined in marbled brick, dulled by dust and cobwebs in the corners. The light so bright after being in the dark was like they had passed into a ghostly dream of a different era. They looked at each other and around with exhilarated eyes and panting breathes.

 Danny signaled them to follow down the stairs on the other side and into the abandoned tracks, into the true dark tunnels. “This track is dead. Just don’t trip.”

Dahlila handed everyone a bag with a flashlight, candles, and water. They were wiping their head while looking around, the cold damp air nipping at their skin, dense with must and dirt. The smell grew thicker and the further removed they felt from where they came from. The only sound was their footsteps knocking at the walls and their heaving breathes, which disappeared as well after they slowed.

The farther they went, the darker it became, and the more they flashed their lights haphazardly. They found random objects littered in their path: single, beat-down shoes, lost baby-dolls, and even clocks from forgotten lives. Water dripped hollowly into puddles that they tried to avoid, with little luck from Shane. “Fuck!” They’d hear from the dark after a splash, followed by non-sensible yammering and more swearing.

 “What is this place?” Ava’s voice came out like a dreamy melody as they came to a large turn, and their flashlights glared up at an unexpected over-growth of plant life. A broken part of the ceiling that soared above, allowed the slimmest skylight through, but it was too far away to see much of it. A massive amount of foliage was falling from it, like a jungle waterfall.

“People call it Lithium,” Dahlila said.

“Why?” Ava was still gawking.

“I don’t know. This place isn’t really our scene.” She stayed focused ahead as she talked. “Shane thought it would impress you.”

Ava shined her flashlight on Shane; he looked sheepish. “And you’re the one doing the complaining.”

“I have to complain. I gotta make sure our heads are on the right track.”

“And are we?”

I don’t know. Does this look right to you?” He shined his light on a crib.

All his words sped into one as he continued, and Ava let it go into background noise. “Great. So you guys are as new to this as I am.”

“We’re not new,” Dahlila corrected. “We only choose not to go. But we found a flier for the first day of school celebration, and Mondays are usually the go to for the people here, so we figured we’d celebrate for a change. And we all wanted to make sure you had a good time, being new to town and all.”

Danny cleared his throat.

Ava’s chest cavity lofted with the draft of an empty room. Then glimpses of herself catatonic flashed in her head, her breath sped up, and she started walking faster.

“It’s like a party underground,” Shane said. “You’ll see when we get there.”

“It is a party underground, dip-shit,” Danny barked from his silence. “We’re about seventy feet below ground, especially down there.”

“Holy shit.” They said, looking up, realizing how deep below the streets they were.

After awhile, a small glow of light flickered through the dark from a single candle ahead. They followed it; their heartbeats grew faster, and the light multiplied before leading off the tracks onto a concrete foundation. The lights then led down a long, narrow walkway littered with more candles and graffiti. Stragglers scattered about leisurely, staring back detached, still with a hunger driving their eyes. A drumming noise vibrated the small space, rising louder as they went.

The side of the pathway opened to a row of large, dark rectangular openings. Danny slipped inside one and so did they. It appeared vast in the deep dark as the rows of beams appeared to go on forever. But then there was glimmer of light as they gained on an opening, illuminating kicked up dust. It shimmered richly with lustful red light, slipping brighter into their shadows.

They slipped through it out as if coming out on the other side of the universe.

The pressure, the color, and the movement from dance hit her like a sudden wave from acid, popping vibrancy through her senses. A haunting voice sang out to an eerie pounding of drums and Ava gasped softly from pleasure; her eyes fell open. She could feel a thin layer of sweat cover her as she looked around, not hearing what the others were saying.  

The large cavernous space was lit up with thousands of candles, beaconing in their dark spaces, warming and guiding. People sat watchful in large cubbyholes high up, hanging their feet from the ledge. Their eyes glowed sharp from the transgressive freedom. Candle wax melted down over everything, including the walls, the fallen beams on the sides, and in the hands of people trailing by. Strobe lights went off in corners, and colored lights highlighted the art on the walls or the abstract art exhibits presented sporadically around.

People danced in the middle of the subterranean world of color so vibrant under dark pigment it was almost electric and dangerous, lost to themselves, lost to the feel. They strut by in extremely over-stylized outfits, or without many clothes at all, or in all body paint. Some wore masks: masquerade masks, Greek theater masks, homemade masks. They wore wigs and patchwork makeup. A piece of clothing from every era was found throughout them. There was no borderline to it. No limits. No rules.

In the center was an old classy spiral staircase going nowhere. People lay on the stairs careless to the chaos below them, careless in a way a person’s desires were well fed and fears unnecessary. Similar people had passed them with listless reception and lay about with lethargic satisfaction that only made Ava feel again the unnecessary weight she carried. And it made her wonder if she really wanted to try and find herself again, when here she could just smother it all and let go.

At one end, huge winding cement stairs led up three stories to a platform looking out over the crowd. Gigantic velvet curtains hung formidable on its sides. It was chained closed like a VIP, or personal area, probably for the one responsible for the whole thing. And one guy stood up there watching; he was probably that one. His long platinum hair and shirtless body stood stark against the red lighting behind him as if he was a scene himself.

The other end was a small platform for performers: drummers manifested melancholic vibrations and echoes against the cold, rocky earth that surrounded them. Another person stood up there alone, staring far away as her voice emptied through the sultry air. Next to a floor candelabra, a violinist stroked the sweat misted air as her bow drew pain and beauty from the strings. At that moment, a person picked up an electric guitar and strummed his fingers with declaration. The sudden metallic sound waved through the atmosphere and charged her nerve endings; Ava had to grab onto herself.

She hadn’t even realized until then the two girls from Danny and Dahlila’s old clique had found them to her dismay, Liz and Trish. Ava had enough of them from their class together.

“What do you want?” Danny groaned.

“Oh. Don’t be like that,” Trish said. “We came to see you,” Liz finished, squeezing herself between him and Dahlila. Ava remembered this in retrospect.

The place was daunting, and she realized it probably wasn’t a good idea for her.

Though it effused with life, she felt in her bones that it was lined with a surreptitious darkness, deeper than what she understood, woven with an intricate edge of morbidity; it stung and it pleased.

Shane pulled a tiny bottle of whiskey out of his pants and waved it, smiling broadly. Ava rolled her eyes and continued her assault on the sights, her body swaying softy to the music. But then her attention was strictly caught from the side of her eye, off in the back where a set of white lights went off, edging a heavenly figure with two large wings out of the darkness.

Ava stopped moving.

She turned her head to it as another set of lights went off, colored, highlighting his profile: the outline of the feathery wings, wavy curls on top of an undercut, his forehead, his eyes, and nose, and his stance, everything guarded with shadows. He stood intimidatingly and higher than everyone else in the crowd on a concrete slab.

Her heartbeat slowed. Her breathing, shallow, was lost from her lips into the growing quietness around her.

Then he moved — parting from the divinity of the wings and she could see he had been standing in front of an angel statue. The graffiti over the statue showed: its reality… And she could see like a shimmer of gold that he was breathtakingly beautiful, so much so that it twisted her gut.

What was his reality?

It would have been right then when she would have usually turned away, but her eyes stayed helplessly with him after he jumped down. There was a difference about him that stood out from the rest. A strangeness amongst the strange.

“Our own fallen angel…” She had whispered to herself, and Dahlila and Shane were watching her.

“He looks like baaaaad news,” Dahlila assured with Shane next to her shaking his head in wholly agreement.

Ava turned her head towards them, feeling irrationally insulted. “And do I look like good news?” She glared coldly.

“No. You look like good, bad news,” Shane joked nervously.

“Bet you a hundred to one, he’s a creep,” Danny chimed in. “But hey, to each their own.” His nonchalant eyelids lowered back to Liz.

Dahlila smacked him in the gut, whipping a bark from him. Liz and Trish were now on either side of him, both just alike with big breasts pushed into the tiniest shirts, eighty-dollar eyelashes, same hair color and style, and princess personalities. Only difference was in their skin tones: white porcelain and smooth ebony. Posh twins. And they both obviously liked Danny, vying for his attention or playing a game. They were exposing his playboy streak as he soaked up their pawing, and the only creep Ava saw at the moment was him.

“Got your hand deep enough in the candy jar there, boy? Careful on the jawbreakers; they’re fake.” Ava winked at Danny and his face fell flat and their cheeks puffed. She didn’t really care about that one way or another — but they did, and that was the point.

She looked back to find the fallen angel. They were right, though; he did look like bad news. He looked like he could cause some real pain. But she’d rather feel pain than nothing at all, and like a masochist, she was beginning to crave it.

Then with heavy eyes, she watched him walk away, his clothes dusted with dirt and torn in places from either adventure or danger or chaos: a black t-shirt tight to the fit, black jeans with the perfect amount of baggage, and a sexy, sluggish wiggle of a hip. She was usually attracted to more meat, and he was lean and very tall — at least six feet in which he held it well, but somehow she thought he was perfect for her, perfect in the comfortable way you feel when you’ve finally come home after a long day. But all she wanted was a one-night-stand, and he’d be perfect for that too, an especially long over due release considering she’s been stuck in a mind cage for so long. And maybe because she’s been so well behaved, she was itching to destroy something. This guy could handle her.

Maybe…

He walked strong in the shoulders, but he also had a unique bob of the neck and body as he walked or turned. Her stomach was going weak as the hunger radiated elsewhere. Then he was gone.

Ava felt a pang of disappointment… also, surprise at herself. By rule, she didn’t let herself unroll that quickly, but at the moment, she couldn’t seem to care; she’d howl at the moon if it made him look her way. And she liked it. And she liked she didn’t care.

Part of her was trying to tell herself to step back in line; he was the last thing she needed right now; she couldn’t risk it. But the other part of her had gone on vacation and wasn’t taking requests.

“…she kept forgetting what she was talking about,” Liz was saying. “She might as well of stared at the wall during the whole class. What a useless professor. We should get her axed. I think I’ll ask Jordan tomorrow to pull his strings.” Liz was talking about the anthropology professor as she slipped her hand on Danny’s arm. Dahlila seemed unaware that she was watching their hands so completely. “I’ll tell you one thing, never trust what a women says whose eyebrows aren’t on fleek.”

“You know, you can just drop the class,” Shane said, who had previously been switching between awkwardly quiet and vulgar remarks to interrupt them.

“She’s the one that needs to go.” Trish said. “And I’m not sure what she thought she was doing with that white hair; it looks busted on her.”

“Well, I heard her and Professor Green used to date, and he’s always dying his hair, so maybe he colored it for her. You know he don’t know what’s going on either.” They laughed, and Ava was biting her lip to draw blood.

“Oh. Come on Liz.” Shane laughed. “You know you’d let Mr. Green color it for you for a C.” He made a ‘smacking the ass’ gesture, and Dahlila smacked his hand with disgust. “What?” He looked to Ava for help, and she looked back into the crowd. “Ruuuuudde.” He rolled his lips and dropped his hands.

Professor Green might be unconventional for a teacher but he knew what was going on more than those two did. It sounded like petty and bored gibberish and Ava wasn’t even entirely sure all of what they had said. How dried out are you as a person, when someone’s words only have worth when their eyebrows are pulled from their face and painted on perfectly — emulating a brainless doll, ironically. Ava accepted and defended however a person wanted to make up themselves — but not the devaluation of another over it.

Liz looked up at Danny, tightening her arm around his, and purred. “You should pick up the class, Danny. We’re all in there, except you.”

“Uh…” Shane raised his hand. “I’m not in there, either.”

“Well…” she scoffed with her shoulder, looking away.

Ava rolled up her lip. “Who’s us all?”

“Oh. I meant our crew,” she replied with a dry, condescending voice as she waved her ridiculously long fingernails. “Danny, Me and Trish, Jordan, Marion —” Shane snorted at Marion’s name but he was looking sour about it.

Ava put her hand up. “Stop.” And looked back into the crowd anxiously, biting her lip harder.

“Why are you on this shit again, Liz? You haven’t breathed a decent word to us for a year.” Danny shook his shoulders, becoming tepid from her null derision finally.

“I don’t know. I guess it looks like you guys are out again and making new friends.” Her eyes glanced at Ava. “And I’m getting jealous.” She battered her eyes playfully, and of course, Danny wasn’t pushing her off his arm.

“What the fuck?” Shane looked at them disgruntled. “She knows you guys aren’t dating anymore, right? And that you don’t actually like them?”

“Shut up, Shane,” Danny warned tiredly.

“Fine! Just saying. You know you don’t actually like shit heads like that.” Shane turned to go disappear somewhere. “Don’t gripe to me later about it, then.”

Dahlila let out a long breath without realizing it until Danny looked at her.

Ava had been waiting impatiently to see if the guy would return, and by now, thinking of going off and seeing if she could ‘accidentally’ run into him. It would be a good time to start shaking it off the way she was so skilled at doing. This was not good. It was past time to go home.

And yet, she couldn’t stop thinking about a taste. A taste he would leave on her soul. She just wanted one little taste. “I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back,” she told the air.

“We’ll go with you,” Dahlila sweetly offered.

“No. That’s alright.” Ava turned into the crowd, hazy, eyes drunk with something. All day she had been anxiously curious to what the day would bring, and now all of that was coming to a head as she forced herself towards a blinding reward.

She swayed quickly out of the way of a dancer, jumped, and turned, only to slam into something else… or someone else. Seeing red, she forgot what she was doing until her gaze rose to his — him— And her mouth started to curve into a smile, but froze as she was pulled into the grasp of his eyes that she hadn’t expected — his eyes as black as midnight were casted with a reflection inside them of her own lost sullen tragedy, a sad insanity. Then as if it were never there, his face hardened, and his eyes showed a violent darkness.

Inside, she jumped.

His dark eyes began to change. It was as if coals inside his eyes ignited with red embers as she felt his energy shift into a sinister air…

Her eyes didn’t blink or stray; her body only moved when his did, breathing in the hot fumes between them. He stared at her motionless at what seemed like an eternity, even if it were mere seconds. They were so still, it felt like they were swaying, and she realized then, it was their eyes sweeping back and forth together, betraying as it was fighting between frustration and something more flighting, more painful and confusing.

His eyes darkened again and the darkness kissed her so deep and low inside that she felt chained there as he lowered his face down to hers. Neck muscles straining and a deep, heavy breath in through his nose, he said with a calm wicked snarl, “Watch where you’re going.” A bang came from inside her chest.

His eyes whipped back and forth one last time and then took off, her balance with him and she swayed. She felt her own gravity and irritation rose up in her from the violation of its intimate and terrifying seize. It left an aftertaste she’d never forget — bitter and waking like a strong cup of black coffee meant to be hot, but left out in the cold far too long. And she was without a doubt wide-awake now.

She stared off into the crowd after him, stunned.

“Are you okay?” Dahlila asked, grabbing Ava’s hand. “What did he say to you?”

Ava couldn’t say anything. She looked back into the body of people, looking for a memory.

 

Chapter 6 Whispers

 

Are you okay?

Those damn words. Ava drowned her throat with water.

How many times had she heard those words uttered on the brink of breaking? Of course, she’s okay. She can’t be anything else. “I’m fine.” She was still partly stuck near where he had been. Frustration escaped into her voice because she couldn’t shake it, despite what her words said.

Danny looked at her quickly after taking his eyes watchfully off the crowd. “Judging by the way that dude’s looking at you, he’s still pissed. What the hell did you say to him?” His shoulders bounced as if he found humor in her vexing someone off.

Ava spun her head around, finding him immediately. He was walking away, looking back at her, the same exact cold expression still on his face, like he was still right in front of her, sending cold ripples down her body. His eyes were locked on hers, arrested. They were locked on each other in unwanted penetration. Her heart began to pump uncomfortably, her head throbbing out of numbness. She shot a look of warning at him, and he turned away and was engulfed by the crowd.

Ava turned around to see everyone’s eyes on her. “What?” she hissed.

Shane, who hadn’t made it long before heading straight back to them, darted his eyes between them. “What’d I miss?” He turned his head to Danny. “What’d you do?”

Danny whipped his head to him.

“Chiiiill.” Shane put his hands up, quivered, and looked around again confusedly. “…We havin’ a good time?”

“Come on, let’s go for a walk and see the rest of this asylum.” Dahlila hooked her arm in Ava’s and pulled at her to come away. Ava thought it sounded like a great idea and grabbed Shane’s whiskey before going off.

“Wait!” Shane cried, running after them. “Don’t leave me alone with these idiots! I’m sc—” Shane jumped, all brain functions paused as a guy with long hair and black tape all around his whole body, pushed himself out at Shane. “Ahh!” Shane let out a quick squeal and jumped away to Ava’s side, grabbing her arm, mirroring Dahlila. They all belt out laughing — Ava couldn’t help that one. They could hear Danny laughing behind as well as he caught up, Liz and Trish following him.

Off to the side, a young girl and a boy hung from swings, lazily doing aerial tricks, and between them was a large square space built into the rock wall. They slipped inside it and the ceiling inclined as they went, to the point they were bent over and could barely walk anymore, until they came to a man-made opening in the wall with a sign: slip into the rabbit hole. Ava was sure she already had.

Like Alice, it didn’t matter which way she went because she didn’t care where she ended up. She couldn’t remember it. But she did care, didn’t she? How does she care about something she can’t remember? If she can’t remember, she can’t care about it until she knows it. Then she must figure out how to know it so she can care. But what if she didn’t care to know it?

Ava had to shake her head; her mind was going weird.

Inside the tunnels, signs meant to confuse the traveler, arrows pointing to dead ends, and mirrors hung all over its walls like some kind of gothic fun house. Candles burned and dripped down the rock. Off the paths were small cave dwellings where people partied, hung out, or slept. Some scenes were so deeply provocative they felt the need to push each other past quickly.

Ava let herself be pulled along like a current, with their excitement, their joking, their jumping. She wasn’t fully there, and they probably wouldn’t notice a difference. She’d found herself staring at a warped and rippled mirror with a hand sticking out of it, wondering just how far away she was. And then she thought she saw him. Have the tables turned on her… Was he now closing in on her, the way she had tried with him?

She turned around, but he wasn’t there.

“Boo!” Shane teased in her distraught face with a flashlight, “Spooky little girl!” and Ava hit him in the arm. “Ow! Fuck. I’m fragile!” She hit him again lightly and pushed him forward so they could get moving again. She needed to move quicker, deeper in the tunnels, like her soul ached to be in the dark and out of the light.

The tunnels led out to a vast dark area, where eternities of beams went on. Satin curtains hung between some and spun around others. A tiny breeze went through from a ventilation system somewhere. Was she becoming lost or unlost? Little scattered candles blurred out the shadows like stars.

Then she saw him.

This time without a doubt because their eyes were speaking… or whispering, and she was following the sound. Curiosity gleamed in their eyes, passing back and forth. He glided slowly through the beams, watching her like a ghost they couldn’t see, but she could, until it was only the two of them and an internal frightening lullaby.

There was a deafening allure about him. Or was it what she was feeling inside that was alluring?

A dizzying sensation slowly swept over her. Blinking through her daze, she tried to see him again as everything began to blur. Ava knew what was coming. And she knew it would come to this after realizing it would be too much. But she couldn’t move on from him just yet; she wanted to hang on. He was untying her like a loose red ribbon and it was a sweet relief.

Then her reality began to alter.

 — a quick flash of black — less than half a second — a quick cold sting ran up her body — less than half a second. Her eyes closed, disoriented. They opened up right back to him; he hadn’t moved; she hadn’t wanted him to.

As the world began to twist and flicker like a candle, he stayed clear in front of her. From him outward, it warped. As a heart would beat — the image became pronounced and then faded — pronounced again and faded. But they stayed. She was staying because of him, in spite of nearly floating away to her far away place. What is the strength you need that holds it all together? And sets you free…

Fire crept up around them; the intensity of her breathing fueled the flames, swallowing everything but them, scorching them in its warping heat. Her eyes closed again from panic, and when she opened them, it was all gone.

Her body was tense and aching, as if it had gone somewhere it was not supposed to. She was shaking and sweating, and he had not moved an inch. His eyes were unreadable, unnatural, the only life in them from the candles near. Or perhaps there was some emotion in them, protected by a wall of tar.

His eyebrows waved down just then as if his thoughts set onto something and the room seemed to narrow. Until a woman came, long strings of brilliant black hair below her butt, wearing a ripped and long flowing dress that danced with her legs as she flowed next to him weightlessly. The woman looked at him and then Ava. Her eyes were as dark as his, but beady and void. They froze Ava still to the ground, like she could feel every emotion she ever had at once against the woman’s crude empty gaze. On the ground, now vulnerable, like a baby deer left behind to the approaching predators, she’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be out of her depths.

The woman took a step forward, swallowing Ava with her eyes. Ava closed her eyes; she couldn’t spin her head back to normal or find sense. She went to reach for her knife in the neck sheath under her shirt; she couldn’t understand how much was being warped by her mind, but she didn’t know if she was safe.

Where was she again? Wherever it was, she knew he was here somewhere, and whether that be good or that be bad… She remembered herself and opened her eyes.

A different woman was above her, pulling her up, tattoo sleeves all the way up her arms and black-rimmed glasses in between her parted, jet-black hair; her foggy gray eyes hung lazily open. “What you do, fall? Or arrre you tripping?” A Russian accent fluctuated in thickness on her tongue.

The other two were gone.

“Yeah... Tripping and falling.” Ava looked around, wondering how much of it she hallucinated, hallucinations she would never speak of.

The woman smirked. “My name is Carrrla. You wvill be okay?”

“Ava. Yeah. Good.” Just fine.

 

Chapter 7 Darkling

‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful Death, call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, to take into the air my quiet breath.’ John Keats.

 

Ava’s mind swam as she leaned the side of her head against the metal beam next to her, its vibrations much needed to match her own. Her eyes stayed valiantly on her stranger as he watched them from across the area. He sat half on a boulder, his semblance impenetrable, unmoved by the world or that woman talking near his ear to him. They were back out in the main area where they started and somehow ended up in view of each other again.

Another guy stood with her stranger and the woman now. He had absolutely no color in his hair or lashes, dressed in a dirty, silver eighteenth-century frock coat; a streak of black makeup ran down from the outside corner of one eye. She noticed then, like a rush of curiosity, the white hair prevalent amongst the crowd. The boy’s eyes glanced her way so briefly she would have missed it if she weren’t watching them so heavily. He caught the hand of a boy walking by and disappeared.

“I wvould stay clear of those,” Carla said, nudging in the direction Ava was watching and shifted on the broken down couch the two of them sat on.

“Why?” Ava asked, pulling her head from the beam but without moving her eyes.

“No one comes back.”

Ava looked at Carla. She moved closer to Ava. “Wve come here to get away from high and lows of our wvorld — you follow white hair, full albinos. They arrre inner circle. They show you hidden path.”

Ava looked up to the platform overlooking them, where the guy with platinum hair had stood before but was now gone.

“Just ‘nother manic Monday.” Carla pulled out a strand of white hair that was hidden, and the corner of her mouth curved. “But! I’ve daughter I need get back to, so I stay clear of dark eyes.” She nodded to obtain an understanding.

“…I’m not trying to just get away, anymore — I’m trying to be set free.”

“Sometimes way out is way in.” Carla’s eyes traveled over Ava. “What is it that takes you away? We all have chains. See? What are yourrrs? Your fears? Insecurities? Desires? You need to come to face all that, da? To have strength over some thing, you need to know it. You cannot know it if it is hidden in shadow. Be explorer.”

“And you come here to get lost?”

“Come here and was found. They are my family before daughter when I had no one.” A happy noise sounded from Carla’s throat. “Are wvith me always.”

“Sounds suffocating,” Ava said, and Carla purred. Ava looked back at the guy. “I don’t have many desires to be honest. I did once. Too many… What is in me now is a lot simpler.”

Carla followed her eyes. “Soulless are the simple…. and you have his attention, sweet thing.” Her eyes bent in pity over Ava.

Their eyes weren’t normal. Their skin — a glowing pale. Somber circles shadowed their eyes in grimness. But there was something more, something deeper that staggered her. They were unsettling, yet alluring, in the way you’d only let yourself admit to in a dark dream. But she didn’t care about they; she was only interested in him. There was a darkness she was intensely attracted to. One that hummed in the back of her sub-conscious no matter where she was and who was around — because it came from her own being. But she couldn’t admit that to herself if she wanted to be normal. She couldn’t accept it, any longer. She was different now.

Ava looked him over as he stood and turned to the woman, the muscles in his back rolling up under his shirt, tightening under the fine fabric. His neck, taut and lean, accentuated by the dark outline of his short hair at the nape, and his strong jaw line, flexing as he turned his head halfway to look at Ava again.

 His eyes felt sharp and carefully edged by his dangerously arched brows. Her eyes followed up to the thickening black waves and soft, slight curls at the top of his hair, splaying sensually over his forehead, almost softening his unforgiving eyes.

She turned her head away, feeling sick, and finally ready to leave.

Carla ran her fingers down Ava’s arm. “I am telling you, beautiful young girrrl, follow white hair orrr stay home where you are safe.”

“THERE you are!” Dahlila jumped over to Ava quickly and breathily. “We’ve been looking everywhere. The people here are too insane for me; I can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry.” She grimaced apologetically.

Ava stood up. “No. Hey, I’m ready to go.” She really needed to go.

“What are you talking about? It was just getting fun.” Shane pulled at a piece of tape that was wrapped around him. “Who doesn’t love being chased by the scary tape monster?”

Ava looked at Danny who waved the roll of tape in his hand, apparently ripped from who ever was chasing Shane; that guy would probably be going home with a purple eye. She looked down at Carla. “Take care of yourself.”

Carla nodded with a smile. “We can trrry, right?”

“Yeah. We can only try. Have a good one.”

As Ava went to turn around, she stopped — he was walking over to them, eyes heavily on Ava. It felt he could wipe out the sun with his presence. Her head swooned from the shock of his closing proximity. What the hell was wrong with her?

As he reached them, his eyes shifted over to Liz giggling in Danny’s ear. She stopped laughing as the guy bent slowly down, stealing her gaze. Liz stiffened. And then he whispered in her ear.

Ava’s mouth dropped.

She watched lustfully as his hand slid around Liz’s waist, claiming it. Dark envy washed over her. Without turning to look at Ava again, he walked away with her, and Liz didn’t even glance back once.

No one said anything from sheer shock as they watched them walk away. Danny looked livid, and Ava, for the life of her, couldn’t figure out why that guy bothered her so much. She felt compromised to the bone and wanted nothing more than to go home and forget she ever laid eyes on him.

Unfortunately, on the way home it worsened, likely due to the uncontrollable frustration coursing through her. A ringing noise in her head blasted away all noises from without. She knew someone had said something to her in the car, but she couldn’t understand.

Ava put her head down in the car and pretended to be asleep until they got back to the house, then ran up into the bedroom.

She’s so weird, they probably said. Yeah. She was. She was weird! And fucking crazy! It was all breaking out.

Ava was pacing, trying to push it back in, which only ever made it worse. Her body was hurting, and her mind was in pain from fighting it.

The room flickered. And it was changing.

She closed her eyes, trying to go somewhere far away, somewhere she was happy; where was her place? Like a dream, it always lofted her away unwillingly, but when she looked for it, when she needed it, it was hidden. Go somewhere.

There was water dripping somewhere.

 

 Ava opened her eyes and sweat dripped down from her face into them, the bed moist beneath her. “You have a fever, baby doll,” her mother said as she set the ice-cold cloth on Ava’s forehead. “You’re delirious.”

Ava’s gaze drifted from the bowl to her mother’s sharp hazel eyes. They were the same as her own; except for the fire enriched irises that attempted to express her mother’s spirit.

 “Ma?” Water touched behind Ava’s eyes — so much water wasting. Her lashes haven’t felt tears for so many years; she pulled it back in. No more water loss.

She had turned incoherently to the single candle flame by the bed and around the dark room where its light barely lingered, wanting to be warmed by a fire; she was too cold. Her eyelids rose in alarm, the fog lifted from her, and Jason was sitting in front of her by the bed.

“Your mom’s not here. It’s only me,” he said quietly and continued wiping the sweat from her forehead — Ava’s arm swung up to knock his hand away as she sprung to sit up.

“Please don’t do this.” His eyes folded and hers angled.

Just then, the white bandage around her raised hand came into view, and she jolted up onto the bed like a cat ready to pounce. He stood from the chair.

“How’d I get that? How’d I get in this bed? What happened?” Her head foggy, she couldn’t straighten her thoughts. It felt like there was something she needed to remember but couldn’t. Somewhere she needed to be but wasn’t. She needed, needed… “I gotta get outta here.”

“Relax.” His arms reached out to bound her, and she leaped off the bed away from him and sprinted for the door. He jumped in front of her with hands out.

“Get out of my way. I gotta go,” she said with quick breath.

“Go where?” His shoulders looked as if they would drop his arms.

Her mouth came apart, and she looked around the room. Then out the window. “I don’t know…”

“Look at me.” Jason’s hands were still out as he inched closer, but she didn’t look at him. Her view stayed out the window, and she turned towards it, drifting away from him. His hand caught her shoulder and the other her chin, turning her back to him carefully. “Hey… Come back to me.”

She came back to him, searching physically, searching mentally. “What happened?”

“Your crazy ass started a fire downtown.” His breath was calm — trained. “You got burned, passed out from smoke inhalation. I found you in time and took you home before anyone could connect it to you.”

She couldn’t see it. Couldn’t remember.

“You woke up in the car and flipped… Got us into an accident. Your head hit the dashboard…” Jason grimaced looking at her head, and no doubt the mess of her. “You have a fever and you’re talking crazy shit now.” He shook his head as if he didn’t know what to do with her, but wanted to laugh against it all. “You’re flipping. Alright? But you’re home.”   … That was the real reason he wanted to smile.

“It feels like I lost too much.”

His hands led down her arms, down to her hands, and closed his around hers. “You lost a little time. But only a day. It ain’t nothing we can’t make up — and do even better.” Only part of his cheek rose as he took a step closer, but the desperation was clear in his eyes.

Her lips and arms stayed dull, still waiting for the reasoning to return to them, the meaning, but it was gone. The only thing keeping her from surrendering to the fog sweeping at the forefront was the sharp sensation still cutting away at her. It was screaming for air, no one was listening so it gashed at her insides.

It faded further to the back the more elated Jason became, and she was thankful for the growing pain relief, but it felt as if she was slipping into an empty void — She couldn’t stand the numbness any longer. Not now.

As Ava’s eyes finally met with his, her brows came down — tight — and Jason groaned.

She shook his hands off  — “No” — and pushed him out of her way quickly and as hard she could, sending him skating on his back heels, and went for the door again. If she would’ve been in a better mood, she would have laughed at that sight all the way down the hallway.

But there was a lock on the door, newly installed — there were still wood crumbs on the floor — and unfortunately, Jason was one of the few people as fast as she was. His arm was around her waist carrying her back, attaching her to his hip like she was a football. Her arms and legs thrashed around like a wild animal, and her elbow came down on his head. HARD.

This sent a glimmer of clarity through her because it had made such a loud noise she was worried she went too far this time and really hurt him. And her limbs almost lost their strength, but he was in her way, and she had to go.

Jason took this one without a flinch though, and his temperance stayed strong. And that right there was how he had gotten so close to her where many have failed. His soul was strong and could withstand the test of time against her own destruction. But he was foolish for sticking around for so long.

It was possible it was easier for him now because he was becoming as numb as she was. And because of her… How long could it go on, and what was the point then?

Swinging her around to face him, he grabbed her arms to stop her from tearing him up and knocking his face in.

“Stop!” he hollered, his voice his deepest, but his eyes didn’t show its anger; they showed pain. They only deepened as she hollered back at him, unfiltered, unyielding, her voice going hoarse, no one listening. They were screaming at each other and tossing each other until their throats were dry and their muscles, tiring, were pulling them closer to the ground. She tasted blood in her mouth. Her hair was wet and sticking to her face. Purple was beginning to show under his eye and blood glistened under his nose.

Even then, it seemed Ava was witnessing a hollowing beginning inside him, but she couldn’t help herself. She’d eventually tear anyone up that stayed near, and now, it was like she was possessed with this new thing inside of her she couldn’t understand, and the only way to do so was to go free. Couldn’t he see that? Could he see how desperate she was?

She had gotten away from him and ran into the bathroom — but when Ava looked around she wasn’t in the bathroom — she was back in the lake house and had just run into her bedroom.

Oh god. She grabbed her head. “Please don’t tell me I’ve been running around upstairs like a mad-woman!” She thought she heard the floor creak near the stairs and wondered if Dahlila was there and Ava had completely freaked her out!

She ran over to her Duffle bag, grabbing a bottle of pills. “Fuck!” She slammed them on the dresser, despising the thought of taking them because she lost too much of herself when she did. It numbed her whole being and pushed it down as if it didn’t deserve to exist. But if she didn’t take them, she would ruin everything, and her chance to be normal would be gone. Her chance to be someone else. She opened them and popped a couple in her mouth.

Where would her feet go if the ground fell away? She needed wings. She’s always needed wings…

The curtain flowing in the breeze caught her eye, and she walked over to the window for fresh air. The moon was clear and beautiful and almost full, but he was quiet; he had been quiet for a very long time now. He’d been quiet since her mom left, and she missed his soft whispers, missed them so much…

Her hands glided over the windowsill, and she closed her eyes as the air lifted her hair. “Be strong, Ava,” she whispered like a soft breeze, taking a deep breath.

She let the sound of churning wind, rustling trees, and caressing waves lull her into a comfortable state. When the pills began to kick in, she headed for bed, praying for sleep, but it didn’t come that easy. The image of his eyes pierced through her thoughts uninvited.

It was that one moment that really wounded her, that one tiny moment when it was like looking in a mirror and she swore she seen her own struggles there… and that connected too far down, like a ghost attaching to its own body. It wasn’t easy to shake, no easier than walking past a homeless person struggling on the street, a struggle that made up most of her adult fibers.

 

But the fact of the matter was, she needed to forget ever seeing him. He at the very least inflamed her hallucinations and kept dust in the air that she was struggling to settle. It wasn’t hard to tell herself she imagined it, especially after what was in his eyes afterwards. But that wouldn’t convince her stomach, not where it still twisted from what it had felt. Her stomach twisted and her mind reeled from the sinister air she remembered of him. And for a while in the night, as she tossed back and forth, she wrestled with his piercing eyes like an old nightmare flashing back to haunt her. Thankfully, the pills finally took that away too.

 

                                                           

 

As his eyes lingered up at the window, at the girl’s flowing red hair, in her moment of serenity, as she closed her eyes and breathed in, his breathing had slowed. He leaned against the tree, his body partially black mist and shadow, blowing in the night breeze, watchful, induced into a quiet meditation and musing. A drizzle of blood dripped down his throat — blood he had taken only moments ago, blood meant to be… hers.

He was confounded. Could not fathom how he had turned from her. And there was a growing interest buzzing at his senses that he could not swat away. It starkly reminded him of a Will-o’-the-Wisp, a wispy light seen shining off the dark edges of the night, luring travelers away from their safe pathways. Is that what she was doing?

He wanted to distinguish that light.

Yet… There was ripple under her surface, and that ripple...

Layton,” a beautiful yet droning voice called from behind him. But he did not move.

Verina moved from behind, looking up into the window at the young woman inhaling her life back into her. “Still her?”

His eyes were without motion.

She turned to him and sniffed long and soft. “Something is shifting… I can smell it.” She took one more look in his unresponsive eyes. “Tread carefully,” Verina whispered and disappeared back into the dark.

After the girl pulled herself from the window, he pulled out a wrinkled up paper from his pocket, a drawing of the girl etched on it; Layton found it last night upon awakening. He sucked on the remaining blood at the back of his throat, closing his eyes, trying to imagine it to be hers. There was a new appetite growing underneath. He was grasping to find a sense of quench the last human had not fulfilled, simple fulfillment that came with it, and a quench that now seemed unattainable — that is, until he held this one in his arms, sucking the life from her, into himself, through his veins, his spirit ringing with hers. Euphoria. Or at least the closest his kind could get to the idea of it.

His body was now burning with anticipation, like the morning’s rising sun, full of not yet known delights, its little rays of life to be quieted by night’s kiss. The sweetest part of the day was always the setting sun…

Fire rose in him as he set on her new fate, seeming to inflate his veins impossibly, sending life through him once again, a life that had dried up long ago and left him an empty vessel for death’s wishes. He was a true master of death and errant to the rules of this world.

Layton followed the contours of his lips with the tip of his tongue, licking any reminisce of blood. He opened his eyes as an animal in hunt would when first sensing their prey. The corner of his mouth curved up as his dank, hungry eyes narrowed with profound intent.

Chapter 8 Child of the Night

A scream gurgled from Ava’s throat as she jumped from sleep.

It was day.

The sun was shining bright through the bedroom window, too bright. She could hear laughter and familiar voices coming from downstairs. Ava sat up in bed a minute trying to figure out what it was, irritated. She was not a morning person.

It was Danny and Shane, eight A.M., and they were already there, doing god knows what.

She got up to throw some clothes on, first stopping in front of the long oval mirror to look at herself, trying to admire what she saw. Tired eyes glistening in the sun, staring back at her. She was surprised to see the fire mounting her irises similar to her mother’s, not sure when it had begun to develop. Her hair had been died so long she didn’t even remember her natural hair color: brown something… It took too much to remember back.

They say you’ll never love someone else if you couldn’t love yourself. No wonder. She pondered how someone who didn’t think they were ugly, felt so ugly. She was told since she was a child how pretty she was, and yet, all she could see was ugly — hate, contempt, destruction, broken, mangled, deformed...

Ava always had the athletic body type: petite breasts, hard stomach, and long lean legs. And she’s always felt strong and fast. Her skin was soft but patched with memories of a hard lived life. She wrapped her arms around her chest, her palms over the newest scars from the bathroom incident, growing over her tattoos — there were slash marks through the moon she had on her back shoulder. It only a tiny fraction of the scars she had. That had to be at least a small testament to her strength. Yet, the worst scars were the ones that can’t be seen.

How can one look in the mirror and see beauty for an image that every time they’ve seen it, they had been feeling guilt, shame, pity, desperation, disgust, hatred, anger, hunger? Why was it so hard to find happiness there? She had supposed in order to find it, was to not look in the mirror, to be blind, to not be you, not be where you are. And when you turned away from the mirror, you could be anyone and anything — and you were every time. You changed everything like a magician. Until, it was time to go back to the mirror and see the face under the mask again.

Ava turned from the mirror before her fist broke it.

In the kitchen, she found the boys bantering as usual — making breakfast. Danny was cutting vegetables up on the island, and Shane turned to Danny from the stove, waving his dripping spatula around as he ran his mouth.

Danny glanced up at Shane with a double look. “You’re dripping grease everywhere, dude! Put your hands down and watch the burner.” Danny threw a piece of pepper at him.

“What?” Shane’s cheeks puckered up, and his lips folded, trying to contain an embarrassed smile. “I can’t talk and cook at the same time?”

“Shane, if you could do both at the same time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Speaking of both at the same time, was that Trish’s voice I heard this morning when you called?”

“Shane.”

“Fine,” he mumbled. “But you know you’re are not the ‘Queen B’ in the kitchen jus’ ‘cause ya mom is.”

“What?” Danny’s head whipped up.

“I SAID… SOUR CREAM — chips, yogurt.” He pushed around at the bacon in the pan, mumbling. “Dip… dogs, cats...” His voice went lower and lower until inaudible.

Danny looked at him dumbfounded, shaking his head.

Shane grabbed the piece of pepper on the counter that Danny threw at him. “Wait. Why are you even slicing peppers? Dahlila said Ava don’t like ‘em.”

“Who cares?” Danny’s lip rose. “We like them. Put them in.”

“No,” Shane huffed, throwing it at him, and hit him right in the forehead; Danny’s eyes blew open.

 “Shane. I swear to god. I’m goin’ to beat your head in,” he spewed, about to go after him.

Shane raised the spatula.

“Peppers are fine,” Ava declared calmly, moving into the kitchen, trying to stop a fight from unfolding. “But I’m not hungry.”

In the window, a rose bush moved in the breeze and the smell filled the kitchen. As she walked farther into the kitchen, she saw Dahlila slumping at the end of the kitchen table with her chin in her hand. Her hair was a mess and eyes heavy, completely un-amused by the other two. It wasn’t a look she thought she’d ever see of her.

Ava couldn’t help but to chuckle. “How do you deal with these two?”

Dahlila’s eyes moved to their direction but not completely and then back. “What two?”

Ava’s brows rose in amusement. The whole thing was so ordinarily mundane and weightless and bright that her chest warmed a bit.

“That’s how,” Dahlila murmured with a hint of smile.

“See.” Danny shot a look at Shane. Shane ignored him, throwing the spatula in the pan to go sit at the table next to Ava.

“Fucking Perfect.” Danny went to tend to the frying pan. “I’ll just cook everyone breakfast.”

Ava gave Shane a funny look as he took a seat and he tried not to smile. “So,” he began, trying to be serious and not look directly in Ava’s eyes. “We’re about to head to a private car show out of town.” He started rearranging the berries from a bowl to a straight line on the counter. “Do you like cars?” He looked up at Ava, his eyes bright in interest, and as soon as he did he broke out in a smile — and so did she. “You should come.”

Dahlila dropped her hand, coming out of her morning grog. “Yeah. You should come.”

Ava put her head down, rubbing her thumb between her brows. Please stop.

Shane’s chin contracted, hesitant to say anything else, but Dahlila quickly added, “Of course, if you’re tired from last night, we — ”

“No.” Ava stopped her. “I’m not tired. I just have a few things to get done today. And, I’m still trying to get settled in, you know?”

They nodded.

“Don’t you guys have class? Or are you on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule like me?”

“I’m not,” Shane answered. “They are.”

 “We’ll only be gone until tomorrow morning.” Dahlila rubbed her head. “I might miss one class. Danny’s showing his car there — 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible. It’s the only time he drives that thing.” She fell half back to sleep.

 “The only time he drives period.” Shane popped a raspberry in his mouth from his line of berries.

“Yo, fuck you. I drive. Drove your ass here, didn’t I?”

“There are exceptions. And motor-boating doesn’t count.” Shane flinched up as if he was about to be hit and looked behind him for Danny, who had ignored him. He turned back to Ava with a joker smile as she choked down her spit.

 “We planned this awhile back; Danny loves cars. He’s going to be a car designer like his father.”

“Step. Father,” Shane corrected.

“Father.” Danny groaned.

 “And his father works for Jordan’s dad, who is the global head of design for Chevrolet. He could probably get him in quickly if Jordan...” Dahlila paused.

“The posh dude? The leader of the pack?” Ava asked, and Dahlila nodded. “Wouldn’t seem up to it to me.”

“Well, he was up to it before we stopped hanging out. I dated him for a couple years, so I know him well enough to wager he’d still keep his word for Danny.” Dahlila looked at Danny. “I hope so, anyway. Jordan’s mom is the Dean of Agatha College; that’s why most of them are getting their prerequisites there. They’re all set… We’re all set.”

“It sounds like Jordan can just get anything he wants.” Ava was sick of hearing about him. She threw a berry at Shane, who looked sick of it too. He perked up. “Bet I can design a better car than you, Danny.”

“Bullshit.” He turned from the pan, puffing out his chest. Ava laughed inside, and Shane’s eyes turned into half moons. She threw another berry at him, and he caught it with his mouth.

Ava started thinking about the peace she’d finally have today. She needed to run to the store for art supplies and work on her room so she could have a comfortable space to disappear to and draw and paint. The back room popped in her head with the conservatory off it — all those windows.

She turned to Dahlila. “That room in the back?”

“Yeah?”

“Were you planning on doing anything with it?”

“Not in my life. It’s the junk room. And that’s saying something in this house. I hate that room.”

“You wouldn’t mind if I turned that into my bedroom instead, would you?”

She looked confused at first. “Oh… No. Go right ahead… if you feel like dealing with all the crap in there. It’d be nice seeing someone make use of it again, I guess… And, anything in there you want, you can have it. I’ll throw it out, anyway.”

“She’s been itching to throw that shit out.” Danny set down a plate in front of Dahlila and plopped heaps of food on it. “You want orange juice?” he asked her. She nodded.

He handed Shane and Ava a plate. “Go tear it up. I’m not your butler.”

“I’m alright.” Ava pushed the plate. “I’ll make myself something to eat, later.”

He pushed the plate back towards her. “Eat. It’s no big deal.”

She didn’t budge.

“Please, don’t let my hard work go to waste.”

She took the plate back carefully in her hands like she was taking a hundred dollars and would have to pay back two hundred.

Shane raised a finger in the air. “Our hard work.”

Danny scoffed and looked at Shane slumped over in his seat, rolling berries around on the counter. “Yeah. Real fucking hard, Shane.”

He went to grab the orange juice, and Shane raced over to the eggs, flinging out the peppers before Ava could get there. She didn’t want to ruin his heroic attempt and tell him, but there was a pan next to it already, with eggs and no peppers.

 

                                                            -

 

The heavy air stirred when she opened the door to the back room, rustling up dust. The windows were covered in tan sheets, falling off and letting cracks of sunlight through that highlighted the dust floating through the air. Its gentle rays softly nourished her skin as she walked through. 

An old record player sat on a stand against the wall and was the only thing not covered with sheets, though it was caked with dust and ceiling decay. Sitting next to it was a half melted candle and brass candleholder. Above it, a gold, oval mirror hung on torn wallpaper. Soft light shined through the hairs that fell free from her wild bun, curling softly as they dried.

Ava lifted the needle to the record player and slowly lowered it on the record, curious to hear what it was. The music lofted through the room, light and beautiful… timeless, almost haunting.

The sheets came off the windows first, leaving feeble white curtains hanging. Light burst through the room. She opened the windows so fresh air flooded in, catching the feather-light curtains around her, suspending in serenity. A strong familiar scent passed. She inhaled it until it was gone as quickly as it came, opening her eyes in confused bliss.

The farthest away from the window’s light, against a discolored brick wall, lay one of the largest objects in the room, facing opposite of the windowed wall. Underneath the ragged sheets was a round Venetian bed with fleur-de-lis legs. Its elegant, curvy headboard, the shape of a queen’s high collar, was wrapped in white leather. A silky, light purple sheet wrapped around its round mattress, a satin white blanket thrown on it, and smaller white pillows lie on the back.

 “Damn,” she gasped. Excitement surging through her, she raveled up the sheets and started on the rest of the room in a hurry, wondering what was wrong with Dahlila.

The boxes were a daunting task with so many of them. They were filled with everything from clothes to letters to paintings. She could sell most to their local thrift shop for Dahlila, so she separated them. Though, Ava came across one painting she would keep that really touched her: a young girl who seemed to be drenched in sorrow; her head hung low, looking at her bloody hands, bounded by chains.

Ava looked at the setting sun with a smile. As much as she liked to enjoy the light, there really was no denying she was a child of the night as soon as it filled the air and she was more comfortable in her own skin again.

She brought in her easel that she had just purchased from a shop not too far from school and the rest of her materials and set it up in the middle of the windows. She could probably paint the stars from there.

Ava lit the candle and put on another record. She looked in the mirror, which reflected the window-door on the other side of the room behind her, and saw a person’s silhouette in the doorframe.

And not just any silhouette.

She spun around. There was nothing there. Ava stared at the door, waiting for something to move, to mimic what she thought she had seen, to explain it, to figure out if she had seen it at all.

Ava walked painfully slow to the window and peered out into the dark, hopeful to find someone and hopeful not to. Just to be sure, she closed the door and shut and locked all the windows. If it was a hallucination, she was going to be furious at herself for bringing him back in her head. Her dark stranger… Her stomach knotted.

The lights went out.

Ava hissed, looking up at the bulbs, her hands still latched onto the window locks.

She grabbed the candle and a metal bar next to her door for a weapon and ran to lock everything through the house, checking upstairs as well. Ava drifted through the rooms downstairs trying to figure out where the cellar would be for the breaker box, fire trailing around her in the darkness, almost seeing silhouettes and faces everywhere.

“Flashlights!” There were none in the kitchen drawers. Running back to the bedroom, she stilled quickly.

A smell from earlier drifted back through the house, catching and familiar like a memory — then a flicker of change, too quick and small to comprehend. Then the house began to change more drastically in front of her and Ava was close to panic. The walls, the floors, the furniture changed. Voices that sounded from a different time echoed around her, and a continuing change of music, from jazz to classical, rose from a whisper to an in-house orchestra.

Then it all went away as a calm touched the back of her mind. But it came back and went away again. Back and forth it went, until finally a quiet storm rushed through her, closing her eyes involuntarily. The small hairs on the back of her neck frayed. A tranquil caress floated down through her body and heat grew in her stomach and chest, opening her ears to secrets and hymns only night’s children could hear. She understood the sound very well, when she listened.

She was floating away, to somewhere. A place where thoughts were only what you felt, and what you felt was what you wished. Or what you feared.

And she felt him.

Felt him behind her, him desiring to touch her, her desiring him to touch her. The music breached through like a dull shard of glass against her skin, breaking a layer, a throbbing reminder of reality, reality far away. She didn’t want to go back to reality; it would have to be sharper, cutting deeper until she bled.

And even then…

 

Chapter 9 Dreams

Aching. Everything was aching, her body, her mind, the presence of day as she slipped away from a deep dream... The sun was too bright and her bones too heavy, heavy like a sedative. Ava wanted to fall back asleep to her dreams. She had felt at peace, wherever it was.

Opening her eyes to the ceiling, the sound of paper crinkled under her as she moved, her memory blurry. She must have just passed out last night. Had the lights even gone out?

Ava turned over, splaying the papers with her hand. Her fingers were black and chalky; she must have been drawing. She went to shuffle through the papers with her left hand too and noticed it blotchy with red, red all over the papers, red on her flannel. The smell was potent; it was blood.

Peeling off her flannel, she found dried, crispy blood running down her arm. She felt up to the top of her shoulder where the aching was the strongest and tensed from pain as she laid her hand on some kind of wound. It was sticky.

What the hell did she cut herself with?

Ava stood up, looking around the room, trying to find some evidence of what she did. She switched the lights on and off easily.

She huffed and looked back at the mess on the bed, her head disarrayed. A drawing lay there that caught her where she stood — her dark stranger — a sight which to her was sharp metal knives and soft, sweet lilacs across her chest. Had she sketched him in her sleep? An intimate close up. His eyelashes lay contrasted on his cheeks as he looked down and away. The drawing was unnerving to her, almost taunting.

And it was beautiful.

She reached out her fingers over it, slightly shaking. It was blotted with blood as well. Her fingers were blotted with blood. “Who are you?” Frustrated and tired of the whole thing, she wrapped her fingers around it and ripped it up, throwing it over her shoulder as she went to get ready for class.

She had let the night haunt her — no more.

 

                                                            -

 

“Hey, buddy.” Shane’s head bobbed around Ava’s open locker, one headphone dangling from his ear. She was trying to organize things to clear her head and beat her fatigue. It hadn’t even been a week, and her fingers were falling off the steering wheel. “This is becoming a normal thing.” He looked into her locker, giving an odd look. “I think you’re getting attached.”

“Ignorance is bliss, is it?” she asked, still in her locker, wondering if this whole move was actually a nightmare.

“Well that depends. Do you mean ignorance as in an attitude sense, or a not knowing kind of thing?”

“More like living in an oblivious state of mind kind of thing.” She leaned on her locker to look at him thoroughly. He had a cap over his head and pieces of hair escaped from it.

“Oh yes, then, that is bliss.”

“I envy you.” She let her brows fall and his eyes slanted. Then it looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked… happily stuck…

Ava shook her head at him; he was really beginning to grow on her.

Dahlila and Danny turned into the hallway. “There’s the gang,” Ava said sarcastically, turning towards them. It was still a bizarre feeling, seeing the all-American boy and the all-American girl walking up to Ava to chit-chat like buddies.

“We were at an awesome car show.” Dahlila smiled.

 “Fuck yeah.” Shane flicked the drawing Ava had hung on her locker door. She swatted his hand away and shook her head at him again.

“What?” He tried to hold back a smirk.

She tried to ignore him as she turned back to Dahlila. “We have that thing at the town library later today, right, for class?”

“Oh. Yeah.” She frowned. “Somehow, I forgot about that.”

“Where is that at?”

“All the way up town. It’s at the edge of Aberdeen hill.” Dahlila suddenly perked up. “Did you want to ride with me?”

“Yeah. I mean, I can easily get there, one way or another, but since you’re already going that way…”

“Not a problem. I can’t believe Professor Putnik volunteered us AND we lose credit if we don’t go. I mean — some of us have tight schedules as it is.”

 “Well, it’s not until tonight,” Ava said dryly, wanting to hit her head on the locker.

 “What the hell’d she volunteer you for?” Danny asked.

“For a library friends group. Something about a support group for the library and promoting its importance in the community. No wonder the guidance counselors were pushing this class on everyone. At the end of the semester, we have to hand in a social study of the experience. Are you coming with us?” Dahlila’s puppy dog eyes opened dramatically to Danny.

“I’m not going.” He huffed. “I need to swim before I choke someone.”

“Eat a Snickers, Phelps,” Shane said, looking at Danny.

“Huh?”

“You’re cranky when you’re hungry.”

Danny’s face tightened and his eyes grew bloodshot, trying to stay cool.

The girls looked to Shane, waiting for an answer from him as well.

 “I’m not going.” He shook his head, his eyebrows shooting to the top of his forehead; Ava thought his eyebrows were going to jump off his face.

“Wow, guys,” Ava said, looking for her pen. For two days — could barely shake them off. One mention of a library — they go running for the hills.

“What?” Shane gawked.

“I bet that place stinks like shit from the fire they had last year. Good luck with that.” Danny turned from them.

“Yeah. I suppose that’s why they need all the help they can get. Still… I wanted to dance tonight.” Dahlila pressed her lips together as if she was trying to figure out how to make it all work.

“Alright.” Ava looked at her watch and shut her locker, which might have become the meeting place it seemed, since it was on the way to their classes and everyone else stored their books in Dahlila’s car. “We’re gonna be late.”  

“You’re starting to sound like me.” Dahlila protruded her lips.

“That’s not such a bad thing.”

Ava shot the boys another quick look before leaving, shaking her head one more time. Danny was already down the hall, and Shane was just about to turn, but at that, stopped in his tracks.

“What?” he yelled after her eagerly.

She tried to keep herself from laughing and stuck her headphones in her ears, turning up a slowed down version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics that she loved, as loud as it could go so she could stay awake and ignore everyone for the day.

 

                                                           

 

Thrum... Thrum.... Thrum.... Thrum... Thrum… Thrum… Thrum… Thrum…

Thrumming in the depths of Layton’s subconscious kept him awake. That same thrumming built vigilance to keep him at bay to the outer edges of her world for now when it was hard to resist, a keen strength to wallow in her becoming. Her becoming his.

Tastes of her on his tongue only slight while he let her breathe like fine wine, fear and desire cultivating inside her to feed his bottomless pit. For fear cannot feel fear, and death cannot die. Death has no desire… so then how can it hold favorite?

She will be taken completely… when it was time, but for now, he had to prepare her — or prepare himself.

He would curl up in a warm blanket of her lively flesh, suckling its heat through his veins, his venom filling her up, coursing through all her tunnels, nursing away her urgency to move into himself. The arms ceasing to rise, the hands to claw. A surge deeply through him and to her, enticing his latch tighter, vigorous — alive, alive — intertwining with its flesh blanket through the night until dawn. Until sleep began singing. Its comfort voice offered the softness of sleep — for him sleep that empowered living, for her sleep that empowered death… sleep eternal. The only serenity he knew. The quiet from the nothing. The dusk to the continuing. A dawn from madness he lay in, but could not hear anymore.

No.

Not death for her yet. A different path awaits them.

Layton drifted through her room, following the smell of her blood raveled in her clothes, tossed to the side, and his breathing deepened. It was a very difficult thing to do, to hold back then thought possibly able. Have her — this whispered continuously until they weren’t words but a steady noise in his head. Too many noises growing in his head now. This was more than a night’s lullaby; he needed to take this one’s difficulties in slowly, like honing an important skill. But he would break her. He would. And he would have her.

He did not expect to feel the irritableness he felt though, as his eyes set on a ripped up paper lying on the floor.

It was a drawing of him.

Ripped apart. Thrown to the wind — tossed away as if it were nothing to her…

Annoyance.

It was an odd sensation and it was also noisy. He tilted his head to the noise, neck tightening, jaw locking.

Annoyance, as if before it there had been, for a flicker of time, care that she had drawn the picture at all. Thoughts had only been of her in his grip — now there he had been in hers. And she wouldn’t keep it. He understood needing her flesh; this need was beginning to burn. He understood needing to make use of her; that was order. But he did not understand needing more. Nor did he understand what. More. Enough for her to keep his picture...

He growled, crumpling the paper between his fingers in frustration and turned from the room.

Where is she —

 

                                                           

 

Off its New England shores, it sat there like a country estate at the edge of a cliff — the Richardson Library, built in its Romanesque Revival glory in the 1800s. The road there opened up to little town shops and cobblestone pavement, and at the very top of Aberdeen Hill, it stood out in grandeur. Its bell tower stared out over the waters and over its town. It was certainly a sight to behold for Ava when it came into view on the way there as the light purple skies and soft gray clouds behind it began to fade to black.

And carrying to her in the air, from over those Atlantic waters, was that explicit scent that tinged her nostrils and raised the hairs on her arms, ringing with the feeble lullaby that had brought her to town in the first place. Only now, its strength was waxing. But only now, Ava was pretending not to hear it.

Ava had an odd attachment already to the library’s eldritch structure standing against the darkness as they arrived to the front door. It was a formidableness that disappeared like smoke in the wind when she opened the doors and cherished memories flushed back to her that she had forgotten.

At a very young age, in times when Ava had no place to go, she would go to the library sometimes to keep warm. She remembered the first time she walked in one; to her it looked colossal and archaic, even though it probably wouldn’t look that way now. What seemed to be a never-ending amount of opportunities, experiences, and adventures were right at her fingertips; everything that she would miss out on in life, she could get from one book. And so, whenever she walked in, the world instantly grew brighter for her; if even for a few hours, she could escape and felt all the more powerful for it.

Unfortunately, as time went on, life swept her away from books and the library, and she turned to other things to escape. Somehow, she had forgotten about how much the library meant to her once, like it just vanished to make room for more pressing things. Maybe because she had realized dreams were dangerous.

But as she entered The Richardson Library to see the two floors filled with shelves of books under a superior arched roof, sumptuous opportunities in her tiny vicinity, and the smell of old and new paper hitting her nostrils like grandparent’s wisdom and long ancient nights, it all came back to her. Her shoulders relaxed. The faint reminisce of burnt paper drifted with it, the same way darkness always trailed in happiness. And for a fleeting second, she felt connected to the world and not an outcast to it. It reminded her of hope.

The entrance area was warm and lit with soft orange lamplight. Behind the front counter, a girl sat watchful with dark brown doll-like curls, smoky-eyes, and a pudgy nose and nose ring; she told them to wait there for their instructor. To the left, plastic curtains hanging for construction blocked it off. The right side was in a state of dismay. Bins of books stood next to empty shelves. All the way to the back, down a long stretch of hallway, past another sea of shelves, was where they would hold their group meeting.

She noticed suddenly, at the other end of the counter, sat another girl watching her as if she was uncomfortable by Ava’s presence, and Ava recognized her. “Isn’t that the girl you pulled up to the house with, your neighbor?”

Dahlila looked away and snorted. “No. Tanya is not that old!”

“What are you talking about? She’s not ol—” Ava looked back to see an extremely wrinkled woman there looking back, her lips pressed together so firm they disappeared. “Wow.” Ava looked away, unable to hold in a laugh. “I don’t know what I thought I saw. Maybe she went in the back.”

“So…” Dahlila started, with a smile, and Ava already knew she was about to continue her hints in the car ride over. “Shane is really into you.”

“I would eat that boy for a snack.”

“But — ”

“Like a grape.”

“He — ”

“It seems Danny’s really into you.”

Dahlila’s mouth slapped together.

Ava decided to go see if they were hiring for anything since Professor Putnik was running late. She stayed clear of the older woman though, who seemed like there was nothing more scrumptious to her than to chase them out with a broom. Ava may even have seen her in a giddy shake as she turned her hungry eyes from them.

“Frank,” the doll curls called, turning to go in the back. When she returned, she was with a man with a heavy five-o’clock shadow and bags under his eyes, a pair of glasses strung through his graying hair. He looked comfortable in a wool sweater and distraught as if she’d just woken him up.

“Yup? Someone looking for a job?” His strained eyes met up with Ava, and he took his glasses from his hair, dropping the wild strands to his chin, put them on, and lifted his chin to her.

Ava nodded. “I am.”

“Do you have any experience in the library?” He slipped his hand in his pocket and rocked back on his feet, pondering her over.

“Not exactly. But I can learn.”

He scratched his chin hair with his other hand and looked around. “Well, we need all kinds of help. As you can see, we’re struggling to get this place in order. We haven’t had the funds until recently. But we’re hoping this new community program will help bring in more revenue from the town, and the support goes a long way.” He nudged in the direction of her instructor who had just walked in. “Are you with the college students joining our friends group?”

“Yeah.”

“Plus. Do you like night shifts?”

“Prefer it.”

“Another plus. I have a night shift available to get work done under the community’s nose…” He added as if he was telling a ghost story, “While no one’s here — Five to Ten p.m. It’s easy work. Mostly organizing and cleaning. If you’re interested, Ivy here, will give you an application. Bring it back tomorrow. We’ll train you if it checks out.” His eyes trailed to the old lady. “…And don’t worry about old Mrs. Kraven here… as long as you stay an inch or two away — she doesn’t move fast.” He bounced on his heel and walked back to wherever he came from. Ava and Dahlila shared a looked before grabbing the application and shuffling in with the rest of the class.

They were handed pamphlets of information about the library, the town, the friends group, and school programs that were in the same general field, then given a tour of the library, and were seated for the next couple hours to listen to a lecture and discussions of the group. The only one of their class that seemed to be genuinely interested and asking questions was Marion, who was part of the elite and had told the librarian proudly that he was to become a historian.

It was a large open area with comfortable chairs and couches. With the exception of the smell of cinder and Dahlila’s old crew, it was cozy.

Ava wore a sweater that hung low off her shoulder, a tight, short skirt that had caught attention in the day. Charles John Rey and Tez Martin, who were also part of the elite and who usually didn’t want to be bothered with anyone outside their clique, spent the day cat calling her. They had tunnel vision on her since the first day of math class when she took a leaf out of her pocket to play with.

It was even more obnoxious than Charles drawn out demeaning voice, and Ava wasn’t in the mood to be bothered by anyone, not even Dahlila. She thought heavily about throwing a sharp pencil into their flesh, but she didn’t think it would do any good to anyone to catch charges. So, when they had thrown another little piece of paper at her, she put her leg up on the back of a chair, chowed down on her gum, took it out of her mouth and squished it on the tip of the pencil, then — she whipped it right at Charles’ head, right into his shiny and feathery blond hair.

He went running for the bathroom when he couldn’t get it out, cursing her the whole way. She put another piece of gum in her mouth, gave Tez and his golden afro a moment’s look, and then tried to focus back on the librarian — who was trying to calm everyone back down. Ava heard a deeper voice laughing from behind her; she turned just to see Frank turn from the room. Shit...

There were whispers from that side of the room for a while; that was nothing new to her.

 “The founder of the Richardson Library, John Hobstell, was unnerved by the school system and worked at creating a better one and a better man for tomorrow. He spent his whole life building and creating easier access to knowledge and learning. He himself had a strive for knowledge so great, he spent all of his free time learning everything he could from math to medicine and to mineralogy, traveling all over the world with unsurpassed ambition.

 “According to a silly town legend,” the librarian boasted, “his mansion was built right here, next to the library. On the brink of a new discovery, he disappeared, never to be heard from again, and the mansion with him. Construction workers swore to have worked on it, but with no blueprints or records or even one brick left behind, there was no way to prove it. Some say, Mr. Hobstell found exactly what he was looking for. While others say, he is still here looking…” The lady looked proud of herself when she received the energetic reactions to her story. Ava wondered how many other ‘ghost stories’ they told around there.

“Myths, legends, and facts alike are imperative to understanding our past and our future, and that’s why collecting information is important. Our town is old, and so are our stories, we must take care. So, for you, our friends, you are here to help. Help spread the word, the importance, and the call for help to keep us standing.”

Ava looked over at Professor Putnik who was zoned out, and thought about Lithium, the world underground and right under their noses. And thought about the guy she had been afraid to let in her thoughts for even a second. What was it about them all?

It was unordinary and tantalizing; she could understand why the Professor would find this world uninteresting after being a part of that. Unordinary, for Ava, though, was a neighborhood away from madness, and she had been trying to build a brick wall away from those alleyways. Away from getting stuck inside her head again with that overwhelming loss. Away from being that same destroyed person she was for so long.

After a while, the speakers and the subjects all blurred together, and she was fighting to keep her eyes open. Dahlila laughed but Ava ignored her. Most people played on their phones; she sketched. Her eyes continued to get heavier anyway.

She was looking at a clock on the wall, above the back door, behind the lecturer. The whole time she had been sketching it, it was quiet. The hands didn’t move; it was broken — until suddenly and swiftly, the hand lowered: Tick.

And then it ticked again. And it continued ticking — its arms bending to show its crookedness, its true face, distorted, ticking loudly, and striking everything else into background noise. Until there was no noise.

Ava looked around uncomfortably to see everyone moving in abnormal slow motion and in a deformed functioning. Standing up slowly, she tried to snap Dahlila out of it to grab her and take her out of there; Dahlila disappeared.

No one acknowledged her presence as she moved in front of them. Their mouths expressed their words slow, as if strained and drowning, but there was no noise coming out. Any person she zeroed onto, their mouths sped up inhumanly, at times their bodies jerking in a fast motion to keep up, as if the speed was hacking at their bodies.

She ran.

“Are you okay?” The girl at the counter asked — who was now, Tanya, Dahlila’s neighbor; she knew she had seen her.

Ava took a deep breath, relieved it was normal again. “Yeah. I’m fine.” Always fine.

The lights above flickered and she looked up to see nothing; the only lights lit now were candles where there were none before. Candle sconces flickered against the walls as the surrounding light dimmed into a midnight glow, a blue sorrow, and the sound of a music box played twistedly and gently inside the walls, seeping out into singed spots through the wallpaper. When she looked back, Tanya was gone.

Ava heard a noise coming from down the hall; it sounded like a child. The closer she traveled to it, the more the walls changed. Wallpaper formed as she walked, charring greater with the sound of the melody, until there were birds singing in the night, and it opened into a courtyard with a fountain in the middle. She thought for a second she heard the water flowing, but instead it only made a soft and slow, muffled, grinding noise. For every blending wave, was light and static noise inside it. There was a tinkling somewhere, like glass against something hard, and then a trailing of something sharp, coming closer. And then night birds again. And a lullaby in her head. Whispers.

There was no moon; it was something else.

She turned to go back, and her dark stranger was there in front of her. He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her tight to him, almost to the point of suffocation, creating pain, or washing it away, and he leaned down until his face touched hers and whispered, “Stay.

He lifted his face until their eyes leveled. The water turned to blood and the building went up in flames around them.

Now she was looking at the silent clock again.

The room was normal, and she swallowed, struggling to act normal, swiping the sweat pelts from her head. She had known better not to think of him; he triggered and inflamed this each time. Ava had slipped.

Just as she thought about getting up to get a drink of water, below the clock, the door swung open, sweeping up papers as it did, and in glided the man from her dream as real as anything else.

She gasped.

“…You’ve got to be kidding me.” Ava lowered into her chair fever-like, becoming shockingly wide-awake and on the verge of hyperventilating.

He walked past Professor Putnik, and only then did Putnik seem to take on some form of consciousness. Ava flashed back to the night before and the night before that and shivered. The picture she drew of him, it was uncanny how she had captured him, as if his face never left her memory, the way images do after time, or as if she had all the time in the world to study it in just those short moments. She knew it was because she would never forget it. And it touched too close — it was too raw to be comfortable, not supposed to be. Her hands began to shake.

And then his eyes flashed to her.

Ava’s body tensed like a battle was declared, one he seemed hell-bent to win. He took a seat near.

“Damn,” Dahlila marveled, her eyes heightened on Ava. The rest of the room too.

Ava couldn’t acknowledge her or anyone else; she was trying to act like nothing was bothering her, nothing was wrong as blood rang in her ears. She could feel the onset of something fierce, worse than anything before, if she didn’t calm. Ava jumped up, and without saying a word, she took off.

Flying through the stacks, looking for the restrooms, she stopped and tried to take in a deep breath, telling herself she was fine. She turned around to go the other way, because at this point, she was lost, and he was standing there, almost like he’d been there the whole time, watching her with curiosity.

Breath.

Why does he look at her like that? Like they’ve had some unspoken understanding — a connection… a lie. He etched closer to her, the tiniest glimmer of a smile in his eyes now; she hadn’t expected to see that in there after knowing its bottomless pit. And inside now was also a dangerous promise of something. There was hunger, a need; she could feel it in the small space between them.

Breath.

He circled her into the bookcase, putting out his arms on the sides of her, locking her in, her hairline still damp.

“Why run off in such a way? Are you not well?” he asked.

His voice hummed deep and slow, his face leaning down close to hers as if that’s where it should always be. She found herself distracted by his voice. The slightest accent played at the end that she couldn’t put her finger on. It was low and husky, yet seemed to hum off the back of his throat and swing off his tongue. His lips… puffed softly off his face, billowed and luscious; she wanted to know what they felt like. His bottom lip, slightly bigger, had a small, comfortable dip when he hung his mouth open, slick from where his tongue glided over it before he talked. There was tingling sensation coursing through her.

His eyes trailed down to her shoulder, shortly preoccupied with her Band-Aid there. He ran his thumb over it as he tilted his head slightly, and then his eyes rose to hers, vibrating inside. Then when she couldn’t answer him, a small smile crept on the side of those lips that were almost her undoing.

“Do I scare you?”

Ava flashed her eyes at him. “…If you scared me… you would be bent over in pain right now. And I would be a mile out.”

He did scare her. But not enough to want out. Her eyes followed down his chest as his left arm started to bend, closing the space between them, and the side of his torso touched against hers. Her nostrils picked up that scent she felt familiar, and her eyes shot up at him, eyebrows furrowing up in realization or question.

He lowered his face, his jaw setting on her left temple and cheekbone lightly, clenching her eyes closed at the touch of bare pressure, her lips falling loose from each other. His nose caressed Ava’s hair; she felt him inhale it, the vibrations in his chest, in her chest. His nose traveled down to her neck, trailing her skin, still softly inhaling, igniting goose bumps. And then a flicker. Oh no… Not now. Please not now. She’d almost forgotten them.

She opened her eyes in panic. And he was gone.

Ava ran out of there, this time like she knew exactly how to get out, went straight home and swallowed her pills without thinking and sat there in the bed. She didn’t really think about anything at all. She fell into a trance. Ava didn’t have it in her to think about if she was crazy this time, or to worry about what she saw, or contemplate what happened with him, if it was even real; she could feel it in her chest, and her mind was gone.

Ava opened her eyes to the falling of the sun. There were voices outside the door pondering on whether or not to knock on it. They didn’t. Her eyes closed with the last light in the sky. Only then did she realize that the sun had already set hours before she got home.

When she opened them again, only the light of the moon shone. And a voice again. This time it was singing. A little girl singing. Ava rose out of bed, her hearing adjusting to it. She went out the room to follow it. She followed it through the house quietly, attentively, until it was gone, and went back to lie down.

 

The little girl’s voice singing, Ava heard before when she was little. It had woken her from sleep. She tried to find her. Being fearful, she jumped in her mom’s bed to wake her. Eyes half closed, her mother hushed her. “It’s okay, honey. It’s only your soul trying to communicate with you. Come on. Get in bed with me. Get back to sleep.” She moved over and lowered her head back in the pillow like she never woke at all. Ava curled up next to her, too terrified to fall back asleep and too curious. When Ava asked about it the next day, her mother said that she hadn’t said a thing like that; it was only a dream. Of course.

 

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allan Poe

 

Thursday morning Ava sat up in bed, with a surge of manic energy, but not feeling much like seeing anyone. And whoever that guy was, she needed to stay clear of him especially, keep him out of her mind, and clear her head — first and foremost.

Then, the worst thought that she never wanted to succumb to crept in her head: maybe she should consider institutionalizing herself. Ava hated that idea with every fiber in her body, and it made her ill.

She looked around the room and wondered how many times was she going to find herself locked up in there. It was like her own asylum already, her personal cell, locking herself in a straight jacket to protect everyone else. Suddenly, she was imagining herself in a straight jacket, but not in a padded room, but one with old dirty tiles, thrashing about, hitting her head on the hard walls, her hair matted with blood and dirt, and her face not like anything she’s ever seen of herself.

“Eh.” Ava shivered. It was time for a run; she had to get herself back on track — she just had to.

After getting dressed, she grabbed a drink from kitchen. The sun was bright and clear and by the roses hitting the window, the breeze seemed great for a run. But then Shane came in from the other room; Ava groaned. “Not right now, Shane.”

“Day off today?” Shane asked treading towards her with a hesitant smile, his head lowered cautiously. She ignored him and went for the front door before hearing Dahlila and Danny coming in. This isn’t happening.

“Ava!” Dahlila exclaimed. “Are you okay? You left in such a hurry —” Dahlila walked closer to Ava to put her hand on her, but Ava slid out the way and started for the door again.

“Ava?” Dahlila called.

“What the hell’s your problem?” Danny let go of the door to stand near Dahlila.

Ava swung around. “Look. Just leave me the fuck alone. Okay?” She looked at every one of them, seeing exactly what she had once feared to ever see in their eyes. She went out the door, and shut it behind her, leaning her back on it to breathe. Fuck. She felt like how Jack and Rose did, hanging on the back of the Titanic as it sank.

They had come to check on her and she spit on them. Ava had promised herself she wouldn’t do this. What was the point if she didn’t try harder? She clamped her teeth together and stepped back into the house.

“…Listen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be like that… There just have been some things I’ve been trying to sort through this year. And haven’t been very good at it.” Her eyebrows waved before she looked at them. They didn’t say anything. “I — uh — I’m about to go for a run, if you guys wanted to join.”

Dahlila smiled softly and nodded. Ava’s stomach turned knowing she hurt her feelings; Dahlila really was the kindest person she ever met, and a little kindness could truly go a long way. Ava acknowledged every ounce of her worth. Though occasionally, Dahlila’s head seemed so high up in the air because she wanted everything to go smoothly, she was more grounded than most and entirely selfless; that deserved to be protected and rewarded. Ava was tired of destroying good things, no matter how much she wanted to sometimes.

Danny’s face didn’t change from a scowl, but he nodded. “If you can keep up.”

Ava hummed appreciatively. “How ‘bout you, Shane? You think you can keep up?”

“Psss. Yeah.”

           

                                                            -

 

Sweat purged down Ava’s head as she ran down the campus’ track, fire to forge ahead in every muscle she had and cold steel determination in her heart. Shane tumbled to a complete stop behind them.

“This isn’t right!” he yelled after them, gasping. “I thought you were on my side, Ava!” He fell to the ground and rolled over with a groan. “I feel used.”

Dahlila was still running, fully focused as usual, and perseverance never drained. Ava looked at Danny and smiled tauntingly before forcing herself faster. He grumbled, and his steps quickened to keep up with her. He came to her side, giving the look back to her before his legs began getting sloppy. He made one last desperate attempt to beat her before falling back and nearly tripping over himself.

Ava hackled looking at Dahlila, who was laughing with her with the little air they had to spare, and Danny behind them yelled miserably that he’s a ‘SPORTS GOD!’

The two of them were running side by side, pushing the last bit of their energy to go faster. Dahlila’s eyes were tight with determination, and Ava was starting to laugh again, impressed, until finally she started slowing, and Dahlila sped off in victory. Ava took back her breath and waved to Dahlila with adoration as the sun beat harshly down on the field.

Dahlila laughed joyously and said goodbye to them as her and Danny picked up their things to leave and Ava went to join Shane on the bleacher to rest.                               

Shane snatched Ava’s iPod from her arm just as she took a seat and scrolled through it over-zealously; she looked over him exasperated, holding out her hands.

“I’m starting to get an inkling you have some weird fascination with the seventies and eighties,” he said rapidly, still absorbed in her iPod. “Maybe, we should get you a Walkman.” He looked up finally, waving the player. “I mean this is pretty outdated itself.”

She snatched it away from him. “And I’m starting to get an inkling you have a screw loose somewhere.” He guffawed with his eyes half closed. She huffed with a smile. “You’re too much.”

He cheesed. “But you like me though, right?”

“Yeah… You’re alright.” She waved her hand at him and leaned back, looking again across the field at Danny and Dahlila leaving together. “What’s up with those two?”

He followed her gaze and shrugged. “I could go on for days.”

“Do they not know they want each other?”

Shane laughed. “You think they’re in luv?”

“I didn’t say love. I don’t believe in that concept the way most do.”

He swung his mouth open repugnantly. “You don’t believe in love?”

“No,” Ava said plainly. “That word has been twisted to make it sound more than it is.”

Shane stared back silently confused.

“Physical attraction between people and the need they have for a person to be in their lives when it suits them. Our idea of love doesn’t exist. And physical attraction, along with that need, is just as fleeting as the people that come and go in our lives. Onto the next beneficial thing. We’re selfish creatures. We like to mask that fact.”

“Wow… I’m stumped.” He slouched back. “I don’t know if that is sad or if I like your style. But you’re twisted and smart. I will say that.” They looked at each other a moment before he could begin again. “Or maybe you’ve just lost hope.”

“Maybe I never had hope.”

“Maybe I never had hope either.”

She squinted her eyes at him and he looked away. “I don’t know with Danny and Dahlila. Maybe something to do with Jordan. Danny’s loyal like that. And Dahlila probably don’t want the situation messy.”

“Even now, with the way Jordan is to them?”

“My cousin’s an idiot. I don’t get it either.” His eyes traveled down, seeming as though underneath, he actually admired his cousin. “He’s there for her, though. She doesn’t sleep really great because these wicked nightmares...”

Ava turned her head back to him swiftly.

“We were there early Tuesday morning. SIX AM.” He looked appalled. “Yeah. Danny called me up concerned, about to head over. He thought I should go. Make it a full house. So I did.”

“He seems to genuinely care for her.”

“Always has. Even when they used to drive each other nuts. But it’s only because they’re so much alike, you know? See, I drive them crazy ‘cause we’re nothing alike.” He smiled slyly.

Ava raised her brows. “That reason and a few others, but no need to nitpick.”

“That’s right. ‘Cause it doesn’t matter. Trust me. I have an act for sniffing out what will matter later on because nothing really ends up mattering.”

She hit him with her knee, knowing its hypocrisy, but hearing it coming out his mouth, that bothered her. There is a lot that doesn’t matter, but there has to be something that matters in the end. That’s why she was there.

He wobbled his head and turned on his back. “I’m just saying, Dahlila was class president and Danny the quarterback of the football team — they were running the school with their clique — and I was just a stoner loner they wouldn’t even talk to. But the last year of high school, we we’re none of those things. And look at it now. Tug-a-war for nothing.

“And you know what? I’m very good with retrospect; I know I drive people crazy, but my humor is the one thing that keeps me from being the really terrible person that I actually am. And I just can’t help it most of the time. And that doesn’t matter. What I do doesn’t matter.”

Ava didn’t say anything…

Shane groaned and stood up without making more eye contact, clearly embarrassed and frustrated. “Anyway, I’m gonna get going. I’ll talk to you later.”

She stared after him in the sharp light of day as his figure receded off the empty field, feeling as though he was clearly reaching for a connection, and she wouldn’t reach out. A whisper ghosted from him and it said, ‘Tell me I’m worth it…

Her breath let out.

                                                           

 Ava handed in her application to the library. It seemed she was going to stay in town — and actually going to get an institutionalized job as well. She needed money and finally decided with absolution that she wasn’t going to pull any jobs around there.

After talking with Frank again, Ivy gave her a run down of the computer system and the process of what she would be doing, which mainly entailed cleaning up the back, organizing, putting books back, and locking down the place for the night. Ivy expressed herself with brevity, sticking straight to the point and moving on as she did in general conversations. As they worked, they both respected each other’s silence.

Frank poked his head in and checked on them quite often. He was attentive and it was possibly annoying. He went over the schedule with Ava before she went home; Monday would be the first official day alone. And just like with any suffocating adult, she couldn’t wait to get free from him.

Before bed, she checked on Dahlila and noticed her bedroom lights were still on, so she knocked on the door.

“Come in…” her soft voice called.

Dahlila was lying on top of a gigantic pile of blankets, almost lost in them. Ava’s eyes bounced open. It was getting chillier out but nowhere as close as needing what she was swallowed in. “Your not hot?” Ava choked.

Dahlila smiled tiredly.

Ava rested her head on the doorframe. “Can’t sleep?”

She shook her head no. “You?”

“No.” No way in hell. She wasn’t planning on sleeping at all, actually. “What are you watching?”

“You’ve got mail.” She grinned and Ava pulled in a laugh.

“Can I join you?”

“Yeah.” Her eyes lit up suddenly and scooted over. Ava sunk herself into the sea of cotton, and then produced a handful of Twizzlers in Dahlila’s face. She looked confused.

“I saw you eyeing someone eating them the other day. You may have licked your lips.” Ava raised her lip, mimicking second hand embarrassment.

“Shhh.” Dahlila grabbed two excitedly and stuck them both in her mouth. Ava smiled a little worriedly, sticking one in hers, and turned to watch the silly movie.

Ava stayed there the rest of the night, determined not to fall asleep. Movie after movie, Dahlila had picked out from her collection ones that Ava had never seen. Ava knew that if she fell asleep that dreams would come. And she feared, as if he was there waiting now, that when she dreamed he would be there. And she would loosen her grip again.

As Ava stayed awake, so did Dahlila, determined not to fall before Ava, as if she was competing. Dahlila’s eyes drooped, then one eye swiveled up to check Ava’s status. It surprised Ava how much she enjoyed Dahlila’s company — how a person could find genuine fellowship in the most unlikely places, between the most unlikely pairs, if one only opened their doors to one another a bit. Dahlila winked at her and this time Ava didn’t feel like cringing; now it was almost endearing.

They ended up playing cards on the floor while the sun came up. No guys. No nightmares. No dreams. Just them.

 

Chapter 10 The Chase (new)

 

A noise sounded in the library, startling Ava. All the books dropped from her hands. It was late and she was supposed to be alone. For a second, déjà vu bloomed when she looked down the row, remembering looking up to see him last time, and her heart pounded just the same. This time, there was nothing… but a tiny fragment of his image in her head, shining like a speck of glass near her mind’s eye. She pushed it away and headed towards the noise.

A soft clinging sounded again. Something had fallen loose likely, but just incase, she did an inventory check of the knife she kept under her clothes before following it and found a flashlight because some lights weren’t working where she was headed.

The noise was coming from behind the plastic curtains, past the room mostly charred and in the stages of construction, and down the hall, behind a door she waited another minute to open. When she did, a cold draft of wind swept past her and settled in its weeping. She turned on the flashlight as the ceiling light struggled on and off. No one there.

The room was filled with stacks of books and paper flown everywhere. Behind one pile was a door swinging open and closed from a draft, making a clinging sound every time it hit the latch.

“What the shit?” Ava’s hands dropped.

She pushed all the books out the way and opened the door the rest of the way to see a window left open in a dark hallway. It led to a narrow stairway. The stairs went past a couple doors and ended at a small trapdoor. The wind flooded in from atop as she opened it, along with faint noises from outside. It was the bell tower.

Yes.

The walkway circled around a huge antique bell hanging in the center. She circled it and walked over to the ledge as the air blew pacifyingly. The street below was nearly quiet. Off the hill, neighborhoods away, it turned into a little bustling town down where the harbor was. On the other sides were woods and far waters and darkness. She looked at her watch — almost time to go, though she longed to stay.

Ava set the flashlight down and found a spot on the ledge to sit for awhile, peering out over the town, peering out into the dark sky, and her head rang with a joy too seldom. Then she stood, looking down at the far away town with nothing between her and the ground but a strong wave of wind and a hand latched loosely on the column. She closed her eyes and breathed in the ridged air, feeling a need for freedom, freedom to let go.

Her hand gripped around the column to pull herself back down, setting a piece of brick loose and a paper shoved in it with perfectly elegant handwriting and numbers carved into the bottom. It said:

 

The bird whistles and sings, imitating the sound of children’s swings.

When beliefs ran in their imagination’s delight, it could bring the door to light.

Though, when it has been quiet for long, the sound fades in memory, and thus the door has gone.

The bird goes on boasting to you this little secret in their song, use the freedom of their wings to find it but not yearlong.

Truths are sung only in spring and fall. Follow it in the winter or summer, and you’ll lose it all.

 

“What is wrong with this town?” Ava said looking back out into the dark. Tread carefully in the dark, the professor had said.

The skies were the darkest they’d been yet since she’d been in town. Moisture was building in the air, and a quiet bolt of lightening lit over the coast, so she knew a storm was coming.

And Ava looked straight down to see only one person walking as the rest of the town slept — the paper fell away from Ava’s hand and she jumped off the ledge to stand, squinting her eyes to see better.

Him.

The stranger from Lithium. From the library. Her room. Her dreams. Her dark stranger. Quickly, she turned from the ledge and straightened herself out, fumbling her fingers on her shirt. They were shaking and adrenaline was beginning to pour in her. What was she going to do?

Calm down. Compartmentalize him. Lock him in a box, in the back of her head, and forget that he was there. She was going forget ever seeing him, as if every second she’d give him, the closer the hallucinations would come. Like they did in Lithium. Like they did in the bathroom back at the automobile shop. And her mind would break again. And so would her heart and soul… maybe forever. But god was he calling to her! And so was the breeze from across the waters, singing louder by the minute now that a crack was beginning tear through her determination. Her dead heart felt like it was breaking on the spot.

Ava closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths before turning back around, careful to keep her eyes away. She picked up the paper from the ground and folded it back up.

Detach.

 She turned to the ledge again and calmly put the paper back inside the column, sliding in the brick behind. Her eyes began to sway from her fingers to the ledge — detach — then… back to him.

Her hands lowered to the ledge and she groaned, feeling the exhaustion wrecking her muscles. She wanted to know more about him… Needed to. Put an end to this insufferable mysterious stranger.

Her imagination ran away with itself and she was picturing herself following him. Then the idea sparked with urgency to do so. Something had to give. Something was giving in.

Ava tightened her hands around the cement’s ledge, deciding whether or not to go, gripping tighter to keep herself there. Yet, all she could think was that if she waited any longer, he’d be too far, and she would lose him, and there wouldn’t even be a choice.

Could she really let herself go and drift off in the deepest waters to be lost at sea? On purpose? She’d have to be really crazy to put herself through that. And she was…

“Damn it!” Ava pushed herself from the ledge and heaved down the stairs, going as fast as she could. And everything began to shift — inside her and outside.

The stairs broke apart behind her as she went, the building falling away. Shiiiiiiiiiit. She slowed in fear of the hallucinations and thought to stop. But she kept going. She was really doing this. Oh god. AND EVERYTHING WAS FALLING AWAY.

Outside, the wind burst against her and deep chills pierced through the layers of her skin, down to her core, as if she had jumped into a freezing body of water. It was the brisk realization. But any remnant of cold evaporated from her body as she picked up speed, running on the wind of something primal that raised goose bumps from her rain misted skin. The buildings around her partially withdrew like smoke and mist, and so did the idea of her body, and the idea of anything else but the chase.

She ran fast — and she was a very fast runner — until she was close enough, hiding in doorways and alleys, all the way down and off Aberdeen hill, through the neighborhoods, and through a neglected street that curved down a slope. At the bottom, an old graveyard sat with a dark, blackened mansion standing severe behind it. He slowed and she came to a stop amongst the graves.

Chapter 11 Madness (new)

Ava looked up and he was gone. The rain began to come down harder, and there was a loud crack of thunder. The heightened smell of fresh dirt, old rotten cement, and decay rounded her with the essence of death that lingered there.

Ava ran through the rows of tombstones searching for him but nothing; it couldn’t be for nothing. She was out of breath, sweaty, cold, wet, and she was standing in the middle of a graveyard, in the middle of the night, alone. She was out of her mind, truly, and now she wasn’t even sure that she had seen him at all.

After shutting the library down properly, she didn’t wait for the rain to abide before starting for home. As she walked briskly, shivering, and zoned out, denial built up of what she had just done. And then quite shatteringly, a very loud sound broke through the dense air; it unnerved her so much that she could not believe it was only thunder.

Ava stopped, trying to look into the rain, but the whirlwind of water and fog was too thick to see in. Her eyes strained. The nulling sound of water pelts settled in. The world quieted underneath it. Then the ground shook beneath her feet — and there was a growl.

Another thunderous sound shook to her bones, but she was already running for her life, desperate to put space between her and the thing she could feel gaining on her. It was getting close and she struggled to go any faster. Her legs shook under her the whole way, almost tripping, forgetting its muscles, moving on fear alone. Staying in its max, in a severe state of power so strong her mind couldn’t touch on anything but continuing — until the ground shook again, her legs were running over themselves, and she was flipping across the ground.

Ava hurried to get up — body first, mind later — and paused amidst a set of large eyes staring back at her that froze the entire world and every drop of adrenaline she had. Its long snout was inches from her face, gigantic wet nostrils sucking in and out heavy gnarled breaths. She moved back very slowly and the wolf pushed closer. She paused again. Its breath fluttered on her face and her breath stopped.

It then licked her.

Her throat rasped out harsh wet air as it trotted off, flying spit and rain down her chin, and leaving her mystified.

 

                                                                       

 

Layton’s throat hummed. His head twitched to the sides. Eyes closed. He breathed heavily through his nose. His jaw muscles felt so tight, it was as if they were wired shut.

She had taken him off course inside the library; why did he go?

It brought on unpredictable bouts of anger. It stirred up long forgotten memories — and more anger. She was unctuous in his grip. He hadn’t been sleeping and barely eating. He could not go on anymore with it. The unforeseen consequences would break him before he could her. It was time to end this. The game was done. Another would come along.

He descended past the library where she sat on her ledge, luring her away into the dark. He had wondered if she would follow him. Even though he knew she would, he wondered. And she did. They were attracted to his darkness and death. Her more than anyone. But of course, she was.

“Something wicked this way comes,” he whispered out in the air as he continued forth.

 In the old cemetery, there was a tomb in which held stairs that led down into his chambers. There he slept. There he fed. Those chambers led to the passage for the old manor he took over before she was born, and its tower where he would see her across town in the bell tower, shining light in the dark. It was those chambers where he could take her last breath. He sauntered ahead absolute, taking care to remember his own speed above hers.

Her breathing was heavy behind him — and so was her aroma, the enticing and vivacious life bleeding inside her, screaming to be let free, to bleed over her seams. It made her crazy. It made him crazy. He was delirious from her. His head rattled. Why even bother luring her out? You could have simply taken her.

End this!

Layton slowed, readying himself, his body as tense and hard as the stone statues surrounding them, his teeth eagerly escaping, sharp and painful, lonely against the building wind. He turned to her, though with speed undetectable to her, catching her in a moment of suspension from speed, where her hair flowing in the wind fell around her shoulders, lovely as she halted. Her eyes twinkled with the moisture of the beginning rain... and something else. What was it? Layton couldn’t think of it. He discerned her in a state of weightless life, breathtaking mortality, a moment of pure exhilaration cultivated from him.

He wanted more…

Startled, he quickly hid behind a statue, not able to go through with it. He growled at himself, grinding his teeth together, and threw his head back on the cement behind him. He sifted through his thoughts, irritated from why he couldn’t bring himself to forge through; she was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Anger rose in him hastily and then fell instantly as she passed, looking for him. And he watched her. Instead, he was now intrigued, and so many things at once.

He recognized then, the inner rattling in his head and his chest, from long ago, before his final transcendence; they were what humans felt...

It took him a minute to ponder over that and then it hit him, and his growl was half spite, half amusement. “You wicked little thing…”

This didn’t belong to him anymore; he was not capable to hold it inside. Layton took another look at her, and a breath, knowing he wasn’t going through with it tonight, and not knowing anything else, he disappeared from the graveyard.

 

In his dining hall, lit up by red-hot fires from all around the usually dark room, he walked himself through the motions back and forth. His head was down with his mind spread far and thin, memories from long ago coming to him, flashing and slicing, painful, RAGE inducing. He threw his head back.

Breath in.

A life long ago. A boy. A time forgotten by the world. Her. He’d remember it, but it didn’t exist in this world. His mother. He was hurting. Family and friends. His muscles were turning to sharp glass inside of him. He wasn’t him. Who was he? Blood. Blood. Blood. His body tightened until it was made of only rigid rage. Red rage. Tearing flesh while still innocent. Can’t hold on to self. He didn’t want to feel this — not again! Can’t ever go back home again. SORROW.

STOP!

“Get. OUT OF ME!” He grabbed his head and the phantoms crawling around inside it. His body felt it was being torn to pieces. “GET OUT OF ME!” His mind erupted in a spurt, sending him thrashing through the room in a deranged fit, setting it on fire. A roar ruptured from him so loud the windows shattered, the skies thundered, and he blasted through the ceiling, leaving the pouring rain to wrestle with the fires consuming below.

His strength to jump was massive, sending him high through the sky. Being part death allowed him to lose part of his body to this world, to night and shadow, and his body escaped part of gravity’s grasp, so that he could levitate for a limited time. He dropped close behind the girl. Ava. But too far for her to see in the pouring rain. The ground quaked. He sensed her terror, and this hesitated him like a whip to the face. She ran and Layton followed after her, pushing himself forward so that he could tear her to shreds and holding himself back. End this. He was exhausted!

He stopped himself by digging his hands and feet into the cement and watched as a wolf came to her, as if she called for help, it listened, and it came.

“You’ll pay for this,” Layton warned her as she disappeared off the street. “You’ll pay for all this pain.”

He waited there until fresh blood passed, snatched it, and went back to the dark.

 

 

The shivers in Ava’s body subsided to a degree of dull tension after Dahlila brought out a blanket and a cup of hot tea when she couldn’t get Ava to come in from the portico over the lake. The portico was on the side of the house on stilts above the water and when at the edge of it, it felt like being on boat, floating through the waters. This relaxed Ava.

After a long drought in silence, Ava asked as she looked out, “Do you ever feel like you spend your whole life looking for something?”

“No… I guess, I do spend a lot of time forcing myself to be something I’m not though.” She pulled the blanket tighter around her, and Ava looked at her.

“What’s that?”

“Perfect. Nothing less is acceptable, you know.”

“You must have a field day with me around then.”

Dahlila waited a short time to answer that. “Yeah… but it’s kind of like you’re a lot like this new person inside of myself that I’m just learning about. It’s kind of… comforting…”

Ava looked away from her.

It had seemed Ava had chosen Dahlila because she was the opposite of her old life. Now it seemed possible that Dahlila had chosen Ava for a similar reason. If she only knew what Ava was trying to conceal… she’d probably chase her out with a rifle.

Ava said, “We’re all human, you know? We’re not meant to be perfect. There’s too much complexity for that. And that’s an awesome thing.”

 “Try telling that to my mother.” Dahlila sucked in her lips and looked at Ava with crossed eyes.

“Maybe I will.”

“Shut up.” She smiled. “You know, I know how sometimes my optimism bothers people. And inside, I’m saying, ‘don’t hate me for it; can’t you see I’m only faking? But I need it!’” Her laugh was more of a sigh. “I was such a bitch before... A spoiled brat who thought she knew everything and liked — loved to boss people around.”

“Were you now?” Ava was intrigued but not exactly surprised, considering her old group of friends. “What changed?”

Dahlila took a calm breath. “It was great once. Me and my friends. We had money, popularity, fabulous connections, opportunities to the sky. We had it all. I thought. After my father died, I couldn’t see their views anymore; I couldn’t see my views anymore. He did a number on me before he passed, and I was thinking things I’ve never thought before and caring about things I hadn’t. And you’re right, there’s too much complexity in the world; I was just seeing it for the first time, and it was downright terrifying. So, I stepped back from everything and everyone to simplify it.”

“Except Danny.”

“Well, Danny…” Dahlila rested her head back. “He likes to take the weight of those he cares about and put it on his own shoulders. And I hate it. My father turned our perfect life into a circus, and I’m doing that to Danny. I feel like a leper. Sometimes, I pull away from him… But I just need him… you know?”

No… She needs no one. “What did your father do?”

“He lost his mind.”

Ava choked on her tea and cleared her throat.

“Ranting and raving about weird shit. And the worst part is the town knew about him going nuts. My world went down hill from there; at first, I really, really cared that people knew my family wasn’t pristine anymore — especially my friends looking at me as if I were beneath them after or like I’d taint their image. Everything we had worked for, everything we worked to make perfect and grand — gone… I suppose in some ways, I’m still perfecting things as a screwed up attempt to put it all back right… But being on the other side of the door begins to change your perspective a bit. Or a lot a bit. There is no going back.”

“Yeah… It’s hard to go back to the way things were once something has changed; you can’t undo what you’ve learned and what you’ve seen and felt…” It was how she felt when she had woken up to Jason right before her mind broke…

That must have been one big fall from a pedestal for Dahlila. The saddest part of the whole thing was that Ava had been looking to Dahlia as some shiny answer to her problems, a way out of a life that ruined, twisted, and changed a person — damaged them. But the ruin could get to even people like Dahlia. It didn’t matter how a person was born, pain and sorrow didn’t discriminate.

“What was it your father raved about?” Ava asked, sitting up.

Dahlila sighed. “That the town was overrun by creatures of death, who walked with shadows in their hearts and our blood in their veins, and they aimed to turn the world upside down and swallow the sun. He said we needed to stop it. That’s how he used to talk all the time!” Her eyes were incredibly wide. “I kicked him out my life. I couldn’t take it anymore. Things like that are why people in this town are always saying to be careful in the dark. Ghost stories. But I won’t humor any of it for a second. No, it’s ridiculous.”

“Yeah. That is twisted,” Ava murmured, looking back into the dark horizon, not wanting to humor any of it either, not even the little sound that still called over the waters and tickled her skin. Then at that moment, something pounced on Ava’s lap, almost spilling her cup. Dahlila let out a loud squeal.

 It was a black kitten, purring heavily, soft as dandelion tufts. Its eyes a bright turquoise that shone even in the dark. “Whose baby is this?” Ava awed so completely, putting her tea down to say hello and pet him better.

“Mmmm. I don’t know. I never saw him before.”

Ava turned to Dahlila and smiled, and Dahlila’s eyes went big.

“No.”

Ava’s smile widened.

“They poop in litter. IN the house.”

Ava laughed as she scooped his little body in her hand and held him up to look into his eyes. “What is your name? Hmmmm…” His purr deepened. “You look like a Freddy…”

 “Freddy?” Dahlila snorted with bewilderment. “That’s a horrible name for a cat.” She paused. “You’re doing the kitty litter.”

            Ava echoed his purr against him.

 

-

 

For the weekend, Ava didn’t go anywhere, instead stayed home where it was boring  and continued Monday was odd.

It felt like Professor Green’s gaze had been more focused on her that day, and she spent most of her morning wondering what would be the cause of it, even wondering what she could be doing that was odd. Irrationally, she hoped that her little secret of the night before hadn’t slipped out somewhere amongst those regular people.

But what made the day even stranger was that when she had been in the school library working on her essay, Surviving Winter, for writing class, Professor Putnik was in there, and Ava caught her looking at her — not once, not twice, but too many times to count — Professor Putnik, with her white hair, reminder of Lithium, and creepy distant stare. It didn’t even seem like the professor was actually seeing Ava, more like her eyes were just simply watching her, as if they were someone else’s all together. Putnik would promptly look away when Ava made eye contact, but every single time Ava looked back, the woman was looking at her again.

Ava was just trying to have a regular day — she collected her things and left in a frustrated hurry.

She borrowed Dahlila’s car — Dahlila’s had said before that she didn’t mind because she could snap her fingers and have another one just like it — and Ava made a stop to Shane’s class before leaving the school. She walked past his class door a couple times trying to get his attention, waving and jumping and whatever signal came to her. She inadvertently got a couple kids laughing before she managed to grab his attention. But as soon as he realized, he zoomed out the classroom after her, and the class clapped, leaving the professor dumbstruck, and Shane ran down the hall after Ava, super excited.

Pour Shane thought they were going somewhere exciting; they were only going to the thrift store to drop off the boxes that had been in Ava’s room for Dahlila.

First, they stopped at the library so that Ava could see Frank. She had inquired about becoming a librarian, actually, and as shocked as he was, along with everyone else, he generously laid out a plan for her and everything she needed for it. It was a start.

But when she entered the library, Carla — was sitting at the front counter. More strands of white hair showed. Ava halted. “What are you doing here?”

 “I work with you now.” Carla warmed her face with a smile. “I needed cash. My daughter, Ivy, helped get job.”

“Ivy?” Ava asked, thinking more that she didn’t need any more reminders of Lithium, and that it began to feel like the walls of Lithium were slowly closing around her.  

Ivy waved to Shane, who had come in with Ava, and Shane turned back around and walked out so quickly, Ava wasn’t sure if he had gotten sick.

“That’s normal for us,” Ivy said dully, dismissing Ava’s alarm.

Next, Ava and Shane stopped at the house to get the boxes.

They had been so fully concentrated on moving a big piece of furniture out of the way in the study, that when something black came shooting out around them, they lost their heads and couldn’t maintain their composure for a good while. It landed on Ava’s shoulder, and her and Shane flopped around the room in panic. It didn’t help that Freddy’s tiny body was running around after them in the hysteria, throwing out his big knobby paws to catch them excitedly. His big eyes and ears almost made up the size of his head. Ava was spinning around like she was going to get away from her arm. And Shane had been jumping away terrified and then back towards her whenever she screamed, back and forth. His eyes were the size of full moons, screaming louder than her, and sounding like a panicked donkey.

But Ava had stopped jumping, seeing two eyes looking back up at her, hanging on for dear life with the look of fright. Its tiny mouth gaped open under its scrunched in nose, and the brown-black fur frazzled up around its large ears and down its back.

“What is with these animals coming to you?” Shane asked with his mouth open in confused awe as Ava fed the bat water from a paper towel.

“What is it you always call me, Shane?”

He looked up. “Spooky girl?”

“Yes. There you go.”

“Yeah… there I go…” he repeated distantly.

“You can’t help who you are, I guess…” Ava said, rather distantly as well.

And then his face contorted into a sort of lopsided smile. “You see, that’s why I like you. There’s something special about you.” He looked back at the bat. “There’s nothing special about me.”

She grabbed his chin and lifted his face up. “Oh, yes there is.”

His face melted into that lopsided smile again with hazy eyes. She smiled too.

The whole thing weirdly captivated him, and he had watched her very carefully and quietly the whole time as she took care of the creature, which for Shane to be so still had seemed impossible before then. It seemed the day didn’t turn out boring for him after all.

Finally, they made it into town to drop off the boxes. Aberdeen hill glimmered boisterously above the town, and Shane was still unusually quiet, looking at her the same way as before. Ava laughed thinking of them flopping around before.

“Snap out of it, Shane.” She flicked his scrunched up nose and plopped a pair of sunglasses on the both of them so she didn’t have to see what he was looking at.

At the base of the hill, an apothecary filled with natural medicines, herbs, and oils, lofted its sensual and exotic smells out onto the street as they drove past. Standing outside, wearing a knitted flower dress and a pentacle around her neck, Ava recognized the girl from her psychology class, Ella, who usually sat next to her. It seemed there was going to be a lot of recognizing people in this town… little escape.

Then, in the thrift store, it began to feel a little less of coincidence that she was running into reminders of Lithium. Two very strange girls had come into Ava’s isle and circled her, sing-songing some lunatic gibberish. They matched in white dresses that gave the appearance of being little girls, until she saw between the white hair fallen over, the shallow wrinkles carved in their dull, powdery face. Their eyes were almost as colorless as their hair, irises ghosted like they were made of mist and waves, their connection to the world distant and lofty, aerial to bitterness and weight.

Shane had come into the isle and shooed them away with his foot, and Ava was teetering in the urge to go after them and kick their ass. But then it came to her, and she realized she had seen them before — their missing posters hung up in the school from twenty years ago. Apparently, they weren’t lost or missing — at least not in the traditional sense, because they seemed a little lost in the head. And they had that signature connection to Lithium; her heart skipped a beat at the thought of it.

“Is it just me or are the people in this town whacked out?” Ava asked Shane as they headed to the register.

“They’ve always been like that. That’s why you fit in just fine, spooky girl.” He ran his hand through her hair awkwardly with a grin, and she swatted his hand away. He chuckled.

“Don’t mess around with those people. They’re bat-shit crazy,” said the brown curly headed guy behind the register, who sat there reading a comic book with his feet up on another chair and his shirt rolling up from his thick love handles.

 “Allen. What up, man?” Shane greeted spiritedly but was not reciprocated.

Allen still had his nose down in the comic until he flipped to the end of the page and then tossed it. “Boring.” He stood up quickly and only then just going through their things. She had called him a head of time to get an idea of what they buy. Not all thrift stores take everything and there were some things too valuable to sell to a thrift store, but sometimes collectors worked there. “Beautiful. Beautiful.” He took money from the cash register and handed it to them. “I gave you a little extra because you brought the gems.”

Ava took the money absentmindedly; she could haggle, but didn’t really care to at the moment. “You were talking about the girls frolicking around with the white hair?” They’re bat-shit crazy — how many times do people say that about her?

“Obviously.” He reached down under the counter and came back up with two small tattoo stickers. “Here. On the house. Shane loves these.”

Shane shrugged and started measuring spots on the both of them where they would look best. They must of known each other in middle school. Or elementary.

“They’re fun. Try it.” He gave her a face when she was apprehensive; she had her own tattoos.

 “Let’s go. I need fresh air,” Ava said, “Thanks.” He squinted his eyes at her and fell back on his chair with his comic, the same one he had tiredly tossed previously.

Ava was quiet for the ride to school to give back the car. She couldn’t help but feeling a deeper intrigue for Lithium. And an urge to go back and see exactly what it was they were about. There was another urge even stronger than that one, and that was to go back to her tower, to go back to her dark stranger and that sweet dark chase.

Dahlila drove them back to the house when she got out of class. Danny and Shane as well, of course, because they practically lived there, apparently.

Ava and Shane gathered items together in the house to go outside and search for worms for the bat. He had came into sight of her pork pie hat and snatched it up, leaving his cap on her bed; she snatched his hat and put it on her head backwards, and neither of them batted an eye lash at this exchange. Next thing they knew, they were wrapping bags over each other’s heads and around their bodies and shoes, because it had began to pour out. They were digging and sprinting from here to there in the backyard and in the dark, looking for better spots with a bucket and a flashlight. They were talking loudly ecstatic at each other and this had Dahlila and Danny pop out there to find them running around like Martians.

The rain had stopped, the bat was well fed, and finally they were able to encourage it in the sky. But it came back down to Ava’s shoulder when she had whistled her proudness. “Dahlila would flip the perfect hair right off her head if you stayed,” Ava had said, and Shane looked slightly worried that the bat would not go, until he began laughing, and could not stop, over the image that comment gave him.

But it did go, and afterwards, they were all lying around the living room watching a movie, and Ava’s skin was crawling. It was always crawling, really, but those quiet moments shifted the focus on it strikingly, and she nearly wanted to jump up and throw her arms about.

Shane was passed out next to her from a busy day. Danny and Dahlila contently close to the same. Ava snuck out the house quietly and headed to her tower.

 

 

Quiet… Layton’s mind was quiet as he stirred from sleep. And after a while, bored too. To be bored was to want. What did he want? Her. He wanted to see her look for him again.

He looked to the side of him; a man’s lifeless body lay there. He could have had Ava there like that finally; he closed his eyes thinking about it. But then the body next to him would not move any longer. She wouldn’t move, wouldn’t run, only he. What did that mean?

Enough thoughts.

Layton didn’t wait to lure her out again. He wasn’t entirely sure if he was there to kill her or play with her. It would be reckless to kill her; he could handle her now, he assured himself.

She chased through the graveyard after him again, her arms and legs bare in the wind. A scarlet cloth floated weightless up her and behind her like blood smoke. Layton ran from her, though he wanted to run after her, and crept around corners to hide, amused as he watched her look for him.

He was enjoying her — such a different way than he intended her use.

They were playing some secret game on some intimate level of understanding, existing in a realm they didn’t see and didn’t care to. He’d better be careful; he could lose himself completely and forget the rest.

A naive smile began breaking away as he hid against the crypt. He felt young. She flowed past him, and he took a deep breath, resting his head back, closing his eyes. He thought about how ironic it was that he was the one chasing her, and now she was here chasing him. His grin widened as he opened his eyes and sped off to tease her some more.

He walked out through the park where he thought about leaving her for the night so she would go home and sleep, pondering when he’d begin the real game. Her fragile stamina starting to dwindle, she took a seat on the swing. He leaned against the tree where two figures walked out to stand on the sides of him.

“Layton…” Verina called, following his eyes to the girl once again.

Layton tensed from the interruption.

“She is still alive.” The male assessed, staring straight ahead, his white hair platinum in the moonlight, his body in severe aristocrat demeanor.

The woman looked at Layton. “Why?”

The albino stepped forward to study the girl. “She sits there awaiting you… it seems.” He looked back at Layton and then back at her. “To see you affected,” he paused, “is cause for concern. Something is changing. Perhaps, we should take care of this.” Without looking back, he said, “I can finish her for you.”

Layton rose swiftly off the tree. “No.” His voice vibrated low through the leaves and rustling grass, carrying with a light breeze towards Ava; her body was seen shivering from the corner of their sharp eyes. “I’m not done with her.”

The two assessed him. They turned away silently and withdrew.

Layton stopped himself from looking back up at the girl as he left as well.

 

                       

 

The days had been normal for Ava — but the nights… they were quite different.

Every single day she couldn’t wait until night, when she was sitting on the ledge of the bell tower, tapping her pen on the cement, waiting impatiently until she’d see him again. And as soon as his silhouette had swayed down the street again, with his walk that only he could walk, she would almost laugh, jumping up in a frenzy and running for the stairs, leaving everything behind her.

Ava realized how unnerving it might be for him if he saw her, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She actually hoped he would. First it was all about the chase, now she was longing for him to catch her. It was beginning to feel like nothing was enough with him.

She followed deliriously after him through the same street and the same graveyard. He began to pick up pace, and she lost him twice, and then when she crept around the corner, she found him again. Chasing him became tantalizing. Her breathing was erratic. She pushed down a smile. What was he doing there? What was she doing there? None of that mattered.

Ava was allowing herself to fall into some whirlwind of insanity, but for the first time she didn’t care to unravel in it. When the world around her evaporated as she chased him, it was like flying free. It didn’t look so bad from this side of the looking glass.

At the end of the night, she went home with dirt all over her and leaves in her hair, her mind still behind her. When Dahlila and company looked at her befuddled, she’d be strangely tempted to laugh. If they only knew.

The chase pattern began to traverse to Lithium without fail each time, even though she never actually followed him fully into the club. And as fun as she was having, those secret, wonderful nights came to an end when she decided she wanted more, and knowing just where to start.

It was time to go back to Lithium.

 It was time for surrender. His.

Chapter 12 Electric (new)

 

The air was thick and moist. It moved through Ava with every jump and every turn. Every tiny breeze swept through her hair and body like another chance to move again. In and out, around her body and up her back, it swirled against the falling sweat, threading through each strand of mucky hair. Every breath was difficult to inhale. She felt vigorous from the vibrations. The music in the air was lifting. Gravity was losing its grip on her, every movement and everything more pronounced. Excitement, anxiousness, and seventh day thirst coursed through her painfully and exploded softly through her rhythm. Her body was taken over, but her focus remained sharply on the crowd.

“I’m soo hot!” Dahlila shouted, and Ava laughed with fire in her eyes.

They had been dancing for hours. Dahlila had insisted Ava not go to Lithium alone and Danny had said, no fucking way Dahlila was going back down there alone (without him). Shane had said hell no and left. Then he showed up on the road when they were getting in the car.

When Shane saw Dahlila and Danny inch a little closer to each other, he inched his way to Ava, and she let him dance, knowing when to put space. She was on the lookout though, with only one thing on her mind, and that was her dark stranger.

Every time she closed her eyes, he was there waiting. The only thing that opened them was the desperate hope he’d be there in front of her, something she could touch. She needed to touch him. Somehow, the possibilities of him not wanting her could not even breach her determination to get to him.

Her eyes flew over to an opening and cemented there with anticipation. The three of them walked in; her legs stopped moving, and for a small second, she suffocated. Ava swore the music became louder. She felt it, felt it like a blast from a bomb not far.

They skimmed the club with their eyes, their morbidly dark tones underneath edging their search. His eyes wanting. Theirs showed nothing but indifference.

Then he found her.

She tried not to show the frenzy inside. He watched her as he stood against the wall with his friends. Why did he just stand there, his eyes so still? He watched her dance with someone, and it was doing something in him, a movement inside building. She was dancing with them, but waiting for him.

Movement thrived them. Ava could see it in his eyes. They were cold, black, and starved, but every movement, an edge grew and she thought she would bleed under his gaze. Closer — he started in, leering over at her as he moved towards the crowd. The look disoriented her.

Every time Ava looked at him, he was closer. Was he coming her way? Had to be. Did they even notice him, eyes abroad them, moving closer? How could anyone not?

He circled around them like a vulture; for a second she thought she saw dark mist trailing off him. She tried all her might not to blink, not to lose him, and he was still moving. It wasn’t fast enough; she needed to get closer to him. Ava broke out the circle she was in and through the crowd. She lost her eye contact with him completely and ended up circling herself. He was gone. Not again.

Then the music stopped. At least for her.

Her heartbeat intensified. Ava could smell him, his personal, hard familiar scent, invigorating her, full of memory and desire. His breath touched her neck. His touch taunted her back, a hand barely touching her arm, so chilling. Ripples. It brushed through her insides, raising soft goose bumps from her flesh, tightening the skin on the back of her neck. And then his body closed in on hers; Ava felt her pupils expand as the sight around her became electric. She could almost feel the sensation of melting ice between her lips, cold and dripping.

Without thought, their bodies began to move together. She could feel every music note, every beat, and every guitar string, as if it were created between them. The music was erotic: electrifying and haunting. Even more so against his hard, cool body. It was like the first time ever hearing the electric guitar. The music began to slow, but only for them. Every movement down, she could feel the vibrations harder, grabbing his body, deeper. Shivers quaked through her though she was not cold.

Ava turned to face him, to see him. She needed to. Their eyes latched.

Grabbing her wrist and her hip, digging fingers in, he brought her closer and continued their rhythm. Her mouth opened. She even forgot why she was there, and who she was with. But with him. And they continued until she thought everything was going to go black.

But then he slowed her almost to a stop, still holding her tight, and leaned his face next to her; his voice hummed in her ear. "Come with me,” Her thighs clenched. “…Somewhere less crowded?”

"Okay," she gasped, still ringing from his voice in her head, and had forgotten there even was a crowd.

He grabbed her hand and guided her through the bodies, behind the stairs, passing watchful eyes. They made their way through a large red curtain in the back that lead them into a long narrow man-made hallway, only lit by a dark, glowing red light, a deep ambience.

Her heart was beating fast.

Halfway down the hallway he slowed his steps and turned to look at her. The hand that held hers, slowly glided from her fingers up to the top of her arm. Pressing on her shoulder, he slowly pressed her against the wall.

She looked down at her shoulder where his hand was, then back up at him. The world outside their space had frozen. But inside it was scorched with heat. She braced herself for mind-blowing hallucinations that never seemed to start but instead only left silence. Her hand rose to reach for his face and his hair, wanting so bad to touch. Little red lights reflected on his inky waves. The tips of her fingers had just touched the soft mound of curls over his forehead when he grabbed up her wrist quickly in his hand and held it severely still. Their eyes darted to each other as if in warning. But then he lowered his face towards her wrist, breathing in heavily through his nostrils and jaw muscles tightening.

Her lips pierced together and she fiercely grabbed his wrist of the hand that held hers to counter his hold. He looked back at her, his eyes squinting, and then he brought his parted lips to her forearm that was now held out in front of him, gliding his lips onto it softly, barely, his tongue lying on her skin, taunting her with his eyes. Her body started to lose itself at his slick, wet touch. She took her arm away and pushed him back, with a sharp glare.

A smile played on his lips, his eyes humored as he retreated to the opposite wall and rested his head against it, still peering over at her. She could see his tongue playing around inside his closed mouth.

“Who are you?” She demanded, leaning a shoulder on the wall.

“At the moment,” he paused, “Two different people vying inside.”

“What is your name…?”

“Layton,” he said like he was awaiting more questions.

She gave him a good look over as the name played in her head and let him become a Layton… liking every bit of it. She waited a minute. “Don’t you want to know m—”

“Ava.” It was a breath of arrogance that disrupted whatever else she was going to ask. She leaned more into the wall as she thought and shook her head at him. How to begin when you’re already swimming deep? Her heart felt like it was going to come through her chest. It didn’t help, how damned good he looked standing there.

“How come you like chasing me?” He tilted his jaw up at her; his voice changed into a lyrical of soft, sweet amusement. She couldn’t believe he had just came right out and asked her that.

Her cheeks flushed. “I don’t chase you.” She denied like a child, caught in a lie.

He laughed in his throat as he came off the wall and walked closer again. “You don’t have to deny it.” Laughter chimed in his words. “I like it.” And she liked the way he said ‘I like it’.

“Well I don’t.” She shook her head at him.

“You don’t chase me, or you don’t like it?” He tilted his head over her.

Flustered she didn’t know what to say, and that sparked her temper as she jutted from the wall, but that produced a small smirk yet again from him, which softened her insides. Her words almost came out in a stutter at first, and then they came out in the most genuine, pleading, rawest way she’s ever said anything. “I wanted to know who you were.” Her eyes laid with his, a weightless surrender forming. And something far away was screaming no to it.

“…Same.” His expression quieted. “Come with me?” He reached out his hand for her, seeming just as unsure as she was.

“Uhhhh.” Her mind pondered as her hand started to reach out on its own.

Just as she laid her hand in his, Dahlila’s voice called through the hall like a dizzying draft of reality. They locked their fingers as they looked up at her. She was standing there with Shane and Danny behind her. “We were looking for you. Getting ready to go.” None of them looked happy, and surprisingly more so Dahlila with a sternness in her voice that was unlike the Dahlila she knew. “Are you coming?”

Ava looked up at Layton and then at their hands. “Maybe another night.” She let go and headed toward Dahlila.

She could feel him watching her every last second. She gave him one last look before she went through the curtain Danny was holding open. There was a searing hot pain inside that told her to stay away from him. Ava felt it from the moment she bumped into him. But god, she didn’t think she ever wanted anything more in her life than that pain… and whatever else was underneath that would make it worth every last taste.

There no longer was any space of numbness left in her, not one corner left untouched. Inside, it was thundering violently with an electric storm, and she wondered how the hell she had ever lived without it before.

Her mind replayed, over and over, the moment right before they let go of hands, and one of his fingers twitched closed around hers, as though it was difficult to let her go…

Chapter 13 Wingless Bird (new)

Layton brushed his lips slowly over the boy’s mouth that he had just lured from the dance floor. All that it took was a passing look and the boy had followed after. Layton had forgotten what it was like, the simple human touch without mortality’s gain. He thought he enjoyed it. Only just earlier, his lips touched her skin and had brought this on. Layton thought he might have loved to kiss for hours once when he was young. Now he couldn’t think of the last time, before this night, his lips touched skin that wasn’t massaging nourishment from it or inducing pleasure into someone to break their avenues apart — maybe kissing was nourishment… once. Maybe there was mortality gain from it.

As he tried to find his memories of it, blood ran down from the boy’s mouth, pooling over Layton’s hand as he held him there by his throat, tight against the wall.

Who was Layton becoming? Who was he when he was with her?

He was beginning to feel disgust for them now, not even been able to feed on this one. And disgust of himself for running around with that other… thing. Her. He had let his flesh soften under her talons. A barricade had to go up and hide him away where she could not touch; that had to remain; he would persevere. He took in the sight before him, trying to will himself into what he’s supposed to be, what he knows, his eyes growing back and forth from violent to shaky, a deep loathing setting in.

And with barely a flinch of his muscle he squeezed harder, willing it harder. The boy’s eyes protruded from its sockets and blood poured out from every orifice, until the boy was not a boy but a pile of flesh. They were all just a pile a flesh. Even her. If he blinked his eyes, she wouldn’t even be that, only bones. Disgust. Loathing.

Layton dropped his hand, staring down somewhat satisfied because he could feel nothing for it. This is what it is supposed to be; this is what he would remember when he had her. He turned to head off and caught Verina’s eyes. His eyes hardened from agitation, and his chest tightened. He disregarded her presence and went to leave.

“Are you trying to prepare yourself for her?”

He didn’t say anything.

“You ordered Gabriel and I to leave her, though you lead her here, back to Lithium. Will you not work on her yourself? Why is that? Help me understand what is happening, and what is to come of us. Is there a path back?”

He slowed. “I’m not sure myself, Verina.” He twitched his neck. “But it will be done.” He gave her one look over his shoulder, a determined promise — a look that gave her more than what he’d intended to portray, one that told her the daunting forces he had to endure to do it — and he went.

“You’re driving her to madness,” she whispered to his receding shadow. “She’ll lose what you seek.”

“And what has she done to me?” His words breathed out over the growing distance.

 

When Layton arrived to Ava’s, she was leaning over the edge of the back patio alone, looking up at the sky. He wondered what she was thinking about. Pensiveness crept inside. How lovely she looked standing there; a golden leaf broke off the tree, falling into the same air that played around in her hair and robe. He wondered if she was chilly…

This unsettled him. He almost turned to go.

It wasn’t only the way she was standing, or the wispy way her face looked when she was far away in thought and no one was around — that rare moment her guards were down completely; there was something inside him that was humming because she was there. But why?

No. He knew why. It wasn’t anything but that; it couldn’t be.

Then he was behind her, and she was in a trance before she knew he was there. He turned her around, raised his hand to touch his fingers to her face, but stopped himself… as if he’d disintegrate her. After a moment of looking over the soft fragile creature she was, he laid his hand over her anyway, harder than he intended, down her cheek, and pulled up her chin. Frustration simmered beneath with the feel of her between his fingers.

“Tell me what’s inside of you — your desires.”

His eyes squinted. This was not usually where the beginning line of desires started. Where was the rest? He couldn’t believe someone of this nature could be so simple. And he began to unsteadily wonder what would come next and a slight shake took his hand. “Deeper than that.”

She didn’t answer.

“Deeper,” he growled, gripping her harder.

He pulled her face at measure with his, entwining his fingers through her strands more gently, lost in calculation over her face and inside her expanding pupils. “I had thought you a little cat, and here you are — maybe a little bird this whole time.” His hands abruptly came away from her and let her go, her body falling from his arms. “A wingless bird then. Whom I need to fly.” He took her off her feet before she collapsed, and put her over his shoulder, taking off from the ground and disappeared into the dark sky with her.

                                                           

                                                           

 

The cold concrete underneath Ava and rapid wind in the air told her she was not at home before she even focused her eyes. Then she realized someone was standing over her and scraped her arm back against the ground in shooting alarm. But she saw it was Layton… and she stopped hazily.

His hands gripped around her thighs as he set her down on the ledge. Just as soon as he looked into Ava’s eyes, it was as if he suddenly couldn’t help but to close the distance between them, sending her robe off her legs as she opened them to let him between. He was looking for comfort as his cheek came to rest against hers, and her body melted against his. The comfort wiped away any fears or discomforts, even the cold air whipping warningly at her back from the bell tower ledge. Still, her heart hurt, and she felt like his did too.

Layton’s hands tightened into fists against her back as he crushed her even closer. She gasped as quietly as she could, knowing he was struggling just as she was.

His breath was uneven as he pulled his face back out near hers and glided his hands up over her shoulders. His lips brushed past hers as he moved, stilling ever so slightly, and her head tilted up after them. The breath from his nose trailed her skin as it went to rest on the side of hers safely. One thumb came up to rest below her jaw and another thumb found the spot just below her lip, pulling it open as it massaged. Her teeth tightened together, and she shivered.

A bird sang in the night. Then Layton pressed back on her shoulders as he pulled his face away. She watched as he blinked his eyes, slowly wiping everything from them, and everything that drew her to him. Her own eyes edged in return, seeing a disturbing enigma in him: two people, one being too dark to comprehend. Then he pushed her.

Ava slipped over the edge and fell into the whipping air, her clawing hands floating away from his and tearing at the sky. A small curve on his lip crept right before the realization fully hit her that she was falling — and had been pushed.

But her body hit the ground in seconds, before it had time to sink in, and she looked up to where the bell tower was almost in reaching distance. Ava looked around. She was on some kind of bridge now.

It was never there before.

Now she knew she had to be dreaming. At the end of the bridge was a door, and through the door were stairs that circled down into the dark, until it ended in a study. It was lightly lit by a near fully used candle on its desk. The room was covered with layers of dust, except for next to the candle where a book lie open and a painting lie oddly back behind it. The light flickered against it and she couldn’t believe her eyes as she stepped closer. It looked like it could be Layton — but it couldn’t possibly be because the painting was so old it was crumbling. She dared not touch it.

He lay under a tree in the shade, watching a pond, surrounded by fields of wild plants and trees and hills in the distance with the bluest sky. Layton’s hair was softer looking, tinted a lighter shade. The tall grasses billowed softly under his partly nude body with only a white robe hung loosely from him.

The picture almost moved before her… maybe it did — Ava ripped her eyes from it to the journal opened below. It was signed, John Hobstell… She looked up, just then thinking where she might be, and saw a name carved in gold on the desk, John Hobstell. She was in the Hobstell Mansion that was never built. She quickly looked back down at the journal, an uncomfortable combination of excitement and terror beating through her.

 

November 1820

I’m set to return to Massachusetts on important business today. Things have not been the same for me since my visit to the Hartz Mountains in Germany, as you know. The world has been dull since, no matter how much I try to see it as the way it was before. On my first visit, the life we lived there seemed to belong to that of fiction rather than reality. For that has changed, and now it seems rather this to be fiction, and there to be reality. Which was left behind, no doubt. It was there that I learned to admire nature and be enchanted by her mysteries. Nothing will compare and my days are longer since.

However, I may have found a way to go forward again, and that passage lies in the town of Aberdeen. I may have located another coven, and if I can never be a part of it, then at least I will find a way to open its door before I die. There is power in knowledge, and it is my duty to pass along this knowledge for the sake of our kind. Another world exists right under our nose, and we do not possess the keys to enter, nor the rights to even know of its existence. Do we mean so little? Oh, how the world is cruel.

Ava dropped the journal. She wanted to be safe and warm back in her bed, where the bed was nothing else but a bed and the blanket a blanket. But when she ran back up the stairs to the door, it wouldn’t open. It was locked. In full panic now, she ran back downstairs and out the other door of the study and ran right out into the courtyard from her dream. Though, now there were no noise or color; it was dried out, lifeless, and left long ago. That area had also been touched by fire and in such sad state and as if it had no tears to cry its sorrow.

Across the court, she fled into another wing and right into a thick cob of spider webs that wrapped around her. Ava began to scream as it seemed to be coming to life, inching itself tighter around her the more she moved.

Everything was flickering, warning it was going to change. The webs burned her skin like ice on salt. Ava couldn’t get free, and she could feel icy cold water at the bottom of her feet. She turned her head to look back; the water fountain was over flowing. She fell to the ground, splashing mucky water around her, and in the chair right in front of her lay a skeleton, with a painting behind it and tack reading: John Hobstell. The water charged anything electric left in her from before, making her feel as if she was about to light on fire.

“Layton!” she tried to scream through water in her throat. “Please! Layton…”

Everything went black.

 

 

 

Chapter 14 Calm (new)

Ava woke to the sound of wind chimes and the scattering sun over her eyelids and knew she was safe back in her bed and out of that nightmare.

Sweat dripped from her forehead. She lowered her hand from her head — her fingernails were caked with dirt. Ava threw the blanket off her — her robe was gone, and she had a sweater zipped over bra and underwear. She must be sleepwalking now! She desperately hoped the blackouts and moments of lost time were not back. But this was what she had signed up for when she went she running around after Layton. Ava sat forward with her head in hands for a minute before she could get up and head for the shower.

The morning was spent at the library being briefed of its re-opening and picking up more hours to contribute. For a class assignment, she had been paired with Marion, one of the elite, so they spent their free afternoon in town, promoting the study of history, handing out programs, acquiring interviews of the residents, and encouraging them to bring any artifacts to the society for a showing at one of their events.

There were children playing and singing some where in the neighborhoods far away. When it had finally caught her interest, she brought it up quickly, but Marion said he didn’t hear it. It was hard to hear clearly, but their song sounded so familiar that it began to ravage Ava’s mind; she had racked her brain trying to figure out the song and only knew it was important some how. The only thing she could make out was something about a rose, and the verses over lapping each other, then separating, as if a flower was blooming. She had asked him one more time, and when he still didn’t hear it, she blocked it out of her mind.

Her and Marion hadn’t exactly got on well at first, but then he mentioned that he used to be best friends with Shane, and with that, she loosened up a bit. Marion had warmed up to her when she became interested about the history of the library’s founder, asking him questions he was more than happy to talk about. She asked him to meet her at Cat’s Cradle Café, a coffee shop across the street from the library, to tell her more about John Hobstell.

“Yeah. I’m well aware of how weird that was. Thank you,” Ava said to him after he laughed about her dream — Layton omitted.

“Look.” Marion shifted in his seat and the sun caught the intricate design of his braids that were held neatly in a bun and the brilliant watch on his wrist, bright against his dark skin. He sat relaxed in khaki chino pants and a rich blue dress shirt. “The librarian talks about that legend wherever she can because it’s the town’s catch. I’m sure you know that part. Without families like the elite’s, this town is poor. Those stories give tourists something to boast about when they leave.” He shrugged. “But, I got my hands on his journals for you, ones that aren’t accessible to the public. He says he built the library with the intent to contact supernatural forces and that there’s more to this land than we can see.”

Ava huffed.

“Do you want to read them? They wouldn’t let me take them out, but I could get you in to see them. Right now, actually.”

“No,” she said quickly. “No… But why does it seem like everybody loses their mind in this town?”

“Probably because they want to lose their minds,” he laughed. “And who’s to say they’re crazy, anyway?”

Ava’s vision narrowed. “You don’t believe, do you?”

“Would that be so bad? The question you should ask yourself is, what is worth believing in?”

Ava sat back in her chair and looked upstairs, above the café where someone was playing Layla by Eric Clapton. Through the screen window, she could see a man and a woman dancing. It didn’t take long for those two to turn into her and Layton dancing — and that was just getting ridiculous.

“I don’t even know what I believe in anymore,” Ava said in a slight daze. Everything seemed to become possible in the current that carried her to Layton. Everything.

“Let me give you some advice about this town that my grandmother gave me. The second you stop believing, you stop seeing. And if you’re not seeing in this town, you might as well slip on the straight jacket or jump over Aberdeen’s cliff over there.”

Ava grunted unpleasantly.

A little girl came running out the café barefooted, almost running into Ava as she came to a halt to turn around the table. Her dirty flimsy legs almost buckled under her, but with just a second of excitement when she saw Ava, she was running perfectly back wherever she came from.

Ava looked to Marion, confused.

“That’s the owner’s daughter, Gracie. They’re good people. They have a lot of items here that donate to charity, and they do monthly art showings here to support the local artists. That’s why there’s so much art all over the walls inside. And they own the greenhouse next door, too, with a small apple vineyard and a pumpkin patch in the back.”

“I saw two people dancing upstairs a minute ago.” Ava looked back up at the window, wanting to see it again.

“Yup.” He tipped back the last of his coffee. “That was Jack and Layla.”

“Ah. Explains the Layla song. So tell me more about this Hobstell.”

Marion cleared his throat and sat back against the chair. “He used to be in law school. After his wife died, he quit and went to Germany for other studies. While on an expedition to the mountains there, he became obsessed with the place. The people speculated that he was bewitched.”

“Wait.” Ava’s eyes widened. “Why do you say that?”

“Well, because his behavior was odd. He was an eccentric and passionate man, but it worsened after Germany. It seemed to some that he lost his mind, but to others, bewitched — scribbling in his notebooks about witnessing witches dancing on the mountain top under the full moon and being forced out with a storm, then enthralled by wood nymphs on his way down where he lost a lot of time.” He chuckled purposely. “And that’s why he said he had to build the library — to contact them again.”

Ava rubbed the bridge of her nose. “This is not helping me.”

The little girl came back outside, slower this time, stopping at Ava, and held out a tiny rose in her hand. Ava took the flower and thanked her, and Gracie blushed, running back inside.

Ava stood up. “Come on,” she said, grabbing their coffee cups. “Let’s go meet the family and see about this art thing. I’ll buy you another coffee.”

The dreams plagued her mind.

She spent the rest of that day trying to recreate the images of the dream, as well as the painting, barely eating or drinking: Layton, Layton’s embrace, the bell tower, a hidden mansion, a coven, a world under their nose, a pond, a glimmering Layton. Every time she closed her eyes, she would see Layton’s satisfied smirk as she was falling and would feel that moment over again, not knowing what it meant. Perhaps, it meant that he wanted her to fall into this abyss of a mad world. That maybe it was okay to fall. He had penetrated layers of her; now she was desperate to peel back her skin for him. “Please, peel me down to my bones, set me bare, and set me down to peace.”

Her paintbrush traced tenderly over Layton’s profile on the canvas in front of her. The idea of another world other than this one ripped her open where she wanted to stay sealed, fearing what would come out along with it. Her paintings would go violent every time she remained in its thought. Yet, she did not think it were possible to stay away from him. Not when he made her feel so much. She was helplessly addicted to it and wanted more. So much more.

Ava sat in an old whicker chair by the windows looking at her painting, and as the scattering warm golden light turned muted grey-blue, she had drifted off to sleep, and her daydreams turned to night-dreams. They were the most peaceful thing she had ever felt. She had dreamt she was there with him by the pond, only the two of them and the nature around them, time standing still, serenity as soft as the breeze coming down from the hills, over the water, through the trees and the grass and over their skin. A haunting whisper carrying with it that said forever. She couldn’t quite remember it after waking, but she could still feel it, and that never faded, even after the dream did.

Dreams could be cruel indeed. But she’d take all the cruelty in the world to dream that dream again, every night, forever. Her resolve strengthened after that — there would be no swaying from it. And when she looked at the time and saw that it was not even nine PM yet, she jumped up and got ready to go back to Lithium.

 

As they turned the corner in the tunnels, they shined their flashlights up at the ivy palace, taken by its cascading beauty, just as they always were, and without hearing one sound, Ava felt a hand slip over her mouth. It obstructed her from screaming, and she was pulled away in a flash. It was quick — bizarrely quick; she could still feel the wind against her when she came to a stop, stunningly.

Her friend’s flashlights trickled light through the foliage that hid her farther from their view; the light’s glare through the dark, fluttered like stars in a forest behind the green embankment she was engulfed in. The fragmented illuminations kindled Layton as he looked down at her and she stilled.

He smiled and whispered, “Shhh.”

“What the hell are you doing?” She twitched but didn’t attempt a move from him in the slightest.

Dahlila called out for her.

“Shhh.” He leaned into her, pushing her deeper into the verdure, his voice soft.

“What the fuck? Don’t tell me she houdinied us,” Shane creaked. “It’s creepy as shit down here as it is. I don’t do the horror movie crap.”

Ava looked up at Layton and listened to them as they went the other way, trying to will her heart to quiet.

“She’s going to scare us. I know it!” Shane turned and jumped at the thin air.

“Shut up, Shane,” Danny and Dahlila hollered under their breath.

“If she so much as jumps out, I’m tying her up and going ‘the priest from the exorcist’ on her ass.”

“Shut up.”

“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

“Shut up!”

“Fuck!”

Layton looked down at Ava, his eyes playful when she started to laugh.

“Come on.” His fingers wove into hers and took her through a door hidden by the overgrowth, a steep tunnel, up stairs, and quickly up a ladder, out a manhole, and they ran down the nearest alley.

Ava did her best to keep up not being dressed for a marathon. She wore a ruby red asymmetrical draped skirt that was flesh tight against her hips, the shortest part ending at the top of her thigh, and a long sleeve, very low v-line top that only came down to her ribs, showing the top of her stomach. And she wore it for him.

Heat steamed out the vents from the buildings into the cool air. The puddles on the ground from the earlier rain reflected all the colors from the dull street lights, building signs, and car lights, orange, blues, and purples, shimmering off even the glistening slick brick walls. They went past a gigantic gate left open, and over a large overgrown lawn, barely seeing the black mansion coming into view in the black sky, and then he was gone. Ava’s hand was empty. Even though she was holding onto him so tight. “Layton!” she yelled out after him.

“This way.” His voice called from a distance.

“What the hell are you doing?” She tried to follow his voice.

“I thought you liked chasing me.” His voice carried softly in the wind and changed directions just the same.

Her breath circled her, and the cold mist in the air clung against her as she looked desperately around; her throat stung from breathing fast, her cheeks flushed, and hair damp. “Maybe. But now I just want to be with you.”

“Over here.”

Ava turned to see him standing next to her, perfectly, holding a hand on a ladder that was attached to the building. He nodded towards it, reaching out for her hand.

“What?”

“Come on.”

She looked at him oddly for it and then he guided her onto the ladder.

“Where are we going?” she asked as she started climbing in front of him, a ting of excitement sharp in her heart.

“You’ll see.”

They climbed up the ladder and past one roof, which it wasn’t connected to. She looked up to see how much higher they still had to go. “Layton...” Her voice was a bit nervous, the wind becoming more erratic, and she pushed back flashes of her nightmare.

“You’re okay. Just keep going.” His body caught up the distance between them, and he pushed gently on her leg, his fingers lingering until she took a couple steps, her flesh warming against the chill, so hyperaware of every contact. She swallowed.

Ava kept going until the ladder ended, coming to a tower similar to the bell tower, but with a small building in the middle and a slim walkway around it. She climbed over the ledge, taking a deep breath, looking around, and then at him as he came over the ledge.

“What are we doing up here?”

“Don’t you like heights?” A gentle smile played on his lips, his eyes almost doe like as he shifted his shoulders, waiting.

She let out a breath of realization, leaning her weight on one leg, and a hand on the ledge. “You knew I was up there. That night you first walked by.”

He shrugged, coming closer. “And you knew I would be at Lithium again. So we’re even.”

She shook her head at him and then straightened out. “Well this little excursion was… fun, but I gotta get back to the club. My friends have no idea where I went.”

“But didn’t you come here to see me?” He moved a step closer, his hand near hers on the ledge.

“Do you not want to go back to the club?”

“Not particularly.”

Ava looked down at the ledge, trailing her finger near his, and turned to go to the other ledge to look out at the vast portion of the town. “I wonder if we can see the bell tower from here.”

“Over there.” He reached out from behind her, pointing to her left as a breeze lifted past. “And…” He leaned in closer to her ear and put a hand on the back of her shoulder and neck. “If you look close enough, you would be able see someone up there if they were to shine a light.”

She smirked, looking down, knowing he was talking about her. Ava turned around to look at him, leaning herself against the ledge. “The night feels so,” she paused to think how to explain it. “Calm… when you’re around.” Like there’s a clarity suddenly in a world that doesn’t make sense. Even when her heart was beating fiercely, she felt calmer when he was there.

“Does it?” He relaxed against the building’s wall facing her, little space still between them. She looked down; his finger was linked with hers. She felt a small palpitation.

“I really do have to get back to my friends though.” Ava looked back up at him sadly.

Layton’s jaw tightened. He shifted his head on the wall and looked out into the town, seeming to go away from her. “Take the door around the corner. Take the stairs all the way to the bottom. Through the door, those stairs will lead you to the area that peers out over Lithium.”

“Oh.” The VIP area. “And you’re not coming?”

“No.”

No… This dropped a heavy weight over her; she wanted to spend more time with him but she couldn’t just leave her friends. Easy or not, there was a clear obligation there for Ava. And if he didn’t want to come… then until next time. “Okay, then…”

This time it was her finger that twitched tighter when letting go. A heartbeat flickered in his eyes and he swallowed, but he didn’t look again. She walked around to the door slowly, hoping he would change his mind.

“And, Ava.”

She turned eagerly but could only hear his voice now from around the corner.

Be careful treading in the dark. It is only your own depths that choose what you behold in the shadows of the night.” Ava walked through the door, her stomach twisting because he wasn’t coming and from the cryptic warning. ‘Should be careful with you….’

When she walked through the door of the upper club, a concentrated smell hit her that ignited both repulsion and intrigue. Mixed also with sweat and booze, it was something entirely different than anything she smelled before, like a mixture of arousal and death. Dim red light shined behind her as she walked out onto the platform, offering little clarity. The dingy domain lustered out of shadows like glitter sheen and rain wet alleyways when the shifting lights from the floors below rounded back around onto it.

It was like she walked into an animal den as it stirred in the wake of her presence from a dream like state. A guy standing with his hands against the metal railing, looking out over the crowd, turned slowly with a quiet smile. His eyes landed on Ava satisfyingly. The light came up and shined through his pure white hair.

Ava turned to the sound of a purr and saw Carla sitting on a couch crowded with people, her head back in an empty laugh. The two girls who had circled around Ava in the thrift store were there, sitting on the ground at the side of the couch like two good little creepy kids.

“Carla?”

Carla lifted her head up to Ava with half open eyes and reached out for her to come to join her.

“Are you lost, little red?” The guy that had been standing by the railing was behind her. “I can show you your way,” he proclaimed softly. He spoke slowly and carefully as if it were a marinade, too close to her, his accent a gentle old English-posh.

“I’m good. Thanks,” Ava replied, looking at Carla who was smiling, trying to calculate what Carla was on.

“Ash can show you.” Carla pulled her onto the couch by her arm, the velvet throw underneath warming her cold legs.

“Why did you come?” Ash stared down at her. “Do you not fear the wolves in the night? Did you come for shelter away from them?”

“I’m not afraid of wolves.” Ava looked up at him and his wide set eyes that didn’t seem threatening at all, even though she could feel something sharp underneath, something to beware of. The bottoms of his white eyebrows were lined with silver, and he had an androgynous quality to him. His voice was smoothly deep and enchanting. It was easy to be fooled, if she let him.

“Everyone is afraid of the wolf inside them. The one that lie in the dark.”

Follow white hair,” Carla whispered in her ear, and Ava looked back at him and his white hair cascading over his bare, finely sculpted shoulders as he bent down in front of her.

“And I suspect you are searching in those ole’ woods for a way out… far away from the wolf in the dark.” His eyes glared deep inside her. “Do you want to be free from that wolf? And free from the light the world shines down on you to feel as a person spotlighted against the mass, an outcast, afraid to be who you are or want what you want? The light that makes you see the shadows?”

Ava stared back, not answering.

“I can free you from the light. And from the dark. I can free you from all.” The way he moved, the way his face moved, was so lithe and celestial and un-weighted. “A banquet of desire awaits you so full you will never starve again. Hunger no more. Fear no more.”

The colored lights reflecting on their pale skin confiscated her eyes, and the lights seemed prettier — magical. The strangeness she perceived in the beginning, she was longing for now… or again. She longed for the freedom he promised and for the contentment she saw in their eyes. Longed to stop fighting to feel something. Fighting not be damaged.

Her eyes fell over to a dark corner where a large, rigid stone and raw tourmaline was make-shifted into a chair. It stood formidable above them, almost a throne in the shadows.

“What is it you desire, my dear?” he asked.

“Fresh air.”

“She desires Layton,” Carla told him, half alert, and laughs erupted from all around. Ava’s face burned, and her body tightened.

Her adrenaline pierced through the dim lighting as she looked around at the people, all their eyes on her now, propped up from where they were to watch them. Their white hair strands showing like a brand they displayed.

“Don’t laugh.” His own carefully guided laugh vibrated in his words. “That’s understandable. Though, what if I said, impossible?”

Ava’s eyes darted back to him sharply.

His eyes glistened. “Fear… Your desire guides you, and it will feed you, but fears inhibit all. Let me widen your senses.”

The little girl-women stood up and walked aimlessly. “I used to be afraid of knives — now I run with knives.” She smiled innocently pulling a knife out of nowhere. Ava raised her lip and was thinking she hit her limit for curiosity.

And yet, she didn’t move.

“Little girls are taught at a young age that dreaming of love and nice things are silly, yet everyone longs for it, and under the eyelids, when secrets come out to dance, everyone dreams of it. So pitiful to live such a hateful lie. Such misery in the oppression of feeling so wrong for something that is natural, so that another can cope with its heartbreak. They ridicule others for the same things they want, out of fear — fear of life tainting happiness, so they taint it first, try to obscure its worth. That fear will feed on you more than anything else. It hinders all that you are and all that you want. All that you could be.”

“Are you afraid of your wolf?” Ava asked him.

Ash flashed his teeth kindly. “Dear girl, I’ve eaten my wolf whole.” His voice made love to her insides and everything made sense. “There is only one fear needed in life. And you don’t fear death… when you become him in everlasting life and youth for eternity.” He pulled her hands into his and rested them friendly on her lap. “Become one of us, and you can be accepted in your entirety, for all that you are, and all that you want. Become one of us, and you’ll become us all, our strength is yours, and your thoughts are ours. We are family. We are one.”

She looked at Carla who was sleeping now with a small corner of her lip raised. A guy next to her pulled his lips from her neck, laying his black-smudged, smoldering eyes on Ava with a more ambitious hunger in them than the rest. He had similar features to Ash, but his hair was darker, cascading from the combed mound on his head, only white on the sides. A girl on the other side of Carla licked her craving lips as she watched him, her full white hair brilliant against her mocha skin. Her smile deepened as he closed his eyes and laid his head back, almost in the same position as Carla, and both his and Carla’s index fingers twitched as if they were one person, their breathing increasing the same. Ava’s own mouth watered at this. The unity.

Someone echoed as drowsiness took her over; it was contentment so pure she felt she could die, like she would just let herself slip away into the afterlife. Maybe this was the afterlife.

“That is power.” Ash knelt closer to her, pulling her arm out straight towards him tenderly. “Be my equal.” He lowered his face to her arm, keeping his eyes on her and ran his tongue up it. Her head buzzed. A pair of red eyes glowed in the deep dark hallway burning inside her with its growing intensity. She couldn’t breathe. Needed air.

All the words echoed through her head — become one of us, family, accept you, power, fears, desires… Layton. Heard Layton’s words echo — choose what you behold in the shadows… The calmness she had around him came to her in soft warmth in her chest. It compared harshly against the cold breeze of an empty room that she was feeling now, and it reminded her the real reason she came to town to begin with, to be whole again… not empty.

She pulled her arm back, pushed them all away from her, and ran down the stairs and as far away from them as she could get.

She searched the club for her friends, dizziness not subsiding, panic rising — lights too harsh — music too loud — and then a weight wrapped around her as if something tightened its grip around her, her neck shot with pain, numbness threatened to take her before she could get out. She thought she was about to pass out. But then she found them and all she thought about was dragging them out.

On the way home, Ava’s head stayed out the window, her thoughts ballooned. Everyone was arguing, and it was obvious it stemmed from her taking off with Layton, and that she wouldn’t clarify why she needed to leave so desperately. They made it very clear that they didn’t like him one bit. They acted more flustered over it than her. Maybe it was her they had a problem with.

“You’re messing around on the wrong side of things with that guy. You know that don’t you, Ava?” Dahlila asked, trying to find Ava’s attention in the mirror, her voice pitching high. “I mean who just snatches someone in the dark like that? This shit is ridicules!”

“I don’t know why you guys have denounced him since day one. I mean honestly, what is it? Is he scary? Does his attitude hurt your feelings? Is he too edgy? The trash across the tracks your mothers told you to stay away from?” Ava laughed at them.

“I don’t know why you don’t see that there’s something wrong with him.” Dahlila shot back. “And the people there are all freaks!”

“And I don’t know why you don’t see there’s something wrong with me! What is wrong with you? I’m a freak! You can pretend all you want the world is perfect and people are perfect, but you can’t just put makeup on everything and expect it to be pretty. I feel bad for you the moment those walls start crumbling down. You think you have nightmares now?” They couldn’t understand, even if she tried beating them over the head with it. She didn’t even want to be anywhere near them right then because it only made her feel like a fish trying to breath out of water. Ava had been trying to avoid this for so long; she wasn’t sure what the point was anymore. She went to hit herself in the head, but grabbed her wrist before she could.

“Whoa! Alright girls. CHILL THE FUCK OUT,” Danny hollered and took a breath. “I don’t know why you would want to be with a guy like that, anyway, Ava? He was gloating because he had snatched you away the other night. Why does he want you away from your friends so bad? He’s only focused on one thing. I know a man on a mission when I see one. And he was telling us with his eyes, he has you. Don’t let the man have you.”

“Yeah. Don’t let the man have you.” Shane repeated distantly.

 “Don’t you start too, Shane.” Ava frowned.

“I’m just surprised.” Shane hit his knuckle on the window he was looking out. “I don’t really see you as the kind of girl easily swept away by guys like that… He’ll hurt you…”

“TRUST ME. I’m not easily swept away.” Ava glared through the red heat in her vision. “And don’t worry about it; you guys don’t need to understand why I do anything — ‘cause you can’t! I have a hard enough time figuring it out myself. So mind your own fucking business.” Ava shut the car door and hurried into the house with steam coming out of her ears.

And did they ever think, maybe he just had that special thing, that special key, to be able to sweep her away? Why couldn’t she have this one thing? Why was it so impossible? Why did it have to be that she was easy for recognizing something that allowed her to bring down her walls for once? Everyone deserved release. Didn’t they? Didn’t she…

Ava stopped from pacing back and forth. Her eyes set on her bed where a beautiful red rose lie, and she could almost hear Layton now, fluttering away all the bad thoughts like birds flying off the tree branches into the skies. She sighed, picking it up to smell it, wishing she would have just stayed up there with him.

Chapter 15 Elemental Sounds (new)

Layton stood against the wall of his tower, waiting for a light at the bell tower, the noises inside growing louder, though the night was quiet and the breeze sweeping over the ledge was gentle. Would she want him again, and come looking at the tower, or come calling at the very least? Her voice called in memory crystal clear… but breaking through distance, far away under the static of his new chaos.

He looked up at the sky, the stars pierced through, growing brighter. He wanted to hear her. The threat of his old silence deafened him of her song when he slid closer back into its cold grips and the stars dimmed. Layton squinted his eyes hard on them but they flickered.

He shut his eyes and growled.

He’d been with her not long ago. Her walls are strong, but the way they could mend made him slip deeper into her and could nearly bear parting. But cold reality set in and there was no turning back now — she was a part of his world now. He shook his head.

Could he follow her voice back if he wanted to? Would she follow his or maybe save herself? Would it be too late, the sound quieted, the stars gone out forever? It was hard to tell which side he was calling her from anymore.

The world was turning and becoming different to him now; he couldn’t grasp himself. But he could grasp her. He could do that.

He left his tower, again hearing the soft lullaby of her being inside himself; sometimes he couldn’t hear it and there was no sound. He stood against the wall of the Hobstell bridge next to her tower, waiting. How long would he wait? Until morning? Until he turned to stone?

He heard the creaking of the trap door to the tower and stiffened nervously for a moment. Ava stepped up into the brisk night air and he inhaled her before moving next to the ledge, so close to her that he almost felt the cold from the empty space between them. She had come so quickly; he almost felt alive from it. She turned on a flashlight and set it on the ledge. His eyes smiled at that when his lips could not.

Even though she’d been across the threshold, she could no longer see it; she couldn’t see or hear him. There was a veil. And she wouldn’t believe it; she wouldn’t let herself. Just like she wouldn’t believe the thing inside her.

But he needed her to believe.

“Ava…” he whispered. She flinched slightly; she heard him and that surprised him. She looked around, and he swallowed. “Come back over. Open your eyes, Ava. Come to me. Please, want me enough to bear it.”

Would she be able to believe in him? He lowered his hand on the ledge and looked down suddenly in severe thought: what exactly is it he wanted her to believe in him now? His weighted eyes rose to her again, defeated almost, for she can’t truly believe in what is not real.

She came closer to his ledge, reaching out her hand in the empty air, so close to his face that his eyes flickered closed softly. And then she set her hand next to his on the ledge.

Ava…” he sighed. “…My Ava.”

 

                                                            -

 

Verina and Gabriel sat crouched on the roof of the Hobstell place, watching Layton and Ava in confusion.

“He is attempting to open her eyes first, do you think?” Gabriel asked.

“Its unclear now, Gabriel. I can’t follow it any longer.”

“Why does he not drag her to the island then? That will disintegrate her veil.”

Verina did not answer; there were no answers to give.

“Whatever he is doing, he is playing this one very close to the chest, of course. He will not even share its plans with me. Or you — though, you’ve never been interested in plans.”

“I am interested in this one.” Her eyes continued to stare wide and dark at the pair.

Gabriel looked from Verina, then back to them and his lip scrunched with an air of irritation. “I do not recognize him when he’s with her. It is as if he is human.”

“Though, he is not. Neither are we. And neither can Layton or I feel and yet — I wonder if it is her human destruction he craves — the way she craves his death — but he can not crave such…”

“I wonder if I should do something about this. She has disrupted too much. The girl has done something to him — I may encourage Ash to take her. And quickly.”

“I do not think there will be many moments where they are not free from each other. Layton does not let her go easy and for long — and see how quickly she came back to him.” Verina rose to her feet. “During one of my stays in Africa, I came across a lion sitting by a tree. He had a small deer underneath him. The deer must have fallen behind its herd and wound up the capture in the lion’s hunt. But something kept him from feeding on it... Instead, he sheltered it, protected it from even his kind. The deer had forgotten his own as well, not understanding wanting more than what the lion offered.”

“What happened to them?”

“They both starved.” Verina’s focus moved to Gabriel and jumped off the roof and away from them. Gabriel gave one last look at Layton and Ava with disgust and followed behind.

 

                                                            -

 

Ava turned on the flashlight and set it on the ledge of the bell tower. She looked out into the night trying to set her eyes on Lithium’s tower, but was only met with pitch black, of which that part of the town slumbered deeply in. A gentle breeze sweeping over the ledge turned sharp and left a hollow space behind it.

Ava. She thought she heard her name from the darkness, the dark pit swaying with silence and memory. It was Layton’s voice. She came closer to the ledge, reaching out her hand in the empty air as if he were close, then rested it on the ledge when the longing became too heavy.

Then she heard it again.

No... No. No voices. Her eyes squeezed shut and her fingers dug into her arms, fighting off the rapturous chill vibrating through her.

 Ava...

Stop.

Ava pushed her eyes open and sucked in a painful breath like she had been underwater. She turned quickly to go home as fast as she could, still hearing her name the whole agonizing way. But it was no longer Layton’s voice. It was another voice. Ava And another. Little Bitch Another one. You’re all alone.

She rushed into her room, grabbing her head, trying to tune it out. Where are you going? You have nowhere to go. You’re nothing. No one. This place isn’t real. You’re not real. He’s not real. You’re friends are not real. Ava spun around, looking into the room. She thought she heard Layton again. It lingered like a snake slithering across the ground, his memory sensually coaxing her mind, and deep within her body. There was no one there, but everyone was there, and everything was there. The sight of the room was jagged and uncomfortable. She was an intruder; that’s what she was in the world, no matter where she would be; she wouldn’t feel belonged or safe. Then she would never have anywhere to go, ever. She wanted to tear her skin off her.

Ava scratched at her arms, looking around again, and looked down where the rose had been but was now gone, craving Layton’s air, craving his calm, craving his peace.

She noticed the journal sitting open underneath it — Hobstell’s journal.

Why is that there?

 

 

Morning, 6th July [56]

 

My thoughts steal away to the tiresome journey of seeking beyond my human lot that has left me frail and ill for the impossible. A strive to be full and satisfied in knowledge and above what I could not reach sent me down a maddening road to emptiness and corruption. Life is not meant to be obtained to the point of pure contentment. What would we live for? It is not, the more we obtain, the more we have. Instead, the more we obtain, the less we have. And I have lost it all.

I have found hell in the town of Aberdeen in my path to find another coven. I began this journey in search of heaven on earth, the magical island so near, the world of the woman I loved. Instead, I fell into depravity and pleasure to quell my misgivings as a mere human and escape my pain; because I did not love her more than my ambitions; because I did not love her enough to hurt for her. Yes, I have found hell, an infernal of nothing. With no fear and no love. No love for her. Yes, I am in hell.

 

“This isn’t real.” Ava moaned, looking up from the book. It can’t be real… Maybe he wasn’t real. “It’s not REAL!” She threw the book against the wall. She wanted to hear Layton again, the calm, gentle drift, a guide of clarity and fresh breath.

 

A voice inside her head cackled.

She spun around the room to where she heard Jason’s voice in the corner. Take the medicine, Ava. And around again where she heard Kayla. She’s fucking lost. Fuckin lost. Fuckin lost. HahahaHAHA.

Ava grabbed the medicine out of her nightstand and stared at it. Take it. Lose yourself. Lose everything. Just forget it all. “No! No… Shit!” She slammed the bottle into her head. “Shit! Shit!” She didn’t want to take it. It hurt to go there, especially now, like cutting open a vein and letting herself pour out dry, everything that she was. But this was tearing her apart. She tightened her hands into fists, and her muscles turned into pain.

The volume in another voice began to whisper in higher increments, a voice she hadn’t heard in a very long time…

 …The one that used to torment her when she was a child. “No. Not that one.”

please.

She shook her head. The voice started out as a child, and then it was a woman, and it turned warped and dark and deeper and faster and higher.

She hit her head on the brick wall.

Ava was recognizing the voice differently now. It was hers. She hadn’t recognized the woman’s voice when she was little because she was not a woman yet, but it was clear now; she was destroying herself. She had always been destroying herself. She didn’t have to run away from other people. She was her worst enemy, and no matter what, she’d never get away from herself.

“I’m just a shadow.” Her whisper echoed in the room after the voice she could not understand but felt in the depths of her.

She felt the ground shake underneath her the same time she felt the blood drip down her forehead. There was a cold chill that crept in as if it was escaping from the cracks breaking through her room, drifting from the underworld, dark and deep under the surface. A whisper carried along with it, “Ava...” And then, a child giggled innocently, as if playing somewhere in a far distance she couldn’t see.

She didn’t want to open her eyes because she didn’t want the quake to stop; she wanted it to open up the earth and consume her. Consume her as a whole. To be whole. She opened up the bottle and poured some into her hand, raising her hand to her lips, shaking so bad she was dropping them.

Then she felt a hand over hers… pulling it away from her mouth…

Ava looked up at Layton standing over her, his face grave. She hadn’t realized she was on the ground. He bent down, took them from her, and whipped them hard across the room so that pills shattered everywhere. And his gaze came back to her with such dead fierceness it took her breath away. She tried to tell him that she had to take it to disappear, only for a little while, but her words were incomplete as her fingers fell slack into his.

“Shhh.” He ran his thumb across her forehead, wiping away the blood, and pulled her into him, whispering in her ear, “You’re okay. Shhh.”

She fell into his arms and wrapped herself tight around him, letting everything go and the night turned to calm. Their sounds were the songs of the breeze, the waters swaying, fire sizzling inside, and the earth that echoed them immortally. But only one heart beat…

 

 

Chapter 16 Vitality of Blood (new)

 

The sun’s light rays shined down on the earth outside, growing warmer as it rose above in the sky. Inside Layton’s chambers, where it was dark and cool, he lay working himself to sleep, gorging on the now free pouring life from the girl frail between his arms. He was starving by the time he left Ava, though he didn’t realize until now it wasn’t for blood. Like an addict, he longed to be back in her embrace. He craved escape from that addiction as he tightened his grip around the flesh beneath him, the need constricting his breathing and scorching through his veins through to his heart, his eyes, where it all burned.

Sadness had blanketed down around Layton and Ava as he bent down towards her on the floor the night before, a blanket so heavy that either of them couldn’t have stood without each other’s arms. This was grief?

He always imagined his arms wrapped around Ava so tight as her life poured into him, and the moment her arms were wrapping back, holding onto him, taking whatever life she could get from him, he had gone weak.

It was unsettling how painful a gentle touch could be… when you’ve only known callous for so long. But it was his own welcoming of it that had hazed him. It was like he had let something go to take it.

And he did; he let everything else go and picked her up and carried her down the hill beside the house and the passageway to the small beach, where he sat her in the rocky sand so that she could breathe in fresh air — where he could attempt to breathe in air. He sat on the log near her. Not too close. He was unsure now.

When she looked up at him, her eyes pulled him into some kind of void within himself. The intensity of them made him feel as though, for a second, he was actually feeling what she was feeling, a violent storm of warm lights — spiraling; was that her or him? For that brief moment, he thought he would follow her to the ends of the earth. It almost seemed genuine; though he knew it was not. Still, he lingered in the illusion of it.

It was clear she didn’t know what she possessed, as if it were lost. Everyone else felt it. Even the animals. It was magnetic and as lunacy provoking as the moon. She was invaluable, and he would find the key to unlock her.

“I’m not broken,” she proclaimed adamantly, eyebrows stubbornly tight together.

“Of course you’re not…” He laughed inside at her stubbornness, thinking the sweet aftertaste of it in spite of himself, when sometimes it reminded him of a little lioness cub trying to roar… or perhaps a swan trying to fly. It was the determination she had to light a spark of fire in rain. He tried to keep down the corner of his lip that tugged up. “You’re taped together.”

She frowned up at him; she didn’t realize the beauty in that, but her brows showed him she warmed up to the idea after a thought — that made him laugh inside too. Uhh…

He remembered since long ago people have been mesmerized by the pure of heart and the unbent or unbroken. He never understood that. It was the souls painted, shattered, and broken like a million stars in a galaxy that he found mesmerizing. And even more beautiful was the quilt they managed to manufacture after it all, which wrapped it all up with the kind of softness that still produced love, especially in ways others didn’t know how to — the strength that pulled it tight together and shined with every color in the spectrum. They were stars that still shined to us millions of years after they’ve burnt out.

She was magnificent.

He’s watched her break into a million pieces every time she’s gone into her room alone, shining in the dark, and then build herself back up again. And every time, she had come out to her people with a sober face, only to give them something they needed, a little life. An intense ever flow of crashing waves in her soul, a force as vital and vivacious as blood, blood that brings nourishment and oxygen, with the power to live and grow, create life. It is the source of life and essence of vitality. If only she knew.

She had the Vitality of blood.

As she sat there, she poured out things of her earlier life, second guessing every couple of sentences at first, crashing with her normal vices that usually protected herself over others and kept her closed. Until finally, she flowed a steady current and the more her body softened into the sand next to his leg.

He’d give her anything — that is a lie.

Even above her struggles, the thing she was most ambitious about was making herself a better human being, so she could be there for everyone else in ways she could never be before, in a way she’s always yearned for. She tried to blend in with all of these normal creatures so that she could repair herself back to normal, repair through pain that most did not have the courage to face. And she would repair, but she was not normal, and there would be no escaping that in the end.

“It’s up to me, who I become. I can’t blame anyone else, anymore. I have all the power over the damage that is done to me, past or future.” And then, she looked up at him again in that way. She would keep fighting.

He would follow her, he thought. No.

“I was so scared to tell anyone that my mother had left, scared that they would take me away, and I’d never see her again,” Ava said in a low weighted voice. “I waited so long in that empty house for her to come back, and she never did. Child protective services came before they came for the house. You see, because I went back to school for food, and because I was lonely. I used to go play at this little girl’s house after school, and her mother always used to look me up and down — but the bitch never directly asked me anything or clarified whether I was actually neglected or just trashy. It was like I was this little beast in her house. And one day, she called the services and that’s when they came. They didn’t get me though, because I was already waiting for them. In every sound, every creak of the house, every car light. I was just so angry with everyone after that, especially myself.

“After some time, I found abandoned houses were the easiest to hide in, and that’s where I lived for a long time. People came to party. I was just a rotating door for people to come forget about their problems for a night until they went back home to their families. But I didn’t mind giving them everything I had. I think I cared too much about people. Maybe I was desperate, I dunno. I realized it was starving me, and if I was going to survive, I had to stop. That’s when everything closed inside, and I became a fuckin’ ugly person.”

She had pain in her eyes as she spoke, as if he’d taken a piece of flesh from her, and he sympathized because of the trivial pain he pursued just to continue with her.

He found himself sliding off the log into the sand next to her to get closer, and as the night went on it became quieter. She had been right, the night felt calmer. And forever — that was unsettling.

She went on for a while, catching him up on her life, and he couldn’t believe the authentic curiosity coming from him as he’d ask her questions as she went on, no force, no deceit. He enjoyed it and enjoyed knowing more of her, things he couldn’t scrape from her mind; no amount of coaxing in the world would have known what lie under some rocks.

But no matter what she talked about and how deep she went, she always carefully steered away from what was going on in her mind that caused her to act abnormal. Even though he knew. And far more than she did. He was sure now, though he wasn’t in the beginning.

No matter how much he’d sit near her, allowing her vitality to reflect on him, he’d still be without it inside. And up against her, the harder that realization. When he looked down at her, it was clear all he was without, and yet, she moved closer and closer to him. When her hand touched his face at the end of the night, he turned to leave before she could see the pain — it was her pain, not his! More afflictions when he realized she thought it angered him.

What a wicked little thing she was. And magnificent.

He viciously latched onto the body under him, tearing his teeth farther into the flesh until they could go no deeper and silence came abruptly, her cries lost in the past. He let her loose in his arms, letting the blood drip happily from his mouth, and looked down at her and her dangly neck. Ava’s body lay limp in his arms, blood wasted down her neck and pooled between her breasts, life lost in the throes.

He gasped, jumping out of the bed as far as he could from the body.

“No!” he hissed. “No…” His throat ran hoarse and cut off his voice as he stared back and then away. Cradling his head in his hands, he pulled at his hair recklessly.

He looked back at the body, his eyes burning, and saw it was not Ava lying there.

His body froze. Confused and filling with paralyzing grief — THIS WAS GRIEF — he could not move. It had been so long a time that he could feel the full extent of who he was, a monster. He was human once too; this was a monster. Him. The idea of anything happening to this life, this girl that he enjoyed every ounce of, drove him to feel a breakage.

He began pacing back and forth. Anger instigated him to break down the rotting cement walls in a fit of rage, and shock cowered him into his chair where his eyes still burned. Only in that contrast with the helpless girl’s life he just stole, seeing a life precious to him, was he reminded the significance of what he was taking away. And that it did matter. So much mattered…

Layton went to the Hobstell office to see the painting of himself when he was still human. It was so long ago, it seemed it hadn’t even existed at all, not for a moment. It was the only thing he had left of his old life. Everything else was dust, even the painting crumbled, just like his memory of it. He kept it safe there hidden from the world, where the witch sealed her listless lover up.

Only habit motivated him to keep it after all this time because he was in no position to feel any sentimental attachment to it only weeks ago, and now he’d cling to it through the night. Even though, to cling to the past was dangerous for his kind where there was so much of it, and as dangerous as clinging to humanity, his or anyone else’s.

He would have no idea that across town, Ava would be presenting a replica of it she brought to life for a charity event at the Cat’s Cradle coffee shop. And she would call it, where the heart is.

That place where he had laid by the pond, just like his heart, disappeared long ago. And so did life until Ava came along with vitality enough to let her heart beat for the two of them.

But it would see its end… that is what he had to remind himself as his eyes lingered over his painting and the consuming flames he had set to it, turning it into ash and nothing.