‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD KEEP HER SAFE! YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD LOOK AFTER US!’
I blinked. The memory faded, and the autumn sky above my head once again became visible. My head was throbbing a little from the experience. It had been a few months already, but ever since Hao came to visit, I’d been having more and more of these… whatever they were.
No, I knew exactly what they were. But you couldn’t exactly go to a doctor and explain something like this. That would be a fun conversation for sure. I sighed, rubbing my temples. I could already picture the conversation in my mind.
‘Yeah, doc. Apparently I’ve got some kind of curse placed on me and my entire bloodline. I know this through a series of old letters from my dead mother, whom I have never actually met before! Also I can somehow mentally tap into her memories, which gives me a headache. Got any pills for that?’
They probably did. It was called an asylum. I sighed again. Doctors weren’t going to believe me. Hell, who would? The only person who would know what was going on – my mother – was dead. Just when I was finally ready to find out what this curse was… my only lead went cold. Literally. I swallowed, pushing back my feelings of grief.
As I lay there, thinking, another memory came to me. But this time, it was one of my own. A long time ago, I recalled having a conversation just like this.
‘Do not cast away stories as superstition too soon, Chase. You’re closely connected to this one, even if you do not know it.’
It had been with Damar, the elder of the Wanderers. That had been more than five years ago. I’d ended up with more questions than answers after that conversation. But perhaps it was time to give it another try? She and Liu were the only people that I’d ever hear talk about curses and gates.
Hell, even if it would turn out to be a dead end, I’d at least get the opportunity to see Liu. We’d grown apart a bit over the years, with him and his people drifting in and out of town. They were here now, though. I was pretty sure of that. It would be good to see him. Even if it was just a social visit, Liu might help me take my mind off of… everything.
I nodded to myself and stood up from the ground.
It was time to go pay them a visit.
I had a strange sense of dèja vu when I approached the area of town that the Wanderers called their home. As I strode in, I could see people walking all over the place- more so than usual. The peaceful atmosphere was still there, but the camp looked emptier than before. Almost as if people were making room for something… or someone. Again. The last time this happened, it ended up with fifty extra travelers arriving in town. Perhaps today was a similar event?
I looked around for Liu, but couldn’t find him. A few people nodded to me as I passed them by. They didn’t give me any other attention. They all seemed to be busy making room in the center of the area for… something.
Then, all of a sudden, I saw a familiar shape. I had to do a double-take to be sure it was her. With a curious voice, I called out.
The black-haired woman turned around with a surprised expression on her face.
‘Chase? What are you doing here?’
‘That’s my line, isn’t it?’ I responded curiously. ‘What are you doing with the Wanderers?’
‘I live here.’
That, too, took me by surprise.
‘Wait, what? You do? Live? Here?’ I stuttered. Nailah raised a single eyebrow.
‘Yes. Am I not supposed to?’
‘I just- I didn’t know that you were a Wanderer, is all,’ I responded. Gods, this was awkward. I’d been training with her for years and didn’t even know where she lived. For some reason, that really bothered me. Along with the awkwardness. Why was everything always so weird with this woman? Or maybe it was me. I had no idea.
‘So, um,’ I said to break the silence. ‘What’s going on over here? Everyone seems really busy.’
‘Today is one of our holidays. They’re preparing for a night of feasting and celebration. And probably dancing.’
‘Oh. Well, uh, good for you. What’s the holiday?’
A faint smile appeared on her face.
‘I’m not sure. I think it had something to do with the changing of seasons.’
‘Like the festivals you have in September and March?’
‘The Vernal and Autumnal equinox festivals, yes,’ Nailah nodded. ‘You’re quite familiar with our holidays.’
‘What can I say? I love eating your food. Picking up bits of the culture kind of comes with the territory.’
She chuckled. I hadn’t seen her smile at me a lot. It looked good on her.
‘Anyway. Was there something you needed, Chase?’
‘Oh, right. Yeah. I was looking for Liu, actually. I guess if you live here, then you know him too, right?’
‘He’s my cousin.’
‘No way,’ I gasped. ‘Are you serious? Why didn’t I know that? Nobody told me!’
‘Almost everyone is related to everyone here. That’s why we tend to move around a lot. To find other caravans with potential suitors for our children. I moved here a couple of years ago when Liu’s family merged with mine.’
So that’s how it was. And damn it, he never told me! Liu was getting an earful, that was for sure.
‘So do you know where he is?’
‘He’s away right now, gathering food and drinks for tonight. I don’t think you’ll be able to speak to him until the celebrations begin.’
Bummer. So much for my plan. Damar didn’t seem to be around, either. That made my visit here basically useless. I clacked my tongue in irritation, trying to think of something else to do.
Nailah must have picked up on my reaction, because her head suddenly cocked to the right.
‘You’re welcome to wait for him here, if you want. It should only take a couple of hours. You can help set things up. We have a shortage of people to do the heavy lifting.’
‘Are you roping me into doing more training with you?’ I asked.
A grin appeared on her face.
‘Of course. Have you seen those flabby arms of yours?’
Ah. There she was. The last bit of awkwardness gone, the usual Nailah had returned. And so had her jabs.
‘My arms look fine!’
‘Exactly. I know you have that natural girly figure, but you’re supposed to be an adult now.’
‘I do not have a girly figure!’
‘Then prove it! Throw some boxes around, maybe drag a tree trunk or two. Or is that too much for you? I’ll do it, if you can’t.’
‘Fine! Damn it. I’ll show you.’
I stomped off to the nearest tent and grabbed one of the crates from the ground. Judging from the clanking inside, it was probably filled with bottles of alcohol. It was heavy. I pretended it wasn’t.
‘Where do you want this?’
‘Over there is fine. Come on, now. Put your back into it.’
I huffed and did as she said. Before I knew it, I was dragging tables around, hanging lights in the trees and pushing boxes from one side of the camp to the other. It was… actually quite fun. I knew many of these people, and the simple task of lugging stuff around helped take my mind of everything that had happened.
I kept stealing glances at Nailah as I worked. The fact that she actually lived here came as a surprise. But thinking about it, she did look an awful lot like the other people here. I wonder why I’d never made that connection before? Maybe it was because I always saw her in jogging clothes? I wasn’t sure. But for some reason, it was hard for me to picture her happily traveling along with Liu and his people. Then again, I still didn’t know all that much about Nailah to begin with.
Eventually, twilight came. Their festival started. A bonfire was made, the lights in the trees were lit and the crates of alcohol finally opened. People started dancing along to the music before too long. They were a happy bunch. Some women invited me to dance. I declined. I was content to just watch, sitting on a hay bale.
Before too long, Liu returned. He’d grown older, too. He looked like his father. His old man had grown old enough to retire, and Liu had been slowly taking over responsibility for his people. As soon as Liu spotted me, a bright smile appeared on his face.
‘Chase! I haven’t seen you in ages! What brings you here, man?’
‘I heard you were having a party without me,’ I grinned at him. ‘So I invited myself.’
He laughed, slapping me on the shoulder with his hand. Then he pulled me off of my seat and, surprisingly, gave me a hug.
‘You just made my day, man! Come, share a drink with me!’
He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Liu led me across the camp, grabbing two drinks from one of the open crates. People were giving him glances along the way. Liu greeted all of them as he walked. He really seemed to be getting into his role as a leader.
A little ways off from the crowd, my childhood friend turned towards me with a big grin on his face.
‘So you haven’t gone off to university, after all!’
‘Nah. It’s not really my thing. I have more important things to take care of.’
He handed me a bottle.
‘But enough of that. I haven’t talked to you in months. What’s it like, being the new leader around here?’
‘Don’t get me started, man,’ Liu groaned. ‘It’s a gigantic pain in the ass, that’s what it is. You know how we used to sneak off for a day whenever we felt like it? I can’t do that anymore. There’s always someone in need of help, or something to manage, or someone I have to track down to do something for someone else. I don’t know how dad does it without going completely crazy.’
Liu had always been very keen on his freedom. This would be an interesting challenge for him. Good leadership ultimately meant less freedom than the ones you were leading. He seemed to realize that, too. Liu took a big swig of his bottle, before smiling at me.
‘Really, though. I know you. Why are you actually here?’
‘I came for some information, actually. The past few months have been weird, and I was wondering if you guys could shed some light on the things that happened.’
‘Interesting,’ Liu grinned. Then he seemed to remember something.
‘Oh, that’s right! I have something for you. Come with me for a moment.’
This time, Liu led me to one of the caravans. His, I assumed. He dissapeared inside for a moment, after which he came back out with something that looked like some kind of pendant.
‘Here. Take it.’
He handed it over to me. I looked at it with a frown on my face.
‘My confession of undying love. Chase, will you marry me?’
‘Very funny,’ I replied. ‘Now really, what is it?’
Liu stepped forward and put the thing around my neck. On second glance, it wasn’t a pendant as much as it was a necklace. It looked old, and I could see little patches of rust on the edges. There was a piece missing on the top right side. It really wasn’t something I would wear, even if I wore necklaces. Which I didn’t.
‘Do me a favor and keep this around your neck for a while, will you?’
‘For how long?’ I asked. Liu shrugged.
‘Oh, I don’t know. For the next… 20 years or so.’
‘What the hell?’ I answered. ‘Why?’
‘I told you, it’s my confession of undying love! Don’t question that, man. You’ll break my heart.’
He was trying to pass it off as a casual joke, but I was having none of it.
‘Liu, I’ve had a very crappy month. I’m not in the mood for jokes. Now tell me what this is, or I’m leaving your little love confession right on that table and going home.’
‘Fine, fine. I know you don’t believe in our stories, and neither do I, but Nana does and she wanted you to have this. Apparently it belonged to that girl from the legend. Nile. It’s a bit of a family heirloom.’
‘If that’s the case, shouldn’t you hang on to it, then?’ I replied with raised eyebrows. Liu shook his head.
‘I think you’re going to need it more than I would.’
‘What do you mean?’
He frowned, looking me straight in the eyes. There was something… almost desperate about his tone of voice.
‘Look, just… take it, all right? It’s a lot of bullshit, but the thing will keep you safe. A little, at least. And if you end up having kids, make sure you pass it on to them too, all right? It’ll keep them safe as well. From everything.’
From everything? My eyes narrowed. I had a weird feeling about this. Liu was definitely holding back some information. The timing of this was awfully convenient, too. Just after learning that I was, in fact, not safe. Just after learning about the curse. I had not shared any of this with him, though. Did Liu know more about me than he was letting on?
I had to test that.
‘Liu, answer me honestly. What do you know about me and my family? My biological family?’
His expression fell. Liu shook his head sadly, compassion shining through his eyes.
‘I’m sorry. That’s against the rules, emal.’
With that, Liu turned around and walked away from me before I could protest. As he walked, his head turned towards me one last time.
‘I can only give you my advice. That’s all. But if I were you… I’d start with family.”
And he disappeared into the crowd. Leaving me with that weird necklace around my neck. I really didn’t know how to feel about this. It would be rude to give it back, though. So I tugged the thing underneath my blouse, hiding it from view. It felt… heavy.
Someone near the center of the crowd was dancing in a formal performance outfit. I looked at it absent-mindedly. That pendant, and its supposed owner, kept floating around in my head. There was something about it that was nagging me. Something important. But I couldn’t figure out what it was. About that girl. Nile Owen. Didn’t Liu tell me about that story a while ago, when we were still teenagers?
Yeah, he did. I racked my brain to try and come up with the memory. It had to do with the afterlife… probably. Yes. She’d broken the taboo on bringing people back from the dead. Because of this girl, Nile, the path was opened for corrupted souls to try and force their way back into this world. According to the legend, the Gate had tainted her, and she’d spent centuries trying to stop other children from doing the same thing before finally vanishing from history.
Wait a minute. That wasn’t right.
She hadn’t vanished from history. I remembered her teenage self, talking to me. Or… not me. Someone like me, but different. A girl with blonde hair and grey eyes. I didn’t know the context, but she’d definitely been there. Alive.
What had happened to her?
I shook my head, dizzy from the sudden memory.
With a slight frown, I pushed the memory out of my mind. Ever since reading Raven’s letters, I was getting better and better at tearing myself away from them. I was still a bit shaky, though. Best stay put for a little while longer, to make sure I didn’t fall over on the way home.
So I focused on the dancer again, to try and clear my head. It was a nice distraction. She was definitely performing for them. Other people were dressed-up for the occasion, too, but not like that. The woman was adorned in a beautiful red dancing gown, and I could see little lights dancing in her black, curled hair whenever she moved. Which was constantly. It was strangely hypnotic, but in a good way. I found myself unable to look away as the night progressed. There was something about this woman. Something familiar.
Then she turned to face my way, and it suddenly became crystal clear what it was.
I knew her.
That was Nailah.
And she was dancing. I didn’t know Nailah could dance. I stared at her, dumbfounded. Why hadn’t I noticed before? I’d been gawking at her for at least a good five minutes without realising who she was. But it really was her. And she was dancing for them! I just could not get over that. It contrasted so strongly with what I’d seen of her so far that my brain would not accept it. Talk about surprises. What else was she hiding? The woman was like a damn onion – every time I thought I had her figured out, she revealed a new layer, a new side to her that I had no idea even existed. It was maddening.
And fascinating. She was a really good dancer, too. Her movements were flawless. She effortlessly flowed from one movement into the other, playing the crowd as she went. People were cheering her on. It was a sight to behold.
But for some reason, she didn’t look like she was enjoying it.
It made me frown a little. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time. Why wasn’t she?
I guess it was just another question that I could add to the pile. I shook my head and put it out of my mind. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Liu again. He was making his way to the back of the crowd. His last words stuck with me.
‘I can only give you my advice. That’s all. But if I were you… I’d start with family.’
As I mulled that sentence over, it suddenly came to me. Of course. My mother and father were gone, but the letters hadn’t said anything about my grandparents. And neither had Hao. I still had a lead. They were it. Even if I couldn’t see my parents again, I still had family. Didn’t Bobby say before that he knew someone who could help me look into civic records?
I dug around in my pocket for my phone. As I pulled it out, I saw the time flashing on the tiny screen. 23:40. Too late for any kind of social call.
I dialed anyway. And Bobby answered almost instantly. I didn’t bother with so much as an explanation, cutting right to the point.
‘Hey, man. I’ve got a favour to ask.’
‘Who are you? What do you want from me?’
I was lying. I knew exactly who he was. But from the second I saw his face, a sudden feeling of dread had come over me, like an ice cold hand creeping up my spine. I immediately realized that I did not want him here. Not Hao. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Not like this.
‘My name is Hao,’ the man said softly. ‘You don’t know me, but I was a friend of your mother.’
‘What do you want?’
‘We should really discuss this inside,’ Hao replied. He got up from the bench, gesturing to the house. My house. I should have been thinking about how weird it was to be invited into my own home by a stranger, but I’d gone into brain-lock. So I merely nodded. He preceded me to the front door, where Hao waited for me to let him in.
There wasn’t anyone else home at this time of day. We would be alone. The living room was still dark. I didn’t bother turning on the lights, guiding Hao towards the nearest place that he could sit down at. He chose the couch, lowering himself with a weary sigh. He took a few seconds to collect himself, before he began to talk.
‘I am terribly sorry to bring you into the subject like this, but I have to be sure. Do you know who your birthmother is, Chase?’
‘I do,’ I answered, giving a single nod. ‘I’ve read the letters.’
‘Good. That… makes this explanation a lot simpler. I don’t know if your mother included this in her letters, but she used to work in the military.’
‘She was the leader of a squadron,’ I replied. ‘You were her underlings. All four of you.’
‘We were, yes. It was top-secret back in the day, but we were vampire hunters. We did good work. Protected people, killed monsters- the sort of thing you might have read in storybooks when you were smaller. Only this was real. We did what we believed was right… until about twenty years ago.’
I knew what he was talking about. The memory came to me of two small children, with glowing eyes and fanged teeth. Vampires… but also not. Innocent. Like her siblings were. My mother betrayed everyone in the military to keep those two safe.
‘After that… they couldn’t stay anymore. I remained in the military to provide the three of them with cover while they smuggled the mother and children out of the country. I am currently the only person in the world that knows they didn’t die all those years ago… besides you, that is.’
I nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure where he was trying to go with this.
‘If it’s all right with you, Chase… I’d like to tell you about what happened to your parents over the last twenty years.’
‘Why?’ I answered, with a furrowed brow. Hao seemed to be having trouble looking me in the eyes. I didn’t like any of this.
‘Just let me finish. I’ll answer any questions you have at the end, I promise. All right?’
As he sighed, I took a good look at the man in front of me. He had aged. Not that I had actually seen him in person before this, but I remembered him with less wrinkles. Or maybe he was just frowning more.
‘After bringing you here, Raven and the others traveled far away from Appaloosa Plains. As far as possible. Derek and Yurick came along as well, and the four of them hunted down vampires for a long time after that. It all worked out, somehow. I’d secretly provide them with the information they needed. They’d take care of the monsters behind the scenes. When I came under suspicion from the military and couldn’t provide them with more information, they sought them out by themselves. Your mother in particular had a knack for finding more of them. Or maybe they found her. I don’t know the details. She’d get in touch with me every few months or so, to let me know how they were doing. Send me a message. Asked me to check in with you. I did, and you seemed fine. I don’t think you’ve ever seen me when you were growing up.
And then, one day… the messages stopped coming.’
That same feeling of dread from before spread through my body a second time. As if a cold hand had wormed its way into my chest and clasped onto my heart. I wanted him to stop talking. But my lips were paralyzed, and sound wouldn’t come out. Hao kept talking, looking me straight in the eyes.
‘They would leave clues about their future whereabouts, so you could find them in the future. If you wanted to. They’d tell me where to find those, in order to be able to set you on your path. When I stopped hearing from her… I sought the clues out for myself and followed them. It took me a few weeks to piece everything together.’
He sighed. His next words drowned out all other sounds in the room.
‘There was… an ambush. By the time I found them, there was nothing left I could do.’
‘I’m sorry, Chase. Your parents are gone.’
Irony was a cruel thing.
I didn’t reply. My head was in a daze. Slowly, I could feel that daze taking over the rest of my body. My chest. My arms. My legs. Any sense of feeling left my body.
‘They would have wanted you to know they loved you,’ Hao said. He kept talking after that, but I stopped listening. Slowly, my body rose up from its seat. I turned to face the front door, walking forward. Reached the door. Turned the knob, and walked outside. Hao didn’t follow me.
I didn’t bother to look back. My chest was feeling strangely numb. My body carried me out of the garden on its own, without any input from me. Dark clouds had gathered above us since I’d let Hao in. They broke open, letting a small drizzle come down. Then rain. Heavy rain, which turned into a downpour. I barely registered it as I walked.
Finally, my legs stopped moving. I didn’t know for how long I’d been walking. It could have been a minute, or an hour. I did know that I was far, far away from my house. it had gotten completely dark around me. So dark that it took me a while to realize where I was. After a few moments I finally recognized my surroundings. In a way, it was fitting.
My legs had carried me to the graveyard.
There, my body automatically steered towards the nearest bench. I sunk down, burying my head in my hands. The rest of my limbs were strangely numb, but my head was pounding. The whole walk here, the voice of Hao had been echoing through my mind. Stinging. Burning. Repeating that last sentence over and over again.
And they had been waiting for me. All this time. They’d left clues, and messages, and instructions for when I’d finally come find them. Not if. When. They didn’t have a single doubt. They believed that I would come. They’d been patiently waiting for me, for the day I was ready. They’d been waiting for years.
But I took too long. I screwed up. Why didn’t I go after them sooner? I should have read those letters as a teenager, after all. Maybe then I’d have been ready before… before it was too late. Maybe I could have made a difference. Helped them with making it out alive somehow.
So many years of training. Preparing. Pushing my limits. And for what?
I’d failed them before I could even start.
From the far distance, I could hear the sound of approaching footsteps. I didn’t look up to see who it was. I merely pulled up my legs underneath me, placing my head in my hands again. Numbness had overtaken my entire body, drowning out all of my senses. It almost kept me from recognizing the voice that called out.
‘Are you daft? You’ll catch a cold like that, pup.’
I barely registered the words being spoken. My eyes were closed, Hao’s words still resounding iny my head. Curled up into a ball, I remained motionless on the bench. The footsteps resounded against the dirt again. They passed me by. They vanished. I was alone again.
The next second, I could feel a warm hand on my shoulder.
‘Chase. It’s me.’
‘Go away,’ I mumbled.
I didn’t have the strength to say anything else. And Nailah didn’t go away. Another hand touched my back, and I could feel her slowly turn me around. Her grey eyes met mine. For a moment, they seemed to look right through me. Read everything that had happened in the past few hours out of me, like you’d read it out of an open book. Then her gaze softened, and her look turned to one of heartfelt sympathy.
She pulled me into a hug. I’d never been that close to her before. Nailah wrapped her arms around me, cradling my head between her neck and shoulder. I could feel her heartbeat, inches from my chest.
‘I’m so sorry, Chase.’
That was more than I could handle. The warmth of her voice broke through my numbness. Easily, effortlessly. I couldn’t hold back anymore. New tears started to flow, dripping down my cheeks and onto her shirt. My shoulders were shaking. I clutched onto her tightly. Nailah didn’t break away, comforting me silently as I cried.
The wooden stairs creaked under my feet as I made my way down. It was already approaching noon. Normally I’d already be up and about at the beginning of dawn, but today… today was special. I’d taken great care in choosing my clothes. Not that there was much to choose from – all of my regular clothes no longer fit me, and so I had to resort to borrowing a blouse and jeans from dad. It was a shame that your attire didn’t grow up with you. I was going to miss that shirt.
Then again, it was about time for a change.
Mom noticed me right when I turned the corner to the living room. She took one look at me and gasped, bringing her hands up to her mouth.
‘What’s wrong, mother?’ I asked playfully. ‘Do you no longer recognize your own child?’
‘My little boy,’ mom sniffled, her eyes getting misty. She wiped them with the back of her hand before looking back at me with a smile, and an expression in her eyes that could only be pride.
‘My little boy is all grown up. Just look at you. Chase, you look wonderful.’
I smiled at her. We were of the same height now – no, I was a bit taller, actually. The realization made my smile widen a bit more. It had taken a long time, but I could finally look at them like equals.
My dad turned around from the bookcase and walked towards me. He stopped about half a foot away, looking me up and down with a strict expression on his face.
Then the expression softened, and he gave a satisfied nod.
‘Not bad. You look like an adult, son. Old enough to get rid of that ridiculous hairstyle.’
‘Not in a million years, old man,’ I grinned at him. ‘I’m going to keep it like this until the day I die. Best get used to it.’
I playfully punched him in the shoulder. Dad let out a grumble, but there was a smile on his face. We hadn’t joked like this in a while. it felt good.
As we were talking, mom dissapeared upstairs for a couple of seconds. When she came back down, I could see her holding something in her hands. It only took me a split second to recognise what it was. She was clasping the last unopened letter from my biological parents. The one that I was supposed to read when I became an adult- the one that had been resting in the hallway drawer for many years now. Mom held it out, her eyes refusing to make contact with me. She seemed to be troubled by something.
‘I suppose it is time you read this, Chase,’ mom said reluctantly, her eyes fixed on the envelope. ‘I’m… sorry about hiding the others from you back then. This is what your parents wanted. We shouldn’t meddle-‘
‘Mom, stop,’ I said, cutting her off mid-sentence. By now, I had a pretty good idea of what it was that was bugging her. I went with my gut feelings, speaking as I looked her straight in the eyes.
‘You’re my mother, all right? They might be my biological parents, but you’re the one that raised me. I won’t forget that. Promise.’
Her expression changed. I could see a faint smile appear on her lips as her body relaxed.
‘…Thank you, son. It means a lot to hear you say that.’
I gave the both of them a good, long look. They had aged. Not much, but the passage of time had left its marks since I was a child. They’d always been there for me.
‘I’m going to look for them, mum,’ I said softly. ‘I’m going to find them, and I’ll introduce myself as their son. I’ll kick both of them in the behind for giving me up to another family- and then I’ll come straight back here. And I’m going to be selfish, so there better be some lasagna in the oven by the time I do.’
Mom chuckled, giving a single nod. I pulled her into a hug.
‘I’ll be back, all right?’
‘All right. Good luck, Chase.’
‘Remember to make a picture of the guy’s hairstyle, kid. I want proof that those hippie genes did not come from me.’
I let go of mum and pulled dad into a hug as well.
‘Love you, old man.’
‘Love you too, son. Be careful out there.’
In the light of the setting sun, I sat down on the dry park ground. The enitre walk here, that last letter had been burning in my back pocket. It wanted to be read. And I really, really wanted to read it. I felt like I was on the brink of completing a very large puzzle, and this letter was the final piece.
With shaking hands, I opened the last letter and spread it in my hands. I was greeted by the familiar handwriting of my mother. It was both calming and unsettling, as I knew that in these pages, her whole story would be revealed.
Suddenly I was thrown back in that moment, many years ago, when I did the same thing as a teenager. The words on the paper, dancing in front of my eyes. My heart racing in my chest. The realisation that with this, everything would be revealed.
Only this time, I was ready.
I took a deep breath, calming myself. My eyes drifted to the beginning of the letter. The very first sentence.
I started reading.
My name is Raven Adams.
And I lost myself.
As my eyes went over the letters on the page, the memories came flooding over me like a tidal wave. Memories that were not my own. A sharp pain shot through the back of my skull, but then faded as the sheer force of emotions drowned out everything else.
I saw her big brothers and sisters, felt the bond that they had. The playful jests, the pranks between siblings. I felt the love that they had for each other.
I felt the agony, the panic as their pained screams turned her blood to ice. Smelled the dust in the old closet, her only protection from those creatures. The metallic smell of blood drifting in from the other room.
The cold need for revenge.
The presence of Yurick, Tybalt and Derek by her side as they infiltrated the house on that fateful night.
I gazed back, suddenly noticing the likeness between the two. They both had the exact same eyes, a strange, orange glow that reminded me of a dancing fire. The shape of their mouths and ears were identical. And the way the oldest one was protecting the little one left no room for doubt.
Those two were siblings.
Slowly, day by day, I gained a little more of the children’s trust. With every game that they learned, their behaviour became a little more natural. With every discovery that Selene made, her eyes started to sparkle more and Nikola rose in pride at every game he mastered.
With every passing day, I felt my own mental wall, that I’d put up to protect myself from my childhood memories, disappear. With every game, I connected more with the two who resembled my siblings so much.
With every passing hour, I opened my heart to them more. And I loved every minute of it.
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m not your mommy. But… if you have a real mommy out there somewhere, I’ll do whatever I can to find her.’
More memory flashes. I could no longer distinguish between Raven’s feelings and my own. The wood he hurled struck my arm, leaving a gaping gash.
‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD KEEP HER SAFE!’ Nikola screamed, his voice almost unrecognizable. ‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD LOOK AFTER US!’
My head… was bursting…
‘The tainted souls that come back need life energy,’ Nikola whispered, his eyes widening a fraction. ‘It takes whole lives… whole lives just to get all the energy they need. But not with her. She never runs out…’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Because she never runs out… They can make more vampires cross over, and more, and more…’
‘I should have done this at the very moment when I first saw them. I should have gotten rid of them both right in that house. Then everything would still be normal. Then you wouldn’t have been possessed.’
‘We’re not possessed, you idiot! Put the gun down!’
‘You’re going after these children because that is the only solution that you can come up with. In your mind, killing them will solve everything. But that is where you’re wrong, Hao. I know that this is really difficult. But I want you to think about the possibility that they are the ones that we need to protect, instead of having to protect others against them. They’re just children, Hao. Whatever they might become in the future doesn’t matter.’
‘How can you be so sure? How can you know that they won’t turn against you the minute that you’re no longer of value to them? Raven, how can you trust those two?’
A silence fell. Looking directly at Hao, I waited a few seconds before finally opening my mouth. When I spoke, it came straight from my heart.
‘Because I can tell who the real monsters are.’
‘Ready for what?!’
‘Nikola, did you press the button? Okay, everyone, take off your seatbelts and move to the door! This thing is going to blow up in twenty seconds!’
‘Pull Nikola and Selene out with you! On the count of three, we’ll jump!’
‘What the fudge do you mean we’ll-‘
‘What do you mean?’
‘Think about it. If we get away now, they’ll think we’ll have died in that explosion. With that amount of force, they wouldn’t be able to find a body anyway. It’s the perfect setup for someone to disappear.’
‘By faking our deaths?’ I gasped. But nonetheless, I was impressed. Yurick was right. If they thought that we’d all died, there would be no reason to hunt down Nikola and Selene anymore. By killing them… we’d be able to set them free. Literally.
‘I promise. We’ll go far, far away from here… to where no one can find us. If there’s a place like that… then that’s where we’ll go.’
‘I’ll make sure to keep the vampires off your trail,’ I said. ‘For as long as I can. I won’t be able to hold them off forever… but maybe just long enough to let you disappear for good.’
‘Thank you, Rawen.’
‘We’ll protect you. I promise. As soon as Selene and me are big enough… we’ll go after him. We’ll stop the curse from spreading. We will. We’ll protect you… and what’s inside of you.’
‘I want,’ I whispered, my voice coarse from holding back a new tear wave, ‘for this child to grow up nothing like I have. I want it to have a normal childhood, in a safe home. I want it to be happy and grow up to be an amazing person. I want it to be able to come running home after a day’s school and have his parents wait behind the front door. I want them to be there for him, always. That’s the kind of life that he deserves. But you know that it can’t have that with you… or with me.’
‘We would have been amazing parents,’ Tybalt sniffed. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘Yes. I know we would have.’
‘Now you grow up healthy, you hear me? Be a good boy, and listen to your parents over here. You’ll be just fine. And don’t be lonely, okay? Just know that we did this for you. Everything we did… we did for you, my son,’ he said, fresh tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘I’m Tybalt. I’m your daddy. Did you know? You might forget us, but I’ll never forget that I’m your daddy. I’ll never… ever forget you, Chase.’
Slowly, painfully slowly, I knelt down on the porch and placed the baby next to the door. A single, enveloped letter was put next to his sleeping figure. I let my hand linger on his blanket for as long as I could, before finally pulling away. Tybalt and I kept standing there for a long time, side by side. We stared down on our son, printing every inch of his perfect little face into our memories. Neither of us wanted to leave. Neither of us wanted to move.
‘We should go,’ Tybalt finally said. I nodded, not being able to say anything. He then took my hand and gently guided me away, off the wooden porch and back to the driveway. As he stepped into the car and drove it back out into the street, I looked back at my son one more time.
‘We love you, Chase,’ I whispered. ‘Goodbye…’
The memories ended. Slowly, painfully slowly, I became aware of my own body again. The ground underneath me. The soft automn breeze against my skin.
The tears on my face.
‘I remember you,’ I mumbled. ‘I don’t know why, but… I remember you.’
My hands were shaking uncontrollably as I picked up the letter. There was a final page of instructions, together with an address. It was in my father’s – Tybalt’s – handwriting.
Chase – you now know what kind of world we live in. Both your mother and me will understand if you do not wish to risk being a part of that. Know that we love you no matter what choice you make.
But if you’re ready to meet us, go to this address. It is the home of Hao’s sister, Meena, in the northern Kusne mountains. She is the only one that knows we are still alive. She will know how to track down our location.
If it is your desire, I know that you will find us. I will be waiting for the day where we can finally meet.
Your father, Tybalt
I grabbed the page with the adress, burning the instructions into my mind as I folded the paper. The Kusne mountains- that was close to Shang Simla, on the other side of the planet. It would take at least a day or two by plane- and another day to get from Appaloosa Plains to Bridgeport, where the airport was.
I stood up, brushing the dirt off my pants. This was going to be quite the journey. I had to prepare. Pack a suitcase, buy a plane ticket- all those things. It filled me with determination. I had a lead- a clear, easy-to-follow lead, that would guide me right to them. If I went home to make preparations now, i could leave as early as first thing in the morning. The thought made a smile appear on my face.
It was time to leave.
The sun was about to fade behind the horizon when I found my way home. On the other side of town, the darkness of night was already creeping in. I could hear the cicadas around me, chirping loudly as the day came to an end.
As I walked through the gates, something in our front yard caught my attention.
There was a man sitting on our bench.
I did not know him. And in Appaloosa Plains, everyone knew everyone. But not this guy. This was a stranger, and yet he had walked into our yard and sat down like he knew exactly who lived here.
As I walked closer, I noticed his body language. The man was slumped over, head resting heavily in his hands in a display of weariness and exhaustion. Looking at him made me feel very uneasy.
There was… something familiar about him…
The man noticed my approach and lifted his head from his hands. The very second we locked eyes, a familiar sharp pain shot through the back of my skull. Another one of my mother’s memories flashed before my eyes. Gun drawn, hands shaking. Eyes full of pain and regret… and desperation.
‘Hello, Chase. I’ve been waiting for you.’
‘Twenty-four… twenty…five… twenty…six…!’
‘Come on, put your legs into it! You can jump higher than that! What are you, a sloth?!’
Ever since my victory against Nailah, my daily schedule had permanently changed. Gone were my hourly morning jogs. Instead, for four days a week, Nailah met up with me every morning to do what she called “preparatory exercises”.
And with that she meant pushups. And jumping jacks. And balance exercises followed by squats and more pushups. Basically, moving in all kinds of ways that my jogging body was not used to, and it caused the most horrific kind of muscle pain. That’s why she only called on me four times a week – to “give your squishy body some time to rest”.
‘Give me a break already,’ I complained, my legs almost giving in underneath me. ‘I’m jumping as high as I can!’
Nailah smirked and I knew that there was an insult on the way.
‘Can’t keep up with me, pup? We can call it quits for today if you’re too squishy to go on. Or maybe the gravity just has more of a pull on you these days? You do seem more massive than before. A new diet?’
‘Those are muscles, you idiot,’ I scoffed.
‘Keep telling yourself that. One day it might be true.’
Nailah’s words stung, but for some reason I did not mind. By now, I was certain that the woman had the same competitive spirit as me. In fact, the stronger I became, the more exited she seemed to get. I guess she was just really happy about finding a suitable running partner to compete with.
‘Okay, that’s enough for today,’ Nailah said, looking at the sun above us. ‘You’ve reached your limit.’
‘Geez, what gave it away? The shaky legs?’ I complained, panting. Nailah let out a laugh.
‘Now that you mention it, they could probably pass for jelly pudding. Do you need help walking back to your porch?’
My parents were still at work, so we were practicing in our backyard. Said porch was about five meters away from me.
‘I think I can manage,’ I growled.
‘Suit yourself. In that case I’ll see you again next week, Chase.’
She turned around to walk away. Meetings with her were always brief- I’d greet her, and Nailah would immediately start the training, sometimes even without so much as greeting me back. She never stuck around long after it was over, either. Today seemed to be no exception. I didn’t really mind, but… it did make casually chatting a bit difficult. But this time, we were on my territory. My house was right beside us. I could work with that.
‘Wait!’ I said quickly, before she could leave. ‘Would you like to come in for a drink?’
She stopped walking and turned around. A puzzled frown was on her face. She looked at me for a moment, before asking, in a confused voice:
It was just one word. But she had said it in such a sincerely confused tone that it completely threw me off balance. I had thought it good manners, and appropriate to the situation. But she really seemed to be unsure of how to reply. That was… weird, to say the least. It suddenly dawned upon me that I knew nothing about this woman at all. Besides her name, that was.
‘Well- I mean, we’ve been training for a while now. Aren’t you thirsty? I mean, we don’t have to go inside. I could just… get you something. On the porch.’
Gods, I sounded like an awkward teenager. Strictly speaking I was a teenager, but our graduation ceremony was a few weeks away. And usually my social skills were a bit better than this.
‘It’s all right. I’m not thirsty.’
She frowned again. This was… a bit awkward. My subtle strategy of getting to know her had failed before it could even start. Note to self: don’t ask Nailah to share a drink with you in the future.
‘Do you need something?’
She was still looking at me with that puzzled expression on her face. Quickly, afraid to make it even more awkward, I closed the conversation.
‘No- no, I’m good. I’ll just… see you next week. All right?’
She turned around again, this time falling into a jog. I did not stop her. Soon, her silhouette had passed the entrance gate to our yard, and dissapeared from sight.
Vanished again. I guess some things just never changed.
Several weeks later…
Slowly, I fastened the tie around my neck. I disliked ties, but they just happened to be a part of the dress code for today. Mum had told dad to go out and buy a new bowtie just for this occasion. Something about it “bringing out the colour of my eyes”.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror. The suit looked good on me. I looked… mature. I’d always done so, of course, but not like this. Like someone that was about to graduate and turn into an adult. Looking at it gave me mixed feelings. I hadn’t done worn this suit since the day of Jamie’s funeral. His murder had been solved, but some part of me still felt that there had been more going on than what the police had told us. It had left a bad taste in my mouth.
Jamie was supposed to be here for this.
I brushed my hair to the side a little bit and turned around, walking out of the bathroom. My parents were already there, waiting for me to finish getting ready. As soon as she saw me, my mother’s face lit up.
‘You look wonderful, Chase! See, I told you that bowtie would look good on you. Green really brings out your eyes, sweetie.’
‘Are you ready to go?’ dad asked, walking up to me. ‘The ceremony is going to start in half an hour. We shouldn’t be late.’
‘Yeah, I’m ready.’
He gave a satisfied nod. Dad usually never wore formal attire, but it seemed that mum had made him wear clothes outside of his comfort zone, as well. It looked good on him though.
‘You’re rocking that blouse, pops.’
‘See! I told you that it would look handsome!’ Mum chimed in from the other side of the room.
‘Yeah, yeah. Don’t get used to it.’
It took us about ten minutes to drive to Town Hall. Most people had already gathered; I could see them crowding around the entrance. As our school was so small that it didn’t have a single room large enough to hold more than twenty people, graduation ceremonies were instead held in Town Hall. It made it slightly more of a formal event.
‘Hey, Chase! Over here!’
I heard Evelyn’s voice as soon as I stepped out of the car. Our usual group was already there, waiting for me in front of the building. In front of them stood Evelyn, wearing a pretty green dress that accentuated her figure. She gave me an enthusiastic wave and gestured me to come closer.
‘Last time I saw you, you did not have such long hair,’ I said, my gaze slowly traveling downward before looking back into her eyes.
‘Extensions!’ Evelyn chirped happily. ‘I wanted to grow my hair out again to the length I had before. I got a little impatient.’
‘You look good,’ I said sincerely. ‘Right, Bobby?’
‘R-right,’ Bobby stammered. Evelyn, beaming, grabbed hold of his hand.
‘Come on, Bobby, let’s find some seats in the front. I don’t want the view to be blocked by the head of someone’s distant uncle.’
‘All the relatives are sitting on the right side, anyway,’ Bobby protested, but allowed himself to be led inside by Evelyn. I watched the two go with an amused chuckle. It was definitely not Bobby that was in charge of that relationship.
As soon as the last chatter had faded away, the principal began to speak.
‘As school principal it is my honour to welcome all of you here. Seeing graduates, parents and staff here today is a testament to the achievements of the graduates and the love and support they have received over the years.
‘Growth comes in many ways. Through out of school activities, helping others and dealing with the changes every school student has to go through, as well as achieving at school. The graduates have shown a readiness to tackle all these areas. This has given you all a rounded education. It has also meant you have grown as people into well rounded young adults.’
‘The future holds many challenges and successes for all of you. Each of you will have your own unique opportunities to grow and blossom into even better people than the ones I see before me now. I am confident that you will rise to every occasion.’
Let me wish you all the best for the future. Thank you!’
His speech had ended. A big round of applause sounded for the principal, and he smiled contently. A different teacher made her way up to the front of the room, holding a small stack of graduation certificates. The principal placed the stack on the nearest column, letting a dramatic pause fall before he took the first certificate and read the name out loud.
‘That’s you,’ Evelyn muttered. I nodded and rose up from my seat. There was a round of applause as I made my way over to the front. As soon as I reached the principal, the clapping stopped. He flipped the certificate around, so that it was readable from my side, and handed it over to me.
‘Congratulations, Chase. I hope that your future is a bright one.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
With a mild feeling of satisfaction, I took the paper from the principal. Although we had not spoken even once during my years at his school, he seemed to be genuinely proud of this moment. He was a good guy. I nodded to the principal, turning around and walking back to my seat accompanied by another round of applause.
The ceremony after that was the exact same with every person that was called forward. Some stood a little straighter than others, but we were all proud to have made it this far.
As I looked at my classmates, I wondered what they were going to do now. Most of them would probably go to University. As we were in the middle of the countryside, the nearest University campus was five hours away, and we had no train station. They would probably move there, and only come back to see their parents on some select weekends.
‘Congratulations, young man.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
My group of friends would be moving away, too. We had already discussed it, with Evelyn speaking of the idea first. Her enthusiasm had rubbed off on Bobby, and had already been looking at shared dormitories for the five of us on the town’s library computers. They had not shared their findings yet, but judging by the expectant look on Evelyn’s face, she would probably bring it up before too long.
Not long after Bobby’s turn, the ceremony ended. People started getting up from their seats and making their way over to the hall, where a small after party would take place. As Bobby got up from his seat to leave, too, I quickly stopped him.
‘Hey. Got a minute?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Bobby said, a little surprised. ‘What, you want to crash the after party or something?’
‘Nah. I just have something we need to talk about. Come with me.’
I led him out of the hall, past the crowd gathering around the buffet. My parents shot me a questioning gaze, but did not call out to me. I quickly slipped out of the building and around the corner, to the now abandoned soccer field.
‘You want to play catch during our graduation?’ Bobby joked. ‘My suit is newly pressed, you know.’
I shook my head, stopping at the edge of the field and turning towards my friend. By now, he was frowning. Bobby sized me up and down, then raised a single eyebrow.
‘Why do I get the feeling that you’re going to drop some knowledge on me that I do not want to know?’
‘Because I am,’ I replied shortly.
‘Wonderful. Let’s hear it, then.’
‘The University. I’m not going.’
Bobby’s frown grew larger. There was a brief moment of silence, after which he let out a sigh.
‘I was afraid you’d say that. Am I finally going to hear the reason for your weird behaviour lately?’
‘You are. Though I’m not sure if you are going to believe it.’
‘Try me. You’d be surprised.’
I took a deep breath, nodded to myself and opened my mouth.
‘I’m about to find my biological parents.’
If anything, he had not expected that answer. With a confused expression on his face, Bobby looked at me.
‘Wait- weren’t you abandoned on your folks’ doorstep as a baby?’
‘I was,’ I responded. Bobby’s confused expression remained.
‘You’re going to have to explain that one to me, man. When did this happen?’
And so I told him. I spoke of everything that had happened since the day I found those letters on the kitchen table. I told Bobby about the warning that they contained, my multiple encounters with the wolves- everything. The sun started to set, but I paid it no attention. I mentioned my meetings with Nailah, and why I had started to train with her. As I spoke, Bobby started to look a little bit overwhelmed- and excited.
‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?! This is huge, man!’ he finally yelled, after I had finished talking.
‘I’m not sure. I guess I felt like I had to be ready first. And now, I am. As soon as we graduate and turn into adults, I’m going to read the last letter and use the information in there to find them.’
‘You should have talked to us about it earlier! Do you need help? I’ve got some contacts in Bridgeport already. I bet I could dig up some intel for you if you gave me their names. And Tristan has an uncle in the military- we could use him, too! We could even-‘
‘No,’ I said quickly. ‘This is something that I need to do alone.’
I could not involve Bobby in this. The warning in my mother’s letters still sounded clear in my mind.
If you try to find us before you are ready, it will get you killed.
For some reason, I knew those words to be true. I did not know what kind of hairy situation my family had gotten themselves caught up in, but the thought of involving my friends in that made me very, very uneasy. Another friend’s death was the last thing that I wanted. No, it was better if Bobby stayed out of it altogether.
As that thought flashed through my mind, Bobby frowned. His shoulders slumped forward a little and his expression turned to one of mild frustration.
‘But… It’s important to you. I just want to help.’
‘I’ll be fine, Bobby,’ I smiled at him. ‘You guys have more important things to worry about. You’re going to try and study to be a lawyer, right? That’s a tough course to take on. You’ll need all your time to focus on that.’
I tried to persuade him, but Bobby was having none of it. A steely look appeared in his eye. Until then, the weight in our relationship had always lied with me. But in that moment, I could see Bobby grow as he looked me straight in the eye. We were equals, and he knew it.
‘To Maker with law studies. I’m helping my friend. After I kick his butt for not telling me about this until bloody graduation day.’
His steely resolve would not waver. By now, I realized that there was no way to talk him out of it. He was going to help me out no matter what I said. It made me nervous, but also grateful. Bobby really was a good friend.
‘No problem, man,’ he said, falling back into a smile. ‘You were there for me, too. It’s time I repaid the favour. Let me know as soon as you find out their full names, all right? Between me and Luke, I bet we can find you a lead. Just wait and see.’
I just nodded. That seemed to be enough for him. Bobby turned his gaze away from me. From here, you could just see the clock on the school building.
‘Fudge! The after party probably ended already. Evelyn is going to kill us if we’re not there to take a group picture before the others leave.’
‘We can take group pictures every day,’ I smirked. Bobby shook his head.
‘Not in fancy suits we can’t. Come on, let’s go.’
He turned around, leading the way as we slowly moved back to Graduation Hall. As he walked, I looked at this back and strong shoulders. Bobby had grown, as well. More than I had expected. He was no longer that unconfident teenager from before. He looked like an adult, too. Evelyn had given him that extra bit of self-confidence he needed. Bobby looked ready to move out of town and take on the rest of the world. From behind his back, I smiled at my friend.
Our birthdays were right around the corner.
Hapy belated newyear, guys! Here’s to a great 2017, with lots of apple pie for me. =3
After my run-in with the wolf, I stopped wandering about the outskirts on my own. Permanently. Jamie would have called it cowardice, but the beast had given me a good fright. I was one hundred percent sure that it would have eaten me alive, had I run any slower. I did not enjoy the idea of being chewed to bits. Not one bit. Especially not since I still very much planned to seek out my parents after my next birthday. Being chewed to bits would put a little bit of a dent in that plan.
So I stayed around people. Spent time with Liu, mostly in order to avoid having to deal with Luke and Tristan. They still hadn’t made up, and most of the time being around either one of them meant being the target of nasty looks from the other. We were approaching our senior year, too. Bobby predicted that their icy silences would probably last throughout University. Not that Appaloosa Plains actually had a University.
Early afternoon. I was in my room, working on my final history project for the year. I usually bluffed my way through my tests, but this year my overall grades would not allow any slip-ups. I’d actually have to do some work in order to graduate.
And I hated it. Every minute spent on this was a minute that I could have spent doing something more important. It was the beginning of Autumn. That was my favourite season to be outside in, and instead, I was stuck behind a desk in my bedroom. That made it even harder to stay focused, which resulted in more time that was lost. And that, of course, made me hate it even more.
“…In 1986, Will Wright entered the Industry, paving the way for his greatest successes in his career, the creation of…”
I stopped typing and rested my head on my desk. Ten more pages. Just ten more pages on National History. Could I squeeze out ten more pages? Probably not. Just finishing this one paragraph was already proving to be beyond my capabilities. I needed a break. Could I take a break already? Just for a few minutes. Or an hour or two.
At that exact moment, I could hear my mother’s voice calling me from downstairs.
‘Chase? Bobby’s here to see you!’
Perfect! He couldn’t have had a better timing. With a smile on my face, I pushed myself away from the stuffy desk and stood up, turning towards the door.
‘I’ll be right down!’
I was outta here. Within three steps, I reached the stairway. I skipped a couple of steps on my way down, eager to leave. Bobby’s head was poking out from around the corner. He was still standing in the doorway. Great. That meant that he had rejected an offer from my mother for coffee, which meant that I could take him outside without being interrupted.
‘Hey, man,’ Bobby said, as soon as his gaze crossed mine. ‘You got a minute?’
‘Of course,’ I grinned. ‘We’ll talk outside- I’m fed up with staying inside anyway. Let’s go.’
Quickly, I led my friend outside. We walked down the porch, past the horse’s meadow and stopped at the end of the property, near my mom’s vegetable garden. I took a deep breath, enjoying the outside air before turning around to face Bobby.
‘Okay, man. Spill it. What’s wrong?’
I already knew something was up. He’d been fidgeting with his shirt since the minute our eyes met, and the whole time we were walking over to the garden, as well. Something was definitely going on. Was he getting picked on again? Was that it? He’d gotten fairly good at standing up for himself over the years, but maybe he’d had a drawback?
‘Who’s messing with you? We’ll beat him up no problem. Just say the word.’
‘No, no!’ Bobbly quickly replied. ‘No one’s messing with me.’
‘What, then? I’m not helping you study- maker, I can barely take care of myself in that area.’
‘No, my grades are fine. And I wouldn’t know how to teach you the exam stuff, either. It was always Jamie that-‘
Bobby suddenly realized where the conversation was going and abruptly ended his sentence. A painful silence fell. For a second, neither of us dared to look the other in the eye. Jamie’s death was something that we still hadn’t made our peace with, and it still stung to mention his name. I took another deep breath, for different reasons this time.
‘Okay. Then… what is it?’
‘I, uh… I need some feedback,’ Bobby said, awkwardly fidgeting with his shirt again. The last time I’d seen him like this was when he wanted to talk about his parents on memorial day, so I knew this was a serious subject.
‘Sure, Bobby. I’m all ears.’
Another silence fell. Then Bobby seemed to get himself together and opened his mouth.
‘Okay. I’ll be honest with you. Don’t laugh, okay?’
‘All right, then. There’s… there’s someone that I like.’
I raised a single eyebrow. This was new. Other than the other guys in my group, who had always enjoyed talking about the attributes of this or that girl, Bobby had never been one to be interested in that subject. That was fine, of course. But it did make me wonder. Over the past years I’d had been in doubt multiple times on whether or not Bobby might be swinging for the other side, so to speak. Not that there was anything wrong about that.
But it did make me choose my next words very carefully.
‘Okay,’ I replied. ‘Do they know that you like them?’
‘No, I’m pretty sure that they don’t. They don’t seem to be very interested in me in that way, actually. I’m not sure what I should do.’
‘Well, you won’t know until you try, right?’ I smiled at Bobby. ‘Better to swing and miss than to not try at all. Who knows? They might surprise you.’
‘It’s… not that easy,’ Bobby mumbled. His eyes were fixed on the ground. ‘They seem to be into someone else, too. And I don’t want to scare them off.’
‘Then tell them subtly. Without scaring them off. Can’t be that hard.’
‘Yeah- that’s proving to be a bit difficult, too. They’re pretty dense about this kind of thing. I just really don’t want to get rejected and make things awkward, man. With our group of friends having been split up already… I don’t want to break it up even more.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
His eyes drifted up from the ground and made contact with mine. He seemed to be silently pleading with me. I knew that there was some hidden message in his words just now. I had to be missing something crucial. Something obvious. What was I missing?
And then it hit me. Shit. Bobby was talking about me. The person that he was in love with – it was me. That’s why he was so anxious about this, and why he was so scared that confessing might break up our group even more. Since when had he been feeling this way? Recently? Or had Bobby secretly been hiding feelings for me all along?
Aw, shit! Wait a second! He was in love with me! My brain finally caught up with the rest of my body, and I started feeling very, very uncomfortable. Shit. Bobby was gay. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I definitely was not. And he was in the middle of confessing to me! Shit! What was I supposed to do now?! I couldn’t just flat-out reject him, like I did with all of those boring girls at school. Bobby was one of my best friends, damn it! What was I supposed to do?!
‘Look, man,’ Bobby mumbled. ‘You know who I mean. Do you think there’s any chance for me?’
‘I, uh, don’t know,’ I stuttered. My heartbeat was way up; I could feel it thumping in my chest.
‘Maybe not? I mean, not that there’s … or, uh, look, even if you…. fudge. Give me a second.’
I was talking gibberish. Bobby raised a single eyebrow, but did not respond. Good. He was giving me time. I took a deep breath, picked myself up and tried again. Damn it, this was harder than I’d thought it would be.
‘Okay, look. Don’t be afraid that our group will break up if you confess, okay? You might… not get the response you’re hoping for, but I don’t care who you like. That’s none of my business. You’re still my friend.’
‘Really? You don’t mind?’
‘Nah, man,’ I answered. ‘We’re cool, okay? I’ve known you since elementary. I’ll accept you for who you are.’
A large, hopeful smile spread across Bobby’s face. He took a step towards me. Damn, was he going to try and kiss me before confessing? I’d never been on the receiving end before- how did you gently refuse a kiss? How did this work?! Fudge, I might have to wait until after the kiss to reject him. This was going to be awkward. Shit. I braced myself for what was about to come and closed my eyes.
‘So you really don’t mind if I ask her out?’
I opened my eyes again. Bobby was still standing there. Perfectly still. Not even remotely close to trying to kiss me.
‘What? Ask who out?’
‘Evelyn, of course. I know she’s into you, but you don’t seem too interested anyway, and didn’t you just say it’s okay to try?’
He was in love with Evelyn.
I let out a relieved laugh. ‘Yeah- of course it’s- of course it’s alright,’ I chucked. All the tension in my body disappeared. He was in love with Evelyn. Damn it, Bobby. You almost gave me a heart attack. Over Evelyn, of all people. That girl was going to be the death of me one day.
I finally composed myself and smiled at Bobby, who was still looking a little suspicious.
‘So you think I have a chance?’
‘Of course, man. She’s only into me because I saved her from those wolves back then. I’ve already rejected her once, actually. Plus she doesn’t really like Luke or Tristan. You should have a good chance with her.’
Bobby’s face lit up. and a wide smile spread across his lips. He seemed to come to a conclusion, right then and there. With a determined nod, Bobby opened his mouth again.
‘Okay! I’m going to do it! I’ll ask her out!’
‘Good on you, man,’ I smiled back. ‘With your charm, I’m sure you’ll do just-‘
‘Right now!’ Bobby repeated, determination radiating off of him. It almost looked funny, in a way.
‘Shouldn’t you wait and make a plan for a date or something first?’ I suggested. Bobby forcefully shook his head.
‘If I wait until later today or tomorrow, I’ll just chicken out again. So it has to be now! Do you think she’s home?’
‘I have no idea, man,’ I chucked. ‘Try her cell phone. I’ve never seen her not carrying that thing around.’
‘Yeah, you’re right! I’ll do it!’
Amused, I watched from the sidelines as Bobby fished around in his pocket and pulled his phone out. This was going to be good. I’d never seen Bobby try to ask someone out. Or anything romance-related, actually. I’d always just assumed that he’d be, in his own words, too much of a chicken to take the initiative. But I suppose my assumptions were wrong, because he had already dialed her number and put the device to his ear.
‘H-hello? Evelyn? It’s Bobby.’
‘I’m doing fine. Listen, there’s something important I have to talk to you about. Can you come to the park in front of Town Hall in an hour? It will only take a few minutes.’
Right to the point. I had to give credit to Bobby -he did not beat around the subject at all.
‘Great! All right. I’ll see you there, then. Bye.’
He hung up. Bobby lowered his hand and put his phone back in his pocket. For a second or two, he stood completely still.
Then his expression changed from blank to panic.
‘Aw, shit! Why didn’t I think this through?! I only have an hour now! What should I say to her? What should I do?! I have no experience with this! Do I have to change clothes, or something? Chase, why didn’t you stop me?!’
‘You seemed to be doing quite well on your own,’ I smirked in response to Bobby’s ranting. ‘Just meet up with her and say what comes naturally, man. I’m sure that Evelyn can appreciate that.’
But Bobby forcefully shook his head again.
‘I can’t do “natural”, man! How are you even supposed to be natural at a moment like that?!’
He suddenly took a step towards me and forcefully grabbed my shoulders, placing his face mere inches from my own. It was such an uncharacteristic thing for Bobby to do that it made me flinch.
‘You gotta come with me, Chase. Be my wingman from afar, or something.’
‘Your what now?’
‘Just be there, okay? Oh, but you can’t let her see you. Just hide behind a bush or a building or something!’
‘Let me get this straight,’ I answered, slowly removing his arms from my shoulders. ‘You want me to go with you and spy on your love confession?’
Bobby’s cheeks turned a deep shade of red.
‘Not to spy. Just to keep me from running away until she gets there. You know, just like that janitor at school. The one who keeps an eye on the kids in detention. No-one ever sneaks away from him.’
‘You want me to be the janitor?’ I asked, sarcastically.
‘No! Damn it, you know what I mean. ‘
I did know what he meant. But that had just been too tempting to ignore.
‘Just be there, okay? For- I don’t know. Moral support, or something.’
‘All right, all right,’ I said, throwing my hands in the air. ‘I’ll freakin’ be all creepy and hide in the bushes for you. Happy now?’
‘Thanks, Chase,’ Bobby smiled. ‘I really owe you one.’
‘It’s fine,’ I shrugged. ‘Plus, this is your first love confession. It’ll be hilariously awkward- no way am I missing that.’
‘Oh, shut up.’
Fifty minutes later. Bobby had insisted we walk over to the park early, to make sure he arrived before Evelyn did. Something about needing to rehearse the lines in his head. The whole way there, Bobby had been silently mumbling to himself. It was both slightly awkward and amusing to see.
I’d done as Bobby had asked and hid behind one of the bushes, making sure I wouldn’t be anywhere near Evelyn when she arrived. The large hydrangea bush completely hid my body from view. From Bobby’s side, at least. The other side was perfectly visible for anyone that walked by.
Hopefully this did not make me look like too much of a creepy stalker. It was a good thing that the park was largely empty.
Five minutes passed… and nothing happened. It was just Bobby there, in the middle of the park, sitting on a bench. Looking nervous. Occasionally glancing my way. I’d decided against waving at him. If Evelyn came around the corner just as I did that, our gig would be up. Not the best of scenarios. So I stayed hidden behind the bush, unmoving.
Suddenly, Bobby jolted up from the bench. His gaze was fixed on the other side of the park, and I quickly looked in that direction.
There she was. Evelyn was a few minutes early, as well. I guess they both had a good sense of punctuality. As she walked over to Bobby, I could see his cheeks turning red again.
This was going to be good. A smile spread on my face and I shifted positions, ready for the delicious awkwardness of what was going to be my friend’s very first love confession.
At that very moment, something grazed past my back. Hard, too. It almost made me lose my balance, and I had to quickly bend my legs to keep myself from falling over. With an annoyed expression, I looked over my shoulder to see who had bumped into me.
It was her.
Adrenaline shot through my whole body immediately. That’s how many times I’d chased after her. But not this time. She was just standing there, not even moving, a tiny smile on her face. More expression than she had given me for the past few months.
She’d never waited for me before.
If I started running now… I might actually catch her this time.
My gaze traveled back to Bobby and Evelyn. She had reached the same spot as him by now, and the two of them had started talking. It wouldn’t be long now. Bobby had asked for my presence here… but I couldn’t help him with this. Not really. And she was right there. Within arm’s reach, even.
She took a step backwards. For a split second, my mind was torn between her and Bobby. Then I made a decision. With all the force I could muster, I pushed myself up from the ground and turned towards her. A content smile spread across her face and she spun around on her heels, taking off immediately. I dashed after her, the fallen leaves crinkling beneath my feet.
Today would be the day.
I could feel it in my chest. As she ran towards the trail into the hillside, I saw the distance between us getting shorter. The fresh, autumn air coursed through my lungs, giving me strength. It felt amazing. I sped up even more, pumping my legs like piston rods. Today was going to be the day.
We were almost in the hills now. She was within grabbing distance. As I ran, I slowly stretched out my hand. So close… I could almost touch her shoulder.
What you do after you’ve gotten old enough, though, that is up to you.
As I got closer and closer to the woman’s back, I recalled all of the letters that my real mother and father had left me. The reason that I had begun to train. I was certain of it- they were waiting for me to find them. And catching up to this woman – that was the first step. I was so close now. Her raven-black hair danced in the wind, hitting the back of my hand as I desperately reached out. I could make it. If I just sped up a little bit more, I could make it!
Something inside of me exploded. A surge of adrenaline took over my body. In that moment, I knew exactly what I had to do. I slammed my feet on the ground, recklessly launching myself into the air. For a single moment, I was flying. My fingers shot forward-
and made contact with her shoulder. I’d made it. My fingers automatically dug into the fabric of her shirt, desperate to hold on.
Then, the moment ended and gravity took over again. I fell down, my fingers slipping off of the goal that they had so vigorously tried to hold on to. Gravity took over. I hit the ground- hard. My shoulder stung painfully as I crashed down and rolled over myself, in a sprawling mess of arms and legs. I I actually kept going for a while, rolling anothet good four or five times before finally coming to a halt.
Ouch. That hurt.
Still panting, I tried to get back up. The world around me was a bit woozy, and I had to blink a few times to stop the trees from swaying. After I was sure I had my balance back, I stood up. Where had she gone? I looked to my left, and immediately found what I was looking for. There she was. The dark-haired woman had stopped running, coming to a halt not three feet away from me. She was looking at me with an oddly satisfied smile. That was new. What had I done that satisfied her so much?
And then I realized. I caught up to her. I had caught up to her fair and square. I could not even remember how long ago it was since I’d set her as my goal. But I’d finally done it! I caught up to her!
With an elated laugh, I did the first thing I could think of: I pumped my first in the air as a sign of victory. The adrenaline was still in my system, and I was feeling all kinds of amazing. Still laughing, I looked up at the sky.
I’d done it. I’d taken the first step.
A pair of footsteps sounded behind me. I turned around, and was met by a familiar face.
‘It was about time. I thought you were about ready to give up,’ the woman smiled. But it was a good smile, not a mocking one.
‘I never give up,’ I responded smugly. ‘And I believe we made a deal. You owe me your name.’
‘Ah… yes. I guess we did. And I do keep my promises.’
Her voice was low, but not unpleasant to hear. It sounded a bit melodious, actually. Now that we were actually talking to each other, I could finally make that discovery.
‘My name is Nailah. I suppose you’ve earned it,’ she smiled. I returned her smile.
‘Nailah, huh? Well,’ I replied, puffing out my chest, ‘I finally beat you, Nailah.’
Her laugh sounded melodious, too.
‘Beat me? Really, Chase? You weren’t even close.’
‘Hey, I caught up to you, fair and square!’ I protested. Her smile turned into a mocking smirk again.
‘Caught up to me, yes. On a straight road, with no obstacles to jump over or other hazards to slow you down. If this were the forest, you’d never even come close to catching up, let alone outrun me.’
This. Woman! I couldn’t believe my ears. She was still mocking me! What did she think she was, a forest deer or something?! There was a limit to being unfair!
Apparently my indignation was showing on my face, because Nailah chuckled. She laid a single, surprisingly delicate-looking hand on my shoulder.
‘Don’t look so angry. Would you like me to teach you?’
‘Teach me what?’ I replied, still slightly mad.
‘I believe you call it Parkour. It’s really quite handy, you know.’
‘You mean you’ll teach me to jump over fences and all those other things?’ I asked, suddenly very interested.
‘Jumping fences, climbing buildings, vaulting over rooftops- I’ll even teach you to stop falling down like a clown, if you’d like.’
‘I do not fall down like a clown!’
‘Your shoulder will be purple by tomorrow morning,’ Nailah said flatly, pointing at it. ‘You need to learn how to fall properly before you break something.’
As much as I hated to admit it, she was probably right. My shoulder stung. And not a little bit. Maybe this wasn’t a bad idea to try. Who knew? The day might come that I’d need to be able to do this.
‘All right,’ I nodded to Nailah. ‘Teach me.’
‘Teach me, please.’
‘Teach me, or risk losing your running partner in a ditch somewhere next time I try to catch up to you.’
‘Fine. I can work with that. But this is going to be tough. No more straight roads- I’m going to drag you across buildings next. Understand?’
She sounded strict, but I could see from the gleam in her eyes that Nailah was looking forward to this, too. What a strange woman.
‘Right, then,’ she nodded, a content smile spreading across her face. She once again reached out with her hand, this time merely holding it out in front of me.
‘In that case, it’s nice to meet you, Chase.’
‘Meet me?’ I snorted. ‘We’ve been jogging together for ages now.’
I did not have to wait long for a comeback.
‘Jogging together, you say? I thought that it was just me, with a puppy waddling a mile behind,’ she smirked.
‘Fine. You can have that one. But I’ll make you eat those words when I outrun you later.’
I too put out my hand, grabbing hold of hers in a firm handshake.
‘Nice to meet you, Nailah.’
Whew, that took a while. A long while. To make up for that, here’s a long one!
‘We are gathered here today to pay our tribute and our respect to Jamie Cossen, son of Edward and Alicia Cossen. Brother to Shannon and Lisa. Jamie’s death shocks and saddens us all. He was taken away from this world too quickly, too soon. But weep not, for all death is just the beginning. Jamie is now at the Maker’s side, where he shall know eternal happiness.’
The funeral service had ended. Guests started moving back towards their vehicles, to drive over to the Cossen house. There, the memorial service would take place.
I did not join the stream of people making their exit. Neither did my group. We gathered at our friend’s tombstone, looking down on the freshly dug grave. A heavy silence filled the air. No-one dared to look the others in the eyes.
Finally, Luke spoke.
‘They say the police arrested someone yesterday. An addict from Bridgeport.’
‘Not now, man,’ Tristan muttered.
‘They say he’s charged with both murders. That it’s over now, and he’s going behind bars for a very long time.’
‘Do you think he really did it? What if they’ve got the wrong guy? I think we should go over there and-‘
‘Shut up!’ Tristan suddenly snapped, violently turning around to face his friend. ‘Jamie is dead, man! We just buried him! Be a little more goddamn considerate to the dead!’
‘What the hell?!’ Luke snapped back. ‘I am! What part about wanting to throw the guy who did this to him in jail is inconsiderate?! Hell, just a jail sentence isn’t enough! He needs to pay! And I don’t see you running out there to avenge him!’
‘Both of you, stop it!’ Bobby yelled, getting in between the two of them. He tried to get eye contact with me, pleading with me to take over and pull them apart.
I avoided his gaze. There was a strange numbness in my chest, keeping me from caring about my surroundings. I merely looked down on Jamie’s gravestone. Death among friends was something that I had imagined would not happen yet for a very, very long time. Maybe in fifty years or so, when we were all old and grey. But not now. Not at sixteen. Jamie hadn’t even been an adult yet. And now, he would never become one. I pictured his body in that coffin, six feet underground, and shuddered.
‘FINE! I’ll go by myself, then! You can all stay here and weep until your eyes dry out! I don’t care!’
Luke had shoved Bobby out of the way- a rare occurrence, seeing his very little muscle mass- and stormed off. He didn’t look back even once. Within seconds, the brown-eyed boy had reached his bike and yanked it off the rack. He dragged it over to the side of the road, where he hopped on. Without casting a second glance at his group, Luke cycled away.
Tristan huffed. He glared at Luke’s back as his figure was growing smaller. His brow was set in an angry frown. I listened to him mumble for a couple of seconds, before Tristan too seemed to come to a descision in his head.
‘I’m outta here.’
The dark-skinned boy looked at me for a second, then let out another huff when I did not respond. Angrily, he turned his back to me and Bobby and stomped away through the graveyard.
Soon after, it was just the two of us left. Bobby looked at me curiously. His gaze drifted to Jamie’s gravestone for a moment, before trailing back to me. A questioning expression lay in his eyes. He had picked up on my lethargic behaviour, and wanted to know why.
‘Do you want to talk?’
‘No,’ I replied softly.
I hadn’t shed a single tear. I knew I was supposed to. One of my best friends had just passed away. He had been murdered, the news of which was supposed to have unlocked a storm of emotions inside of me. Sadness. Anger. Even rage or despair, which were so obviously present inside Luke and Tristan.
But I felt none of all that. No, that slight buzzing that I felt in my head, had nothing to do with sadness or anger. It was a different emotion entirely. I could not quite place my finger on it. But whenever I looked at Jamie’s grave, or thought about the news of his death, the feeling increased tenfold. The closest I could come to describing it, was… confusion. Unease.
Something about this was not right.
‘It helps to talk, Chase. You’ve helped me too, back then.’
‘Leave it alone, Bobby.’
My soft tone had vanished. The black-haired boy visibly deflated, backing off immediately. Bobby took a few steps backwards, towards the exit. He hesitated. Then, Bobby seemed to find some spark of courage inside. His shoulders straightened, making him look just a little bit taller.
‘All right. But if you need to talk, I’ll be there. Take all the time you need, okay?’
He did not wait for an answer. He knew that he was not going to get one. With a straight back, Bobby walked away from the fresh grave in front of me. I could hear his footsteps on the pavement, slowly distancing themselves from me.
Soon, I was alone. Everyone else had left. It was just me… and the freshly dug grave.
‘Take all the time you need, okay? We’ll leave when you’ve calmed down, sweetheart. It will be all right.’
It happened again. As I looked down on Jamie’s grave, a glimpse of a scene that was unfamiliar to me flashed before my eyes. The buzzing in my head increased. I growled slightly, pressing my fist up to the side of my head to get rid of the strange image.
It passed quickly. Within seconds, my vision returned to Jamie’s grave. A slight sense of dizziness now accompanied the buzzing in my head. I sighed, rubbing the base of my nose with my fingers. Tired. That was it. I was just tired. Jamie’s death had shaken everyone, and I hadn’t slept properly in a week. Of course you would start hearing things with not enough sleep. That was normal. Completely natural. Nothing to be worried about.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I could see my group slowly falling apart. Luke and Tristan had retained a grudge over the shouting match back at the graveyard. An icy silence filled the air whenever the two of them were in the same room. Bobby tried his hardest not to side with either Luke or Tristan. To keep the peace. In the end, all it did was turn the both of them against him.
It probably didn’t have to be that way. I’d ended their fights before. Multiple times. I realized that, with a show of force from my side, Luke and Tristan would probably make up right away. They always had. I think that they were expecting me to, waiting for that to happen.
But I just couldn’t be bothered. Maybe it had to do with me growing older. But I was slowly getting tired of always playing alpha male in our group, and keeping the others in line. Part of me wondered what would happen if I just… did nothing. Let things play out between Luke and Tristan on their own, without me interfering.
The results were less than desirable. Soon, our large group was reduced to just me and Bobby.
Another early morning. I was out on one of my jogs, though “jogging” really wasn’t the right term for this. A few meters ahead of me, the dark-haired woman ran. She was still ahead, but not by much. Finally, after what felt like a decade, I’d gained some ground on her. My lungs were burning, but I’d never gotten this close before. Today would be the day. I bit down and pumped my legs, leaving heavy footsteps as I picked up even more speed.
Slowly, very slowly, I closed the distance between us. She was only inches away. If I reached out, I could probably touch her back-
‘CHAAAAAAAASE! Wait up!’
Surprised, I turned my head. Liu was a few meters behind me. I hadn’t even noticed him. I involuntarily slowed down, and the dark-haired woman immediately made use of it. She shot into an alleyway between two houses, vanishing from sight within seconds. I cursed under my breath.
Aaaaand she was gone. Again. I’d gotten so close this time, too.
But Liu was my childhood friend, and ignoring him would just be bad manners. So I came to a halt, stopping at the side of the road, near a grassy meadow.
It took Liu a good few seconds to reach me. He seemed completely out of breath, huffing and wheezing as he finally arrived at my location.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked, looking down at his red face as he leaned on his knees to catch his breath. Liu let out a curse.
‘All right?! Bloody maker, Chase, you’re running faster than a damn horse! Are you sure you’re not a gold-star athlete or something?’
‘Of course not,’ I replied. ‘I’m not nearly fast enough yet. I can’t even catch up to her.’
‘Huh? Catch up to who?’
I looked in the direction that the woman had disappeared. Right… I still didn’t know her name. Yeah, Liu, I’ve been chasing some random woman around town every other day for the past year or so. No, I have no idea who she is.
I wonder if this made me qualify as a stalker?
‘No one. Never mind.’
I walked over to the grass. It was about time for a break, anyway. Liu quickly joined me, his eyes sparkling with curiosity.
‘Seriously, though. What do you mean, “not fast enough yet”? Have you seen yourself run?’ Liu insisted.
‘Well, no,’ I said, raising a single eyebrow.
‘It’s like looking at bloody Sonic the Hedgehog, man. When did you get so fast?’
At first I thought he was joking, but Liu’s look of awe convinced me otherwise. Maybe my training had been working better than I thought. I had been running faster and faster lately, and exhaustion came later and later. And apparently, it showed. Liu’s acknowledgement lifted my mood a little, and I sat up a little straighter.
It still wasn’t enough, though. I voiced those thoughts to Liu.
‘You want to get even faster?’ he replied. ‘For what purpose?’
I glanced at him. The reason was clear to me, but it did sound a bit strange if you said it out loud. Would he take me seriously?
‘Don’t laugh, okay? I mean it.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Just tell me.’
‘Okay. I want to be able to outrun a wolf.’
Tristan had denied me, calling it impossible. It had made me more determined to prove him wrong, but the logic behind his reasoning was scientifically sound. I expected Liu to come with the same argument, but to my surprise, he did not. Instead, Liu cocked his head a little and gave me a strange smile.
‘Aren’t you taking those folktales a bit too serious, mate?’
‘You know, the one about the wolf ritual. Come on, Nana tells them every year during our festivals. You’ve got to have heard that one at least once.’
Something about that did seem familiar. I frowned, a distant memory of a campfire rising up from the depths of my mind.
‘Refresh my memory, please. Which story are you talking about now?’
‘You want me to tell you the whole thing?! That’s going to take all day, man. Forget I said anything. Go back to your running.’
But by now, Liu had piqued my interest. I shook my head, plopping down on the nearest bench.
‘No, I think it’s the perfect time for a break. And you’re here now, anyway. Might as well tell me the story, Liu.’
‘All right, all right. You’ll get your bloody fairy tale.’
Liu lied down on the grass, his dark brown eyes looking up at the sky above them.
‘I’m just reciting what Nana told us, mind you. Hobey, this is going to take forever. I’m giving you the short version, got it?!’
‘Got it,’ I said, with an amused expression on my face. Liu huffed when he saw it.
‘Okay. Fine. You know the legend about the Gate of Life, right? Or do I have to refresh your memory on that one, too?’
‘I know that one.’
‘Good. Anyway. According to the tale, the wanderers were the first culture to come across the Gate of Life. We were the first to try and bring someone back into our world.’
‘A young gypsy girl named Nile Owen couldn’t cope with the loss of her mother and brother. With no-one else to turn to, she broke the taboo that Maker had set on life’s circle. Nile accessed the Gate from this world to try and bring her brother back.’
This tale I had heard of before. Because of this girl, Nile, the path was opened for corrupted souls to try and force their way back into this world. According to the legend, the Gate had tainted her, and she’d spent centuries trying to stop other children from doing the same thing before finally vanishing from history.
‘The folktale speaks of the rage of Maker, who did not forgive the wanderers for breaking the taboo that she had set. As retribution for their insolence, she forced them into giving up some of their own children. They were transformed into wolves, and tasked with hunting down every corrupted soul that clawed its way back into this world.’
‘According to the tale, there is a prophecy handed down throughout the generations. Every year, some children to the Wanderer community are born with physical abilities that outrank the others. Every ten years, a festival is held to honour the children that were taken as retribution, and a white wolf appears. It whisks away the strongest of the wanderers, and brings them to the Gate of Life. There, they are transformed into a new generation of wolves. They stay that way forever, gaining immortality and hunting down malicious spirits until the day they die.
You feel like growing a tail, Chase?’
I’d been so engrossed in the folktale that I had forgotten all about the guy that was actually telling it. Somewhere during his tale, he had moved from the ground and sat down on the bench next to me. Liu was looking at me with a serious expression on his tanned face. The intensity of his eyes made me uncomfortable, and I stared back with a frown.
‘You do know that outrunning a wolf is physically impossible for a human. Unless you’re one of those wolves-in-the-making, of course. Is that why you’re training? Do you want to be turned into a mutt?’
‘What? No!’ I yelled. ‘Of course not! I’m running because… because of something else! Okay?!’
For a moment, his intense look remained. Then a grin broke through on his face and Liu looked away, after which he burst out laughing.
‘What’s so funny?!’
‘You… actually… believe that stuff!’ Liu hiccupped, almost rolling over the ground in laughter. ‘Hobey, that’s priceless! You should have seen your face!’
Apparently he took my unwillingness to share the story of how I was training in order to meet my parents as fear of the wolves’ folk tale. I shrugged. Might as well. I wasn’t willing to share that one with anyone yet, anyway.
Liu slowly got back up, a grin still on his face.
‘It’s just a story, man. Someone probably made it up during a night at the campfire with too much booze to drink. Like Santa Claus. And the Easter Bunny.’
‘No way, man. The Easter Bunny is real.’
‘Shut up, man,’ he said, playfully punching my shoulder. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yeah… I guess I do.’
Liu nodded. He looked at me for a few seconds, before opening his mouth again.
‘It’s good to see you’re getting a bit of your cheer back, Chase. You’re not nearly as good-looking when you’re down.’
Now it was my turn to punch him.
‘Oh, shut up.’
The Appaloosa Plains police station was situated in the middle of the village, in the left section of the Town Hall. It was one of the fanciest buildings in the whole village, and I liked passing by it on my usual morning route. When I wasn’t chasing a certain someone around, at least.
Normally, the area around Town Hall was silent, as the building officially did not open until 8 am. This time, however, I could hear voices coming from the open window. They didn’t sound very friendly, and I involuntarily slowed down to see what was going on.
Suddenly, I could make out Luke’s voice. He was too far inside to make out what he was saying, but my friend sounded quite agitated. Angered replies floated through the open window. Then a soft bang, as if someone had slammed his fist against something. My curiosity won out. I walked towards the entrance of Town Hall, opened the door and stepped inside.
It wasn’t hard to make out where Luke was. All I had to do was follow the sound of his voice- and he wasn’t exactly whispering. As I drew closer, I could slowly start to make out what he was saying.
‘…don’t care what the protocol is! I have rights. I demand that you let me in!’
‘Make demands all you want. I’d suggest you go back to school and learn a little something about what rights you actually have, boy. Now get lost already! I have better things to do than listening to your petty whining all day!’
Curiously, I turned the corner. The open door led straight to the town’s police station, which, unsurprisingly, was almost entirely empty at this early hour. In fact, there seemed only two people present. The first was Luke, his hands balled into fists and slightly shaking. The second was a very, very cranky-looking police officer. Even from way over here, I could feel the aura of annoyance radiating off of the man and instantly realized that he was coming very close to calling security. Luke seemed to be oblivious to this fact. He puffed out his chest, ready to get started on round two.
Quickly, I stepped into the room. The police officer turned his head towards the movement to his left, took one look at me and audibly groaned.
‘Not another one! By the Maker, it’s too early for this!’
‘Chase?’ Luke said, raising a single eyebrow. ‘What are you doing here?’
I joined my friend, cautiously nodding at the police officer to show that I came in peace.
‘I’m here every morning, Luke. Town Hall is on my jogging route. I heard your voice from outside.’
‘You have good timing, man,’ Luke nodded. His face turned into a frown when he looked back at the policeman. ‘I’m trying to get access to that tourist’s holding cell, but this guy won’t let me in. Just because I am a minor! It’s discrimination, I tell you!’
‘Why do you want to get into his holding cell?’ I asked, surprised. The question seemed to annoy Luke.
‘Because I want to interrogate him, of course! Why else do you think I’d want to?! Jamie deserves some justice, and that bastard is not confessing!’
His voice rose above normal volume again. The police officer shot me a threatening look; he still seemed to be moments away from calling security.
‘Calm down,’ I spoke, with a calm voice. ‘You’re not helping anyone by throwing a fit over here like a two-year old.’
‘Well if he would just-‘
‘I said shut up,’ I said sharply, pulling Luke a few steps away from the policeman. Of course he wasn’t going to let Luke near that man. It was only logical. But being logical did not seem to be a priority in Luke’s mind at the moment. Even if it involved getting his behind kicked by a security guard. In a hushed voice, I explained the situation to him.
‘Listen. Listen, damn it. The police haven’t got a confession of guilt out of that tourist guy yet, have they?’
‘No,’ Luke frowned.
‘Then this is still an ongoing investigation. They’re still gathering evidence, Luke. Of course they’re not going to let a random stranger see their suspect in the middle of an ongoing investigation. Haven’t you watched any detective shows?’
‘But then how do I find out anything?’ Luke mumbled back, ignoring my remark. ‘They’re not sharing any information. That berryhole behind the counter won’t even show me Jamie’s autopsy report.’
‘Why would he? For all he knows you could be the murderer.’
‘Of course I’m not! I just want to help, damn it!’ Luke snapped, gaining another angry glare from the police officer. ‘Then what do you propose I should do?! Just sit at home and be a good kid until all the evidence is gone?!’
‘No, but you can shut up for a moment,’ I replied calmly. ‘Stay here and contain yourself for a moment, for berry’s sake. I’ll try and talk to him.’
I left Luke there. With confident steps, I walked over to the policeman, who was still eyeing me suspiciously. The target of his anger seemed to switch from Luke to myself.
‘Now listen up, you punk,’ the policeman snarled. ‘I do not appreciate being chewed out in my own department! Another outburst like that and I’ll have him arrested for officer assault. Am I clear?’
‘Very,’ I replied, in a calm voice. ‘I’d like to offer my apologies for my friend’s behaviour just now. He just lost his best friend. The shock is not making him think logically. If he were clear-headed, he would never mouth off against a protector of the state like that.’
It was blatant flattering. But it worked. The policeman huffed, dropping a little bit of his hostility.
‘Fine. I guess I can make an exception… given the circumstances. Now get him out of here before I change my mind.’
An angry shade of red flashed by on Luke’s face. I shot him a warning glance, and he stayed silent. In earlier years, I’d clashed with older people over a “lack of respect” multiple times. I’d learned to sweet-talk my way out of it, and over time that skill had turned into a subtle affinity for manipulation.
‘Thank you, sir. But if you don’t mind, could I ask for a favour?’
‘What is it now?’ The officer huffed crankily. It was like trying to catch a fish. If I pushed too hard, I would lose my chance. But if I came over as too weak, the man would just deny me, which would once again infuriate Luke and we would be right back where we started.
‘My friend here will need some time to come to terms with his loss. And as you can see, he is not very bright. I’d like to make sure that he does not bother you again, sir.’
‘And how do you intend to do that?’ the policeman asked. I leaned forward a bit, lowering my voice and pretending to cut Luke out of the conversation.
‘Luke needs to come to terms with his friend’s death. Of course we cannot allow him to interfere with an ongoing investigation. But if I leave with him now, I suspect that he will just come back tomorrow and ask the same questions, which would be a waste of your precious time.’
‘And incredibly annoying,’ the police officer nodded with a frown.
‘Exactly. So instead, I believe it would be a good idea to let Luke come to terms with what has happened. I’ve taken him to the funeral, but he still seems to have a hard time accepting that his friend is truly gone.’
‘What do you propose?’ the policeman asked. By plumbob, he was easy to manipulate. With a calm smile, I pointed at the lockers behind the counter.
‘Would we be allowed to see Jamie Cossen’s autopsy report? I’m aware that it is not the standard procedure. But perhaps by seeing an official confirmation of his death, Luke can come to terms with his passing… and stop pestering police officers about it.’
I had won. I could see it in the man’s eyes. He looked over from me to Luke, then back to me. The policeman seemed to ponder for a moment, after which he finally nodded with a frown on his face.
‘Fine, then. If that is what it will take to get him to leave me alone. But I’m holding you responsible if anything happens with it, you hear!’
‘Naturally,’ I smiled. With that, the policeman finally walked over to the lockers. In an infuriatingly slow motion, he reached for one of the doors, put a key in and opened the file cabinet. It took the man about a minute to find the file he was looking for.
‘You have five minutes,’ he said, after slowly walking back with the file and handing it over to me. I nodded once. Five minutes was all we needed. I quickly re-joined Luke and shoved the document in his hands.
‘Here you go.’
‘You’re golden, man,’ Luke said, with a grateful smile on his face. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own.’
‘No kidding. Just read the damn thing, we only have five minutes with it.’
Luke nodded and opened the file. A few seconds passed in which no-one spoke. Even the police officer. Cranky as he was, he did give us a moment of privacy. There was a total silence. I looked at Luke, as he was reading the document with a frown on his face. My friend seemed to be skimming over the content, looking for Maker knows what. I had no idea what he expected to find.
Then, suddenly, his eyes stopped reading. Luke’s frown intensified and he made a dissatisfied noise.
‘I knew it.’
‘What?’ I asked. Suddenly I was curious, too. Did he actually manage to find something in there?
‘Do you remember when they told us about Jamie’s death? The details?’
‘Of course I remember,’ I replied, a bit offended. ‘The police said that they found him at 7 in the morning, and that blood loss was the cause of death. As if I’d forget that.’
‘Exactly,’ Luke nodded. ‘In the way that they explained it, I thought that he had been stabbed to death. That it was probably a mugging gone wrong, or something.’
‘Not according to this,’ Luke said, handing the file over to me. ‘Look at the details.’
I took the document from Luke. Quickly, my eyes skimmed over the dry, almost disinterested writing that was Jamie’s autopsy report. When I reached the details section, however, I instantly realized what Luke had been talking about. A frown appeared on my face.
The document specified the cause of death to be from blood loss. But what followed right underneath confused me greatly. According to the medical examiner, Jamie’s body had been covered in long, deep gashes on his arms, torso and abdomen. They were shallow, and the examiner noted that the wounds had to have been inflicted by something other than a knife.
‘That can’t be right,’ I mumbled. ‘The police said that he died from stab wounds.’
‘Not according to the autopsy report,’ Luke replied softly. ‘And those things don’t lie.’
I was about to answer him, when the silence around us was finally broken by the voice of the police officer.
‘Your five minutes are up. Now hand that over, boys.’
I saw luke’s jawline tighten. Quickly, I shook my head at him. Any more provocation from his side and we’d have a guard coming after both our asses. I walked over to the officer, nodded at him and handed over the file.
‘Thank you for letting us look. We’ll be going now.’
‘Don’t let me keep you. My condolences.’
Luke barely waited until we had exited the building.
‘I told you so! I told you that there was something fishy about all this!’ he said, looking at me defiantly. ‘Assaulted by a tourist, my foot! Something else happened here!’
‘Maybe,’ I replied, giving him a single nod. ‘But you can’t be sure. Don’t get too hasty, okay? They might have just misunderstood the cause of death themselves, when they told us.’
That idea seemed to anger him, but Luke composed himself. He glanced at the Town Hall behind us, where there was still an open window.
‘Whatever. I don’t know, man. I need time to think about this. I’ll see you at school, later.’
‘You’re welcome, by the way,’ I said sarcastically. Luke made a an irritated gesture with his hand and turned around, walking away from me across the pavement. I let him go. He always had been the emotional one out of us all. Out of every person in my group, if you could still call it that, Luke would probably need the longest to heal.
And he would cause the most problems.
I did not go home after that. Unlikely as it was, the strange circumstances around Jamie’s death kept me thinking. They floated around in the back of my mind, refusing to be dismissed. I kept thinking about it as I jogged, and eventually, my feet took another walking route on their own. Before I knew it, I’d left the village behind as I followed the dusty trail towards the beach, where they had found his body. The route took me through the outskirts, and as it was still early morning, I did not expect there to be anyone around but me.
But there was. I had ran into it twice before already, and had fully expected it not happening a third time. And yet it did. As I slowed down to a halt, squinting my eyes against the summer sun, I could make out the same white wolf from that night in the forest. It was still quite far away, standing between a group of trees near the river.
And it was looking right at me.
‘Now that is just not natural,’ I muttered, looking back at the wolf. I did not know what was going on, but this was not normal dog behaviour. Or wolf behaviour. Whichever applied more. Bottom line was that that animal was acting irregularly, and seeing it stare at me like that made me very uncomfortable. It creeped me out.Suddenly every urge of going to the beach was gone. I was done for the day.
It was time to go home.
‘Well… see ya, weirdo,’ I mumbled to the wolf, and took a single step backwards. The wolf immediately followed. It stepped forward, lowering its head to the ground.
But it would, and it did. As I stood there staring, dumbfounded, the wolf bared its fangs at me. Even from this distance I could hear the low, threatening growl. I blinked, confused and utterly unable to understand the sudden situation that had unfolded in front of me. Slowly, I took another step backwards.
And the wolf charged. With a menacing snarl, it launched itself from the ground and coursed straight at me, its paws kicked up clutters of grass and dirt. In a way, it almost looked comical.
Then, the situation finally registered in my brain. I was in danger. That beast was charging at me, and definitely not in order to give me a friendly hug. That wolf was in hunting mode. It was still far away, but with that speed, the beast would be on top of me in seconds.
And I had nothing to fend him off with.
I was totally defenseless.
My body finally caught up with what my head already knew. I had to run. A jolt of adrenaline shot through my legs, setting my muscles on fire as I spun around on my heels and bolted from the place. My feet slammed against the ground heavily as I picked up speed. In the back of my head, I could suddenly hear Tristan.
‘The average running speed of a human is 15 kilometers an hour. Wolves have a speed of 35 kilometers or faster. You do the math. It’s not possible.’
I wished I’d never asked Tristan that question. My heart was throbbing and I forced myself forward, up the hillside. But I was already tired. I had just jogged all morning, and my muscles were worn out. I knew that you weren’t supposed to look behind you during a chase, but I did, and I immediately wished I hadn’t. The wolf was gaining on me fast. There was only a few meters left between us. I could see a cold, emotionless look in its eyes as it closed the distance… and caught up with me. The beast actually passed me and ran ahead a few inches, and for a second, I thought that it was just going to keep running. That it hadn’t been targeting me after all.
But a second later, that hope was shattered. I could see the wolf move its head towards me, look ahead and tilt back towards me again. I instantly realized what it was doing. It was coldly calculating the perfect distance from which to pounce. It wasn’t even trying to hurry. It knew that I was an easy target.
The next moment… the beast pounced. It twisted its body mid-step, kicking off with its hind legs and soaring directly at me. I could stare right into its opened mouth. Within moments, those fangs would tear me in half.
The sight of its open mouth, fangs blickering, did something to me. Suddenly I was back in that dark forest, staring down a pack of predators. Once again, I was staring death in the eye. And, just like that night in the forest, the same emotion took hold of me again. The same feeling of defiance welled up in my chest.
I was not going to lose.
It was as if a hidden reserve opened, one that I had not known about before. It burst open and suddenly, my whole body was buzzing with electricity. The pain in my legs was gone. The throbbing in my head was gone. With reflexes that I didn’t know I had, I slid to the right and dodged the incoming wolf fangs. The beast missed me by a hair, soaring just past me and missing its target.
It hadn’t been prepared for that. And did not wait around for it to regain itself. As the beast landed on the ground, I sped away in the direction of the village. My legs were on fire. I had never run this fast before. The landscape around me turned into a blur as I sped up more and more, driving my body to its limit.
I was not going to lose.
My lungs were burning. I started to get light-headed, and knew I could not keep up this speed for much longer. But I was so close. The village entrance was right there. I could make it. I could still make it. My sight started to blur, and I could see black spots in the edges of my vision. My legs slowed. But I could… I could still..!
With the last bit of strength that I had left, I sped up even more. My vision had gone almost completely black. But it was enough. Underneath my feet, the dusty road turned to stone and I knew that I had made it. I stormed through the village entrance, head pressed down like a charging bull.
In that split second, I glanced behind me to look at the wolf. Bad move. My steps were sluggish and I almost immediately tripped over my own feet, tumbling down to the ground. A sharp pain pierced through my shoulder as it crashed against the asphalt. The rest of my body kept going. It wasn’t elegant. I actually rolled over myself a few times before finally coming to a stop, sprawled out flat across the asphalt.
I saw stars. It took me a good few seconds to regain myself. My crashing against the asphalt had completely knocked the air out of me. It made a very bad combination with the adrenaline coursing through my veins and for a moment, I thought that I was going to pass out. Then the moment faded, and I could suddenly see the sky above my head again.
I had made it.
Gasping, I picked myself up from the ground. My shoulder felt like it was on fire, and my hands were shaking. The rest of my body didn’t feel too hot either. I would be left with some bruises, that was for sure.
Then my brain got back up to speed with the rest of my body, and I jolted upwards.
The wolf! Where was the wolf?!
But my reaction had been unnecessary. The road in front of me was empty. Completely deserted, as if I hadn’t just been chased all across three hills by a hungry wolf. As if I hadn’t been seconds away from being turned into the beast’s breakfast. There was absolutely no trace of it anywhere.
I slowly exhaled, my head still trying to wrap itself around what had just happened. No good. I couldn’t find a logical explanation.
It couldn’t have just vanished that fast- had that wolf really been here?
Was I going insane?
Charmaine’s death shook up the whole village. They weren’t used to crimes of this scale. Those things happened only in the big towns, like Bridgeport. Not here. Not in their safe little village, where they raised crops, drove around on their tractors and let their children horse around freely.
Until it did happen.
On the surface, people tried their hardest to pretend it had nothing to do with them. That Charmaine’s passing was a one-time only occurrence. A tragic occurrence, but an isolated event. People still happily did grocery shopping at the supermarket. People still visited the local library. School started again, and families still attended town events.
But if you paid attention, you could see a difference.
People no longer let their children out of their sights.
Including my parents. At first, they tried to forbid me from going on my morning jogs. No longer letting me off their property until it was time for school, and expecting me to be back well before nightfall. I understood the reason behind it, but after two whole weeks of obeying them and staying inside, I’d finally gotten fed up. Murder or no murder, I needed my freedom.
‘No! It’s just not safe, Chase. You can’t be out there all by yourself, not when they haven’t caught the murderer yet.’
Dad, who had finally gotten up earlier than me for a change, was blocking my path to the doorway. His arms were crossed and there was a stern look on his face. I sighed in annoyance. It was too early for this, and I was already late. If I didn’t hurry, that woman would already be gone by the time I arrived at the square.
‘It’s 6 in the morning. People are just starting to wake up, and the mailman is already doing his rounds. Geez, dad, if something is going to happen, it will happen at night, don’t you get that? It’s safe now!’
‘We can’t know that for sure. What if the culprit is waiting for another teenager to come by all alone? You could be the second victim, and that’s not going to happen.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s been weeks! That creep probably doesn’t even live here! It’s fine!’
‘No! I’m not letting you leave, Chase, and that’s final!’
If it was possible for a human being to growl, then I did. I felt the anger build up inside me, rising up from the depths of my stomach. Dad stared me down, just as angry. I couldn’t stand the fact that I was still smaller than him, even with my muscular build. There had to be a way to get past him.
And then I came up with an idea. Quickly, before giving me time to doubt myself, I brought my fingers up to my mouth and produced a sharp, almost ear-piercing whistle. The effect was instant. Some rumbling could be heard from the ceiling, after which my two dogs, Jake and Dasha, came running down the staircase. They stormed right past dad while brushing the back of his legs, startling him and making him look backwards for just a second.
It was all the time that I needed. In a fluent motion, I joined my dogs and sped past my father, heading right for the door. Within moments, I was outside.
‘CHASE! GET BACK HERE!’
‘See you at breakfast!’ I yelled back, jumping off the porch. Jake and Dasha let out elated barks. They stayed right next to my feet as I dashed towards the main gate. My heart was pounding. For some reason, disobeying dad always gave me an incredible rush. Including this time. With a smile on my face, I picked up speed. Before too long I was out of my parent’s property, and on the middle of the road to town. My course: Appaloosa Square.
Maybe she’d still be there.
She wasn’t there.
With a sigh of disappointment, I sat down on the nearest bench. My dogs sat down beside my feet, looking up at me expectantly. I ignored them. What a letdown. Now that lecture that dad was going to give me when I got home would be for nothing. I could already imagine the speech. It would start at the breakfast table, and last all damn morning. I was not looking forward to that.
Maybe I should just skip breakfast altogether? No, that would only make my punishment worse. In fact, making them worry about me past-breakfast would likely result in a few weeks of being grounded. I did NOT like not leaving the house. After a while, the walls would start to creep up on me, to the point of it almost being claustrophobic. I did not matter how big the room was.
Jogging further without a purpose was impossible. As much as I hated it… it was time to go back home.
At that very second, my phone rang. For a second, I thought that it would be my father. Then I saw the name on the screen, and I brought the device to my ear.
‘Why, good morning, sunshine!’ The electronic voice of Jamie blasted through the phone’s speaker, much louder than was needed. ‘I have something that be-loooongs to you!’
‘You what now?’
‘Oh, don’t be shy, sweetheart. Or did you leave your garments here on purpose, so you’d have to come back and see me again? You did, didn’t you? Chase, you sly dog!’
‘What are you babbling on about now?’ I said, ignoring his teasing tone of voice.
‘Your pyjama shirt, dude,’ Jamie spoke. His voice had returned to normal. ‘Mum found it under my desk. It doesn’t fit Bobby and Luke, and Tristan doesn’t wear that type of shirt. So it’s gotta be yours.’
Ah, right. Last week’s slumber party. Or at least, that’s what we had told our parents. In reality it had been more of a drinking-games-and-adult-conversations kind of happening. I remembered wrestling with Tristan over some leftover snacks, after which his elbow had collided with my nose. Some blood had trickled down on the shirt, after which I had changed, leaving the stained shirt… somewhere. I hadn’t even noticed it was missing. But now that Jamie mentioned it…
‘Right. Thanks, man. Stop by the beach later so I can pick it up, okay? I’m almost done with my jog here.’
‘No way! It’s your shirt. Come pick it up yourself, man.’
‘And the beach is between your house and mine. Sort of. Your mug can use some sunlight anyway, Jamie. I’ll see you there.’
Some grumbling on the other side of the line, followed by a brief: ‘Fine. See you in twenty.’ I smiled. At least I had an excuse to keep going now. What was the phrase for this again? Delay of execution? Well, that. I’d take any extra time I could get.
I hadn’t lied. Appaloosa Plains beach was in between my house and Jamie’s. At least, on the road in between our houses. If you left the road and walked south a little ways, you would soon find yourself facing the Appaloosa Plains river, with rolling hills on the horizon.
There was nothing but forest on the other side of the water. Our village was a remote one. The nearest town, Hidden Springs, was at least two hours away by car. And Hidden Springs was not exactly a bustling metropolis, either.
I had often wondered why my adoptive parents had left me in a backwater place like this, cut off from the rest of the world. Now that I had read the letters, a different thought occurred to me.
A place like this, cut off from the rest of the world… maybe that had been the point.
I arrived at the beach a few minutes after 6:30. It was still early, and the sandy shore seemed completely deserted. It had gotten cloudy. The sun was still low, and a sudden strong wind chased grey clouds all across the sky. Weather here changed fast. Within the hour, it would probably start raining.
‘Hey, Jamie! You here yet?!’
I called out to my friend. There was no answer. But it was only a five-minute walk from Jamie’s house to the beach. Somehow, I was convinced that he was here.
‘Come on, dude! We have an hour left before school. I still gotta take a shower, man.’
No reply. Was Jamie really not here, then? My gut feeling was rarely wrong.
But then where the hell was he?
That’s when I noticed. It was eerily quiet. Not even the cries of seagulls sounded, or the chirping of other birds in the trees. The only sound came from my shoes, crunching the sand underneath. Other than that, it was dead silent.
Something wasn’t right.
Instinctively, I tensed my muscles. Something was wrong. I could feel it with every fiber of my being. This place… was dangerous. I had to leave. Fast.
But then I saw a blonde head poke out from behind one of the beach parasols and that thought instantly went out the window. That was Jamie, no doubt about it. No one else would be lounging underneath a parasol at 6:30 am. It had to be him. I took a step forward.
‘Jamie, what are you-‘
A low, threatening growl stopped me dead in my tracks. At the same time, my dogs positioned themselves right in front of me. Their fangs were bared, and Dasha’s ears were pressed flat against her neck. Another growl, almost feral, echoed across the beach. It took me a few seconds to realize that it came from my dogs. They had never acted like this before. It made a cold chill run down my spine. A feeling of dread spread all across my stomach and suddenly, I started fearing for Jamie’s life.
He was right there. I had to see. My feet moved forward on their own. One step… Another…
I rounded the corner…
And the scene before my turned my blood into ice. Jamie was lying on the ground, motionless. Towering above him was a creature of nightmares. It had the shape of a human, but I instantly realized that this was something else entirely. Pale, grey skin covered arms and legs of which I could see the bones stick out. The thing had nothing on but a ragged, equally grey set of trousers. Drawn across its arms and chest were strange, black markings that I could not read.
I made these observations in a fraction of a second. The little details quickly vanished to the back of my mind when I came to realize another fact.
That thing was holding Jamie up by his neck.
At the same time that the creature became aware of my presence, it dropped Jamie like you would drop a piece of garbage. His head hit the ground with a heavy thud. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the blood on his mouth and chin. His clothes were covered in red stains. He lay there, unmoving. I was frozen in place as I looked upon the scene. My heart refused to accept what my head had already realized.
My friend was dead.
Slowly, the pale creature lifted its head to look at me. There was a small trail of blood, trickling down the side of his mouth. Large, sharp-looking fangs touched his lips.
The mere sight of those fangs did something to me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. I could feel a sharp, stinging pain in the back of my head. It was if someone was beating down on it with their fists. Soon, the headache was so intense that the edges of my vision started swimming. I had to get out of here. Fast. With an incredible effort, I tore myself away from the sight of its fangs and looked up-
Right into two glowing eyes, who were staring straight back at me. They were white, but as the creature and I looked at each other, they suddenly changed. The colour went from a milky white to blood-red. At the same time, my headache reached its peak. A white haze crept before my eyes, blocking all vision as I experienced another memory that wasn’t mine.
Rage burnt a way right through my heart and took control of my body. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think. Waves of pure hatred forced me ahead, making me charge straight at the vampire. Yelling at me to kill. And I responded to that call without thinking twice.
I slammed straight into the vampire, who had not expected that and was flung backwards by the impact. He landed flat on his back.
But I didn’t stop there. Before the vampire had a chance to recover, I jumped right on top of the creature and pinned it to the ground.
Kill it. Kill it.
‘I’m going to kill you, weak human. Did you know that? We’re going to kill every single one of you.’
A red haze blocked out everything but the vampire underneath me. I wanted to hurt it. Bad. My hands were shaking with rage, and at that moment, I truly wanted to tear the creature apart. I made a first and rammed it into his face, one, two, three times-
But the vampire was faster than me. Before I could counter, his clawed fingers had dug themselves into my shirt. I let out a scream as the hard nails ripped open my skin. His other hand had clasped itself around my lower arm, and as I reeled back in pain from the attack, he effortlessly pushed me off of him and into the air. A sharp pain shot up my spine as I landed square on my behind, slamming against a rock. The impact completely incapacitated me, and I fell down.
Within a fraction of a second, the vampire was on top of me. His long, clawed fingers grabbed hold of my hair and pulled my head backwards, exposing my bare throat. I could feel his foul breath inches away from my skin, and realized what was going to happen. He was going to bite me. He was going to sink his teeth into my neck and bleed me dry. I struggled frantically, but to no avail. This was it.
And then the unthinkable happened. I felt an enormous heat behind me. The vampire hesitated, his bared fangs inches away from the vein in my throat. Then, a bright light gathered to my right. It almost looked like fire. The beam passed inches away from my face and rammed square into the grey vampire. The heat was enormous. He screamed in agony as he was flung off of me and high into the air. The grey vampire was launched at least three meters backwards, and landed on the ground in a sprawled mess of arms and legs.
I looked on in wonder. But when the vampire hit the ground, the same feeling of rage as before took hold of me again. I scrambled to get up, but before I could as much as lift my arms from the sandy ground, another sharp jolt of pain shot through the back of my head. This time, there was no doubt about it. Someone had hit me. My vision started swimming, and I fell flat on my back.
‘Emal! Raos nyigull! Grynah, Emal!’
With an inhuman amount of effort, I turned my head. The grey vampire had raised his arms, and seemed to be pleading with someone. I could barely make out a red dress before another bright light filled my vision, blinding me.
I could hear the faint whistle of something flying through the air. Then, an explosion sounded. The vampire’s pleading was abruptly cut short. As I struggled to stay conscious, a terrible scream suddenly echoed across the beach. It didn’t stop. The vampire screamed and howled, in a voice that sounded increasingly surreal. Flames filled my already blurred vision.The heat became unbearable. I finally closed my eyes, shielding them from the flames.
Then… the screaming stopped.
Footsteps were coming towards me. They stopped inches from my body, and I could hear someone crouching down. Slowly, I opened my eyes again. I could faintly make out a dress… the same red dress that had faced off against the vampire before. My vision was getting blurry fast, and I knew that within a few seconds, I would pass out. With my last bit of strength, I lifted my head to look at the person that had saved me.
It was the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen. Her delicate face was framed by silky, orange hair that fell to her shoulders. Large, fiery eyes stared back at me, with feelings of concern clearly shining through. They were glowing… a strange sense of deja vu befell me. I had… seen her before.
When the woman spoke, it was in a voice that I instantly recognized. I had heard it many times, in my dreams. It was hypnotic. The world once again blurred before my eyes, and as I felt her pale hands lightly touching my chest, my consciousness slowly faded away.
‘Is he gone?’
‘He’s unconscious,’ Selene replied to her brother, who appeared from the shadows. He casually strutted up to his sister. The sun had fully risen from behind the hills; annoyed, he shielded his eyes against the glow.
‘That was too close.’
‘I should have watched him more closely,’ Selene spoke softly. ‘Our protection is fading.’
Nikola moved to the other side of the unconscious teenager and sat down, as well.
‘We were careless,’ he replied. ‘The curse is gaining in power. It seems we have less time than we thought.’
‘But how did it find him so fast? He is supposed to be masked.’
Nikola frowned. He looked at Jamie’s body. His frown deepened.
‘The damn shirt. It had his blood on it. That thing must have picked up its scent from outside the village and followed it here, through that kid.’
He fellsilent as Selene traced the outlines of Chase’s wounds with her pale fingers. As soon as she touched them, the wounds stopped bleeding and closed.
Slowly, Selene took Chase into her arms. She shot a single glance at Nikola, and spoke.
‘He must not remember this. If he links the vampires to his mother, he’ll leave the village, and all our efforts to keep him hidden will be for nothing.’
‘I know,’ Nikola answered. He took the boy from Selene’s arms and placed him on the ground before him.
‘Damn it, Chase. How many times must you make me interfere with your head?’
With a single finger, he touched the boy’s head. A bright glow enveloped the two, passing from Nikola’s arm towards Chase. The light seemed to seep into his head, sinking in between the hairs.
The next moment, it was over. The glow disappeared. Nikola slowly pulled his hand back, letting it rest on his knee. The boy named Chase stirred. He would remember nothing. For him, his morning had ended on that bench in the park. There, he had fallen asleep until now. Peacefully, without ever contacting Jamie. Without ever seeing the vampire that linked his life to his mother’s.
He would remember nothing.
Slowly, Nikola and Selene rose back up. With worried expressions on their faces, they looked down on their protégé .
‘How much longer do you think we can protect him?’ Selene muttered. Nikola looked at her with a dark, determined expression on his face.
‘As long as we can. We promised. After that… it’s up to him.’
Selene nodded once. He was right. Their protection of the boy still stood, though it was gradually weakining. Before too long, Chase would be on his own. But until then, they would do all they could to keep him safe. She stood up, straightened her shoulders and followed Nikola, who had already turned around. Together, they walked towards the shoreline.
As they reached the water, Nikola and Selene looked back one more time. Then, the older brother took his sister’s hand. Together, they took another step forward… and vanished from Chase’s world.
The young boy would not remember them, either. He was still sheltered. As his mother wanted him to be.
But it was not going to last. Before too long, their protection would fail, and fate would take over.
All they could do was hope that, when it happened… Chase would be ready.