Excerpt for The Time Stopping People by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Time Stopping People

Love is breaking all the boundaries

By Kristy Evans Beckwith

A Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2017

Discover other titles by Kristy Evans Beckwith

http://www.TheTimeStoppingPeople.blogspot.com

All rights reserved. This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to peoples – living or deceased – is purely coincidental. Names, places, and characters are figments of the author’s imagination. It is illegal to reproduce this novel without written expressed consent from the author. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author.

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the artwork of this author.

Chapter One

Listening to the blue minivan hum beneath us, there was no time to push the rewind button. With the seatbelt strained across my waist, wind seeped through my half-cracked window and brushed against my face. Violet mists trailed into the sky and created the stage for my new galvanic reality. The road sign read 'Welcome to Lakeville Forest' when Kevin shoved his body through the window.

Woooo! Welcome home, ladies and gentlemen!” He drummed on the hood of the van and gave Ohio the middle finger. Then he stretched his arms far above his head, until the bulk of his sweater lifted high above his waistline. His beady eyes were blue and curious, and his dimpled chin complimented the rest of his features. As he shot me a look through the window, I noticed he was chewing on gum like farmers chewed on tobacco.

Blue arose from her peaceful slumber and spat, 'Kevin, you’re an idiot,' before falling back down again – she obviously believed there was something unique about the guy who carried a knife in his back pocket.

Their names weren’t very hard to memorize. Tre was the attentive black guy with an English accent. Blue was the other girl besides me, who had countless piercings all over her body. Chris was the one who entered my life last night at the La Traviatta operetta. He was rough around the edges and had vibrant black hair that ruffled when the wind hit it.

Calise, is it?” she asked.

I nodded.

My boss never meets new people,” she went on, turning in my direction. “If he does, he never brings them here. How did the two of you meet? Was it a stroll in the park?”

Chris adjusted the mirror, shooting her a look.

I know, Coach,” she added. “We want to hear her side of the story.”

They waited, expecting some long juicy tale, and I certainly had one.

“Well,” I started. “For starters, I caught him watching me at one of my favorite performances,” I admitted. “I thought we must've known each other. So I followed him back to his car and asked him for an explanation. He told me he was in town at the moment, taking care of business, and we ended up talking for hours. By the end of the night, he told me to come away with him to this amazing place called Ohio,” I answered. “Here we are.”

They blinked twice, except for Blue. She rolled her eyes and gave a short laugh. “Oh brother. So what. Are you guys like a thing now? Great. Absolutely perfect. Should I say congratulations?”

Damn right,” Kevin interrupted in a girlish voice, answering on my behalf. “Chris and I are having such a good time together. He asked me to be here. I couldn't resist.”

After they were done teasing me, I stared outside the window at the empty road. For the next five minutes no one said a word, and my mind wandered to the fantastic night we'd just spent together and how wonderful it was to have someone like him to talk to. He was non-judgmental, and a really great listener. He'd been so kind in the little time we'd known each other; it already felt like an eternity.

It was then that Chris peered at me through the mirror and winked, letting me know we were both on the same page. I was relieved my bogus plan to stay in California and attend my second year of college hadn’t worked out, because now I got to be here, sitting behind this new intriguing individual.

He was, by far, the most interesting person I'd ever met.

Luckily his friends appeared to be around my age, so I didn't feel too incongruous.

*

Are you hungry?” Chris asked, finding me through the rear-view mirror.

My stomach growled louder than the engine, which was a direct result of negligence since I forgot to eat something before we left LAX. I’d been too caught up following my bliss. Wondered if Mr. Carl even noticed I was gone yet. He was probably too busy escorting his beloved Laura to another marvelous theater performance.

I realized everyone else around us had fallen asleep. Oh yeah, sure,” I replied.

As I stared at the lines in my palms, I pondered the line between chance and fate. It must’ve been fate that Chris and I met at the operetta, and he introduced me to this whole new perspective, a perspective which I didn't realize existed less than 24 hours ago. All I knew was their profession' had something to do with him being there in the first place. He explained he was on a business assignment, and he found my curious eyes gazing through the crowd.

Afterward, he took me to his marble mansion in Laguna Beach and gave me a quick tour of his large estate, so I wouldn't get home too late. For the entire night, he stared at me with soul-piercing eyes like we'd known each other. Neither of us were surprised when he didn't take me home. The way we spent our time together, alone in his mansion, there was no doubt in my mind we were together.

*

Staring outside the window, I realized Ohio was the complete opposite of Los Angeles. The greenery was nice and easier to deal with than city traffic or angry drivers flipping each other off. Fiery waves dwindled from the sky. A thin fog smothered the windows as trees swayed on both sides of the road. The town was at ease.

I stared at the back of Chris’s head, which was firmly nestled in the seat in front of me. His hair fluttered in the wind, in an effortless controlled way, and I wondered what the texture would feel like sliding between my fingers.

It wasn't long before we pulled into a shabby old gas station. Prices were scribbled on scraps of white cardboard. And the moment we neared a pump, Tre was the first one to get out.

Need anything out of here, Coach?” he asked

The usual’s fine.”

Blue and Kevin trailed shortly behind. Hurry up.” She nudged him further out the door.

Seeing them together was like watching an action movie – James Bond, but not on purpose. They moved toward the dimly lit mini market in a hurry. As soon as they reached their target, an old man slugged toward the van and tapped on the glass as though he’d been sleepwalking.

Who’s there? What are you kids doing around this part?” he asked.

Chris rolled down the window. “It’s me Sam.”

Oh, hey Chris! How’ve you been? Ain’t seen you around since last February.” He turned to me with stretched eyes. “Oh look! What do we have here? You brought along a cute little penny, too. Ain’t she perty.”

Chris handed him a hundred dollar bill. “Thanks, Sam,” he replied and walked over to my window. “You should go get something to eat, Calise. You’ll be hungry later.”

Startled by those brown eyes, I almost forgot about the grumblings going on in my stomach. Right,” I agreed and opened the door. “Want anything else?” I asked. “The least I can do is take care of you, after you've done so much for me already.”

He breathed slowly this time, and stepped closer. "They'll take care of it." The edge of his hand brushed against mine, taking me by surprise. Soon, our fingers slithered together in a natural tryst.

I had to admit: holding hands with him was nice. There was an undeniable charm about standing next to him and wildlife that made my heart petals open. Such a simple gesture seemed to trigger our own mysterious adventure. “So . . . this the place you were telling me about. It's refreshing. Do you stay here often?"

He peered around, wearing a look of satisfaction. "I feel more myself when I'm here . . . closer to everything. It's good for now. Things change.” He started pointing all around us.

I knew meeting him wasn't a mistake or a coincidence. He was my hero. So I tried making something up, anything to make him laugh again.

Thanks for letting me into your world.”

That bit of gratitude was enough, and certainly made him smile for the first time since we landed. He stared off in front of him. “You're welcome.”

Before he could say another word, I climbed out of the van and grabbed the sliding door, snapping it shut. The others were already on their way back when our paths crossed in an awkward twine. They carried bags under their arms and a load of other stuff that was probably molded and gross from being locked inside the old Ohio cave; this store had to be at least a zillion years old.

Tre was talking to Kevin as they burst into laughter. I knew they were talking about me. Blue followed behind them with a pack of water bottles over her shoulder and seemed to be handling more weight than the guys.

Opening the front glass door, I observed a pile of orange baskets near the wall and grabbed one from the stack. Skimming over the food supply, I threw in candy bars, microwavable dinners, and every chip bag that was left on the shelf; the juice packs were out of my favorite flavor, so I didn't spend much time in the beverage isle. The lady at the register slowly scanned each item.

Is that all?”

I noticed the van was pulled beside the curb, which was probably Chris’s subtle way of saying put a move on it. So I grabbed my bags from the register lady and hastened out. Climbing into the back, I already started shucking one of my candy bars.

Can we enlighten your new friend here on the rules?” Kevin asked.

Everyone stared at me.

No chocolate,” Kevin answered his own question.

Tre grabbed my packages and peeked inside. “Yeah, we don’t eat trash. AKA anything with sugar.”

After a moment’s hesitation, I relinquished the ‘bar of sin’ and watched Tre shoot my dinner straight through the window.

Whoop there it is.”

Kevin looked up. “Nah man, you missed.”

Tre tossed me a bag of nut trail mix. “From now on, you eat like the rest of us. If that’s a problem...”

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Blue added, finishing his sentence.

I frowned and nibbled on a raisin. This was going to be tougher than I thought. No candy? No rich, melted, chocolaty substance sliding down my throat? I’d have to start my whole life over and search for a new purpose.

*

Some hours later we pulled into a slanted driveway. Pebbles crunched under tires, and shadows emerged from the glare of the moon, showing off a pointed rooftop and medieval statues. The castle-like mansion stood concealed behind an eerie group of oak trees with the attributes of a haunted house.

We’re here,” Kevin announced.

Chris turned off the engine and slumped back. Everyone fell silent. They seemed to be contemplating, preparing themselves for something unknown. Their unbroken glances confounded me, and I wanted to know what mysterious subject lingered in their thoughts. I knew this was their home and training ground. Chris told me this was the place they came to most often. So I wondered why they looked at the house strangely, like it was a foreign place.

Tre slid the door open, sniffing the air. “Mmm, smell that?”

Smells like rain.” Kevin lifted the bag over his shoulder.

The air was crisp as I stepped onto the circular dirt trail. A small draft trickled down my back, and I clasped my jacket. Is it always this cold?”

Chris smiled. “Only in the winter.”

It was mid-February, and I wanted to tackle him for the extra sweater he was wearing, but Blue rushed by so fast I nearly got whiplash. Her gray tank top showed off a cute heart-shaped belly ring with glittery stones. Loose gray sweats also revealed the butterfly tattoo on her left hip. She slowed down behind the guys and finally bullied her way through.

Move.”

Leaves crackled under my shoes as I studied the new environment. There was nothing modern about this place – it looked like an old cemetery. Staying inside this house, deep in the woods of Ohio where no one could find me, was going to be an unusual experience for sure. On top of that, it was going to rain soon. This wasn’t what I had in mind when Chris first described his abode. I imagined we’d be training somewhere sophisticated with high-class equipment and nice marble floors, like how it was at his mansion in Laguna Beach.

And yet, there was something engaging about its essence that I couldn't refute. I was utterly drawn to it.

My attention waned from the crow statue, which was faced down on the doorstep, and I realized the others were inside already. Pushing the door forward and listening to old splintering wood, I noticed the interior was breathtakingly refined. Oak wood glistened, releasing the scent of ripe tangerines. Dim lights dazzled from the chandelier and filled the mansion with a low, mellow mood.

The other musketeers shuffled along the log staircase, and I followed behind them. Our shoes squeaked, echoing against the walls. At the final step, they turned the corner, and I ended up following a subtle beam down the opposite end of the hallway. There was some light seeping through a cracked open room.

Hello?”

I walked inside and blinked twice. My blood flow reversed and turned my head into a light air bubble. Low snarls escaped. A white tiger was crouched beside the bed. Its eyes widened. Its lips curled over razor sharp teeth. I blinked again. This couldn’t be for real. I did not just get sucked into the Discovery Channel. The wild animal looked at me, alert, agitated, and probably hungry.

Down, Girl,” the voice commanded, startling the both of us. A shadow magically emerged from the bathroom, and Chris walked in shirtless.

I gulped.

Her name’s Missy,” he said. His back was broad, spreading out like eagle wings. Fur covered his chest and trailed down, and I wanted to twist my fingers in all of it. I felt savage watching this man like an obsessed onlooker, but I couldn’t turn away.

He stroked the tiger’s coat while looking directly at me. “Easy, Girl,” he whispered.

The command was for Missy, but the hairs on my neck prickled. The swirling warmth in my stomach made me feel enlivened, and I didn’t know whether it was coming from the vivacious white tiger, or Chris’s naked chest.

I cleared my throat. “Whoa . . . she just popped out of nowhere.”

We have a caretaker, Ellen, who comes here to look after Missy whenever we’re out of town.”

Really? I didn’t see her anywhere.”

He smiled. “She knew we’d be arriving soon. I told her to leave Missy in my room.”

Doesn’t Missy have a cage? I'm kidding. I really do like animals, especially the ones that are usually at the zoo most of the time. Anyways.”

He stared up at me. “She didn't mean to startle you, Calise.”

It was pure heaven to hear him say my name the way he did. There was so much warmth beneath his tongue when he said it, so much heat in this small confined room. For the first time, I drew in the roasted almond scent emanating from his burning candles on the nightstand. The wooden walls were covered in simple, earthy art. Antique vases stood in corners. His brown and gold bedspread was the highlight, complementing a tall triangular ceiling.

My attention was gripped by the portrait hanging above his mantel. It was the face of a girl who had brown hair, round eyes, and not a year over twenty.

She and I shared an undeniable resemblance, practically identical. I wanted to think more of it, to marvel at the coincidence of this girl hanging on his wall, but I was unabashedly absorbed with Chris pacifying the beast.

I watched her. The tips of his fingers spread through her coat and rolled across her skin . . . I barely missed him slipping on a black shirt and lifting my luggage.

Come on,” he summoned, rambling down the hall and smacking his teeth twice for Missy.

She obeyed and snickered at me under her snout.

As we traveled up another staircase that was quite separate from the rest of the house, I realized we were drawing near an attic. At any other time, I would’ve been afraid; the path was so quiet and full of creaks. But Chris helped me overcome, as I stumbled here and there. Each time he rescued me from a wedge in the floor, he asked, 'Are you always like this?' before springing me up again.

Finally I stopped and turned to him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

He stared down. “Do you like me being nice to you?”

"Yes,” I confessed. “I like you brought me all the way to Ohio . . . and I don’t know anyone else in this house but you.”

He observed me with a careful eye.

Finally we reached the attic. It was a lively and creative room. The bed was layered with colorful quilts, the top one being yellow-spotted. Every dresser was covered in scarves and fictitious plants, and a line of framed sketches hung on the walls. Though it wasn’t the work of a famous artist, it was definitely by someone who aspired in the profession. Medieval statues sat in every corner. One was a pair of V-shaped wings resting on a stone platter. Music stickers crowded the headboard, and a deep-seated reverence flushed Chris’s countenance the moment we walked in, like he just opened up a treasure chest.

He stood by the door, waiting. “There’s another room downstairs if you’d like.”

No,” I said. “I like it here.” My fingers trailed over a sketch. It was the drawing of a lake surrounded by thick willow trees. Beautiful,” I whispered, admiring the delicate shading. “Who drew this?”

He posted one foot against the door. “Her name should be signed at the bottom. She was into pottery and sculpting as well. She liked making things on her free time.”

I glanced at the initials, and then looked over at Chris. “J.E.”

His eyes were tight lines, squinting, and seeking for something in my face.

I looked away, setting the drawing down. Thanks again for bringing me here like you said you would.”

Don’t thank me yet. We start in the morning,” he answered and waited for my reply. When I didn’t say anything else, he drew the door closed.

That's when I noticed everything on the outside was vibrant and colorful, but something else lingered here . . . like an invisible current. The scarves, which were draped over the drawers, turned out to be head coverings. The scarlet silk piece appeared most worn around the edges. I tugged it from underneath the plant and saw a black spade knitted on the center, almost like it’d been hand-sewn.

What’s up with that smell?” I grumbled.

It reeked strongly of mildew, and I made a quick trip to the bathroom to give it a good washing. The spade was such an odd shape for someone to randomly knit that I wondered who came up with the idea.

The scarf was a cute accessory, however, and an easy fit into my wardrobe. I played with the material some more, trying it on and making different styles in the mirror . . . until I ran out of ideas and snuggled under the covers, dropping the red scarf over my face. Then I dreamed.

Chapter Two

Chris kept his promise.

By the time shadows emerged from the light of dawn, he knocked at my door and escorted me away from this fascinating attic-cocoon. I'd already been dressed and awake most of the night.

Follow me,” he said in a low muffled voice.

Today he wore a gray hoodie over his head. His shoulders were stretching out the material, which looked good on him. Then again, anything would look good on him. If he turned into an animal, he'd be an attractive lion, because 'feral' was his natural essence. The roughness and imperfection of his face made him unique looking. But anyone could see the round shape of his chin and the small scratch below his neck made him irresistible.

He was much more intense than yesterday, as we walked on our tour together, like something was on his mind other than our arms lightly brushing. I reminded myself it was only six in the morning; much too early for conversation. For the remaining time, I kept quiet and allowed him to lead the way.

Right away, he showed me around his large estate and pointed out everyone's bedroom, including Missy's cage, which turned out to be some type of large stowaway tank. I was relieved to find the tiger locked inside of it and not trailing after Chris's leg. Her behavior yesterday hadn't necessarily been a bad thing; it only confirmed how much she loved her master. Everyone in the house had a deep care (and awe) for Chris, which could only spring from their genuine respect for him as a person.

I respected him too for being my hero. I understood him in a different kind of way, like we were the only two people here.

Eventually he took me to his personal office and pointed out the phone I’d be using to make outside calls. He mentioned I’d also be getting my own 'special' phone soon, like everyone else in the house. Apparently these special phones were restricted in nature. We could only use them to call each other.

It was very 'high and official.'

Lastly, we made our way to the basement. This section of the house was a gigantic gym containing benches, stability balls, yoga mats, balance beams, and weight-lifting equipment that made my dad's exercise room look like props on Sesame Street. There were no treadmills, automated bikes, or workout machines that required a plug.

From the looks of it, we would be doing this the old-fashioned way.

As I posted against the gym’s wall, tapping my fingers and waiting for Chris to finish his phone call, I noticed Blue and Kevin were near the mirrors, reaching their arms out in front of them and warming up. They didn’t seem to notice I was here. They hadn't spoken a word to me, or to Chris, or to each other. Then again, it was still pretty early.

Soon Tre sauntered in, pulling a shirt over his head. “What up.”

After he high-fived Kevin and positioned himself, they started chatting about some video game he’d apparently won this morning. Within minutes, they were wide awake and cheering together. Tre must've been the life of the party, because now, none of them could keep their mouths shut.

I kept my head down, touching my toes. When I looked over again, Chris was striding through the swinging doors with a silver whistle hanging from around his neck. My heart hiccuped at the sight of him. The crease between his brows was centered. Missy trailed behind him while looking in my direction. When I waved at him, he waved back, calling me over. It wasn't long before I shuffled across the room, joining him and the others.

Good morning,” he said, greeting us with a loud clap. “Things are going to be a little different today. As you know, Calise will be here training with us for the next few months. If you can remember your first day here, you can also remember and how easy it was to feel left out.”

The three musketeers exchanged looks.

Play nice,” he added in conclusion.

It would’ve been nice if there were other rookies around, so I wouldn’t be the only one feeling the pressure of being a newbie.

Alright, let’s go!” Chris blew his whistle.

Everyone dropped to the floor and started doing crunches. I followed behind them, doing a series of push-ups, lunges, lifting, and short sprints. Their movements were in sync, like Bally’s Total Fitness times fifty, and all I could hear was the sound of my lungs gasping for air. Which was fairly noticeable, since no one else was panting. Their shoulders didn’t slouch. Their heads didn’t hang in fatigue. Even their faces looked calm and serene, like they were about to go skinny-dipping at the beach.

I thought I'd still be in shape with my previous ballet experience, but halfway into practice I crawled into one of the corners and coughed up yesterday’s lunch.

Have you eaten anything today?” Chris placed a hand on my shoulder.

No.” I bent back over.

Listen to me, don't compare yourself,” he said. “It's not a competition. That's not what this is. It's just you and me. Alright. Do the best you can.”

He sent me upstairs to eat from a fruit bowl he’d made himself earlier. It helped. The spinning in my head stopped and my stomach wasn’t floating anymore. These people really had their game together. I remembered Chris's advice, to not compare myself, and to focus on being good at my own rate. Which made perfect sense.

When I got back to the session, the gym party was officially over. They were exiting with towels wrapped around their necks. Chris halted at my side.

How are you?” he asked.

“Feeling good.

We followed his friends to the indoor swimming pool, which was located on the farthest end of the house next to Missy’s cage. He emphasized the indoor pool was for practicing purposes only, and the outdoor pool was used for our personal leisure.

The sight of the pool immediately quickened my adrenaline. Swimming was another one of my fortes, next to ballet and tennis. So I was ready to reach in the direction of success, and end this day on a high note.

Everyone, except for Chris, started removing their first layer of clothing. As they dove straight into the deep-end and splashed water across my shirt, I eagerly tossed my shoes.

Chris pulled out a chair from the table, and tapped twice on the headrest. “You can relax for now. Have a seat.”

My shoulders slumped. My whole body turned into a question mark. “What? I can do this.”

I know you can,” he replied simply. “Just watch for a little while and take some notes. Alright, let’s go!” He turned back around, facing the group.

*

For the next couple of weeks, I memorized their every move, adhering to Chris’s advice and jotting down notes. Watching them excessively from the side-lines did give me some insights into their personalities, based on the fluidity of their movements. Tre was the quick and impulsive one, while Kevin’s moves were more aggressive. Blue was smooth and daring, like a cat with nine lives. When they came together, there was no separation between them, and no way to distinguish the best from the worst; they were simply three bold personalities meshed into one.

Chris never trained with them, so I couldn’t detect his style. I just knew he was the main authority: simple, direct, and superior. And yet, he was didn't misuse his authority-power. He was the caretaker and gifted to be in charge.

Ever since he confronted me at the pool, his instruction for me had stayed the same; while the others took the front line, I stayed in the back seat. As a consequence, I started going to the gym alone after nightfall and practicing without his permission. If he wasn't going to train me, then I had to at least teach myself on my own time.

Tonight I followed the same routine. After practicing in the gym, I ended up falling asleep near the warm-up mirrors. At a quarter past five in the morning, I opened my eyes and let out a short muffled yawn, extending my arms. My fingers slid over the edges of my notebook, which rested loosely across my chest.

Having slept on a stack of yoga mats, I stared over the cracks on the top of the ceiling and continued listening to violin music on my i Pod. In the past, this was the same playlist I'd listen to right before dance rehearsal.

Even though my body was sore and numb in most places, I liked waking up in the gym and being the first one here in the morning. This showed how sincere I was about being here.

Sure it was a drastic change from Beverly Hills, but I had a few reasons for going along with the dramatic location shift. For one, I was happy to give Carl and Laura the space they needed to enjoy their love life. For two, I could finally properly grieve Dianne without anyone else intervening or projecting.

For three, most of all, Chris was here.

Gratitude took over and replaced every complaint I ever had about anyone. Soon my eyes drifted and grew heavy. Voices emerged from the ceiling as I stood up and shook out my legs, circling the cranks in my neck. It sounded like Kevin and Blue were upstairs already, tossing around plates of food and being enormously loud. The click-clacking continued. Usually they showed up here a few minutes before Tre did, and executed their normal routine.

As I carefully rolled up the mat and carried the blue foam under my arm, walking towards the front of the mirror, I stared at my lips and rubbed them together. Then something happened – something that should've been impossible.

My reflection didn’t move.

The ‘other me’ on the other side of the mirror wasn’t carrying anything, even though my arms were clearly (evidently) full. Her round oval eyes were widely fixed, staring back. I studied the image closer until her lips moved . . . when mines did not.

“It's in the water,” she whispered.

I woke up staring at the ceiling. I was still inside the gym where I’d fallen asleep, and lying on the mat, as though my life had rewound itself. Kevin and Blue’s voices neared the basement, and I leaped from the floor, gathering my mat and walking away from the mirrors. As I calmed my nerves, assuring myself it was only a dream and the girl in the mirror didn’t really exist, I realized there was nothing to be afraid of. Last night I must've too many bowls of vegetable chili.

Still, the hairs on my neck prickled, and before I had time enough to thoroughly examine what had taken place, Blue and Kevin were entering the gym. Their discussion halted when they saw me scurrying past them, but I was too to caught in my train of thought to care much about their reactions.

I ran down the hallway straight into the bathroom, and quickly captured the edges of the sink. The dim light was comforting as I stood in front of the mirror, rinsing my face and staring at the large glass in front of me.

Pull it together.” I patiently waited for the ‘other me’ to reappear. Nothing happened. Some silent moments past, and still, the impossible didn't occur. My reflection didn’t alter like before, or change into something unfamiliar. As my breathing evened out, I realized everything was okay. All I had to was stand tall, shake off the dust, and go back to practice.

Everyone was already warming up when I walked back inside. At that point, Chris invited me to have a seat on the sidelines (as part of our usual routine). Grabbing my notebook, I sat on the floor in a corner and drew triangular shapes. While the others were busy doing their daily run-through, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else except for that girl's face in the mirror, mocking me and telling me 'It's in the water.'

Pull those elbows in!” Chris ordered.

Blue climbed up the rope effortlessly. As soon as she reached the top of the line, she slid back down, letting her feet kiss the ground. How bad I do, Coach?” she asked, as if it were possible for her to do a terrible job.

Chris studied the watch and tossed her the timer.

She gawked, and then shoved his arm like she’d just won the lottery. “No way.” She ran toward the mirrors and started doing the cha-cha, and making faces and cheering on her accomplishment.

This was a side of hers I'd never witnessed before. And the glitter in Chris’s eye was priceless. Rightfully so. One of his students just made a record-breaking time; one she obviously worked hard on getting. There was no denying the excitement they both felt in her moment of triumph.

She jumped onto Kevin’s back. “Woohoo!”

Hey, let me see that.” Kevin grabbed the timer. “This is serious business.”

Tre hovered behind them. “Nice work, Squirrel Cat.”

Don’t be a hater, Tre. It makes you look bad,” she joked. “Oops. Forgot. You can’t look any worse.”

Tre rolled his eyes and continued with Kevin toward the indoor pool. After catching up with the others and sitting in my notable green chair, which Chris had pulled out for me on my first day, I held my notebook in one hand and skimmed over notes I'd written.

Alright, let’s get focused,” Chris had them gather at the farthest end of the pool. “You know the rules. Stay inside your lane. Watch your arms. Remember, this isn’t a race.”

Kevin winked at Blue, which meant it was a race. For them, it was always a race. “Sure thing, Coach.”

Got it, Boss,” Tre said.

We’re ready,” Blue replied.

Chris explained our future assignments would include dodging beams underwater. The pool prepared us for that kind of security. Seeing yellow lasers shoot inside the pool wasn’t like seeing glow sticks in the dark. This was the real deal. They were much larger, brighter, and more consequential. And if anyone hit a beam, the line would turn red, and everyone failed the assignment.

Of course that never actually happened. They were such a skillful impeccable group, no one ever actually made those kind of mistakes, like missing the mark. Timing and form were the only things that mattered for Blue, Tre, and Kevin. Each of them swam over these beams so easily, with wide consistent strokes, throwing one arm in front of the other.

Their rhythm was dynamic.

Keep those chins down!” Chris ordered. “You’re movin’ like molasses, Kevin, let’s go!”

The coach’s jawline flexed in a tight way. I should have been taking notes. Instead, I found myself curling my legs, listening to him give orders. Observing his backside from the corner of the table, I almost melted into a pile of dip in front of everybody. He must’ve heard my thoughts, because he peered over his shoulder and grabbed my gaze for a beat longer than usual, pulling us closer in an invisible way.

That’s enough for now.” He blew the whistle.

What’s the matter, Coach?” Blue asked, swimming to the edge.

Yeah, why'd you stop?” Kevin asked.

Chris turned to the others. “I said it’s not a race. If you focus outside your lane, if you take one glimpse off center, that’s it. That’s all it takes. Get out of here. I'm taking a break.”

We expected him to elaborate about his sudden change of mood and explain what prompted such strong emotion. But he stomped toward the exit, leaving the door swinging after him.

Once he was gone, Blue and Kevin started arguing and blaming one another for his calm outburst. Tre over-talked them, as though they were children, as though the outcome was entirely their fault.

I, on the other hand, used the opportunity to learn what was really brewing inside Chris's head.

*

Discovering his whereabouts wasn't a hard feat. As he stood at the top of our main hilltop, scoping the horizon, I sensed he already knew I was coming. This was his usual place to visit whenever he wanted some fresh air and needed to be alone.

His back was turned in my direction, as I treaded up the stony pavement. On any other day, I wouldn't let him enjoy his aloneness. Giving him space (sometimes) seemed like the right thing to do. However this time was different.

Without saying a word, I reached for him, almost touching the back of his shirt. There was a moment I imagined my fingers grazing along his arm. I wondered if he could discern my closeness. With my body directly behind him, could he hear my heart speeding?

For a few moments he didn't move. Instead he watched the pear-colored sky with a sense of wonderment. Then he turned around with a smile on his face, staring me down with those alluring brown caves. Slowly, he positioned himself to the ground.

Have a seat with me, Calise.”

I looked over in the direction of the castle, expecting the others to find us snuggling on the hill. When no one did, I knelt beside him and swallowed the small space between us.

Hey,” I finally said.

Do you know what you want?” His question made my hands warm.

“Yes,” I answered. Our exchange at the swimming pool immediately came streaming into my mind. “I respect your role as our coach. I'm really focused on my work, more than ever. I'm a complete professional...as soon as you start training me.”

He grew tense, taking in my words. “How do you like being here?”

“I love it,” I blurted. “I think your friends are really talented.”

For some reason my confession brought him to tears. He couldn't stop laughing. “It certainly looks that way. We think you're really talented too.”

How can you tell?” I pulled my legs closer, resting my chin across my knees. “I've only been sitting down and taking notes most of the time.”

There was long pause before he confessed, “I've seen you going to the gym late at night.”

Oh.” I turned the other way, biting my lip. “I was going to tell you about that.”

It's fine,” he said reassuringly. “Keep doing what you're doing. I have something coming up soon, that'll whip you right into shape. You have to trust me. I know what's best for you. I know what's going to make you good at this.”

I looked ahead, admiring the lowering sun.

He was right – I had to trust him more. Of course he knew what he was doing. I had to let go and accept the fact I was in good hands.

There's a reason you're watching them,” he continued. “There's a reason you've only trained once. So I can see the kind of person you are.”

What kind of person is that?”

Delicate.”

My eyes moistened, taking in his word choice. “You think I'm delicate?”

He sighed deeply, changing the subject. “Aren't you going to ask me what you're training for?”

I easily kept up with his quick change of subject. “You told me you're a Collector . . . that you go on assignments and retrieve things of high price. I figured you would tell me the rest when you're ready.”

“That's right,” he admitted, leaning back on his elbows. “We collect valuable things for important people. I guess you could say we're basically giving things back to their original owners.”

“What does that do?”

He started explaining himself, but my eyes were glued to the oval shape of his mouth, how it curved slightly despite the fact he wasn't smiling. At that moment, nothing was more important than being by his side; we hadn't been this close since our first night together.

What do you get in return?” I rephrased the question.

Balance,” he responded. “We keep the balance by helping them get what they want. In return, they help keep us above the radar. This is what keeps the peace. It keeps the balance between our kind and the outsiders.”

'Outsiders' was such a unique term for him to use, I had to pause and consider his point. It must've been easy for him to call other people 'the outsiders' when he and his crew lived amongst themselves for so much of the time.

Do you ever keep these collections for yourself?” I suddenly wondered if he'd ever snatched items for himself. Was he able to afford his lifestyle because of it?

No,” he clarified sharply. “We don't steal. We have everything we need here. There's nothing they could offer us from their world that would be more interesting than ours.”

The last word he spoke sifted oddly between us. There was some special code floating underneath his words, which I was meant to determine. But for the first time since I'd known Chris, I didn't know the answer. It could've been the subtle way he distinguished 'their world' from 'our world' that made me feel bewildered, like there was more to him than what met the eye.

What kinds of things do you collect?”

I'll show you everything you want to know,” he answered in a mellow tone. “In due time.”

'I like it here mostly because you’re here,' was a thought I wanted to confess aloud. Time didn't allow it.

Chris stood up and stretched his body, extending his palm in front of me. “We should head back before they think I’ve left for good.” His skin was cold and rough in my hand as he lifted me from the ground. This time, I accidentally ran straight into his chest, and heat rose to the of my cheeks. So I walked ahead of him.

I could be a professional if that's what he wanted from me. His eyes had been so sincere, so full of certainty that night in Laguna Beach. The windows to his soul had spoken volumes. Now my heart was wistful, wishing I could rewind my life, back to the night when he almost kissed me.

Chapter Three

Something sounded like a stampede of dinosaurs coming through the window, as I yanked the scarf from my eyes and yawned. Glares from the sun beamed across the room and striped the floor with burgundy lines. I loved getting up for practice in the morning, full of vigor. I always had so much energy when my eyes opened again, and I could start fresh and anew. Participating in these workouts and being so physically involved was the icing on the cake.

My hands stretched high above my head, strong and glorious. Waking up in other people’s houses was much different from what I'd grown accustomed to over the years. I didn't even miss my old dungeon hole of a bedroom.

Today was my day off – OH YES!

Chris said I could take a break and catch up on some good rest. And I didn't retort. Usually whenever I stayed inside the gym, their early intrusions would stir me awake and I'd never miss a practice. But last night, lucky for me, I was able to come straight to bed after my workout, instead of camping out on the gym floor.

As I peered through the window, there was someone downstairs mowing the front yard, wearing blue overalls, strap suspenders, a gray cap, and way too far down to be recognized. Whoever it was, they must’ve finished working out already – the screen on my pink i Pod read 2:13PM.

Even now, I wasn't accustomed to being without a cell phone. My old one was still at the other house, somewhere between the microwave and the toaster. Laura said I couldn’t carry it to the operetta that night. She insisted my special accessory wouldn’t go well with the dress . . . neither would my palm-sized purse that Dianne designed for me when I was twelve, because she said the purse was ugly.

Needless to say, Chris bought me a brand new everything, so I didn't have to take a step backwards in order to move forward.

Tying on the scarlet scarf onto my head, I ran swiftly down the labyrinth and managed to find the front staircase, which still smelled of fresh tangerines. Chris and Kevin came through the front door with bags of groceries under their arms.

Hey.” I scurried behind them.

Kevin made his way towards the kitchen, slicking his hair back between his fingers, or more like his mo hawk braid. Chris slowed down beside me. Then he paused in his tracks and stared down at my head curiously. “We missed you today,” he confessed.

My mind circled around our last conversation. “Really? I thought you said I could have the morning off.”

I know. We missed you.”

For a moment, we caught each other's gaze. He was unabashed and unpredictable. “Is there something I can do, like an exercise? I know its my day off.” I asked. “I don't mind.”

You don't have to.”

I want to.”

When we entered the kitchen, Kevin was already putting some of the food away, happily whistling to an unfamiliar song that was playing only inside of his head.

Walking might be a good idea,” Chris replied, handing me a box of water bottles. “There’s still enough light outside. You can go to the town shop and see what they have. You’ll have to walk fast.”

Yeah, she could pick up some scissors for me,” Kevin added his two cents. “I forgot to get a pair.”

While Kevin was going on about a pair of scissors, I couldn't help think about dinner and the wonderful food we were about to eat when I returned.

We forgot a couple of things,” Chris added. “I’ll make a list for you.” They continued putting things in the cupboards, and Chris finally handed me the paper with five items listed. “This walk is equivalent to our warm up today. Even though you didn't technically miss anything, it could help make up for the exercise.”

Kevin gave a short dark laugh and added, “Might take more than that . . .”

I shelved more bottles of water into the refrigerator, focusing on the task at hand. I wasn't going to let Kevin's comment distract me from the real reason I was here.

Cold water’s no good, Calise.” Chris cued for Kevin to arrange the bottles instead of myself. So before I could blink, Kevin was already at my side, snatching the box from my grip.

I got this,” he said.

Just then I noticed the line of piercings on his left ear and the tattoo on his forearm, and I knew he didn't take himself lightly. The tattoo on his front right shoulder was another spade, like the one knitted on the scarf, which reminded me that everyone else in this house had one, except for me.

How far is town?” I finally asked.

Chris balled the bags together, tossing them under the sink. “Five miles.”

Five miles. That was no big deal. I knew these guys were in shape and probably drank a thousand eggs for breakfast.

I’ll go now then,” I replied coolly, loosening my shoulders. Sure I was the newest member here, but they were about to find out the truth about me: when it came to physical activities, I was a force to reckon with. I could handle their walk-a-thon.

Alright,” he replied, studying me closely. “One more thing.” He grabbed a vitamin case from the cupboard. My name was written on the bottom. Here are some basic supplements for you to take,” he added. “All of us have them. We get different vitamins based on our personal requirements. Once you get more familiar with your body’s needs, you can adjust them accordingly, and do whatever you feel is best.”

I tapped a vitamin on my tongue and took it down with water. As Chris started sketching a road-map on a piece of paper, I realized the path was simply made: one road, one direction. I couldn’t get lost on this route if I tried.

There you are,” he said in a low voice, handing me the paper. A hundred dollar bill was wrapped inside.

Thanks. I should probably get going now.” I waited a few beats for him to say something else. When he didn't, I stuffed the money inside my back pocket, along with the map, and marched right out of the kitchen towards the front door, running straight into Blue. She was the one dressed in ragged overalls and a tattered gray cap. She’d been the one mowing the lawn only moments ago; the person I'd seen from the attic window.

Hey,” I said without thinking. She kept walking towards the kitchen, until she saw the red scarf on my head and spun around like a great big owl with hooty eyes.

“Oh my God.” she gasped reverently. “Where’d you get that?” she asked simply, holding her hips.

“Uh mm . . .”

Suddenly Kevin emerged from the corner and motioned behind us, easing his way in Blue's direction. “There’s my girl.”

“Look, Kevin!” she exclaimed with her eyes blazing over my head. “She's wearing that girl's scarf.”

“What are you talking about? I found this in the attic upstairs,” I answered. “No one's name was on it.”

Chris appeared on the scene in his warrior splendor, owning the situation. “Everything alright in here?” He leaned against the wall, folding his arms.

It was the first time Blue took her attention off me. She looked up at his figure, met his gaze, and instantly eased the course of her excitement. There seemed to be an unspoken volume between those two, because she suddenly became perfectly calm. No problems here, Boss,” she finally answered.

We're leaving,” Kevin added reassuringly, doing his best to settle her down. He then attempted to move his girlfriend towards the living room, but she wasn't budging so easily. “Right, B?” Kevin whispered in her ear again, waiting for her full cooperation. “Come on, let's go.”

Finally they both turned the corner and disappeared like shadows behind the wall without saying another word. A funeral-like silence suspended in the atmosphere as I stood with my hands on my hip, trying to summons the right explanation for what just happened.

Are you alright?” Chris asked.

I nearly laughed at the question. “Yeah, I'm fine. I didn't know this scarf was going to be such a big deal for her.”

Chris bit down on his lip. “It used to belong to an old friend. That's all. But that friend isn't here anymore.” His explanation was good enough for me, at least for the time being. “You can wear it as long as you want.”

Cool, thanks. I'll be back later,” I replied and walked out, shutting the door behind me.

Now that I was outside, I started contemplating if Chris meant five miles altogether, or five miles each way. He must’ve meant five miles altogether. He wouldn’t have made an estimate and said there was enough light outside if he knew I’d get stuck in the dark.

All I had to do was walk fast, follow his directions, and not get lost in the woods. I’d make it back here in time for dinner – I think he was cooking tonight; he usually did.

On the bright side, I was in the middle of nowhere with no parents around to tell me what to do, when to come home, and who to go to the movies with. Starting over was actually the best part of being here. I could draw my own painting. This new life was a blank canvas, full of possibility, and the outcome would be whatever I wanted it to be. No more past memories to sulk over. No more pressure from Laura or anyone else to be something I wasn't. She wanted me to be exactly like her, throwing fancy tea parties in the yard and shopping at the most expensive stores in Beverly Hills, only to hear the sound of Carl’s credit card swiping a machine. She demanded I call her ‘mom’ as long as I stayed under their roof, since (according to her) it was their home and not mine.

Here, I had my own voice. I was as free as the birds.

Rays from the sun glared as I motioned forward, listening to a violin play through my I Pod. The heat now was overbearing, pulsating across the dirt trail. I kicked rocks to the side with my foot’s heel, and I could already feel my shirt soaking from the inside out.

Already, it was almost five o’clock. I’d been walking through this scorching hurricane for at least two hours. I guess Chris meant five miles each way. If I’d known the journey was going be like this, I would’ve snatched up one of those water bottles before heading out.

Looking upwards, I noticed the leaves were waving their noses in my direction, as I curled a finger around one of the branches, savoring the moment; I might as well enjoy Mother Nature for a little while, so I removed the headphones.

It didn't take long for a high ringing to start going off inside my head. The buzzing was a quick sputtering, like a low hum rattling behind my eye lids. I paused in my tracks and took immediate shelter under the shade. Even shade didn’t do a good job slowing down the palpitation.

While steadying myself on the trail, another strange noise erupted. Girl's laughter rippled. Hello? Who’s there?” I turned around.

Searching through the empty forest, I didn't feel alone. Something with incredible speed was moving swiftly at my side, and as soon as I looked over to check on its proximity, there were only more overlapping trees. The tall stalks of bark seemed to stare down at me with an understanding nod, like they could sense what I was going through.

Okay, time to go.” I stomped down the road while the enormous heat sunk into my surroundings.

It didn’t take long to reach my destination. I found the supply store indicated on the map, and quickly dragged myself inside, listening to a cluster of bells jingle overhead. Stacks of machinery smelled like old rubber, and the potent scent of oil suffocated the walls. I wanted to forget the whole thing and turn back around to the house, empty-handed and safe. I could always come again tomorrow morning when the sun was first coming up. But that didn't happen. Someone grunted from behind the counter and disturbed this train of thought.

Can I help you?” a young man asked. His arms were stretched above him like he’d been in the middle of some great dream, and I'd interrupted his sleep.

Approaching him, I replied, “I need everything here on this list.”

He yawned and twitched his nose, sizing me up. Then he took the slip of paper and read the items, which was when I realized he didn’t have a shirt on. His bird chest was tanned and thin underneath his farmer overalls and silver suspenders. He smiled hugely, slicking his hair back and rubbing his stomach. The grin he gave me was crooked, and if it weren’t for his sandy hair sticking half to the side from sleeping on the job, he’d be an undeniable cutie. He wasn’t wearing shoes. His feet were mostly covered in soot marks. He probably smelled exactly like the shop.

The moment he neared a pile of equipment at the farthest end of the store, moving slower than a snail in salt, and I followed him, watching and waiting as he fumbled through the tangled cords. Listening to my foot tap the floor was a great way to keep my mind occupied on something else other than the heat.

Finally he found the five items on the list and charged me ninety-two dollars. “Ohhhk. Here we are. There you go. All set.” The look of triumph spread across his face.

Knowing full well I was being overcharged, I handed him a hundred-dollar bill anyway and slapped it on the counter. “Keep the change.”

His smile softened. “You must be new around here.”

Is it obvious?” I looked over my shoulder at the door's entrance. “You wouldn't believe it. I walked five miles and didn’t bring something cold to drink. Do you have any water?”

His eyes widened. “Yeah, sure. I think I should have something. Let me check,” he replied, walking to the mini-fridge behind the counter. He returned with a cold bottle of water and handed it to me. “That’s a nice scarf you’re wearing by the way. Another girl had one like it. There was a spade in the middle like yours, and it was the same color, too. Come to think of it, you look like her.”

I nodded and leaned in. This scarf was getting more attention than Charlie Sheen. Do you remember her name?”

Sorry. That was a while ago,” he admitted.

It's my first time in Ohio.”

He took a breath and sighed. “I know everybody in this town. I would’ve recognized if you’d been here before. Besides, I know you’re not that same girl – she’d be a little older than you. But I remember she was real pretty. You can count on me to never forget a pretty face.” He winked. “Have a good day, Miss. Try to get home before the sun goes down.”

I realized I wanted to talk to him longer, and find out more about this girl who looked like me. But there was much time left for conversation. I continued out the door and waved. There was a hazy gleam lowering over the parking lot, forming shadows on the street. It suddenly dawned on me, I’d be walking in the dark woods alone. Chris warned me this would happen if I didn’t walk fast enough. There wasn’t enough light outside to go on a ten-mile walk; there was barely enough to finish five. Now the only thing left on the horizon was a strand of orange blanketing the clouds.

Following the distorted pavement, I marched on the road without streetlights and drew in a strong breath. There was still enough time to ask shop-boy to give me a ride, but I wasn’t sure how Chris would react to me bringing an unannounced visitor to his secret hideaway castle and playing hostess to some guy he didn’t know.

I’d take my chances walking.

Just as my mind was full of certainty, two headlights approached. It looked like the . . .


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-36 show above.)