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THE CHEVEYAN PROPHECY- THE ONE CHAPTER 1 THRU 6
I’ve had enough loss to last a lifetime, and in a week, I’ll be forced to lose even more. Everything and everyone that has any meaning in my life will soon be nothing more than a dream, and eventually, even that will fade. It’s been just me and my mom for years, but now there’s Rob, her attorney boyfriend whom she’s decided to leave the city for and move to Indian territory. She’s spent the last month trying to convince me that we’ll love it there and dropping hints before she actually tells me her plans, but describing where he lives in the Valley as this amazing place on the edge of the woods. Her eyes get so dreamy, I look at her wondering if I even know who this person is anymore. We’re city dwellers, proud Philadelphians, and live in a place that in Greek means brotherly love. She even taught me to love its history and brags whenever she gets a chance about the time we were in Olde City and ended up sneaking into the tour of Edgar Allen Poe’s colonial home. I’ll never forget the magic of watching my mom running her fingers along the wooden surface of his writing table. Dust motes floated into the air and shimmered like tiny crystals in the shaft of sunlight. My mom startled at the same time, but it wasn’t because of the twinkling dust. I remember the look in her eyes as they became dazed and then wide. She whispered, her voice shaky and excited as she said that somehow she knew that the feather pen and inkwell on the desk actually belonged to the author! The certainty in her voice and the zeal in her timbre tickled the hair on the edge of my ears, and when I saw images of the poet writing feverishly and dipping the tip of a feather into black liquid dancing behind my eyes, I was convinced that history was magical in some way, and I fell in love with it too.
But that wasn’t the end of our day and my blooming love affair with the city. The sun was setting, we were rushing to get home, but mom said that Philadelphia had a palace that she’d show me before we returned. Not sure if I believed her, I smiled, my eyes squinting as I reached to push away an ebony ringlet from my mom’s perfectly shaped eyes. We dashed down the city’s blocks, passing old bookstores, corner pubs, and antique stores until we reached the busy, bustling corner of Broad Street. And then she pointed northward, toward the most beautiful building I’d ever seen. I remember the moment, my lips parting as the setting sun flashed between skyscrapers and sprinkled everything around us—the store windows, the decorative streetlights—everything in a magical sheen of shimmering gold. It felt like we’d stepped inside a page of all the wonderful fairytales she’d read to me about fairies, princesses, and magical lands. All I could do was stare at the glistening Gothic palace that others called city hall.
I’ll never forget that day and how it meant that somehow being Philadelphians made us important and connected to a past that was honorable and impressive. At least that’s what she made me feel, and it’s what I believed. And now everything is going to change, and when she sings the praises of what is to be our new home, I swallow the loss. It’s heavy and gets stuck inside my chest; it tears apart pieces of my heart, and I can feel warm blood trickling slowly over my ribs.
“It’s so mysterious … Julion, you’ll love it!” she says, her voice so shrill it jolts me back to a reality I wish I could flee. The blood from my ribs plunges to my stomach and drops to my knees as I picture what mysterious means to me, which is spooky supernatural things and chainsaws only found in horror movies. What will I boast about now? My father is gone, we struggle to make ends meet, my best friends are books, and my imaginings of living in a time when people rode in horse-drawn carriages and parents stayed together until one of them died are as insignificant as the dust motes on Edgar’s writing desk.
If there was any hope, even the kind that hangs from a string, it gets shattered by the sound of my mom dropping three stacked moving boxes onto the floor of my small bedroom. The dull thud resounds inside my head like a slap on the ear, and my lungs freeze from the zing. I feel the lunch I had earlier suddenly stir awake, and I push my laptop to the side of my bed just in case. The words we’re really going to move start repeating themselves in a nightmarish, ghoulish voice until my head gets so woozy that I suddenly find myself inside the memory of the only time I actually visited the Valley, which is where Rob lives.
It’s winter, the night is so cold steam from street gutters billows into the air, and it looks like there’s a fire inside the sewers. I’m in the back of Rob’s soundless white BMW as he flies past the slower-moving cars. I crane my neck as he turns onto Fairmont Avenue. We pass blocks and blocks of elegant neon lights and cheerful patrons bundled in coats and scarves as they scurry quickly toward the warmth of pubs and restaurants until the dark waters of the river force Rob to turn: left toward Center City, or right, a direction I’ve never traveled before. My eyes turn toward the moon-dappled river that looks like strands of silver snakes rushing in the direction of exciting lights of Center City. Even the river prefers left, I remember thinking in a gruff voice, because Rob is headed in the opposite direction of the skyscrapers where the lights peering through the windows dot the sky like gleaming suspended stars. But something inside me loves adventure, and I hate to admit that the cloak of darkness, which grows deeper the farther we go, both scares and quietly intrigues me.
The blackness deepens as we follow the river that is now only a third as wide, and the road we’re on winds around it and the huge rocks that soar high above us. Rob drives fast; his car peels around winding curves and makes my shoulder press heavy into the door. It’s scary, and my nose is pressed against the freezing window as I peer out at trees as tall as buildings that are embedded in the climbing rock face. There’s rock across from the rushing waters too—it’s black from the sunken sun, and rises high enough to swallow the sky. I’ve forgotten my nerves about attending Rob’s parents’ swank New Year’s Eve party or my grumpy attitude about leaving the city to visit this place called the Valley.
My mind floats on nothing but air, and up or down mean nothing when everything is dark and closed in by trees and cliffs. I’ve never been anywhere that didn’t have corners, streetlights, and row homes with lights shining through crooked window blinds. Rob turns again, leaving the remnants of the strangled river behind us as his car continues to cut through the air as smooth and silent as a knife through butter. My back pushes into the white leather seat as the car climbs to the top of a steep hill. When he reaches the apex, the moon takes up the entire windshield. Its red hue makes my spine tickle, and my blood turns icy. I stare at it disbelievingly as my heart beats like a shivering pup.
I sigh when I see streetlights up ahead. They look old-fashioned and dot the road with triangular rays of white light that reveal dark grass and shadowed outlines of very large homes farther away. My mouth parts as my eyes drink in a sky darker than black by several shades that stretches so wide, I can see the entire world, from one corner of the universe to the other. Awe swells inside my lungs as the silence surrounding us looms as quiet as the as the bottom of the ocean. The tires of Rob’s car are soundless, and I don’t notice he’s stopped moving until I wonder why the world has suddenly frozen in place. My eyes dart left and right as my wriggling ears hear a clink, a yawn of metal, and silence again. I press my cheek against the icy window again and spy a tall, intricately barred gate slowly parting to reveal a large stone castle-like home.
I shudder and swallow a lump of air as my eyes lift to the top of the roof. It forms the shape of a steeple, and light gray clouds billow from its three chimneys before they thin into the black air and disappear. I’ve never seen a home as large as Rob’s, and nerves elbow in the insides of my stomach uncomfortably.
His car door shutting clips the silence with a sharp thud and I sheepishly watch him walking over to the side of the car where my mom sits, waiting. I feel some kind of warmth swell inside when he opens her door and reaches for her hand. His gray eyes look like dark marbles in the moon’s cool light. I pull on the door handle, climbing out of my side before he can open my door too. Mother nature rewards my lack of gratitude by sending a sweeping wind from the faraway trees that pushes me back into the icy car door. My unbuttoned coat spreads at both sides like a cape and the dress I was forced to wear flutters wide with the wind that feels like razors. So, this is what the air feels like without a blockade of rows homes to tame its brutality? I muse, breathing out the cold air through my astonished, parted lips. Then with blushing cheeks, I smooth down my dress and look at mom and Rob, who both have amused smiles on their faces.
Embarrassed, I button my coat with chilled stiff fingers and follow a good ten feet behind them as they head for a stone archway. Taking in my surroundings, I eye a long flowing stairwell that leads to a beveled door. Warm light pours out from the windows of the door and spills onto the steps. We’re headed in the direction of an open garage where a white door glows at the back.
The memories end there—well, except for entering the house by way of the kitchen which was large with bright white counters and cabinets, shiny silver appliances, and classical music playing softly in another part of the house. The memories fade now, and as I look around at my own room, I know that this will be one of the last times I’ll ever see its pink wallpaper and the tan ceiling fan with the gold scroll lines on the edge of the blades. The room starts to shimmer as water tickles the rims of my eyes, and I swallow the taste of pain that grows edges and bruises my heart with every breath. Then I hear my grandma’s voice inside my head, telling me that if I’m going to live in this place called the Valley, at the very least I should investigate it.
I always do what my inner grandma says since that time when she warned me not to stick my face too close to the neighbor’s pit bull and nearly lost my nose. I still have the graze of a scar as proof of my obstinance. I slide the laptop back toward me, grab my pillow, and rolling onto my stomach, I start typing in a Google search for Wissahickon Valley, the town’s proper name. Seconds later, a page populates with multiple articles written about it. I breathe in a gush of shock, my hand to my mouth as though I’m covering a yawn. Okay, this is a surprise, I think. If this many people would write about this place called the Valley, it couldn’t be such a weird town after all. I end up deciding to read Wikipedia’s historic version of the place. And so begins my impromptu history lesson.
The town of Wissahickon Valley is the sole territory of the Cheveyan Indians who were known to be a strong and powerful tribe. They absorbed many other groups into their tribe through warfare and by offering shelter to displaced peoples. In the mid-1800s, a story circulated around Europe about the duke of Saxe-Coburgan’s miraculous recovery after a boating accident that occurred near the caves in the deepest part of the woods.
It was written that Edmond, the duke, drowned during a winter rowing accident when rapid currents capsized the boat he and his friends were in. Several Cheveyans canoeing came upon the frantic, distressed party and took the duke’s lifeless body to the waters by the steep hill close to the Oenikika caves. It was said that they immersed him in some sort of baptismal ritual until he began coughing up water, revived. The waters that bought the duke back to life travel through the Oenikika, which sits hidden beneath the hillside where small holes on the natural stone of the rock face blow cold air even in the midst of summer. Since antiquity, the Valley was said to be a place of healing, where the ancient magic inside a person’s soul could reawaken. During the duke’s recovery, he remained with the Cheveyan tribe for several months and later reported seeing flashes of light that appeared humanlike, running through the snow-covered woods and traveling at great speeds. The story of his revival was corroborated by the group he’d traveled with. As for the flashes of light, there was no corroboration for those occurrences; however, the duke was too respected and admired to be doubted. However, the myth of “wind chasers,” as the human lights are called by the Cheveyan tribe, has been recorded in history all over the world for nearly 1,500 years.
Life changed for the Cheveyans after the duke returned to Europe. Known for their exceptional beauty and dark, alluring eyes, the Cheveyan women were often taken as wives by the wealthy settlers who traveled to the town with prospects of capitalizing on the Valley’s growing reputation. In 1851 the chief allowed the building of Coburgan Spa, which was erected not far from the woods where Edmond had been healed. It was agreed that all lands would remain the territory of the Cheveyan tribe, and all property erected was drawn up as life estates, meaning that after the death of the current owner, the property would return to Cheveyan ownership. Despite this agreement wealthy investors still built inns and hotels; and later stores and businesses in what would become the town’s center were constructed. Thousands of people would flock to the Valley, booking stays at the inns and hotels as they waited for an available room inside the spa, which to this day boasts of healings that can’t be explained using today’s medical paradigms and modalities.
In the years since the duke’s revival, the Valley has grown in wealth and prestige. As time passed, the surviving legacy of the Cheveyan tribe are the descendants of the chief, all still carrying the surname of Clearwater or some rendition of his sons’ or their sons’ first names. The Clearwaters remain the pillars of the Valley and the tribe maintains one hundred percent ownership of the land. The oldest families in the Valley all have bloodlines that tie them in one way or another to the sons and daughters of Starman, the chief of the Cheveyan tribe from 1803 to 1839.
Today the small town is an eclectic mix of pure-blooded Cheveyan and those mixed with Europeans and free Blacks. Their intermarrying has resulted in unique features like brown skin and blond hair, or curly or straight dark hair and blue eyes. The descendants, of both pure and mixed blood, take great pride in claiming their native roots and continue to this day to celebrate the traditions of the Cheveyan run through the ancient hunting trails during the summer solstice and the Cheveyan rowing competition, an honor for the duke that occurs during the fall solstice.
I roll onto my back and stare at the ceiling as thoughts and misconceptions scatter in the wind like leaves. The Valley is a place of healing and wonder, and our Gothic palace is modern compared to the Valley’s ancient roots. Images of the proud chief and his people snake through my imagination as I muse on his descendants—still alive and living a legacy that bridges the past and present all at once.
My heart races, beating hard at the same time as frayed nerves light up inside every corner of my body like fireworks. I may be leaving a city where tourists travel from far and wide, but I’ll be moving to a place of ancient mysteries, sacred traditions, and miraculous healings. My curiosity rages like an inferno and fire ignites my soul with new life that rushes through my veins like mercury. I feel I might burst as my lungs race to snatch the edges of air. For the first time since my mom brought up this whole insane idea, I’m so eager to move I jump from my bed and start rummaging through my draws and filling the moving boxes with my things.
There’s only one high school in the Valley, and it’s called Water House High. And for the first time in my life, I see Native Americans face-to-face—and just like the article said, they’re beautiful. Then things start changing by the third week of school when I noticed that sometimes when the lights fall in a certain way onto my descendant classmates, their skin becomes so radiant it’s like their blood is mixed with gold. Then there are the tingling electrical sparks that make the hair on my arm rise when I’m standing close to them in the lunchroom or as we try to squeeze out of the classroom door at the same time. I try not to stare when their skin shimmers or when the tingling makes me shiver, but every cell inside my body wants to. They’re all extraordinarily attractive with their almond-shaped eyes, thick lashes, and dark glossy eyebrows. And I can’t help but feel drawn to them and wish I could ask how the spa heals people and if anyone else since the duke has been resurrected?
I don’t ask anything like that because my descendant schoolmates, who prefer to be called indigenies, only hang with other indigenies. That was blatantly obvious when I noticed that when we all have lunch, they huddle closely, talking low among themselves while the rest of us non-descendants try to pretend their beauty isn’t the nectar we all crave. But my ears switch to bionic whenever they're close by and I've heard fragments and proof that the traditions and mysteries of old are sill alive and well. "The fall solstice cremony" I hear one of the girls whisper. "The foreigners arrived for their healings" another says a few days later, and then, "They're celebrating Elan's promotion as guard to the high priestess." Their words hint at lives far different than the rest of ours and they create images inside my mind that become a fragmented puzzel I crave to make whole.
After my first full month of school, I begin to notice that there are three types of students: people like me who aren’t Cheveyan, Cheveyans who are pure Indigenous, and those who are mixed. The pure indigenies have brown skin and glossy ebony hair, and those who are mixed have juxtaposed features, like sun-kissed complexions and raven eyes or dark skin with pale blue or multihued hazel eyes. The textures of their hair go from bone straight to thick kinky ringlets, and the girls wear their hair in exotic styles, with braids of gold twine loosely pulled up while locks freely frame their temples or fall down their backs and sway above their tailbones. But despite their insular ways, they’re well-bred and polite, and nod to me when they catch me staring; though strangely enough, I’ve caught them looking at me and whispering with expressions that hold no malice. But of course, I must be misunderstanding; they couldn’t have been watching me—I was probably just the object in in the way of whatever they were really looking at.
I haven’t made any friends yet, so I don’t really know what makes the girls in my class nearly fight to get out of the room among screeching chairs and playful giggles. I haven’t yet discovered that the school is graced with three Cheveyan boys, called the trilogy, either. Or that they’re practically considered nobility and stroll through the corridors like some kind of sacred cabal. There’s a centuries-old celebration that the entire Valley attends and which is coming up in a week or so, but that has also escaped my apparently rusty radar.
But perhaps the greatest regret I’m to have is never having met Sam, the schoolmate whose death changed everything in so many ways. And one of those ways that I am to be changed is because his death is the cause of me meeting my first friend, who will ultimately become my best friend. Her name is Rhianna, and she writes for the school paper, the Herald; and it’s her friendship that creates the first fissures in my world by revealing to me some of the mysteries of the Cheveyan world. Little did I know that my reality would become nothing but a dream as I discovered secrets and truths that would land me inside the den of famished wolves.
Perfection doesn’t exist in this world. Not even if you’re the descendant of a noble and powerful tribe or live in place where a British royal spied wind chasers zipping through snowy woods. I’ve never had a charmed life, and I know firsthand that life can be hard as nails and the only way to survive is to just grit your teeth and stop the bleeding. My father taught me that, and not because he sat down by a fireplace as he passed along his wise counsel about the world. It was actually his hands around my mother’s throat as he tried to choke her until she was blue that sent that message loud and clear. And we also didn’t have a fireplace. So, when it comes to teeth-gritting, it doesn’t take me long to realize that making friends at Water House High will be harder than pulling out molars with my bare hands.
Sam was still among the living for the first few weeks after my transfer, but I never met him or saw him in the halls. I only found out about him when someone left his obituary on one of the tables in the lunchroom. I lifted it curiously, wondering why an obituary would even be relevant in a place where only kids my age would be. When I read the words, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and wondered how someone his age could be lost to the world so soon. He was a descendant but there was no picture of him on the glossy tri-fold notice, just wonderful words about his kind nature and exceptional athleticism. He was the school’s quarterback and was sure to be a first-round draft pick. He’d already been approached by talent agents, it went on to say. After reading about Sam’s life, my ears would perk up anytime I heard his name, and I was in the bathroom stall when I overheard two students whispering about how his body was found by a hiker who stumbled onto the private land of the Cheveyan tribe. My non-descendant classmates even weren’t sure he was dead because there hadn’t been an official announcement. That would come two days later when Principal Silver Arrow announced it during the special auditorium assembly. When he added that Sam had died by his own hand, I remember looking around in shock at everyone as they sat there frozen while the air screamed with unheard wails of pain and disbelief.
The principal’s voice shattered the walls of uncertainty and numbness, and I looked sideways at the two descendants sitting next to me. Their stoicism spoke volumes and whispered that they’d known about Sam and were now only trying to hide what they really felt. Principal Silver Arrow requested us to think about why living is the only option and how rules are important. His last comment didn’t really make sense to me, but I was still reeling from the stagnant shards of air piercing my lungs with disbelief mixed with sorrow. Then he invited us all to write an essay on the topic of suicide and said that there would be a contest, and the most inspiring essays would be printed up in the school paper.
After the assembly, the knowledge of Sam’s death rippled through the student body like a fierce storm. For the first time in my life as a student, I didn’t want to bury my nose in my schoolbooks. The tragedy felt raw; the promise that his life had held was snatched from the annals of time and somehow it didn’t seem possible to me how this could be. He was too young, he was too promising, and he had too much life for it to seem possible to end. The emotions of my classmates soaked through the hard marble walls, and even the stones wept and filled the hall with storm clouds that rained for days on end.
My heart felt as though a line of blood attached itself to the others who were mourning, and like fingers strumming a guitar, it vibrated in sympathy with them. Their tears made my eyes sting, and their pain sliced like a knife straight to my soul. I didn’t want to hear the voice inside my head telling me that life doesn’t end well for everyone—even teenagers. But the voice wouldn’t stop repeating the words, kids my age can die—we aren’t immortal after all! And soon the raw truth swallowed my mind into a reality that shocked every nerve inside my body like a live wire.
The mood doesn’t just last for a day or two—it’s like a rainy season, dreary and gray, and lasts well into the following week. I feel it as I look around and see there’s not an eye in the entire school that isn’t red, puffy, or both. Even strong macho athletes accustomed to training hard and pushing their bodies to the limit have dazed eyes and shadows darkening their usual fierce auras. The air inside the hallways is stifling and heavy like a hurricane swelling to the brim and threatening to gush the halls with a river of salty tears. And part of me is shocked that I can feel everyone’s pain like it’s my own. I hear sniffling and long inhales of wailing sobs all around me, and when I glance around my Indigenous schoolmates look like their hearts are so shattered that they’re breathing in shards of glass. I want to hug them all and tell them that things will get better soon. I know that from firsthand experience—everything in life changes—even the good, even the bad. One day as I enter the bathroom, I find a girl bent over the sink weeping choked heart-wrenching sobs from the core of her soul, and it takes everything in me to not move her hair from her face and embrace her hard. But her skin is radiant like her blood is filled with gold or sunlight, so I know she’s an indigenie. I watch quietly, her dark hair like a sheet of glass falling over her shoulders and covering her eyes. As I stare, she suddenly jerks her body upright, her hair flashing backward and down her back as she spies me in the mirror. I’m surprised she felt me, and just as surprised to see blue eyes staring back at me. They’re shimmering with tears, proud and aloof. “This is tribal business.” I hear her silent warning as clear as if her lips had formed the words.
I stand there stunned at the words as the breeze from her quickly moving body caresses my skin when she practically runs out of the bathroom. My eyes turn toward the mirror where I see myself, and big green doe eyes look back at me. I look frail, but life outside the Valley forged my blood into liquid steel. My mother is half-African American and half-Puerto Rican; I’m a shade lighter than her bronze skin, but my father’s Irish eyes made it into my gene pool. I pray that’s all I have of him. Our life was tough, like most in our neighborhood, so I had to learn how to be strong and handle more than most kids my age. I wish more than anything that I’d known Sam because I think if I did, I could’ve helped him. Finding a way out of trouble is what I do best, and there’s a fissure inside my heart when I think of the missed opportunity of not having met him.
I decide on entering the contest, and I address my essay to Sam as if he was still alive and I had one last chance to convince him to choose life over death. People look at themselves like they’re different from the world and everything in it. But for me, I always knew our lives and emotions were like seasons and storms. Sometimes we’re tsunamis and sometimes we’re as perfect as a summer breeze cascading on the crest of an ocean’s wave. The sun rises everywhere, even in places where the dark night of the soul lasts for what seems like forever. But even the longest and iciest of winters melts and bows down to the birth of spring. I think nothing of my words; my only thought was how I wished I could have said them to Sam. But my essay catches Mr. Peterson’s eyes. He’s the head of the English department and runs the Herald.
It’s almost two p.m. My eyes are locked on the minute hand of the clock as it slowly ticks toward twelve. Math is my least favorite subject, and Ms. Stanback is my least favorite teacher, and I have a feeling she doesn’t like me either. Well, actually, I don’t think she likes any of us. A student enters our classroom; she’s curvy and has dark, shoulder-length hair and brown skin. I toggle between her and the clock as she leans in close to Ms. Stanback’s ear and whispers into it. Both their faces turn toward the class at the same time as their eyes sweep like the beacon of a lighthouse. Ms. Stanback’s beady gaze lands on me; my heart seizes, sputters, then slows to a more disturbing thud. I try to swallow, but my throat is desert-dry. Her eyes squint into mean little slits, my blood pressure soars to the boiling mark in a blink of an eye, and percolating plasma races to my face. I feel two small rosy balloons forming on the skin of my cheeks. I think of my mom, picturing her on the side of the road, glassy-eyed as she scrolls through her phone unable to find AAA, which should be the first contact under the A’s. But she can’t find it for some reason, which is why she needs me. But then again, she has Rob now, and he’s her savior and enjoys his superman role, so maybe this isn’t about my mom?
My eyes are still on Ms. Stanback when she nods her head at me, cranking her finger back and forth. My knees tremble on the inside as the chair slowly pushes back. A blinding spotlight lowers from the ceiling, flooding me with light. I cough to make the vision go away; it fades, but it doesn’t clear up the air, which is full of tension thick like smog in a garbage-filled alley. The legs of the chair scrape against the old, tiled floor. I see a roaring circus elephant in my mind’s eye. The Indigenous boy sitting next to me is skinny, not at all like the others who are tall and athletic-looking. He covers his precious eardrums and crinkles his eyebrows helplessly. I want to roll my eyes at him, but I don’t; I just stay on the path to what feels like my execution as the stares from my classmates burn holes through the back of my sweater.
I reach Ms. Stanback and she refuses to part her lips until my ear is directly in front of it. I bend down. Her breath is warm and smells of coffee. The tiny hairs on the edge of my earlobe wriggle. She tells me I’m to accompany the curvy girl to Mr. Peterson’s room. Her voice sounds like it’s in the back of her throat; it’s high-pitched and halting too. She could play the part of the witch in the school play without any rehearsals.
My emotions well up. I feel like I’m being kicked out of her classroom, even though I should be happy because I hate math. But I’m convinced it has something to do with me not being good enough. I always think that. I manage to keep the humiliation from creeping up into my face, though I wonder what class the girl is taking me too. Could anything be worse than math? My nose is running; I sniffle and inadvertently lock on Lindsay McCann’s square face. She has blue eyes and a winning smile, which at present is smirking my way. I can tell she’s just whispered something to her sidekick, Kel, because she has a snide smile with my name on it too. Neither Lindsay or Kel are indigenies, but Lindsay is the head cheerleader and Kel is on the squad too. I feel my face blush even more and patter quickly behind my curvy escort, wishing I were in the hall where there’s a suitcase of money waiting for me because I’ve hit the lottery. Then a voice whispers inside me, musing if I’ve just dodged the guillotine for a trip to the dungeon. I bite my lip as my brows pinch tight.
My escort and I are heading for the double doors at the far end of the once-white marble hall. My eyes are mindlessly looking at my feet as each footstep closes in on the stairwell behind the doors. My tan Converse are almost the same color as my straight-legged jeans. I have about ten pairs of them in all different colors, the same with pants. V-neck sweaters, sneakers, and matching jeans—it’s my only trademark that has some pizzazz to it, or so I think. The hall is so empty that my screeching rubber soles echo loudly. Then I notice the stomping metronome sound in the background. It’s the girl’s hard-soled loafers sounding like she’s part of the marching band. Once we enter the stairwell, she glides down the stairs and then turns to me as if she’s only just noticed she’s never said a word yet.
“Mr. Peterson wants you to come to the newsroom because of the essay you wrote,” she informs me with a twinkle in her eyes, while mine grow twice their size. “He likes it!” she adds, her dark eyes sparkling more with kindness I think, though there’s a smirk that looks like it might be dying to burst through her pursed lips.
“What’d ya think?” Mr. Peterson wonders. His smile beams. He looks so happy I expect both of them to fall to the floor laughing because it’s all just a practical joke. But mostly, I can’t help but wonder why he looks like he’s the lucky one. His head cocks to the side and his arms open wide while my jitters melt and my heart whispers that it likes him. I notice how his smiles gushes out niceness in piles that could fill the entire room in the blink of an eye and I want to say thank you, or something, but he goes on about my essay and how inspiring it was. He doesn’t just compliment me; he actually wants me to join the small staff of writers that put out the biweekly edition of the Herald. “You’re gifted,” he says, shaking his head. “And far too wise for your young years,” he chuckles. “Perfect.” He winks. “Perfect!”
My mouth is open, and I feel my city-smart brain scrambling to respond to someone so without guile or cunning. I’m speechless. “Yes … I mean … yes. Thank you …” I manage, realizing my answer doesn’t match the conversation. Not really. Giddy butterflies start to flutter uncomfortably inside my belly like a swarm of them are whisking through an open cage door. His eyes are on me—he sees me, I mean really sees me. I’ve never been seen before. It’s an odd sensation, and my face feels like an expanding balloon. I may be close to having a panic attack.
“Okay, okay,” Mr. Peterson’s voice sings as he rubs his hands together and his eyes begin darting around the room, clearly in search of something. “Well, we’ll talk later about your essay,” he adds, walking away, his voice trailing in the distance. “We need to change the format, so it reads like an article. Yes?”
I nod. My essay is going to be in the school newspaper! “Yes!” I answer, sounding enthusiastic instead of the shocked that I really am. “Yes, Mr. Peterson.” My head has too much air inside it. Sentences collapse in disarray as words search for each other and my thinking unfolds in slow motion.
Mr. Peterson doesn’t look like a native of the Valley just as the student who beckoned me from my class doesn’t. Mr. Peterson’s skin has no brown, bronze, or gold highlights. If the truth be told, he looks like a young Albert Einstein with his utter mess of thick dark curls and a shirt with more wrinkles than an elephant’s hide. My eyes keep panning over at him. The room feels fuzzy like a dream, and my ears feel like there’s water inside them. The air inside my head begins to evaporate and soon sentences begin moving across the screen inside my skull in real time. I notice he wobbles when he walks, and that his stomach is the size of a soccer ball. He keeps a finger to his lips as he browses through the binders of books on the old, dark brown floor-to-ceiling shelves. He’s so disarming, I could watch him forever. My heart already liked him, but now so do I.
My kidnapper is smiling my way like I’m some kind of rock star. I do a double take, thinking my essay couldn’t have been that great. Right? But amazement is written all over her face, and her eyes are brilliant like there are a lot of thoughts and questions ping-ponging inside her head. She beckons me with a side nod, and her eyes shimmer like she has a secret to tell. She’s sitting on the very edge of a desk occupied to the brim by a computer and an open black and white composition book with handwritten notes scribbled from the top of the page to the bottom. To the left of the book are three ballpoint pens lined up neatly next to one another. I notice this and immediately picture the girl’s bedroom, pillows just right against the headboard and shoes inside the closet lined up according to color. Beside the girl are rows of computers, three in total and all on separate desks. I study her as she reaches for a black office chair. The pale sun splashing on it makes the leather look like it’s covered in silver. She rolls it over, offering me the seat. The wheels against the tiles are soundless. I give her a small smile as I sit down, then let out a shriek when it crashes down a notch. My arms unfurl like I’m a bird about to take flight and my chest barrels with air while I manage to hide my embarrassment.
Rhianna is her name. She explains the Herald to me from A to Z. I find out that it’s published twice a month and that she writes a column called “All Things Valley.” She repeats something I overheard, which is that a busload of visitors from another country arrived in the town square. They booked a stay at the Coburgan Spa, which is not far from the woods. She talks about the Indigenous kids in school, and how she thought I was Cheveyan when I first transferred here. I’m shocked. She says it’s because I have a golden-bronze complexion, light eyes, and honey-brown hair. “Some of the mixed Cheveyans look like they were made from gold,” she points out, reminding me of when I was a little girl and my Puerto Rican grandma said I looked like my mom swallowed a ray of sunlight when she gave birth to me.
“Did you ever meet Sam?” Rhianna wonders, leaning in closer.
I shake my head no, leaning in toward her too and eager to hear anything about him.
“He was pure Cheveyan and related to Chief Clearwater.”
I recall reading that in his obituary, but I just listen and don’t say a word.
She tells me what I’ve already noticed, like how the pure Cheveyan have brown skin and dark hair, but even the ones who are mixed have the same eyes and bone structure. “Most of the boys are super athletic and very tall.” She smiles with a roll of her eye. “And the girls are more beautiful than beautiful.”
I nod, thinking I’ve noticed the same thing about my Cheveyan schoolmates.
“He was an unusual kid,” Rhianna adds, twisting the direction of the conversation and lowering her voice even more. Mr. Peterson must have some really good hearing if she thinks she has to whisper this softly. She looks in his direction before going on. “He was on the football team and would’ve made it to the top … That was such a definite.” Her eyes lower, and her lashes are dark and shiny. My heart pricks softly when she shakes her head as though she’s remembering him and all that wasted potential.
“How was he unusual?” I ask, mirroring the girl’s low, hushed tone.
She hesitates to answer, and my eyes drop to her lip when she bites it. It takes her a while before her mouth parts. “He knew things and said strange things like he was a psychic or something. Also, I think he was sick. I saw him doubled over in pain a few times.” Her eyes dart toward the window as though it holds significance to the story unfolding. “He was always at the back of the school, alone. So, in order to make the deadline for publishing the paper, I have to stay late sometimes, and he and the other football players practice at the end of the day. So, he stayed late too. He’d go to the back of the school where the teachers park because he didn’t think anyone was around. But I saw him … I saw him.” She shakes her head again. “I keep thinking whatever was wrong with him had something to do with why he killed himself.” Her chest rises and her lips quiver. When her eyes meet mine they shimmer, glazed with tears.
My breath snags at the back of my throat and my heart skips. “What do you mean?” I ask, my eyebrows scrunching questioningly. “When you saw him in pain?”
“Yes, I think he must have been sick … I think it was going to stop him from getting into the pros.”
I gulp; sports to a kid like that was probably everything. My stomach sinks and feels hollow inside. Though I never met him, I feel his pain at how his sickness snatched his dreams from him, at least from what Rhianna is saying. My bones ache all the way to the marrow.
“People said he knew things about them that were impossible to know.”
I sigh, a tad happy to have my curiosity swept away by what she just said. Thinking about Sam is hard for me. It weighs on my mind. I’ve never known a kid who died before, and the world feels upside down, like pieces of life that seemed so certain have gone missing. Her comment about him knowing things that were impossible piques my interest, and I scoot to the edge of my seat so I can hear every word.
“Like when Mr. Blackwood was late for class.”
I lean in more; my lids opening wider.
“We were at lunch. Carlo was interviewing the team, but Sam muttered how he hoped Mr. Blackwood wasn’t injured too badly. The thing is, no one even knew that Mr. Blackwood had been in an accident on Lincoln Drive until later in the afternoon. Sam even knew when the Cougars were going to win or lose. He was unusual like that. But he was so handsome, that’s really all we noticed. He was perfect.”
Hearing her talk and share things relaxes me. I think I may like her.
“He was the best quarterback the school has ever had,” she continues quietly. “Did you know he was discovered in the woods?”
I did, but I also heard whispers about a hiker finding him. “How was he found?”
“He was discovered on Cheveyan property, so all we know is what the tribe told the principal. They said it looked like he jumped off a cliff.” Her voice is even quieter, and I have to read her lips. My chest tightens when I picture his body on the ground, his arms and legs bent in unnatural positions.
“What about the hiker who found him?” I think to add, but as soon as the words come out of my mouth the look on her face makes me swallow hard. Her eyes are large as quarters, and they pan away quickly.
After a long awkward silence, she goes on as though I never asked the question. “But then …” Rhianna’s eyes dart toward Mr. Peterson; he’s returned to his desk which is behind a cubicle wall, and I hear his fingers typing away. “The window was open, last spring, and I overheard a Cheveyan kid say that Sam told him he was leaving to go there. The other kid said it was too dangerous, and then they walked too far for me to hear the rest.”
I frown, not expecting her to say something like that. It doesn’t seem to go along with the rest of the story.
“It’s so weird, right?” Rhianna asks, her voice low and ominous.
“What does that mean—what dangerous place?”
Rhianna sits back in her chair as though she’s said too much. “The Valley is ancient, not just old.” She sighs, her eyes dropping to the silver bracelet around her wrist. She starts fiddling with the heart trinket dangling delicately from the chain. “The woods are actually on sacred land, and the Cheveyan aren’t just Indians, they are shamans and warriors. And my father told me that indigenies don’t leave their land.”
My mind is stuck on the words, “The Valley is ancient and the Cheveyan are shamans and warriors.”
“But I know that’s what I heard.” Her eyes turn toward the window again. “I heard them right outside.”
My fist clenches with building tension; her every word is another drop, a piece to what feels like a secret world. For the first time I’m beginning to think that ancient traditions and secrets by far outweigh Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and cobblestoned roads. Cheveyan life is like a mysterious dream where a bridge from this world might just allow me entry. Something inside me desperately wants in, and claws at me like it’s trying to get to wherever that bridge is. Just then an invisible force pushes me back into the chair and my eyes become like a camera inside the woods spinning too quickly. I see blurring trees and leaves magnified so that they look as big as the room we’re in. It’s like whatever is clawing at my insides is trying to see through my eyes. I swallow hard, then hear someone call my name from inside my head and swallow even harder. My head jerks back and my eyes grow twice their size. Rhianna doesn’t see a thing—she’s still staring in the direction of the window thinking of Sam.
I return to normal, dazed and thinking about the weirdness that I can’t explain even to myself. The experience disintegrates as though it never happened as a new thought rises up and replaces it. My stomach tightens like a fist is squeezing it hard. Something whispers that there’s more to Sam’s death than what any of us know. At least those of us who aren’t Cheveyan. The fist around my stomach grows icy and my blood freezes and shreds through my veins. I breathe in deeply and my sigh shivers as it leaves my lips.
“It’s such a shame,” she mumbles, still looking in the direction of the window.
“When you heard the boys talking about him going away—what did they say exactly?” I ask, the question born from my suspicion. I turn my eyes toward the window too.
“They said it was dangerous … that’s all I heard.” Rhianna’s raspy voice makes everything sound all the more ominous. “Hold it! One of them said he shouldn’t go in alone.”
“Go in alone?” I check, emphasizing the word in.
Rhianna looks like she’s thinking, her eyes slanting toward the ceiling. “I don’t know. Maybe he said he wasn’t supposed to go it alone.” Her nose crinkles; she’s confused herself now.
I get permission to transfer out of my art class and into Mr. Peterson’s creative writing, reporting, and interviewing class, and swell with pride as I leave the administrative office and walk the halls with my new invisible badge that says Herald Press on it. I even think of majoring in journalism when I graduate from Water House High. I’m on my way to have lunch in the newsroom, at Mr. Peterson’s insistence. I need to get acquainted with how things run and peruse the stacks of research books to help me in my new endeavor.
I enter the newsroom excited about seeing Mr. Peterson again, but the only person there is Rhianna. She informs me he’s at a staff meeting so we have the room all to ourselves. She offers me a welcoming smile that verges on shyness and I greet her with a cool nod, mostly because all of a sudden I feel overwhelmed and awkward. I may look collected, but my face is so hot I have to wipe the sheen from my forehead.
My eyes restlessly pan around the room as I saunter toward the corner where the wall is pinned with a slew of old, faded articles. They’re all written by students who attended the school years ago, and as I read the impressive and catchy headlines I make a mental note to remember how to say a mouthful using only a few words. I feel my lips smirk as I guess the reason Mr. Peterson posted them on the wall was to teach us a lesson without saying a word. Nice sleight of hand there, I think, picturing his kind face and actually wishing he were here. I mosey toward the bookcase, my shoulders starting to relax as I get drawn into the exploration of the hundreds of dusty titles that Mr. Peterson browsed through only yesterday. I see books on composition, interviewing, how to write in the first, second, and third person, and books on keeping the audience’s attention. There’s an entire shelf dedicated to over ten years of Water House yearbooks, too, including the years that Sam attended. After I get my feet wet and lose the nerves, I’ll look through the yearbook and find a picture of him.
Once I’m feeling more like myself again, I turn to look back at my new friend. Her head is cast down, reading from the pages in her notebook. She looks up, eyes bright and surprised by the abrupt sound of my chair knocking into the side of her desk as I sit beside her, blushing at my clumsy attempt at stealth. Her lips curve into a warm smile and, without missing a beat, she goes right into showing off her interviewing skills by asking me about school—if I like it, what I like, and if I’ve noticed that there are differences or categories that make some kids different than the others. I suppose asking questions comes naturally to her by now and since this my first time being interviewed, I thoroughly enjoy the attention. I answer her eagerly and tell her how I hated the idea of moving here until I read about the history of the Valley. She wonders if I’ve noticed the Valley is a puzzle made up of indigenies and outlanders and kotes, which means to be without ancient bloodlines. Having explained what a kote is, she goes into detail of what an outlander is when I tell her I have no idea what any of it means. I find out that I’m both a kote and an outlander, which puts me at the bottom of the food chain. I chuckle at how much I’d fallen from grace. At my old school, I was the crème de la crème because of my smarts, but now I’m just cannon fodder.
“My parents moved here when I was in third grade, so we’re not outlanders anymore,” she announces without a hint of bragging. “We’re commoners though, or kote, as they call those who don’t have tribal bloodlines,” she adds. “But my dad is the attorney that helps the council with legal issues like ordinances and city or state policies that the tribe wants no part of.”
Her father is important. “That’s a prestigious position,” I say, taking a bite into my sandwich before telling her that Rob is the attorney for the Clearwater family.
“That’s the chief’s surname.” she marvels, still understanding me despite the food-jumbled pronunciations.
I nod, feeling surprisingly proud to be associated with Rob for the first time ever.
“There are a lot of Clearwaters here in town,” she informs me. “And some Clearwaters changed their names but are still directly related to the chief too.”
Moments later Rhianna’s face lights up and her eyes shine. “I bet you can’t wait for the fall solstice rowing event.” Her voice is so full of excitement that my eyes swell, and I feel tingly inside. When she’s done, though, she closes her eyes as though a whiff of just-baked chocolate chip cookies wafted beneath her nose.
“Rowing?” I mutter, brows drawn close as a few thoughts whirl around inside my head. I take a long drink of my cold Pepsi thinking there is nothing quite like a chilled soda guzzling down the throat—even if it does burn! “I’ve overheard kids talking about it. But what’s with all the enthusiasm over rowing?” I wonder, with the bare modicum of interest only now bubbling up because of how round her eyes have just become.
“It’s been going on for over two hundred years!” she exclaims, her voice hinting at a level of shock brought on by my cluelessness. It fades fast. “And guess who’s rowing?”
My heart thuds to a stop when I stop breathing. This girl is way too enthralled for this event not to be a big deal. “Who?” I ask, my voice hoarse from a lack of air. Rhianna glows like the fantasies inside her mind are rolled up in sunshine. I watch her hand clutch above her heart.
“Max and Vixbi.”
My nose wrinkles as though I’ve just taken a bite from a lemon. “Who are they?” I ask—my voice is hushed like we’re exchanging secrets.
“Oh my God.” Her voice is shrill and underscored by her palm, now patting her chest to keep her heart inside. I can’t help my lips from curving but manage to resist an audible giggle. “They play for the Cougars, our basketball team! Haven’t you seen them? They’re called the trilogy.” She runs both her hands through her hair and grips a handful of locks before letting go.
I can’t keep in the giggle any longer. “Ohhh.” I laugh, half-musing over why she doesn’t mention a third name since the word trilogy implies three. I don’t say anything. I only feel certain that she and I are going to be good friends. She’s so unpretentiously free and silly that it quiets my hypervigilant paranoia that everyone wants something from everyone. And behind my thought confirming her as my friend, I recall hearing the word trilogy a few times in passing. “I thought they were a band,” I reflect, quietly confused.
“No, they’re just the most gorgeous boys in the whole school.” Rhianna finishes with a look of dead certainty aimed my way. “So, you’ll come?”
Rowing—that means I’ll be close to the woods. I’ve never seen the woods before and the thought of going surprises me by sending a thrilling rush through my being; not to mention I’ll finally see who the trilogy is. “Yes,” I say decidedly, before hearing my inside voice telling me that answering yes is an understatement. I’m actually completely in! “Yeah, I’m totally there,” I add with more spirit in my voice. “But I don’t have a car. It’s along the creek, right?” I check, just to make sure my city-dwelling intuition hasn’t failed me.
Rhianna tells me that the woods are past the town square, which is a two square mile municipality that’s nothing like Philadelphia’s Center City in size but is no less exciting with lights twinkling on all the trees along the sidewalks and soft glowing neon signs outside of restaurants and coffee shops. My mind reels back into the annals of my recent past and my first visit to the town square with my mom. My eyes are on Rhianna’s lips as they move, but the sound is on mute.
My mom and I are walking through the town square on our way to meet Rob for lunch at the Bear Claw Pub, which has the best fry-bread chicken taco, ever. According to Rob, anyway. We’re approaching the corner of a narrow walkway called Alleyway Road, which is right around the corner from our destination. As we get closer, my eyes latch onto a group of local kids wearing big tees and straight-legged jeans. Some are standing with skateboards in their hands, eyes laser-focused on their friends who are skateboarding at speeds so fast, all I see are snatches of colors whizzing swiftly away from me and my mom in the direction of where Alleyway dead-ends. In my reverie, the images and sounds of the boards searing loudly in the air still fills me with a bubbling excitement that threatens to turn me into a balloon float.
One of the skateboarders piques my interest. He speeds like a thunder god and the wheels of his skateboard etch the air like rough sandpaper. I get a split-second look at his handsome features—dark squinting eyes, long hair so dark it glistens blue in the soft sun—and gush with attraction. A rush of freedom explodes inside every cell of my body as his hair snakes on the currents and he skates fast toward three concrete benches. My shoulders cringe as he closes in on the benches, and veins contract as shards of blood scrape through my body. He’s only seconds from careening into them, and my fists tighten and nails nearly break the skin. I brace for the worst. By the time my trembling lungs exhale the shivering breath, he’s in the air, flying free as an eagle, his tee shirt ballooning with wind as he lands on the edge of the first bench, the second, and then the third bench as his skateboard grinds the spine of the concrete benches like a serrated razor. Then the board kisses the air, invisible spirals embracing it as it twirls in space and descends along with the rider who lands squarely on its top. My mouth parts, cool air slips down my throat, and butterflies join the ride, filling up my stomach with irresistible giggles. I’m staring intensely, in total disbelief, when he lifts his eyes and catches me. He screeches to a hard stop, the board slanting upward and yawning as it scrapes against the smooth surface. It somehow ends up in the air, spinning fast and graceful before he snatches it into his grip. His eyes find mine again. I gulp while his dark pupils boldly eat me up. I feel like I don’t have a stitch on and my face smolders red as my eyes inadvertently find a sleeve of tribal-looking tattoos along the length of his arms. My lips separate, and the air makes them feel dry; I wet them with my tongue, and his expression turns dark and fiery.
Three footsteps later and the brick wall of the Bear Claw Pub hides him from my sight. But maybe not forever, I think as I hear the tail end of Rhianna’s conversation, which lucky for me, doesn’t end in the form of a question.
My mom is in Rob’s kitchen. In our kitchen? Well, I get home from school and she’s there, standing in front of the stainless-steel stove preparing dinner. Audrey, Rob’s housekeeper since he graduated from law school, shines it a million times a day, along with the gigantic stainless-steel refrigerator that has a water faucet and ice dispenser and plays music throughout the house. When I first laid eyes on it, I was sure that if I stepped inside it, I might not freeze so much as zip out the window toward the planet Mars. Everything inside the kitchen either sparkles or shines, and it’s huge. Both my mom’s and my old bedrooms could fit inside it. In fact, there’s room left over for, I don’t know, three guys playing the violin in case crying when cutting onions feels better when classical music is playing in the background. But I like how bright and airy the space is and how I can see the sun and sky through the windows every morning.
I always enter the house through the garage door entrance, hanging my coat on one of the hooks of the tree rack as soon as I walk in. I slide off my sneakers, struggling to maintain a successful wobble that won’t land me face down on the floor. Having a friend makes me feel bubbly inside, and finally I even have weekend plans in the not-too-distant future, too. Now that I know more about the rowing event and that the trilogy will be there, I feel like a normal teenager with a life as exciting as everyone says it should be at this age.
My mom looks back at me; she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her in my entire life, and I walk across the warm tiled floor digging my toes into my socks to squeeze the chill out. We talk about my grands and a cousin moving to Florida before I start my homework. Soon the only sounds in the room are me turning the pages of my history book and metal utensils clinking against cookware. Rob usually arrives an hour after I get in, snatching off his scarf like he’s on fire from the kitchen’s blazing warmth. Then he greets my mom with a kiss on the cheek and an affectionate squeeze of her hand. When he smiles my way, he always looks awkward, and I probably do too. Then he heads for the living room where a fire rages inside the hearth; a minute or two passes and ice chimes from warm scotch pouring into his glass, then classical or jazz starts to play softly through the speakers.
While we’re having dinner later, I tell my mom about my writing job at the Herald and that I’ve been invited to go to the Cheveyan rowing event next weekend. I’m proud of myself for finally having adjusted to the move, then swell with a rosy warmth when Rob perks up. “My word!” he exclaims, his face brightening as he sits up taller. “I’ve been going ever since I was a kid.” Past memories fill his tone with richness, and his eyes shine like his insides tickle.
My mouth parts but my head is twice the size it was a second ago and words are too far for me to grab. “It’s an incredible time, you’ll love it,” he adds when I’m too speechless for words. “Wow, I’m so glad you’re interested!” he finishes, as his color actually reddens.
I watch him, still wordless, as he beams at my mom. He tells us how he was going to bring up going to the event, but he thought I probably had too much on my plate with the new school and all. I notice Mom give him a small but sweet smile, her head tilting to the side as her eyes sparkle.
“So, were you born here?” I wonder, then notice a wall of ice lower over his face like a collapsing glacier. My mom’s eyes fall to her plate, and I feel as though I’ve just asked if he’s related to the guy responsible for sinking the Titanic. My fork is suspended in the air as Rob’s already blushing face turns his tan complexion into a ruddy shade of rust.
“My family has known the Coburgans since before I was born.” His reply is curt before he returns his attention to the sumptuous meal that my mom prepared. Maybe fitting in when he was younger was as hard as it is for me. I wouldn’t want to remember that either, I think, turning back to my meal as I wonder if that’s what’s really bothering him anyway.
“So, what’s this rowing event?” My mom’s voice is upbeat. She knows how to think quickly after a faux pas and my head pops up, surprised to hear her voice. I notice her looking from Rob then to me again, her eyes laser sharp with interest as her bubbly demeanor lowers the temperature in the room down to a bearable degree.
“Oh, well, it’s to commemorate Chief Clearwater and the duke’s friendship.” Rob answers instead of me. “And how that friendship resulted in the birth of this entire town.” He takes a sip of his scotch after Audrey pops into the room to refresh both his drink and my mom’s wine. Everything seems right as rain again, and I sigh quietly.
After a few more minutes Rob is his uneasy self again and begins his nightly invisible list of questions that he poses to me. Did I have any tests this week, what grades did I get, am I having trouble with any of my classes. And then he ends it with, “Well, this weekend is shopping and dining out. Do you need anything, a new coat or something?”
I wonder if there is something wrong with my coat, just like two weeks ago I wondered if there was something wrong with my bookbag when he asked if I needed a new one. But I’m beginning to suspect that new coats and book bags are to be purchased after having them for too long. I mean, when you have extra money, you have to spend it, right? I suppose I’ve finally arrived, because on the weeks between the shopping excursions, we drive out to his summer home in Ocean City. It’s right on the beach and we get to watch the sun set above the ocean every night. I think of his question about whether I need a new coat or not. Puckering my lips and squinting my eyes as I look toward the ceiling, I finally answer him. “Yes, a dog.” Rob leans in asking me to repeat what I’d said. “A dog, a Yorkie. I’d like one.” My head tilts upward proudly—which is a sign that I’m feeling the opposite.
My mom squeals with delight. “Oh, I miss Princess.” Her slender hand covers her heart, then her fingers touch the small trinket hanging from the thin gold necklace that Rob gave her on her birthday in July. “I didn’t think you’d ever want to get another one after …”
I gave my mom a how could you look. Was she almost about to tell Rob that my dad killed our Yorkie during the fight when he nearly killed her? He hadn’t meant to kill Princess—not that that detail makes him a nice guy, or even a decent one, because he was actually trying to kill my mom. Anyway, he stomped her to death chasing my mom from the bedroom into the living room as she tried to reach the front door. In our neighborhood, if you were in trouble, and you were able to get outside, someone was sure to help you, but if you were inside—everything was fair in love and war even if you were screaming bloody murder. I think back to that awful day. Princess would have lived if she’d gotten help, but my dad was too busy punching my mom all around her head and shoulders to hear Princess whimpering in my arms, which is where she died. There wasn’t any blood or anything, but I imagined he damaged one of her tiny organs and she bled to death internally. I still have nightmares every now and then of that night. I’ll remember the feel of her small warm body in my arms, and that last trembling whimper of a breath that she made before her head softly slumped to the side of my arm, for the rest of my life. I can almost feel the tears running down my face and wetting her soft fur, darkening the brown to black. I cried until the warmth from her body left her cold. I also have nightmares about what happened after the fight when I saw my mom looking like a black and blue monster with bumps and cuts all over her face. I thought she was dead and that I was going to be alone in the world, because there wasn’t a way in hell that I’d stay with my father. Not after killing both my mom and my dog. I didn’t think anyone could look the way my mom did and still be alive. I’m pretty sure she would’ve died if I hadn’t made it out of the house and knocked on Mr. Clyde’s door. He was the one who called 911 and saved my mom’s life. He even came into the house hunting for my father. The way he walked, with his fists balled up and his chest poked out, make me think my dad was lucky he’d left. But he was a coward and no doubt at the corner bar on Broad Street crying “woe is me” over how my mother brought out the worst in him. She was the one who was always wrong. If he was a genius at anything, it was how to turn a situation around and make any and everything my mom’s fault. I look at Rob and sometimes wonder if he’ll end up being like my dad too.
Then two days later he crushes the thought of him being like my dad to ashes when I come home to find that he purchased a moped for me, a shiny pearl-purple Scorpion at that! He goes on to tell me that he doesn’t want me to have to count on my schoolmate for a ride to the rowing event, before mumbling something about underaged drinking.
By the time the Cheveyan rowing event is days away, I begin having strange dreams where I can no longer tell when I am dreaming, or when whatever is looking through my eyes is. But my dreams are vivid and the colors more defined than I’ve ever seen. Two nights ago, my eyelids parted in the middle of the night and I found myself sitting up with my hand still reaching to delicately touch the veins of an emerald leaf drenched in sunlight. Other nights I dreamed of the sun setting the sky on fire in colors of lavender and blue glazed in gold. The colors tangled beyond the leaves and branches high above the ground along the cliffs where I spied snatches of Cheveyan youths, both boys and girls, running through the bushes. They flitted in and out of the patches of clear space laughing and elbowing anyone who brushed against them. They were fast, mere smudges of color streaking the air. But they could run even faster, and a few of them began to transform into wind before fading into thin air. One by one, they simply vanished, leaving me tossing and turning, my stomach hollowed with fear as my hands clenched and pulled at the sheets. Not all of the kids disappeared, and the ones who remained visible whooped and cheered wildly then grit their teeth and tried to run fast enough to fade into the wind too. I awaken, sitting straight, my eyes mere slits with the sheets balled inside my fists. I’m breathless and my heart pounds like a drum in both this world and the other. After sucking in gushes of thrilling air I fall into my pillow, sinking into the softness and realm of dreams by the time I exhale.
Then there are the surreal aspirations that bathe me in emotions so warm and deep, my soul shimmers and ripples through space and galaxies. Suns hundreds of times larger than earth peek through colorful stretches of cloud that tumble through millions of miles of space and glisten like rainbows glazed in gold from the heavens. These dreams are always shrouded in mystery from another realm, and my eyes strain to see through a mist that never fully clears. I can’t help but think that these dreams are forbidden in some way, and I’m not meant to remember them.
I’m always inside or around a castle high on a mountain swathed in twinkling fog. I live there with six others, whom I sense are siblings, both male and female, no more than twenty or thirty years of age. They all possess special skills that involve magic and power so vast, I suspect they are gods and goddesses. Through the veil of mist I see a young woman reclining lazily on silk pillows, the sun falling onto her skin turning her bronze flesh into shades of gold and copper. Her hands are in the air as she gracefully composes music that transforms into fragrant flowers, crystal blue waterfalls, and glittering trees that appear and disappear into thin air. Across the room one of my brothers, handsome beyond words and very muscular, is flicking his fist over and over. Thunderbolts whirl lightning-fast from his splayed fingers, striking a scorched, circular wooden plaque that billows with smoke as it hangs on a wall in the distance, while farther away in the corner of the room sits one of my sisters, hunched over an ornate desk. With furrowed brows, she feverishly scribbles words inside a large leatherbound book that I somehow know contains the secrets of all life. Living symbols and gleaming particles of consciousness flash and disappear above the book as she writes on its golden pages. Her spine quickly straightens, her head snapping to the side as she catches me curiously peeking over her shoulder. Her dark brows pinch hard and she shoos me, pointing harshly toward doors made of ivory and gold. My heart pricks, swelling with bruised feelings as I slowly back away into an explosion of colors that begin swirling around me and sparkling in fantastic hues. The colors transform into a shimmering satin cloak, then dissolve into giggling dust motes. I spin around, eyes twinkling and laughing when I see the hues that were twirling around me still pouring out from the hearts of my other siblings. Grinning unabashedly, one male and one female sibling take each of my hands, dragging me down a long hall as the other four giddily chase at our heels. We rush through a massive door that opens into a fragrant meadow so beautiful, it could only be paradise.
Swells of deep emotion from my siblings ebb and flow through my heart and lungs as we saunter across the grass, and they each take turns snatching me from the unwilling arms of each other to hug me hard and kiss my forehead or the top of my head. I laugh inside their embraces of unbridled ecstasy that create rainbows that stretch through infinity.
One of my siblings, a tall and fiercely handsome man, walks behind us, carrying both a sword at his side and a quiver on his back. Inside the fine leather pouch are golden arrows and a bow made of silver. I can feel his jealous eyes on my back as the others pull me deeper into the meadow and toward a grove of ancient trees. He finally stomps ahead of us, blocking our path, his arms folded over his chest as dark eyes stare menacingly at the others. They complain and try to scoot around him, but he’s too swift and their disobedience only seems to anger him more. They soon cower, bright grins mixed with sulking eyes as they nudge me toward his outstretched hand. His scowl melts and the trees sway as mist swirls around us in mighty gusts of wind, as if his temper worried even the spirits of nature. But with me he is only the essence of a loving brother, and soon we’re all laughing again. We walk through the grove until we reach the edge of the meadow where there’s nothing but white sky softly floating on the currents of air. He lets my hand go and looks deep into my eyes as he leads me to the edge where there’s nothing but an abyss of swirling sky. When he points down, the skies part and I see earth. Misty mountains rise high and blue rivers flow like veins on the surface of the planet. I see patches of twinkling lights that I know are the cities of earth and vast rolling seas of blue that swim mightily toward white shores at every corner of the planet. I smile wondrously but when I look into his eyes, and then the others, I see only sadness on their faces. My lips soften until they part with fear. Only now do I know what they’re thinking and without words, they tell me that I must leave them to go to earth. The brother with the temper lowers his head. His eyes latch onto mine and I see danger inside his fearsome glare and fire blazing in his dark pupils. Then I feel his thoughts, like walls of impenetrable iron surrounding me in a glistening and mighty labyrinth. “Nothing will harm you,” he says with emotions that cause the very ground to quake. These dreams never wake me, and fade to nothing but remnants that leave a sense of the supernatural reaching deep into my bones. I can’t help but wonder if I’m being haunted by something or someone, and if the Valley is even stranger than I imagined.
My heavy eyes flutter open; the sky is still dark and the sound of rain falling onto leaves both soothes and unsettles. I manage to fall back to sleep though a knot weighs heavy in the pit of my stomach. Right before I return to the unusual dreams, I hear a voice telling me not to fret—“The Cheveyan rowing event won’t be canceled,” it says as a shivering breath leaves my lungs. Sleep is only seconds away, but more dreams loom and wait for me on the other side of wakefulness.
After what literally feels like weeks of dreaming, the morning finally arrives along with a weak splash of sunlight that warms the side of my face. Squinting, my lashes meet, and my ears wriggle listening for rain. I notice how wonderfully rested I feel as the absence of rain fills me with relief. Then I hear the faint sound of clinking coffee mugs quivering on the tops of saucers. Audrey serving mom and Rob zips through my mind and the strong aroma of the morning brew drifts by my nose as my blurry eyes scan my room. My heart leaps, zapping me to alertness as I remember what today is, and my legs sweep over the edge of the bed so my toes can wriggle into my slippers just below. Then, dashing my arms through the sleeves of my robe, I run huffing down the light-washed hall toward the stairwell.
Rob’s eyes lift from the computer sitting on the island countertop as I skid against the tiles, entering the kitchen like a clumsy skater. And as if on cue the weather forecaster announces his prediction for the day but Rob interrupts the news and tells me with a sideways glance that Lincoln Drive is flooded, but the rest of the roads are dry. Then after taking a sip of his coffee, he suggests I hitch a ride with them, which I’m secretly happy about because I can’t remember the directions he gave me last night, even after the third time of him repeating them in slow motion along with hand indications pointing left, right, and forward, as though using sign language would actually help.
As Rob drives down our cul-de-sac my new school reporter’s eyes ravish the sights that I’ve seen but never noticed before, like the morning mist at the bottom of Navajo Lane slowly creeping over one of our neighbor’s stone walls. I’m mesmerized by the ghostly wisps as it floats weightlessly in the air like fingers reaching for the other side of the road where our small woodland of trees and foliage reside inside a fifteen-foot abyss. To my newly awoken eyes, I deem it a tie between a world where the fallen sky is the abode for either fairies or naughty goblins. I’ll decide which later, I think, my eyes dragging in the direction of the mist until I snap my face forward and scan for more wonders.
Rob makes the turn onto Clearwater Boulevard, which is the main road that runs through the town square. Dakota’s Jewels and the Priestess Gowns Boutique have flags posted on their store fronts with the colors of yellow, red, and white along with the image of two Cheveyan youths inside a canoe. The town square is deserted with the exception of three pockets of cheerfully chatting crowds walking toward two buses parked in front of Oenikika, the most popular restaurant in the Valley. I marvel at how many people find rowing this interesting, and my own interest about what I’ll soon discover piques even more and sends my heart pattering all the way to my stomach.
When we pass the Black Fox Inn with its gray brick and black shutters, unchanged since the duke’s resurrection, the landscape transforms into stretches of green land speckled with groves of huge century-old chestnut trees. Thick branches filled with leaves reach far beyond wide gnarled barks and darken the ground beneath them in a mysterious shroud of secrecy. Moments later, I see a sign written in fancy script that reads Sacred Land No Loitering. It leaves a warm swell surging through every part of my body and pierces the center of my heart, stirring with every breath. We’re entering the private lands of the Cheveyan tribe, my inner voice says in a soft wispy voice.
The atmosphere becomes decidedly still, and timeless images of ancient rituals and ceremonies taking place on the rolling hills loom behind my eyes. I see dreamy bonfires and can almost hear the faint sound of drums echoing from the past. For a while, there’s nothing but a black winding road, sky, and soft rolling meadows with pale blue and purple flowers. Then I spy the first of the estates where the tribe resides. In the distant hills far from the road I study the architecture. They’re much different than the eighteenth-century stone homes in our cul-de-sac, and the buildings in the town square too. They’re constructed of pale sandstone and the adobe lines stand tall and linear. Abundant with generous-sized windows perfectly reflecting the white sky above us, the estates rise into two stories and extend into multiple modules, like wings that house more than a single generation. I imagine great-grands and grandparents sitting around the dinner table sharing stories to the young ones about their traditions and mysterious powers. My heart pounds with a longing, wishing I’d been part of a lineage that had even a drop of the extraordinary. The thought fades as I see more estates and Rob continues down the road. Some of the rooftops have flags; I eye them as they ripple wildly in the wind. Curiosity builds inside of me as I see some estates have only gold flags, but many have flags of red slashed diagonally with white lightning. My eyes linger on the red flags, and my heart starts to crunch like an accordion until it shrinks into a painful shriveled mess. I take a deep breath, but it only makes it worse. I feel like I swallowed a boa constrictor that tightens around my already shriveled heart. I literally can’t breathe for a few seconds, and panic surges swift through every vein inside of me until oxygen crashes inside my blood and sends me a gush of relief.
The road gradually unfurls like the curves of a long sea snake and the green land and soft hills open. I notice that groves of trees separate the estates like small private parks and enjoy Rob’s easy pace of twenty-five miles per hour as I soak up every inch of the newness around me.
As we pass the last of the estates the land opens up to miles and miles of farmland. Some plots have fruit-bearing trees and long rows of vegetation. Then we drive by flocks of sheep grazing lazily. Their chubby woolen torsos and skinny legs make my lips curve, and a wily chuckle softly fills my mouth. Several closer to the road look up, their elfin ears wriggling as dark noses glisten and round eyes look me dead in the face with only the vaguest interest. I crane my neck when I spy a herd of horses along the hilltop. running freely across the expansive green. My eyes sparkle and nearly burst as the pale morning light washes onto their silky coats and their manes, tangling in the currents as they gallop freely across the green. Several horses gather close and the sun slides over their coiled flexing muscles as they brush their heads against each other. The largest of them all suddenly forges ahead, its muscles bunching fiercely as it pulls away from the others, who quicken their gaits to catch up.
So, this is where my Cheveyan classmates live? I think to myself, understanding now why they seem so different from the rest of us. They are. They live in here in their own world, surrounded by nothing but nature and age-old traditions.
A mountain of trees rises high above the ascending land and gravity weighs heavy on my chest along with a strange noise of crackling electricity that pops inside my ears. I sense we’re getting close to the woods and fuzzy images from my dream begin running amok inside my mind. My heart swells as a riveting sensation pushes my awareness to the side as though something inside of me wants to get a front row seat of the world. My fingers try to grip at the leather seats as my eyes glare pleadingly at the rearview mirror hoping to catch my mom’s eyes, but her face is turned and looking out of the window. Seconds later I feel the sensation of my awareness retreat into a dim corner of my mind as my dreaming self finds a way to exist in both worlds. “Julion,” my dream-self says, sounding breathless and surprised. My chest barrels with a flood of air and my eyes grow even wider.
I breathe deeply, afraid that if I answer it will mean that I’ve truly lost my mind.
I can’t see the realm of my dream-self, but I feel both my life and hers simultaneously as my brain pleasantly floats, steady as a virtuoso wire walker perfectly managing the balancing act. I hear Rob’s voice in the background of my still spellbinding experience, but when I catch the name Santi Clearwater, my ears feel like they’ve grown twice their size. Clearwater—that’s the chief’s name. My dream-self shivers with alertness at the mention of his name, too.
“His estate is up ahead,” Rob is saying. “He and his family are full-fledged Cheveyan,” he informs us, a tinge of pride coloring the timbre of his voice. “The chief’s three oldest sons never married outside the tribe either, so there’s a branch of Clearwaters whose blood remains pure.”
His words cause the lens of my attention to focus clearer.
His estate is grander than the others with its balcony overlooking expansive acres of lush green. It sits above a veranda that wraps around the house and though I haven’t met Santi, I imagine he spends many nights on the balcony gazing up at the moon and the faraway trees. Just as we pass his property, I notice the rear is surrounded by a wall of tall pines. I can’t help the thought that whispers that something hides behind those trees. Something he doesn’t want those who pass by to see. I have to drag my eyes away from the pines, and then I see the landscape changing as we drive by a cluster of mature trees. There’s a wide clearing of grass where the flat land grows into mountains of trees shrouded in fog. The road curves around the area and a long line of cars, SUVs, and 4X4s snake forward en route to get a parking space.
Some of the spectators have already arrived and are walking toward the mountain of trees that I suspect is the entrance to the woods. A sudden breeze blows from inside the thicket of bark and leaves and sweeps across the field. The grass trembles and golden lines of sunlight shimmer along the blades as every living thing in the wake of the currents sways and bends from its wide breath. My back straightens as though a rod has slid down my spine when I hear the chimes of life fluttering and filling the world around us like swarms of bells clinking delicately in every key and direction.
We’re closer to our destination but halted by the slow-moving line of vehicles waiting to be directed toward the designated parking area. The ground is bumpy, and we sway left and then back to center every few seconds before advancing to a snail’s pace. “Well, we’re here,” Rob announces a bit late but with a hint of excitement that colors his cadence. I watch his seatbelt soundlessly retract into the holder then curiously look around as a spark of alertness zips through me like I’ve been struck by lightning.
I notice a man heading in our direction. His long hair is pulled back into a single loose band. He waves Rob through while halting the other vehicles in front of us. I feel like a VIP for the first time in my life, and my chest puffs as Rob veers around the other cars and my shoulder softly smashes into the door. I notice the curious faces of those we’re passing as they eye Rob with interest and a little envy, I suppose.
“That’s Santi.” The warmth in Rob’s voice hints at his fondness and admiration of the man. He smiles as the window soundlessly rolls down and the air, humid from last night’s rain, gently eases inside the car. My eyes stay focused on the man, noticing his gait, which is both athletic and regal. I stir inside, as intimidation and excitement form a rare recipe. This is my first time seeing a direct descendant of the chief, yet something about him is deeply familiar and stirs me from the depth of my soul
He’s tall and his shoulders are noticeably wide. The sun is weak, but it still transforms his cinnamon skin into a sheen of bronze metal. I glance to my mom and Rob expecting one of them to make a remark about the unusual effect of the sun on his flesh, but neither of them says anything. I sigh, resigning myself to the idea that for some reason, I’m the only one having one bizarre experience after another. When I inhale, I catch the faint fragrance of damp earth and what I instinctively know is the scent from the creek. It smells musky and teaming with life.
“How’s it going?” Rob is all easygoing as he grabs his Ray-Bans from a compartment in the car’s ceiling. From the corner of my eye, I see him slipping them to the top of his head, but my attention is full blast on the handsome stranger.
“Busy as ever. The cars started arriving by five a.m.” The proximity of Santi and the sound of his voice create an even deeper sense of familiarity. My heart pricks with a pain that makes no sense to me. But his soul reverberates inside mine like a mallet striking a large gong. Nervous jitters ride along my nerve endings as I secretly spy on him from the rear shadows of the car. His raven eyes are black like marbles and his ebony hair shines like water beneath the night sky. He’s attractive in a way that makes my blood steamy but there’s something about him that feels untouchable or distant. I suspect that if I reached over and touched his hand, mine might pass through his flesh because he’s timeless and not really here. If things couldn’t get any weirder, a sudden vision of him in native attire dashing blisteringly fast through a patch of bushes flits through my mind. His dark eyes narrow and his face scowls. A knife sheathed at his side rumbles as he moves. His hand reaches behind, slipping an arrow from the quiver. My breath explodes as he slides to a dusty halt, nocking the arrow and sending it cutting deadly fast, nicking leaves and branches as it travels toward the mark. Invigorated air spreads inside my body, my eyes water, and my chest heaves. The reverie shatters, and my eyes drop in a daze, still shimmering as they rest on his luminous fingers gripping the edge of the opened car window.
I slowly return to the present, just in time to get clobbered by the scent of his pheromones riding on the breeze gushing inside the car. He smells like the ocean air sweeping through a field of lavender. It fills my lungs and then some. My lids close softly over my eyes, and open to see him nodding hello to my mom. He still hasn’t seen me yet.
Rob moans—it rumbles like a growl as he offers his friend a bit of sympathy. “You’re going to have a long day ahead of you.” He laughs. It’s hard not to miss how relaxed he is around anyone but me, and I can easily see them having a beer at the Bear Claw Pub: sports on the large TV while friendly grins and smile lines crease their eyes.
“As always.” Santi nods, then pans around to someone else directing the cars in his place. He’s a younger version of Santi—similar complexion, black glossy hair worn long, but more muscular. Despite the distance, I can tell he’s handsome. Dark eyebrows, square jaw, and athletic prowess. I gawk, moistening my lips as they part. Santi’s eyes turn away from the long-haired Cheveyan and land on me as though there was an invisible cord from the athletic Cheveyan to the back of the car that he simply followed until it reached me. My heart thumps and the shock in his eyes when our gaze meets is unmistakable. His stare scorches me through like a red-hot sword slipping into my heart. I can’t breathe for a few seconds as the grip from his stare lasts for what seems an eternity. When his eyes blink the sword slides out of my chest. My eyes squint with blatant confusion. His gaze isn’t mean or harsh but the impression it leaves has lasting power. My head gets woozy, and my eyes close and open in slow motion just in time to see his brows knit together. It’s so fleeting it’s barely noticeable. But when he shakes his head, catching his reaction before it takes hold, I’m as certain as can be—he thinks I look familiar. And what’s more, we both know it.
The entire exchange is less than three seconds, so Rob doesn’t notice any of it, and he continues with his conversation as though something strange and supernatural didn’t just take place. “We need to catch up.” Rob nods as his eyes scan around fleetingly. “Maybe take in an Eagles game?”
“Sounds like a winner,” Santi says, inclining his head and tapping lightly on the top of the car before announcing that he has to get back to directing the traffic. He sends me one last soul-shattering glance before his eyes scan the area like everything is normal, as though he doesn’t seem mysterious, as though his eyes don’t possess a force that I’ve never experienced before. I watch as he salutes Rob and my world cracks with fissures that threaten to destroy everything I thought I understood about life and what was normal.
My eyes won’t let go of him as he walks away, even as Rob’s car widens the distance between us. My heart crumbles to dust with every step he takes and leaves my chest barren and achingly hollow. My heart crumbles a bit more as he grows even farther away, and it hurts to breathe. I realize it makes no sense, but maybe to my dream-self, it does. I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head praying that when I open them, the spell of the stranger will break. I open my eyes and gratefully, I feel more like myself again.
There’s a leafy hollow, and when the wind blows, a path appears. I happily notice something that feels mundane, then pay attention to Rob as he backs into a parking space. He’s as serious as a scientist taking grave measurements who hold the balance of mankind in his very hand as he pulls up, then backs again and turns the leather-covered steering wheel left and right and then left again for the final time. When the car eventually stops and he slips the key from the car’s ignition, I launch from my seat like a rocket. Marching off starry-eyed, my heart still feels the remnants of the aching transaction with the chief’s descendant and I feel desperate to find something to distract me. I eye the fluffy crown of the trees whispering in the wind and when the branches fan apart I spy a narrow entrance into what I know is the trail that leads to the woods. My gaze drops to my sneakers swooshing across balding grass and I follow the worn path. When I get too far my nerves begin to fray and my breath becomes shallow. I temper my trailblazing to a slow tentative mosey as I look through the bushes, left and right over and over, truly expecting to see an animal, teeth bared, body hunched and ready to have me as its first meal of the day. I gape over my shoulder to see if Rob is close enough to rescue me in case I need him in a pinch and growl when I see both of them still gathering things from inside of the car.
A family that parked after us is heading my way and their two little boys march bravely past me without the slightness bit of fear. The mother smiles she passes, and the dad gives me a half wave and a single nod. I return the greeting, raising my hand and moving it side to side with a bright smile as I secretly fume at how long my mom and Rob are taking.
I stay put, kicking a few stones near my feet until my boiling blood reduces to a simmer because they’re finally marching my way with happy grins on their faces. When my mom gets close enough, she reaches out her arm toward me, my white sweater draping from her hand.
I take it, hiding my annoyance and tying it around my waist as Rob advances and leads us through the bush like he’s Indiana Jones or something. My mom’s the pretty professor that Indiana Jones has taken a liking to, and I’m the flunky assistant that keeps peering around his shoulder wondering if there’s any black bears wandering our way. My hair is tied back in a knot that keeps bouncing on the back of my neck—the loose strands feel like insects and I constantly swat myself until I realize I probably look like I’ve lost my mind. As we make our way through the brush, I begin to feel convinced that there’s no danger and relaxing more, I begin looking around. When my eyes lift, I see a delicate latticework ceiling of branches with sun-washed leaves covered in tiny veins. My eyes squint when I catch what looks to be man-made steps climbing the side of the rock face. It’s partially hidden from view by thin wispy bushes growing from the crevices of rocks, so I can’t be sure, but memories of fairytales and children’s stories sprinkle images inside my imagination of lost treasure chests and magical forests. Rob veers in the direction of the hidden steps and my stomach rumbles with excitement with each step that he takes.
Rob is cool on steroids with his Ray-Bans on top of his head, white polo, and hiking boots; he pushes the overgrown branches blocking the stairwell and looks back at me and my mom without saying a word. My mom goes first, and I follow close behind as Rob waits with an encouraging smile on his sun-kissed face.
There are only ten or so steps before we reach the main trail, and a group of rowdy youths passes us by while we make our way out of tangled vines and thick, wiry bushes. Rob stands at the edge of the trail looking out at the misty sky before he sighs loudly and opens his arms wide. My mom beams and I feel like I've officially entered a new world as I look across the dark soiled trail where black cliffs farther away are separated from us by a wide gully and a wooden fence that protects the hikers from falling inisde it.
My mind is like taffy, slowly stretching to make room for unfamiliar emotions that rise up from deep inside and skitter through my veins injecting me with quiet anticipation. My dream-self nudges my mind to the side once again, her eyes sliding over mine like a thin glassy film that makes the world shimmer alive. And just in case I’m not sure if she’s really there or not, she changes the rules of our world and makes the wind move in slow motion, and sprinkles it with whispering words that ride on its currents. My head tilts to the side as I try to make out what the words are saying, but they’re just beyond the reach of hearing. Though my dream-self is in charge I still feel my body like it’s my own, shivering when the wind tickles the ridges of my ears and letting out a moan of annoyance when strands of hair stick to my moist skin. The wind blows again, and I listen hard enough to hear the words “God of the Great Skies …” uttered with great emotion. The words bathe me in overwhelming reverence and fill my body with ancient memories of battling warriors with feathers woven into their plaits and painted faces running through a field thick with plumes of black clouds that block out the sky. I see dark-haired priestesses, eyes wide with horror, rushing down a torchlit corridor. My eyes pan around, molasses-slow. I’m inside a great hall thick with the echoes of uttered prayers and the remnants of deep mysteries. My eyes land on steps that lead into a lower level where I know the answers to secrets lie. My body tingles with an irresistible urge to go below; a swirling fog appears, the steps disappear, and I feel my dream-self behind me, staring at me with as much confusion as I feel as I slowly spin around to face her. My mouth parts to speak, but I hear the words again—“Great God of the Skies”—and I’m paralyzed inside an all-consuming joy that makes every cell inside of me sing with ecstasy. I feel larger and my flesh is almost as weightless as my dream-self. The visions fade but not the phrase that repeats over and over. My heart patters rapidly, threatening to burst with the exhilaration of a dream that feels more like a memory rising to the surface. The words soon fade away but my emotions remain heightened, stinging me as they rush through blood and bone and wash away cobwebs and old decrepit pains stuck in crevices and corners inside me. Something within feels as though it’s being born—or reborn.
With my dream-self still peering through my eyes, we both look out at the new world in awe. There’s nothing made by the hands of man, only tall cliffs separated from where I stand by a wide abyss that I eagerly walk toward to examine. When I reach the edge of the precipice my eyes drop to the deep chasm where a canal of water rushes alongside a beach, crashing into froth along the tiny, pebbled rocks. Splintered tree trunks splay across the water’s surface, and two hikers use one of the trunks as a makeshift bridge to carefully tread the slippery surface, wobbling dangerously as they travel from one side of the creek to the other.
I turn my eyes and begin walking again, viewing more of the world as my gaze lands on columns of bark and earth rising toward the skies like sentries guarding the realm of natural beauty. The black cliffs sparkle, still damp from the rain, and the ground shivers with creation as its dark rich soil incubates seeds that will keep the woods pregnant with life for an eternity. I spy roots out of the corner of my eye far from the mother-trees—they’ve broken through the dirt like long curious fingers thirsting to feel the pattering of the humans and animals that are passing through the majestic gates of the natural landscape. All around the bush are vines and fresh green moss scaling the uneven black surface of the cliffs that cut into the sky and overlook the path that I and the other hikers farther away are traveling on. The fragrant aroma of musky soil and moss rushes up to my nostrils and my eyes instinctively turn to find the origin of the scent. When they lift, I find the ceiling of the forest is a canopy not made of sky, but of translucent emerald-colored leaves where rays of sunlight fall between the openings to the ground.
When we’ve walked long enough for the emotions of both me and my dream-self to quiet, even more senses are born, and I begin to hear the music of forest. Birds chirp, bullfrogs moan, and creatures scattering through the bush cause the leaves to both sing and shiver as though fairies are about to rise from the foliage and reveal themselves. I no longer doubt that fairies exist and keep an eye out just in case one or more of them are skittering through the bush while more sounds filter through the background of my distracted awareness. I’m lost inside a swath of unseen fog, as half-dreaming, half-awake eyes scan left and right and new emotions are born. I know something is christening me with ancient energies that span more than just this world and whisper that magic is real and abounds in the wind, the rocks, and the plant life around me. Wings flutter beneath the skin of my shoulder blades as though they might sprout any minute now and permanently merge both realms into one. I’m drawn to everything around me, extending my hand to touch the coarse bark of trees and the wiry branches of bushes. A mighty wind blows by, sweeping my sweater from my hips, and my face snaps to the side just in time to see a blur of wind streaking the air. My eyes follow the direction of the wind as it crosses hundreds of feet within seconds, leaving branches fluttering in its wake. I inhale a sharp breath, and the words wind chaser explode inside my mind as the air rushes down my throat. I’ve just seen one!
I spin around, my mouth about to call out the words, but when I see my mom and Rob chatting pleasantly I know they didn’t see a thing. I search the faces of the others around us, desperately looking for signs of awe and bewilderment, but there are none. They’re all just chatting, wiping their brows, and lifting water bottles to their lips. I turn back, my heart still racing and my nerves sparking like fried electrical wires, and I swallow my awe.
Something about the woods feels like a homecoming and all imaginings of animals gobbling me up are long gone. The trail gradually straightens to reveal a breathtaking view of just how vast the Valley is. And I hear my dream-self as she tells me that it is the creek that presides over the landscape, ruling it with ancient waters that used to be a sea that sliced through the canyon like the mightiest of swords, chiseling rock and sculpting it into the shape of a sleeping serpent. I look down at the creek, only now noticing that it resembles a slumbering snake coiled at the bottom of the black hills.
The trail continues to unfurl until I see the fullness of the landscape, and only now do I realize all of us are hundreds of feet below ground level, at the bottom of the ancient sea. My dream-self whispers again. “We’re inside the belly of the earth, embraced by walls of black cliffs on both sides of us, and like mighty arms they temper the sweeping winds, leaving the plant life along the trails only mildly affected while the trees higher up sway almost violently in the crosswinds.” I look around in awe. My new home is a mighty basin of rock and living waters. I breathe the clear sweet air into my oversized lungs and wonder why I’m being told so many things.
The sound of a phone goes off, startling me back into the real world, and my dual awareness evaporates almost instantly. I look around, reorienting myself and noticing that somehow my mom and Rob are now behind me and closer to the side of the trail where the wooden fence stands as a barrier for the ravine and the creek below. Life reanimates as the voices sound louder, and I startle when I hear high-pitched laughter and see someone taking a picture of their two friends. No one is patting their pockets, and only now do I realize it’s because the ringing is coming from my own phone. I eye the caller ID and swipe to answer it.
“Where are you?” It’s Rhianna, her husky voice anxious and bubbly.
“We just got here a little while ago,” I answer, not really knowing how much time has passed. My eyes sweep around just in case she asks me to describe where I am on the trail. Trees, green, black cliffs, creek below. Oh, that’s describing everywhere.
“We?” Her voice rises half an octave.
I eye my mom and Rob walking by me now and answer her, sounding soft and airy. “Where are you?”
“Down by the Coburgan estate. So, you just got on the trail?”
I hear voices in the background, gay laughter, and snatches of words seeping through her phone. We talk and she tells me what she’s wearing and how to find her, and then her voice trembles with excitement.
“I’m standing right next to them,” she says in a hushed whisper.
“Who?” I wonder, my stomach muscles tightening like a vise is squishing the life out of it.
“The trilogy.” Rhianna’s words are muffled, and I imagine her hand shielding her mouth. It sounds like she’s talking through a can that has a string connected to another can farther away. “I’m where all the rowers begin the race.” A pang of excitement surges through like lightning grounding me to the earth. My knees tickle in the process as I think about how I’m soon to discover who Rhianna and all the girls in school have been going on about.
I say goodbye to my mom and Rob who are meeting up with their own group of friends and make my way to find Rhianna. I keep glancing down at the water’s surface—it’s dappled with silver-gold sunlight. The beach narrows and widens as it spirals around the feet of the rock face, and when a breeze sways the trees growing from the side of the cliff I get a peek of the white stone of the Coburgan mansion. My neck cranes to see between the settled leaves, but another wind sweeps by and reveals even more of the estate. There’s a handsome balcony surrounded by wrought iron and rows of windowpanes the color of the bluing sky. My brows pinch, squinting my eyes as I wonder how I’m supposed to reach Rhianna when the mansion is on the other side of the creek?
After a few more minutes I see some of the hikers splintering between a structure that looks like the opening to a cave and a dirt path that continues in a winding direction through a patch of thickets. I see that the cave is a moss-covered tunnel. I call Rhianna to make sure I’m going the right way as I enter the cool, dim tunnel that smells like fresh moist earth. Three younger girls brush by me, arms flailing, braids everywhere. Their feral cackles shock the inside of the tunnel, smarting my eardrums in the process and blocking out every word coming out of Rhianna’s mouth.
“Umbrella magnolias?” I say, having heard nothing else.
She chuckles. “Yes, just look for yellow blossoms on something shorter than a tree and go in that direction.”
After clicking off I check my phone for the time. It’s 9:04 a.m. when I exit the tunnel, noticing the clouds have drifted by the sun and the light falling from above that warms the air from the cool rain the night before. The humidity thickens the breeze with warmth, and the knot of hair sitting at the nape of my neck smothers my skin with heat. I lift my hair and wipe a sheet of sweat from my skin, noting it feels more like August than the beginning of October. I spot the grove of hearty three-petaled blooms not far away, feeling encouraged that I’m headed in the right direction and rallied by the thought of seeing what the trilogy looks like.
I look across the trail, shielding my eyes from the splash of sun spilling down even brighter now, and head toward the wooden barrier. I’m emboldened and giddy as I slip my leg through the dry splintered rails without hesitation or fear. Excitement injects every cell in my body with quiet mirth as my feet sink into the dark, leaf-covered soil. I look around feeling as much a part of nature now as the different shades of green life all generously doused in sun. The sweater around my waist flaps gently in the wind, landing softly on the back of my thighs each time it lights down. When my gaze lowers to the crest below I note the steep angle and how muddled with decomposing leaves and other debris the surface is. It still glistens moistly from the rain. I take my first two steps and find that the earth feels more like a sliding board made from moist soil sprinkled with shards of bark, twigs, and rocks that stick up like jagged weapons. The trees here are old and soar high above the soil, their branches sprouting only once they’ve cleared thirty feet from the ground level. Their barren, naked appearance reminds me of the light posts in my old neighborhood instead of real living trees. I continue to inspect my environment, noticing the foliage at eye level is rich and plentiful. I’m in the middle of thick bushes and saplings, and the leaves create a patchwork of varying shades of green that block out the full view of the activity on the beach below. I reach out to touch a vine, pulling on it to test its sturdiness. The rough surface feels both slimy and coarse inside my warm palm, but the vine is strong enough to support a sumo wrestler carrying another sumo wrestler on his back. The vines are plentiful too, and some hang freely as they slowly sway like pendulums in the breeze. Others are tangled, creating circles and ovals as they intertwine with each other and the fragile branches of nearby bushes.
I take my first step down into the unforgiving wilderness. My foot swiftly drops further than I expected, and my ankle bends to the side as my sneaker lands crookedly on a thick root traveling horizontally across the terrain. I stumble, my body crashing sideways faster than my eyes can see. But somehow my palm slams against the uneven bark of a nearby tree, balancing me in an instant and preventing me from tumbling down the hill and landing in a heap of humiliation. I shudder, and my eyes intense from the near mishap, focus between the bushes and trees down the sixty-foot drop to the happy, animated crowd below. Straddling a root with my legs, I straighten my body and by chance spy the rower’s canoes peeking through bobbing branches. They’re nestled right at the bend of the beach, their shiny white and blue finishes gleaming blindingly in the sun. I catch sight of a few athletes attired in white pants or shorts and blue polo shirts. A sheen of perspiration suddenly coats my upper body from my face all the way to my arms as I watch them interacting robustly, slapping backs and playfully pushing one another while their faraway laughter hitches a ride on the air. They’re all finely built with broad shoulders and corded biceps that bulge beneath skintight polos. My face grows warm and the air rushing down my throat is quietly feral as my enthusiasm bubbles to see them up close. The sight of the rowers erases my fear of falling as effervescent emotions loom inside my chest and tickle the inside of my stomach. I resume my trek, taking another step. Air passes my lips, quivering eagerly down to my lungs; my chest expands, and my eyes brighten. I take a few more steps down, my feet pointed like a ballerina on her tippy toes. Muscles tighten their grip around stomach as my body pivots backward for balance. It feels odd and unstable, and every nerve inside my body screams to just inch my way down and to hold onto every available branch that I can wrap my hands around. I obey happily—even my stubborn side thinks it’s a good idea. I grab onto the closest vine; my sigh trembling, nonetheless. My eyes are keen as an eagle’s now, and I notice every inch of the ground which is wrought with debris and thick roots peeking between dark wet leaves. I’d have zero leverage were it not for the vines in my tight grasp.
Every step changes the soil, loosening small stones and crumbling the debris beneath my feet. I’m probably an archaeologist’s worse nightmare, but I wish the earth would stay put as well. I’m nostalgic for asphalt about now, and the unchangeable paved sidewalks too. I sense my body angling sideways—my feet do as well, both sneakers facing rightward. With a branch in one hand and a vine in the other, I manage to gain a few more feet toward my destination. I feel like Spiderman scaling a wall, my pursed lips softening as the lines between my brow melt. I take a few more brave steps—I’m still in one piece. Armed with more courage, I decide that going snail-slow is the culprit. I think about my mom and Rob and how they’re probably safe on the edge of the beach laughing with friends. The image spurs me on and I take tiny two-stepped leaps as my pounding heart thunders in protest.
I take two more little leaps—my left foot lands on nothing but an empty pocket of dirt. My knee buckles, and my foot ends up beneath me. I have no idea how. I feel dirt and debris sliding inside my sock before I somehow manage to straighten out my leg. I’m halfway standing, but still sliding down and over the gravel—it’s just a better look than the rag doll configuration. My arms are out like a surfer balancing on a board and my eyes are darting around at insane speeds looking for something to grab onto. Instead, I see something that puts balancing in second place. Wide tree stump ahead! Stop!!! My brain is screaming so loud it hurts inside my ears. Breath rumbles up my throat and the guttural groans exiting my lips sound nothing like me. There are long vines everywhere—I can see them from the corner of my eyes, some round, some unbounded and loose. All I have to do is reach out and chances are good I’ll grasp onto something. My fingers stretch, extending themselves as far as they can reach. I’m trying so hard to grab onto something I expect bones to split through the tips of my fingers at any moment.
Another odd sound rings out—a shriek rushing from my throat along with the intense sting of pain in my fingers and palms. I found a vine, but it has thorns. My hand jerks away, and my speed down the hill increases dangerously. My knees collapse—again. It changes the trajectory of my descent. I tumble sideways once, and it’s a good thing except now I’m fully prostrate—only my head is perked up. I feel my eyes bulging, sweeping swiftly in all directions for a solution. Despite so much going on, I feel the sweater around my waist bundling up and peeling away, leaving just my shirt between the harsh earth and my skin. Pebbles begin scraping against my spine and dirt jams beneath my fingernails. I’m still desperately grabbing for anything rooted in the earth that can hold me in place.
Suddenly my mind slows down. This is it. This is how I die, humiliated as my body tumbles down, ending up in a heap of broken bones right at the feet of the entire Valley of hoity-toity descendants. In my frightening reverie, I live just long enough to see their radiant faces literally looking down their noses with expressions aghast. Another problem shows up. This one real and big. At the foot of the hill, blocking what would have been my not-so-graceful entry to the crowd is a massively large gray boulder the circumference of a very huge bear. If the tumble doesn’t kill me—this will. Really—it will. I crane my head up and to the side; two flashes of something catch my attention. In unison the flashes evolve into a long continuous streak like a shooting star falling horizontally. Wind chasers to the rescue! I think, frightened into delusion. I’ve lost my mind as blurs of blue and white still appear dashing and whizzing through the bark and bushes at the speed of light. Out of the corner of my eye, I even see branches see-sawing in their wake. The entire experience lasts only a moment, but I’m seconds away from my first kiss with none other than a boulder. What a way to die, I lament.
Moments later my heart seizes at the sensation of warm flesh tightly grasping around my arms and halting my free-fall. I look up, dazed, my body and mind still reeling though everything is suddenly immobile. My thoughts and emotions haven’t gotten the memo and are still in a state of accelerated motion. In a confused state of amazement, my eyes latch onto two tall, stunningly good-looking boys on either side of me. With radiant skin that almost glows, I know they’re definitely Cheveyan.
“Oh my God!” I say, breathy, voice uncommonly shrill and wondering where they came from. They both help me to my feet as though I’m feather-light. There’s a fallen tree nearby and they guide me to it so I can sit down and catch my breath, I suppose.
Despite my stupor, I feel something like two warm laser beams landing softly on my skin. When I look behind me, I find it’s coming from the gaze of one of my rescuers. I can tell he didn’t expect me to turn to look at him, and he averts his eyes quickly. I can’t look away. I only saw his eyes briefly, but something inside them reminded me of iridescent light. I’m staring; my expression of pleading bewilderment stuns him when he finally looks my way again. Our eyes lock. Lock, as in hard to turn away, and not because he thinks I’m beautiful, or because his eyes are mesmerizing. My eye muscles feel stuck in one direction; his eyes widen as though he’s as surprised as I am by the strange sensation that I’m nearly one hundred percent sure he feels too. His brows furrow and he manages to turn away. His eyes leaving mine is like a string of taffy that snaps in the space between us. My mouth parts. The other boy speaks as though on cue.
“Her hand,” is his brief comment. His voice is scratchy and deep.
My hand closest to the boy with the intense gaze is bruised. I can’t feel any pain; I only realize it because he’s lifting my hand to examine the blood and bruises smeared across my palm. Gently he brushes away the small particles of crumbs soiling my flesh, making sure to avoid the violent scratches that are oozing beads of shiny red blood. I remain silent—still wondering about his eyes—holding my breath and expecting to feel pain at any moment. I don’t. But I feel his friend watching us. My heart rate begins decelerating as air expands into tight lungs. Everything is slowing and becoming absolutely quiet. My caretaker’s attentiveness is coaxing my muscles; they’re becoming lax and a soft tingling begins stirring and pouring down my veins. My eyes close slowly, and my lips part as a soft breath releases. I feel as though something lovely is pouring through the top of my head, into every vein as it courses toward my caretaker’s hands.
His hands let go of mine. The tingling sensation stops immediately. I hear a searing noise. The hem of his polo is in his hand. I glimpse his smooth, lean muscled stomach. He grabs the edge of his blinding white tee shirt, ripping the bottom of it. I feel a rush of calm surging through my body. It’s warm and comforting and finds its way to my heart where it swells softly. He’s making a makeshift bandage and some part of me feels relief—it’s going to keep the bad germs away. When he grabs my wrist again, a vague jolt explodes between his touch and my skin. I feel the tingling again, this time more forceful and rushing down the veins in my arms; it smashes through my palm and penetrates his hand. He pauses. I can tell he’s shocked. I am too. His eyes are still on my hand, but he’s frozen, and I know he wants to look up at me. He’s dying to. But he doesn’t. He takes a deep breath, his wide shoulders lifting as the air travels into his lungs. He adjusts his hands and starts moving again, his fingers digging into my wrist with snug pressure. The jolt continues feeding us both as it soars down my arm and into his fingers. The zinging sensation is amazing. It feels like pure life connecting everything around us, the trees, blades of grass, and rocks into a silent melody. Some part of me wants to let out a loud bellowing sigh. I want to feel whatever this is for the rest of my life. It’s smooth, mercury fast, and exciting. I’m lost. Mesmerized. My eyes are glued to his hands as they wrap the bandage around my wound. I flinch. He freezes. His eyes almost look up at mine. They pause at my lips instead. When my mouth softly closes, he begins wrapping my hand again.
A faraway sound startles me, piercing a cocoon I only now notice is around the three of us. I sense it—an invisible aura connecting the three of us inside a world of our own. The sound shatters the delicate tissues of the cocoon and the outside world slowly invades our perfect haven. Noises enter, and from the corner of my eyes I see life moving as branches sway and leaves flutter. It was the bell tower sounding out that broke apart our little world and the last of the chimes is doing pirouettes on the wind.
“Are you all right?” my other rescuer asks as I feel him brushing debris from the back of my shirt, and then my hair. He goes gently on the hair; the knot is probably nearly undone by now. I notice his hands are large like his friend’s. They feel heavy, though I can tell he’s trying to be gentle.
I look over at him, still feeling far away. I nod that I’m fine. He has a slender muscular build like his friend. I’m surprised to see his hair is ash blond; it looks freshly cut, short but just long enough for the curls to bend. It’s unkempt like he rubbed his hands through it. When I meet his golden hazel eyes, I feel intensity radiating from them. His complexion is brown, and the undertone of gold shines radiantly. He looks as though his blood is made from gold and his beauty creates a longing inside me as I lose myself even more inside his almond-shaped Cheveyan eyes. He’s simply too perfect to exist in the world. It takes a moment for my mind to untangle itself from his otherworldly features and realize that I’ve already nodded that I was fine.
“I think so.” I decide to say in conjunction with the nod—which probably took place about five seconds ago. My voice is scratchy and high. It sounds nothing like me. Had I been screaming as I tumbled? Oh, God, I hope not! He finishes cleaning me up and steps away, sliding his hands halfway into the pockets of his white shorts. He gives his friend, who looks briefly his way, a small nod that seems to impart my positive prognosis.
I turn my attention back to my caretaker medic, curious as to why concern for me is even an issue. Coming to my rescue is one thing, and it’s noble, but to care if I am going to be okay? That’s something far more perplexing. I begin sensing into the one still working on me—slowly. I feel a tightness at the pit of my stomach that’s oddly exciting. I have a feeling he’s telling himself not to look at me again. It makes the tension between us expand like a rubber band threatening to snap. The excitement grows into a fire that is scorching the insides of both of us. I don’t know how I can feel into him and wonder if my dream-self is responsible for it.
Never turning my eyes even for a moment, I keep them fixed on him. His lashes are dark and shiny, his raven hair is buzz-cut short, and each strand shines almost silver. His skin is a shade lighter than his friend’s. His bronze and gold undertones make him look as though he’s swallowed a flask of sunlight. Apart from his friend and the other Cheveyan, I’ve never seen skin like theirs up close. I squint because I think I saw a shimmer of sunlight flash momentarily from his veins. I have a feeling he knows I’m staring. Somehow, I know the more he refuses to look at me and quench my unspoken desire for his eyes, the more the desire thunders and threatens to tear something inside of him to shreds.
Once he’s completed wrapping my wound, he folds the end of the makeshift bandage inside the space between the wrapping and the tender flesh of my wrist. When our skin loses contact, the zinging feeling that was running through my veins halts, pops, and dies. He unfolds his tall body, towering above me as a quiet strength radiates from the mounds of muscle that begin at his shoulders and cascade down his thick-veined arms. His flesh glistens like skin forged from metal. His gaze is still on my hand as his bronze fingers take hold of my wrist. With one powerful jerk, he pulls me up from the tree trunk and to my feet. His long fingers loosen from my wrist and a jolt of disappointment tears through my chest. A nanosecond later, he slides his large palm into my unbruised hand, restoring the hairline fractures in my heart and making it whole again. The zinging in my veins returns, but now it’s cool like mercury, palpable, stronger, and starting to send chills racing through me. His back arches reflexively, like ice slipped down his shirt—he feels it too, I’m sure.
I should feel like a royal dork staring at his strong masculine profile the entire time he escorts me down the hill. He moves slowly, clearly for my benefit, and the earth yields to him, to them both. I can’t help but scoff at how I could’ve used some ground rubble stability about fifteen minutes ago! I can feel his friend behind us, his eyes studying me and sending two cool laser beams on my back. I’m inside the cocoon again; the safety they’re sending me radiates from their very pores and I feel like a princess being protected by warriors. Ha! Me? A princess? But I feel utterly at ease, all the way to my bones. We take our last steps from the descending earth and onto the pebbled beach. I wish I could wallow in their strength forever and I am secretly pleased that my medic doesn’t let go of my hand—at least not yet. I expected he would, especially now that the spectators’ heads are turning one by one our way, their expressions going from casual to alarmed when they notice my bandaged hand.
There are several broad-shouldered men with long silky black hair and bronze skin that shimmers in the sunlight. They remind of Santi, but bigger. It’s obvious they’re Cheveyan, but when they nod at my two rescuers, I realize they obviously know each other. My eyes squint, my head tilting to the side when I notice something on the side of one of the men’s necks. It’s a black scorch-like scar that starts at his neck, hides under his shirt, and peeks out again from his elbow down to his wrist. My curiosity steals all of my attention until I see his friend has a black scar too. His is accompanied by a chunk of skin removed from his earlobe that I only see when the wind sweeps his hair away from his shoulders. The marks resemble a claw that grabbed his head, then the nails dragged down his temple toward his ear as he escaped its capture, but it nicked it his lobe before he reached safety.
My brain begins ticking fast as it scans my mind for what types of creatures leave black wounds, and my heart rumbles hard and fast with alarm. Both men have chiseled features, their cheeks and jaws forming strikingly pure masculine lines. They look like warlords or as though they may be part of the military. My eyes swell when I catch all three warlord-looking men glaring at me with an intensity impossible to miss. I almost shake my head as the thought solidifies that I apparently look familiar to more than just Santi. Then I hear Rhianna’s voice in my head telling me how she thought I was an indigenie, and it all falls into place. They’re wondering who I am and why they’ve never seen me before. Something about that notion leaves me with a giddy feeling, along with a sense of belonging to something special—being a member of the Cheveyan tribe.
My eyes sweep toward my medic as his hand slides from mine. My heart drops, slamming hard to an achy thump, but our eyes lock and my mouth parts. My breath staggers inside my lungs when I notice his eyes. They are the most beautiful color I’ve ever seen—hazel with iridescent streaks of gold and blue that looks like lightning strikes. His gaze penetrates me to my core, moving past my skin and fastening to a place deep inside my being. It makes my head feel airy like a balloon, and my mind starts floating drunkenly. I swallow hard, disoriented by both his beauty and his penetrating gaze.
“What’s your surname?” he asks, his voice sounding serious and softly deep. Entwined in his cadence is the unmistakable note of concern. Air snags as it hurries up my throat and my eyes water, sensing his emotions inside me. His brows are pinched; it’s more than a casual concern. Who does he think I am? I wonder. I’m not Cheveyan, though now I’m pretty sure he believes I must be.
“My surname?” I repeat, now speechless as my mouth goes dry. I’m about to say more or repeat myself, I can’t really say, but I turn instinctively when I hear my name. It’s Rhianna, and her squeaky scream snatches me out of the intense moment I was just having. But when I turn back to my medic, he and the other boy are facing away from me as someone beckons at nearly the same time. Without saying goodbye, they sprint away in a rush, heading toward the canoes and the other athletes who are untying their vessels and pushing them into the water.
“Julion?” I twist back in Rhianna’s direction.
She’s out of breath and patting her forehead with the back of her hand. I’m so disappointed to have missed saying more to my rescuers, I feel a weight on my chest bearing down and nearly suffocating me to tears.
“Are you okay?” she asks, noticing my glassy eyes. “What happened?” she says, not giving me a chance to answer her first question as she reaches gently for my hand. She examines me, worry all over her face. “How’d you do this?”
All I notice is how dirty my fingernails are and my horror usurps the painful regret of not being able to thank or say goodbye to my rescuers. I look at both my hands now and feel like a four-year-old who’s just been making mudpies. I amble quickly toward the water’s edge, absentmindedly weaving through the crowd as the urgency to clean my hands feels like a code red moment. Rhianna is following close behind, asking again what happened, and she’s so close that I feel the heat from her body on my back.
“I sort of had a little tumble, then …” I look through the dotted crowd of spectators toward the two boys. They are much farther away, but I can still see them.
My golden rescuer spots me looking their way. His brows furrow. He doesn’t look angry, only like he’s musing about my obvious search for them. The raven-haired friend doesn’t see me as he stands there leaning prince-like on one leg, hands on hips and shoulders slanted. My blood goes supernova hot. I think he’s handsome. More than handsome.
Her voice is an octave higher when she follows my gaze to the dark-haired boy. “Max came to your rescue?”
“Yeah, so that was …” I’m still looking in their direction. The golden one with the radiant brown skin walks toward the water, his body moving with the raw coordination of an athlete. He reaches for a rope that secures the canoe and begins untying it. I notice the muscles in his arms as they flex and bunch. I crouch down, my face still in their direction, as I dip my fingers into the water. It’s arctic-cold.
“He bandaged you up?” she exclaims. Her voice is so shrill it grabs my attention and I turn to her. The material of the hoodie is clutched in her hand as though her heart’s about to seize up on her. I nearly smile but manage to keep my expression poised.
The water tickles as it moves between my fingers and I can feel the buildup of dirt releasing from beneath my fingernails. It clouds up the water for a moment before it dissipates and washes down the stream. “So, that was him?” I ask, only now really seeing her. Her skin is perfect, not even one zit. “And the guy with the ash blond hair?” I examine my nearly presentable-looking hands. They look clean, just bruised and blotchy with red marks all over my wrists and even the palm of my good hand.
“Vixbi?” Rhianna’s face is all alight, her eyes nearly rolling to the back of her head. “They both rescued you?” Her head turns in their direction as all the rowers ready themselves for the start of the race.
“Vixbi?” That’s an unusual name. “Vixbi and Max,” I mutter beneath my breath. “Why are they called the trilogy?” I straighten my body, looking around at the crowd and feeling grateful the premonition of me with broken bones and near death never came to pass. Most people have on white sweaters or windbreakers. Only a few wear the darker hue of blue. The warlord-looking men are dressed in dark tee shirts and dark jeans or black leather pants. I notice a choker around the neck of the one in leather pants—it’s similar to Santi’s. They’re big, I think, really looking them over now. And they look scary, even when they laugh and their faces light up. I sense the hint of lethal danger lurking inside all of them. It sends an uncomfortable shiver through me, and I turn to Rhianna feeling awkward for some reason.
“There’s Jackson.” She nods her head toward a kid wearing a white polo shirt that hangs over dark straight-legged jeans. His complexion is fair, his brown hair speckled with auburn highlights that shine when the sun washes onto it. He doesn’t look like a descendant but I still sense an air about him. “His father owns the Coburgan estate,” she informs me, unknowingly explaining the air he carries.
I look up toward the hills. “The mansion?” I breathe in awe. “So, he’s one of them …?”
“One of who?” Rhianna asks looking perfectly confused.
I decide not to say what’s on my mind. After all, I still don’t know where Rhianna is classified in this Valley of theirs. But what I am thinking is that Jackson is one of the smug kids in the school—that he’s a descendant of Chief Clearwater.
“No, that’s the mansion,” Rhianna corrects me, forgetting she’s asked a question.
So, Jackson’s parents don’t own the mansion. His grandfather does. And how was that really so different? I muse.
“His grandfather owns the mansion, and his ancestor was the duke of Saxe-Coburgan. So, he and the tribe own the spa too.”
Okay, so rolling in money, in other words? “Wow.” I hadn’t gotten it fully right the first time. Jackson isn’t one of the smug kids, he’s the money.
“Yeah, but his mother is Indigenous, you just can’t tell by looking at him,” she adds.
“So, he’s not on the team?” I wonder, sneaking another look back at the rowers—Max, in other words.
Rhianna’s shaking her head when I turn back around. “No, his mother doesn’t like him exerting himself. At least that’s the rumor.”
“Rowing can be rough?” I wonder, feeling confused.
“No, but most Cheveyan are really physical. They jump off the high ledges into the water and ride their horses to the sacred caves at the top of the cliffs … or so I’m told.” She snatches a distracted glance my way. “Also, he’s not as big as the others.”
I nod, thinking of the three men who look like warlords again. They’re huge, and Max and Vixbi are tall and muscular, though not nearly as lethal-looking as the adult men. “Who’s the old guy next to him with the silk ascot around his neck?” He’s fit for his age. Has a full head of shocking white hair and is dressed in a navy suit and white polo shirt. His build is a bit stocky, but he’s handsome and out of place. Well, maybe not out of place, but like he may not really know a lot of the spectators.
“That’s the grandfather.” Rhianna looks up at the mansion poised on the hill above us. “He owns that, plus the spa.” For some reason, she feels a need to reiterate the point. Or maybe she’s just distracted. My eyes sweep around at all the people standing in small groups and chatting. They look happy and carefree. I see a lot of Cheveyan, but kotes too, and I suppose even some outlanders as well.
I look up at the mansion again. I get it—they’re rich. And now I know why Jackson stands out. He really is the money.
Suddenly, she’s dragging me through the crowd, having taken my good hand, thankfully. We’re skirting in and around the onlookers who are laughing, talking loudly, and are too engaged to notice us. Rhianna is heading for the hill. Good grief, I fret, feeling my feet sinking into the pebbled beach with every labored crunching step we take. My ears perk as someone on a loudspeaker announces the rowing is about to commence. “We gotta see them pull off,” she squeals as the crowd grows agitated and moves like a swarm of excited moths toward the edge of the beach.
Yes, yes. I want to see them pull off too! I want to get another glimpse of Max. I want to see if he’s really as handsome as I recall. It doesn’t seem possible for anyone to be that perfect. And that goes for Vixbi too. Did he really look like nature made him from liquid gold? My breath tickles as I breathe, and my heartbeat is like laughter running through my blood. My mind remembers the strange sensation that skirted through my veins when we touched. I wonder if it will work from a distance too. Or maybe it was just fear and adrenaline racing through my body? Rhianna stops in her tracks; her eyes are like arrows landing on the two boys. I stop too, looking just as stunned.
“They call him Sedeni, the god of thunder and wind,” Rhianna mutters as though she’s in a trance.
I get my second look at Max and know why he’s earned the nickname. He looks like a mythical god with his viscerally handsome features and extraordinary eyes. “And what do they call Vixbi?” I wonder, still staring at Max and admiring his wide shoulders and rock-hard muscles. My heart is beating with alarming palpitations.
“Azeban. The god of the underworld, because he’s a hothead,” she adds, staring at him with dazed eyes.
“Azeban? There’s a place in the woods called Azeban,” I say, remembering the lesson from my social studies class. But I’m also thinking that I can’t imagine Vixbi being a hothead. He was so gentle and caring with me.
“Yeah, that’s where Devil’s Pond is,” she answers.
Seconds later the crowd shoves the thoughts from my head as ear-deafening cheering plows across the beach like a storm tumbling across the surface of the sea. The volume stings my ears, leaving them ringing like bells while laughter and the buzz of chatter spread through the crowd. The wonderful sounds of community and excitement latch onto something inside my chest and my heart begins to melt like wax. Everyone here is so different from anything I’ve ever known. Life in the city was fast and disjointed and I doubt that most people knew that inside their chests was a living heart that felt things. Before now, my entire life was a painting of only monochrome hues. But here … I scan the people standing around and start to feel strands of unseen luminous threads connecting us with shimmery points of light that playfully hop along the threads as they explode like fireworks. Life swells and overwhelms my emotions as my gaze sweeps around with wonder and awe. My attention falls on a woman dressed in a long pale yellow summer dress. She’s unmistakably Indigenous with her glowing skin and dark hair. It’s so long it nearly reaches the back of her knees. Her eyes squint as we lock gazes, then her dark eyes scan the gathering as though she sees the magic crashing inside chests and bursting into radiant specs that force laughter and smiles to the surface. Her eyes shine as she smiles and looks around. I didn’t think there was much more in the world for me to know, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The dark-haired woman cranes her neck toward the rowers, and magic zips invisibly through the crowd. I spot Max sitting in the canoe farthest from the front; there’s an aura of light surrounding him with delicate colors sparkling with life. I gasp and shut my eyes tight before opening them again. When they part, the aura has vanished, but I see the remnants of the light, reduced to what looks like fireflies as they whish around the bend of rocks until they fade from sight. Vixbi is in the canoe with Max, the oars resting on his thighs; and if body language means anything, he’s the one doing all the talking. Max looks to just be listening as he reclines, his legs extended before him and forearm resting on the edge of the canoe. Water rushes by, cresting white along the surface, and kisses the tips of his fingers. He looks serene as his eyes drop to the nipping chill. I sense his tranquil calm, and his majestic presence leaves me with too many questions about him to ever remember. It’s like he’s from another time and place. Then he laughs—his face lights up before he doubles over with mirth, and he looks as modern as any other kid.
Chatter rises up from the crowd as laughter and a sense of community feeds the atmosphere with warmth. The cheerfulness is striking and radiates to a place inside of me that feels like firewood crackling inside a hearth. I don’t understand this new life; I only know that I want to drink it up until my belly bursts.
My head spins toward the loud horn, my hand clutching my heart as it blasts the airwaves like a missile. The speaker is announcing the start of the race, but the clapping overshadows his words, making them unintelligible. Three young children wearing bone chokers around their necks squeal, their shoulders rising to their ears as the adults around them rally robustly. Meanwhile, Rhianna takes my uninjured hand once again and drags me up the hill.
CHAPTER 7-13 Julion enters a world of magic where she finally meets the goddess of magic. It is now that her lessons begin and Juilion discovers she is much more than just a youth who came from turbulent past. Her arrival to the Valley was prophesized and she will be the One who will stop the 'deaths'. Chapters 7-13
CHAPTER 14-20 Julion befriends Max and Vixbi and begins to suspect they are "wind chasers". She later suspects that the tribe is fighting in some kind of battle hidden from the rest of the world and that the war is taking its toll on the tribe. Chapters 14-19
CHAPTER 20-26 Juion admits the truth to Max, and tells him she knows he's a wind chaser. And after Julion seems to heal Max from an attack that has his body blazing hot, Max admits he has an affliction that may take his life. Shortly after Max's confession, Vixbi is forced to bring Julion into their secret lives to save Max who's dying from his affliction. Unfortunately, Julion's unsanctioned entry into the tribe's world is to the council, a violation worthy of banishment. and Julion is exiled in the middle of an arctic winter, to the 'outlands.'Chapter 20-26