Gabriel Blackburn slowly, quietly closed the door behind him and held his breath as the deadbolt slid into place. His eyes darted around the darkened kitchen, illuminated only by the pale green of the florescent lights under the cabinets.
An empty wine glass stood in the sink, collecting water dripping from the faucet. A droplet hit the glass with a quiet splash and he pivoted, ready to react to any real or perceived danger. The rest of the house remained still and silent.
He doubted his clumsy attempt to sneak in had gone unnoticed. Even after so many months of secrecy, his mother was far too perceptive. Yet he didn’t hear the telltale creak of her bedroom door or the soft padding sound of her footsteps along the hallway. He slipped into the bathroom.
He leaned against the sink and brushed his overgrown hair back from his face to check for visible cuts or bruises – anything that would draw his mother’s attention. He pealed away his shirt and winced as the blood-encrusted fabric covering his back pulled against his skin. Two ragged scars ran along his shoulder blades, bloody and hot to the touch. An ugly bruise was forming across his neck, seeping up from his chest and shoulder. He pressed against the dark purple splotch and sucked in his breath.
He cringed at his mother’s voice.
“Just a minute, Mom. I’m about to take a shower.” He threw a towel over his shoulders and stuck his head into the darkened hallway. “Hmm?”
“Are you alright?” Her dark brown eyes, so like his own, scrutinized his face. “I thought I just heard you come in.”
“It was a late night. Studying.”
“Again?” Her voice was sharper than usual.
He held her gaze, but remained silent.
“You’re barely seventeen,” she said.
“I can handle it.”
“What are they doing to you?” she began. She looked so small and helpless. Gabriel could see the fear in her eyes and wished he could erase it.
“Please, Mom.” He was afraid she might come too close to the truth and force him into an outright lie.
“I’m trying not to ask too many questions, but please don’t keep shutting me out.”
“I need to do this, Mom. You know that.”
She twisted the slim, gold ring on her left hand.
“I talked to Grandma today,” she said. “She invited you to spend the summer with her.”
Gabriel startled. He knew there would only be one reason for the invitation. It was the call he’d expected for five years.
“I want you to go,” his mother continued. “I want you to leave California.”
“Yeah. Sure. I’ll go,” he said, but his mind was already 3,000 miles away.
“Thank you.” The worried crease in her forehead eased.
“Can I get my shower now?” he asked.
“Are you sure you’re okay? You look pale.” She reached out to touch his face and he instinctively pulled back. She dropped her hand and balled it into a fist. “I forget you’re not my little boy anymore.”
“You look more and more like your father everyday.”
“I’m sorry for that.”
He closed the door and rested his head against it. What could have happened after so long? What had prompted his grandmother to call him back to Ohio? And how long until his mother realized the truth?
The West River flows through the heartland of Ohio, cutting through mile after mile of rolling emerald fields and great copses of buckeyes, oaks and maples before emptying into Lake Erie. Along its grassy banks, white steeples and neat rows of brick storefronts rise from small pockets of humanity.
The City of West River straddles the river, near enough to the lake to endure the savage whims of its erratic weather, yet far enough to feel landlocked and isolated. Left to its own devises, West River might have slipped into obscurity. Instead, the city became inescapably linked to the venerable liberal arts college dominating the north side of town. All at once quaint and progressive, the strange cocktail of small town values and ivory tower intellectualism constantly mix and remix in unexpected and volatile ways. It is a place ill at ease with itself.
A large, overgrown cemetery covered the sloping hill leading away from the town square and back toward the river. A few ivy draped support buildings dotted the landscape and dense, green moss clung to the roots of trees and most of the headstones. Dark pathways wove between gnarled trees, dividing the cemetery into irregular sections. The tombstones were a collection of modern plaques and ancient monuments dating to before the Civil War. The names etched in soft, malleable limestone had faded away, lost to the strains of time. Larger marble headstones stood as strong and shinning as the day they were carved.
On an unseasonably bitter day in May, Emma Hawthorne stood under the shelter of a large, twisted tree in a far corner of the cemetery. A freak cold snap left a grey mist hanging heavy in the air and muted the sunshine. Emma shifted her feet and the frozen dew clinging to the grass crackled under her.
Emma was small for sixteen, with an untamed, spritely beauty that seemed in harmony with the wild, earthy cemetery. The wind shaped her ash-brown hair into softly waving tendrils. She had the kind of wide eyes and full, rosebud lips of a Victorian fashion plate, but there was something uncanny about her that kept people at a distance. Her eyes were grey, not blue-grey or green-grey, but the total absence of color like a black and white photograph. Framed in dark lashes, they seemed too keen, too knowing, as if they could pierce the soul.
A small shiver ran down Emma’s spine as she watched a small cluster of mourners gather around a fresh grave below her. They clung to one another, finding comfort in the knowledge they did not mourn alone. Dark shadows flickered in and out of Emma’s vision, eerie manifestations of the anguish moving through the crowd.
Emma knew she should join the others. She knew she was expected to share in their public display of sorrow.
And she knew she couldn’t.
She was numb. Far too numb to grieve. The slightest touch, the slightest betrayal of emotion and she would loose everything.
She remained fixed in place, a silent eyewitness to their grief. She saw every detail in stunning clarity. The lurid green of the indoor-outdoor carpet covering the hole in the ground and the cold, dead smoothness of the coffin that contained all that was left of her best friend. The hardened ground and dull sky burned in her mind. Overwhelming sorrow surrounded her, but she felt none of it.
She knew her parents were worried. Not that she blamed them. The last time she’d lost a friend, she’d nearly self-destructed. And Gabriel had just moved away. Lily was dead.
Unbidden, an image rose before her eyes. She squeezed them shut to block out the terrifying vision, but the nightmare remained. She still saw Lily under the surface of the river, a modern Ophelia caught in the current. Her bright eyes were black and empty. Her fair skin stood in sharp contrast against the dark, murky water. Her golden hair spread around her like the rays of a halo.
Emma tried to steady herself, to fight the panic rising in her chest. It was only a dream. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t hurt her. She repeated the words drilled into her brain. It’s not real. It can’t hurt me.
After so long, she’d almost learned to believe them.
But this time it was real. Lily had drowned. And it wasn’t an accident.
Emma had known something was wrong. She’d felt darkness stirring in her friend. She’d dismissed the visions even as she saw Lily’s depression manifesting into fiends clinging to her back. She’d ignored her instincts and she’d done nothing.
Guilt welled up in her chest, but she shoved it deeper inside. She refused to allow herself to feel anything.
Emma took a deep breath and felt another agonizing stab. Why couldn’t she help the one person who had saved her? Why couldn’t she save Lily?
A muffled sob broke through Emma’s thoughts and drew her back to the cemetery. This was real. Their grief was real. She refused to let the monsters win again.
6:15 a.m. The red numbers glared at Emma from her bedside table. She petulantly hit the snooze button, rolled over and groaned. Sixteen years and she still hated mornings. The bright, mocking sunshine couldn’t dispel the nightmares clouding her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut until the dark figures gathering at the corners of her vision dissipated.
At least it was the last day of school. If she could make it through the day, she’d have the entire summer away from the questioning looks of her classmates and patronizing condolences from teachers. She switched off the alarm and stumbled into the bathroom.
She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight reflecting off the white tile and tried not to stare at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes peered back, empty and heartsick. Night after night of broken sleep left telltale circles, dark and angry. The weeks since Lily’s death had stripped away the rosy softness that once blessed her face. Even at her best, she faded into her surroundings. At her worst, she was little more than a ghost.
She tore herself away from the mirror to begin her morning ritual. Lather, rinse, repeat. She moved mechanically through the routine. She lingered under the spray of the shower, seeking a few moments of peace before the daily assault of life. The steady flow of the hot water and the safe cocoon of the shower curtain kept the real world at bay.
But she couldn’t hide forever. She stepped onto the cool tile floor and hurriedly dressed. With a final look in the mirror, she touched the two diminutive charms suspended from the chain around her neck – a last, tangible reminder of the friend she’d lost and a friendship that would never fade. A dark, oppressive chill ran through her. Lily was gone, but she would never forget.
Emma left the art supply store with a new sketchbook tucked her arm. The sunshine felt good against her skin and rather than return to her car, and the empty house waiting for her, she kept walking. Only a few people dotted the streets, each wrapped in their own small worlds.
Flowers spilled over the edges of the hanging baskets decorating the lampposts clustered around the town square. The slender dogwoods were in bloom and honeysuckle draped over fences. The last lilac blossoms clung to their branches. At the center of the square stood a white, gingerbread-adorned gazebo, hung with red, white and blue buntings.
As lunchtime neared, the quiet streets filled with students on break between classes, tourists seeking a reprieve from antiquing and business folk searching for a meal at one of the dozen or so small cafes, taverns and restaurants crowded around the square. Laughter echoed against the buildings and Frisbees and hacky-sacks appeared from inside backpacks and pockets. A girl with a guitar settled against a tree and began to pick at the strings.
Emma kept her head down and her shoulders hunched to avoid interacting with the crowd milling around her. She walked faster, desperate to escape the mass of people and the anxiety squeezing her lungs. She glanced up from the sidewalk to find her bearings and realized she’d lost her sense of direction. Dark buildings rose above her, blocking the sunlight and casting the sidewalk into shadow. She spun around, searching for a familiar landmark and collided with another figure, a dark mass amid the bright afternoon.
As her arm brushed against the stranger’s, a bone-chilling wind blew through her. She gasped for breath as he pulled away in alarm and turned to stare at her. He wore a hat pulled low over his face, but even through the shadows, she could feel the intensity of his eyes.
For a moment, they stood frozen in time, eyes locked and hearts still. Emma felt like her soul had died within her and her body had drained of blood. She’d never felt anything like the black emotions pulsating around the stranger. Visions of loss and heartache and death danced before her eyes as ghost after ghost gathered around the figure.
She opened her mouth to speak and he darted away. She reached for a nearby tree and braced herself against its trunk. An unfamiliar, cold, creeping sensation gathered at the base of her skull, radiating down her spine and causing her to shiver despite the warmth of the air.
She waited with her head down for the dizziness and nausea to pass. Thick, inky mist swirled across her vision. She could feel the cold anger and gut-wrenching hunger emanating from the stranger. It was as if her worst nightmares had come to life.
Her heart rate slowed and she looked over her shoulder. A dark shadow stood huddled behind one of the buildings. Her vision went dark and she blindly ran in the opposite direction.
Emma needed a place to think and sort through the torrent of emotions surging through her. With her sketchbook clutched to her chest, she fixed her eyes on the woods that edged the well-groomed backyard and walked toward their dark shelter. She could hear the river in the distance and shuddered. Once, the sound of the river running over its rocky bed had soothed her. Now it echoed with loss.
Emma broke through the tight line of trees and inhaled the damp, decaying smell. Under the canopy, the air was cooler. She stepped around dead branches and rocks, finding her footing with ease.
The terror she’d felt when she collided with the stranger faded as each step carried her further into the woods. She let her instincts take over, leading her deep within their familiar darkness, away from the noise and confusion of humanity.
At last, Emma emerged in a clearing with a massive maple in the center. A faint smile tugged at her lips. She could almost hear childish voices echoing from the past: hers and Lily’s, Katy’s and Damian’s, Jeff’s and Gabriel’s.
Emma sighed and settled herself among the roots of the ancient tree. She knew life would never be so simple again. Gabriel and Lily were gone, Katy and Damian were a world away and her big brother had outgrown climbing trees long before. The world had moved on while she floundered, unsure of herself and unsure of what the phantoms clouding her mind meant.
She slipped on her headphones, opened the sketchbook and closed her eyes. In the safety of the woods, she let the nightmares she’d pushed aside all day pour into her conscious mind.
The pen in her hand flowed freely as the terrifying images spilled onto the paper. Sketching let her release the demons in her head and make peace with her memories.
She never looked at those drawings. They were ugly, angry. Once she exorcized the visions, she never wanted to experience them again. It was better to let them lie.
At last, the flood of emotions subsided and Emma closed the sketchbook, regulating another set of terrors to the darkest recesses of her mind.
The task had exhausted her. She leaned her head against the solid, unchanging tree and closed her eyes. For a moment, in the soft summer air, she could forget and clear her mind of everything that haunted her. The gentle rhythm of the woods and the familiar music calmed her breathing. She was so tired.
The sketchbook slipped from her hand and landed among the moss and leaves littering the ground.
Gabriel stood at the Hawthornes’ backdoor, just as he had done so many times before. His grandmother had told him very little, other than to tell him he needed to come home. His stomach twisted as he waited for someone to answer his knock.
“There’s a welcome sight!” Maggie Hawthorne exclaimed. She pulled him into a hug as if he were still the boy he’d been five years earlier. “Come on in. How are you? When did you get in? Your grandma said you might visit this summer, but I had no idea it would be so soon.”
Gabriel grinned. Mrs. Hawthorne’s welcoming nature had made their home a haven for the motley crew of friends Jeff and Emma had brought home over the years. He relaxed, at ease in the home where he’d spent so much of his childhood.
“I’m good,” he said as he followed Maggie into the kitchen. “Just got in this morning. I thought I’d check in on Jeff and Emma.”
“Jeff won’t be back from college until July. Emma should be home, but I haven’t seen her yet. Her car is in the driveway so she’s probably off in the woods or something.”
Gabriel’s heart stilled at the mention of his real purpose for the visit.
“How is she?” he asked.
“Better now,” Maggie said. “Has your grandma told you anything about what happened to her after you moved away?”
Gabriel shook his head.
“A few years back, she started seeing things,” Maggie said. “Visions or nightmares or something. She wasn’t well. We tried to help. We got her therapy, tried medication, everything we could think of, but none of it helped. She refused to accept that they weren’t real. I mean, she’s always been so sensitive. She is good at reading people, but this went far beyond that. Lily was the only one who was able to reach her. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think Emma would have survived.”
Gabriel remained silent, unsure if he could restrain the anger he felt building in his chest.
“Loosing Lily was too much for her,” Maggie continued with a sigh. “I’m so afraid she’ll relapse. I know she’s having nightmares again. She tries so hard to hide it, but I can see them in her eyes. It was better when she had someone to talk to, but now... I don’t know what to say. Words don’t mean much when something like this happens.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel said at last.
“No, I’m sorry. I’m dumping this all on you. It’s so good to see you. You look good.”
“Thanks. It’s good to be back.”
“Do you want to go look for Emma? She usually heads out to that old maple when she wants to be alone.”
“Maybe,” Gabriel said. He forced a smile as he tried to process through everything Maggie had told him. And wondered why his grandmother hadn’t called him sooner.
It was late. The shadows were longer and the sunlight filtering through the leaves was pale. Emma realized she’d fallen asleep. Panic rippled through her, but she remained still. She was dimly aware of someone nearby, but couldn’t pinpoint an exact sound or movement that had alerted her to his presence.
She kept her eyes half closed, waiting for the clarity she knew would come. As she listened to the woods around her, she felt a change in the atmosphere. The air sparked with excitement, not danger like she expected.
She pulled off her headphones. She felt stiff, slow. She could make out a figure in the woods, but he was no more than a vague impression. She got to her feet and picked up the sketchbook.
As she watched, he turned and faded into the woods. She watched him go, confused by the afterimages dancing in her vision. She felt calm, at peace. A sense of protection pressed around her. It was a feeling she hadn’t felt since...
The West River Library was one of those places, like empty theatres and cathedrals, which even the most ardent skeptics acknowledge are haunted. It was a rambling stone building, as old as the town itself. Massive arched windows lined one wall, letting abundant sunlight into an open reading area. Dust particles danced between the battered reading chairs and the vaulted ceiling. On the opposite side rose three floors of books, music, movies and magazines. Various annexes and additions jutted out at odd angles as the library struggled to keep up with changing times. Everything smelled of paper, old leather and dust.
Emma clocked in on a warm afternoon in early summer and wondered once again why she’d let Lily talk her into getting a job at the library. On good days, she left humming with extrinsic energy. On bad days, her mind strained to its breaking point as image after image after image accosted her. There were days when she felt like her whole body might break down from the constant strain.
Still, the quiet soothed her soul and when she was alone, she felt a kind of kinship with the resident spirits of the library, a common love of words and ideas captured on paper.
She steered her book truck of returns into a corner of the children’s section. She faced the unpleasant task of sorting through the disorganized, sticky mess of the picture books.
At least the afterimages were less frequent in the picture books. Children had fewer years to collect ghosts. Although the ones they did collect were stronger, more painful. Children lacked filters. And comprehension.
She looked up from her work to see Katy standing a few feet away. She looked nervous. And like she was in desperate need of a hug. Dark makeup outlined her deep blue eyes and her raven hair swept across her face.
“Hi, Katy,” she said with her best attempt at a smile.
“My mom dragged us up here,” she explained, gesturing at her family as half a dozen children dispersed into the recesses of the library.
“At least it’s quieter,” Emma suggested.
Katy dropped onto the floor, bringing a trail of broken emotions with her. Emma braced herself as they rolled through her.
“Are you mad at me?” Katy began. “I called a couple times.”
“I’m sorry,” Katy interrupted. “I know this is way worse for you.” Her shoulder slumped and waves of grief raged around her, collecting to dark pools in the corners of Emma’s vision. She winced as darkness tore at her soul.
“You lost her too,” she managed as the emotions crushed her chest.
Katy shook her head and smiled.
“Don’t try to fix me, Em. Sometimes it’s okay to be broken.”
“I’m sorry,” Emma said.
Katy shrugged and stood.
“Call if you need me,” she said as she walked away.
Emma tried to go back to her work, but she couldn’t focus. Katy’s anger and confusion pressed against her from all sides. She knew Lily would have immediately pulled their friend into her arms and some how found the exact right words to comfort her, but Emma had nothing left to give. She knew she wasn’t strong enough to carry both of them.
Emma pulled her car into the driveway and parked next to the garage. She glanced up at the stars as she stepped out into the night. The moon, just beginning to wane, illuminated the soft wisps of cirrus clouds. After spending the day at work, she found a brief reprieve from the constant invasion of thoughts and emotions in the quiet landscape.
A euphoric swell of well being rose in her chest. She closed her eyes as the feeling washed around her. She wanted to hold onto it, to let the light in her soul burn away the darkness. She exhaled as a smile spread across her face.
A small noise caught her attention and she turned.
“Beautiful night,” a voice spoke from the shadows. It was deep, firm, steady. Male.
Emma’s heart skipped and she drew toward the figure hidden beside the garage.
“Gabe?” She caught her breath as he stepped into a pool of light, tall and well muscled. The moonlight traced the edges of his face and silvered his hair.
Part of her wanted to rush forward and wrap her arms around his neck, but she refrained. They had both been children the last time they’d met and their friendship had been the innocent friendship of childhood. She very much doubted either of them was innocent any longer.
“I thought I saw you in the woods,” she said.
He dropped his eyes and hesitated a few feet away.
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“I know,” Emma said, instantly regretting her words. He didn’t need to know how she’d counted the years that had passed. “I mean, I haven’t seen you since you moved.”
Gabriel tentatively moved toward her. She could feel immense strength and vitality behind the calm, careful control of his movements.
“Five years is too long,” he said. “I was starting to forget.”
Emma smiled. In the darkness and the quiet of the night, it was easy to forget. To forget the past five years. To forget they were no longer children. She felt the same ease she’d always felt with him. It was almost as if no time had passed between them, as if they’d continued to grow up together, even separated by a continent.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” she said.
A small smile graced his face.
“I haven’t forgotten you either.”
Emma’s heart skipped a beat and she silently chastised herself for reading so much into a simple statement.
“Thanks,” she said awkwardly.
Gabriel’s smile transformed into a grin and his whole face changed.
“Five years and you haven’t grown an inch!” he said with a laugh. She dropped her eyes. It was almost true. He was at least a foot taller than her. She looked up again.
“You look...different...” Emma struggled for words. His eyes were mesmerizing. They were the same velvety brown she remembered, but there was something more behind them.
“I am different,” he acknowledged.
“Is that good or bad?”
They’d unconsciously drawn together until they were almost touching.
“Mostly good.” He smiled at her. “You’ve changed too.”
Something in his voice made Emma blush and she stared at some meaningless point on the ground. He shifted his weight, giving her room to breathe.
“Five years is a long time,” she mumbled. “People change.”
“So do places.” His attention shifted as his eyes wandered over the yard stretching between their homes. The tire swing in the linden trees was gone. The sandbox had been converted into an herb garden. Bikes and balls and skateboards no longer littered the grass.
“I guess they do,” she said.
“I heard about Lily,” Gabriel said. She blinked back the tears that threatened at his concern. “I’m sorry, Emmy. I wish I could have been here for you.”
Despite the familiar pain she felt when anyone mentioned Lily, a small flush of pleasure colored her cheeks at the sound of her old nickname in his new, deep voice.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I should let you go,” Gabriel said with a glance toward the Hawthornes’ house. The kitchen lights were on and she could see her parents moving across the windows.
“Will I see you around?” She wanted to hold on to him and the feelings he stirred inside her. She wanted to make him promise he’d never leave her again. She watched his eyes, hoping for some small sign that he felt the connection too.
“I’m spending the whole summer with my grandma,” he said with a smile.
“I can’t believe you’re home,” Emma said with an answering smile.
“Me neither,” he said as relief washed around him. “’Night, Emmy.”
Emma dropped onto her bed. Gabriel was home. She couldn’t describe the irrational sense of relief filling her heart or the way his smile had turned her entire world around.
The past five years hit her all at once. She knew it wasn’t his fault. It was coincidence, but his absence had made her loss of innocence that much more painful.
Five years of therapists and drugs meant to tame the monsters in her head, monsters Lily and Gabriel had always accepted. She knew they weren’t just in her head. They were real. Visual manifestations of strangers’ most intense emotions. Those dark, oppressive emotions weighed on her soul, manifesting into afterimages. Monsters. Demons. Nightmares.
Without Gabriel’s calm presence, they’d taken over.
Now Gabriel was home. He was the strong, fearless boy who had promised to defend her honor and slay her dragons, the Robin Hood to her Maid Marian, her hero and her protector.
But those had been childhood games and she couldn’t pretend her problems could be solved so easily anymore. She still needed someone to rescue her, but a plastic sword and shield had lost their power long ago. Gabriel was just a boy and she was just a girl. Whatever they had shared as children was gone
Emma sat in a corner of a small coffee shop near the campus with her sketchbook on her lap. She looked up from time to time as she sketched the scene around her. Unlike her other drawings, these sketches were soft and flowing, gentle shades of grey blending into one another. The soft curve of a chair back, the angular shape of a patron’s hat. The soft glow of the lighting overhead and the textures of the jumbled shelves of mugs along the far wall.
Common Grounds was a far cry from the Starbucks across the street. It was the kind of place designed for intimate conversation and long, drawn-out chess matches rather than writing screenplays or blind dates. The walls were painted in garish shades of plum and gold. The furniture was a ragged assortment of thrift store finds and handcrafted pieces gathered from around the globe. An incoherent collection of artwork crowded the walls.
Emma leaned back against her chair, an odd plaid wingback the color of cat food, with a contented sigh. An entire day had passed without an episode. No dark figures flickered at the corners of her vision. The emotions drifting around her were a quiet hum, easily tuned out. She felt a measure of control she hadn’t felt in months. She reached for her necklace and inhaled deeply as a wave of sorrow swallowed her.
A dark shadow passed across her shoulder and an uncomfortable tingling sensation pricked at the back of her neck.
“Rough day?” asked a smooth, velvet voice, tinged with a slight Gaelic lilt. A tall, lank, boy stood beside her. He was maybe seventeen or eighteen and impeccably dressed. She twisted in her chair as she pulled away from the strange boy.
“Umm,” she mumbled as she glanced toward the door, but it was too far away. She’d have to run to escape the conversation and that would draw too much attention.
“Couldn’t help but notice your picture. Just lovely.”
“Thanks,” Emma said awkwardly.
“Do you mind?” he asked as he sat beside her and took the sketchbook.
“Sorry. I ought to introduce myself. My name is Patrick.”
No emotions bled through his calm exterior. He was unreadable and she was left to navigate the awkward conversation blind.
“Emma,” she managed.
“So I see.” She looked up in surprise before realizing her name was emblazoned across the cover of the sketchbook. His clear blue eyes were spellbinding and dark hair fell across his forehead, framing his perfect features.
“I need to go home,” Emma said. “Almost time for dinner.”
“Sorry again.” He smiled, an attractive, disarming smile. “I’m not usually so forward, but you bring to mind someone very dear to me. I pray you’ll forgive me.”
“Oh. Of course.” She felt tongue-tied.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Emma,” he said. “I shall let you return to your day.” His politeness was accented by the satisfying, foreign tone of his voice. He handed the sketchbook back and gracefully stood. He gathered a cup of coffee from the counter and turned to bow slightly as he wandered out onto the street.
Emma watched him as she tried to understand the panic rippling through her body. Dark spots danced around the corners of her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut and curled her fingers into her palm until the foreboding tingling in her body dissipated.
She waited until she was sure he was gone then hurried to pack up her belongings. She left her half-drunk cup of tea on the table and darted out into the humid summer afternoon.
The hot, muggy day gave way to a comfortable, star-lit night. Emma found herself awake and alert, even as the night began to whisper to the coming dawn. She crept down the stairs in her bare feet. It was still warm enough she didn’t bother to throw anything over her summery pajamas.
It was the quietest part of the night. Even the crickets were silent. She flicked on the porch light and settled on the old, weather-beaten swing. The metal springs that held it suspended from the ceiling gave a familiar creak. She leaned back and let the half forgotten memories tied to that sound float into her mind.
The porch had become a castle, a prison, a school and a thousand other exotic settings in Emma’s prolific imagination. She and Lily had been princesses, paupers and pirate queens. The swing had been a ship, a gallant steed and a lady’s fainting couch as needed to fit the fantasy of the hour. The front steps had been home base for late night games of tag, hide and seek and something the neighborhood kids called Russian Spy.
Given time and space to heal, the pain that had once been so sharp was softening, becoming a gentle ache instead of a crushing torment.
The steady rocking of the swing moved with the rhythm of the night. The soft breeze stirred her hair and the nightmares and visions, so sharp since Lily’s death, began to fade.
Out of the calm night, a cold, creeping sensation stole across the back of her neck. Despite the warmth of the air, she shivered. The porch light dimmed and her chest felt tight.
She straightened and looked around. Nothing moved in the darkness, yet she was sure there was another presence nearby. Her throat constricted and she felt a stabbing sensation in the pit of her stomach.
She stood and frantically searched the yard. She froze as she waited for something to happen. She was afraid to know what lurked in the darkness, but more afraid to never know.
The feeling dissipated and she knew she was alone. She sat on the creaking swing again and exhaled, feeling foolish.
The night moved again, but in a different way, and she peered into the darkness.
“Gabriel!” she exclaimed.
He walked into the soft, warm light spilling from the porch. His eyes had a feral glow, but he moved with a controlled gait. She was forcefully aware of the way he looked at her and felt exposed in her pajamas.
“I saw the porch light,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“What are you doing out this late?”
“I could ask you the same,” he said with a grin belied by the lightning in his eyes.
“I had a dream.”
“Good or bad?” He settled on the swing, only inches away.
“Good,” she said. “I think.”
“Yet you look like you expect the world to jump out and scream ‘boo!’”
“It usually does,” she said without humor.
“What does that mean?” The worried crease between his eyes deepened.
“I don’t like to be taken by surprise,” Emma said.
“Not all surprises are bad.”
“The world is a dark, ugly place. If you saw the things I see, you’d be jumpy too.”
Emma looked at him sideways, expecting to see derision in his eyes. Instead, his face was filled with compassion. She felt unbalanced. Empathy was almost as disconcerting as mockery.
“I’ve seen enough,” Gabriel said.
“You still haven’t explained why you’re out wandering the streets. It’s past curfew.”
“I couldn’t sleep either.” He paused. “West River has changed since I was here last.”
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“The whole world has changed.”
His face softened and she felt a lump rising in her throat.
“So have you,” he said. “You were fearless when we were kids.”
“I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons over the last five years,” she said with an edge.
“I wish I could have protected you. I wish you’d never learned to be afraid.”
“I’ll be okay,” Emma mumbled. Her cheeks felt hot despite the cool breeze.
“Why did you look so startled when you saw me?”
She hesitated. Her silence was her last defense, her last wall to protect herself from the outside world. Yet under the cover of the soft, enveloping night, she felt unusually uninhibited, willing to take risks she would never consider in the daylight.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked at last.
“Ghosts?” He sounded surprised, but she pushed on.
“Do you ever feel like someone is watching you when you’re alone? Or see someone out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn around, the room is empty?”
“You think you’re being haunted?”
“Or I have an overly active imagination,” she said with a grimace. It sounded silly when he said it, yet the paralyzing fear remained.
“You always had the best instincts of any of us,” Gabriel said with a far away look. “You only ever got hurt because one of the rest of us dragged you into things.”
“So I should trust my gut?”
“It depends,” he said with a smile. He turned his spectacular eyes on her. “What does it say about me?”
Emma felt dazzled. His eyes flashed. He sat relaxed, leaning against the swing, but she felt like he might pounce at any moment and crush her.
“It says I should be afraid,” she said.
He studied her for a long moment and she blushed. She desperately wanted to measure up to whatever he was looking for.
“You’re dangerous,” he said. “You see too much.”
“So I should be afraid?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Maybe.” He leaned closer. She could feel his breath against her cheek, smell the strange, intoxicating scent of his skin. His calm control began to slip, giving way to the same excitement and attraction beating in her chest.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be sitting out here all alone with you,” she said.
“You should run along to bed like a good girl.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Neither am I.” His eyes twinkled.
“Then we’re at an impasse,” she teased.
“I suppose we are.” He smiled, a charming, boyish smile. Emma remembered a hundred other nights. In her mind, they were running hand-in-hand, chasing lightening bugs and playing flashlight tag.
“I missed you, Gabriel.”
“I missed you too,” he said.
The church bells began to toll, announcing to the sleeping world that it was four o’clock. The spell was broken and Emma pulled away as she realized how close her body was to Gabriel’s.
“I should go back inside,” she said.
“You should,” he agreed, but he didn’t move.
“Goodnight, Gabe.” She felt very young and very foolish.
She forced herself to walk instead of run to the door and closed it behind her, leaning against it for support. She focused on her breathing, waiting for the adrenaline to fade. Her heart was beating too fast and she felt a rush of emotion she’d never felt before. Gabriel was turning everything upside down.
Gabriel watched her walk away in time with the beating of his heart. He wasn’t prepared for the strength of the feelings he still had for her. He was accustomed to feeling in control. He’d spent years learning to keep his emotions in check and yet something had drawn him off course, something had drawn him toward the porch, and he knew it was her. It had always been her.
He was still reeling from the changes the years had wrought in her. There, in the moonlight, she’d lost the haunted look that had disquieted him so much when they’d met beside the garage, but she was no longer the rose-cheeked 11-year-old in his memories. Her soft grey eyes were as captivating as ever, but there was a shadow behind them now.
It was that shadow that gave him pause. He felt her fear and her doubt. It stirred something in him and he wanted, more than he had ever wanted anything, to erase the darkness from her soul.
Even in that moment, he knew it was a foolish wish. His heart was not his own. He was drawn to her, but it would only lead to heartache. If she knew what he was, what he was capable of, the things he’d already done...
But that night, a spark took hold deep in his chest, a spark time and space had never extinguished.