Thursday, March 24, 2016

Call Of The Zodiac: Chapter One-Welcome To Chagrin Heights



January 1, 2012
Chagrin Heights, Washington


            “They have arrived, Father.” The woman put the binoculars down and turned to face the larger of her two companions.
            He trudged forward, his large, massive frame towering over her as he approached the window of the vacant property. The material of his attire stretched tightly over the thick band of muscles of his arms as he plucked the device from his daughter’s hand and leaned out the window. He brought the binoculars to his eyes and squinted.
           He could see them, just crossing into the city limits from the east in a small, dark gray mustang. The driver, a woman in her early or mid-thirties, twisted her face in irritation as she maneuvered her way through the empty streets. She was slender, slight like a feather, with a tangle of dark curls tied messily at the nape of her neck, and skin the color of wheat bread. She was sporting a bright green windbreaker and a dab of lip gloss on her thin, pale mouth. But she wasn’t the one that had his full attention.
            A lopsided smile spread across his face. He was more intrigued by the girl.
            She was small, possibly eleven or twelve, and pale with a mane of frizzy scarlet hair and large blue eyes that stared wondrously through the backseat window. Her fingers fiddled nervously in her lap and she seemed to be questioning her mother on the conditions of her surroundings. Her attire consisted of a white turtleneck sweater, a blue sweater vest, dark jeans, and plain white sneakers. A red winter coat laid on the seat aside her.
            She was exactly as the old woman had described her. Excellent.
            “So she’s the one we’ve been waiting for?” the woman asked. “The one that miserable witch spoke of?”
            “Indeed she is,” the large man replied with a nod of approval. “They couldn’t have come at a more pleasurable time, dear daughter.”
            The woman smiled gleefully. “At last we may begin. After so long, our dream will finally be realized.”
            The bulky man held up a hand as he retreated back into the room. He handed her the binoculars and turned to the third companion. The young man stepped forward, his tall and lean body strutting with the haughtiness of a fox. He tossed his head contemptuously, sending lengths of his dark, wavy hair swirling around broad shoulders. His dark eyes flashed with a dangerous excitement.
            “So what do you want me to do?” he asked with a deep chuckle. “You name it and I’ll take care of it.”
            “Nothing as of this moment. You will leave this all to me for the time being.”
            The siblings looked at each other and frowned. They watched at their father pulled the window shut and reached into the hidden pocket of his robe. He pulled out a ring of golden keys. They jangled noisily as he shuffled through them busily. The woman spared her brother another glance to which he shrugged in response.
            “Ah,” the man sighed as he plucked a key off its ring and held it out in his hand.
            The siblings quickly gathered around and gaped in fascination. The golden key had a strange symbol etched onto its circular bow: a symbol of two fish, both chasing after the fin of the other. A small message was engraved on the key, the words twisting around the slender shank in elegant, cursive script and ending abruptly at the tip.
            “The Gate of the Two Fish,” the young man breathed. “Does this mean that the girl…”
            “Correct, my son,” the man answered. “This means that the Guardian of the Two Fish has been chosen.”
            As if on cue, the golden key began to hum as it spun wildly in the man’s palm. The siblings gasped and lurched back in surprise. The larger man slipped the key back onto the key ring before dropping it back into his pocket.
            “They will be here soon,” he declared. “You are both dismissed.”
            “Yes father,” the siblings replied in unison. They bowed deeply before crossing the threshold and disappearing into the hall.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Every town had its secrets, its haunting urban legends. Tales that sent shivers down one’s spine. This town was no exception. At least, not for its newest residents: The Fischer family. Buried deep in the Olympic Western-most Peninsula and the Cascades of Washington State, a small town named Chagrin Heights resided within its boundaries. The town was made up of one thousand four-hundred people with a mixture of farmlands, mountains, islands, and the big cities not too far away.
            It was in this town, this gloomy settlement, where Aspen Fischer was to start her new life. The place where her sentence was to begin. She sighed and leaned back against the leather upholstery of her seat and let her gaze wander out the window. Green. Everything was green. The ground, the sky, and even the air had a lingering lime fog that hung like a curtain, obscuring most things in sight. There were no more skyscrapers or bustling city traffic here. No longer would she enjoy the familiar sounds of irritated shouts and car horns blasting through the air or the smells of roasted peanuts and fried rice tickling her nostrils. No more gazing out at the brightly lit city every night before bed.
            Instead, she was trapped in a town drowning in trees where the houses were small and square and built out of brick or wood. The air smelled crisp and musty, like it did before it was about to rain, and the population was nowhere in sight. The streets were abandoned, the sidewalks emptied of people and animals. Not a sound could be heard. Just like a ghost town. A shiver ran down her spine. She had never felt so alone in her life. Where were the people? Why was everything so quiet? Surely they couldn’t be the only ones living in such a scary place.
            “Where is everybody?” Mrs. Fischer murmured. “It’s like this whole place is empty.”
            She reached up and tucked a dark, curly lock of hair behind her ear. She frowned and narrowed her eyes against the thick fog.
            Mrs. Fischer sighed heavily. The way she always did when she was irritated or stressed about something. Aspen turned her attention back to the window. The green had fallen away and was now replaced with a number of sagging houses that looked like they would fall over any minute. They were clearly old: outdated paint jobs were faded and chipped, glasses fragments from shattered windows decorating the old rotted porches like snow. The yards were unkempt: patches of dead grass yellowed with age and neglect, overgrown weeds sprouting from the crevices in the cracked concrete of the sidewalks and driveways, vines climbing the sides like leafy fingers.
            What happened here? Her mouth hung open in awe as Aspen gaped.
            Through the tall, anorexic trees that leaned askew across the properties, the windows seemed to glare back at her like angry, black eyes. Aspen turned away quickly. Surely where they were going to live was much prettier than this. She knitted her small fingers in her lap nervously. Was this really a ghost town? Did people once live in those horrible houses? Why did her mom bring them here in the first place?
            “Mom,” Aspen whispered. “I don’t like this place. I think it’s scary.”
            Ms. Fischer met her eyes in the rearview mirror. Dark brown and pale blue, earth and sky. She frowned at her.
            “You haven’t even seen where we’re going to live, honey,” she replied. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind when we get there.”
            Aspen returned the frown. “Where are we going? Where is everybody? Why are those houses like that? What happened to the people in them? When are you going to—”
            “Aspen,” Ms. Fischer said and sighed heavily. She was irritated. “Hon, I’ll answer all your questions when we get to the house. There are a lot of things to do and my mind is really busy right now okay? I mean, I have to go in and unpack, find myself a part or full time job, get you ready for school…”
            With a sigh of her own, Aspen returned her attention to the window. Yes. Her new home in a new town with a new life. A life she hadn’t asked for in the first place. She remembered when she first heard the news of the move: She had just come home from school that day, having just walked the way with Callie and Brenda, her friends. The weather had been fair, warm but windy, and Aspen had agreed to go to Callie’s house to learn how to fly a kite. She had been excited. She remembered saying goodbye to Brenda, who had refused to join them and had thrown a fit. She slipped inside her house. The TV was on, showing one of her mother’s DVR recorded Seinfeld re-runs, her mother shuffling around the living room with papers in her hands.
            “Aspen? Is that you sweetie?” Her mother called from the living room.
            “Yes!” Aspen replied. She quickly kicked off her shoes at the door and sauntered down the long corridor into the living room.
            She smiled gleefully. Mr. Fischer, however, did not the return the gesture. He turned away and shifted his glare out the front window, holding the silk curtain out to let the watery sunlight in. Aspen’s smile faltered. Mrs. Fischer sighed and turned to look at her. Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. She took a tentative step forward.
            “Aspen, honey, can you sit down for a second?” Ms. Fisher motioned for her to sit on the couch next to her. “There’s something we need to tell you.”
            Aspen nodded and made her way over. She sat down and drew her knees up to her chest on the couch. She waited patiently.
            “Hon, I don’t know what other way I can tell you this, but… we’ll be going away for a little while. Kind of like a fieldtrip or a vacation—”
            “A vacation?” Aspen perked up. “Cool! Where are we going? Hawaii? Florida? California?” A broad smile broke out on her face.
             Mrs. Fischer shook her head. “No, honey. You see… you and I will be moving away for a bit while Dad works on a special project.”
            Aspen cocked her head to the side in confusion. “You and me? Moving? Where?”
            Mr. Fischer pulled away from the window. “Washington,” he said before her mother could answer. “You two are going to Washington for a bit until we can… figure things out.”
            Aspen frowned. “I don’t want to go to Washington. I want to stay here. I don’t want to move away from my friends.”
            “We’ll be back,” Mrs. Fischer replied, but her smile didn’t touch her eyes. “I promise. You’ll be back to see your friends again.”
            “But why do we have to go away now? And what things do you need to figure out?”
            Both parents looked at each other. “That doesn’t matter right now,” Mrs. Fischer responded. “What matters is that we pack as soon as we can so we can leave earlier. Okay?”
            Aspen shot up to her feet. “I don’t want to go!” she argued. “I want to stay here with my friends and go to school here! I don’t want—”
            “Aspen!” Mr. Fischer barked. “Go upstairs and pack your things. Your mother and I need to talk some more about the move. Don’t… don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
            With a final huff, Aspen stormed up the steps to her room where she busied herself with packing the rest of the day.
            What things did they talk about? They never said anything to me, she thought. She let the memory fade away into the back corners of her mind as the car began to slow down. She turned and her mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They had arrived. Mrs. Fischer cut the engine and stepped out of the car, stretching and yawning loudly. Aspen hesitated and leaned forward for a better look at their new home.
            Surprisingly, the new house was a lot nicer than she had expected. It was tall, three-stories, and painted a perky buttercup yellow. The yard was wide, boxed in with a newly painted red fence, and a single maple tree standing in the middle. The driveway was on the right with a moving truck already parked, and bunches of well-kept rose bushes sat on either side of the front steps that led to the porch where a wicker porch swing swung gently in the wind. Aspen smiled in satisfaction. Maybe the move wouldn’t be so bad after all. 
            She quickly exited the car and ran across the yard to the front door.
            “Aspen!” Mrs. Fischer cried, holding her cellphone in one hand. “Wait a minute! I don’t think the door is open!”
            Aspen paused and admired the bright red paint of her new front door. This is so cool! She thought gleefully. She reached for the doorknob.
            The door swung open with a small whine. Aspen giggled with delight. “Mom!” she cried. “It’s okay! The door is already open!”
            But Mrs. Fischer didn’t hear her. She made her way over to the moving truck, keys in hand, as she talked away on the phone. Aspen shrugged and entered the house. She wandered down the front hall and into the vast living room to her right. The room was empty except for a red brick chimney and a large window looking out at the front yard where the car was parked against the curb by the mailbox.
            Aspen squealed with delight. Such a pretty house! She twirled as she left the room and moved on to the kitchen. She stopped and stared astoundingly. This room was empty too save for the small dinner table sitting by the back door with missing chairs, a metallic refrigerator, and empty white cabinets. Their doors were all hanging open like the gaping jaws of a shark. Weird, she thought. She moved on further into the house.  She ducked her head in what looked like a laundry room, frowned, and walked out again.
            “Aspen?” Mrs. Fischer called. “Honey, where are you? We need to meet the landlord soon. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
            “Okay,” Aspen responded. “Be there in a second—”
            She stopped short and scampered up the stairs, giggling jubilantly. She was met with a long hallway of doors, four in total and each with its door wide open, baring view of the empty rooms. Aspen frowned. Isn’t there anything interesting about this house at all? She sighed and sauntered past the four doors to another set of stairs. She began to climb. Maybe it’s more rooms, she thought despairingly. How many rooms does a house need anyway?
             She let out a startled gasp. The hall had three more rooms, two with their doors pushed wide open, and at the end of the hall was a bird. Its black feathers seemed to shine in the pale light of the day as if made of polished glass. Its head was turned, its dark eyes fixed on the view of the backyard down below. Its obscure feet sunk deep in the plush beige carpeting. The bird turned its head to look at her. A cold shiver ran down Aspen’s spine. Creepy bird! She took a step forward.
            The bird didn’t move. Instead, it kept its unblinking stare trained on her.
            “Shoo!” Aspen cried and made a ‘go away’ motion with her hands. “You can’t be in here! No animals allowed!”
            Still, the bird did not move. Aspen frowned and placed her hands on her hips. “How am I going to get rid of you?”
            She made another ‘go away’ motion with her hands. “Shoo! Shoo!” she cried. “Go away you creepy bird! You’re not allowed up here!”
            The bird didn’t flinch. Aspen sighed in defeat.
            “Fine,” she said and curled her bottom lip out in a pout. “Stay here then! I’ll just go and explore without you!”
            She marched forward in the bird’s direction and kept her eyes trained at the door. Another shiver ran down her spine. Stop scaring yourself, she berated. It’s just a stupid bird. It probably got in through an open window or something. But the goose bumps on her arms suggested otherwise. She glanced away from the eerie bird and fixed her attention at the final door. Unlike the others, this door had not been painted or opened in a while. The red paint was faded and chipped several places and it remained shut with a large, golden key in the lock.
            “What in the world…?” Aspen carefully sidestepped the ogling bird and cautiously moved forward. “Why is this door locked—?”
            Caw! Aspen whirled around, startled by the sudden outburst, and tumbled to the ground. The bird suddenly took flight, flapping its long, black wings maddeningly, and its eyes glowing with a deep red light. A scream tore out of Aspen’s throat as the bird circled through the air and dove directly at her, its pointed beak shining like a glossy blade of a knife. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Call of The Zodiac (Prologue)

October 30, 2011
Chagrin Heights, Washington



The sun was a mere stain on a golden horizon, leaving behind faint remnants of its red-orange fingers to kiss a blue-purple sky like a feeble goodbye. The winds picked up, howling restlessly and scattering a cluster of dead autumn leaves around the feet of an anxious old woman and her much younger companion. They trudged through the darkening town with much haste, keeping their hooded heads bent low, hugging their belongings tightly to their chests. Time was running out. The streets were eerily empty; sidewalks cleared of any living beings except the occasional bird perched high on a crooked branch, peering down unblinkingly at them with gleaming, dark eyes. 
For any normal pedestrian this wouldn’t have been much of a sight. For most, this would’ve gone unnoticed. But both Madam Dulca and her granddaughter, Gitana, knew better than to let their guard down. Not when it was the very same bird that so persistently pursued them. Gitana tucked a lock of her glossy black hair behind an ear. Her heart seemed to swell in anxiety, her mind teeming with unanswered questions. She quickened her pace, keeping her eyes fixed on the narrow road that vanished into the thick foliage of trees a few yards ahead of them. The sounds of their heavy breathing and the clanking jewelry echoed through the unusually still air. 
“Grandmother,” Gitana whispered. “They are closing in. How much farther must we journey until we've reached the caves?"
Madam Dulca frowned. “Hush child!” she snapped. “I am aware of their presence. We shall not travel far.” 
The buildings of the town fell away behind them as they quickly dove into the greenery of trees. They broke into a run. The trail was vague and seemed to twist sharply at odd angles, vanishing into random shrubbery and clusters of old, gnawed trees leaning askew to the sides. Gitana glanced back over her shoulder at her hobbling grandmother. The old woman shot her a warning look. Run. Do not waste time fussing over me. She spared herself a brief look at the sky. The last of the sun’s rays were dipping over the horizon, submerging the forest into a rapidly growing darkness. 
Nightfall would soon be upon them. 
Caw! A single bird cried out into the approaching night. Gitana’s heartbeat sped up. She glanced back at her grandmother again. Where were the caves? She reached into the pocket of her blouse and pulled out a string of twelve beads. Her footsteps thudded nosily through the woods, twigs snapping feebly beneath her boots, bushes rustling as she passed through them. Time was running out. They would soon find them.
“How far must we go?” Gitana cried out. She peeked once more over her shoulder. 
The old woman was gone. Gitana stopped short with a startled cry. She spun around. Her grandmother was nowhere in sight. Indecision slammed into her like a tidal wave. Should I continue to the caves with the others? Should I fetch her? Where could she have gone? She tightened her grip on the black beads. She moved slowly, gripping her knapsack tightly in one hand, and lowered herself to the ground. She placed the beads to her forehead with a trembling hand and closed her eyes. 
“Fac apel pentru elementul Luminii Sacre,” she whispered and sucked in a breath of air. “Ajutor pentru mine în căutarea mea de a căuta adevărul. Spune- mi, unde se găsesc bunica mea iubita?”
She waited in silence for several moments. Then she felt it. 
It was warm and pleasant. Slow at first, but growing steadily as a familiar heat emitted from the beads and pricked at her forehead with a persistent, prickling sensation. Gitana bit down on her lip to keep from shouting out. She willed the memory of her grandmother to appear in her mind: her scraggly black hair, large protruding ears, and small, gaunt neck. The heat intensified, spreading from her forehead to the sides of her head, jabbing ruthlessly at her temples. 
Her eyes came into focus, dark and large like marbles, followed by a large, bulbous nose, thin lips, and russet skin creased with age like worn leather. She saw her necklace, its golden coins glittering brightly in the light that penetrated her mind. Her shawl, flowered calf-length skirt, and bare feet came last. Her hands now shook violently as the light dove deeper into her mind, pushing past her emotions, viciously pulling at the back corners of her mind. 
“Ahh!” Gitana cried. “Arata-mi, mare Lumina sacră! Mi dezvaluie locul bunicii mele!”
She let out a long, helpless scream as her forehead began to burn, the light expanding in her mind. She saw trees and within those trees, lying on the dirt floor of the woods, was Madam Dulca. She was clutching a golden talisman in her hands, the contents of her knapsack scattered all around her. Her eyes remained closed, but her lips moved, quietly reciting an incantation Gitana knew all too well. High above her, perched calmly on a single blackened branch was the bird. 
Gitana’s body shuddered violently as the light finally exploded in her mind. The beads fell to the ground as she was thrown a few feet away, coughing and sputtering in pain. Her eyes watered, her head and body ached, but she managed a sigh of relief. Her grandmother was still alive, but at the mercy of their dreaded feathered fiend. She touched her scalding forehead gingerly with her fingertips and winced. 
With great difficulty, she climbed to her feet and quickly gathered her things. She sped off in the direction of her grandmother. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“You foul beast,” Madam Dulca grunted as she struggled to sit up. 
Her bones ached from having been thrown to the ground, the bird having repelled her last spell. 
The bird said nothing. Instead, he met its victim’s glare with one of its own. Its inky feathers shown brilliantly in the silver light of the moon, like smooth obsidian, but its eyes remained shadowed by the surrounding darkness. The old woman clung to the golden talisman with her remaining strength. Surely Gitana might have reached the caves by now. The sealing ceremony was to be performed before the midnight hour struck. A small grin played on Madam Dulca’s lips. She could not banish the creature to where it came, but she could definitely lock away its abilities. 
“Begone, you filthy creature!” she cried. “For you befoul these hallowed grounds!” 
“I will not ask again,” the bird responded. “You know what I want from you. And I will have it.” 
“Elementul de foc! Vin în ajutorul meu!” The old woman held the talisman out. 
A jetstream of yellow-orange fire spouted from the center of the talisman, bathing her surroundings in bright light. 
Caw! The bird leaped into the air, its dark wings flapping vigorously as the flame shot past like a comet. Madam Dulca grinned and flicked her wrist. The beam curved and made another attempt at the bird.
“Now for the last attack!” Madam Dulca pulled out a final a final object: a golden coin, the last from her necklace. She held it out towards the bird.
“Elementul Luminii Sacre! Vin în ajutorul meu!” 
With the last of her strength, Madam Dulca tossed both of the amulets toward the flapping bird. 
“No!” The bird howled in despair. “Sacred Fire? This cannot be!” 
The two objects collided head on with the winged animal before they concurrently burst. Madam Dulca dove for the ground and flung her arms over her head as the explosion shook the earth. 
“Grandmother!” Gitana shouted as she broke into the clearing and stared at the sizzling pile of ash before her. 
Madam Dulca groaned as she rolled over onto her back. She wheezed and waves of pain slammed into her at all ends relentlessly. Gitana hurried over and dropped down to her side, beads in her hand. She scooped the frail woman’s body into her arms and placed the beads onto her chest. 
“Take me to the caves, Gitana!” Madam Dulca demanded. “Now.” 
Gitana knew better than to argue with her. She tossed the beads into the sky. “Elementul de vânt! Vin în ajutorul meu! Ne transporta la destinație dorit!”
A sudden gust of wind wrapped around them and hurled them into the air. Gitana clung to her wounded grandmother as they sailed atop the trees. Madam Dulca sighed and let her eyes flutter shut. 
Gitana gasped. “Grandmother?” she screamed. She shook her by the shoulders. “Grandmother? Are you gravely injured? Please stay with me! We’re almost there!”
“Reunite with the others,” Madam Dulca whispered. “Hurry… before the midnight hour!”
Gitana’s eyes welled up with tears. “Please don’t die,” she whispered. “Please.”
A series of caves came into view and the winds dropped them at the edge of another clearing, this one better and brightly lit with a large bonfire. Gitana quickly hoisted her grandmother into her arms and stalked forward, stumbling and sobbing as she went. 
They broke into the clearing. The caves were silent like the night. 
“Tamás!” Gitana shrieked. She staggered forward and placed the unconscious Madam Dulca on the ground near the fire. 
“János! Katarzyna! Dunja!” Gitana let out aloud wail. “Anyone here? Grandmother is injured! She needs help! We have dealt with the bird!”
Still no answer. She ran to the first cave and stepped inside. Her shadow danced along the wall as she moved. 
She stopped and sniffed. The smell wafted towards her, sickly sweet and acidic, assaulted her nostrils. Gitana staggered back, clutching her churning stomach, and struggled to remain upright. Her eyes swam and she heaved the contents of her stomach over the cave floor. And that’s when she noticed it. The charred remains of human bodies scattered all around her. 
“Oh Doamne,” she breathed as another wave of nausea washed over her.
She dropped to her knees then, shaking her head back and forth so hard that her scarf fell off her head. And with the last of her strength, she let out a final scream of anguish. 







Saturday, March 5, 2016

Call Of The Zodiac: Excerpt 1


She didn't know how long she had been held captive inside this dingy prison. It felt so familiar to her now: the cold, gray stones, the single oil lantern that dangled from a silver chain entrenched into the ceiling where it bathed its detainee in pale, yellow-gold light, and the cluster of vines that scaled the ramparts of her dungeon like green, leafy fingers. Aspen shivered in spite of the clammy temperature of her cell. How long did they intend on keeping her confined down here? She predicted that she wouldn't survive much longer. Her mouth felt arid and desiccated, as if it were stuffed with a fistful of cotton. Her mouth felt arid and desiccated, as if it were stuffed with a fistful of cotton. Her body felt heavy where it lay, slumped against a dark corner of her cubicle, too drained and weary to carry out any movements due to lack of food and water. Her eyes throbbed with a muted pain as they wandered aimlessly throughout the dimly lit space.

Where was everybody? Had they noticed her absence? Was her mother out right now, blurry-eyed and sniffling behind the wheel of her dark green BMW, looking for her under the heavy rain? She would imagine so. Were the others looking as well? Aspen closed her eyes. A f flood of unfamiliar images flickered behind her eyelids: a collection of black and white police cruisers weaving their way through the small town, the high-pitched whine of their sirens cutting through the silent night air. Sleepy-eyed pedestrians would be out and about on the sidewalks and streets, murmuring among themselves in hushed tones, huddled in small groups with their heads bent down against the cold and constant drizzle. Among the thickening cloud of onlookers, she spotted her father with a phone glued to his hear, howling his concerns at the top of his lungs to the person on the other end, his dark brown hair standing on end from the many times his hands had raked through it.

She saw a news van parked to one side of the road and a petite blonde in a red, form-fitting suit diving in and out of the massive crush of shivering bodies, a microphone in her gloved hands and her trusted cameraman hot on her heels with his equipment hoisted onto one shoulder. She hurriedly pushed her dripping hair out of her face and pointed a bony finger to her left as she spoke where a group of little children clung to their distraught mothers as they wept. The cameraman swung his shoulder and began to film. Aspen let out a small whimper of fright. Help me. She willed her mouth to open, to shout the desired words to those oblivious to her incarceration. But nothing moved. Her lips remained pressed together into a thin, white line on her pallid face. Her heart sank in defeat. If they didn't know where she was, then who would? How long would it take anyone to discover her whereabouts and free her? How long did she—

And then a familiar face materialized in the darkness that sat behind her eyelids. Aspen's breath suddenly hitched in her throat. The man in a heavy dark trench coat stepped forward and placed a large, thickset hand on one of her mother's quivering shoulders. His black hair was matted down to his face and neck like a helmet, sleek and shiny in the ashen light of the moon. No. She was dreaming. She had to be. Ms. Fischer looked up then, narrowing her puffy, red eyes through rainwater and tears before she through her lanky arms around the man's chunky neck. She buried her face into his chest and wept. The man turned then and pushed his inky hair from his eyes, revealing a long ragged scar etched onto the left side of his lopsided face. A long, bloodcurdling scream tore out of Aspen's throat as her stare was met with the deep black holes of Mr. Blackwell's eyes...

She sat up with a start then, her tiny chest rising and falling heavily as her body was rocked with a tidal wave of unmanageable shudders. Aspen quickly drew her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She sobbed quietly, the sound carrying through the extended emptiness beyond her cell in muffled echoes. Somebody please. As impossible as she believed it was, Aspen still hoped that her silent plea would reach the ears of her saviors. She shivered inwardly and flattened her back against the cool stones behind her. What should she do now? She had no means of escape or communication with anyone in the outside world. The only window in the room was barred as well as out of her reach and the door had been locked tight from the outside. She had heard the locks slide into place what seemed like an eternity ago. She sighed glumly and dropped her head on her knees. Please God, she silently pleaded as tears prickled the backs of her eyes. Please help me go home. The tears flowed freely down her dirt-streaked face. If only someone would come and get her—

Click. The sound seemed to ricochet off the walls and ring in Aspen's ears. She sat upright and listened. Was she hearing things? Surely this was a delusion brought on by her deteriorating state. A low grumble escaped her hollow stomach and reverberated through her cell.

"H-hello?" she whispered. "Anyone out there?"

Her voice sounded grainy and weak, as if someone had scrubbed at her throat with sandpaper. Maybe she hadn't heard anything. It was possible that she was slowly losing her mind. She couldn't remember the last time she had sat down at a table and had a proper meal or relished the thirst-quenching effect a cool glass of water had on a parched throat. Aspen sighed again and laid her head against her knees. If only she had stayed home instead of going on that stupid field trip. She could've been at home tucked away in bed in the safety of her home with her mother down below in the kitchen humming busily as she took care of the remains of their dinner. Not here sobbing and dying in the dark by herself without knowing who had taken her or where she was.

Click. Swoosh.

Aspen hadn't had enough time to even breathe before the door was suddenly swung open. Her breath caught in her throat. Had her prayer come true? Had someone managed to find where she had been put away? Though with great effort, she managed to pull herself up onto her feet and stagger forward, using the wall for much needed support. Thank goodness, she thought. A slight smile tugged at the edges of her cracked, dry lips. She took a small step forward and reached out with one hand. Thump-thump. Her heart gave a sudden flip of joy behind the protection of her ribs. Finally. After so much time waiting, she was finally going to be set free. Aspen dragged her other foot forward. She could see him now, standing in the doorway of her cell, his lean figure silhouetted by the abrupt burst of light behind him. Thump-thump. Only a few more steps and she'd be liberated. Free as last to see her friends and family again.

"Did…did you come here…to take me home?" she asked, her voice dripping with hope and relief.

Yes I did. She waited keenly for this stranger to speak those three magical words. Aspen closed her eyes and let her heart swell with the overwhelming warmth of happiness that enveloped her chest. Her legs wobbled as she crept closer to the door. She was finally going home. She would finally be able to see her mom and dad again. Makka must be so worried about her. Were the police still searching for her? Had they called off the search and decided that she was dead and gone somewhere? She would make sure this stranger got a reward for this…

"Sorry, red," a familiar voice replied. "But you're not seein' mommy and daddy anytime soon."

Aspen stopped short in her tracks. A flicker of dread ignited inside her chest. Oh no, she moaned inwardly. Please not him. Please not him! She stumbled backward on unsteady legs, sluggishly shaking her head back and forth in disbelief. It couldn't be. Damien? He was the one who had taken her during her field trip and trapped her here? The door slammed shut as Damien stepped inside. His dark eyes scrutinized the cubicle his captive sat in and smiled in delight.

"Not too shabby," he remarked with a lopsided grin identical to his father's. "Nothing a little Lysol won't fix."

"Why?" Aspen whimpered softly. "Why did you put me here?"

Her eyes welled up with tears as her heart slowly sank to her ankles. "What exactly do you want with me?"

Damien sighed and raked a hand through his messy locks. "I knew I should've let Dianni come here first," he grumbled. He sighed and turned to stare at her. The poor girl looked horrible; muddy from head to toe with a noticeable cuts and bruises on her colorless skin. Her clothes were torn and stained with dirt and blood from their scuffle a few days ago when he was sent to go and retrieve her. But it was her eyes that made him look away without responding right away. It was the devastating sorrow that shone in those watery blue depths. She looked so weak and helpless the way she was curled up in the corner like that, laying on the floor like a stricken animal. His heart skipped a beat at the sudden rush of familiarity flowed through his being. She reminded him of someone. A little boy who lost…

"If I told you that princess," he replied sternly without glancing at her, "then that would ruin the surprise and I can't do that, now can I?"

"I wanna go home!" Aspen wailed in response. "Please Damien! Just please take me home! I just wanna go—"

"Shut your mouth!" he snarled. Aspen screeched then, a sound as piercing and high-pitched as a whistle, as she was viciously jerked up off the ground by the collar of her sweater. He slammed her into the wall and lowered his murderous glare to her. He could see it again; the mixture of overpowering sadness and unbearable fear that blended within the bubbling tears and diluted blue shade of his prisoner's widening eyes. Her lower lip shook as she whimpered and whined like a beaten puppy.

An unexpected surge of memories invaded his mind: a small-boned boy with shaggy black hair standing before a crooked tombstone in an abandoned cemetery with the arm of an old, tattered teddy bear in one hand. Damien groaned and stumbled back, dropping a petrified Aspen as he retreated into the halo of light in the middle of the room. He saw the same small boy kneeling on the ground with his hands balled into tiny fists at his sides. The girl, bearing the same long black hair as him, stood beside him with her arm around his trembling shoulders. They watched the massive, hulking figure of their father pace before them, rage and grief twisted into his features. Aspen watched in muted horror as Damien swayed back and forth like a tree in the wind with his rickety hands gripping his head tightly, as if it were threatening to burst apart. Her eyes momentarily drifted to the door. He moaned out loud and leaned forward, one hand clutching his stomach as if in pain. She swallowed and carefully pulled herself onto rubbery legs. Now was her chance. It was either now or never.

Another image invaded Damien's mind. The boy was now older, a grown man, clad in tight black leather and standing at the entrance of a shabby, rundown apartment complex with his sister and father on either side of him. He watched them disappear inside—a ripple of pain shot through his skull then, sharp and clear as a knife stab through the heart. Damien cried out and doubled over in agony, cursing and twisted onto his side to see what had struck him. But his vision blurred and for several moments he could see nothing through the red-hot throbbing that swelled all over his body.

More visions raided his mind; this time he found himself standing over the crumpled, bloody form of a woman. She had been elderly with thinning, wavy black hair and wrinkly russet skin that creased and rutted like cracked leather. She had been wearing a long purple dress, a white shawl, a red bandanna to conceal the bald spot atop of her head, and a collection of colorful, chunky jewelry around her neck, hands, and ears. She was perhaps in her late seventies when they had killed her. Her glassy dark eyes stared lifelessly at the peeling blue paint of the ceiling. Damien stared down at the expanding pool of scarlet beneath his boots and felt his stomach give a violent heave. He rolled over again as a torrent of bile spewed from his gaping mouth and sprayed over the front of his clothes and the floor before him.

"Dianni…Dianni!" he rasped. "H-help…help me now!"

Aspen clasped a hand over her mouth and scampered out the door without a word, leaving her kidnapper to willow in his own pain and vomit without her.

Crazy Little Love Story (1) Enter Katie Holm

 “The Night is ours
don't stop, we've come this far,
Jump on this crazy ride, 
shine bright like shooting stars”­'

'Shooting Stars', Alpha Centaur


I'd been told on more than one occasion that looking younger then your age is a benefit: slow aging, cheaper movie tickets, and extra trick-or-treating candy every Halloween. But did anyone ever think of adding anything to the Cons side of the list? Like getting kicked out of a rated PG-13 movie when caught without your ID or being escorted home by a police officer patrolling the streets on your way home from school because he mistook you for a lost child wandering about in the area?

Who was the moron that ever said that in the first place?

I wondered this as I stared at my youthful reflection in the mirror: a small, round face framed with a tousled, tangled mop of shoulder-length auburn curls. My features included small and bow-shaped lips, set of large, hazel-green eyes, a non-existent neck, big protruding ears, and a short, button nose. I was fifteen years old with the appearance and the voice of ten year old girl. The fact that I stood at four-eleven on the dot didn't help matters much.

I sighed and unscrewed the cap of my toothpaste and pinched it gently, releasing a glop of minty white paste onto the bristles of my toothbrush.

Whoever was the genius that decided to go around telling people that looking young is a benefit in life was obviously wrong. Well, at least in my experience. How was I suppose to find a 'crowd' to hang out and fit in with if I was constantly mistaken for a naive, snot-dripping sixth grader with bad hair? I bent over and spat into the sink. This was just one of the many dilemmas that played throughout my life.

"Katie?" my mom called from somewhere downstairs. I wiped the back of my hand over my mouth and stood upright again. "Yeah?"

"We're leaving in ten minutes!" she called. "Ten! No later!"

I hastily shoved the toothbrush back into my mouth and brushed like there was no tomorrow. Gosh, I really hated Monday mornings.

I ran back into my room across the hall, threw my closet door open and skimmed through the various colorful pieces of clothing I had hung up on coat hangers and rolled into balls on the shelf on top instead of folded like my mother would've liked. In a panic, I grabbed the nearest things I could find that smelled decent; a thin dark purple sweater, flowered gray leggings with tiny red roses dotting them, black ballet flats, and a short denim mini skirt. Not exactly the kind of outfit a girl with any kind of fashion sense would wear, but desperate times called for desperate measures, didn't they?

I quickly yanked my baggy sweats off my legs and then slipped the leggings on and up they went. "Katie?" mom called again, this time sounding slightly annoyed.

"Cuh-ming!" I called back with a mouthful of toothpaste and rushed into the bathroom to spit. I rinsed my mouth with cold water and sprinted back into my room again. Ten minutes couldn't possibly be over already, could it? I pulled my shirt up over my head and then reached out for my sweater. Instead, I grabbed at nothing. What the heck? Irritated, I tossed my shirt aside and glanced around my room looking for the missing sweater. What the heck was it? I just had it…

"Katie-"

"Almost down!" I interjected and slipped my flats on. I ran back into my closet and grabbed a tight-fitting, turtleneck sweater off the rack above my head. I wrenched it over my head and reached out for my school bag. At least my sweater matched my leggings. Finally, I slipped my mini skirt on and rushed into the bathroom for a comb.

And then I saw it. My dark purple sweater was laying on the floor with a toothpaste stain on the front. I mentally kicked myself. How could I have not noticed the stupid thing in my hand the whole time? I plucked the comb off the counter and stomped down the stairs toward my mom, who was waiting by the door with my coat under her arm and a disapproving frown on her face.

"You're late," she said and handed me my coat. "I said ten minutes, you know."

I rolled my eyes and put my coat on. "You didn't tell me that we were leaving so early. I didn't even shower or wash my face."

Mom sighed and glanced down at her watch. "Let's go. Mr. Dos Santos will have our heads if we're late again."

I sighed and sauntered past my mom to her vehicle of choice; a white 1997 Dodge Caravan. I mentally rolled my eyes at my mom's drab taste in cars. Why not get something flashy like a black Ferrari Spider or something classy like a dark Mercedes CLS 550? Instead, she decided to settle on a 'homey' soccer mom minivan that was lamer then she was.

I climbed into the car and strapped myself in.

Mom rounded the front of the car and pulled the driver's side door open and then climbed inside, digging into her purse and grumbling under her breath as she did. I drummed my fingers against the dashboard and sighed loud enough to let her know that she was taking too long.

"Kitty-Kat," she said without looking up, "have you seen my car keys?"

I didn't know whether to be angry with her for slowing us down and losing the keys or upset that she'd just called me by my most hated nickname.

"No-"

"Give me one minute…" she set her purse down on the seat and disappeared inside. I mentally groaned and titled my head back against the seat. And she says that I was the one that was always so unprepared and slow? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Knowing how my mother could be, we could end up showing up for school around lunch time. Not that I had anything against that, but it would be bad for her since she was an English teacher at the Dixie Community College half a mile away from my school. Sighing, I reached over to unbuckle my seat belt when someone vaguely familiar caught my eye.

What the heck? I blinked and leaned forward to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

He stood there, one hand tucked into the rear pockets of his ripped, faded jeans and a lopsided grin etched onto his glorious face. His thick, wavy, golden hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail at the nape of his neck and his eyes- oh those seductive moss green eyes- were fixed on the cell phone he was texting on and holding close to his face.

My heart rowdily against my chest, threatening to break through my rib cage and jump into my lap.

Ohmygod, I thought, stunned and speechless. Ohmygod!

Ohmygod! Eden was here! Eden was standing right down the street! With no screaming fan girls or bulky security guards? There was no mistake- I knew my Eden anywhere. I swallowed the growing lump in my throat and reached over to unbuckle my seat belt with trembling, sweaty hands. What were the chances of this ever happening to someone like me? Oh. My. God! The youngest member of Alpha Centauri was here!

Eden looked up from his text conversation and glanced around once before he crossed the street, headed south toward the busiest part of Dixie. He was headed downtown- on foot? I hurriedly slipped away from my seat and forced the door open. It was now or never. How many Alpha Centauri fan girls had the chance of snagging an autograph and a picture? How many of them ran into them in small towns like Dixie alone and totally unprotected?

I stepped out of the car and began to run. It's now or never, it's now or never…

"Katie!" mom called, sounding confused and appalled. I stopped short and turned on the ball of my heel. Mom scowled and fisted his hands on her hips.

"And where do you think you're going?" she demanded.

I glanced over my shoulder at Eden, who was now about to disappear around the corner. I had to squint just to see that walking piece of sexiness. Yum.

"I'll be right back!" I said and pointed urgently in his direction. "I have to do something!"

I turned and ran for it. To my surprise, mom came after me.

"Katherine Kitten Linda Holm! I demand to know where you're running off to!" she yelled, her heels click-clacking after me. She was easily falling behind.

"I'll be back mom!" I shouted back and darted across the street.

I sprinted down the cracked sidewalk, gasping heavily and out of breath. I wasn't fat or lazy, it was just that I wasn't use to running so much and so hard. If you were chasing after a mega famous star of the hottest boy band of all time, then you would've been doing the same.

I approached the corner and spotted him already a few good yards ahead of me.

I mentally groaned and took a deep breath. Had he panicked and started running? How could he be so ahead in such little time? I wasn't that slow, was I? With one last breath, I sprinted forward again, running at full speed and trying to ignore the growing pain in my side. A wise man once said that when life handed you a once in a lifetime opportunity, you should take it and grab on to it with both hands like your life depended on it. My heart thudded violently against my chest and my lungs burned for me to stop and provide them with air.

No can do lungs. You'll just have to wait.

That wise man was definitely right. Wit my last jolt of energy, I reached out and with my hand and grabbed onto the end of his dark blue cardigan. Eden jumped and whipped around fast with his fists up, making me trip over my own feet, and sent me flying into a tall, dark gray, stonewall. My face collided with it hard, sending a spray of sharp needles of throbbing pain to the middle of my forehead and the tip of my nose.

"Arggggggh!" I cried out in pain and my hands flew to grab at my burning injuries. My face! My freaking glorious face!

"Oh my god," Eden said, sounding panicked and baffled, bent down next to me. He turned me around and attempted to pry my hands off my face.

"Let- me see," he grumbled and pulled at my wrists.

I moaned aloud and leaned forward, screaming and moaning in pain. What the heck was I doing? I had one of the hottest teen pop star sensations since the Backstreet Boys here beside me trying to touch my face and here I was hiding it from him. As painful as my fall had been, I still had to get that sighed autograph and picture.

"Let me see," he grunted and pulled at my wrists again, this time with more energy and urgency. "Don't be so stubborn- just move your hands!"

With one last moan, I let him pry my hands off my face and look at me. Ohmygod! I couldn't believe it! It was Eden! He looked even hotter in person. I let out a shrill squeal of delight.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!

My heart fluttered away in my chest and tears bubbled on the rims of my eyes. Oh my god! It was Eden! It was-

"Katie! Katie- baby, are you hurt?"

I groaned aloud and buried my face in my hands again. Oh God. Of all the rotten luck of the world, why did that rotten luck have to barge in and ruin my moment? Dang it!

"Katie- what did you do to my baby, you bastard?" mom screeched like a housewife on crack. Slowly, a throng of stunned and befuddled pedestrians stopped short and stared at me, eager to know what the big commotion was about.

Eden jumped at her tone and dropped his hands from my face, looking pallid and shaken. "No, I-"

Mom swung at him with her purse, screaming at the top of her lungs and calling out for someone to call the police. She managed to hit him a few times in the chest and face with a few good swings before I intervened.

I jumped to my feet and grabbed hold of my mom's arms. "Mom! Mom it's okay! He didn't hurt me! Mom, stop!"

Mom's vicious swinging ceased and Eden leaped back again, panting rapidly with his arms up over his face and staring at us like we'd just recited the alphabet backwards in Japanese. He-llo? How about a thank you? A 'Thanks Katie for stopping your wacko mother from damaging my super perfect face' or a 'thanks Kat for stopping me from beating my future son-in-law to death'?

"Oh my god! Katie, oh baby, you're bleeding!"

I blinked up at her in confusion. Blood? I touched my forehead and stared down at the tips of my scarlet fingers in surprise. I hadn't even felt anything. She rummaged through the contents of her purse and pulled out a handkerchief. She began dabbing gingerly at my wound. Ugh!

Eden glanced around nervously and the crowd as they twittered among themselves and occasionally pointed at him. He pulled the hood of his jacket low over his face and offered me his hand.

"You may need stitches," he said, pointedly ignoring my mom's death glare. "We should get you to a hospital."

And then he smiled at me in the most angelic, glorious way I'd ever seen a person smile. Oh baby...

I melted right there; I swayed back and forth and my heart fluttered away in my chest again. Mom reached out for me, looking alarmed and bewildered, shouting something I hadn't understood. Eden caught my arm and flung me over his shoulder.

"Let's go!" he cried and took my mom's hand.

He pushed his way through the twittering, eager crowd, impatiently elbowing some and demanding they get out of his way and shoving others aside peevishly. I moaned once more before I slipped into a pool of warm, deep darkness that rushed up to greet me.