Authors: Alyson Noel
“Whatever,” I grumble, unwilling to tell her the truth, that the effect is temporary at best. As much as I don’t want to go to Paloma’s, I want to go to the mental institution even less. “But did you ever stop to think that there might be a third choice—one that you never considered? Now that I’m doing so much better, I don’t see why I can’t just continue with the herbs and follow you to Chile.”
“No,” Jennika says, though her tone lacks the venom the word implies. “It’s not even an option. The fact that you’re doing better only leads me to think that Paloma just might be able to help you kick this for good. Besides, it’s not like I won’t check in. I’ll call every day—I’ll write to you too! And before you know it, I’ll be headed your way. As soon as we wrap, I’ll catch the first plane out, I swear.”
She lifts her hand from the wheel, extends her pinky toward me, her silver ring catching the light, winking at me, as she waits for me to curl my pinky around hers. But I don’t. Instead, I just say, “So it’s settled then. There’s no room for debate. I’m going to live with some crazy old witch doctor who counts a creepy, old, perverted, serial killer, veterinarian among her friends. Awesome.” I nod, gracing her with a smile that’s anything but genuine. “If I live through it, I’ll be sure to include it in my memoirs. And if not, you can include it in yours.”
Jennika shakes her head in a way that tells me I’ve pushed all her limits. “She’s not a witch doctor and you know it.” Her nose twitches with the effort of keeping her voice steady—the movement causing the tiny diamond that flanks her right nostril to shimmer and blink. “She’s a very respected healer, and honestly, Daire, I get that you’re upset. I get that you feel abandoned and choose to express your fears by acting out. And while I’m very sorry for all that you’re going through, for all that’s happened to bring us to this point—I can’t help but wonder if you ever, just for one single moment, stopped to consider how this whole scenario might play for
?” She pauses, gives me a chance to reply, but since we both know I haven’t considered this, she’s quick to move on. “If you think this is easy—if you think I feel good about this—if you think I don’t second-guess this decision every chance that I get, think again. You’re all that I’ve got. You’re the only thing I truly care about. If something happened to you—” Her breath hitches as her eyes go so bleary I can tell she’s picturing her version of a life without me and she doesn’t like what she sees. “Well, let’s just say that I’d never forgive myself. And yet, there’s no doubt this thing is bigger than me, bigger than both of us. Leaving me with only two choices, neither of which thrill me. Though I think you’ll agree that going to stay with your grandmother is by far the lesser evil.”
I shake my head in response. I roll my eyes too. But the fight’s seeping out of me and that’s all I can bring myself to do.
The conversation fading as quickly as the ribbon of highway that streams under our wheels. Leaving me to stare out my window, unwilling to look back at where I’ve been, too frightened to look forward into the big vast unknown.
I just close my eyes tightly and strive to hang onto whatever remains of my sanity. Not wanting Jennika to know that Paloma was right—the herbs only hold for a while, and after that time stops marching and the glowing people appear once again.
Unwilling to admit that as much as I don’t want to go—as much as I dread the moment when Jennika will leave me in the care of my grandmother’s friend who will drive me to New Mexico while Jennika heads for the Phoenix airport where she’ll trade in the rental car for an airplane bound for Chile—I can’t help but hang onto the small seed of hope that Paloma’s really not some crazy, sorcerer, witch doctor. That she’ll be able to save me—spare me a future of sterile-faced, white-coated men with their long, sharp needles and fast-draw prescription pads. So far, she’s the only one who hasn’t accused me of going stark-raving mad.
“Wake me when we get there,” I mumble, settling in as though I might sleep, when really, I’m just doing what I can to shut out the glowing ones, who are already popping up along the side of the road. Their piercing eyes following—watching—wanting me to know that, like it or not, they’re not going away until I do what they ask.
We meet in the clearing.
It always begins in the clearing.
And though I’ve no idea how I get there, there’s no other place I’d rather be.
I lift my face toward the trees, watching the leaves glimmer and dance in the wake of a soft trailing breeze, as a large, purple-eyed raven stares down from above—our gaze meeting, holding, until the boy appears just behind me.
His mere presence causing my breath to catch, my cheeks to heat—and when I turn and gaze upon the dark and startling beauty of him, that’s all it takes for my heart to skip several beats, for my knees to fold and grow weak.
“Daire,” he says.
Or does he merely think it? I didn’t see his lips move so there’s no way to be sure. All I know is that the sound of his voice causes the smile that widens my cheeks as my eyes graze the length of him. Pausing on icy-blue irises banded by a nimbus of gold, reflecting my image thousands of times—the stream of glossy black hair that flows down his back—the silky smooth skin—the long and lean limbs—the hands that hang open and loose by his sides, giving no indication of the pleasure I know them to give.
Those same hands curling around mine as he leads me out of the clearing, and down toward the bubbling hot spring where he gestures for me to wade in. My dress growing damp, transparent, clinging like skin—I head for the far side and eagerly await him.
Anticipating the feel of his lips upon mine, the burn of his fingers traveling over my flesh. His teeth nip at my neck, my collarbone, and then lower still, as he unbuttons my dress, slides it down past my shoulders, and gazes upon me in wonder …
* * *
“Hey.” Jennika’s blue glitter-painted nails scratch at my shoulder, refusing to stop until she’s sure I’m awake. “Daire, wake up, we’re almost there.”
I unfurl my legs and straighten my spine, using the back of my seat as a guide to haul myself up. Taking a moment to get my bearings, blink the fog from my eyes, and reestablish my place—making the transition from the dream state to the waking state, despite the way the images cling.
It’s a dream I’ve had before—one that I actually look forward to—and I’m relieved to know the meds haven’t banished it for good. I stretch my arms overhead, lay my palms flush against the roof of the car—holding fast to the image of the boy’s smooth brown skin, glossy black hair, and the lure of those icy-blue eyes.
I have no idea what his name is, despite the fact that he knows mine. Still, I like to think of him as my dream boyfriend. He’s been visiting me for the last six months, give or take, which pretty much makes him my most enduring relationship to date.
Jennika parks outside the restaurant, glances between her watch and me, and says, “This is the place. Looks like we’re early.”
I shake my head, causing my dream boy’s image to disintegrate, much like the pictures on the portable Etch A Sketch I lugged around as a kid. Trying my best to appear stoic, brave, despite the way my stomach dips, my heart skips, and my hands go all hot and clammy and shaky.
“But it looks like he’s earlier.” She nods toward some tall, dark, solidly built stranger climbing out of an old pickup truck, its faded blue paint glinting dully in the afternoon sun.
“How do you know it’s him?” I squint, straining to get a better look as he crosses the parking lot and pushes through the smudgy glass door. Trying to glean a little something about his character—his measure of trustworthiness, whether or not he really is some creepy, serial killer, pervert like I fear—from a glimpse of his dark Wrangler jeans, black cowboy boots, starched white cotton shirt, and the shiny black ponytail that falls just shy of his shoulders.
“He fits the description,” Jennika says, and when I look at her and see the way she’s looking at him, I know she’s as nervous as I am. “So, what do you say, shall we head inside and make sure?” She grasps my hand in hers, squeezes tightly, if not briefly, then props her door open, slides from her seat, and motions for me to follow suit.
I shove my hands deep into my pockets and walk in behind her. My feet dragging across worn beige tiles, my head tilted in a way that encourages my hair to fall forward, obscuring my face. Determined to get a better look at him than he can of me, carefully noting all the small details I missed at first glimpse: his turquoise-tipped bolo tie that falls halfway down the front of his carefully pressed and starched shirt, his high cheekbones, broad nose, and startling dark eyes that are filled with such kindness my shoulders sink in relief.
You’re in good hands.
The thought swirls through me, though I’m quick to discard it. I can’t trust the things that I hear any more than I can trust the things that I see. Besides, it can’t be that easy; he needs to earn my respect.
We head toward the back, toward the very last booth where he sits. Watching him rise when he sees us, moving in a way that’s surprisingly agile for someone his age. And as much as I’m prepared to hate him, as much as I’m determined to find some big glaring flaw that’ll change Jennika’s mind and cast a final vote against him, the smile that greets us is one of the most genuine I’ve seen in a very long time.
He reaches forward, offers his hand, and introduces himself as Chayton—Chay for short—and I’m pleased to find his grip both firm and sincere. He doesn’t give me some wimpy handshake just because I’m a girl.
I slide onto the opposite bench, moving toward the wall as Jennika slides in beside me. And when Chay folds his hands on the table, leaning forward as he speaks, I can’t help but like him even more for not talking about sports or the weather or some other dumb thing that ignores the disturbing reality of what brought us all here.
He gets straight to the point when he looks at me and says, “I won’t pretend to imagine how you feel right now. Only you know that. And whatever feelings you’re experiencing, whatever thoughts you may have, I have no doubt they’re justified. What I can say is that the drive to Albuquerque runs around seven hours. And then it’s another three from there to Enchantment where your grandmother lives. You and I have a long trip ahead, but we can spend it however you chose. We can talk if you want, and if you don’t, that’s fine too. If you get hungry, we’ll stop. If you need to get out and stretch your legs for a bit, we’ll stop for that too. If you just want to speed on through, aside from filling up on gas when we need it, we can manage that as well. I have no expectations. I ask nothing from you. Whatever it takes to make your trip comfortable, you tell me, and I’ll do my best to see that it’s done. Any questions? Anything you’d like me to know about you?”
I pause, unsure how to respond. The speech I’d prepared—the one where I make clear that I’m not one to be messed with—is no longer appropriate. So I shake my head and stare at my menu instead. Studying laminated pictures of hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and pies as though a pop quiz will follow. And still, when the waitress comes for our order, I ask to go last, needing more time to choose something I probably won’t eat.
Jennika orders a coffee with cream, says her stomach’s too nervous—she’ll grab something at the airport or eat on the plane—while Chay forgoes all thoughts of nutrition and asks for a slice of pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side—an act that scores him another point in my favor. And though I’m tempted to do the same, I ask for a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke. Telling myself that if nothing else, it’ll provide a distraction, give me something to toy with if the conversation becomes as unbearable as I expect.
“So, how’s Paloma?” Jennika asks, the moment the waitress moves on.
“Good.” Chay nods, splaying his hands on the paper place setting before him in a way that showcases his intricate silver ring that, from what I can tell, bears the head of an eagle, with deep golden stones standing in for the eyes.
“What’s she up to these days? Still growing herbs, I know, but what else? Is she still in the same place? What does she do for a living? Does she get by purely with the healing? You know I haven’t seen her in years. Not since Django’s funeral, and even then she left early—strange, don’t you think?”
I cast a nervous glance at Chay, wondering how he’ll respond to Jennika’s machine-gun approach. How she shoots a whole spray of questions at a person, then sits back and waits to see which ones, if any, get answered.
But Chay is calm, if not methodical, and he addresses each one as best he can. Saying, “She keeps the same small adobe she’s always had. And it’s true that her garden grows so plentiful she is able to support herself with the money that comes from the healings and herbs. Seventeen years is a long time to go without a word, but I suppose all different people mourn in all different ways.”
Jennika squirms. Chews her bottom lip. Furiously drumming up a whole new set of questions, I can tell just by looking, but stopped short when Chay looks at me and says, “How are
doing? I hear the herbs have provided relief?”
When his eyes meet mine, I have no doubt he’ll know if I lie. A fact that causes me to admit, “They help for a while, but as soon as they wear off, the visions start up again.”
Jennika gasps. Her face a mask of shock, hurt, and an undeniable anger at what she surely views as my betrayal. Holding her words long enough for the waitress to place our dishes before us, then launching into a full tirade the moment she’s gone. “You told me you felt better! You said you weren’t seeing those things anymore! Did you lie to me? I can’t believe this, Daire. I truly can’t believe this!”
I take a deep breath and pluck a fry from the pile, dangling it for a moment, watching it wag back and forth, before I plop it into my mouth, chase it with another, and mumble, “I didn’t lie. I really do feel better.” I duck my head low and take a sip of my Coke. Using the opportunity to sneak a quick peek at Chay, curious to see how he’s reacting to this, but he busies himself with his pie, wisely steering clear of Jennika’s and my awkward mother/daughter dispute. “It works for a while, and it doesn’t make me feel all lazy and foggy and weird like the drugs do. Still, the second it wears off, the visions return. But I didn’t see the point in mentioning it, since it’s not like it would change anything. You’d just end up worrying even more than you already do.”