Authors: Alyson Noel
Which means every time we approach a new one I can’t help but think:
Is this it? Is this the house where Paloma lives?
Only to sigh in defeat when Chay drives right past it and then past the one after that.
So by the time he stops before a tall blue gate surrounded by smooth, curving walls, I’m so jacked up on junk food and nerves, I’m too nauseated to react in any meaningful way.
“This is it,” Chay says, his smile as good-natured now as it was at the start of this journey. Appearing as though the last ten hours of chauffeuring a sullen teen was not only a pleasure but also a breeze.
He heaves my bag from the small space in back where it’s wedged behind the seats, slings it over his shoulder, and motions for me to follow. Reminding himself to oil the gate after it greets him with a loud squeal of protest, he ushers me through and steps in behind me.
The moment I’m past the threshold, I freeze. My feet planted on the stone and gravel pathway that leads to the door, unwilling to go any farther—unwilling to be the first to approach it.
I have no idea what Paloma looks like—what she’ll be like.
I have no idea what to expect.
I should’ve asked more questions.
I should’ve used the last ten hours to grill Chay until he broke—until he confided every dark and dirty secret Paloma is hiding.
Instead, I chose to eat. And read. And dream about some phantom boy with smooth brown skin, icy-blue eyes, and long glossy black hair—a boy I’ve never even met in real life.
Lot of good it did me.
Before I can ask Chay to return to the truck and haul me right back to Phoenix so I can steal a second shot at doing it right—the front door swings open, revealing a small, dark figure surrounded by a halo of light.
” she coos, her voice surprisingly throaty and deep. But as hard as I stare, I can’t make out anything more than a black silhouette—the light shining behind her in a way that causes a yellowy glow to shimmer around her.
She steps onto the stoop, stands directly underneath the porch lamp, which allows for a much cleaner look. Lifting a delicate hand to her chest where it flutters briefly over her heart before reaching for me. Her eyes brimming, cheeks pink with happiness, she repeats, “
—my granddaughter. You are here!”
I squirm. Feeling oversized and awkward beside her diminutive form—aware of her hand moving toward me but unsure what to do. It seems oddly formal to shake it, and yet I’m not quite ready to go the hugging route either. Genetically speaking she may be my grandmother, but at this moment she’s no more than a small, attractive stranger with flashing dark eyes, a generous smile, a nose that reminds me of mine, and long, lustrous black hair with occasional streaks of silver that shine like Christmas tree tinsel.
I mumble a greeting, chasing the words with a quick wave of my hand before I bury it in my jacket pocket again. Feeling bad about such a cold gesture, but under the circumstances, it’s the best I can offer.
Though if Paloma’s offended, she manages to hide it. Smiling warmly, she ushers me inside as she says, “Come now, child. Come inside. Come out of the cold. It is late. You’ve had a long journey. I will show you to your room, get you settled in for the night, and tomorrow we will get to know each other better. But for now, it is rest you need most.”
I step inside, aware of Chay slipping around me and disappearing down the hall with my bag, as I pause on a colorful woven rug just shy of the entry and try to take it all in. The thick soft-edged walls, the heavy exposed door frames, the sturdy wooden beams that dissect the ceiling, the corner fireplace formed in the shape of a beehive, stuffed with vertically stacked logs that fill the space with the warm scent of mesquite.
“Your mother was right,” Paloma says, moving into the kitchen. Her light cotton dress swishing behind her, her bare feet skimming the floor in a way that prompts me to blink, stare, then blink again—making sure that she’s not really floating, despite how it looks. “Other than the eyes, you look just like your father, my Django.” Her own eyes moisten, as I fidget before her. The only picture I’ve ever seen of my father comes from one of those black-and-white strips you get from a photo booth.
There were three pictures in total: one of Django alone (smiling), one of Jennika alone (eyes crossed/tongue sticking out), and another of them crammed in together with a teenaged Jennika desperately trying to channel Courtney Love’s mid-nineties look with her bleached-blond hair, dark red lipstick, and extremely short baby-doll dress—her body draped across Django’s lap while he made a big show of kissing her neck as she threw her head back and laughed.
Needless to say, the third pic was my favorite.
They both looked so young and in love—so untroubled and free.
And while I definitely appreciated that part of it, it was the message that really stirred me.
It was a message of warning.
A cautionary tale at its best.
All the visual proof I would ever need that life could change in an instant.
A reminder of how just like
—your whole world can get flipped upside down and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Three months after that photo was taken, Django was dead, Jennika was pregnant, and nothing ever felt free or untroubled again.
At first I asked for the whole strip, but Jennika just laughed and said no. So then I asked for the one of the kiss—it was the one I really wanted anyway—but she shook her head, grabbed a pair of cuticle scissors, and snipped off the one at the top and gave it to me.
So while Django moved into my wallet, Jennika hid the other two. Having no idea that every time she booked a new job, I’d spend the first day scoping out her hiding place so I could stare at the kissing photo while she was in meetings.
Paloma fiddles with a pot on the stove, alternately stirring its contents with a large wooden spoon, and lifting that spoon to her nose and inhaling deeply. Finally deeming it ready, she pours the contents into a large, handmade mug and makes her way back to me.
“Drink this while it’s warm,” she says, the mug held in offering. “It’ll help you sleep. Help you keep calm.”
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m reluctant to take it, unwilling to risk it. Even though Paloma seems completely nice and nonthreatening, and not at all like the scary witch doctor I feared—being here, in the house where my dad lived for sixteen years before he ran off to California where he met first my mom, then his death—well, it’s all beginning to feel a little weird.
Still, Paloma is patient—holding the cup in a way that leaves no doubt she’ll stand there for hours if that’s what it takes. And since the night can’t get any more strange and awkward than it already is, I heave a deep sigh and consent. Wrapping my fingers around the smooth ceramic handle, instantly drawn to the wonderful, enticing scent the strange brew emits.
The next thing I know, I’ve already drained it. Watching Paloma place the mug on a nearby table as she says, “It should start to take effect very soon, so we best get you to your room.”
Her touch light and warm as she steers me by the elbow, leading me down a short hallway past one closed door and then another, before ushering me through an arched doorway where I collapse on the bed.
Her nimble fingers tucking the blankets around me as she says, “In the morning, we will talk about everything, but for now, sweet
I’m in the forest.
A cool, windless, lushly green forest consisting of moss-dappled earth and towering trees bearing a canopy of branches so long and entwined only the faintest trace of sun filters in. The light glinting on the leaves in a way that makes them seem animated, alive—as though swaying in harmony to the raven’s sweet song.
My feet move quickly, nimbly, gliding along an unmarked trail with the raven riding high on my shoulder. His alert purple eyes sweeping the area as a vague awareness tugs at my memory, reminding me that I’ve no reason to fear, the raven will lead me, he is my guide. I am meant to be here.
We scale boulders, wade through swiftly moving streams. The water rising higher and higher until it swells past my ankles and soaks through my dress. Wetting and snarling my hair all the way to the tips of my ears, until my fingers grasp for the rock at the far bank, curl around its hard jutting edge, and I heave myself up and sprawl across the top with the raven perched just beside me. The two of us warmed by a bold beam of light that wicks the moisture from my dress, my hair, and my skin—returning it to the sky where it promises to find me again in the form of dew, snow, or rain. Though it’s not long before the raven’s curved bill pecks at my shoulder—signaling that it’s time to get up, start moving again.
Our journey continuing across densely forested terrain, and ending the moment the raven’s clawed feet squeeze my shoulders so tightly they nearly puncture my flesh. His wings fluttering, spreading, lifting him high into flight—and though I turn my gaze skyward, do my best to track him—it’s only a blink until he’s vanished from sight.
His mission complete, I’ve no further need of him. Having reached my intended destination in the form of this beautiful grass-covered clearing I’m in.
I run an anxious hand over my dress—hoping I look presentable, pretty, for the friend who awaits me. Sensing his presence well before I can see him, I shutter my eyes, inhale his deep earthy sent—savoring the rush of adrenaline that kick-starts my heart into a flurry of spasms—stretching the moment for as long as I can, before he calls to me, begs me to face him.
The sound of my name on his lips causing a smile to widen my cheeks as I admire him, absorb him, in the way he does me. My eyes grazing over this beautiful, nameless boy with smooth brown skin, and glossy black hair that sweeps over his face. His torso lean and bare—his shoulders wide and capable—while the hands that dangle by his sides merely hint at the promise of the pleasure I know them to give.
He reaches for me, entwines my fingers with his, leading me away from the clearing, to the other side of the forest where a beautiful, bubbling hot spring awaits. Its clear thermal waters eliciting a fine misty heat that swirls and dances and skims along the surface.
I’m the first to step in, the water claiming my dress until it clings just like skin. I wade toward the far bank, where I eagerly await the sweet burn of his fingers exploring my flesh. My need like a fever raging within—relieved only by the feel of his hands cupping my face, his lips meeting mine—merging and melding—tasting and teasing—the kiss so bewitching it causes a spark of images to blaze through my mind.
Visions of a flower budding, blooming, falling from its stem, only to rise up and bud once again—fading into one of a crowd of dazzling souls that shine brighter than day, butting against souls turned so dark they blend with the night. The souls becoming one with the elements, showing the sky’s constant recycle of snow, dew, and rain—the wind’s two faces of harm and respite—fire’s equal ability to heat or destroy—and the earth’s stoic patience as it struggles to absorb all we demand …
The images repeating until the message is clear:
I am the hydrogen in the very water I float in.
I am the oxygen in the air that I breathe.
I am the small bubble of heat in this mineral spring.
I am the blood that courses through the boy who kisses me—as sure as I’m the beat in the raven’s wings that led me to him.
I am an integral part of everything—and everything is an integral part of me.
A truth that was never made clearer—revealed in one soulful kiss.
His fingers move swiftly, deftly. Trailing along the front of my dress, pushing the fabric down past my shoulders, down past my waist, where he ducks his head low and his lips find my flesh. His progress halted by the press of my palms pushing hard to his cheeks, needing to see him, really see him, in the way he sees me.
My thumbs smooth the sharp rise of his cheekbones. My fingers play at his damp tangle of hair. Pushing it back from his temples, back behind his ears, revealing a pair of icy-blue eyes banded by deep flecks of gold that mirror my image thousands of times.
I gasp, unable to tear my gaze from his, unwilling to look anywhere else—possibly ever again.
“It is time,” he says, his stare deepening until it’s burning on mine.
I’m quick to agree and nod in reply. Sensing the truth behind the words though I’ve no idea what they mean.
“There is no going back. You are meant to be here.”
Why would I ever want to go back?
I was born to find him—of that I am sure.
I move past my thoughts, press closer to him. Hooking my legs around the back of his knees, bringing him to me, eager to claim his kiss once again.
My lips swelling, pressing, only to be met by cold empty space.
My friend is no longer before me—someone else has taken his place.
Someone who bears the same strong, lean body—the same sculpted face—but while the hair is glossy and black like my friend’s—this hair is clipped short, kept close to the head. And while the eyes share the same color, flecked by the same bands of gold, the similarity ends there.
These eyes are cold.
And instead of reflecting, they absorb like the void I sense them to be.
“I’ll take it from here.” He gives my friend a hard shove.
“You’ll do no such thing.” My friend quickly recovers. His body tense, muscles coiling—prepared to defend me.
The boy snickers, moves to push past him but doesn’t get very far before he’s blocked once again. His words edged with a sneer when he says, “Not to worry, brother—it’s the soul that I want, the heart is all yours.”