Authors: Alyson Noel
My friend stands before him, a solid wall of protection. “There is no heart without the soul. I’m afraid you’ll get neither.”
The boy’s gaze grows darker, deeper, more determined and cruel, discarding the threat with the words: “Then I guess I’ll take yours.”
It’s a moment before it sinks in.
A moment before it begins to make sense.
A moment lost.
The threat realized so quickly I’m left wide-eyed and gaping when the boy—the one with the cold, empty eyes—becomes something else.
Something monstrous, demonic—born of dark fetid seed and other wicked foul things.
His mouth turned jagged, bloodied, and obscene—bearing sharp, fanged teeth that sink into my friend—flaying his flesh. Rendering his chest to a crushed, pulpy mess that stains the water a terrible red.
He rears his head back, emits a horrible growl. His eyes glowing the same crimson that drips from his chin as a hideous snake flares from his lips, inhabiting the space where his tongue used to be.
I reach for my friend, grasping, fumbling, in a frenzy to save him.
I can’t lose him.
Can’t let this happen.
Not when it’s taken sixteen years to find him.
Though the word has yet to be spoken, there’s no denying it is Love that we share.
Love that brought us both here.
We are bound.
Some things you just know without question.
I lunge. Kick. Fight. Scream. Though my efforts are in vain—I’m no match for the snake.
It swerves around me. Plunges straight into the now-gaping cavity of my friend’s battered chest.
Returning with a sacred, shimmering sphere it suckles gingerly, gently, before consuming it whole—snuffing the life it beheld like a flame.
The demon grins—a hideous sight forever sealed in my brain. Then he winks out of existence—leaving me alone with my friend—my one true love—my destined one—now an empty sack of lifeless flesh lying limp in my arms.
I wake with a scream. Lying facedown, my mouth mashed into a pillow in a way that muffles the sound. Still, I can’t help but worry that Paloma might’ve heard, might decide to come check on me and make sure I’m okay.
I kick the tangle of blankets and sheets from my legs and push them to the foot of my bed. Hauling myself up against the short wooden headboard, I cock my ear toward the hall, alert to any sign of my grandmother, convinced it’s just a matter of time before she bursts into the room bearing some strange herbal brew she’ll force me to drink. But all I make out is the comforting noise of kitchen sounds seeping under the door.
Water running, butter sizzling, along with the soft sucking sigh of a refrigerator door opening and the firm no-nonsense thump when it closes again. The everyday domestic soundtrack most people take for granted—that I only know from watching TV and movies.
For the past sixteen years, Jennika and I have been on the road, which means that most of my meals have come from airplanes, restaurants, foreign cafés with questionable health codes, and, when I’m lucky, the huge catered spreads they serve on the set.
The only time I’ve come even remotely close to experiencing anything resembling “normal” domesticity was when we found ourselves staying at Harlan’s on my twelfth birthday and Jennika tried to surprise us by making French toast. Only she got distracted while waiting for the edges to brown, and the next thing we knew the toast was smoking, the fire alarm screaming, and after the drama was handled, Harlan squeezed us all into his car and treated us to brunch at some vegan place near Malibu Beach.
But Paloma’s nothing like Jennika. From what I can see, she’s a living picture of Old World, Latina hospitality. Though as much as my rumbling stomach urges me to get out of bed and go join her, the rest of me is determined to hold off—to delay the moment just a little bit longer.
I push a clump of damp, sweaty hair from my face and waste no time exchanging the clothes that I slept in for the soft cotton robe Paloma draped over a chair. The horror of the nightmare so fresh in my mind that for the first time ever I fervently hope I never dream about that boy again.
I curl my toes into the soft sheepskin that hugs the floor by my bed, and put myself through a quick series of stretches. Working to release the crick in my neck that always comes from sleeping in the face-plant position, before moving about my new room, exploring it in a way I didn’t get to do last night, since whatever Paloma gave me knocked me out good and fast.
There’s an old wooden desk and matching chair by the window with my father’s initials carved into the grain in the upper-right corner. The D S so hard-edged and angular it looks almost Greek. And though I try to picture him sitting there—talking on the phone, doing homework, even plotting his eventual escape to L.A.—it’s no use. It’s impossible to make the transition from a smiling black-and-white photo to a real flesh-and-blood person—Paloma’s only child who felt so suffocated right here in this town, right here in this house, he couldn’t wait to get away.
Even when I spot his framed photo on the dresser, it’s still hard to place. Though despite his neat appearance, the photo definitely hints at his unhappiness.
His shirt is clean and pressed, his dark hair freshly trimmed, and while his smile is pleasant enough, if you look closely, you can see more than a hint of restlessness in his gaze. And I can’t help but wonder if Paloma was aware of it too—or if she’s just like every other parent, allowing her eyes to skip past all the things that are too unpleasant to see.
“He was sixteen in that photo.” Paloma pokes her head around the now-opened door, her voice so unexpected I can’t help but jump in response. “Same age as you,” she adds, but all I can do is stare, one hand clutched to my chest, aware of my heart pumping madly against it, the other returning the photo, feeling oddly guilty for studying it.
“I heard you get up.” She moves toward me, lifts the photo from my fingers and holds it in hers.
I don’t say a word. I’m not sure what to say. I’m pretty sure my muffled scream hadn’t carried all the way to the kitchen—so does that mean she was camped outside my door, waiting for just the right moment to barge in?
“Oh, I suppose I didn’t so much hear you, as sense you.” She smiles, glancing between the photo and me. “He left not long after this picture was taken. He called on occasion, sent a few postcards, but once he was gone, I never saw him again.”
She replaces the photo, taking great care to set it precisely where I’d found it, before moving toward the window where she pushes the soft cotton curtains aside, allowing a single slant of pale light to stream in.
Her gaze following mine when she says, “It’s a dream catcher.”
I reach toward the delicate weaving hanging just over the sill. Its round, webbed center woven with yarn and beads, with a deliberate hole left smack in its center—while soft buckskin fringe and an array of light feathers dangle from the ends.
“Do you know the story of the dream catcher?” she asks, her flashing dark eyes reminding me of the color of earth after a night of hard rain.
I shake my head and scratch my arm even though it doesn’t really itch—a nervous habit that’s been with me for years. My own horrible dream lurking just under the surface, leaving me to wonder if I should maybe confide in her—an impulsive idea I’m quick to dismiss.
“Like people, each one is different—and yet, they share common traits. This particular dream catcher is Navajo in origin, made by a friend. It is said that dreams come from someplace outside ourselves—and so the dream catcher is hung over the bed or the window, acting as a web that catches the good dreams that ease us through the day, while allowing the bad dreams to pass through the hole you see in the center, so that it can be burned up by the rays of the sun. And those feathers at the bottom—” She motions toward the feathers I’ve been flicking with my fingers without even realizing it. “They’re meant to symbolize the breath of all living things.”
She turns to me, her gaze lightly probing as though she’s waiting for me to reveal something big. And though I’m tempted to tell her that her dream catcher doesn’t work—that while it’s a nice little piece of hand-crafted art, as far as functionality goes, it’s a total fail, doesn’t work worth a crap at keeping the bad dreams away—her eyes are too kind, too hopeful, so I swallow the words and follow her into the kitchen for breakfast instead.
* * *
“You know there’s a rock jutting out of the wall, right?” I drain my juice and carry the glass to the sink where Paloma stands, elbow deep in suds, since there’s no sign of a dishwasher from what I can see. Not meaning for the words to sound as abrupt and rude as they did, though I do find it strange that we just got through an entire brunch (little did I realize, but I’d slept well past breakfast, and even past lunch as it were), including a huge, heaping plate of delicious blue-corn pancakes topped with warm maple syrup, a side of assorted organic berries plucked straight from her garden, fresh squeezed juice, and a nice warm mug of piñon coffee so aromatic I can still smell traces of it clinging to the room—with absolutely no mention of the boulder ’til I just now brought it up.
Paloma’s lips curve, granting a small smile as she says, “We should not disturb nature. We should never demand it conform to our ways. Rather we must learn to live in harmony with it, for it offers many gifts.”
I’ve heard that sort of talk before. Usually coming from some crazy-eyed starlet who just returned from a life-changing yoga session. The newfound enlightenment lasting a few weeks at most—until the next fitness craze hit and the starlet moved on.
But Paloma’s no starlet. Though I’ve no doubt she could’ve been—back in the day. If my math is correct, she’s got to be somewhere in her early fifties, though she’s still really pretty in a no-fuss, organic sort of way, with her long, dark braid that trails to her waist, clear brown eyes, tiny frame, thin cotton shift dress that reminds me an awful lot of the one I wore in my dream, and bare feet.
I trace my fingers over the rock, amazed by the way it just butts right into the room, solid and insistent, demanding everything else find a way to exist around it.
The house looks different this morning, and not just because of the rock I failed to notice before. Last night the house seemed so warm and glowy with the fireplace blazing and the assortment of table lamps lit. But now it seems simple, almost plain. Bearing a handful of Navajo rugs, simple wood furniture, jam jars crammed with small clusters of yellow and purple wildflowers, and these odd little nooks that punctuate the walls, each of them filled with hand-rendered carvings of various saints.
Still, as monastic as it is, it offers an undeniable sense of comfort I can’t quite place. Though that might have something to do with its size. It’s small, cozy, impossible to get lost in. Consisting of this big open space that hosts the kitchen and den, two bedrooms—one for me, one for Paloma (and I’m guessing two bathrooms as well, since I don’t remember her using mine)—and another room at the far end that’s clearly a recent addition. The short brick ramp that leads up to it ending in an arched doorway that frames an entire wall of shelves filled with bunches of drying herbs, jars filled with weird-looking liquids, and all kinds of other miscellaneous
for lack of a better word.
“What’s that?” I motion toward the strange room.
“That’s where I work with my clients; think of it as my office, if you will.” Paloma pulls the stopper from the sink, allowing the water to gurgle down the drain as she dries her hands on a blue embroidered towel. “But not to worry, I’ve cleared the day to spend with you, so that we can talk and get to know each other better, without interruption.”
I glance between the room and her, saying, “Well, maybe we should start in there. After all, I’m the crazy one who was sent here to be cured.”
She gives me a look I can’t read—is it compassion, sadness, regret? It’s impossible to tell.
crazy.” She leans against a counter crafted from colorful Spanish tiles, her head cocked in study. “And I’m afraid there is nothing I can do to
you, as you say.”
My eyes bug, as her words repeat in my head. My reply just shy of hysteria, when I say, “Then why am I here? Why’d I travel all this way if you can’t help me? What’s the point of all this? Why’d you take me away from Jennika?”
“You’ve misread my words.” She pushes away from the kitchen and motions for me to join her in the den where she stokes the vertically stacked logs in the fireplace, causing them to spark and spit, before she moves to the couch and lowers herself onto the cushions. “I didn’t say I can’t
you, I said I can’t
you. There is nothing to be cured, Daire.”
I glare. Fidget. Pull hard on my robe, yanking it so tight it practically wraps twice around me. Perching on the arm of a chair, having no idea what she’s getting at. It all sounds suspicious, like some kind of doublespeak.
close to calling Jennika. Demand she fly here right now and come get me, when Paloma says, “It happened to your father as well. The onset is always around the sixteenth year.”
I heave a deep sigh. Shake my head. “So I
psycho. Great. And, according to you, I got it from my dad!” My teeth grind, as I twist my sash so hard I hear the fabric give way.
This is great.
I travel all this way only to receive the same diagnosis I got in Morocco and L.A.
“No.” Paloma’s voice is as stern as her face. “You are
crazy. It may feel like crazy—even look like crazy—but it’s anything but. What you’re experiencing is the onset of your biological inheritance—the family legacy that’s been passed down through each generation, always to the firstborn.”