Double Moon by Francine Zapater

I looked into his eyes and what I saw paralyzed me. They weren’t their familiar blue. A pearl gray, like molten steel, took possession of them, and gave them a dazzling coolness. I gasped and covered my mouth with both hands. Panic about what might happen didn’t stop me being totally fascinated by what I was seeing. It was a startling, surreal sight for someone like me.
Double Moon
Double Moon by Francine Zapater
For someone so human. Erik's body began to sway, like a ship riding a strong tide, his face wracked with pain. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead. I had no idea what was causing it. I turned my gaze to the big guy and I caught a hint of a smile on his face. He felt he was winning this bizarre battle. I looked back at my angel. I couldn’t stand seeing Erik suffering like that, gutted by pain; I wanted to help him, but what could I do if I didn’t even know what was happening? LAST YEAR “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Eleanor Roosevelt The roar of an engine brought me back to reality. Today was the first day of class, my final year at last. I was getting ready in my little room, immersed in my thoughts, when a thunderous sound startled me. I ran to the window of my room trying to see who was making such a racket. A high-performance motorbike, a deep red color, like fresh blood, had stopped in front of my house. I looked curiously at the rider. He had one foot on the ground while he was looking for something inside his jacket. Was it a mobile phone? A camera? The engine was still growling. He looked up, as if he sensed I was watching. I hid behind the curtains instinctively, a little to my surprise. What was I doing? When did I start peeping through the curtains like my grandmother? I felt restless, anxious. I peeked through the net curtains again. Who was he? I didn’t know anyone with a bike like that around here and that was weird because in a small town like mine everybody pretty much knew everybody else. In Chemainus, the guys my age dreamt of having a bike like that, but I was certain that none of them actually did. We’d grown up together, from child to teenager, at the same school in the same town. And I knew for sure that nobody had a bike like that. “You look like an idiot hiding like this,” I said to myself, summoning up the courage to peer out again, this time without hiding behind the curtains. He wasn’t there. He’d gone. A strange feeling came over me. It was as if something stronger than me, a supernatural force, had completely invaded my body and my mind. I breathed heavily against the glass, steaming it up so I couldn´t see outside. I tried in vain to figure out where the powerful motorcycle and its driver had gone. I couldn’t stop looking out of the window. Just a few street lamps, still lit in the early morning light, shed some light on the blurry scene. I stepped back from the window with a sigh. I was starting classes that day and, as if that wasn’t enough, now I’d be thinking about what had just happened all day. I caressed my temple with my fingertips, pressing it gently. An oncoming headache was threatening to ruin my day already. I went to the bathroom looking for a painkiller. I rummaged in the small first-aid kit hanging on the wall behind the door until I found it. The cell phone rang, echoing painfully in my head, like I was being attacked with tiny hammers. I ran to my room, but before I even answered the phone, I knew who was calling. “Yes? “ “Stella? Stella! Is that you? “ “Of course it is, Beth. What kind of question is that?” She ignored my answer and started with her usual histrionics. “It's horrible! Horrible! I can’t believe this is happening to me. Today, the first day of school! I want to die!” My best friend’s shrill voice cracked at the end. I couldn’t help smiling. “Let me guess: a huge spot on your face? You ran out of make-up?” I said, feigning sympathy. “Let me sit down before you start to explain the enormity of the catastrophe we’re facing.” I could hear how agitated she was down the phone. “Stop it, you’re killing me, ha ha!” she laughed sarcastically. “Here I am, about to have a nervous breakdown and you just make fun of me. Very nice, I must admit.” she sighed, though it sounded more like a growl. “I don’t know why I bothered to call you, you don’t have a heart.” “Oh, come on! Just tell me. What happened?” “I've burnt my fringe.” I couldn’t help laughing. “I’m glad that makes you happy.” she said angrily. “Sorry. What do you want me to do?” “How the hell should I know?!” she was on the limit, her voice shaking. “Oh, God!” I'm not going to class like this. I look like a walking mop!” This wasn’t the worst crisis that I could remember. Last year, as it happens, she’d burnt her lip with depilatory wax. She’d pulled the skin off it and left it raw. That had actually been awful. How did she manage to hurt herself every year at the start of the school year? “Say something, please!” she screamed at the other end of the line. I tried to sound worried, although I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. “I'm coming over right now, okay? Wait for me, I’ll think of something.” “Okay, but don’t be long, please.” I hung up the phone, thinking about how much I was going to miss her next year. It was likely that we wouldn’t be going to the same university. Beth wanted to study in the USA and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but one thing was clear: that I’d miss her a lot. At times like these, I wondered how my life would change in a matter of a few months. After graduation, nothing would be the same. I’d spoken with my father about studying in another country, doing an exchange with other students; in fact, I had many different possibilities and all of them were unfolding before me like a fan. I just had to decide, I needed to choose one, but that was the problem, I was aware that this wasn’t a simple decision. It wasn’t like choosing what I was going to wear or what movie I wanted to see. My life as I now knew it would change completely as a result of that decision, and that’s why I was putting it off until the last moment. I shook my head, forcing myself to not to think too much. Beth was waiting for me. I’d better not make her wait. I could imagine her now, desperately looking at her watch until I arrived. I grabbed a hair treatment pack and a hippie scarf my father had given me a couple of years before. I went to the front door. I put everything in my bag and threw it over my shoulder, ready to go rescue Beth. “I've put your lunch in your backpack.” My mother was looking at me from the kitchen door as she dried her hands with a cloth. “Isn’t it a little early?” she said, pointing at her watch. “Beth’s having had last minute… complications.” I smiled. “You weren’t thinking about leaving without saying goodbye, were you?” “Of course I wasn’t, mom.” I said, walking toward her with outstretched arms. I gave her a big hug and a smacking kiss on the cheek. “Even if I wanted to, it’d be impossible; you’d chase me halfway around the neighborhood if I did that.” Nicole put on her ‘displeased’ face. I knew her too well; sometimes I thought I knew her better than she knew herself. “What‘s happened to her this time?” “She’s singed her fringe and if I don’t go to her house it may start the Third World War.” “When will she grow up?” she added, rolling her eyes, a habit of hers that I’d inherited. “Well, I hope you have a good day.” “I hope so too.” I said, pulling away and going out the door. “Don’t break too many hearts!” I heard her call after me. “You're crazy, mom.” I called out, waving goodbye. Beth's house was a few streets down. Barely ten minutes had gone by after since I’d hung up the phone. “At last! Where have you been?” Beth couldn’t stop moving her hands, pacing up and down the room like a caged animal. “I think I’m going to have a heart attack or something.” I walked in slowly and sat on the edge of the bed, dumping the bag onto the floor. “Stop overreacting. Come here.” I replied, patting the bed. She sat down, and I started rummaging through my backpack. “Look, I brought some things that might help to see if we can save the world from your foul mood.” “You’re on form today, aren’t you? Have you ever thought about being a professional clown? It’s quite obvious that you’re not the one who looks like a scarecrow,” she said, pulling off the towel that covered her hair. “See? It’s horrible! I wetted it again but it hasn’t done much good.” She sighed deeply. “I want to die!” I tried my best not to laugh again. The truth was that Beth’s fringe was beyond repair, even with two hair treatment packs, but it wasn’t the end of the world. “You should definitely be an actress. It's a shame to waste talent like that.” “That’s enough! Quit laughing at me and do something useful.” she grumbled, grabbing a fistful of hair. GLANCES “The eye is the point where body and soul are mixed.” Friedrich Hebbel We were late for class. “Great,” I thought. First day of school and we were already in our Chem teacher’s good books. I definitely shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. Mr. Morganson stopped talking when we walked in. He looked at us furiously while we took our seats at our respective desks, adding to the embarrassment I was already feeling. It felt like a dozen of pairs of eyes were watching us. “This is worse than your fringe,” I whispered to Beth as we took out our books and placed them over the old scrawled-on desks. My face felt as if I had a fever. I was as red as a tomato. I hated being the main attraction, but today it would be hard to go unnoticed after our triumphant late entrance, and with Beth wearing a crazy orange, fuchsia and yellow headscarf that I’d lent her. In the end, that had been the best solution we could find to her hair scare. Beth and I were like night and day. She enjoyed being the center of attention. In fact, she almost always was. She was stunningly beautiful; she was kind of exotic because of the genes she’d inherited from her mom, a beautiful Thai who’d fallen in love with Beth’s dad. She wasn’t very tall, just enough to make her body look slim and shapely. She’d inherited her mother’s high cheekbones and forehead, along with velvety skin, a soft golden color, which was every teenager’s dream. Big dark brown eyes, inherited from her father, highlighted her face which was framed by a long, silky black mane. The class was long and boring, like all Professor Morganson‘s classes. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t heard his interminable, boring explanations for three whole months, in one hour he was able to drive me nuts like I’d been listening to him for a century. The bell’s shrill sound meant redemption for my poor neurons. I picked my books up slowly, looking at Beth out of the corner of my eye; she was talking happily with the guy at the next desk, Daniel Wilson. Beth didn´t like to waste time. We’d just started the course and she was already pestering the handsomest boy in the class. At that moment, I felt a kind of envy, because I don’t have the same ability as she does to talk to guys like Daniel. On the other hand, I felt comfortable in the anonymity that having such a stunning friend as Beth provided. It gave me an advantage that she didn’t have. I’d learned to read people’s faces and body language and so, without saying a word, I got to know them sometimes even better than she did. I was sure that someday I would overcome my fears and dare to do more than watch from a distance. I looked at Daniel for a moment while Beth flirted shamelessly with him. There was no danger of him catching me looking at him, I knew that right then I was invisible to him. It’d been a couple of years since this attractive student had come to our town. He came from Texas. He was tall, with a strong muscular body. In fact he was in the football team, the perfect athlete. He had brown hair and such intense brown eyes that you couldn’t tell iris from pupil, and a dark complexion. All those things together gave him a manly look, despite being only 18 years old. Beth was delighted when he’d arrived on the scene, but up to now she hadn’t been so bold with him. And there was a reason. Daniel had just broken up with his girlfriend down south during the summer. Keeping a long-distance relationship going was more difficult than it seemed. Also, what was going to be just a temporary stay in Canada for him and his family, became permanent when Daniel's father found a better job here and decided to move to our town permanently. So the thing was that this year Daniel was single and available, and of course my friend wouldn’t allow that situation to stay that way for long. Beth laughed loudly, touching Daniel’s shoulder, all innocence, even blushing a little. It was incredible; it was clear that my friend should study drama and become an actress. She had the talent for it, no doubt. The way she talked seemed so sweet and innocent that the hottest guy in the class was whispering in her ear. I couldn’t help admiring her. Beth definitely knew no shame! “If you love yourself, other people are bound to love you too.” She always tells me when I ask her how she gets everyone falling at her feet. Maybe that was my problem; I don’t have high self-esteem. That’s why I was terrified about doing something ridiculous or drawing attention to myself. I was thinking too much. I shook my head. “Three’s a crowd,” I thought, looking at the lovebirds for the last time, and turning to leave the room to go to my locker. I had the feeling someone was watching me. I didn’t know why but again I had the same strange feeling I’d had that morning. I turned slowly to left and right, looking at the faces around me; nobody was showing the slightest interest in me. Me and my paranoias. Luckily I saw Megan and Thomas coming over, smiling and waving. I gave them my best smile and walked towards them. It was a pleasant morning. I saw old classmates that I hadn’t seen all summer. Everyone had something to tell: a fabulous trip to Europe, a summer love, a part-time job. “And what have you been up to, Stella?” I heard Thomas ask. He was a lanky, ungainly boy, whose teenage years were treating him cruelly, physically speaking. “I went to visit my grandparents’, nothing special,” I said, blowing at the hair falling over my face. “It was the same as every year: sun, beach and crushing boredom. I was longing to come back.” “Just like me,” replied Megan, closing her eyes and leaning back, trying to soak up the last of the warm summer sun. “My parents rent the same house near the lake every year. In the end you get so bored that you can’t wait to start back at school again.” “I think they do it on purpose.” Megan and I looked at Thomas, not understanding what he meant. “You might think I've got a screw loose, but I'm sure our parents plot against us to ruin our vacations, and then they can send us back to school without feeling guilty about it.” Megan and I shrieked with laughter. Thomas was one of a kind, with a conspiracy theory for everything. I’d known both friends since childhood, like Beth. My parents had moved here when I was only five. Carl, my father, got a job at a subsidiary of the company where he’d worked on Vancouver Island. We settled in a small town called Chemainus. It was a colorful town, famous for the wall murals that told the history of the place. My parents loved how quiet it was, population a little over three thousand, compared with the hustle and bustle of our old home, New York. It was a big change in our lives, especially for my parents; being so young, I hardly remembered anything about life in the Big Apple. Chemainus for me is like my hometown, even if I hadn’t been born there. I felt part of it all, with its lush green forests of wet, leafy cedars. In summer, swarms of tourists came to the west coast, looking for dreamlike landscapes of mountains and lakes. But in winter, when a white blanket covered every nook and cranny, peace and quiet returned. My mother had occasionally suggested going back to New York. She missed her family, and now that Carl was gone, she felt lonelier than ever. I totally didn’t want to go. This was my home. My life was here, as were the years I’d lived with my father, my memories, both happy and sad, and my friends. That's why it was so hard to think about college. If it had been up to me, I would never leave Chemainus, ever. Thomas, Megan and Beth were like family. Beth has always been like a sister to me. She’s cheerful, mad, carefree, honest, sometimes too honest, especially when you know you’re not going to like what you’re about to hear. But that’s her: she doesn’t mince her words, although she’s the sweetest and loveliest girl imaginable when she needs to be. Megan is totally different. She’s quiet, self-contained, very diplomatic and composed, and always knows what to say in every situation. Sometimes I think we’re too alike. Maybe that's why we’ve never been as close as me and Beth. And then there’s Thomas, the brainbox, his unfortunate looks made up for by an acute intelligence and a boundless heart. He’s very funny but wary; unique, as he usually says. I was happy to see them again. I leaned back with Megan, letting the warm sunshine bathe my face, enjoying the heat on my skin. I felt it again. That disturbing anxiety. It was the same feeling I’d had at home when I saw the biker and then by the lockers outside my classroom. I couldn’t resist opening my eyes and looking for who or what was causing it. And then I saw him for the first time. I froze like a statue, staring at him. I couldn’t see his face. He had his back to me, but there was something about him, his upright posture, his pleasing figure, or his curly caramel colored hair with golden highlights, like sunshine, that totally mesmerized me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. “What are you looking at?” I woke from my spell and saw Beth sitting beside me, her eyes following the direction of my gaze. “Are you going to answer me, like, today?” “I’m sorry, I ... I... I didn’t see you there,” I stammered, fiddling nervously with the sleeve of my sweater. I was going to ask her if she’d seen the boy who’d just turned me completely inside out, but I lied. “I was thinking about an algebra problem.” My voice sounded weird even to me. “You're no good at making excuses” I thought, as my friend looked at me through half-closed eyes. “You don’t think I’m stupid enough to swallow that nonsense, do you?” “I don’t know what...” I couldn’t speak. The fact that I couldn’t even finish my sentence didn’t exactly help matters. “That’s okay.” she chided. “Don’t worry about it. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s up to you.” She turned to talk to Megan. She was angry, that was obvious. In all these years, I’d never felt the need to lie to her, and to be honest, I didn’t even know why I’d done it. “Don’t turn around,” said a little voice in my head when I noticed an eerie attraction running through my body, forcing me to look at the stranger again. I couldn’t help looking up at him and meeting his gaze; it was a deep, transparent blue, as if a frozen sea had been trapped in those eyes that stared back at me, observing me. It was only a few seconds, but it was enough to set my pulse racing and make my breathing fast and irregular. I felt the heat rise up to my cheeks as I struggled in vain not to look at him. I hated blushing. It was so obvious what I was feeling; it was like a neon sign announcing the embarrassment I was feeling inside. He looked away and I finally succeeded in doing the same, but those eyes were burnt into my mind. Night came and insomnia with it. It was impossible to sleep after what I’d been through that day. What was happening to me? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about him? I didn’t even know him! I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t even know his name. Maybe he was just there by chance and I’d never see him again. I’d only seen his eyes and the world had stopped for me. I got out of bed and I tried with no luck to concentrate on petty things that needed doing. I kept seeing his sky blue eyes in my mind. I decided to try listening to music: I took my iPod and lay down on the bed, singing along with the lyrics. His eyes were still staring at me in my head. My heart began to beat irregularly at the memory of that angelic vision. I tried to analyze the situation coldly. Who was he? The same guy as the one on the powerful red motorbike? Why did he look at me like he did? Did he know me? The more I thought about it, the more complicated it all seemed. I’d connected with him with just one look. Those things don’t happen in real life. Those things don’t happen to me. Why was I so anxious to see him again? Deep down, I knew that there was something else. I didn’t realize how much that one look had changed my life, my world ...everything. The alarm rang and I wanted more than ever to stay in bed. It had been a bad night. I had a headache, my eyes were burning and I didn’t want to go down to have breakfast with my mother. I was sure Nicole would give me the third degree. First about my first day in class and second about the why I looked so awful. That was the last thing I needed this morning, because, as well as looking awful, I’d woken up like a bear with a sore head. “Good morning, darling.” “Hello,” I muttered, burying my face in my bowl of cereal. Nicole sneaked a glance at me from the corner of the kitchen. She was cooking something that smelled wonderful. I felt terrible about being mean to her so finally, after eating part of my breakfast, I decided to talk to her. “That smells great. What are you making?” “I’m cooking Mexican. I've seen some recipes on the Internet.” She took out some chicken breasts and several types of cheese from the refrigerator. “Today I’ll be working late. They asked me yesterday and I couldn’t say no.” She saw the disappointment on my face and hurriedly explained the rest. “Cynthia's grandfather has had a heart attack and she‘s taking a couple of days to take care of him, so the manager told us that they need us to work double shifts.” I wasn’t particularly paying attention to Nicole’s explanation, but I’d heard enough to stretch out our conversation a little more and leave home without being interrogated. “That's unfair. Why don’t they hire someone?” I complained. My mother’s body shook as she laughed, as if she'd heard a bad joke. “Darling,” she said, coming over to me and smoothing my hair; “It isn’t that simple. At work, you take it or leave it, especially when they know how much you need the pittance they pay. It’s 21st Century slavery.” I shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t in the least interested in putting the world to rights when I couldn’t even solve my own problems. “And what about you? How are you? How was your first day back at school?” “Fine. Same old same old...” I said, trying to finish the conversation as quickly as I could. I wolfed down my cereals and jumped to my feet. “Well, we'll talk later mom. I have to go.” I put the bowl in the dishwasher and gave her a quick kiss on her cheek. “Okay, have a good day,” she said. “I'll leave this in the fridge.” she added, pointing at the frying pan. “I love you, honey.” “Ok, Mom! I love you too.” I said, rushing out of the door. The day was gray and dark, as if the sky was covered by a metal roof. I wrapped myself in my jacket, which was too thin for such a cold day. I hated winter and it was getting closer. The days of afternoon sun and summer warmth were over. Days like this were what I could expect now. It would get even worse when it started to snow. I put my hands in my pockets to warm them up a little, thinking of how I’d escaped from my mother. In the end it was easier with her than it had been with my father. Nicole was kind of absent-minded. Luckily, tomorrow she wouldn’t remember the conversation we‘d had today. Carl was different. When my father was alive I’d spent hours with him. Sometimes we only exchanged occasional looks and a few words and that was enough for us. He knew me so well... So many times, he could read on my face what I could hardly put into words. But he never suffocated me, he let me breathe. He knew I’d turn to him if I wanted to talk. And no pressure, ever. But now everything was different. My father had died two years before and since then Nicole had been more possessive and absent-minded than before, if that was possible. I walked, lost in thought, when I felt that weird electricity running down my spine from top to bottom, like a worm crawling down my back. It was the same feeling I‘d felt the day before. Did that mean he was around? Where? I bit my lower lip while I looked first one way, then the other. But there was no one there. Well, no one able to make me react like that, anyway. I turned on my heels and carried on walking to school, trying to straighten out my thoughts. I forced myself to think about the job interview I had at the end of the day. I needed money for college fees and I didn’t want my mother to cover all my expenses. The poor woman worked hard to earn money for the two of us. We weren’t destitute, but we weren’t exactly swimming in money either. So I’d decided to start working, turning a deaf ear to Nicole’s objections. UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER “Sometimes we can spend years without living at all, and suddenly our whole life is concentrated in a single instant.” Oscar Wilde The morning classes were as monotonous as usual. The school cafeteria was crowded during the lunch break. We sat at a long table, sharing it with some freshmen. Thomas was explaining his last forays on the web when he inadvertently emptied the contents of his soda on Beth’s new skirt; in the face of such clumsiness, Beth got hysterical and started screaming and almost throwing a fit. We were all laughing at the tremendous tantrum that my friend was throwing. She could be very funny when she got angry. I loved her, even if she was a squawking madwoman at times. She always managed to make us smile. Even on days like this, when I was wallowing in apathy. Why was I so down? I didn’t want to admit it but my spirits would have been lifted just by seeing those blue eyes again. Beth was cursing away, not caring that everyone in the cafeteria was looking at her. “And you, what are you looking at?” she screamed to some poor freshmen watching us from a table in the corner; embarrassed at being part of the show, they grabbed their bags and left. “You’re overreacting, you know,” I said, leaning against the back of the chair, unable to wipe the smile off my face. “Come on, calm down.” “Calm down?! Calm down?! You’re going to pay for this, you stupid clumsy idiot!” she said looking at Thomas furiously pointing a threatening finger at him. “I'm sorry.” he said for the eleventh time “God! How many times do I have to apologize? I didn’t mean to do it!” he sighed wearily. “What?! You didn’t mean to do it?! Ah, like the slap I’m going to give you, then!” “Stop it! That’s enough!” I stood up, grabbed her by the arm and led her outside. She was more than losing her cool. “Let me go!” she snapped. “No! At least until you calm down and I can be sure you won’t go back in there and carry on acting like a child in a kindergarten.” She looked at me in surprise. “What’s gotten into you? This isn’t funny any more. Poor Thomas was turning green. It's just a skirt, Beth. Is that such a big deal?” The cold street cooled her down. She shook her hair and crossed her arms in front of me, still upset, but much calmer. “Come on, tell me about it. This little show isn’t just about the skirt, is it?” I knew her too well not to know that something was wrong. Something she hadn’t told me. “No,” she admitted in a barely audible whisper. “My parents are going to split up.” “I'm sorry,” I whispered. I didn’t know what to say. Now I understood why she was being so dramatic. It was just an excuse to get her frustration out. It must have been very hard for Beth, who loved her parents. She was a bit rebellious, but she loved them a lot. “They told me last night.” I nodded. I didn’t want to interrupt. She needed to say it and I was happy just listening. “We were having dinner, like always, and they announced it, just like that! Now I have to decide who I want to go to live with. Like it was which shirt I’m going to wear tomorrow! It isn’t possible, Stella ... It isn’t…” Her voice broke into a sob. She collapsed. I hugged her hard against my chest. I was taller than her. She hid her face on my shoulder and burst into tears. I didn’t say anything. I knew that nothing I could say would make her feel better. I just stroked her back, gently, letting her get it all out in her own time. It broke my heart to see her like that. Were Beth's parents aware of the harm they were causing their daughter? I wasn’t one to judge them, or anyone, but seeing my friend like this I knew it wasn’t fair. I hadn’t been through a divorce, but losing my father was the hardest thing that had ever happened to me, and I was sure that Beth felt as helpless as I did. No one had asked for her opinion, ripping out a part of her life. And now she had to choose between both parents. What child can decide which parent to reject? The sobs died away. Beth pulled away from me, wiping her tears away with the sleeve of her sweater. “Not a word to anyone, okay?” “Of course not. You’ll tell them yourself. If you want to.” “Not now.” Her voice was desperate. “I can’t believe this is happening. I still feel like I have to wake up from this nightmare.” “I know what you mean. I felt the same when the police came to my house to tell us my father had been in an accident and...” I struggled to get out the words “was dead.” I felt the pressure of sadness in my throat. Beth looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “This life sucks.” “It sure does.” She opened her bag, took out a small mirror and looked into it. “I look horrible.” “Yes,” I agreed. “You look horrible.” A hint of a smile appeared on her lips. “Let’s go to the bathroom to fix me up.” I followed her. She looked shattered; weak and fragile, like a twig broken by the wind. We were walking in silence when Daniel appeared at the end of the corridor. “Beth! Hey, Beth!” he shouted in the distance. “Oh, no! I don’t want him to see me looking like this.” She took my hand and started running down the hall. We got to the bathroom before he could reach us. The poor guy was stunned, staring, bewildered. He stood there, watching us scurrying into the bathroom without saying a word. “I don’t think he’ll ever speak to you again after this!” I giggled once we were inside. Beth was also in a better mood. Our little jog had done us both good. “Don’t worry,” she replied, making herself up. “I’ve got him eating out of my hand.” “But now he’ll think you're crazy.” Beth turned and looked at me mischievously. “I bet you that when we get out he’ll be waiting for me.” “I don’t know. I feel a bit sorry for him.” “So what? Let him suffer!” “You're so cruel!” I exclaimed, tickling her. “Yeah, that’s why I get the guys,” she said, full of herself. “You're too soft. Play hard to get! Why make their job easier for them?” Even though I wasn’t sure what game Beth was playing with Daniel, she was right. She always got what she wanted from boys, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to manipulate people so coldly. I worried about other people's feelings too much to make someone suffer unnecessarily. Well, so far, no guy had been interested enough in me to make me think about how to seduce him. I would just be myself, for better or worse. “How’s that? Better?” she asked, turning to face me. I looked at her. You’d never have known that she’d been crying. Her skin looked velvety again. “How do you do it?” I asked admiringly. “A moment ago you looked awful and now, look, you're fabulous.” “Genetics,” she said proudly. “You're nuts. You know that, don’t you?” I said, ruffling her hair. “Yes, but no more than you,” she replied, sticking out a mocking tongue. We left the bathroom smiling. I looked for Daniel, and sure enough, Beth was right, there he was. Leaning against the wall, waiting. He straightened up when he saw us and stood in front of us. “Hello,” he said to us both, turning quickly to Beth. “I was looking for you.” A pang of remorse hit my stomach. Did he realize that my friend was just toying with him? “I’ll leave you two to it. I'm going to see how Thomas is doing,” I said. Without waiting for an answer that I knew wouldn’t come, I went back to the cafeteria. The table we’d been sitting at was empty. Like the rest of the room. I looked at the clock on the wall and then I realized how late it was. I turned around, ready to fly off to my next class, when I bumped headlong into someone. “Sorry.” said a sweet voice that made my heart run wild. “Are you okay?” Was I ok? I screamed to myself. I was better than ‘ok’. Although my nose was throbbing with pain from bumping into him, I didn’t care. I wouldn’t have minded having my nose broken just to be this close to him. The angel of my dreams had materialized before me and I felt strangely dazed by my good luck. He looked at me, waiting for an answer. His eyes drilled holes into mine. “Yes, I'm fine,” I quavered. “It was my fault... I... I was turning the corner, and...” I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk coherently, I could only stare dumbly at him. At his face, his eyes, his mouth, his hair. It was the stranger from yesterday… “Please don’t apologize, it was my fault. I was looking at my cell phone and I didn’t see you.” Sure. He hadn’t seen me. As always happens with men. As a rule, guys never ‘saw me’. A wave of disappointment washed over me completely. What did I expect; that he was following me around, hoping to meet me? I was definitely stupid. I continued hurling insults at myself mentally, while he looked at me suspiciously. “You’re sure you're okay?” he insisted, his eyes scanning my face. He seemed to be trying to find some sign of sanity on it. What did he care whether I was ok or not, if he hadn’t even seen me? My disappointment turned unexpectedly to anger. “Perfectly,” I assured him. I started walking towards the exit, hiding the tears of disappointment that were threatening to ruin the moment. “Let me go with you, anyway.” I heard his voice behind me, and I turned quickly, ready to say no. I didn’t expect to have him so close again. I could almost feel his breath on my face. I was looking into his beautiful blue eyes like a fool. My anger vanished completely. My body was so close to his, begging me to touch him. “Just a little closer,” I thought. I enjoyed the sight of his rosy lips as they began to curve into a faint smile. Then, as if someone had emptied a jug of cold water over my head, I reacted. He was delighted. He seemed to be enjoying my bewilderment. The handsome guy that drives them all crazy with just one look. I recoiled at the idea. It was silly, I knew, but I still had some dignity left. “Do you mind?” I exclaimed, waving him aside. “Excuse me?” “Why so close? You don’t calculate distances too well, do you?” I snapped, raising my hand and placing it on his chest, in a desperate attempt to get him away from me. I didn’t expect what I felt then. My skin burned just by touching him, as if there was fire under my fingers. I swallowed hard, trying to calm down and hide my feeling of suffocation. “If it bothers you so much, I’ll go,” he said, raising an eyebrow and smiling mischievously, as he moved a step back, leaving my hand hanging. I felt the absence of his touch on my skin. “You should learn to respect other people’s personal space.” My lips were trembling slightly. I wanted to look more offended than happy, which was what I was really feeling about this chance encounter, but I completely lost my composure when my eyes met his cold, sea-blue eyes, which were watching me intently. My face, the mirror of the soul, gave me away completely. I had to get out of there. I’d been ridiculous enough already today. I started awkwardly down the hall, walking faster as I felt his icy gaze on my back. Thousands of butterflies in my stomach were fluttering uncontrollably, thanks to our accidental - and eventful - encounter. I had a stupid smile on my face for the rest of the day. I spent the afternoon reliving it again and again, each and every one of the words, gestures and glances that I’d shared with my own private angel. Beth tried unsuccessfully to find out what was going on, but I managed to distract her by asking about Daniel and their meeting. I spent the whole day floating on air, oblivious to what was happening around me. I had no doubt that it might well qualify as the best day of my life, as life rarely allows you to have the dream of a lifetime at your fingertips, literally. I found myself fantasizing about it on the way home. The way he looked at me had me enthralled. There was something tremendously attractive about him. I lost my reason when I looked into his eyes. Who was he? We hadn’t even introduced ourselves. Was he a new student? Maybe, but it was strange that I hadn’t seen him in class, at least it was clear he wasn’t in my class. Such a hot guy wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. He spoke with a strange accent. He spoke well, but there was something different about it that I couldn’t identify. Could he be an exchange student? My mind was working overtime. I could see him as the prince in a medieval novel. Valiant, strong, lean, on his trusty steed, galloping against the wind swiftly towards me. Too good to be true, one of those princes that don’t exist. In addition, the problem was mainly that I didn’t fit at all in the role of the princess. I rolled my eyes. Why was I imagining things like that? It was impossible for him to notice me. In fact that day he’d made it clear. He bumped into me because he hadn’t even seen me. That was normal, I was invisible to him like I was to all other guys and he wasn’t interested in me, no matter what my feverish mind wanted me to believe. The phone rang in the middle of my daydream, startling me with its shrill melody. It was Mr. Benet. The job interview had been put off till tomorrow. Perfect. I didn’t have the head for it anyway, so I retraced my steps and walked slowly toward my house. There I found Nicole sitting watching television, although she wasn’t paying attention to it, leafing through a fat book she had on her lap. “Why turn on the TV if you’re not going to watch it?” I grinned. “Hello, darling.” she smiled. “Turn it off if you want.” “What’s so interesting?” I asked, walking over to the couch and sitting down beside her, dumping my bag on the floor. My mother handed me the book. I read the title, or at least I tried. “Mom, this is in German.” I complained, picking the book up. “Why do you want a book you can’t read?” She shone, like a child with new shoes, caressing the cover of the book with reverence. It wasn’t just a book. “This was your dad’s favorite book. It went everywhere with him.” “I understand, but why did you buy it in German?” That was what I didn’t understand. “Because that’s how he read it for the first time.” There was sadness in her voice. “He always used to talk about this book.” “But you can’t read it.” I didn’t want to rain on her parade, but it didn’t make sense to buy a book in a language you don’t know. There was a twinkle in her eyes. It always appeared when she remembered Carl. She looked radiant, beautiful. She was forty and small wrinkles had started to appear on her skin; of course she denied they were there. The cycle of life: my mother wasn’t so young anymore and I wasn’t a child. “Tell me.” I insisted. I knew there was a hidden story behind the book and, if it was about dad, I was hoping to hear it. She looked at me sweetly and began to speak. “I don’t want this book so I can read it. It’s a tribute to your father. Not only did he read it, but he was also the author. He wrote it.” She went quiet, waiting for my reaction, which came straight away. “Dad wrote a book?” Disbelief was written all over my face. I didn’t bother to hide it. “Yes, the one you have in your hands right now.” “Why didn’t you tell me before? Why didn’t he tell me?” “Because he never published it.” she said taking the book from my hands. “Dad always said it wasn’t a very good story and absolutely refused every time I hinted at the possibility of taking it to a publisher. According to him, they were only jottings, a diary.” “But I don’t understand. Why make such an effort for nothing?” I knew nothing at all about that side of Carl. He was a born fighter. He always repeated, over and over again: “Look for a goal in life and fight to achieve it. Make your dreams come true.” He constantly encouraged me to pursue my dreams and after all that he hadn’t fought for his. I was slightly disappointed. “Well, not for nothing.” My mother went on. “He always felt capable of doing it. The mere fact that he finished the book was already quite an achievement for him. Your father never needed the recognition of others.” “But eventually it got published.” “No, this is the only copy.” My mother chuckled at the astonishment on my face. “I sent it for binding six months ago.” She continued with her explanation when she saw my face. “When your father lived in Germany he had a journalist friend he hadn’t seen for years. I called him when dad died. That was all the contact I had with Markus. But a few months ago he called me and told me that they’d sent him here, to Vancouver, as a correspondent, and he’d love to meet me and have a drink.” Nicole dating a man? That seemed quite impossible. “I didn’t accept his invitation.” she went on, without giving me the chance to ask. It already seemed strange to me that my mother had gone out with a man. As she said, Carl had been the love of her life and even he was gone it didn’t mean she’d stopped loving him. “I talked about this book and he kindly offered to meet all the costs of printing and binding.” She was lost in thought for a moment. “It was a very nice touch on his part. He loved your father very much.” I wanted to relieve the tension. I saw that Nicole was beginning to crumble. “That Markus seems nice, right? Maybe you should reconsider his invitation.” “No! He might take it the wrong way. I’m grateful for what he’s done, but that’s it,” she said, though I could see her cheeks reddening and her eyes beginning to shine. “It's beautiful.” I said, looking at the book. “It’s a pity Dad didn’t teach me German. I’d love to read it.” “Yes, but now I’ve fulfilled his wishes and mine as well.” “I don’t understand.” “I managed to get the book bound and printed, as it deserves to be. But nobody will read it. Not you, not me. Just as he wanted it.” I was amazed at the romanticism in my mom’s words. After two years without Carl, she’d taken into consideration what his wish would have been. I felt very emotional. Very few people could boast of having found the love of their lives and lived a story like Nicole and Carl’s. I still remember the day by the lake when my father told me how they’d met. He’d just arrived from Germany. His parents had sent him to the United States to study. He was only eighteen when he emigrated. My mother was a little younger. She was sixteen when they met. It was an autumn afternoon, one of those when the sky turns orange and purple. Carl was visiting some acquaintances, by chance relatives of Nicole’s, and then she appeared in the small dining room. My father told me that his heart skipped a beat when he saw that beautiful creature with gray eyes staring at him with her innocent smile and her rosy cheeks. From that day on they were inseparable. Until one cold winter afternoon, when they were having a hot chocolate, Carl plucked up the courage to ask her to marry him and Nicole very happily agreed. She loved him as much as he loved her. On more than one occasion my father told me that “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know”. I hadn’t realized how true his words were until now. “Are you okay?” my mother asked, looking at me with concern, stroking my arm. “Yes, I was remembering Dad... I miss him so much.” “I miss him too, darling. You don’t know how much I miss him.” she whispered, giving me a hug. Night fell with the two of us huddled on the sofa, wrapped up in our little corner of happy memories. My little corner had more recent memories; thanks to the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. Nicole’s memories, I guessed, were more distant. “Are you hungry?” Her voice sounded like a distant echo. “What time is it?” I looked at my wristwatch. “Oh my God! It’s so late!” I ran upstairs, dragging my backpack behind me, while Nicole headed to the kitchen to make dinner. Now it was my turn to stay up all night, after spending most of the afternoon wallowing in my fantasies. I heard my mother bustling about in the kitchen while I was trying to concentrate on the chart I had in front of me, the Krebs cycle, for my Biology project. I had to force myself to stop imagining those turquoise eyes instead of glucose molecules and enzymes. This was getting worrying. I closed my eyes, squeezing the bridge of my nose with two fingers. What was happening to me? “Honey, dinner’s ready!” Nicole cried from the foot of the stairs. “Coming!” I replied, standing up slowly. I’d finished, at last. It wasn’t my best work, that was clear, but it was certainly the one that had made me use up the most energy. I was exhausted because of the internal struggle I’d fought in a vain attempt to stop thinking about him. The alarm rang shrilly and I woke up from the best dream ever. I cursed the damn clock. After a quick shower, I went down to have breakfast, but Nicole was not alone. Beth was sitting opposite her. “Beth! What are you doing here?” “Well that’s a nice way to say 'good morning’!” she said, turning to look at me. “Hello, ugly.” I went to her chair and began to ruffle her perfectly straightened hair. I knew that would make her lose her cool. “Hey! You wanna cut that out?!” She began to straighten her hair and added, turning to my mother, “Why does your daughter love to ruin my day? How do you put up with her?!” My mother and I burst out laughing. “Now be honest.” I crammed a spoonful of cereal into my mouth. “What are you doing here so early?” Nicole was getting ready to go to work and we were alone in the kitchen. “Last night my mother left home.” she was twiddling her fingers, avoiding my eyes. “How are you doing?” I said, resting my hand on hers. “I don’t know. I feel weird.” she shrugged. “I want to scream, cry, to break things, but I can’t do anything. That's why I came here; I couldn’t stand being at home. My father doesn’t deserve this.” Her lower lip trembled. She began to nibble at it, trying to hold back the tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes. “I'm glad you came.” she looked at me for the first time and I knew she’d had a bad night. Purple shadows framed her eyes. I was sad to see her that way. Beth looked strong, like she wasn’t suffering. She’d always been cheerful, perfect, and now she was here, sitting in my kitchen, making an effort to gather up and rebuild the bits that remained of her life. I saw in her eyes that she wouldn’t tell me any more. It seemed right, and I wasn’t going to force her just to satisfy my curiosity. I thought it best to distract her a little, even at the risk of my own personal safety. “Why don’t you fix this disaster of a hairdo?” She looked at me like she didn’t understand. “Look, it’s all curled up and I’ve just dried it. I'm a mess.” A hint of a smile appeared on her blank face. “You're right. You look terrible.” I smiled with relief. That was my Beth. My day at school seemed like it would never end. I couldn’t see my angel anywhere, and just to round things off, Daniel was as sweet as could be with my friend. I sighed with relief when we finished classes. I had to go to my first job interview. ANGEL OR DEMON “When you fear someone it is because you have given them power over you.” Hermann Hesse The restaurant office was quite deplorable. Small, gray, with a lot of papers and a tiny table where there was barely room for a phone and a couple of cabinets. Mr. Benet looked at my resumé like he didn’t care through his glasses. He was a good man, though he didn’t talk very much. I’d known him since childhood and I knew that giving my resumé to him was just a formality, but I wanted to do things right. “All right, Stella. I think we have something for you.” “Really?” I was about to jump out of the chair and kiss him on the forehead. I refrained. “When do I start?” “You see,” he hesitated, scratching his head. “I wasn’t going to ask you, but this morning Marie, who works evenings here, called in to say she was in bed with the flu. So, if it's okay with you, you can start today.” It had only been a couple of hours, and I felt completely useless. I’d burned a dozen burgers and mixed up a couple of orders. Paul, the manager, gave me a mop, telling me to stay away from the kitchen. I threw myself body and soul into cleaning the floor, trying not to cause any more damage. It was time to close up. I left the restaurant, exhausted and hungry. I knew Nicole would scold me for not telling her anything about my new job, but I was determined to stick with it; if they let me go back to the restaurant the next day after that catastrophic evening, of course. I didn’t usually walk the streets at that time of night, especially when it was so cold. The dim light of the streetlights cast eerie shadows and that was a challenge for someone with an imagination as vivid as mine. I started to walk faster. I had the feeling that someone was following me. My mind was playing tricks on me. The only thing to be heard was the sound of my footsteps as the soles of my boots rang against the pavement. My breathing started to get faster. There it was, that strange feeling again, coursing through my body. I got goose bumps and I started to shake, I didn’t know if it was because of the cold or fear, or perhaps both. Headlights appeared in the distance. I heard the roar of a familiar engine. It was the same bike I’d seen the first day under my window. I froze when he pulled up in front of me. I couldn’t see who the rider was. The darkness of the night and the lights of his bike, shining right into my eyes, made it impossible to recognize him. He’d taken off his helmet and seemed to be waiting for me. I didn’t move an inch. I was totally paralyzed. “Need a ride?” I heard him say in a low, sexy voice. I recognized the voice. It was so different I couldn’t identify it, but one thing was for sure: it belonged to the boy I’d bumped into in the cafeteria. My heart leapt. These meetings would end up giving me a heart attack or something. I tried my best to force my legs to keep walking, but my body was paralyzed in front of him and his powerful bike. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be walking around alone at this time of night.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The night can be dangerous for someone like you.” What was going on here? Was he threatening me? Did he want to scare me? He’d certainly managed that. But part of me was turning against him because of his brazen arrogance. I still couldn’t see his face and that bothered me. I was sure it was the same person who had turned my life upside down with just one look. Deep in my heart I felt blessed because of that unexpected meeting, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him go on reveling in the effect that he was having on me. “Thank you for your interest, but I can take care of myself,” I said rudely. Luckily the mobile started vibrating in my bag. I was grateful to whoever was calling; right then, it was a lifeline. I heard my mother's voice, slightly breathy. “Hello, sweetheart. I just got out from the hospital and I’m going home but I saw that you weren’t home yet. I'm still in the car. Do you want me to pick up you somewhere?” “Yes, mom,” I half-whispered. “I’m opposite the sports store.” “Okay, I'm coming your way. I'll be there in five minutes.” I switched off the phone, but didn’t put it away. I felt safer having it on hand in case things got ugly. The faceless biker was staring at me. I could feel his eyes on me. He was hidden under a blanket of darkness and I was openly exposed to the headlights of his bike. He had the advantage. I felt stupid standing there. “If you don’t want to wait, my offer still stands.” “I'd rather wait. You can go.” “I don’t want to leave you alone. I’d rather stay here with you.” “I don’t need your company.” He was beginning to make me angry. I’d never had the courage to talk to a stranger, even less pick a fight with one. But I wondered why this guy brought out such an uncontrollable mixture of attraction and hate in me. I heard a chuckle. The lights of a car coming down my back lit his face as if it was broad daylight. A mocking smile formed on his lips. To my great disappointment, the beam of light disappeared as quickly as it had come, hiding his face. Now I had no doubt. It was him, the angel of my dreams. “By the way, we haven’t been introduced,” he said, extending his hand to me. From his the tone of voice I knew he was smiling. I didn’t move. He lowered his hand slowly to put it back on the engine housing of his bike. “Now comes the part when you tell me your name,” he added, sounding a little annoyed. I wasn’t going to overlook the fact that he hadn’t told me his. He was in for a disappointment, as was I. “If you're as smart as you look, you'll find out.” I honestly couldn’t understand why I was behaving so rudely. Just behind him, a pair of headlights appeared. I recognized them instantly. It was Nicole. I felt a sense of relief mixed with anxiety. I was relieved to get away from this awkward situation but was also upset because, after all, I wanted to stay here with him more than anything in the world. My heart was telling me to climb onto his glowing red bike instead of getting into my mother’s old car. Fortunately or unfortunately, my powers of reasoning acted first, and I went over to where Nicole had stopped, just across the street. I walked away without saying a word. Without looking at him. A moment of weakness was enough to make me glance at him, feeling his icy stare making all my determination crumble. “Come on, Stella, it’s too cold.” The voice of my mother brought me back to reality. I walked slowly over, hearing the roar of an engine speeding down the street behind me. “Who was that?” “What?” I was still all over the place. “That friend of yours on the bike.” “He isn’t a friend. He was just asking for directions” My mother frowned at me. It wasn’t very convincing, but she decided not to press me. “What were you doing round here so late?” “I was at work.” Bang, I’d dropped the bomb. Now, I just I had to wait. “What?! I had to face up to it as soon as possible, so I did. Another sleepless night. Things were going from bad to worse. Only a few days ago I’d started at high school and my concentration would leave much to be desired for the rest of the course if I went on that way. I had to sleep. I looked at the alarm clock. It was four in the morning. I covered my face with a pillow, desperate because I couldn’t get to sleep. I started leafing through a book, required reading for literature class. It was boring, but precisely because of that, I managed to get to sleep. The evening’s events had managed to get the better of me. I was out of control. Again and again, I compared the deep, rasping voice of the biker with the sweet, mellow tone of the boy in the cafeteria. They were the same person, I’d seen it with my own eyes, but then why in the cafeteria had he seemed like an angel from heaven and tonight, straddling his bike, he was more like a dark angel? And, even more puzzling, why did he attract me so strongly? His behavior hadn’t exactly impressed me so far. My hormones must have been having a great time driving me crazy. I finally succumbed to something like sleep, but it wasn’t at all restful. I woke up feeling worse than the day before. “Did you sleep well, darling?” Nicole was putting the dishes from the dishwasher in the cabinet over the sink, when I walked into the kitchen with slow, weary steps. “Not really.” I saw a wrinkle of concern form on her brow and I knew what was coming next. “You're going to have to tell me once and for all what's wrong,” she said, resting her hands on her hips. “For two days now you’ve woken up with a face like a zombie and you’re hardly eating anything. No matter how much you try to deny it, I know something’s going on, and today you’re going to explain it to me.” Her voice and expression were a mixture of concern and anger. I should give her some credible excuse, but what? Should I tell her I was going crazy? Or that a divine face had robbed me of my sleep and my appetite? No, that was absurd. So I decided on other answers, less certain, but more rational. “I'm just worried. This is my last year of high school. What about next year? I’m still not sure if I want to go to college and leave you alone.” “No! Your future is what matters. You can’t throw away your excellent qualifications to babysit your mother.” She walked over slowly and hugged me. The warmth of her closeness was comforting, like a hot bath when you’re numb with cold. Although the real reason for my insomnia was far from being what I‘d just said, right now I didn’t really want my life to change. Ever. “I love you, mom.” I whispered. “I love you too, sweetheart.” I saw her wipe away a tear with the sleeve of her shirt. “Off to school now, you don’t want to be late.” she added, but she didn’t let me go. I pulled away from her embrace as best I could and left home unhurriedly. I liked to walk to school. I sensed the autumn air; wetter, colder and denser than a couple of weeks before. It was pleasant, and it helped me clear my head. Most of my friends had some kind of vehicle to get around. An old car, a rusty motorbike, or just a bicycle. But I liked walking. I had to admit that I didn’t exactly have the sense of balance to ride a bike or motorcycle, and the little money I’d saved wasn’t enough to buy a car. Walking was my only option, so it was just as well I enjoyed it. I arrived early at school for the first time in three days. The worn wooden bench at the entrance of the building looked lonely. I sat, waiting to see my friend’s ramshackle car appear. But instead of the usual hum of its engine, I heard the loud roar of a motorcycle. I knew for sure who it was before I saw him coming, for two reasons: the deafening noise of his bike and the electricity coursing through my body. “Hey! What’s up, thunderstruck?” I gave a start when I heard Beth's voice behind me. “You scared me half to death.” My heart felt like it was beating a thousand miles an hour. “I was waiting for you.” I replied, still looking around, looking for one face in the crowd in particular. “Sure... waiting for me. Why were you ignoring me then?” She stood in front of me, with a suspicious look in her large eyes. “You’ve got that strange look on your face again.” “Don’t be an idiot!” I said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go in, we’ll be late again. By the way, your hair’s looking much better, isn’t it?” I ruffled her lank hair as she tried to pull away from me. Luckily for me I’d brought up the ideal topic to make her forget about my odd behavior. She began to talk and talk about her great style problem, which apparently wasn’t so serious. I was glad to have her by my side. Her jokes and her biting comments about anyone we happened to see on the way, managed to stave off my obsession. Or so I thought. “What a beauty!” I looked in the direction of Beth's eyes, and I saw him. There he was, divine, sculptural. My heart began to pound. My hands started to sweat and my stomach was like a clenched fist. “It can’t be. What's he doing here?” I thought I was saying it in my head, but actually I was saying it aloud, unfortunately for me. “Do you know him?” Beth said in astonishment “Why haven’t you introduced us? He’s perfect.” “Don’t talk dumb. Of course I don’t know him.” “Then why did you say that...? Oh, let it go. You’ve been acting like such a weirdo lately…” She shook her head, tossing her raven hair. And with that she headed off. “Where do you think you're going?” I shouted desperately. My throat felt dry and scratchy. I was terrified. I knew she wouldn’t answer me. I bolted after her without thinking. I didn’t normally bother with her when she flirted, but with him I couldn’t allow it. He was... what was he for me? We’d only met two or three times, by chance, but I’d never felt what I felt now as I got closer to him. A bag of nerves, and with flushed cheeks, I stood behind my friend. For now. “Hi. I'm Beth Thomson.” She greeted him with ease, stretching out a hand. I was surprised. Beth was no shrinking violet, that was for sure. I was surprised she hadn’t already taken the opportunity to plant two kisses on my angel’s face. Then, taking advantage of my hesitation, she pushed me in front of her, right in front of him. I couldn’t stop sweating and my face looked like a traffic light. I’d never felt such heat surging through me, not even at the height of August. . It was as if a fire was devouring me from inside. Beth was still yacking, but I couldn’t hear her. My world right then revolved around those deep blue eyes, like a piece of sky on a clear winter’s day. He looked at me with such intensity that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was like I was trapped in the glacier in his eyes. Time seemed to be standing still. For me everything had disappeared: Beth, school, the street, the people, everything. It was just me and him. Only his blue eyes fixed on mine. I felt an even greater attraction than before. I only realized that I wasn’t blinking when my eyes started burning. Physically, it was the same guy who had intimidated me last night on his powerful bike. But now he looked like someone else. It was as if the guy from the night before and this one were two different people. My mind was playing tricks on me. Last night it had been dark, I couldn’t see the strange rider clearly. My head was spinning like a top. Perhaps my obsession had taken me to the point of seeing this beautiful face on any stranger. He’d taken me by surprise and, in a second, my life had been turned upside down. Something profound, something out of my control had begun the first day our eyes met. There was no turning back. Whatever it was, I was completely ensnared. “Is anybody listening to me?” Beth, tired of being ignored, stood between us, blocking my view. I wanted to push her away. Why was she doing this? “My name is Erik Wallace.” He shook her hand, then offered me his. I reached out my hand, afraid of what might happen if he touched it, after what I’d felt just by looking at him. A pleasant warmth ran through my skin as I touched his. I felt a tingling in my fingertips, where the sensitivity was even greater. It was just a light touch, but I thought he kept my hand in his longer than was necessary. “I still don’t know your name,” he said softly. I couldn’t say a word. Beth spotted my temporary paralysis and reacted for me. “Her name is Stella Preston and I think you can let go of her hand,” she said. I thought my head was going to explode at any moment. What must he think of me? I must have seemed like a perfect idiot. But if I’d spoken to him before, why was I feeling so dizzy and incapable of answering? “What's your first class?” I heard my friend ask. “Let me see. I just arrived and I don’t know my schedule,” he said, rummaging in his backpack. I decided just to watch carefully. He was wearing faded jeans with a thin, vanilla-colored cotton shirt and a chocolate-brown leather jacket. The way he dressed wasn’t so different from the other students, but he wore that simple outfit like nobody else did. I loved what I was seeing. His face was just as I remembered it in my dreams: balanced features, square jaw, straight nose and forehead, where some golden locks, like drops of honey, fell nonchalantly. His hair was slightly wavy and tousled, giving him a touch of the rebel, of freshness. And finally his eyes, blue as lapis lazuli, framed by thick lashes that gave them a startling depth. I saw a broad smile appear on his face as he waved a small piece of paper. His rose-colored lips revealed perfect teeth. I felt a stab of pain in the face of such perfection. I couldn’t even dream of a guy like that. Beth, maybe, but not me. Ever. His voice was music to my ears. “I have literature class with Mrs. Stewart.” “You're in luck. That’s our class too,” said Beth, taking him by the arm without thinking twice. He looked confused and turned to me. I stood like a statue in a museum. Shocked by how Beth had grabbed that arm that I longed to touch. “Are you coming with us?” His syrupy voice seemed tarnished by something that I couldn’t make out. I looked pleadingly. Was he the only guy who didn’t fall head over heels for Beth? I was used to being totally ignored when she deployed all her arts of seduction, but in this case I wasn’t. His eyes spoke to me. It was Beth who grabbed him by the arm, which made me feel strangely uncomfortable and annoyed, but it was me he was looking at. “I’m coming,” I answered through gritted teeth, so it came out like an incomprehensible babble. “Of course she’s coming,” I heard Beth say to him. “When she stops drooling.” “What do you think you're doing?” I asked Beth when we sat down in class, away from Erik. “Trying to seduce Erik, maybe?” she replied, raising an eyebrow, as if it was so obvious that my question was out of place. “Oh, come on Stella! He’s hot! That’s obviously what I’m up to, isn’t it?” I didn’t know why but those words churned my stomach. I was furious and irrational. I felt a mixture of anger for what she wanted to do and helplessness because I couldn’t do anything about it. “Leave him alone,” I mumbled, staring at the cracks in the table, as I noted how my nails dug into the palm of my hand from clenching them. “Wait a minute. Something’s going on here.” Then her face lit up and she began to laugh. “You like the new boy!” The whole class turned to look at us. I blushed as much as it’s possible to blush, as the teacher told us to pay attention. Erik looked at me from across the room. I couldn’t see it, I didn’t dare to look, but I sensed that almost electrical current running through me again. Beth handed me a piece of paper under the desk. You and I need to have a little heart-to-heart about this. Don’t think you can get away without telling me everything, and I mean everything, about what’s going on here. YOU CAN REST ASSURED OF THAT. I nodded. It was for the best. At the end of the day, I also needed to get all this off my chest, or this world of new sensations would eventually drive me insane. “Where do you want me to begin?” I said, lost in thought. We’d gone out for lunch, avoiding the rest of the group, who were no doubt waiting for us in the cafeteria, as always. We sat on the lawn. Beth interrogated me with her eyes. “How about at the beginning?” she said with considerable curiosity. “I want to know everything. Did you already know him? Do you like him? Is there something going on between you? Like a secret?” “Beth, please, or I won’t tell you anything.” I stood up, walking around in small circles. She put two fingers to her lips, gesturing that she would keep quiet. “I'm not involved with him, if that's what you're thinking.” ‘Although I wish we were’, I added mentally. “I don’t know him. Well, now I do, thanks to your magnificent speech this morning. I’d only seen him around a few times.” My voice didn’t sound as calm as I would have liked. “So what's wrong? You’ve never objected to me flirting with boys, or so it seemed to me. Why does it bother you so much with this guy?” “Because ... because ...” My head was going to explode. “I don’t know why!” I finally blurted. And then the words began to flow without stopping. “Two or three days ago I saw him from a distance. We were right here, when you asked me why I was ignoring you, remember?” She nodded. “Well the fact is that when I see him, the rest of the world disappears for me. I only see him and want to know.. No.” I corrected myself. “No, I need to know what's behind that look that’s driving me crazy.” I felt a great weight that had been pressing down on my chest, getting lighter. It was a relief to put into words what until now had been no more than feelings. “My God!” Beth said after a few seconds after my little declaration. “You’ve really got it bad, haven’t you? You know what that's called? Cupid’s arrow, love at first sight!” Her words sliced through me. “It’s incredible! I never thought you were interested in guys. You seemed impervious to all of them. I even thought you might be a lesbian. But now you go and fall madly for a total stranger! And with only one look! Unbelievable!” “In love? Me? That's impossible.” I didn’t believe her, though her words echoed in my head over and over. “It's just curiosity. Perhaps some physical attraction, I can’t deny he's gorgeous and all, but love? A crush?!” I was mortified. “No, this stuff only happens in the movies; also I have this pretty well screwed on,” I said, tapping my head gently. “Trust me, you can deny it all you want and more, but you’re into our little blue-eyed boy like a train,” she repeated, looking over my shoulder as she spoke. “And I think he’s noticed you too.” I looked at her, not understanding what she meant. “He's at the door and he’s staring at you like you wouldn’t believe.” “What?!” I squirmed uneasily on the grass. “Don’t look!” I pulled at her, almost knocking her to the ground. “My God! It's worse than I thought. It’s mutual!” “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” My mind was trying to be consistent, but my heart wouldn’t listen to reason. I felt a rapid pulse in my neck. “I’m just saying I’d give anything for someone to look at me the way he's looking at you right now.” ANXIETY “Reason can tell us what to avoid; but only the heart can tell us what it is right to do.” Joseph Joubert Three a.m. This was getting to be a bad habit, but at least now I knew his name: Erik. I recalled in my mind the image of his face, his blue eyes, the line of his jaw, the curve of his lips. I stopped for a moment. I was surprised at the reaction of my body at the thought of how it would feel to kiss him. That simple presumption, kissing his lips, feeling the taste of his mouth on mine, sparked my hormones up again and I could feel the fire inside. I got out of bed in a sweat, went to the mirror in the corner of my room and looked at myself. Comparisons are odious, I know, but I needed to guess what he’d seen in me in the reflection that the mirror threw back. My body left much to be desired. It wasn’t a magazine cover body like his. My face was nothing special. Although my mother never got tired of telling me how beautiful I was, I knew she was biased, that all mothers said that to their children. Only my eyes were in any way remarkable for such an unremarkable face. Big and golden as honey. I’d have liked it more if I’d inherited Nicole’s gray color. My hair wasn’t bad; a light brown wavy mane swept down my back. But it was as ordinary as the rest of me. I’d never stopped to think about my appearance as much as then, although I couldn’t do too much to improve it. It would be better to stop looking in the mirror. I went back to bed even more confused than before. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but Beth's words came back to my mind again and again, like when you hear a song and you can’t stop humming it. “It was mutual,” she’d said. Could it be true? Did he feel the same need as I did to be with him? What did he think when I looked into his eyes? I had to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the interest he seemed to have in me. I didn’t know what to think. There was something odd behind all this. He could have anyone he wanted, with that gorgeous body and the face of an angel. Maybe it was just a game. Had he decided to conquer the school weirdo? I was beginning to think incoherently. I forced myself to sleep, closing my eyes tightly. It was like a curse. I could only see his eyes, staring at me as I struggled to sleep. I woke up suddenly to the steady beeping of the alarm. Again the shrill sound tore me from the best dream ever. I could still remember clearly what I’d dreamt, or rather about whom. I closed my eyes, searching in my head for the shards of my vanished dream. “Stella, didn’t you hear the alarm?” I’d gone back to sleep. “No, Mom,” I yelled. I could hardly move out of bed. Then a thought struck me: I would see him again in class. All that lethargy turned into energy, imagining the moment when I would see his ice-blue eyes. That day was a constant bustle of activity. We had two exams, History and Algebra. I knew the results would be disastrous. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but I looked at every one of the faces that crossed my path. This anxiety was going to kill me. But my search was fruitless. Erik was nowhere to be seen. In the afternoon I renewed my hopes at Lit class. Unfortunately for me, the Professor of Biology had changed the class time to tell us about an excursion. I didn’t really pay much attention to what he said, wrapped up in my disappointment. “Are you going home?” Beth asked, as we picked up our books. “No, I have to work today.” On top of everything else. I couldn’t go home and let my sorrow swallow me up. I had to go to the restaurant. Today couldn’t get any worse. “You want a ride?” “No, I'd rather walk.” I looked at her, but she said nothing more. I was grateful for the silence. “Well. See you tomorrow,” said Beth, waving goodbye as we walked out the door. “See you.” I answered wanly and started walking towards my next round of torture. This was beyond me. I was restless and bad-tempered. My behavior was completely illogical. After all, since that first time, there’d been more days when I hadn’t seen him than days when I had. There was no reason for me to get depressed like that. But I couldn’t help it. ‘You're pathetic,’ said a little voice in my head, as I opened the restaurant door a little too calmly. The shift was exhausting. Luckily, we closed early. I saw my mother's car parked out on the street and I couldn’t help sighing with relief. At least it would save me the walk home. “Hello darling,” she said as I got in. “Hi.” “How was your day?” “Tragic.” “What about the tests?” “Tragic.” “And work?” “Tragic.” “Not your day today, huh?” She slipped her arm behind me. I hadn’t realized how tense I was. My shoulders felt heavy and my head felt as if it had been removed from the rest of my body. “No. It was ...” She didn’t let me finish the sentence. “Let me guess ... Tragic?” she smiled. “Very funny, Mom.” I was in no mood to have my problems played down like that. We made our way back home in silence. “I think I’ll go to bed,” I said suddenly as I walked through the door. “Okay.” Nicole had incredible patience with me, I had to admit. My feeling of guilt for having treated my mother so rudely grew. She didn’t have to put up with my bad moods, but even so, she did. “Can I?” “Sure, Mom. Come in.” “I brought you a glass of milk and some cookies.” She put the tray on the desk, went to bed and kissed me on the forehead. “Sleep well, honey.” “You too.” “I love you, darling.” “I love you too, Mom.” I sat there, watching her leave the room. It had been an awful day, and why? I knew the answer perfectly well. Erik. I drank the milk and ate a couple of biscuits although I wasn’t at all hungry, and got into bed. Finally, after so many sleepless nights, sleep overtook me almost immediately. I was exhausted; I had taken my body to the limit. The harsh winter had made an appearance and snow covered everything. The weeks passed and my desire to see him grew stronger. I couldn’t wait to walk into class and see his icy, sea-blue eyes, watching me from a distance, something he seemed to be making a habit of. Just feeling his eyes on me, a single look, made my anxiety disappear and my day began to brighten up. I’d shared a desk with Beth since we were kids, but since Erik had arrived on the scene, I really wished I could sit next to him and feel him close. I wouldn’t, of course. Just seeing him made me blush, so I didn’t know what would happen if he was sitting right next to me. Erik and I crossed paths almost every day going into class, walking down the corridors, or standing by the lockers. I had the crazy feeling that he was looking for me, but I knew that was quite impossible. He was polite to me, but nothing more; even so, my heart was bursting with the stupid idea that he was as anxious to see me as I was to see him. We were in literature class. Erik was sitting a few rows back. I could have seen his face by just turning around, but there was no way I’d do that. I almost choked at the thought of him catching me looking at him so brazenly. Mrs. Stewart was writing something about some project on the board. Lately I’d done nothing right in Lit class. I could only concentrate on one thing and he was sitting a few desks away. In the same room, breathing the same air as me. Luckily this was my favorite subject and I had no trouble catching up at home. The harsh voice of the teacher brought me back to reality all of a sudden. “Erik Wallace, you will pair up with Miss Preston.” I opened my eyes wide. Erik? My partner? What for? I looked at Beth in dismay. I had no idea what was going on. That’s what comes of daydreaming for a whole hour. Beth read my terrified expression. “You’re doing the Shakespeare assignment with your hot Viking,” she whispered. The blood rushed into my face. Heat ran through my body. An assignment? Us? Together? Beth looked at me, obviously amused. My face must have been a picture. “If I were you I’d be jumping for joy. That’s what I call luck!” she added. “Cheer up, this is a golden opportunity.” Luck? Sure, but was it good or bad? If I could barely concentrate in class having him at a safe distance from me, how would I be able to work on an assignment with him? I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown or something. I couldn’t resist any more and turned slowly, searching out his eyes. He stared back, winking, a subtle smile forming on his lips. He was delighted, and I was going to have a heart attack. The bell rang. I picked my things up quickly and rushed out, trying as hard as I could not to run into him. I needed to calm down. At least I should be able to string two coherent sentences together before I talked to him. Beth came running behind me. “Stella! Hey, Stella! Where’s the fire?” she screamed, while I slowed my pace so that she could catch me up. “You're killing me with all this running. You want me to take you home?” she suggested when she was by my side. “No thanks. You know I like to walk when I can’t think straight.” We went outside and the terrible cold scratched at my face. I could almost feel my skin peeling off. We were in mid-December, but even so, that evening was unusually cold. So I agreed only too happily to let her give me a ride home. She was crazy, but not as crazy as the idea of walking home in such awful weather. Beth was meeting Daniel in the parking lot. Lately they’d become inseparable. It seemed that this time things were getting serious, judging by the way she spoke about how wonderful the Southerner was. Suddenly I felt my legs seize up. I couldn’t walk a single step further. Erik was standing beside Beth’s car, talking enthusiastically with Daniel. I felt electricity course through my body as he turned to me and gazed at me with an icy intensity. Nothing else existed for me but him and his eyes. “Stella, what are you doing there all dazed?” I heard Beth say. “Come on, move, I'm freezing.” I snapped out of my paralysis and walked towards her. I noticed that my face was burning up under my skin despite the cold. “Hi,” Erik greeted me, stepping forward towards us. “Hi,” I said, but it sounded so quiet that I didn’t know if he’d heard me. He stared at me again. “How’s it going?” Beth asked, shifting her gaze between the two of us. Finally her gaze fell on me, seeing as neither of us was paying her any attention. “I’ll wait for you in the car, okay?” “Okay.” I managed to answer, without even looking at her. I couldn’t take my eyes off the angel in front of me. I still didn’t understand why I was going through this. What power did that look of his have over me? I couldn’t understand it. I just went with it. “I'm glad you’re letting Beth take you home,” he said at last. “I was waiting for you.” “Normally I walk, but... it’s cold today and...” I sounded silly, unable to put a whole sentence together. I looked at the ground. Curiosity overcame my embarrassment. “You said you were expecting me. How did you know that...?” I’d calmed down a bit, but I still had a dry throat and my face was hot. “I didn’t,” he replied with a shrug. “I just heard her offer to take you and I was waiting here just in case you decided to accept.” His voice was in complete harmony with his beauty, although it was somewhat distant. I felt a great sweetness in it. “So why were you looking for me?” I didn’t want to be rude. Far from it, in fact, but it was uncomfortable. We hadn’t talked about anything since we’d met. Terse smiles and furtive glances and little more than that. Sometimes I thought that he might be just a little interested in me, and Beth thought so too. But this made me very nervous. I hadn’t had time to think very carefully about what to say or do at a time like this. So I got defensive. As had already happened to me the few times I’d exchanged more than just a quick hello with Erik. “It seems we have an assignment to do together. Once I overheard you saying to Beth that you loved Shakespeare, so this should be a breeze for you, shouldn’t it?” I could feel his eyes on my face, but I was still focusing on the cracks in the asphalt. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that spying on people is wrong?” I blurted. I felt very vulnerable. Apparently he’d been watching me in class more than I’d thought. In fact I didn’t even remember the conversation he was talking about. I didn’t know what to say and I chose to look offended. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said, his face a few inches from mine, searching my eyes with his. “Are you mad at me?” I looked up and found that deep sea. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t speak; I was just trapped in the intense blue. A smile curled round the corner of his mouth and lit up his handsome face. Then I realized that I hadn’t replied, I was just standing there staring dumbly. Now he’d made me really angry. Why did I feel that way? He seemed satisfied by how I was reacting to him being so close. I blinked against my will and looked away. “And?” he asked, with a smile plastered all over his face. “What?” I couldn’t even remember what we were talking about. “Are you angry with me?” “Yes. Pretty angry.” My tone of voice didn’t match my words. It sounded too weak. And my face was too red. “Forgive me. I'm really sorry.” There was a tinge of regret on his face, although it betrayed a hint of a smile. He was more amused than repentant, for sure. “What do you find so funny?” “Excuse me?” “I’m not stupid, you know. I can see it on your face; you're having a great time watching me squirm.” “No! Don’t think that. It's just...” Now it was his turn to be dumbstruck. That made me feel better. “It’s just that we always end up arguing. Like we can’t have a normal conversation.” He was right. I didn’t dare to talk to him but when I had no choice, we always ended up arguing. “Perhaps if you hadn’t been so concerned with spying on me, we’d get on better.” What was I saying? Had I totally lost it? With talk like that, I’d push him away even more when, in fact, I was thrilled that he was interested in me, more than I’d imagined. I resigned myself to it. I’d said it. I bit my lower lip, waiting for him to answer. “If you didn’t keep dodging me, I wouldn’t have to spy on you,” he said, trying to justify himself. “All right, this is getting us nowhere.” I just wanted to go and not keep making matters worse. I’d already displayed enough stupidity for one day. “I’d better go,” I added, not expecting him to say anything. I started to walk past him with as much resolve as I could muster, when he suddenly grabbed me so I couldn’t move. “Wait, don’t go.” I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere with his hand touching my arm. “I don’t want to argue any more. I just wanted to meet you, for the assignment.” His voice was so sensual and intoxicating that I just nodded, unable to say anything. I was dizzy. My heart was pounding. I didn’t dare to breathe, to break the magic between us right then. Something changed in him. His gaze was warmer, as if the ice in his eyes was melting, spilling into mine. For a moment I had the impression that he felt out of place too. We’d connected in a special way. A mutual attraction, like magnets. Erik regained his composure before I did. “See you tomorrow after school?” “Okay. Tomorrow’s perfect.” I tried to clear my head. I was going to have a date with the boy of my dreams tomorrow. That meant I was going to be with him alone. My stomach knotted. He looked at me expectantly. “See you here; we’ll go to your house together.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. We were going to my house? I thought we would be going to the library or something. If I’d thought I couldn’t get any more nervous that afternoon, I had another think coming. “Okay, see you tomorrow,” I said turning around, my arm released from the sweetness of his grasp. My face reddened again, although maybe it had been like that the whole time. At this rate, crimson would be my usual skin tone. I didn’t even want to imagine what might happen the next day after an afternoon with my heavenly angel eyes. Beth was waiting for me in the car. Daniel was at her side. I felt a pang of envy. Why couldn’t I be at ease with Erik like I was with her? Why couldn’t I be more natural, more spontaneous? I didn’t know if it was a virtue or a vice; I needed to feel like I had everything under control, which is why it bothered me so much when things got out of hand, like I felt with Erik. I’d never been interested in complicating my life with love stories. I used to keep my distance with guys and suddenly he turns up with his angelic face, breaking down my safety barrier and of course my head, my ability to reason. It made me feel awkward. But my heart was another story. It leapt wildly and joyfully at the mere mention of his name. I was experiencing wonderful things, and tomorrow I’d have the chance to savor them at my leisure. I said goodbye to Beth and Daniel as I got out of the car, standing in the doorway of my house. An icy breeze cut through my body down to the bone on the short path from the sidewalk to the front door. My mother was flitting around the house, doing a million things at once. I left my jacket and backpack in my room and went looking for her. “Hi, Mom.” I went over and planted a loud kiss on her cheek. “Can I help?” “Hello,” she said, looking up. “No need, I’m almost done. I’ll just put this wash on and that’s it.” She had swollen eyelids and there was fatigue on her face. “Are you okay?” I was worried; she was working a lot to cover expenses. “Yes, honey, today was a hectic day at the hospital. This unexpected cold is causing new outbreaks of influenza. We’ve been overrun; we haven’t stopped for a minute.” “Truth be told, it’s absolutely freezing.” I turned to go to my room. “I'm going to do my homework, okay?” “Ok, I’m going to lie down for a while until dinnertime.” I knew my mother wasn’t being honest with me. I knew her too well. Tomorrow was their wedding anniversary. A very hard day for her. She’d almost certainly gone days without sleep, giving in to tears. Nicole felt worse about losing Carl than I did. I figured it was because I still had a life to build, and hers had been shattered. I wanted to comfort her, but I knew it was useless. Nicole was a strong, determined woman. She was trying, every way she knew, to provide me with some kind of of normality to keep me from suffering even more, but I knew it was all a facade. She was suffering. She was suffering a lot. I started to do my math homework. Numbers were a good antidote against sad thoughts. I spent the afternoon in my room, studying, while Coldplay played, again and again, on my stereo. SHAKESPEARE “The worst way to miss someone is sitting right beside them, knowing that you´ll never have them.” Gabriel García Márquez The dim light of dawn filtered through the curtains, bringing a sad, leaden tone to my room. Apparently, today was going to be another gray, overcast day. But for me it was like bright sunshine, more like mid-May. Today might be a good day. I showered quickly and went to have breakfast with my mother. I hadn’t said anything about the visit we were having that evening and I’d rather she knew about it. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a photo album in front of her. At that moment I knew I hadn’t been wrong about my assumptions the previous night. Seeing Nicole overcome by sadness put paid to the euphoria I’d felt when I woke up. Today she simply couldn’t put on her mask of fake normality. She had her head in her hands. She was crying. I walked over and hugged her from behind. “Honey, you’re awake?” She was surprised and tried to wipe away her tears, as if that could erase what I saw. “I miss him too.” I felt broken. I didn’t want to see my mother crying. I didn’t understand why life was so cruel. We burst into tears and hugged each other. “Do you remember this photo?” she asked after a while, when we were both sitting going through the album that she had on the table. It was a photo of my father with me at the lake, when I was six. “Yes.” I said in a quiet voice. “You didn’t want to walk. You said that you would hurt your feet and dad took you on his shoulders all the way.” I smiled sadly. The pain I was carrying in my heart lessened as the beautiful memories resurfaced in my mind. In this mood, a mixture of melancholy and sadness, I went to school, wanting to see my angel there. Time went slowly. Too slowly for me. I couldn’t wait to finish classes and meet Erik, who hadn’t come to school. The bell rang at last. I gathered my things up hurriedly while Beth looked at me in surprise. “Where are you going in such a rush?” “Home.” I said, putting on my jacket. “You’re hiding something, aren’t you?” She took me by the arm to make me look at her. I hadn’t said anything about my meeting with Erik. After all, it was just for homework. It wasn’t a date or anything like that. And I didn’t want one of her ‘interrogations’, either. It would only make me more nervous than I already was. “Don’t be stupid.” I pulled myself free and ran, waving goodbye. She wouldn’t settle for that. Tomorrow I’d have to be prepared for the barrage of questions that would fall on me. But that was tomorrow. Now all that mattered was the attractive guy I was going to share the afternoon with. I arrived breathless at the park. But the race had its reward. Erik was there, waiting. Every time I saw him, he reminded me more of a god than a high school student. He smiled at me, waving. As if his presence alone wasn’t enough to attract my attention. “Hello.” His sweet voice had me trapped. “Hi.” What should I do now? Get into his car? Wait for him to ask me? By the way, did he drive? I didn’t do anything. Both of us were standing still, staring at each other, and I felt like I was melting and I’d even forgotten my name. His gaze was delicious. No words were needed. Our eyes held a dialogue that our lips refused to. ‘Let’s go,’ he said at last, snapping me out of my spell. “I don’t want you to get cold.” He opened the car door. “Okay.” I answered. Right then, if he’d asked me to climb Everest in bikinis and flip flops, I would have said the same. He had such power over me that I couldn’t do anything but go with it. “Audi A3 Sportback,” he replied proudly once we were inside. I’d asked him what car it was. I knew nothing about cars, but I wasn’t so dumb that I didn’t realize that it was an expensive car and he was too young for it. “Is it very expensive?” I asked, echoing my thoughts. “Depends what you mean by expensive.” A mischievous smile lit up his face. “How much?” “Forty thousand.” “Forty thousand dollars?” I was amazed. “No, forty thousand euros. It’s imported. Direct from Germany.” My jaw dropped. I was amazed by the huge amount of money that car was worth. And I didn’t even have enough for a bicycle. “How can you afford a car like this? And you also have a bike, right?” We’d never talked about it, but I was sure that Erik and the rider were the same person. “Let's say I don’t have to worry about money,” he answered, then looked thoughtful. Perhaps he realized, like me, he was rich and I was broke. As if his physical perfection wasn’t enough, compared to my many defects, he was also swimming in money. I felt disappointed. The more I got to know him, the further away he was from me. ‘Out of my reach,’ I thought. The words clawed at my heart. I could almost feel it bleeding. We went the rest of the way in silence, each lost in thought. He killed the engine next to my house. I noticed him looking at me. “What’s the matter?” He seemed confused. “Nothing.” “Come on, tell me. Since I told you how much the car cost, you haven`t said a word.” He realized that what he’d just said was the answer to his own question. “Is it because of the money? Does it bug you that I’ve got money? Are you going to hold my social status against me?” he asked, almost jokingly. I wanted to be angry with him for teasing me like that. He was right, and being realistic it was kind of stupid being angry because he was rich. I started laughing in spite of myself. It was strange. A moment ago, he’d seemed uncomfortable too, but now he looked relaxed. “So that was the reason.” “A little.” I remarked “I don’t care if you’re rich,” I lied. “It’s just that...” I hesitated for a few seconds “We’re so different...” That was it. I’d said it. I looked at him, embarrassed by my little confession. “I don’t think we’re so different.” His voice turned serious and solemn. “Oh please! Look at you.” I said pointing at him with both hands. “And look at me. Beauty and the Beast.” I added sarcastically. “I don’t agree with the image you have of me, and I hate...” he breathed, his blue eyes searching me out, “…the image you have of yourself. So please don’t change the title of the story. More like you’re Beauty and I’m the Beast.” His eyes burned into mine as he spoke. He, the most handsome man that could be found on earth, was telling me that he thought I was beautiful, to my face? My cheeks went red, and I couldn’t do anything about it. He looked away and let me breathe again. “A Beast with plenty of money,” he shrugged. I laughed at such nonsense. I was more relaxed now. It was possible that the afternoon wouldn’t turn out so badly after all. I felt more comfortable than I’d expected. “Want to come in?” I said as I opened the car door. It was nice to feel the cold on my cheeks. I called out ‘Hi’ when I got home. In the end I hadn’t told Nicole that Erik would be coming that afternoon. There was no answer. “Like a drink?” “No, thanks.” He was distracted, looking at the pictures in the hallway. I went into the kitchen. I did need a drink. I grabbed a glass, filled it with water and drank it. My throat was dry, as if I’d swallowed a bag full of sand. I choked when I heard his voice so close. “Your mother’s out.” I turned and I saw him pointing at a note that was stuck to the fridge with a magnet. I hadn’t seen it. It was from Nicole. “Honey, they called from the hospital. They’re overrun and need me to work a double shift. Sorry I couldn’t warn you before. See you tomorrow. Don’t stay up late. I love you; big kiss, Mom.” “It looks like we're alone,” I heard him say mischievously, as he raised an eyebrow. I’d never seen him do that before. It was naughty, sexy and as with everything he did, it was very attractive. ‘Control yourself!’ I thought, as my heart began to miss beats. “Yeah, well. Now what? Shall we get down to work?” I tried to sound unconcerned. I needed to change the topic if I was going to at least seem calm and collected for the rest of the afternoon. My mother would kill me when she found out that Erik had come home with me. It was one of her unbreakable rules. No boys when she wasn’t at home. So far this rule hadn’t been a problem; in fact, I was amused that Nicole had such old-fashioned morals. “I brought this.” We were sitting at the kitchen table, with lots of notes scattered around. Erik grabbed a book from his bag and put it in my hand, touching my palm gently, causing another shock in every nerve ending. I concentrated on the book he had just given me. It was a compilation of the greatest works of William Shakespeare. I opened it, looking for the ones I liked. We spent more than two hours analyzing the book. Comparing my notes with his. Our views couldn’t have been more different. I loved the world Shakespeare had created in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It seemed magical and idyllic to me, a place where no one was master of their own fate. How unexpected the future could be and how the heart could change in a single night, thanks to the machinations of mystical beings. Erik saw everything from a cold and rational point of view, but it didn’t make sense to apply logic to the magic of love. “I'm more a Sciences kind of guy.” He smoothed his hair. “Everything about emotions and feelings is too complicated. Love is dangerous.” “Why?” “Because, as you said, love can’t be controlled. You can’t think clearly and that's not good.” His expression seemed almost tortured, as if he had more in his head than what he was saying. He wasn’t talking about the assignment any more, I was sure of that. This was personal. I wanted to explore it, and find out what was making him act like that. “Haven’t you ever fallen in love?” “Doesn’t enter into my plans.” That was neither a yes nor a no. All it did was increase my curiosity. “Are you afraid of falling in love?” I regretted what I’d said as soon as the words came out when I saw how he was looking at me. “I like to be in control of my mind in every way and love…” he said, looking at me “…love isn’t an option for me.” His voice was hard, but his eyes expressed an infinite sadness. “I don’t believe that falling in love is optional.” What was I looking for? Did I think he would confess he was in love with me? It was stupid to think like that, I’d just be in for the biggest disappointment of my life. His face was tense. His lips made a thin line and his forehead was wrinkled. He was upset. I’d gone too far with my curiosity. In the end we hardly knew each other, certainly not well enough to act that way. “I think I'd better go.” He stood up and began to put his notes away. I watched him, in a state of shock. I didn’t want him to leave. Not this way. “All right,” I said, contradicting myself. “We’re almost done.” “Give me those,” he said brusquely, snatching the notes out of my hands. “I’ll finish it.” “You don’t have to...” He covered my mouth with one finger and a million butterflies fluttered in my stomach. “You've done enough. I'll finish the rest. Don’t worry.” I walked him to the door. I felt devastated by him leaving so suddenly. “Well… thanks,” I said as he went outside. I didn’t know what else to say. “See you tomorrow,” he said, walking towards his car. I closed the door and stood there. I was leaning against the doorframe, thinking about him. There was something odd about how he’d behaved. I could understand why he’d gotten so angry. I’d been too inquisitive. I breathed in deeply. His scent was still lingering around the house. I went over every single detail, savoring it all, although it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The weekend was like a blessing right then. I’d been pushed to the limit. I needed to disconnect after so many tests. We were a week away from the Christmas break. I couldn’t believe how fast the time was going. The first term was gone before I could take it in. We left school talking about possible plans for the next day. Beth wanted to go shopping, just for a change. Megan suggested a trip to the lake. We were expecting good weather, with low temperatures but sunny. It would be nice to see the lake, all iced over, like every winter. Thomas was fine with whatever we decided, just to get away from home and not hang around with his younger brothers. “Let's go to the lake.” Megan repeated “The stores aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, but where else will we see scenery like that?” “You're right.” I supported Megan's proposal, “I vote for going to the lake.” “Ok by me.” added Thomas, voting with us. “All right,” Beth muttered “But on one condition.” She paused; we were all ears. “That Daniel and Erik come too.” “Erik?” I went as white as a ghost. We hadn’t spoken since that unfortunate evening at home. “Yes,” she said with a broad smile. “No!” I protested. “Why not?” Thomas asked, having pretty much stayed out of it until now. “I don’t want to be surrounded by wacky, judgmental harpies like you guys. Variety is the spice of life, right?” “Well you don’t have to come,” I muttered; Beth and Megan laughed. “Come on, don’t be like that. What's wrong? I thought you'd be thrilled with the idea. Anyway, Thomas is right; we do need a bit of variety in our little gang.” I knew what kind of variety Beth wanted. It was irrational, but I still didn’t feel ready to confront her face to face. “I think it’s a good idea, too,” said Megan timidly, but it cut me like a knife. “So it’s decided, then. I'll call Daniel.” Beth could hardly contain herself. And I wanted to disappear, to melt into the asphalt beneath my feet. “You’ll be glad to know...” Beth called out running towards me, switching off her cell phone. “Daniel doesn’t have Erik’s number and now, it’d be impossible to find him and tell him,” she said, looking at the closed door of the school. I sighed. Was it relief or disappointment? Oh my God! How complicated was this getting?! Only a few minutes ago I was terrified of the idea of Erik coming with us and now I knew he wasn’t, I was desperate. It was crazy. Beth and I said goodbye to Thomas and Megan. We were on our way home. She explained to me again and again why she was excited, because Daniel had invited her to dinner the next day, after our little jaunt. “I really like him,” she said. “You always say that.” “That’s not true. Daniel’s different.” ”All right.” I didn’t say anything else. It was only a matter of time before her prince began to turn back into a frog. “You don’t believe me.” She stood in front of me with her arms folded across her chest “Sorry for not being an ice-queen who frightens away any guy who gets near her.” “I haven’t frightened anyone away.” I knew she was talking about me and Erik. I didn’t want to argue with her about my life, or rather about my lack of a love life or anything similar. “Really? What about your blue eyed boy? A few days ago you were crazy about him, and now suddenly you don’t want to know. I don’t get you at all.” “You have no idea what you're talking about.” “And you’re not going to tell me, right?” She was still blocking my way. I hated it when she acted like that, but this time it wasn’t going to work for her. I wasn’t going to say anything, mostly because I had no idea what had happened. Was he ignoring me? Or was I ignoring him? The truth was, I didn’t have the remotest idea what was happening. We were acting like two complete strangers. “Stop talking trash and let's go. I'm hungry.” “You’ll tell me eventually. It’s just a matter of time.” “Maybe, but it won’t be today, so please stop. You’ll end up giving me a migraine.” We continued walking in silence until we got to my house. Hers was a few blocks down. “What time shall we meet?” “At four, unless you also have a problem with time,” she sniped, sarcastically. “You’re unbearable,” I said, giving her a little shove. She pushed me back with a smile. That was the best thing about Beth; her anger only lasted a few minutes. Nicole wasn’t at home, so I went straight to my room, after eating reheated macaroni from the fridge. I lay on the bed and closed my eyes. The fact that I wasn’t talking to Erik didn’t mean I didn’t dream about him. It was Saturday. I got up slowly. I took my time, stretching myself awake like a cat. The hot water from the shower ran down my back, relaxing my muscles. The smell of pancakes floated up the staircase as I went down. “Good morning, honey. Hope you have an appetite!” said my mother, shaking the pan. “I'm making a lot of pancakes.” I shook my head with a smile. Nicole was hopeless. She always made pancakes for breakfast when she was in a good mood. The problem was she made so many we ended up eating them for a whole week. “Great, mom.” I started taking pieces which were she’d already put on a plate and I seared my fingers. “Are you going to do anything today?” “We’re going to the lake for a walk,” I replied, swallowing another piece of pancake with jelly. “All right, but don’t come back too late. I don’t want you in the woods when it gets dark.” Nicole was looking through yesterday’s newspaper, while I was eating my huge pile of pancakes. She grimaced in disgust when she turned the page. I had no idea what she’d just read to make her face change like that. “By the way, I keep meaning to ask you something and I always forget. Do you know anyone called Lilian?” “No.” The name didn’t ring any bells. “Why?” “She was in ER last week, she was very sick.” I knew she was hiding something “She’s your age and I just wanted to know if she went to your school, maybe your class even.” “What happened?” I asked, as if I knew the girl, but it was pure curiosity. “She’d just given birth. Someone left her at the door of the hospital, alone and unconscious, without a trace of the baby, or the baby's father.” She carried on talking, more to herself than to me. “It’s very strange. It says here that there have been more cases like this in the past three years and not only in this country.” “That's awful” I said indignantly. “I know, and worst of all, she doesn’t remember what happened. She just asks over and over again why she’s in hospital. She doesn’t even remember being pregnant.” Nicole's tone showed pain and repulsion at the same time. She sometimes got too involved with her patients, but I had to admit that this was no ordinary case. “So you can’t do anything to help that poor girl?” ‘I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes,’ I thought. “No. We called the police and her parents, but, there’s nothing more we can do. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil your day with my stories. By the way, you be careful, there are a lot of crazy men out there.” “Don’t worry mom.” I carried on eating breakfast in silence, watching my mother. She had a big heart, and it showed in her job. She deserved to be happy. She had never considered the idea of rebuilding her life with someone else, but sometimes, when I saw her sad and staring through the curtains, looking at some imaginary spot down the street, I wanted her to find someone new to make her smile again. The morning sped by, between homework and housework. I dressed quickly when I saw the clock. Some faded jeans, a nice turtleneck, sports shoes and my thickest coat was enough for me as my outfit for the afternoon. The horn sounded outside. I gave Nicole a kiss and dashed out into the street, dragging my backpack behind me. The car was full. Thomas, Megan and I were crammed into the back seat. Beth and Daniel were in the front. “Are you ready?” Beth asked. Without waiting for an answer, she accelerated and we started making our way towards the lake. THE LAKE “The soul that can speak through the eyes can also kiss with a gaze.” Gustavo Adolfo Becquer The trail was over flat ground and clearly visible. It was built for the tourists who flocked to the lake, eager to get close to nature. I walked slowly, hearing without listening to the conversations unfolding around me. Megan spoke with Beth about discounts on clothes, or some such, and Daniel and Thomas about a baseball game. Occasionally all four of them talked about the same thing. To be honest, I was paying pretty much zero attention to them. I was disappointed by the absence of one person in particular. I wasn’t going to see him again until Monday, if I was lucky; although the way things were going lately, he’d probably run for the hills at the sight of me. A feeling of uneasiness hung over me. The day was bright, full of light and it was even warm, despite the weather forecast. But I felt like I was inside a cave: damp, cold and dark. Thomas was climbing on each and every one of the rocks he found on the way. Megan was quite happy to follow him, while Beth and Daniel walked hand in hand. I concentrated on getting something useful out of the trip, enjoying the scenery. The way the sun fell on the leaves of the trees was really beautiful, giving off greenish hues, and a special shine. Beth and Megan had tried unsuccessfully to slip me into their conversation, with direct questions that I answered with monosyllables. I walked on, immersed in my thoughts, wallowing in my misery, when I saw him. I couldn’t believe it. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was seeing my angel's face and hearing his sweet voice when he wasn’t here. Or that’s what I thought. He appeared from among the trees, running to where we’d stopped to rest and have a drink. He was shouting something that we couldn’t make out. “Erik, what’s going on?” Daniel asked, reaching him in two strides. “Can’t you hear it? Avalanche! Run!” Daniel and the rest looked up at the slope right in front of us. It was real! Erik was here! My brain processed his words in an instant, forcing my eyes to stop looking at him, to look up. A huge block of ice began to crack and broke into several pieces that were beginning to slide down the hill. It dragged stones and tree branches in its path. We ran, while Erik warned the other hikers to get out of there. Everything happened too fast. I glanced back and he was gone. I could only see a jumble of icy rocks, mixed with mud and tree stumps where I once saw his slender figure. “Erik!” I screamed desperately; Thomas was holding me back and I was struggling to break free. “Let me go, Thomas!” “Are you crazy? We can’t do anything for him. You’ll only end up getting hurt!” The seconds seemed like hours, with the uncertainty of not knowing what we’d find after the avalanche. When the mountain had gone silent again, Thomas let me go and I bolted toward the place where I’d last seen Erik. Thomas and Daniel got there before me, jumping over rocks and fallen branches. “Erik!” we yelled again and again. “I'm here!” We heard his strained voice near us. Beth grabbed my hand tightly, trying to reassure me. A couple of tree trunks and several blocks of ice covered his lower body. Daniel and Thomas knelt beside him and managed to get everything off him, but only after a tremendous effort. Megan stood behind us, motionless, paralyzed with fright, while Beth and I hurried to help them. Erik moved and kicked away the last lump of ice. “Don’t move!” I said anxiously “You might have broken something. We need to call an ambulance.” I started looking in my backpack to get my damn phone. He put his hand on my shoulder and I turned around, startled. “What are you doing?! Sit down!” “I'm fine, believe me,” he replied smiling, brushing the dust from his clothes. He had bruised arms and a nasty cut on his leg, which began to bleed profusely. “Is that your idea of ‘fine’?” I said, pointing at his leg. “Don't worry, I heal fast and it barely hurts.” The tone of his voice and carefree smile were totally convincing. “But half the mountain fell on you!” I couldn’t have been more astonished. “It wasn’t a big deal. I promise you. Are you okay?” “Of course, I'm fine, but you...” “Stop worrying about me.” He cut me off in mid-sentence. “Like I said, I'm fine.” I hit the ‘off’ button on my phone angrily. “Shit, no signal. We'd better get out of here and get you to a hospital,” I murmured, looking for approval from the others, who were standing a few yards away, watching us without daring to butt in. “Stop talking nonsense.” He turned to Daniel before I could go on protesting. “What were you doing around here?” he asked. It was Beth who answered. “Isn’t it obvious? We were on a daytrip. We wanted to invite you, but nobody knew your number,” she explained, shifting her gaze between the two of us “But here you are as well. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?” She was looking at me more than at him. “Yes, a coincidence – and just as well. If I hadn’t been here, you’d all be all mashed potato now.” Beth laughed at the joke. I didn’t find it funny. “The weird thing is it was you who ended up being mashed,” I muttered in a sort of stage whisper. I couldn’t stand why he was playing the tough guy. His whole body must have been aching. It was a miracle that he’d come out alive, but he didn’t seem to care at all. “You're right. Thanks buddy,” said Thomas, hitting him on the shoulder. Erik growled. “Sure you’re ok?” “Perfectly.” he said, smugly. I looked at him in amazement, as did my friends. But it seemed true. Erik had emerged completely unscathed from the accident. I turned to get out of the mess of ice and branches around us, followed by Erik and Daniel. I stumbled spectacularly over the branch of a tree, and lost my balance, falling to the ground. I hadn’t had time to react, when two strong arms lifted me quickly. “Are you hurt?” “No, I… I'm fine,” I stammered, feeling the electricity flow between us. He began to brush off the dead leaves clinging to my clothes. The others ran towards us. “What happened to you?” Beth asked, though it was obvious. “What else?” said Thomas, “Stella is Captain Clumsy.” “She sure is,” my angelic vision answered, smiling at me. “Poor thing, she doesn’t look so good,” Megan replied, looking at me. I didn’t know how I looked, but her face scared me. Meanwhile, Beth kept asking me how I was. I didn’t answer. I was concentrating on the millions of sensations that had taken over my body. Now the day was perfect in every way, with Erik beside me. I was sitting on a rotting tree trunk, watching him. He was talking quietly with Daniel. His charming smile was blinding my vision. The others were lying on the floor beside me, taking advantage of my inept blundering to rest a little more and recover from what had happened. I watched in fascination as the weak threads of sun streamed in through the tops of the trees to play on Erik’s hair, picking out golden highlights. I still couldn’t believe he was real. There he was, tall, slender, divine, beautiful... unreachable. “Are you going to join us?” Beth asked him, pinching my arm quietly. I nudged her back. “Yes, if you don’t mind. I might help Stella to watch where she’s going.” he smiled, mockingly. I had to make a superhuman effort to bite my tongue and not answer. It was obvious I was a walking disaster on uneven ground. “Perfect, shall we go on?” We all stood up, taking up Beth’s suggestion. I knew the way; we just were a few yards away from the lake. I leaned against the tree trunk that served as my seat to get up. An intense pain shot through my ankle like a sharp knife tearing my tendons. “What’s up?” Erik's face was a reflection of my pain. He looked concerned. There was no sign of his previous mockery. “Is it really hurting?” He knelt beside me and began to feel my sore ankle. Thomas was mooching around us. I’d done it; I’d ruined our day out. “Do you want to go home?” Beth’s disgruntled voice made me think again about wanting to get out of there. “No, if he's alright, then so am I,” I said pointing at Erik; I still couldn’t believe that he hadn’t uttered a word of complaint, when my pain was killing me. I had to be strong “You guys go on, I’ll catch you up. I just need to rest a little more.” “You’re white as a sheet. I’m not leaving you here alone.” Beth sat beside me again, looking deadly serious. I felt terrible for being so awkward and clumsy. “Beth, seriously, I'm fine and I know how to get to the lake.” My voice gave me away. It wasn’t half as self-assured as I’d meant it to be. It was faint and shaky. Beth shook her head, standing stock still beside me. “I'll stay with her.” Erik’s friendly voice went through my body like a jolt. When would I get over this weakness? My attraction to this angel was going from bad to worse. It was becoming unhealthy. Beth jumped to her feet, her old cheerful self, and looked at us both. Erik was kneeling at my feet and I was sitting on a tree trunk, my face wracked with pain. “Stella, do you really want me to go?” “Sure, relax. Erik will help me if I need it.” I was hoping she’d just disappear once and for all. Thank God, Beth caught my pleading look. “Okay, see you at the lake.” She turned to Erik to add. “Don’t listen to her; she’s pig-headed, she’s a born masochist. Although she says she’s alright, she isn’t, know what I mean?” Erik nodded. “Perfect. Take care of her, okay?” Erik nodded again and winked knowingly. Beth walked away smiling, catching up with the others. “Can you walk?” he asked me when we were alone at last. “I'm not sure. It hurts a bit when I put weight on my foot,” I lied. It was agony when it touched the ground. “But it’s nothing serious. And are you okay?” I tried to smile, but it was more like a grimace. “Yes, for the millionth time, it was nothing. Let me help you, please.” He put his arm around my waist, electrifying my body. “Up!” he added, lifting me almost effortlessly. “Is that better?” I staggered again, this time because of the excitement that came over me. I put my weight on my foot, resting it on the ground unintentionally. My face went from crimson red to nuclear white in seconds. The pain was so excruciating that I couldn’t even manage a groan. My eyes were shut tight, and I was biting my lip. I couldn’t fool him, of course. “It hurts a lot, doesn’t it?” I had to answer. I was sure the look on my face expressed how I was feeling better than any words right then. I took a deep breath; I slowly opened my eyes and looked at him. Now that was a bad idea. I had to force myself not to have a heart attack. His face was a few inches from mine. His eyes, more intense than ever, looked at me in a way that made me blush despite the pain. His lips curled, exposing his perfect teeth. “Well, now you have no excuse to keep ignoring me.” “Ignoring you? What makes you say that? It’s you who’s been avoiding me these last few days.” His words hurt me even more than my injured ankle. Ignore him?! I was so obsessed by him that I couldn’t sleep or eat, or do anything except think about him. “I don’t know, you seem uncomfortable when I'm around.” He shook his head, as if there was some undesirable thought in his mind. “I don’t feel uncomfortable; you intimidate me just a little,” I answered lowering the tone of my voice at the end, embarrassed. “Maybe it’s better that way,” he said, fixing his eyes on the ground. He looked pained. “What do you mean?” I had to clear this up once and for all. I didn’t like seeing him like this. “You don’t know me, so go with your intuition. It knows best.” Now I was completely lost. “Why should I do that?” “Because maybe,” he whispered, with his blue eyes gazing into mine, “this is the last chance you’ll have to get away from me.” His voice was incredibly seductive. His eyes, like melting ice, were scrutinizing my face. ‘Get away from him?’ I thought. Erik didn’t realize how impossible that was. Since our eyes had met for the first time, my life had been turned around, and I had no choice. But I wasn’t about to tell him that. Maybe I was just misinterpreting what he was saying. “How did you know we were here?” The question was out of place, but I needed desperately to change the topic. “I didn’t, it was just a coincidence. I wanted to walk around and clear my head. I didn’t know whether I wanted to come here or go to the beach, but in the end, I opted for the lake.” That strange look appeared in his eyes again. As if something was tormenting him, as if he was fighting himself inside. “I'm glad you decided to come here.” “Me too, I think.” he said. Was he sorry? He spoke so softly that I didn’t know if I’d heard him right. I stopped thinking altogether when I felt his strong arm around my waist, pulling me closer to his side, closer to him, if that was possible. Butterflies shimmered up my stomach and then fluttered down my spine. It felt so good to be by his side. A stupid idea came over me. I wanted him to look after me, to care for me and never let me go. I wanted those butterflies to stay and live forever in my stomach. “Tell me something about yourself,” he said sweetly. All his anxiety had disappeared. “I have nothing interesting to say. My life is pretty normal.” “Tell me about your parents. I saw their photos the other day in your house,” he added like an explanation, as if he was trying to justify his intrusion into my private life “You seem very close.” “I'd rather not talk about it,” I muttered dryly. “I'm sorry; I didn’t want to be intrusive. If I’d known it would bother you, I wouldn’t have...” “It's not your fault,” I interrupted him. “My father died and I... well... I don’t want to talk about that, okay?” “Okay.” We went on in silence. Erik supported most of my weight, but he still didn’t look tired at all. Neither was he complaining about his wound; now it was clean it didn’t look as bad as it had at first. Not even his breathing had changed, despite the effort. We’d almost reached the end of the trail. Erik hadn’t opened his mouth. Maybe I’d been too sharp with him. I looked sideways and saw his dark, distant face. What had brought on such a change in him? For a moment, I wondered whether he was bipolar or something. It was disconcerting how quickly the joy had changed into sadness. I leaned over a little to get a better look at his face. He slipped his arm around my waist, making my skin burn under my clothing. I couldn’t bear to see him like that, it wasn’t the first time. I needed to find out what was causing him so much anguish. Maybe he felt bad about giving me false hopes. If so, I’d sort it out on the spot. If I was crazy about him, it was my thing. Erik wasn’t to blame for being so attractive or for me being such an idiot. “Why are you so sad?” I asked suddenly, without taking my eyes off the endless blue of his eyes. “What makes you think I'm sad?” He wasn’t denying it, but he seemed surprised. “You're very quiet and your eyes...” I said turning my gaze away “…are kind of switched off. Take no notice of me; I’m just being silly.” He stared at me. Without moving, speaking or smiling. Only his eyes spoke. There was something he wasn’t prepared to say. A spark crossed the sky that I’d recreated so many times in my dreams. It was a new, bright light. His eyes came alive again. “I'm sorry, I didn’t want to...” What was I doing? It wasn’t like me. Why didn’t I think before opening my big mouth? Usually I was more restrained, but I seemed to do everything backwards when he was around. I realized I was wasting another promising afternoon. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.” He surprised me again. There was self-assurance in his voice and his face was inscrutable. But he wasn’t looking at me anymore. “How's your ankle?” The way he changed the topic took me by surprise and I took longer than necessary to answer. “I think I'll survive. And how’s your leg?” “I‘ll survive too.” He sounded like his life really depended on it. I don’t know why my body reacted quite differently to how it had before with Erik. I felt a terrible fear of losing him. Beth and Daniel were waiting for us a little behind Megan and Thomas; knowing them, they would have walked two or three times around the lake quite happily. Having company irritated me. I could quite easily have done without them. I just wanted to be with him and nobody else. I was scared by the truth of what I was thinking. He was my obsession, my addiction. He was kind of a sun and I was simply in orbit around him, attracted by some kind of magnetic force. “Where are the others?” I asked when we caught up with my friend and her southern love. “They’re waiting for us at the viewpoint.” “Damn,” I groaned. The viewpoint was a group of rocks from which you could admire the lake in all its glory. Usually not too difficult to climb, but with my ankle I was going to have problems getting up there. “Something wrong?” “Yes, climbing up to the viewpoint is going be a bit tricky.” I lifted my injured leg, to confirm the obvious. “I'll take you.” He swept me up so fast that I couldn’t complain until I was up in the air. “Put me down!” I could barely breathe because of the pressure I felt in my chest. He laughed and put me back on the ground very gently, putting his arm back around my waist. Beth and Daniel were having a great time watching my ridiculous performance, while the mound of rocks rose defiantly in front of me. “Are you sure you don’t really want my help?” Erik read my face as well as I read his. “No, I can do it alone.” “You're a little stubborn, aren’t you?” We were standing there, he was holding me by the waist and I had my arms crossed over my chest. “Come on, grab onto me or I’ll lift you up again.” I held tightly to his back, my heart pounding wildly. If he didn’t want me to get the wrong idea, this wasn’t the best way to go about it. I had to put a stop to this madness. “Okay, now what’s the matter?” he asked wearily. “I don’t like people playing around with me.” “I'm not playing around with you,” he replied seriously. “Really? So why are you still here when I get the feeling you don’t want to be?” I pushed him away a few inches. “You want me to go?” His voice was cold. Before I could answer he turned away from me, shoving his hands into his pockets. I lost my balance and I had to lean on my foot. The pain was as intense as the first time. I felt like retching. Erik was deciding between picking me up and leaving me there. My face didn’t help much. I must have looked destroyed, judging by the way he was looking at me. “Stella please,” he whispered, coming up to me. “Don’t do this to me. Let me help you. I can’t stand seeing you like this.” “All right,” I said in a small voice “Sorry, I just don’t like being out of control like this.” I immediately regretted saying it. “Why are you out of control? Because you’re hurt?” I found myself leaning on him again. It felt so comforting to feel his body close to mine and his strong arm around me! “I suppose so.” I felt him looking at me, and I lifted my eyes, driven by a higher force than my will. “Hey Erik!” Voices came from the viewpoint. “Do you need any help with Stella, or can you manage on your own?” I swore to kill Thomas as soon as I got close enough. My face must have gone purple, from the way Erik was smiling at me. “I'm not climbing up there!” I answered, before Erik could. “What?” Beth's voice was the shrillest “What do you mean you’re not climbing up here? Erik, make her see sense!” “Leave me out of this! I reckon she’s much too stubborn for that!” he called out, winking at me. I thought I was going to faint on the spot. “I’ll fix this before you notice it,” I heard her say, wondering what she was up to. She climbed down quickly, leaping gracefully over the rocks. When I saw what she was planning to do, I realized it was worse than I thought. Before I knew it, I found myself suspended in mid-air. Between the two of them, Erik and Daniel took me up to the viewpoint. Despite my fears, I was glad when I took a look at the wonderful lake. It was as beautiful as I remembered. It was covered by a thin layer of ice, glittering in the sunlight. Different tinges of red and orange stained the sky like a painter’s palette, and the reflection on the lake was the result of his masterpiece. “Beautiful…” I whispered. “Really beautiful.” said Erik staring at me. I knew he was referring to the scenery. But the way he was looking at me, his words made my heart overflow with happiness. “You want to sit with them?” I asked pointing at my friends, who were sitting on the edge of a rock a little away from us. “If you don’t mind, I'd rather stay here. We didn’t get off on the right foot and I'd like to get to know you better.” Erik helped me sit down. Then he settled down beside me, looking at me with his narrowed eyes full of curiosity. “Well, what do you want know about me?” I tried to sound nonchalant, but I was terrified. What could I tell him that could get him interested in me? “Anything you like, what kind of music you listen to, what books you read, what you do in your spare time, why you’re looking at me like you are now…” He smiled his mischievous smile waiting for my answer. “That’s too many things.” I said tucking my hair behind my ear, visibly nervous. “I don’t know where to start.” “Start at the beginning and go on from there.” “I don’t want to bore you.” “Try me.” He looked at me with what seemed like real interest. That broke down all my barriers and I started talking. I don’t think I’ve ever talked for so long about my life. He just listened, nodding, or smiling at some foolishness or other. Time passed and the sun began to disappear behind the mountains, covering the sky with orange and purple. It was late, but I didn’t want to leave yet. There was so much I wanted to ask! He now knew more about me than any of my lifelong friends. But what did I know about him, except that he could drive me crazy with just one look? “Now it's my turn to ask.” “You haven’t answered my last question.” His grin turned mischievous. “What are you thinking when you look at me like that?” “That I don’t understand what you see in me to be so interested.” Again, I was scared about my total honesty. The words just came out, without me having to think, when I was with him. If he hadn’t realized yet that he was wasting his time with me, I did nothing but remind him of the fact. “You’re very interesting, believe me.” When he answered he didn’t look at me, he looked at the clouds that melted into the mountains in the twilight. “You’ll have to explain that to me.” “Maybe one day,” he said, pointing at my friends who were on their feet and coming towards us. “Stella, how’s your ankle?” Megan asked, moving towards me, followed by Thomas. “Better. It’s almost stopped hurting,” I lied. “Well you look awful,” said Thomas “You’re yellow. We should have gone before. You need to see a doctor.” “It’s not a big deal,” I said, seeing the grimace on Erik’s face. “What’s it to be, lovebirds? Are we staying or going?” asked Beth. So that’s what we looked like - two lovers? Well, it was obvious that my heart was on the verge of bursting, and I wouldn’t have missed this afternoon with him for all the broken bones in the world. But from that to being an item was a world away. Starting with him, who seemed genuinely interested in me, for some reason I couldn’t understand. ‘He’s just curious,’ I thought and this simple theory, coming together in my mind, left me breathless. I hadn’t realized until now how much it hurt me to think that Erik might not feel the same way about me. As my mind wandered over thorny ground, I heard his voice answering Beth’s question. “Yes, we'd better leave; we don’t want to be here at nightfall.” “Need any help?” Daniel appeared beside Beth, smiling. I wanted to stand up, but my injury had cooled and a stab of pain shot through me; for a moment I thought I was going to fall and roll all the way down. “Stella, are you okay?” Beth helped me to get up, looking at me with real concern. “I'm sorry I left, but I thought you'd like a little privacy with your guardian angel. But now that I see you, I don’t know if it was good idea to wait so long to leave. And you must be pretty shaken up too,” she said to Erik, who was standing to one side, talking to Thomas. She was really worried. I could hear it in her voice and see it on her face. I thought it best to set her mind at rest. Erik didn’t look tired or hurt at all. My ankle hurt, sure, you could see it just looking at me, but if she’d been able to look inside me, she’d have seen how happy I was. It had been a wonderful, perfect afternoon. I was living a dream and that was priceless. “It was the best idea you've had in your whole life,” I replied, and she shot me back a satisfied grin. “I know,” she said. “Do you mind if I take you on my own?” Erik was standing beside me; he’d startled me. Had he heard what I’d said to Beth? It didn’t matter; all I cared about was for him to touch me with his soft hands, to surround me with his strength. I wanted to stay there forever. Since we’d reached the viewpoint we hadn’t touched, not even by accident. We’d kept our distance, although I longed to hold him tight; luckily for me, my dream came true again. “No problem,” I said awkwardly. I was about to collapse, just imagining myself in his arms again. Beth came up to join Daniel and they began to climb down effortlessly. Erik moved more slowly, but steadily. I wasn’t sure if his slowness was due to my weight or that he wanted to stretch out this moment as much as I did. “Poor Daniel.” “What did you say?” I was so focused on feeling his embrace that I hadn’t even heard him. “Daniel is crazy about Beth.” I didn’t like the reproachful tone in his voice. I pulled a face and he explained himself. “I'm sure she’s a good person, but she’s very, how can I put it...” He pondered for a moment, searching for the right adjective to define Beth. I knew what it was and went ahead. “Temperamental?” “Exactly! I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.” “Do you really care about what happens between them?” I objected mockingly. “I didn’t think you were such a gossip. Or are you just trying to distract my attention?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It wasn’t true. He knew. “Just before we left you were going to tell me why I'm so interesting.” “I didn’t say I was going to explain.” “What’s up with you? Is it that bad? Do you see me as some kind of teenage mutant or something?” I joked, trying to relieve the tension that was threatening to come between us again. “Very funny. Look, let’s just leave it.” He hid his eyes from me and I didn’t like it. ”Come on, I promise not to get angry, whatever it is.” “When did we stop talking about you and start talking nonsense? Why don’t you tell me how your ankle’s doing? Does it hurt much?” ‘Here we go again,’ I thought. An expressionless mask appeared on his face in all its glory. “I'd be lying if I said it didn’t, and I don’t know why but I find it very difficult to lie to you. Although it seems it isn’t mutual. You haven’t complained once and I'm sure something must be hurting after the accident.” I wasn’t going to let him change the subject that easily. If he didn’t want to give me any explanations, he shouldn’t give me reasons to ask him, simple as that. I was really messed up. On the one hand, he seemed really interested in me but on the other, he tried to make out that it wasn’t important. I just wanted to hear him say that his heart pounded, like mine, when our eyes met. What if his answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear? “You just need to know that I’ve never…” He paused, and I noticed fire in my veins when his blue eyes pierced mine; ‘and I really mean it, I’ve never been interested in anyone the way I’m interested in you.” I’d turned to be face to face with him, and now he had both hands round my waist. I realized what the expression ‘to die of happiness’ meant. His eyes were clear, transparent; he wasn’t lying, but his lips were still closed tight. He didn’t feel comfortable with this conversation. I could feel him fighting inside. I wished with all my soul that I could soften the hard line of his mouth with a kiss. The heat rose to my face from the depths of my being. Then he looked away, breaking the connection between us. He loosened his arm. I wanted to scream at him not to. I saw his expression change again. I would never have another opportunity like this. My happiness melted away like mist, leaving me empty, sad. A knot choked my throat, struggling to get out and make me burst into tears. No, I wouldn’t do it. I swallowed. I closed my eyes. I needed to compose myself. “Shall we go on?” He looked at me with such tenderness that all my anxiety disappeared, leaving me feeling like a fool for these rollercoaster changes of mood. I was becoming neurotic. Or maybe I wasn’t, because it was my heart and not my mind that was controlling my whole being. We walked at a good pace, although the others should already have reached the car. “Are you tired? You don’t look so good. Do you want to rest a bit?” “No, I'm fine. Everyone will start to worry if we’re late.” “You're right. You could let me carry you...” He added with his mischievous smile. ”We might go faster that way.” I couldn’t stand these changes in his attitude, not any more. They were killing me. “What’s this all about?” I exclaimed bitterly. “I just want to be friends.” That wasn’t the answer I’d expected. “I don’t think friendship is enough.” There it was. I’d done it again. I was too honest. I cursed myself for what I’d said. “Well right now that’s all I can offer you. I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. Honestly, I can’t seem to behave right when I'm with you.” It wasn’t him speaking; it was that hideous mask of his. “What does ‘right’ mean to you?” My voice reflected the anxiety that had gripped me. It was he who’d insisted on being here with me, which was fine by me, but why did he always back down? Why did he shut up like a clam? My castles in the air crashed to the ground. I’d never felt that for anyone. I’d fallen in love with the wrong person. How typical of me. The rest of the way seemed like an eternity. You could feel the tension between us and I was annoyed by his silence. I was looking forward to getting to the car, once and for all. “At last!” yelled Beth, running towards us; “We were about to send out a search party.” Neither Erik nor I laughed. We weren’t in the mood for jokes, at least I wasn’t. Was he? Why was he so abrupt with the others? I’d misinterpreted his kindness, I assumed he felt something, but why did it seem like he was angry with the rest of humanity? And why did I care? After all, I was the one that had come off worst from all this, not him. I still had a little dignity left, and I wasn’t about to lose it by asking him. CHANGE OF PLANS “Love is like fire; those that are outside the flames usually see the smoke before those that are inside it.” Jacinto Benavente Beth decided to take me to the hospital, despite my protests and refusals. She canceled her dinner with Daniel without a second thought and began to act like an amateur nurse. What a way to finish the day! I kept feeling guilty about spoiling the date she had with the Southerner. A plump, none-too-young nurse treated me kindly when I got to ER. She started tinkering with my ankle and I writhed in pain. “Is it broken?” “No,” she replied, her stubby fingers digging around my swollen ankle. I grasped the bars of the bed tightly, trying to compensate for the pain with the pressure of my fingers on the cold metal. It was useless. It still hurt. “You've gone green,” said Beth, confirming my suspicions when the nurse left us alone to go find a doctor. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” “No, I just changed my makeup,” I answered sarcastically, gritting my teeth hard “Of course it hurts.” The nurse came back smiling, carrying a metal tray with a huge syringe on it. “What’s that…?” I didn’t even want to imagine that huge needle piercing my painful skin. “The doctor will give you an injection to reduce the inflammation and calm the pain.” “No!” “Calm down, honey. You’ll only feel the tiniest of stings.” She saw from the look on my face that I wasn’t convinced. “It’s either that, or we need to immobilize your ankle for three weeks.” She put the tray on a small side table and left again. “I don’t like either option.” “Be a good girl or I’ll call your mother!” said Beth. “Are you insane? She’d go crazy if she saw me here.” “Well, then be a good girl and leave it to the experts, okay?” When I was about to answer, the doctor came. “Hi. I'm Dr. McCain. Are you Stella Preston, Nicole’s daughter?” he asked as he read my medical record. “Yes.” “Well, it's just a simple tendonitis, nothing too serious. The problem is that it’s been some time since the injury. It’ll take a few days to heal, but applying this it’ll get better quicker.” Once he’d finished talking, he took the syringe from the coffee table. I looked away. I didn’t want to watch him prick my skin with that instrument of torture. It was quite enough to imagine it. Beth took my hand. A stinging pain pierced me, and I felt the liquid spreading through my ankle. “That’s it, Miss Preston. Are you okay?” “Just a little dizzy,” I gabbled as I tried to sit up. I raised my head a little and colored lights started dancing around me, as if there was a huge disco ball hanging there. The voices were becoming more and more distant. I felt someone laying me back on the couch again. “She'd better stay here until she recovers,” I heard the doctor say. “Well, you heard the doctor. Stay here until the light-headedness passes.” I closed my eyes, nodding my head slightly. “Your mother is going to freak out when she sees you.” “I’m not going to tell her anything until tomorrow.” “But isn’t she working?” “No, today she’s on nights, so by the time I get home, she'll be on her way here.” Beth was about to argue. “It’s for the best, trust me, I don’t want to worry her about anything.” “Okay,” she said reluctantly “Do you want to go home?” “Yeah, let’s get out of here.” The night seemed colder and darker than ever. I looked at the sky. It was covered in thick cloud. There was no moon, no stars. We were in for a rainy Sunday. Beth helped me get to the car. My foot still hurt horribly, and I could barely put it on the floor. Luckily I had her with me, but I was soon cursing my luck. “Now, you and I are going to talk about what happened this afternoon with Erik.” She wouldn’t leave me alone until I told her all the gory details. I sighed deeply, knowing there was no escape. “Okay. Come for dinner. Since I’ve ruined your date with Daniel, it’s the least I can do, but you’ll have to do the cooking.” I said lifting my leg; “I'm in no condition to do it.” “That’s the worst invitation ever.” she said, pretending to be angry. “I’m only saying yes because I want to know everything, I just want you to be clear about that, okay?” The house was empty, as I’d expected. Mom had left me a note on the refrigerator. She wanted me to call her when I got home. I turned to Beth, who was sprawled on the couch excited about some teleshopping product. “You were supposed to cook, and I was supposed to be resting. That was the deal, right?” “Yes, yes, I'm coming.” She didn’t even bother to look at me. She was still staring at the television “I think I'll get one of those. Look! It’s a miracle bra. It increases your bust by two whole sizes!” I rolled my eyes, shaking my head. That was Beth. “I'll call my mother. You get a couple of pizzas from the freezer and put them in the oven, okay?” She muttered something I didn’t understand. I ignored her and went looking for my mobile. Then I realized I had no backpack. “Shit!” “What have you broken now?” Beth's voice came from the kitchen. “I can’t find my backpack. I must have left it in...” No! I’d been so blinded with Erik I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen my backpack that day. “Where?” Beth came in, wiping her hands on a towel. “I don’t know. How could I be so clueless?” I said desperately. “That’s nothing new. First, calm down. Let's see... You had it when you left home, right?” “Yes, I was wearing it on the trip and then...” Then I realized. “Of course!” “What? Tell me!” “Erik has it… I remember now. When I fell he picked it up and put it over his shoulder. I haven’t seen it since then.” I sighed with relief. I had another excuse to talk to him. Beth lent me her phone. I called Nicole, who quizzed me for ages. I smiled when I hung up. “That smells so good.” I said when I went into the kitchen. “I know. I’m a first rate chef. Voila! Beth had a big smile on her face and a plate in either hand. “I’m so hungry that I’m not going to argue with you, but it’s easy to cook frozen food.” She ignored my comment, put the pizza on the table and sat across from me. “That’s enough small talk. Out with it.” “I can’t talk on an empty stomach,” I joked, but the truth was I didn’t want to remember the disappointment I’d felt that afternoon. “Stop talking nonsense and tell me everything he said, and most important, what he did,” she added maliciously Between bites, I told her every single detail of our conversation. “Wow!” she said when I’d finished my story. “As you can see, now I'm a mess. I thought there was something special between us, and suddenly everything’s changed, I don’t know what happened. Maybe I misunderstood him.” “What are you saying? If what you've told me is true, and I know it is because you don’t have that much imagination, this guy wants to jump on your bones.” Hearing her say that left me speechless. “Come on, you’ve got him eating out of your hand.” “Now you’re the one who’s talking trash.” “No, I’m telling the truth. Listen to me for once in your life. How many guys have you dated?” “Zip. You know that.” I said sullenly. “True. And me?” she replied, looking very pleased with herself. “I don’t count your boyfriends.” “And how many have I had?” “A lot,” I muttered, wondering what this was all about. “So I’m the one who knows about these things. And just as I was right when I said you were in love with him, I'm not wrong now when I say that Mr. Totally Hot is crazy about you.” She was getting more and more excited as she went on with her little speech “Oh, my God! This is right out of a movie. I'm dying of jealousy!” I couldn’t believe what she was saying. Could she be right? I tried to hide my excitement. “Ok, then let’s suppose…” I said, trying to clear my head “…you're right.” “I am,” she stated, interrupting me in mid-sentence. “Okay, so why all the mystery? Why doesn’t he answer my questions? Why was he so cold to me at the end?” “Here’s the answer to all your questions: he’s a man!” she said, looking satisfied. “And that’s it? Being a man is always the answer?” I couldn’t make any sense of this at all. “Purely and simply, honey. Men are strange. But who cares if he has a body to die for and that angel face? Honestly, the last thing I’d worry about is what he says when he opens his mouth.” “Beth! You’re incorrigible!” I gave her a gentle kick under the table “You’re such a man-eater! Sometimes you scare me, you know that?” We burst out laughing. “Now it's your turn,” I said when we’d calmed down a little “What about Daniel?” Then her story replaced mine, luckily. I was glad she was there with me. I was enjoying the night, although my heart was still aching. As much as Beth wanted to convince me, Erik’s words rang through my mind, ‘just friends’. Sunday dawned gray and rainy, matching my mood. It was after ten o'clock in the morning when my mother came to wake me up, much against my will. “Stella, why are you still in bed?” She sounded too cheerful to have been awake all night. When did this woman sleep? She spent all night working and at ten o'clock she was awake. It was incredible. “Let me sleep, mom.” I said, burying my face in the sheets. “Come on, don’t be so lazy. I’ve made breakfast, and,” she added, in a matter-of-fact way, “there’s a handsome young man waiting for you downstairs.” “What?” I jumped out of bed. Did I hear that right? “Say that again, Mom.” “Well, someone called Erik has come to bring your backpack. By the way, I’m sure you can explain why he has it.” Her smile disappeared when she saw my ankle. “What on earth happened to you? Did you have an accident?” “Stop, you’re overreacting. It’s just an inflammation.” I was angry but I knew why she was so worried. Since dad left us it had always been like that. Sometimes she drove me crazy, like now, but I understood her. “I tripped over the root of a tree, silly really, but Beth took me to ER. I'm surprised they didn’t tell you anything last night. Today when you go to work I’m sure you’ll be able to look at my record sheet.” It was useless to explain the whole thing when I knew she’d waste no time in asking all the hospital staff about my injury. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Now she seemed more disappointed than worried. I tried to play it down. “I didn’t want to worry you. You had to go to work and if I’d told you, I'm sure you would have stayed at home, and today you would’ve had to work a double shift. Or am I wrong?” She rolled her eyes without saying a word “Mom, I'm fine. I'm a big girl; I can take care of myself.” “I know,” she sighed. “We’d better leave this conversation for later, that poor boy has been waiting quite a while already.” I drew a mental picture of Erik in my living room. I had to see him. I ran to the closet. I took a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and I went straight to the bathroom. I took a shower quickly, without drying my hair. I could feel the drops of water running down my back when I went downstairs, very slowly because of my sore foot. My heart shrank when I peered into the living room. He was gone. He’d got tired of waiting. ‘Damn,’ I thought. I’d taken too long. I heard my mother pottering around in the kitchen, laughing. Was she laughing alone? No; more soft, melodious laughter joined hers. Erik was in the kitchen. I leaned against the door frame in silence, watching him for a few seconds. He was sitting with his back to me, his tousled hair brightened by the sun. I wanted to touch and kiss that neck. “Hello,” I said without knowing what to do next. I was so nervous that my hands were trembling and sweating uncontrollably. “Hello.” He turned to me and gave me a radiant look with those eyes that seemed to hold the whole blue sky. My entire body reacted. My heart was pounding in my chest, my lungs were hyperventilating and my legs were trembling, as were my hands. “Come on, honey. Sit down and have some breakfast,” I heard my mother say. I’d forgotten she was there. She walked me to the free chair opposite my angel. “Mom, I can do it by myself!” I protested, feeling embarrassed when she moved the chair so I could sit down. Erik beamed at us. He seemed to be in a better mood today. “I'm going out for a moment,” my mother said with a smile. “I need... Well; it doesn’t matter, I’ll leave you two alone for a while so you can talk.” I thought I was hallucinating. She was breaking her own rules, and she seemed to be delighted with the visit. I’d never brought boys home. She didn’t ask me, but I was sure she was concerned. And now, here was Erik, no ordinary boy, he was perfect, friendly, and incredibly handsome. “Your mother’s lovely,” he said when we were alone. “Yes, I know.” I moved the plate of toast aside and took a glass of juice. “Aren’t you going to eat anything?” he asked. “I'm not hungry.” He shook his head like he didn’t understand me. How was I supposed to eat with him watching me? My stomach rumbled loudly. “I don’t think that's entirely true.” He pushed the toast over to me again. “Eat something or I’ll leave.” I started to eat without saying a word. I didn’t want him to leave and I think I made that clear by wolfing down the whole breakfast. He kept quiet while I ate, fiddling with his napkin. When I’d finished, I decided to break the silence. “Thanks for bringing me the backpack. Last night I panicked a little when I saw didn’t have it.” “I thought you might. I was going to bring it round yesterday but it was late and I reckoned you’d be sleeping. And also, I wanted...” He hesitated for a moment before going on; “I wanted to apologize for being so rude to you.” It sounded like he’d been rehearsing his lines. Apart from his hesitation at first, I didn’t see the signs of strain that I had the previous evening. Instead he looked relaxed, comfortable, even though the conversation was drifting onto thorny ground. “Apology accepted, but it doesn’t mean I understand you,” I said, twirling a strand of hair round my finger. I tried to sound casual to prevent him running out on me again. He took the hair I had between my fingers and placed it behind my ear. I blushed and felt short of breath. “You have beautiful hair,” he whispered. His touch lingered a little too long; he ran his hand through my hair slowly until his fingertips caressed my neck. I shuddered. The hairs on my arms stood up. I rolled my eyes, enjoying the pleasure of his touch. “I’m back!” I heard my mom call out as she closed the door loudly, bringing me back to reality. I opened my eyes. Erik slowly took his hand away. His gaze went right through me. “I think I should go.” he whispered, glancing at the kitchen clock. I got the feeling that he wanted to leave about as much as I wanted him to. “Do you have any plans for next Saturday?” he added quickly; as if he’d been waiting too long to ask me. “I don’t know. Read something or go to the movies, I really don’t know. Why?” “Because after yesterday's little effort I think I deserve a reward and I thought we could do something together, if you like.” He winked at me as only he knew how. I melted like butter. “Reading on the couch or going out with you... Hmm. Let me think about it,” I joked to avoid showing the devastating effect his winks and his looks were having on me. He came closer. We were standing near the kitchen door. “Only as friends,” he whispered in my ear, so close I could feel the warmth of his breath on my skin. “Friends,” I murmured, not knowing whether my feet were touching the ground or I was in heaven. “Movies.” “Whatever you want. Your wish is my command,” he replied, trying to sound like the genie of the lamp. I laughed. I had to admit he could be quite funny if he wanted to. But I‘d just discovered that side of him. I loved it, like everything else. We were going towards the door, when I saw Erik stop to look at the photos stuck with magnets on the refrigerator in the kitchen. “Is this your father?” he asked, pointing at a photo from three years before. “Last vacations with my father.” I felt a pinch in my stomach at the memory. How happy I’d been. How could I have imagined what my future would hold? Just a few months later, after that summer, my world fell apart. Erik must have noticed the sadness in my eyes, which were shining as I held back the tears. He came up to me again, stroking my cheek. “I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” “That’s okay,” I spluttered, wiping away my tears “I just can’t get used to the idea of my dad not being around.” “It must be very hard for you.” With a sudden movement I didn’t expect, he drew me to him. He was squeezing me tightly against his chest “I want to let you know you can always count on me. I'll always be here for you, okay?” He lifted my chin with his soft fingers, forcing me to look into his eyes, waiting for a response. I nodded silently. I didn’t talk about my feelings about my father’s death to anyone. Even to Beth or my mother. I didn’t want to burden them, and also, there was nothing they could do to help me. Carl wasn’t coming back, even if I wished with all my might. Erik was different. He comforted me. My grief flowed easily while he hugged me. I made an attempt to talk without my voice trembling. “Movies on Saturday.” I said, as he moved slightly away from me. Better go back to a neutral topic. “Perfect.” I could see his eyes were also misting up with sadness. As if talking about my memories had brought on his own. “They’re showing a new sci-fi film.” A big smile spread across his face, bringing joy to his eyes. “Sounds good!” he agreed, heading for the door. “See you tomorrow then.” “Bye… and thanks again for bringing me my backpack,” I said, brimming with happiness. He touched my arm to say goodbye. My breathing quickened and an uncontrollable urge made me put my hand over his and hold it against my skin, reveling in the pleasure of his closeness. He hesitated to let me go, but finally he did. Something had changed in him permanently, I didn’t know why, but I saw it in his eyes. They had a special light, a different hue to them. I stood still, leaning against the doorway, unable to move as I watched him walk confidently to his powerful car. He looked at me once he was inside. I felt the electricity running through my skin again. The car disappeared down the street. Then I realized what I’d done. I had a date with Erik! The most attractive and wonderful guy in the world had asked me out on a date; me! I collapsed onto the kitchen chair, my legs almost giving way. THE DATE “A lot becomes a little just by wanting a little more.” Francisco de Quevedo The countdown to my date with Erik had begun and without even noticing we were in the last week before Christmas vacation. It had been a memorable week; it was like I was floating, and my feet weren’t touching the ground. I was totally crazy about Erik and I’d started to think that he felt the same way. On Monday my angel was waiting for me at Lit class. Beth gave him the place next to me in class and she sat at the empty desk next to Daniel. During lunch Erik had joined our group, chatting with everyone, joking with Thomas, debating with Megan and kidding with Beth and Daniel. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could experience the happiness I felt with Erik beside me. It was a strange sensation, as if a part of me had always been waiting for him. I finally felt complete, satisfied. He didn’t miss the occasional opportunity to stroke my hair, hold my hand or gently touch my cheek with his fingers. But he didn’t hug me like he did that Sunday, and his lips never touched my skin again. I didn’t worry about that slight distancing, but what if this didn’t go right? The way we’d connected was very powerful, so we didn’t need to make it more complicated with kisses and caresses. Although I was dying for them, it helped me to think that way. “If it weren’t for the way he looks at you, I’d say he was gay!” Beth snapped bluntly, while we were on our way to math class on Friday. “Don’t be mean. He’s not like everyone else. He’s not in a hurry.” “Yeah sure, and I’m joining a convent. Wake up! Guys don’t think with their heads. They follow their impulses. Here and now, that's all that interests them. I don’t know; there’s something about him that makes me suspicious.” “We’re just friends,” I said by way of explanation. “Ok. But Thomas is your friend too and you don’t eat him up with your eyes.” We’d arrived in class and I had to resist the urge to answer her when I saw our Math teacher looking at us reproachfully. I didn’t want to think about what Beth had said for longer than necessary, but it had already gotten to me, raising a doubt in my mind. Would Erik regret going on a date with me? Was I pushing him too hard? Anxiety was gripping my throat. I tried to take a deep breath, but the air didn’t go further than my nose. The class went on forever. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and talk to him. I needed to dispel my doubts and I knew I’d only be able to do it by looking into his eyes. I couldn’t see him. Although I looked everywhere for him when the class ended I couldn’t find him. I went to the street searching for his car. It wasn’t there. He’d gone. We hadn’t arranged anything for the next day. What was I supposed to do? Should I wait until he showed up at my door again? The cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I took it out quickly, wanting to hear the one voice I wanted to hear at that time. I wasn’t disappointed. “Stella?” “Yes, it’s me.” I noticed the furious beating of my heart in my throat. “I had to leave early because of... family problems, so I called to find out what time you want me to pick you up tomorrow.” “Oh,” I said stupidly. The doubts were gone, as if by magic, just by hearing the sweet melody of his voice. “What about five?” I said at last. “Sounds good. Is something wrong?” He’d noticed my voice, of course. “I'm fine. Relax, nothing’s wrong,” I said hastily. “Perfect; on point as you say round here! I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Okay. See you tomorrow.” I was back up in the clouds. My little balloon of bliss, which Beth had deflated with her stupid assumptions, started to fly high again. Nicole was in the garden when I got home. I ran to my room after saying a brief hello. The next day would finally be the great day. Erik and I would be alone together. I started rummaging through my closet looking for something nice. Nothing too formal. We weren’t going to dinner, to the theater or anything. It was just an afternoon movie. I went for a denim skirt, which went well with my cowboy boots and a tailored white shirt. I nodded with satisfaction at what I saw in the mirror. I left the clothes on a chair, ready for the next day. I looked at my bed and let out a sigh. The entire contents of my closet, and half of my mother’s, were scattered all over my bed. I started to pick them up before Nicole saw the mess I’d made with her clothes. My mother spent the whole dinner looking at me suspiciously, asking me trivial questions, which I answered unenthusiastically, but over dessert she decided to go on the attack. “Tomorrow you're going out with that cute guy, right?” “His name is Erik,” I replied without looking at her, on the defensive. “Do you like…” “Yes, the chicken’s delicious,” I replied, taking a piece and putting into my mouth, avoiding her question. “Don’t be silly. I’m talking about Erik. You like him, right?” “I think so,” I mumbled. “Woo! My daughter has found her Prince Charming.” “I don’t believe in Charming Princes, their charms have all faded, except for Erik,” I smiled sheepishly. I knew my mother would understand what I was going through, but I was still too ashamed to talk openly about my feelings for him. “You’re just like your dad, too realistic.” I started to answer, but she interrupted me. “Okay, don’t worry, I’ll leave you alone. Just one more thing, don’t get too involved, because if something goes wrong...” “Really, mom, I don’t understand you. Do you want me to go out with Erik or not?” I interrupted, as she toyed with a piece of chicken. If my mother had known how obsessed I was with Erik, I think she’d have had a heart attack. “I want whatever you do to make you happy. That's what matters. And if this guy makes you happy, go ahead, I’m just asking you to be careful.” She got up from her chair and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead. “Thanks, Mom.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Do you want more chicken?” “No, don’t worry, I’ll clear up.” I got up and began to take the dishes to the sink “You must be tired and I’m on vacation. Go to bed.” “Okay. Good night, honey.” I kissed her again and hugged her tight. I spent the night drifting between dreams and nightmares. I woke up constantly to look at the clock, eager to see how the walls of my room were turning pink as the pale light of dawn announced the start of a new day. I woke up quickly when I heard the sound of the door closing. I went down to have breakfast, still half-asleep. My mother had gone to work. She’d been working too many weekends without rest. I shook my head. ‘She works too hard,’ I thought, as I had so many times before. I gave thanks for the list of chores Nicole had left written on a piece of paper. I’d be busy all morning. That was great. My nerves wouldn’t let me eat. I tried to take a bath to relax a little, but it didn’t work. I busied myself drying my hair. I didn’t usually wear makeup, but a little mascara on my lashes and lip gloss made me look presentable. At last minute I decided to wear different clothes. I chose a light dress with small flowers, which matched my boots; I knew I’d look great. It was going to be cold, but what did that matter? I looked in the mirror and liked what I saw. The phone rang in my bag. I was sitting on the couch, clipping my nails, looking at my watch constantly, waiting for it to get to five o’clock. There were only a couple of minutes to go. I looked at the phone without picking it up. It was Beth. She could wait. I didn’t want to get even more nervous than I already was. I still couldn’t believe this was real. What did Erik see in me? What strange miracle had led him to focus his interest on someone like me? Did he also feel that electricity running through his body as I did when he was near? The phone rang again. I answered it, knowing that Beth wouldn’t leave me alone all afternoon if I didn’t. “Hi, Beth.” “What’s up? Got any plans for this afternoon?” I don’t know why, but I told her about my date with Erik. “What?! How?!” I immediately regretted it. “I‘ll tell you everything tomorrow, okay?” “No! No way! I’ll never forgive you for this. How could you not tell me all week? You're so mean! By the way, we’re tagging along too.” “Tagging along?” I asked, knowing the answer before I heard it. “Going to the movies with you, silly.” I listened as she told Daniel, who was obviously with her. “Daniel and I are on our way. See you there. It’ll be a great double date.” “Beth, Wait!” “See you. Ciao.” She hung up and left me with the phone in my hand, like a fool. She’d done it. I was even more nervous now, if that was possible. I started massaging my temples, my head about to explode. The doorbell caught me by surprise. After waiting so long for this moment now, thanks to the Beth’s little intervention, I was caught off guard. “You look beautiful,” said Erik, when I opened the door. He looked me up and down and got me blushing on the spot. “You don’t look so bad yourself.” I wanted to play things down, because if we started with comparisons, he won hands down. His hair was disheveled, as usual. He was wearing dark blue jeans, a white shirt and brown leather jacket. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a designer store window display. I lost myself in his blue sea when my eyes met his. It was a delicious sensation. “Shall we go?” he suggested, offering me his arm. Without thinking twice, I accepted his offer and held him close. Then I remembered Beth. I should tell him before we met up with them. “Beth and Daniel are waiting for us at the movies.” A look of disappointment crossed his face. He was pensive, as if he was analyzing my words. I needed to know what he was thinking. Maybe he thought I didn’t want to be alone with him; nothing could have been further from the truth. I decided to make that clear, just in case. “I'm sorry; Beth gave me no choice. She called me and when she knew we were going to the movies she invited herself.” I sighed in resignation. “Hmm.” He was still immersed in his thoughts: “I'm thinking…” he said finally, “that I don’t want to see that movie any more. Do you mind?” “It doesn’t matter. If you don’t want to come, I'll understand.” I agreed sadly. “I don’t mean that I don’t want to go, I don’t want us to go.” he replied, emphasizing the “us”. “I don’t want to share you with anyone tonight.” I froze. The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering desperately. “So...” I was so emotional that I couldn’t finish the sentence. He finished it for me. “I want us to go alone somewhere quiet where we can talk without your lunatic friend butting in the whole time.” I was totally knocked sideways, as always when he showed any interest in me. I looked at the floor, avoiding his eyes. My pulse was on fire when his fingers brushed my chin. He lifted my face, looking at me with those eyes like sapphires. “What do you think? Shall we forget the cinema and go somewhere else?” “Yes.” I whispered, in a small voice, swallowing hard. “I don’t want to share you either.” “Perfect.” He waved his hand in the direction of his car. “Go ahead,” he said, opening the door of his shiny black Audi like a gentleman. I was floating. I felt like a princess in a fairy tale. My prince smiled at me from his seat. “I don’t know the town very well, so I'm open to suggestions.” His lips were still curled into a beaming smile. “There isn’t much you can do here, apart from going to the movies, an option that we’ve completely ruled out. So, how about a hot chocolate?” I couldn’t think of anything better, especially if what we wanted to have some peace and quiet. “Whatever you like.” We drove most of the way in silence, speaking just enough to show him the way to the cafeteria we were going to. Today was my chance to get to know everything about Erik, but I didn’t dare satisfy my curiosity until we sat at a table in the small restaurant. “You said you don’t know the town very well. Where are you from exactly?” I started to ask. “From the North.” he said dryly. That didn’t make things any clearer. “But, where exactly? Alaska?” “No, a little further away.” he said, smiling like I’d just said the funniest thing ever. “Iceland.” “Wow! That’s pretty far! And how did you end up here, on the other side of the world?” ‘Luckily for me,’ I added mentally. “My parents,” he answered, hesitating slightly; “thought it would be good for me to see the world, you know, to get to know different cultures and,” he hesitated again; “they sent me here to study.” “Sounds like a Science project.” I said mockingly; “I feel like a human guinea pig.” He smiled at my nonsense. “And? Is our culture worthy of your interest?” I ventured, jokingly. I was feeling more comfortable. “You’re worthy of my interest,” he said gazing at me; “and worthy of more.” The blood went to my face and colored my cheeks, my heart overflowing. “Why do you think I’m so interesting?” I wanted to put my cards on the table once and for all. I felt his blue eyes piercing my skin. “It's obvious, isn’t it?” “I'd rather hear it from you,” I insisted. I didn’t understand what all the mystery was about. His attitude implied that he liked me, but why it was so hard to tell me? “I doubt that,” he murmured, with a faraway look in his eyes. His answers puzzled me. “When you get like that, there’s no understanding you.” We were talking about the same stuff yet again. “Well we’d better talk about something else.” He laid his eyes on the steaming cup of chocolate he had in from of him “What happened to your father?” “You know that's not a good topic.” Why did he get the answers and I had to wait? I was upset. Of course it didn’t last long. My anger vanished as if by magic when his hand gently stroked mine. It was a magical second. I didn’t even dare to breathe so as not to break the moment. “There’s a lot of sadness in you; I see it in your eyes. You'll feel better if you share it.” “Thanks, but really, I don’t want to talk about it.” I didn’t want to wallow in sad memories or get angry with him. Did I really care so much about why he was interested in me? The only really important thing is that he was here with me now, period. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” I asked cautiously. “What do you want to know?” “I don’t know… What do you do when you're not in class? In your spare time I mean.” “Read, watch TV, go for walks in good company,” he said winking at me, almost giving me a cardiac arrest. “I don’t know. I like a lot of things. I’m quite restless. But lately I have one preference over all the others.” he said squeezing my hand with his, making me feel like molten iron between his fingers. His skin was warm, pleasant. It felt like silk on my skin. He started drawing small circles on the palm of my hand with his fingertips. I thought I was going mad. He should be thankful that I was quite a retrained person, or I would have pounced on him right there and eaten him alive with kisses. I concentrated on each and every one of the sensations I was experiencing. I looked and saw he was looking at our clasped hands. He had a strange expression on his face, as if he was witnessing something miraculous. “What are you thinking about?” I asked, trying to prize him out of his thoughts. “Shakespeare.” Now I was completely lost. “Shakespeare? I don’t get it. Is everyone in Iceland as mysterious as you?” “No,” he said cheerfully “I’m weird even in my country.” That calmed me down a little. Erik was aware that sometimes he behaved strangely. “Are you going to tell me why you’re thinking about Shakespeare?” “I was thinking more about the things you told me when we were doing the Lit assignment,” he said, quietly measuring his words. “You got angry with me.” “Yes, you said things I didn’t want to hear,” he said, still stroking the back of my hand “I ... I'm not ready for this.” “And who is?” “You seem very sure of yourself, of what you’re saying. Have you ever fallen in love?” “No,” I swallowed, “Until now.” His face lit up with a radiant smile which filled my heart with happiness. I was terrified, being so open with him, but I was totally his. I wasn’t in control of anything, especially of my heart. It beat only for him and because of him. “And what are you feeling now?” I knew that would be his next question before I even heard it. “I think Shakespeare fell short in his descriptions,” I answered evasively. “You're afraid.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. “Why do you say that?” “Because you don’t want to put a name to what you feel,” he stated triumphantly. I was amazed. Were my feelings so exposed to him? What gave him the right to judge me so easily? I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me once and for all. “What about you? Can you tell me what you feel?” I looked at him defiantly “Can you put a name to it?” My questions affected him more than he wanted to let on. He remained calm, with a fixed smile on his lips. A fixed grin, a mask. I waited, happy because I was the one who was making him feel uncomfortable for once. I hadn’t realized until then how his eyes told me more than his words did. “I'd better take you home.” That was the last thing I was expecting to hear. He let go of my hand and was wearing his mask of indifference. His eyes were like two icebergs sunk into his face. “Why so early?” I was furious. Why could he expose my feelings and I couldn’t do the same with him? It wasn’t fair. I blushed, but this time from anger and helplessness: he was getting away with it again. “Let’s just leave it at that. We’ve talked enough nonsense for today.” I was going crazy. Just when I’d had the situation under control, or so I thought, it all backfired on me. What was Erik hiding in his heart that just by getting close to him, he had to push me away? The uncertainty was worse than the loneliness. I was lying in bed, analyzing what had happened. There was no way of understanding what was going on with Erik. He was always the one looking for me, and then he rejected me. This time I wasn’t going to give in. This time he'd have to give me an explanation. Sunday morning went by unnoticed. I didn’t want to answer the calls from Beth. The last thing I wanted was to talk about my pathetic afternoon with Erik. I had enough with not being able to stop thinking about him. Nicole was pottering around the house humming some old song. She suggested, then bullied me into going for a walk, making the most of the calm, clear-skied evening. We walked around the outskirts of town. I loved to walk at that time of day. The smell of wet grass brought back happy memories from the afternoons I’d spent with my father. It was cold, but it was nice to be away from home for a while. Within the four walls of my room everything was much more depressing. “What about your date with Erik?” “Mom, do we have to talk about it?” “Sorry, darling, I just wanted to start a conversation.” The joy disappeared from her eyes, making me feel terrible. “No, I’m sorry. Let's talk about whatever you want except for Erik, okay? Today ... I'm not in the mood.” “Okay. Let's talk about your plans for next year. Have you thought about which universities you want to apply to?” That was better. I rambled on as much as I could, so she didn’t have a chance to change the subject. The sun was leaving its last orange strokes on the clouds when we got home. In the end it was a good evening. Lately, thanks to my mother’s job and my exams, we hadn’t done anything together for too long. The walk was good for me. I was calmer and more relaxed. I came to the conclusion that it was stupid and selfish for me to get angry with Erik. After all, he’d warned me: 'Just friends'. I didn’t know what I would face when I saw him again. Only one thing was for sure, Erik was hiding something. A secret. And it was clear that I was close to guessing it. That explained his mood swings. ‘I’ll find out in the end.’ And with that thought I closed my eyes and fell asleep. CONFESSIONS “Love is a mystery. Everything about it is the most inexplicable phenomenon, everything about it is illogical, and everything about it is vague and absurd.” Gustavo Adolfo Becquer I took my time getting dressed when I got out of the shower. I still had my hair wrapped in a towel when someone pounded on the door of my room. It was Beth. I knew it without opening the door. “You!” she shouted pointing a finger at me, opening the door wide. “You can start talking!” She was mad. “And you better have a good story, for the sake of our friendship.” She crossed her arms, leaning against the doorframe. “I'm sorry,” I pouted. It always worked and this time was no different. She relaxed slightly, hiding a smile. “Tell me about it, and I want the complete version, with all the details, ok?” “I don’t have much to say. Erik wanted to be alone with me.” I tried to look sincere. After all, it was true. Her face changed one hundred percent. Every trace of anger disappeared, replaced by total curiosity. “This sounds promising.” She came into my room and sat quickly on the bed. “By the way, it wouldn’t have hurt to call to let me know; I would’ve even settled for a text message.” I raised an eyebrow. She was lying. “Are you sure?” We started to laugh while we went into the bathroom so I could finish getting ready. “So… What did you get up to, the two of you, all on your own?” she asked slyly. “You’re barking up the wrong tree.” “Well that’s usually the right tree to bark up.” “For you, maybe!” I said sharply. The slap she gave me on the leg was to be expected. “We just talked, trying to get to know each other better.” “My God! All this talking! If you carry on like that, you'll know him better than you know your mother. And you call that a date?” She gave an exaggerated snort “He’s gay, for sure!” “Shut up!” I shouted, throwing the comb I had in my hand. She was crazy, but I adored her. “Ready.” I took one last look in the mirror. We’d finished classes, but today we had a tutorial. We had to start making the arrangements for graduation. “I don’t know why you care so much. If you were wearing a potato sack, Erik would be looking at you with big cow eyes.” “Don’t be dumb.” “You don’t see it because you’re inside the cloud that’s around the two of you.” she explained, suddenly getting all serious “And you act stupid whenever the Viking Hunk appears. We've all noticed.” I elbowed her playfully and we went happily on our way to school. It felt good to be with this nutcase of a girl. As we walked, she spent the whole time pulling faces, imitating mine every time Erik appeared. We laughed long and hard for a good while. I glimpsed the school building in the distance and immediately I began to sweat. It was time to face him again, although I wasn’t sure if I was going to see him. It wasn’t compulsory to attend the meeting, so he probably wouldn’t come. But what if he did? Should I keep my distance until he came to me, or should I be the one to make the first move? I was full of doubts. I walked through the gym door and saw him. The vision I had of him was painfully beautiful. His golden hair was matted, framing his angelic face. His eyes were on me. I shuddered when the cold of his gaze met mine. The meeting was slow and boring. When it finished, Erik disappeared. My blood froze in my veins as I understood what that meant. It was all over, without even getting started. Beth pulled me out of my paralysis with a nudge. We went to the cafeteria. We needed something to warm us up after an hour in the cold gym. “We need to talk.” I heard a voice behind me. I didn’t answer, I didn’t breathe; I thought it was a hallucination of my sick mind. I turned slowly and there he was in all his glory. He was leaning on the back of my chair. I nodded, unable to utter a word. He reached out a hand. I took it hesitantly but happily, feeling my body recharging with that electricity which made my heart pump. “Shall we go for a stroll?” “If you want to,” I answered without looking at him. My mind was working fast. He wanted to talk to me, but if it was something bad, we certainly wouldn’t be holding hands like this. When we got outside he stopped a few feet from me, his blue eyes sparkling like a sunlit sea. “You were right.” “Really?” I said timorously, not daring to ask him what he was referring to. “Yes. I’m afraid of what I feel for you.” I was dazed. I think I even stopped breathing. Was he going to ask me to go out with him? Was that it? I’d been waiting for this to happen for so long and now I didn’t know if I was ready. I listened carefully to what he said. “When I saw you for the first time something uncontrollable drew me to you, as if you were a magnet.” I was about to speak, to tell him that the same thing had happened to me, but he stopped me with his hand. “Let me finish or I don’t know if I'll have the strength to tell you what I have to say again.” My skin prickled and my heart began to beat furiously “I feel an irresistible urge to be with you, to know all of you, to hear your voice, to lose myself in your honey-golden eyes, to feel the warmth of your skin... I don’t think I can live without you.” He leaned slowly towards me, bringing his face close to mine, fixing me with his penetrating gaze. My heart somersaulted. I felt his soft hands caressing my cheeks. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my skin. His lips got a little closer, until they brushed mine. I was in seventh heaven. The taste of his mouth was sweet as his voice. All this in just seconds, but that kiss contained all the tenderness the world could offer. I wanted more but he pulled away slowly, resting his forehead against mine. My breathing was ragged, like his. “This complicates everything.” he whispered, sliding his lips along my cheek. I was fainting with happiness. Why was wanting to be together so complicated? We wouldn’t be the first or the last couple in the world. A thought struck my mind like lightning: Why hadn’t I thought of it before? “Do you have a girlfriend?” I blurted out. His face was the picture of surprise. “No,” he said very seriously. “Why?” “Well, because of the way you’re acting and what you just said, that we’re complicating everything. I don’t know, I just thought that might be the reason.” From the way he looked at me, I realized how incoherent my reasoning sounded. He laughed. He didn’t say anything, but pulled me closer to him. He wrapped his arms round my waist and hugged me. I could feel his chest heaving as he laughed. “What’s so funny?” I was starting to feel ridiculous. “You’re so naive! I love it.” He slid his hands down my back and whispered in my ear: “Don’t ever change.” “Even if I say stupid stuff like that?” I looked at him suspiciously. I didn’t know if he was serious or if he was kidding. “Especially because you say stupid stuff like that.” He smoothed my hair back. I didn’t know what else to say. Right then, words were irrelevant. I just felt the warmth of his embrace, leaning my head on his chest. I half-closed my eyes and let myself get carried away by the delicious pleasure of his fingers down my back. Time went fast, but I wasn’t aware of it. I could have spent my whole life like that. I recalled his words again and again, savoring them. Erik was also right about my fears. He’d just opened up his heart and I couldn’t open mine completely. Only a few words were needed to express what I felt for him. But once I’d said them, there’d be no turning back. My words stuck in my throat. My body was fighting inside. I wanted to tell him what he meant to me, but a small part of me was afraid of what might happen if I laid bare my feelings for him. “You don’t need to say anything.” I jumped at what I’d just said. Had I thought out loud? His voice was sweet as a melody “You’re tense. Stop thinking about what you're going to say. I know how you feel about me; I see it in your eyes.” So that’s what it was. He could feel my tension and interpreted it correctly. It scared me how incredibly close we’d just been. People say that when you spend many years sharing your life with another person, you can communicate with just a look. Erik and I had taken a few days to get to that point. “I want to tell you,” I said, turning away a little to see his face and especially his eyes. He looked happy. “I owe it to you. You were honest with me and you deserve the same from me. It's only fair.” “In this life nothing’s fair.” I saw a flash of bitterness in his blue eyes “You don’t owe me anything. When you're ready I'll be here to listen. But only when you really want to tell me, don’t feel you have to do it.” “I love you.” The sound of my voice scared me, but I felt a sort of instant relief. It was as if a great weight had fallen from my shoulders. I didn’t think, I’d just got carried away and the words came out. He squeezed me hard against his chest again. I could hardly breathe. His voice whispered my name again and again, with his head buried in my hair. The school bell tore us from our little bubble of happiness. There were no classes but the bell rang. As if a simple tutorial needed a formal announcement like that. There couldn’t be anyone around at that time of day. “Do you want to go and find the others?” “No.” He gave me a big smile as I held his hand. “Let's go.” His face was lit by a special light that made it even more beautiful. What had I done to deserve this angel? I squeezed his hand hard, fearing that if I let it go he would disappear and everything would go back to how it was before. We sat on a bench in a small, lonely park. “Now, can you tell me more about your life?” “What else do you want to know, besides the fact that you are my life?” My legs trembled when I heard him say that. Luckily we were sitting down and he didn’t notice. “Tell me about your family.” He paused to think before answering, as he usually did whenever he talked about himself. Was he being honest with me? Again I had the feeling that Erik was hiding something. “My parents live in Iceland, as you know. I moved here a few months ago. You know that too.” He was right, he wasn’t telling me anything new. It seemed as if he’d learned a script and didn’t want to stray off it “I live in a small house outside town that my parents have rented for a while.” He was uncomfortable. He didn’t like talking about his life. ‘Strange, very strange,’ I thought. But even worse, I didn’t just think it, I also whispered it. “What’s strange?” He plucked my words out of the air. “You,” I said without thinking. Unlike him, I just came out with the first thing that came into my head when I was with him. “I have a feeling you're hiding something. What is there in your life that you don’t want to let me into?” I could see in his face that I was right. “Erik, are you okay?” I asked, worried when he didn’t react. He was starting to scare me; he looked petrified. Then the roar of an engine caught my attention. Without giving me time to say anything he stood up, as if he wanted to hide me with his body. Like he was protecting me. Why? I saw no danger, only a bike like his. I gasped at the sight. It wasn’t like his bike. It was his bike! I’d seen it on the first day of class. It was the same bike which was there that night after work. Now I was the one who was petrified. What did it all mean? Wasn’t Erik the strange rider? Who was it? Erik's body was tense as the bike stopped a few yards from us. I couldn’t do anything, I was unable to react. “Luke,” Erik said with a nod. “Erik,” said the rider, taking off his helmet, one foot on the ground without getting off the motorcycle. “I was looking for you.” If Erik was my best dream, that biker had become my worst nightmare, and they knew each other too. But why was Erik reacting like that? My curiosity was stronger than my fear and I watched leaning to one side, trying to see who this guy Luke was. “Ah!” I covered my mouth with my hands. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. They were the same! They were identical! Well, almost identical. The rider didn’t have Erik’s golden brown hair, his was red. But the eyes, mouth, jaw... they were twins. Now I knew why I’d thought it was Erik that night. In the dark the few differences between them had gone unnoticed. “What’s she doing with you?” frowned the red-haired rider. “None of your business,” said Erik rudely. I couldn’t speak; I was astonished; I could only watch them. Maybe I could tie some loose ends together now. “Don’t be so sure. You know what’ll happen if they find out about this?” Luke pointed a finger at me. I thought that maybe their parents wouldn’t be happy that Erik was wasting his time with me, given his threatening tone of voice. “They don’t have to know, nothing’s happened.” Erik’s tension was increasing; you could hear it in his voice. “Really?” Luke replied with a mischievous smile as he leaned over to see me better. “Wait! I know you.” he added closing his eyes, the same blue as my angel’s, but murkier. He didn’t look like a guy to be trusted. “I see you're still looking for dangerous situations.” He rested his gaze on Erik again “She’s a curious girl, but I still don’t understand why you insist on risking so much. You know how all this is going to end.” “It doesn’t have to be like that.” Erik's voice sounded tortured. I couldn’t see his face but I imagined his eyes were like ice. “You know there’s no choice.” I heard something like begging in the rider’s voice. I was totally creeping out. Apart from the surprise of discovering that the boy of my dreams had a twin, nothing else made any sense. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Why was it so wrong that Erik and I were together? I needed to know. “What's going on here? Erik, what's this all about?” I got up and I tried to move to look into his eyes, but his arms held me on his back with a strength that I couldn’t fight. “Please Luke,” Erik went on, ignoring my questions. “Let me handle this my way. You don’t understand. This is different.” “Well, I just see a pretty face, like so many others,” said the biker. “I'm not going to argue with you anymore; besides who are you to give me orders?” Erik's voice had changed. Now it was authoritative, firm. “We'll talk later. Now keep your mouth shut, for your own good.” The threat was serious. I felt a shiver running down my spine. “Hey, calm down!” Luke put his helmet on and started his bike up, filling the silence of the park with a deafening noise. “I only came to warn you. The rest is up to you.” He looked at me again and I could feel the coldness of his eyes through the dark glass of his helmet. He accelerated and disappeared down the road as quickly as he’d come. “I think you owe me an explanation.” I stood in front of him with my arms crossed. I was confused by what had just happened, but I was furious because I didn’t understand anything. This time he was going to tell me everything. I wanted the truth. “Can we leave it for another day?” He wasn’t looking at me. He looked… embarrassed? Yes, I think he was embarrassed by the situation. “No!” I said abruptly, “Not this time. Apparently this has something to do with me, so I'm entitled to know the truth. Or maybe you should listen to your ‘buddy,’ I added, emphasizing the last word. “What do you mean by listening to Luke?” Again that mask gripped his face. I hated to see him like this. It made me feel far away from him even if he was right next to me. But my decision was firm. “Well if you’re not going to tell me what's happening, we can’t go on.” It took a lot of effort to control the tone of my voice. I don’t like hypocrites. I couldn’t imagine being without him. The beating of my heart, shattered at the sound of my own words, had become a mere reflex, a routine, mechanical act. Whether I would feel these palpitations ever again depended on his decision. “I'll take you home. It's late and I'd rather you weren’t alone.” “I don’t need a guard dog.” I spoke against my better judgment, blinded by rage at my own ignorance. I wanted to hold on to him with all my strength but that wouldn’t get us anywhere. I should end this before it was too late. Or maybe it was too late. I started walking, very slowly because of my ankle, which still hurt when I overdid it. I heard his footsteps behind me. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” “I'm sorry, but I won’t let you get away from me.” “Are you threatening me?” I didn’t like the tone of his voice. “Of course not! How could you even think that?” His mask fell away. His face looked shrunken, anxious; his eyes were clear and sincere. “So, what’s so dangerous?” “I didn’t say that...” “Erik please, stop lying to me. You didn’t even tell me you had a twin brother. How do you expect me to trust you after that? I need the truth once and for all.” He hesitated. He seemed to be thinking what to do. When he looked at me I saw determination in his eyes. I knew that at last he was going to reveal his secret. THE SECRET “He who seeks the truth runs the risk of finding it.” Manuel Vicent “Me,” he admitted ruefully. “What about you?” He was supposed to be making things clearer for me and this only seemed to make things more complicated. “I’m the danger.” I was stunned. Erik was the danger? Why? “I’d better take you home. I don’t want to talk about it in the street.” He took my hand again. The torrent of emotions I was feeling was totally contradictory. I wanted to be with him more than anything in the world, but I was terrified of what he was about to confess. We walked slowly, as if we wanted to stretch out the short walk. Our heads were bowed and we walked in silence, our gently caressing hands doing our talking for us. “Is your mother at home?” he asked, glancing in through the kitchen window when we were outside the house. “No, she’s working.” ‘Thank God,’ I thought, because I had the impression that my mother would have been the perfect excuse not to explain anything. We went inside. I went straight to the couch. My ankle was beginning to swell up again and sharp twinges of pain pierced my skin. I was a little disappointed when Erik didn’t sit next to me, but grabbed a dining room chair instead, marking a clear distance between us. He had that faraway look in his eyes. His body was sitting here in front of me, but his mind was somewhere else. I couldn’t stand the silence. My nerves were eating me from inside, like a worm in an apple, but I didn’t want to push him. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. His body was rigid, his face stony, his lips pursed in a thin line and the icy sea-blue of his eyes were clear signs that warned me that what he was going to say wasn’t going to be pleasant, that was for sure. He didn’t look like the angel I’d dreamed about. Right know his expression was similar to the biker’s. I didn’t like what I saw. I was scared. “Now.” His voice echoed through the silent room “You must open your mind. Forget everything you know about me, and listen carefully to what I tell you, and especially…” he paused; “…don’t jump to conclusions. Promise me.” I was filled with an infinite tenderness when I felt his fear of my reaction, like a small child about to confess his worst misdeeds. “I promise,” I assured him. “You also have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone what I’m going to tell you.” I was very frightened. “Trust me. I won’t say anything to anyone.” My voice was shaking like a leaf in the wind. “I know. I just wanted to be sure,” he said solemnly. He trusted me. This reassured me enough to open my mind, as he asked me to do. I didn’t want to let him down. “Just one more thing.” He looked vulnerable. Whatever he was going to tell me, it couldn’t be as bad as all that, coming from an angel like him. “If at any time you don’t think you can stand it, let me know, okay?” I gave him a barely perceptible nod in reply. I was terrified. He cleared his throat and began to speak. “I come from a more advanced civilization than yours. For generations in my country nothing has been left to fate. Everything is controlled and calculated.” He read on my face that I didn’t understand and explained in more detail. “For a long time now, babies haven’t been born ‘spontaneously’. The embryos are conceived in a laboratory. We think that leaving these things to chance is dangerous and irresponsible.” I wanted to say something because I didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but he stopped me, covering my mouth with his hand, so that he could go on without any interruptions. “I belong to a civilization of perfect beings. Each and every one of the features that you see was decided in a laboratory: color of hair and eyes, height, complexion, etcetera. We have a DNA bank with many genes and countless combinations. Luke and I are two of the luckiest ones. Our parents spent a lot of money on us. Our genes are the very best. Without forgetting that we don’t suffer congenital diseases, they’ve been eradicated from the DNA that’s used to create new lives.” He looked more relaxed than ever. I couldn’t say the same about how I was feeling. I felt like I was losing my mind. “Luke and you really are twins?” I asked, just to say something. “Yes, sometimes there are parents who want to have more than one child. They ask for them with similar or even the same features, as in our case, to feel like a normal family. In general, brothers look similar.” he explained, as if he was talking about a cooking recipe. “That was what our parents were looking for when they formed our family, twin boys. But, even if it seems that we are identical, I can assure you that I differ in many ways from my brother. Anyway, my parents got what they wanted: a perfectly normal family.” His eyes searched my face for a reaction. It must have spoken for itself. I was freaking out. Did the government know anything about this? Was genetic engineering that advanced? Why had they kept it a secret? I’d always heard about conspiracies and experiments. Urban legends, especially from Thomas. He’d be in his element if he knew about this. Even so, he thought that creating perfect people was going too far. I’d love to be as perfect as Erik. The gulf between us was growing every minute and the differences between us were becoming more palpable. That was nothing new. Erik and I were like night and day. Now I understood why his brother looked at us with such anger. Surely any relationship between a perfect man and an imperfect woman would be prohibited, or something similar. Especially with someone as imperfect as me. Pain crushed my heart as I took in what Erik was saying. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not such a big deal, being perfect. There are more like me out there. Trust me, this isn’t perfection. Many of us envy humans; you’re so imperfect, impulsive, sensitive, and so on and so forth.” He curled his lips, trying to smile, but his eyes were sad, dimmed and distant. I had to try to cool the situation down. It was ironic that I, who should have been feeling bad about my less than perfect genes, was trying to comfort him, when he was perfect in every way. There was a look of great suffering on his face, as if a terrible pain tormented him. Had he already changed his mind about us? I tried to play it down, trying not to look worried. I would have enough time to cry alone plunged into darkest sadness when he left. I blurted out the first thing that went through my head as usual. “Well, you‘re way ahead of us in Iceland.” It was the only thing I could think of. Then it came, the big secret. I could see it in his eyes. “I'm not from Iceland.” “Oh! You aren’t?” “No. I'm not even from this planet.” My jaw dropped, my mouth wide open. “I come from a planet called Kaeliux. It’s twenty thousand light years away in the constellation of Libra.” I didn’t understand a thing. “I’m Kaelian, or as you say here, an alien.” A huge weight loomed over me and crushed me. It felt as if the roof of my house had collapsed and fallen on top of me. I froze in shock. I couldn’t speak or move, as if someone had cast a spell on me and turned me into a waxwork. I wanted to scream and run away, to escape from this madness, but I couldn’t. My body was static, paralyzed, as amazed as my head was. Erik got up from his chair and came over quietly. He looked at me warily, while I was trying to picture my angel inside the science fiction story he’d just told me. It didn’t fit. What I thought about aliens had nothing to do with an angel with eyes as blue as the sea and a handsome face. “Are you okay?” he asked, looking worried. I woke up as if I’d been under a spell of my own making and returned to reality. I decided to use my logic to take it all in and find some kind of coherent explanation. “To be honest, I'm freaking out. I’m having a real hard time believing you, especially since you certainly don’t fit into my definition of an alien,” I babbled. “But if what you say is true, why aren’t you green with antennas on your head or something?” I was totally an idiot. Great. I couldn’t think of anything better to say than that. A smile flickered across his face. “Don't believe everything you see in the movies. You'd be amazed how different reality is.” He got serious again and wrapped himself in an aura of mystery. “Do you want me to go? I don’t know what to think. You’re very quiet. I guess this is too much for you.” “Don’t go.” He heard the panic in my voice and grinned. “Maybe you’d be better off letting it all out.” I looked at him questioningly. “How about running through your neighborhood yelling that you have an alien on your couch at home?” “Don’t give me ideas!” I joked. “Why do you look just like humans?” “Because we are like you. Our planet is similar to Earth. We have water, but not as much as here. There’s vegetation, rivers, an atmosphere that protects us and provides us with oxygen.” His face lit up as he spoke “The only difference between us is that I’m genetically perfect, I’m immune to most diseases and to cell degeneration. And I’m also a little stronger.” His words aroused my curiosity. “That means you won’t get old?” “Yes.” “Are you immortal?” “No, I’d say I’m eternal. Look.” He sat beside me on the couch, close, almost touching me “We don’t die from natural causes like ageing or the diseases that affect you, but I'm made of flesh and blood just like you.” he said, touching my arm with his, as if he wanted to show me that they were the same. “If I had a bad accident or someone shot me, my body would react the same as yours. I would die.” I shuddered when I heard that word. “You said you’re stronger too. Is that why you only got a couple of bruises when you were caught by the avalanche? Is that another nice little genetic arrangement to have superpowers or something like that?” He began to laugh. If he’d had a good opinion of my intelligence up to then, I’d just helped him to change it. I was asking silly questions, which was clear from the way he laughed when he heard them. But what did I know about aliens? I’d never been interested in UFO’s. In fact, I was afraid to think about beings from other galaxies watching us, stalking us. And, would you believe it, I'd fallen in love with one. He stopped laughing and took my hand. “You may think I’m stupid, but this is all so unreal...” I apologized. “It's logical you should have these questions.” he said stroking my hand, with his eyes fixed on it. “In fact, there’s no reason why you should know anything. You shouldn’t even know that I am what I am. It might bring us a whole heap of problems. If someone else found out what I just told you, I’d have to disappear forever. The only possible way for our two species to coexist is for you to not to know about us.” Of course I didn’t like that. I didn’t want Erik away from me even if he was in the next village. Let alone on another planet. No, that wasn’t an option. I’d rather go with him in a UFO or flying saucer, or whatever they call those things they use. “So why are you stronger?” I repeated. “That’s easy. The force of gravity on our planet is greater than yours. That means that, if we had your bone structure, we’d end up crushed into the ground.” He looked at me before continuing “I’ll try to explain it to you better. We’re stronger than you because our skeletons are made of a similar but stronger material than bone. It doesn’t break so easily and it protects our vital organs better. The scientific explanation is more complex.” “The simple explanation is okay by me,” I said. I had enough going on in my mind without worrying about scientific jargon as well. “Well, as I said, our bodies are stronger. To simplify it a bit, let’s just say that it takes more than an avalanche of ice rocks and tree trunks to kill me.” “You're like a superhero.” For a moment I remembered the star of a film I’d seen the year before. Everything finally fell into place. The first time I saw him I knew he was different. And here was the confirmation. I searched his eyes with mine and I saw him looking at me intently. Nothing remained of the previous ice blue sea, it was warm and calm now. I was drifting, immersed in those eyes. “Are there many more like you here? “ I asked after a while. “A few. We have no problem going unnoticed because physically we look like you.” He squeezed my hand. I could feel the heat coursing through my body. Human or alien, he was the best thing that had happened to me in my entire life and I wasn’t going to let him go. “Well, there’s one way you’re different to us. At least in your case,” I said. “Really?” Now I’d aroused his curiosity. “You're incredibly handsome.” The blood boiled in my face. He sighed exaggeratedly. “I never thought you saw me that way.” He put on an act, pretending to be all offended. “Is that why you’re with me? Because of the way I look?” He began to laugh at his own joke. I didn’t think it was funny at all. I didn’t like it when he laughed at me. He or anyone else, even if he was an alien. “Yes that’s the main reason, because your intelligence leaves much to be desired,” I said. “You’re a one-off.” He hugged me. I started laughing too. I was too thin-skinned these days. Luckily, Erik took it well. “Now tell me, why do you find me so interesting? Is it because I’m human and you’re not?” “At first, yes.” He took my face in his hands “But, as I said before, everything is more complicated now, I didn’t expect to fall in love with you.” I felt feverish when I heard him say that. Erik was in love with me. I wouldn’t have imagined that, even in my wildest dreams. “But there was always the risk.” I decided to explain myself better when I saw the blank look on his face “Let's see, how can I explain... If a man and a woman meet and like each other, it’s only natural that love can arise between them.” I didn’t know if I was explaining it to him or if I was trying to convince myself. It was incomprehensible that Erik had fallen in love with me. “It’s normal for you, for humans.” It was my turn to be poker-faced again. Was there something else he hadn’t told me? “We don’t make use of feelings, or whatever you want to call them.” I didn’t expect that. The news hit my desperate heart like a cold shower. So was he in love with me or not? “I'm lost. A moment ago you swore me eternal love,” I overreacted, “and now you tell me you can’t feel anything.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re driving me nuts. I’m finding it harder and harder to believe you, I mean it.” “I didn’t explain myself very well,” he said, looking at me with that half smile that left me speechless. “Sometimes I forget you don’t know my secrets.” I kept quiet. Nothing that I said right then would have meant a thing. What I needed was an explanation from him to avoid what I was beginning to feel in my heart. “We Kaelians train our minds from childhood to be our only guide in life. We live on the basis of reason and knowledge, avoiding any kind of emotion or feeling. That attitude has brought us great benefits. We are a civilization that lives in peace. We don’t suffer from wars and violence like you humans do, because those acts are caused by emotions such as anger, envy, frustration, greed or jealousy. On my planet we’ve managed to control those feelings, or rather I should say that our minds work to discipline those emotions, so we have a peaceful and organized existence. The problem is that we don’t allow emotions to flow like this.” He kissed the palm of my hand. “It sounds awful being constantly under control.” “Trust me, it isn’t that bad. You can’t miss something you’ve never had. The problem is here on Earth, living among you.” “Why?” I asked as I smoothed back a golden strand of hair that had fallen over his forehead. He closed his eyes, sighing. “Because you do things like that.” He took my hand, the one that had touched his hair, and kissed it “You’re the opposite of us. You let yourselves get carried away by countless emotions. Basically, you live to enjoy every impulse of your heart. That's why Kaelians who live on Earth must keep a distance from humans, so we don’t let your folly cloud our reason. You must think we don’t have feelings. We do, like you, but we need to keep them under control, otherwise...” He lifted our hands, entwined together, in front of my eyes “I’m a perfect example of how you, beautiful human, have managed to destroy my self-control.” His gaze was intense. Erik was trying to guess from my eyes what was going through my mind. I felt his warm breath on my skin. Whatever he was, at that moment he felt as human as me. “Are you sorry you met me?” I whispered with his face almost resting on my face, dangerously close to my mouth. “No. You're the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said solemnly. “Get this through your little head,” he added, softly touching my temple with the tip of his finger “I would happily give up a century of existence on my world for another second with you.” I thought I was dying. His words made my ears ring and my heart beat faster. I got carried away by the uncontrollable urge to kiss him. I needed the confirmation of his lips on mine to believe that this was real and not a dream. I lifted my head to bridge the few inches that separated our lips. I enjoyed the pleasure before the kiss. But it was only an instant. The urgency of our mouths increased our anxiety, Erik squeezed me strongly against his chest and what began as a clumsy touch of our lips became a passionate kiss that left me breathless. The fire that surrounded us right then was as powerful as how impossible our love was. We both knew it. Maybe that's why we felt so overcome by the strength of our desire. We pulled apart, breathless and happy. There couldn’t be a greater joy than the happiness I’d just felt. I rested my head on his chest while my inexperienced hands slipped under his thin sweater and stroked his soft velvety skin. Erik hugged me, breathing in the scent of my hair. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I was afraid that he might disappear if I fell asleep, but I could feel fatigue beginning to take hold of me. I spoke, if only to get back in touch with reality. “You told me you were a danger to me. Why?” “Because that's the truth,” he replied. He was sad again and his sweet sea was clouded. I clung to him tighter. “Just tell me why.” “I don’t know if I can...” He was avoiding telling me the whole truth, but I needed to know. I was drowning in doubt. “Be honest with me. I can take it, really,” I said softly. “Please, Erik, I need you to trust me.” “Okay.” He shifted uneasily on the couch and moved a little away from me, but without letting go of me. I touched his cheek to cheer him up. “I'd rather know the truth no matter how hard it is to take.” I tried to sound convincing, but my hands were sweating and my head began to ache horribly. My strength was waning. He nodded and began to speak. “My species has always considered itself superior to humans.” I tried to look like I didn’t care what he was saying, but the way his lips curled almost into a grimace made me feel sure he didn’t want to talk about this at all. “Although we’re very similar, we‘ve managed to control our minds and bodies, so that our actions don’t lead us to disaster, a very different thing to what happens here on Earth. You humans are driven by harmful feelings; you’ll do anything just to get what you want.” I didn’t like the description he was giving of my fellow humans. I was aware that from the outside we could look like senseless fools, but not everybody was like that and it seemed that he’d already passed his own judgment on us. That wasn’t fair. I needed to answer him. “At least we’re not porcelain figures like you.” I got up and started walking in circles around the dining room “You’re very handsome and sweet on the outside but cold and empty inside.” “I told you that you wouldn’t want to hear it.” He leaned back against the sofa back and smoothed back his wavy hair. He looked at me smugly, with a smile on his lips “We’d better not go on with this.” “No, I want to go on with this.” I stood in front of him, demanding the truth. “Do you really think it would best if I didn’t know? I'm not a little girl who people can hide the truth from so they can go on living happily in their own little world.” I pointed a finger at him accusingly. “You’ve come into my life, you've ripped up my world, and now you expect me to act as if nothing has happened?” I let out a deep breath and turned on my heels. I walked to the other side of the room. Surely he didn’t think I was stupid enough to be convinced that easily. I would discover the truth; I would get to the bottom of it all. That was all I had clear in my mind right then. The sofa creaked as he got up. I had my back to him, looking out the window, into the darkness of the night. My heart began to pound loudly when I heard his footsteps coming towards me. I felt the warmth of his body when he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pulled me closer to him, until I was leaning against him. “There’s no need for you know everything.” he whispered in my ear with his sweet voice. A shiver ran through my body when I felt his lips kissing my neck “Please. Trust me.” My defenses collapsed and shattered. I let myself go. I lost myself in him, like I did when he looked at me, but this time it was his voice that was wrapped around me. The soft touch of his lips on my skin disconnected me from the real world. “You know I trust you,” I whispered. I could hardly breathe. “Also, you can be very convincing if you try.” I raised my hand to touch his hair as he leaned his head on my shoulder. I could feel his lips twitch into a smile on my skin. He knew the effect he had on me and he didn’t hesitate when it came to applying it without mercy. I could feel my heart pounding. I was ashamed to be so exposed to Erik. His breathing was also irregular on my neck, but he was still under control. That wasn’t the case with me. With a quick but steady movement, he turned me around and stood me in front of him. He fixed his eyes intently on mine. I saw firm intentions and fury in them. I shuddered. “We're playing with fire,” he warned me, though I could barely hear him. I‘d lost myself again in that little piece of blue sky, his eyes. He brushed my jaw with his fingers. “I don’t know if this is going to work,” he added. There was sadness in his voice. He carried on caressing my face gently. His touch was like a balm to me, it had the power to calm my fears. “No-one could have guessed this would happen. In fact I thought it was impossible. And look at us; we’re like a 20th Century Romeo and Juliet.” “I don’t like that comparison.” I said. “Why?” “Because their story had a sad ending. Well, worse than sad, tragic.” I saw the surprise on his face. It was clear that for everyone, including aliens, Romeo and Juliet were one of the most romantic couples in history. I didn’t doubt that, but I was less than okay with having as short a future with Erik as Juliet had with Romeo. I wanted more. I wanted a lifetime with him. I wanted eternity. The thought struck me suddenly. “You're amazing!” I heard him say, while I was immersed in my thoughts. “Very few people can amaze me and you do it all the time.” He hugged me again, so hard I couldn’t breathe. “I don’t care if this is right or wrong. I want you in my life. I want to spend each and every day of my life with you,” he said, caressing my back as I turned to jelly in his arms. “You talk all the time like we were doing something wrong, something prohibited. What’s wrong with being together?” I was aware of the fact that being from two different planets was a pretty big reason, but who cared if we loved each other? “What’s wrong…?” He repeated my words. “Stella you can’t imagine how dangerous this is for us both, but especially for you.” “No I can’t, because you won’t explain it to me,” I said, trying to get a word in. “There’s no need, I won’t let anything happen to you. They’ll have to kill me first if they want to find you.” Just for a moment I realized what I had on my hands. My heart stopped beating for a few seconds; I was panic-stricken. His eyes were hard, frightening. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.” I mumbled, unable to speak clearly. “Don’t worry about me. I can protect myself and I’ll take care of you, I promise.” We fell silent. I was trying to understand everything I’d discovered that night about my angel. Things weren’t looking too good, although I had no idea why, and that made it worse. I thought Erik was hiding the most important part of the secret, and that tormented me. So, even though physically we couldn’t get any closer, he was actually far away from me, immersed in thoughts that, of course, he wouldn’t share with me. I was frantically thinking how I could bring him back to me. I hugged him harder, searching his eyes with mine. “I don’t care what happens. There’s no way I’m going to leave you.” I said, trying to attract his attention with one of the few things I was sure about. But he was miles away. I wanted to get into his mind, into that space which was closed to me. “What's wrong?” I needed to find out what had caused this change in him. He wasn’t the same guy who had caressed me so gently me before. His body was full of tension again. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” He didn’t answer my question. I didn’t want to push him; I was too tired to keep playing this game. It was nearly midnight, I was exhausted. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and I was unable to open them again. I slept deeply in his arms. ‘This can’t be happening to me,’ was the last thought that crossed my mind before I fell into absolute unconsciousness. I woke up disoriented. I was lying comfortably in my bed. I jumped up. Had I dreamt everything? It was impossible. I still remembered every word of what he’d said. I could feel the touch of his lips on my skin. I heard noises in the house. I looked at the digital clock on my nightstand. I blinked in disbelief when I saw the display. It was after noon. I‘d slept all morning. Nicole must have just woken up; otherwise she would have come to wake me up. Then I noticed a small piece of paper beside the clock, perfectly folded with my name written on it. My heart started beating wildly. Erik had left me a note. So was it real after all? I opened it, desperately wanting to read his words. “Doubt thou that the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt that the truth be a liar, but never doubt that I love.” Erik I squeezed the note excitedly against my chest. I knew those words were from Shakespeare. We’d read them among the million things we’d used for our Lit assignment. Now they took on new life for me. Erik was trying to tell me something. He wanted me to be clear that the only thing that I should worry about was that he loved me. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach, drunk with happiness, as I smiled. I read the tiny note again and again, searching for all the possible tones locked inside those lines. I couldn’t analyze the situation coldly. Erik was an alien but I didn’t care at all. He was the only person, human or not, who I wanted to share the rest of my days with. I was so in love with Erik that each and every one of my heartbeats was for him. And there was danger for me, something in him or close to him. I didn’t know what, but right now I didn’t care. It was too late to go back. The shower washed away all my doubts. My stomach rumbled in desperation. I hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours and now it was taking its toll on me. I combed my hair quickly, untangling it. I grabbed the old tracksuit I used to wear at home and ran, almost flew, into the kitchen. I was eating a sandwich when I was startled by the monotone ring of the doorbell. “Come in, Beth.” I heard my mother say. “Where’s Stella?” “She's having breakfast in the kitchen. She overslept.” My mother was in a good mood because she had the day off. But Beth’s tone left no doubt: her visit didn’t bode well. I’d disappeared yesterday afternoon from school and I hadn’t even answered her calls. I prepared for the worst. She came into the kitchen like a hurricane and sat in front of me. “You’d better have a good reason for what you’ve put me through.” she said, pointing her finger at me, while with the other hand she stole half of the sandwich I had on my plate, “If you don’t.” she added, taking a bite, “I’ll kick our friendship out of the ballpark.” I stifled a laugh. Out of the what? And threatening me with her mouth full of the food she had just stolen from me took away any credibility from what she was saying. But I decided to show a little regret, trying to look contrite. Mixed with the urge to laugh, the result was a sort of weird grimace. She was right. I had to make up a good story if I wanted to avoid her questions about what had really happened yesterday afternoon. I decided to give her a decaf version of what happened, keeping the morbid details to myself. “Erik wanted to bring me home.” I said, lowering my voice and leaning towards her, as if I was going to confess the worst sin. “My mother wasn’t here and we took the chance to speak and to... you know what I mean.” I concluded with a wink. “No, I don’t understand at all. You have to explain it all now, word for word,” she said, with her eyes about to pop out of their sockets. A slight smile spread over my face. It had worked! “You’re not kidding me, right?” she said, when she saw me smiling. “I swear I’m not kidding.” I answered, leaning back in my chair, trying to look unworried. “So why all this playing dumb? Tell me! Did it get physical? “She’d almost climbed onto the table. This time it was my juice that she grabbed; she gulped it down. “Hey!” I protested, but she ignored me and went on with her questions. “Oh, come on! You’ve got me going now. Let it all out. What happened? Did he kiss you?” “You could say that...” I stopped intentionally. Curiosity was killing Beth. I put her out of her misery. “If you mean the deepest and most wonderful connection between two people, where the rest of the world stops and it’s just you and him, then yes, he kissed me.” “My God! I think I'm hyperventilating!” she cried, waving her hand quickly in front of her face. “Quit clowning around!” I said, getting up to take the plate and empty glass to the sink. I heard her chair scrape the floor loudly. “We have to celebrate this.” She sat down beside me on the marble worktop. “Stop talking nonsense and get down from there. If my mother sees you she’ll pass out; anyway, it was only a kiss. You’ve had thousands like that.” I didn’t really believe that. It was impossible for anyone to feel what I’d felt when Erik kissed me. Beth was still in her own little world. “I knew it! Did I tell you or didn’t I? It was love at first sight! How amazing is that?!” We went to my room to have more privacy. I was uncomfortable talking about Erik and me with Nicole close by. “Honestly, you were starting to worry me. Your age and never been kissed!” We were sitting on my bed. I elbowed her and made her lose her balance. “It’s no big deal. I’m only seventeen and I’ve never been in love with anyone. I don’t want to go around kissing just anyone, like you do.” “That's no excuse. You've never given anyone a chance to be with you.” That was true. I was afraid to get close up and personal with boys. “Besides, you’ve offended me. I don’t kiss the first guy who pops up.” she added seriously. I felt guilty for a moment. “Only the cute ones!” she laughed. “You need to see a shrink.” “Let’s talk about what's really important right now.” She stood on my bed and raised her arms to the sky “The miracle that, by the grace and favor of a hot Viking, who by the way is yummy, has finally happened.” I threw a pillow at her face and made her fall on my bed again. We started a fight with the cushions, laughing and screaming, falling exhausted on the mattress. Now that it seemed she’d forgotten my story, I thought it was the ideal time to change the subject. “And how’s it going with your parents?” It didn’t take long for my words to have the desired effect and make her forget about me once and for all. When Beth left, my nerves began to take me over. It was almost four o'clock. My mother had prepared lasagna for the three of us. We’d laughed at the stories that Nicole told us about the hospital. She always said that it was a different world, with a life of its own. I laughed at the irony. If she knew her daughter was really about to enter another world, she would die. “Are you going out?” she asked me from the other side of the bathroom door. “Yes.” I said, trying to put my hair in a ponytail. “Can I come in?” I didn’t say anything. I just opened the door wide but she didn’t come in. She leaned on the doorframe and look at me questioningly. “Are you going out with Beth again?” she asked, testing the waters. I didn’t want to lie to her, so I told her the truth. “No, I’m going out with Erik.” Or at least that’s what I was hoping. I saw the flush on my cheeks in the mirror. “Oh.” She seemed to relax. “That's fine. I like that boy. He seems so...” She rubbed her chin looking for the right word “I don’t know, he seems more responsible and mature than most boys your age.” She was right. I’d noticed it too. Erik was always responsible. He was very measured with what he said and did, he always behaved properly. Maybe that's why I’d fallen in love with him. He didn’t act like a teenager. According to Beth, I was a wet blanket; I’d rather call it common sense. That's why I felt so comfortable with Erik. We suited each other, or at least I liked to think that we did. Luckily, before my mother could ask me for the lowdown on Erik’s gorgeous body, the bell rang, getting me out of what could have been an awkward spot. “I’ll go.” My mother shot toward the door before I could react. “Hello, Erik.” she said, reaching out her hand in greeting. “Hello, Mrs. Preston.” he said, shaking her hand. “Just call me Nicole.” my mother smiled. I left the hideout I’d been watching them from. “Hi.” “Hello.” he winked, making me blush in front of my mother as a delicious smile curved his lips. I wanted to kiss them. I grabbed my coat and my bag as Nicole kissed me goodbye. “Don’t come back late, okay?” she shouted from the doorway when we were on the street. “Don’t worry, Nicole. I'll bring her back before eleven.” Erik hastened to answer before I could get a word in. It was funny. It seemed like they were talking about my custody. Once my mother had disappeared inside, Erik took my hand and enlaced his fingers in mine. I could feel my stomach tighten and those familiar butterflies were flying around it. “I missed you.” he said, stroking my hand with his thumb. “I missed you too.” I replied awkwardly. I felt my face redden as I looked at him. “Where are we going?” I asked once we were inside the car. “You’ll see.” he smiled widely, revealing his perfect white teeth “It's a surprise.” We drove in silence. Erik held my hand while he drove. The faint rays of sunlight between the trees flecked his hair with gold and made his blue eyes shine even more. “What did you say to your mother?” he asked after a few minutes of silence. “That I was going out with you. Why?” I didn’t understand his question. Did he think I’d revealed his secret? “I don’t know, she seemed so happy.” “I imagine she is happy.” I knew he wouldn’t believe me, but I tried it all the same. “So? ...” He waved his hand, as if he wanted me to keep talking. I didn’t want to tell him; more than that, I was embarrassed. I couldn’t avoid his questioning look and I started talking. “You see, since my father died two years ago, I haven’t been out much.” I tapped my fingers nervously on the dashboard of the Audi. “I think Nicole was worried about my voluntary confinement.” “You didn’t go out? Ever?” There was shock and disbelief in his voice. “No, it wasn’t that drastic. I went out with Beth and the others some weekends.” By the way he was frowning I could see that he didn’t quite understand; the truth is that I was explaining myself like a closed book. I took a deep breath and went on. “The problem is I've never been out with anybody. Dating, I mean.” I could see my red face reflected in the mirror of the car. I looked at him cautiously, waiting for a laugh or a comment. He didn’t say anything, but his sky was bluer and clearer than a summer morning. He seemed happy, as if the idea of being the first was his greatest hope. Finally he chuckled. “Hey!” I protested, gently slapping his arm in a failed attempt to look offended. “Don’t laugh at me. Not everyone has the advantages that you do.” “What advantages?” He slowed down and parked the car next to an old house. His eyes, filled with curiosity, amazed me. How could he not realize he was incredibly attractive? I decided to make that clear. “Have you seen yourself? Your body, your face, your eyes, your hair, your smile, your voice… Do I need to go on?” I said, lifting my hands, palms open. “Oh, that again.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. He grabbed the rubber band that held my hair and slowly slid it down, freeing my hair, which fell sprawling down my back. “You have beautiful chestnut hair. You shouldn’t wear a ponytail; you also smell really good, like sweet almonds.” He took a lock of my hair and smelled it. I sighed, grateful for the fabulous shampoo my mother had bought. “Your eyes are like two drops of honey, but when the sun shines on them you can see amazing green flecks.” He looked at me; I was speechless. My heart was pounding so hard that the air was trapped in my throat without getting to my lungs. I felt dizzy. He ran his finger along the edge of my lips. They parted, reacting to his caress. “Your lips are soft and sweet. You radiate a beauty you’re not aware of, from what I can see.” He leaned over and put his lips on my ear. “We’re not so different. I hope you can see that now.” he whispered, then kissed my neck. “You’re biased.” I managed to say. “Everything you see in me…” he said, pulling back a few inches and giving me a good look at how beautiful he was, “is the result of a laboratory process for perfection; however, you…” He leaned back, taking my face in his warm hands, “are naturally beautiful. Your features and your little imperfections are what make you an exceptional woman.” I knew he was being sincere, I could read it in his eyes. That was how he saw me and that really pleased me, but I was also a realist. I’d spent seventeen years looking in the mirror and I was convinced that there was no comparison between him and me. I wasn’t used to compliments so it would be best to change the subject before the excess blood in my cheeks made them burst. “On your planet the women have to be gorgeous, right?” “I suppose so.” he replied nonchalantly. “You suppose so?” Something pierced my heart. Was I jealous? “Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never paid that much attention to them. They’re like clones, too perfect for my taste, too cold.” He stroked my hand gently. “Not like you, you're a wild torrent of emotions.” We laughed at my pathetic jealousy and got out of the car. He’d parked next to an old rickety house on the outskirts of the village. I hadn’t realized that it had been more than an hour since we'd left my house. “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I said, regretting it instantly. I was bound to answer, no matter what his question was. “What happened to your father?” His hand tightened its grip on mine and his eyes searched my face, dark as the deep waters of the ocean. I took a deep breath. When it came down to it, I wanted to tell him. “He died in a car accident.” I paused, but he kept silent, urging me with his sweet sky to keep talking. “One night a couple of police officers came home to tell us that they’d found my father's car burnt out on the road.” Sadness engulfed me as bitter memories surfaced in my mind. Erik kept looking at me in silence. “Nicole had to be hospitalized with a severe anxiety attack, but the remains of the body were never found,” I said in a small, trembling voice. “And didn’t the police investigate? It seems a bit strange that they couldn’t find anything to identify him.” He squeezed my hand tightly, looking intently at me with real concern. “They looked for a while but, they just found his wedding ring, so they declared the case closed. Apparently the fire consumed his...” My quavering voice wasn’t able to finish the sentence. Tears came to my eyes and rushed down my cheeks. I could feel the warm moisture soaking my face. “It must have been hard for you.” He pulled me closer and I leaned my head on his chest as he stroked my back. I nodded a ‘Yes’. A lump in my throat prevented me from speaking. It was comforting to feel his warm arms around me, with that strange power that had filled me from the first day I saw him. He kissed my head gently and all those barriers that I’d put up so well for the last two years fell without resistance and released me from the intense pain that had been choking me. “It’s still so hard.” I said between hiccups and sobs. He said no more. He looked at me with infinite tenderness, concerned about my pain. I felt good losing myself in his eyes again; it was like being at home. I didn’t want to leave. I was in my own private heaven. “Feeling better?” he asked when my breathing became more regular and my tears stopped at last. “Yes, it’s doing me good sharing this with you, but do you understand now why I don’t like to talk about it?” “I understand, or rather I’m trying to understand.” He looked confused. His face was lined. “I just can’t understand the strong bonds that unite humans, or the deep pain that you experience at the loss of a loved one.” “Haven’t you ever suffered the pain of losing someone?” I found it incomprehensible. “No.” He saw my look of amazement. “Basically for two reasons. The first is that I don’t have such strong ties with anyone in my civilization as you might have with your family or friends.” I was shocked. “Don’t get me wrong, I told you that we don’t show our feelings, so it’s very difficult to get attached to someone so deeply; as they say in Spanish, ‘familiarity builds love’ so if there’s no familiarity...” “There’s no love.” I said, finishing his sentence for him. “Exactly. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens to my family.” “I don’t get it. You love them but you wouldn’t miss them if they weren’t around?” A family like that was beyond my comprehension. “That’s the second reason,” he went on, as if that clarified everything. “For centuries no one has died on our planet. We’re a peaceful people and with our genes in perfect condition we needn’t worry about losing someone to death.” Even so, I saw a special light in his eyes. Nostalgia? I understood less and less, but I tried at least to make him understand me; I could feel that pain which tears your insides out and leaves your body feeling raw. “How would you feel if you lost me?” “I don’t know, because I thought that would be a good comparison.” His face was full of pain. The blue of his eyes faded and darkened, becoming cloudy, tormented. “I can’t even imagine it.” He held me very close. “My life would have no meaning. You’ve become my reason for living,” he added tensely. “It hurts just thinking about it.” He put my hand on his chest and I could feel the frantic beating of his heart. A distant roar surprised us both and shook us out of our private universe. A motorcycle sped past us, red as a streak of blood. I watched as it disappeared down the road. “Was that…?” “Yes, it was Luke.” He turned his back to the road and grabbed me by the waist. “Come on, there's something I want to show you.” It took me a few seconds to react. I hadn’t got used to the idea of the twin brother yet, and I was confused. “What was he doing here?” I asked as we walked on. “He lives here.” He pointed at the old house right in front of me as if it were something obvious. “Well, I should say we live here.” I shivered with cold. It was dark. The sky began to fill with stars as a glimmer of sunlight peeked weakly from behind the mountains. I grabbed my jacket and put it on, shaking my head in puzzlement. How could I lose track of time like that when I was with Erik? It was beginning to be worrisome. “So you’re going to show me your house?” I hadn’t expected that. “Was that the surprise?” My disappointment showed in my voice. I had dreamed of a romantic candlelit dinner in a small restaurant. Even a dinner at home would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the house looked like something out of a horror movie. “Yes to the first question and no to the second.” He looked at me and I could see a mischievous smile on his face that left me speechless. Why did he have to be so beautifully perfect and me so human and imperfect? I was pleasantly surprised by the inside of the house, which was nothing like the grim exterior. The ground floor was spacious with a single room. The kitchen and the dining room, exquisitely decorated, shared the same space, separated by a glazed glass bar. They had all the latest technology, from a flat screen HDTV, which took up almost half the wall like a painting, to kitchen gadgets which my mother wouldn’t even dare to dream about. The russet color of the walls contributed more to creating a clear, open space. Only a chocolate leather sofa stood in front of the large flat screen. A little further away, close to the kitchen, there was a glass table with four chairs in the same leather as the sofa. It looked like something from an interior design magazine. It was very modern, but too cold and impersonal. There were no framed photos or magnets on the fridge. I don’t know why I felt uncomfortable. Erik, as I expected, noticed it. “Come on,” he said, pulling me with him. “Let me show you my room.” His room. The mere mention of those words made me quiver. Was there something hidden in his invitation? My body was torn between what my heart wanted, hopelessly in love and with no will of its own; and my wiser head, which was telling me not to do anything foolish. We walked up a narrow spiral staircase made of iron and wood, dark and cracked by time and use, feeling as if it would break anytime as it took our weight. I walked on tiptoes like a ballerina, struggling in vain to weigh less. We reached the attic. “So what do you think?” he smiled, opening the door wide. I was fascinated by the vision I saw before me. This room was nothing like the rest of the house. Although the color and quality of the furnishings looked the same, there was life in it. The shelves were full of books of all kinds. A minutely detailed model of a solar system hung from the ceiling. I imagined that was where Erik came from. The sun was in the center of the ceiling: it was a lamp. Erik pressed the switch wordlessly; the effect when the soft orange light hit the other planets and stars was really cool. “Wow...” I was completely amazed. I strode into the room and I saw another curious detail. A corkboard covered with photos of me taken from different angles, in different situations. Alone, with friends, with Nicole, laughing with Thomas, fighting with Beth. The story of the last few months of my life. “Did you take all these pictures?” I asked, still perplexed. “Yes.” he said simply. “But why?” Erik looked at me without a trace of embarrassment or regret, despite his invasion of my privacy when I hadn’t even known he existed. “I've been photographing you every day to try to understand your humanity, to capture all the details that fascinate me about you and even so I still don’t understand them.” “You’re crazy! You’re like a psycho stalker!” I said, turning to him reproachfully. “Sure I'm crazy, but I’m crazy about you.” He was so close to my mouth that without thinking twice he leaned over me and kissed me passionately. His kisses burned my skin, increasing my madness. He turned his lips slowly away from mine. I sighed deeply. I’d never get used to this wonderful, blissful feeling. “For a cold manipulative alien, you kiss very well.” I said, standing with my eyes closed, remembering the taste of his mouth. “Thank you. The credit is all yours.” he laughed nervously. “It’s like a fountain of emotions that you’ve awakened; nobody has ever done that before. I just let myself go.” That sounded familiar. It was exactly what had happened to me. If Beth were here listening, she’d be jumping with joy and going on about her theory of love at first sight. “Wait here for a moment,” he said, pointing at the bed for me to sit down. I blushed and perched on the edge of the bed. Erik was bent over a huge telescope, looking for something through the window. His well-defined muscles tensed under his thin cotton shirt. I wanted to touch him. A wave of heat flooded my body and my cheeks went red again. “Ready,” he said, turning to me. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. He was radiant. I enjoyed imagining that I was the reason for all that happiness. “Stella, come here. I want you to see this.” I went over to the telescope and looked through the opening he was showing me. The infinity of the cosmos exploded in front of me. “It’s wonderful. It's spectacular.” “Yeah, it is. That's my galaxy.” There was a hint of satisfaction in his voice. I couldn’t take my eyes off that incredibly beautiful sight. I’d never seen space through a telescope before. My only forays into the splendors of the universe had been going to the Planetarium with the science class. I felt tiny before such grandeur and magnificence. I thought about Erik; he belonged to that world, not mine. A pall of sadness invaded my heart. “Do you miss your world?” I asked, turning away from the telescope to look at him. “No.” he answered without looking at me “You are my world, I don’t need anything else.” I wanted to believe him. He sounded honest but he avoided looking at me and his eyes rested on some unknown point in the darkness outside. What was happening now? Only a few moments ago he was sweet and passionate as he kissed me, I’d say he even seemed happy; but now, unfortunately for me, he was engulfed in that familiar coldness once more. “You’re doing it again.” “What?” “Getting away from me,” I answered sorrowfully. “Stop worrying. We're not doing anything wrong.” I went up to him but didn’t dare to touch him. He turned towards me, meeting my eyes. His sea wasn’t calm. I didn’t like what I saw in his eyes. “Come on.” he muttered through clenched teeth, clutching my waist and pulling me out of the room in a hurry. His anger overwhelmed me and a shiver of fear ran through my body. Before I could ask what was going on a tall strong-looking man appeared in the hallway, blocking our way. “Erik, aren’t you going to introduce me to your girlfriend?” asked the newcomer, leaning against the wall. Erik stiffened and stood facing him with every muscle in his body ready to run at any moment. “Stella, this is Rudolf. One of my… roommates.” I got the feeling that he wasn’t exactly that. “Good to meet you.” The tall, good-looking stranger scrutinized me with his dark eyes and pierced me with his gaze. It scared me. “Nice to meet you too.” I mumbled, hiding myself unconsciously behind Erik. “Well, we're leaving.” Erik took my hand and pulled me outside while Rudolf followed us with his eyes. Those eyes terrified me. I felt them drilling into the back of my head. We walked to the car quickly. I was trying to breathe normally when I heard a couple of raps on the window. I jumped in my seat and a cry escaped my lips. It was Luke. ESCAPE “Trust is the feeling that you can have confidence in a person even when we know we would lie if we were them.” Henry-Louis Mencken Erik opened the car window to talk to him. “They know. They’re looking for you.” said Luke. “Yeah I know, we just saw Rudolf a moment ago.” Erik's voice was cold as ice. “I warned you. You’re an idiot.” “Are you going to help us or not? Because if you’re not, you’d better leave us alone. The last thing we need now is one of your sermons.” “Of course I'll help you, but just be thankful the girl is here, otherwise I'd kick your ass for being so stupid.” I was angry. I didn’t understand anything. Which girl? Me? And most important, what was going on here? Why were we running away in the middle of the night like thieves? I wanted to say something, but I realized it wasn’t the best thing to do right then. The conversation between them was strained. Erik’s face was twisted with rage and his knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. Even so, I tried to do a little digging. “Can someone tell me what this all is about?” I asked, now that there was total silence between the twins. Erik shook his head, like he was saying ‘no’ to something. But what? That he wasn’t going to answer me? Was that it? No, he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at his brother, but Luke said nothing. I moved a little to get Erik’s attention. I noticed that his eyes were closed. I looked at Luke. He was doing the same. Then I understood. This had to be some kind of trick aliens have to communicate with each other telepathically and I couldn’t hear them. “No, I said no.” Erik suddenly opened his eyes and he was surprised to find how close my face was to his. His face was ashen, beaded with sweat. “Just follow us.” Luke went back to where he’d come from without a word. I heard the engine roar behind us. We shot down the road, speeding through the night. “Erik, please.” I said, almost begging. “Tell me what's going on or I’ll go crazy.” I wasn’t exaggerating at all. This was disconcerting. We were on the run, but I didn’t know why. And worse, what had come over him? “Nothing’s going to happen to you.” he said flatly “I’ll take care of you. I don’t know why he’s here, but I won’t let him find us again.” I didn’t like what I was hearing. Who was here? Rudolf? Why would he be searching for us if he’d just seen us? There was a concern on his face and in his voice that didn’t help to calm my nerves one little bit. My instinct for survival urged me to jump out and run away from all this madness. But that would never happen; I was incapable of getting away from him. “Why were Luke and you concentrating so hard before? Were you connecting or something?” I saw a hint of a smile on his face. “You never miss a thing, do you?” He tried to sound relaxed, but didn’t manage it. “We use our minds one hundred percent and one of the advantages is that we can share thoughts with others. It's like telepathy.” “Well I don’t see the funny side of having just anyone getting into my head.” “It doesn’t work like that. It only works if we open our minds to the person we want to communicate with; if they answer our call, then we can share our thoughts. Otherwise, there’s no connection. I thought I‘d explained that before.” “No. I think you missed out a detail or two.” My voice dripped with irony. All this was too much for me. I carried on, all the same. “What do I have to do with all this?” “You?” He looked at me as if he was looking at me for the first time. “Luke said...” He covered my mouth with his hand and left my sentence unfinished, shaking his head, like he knew what I was going to say before I’d said it. “Don’t listen what my brother says. Luke just wants to cause trouble. Now that he knows that you’re my Achilles heel he’s trying extra hard.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but his eyes, as they had in the past, showed me what his words were hiding. “Then why are we running like this? Where’s the danger? Can’t you talk to whoever that guy is?” “It depends on why he’s here.” “Luke was right even if you don’t want to admit it, wasn’t he?” He broke down. “I knew it, I knew this would happen. And I still went with it. It’s unforgivable. I’ll go to meet him before he sees you again. I can’t let them find you with me again; I've risked your life enough as it is.” “What are you talking about? Are you breaking up with me? Is that it?” He saw the fear on my face. “No, I’m going to sort this out, that’s all. I’m not new at this; I know what I have to do.” “You’re not making this any clearer. You’re giving me goose-bumps with your cryptic comments and your half-truths.” “I’m sorry. It’s more than I can explain. You already know too much. And if they knew that...” He looked upset. “Don’t ask me again, okay?” His voice was trembling slightly. I was aware that he was under too much pressure because of me and that was just making things worse. “Where are we going?” “We?” he repeated, as if he didn’t understand me. “Yes, you and me, where are we going now?” “I’ll take you home and then I’ll fix all this.” “I want to go with you.” I tried to put as much confidence in my voice as I could, which unfortunately wasn’t much. “No way.” “But, Erik, I want...” “I said no and that’s it.” The power in his voice startled me. I sulked in the car seat. I crossed my arms over my chest and kept my posture rigid. I wanted him to know I was angry. Erik stayed focused on the road. I looked sideways and saw his jaw clench. It was useless to try to argue with him. He’d become a wall that I banged my head against, over and over. I turned sharply to the window. I couldn’t bear to look at his face. It weakened my determination and I didn’t want just to let it go. Not this time. The streetlights passed us by like happy ballerinas. I counted the houses as we left them behind. We drove the rest of the way in silence. Erik drove like a lunatic. I lost track of the red lights he jumped. It was clear that he wouldn’t tell me the truth, possibly not to scare me, but he needn’t have bothered because I couldn’t have been more terrified. I couldn’t talk to anyone, not Beth, not Nicole, because of the fear I was feeling. What the hell was going on? What kind of paranoid nightmare had I gotten myself into? I closed my eyes, resting my head on the seat. A crippling headache was taking over the little sanity I had left. I started massaging my temples, drawing small circles with my fingers. “What’s up?” His honey-sweet voice calmed my anxiety a little, but I hadn’t forgotten the harshness of what he’d said. “I don’t know.” I answered without opening my eyes. “You tell me.” I added defensively. He said nothing, as I expected, but I felt his gaze resting on me. I imagined his lapis lazuli eyes, like the bottom of the sea, and I felt the urge to lose myself in them again, but I was furious with him. I couldn’t bear him treating me like a little girl, keeping me in the dark, so instead of giving in to my desires I shut my eyes tightly and carried on massaging my temples, but the hammer banging my head didn’t let up for a moment. The Audi slowed down until it came to a stop. I opened my eyes reluctantly. We’d arrived at my house and I still didn’t have any answers. Erik, his face red with rage, stared at me. His infinite sky, the one I loved, was asking me for understanding. I stood there looking at him, our eyes saying what our words could not. “Forgive me.” he begged, his voice full of passion and pain. “I’d give my life not to get you involved in all this.” He took my hands gently and raised them to his mouth, covering them with soft kisses. I couldn’t remember why I was angry. “I'm not angry... any more…” I replied shakily, “but I need you to tell me what's going on.” “Promise me something.” he said, ignoring my comment. “Whatever you want.” I rushed to reply. “Promise me you’ll trust me, whatever happens, that you won’t forget that I love you more than anything in this life.” He begged. “Please, please promise me.” “I promise. I trust you and I won’t stop trusting you.” I said, sure of my words because they came from the very core of my being. “Now you have to promise me something.” He looked at me warily, knowing what I was going to ask. “Trust me the same way I trust you and stop hiding the truth from me.” “I can’t.” His face was as tormented as his voice. “You'd hate me if you knew the truth and that... I couldn’t bear that.” The roar of Luke’s motorbike interrupted us. He stopped beside us, whipping up a cloud of sand around him. Erik got out of the car and asked me to wait inside. I accepted, but I couldn’t wait to get out. I focused all my attention on the conversation that was supposedly taking place outside the car. They barely spoke and when they did, it was to argue. Suddenly my door opened and Luke leaned inside. “Want to go for a spin on my bike?” he ventured, smiling. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t going with that psycho even if it was around the corner. I got out of the car, ignoring him completely. I gave Erik a questioning look. “Leave this to me, okay?” Erik snapped as he took my hand. “Come on, let's take a walk.” “Hey! Where are you going?” yelled the red-haired biker. He sounded annoyed. “We need some privacy,” hissed Erik, pulling at me without turning to look at him. “I don’t expect you to understand.” His voice was so bitter that I was scared of whatever it was he had to say. We walked a little until we reached the corner of my street, out of Luke’s sight. Once we got there, Erik took me by both hands to try to convince me. “Now you have to stay home. Luke will stay with you.” he added regretfully. “That way I’ll stop worrying. If things take a turn for the worst, Luke will tell me straight away.” “No!” I protested hysterically. “Listen to me.” he said, shaking my shoulders gently. “I’m still not sure what Rudolf wants, or if there is actually any danger, but I'm not leaving him any breadcrumbs to follow. If he’s come for me, it’s me he’ll find. But only me.” “It won’t work.” It was just a hunch, but I said it aloud, overcome with sadness. “I have to try.” He laid his eyes on mine wistfully. “I don’t care what happens to me, but I couldn’t bear it if you...” His voice trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished. It wasn’t like him to react like that. He took a deep breath and went on. “Trust me when I say that I don’t like the idea of leaving you, even for a second, but Luke’s right, no one suspects him. You'll be safe and if all goes well tomorrow I'll come get you and all this will be old news, got it?” “No...” I muttered, drowning in anxiety. “I'll be back, I promise.” he assured me, stroking my cheek and catching a falling tear. “Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep.” He tried to object, but I covered his mouth with my hand, stroking the soft skin of his warm lips “You're going into the lion's den. I‘m okay with you not telling me the truth, I’m okay with keeping your secret, I‘m okay with running away with you, if that's the only way out. I'll do anything, anything you ask me, but please don’t go, don’t. I can’t stand being away from you without knowing if we’ll ever meet again.” He hugged me tight against his chest. I breathed in his scent and stroked his back, pressing him against me in a vain attempt to fuse our bodies into one to keep him with me. His lips began to caress my skin slowly down my face, my neck, lingeringly, savoring the moment of farewell, letting our hands commit every part of the other’s body to memory. When our mouths met, we embraced still harder. There was urgency and desire in that kiss. For a moment, everything disappeared. It was just us, wrapped in a spiral of passion, enough to ignite an entire forest. I could taste him on my tongue, the smell of his skin, his soft hands down my back, my shoulders, my waist, burning my skin. “I love you with all my heart.” he whispered breathlessly. “Don’t forget that.” “I love you too.” I didn’t want to let him go, but he slid easily out of my embrace. I watched him stride purposefully away. He got into the car and gave me a last look full of love and pain. He started the engine and sped away, while I watched in disbelief. I lost track of time. I didn’t know how long it had been since Erik had left. I stood still, motionless, until a hand touched my shoulder, startling me. It was Luke, I’d completely forgotten about him. “Let's go to your house. I don’t want you to freeze.” For a moment my eyes deceived me, making me believe it was my angel who was with me. But his hair like fire and his eyes like ice left me with no doubt and I was plunged again into the sadness of my loss. Erik wasn’t there and this was nothing more than a simple mirror image of the person I loved most in this world. Night fell on us like a heavy curtain dotted with sparkling rhinestones. I could feel the cold wind on my face, tightening my skin, but I didn’t care, in fact I didn’t care about anything right then. Luke spoke in a mechanical, practical, neutral way, without a hint of emotion. I thought that Erik must have been this way before I met him and I shivered at the thought. He handed me a helmet and I looked at him questioningly. Why did I want a helmet? “Let’s go for a ride. It'll make you feel better.” His voice was rough and sharp, a mischievous smile spreading across his face. I’d never ridden a motorbike. Any other time I would have been scared at the thought. I didn’t like bikes: too fast, too exposed. All this added to the fact that I don’t know how to keep my balance was reason enough not to ride one. But at that moment it didn’t matter. All I wanted was for the night to end so I could be with Erik again. “Hold on tight!” he said without turning to look at me as he started the bike up. “I don’t want to lose you on the road.” I heard the hint of a giggle muffled by his helmet. He thought he was funny. Well, I didn’t find it funny in the least. I just grabbed him by waist, pressing against his back, terrified. The cold air began pounding my body as we sped off down the road. At least Luke had been thoughtful enough to lend me his jacket, but I knew he’d regret it. My body, deprived of warmth, began to tremble. I held on tighter against his body and he, in response, sped up. It was clear that he was enjoying my discomfort. I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life, not at all, but a small part of me enjoyed the feeling of freedom that this little jaunt gave me. It was pleasant to release so much adrenaline. I could feel my body beginning to relax gradually and it made me forget all my fears. I closed my eyes to feel the effect of the speed on my skin. We got home earlier than I’d expected. I got off the bike with a feeling of relief. I stretched my legs, stretching my slightly aching back. I touched my tensed-up neck muscles. Luke looked at me from the bike, his face showing a hint of satisfaction because of the pathetic show I was putting on. His lips twisted into a smile, as mischievous as they were attractive, but not exactly confidence-inspiring. His eyes were cold and expressionless; they gave me the creeps every time I looked at them. This guy had the virtue of making me feel more awkward than I already did when he was around. I went home quickly and Luke followed me without asking if I minded having him there, hanging around my room, as if he had no choice but to stick to me like glue. “I'll call my mother. I don’t want her to get the wrong impression if she comes home from work and you’re here.” “Perfect.” I found it strange that he had nothing else to say. “I'll wait for you here.” Saying that, he leaned against the wall, his eyes surveying the house. I turned away from him. His arrogant attitude made me feel nervous. I dialed Nicole’s number. I’d been expecting her to be home, this being her day off, but luckily for me, she wasn’t. There was a note on the refrigerator. They’d called her from the hospital, as usual. “Hi.” “Hi, Mom.” I looked at the clock and it was almost eleven. So much the better because she’d be busy and wouldn’t be able to pay much attention to me. “Is something wrong, sweetie?” “No. Well, yes.” I didn’t know where to start. What could I possibly tell her? That Erik had left because someone was after him and now his alien twin brother was here to protect me? I had to lie. I had no choice. “Stella, what’s going on? You're worrying me.” She began to raise her voice. “Well you see, Erik's brother came to visit him and, as he had nowhere to spend the night, I told him he could stay here. I just wanted to let you know to not be alarmed if you see him when you come back from work.” That was it. I’d done it. I’d dropped my white lie quickly, almost without stopping to breathe. I just needed to wait for my mother's reaction and pray that it wasn’t too extreme. “Stella! How can you do these things without telling me?” “I'm telling you now,” I defended myself. “You barely know your friend and now you go and take his brother in?!” Nicole was out of control, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Deep down, I wished she would leave the hospital and come home to kick out the conceited red-haired babysitter Erik had foisted on me. “Mom, calm down. It’s just for tonight; besides, he’s already here. Do you want me to kick him out onto the street? That wouldn’t be very hospitable, now would it?” “Stella, sometimes you act like a child. Have you thought about how irresponsible it was to bring that boy home when you’re all on your own?” “You've read too many detective novels, mom. Nothing’s going to happen; he's a lovely guy…” I lied. “Like Erik. I’ll keep my cell phone close, okay?” If that didn’t work I didn’t know what else to say. “I won’t feel happy about this until I get home,” she sighed reluctantly; I heard the distorted sound of a voice speaking on a PA system over the line. “I have to go, they're paging me. Just one more thing: remember to lock your room from the inside.” “Okay, mom.” “And don’t think this conversation is over. Tomorrow we’ll talk some more.” “Okay mom. See you tomorrow.” “Goodbye” The anger was audible in her voice right to the end. I sighed with relief when I switched the phone off. In the end it hadn’t been as bad as I’d expected. I went straight to the kitchen, ignoring my unwelcome guest. But to my surprise he’d got ahead of me and was sprawled on a chair in the kitchen, leafing through the newspaper my mother had left on the table that morning. I decided to change tactics. Maybe I could get more out of him. I sat opposite him with my heels on the edge of the chair, my arms wrapped around my knees. I needed information and Erik’s photocopy was going to provide it to me. “Luke, can I ask you a question?” I said in a friendly voice. “That depends” he breathed, without looking away from the article he was reading. “Why are you here? What’s so wrong with Erik and me being together?” I tried not to sound concerned, as if I was only interested in starting a conversation. But my eyes must have reflected the anxiety gnawing away at my insides. I was lucky he was so intent on his reading. “That’s two questions,” he said impassively without even bothering to look at me; I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. I took a deep breath to calm the urge to get up from my chair and give him a good shaking. I leaned forward a little and with one hand I pulled the newspaper aside. He looked upset. He seemed to dislike me even being there. Who did he think he was?! He was the one who was surplus to requirements here! “Stop ignoring me,” I muttered angrily through clenched teeth. “Erik won’t tell me what's going on because he doesn’t want me to worry. But I'm sure you don’t care about that, so talk.” There was no trace of kindness in my voice. Or in what I was saying. He stood up and leaned his elbows on the table, his face a few inches from mine. I froze. “Do you really want to know?” His voice made me breathe faster. “Yes,” I answered with false self-assurance. Now I was so close to the truth, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to know. “All right, you asked for it, so sit down.” he ordered, pointing at the chair I’d got up from. I sat down; straight-backed, full of curiosity “I guess good old Erik has told you who we are and where we come from, hasn’t he?” he began, raising an eyebrow. “Kind of.” I didn’t want to go into too much detail; I preferred to hear it from him. “So you know who we are; but did you know that because you know our little secret, I’d have to kill you?” I was starting to be a little tired of hearing the same song over and over again, but what he said made the hairs on my skin stand on end. I knew Luke was trying to provoke me and I couldn’t let him have that satisfaction if I wanted to get answers to this madness so I nodded and bit my tongue, although he must have read something on my face that I couldn’t hide, judging by his reaction. “Huh! I think my brother has forgotten to tell you quite a few things,” he snapped, rolling his eyes. “All this sentimentality and falling in love is turning him into an idiot,” he added, with a look of disgust. I was just about to say something, but I managed to control myself. Maybe now he’d seen that I didn’t mind his teasing, he might start talking seriously. “What was I saying? ... Oh, yes! I was saying how superior we are in comparison to you humans. The problem is that we have a weakness that drives us crazy.” he said, staring at me. “What is this… weakness?” I stammered. “We like... how can I say it so you can understand it…” He stopped and thought for a few seconds, as if he was searching for the right word. “Let’s just say we like to… fraternize with other civilizations and experience new things.” “But that's good, right?” “You know Darwin's theory on the origin of species? About the supremacy of the strong over the weak and all that?” “Of course.” We’d studied Darwin’s theories in science class for a long time. In the theory of the origin of species, the main argument was that, in short, the strongest is the one who survives. “So can you imagine who the weak and the strong are in this case?” I swallowed hard, unable to answer. He smirked before adding the obvious. “You humans, with your useless sentimentality, you’re a weak race but don’t worry, we don’t want to bother you too much.” “Are you going to invade Earth? Or destroy us?” He burst out laughing. He had me where he wanted. I was scared to death. I was horrified. “No, of course we aren’t, we can still get something out of your imperfect genes. And that’s why we need you alive and blissfully unaware. We go down a different road.” His mischievous voice and his piercing gaze penetrated into the depths of my very soul, making me shudder. Maybe Nicole was right, who had I let into my house? Into my life? The kitchen began to spin around me. I dropped my head into my hands. “That’s enough talking. I think we should get some sleep.” “No!” How was I supposed to sleep now? I was only going to have terrible nightmares. He needed to finish what he’d begun. This conversation wasn’t going to end like that. I studied my options. If I showed him I was as scared as I actually felt, he’d refuse to keep talking, not because of me, I was sure, but for the pleasure of making me feel scared. So it was best to approach it in a rational way. Erik hadn’t hurt me; in fact he was risking his life for me and he knew that Luke was with me, which led me to think that actually this red-haired wise guy wasn’t as dangerous as he liked to think he was. At least for me. With that thought in mind, I started to calm down. I stood up, heading into the living room, gesturing him to follow me, which he did without a word. I didn’t know why, but he was following my lead. He seemed amused by my mood swings. I made myself comfortable on the sofa. He stood leaning against the fireplace. He studiously avoided sitting beside me. He wasn’t as confident as he liked to pretend, or so I thought. I started the conversation again from where we’d left off. “What road are you talking about? You can’t slice us open to alter our genes, can you?” My voice sounded weaker than it was supposed to. “That’s true,” he admitted. “Then what do you do?” He was giving me information drop by drop, and that exasperated me. “You human female teenagers are easy to manipulate. Your minds are inexperienced and your ability to conceive is a great alternative to slicing you open.” I put my hand to my mouth, choking back a cry; all at once, the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit. “We have the capacity and the skills to modify human minds. But they must be young minds, still undamaged by years of experience. That way, we get a more disciplined and rational future generation. We’re doing you a great favor bringing some sanity to you. Although there is more.” He seemed proud, while I felt sick to my stomach. He continued his explanation as if he wasn’t aware of the effect he was having on me. Or maybe he was. “Then comes the best part, Plan B, the one we like most. Because of our genetic similarity, you can play host to our embryos and carry the pregnancy through to full term. The problem is,” he added, sitting next to me, “it’s not so easy to get you to play along.” “What do you mean?” I mumbled, feeling uncomfortable with him so close to me on the couch. “Well, most of you need some kind of courtship before you agree to… be with one of us.” A wave of nausea flooded over me “You talk about us as if we were rats you can experiment on as and when you want to. It's disgusting,” I growled. What right did they have to do that? Who asked them to come and improve anything? It was immoral, inhuman. He stretched his arm out, placing it on the back of the sofa behind my back, coming closer to my ear. “That's where ‘your’ Erik and I move into action.” Having him so close, whispering in my ear, made me quiver like the wispy smoke from the flame of a small candle. He was extremely attractive, and now his voice took on a sensual nuance. I was mesmerized, transfixed. I had no will of my own. I would have done anything he asked at that moment, just to keep him near. He pulled away suddenly. Instantly I felt a strong jolt that brought me back to reality. What had happened to me? I was shocked and scared. “You felt it, didn’t you?” A puckish smile etched itself on his face. “That's how we convince you to be our guinea pigs, or should I say our lovers, do you prefer that definition?” I could only sit there, frozen with astonishment. “Hypnosis?” I asked, still a little dizzy. “Kind of. It’s difficult to explain, maybe too difficult for your poor mind to take in, so let's say yes, it is like a kind of hypnosis. It’s part of our mental powers,” he said smugly. “It's revolting,” I said indignantly. “Think about that when Erik kisses you again.” His words were like so many punches in my stomach. Had Erik done that to me? Was what we’d had together not real? No, my heart refused to accept it. Erik would never toy with me like that. He wanted me. Still, Luke had managed to plant the seed of doubt in me. Hadn’t I thought long ago that it was impossible for such a perfect, attractive, wonderful guy like Erik to notice me? It seemed obvious now that here was the answer to all my questions. “I know what's going through your head right now,” I heard him say. “He wouldn’t do something like that, what we have is different, blah, blah, blah.” He waved his hand indifferently. “You don’t know how many times I‘ve heard that.” “There have been others?” I was about to drown in my own words. “Sure, and it's always more of the same. Something similar has happened to all of us who do this… work. I for one just do my job and that’s that, I don’t waste my time on lost causes.” He ran a hand distractedly through his hair, a gesture that reminded me even more of Erik. “I don’t like to risk as much as he’s risking with you. Although I have to admit that since he’s known you he’s been acting weird.” “What do you mean, ‘weird’?” My heart was a sad reflection of my pain. It was broken and shattered by what I’d just heard. Nothing else he could tell me could be the least bit important. Still, the last thing he’d said had fanned a tiny flame of hope. “I don’t know, he’s got too involved with you. He gets angry when I ask about you. He doesn’t want to finish the job. In fact, I’m sure that right now he’ll be trying to negotiate a change of target.” His voice was full of contempt. Why did he hate me like that? I threw my head back, staring at the cracks caused by years of wear on the living room ceiling. “I'm sorry I can’t give you more details,” he remarked as if he didn’t care. “I don’t understand about feelings and all that stuff.” My heart began to get itself together, little by little. But it was still bleeding. There was only one thing which could heal it completely. I needed to talk to Erik. Was that why he’d refused to tell me the truth? He said I’d hate him if I found out. I needed to see him now more than ever. But now I’d have to settle for questioning the second-rate imitation sitting beside me. “You’ve read his mind, what have you seen in it?” “I told you, I don’t understand feelings and that's all that’s filling his head right now. He isn’t reasoning normally. His thoughts are illogical and inconsistent. Everything he does seems to be motivated by strange impulses. And he has you in his head constantly. It bores me. To be honest, I just ignore him most of the time.” I went from utter sadness to the greatest joy in seconds. My emotions were on a rollercoaster. Erik thought about me. He felt something for me; it was obvious to his stupid brother, but what if they convinced him to finish the job? I stood and paced up and down, like a caged animal. “You've said Erik is trying to talk to them; what do you think will happen? Will he convince them or is he in danger?” Panic took over my body and my voice. “It's not easy to tell. I guess they’ll let him make his case, at the end of the day we’re reasonable, intelligent beings. We don’t let ourselves get carried away in the heat of the moment, like you do, but...” I saw a hint of concern on his face, while his eyes shone, replacing his usual deadpan expression. I kept quiet, waiting for him to say the words that had brought on such a change in him. “If they find that there’s no solution, it’s unlikely he will come back.” “What?! Are they going to kill him?!” My voice was hysterical. “No, we’re not violent by nature. At least as a first choice,” he remarked. “He’d be sent back to our planet to be ‘cured’ of his addiction.” Nausea seized me again, but this time it was much worse. I ran to the bathroom and bent over the toilet. I threw up everything inside my stomach. I was retching violently, but I had nothing left to vomit. I wiped my mouth with a piece of toilet paper, dropping exhausted onto the bathroom tiles. I curled up in a ball, letting the cool floor calm my pain. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t cry. I could only think of Erik and that I might never see him again. I wanted to die and I abandoned myself to the feeling. I tried to open my eyes, raising my eyelids a little. My head was spinning like a top. I grabbed it with both hands in a desperate attempt to keep it still. The pain that came with the dizziness was unbearable. There was no cold under my skin. Quite the opposite, I felt a pleasant warmth and I felt comfortable. Then I realized that I wasn’t lying on the bathroom floor. I opened my eyes wide, recognizing the furniture in my room. I was lying on my bed and Erik was sitting next to me. “Oh my God! Are you okay?” I said, throwing myself at him. I wrapped my arms around his neck as hard as I could, breathing in the scent of his skin. The dim light of my bedside lamp highlighted glints of copper-colored hair that should have been golden. Only then did I realize my mistake. “I knew you’d end up liking me more than my wimp of a brother eventually.” I let him go quickly as if embracing him had stung me, and I hugged myself, trying to get over my disappointment. “You've been unconscious for more than three hours. Post-traumatic shock or something, I suppose.” He sat on the edge of the bed, watching me with renewed interest. I kept quiet, while reality fell back on me like a heavy stone slab. “You managed to scare me, seriously.” His voice sounded almost sweet, with no trace of his usual irony; he must have been worried “You were in the bathroom for a long time so I went to see if you needed help. Then I saw you lying on the floor, lifeless.” He shook his head, as if he wanted to erase the image from his mind. “I thought you’d done something crazy. I looked for signs on your arms and the bottles you had around, but I found nothing.” I noticed a tremor in his voice that puzzled me. “I thought maybe you’d had a heart attack, I didn’t know what to think.” He seemed to be trying to justify himself. “You humans are so vulnerable, so fragile.” He reached out his hand in an attempt to touch me, but he left it hanging in the air, finally letting it drop. He looked away, his gaze eventually lost between the sheets. “I'm sorry I was so abrupt with you. Erik was right; you didn’t need to know the whole truth. It just hurts you.” He was having a hard time admitting he’d made a mistake; I couldn’t believe he was really worried about me. That wasn’t in his controlled, rational nature. “If you get hurt, I don’t know what Erik will do to me,” he confessed finally. Of course! How stupid I’d been, it wasn’t me he cared about. He only cared about himself. “Erik wouldn’t hurt you, you told me you’re not of a violent nature,” I said sarcastically. I hated him for being so selfish. “Don’t be so sure of that, Erik’s nature is beginning to be more like yours than mine.” He raised his eyes and stared at me. “He’s pretty crazy and so far nothing’s happened to you, so imagine if something does happen. I think he’d lose the little sanity he has left. And then I’d prefer not to be anywhere near him.” Again I didn’t like his mocking tone. “I’d go mad too if something bad happened to him.” I was trying to defend Erik; I could feel my chin trembling. “Well, before someone goes insane, let’s stop talking about what might happen and focus on what's really going on.” He pulled up the sleeve of his sweater, exposing an identical watch to the one that Erik used. “It's late, we should get some sleep. Tomorrow isn’t going to be an easy day.” “Your watch...” I said pointing a finger. Luke looked at me but didn’t understand. “It's just like Erik’s. Is it some special gadget from your planet?” He started laugh loudly. “You've seen too many movies, haven’t you, honey?” he laughed. “You must know that there are places called stores where they sell things like this watch in bulk?” He was having a great time making fun of my naivety. I felt idiotic and angry at the same time “You’re so funny,” I growled. I lay back on my bed, pulling the covers up over my head. I didn’t want to look at him, or even hear him breathing. Everything about him got on my nerves. I was sure that if anything happened to Erik and he didn’t come back, he wouldn’t think twice about getting me on a spaceship to his planet and getting me to breed little aliens like rabbits. ‘Or maybe not,’ said a little voice in the back of my head. What? What was happening to me? I began to hate him as much as I needed him. ‘No, no, no, I hate Luke, period; the problem is that he reminds me too much of Eric,’ I thought, trying to convince myself. It would be smarter to get some sleep, which I found extremely difficult, and stop thinking about nonsense like this... It was just nonsense, right? The faint light of a sunbeam streaming through my window stroked my face, waking me up. I tossed and turned between the sheets, I didn’t want to get up yet. I’d dreamt about Erik, it had been so real... I squeezed my eyes tight shut to send the images back to my memory. “Up.” Someone pulled the sheets back. “We have to go.” I finally woke up in the most unpleasant way possible, to the sound of the cold voice of my angel’s dime store copy, coming back to haunt me again. “I don’t want to,” I croaked. “Leave me alone.” I pulled the quilt from his hands and covered myself back up to the ears. “Stop acting like a baby and get up.” I couldn’t take him anymore; the mere whisper of his breathing infuriated me. “Why are you doing this?” I sat up in bed, looking at him furiously. “Doing what?” he replied dismissively. “Being here, protecting me or whatever you’re supposed to be doing. It’s obvious that you’re uncomfortable with all this. I'm sure you like me as little as I like you, so why are you still here?” He looked stunned. Clearly it wasn’t the ‘good morning’ he’d expected. “I’m not doing it for you, if that makes you feel any better.” The harshness of his voice was like a sword plunging into the depths of my being. “I’m doing it for Erik, and don’t ask any more stupid questions or you might make me do something I really regret.” The threat was serious. I clammed up. I got up and headed to the bathroom without looking at him. I wasn’t going to go on arguing with him, I just wanted him to go and to be on my own. I brushed my teeth thoroughly to remove the bitter taste in my mouth. I remembered nothing of what had happened the night before. I felt like I’d vomited everything I’d ever eaten in my whole life. Nicole had to be asleep, exhausted by her night's work at the hospital. Had she already seen Luke? I didn’t know where he’d slept in the end. On the living room couch? In my room? I began to feel worried about not knowing, and it bothered me. After a quick shower, I put on the tracksuit that was hanging behind the door. It was very unflattering, but I didn’t care. After everything I’d found out, I didn’t want to look attractive to Luke in any possible way. The less he noticed me the better. A very small part of me sensed that this was a useless precaution. With my wet hair falling over my shoulders, I went into my room looking for my own private nightmare. There he was, standing in front of the overflowing bookcase, running his finger down the spines of the books. “Has my mother seen you?” I asked as I walked in. He didn’t even look at me. He carried on looking through my collection of books with more interest than he was showing in me. “No. I’ve been here with you all night.” He turned and winked at me. “It's a shame you don’t remember anything, it was fabulous.” My growing anger must have shown on my face. “Don’t look at me like that…” He twisted the corner of his lips in a provocative, sensual way. “I’m just kidding. Nothing happened. You slept, I watched you. When your mother came to see if you were okay, I hid. You can tell her I left or any other excuse you want to make up.” He turned his back to me, focusing all his attention on the books again. “Why?” “Why what?” he sighed, as if he was tired of my dumb questions. “Why have been you here all night, you could’ve had a comfortable night’s sleep on the couch.” “Yeah, sure,” he said, as if the reason was obvious. “And run the risk of you jumping out of the window and running off to look for Erik. No, no way.” “I wouldn’t have done that.” It was a stupid assumption. I’d never run away from my own home. There had to be another reason but he didn’t want to tell me. I didn’t want to push it. It didn’t matter what he might think, at the moment, I had other things to worry about, like thinking up another lie to tell Nicole. He strode over to me. “Are you ready?” “Ready for breakfast?” “No, ready to go.” “Go? Where?” “Erik called me last night while you were sleeping. This place isn’t safe; we’d better get you out of here. That’s all he said.” I felt my knees buckle, but I didn’t fall: Luke's reflexes were faster than my weakness, and instead of me crumpling to the floor, he caught me in his arms and lifted me up. “Put me down,” I demanded. “Are you sure you can stand up all on your own?” I hated the sarcasm in his voice. “I can do a lot of things on my own,” I answered in the same tone. “Like for example stay here in my house instead of going anywhere with you.” “That isn’t negotiable,” he bellowed, dumping me onto the bed and standing back. “But what’ll I tell my mother? I can’t up and leave just like that.” If the situation had been a color, it was beginning to go from dark brown to black. “Your mother’s asleep for now.” He analyzed the situation coldly “Take what you need and let's go. Then when you think the time is right, you call her and that’s it. Don’t look at me like that,” he objected, seeing the disconcerted look on my face. “You wouldn’t be the first or the last teenager who’s eloped with her lover.” “But what’s all this running away stuff about?! I won’t run like some criminal,” I said, going up to him and poking him in the chest with my finger. “You and your super-brain should know that.” “Enough!” I cringed at the fierceness in his voice. “No more arguing. We do what I say and that's that. You should’ve thought of that before you fell in love with my brother.” That was the last straw. I turned angrily on my heels, snorting like a mad horse. I went to the kitchen to write a note to my mother. I’d call her later to explain... What could I explain? That I was running away with a sarcastic alien because I’d fallen in love with another alien and now more of them were coming for me? No, my God, it was hard enough for me to take in, let alone tell someone else. They’d lock me up in a mental hospital and throw away the key. I’d have to think of something a little further from the truth before I called her. I climbed the stairs quietly, so as not to wake my mother up. Luke was waiting with a gym bag in his hand. “Your luggage,” he said, throwing me the heavy backpack. “Take a quick look; we’re going in five minutes.” He brushed quickly past me as he spoke. I didn’t even bother to look in the backpack. I threw the bag over my shoulder and followed that insufferable red-haired brat with, I had to admit, a spectacular body. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going. The whole way he remained more distant than usual. I didn’t bring anything up about our conversation the night before. I still wanted to know what had caused his growing hostility to me. So far his attitude was indifferent, just making hurtful comments and telling heartbreaking truths. But now he wasn’t talking to me, not even to make fun of me. He spoke in monosyllables, avoiding my gaze continuously. “I need to call home,” I said when we stopped to fill up at a small gas station. “No,” he said, looking at the pump. “Why not? You promised, it’s been more than four hours, and my mother will be worried.” I was indignant. “I said no,” he said impassively. “Well I say yes.” I turned and started to walk away from him, pulling the phone out of my pocket. With one hand he grabbed me by the wrist without giving me time to react, and with the other he wrenched the phone out of my hand. Luke kept hold of me and pulled me, stumbling, to his bike. “Let’s get one thing clear.” I felt cowed by his icy gaze, boring into my eyes and giving me no chance to look away. “My decisions are not negotiable. This isn’t a democracy where we take votes. I give the orders, got it?” “Since when? Who gave you the right?” I raised my head defiantly, trying to show the same authority he did. “I’m not your hostage, my opinion counts too, and besides, I doubt that Erik would be very happy with the way you’re treating me.” “Well pardon me for trying to save your ass!” He bowed low. “I’m sorry you don’t like me, Little Miss bellyache about everything and do nothing,” he said, sarcasm oozing from every pore. “We all can’t be as great as my brother Erik.” He mimicked my voice when he said Erik’s name. I wanted to slap him. The hate I felt for him last night was nothing to what I felt at that moment. I despised him; I had reason to feel that way, but what about him? What had I done to deserve such treatment? “What’s crawled up your butt?” I asked defensively. “Leave me alone,” he cut me short, turning away. I saw him stride confidently into the small store. A couple of employees turned to look at him as if they saw him as competition. Ridiculous. They couldn’t hold a candle to Luke. The female cashier eyed him up and down, while I tried to glare him to death. The purple twilight stained the road and we kept moving relentlessly. I was exhausted and hungry; we’d spent almost the entire day traveling on that two-wheeled piece of junk. Pain was shooting down my back, tired of holding the same position for so long. “When are we going to stop?” “When we get there.” Same old answer every time I asked the question. We’d gone back to the strained silence between us which we’d enjoyed before stopping at the gas station. I didn’t understand why we were going so far away. The road was getting worse as we left any trace of civilization behind and headed into the heart of the mountains. I’d never been there before. I thought it was impossible to drive on those roads in winter, lost in the woods. Apparently, I was wrong. We moved faster than I thought advisable, raising a cloud of rocks and mud after us. The scenery was breathtaking. It only needed an elf or two singing in the dense forest. I was worried about where we were going in our headlong flight. Finally he slowed down and I saw a small cabin. The house stood alone against the striking landscape. For the first time since this madness began, I felt really scared. What was I doing in a remote retreat in the middle of nowhere with the most despicable man in the universe? My prospects were not looking bright. The inside of the cabin surprised me. I expected a dilapidated, derelict house, but what I found was quite the opposite. Wood-paneled walls, interspersed with huge stones and a large fireplace. It wasn’t too big, but it was enough for a three-seater sofa, identical to the one I’d seen at Erik's house, and a wing chair in a slightly lighter tone and more worn by use. I looked around without daring to go in. Luke stood beside me silently, as if he was waiting for my approval. I sensed that he was more relaxed now that we’d finally reached our destination. “Does anyone live here?” “It's an occasional safe house, others may come.” “Who are these ‘others’?” “Friends.” He strode past me, throwing my backpack through a door that gave onto the living room. “Is that my room?” I asked, suspiciously. I wasn’t sure whether to stay there or run in the opposite direction. “Yes, that’s your room. For the moment.” He continued wandering around the house without stopping to look at me even once. I stood motionless at the entrance. I watched him pile logs on top of the ashes of what had once been a fire. He added newspaper and dry leaves. He took a lighter from the mantelpiece and lit the paper. The room was filled with a crackling sound. “Where are you going to sleep?” I asked, taking a step forward, attracted by the warmth. “With you, if you let me,” he said impassively. “No way!” I said with a mixture of shame and rage; “I'd rather sleep on the street than with you!” “So sensitive!” he hissed. “Don’t worry; I'll sleep on the couch. I’m a gentleman,” he added, moving his hand and doffing an imaginary hat. “See you tomorrow,” I said, crossing over to my room without looking back at him. I closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed. In my mind, I went through what had happened so far. I still couldn’t believe it; it was like something from a Spielberg movie. These things don’t happen to normal people, do they? Anxiety seized my stomach when I thought of my mother, Beth, everyone who loved me. Right now they’d be suffering, not knowing where I was. A sad little piece of paper, with a pathetic excuse was all I’d left before I’d vanished. They knew me; they knew I didn’t usually do crazy things like running away from home. Maybe it was best to stop thinking. For the moment, I wasn’t going to get anywhere by worrying, I should get some sleep and get my ideas straight if I wanted to find a solution. A couple of days passed. I was lost in the middle of nowhere, with no way to communicate with anyone else than the red-haired show-off I was sharing the house with. The tension between me and Luke was getting worse. I was still angry with him for not letting me call Nicole. As for him, well, I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t care. We devoted ourselves body and soul to ignoring each other in a very confined space. My anxiety about Erik grew every night; I was lost in my loneliness. We hadn’t heard from him. I got scared when I thought about what might have happened. Then I thought about Nicole; she’d be frantic, not hearing from me. I needed to talk to her. On the third night, my prayers were answered. “I need to go out to sort something out.” Luke walked towards the door, putting on his jacket. That was the longest sentence he’d spoken since we got to the cabin. “I'll be back soon. Don’t move from here.” He left without waiting for an answer, closing the door. Apparently he didn’t trust me. Where was I supposed to go in the middle of the night, out here in the woods? “Great,” I said out loud. At least I could relax a little without him around. I sat on the couch. I never did that while he was there. I only went out of my room to grab something to eat and then went back to my self-imposed prison while he mooched around the house. I was thankful to be alone at last and I reached out lazily for the book he’d left on the table, when there it was, right in front of me, a cordless phone, that greatest of treasures. Luke hadn’t given me my cell phone back, so I didn’t hesitate for a second and grabbed the handset, quickly dialing my home number. I didn’t have to wait two beeps to hear my mother’s anxious voice at the other end of the line. “Yes?” “Mom it’s me,” I answered quickly. “Thank God!” I heard her sobbing; it broke my heart. She was really suffering, and it was my fault. I felt like the worst person in the world for making her go through this. “Honey, are you okay?” she asked tearfully. “Yes mom, don’t worry. Sorry I didn’t call before, but it’s been kind of impossible.” Now that I was talking to her, I didn’t know what to say. The excuse I’d been chewing over these last few days seemed pretty unbelievable, but I had nothing better. “Where have you been? Is it because of that talk we had on the phone? Oh my God. Stella, you have no idea of what I’m going through. How could you do this, Stella? I’ve got the whole town looking for you!” Her anxiety had turned into an anger that I had to try to deal with. “Are you coming… back?” Her voice trembled. “Of course I’m coming back. Just give me a minute to explain this mix-up.” I took a deep breath before telling my fake story. “I'm with Erik, at his parents' house.” Luckily I hadn’t told my mother the first version of the Icelandic Erik. Nicole had no idea where Erik's parents lived. “What? And why didn’t you call to tell me? Why didn’t you come by before you left? No, what am I saying? Why did you go away without asking permission? This doesn’t end here, this time you've gone too far.” She was getting angrier and angrier. I had to calm her down or at least try to convince her. “Mom, I'm really sorry; if you let me explain maybe you’ll understand,” Her silence encouraged me to keep talking. ”Erik's grandfather died.” It was the only excuse I could think of. “And what does that have to do with you? You hardly know the guy; you could’ve gone to the funeral like everybody does, but you didn’t have to disappear. And worst of all, you didn’t even bother to ask permission or even tell me.” “I know, but they called him while we were together. They were very close and it was very hard for him. He couldn’t even drive after getting the news and I offered to come with him.” The words flowed from my lips. I was amazed at the ease with which I could lie lately. “The problem is they live more than four hours away, and there’s no signal here, even though I've tried, it’s been impossible to call. The landline phone doesn’t work. It’s been damaged for months because of a breakdown after a storm.” I held my breath, waiting. Now we’d see if she trusted me or not. “I'm so sorry, mom. They’re having a bad time here and I didn’t want to make them feel any worse with my problems. I'm sorry you were so worried. Forgive me mom, I promise I’ll never do it again.” “And couldn’t you get to a phone booth or anything?” Her voice didn’t sound at all calm and I assumed she wasn’t calm either. “All right. Stay with Erik and his family, and meanwhile I'll think about what punishment your foolishness deserves. Is that clear?” “Very clear, mom.” I had a lump in my throat. What if I never came back? “I love you so much, mom” “I love you too, sweetie, but this can’t happen again. This time I mean it, seriously. Give them my condolences.” “Okay, mom, bye.” “One more thing, Stella. Be careful with that boy, okay? I don’t know why, but I have a bad feeling about him. Come back soon,” she said, without giving me a chance to answer. “Yes, mom: big kiss.” “Big kiss too, sweetie. Goodbye.” I hung up feeling like I was falling apart. I drew my legs up, wrapping my arms around my knees and bringing them up to my chest, resting my head on them. I cried. I cried bitterly to get everything I had inside out. I cried for my mother, I cried for Erik, I cried for myself. I ended up drowning in a state of semi-consciousness, with my eyes red from crying and my heart broken by sadness. A noise woke me up. The door opened, but I didn’t bother to turn to see who it was. I already knew. It was the last person in the world I wanted to see right then. “What’s going on here?” he said reproachfully. Although his voice was softer than usual, it got on my nerves as usual. “Leave me alone.” I wanted to give some strength to my voice, but the tears had drowned my throat and it just sounded like a faint whisper “I don’t have to explain anything to you. Get that through your head once and for all, damn it!” He walked towards me and sat down as if he hadn’t heard what I’d said. My head was still propped up on my knees. He began to stroke it slowly. My will was beginning to falter. I needed warmth from someone else now more than ever. I lifted my head and looked at him with glazed eyes. Luke lifted his hand and brushed my cheek lightly with his fingers and wiped away the tears that were soaking my face. I saw him hesitate for the first time. I put my hand on his. It felt so sweet, so refreshing! I didn’t want him to leave and for a moment, thanks to my tear-filled eyes, I thought I was seeing Erik here beside me. Luke didn’t seem arrogant or proud to me. With a single gesture he’d managed to remove all the hatred that I’d built up during the last few days. I stared at him when his fingertips brushed my lips. He also looked at me, but strangely, in a different way to before. I was about to ask why he was treating me so much better, why he’d changed his attitude. But I was afraid to break the moment and he went back to being the usual Luke, cold and sarcastic. There were no butterflies in my stomach like when Erik touched me, but my breathing was just as fast and it was becoming irregular. The transformation wasn’t just his attitude. He’d also changed physically. Now I could see the details that differentiated him from Erik more clearly. His jaw was square, rigid. Erik’s was softer, not so marked. All of Erik’s features were sweeter. Luke had a more aggressive face. His eyes weren’t the same blue as Erik’s. Luke’s iris had green brushstrokes, like a stormy sea with seaweed, while Erik’s was crystal blue, like a sea of white sand. I freed myself from his hand, feeling uneasy. I didn’t like where this closeness was taking us. “What happened to you? Do you feel better?” he asked, visibly shaken. “Yes.” I avoided looking at him again. “I don’t like hurting people who love me.” My voice gave way when I remembered how Nicole had sobbed. “So calm down,” he whispered, leaning his head below mine to look at my face. “I don’t like to see you like this.” “That's impossible, you're immune to all this.” I said, knowing his aversion to feelings. “Don’t be so sure,” he said sadly. I was stunned. It took me a moment to digest the meaning of what he’d just said. He saw the disbelief in my eyes. “Don’t look at me like that.” He shook his head, as if he was also amazed by what was happening to him. “I don’t think I’ll ever make fun of my brother again.” He took a lock of my hair which was falling over my eyes, lifting it away from my face gently. I trembled with emotion. What was happening to me? What was happening to him? “This is crazy.” Something inside me told me it was better not to know the answer to the questions I’d just asked myself. “You have a strange power over me. From the first moment I saw you that night when you came out of the restaurant. I can’t, I don’t want to be away from you,” he said. “I swear I’ve tried. I’ve tried to keep as much distance between us as possible. These last few days have been torture for me. But it hasn’t helped. You win.” “What do I win?” I was confused. “You win me,” he replied without hesitation. I didn’t know what to say. He took my moment of indecision as an invitation. He kissed me. I didn’t react. I couldn’t move. I was shocked at what was happening. My skin crawled at the touch of his lips on mine, pressing me hard against him. It was a fleeting, rushed kiss. I felt like I was drowning. I don’t even know why I let him kiss me. I’d lost control of the situation. I had to slam on the brakes. “Stop!” I shouted in rage. “This isn’t right. I love Erik!” My words had an immediate effect. He let me go; I felt the chill of his absence on my skin. It only lasted a few seconds. “He doesn’t need to know,” he grinned. I began to feel dizzy. His face blurred and his sensual voice clouded my reason. Was he seducing me? I shook my head in a desperate attempt to stop him. I covered my ears with my hands, begging him to stop. I regained control of myself as quickly as I’d lost it. “He's no better than me, and you know it,” he said scornfully, seeing the rejection on my face. “I don’t care if you’re better or worse than Erik,” I answered, looking at him again. “I'm in love with him and that's what counts. I doubt you can understand that.” I wasn’t sure if I was protecting myself from him or from my own feelings. He didn’t answer. “This conversation is getting us nowhere,” I said, trying to calm him down. His silence was worse than anything he could say. I stood up, ready to hide in the shelter of my room. Luke still said nothing. “We’d better go to bed.” “I agree,” he said after a brief pause, misinterpreting my words and grabbing me by the waist. “No!” I protested. “Hey! What the hell were you thinking? I mean going to sleep. You, here,” I said pointing at the sofa. “And, me, in there. Is that clear?” “As a bell,” he smirked. He seemed to be having fun watching my face light up like a Christmas tree. He leaned over me to whisper in my ear. “When you wake up you’ll think about him, but when you sleep you’ll dream about me.” He pulled away slowly and let me past. I wanted to slap him and wipe that stupid smile off his face. It took me forever to fall asleep. My sleepless nights had returned and my insomnia, brought on by guilt, was the same as a few months before. Luke was totally wrong if he thought I was dreaming about him. But in the depths of my being, in a remote corner, I was afraid to go to sleep in case his predictions came true. I heard his deep breathing in the silence of the night. I got out of bed, opened the door quietly and tried to see through the gap. I saw his red hair; it was a little longer than Erik’s. I wanted to touch it. I closed the door quickly, running to get back into bed. I closed my eyes tight, trying to bring Erik's face to mind. It had been four days since he left. Would he know where we were? And was he aware of how dangerous it was leaving me alone with his brother? I wished with all my soul that Erik would clear away all the doubts I had in my head. REUNION “Happiness: a way station between too little and too much.” Channing Pollock I ran towards the sea although I didn’t know why it was drawing me to it. I wanted to get into the water. I wanted to feel the cold on my skin. I was getting closer to it when a warm wind, like a desert breeze, caressed my face and distracted my attention from the icy waters and dragged me towards the rough, hot sand dunes. Before I knew it, I was in a desert and the sea wasn’t as calm as before. Now it looked like an angry ocean with huge waves crashing against the sand and I was its prisoner. I stood motionless. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go back to the sea or lose myself in the desert in front of me. I began to drown. I couldn’t breathe even though I was taking down air in huge gulps. The sand covered my body, while the raging sea covered my face. I struggled to get free and I could feel my lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. I woke up with a start. A delicate, pearly layer of sweat covered my skin. The feeling of suffocation during my nightmare was so real that I was gasping for breath. I slid out of bed and looked out of the door for him. Luke was still there. That calmed me down. I couldn’t explain my bizarre dream. I was terrified to go to sleep again, but despite my fears, I eventually managed it. I had the same dream again, but this time it was more violent and more intense. I didn’t wake up. But I didn’t reach the end of the gut-wrenching nightmare either. I felt as if I was drowning, trying to decide between the soothing cold of the sea and the baking heat of the desert. The noise of heavy curtains being drawn woke me up. The bright morning light shone through the windows and brought vivid color to the room. I sighed, grateful that the night had finally come to an end, between waking and sleeping, mixing nightmares with reality. It had been awful. I stretched out slowly, like a lazy cat, enjoying the pleasure of feeling the muscles in my body. “Good morning Sleeping Beauty,” I heard Luke say. He was looking at me, leaning against the window he’d just opened. The sunlight outlined his silhouette, hiding his face from me; the light that came through the window blinded me. I didn’t know how to take the tone of his voice. Was it somehow... sweeter? I felt butterflies fluttering in my stomach, which scared me because he’d managed to make me feel like that. I tensed up again. “Hello.” I cleared my throat. “What time is it?” It wasn’t normal for Luke to wake me up, so maybe I’d slept more than I should have. Anyway, my body hadn’t had enough; it didn’t want to get out of bed. “Eight o'clock.” He stood motionless. He was staring at me, arms folded across his chest. It began to bother me. He had me at an advantage with all that light blazing onto my face. It was easy for him to see the expression on my face. In his case it was the opposite, I was intrigued by his change of attitude, and that voice which was so sweet and soft. “Are you hungry? Luke went to get some breakfast.” I woke up suddenly. An electric shock jolted my body. I jumped out of bed and ran to him. My body slammed into his; I put my head on his chest. I smelled his scent, crying, this time with happiness, soaking his shirt. I felt his chest heaving with laughter. He hugged me tight, burying his head in my hair and kissing it so I couldn’t breathe. I shivered. It was real. Erik had come back and he was hugging me again. I looked up at him to confirm the obvious. He was there, my sky, my sea, as transparent and crystalline as I remembered. I was lost in him, as I had been in the past. He seemed restless, though, and a feeling of foreboding shot through my body. He touched my chin with his hand, bringing his face close to mine slowly. My heart was beating wildly. “I missed you so much,” he breathed. I felt my face warming up. “I...” I couldn’t finish the sentence because his lips covered mine softly. Again, that electric shock gave me new life, running down my back, making the hairs on my skin stand up. I clung to his neck, pulling him even closer to me, pressing my mouth against his, our lips opening to each other. We were overcome with passion and the excitement of being together again. It was a special moment, filled with desire, desperation, haste and pain, but filled with love. A single kiss had never expressed so many emotions at once. “Luke will be back soon,” I said, pulling unwillingly away from his mouth. His breath, coming in fits and starts like mine, showed he didn’t want to stop. He ran his warm hands over my neck, down over my shoulders and onto my back. “If you don’t want me to kiss you again, you'd better give me time to recover,” he replied softly, freeing his neck from my embrace, kissing my palms over and over again I smiled, blushing. I didn’t want to let him get away from me, but I didn’t want Luke to see us. My hormones didn’t agree. I took a deep breath to calm down. Doubts came quickly to my head. What if I never had another chance like this? What if this went wrong? Why was I worried about Luke? Most importantly, was all this for real, or was Erik just toying with me? I trembled at the thought. “I'm sorry,” said Erik, like he was worried by the look on my face. “I didn’t want to make you feel bad, don’t be sad.” He stroked my cheek with his fingers. It was fabulous to feel his warmth on my skin again, right down to my bones. “I'm not sad,” I lied. “I’m just worried.” I remembered my conversation with Luke the night Erik left. “I need to talk to you.” He frowned. He obviously knew what I was talking about. We went into the small living room and sat on the couch. “Luke told me everything.” I looked into his eyes waiting for his reaction. I saw anger in them and it made me feel guilty about what might happen. “I think I’ll have to have a little chat with that blabbermouth.” Right then the door opened and I saw Luke coming in, with his flaming, fiery hair and a provocative smile. “Looking for me?” He seemed totally unconcerned. Erik stood up and reached him in two strides. He grabbed him by the arm to get him out of the house. “Hey, wait! What’s the rush?” He looked at me and I couldn’t tell what those turquoise eyes, so cold and expressionless before, were trying to tell me. He seemed frustrated, disappointed. “Your breakfast,” he added, throwing me a paper bag. Inside there were two donuts. The door slammed angrily behind them. I heard nothing of what was going on outside. I’d forgotten how irritating it was that they didn’t need to talk out loud to communicate. I didn’t like to be left out like that from something that concerned me so directly. Erik was angry with Luke. That was obvious. On the other hand, although Luke was a loudmouth, he’d been more honest with me than Erik had. I couldn’t believe it. I was supporting Luke and not Erik. I rolled my eyes in disbelief. Luke was irritating. If Erik did something to him, he deserved it for being such an arrogant bragger. I decided to ignore them both and concentrate on my breakfast. If I carried on like that, I’d go crazy. A sudden thud made me choke on my donut. I ran to the window and saw Luke lying on the ground, holding his face. I opened the door. Erik was standing, staring. I ran towards them. “Are you insane?!” I bent down next to Luke. A trickle of blood as red as his bike was falling from his lip. I glared at Erik. “Why did you hit him?” I asked, pointing at Luke, who was trying to stand up, the picture of pain. Erik didn’t reply or look at me. He just stood there. “Aren’t you going to answer me?” I went up close to him. I was beginning to get more worried than angry. He was in shock, or so it seemed. “I'm going inside. I’ve had my fair share of craziness today,” Luke muttered dismissively, moving towards the door. “Do you need any help? You’re bleeding.” I didn’t know what to do and my gaze shifted between the two of them. “No thanks,” he spat, touching his lip. “Damn, it hurts!” He turned to me, fixing his strange eyes on me again. “You take care of him. I can take care of myself.” He turned and strode into the house. I turned to Erik, who just stood there, impassive. I put my hand on his arm. I was afraid. “Erik, are you ... okay?” I asked gently, trying to bring him back from where he’d lost himself. “I don’t know. I...” I moved closer to him and put my arms around his waist, to try to give him the will to go on. “I... I couldn’t control myself; I didn’t want to control myself,” he said. “Luke is so... I didn’t like what he was thinking. I didn’t want to hit him, I just wanted to know what he said to you, but he wouldn’t talk. He just started to ramble, and...” He didn’t finish the sentence, his jaw clenching. He can’t have liked what was in his brother’s head. “I'm sorry you had to see me like this.” “Don’t be stupid. You reacted like anybody would.” I smiled trying to break the tension. “Luke is unbearable, he deserved that. Now, leaving that aside for a moment, I think there are a few other things we have to clear up, right?” I caressed his back and dropped my head onto his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair. “Let’s take a walk,” he proposed and I accepted. We walked for a while. We left the small cabin and went into the thick forest. The silence was relaxing, only broken occasionally by birdsong and the smell of dewy grass. I breathed in the sweet aroma that filled my lungs with freshness. We stopped at a rock we came across on the way, big enough for us both to sit on. I kept quiet. I wanted him to start the conversation when he’d calmed down enough. “What do you want to know?” he asked after a few minutes that seemed like hours. A million questions raced through my head. I had to sort out the questions I wanted to ask him, the most important first, the trivial ones later. “I'll start with something easy, okay?” I said, still a little hesitant. He nodded silently, waiting. “Why me?” “That's not easy,” he admitted, obviously embarrassed. “But I need to know. Why did you choose me? Was it just luck or do you have little guidelines you have to follow?” I added scathingly. “Normally…” He began to talk looking at his hands, avoiding my eyes. “We look for troubled teenagers from dysfunctional families, so they won’t miss them if they disappear. That’s how we avoid unnecessary complications.” He spoke so softly I had to lean close to hear him. “It makes things more difficult when there’s a family involved, going to the police and things like that.” “That doesn’t answer my question. Why me? I don’t fit your description of a ‘human guinea pig’. I have wonderful people around me who love me and would miss me.” “I know. That was what surprised me when they suggested you as a target. But maybe it was my fault.” He was still embarrassed. “I should have said that you weren’t ideal, but from the first time I saw you I couldn’t control the desire to meet you, to be near you.” He finally raised his eyes and looked at me, full of bitterness. “I thought it was just curiosity so I explained it to my bosses when they asked me to finish my work. I cheated myself. What I felt for you was so strong that I never had enough; I always wanted more from you. My curiosity was never satisfied. When I finally understood what was happening, it was too late.” “And have I finally satisfied your curiosity now?” A feeling of incomprehension completely overwhelmed me. “No! I tried to convince myself it was just curiosity, or I was infatuated with you, because you were more difficult than the rest. At least that’s what I told Luke.” A look of pain crossed his face when he said his brother’s name. “He insisted I need to change my target, but I couldn’t. Something had changed in my cold heart and it had the opposite effect to what I was trying to do. I’m the one who’s fallen at your feet begging for your love.” I was stunned by what I’d heard. Erik was being honest, but there was still something buzzing around my head, bothering me. “Luke said I wasn’t the first. How can I be sure that with me it isn’t just more of the same?” I already knew the answer, I knew it deep in my heart, but I needed to hear it from him. He took my hand tenderly and began to caress it. “I know it's hard to trust me, but I’ve never loved anyone. With the others, it was just a formality, my work or my mission, whatever you want to call it.” His eyes darkened slightly. “I don’t expect you to understand, or to approve of it. I can’t even say I’m proud. I know I’ve been a monster, but let me show that my love for you is real, that I’ve changed.” He put my hand on his chest, letting me feel the beating of his heart. “I want to trust you,” I said, a little confused. “But this is all so difficult for me.” I decided to tell him about my experience with Luke. “Luke has been boasting about the hypnotic influence you have on us. Just to make me see what you could do,” I explained. “How do I know you haven’t used it on me?” His face changed. “Because, if I had,” his voice became deep and distant, “you wouldn’t be here; you’d be in a sterilized room with doctors checking on the progress of the embryo.” A deep-rooted fear came over me at the mere mention of such a thing happening. I got up and started walking back towards the cabin. Suddenly, this forest seemed the darkest and most sinister place in the world. Erik came up to me cautiously. “Here,” he said, putting his jacket on my trembling shoulders. “I didn’t realize. You must be cold wearing just that shirt.” He was right. I was wearing the sweatpants I usually sleep in, and a thin cotton shirt with long sleeves. Despite the cold, I still had my doubts about why I was shivering. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was fear. I didn’t tell Erik why I was trembling. He’d only get more worried. He ran his hand slowly down my arms, looking into my eyes as if he needed my approval to hug me. His jacket was warm. It was pleasant. He walked a few steps away from me, putting his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans. “You promised to trust me, whatever happened.” I felt regret in his voice. “Do you still stand by that, now you know the kind of monster I am?” I couldn’t allow him to go on torturing himself like that. “Of course I do, but it would’ve been easier to believe it if you’d told me the truth and not someone else.” I searched for his hand and grasped it tightly. “You can’t imagine how bad I felt hearing the horrible things Luke told me when I couldn’t talk to you.” His hand tightened into a fist, full of anger. I immediately regretted telling him about my conversation with Luke. “You don’t know how sorry I am to hear that. I didn’t want to hurt you. I hate to see you like this, forgive me, I shouldn’t have left you with my stupid brother, he...” I covered his mouth with my hand. I didn’t want to go there. “I'll forgive you if you promise that from now on you'll stop hiding things from me. I want to hear the truth. Always.” “All right.” He looked dejected. “Even if it’s the worst thing ever, I want the truth,” I demanded. He nodded. “Well, we’re done. Let’s talk about something else.” I was about to ask him where he had been all those days, when I felt a sharp tug. My body was suddenly close to his and his arm was around my waist tightly. “If you didn’t exist, I’d have to invent you,” he whispered. I couldn’t talk or think. I thought I was going to die of happiness. The warmth of his breath on my cold skin made my heart overflow. “I’m still not sure you don’t use your powers on me,” I joked, blushing from head to toe. His lips curled into a dazzlingly attractive smile. I felt it from the way they touched my neck. “What do you want to talk about?” he asked as he kissed me. “I can’t remember,” I admitted, with my eyes closed, enjoying our closeness. He laughed, then raised his head towards me and gave me a fleeting kiss. “We’d better get back to Luke.” He put his arm round my shoulders and we began to walk, or rather I let myself get carried along. I was floating, ecstatic. Erik too. He looked relaxed, happy, even the blue of his eyes was clear and transparent again. We arrived at the cabin. Luke was waiting for us with the door open. He was lying on the couch, flipping through the book he had been reading. I greeted him but he didn’t answer, starting up a conversation with Erik instead. “You didn’t manage to talk to him, did you?” “No. I tried to, but I couldn’t, it was as if they were avoiding me. It was weird. Rudolf has come for me, I’m sure of it, but I get the feeling that he doesn’t want me to know what he has in mind.” He squeezed me tightly to his side, as if he wanted to protect me. “Do you know if he’s still after us?” Luke asked indifferently. Perhaps because he knew the answer, and really he was just asking for my sake. “I don’t think so, but it’s hard to be sure. I got out of there as soon as I could, trying to avoid him, seeing as he didn’t want to talk. I thought that was the best thing for it.” Luke's face was expressionless. I knew the situation was more serious than they wanted me to think. “So, are we safe?” I asked, more out of fear than curiosity. “Most probably,” Erik said. That didn’t help very much. If Erik wasn’t a hundred percent sure, it was because the danger was still real, even though he was trying to hide it from me. We were sitting on the couch holding hands and despite my doubts I felt safe and calm with my angel next to me. “Not even he knew where we were,” said Luke, looking at me condescendingly, but pointing at his brother. “It's a shame he found us just as we were beginning to get along so well.” There was a mixture of irony and longing in his voice. It was getting more and more difficult having to listen to his hurtful comments. I’d seen something in his eyes that told me Luke was only as hard or insensitive as he wanted to be. I felt a sharp pain across my chest. I should ignore him. It was best for everyone. “You're so predictable.” Erik said to his brother. “So what are we going to do now?” I asked, trying to talk about something more productive. “Are we going home or are we staying here?” “Right now I think the most important thing is to find a good excuse to explain your absence to your mother.” “I’ve fixed that,” I replied smugly, feeling I was useful at last. “I talked to her last night and told her quite a story.” “You called your house from here?!” Erik's eyes snapped open wide as if my call had caused a nuclear explosion. “Well, he…” I said, pointing at Luke without even looking at him. “He didn’t let me use my cell phone. In fact, he’s kidnapped it!” I added indignantly. “He went out yesterday and I called Nicole from here.” I pointed at the phone next to Erik. Erik didn’t answer but looked at me in astonishment. “That's why I didn’t leave you alone,” Luke remarked dismissively. “So you wouldn’t do anything stupid like this.” I didn’t understand why they were so angry over one little call. I’d called my mother, not the President of the United States; also, Erik had just suggested I talk to her. I didn’t understand. Why were they so angry with me? “Yeah, so what’s the problem?” I was starting to get upset. “Stella,” said Erik quietly. “Calling your mother was really irresponsible.” “What?!” I shouted in amazement. “Would you rather I let my mother die of worry?” ‘This is the last straw’, I thought, feeling more and more irritated. “No, it isn’t that. The problem is you called from here.” He was still talking calmly but he was having the opposite effect on me. The calmer Erik wanted to appear, the angrier I got. “But he gave me no choice, he had me locked up here for four days and I couldn’t talk to my mother to give her an explanation for why I’d disappeared. You have no idea how bad she’s been feeling, all that time without hearing from me,” I said, trying to justify myself. I looked at Luke, accusing him both with my eyes and my words. He stared at me defiantly, and I didn’t like what I saw one little bit. “Of all the pig-headed… I was just trying to protect you,” he said without a hint of regret. “Now thanks to your brilliant idea they’ll probably be able to trace the call and pay us a little visit.” “It's likely they’re monitoring incoming calls to your mother. They’re bound to know who rang.” Erik said. “Oh!” I gasped when I finally realized what the problem was. I covered my mouth with my hands. I never dreamed that was the reason for Erik’s strange behavior. I felt ridiculous. I thought I’d done something good and, as always, I’d just ruined everything. “Why... why didn’t you tell me last night?” I added in a whisper. “It wasn’t the right moment.” I knew what he meant. I cringed when I saw Erik staring at us. “When I left you alone, I went to call Erik. I knew he must have been looking for us and I decided it would be best to stay here and wait for him. Even though you’d put us in danger.” “But if you'd told me I...” “What would you have done? Run away with me instead of waiting for Erik? Forgive me for saying so, but I doubt it.” He looked at me accusingly, his eyes as hard as his words. What did he want from me? He already knew what I felt for his brother. His reproach was useless. I said nothing; it was all I could do just to try to stare him down. The intensity in his eyes was so deep I had to drop my gaze, completely red-faced. “Let's go.” Erik's face was unreadable. He seemed upset about all this. My anxiety began to grow when I realized that Luke might have shown him things mentally that he didn’t want to say out loud. “Where?” I asked. “To a safe place.” That was all he said; he didn’t bother looking at me. He was angrier with me than I could imagine. I started to take his hand, but I stopped halfway. It would be better to leave him alone for a little while. The hate I felt for Luke was there again like a phoenix reborn from its ashes. Even that emotion upset me. I didn’t want to feel anything for that arrogant idiot. Neither good nor bad. I just wanted to ignore him. I wanted to pretend he was dead to me. But it wasn’t easy; things were getting more and more complicated and I couldn’t do anything about it. I shook my head and threw one last look at Luke, who seemed extremely pleased with the recent rift between Erik and me. It made me want to hit him and wipe that stupid smile off his face. CONFLICT “Jealousy is just a fear, but so thin and subtle that if it were not so vile, it could be called love.” Lope de Vega “The Southern Gulf Islands?!” I asked, amazed. It was past mid-afternoon. We’d arrived at Swartz Bay, around forty miles to the south of Chemainus. Erik was buying the tickets for the ferry, nodding in answer to my question. I knew the islands, though I’d never been there. I knew about the many tourists who passed through our town before heading to one of the almost two hundred practically uninhabited islands to enjoy the deserted beaches. I was surprised at our destination. We weren’t even going to the most populated island, Salt Spring. Fear returned to my stomach, which was already a little upset thanks to the day’s events, when I imagined us at an even lonelier place. I felt pain in every muscle. The tension caused by the awkward silence between us and the tiring journey without a single stop were starting to take their toll. The swaying of the boat had a soporific effect on my exhausted body and I fell into the deepest sleep I’d had so far. I woke up strangely comforted and relieved. “Hi,” I said when I saw Erik beside me; he was looking out the window. “Hi.” He turned to me and gave me one of those smiles that I loved and made my heart beat faster. I smiled back, aware that I didn’t have the same effect on him. “We're almost there.” “Amazing!” I said, a little puzzled. “I can’t usually sleep anywhere other than in a bed.” I ran my hand through my hair. God, it was like a bird's nest! I tied my hair in a ponytail, combing my hair with my fingers and using one of the elastic bands I always carried on my wrist for occasions like this. Erik leaned towards me, put his arm behind my back and pulled me to him. I sighed with relief. As far as I could see, he wasn’t angry. I tried not to think about the reason for the trip, but it was impossible. “Can I ask you something?” I said, searching his eyes with mine. “Of course.” “What does this guy chasing us look like? Does he look like you?” “Yes, in fact you met him the other day, remember? His physical appearance is similar to us; and to you, by the way.” “That’s not what I meant.” I said, gathering my thoughts before going on. “What I wanted to know is if he also... you know, snares teenagers, brainwashes them, seduces them...” I didn’t finish. I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t get used to the idea that the angel who was hugging me and looking at me so sweetly right now, was one of them. “No.” He turned to look back at the sea. “Rudolf is like the police; to give them a name, because their work is much more than that. They watch over us so we can do our jobs, they’re supposed to be here to protect us. They keep their distance, but if something goes wrong, and if they see that we might be compromised, they get rid of any incriminating evidence.” “And getting rid of evidence includes… killing people?” “If necessary, yes,” he said sadly, trying to look for understanding. “You need to understand that we’re here incognito. If someone found out what we’re up to, a war would break out between us. And you know who’d lose, don’t you?” “Us,” I admitted. “That's why we have to be discreet.” I didn’t like him saying ‘we’, and I hated him for justifying something like that. I couldn’t see Erik that way, like a monster. “That's why you’re hiding me. I’m evidence that has to be got rid of.” The air escaped from my lungs in response to what I’d just said. “Yes…” he muttered. “It’s all my fault. I'm so sorry I got you into this. I should’ve backed away and left you to get on with your life before things got too complicated. I hadn’t realized until now how immoral our mission is. We have no right to...” He shook his head without finishing the sentence. “I just hope someday you can forgive me for ruining your life.” “Stop talking nonsense. You're the best thing that ever happened to me.” I turned my head and saw his tormented eyes. “I prefer being on the run with you than just getting by without you, like I did before.” “You don’t know what you’re saying. I’ll never forgive myself for letting myself go. I had control. I fooled myself trying to pretend it was just work, when really I was being dragged in by the hold you have over me.” Those last words reminded me of what Luke had said the night before. Since when did I have that power over someone else? Was it just over beings from another planet? It all seemed completely illogical. “Stella…” Erik went on, “You’ve become my reason for living, and nothing… no-one… can change that. They know that and they won’t rest until they try to change it.” He held me closer when he noticed I was shaking. I didn’t like seeing him so sad. He felt far away from me and that wasn’t good. I wanted him here, in body and mind, with me. Now those sky-blue eyes were hidden behind dark storm clouds. I tried to take his mind off it. “Why are we going to that island?” His features softened slightly as he answered me. “It's where I lived before I went to your town, when I wasn’t working for a while… I know someone there who can lend us a hand. Trust me.” He was almost pleading. I didn’t know if he was trying to convince himself or me. Right now, I had no choice but to trust him. I hadn’t left town for years and I didn’t know anyone who lived elsewhere. I decided not to think about that and get answers to the other questions that had been bothering me. “What does Luke have to do with all this?” I couldn’t understand why he was with us. “You could say he helped us escape. He’s been helping us so far and, although the others trust him, he prefers to be with us. Honestly, I don’t understand why he’s taking such a risk. If they catch us, his future won’t look too bright either.” He noticed the frown on my face. “Don’t worry; he knows how to take care of himself. He knew what he was getting himself into.” “You're still angry with him, aren’t you?” “Yes.” His tone of voice and his eyes expressed what he didn’t say. I didn’t like it. “You shouldn’t get angry over that. At the end of the day, he’s risked his life for us. I think we should thank him.” I hated to say it, but it was true. I felt responsible for what had happened. At least I shared fifty percent of the blame for falling in love with Erik, but Luke was risking everything for us. “He doesn’t want your gratitude.” He turned his cold eyes on me. “Trust me, I know.” “Well you'll have to explain it to me.” I knew what he was talking about. I wanted to seem unconcerned, but my body gave me away and my cheeks flushed red. “Do you want to stop running me down?” I was shocked to hear Luke's voice so close. “It isn’t right to talk about other people when they’re not around to defend themselves,” he added. He was leaning over my back, leaning forward, his face a few inches from ours. Erik’s face began to twist into a mask of pain, while Luke looked like the picture of happiness. Something was going on between them and I wasn’t prepared just to sit there looking on, especially seeing Erik like that. Seeing such remorse on his face made my heart ache. “Stop it!” I shouted, pushing Luke back. “Stop thinking whatever you're thinking!” Fury was eating me up inside, but screaming wasn’t going to solve anything. I needed to be more subtle. “Luke, I’m asking you, please. Stop it.” He laughed loudly and leaned back in his seat. Erik remained white as a sheet. His breathing was irregular and small drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked, worried. “Nothing.” Not even he believed that. “You promised to be honest with me, and seeing your face right now, ‘nothing’ doesn’t seem very honest.” I knew his brother was listening to us, enjoying the situation he’d just caused. “I know,” he said sharply. “But this time I’m not the one who has something to tell. I think it's the other way around. Am I wrong?” He squeezed the bridge of his nose between two fingers and closed his eyes tightly, his mouth shrinking into a thin line. “I don’t know what you mean.” I wasn’t completely clear about what Erik wanted to hear. “What if you start by telling me what happened last night?” His voice was cold and distant and it had me trapped. “You know what happened.” He looked at me suspiciously waiting for a more accurate answer. ‘Is he jealous?’ I thought. That was ridiculous. I needed to clear this up as soon as possible. “I called my mother and I messed up everything. End of story.” “Luke’s version is longer.” I didn’t like the sarcastic tone he was using at all. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Luke had taken advantage of the situation. Besides, Erik had left us alone, without even asking if I was okay with that. Now he was playing the victim. My anger was growing every second, although I wasn’t sure if I was more upset with Erik for not trusting me or with Luke for putting me in such a situation and enjoying it. “I don’t like your alpha male attitude. What I’ve told you is the only important thing that happened last night,” I said firmly. “What your beloved brother’s sick mind has conjured up can’t be the least bit important because I can’t even remember.” I couldn’t see Luke, but I heard him squirming uncomfortably in the chair behind me. He can’t have liked what I’d just said. I didn’t like it either. What I’d felt when Luke kissed me couldn’t be compared to how my body felt when I kissed Erik. Still, that stolen kiss came back to haunt my memory again and again, tormenting me. But I wasn’t going to give this arrogant moron that pleasure, listening to us from the row behind. Erik was pensive, as if he was analyzing his options. I was tired. I decided to finish this once and for all. “I don’t care if you believe me or not, I won’t talk about this again, so when you have something interesting to tell me, let me know.” I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep so I wouldn’t have to talk to either of them. The boat slowed and a siren sounded. I opened my eyes and looked around. Erik looked out the window. I had a déjà vu. I’d lived this moment before. Luke had disappeared and had sat down a few rows back. “Hi,” I whispered. Erik turned to me. A dazzling smile lit up his beautiful face, stopping my heart. I searched in his sky-blue eyes. He wasn’t as happy as he was trying to make out. “So you’re not angry any more?” he said in response. He stroked my cheek gently. I took his hand, raised it to my lips and kissed it. “Of course I’m not, but it bothers me that you don’t trust me. You’re always asking me to trust you. I think I deserve the same, right?” “You're right,” he said taking my hand in his. “I'm sorry about before, but Luke drives me crazy. I can’t stand seeing you in his mind like that...” He stopped suddenly as if he realized he was doing something wrong. “Like what?” Luke had a few things to explain to me. As if he’d read my mind, he suddenly appeared next to me. “Are we getting off, or we are going to live on this boat?” He wore his backpack and a mischievous smile. He was also wearing his mask of indifference, similar to the one Erik used when he wanted to hide the truth from me. But his eyes spoke. They gave him away. As much as he wanted to conceal it, Luke had changed and, to be honest, it made him extremely attractive. I turned to Erik and erased my last thoughts. “Let’s go,” he said standing up, grabbing his backpack and mine. We got off the boat. An incredible calm reigned over the small harbor. It was an odd place. Chemainus seemed like a hive of activity compared to this island. A sense of peace came over me. The serenity of the surroundings was contagious. Erik pulled his phone from his pocket of his jacket and stood at a distance from me, whispering to the caller. I sat on the edge of a low wall to wait. Luke leaned against the trunk of a tree at a safe distance from me, with his hands his jeans pockets, looking very serious. “Congratulations. You really are some actress.” “I don’t know what you're talking about.” The irritation showed in my voice. “That little show before was quite something. You fooled him, but you can’t fool me.” I hid my nervousness. I knew exactly what he was trying to say, and he was right. But I wasn’t about to let him know it. “I haven’t misled anyone. Maybe it’s you who’s fooling yourself.” He came over to me, resting his hands on the wall where I was sitting. He leaned threateningly over my face. “You weren’t so cold when I kissed you,” he whispered. A cold sweat ran down my back and covered my hands. I clenched my backpack hard trying in vain to calm my breathing. “You liked it as much as I did. I know.” His lips were so close to my neck I could feel the warmth of his breath caressing my skin. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I made a superhuman effort to disagree with a slight shake of the head. “You won’t be able to resist forever.” His voice took complete control of my mind. “If I wanted I could have you right now, but I don’t want it that way. I prefer you to make your choice. But I assure you it'll be me.” I blinked a few times to recover from what had just happened. Luke wasn’t there any more. He’d walked away in an instant and was leaning against the same tree as before, staring at me with a mocking smile on his face. Then I realized it wasn’t so much his speed in walking away, it was my reactions that had slowed down. He’d used his powers of seduction with me again. I hated myself for being so vulnerable. Now that I was back in control of my mind, I decided to ignore him and I looked at Erik, who turned and smiled at me, oblivious to what had just happened. I smiled back, knowing that Luke expected some reaction from me. I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction. We had a car at our disposal. A small one, left there by someone they’d contacted beforehand; I hadn’t even noticed. “And now where are we going?” To be honest, I didn’t care where we were going. There was nothing but rocks and vegetation there. But if I said something, maybe I could erase the episode with Luke from my mind. “We're going to visit some friends. They’ll hide us for a few days until we decide what to do.” Erik looked relaxed. I was sure he felt at home. “Are your friends...” I resisted the use the word alien, because it always made me think of slimy green bugs. And in this case it was wrong. “...from your planet?” “Yes, they’re Kaelians.” He turned to look at me. “Does that worry you?” “I don’t know. Should it?” I stared at him, but he wasn’t the one who answered. “Of course you should worry,” said Luke in his usual jaundiced way. “Just being with us two right now should make your hair stand on end.” He was in the back seat, right behind me. “Something’s wrong up here,” he said, tapping my head with his fingers. I pushed him away with a slap. He clung to my seat, rubbing my arms with his fingertips. My body couldn’t move an inch, no matter how much my head wanted it to. “Leave her alone.” said Erik. Grabbing the wheel with one hand, he pushed Luke back with the other and freed me. I breathed a sigh of relief. The way my body reacted to Luke was maddening. I couldn’t or I didn’t want to control myself. But my heart was Erik’s. I was going crazy. No, it was official. I was already crazy. I’d never been interested in any boy and now I was caught between two aliens who were fighting over me. Luke must be right. I wasn’t right in the head. I looked out of the window with my head resting on the glass. The background was breathtakingly beautiful. Splashes of red light dyed the clouds like cotton candies in a fiery orange sky, as if the sun was shooting out its last flares before dying completely. The narrow road was barely visible, dominated by a deep green that covered everything including us as we neared our destination. I saw a small cabin in front of me. Erik stopped and I knew we’d arrived. I got out of the car, followed by Luke. It was getting colder as night began to fall. I snuggled into my coat. Erik came to me quickly. He put his arms around me and the pleasant warmth of his body made me tingle inside. “I’d forgotten how much the cold gets into your bones round here,” he said, squeezing me closer. We stumbled together towards the little cabin slowly, but I had no intention of letting him go, still less of complaining about it. “Welcome home.” A beautiful woman smiled at us from the doorway. Her mahogany hair fell limply over her shoulders, ending in a sloping cut, slightly longer at the front than the back, framing her extremely beautiful face, with its soft features and velvety complexion. I paused for a moment to look at her strange lemon-green eyes, cold and expressionless, as might be expected from a Kaelian. Erik and Luke greeted her politely. I did the same with a ‘hello’ and a nod. “I'm glad you're here again,” she said to them, inviting us in. The house was similar to the cabin that Luke and I had shared. Same furniture, same decor. They looked like prefabricated houses in wood and stone. “What’s up guys?” I heard a male voice say from inside. “How are you doing, Jeff?” said Luke loudly, striding inside ahead of us. I walked in hesitantly behind Erik. “Hi, Jeff,” he said once we were in the lounge. It was as pleasant a place as the one before, but now that I looked at it more carefully, I could see slight differences. Inside it was wood and gray stone, no different from the previous one. But the windows were decorated with ivory-colored curtains lighter than the heavy ones in the other cabin. The furniture was different too, more rustic, maybe handmade. These little touches were the basic difference between the two houses. This one was lived-in. The temperature was nice inside, with the remains of a fire in the fireplace. The man who’d greeted us was just getting off the couch where he casually put down a book so worn by use that it didn’t even close. As I’d expected, as I approached him I could see how attractive he was. He had the ethereal beauty of my two companions, but something about his features made him look more mature, calmer, making him more attractive and, I assumed, older. His short, jet black neatly swept back hair went with his big dark eyes, as threatening as a starless, moonless night. His body, like the woman at the entrance, was pure fiber. Nothing extra, nothing missing. As perfect as Erik and Luke. I felt insignificant next to such beauty. Comparisons are always hateful, and more so in my case, I seemed to be a permanent loser. “And you are…?” he asked politely, holding out a hand. “Stella Preston,” I mumbled, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you Stella.” His dark eyes searched my face; I didn’t even dare to breathe. “And to what do we owe the honor of your visit? I didn’t expect your call and I never imagined you’d come so soon. I’m intrigued,” he added, turning to Erik. “It's a long story; would you like to hear it?” The question was pure courtesy. I was sure that Erik knew Jeff would listen. We hadn’t come to a remote island in the middle of the sea for nothing. He invited us to take a seat and Erik began to tell him everything that had happened. I was surprised to hear our story from his point of view. It sounded more like a police report than a love story. I glanced at Luke, who seemed very interested in the conversation he was having with the woman – Angie was her name, apparently. He didn’t seem the least bit interested in our story. For a moment I thought he’d given up, tired of the dangerous game he was playing with me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He looked over at me and I could feel the challenge in his eyes. He curled his lips, giving me a provocative smile that made me blush. I hadn’t realized, but I was staring at him, spellbound. He seemed delighted with the look on my face and came over to us. “Well, Jeff, what do you think about this little love story?” He stood beside the fireplace, leaning on the stone frame, with his arms crossed over his chest, the dull glow of the embers bringing out the copper-colored glints in his hair. Jeff looked at Luke, shaking his head. “You haven’t lost your style, eh? Always so blunt, so provocative,” he said with a slight smile. “This doesn’t look good…” he added turning to Erik, looking somber again. “You know that none of this will be any use.” My muscles tensed when I heard that. What was he saying? Would he give us up to the people who were after us? Had we fallen into a trap? Dozens of hypotheses crossed my mind. “I know, but the question is, can you help us?” Erik remained unperturbed. Apparently, I was the only one in that little room who was likely to have a heart attack. The others stayed calm, as if they were planning a day out at the beach and not our future lives. “I don’t know how I can help you, but you can count on me for whatever you need. You know I didn’t understand or agree with your work here.” He pointed his finger at both. “All this time playing God and in the end you...” he said, looking at Erik, “… fell into your own trap.” “This is no time for sermons,” commented Luke. I looked at him in disbelief when I saw he was taking Erik’s side. “Let´s focus on the problem. What do we do with the girl?” How could I not have realized? This wasn’t about backing Erik up; what he wanted was to turn their attack onto me. He knew I hated it when he called me ‘girl’ and he enjoyed seeing the rage on my face. I was going to become the target of his irony and I really didn’t want that. “The ‘girl’…” I said, emphasizing the word, “…can take care of herself. You just haven’t given me the chance yet.” “Oh, wow! Sorry if we’ve offended you!” he replied. “It turns out we should have asked her before saving her life. How thoughtless of us! I beg your pardon!” He clutched his chest in a theatrical pretense of regret. I could feel the blood boiling in my veins, and I felt an uncontrollable rage taking me over. I met his gaze defiantly. “I don’t know how you do it!” My voice was trembling with anger. “But bravo! When I thought I couldn’t despise you any more, you manage to go and do something to make me do it!” Erik looked at us in silence, as if he wasn’t involved in all this. It was Angie who calmed things down. “I think you've said enough,” she said, looking at Luke. “I don’t think it’s her fault she’s in this situation. It’s your fault, or should I say his…” she said, nodding at Erik. “Anyway, there’s no going back. For any of you. So we’d better get to work instead of wasting precious time on useless fights.” She stood in front of Luke and ran her hand through her hair nonchalantly. “You have your own love story too, don’t you?” Luke went as white as a sheet. It seemed to confirm my theory that women, human or alien, had a sixth sense for reading between the lines. “I don’t know what you're talking about,” he muttered, leaving the room in two strides. Within seconds, I heard the front door slam shut. “I’m sorry,” Jeff said, turning to me. He seemed amused watching the pathetic show we were putting on. “You must have a very low opinion of us.” “No, of course I don’t.” I answered, trying to sound believable. “Come with me. I’ll tell you a few things that I’m sure you don’t know about our civilization.” He stood up and began to walk towards a small room off the living room. Erik took me by the hand, nudging me to follow him. The room was small, full of books everywhere and a huge telescope in the center that reminded me of the one Erik had. You couldn’t find anything like that in the stores. Jeff went to the bookcase. He took a thick, leather-bound book with yellowed, ageing pages and placed it on a table behind the telescope. “Come here, Stella, I want to show you something.” I walked toward him, hesitant but curious. “This book contains our history. From the beginning of our civilization to what we are today, practically.” I looked at the big book with different eyes. I might be able to find answers to all my questions there. Jeff started to answer some of them without me asking. “Our civilization is very old. Twice as old as yours, more or less. We consider you to be still evolving because of your… precarious way of life.” “And where did you come from? I mean…” I tried to explain myself better. “How did it all start on your planet? And on ours, by the way?” He must have been expecting that to be my first question. “To be honest, it's not something I worry about too much.” His answer left me floundering. As usual, my face mirrored my thoughts. “Let me explain. Most of us are scientists, each in their field. So we just dedicate our lives to research and study. This advanced knowledge about life is what makes me think there must be something superior to us, someone who’s done this, but that’s controversial, even in our civilization.” “That's not the best answer for a scientist. It’s too superfluous.” A smile spread across his face, adding sweetness to it. For a moment, I felt as if I was talking to my father again. “Let's just say I don’t consider myself a scientist like the rest. But are those the questions you really wanted to ask?” No, it wasn’t the path I wanted the conversation to go down. I had an excellent opportunity to discover everything that Erik had been hiding from me. I decided to continue investigating. I was hungry for knowledge. “Why are we almost identical but we haven’t advanced equally?” “Because we’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to enrich ourselves, increase our knowledge and wisdom, while you merely get carried away by your more unreliable instincts.” That sounded familiar. Again, they were telling me that we were too sensitive. His answers only managed to raise new questions in my mind. Erik was silent, scrutinizing me with his eyes, while I went on with the interrogation. Then I asked the obvious question. “How long have you been on Earth?” “I think we came back a couple of decades ago.” “Came back?” I was confused. “You mean you’ve been here before?” “Yes. Do the Egyptians and Mayans ring a bell?” “Sure, what about them?” “You must know thanks to history that these two civilizations, despite living far apart in time and space, shared many features and abilities. Their pyramids, the knowledge they possessed about astronomy. It was very advanced for such primitive civilizations. Do you think it was a coincidence?” “You?” I whispered. “Exactly. Our ancestors were among them, enhancing their skills. You humans have the skills, what you need is to learn how to use them.” I was more and more perplexed. I noticed Erik's hand was squeezing mine. “You said you came back, why did you leave?” “Because it was difficult to live among humans unnoticed.” There was a hint of superiority in his voice. “And you don’t have that problem now?” “It's not so obvious, but we have a more serious problem on our planet which requires us to be here. Didn’t you tell her?” he asked looking at Erik, who suddenly looked very tense. “It isn’t necessary.” “You’re wrong. It’s essential that she knows.” I was dying of curiosity. I couldn’t wait to hear it, whatever it was. “What kind of problem?” I said, insistently. I knew Erik was hiding a lot of details from me. I didn’t want to miss this chance to find out everything. “Our civilization is condemned to extinction unless we do something about it.” I said nothing, my eyes opening wide. “With genetic manipulation of our DNA we have achieved perfection, but such a drastic change has brought consequences for us.” “I don’t understand.” “A few decades ago, just before returning to your planet, we discovered that our DNA banks were flawed, they were contaminated. That's why most of those who were born during the last hundred years in Kaeliux are suffering from the same disease, a type of leukemia, which is killing us. Our bone marrow is damaged, we need transplants, but it’s virtually impossible among ourselves because we’re all suffering from the same disease and those who aren’t ill are more than a hundred years old and aren’t compatible. We’ve discovered countless treatments that minimize the symptoms and we’ve improved our quality of life, but only a transplant will eliminate the problem.” “Erik told me you didn’t die from natural causes.” I was dazed. “And we didn’t. Until now. This is an inherited disease. We weren’t aware of it until we had it.” Jeff's tone was neutral without being carried away by emotion. He was completely controlled. “Isn’t there anything you can do to hurry these transplants along?” I looked at Erik, trying to work out his age from his timeless face. Was he also suffering from this disease? “Yes, that’s why we’re here.” “Ah.” It was all I could say. “We need new, healthy stem cells. It’s impossible to get them from among us. Do you know where they’re found?” In the umbilical cord?” I answered, although I wasn’t completely certain. “Yes and from other places, but we are interested in the placenta, even though we use the cord too. Did Erik explain how we conceive our young?” “He told me it was like an IVF procedure.” “It's not quite the same. The entire process takes place outside the womb, in an artificial womb.” He raised his sweater and showed me his abdomen. “As you can see we don’t have navels like humans.” I gasped, looking at his perfectly smooth belly. “The females of our species are unable to bear children in their wombs like you humans; that's why we're here.” “So why me? Why don’t you go to a hospital or something like that for the stuff you need?” I wasn’t stupid, but this was beyond my understanding. The more I knew about this civilization, the less I understood. “It's not that simple. We need stem cells that have part of our DNA, so that they’re compatible with our core. It doesn’t work with solely human umbilical cords or placenta. We have to combine our genes and yours.” Now it all fitted. They weren’t looking to improve our species as Luke had made me believe. They were seducing teenagers to save themselves, getting them pregnant at the first opportunity, and waiting for the moment when they could make off with their precious stem cells. A vague memory came to my mind of that conversation with my mother about Lilian, the girl someone abandoned at the hospital after giving birth, unconscious and alone. Was she a victim of this madness? The air was barely reaching my lungs and I was breathing too fast. “We don’t mean to hurt you, but sometimes you don’t survive the pregnancy. It’s a little collateral damage. After the birth, we get the umbilical cord and placenta, to continue the investigation, and if it’s successful, we go home in good health, physically and mentally.” Jeff seemed sincere, but I was about to throw up. “And what about the babies?” I was almost incapable of speech. “Until now none of the babies have survived. It must be impossible to survive such a genetic mix...” Erik interrupted him. “But I won’t go on with this lunacy. It’s monstrous to use them this way,” he snapped, just to let me know he’d been following the conversation. I’d almost forgotten he was there. “That's why you're being followed. They know there’s something wrong with your attitude and she’s the reason for it.” I tried to pay no heed to what they were saying. I couldn’t believe they were so selfish that they were manipulating us like that. And worst of all, I’d believed the explanation about racial experimentation and all that! “There's something I don’t understand,” I said, trying to think. “If you’re so perfect and advanced that you consider yourselves superior to humans, why are you hiding your mission? Isn’t there any way you could talk to the authorities? Sign an agreement about surrogate motherhood or something like that?” Erik winced. He certainly didn’t like what I’d said, but he had to get used to the idea that I didn’t like what they were up to either. “They wouldn’t understand. You aren’t ready to assimilate that there is life beyond Earth and even less so if we come and ask you for favors.” Erik tensed beside me, looking down as if he wanted to apologize. “I'm sure that's not the reason.” I saw a surprised look on their faces. “It isn’t?” they replied in unison. “No. Humans can deal with your existence perfectly well. I’ve done it, for one. You’ve realized that being so perfect has got you nowhere; that life is for living, for better or worse. That’s why you came to our planet in the first place, and that’s why you’ve come back. In the end you want to be like us and that’s why you want to go unnoticed, you want to live human lives,” I said, pleased to see that they didn’t know what to say. “Besides the stem cells and all that stuff.” “You're right,” said Erik, kissing my hand, entwined in his. “I am?” I was totally taken aback. I thought he’d say I was crazy for thinking that way. “Yes, you're right, we envy you. And thanks to you I've been luckier than the rest of my race, since you’ve given me the chance to experience everything that I could only dream of.” I smiled back at him. “Guys, I'm still here,” said Jeff, as if our little display of love was making him feel nauseous. The door opened abruptly, making me jump. “He knows where we are!” Luke burst into the room followed by Angie. “What?!” shouted Erik. “Apparently Rudolf followed you. We were too predictable coming here.” Luke's eyes sparked with fury. “Let’s analyze this calmly.” Jeff seemed calm despite the situation, as did Angie. “How did you find out?” “He tried to contact me. Rudolf knew where to look for my mind.” He looked at Erik as if it was obvious. “I didn’t let him make the connection.” Everyone fell silent. Luke paced from one side of the room to the other, running his hand through his shaggy red hair. Erik stood beside me with a lost, faraway look but still stroking my hand. I couldn’t stand the silence. I knew I was the only one that was being left out of what was going on. They were probably sharing ideas mentally. It made me want to scream. I’m here too, remember? “So what happens if they find us here?” I asked, to remind them I was being left out of their decision-making. Four pairs of eyes were suddenly on me, as if I’d just said something terrible. I tried to explain. “I want to be prepared for the worst,” I said, a little embarrassed. “The worst case scenario…” said Luke, trapping me with his fierce gaze, “is that you end up dead and we get a nice complete brainwashing.” The blood drained from my face. I knew that was a possibility. Erik had told me, but I never saw it as real as now, reflected in Luke’s eyes. “That’s not going to happen.” Erik hugged me against him, but I couldn’t look away from the depths of his brother’s gaze, his eyes strained and anxious. “I'll take care of you, I'll protect you. You can be sure of that,” said Erik. He was my angel again. For a moment, I forgot the danger and I felt completely safe at his side, in his arms. “Stop overprotecting her. Grown up, damn it! We’re risking our lives thanks to your foolishness.” Luke's voice rumbled around the room like thunder while Erik stared at him. I started to feel weak and helpless again and I curled up against Erik’s body in a desperate attempt to stay calm. “No one’s making you stay,” Erik scolded him with a coolness that didn’t match the fire in his eyes. “She’s with me. Face it, period.” I looked in amazement at the two of them. We were on the edge of the abyss, and they were fighting over me. I was angry and shrugged off Erik’s arm. Right then, the last thing I needed was stupid fights between the two brothers. “Stop it!” I was amazed by the strength of my own voice. “I'm not a trophy! Is that clear?” An awkward silence reigned in the living room. Jeff and Angie left the house without saying anything. Luke followed them, after an angry glance at his brother. I was alone with Erik, saying nothing, waiting for him to break the ice. “What do you reckon?” he asked at last. “I don’t think my opinion is worth anything right now,” I shrugged. “It is to me.” “Yeah, but first I'd like to know what we’re going to do. I don’t know if you realize, but I can’t read minds like you.” He heard the anger in my voice and he knew there was more behind what I was saying. “Stella, I can’t change my past, but I can change the future.” “We are what we are, people don’t change.” I said. It hurt me to say that, but the more I discovered about Erik’s past, the more afraid I was about my hopes of a possible future with him, although that thought broke my heart into a million pieces. “I can change. You’ve changed me.” His blue sea went transparent again, and I lost myself in it. I knew he was sincere and he wanted, he longed to change. But what if Luke's predictions came true? The future that lay before us was not a hopeful one. What if Erik was like before, beautiful on the outside but cold inside? He seemed to read the concern on my face. He took my hand and placed it on his chest. “This can’t be changed. Before my heart just pumped blood without questioning anything, but now it needs you to keep beating.” I understood him perfectly. I felt exactly the same way. My heart reacted to being near him, as if it had a life of its own. It beat faster when Erik touched me or it could stop with one look from him. My heart was no longer my own. It belonged to him, this beautiful creature with golden hair and blue eyes. At that moment I knew that, whatever happened, we would always be together. Our bodies were united by something supernatural. We needed each other to stay alive and nothing and no one, here or on another planet, would be able to change that. “So what do we do now?” “Luke suggested contacting Rudolf to set a trap for him. Jeff and Angie will help us.” “Why are they helping us? Aren’t they afraid of the consequences this might bring?” I only trusted Erik and, much against my better judgment, Luke. “No, because they’re renegades, they’re outside the rules of our civilization.” “Can you do that? Refuse to be a part of it, I mean.” These people didn’t cease to amaze me. “Yes,” he stated.” We don’t live under a dictatorship. There are some who disagree about how we live or what we do, and they decide to set themselves apart, living among you, but they can never reveal their identity.” An idea crossed my mind. “Why don’t you do that too?” “Because I'm not just a civilian,” he admitted ruefully. “I’m part of an army. I was trained to follow orders. Obedience has to be my priority.” He bowed his head. “When I abandoned my mission I became a deserter. They will search for me until they find me, and my punishment will be an example for those who refuse to obey.” “That’s cruel,” I answered, overcome by a feeling of impotence. “I know, but I was aware of the danger I was exposing myself to. I'm not the first to skip the rules,” he added, playing with my fingers anxiously. “And what happened to him?” My voice was as dead as my hope. “When they found him, they locked him up in an institution and they emptied his mind of memories, leaving him in perpetual mental darkness.” His voice began to shake, as did his hands. I saw his jaw clench in an attempt to control himself. “A living death; all he can do is walk around the garden of the institution.” His face, contorted with pain and anger, aroused my curiosity. A strange foreboding came over me. “Was he your friend?” I asked, putting the question out there. “He's my father,” he sighed, lifting his eyes to meet mine. An intense pain shot through my chest when I felt his pain. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for him to see his father like that. “I'm sorry,” I said, kissing his cheek softly, trying to ease the hurt. “Until now I’d never cared about it. I had no deep feelings for him, you know,” he said by way of justification, a little embarrassed as he recalled his coldness in the past, even towards his own father. “Don’t look me like that, Stella, it’s not your fault.” “It is now,” I said, intertwining his hand and mine, raising both together. He looked at them for a moment that seemed to go on forever. “You haven’t done anything wrong,” he said, taking my hand to his lips and kissing it tenderly. “Being charming, intelligent, beautiful... those are your sins.” I dropped my head against his side. He stroked my long, cascading hair. “And if they find us, will it be like Luke said?” I asked anxiously. “It won’t exactly be pleasant if they catch us.” I could see the pain etched on his face. “But will they kill me?” I insisted. He hadn’t given me a straight answer. “Luke already told you.” He looked grim. “Then he wasn’t exaggerating just to scare me?” I asked, terrified. “No, Luke never exaggerates, he just simplifies.” I felt myself shaking with panic. “What kind of death can I look forward to?” I asked, surprised by my own question. “Don’t make me talk about it.” My curiosity turned to fear when I saw his eyes, as dark as the ocean in winter. I didn’t want to know. “If they catch us, we’re dead, either physically or mentally. They don’t care what they do to achieve it.” My panic was reflected on my face. “We aren’t going to let that happen. They’re not going to catch you, so there’s no need to worry, is there?” Luke came in like a shot, dragging the cold night air in with him. Erik didn’t move and I stood beside him, as stiff as a board. “That’s enough talking, lovebirds.” he barked contemptuously. “Get out,” replied Erik without even looking at him. “Am I interrupting something? A declaration of eternal love? Till death do us part and all that nonsense?” This time it was me that replied. “I wish you’d bite your tongue and poison yourself.” I stared him down for the first time, perhaps because I was angry, but it was Luke who took his eyes off me, ducking his head. “If I’m going to bite anybody’s tongue, it’ll be yours,” he replied, without looking at me either. I had no time to react when I saw Erik on his feet, grabbing him by the neck, his face twisted with rage. “I’m not putting up with you anymore,” he snarled. “Get out of here or I’ll kill you with my bare hands.” Luke didn’t defend himself; he just looked at Erik intently. His mind was telling him what his lips weren’t. “Bastard!” Erik's fist landed on Luke's jaw with a loud crack. He stumbled around for a few seconds, but quickly regained his composure to plunge a fist into Erik’s stomach, making him hunch up in pain. I lunged at them, trying to separate them. “Stop! Stop it!” I screamed like a lunatic, but it was completely useless. Erik was unrecognizable, as was Luke. Suddenly I felt a hand pressing my shoulder and pulling me back. “I’ll take care of this,” Jeff whispered in my ear. Angie came up behind Luke and wrapped her arms around him, like an anaconda with its prey. I was impressed by her strength. Jeff did the same with Erik, but it was more difficult to calm him down. Even so, the fight stopped. ASSUMPTIONS “There is no need to know danger to fear it; indeed, it may be observed, that it is usually unknown perils that inspire the greatest terror.” Alexandre Dumas Both boys were sitting on the sofa, each one with a bag of frozen peas resting on their bruised faces. I felt sorry when I saw dried blood on the corner of Erik’s mouth and his bruised cheekbone. I took a wet gauze and began to wipe it gently. “Ow!” he groaned. “Don’t you even think of complaining.” I was glad to be able to give a little seriousness to my voice, when in fact it broke my heart to see him like this. I glanced at Luke and saw a mocking smile starting to form on his lips. I threw the pack of gauze at his face. “Hey! What's wrong with you? Don’t I get to have a nurse too?” I ignored him, carrying on cleaning and tending to Erik’s bruises. “I'm sorry,” said my angel, looking upset. I had to force myself not to kiss him. “So you should be,” I answered, turning to his brother, to prevent his blue sea from melting me. “And what about you? Don’t you have anything to say?” “I have lots of things to say,” he said, looking at the gauze soaked with blood. “But I'm quite sure you don’t want to hear them.” He raised his head slowly and looked at me defiantly. “Arrogant idiot,” I muttered, looking away. Erik tried to smile but he ended up with a strange half-grimace because of his sore lip. Luke got up from the couch, his face bent into an ugly scowl. The fight must have left him in pain too. Before he could leave, Jeff came in, frowning. “Sit down,” he ordered Luke, pointing at the sofa. Luke obeyed reluctantly. I braced myself for the sermon they were going to get. “I'm not your father, or your boss,” he began with his index fingers on his chin, extending the pause, surveying first one then the other with a cold, dark look. “I don’t care what happens between you. You’re out of your minds and I can’t control that, but inside this house you will behave like civilized people. I don’t want any more fighting, any more yelling, not one word out of place, you got it?” They both nodded silently. Jeff's voice was so firm that I nodded too. “Well, we’re done, then,” he added, standing up and going over to them. “I want you to see what’s just arrived.” Erik and Luke exchanged a quick glance. My angel broke the awkward silence. Apparently, they’d forgotten that I couldn’t read their minds. “When did it arrive? Who…?” He stopped in mid-sentence. Jeff merely moved his head slightly and the brothers sprang to their feet. I jumped in my seat too. “What now?” I asked, my heart racing. “We’ve been formally ordered to a meeting. They want a report on how our work is going.” Erik blinked in disbelief, looking at the paper in his hands. “But we’re not going, right?” I whispered. “You’re not, we are,” Luke replied. “What?!” I leapt out of my seat, as if I had a spring fitted in my back. “You’re going home,” Erik added, almost too calmly as he took my hand, which had been clinging to his jersey. Only then did I realize how white my knuckles were. “Jeff and Angie will go with you. I won’t let you go alone.” “Have you gone crazy?” They looked at me as if they didn’t understand me, as if I was the one who was insane. “We've been days running from your ‘friends’ and now you’re going to meet them?” I didn’t understand anything. What had gotten into them?! “Stella, calm down. This is a good sign,” Erik replied, pensively. “By the look of it, they don’t know about my situation, and that gives us an advantage. I have to go so they don’t suspect anything. We misunderstood Rudolf's visit. It was just routine.” He patted my back gently, trying to make me feel better. “No one’s been following us, everything’s okay.” “It’s a trap!” I yelled. “Can’t you see that?” I couldn’t believe they hadn’t seen the connection; it was too much of a coincidence. But both of them seemed to have swallowed it. I couldn’t get over my amazement, now they were the ones who were looking at me like I was out of my mind. “You see, honey...” Luke began. “I'm not your honey,” I interrupted him, more than a little irritated. “Okay, okay, whatever you say…” he conceded. “The fact is, whether it’s a trap or not, and we don’t think it is, we have to go.” “Why?” “Because if they don’t suspect us, we’d better not give them a reason to.” Erik said, surprisingly calmly. I wanted to shake him to make him realize the danger involved in going to the meeting. “Well, then I’m going with you,” I exclaimed suddenly, not sure about what I’d just said. “No!” They echoed in unison. Erik's eyes flashed. I was scared. “No way you’re going to do anything as stupid as that,” said Erik. “We’ll just pretend that everything’s normal and in a couple of days we'll be together.” I woke up the next day with a clear idea in my mind, but I needed help. “Luke, please!” I begged again and again; he looked at me warily. “Don’t bring me into this.” He twisted his arm out of my grasp. “What’s got into your worm-ridden brain? You’re insane.” “No more than you all are,” I replied. “What if Erik finds out? What will you do then? Blame me as usual?” he sniped provocatively. Another knife to the gut, but I didn’t care. I’d put up with whatever it took to get what I wanted. “Erik doesn’t have to know.” “No.” He shook his head, though his eyes showed that he was beginning to crumble. A little more persistence and I’d have him where I wanted him. “You know it’s a good idea; it can work.” He was still shaking his head, but he didn’t look at me. “Please ..., Luke, please,” I whispered pleadingly. I put my hand on his arm again and caressed it lightly. He clenched his jaw. I felt terrible using him that way, but I had no choice. I needed his help. “Don’t play games with me,” he grunted, grabbing my hand suddenly. “I'm not playing games. I need to go with you and only you can help me.” “All right,” he grinned slowly. “You’re supposed to hate me and would you believe it, I’m your only way out. Ironic, isn’t it? Who are you trying to kid?” He turned to me, a very serious look on his face, his turquoise eyes staring at me. “I don’t want the crumbs off someone else’s table. It’s all or nothing.” “What do you mean?” I asked, feeling uncomfortable. The conversation was turning against me. I deserved it. His grin became mischievous when he saw he was getting the upper hand. “It’s easy.” He stopped for a few seconds and my breathing went out of control. “Just admit that you have feelings for me.” His hand eased its pressure on mine, caressing me. “Just say it, say what you feel inside and I’ll do whatever you ask.” He had me where he wanted me, between a rock and a hard place. I felt the blood run cold in my veins. How could he expect me to say something like that? “No,” I said firmly. “No what? That you don’t feel anything for me or you're not going to say it?” I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t answer while he kept his eyes on mine. I couldn’t believe how he’d twisted things round like that. “You know very well I’m not in love with you, don’t even dream it,” I said at last. “Then why don’t you look at me and say it?” Damn! He’d noticed. I looked up hesitantly. His usually hostile eyes seemed sweet and sincere. I wanted to talk, but the words were stuck like a lump in my throat. I paused for too long. “Okay,” he said, “you decide.” He turned and began to walk away. I ran after him, grabbing him by the shirt. “Wait!” “Have you changed your mind?” The sharpness in his voice exasperated me. I breathed deeply to calm down. “Why can’t you help me instead of driving me crazy all the time?!” “I don’t mean to drive you crazy,” he replied in an extremely sensual voice. “I’m just telling you what you don’t want to hear.” It was stalemate; I decided to let it go. “You’re impossible.” I let go of him, hugging myself to keep warm. I’d gone outside when Erik locked himself in the study, planning his fictitious report. I wanted to convince Luke before Erik knew about it, but it had been in vain. Now I was freezing and I didn’t know what to do. “If you change your mind I'll be on the couch, it’s more comfortable for a romp,” he winked. I looked at him in disgust. How could he find it amusing to hurt me like that? I turned on my heels, furious and flushed with embarrassment. I paced restlessly around the house for a while. Jeff and Angie were sitting on the couch reading, as usual. For a moment, they took such little notice of me that I thought I was invisible. I was like a caged lion. I needed to go outside and clear my thoughts in the winter cold. I knew something was wrong. I had a knot in my stomach. That strange feeling of anxiety that only Erik could calm, but he needed to concentrate on what he was doing, our future depended on how convincing it was. ‘If only I could talk to Luke.’ The thought crossed my mind, leaving me dumbfounded. Did I miss Luke? Was he a substitute for Erik? I couldn’t believe it; I refused to keep thinking about it. I had to admit that, after Erik, the only person I trusted was Luke. My head wasn’t working normally. How could I feel calm with that overbearing, arrogant alien by my side? A sharp pain shot through my temple, threatening to ruin the rest of the day. I walked around again, heading to the bathroom looking for a painkiller. Suddenly my vision blurred and everything disappeared before my eyes, plunging me into the deepest darkness. “Stella, Stella, my love...” I heard the voice of my angel, distant, like a dream. Someone was shaking me gently. I opened my eyes with difficulty, blinded by the sudden light. I blinked a few times to adjust my vision. A beautiful face came between the blinding light and my eyes. “Stella, honey, are you okay? Can you hear me?” The concern in his voice couldn’t hide the hint of unease behind it. “Erik,” I whispered weakly. My mouth felt pasty and my throat was dry. “How do you feel? Here, you need to drink something,” he said, putting his arm behind my back, helping me to sit up to drink some water. “What happened to me?” Angie found you lying on the bathroom floor. You’ve been unconscious for an hour. “I... don’t remember anything.” I tried to move, my head hurting terribly, then I remembered why I’d gone to the bathroom. Apparently, I’d passed out before I could take the pill. What a genius. “Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked. I couldn’t read his eyes. “Luke told me what you were up to,” he said. Perfect. That idiot had opened his big mouth. Now I understood what was in Erik's eyes: distrust. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” “I don’t think I need to,” I said, massaging my temples. “Well, let me tell you something,” he lashed out angrily. “What you were thinking is too risky and totally useless. You’d only get hurt. Do you still not realize how much danger you’d be in if you came with me?” Fear ran through my body. Wasn’t the danger supposed to have passed? Hadn’t we simply misunderstood everything? Apparently I was right. They were just pretending to be unconcerned not to worry me. He lay beside me on the bed and pulled me against his chest. “You’re hiding something from me,” I said. “Here we go again...” “Yes again, and as often as is necessary,” I answered. I felt dizzy. Erik forced me to lie back when he saw my face. “You need to rest.” He kissed my forehead tenderly. I tried to hold him in my arms, but I was too slow. He was already standing up. “Don’t go.” “I’m just going to the living room so you can get some sleep.” “No, please stay here with me.” He didn’t need any more persuading to lie down beside me. I curled up in his arms. My muscles began to relax while Erik rocked me slowly until the sweet swing of his arms sent me to sleep. The dream was as real as my anguish. A sweet voice was calling me. The warm, sensual melody belonged to a faceless figure. I propped myself up, trying to get a better look, and there he was, my angel with golden hair and his eyes like melted ice. He reached out, whispering my name over and over again. I wanted to run to him but something held me back and paralyzed me. I reached out, trying to touch him, but Erik was getting further and further away from me. I screamed, struggling to get rid of whatever was holding me back, but it was impossible. I turned around to see what it was. Luke, with a mocking grin pasted all over his face, looked back at me with smug satisfaction. He was the one who was holding me back, taking me away from my angel. I could no longer hear his sweet voice. His image faded, diffused through the fog. I screamed in horror while a wicked laugh echoed behind me. I heard Erik’s voice again. “Stella! Stella, wake up!” “Erik, you’re here,” I sighed with relief snuggling into his arms, my eyes filled with tears. “It’s over, calm down. It was just a bad dream,” he said, stroking my head gently. By the looks of it, I’d been screaming in my sleep. “You were going away and I couldn’t do anything and…” I mumbled tearfully. “I'm here, I'm not going anywhere. I'm here,” he whispered. Slowly it started to sink in that it had just been a nightmare, and that Erik was hugging me. “Better?” he smiled, but I could see the worry in his eyes. “I think so,” I said slowly. It was pathetic. I wasn’t satisfied with crying about what was happening in real life. Now I was blubbering like a baby over a stupid dream. “Do you want to go back to sleep?” “No, not yet.” I was too upset to close my eyes again. “So. What are we going to do now?” he said, arching an eyebrow. My body melted into his sky-blue eyes. It took me a few seconds to answer. “What if you tell me what you wrote in your report?” Maybe ‘report’ wasn’t the right word, but then I didn’t speak alien. “I don’t think that's a good idea.” “I promise I won’t be angry.” “I don’t care. I’m not going to tell you. What I can tell you is that I’ve changed all your personal data in case things go wrong and they decide to come after you.” “I don’t want to go back to Chemainus without you,” I objected. “We've discussed this before,” he said firmly “It’s not a good idea to split up. What if it's a trap? What if they brainwash you like Luke said? Why won’t you listen to me? Please...” I was starting to sound as desperate as I was. “Stella, nothing’s going to happen to me,” he said, stroking my hair to comfort me. “I know how these things work. I promise I’ll be home before you know it; you won’t even miss me,” he added softly, kissing my forehead. “I miss you already. Can I ask you something else?” “Sure, but maybe later, when you’ve had enough rest,” he said sweetly. “I need to know now,” I said firmly. “Sure. Ask away.” “What happened to me before? Why did I lose consciousness?” I had the feeling that my blackout wasn’t simply caused by a drop in my blood pressure. There was something else. “I honestly don’t know, but I don’t like it. I'll be happier when you see a doctor. Now stop talking and go to sleep.” He didn’t have to tell me twice before I collapsed in his arms. Erik was right: my blackouts were worrying. I couldn’t think about it anymore. The sweet unconsciousness of sleep wrapped around me in my angel’s arms. Dawn came slowly, unhurriedly. A soft beam of light began to appear through the window, diffused by the curtains. I looked at Erik's hair as it shone in the dimness. His untroubled face was like a Greek god’s as he slept. I pinched my arm to be sure he was real. I would never experience greater joy than I’d felt when I was with him, or greater sadness than being apart from him. His eyes began to move; he opened his eyelids slowly and showed me the dawn of heaven. “Good morning,” I whispered. “Best morning ever, waking up next to you,” he said, my heart running wild. He drew slowly closer to me and kissed me on the cheek. Someone knocked on the door, bursting my bubble, making me jump out of bed as if someone had kicked me. Erik also got to his feet, but more calmly. Luke came in without asking permission. “Come on, we have to pack,” he said brusquely. “Stella, you should start to get your things together. The ferry leaves early in the afternoon,” said Erik, looking at his watch. His voice wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped. There was an anxiety in it that I didn’t like. “I don’t have to go anywhere,” I replied, clinging onto a slim thread of hope. “I can stay here with you or go with you to… wherever it is that you have to go.” “Stop worrying. In two days I’ll turn up at your front door and we’ll never be apart again, I promise.” “I hope so,” I said, hugging him and leaning down to kiss him. “Dear God!” bellowed Luke. “You two make me want to throw up. Get a room or something!” I smiled. Luke was hurt; it was obvious, even if he tried to mask it with his usual sarcasm. I kissed Erik again, ignoring his brother’s grousing. DARKNESS “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Robert Green Ingersoll The bay was buzzing when I arrived. It was just after five in the afternoon. Jeff and Angie had taken me to the harbor and had almost carried me onto the ferry to make sure I was on my way home. They said goodbye with a handshake and wished me luck. When I arrived in Vancouver, Nicole was waiting at the pier. Erik had pushed me hard to call my mother to pick me up. He didn’t want me to be alone for a moment; he wouldn’t even let me call a taxi. He didn’t realize that by taking these precautions he was just scaring me even more. “Stella, sweetheart!” Nicole ran towards me waving her hand with happiness. I started running towards her, my eyes clouded with tears. It had been a good idea for her to pick me up. It was comforting to see my mother. “My girl, you're finally here. You have no idea what I’ve been through. Don’t ever do that again!” she sobbed, pulling away from my embrace to look at me. “Sweetheart, are you okay? You don’t look so good. It must have been very hard for Erik, right?” For a moment I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then I remembered the story I’d invented to explain why I’d disappeared. I was supposed to be coming back from a funeral. I made my face and voice match what my mother would expect. “Yes, mom, it was horrible.” The car ride was pleasant. It felt much better being back at home, with Nicole and back to my life in general. Now it all seemed like a bad dream. I just needed Erik to make it perfect. ‘It’s just for a couple of days,’ I reminded myself, trying not falling apart at the thought of the distance between us. “Do you want to stop to grab a bite to eat?” “No mom, I'm tired. I’d rather go home,” I replied. “All right dear, we’ll go home. By the way, I want you to know that right now I’m not going to punish you or lecture you. Just one look at you made me all but forget how angry I was.” I tried to speak but Nicole didn’t let me, carrying on with her motherly sermon. “But I hope you realize that this isn’t going to end here. You're older now, so you’re going to have to start taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences.” “Thank God you weren’t going to lecture me,” I sighed, stroking my forehead to relieve my tiredness. “All right, we’ll leave it for now, but you need to know this conversation is still open. You don’t get do what you please. That's not how things work in this family.” She sounded like a judge passing sentence. I was about to answer but I chose not to. Right then, biting my tongue was the best thing I could do. Besides, the more I talked, the easier it would be for Nicole to poke holes in my little story. I looked at her pleadingly, pouting until I saw a weak smile. After a few moments, which seemed to go on forever, she reached out her hand and squeezed mine, to show she understood. It was then that I realized how much I’d missed her. “Thanks, mom,” I said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. “I'm glad you're finally here. I’ve been so worried. You didn’t call and... It doesn’t matter; you're here now.” I knew from her voice that it hadn’t been easy for her. “By the way, how’s Erik doing?” “Pretty bad, but it's a matter of time. He’ll be back in two or three days, when all the paperwork is done and his family’s got over it.” I yawned on purpose, exaggerating a little. “I’m so tired; I think I'll take a nap.” I didn’t want her to keep on digging, so I thought it better to pretend that I was sleepy. I leaned my head back against my seat and closed my eyes. I must have been convincing because Nicole didn’t say anything at all for the rest of the journey, letting me rest. The warm shower was great. I was at home in my room again, in my old pajamas, but looking at everything with new eyes. I’d always grumbled about the furniture in my room. It was old, but now I loved it. It was great to be lying on my squeaky bed, wrapped in my faded blue quilt. I slid out of bed. Falling asleep was mission impossible. I went up to the mirror, an antique that I really liked. It was oval, framed in wrought iron and with strange silhouetted adornments that I used as a hanger. I ran my hand over the reflection in the glass. Nicole was right. I looked terrible. Two purple shadows darkened my eyes and my face was extremely pale. I needed to rest. I’d gone over the limit and now it was taking its toll. My cell phone rang, wrenching me away from my thoughts. I rummaged among the million things I had in my backpack, the ringtone jangling my nerves more and more. ‘At last,’ I thought when my fingers found it. I took it out quickly, answering without looking at who was calling. “Hello?” “Hi.” My heart began to pound. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach when I heard the voice of the only person who could make me react like that. “I just called to say good night and make sure you got back safely.” His sweet, lilting voice filled me with happiness. “I’m fine now,” I said, thinking out loud. I heard a laugh at the other end of the line and I could imagine his face lit up with a smile. “I miss you. Have a good night, gorgeous.” Something in his voice bothered me, although I didn’t know exactly what. “I miss you too. Will I see you in two days?” “Sure,” he said flatly. “Goodnight my love.” “I love you,” I breathed. I was even surer that something was wrong. “I know.” I could hear that his breathing was as irregular as mine. “I love you too, don’t forget it. Goodbye.” “Goodbye,” I whispered, falling apart. I looked like an idiot with the phone to my ear and no one at the other end. I couldn’t work out what the call meant. That wasn’t his usual voice. Something or someone was tormenting him. His tone was too sad and dead. It was as if he’d called to say... goodbye. The thought struck me. I threw the phone as far away as I could. Erik had deceived me; he wasn’t coming back. I curled up in bed, seized by an overwhelming sadness. I cried and cried. I didn’t understand why losing Erik was so real to me. I was only going by the tone of his voice; he hadn’t said anything to lead me to that conclusion. I was probably wrong. It was just a feeling. A premonition. I rubbed my tear-filled eyes. I was getting paranoid. That night my sleep was interrupted again by a weird, disturbing dream. I was on a mountaintop. I couldn’t see anything around me; I felt the June breeze caressing my skin. I closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun. I was calm, relaxed, at peace. Suddenly the sun darkened and a sky full of clouds obscured the sunlight. The wind turned icy. I was shivering. Small snowflakes began to cover the ground like a soft blanket. I could feel my feet freezing. I looked down and I saw I wasn’t wearing any shoes. My feet were bare, soaked under a layer of increasingly dense snow. I wanted to get out of there, run to get warm, but I couldn’t. The snow gripped my ankles. Twinges of pain pierced my skin, like sharp blades of ice. I looked at my paralyzed legs. The snow was up to my calves. I started screaming in desperation. Heaven answered. The thick clouds took the form of two eyes, staring down at me from a corner of the sky. They were cold, like the snow that was still falling and was now up to my waist. I surrendered to those eyes without a face. My angel’s eyes. My weakening body began to relax, allowing the cold to win the battle. It was freezing me, leaving me motionless, inert and empty. I woke up gasping and sweating, trapped between the sheets that barely left me room to move. I kicked out at them anxiously, struggling to get rid of them, trying to escape from my nightmare. I sat on the edge of the bed trying to breathe normally again, inhaling and exhaling deeply. I took the MP3 from my nightstand and turned it on and let the music flow, blasting into my dulled ears. Despite all my efforts, tiredness overcame my will and made me close my eyes. I woke up at dawn. I was less tired, but had a bad headache. Luckily, I didn’t have the dream again. I went straight to the bathroom. My eyes were sunken into two dark circles; my hair was plastered to my forehead with sweat. I turned on the shower and let the warm water slip over my body. I tilted my head back and I felt the water on my face. A cloud of steam filled the bathroom when I got out. I left the bathroom without bothering to clean the mirror, which was steamed up from too much heat. I didn’t feel like seeing my gaunt reflection again. I doubted I looked any better. I dressed slowly and as it was too early to go down to breakfast, I sat down to wait on my bed, leafing through a book with a title I didn’t even recognize. I looked at the clock. It had been more than an hour. I trudged down the stairs into the kitchen. Nicole hadn’t woken up, but she would any minute now. I decided to make breakfast for two so I could keep busy. I took a few slices of bread and put them in the toaster. I filled two cups of milk and put them in the microwave. I sat on the kitchen chair to wait; fiddling with a piece of slightly ripped chair cover. “What’s that smell?” My mother’s voice startled me. I jumped in my chair and stared at her, wide-eyed. How long had I been sitting there? I was completely gone. I hadn’t even realized that the toast was burnt and that smoke had filled the whole kitchen. The cups of milk hadn’t fared any better. They’d overflowed inside the microwave. “Shit!” I muttered, rising from the chair. I opened the oven and picked up the cups without thinking, while Nicole threw the toast into the bin. When I burnt my fingertips I dropped the cups as a reflex action; they fell to the floor and were smashed to smithereens, just as I was. I couldn’t stand it any more and burst into tears of rage and impotence. I covered my face with my hands in a vain attempt to hide my pitiful emotional state from my mother. “Calm down, dear. It’s just a couple of cups.” But my tears didn’t stop; instead, they flowed even more. “Stella, what's wrong? You're scaring me” Nicole said as she hugged me, stroking my hair gently. “This isn’t about the breakfast, is it?” “No,” I sobbed. “Do you want to talk about it?” I shook my head. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to lie to her again. I ran my hand over my face and wiped my tears away. Nicole kept hugging me until the tears had gone. “Better?” “Yeah,” I sniffled. “Well, sit back down and don’t worry about a thing, I’ll make breakfast. Things will look better on a full stomach.” Maybe my mother was right. I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning before. I was devastated and all because of a mere premonition. We had breakfast in silence. I grabbed my jacket, ready to get out of there in search of fresh air for my skin and my head; I was too boxed-in to think clearly. I said goodbye to my mother with a kiss and went out. “Can I give you a ride?” The bike was parked at the corner of my house, a dazzling red thanks to the sunlight. Luke leant on it, casually. He was twiddling the keys while he looked at me. “Where’s Erik?” I asked after I’d got over the initial shock. If Luke was here, that meant that Erik had come back too. Hope shone in my mind like a blinding light. For a moment, I found I could breathe normally. “Erik, Erik, always the same old song. Don’t you realize you come out winning from the exchange?” he said, walking briskly up to me. I stared at him in amazement. His slender, graceful body came closer; a smile drawn on his handsome face, one of those smiles I both loved and hated at the same time. “Luke, can you tell me what the hell you’re talking about? And stop grinning like an idiot, please.” “This is obviously going to be harder than I expected,” he said, standing right in front of me. In one quick motion, he took my bag and slung it over his shoulder. I didn’t complain. I was completely taken aback. I didn’t want to hear what Luke was about to say. “Erik isn’t coming back,” he spat. His words tore at my heart and left it in tatters, bleeding painfully in my chest. The tears in my eyes clouded my vision. I shivered in spite of the warm sun on my skin. I started to shake. “Why?” I whispered, my voice breaking with anguish. “Because it was best for both of you.” “But he promised me...” My voice choked on a sob. “Yeah, he didn’t want to. It was hard to convince him to go to the meeting. Luckily, Erik is more responsible than you are and he listened to me,” he said with an air of superiority. “The problem is he won’t manage to convince them of anything because they already know everything.” “You... are... You're a traitor! A coward! And... I HATE YOU!” I screamed, hitting his chest with my fists, but he didn’t flinch. With a quick move, he grabbed my wrists and held them so I couldn’t move. “You can insult me all you want, I don’t care. I just put things in their place. Now everything is where it should be. You’re here with your routine human life, and he’s in... Don’t worry where Erik is. He´ll never come back or ever be the same again.” He looked at his watch and I heard his voice fading, almost like a distant echo. “Right now his mind will be all nice and clean. So you’d better get used to the idea. Your Erik isn’t coming back. Ever.” He scanned my face for some kind of reaction. There wasn’t one. I didn’t react. I was shivering as if I had a fever. My mind was blank and my eyes were fixed on the specter of my angel, my love. Life had no meaning for me without Erik. My chest gave way to a crushing pressure which wouldn’t let me breathe. The little air I managed to get burned in my lungs. My stomach was churning, making me feel like retching. A bead of sweat ran down my back and I was shaking like a leaf It wasn’t possible... No, not again. Would I be able to bear this intense pain tearing at my insides at the thought of losing the person I loved most in this world? Would I survive now that all my hopes and dreams had been trampled on and destroyed? I’d already experienced this lacerating pain when my father had left us forever. I couldn’t stand it again. No, not now. Because now it was different. I’d had the chance of making my dearest dream come true at my fingertips... Not any more. I’d had my only reason for living taken from me. Tears welled up in my eyes and streamed down my cheeks; I couldn’t even see Luke. I tried to speak, shout, asking him not to do it, pleading with him to return my angel to me. But the words were stuck, anchored between my chest and my throat. I was drowning. Becoming an echo of my pain, my anguish, my fear. Fear because I would never see Erik again. Fear because I would never feel his fingers caressing my skin gently again. Fear because I’d lost him forever. Fear because I’d lost myself when I lost him, plunged into an endless circle of pain and anguish. Everything went dark around me and there was nothing left. I drowned in a deep, murky sea. I didn’t know how many days had passed without me noticing. Time had stopped for me, like my heart. I felt nothing. My mind was completely blocked. I didn’t think, I didn’t eat, I didn’t speak, I didn’t dream. I didn’t even cry. I heard whispers around me, but I was oblivious to the people who were whispering. I didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted to be alone, wallowing in my pain, like a pig in the mud. I had no strength to fight against the dark fate that was hanging over me. I was tired, hurt, weak, shattered. It was a living death. And so the days passed me by, as if life had stopped for me. Then something was triggered inside me. It was time to decide. Whether I should live or die. I couldn’t go on being one of the living dead any more. And if Erik had risked everything for me so I could survive, I had to make sure that his sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. So I slowly started to emerge from the dark tunnel that my life had become. I managed to sleep after many days of being submerged in a sort of disturbed unconsciousness. The healing powers of sleep gave me the strength to face my decision. I was torn apart by losing Erik, but I had to be strong and face life. I woke up in my bed, totally disoriented. I just remembered a voice and those painful words echoed in my head over and over again. ‘Erik isn’t coming back.’ Someone was banging on my bedroom door. I was surprised when Luke appeared and stood in the doorway. “So; you’re awake at last, Sleeping Beauty,” he greeted me, coming into my room as if he’d been doing it his whole life. He grabbed the chair I used to put my old clothes on and sat beside the bed, his body leaning forward so that his face was a few inches from mine. The strength of his blue-green gaze paralyzed me, my face dangerously close to his. “This time I was really worried. Don’t ever do it again.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I’d stopped breathing and my eyes began to blur. Suddenly he looked away and freed me from his gaze. I blinked several times, leaning back and resting against the wall. I didn’t want to be so close to him. “You're a traitor. I don’t care if you are worried about me, worry yourself to death for all I care, knock yourself out!” I felt much better now that I was releasing some of the anger I felt towards him. How did he have the gall to stay around after what he’d done to me and Erik? “Well, it shouldn’t be like that,” he said, leaning back and lounging. “At least you could thank me for coming to tell you.” “You’re right. Thanks for ruining my life,” I growled. “So. Now you can go and don’t bother coming back.” To my astonishment, he sat on the edge of the bed. I pulled my legs up to my chest in a futile attempt to get away from him. “You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure,” he whispered, making my body shiver from head to toe as he spoke. “I know what you're doing,” I muttered in a small voice. “Oh, really?” His voice was sensual, provocative, hypnotic. I felt confused and dizzy. I needed to regain control of my faculties or eventually I’d give in to him. I shut my eyes tight and covered my ears with my hands. I heard him laughing and the small room was filled with its booming. I was free again. I sighed in relief. “What's so funny?” I asked in annoyance without opening my eyes. I didn’t want to see him, he reminded me too much of someone I didn’t want to remember. “You're funny. Comical, in fact. Do you think that closing your eyes would do you any good if I really wanted you to give in to my charms? Kid, you’re so naive!” he smiled. I opened my eyes and looked at him with all the hate and bitterness that I could. He stopped smiling and suddenly looked serious. Keeping himself under control. “Don’t look at me like that, I'm not a monster. I won’t force you to do anything. I was just playing around a little. I like it when you look at me like you did a few moments ago.” “I hate you.” “I know, but that’s better than nothing. As they say, it’s a thin line between love and hate, so I imagine that the opposite is also true, don’t you think?” “I’d die first,” I snapped angrily. “We’ll see about that.” He stood up, scaring me again. “I'm going, but I'll be around, in case you change your mind.” He went out, leaving me with my words stuck in my throat. What did he think he was playing at? He’d destroyed my life, deceived his brother and me, he’d separated us forever... And he was still expecting something from me? It was amazing. All I wanted was never to see him again. Nicole came in with her phone in her hand. “Hi, sweetheart. How are you today?” “I feel better, mom.” I saw a twinkle in her eyes. She seemed pleased, though her weariness showed on her face. It must have been torture for her to see me like that. “Has your friend left?” she asked, trying to start a conversation, as if she was afraid that when I stopped talking I’d go back to sleep. “He’s not my friend and yes, he's gone.” I decided to change the topic. Mom, how long I have been in bed? “ My whole body ached as if I’d taken a beating. “Almost a month.” “What?!” I jumped up and felt myself stagger; the floor seemed to be getting further and further away. “Calm down, it’s over... You’re better now, and that’s what matters. Do you want something to eat?” My mother's voice was soft, but there was a lot of fear in among the calmness. “Mom, aren’t you going to ask me what happened?” It was weird my mother reacting so naturally to my situation. “That boy Luke, he’s already told me everything.” “Okay.” It was all I could say. I panicked at the thought of what twisted version of events Luke had told Nicole, but I decided not to ask her. It hurt too much, even a sanitized version of what happened made my stomach churn. “Well, I'll make something to eat. Take a bath, it’ll help you feel better,” she said, kissing my forehead. After I’d showered, I went to my room, wrapped in my bathrobe, smelling of soap and flowers. My face was covered by the towel I’d used to dry my hair before untangling it. A memory struck my mind, something he’d said about the smell of my hair. The sharp pain was so intense I had to hold on to the wall to avoid falling. “Hi,” I heard someone say while I was recovering from my wrenching inner pain. The towel fell from my hands. Beth was sitting on the edge of my bed with her legs crossed, swinging them slowly, leaning her arms back on the mattress. “You gave me the fright of my life!” I blurted, putting my hand on my chest, trying to get the beating of what used to be my heart back to normal. “I doubt I can make it any worse. Have you seen yourself in the mirror?” she said, looking genuinely worried. “Yes, and I can tell you now, I look better now than I did an hour ago.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. She patted the bed and told me to sit down beside her. I sat straight, with my hands on my knees, not knowing what to do. I knew what was coming then, a speech of hers that I didn’t want to hear. ‘I told you, you shouldn’t trust him, he was a man, just like all the others... blah, blah, blah.’ I was wrong. Beth said nothing; she just hugged me tightly, melting into me, sharing her energy with me. It was the last thing I expected, knowing her as I did, but nothing could have felt better right then than her warm embrace. For the first time in a long time I felt pretty good. “I'm glad you're back,” she whispered tearfully, kissing my cheek. “Thank you.” It was all I could say as I collapsed into her arms. “Would you like some advice?” she asked after a while. I was crying and she was holding me tight, comforting me. “No,” I replied, trying not very successfully to smile. She pulled away a little but kept my hands in hers. “No man is worth this suffering.” “Erik isn’t like other men,” I sighed Beth couldn’t have any idea of how different Erik was from all the other boys she’d ever known. “Yes, of course,” She waved her hands in dismissal. “Until you meet a new “Erik” better than this one. And you will. Trust me.” How could I explain that he wasn’t with me because he was trying to save my life? There was no way anyone could understand that. Even I didn’t understand it; I was simply resigned to it. There was nothing I could say to convince her Erik was different without revealing his secret. I just knew he was irreplaceable. He was all the perfection of the universe concentrated in one person. Erik was unique and he wasn’t with me. He was gone. I felt my heart had been crushed and mangled, as if a bulldozer was playing with it and had smashed it to pieces. Painful, heartbreaking pieces that pierced the depths of my being. Beth read the pain on my face and hurried to talk about something else, to distract me from my sadness. “I've brought you a lot of notes. You should catch up with your schoolwork, or you won’t graduate this year.” She started pulling things out of her purse. Graduation. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time. Since I met Erik, to be honest. I had to admit that in recent months all my attention had been focused on a pair of sky-blue eyes and an angel’s face. I shook my head trying to erase the vision from my mind. I had to get back to reality quickly. Erik wasn’t there, but I was. My future, unfortunately, once again became as predictable as the first day of class. I sank into the misery of my thoughts. I didn’t want any future that didn’t include him. “Stella?!” She shook my shoulder gently. “Please come back from wherever you are.” “I can’t, Beth,” I groaned and started to cry again. “I can’t,” I repeated between sobs. “Come on, it’s over,” Beth replied stroking my back tenderly. “You'll get over it. It's just a matter of time. I’ll help you. I'm here. You’re not alone, okay?” I nodded imperceptibly, wiping away my tears. “You know what we should do? Let's take a walk; you need to get out of here. It’ll do you good, some sun and fresh air.” I nodded again. “Perfect, but first you need to wear something else. Or would you prefer to go out like that? You look real sexy,” she mocked. I rolled my eyes, ignoring her. I couldn’t disagree with her, and her cheekiness was lightening my mood. Beth went through the clothes in my closet. She knew it as well as her own. We’d spent whole days trying on clothes again and again. She pulled out some jeans and a colorful striped jersey, too cheerful for my taste and humor. I wrinkled my nose in disapproval. “I'd prefer something darker,” I objected. “No way!” she said, throwing the clothes at me. “Have you heard about chromo therapy? They say orange gives off good vibes. And I’m in control here; you just go with the flow.” She managed to make me smile. She was always in control. “You're a witch,” I snapped. “I’d rather you used the term ‘fairy godmother’, it’s more my style.” She twirled around, showing off in front of me. I threw my robe at her face and she pretended to be angry for messing up her hair. A pang of guilt struck me because of the hostility with which I’d treated her and anyone who’d dared to get close to me in recent weeks. Nicole, Beth, Megan, Thomas, even Luke, despite the fact that I didn’t owe him anything; they’d tried to throw me a lifeline, when I just wanted to drown allowing myself to be dragged through the darkness that had taken over my life. Now something was changing. I was finally able to thank the efforts Beth was making for me. I decided to follow her advice. I was going to go with the flow today, and for the rest of my sad life. APPARENT NORMALITY “Absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires.” François de La Rochefoucauld I didn’t hear again from Luke. Or from Erik, of course. At first, I walked to school nervously. I looked from side to side, looking for that longed-for face on everyone I saw. I wished with all my being to see my angel again, but it didn’t happen. After two months on the lookout, hoping to see him again, I gave up. Erik wasn’t coming back and neither was Luke. It was illogical but it didn’t make me feel any feel better that Luke had taken me at my word and gone. Deep down, way down inside, I missed that impudent, red-haired liar. The months passed quickly, taken up with my finals and looking for a place at college. In seven days’ time it was graduation. There were posters everywhere announcing the long-awaited event. It still wasn’t clear what I would do after graduating. Studying abroad, as my father had always wished, would be a good choice so I could get away from the scene of my nightmares. The problem was that I was in no mood to make plans. One thing was to face the immediate future, like finishing the course, and quite another to plan my long-term future. At that time the only thing that concerned me was putting an end to my daily torture, in other words going to school, the most painful place in the world for me. Every corner of the old building reminded me of him, the bench where we saw each other for the first time, the cafeteria where we exchanged our first words, the literature classroom where I sensed his presence two rows further back. Everything screamed his name. I was drowning there. Thank God it had an expiry date. In a week, I’d have served my sentence and I could banish this last school year to a hidden corner of my mind. I went back to my job at the restaurant. Mr. Benet had been really understanding and allowed me to go back to my old job. I quickened my pace; I had to hurry if I wanted to be on time. The last class had gone on for ages because of the results of some recent tests and I was going to be late again, for the umpteenth time that month. I didn’t see it coming. I only realized what was happening when I was lifted up in the air. Someone was holding me tightly by the waist and covering my mouth with one hand. I was terrified. I summoned up my courage and bit his hand, clenching my jaw, until I felt the pressure of my lips and teeth on his skin. “Oww! Are you insane?” I didn’t expect to hear that voice. My body was completely paralyzed. I stopped biting. “Luke?” I shouted, trying to get a look at his face. “Shhh! Shut up!” He dragged me to the parking lot of the restaurant and let me down onto the road, between the parked cars. He was on his haunches in front of me. A mixture of joy and disbelief came over me at the same time. “What... what are you doing here?” “I see you haven’t changed. Same old same old. How about something like ‘Hello! How’s it going?’ Or why not ‘thank you for what I just did’?” he replied sarcastically. “What the hell are you talking about? You want me to thank you for throwing me around like a rag doll? For kidnapping me?” The initial shock was becoming the usual irritability I felt when he was around “They're waiting for you in the restaurant.” “Who?” I asked, intrigued. “Rudolf and Erik. Apparently, they’re not satisfied with emptying my brother’s head. They don’t trust you, and to be honest, neither do I. You do have a very bad temper,” he said, looking at the pink mark my teeth had left on his hand, his skin punctured. All my nightmares and my happiest dreams came to my mind in a rush and I relived them vividly. As if I’d been in a dark room for these last few months and suddenly someone had turned the light on all those little things that had been hidden in the dark. It had been real. Erik was real. My heart stopped for a moment, recalling what Luke had just said. Erik was here, he’d come back! I stood stock still, even though my heart was telling me to run to him. “Erik’s... here?” I ventured in a faint voice to be sure that what I’d heard was true and not just my imagination. I still couldn’t believe it. My mind had created a barrier to filter my memories, to erase them until right now; painfully they all came back to me. “Yes, but it’s as if he wasn’t,” replied Luke. “It’s not him who’s come to find you; he doesn’t know you exist,” he said pointedly, drilling holes in my chest with his words. “Rudolf doesn’t want to leave any loose ends, and you’re one of them.” “You're totally out of your mind. I’m getting out of here and I’m going to the restaurant. If Erik is there, I need to see him now,” I cried, standing up. He pulled my arm fiercely and made me lose my balance. I ended up falling onto him. “No way! You're not going anywhere. Didn’t you hear what I just said?” “Yes I did, and just so you know, you’re talking nonsense.” “Okay. Come with me, I want to show you something.” He began to crawl between the cars. “Follow me and keep down.” I looked down. I was wearing a knee-length linen dress. How was I going to crawl on the asphalt? My knees would get skinned. “I can’t,” I said, pointing at my clothes, as if the reason for my refusal was obvious. “Well in that case, you'll just have to trust me.” He saw from the look on my face that I didn’t like that option. “Rudolf is using Erik as bait to find you. They’re in the restaurant, at a table by the entrance.” His voice was so deadpan that he could have been talking about the weather, not my impending death. “But if Erik... can’t recognize me like you say, why did Rudolf bring him here?” “Precisely; Erik can’t recognize you,” he admitted, “but you'd recognize him and your reaction on seeing him would be the perfect trigger for Rudolf. In any case, I made quite an effort to keep you safe and hide my mind from him at the same time, so don’t throw it all away doing by something stupid.” I was stunned. Sitting on the asphalt for so long was hurting my backside. I shifted uncomfortably. Luke recognized the look of discomfort on my face. “You’d be more comfortable here,” he grinned, patting his legs with a half-smile. My God, he was handsome! I’d almost forgotten it during this period of apparent normality. His turquoise eyes shone with the last rays of the sun and his hair glowed like fire. It was longer than I remembered. “No thanks,” I barked. “I'm just fine where I am.” My crimson face gave me away. I needed to talk about something else. “How can you be so sure that Rudolf has come looking for me if you couldn’t read his mind?” “Some things are obvious. There’s no need to be inside someone’s head to know their intentions.” I had a sneaking feeling that he was answering a question that I hadn’t asked him. Luke wasn’t talking about his friend; he was talking about himself, his attitude towards me. I was sure of it. Things were getting more awkward by the minute. Luke was back on the attack. I was shattered. Erik was gone, at least the Erik I needed. However, Luke remained the same, provocative and shamelessly attractive. How could I put all that in the mix and expect some good to come of it? I had to concentrate on the one thing that was really worrying me right then: Rudolf and his efforts to get rid of me. “There's something I still don’t understand. Don’t they know how to track me down? Don’t you have your victims’ details or whatever? I don’t understand why they haven’t found me if that's what they want.” “Because Rudolf is a maverick. I know him, and I also know nobody has ordered him to finish the job and get you out of the way, but he feels he has to. He enjoys demonstrating his superiority, imposing himself on you humans by force. That’s something we’re not allowed to do, except in extreme cases of life and death, but he won’t let that stop him. We managed to outsmart him once, and that won’t go unpunished. Rudolf doesn’t give people a second chance.” I shuddered at that. Months ago, I’d feared for my life. I’d felt the threat of death over my head. But with Erik gone, everything had lost its meaning for me. People from other planets didn’t fit in to my dull daily routine. Sometimes I lived my life thinking all that had been a dream. Now it had become real again. And I was terrified again. Luke relaxed beside me when he finally saw the panic on my face. “Calm down. I told you I'd be here. Did you think I’d let myself be duped like my brother?” he said smugly. “They didn’t dupe Erik, you lied to him.” I protested. I couldn’t believe he thought he was better than his brother, when he’d sold him out at the drop of a hat. I’d never forgive him for that as long as I lived. “It seems incredible that you still hold a grudge over that trivial little thing,” he replied peevishly. “So you think ruining our lives is a trivial little thing? “ I said, standing up. “It was the only way to keep you safe,” he said apologetically. “I don’t believe you. So far, you've only tried to hurt me.” I was bringing out all the hate that had been building up all those months. “Why should it be any different now?” “Stella, I swear I never wanted to hurt you, but that sacrifice was necessary; anyway, you’re not alone, you’ve got me,” he added, raising his hand to stroke my cheek softly. I fell apart when I saw his blue-green eyes gazing into mine. He was being honest. There was nothing dark or shadowy in that look. It was transparent, sincere, like my angel’s eyes long ago. The ground under my feet began to spin. I felt Luke catch hold of me, stopping me from falling onto the asphalt. “Come with me.” He looked around. “This place isn’t safe. Come on.” He grabbed my wrist and pulled me over to his bike. It seemed redder and more dangerous than before. Contrary to what I’d thought; I felt strangely comforted when the bike began to gather speed. The warm, late-May wind enfolded me as Luke rode into the forest. I knew he was slowing down when the air stopped whipping my face, turning into a gentle breeze caressing my skin. “Why are we stopping here?” “Because we're safe here and I think you need to take all this in before we go any further.” I was surprised at this new Luke I was beginning to discover. It wasn’t like him to have so much consideration for my feelings. Did I really know him, or Erik? No; I didn’t even know myself. “What I need to know is why you betrayed us. And don’t give me that ‘it was for your own good’ stuff, either.” It was time to dish the dirt and I wasn’t going to back down. He stared at me for a moment. He scanned my face, trying to work out if he really did have to tell me. He finally relented. “Because I couldn’t bear to see you with him,” he said, like a bolt from the blue. I was shocked by his honesty. It took me a few seconds to recover from the impact that his words had on me. “You managed to take Erik away from me, but you haven’t made me stop loving him. You’ll never manage that. Ever!” I said, rudely. “I know. That's why I'm here.” He looked crestfallen. “Is there anything else, I mean apart from saving my life?” I asked scathingly. “I want you to forgive me. I can’t live knowing I’m responsible for all your suffering.” Luke looked sorry; I was bewildered. “Help me get Erik back, then I can forgive you.” The words flowed from my lips as the idea began to form in my mind. “How do you want me to...?” “I have an idea,” I interrupted him excitedly. “Have they really erased the memories from Erik's mind or have they just buried them?” “You’re scaring me. What are you thinking?” he frowned. “Erik hasn’t forgotten me,” I said, curtly. The idea took shape in my head. Erik hadn’t forgotten me. No one could erase someone’s life, just like that. They’d just banished his past into a dark corner of his mind. Erik’s memory might be a blank, but his heart wasn’t. He loved me, and that couldn’t be changed overnight. The pressure that had been crushing my chest began to ease and allowed my heart to beat wildly. “Haven’t you heard anything I've said?” The exasperation in his voice made it clear that his patience was wearing thin. “I have to see him again.” My sixth sense had never failed me and something told me that I was right about this too. It was like the case of temporary amnesia I’d heard about from Nicole. Maybe if Erik saw me again, if he heard my voice, if I touched his skin, he might get our beautiful memories back. There was only one thing I was sure of: Erik loved me, although he didn’t know it. “That's crazy. And too risky.” “So don’t come with me. I’m going back for him so if you’re really sorry for what you did, help me and start the damn bike up.” I was filled with renewed confidence thanks to the train of thought that had just lit up my mind. “Okay, I'll help you,” he muttered. “Well let's get going then.” The blood was boiling in my veins. I wanted to run to Erik, to hold him tight and breathe in the scent of his skin. “Just let me say one more thing before we voluntarily commit suicide,” he added, fixing his eyes on mine, even greener in the spooky, damp forest. “What you’re walking into now won’t be easy; it can be devastating to realize that the person you love doesn’t even remember your name, and that he doesn’t think about you in the slightest. Believe me; it's really tough to find that you mean nothing to them.” His eyes darkened as he spoke. For a moment, I wondered if we were talking about him or me. He seemed so certain, so tormented. His feline gaze made me feel guilty as his eyes met mine. “I can take it,” I muttered, looking away. “All right, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He got onto the bike, adding. “If this doesn’t work, I want you to know I'm still here.” FORGOTTEN MEMORIES “Sighs are air and go to the air! Tears are water and go to the sea! Tell me, woman: when love is forgotten, Do you know where it goes?” Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer On the way we discussed whether to go back to the restaurant or not. Luke refused point blank, and in the end I agreed with him. We had to find a way to see Erik without his unwelcome friend. We arrived at the small and apparently deserted house that the two brothers shared on the outskirts of the village. A shiver ran through my body when I saw it. Memories flooded back. It seemed impossible how everything had changed in just a few months. Six months ago I’d been in this same place, feeling like the luckiest person in the world. My life then was full of beautiful colors. Now I could hardly remember those memories or that feeling of happiness. My life now was painted with a perpetual, monotonous, dull and dreary gray. Erik had gone through my world like a fire, filling everything with light and color, but erasing the rest of my life in his path. So when he disappeared there was nothing more than loneliness and emptiness. “We'll find him.” Luke’s silky voice wrenched me from my thoughts. I was grateful to come back to reality and stop torturing myself. “I hope so.” He looked at me with sadness and resignation. “Come on. Enough of that long face.” It was getting dark. The sun, like a great incandescent light, was hidden behind the horizon, giving way to the moon. I wrapped myself in my own arms. I was only wearing a light dress and I began to feel the night-time damp soaking into me. Luke, in an unexpected gesture, put his jacket gently around my shoulders. I snuggled into it as we went towards the front door. He opened the door, waving me inside. It was dark. I couldn’t see anything but, without knowing why, I felt that familiar energy. The same energy that had filled my life so long ago. Luke turned on the lights. We were not alone. I jumped back, frightened. Luke grabbed my arm and pulled me behind him, looking around for what had made me react like that. Someone was standing with his back to us, looking out of the window. I recognized him instantly. It was Erik. “Hello, Luke,” he said turning and showing us his beautiful face, while Luke greeted him coldly. His shaggy, caramel hair and slender figure revealed him as the man of my sweetest dreams. “Erik!” I shouted, trying to run to him. Luke grabbed me tightly. “Let me go! Damn, Luke, let me go!” I bellowed, kicking out as I tried to escape from his grip. “Erik...” I repeated in a whisper, looking at him incredulously. I searched his eyes. Surely they would tell me the truth. I sank into sadness when I saw that Luke wasn’t exaggerating. There was nothing in them. The sea ice was back with that cold and distant look. It wasn’t the blue sky I so loved to lose myself in. I made a superhuman effort to keep my composure and not completely lose it in front of him. I didn’t want him to suffer; even though I was unsure if he’d be willing to suffer for me right then. “Who are you? Do we know each other?” he asked, more out of politeness than curiosity. How could he say that? For God’s sake! How could he be so blind? What had they done to him? Luke was still tense, holding me tightly, not letting me move. Erik was... No, Erik wasn’t there. I couldn’t find him in that expressionless face. But I knew that my sweet angel was hidden somewhere in there, in some dark corner. “It's me, Stella.” I answered with a lump in my throat, pointing at myself with both hands. “Of course you know me. You know me very well, I assure you.” He looked at me questioningly. I waited for his reaction as a stray sunbeam which had escaped from the evening light, lit up his hair and streaked it with gold. He kept his gaze on me. Clearly he didn’t know what I was talking about. Then his sea-blue eyes shimmered subtly. “Stella,” he repeated, as saying it to himself. Slowly, as if he was savoring each syllable of my name. He looked down to look at the wooden slats that covered the floor. He frowned, looking like he was trying to remember something long absent. “Erik, listen to me.” I turned to his twin and begged him. “Please, Luke, let me go. I'm fine, really I am.” “I don’t know. I don’t like this. It could be a trap.” His face looked desperate. “What's he doing here? Has he come alone? No, there's something wrong.” “Please, Luke, you promised. You promised to help me,” I whispered, sensing that my pleading was working. The pressure on my arms relaxed and he finally set me free. I went up to Erik with faltering steps with my arms raised, as if he was a dog which might attack me, and I was trying to tame it. I couldn’t help smiling when I saw the way he looked at me. Now he was the one who looked scared. I stopped a couple of feet away. I looked at him, searching for the spark that I‘d seen moments before. “We met in high school last semester,” I said. He still didn’t understand, I had to be more specific. “Do you remember the Shakespeare assignment we did together? ‘Doubt the stars are fire, doubt the sun doth move, doubt that the truth be a liar...’” I recited it from memory, but I didn’t have the strength to finish the poem, because I could feel that familiar lump in my throat. It was getting to be more than I could bear. I felt the pressure on my chest choking me again. “’But never doubt that I love.’” He finished it for me. His voice was a whisper and he didn’t look at me, but I’d heard him and his words gave me new life. “Do you remember?” I asked hopefully. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to remember, but those words sound familiar,” he said, clearly bewildered. “There’s something about you that confuses me. No... I can’t seem to think clearly. It’s weird,” he admitted, rubbing his forehead. I could feel my heart pounding. I was right, his memories were still there. I just had to find them and bring them out and Erik would be my golden angel again. Luke came over. He leaned over me. “Let him be now. It’s too much for him and for you as well,” he whispered in my ear. “Give him some time. He needs to rest and explain to me what he’s doing here.” “I live here.” Apparently he’d heard what we were whispering. “Yeah, but why did you come back? I didn’t think you would. I thought you were being sent to Europe,” Luke asked suspiciously. “I am. I just came to get my things. I’m leaving in a week. Meanwhile, I’m arranging the trip.” He didn’t look at me and he didn’t seem to care much about what I was doing there, as if he assumed I was involved with his brother or something. “If you don’t mind, I'll stay here for a few days.” “No problem, this is your home.” Luke’s tone of voice didn’t match what he said. I couldn’t stop looking at that face I’d missed so much. I wanted to hug him again, cover him with kisses, but I couldn’t. There was an invisible barrier between us. Luke pulled at me and dragged me over to the couch. “Do you want something to eat?” he asked, trying to sound casual. How could I think of eating when I had my only reason for living right there, and he didn’t even recognize me? No, I definitely didn’t want to eat anything; or rather, I couldn’t. I shook my head, racking my brains, trying to find a way to recover my angel’s stolen memory. Luke turned away from me uneasily. Erik stood lost in thought, in the same pose as when we’d arrived. He was staring absently out the window without showing the slightest interest in me, or so I thought. I didn’t know how long I spent watching him, admiring his body outlined by the light through the window. I fell asleep sitting on the couch. I don’t know if I closed my eyes or not, because his image was still in my head, as real as if I’d been looking at him. The faint glow of dawn lit up the room. I was lying on the same sofa, covered with a thin sheet. I looked around me. There was no one near. Then I listened hard and footsteps echoed in my head. I waited without moving for Luke to appear. “Good morning,” I heard a sweet voice whisper. It was Erik. I gave a start and sat up, folding my legs under me. “Hello,” I replied timidly. “I thought you’d gone.” My words echoed my fears. “Where do you want me to go?” he shrugged reluctantly. “Has Luke told you... anything?” I stammered. I wasn’t sure how to go on. “Yes,” he said flatly, “but I still don’t remember anything.” My face fell, reflecting all the disappointment I felt inside. I looked into his eyes, desperate to hold on to a little hope, and I found what I needed. The spark that I’d seen the night before was still there, lighting up his eyes. Erik didn’t remember anything, but something about him had begun to change. He just needed a little push. Without thinking twice I got off the couch; I crossed the room and stood in front of him, taking his hand without waiting for his approval. “Come with me,” I said, tugging at him to follow me. “But...” He hesitated for a moment, looking at our clasped hands, his face showing the struggle that was raging inside him. “Trust me,” I pleaded, pausing to look into his eyes. He stared at me, trying to read me. He must have liked what he saw because he decided to follow me. We went outside and I was blinded by the fierce sunlight. It had been dark inside the house and now I found myself facing an explosion of light. That momentary blindness helped me to think a little more clearly. Until that moment I hadn’t been sure what to do to get my angel back. Now it all fitted. I knew how. “Do you have your car here?” I asked, fearing he didn’t and my plan would be ruined. “Yes. Why?” he said, standing very still. “You’ll see. Give me the keys.” I reached out my hand. “Do you know how to drive?” “Of course.” I sounded more confident than I really was. He didn’t believe I could drive. I’d only driven Nicole’s old car a couple of times. That was the sum total of my experience with cars. But I didn’t care. I had to drive back to where our story began, where everything began. I was totally focused on the task of driving the car. It had manual transmission, something new to me, and it literally drove me round the bend. Erik glanced at me, cringing every time I changed gear. He was tense, uncomfortable. I could see that by how tightly he was clinging to the arm rest. I wasn’t entirely sure if he was scared of my driving or of being alone with me without knowing where I was taking him. “Here we are,” I murmured, parking the Audi in the deserted parking lot. “Where are we?” “At the High School. This is where we met.” He didn’t say anything. He just stared at the old building through the windows. Maybe the hopes I’d raised were all in vain, but I wasn’t going to give up now. I got out of the car, ready to show him one by one all the places where our story had been written. I didn’t have time. Suddenly, someone grabbed me from behind and pulled me back, away from the car and Erik. I tried to wriggle free, shouting and kicking the air. My captor was so strong that all my efforts came to nothing. It all happened so fast. Where was Erik? Had they caught him, too? I couldn’t believe it. In the end what Erik had feared was happening. His sacrifice to save me hadn’t worked. They’d found me. I’d been dumb not to listen to Luke’s warning, when he asked me not to leave his house. ‘Rudolf is very smart. He wants to set a trap for us’ he’d told me the night before, but I’d refused to take any notice. All my fears suddenly welled up in my head. What was going to happen now? Nicole! How could I be so selfish and do this to my mother, thinking only of my own happiness? She’d lost my father and now she was going to lose me too. My whole world had been turned upside down when I met Erik. The balance had been tipped his way totally and he’d become the most important person in my life. Now I had to face the consequences. Maybe they’d be satisfied with me and leave Erik and Luke alone, maybe not. That thought revived me and gave me the courage to fight back against my kidnapper. It was in vain again. What could I do against those arms that held me so tight that I couldn’t even breathe? I could barely make out what my eyes struggled to see. I was trying to focus my vision, but it was as if I had a blindfold on. My mind began to cloud up. Thousands of memories flooded into my head seconds before I lost consciousness. People say when you die your life passes before your eyes like a movie. Well, that was what was happening to me. I closed my eyes in defeat; I only heard the roar of a motorcycle approaching in my last conscious moments. Suddenly it was over. There was nothing left. No memories, no light, no strength, nothing. Voices reached my ears as if someone was talking in a tunnel. I wanted to open my eyes, but my eyelids wouldn’t obey. I wanted to wake up but it was impossible. A huge weight was hanging over me, crushing me and preventing me from moving. What was happening to me? I tried to move my hand. I couldn’t. Actually, I couldn’t feel my body at all. It was as if my head had been unplugged from my body. I started to get scared. I strained my ears to make out the voices. I could hear them, but with difficulty; I only managed to catch a few words like: ‘coma’, ‘inability to react’ and sometimes my name. Were they talking about me? Was that what had happened to me? Was I in a coma or something? That wasn’t possible, because I was aware of what was happening around me. The problem was that my body refused to obey my mind. I wanted to scream, ask whoever who was there to help me. But my voice didn’t want to leave my body. My lips remained sealed, unable to utter a word, not even a whimper. I heard footsteps. Someone was coming towards me. Instinctively, I wanted to run. Of course, I couldn’t. Gentle fingers touched my wrist, brushing it softly. They were taking my pulse. “Look, her brain activity is intense right now,” I heard an expressionless, monotone voice. “It’s too soon. We gave her quite a high dosage. Let her rest a little more.” My heart leapt when I heard that voice. I knew that voice. I would have recognized it among a million voices. Erik was with me. That reassured me. Everything was going to be fine if he was here, watching over me. Then a light went off in my exhausted brain. Erik didn’t remember me, he didn’t remember our story; also, there was something different in his voice which wasn’t as sweet and lovely as I remembered. It sounded distant, apathetic. My thoughts began to become more and more confused and incoherent. I saw the sea. A blue sea that covered me with its warm waves. I felt good. The ebb and flow of the water was soothing as it washed over me. I looked back and I saw that the water was beginning to turn into ice and freeze everything in its path. I could feel the cold piercing my skin. I tried to run, but the ice reached me and trapped me. It held me in its cold grip and paralyzed me. Inert. Again I was in darkness. RESURRECTION “To achieve the possible, we must attempt the impossible again and again.” Hermann Hesse I blinked slowly. Finally, I managed to open my eyes and wake up after so many failed attempts. I tried to focus my blurred vision and the first thing I saw was a pair of deep blue eyes, straight out of my dreams, framed by an angelic face, bending over me and giving me his best smile. For a moment I thought I was going to faint. Erik was back. My Erik, the love of my life, was here in body and spirit. I saw it in his eyes, in the clearness of his gaze. “Hello, my love.” His voice sounded like heavenly music in my ears. “Hi,” I croaked thickly. I cleared my throat with a slight cough. “How do you feel?” “Like I’ve been run over by a truck.” He laughed, but it sounded hollow. It was clear that this was no time for jokes. “You’ll feel much better soon,” he frowned, knitting his brows. “You’re very strong. I still don’t understand how you were able to hold out. Rudolf couldn’t erase your memories, it was amazing,” he added as an afterthought. “You do know that I don’t understand anything?” I felt lousy, as if I was high. It was a really unpleasant feeling. The last thing my head needed now was riddles. “By the way, you seem to have your memory back. How did that happen?” “We'll talk about that later.” He leaned closer and kissed me gently on the lips. I felt his energy surging through my body and I came back to life. My heart pounded wildly again. I tasted his sweet lips for a few fleeting seconds. “We have to get out of here.” He pushed away the blankets that covered my body and put my feet on the ground gently. “Do you think you can walk?” I nodded. I felt extremely weak. My muscles were shaking, but I managed to stay upright. He put an arm around my waist and I leaned against him. The backlash that swept through me took my breath away. It reminded me of the trip to the lake the year before. I felt as reassured and comfortable as I did then. Blood quickly rose to my cheeks and I blushed, as usual. “Come on. Luke’s waiting for us outside.” I looked around, trying to identify the place. Where were we? Was it a hospital? A laboratory? A spaceship? The white walls gleamed under the cold fluorescent lights as we made our way. There was a deathly silence all around us, giving me the creeps. “Where are we?” I ventured to ask, as I held onto Erik’s neck. “We’re in one of our special bases.” We moved quickly. Erik explained everything without going into too much detail. I smiled to myself. There was no doubt. He was back, him and his whole overprotective aura. I never thought I'd be as happy as I was then. “So you have a base in Vancouver?” ”We're not in Vancouver.” “We aren’t?” I blurted with a touch of hysteria in my voice. “We're in Iceland.” I stood with my mouth open, unable to say anything. I’d traveled, or rather they’d dragged me, to the other side of the world and I hadn’t even been aware of it. What else had happened to me while I’d been dead to the world? The blush in my cheeks disappeared and left my face ashen. Erik picked me up when he saw my knees buckling. I was about to faint. I rested my head on his chest, breathing hard. Anxiety stopped me from enjoying the closeness of his body, but I breathed in the scent of his skin and I could feel my muscles starting to relax. The freezing wind whipped my face when we went outside. The sky was a strange amber color. Before me lay an inhospitable landscape, uninhabited and surreal. I looked around at the uneven ground formed by a vast expanse of solidified lava covered with a layer of faded green moss, more like a thick carpet, old and worn, than dry grass on rock. For a moment I forgot why I was there and I got carried away by the feeling that I was in a fairy tale, full of magic and fantasy; it only needed elves and goblins all over the place. The theory that I’d somehow been drugged took form in my addled brain. “Is she okay? Have they...?” Luke's voice rang out a few yards from me. I noticed how it cracked at the end and prevented him from finishing his question. “No, she's just tired and lost. Go and get the car; I’ll try to keep her from blacking out again.” I clung to him, digging my nails into his skin. I didn’t want him to let me go. But Erik was much stronger and he freed himself effortlessly. He sat me on the ground and put his arms back around my shoulders. “Stella, look at me, don’t go to sleep, honey. Don’t close your eyes, you hear me?” he repeated again and again, sounding more and more anxious. I raised my eyes, forcing my heavy eyelids to follow his instructions. Then a voice like thunder echoed from behind me. “I don’t think you asked permission to take… material from the laboratory.” The voice droned, cold and dark. Like the voice from my nightmares. Erik quickly slid away from me. Before I knew it, I saw him standing between me and the newcomer, the same guy I’d met at Erik’s house months before, when all this madness began. I curled up, hugging my knees. I thought I was going to witness a fierce and bitter struggle. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Erik stood still, tense. His face, contorted with rage, made him look like an avenging angel. He stared at his opponent, who was twice as big as him. I couldn’t help noticing how Erik's face had taken on a fierce, frightening, supernatural expression. I looked into his eyes and what I saw paralyzed me. They weren’t their familiar blue. A pearl gray, like molten steel, took possession of them, and gave them a dazzling coolness. I gasped and covered my mouth with both hands. Panic about what might happen didn’t stop me being totally fascinated by what I was seeing. It was a startling, surreal sight for someone like me. For someone so human. Erik's body began to sway, like a ship riding a strong tide, his face wracked with pain. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead. I had no idea what was causing it. I turned my gaze to the big guy and I caught a hint of a smile on his face. He felt he was winning this bizarre battle. I looked back at my angel. I couldn’t stand seeing Erik suffering like that, gutted by pain; I wanted to help him, but what could I do if I didn’t even know what was happening? The idea came to my mind when I saw my angel about to double up with the pain that Rudolf was inflicting on him. His legs began to give way and he fell onto the rocks, kneeling. ‘Erik, Erik, don’t give up. Hold on a little longer,’ I thought, opening my mind. Could he read my thoughts, if I allowed him to? I tried again but this time with his brother. ‘Luke, where are you? Come, come quickly, Erik needs you!’ I thought desperately and I focused again on my angel’s warped face. ‘Erik, my love, please don’t give up. Fight for us! Don’t leave me, please, fight! I love you.’ He straightened up with difficulty and pushed against the ground to get up, with fierce determination in his eyes. I saw the surprise on Rudolf’s face when Luke appeared out of nowhere. He hadn’t been expecting more opponents. A special light pierced Luke’s eyes and transformed them in the same way as Erik’s, making them look terrifying. They held hands wordlessly. The wind became a hurricane. I crawled up to a streetlight and grabbed onto it with all my strength. The energy began to flow between the two brothers and covered them in a spectacular golden light. The giant who’d been about to take Erik down stared at them in disbelief and panic. The clouds began to scud across the sky, and the wind lifted my feet off the ground. The three of them stood motionless, as if the gathering storm was none of their business. Rudolf suddenly began to tremble and crumpled to the ground. The noise he made when he hit the rocks was deafening, like a heavy block of iron. Erik and Luke stared at the limp figure writhing in agony at their feet. Then, when I thought that nothing could surprise me anymore, Rudolf’s body disappeared without a trace. I screamed, but the wind stifled it. The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. I collapsed exhausted onto the ground. Erik raced over to me. He knelt beside me and took my pale face in his warm hands. “It’s over, come here,” he whispered, pressing me to his chest, rocking me gently. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t put two words together. Luke parked the SUV beside us. I was confused by what had just happened, but even so I noticed its enormous, somewhat strange wheels. Erik helped me climb into the car. He sat in the back seat and kept hugging me. We sped away from that desolate but fascinating place, heading for Keflavik airport. A strange silence settled between us. I couldn’t speak until we were on the plane, bound for Vancouver. “I need to know that I'm not crazy, so if you don’t mind, can you explain what’s been going on since I was kidnapped?” Luke stared out of the window and although his lips curled into a faint smile, he didn’t say anything. Erik, sitting on the other side, sighed and began to tell me everything, caressing my hand, trying to reassure me in spite of what he was saying. Apparently I’d been the victim of some kind of abduction. Rudolf wanted to possess my mind, not just brainwash me. He wanted to try out new experiments on me. He didn’t care about my stem cells; he was more interested in being able to control the mind and thoughts of a human. The curious thing was that after three days he hadn’t gotten anywhere. According to Erik, Rudolf got desperate. After all, he was experimenting illegally on me; no-one else knew about what he was doing. My mind couldn’t have withstood the pressure. If they hadn’t pulled me out of there, that bastard would have ended up killing me or leaving me like a vegetable. I could see the anguish on Erik’s face as he told me what had happened. “So should I be feeling something weird in my head right now?” “No, you shouldn’t. Like I told you, he couldn’t get into your mind.” There was a kind of satisfaction in his voice, as well as a little discomfort. “Why couldn’t he?” I asked, not knowing if that was a good or a bad thing. “I don’t know, it was weird. Humans usually have minds less complex than yours,” he frowned. “So when I tried to contact you mentally, didn’t it work?” I knew it was stupid of me to think otherwise, but in the depths of my being I’d felt something special at that moment. “Yes, it worked,” he admitted, to my surprise. “And that was weird too. We’d never made a connection with a human before. It was impossible but you did it.” He turned his sea-blue gaze on me, pleased and intrigued at the same time. I was overwhelmed. Me; the most ordinary person in the world, had been able to do something exceptional. It was a real high to feel good about myself. For a moment I thought that that was how Beth must feel all the time. I beamed with pleasure. “Even I heard you screeching,” said Luke, who’d stayed out of the conversation until now. “You should learn how to control your mental volume. Screaming like a madwoman in somebody else’s head isn’t a very nice thing to do,” he added with his usual irony. Erik put his arm behind my head and slapped his brother on the back of the neck. The three of us started laughing. “How did you get your memory back?” I asked when we’d stopped laughing. “When I saw Rudolf dragging you away, something clicked in my head. I couldn’t bear to see you like that. All my memories came streaming back as if they’d never disappeared. Then Luke arrived and stopped me. I was going to attack Rudolf and set you free, but Luke convinced me there was a better way.” He saw the curiosity on my face and without me needing to ask him, he went on. “Rudolf didn’t know that I’d got my memory back one hundred percent and that was my big advantage. I pretended to have amnesia, like he expected, so I could be near you, watch over you. But I had no idea about his plans to experiment on you. I thought he’d just file a report to his superiors when you were taken prisoner, but that wasn’t the case and I couldn’t allow it. Without thinking twice, we decided to get you out of there before...” He hesitated for a second, but he quickly regained his lilting tone. “In short, we were lucky.” “So, is it over?” “Fortunately, no one knows what happened, except for Rudolf. And he can’t say anything now,” he said, a mask of pain and sadness covering his face. “Rudolf isn’t coming back, is he?” I felt a visceral fear for that man. He’d been like something out of a horror story. “No, Rudolf’s dead,” he replied. “Dead? So why did he disappear?” I asked, anxiously. “He didn’t disappear, they teleported him. I don’t think I told you about that part,” he smiled weakly. “There are quite a few things you haven’t told me.” “You see, every one of my species wandering around the Earth has a neurotransmitter implanted under the skin, so if something happens to us on your planet, if we die for example, it automatically sends a signal and we’re teleported to one of our bases, to avoid leaving clues for humans.” “I thought this madness would never end.” I exclaimed. Erik looked at me with clouded, dark, inscrutable eyes. “It’s not Rudolf that really worries me,” he said. “And, to be honest, I doubt very much that this is over.” I saw regret on his face. There was something else, something that wouldn’t let us love each other freely. I didn’t want to dig any deeper. I was exhausted, tired beyond belief. I closed my eyes as my angel kissed me gently on the forehead. If I’d learnt something in all this time, it was that there was no use in making plans; that life just happens while we worry about what is yet to come. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Erik was right there with me. Nothing and no one would be able to take those memories away from me. That was all that mattered. I raised my eyes searching for my little piece of heaven, my haven, and found it in my angel’s face. I lost myself in his eyes once more and surrendered to the joy of it. “Hello Mom.” Nicole was acting crazy, yelling at the phone. When she heard my voice she turned round. She ran to hug me, her tears wetting my hair. “Oh my God! Stella, where on Earth have you been?” she cried over and over again, stroking my hair. “Don’t worry, mom. I'm fine,” I said awkwardly. I felt so guilty seeing her like that! Erik didn’t come in. He closed the door behind me and gave me a last look of regret. I started feeling bad when he left. I’d made him promise that he wouldn’t disappear again, but being away from him made me anxious. I sought refuge in Nicole’s arms. “I was worried to death! Can you tell me once and for all what this is all about?!” Her anger was starting to build up, now that her relief at seeing me safe and well had passed. “It's complicated,” I said, knowing what was coming. I didn’t want to lie to her, Erik and I had made up a story closer to reality, avoiding the gory details. “Erik disappeared,” I began. “But that happened a long time ago. What does he have to do with all this?” “He didn’t leave me the way I thought. He had a very serious car accident. He had traumatic brain injury and one of the consequences was temporary amnesia.” Nicole looked at me with suspicion, squinting, as if she was trying to find me out. I tried not to get nervous. She would notice any signs of falsehood in me. She knew me too well, she was my mother. If it had been difficult to pretend everything was normal when I called her before, it wouldn’t be any easier now having her right in front of me, looking at her eyes, clouded by tears and shadowed with worry. It would be very difficult for me to keep my composure. “Do you remember Erik’s brother, Luke?” “Yes, the red-haired boy, right?” “Yes. Well, Luke came to the restaurant the other night while I was working, and he told me what had happened to his brother. He’d been found in a Vancouver hospital after they’d been looking for him all over the state. Apparently, Erik didn’t have any ID.” “I still don’t understand why you were away for four days without letting me know,” she interrupted, her voice still hard. “You can be thankful that Luke called me to tell me he knew where you were and that he’d take care of you and bring you back home safe and sound.” “Yes, I know. It was Luke who asked me to go with him to see if Erik would get his memory back when he saw me. I didn’t think twice. I went with him to Vancouver that same afternoon,” I whispered, without looking at her. I began to worry that my story wasn’t as credible as I’d thought at first. I had to change my tactics. “I’m sorry mom. I’ve been irresponsible. I won’t do it again, I promise you.” “No Stella, this time you've gone too far. Since you met that guy you’ve been behaving very strangely.” Her tone of voice, both severe and apologetic, warned me that I wasn’t going to like what she was going to say next. “I don’t like the way you’ve been acting since you started seeing him. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you two to stay together.” The blood froze in my veins and my heart was paralyzed. “What?!” Her words burned in my ears. Nicole’s expression changed from reproachful to worried when I started shaking like a jelly. How could my mother ask me to do that? Did she want me to relive the torture I’d lived through months ago? I was about to faint. The ground began to move under my feet. “I can’t live without Erik. If he leaves, I’ll die.” “You’re blowing things out of proportion. You’d better go to bed; we'll talk when you've calmed down.” Nicole's face was red with rage and pain at what I’d said. This time I’d crossed the line. Her reaction was quite logical, considering my behavior in recent months. And to make matters worse, I couldn’t think of anything better to do than threaten her. I felt terrible. I felt broken inside when I saw my mother’s glazed eyes. I just nodded silently and went straight to my room. It wouldn’t be easy to convince Nicole to accept Erik as part of my life again. But I wasn’t going to give in. I would never give up my angel. Neither my mother’s angriest outburst nor some nutcase alien would separate me from Erik. FAREWELL “Fate is the one that shuffles the cards but we are the ones who play.” William Shakespeare The lake gleamed in the sunlight, like a great mirror of water, tarnished only by the gentle breeze that occasionally rippled across the glassy surface. It was early July. One of the hottest months of the year; which I was grateful for. Finally we’d left the cold winter behind. I walked slowly, soothed by the rays of the sun. It was really pleasant to walk in the woods when it was so warm. I looked around distractedly. Tall trees traced the outline of the forest, adorned at that time of year by a special hue of green, very different from the monotonous green of the cooler months. Erik stroked my hand; he was walking beside me, with a slight smile on his handsome face. In short, you could describe that day as perfect, in the broadest sense of the word. Beth, inevitably, had organized a picnic with all the senior students who wanted to join in. Everyone was there. My friend could be very persuasive if she wanted to. She was the queen of organizing get-togethers like this. The excuse was that we needed to say goodbye. We’d graduated the previous week and in a couple of months each one of us would go off to our new lives and leave our childhood behind. In the end, I’d been accepted by the University of Victoria. Nicole could see me whenever she felt she needed me. And I had to admit that I didn’t want to be too far away from her either. The relationship between Erik and my mother hadn’t improved. But it hadn’t gotten worse. Erik was lovely with Nicole and even though she was putting on her serious act, she’d surrendered to his charms. I didn’t care too much about it. At the end of the day, I’d be moving to the city soon. Erik wasn’t going to carry on with his studies, he had ‘other things to do’ or at least that was the excuse he repeated over and over again like a mantra whenever I asked him about it. He never explained what those ‘other things’ were. He’d promised me we would see each other every day after college, so I stopped pestering him to come and study with me. For the moment, that was enough for me. But just for the moment. We were deep in conversation. Erik had been asking me more about my father. I answered all his questions quite openly. I had no reason not to. At that point in our relationship, it was okay to share all my memories with him. No matter if they were happy or sad. “You haven’t told me your father’s name.” “His name was Carl.” He frowned slightly when he heard the name. “And you say he was born in Germany?” “Yes, he was,” I confirmed. I answered everything he asked me, but it began to seem a little weird he was so interested in my father’s past. He must have read what was written on my face and he changed the subject. “I think we’re the last to arrive,” he said, leaning close to my ear. “But no one seems to have noticed,” he added, pointing at the crowd. I nodded and smiled in response. The lakeside esplanade was full of people. It looked like there were students from lower grades too. I shook my head in astonishment. I was so happy Beth and I were going to the same college! Luckily for me, I wouldn’t be deprived of her little eccentricities. “How come you’re so late? Did I say ‘slumber party at the lake’? No!” she said without giving me a chance to answer, focusing on the last word. “I said “picnic at the lake’. Well, who cares?” She waved her hand nonchalantly. “You're here now, and that's what really matters.” “Come on dummy, that’s enough theatrics!” I said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “I bet you just got here as well.” She gave me her offended look, but with a hint of a smile that gave her away. “Erik, seriously, how do you put up with her?” She turned around and walked away from us. I rolled my eyes. I’d talk to her later. We went over to our other friends. The day went wonderfully; we laughed and relived old memories. We grumbled and groaned about our teachers, and some of our classmates as well. Erik made the occasional comment, but spent most of the time looking at me. I knew that because I was trembling constantly and every time I glanced at him, he was staring at me. There were some looks I couldn’t decipher. He seemed pained and upset about something. I was sure it wasn’t me, because when our eyes met, he had a broad smile on his face. Something was troubling him, but this wasn’t the time to ask. Megan and Thomas were extremely excited about their respective universities. He had decided to try his luck in the east and she was going to the United States. I was happy for them, but at the same time I was saddened by the thought that it would be a long time before I saw them again, if ever “I’m going to miss you,” I sighed. “Me too,” Megan replied, as resigned to it as me. “Well I won’t,” disagreed Thomas cheerfully, but his eyes shone with the odd stray tear. “I'm glad I won’t have to put up with you two anymore. I’m up to here with you, you know that?” “Shut up or I'll kick your butt from here to kingdom come, smartass,” said Beth, throwing a piece of bread at him. Before we knew it, we’d started a food fight. I collapsed in a heap, exhausted by chasing everybody with the remains of my corncob. Erik lay beside me smiling. All that running around had separated us a little from the others. “You’re going to miss all this.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. “Yes, you're right.” “If there's anything I can do to ease your pain...” he said mischievously, raising an eyebrow. “I can think of a few interesting ‘distractions,’ I replied, following his lead. “Oh, really?” he asked, moving closer to me. He leaned on his elbow, his mouth a few inches from mine. I moved my head just a little and gently brushed his lips with mine. “This, for examp...” Before I could finish my sentence, his lips sealed mine with a kiss. It was warm and provocative. My body felt feverish. “Stella! Erik!” Erik broke away, mumbling something incomprehensible. “What’s going on?” I shouted irritably, sitting up a little, to see who’d broken such a magic moment. “It’ll be dusk soon. We should be going,” said Megan loudly. Time had flown past without me noticing. I blinked; watching the sun setting behind the mountains, painting the sky with a palette of soft colors, from pale pink to purple. “Come on,” said Erik, helping me up. We went back the same way we’d come until we reached the cars. Strangely, the way back always seemed shorter. We got to my house when the sun had already given way to the moon. I was amazed when I saw its bluish color. Blue Moon. It wasn’t something you saw very often. We’d studied it in science class. I vaguely remembered something about the density of particles that caused a change in the color of the moon. At the time it seemed quite impossible. Now it seemed fascinating, the finishing touch to an exceptional day. A smile crossed my lips. Nothing surprised me anymore. I just admired the dark sky with its beautiful blue moon, just as beautiful and unusual as Erik. I sighed, leaning my head back, resting it on his chest, as he encircled my waist with his arms. He was watching the sky, as bewitched as I was. “There's someone here who wants to see you,” he whispered in my ear, then kissed me. “Really?” I asked, more than a little curious. “Come on,” he added, taking my hand and pulling me along. We’d gone into the house to tell my mother we’d arrived. Nicole looked at me warily when she saw I was leaving again. I pointed a finger towards the porch so she’d know where we’d be. I crossed the threshold and there, leaning casually against a tree, as only he could, was Luke. I hadn’t seen him since we’d come back from Iceland. “Luke!” I cried, quickening my pace. He turned when he heard my voice and waved. Erik stopped and held me back for a moment. “I'll be over there waiting for you,” he said, pointing at an old swing. ”Luke wants to talk to you alone, and I think I owe him that much.” He stroked my cheek and held my chin gently, lifting my face to look at him. “If you need me, call me.” I stood still; Erik melted back into the darkness of my house. I ran towards Luke, with a smile spread all over my face. All the hate and disgust I’d felt for him had gone. Now, it was a deep gratitude, or affection, or... was it love? Right then I didn’t want to think about any other possibilities. “It’s wonderful to see you.” I smiled. Without a second thought, I kissed him on the cheek, then blushed when I realized what I’d done. “If I'd known you were going to welcome me like that, I would’ve come to see you before,” he grinned, trying to sound funny, but his eyes were dulled and sad. I looked at him suspiciously. “Is something wrong?” “I came to say goodbye. I'm leaving,” he said suddenly. His words were like a stake through my heart. A sharp pain shot through my chest and punched through to my back. It hurt more than all his irony ever would. “Where? Why?” I whispered. “It doesn’t matter.” He came close to me and kissed my forehead softly, his lips caressing my skin for just that little bit too long. It felt like a part of my heart was being ripped out. “Don’t go,” I pleaded in a faint whisper. “You love him. I know, I accept it, but don’t ask me to go through the torture of seeing you in his arms when I need you as much as he does, or maybe more.” “Luke...” I stammered. I didn’t know what to do or say. Was it the right thing for him to do? Yes, it was. I loved Erik more than anything in the world. He was the one I lived for, but his arrogant redheaded twin had won a place in my heart. “It's better this way, trust me.” He looked at me pleadingly. I knew what that blue-green sea wanted to hear. It hurt me to see him suffer that way. I had to be honest with myself and with him. I owed it to him. I breathed deeply, fixing my eyes into his. “You know I love you, but not like you'd want me to.” “Yes, and that’s the worst part…” He touched my lips with his trembling fingers. “Goodbye, Stella.” “Goodbye, Lu...” I mumbled; I was unable to pronounce his name, drowning in my own tears. He turned away from me and got on his bike without turning to look back at me. He started the engine up and sped off. Erik was already standing in the place where Luke had been, hugging me tightly. ‘I’m going to miss you,’ I thought, knowing that he could hear me if he wanted to. “You knew, didn’t you?” I asked, remembering the look on his face that afternoon. “Yes, I tried to convince him but it was useless.” There was regret and sadness in his voice. I hugged him harder, trying to fill the hole Luke had just left in my heart. Erik took my face in his hands and kissed me gently on the lips. I found myself responding to his kiss with an unmeasured passion, making his light touch on my lips more intense. I was savoring his mouth, running my hands over his back. My heart began to pound when I felt that electricity run through my skin again. Erik pulled away and looked at me with such intensity that I could hardly catch my breath, even though he wasn’t kissing me anymore. Luke was a bright star that had just gone out, but Erik was the universe that lit up my life. We sat for a while on the swing, watching the beautiful blue moon that illuminated the sky. Now I saw it in all its glory and I completely understood its meaning. It was the second full moon of the month, the one that had no place in the lunar calendar. It wasn’t just a color; it was a symbol, full of sadness and melancholy. I felt sad because I’d lost Luke, my second moon, but I was happy to have Erik beside me. My dreams had finally come true. “Have we reached the part where it says ‘and they all lived happily ever after’?” I asked him, butterflies of hope fluttering in my stomach again. “I’ll do everything I can to make it so,” he said, kissing me on the head. “But it won’t be easy.” “I’ve never cared for easy things,” I replied with a smile. “Never doubted it for a minute,” he agreed, squeezing me harder against his chest. “It’s worth a try,” I smiled. “I totally agree,” he said finally, kissing my lips again. Of course it was worth it. We’d do anything to protect our love against all odds. Together we could make it. I looked inside the house and I saw Nicole fussing around in the kitchen absent-mindedly. One stage of my life was ending; the rest was to come. The future lay before me like an unwritten book. There was only one thing I knew for certain. Erik, the angel I had in my arms, would be the hero of every single page. EPILOGUE: CONVERSATION BETWEEN BROTHERS “A lie would have no sense unless the truth were felt to be dangerous.” Alfred Adler “Are you leaving now?” Erik asked breathlessly, hurrying into his brother’s room, while Luke was putting his few belongings in a backpack unenthusiastically. “Yes, I am,” Luke replied, without looking at him. “I don’t think this is the best time for you to disappear,” Erik added, taking him by the shoulders, forcing him to look at him. “Why not? What have I got to look forward to: being the best man at your wedding?” His voice dripped with irony. “I need your help,” Erik said, ignoring his brother's sarcasm. “It's late. I have to go,” Luke muttered, brushing away Erik’s hand rudely. He grabbed his bag and threw it over his shoulder, hitting Erik with it on his way out of the room. “Do you remember Carl?” said Erik. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m in a hurry and I don’t feel like talking about our childhood.” Luke turned slowly to look at him, more in annoyance than curiosity. “Don’t you get it? Why don’t you listen to me for once in your life?” “All right. What the hell is it now?” Luke shouted in exasperation. “Carl, dad's partner; the one who disappeared the same day they captured dad,” Erik replied uneasily. “He’s Stella’s father!” Luke's face changed from furious anger to utter incomprehension; Erik looked at him in desperation. “No... it isn’t possible! That means Stella is...” Erik nodded; Luke’s unfinished sentence hung in mid-air. Neither of them needed to finish it. They both knew what this might mean. They fell onto the couch, sunk in dejection. Stella knew nothing about the battle that was about to be waged in her name. But they would take care of her; they would close ranks, stick together and fight against the shadows that threatened their future. All for Stella…

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