THE NEXT morning it took me a minute to realise where I was. I soon managed to get into my usual routine and it wasn’t long before I was downstairs chatting with Mum in the kitchen. I liked the old, cosy feel this room had, even though it was fully modern. Sunday was the one day of the week we all spent together as a family, no matter what. True to form, Dad sat down with the paper, while Mum fried some eggs for breakfast. I watched them as they talked and laughed. Mum smiled a happy smile while Dad kissed her on cheek and stroked her hair. They both turned to look at me expectantly - I usually made gagging noises. Nevertheless, secretly I liked the fact that they were still so in love. Their story was like Romeo and Juliet, except with a happy ever after - elopement instead of suicide.
“So what should we do today?” asked Mum as I started stirring my vitamins into my PlasmaX ™. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dad whisper something in her ear, and her slap him playfully. This time I did gag.
“Actually I’d really like to explore a bit.”
“We could go into town and have a look about.” Mum suggests, “The art and craft market is on in harbour square today.” she adds excitedly.
“I was thinking more about the woods and fields.” I smiled slyly. Mum had known perfectly well what I meant, but she also knew Dad’s idea of fun did not include scrambling through hedgerows. We, on the other hand, loved all that sort of thing.
“How about” grinned Dad as he put an arm around each of us “Raven can go explore the woods this morning; and this afternoon we can all head into town and explore there. Two adventures in one day. Would that make my girls happy?” Dad could always manage to keep everyone happy; it was just one of his many talents.
I donned my hiking boots, walked through the gardens, only stopping to admire the roses, and headed out of the gate that led to the woods. Remembering how much I loved being outdoors, I climbed over rocks and avoided grabbing branches as if in my natural habitat. I was always climbing trees when I was younger and impulsively wondered if I was too old to climb them now. After a brief check that I was alone, I began reaching up through the branches. I felt the same exhilaration I had as a child and I climbed higher and higher. About two thirds of the way up the tree, I looked down to see how high I’d climbed. 'Big mistake!' Why is it when you’re a kid, everything’s so much further down, and yet when you’re older, the ground always looks more menacing? Remembering too late the old adage ‘don’t look down’, I tried to keep my eyes on where I was putting my hands and feet to climb back to a more reasonable height.
Nearing the bottom, I heard a snapping twig and looked down to see a familiar face smiling up at me. “Hi” said Damien. Momentarily distracted (or because the Gremlins found it funny) I lost my footing and slipped. I grabbed for a branch but only succeeded in breaking a nail and scraping my wrist as I continued towards the ground. Things didn’t go into slow motion and my life didn’t flash before my eyes, I just remember thinking 'Crap! This is going to hurt.' I couldn’t do anything but fall and wait for the inevitable pain that was to follow falling several feet from a tree.
Suddenly, strong arms were holding me securely against a firm, solid chest. I rested my cheek on his shoulder, feeling safe and protected. Then I sighed. I actually sighed. 'How embarrassing!' I felt him shake slightly as he tried to hide his laugh, then realising too late that I was being rescued, and not romanced, I pulled away as he put me down. However, the embarrassment just kept on coming as I practically swooned. He steadied me again. “Maybe you’d better sit down” he suggested and led me to an uprooted tree. “You OK?”
'Physically yes', I cringed. I stared at the ground, worried that if I looked into his eyes, I’d swoon again. 'Can you faint whilst sitting down?'
“You’re Raven aren’t you?” He was still waiting for an answer and realising that although I was an idiot, I wasn’t actually a mute; I figured I’d better say something.
At least exchanging names couldn‘t be too embarrassing, I already knew his. “Yes, sorry” I smiled "and you’re Damien aren’t you?”
He started shuffling his feet, kicking at the dirt, then looked at me awkwardly “Actually, my name’s Ash.”
“Oh” completely taken aback I added, “I thought I heard those guys calling you Damien.”
“You did” he grimaced “that’s the nickname they like to call me.” He must have seen the confusion on my face, because he sighed “They call me Damien or Demon-boy. Sometimes, it's just plain old 666. I guess they think it’s funny”, he explained. “Sorry, by the way.”
“Huh?” was my highly intelligent response.
“For startling you.” He pointed to the tree I’d just fallen from.
“Oh. Don’t worry about it. It’s my own fault for thinking I was nine years old again,” I laughed awkwardly. “Besides, you saved me from a heap of pain” I smile. 'If not embarrassment', I add in my head still feeling the humiliation.
He smiled back and seemed to relax a little - he stopped shuffling his feet anyway. “So I’m guessing you just bought the old Richardson place?”
“If the old Richardson place is the old farmhouse that burned down, then you guess correctly.” I felt a little more relaxed too and my cheeks didn’t feel quite so warm. I stood (carefully) and we started strolling through the woods. He pushed a thorny branch out of my way as we headed towards mine; at least I was pretty sure that was the direction we were headed.
“Are you going to Human High?” he asked.
"Sorry, I mean New Cape. It's what everyone calls it round here. I guess I've picked up the slang." he grimaces.
“I start tomorrow.” I sigh. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. I kind of don't see the point of attending for a few weeks before we all have to change to The Foundation anyway.”
“It's so we can get used to being around Humans. They have the ability to adapt easily, we don't. This way we can learn from them in a controlled environment." he explains.
"I guess they would feel safer in a controlled environment." I reason.
"Them? Don't you mean us? Their species is so volatile, they're dangerous. That's why they were banished to the Earth Realm. The only Humans left are the direct descendants from a group that proved themselves to be less violent. I see a lot of them at work and I've never had a problem, but that doesn't mean they don't have the potential to become like their brethren, we have to be careful around them. I still look forward to getting this last week over and done with though." He laughs nervously. "But you don’t need to worry” he grins, “You’re the kind of girl who’ll fit in, no problem.” I knew he meant it as a compliment to reassure me after seeing my nervous glances, but it annoyed me and I guess I was a little more sensitive than I needed to be. I stopped.
“Wow. Twice in 24 hours.” I said sarcastically. “So tell me. Exactly what kind of girl am I?” I stood with my hands on my hips and I knew I was acting moronic, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.
Realising he’d offended me; he stood in front of me, his face flushed. “I’m sorry,” he said “I didn’t mean…It’s not like I was calling you volatile…You’re just…I just meant, you’re…” I stood waiting for him to finish a sentence. “You’re…” Clearly, he wasn’t going to.
“I’m what?” I demanded, ready for him to start backing away from the crazy girl.
Instead, he shrugged his shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re beautiful.” My heart stopped and the world seemed to disappear. He looked down at his feet again, starting to shuffle them. It must be a nervous habit. 'I’ve made him nervous.' I felt so ashamed of my absurd behaviour.
Then I did something even more disturbing - I kissed him on the cheek “Thank you”. Then I ran as fast as Vampirically possibly and didn’t stop until I was through the back door.
I spent the next hour in my room attempting to organize some more of my things. However, my mind kept coming back to Ash. I couldn’t believe I’d acted the way I had. Worse - I couldn’t believe I’d kissed him. I know it was only on the cheek but still, I’d never been so forward with a guy. It wasn’t like me at all, but then neither was ogling. 'He must bring out my teenage hormones.' That was the only explanation I could think of and I felt quite proud of my mature realisation of the fact.
Mum tapped on the door and poked her head round. “I thought we might get lunch out. There’s a nice little tearoom in the square. What do you think?” she asked. As long as we weren’t going near the diner, or anywhere else I might run into Ash, it was fine with me. Somehow I couldn’t quite see him sitting in a ‘nice little tea room’ and I wasn‘t ready to face him after my embarrassing kiss and run this morning.
“That sounds good. What about Dad?” He wasn’t exactly the tea room-type either.
“Your Father’s already had lunch, so we’re ready when you are.” I jumped off my bed and went to follow Mum downstairs. She just stood looking at me strangely.
“What?” I asked.
Slowly, a smile started creeping across her face “You never were one to play with dolls!” she laughed and reached up to pull a twig out of my hair “Clean yourself up. We’ll wait.” I could hear her laughing as she closed the door and went back downstairs. I turned to look at myself in the mirror. `Maybe I should get changed too’ I thought, noticing a streak of mud across my bum.
Five minutes later, I joined my parents. “Ready twiggy?” asked Dad, obviously unable to control himself. Mum pushed him out the door, trying not to laugh again. I rolled my eyes hoping this wasn’t going to become a permanent nickname.
From what we could see there seemed to be two distinct parts of the island. On the bridge side, it was all extremely modern and contemporary. There were new-build apartment blocks, corporate offices, a large supermarket, and a new shopping centre with the usual high street names. On the old harbour side, it was a much slower pace of life. Narrow, cobbled streets lined with boutiques, cafés, antique shops, and bookstores. Sandwiched in between ‘old and quaint’ and ‘new and shiny’ was the town hall. This was where the important issues were discussed. Issues such as 'what kind of fruit punch should be served at the annual picnic' and 'what colour ribbons should be used at this year’s flower festival.' As ‘new and shiny’ as the citizens of Zaratan wanted to appear, they were still just ‘old and quaint’ at heart.
The original high street was basic, a small road with a bank, post office, a few charity shops, butchers, bakers (no candle-stick makers; that I could see), newsagents, green grocers, a few hairdressers and not much of anything else. A few cobbled paths led towards the harbour’s main square, so we parked and wandered down. There was a small fountain in the middle, bordered on two sides with shops and the aptly named ‘Tea Room’; a third side had a small open market, while the fourth was open to the harbour itself. Small, bobbing fishing boats adorned the docks. The whole place had a post-card quality to it.
We entered the Tea Room and sat in the window. Miss Lizzy introduced herself and served us a pot of her own special blend of tea, she brought over an old-fashion cake stand that was crammed with scones, vanilla slices, cream cakes, and goodness knows what else. This certainly wasn’t the place to come if you believed in diets. Zaratan seemed ideal for a lazy weekend, but the thought of having to spend all my time here was starting to terrify me. I sat watching the world go by (very slowly).
After looking round the market, Mum and Dad decided they’d walk down to the green grocers and stock up on a few things. I was still looking around the square, so they said they’d meet me by the fountain in an hour. I was back a little early, so I sat on the edge and watched the sunlight reflect off the coins scattered across the bottom. I was considering what wish I should make, when a shadow loomed over me. I looked up to see Jed glaring down at me. “I don’t appreciate being stood up” he scowled.
“What?” I asked bewildered.
“You were supposed to meet me last night!”
For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he was serious. Nevertheless, the look on his face told me he was. This guy really was unbelievable. I felt uncomfortable with the way he was still towering over me, so I stood and pushed passed him slightly. “I don’t remember agreeing to that.” I said and decided I would start walking to meet my parents.
I headed down a side street in the direction of the grocers. After a short while, I realised I had taken the wrong path. `Idiot.' I turned around to make my way back to the square and came face to face with Jed. Actually, it was more like face to chest, him being so close. How had I not heard him behind me? Startled, I back up slightly. However, as I stepped back, he stepped forward. I soon found myself up against a wall, literally. I looked up at him and saw something flash across his face - a predator that had cornered his prey. He leant in close, his hands on the wall either side of me, effectively caging me in with his arms and I could feel his warm breath on my neck.
I was trying to think about my options when he whispered in my ear “You’re starting school tomorrow, aren’t you?” He had caught off guard and I hesitated, I hadn’t expected such an ordinary conversation opener. I nodded, uncertain where he could be going with this. “I’m sure a girl like you can appreciate that first impressions are very important when starting a new school.”
`A girl like me? Why do people insist on pigeonholing me?'
Before I had a chance to say anything, he carried on “I’m not such a bad guy you know. I’d be quite happy to show you around and introduce you to the right people.”
“And what would you want from me in return?” I asked doubting his sincerity. He pulled back from me slightly, just enough that he could look me in the eye. He actually looked a little offended and even a little hurt. Suddenly I started to doubt myself. `Do I have him wrong?'
“I thought we could be friends,” he said.
“Friends?” I was still sceptical. A guy like him didn’t seem the type to want to be just friends. `A guy like him?' I could have kicked myself for being such a hypocrite.
“I’d like to be friends” he smiled. His smile was warm and inviting and when I looked into his eyes, I couldn’t see any trace of malice. His eyes seemed just as genuine as his smile and I found myself looking deeper into them. They were such an intense blue, like pools of clear tropical water. My skin felt super-charged and I unintentionally began leaning in towards him. A loud noise seemed to snap me out of it. We both turned to see an alley cat running from a fallen bin. When I turned back to face Jed he had stepped back. “Friends?” he asked and he held out his hand in offering.
I shook his hand in agreement “Friends” I smiled. After all, I believed in second chances, and I was determined to prove to myself that I was not a hypocrite.
Not much else happened that day. When we got home, Mum pottered about trying to unpack a little more and I thrashed Dad at chess, twice. Feeling quite drained I went to bed early. I lay in my bed thinking about the day’s events: this morning in the woods with Ash and this afternoon in the alley with Jed. I had a feeling things were going to get complicated.