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House of Darken - Chapters 1-3

**Please note that this has not had final edits and is subject to change.**

Copyright of Jaymin Eve 2018 

 

Chapter One

 

“Are you okay, Emma?”

Turning from the window, I was more than happy to get out of my own head. The endless forests of the Pacific Northwest were keeping me somewhat entertained, but I couldn’t wait to finally arrive at our new home and escape this car. Let’s just say, it had been a long trip from Roswell, New Mexico.

“Yeah, I’m good. Just over-thinking. You know me.” My lips tilted up. My smile was still a little shocking – to me and Sara both judging by her widened eyes. Until recently I rarely smiled.  

As she reached back to give my hand a squeeze, I took a closer look at her and felt concern tinge my emotions. She was pale, eyes puffy, and her normally rich brown skin was washed out. Her dark corkspring curls were a mess.

“Are you okay?” I asked, leaning forward in my seat as she let go of my hand.

She nodded, and I was relieved as her weary features relaxed. “Just ready to get out of this car. We’re close now. Only another twenty or so minutes.”

Leaning back, I wrapped my hands around my necklace, the only thing I still possessed from before the fire. It was an opal … maybe. No one actually knew what the oddly shaped and textured stone was, but it had faint opal coloring, so that was what I went with.

It had been my mom’s. She’d given it to me on my seventeenth birthday; I still couldn’t believe that had almost been a year ago. I remembered the day so clearly, each moment as it flashed across my mind was sharp and biting. We’d gone to the beach and gotten ice cream. I’d picked out my first car later that afternoon.

A perfect day.

Next month I would turn eighteen. The first birthday without my parents. I was dreading it with every fiber of my being. Flames tore my world apart last New Year’s Eve – a time for new beginnings, but for me it was the end. Almost eighteen years old and already I had hit rock bottom – a hard and unforgiving landing.

Eight months since the fire, and I was still haunted … tormented.

Summer was almost over and I was moving to a new town. Again. Sara and Michael, my guardians, were the only two of my parents’ friends who gave a damn about anything to do with me after the fire, and since I had no other family to speak of, I was grateful to them. They took in a grieving, broken mess of human and somehow provided me with what I needed to claw my way from the darkness.

Space, then support. Warmth and love followed.

I’m not sure I would have survived without them, which, frankly, scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to rely on anybody anymore. Knowing they could be gone in an instant was terrifying, and there were plenty of days I was tempted to run from them, escape their cheerful faces and happy world. But as those moments of panic passed, I remembered how lucky I was. I was not in the system. I was not alone.

Michael shifted forward, squinting through the front window, focused upwards for a minute. He was very Irish in coloring: pale skin, hazel eyes, and carrot red hair. He only had to walk across the yard and he burned, unlike his wife who could sunbake for hours. I loved the diversity between him and Sara. Not to mention how epic their love was.

In a world of broken people and marriages, those two gave me hope.

“Hopefully we’ll beat this storm,” Michael finally said as he straightened. “I don’t like the thought of moving in during a downpour.” Dark, angry clouds were awash in the sky, which had been blue not ten minutes earlier. The turbulent masses swirled and dotted about, trying to eclipse the last light of the afternoon.

Storms never bothered me. I quite enjoyed the heavy crash of thunder, the spark of lightning, the soothing pitter patter of rain as it washed across the land. It felt like the earth was cleansing, a new start.

Michael turned a worried look toward his wife. “Think we’ll make it in time?”

Sara began reassuring her storm-hating husband that we’d have plenty of time, and I had to hide my smile. We had a box and a suitcase each. Even if a hurricane sprang up it really wasn’t going to be a huge problem to move in. Except, of course, there was no chance any rental we could afford would be able to withstand a swift wind, let alone a serious storm.

I had already moved twice in the eight months I’d lived with the Finnegans, and both times our furnished rentals were one step up from slums. But hey, it was a roof over our heads. Growing up I’d lived solidly middle class, always thinking my parents had plenty of money. After they died, I learned there was only enough left to cover their bills. After losing your only family, though, being poor was sort of insignificant. When I was hungry, I put things into perspective and dealt with it like an adult.

“What’s in Astoria, Oregon, anyway?” I asked, dropping my necklace back beneath my tank and pushing my wavy hair behind my ears. Already the humidity from the storm had my hair going haywire. It was long, a mixture of curls and waves, in a rich auburn color. The red explained my temper; the curls were from parts unknown. My parents were both straight-haired brunettes.

Michael’s freckled face lit up, hazel eyes shining with excitement as he shifted to see me better. “Astoria is it … the one! I think we really have something this time, Em. There have been multiple eyewitness accounts. Multiple. And they’re from legitimate sources.”

My guardians were two of the nicest people I’d ever met, but they were crazy. Complete batshit crazy. They believed there was something other than humans out in the world. They referred to themselves as supernatural chasers. I had no real idea what exactly they were searching for, but they spent their lives scouring the internet, hunting down leads, and moving all around the country. Which was why we had no money for a new car. Michael was very good with computers, and had an online tech-support business that made just enough to sustain their lifestyle – but their focus was definitely not on making money or settling down in one place.

I had been born and raised in California. At the time of the fire, Sara and Michael were living in Vegas, so my first move was to their small place there. Then we moved to New Mexico for five months. And now to Astoria. I hadn’t been back to school since the fire, having taken some time off to grieve before eventually homeschooling to finish my junior year. Astoria would be my first new school ever. Senior year. To say I was nervous was an understatement, but I was a tiny bit excited about it too.

I returned Michael’s grin, trying to adopt some of his enthusiasm even though I didn’t believe a word of his insane theories. “I still don’t know how you guys have moved so often. Was there ever a time you just stayed in one place?”

I leaned forward, elbows resting on my knees. Sara’s smile was gentle as she exchanged a lingering looking with her husband. “When we first got married, we lived in California for five years. That’s how we met your parents.”

My heart tightened. Sometimes the pain just hit me like a bullet. Grief was a strange thing, ebbing and waning without any reliable pattern. Some days I was okay. I could talk about them, think about them. Other days I was a mess.

Today was somewhere in the middle, so I was brave enough to push for more information. “I know Mom and Dad missed you both when you started moving around. Your visits were always a highlight in our house.”

Sara’s light brown eyes got shiny then; her throat worked as she swallowed hard. “It was a highlight for us too, honey,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. “We miss Chelsea and Chris so much.” She cleared her throat and spoke again, louder this time: “And this time we will be staying in Astoria for your entire senior year. We promise. It might be nice for us to have some stability for a while too.”

That was a relief. I didn’t want to have to navigate two schools during my senior year. Still, Astoria seemed like an odd choice.

“It’s a fairly small town, right? Are you sure there could really be much supernatural activity?” It was hard to phrase these questions without letting my skepticism show. Even the word “supernatural.” What did that refer to? Was it ghosts? Vampires? Werewolves? What exactly did they think was out there? Any time I asked they just said, “Other than human…”

So basically it could be anything.

Michael lifted one hand off the steering wheel, waving it animatedly. “I can’t wait to find out, but so far all the signs look really positive. Unusual activity is picking up in the area. Reports of energy spikes. Missing people. Strange occurrences with natural landscape formations. This is definitely the one!”

I smiled, but internally I was shaking my head. It was hard to actually believe that my accountant father and science teacher mother had put aside their level-headedness to become best friends with the Finnegans. That in itself was bordering on the crazy, but I wasn’t going to complain. This kooky pair had saved my life and I would owe them forever.

Turning back to the window, I let the scenery capture me again. I expected the natural landscape to really thin out before we hit Astoria, alert me to civilization approaching, but one minute it was trees and the next … we were in the town. I sat up in my chair, moving closer to the window. The back seats were old and threadbare, springs digging into my spine if I shifted too far out of the center, but it was worth it to catch a glimpse of this picturesque little place. Despite the grumbling skies and rolling clouds, there was something truly beautiful here. Something which almost felt familiar … homey.

“What do you think, Emma?” Sara twisted again, her teeth bright against the dark of her skin. She looked happy and more energized already.

I didn’t reply straight away, choosing to focus on the world flashing by the window. Tiny fishing shacks made way to large mansions scattered along the water. A huge bridge could be seen far off into the distance, looking like it disappeared out over the water. Fishing boats shared the water with huge barges. And so much greenery. Everywhere I looked it was lush and natural, pockets of forest scattered amongst the city. Eventually I had to say, “It’s perfect. Just perfect.”

From the corner of my eye I could see the Finnegans exchange beaming smiles, but I was too enthralled to care. I never believed I’d ever feel at home anywhere again after losing my parents. They had been my home. But Astoria was definitely special; maybe this was the place to heal a little of the heavy ache in my heart and soul. It would be nice not to hurt so much all the time.

When we were passing through what looked like the main town of Astoria, Sara started trying to direct her husband toward our new house. She was terrible with maps, which was comical considering how much they traveled. I’d asked them if they’d ever like a navigation system in their car. I had gotten a solid no from both of them. Apparently they trusted their paper maps more, saying electronics could be manipulated.

After about thirty seconds of her rotating the map, I leaned over her shoulder. “Do you want some help?” I asked.

Without hesitation, she thrust the paper toward me. “Yes, please, this damn thing makes no sense. It’s upside down or something.”

Michael chuckled, very used to his wife’s lack of map-reading skills. “We’re on Marine Drive,” he told me, before pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket. “And our house is on … Daelight Crescent.” He squinted in the dim light, repeating it: “Fourteen Daelight Crescent.”

I scanned across the map, searching for both streets. I found the one we were on easily enough, but the other was not jumping out at all. After a few minutes I was about to tell them they had the wrong address when I finally noticed it. The name was tiny, almost unreadable.

It was across the other side of town, near the water. I figured out the quickest route from where we were and directed Michael. The storm was hanging lower now, which gave me almost no visibility in the back seat, and since there were no interior lights I had to hold the map very close to my face while lifting it up near the window to capture the final rays of the dying light. I memorized the route as best I could.

After driving for about fifteen minutes I leaned forward. “Should be around here somewhere.” I had abandoned the map. It was way too dark to see.

“There!” Sara gave a shout.

She must have picked up the flash of a sign in the lightning sprinkling the sky, because there were very few streetlights out this far. Michael and I had missed it completely; he had to swing the car around and go back again. This time he approached slowly, indicating to turn before we realized that Daelight Crescent was actually barred by a huge, imposing wood and iron gate. The design was intricate and expensive: shiny wood, polished metal accents. It towered into the sky, making me feel small and insignificant.

We all stared in silence. Michael and Sara exchanged a look.

“This can’t be right,” Michael murmured, turning from his wife and leaning forward to see better through the front windscreen. “This was the cheapest rental we could find here. It’s only seven hundred a month. They didn’t mention security gates. There’s no way we can afford this street.”

Michael wasn’t kidding. Our place in New Mexico barely had a front door, let alone something that resembled the sort of gated community movie stars hid away in. A tap at the window then made us all jump. The man standing outside of Michael’s window had taken us by surprise.

He was a large, imposing guy, holding what looked like a heavy-duty LED camping lantern. Michael slowly rolled down the clunker’s old sticky window. It stopped about halfway, unable to go down any lower.

The man inclined his head toward Michael and I caught a glimpse of dark skin and eyes, and very white teeth flashing as he spoke. “Can I help you, sir?”

His accent was mild, hard to place, and his tone very polite. I studied his dark uniform, trying to make out details in the light from the high-tech-looking lantern he held. The word “security” was finely stitched in white across the pocket, and it all clicked into place.

Apparently this was a compound for movie stars, and somehow we had scored a place in there for $700 a month. No catch either, no doubt. I slumped back in my seat as I waited for the guard to tell us we were in the wrong place.

Sara spoke up, answering his question from before – which she often did when her husband got flustered. “We arranged to rent a house, 14 Daelight Crescent. We might have the wrong street, though. We only have an old map to navigate from.”

“Who did you rent this property through?” the guard asked. Hmmm … curious. I expected him to immediately usher our old clunker away, lest it taint the rich folk.

Michael, who no longer looked flustered, leaned over the back seat and yanked up a folder from the floor. Riffling through it, he pulled out a few pieces of paper and handed them over to the security guard. “This was the site,” Michael said. “We’ve already paid first and last months’ rent.”

The man took a step away and I saw a flash of light as he lifted the lantern closer, reading over the documents. He stepped back to the car window a few minutes later, just as the first drops of rain started to hit. The storm was about to rage at us.

“Well, everything seems to be in order here. You’re one of the lucky few allowed to live on Astoria’s most exclusive street. There will be security cards in your house, one for each of you. Please keep them on you at all times. And make sure you stick to your side of the street.” He cleared his throat. “That’s an official rule – don’t cross to their side of the street and you won’t have any trouble.”

With that weird and kind of insulting advice, he turned and marched off. Within seconds, the double gates were silently swinging open.

Our side of the street. Their side of the street. What crap was this? Did they segregate people here? Because I was not cool with any sort of segregation. Except for assholes – they could walk straight off a cliff.

My parents had always drilled the importance of equality into me, that I should treat people as I would want to be treated, no matter their personal circumstances. Despite the fact that sometimes people hit my bitch switch – my redhead temper could get the better of me – for the most part I tried to be a decent human being. I actually tried even harder now my parents were gone. I had to make them proud.

Michael eased the car back into drive, and with a few shuddering lurches we were moving again.

“Where exactly did you find this rental?” Sara asked him as she leaned forward in her seat, a dubious look on her face.

Michael didn’t answer at first – he was too busy staring at the street before us – but he did thrust the same papers at her that he had given to the guard. As she silently read through them, I turned my full attention to this street. Despite the darkness, I could tell how stunning it was. The most picture-perfect street I had ever seen in my life, beyond movies and any fairytale world. The road was wide, long, and straight. There were lanterns dotted in even intervals along each side, casting everything in soft light. Hedges and perfectly-shaped rose bushes filled the spaces between the lanterns.

To our right, which I knew from the map was the side on the water, the houses were … well, not houses. At minimum they were mansions. Some of them in the distance looked a lot like castles. Huge and imposing, they were the height of beauty and architectural design. No two were the same layout or color, and each seemed to be set on an enormous block of land with solid gates barring them from the street.

“Michael!” Sara’s voice was high and stressed now. “This is a mistake, right? We can’t live in one of those houses. They’re multi-million dollar properties.”

It was then I noticed the other side of the street, and I started to understand how we’d ended up in here. Not to mention the our and their side comments from the guard made a lot more sense now.

The left side of the street was the very poor, rundown cousin to the mansions on the right. Each house was small and dark, as if even the streetlamps didn’t like them very much and decided not to shine any light over there. The blocks were close together, and many of the buildings looked a little worse for wear. Michael and Sara had also noticed “our side” of the street, and relief crossed their faces. This was the world we were familiar with.

“Keep an eye out for fourteen,” Michael said as he continued creeping along. The road was deserted. Everyone must have scurried inside to avoid the storm. We were the only crazies driving around. Already a fair bit of water was splattering in through the still-open driver’s window. Michael hadn’t managed to get it closed yet, although he was still working on it.

“There it is,” I said, pointing my arm through the center of the car toward a single level, rickety-looking place with a half-porch.

Outside of the soft lamplight, everything looked eerie, shadows awash across that small porch, the wind whipping leaves and debris around the front yard. The clunker eased into the open car space and with one last huff turned off. Michael used both hands then to get his window all the way closed. Well, almost all the way. Then the three of us sat and stared, exhausted from the days of travel, but reluctant to leave the familiarity of the car and step into the dark, creepy house.

Sara pulled herself together first, plastering on her best confident face, turning to Michael and me: “Let’s go inside. We can deal with all the problems tomorrow. Fresh sheets on the beds and a warm shower. Everything will seem brighter in the morning.”

Good a plan as any. I wiggled my legs to get the blood pumping again, before dragging my Converse up off the floor and pulling them on. I was wearing short shorts and a tank. It was summer, and hot when we left this morning. Apparently the Pacific Northwest cared nothing for seasons though; it did what it wanted. Which meant I was going to freeze my butt off trying to get my bag and box from the back.

The three of us dashed to the trunk of the car. Michael yanked it open and started handing things across. Arms full, we all made our way up onto the porch, which provided only the slightest shelter from the rain. It was just shy of a downpour, and we were damp in moments. The front door opened right up and we hurried inside.

Sara found the lights in the front room, flicking them on. As everything came into focus, I sort of wished she would turn them back off again. The house was small and boxy, set out in a square formation. Living room and kitchen in the front half, hallway in middle, and I would guess the two bedrooms and bathroom made up the back half.

We stepped into the living area with its threadbare carpet, two old ragged couches, and a coffee table that looked like it was put together with cardboard. Sara’s smile didn’t dim; she was used to this life, and had embraced it long ago.

“Great, they actually left some furniture. Even when they say fully furnished, so many times they aren’t.” Her overly chipper chatter continued as she moved farther into the house, turning on more lights. “Isn’t it great that electricity is included in this rental property?”

That was a positive. For once we wouldn’t have to worry about that bill getting paid.

“Come on, Em. Let’s get settled.” Michael briefly dropped his hand on my shoulder. His expression didn’t change when I subtly shifted away, breaking contact. I loved my guardians, but ever since the fire I had avoided being touched. Emotions and images would overwhelm me. Like … I was only able to remain contained if I existed in a world devoid of touch and comfort. If it bothered Sara and Michael, they never showed it; they just minimized the amount of physical affection they forced on me.

They had learned quickly when to push and when to let me be.

We explored the tiny place. Of the two bedrooms, the smaller one with the twin bed was mine. I dumped my box and bag on the floor and took a second to examine my new space. Besides the bed there was a closet, side table, and dresser, more furniture than I was used to having in the last six months. I didn’t even care that it had seen better days, the white paint peeling and tattered. It would do the job I needed.

There was no bedding but that was okay, I had my own. Sara said that no matter how many houses you lived in, as long as you had clean, familiar sheets, and a secure roof over your head, you’d be okay. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a sandwich and hot cocoa to go with that, but she was half right at least.

Stepping to the mattress, I wrinkled my nose as a slight smell of stale dampness assaulted me. Glancing up, it didn’t seem as if this room leaked, so hopefully it was just from sitting unused. If the increasing heaviness of the rain was any indication, we were in for a bit of a thrashing this night, so I’d find out soon enough on the leaking situation.

“How you getting on in here, Emma?”

Sara popped in, and seeing that I was in the middle of making the bed, strode over to help. It took us a few minutes to get my pale rose sheets on, throw a couple of pillows to the head of the bed, and finish with a simple white knit blanket over the top. Hopefully I’d be warm enough. Something told me we weren’t even remotely prepared for the weather here.

A crash of thunder rocked the house at the same time my stomach growled. I thought Sara looked at me closely, probably wondering if she’d heard right. She wasn’t used to me wanting food. My curves were long gone, grief and lack of interest whittling my frame down to one that was far too slim. I was just starting to get my appetite back. I really hoped my curvier figure would return with it.

“Are you hungry?” Sara said quietly. “I just realized we haven’t really eaten since lunch and those few other snacks. I can duck out and get you something.”

I shook my head, forcing a smile across my face. “No, it’s okay. I can wait for breakfast.”

She nodded a few times, her own smile looking forced too. “Mike will get up early to grab some essentials. You know him, always up with the birds.”

“You talking about me, woman?” Michael’s shout came from the living room, where he was no doubt trying to hide from the storm.

With a laugh, Sara turned to leave, a gleam in her eye that told me Michael was in trouble. She paused at my doorway to wink and blow me a kiss, before closing the door to give me privacy, which was my general request.

Sucking in a deep breath, I braced my hands on the dresser. Closing my eyes, it took me many moments to center myself and push off the sadness, the pressing ache in my chest that sometimes literally took my breath away and had me dizzy and shaking. I managed to keep up a happy façade when I was around my guardians; they tried so hard and I knew my pain hurt them. I kept waiting for it to get easier, for the day I would wake up and be able to breathe again. The psychologist had said – during my five forced appointments right after my parents’ deaths – that only time could ease my agony. “Give it time,” he’d say, over and over.

Clearly, eight months was not enough time because I felt nothing but constant pain.

Miss you guys. Love you both so much.

A part of me hoped they were around, watching over me, that death wasn’t the end of it all, that there was something more. Something beyond. I needed to believe I’d see them again one day. We weren’t a religious family. Math and science had been our calling, but I was taking a leap of faith for the first time.

There was only one bathroom in this rental, so I gathered my toiletries and pajamas before opening my door and entering the green-tiled room.

Five minutes later I emerged shivering as I dashed to my room. “No hot water,” I yelled as I passed the living area.

I heard a few curses; most of them sounded like they were from Sara, but by this time I had already shut my door and was jumping into bed – which was not much warmer than the outside, but it was cozy at least. Despite the fact I’d only sat on my butt all day, I was exhausted. Tomorrow was a new day. I would hopefully explore the stunning little town that was to be my home for the next twelve months. Astoria. For the first time in a long time, I actually fell asleep with a sliver of positivity inside of me.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

That night I slept solidly. When I woke, I opened my eyes to a dimly lit room, but lingered in bed for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth under the covers. The air was chilly on my nose and cheeks; it was definitely not summer weather here. The worst of the storm had died off through the night, but there was clearly no sun shining on the town of Astoria.

After enjoying the quiet for some time, I eventually stretched out, trying to ease the stiffness from my extremely crappy bed – pretty sure the mattress was filled with sand and rocks – and pulled myself up.

The minutest sounds of conversation drifted through the thin walls. Sara and Michael were awake, which hopefully meant food. As soon as I thought about eating, the hunger gnawing at my belly roared to life. A few gulps of water from the cup on my bedside subsided the cramps for a short time. I was getting pretty good as this minimal food thing. On top of grief killing my appetite, the Finnegans also forgot about food all the time. Neither of them were big eaters, focusing more on their crazy research. Team that with our limited money and there had been more than one night we all went to bed with empty bellies.  

God, I missed my mom’s cooking, my dad’s laughter in the morning when he would read the papers and shout about politics and the world going to shit. I missed my family. I didn’t even have a place to visit them. The fire had burned so hot and fast that there was literally nothing left but ash. Some days I imagined they had escaped and were out in the world looking for me, but I knew that was just wishes and dreams. They would never have abandoned me. Which left only one logical conclusion. The fire had … taken them. The two empty graves back home signified their official deaths.

Swallowing against the painful lump in my throat, I forced the memories down, brushing off a few tears as I hopped out of bed, keeping the blanket wrapped around me to ward off the chill.

Crossing the room, I dropped down beside my box of belongings, ripping off the tape and flipping the top open. I only had a few things I would call personal possessions – including the jewelry box my mom had given Sara as a gift, which she’d passed on to me. I lifted out the heavy box, dark wood with its mother-of-pearl inlay, and placed it on my dresser. Normally I would be worried about leaving it out in the open, especially since I often placed my necklace in there for safe keeping, but now we lived on a special magic street with door guards and stuff, which had better mean my belongings were safe.

My clothes took about five minutes to hang and put into drawers, and just like that I was unpacked. The minimalistic life was certainly easy in some ways. Poking my head out around the door, there was no one in the dark hallway. I followed the sounds to find Michael and Sara in the kitchen. A few brown paper bags were scattered across the scarred bench-tops, and I almost shrieked when I saw my favorite cereal sitting there.

I must have made some noise, because two sets of eyes and beaming smiles were now on me.

“You’re awake!” Michael jumped to his feet and hurried around to my side. “How did you sleep?”

I shrugged, but before I could answer Sara interrupted: “There’s hot water now. Had to flick the switch on the system. It heated up fast.”

I froze, torn about my priorities. What was more important, food, or a long hot shower to work out the kinks? My stomach growled loudly, and then again, angrier this time.

Well, that settles that.

There were three stools at the tiny breakfast bar, I pulled one out and took a seat. Michael dropped down on my right side. “You got Fruit Loops.” I could hear the excitement in my voice. “I haven’t had that for months.”

Sara deposited a bowl, spoon, and small carton of milk before me. “We thought you might like a treat – to make up for the rough trip here.”

I beamed at both of them, diving into the box of goodness. “Have I told you guys how awesome you are?” I said between mouthfuls. “This is the best thing I’ve tasted all year.”

I savored each bite slowly. These days I was all about taking pleasure in small things, something I’d never done before the fire. I was different now. Now I appreciated all the gifts.

One bowl filled me, so after rinsing out the dish I excused myself to get ready. Sara was thankfully right about the hot water. Unfortunately the pressure was still crap, but, with a lot of difficulty, I managed to wash my hair. Long, thick waves were a pain, but I’d almost figured out how to control them. Only took me seventeen years.

Rubbing the steam off the old mirror so I could see my reflection, I grabbed my hair cream and quickly ran it through the damp ends. Then the heat protection. Hair dryer was next. It was one of the few high-quality pieces I owned.

Ten minutes later: long, shiny, loose curls. For how long, one never knew, but right now “good hair day” was mine. I never wore much makeup; it was expensive and my mom had always encouraged me to avoid it for as long as possible. So I just swiped on some mascara, liking the way it enhanced the cobalt color of my eyes, and pale lip-gloss. My skin was naturally tanned – olive was how my mom described it. My heritage was Caribbean on my father’s side, and Australian on my mother’s. She had moved to America with her parents at the age of five, and they never left. My father was third generation, born in America. His grandparents emigrated from Dominica.

My mother’s parents had died before I was born, and my father’s when he was just a child. So I had no grandparents alive, and my parents had been only children. Mom always said small families could be perfect, with more than enough love to make up for lack of numbers.

She was right. It had been perfect.

I shook off the melancholy and forced myself to smile. I had to keep living … even more so because of the fire – I had to live for all of us. Plus, my parents would not want their deaths to steal anything from me. I knew that logically, but it didn’t mean I could just erase my pain.

I was dealing with it. Day by day.

Aware of the weather, I dressed in one of my few pairs of jeans, and a white long–sleeved, fitted shirt. To finish my outfit, I pulled on a worn-out pair of black Converse that we’d picked up from a thrift shop. They were the most comfortable shoes ever, and until they literally fell off my feet I would not give them up.

Stepping into the living area, I took a second to pay attention to the view outside the double front windows. Someone had opened the old blinds and I could see straight out into the street. Daelight Crescent. Even the name was oddly mystical.

Movement across the other side of the road caught my eye. One of the gates was opening. The house behind it looked straight out of European royalty. A castle, for sure. There was no other explanation for such opulence and beauty. The glimpse I caught was brief: some towering turrets, cream and stone accents, a huge drive, and enough landscaped gardens to keep a team of gardeners busy year-round. A low, sleek car emerged, distracting me. The vehicle was dark, like a rich deep purple or burgundy. It rumbled, intensely powerful, as it slowly glided onto the road. I didn’t recognize the make or model, but it was clearly expensive. It glided low to the road, the engine purring with just enough grunt that I had no doubt it was going to be fast.

I shifted forward, wanting to catch a glimpse of the occupants. But the tint was so dark I saw nothing but a large shadow. Actually two. It was possible someone was in the passenger seat. I realized then that just because I couldn’t see them, that didn’t mean they couldn’t see me. We had no tint on our windows, and if they glanced across to my side of the street they’d have a full view of me gawking like a weirdo. Feeling my cheeks heat up, I sank down into the old couch, hiding myself from view. After waiting a few moments, I was just poking my head up to check they were gone when—

“What ya doing?” Michael’s voice was close by. He’d crept around the couch and popped up beside me.

I might have let out a bit of a shriek, almost falling face-first off the chair. “Holy heck, don’t sneak up on me!”

He let out a loud laugh, shaking his head. He was still laughing as he took off down the hall again, back in the direction of his room. If it was possible, my guardian was acting even odder than usual. Standing, I dusted off my jeans and quickly followed Michael. I wanted to tell them both that I was going out to explore.

Even though the door to their bedroom was wide open, I hesitated just outside. We were still getting to know each other, so there was a certain awkwardness in invading each others’ privacy. I watched as Sara neatly unpacked their things; Michael was trying to fix the cupboard door that was hanging from one hinge. He wasn’t really one for carpentry talent, but he always had a go.

Sara finally noticed me hovering in the doorway. “Hey, Em. Everything okay?” She pushed back her mess of curls. Dust was scraped across her forehead, dark circles under her eyes.

I nodded, forcing that smile again. “Yeah, I’m all unpacked, so I was just thinking about heading out and exploring Astoria. I’d love to see the town.”

Sara finished folding the last shirt and closed the drawer. She was a little OCD with clothes, color and style coordinating. Michael was a mess; if clothes were left up to him, everything would be thrown into a pile in the corner.

“That’s a great idea,” she said. “It looked so beautiful when we drove through last night. I’ll have to find some time to explore too.” She glanced at her husband. “I’m still trying to get Michael to tell me how we ended up in this town, and especially how we lucked out renting on a gated street. I feel so much better about leaving you alone knowing there’s security here, but sometimes when things are too good to be true…” She trailed off, and we all knew what she was thinking.

Michael brushed a hand through his thinning red hair, shooting a smile at Sara. “Like I said, I was chasing up on some reports of weird happenings, energy surges, bright lights, disappearances – the usual things. Astoria has never been on my radar before, and then suddenly I’m inundated with countless news articles from here, some of them dating back at least a hundred years. I have no idea why this area never came up before. I’ve made that same search numerous times on the dark web, but this time there was all of this new information.”

He pushed the cupboard door closed. It was straight for about five seconds before a creak had it lurching back on one hinge. With a curse, he turned his back on the door and faced us. “So I started searching for rentals here, and strangely enough, there was nothing but this one place in our price range. It was a private rental. We got accepted without any fuss, over the phone. Kind of felt a lot like fate.”

Fate. That was a funny way to think about it. I mean, the way he explained it did really seem as if someone wanted us to come here … but that would be stupid. I refused to buy into their theories. No one knew about the Finnegans. They were nomads. Ghosts. They never planted roots, got jobs, or did anything that established them in a town – in and out, leaving very little trail behind.

No one would have lured them here. There was no reason at all for that to happen.

Since Sara and Michael were exchanging their “conspiracy theory” face, I knew they were about to hit their research again, so I bade them one last goodbye before heading to the front door.

“Don’t forget to grab your door key and security card, Emma,” Michael yelled after me. “They’re quite strict in checking you’re allowed in here. I passed at least five guards this morning on my way to get food.”

Geez, five guards … overkill much? I grabbed my wallet from my room before making my way to the kitchen to pick up the card and key sitting on the bench. It all went into my pocket.

The front door opened easily. Cool breezes wrapped around me as I stepped out onto the cement porch and made my way down the couple of stairs. Even though I told myself not to stare, I still had to check out the houses across the street.

The road we had driven in on was at least twice the size of a normal residential street. There was an actual dotted white line right down the center, dividing our side of the street from theirs.

The guard last night had been pretty blunt in his warning to stay on our side, which only made my urge to run across and touch the forbidden side that much stronger. Of course, I wasn’t five, so I managed to restrain myself, all the while feeling a tad annoyed that there was any need for such a divide. Sure, they were rich, probably famous, judging by the ten-foot-high fences, but we were all people. Different but the same. Money shouldn’t make anyone think they were better than anyone else.

Of course, I’d love to have more than thirty-five bucks to my name. A few new pairs of shoes. Maybe a car so I didn’t have to walk everywhere. But I was aware that the things I valued most in the world could not be bought with money. Which meant, for me, it was not worth chasing.

Shivering in the cool air, I took off at a brisk walk and it still took me ten minutes to reach the front gate. I wasn’t stopped by anyone; the street remained empty and quiet. The same guard from last night was waiting in a small booth. In the cloudy light I could see that he was probably only a few years older than me – very handsome, a few inches taller than my five foot eight, and built like a line-backer. Pretty standard for security nowadays. His midnight-dark skin was clear and beautiful, and I had instant envy. My skin was pretty easy to handle for a teen, but was still known to break out on occasion.

“Where are you heading?” he asked, handing my card back after he’d logged me into the system. “A bus rolls by in about fifteen minutes. Pulls up on that corner.” He pointed to the right, down a fairly deserted-looking road. “If you use your Daelight Crescent card, you’ll get free transport around.”

Wow, that was a double bonus. “Awesome.” I beamed an actual genuine smile. “Thanks for the info. I’m really just hoping to explore the town. Maybe check out the school. I’ll be starting there next week.”

Summer break finished up late-August – early next week. I’d soon be starting my senior year and I was nervous. Then, once I got through the new school thing, I’d have to deal with my birthday. I turned eighteen on the fifteenth of September, so I had a lot going on.

“Are you heading to Astoria Prep? Or Starslight High?” he asked, the odd dark gray of his eyes standing out starkly against all of that lovely skin.

“Starslight High,” I said without hesitation. “It was the only one that offered me a scholarship, and I needed…”

I trailed off not wanting to advise him of our current financial situation. I might not care about money, but most people did. Most people judged. He didn’t seem to though; his expression didn’t change. I actually couldn’t get a read on his thoughts at all, which was somewhat relieving.

Just when the silence got awkward, and I was about to wave and head for the bus stop, he gave me a bright smile. “Starslight is a great school. You don’t have to worry. They only offer scholarships to students worthy of attending. It’s one of the most exclusive schools in the country, and graduating from there you’ll have no trouble getting into college.”

Another bonus. They were adding up fast this morning. The only way I was going to college was with multiple scholarships and financial aid, so maybe this new school would have some programs or contacts to help with that. Returning his smile, I nodded and half-turned.

“Well, thanks again…” I paused, waiting for him to fill in the blank of his name.

“Ace,” he said with a wink. “You can call me Ace.”

“Cool name,” I replied, waving and starting across in the direction of the bus stop. I turned back briefly as he called after me: “Take care out there, Emma. Not everything in Astoria is as safe as Daelight Crescent.”

I briefly locked eyes with him before marching away. How had he known my name? I definitely hadn’t told him it. Must have been attached to the card or something. I pulled it free for a second and had a look, but it just said “Resident of Daelight Crescent,” with a barcode to scan. No name.

Maybe it was logged in the computer. I refused to believe there was anything supernatural going on here. Sara and Michael were the only ones living in a fantasy world.

I stood on the corner for a few minutes before a white bus rolled up. Ace had been right about the card thing; I barely even flashed it before I was waved on. It was empty, so I had my pick of seats. I chose one about halfway, right against the window so I wouldn’t miss any of the scenery.

Astoria was just as pretty as it had been last night. Prettier actually, even in the dull, cloudy-day light. Ocean on one side, forests on the other, I felt as if I’d stumbled on fabled faerie lands; surely there was no place on Earth as stunning as this. The houses even seemed storybook-like – cute cottages, sprawling beach abodes. The bus stopped a few times, three people got on, but none sat near me.

Which was fine by me. I was in town-watching mode, not small-talk-with-strangers mode. All too soon the bus entered the “main street.” Well, at least according to the driver, who was randomly shouting out information on the town. Seemed we might have been in the historic section, which was why I chose to exit here. This was as good a place as any to start exploring.

I spent the next few hours strolling around, window shopping, observing the many people who were busy living their lives. They were so happy here, always smiling at me. I didn’t trust it; it was bizarre. But at least the scenery was stunning. Early afternoon, I made my way back to the bus pick-up. A different driver this time, a gray-haired woman who looked pretty close to retirement age. Again my card was just glanced at and I was waved on board. There were half a dozen or so passengers seated now, so I plonked down in a free chair near the back, in front of a blond girl who looked my age.

Slumping back into the soft seats – this bus was surprisingly nice – I briefly closed my eyes. I was tired again, despite my decent sleep last night.

“Are you new here?”

I jolted, eyes flying open as I shifted around in my seat to face the blond girl. She had leaned forward and I found myself staring into startling green eyes. If they were real, they were absolutely stunning. From what I could see, she was tall and thin, her features narrow, face angular. Not exactly pretty, but with the interesting look of a model. “I’ve never seen you on the bus before,” she continued on, cheerfully chatting, “and I ride it almost every day.”

I pushed back some of my wayward hair, swallowing hard. It was immediately obvious she was ultra-confident, which somehow always made me feel extra-introverted. Finally I found my voice. “Yeah, we just moved here yesterday. I was exploring the town.”

She chuckled, revealing slightly crooked, white teeth. “Not much to see. Lived here my entire life, and let me tell you, this is one boring-ass town.” She held her hand out to me. “I’m Cara. It’s great to meet you.”

I shook gently, then pulled my hand back to rest on my lap. “Emma. It’s really nice to meet you too.”

She seemed genuine and friendly, someone I would have enjoyed hanging out with in my old life. After my parents died, I’d lost contact with most of my friends. They tried to stay in touch, but I was so broken, and after a while they just couldn’t deal. I never blamed them. I was depressed being around myself. They at least had the chance to leave.

I knew I needed to put some effort into life again, to make friends. It would be nice to know someone before I started school. Hopefully she was going to the same one as me.

Just as I decided to ask her, she said, “So what school are you going to? I’m at Stars High, senior year.”

 “I’m going to Starslight too. Senior also.” I paused briefly. “I’m extra glad now to meet you. Starting a new school in senior year was not in my ten-year plan.”

Cara winked at me. “Don’t stress, I’ll show you the ropes. I’m not at the popular table or anything – none of us mortals are – but there are some nice people who go there. One or two.”

That wasn’t exactly promising. Cara pulled out a cell then, the case all shiny and pink; the screen lit up. “What’s your number? We should hang out over the next few days, when I’m not working, that is.”

Right, cell phone. Something most teenagers had. “I actually don’t have a phone. And since we literally just moved here last night, there’s no house phone either. If you write your number down, I’ll text as soon as I can.”

Maybe Sara and Michael had some money in the budget for a cheap cell. Wouldn’t hurt to ask. Or it might even be time for me to search out a part-time job. Cara’s eyes widened, as if she couldn’t even understand what I was saying.

“Girl, how do you possibly survive without a phone? I live on the ‘gram and Snapchat. Every moment is a photo-op, you know?”

I nodded, but I really didn’t know. What the heck was a Snapchat? The bus was nearing my stop, so I started to shift forward in my seat, scrambling around to find a piece of paper. “Do you have a pen?” I said, pulling out a receipt from my pocket. My key and card came out too. Just as I was about to shove them back in, Cara reached across and plucked the security card from my hand.

“Where did you get this?” she said, sounding absolutely astonished. “Do you know how much trouble you can get into for stealing one of the elite’s cards? A Daelight card?”

I blinked a few times before reaching out and taking my card back and shoving it into my pocket. “It’s my card. I didn’t steal anything. I live on Daelight Crescent. That’s my security pass.”

She was staring at me really weirdly now, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking, if she believed me or not, but there was no time to find out. My stop was next, so I pulled the cord, and the bus slowed just before the large security gates.

Cara still seemed to be in shock; definitely no condition to be exchanging numbers, so I just gave her a rueful smile, and hopped off. So much for making a friend. Clearly the fact that I lived on Daelight Crescent had freaked the blond girl out. Another odd thing to add to my experience in Astoria.

Stepping up to the gates, I squished down my unease. I’d forgotten how imposing the barriers were until I was standing before them. Like seriously, I was pretty sure Buckingham Palace had smaller fences around it. Ace was no longer manning the security booth. Another hulking man had taken his place, one with a mess of dark curls that hung over his ears, and steely blue eyes. He gave me the creeps as he took an exceptionally long time looking over my card, and then staring at my face.

I already checked, buddy. My face is not on there.

Eventually, after scanning me in through the computer, he let me enter. The entire time he was staring at me, he did not speak one word. I had to say, for a security guard, he did not make me feel even remotely secure.

My heartbeat remained elevated as I stepped onto the street. I couldn’t tell if it was from the security guard, or if there was some other threat nearby. Why did I keep feeling like Daelight Crescent was bad news?

I forced myself not to run, but my steps were rapid as I dashed along the street. Half my concentration was on the world around me, the other half on trying to figure out exactly which house was my new home. A lot of these old cottages looked the same, falling-down porches and all, but I knew mine was across from the European-looking mansion, so as its gates came into view I paid closer attention to the older shoebox homes.

I had just noticed number fourteen when the deep purr of an engine thundered through the afternoon, and I turned to find the sleek purple vehicle driving toward me. I moved back off the road – even though I was clearly on my side. My brain kept telling me to walk, get into the house and don’t draw attention, but my eyes remained locked on the car, which slowed to almost a crawl when it drew even with me. I sensed I was being watched, but again the tint was way too dark to make out anything more than shadows.

The window cracked slightly and I froze, waiting to see what the occupants would do next. The window stopped, leaving only a few inches open at the top. I could still see nothing inside. Finally, when I’d had enough of the weirdness, I turned tail and ran as fast as I could. Screw looking cool and calm, I was terrified and wanted to get my butt out of there.

Something was wrong with Daelight Crescent. I knew it now, and it felt almost like it was too late to truly escape. The Finnegans were lured here, and now we were trapped.

Chapter Three

 

After my scare, the next few days passed quite peacefully. Sara and Michael disappeared on one of their supernatural hunting trips, leaving me home to read and indulge in my other favorite hobby. Knitting. Yep, I was an eighty-year-old in an almost eighteen-year-old’s body. Reading and knitting were my fun times and I wasn’t giving them up for no one. I would go crazy grandma on your ass if you tried to stop me. Thankfully I had found a decent wool site online, getting bulk lots really cheap.

Daelight was still creeping me out, but I couldn’t deny how peaceful a street it was. Unlike the usual areas we lived in, I didn’t have to deal with domestic violence, gangs, or the randoms who wanted to fight it out in front of my house. The only thing dulling my happiness were the occasional stabs of loneliness, but I was used to the Finnegans disappearing for days on end.

My parents had been a bit on the helicopter parenting side. Michael and Sara were the complete opposite. They believed in freedom, making your own mistakes and learning from them. Plus they seemed to trust me completely. I had no curfew. No rules at all, really. Just make good choices, as they always said to me. When they took off, they had promised to be back in time to drive me to school on Monday, but since it was Sunday evening and there was still no sign of them, I wasn’t holding out hope. I would be okay, though. I always was.

Except for the food situation. It was running low, and I wasn’t sure I was up to braving the town on my own again. I had one bowl of cereal left for dinner or breakfast. I needed to make a choice now. My stomach rumbled at me – loudly – and no amount of shooshing or filling it with water was helping. Caving, I ditched my knitting needles in the basket of wool and got up to eat my Fruit Loops. Just as I was finishing, lights shone through the open blinds, and out of habit I pressed myself against the wall and crept to the window. Peering around the corner, I wasn’t surprised to see a car going back into the royal abode, as I called it now. I mean, their hedges were pruned into shapes. Who else but royalty did that?

As weirded out as I had been the other day, I also found myself strangely obsessed with spying on the rich side of Daelight Crescent. And since the royal abode was the only one I could easily see from the front window, it got most of my attention. After some careful and selective stalking, I had learned some interesting things. First, definitely more than one person lived there. Multiple cars emerged, often at the same time. So far there was a white Range Rover, a black Porsche, and the sleek fancy purple one – which looked a lot like an Aston Martin. Despite his general academic ways, my father had been a secret car buff. He’d even had an old Ford Mustang in the garage that he played around with on weekends. So I knew a little about make and model of cars from him. Enough to know that all of the vehicles that went in and out were expensive – like feed a small country for the cost of their tires expensive.

Other cars did drive up and down the street, all of them expensive and darkly tinted, but they went into the other estates. I guessed there were about twenty mansions on the rich side, and twenty cottages on our side, all squished together. I almost never saw any of the people who lived in the cottages, just the occasional old beater in their driveways.

The mystery of this place was slowly driving me crazy. I needed to figure out what was going on here. Multiple security people roaming around, mansions, fancy cars. A token side of poor people to even them out. What the heck?

As night fell, the pretty streetlamps lit up along both sides of the road. I wasn’t really that tired – what with my big day of knitting and creeping around like a peeping Tom – but I still decided to go to bed early so I’d be well rested for school the next day. Of course, my rock bed, teamed with nerves, had me tossing and turning all night, which meant the next morning I was not only hungry but a tired, red-eyed mess.

It took one hot shower, twenty minutes of grooming, and a failed braid, before I threw down my hairbrush and called it a day. This was as good as I was getting today. Time to get dressed and get this first day out of the way. Surely it would be the hardest day, trying to learn all the ins and outs of a new school.

The sun was shining, surprisingly, so I opted for denim shorts, my Converse, and a black long-sleeved fitted top. No need to wear anything fancy. Starslight High had a uniform, which I’d receive when I got there. I grabbed the funky vintage leather schoolbag I’d found while shopping in a second-hand store with Sara. Inside were pens, some notepads, and a few other essentials. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

My scholarship included textbooks, materials for class, and some food. Apparently I would find out all the details when I enrolled properly this morning. At least I had a bit of money to cover me if it didn’t, but I would have to be careful what I spent.

The only thing I did already know was my schedule. You could enroll online for that part, and Michael had done it for me before he left. But since there was still plenty I needed to do before class, I threw my wallet, security card, and door key into my bag and hurried out of the house.

It was early, the birds chirping as they flittered about the rose bushes and manicured gardens of our street. Despite the sun, it was still cool out, and I wished I’d grabbed a jacket. I should have known better, having already learned about this state’s fickle weather. Sun did not equal warmth here.

I saw no one as I hurried to the security gates. I didn’t have to check in and out now; I was allowed to wave my card in front of the magic black box and the barriers would open. Passing the booth, I saw a familiar face: Ace.

He winked at me. “Well, hello, Miss Emma. Long time no see. Where have you been hiding out?”

I’d finally found the courage to ask him how he knew my name, and he told me it was logged in the computer. So at least I didn’t have to worry about the guards having a mind reading ability or something, which is what the Finnegans would have guessed.

Smiling at him, even feeling a little confident, I said, “Not hiding, preparing myself for today. School.”

Ace shuddered. “I hated school. Almost failed out my senior year. Lucky I knew someone who worked for Daelight and they had this opening. It’s been a great job. Pay is fantastic, and as long as I don’t ask too many questions, everyone leaves me alone.”

Why did they keep referring to the street name like that? Like it was a real person or something. Cara had done it too.

“Well,” I said, noticing the bus in the distance. “I better get going. Apparently I have to take two buses to get to this exclusive little school.”

Ace winked at me again. He was fond of winking, that was for sure. With one last wave I took off at a run, managing to flag down the bus in time. Breathing heavily, I pulled out a map from my bag and examined the route I needed to get to Starslight. I was pretty sure I knew where to go, but I’d double-check with the driver on my way out.

It was a slower journey than last time. A lot more people were heading toward the main street, and the bus had to make multiple stops. Finally I reached the change-over point, and the driver confirmed that the first of a few school buses would be along shortly.

I need a car. I missed my little yellow VW Bug that had burnt up in our garage. The insurance only covered the house debt. There was nothing left for new cars, so I would have to get used to this crazy trek twice a day. At least it was only for a year, then I was done, off to college hopefully, if I could keep my grades up and snag a scholarship. I was determined to do everything I could to get into a decent school. Even with this fabled Starlight pull, I’d probably still have to join some groups, get involved in extracurricular activities. Apparently, extracurriculars was the one college application area where I was underqualified. Seriously … how could the fact that I wasn’t very social affect me getting a scholarship? Never made sense to me.

But, as always, I didn’t make the rules.

A few kids were wandering closer to me now, all of them in uniform. A very fancy, expensive looking uniform, black and white, tailored. The girls wore short, black, pleated skirts and black tights, the boys slacks. I had expected I would be the only one in regular clothes. A seamstress would fit it all properly at the school or something – but still … it was frustrating to stand out already. Pretty much a beacon advertising I was the new kid. Or that I was poor. I was guessing only scholarship kids had to have their uniforms tailored by the school. Everyone else probably had tailors living in their servant house with the rest of the hired help.

More than one glance was thrown my way; the uniformed kids all looked younger than me. At a school like this, most seniors would have cars. A large white bus roared around the corner then, and unlike the town bus this one was sleek and darkly tinted. The school name and emblem was on the side. I hadn’t seen the symbol before, it had a circle, which almost looked like a shadowy Earth, and another much larger circular world right above it. The second circle had a ring around it, and there was a striking symbol bisecting both.

The driver called out to me and I realized I’d been standing there staring at the side of the bus like a crazy idiot. Everyone else was already on board, waiting for me. Heat blazed in my cheeks as I scurried up the steps, striding past the driver to take a seat about halfway along. Everyone was silent as the bus started up again, and while I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, I couldn’t stop from glancing around. Most of the kids were on their phones, no one looking at me, which was a huge relief.

With a sigh, I turned back to stare out the window. The bus slowly filled as we got closer to the school. I felt someone drop down in the chair next to mine and turned to find Cara. She was decked out in the uniform, hair up in a high ponytail, makeup subtler than the first time we met, her eyes a chocolate brown now. Again, I had no idea if this was her real color or not.

“Hi, Emma!” she said, all cheerful-like. “I was hoping I’d run into you on here, even though you live on Daelight. I sensed you might be a scholarship kid like me, riding the bus.”

She was chatting away normally, like her freaked out reaction over me living on Daelight Crescent had never happened. I decided to go with it.

“Yeah, I’m on scholarship. I have to pick up my uniform this morning.”

Cara nodded a few times. She was chewing gum; it flashed as she talked. “I’ll go with you. They usually assign someone to the new students, help them get adjusted for the first few days. I’m your girl. I know how to survive in this hellhole when you aren’t one of the chosen few.”

Okay, that was it. I’d had enough of this town’s strangeness, of the millions of questions I had bubbling around my brain, and before I could filter myself I leaned closer, lowered my voice, and said, “I’m going to need you to explain to me exactly what the deal is with this town. With Daelight Crescent and all the weirdness there. Who are the chosen ones at the school?”

Cara’s ran her eyes across me and I thought she seemed surprised. I wondered which part shocked her. Before I could ask, she started talking, her voice barely above a whisper: “I’m astonished you haven’t run into any of them yet. I don’t know a lot, but I will definitely tell you what I do know. Just not right now. We’ll talk more later.”

Ominous. But at least she said she would tell me later, so I’d have to hold on to that. For the rest of the trip, Cara chatted about everything and nothing. She was one of those people who could talk underwater, requiring very little response from me. Still, I found myself drawn to her, finding true warmth under her flighty personality.

“My boyfriend, Mitch, goes to Astoria Prep, the other school in this area,” Cara was saying. “Do you have a boyfriend? Leave anyone behind? What do your parents do? There aren’t many jobs in the area, so they were lucky to find something.”

I sucked in a low, deep breath, quiet enough I wasn’t sure she noticed the strangeness of my response. Such an innocent question, and it had literally stolen my breath. After a few more ragged inhales, I managed to reply like a normal person.

“I moved here with my guardians. They have an online business, so we can live anywhere. My parents … uh, they died eight months ago. I used to live in California, and no boyfriend. I left no one important.”

I skimmed quickly over my parents’ death, hoping she would just give me the usual “Sorry to hear that” and then move on. It was when people pushed harder, asked how they died, that I usually lost it.

There were a few moments of silence, enough that it was almost uncomfortable when she said, “I’m really sorry to hear about your parents, girl. I can’t even imagine how hard that was to live through. My parents are selfish douches at times, especially Dad, but I would never want to live without them.”           

Yeah, dead did kind of outweigh douche, but I appreciated her acknowledgement that she couldn’t imagine. Unless you’d lived through something like that, stood beside a pile of black ash knowing your parents had burned to death while you had somehow managed to get out … well, there was no understanding.

Things might have traveled right into awkwardville then, except Starslight came into view and I leaned forward for my first glimpse of my new school. I knew my eyes were wide, mouth probably hanging open as I stared. Cara laughed at me.

“Honestly, I’ve been going here for four years now and it still takes me by surprise. My theory is that this is an experiment, like some secret government facility, but instead of guinea pigs they’re using teenagers. Socialization experiment on segregation of teenagers. Rich versus poor.”

That’s exactly what it looked like. Very government, CIA, NSA, space-center like. Huge, shiny, with lots of gleaming windows. There seemed to be an enormous round building in the center with many connections spanning off that led into smaller buildings. Almost like an octopus, but one that was extremely expensive, and luminous, made up from a multitude of different metals.

Cara went straight into tour guide mode. “So, the entire school is indoors. Everything is connected via moving walkway corridors.” Her hands were jabbing rapidly as she pointed out things through our bus windows. “The only outdoor parts are the sports fields, and they’re way out the back. Even the track field is inside. Olympic size pool is also inside, and state-of-the-art gymnastics arena. Anything you can imagine a school needs, Stars has five of them. It’s overkill, but what can you do? This is the home of the elite, and they like to cater to a few of us poorer folk. Gives them good PR.”

I wondered if that was the reason for the poor side of Daelight Crescent, to garner some positive public relations. Pressing my face closer to the window, I was hit immediately with the knowledge that I didn’t belong here. I was going to stick out like crazy, but Astoria Prep’s scholarship program had not been as extensive. College applications were important too, and according to all of the online forums – and Ace – Starslight was the school you wanted to graduate from.

I repeated this to myself multiple times as I followed the other silent kids from the bus. Cara stayed right at my back as we stepped off to the curb. In front was a huge circular entrance, the American flag high in the center. A second flag on a pole nearby had the same dissected double circle symbol as the bus. It was black and white, the bisecting strike a deep red. Just behind this was an extravagant water fountain. In the center was a hand-carved stone depiction of four huge men standing above a bunch of smaller “student” looking people.

“Those are the four founding fathers of this school,” Cara said when I paused before it. “It’s been over a hundred years, but we still have to see this ugly-ass fountain every day.”

Interesting. More students were pushing past us now. The large clock above the main entrance was telling me it was five after eight, which meant the first bell would be going off in about fifteen minutes. I was running out of time. As Cara linked her arm through mine, starting to lead me toward the entrance, a loud purring roar caught my attention. I spun around to look at the parking lot, situated just behind the bus stop.

“No freaking way,” I whispered as the cars came into sight. Well, at least one good thing might come from being at this school. I was finally going to discover who lived across the road from me. There were just two of their cars: the purple Aston and white Range Rover, following each other into the lot, both of them pulling into spaces near the front.

“You know how you were asking me about the chosen ones … the elite. Well, here’s the main group of assholes that run this school,” Cara said quickly under her breath, almost like she was worried they could hear us all the way over here. “The Darken boys.”

I was about to answer her when the doors to the purple beast opened and two males emerged. A third joined them right after.

What in all holy hell?

“Are they real?” I finally said, wrenching my eyes from the view and turning to Cara.

She wore a knowing smirk. “I’ve touched them once or twice, accidentally on purpose. They’re definitely real.”

I had to turn back. I had to see them one more time just to make sure they hadn’t been figments of my imagination. “They’re so freakin’ tall,” I finally stuttered out. They weren’t just unnaturally tall, but they also had this intense, dark, dangerous vibe going on. Their hair and aura matched their name.

Cara chuckled, apparently enjoying my astonishment. I just couldn’t believe these were the guys I had been spying on for days – I hadn’t expected them to be teenagers like me. It made me feel uneasy, and kinda intrigued at the same time.

She leaned in closer. “I don’t know much about them. No one does. All I’ve gotten from the rumor mill is that they’re all the same age. They’re family but not triplets. Top guess is that they’re cousins or adopted. Either way, they all have the Darken name. The one in the middle is Lexen. He doesn’t talk much, and…” She shuddered. “He might be sexy, but he is dead-set scary as shit. His reputation…” She swallowed hard. “Just stay out of his way as much as you can. He’s their muscle. If anyone causes shit, he steps in and sorts it out. He frankly scares the hell out of everyone here, and I would never want to find myself in a dark alley with him.”

I let my eyes linger on him. He was bigger than his brothers both in height and breadth. His muscles were defined under the dress shirt molded deliciously to his body, and I found myself breathing a bit deeper as I ran my eyes across him. His hair was black as night, and was messily styled on one side, shaved shorter on the other, and it almost looked like there were symbols etched into the shaved side. His eyes appeared to be very dark from here, but I was too far away to really tell. His features were broad and well-honed, with a roman brow, sexy lips, and chiseled jaw. He was distractingly gorgeous, in a rugged way. His brother—cousins—whatever—fell somewhere between rugged and almost pretty for a dude.

“The other two are Marsil and Jero,” Cara said. “I can’t tell them apart most of the time, even though they aren’t twins. All I know about them is that they like the ladies. Jero, at least, has probably gone through half the school. Or so the rumors say. I’ve never hung with the elite group, so I have no actual empirical evidence of this.”

Marsil and his “twin” shifted then; in a single movement the pair turned and looked directly at Cara and me. My new friend let out a low shriek and quickly yanked me into the stream of students entering the building.

“Holy crap, that was close,” she huffed. I saw her glance back. “That’s not the first time they seem to hear me from an impossible distance.”

I wanted to look back too. One of the “twins” had locked me in his gaze, and I was curious to see if he was still staring at me. We might have been a fair distance apart, but his eyes were such a striking crystalline blue that I had still noticed the color.

“Which one of them has the really blue eyes?” I finally asked Cara.

She grinned, shaking her head, some of her nerves fading and her humor returning as we put more distance between us and them. “Jero. He’s the huge flirt. I’ve seen his charm but never been the recipient, thank God. I would probably pee myself if he talked to me.”

I joined her in laughing then, quieting as she continued: “Marsil has dark brown eyes, which are almost as beautiful. Lexen, though, has the most amazing eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re such a dark brown they almost look black, but I swear I’ve seen these tiny twinkling little lights that seem to illuminate them – like fairy lights.”

She shook her head. I was starting to think that for someone who’d expressed such fear and unease she certainly paid a lot of attention to these elites. We made it to the main entrance and cold air engulfed me as we stepped inside. Forcing my mind from the Darkens, I focused on the school. Time to deal with being the new kid.

Inside was as shiny and fancy as the outside, looking a lot like I thought a space station would, lots of steel and metal, high ceilings, large banks of windows and natural light – not to mention it was filled with tons of crazy technology that I had no name for – drones buzzing above our heads; security cameras following movements of students; automated doors that welcomed each person as they entered. As we passed some banks of lockers, I wasn’t surprised to see that they used thumbprint recognition for entry. It fit with the rest of the character of the building.

Classrooms spanned off this corridor. Cara led me past all of those, toward the huge center building. “This is the office,” she said as automatic double doors swished open and let us in. There was a half-circle desk inside, and behind it were three women, impeccably dressed, typing away.

“Hey, Ms. Sampson, I have a new student here. Emma…” Cara trailed off, flicking her head around to me.

“Walters … Emma Walters.”

Ms. Sampson, who looked to be in her late forties, didn’t smile at us. She just glanced down and started typing away rapidly. Her blond hair was pulled back in a tight chignon, her brows dark and severe. Finally, she fixed her watery blue eyes on me.

“Scholarship students use that door there.” She pointed across to the right of the office. “They will enroll you, fix your uniform up, and give you the correct locker and lunch access.”

She slid a piece of paper over and Cara gave her a beaming smile as she picked it up. We walked off and I couldn’t help but stare back at the office lady. She was still watching me, no smile, eyes narrowed.

“Well, that was a warm welcome,” I said, more bite than I expected in my voice. She had kind of got to me, though. Really, nothing had happened, but I felt it – the snobbery and attitude.

 Cara glanced back too. “Yeah, those ladies are such bitches. I want to constantly remind them that they are glorified PA’s, and that they don’t own this school. I swear, Ms. Sampson likes to tell people she’s directly descended from the Darkens themselves.”

I wanted to ask what the big deal was with the Darkens, besides the fact that they were blessed with money and great genetics, but before I could we were through the door, standing in a less sterile-looking waiting area. They were much friendlier in here. An older man led me to the uniform section and it took no time at all to get me fitted out with two complete sets. No tailoring was even needed, which was great. I changed in the small bathroom, and while the stiff starchiness of my new outfit was uncomfortable, I was glad to finally blend. Stuffing my other clothes into my leather pack, I walked out to find Cara waiting.

“Looking good, girl. You wear the uniform better than most of these rich dipshits.” She changed subjects rapidly then, as she often did. “I got your locker number too. It’s right near mine, in the scholarship section.”

I followed her from the room, the friendly man waving us off. Once we were back in the main part of the school, the bell let out a chiming ring. It echoed around the hall and the masses of people started to clear out, heading toward their classrooms.

Cara must have noticed my slightly panicked look, because she flashed me a huge beaming smile. “Don’t worry, I logged our late attendance with the office. They will send it around to all the teachers’ palm pads.” She noticed my confused look. “It’s like their own special version of a tablet device. I’ve never seen them anywhere but at this school.” Okay, then. “So we won’t get into trouble. And we’ll only miss homeroom. After that, your first class is history. I have math, so I’ll drop you off and catch you in AP English, which we both have for second.”

Schedule, right. I pulled out my copy, which clearly Cara had already checked out. She was right, and thankfully next to each class was a small map that showed me how to navigate the school. She leaned over my shoulder to see it again. “Then we have lunch together, which is great. You don’t want to cross that jungle alone.”

I nodded, having no doubt now that I’d seen this place that she was probably right.

Pushing our way through some students, we ventured into one of the arms of the building, where I was surprised to see a flat moving sidewalk in the center, which Cara jumped onto.

“Trust me, you don’t want to walk all the way to our section,” she called as she started to move away.

Of course not. Wouldn’t want to use our legs like suckers.

What the hell was this school? I hurried to jump on after her. The path moved quickly, and when we were about halfway along I started to understand the need for the moving paths. These arterials were huge. After another minute, Cara pointed out our stop and we hopped off at one of the breaks and strode over to a small row of lockers. I counted maybe thirty bunched together here.

“So this is the scholarship section,” Cara said, her elegant nose wrinkling. “They stash us down here. It takes us forever to get back to our classes. Thankfully, the teachers rarely care what we do. They don’t even notice whether we’re there or not.”

Lovely. My locker was 1102, and it was already cleared of all previous student information, so all I had to do was touch my thumb to it and then it was mine. Inside, all of my textbooks were neatly stacked. There were even extra notepads and pens. Sara and Michael had assured me that this scholarship included everything, and it looked like they had been right.

Cara crowded close to me and I forced myself not to push her away. She had no concept of personal space at all. I was getting used to it, but this was very close. I didn’t want her to know I was a damaged freak yet. I needed at least one friend. So, holding my breath, I waited while she rifled through my things. Finally she grabbed the books for my first few classes, and a small card.

“This card is for your lunch,” she said, handing everything to me. “We don’t get to eat the same food as the other students, but you won’t starve. Keep this on you.”

I took it from her, surprised to see my face on the side in a small square. “Yeah, it’s also your ID card, and as you can see, ours are red.” She whipped out her card too and flashed it at me. “The elite have black, and the rest of the school get purple. The class system here is insane. You need to learn your place fast.”

I swallowed hard, tucking my ID into my pocket. An actual class system? What the hell had I gotten myself into?

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Marlee

I can not wait for more. I am hooked already.