Serenity

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Serenity

For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.

—Genesis 7:4

Legs crossed, hands on my knees, I meditated in my room. I sucked in a deep breath, held it for as long as I could, and let it out, only to quickly draw it back in. Soon, I was so light-headed I felt like I was going to pass out. I kept my eyes closed, though, focussing on the weightless feeling and inability to think until it disappeared, focused on the trembling relief of my heart until it beat normally again. And then I picked up my phone and called Jada.

“Shhh, my parents are sleeping upstairs,” I cautioned.

They moved like ghosts, silently hanging up their coats and dragging their duffel bags upstairs. I allowed them a reasonable amount of time to gawk at my room before I motioned for them to have a seat on the bed.

“Do you remember the rules?” I asked.

Araunah nodded her head. “No talking about—Ow! Jada!”

She shot her friend a how-dumb-are-you look. “Araunah, we’re not supposed to talk about it.”

I couldn’t quite repress a smile. “Its fine. I’ll let that one slide. Jada, did you get the stuff?” My satisfaction rivalled that of the cat that swallowed the canary as I watched Jada dump her bag full of nail polish, mascara, and other girly makeup items on the bed. “Great. I’ll just order some pizza, and then we can get started.

I had asked Julia to come to the sleepover too, but she had declined. I couldn’t tell if she still had hard feelings or if she was actually busy like she said. but I had tried.

I grabbed the bag of candles from the kitchen table. Back in my room, Araunah and Jada were ogling my First Love painting. “Let me guess,” said Araunah, “Lee made you buy this one.”

I flushed. “No. I bought it myself because I really liked it. that’s all.”

She shrugged. “He has the same one at home. Actually, he has the entire series. Its the only thing he has up in his room.”

“It’s part of a series?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah. It starts with Adam by himself, gazing over the land filled with paired animals that look so content, and ends him standing in front of Eve against the Cherubim with the flashing sword.”

I placed all thirty-seven of the candles around the room, and then handed each of them a lighter. When they had all been lit, I shut the lights and we sat in the ambient glow. It was only a little bit dimmer than the blue hour; perfect for painting nails.

“So you’ve really never painted your own nails?” Jada asked as she appraised her collection.

“No. Faith usually did that. you should see my wardrobe. Geez, for a model, my fashion sense is basically nil.” I laughed.

She applied first a smoky twilight blue, while Araunah painting the other turquoise green. Then they switched, painting stripes. The finished product was worthy of a long appreciative glance. “Wow, guys, that’s amazing. Thanks.”

Araunah smiled. “Its art. We are taught to get in touch with our inner selves at Virginia’s, and believe it or not, it really does come in handy in the outside world.” She giggled and ducked as Jada aimed her turquoise brush at her nose.

“Then here, let me try on you guys.”

I concentrated as hard as I could on not making a mess with the polish. The brush felt really awkward in my hands, and  I tried to picture Faith bent over my nails, thinking that maybe I could suck some of her talent out of the image.

Yeah, sure.

“Are you sure that’s right?” Jada asked sceptically when I was done. “It looks sort of…smudgy.”

I pursed my lips and held her hand near my face. “Well, it was supposed to look like stars, you know, in a midnight sky…”

“But it looks more like you gave her a bruise and then tried to cover it with dandruff,” Araunah finished.

“Here, just try again. maybe you should stick to solid colours, though.”

We grabbed tissues and fiercely rubbed off the horrible disaster. Then I painted Jada’s nails a simple shell pink that brought out the light tones in her hair. You could see the brush strokes, but at least you had to get close.

“Pizza’s here!” Araunah sprung up from the bed and bounded down the stairs. Jada and I ran after her, trying to warn her to be quiet.

“A large pepperoni and a half-mushroom-and-cheese-half-pineapple for a Miss Hanuara Fei-Ling?” the delivery boy asked. Araunah’s jaw dropped.

A Miss Hanuara Fei-Ling?” she gasped. “What do you mean, a Miss Hanuara Fei-Ling? I think you mean the Hanuara Fei-Ling, supermodel-on-the-rise, hottest star on the planet, a person you should acknowledge with a little more respect!” she turned to Jada. “Can you believe this guy? What I think—” Rolling her eyes, Jada yanked her out of the way while I scrambled to pay the guy and get him out of there. He looked like he was debating whether to just drop the pizza and run.

“Thank you, and you have a nice night now!” I said as I shut the door in his face. then I slowly turned around, choking on the giggle that rose in my throat and threatened to reduce me to a pile of mush. But the looks on Araunah’s and Jada’s faces was too much; we howled like hyenas all the way back to my room.

“Oh, man, Araunah you should have seen his face,” Jada cried as she rolled on the floor.

“He’ll definitely remember me now!” I agreed. “I don’t know what he’ll tell his friends at Papa John’s.”

“If he can ever speak again, it will probably be to warn them away from your house!”

“Hey!” Araunah tossed a pillow at Jada. “I was just trying to defend her. you don’t have to get all gung-ho on me.”

She chucked the pillow back. “Yes I do. I swear, sometimes you can be a little bit woooo.” She twirled a finger near her temple and ducked when Araunah lunged at her to smack her in the face with the pillow.

“Watch it, you guys, those pillows come from Morocco,” I protested, suddenly concerned.

They stared at me for a split second, and then I found myself dodging a whole assault of embroidered silk pillows. “PILLOW FIGHT!!!”

The pizza was soon forgotten. We each grabbed two pillows and used one as a weapon and one as a shield as we ran screaming around my room. It was a daunting task to try and avoid knocking over candles, or picture frames, and have a war at the same time. one by one, the candles all went out, and before we knew it, we were immersed in darkness.

“Who turned out the lights?” we all cried.

There was a soft, almost inaudible knock at the door.

We screamed and held our pillows in front of us, and then my dad poked his head in. “What’s with all the screaming?” he asked irritably. “And why does it smell like someone’s burned down a perfume factory?”

“Dad!”

“Hanna, I don’t mind you having friends over, actually, I applaud it, but please keep it down. your mother is sick.” And then he left.

Araunah opened her mouth to say something, but a sharp look from Jada froze the words in her mouth. We dropped all the pillows and ambled over to the bed to open the pizza box. I flicked on the main lights again.

“Mmmm, this is good pizza.” Jada tore off another piece of Hawaiian.

“You know what we should do?” said Araunah thoughtfully. “We should prank call Sophia Bendi.”

Jada shook her head. “Araunah, you wanted to do that last time. That is not nice. It’s foolish.”

“So? Come on, Jada, that girl’s a witch, and this is a sleepover. Its not like we’re going to say anything mean—”

“Yeah,” I chimed in. “What could be the harm? Nobody likes her anyway, except Lee, and he doesn’t count because obviously there’s something wrong with him—”

“Please? Jada, please? Pretty, pretty, pretty—”

Jada held up her hands. “Fine you guys can do what ever you want. Just count me out. I’m going to bed with a clean conscience tonight.”

Araunah had the number programmed into her phone “for emergencies”. She scrolled until she found it. I went to go look for a funnel, which we put a cloth over. I had seen the trick on some cartoon show that some kid I was babysitting was watching. It took four rings for Sophia to pick up the phone, and we were scared she wasn’t there. But she was.

“Is this Sophia Bendi?” I asked through the funnel cloth. “This is Geraldine McGaffer. I tried Lee’s number, but I guess he wasn’t there, so I’m trying yours because everyone says you’re always with him—what do I want him for? Just to thank him for the roses and candy hearts he sent me. That was very sweet—I told you once, already, I’m Geraldine McGriffen! I’m Oprah’s older sister, how can you not recognize me? Yeah, Lee and I go way back…”

I jerked as somebody shouted in the background. “I don’t know anybody named Geraldine! Sophi, give me the phone.”

I covered the receiver. “Araunah! Your brother’s there!”

“Hang up! Hang up, he knows my number.”

But it was too late. “Araunah! I know it’s you! Grow up already!” he muttered more unintelligible words, and then I was cut off with a click.

Araunah and Jada were having fits on the floor, while the pizza went cold on the bed. I tried to keep a straight face. “I told you we’d get caught!”

Araunah reached up and dragged me down with her. “No, you didn’t, you liar!”

I tickled her as hard as I could and even harder when she let out a little screech. “Shhh, my parents are sleeping!” I rolled off of her and tried to calm myself down, but every time we caught sight of each other’s faces, we broke down again.

Finally, we were able to crawl back into bed, finish the pizza, and change into our pyjamas. My bed was big enough for the three of us, so I called Sam and Gary in to take away the cots I had ordered. Trying to brush as much of the pizza crumbs off as we could, we lay down in the dark, still giggling every now and then.

“So,” Araunah said conversationally. “Tell us about your Julius.”

I snorted. “My Julius? We aren’t that serious yet, Araunah.” Than how serious are you? You’re already sharing a bed. Stupid voice. But it was right. “Well, I met him at crimson beach on my fourth day here. I guess it was pretty much love at first sight. We went on our first date about a week ago, I think. Wow, is he ever an amazing kisser.” I closed my eyes for a moment, imagining the feel of his lips on mine. “He took me to see Romeo and Juliet yesterday. That’s sort of our little thing, you know? Sometimes we’ll just randomly mouth off parts of the play. He has an amazing voice, and he plays guitar, and he grew up in Madrid, but his parents were killed in a drive-by shooting. He’s basically the love of my life.” I sighed.

“Has he told you he loves you, yet?” Jada inquired.

“No, but it’s coming. Do you think I should say it first or wait until he does?”

“Well, do you consider him a gentleman or one of those new-age hicks who don’t know a fishing line from a phone cord?”

I gave her a funny look. “A gentleman, definitely. He’s nice to my parents and he opens doors and pulls out my chair and stuff. Your point?”

“Well, those kinds of men like to be in control. I would definitely let him do the talking.”

Araunah pinched her. “Why? I like new-age hicks. And who cares about fishing lines in the city? You should tell him first, Hanuara. You can’t stay stuck in old ways forever, Jada. Move on, girl.”

“I’m not! But if Julius is that type of man…”

“Stop arguing you guys. Jada’s right, and you’re wrong, Araunah.” She pouted, but it didn’t last long because Jada copied her expression. We all had our hands over each other’s mouths, trying to stop each other from laughing too hard.

“So, do you guys have boyfriends yet?”

Araunah flicked something off her pyjama top. “I just broke up with Darren. He was an atheist. I should have reported him to the government.” She shook her head.

“Harry and I have been going out for six years now,” said Jada wistfully. “I’m getting kind of bored. But we made a vow. I think I’d rather be married. That’d be more fun, if you get my meaning. I’m hoping he’ll ask me, soon. ”

“You started dating when you were twelve?” I said.

“Don’t tell my parents.”

I grinned in the darkness. Didn’t all girls have secrets about boys from their parents? It was basically a law. You had your act for your mom and dad, and then you let loose when they’re gone. And the funny thing is that your parents probably did the same thing.

We went on to talk about inconsequential, trivial things, like what it was like to be famous (you got used to it), how dizzy you get spinning on one toe for a minute straight (its not that bad; you just have to hold your breath and count to ten), and how different Dan Cae is from Guatemala (way, way different. Only here could you get snow in the summer).

I was struck by how easy this type of conversation came to us. When I had sleepovers with my friends from the modeling world, we basically watched ourselves on TV, compared how many times we appeared in latest issues of Elle, Fashion, and Glitter, and talked about the different places we have modeled in. But I had no desire to do that here, if only because I was basically out of business for a while. Operation: Iris seemed less and less important, and I couldn’t honestly say I wanted to do it all that much anymore.

Jada was the first one to start snoring. I plucked out a feather from my Moroccan pillow, and handed it to Araunah, who ran it over her nose. We giggled when she sleepily tried to bat it away, rolling over and covering her head with a pillow. “Stop…” she moaned.

Araunah and I got out of bed and tiptoed to the balcony. It was darker than dark, but the streetlights gave us just enough light to see each other’s faces.

“I wish I had a balcony like this,” Araunah said wistfully. “You are so fortunate.”

“Thanks. Julius and I come out here sometimes. It’s very romantic. Especially at night.”

“It sounds to me like you two are plenty serious.” She looked at me. “The media got a candid shot of you two leaving the Immersion Theatre. He looks at you like you’re the moon or something.”

I grinned. “I’m definitely caught in his field of gravity.”

We stared out over the dark lawn. “Thanks for inviting us tonight. I’ve never had a sleepover with a famous person before.”

“I’m glad to be of service. Make sure you tell all your friends now. But seriously, thanks for coming. I’ve needed something like this for along time.”

In unison, we yawned. Mutually we agreed that it was past our bed time. Jada had rolled herself onto the floor, and Araunah said it was best to just leave her there. After straightening her out and tucking the sheets tighter around her, we crawled back into bed.

I didn’t want to go to sleep. The hours pass so much more quickly when you’re unconscious. I didn’t want tomorrow to come any faster than it absolutely had to. Tomorrow, this little charade that everything was okay would end. Tomorrow, I would have to go back to reality.

I was struggling to keep my eyes open when Araunah’s voice reached me through the darkness. “Hanuara?”

“Yeah?”

“Are we friends now?” she asked. “I mean, its okay if we’re not, ‘cause you’re famous and all, but I was just wondering…” her voice trailed off and she looked at her hands.

I laid my hand on her thin shoulder. “Araunah,” I said. She peeked at me. “Of course we’re friends. I wouldn’t have invited you here if we weren’t. And being famous has nothing to do with anything.”

She smiled tearfully. “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”

This time I fell asleep with a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart. It felt good to have friends.

Tuesday, June 24th, day 24

I swear Lee was just waiting for me to arrive. As soon as my parents and I walked into the hospital building, he was there, leaning against the wall reading a file. He looked up and smiled grimly when I came in. I crossed my arms as my parents went ahead.

“What do you want Lee?”

He was the picture of innocence. “I don’t want anything,” he said. “But I’m glad you came today. Remember what I said yesterday? I know you’ll do the right thing. Oh, and if you want to, you can come by the studio this afternoon for your lesson.” He tucked the file under his arm and strode down the hallway, thankfully in the opposite direction that I was going.

Monica was still sleeping, though her coma had broke. My mom was on one side of the bed, holding her hand, and my father was on the other, stroking her hair. Steven was in one of the armchairs, looking worse than he had before. His beard had almost completely grown back. he stared lifelessly at the floor. They didn’t seem to hear me come in, or they were ignoring me. I sat in the other arm chair and watched them watch my poor, sick sister.

Her colour was better than it had been yesterday, but she seemed to have lost so much weight she was hardly anything at all. Her eyelashes were almost all gone, and so were patches of her hair. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, just like you can’t rip your gaze away from a crashing plane. Its so terrible you have to make sure its actually real.

I was still convinced this was a horrible, horrible dream. It just couldn’t be possible that I could lose my sister as well as my brother. Even though the two things were practically unrelated, I couldn’t help but think this was somehow admitting defeat to the Poet. He said he was going to kill us, but his service hadn’t been needed this time. my eyes felt like they had been washed over with acid, and my tongue felt glued to the roof of my mouth.

And suddenly it hit me: this was really happening, and my sister was going to die.

I covered my mouth with my hand and flew out the door. I ran down the hall until I found the bathroom, and I threw up so violently I had to lean against the wall for support. When there was nothing left in my stomach, I cried.

At some point a woman knocked on the door asking if I was okay. I told her no, I was not okay. As far as I know, she walked away.

When I had cried myself out, I felt empty, and sunken in, like I had given up everything I had. Spent, I left the bathroom, but not before I caught sight of myself in the mirror. The stitches on my arm were red and inflamed, and my face was white and pasty. Except for the rings under my eyes which looked like perfect stamps. I splashed water on my face, which did nothing to help. So I slowly started back to the hospital room.

She was awake. I slumped back into the arm chair, and we stared at each other.

“Mary,” she said finally, with dry, cracked lips.

“Hey, Monica.”

Silently, Mom and Dad left the room, leaving us alone. I continued to stare at Monica. She tried to sit up, but couldn’t, so she just rolled over a bit, wincing as the pulled at the wires on her side. Only Steven stayed.

“Steven, could you go get me some water, please?” she hinted.

Life returned to his eyes as he begged her silently not to make him leave. “Steven, please go. I need to talk with Mary alone. I’ll send someone for you.” She smiled at him tenderly as he slunk out the door.

“He never leaves.” she smiled softly, cringing. Her lip split, and a small drop of blood appeared. “I’m a mess aren’t I?”

Tears sprung to my eyes. Funny, I thought I was out.

“Mary, Mary, I’m sorry,” she said. “That wasn’t funny. Don’t cry.”

“Why didn’t you stop?” I blubbered. “Why did you let it go this far?”

She glanced away. “I didn’t know how,” she said quietly. “I thought the only way to get around the pain was to nullify it with alcohol. I was weak, Mary. I didn’t know how to deal like you did.”

“Deal? The only way I dealt with it was to ignore it! it was either that or let myself go. I actually thought about killing myself, Monica.”

“So did I. But instead, I took a swig of gin, and then another, and now hear I am. But the thing is, after a while, even the alcohol didn’t do anything to stop it. the memories just kept creeping in.” Her filmy eyes turned haunted. “There was no escaping it.”

“Yeah, but you’ve always had it better than I do,” I muttered bitterly. “At least you don’t have guilt to go on top of the pain.”

“Guilt? What are you guilty for?” she looked at me, half-curios, half-regretful.

I closed my eyes. “The night he was murdered? I was the one who sent him away. We had a fight, and he asked me to go for a walk with him, and I…”

I ran to Monica’s bedside, dropped to my knees, and laid my head on her chest, the only part of her that wasn’t covered in bandages. Her brittle, weak arms circled around me as best as they could, and our tears mixed together on the crisp white bed sheets.

“I said no,” I finished, feeling and enjoying masochistically the burn of the words on my tongue. With a great sigh, I heaved myself up, and dragged myself back to the arm chair.

I guess you really can’t run out of tears. They seemed to be generated by incontrollable emotion rather than the tear ducts in your eyes. I knew what Monica was going to say, her words seemed to bash against the walls of my being:

“Its not your fault, Hanuara. It was a planned murder. Even if he hadn’t walked away then, the Poet would have found him alone another time. there was nothing anyone could have done.”

“But those were my last words to him, Monica. You know what we always told each other, Monica? That the last words we would ever speak to each other would be ‘I love you’. But I was so angry…all I could think about was myself…”

“Mary, you had no way of knowing that that would be the last time you would see him. siblings fight all the time. you and Adam fought too, though no offence, he never actually fought. But…” she swallowed. “You know that’s not the last time you’ll ever see him again.”

We were both silent, not wanting to go too deeply on that subject. I bit my lip.

“I promise I’ll never drink again,” Monica said. “I’m going to beat this, and then I’m not going to take another drop.”

“But, Monica,” I said hoarsely, “There is no cure for liver cancer, Monica.”

She smiled sadly. “Everything is possible with God, Hanuara. You just have to believe.”

I couldn’t believe what I saw when we got out of the hospital. Sophia Bendi, in a pink dress with blue sequins, was talking to Lila Benzik. About three or four news vans were there, and the others rushed toward us when they saw us. Mom narrowed her eyes, and looked about ready to tell Carl and Sam to take care of the problem. But instead she just walked through, clearing a path for Dad and I, shouting, “Excuse me! excuse us, please.” Every time a microphone was shoved in her face, she just said “No comment.”

We made it to the limo, and though I didn’t know what Sophia had told Lila, I knew I would probably find out.

I found Lee in the rose garden, the same garden that Gray and I had sat in. He was sitting on the manicured grass, and he smiled at me. instead of the lab coat, he was now wearing baggy cut off jeans and a purple muscle shirt.

“Have a seat, please. No, not like that, cross your legs. Good, now close your eyes.”  I did, and then waited.

He didn’t say anything.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now you just float.”

“Why?”

“Art is serenity. Take a deep breath in, smell the roses, feel the grass through your jeans, hear the birds in the trees and the cars on the highway. Engage all your senses.”

Eyes still closed , I asked, “For how long?”

I could hear the smile in his voice. “You’ll know.” And then he stopped talking.

So I did. I took in the smell of the roses and the freshly mowed grass out front like an addict taking in marijuana. I listened to the faint hum of the vehicles on the freeway , and marvelled at how soft the grass really was. since I couldn’t see anything, I imagined myself floating on a soft, touchable white cloud made of cotton candy, and stuck my tongue out a little and tasted its sweetness. Suddenly, I was no longer on the grass, I was forty-thousand feet in the air, drifted along like a lazy nighthawk. I saw us, way down below, meditating on the grass. I was struck by how tempered-down Lee’s wildcat looks were when his eyes were closed and his face had such an expression of total serenity. For some reason, I wanted to stay and watch him forever, but my cloud just kept floating. It floated over the top of the art studio, where students were doing karate, and out to the parking lot, where Araunah was getting into her silver convertible.

“Hey, Araunah, look at me!” I tried to say, but my voice was like a breath on the wind. On my cloud floated, over Monica’s house, where the gardeners were tending the garden (Mom and Dad had earlier brought in the whole team of servants; they couldn’t stand dishes like I couldn’t) and the chauffeurs were washing down the limos. I was surprised to see how well Morgan and Casey and Evela got along. Morgan squirted Evela with the garden hose, and Evela, thinking Casey had done it, dumped a whole bucket of water over her head. All three doubled over laughing.

An eagle flew by me, swift and graceful, going much quicker than my cloud. I was so caught up in the sights and sensations that I didn’t realize when my cloud stopped on Crimson Beach. Blair was sitting on the rocks at Faith’s Cove, with Cuddles tucked under his arms. My heart leapt. He was okay. I had been so sure that something terrible had happened, but then Monica got sick, and I had completely forgotten. His face was shadowed by the canopy of his hair, and from this viewpoint, he looked so tiny as to be about four or five. He appeared to be talking to Cuddles, suddenly, he looked up, right at me. I gasped so loud, I thought he might hear me. nearly the entire left side of his face—from under his hair to his chin and jaw—was covered in bruises. Black bruises. He gazed down at Cuddles, said something to him, and then pointed up at me. he wasn’t wearing a shirt, and now that his arm wasn’t in his shadow, I could see his arm was covered with them also. My cloud seemed to pop, and I was falling, down, down…

With a scream I opened my eyes. I was cross-legged on the ground, in the rose garden, at Virginia’s. The sun was beginning its descent, turning the red roses orange and the yellow roses gold. now the cars on the highway sounded unbearably loud, and the smell of roses overwhelmed me. Lee groggily opened his eyes, as though he had been sleeping a deep sleep.

“Where’d you go?” he asked me, blinking his big sky-blue eyes.

“That was so coo!” I said, forgetting my earlier mood. “That was awesome! I floated on a cloud that tasted like marshmallows, and I saw us down here, and I saw my house, and then I went to the beach and—yeah. But then the stupid cloud broke, and I fell, and that’s why I was screaming. Where’d you go?” I could tell my eyes were shining, but I couldn’t help myself. Except the thing with Blair, that was the most amazing experience on the planet.

“I was on a cruise, actually.” He stretched his legs out in front of him. “A nice Caribbean cruise. With Carnival, actually. I got a balcony room, and I stood over the edge and smelled the sea breeze.  But then it started to rain, and everyone else went inside, but I wanted to stay out. The rain was warm…” he shook his head, as though to get himself back to the present. “I heard someone screaming, and I thought they needed help, so I started running, but the corridor was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. And then I woke up.” He was on his feet in one movement, and held out his hand to help me up. “When you do that a lot, it starts to feel so real. I actually thought I was on a cruise, though I couldn’t figure out how I had gotten there.” He shook his head and smiled.

“That’s like taking hallucinogens,” I said in wonderment. “That’s like taking dope and acid at the same time.”

“Except it won’t destroy your brain cells.” He took a seat on the swing bench that was cast in golden sunset and motioned for me to do the same. “I guess I should explain to you the point of that little exercise. Whatever form of art you’re doing, when you do it, it should completely overwhelm all your senses and make you really believe in what you do. Serenity is derived from the Latin word serenus, meaning clear or unclouded. Your mind should be clear and unclouded in art.”

I thought about that. “Cool,” I said.

I flinched, suddenly. Sam had shifted slightly, but he had been hiding in shadow and I hadn’t seen him. I had sort of gotten use to those guys, but they startled me sometimes. They were as emotionless and still as marble statues.

I rose, knowing I had to be home before the sun went down so my mom wouldn’t worry. I thought about what I had just done. Could you do that anywhere? I’m sure you probably shouldn’t, because what had felt like an hour in the meditation dream were actually hours in the real world.

Sam parked in the driveway, which was slick and wet. The three limos already parked there shined and sparkled in the sun. I started. Of course they hadn’t actually washed the limos. But it was clear they had. I shook my head. What a coincidence.

Mom was watching the evening news and barely looked up when I came in. I was about to go to my room, but then I caught sight of Sophia’s bright red hair on the flat screen. The hospital.

“So you’re saying that Hanuara has been ‘skipping out’ of her modeling to go to this…Valerie’s School of Art?” asked Lila.

Sophia shook her head. “Virginia’s School of Fine Arts. It’s a very peaceful place. No wonder she goes there, what with her sister, and the Poet and all. Poor girl is under a lot of stress.”

Her face got cut off the screen and Lila Benzik was shown. “And that was a very good friend of Miss Hanuara’s, answering the question the entire world has been asking: Where is Hanuara Fei-Ling?”

My mom clicked off the TV, and I thumped against the wall. Even though I had known Lee wasn’t actually trying to hustle me in to gain publicity, I hadn’t stopped to guess that it might be Sophia wanting the attention. But why was she so mean to me? why was she trying to push me away? Or maybe that wasn’t really her plan. She was probably just on her way to visit Lee, had seen the cameras, and figured it was a very good opportunity. I was bristling. She hadn’t done anything wrong, except telling the world that we were friends, but just the sight of her smug little face was enough to ruffle my feathers.

Julius was waiting for me in my room.

“Oh, hi,” I said in surprise.

“Hello. How’s your sister?” He opened his arms and I fell into him.

“Not good. I can’t believe she has cancer.” I swallowed. “But can we talk about something else, please?”

“Like what?”

I thought. “What did you do today?” I asked.

“Well, I went to swim practice, then I went to work.” He tightened his arms around me. “But through it all, the only thing I could think of was you. You know what my coach told me? That my head was in the clouds!” he laughed, and then turned me around to kiss me. But I stopped him.

“Julius, wait. There’s something that’s been bothering me.” I bit my lip and turned my head away.

“What’s wrong?” he murmured.

How was I going to say this? Did it really matter anyway? But I had to know. I couldn’t be with a man who didn’t love me, not with all that was going on. I needed solidity. Not half-assumed guesses.

“Julius?” I steeled myself. “Do you love me?”

The moment hung in the air. I held my breath, wondering what was going to happen next, kicking myself for being so stupid. I was moving too fast, I should have just listened to Jada, Araunah was crazy anyway (God bless her soul).

He placed his hand under my chin and turned my face to look at him. I swore I had never looked into eyes so deep, so sincere. “Of course I do, Hanuara.”

I narrowed my eyes. “No, Julius. I need you to say the words. Tell me in your own words.”

He set me on the bed, and hopped to kneel in front of me. he took my hands. “I love you, Hanuara Maria Fei-Ling. I love you, I’m in love with you, and I can’t imagine being with anyone but you.”

My eyes watered. “You sound like you’re going to propose,” I said tearfully.

He reached into his pocket, and my heart leapt into my mouth. “Well, no, I’m not quite ready to be married yet.” I felt woozy with relief. “But would you accept this friendship ring?”

He opened up a violet ring case displaying two silver bands. One had a small red stone, and the other was plain. He put on the plain one, and then slipped the red one on my left index. Our fingers twined together, and we stared into each other’s eyes.

“I love you too,” I whispered. He rose to his feet and pulled me into him, and kissed me with such delicacy I could imagine I was floating on that cloud again…

Or at least, that’s how I pictured it. What really happened is that I walked into my empty room, brought First Love to lean on my headboard, and sat cross-legged in front of it. the time would come when I would get up the courage to ask him. or maybe I wouldn’t. But the point was, whatever happens, happens. So I focused on the painting, smelled the flower that Eve was smelling, felt the feeling of Adam’s arms around me (though I blushed a new shade of red at his nakedness), heard the happy chirps and squeals and growls of the animals, saw the bright redness of the flower in my hand. I stroked the soft petals with my new and delicate finger.

“Wow!” I turned to Adam excitedly. “This is just wonderful. Where did you say we were again?”

“The Garden of Eden.” He smiled at me radiantly, and I could see how much he loved me. I reached out to take his hand and asked him to show me more. We came to a perfectly round clearing, and in the direct centre was a glorious tree, so big I couldn’t see the top of it unless I stepped way back.

“That’s the tree we’re not supposed to eat from, right?” I asked my Adam. He nodded, and I was distracted momentarily by the sun shining in his hair.

“Right. but everything else is ours.” I skipped into his arms, but then pulled him toward the river I had seen earlier. The water tasted like…clouds. and sunshine. I couldn’t quite describe it, but I was suddenly craving it. kneeling in the water that was just the right temperature on my skin and tongue, I heard someone call my name, and then Adam’s.

“It’s God!” Adam exclaimed excitedly, pulling me to my feet. “Let’s go see him.”

“Okay,” I agreed readily. I was willing to go absolutely anywhere with Adam in this beautiful garden, but I really wanted to talk to God and tell him how wonderful it all was. I loved Adam deeply, but God seemed to understand me so perfectly I barely had to explain anything.

We ran through a field of purple daisies that smiled and winked at us as we passed. Laughing, I pushed myself past him, but he caught up easily. Faster, faster, until we were flying.

But then I fell into something sticky and black.

For a second, I just stared at it. there was nothing black here. everything was vibrant, and colourful, and bright. I lifted a hand out of the—stuff. it sucked at my arm with a disgusting sound. I looked around for Adam to come help me, but I couldn’t see him. I tried to get up, but the stuff just pulled me in tighter.

“Looks like you got yoursssssself in a bind,” said a slithery slimy voice. I looked up, and there was a serpent, standing in the bushes, watching me.

“Oh, hello,” I said, happy that I wasn’t alone. “I was just about to ask for some help, but I’m glad you’re here. do you think you could give me a hand, please?”

The serpent got down on his belly, so that it’s face was level with mine. “It would be my pleasssssure.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks. Here, I’ll try to get my hand out of this muck and you can pull me out.”

The serpent opened his mouth, and I was surprised at how far it could go, and then he advanced on me. the sharp teeth grazed against my neck as he swallowed my head whole.

The world crashed back into place, and I gasped. I was back in my dark room, and Adam and Eve were back in their original positions, except now I was painfully aware of two staring eyes at the edge of the woods, which I hadn’t noticed before. As I stared, I swear I saw them blink.

Shivering, I rolled off the bed and threw open the doors to my balcony. The night air was cooler than normal, but it felt nice. So I had found a new way to escape from the world. My heart beat with excitement. Even though it was almost midnight, I felt as though it had only been a few minutes since I first got in. Lee had said that if you did it enough times, you would think you were actually there.

Anything was better than the world I was living in now.

Finally, I saw him, sitting under a tree. “Julius?” I called. With a start he looked up, peering through the darkness at me. “Why don’t you come in?” I suggested.

He easily scaled the house and climbed on my balcony. “What were you doing there under the tree?” I asked, slipping my arms around him.

“Waiting for you. Your lights were off, so I thought you weren’t home yet.”

“You know you could have just come in.”

“But if you weren’t home—”

I cut him off. “I was home. I was just—meditating. I didn’t realize it was so late.”

“Since when do you meditate?”

“I always have.” I just haven’t figured out how to enter different worlds before now, that’s all.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a breeze picked up. I hoped the rain didn’t last all day tomorrow. I yawned.

“I really should get to bed,” I said, surprised that I was so tired so early. “You coming?”

He smiled. “It’s not like I have a choice, now, do I?”

“Nope. Come on.”

Falling into bed, I wondered about the moment I had daydreamed about earlier. Now seemed like a better time than ever, but when I looked over, Julius was slack-jawed, and I hadn’t realized his hold on me had slipped. He was out cold, and it wasn’t like I was going to wake him up. I dropped a kiss on his vibrating lips and fell asleep, too.

Wednesday, June 25th, day 25

The morning dawned bright and early, but mostly because of the clamour downstairs. “What’s going on?” I mumbled sleepily to nobody in particular. I lifted my head and was thrilled to see Julius sleeping beside me. he was such a cute sleeper. I hadn’t realized how long his eyelashes were. His lips were curled in a sleepy smile, and I wondered if he was having sweet dreams.

There was a bang in the kitchen.

I swung my feet over the bed and padded down. “What’s happening?” My mom was making pancakes at the stove. The loud bang was her getting a frying pan out of the cupboard. I blinked in confusion. Why hadn’t she just asked a cook to make her pancakes, and why was she doing it at—I checked my watch—seven o’clock in the morning?

She looked like she had been caught doing something illegal when she glanced up, frozen with her mixing spoon. “Oh. good morning, Hanuara.”

I sat down at the kitchen table. she had used my full name. Something was not right. “Mom, what are you doing?”

She looked about eighty years old as she took a seat across from me. “Hanna. The police brought Watson Nicoles to jail this morning.”

I tilted my head. “Who’s Watson Nicoles?”

She sighed and closed her eyes. “He’s the young man in the photograph Helen Mere took. They’re trying to tell me he’s the Poet.”

My grin was like the sun. I couldn’t believe my ears. “Mom! Mom, that’s great! That’s more than great, that’s supercallla—” my voice trailed off when I realized she wasn’t smiling.

“No, Hanna, its not great. Watson didn’t do it. I know that he’s the one in the picture, but I can feel in my heart that he’s innocent. But they took him anyway, just because of that picture.” She shook her head, and she looked like she was about to cry.

Everyone knows that when your parents cry, something is really wrong. My stomach tightened, and my eyes filled up, too. “Mom, it will be fine,” I whispered desperately. Don’t cry.

She took a shuddering breath, with one tear ready to spill over. “I know, I know.” She wiped at her face. “Everything will be okay, I know that. but Hanna, the man is homeless, and he just went to jail for a crime he didn’t do. I swear I’ll get him out of there, but how? The worst part is, they have stopped the investigation, and the real Poet is still out there.” She got up and started mixing her pancakes again. “It makes me so angry how just the little evidence—which, mind you, turned out not to be evidence at all—is enough to condemn a person. Oh, God, help me!” she cried out.

I stood silent, at the bottom of the stairs. Finally I asked, so quietly I hoped she couldn’t hear, if there was something I could do to help. My mom said no, just go back to bed and get up at a decent hour. That’s all she wanted from me right then. with wooden legs I returned to my room. He was up, and I could tell he had heard everything.

“Well,” I said conversationally, crossing my arms over my stomach. “An innocent man is going to jail for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, my sister has liver cancer because she just happened to think drinking was the answer to all her problems, my brother is already dead, Blair won’t speak to me and his little dog threatened to rip out my throat, a disgusting killer is out roaming the streets, and these stitches are itching like he—well, you know what. So my life is a mess, my arm is a bust, and I just want to go home!” Dropping beside him, I let a soft scream escape. Just a little scream, one that nobody could hear, but it definitely made me feel better.

“I must say I really can’t help you with the first four or the last two things on your list, but I think you should go talk to Blair.” His fingers in my hair were like the soothing pendulum of an ancient clock. I closed my eyes and nodded against his chest. Yes, I should go talk to Blair. But would he talk to me? I could only hope so.

“Say, Julius, I really liked what you did with my hair the other day. Do you think you could do a repeat? Or was that a one-time deal?” I batted my long eyelashes at him.

“Sure. I’d love to.” He got up to get the brush off my vanity, and then froze.

My mother threw open the door.

She stared at him, he stared at me, and I stared at her. my mouth opened and closed like a fish’s, and Julius’s eyes were popped so far I thought they might fall out. My mother placed a hand over her heart and pointed at him. “You.” Her voice shook, and her face turned red. “Get out. Now.”

Wordlessly, he marched out the door, and then she turned to face me. “Hanuara, what is going on?”

“Mom, I—”

She cut me off. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. You brought that young man here the other night, convinced us he was a wonderful person for you to date, gained our absolute and total trust, and then I found out that you’ve been sleeping together?” her voice rose to a screech.

“Mom, calm down, you’ll wake Dad!” I panicked, looking around frantically as if the answer lay somewhere in the pile of dirty clothes and dust.

“Too late, Hanna, I’m already awake. And I’m here.”

Turning to see my father frowning in the doorway, only one thing was on my mind: ways that this could possibly get any worse.

But apparently, it could.

“Did you know,” my father said, “That that kind of act is illegal in this country?”

My face drained of all colour. “Dad.”

“That you could go to jail for this?”

“Mom, Dad, we’re not sleeping together.” Well, technically we were. “Okay, well we did, but not in that sense. We didn’t have sex!” I blurted. Since my face had no blood left in it, the only blush I could muster was a slight tingling in my cheeks. “I promise.”

My parents’ eyes had both gone steely as the iron grey waters of a storm-blackened sea. “How do we know you’re not lying?” asked my mother.

“I don’t know! Mom, you always just know these things. Those feelings you have. I’m your daughter, can’t you just tell?” I looked at her pleadingly. I could barely breathe; fear constricted my throat like an unbreakable elastic band.

Mom closed her eyes, as if she was suddenly very, very tired. “Fine, Hanna, I believe you. That’s not to say I’m okay with it, because I’m not. I don’t want this to happen ever, ever again, until you’re eighteen. Please, Hanna, I have so much to worry about. Don’t give me any more grief.” With a kiss on the cheek, she lead my gaping father away.

“But, Su—”

“Please, Non, just leave her be. We’re not the only ones affected by this whole mess. Just leave her be.”

Since it was Maryline Halthart’s memorial day of course the entire world was shut down. I could get used to this. Even though nothing was open, I had free reign of the streets, and space to run as fast as I wanted. Sam zoomed behind me in the limo, and I think we made it to the beach in record time. but my heart was pounding from more than exercise when I reached the caves.

“Blair?” I called out tentatively.

Peeking slowly from behind a scrubby tree, he appeared, Cuddles at his side.

I almost screamed.

“Blair,” my voice was half-strangled. “What happened to you?”

He looked down at his bare feet, so that his black bruises were hidden by his hair. I gagged on the bile that rose in my throat. “I went home. I fell down some stairs. My mom took me to the doctor and he said I’ll be just fine.” His face was unbearably sad when he looked at me. “Hanuara, I’m really sorry for the mean things I said to you yesterday. That wasn’t nice and I’m sorry.”

In three strides I reached him, and hugged him as gingerly and carefully as I could. “Blair. You did nothing wrong. I shouldn’t have pride like I did. I’m sorry.”

“But,” he sniffled. “I made Cuddles growl at you. You looked scared when you walked away.” His blue eyes about did my heart in. Impulsively, I kissed him on the forehead.

“I was afraid. I was afraid that Cuddles might try and attack Zac, and then we’d have a fight on our hands. I was afraid Zac might kill Cuddles.”

My words made him burst into tears.

“Blair, Blair, I didn’t mean it that way. I wouldn’t have let Zac harm Cuddles, it’s just that he’s so much bigger than I am.” I kicked myself (mentally). Way to put your foot in your mouth. “How ‘bout some ice cream?” I asked brightly.

He looked confused. “But everything is closed. It’s Maryline Halthart’s day.”

Oh. “Right, um…”

He smiled at me and patted my hand. “Do you want me to show you the new tricks I taught Cuddles?”

He took me to a place on the rock wall that was flat and smooth. He fished his apple treat from his pants pocket and told me he they just had to warm up. I watched him with maternal pride swelling my chest. He told Cuddles to sit a few feet from the wall, and then slowly tossed him a treat. Cuddles caught them on the fly, and then he started throwing them in random directions. With an expression of such acute concentration I laughed, Cuddles caught every one. I fought the urge to wince every time I saw his face, or when he stiffly bent to pick up a treat that he dropped.

He turned sideways. “Okay, Cuddles, do the flip!” The puppy barked and wagged his tail with excitement. Blair tossed the treat toward the wall high in the air, and I was speechless when Cuddles ran to the wall with great speed, so fast that he was able to bounce off the wall and do a back flip in the air, and he landed perfectly on his feet and got the treat in his mouth.

“Wooo-hoooo!” I applauded excitedly. “Blair, have I ever told you you’re amazing? How did you teach him that, anyway?”

He smiled a secret smile. “A magician never reveals his secrets,” he told me. “And I won’t either.”

I couldn’t believe what that dog could do, even though I had seen it with my own eyes. He said it was the only new trick Cuddles had learned, because that one had taken a long time (all of one day). We sat and chatted under the bridge, and I left with at least one thing off my list. But really, one thing among half a dozen that shame it to the moon is nothing at all.

For my lesson, Lee took me to the archery grounds in New Harlequin. “Art,” he said, “is precision. If you are not careful with your movements, you could hurt someone.” He lifted the bow and shot a perfect bull’s-eye. “Concentrate,” he told me, handing me a bow. “Focus on the centre, where I’m assuming you want to hit, and your body will automatically align to where you’re focusing.”

Nervously, I took the bow from him. what if something went wrong and I hit him or something? Shoving those thoughts from my mind, I did what he told me to do, focusing all my energy on the centre of the target that seemed so far away. I drew back the arrow, and let it fly.

It hit just shy of mark. “Yea! I did it!” I raised my hand for a hi-five, but Lee was frowning at me.

“Hanuara,” he said as though I was a little kid to which he was explaining a seemingly simple concept for the third time. “Art is precision. You need to be precise. Never settle for anything less, or else you will fail. Now, try again.”

But that was the first time I had ever shot an arrow in my life. Hurt, I pulled back my arrow again. his words from yesterday came back to me. “Art is serenity.” Clear, unclouded. I clearly saw the arrow hitting the dead centre of the target, felt the victory in my soul, heard the arrow whiz through the air. I drew back my arm, and let the arrow go.

“Bull’s eye!”

“Very good. Now do it with your eyes closed.”

Was nothing good  enough for him? I crossed my arms. “As if you could.”

By the look on his face he could, and I was about to eat my words.

“The trick,” he explained as he loaded the bow, “Is to memorize the feel of your stance, the position of your fingers, everything, from your first bull’s eye.” Seeming to concentrate very hard, he first shot one with his eyes open, and then with his eyes closed. “You got that?” he asked me.

I shook my head. “No. but I do understand that art is precision, don’t settle for less, blah, blah, blah. But what about cubism? That seems pretty random to me.” and horribly hideous, but who was I to judge?

He raised an eyebrow. “If your aim was to be random, and it isn’t, than you have achieved your goal. The whole point of precision is to pick where you want to go and then get there. It doesn’t matter what the artistically ignorant think or say, it’s what you set out to accomplish.” He looked at me so condescendingly that I blushed.

“And also, if you do something like the dance Sophia and I do, precision is almost a matter of safety. Some of the dances we do are perilous, and if you don’t do them with the utmost precision, well, you could die. Or at least be seriously injured.” He chuckled. “And then there’s karate. At Virginia’s, it’s more like dancing than actually trying to hurt people. If the moves aren’t choreographed, then we’re just very careful about who we decide to kick.”

“You’ve taken karate?” I set my bow on the grass.

“Of course I did. I took every class they had before I ended up with Gray. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“No, but Jada mentioned something like that.” I could definitely see him doing karate. He basically had the look of a lethal weapon that should be locked up. If he had been a lion, he would have eaten me by now. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

But then again, losing your father in that awful 9/11 terrorist attack must have had its effect on him, too. Being a guy, he had probably just hardened himself against the pain.

“I’m really sorry about your dad,” I said out of the blue. “Do you miss him?”

Pain flashed in his eyes—a lion realizing he’s trapped but not willing to let the enemy know he’s having doubts—for just one second. Then he shrugged, as nonchalantly as if I had asked him about the weather.  This, by the way, is a pretty nonchalant question in this country.

“I was nine,” he said. “What do you think?”

In lieu of a suitable subject change, I picked up my bow again and decided to try that shoot-with-your-eyes-closed thing. I tried to make sure I remember every detail of my first shot—even the direction of the wind in my hair. The precise direction of the wind in my hair. My face scrunched up, and I let the arrow go, not relaxing my stance until it was stuck in the target. When I turned to get my second arrow, Lee was staring at me.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, concerned that I had done something wrong.

He started as though I had woken him from a daydream. “What? Uh, nothing. Now, I are you going to try that without looking?”

Turns out what he made look so easy was actually harder than it seemed. My arrow went so far off the mark Lee wondered out loud if “we’re ever going to find that one again. That was really bad.”

Gritting my teeth against his unsupportive-ness, I fired shot after shot until finally, my arrow hit the target. Just shy of zipping right past, but still, I had hit it. not about to look for encouragement from Lee, I patted myself on the back. “Good job, Hanuara,” I told myself. “that was really great. At least you never stopped trying.” I smirked at Lee and reloaded my bow.

“No, I think we should call it a day.” Lee pushed my arm down. “I need to get back.”

Pouting, I followed him back to his truck. But, figuring I owed him something, I thanked him with a wide smile for hauling me out there to play darts.

“Wow,” he said, “not only are you artistically ignorant, you also have no idea how to crack a good joke.” He punched me lightly on the shoulder.

“I do so. A drunk man walked into a bar and said ‘Ouch!’” The words were out before I could stop them. I gasped and slapped a hand over my mouth. “Oh, my gosh, that was so not funny,” I whispered, tears welling in my eyes.

He looked confused. “What?” he asked. “Oh. That. but she never went to bars, Hanuara. There aren’t any here.” his half-attempt at reassurance did nothing for me.

There was an awkward silence. We pulled out of New Harlequin, reaching the gravel road that was a shortcut to Tianam. When I had regained my breathing, I impulsively leaned forward to sift through the CDs he had between the seats. “You listen to Love Cabbage?” I held up their new album, Third In Line.

He nodded. “Yeah, they’re really cool. I’ve always wanted to meet them.”

I smiled smugly. “I could arrange that, you know. We’re friends.”

“You know Love Cabbage? Personally?” He gaped at me, before regaining his composure. “That’s okay. I’m too busy anyway. What with my dancing, my work, college, and now, you.”

“Lee, you aren’t fooling me. just say the word and I’ll do it. and anyway, it be an excuse to see them again. they really seemed to like me.”

he combed his fingers through his hair, considering. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

I already had my iPhone out. “Hey, Em-Sem! Yeah, it’s me. listen, I have a smitten fan who’s really wanting to meet you, and—really? You’ll do it? just like that. well, thanks. Well, why don’t you come on down to my house, and you can meet my father, too. It can be a whole big meet-and-greet thing. Cool, see you then!”

I pressed the phone off and smiled at Lee. “It has all been arranged.”

Thanks for Stopping by!

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~ Romans 15:13

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