Forces in the universe wanted Cynthia Summers and Kaden Krossway to be in the same place, to be together, this much was obvious to them. And they were better at everything just by being in close proximity. It had been suggested that their routinely-chance-defying encounters each and every year on their birthday, June 1st, simply meant that they were soulmates destined to fall in love and—
But this notion was quickly and with repulsed twists of the body shot down before it could be completed. “Dude, she’s my sister!” from Kaden was quickly followed by Cynthia gagging and saying, “Disgusting! He’s my brother!” “We’re twins,” they’d finish in unison, to which the suggester would, after eyeing the exotically beautiful black girl called Cynthia and the easily overlookable white boy named Kaden, let out a laugh, followed by the customary, “Twins? Yeah, right.”
And here it was yet again.
“Twins? Yeah, right,” said the final lunch customer of the day, a fifty-year-old man with an unshaven face, from his seat on the back patio of The Oaken Door restaurant in Old Town, Virginia. He then produced from his pocket a tip for his waiter, a few silver coins and a paperclip, which he dropped onto the black mesh-metal tabletop, before rounding things off by scoffing a laugh at Cynthia and Kaden.
Today, May 31st, was the day before their sixteenth birthday, and though technically underage they both worked here at The Oaken Door, Cynthia being a (pretty bad) hostess and Kaden being a (very good) bus boy. The owner, Mr. Boreall, a rather eccentric old man who had never shown the slightest inkling of interest in running a restaurant, had taken an immediate liking to them a year ago almost to the day, on their 15th birthday, when they had officially broken the scientific fields of Mathematics and Probabilities by once again finding themselves, despite living an ocean apart, together in the same place on their birthday; this time it had been while having lunch on this very patio, with their tables having been separated by the grand oak tree growing through the very middle of the patio itself. Kaden had been thrilled for the chance to make some spending money, and Cynthia had been very convincing in acting thrilled, not wanting Kaden to know that restaurant work was right there alongside ditch-digging and coffin-testing when it came to things that she never wanted to do, even for money.
Beneath the warm afternoon sun, the unshaven man tossed his napkin beside his white ceramic plate, on which a small lump of ketchup was the lone survivor of a house specialty burger and a large pile of seasoned fries. He rose from his seat on the red-bricked patio and walked toward the sliding glass door leading into the restaurant, but he stopped to frown perplexedly, even harshly, at a large statue of a very odd-looking horse.
“What the hell’s this thing supposed to be?” he said brusquely. “A horse?”
“I think so, yes,” said Cynthia, who spoke in the very proper style of language called Queen’s English.
“Maybe the artist should’ve looked at an actual horse before making a statue of one, because this thing…it’s all wrong.”
“I’ll make sure to let the artist know,” said Kaden. “Because he’s also the owner of this restaurant.”
The man eyed Kaden for several long seconds. “You being smart with me, boy?”
“Smart?” said Kaden. “Nope. Cyn’s smart, though,” he added, pointing at Cynthia.
The man then eyed Cynthia, though much differently from how he had eyed Kaden, especially when taking in her perfectly unique, metallically silver hair and equally chrome-colored eyes.
“Where’re you from?” he asked her, now sounding curious.
“Knightsbridge,” said Cynthia. “That’s in London, England.”
The man turned his attention back to Kaden. “And you, boy, where’re you from?”
“Southern California,” said Kaden. “And then Arizona, and then Colorado, and as of last year my folks took jobs at Vanguard High School up the road in Alexandria, so now I’m from here.”
“Yeah, didn’t need a history lesson, boy,” said the man shortly. “Just wondering why you two claim to be twins when—well, you aren’t even from the same place, and…come on, seriously? She’s black and you’re white. I’m pretty sure that the entire scientific field of Biology makes you two being twins impossible.”
“Yeah, we’ve heard that once or twice,” said Kaden, shrugging.
The man snorted at Kaden, then he turned to Cynthia, appearing ready to continue arguing his fact-based certainty that they couldn’t be related by blood, but the sight of her exotic features caused him, instead, to turn his attention to yet another pair of seeming impossibilities: her hair and eyes.
“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of chicks on the internet, but I’ve never seen anyone like you,” he said, drawing grimaces on both Cynthia and Kaden’s faces, as each had a pretty good guess as to the types of pictures that this man routinely looked at online. “You dye your hair to make it look so…so…brightly silver, right?” he asked her pointedly. She shook her head. “But you must be wearing special contact lenses to make your eyes look…wow. They look like extra-shiny hubcaps.”
“Nope, no contacts,” said Cynthia, mentally adding this newest comparison of her eye color, this one being to the wheels of a car, to the extremely long list of them, as practically everyone that she encountered tried to put into words their surprise and wonder at this highly distinctive and noticeable feature of hers. “Just always been this way.”
“Darlin’, you are…” The man scratched his stubble-covered chin as he looked her slender body and long legs up and down, his grin growing larger—and creepier—all the while. “…just, wow. You ever do any dancing?”
“Maybe,” she said, grinning back at him, and causing Kaden to eye her quite worriedly. “I might even dance for you,” she said coyly, tilting her head just a bit. “But only if the next time that you come here to see me is during the dinner shift.” Then she winked one of her silver eyes at him.
“Will do, darlin’,” he said eagerly, his face slightly flushed with anticipation. Then he turned and walked through the sliding back door, a bounce to his step.
Kaden was, by now, gaping in disbelief at Cynthia, for it was completely unlike her to flirt so conspicuously with a much older and rather rude man who, if soliciting dances from almost-sixteen-year-olds was a common practice, also qualified as being extremely slimy—and maybe a felon. But all that Kaden actually managed to get out was, “Um, Cyn, we don’t work any dinner shifts.”
“Exactly,” she said, grinning. “Like I want that old perv looking me up and down again. And did he actually think that I’d dance for him?” she laughed—before shuddering at the thought.
“Oh…that was clever of you,” laughed Kaden, realizing that she had effectively tricked the man into never coming back here while they were working. “You had me worried there for a minute.”
After a sweeping look around the patio and confirming that they were alone, Cynthia plopped down on a chair at the recently departed table.
“I hate working,” she groaned, lowering her head to the tabletop’s mesh metal, which, thanks to the late May sun, felt comfortably warm against her cheek.
“You love working,” said Kaden, putting the table’s dirty plate and glass in his deep bussing tray and then sitting beside her. “Just not this kind of work.”
“Schoolwork isn’t work,” she said. “It’s…fun.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Kaden truthfully. “I hate schoolwork.”
From her sideways vantage point, Cynthia found herself looking at the grand oak tree growing at the very center of the back patio. Though it was just a tree, it had always been a very special tree to both herself and Kaden. For it was around this very oak tree that she and Kaden had played tag on their 4th birthday, this also being both of their first memories.
“I used to dream about this tree all the time,” said Cynthia, her words emerging from a face that was slightly smooshed against the tabletop. “And I’ve started to again.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Kaden, wiping his forehead, which was slightly sweaty from all the bussing that he had done during a very busy lunch. “Actually, I’ve been dreaming about it a lot lately.”
“Probably from the stress of exams,” said Cynthia, then trying unsuccessfully to blow several strands of silver hair from her eyes. “You know, needing to see something comforting when everything else in the world is so…stressful.”
“And exams were definitely stressful,” said Kaden, sincerely glad that they were over with. “Hopefully I didn’t fail any of them.” His attention was drawn about ten feet up the grand oak tree to its distinctive double-knot, which looked rather like the number 8, with one knot being stacked almost directly above the other.
“Ouch.” Wincing in pain, Cynthia sat upright and began massaging her temples, enduring the pain of yet another sudden headache. She noticed that Kaden had begun itching his ear. “Still hearing those weird echo noises?”
“Yeah. And they really are weird—as well as itchy,” he said annoyedly. “It’s like…almost being able to hear something, but not actually being able to hear it—but still hearing it—itchily. But it’s the even weirder throbs of phantom pain that’re the most annoying.”
Kaden had started calling them phantom pains because it felt like they were coming from—well, from him, but not from any actual parts of his body. It was more like he could feel pain in his arm, but as if his arm was extended sideways even though it was actually hanging down normally at his side. But it was Cynthia’s headaches that he was most worried about because he knew that she had a truly special mind and he really didn’t want anything to be wrong with it.
“Your headaches have been getting worse, haven’t they, Cyn?”
“They’ve been absolutely infuriating,” she said, her eyes squinting from the pain presently issuing from just behind them. “It’s like—like—I don’t know…like I’m having a windy migraine. The pain feels like it’s blowing around inside my head—like a strong and super-frustrating breeze or something.”
Just like their dreams about the grand oak tree, these strange symptoms had been coming on much more frequently as of late, and with greater intensity too.
As the pain in her head began to abate, Cynthia let out an exhale of relief. Then, like a stage actor delivering a climactic line, she declared in an exaggerated and carrying voice, “My birthday wish is for my windy headaches to go away and never come back!”
“Your birthdays aren’t till tomorrow,” said a man’s gravelly voice from the center of the patio, successfully causing Kaden to jump in his chair and Cynthia to let out a squeal of fright, as both had been certain that the patio was completely empty.
The stranger they turned to find walking—or limping, rather—just past the grand oak tree toward the sliding back door of the restaurant was too well-kempt to be a homeless person but too unkempt to be a reputable customer. And he was limping against…well, nothing. Yet he was moving his arm and leaning toward it as if he held a very tall cane.
Lowly, so that only Kaden could hear her, Cynthia whispered, “He kind of looks like an evil Gandalf in desperate need of a shower and tailor.”
Kaden caught his laugh in his throat.
“Whoa,” Kaden whispered back, “check out his eye.” Well, it wasn’t so much an eye as it was a wooden eyepatch around which there could be seen an outward-radiating series of horrible scars that, on the whole, looked unnervingly like a spiderweb of discolored and raised flesh.
“Who’s this Gandalf person?” asked the eye-patched man, darting a sideways glance at Cynthia, who, rather than respond with words, simply blushed crimson while wondering how on earth he had heard her whispering.
After a moment or two, when it became clear that he wouldn’t be getting an answer, the stranger turned his good eye to Kaden.
“And this here,” he said, pointing a dirty finger at the grisly spiderweb of scarred flesh that surrounded what at one time was presumably a second eye. “This is…a story best left for another time.” He then continued limping ahead, and still as if leaning rather heavily against an extremely tall cane that simply wasn’t there.
“Wait a sec,” said Cynthia, just now registering what he had first said. “How’d you know that our birthday is tomorrow?”
But the maybe-hobo stranger, rather than reply, had chosen to stop and admire the statue of the kind-of horse. He was examining its elongated and slender features. The head, which he was currently admiring, looked like a horse’s head in general appearance, but only if it had been stretched out to nearly twice its normal length while getting no wider. And its legs were far too long, its body too narrow. Yet Cynthia had secretly always liked the way this horse-ish creature stood, as there was a distinctly feminine grace to it.
“You really did capture her aspect, Boreall,” said the eye-patched man without looking away from the statue.
Cynthia and Kaden jumped again, for they hadn’t seen the very old—but somehow never seeming very old—and very tall Mr. Boreall making his way through the sliding back door, his vibrantly cerulean-blue eyes on the eye-patched man.
“You’re too kind,” said Boreall to the stranger, a magnificent smile raising his lined and wizened face. “I had to replicate my original statue of Alassyn from memory.”
“And quite a memory it is, friend,” said the eye-patched man, now patting the statue’s elongated stone head.
“Alassyn?” Cynthia mouthed to Kaden.
“Yes, Alassyn,” said the eye-patched man, who could neither have heard her say it, as she hadn’t actually produced any words, nor could he have seen her mouth it—not without having looked through the back of his head, at least.
“Alassyn was the mother of an entire race of horses called potnias,” said Boreall in his uplifting, gusting voice. Upon receiving a pair of raised eyebrows from Cynthia and Kaden, neither of whom had ever heard of a type of horse called potnia, he explained, “A legend from my homeland.”
“Which is…where?” urged Kaden, for Mr. Boreall had routinely referred to his homeland without ever revealing exactly where it was located.
“By the sea,” said Boreall elusively, smiling. The smile faded, however, and his expression became tense, even grave, as he turned to the stranger. “So…it’s finally time, I take it?”
“It is,” said the eye-patched man curtly. Then he limped his way into the restaurant. He was nearly inside when he stopped and turned, fixing his good eye on Cynthia and Kaden. “Since I won’t be seeing you again before it happens, happy birthday, you two.” He paused, leaned against his non-existent staff, and let out a sigh. “Let’s hope it’s not your last.”
Cynthia and Kaden promptly shared confused—and slightly alarmed—glances.
“Um…it won’t be our last,” said Kaden, turning back to the stranger, but the eye-patched man had already limped into the restaurant and out of earshot.
Frowning, Cynthia looked at Mr. Boreall. “Why would he say something like that?”
Boreall made another smile at them but didn’t provide an answer. Then his face became suddenly serious.
“I need the two of you back here tonight at eleven-thirty. Under normal circumstances I’d never ask you to break school rules and leave campus after hours. However, circumstances are anything but normal at present.”
“Oh you’re being serious?” said Cynthia, studying his solemn expression.
“I am indeed,” said Boreall, nodding. “And please don’t be late.”
“Um…okay, I guess,” said Kaden warily.
Boreall looked expectantly at Cynthia.
“Yeah, okay,” she said, despite being completely unable to come up with a single reason why he might want them back here at such a late hour.
Boreall nodded slowly then made a small bow. “Eleven-thirty, then.” Turning, he stepped through the sliding back door and closed it behind him, leaving Cynthia and Kaden all alone, and quite confused, in their seats at the table beside the grand oak tree.