I am awake and something is watching me.
I took a second to breathe, realizing I’d been dreaming. The shrieking, invisible creatures that had been tearing at my clothes were gone, but an unearthly screeching continued outside. Since my bedroom was on the second floor, I knew nothing could be peering in. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to look toward the window.
I pulled the covers over my head, attempting to block out the sounds and go back to sleep. But the blanket did nothing to quash the noises, and my fear was starting to win out.
“I’m fine,” I muttered. Trembling, I pushed the flowery comforter off my face. “It’s just animals fighting in the woods. If someone was trying to rob us, they wouldn’t be yelling their lungs out like that.”
Still, I couldn't shake the sensation that eyes were on me. Forcing myself to turn my head just enough, I snuck a glance at the window. The blinds were shut, so I couldn't see anything through the slats. Around the edges of the sill, I saw the backyard light flick on, casting shadows that made my normally-too-pink room seem even more eerie. Yet this meant that my parents were awake, which provided me with some solace.
Feeling slightly ridiculous, I slid out of bed and inched my way over to the window. “I'm going to be eighteen soon. This is stupid.” I counted to three and wrenched open the blinds.
The sudden violent action set off a flurry of wings and squawking outside. I stifled a shriek, covering my face and darting away in a panic.
They’re attacking me! How do you escape something you can't see?
My thoughts had momentarily lapsed back to my dream, and I had to yank myself into reality once more. What was out there? Birds? Bats?
Shivering despite the summery warmth, I crouched down near my door, curling my bare toes deep into the magenta carpet fibers. Why was my heart pounding so hard? Obviously there was some winged creature outside that I'd alarmed. There was no reason to be scared like this.
A cry broke out from downstairs, jarring me further. “Patricia!”
I jumped up, listening to my father's voice echo through the house. Dad was calling Mom.
Mom wasn't answering.
I needed to know what was happening. Venturing out of my room and through the hall, I hurried downstairs, missing the second-to-last step and stubbing my toe at the bottom. I swore under my breath, gritting my teeth at the pain, and then limped into the kitchen. There I found my father, clad in pajamas and looking very disheveled. He held open the back door, shaking his head distractedly as he scanned the night.
“Dad?” I exclaimed, trying to appear composed. “What's happening out there? Are you and Mom okay?”
Startled, he slammed the screen door shut. “Corinne…why are you awake?” He seemed like he was fumbling for words, which was unusual. As my Grandpa Brian always said, my father was “incredibly hard to shut up”.
I gazed past him through the screen, searching the blackness. “I heard sounds, and there were these...maybe birds...by my window. It kind of freaked me out.”
“It’s fine,” Dad murmured, fidgeting with the doorknob. “Everything's okay.”
The backyard was now silent except for a slight breeze in the trees. Whatever had been out there must have fled.
I took a deep breath. “Why are you calling Mom? Where is she?”
My father scratched at his dark hair. His words were soothing, but worry was very evident in his green eyes. “She's...checking outside.”
I was about to ask him why he hadn't gone out himself when a large bird flew past the door. “An owl!” I gasped in awe. My still-elevated pulse dropped several notches at the surprising sight. “Cool! I guess that's what I was hearing.” Who knew owls could make such a racket?
“Yes. Yes, an owl,” my dad said, sounding almost relieved.
Seconds later, Mom came around the corner. She mounted the steps and yanked open the door.
“All clear,” she declared. She fastened her bathrobe and strode past us nonchalantly.
The next morning at breakfast, no one mentioned the previous night's events. Mom and Dad were both rushing to get ready for work, so screaming animals probably weren't on their minds. When I did bring the subject up, my mother dismissed it rather swiftly, saying, “Owls. Nothing weird there.” A piece of her brown-black hair fell into her face, and she tucked it back behind her ear in irritation. “I’m so busy, I haven’t even had a chance to get a haircut…”
“They sounded really scary. We never had owls here before,” I pointed out in between bites of cereal.
“We have woods back there. Of course there's owls.” Mom took one sip of her brimming cup of tea and then rose without finishing the rest. “Are you taking the bus today or what?”
This being senior year of high school, a lot of my classmates felt that they were beyond riding on a school bus. Although I’d recently earned my driver’s license, my parents refused to get me a car. They said I didn't need one. In fact, they hadn't let my older brothers get cars until they were in college. I don't think it was a money thing, either. Dad is a doctor, and Mom is a dentist, so we never were wanting for much. My guess is they didn't want to spoil us.
“As usual, I'm taking the bus,” I growled. “Until I learn to teleport, of course,” I added nastily.
My father snorted, “Uh-huh,” and then the phone rang.
“I'll get it. Maybe Marnie's picking me up,” I called, but unfortunately it wasn't my friend offering to save me from the torments of the school bus. Instead, it was merely my older brother.
“Hey, Daniel,” I muttered, audibly disappointed.
“Hey. Don't sound so happy to hear from me, Cor. Is Julian there still?”
Daniel and his younger brother Matthew are actually my half-brothers. We share the same mother, but their father, Jack, was my mother's first husband. At the moment, Jack was in the hospital, suffering from chronic kidney disease due to his diabetes. He was on dialysis and was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Between this and the recent loss of Jack's parents in a car accident, Daniel had been very depressed. He lived in an apartment near the medical school he attended, but he managed to come home frequently. And strangely, he had really latched onto my dad – more so than he ever had growing up.
“You don't want to talk to Mom?'' I asked. I wondered if she'd feel bad that he passed over her like that. Both of my brothers called her frequently, and she was always happy to hear from them.
“Tell her hi. I don't have much time.”
Sometimes my brother thought more about himself than anyone else. “It's Daniel,” I announced with disapproval, handing Dad the phone. His brows furrowed, and he glanced at my mother, who blanched.
“Daniel,” he stated in a tight voice. He got up and strode down the hall to the office. “Stop this. He has to go back.”
The door slammed shut.
When I entered my first-period English class, a sight met my eyes. The perfect young man sat at the back of the room. He occupied the empty desk behind my own, waiting for me as if I'd personally summoned him.
Now I'm not the type to sit and moon over the latest celebrity, and I never had a boyfriend. But this man, who couldn't be more than a year or two older than me, encompassed all I imagined in a future husband, if I ever married. His hair was nearly black like my dad's, but his eyes were an unexpected shade of blue. They almost didn't seem to belong against the creamy almond-color of his skin. He was so flawless that I was actually suspicious.
And he was looking right at me.
Placing down my backpack, I tried to ignore him, immense shyness flooding through me. Nobody like that would be interested in someone like me. Yes, I had my parents' dark hair and Dad's green eyes, but I never felt particularly beautiful. This guy would probably go for my friend Marnie, the strawberry-blonde boy-magnet.
But he tapped at my chair, and I tensed up as he spoke.
“So you're the lovely soul who sits here. How lucky a person am I?!”
His words were lilting and slightly accented, but I couldn’t place his country of origin. I sat down carefully, almost put off by his manner. Lovely soul? Was that his idea of a pick-up line? It was pretty lame.
“Are you new or something?” I asked him without making eye contact.
Obviously heartened that he'd obtained a response, he leaned forward. “You could say that, but I'm not a student. I'm just observing. I'm going to be a school principal, so I need to experience several classes. Perhaps I'll even follow you to several of yours, if you'll allow it.”
Now I was a bit creeped out. Why was this guy paying attention to me? I didn't like the way I was reacting to him, either.
As if to prove the newcomer's words, my teacher, Mr. Grant, came in and repeated exactly what the man had said, nearly word for word. “So I ask all of you to help Allen whenever you can. He's very eager to learn more about our school, and he has such great references, I'm honored to have him here.”
Mr. Grant continued to gush over Allen's excellent credits, but the young man himself did not seem that flattered by the speech. “As you may have guessed, I'm Allen,” he whispered to me. “And yes, English is not my first language, so forgive my accent. But I'm a quick learner. Very quick.”
Taken aback, I stammered, “That's...nice...” and turned back to face my teacher. But I could still feel those indigo-blue eyes boring into the back of my head...
I didn’t take in much of the day's lesson, to say the least.
At the end of the class, Allen watched as I got my belongings together. “If I have the chance, may I accompany you to your next class, Corinne?”
Oh, no. He's a stalker, and he knows all about me, I thought. “How do you know my name?”
He chuckled. “Well, that's what your teacher called you when he took attendance. Corinne Greene. Is that incorrect?”
There was something about his wording here and there, which, awkward as it sounded, was also rather endearing. I let out a breath. He wasn't a stalker. He was a foreigner who was trying to be friendly, and I would be happy to return the favor. “That's correct. Come on. My next class isn't very exciting, though. AP Calc, you know.”
“Advanced Placement. You must have heard of that if you're in education.”
“Ah, yes. Like the honors classes. You must forgive me. It's different in my country, and then, the English...”
Those two pools of blue were swallowing me up. I wanted to get lost in those eyes of his. “What country are you from? I can't really tell your accent.”
“I'm from Hungary.”
The man was Hungarian? I had no idea what a Hungarian person sounded like, so I wouldn’t know if he was telling the truth or not. But then the school principal came by, effectively ending the conversation.
“How is it going, Allen? Are the students being helpful?” he inquired.
“Why yes, Principal Marks. Corinne here is showing me how everything works in your school.”
“Excellent. I'm sure she'll answer any other questions you have.” How nice it was that Principal Marks had volunteered my help without asking me – not that I minded in this instance, of course.
Apparently, though, he was also finished with me. “Run off to class now so I can discuss Allen's plans with him, okay?” He dismissed me with a wave.
The fact that Principal Marks had just told me to “run off” as though I were a pet dog made me want to do just that. But I was loath to leave Allen, this beautiful young man, which in itself embarrassed me. Why was I experiencing such an insistent pull to him? I'd never felt this way about anyone before. I'd had a few silly crushes, but this was just weird.
“I guess I won't be able to participate in AP Calculus.” He gave me a reassuring wink, and I knew I'd see plenty more of him. I skipped a few times on my way to class. I hope no one saw.
When I got home, the extra two cars in front of my house indicated that both sets of my grandparents were visiting. All four grandparents got along unusually well as they had been friends long before my parents had gotten married. The two older couples always had something deep to discuss (not that I listened much), and they were always around. I was curious why they were there during the day, however. Grandpa Brian, Mom's father, still worked, as did Dad's father, Grandpa Ron. Grandpa Ron was a big surgeon at the same hospital where Dad practiced. He was very well-regarded, and I honestly had never heard anything bad about him. But then again, I never heard a bad thing about Mom either. She's even had a few crazy patients who insisted she grew back their broken teeth. Whatever.
In order to eavesdrop, I opened the front door as quietly as I could and remained in the hall. Everyone was gathered in the kitchen, so they couldn't see me, but I could hear them. And their conversation was growing heated.
“No, it changes everything,” I could just make out my mother's murmur. “We don't know. And all we did...”
“Why is it so bad?”
That second voice belonged to my brother Daniel! He was home? I had no idea he was coming back from school mid-week like this! He used to tell me when his vacations were. Now it seemed like he was here more than he was at school, and I never knew just when he'd pop up.
Grandpa Brian interrupted my thoughts, exclaiming, “Daniel, damn it, didn't anyone say anything to you? You're like a second Julian!”
“Thanks, Brian,” Dad mumbled in annoyance. “I'll never hear the end of it. Ever. Even after how many years?”
“Why am I a second Julian? I'm not hurting anyone!” countered Daniel.
Grandma Robin, Dad's mother, inserted, “Neither did Julian.”
Boy, my father must have been something in his youth. I had never heard anything like this before. Grandpa Brian's next retort of “He messed everything up!” only made me more eager to find out what exactly my father had been up to.
“Daniel knows about what happened,” Grandpa Ron uttered in his quiet doctor's voice.
“So you understand it's not right, Daniel. You see that,” Grandma Felicia, Mom's mother, stated even more softly.
My brother cut off, and there was silence. I wasn't sure why until I heard Grandpa Ron call out, “Corinne, you're here?” I don't know how he knew, but that was Grandpa Ron. Often, he was just aware of things. Mom had once said that both of their families were “sensitive” like that.
Sulking, I entered the kitchen. My family sat at the table, their eyes on me like a group of inquisitors.
“What did Daniel do?” I asked hesitantly.
“Daniel's messing around in other people's business,” growled Grandpa Brian, getting up from the table abruptly. He scowled at a spot somewhere between my father and my brother. “See, Ron, they never learn,” he added, pacing over to the window and drumming his fingers on the sill.
Grandpa Ron, meanwhile, had an expression on his face that I knew well. From time to time, I'd catch him gazing at me. Right now, his visage was full of complete adoration and awe, as if I were a god or something. I guess it was because I was his only grandchild.
I always found it interesting how I could see a little bit of myself in each grandparent. Despite that Grandma Robin had greenish eyes and her husband did not, my emerald-colored eyes stemmed from Grandpa Ron's family. The stunning shade of green that my dad and I both inherited had even supplied our family with its last name.
All four grandparents had been brown-haired, so it was unlikely I'd be anything else. Of course, now Grandpa Ron was completely gray, and Grandpa Brian retained very few of his near-black streaks amidst the silver. Grandma Robin and Grandma Felicia looked surprisingly youthful for their age, with their respective reddish-brown and darker brunette locks.
“Nice day for a walk, Felicia,” Grandpa Brian pointed out. He tapped at the window pane, admiring the clouds.
“No History Channel today, Brian?” Grandpa Ron smiled. Watching the streaming history specials was one of Grandpa Brian's favorite pastimes. He still called them the “History Channel”, even though actual television channels hadn't existed for years. Mom said that Dad was the one who had gotten him into history, which was ironic because Dad and Grandpa Brian always seemed to enjoy squabbling with each other more than anything else.
“There's time for history later. Right now it's a good day to be out in nature,” was his response.
“Sure is!” Grandma Felicia rose and approached him. She always appeared so pale up against Grandpa Brian's swarthy complexion. “I guess we'll get going.”
Standing up and placing her hand on Grandma Felicia's shoulder, Mom pleaded, “Stay a bit. I'll get us all a nice dinner.”
And she would. At the drop of a hat. She was an amazing cook.
“Thanks, Patricia, but we're going to leave too. It's getting late,” Grandma Robin said, encouraging her husband to rise.
For a moment, Grandpa Ron remained in his seat. His eyes traveled from Daniel, to me, and then back to Daniel. “Speak to him, Patricia. You too, Julian. And Daniel, listen to them. They know what they're talking about.”
Daniel muttered something and fled into the living room. As Mom and Dad led their parents out, I followed my brother to where he now sat, splayed out on the black leather couch. He regarded the ceiling vacantly, and my entrance didn’t break his stare.
I cleared my throat to get his attention. “I didn't know you were coming home. You never tell me when you're coming here anymore.”
“I have to go back tomorrow.”
I plopped down beside him. “You came for one day? That's a long trip.” As I bent down to tie my dangling shoelace, another thought occurred to me. “Where's your car?” I asked, straightening up.
Finally he took his eyes from the ceiling and focused them on me. I saw a curious longing in them, and then he shook his head in impatience. “A friend dropped me off.”
“You don't know him. Hey, when did Mom get new curtains?”
I fingered the black and gold curtain cascading down beside the couch. “Uh, they're like...five years old, I think.”
I rolled my eyes. He'd never been very observant. “Daniel, you didn't say. Why'd you come home for only one day?”
Inhaling deeply, he began, “Well, I just needed to. I'm not really over my grandparents’ dying, and then my dad getting sick... I don't know how Matthew doesn't come home more often.”
“You're a little closer by than he is. It's a bit easier for you.”
He clicked his tongue. “It sure is.”
He grew quiet, which was very unlike my older brother. I scrutinized him, curious as to what else was happening in his life. He was still Daniel, whom I had idolized as a child, but he looked more disheveled than usual. His dark hair was uncombed, and I wondered when the last time was that he had washed the faded blue shirt he wore. Every recent memory I had of my older brother was in that shirt.
“What did you do, Daniel?” I queried, watching carefully for his reaction.
His tired face did not reveal much information, however. “Oh, stuff. Talking to people I shouldn't, getting involved in things I shouldn't.”
Flapping his hand as if to brush me off, he mumbled, “Oh, Corinne, it's enough. Doesn't matter. It's done anyway. They want me to stop it. Just let me alone, okay?”
I knew Daniel well enough to realize I wouldn't get anything further from him for now, so I trudged upstairs. But my parents went into the living room to confront him yet again. “Come into the office so we can talk,” I heard Mom say.
“And use your car next time!” Dad yelled before the door shut behind them.