Unchanged, page 1
Copyright © 2012 by Heather Crews
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the author
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
To Stacey, for reading
He was born in the forest, from a shifting of wind and leaves. An indistinct but solid form, he was made with a detailed knowledge of his environment, a knowledge that grew every day he spent in existence. His name came to him from a whispering among the trees. He knew his place in the world and how to stay alive. He did not possess much self-awareness, only a sense of self-preservation.
Ahaziel did not feel guilt over the people he lured and pushed into the river. He inhaled their souls because doing so was his role in nature.
"You have begun to take on a human aspect," Merko told him one day. Merko was from the water, a being who pulled his victims into the ocean. He enjoyed the drowning in way that went beyond survival. A salty haze clung to him wherever he went. "That means you are taking plenty of souls. Soon you will look fully human, as I do. That will make you all the more dangerous."
"I do not take particular pleasure from stealing lives," Ahaziel said.
"One day you will. It is inevitable." Merko smiled fondly and pointed at a group of humans fishing off rocks. "Do you not adore them? Do you not thrill at how fragile they are, how unwittingly they put themselves at our mercy?"
"I do not find interest in their vulnerability. Have you ever considered they may seek us out one day? If we anger them, they may try to kill us."
Merko laughed, delighting in his role as mentor. "They can try, Ahaziel, but humans cannot kill us. Nor can we kill each other. We are here, sure as the earth and sky. We may look human, but we do not have a place among them, nor they with us."
"It seems unfortunate."
"Do not fool yourself into thinking humans matter. They will die and be reborn, but you and I and others like us will live and live. We will never leave. We will never change."
As Ahaziel watched the fishing humans with curious detachment, he thought that was the saddest thing he had ever heard.
Here. At last. Again.
He exhaled years. His limbs creaked.
She was here, as he had known she would be. As he had dreamed. She didn't know he was coming. She didn't remember, but he did. Always.
As much as he sometimes wanted to, how could he forget her?
A Mysterious Stranger
It was my eighteenth birthday. There would be no party and no presents, not that I was expecting either one. I hadn't had a birthday party since elementary school. They'd never been a big deal to my family, probably because we could never afford to make a big deal of anything.
"Happy birthday, Lilly," my mom said, touching my cheek, before she left for work that morning. I stood before the barren cabinets, craving a bagel and cream cheese.
"Oh, yeah. Happy birthday," Brandt, my brother, echoed through a mouthful of oatmeal.
"Thanks," I replied, trying to sound appropriately cheerful.
I grudgingly helped myself to an oatmeal packet and mused about the day ahead of me. I was officially an adult now, allowed to do whatever I wanted. And what I wanted that day was not to go to school. I never did, not really, but now I was officially eighteen. Technically I didn't have to go. I'd never ditched before, but Brandt had done so numerous times with Chris, trusting me to keep his secret from our mom. I'd always been too afraid to miss class but now my fear of consequences seemed ridiculous. My grades were terrible and I was a senior. What harm could one day do?
Brandt rinsed his bowl out and tossed the keys to his Oldsmobile in the air. "Ready?"
"I'm still eating," I said, annoyed. I gestured with my bowl.
"Why are you so eager to get to school, anyway?" I asked, glancing at the clock. He was always rushing me.
"Good parking spot?"
"Yeah, right." I rolled my eyes. I knew Brandt liked to hang out with Chris before the bell for first period rang. They had started going out a couple weeks earlier. Now Chris had no time for me and I often found myself outside the conversation as we lingered in the parking lot before school. Unfortunately, I didn't have any other friends I talked to outside of classes, so I was stuck with them.
Finishing the rest of my breakfast, I quickly rinsed the bowl and dashed into my room for my backpack. I grabbed it, tossed anything school-related onto the floor, and filled it with a small sketchpad and drawing implements. I definitely wasn't going to classes, but I'd be productive with my stolen time.
I met my brother outside and we started off to school. Brandt drove the 1991 Oldsmobile Eighty-eight Royale as if it were the coolest car in the world and not some brown clunker. I didn't mind it, mainly because my interest in cars was about zero. Besides, it wasn't as if a nice car would make people like me more. Brandt was already popular, so well liked that I wouldn't have been surprised if everyone at school wanted to buy an Oldsmobile.
Trying not to let Brandt notice, I leaned over until I could see my reflection in the side mirror. I held the hair off the left side of my face. My birthmark was blotchy and red, like a berry stain on my otherwise pale skin. It stood out so vividly I knew it was the only thing people noticed when they looked at me. Looking at it in the side mirror, through the car window, it didn't seem as obvious as it did in a regular mirror, but my fingers still traveled to the blotch, seeking a difference from the rest of my skin. There was none, save the color.
"Lilly," Brandt said. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." I let my dark golden waves fall back into place. My hair didn't completely cover my birthmark, but it helped. Well, it made me feel better anyway. Even though everyone who'd known me since I was little knew about my birthmark. I'd only recently changed my hairstyle attempting to hide it.
"You look fine," my brother grumbled. He didn't like me obsessing about my birthmark and was quick to stand up for me if anyone ever commented on it.
We pulled into the school parking lot with a good half hour to kill before first period. Chris, who had been waiting for us—for Brandt—on the benches beneath the black oak trees, pranced over to us with a smile lighting up her dark eyes. Her long, straight black hair swung rhythmically with each perky step.
"Hi, Brandt!" she exclaimed. It was like she hadn't seen him in days. After bestowing my brother with a kiss, she turned to me, still exuberant. "Lilly! It's your birthday! You're eighteen!"
"Yep." I was secretly glad she'd remembered even though I was pretty sure no one else would mention it for the rest of the day.
"Well, we'll have to do something to celebrate. A party! Austin's parents are going out of town soon."
"As usual," Brandt quipped.
"That would be awesome," I agreed, unable to quite match Chris's cheerful tone. Sometimes I found her sunny disposition a little draining, which made me wonder how we'd managed to be best friends since seventh grade. She hadn't changed, but maybe I had. Or maybe the reason she annoyed me sometimes was because now it was Brandt she wanted to see, not me.
Leaning against the Oldsmobile, I prayed for the bell. Brandt and Chris gazed dopily into each other's eyes. I was used to people ignoring me, but day after day of having to endure this was getting old. I scanned the parking lot disinterestedly, tensing up when I noticed a dark blue BMW pull into its usual spot near the front. I watched Austin get out and looked away when he began to walk toward us instead of the rowdy group of his sports-playing friends. I tried to look casu
He nodded a greeting at Brandt and Chris before coming to stand in front of me. "Hey, Lilly."
"Um, hi." I reminded myself he was different from the other jocks at our school, which I knew because he hung out with Brandt so much. I told myself he wouldn't make fun of my birthmark or the worn spots on the knees of my jeans. None of that made me like him any better, though.
Austin cleared his throat and looked down at the asphalt, scuffing his foot against some loose gravel. As if I made him nervous. "Listen," he mumbled, "I was wondering if you wanted to go to the Winter Ball with me?"
"What?" I wasn't sure I'd heard him right.
"The Winter Ball," he repeated. He couldn't seem to look me in the face. "Friday night."
I couldn't believe Austin was asking me to the dance. Nobody ever asked me to a dance, especially not a guy who could have gone with any girl in school. For a moment my pulse spiked with excitement. Then I grew uneasy again. I didn't want to go to the dance with Austin, but it wasn't his fault I didn't like him—he'd never done anything to me.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Brandt and Chris watching, he with a raised eyebrow and she with a gigantic grin of glee.
"Sure . . . ," I said, staring at my feet and trying not to seem too reluctant.
"Great. Well, I gotta go," Austin said, rubbing a hand over his thatch of dark hair. He shot me a brief glance and a shy smile before heading over to his teammates. I immediately began having second thoughts. It had been a sort of last minute invitation and I wondered if any girls had turned him down before he'd gotten to me. I pictured everyone in school gossiping about the unlikely coupling and I blanched. What had I gotten myself into?
"What was that all about?" Chris asked teasingly, her cheeks rosy, dark eyes glittering.
"Austin was just asking me to the dance," I replied as casually as I could.
"Good!" she cried, beaming at Brandt. "The four of us can go together."
And it will be the first time we've hung out in months, I thought, surprising myself with my bitterness. But it hurt, knowing I was now her second choice.
The bell rang to signal first period and all the students loitering in the parking lot began to head to class. I waved to Chris and Brandt as they set off for Modern Lit, while I pretended to go to P.E. I didn't want anyone knowing where I was really going, or why.
Once I passed the gym I crossed the soccer field to an opening in the chain link fence. I slipped through it, on my way to freedom. The more steps I took away from the school, the lighter I felt. I wouldn't think about Austin or Chris or anything else that made me feel less than happy. I'd forget bitterness and low self-esteem for at least a little while.
The day was sunny but cold and a breeze blew against my face with a familiar salty tang. I kept my head down as I walked north through town, hoping no one would recognize me. Victoria, Oregon was small enough that someone might mention to my mom they had seen me wandering around on a school day. My mom was fairly lenient with me and my brother, but I doubted she'd overlook something like this.
I passed through slim alleys piled with crates and strung overhead with power wires. I ducked behind weathered buildings and darted along the backyards of rows of peeling-paint houses. When I reached the edge of town I stopped and contemplated the forest before me. To my right was a hiking trail and picnic area. Those weren't likely to have too many people traipsing about in the early days of December, but it was still possible I might run into a jogger. To my left was untrod forest, pure and isolated.
It was solitude I wanted, so I went left.
Navigating the dead undergrowth and trying to avoid bare branches snapping me in the face, I felt surprisingly good. Happy, even, which was something I hadn't felt in a while. However, my good mood vanished as quickly as the sun slipped behind the clouds. Guilt and worry gnawed at me. Maybe it was a bad idea to have skipped school. The year was nearly over and what did I have going for me? I had no college plans and no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I would probably flounder in Victoria, never getting to see any of the world, while everyone I knew went off to pursue their dreams. I didn't even know what my dreams were. I wanted time to stop so I would never have to decide. I felt lost.
I shook my head. I could ignore my lack of a promising future, if only for a day, if only to give my mind a short break from worry.
I had walked so far into the forest I couldn't see the town or ocean, though I could hear the latter if I strained my ears above the wind whispering among the trees. Total solitude. I smiled, pleased with myself, and searched for a log on which to sit. It was easy enough to find a fallen tree and I made myself comfortable on it.
Slipping my backpack off my shoulders, I unzipped it and pulled out my sketchpad. Next I retrieved my drawing pens. I pulled my hair into a ponytail to keep it out of the way and gazed around, trying to decide which tree I wanted to draw. I rubbed my right upper arm, which often ached in damp weather, as I surveyed my surroundings.
Drawing was one of my few real interests. I had no training beyond Drawing I at school and didn't think I was that good at it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. While drawing, I could forget about my life and think about nothing but lines. I had books filled with my sketches of trees and the peaks of roofs. The tree I chose that day was thick and old, the branches twisting up to the sky. Something complicated for the empty day looming ahead of me. The lines of the bark would keep me occupied for hours.
I lost myself in the drawing, unaware of time passing. The ache of my arm faded into the background as I concentrated on the forming picture. The non-silence of nature was deep and comforting. I could hear the occasional animal scamper by, unseen, and sometimes a twig or dry leaf fluttering to the undergrowth, shaken free by the breeze. The forest smelled damp and earthy. It was the scent of decomposing leaves, but it wasn't unpleasant. I decided I would have to do this more often. Maybe I would go on weekends when everyone else was sleeping in. But then I would have to get up early. I didn't like getting up early.
The sudden sound of a twig cracking, the loudest sound I'd heard in hours, startled me and my head snapped up. A flash of black caught my eye among the trees. My first thought was that I had spotted a bear, but thankfully it was only a man. Probably a hiker who'd gone off the trails. He stepped out from between the trees, walking toward me. I closed my sketchbook and eyed him warily. I hoped he only wanted directions.
He stopped a few feet from me. He was dressed all in black and looked a few years older than me, maybe in his early twenties. Glossy black hair reached to his shoulders and his skin had a natural tan. He had a prominent, slightly aquiline nose which would have seemed out of place on a weaker face, but his face was strong, full of character, the muscles sharp and the angles definite. I could see the hollows beneath his high, flat cheekbones and the strong muscles of his jaw. His full, terse lips and heavy eyes were only somewhat softened by gentle curves.
My breath caught as I stared at him. He was, I realized, rather beautiful. Unconventionally so. And I had seen him before. Somewhere in this very forest. We had spoken, we had held hands. We . . .
What was I thinking? No, I hadn't seen him before. I had no idea who he was. Did I? I felt anxious. My hand itched to free my hair from its ponytail so I could use it to hide the red birthmark, but I settled for turning slightly away from him.
"Hello," I said nervously. "Are you lost?"
"No," he said.
I could feel myself blushing, for some reason, which surely made my birthmark look even worse. I looked down at the book in my hands, trying to hide my face even more. "Do you, um, live around here then?"
I cleared my throat and tried to feign confidence, though it was still difficult to look directly at him. I wasn't sure why I was trying to be friendly when what I really should have been doing was leaving. Surely this was how all kidnappings and disappearances began. "Who are you?" I asked in spite of myself.
Ahaziel—such an unusual name. An angel's name. Ahaziel. I imagined how, later, I would say it while alone in my room, savoring the sound like a sigh. I wanted to talk to him forever. I wanted words, any words, to pour from his lips and swirl around me.
"I'm Lilly," I told him, trying not to let him know how strongly his presence affected me. Trying not to let him see how freaked out I was that I'd just told him my name. What an idiot move.
He was silent and I chanced a glance up at him. Our eyes met and locked. He stole my breath.
After a moment I tore my gaze away and came to my feet. I felt shaky and disoriented. "It's going to rain," I said, fidgeting with my things. "I should probably get going."
Putting my book and pens back into my bag, I felt the first drops hit my face. A moment later the water was roaring down, soaking everything.
"Damn," I muttered.
I looked once over my shoulder at Ahaziel and saw he hadn't moved. The rain poured down on him and he just stood there, watching my retreat. The steadiness of his gaze sent shivers through my body.
"I've got to go," I said, flustered and in a hurry to get out of there despite feeling compelled to stay. "Um, it was nice meeting you."
I turned from him and started to walk away. After a few steps my foot slid away from me on a patch of slick leaves, throwing me completely off balance. I landed on my back, my near-empty backpack doing nothing to cushion my fall. I found myself staring up at bare tree branches tangling over the clouded sky. I was breathless and blinking against an assault of raindrops.
In an instant Ahaziel was at my side. "Are you hurt?" he asked, his dark-lashed eyes urgently searching my own.
I moved parts of my body experimentally and found nothing hurt, aside from my right ankle. I couldn't tell whether it was broken or not, but it didn't feel good. With dread I thought of waiting on the wet forest floor for an ambulance or, worse, limping the watery miles back to town while my ankle swelled and throbbed with pain. I felt tears of frustration gather behind my eyes.