I opened my eyes and found myself in a dark room. In a strange bed. My head throbbed. I tried to lift my arms, to rub my face but my limbs were so heavy, I could barely move them. A sour residue thickened the inside of my mouth. Where was I? What had happened? Images pulsed through my mind: Faces. Laughter. Shadows.
How did I get here?
It took all my strength to lift my head so I could look around. Black corners. A shadowy door. A draped window.
I still wore the jeans and long sleeved red tee shirt I'd put on before the party, but the cool air on my shoulder drew my fuzzy gaze to a jagged tear in the fabric, leaving me exposed.
On a groan, my head fell back against the pillow. Something was wrong. I was smashed, yet I hadn't had anything to drink. What happened? Where am I? Panic rolled through my system. I drew in a deep breath, determined to rise up to my elbows so I could make out this place, but the act was like lifting a cement slab.
That's when I saw him.
Like the sun raging behind a storm.
He sat in the chair like a warrior after battle. His long legs extended arms out to his sides, palms up-as if battle had drained him. But that was impossible. The source from which his energy flowed was Eternal. The comfort I was accustomed to when he was in my presence was out of my reach, dancing around him in a soft glow. The only light in the room emanated from his being, beneath the soft ivory of his clothes. He didn't say anything. His clear blue eyes were fierce. Locked with mine. A shiver trickled through my limbs. Tension drew the sharp angle of his jaw into a knot.
His gaze held mine in piercing intensity, cutting my soul open as if he would dissect right then and there if I was innocent or guilty of the night's activities. I opened my mouth to defend myself, not sure what retribution I would face but my throat locked. Had I put us in danger? Would the heavens thrash and roar? Would he leave me? The thought filled me with a dread so black, my arms trembled. I nearly crumpled into the mattress.
"What happened?" I rasped out.
His lock on my gaze held me captive, a blinkless stare I couldn't escape. Memories of the night dripped with a slow leak into my conscience and shame forced me to close my eyes.
Why did you go inside, Zoe?
I heard his question as clearly as if he'd spoken to me. But he hadn't. We could read each others thoughts, that was the beauty, the miracle of our relationship.
I was angry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have. It was wrong. I'm sorry.
Silence. Thick. Hot. Sticky.
Look at me.
I can't. Tears rushed behind my eyes and burst through my closed lashes. He'd saved me tonight. Whatever had happened had been treacherous, the magnitude something I could only measure by the intensity in his countenance - like the sun tearing through black clouds, claiming possession of the sky.
My fingers tapped out a reply text message to my best friend Britt on my pink cell phone: what's up?
nothin yawn. i'm bored. where r u?
ooo, so sorry
yeah… I looked up to check on my little sister. The swing where she'd been sitting was empty, and lulled to a stop.
My heart started to pound.
I looked right - left.
I jumped from the bench, breath frozen in my chest and whirled, scanning the skeletal park to see where she was.
I ran to the bulky cedar climbing gym and peered into the round holes that were supposed to be windows. "Abria?"
"Abria!" The second scream from my throat left my arms and legs trembling. I ducked low, looked underneath the slide, then I ran around to the other side of the wooden mass.
The play area was empty.
Panic rushed up my throat, clutching it in a tight fist. I stood in the sand, my gaze scanning the outer reaches of the park for her small form. Spread out east was an empty baseball diamond. To the west: grass and sleeping aspens, spindly from winter's breath. Overhead, furious black clouds collided with dark gray vapors, filling the air with rumbling thunder. Rain was coming. A covered pavilion with tables and benches was behind me. It, too, was empty except for a discarded white paper plate that drifted from one table to the next, carried on the light breeze.
I couldn't swallow the knot in my throat. And I couldn't stop shaking. A feeling of heaviness, one that I was well familiar with, settled over my shoulders like I'd been buried alive.
Abria had disappeared before. But you never got used to a five year old vanishing into thin air. She had autism. My parents, younger brother and and I often wished we had eyes in the backs of our heads.
Today was my day to watch her.
My pounding heart sunk to my feet as I scanned the park but still saw nothing. I wanted to run, but my legs were lead. The vast park stretched out in front of me, bare trees trembling, green grass turning gold. No one else was here. It was too cold to be at a park, the fumbling gray clouds overhead looked ready to break. Rain would come next.
So why had I brought her?
Visions of my little sister running without care down the middle of a road, wandering into someone's backyard or getting lost in the thick forest covering the nearby mountains clogged my head.
Finally, I moved. Please, God, wherever she is, keep her safe. I started in the direction of the pavilion to make sure she wasn't behind the building, though I was certain she wasn't. When she ran, she was like a feather in the wind. She didn't stop, and she had no direction.
My tennis shoes squeaked on the cement floor of the vacant pavilion. "Abria?" Her name echoed then disappeared. Another rush of tears veiled my vision.
I shouldn't have taken my eyes off her. I knew better. I should have stayed home, kept her inside. I could have sat her down in front of the TV and put on a DVD…that was the easy way, and I'd done it too many times to count. Taken the easy way because it meant I could do whatever I wanted: talk on the phone, get online, hang with friends while she sat stupefied in front of something brainless.
Bringing her to the park may have sounded like a selfless act on my part, but it wasn't, and that was why the guilt weighed so heavily, suffocating me now.
"Park." Was one of a handful of words Abria knew. She chirped it like a baby bird.
"Take her, Zoë," Mom told me not less than an hour ago.
I was alone in Dad's study, surrounded by books. I was warm, sipping raspberry tea while I played on MySpace, connecting. Searching. Babysitting was the last thing I wanted to do.
"I'll give you ten bucks if you'll take her to the park for an hour," Mom finally sighed.
So here I was.
The bill was in the front pocket of my jeans.
A bitter wind bit my cheeks and I drew my yellow hoodie closer around me. I should have brought a coat, but I hadn't planned on staying long. I'd planned on ten minutes at the park, fifty-five minutes driving in my car with the music blasting.
Driving was the second easiest thing to do to anesthetize Abria.
"Where are you?" I screamed, even though I knew she'd never answer. She wouldn't respond by poking her head out from a hiding place like a normal kid.
Frustration took over. If she was like any other kid, this wouldn't be happening. She'd answer me. She'd play with me. She'd be a real sister and not like some alien from another planet who I couldn't talk with, didn't understand, loved half the time, resented the other half of the time because my life hadn't been my own since she'd been born.
Even with all of our differences, I'd always felt an unusual connection with Abria. Maybe because I'd been a second mother to her, felt the depth of my parent's concern for her life, happiness and safety as if she was a part of me.
I stood still, closed my eyes and listened, hoping I'd hear her light giggle on the breeze. Hoping somehow, I'd know where she was. If she was safe. Straining drained every muscle and thought from my mind. Abria, where are you?
Wind whispered through empty branches-a hissing of condemnation and guilt.
I circled back around the side of the pavilion just as the clouds crackled and boomed. I had to call Mom and tell her, but I was avoiding it.
I came around the corner of the brick wall and stopped. There, standing before me was a young man. He had Abria by the hand. The pounding in my chest notched up. I'd been absolutely positive we were alone in the park.
Where had this guy come from?
He had the most piercing blue eyes. They locked on mine, unwavering. "Hello." His voice was deep and calm, like warm water pouring.
"Uh, hi." Frightened that he meant to take her, I stepped forward and scooped Abria into my arms, then stepped back. "Here you are." I quickly checked her from head to toe, making sure she was all right. Had he touched her? Hurt her? I'd never know, she couldn't tell me, her voice locked inside of her somewhere.
Knowing that she and I were alone with this stranger caused my nerves to crimp. My heart banged harder and the nervousness I felt crept up my throat and practically strangled me. "You found her. Thanks," I muttered.
He smiled then, and it was as though a stream of sunlight surrounded us, raising the cool winter air to a comfortable temperature. His crystal blue eyes were sharp, yet as calming as peering into the creek that ran behind our house, the soft sounds of which often calmed me when I could take no more.
"She was running," he said.
"Yeah, she does that." I shivered in spite of the warmth surrounding me. I wondered how he could be out in the biting cold in an outfit that looked like he'd just stepped off the beach: ivory slacks and a white shirt out of the same silky material. But his skin wasn't tan like he'd been at the beach, rather more pale than mine and unblemished as freshly fallen snow.
"Not at all."
"How did you find her? I mean, I didn't see you." What if he was a predator and had been hiding, watching us, waiting for an opportunity.
"I saw her running."
I stepped back again, even though I knew I couldn't outrun him. He was lean under those caressing clothes, and he wasn't that much older than me. He'd have us both in a second. And then he'd let Abria go while he did whatever he'd come to do. More thoughts of her being lost and defenseless swarmed through my head and I squeezed her against me.
"Well, thanks again," I said, slowly moving away. Abria hated being held, and she squirmed and grunted on my hip. Her weight strained my arms and I felt her slowly slip from my grasp.
He didn't move, just stood with a pleasant smile. But I wouldn't be fooled. How many times had I seen faces just like his on the news? Well, maybe not just like his. He was better looking than the average psychos. I almost gave into the calmness that tried to spread into me whenever I looked into his eyes.
"Goodbye, Abria." He gave her a small wave but she didn't even notice, too busy trying to wriggle from my arms.
"How do you know her name?" I asked.
Confusion flashed on his face. "I heard you calling her."
"Oh. Right. Thanks again. She doesn't know any better. She has autism."
He seemed to ponder my words, his expression thoughtful. He didn't say anything, but his gaze stayed on Abria in a kind, sympathetic way. Most teenagers I explained Abria's handicap to eyed her with fascination and pity, along with a good measure of horror. He must be older than he looks, I thought, because there was none of the awkward discomfort so many of my peers expressed when they saw my sister.
At last Abria wiggled to freedom, but I snatched her wrist. "No, you're not going anywhere."
She let out a high-pitched howl. I cringed. Surely the stranger would be aghast now. His face remained calm, collected, and what surprised me the most was the compassion I saw color his eyes a deeper shade of blue. I was so transfixed by the shades changing in his gaze, I stood still, staring.
Abria grunted and writhed against my hold. She wanted to run again because that's what she did in wide open spaces like this. One fierce yank brought me out of my daze, and I jerked her against me, flushing with embarrassment and fury that as he stood so composed, I was struggling not to blow a gasket, whack her butt, and haul her to the car.
"Stop it." I jerked her again. "I'd better go. Thanks again," I said.
She howled and tried to bite me. I started off in the direction of the car, hating that she was behaving like a wild animal. Her tantrums always left me feeling exposed- naked-as if all the anger and resentment I carried inside for her could be seen by a judging audience who would laugh at me and say, 'Poor you, look what you're stuck with!'
"Come on." I urged her alongside of me, not caring what he thought or how crazed and furious I looked. She'd stolen my pleasant afternoon.
Part of me always relished scolding her in public. Like I could stand with the rest of the world and laugh at her, too. Feel sorry for her. Distance myself from her.
Pleasure lasted only seconds. Inevitably, shame trickled in. Her innocent expression was caught in an oblivion no one, not even I could understand. And I couldn't rescue her from that foreign place either. Like everyone else, I stood helplessly outside.
What would the stranger think of my juvenile display? Surely there would be sympathy on his face, understanding that my plate was full and I couldn't take another second of this challenge. When my frustration at last ebbed away and was replaced by curiosity, I chanced a look over my shoulder.
He was gone.
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