|-Prologue Part 2-
The next morning, I shoved my way though the packed hallways until I came to my locker. I noticed the note right away, taped next to my blue and white lock, it was in plain view of any curious passer-by. The words scrawled on the crumpled piece of ripped binder paper read,
Meet us behind the school at 4:00 P.M. TODAY.
It didn't say who it was from, but it didn't need to. ". . . behind the school . . ." seemed enough of an indication, and I considered the capitalized, "TODAY," a threat.
I found it hard to pay attention to much of anything for the rest of the day. Fear consumed my thoughts. Maybe they would just thank me, and I could be on my way. Somehow, that seemed highly unlikely. I didn't feel well enough to eat lunch, and frequently caught myself staring off into space when I was supposed to be listening to someone. Nervous spasms literally shook my body by the time four o'clock rolled around. I shook my head to clear it, and headed toward the back door.
Behind the school, a small alley lurked in the shadows, and to my surprise, I noticed the glow of a small fire coming from my right. It reared up towards the already darkening sky like a wild beast trying to escape its imprisonment. I hesitated a second before I began to approach. I could see Mickey and at least seven others gathered around the flames. Crystal, Hot Shot, Olive, and Rocky occupied the ring of space directly around the flames, but there were others as well standing further from the light cast by the fire. Lit from the underside, all their faces had a ghostly hue and that gave the whole scene an unnatural vibe. Closer now, I noticed Wolf sitting in the shadows, staring, unblinking into the fire. Mickey just saw me; no turning back now.
"Ah . . . Queen! How nice of you to come!" He sneered.
"I'd prefer if you don't call me that." Just like before, he ignored me.
"Queen, meet Sparky. He started this glorious fire for us." He gestured toward a boy much younger than myself, maybe fourteen years old, with tufts of unruly red hair. The boy directed his eyes at the ground by his feet, and didn't dare to look at anybody. Clearly, he didn't want to be here.
". . . Storm . . ." Mickey continued as his hand moved to indicate a tall man who resembled Rocky. This must be the jerk's older brother. He slouched against the back wall of the school with his hands in his pockets.
". . . and, the man himself, Wild Card." It sounded like Mickey just introduced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but when I looked at the man being introduced, I could see nothing remarkable at all. His hunched form stood away from the fire so that I could hardly see his face. He had the hood of his long trench coat pulled close around his head so the flickering glow of the fire only illuminated the shape of his nose and bottom lip. He looked much older than the rest of them, definitely out of school, and I wondered if this cult stretched all around the city. Mickey and the rest of them could just be the newest members.
"Your help is much appreciated," came a throaty voice from under the hood. The words seemed to come from deep within his chest, like those of a native German speaker, or the harsh growl synonymous with a heavy smoker and drug addict. Not someone I wanted to be within ten feet of, let alone, ten inches. A pale, calloused hand protruded from within the trench, and offered itself to me. Nervously, I extended my own to shake his, but didn't get that far. With a movement faster than I thought this man capable of, he snatched my wrist, and dragged me closer to him. ". . . and we intend to repay the favor," he hissed in my ear. His unwanted embrace brought me that much closer to his horrendous scent: an awful combination on cigarette smoke, and rotten eggs.
Before I knew what was happening, my other arm was twisted behind my back by the suddenly active Storm, and held in his firm grasp. I flexed all my muscles, but these two men had a firm grip on me. I lashed out with my feet, and landed a solid kick on something fleshy. I raised my knees to kick again when Storm bent my arm so far behind my back, that I thought he would dislocate my shoulder. My numb fingers brushed the base of my neck, and I opened my mouth in my last line of defense. My yell was choked off by Storm's other hand. Utterly defenseless, I watched as Wolf rose from his squatting position in the shadows, and strode towards me with his knife, glowing orange from resting in the flames.
Then I realized the unspeakable truth. Every single person, besides me of course, bore identical burn marks on their right wrists. Wild Card's and Storm's were old, nothing more than white patches of dead skin, but the high-schooler's marks were more profound. Darker and slightly raised, they stood out easily against their skin. Even Sparky's wrist featured one; the newest looking by far - still swollen and red. All of them branded, all part of the same crew, and I suddenly knew what Wild Card meant when he said, ". . . and we intent to repay the favor."
Wild Card wrenched my right arm out with the tender underside of it facing up, toward the approaching Wolf and his glowing weapon. Wolf's knife was bearing down on my exposed wrist, and I made one last feeble attempt to escape. When that failed, I squeezed my eyes shut tight and clamped my jaw until the muscles in my neck jumped. An instant later, I felt the searing pain of the flat side of the knife on my skin. I heard the flesh under the blade sizzling, and I couldn't seem to get enough air through my flared nostrils. Storm's hand came off my mouth, but I resisted the urge to scream, not wanting to give them that satisfaction. Finally, they released me, and I doubled over, then fell to my knees, clutching my arm to my chest.
The cement beneath my knees suddenly felt inviting, and I seriously thought about lying down, but a boot rudely prodded me in the ribs, breaking up my previous thoughts. My eyes brimmed with salty tears, so when I looked up at Mickey, who was standing over me, I could barely see him though my cloudy vision.
"Now Queen, you won't tell anybody about any of this, will you." I felt my head shake back and forth. I sulked as the gangsters stomped out the fire, leaving only a pile of charred wood. Then, each of them sauntered off in a different direction, letting the shadows swallow them up, leaving me kneeling in the deserted alley.
I arrived home just after 5:00 o'clock. Thankfully, my mom worked late and my dad happened to be on a business trip for a few days, so there was no one in the house. The walk home had been an unpleasant one. I took the same route as usual, but kept my head down and my right wrist tucked under my left armpit. Several times I almost walked headlong into other people on the sidewalk. I dodged around the tired citizens heading back home from work, and hurried away from the insults aimed at my receding figure.
Back in my house, I rinsed the burn in cool water from the faucet. I bit my lip against the pain when the water, meant to sooth my wrist, seemed to burn it even more. I put some disinfectant on it then wrapped it loosely in gauze just as my mother was arriving home.
She was an attractive woman with dirty blond hair like mine. Her flats tapped across the linoleum as she passed where I stood, without even looking at me. Her eyes were a light brown while mine were the color of my dad's eyes: blue. Dark bags that looked like bruises sagged under her eyes caused by her stressful job as an ER nurse. Always exhausted in the evenings, she didn't much care when I told her that I had burned my wrist on the hot plate in science that day. 'Some nurse . . . ,' I thought to myself. She simply nodded, got herself a bowl of cereal, and retreated to her room. Dad being the cook in the family, we hadn't eaten very well since he has been gone. I didn't mind that he was gone though, especially today. He is the kind of father who needed to know everything, and he wouldn't have given me a break until I told him everything that happened.
I spent most of Saturday in my room sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the blisters that formed on my wrist, and listening to the drone of the TV from downstairs. Looking around my room, I realized it had turned into a pig-sty in the past month. The royal blue comforter from my bed lay heaped on the floor, covering the scattered textbooks. Piled on my once immaculate desk were mounds of college application essays along with an obscene amount of study sheets for the upcoming semester finals. The closet doors could no longer close due to the avalanche of dirty clothes. I really ought to launder those, I thought to myself when, from beneath the mountain, I heard the faint ringing of my phone, calling out to me to save it from a terrible fate of being buried alive in a mound of reeking cloth. I jumped up and proceeded to fling shirts and jeans across the room, searching frantically.
"Hold on! I'm coming!" I yelled, as if whoever was on the other end of the line could hear me.
Finally! I flipped it open on the last ring, and panting, held it to my ear.
"Hi Ella, it's me."
"Oh, hey Ty. What's up?"
"I was just wondering what time you want me to pick you up?"
Crap. I completely forgot! The Senior Dance is tonight! Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely not into this sort of thing, but Ty said that since I hadn't gone to any of the previous years dances, that I couldn't stay home sick from this one. Panicking, I glanced around the room, and groaned inwardly.
"Yeah, I'm still here."
"So, how does 7:30 sound?" I glanced at my watch. 6:55.
"Yeah, That's good."
"Okay! See you soon!"
"Okay. Bye." I snapped the phone shut, and ran to the bathroom.
Like I said before, I'm not into all this party stuff, but Ty is, so I did my best. After a quick shower and a bit of mountain climbing to find a decent outfit, I stumbled downstairs, and sat at the bar counter in the kitchen. The digital clock on the stove flashed the time, 7:26. I was able to throw together a slightly party-like outfit consisting of a light green tank top under a cute black leather jacket with long enough sleeves to cover my wrists, a tight pair of jeans that I borrowed from my friend Rebecca about a month ago, and comfortable ballet slippers. My layered blond hair hung in curtains around my face, tickling my neck where a small necklace that Ty gave me dangled. The handmade pendant on the chain featured an eagle flying with it's wings spread wide. Eagles are often used as a symbol of a strong spirit and Ty evidently thought that mine was so strong that no one could control it. He often called me "free-willed" and "stubborn." A horn honked from the curb, and I glanced at the clock. 7:30 on the dot. He's always very punctual.
I trotted up to Ty's silver Dodge 4-door truck, and climbed into the passenger seat. The leather on the seat was just as soft as always, and the familiar scent of air freshener hung in the air. Ty's iPod was plugged into the radio, and the soft melodies of classical violin protruded from the speakers. It sounded like something one might listen to in a concert hall, and it felt quite out of place in the heavy muscle car. Growing up, his mother had forced him to take piano lessons and it wasn't until recently that he gave up the piano, and took up the violin instead. His way of rebelling, I guess. Ty must be the only boy in our school adamant about classical music, and ever since he got that expensive violin from his grandmother, he had been that much more obsessed. A few times in the last month he practically begged me to listen to him explain how much more he likes the violin than the piano. He always brought up the point that he could take his violin places where a piano could not go. Including, to my dismay, school. I personally liked music with a little fatter beat, but this being his car, I couldn't complain.
I studied Ty as we pulled away from my house. His dress was very formal; a pair of black slacks, black dress shoes, a white collared shirt open slightly at the neck, and a tie draped over his shoulders, but not yet tied. The tie sported an interesting pattern of miss-matched black and white blotches that somewhat resembled a Rorschach test. His hair glistened on his head, gelled straight up in a spiky mass like a porcupine, and his stunning green eyes remained fixed on the road ahead. Ty seemed to feel my eyes on him, and flicked his gaze from the road to me for just a second, giving me a glorious smile that showed his perfectly white teeth. I forced the edges of my lips up in a halfhearted grin, then turned my head, and looked out the window.
I knew that this was a special day for Ty, and I didn't want to ruin it for him, so I planned to stay quiet about last night. Of course, I don't like keeping secrets from Ty, and even as I thought about it, my wrist started to throb as if it was urging me to tell him. The world outside the window went by in a blur as my heart wrestled with my brain trying to decide what to do. Do I tell him, tell him not? Tell him, tell him not? My skin glistened with sweat even though the air conditioning was on, and by the time the truck jerked to a stop in front of the gym, furrows creased my brow, and the rest of my face twisted into a pained grimace. Ty said in a cheery manner that we were there, but I didn't move. I sat very still, gazing sullenly out the window.
"Ella . . . is something wrong?"
His tender words found a weak place in my heart, and nestled there. All the will power in the world couldn't have stopped me from telling him everything. I sank into his outstretched arms, and he gently held my wrist as I spilled my story. Mickey's words were ringing in my ears, "Now Queen, you won't tell anybody about any of this, will you? . . . Now Queen, you won't tell anybody . . . Now Queen . . ." I shut my eyes tight, and hoped against hope that Mickey didn't hold a grudge.
Want to read more? Look below and jump quickly to the chapter you want to read!