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Here are the first ten of 73 chapters. Enjoy!

1 The Illusion

Crowds make me nervous. If he turned around right now, I’d have nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. My heart beats like a jackhammer in my chest. I’m nervous but determined.

I’m walking not five feet behind him, my shoulders occasionally bumping up against all the men and women walking alongside us. Others fight their way against the surging tide of bodies, luggage, and briefcases.

The train station always gets especially crowded at this time of the afternoon. So many commuters press this way and that through the crowd, rushing to make their next connection.

As long as he keeps walking, I’m just another girl in the crowd. Red hair, green eyes, slender figure, and a curious smile on her soft lips, but otherwise unremarkable.

If he stopped and faced me right now, all that would change. I’d have nowhere to hide. He would pin me with those hazel eyes and see right through me. Right inside me. He would know who I am and why I’m following him.

I’ve been trailing this one for months. I’m determined not to let him get away. Not again. Not this time.

I push through the crowd and draw even nearer. So near I can smell him. So near I could touch him. I could take his hand, twist it just so, and force him to his knees in an instant. He would never see it coming. He would barely know what happened.

I reach for the handcuffs at my belt when he suddenly stops and I nearly crash right into him.

“Hey Bryan,” he says into a small crowd of men.

“Hey Ethan,” several men answer. Like Ethan, they are young with confident postures and strong, broad shoulders.

Snap! I think to myself while ducking around Ethan in the opposite direction and narrowly avoiding detection. Foiled again!

I got lucky this time. If I had taken him down in front of his cronies, I’d have been finished. I stood a chance against him alone, but not against half a dozen just like him.

After putting some distance between me and my target, I duck into a doorway and out of sight. I had failed in my quest again, but there was still tomorrow. There was always tomorrow.

I pulled the ear buds from my ears and the music vanished. Along with it, my daydream illusion faded and reality rushed in to take its place. Monday afternoon. Miss Kowallis’ classroom. Timpanogos High School. Fourth period English. My heartbeat slowed back to normal and I sat down at my desk near the window.

2 Home Sweet Home

Classes finally ended for the day and I headed to my locker, eager to get away from school and get home to relax for a bit before starting on my homework.

I put my ear buds in and the beat of music in my ears did its magic, transforming my average world into a thrilling movie scene.

I scan the crowd for my target. Ethan Clayton. I’ve studied his profile carefully and know full well what he’s capable of. A fatal blow to the heart with no hesitation and no remorse. I have to catch him. I have to take him out. I can’t let him get away.

I walk comfortably among the crowds of ordinary people as if I’m one of them. As if their lives don’t depend on me. I know I’m risking everything. I could get seriously hurt or killed, but that doesn’t deter me. I’m not afraid of the commitment I made when I took my oath. Besides, it’s the right thing to do, and nothing else matters.

Suddenly my ear buds were yanked from my ears. “Kayla!” Beth shouted despite the fact that she was walking right next to me. I cringed from the volume. “What are you, deaf?!” she continued.

“I am now!” I answered with a laugh. Beth was my best friend and locker buddy. We had just reached our locker and I turned to open it. “Sorry,” I apologized over my shoulder. “I had my music on.”

“Yeah, I noticed!” she said indignantly. “I swear, girl, it’s like you go into a whole different dimension when you put those in. Anyway, I wanted to tell you – I got an A on our French test!”

Beth drew her hands up to her chin and clenched them excitedly as she waited for my reaction.

“That’s fantastic!” I said. “Congratulations!”

“And it’s all because of you,” she added. “Thanks for helping me study. You’re so smart. I wish I was just like you.”

“Oh, yeah?” I asked, then pulled my test from the locker and showed her the B+ scrawled across it.

“Oh,” said Beth, her eyebrows drawing up and together in concern. “I’m so sorry! You deserve better!”

Despite Beth’s compassionate words, her blue eyes told the rest of the story. They danced and sparkled in the middle of her expression of concern. She’s excited that she did better than me, I observed, but I didn’t mind. I’m happy for her. She deserves to come out on top once in a while.

Beth continued chatting about class and friends and I don’t know what else as we walked to our cars. Once we stepped outside, I tuned her out. I wanted to focus on the blue, blue spring sky instead. We said goodbye and I got in my car to drive home.

I felt good, and for good reason. A long winter of short, cold, dark days had finally ended and days now grew longer, warm and comfortable, temperatures climbing into the 60s and 70s. I felt like the weather had imprisoned me for so long and it felt good to be released at last.

The snow covering Mount Timpanogos retreated slowly up the steep, jagged slopes that towered about our neighborhood. Cherry blossoms looked like sweet cotton candy as I drove down the street. Tiny leaves rolled out of bud in every direction. Lawns had turned a healthy shade of green and brilliantly colored tulips bobbed in the gentle breeze. Life felt good and the future bright.

Every splash of color provided a refreshing treat for my green eyes. Like licking a cold peppermint ice cream cone with the tip of my tongue. Like diving into a cool swimming pool on a hot August day.

I pulled into the driveway just as a school bus made its way slowly down the street. It stopped across the street and flashed its red stop lights as elementary school children climbed off and fanned out through the neighborhood.

An seven-year-old child wearing a heavy-looking backpack that seemed almost as large as him saw me and began to trot across the street toward me. Joey. My little brother.

“Hi, little punk,” I said, mussing his hair as he wrapped his tiny arms around my waist and gave me a strong hug. “How was school?”

“Good,” he said in a quiet, gentle voice as he looked up at me. I opened the front door and held it for him as he stepped inside.

I set my back pack on the kitchen counter and opened the cupboard to scan its contents for a snack. I finally settled on PB&J. I set the jars and bread on the counter and found Joey sitting on a stool across the counter with his expressionless face and wide-open eyes.

I wonder what he’s thinking, I wondered for the millionth time. I could never tell. He always seemed gentle and observant but never said much.

“Want one?” I asked. Joey nodded and the hint of a smile turned up the corners of his lips. I took extra care to spread the peanut butter and grape jelly evenly across the bread. I didn’t know if Joey cared about that, but that’s how I like it.

I set Joey’s sandwich on a tea plate and slid it across the counter top like a drink in a western saloon. “Here ya go, pardner,” I quipped in my best Texas drawl. Joey smiled again and looked grateful.

I made my own sandwich and carried it and my pack to the family room to flip through the channels for a minute and relax. After quickly cycling through the channels three times and finding nothing good on, I turned off the television and lay down on the couch with my eyes closed.

A moment later, I felt the unsettling sensation that I was being watched. I opened one eye half way and sure enough, Joey stood in the hallway watching me silently. I wonder what he’s thinking, I wondered for the million and first time.

I could hardly fall asleep with someone looking at me, so I sat up and opened my pack.

“Go do your homework, Joey,” I instructed. When he didn’t move, I asked, “You don’t have any?” He shook his head. “Then go read a book while I do mine.”

“Okay,” he said in the sweetest little voice – so gentle and calm and trusting and innocent. I wonder what he’s thinking, I wondered yet again.

Mom came home soon and I helped her carry in the groceries and put them away. “Thanks, sweetie,” she said as we finished up. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Probably collapse under the strain of vacuuming the stairs and cleaning the upstairs bathroom,” I said dramatically, mentioning my household chores for the week.

Dad came home just as we finished. “You didn’t save me any work?” he complained melodramatically. “I feel so useless when I don’t get to contribute!”

“And just what have you been doing all day long?” Mom pointed out.

“Playing,” Dad replied. “Same as always.”

Dad’s dry sense of humor and dumb jokes used to embarrass me around my friends. “Daaaad,” I would complain, “don’t!”

“Don’t what? Talk?”

“Yeah!” I would plead, knowing it would do no good.

“To stop talking, I’m afraid I’d have to stop breathing altogether,” he would explain. “Would you like me to stop breathing?”

I could never bring myself to say “Yes”, though the thought sometimes crossed my mind.

Eventually, I grew secure enough that I didn’t mind so much. My friends helped out by objecting to my embarrassment. “What do you mean?” Beth would ask. “Yeah,” Krissa would chime in. “Your dad’s cool!”

I didn’t understand why, but I learned to accept him and admit that I loved him, even if his sense of humor made me grimace more than laugh.

Mom started working on dinner and dad read the paper from cover to cover while Joey and I went out back to jump on the trampoline.

“We’ll never make it!” I shouted dramatically out of the blue, jumping as high as I could go. “The gravitational field is too strong! We’ll never break out of orbit!”

Joey giggled as he jumped as hard as he could, playing along with whatever imaginary game I was making up.

“Oh, no!” I screamed. “It’s too late! Go on! Get away! Save yourself!”

I stomped hard on the mat just as Joey landed, which sent him flying twice as high as normal. His arms and legs swam frantically through empty space as he tried to keep his “balance” mid air.

Fear contorted his face and I was struck by how rarely it showed any emotion at all. The contrast with his normally placid face made the fear seem even more intense.

I caught him in my arms as he began to drop and hugged him tightly against me for a moment to comfort him and erase any memory of fear.

“It’s the giant tickle monster!” I shouted then, and turned Joey into a squirming mass of giggling, flailing arms and legs as he struggled to escape.

Over dinner, Dad asked about school and Mom told us about her latest service project. We watched TV together for an hour, then Joey went to bed and I went to my room and read for an hour or two before turning off the light and drifting away into dreamland.

I tell you all this so you’ll know the way everything used to happen – or rather, the way things used to not happen – because this was the last time that things didn’t happen. Not interesting things. Not important things.

The events that spun my life around 180 degrees began to fall into place the very next day.

3 Kayla Porter

I should probably tell you a few things about myself. I may as well get it over with. I’ve been dying to tell someone, but I can’t. I can’t tell my parents. Or my friends. Or even strangers who might know someone who I know.

So I’ll tell you.

You’re safe. You don’t know me and we’ll probably never meet. Anyway, you probably won’t believe me, which is perfect. Don’t. Just listen and let me get this out. I’ll start with the basics.

My name is Kayla Porter. On the outside, I’m nothing special. No one you’d pick out from a crowd. I’m seventeen and just finished my junior year at THS. I’m smart enough but no genius. I’m 5’ 5” and slender but not a stick. I have dark red hair and emerald-green eyes.

I’ve always been shy, but that has begun to change recently. I don’t know why it too me so long.

I’ve always been a dreamer, and lately my dreams have become more vivid and important than ever before. Never give up on your dreams. They could save your life in more ways than one.

I live in a beautiful valley in the Rocky Mountains. Jagged and majestic peaks rise seven thousand feet above the valley’s streets and homes, and a seven-mile wide lake shatters the sunlight into a million shimmering diamonds before sunset.

My family goes to church on Sundays and attends family reunions every summer. I love them and they love me – more than I ever realized until…well, I’ll get to that.

Dad teaches junior high social studies. He’s structured, caring, and usually laughs at his own jokes. You’d probably like him. Or you’d think he’s a dork. Or both.

Whatever dreams he once had got traded in for Joey and me. Now he pays the bills and makes sure we do our homework. He wants us to be happy and secure. That’s enough for him, and that used to make me feel safe.

Mom keeps up the house and yard, likes to read, and often helps with the service projects her friends organize. She used to be beautiful. People noticed her. She’s still beautiful, but not like before. Nothing lasts forever.

Sometimes she burns dinner and then apologizes profusely. I want to tell her not to worry. I want to tell her that I love her and don’t care about the burnt food.

All things considered, they’re happy and content to live out their middle-class lives. Why shouldn’t they be? Compared to most of the other seven billion people on earth, we’re rich. Wealthy. Loaded! We have a warm home, reliable electricity, clean running water, cupboards full of food, two televisions, three cars, a trampoline, and a cat.

So don’t misunderstand when I say I want more. I’m not ungrateful, and I’m not complaining. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being average and fitting in with the crowd.

I just can’t help it. There’s something deep down inside myself and it wants to get out. It’s bigger than nine-to-five. Bigger than my hometown. Bigger than the limited roles my culture offers.

Whatever it is, it’s brilliant and exciting and full of vibrant color. It’s important. It’s something I want to do, or say, or be. Sometimes it makes me nervous. Someday, I’m going to figure out exactly what it’s made of. Someday, I’m going to discover who I really am.

Then, someday, I’m going to die. Unless…never mind. I can’t jump straight to the end of the story or it won’t make any sense.

Maybe you think you know how life works. Believe me, you don’t. Maybe you think you know what will happen to you tomorrow, next year, and the decade after that.

I did. I thought I knew. I was wrong.

Here’s what I thought would happen: I would finish school, start college, fall in love with a handsome young man with bright eyes and nice arms, marry, raise brilliant, talented children, chance upon my fifteen minutes of fame by appearing on television for some charity work or saving a stranger’s life from choking in a restaurant, endure a few romantically melancholy days, then enjoy happiness ranging from gentle and calm contentment to rapturous and tearful joy all the others. In between all that, I would discover the secret to contentment, the wisdom to understand why all this makes life perfectly satisfactory.

Now the thought of such simplicity makes me laugh out loud.

But if not for a surprising series of events during my junior year at Timpanogos High School, I may have continued with those naive expectations for the rest of my life.

Maybe that’s why I used to daydream so much. To escape the beautiful but mundane reality of day to day living. Every morning, afternoon, evening and night passed just like every other. Nothing ever changed, at least not quickly enough to notice and make life truly interesting.

Until I woke up in class one Wednesday afternoon. Everything began to change then, and I haven’t had a boring moment since, for better or worse.

That’s how life works. It takes you by surprise. You can never really prepare.

I’ll show you. I’ll tell you what led up to that moment and all the breathtaking experiences that have followed since, though it’s far from over.

Life is not what you think. Anything can happen. You don’t know what will happen until it already has. By the way, you know what they say about what you don’t know? That it can’t hurt you? They’re wrong.

What you don’t know can most certainly hurt you.

Or save you.

4 Escape

The next day crept by slowly, and the blue skies calling through the classroom windows only made me feel more restless and impatient. Spring had finally arrived after a long, cold winter and I could hardly wait to get outside and into the cool air and warm sunshine.

When the final bell rang, I closed my notebook, put on my headphones, and hurried to my locker.

The hallway went from empty to jam packed in about twenty seconds. I want to push and shove through the throngs of students, but I don’t dare draw any attention to myself. Not if I want to make it out of here alive. No, I have waited too long for this day to blow it by rushing.

I pass the monitor cameras without looking at them, as always. Catching a sentry’s attention was never a good idea, and today it’s crucial that I not be noticed. I might never get another chance to escape.

I unlock my station and drop off my workload as always, but instead of retreating down the tubes, I turn and walk toward the surface with the freeborn instead.

I stride confidently among them despite my heart beating like a jackhammer in my chest. I choose a tall boy to walk next to who might shield me from the prying eyes of the monitors, just like Ethan taught me.

I pass the last checkpoint and force myself to relax. If Ethan has done his job, the alarms will not sound. The sentries will not swarm into the corridor and shackle me, then drag me away and send me back to reformation and reeducation – which are just fancy words for torture and oppression.

I walk for a ways after passing the checkpoint before realizing that I have been holding my breath. I open my mouth and the air rushes in, sounding like a gasp. The boy turns and looks at me curiously for a moment, but doesn’t seem to think anything of it and keeps walking.

Why would he suspect anything? Lowborn never dare approach the surface anymore – the risks are simply too great and chances of success next to nil.

Unless, of course, you happen to know a freeborn in Security Enforcement who can initiate a system reboot at precisely the right moment. If that person loves you enough to risk everything to break you out, then you might stand a fraction of a chance.

I wonder what will happen to Ethan when they find me missing at my next shift. I wonder if they will know he aided me, or if he will cover his fingerprint adequately. I won’t know for weeks, possibly longer. Not until it’s safe. Not until S. E. stops watching his every move. Then he will find me. I don’t know how, but he will find me.

Ethan always told me that there was no such thing as lowborn. He said there were only the privileged and the oppressed. He said everyone was the same inside. At first such talk frightened me. I was afraid he was only trying to search out rebellious elements among us in order to send us to rehabilitation and reeducation.

Later, his words scared me for another reason. “You mustn’t say such things!” I whispered in his ear whenever we met down the tubes. “They might hear you! I can’t lose you like that!”

Finally he designed the plan to bring me to the surface. From there he would get me a forged identity and he would transfer away from the factories where we could live simple, happy lives.

I felt a pang of sorrow for my parents and friends who would never know what became of me, but I can’t tell them and I can’t let that stop me. This is my life and I must stay true to myself.

A shift in the quality of light draws me out of my reveries. I see it shining from just up ahead. Clear glass. The window. I have never seen it so close. Below it, the portal. The last remaining obstacle to the surface world that I have only read about and watched on the screens.

I step boldly through the scanners, feeling strangely relaxed. The nervousness has somehow vanished. As if nothing can go wrong now. As if I belong here. As if I am in fact freeborn and the surface world belongs to me as much as anyone else.

And then…I’m through. The alarms do not sound. I’m out. Our plan has worked! I am…free! Hot tears of joy and gratitude spring into my eyes and…I yanked the headphones from my ears to break free from my daydream. What would people think if I broke down crying for no reason?! I laughed under my breath at how carried away I get with my own daydreams.

Anyway, I didn’t need an illusion right then. I don’t want to miss the perfect spring day shining all around me. The sun felt warm on my cheeks as I flowed with the crowd outside and toward the student parking lot. I closed my eyes to better focus on the comfortable warmth, hoping that would also help my tears to reabsorb and go unnoticed by everyone around me.

I walked along the sidewalk and drew in a deep, satisfying lung-full of bright blue mid-afternoon sky. With my eyes closed, I couldn’t watch where I was going and I bumped into someone. I opened my eyes and turned to apologize.

I found a pair of familiar hazel eyes. Ethan’s eyes. Looking directly into mine. A set of perfect white teeth. Smiling at me. Soft lips, opening. Speaking, to me, for the very first time. “Sorry about that,” he said cheerfully.

My heart skipped a beat, and then he was gone, blending back into the crowd.

5 Crushing

I stand in the woods and wait. I’ve already waited here for hours, alone. The sun barely filters through the thick pine limbs. Tall grasses filling this tiny meadow bend and sway gracefully in the breeze. The breeze grazes my bare shoulders but I do not feel cold.

This morning I bathed in the stream nearby, then curled my hair around a stick and put on my favorite dress. I want to look just right because today, all my fondest dreams will finally come true. Today all the months of excruciating waiting will end.

Ethan will arrive at any moment.

I can’t say how I know he will come today, but I do. I sense it. I feel it deep inside and I feel like laughing and crying all at the same time. I feel excited and nervous and my heart won’t stop beating double time.

Three long months have passed since I escaped the tubes. Three months since I made my way through the city and into the forest. I found the stream and made a cozy lean to built of pine branches with a soft bed of pine needles and tall, soft grasses. I found abundant nuts and berries to eat, and spent my days wandering freely among the hills.

Compared to the drudgery of living and working in the tubes and never seeing real daylight, this forest has been heaven, but now I can’t wait for it to end. I can’t wait for Ethan to step out from the trees and take me in his arms, then take me to our new home far, far away. I will never feel lonely again.

A twig snaps behind me and I spin around.

I don’t know how he got so close without me noticing, but here he stands, right in front of me. I take a single step forward and he wraps his arms around me and holds me close.

“I have missed you so much, Kayla,” he whispers in my ear as my body melts into his.

I hugged my pillow more tightly and rolled over to glance at the clock on my bedroom dresser. 2:42 a.m. “Ahh!” I sighed in frustration for the hundredth time. “I will never sleep again! What’s the point of even trying?!”

I put the pillow back under my head and shut my eyes. I found his eyes there waiting for me. Ethan’s eyes. Hazel. Warm. Friendly. Confident. Kind. Happy. Inviting. Staring back at me. In love.

“Aghhh!!” I sighed again, loudly enough that I was afraid I’d wake up my little brother in the next room.

I opened my eyes again and tried to focus them in the darkness. Tried to focus on some object that would clear away the vision that had taken over my mind. The face that overran my imagination. The chestnut-brown hair blowing carefree in the breeze. The strong neck and arms and confident posture of Ethan Clayton, the man of my dreams who didn’t even know I exist.

Though I had never spoken to Ethan, I felt like I knew him. Sort of. I had watched him all year at school. I watched the way he laughed. His teeth flashed white and his throat emitted the most cheerful, happy, carefree sound I could imagine.

I watched the way he interacted with his friends. He seemed warm and open, positive and supportive.

I watched the way he walked and sat in the cafeteria and stood in the hallways, his feet sometimes placed confidently at shoulder-width or crossed comfortably as he leaned casually against the wall.

How I wished I could meet him. How I wished he would talk to me, look in my eyes, ask me out, hold my hand, enfold me in his strong arms and kiss me.

I wonder what he’s doing right now? I thought, then shook my head for being so stupid. Sleeping, of course! Like I should be doing.

I closed my eyes and opened them in the darkness for the thousandth time. In the darkness of my room, my eyes played tricks on me. I didn’t mind. I imagined Ethan here in my room, sitting backwards on the chair at my desk where my coat hung sloppily. I imagined him staring at me, watching me sleep. Watching me toss and turn.

“Ugh!” I sighed again. Trying to sleep was pointless. I pulled back the covers and stood up, then walked to the window.

If only I dared talk to him. Say hi. Introduce myself. Maybe he would notice me. If only he would ask me out so we could talk for a while. Maybe he would like me. If only he would take me in his arms and….

If only I could sleep, I reminded myself.

Oh, I’d sleep all right. In class. My eyes would droop, ears would fill with a pleasant buzzing as all sounds blended together into one, and if I got lucky, I would jerk awake before my forehead hit the desk.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Olsen,” I imagined myself saying as the whole class turned to stare at me and the new red bump emerging on my forehead. “I was up all night dreaming about a boy I’m in love with who has no clue that I even exist.” Mrs. Olsen would nod understandingly and return to her lecture.

I left my room and walked down the hall to the bathroom. I poured myself a cup of water without turning on the light. I stared at myself in the mirror. Am I pretty enough? I wondered for the millionth time. Would Ethan even notice me?

The bags that would appear under my eyes tomorrow if I didn’t get some sleep certainly wouldn’t help.

I walked past my little brother’s and parents’ rooms. My dad’s snores echoed softly into the hallway. I walked silently down the carpeted stairs into the dining room, then opened the back door and stepped outside onto the deck.

The late-spring air sighed gently and felt cool against my skin. Goose bumps appeared across my bare arms. I rubbed them with my hands to warm the skin and wondered how it would feel to touch Ethan’s arms.

Stop! I commanded myself. Stop thinking about him! The only thing I’ll ever get from this silly crush is a long line of restless nights and sleepy days.

I stood in the breeze until I felt thoroughly chilled. Then I quickly returned to my room and slid into bed, nestling myself snugly between the warm sheets. Sleep carried me away to dreamland before my mind had a chance to wander again.

6 Men in Black

I hadn’t slept long when a noise snapped me back from dreamland. At least I thought I heard something. All I knew for sure was that I lay facing the wall, my heart was pounding hard in my chest, and I felt paralyzed by fear in my dark room.

I held my breath, straining my ears for any sound. The night breeze rustled the leaves outside my bedroom window. They sounded strangely loud. Was the window open?

No, that was impossible. I was being ridiculous. I was imagining things. The loudest sound in my ears was my pounding heart. I had let my imagination get the best of me again!

Finally I allowed my throat to open and the air came rushing in, filling the vacuum in my lungs and making more noise than I expected.

“I told you she was awake,” said a calm voice from the center of the room.

My heart broke into a sprint and I stifled a scream as I sat up and spun around to face the voice. My breath caught in my throat when I saw two men dressed in black standing at my bedside.

I pulled the blankets up to my chin as if they could protect me from these frightening strangers. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t suck a full breath of air into my starving lungs.

“Take her,” one said, then turned and strode into the hall as the second man reached out toward me.

“Get away from me!” I shrieked as loudly as my constricted throat would allow. The man grabbed my wrist and pulled me from under my covers. I screamed again and tried to squirm out of his strong grip. I kicked at his torso as he pulled me closer and closer. I aimed my tiny fists at his face, but he wrapped his arms around my waist, pinning my arms to my sides. I felt small and weak in his grasp.

“There’s no need to get upset,” he assured me in a deep, rough voice which did nothing to reassure me. “I promise, no harm will come to you.”

The man lifted me from my bed and began carrying me into the hall. He pinned my body against his. I couldn’t move my arms or my legs above the knee. My face pressed against the thick, cool leather of his jacket and his long hair tickled my face.

Without even thinking, I took the only defensive action left to me. I bit his neck as hard as I could. The salty taste of warm blood sprang into my mouth and I spit it out, along with the coarse hair I had bit through.

At first the man seemed shocked and pushed me away from him. I tried to free my arms and scratch at his eyes, but he still held me firmly. As the surprise melted away from his face, he laughed, then spun me around and held me facing forward. Now I was truly helpless.

Then a piercing scream rang out from down the hall. It sounded like Mom.

“Mom!!” I screamed. “Dad!! Heeelllp! Help meee!”

The man carried me into the hall and there I saw the first man holding Mom, one arm around her arms and waist, and his other hand covering her mouth. Her eyes grew even more frantic when she saw me being carried toward her.

Dad came running out of the bedroom into the hallway then, and the man grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the air. Dad’s feet kicked wildly at him but he was as helpless and defenseless as the rest of us.

The first man held my parents still and nodded his head to one side, indicating for the second man in black to carry me past them.

“Please, Mom, don’t let them take me!” I screamed, utterly terrified, as the man carried me by. Hot tears streamed down my face and blurred my vision. But as I was carried past my Mom, I saw.

I saw her eyes.

She was not my Mom.

She was my Mother.

7 Nightmares

I woke up breathing hard. Cold sweat soaked my pajamas. My arms and legs were twisted up tightly in cherry-colored blankets and pink sheets. I had no idea how long I spent tossing and turning during the night. Another nightmare.

I turned toward my dresser and watched my clock turn from 5:59 to 6:00 a.m. Time to get up. I would probably feel more rested if I had just stayed awake all night.

I tried to roll out of bed and nearly tripped on the sheets wrapped around my legs. I walked to the shower with my eyes half closed, trying to salvage the last possible moments of rest before my day began in earnest.

At least the night was over. At least I wouldn’t have to endure any more nightmares for the rest of the day.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” Dad said as I made my way downstairs for breakfast. “Another bad night?” he added as he saw my droopy eyelids and the exhaustion apparent in my step.

I nodded and he walked across the dining room and hugged me. I let his arms wrap around me and I collapsed against him. “You know I’d never let anything happen to you,” he said to the top of my head.

“I know, Dad,” I said into his arm. “They’re only dreams.”

It felt good to be loved. It felt good to be cared for and worried over. It felt good to know that my life was perfectly secure and happy and really the only serious problems I ever faced were lack of sleep and being tortured by my impossible crush on Ethan.

When I was younger, my parents sent me to a counselor to talk about my nightmares. After a couple sessions, it was decided that the dreams were simply the result of feeling abandoned by my biological parents at the time of my adoption, eleven years ago now.

I was six at the time and I have not seen my birth parents since. I call them ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ while the parents I live with are ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’

I know nothing about the conditions of my adoption. About why my birth parents gave me up. About who they are or where they live or if they ever wonder about me. It doesn’t really matter. That was a long time ago. I chose a long time ago to just let it go and live in the present. There’s nothing I could do about it anyway, it was a closed adoption and I have no way to track them down.

I scarcely remember anything about Father and Mother now. Mostly just their faces. I have the nightmares to thank for that, for searing their faces into my memory. I can also thank the nightmares for the exercise I get in my sleep, judging from the condition of my sheets and blankets and my pounding heart when I finally wake up.

The counselor’s diagnosis did nothing to stop the dreams, but it made my parents become even more loving and concerned and attentive since then. Maybe they thought I missed my birth parents. Maybe they worried they weren’t good enough parents to me. Maybe they just loved me and hated to watch me suffer from the dreams now and then.

In a way, the extra care backfired. It emphasized the fact that I was different. That I came from somewhere else. That I had been a stranger until they signed a piece of paper and relocated me to this new house. It made me feel like a guest in my own home when all I really longed for was to be taken for granted.

Sometimes I would look at my family’s blonde hair and blue eyes that contrasted so sharply with my red hair and green eyes, and an old Sesame Street song would pop into my head. “One of these things is not like the other….”

For my part, I did my best to be a good daughter. I studied hard, helped around the house, and tried to please them. I felt happy with my life and could only assume that everything had turned out for the best.

“You gonna be okay?” my dad asked, stroking the back of my head.

“Of course, Dad,” I answered. Sometimes I felt like my parents needed as much reassurance that I loved them, that I felt happy in their home, and that I would never leave them, as they thought I needed from them.

I took a deep breath and Dad let me go.

Joey walked downstairs and gave me a hug, as he did every morning.

“Good morning, little punk,” I said, waiting for him to let go, which always took a while.

Mom and Dad drilled us with the typical questions about school assignments and friends while we ate breakfast until Joey had to catch the school bus and I had to leave for school.

“Gotta go,” I said as I carried my bowl to the sink. “Love you.”

Mom gave me a quick hug and Dad winked at me from his place at the table. “Stay out of trouble,” he added with a smile. I grabbed my school pack and headed outside to my car.

8 Zombie

I managed to stay awake in class all morning long. I didn’t get much from my teachers’ lessons, but at least I didn’t make a fool of myself by falling asleep.

I went through the lunch line and made my way to my usual table with my three best friends. Beth had shoulder-length blonde hair, a happy smile, and bright blue eyes, but not a whole lot of brains behind them. Sorry, I know that’s cruel to say of a best friend, but in a way, it was good for her and me. See, her simple view of life made her an unflinching optimist. If I ever had a bad day, she made it her solemn mission to talk a smile back onto my face. I loved her for that.

Krissa was the polar opposite. Brown eyes and brilliant, with a casual toss of her dark-brown hair, her cynical assessment of the tiniest detail could prove without a shadow of a doubt that everyone is evil, nothing ever works out for the best, and life is bad and barely worth living. The ironic thing is that she found this endlessly amusing and her observations often made me laugh.

Jill was the quiet one. At 5’ 2”, she was the shortest one of the group and had dirty-blonde hair and eyes. She smiled Krissa’s cynicism, rolled her ice-blue eyes at Beth’s indefatigable optimism, and now and then said something so profound that we wondered what went on inside her head the rest of the time.

“You look beat,” Krissa pointed out as I sat down with my lunch tray.

“You look beautiful,” corrected Beth. “But tired, too.”

Jill simply made eye contact and gave me a faintly sympathetic smile.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Krissa asked. I nodded. “I told you boys are bad. Love is the worst thing that could happen to you, unless maybe if it happens on the weekend when you can sleep in.”

“Are you ever going to talk to him?” Beth asked. “I swear, if you just walked up to him and said hello, he would be hooked. And lined and sinkered, too.”

“Well it certainly won’t be today,” I answered, stealing a glance across the room to where Ethan sat with his friends. “I look like a zombie.”

“Oh, you do not!” Beth scolded. Krissa rolled her eyes and even Jill gave a half-smile, half-grimace that said I didn’t look my best today. “Well, a beautiful zombie, then.”

“Anyway,” I explained, “that’s not the only reason I’m wiped out.”

“Not another nightmare!” Beth declared with a look of such concern that she seemed to be playing an exaggerated caricature of herself.

“At least I’ll sleep soundly tonight, right?” I said with a shrug.

“That’s right!” Beth agreed. “That’s the spirit.”

“You should stash some weapons in your dreams,” Krissa suggested. “So you’ll be ready next time the creeps show up. A pistol under your pillow, a grenade or two in your fuzzy bunny slippers, and a chain saw in the closet to finish the job.”

“That’s disgusting!” Beth objected.

“A small price for peace of mind and a good night’s rest,” Krissa explained.

I finished the good parts of my lunch while they talked, then pushed my tray away, folded my arms on the table, and lay my head on them.

“Sweet dreams,” Jill said. “We’ll wake you up in time for class.”

9 Detention

My brief nap made me feel more tired and groggy rather than rested. I walked along the right side of the hallways to my locker and class to hide the bright red mark my arm had left on my cheek.

Mr. Robbins seemed to be in a pissy mood, which grew worse when he found out most of the class hadn’t finished today’s reading assignment. The lively discussion he had envisioned vanished in a sea of blank stares when he posed his questions.

My eyelids struggled to stay open as he launched into a lecture instead. Every time he turned to write on the board, I let them close, paying careful attention to open them again whenever his speech shifted from writing speed to normal speaking speed.

“Miss Porter?” Mr. Robbins asked, waking me from a dream where I had been riding a zebra bareback across the African Serengeti plain. I was shocked to find him standing right in front of my desk.

“I, I’m sorry,” I stuttered, “what was the question?”

“That’s it!!!” exclaimed Mr. Robbins. “I’m sending you to the office.”

“But Mr. Robbins!” I began to object. I was a good student! I had done my reading! I had never been sent to the office before.

“If you can’t pay attention in class,” Mr. Robbins interrupted as he scribbled out a slip and handed it to me, “then perhaps you can get your work done in detention.”

“But…!” I began again.

“Nope,” he cut me off with a satisfied grin. “No buts.”

“Good afternoon, Miss Porter,” said the attendance secretary, Mrs. Miltner, as I stepped into the office. “May I help you?”

I handed her my detention slip and a concerned frown crossed her face. “I fell asleep in class,” I explained, which instantly erased her frown and restored her pleasant expression.

“Mr. Robbins likes to make examples of students,” she said understandably. “I won’t put this on your record.”

The secretary showed me to the tiny cubicles in the back of the office where detention did its best to create the impression of solitary confinement. Each desk sat separated by three walls. Each student faced his or her own miniature dead end, with the implied message that they might as well get used to it if they didn’t shape up.

“Well if it isn’t Miss Goody Two Shoes,” said Mitch Craven as the secretary left me at my desk. He had brown hair, pale green eyes, and was probably the toughest boy in school, picking fights whenever possible and only channelling his physical talents in a positive direction when playing rugby, where I heard his aggressive nature intimidated even his own teammates.

“No talking, Mitch!” the secretary instructed as she walked away.

Mitch waited till she was out of ear shot and spoke to me again. “Whatchu in for? Get caught cheating? Inciting rebellion? Mass murder?”

I turned my head and glanced at Mitch. I wasn’t sure if looking at other prisoners was forbidden, too. “What are you in for?” I asked.

“All of the above,” he answered, then laughed at his cleverness.

“Seriously,” he continued, “now that you’re a troublemaker like me, maybe we should go out for a burger after school.”

“I’m not a troublemaker,” I objected, though surprised that he would ask me out. I wasn’t sure whether I should feel flattered or not. “I fell asleep in class.”

“So you’re a slacker! I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.”

“I’m not a slacker,” I protested again. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Mitch raised one eyebrow curiously. “What were you doing out all night, young lady?”

“I wasn’t out all night! I just couldn’t sleep.”

Mitch paused, a blank expression lingering on his face. “Well that’s not very fun,” he finally said.

After that, Mitch left me alone. He glanced down the hall to make sure the coast was clear and pulled an Ipod from his pocket. Soon I faintly heard the heavy drumbeat of whatever music he was listening to. I opened my English textbook to try to get some of tomorrow’s reading assignment finished.

I had to read and comment on five poems, but caught myself reading the same sentence over and over again without comprehension. I decided to give up and just sleep.

Just as I closed my book, Mrs. Miltner returned with another student. She was thin and pretty with long dark hair and eyes to match. She sat down at the desk next to me.

“Yo, Melissa!” Mitch said as soon as Mrs. Miltner had gone.

“No talking!” said the secretary from half way down the hall. “You know the rules, Mitch.”

“Yes, Mrs. Miltner.”

Mitch waited longer this time. “Yo, Melis!” he repeated in a whisper. “It’s good to see your body here!”

“Shut up, Meat Head,” Melissa answered. “I’m trying not to have any suicidal thoughts today.”

“Oooh!” Mitch groaned in mock pain. “That’s a good one!” I couldn’t help but smile.

“Come on, Melissaaa,” Mitch tried again. “You know you want me!”

“Oh, great!” Melissa said disappointedly. “I failed already.”

“Come on,” Mitch insisted. “You and me could make something real good.”

“Sure, I could make really good sense, and you could make real good tank fodder.”

“What’s tank fodder?” Mitch asked.

“It’s a military term. It means you could stand in the way of oncoming tanks.”

“Yeah, I could do that,” Mitch agreed, flexing his muscles proudly as if they could stop a tank.

“Wow, look at that muscle! I’ve never seen anything quite like it!”

“These mighty guns could be yours, you know. Just say the word.”

“No, I meant the muscle inside your head.”

Mitch paused, not quite knowing how to take that or come back from it. “You know you want me, Melissa,” he finally asserted again. “Your brother told me all about the way you constantly obsess over me during practice. So as soon as you’re ready to stop pretending you’re not madly in love with me,” he paused and winked at her. “Just say the word.”

“I promise,” she assured him. “As soon as I’m ready, you’ll be the first to know.”

Melissa pulled her phone from her bag and plugged a set of earbuds in just as Mrs. Miltner walked through to check on us.

“I’ll take those,” she said, holding out a hand to each student. Mitch and Melissa reluctantly handed her their contraband electronics. “You can have these back after detention.”

“Psst! Hey Melissa!” Mitch whispered after Mrs. Miltner left again. Melissa ignored him and read her book. “Your brother says we’d make a cute couple. How about it?”

“My brother did NOT say that. You and my brother would NOT make a cute couple!”

“No, I mean you and me.”

“Oh, that’s even worse. Go away.”

“No talking back there!” shouted Mrs. Miltner.

“Psst! Hey Melissa!” Mitch whispered again.

“Shh!” Melissa answered and ignored him, then turned to me. “What are you reading?”

“Um, poetry.”

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Some of it’s really good,” I said. “Some’s just okay.”

“Read me your favorite,” she requested.

“Okay.” I felt awkward but fought the feeling back as I opened my book to a dog-eared page and began to read:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both,

and be one traveler, long I stood,

and looked down one as far as I could,

to where it bent in the undergrowth.

“Then took the other, just as fair,

and having perhaps the better claim,

for it was grassy and wanted wear,

though as for that, the passing there

had worn them really about the same.”

“Both paths that morning equally lay

In leaves not step had trodden black.

Oh, I’d save the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubt that I shall ever go back.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh,

somewhere ages and ages hence.

Two roads diverged in a wood and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

and that has made all the difference.”

“I know it’s kind of cliché to like Frost,” I said.

“Not at all,” she disagreed. “Just because everyone else does doesn’t make him any less perfect.”

I closed the book and Melissa nodded with a faint smile on her lips.

“I wish everything we said was as beautiful as poetry.”

“I am Sam,” Mitch said. I had forgotten he was there. “Sam I am. Do you like green eggs and ham?”

Melissa and I both laughed but neither of us looked at him. I sensed Mitch struggling to remember the next line and wishing he had paid more attention in first grade.

“Hey Melissa!” Mitch tried again.

“Be QUIET!” Melissa insisted. “You’re going to get our detention extended again!”

“How come you’re talking to Miss Goody Two Shoes then?”

“Oh, so you CAN count,” I retorted. “I underestimated you. I apologize.”

Melissa smiled at me and looked pleased with my insult.

“Shut yer pie hole, you!” Mitch said menacingly.

“How dare you speak to my best friend that way?!” Melissa hissed more viciously than I could have imagined from such a thin, pretty girl.

“I’m sorry,” Mitch backpedaled politely, “you know I didn’t really mean that. I mean, I meant, would you like some pie?”

At that, Melissa burst out laughing uncontrollably. By the time Mrs. Miltner stepped into view, tears streamed down her face and I couldn’t help laughing along with her.

“Very well,” Mrs. Miltner said indignantly. “Thirty minutes extra detention for all three of you!”

10 Ride

By the time detention ended, school was out and the building had emptied of students. I dropped by my locker, packed up my homework for the night, and headed toward the student parking lot.

I found Melissa sitting outside on the grass.

“Hi,” I offered.

“Hi,” she smiled back.

“Do you need a ride?”

“No, thanks. My brother’s coming for me.”

I tried to guess who her brother could be. Clearly he was one of Mitch’s friends and a rugby player, based on Mitch’s comments about talking during practice. Having a jock for a sibling would also explain Melissa’s quick-witted banter.

I pictured a boy who looked like Melissa with a slight frame and dark hair and eyes. Jessie, I think was his name. He seemed quiet, though I couldn’t tell if he was shy or not. All I could really say about him was that he didn’t speak up much in class and the only interest I had observed in him was sports.

“Want to keep me company for a minute?”

“Sure!” I dropped my pack on the grass and sat down next to her.

I liked Melissa. It wasn’t just her quick wit, self assurance, and the mental plane we seemed to click on. She had something different about her. She seemed uncommonly alive. And audacious. She said what she really thought and didn’t worry about any repercussions. I wished I knew how to be so bold.

“You like my brother, don’t you?”

“No!” I said emphatically, then felt embarrassed for sounding so adamant about it. Was she just teasing? Or was she trying to set us up because she liked me? She should know better than that! Wasn’t her brother just another meat head like Mitch?

“Puh-lease, Kayla. You can be honest with me. Why don’t you talk to him?”

“Is Jessie your brother?” I asked, still feeling slightly repulsed.

At that, Melissa burst out laughing again. She laughed so hard that a tear sprang from her eye. “I’d like to think I came from a different gene pool than that!”

Just as I was about to ask who her brother was, a car locked its brakes and skidded to a stop at the curb. The door opened and Ethan hopped out. He left his door hanging wide open and walked energetically down the sidewalk toward us.

“Heya, Melis,” he said, a broad smile spreading across his face. Melissa stood up and walked toward him. They threw their arms around each other and Ethan lifted her off the ground and spun her around once. “Have fun in detention?”

“I always do,” she replied.

My breath caught in my throat. Was Ethan Melissa’s brother? Or were they dating? I couldn’t tell whether I had just witnessed a sibling hug or something more.

I needed to breathe, but my throat wouldn’t open to let the air inside.

“Ethan,” Melissa said, turning to me, “this is Kayla. Kayla, Ethan.”

Ethan reached out his hand toward me and I put mine inside and let his fingers close firmly around it. I wanted to memorize this moment. I wanted to remember this sensation forever. The warmth of his skin. The firmness of his muscles.

“Pleasure to meet you, Kayla,” he said, looking down at me with a dazzling smile. I felt the blood rush to my face and I couldn’t make my voice work to respond.

“Kayla was my relief from the tension in detention today,” Melissa explained.

“Another troublemaker, eh?” Ethan asked with a smile.

“Hardly,” Melissa countered. “She has expert sarcasm, but I’ve never seen her there before. Was that your first time?”

“Yes,” I answered, finally able to speak. “Mr. Robbins was extra cranky today and he took it out on me.”

“Do you need a ride home?” Ethan offered.

“No, thanks,” I declined, pointing to a lone Honda Civic left in the student lot, then mentally kicked myself for not accepting! “I’m parked over there.” Stupid, stupid, stupid! I chided myself. I could have spent more time with Ethan! He would know where I lived! I would have gladly walked back to school to pick up my car!

“Well it was a pleasure to meet you,” Ethan said with a slight nod as I got to my feet.

“Likewise,” I was able to respond this time.

Melissa turned and gave me a knowing smile as she walked toward the car. I had no idea how she knew about my crush, but there was no sense denying it now.

Six weeks later, Ethan would invite me to live forever.

Are you enjoying This.? It only gets BETTER from here – I promise! Characters develop, plot deepens, intensity increases, useful insights drop in now and then, plot twists take you by surprise in very enjoyable ways, and characters turn out to be more than you could ever guess. Order now and get another book by Shaun Roundy for free! Details on the Buy Now page.