Call of The Zodiac (Book One)

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4. The Celestial Guardian

January 5, 2010

She kept her head downcast as they shuffled into the old, redbrick school building, eyes trained steadily on the polished aluminum floors. The halls of Chagrin Height Middle school were as she expected: full in capacity with students guffawing as they broke off into their own individual social groups, slamming lockers shut and sharing intimate hugs and eager head nods. Mrs. Fischer elbowed her way through the growing mash of adolescence and filed into a small, square office, her face twisted into a deep expression of impatience and skepticism.

Within the small workplace, was a large mahogany desk pushed up between a wide window on one side and a set of rusted file cabinets on the other. Behind the mountain of school books, manila files, and Welcome to Chagrin Heights Middle School! coffee mugs sedentary on the desk she saw a portly, middle aged woman in the swivel chair staring blankly at the glowing computer screen, her bristly, beefy fingers flying across the keys in stable accuracy.

Before either one of the Fischers could say anything, the phone rang on her desk rang and cur through the silence.

“Oh boy,” Mrs. Fischer grumbled with an irritable sigh. “You can go sit down, Aspen. I have a feeling this is going to take a while.”

Nodding mutely, Aspen turned away from desk and slid into an upholstered chair pressed against the wall below a billboard displaying all current announcement with bright, colorful fliers and banners. She internally rolled her eyes and knitted her fingers together in her lap. She watched her mother drum her fingers against the smooth Cherrywood surface, eyes narrowed as she watched the secretary squawk away on the phone in her loud, nasally voice.

Oh Gosh, Aspen thought as she watched the woman reached over and leaf through a tower of documents in her lower right hand drawer, pressing no attention to Mrs. Fischer’s heated glare.

“Yes and what is your student’s name?” the secretary asked as twisted away in her swivel chair towards the computer on the far end of her station.

Her meaty hands seized a single manila envelope. She grabbed a pen.

“Ashley with a ‘y’ or Ashlee with two ’e’s.?” She paused and took a sip of a coffee mug. “There’s no need to yell, Mr. Loomis. I’m going as fast as I possibly can, sir.”

“Well, it’s not fast enough,” Mrs. Fischer grumbled and popped a stick of Eclipse peppermint gum into her colorless mouth. “Goodness.”

Aspen swallowed the urge to burst out laughing.

“Oh!” the secretary cried and turned a page in the file. “Yes. I have her now, yes. Okay. I will update this and I will let her teachers know. No need to thank me, Mr. Loomis. This is what I’m here for. I hope the appointment goes by smoothly…you’re very welcome. Have a wonderful day, sir. Uh huh. Goodbye.”

She slammed to phone back onto its cradle and typed away on her computer.

Mrs. Fischer sighed loudly and waved a manicured hand in her face. “Hello? Excuse me. Am I ghost or what?”

Aspen stifled the giggled bubbling in her throat. Not now, she thought. Hold it together, Asp. Not now.

The secretary turned in her direction and nearly leaped three feet in the air. “Oh!” she cried and quickly climbed to her feet.

“I’m so sorry!” she apologized and stuck out a chubby hand. “I didn’t see you there. I’m Mrs. Appleton. It’s nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Fischer shook her hand. “Yes, it’s no trouble at all. I’m Cammie Fischer. We spoke on the phone a few days ago to register my daughter? It’s her first day today and I want to make sure everything is in order before I leave to work.”

The secretary bobbed her head in understand, her chins wobbling with the animated gesture. “Yes! Of course!” she cried and dropped down into her chair once again. “What was the name of your son?”

“Daughter,” Mrs. Fischer said and gestured to Aspen. “Her name is Aspen Leigh Fischer. She’s eleven years old and a sixth grader.”

“Twelve,” Aspen corrected automatically. “I’m basically twelve, mom.”

“Now Aspen, you don’t turn twelve for another two months, so until then, you’re still eleven.” With that, she turned and paid full attention to the secretary.

“Okay…oh! Here it is,” Mrs. Appleton whispered and stood up to retrieve her file. “Just one moment. She just needs her schedule and a few other things and she’ll be on her way.”

“Lovely,” Mrs. Fischer replied. “I’m happy to hear that.”

A muffled buzzing sounded in her purse and she stood up, her thin eyebrows furrowing slightly. “Please excuse me.” She disappeared into the hall.

Aspen stood up and moved towards the desk, a false smile plastered on her face. “Sorry,” she said and held out her hand in greeting. “My mom is really busy—all her calls are important.”

“I’m sure they are,” Mrs. Appleton grumbled as turned around to look at her. Her blue eyes narrowed into an ominous glare. “I’m sure you’ll like it here, Aspen.”

Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. What in the world—?

“Um…sure,” she said and took a small step back. “Yes, uh, can I please have my schedule now?”

“Sure.” Mrs. Appleton leaned over the desk with a thin stack of her in paper, a sinister smile slowly spreading across her wide face.

Aspen reached out and snatched the papers from her hand.

But Mrs. Appleton’s hands quickly wrapped around her tiny wrist and yanked her forward with such force that Aspen collided with the desk.

“Hey—!” she protested, but her words suddenly died in her throat.

Up close, Aspen could see the cloudiness in her deep blue eyes, an eerie haze of black bubbling within the cerulean depths.

She felt a pending scream foaming on her lips as the woman leaned forward and spoke to her in a harsh, throaty whisper.

“This is just the beginning for you, Guardian,” she rasped, her thin, orange lips brushing against her earlobe. “This is far from over.”

A shiver ran through Aspen’s spine before her mouth dropped open and a helpless scream erupted from her mouth.

She awoke with a start, chest heaving heavily and a thin sheen of sweat matting her fiery hair to her face and neck. Aspen twisted her head and glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand: 6: 32 AM. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed the remnants of the nightmare away, pushing the horrible images to the backs of her hysterical mind.

With shaking hands, she wrenched the covers off her body and swung her legs over the side of her bed, eyes darting around her bedroom, half expecting Mrs. Appleton to be there waiting for her.

But she was alone in her new bedroom. And far from the clutches of the wicked secretary.

After several moments of deep breathing and desperate prayer, Aspen willed her body to move. She climbed to her feet on wobbly legs and headed to the door, determination festering in the pit of her stomach. It’s just a dream, Asp, she told herself as she yanked the door open and crossed the empty hall towards the bathroom. Just a stupid dream. You’re just freaked out because of this stupid house. Stop freaking out. She took another deep breath and flicked the light on, bathing the small bathroom with dull, orange light.

“Great,” Aspen moaned and plucked her toothbrush off the toothbrush rack. “Mom forgot to change the lightbulbs.”

She shrugged her shoulder and swiftly brushed her teeth. Despite her efforts, she found her mind wandering and replaying the past events since her arrival to this mysterious new town. She stripped, slid into the shower and twisted the water on. A thick spray of warm water washed over her and she let out a grateful sigh.

Within her recent memories, an unwanted image fluttered behind her eyelids, its ebony wings flapping vigorously. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. “It’s alright, Asp,” she whispered and let the tepid water run through her hair. “It’s all good.”

It’s been two days. The voice was so sudden that she jumped and nearly slid and hit her head against the faucet of the tub. She groped for the shower curtain to steady herself and looked around, eyes darting across the steamy bathroom for an unfamiliar face. But she was alone again. She let out a shaky laugh and ducked back into the shower.

Now you’re talking to yourself, Aspen chastised herself. Stop doing this. People are going to think you’re crazy. She reached over and squirted a glop of shampoo into her hair and lathered, humming loudly to feel less lonely. But I haven’t seen the bird since Natalie’s house. What does it mean? She shut off the water and began to scrub at her skin as she pondered intensely.

The key, the bird, and maybe this house, all have something to do with each other. She twisted the water back on and rinsed herself, letting the soapy trails slide off her body and into the drain. But what? And why me? I mean...I don’t mind fish, but I hate birds, and I don’t even like this house. What could this all mean? She ignored the soft pang of guilt in her chest as the water was shut off again and she stepped out.

“You’re worrying too much, Asp,” she said with a hollow laugh. “Just new move jitters. Mom always said I have an overactive imagination.”

Wrapping a towel around her hair and body, Aspen closed the door gently behind her and headed towards her room. She did not notice the message scrawled on her foggy bathroom mirror with her name on it.

“Thanks for the lift, mom,” she said and unbuckled her seatbelt.

She slid her arms through her backpack and rested her fingertips against the window, strangely drawn to the rhythmic pounding of the raindrops pelting against her window.

A thick band of black clouds was rolling across the ashen sky. She could hear thunder clapping in the distance with an occasional flash of white lightning dancing across the firmament. Her nose itched against the wavering smells of nature and torrent wafting through the air, but she ignored it. Better get a move on then. She turned to retrieve her umbrella, but Mrs. Fischer cut the engine and moved to step out of the vehicle.

Aspen froze in her tracks. “Um…mom? What are you doing?”

Mrs. Fischer raised an eyebrow questioningly. “Um…going in with you. Don’t tell me you’ve hit the Parents Are Embarrassing stage already?”

“No! It’s not that. Just that…there’s no need for you to come!”

Mrs. Fischer paused and studied her daughter through narrowed eyes. “And why is that so, Aspen?”

Aspen racked her brain for an excuse. “Umm…because I just need my schedule and a locker number. You don’t have to be there for that.”

Mrs. Fischer pursed her lips. “Aspen, I want to make sure that your first day of school goes smoothly. Of course I need to be here.”

“B-but what about your job interview?” Aspen said quickly. She ignored that rapid rumbling of her heart against her chest. “No need to worry. I’ll call if something happens.”

Mrs. Fischer sighed and slowly reached for the door handle. “I’m already early. A few minutes in the office would hurt—”

A foreign feeling of panic settled over Aspen. She shook her head fiercely, nearly whipping her hair out of her slipshod French braid.

“—but it almost makes a good impression on the employer.” The words were out of her mouth before she realized it. “Go. Please.”

Mrs. Fischer sighed and gave a reluctant nod. “Okay, then. Let me know if something happens.” She pecked her daughter’s forehead and watched with unblinking eyes as she scampered out into the heavy downpour.

Aspen forced a smile on her face.

That was close. She waved as her mother’s car pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared around the corner. With a sharp intake of breath, Aspen turned on the balls of her heels and sauntered towards the school, holding her backpack over her head in a feeble attempt of shielding herself from the elements. But why would you want to? She stumbled, but quickly righted herself. She looked around through squinted eyes, watching the squealing youth running around her towards her new school.

She shook the thought out of her head. You’re being silly, she thought as her boots clicked along the crumbling ground. She flipped the collar of her denim jacket up and allowed herself another peek over her shoulder. She immediately regretted it. It was perched up in the crooked branch of a tree that sat on the edge of the lot shimmering like obsidian against the stark gray sky. Its eyes were crimson—brighter than she remembered—and seemed to glisten with a nefarious gleam that sent shivers down her spine.

She willed her feet to move—run away before it could sink its razor sharp talons into her once again.

But she remained motionlessly rooted to the ground like a statute.

The bird twisted its feathery head to look around the deserted parking lot, as if to assure her that no one would be coming to her aid.

Caw! The raspy cry rung in her ears as it spread its inky wings and took flight into the darkening sky, soaring through the harsh wings effortlessly.

This isn’t real. She squeezed her eyes shut and recited a prayer under her quivering breath. Her backpack dropped onto the ground as she clasped her hands together and sunk to her knees, lips unmoving soundlessly. Another clap of thunder sounded and she jumped, but remained on the ground.

Get it out of your head, Aspen. She rubbed her palms together and willed the bird’s image away to the back of her mind.

You will not have your way, Guardian. Her heart skipped a beat. Aspen’s eyes snapped open and she took a quick look around. She climbed to her feet and held her breath.

“Who are you?” she cried and lifted her eyes to the sky. “Show yourself right now!”

The bird was nowhere to be seen. Reeling from the sudden statement, Aspen quickly picked up her backpack and hugged it to her chest.

We will soon be upon you, Guardian. Little time is left before your demise. Aspen’s heart seemed to leap into her throat. She felt cold all over, frozen as if ice were running through her veins. She backed away, head shaking back and forth in denial, her eyes watering with frustrated tears.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she cried. “Leave me alone!”

She hated how her voice wavered. She felt powerless and weak—defenseless before an enemy she wasn’t even sure was real. She blinked the tears away and turned sharply in the opposite direction. Her breath hitched in her throat. A wave of dread suddenly made her feel dizzy as her eyes drank in the familiar redbrick, heavy double doors, and evenly cut grass. CHAGRIN HEIGHTS MIDDLE SCHOOL was displayed on a large, colorful banner that hung over the front of the school in white, chucky letters.

“No,” she breathed. A choked sob escaped her throat. “No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”

She blinked several times, but the building stood before her like a hulking gatekeeper. It’s the school from my dream. She threw her backpack down and wrapped her arms around herself before dropping onto the concrete on her knees.

Your day are numbered, Guardian. You, along with eleven others, will all perish at the hands of our Lord.

I don’t know what you’re talking about! She screamed back mentally. I’m not a Guardian and I don’t know who your Lord is! Just leave me alone!

Your betrayal of our master has not gone unpunished. This is only the beginning of your torment.

I didn’t do anything! She argued. What are you talking about? Who is your Lord? Why are you doing this?

But there was no answer. I can’t be imagining this. Her mind spun suddenly and she reached out for something—anything—to grab on to. Her hands groped fruitlessly and her eyelids fluttered. She could hear a sudden roaring in her ears, a noisy rush of water splashing against the insides of her pounding head.

“Aspen?” the voice sounded faint and distant. “Aspen!”

Who is that? Aspen wondered and felt her body sag against another. Her head rested onto a small, heaving chest, its heart drumming against the side of her face. She felt hands brush her wet hair away from her eyes and pause briefly at her cheeks and chin.

She squinted her eyes and focused her blurry vision. A blue beanie with tufts of beige hair sticking out beneath its woven hem. Light furrowed eyebrows pulled together at the center, watery, wide-spaced green eyes that swam with concern, an ample face, a short nose, and a full-lipped mouth that curve upward slightly at the corners.

Aspen gasped and sat up with a jerk. The strange feeling of dizziness slowly subsided from her body. “Garrett?”

The boy smiled sheepishly. “Hey yourself. You looked like you were gonna pass out. Are you okay?”

Aspen swallowed audibly before nodding. “Y-yeah. I’m fine, thanks. I just…I didn’t feel very well.”

Well, when you have an evil crow out to get you, things like that happen. She was startled by the acidity of her tone. She clung to him as she was pulled to her feet and whisked away from the rain and into the building. Aspen sighed and dropped into the nearest chair. Her wrung her braid out and watched the water splash onto the polished aluminum.

These floors were in my dreams too. She turned to Garrett, who stood awkwardly at her side with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his wet jeans.

“Uh, thanks, Garrett. I appreciate you helping me.”

“No biggie,” he said and knelt in front of her, his face contorted into a stern grimace. “But, um…there’s something I want to ask you.”

Aspen stiffened in her chair. “Um, okay, sure. Go ahead. Ask me anything.”

Garrett sighed and ran a hand over his dripping face. “In the parking lot…who were you talking to?”

Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. Garrett continued. “You were fine at first, just walking like the rest of us. Then you started arguing and yelling at someone—or something that you saw. Who was there with you?”

She shook her head in response. “I was on my phone. Just talking to someone.” She dropped her eyes to her boots.

Garrett frowned at her. “No…when I found you, you had no phone on you at all. You were screaming to the four winds at someone to leave you alone…who was there?”

“Why do you want to know?” Aspen asked hotly and frowned at him. “It’s not like you’d believe me anyways.”

Garrett gave her hand a tiny squeeze. “I…I’m asking because I was worried about you. Seems like something was up.”

“I can take care of myself!” she hissed and jumped to her feet. “Why are you so interested about it? I had an argument with my mom and I was venting. Nothing more.”

Why are you so defensive, Aspen? He is not the enemy.

Garrett looked taken aback by the hostility. “No, uh, I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. I just…is it a voice?”

Aspen went still. Garrett sighed and continued. “Do you…do you hear it in your head sometimes? You know, like a man—or a woman sometimes just talking to you?”

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she whispered and leaned away from him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Garrett frowned at her. “I…I hear things, Aspen. Weird, crazy things. Voices in my head, telling me that I’m paying the price for betraying someone’s master or whatever. I…these weird things started happening so far. Like, when I’m lakes or ponds or oceans. Just creepy things that I can't explain. Do…do you have the same thing happening to you?”

Aspen gaped at him. Garrett exhaled loudly. “Do you see like this—this octopus thing appearing out of nowhere, following you everywhere you go?”

He grabbed her shoulders and shook her, eyes wide with frantic desperation. “Does it happen to you too, Aspen? Please….please just say yes. I-I don’t want to be crazy…”

Aspen wrenched away from his grasp, gasping wildly with her arms up in defensive. The hopeful light in Garrett’s eyes seemed to dim as he took a large step back away from her.

“Y-you’re insane,” she spat in a shaky whisper. “You—I—I can’t be around you, Garrett. I don’t think I should be your friend. Ever.”

Aspen snatched the backpack off the ground and quickly slid her arms through the straps without looking at him.

Garrett hung his head in defeat. With a small headshake, Aspen walked away and disappeared into the main office.

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