In Dreaming Reality

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Sweet Summer Tide

I tugged at my seat belt and tossed my head to free my hair from its clutches. A beautiful, hot sunny day in the middle of August, and here I was, craving not a Frappuccino, but a mug of steaming hot tea. I suppose it was natural after months of cooler British climate; there was nothing wrong with that, I told myself. I tugged at the corners of my clothing as I glanced down at myself self-consciously, having noticed what Anna was wearing as we’d headed into the car earlier: a deep blue denim miniskirt, high heels, and a tight green spaghetti top. I hadn’t thought about changing before we left; I had been too focused on the joy of actually being able to pull my sister into my arms for a hug, and then on trying to suppress my resentment over her driving. I frowned. I felt so underdressed and icky -- how long had I been wearing this outfit? Something like eighteen hours? Gross. Oh, well -- we were just going for coffee. I was grateful to have no one to impress.

“Hey, Genevieve.” Annabelle reached out and squeezed my shoulder, distracting me.

We were pulling into a parking lot across the street from a Starbucks. How had we gotten here so quickly? It felt like we’d only been in the car for like five minutes-- but it had to have been longer. My skin felt melded to the seat, though the air conditioning was on full blast. I needed to get out, stretch my legs before they started to cramp again.

Anna’s hand was hot on my skin as she pinched my shoulders. I tried again to remember how we got here; if only I hadn’t been so concerned about what I was wearing and thought to pay attention to my surroundings, to this new city of winding roads and crazy one-ways. Did that sign back there say we were on Davies Street? I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them, focusing on my sister instead of my hazy brain.

“I hope you don’t mind -- I invited a few friends to come hang out with us. Most of them are from Acroft High, that’s my school -- well, it will be your school, too. In September-- Dad’s lawyer partner person or whatever you call it... Ray Pirot told daddy about it and I am soooo glad he did. I love it.” She smiled at me tentatively. I struggled to keep the frown from my face. “I just thought it would be a great way for you to meet a few peeps.”

I felt my jaw clench. Great. How typical. Here I thought we were going for a simple sisterly catch-up coffee, and the next thing I knew, I’d already been blindsided. She’d invited friends -- which probably meant she was already planning on meeting with them and had invited me to tag along as an afterthought-- and what was this school? Acroft? Sounded like the title out of some horror movie.

I already felt out of whack seeing Anna drive on her own while I still hadn’t been given the opportunity, and now I felt even more annoyed at her thoughtlessness -- and slightly ill. Too much sun, not enough fluids. When had been the last time I drank water? My stomach churned as I wished that I hadn’t seen Anna yet, that I’d stayed home with Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and my iPod on shuffle to Grease. That I’d had a shower and changed into fresh clothes… Now, instead of being safe in the coolness of my new room, I was stuck hanging out with a bunch of young kids who were still fourteen or fifteen. I mean, maybe they weren’t. Maybe. Anna and I were only fourteen months apart, how bad could it be? Maybe Anna’s choice of friends had improved in the last year -- if I was lucky.

“Peeps?” I managed to say, hoping I didn’t look disappointed that this wasn’t just a one-on-one coffee date. There was no way I wanted to fight with Anna this soon after touch down.

“Yeah. Don’t worry, they’re cool-cats.” She squeezed my arm once more, then let go.

“Sweet.” I tried to smile at her and ignore the warning bells blaring in my subconscious.

Annabelle grinned triumphantly. She parked the car, adjusted her blond curls in the mirror, then pulled out her purse and swabbed her lips with a copious amount of very pink, very mint-flavored lip gloss. The scent was so strong, it made my head throb. I thought again of how Anna reminded me so much of Claire, and was hit with a new wave of longing for my new friend. She would have made me laugh right about now; told me that we would pop in for five minutes, then ditch the adoring crowds that usually surrounded her so we could hang out just the two of us. Claire had even said no to hanging out with her latest boyfriend, more often than not, in order to make sure we spent time together. I had often pretended that Claire was Anna when I was away -- that she was the Anna I would actually like to be around. I would have to try to Skype with her tomorrow, or maybe I would try later today -- if I could stay awake that long. I could already feel myself fading.

“Don’t worry, Gen, I don’t chill with little kids. Just remember: we’re the cool-cats, and it’s super important for me that you try to fit in. I mean, I know you just got home, but try not to be boring or dull. I have a reputation to uphold... and anyway, you wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘uncool.’” She threw “uncool” up in quotation marks with her fingers.

“Anna, I never said you hung out with little kids!”

“Just try to be… not you.” Anna finished airily. She flicked a glance my way as she continued to primp in the mirror.

“Riiiight. Well, it’s hot, and I don’t want to look like a melted popsicle by the time you’re ready to go...” Even though I already felt like one. I felt a huge sigh coming on and tried to hide it in a yawn so Anna wouldn’t know how irritated I was at the moment.

My skin shimmered in the heat as I twitched in my seat, I nervously pushed some of my thick hair behind my ears. Why hadn’t I thought to put it up before we dashed out? It was already starting to cling to the back of my neck. I glanced over at Anna again, who continued to ignore me -- and then the next moment was already out of the car. Her behaviour was strange. She’d said this was her 'crew', yet she seemed so anxious. I sighed again; there was nothing else to do but follow Anna. She flashed a smile, then locked the doors, holding the little remote beeper over her shoulder in an attempt to look what she must have viewed as 'cool'. I was starting to sense a trend. Well, Golly-Gee. I hoped Acroft High School wouldn’t turn me into an spoiled, attention-seeking, annoying, infuriating brat, too. And who was this Cassandra Pirot person that dad had mentioned anyways? Hadn’t she gone to Acroft High and then gone missing? I rolled my eyes as Anna and I made our way out of the parking lot, scampered across the street through traffic and headed to the ever-welcoming shade of the Starbucks Patio.

Starbucks was packed with people, inside and out. Some, like Anna and myself, were trying to escape the summer heat and relax in the air conditioned coffee shop; others were trying to hook up or smoke on the Patio, ignoring the “Thank You For Not Smoking” signs. Too bad they didn’t also put up a “Thank You For Not Trying To Suck Each Other’s Lips Off” sign… Gah. Too much PDA. Imaginary vomit everywhere … I chuckled quietly to myself, shaking my head ruefully: Claire would have been among those couples making out -- or snogging, as she commonly called it. Snogging was a particularly fun word for some reason. Not that I’d ever gotten up the courage to “give it a go,” as Claire had put it. Perhaps I would meet someone at Acroft? My cheeks warmed considerably at the thought. What would I be like in a relationship anyways?

Once we were inside, Anna lingered at the door, and it was like my sister wasn’t even standing with me. I had become invisible. I frowned this time, stung; I hated it when my family acted as if I wasn’t there. It used to happen all the time; I guess I had just hoped it wouldn’t anymore. Seething, I headed towards the line. It looked pretty long, but nothing was going to stop me from getting my mug of tea, especially not my silly sister. Once I had shuffled in behind a couple of kids, I turned to observe the people in the tiny shop. The baristas were running back and forth in the 'Bermuda Triangle' -- which is what I had always called the area where I watched baristas somehow manage to run from Espresso Bar to the ice station to the cold tea station to the blenders and back again to the handoff-- I was surprised at the order of it-- the way no one seemed to trip or lose the full beverages in their hands-- and the way they patiently called out the drink and customer’s name-- if it had been me; well let’s just say I would be screaming, cursing and telling everyone to get out of my way! The sound of the coffee grinder, and the blenders was almost comforting-- it was the sound of organized chaos… I took a deep breath in-- cocoa and caramel.. Yum. Starbucks had always been one of my favourite places, and I took great comfort in the fact that even when I had been away there had been a bit of home there with me in the similar smells and sounds of the little shops. Already I had forgotten about Anna-- too busy trying to take it all in-- the fact that I was home, in a new city-- it was almost too much. School started in less than three weeks! Was I ready for a new school-- this apparent snotty school, a school where people went missing and acted like brats? Acroft High... I shivered and not from the air conditioning. Thinking of school reminded me I was here with Anna-- where had she gone?

I turned away from the bar and the bustling baristas, looking this way then that around the small shop. I spotted Anna pretty quickly. She was still standing near the entrance where I had left her, her neck craned, apparently searching for someone. Then she seemed to spot what she was looking for, which turned out to be a group of someones-- the same group I had just overlooked thinking nothing about it. Awesome.

I watched her saunter up to the large gathering of teens I’d already noticed lounging in the small café. A number of them -- mostly boys -- were quickly on their feet as Annabelle approached; I couldn’t quite hear exactly what most were saying to her, but a few were louder than the others. I was shocked when I realized what they were calling her.

“Hey, Bella!”

Anyone watching might have thought that they meant ‘Bella’, the Italian word for beauty, but I knew my sister better than that. I continued to watch her as the group of 'cool cats' greeted her. After what appeared to be the initial hellos, among other greetings, Anna left them, still glancing and waving over her shoulder, and hastened over to join me in the line. Now that Annabelle wasn’t standing with her friends, I could put faces to these ‘cool-cats’ I’d heard about, and I tried to size up what I was in for as Annabelle made her way to me. I couldn’t help but notice that they seemed to be older than Annabelle. Perhaps they were even older than I was. There was something in the way they held themselves, something in the way their eyes looked -- it made me nervous. Who were these people, really? Anna had only been at Acroft High for one year, how well could she know anyone? I mean, I was sure I knew Claire pretty well; but in spite of that, I had sometimes gotten the impression that I only knew her as well as she wanted me to -- that she was hiding things from me. How well would I get to know anyone at Acroft before I graduated? One year was really such a short time… It had positively flown by when I had been away; I didn’t expect this next year to really be any different-- except for the fact I was home with my family.

“Hey, Gen, thanks for grabbing a spot in line.” Anna’s cheeks were glowing pink and her eyes were sparkling. “Those are my friends, I just told them my sister -- well, you,” she giggled, “would be joining us today.”

I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I snorted, looking at her askance.

“What?” She demanded.

Bella?” I scoffed. “Seriously, Anna? I mean, that name is only popular because of a book, and it was-- but your name is Annabelle, as in Belle: not Bella. Belle as in Beauty-and-the-Beast-Belle.” Seriously-- had she forgotten our shared love of Disney movies that quickly?

Anna pouted. “Here I am, being all nice, and you want to nitpick over one little letter. So I told them my name is Annabella. Big deal. It makes me sound more interesting, and,” she batted her eyes, “mysterious. Guys like a mysterious woman. I thought with all your reading you might have known that-- even Belle in Beauty in the Beast was mysterious.” She cleared her throat and rolled her eyes. It was a really bad look for her. “And besides that, they’ve been calling me Bella all year long -- who am I to correct them? It adds to my hotness-factor.” She smiled coyly, her face flushing.

“‘Hotness factor?’ Really? And yet I’m the one Mom and Dad sent away? Unbelievable. You manipulated your way into getting your New driver’s license and if mom and dad knew you were hanging out with this type of crowd --” I shook my head. “I mean, look at them, they have to be at least two, three years older than you! Anna--”

“Look, I’m sorry Gen. If it really bugs you that much, I’ll tell them my name is Anna-belle, but let’s not fight. I promise to behave better. You don’t have to worry about anything. Please, don’t fink on me. In fact, let’s forget this ever happened and just enjoy the fact that you are home.”

We were almost at the front of the line. I wanted to smack my sister; it was like she didn’t care about how she was worsening the situation, yet there wasn’t really anything I could do at the moment. I’d have to wait till we went home; already I was embarrassed that I had lost my cool exterior while in public.

I exhaled through my nostrils, trying to make myself breathe in and out evenly.

“Fine. Consider it forgotten... for the present.”

“Thanks, Gen.” Anna patted me as if I was a child. “You’re a dear. Now, I really should introduce you to my friends.” She bit her lip. “Right now-- I’ll just point them out--” Annabelle looked over her shoulder, and began reciting her friends’ names to me.

I pretended to pay attention; the only name I remembered was one of the girls she pointed out. A girl named Marissa; she looked like a friendly, yet quiet person, with her long black hair and big brown eyes, and--

“Hey, Anna --”

“It’s Bella.” She hissed. “Well, for right now it is. I promise I’ll eventually tell them my name is Belle.”

“Right.” Now I was the one to roll my eyes, but then suddenly they fell on a person of interest. “Who is that guy?”

Annabelle shrugged.

“Which one, Genevieve? I mean, the place is full of ‘guys’, so you’re going to have to be a bit more specific.” Her uppity tone grated on my nerves.

“The one over there -- the one staring.” I nodded my head in his direction.

I wasn’t entirely sure he was staring at me, but thought it might get my sister focused on something other than herself. This guy reminded me of how Prince Charming is always described in books and movies: blonde, classically handsome, the works. My heart beat a little faster, and I tried to suppress it, disgusted with myself. Sometimes I am so lame -- to think that I could walk into one of the fairy-tale love stories I’d grown up reading.

Anna glanced over her shoulder in the direction I had indicated.

“So?” I waited, my patience for this outing and my sister growing thin. “Who is he?”

Turning to look back at me, she was about to answer when the barista interrupted.

“And what will you two lovely ladies be having today?”

Had we already reached the front of the line? Half of me was reluctantly flattered by his compliment, but the other half was annoyed. His tone was downright peppy, and I was most definitely not feeling it. I normally wanted to be that customer who made every barista happy by knowing what I wanted when I came to the till, and by being polite, but I couldn’t help turning to glare at the barista, who happened to be quite a cutie. Too bad, I could have worked with this situation -- but the blonde boy who had been looking my way was still on my mind.

“A Grandé Pineapple Kona Pop Tea, please. Two bags. No room, and a blueberry scone.” I said coldly, then turned to my sister. “And you, dear Bella?”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Anna was immediately taken with the cute barista, just as I would have been on a normal day. She was all smiles and giggles as she made eyes at him. I sighed and scowled at her.

“I’ll have a Grandé-Soy-unsweetened Green Tea Latte, please. Oh, and can you make it the old way? No foam and extra hot.” She winked.

“Your name is Bella?” The barista asked, leaning forward with interest.

I felt my jaw drop momentarily. This day probably couldn’t get much worse. I took my tea, and scone which another barista had mercifully already grabbed for me, and walked away without a backward glance. If ‘Bella’ was so smitten with barista-boy, she could pay for the drinks; my tea and scone could be part of her apology for being so --

“Whoa!”

Distracted as I was, I hadn’t been looking where I was going, which had put me on a collision course with -- oh, God, why? -- the tall blond who had been staring at me. The incident made me feel so flustered I almost spilled my tea all over the place. I was grateful for whichever barista it was who had ignored my request and left room in the top of my tea, or I would have had boiling hot tea all over my hands and clothing, which would have made this moment so so much worse.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, striving to regain my composure; but the guy didn’t move out of my way.

I forced myself to look up and found myself looking into a pair of deep brown eyes. I knew my insides were twisting and melting like a piece of a Curly Wurly chocolate bar. Crap. He looked down at me with amusement.

“So, I saw you,” he began. “Thought about coming over, introducing myself -- but then, you practically run me over. How lucky is that?” He chuckled and stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Christopher, Topher for short. You can call me either.” He shrugged and glanced over my shoulder at my sister. “I’m one of Bella’s many... friends.” He looked apologetic, and for what it was worth, that one act made me feel slightly better. “And you are?”

“Genevieve,” I managed to say, when I had found my voice. “Normally people stick to calling me that, but Anna -- er -- I mean, Bella, calls me Gen.” I hesitated for a moment and then decided to take a risk. “You can call me Gen, if you like.”

We would have probably stood there in silence after this for who knows how long, but just then Anna joined us, and I felt unexpectedly grateful.

“Ah, Toph, you’ve met my sister Gen.” Anna said these cordial words rather crossly, looking annoyed that we had met without her introducing us. My gratitude vanished.

I glanced from Topher to my sister and then back again. She was looking at him with adoring eyes; he, on the other hand, was looking downright irritated by her presence -- no, not just irritated; like he would like to hit her hard. Or maybe I was seeing things. It was a hot day, and I was more than a little jet-lagged. Plus the look on his face only lasted for a moment before disappearing.

“Well,” I waggled my fingers between the two of them in an attempt to ease the building tension. “I am going to sit down before someone else runs into me or I run into them and end up with burnt fingers.”

Balancing my tea to shield it from any passerby, I left my sister and Topher and somehow managed to get a seat beside the one girl whose name I had retained -- Marissa -- in my sister’s crowd of friends. I automatically introduced myself right away.

“Hey. I’m Genevieve, you can call me Gen. I’m Annabell-- I mean, Bella’s sister.”

Dude. I had to stop telling people that. Only my family ever called me Gen, now people were going to think my name was Jennifer and then spell it with a J instead of a G. I quickly pushed the thought aside.

“And you are?” I pretended not to know her name. It made things easier -- even if she had seen my sister pointing everyone out to me.

Her brown eyes were warm. “Hi Genevieve, I’m Marissa.”

We smiled, both of us then looking over at my sister, who was still trying to capture Topher’s attention.

“So,” I drawled. “What’s the dealio with my sister and Prince?” It was out of my mouth before I could stop it, and had me sputtering in an instant. I could feel my face going redder than a tomato.

Beside me, Marissa was quaking with laughter. Annabelle looked over in our direction, frowning slightly. Pretty soon I was laughing along with Marissa. Topher was watching me again. This time I was positive he was. When we had finally stopped giggling, Marissa answered my question.

“There isn’t much to tell. He’s two years older than her -- well, almost two.” She smiled, seeming to enjoy something about this fact, then continued. “She’s been crushing on him all year long, but he hasn’t paid an ounce of attention to her. But,” she paused to give me a wink. “He sure seems to like you.”

I looked down, about to say no, that was impossible, when I heard a soft thump and looked up to see none other than Topher himself sitting on the other side of Marissa.

“Who likes who?” He asked.

I peeked around him to look for Anna, but she was lost in the mass of her friends. Topher moved, blocking my view of anything beyond himself.

“So, who likes who?” He repeated, raking his fingers through his hair and pretending not to look too interested -- but it was totally obvious he was.

Marissa shrugged, her eyes not leaving mine, her smile broadening. Her eyebrow twitching slightly, as if she might burst out laughing again. I glanced at Topher. He stared back at me, his unblinking eyes burning into mine.

“Cause if we are talking about you and me, well -- I definitely like you.”

I swallowed a gulp of tea.

“W-what?” I stammered, my jaw dropping. Then realizing my tea was not completely swallowed, I slammed my mouth shut to stop potential drooling.

He just smiled. He didn’t even blink.

“So I was thinking since I like you, I should probably get to know you better -- I mean, besides the fact that I know your name. So, tell me something about yourself. Like where you were this last year since you obviously weren’t going to Acroft High. I would have met you a long time ago and asked you out. Made you mine.”

I noticed a scowl flash across Marissa’s features, disappearing as quickly as it came. Did Marissa have feelings for Topher, too? Or perhaps she disapproved of his taking such a sudden interest in me? Despite this, I didn’t know how to reply to Topher. He sounded so suave -- and a little intense? Was suave okay? Hmm… Was he Prince Charming like or was it all a disguise to hide what an atrocious person he was? No-- he couldn’t be horrible if he was friends with someone who seemed as kind as Marissa.

“Ummm.” I put my tea down on the small table next to my chair. “Well--” I didn’t want to look up, somewhere in this crowd of people Anna was lurking, and if she knew what was going on right now, well, she’d probably kill me.

“I was traveling.”

“Travelling?” He cocked an eyebrow and looked at Marissa with a shrug. “I also like traveling… Whereabouts did you find yourself?”

I tried yet again to find Anna-- it was as if she was hiding. “England.”

“I have family there.” Topher grinned. “Maybe next time you go-- I’ll go with you.” He winked as he tilted his cup of black coffee toward his grinning mouth.

“Or I could go with you--” Marissa said sweetly, but it was laced with something dangerous-- I swallowed the sip of tea I’d taken. “I also have family there.”

My face burned. WOW, this guy was super forward, and Marissa-- what was with her? Where the hell was Anna? Out of the corner of my eye, I finally spotted her and knew by the look on her face that she had heard everything. She managed to pick her way close enough to us to sit on the edge of my armchair, her face trying and failing to mask her displeasure. Yup -- I was in for it.

“So traveling?” She snorted. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”

Topher frowned. Marissa squirmed in her seat-- the tension building was palatable.

“Bella-- you aren’t part of this conversation. You’ve been marked by another.”

Marissa paled and Anna’s face lost color. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Did Anna have a secret boyfriend? Topher leaned in and whispered something in Anna’s ear.

“You-- You…” Hissed Anna glaring at Topher before spinning her gaze to me. “Gen, why don’t you tell us where you went to school last year.” She hissed out the sentence like a wasp, looking mighty smug all color returning to her face-- fear vanished. This whole scenario seemed so stupid.

At least that’s how I saw it. My sister, happy to see me not even half an hour ago, was now going to treat me like this all because of one guy, one strangely attractive yet possessive guy? I mean… Whatever. If that was how she wanted to play, fine. Sort of. I’d spent a year with Claire, learning her tricks-- I was not going to be pushed around because of a boy.

“Well.” I began, noticing that since Anna had joined us even more of her friends were now leaning in and paying attention. “I was at a boarding school in Newhaven-- which is almost a three-hour drive outside of Brighton.”

The circle of their friends looked impressed and I crossed my fingers. I hoped that explanation would hold.

“What type of boarding school?” Anna persisted, her eyes glittering maliciously.

My eyes narrowed. This was too much, especially coming from her. Honestly. Did she really want all her friends to know I’d been at a boarding school that was a treatment center for teens who were classified as mentally and physically sick? That knowledge could make her ‘uncool’ -- she would never be able to hang with the ‘cool-cats’ ever again.

“Does it matter?” Topher snapped back at her. “She’s here now, so drop it. You have enough problems of your own to deal with.”

I was shocked-- so was Anna. I didn’t know if she was shocked that he would stick up for me when he barely knew me or if she was shocked by the comment of her having problems of her own to deal with. I tried to ignore that part as the girlish dreamer in me imagined that Topher was a knight in one of the fairy-tales I loved. That really, at this moment, Topher was about to brandish an invisible sword and fight off anyone who tried to cross me, even my silly headstrong sister. The thought brought a smile to my face -- but it only lasted until I saw Anna’s eyes.

“You think this is funny?” She was growling. I had never heard this type of fierceness in her before. “I was all nice and brought you here. I introduced you to my friends and this is how you repay me?”

I didn’t know what to say in reply. I had never seen her like this in public before, displaying such outrageous character in front of so many people.

“Fine.” She hissed through clenched teeth. “You have no idea what this last year has been like. How dare you waltz in as if you own the whole flipping world. You don’t you know-- you don’t get to walk as if the sun rises and falls with you. Guess what-- I didn’t miss you at all. You’re ruining everything-- I wish you’d never come home. I hate you!” She stood to her feet, pushing herself off the chair she had been perched on. There was something terrifying in her face-- a strange mixture of sadness and hate. “Find your own ride home. I’m leaving, and I don’t care what happens to you now.” Then she spun and disappeared through the crowds of her friends and out the door.

It took a while to digest what was happening; Anna’s behavior, this strange collection of people-- even Topher seemed a mystery to me. Marissa patted my arm and looked super apologetic. Topher stalked off pulling out a tiny metallic smartphone and hitting call to some unknown number…

“So sorry you had to witness that.” I whispered to Marissa. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her. We often bicker but this-- this takes the cake. I hadn’t realized that she would-- that she would actually say all that in front of people.” I couldn’t believe that she would say she hated me either-- but I left that off. Anna and I had never been close like sisters should be-- but I had hoped my being away then coming home would have helped that. Apparently not.

Marissa nodded slowly, staring after Topher looking so lost in thought I wondered if she had even heard me.

“Trust me when I say that wasn’t anything I haven’t already seen.” Marissa’s brown eyes looked sad. “Look-- give her some time and Bella will calm down; she’s just-- she’s just…” Marissa’s voice faded off as she bit down on her lip. “I’ve tried to keep her out of trouble this last year-- but I don’t know if I can anymore.” She paused. “But you’re home now-- and that’s what family is for. I guess it’s up to you now.” She patted my arm. “Look Gen-- Topher he’s not really Prince Charming-- just remember that. Okay?”

I tried to let that sink in. What else was I supposed to-- could I do-- and how did Marissa know I was thinking about Topher like he was Prince Charming? Unbelief coursed through me-- that my sister would actually leave me in a strange place in a town I had never explored before… I stared out the glass windows of the Starbucks-- we were at the corner of Davies and Denman. If only I had thought to bring my iPhone with me-- I could have called my parents, gotten them to pick me up… to come save me. But no, I had left it in my purple messenger bag in my room and I couldn’t have called them; that would be humiliating. Admitting Anna and I couldn’t even get along for an hour alone? I sighed and looked over to Marissa hoping she would offer to take me home...

Marissa pulled out a similar phone to Topher's, she seemed completely unaware of the fact that I needed to talk this out with someone-- that someone needed to tell me what the hell was going on. I began to take a closer look at Anna’s ‘friends.’ There were fourteen or so people gathered, crammed into chairs around the tables in the tiny space; some so jammed together that they had taken to sitting on one another or on top of tables and on top of one another. I tried not to stare at these ‘couples’ or even at what they physically looked like. My sister had always hung with a rough crew but these guys-- besides Marissa and Topher; all looked terrifying… Some were straight up punks with neon green hair or bizarre contacts that made their eyes look like they were solid colors-- and what they were wearing? So sketch-- at least the girl’s apparel was in my opinion. What did they want people to think of them? That they were straight up skanks and sluts? I shivered. What had happened to Anna while I had been away? I couldn’t picture her wanting to be friends with a crowd like this-- neither could I see how Marissa or Topher fit in. I pulled on my shirt-- tugged on my jean skirt-- just looking at those people made me feel like I wasn’t wearing enough clothing even though it was really really hot.

While Marissa busied herself with her phone I tried to remember our house address-- something Shanacy no that wasn’t it… It was something Shaughnessy-- Vancouver? I closed my eyes and let the air conditioning whoosh over me.

“Earth to Gen.” Topher had sat back down beside me on the arm of Marissa’s chair. “You ok?”

I shrugged-- ‘okay’ was a loose term. I had literally just stepped off a plane this morning. I was sitting here in a Starbucks in the middle of who knew where with a collection of people I didn’t know, except for Topher and Marissa… and I didn’t even really know them either. Was I ‘okay’?

“Ummm… Well, given the circumstance?”

Marissa looked up at me from her phone, Topher snorted.

“Yeah. I guess so.”

Picking up my scone and breaking off a piece I tried to stay calm in what felt like a tornado of bad.

“I’m sorry I left for so long-- I had to make a phone call. It was a matter of some delicacy.”

Marissa looked up sharply at Topher.

“Toph, tell me you fixed this-- tell me you told Mark to undo whatever the hell crap--”

He scowled.

“You know just as well as I do that that’s not how it works. Remember Cass--”

“Toph?” Marissa interrupted; she glared at him. “Tell me later.” She nodded down at me and I got the distinct feeling that they were purposely excluding me from a very important conversation that might have something to do with my sister, and possibly the girl Cassandra who had gone missing. “If the situation doesn’t change--”

“”It will only change if she makes her choice. You know that.”

A shrill ring shocked my ears, Marissa's phone was ringing...

“Ahhhh the call I have been waiting for ALL DAY.” Marissa’s frown turned into a grin. “I’m so sorry, but I have to go.” She stood and put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry about Bella’s behavior… I have your house phone so I’ll give you a call later.” Her cold touch on my shoulder was oddly comforting. “Toph.” She nodded at him tight-lipped. “Deal with this.” She whispered and then she was answering the phone and out the door.

“Well.” Topher slid into the now vacated chair. “Now that we’re actually alone-- why don’t you tell me something about yourself.”

I meant to correct him-- tell him that we weren’t really alone; that Anna’s friends were still here but as I looked around I realized that they had all trickled off just when Marissa had. Weird. Like really weird-- it looked like they were all crossing the street at the same time-- crazy sauce. One of them was bound to get hit by a car if they weren’t careful-- I stared at them through the glass wall as I contemplated how to answer Topher. The cars parted for them like the Red Sea-- what the heck? Someone needed to tell me what the hell was going on, and they better do it soon...

“Welllllllll how about I ask you a question first--” I looked away from the window once Marissa and the crew who had left with her were out of sight in the parking lot across the street. My eyes met Topher's they were a deep chocolate brown-- an intense brown that made me feel strange.

“I may or may not answer your questions.” He muttered as he lifted a clear mug to his lips and sipped black coffee. “But feel free to try.”

“Who were you calling?”

“My brother, Mark.”

“Wow. See that wasn’t difficult.”

“Yeah but only because it was a straightforward kind of question and answer. You won’t always be that lucky.” Topher rolled his eye while his lips curled into a smirk. “You’ll see. Try again.”

“Okay-- Um what was all that crap about my sister being marked?”

“Nada.” He waved his free hand dismissing the question and leaned back in his chair.

“That’s so not an answer.” I clutched my paper Starbucks cup tightly in my hand. “Well if you don’t answer me-- I’ll just come to my own conclusions.”

“Fine. Do whatever you want. I’m never going to tell you if you are right.”

“Okay. So here is my conclusion-- your brother is the one with a crush on my sister, but for some reason she prefers you, and you know that your brother wants her so she is off limits which is okay to you because you really can’t stand her anyways.”

Topher laughed. “That is quite a story.”

Even though he laughed it off I felt in my heart that part of it was true. It didn’t matter if he never admitted it.

“What did you want to know about me?” I changed the direction of the conversation-- even if it meant that the attention was back on me. I thought of Marissa’s comment; "he’s not Prince Charming..."

“Lots of things-- everything...” Topher leaned forward putting his elbows on the table, obviously likening where this conversation was going.

I couldn’t look up at him-- my mind was buzzing… Did he want to know everything? I swallowed a lump forming in my throat.

“Genevieve?” Topher’s hand reached out, I could see it in my peripheral vision; he put his very warm hand on my arm and squeezed. I felt uneasy all the sudden, his touch burning my skin.

MINE.”

I almost dropped my tea.

“I’m sorry-- did you say something Topher?” I looked up into his face which was way too close to my own.

“Nope.” He whispered, but as his hand released my arm it was bright red as if he had burned me. “So are you single, Gen? Or do I have to worry about some other guy you left behind in England?

WHY? WHY did he have to be so forward? Is this why Anna liked him?

“Nope. No other guys.” I yawned as I glanced at my crown shaped clock hanging on my keychain. The watch face blinked up at me in green light. 9:30pm. No wonder I was finding it so hard to stay awake. Stupid jet lag. “I am very single.” Should I have told him that?

Topher laughed again-- it was a dark laugh.

“Not anymore.”

I stared at him. Was he serious or joking? God, I hoped he was joking. We had just met-- I would have to get to know him more before I decided whether or not I was his girlfriend... The forward possessiveness of his was unnerving. Definitely not Prince Charming then.

“You look tired.” He reached over and took the almost empty cup out of my hand. “I’ll take you home, and we can talk about this tomorrow over sushi.”

“Sorry did you hear me say yes to sushi?”

“Yes-- because I told you we were going.”

My jaw dropped. “That is totally not the same thing.” I muttered. “Besides it doesn’t really matter-- I can’t remember my address.”

He put his mug of black coffee on the table-- it was almost empty now.

“Gen, I know where you live.” He smiled, and tousled his hair-- it made him look predatory instead of young and good looking. “It’s an unfortunate truth but I know where you live because I’ve been trying to avoid Bella.” He paused. “You might have noticed-- however you...” His voice trailed off. “Anyways; you must be exhausted-- what with the time difference and such.”

“Yeah. I am.” I stood. That had been the first honest thing I had said in a while.

“This way then, princess.” Topher stood and led me out of the coffee shop and across the street to the parking lot Anna had parked in earlier.

How did I feel about this guy? I stole a glance at him as I followed him towards a blue Mini Cooper. He was really really hot. I sighed. Did hot trump obsessive, pushy, forward and possessive? It’s not like I had ever had any real experience with which to compare this -- what with not caring before I went away about boys. The skin where he had grabbed my arm tingled-- it hurt.

Topher opened the door of the mini and ushered me in.

“Thanks.” I blushed as he looked down at me-- possessive, obsessive or adoring and kind?

The door clicked shut and I rushed to put my seatbelt on, I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible, and put this whole thing behind me.

Mine.”

I shivered as Topher got into the car. He revved the engine and we took off into the unknown. We were quiet in the car, his eyes intently focused on the road-- but I couldn’t force myself to look at him. I could feel heat radiating from his body; it warmed the car, throbbing one single word in a voice that was neither mine or Topher’s; and it kept repeating…

Marked.”

I must really be losing it thanks to jet lag. I tried to block it out and listen to the Luke Bryan music playing in the background-- I almost broke the silence because I felt like asking him why he didn’t own a truck but thought he might think I was being too stereotypical. I could picture Topher owning a truck-- it suited his ego. This brought a smile to my face.

Topher pulled into a long drive-- I recognized it. Home. He pulled the car to a stop.

“Well, beautiful, this is where I leave you.” His eyes locked on mine; I couldn’t look away. “Tomorrow I’ll pick you up at six -- wear something scarlet; that color would go really well with your hair.” He blinked and whatever had been holding me from looking away from him was broken. “I would walk you to your door-- but I have something to go deal with that can no longer wait.”

“My scarlet woman.”

I forced my hands to work-- I opened the door and stepped out of the car into the coolness of the night. I took a deep breath; it felt like I had been holding it underwater until this second. Strange. I closed the door and walked away from the blue Mini Cooper and Topher; each step making me feel freer-- more myself. I shook my head. I needed to go to bed and right now. I slid my Disney Princess themed house key my dad had given me earlier into the front door not even bothering waving as Topher drove away. I would have stood there for a moment trying to gather my wits about me before I went in to face Anna, but the night was dark; I was very very very tired and the air had a strange chill to it. I entered my house shutting out the coolness of the dark summer night behind me.

Mom was waiting for me in the living room. Even though I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically; I beamed when I spotted her. It was the first time I had seen her in so long. She had started a baking business called Crafted with Kindness; right now I could tell she must have just stopped for the night-- she was still wearing a Pampered Chef apron covered in batter and other ingredients, her blond hair up in a messy bun, fly-a-ways sticking out everywhere… I couldn’t keep the smile from my face-- that was until I saw how worried she looked.

“Ah, there you are dear.” She practically threw herself at me, winding her arms around me in a tight hug, apron and all. “Where is Annabelle?” Mom asked. Her anxious eyes searched my face.

My foggy brain was confused. I had supposed that Annabelle had come home after leaving me. I had even thought she would be waiting by the door to accost me when I came home or even in my room-- waiting to throw something at me. It hit me that it had been hours since I had seen Anna. I think mom could see that I had no idea what she was talking about. Releasing me she turned, beginning to pace hardwood floor, absentmindedly tugging at her apron as she moved, and every few minutes trying to pat her wild hair into submission. Finally stopping she stared in my direction her eyes not really focusing on my face but I staring at me, questioning.

“What happened Gen, hunny? I saw you two leave together, for Starbucks? Please tell me you too were getting along for once!”

Now, what was I supposed to tell her? Uh, mom, Anna hates me, she’s crazy and left me with a bunch of crazy strangers, we can’t even get along for one hour-- and the strangers she left me with are not only that-- they are all older than her and probably not good influences like at all! You should have sent her away-- she is really the crazy one! I seem sane compared to her!!! … No that wouldn’t cut it. I cleared my throat not exactly sure how to phrase or frame my thoughts or what words would come out of my mouth when it opened. I didn’t even fully understand what had happened.

“Well, mom.” That was a good way to start I suppose. “Anna got mad at me, not really sure why.” Sort of felt like the truth. “Then she sort of disappeared in the crowd. The next time I looked for her she and the car were gone. I waited-- thinking she would maybe come back but she didn’t. Topher drove me home.” I shrugged hoping that this explanation would be good enough.

Mom wandered into the sitting room deep in thought. I trailed behind her feeling like a stranger in this house. Mom didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness. That was a plus. She soundlessly dropped onto the sofa pulling a pillow into her arms-- hugging it close, not looking at me. Well, that pillow was going to need a good wash… Minutes slowly ticked by as she sat there while I slouched against the wall watching her.

Suddenly there was a look of ‘I can’t believe it’ on her face. As if a light of understanding had dawned in her mind.

“Did you say Topher?”

I nodded not sure I liked the direction this was going.

“I see.” Mom continued. “It makes sense.”

I stared at her, a frown on my face.

“It makes sense?”

Mine.”

I loped over to where my mom was and dropped onto the couch next to her. She turned to face me taking my hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze.

“Genevieve. You are such a beautiful girl. You have always been so and always will.”

I didn’t really understand where this conversation was going. I mean my parents had sent me away because I was the ‘troubled’ one, hadn’t they?

“Even when you had social issues, you still had an amazing personality that drew people to you. Now that you have everything going for you-- your sister who has been the top of the popularity food chain is jealous.”

She paused and looked deep into my eyes, her hands still squeezing mine softly as if willing me to understand her, to see some point she was trying to make. My brain hurt. My sister, Annabelle... jealous of me? How could that be? It certainly hadn’t felt like that when we had been at the Starbucks. It was, it had to be-- something else.

“That boy Topher probably likes you, and so naturally she got mad.”

“I don’t know mom…”

“Mine.” The strange voice boomed again in my head.

“Gen.” Mom gave me a stern look. “He drove you home. He’s never taken Anna anywhere. It’s obvious he’s attracted to you, that probably set your sister off.”

This was ridiculous. The whole damn thing. I wished again for what seemed the millionth time that I had stayed home and read a book…then none of this would have happened.

“She shouldn’t have taken off on you, that wasn’t right.”

“NO KIDDING!” I hissed.

“Genevieve.” I always knew when my mom meant business-- her tone turned edgy. “I sent your father out looking for her. I was really hoping you were with her-- that she would call… Hopefully, Mike will find her.” She sighed. “Oh Annabelle, where are you?”

This time I knew mom wasn’t addressing me, she was asking herself and the room, as if they could answer her and let her know where Anna might be. She released my hands pushing herself off the couch she stood. She absentmindedly placed the now flour covered pillow back on the couch then began to pace the room.

As I sat pondering where Anna might go, I kept playing the afternoon over in my head-- was there some kind of clue to where she might go in anything that happened-- in any of the little conversations I had seen her have with her friends? I couldn’t help thinking yet again-- did she have a secret boyfriend? Maybe the punk with the green hair … But then why would she care about winning Topher’s affections, and who was this Mark character and what was going on between them??

I was surprised by the way my mom saw me-- she had always been the critical one when it came to my appearance; and not only that but also the way she was acting. It was as if I didn’t know my parents or sister at all... I felt a tight contraction in my chest. I felt so strange-- so out of place. My iPod touch vibrated-- in my back pocket. I hadn’t realized that I had had it with me that would have been nice to know I had it when I had been at Starbucks earlier… I pulled it out and looked down at the screen; Claire was trying to Skype me. I probably shouldn’t answer.

“Hey, Claire...”

“GEN!” Claire’s heart shaped face and blonde curls popped up on my iPod’s screen. God. She looked exactly like Anna.

Had Anna done this to my parents before, just disappeared? I felt my facial muscles tense.

“Right now isn’t really a good time.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh-- I’m sure it’s nothing really … It’s my sister, Annabelle; remember her?”

“Yeah totes.” Claire’s face nodded slightly obviously lagging.

“I have to go-- figure out this situation with her… Talk soon?”

“Sure!” The picture of Claire’s face froze-- stupid Skype. “But don’t forget to Skype me once everything is back to normal!”

I ended the conversation and put my iPod back in my back pocket. I shouldn’t but I felt like the little worried sister instead of the protective big sister I had always been. When had Anna grown into this stranger? Had she always been like this but I and my parents were just blind to it?

In the midst of the silence, the phone rang. It sounded like a siren to my ears as it echoed from somewhere in the recess of the house. I didn’t move from my spot on the couch-- it was comfy and suddenly I was so tired. I mean I flew all the way out of London earlier today and hadn’t had a nap in thirty-eight hours at least. I let my eyes close, and sighed, leaning into the soft leather of the sofa, willing my body to relax; but I couldn’t instead when I closed my eyes-- I saw bright red, and everything started to feel too warm-- like I was on fire… I was in the fire?

“Gen?” I opened my eyes-- temperature fading quickly, the memory of the redness, of the fire-- gone. I turned to see my mom looking at me “The phone is for you.” She held out the cordless phone like a beacon.

I took the phone wondering who it may be. I mean I didn’t even know our new number let alone know anyone who did know it… Topher? Seriously? Would he really phone me right now-- I thought he had something he had been on his way to do?? Or was it Marissa?

“Hello?” Yeah, I said it like it was a question.

“Hi, Gen. This is Marissa.”

Ah, phewf. Not Topher. Now Marissa calling me? That made sense, she had mentioned she would call later today-- I had almost forgotten. I really hoped that despite my sister we could become good friends, there was something about her that reminded me of Claire-- which didn’t make sense; they were nothing alike.

“Oh hey, Marissa. Yeah, I made it home alright. Topher drove me.”

There was silence on the phone.

“Um,” Marissa paused. “That’s not why I’m calling Gen. I mean I’m glad you got home alright-- but I wanted to tell you... on my way home I drove past a friends house. She was having this party tonight, at least that is what I had heard. If you’re still wondering where your sister is. I think she’s there. I mean, I’m pretty sure. I saw her car parked out front.” Marissa’s voice cut off sharply as if she had said too much. In the background, I could hear someone talking, whispering her name?

“Hang up the phone Marissssa…”

Who’s voice was that? I shivered-- they sounded so intense. I frowned, there was too much going on that I didn’t understand. The big sister in me wanted to open my mouth and snap that it was actually my parent’s car not my sister's but my mom was still in hearing vicinity, not only that but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to form a coherent enough sentence anyways.

“Yeah, I’d love to come over.” I managed to say hoping my mom would think it was someone I knew who just happened to get a hold of this number from Anna. “I’m super tired right now though-- having just got home today.” I nodded as if someone was talking to me. “Uhuh. Sure.”

I wasn’t sure Marissa would know what I was trying to do but I hoped that she would play along. I glanced over my shoulder, looked like my plan was working. Mom walked further away pulling out her cell phone checking to see if Anna or my dad had called her. As soon as she walked around the corner I was pretty sure she wouldn’t hear me if I talked quietly to Marissa now.

“Where?” I hissed.

There was a moment’s silence then Marissa sighed.

“Only a few blocks up from your place. You’ll know you’re there when you see the crowd of people and hear the music … they’re a rowdy bunch.” She laughed. It was not a laugh I had heard before. It frightened me. I got this feeling she wasn’t by herself. I thought I heard someone whispering her name in the background again.

“Mar-- PLEASE… Hang up the phone. Marisssa!”

I shivered. It was a deep guy voice. The way he said her name sent fear through me. Maybe I was so tired I was imagining things. Marissa’s voice snapped me out of my thoughts and back into reality.

“Oh-- watch out for your sister. Normally she doesn’t drink too much but she was mad at you-- and she tends to get into these weird moods when she does. Just letting you know.”

My heart sunk. My sister-- drinking? I didn’t even drink, although a lot of my old friends from my last high school had, and so had Claire and her friends-- still don’t know how they managed to sneak that into the school at the treatment center. I took a deep breath and nodded even though I knew that she couldn’t see that over the phone. It was a comforting move for some reason.

“Tell you what.” She continued “I’ll meet you there. See you in about five-ish minutes.”

The phone clicked going silent then almost seeming to scream through the thick silence in the sitting room with the dial tone. I pressed the end button on the phone sitting lost in thought.

“Mom.” I called through the house as I stood up heading back to the front foyer. “I’m going to take a walk.”

There was no reply. Mom was probably in her room or somewhere far enough away to not hear me. I yanked my shoes on not bothering to lace them. Exiting the front doors I entered the deepening dim of the summer night leaving our castle house behind me, looking into a new world. The night air outside was cool and crisp on my skin. I had never been a huge fan of the night. I had imagined that there was in the darkness a place of evil, that in the black shadows lurked witches, and demons and everything that couldn’t be real. Monsters-- animals of rage, controlled by their hunger. I shivered, goose bumps making their way up my arms. Thoughts rocketed through my mind, I needed to calm down.

“Find your happy place, Gen. Don’t be a baby. It’s just night time-- nothing creepy is out here... not real-- not creepy. It’s just dark out… Happy place, oh happy place.” My voice sounded loud in the empty street. I started to square breath. It always helped me and besides--My happy place was never far from my mind, luckily.

Soon pictures of the comfy bed in my new room enveloped me with a feeling of safety and security. I pictured how wonderful it would feel to curl up snuggled under piles of blankets and drift to sleep. Sleep? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sleep right now though-- images of the red fire surged through me-- okay not a happy place. Maybe I was reading one of my new books my parents had gotten me... Yes, that was a happy place. Nothing dark or scary about that unless it was the real version of Red Riding Hood.

“That’s right.” I sighed, breathing in the clear evening air. “It’s all in your mind. All trapped in your big imagination right here.” I tapped my forehead feeling pretty encouraged.

I had wandered about three or four blocks, and row upon row of beautiful deep lawned houses... I glanced at the manicured lawns and perfectly orchestrated gardens trying to envision them during the day in the sunlight. I felt like in the glory of the day they would look perfect, sunlight reflecting off summer blooms. I paused and squinted into the darkness staring at a flower garden trying to envision which flowers were planted there when a flash of light caught my attention. There among the flower stems running along through the dirt-- was it a little woman? I stepped off the sidewalk and into the dewy grass, stepping as quietly as I could. Surely I was seeing things.

“Overactive imagination...snap out of it Gen!”

I was halfway across the lawn. I could see the garden ground clearly from here. There was indeed something that looked very much like a glowing miniature woman with golden wings running through the garden laughing flashing her fingers at various flowers. I gasped.

“You are pink and you will be blue!” The figure giggled with glee, her voice rang out like the ringing of tiny bells.

“Gone off the crazy diving board?” I asked myself.

I closed my eyes rubbed them a few times before I looked back at the garden, but there was no little glowing woman with wings running through the flowers. Just a bird sitting pecking at the dirt.

“And birds don’t talk.” I told myself. “Find Anna. Go home. Sleep. Don’t talk crazy-- and stop talking to yourself!” I repeated this mantra to myself. “Be confident, cool and collected-- ignore the crazy.”

Man, I had really lost it this time. I had read too much fiction and fantasy books-- watched too much on Netflix... I think it is time I started looking into reading something historical, or perhaps biographies, at least something that-- Something that was a little more reality based and a little less fake-- because that’s what made people lose it… Believing in things that couldn’t exist.

My iPod was shoved in my back pocket; pulling it out I pushed play on my favorites list. In a few minutes I had forgotten I was going crazy, hearing voices, seeing things that weren’t there … that I was cold, how I tired I was, even how long I had been walking for.

“Lies, living in a fantasy-- lies escape reality-- Lies!...” Mcfly boomed through my earphones, now that was more like it.

The cold air hit my skin and left me feeling light, free and wide awake. I bobbed my head to the beat of the music as I walked. I probably would have stayed in my semi-state of calm, continuing to walk if it hadn’t been for the realization that I could hear a throbbing beat playing in the undertones of my music-- it reminded me of what Marissa had mentioned, why I was walking. She had said to keep walking until I heard the music-- well I definitely heard the music. Turning my music off I shoved my iPod back into my pocket. I had to be close. I began looking at each house I walked by, trying to see into dark windows. The road up ahead curved, the house on the corner probably the largest on the street had my parent's car parked in front of it. I started up the drive--my feet frozen, not even sure why. I suddenly wished I hadn’t come.

The house was set back from the road. The drive full of parked vehicles, fancy vehicles. I felt myself feel car envy for a minute before I snapped out of it. Claire’s parents had let her drive all kinds of amazing cars-- I hadn’t really cared about cars till then, but now it was something I noticed for sure. I made my way through the maze of vehicles my feet now propelling me towards the door. The closer I got to the house the more I became aware of the fact I felt like someone was watching me. It was an unnerving feeling. The front door of the house was wide open, which I would never have noticed from the road. Blue, red, yellow and green neon lights flashed out of the black recesses inside, but I didn’t see any people. The music was so loud now, my head and heart throbbed with it.

When I reached the door I hesitated. Good thing I did too! In what seemed like a split second, a hand reached out to block my way into the house. The hand belonged to a tall muscled teen, he was bodybuilder buff-- and now blocking my way into the house. He flicked on the porch light, staring me down. I suddenly felt the urge to run away. His eyes were fluorescent green, but his hair! I couldn’t stop staring at his hair... Normal teen guys, especially gym junkies like this guy had to be; would never be caught dead with this guy’s hair-- it was a bright baby blue-- but what was so abnormal was it looked as if it was his natural hair color. It couldn’t be. That would be stupid. I was going crazy again, or perhaps I’d never recovered from being crazy... No one is born with baby blue bright hair! Maybe he was wearing a wig. The most convincing wig I had ever seen. That’s what it had to be. A wig. Maybe this was a costume party?

“Who are you?” He asked in a commanding voice.

I shrugged. “I could be asking you the same question.” I muttered.

I frowned. His voice sounded so familiar but not. Where had I heard his voice before? I’d obviously never met him before tonight… The boy laughed then grew serious.

“Why isn’t it clear?” He said in mock sarcasm, gesturing with both muscled arms before he crossed them over his chest. “I am the bouncer for this here shindig.” He flexed his arm muscles.

I felt my big sister attitude return slowly as rolled my eyes. Wow. Way to go. He gets a gold star-- NOT. My parent's car was parked in front of this house. Annabelle was somewhere inside, possibly drunk, probably still mad at me, and I was still irritated with her-- BUT I was supposed to keep her safe-- no matter what. I always had, and I always would.

“Nice. Well, I’m the big sister here at this shindig.” I said. “Come to collect my sister.” I tried to match his sarcastic tone.

I probably could have stood there all night and given him reasons why he should let me in, but I had a feeling he wasn’t going to budge no matter what I said. I thought momentarily about backing up and running at him which I knew would probably not have worked when I heard a voice behind me.

“It’s ok Sebastian. She’s with me.”

Turning my head I saw Marissa standing behind me, which to be honest was a huge relief-- at first. Seeing her now, I barely recognized her from earlier. Marissa’s midnight hair was swept up in curls which she’d pinned expertly so they bounced as she moved. The dress which she was wearing clung to her petite frame making her appear extremely curvy, it almost looked like a second skin. I noticed a swirling tattoo of ivy leaves taking up half of her face. How had I missed that at Starbucks earlier? I mean it was huge! The tattoo was unreal-- she must have paid a pretty penny for ink like that. I mean it looked like it was alive-- like it was moving as she moved. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Earlier she had looked pretty, but now she looked mesmerizing. Even her eyes looked more alive and bright-- they were no longer the brown they had been this afternoon. Her eyes were glowing emerald green; like cat’s eyes, I observed. Her pupils even looked like they were thinner and more oval than a human’s eyes should look. I’d almost forgotten about Sebastian-- the guy with blue hair as I stared at Marissa.

“Your wish is my command, My Lady Marissa.” He crooned, shocking me. I jumped and spun to face him.

He said her name like it was a caress, an invisible embrace in verbal form. That’s when I realized where I had heard his voice, in the background of Marissa’s phone call... But it couldn’t have been. She had gotten here after me, hadn’t she? Or had she? Perhaps she had already been here with-- I swallowed; with this massive blue haired dude…

Sebastian smiled then backed out of the doorway ushering us in. Marissa nodded her head at him as we entered the house. As we walked by him I swear his teeth looked like little needles or sharks teeth, no lie. Once we’d left the foyer Marissa yanked me into the nearest room slamming the door shut behind us.

“Ok. Gen, I should have been honest with you. I planned on coming to the party myself,”

I.E. Correction you were already here-- with Mr. Scary pants. Was he Marissa’s boyfriend?

“but then when I saw your sister’s car and considering what happened earlier I figured I should tell you about it. PLUS-- I knew I couldn’t let you come here alone. I mean besides the fact that they might not have let you in--”

“I’m sorry..” I interrupted. “Can we just focus on the fact that you have a massive tattoo that covers most your face?” I took a deep breath. “I mean I know I’m jet lagged but I swear I’m not usually this unobservant.”

Marissa’s jaw dropped. “You--you can see--” She sputtered and then grabbed my arms and began inspecting them-- it hurt to have her grip me like that. “Hssssss….” Marissa dropped my arm.

“What are you doing? Are you people all crazy?!” I shouted. “And what’s with your eyes? … Contacts?”

“Have you seen what you are wearing?” Marissa made a face at me, ignoring my outburst as she looked me up and down. “Seriously Genevieve? I would have thought you would have at least changed before running over here. I mean haven’t you ever been to a party before?” Her arm shook a little as she turned away from me-- was she afraid and if so why? There was nothing on my arm, I’d checked when I got home-- it just looked a tad sunburnt.

I frowned and looked down at my purple top and jean skirt. What was wrong with what I was wearing? It was the middle of the summer-- this was normal summer apparel-- well besides the converse shoes. Granted I wasn’t wearing a skin suit of a dress like Marissa, but my purple top was silk. I was about to say so when I realized Marissa’s back was to me still-- and the music was so loud I’d have to yell to get her attention anyways.

Marissa pulled open a small clutch and began digging around through it, which was intriguing enough. Surely there couldn’t be much in a tiny flimsy clutch. When she finally stopped fishing through her purse she pulled a dress-- not just any type of dress but a low cut v neck vibrant scarlet dress. She grinned then tossed the dress at me. My jaw dropped.

“What the heck is this?” I asked. I held up the dress dangling it from my fingers like it was a dead animal. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. Put it on.” Marissa commanded. “I’m in a semi-bad mood in case you are wondering, and on top of that, you are making me miss a great party. Now change. Don’t argue.”

“But where did you get it from, I mean why did you have an extra dress?”

“A lady always has to be prepared for a dress change-- call it drama, call it cautionary, you never know what the night will bring...” Her voice trailed off into the deafening music.

I shivered as a host of bad things that could happen at a party like this ran through my head-- surely I was being paranoid now. I suddenly felt the tiredness sink back in, so I didn’t form a rebuttal or comment to Marissa. I stripped to my underwear-- then pulled the skin hugging dress down over my body. Marissa had produced a pair of high heels from somewhere-- probably the silly clutch again-- I didn’t see. After nodding that I should sit she yanked my converse shoes off then put straps that passed as heels on my feet. I felt like a live Barbie doll.

“That looks good.” Marissa said with approval. “Now let me work on your hair.” She handed me a pair of elbow length black gloves. “You can put these on as I fix your hair.”

“Marissa-- no one wears these anymore.”

“Look Genevieve-- you’re the one who showed up in street clothes-- I’m the one who’s going to help you find your sister. Let’s not complain shall we?”

I didn’t want to know what an angry Marissa would look like, but I felt that she was heading that way, so I pulled the long gloves on refraining from speaking again. Marissa pulled and tugged and slipped bobby pins into my hair.

“Perfect.” She purred, stepping back from me.

I felt naked, too exposed. It felt strange. I wasn’t used to walking in heels especially heels like this. I had been wearing mostly flats for the last nine months-- they were better for your feet, and your posture; so I’d been told. Plus it was easier to run to catch the last train or bus when you had on good shoes.

“How do I look?” I asked blandly, waiting for her to sigh to tell me I was hopeless.

Laughing Marissa nodded at the mirror. “Come see for yourself.”

I wobbled over to the mirror and gasped. I looked like I was twenty or so instead of my seventeen years. I looked like a Stepford wife or like I had imagined Miss Scarlet would look. The dress clung to my body accentuating my curves, I had curves? I glanced at my hair and gasped. I don’t know what Marissa had done to it, but my normally rebellious chocolate brown locks were gathered in curls and hung cascading down my back swept up in half up half down updo.

But that wasn’t what caught my breath. My hair was midnight black, no-- it must be the light. Was the light also turning my normally deep blue eyes violet? I blinked a few times then turned away from my reflection-- this had to stop. I turned to look at Marissa, but she was stuffing things back in her clutch. I had never considered clutches a valuable size purse but after seeing how much Marissa could fit into hers I might have to reconsider.

“Unbelievable.” Marissa was muttering, she smiled at me. “No wonder Christopher likes you! You’re a living doll.”

My heart started to pound, from what emotion I couldn’t tell-- fear that he was here or attraction.

Mine… Marked.”

“Is he here?” I asked innocently, might as well get that out of the way.

Marissa chuckled. “No, Christopher doesn’t party like this darling.” She made a face as if that was supposed to mean something, but I let it go as she snapped her purse shut.

Did something flicker in Marissa’s eyes-- a thought? Something that made her appear worried fearful even, but before it fully made it to her face the look was gone again.

“Genevieve, about Christopher-- there are things..”

“Yeah?”

“Just-- oh… I really shouldn’t have given you that dress. That color…”

In my mind I could hear Topher telling me to wear scarlet-- I pushed it away. I was being silly if I worried about it… Right?

“Never mind... it's nothing.” She pushed me over to the door. “Let’s go. This princess is ready to party.” She pulled open the door, music spilled in, and I wasn’t sure if she was talking about herself or me.

I followed Marissa out of the room losing sight of her almost instantly as she darted down the hallway and into a crowded room. I wound and weaved my way through heaving dancing bodies, wondering how so many people could fit in one small place. I think I could spot a DJ spinning his tunes, there were ultra violet lights flashing in time with the music. I felt like I was in another world! Everywhere I turned there were people and the most varied types of people gathered that I had ever seen. It was crazier than the crowd who had been at Starbucks earlier… Everywhere I looked I saw a new color! Bobbing heads of Platinum blond, ruby red, vivid violet, boys with neon green hair, and tattoos every which way I looked. Everyone had some sort of tattoo. The flashing lights were unreal, though where they were coming from I couldn’t tell. The girls were all wearing tight clingy dresses. The boys’ were wearing tight fitting pants and silk tops or in some cases no tops at all, with dark leather vests, and sunglasses? Why with the sunglasses? I tried to convince myself how this environment was probably similar to what clubbing was like-- Yeah that had to be it... it had to be like clubbing. No more crazy thoughts.

I noticed several guys glancing my way, a few even tried to pull me into the dancing mob moving simultaneously as one unit of bobbing mass-- I managed to slip away every time. I had only been in the room for a few minutes, but the number of bodies packed into this room were making me feel claustrophobic. The air felt electric and thick with something-- smoke? It didn’t smell like smoke-- it smelt like copper.

What made me feel even worse was that I couldn’t see Annabelle in this mass of people and it was getting clear that I wasn’t going to be able to find her anytime soon. Maybe I should have waited it out at home, this was probably the second biggest mistake I had made all day. Annabelle would probably dance all night, sleep off her drinks in the car and then come home first thing in the morning-- the most important thing was that I now knew where she was, sort of.

I realized I didn’t even know where I was, or how long I had walked to get here. Taking deep breaths to calm myself I slowly made my way out of the room and back down the hall towards the front door. Sebastian was hiding in the shadows snogging some curvy thing draped in back. I had been worried about facing him when I tried to leave but he didn’t move as I approached. I exited the house breathing a sigh or relief at not having to deal with him, even though he probably wouldn’t have recognized me now. I barely recognized myself.

The air outside was colder now and wearing this dress I was reminded I had left my iPod, my favorite pink converse shoes, and clothes inside. I didn’t feel like going back yet. The cold air was a relief from the heat of throbbing bodies. My arm throbbed-- I looked down at is as I made my way down the drive. It was still red where Topher’s hand had hovered, I had thought it was a sunburn but now I wasn’t so sure. I shivered, so creepy. I looked into a car window staring at my reflection.

I didn’t look like myself, and I certainly didn’t feel like myself. This had been a massive mistake coming here. I should have left the search for Anna to my dad. I numbly made my way down the driveway weaving between parked cars, ignoring the glimpses of my reflection in the car windows. Sighing I decided to look into my parent’s car to check for Anna before I figured out what I should do next-- maybe she was already sleeping off her drinks. I reached the end of the drive I stared at my parents parked car suddenly aware that there was movement from within the cab. My heart started to pound. Had I been right? Had I finally found Annabelle?

“Anna?” I questioned the night while moving simultaneously towards the car. “Please tell me that’s you! I’ve been looking for you everywhere!!”

I tried to remain calm, as my feet carried me closer to the car. Maybe she was just snogging some idiot or drunk or whatever. I closed the last few feet between myself and the car. Through the window, I saw Anna bound and gagged in the back seat. This night could not get any worse...

“Anna!” I screamed.

I pounded on the window, trying to see who was in the driver seat. The car’s engine revved, taunting me. I took another step forwards, the car jerked and took off down the road. I ran-- yes ran, out after the car. I couldn’t believe my legs were moving. I felt like my lungs were on fire. I was too out of breath to scream. The car only a few feet ahead of me began to slow down. At first, I wondered why, yet as I squinted I could see through the back window Anna kicking at whoever was driving. I could see the outline of a man at the wheel. He was driving with only one hand on the wheel the other appeared to be protecting his face.

My heart raced. I was getting closer to the car, but I was still too far away to be of any real help to Anna. I could see Anna kick the driver in the side of the head- he had to let go of the wheel to turn to face her. The car spun out of control on the street heading for the edge of the road, passing through a shimmering-- wait, shimmering? How was that possible? There were tears in my eyes that's probably what it was. I could see the car crashing into a tree on the edge of a ravine. I was getting closer and more tired now, my feet and lungs on fire. I raced the last few feet, and as I hit the wall of shimmering air I screamed, it felt like needles were hitting my lungs. I closed my eyes but kept running, then suddenly I was tumbling.

I don’t recall how it happened, only that at one moment I was on the road racing for the car wreck, the next I was barrelling down the hill on the other side of the tree, or so I assumed. Brambles sliced at my arms, my head alternated with my rear in hitting the dirt. Strange how the only thought going through my head at the time was ‘ouch this hurt’, and ‘I probably look like such a mess’. I knew the dress was likely in shreds. I could taste blood as I bit down hard on my lip. The shoes were hanging from my feet, well they were only straps with a heel in the beginning there hadn’t been much of them to wreck.

When I finished falling I lay sprawled on the dirt probably looking like a dead person. I was terrified to move unless I had broken anything. I ached all over, but my main concentration and thoughts were for the well being of my sister. The fact I had fallen down a hill didn’t stand up to the comparison that she had been in a car crash, and was all tied up to boot. My eyes narrowed. I was full of a sisterly rage against whoever had done this-- and I secretly hoped that the driver had died when the car hit the tree. It was a horrible thing to think-- but hey, he was kidnapping my sixteen-year-old sister!! What was I supposed to think?

Pushing the thought of broken bones from my mind I somehow managed to find the strength to stand. Yanking the high heels from my feet, I wriggled my toes, nothing is broken at least. I squinted and tried to see how far I had fallen, but in the darkness, I couldn’t see the top of the hill. I knew physically I shouldn’t have been able to stand after a fall like that, let alone be conscious. It only added to the extent of the strangeness of the evening I had been having. I brushed the leaves off the dress and that’s when I noticed I was surrounded on all sides by forest.

A confusion that was not my own overtook me-- my sister? The mark on my arm throbbed as if I had been hit with a hot fire poker. I wanted to curl up and cry like a five-year-old child, screaming for their parents-- but I was seventeen, I wasn’t allowed to act like that. An owl hooted somewhere off to my left. The bushes rustled. I froze. It was night. I was alone and hurt in the middle of a dark spooky forest and my sister might be dying from a car crash just up the hill. It was almost too much for me to handle.

Swallowing I took one last look up the hill. There was no way I could climb it in the dark. I decided against my better judgment to head out into the forest, crossing my fingers that hopefully someone lived near here and I could call the police and get help. Wishing dreadfully for my converse shoes at this moment, I put one aching leg in front of the other my feet squishing in mud and dirt. I frowned. Blood was oozing from my scraped arms and legs.

I wound this way and that, not knowing which direction I was heading in the dark-- branches scraping me, owls and other night animals making noises which caused me to jump every time I heard something I couldn’t identify. The only thought in my head keeping me going was that somewhere my sister was in danger and needed me, otherwise, I would have frozen in fear and waited for someone to find me. The trees thinned and I could see light coming from ahead. At first, I thought it must be a street lamp when I realized it was the first light of dawn. I was coming up out of the woods feeling slightly dazed. My feet were aching, my body pounding, then I saw the sun peeking over the trees. I know this is lame, but the sight of the brightness caused me to blink, and then sneeze. Just ahead of me there was a path way. I hobbled over to it and looked up, was that a castle?

“Ridiculous!” I told myself.

Unless I only thought I was lost in the woods-- seeing things like a forest. My mind finally losing all grip on reality, trapping me in some sort of insanity. What if that was my house just up ahead? I began to run. Everything on either side of me becoming a blur. I only stopped once I was standing in front of the castle, out of breath, exhausted. It was larger up close then I had first thought it was. It’s trestles and motes looked so real-- not at all like a mirage of my crazy mind. In fact I am one hundred percent sure I even saw a crocodile snapping in the mote to my left. Suddenly there was only one thought that pulsated through my head.

“Where am I?”

I knew I was going to faint before I fell. Everything went black. The truth was that I had lost too much blood, leaving my body to the havoc of pure adrenaline. I hadn’t even eaten since my flight home hours ago. A sick nauseous feeling gnawed in the pit of me. My sight blurred, the scene before me grew fuzzy-- like an out of focus TV channel. My head felt weightless, then suddenly the ground was rushing to meet my face.

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