While Neela was giving Cheveyo a piece of her mind, Delila was calling Diego to see if she could borrow his for a bit.
Diego had worked into the wee hours of the morning and hadn’t been in bed long before he received the call. Delila asked if he could meet her for lunch at a café near the hotel. He had no idea what he was saying, but he certainly knew to whom he was saying it. He was all in. She thanked him and confirmed the place and time before she ended the call. He jumped up quickly and got ready as fast as he could.
Delila got ready in a hurry as well. She was eager to get a second opinion on Cheveyo and some suggestions of how she might be able to break this hold he had on Neela. She practically ran to the café and was shocked to see that Diego was already seated at an outside table when she arrived. He looked more attractive in her eyes than ever before. There he sat, ready to help her with just a moment’s notice.
“How did you get here so fast?” she asked.
Diego was still a bit breathy from his sprint to the café. He tried to control his breathing. “I live just down the street.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, just down this street, and another, and then around a corner… Anyway, it wasn’t that far.”
Delila sat down in the chair opposite Diego, took off her side-strapped purse, and positioned it across the back of the chair behind her. “How long can you stay?” she asked. “This may take a minute.”
“However long you need me to.”
The server interrupted to take their order. The two ordered sodas and an oversized plate of nachos and then returned quickly to their conversation.
“Seriously, don’t you have to work tonight?”
“I thought I saw you on the schedule?”
“You did, but I called out.”
“It sounded like you might need me to.”
“That’s so sweet, D, and we do need to talk more about us later, but for right now, I need your help with something else.”
“I’m at your service.”
“First, can you keep a secret?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sorry, I thought I said ‘yeah’ after my pffft.”
“Okay. I think Cheveyo might be an alien or something.”
“Like, he doesn’t have citizenship?”
“No, like not-of-this-planet kind of alien.”
“What? Get outta here, that’s crazy!”
“Hear me out.”
“I will, but come on.”
“Listen, after we were taken, Cheveyo showed up on the barge in the middle of nowhere with like a crazy amount of friends, and they got straight violent with the men who took us.”
The server dropped off their order and quickly walked back inside.
“What? Cheveyo was there? I heard you all escaped on your own.”
“No, that was the lie we told to protect him.”
“I didn’t realize he was there, but I guess I could understand getting violent; they deserved it.”
“I’m telling you; it wasn’t normal. It was like nothing you’ve ever seen, and where the heck did they come from, huh? Did they just drop in from the sky? It’s weird.”
“Maybe they had a boat that you just didn’t see.”
“Or maybe they, like, teleported there.”
Diego chuckled while he loaded up his small plate with an overwhelming amount of nachos.
“Jesus, you are really puttin’ in some work on those nachos.”
He laughed. “You might want to look away.”
Diego tried to solicit a laugh from Delila by dangling a very cheesy chain of nachos above his mouth. Thankfully, it worked.
Delila laughed. “Oh, wait, and there was this other really weird thing that happened.”
“Okay, I’ll bite, what happened?”
“We were all standing in this stairwell, and then all of a sudden it was like electricity ran through us. It hurt, like you read about, but when I looked over at Neela, she had, like, no reaction. Now what’s that about?”
“Maybe she has a high pain tolerance…”
“Or maybe he’s made her immune to it somehow.”
“Immune to what?”
“I don’t even know… whatever that was.”
“How do you know that Cheveyo had anything to do with you all getting shocked?”
“I just know.”
“Don’t you think there’s something off about him?”
“No, not really.”
“Come on, you don’t think he seems like he could just rip your face off if he wanted to?”
“I could see that… And he is hella strong, so I’m sure he could do it.”
“Like, freakishly strong.”
“No, how do you know that?”
“He yoked me up when I told him that I let them take you.”
“But you didn’t; you were sucker punched in the back of the head.”
“I know, but anyway, he was pissed, picked me up like I weighed two pounds. And there was something a little weird about his eyes, too, now that I’m thinking about it.”
“They just got really intense, looked like they might have even been changing shape or something… I don’t know, it had been a really long day.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I haven’t seen you, and I’m into you—you know that. I didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, the other night, this man overpowered me, and BTW, his eyes looked a little funny while he was basically choking me with my own shirt,’” Diego confessed.
Delila laughed at the animated way in which Diego explained himself. “You’re kind of funny,” she remarked flirtatiously.
“Thanks. Is this where we get to the ’us’ part?”
“No, not yet.”
“Oh, bummer. Well, how do you want to prove this alien theory of yours, then?”
“You don’t think it’s crazy?”
“No, it’s completely insane, but if it’s what you think, let’s try to prove it.”
“Maybe we should follow him.”
“Or we could just ask him…?”
“And have him kill us? No, thanks. We have to keep this between us until we have solid proof of something.”
“Okay, let’s follow him. What exactly are we looking for? A spaceship, little green friends, what?” Diego asked.
“I don’t know. I guess we need, like, some tests or something, you know, to see if he’s human?”
“Yeah. I’m sure we can think of something.”
“I’ve got nothin’.”
“What? This is my first alien stakeout, I don’t know what to do.”
“Think of movies. Don’t they usually take their picture or hold up a mirror or something?”
“I think even aliens have a reflection, and I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like their picture taken. What about garlic and crucifixes and stuff like that?”
“He’s not a freggin’ vampire, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh, because believing that he’s from another planet is a lot more rational…”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“Totally. Look, let’s be smart about this. Do you have your phone on you?”
“Let’s just look it up. There’s gotta be some crazy alien-hunting tips or something out there.”
They both took out their phones and began to search “aliens,” “alien hunting,” “aliens disguised as humans,” etc.…
* * *
While Delila and Diego were deep into their research at the café, Cheveyo and Neela were almost back to her cottage. They took the long way home to continue their argument away from her grandfather.
Cheveyo had removed himself from camouflage, per Neela’s demand during their spat. It didn’t much change her experience, but it did lessen the likelihood of anyone seeing her arguing with herself. Cheveyo spent most of the walk trying to explain himself and persuade Neela to accept the king’s stance on their relationship. She wasn’t having it. They had not achieved any resolution by the time they reached the cottage and found Chief Cavacha and his deputy waiting.
“Just the girl we were lookin’ for,” Chief Cavacha called out.
Neela felt sick all over as deep regret set in. Why didn’t she let Delila tell her what story to stick to? She would feel a lot more confident in this moment if she at least knew the basics. She hoped she could assemble the pieces of their stories from the chief’s line of questioning.
“Hey, Chief, how are you?” She tried to sound casual.
“Good, just breaking in a new deputy. This is Souza.”
“Nice to meet you, Neela,” Souza said.
“And who is this you have with you?” the chief asked.
“This is my friend, Cheveyo.”
“Actually, I’m her boyfriend… Unless I’ve been downgraded without my knowledge,” he added with a wry grin.
Cheveyo extended a hand to the chief and then his deputy, who both enjoyed a small laugh at Cheveyo’s expense.
“Nice to meet you both,” Cheveyo said. He wasn’t met with a very warm response; in fact, no response was given at all.
“Neela, listen, I know you have been through a lot, but would you mind if we went inside and asked you a few questions?” Chief Cavacha asked.
“I’m not sure if my grandfather is home, but—”
“He is, but he has company. We thought we’d give them some privacy and wait out here. Why don’t you go ask him if it’s okay to come in?”
“Okay,” Neela said through a hard swallow.
“We’ll wait here with Cheveyo.”
She tried to take her time getting into the cottage to make things look as normal as possible. Henry and Mari met her at the door.
“You’re home!” Henry said loudly as he hugged Neela and closed the door behind her.
“Okay, what’s the plan?” Henry asked at a much lower volume than his greeting.
“Did you tell Mari?”
“Yeah, but no one else.”
“That’s fine, I trust Mari.”
“Your secrets are safe with me, doll,” Mari said reassuringly.
“The plan?” Henry asked again.
“I don’t really have one, and I don’t know what the other girls said, so I’m gonna have to wing it, I guess.”
“Okay, this is what we do. We use your visual impairment to our advantage.”
“I know it’s lowdown, but it might get us out of all of this.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Just say you couldn’t see anything and then get real offended-like—storm out of the room if you have to.”
“I don’t want to use my impairment like that.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“No, I’ll just tell them the truth that I can tell them… but I’m worried about Cheveyo.”
“I know you are, but if we can get through this, he’ll be fine.”
“No, I mean I’m worried for him out there with the chief.”
“What?” Henry asked anxiously.
“He was with me.”
Mari and Henry both moved quickly to the front door. Mari opened the main door and then held the storm door wide open. “Boys, you should come inside, get out of this heat for a minute.”
Cavacha and Souza were more eager to enter than Cheveyo, but he hid his hesitance well.
“Make yourselves comfortable wherever,” Mari offered.
“And I’ll get a couple of chairs from the kitchen,” Henry added.
Neela sat upright in Henry’s worn-down recliner. Cavacha and Souza sat on the couch directly adjacent to her. Mari sat next to the chief, and Cheveyo waited for Henry to bring the two chairs from the kitchen. True to form, Cheveyo and Henry flanked Neela on each side of the recliner with the chairs brought in from the kitchen.
“Well, Neela, like I said, I hate to even bother you with all of this, but we do need to know what you remember,” the chief explained.
“Why don’t you just tell us what happened, and if we have any questions, we’ll ask them at the end.”
Neela had been hoping for yes-or-no questions. This open-ended thing gave her enough freedom to incriminate anyone, really.
She asked Henry for a glass of water, which he provided much too quickly for her liking. She cupped the glass with two hands and took a deep breath in between several small sips. She rested the cup on her lap and continued to hold it with both hands as she told the most true version of the story she could.
“Me and Delila heard about the abductions while we were shopping.” She felt confident Delila would have left the shopping part in the story. “And so we asked our friend Diego to walk us home from work the next day.” She figured they would know this part, because more than likely Diego would have contacted the authorities after they were taken.
“He met us in the hotel lobby, and then we started walking toward my house. Next thing I knew, we were being shoved into what I think was a van—”
Souza interrupted, “Any idea the make and model of that vehicle, miss?”
Henry reacted. “How dare you ask—?”
“It’s fine, Grandpa,” Neela said pointedly.
Henry reluctantly stopped pretending to be strongly offended by the question.
Cavacha whispered to Souza something to the effect of, “Let me ask the questions; you just take notes on your little pad.”
“Yes, sir,” Souza whispered back.
“I’m sorry, Neela, please continue,” the chief instructed.
“I did notice some things about the van. I could hear that it had a sliding door, and the inside smelled of fish and cigarettes.”
“That’s helpful, Neela, please continue,” the chief encouraged.
“They bound our wrists and put blindfolds on us. I don’t think they knew that I couldn’t see. There was several of them, all men, I think. The voices changed a few times when they put us in different vehicles and then again when we got to some area near the water. They put us on some kind of large ship that felt very sturdy. I could barely feel any sway on deck, and nothing once we reached a lower level. There were two other girls in the room that they put us in. Alissa and Lizzie, I believe. Then everything got so chaotic after that. I’m not sure how I made it back to the beach, but I remember feeling thankful that I was able to get back to my grandfather from there.”
Henry shamelessly interjected, “And thank God for that! I was so happy to have her back. Chief, you remember I lost my wife and daughter not too long back. I can’t imagine losing Neela too.”
“Of course, Henry, we were all so sorry for your losses. Your wife was a good woman, and you know our Sean just adored your Nika.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
“Of course. Now, Neela, do you remember how long you were out at sea?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Do you remember how you were able to get off the ship?”
“It was all so confusing.”
“The other girls have said these were pirates. Do you remember anything being said about pirates?”
“I really can’t remember, Chief, but if that’s what they said, I’m sure that’s true.”
Souza interrupted again, “How can you remember the sound and smells from the van but nothing about how you broke free?”
“Souza!” the chief barked.
“I’m sorry, but there’s something she’s not telling us.”
The chief started to give his deputy a firm cursing, but he paused when he noticed Cheveyo’s sudden change in behavior.
Cheveyo stood up abruptly and inserted himself between Neela and Souza. He was in an agitated state that he couldn’t completely hide from his tone. “This interview is over. Neela needs her rest. I’ll walk the two of you out.”
Cavacha stood up and encouraged Souza to do the same with a slight tug on his shirt. “Of course. If you can think of anything else, Neela, Henry knows how to reach me.”
“Okay, thank you,” Neela responded.
“Thank you for comin’ out, Chief, we appreciate ya lookin’ into this,” Henry said.
The chief shook Henry’s hand. “Don’t mention it.”
Souza and the Chief followed Cheveyo to the front door. Cheveyo opened the door and held it ajar with his back. The storm door remained closed but unlocked. The deputy turned the handle of the storm door.
“Aaah!” Souza yelled out.
He examined the door handle before he cautiously tried to open the storm door again.
“Aaah!” He pushed through the door quickly and hurried to the car.
The chief stopped in the doorway for a moment. “Must be static electricity from all the friction over here,” he said with a laugh.
“Must be,” Cheveyo responded. No laugh.
Cavacha stood close to Cheveyo. “You know, Neela’s lucky to have someone so protective of her.”
“I’m the lucky one,” Cheveyo replied.
“That’s probably true.” Cavacha opened the door without hesitation.
Cheveyo caught the storm door before it could fall back into the frame. He held it open and watched the chief walk to the driver’s side of the car.
The chief turned around briefly. “Take care. I’m sure we’ll see you soon.”
“I look forward to it,” Cheveyo projected from the doorway.
The chief entered his vehicle. “Indeed,” he said under his breath.
Cheveyo continued to look on as the chief and his deputy backed out of the unpaved driveway. He waited until the men were a good distance up the road before he went back into the house.
There was an awkward silence among the four of them that remained in the living room after the chief’s visit. Mari helped herself to the kitchen. She located the rum in the pantry and poured a very small amount in the bottom of four juice glasses. She carried them into the living room and set the glasses on the coffee table.
“I think we could all use a drink after that,” she said through a laugh.
Henry knocked his back quickly. Cheveyo and Neela declined the offer. Mari sipped her first glass as Henry polished off one of the two declined offerings, then picked up the remaining glass and poured the contents into her own. It was more than Mari had initially intended to drink, but it wasn’t very much alcohol at all. The rum Mari had stumbled upon was a bottle that Neela had already altered especially for Henry.
“I hate that it was under these circumstances, but it is really nice to meet you, Cheveyo,” Mari said warmly.
“Yes. Neela speaks of you often; I feel as though we have already met.”
“I do too… Maybe in another life,” Mari suggested.
“Perhaps,” Cheveyo replied.
“There’s such an energy in the air. Does anyone else feel that?” Mari asked.
No reply from the group.
“Well, the hairs on the back of my neck certainly do,” Mari said.
Henry turned up a practically empty glass. He waited for the last drop to roll down the glass onto his tongue. “I feel it too.”
“You do?” Mari sought to confirm.
“Oh, yeah, I feel a real negative energy.”
“What do you think it means?” Mari asked.
“That we’re out of rum.”
Mari laughed. “You’re horrible.”
“I know, but that was intense. I could see you feelin’ some kind of way after all that.”
“Maybe that’s all it is, my nerves.”
“How do ya think it went, Neela?” Henry asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Chevron, what about you?”
“I believe they will be back.”
“I wouldn’t be too certain of that, Chevron. Me and the chief go way back. He was there the day I washed up with this here scar, and he is the only one that has ever believed me about King Azul bein’ the one that gave it to me.”
“I hope you’re right, sir.”
“Have you heard that story, Chevron?”
Neela pulled Cheveyo toward the back door. “Maybe another time. I’d like to get some fresh air.”
“Well, all right then,” Henry said as they left. “Mari, what do ya say, would you like to return to our chess game?”
“Are you sure Neela is all right?”
“I embarrass her with my stories is all.”
“If you’re sure that’s all it is, I’d love to finish moppin’ the floor with you.”
“I don’t know about that. My skill level jumped two or three notches in this last hour.”
“Is that so?” Mari giggled.
Cheveyo and Neela listened to the charming banter of their accomplices from just outside the back door. Neela locked onto Cheveyo’s arm and pulled on it slightly to encourage him to walk toward the water with her. There was no delightful banter between them. Most of the walk was silent, with both exhausted from their earlier argument and their meeting with the chief.
Neela was still terribly disappointed in Cheveyo for speaking with the king before they were able to finish their conversation, for eavesdropping on her and Delila, and for not sharing in her conviction that they should be allowed to marry. Cheveyo, in turn, was extremely frustrated that he couldn’t reveal all of the content of the conversation with the king and that he actually did share in her conviction. They approached the pier in silence that only broke due to the worsened weather conditions.
“It feels like a storm is almost on top of us,” Cheveyo declared.
“Yeah, it does.”
“Would you like to go home?”
“What would you like to do, my pearl?”
“Talk to the king.”
“It is an impossibility.”
Neela walked away from him and toward the end of the pier. He followed behind her with some distance. She sat down on a familiar bench and began to play with her hair.
Cheveyo took a seat next to her. “Neela, I cannot tell you everything that I am thinking right now. It is very hard to explain, but I need you to trust that I am on your side and know that I am desperately in love with you.”
“Why can’t I know what you’re thinking? We usually tell each other everything.”
“If I tell you, there might be consequences for us.”
“Neela, I would give anything to have you as my wife—”
At that, Cheveyo unexpectedly and rapidly abandoned their conversation. Neela sat alone on the bench, frightened. She could feel the sudden change in energy. There was nothing of his presence around her. She reached out her arms and searched with her hands, but nothing of him remained. She called out to him several times without any response. She sat still on the bench in disbelief as it started to rain. She had no idea where he’d gone or if he would ever come back.
Cheveyo was at that very moment being pulled with great force through the waters beneath and beyond the pier. The harder he tried to resist the current, the more painful his journey. A pressure built up against his rigid body that eventually forced him to relent. It injured his pride to give in, but traveling voluntarily helped to preserve his strength for whatever was awaiting him. The current showed no mercy in the vicious and careless way it thrashed him about. He was pushed and pulled, turned upside down, and quickly discarded on the edge of a steep underwater cliff.
It was there that he found what had been awaiting his arrival. A furious King Azul gripped hold of him and hurled them both over the edge. They plummeted deep into the sea, beyond anywhere Cheveyo had ever ventured. They spiraled rapidly toward its bottom. The king savagely drove Cheveyo’s body into the seafloor. The impact of such a harsh landing left a crater in the earth that then detained Cheveyo.
From his confinement, he saw creatures lurking in the ominous waters that were as unknown to him as the extreme depth. Their loyalty to the king was evident in their hostility toward Cheveyo. They ferociously encircled the landing site until they created a disturbance that separated the sea from itself. Part became the walls and the rest became the ceiling of their underwater chamber. The king’s hostile loyalists swam continuously within the walls, ready to assist.
The king grabbed hold of Cheveyo’s throat, ripped him from his confinement, and held him suspended in midair. Anger that had grown in his gut exploded out of his mouth and into Cheveyo’s face. He launched the warrior into the walls and dragged his body across their turbulent surface. Cheveyo was writhing in pain but thankful that his body had merely collided with the walls and not penetrated them. It was only a matter of time before the king used enough force to expose him to an attack from the wall’s inhabitants. Up until this point, he had allowed the king to work his will. He had been able to suppress any urge to fight back, but his willpower had taken a beating right along with his body.
He couldn’t give up; he had to get back to her, even if it meant that he would have to strike his king. No Ojigong had ever attacked the king. The tribe held a common belief that to lay a hand on him would be a form of suicide. Cheveyo felt death inevitable at this point. He was willing to take any measure that might give him even a slight chance at breaking free from the king. He pulled courage from deep within his long lineage of unyielding warriors. He drew back his fist and plunged it into the king’s throat.
Contrary to the beliefs of the tribe, the king did nothing but release his hold on Cheveyo. With his freedom, Cheveyo launched a full attack. He brutally snapped the king in the face with his appendages and took jabs at his body with his fists. He had the king up against the wall. The king absorbed every strike, snap, punch, and jab. He calmly leaned against the wall, with his appendages lying still beneath him. Cheveyo crouched down over his own fully charged appendages, which were firmly pressed into the seafloor. He sprang forward like a rocket headed directly for his king.
Suddenly and in midflight, Cheveyo’s body was jolted to a stop. King Azul had not laid a finger on him, but Cheveyo could feel the king’s grasp all over his body. He was slowly pulled back down to the floor. There was no wave of the hand, flitter of the eyes, vibration, or illuminated insignia. Cheveyo felt the king’s infinite power in the calm ease with which he gained ultimate control over him. He knew in this moment that the king’s defense was lacking by choice, but he had no idea why. He sat on the ocean floor, looking up at his king, whose back still rested calmly against the wall.
“You dare to strike your king?”
“I have to get back to her!”
“You would die for her, then?”
“Your treason should bring you death.”
“Yes, but my death will bring her a pain far worse.”
Cheveyo’s words seemed to soften the king’s demeanor and integrate doubt into his thoughts. His reaction strengthened a growing internal theory held by Cheveyo. The king appeared solemn; his head was tilted down, his pride slightly dimmed.
“Tell me about the girl,” the king said with his head still tilted down and his eyes positioned upward.
“Her name is Neela.”
“I have let you live for now; I am still your king. Remember that as I allow you to speak.”
“I apologize, Your Majesty.”
“Tell me about the girl,” the king again demanded.
“She is beautiful and kind, with unexpected strength.”
“She is strong?”
“Tell me of her strength.”
“In the sea, we have different ways to navigate, but on the surface, humans rely heavily on their sight.”
“Yes, I have been to the surface. I am well aware of the many limitations of the human race.”
“Neela has difficulties with her sight.”
The king motioned for him to continue.
“She lives mostly in darkness, with rare occasions of light.”
“And this was an affliction from birth?”
“No, Your Majesty, I believe it was gradual.”
“And she has overcome this?”
“Yes, most definitely. She functions better than other humans I have met who were full-sighted.”
“Does she wish her sight to be restored?”
“She has rarely spoken of it, but I believe I have seen her desire.”
“I was not aware that we could use transference on humans; I earnestly stumbled upon it.”
“You were able to transfer to the girl.”
“Yes, and I was able to see the joy in her face when she saw her loved ones.”
“What of them?”
“She has a grandfather, who can be a challenge for her, and two dear friends. A woman named Mari and a girl named Delila. She is greatly loved, Sire.”
“Tell me of the grandfather.”
“His name is Henry. He has many human weaknesses, but the most crippling of them is his love for Neela and fear of losing her.”
“He has cared for her adequately, then?”
“No, he has taken excellent care of her, despite his limited human ability and many losses endured.”
“What has he lost?”
“He lost his wife and then his daughter, the mother of Neela.”
“Did the birth kill the mother?”
“Not alone. They believe there was another affliction that complicated the process.”
“Neela, does she have any remarkable abilities?”
The king turned away and retreated into internal contemplation.
Cheveyo waited patiently for the king to rejoin their conversation. He knew the king had suffered greatly over the years, but the source of his pain had been a mystery to the tribe. In his heart, Cheveyo felt the mystery had been revealed, his private theory finally confirmed by the king’s inquires and reactions to his responses. He had always admired the king’s strength in spite of his tremendous grief, but he began to pity the once-fearsome figure in this moment. He made certain to keep his theories, opinions, and pity to himself as the king reentered the discussion.
“Bring Neela to me tomorrow morning.”
“Bring her to the pier.”
Before Cheveyo could respond, he found himself sitting back on the bench with his love and a secret he couldn’t share with her.
Neela was startled but beginning to adjust to the jolts she thought that a life with Cheveyo might always bring about. He wrapped his arms around her and held on tightly.
“What’s going on?” she asked from within his strong embrace.
“The king called upon me.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I was wrong. He wants to speak to you.”
“We will come here in the morning, and hopefully things will become clear for you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, but everything will make sense soon.”
“I’m tired, Cheveyo. Will you please walk me home?”
He promptly helped her up from the bench, wrapped her hand around his arm, and walked her home. He was a little surprised as their walk neared its end to see Henry meditating on the beach again, this time on a much more appropriate mat, in a typical stance, with an anything-but-typical woman by his side. He described the scene to Neela as they approached. She squeezed his arm a little tighter as he detailed the closeness between her two loves. She asked Cheveyo to step softly to prevent interrupting the couple as they entered the cottage.
“Will you stay the night with me, Cheveyo?”
“Are you sure it will be all right with Henry?”
“No, but I need it to be tonight.”