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Chapter 1

Present day

I shot straight up in bed, covered in sweat and breathing heavily. I felt the air being sucked out of my body as the atmosphere around me became heavier. I struggled to control my breathing. I tried to get out from under my blankets, but with my frantic movements I got tangled even more. With all the movements and the vivid images still present in my mind, I thought I was having a panic attack. My heart was pounding, and I could hear my heartbeats vibrating in my ears. I raced to the window and tried to open the latch. I needed fresh air. Now.

When the window finally opened, I stuck my face out and took in a deep breath. Shaking the horrible images from my head, I tried to control my breathing. I was safe. Nothing had happened. It was just a nightmare. A horrible one but just a nightmare. I tried to convince myself. I repeated those words multiple times in my head while struggling to breathe. There was nothing to worry about, so why was my heart still pounding?

When I finally felt myself calming down, I closed the window. I looked around my bedroom and whispered, “I’m in my bedroom. Everything is fine. It was just a bad nightmare.”

Walking over to my full-length mirror, I gasped when I saw myself. I had dark circles under my blood-shot eyes. My hair looked like a messy bird nest on top of my head, and my pajamas were drenched in sweat. Without giving myself another glance, I ran out of my bedroom and almost knocked over my brother who was coming up the stairs.

“Whoa, Alexia. What the hell?” Aric exclaimed while grabbing onto my arms to stop us from toppling down the staircase.

I wrenched my arm from his grasp and snapped, “I’m OK.”

Aric crossed his arms and stared at me for a second before stepping out of my way. I glared at him and marched to the bathroom. “You look like hell,” he said before I closed the door.

I paused and glanced at him from behind the door. Aric was staring at me intently and waiting for an answer. I didn’t have one. I was letting a horrible nightmare control my sleep and now my life. Well, a nightmare that had been going on for a week. The same nightmare, just longer and more detailed each night. More horrible and vivid images each night. It wasn’t usual to have the same nightmare every night.

I continued to look into Aric’s gray eyes. My silence was answer enough for Aric because he sighed and took a step backwards towards his room. I cast him a final glance before closing the door without saying anything. I felt like I’d been through hell. I needed to talk to someone — fast or I would go crazy.

After freshening up, I went downstairs to see my mom making breakfast. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully when she noticed me.

Giving her a small smile, I went closer. “Good morning. What are you making?”

“Pancakes. Your brother wanted them,” she replied without looking at me.

“Eww no. Pancakes? Seriously, Aric?” I turned to my brother who was sitting relaxed on the sofa watching baseball.

“I missed mom’s pancakes. I haven’t been home in three months. C’mon, be nice, Alexia.” I rolled my eyes at him and he winked.

“Do you need help, Mom?” I asked when I turned to face her. She shook her head. “I’m almost done. Just set the table.”

I looked at Aric, expecting him to help me, but he purposely ignored me and continued to watch the TV. I shook my head in annoyance and got to work.

Just as I’d placed the last plate on the table, I heard the doorbell ring. “Aric, go check,” Mom said.

“It’s probably Xavier. He’s coming for breakfast,” Aric said while getting up from his seat.

I stood up straight at the mention of Xavier. Xavier and Aric had been friends since they were eleven years old. They did almost everything together and when it was time for college, they applied to the same colleges and luckily got accepted to the same one. Yesterday, they’d come home for Spring Break and by the laughter and chattering I could hear at the front door, you would think they hadn’t met in months.

When I heard their footsteps coming closer to the kitchen, I looked at my mom in panic. “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” I asked my mom tensely.

“I didn’t think it would have been a problem that he was coming over. You guys get along so well,” she replied while giving me a strange look.

“Look at me!” I said with a huff while pointing at my sweatpants and crop shirt. But before she could reply, I was already taking off for the stairs.

When I reached my bedroom, I closed the door and rummaged through my messy closet to search for a more presentable attire. I really didn’t want Xavier to see me in my pajamas. Not when I wanted to catch his attention. Especially not when I wanted him to stop seeing me as my brother’s younger sister, who was off-limits.

When I finally found my new tight black jeans and light pink blouse, I quickly put them on. I looked in my full-length mirror and let out a tiny gasp. My ginger hair was tied into a messy knot on top of my head and my face was pale. My bluish eyes were looking back at me tiredly. I let down my hair and swiftly passed a comb through it. My hair used to be black but I’d hated the colour. So every year, I tried a new one until I stumbled upon the ginger colour. I fell absolutely in love with it and decided that would be the colour of my hair from now on. After I made a French braid, I put on some mascara and gave my cheeks a pinch. I didn’t want to overdo it. When I was satisfied with their rosy colour, I decided I was ready to go down.

I went downstairs to see my mom, Aric, and Xavier eating around the table.

Aric looked up and saw me approaching. “Where did you go? The pancakes are cold.”

“Em, I went to change. I’m meeting the girls after breakfast.”

Aric looked suspicious for a second before shrugging and returning to the stack of pancakes in front of him.

“Hey, Alexia. It’s been a long time,” Xavier said while looking at me. I saw his eyes drift to the rest of my body. OK, he was totally checking me out.

I swallowed past the lump and answered quietly. “Yeah. It’s good to see you.” My words came out high-pitched and not very appealing.

Xavier nodded and went back to eating his food. I took the empty seat beside my mom and filled my plate with a pancake.

“So, Aric and I are going to the movies tonight. Do you want to come?” Aric said after a few bites.

“At night? What time?” I asked after I swallowed my bite of pancake.

“The movie starts at nine. So we’ll leave at eight thirty,” Xavier replied.

I looked down at my plate and took my time to reply. I wasn’t so keen to go out at night, not since two girls had gone missing a few months before. I tried my best not to go out after sunset.

“What, Alexia? You still scared to go out at night?” Aric asked with a mocking laugh. I looked up just in time to see Xavier punch Aric in the arm.

“You’ll be with us, Alexia, so you don’t have to worry,” Xavier said while glaring at Aric who was rubbing his arm.

Xavier turned towards me and gave me a gentle smile. I mumbled a quick yes and continued to shove the soggy bits of pancake into my mouth.

“So you’ll come?” Aric asked again. “Yeah,” I replied, getting up with my plate. He nodded in response and turned back to Xavier. They continued their conversation about football.

“Mom, I’m going over to Samantha’s place,” I said. I leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek before saying my goodbyes to the guys.

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