Hleo

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Chapter 17

The next few days went by quickly. I was making real progress with the paintings for the dance. Ms. Woods had let me stay late after school every night since Dad left, insisting that it was no problem since she really appreciated what I was doing.

The image of the couple on the balcony was almost done, and I was over halfway with the painting of the dancing group. The third painting, my inspired piece, was coming along nicely too. I was working on the initial coloring and shading of the figures’ outfits and faces. Even with everything I’d got done, I was getting anxious about finishing before the deadline, which was now only a few weeks away.

Staying at Katie’s was turning out pretty well. She’d cleaned up her room and created a little area for me to call my own, with an air mattress and some milk crates to hold any of the things I might want easy access to. I did miss my bed, and being able to be in a room without constant conversation, but I was grateful that Katie was so accommodating.

The only strange thing about the three days that followed Dad’s departure was Ethan’s continued absence. He hadn’t been to school since he had come to The Patch to ask me for my English notes. Was he sick, or had he gone somewhere on a trip? If it was a planned absence why had he taken my notes? I tried not to think about him. Just because we were friends now didn’t mean I had to know his whereabouts every minute. I told myself he would explain everything when he returned; if he returned.

The possibility had popped into my head after the third day that his parents had decided to move again, and had sprung the decision on him with no warning. It seemed improbable, but he had mentioned that his family moved around a lot. I was worried that his absence might mean he was gone for good. It was paranoid thinking and really unlikely, and even if it was true it shouldn’t make that much of a difference to me, but I knew it would.

If Ethan left now I would be heartbroken, as much as I wanted to deny it. He had become like a drug in my life. He made me nervous and excited all at once. My heart raced and I had a hard time breathing when he was around, and yet I couldn’t get enough of him.

I’d been trying all day to keep thoughts of Ethan out of my head, but in each class, every empty chair that should have been his was a reminder of his absence. By the time art class rolled around, I was overjoyed to have an escape from my thoughts, to just be able to focus all my energy into putting paint on canvas.

When class ended, I was in a nice working rhythm and wanted to keep going. Ms. Woods told me she’d been planning on hanging out for a while to grade some artwork from her grade ten class anyway, so that was fine. Two other students from my class also stayed behind to work on their pieces for the Masks Gala, but I slipped my ear buds in, blocking out any distractions and focused completely on the images slowly coming to life on the canvas.

I worked so hard I barely noticed that over an hour had gone by until I glanced up and realized Ms. Woods and I were the only ones left in the gym. She was over in the corner of the room, cleaning up a worktable. It looked as though she was deliberately taking her time so I wouldn’t feel rushed. I took a step back from my painting to evaluate my work. There was something about the woman’s face I just couldn’t get right. I wanted to keep working while my head was still in it.

“Hannah, unfortunately I really need to get going.” Ms. Woods wandered over to me as she spoke. She reached my desk and leaned over the canvas I’d been working on. “This is really coming along well. I love the romantic feeling you’ve captured; everything has a sort of hazy dreamlike quality, doesn’t it?”

“Thanks, that’s what I was going for with it. I wish I could stay a little longer to work on the woman’s face; it just isn’t coming together the way I want it to, but I understand. Just let me clean up my painting stuff and I’ll get out of here.” I bent down to pick up my extra paints and brushes.

Ms. Woods stood there, studying my painting with her lips pursed together and a funny look on her face, as though she were wrestling with an idea she wasn’t sure she should share with me.

“You know what? I think I can trust you here by yourself. I have to go, but if you promise to clean up everything, I’ll let you stay here and work. The only thing is, I have to lock up the gym, so if you go out you won’t be able to get back in.”

“Really? That would be great.” I walked back over to my painting.

“There aren’t many students I would trust here alone, but I’m pretty sure I have nothing to worry about with you.” Ms. Woods smiled and gathered up her belongings.

“Thanks, I appreciate it. And I promise I’ll clean everything up,” I replied.

She nodded and walked towards the door. “Don’t work too hard though; go and enjoy some of your Thursday night.” Ms. Woods went out and closed the door behind her, and I heard the lock click into place.

I turned back to my work, put my ear buds in, and started painting again, perfectly content to be by myself.

I painted for about two more hours, working and reworking the expression on the girl’s face. I’d work on it, get frustrated and move onto some other element of the image, like the shading of the sky, or the detail of the outfits, then come back to her face, but I just couldn’t get satisfied with how it looked on the canvas.

I had told Katie that I needed more clothes and was going to sleep at my place that night, so there was no rush for me to leave. Dad had been pretty adamant about me staying at Katie’s, but I didn’t think one night would be a big deal, especially if he didn’t find out.

I could see through the skylight that it was dark outside. The

gym only had a few overhead lights on since Ms. Woods had needed to turn off the key controlled ones, leaving me with the emergency back-up lights. The dim lighting made it hard to see my work clearly, and I wondered exactly what time it was. I walked to the front of the room and propped the painting up against the pole of one of the basketball nets, where one of the lights shone directly down, and stepped back to get a good look at it. After a minute, I shut my eyes and pictured the scene in my head. I tried to focus on the girl’s face, but none of the details would become sharp.

All of a sudden, arms wrapped around my waist. Before I could scream, or react in any way, whoever had grabbed me pulled me into the shadows of the corner of the gym a few feet away. At the same time, the old wooden backboard I’d been standing under came crashing to the ground. The backboard slammed into the gym floor, cracking and splintering from the force of the fall. I twisted around to see Ethan. His arms circled me tightly.

I opened my mouth, but Ethan put a finger to my lips to silence me. He nodded his head in the direction of the gym door, and I turned back around as a shadowy figure entered the room. Just as the door closed behind the person, Ethan let go of me, crouched down, grabbed something from around his ankle, and threw it toward the door. The object struck whoever it was dead center in the chest and without so much as a yelp he dropped to the ground.

My eyes widened as I faced Ethan. He straightened up and looked at me. I knew I should be grateful that he has just saved my life, again, but instead I was horrified by what he had done.

“Ethan, what is going on?” I searched his tense face. My brain wouldn’t process what I had just witnessed. Where had Ethan come from? How had he gotten into the locked gym and known the backboard was going to fall? And why had he just injured some stranger?

“Stay here.” He motioned to a spot on the floor, and then strode over to the person lying across the gym.

I waited in the corner a second, then disregarded Ethan’s request and walked over, on trembling legs, to join him. The object Ethan had thrown turned out to be a medium-sized knife. It had hit the ordinary-looking Asian guy squarely in the chest, and now his eyes stared up towards the ceiling lifelessly.

“Oh.” I gasped, and pressed my fist against my mouth to keep from screaming.

Ethan wrapped his arm around my shoulders, and pulled me to his chest so I wouldn’t be able to see the guy anymore. It felt comforting for a second, until I registered that Ethan was the one who had killed whoever was lying on the floor. I shoved him away from me and backed towards the fire door, moving among the drawing desks so there were objects between us.

“I don’t know what is going on here, but you can just stay away from me.” I was trying to stay calm, but all of this was so insane, I wasn’t doing a very good job. My mind screamed at me to run, but I needed to make sure I did so at the right moment.

“Hannah, I know what this must look like to you. I am very sorry you had to witness any of it, more sorry than you can possibly know, but I need you to listen to me now. We need to get out of here because if this guy was working with someone, they’ll come looking for him shortly.” Ethan held up both hands, palms out, in a calming gesture. “If you come with me now, I promise I will explain everything to you.” He took a step forward so that we were in the same row of desks.

“You’re crazy if you think I’m going anywhere with you; you just killed some random guy with a knife you had strapped around your ankle. What I am going to do is call the police.” I took another step back to maintain the distance between us. I eyed the fire exit. Could I outrun Ethan and get to my car before he would be able to stop me? I swallowed hard. I couldn’t.

“Hannah, you trust me, I know you trust me. You know I would never hurt you. I just need you to come with me, and then we can talk.” Ethan took another step closer. His green eyes burned as he kept them locked with mine.

“Maybe I did trust you, but that was before you …” I shook my head, unable to finish the thought.

“Please, Hannah.” Ethan’s voice was pleading and he took another slow step towards me.

I bit my lip. I did want to hear his explanation so all of this would make sense. At the moment it just felt unreal.

I nodded and let him walk over to me. He grabbed my hand and guided me out the gym’s fire exit.

The second we stepped outside, headlights from across the parking lot flashed on, momentarily blinding me. I stared at the huge vehicle, stunned for a second, and heard an engine revving.

“Come on.” Ethan practically dragged me to his Jeep. Before I knew it, he had pulled the passenger door open, pushed me inside and was rounding the Jeep to climb in the driver’s side. The other vehicle sped towards us. Just as Ethan got around the hood, the car reached the Jeep, missing the front grill and Ethan by inches.

He dove behind the wheel and we sped off with the black SUV on our heels. Ethan turned sharply out of the student parking lot, his tires squealing, and I fell forward against the dashboard. Once I’d pushed myself upright, I quickly fastened my seatbelt and grabbed hold of the armrest on the Jeep’s door. We tore down a deserted residential street as Ethan tried to get some distance between us and the SUV, but every time I twisted my head to look back, it was right on our tail.

Ethan’s jaw was clenched and his eyes kept switching from the road to the rearview mirror as he swerved and turned and continued to maneuver the vehicle through town. It wasn’t the greatest moment to discuss it, but I had to find out what was going on.
“Ethan, you need to start talking, now.” I turned to look at him. I hoped my voice was forceful, but was pretty sure it was just coming out terrified. We were racing away from some unknown assailant and I still didn’t know if it was safe for me to be in the same vehicle as Ethan.

“This isn’t exactly the best time.” Ethan made a quick turn down another street. He continued to shift gears and the Jeep’s engine revved, trying to gain enough speed to get an edge on the SUV. We left the quiet neighborhoods of East Halton and headed out of town on one of the back roads in the opposite direction of my house, which only added to my growing terror.

“You just murdered someone right in front of me for no reason, so you’ll have to excuse the poor timing,” I snapped.

“No reason? Hannah, he tried to kill you.” Ethan pulled

his eyes off the road to stare at me in disbelief.

“What? How?” I frowned in complete confusion.

“The backboard; he was coming back to make sure it worked.” Ethan’s gaze turned back to the road. He sounded frustrated, as though he couldn’t believe I hadn’t connected the two incidents. The accent was back in his voice. I replayed the whole scene in my head, but it still didn’t make any sense.

My forehead wrinkled. “How would he know the exact moment I would be standing under it?”

“He could see you through the skylight. He just waited for his moment and pushed the remote trigger he had rigged.” I didn’t know whether to laugh at Ethan’s crazy explanation, or be completely creeped out that someone had been watching me work.

“Why would he want to kill me? What did I ever do to that guy?”

“You exist,” Ethan responded quietly.

I gasped and clutched the armrest tighter as Ethan made a sharp turn on to a side road. I glanced back but didn’t see the SUV behind us. Maybe we’d lost him. I turned back around, but the relief that we had eluded our pursuer diminished with the sinking feeling that I was in the car with a complete lunatic, in a situation I had no way of getting out of.

Now that he wasn’t driving as wildly, Ethan glanced over at me. “Hannah, history isn’t just a chain of coincidental events moving the world forward, it’s moments on a path leading humanity to a specific destination. Along the way, there are certain people who have a greater ‘destiny,’ for lack of a better word. The choices they make have an impact that ultimately changes the world in some irreversible way, leading it down the path it was meant to go. Each one of them is unique, and what they contribute is different. What they have in common is that they are all chosen.”

I crossed my arms and stared at him. “This is ridiculous. You want me to believe you’re one of these ‘special’ people?”

“No. You are.”

My mind was spinning, but before I had a chance to respond to Ethan’s outrageous suggestion, the SUV roared straight toward my door from a connecting side road. The vehicle slammed against the back wheel-well of the Jeep, trying to force us off the road and into the surrounding forest. I gripped the door handle to avoid being thrown around in my seat, biting my lip hard so I wouldn’t scream as we fishtailed and Ethan struggled to recover control.

We were on a service road that shouldered the lakeshore and led to a collection of private cottage estates. Ethan quickly veered to the left and cut across a well-manicured lawn. He met up with one of the roads that led right down to the lake. The SUV flew past the street, but I was sure it wouldn’t take the driver long to turn around and catch up to us again. Thankfully, the roads were mostly abandoned for the evening, and we’d only passed one or two vehicles the entire time. Even without a lot of witnesses, chances were this chase was going to end up on some sort of East Halton newsfeed. Please don’t let it be a recount of my last moments on earth.

“How? How could someone like me change the world? I’m just an ordinary teenage girl in East Halton. I don’t know any world leaders, or anyone of influence for that matter. I’m not part of any major organizations. I’m not even taking politics this semester!” I ticked the items that made me average off on my fingers like a list as we drove. I took a deep breath. “How could I ever change the world?” I wanted him to drop all this nonsense and explain what was really going on.

“Those sorts of people do impact history, but that’s not the type of person I’m talking about. Most of the individuals I’ve protected are people history doesn’t remember, but who made one small decision, or committed one small act, that set a chain of events in motion that ultimately changed the world in some way.” Ethan’s eyes were on the rearview mirror and I turned to see that the SUV had managed to cover a lot of ground and gained on us again. It was a dark moonless night, but as I righted myself in my seat the Jeep’s headlights illuminated the road in front of us enough that I could see we were getting closer and closer to the lake and what looked to be a dead end.

My heart pounded hard in my chest. “Protected, what do you mean protected? Who are you? And who is chasing us?”

“I’m part of a select group of individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping keep the world on its correct course. These chosen people, you, are so important to the future of humanity that it is imperative you are kept out of harm’s way. My job is to watch over you so that you can fulfill the plan fate has for you.”

My eyes widened. “Watch over me? So, you’re part of some secret society of bodyguards?”

“Yes. We’re called Hleo. It means protector in a language that has been extinct for a very long time, so in a sense that’s exactly what we are. It’s an ancient group whose sole purpose is to protect those who are meant for greater things.” Ethan sounded hesitant. If there was even a shred of truth to what he was saying, I had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to be explaining any of it to me. I was about to grill him with another question when a hard jolt rocked us from behind. The SUV had caught up and slammed into the back of Ethan’s Jeep. We were running out of road and only had about one hundred feet before we would hit the boat launch ramp that led right down into the lake.

Ethan gripped the steering wheel tightly, the engine revved, he wasn’t slowing down. I looked from him to the lake, shoved my hands against the dashboard, and closed my eyes, bracing myself for the crash into the water, but just as we hit the concrete ramp Ethan yanked the wheel hard to the left and forced the vehicle onto the beach. Even with the seatbelt on, my shoulder smashed against the passenger window. I yelped in pain, but we kept moving.

The SUV had been too close behind us to react to Ethan’s quick move. I managed to whip my head around in time to see it careen right into the lake, sending a huge wall of water into the air. My breath rushed out through my lips. The SUV was out of commission, but Ethan didn’t turn around to look or even slow down.

I jostled around in my seat, trying to get some sort of grip on what was happening, while Ethan maneuvered the four-wheel drive Jeep through the brush and sand of the unmaintained private beach area that ran along Lake Pocotoa. The vehicle shuddered, splashed, and clawed its way across the rough terrain until finally, half a mile down the beach, Ethan was able to pull the Jeep up the embankment where the brush had thinned out a little and we met up with a narrow gravel road.

Once we were safely on flat ground again, Ethan pulled the vehicle over to the shoulder and stopped. The two of us sat silently in the shadows of the surrounding trees.

“Hannah.” Ethan sighed and looked at me, his eyes filled with concern.

I worked to draw in a slow breath. “Can you just take me home?” I stared down at the hands I had clasped tightly in my lap. My shoulder throbbed, my head was spinning, and my nerves were shot. There were so many things I still needed to know, so many questions, but at the moment the thing I needed most was to be in surroundings that were familiar and safe.

“Of course.” Ethan shifted the Jeep into drive and pulled back onto the road again. We silently wove our way through the deserted cottage streets until we connected up with the original service road and made our way back into town.

It had been the most confusing and exhausting hour of my life. All I wanted to do was forget every bit of it. Unfortunately, with all the things Ethan still had to explain, my night was just beginning.

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