We pulled into my darkened driveway and sat, both of us staring at my house.
“Let’s go inside and I’ll explain everything better.” Ethan opened his door, but waited for me to do the same before moving.
I nodded uncertainly, mentally assessing if I felt well enough to walk on my own, and climbed out of the Jeep on wobbly legs. The vehicle was caked with mud and sand, and the back wheel-well had huge scratches running across it, but all in all it had weathered the SUV’s attack okay.
As soon as we were both standing in the driveway, Ethan grabbed his cell phone and made a quick call. “Yeah, we got away… No I don’t think so, everything looks secure here … Carter’s Road about three miles out … A black SUV … No I didn’t get the plates…” Ethan ran a hand across his forehead, avoiding my gaze. “Fine … Yes. What about the gym? Okay, I’ll call you once I have things settled here.” Who could he possibly be talking to? He ended the call and shoved his phone back in his pocket before I could give it much thought.
Ethan did a quick scan of the shadowy front yard, as we walked quickly up the porch stairs and into the house. My stomach did a flip-flop when he locked the door behind us.
I wished more than anything that Dad was here right now and hadn’t gone on that teaching job. He must have had some sort of sixth sense about Ethan. It was starting to look like he’d been right to worry.
I didn’t say anything, just walked straight through the house
into the kitchen and stood at one end of the table, near the French doors that led out to our backyard deck. If Ethan did end up being out of his mind, at least I was near an exit. He followed me, but remained on the opposite side of the kitchen table. I gave him a moment to think, but then quickly lost my patience.
“So, start explaining please, because I don’t get it. You’re here in East Halton to protect me, so I can change the world? You realize you sound insane. I mean, what does that even mean?” I stared at him, my arms crossed.
“Hannah, you are special,” Ethan started off slowly.
“Like, I ride the short bus to school special?” I cocked my head to the side.
My answer appeared to surprise him. He let out a laugh. “No, nothing like that. Life is all about choices; every day we make hundreds of them. Some are big, some are small, but we rarely see the impact our choices make on a larger scale. Something as small as deciding to go out to the store, for example, can have major consequences, but we usually never witness the full chain of events that occurs after our decision. And you, Hannah, happen to be one of the people in this world whose choices will matter.” His expression grew serious again, his green eyes darker than usual.
“What?” I scrunched up my nose, feeling completely lost.
“Say you decide to go to a convenience store to buy some milk one day. While you’re there a young guy comes in with a gun to rob the place. He’s going to take a mother and her small child in the aisle near you as hostages, but in an act of bravery you step in front of them. The guy takes you out of the store, where the police are now waiting. A standoff ensues that ends with the guy being taken out, while you, luckily, remain unharmed.” Ethan’s voice grew more animated. “The mother and child, as it turns out, were the wife and daughter of the governor of the state. The governor then starts a political fight for safer streets and tougher gun laws, causes he may not otherwise have invested in. From his efforts, new programs are created designed to give teenagers something better to do with their time and get them off of the streets. These programs are credited nationally as making a real difference, and are adopted in other states. Then other countries begin to use these programs, and suddenly your decision to go out and buy milk starts to have positive global ramifications.” Ethan paused.
It sounded completely farfetched, and yet he spoke with so much conviction, a small part of me wanted to believe what he was saying. “But, in your example, wouldn’t it be the mother’s choice to go to the store that ultimately led to the governor’s interest in cleaning up crime, not mine, or whoever this story is actually about?”
“What you can’t see, what no one can, are the consequences that follow when a different choice is made. If you had decided to put off buying milk for another day, perhaps the outcome would have been different. The mother and child would still have gone into the store, but maybe they would have ended up being taken hostage, and maybe the guy would have got jumpy and accidentally fired a shot that would take out both the mother and her child. The governor may be so overwhelmed with grief over this loss, that not only would he not fight for safer streets, but he would step down from office and retire to a secluded life.”
I watched Ethan closely. Something in his voice suggested this story was true, and not just a hypothetical example.
“So, you’re here from an ancient secret society to watch over me until I make some choice—and it could be a tiny one—that will change the world forever, leading it on its intended path for the future?” I rubbed my temples, willing the information Ethan was laying on me to start to fit together in my mind.
“Yes.” Ethan sounded a little relieved that I wasn’t immediately dismissing everything he’d shared.
Which didn’t mean I wasn’t still skeptical. If he’s some sort of superhero, let’s see him prove it. I glanced around the kitchen. Without giving it much thought, I grabbed a paring knife from the knife block on the counter beside me and threw it at him. He quickly twisted and the knife sailed by his arm and stuck into the wall behind him. “Hey! What was that for?” He walked over and wrenched the blade from the drywall.
“Just testing a theory.” I lifted my shoulders lightly. “You’re fast.”
“It’s a good thing I am.” He set the blade on the table in front of him.
“And you heal quickly too, don’t you?”
I studied his surprised expression. “Your arm.” I motioned to the completely healed appendage.
He gave me a lopsided grin. “My arm.”
“So is that it then, speed and healing? Or can you lift cars, and leap over tall buildings?”
Ethan laughed. “No car-lifting abilities.”
“Hleo breathe, eat and sleep, and basically do all the things a normal person does, but our physical natures have been altered to make us more effective at our job. Although I do all the same things as you, I don’t need to in order to survive.” Ethan stopped when he saw the confused look on my face.
“Let me put it this way. The laws of nature don’t apply to me the same way they do to you. For example, if you didn’t eat your body would begin to shut down, and eventually you would succumb to starvation. For me, if I don’t eat, although I would feel hunger, my body would keep going and continue to be sustained without food. I would simply have to deal with the annoyance of feeling hungry. The same is true for sleep, or breathing for that matter. I can’t suffocate, but I can feel the agony of not being able to breathe.”
My eyes widened. “What about aging?”
“My body doesn’t age, and it can’t it be affected by disease,” Ethan admitted quietly, glancing down at the table.
“So, how old are you then?” I was suddenly desperate to know the answer.
“There are two answers to that question. The first is that I am twenty-one, the second is that I have been twenty-one for 126 years.” Ethan’s lips curved up in a small smile when my mouth dropped open.
“126 years,” I breathed softly, more to myself than him. I was completely justified in my suspicion that Ethan looked well beyond eighteen years old, but there was no way anyone would ever believe that he was 126, plus the original twenty-one years of his life. I quickly did the math in my head.
“You’re 147.” I sank down onto the chair beside me. The slightest bit of amusement reflected in his emerald eyes. Had he ever shared his real age with someone before?
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Ethan, the most perfect guy I had ever met, had been on this earth almost nine times longer than I had.
“So, you can’t die?”
“I can die, just not from natural causes like old age, diseases like cancer, starvation or suffocation. I can die from ways you would murder someone like being shot or stabbed.” His tone was wry as he sat down across from me and tapped the paring knife.
My forehead creased. “So who would want to murder you, or me for that matter? I mean, who was that guy in the gym? And the one chasing us? How did they know I was so important? And why did they want to kill me in the first place?” Ethan’s eyes darkened. Whatever he had to tell me, chances were, I wasn’t going to like it. Suddenly I felt very exposed with my back facing the blackness of the yard.
“The Hleo society was originally formed to keep ‘protecteds,’ as we call people like you, selected by fate, from potential dangers such as falls, fire, random crimes, those sorts of incidents. Their job was important, but not all that difficult, considering most people don’t encounter these types of dangers in their lifetime.
“And the leaders of our group are known as The Three. Each one has their own unique gift and serves a specific role that they alone can do. They work in complete unison with each other, with no one above any other.
“Gabriel knows the path the world is headed down, and the consequences of going off of the path, Miriam sees protecteds and a timeframe for when they are going to need protection, and Victor knows who should be a Hleo, and pairs them with protecteds. The Three are the foundation on which the Hleo society stands, and the ones the Hleo go to for counsel.” Ethan drew an invisible triangle on my kitchen table with his finger.
“Five hundred years or so after the Hleo were formed, a power struggle broke out among The Three. Back then a man named Isaac was the one who had the ability to see what was to come, and it was his responsibility to control that information and share it with the other two leaders of the Hleo. The power of knowing the direction the world was moving in was intoxicating, as was the temptation to use this knowledge to control how the world’s events would play out, in a way that would benefit the Hleo, and ultimately him. He tried to convince the other two to go along with his plan, to use the Hleo to become the most powerful individuals on earth. But the other two were disgusted by his plan. Hleo aren’t meant to control destiny, their role is simply to guard protecteds. They refused to go along with him.
“His ambitions caused a divide among the Hleo; those lured by the promise of power and riches supported Isaac, and those who stood for Hleo ideals supported the other two. A battle was fought, and a new society was formed under Isaac’s rule. They are known as Bana, or murderers, and they have worked against the Hleo since that time, to take out any person, almost always a protected, that they feel stands between them and their agenda,” Ethan said grimly.
“So it’s basically like good versus evil?”
Ethan nodded. “In its simplest terms, I guess you could say it that way.”
“So the guy in the gym …?”
“Was a Bana, yes. They like to make their hits look like accidents, both to keep from being investigated and to create a challenge for themselves.” Anger burned in his voice.
“What was the high speed chase all about then? In a town like East Halton, that sort of thing could end up in the local paper and that would blow the whole accident scenario.” I arched an eyebrow.
“I don’t know. It was very unlike them.” Ethan’s jaw clenched and the lines on his face deepened.
We fell into silence. I needed to give my brain a break. I got up, grabbed the kettle and headed over to the sink.
“Tea?” I poured water into the top of the kettle.
Ethan held up a hand. “I’m okay.”
The kettle was almost full when a thought struck me. I whirled around to face Ethan. “The day you rear-ended me, you told me that there was no way you could have known that truck was going to fly through the red light, but that’s not true, is it?”
“I had to do something to keep you from going through that intersection.” Ethan shook his head. “It amazed me when you put that together right away. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to convince you that my running into you had just been a coincidence.”
“So, you did save my life that day.” I leaned against the counter.
Ethan smiled at me as though he had a secret joke I didn’t know about.
I crossed my arms. “What?”
“Believe it or not, that wasn’t the first time I saved you from an attempt. It was the third,” Ethan admitted.
“The third!” I bit my thumb, trying to think back. “The helium tank and the crossbow.”
“The helium tank yes, the crossbow no, actually. I mean, that stunt was definitely the Bana, but the shot was too inaccurate to be a kill shot. I’m not totally sure what they thought they were going to accomplish with that one,” Ethan said. A shiver ran up my spine at the casual way he mentioned the words ‘kill shot.’
“Okay, if not then, when?” I furrowed my brow and tried to replay all the other times we had interacted before that day, but nothing unusual stood out to me.
“The day we met.” Ethan pushed to his feet and joined me in the kitchen, stopping on the other side of the island. The action was completely innocent, but from the way his eyes glanced around the room, was he checking to make sure that everything was still secure?
“You mean at the store?” Our first embarrassing encounter played over in my mind. “The stains on your shirt. After you left, Carmen mentioned that they looked like blood.”
“Yeah, this guy was planning on holding up The Patch, and making your death look like a botched robbery. I took care of him and was going to leave it at that, but I wanted to make sure that you were truly okay so I came into the store. I had gotten my shirt dirty during our fight and decided I might as well get a new one while I was there.”
My forehead wrinkled. “If you have ultra-quick reflexes, how did I walk in on you while you were changing?” I picked up the kettle again and set it on the stove to boil, avoiding eye contact.
“I knew you were there. I’d come into the store to check on you, but you weren’t on the sales floor. I figured you were in the back, but I couldn’t very well make my way there with Carmen keeping a close eye on me. I knew that the change rooms shared a wall with the storage area, so all I had to do was hop up into the ceiling and look over to make sure you were okay. You were just leaving the storeroom when I saw you, and by the time I got back in the stall you were already checking the first one. My face was dirty and flushed from being in the ceiling, and I couldn’t let you see me like that.” Ethan shrugged.
“But you always acted so innocent; you were lost on the first day of school, and then at the library.” I frowned.
“I have to seem average Hannah, like an ordinary high school student. Imagine my surprise when the person I’m protecting doesn’t show up to class my first day of active shadowing duty, even though I saw her arrive at school.” Ethan pressed his palms against the wooden island.
“As soon as class ended, I started looking for you to make sure you were okay. The bell rang before I got to the English classroom, then I glanced in the door and saw you were still missing. I’m just glad I went looking for you instead of waiting for you to show up. Acting lost after saving you from the helium tank was the easiest way to connect with you, and keep you from questioning how the tank mysteriously burst at the precise moment you were standing there.”
I ran my hands through my hair. Why hadn’t I questioned the timing of that more?
“I didn’t want you to see me at the library—we try not to show up too much in a protected’s life—but you happen to be very observant. I would’ve been in the free and clear if it weren’t for those old floorboards.” Ethan shook his head again.
“I almost left.” I leaned against the island across from Ethan.
“Acting like I don’t have it all together keeps you from getting suspicious, or at least it’s meant to.” Ethan frowned slightly as though to acknowledge his usual blending-in tactics hadn’t seemed to work as effectively as normal.
“This is just so hard to wrap my head around. I’m supposed to impact the future, people are trying to kill me, and the only reason you came to East Halton is because it’s your job to keep me alive.” I worked to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
“Yes.” Ethan looked down, sliding his hands back and forth. He seemed uncomfortable.
I was still struggling to accept that what he was telling me could be true. It helped that Dad had filled my head with all sorts of stories through the years of secret societies, magical artifacts, and other long lost mystical tales. And it explained why a stranger in an SUV had nearly run the two of us down.
Ethan reached across the island and covered my hand with his. “I know what this all sounds like, believe me, but take tonight to think it over. I’ve filled your mind with more than enough to digest for one evening.”
I glanced down at our hands. “I have enough to keep my mind busy for a month’s worth of evenings. Maybe I will try to get some sleep.” I looked up and met his eyes again.
Ethan studied me. His intense gaze was making it hard for me to breath, but before he could say anything more, the kettle whistled and he pulled his hand away.
I made a cup of tea and headed out of the kitchen. Ethan followed me down the hallway. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I turned to say good night, but Ethan just stood there waiting for me to go up, rather than walking to the front door. “So, I’ll see you tomorrow at school?”
“Hannah, I’m not going anywhere,” Ethan said firmly, looking at me like there was no use in arguing.
“You aren’t?” I swallowed hard. Although the thought made nervous little butterflies flutter in my stomach, I was glad. After what had happened, and everything we had discussed, I didn’t want to be alone in the house.
“What happened today was, well, it was too close. Until I can be sure we’ve dealt with the threat completely, I’ll be sticking pretty close to you.” His tone was so serious, should I be even more worried about my safety than I already was?
Ethan waved a hand toward the second floor. “Get some sleep. I’ll be down here if you need me.”
“We have a guest bedroom; you might as well sleep in a bed.”
“That’s a nice offer, thank you. I might take you up on it.” Ethan nodded, but my guess was that he had no plans to sleep at all that evening.
“It’s the last room on the left if you want it.” I tried to sound casual as the thought of Ethan Flynn sleeping in the room just across the hall from mine filtered through my brain. “Good night,” I added as I started up the stairs.
“Sleep well,” Ethan replied earnestly. It was a sweet sentiment, and as I headed to my room, I wished that I could. But as I locked the door and changed into my most presentable pajamas, I had far too many thoughts swirling around for that to happen.
Destiny. I let the word roll around in my head as I lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. It seemed so cliché, so overused, and yet Ethan believed in it, or he wouldn’t be doing what he did, and had done for a very long time: Protecting people so they could be part of the bigger plan for the world, whatever way that might be. It was a little scary to think some sort of higher power or authority was putting events into motion, that things were not all chaos and coincidence. At the same time, I found it comforting; it took the pressure off to realize it wasn’t my job to figure everything out. I was simply playing a part. But what could that part be? And how would I even know when my moment had come and gone?
I needed more information from Ethan. There were so many things he hadn’t answered. Disappointingly, one major question had been answered though: why he had been spending time with me, and getting close to me. He was trying to do his job. I was his job. All of my hopes and fantasies about what Ethan felt for me were dashed with that one single thought.
I desperately wanted to call Katie and tell her everything that had happened so I wouldn’t be alone in this utterly confusing situation, but I couldn’t. I was positive that Ethan had told me a lot of things he wasn’t supposed to, and I didn’t want to get him in trouble by sharing that information with others.
I eventually drifted off, but it was a restless sleep, and all night I dreamed of being chased by monsters that I couldn’t quite see, towards a cliff I couldn’t seem to reach.