Because I had left school early Friday, I hadn’t gone to art class, and I was curious to see if there were any residual signs of what had happened with Ethan and me in the gym. I surveyed the entire space as I walked into the room, from the spot on the wooden floor where the member of the Bana had fallen, to the basketball backboard. I was surprised to see a replacement backboard already up on the pole. It looked remarkably similar to the one that had crashed down almost on top of me, perhaps a little newer, but the average individual would never notice the swap. How had Ethan replaced the broken one so quickly? I was almost positive he’d been with me at my house the entire night he had saved me. Did he have some sort of partner that had handled the cleanup? That would explain the mysterious phone call he’d made in my driveway.
I found my painting in its usual place in the workspace cupboard, as though I had been the one to place it there after working on it the other night. I was relieved to see the backboard hadn’t damaged it and that the painting was still fully intact. I took the canvas over to my desk and worked, distractedly, on the girl’s face. At the end of class, I handed it over to Ms. Woods. She was so thrilled, I thought she would hug me. The expression on the girl in the painting still wasn’t what I pictured in my mind, but I had so many other things to think about now, I couldn’t afford to spend any more time on it.
After school, I said a quick good-bye to my friends and left with Ethan, ignoring all the raised eyebrows.
As soon as we were buckled into his Jeep and out of the parking lot, I jumped right in. “The way I see it, the more I understand how all of this works, the better equipped I’ll be to discover why you’re here, and what I’m supposed to do.”
He glanced over at me. “Maybe that’s true, but are you sure you want to know more? I’ve already filled your head with so much, and most of it is stuff you were never supposed to learn in the first place.” Ethan’s eyes were full of concern, and his jaw was taut, as though the stress of this situation was getting to him.
“Knowing more can only help me. I have so many questions I want answered, and maybe if they are, then I can make the right decision, or do the right thing. Concerning my destiny, I mean.”
Ethan sighed, as though he had waged a battle with himself and lost. “Okay, ask whatever you want to, and I’ll answer the best I can.”
“How long have you known about me?” That seemed like a fairly easy place to start.
Ethan must have agreed, as his shoulders relaxed. “Miriam envisions when a Hleo should begin looking out for a person, and she relays that information to Victor, the one who oversees the Hleo. He then assigns one of us to that protected. The society starts a file on the person, gathering every piece of information about his or her life that is considered useful. We only enter a protected’s life after all of that is completed and we are told it is time. It seems like incredibly odd timing, but Miriam saw you only a few days after your adoptive mother’s death. I don’t know if the two events are somehow linked; no one has ever been able to make a connection between them, although it has been discussed at great length. In any case, after that a file was started on you gathering all the information on your rather unusual history. It’s how I knew all about your birth parents and adoption.”
My eyebrows furrowed. It was incredibly strange to think that individuals somewhere else in this world would be having lengthy conversations about me. “So you have a file on my whole life?”
“Yeah, a summarized version of it. Your experiences, the people in your life, the places you frequent, that sort of thing.” Ethan sounded cautious, as though he was nervous about where I was going with the question.
“Are there pictures in the file?”
His eyes narrowed. “Yes, there are.”
“It’s just … you looked surprised when we met that day at the store. Didn’t you already know who I was and what I looked like?” Ethan studied me for a second, his expression unreadable. I held my breath as I waited for his response.
“Right, well, I didn’t actually prepare your file, it was handed off to me after the fact, and in the most recent picture you were fourteen years old. You looked different, and it caught me off guard.” The explanation sounded plausible, but Ethan seemed uncomfortable.
“So, you didn’t actually see me in person before that moment?”
“Only from a safe distance, where there was no chance of you spotting me.”
I nodded and tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “How long have you been here in East Halton then?”
“I arrived at the end of the summer so I could start school with you at the beginning of the year. The idea was for me to blend in as just another new student and become a sideline part of your life. Unfortunately, since East Halton High is so small, I seem to have drawn a lot of unwanted attention to myself.”
“You would have drawn attention no matter what the size of the school; the girls of East Halton aren’t used to a guy like you.” What did I just say? My face grew warm and I rushed to continue before things grew awkward. “What did you mean by sideline? I don’t get it; you wanted to become my friend almost right away.”
Ethan winced. “Yes, you’re right, I did. Hannah, things have been different with you than others I’ve watched in the past. You picked up on my observation of you almost immediately. Normally a Hleo stays in the shadows of someone’s life; sometimes a protected will know them as an acquaintance, other times just as a nameless presence, like the guy who cuts your neighbor’s lawn. You recognize him, but don’t actually know him.
“You made it very difficult for me to stay in the shadows. You always seemed to be aware of when I was around, and then when you came right out and asked me about it the day of the car accident I had two choices: I could let you believe you were crazy, although I was scared of pushing you away as that would have made my job much more difficult, or I could admit to a half truth, that I had been observing you, hoping we could be friends. When I chose the second, my job became much easier because I could be as close to you as a friend would naturally be, which would easily explain my presence in your life.” Ethan shifted gears as he spoke. It hurt that Ethan spoke of our friendship as a ruse. I knew he didn’t intend it that way, but it was still a blow to my self-esteem.
I drew in a deep breath. “So, normally protecteds never find out about a Hleo watching them?”
“That’s right. The Hleo are an incredibly secretive organization. Their secrecy is the key tool that has kept them effective all of these years. There is a strict code of conduct that a Hleo must follow, and one of the top rules is not to let the protected know who you are, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Once I was put in the position of having to outright save you from that Bana member in the gym, telling you became my only course of action. If I hadn’t, you would have called the police and had me arrested.” Ethan’s lips curled up in a little smile, obviously amused by the thought.
“I guess that’s true. I didn’t know what to think when you threw that knife across the gym at that guy.” I shook my head. The events of that evening still felt so surreal. “By the way, how did you know I was in the gym? And where were you all week?”
“Right after I checked in on you at the store—”
“The store, oh no! I’m supposed to work today.” I brought a hand to my mouth. I never forgot about work. We were already halfway to my house.
“No problem. We can always talk later.” Ethan did a quick turnaround in a driveway and started back towards the centre of town.
“Could you tell me as much as you can before we get there? The night you came by to borrow my English notes …”
“Right. After I left the parking lot, I got a tip that someone was watching you and had plans to set up some sort of accident. I started trailing the guy, but every time I got to his location, he’d moved on. He led me in a big circle until we ended up back in East Halton. I only figured out his plan to take you out with the backboard in time to get to you in the gym. I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it. I’m just thankful I did. I haven’t been able to figure out why he led me on a wild goose chase though. I’m still looking into it. It’s likely that he was working with someone else, although I haven’t seen any signs of anyone yet.”
“While we’re talking about it, how did you get the gym cleaned up so quickly?” I’ll just let my curiosity trump my fear that people are plotting as a team to kill me. “I was in there today and there were no traces of what happened Thursday night.”
We were already almost at The Patch. Ethan threw on his blinker and turned onto Main Street. “A Hleo is always assigned to protect someone with a partner. One of us takes the one-on-one role, like I am currently doing with you, and the other performs more of a surveillance duty. That person acts as a liaison between Hleo headquarters and the field, and on occasion he or she gets stuck with clean up. That night after our hide-speed getaway …” he shot me a wry grin. “I called my partner to deal with the situation. She’s incredibly efficient, and made sure all signs that something had taken place were cleared away.”
“Your partner is a girl?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, she’s a girl; well she’s twenty-seven, so I suppose you’d say she’s a woman.” Ethan pulled the Jeep up to the curb in front of the store.
I smiled, knowing immediately who his partner was: the girl he’d been fighting with the day I talked to Mazy. “She’s very beautiful,” I mused, watching for his reaction.
He seemed surprised by my words, and ran his hand over his face before answering. “You did see us then. I was sure you had, but Evelyn told me I was being ridiculous.”
“You were fighting outside The Sandwich Shop.” You didn’t respond about Evelyn’s beauty, Ethan.
“We were; she doesn’t believe I’m doing the right thing by becoming such a big part of your life. You can probably guess what she thinks of you knowing who the Hleo are. And maybe she’s right. In any case, you should probably get to work.” Ethan cocked his thumb towards the store.
My eyes narrowed. Why was he so keen to get rid of me all of a sudden? Was there something he wasn’t telling me about Evelyn, or possibly the status of their relationship?
“I guess you’re right. So while I’m in there …?” I gripped the door handle.
“I’ll be around.”
I nodded and climbed out of the vehicle, giving a small wave as I crossed the yard and deck and headed inside.
Carmen stood in the front window, creating a new Halloween-themed display with the mannequins. One was already wearing a black lacy dress and witch hat, and she had stuck a set of cat ears and leopard print shift dress on the other. She had also set up some pumpkins, hay bales, and a witch’s broom in the yard, and strung cobwebs across the light strands.
“Hey.” I headed over to the counter to stow my backpack. There weren’t any customers in the store at the moment, which explained Carmen’s decision to decorate.
“Hello. Now, am I mistaken or did I just see you exit a certain handsome young gentleman’s Jeep? Does this mean you’ve had the no girlfriend thing confirmed?” Carmen climbed out of the window and headed over to join me behind the counter.
“It is confirmed; there’s no girlfriend, but there’s nothing romantic between us either.” I sighed, replaying Ethan’s hesitancy to talk about Evelyn in my mind.
“Seriously, there isn’t. His life is too complicated for relationships.” I shook my head, wanting her to just believe me and drop it.
“Whatever you say.” She held up her hands in surrender.
I rolled my eyes and got to work, organizing some neglected areas near the back of the store and reworking a few different displays. A handful of customers came in, but it was a slow night, and I kept checking my watch, silently willing the minutes to tick by faster so I could get back to my house to finish my discussion with Ethan.
Finally seven o’clock arrived and I rushed out with a quick good-bye to Carmen. I didn’t even stop to ask if she needed help with closing up like I normally would have.
Ethan’s Jeep was parked in the back parking lot behind The Patch. Had he been there the entire shift?
“So how was your night, thrilling?” I asked as I climbed into the Jeep.
“Not so bad.” Ethan gave me a warm smile.
“I’m dying to talk, but are you hungry? Should we get something to eat first?” I pulled on my seatbelt as Ethan shifted the vehicle into drive again and we took off.
“I’m good if you are.”
I settled in against the seat. “I’m fine. So where were we?”
“Why don’t we get back to your house first, before we get on too much of a roll? That way you won’t get interrupted again.” Ethan suggested, smiling at my eagerness.
“Oh yeah, sure.” I nodded, trying to conceal my impatience. I mentally started making a list of all the things I wanted Ethan to answer as soon as we got back to my house. By the time we turned into my driveway, it was getting to be a pretty long list.