Chapter 1 - The Dreams
I need to know...
Layla Griffiths shot up on her bed dripping with sweat from neck down, her arm stretched out like a plank with her fingers spread open. Her widened eyes stared into the darkness of her bedroom as her chest heaved. It took her a minute to realise that she had snapped out of her dream when she finally blinked as she relaxed her body into the now damp, sweaty patch of her bed. She turned her nightlight on and took a big gulp of water as she tried to calibrate her thoughts. What did all this mean she thought to herself. Why was she constantly having these vague, cloudy figures in her visions? Almost every night Layla would dream of this mystery man in a barren land. Just the back of his body, his silhouette and a beautiful sunset. All she knew about him was his dark blonde hair and that he had warm ivory skin.
One of the other strange things were his clothes. He never wore modern clothing. It was always a cloak or something that looked like battle armour. Layla could never figure out what it meant, but she knew it was always the same man. Apart from the mystery man, she would have other strange visions such as locations she had never been to before or unknown faces who seem to be always interacting with her. At times she would look down and find herself dressed in bizarre attires. Even though the entire situation seemed like another planet to her, she couldn’t help but to find it slightly familiar. Above it all, Layla was always greatly disturbed by the faceless ‘mystery man’. She would beg him to reveal himself and every attempt would fail her.
Layla pulled the sheets off herself and proceeded into the bathroom to wash up. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and sighed. Apart from the slight dark circles caused by interrupted sleep, Layla was considered to be an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties; she had long, wavy and partly curly chestnut brown hair, a square shaped face, bow-shaped lips, brown almond shaped eyes and caramel skin with a slim 5′ 3" hourglass figure. She was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Layla had the traits of an introvert and extrovert. She was kind-hearted, humble, witty and selfless. She had a good sense of humour. But, she had her unappealing side as well to the good side. She could get quite hot-headed and overly sarcastic. She could be absolutely horrible to those in her bad books.
After examining herself, she splashed some cool water on her neck and face and headed out of her room. She opened a door at the neighbouring room and peeked in at a cloaked figure on the bed. She tiptoed to the figure and poked at it.
“Psst...Zazy? Zazy? ZAHRA!”
“WHAT THE F--”
The girl on the bed snapped furiously at Layla as she turned to face her sister. “Somebody better be dead or dying! What do you want? It’s four in the freakin’ morning!” hissed a sleepy Zahra.
“I was having my dreams again and needed some company.” replied Layla as she sat on the bedside. Zahra slapped a palm to her forehead as she made room for her sister. Layla snuggled beside Zahra and looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh God, what happened now?” groaned her sleepy sister.
Layla explained everything that happened and that nothing changed.
“He remains a blur to me. I screamed at him and he still didn’t budge. And guess what I wore this time - a puffy ballgown with some drabby ass lace on it! I mean, who wears that?” complained Layla. She continued to drone on and on while her sister was going in and out of her sleep.
Zahra was six years older than Layla and just as attractive. She had shoulder-length and tousled mahogany brown hair, bow-shaped lips, an oval face with round amber eyes. She was taller by three inches and had a curvier figure than of her sister’s. Zahra’s personality was that of an impatient one. She strived on punctuality and precision. She wasn’t the type who would get overly emotional. Deep down she cared for her loved ones but never showed it outwardly. She would be quite unpleasant to those who met her and was therefore considered to be one of the least-liked amongst her community.
“Look, my guess is that you’re either goin’ through some weird life crisis or your body’s desperately trying to tell you to hook up with some guy hence this infamous mystery man. Get laid or visit a shrink. Problem solved.” advised Zahra.
Layla looked at her with disgust and retaliated. “I doubt my body’s itching to be fondled by some random guy and I don’t need to see a therapist. They’re not gonna to solve my problem. This is something deeper. I can feel it. All jokes aside, I think there’s a message behind this...a purpose. I don’t think these dreams are random. I think...I think these are memories.” said Layla with intense thought.
Zahra sighed as she shook her head at her sister. “I stand by my two solutions. Take it or leave it. I really think you should get help. You can’t keep goin’ around like this waking people up in the middle of the night because of your...so-called memories. Look at me, Layla. I look like one of Michael Jackson’s backup dancers on Thriller!” whined Zahra as she pointed out to the dark crescents under her eyes.
Layla kept herself from letting out a snigger as she waved at her sister dismissively. “You’re real supportive, sis. Whatever, I’ll see you at breakfast.” responded Layla as she started to walk out of the room. “I’d rather you didn’t...” Zahra grumbled into her pillow.
A couple of hours had passed by and the house was now lit up by the morning sunshine. Layla’s family home was nothing fancy to her. It was a reasonably sized house in a peaceful neighbourhood surrounded by beautiful greenery.
If Layla had been said to choose her favourite thing about home, she would have talked about how she loved the forest was nearby. Layla loved the outdoors and going for walks with a book in hand. She would sometimes fall asleep by a tree for hours.
“You’re gonna be on the next episode of CSI if you keep disappearing like this!” Zahra nagged every time this happened.
Layla and Zahra lived in the suburbs of New York along with their parents - Ron Griffiths and Neith Griffiths. Ron was your typical successful business man, always in a suit and with a briefcase. He worked hard day and night to provide the best for his family. Even though he considered himself to be a family man and loved them immensely, his attention was hardly at home. His ambition always got in the way of his role as a father and as a husband. He was a proud man who believed in tradition and order. But, Layla’s mother was always there to neutralise the family. She was the peacemaker and the glue that held them all together. Neith was a soft-spoken, gentle and loving soul. She had migrated from Egypt to the United States with her parents when she was a young girl. She held on to her Egyptian culture and traditions and made sure to instill them on her daughters.
Layla entered the kitchen and crept up behind an unsuspecting woman by the dishwasher.
“GOOD MORNING, MAMA!” Layla greeted at the top of her lungs.
The bushy, black-haired woman jumped as she covered her ears. She glared back at her daughter as she turned off the dishwasher.
“Way to greet your fragile mother, dear.”
“Oh Mama, I was just messing around. What’s cookin’? I thought it was my turn at breakfast today?” Layla asked as she inhaled a delicious smell.
“You do plenty of that at work already. Besides, your fancy dishes are no match for my traditional Ful Medames.” Neith boasted playfully as she waved a plate under her daughter’s nose.
Layla worked as a professional chef at one of the most prestigious hotels in the city. Even though she was one of the best chefs in New York, she personally felt that she could never amount to her mother’s cooking. Layla chuckled as she pecked her mother on the cheek just before devouring her breakfast.
“Jesus, ever considered chewing?” Zahra teased as she swiped a piece of fruit.
“Aren’t you eating, Zahra?” asked a concerned Neith as she watched her eldest collect her car keys.
“Nope. You can thank your younger one for that. I should’ve been at the office an hour ago. I slept through my alarm! Anyway, I’ll be late tonight so don’t wait up for me.” she rambled on as she headed out the house.
She poked her head back in and stared Layla right in the eyes, “Seriously...don’t” she warned before disappearing again. Layla rolled her eyes in response before getting up from the table.
“Always so dramatic your sister.” sighed Neith
“Have you been having your dreams again, dear?” her mother enquired.
“It’s nothing important, Mama. It’s just the same ol’ thing. I promise it’s getting a bit better now.” Layla lied as she washed her dishes in a hurry.
She gathered her things and hugged her mother goodbye. “Don’t strain yourself for dinner. I’ll be making something special tonight!” she blew kisses as she made her way to a car door. Neith waved as her daughter drove out the driveway in a sporty, black jeep.
Layla rode through the suburbs with the windows down, enjoying the wind that flowed through her hair. Although Layla was beautiful and gave off an elegant nature, she was quite the opposite. For every pretty dress she owned, she would have something masculine to protest it - much like her car. Even as a child she always preferred playing with the boys rather than the girls. She would play football, wrestle, talk about boogers and whatever it is boys did as children. It had come to a point where Neith feared her daughter would turn into a permanent tomboy and started dousing Layla in all sorts of femininities. Layla turned out “balanced” in the end according to her mother.
“As long as she’s not...you know...picking up other habits from the boys.” Neith would say.
“What habits?” asked a confused Zahra.
“You know...life partners.” Neith would admit with difficulty.
“Oh my God, Mama! That’s so homophobic! So what if she turns out to be a lesbian? It doesn’t turn her into a monster!” Zahra protested.
Neith would always mutter a prayer every time such sensitive topics are discussed. She was still old-fashioned that way. Such actions were forbidden at her time and were considered ungodly. Even marrying Ron was such a roller coaster ride with her parents since he was not Muslim. It was the only “unforgivable” act Neith had ever done in the eyes of her parents and they had never spoken to her since. Layla and Zahra were always saved by their father from such primitive beliefs. Yes, he believed in traditions but not superstitions and religious binds.
Layla had reached the city, battling lousy drivers and traffic. She finally approached the grand building with the words Imperial Hotel at its peak. She had never gotten tired of seeing it even after countless times. It was the only building within miles that looked as if you had stepped into a part of Europe. It looked like a Roman palace with its huge pillars and thundering statues. The landscape around it looked like an English garden, filled with various species of flowers. It looked too perfect to be true.
She drove down to the car park for hotel staff, parked at her usual spot and hurried off to the elevator. The doors opened at the lobby, revealing the most luxurious scene. The hall was filled with exquisite paintings and chandeliers. It was your typical high-class interior with everything from gold to designer furnishings. Layla loved looking at such luxuries but was never comfortable being in the thick of it. Huge places and big crowds always made her feel small and out of place. She wouldn’t have called it a phobia but rather an unnecessary environment for her.
She walked along the edges of all the walkways and made her to the restaurants. She waved her staff ID at a scanner by one of the doors to the kitchen and pushed through into a busy and steamy room.
“We need two steaks at table ten, pronto!” shouted one of the waiters.
“Where’s my griddle? Who took my griddle? Stop taking my griddle!” whined a flustered sous-chef. Layla chuckled to herself as she watched the hectic environment.
“Sightseeing are we? C’mon we need an extra pair of hands!” someone nagged at Layla.
She turned to see a pink haired woman with piercing green eyes glaring at her - her best friend. Harlow Miller was a badass with a temper, but a protective and loyal companion. She had the appearance of a biker, leather jacket and all but without the tattoos and the piercings. She hated the name Harlow and made everyone call her Harley instead.
“I just arrived, Harley. Where do you need me at?” Layla rolled her eyes as put her things away and changed into her uniform.
“I need you to revive a bunch of steaks at the grill and maybe add a few more brain cells for Leroy. He can’t even fry an egg!” complained Harley as gestured at a lanky boy hunching over a bunch undercooked steaks.
“The kitchen’s not a place for little boys, Leroy. Didn’t your mommy tell you that?” she barked.
Layla turned Harley away from the quivering boy as she mouthed an apology to him.
“Why don’t you handle something a little lighter while I tend to all this. You look like you’re about to chop someone’s arm off. Go do the soups or something. Chef’s orders.” Layla soothed as she guided a furious Harley towards the soup station.
Layla was the Head Chef while Harley was her second in command, the sous-chef. The furious Harley started bashing bowls and spoons around, preparing an array of colourful soups.
“What took you so long? We had a crazy bunch of orders coming in today and we needed all the help we could we could get.”
“I know, I’m sorry...I just had a ton of paperwork to fill out last night and didn’t get much sleep.” Layla lied while she tried to look busy plating dishes.
“At least let me know when you’re gonna be late. Prepare me because I will not be responsible for the murder of Leroy.” joked Harley.
“You’re too hard on him, Har. Hostility isn’t the trick sometimes. Try being a little nicer and he’ll surely come around.”
“Yes, Sensei. You speak wise words.” teased Harley as she bowed.
Layla shook her head as she went over to the infamous Leroy to help out with the steaks. Leroy was a tall, terribly thin and gawky young man. He was the youngest amongst the kitchen staff, only nineteen years of age. He never spoke much throughout his time at the hotel. He had only worked there for a few months as a Commis Chef, still gaining experience. Layla was the only one who cut him some slack and tried to mentor him as much as she could, even sparing some of her free time. He admired her generosity and followed her around like a puppy, absorbing every piece of advice uttered to him. His adulation for her had eventually turned into obsession. Unknowing to her or others, almost every movement of hers was being stalked by the gangling figure.
“I’m sorry, Miss Griffiths. I did my best but Harley is...never impressed.” he apologised meekly as he fiddled his fingers.
“Don’t worry about Har, Leroy. I think your steaks are much better than the last time. It’s definitely an improvement. It just needs to be a little less pink in the middle and it’ll be perfect.” she smiled.
His cheeks flushed red as he looked down at her mouth. He found her amazingly beautiful and fantasised about her frequently. How he would wish to take her right there on the cool, steel counter - going on and on for hours just pleasuring her and hearing her moan his name. His name he thought, he loved the way his name rolled on her tongue. He continued to watch her with hunger as she grilled one steak after another. He had to stop gazing at her eventually once he was needed to plate the dishes.
“OK, I need to see what’s goin’ on with the seafood station. Could you help me out with the remaining steaks? I think you should be able to do it now.” Layla ensured him before leaving his side. He was disappointed once she left but he had to continue and struggled with her instructions.
An hour had passed as the kitchen continued to buzz with overworked chefs and waiters, yelling out orders back and forth.
“PROBLEM ON TABLE TWELVE! LOUSY FILET MIGNONS, CHEF GRIFFITHS!” called out one of the waitresses.
Layla jogged up to the waitress and investigated a piece of filet mignon drizzled with peppercorn sauce.
“It’s fine. I cooked this myself. What’s the problem?” she asked confused,
“I don’t know, the guy said he doesn’t want it pink inside.” the waitress replied.
“It’s medium-rare, it’s supposed to be a little...” Layla stopped herself.
She tossed her apron aside, took the plate from the waitress’ hand and stormed out the door to the dining hall. The dining hall was just as grand as every place in the hotel. It looked like a room where royals would dine. Layla walked between the silk covered tables as she scouted the hall. She found table twelve and started approaching the group seated at it. “Teaching me how to cook...” she muttered irritably under her breath.
“Good afternoon, I heard one of you had some concerns regarding their filet mignon?” she asked with a sarcastic smile.
“Yes, I did.”
A man who looked to be about in his late twenties or early thirties, answered with an authoritative tone. He had a strong, good-looking face with short dirty blonde hair and ocean blue eyes. His fitted suit revealed his muscular build - not too buffed yet not average. He looked to have been around 5′ 9" in height. Layla noticed his handsome features for a brief second before snapping back to her motive.
“I understand you were not pleased with the fact that there’s some pink in the middle. According to your order, you requested for it to be medium-rare. So, the slight pink is normal and as expected...sir.” she explained in a civilised manner, yet stressing on the ‘sir’ through her forced grin.
The young man studied her before responding,
“Well, that’s odd because this is the first time I’ve ever had a medium-rare with some colour. It made me want to question the person who cooked it...and their skills”, he slowed his speech as if to see how she would react.
“I think the only people you should be questioning are the ones who’ve been making you these ‘colourless’ and lifeless pieces of meat you call food. Definitely not mine or my team.” she retaliated coolly with her head held up in confidence.
The rest of the man’s lunch party fell silent as they watched the conversation take place.
“You seem to be very sure of yourself. Based on your choice of words and tone, I take it you were the one who cooked this?” he reckoned with his arms folded.
“Yes, I am the unfortunate one” she scoffed with a slight laugh, “If you don’t mind, I have a lot of mouths to feed, bellies to fill and appetites to satisfy. If you’re not happy with the service you’ve gotten today, there’s a suggestion box by the reception waiting for your derisory experience.” she sassed as she slammed the plate on their table and walked away.
Everyone gasped and scoffed at her behaviour except for the man.
“Damn, Louis, are you going to let the cook talk that way to you? Who does she think she is? If only she knew who she was having a go at!” complained one of his lunch guests.
“I agree, that was absurd!” commented another.
The gaze of his blue eyes trailed after her as she marched off in the distance. A lot of things were going on his mind but the most overwhelming was astonishment. He had never been spoken to that way before, especially with his status and position in the hotel.