Sleep stalker (ghosts beyond the grove book 1)

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SLEEP STALKER

 

 

GHOSTS BEYOND THE GROVE PART ONE

 

 

 

by Joy Elbel

 

 

Sleep Stalker, Ghosts Beyond the Grove Part One

© 2015 by Joy Elbel

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to those who suffer from that which is unseen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It may not be romantically eloquent, but you gotta take the good with the bad.”

–Zach Mason

 

Acknowledgements

 

 

     So I can’t help but notice that this section changes dramatically with each book I write.  I used to owe that to life changing.  At this point, I realize that life isn’t what’s changing—Iam.   

www.SelfPubBookCovers.com/yvonrz—for the awesome cover design.  It fit so well with my plot that I couldn’t pass it up!

Jessica Marie Brown—inspiration for the character Salma.  She is every bit as mystical as her fictional counterpart.  Check out her vintage finds and handmade jewelry on Etsy and tell her Ruby sent you! https://www.etsy.com/shop/LonelyMoonChild

Ruby and Zach—though you’ve suffered many setbacks in your short time together, there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Keep moving forward until you find it.

 

    

Table of Contents

 

 

  Foreword

  Prologue

  1.  Wing Man—Zach 

2.  Hotbed of Confusion—Ruby

  3.  Star Quality—Zach

  4.  Common Ground—Ruby

  5.  Fed Up—Zach

  6.  Digging for Answers—Ruby

  7.  Left Hanging—Zach

  8.  Mountain vs. Molehill—Ruby

  9.  Head in the Clouds—Zach

10.  Feet on the Ground—Ruby

11.  Fight or Flight—Zach

12.  Caught in a Landslide—Ruby

13.  Any Way the Wind Blows—Zach

14.  The Fault is Mine—Ruby

15.  Unaired Theory—Zach

16.  Down with the Sickness—Ruby

17.  Lifting Weights—Zach

18.  Downtime—Ruby

19.  Rising Spirits—Zach

20.  Down in the Dumps—Ruby

21.  Winds of Change—Zach

22.  Losing Ground—Ruby

23.  Turning it Up a Notch—Zach

24.  Standing My Ground—Ruby

25.  Up in the Air—Zach

26.  Hit the Ground Running—Ruby

27.  Heaven Scent—Zach

28.  All Downhill from Here—Ruby

29.  High Anxieties—Zach

30.  Landing Gear—Ruby

31.  Spaced Out—Zach

32.  Down to the Wire—Ruby

33.  Icarus Reflected—Zach

34.  Touchdown, Arizona—Ruby

35.  As Above…—Zach

36.  …So Below—Ruby

37.  Anguish and Apogee—Zach

38.  Earthquake—Ruby

39.  Secrets and Syzygy—Micah

 

Foreword

 

 

    Sleep Stalker is told in alternating viewpoints.  Odd numbered chapters belong to Zach with the final chapter being the only exception. The even ones are all told from Ruby’s perspective.  As such, new chapters don’t always pick up exactly where the last one left off.  Sometimes they see incidents in completely opposite ways.  But one thing is for certain—youare guaranteed to see that an incredibly confusing force has invaded their lives.  Zach may be the target; but what affects him, ultimately affects her as well.

Prologue

 

 

     Crazy.  It’s a word we all use casually and probably on a daily basis.  “If you think I’m going to get up at 5 am to cook breakfast for you, you’re crazy!”  “Two hundred dollars forthatugly purse?  They must be crazy!”  “She’s a nice person but I don’t want to hang out with her—her nonstop chatter drives me absolutely crazy.”  After what I went through—whatwewent through—I try not to fling that word around nonchalantly anymore.

     True insanity has nothing to do with bacon or eggs, designer labels, or even overly-talkative friends.  True insanity is not knowing what is real and what is illusion.  It’s a metaphorical precipice.  It’s a jagged cliff where you stand and dangle one foot over the edge not realizing that you’re putting yourself in danger.  It’s when your thoughts race yet somehow slow down at the same time.  Nothing at all makes sense anymore.  Nothing.  Silence screams at you at a deafening level so you scream back until your throat is raw.  Time runs in circles around you until the vertigo makes you sick.  Insanity.

     When we left Charlotte’s Grove, I thought the worst was behind me—behindus—but the real challenge was still to come.  It took several years for Zach to sift through his memories and find the courage to put all of the pieces back together into one fascinatingly ugly picture for me.  I often wondered if there were things he left out, things too frightening for him to produce from his subconscious mind.  Or possibly things he was too ashamed to share with me.  I will never get those answers in this life.

     Shades, phantoms, wraiths, spirits—none of them even remotely prepared me for what I faced that first year in Ohio.  When we left Pennsylvania, Zach and I crossed more than just the state border.  We entered a gray area—a shadowy place where you question what’s real and what isn’t.  A place where happy endings don’t seem to exist.  But just when I was about to give up hope, I found the answer unexpectedly and from an unlikely source. 

     The lesson I learned was this—no matter what is going on, you have to continue moving forward.  Follow the signs the universe leaves for you.  If I hadn’t kept going, I never would have found the solution.  Two words kept me moving in the right direction.  Go forth. 

     With that being said, go forth and read—read the tale Zach would not give me permission to write while he was still alive.  Go forth and read what will fittingly be my final novel. 

     Go forth.

 

 

Ruby Rose Mason

 

 

 

 

 

1.  Wing Man

 

 

     Being in an airplane as it soared high above the clouds was the most miraculous sensation I’d ever felt.  Airports, however, suck.  When the plane landed in Chicago, I was only supposed to have forty-five minutes to find my gate and board the flight back to Pittsburgh.  O’Hare International Airport was vast and visually stunning—a place I would have gladly roamed casually for hours for its aesthetic value alone.  If there had been more time, of course.  And if I hadn’t been desperately looking forward to getting back home.  Back home to Ruby.  My adventures in California were fun but starting our new life together was what I was most excited about.

     I compared my boarding pass to the flight board to see what direction I needed to go then headed for gate 11A.  The last week of my life had been a dream come true for me.  I couldn’t wait to tell her all of the little details that a text or quick phone call couldn’t do justice to.  In my head, I was already visualizing the smile on her face when she met me in Pittsburgh.  If I missed this flight, I was going to be seriously pissed.

     I jogged the length of that airport never once coming close to colliding with anyone.  Until I took my eyes off of my path for a brief second to look at the sign above me, that is.  Gate 11A.  Just as I heaved a sigh of relief that I’d gotten to the gate on time, I crashed into someone with a brain rattling jolt. 

     Looking down to see who I needed to apologize profusely to, I found a boy standing in front of me dazed and trying to shake off the brutal hit I’d dealt him.  He was about the same age as me but nowhere near my size.  In fact, he was probably a full inch or two shorter than Ruby and appeared to be just as delicate as she was.  Leave it to me to injure the one Hobbit in the entire airport.

     “Hey, I’m sorry about that buddy—I’m in a hurry to catch my flight.  Are you okay?” 

     Before he had a chance to reply, the gate attendant’s voice boomed through the PA system.  “Flight 604 to Pittsburgh is experiencing an unexpected delay.  Boarding for that flight will begin in approximately one hour.  We apologize for any inconvenience.”

     “Dammit!” I shouted in frustration.  “All I wanna do is go home!” 

     The Hobbit, still dazed and with a frightened look on his face replied, “You and me both, dude.”

     After the announcement, I’d almost forgotten that I’d rammed into the poor kid like a freight train flattening a penny on the tracks.  “I hit you pretty hard.  Are you alright?  You look like you’re ready to throw up.  First flight jitters?”

     Rachel.  I sounded just like Rachel, my twin sister.  It didn’t happen often, but occasionally my thoughts flowed out of my mouth with the same rapid fire speech pattern she was famous for.  One of the unavoidable dangers of being a twin, I suppose.  But I was able to do what she rarely seemed capable of doing—I reigned my tongue in and gave him a chance to reply.

     “Um, yeah, I, I’m okay,” he stuttered.  “Just nervous, that’s all.”

     I sat down in the first empty seat I found and tossed my carryon onto the floor beside me.  The Hobbit placed his duffle bag next to mine but remained standing.  He looked as anxious as I felt last Saturday while I paced the gate in Pittsburgh beforemyfirst time in an airplane.  At least Ruby and my parents were with me to help calm me down—this kid was totally alone.  Until now. 

     I’d been hesitant to speak to strangers since my near death experience a few months earlier.  Why?  Because I’d made myself look crazy on multiple occasions by talking to ghosts in public not realizing that they weren’t actually alive.  Ruby and Rita both assured me that I would eventually become better able to discern who was dead and who wasn’t but in the meantime, I chose to curb any unnecessary social interactions.  But this kid looked so scared and alone and I felt partially to blame for that.  So for the Hobbit—I made an exception.

     “My name’s Zach—Zach Mason.  I’m sorry I ran into you—I thought I was going to miss my flight which of course ended up being delayed anyway.  Are you heading to Pittsburgh too?”

     “Uh, yeah.  Pittsburgh,” he said as he cautiously took the seat next to mine.  “And Micah, my name is Micah Sloan.”

     I studied him for a moment, trying to figure out what to say next.  Usually, I was fairly good at finding that one topic that would get someone to open up and start talking.  Micah wasn’t just an exception to that rule, he was a walking enigma.  Multiple facial piercings and the gaudy oversized heart tattoo on his forearm stood in drastic contrast to the designer clothes and shoes he was wearing and the fact that he smelled like baby powder.  His almond-shaped eyes seemed sad, desperate—hungry even—as he stared at the empty seat across from him.  Those were the eyes of someone hungry for something unattainable, something just out of reach. 

     As if on cue, my stomach decided to suddenly make me aware of the fact that I hadn’t eaten since leaving Santa Ana very early that morning.  A thunderous growl burst forth from my midsection loud enough to snap Micah back out of the trance he was in. The flight home wouldn’t be long enough for in-flight meals so at least the delay was good for one thing—it gave me plenty of time to forage the nearby fast food places so I didn’t starve to death in mid-air. 

     “I’m gonna go grab something to eat. Will you watch my bag for me?  I’ll be right back.  There isn’t a line so it should only take a minute.”

     “Sure, as long as you bring something back for me.  I’ve had a bad craving for hot wings since last night but I’m assuming I’ll have to settle for some chicken nuggets.  I’m totally starved—I haven’t eaten yet today.”  Micah leaned back in his seat and dug into the pocket of his jeans, producing one wrinkled dollar bill and a single quarter.  With a sigh, he placed them into my hand, “Never mind—just get me the largest quantity of food this will buy.”

     I nodded and walked away feeling terrible.  There was no way I was going to sit down next to him with a huge burger and fries while he ate a child-sized portion off of the value menu.  When I got to the counter, I saw that they offered a family pack—four burgers, four small fries and ten chicken nuggets.  With more than enough money in my own pocket thanks to my recent brief gig as a rock star, I added two chocolate milkshakes and two cherry pies to the order and returned to my seat with a feast for the two of us.

     “Thank you,” he said between bites, devouring his share of the nuggets before I even got the paper wrapping off of my first burger.  “You have no idea how much you’ve helped me, Zach.  No idea at all.” 

     “You’re welcome,” I said, shoving my cherry pie into the front pocket of my bag. Thatwas the best part of the meal—I was saving it for an in-flight snack.  As I took the first bite of my burger, I noticed just how much a decent meal had changed Micah’s demeanor.

     His eyes looked clearer, less troubled than they had moments ago.  I was proud not only of my good deed but that I had managed to trust my instincts and help him out.  I hadn’t done anything nice for anyone I didn’t know well in quite some time.  But for the last few minutes, I felt almost like the old me—the Zach who existed before the shooting, before ghosts became a daily worry for me.  Ruby said it would take time but….

     No sooner did I think her name than I looked up to see her weaving her way through the swarm of travelers at gate 11B.  It took a few months for me to get used to seeing her with curly hair, but now I was able to instantly pick her out of a crowd. 

     “Ruby?!” I exclaimed, dropping my burger back into the box and running to meet her.  She wanted to go to California with me but my trip was too last minute.  My first semester at Pendleton officially started in two days.  The only option that made sense was for her to stay behind and start moving our things to Ohio.  I thought I would have to wait a few more hours to see her but there she was.  It was just like her to fly out to Chicago for the sole purpose of flying right back to Pittsburgh with me.  She shouldn’t have wasted the money on my account but I was glad that she did.  I couldn’t have asked for a better girlfriend.  No one could.   

     “Ruby!” I shouted, my eyes fixated on her as she glided in and out of the throng of passengers lining up to board their flight.  She was wearing a dress I’d never seen before, something very off track from her usual taste in clothing.  The dress was an orange and brown tribal print of some sort that reached all the way to the floor.  It was different but I loved it.  She changed a lot during those last few months of our senior year but so did I.  Thankfully, we didn’t grow apart—we grew separately yet together. 

     As the crowd milled into a tight line, I caught sight of her toward the back.  She smiled in recognition and called back to me.

     “Zach!” 

     Even with all of the noise around me, I heard her speak my name as though she were right beside me whispering directly into my ear.  It had only been a week since I’d last seen her, but the sound of her voice sent pleasant tingles up my spine.  But at that very same moment, so did my cell phone.

     I got an incredibly weird feeling just then, an odd premonition of sorts.  Even though she was right in front of me—her cell nowhere to be seen—I somehowknewthat my phone’s vibrations were caused by a call from her.  And when I pulled it out of my pocket to check, I found that I was somehow right.

     “Ruby?  Is that you?” I asked hesitantly, eyes trained on the girl in the tribal print dress who was excitedly waving to me and beckoning me to join her.  Still no phone in either of her beautifully delicate hands.

     “Of course it’s me, silly!  I just called to let you know that we’re running late.  We took the wrong exit and ended up getting caught in stadium traffic.  The Steelers beat the Ravens, by the way—knocked the feathers right off of them as Dad would say.  But what are you doing answering your phone?  I expected this to go straight to your voicemail.  Shouldn’t you be in airplane mode right now?”

    “Yes,” I replied shortly and ended the call immediately.  My head was confused and clouded by the fact that the Ruby I was speaking to and the Ruby I saw in front of me were two distinctly different people.

     While it made more sense for the real Ruby to be the one I’d just hung up on quite rudely, I wascertainthat the girl at the far end of the gate was my girlfriend.  My phone began to ring again but I ignored it—Ihadto talk to the girl in the orange and brown dress.  Ihadto talk to the real Ruby. 

     The closer I got to her, the more convinced I was that the girl in front of me was the girl I loved more than life itself.  When I got about twenty feet away from her, she moved slightly to her left and disappeared behind the man in front of her.  And when I say “disappeared”, I mean she trulydisappeared.

     She simply vanished—was gone without a trace.  That dress was bright and unmistakable yet I could see no hint of its pattern anywhere in the vicinity.  I began to get panicky, fearing that this was some sort of death omen.  Could I possibly be seeing her spirit before it even left her body?  Terrified, I started frantically shouting to everyone willing to listen to me.

     “The girl in the orange print dress!  Where is she?  Where did she go?  She was standing right here a minute ago!  Did anyone see where she went?  I need to find her!”

     Almost everyone ignored me.  The ones who didn’t, merely gave me blank stares or shrugged their shoulders nonchalantly.  Shaken, I begged them one more time.

     “Does anyone remember seeing herat all?”

     This time, those who responded to my pleas all shook their heads no. 

     I lowered my head and took a few deep breaths.  Maybe once I calmed down, I would look up and see her standing in front of me.  If I had any hope of finding her, I needed to stop freaking out first.  Counting to ten wasn’t sufficient time to soothe my rattled nerves so I tacked on five more. 

     When I raised my head, I saw two airport security officers approaching me but still no sight of my girlfriend.  While I felt like I was going absolutely insane on the inside, Ihadto project the complete opposite.  I had to look normal—actnormal—so they didn’t boot me off of the flight.  If Ruby really wasn’t in Chicago, I needed to get home to her right away.  Something was terribly wrong.  Terribly.  Wrong.

     Before they had a chance to ask me what my problem was, I calmly—on the outside anyway—offered an explanation for my strange behavior.

     “I’m so sorry for the disturbance I just caused.  I thought I saw someone I knew but I was obviously mistaken.  It’s been an awfully long day and I just want to make it back home to Pittsburgh.  Everything’s good now—I swear.”

     Unconvinced that I wasn’t an on the lam psycho, they asked me for my ID and boarding pass which I gladly agreed to show them.  With some seriously phony confidence, I led them back to gate 11A where I’d left my bag.  When Micah looked up from his French fries, I gave him a weak fake smile.  In return, he gave me a look of dread, the look of a condemned man trudging toward the gallows. 

     Micah began to fidget in his seat, methodically wiping the grease from his fingers onto the leg of his pants after each fry he consumed.  That’s when I started to question my newfound “friend”.  As I reached into my bag to retrieve my paperwork for the guards, a look of sheer horror spread across his face.

     And I evidently wasn’t the only one who noticed it.  While one guard verified my identity, the other asked Micah if we were traveling together. 

     “No, um, well, kind of, yes,” he stammered, dropping his empty fry container into the garbage can beside his seat.

     “Well which is it—no or yes?  Are the two of you traveling together or not?” the guard demanded impatiently.

     Suddenly, I decided to let him off the hook and I answered for him.  “We aren’t together but we are on the same flight.  We met here at the airport when I literally ran into him while looking for the gate.  I bought him lunch to make up for my clumsiness.”

     Still unsatisfied with either my explanation or Micah’s suspicious behavior, the guard ordered Micah to produce his identification and boarding pass as well.  Nervously, he reached into his duffle bag and complied.  The guard analyzed it closely then handed it back. 

     “I expect both of you boys to behave yourself until it’s time to board.  If I get called back over here for any reason, you’ll both be walking to Pittsburgh.”

     Relieved that my run-in with security ended peacefully, I shoved my stuff back into my bag and discreetly checked to see if anything was missing from my wallet.  All of my money was still there.  I’d felt sure that Micah had freaked out around the guards because he’d stolen something from me when I wasn’t looking but I guess I was wrong.  There was nothing else of value in my bag and everything looked the same as it did when I packed it this morning.  I felt terrible for suspecting him but at least I was wrong.  However, there was still the “dueling Rubys” issue for me to deal with.  Silently, I said a prayer for her safety then struck up a conversation with Micah to get my mind off of my fears.

     For the next half hour, he and I discussed a multitude of topics—college, music, etc.  The only subjects I wanted to avoid were girls and the incident we shared with airport security, neither of which he even mentioned in passing.  The minutes ticked away effortlessly and before I knew it, our plane was ready for us.

     I was called first to board so I gathered up my stuff and fell in behind the other passengers.  Once my spot in line was secured, I looked over my shoulder to tell Micah that perhaps we would get lucky and be sitting next to each other on the plane. 

     “Maybe…,” I began but stopped there.  My mysterious new acquaintance was now walking briskly in the direction of gate 11B, his duffle bag slung casually over one shoulder.

     This day was supposed to be a good one.  My flight to Pittsburgh was the last leg of my trip home from California and I’d planned to enjoy it.  It was the last flight I would be taking for probably quite some time.  I wanted to sit back in my seat and savor the adrenaline rush I experienced during takeoff, spend the rest of my time in the air thinking about Ruby and the new journey we were setting out on together starting tomorrow.  That was how Iwantedthis to end.

     Instead, I stared out the window, yawning as the wheels left the runway.  I was worried and full of questions yet suddenly very tired.  We’d barely even made altitude before I fell soundly asleep. 

     I was so deeply entrenched in my nap that the flight attendant had to wake me up so that I could exit the plane.  A few random recollections of the dream I’d been having flitted through my brain briefly then were lost.  The only thing left behind was a nasty headache and a serious urge to go right back to sleep. 

     It wasn’t until I saw Ruby’s face that I even remembered the incident at O’Hare and the terrible fear that accompanied it.  Eventually, I would have to tell her about seeing her double in Chicago—Ihatedto leave any mystery unsolved.  But I knew exactly how she would react and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it.  She would get worried and hyper, re-hashing the details until I wanted to scream.  My head hurt far too much for that.

     I endured multiple hugs from her and my parents—all overreacting as though I was returning home from war not sunny California.  Then it was nothing but questions.  Questions, questions, questions.  How was my trip?  Did I see anyone famous while I was out there?  Did Crimson talk to me about the kidnapping?  How nervous was I to go onstage in front of so many people?  Fine, no, not really, and pretty freakin’ nervous.  Satisfied?

     My patience was wearing thin.  All I wanted was some damn peace and quiet.  So when Ruby complained about how hot she was on the way to the car, I snapped.  Snapped.

     “Well you’re the dummy who wore pants on an eighty degree day.  Maybe you should have worn a dress instead.”  Not just any dress.  That dress. Thedress.  The one she was wearing in Chicago.  I wanted to come home and find her wearingthatdress.  Why would she disappoint me like this?

     So of course, being a typical girl, her eyes began to crinkle up into cry mode.  I knew she wouldn’t shed tears in front of my parents over something so stupid but the fact that she wanted to pissed me off so bad.  I couldn’t deal with any of them anymore.

     “I have a blinding headache and raging jet lag.  Can you all just leave me alone?  Please?  All I want to do is go back to sleep!” I shouted as I got into the backseat of the car.

     Silence.  Finally, silence.  I curled up into a tight little ball as far away from everyone as I could possibly get and fell instantly asleep.

 

 

2.  Hotbed of Confusion

 

 

     Todayhadto be a better day than yesterday was—it simply had to be.  While I never expected the Zach I kissed goodbye at the airport to be the same Zach who returned, I got the exact opposite of what I’d hoped for.  Outbound Zach was nervous about flying and then performing in front of a huge crowd in Santa Ana.  He was disappointed that I couldn’t go with him but said he would be counting down the days until we would be together again.  Inbound Zach, to be perfectly blunt, was nothing short of a total jerk.  There were too many things weneeded to get done and I needed “normal” Zach back to help me get everything accomplished.

     First thing on the agenda, though, was saying goodbye to Dad and Shelly.  It was my stepmom’s idea to send me out ofCharlotte’s Grove the same way I came into it—with breakfast at the All American Diner.  She even had Diane Mason reserve the same table for us—the one the three of us first sat at a little over a year ago.  As I slid into my seat, I recalled how I felt that day.  Alone.

     Still grieving Lee’s death, I hated everyone and everything—including myself.  I hated Dad and Shelly for bringing me to this town and taking me so far away from Trinity and all of my childhood memories.  I hated them for not understanding me when in all actuality; they understood me better than I understood myself.  And honestly, I hated them because they weren’t miserable like me.  Who would have guessed that, in the end, leaving both them and Charlotte’s Grove behind would make me cry.  But it did.  A lot.

     “So what are you having, Ruby?” Dad asked as he perused thefaded menu that he already knew by heart.  “I can’t make up my mind.”

     “Me neither,” I replied, torn between the sausage andbiscuits with gravy and the steak and egg burrito.  The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted milk—something I rarely drank but occasionally had serious cravings for.  Like now.

    When the waitress appeared at our table, I laughed to myself when I saw who it was.  Laverne—the same lady who took our order the first time we ate there.  And yes, I eventually discovered that it actuallywasher real name and not a nickname in keeping with the restaurant’s theme.  At least this time I wouldn’t have to watch while she ogled Andy’s behind because he was nowhere in sight.  She turned to Shelly first for her drink order and my stepmom, perky as ever, told Laverne what we would all be having. 

     “Coffee for both of us,” she said, gesturing to my dad, “And my daughter will have orange juice as always.”

     Lately, she’d begun referring to me as her daughter instead of her stepdaughter and I was perfectly okay with that.  Even though I was dying for a glass of milk, I chose not to correct her.  She wasn’t my mom, but after the way we bonded over the past year, it sure felt like she was.  But still, deep inside, I had to admit—after catching a brief glimpse of my dead mother on prom night—I’d been thinking about my real mom more than ever before.

     Mom died when I was only four years old—I didn’t even remember her.  Until the night I saw her gliding gracefully through the cafeteria at CGHS on the best night of my life.  That was the night I became prom queen, the night Zach woke up from his prolonged state of unconsciousness.  Once the initial excitement of those two monumental moments wore off though, she was all I could think about.

     I spent the better part of my summer grilling Dad for details.  What was she like?  What did she love/hate?  What were her passions after giving up her ballet career?  I wanted to know who she was because I felt that in knowing her, I would somehow find myself.  He had few answers for me.  I learned that green was her favorite color and that before I was born, she loved to travel.  They took exotic trips to non-touristy parts of the world before settling down together in Trinity, Pennsylvania.  He knew very little about her family, her past.  She was a mystery to him and he said that was part of what he loved about her most.  Unlike my dad, though, I was a mysterysolver. 

     So after that, I resolved to uncover the things he allowed her to keep hidden.  I wanted answers.  Who was she before they met?  What was her family—myfamily—like?  A few weeks before his trip, Zach and I drove to Philadelphia so that I could see the stage she used to dance on.  No one there remembered her.  But someone somewhere did and I was dead set on finding them.  I had to know the other half of who I was. 

     After breakfast—which ended up being my usual scrambled eggs and bacon since I couldn’t decide what I wasreallyhungryfor—I shared mutually tearful goodbyes with my parents.  The only thing left for me to do in Charlotte’s Grove was to help Zach finish packing the rest of his stuff.  There was no reason for me to think that he would still be in a foul mood like yesterday.  Zach was almost always my warm ray of sunshine.  I pulled into the driveway at the Mason house with a positive attitude.

     Which promptly disappeared completely.  He told me days ago that he would be up early and have mostly everything ready to go when I got there.  Instead, I found that he was still in bed.  According to his mom, that was exactly where he’d been from the moment they’d gotten home the night before.

     “I tried to wake him up several times this morning, Ruby,” Diane Mason said apologetically after delivering the news.  “Every time he would roll over, mumble something about jet lag, and then go right back to sleep.”

     “I’ll wake him up even if I have to pour cold water on his face to do it.  I gave up a free trip to California so that we could get moved into our apartment in time for his first day of class.  He’sgoingto wake up and appreciate that. Now.”  I marched into his room and plopped down hard on the edge of his bed, causing him to jolt himself awake. 

     “Mom!  What the—?” he spat out angrily before seeing that it was me who so rudely awakened him.  “Oh, Ruby, it’s just you,” he calmly uttered before burying his head back into his pillow.

     “Zach, you have to get up now.  We have a lot of stuff to do today.  And besides, you’ve been asleep for over twelve hours now.  Even if your internal clock is still set to California time, it would still be time for you to be up by now.  Rise and shine, Rockstar, rise and shine.”  I pulled the pillow out from under him and threw it into an empty packing box on the floor.

     Instantly, he bolted straight up in his bed with eyes full of rage.  “What wasthatfor?” he snapped.  “Youjusttold me that you were tired too and wanted to stay in bed a little while longer!”

     The look on his face, the tone in his voice made me want to put distance between the two of us.  I slid off the edge of the bed and took a step back.  “No, I didn’t, Zach.  You must have been dreaming.”

     He began rubbing his eyes and shaking his head in confusion.  “No, it wasn’t a dream!  I swear you were right here and you said that!”

     Knowing myself how vivid dreams could be, I softened my approach.  “Sorry, Zach, but it was definitely a dream.  I only got here a few minutes ago—ask your mom.  I’ve had dreams that felt incredibly real, too.  I’ve woken up just as confused as you are right now—trust me, I know what it’s like.”

     “But…,” he stammered then fell silent.  He looked around the room for a minute then replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

     Resisting the urge to remind him that as his girlfriend, I was automaticallyalwaysright; I instead came up with a humorous reply. 

     “At least you were dreaming about being in bed with me and not some scary ass ghost!  Or worse yet, some other girl,” I said with a giggle in hopes of making him laugh.  All I got in return was an obviously fake smile.

     “Right again,” he said while taking a look at his alarm clock.  “I didn’t realize how late it was.  Can you go get me a cup of coffee while I get changed?  Black.  And a couple ibuprofen, too.  Thanks.”

     Coffee? Inever knew Zach drank coffee.  He’d never mentioned drinking it that I could remember.  Was this some new habit he brought back from California with him?  Maybe it was how Crimson and the other members of NeverMore started their day and he started drinking it to fit in.  I guess there were worse habits in the world for him to have picked up.  Nodding my head, I closed his bedroom door and made my way to the kitchen.

     I poured a cup for Zach and myself and sat down at the table with Diane.  She was even more surprised by his request than I was.  This unnerved me a bit.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that Zach was terribly different than he was when he left.  Jet lag.  Having never flown myself, I decided not to judge his recent behavior too rashly.  In a few days, it would most certainly work itself out.  Diane deposited two pain pills beside his cup and we waited for him to join us.

     As we sat there discussing the move to Ohio, sounds began emanating from somewhere down the hallway.  Immediately our conversation ceased as we strained our ears to figure out what was causing them.  Faint at first, they grew louder and louder until they were finally in the kitchen with us.  Those random noises were coming from Zach.

     Drum noises.  He was mimicking the various sounds as though he were verbally playing them.  I’d never heard him do that before and by the look on her face, neither had his mother.  He acted like we weren’t even in the room, like we definitely couldn’t hear what he was doing.  She and I both spoke his name but he didn’t respond.  He sat down at the table, popped the pills, and then washed them down with a sip of coffee.  All of a sudden, he seemed normal again yet unaware of the peculiar episode we’d just witnessed. 

     “Good morning!” he exclaimed cheerfully, almost like himself but not quite. 

     Diane and I exchanged worried looks before quietly responding with the same. 

     Jet lag.  I turned those words over in my head repeatedly.  Jet lag coupled with the extreme adrenaline rush he must have felt from playing on stage with NeverMore in front of a sizable crowd.  Both would wear off in a matter of days, though—right?  Yes.  Once he got back into the daily routine of school, the old Zach would return.  The motivated, ambitious, hardworking Zach would be mine again by tomorrow night—if I didn’t go crazy dealing withthisZach in the meantime.

 

 

 

3.  Star Quality

 

 

     By the time Ruby and I got everything packed, I was ready to go back to sleep.  There was no way I was getting behind the wheel for such a long drive.  Ibeggedher to leave her car behind with the promise that we would come back next weekend to retrieve it.  After a thirty minute argument about it, she finally gave in to my request.  As her boyfriend, I asked for very little yet had given her so much—it was about damn time she did what I asked her to.  If she had any idea how tired I was, she wouldn’t have argued with me in the first place. 

     Once she calmed down and stuffed her few belongings into what little space was left in our SUV, we said goodbye to my parents and hit the interstate.  Chatter.  That’s all she wanted to do was chatter.  What part of “I want to go to sleep” did she not understand?  Yes, eventually I wanted to tell her all about my trip.  Why wouldn’t I?  It was the best week of my life.  But not now.  I closed my eyes and turned away from her so that she would get the hint.

     Her constant demands had sunken me into a seriously bad mood.  If I went to sleep in a bad mood, I would invariably wake up in one too.  If I didn’t fall asleep happy, I had nightmares.  I’d been that way for as long as I could remember.  So at a very young age, I began concocting fun stories in my head the minute I got into bed.  I would imagine that I was someone famous—usually a rock star—someone everyone liked and wanted tobelike.  Over the years, my fantasies grew less elaborate yet no less soothing to me.  But today, I wasn’t going to visualize myself suddenly becoming a math whiz especially since I’d recently had my youthful fantasy come true.  Well, sort of.  Mentally, I took myself back through the last few weeks of my life.

     When I got a call from an unfamiliar number, I never would have guessed what kind of opportunity lay on the other side of the phone.  I didn’t even recognize Crimson’s voice at first.  She was my sister’s friend more than she was mine.  In fact, I barely knew her at all.  But she apparently remembered one thing about me.

     “Zach, how would you like to sit in for a few shows in California next week?  I’m in desperate need of a drummer.  After everything you did to help find me last winter, I wanted to give you first crack at this gig.  Rachel tells me you’re good and that you know most of our songs already.”

     I was always told that if you did something good for someone else purely out of the kindness of your heart, one day you would be doubly rewarded.  In that moment, I knew that it was true.  When we all set out to rescue Crimson who had been kidnapped by a serial killer, none of us were looking for any kind of reward.  In the end, I got two rewards.  First, a share of the money Giuseppe paid Ruby to make up for the fact that his psycho son tried to kill her.  Second, a once in a lifetime chance to be famous for a few days.  Immediately, I told Crimson I would do it.

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