The sound of the school bell shook me out of my reverie. I was still sitting at my desk in history class, and my test was in front of me. It was blank. I hadn’t answered any of it and time was up. I stood up abruptly, knocking over my chair in the process. It crashed loudly to the floor, and of course every pair of eyes in the room turned to me. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. Mr. Burke came over to me, his face a question mark.
“Callie, are you okay?” Then he looked down at the test in my hand. “You didn’t answer any of it.”
“I’m…I don’t feel so good, Mr. Burke. Is there any way I can write the test later?”
Mr. Burke looked at me for a moment before replying, “Yes, of course, Callie. But maybe you should go see the school nurse.”
I nodded and picked up my things. I needed to get home and just sleep. I went up to the second floor to get the rest of my books from my locker. I would have to do some catching up this evening. Hopefully Ben could fill me in on whatever I was missing today. The bell rang for lunch just as I reached the lockers, and students were streaming out into the hallway. I was still worrying about my history test, so I was really startled when I felt my locker door hit something hard and then I heard someone swearing. Confused, I looked down and found myself gazing into the brownest eyes I had ever seen. They belonged to the face of a boy I didn’t recognize. He still had one hand inside the locker and didn’t look too pleased with me. I felt a rush of guilt as his other hand flew to his head and he grimaced.
“I’m so sorry…I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?” He pulled his hand out of the locker while he gingerly touched his forehead with the other. It was bleeding. Great. Now I felt awful.
“I think I’ll live,” he said, one corner of his mouth tilting up in a most appealing way. He looked at his fingers, which had a smudge of blood on them. I pulled a pack of Kleenex from my locker and offered it to him.
“I’m so sorry…” I said again, clearly unable to say anything more coherent. He was really tall, I observed while he dabbed at his forehead with a wad of tissues. “Do you think you should go see the nurse?” He was still bleeding.
“Nah…I’ll be fine, it’s just a little cut.” Of their own volition, my eyes wandered down from his face and I noticed the ends of what looked like a tattoo peeking out from under the neckline of his blue T-shirt. They were some sort of swirly lines, the black ink standing out prominently on his brown skin. I couldn’t help wondering what the rest of the tattoo looked like.
“By the way, I’m Shiv,” he said, crumpling up the now bloody ball of tissues. It looked like the bleeding had stopped.
“I’m Callie. I don’t remember seeing you here before.” I knew most of the kids in our grade. It wasn’t a very big school, and a lot of us had gone to the same elementary school.
“We just moved here a week ago. So I’m still finding my way around.” He looked at me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “I’m going to get my books out of the locker now,” he said, bending down but keeping his eyes on me. “So don’t say I didn’t give you a fair warning.”
God, his eyes were delicious. I felt like I was drowning in a pool of hot chocolate. Get a hold of yourself, Callie. I didn’t normally swoon over boys, but I had to admit there was something about Shiv. And it wasn’t his exotic looks, the dark, smoldering eyes or even the black hair that curled enticingly at the base of his neck. After all, thanks to my mom’s Indian side of the family, there had always been plenty of eligible boys paraded in front of me since I’d turned sixteen. But none of them had interested me even the slightest bit. Most of them seemed to me like momma’s boys, incapable of finding a girlfriend on their own. Plus I had always been too focused on school to pay attention to them. Thankfully, my parents treated all interest from the Indian aunties as nothing more than Bollywood-style entertainment. But there was something about this guy that had me all hot and bothered.
I shook myself mentally. What I needed was to pull myself together. Shiv was looking at me expectantly and I realized he was waiting for a witty retort. Unfortunately, I had none so I just gave him a watery smile and blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “Why don’t I show you around? I mean, it’s the least I can do, considering that I wounded you.”
Really, Callie? I said to myself. That’s the best you can do?
His eyes brightened and he smiled again. Something warm and fuzzy bubbled deep inside me. Well, maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea. I would show him around, he would say or do something asinine and I would get over the instant crush that I seemed to have developed in the last fifteen minutes. End of story.
He got his books out of the locker, slammed it shut with a resounding clang and stood up. We walked together toward the plaza where all the ‘cool’ kids hung out during lunch. I was strangely curious to see how the Bitch Squad would react to him. That was my personal name for Dahlia Evans and her groupies. I didn’t even know all their names, but they hung around Dahlia all the time like bees swarming around their queen. More like Queen Bitch.
As I walked toward the plaza and saw Dahlia and her entourage, I just wanted to see her face when I walked in with Shiv. I checked him out surreptitiously, trying to see him the way Dahlia might. She would see a tall, gorgeous hunk with dark tattoos on his neck and arms. I realized now that there were more swirly lines showing from beneath the sleeves of his hoodie. Once again, I found myself wondering what they looked like.
Dahlia looked up when she saw me approach. I wish I had a video camera to record the way her mouth shifted from its usual disdainful droop whenever she saw me to a slightly open look of disbelief when she noticed Shiv standing next to me. I couldn’t help myself. I moved the slightest bit closer to Shiv as we walked right past them to where Ben was sitting with his basketball buddies. Ben was my best friend, had been ever since that day in grade two when he had stood up to Dahlia for me. Dahlia and I had history; I’d hated her since elementary school, ever since she took my lunch box, in which my mom had packed my favorite chutney sandwiches. I loved the potato slices, layered with spicy tamarind and cilantro paste, topped with the salty Amul cheese slices, my favorite cheese from my years in Kolkata.
It was hard at first, after we moved. I had to leave behind all my friends, my cousins and all the things I knew and loved. But I had made friends quickly and adjusted well. But Dahlia, who was used to being the center of attention, didn’t appreciate the newbie from India with the weird lunches. So she took my sandwich and held it up for everyone to see. She called it a puke sandwich, squeezing it until the green sauce dripped on the floor. I didn’t know what to do, especially when everyone turned to stare and talk about puke. That’s when Ben had stood up and walked over to Dahlia. He took the sandwich from her and bit into it. Then he proclaimed that it was the yummiest he’d ever eaten. That was ten years ago. Ben and I had been inseparable ever since. He practically lived at our house, having developed a taste for my mother’s spicy Indian cooking. And he always looked out for me.
“Hey guys,” I said now, walking up to them. “This is Shiv. He just moved here.” The guys all shook hands, mumbling introductions. I could see Ben sizing him up. He was always very protective of me, especially when it came to other guys. Everyone would always tease us about our close relationship, but I never saw Ben in that way. He was my best friend, and nothing was worth jeopardizing the closeness we shared. But I couldn’t deny that I enjoyed watching other guys squirm under his intense glare when they first met him. I watched Shiv now and I couldn’t help feeling impressed. Ben could be intimidating to those that didn’t know what a softie he really was. At six foot two and with a muscular build, he was quite the imposing figure. But Shiv returned his gaze with an equally unwavering look. He was asking Ben about the basketball team and I noticed that the other guys were warming up to him. But I could read Ben’s face well enough to know he wasn’t going to make things easy. I decided to rescue Shiv before things became awkward. Just then the bell rang conveniently, signaling the end of the lunch period.
“Guys,” I said, “sorry to break this up, but I promised Shiv I would show him where the chemistry class is.”
We took off down the hallway toward my next class. I felt a small thrill knowing that I would spend the next period with Shiv in chemistry and that Dahlia would be there too. I knew it was petty, but I deserved to watch her squirm a little. I was enjoying the anticipation on her face when we walked in, so I didn’t notice Mr. Burke standing outside his history class until I nearly bumped into him. He was glaring at me.
“Miss Hansen, I’m surprised you are still here.” He looked at Shiv and something in his face changed. It was barely discernible, but I caught it nonetheless. “And who is this?”
Shiv put out his hand immediately. “Shiv Kapoor. I just moved here. It’s my first day. Callie offered to show me around.”
“Did she now?” Mr. Burke said, looking unimpressed. He turned his gaze back to me. “I take it that you’re feeling much better now? Then you must be well enough to come to my office after last period.” Great. Now he’ll never let me take that test again. Just what I need.
“Yes. Mr. Burke. I’ll be there.” I could feel my face getting warm, and I really wanted to just go into class. Mr. Burke gave me one last look of disdain before turning around and heading into his own classroom.
“I hope you’re not in trouble because of me,” Shiv said as we walked in.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I said, walking over to my usual seat. I looked at the empty seat next to me. It didn’t look like the kid who usually sat next to me was coming today, which was no surprise since he had only shown up a few times since the beginning of the semester. I gestured to Shiv that he could sit next to me. I had just taken out my chemistry textbook when the clattering of high heels signaled the arrival of Dahlia and her entourage. I wondered how they were still in this class since all four of them seemed to share a brain.
Dahlia walked past me, slowing down just long enough to take a good look at Shiv. Her gaze lingered at the base of his throat, where the dark blue swirls of his tattoo were visible. I watched her mouth go from a sexy pout to an awkward grimace when she realized that Shiv gave her nothing more than a fleeting glance and then turned back to me. Twice in one day. That must have been a record for her. I had a strong urge to let out a hoot of laughter, but I managed to control myself. During the entire period Dahlia and her friends whispered to each other and shot darts at me with their eyes. Shiv was blissfully oblivious to the turmoil he was causing. No doubt the Bitch Squad couldn’t figure out why on earth he would want to sit with me. I had never enjoyed chemistry more.
Afterward, I showed Shiv to his next classroom and then didn’t see him for the rest of the day. I was preoccupied with why Mr. Burke wanted to see me as I walked down the stairs to his office on the lower level. He was on the phone when I knocked, so he gestured for me to sit down. I looked around while I waited. His office held an eclectic array of décor from all over the world. There were tiny statuettes of gods and goddesses from different cultures lining the shelves on one wall. A stone tablet engraved with what looked like Sanskrit words perched on a metal base on a little table next to his big desk. I wouldn’t have pegged him for a mythology buff, but then again, I only saw him in history class. He finished up his conversation and hung up.
“So, Miss Hansen. You said you were feeling unwell earlier today, so I agreed to give you another chance to write the test.”
“Yes, and I really appreciate it. I was going to go home, but then I started feeling a bit better and decided to stay,” I said.
Mr. Burke looked at me skeptically for a moment. “Miss Hansen, I feel that your work hasn’t been up to your usual standard. I read your last essay and frankly I was not impressed. It lacked focus, and you rambled on quite a bit. I know you have your sights set on a good university, so I will give you a chance to pull up your grade.”
I gaped at him in disbelief. I always got good grades and worked really hard for them. I had no idea what he was talking about. I did not ramble.
“I will let you do some extra credit work,” he was saying, ignoring my shocked expression. “You will come to my office every day after school and work on the assignments I give you. Is that clear?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. As I got up to leave, I was bristling with resentment. I would have to cut back on my after-school tutoring hours. I’d been saving for a car for summer, and now Mr. Burke was messing everything up. I stomped all the way home, glad that my parents weren’t back yet. I just needed to be alone to figure out how I would deal with Mr. Burke and my plummeting history grade. I ate some crackers and hummus then got ready for work.
The tutoring center was a ten-minute drive from my house and when I got there the place was already humming with kids of all ages. I walked up to the reception desk to sign in and say hi to Carla, the owner. Then I went to my usual room to spend the next three hours helping my students with their math homework. On the way home I stopped for a latte because I knew I would have to stay up late doing my homework. By the time I got home it was getting dark and my parents’ car was in the driveway. I was lucky they shared a ride to work at the university and I could use the extra car. But that would change in the fall when my dad started his new job and my mom would have to use her own car. Now it looked as if I would have to get used to riding the bus everywhere. When I walked in I found them chatting excitedly. It sounded like she was making dinner plans for the weekend.
“Callie,” she said, her voice several octaves higher than usual. “I’m so glad you’re home. You’ll never guess who I met.”
I could guess. She’d met another Indian family and had invited them to dinner. And they had a son who was around my age and, oh my, it was all so exciting.
“I met the nicest couple at the store today…you know that new Indian store around the corner from Starbucks? I was just buying some mangoes and cilantro…I thought Dad could make mango salsa for dinner…what was I saying…oh yes, the couple that I met, they just moved here from California a week ago. But they’re actually from Kolkata. So of course I said that they simply had to come over for dinner, and they said this Saturday would be good.”
My head was reeling. My mother tended to go off on several tangents during a single conversation. It was hard not to get entangled in her excitement about the new couple, the new store and my dad’s mango salsa. I looked at her affectionately. She was a lot to handle after a long day, but there was something very infectious about her enthusiasm for…well, just about anything. She was like that about the course in Eastern mythologies she taught at the University of Washington. There was always a waiting list for the course, and whenever she had students over for her monthly Mythology Club dinners, I could tell that they were enthralled by everything she said. There was something about her, her skin the color of a mocha latte, her long, black hair, usually knotted up in a stylish bun at the base of her neck, and her dark eyes, always intense as if they could see right through a person. But I’d always felt it was her accent that gave her an air of mystery. Her education in one of Kolkata’s most prestigious schools had left her with a refined accent when she spoke in English, and my grandparents’ love of Bengali literature made her equally enchanting when she spoke in her mother tongue.
I watched her now, getting dinner ready while my dad was making his delicious mango salsa. I liked to watch them together. There was something about the way they moved together, like two parts of a well-oiled machine. Their movements were almost choreographed, as if one could read the other’s mind, knowing what their next move would be. They worked perfectly in unison, maneuvering around the kitchen, never bumping into one another as they went about emptying and refilling the dishwasher, getting ingredients out of the refrigerator, putting dishes away. In less than half an hour dinner was ready and we were sitting in our respective recliners. We weren’t really a family that ate at the table. When we had first moved to Seattle my mom had gone back to school for her doctorate, and dinners were usually something from the freezer that could be heated up in the oven and eaten in the family room while my mom worked on her thesis. But somehow she’d always made time for me, asking me who my new friends were, inviting them over for cookies and ice cream and throwing the best Halloween parties ever. Over the years eating in the family room had become our thing. That and watching American Idol. My mom and I loved the show, and my dad had long ago given up trying to get us to watch football instead.
Now as we ate my mom continued gushing about the new Indian family. In the back of my mind I already knew this must be Shiv’s family, and of course I was right. A few minutes later she casually brought up the fact that this new couple happened to have a son and wondered if I had seen him at my school yet.
“Actually, Mom, I hit him in the head with my locker door at lunchtime today,” I said nonchalantly, as if violence was just a regular part of my daily routine. I waited a few seconds for this to sink in. And then it all started. My dad just grinned as he calmly ate his chips and salsa while my mom unleashed a torrent of horror at having a clumsy daughter. She calmed down only after I told her he was very nice to me afterwards and that I had made up for it by showing him around. Somewhat mollified, she began to plan what kinds of Indian sweets we could bring them as a welcome gift, which, of course, I would walk over to their house later that evening. I hadn’t been planning to tell her about the whole Burke situation, but I couldn’t think of a better way to distract her. So I threw myself under the bus.
“Mom, Dad…there’s a problem at school,” I started. I could literally see their ears perk up. When it came to school, my parents were über-involved.
“What kind of problem, Callie?” my dad said. “Is everything on track with your university applications?” He was very keen for me to attend his alma mater, UW, where he taught anthropology.
“Yes, that’s all fine. But Mr. Burke is giving me a hard time. He says my mark is dropping and that I have to stay after school to do extra credit work.”
I was hoping they would feel as indignant as I did, but I had no such luck.
“Well, if that’s what needs to be done, then just do it,” said my dad, ever the voice of reason. My mom looked a little miffed, but I could tell from her lack of argument that she basically agreed.
“I’ll have to cut back on my tutoring hours and also my volunteering,” I mentioned, hoping that they would realize just how much this would cramp my style. I volunteered at the local retirement home, and I hoped my mother would find it unacceptable that the sweet old ladies there should be deprived of my awesome company. Also, I wouldn’t have time to watch Vampire Diaries, which I religiously recorded so I could watch at night. Of course, I didn’t say that out loud. It wouldn’t do anything to help my case.
I was not disappointed. My mother took the bait and said, “Why don’t I go and meet with him next week to see if he can’t let you bring the work home?” She turned to my dad. “Paul, you’re off early on Wednesdays, why don’t you come with me?” Dad mumbled something about catching the game on his only evening off, but my mom had selective hearing when it suited her. Either way, I was happy. Hopefully Mr. Burke would get off my back.
“Thanks, Mom, you’re the best. I have to work on my essay now, and I have tons of math homework too,” I said as I jumped out of my chair, gave both my parents a hug and bounded up the stairs before my mom remembered the sweets.
The next day was pretty uneventful. Shiv and I talked about our parents meeting and rolled our eyes as we commiserated on how embarrassing they could be. Ben came and started talking to me at length about an English essay he was having a hard time with. I found this very suspicious since he wasn’t taking English this semester. He ignored the pointed looks I was giving him to hint that I would like to be alone with Shiv. Finally he left, giving me a chance to get some more information out of Shiv.
“So, Shiv, how long did you live in California?” I asked, hoping it would lead to some subtle follow-up questions. Unfortunately, subtlety was not my strong suit.
“We just stayed there for six months,” he said. “My dad was supposed to be in charge of a project there, but it didn’t work out the way he’d hoped.” Just then the bell rang for the next period. We both had chemistry, so we walked down the hall together to our class.
“What about you? What made your family move here from Kolkata?” So much for my follow-up questions. I gave him the same rehearsed answer I’d been giving whenever someone asked me that.
“My dad got a teaching position here and my mom wanted to go back to school. Plus my dad grew up here, and after spending so many years in India, they thought it was time for a change.” For some reason I felt guilty about lying to him. But then what would I have said? That I started to have these insanely graphic nightmares and was beginning to lose it, so my parents got scared and relocated us? I could just picture seeing the back of his head as he ran away if he ever found out. Luckily, we had reached the class and chemistry kept us busy for the next hour.
That Saturday, Shiv and his parents came to our house for dinner. My mom had been like a whirlwind all day, cooking up a storm. My dad and I spent the day driving back and forth from the store because she kept forgetting one thing or the other. After the third trip he planted himself on the kitchen stool and said he would help her with whatever she needed to get things ready for that evening, but he refused to go to the store one more time.
My mom was making all my favorite dishes. There was succulent shrimp swimming in fragrant coconut milk, grilled spicy eggplant, basmati rice studded with peas and carrots and a cooling yoghurt and cucumber salad. Then of course there was the sweet yellow rice that my mom only made on special occasions. I loved the pretty edible silver paper she used as a garnish. And it was accompanied by the traditional Indian rice pudding I could never keep my hands off.
They arrived around seven. Shiv grinned at me conspiratorially behind our parents’ backs. I was glad they had come. Even though I had only met Shiv a few days ago, it felt like we’d known one another much longer. I was very comfortable around him, which was good because I was pretty sure that I was developing a major crush. I looked around for him at school whenever we didn’t have classes together. Usually I talked to Ben about my crushes, but the last few days, whenever I met up with Ben in our usual place, Shiv would join us and I got the distinct feeling that Ben did not like him. Plus I’d been busy with my extra after school work, so I hadn’t had any time to spend alone with Ben. Either way, I figured he would just get over it. I had misgivings about many of the girls that Ben had dated in the past, and I always managed to keep my most negative thoughts to myself. Things had a way of working themselves out where Ben was concerned.
I looked at Shiv now, sitting in our living room with his parents. He looked a lot like his dad, Dev. The same dark skin, curly hair and intense brown eyes. His mother, Nina, was a total contrast. She was petite, with delicate features and black hair that hung down her back in a long braid. It was a nice evening. Our parents got along really well and Shiv and I talked about our years in Kolkata. It turned out we had acquaintances in common, but Shiv had been there more recently, so he updated me on some of them. Nina asked to use the washroom, and after I showed her where it was, I went upstairs to grab some old pictures of my school friends in Kolkata. As I was coming back down the stairs I could hear voices floating up. I didn’t pay much attention until I heard my name. I stopped on the third step and listened, not sure what I was eavesdropping on.
“She has to find out sometime,” Nina was saying. Then I heard Dev’s reply and it chilled me to the bone.
“She might not make it, Nina. You know what happened to the other girls.”
I must have shifted my weight from one foot to the other because the stair I was on squeaked and Nina’s head shot out from around the corner.
“Oh, there you are, dear,” she said, showing no signs that anything strange was going on. “We were wondering where you’d gone off to.”
“Umm…I was just getting this to show Shiv,” I said, holding out the album and trying hard not to let any panic show on my face.
“Oh, let me see,” Nina said, taking the album out of my hand. “Are these photos from your school in Kolkata?” She turned to Dev, who was watching me with a strange expression. “Dev, look…maybe Shiv will know some of the kids in here. Such a small world.” I didn’t know how much longer I could stay calm. I just wanted them to leave so I could tell my parents what I’d overheard. I went to the kitchen, where my mom was getting the dessert tray ready.
“Mom…I need to —” I began, but my mom cut me off.
“Oh good, Callie, you’re here,” she said without looking up from the dish of rice pudding she was garnishing with raisins and pistachios. “Come help me with the chai.”
When I didn’t respond, she looked up. Whatever I was feeling must have been on my face, because the next minute she was by my side.
“Callie, honey, what’s wrong? You look so pale? Are you feeling alright?”
She looked so worried that I decided not to say anything for the moment. I didn’t want her to start asking too many questions. I didn’t want her to find out about my nightmares either. When I first started having them in Kolkata, my parents had been very stressed about me. I didn’t want them to go through all that again. I hoped that maybe all this was happening because it was a stressful time waiting to hear back about scholarships and university admissions. I was sure the nightmares would go away once I knew what I would be doing after high school. So I lied now and put on a brave face. I would talk to Shiv later and see if I could find out what his parents were talking about.
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said, smiling and giving her a hug. “I just have a headache, that’s all.” I started putting the teacups my mom had inherited from my grandmother on the silver tray that was part of the set. As a little girl I used to love having pretend tea parties with my cousins, and my grandmother would always let me use her fancy tea set. When my mom protested that I might break something, my grandmother would always tell her that the teacups weren’t as important as seeing her granddaughter enjoy herself. I loved my sweet grandmother and I made sure to be extra careful with the cups. I never did break a single one, and when we left Kolkata, she insisted we take it with us. My mom didn’t use it very often, but when she did it always brought back sweet memories of my grandmother, in her white sari and the little gray bun at the nape of her neck. She would tell me stories of gods and goddesses, and when I first started having nightmares, she told me that maybe I was a little goddess myself and that the dreams were just memories of my past lives.
When we walked back into the living room, my dad was telling them the story about how he’d met my mom, as a graduate research assistant in Kolkata. Nothing looked amiss. Shiv’s parents seemed to be having a great time. Shiv looked up as I walked in with the tray and got up to help me. I started to think that maybe I had imagined the whole thing. I was sleep-deprived, after all.
The rest of the evening went by fast, and then it was time for Shiv and his family to leave. I helped my parents clean up and then we all went to bed exhausted.
The next few days passed with the usual monotony of school, homework and chores. Finals were fast approaching and the teachers were piling on the work. I had to stay after school from the beginning of the week. The first day Mr. Burke sat there, and I felt as if he was watching me the whole time. It creeped me out a little, but there was really nothing I could do. Then it was Wednesday and my parents had an appointment to talk to Mr. Burke. I was beginning to regret that decision and hoped it wouldn’t make things even weirder for me. My parents had asked me to meet them by Mr. Burke’s office, so I waited for them after school. When they arrived we all went into his office. I could see that they were as impressed by the décor as I had been. After the usual pleasantries were over, my mom got right to the point.
“Mr. Burke, Callie tells us she is not doing too well in your class.”
“That’s right. Mrs. Hansen, her grade has dropped a lot. I have offered to let her do some work for extra credit.”
My dad spoke up this time. “Mr. Burke, we’re just a bit surprised because she was sitting at 95 percent just a couple of weeks ago. How could her grade have dropped so much in such a short time?”
Mr. Burke took off his glasses and leaned forward. “Mr. Hansen,” he said, his face a stony mask. “Have you asked your daughter why she might be doing so badly? I find her unfocused in class, and her last two essays have not been up to my standard.” He was pointing a finger at my dad, jabbing it in his direction, punctuating his sentences.
I had never seen Mr. Burke like this. There was something distinctly hostile and menacing about his expression and tone. I glanced at my parents and realized that they were staring at Mr. Burke’s hand, which was still in midair. I looked too and saw a tattoo on the inside of his right wrist. I couldn’t be sure but it looked like the head of a bull or something with horns. My parents were still staring, their faces ashen, as if they had seen a ghost. I expected them both to be quite upset with the things that Mr. Burke was saying about me. I definitely hadn’t expected this. I had never known my parents to be so intimidated. They got up hurriedly and ushered me out of the office, up the stairs and out into the parking lot. I tried to stop them but they were adamant, not saying a word until we got home. As soon as we got inside I turned on them.
“Mom, Dad, what was that? Why did we run out of there like that? Mr. Burke is going to think you guys are so weird.” I was really upset and I wanted an explanation.
“Callie, listen,” my dad said. “We don’t want you to stay after school anymore.”
“What do you mean? I have to stay. How am I supposed to finish all the extra-credit work he’s giving me?” My voice had risen a couple of octaves and I was beginning to really lose my cool.
“Callie, just listen to us,” my mom pleaded. “We don’t want you around that Mr. Burke any more than you have to be. So come home right after school.”
“You always have a problem with people, Mom. Why can’t you for once just let me deal with my own problems? God, you two really need to get a life.” With that I stormed off. I ran up the stairs to my room and slammed the door. I was furious. I didn’t know exactly why Mr. Burke suddenly had it in for me, but I was willing to deal with a little extra work if it meant I would keep my grade in the class. The deadline for sending in final grades was coming up really soon and I had no time to waste. I fumed for a while longer, but finally fell asleep.
Sleep didn’t bring any rest for me, though, since I was plagued by the same nightmare. The same demons and frightful creatures on a bloody battlefield. The next morning I woke up bleary-eyed and with a massive headache. I was glad that my parents left for work really early on Thursdays because I was in no mood to deal with them this morning. I got ready and walked to school, just as the five-minute warning bell rang. I had math first and then history. Mr. Burke wasn’t any grumpier than usual and I hoped he’d met his fair share of over-protective parents and wouldn’t hold yesterday’s events against me. But then in the middle of the period the pounding in my head got so bad that I was overcome by nausea. Mr. Burke was giving us time to work on our research essays, so I went up to him and asked if I could be excused.
“Again, Miss. Hansen? This seems to be turning into a habit.” By this point I was just trying not to throw up all over him, so I didn’t reply. He looked at me intently.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me, Miss Hansen? Something that might be bothering you?” There it was. That weird, menacing tone, as if he knew something and just wanted me to admit it. A fresh wave of nausea rose and the pounding in my head became unbearable. Mr. Burke pulled a cell phone out of his coat pocket and pressed the screen. I had no idea what he expected me to do, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. I mumbled an apology and ran out of the room, down the hall to the washrooms. I made it just in time. After the heaving stopped and there nothing left to throw up, I went to the sink and splashed cold water on my face. Then I put a wet paper towel on the back of my neck. The coolness felt so good that I sat down on the floor with my back against the wall to rest for a minute. I needed to get home and sleep it off.
I got up, went to the office and told them I was sick and was going home. I grabbed my books from my locker. At the exit, I pushed open the heavy double doors and went outside. The fresh air revived me a little as I went around the corner and headed toward the staff parking lot. It was sunny today for a change and I took off my jacket as I walked through the parking lot toward the little street that would take me to my house a couple of blocks away. I was deep in thought about my history class as I crossed the street and started walking down the hill that led to my house. I was just a couple of houses away when the screech of car tires ripped through the air. Startled, I turned my head just in time to see a dark blue SUV racing down the street. It was heading straight toward me.
I was about to jump out of the way when a dark shape came flying at me and knocked me to the ground. Stunned, I tried to get up but buckled as a sharp pain shot through my ankle. I looked to see if the car was still there but only caught a glimpse of it as it disappeared around the cul-de-sac. Then I noticed Shiv standing there.
“Shiv, how did you…? Did you see that?” I spluttered, pulling out my cell phone then realizing I hadn’t noticed the licence plate. “Shiv, did you see the licence plate?”
“No, I’m sorry, Callie, all I saw was that car coming toward you, and I had to save you.” Shiv’s voice was shaking a little, and he was looking up and down the street as if he thought the car might come back. “Let’s get you into the house. I have to make sure that you’re okay.” He tried to help me up and I winced when I put weight on my right ankle. I sucked in a breath and tried again. It still hurt a lot but I felt I would be able to walk the rest of the way home.
Shiv put an arm around me. “Try to use my arm for support, and don’t put too much pressure on that ankle,” he said as we slowly started making our way down the street. When we crossed my front yard to the steps, I noticed the front door was ajar. There was no car in the driveway. Confused, I forgot the pain in my ankle as I shrugged off Shiv’s arm and went up the stairs. I was almost at the door when Shiv grabbed my arm none too gently and pulled me back.
“What are you doing?” I said, pulling my arm from his grasp.
“I don’t think you should go in there,” Shiv whispered. “Why is the door open? I don’t think your parents are home.”
“Well. That’s what I am going to find out,” I said testily. An uneasy feeling was starting to bloom in my gut.
“Maybe I should go in first?” Shiv said, moving to stand in front of me.
Why, are you a ninja? I thought. Be nice, Callie…he’s just trying to help.
“Sure, okay, whatever. Just be careful.” I didn’t want anything to happen to him, because he was trying to help me out. I let him walk in ahead of me, waited a second until he turned the corner into the living room and then followed him in. Since he was checking out the downstairs, I decided to go upstairs. On the way I grabbed a golf club from my dad’s bag next to the hallway closet. Wielding it expertly like Kate Beckett from my favourite TV show, Castle, I walked stealthily up the stairs to my room, which was on the right at the end of the hallway. I poked my head in first, then went in and checked behind the door and inside my messy closet. As if anyone could find space to hide there. I was positive a burglar would rather get caught than try to untangle himself from the wormhole of clothes and shoes that was my closet.
Satisfied there was no one lurking in my room, I tiptoed gingerly across the landing to my parents’ bedroom at the other end of the hallway. The door was half open and I could hear a buzzing coming from inside. That was strange. I walked in expecting to see some bugs that had come in through the bathroom window that my mom always forgot to close before she left the house. What I saw instead made me freeze on the spot. Someone was standing at my mom’s armoire. The doors were open and this person was in the process of stealing something from it.
I reached my hand into my pocket for my cell phone, and at that exact moment the thief stepped away from the armoire and saw me. And I saw him. Only it wasn’t a man. Or a woman. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but my brain couldn’t process what I was seeing in front of me. It was a creature of some sort, with the torso and legs of a man. But it was the head that made a cold fear grip my insides like a vise. I realized where the buzzing was coming from. The creature’s head was sort of oblong and it was covered in what I could only describe as giant stingers like those on a wasp. They moved in a snake-like motion around its face, emitting a buzz. I wanted to scream, but my throat couldn’t make the sound. The creature seemed as stunned as I was, but it recovered a lot faster. It moved toward me with alarming speed and my only thought as it closed in on me was that Shiv was still downstairs and the creature would get him. Then something flew through the air from behind me and hit the creature right in the middle of its torso. The monster exploded, sending hundreds of stingers flying through the air and some into me. When the blinding pain hit I fell backwards. But instead of landing on the hard floor as I’d expected, I felt someone’s arms catching me from behind. I turned my gaze upward and saw Shiv’s face. His deep brown eyes were the last thing I saw before blackness overtook me.