Short Stories and Novel Segments

Seeing Stars

I walked up to Augie’s house, a modest-sized ranch covered in a medium brown brick. The grass was well-kept and green, the door painted a crisp white with a flower wreath hanging on it. Pink rose bushes and perennials hugged the front side of the house. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked down the brick pathway. I pressed the doorbell and a cheery song played back. Jesus, who were these people, the Cleavers? A middle-aged woman answered, she had shoulder length shiny chestnut hair and Augie’s dark brown, friendly eyes. Her nose was pointier than his. Well, at least she wasn’t wearing an apron.

“You must be Arianna, I’ve heard so much about you. Please, come in.” She stepped aside and I flashed her my best parents-and-teachers smile.

“Just Ari is fine.” I looked around. The door opened into a small entranceway that connected to the living room, the kitchen on the side. The floor was a shining dark hardwood and the room smelled like Pine Sol and vanilla candles.

“Are you hungry or thirsty, sweetie, can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m fine.” I smiled and ran my hands on my arms. God, why was I nervous? I was Arianna Gold, queen bee.

She leaned closer and I could smell her perfume, something floral, like jasmine. “You know, I have to be honest, I’m glad Augie has a girl as a friend now. It’s a good break from Raj and Mark and their video games.” She gave a husky laugh and I smiled back.

Augie bounded into the room and grinned. He was wearing white socks, faded jeans and a graphic tee with a Space Invader on it. He groaned when he saw his mom laughing and leaning close to me. “Oh Mom! What are you telling her?”

“Nothing, hon. You guys have fun and let me know if you need anything.” She opened the sliding door and disappeared out into the backyard.

Augie rolled his eyes. “Sorry. She sometimes thinks she’s funny. Hah.”

“Your mom seems pretty cool, if you ask me. At least compared to my mom.”

“Everyone always thinks that. Come on, my room is this way.”

I hesitated and he didn’t miss a beat. “Unless, you want to study somewhere else? We have a pretty sick setup in the basement.”

Of course they did. I always wanted one of those sweet finished basements to hang out in, far away from parents. “That sounds great.”

“Hold on.” He ran into the kitchen and came back with two cans of orange soda. I followed him past a door and down a set of steep stairs. His basement was straight out of the 70s: wood paneled walls and thick carpeting. But it did have a large-screened TV on the wall, a huge leather couch, a bar and an old-school pinball machine. I walked towards it.

“Damn, this thing is sweet.” I ran my hand along the metal sides. There was a blonde pinup girl on the back.

Augie blushed, “Yeah my dad collects old video games and stuff. You can play, it works.” He went around the back and it lit up. “My high score is 56,000 but I can’t beat it.”

“I bet I could kick your ass.” He laughed. “What, you don’t think I can?”

“Oh, no, I just uh…never heard you swear before.”

“Oh,” I giggled. “I may be a blonde cheerleader, but I curse like a sailor. Parents taught me everything they knew I guess.” Why was I telling him all of this? I didn’t talk to anybody about my parents.

“Ah…that’s cool. My mom gets mad when I swear, as if I’m still 12.”

“Hm.” So they were the Cleavers. I’d once read that children believe that whatever surrounds them is normal. Augie’s norm was a lot different than mine.

I walked over to the bar and began inspecting their booze. A good mix of top shelf liquor and cheap wine. “So what’s your dad like?” I asked, turning around and leaning against the bar. “Besides a nerd like you.” I smiled to let him know I was joking but he averted his gaze.

“Uh, you know.” He scratched the back of his head. “Tall. He does tech stuff for GE. Can’t figure out why I don’t have a girlfriend. That kind of stuff.”

It went silent and I stuffed my hands in my pockets. This was awkward. “Tell him that the girls at our school are pretty lame. Believe me, I’d know.”

“Yeahh, Shauna and Becky are—”

“Bitches?”

“I mean, they’re your friends so I wasn’t gonna say that.”

I laughed, “Plus you gotta mind your swearing around your mom.”

“That too. So how come you aren’t lame by association?”

“Are you saying I’m cool?”

“Well, you aren’t a bitch.”

I laid my hand on my heart. “No? You’re very good at compliments.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Nah, I’m just messing with you. I don’t know, I guess we are just friends because we do the same things and hang around with the same people. I don’t really trust them with my secrets.”

“Still must feel good to be popular, though.” He frowned and flopped onto a bean bag chair painted like a baseball.

I sat at the end of the couch and grabbed a soda from him, snapping it open. “I’m not gonna lie, it is kind of nice. But it gets exhausting, always keeping up with appearances. Sometimes I wish I was more like you.”

“What? A loser?”

“You’re not a loser. It just must be nice to be unapologetically yourself and make your own decisions. You guys always seem like you’re having a lot of fun.”

He shrugged, “You should just be yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point.”

“What’s the point of any of it?”

“Are you having an existential crisis?” he asked, totally deadpan.

“Shut up!” I laughed and threw a couch pillow at him. He cracked up and shook his head.

“You know, you’re really different outside of school.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, sharper than I meant to.

“Well you were just talking about wishing you could be more like yourself. I feel like outside of school…you’re just different. In a good way!” he threw in nervously.

“You’re probably right.” I sighed and we had another awkward silence. This was so weird. What was I doing in August Stone’s basement?

“I guess we should start studying now. I’ll go grab my algebra book.” He ran up the stairs two at a time and I took my phone out. I’d told Bryce I was studying at the library, knowing he’d never set foot in one. I opened a text from him.

Hey baby, how much longer will you be studying? I want to see you.

Just getting started. I don’t think I will be able to see you today.

Fine. I’ll go hang out with Brandon. Probably smoking in the old shed if you need us.

I shook my head. The stupid old shed they’d discovered in the forest behind Bryce’s house had become their smoking spot.

Augie came back down the stairs, a book, binder, pencil and highlighter in his hands. I smiled at him. I wasn’t sure why no one liked Augie. He was a nerd, and sometimes he had breakouts like all of us, but he was handsome. His brown hair was always sweeping into his eyes, which were big and dark. He had a straight nose and a strong jaw. He was nice and he didn’t pick on people, which I guess made him a “loser”. I knew that he was some sort of science prodigy so every teacher fawned over him and that sometimes he wore black hipster glasses. I’m guessing he usually wore contacts to avoid being made fun of (not that it helped much). Him and his friends often won the science fair. Didn’t seem like enough to condemn a person, but then again my friends were the instigators of it.

“Why are you helping me?” I asked, sounding bewildered.

“What do you mean?” He opened up his book and pushed it closer to me.

“Augie, my friends are so fucking mean to you. I’ve barely ever spoken to you. Why don’t you just let me fail? Because I will, you know.” My voice cracked and he looked up at me, his expression serious.

“Because, not everyone is defined by their friends. And, well, this is gonna sound really nerdy but—” He wiped his hands on his jeans. “Education is important to me, and I don’t want anyone to fail. Plus, if I can help you learn something, why not? Maybe later you can help me.”

“With what?”

“I don’t know. Just say hi to me in the hallway or something.” He raised one shoulder.

“That’s all you want?” I knew what he meant. Maybe if people saw me being nice to him, they’d stop picking on him. My friends would have a field day, but I owed it to him. I didn’t want to be a bitch all the time, and I didn’t want to end up angry with life like my parents. My therapist was always telling me that I wasn’t like my parents. That I was already doing so much to better my life. It didn’t feel that way. And it certainly didn’t feel that way whenever Bryce stepped all over Augie. I knew what it felt like to be hurt.

“Sure, Augie, I’ll do that.” He smiled crookedly at me.

“At least have them come up with something better than August the Smallest.” I snorted and he laughed.

“I’ll try.”

 

Evelyn and Mantas

The sky was already black and as I ran into the forest surrounding his house I immediately remembered my nightmare. This was a terrible mistake. A sense of panic grew as I flailed and tripped through the unfamiliar land. Sure, I’d been a great runner back home where I knew the terrain, but this was something entirely different. We had no foliage like this. I glanced to my right at the sound of leaves crunching and twigs snapping. A white shape was moving through the underbrush at the same speed I was. I could hear it panting and I screamed as loud as I could.

The fallen log from my dream was laying ahead of me but this time I leapt over it. The monster jumped towards me at the same time and we came crashing down on the ground. The distorted features were somehow more grotesque: a gaping mouth and all black eyes. Its skin was white and slimy, and its legs were like that of a dog standing, but completely bare. It was not wearing the hood I’d imagined, nor seen in the mural. I fought against it, throwing punches and knocking into its face. It let out a high pitched hiss in response and some sort of fog seemed to surround it. My vision became cloudy and darkened.

There were sounds all around me: hissing, growling, scratching, biting and angry voices. I recognized one of them. The other was a high pitched hiss, sickening and evil.

“You’re outside of your boundaries!”

“Mmmm, but your mateeee, she smelllsss ssoo good. Mmmmm.” A loud smack and crash. I struggled and coughed, unable to move my body or open my eyes. “Ooohhh, there issss lifffe in her yettt. Sshe iss so strong. Lett me haavee a tasste!”

There was a roar and a tearing, then complete silence. Mantas’ arms reached under me as he lifted me easily. My head lolled back and I sputtered, coughing. It felt like there was lava in my throat and eyes.

“Shh. Evvie.” It seemed as though we were flying. Mere seconds went by before he placed me on a soft, cushy surface. I gasped, fighting for air. “Drink! Drink now, or you will die!” His voice was dire and desperate. I opened my mouth slightly and a cool liquid passed my lips. The taste exploded in my mouth and visions bloomed in my head. Visions of a small boy with chestnut hair and gray eyes in a time I did not recognize. That same boy, tall and lanky, being beaten almost to death by a man much older and stronger. A distant woman with black hair and kind eyes, withering on a sick bed. Blurring colors and pain during a transition I did not understand. Then I saw streets teeming with those white creatures, feeding upon people while fires blazed.

I gasped and pushed backwards, slamming my head into the headboard. I took a deep breath and the air felt cool and sweet against my burned throat. I opened my eyes slowly and adjusted to the darkness of the room. Mantas was kneeling on the bed in front of me, his eyes wide and his body shaking slightly. His face was covered in blood and dirt, his gray sweater and pants torn. His hair fell into his forehead and he was holding his wrist, a drop of scarlet blood trickling down his arm. I stared at it as the wound slowly healed itself, as did his scrapes and bruises. I quickly realized that he had given me his blood in order to heal me.

“I think I’m going to be sick!” I scrambled and he held me gently.

“No, Evvie. You cannot throw it up now, you have not fully healed. Here.” He flashed into the bathroom then reappeared with a glass of water. I drank it greedily and looked around, realizing that we were not in my room. We were on an old-fashioned wooden bed, the headboard carved with swirling designs. A thick red Persian carpet with intricate patterns lay across the floor. There was a yellowed globe on a rounded wooden stand in the corner.

“Is this your room?” I asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“I much prefer this to the modern furniture. This suits you.” He gave me a genuine smile in return.

“I agree. Even I had to keep up with the times and false pretenses.”

“That’s surprising.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“I can see that.” We locked eyes and for once, he looked hesitant. I knew that we were both wondering about the visions. I sighed, overcome with exhaustion. My chest still felt tight. That thing had poisoned me somehow.

“You need to sleep.” He said quietly.

“Why do I feel like you’re always telling me that?”

“Humans.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a boyish smile. I laughed. We looked at each other for a moment longer. I studied his face. He had a strong straight nose that was a bit pointed and sharp cheekbones, but there was something just a little bit imperfect. I noticed that one corner of his lips curved up slightly where a small scar was and that his bottom lip was much fuller than the top. His eyelashes were dark and full against the pallor of his skin.

He was the first to break the spell: “Well. I’m a mess so I am going to shower. Please if you need me-”

“Thank you, by the way.” I said quietly.

“You’re welcome.” He lifted my hand and kissed it gently before disappearing into his bathroom. I pulled off my torn jeans and shirt, rummaging in his closet until I found a t-shirt. He wouldn’t mind, right? I yanked it over my head then crawled into the over-sized bed, my body feeling weak and drained. I wondered at the effect his blood would have on me. I shuddered, trying not to think about what had happened tonight. Tomorrow, I would have a lot of questions. But tonight I wanted nothing more than to sleep.

I buried my head in the pillow and recognized the scent. I always thought it was a cologne Mantas wore but I was beginning to think that vampires had specific smells. His was heady and musky, the undertones of something sexual. The shower turned off and I heard him opening and closing his drawers. The door opened slowly and a shaft of light lit up the room.

“Mantas?” I whispered, his name no longer feeling quite so foreign on my tongue. He paused in the doorway.

“Yes?”

“Will you please stay…until I fall asleep?”

“Of course.” The door shut again and I felt him crawl into the bed beside me.

“I’m no damsel in distress you know, so don’t get used to this.” I whispered, stifling a yawn.

“I am completely aware of that. And you’re right. Your strength drew me to you.” I smiled, my face turned away from him. As I slowly descended into a dark, dreamless sleep I felt his arms circle around me, his chest purring gently. The fact that I felt this tranquil in his arms terrified me and I blamed it on the weird blood connection we now shared. If that wasn’t it then surely it was the fact that I’d almost died tonight and I was not in a proper headspace. Yes, that was it.

 

6

I yawned and stretched luxuriously, for once my body was completely free of aches and pains. Then I remembered why and sat up quickly. I was still in his bed, still wearing his shirt. I somehow could tell that it was night-time though the windows were darkened regardless. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand: 7:15 pm. God, I had slept through a whole night and day. I guess he’d been right about sleep. Perhaps I’d been closer to death than even I realized. I hopped out of bed and did not see my discarded clothes on the ground. That could only mean that Hilda or Greta had seen me in his bed. I felt immeasurably embarrassed, though I was technically his wife.

I opened the doors to his balcony and glanced down to the courtyard. Mantas was standing on the edge of the pool wearing swim trunks. His body was muscled and strong, yet still lean. I could see the outline of the muscles in his thighs and he appeared so human. I had to remind myself that he was still a monster as he perched on the edge and dove into the pool with the grace of a swan. He propelled himself through the water, appearing almost immediately at the other end. His head surfaced and he slicked his dark hair back. He glanced up and his eyes met mine, a slow, sly smile transforming his face. My heart sped up and I quickly retreated inside, shutting the doors hard behind me. What was wrong with me? I almost died last night and all I could think about was the way his muscles would feel under my hands.

            “Ugh.” I groaned and sprinted back down the hallway to my room, checking around corners for Hilda and Greta. I pulled the shirt over my head and threw it in the corner, turning the water on cold. My face was still stained with blood and dirt but my eyes stood out luminous, greener than they normally were. I moved closer to the mirror and noticed, to my horror, that my hair had actually grown a few inches overnight (and day). What exactly had his blood done to me?

I scrubbed at my skin until it was pink, remembering how my mother used to boil water and fill a tub so that we could bathe. I would help my ward and I would use this man to do it. I refused to fall under his spell. No doubt vampires had some sort of power over humans. They were natural predators and Mantas could not be trusted no matter how kind he’d been to me.

I walked slowly down the stairs, my wet hair tied in a tight bun on my head. I was about to cut through the living room to get to the kitchen when the sound of voices stopped me. Mantas was speaking to someone with a robust, husky voice. By the sound of it Mantas was not thrilled, but then again, when was he?

“You’re not looking well Monty.” I stifled a snigger behind my hand. “Is your mate not satisfying you?” Geesh, who was this guy?

“Don’t call me that. And that’s not any of your business.”

“What are you surviving on right now?”

“Animal blood. Synthetic blood.”

“You can’t last on that forever you know. You’re already deteriorating.”

“The poor girl is not ready yet.” Mantas said gently.

“Well, make her ready! What do you think she is here for?” I heard a long, low growl and I wondered who exactly the ‘alpha’ in this conversation was.

“Don’t talk about my mate that way.” Mantas said through his teeth, a warning in the air.  I pictured a dog with its hackles raised.

“You would do well to remember your place!”

“This is my home.” Mantas spat back at him.

“Sticking up for humans, how the mighty have fallen. I remember once upon a time when human women were nothing more than blood bags to you and now you’re fawning over some trash-”

“RAGH!” I ran into the room as Mantas flung the man backward into the wall, leaving quite a large dent. He was portly and barely fit into his suit. He had a large mustache, which was currently quivering on his beet red face. His black hair was slicked back. I noticed that he had the same gray eyes as Mantas, who was now half crouched in the middle of the room, his back rigid. I stood behind him and put my hand gently on his shoulder. He turned, eyes wild. I held his gaze until he stood slowly.

“So this is her, huh? Glad to know she’s looking so luminous while you look like this. You pick her over your own family.” He shook his head.

“I have a name. It’s Evvie.” I said pointedly. Mantas smirked and the man screwed up his face.

“You know what Monty? You’ve got an orcus problem you can deal with it yourself. You’re the council leader, aren’t you?”

“You signed the covenant Aldrich!”

“I don’t give a shit. I gave you your power and I can take it away. Let them eat the humans, what do I care?” Aldrich sneered at me then disappeared from the room. A moment later I heard the door slam behind him and his car squealing in the driveway. My hand was still on his shoulder and I was conscious of the tension in his muscle.

“You are brave to touch me in such a state.” He said, his voice gruff.

“I am not frightened of you Mantas.”

“Perhaps you should be.” He stalked forward and I stood there awkwardly, my hands at my side. I did not understand this man’s mood swings. This time, I didn’t let him get away. I jogged behind him as he strode up the stairs and down the hallway into a part of the house I’d never been.

He turned suddenly and I came to a halt. “Must you follow me right now?”

“Yes my husband, I must.” I matched his tone.

“I imagine you have a lot of questions.”

“You imagined correctly.”

“Fine. But you won’t like the answers.”

“I’m not a delicate flower Monty.” He grumbled and pulled a key from his pocket unlocking the door in front of us. I gasped and stepped through. “This is your study?”

“Yes, please come in why don’t you?”

“Well…perhaps if you’d shown me this on the first day I wouldn’t have felt the need to run away.”

He chuckled. “I thought you were running from me and my anger, not my home.”

“This woulda helped.” I shrugged, placing my hands on my hips as I admired the room. The walls were lined with books, floor to ceiling. I spotted a sliding ladder in one corner and a large mahogany desk in a small alcove. The shining metallic computer looked out of place among the lines of leather and aged books. But that was Mantas, wasn’t it? Old-fashioned yet living in the modern world. I spun slowly; above a cavernous fireplace was a large oil painting of a woman with black hair and kind eyes holding a small child. Her hair hung down in waves and she smiled from one corner of her mouth like Mantas did. It looked like she had a secret to share. I recognized her from the visions he’d passed me in his blood.

I pointed to it, “Is this your mother?”

“Yes.” He said quietly, pulling out the chair behind his desk. He sat down heavily and began to work on his computer. He curved his feet, curling his toes under them on the ground. I marveled at how human the tic was.

“When was this painted?” I asked.

“You’re sneaky.”

“Hm.” So he wouldn’t tell me how old he was. I paced slowly around the room, browsing his books. “Here’s the Shakespeare you spoke of.”

He tilted his head back and laughed heartily. “Yes, there’s only the one. I’m surprised you remember that.”

“It wasn’t very long ago.”

“So you’d still like to learn what dying is?” He asked. I narrowed my eyes at him, his face was filled with boyish deviance.

“By the look on your face I think perhaps not.” He sniggered and returned to his screen. “So, who’s this Aldrich fellow? He said you were family.” I plopped down in front of the fire in a cushy, scarlet armchair glad that it wasn’t some hard, modern atrocity. I sat sideways, facing him, my feet dangling off the arm of the chair. Mantas waved his hand dismissively. “You told me you were going to answer my questions, even if I didn’t like the answers.”

“Didn’t I tell you, I don’t always stick by my word?”

“Says the guy who told me that I could trust him.”

“I never said that.”

“I believe it was more like Evvie: I’ll make sure nothing harms you again.” I said in a deep voice, mocking him.

“I don’t sound like that and offering you my protection is not the same as my trust.”

“So now you’re saying that you don’t trust me?” He sighed, exasperated. I’d backed him into a corner. Evvie: 1, Mantas: 0. “Alright, now you owe me an answer.”

“Fine.” He snapped. It sounded more like I don’t owe you anything. I asked anyway.

“Was that thing that attacked me last night an orcus?”

“We call them that, yes.”

“More details please.”

“What do you want to know?” I rolled my eyes and threw my hands in the air. He pulled a hologram from his computer and began spinning and inspecting it in the air. It looked like architecture plans.

“Oh, I don’t know, let’s see. What the hell was it? Why was it here? Why did you tell it that it was out of its boundaries? Why was there a mosaic of it in the government building? How the hell did it poison me? How did it get into my dreams? Is-”

He quickly turned around, holding up a hand. “Woah, woah, OK I get it.”

“What’s the covenant and is my family in danger?” I finished quickly.

“Come here.” He gestured and I walked over, leaning against the back of his chair as he rifled through his documents. He pulled up a photo of an orcus.

“Ugh.” The white wet-looking skin, the black eyes: that was it. He twirled the photo slowly.

“I told you that there were things about this world you did not understand.”

“So help me understand.” I asked gently. His eyes met mine and I knew that we would need to fight for one another’s trust. We battled silently then he sighed.

“There is only so much I can tell you.”

“OK.”

His chest rose slowly as he studied me. “Have you ever heard of a time called The Somber Days?”

“Of course. It was before the vampires had regulations and were openly feeding.”

He laughed bitterly, his face a sneer. “You are sorely mistaken Evelyn.”

“The enlighten me, Mantas.”

“Humans no longer remember how it really happened. Vampires had heard stories about the orcus but we did not believe they were real. Well, during The Somber Days they came back in droves. From hell, I’d imagine. Humans died by the hundreds. Obviously we could not have this. We were the only ones that were strong enough to defeat them and it was then that vampires rose to power. We signed the covenant that we were sworn to protect the world from orcus should they ever rise again. The remaining ones went back to wherever they came from. The fact that they’re coming back into our territory is a huge problem and a sign of dark days to come.”

“Oh my.” Everything that I’d ever believed about vampires had not been entirely true.

“Yes, oh my.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “So they have special abilities. The poisonous haze or whatever that was. And how the hell was it in my dreams?”

He frowned. “Yes, I was surprised by that too. You seem to have foreseen what was going to happen. When you had that nightmare I knew that it was only so long before they came back. I could feel it in the air. They have this stench-”

“I know, it’s vile. Like death.”

“Precisely. We know all too well of Death.” His eyes darkened and he turned back to his screen, pulling up whatever he had been working on.

“What of the poison?”

“They have this toxin, it can kill in minutes. It closes up your lungs and blinds you then moves quickly into your bloodstream and through the rest of your body. The orcus then feeds on your energy as you die.”

“God.” I put my head in my hands.

“I’m afraid any semblance of a god has left us long ago Evvie.”

“This is bleaker than I’d imagined…So why was it so attracted to me?”

“You have a lot of strength. They feed off that. The others here, well— you met them.”

“Unfortunately.” He sniggered in response. “So what are we gonna do?” The ‘we’ slipped out of my mouth without me thinking, but he caught it and smiled.

“I’m not sure, got any ideas?”

“Not particularly.”

“My uncle would prefer that we sat back and did nothing.”

“Oh, so Aldrich is your uncle?”

“Sneaky again. But, yes, unfortunately. He is a pompous, loathsome man. My father’s brother. I can’t say that my father was much better.” He was quiet for a long time and I watched as he moved through documents at a rapid pace.

“What are you doing?” I asked quietly.

“Working from home.”

“You don’t have to go into the office?”

“No, us being ‘newlyweds’, we get a fair number of perks.” I snorted at the mention of newlyweds.

He raised his eyebrows at me. “You know, I have warned you that you shouldn’t make your discord quite so obvious.”

“Why, what exactly are you going to do to me Mantas?” I leaned forward, teasing him.

“This.” He picked me up in one fluid movement and threw me into the armchair which slid back a few inches.

“Woah.” I was breathless; I could still feel the places on my body where he’d held me as if he’d burned me with his touch. My heartbeat quickened and I blushed.

“Next time I’m going to throw you over the balcony and into the pool.”

“I don’t think this room overlooks the pool.”

“Even better, the cliffs.” He gave me a mock-evil stare.

I glanced down at the floor where the chair had slid. “You should be careful, you’re gonna scratch your hard-wood floors.”

“With a wife that hates me I’d say I have more to worry about than my floors.”

“I never said I hated you.”

“Then why the discord?”

“Say discord one more time.”

“Discord.”

I rolled my eyes at his back. “It’s not like I had much choice in the matter.” I mumbled, knowing as it left my mouth that it was probably the wrong thing to say. Sure, he was letting me play with him, but just how far could I push before he pushed back?

He turned his head quickly and his eyes narrowed. “Have I done one thing to harm you? Tell me, honestly!”

“Besides just now.” I tried to joke with him but he was no longer in the mood.

“You heard my uncle. Your fate could have been much worse.” He stood abruptly and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Great. I should be thankful that you’re not as a bad a monster as you could be.” I mumbled at the closed door, hanging my head over the side of the chair and groaning. I rubbed my hands over my face, wondering what I was supposed to do next. Out of the corner of my eye I could see his screen and on it, I saw myself. I stood and walked over, taking a furtive glance at the door. I leaned over his desk and could see that someone had sent him photos from our wedding. I touched it and the photos hung suspended in the air above me. I jumped back at the invasive technology then slowly moved closer, studying my face. I looked terrified and hesitant, but in my eyes was the strength Mantas had recognized. I moved through each photo, realizing that I’d barely looked at him. I began to examine him in the pictures, he was often glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, a sideways smile on his face. I stopped at the picture of him kissing my forehead, both our eyes closed and my head tilted down as the sunset glowed over the waves behind us. My eyebrows were knitted together as if I might cry, or perhaps already was. It was a gorgeous image. The last picture was one they’d snapped before we got back into the limo. It was face-on and I’d thought to look at the camera and smile half-heartedly. Mantas’ arm was wrapped around my shoulder and he was gazing down at me, a hopeful look on his face.

I exhaled audibly, puffing my cheeks out. I’d messed up, big time. I needed to earn his trust and it turned out that he actually cared for me. Instead I’d tossed all of his feelings aside, naively assuming he didn’t have any. We had a lot to learn about one another.

“Print this…please.” I said to the computer, my finger on the photo of the kiss. I felt like an idiot talking to the machine. A loading circle appeared and seconds later the photo popped out from a slot in the monitor. I turned the screen off and placed the photo in front of it. I grabbed a sticky note and in my best hand-writing scrawled:

I’m sorry.

                    -E