The academy introducti.., p.7
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       Introductions, p.7

           C. L. Stone
 
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When I got back to my bedroom without anyone noticing, I was relieved. I huddled back near the window and checked the message from Luke.

  Luke: “Hi.”

  I laughed a little, giddy. I had boys texting me. It was like something out of a movie I’d seen. How stupid was I to get excited over a text?

  Sang: “Hello.”

  I tried to suppress my excitement. I really wanted to go for a walk to release some of this energy, but now that I was back in the house again, I didn’t want to go through the effort to sneak out. This phone was much more fun than I’d anticipated. I had friends calling me! It was easier to pretend I was normal this way.

  The phone buzzed in my hand.

  Luke: “I’m Lucian but everyone calls me Luke. You’re Sang, right? Where did you move from?”

  Sang: “I’m from up north. The south is different.”

  Luke: “It’s warmer, but it’s probably the same.”

  Sang: “There’s also palm trees.”

  Luke: “LOL”

  Sang: “Are you coming over tomorrow? Kota mentioned it.”

  Luke: “Yeah. In the morning, I think.”

  Sang: “What’s the big announcement?”

  Luke: “Promise not to tell?”

  Would I tell? Promise? Would he trust me? He hadn’t even met me yet.

  Sang: “I promise.”

  Luke: “Pinkie swear?”

  Sang: “How can I pinkie swear if I’m not there to shake your pinkie?”

  It was two minutes before I got another message. This time it was a picture message. There was a male hand in the shot, the pinkie lifted up, partially curled.

  I thought it was funny. It took me a minute to figure out how the camera worked and to take a photo but I returned one of my pinkie in the same position.

  Luke: “Your hands are small.”

  Sang: “How can you tell?”

  Luke: “There’s a book in the shot. Is that Grimm’s Fairy Tales?”

  I hadn’t even looked at what I put nearby. It was a Grimm book.

  Sang: “Yes.”

  Luke: “Which one’s your favorite?”

  My mind had gone blank. I flipped through the pages to look for a title that I recognized.

  Sang: “I like The Princess in Disguise. So what’s your big news?”

  Luke: “We’re buying the church on your block.”

  Sang: “What? Why?”

  Before I got a text back, I heard a rattling at my door. I dropped the phone behind the trunk against the wall and picked up the book. I heard it clunk and I stressed, worried I might have broken it. What would Victor think if I broke the brand new phone he bought for me?

  The door swung wide open. My older sister Marie poked her head in. Her dark eyes narrowed in on me.

  “Mom wants you to come down for din-nur,” she cooed.

  “Ugh,” I said. “What is it?”

  “Beef stew.”

  We’d had canned beef stew three times that week already. Most of the time, my mother didn't care if we showed up, but when she was in a particularly annoyed mood, she tried giving us orders on when to eat, when to sleep and so on. “I don’t really want any,” my voice cracking as I spoke.

  “She’ll just yell for you in a minute, anyway.”

  I grumbled. She was right. “Hang on, let me close this window.” It was still open, and I was grateful. It gave me an excuse to stay there for a few minutes. Marie disappeared, not bothering to shut the door. I heard her thud down the stairs.

  I did close the window but I checked the phone quickly before tucking it away in the attic.

  Luke: “We’re opening a diner.”

  That night, I was still awake at midnight when I got the last text from Victor.

  Victor: “I’ll let you go to sleep.”

  I was grateful for it. My thumbs tingled. Luke had told me about his uncle who wanted to open up a restaurant, so they were going to do a diner and use the church building. He sounded excited about it, but soon had to go to eat dinner, too. Gabriel wanted to talk about what I was going to wear to registration and was telling me about the school building being a drab box with windows. Victor asked when my birthday was.

  Sang: “October.”

  Victor: “Mine’s in January.”

  The next morning, I was out the door the moment my dad took off to go to work. I couldn’t sleep at all the night before, but I was grateful, since not sleeping meant there weren’t any nightmares. I stole down to the garage, taking the plug for the phone. I charged it from the inside of the shed where I was shielded from view. It took only fifteen minutes. When it was filled, I hid the plug and pocketed the phone, heading for the woods again.

  I should have been tired since I hadn’t slept, but the air was so fresh and I felt really good. I was only wearing sandals this time, with a short green cotton skirt and a thin yellow hoodie with three-quarter sleeves and a front pocket. I brushed my hair out and pulled it up into a neater twist with my clip, leaving two locks on either side of my face, tucked behind my ears. I thought it framed my face better. I giggled at myself that morning in the bathroom for being concerned with my looks now. I always thought other girls at school were silly to spend so much time fixing their hair and makeup for school classes. A week ago, I wouldn’t have cared how I looked.

  I tested my voice as I walked. Since I was able to rest it, I could speak softly, but it started to crack if I talked at a normal level. I was hopeful by the time Silas came around, it would be even better. I didn’t want him wondering what happened.

  I had the phone tucked into my hoodie pocket as I walked. I fiddled with it in my hands as I took the shortcut through the woods. When Luke talked about his plans to turn the church into a diner, I wanted to check it out before it all changed.

  If it wasn’t for the large cross over the door, the building might have looked like any old utility building. The windows were maybe a couple of feet long and narrow along the side. The large white double front doors were plain, clean cut. The metal siding was a bland beige. Still, the building looked clean. There was a large blue jungle gym and a swing set nearby. The grass around it was a little high. I climbed onto the landing of the gym set, sitting on it and swinging my feet off of the edge as I tried to picture the place as a diner. The parking lot was gravel, but still very usable. The small attempt at a border garden around the front had a few stick trees and dead bushes. It would take a lot of work to make it look attractive.

  I felt the phone in my pocket vibrating and it tickled. Who was up this early?

  Luke: “What’s your favorite breakfast?”

  I smiled to myself, thinking about the answer. It was silly but it wasn’t embarrassing. Would he think I was childish?

  Sang: “Chocolate chip pancakes.”

  “With syrup?” a voice asked behind me.

  Startled, I twisted myself, nearly falling off the ledge and I reached out to the pole support to hold myself up. On the ground behind me was a guy with blond hair so long it almost touched his shoulders. Most of it was pulled back into a loose ponytail behind his head. Several locks hung around his ears and in his face. He was wearing dark blue Levi jeans, black flip flops and a white button up shirt with the collar looking rumpled. The top three buttons were undone, so I could see halfway down his chest through the opening. The bottom button was undone as well. I wondered why he bothered with the shirt at all. His skin was only a smidgen darker than my own. His eyes were brown, striking against his light hair and features. He had high cheekbones and a strong chin. Of all the guys I had met so far, if I had to pick out which one would be the most popular with girls, he would have beaten them all by miles. I could easily imagine him being a model.

  I knew my mouth was hanging open and I quickly closed it, trying to process his question. Did I hear him right? I swallowed to make sure my voice would work. “Luke?”

  He put his hand to his waist and made the smallest of bows, a wide smile on his face. “In the flesh.” He stood up and reached fo
r a rung on the monkey bars, picking up his feet to hang from it. I could see his belly button and the defined muscles of his abdomen as his shirt rode up his body. He wasn’t as cut as Nathan, but he was clearly strong. “What do you think? Can you see it as a diner?” he asked.

  I looked toward the church, tilting my head. “I think it depends on what the inside looks like.”

  “Not judging the book by the cover, huh?” he smiled and then crossed the monkey bars hand over hand, swinging his body as he did, until he could put his feet on the platform where I sat. “We have to get rid of the playground, though,” he said. “Insurance would kill us if we kept it.”

  “That’s a shame,” I said. “Would have been a good way to bring in parents with kids.”

  “I know,” he said. “It’s going on fall now but I thought about setting up a patio up front. Improving the size of the garden a little, maybe?”

  The yard of the church was at least an acre. It sat right on the corner where the highway met the residential road. The neighborhood homes were tucked behind a row of evergreen trees, so there was some separation and the neighbors probably wouldn’t notice or hear the traffic to the diner. The would-be diner had easy access to a fairly busy road and no competition within miles. “What made you guys want to start a diner?”

  “It’s what my uncle wants to do,” he said. He leaned back against a pole, looking at me with those dark eyes. They were playful, like he wanted to laugh, and he was just waiting for the joke. “He was working with a partner and the partner is kicking him out. So he’s starting his own place.”

  “That’s too bad,” I said. He looked confused. “I mean it’s too bad that his partner wanted to split up. Were they friends?”

  “I think when they started,” he said. He moved away from the post and leaned toward me. “So you want to see it?”

  I tilted my head at him, an eyebrow going up.

  “The inside?”

  I smiled. Exploring? Of course. “Yes.”

  He jumped down from the platform. The scent of something sweet came from him as he passed me. He moved around in front of me and held up his arms until his hands were on the outside of my thighs. From where I was sitting, I could see the muscle tone in his arm flexing. His eyes focused directly into mine.

  “Let’s go.”

  It was as if it were as natural as breathing, which surprised me later when I thought about it. I reached out and he moved his shoulders so I could balance myself and hop down. He had me by the hips and lowered me gently to the ground. He held on to me when I started to step back as if he was worried I had stumbled.

  The moment I was stable, he let go of me and turned to walk toward the church, pulling keys from his pocket. It was like he never gave any thought to the moment between us that felt so intimate to me. My family never hugged each other. I barely remembered the last time I even touched hands with one of them. He helped me down from the gym as if it were just the thing to do. Was it normal? So many of the boys had touched me this week, that I was feeling a crazy sense of loneliness when they let go.

  I followed on his heels toward the front door, my eyes going up to the cross. It felt like it should almost be sacred, but would it feel differently once it was converted?

  Luke fit the key into the door lock and then held it open for me. I stepped inside, smelling the heavy dust and stale air. The hallway in front of us was in shadow.

  He closed the door and moved forward. At a certain point in the hallway, it started getting super dark. I was trying to reach out with one hand for a wall to help guide me but something touched my hand and I jumped.

  “Here,” Luke said and he reached for my hand again. “Stay behind me. I’m sorry; I don’t know where the light switch is. It didn’t seem that dark down here when we started.”

  I sucked in a breath and followed behind him. His hand was warm, his fingers interlocking with mine. My heart fluttered. He was just helping, I told myself. Normal people do this when necessary. I needed to get used to it.

  Near the end of the hallway, a window provided a little more light. There was a wide, double door to our right. He let go of my hand to open it.

  The inside was pitch black.

  “Hold the door open,” Luke said. “I’ll find the switch.”

  I stood by the door as Luke disappeared into the darkness. Minutes passed. I was worried he might fall or something might happen to him. How could I find him in the dark?

  Electricity crackled above my head and the lights flickered on. There were two sets of chandeliers; a couple of the bulbs were missing but it mostly worked. We were in the chapel, though the pews were gone and there were a couple of faded green hymnals stacked along the walls. There was a platform on the far end, a podium in front with a cross on it. The carpet was a dull brown, the walls a yellowed off-white.

  Luke was standing on the platform near the back wall. He walked toward the front of it, looking around the room and his hands slid into his pockets. “Well? What do you think?”

  I swept my eyes across the room, trying to imagine what it would look like as a diner. “There’s a lot of space for tables,” I offered. Still, it was a vast, empty space that could be used for anything.

  “And this stage could be used for bands on some nights.” Luke stomped on the wood of the platform. “It feels solid.”

  I tiptoed through the room. There was a slight chill in the air. At least the air conditioning unit worked. I crossed my arms over my chest and rubbed at goose bumps. There were exposed beams. I could imagine the lights all working, a cozy setting with booths for customers. I wondered where the kitchen was.

  Luke materialized behind me, standing close with his chest warming my back. I froze. I felt his lips near my ear. “Do you see it?” he whispered.

  I swallowed, nervous. I wasn’t sure if I could turn around and look at him. I nodded. “It just needs the right tables.”

  “And the door over there could be the official entrance,” he said, moving to my side to stand next to me and pointing. “And the other, the entryway to the kitchen. We’ll have to get rid of the podium.”

  “You should keep it,” I said. “You could paint it and attach it to something so you could roll it in when you want to. You could rent the place out for meetings.”

  His eyes popped open wide. “I hadn’t even thought about that.”

  “And I like the garden and outside dining idea,” I said.

  “There could be a bar over there,” he motioned with his hand. “A big one.”

  “And a case for pies and baked things you’d sell on the side,” I added.

  “And a jukebox.”

  “With vases of flowers on the tables.”

  His breath caught and his shimmering eyes sought out mine. “What’s your favorite flower?”

  I smiled. “I like roses. Chrysler Imperial.”

  He grinned, showing his perfect white teeth. “We’ll have a rose garden out front. We’ll be able to put roses out on the tables for most of the year.”

  I laughed, waving my hand in the air. “What about when the roses die off in the winter?”

  His mouth twisted and he turned partially away from me, shifting on his feet. “We’ll light candles. Rose scented ones.”

  My heart warmed. His imagination was intoxicating. I could see everything he had suggested. Before my eyes, the dullness of the church washed away, and all I could see was a crowded diner. Luke would wear a serving apron and would hold a tray steaming with fresh food. I even entertained the idea of running the counter, serving coffee and helping people with their purchases. I could see Kota and Nathan as customers, Victor playing piano on stage, and Gabriel or maybe Silas helping in the kitchen.

  I had turned to look at the large empty space again. I felt Luke next to me. His fingertips brushed at the top of my hand. It was so unexpected that I pulled my hand away before I had a chance to stop myself.

  “You see it, don’t you?” he asked. There was a gleam in his eyes, as if
he needed me to believe in this as much as he did. Who was I to tell him what he could or couldn’t do?

  I willed my own voice to work so he could hear my honest reply. I nodded, agreeing with him. Yes. I could see it. “It’s beautiful.”

  With the smile that broke over his face, you would have thought I said he’d just won the secret to eternal happiness.

  “Let’s go find the kitchen,” he said. “I think it’s through here.”

  I followed him across the chapel and out through the other door. The hallway on this far side was lit up by a few windows. I followed behind him, my hand on his back to make sure he knew I was behind him. Since I was so close, I could breathe in that sweet fragrance he wore, like vanilla and sugar.

  He stopped and opened the door to what was the kitchen. He tried the light switch, only when he flicked it, nothing happened.

  “There must be a breaker down,” he said. “Want to stay here? I think I know where it is.”

  I nodded. He went off looking for the breaker box and I stepped into the kitchen. There wasn’t much I could see, the window on the other side was covered with a thick curtain.

  I crossed the room, being careful as I couldn’t really see the floor. The window was high up above the counter. If I was going to reach it, I had to climb on top.

  I put my palms on the flat top, pushing myself up. It took some effort because the counter was pretty high for my size. I managed to swing a leg over and get up on my knees. I felt for the wall, using it to steady myself as I stood up. I reached for the curtain, grabbing the edge of it and I tried pulling it aside. It was tacked along the edges. I blew out a breath, placed both hands on the curtain and yanked as hard as I could.

  “What the hell are you doing in here?”

  The voice was deep, demanding, with an edge that caused me to jump at the same time I was ripping. The curtain fell away from the wall.

  I fell backward into the dark.

  North

 
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