THE SAVIOR: Chapter 3
Click here for Chpater 1
Click here for Chapter 2
(Look out for the links to songs that fit the mood of the scene.)
Click here for Chapter 2
(Look out for the links to songs that fit the mood of the scene.)
“Wake up!” Leslie shouts at me.
Eyes flashing open, I am panting as liquid crimson drips into my mouth.
Leslie stares at me, terror burning behind her indigo eyes.
I sit up. “What?” I ask, tasting iron in my mouth.
“Take this,” she says shakily, thrusting a black towel at me.
This feels like déjà vu.
I take the towel, wipe the blood off my mouth, and pinch my nostrils shut with the cloth. Embarrassed, I look away. “I wasn’t screaming…was I?” I ask, towel muffling my voice.
“Yes, you were,” she says stiffly, taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
“Are you ok?” I ask, glancing back up at her.
A shaky chuckle parts her lips, “Yes, of course I am. Are you?”
“I’m fine. I had a nightmare,” I try to reassure her. “That’s all.”
Placing a hand over her heart, she sighs, “You scared me kiddo.”
“Sorry,” I mumble, sinking back into the mattress a bit.
“What on earth were you dreaming about?” She leans toward me with quizzical eyes.
“I don’t remember,” I lie and then lick my lips, immediately regretting the action. Dried, crusty blood coats my tongue. “Probably something stupid, though. I haven’t slept very well the past couple of nights.”
“Hmm, probably because you’ve been feeling under the weather lately,” she tells me, patting my knee through the sheets.
I glance down at her hand and notice the spray of red spots splattered grotesquely across the white linens, looking like the aftermath of a warzone. “Oh,” I gasp. “I’m so sorry Leslie.”
“It’s not a problem, honey,” she reassures me. “The stains I can take out easily. I’m more concerned about you than the pillows.”
“What’s up with these nosebleeds and nightmares, June Bug?”
“I don’t know.” I shrug and then try to make a joke out of this awkward situation, “What’ve you been putting in the food lately.”
A half-hearted chuckle parts her lips. She pulls a fallen black curl out of her eyes and sighs dejectedly when it springs back into its unwanted position.
“The heat probably has something to do with it,” I add, despite my gut screaming it’s something else.
“Hmm, you may be right about that. Well”—she gently pats my knee again—“you better wash up, hun. I’m sorry, but I got to get heading over to the Mess Hall. Got to get breakfast underway,” she tells me, gazing at me in that soul-warming-motherly way that makes my heart ache.
“Yeah, that’s great. I’m fine,” I tell her. “I’ll meet you over there.”
“Ok honey,” she stands up and then leans over to kiss my forehead. “Good, you feel a lot cooler. Put an ice pack on that nose for five to ten minutes before coming down for breakfast,” she tells me. When I nod she leaves the room.
I hop out of bed and change into a black polo shirt, turning up the collar, and then yanking on my stained white denim shorts. I flinch at the mirror’s image as I enter the bathroom to wash up. Both hands grip the edge of the sink as I examine my face. My hair is in knots and a ring of blood circles my mouth like make-up on a clown. I look like the result of a fistfight, something not unusual for me.
What the hell is happening to me?
“It’s ringing,” Nellie giggles.
I can’t believe this. I can’t believe we are actually calling the camp. Immediately after I described my dream to Nellie she sprinted down the hallway to the computer, typed in the address I gave her and—believe it or not because I know I can’t—was able to locate the number of the camp. Now she is phoning the people there to see if we can visit this dang place.
What the heck is she going to say?
I leave the kitchen because I just can’t handle this crap anymore. I don’t want to hear Nellie talk to Leslie and find out if Leslie is even a real person.
Ugh, I got a major headache right now.
I seriously need to get the heck out of this house, hop on the four-wheeler and go cruising through the woods so I can clear my mind.
I tromp towards the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. I lock it because Nellie might try to grab me. Though, I doubt it would stop her. She’d probably tackle the door like a football player, throw me over her shoulder, and march me straight back into the kitchen.
Plopping down on the toilet seat, I sigh heavily, hands gripping fistfuls of hair between my fingers.
I want to scream.
I want to punch a hole in the wall.
Or on second thought I’d rather punch a hole through Nellie’s head, it’d be my form of a lobotomy. Isn’t that what they did to schizophrenics back in the olden days?
Lifting my cheeks off the toilet I trudge back into the kitchen.
“This is unreal,” Nellie whispers to me excitedly as my feet creak across the linoleum floor.
For once I actually agree with her.
“Well, nice talking to you…yes…ok…see you tomorrow then.” Nellie clicks the phone off, sets it on the counter, and can hardly contain herself. “Well, Leslie Markham is, indeed, a real person and apparently she runs a camp for orphans,” she says, giggling uncontrollably.
My legs become shaky, so I move to the table and take a seat. “She is?” My voice lowers into a whisper.
“Yes,” Nellie shrills bouncing up and down, her blubbery stomach swinging to and fro. “I told you, Logan, you are the chosen one,” she tells me and I cringe at the word.
“Did you say ‘see you tomorrow’?” I ask her.
“Uh-huh.” Nellie nods, smiling and clapping her hands.
“What about Mom?”
“Oh, no worries Logan my boy, she’ll come with us too,” she tells me like I am stupid or something and maybe I am because none of this makes sense to me at the moment. “Now you go ahead and run along and get packed for tomorrow. We have an early flight in the morning to San Francisco. I’m going to call Ava right now and see if her hubby Richard can help us out with non-revving.”
I skip out on breakfast this morning and instead run non-stop for the dock, collapsing onto the wood the instant I reach it, sighing heavily.
Quivering all over, nearly on the verge of screaming, I get this dire need to punch something, but I don’t, instead I lock down all my fears, push them further and further inside of me, desperately hoping they won’t bubble over into broad daylight where people can see them.
Sprawling myself out onto the dock, I face the sky and squeeze my lids shut, hoping that this will somehow magically slow my heart rate down.
The bathtub. The nightmares. The pain. The blood. My temperature. What does it all mean? I think. Am I going insane?
Get a grip, I tell myself. Don’t panic. Panic is the enemy. You panic, you die.
Once when I was eleven, Max and I found this random inner tube, floating all by its lonesome self out on the lake. I swam out to it first and tried to climb onto it, but there was this thick, heavy raggedy tarp draped over the top. When I pulled it off it somehow snagged my foot and dragged me beneath the surface, pulling me deeper and deeper into the water. Panicked, I squirmed and kicked and yet no matter how hard I tried to free myself from it I couldn’t. My lungs burned and the sun’s light above me got dimmer and dimmer. Suddenly, I felt Max at my side. He was untangling my foot and just as I thought I was going to black out we broke the water’s surface. Max pulled me onto the dock where I coughed and coughed, cleared my lungs of water and pulled in as much air as possible.
I was still wet and shaking all over when Max began yelling at me. “You can’t panic like that!” He scolded. “When you panic, you can’t think, and then you die.”
“I’m sorry,” I cried and then immediately ran for my cabin, mad and embarrassed all at the same time. Max was right, though; had I been calm and collected I would have thought to just untangle my foot from the tarp. Panic, I learned that day, is one of the worst enemies a person can have.
You panic, you die. You panic, you die. This has been my mantra during stressful situations, but today I can’t seem to will my mind into calmness. Not with everything that’s happened.
I clamp my eyes tighter and focus on my breath.
A rhythm. A balance. That’s how you survive.
My muscles start easing and as I begin to relax I try to listen, to think of nothing but the sounds I hear.
I listen to the oak tree near the water’s edge creak and groan in that old familiar way. I listen to the birds sing as though nothing were wrong with the world. I listen to—
“Damn it! She’s here,” a voice whines. Eyes clamp tighter and a groan escapes me. Alicia and her little cult march onto the dock, stopping just inches away from me. No need to open my eyes when their presence is loud and clear.
“Yes?” I mutter.
“What are you doing here?” Alisha seethes, hand resting on her hip. I don’t actually see her do this, but I’ve got a feeling she’s doing it.
“What does it look like?” I say, opening my eyes.
Oh, look at that, I think, someone has got a hand on her hip.
“It looks like you’re skipping out on breakfast. Are you, like, becoming anorexic or something? It’s probably a good idea, though. You really should loose a few pounds.”—The girls chuckle at her distasteful comment—“Yeah, because if I were Max I wouldn’t want to have an elephant for a girlfriend,” Alisha tells me.
I stand up, inches away from Alisha’s face. “You know, honestly, this whole jealousy thing is just getting old and makes you sound stupid,” I tell her.
She laughs insultingly, “Me jealous of you? The fatty? No, I like keeping thin and gorgeous, thank you very much. Two things you obviously don’t have going for you.”
Snickers crackle behind her.
I roll my eyes. “What the hell is your problem?”
Her eyes narrow on me like a snake to its prey. “You are my problem,” Alisha declares. “You and your stupid nightmares! I bet your dreams are about never getting adopted. I mean, like, who would seriously adopt a freak like you?”
Blind with rage, I pull back my fist and snap it forward, crashing against Alisha’s face. Something crackles against my knuckles. Alisha loses her balance and goes toppling into the lake. The girls gasp in horror, shouting out her name over and over again as I force my legs into a run, sprinting away from this endless nightmare.
You panic, you die. You panic, you die. Obviously, I haven’t mastered this yet.
My head is spinning out of control.
Leslie is real. The camp is real. Two down, one to go.
“JUNA MCCALL BROOKS!” Leslie’s voice booms across the campsite.
Here come the fire works, I think, leaning further into the outer wall of Leslie’s cabin, arms wrapped tightly around my legs, dried blood crusting my knuckles. “What?” I groan.
Leslie stomps over to me, her thick hiking boots halting beside my muddied bare feet. “You know exactly what young lady,” she snarls through clenched teeth.
I do not dare raise my head to meet her eyes. Those eyes scare me. I keep my attention straight-ahead, too ashamed. Taking in a deep ragged breath I add, “All I’ve got to say is that Alisha is one pain in the ass!”
“Watch your mouth!” She scolds me, bending down to my level. “You had absolutely no right to punch her. Alisha’s nose is broken. We had to take her to the hospital.”
My lips twitch into a smile.
Slapping the side of my arm sharply with the back of her hand Leslie tells me, “Now listen”—she gulps—“I am extremely disappointed in you. You really hurt her. Even if you absolutely loathe a person on a cellular level and are capable of breaking their nose, you still, under no circumstances, do it.”
Satisfaction subsides into guilt.
“You have more class than that young lady,” she continues. “I thought we were through with this.”
Leslie is referring to my elementary and middle school days when I got into fistfights with kids on a regular basis. These vicious brats bullied me and other kids from St. Mark’s Children Center about never getting adopted, told us we’d never have parents because God hated us.
There was a point in my life, third grade to be exact, when I actually believed them. Believed that being an orphan was God’s proof of His loathing for me. Being an orphan, I thought, meant that I was trekking down the inevitable path to failure.
One afternoon when I was riding the bus home from school, feeling soul-punishingly depressed, I spotted this humongous white billboard looming above me while the bus stopped at an intersection. An enormous black and white photo of Babe Ruth clung to the billboard and the caption next to him read: From Orphanage to Hall of Fame. Like the strike of a match, something lit up inside of me that day and in that moment I realized it didn’t matter where I came from, what mattered was where I was going. Suddenly, my back straightened, the tension in my muscles lessened, and all thoughts of a hopeless future vanished. I knew that if Babe Ruth could make it big after his rough start in life, then I, too, had a shot at leaving my mark on this world.
After this amazing childhood epiphany I no longer submitted to the teasing, but rather fought back. Almost every fight I fell into was stupid and could have easily been ignored, but while the stupid ones faded over time one last battle remains forever seared into my memory.
Three years ago, a young girl my age named Lylan Gruen entered St. Mark’s Children Center. A cute kid with dark skin, she possessed one of the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen. Mother killed in a car crash at age three, her widowed father was left alone to raise her. While father was his title it by no means meant that he was a good one. He abused her in every way imaginable, sent to prison before Lylan came into Leslie’s protection. Covered in black and blue splotches, right eye almost swollen shut, I was curious to know what she endured, but neither her nor Leslie told me at first.
Yet despite her circumstance she was the sweetest girl I had ever met. Timid at first, obviously, but after a couple months we became great friends and a hopeful gleam had begun to shine in her eyes.
Once comfortable with me, Lylan revealed everything her father did to her. Afterwards, I felt nauseated, sickened with anger. How on earth could a person inflict such pain upon another human being, especially on his own daughter? It made no sense.
The worse was yet to come though.
Safe and out of her father’s reach, Lylan continued living a nightmare because, believe it or not, kids at school actually had the nerve to tease her about this.
I will never forget that fateful day when Corbin Huppert pushed Lylan to the pavement as she made her way to the school bus. I was thirteen. Max was fourteen.
The instant Lylan falls to her knees I am sprinting after her with Max right behind me. “Lylan!” I shout, bending down to help her up. “Are you alright?”
I feel a stab beneath my breastbone as I look into her eyes. In that instant, something in Lylan breaks: not her anger nor her fear, but that last spider-thread of hope. Seized by terror, it dawns on me that a person didn’t have to witness someone dying in order to see the life leave their face.
Corbin snickers behind me.
I shoot up—blood boiling in my veins—and whirl around to face him, yelling, “What the fuck is the matter with you?”
Shocked, he looks to his friends. They all raise their eyebrows at him and when he turns his attention back to me he squints his eyes as though this will help him see me more clearly. “What did you say to me, bitch?” he asks, tipping his head to the side, analyzing me.
“You heard me,” I say through clenched teeth.
“You don’t know—” he begins, but I cut him off.
“Why’d you do that to her?” I shout, my voice quivering, eyes verging on the brink of tears. “Do you have any idea what she’s gone through?”
“Yeah, I do,” he says. “And it’s disgusting.”
I’m in shock at his words. I feel something hot and violent writhing in my stomach. I want to hurt him.
“Someone needs to teach her that it ain’t okay to do it with yer daddy,” he tells me and then he and his friends start laughing.
Anger rocks through me as I prepare to knock the living shit out of him. I throw off my backpack and lunge for him. He tries to punch me, but I duck out of the way and plow right into his stomach like a football player. He tumbles onto his back, his head smacking the pavement, which forces a heavy breath from his mouth that hits my face. My knees press into his stomach as I punch him.
He screams as blood gushes from both nostrils.
Yanking me away from him, his two friends grasp at my upper arms, while the third boy kicks me viciously in the ribs, knocking the wind from my lungs. I cry out in pain, shaking my hand away from the guy on the right and then jamming my elbow into his groin. He bends over and howls in agony.
“Get away from her,” Max yells, slamming into the guy who kicked me.
Both Max and I are kicking and punching, while a sea of children envelope around us, egging us on. It isn’t long after a teacher pushes through the crowd to break it off.
I’m surprised I didn’t kill Corbin and I probably would have if his friends didn’t wrench me back. I remember hating him so much and wanting to protect her so badly. Needless to say I got into astronomical amounts trouble, but I didn’t care. I never cared. I fought for my own reasons and this one was something I had to fight for. Corbin deserved every ounce of pain I caused him.
Lylan was adopted a year later to a wonderful family—Leslie made sure of that as she always does—yet she still found life troubling, somehow not worth living. At age fourteen Lylan hung herself in a closet.
I wonder how Corbin felt when he received the news? To this day I will never forgive him or her father for what they did to Lylan.
I can’t forgive myself either because I failed to save her, a fact that makes me feel like I am full of broken glass.
I’m not a big crier, but I cried a lot during those first few months after Lylan’s death. Every day was a struggle, a struggle to eat, a struggle to sleep, and a struggle to find meaning in this malicious world.
I escaped up into the attic one afternoon because I couldn’t stop shaking or crying that day. I was eight-years-old the last time I ran away to that dusty place and mourned over the lack of a family, which was the case this time too, but it wasn’t until Lylan that I discovered a person didn’t need documentation to truly belong to a family. Family was bigger and deeper than that. Lylan was my sister and now my sister was gone.
And like last time, Max found me. I don’t how he does it, but he always seems to find me. I sat on that same bench as last time with my knees pulled into my chest, demanding that he go away, but he refused. Instead, he took a seat next to me and without speaking began rubbing small circles into my back. I leaned into him and cried some more.
“I’m sorry,” I say and I mean it.
Her expression softens. “Well, I appreciate it, but I am not the one you should be apologizing to,” Leslie says.
“Yeah…I know,” I mumble.
“Well, on a lighter note, there’s a family coming tomorrow interested in adopting a sixteen-year-old,” Leslie informs me.
“Max will be excited.”
“You should be too.”—She nudges me—“They might adopt you.”
“Maybe…maybe not,” I mutter pessimistically.
“Come on, cheer up,” she tells me, rising from the ground. Leslie stretches her hand out for me. I grab it. “Lets get you something to eat. You must be hungry,” she says, pulling me to my feet.
“Ok,” I mumble.
We walk back to Leslie’s cabin where I eat a bowl of noodles. Well, let me rephrase that, where I attempt to eat a bowl of noodles. Can’t finish it because I’ve completely lost my appetite.
Resting my chin into the palm of my hand I begin to think. I think over everything that has happened, desperately wishing life was like a drawing and I could simply erase all my errors.
“June Bug, I think it is best if stay here tonight. It might be a little awkward going back to your cabin right now. But you need to go straight over there tomorrow and apologize to Alisha,” Leslie lectures me as she finishes washing the rest of the dishes in the sink.
“Yep,” I mumble.
After dinner I go to the bathroom, my eyes inevitably landing on the tub. I glare at the tub, my face growing hot.
I hate you tub, I scream in my head and then stick my tongue out at it as if this will make a difference and actually it does. I surprisingly feel much better afterwards.
Rummaging through the drawer I search for the thermometer. I wait for what feels like the longest minute ever until it beeps. I yank it out, but it’s blank. Nothing. It beeped, but now the damn thing won’t show anything. It kicked the freaking bucket!
Flinging the deceased thermometer back into the drawer I slam it shut and groan.
Exciting the bathroom, I yell goodnight across the hallway as I enter my room. “Goodnight sweetie,” Leslie answers.
As I slide under the sheets something prickles at the back of my throat at the mere thought of the pain I will endure tonight.
I’ve only flown on an airplane three other times before today.
Once when I was ten, Dad took me and the twins out to New York City to visit his parents. An hour into the flight some lady in front of me went into labor. I remember how miserable her moans sounded and how mad I was that I had to sit alone, while my dad sat with Erin and Rowan, who were six at the time, a couple rows back. A flight attendant who looked like Snow White with her raven black hair and scarlet lips came to the lady’s side and asked her, “Do you feel like your water broke?” The woman nodded. I had no idea what that meant, but it sure didn’t seem like a good thing according to the flight attendant’s expression. Quickly afterwards, Snow White asked over the PA System if anyone on board was a doctor. Dad announced that he was an anesthesiologist and that he could provide some assistance.
“Hey buddy,” he knelt down beside me. “I’m going to have you sit with your brother and sister. Okay?”
“What’s happening?” I asked, trembling in my seat.
“Nothing to worry about Logan,” Dad assured me, placing his enormous hand over my shaky arm, smiling with his kind blue eyes. “I’m going to help this woman deliver a baby.”
My eyes widened. The whole baby-delivering thing was kind of a foreign concept to me. I mean sure I had a lot of siblings, but it didn’t mean I was in the delivery room with my mom each time watching how it all happened. All I knew was that the baby was in Mom’s belly one day and out in her arms the next day. I had no idea what happened in between. She could have thrown them up for all I knew.
“Go on buddy,” Dad said, ruffling my hair. So, I got out of my seat and walked down the aisle to sit with my siblings.
“Logan where’s Daddy?” Erin asked me. She used to be so cute and innocent back then with her little curly pigtails high up on the sides of her head, wearing a blue and white daisy dress.
I told both her and my brother Rowan, who sat next to the window, that Dad was delivering a baby. I remember how both of their eyes went super wide at the exact same moment and how that kind of made me laugh a little.
I leant in my seat to watch the action unraveling down the aisle. Dad began directing Snow White and the other flight attendants to gather supplies like gloves, paper towels, and hot towels from first class. I remember that Snow White brought out a first aid kit, removing a pair of scissors from it and how that made me gulp. I turned back to my siblings.
“What?” Rowan asked.
I shook my head. “Nothing pal,” I answered and then looked down the aisle again.
More passengers started offering their help. The crew needed something to tie off the umbilical cord, but they didn’t have any twine or string or anything really, so a passenger pulled out his shoelace and held it in the air for them. Another passenger timed the contractions while Dad monitored the woman’s blood pressure. One of the flight attendants snatched a beverage cup and poured vodka in it to sterilize the shoelaces and scissors.
The woman started screaming really loud at this point and I couldn’t look anymore. I probably looked sick at that point because Erin started rubbing my arm and told me, “It’s gonna be okay Logan.”
A few minutes later, Dad lifted the wrapped up baby, so that everyone could see and said, “It’s a girl!” Everyone applauded, my siblings and myself included. Shortly afterwards a guy with shoulder-length blonde hair in the row across from us said, “Dude, that guy just got out of his seat delivered a baby. How badass is that?”
“That’s my Dad!” I boasted.
“Cool little man! Your Dad is awesome!” He said.
It was true. My dad was the coolest Dad ever and I wanted to be just like him one day.
My third flight was much normal in comparison, except for one thing that went on to haunt me for the rest of my life. Dad, the twins, and I were coming back home from our awesome trip to the Big Apple. Dad kept pressing his fingertips to his chest at the airport and on the plane. I remember him squinting his eyes a bunch too. When I asked him about it, he said, “Oh nothing buddy. Just got a bit of a stomachache right now. Probably shouldn’t have had that bacon cheese burger earlier.” When I didn’t smile, he ruffled my hair and added, “I’m fine Logan. Nothing to worry about.”
About a year later, Dad had a heart attack and died. I never told Mom about his chest pain that day and I can’t help but blame myself for his death because maybe if I told her about what happened right away she would have forced him to see a doctor and then his death could have been prevented. I’ll never know, though.
All I know is that Dad saved multiple strangers’ lives and yet I, his son, couldn’t even save one… the most important one, too.
I’ve never been on a plane since, so I kind of sort of hate them.
I am crammed between my mother who sits quietly beside the window reading a book and Nellie who sits to my left snoring like a freaking grizzly bear. Now, admittedly, I’ve never heard a grizzly bear snore before—heck, I don’t even know if they do snore—but if I put my imagination to the test it’d sound something pretty dang close to that god awful noise she makes.
Several hostile glares whiz like fiery arrows in my direction. Groaning, I shift uncomfortably in my seat, wanting to scream, At least you don’t have to sit right next to her!
Mom pats my knee and sighs. “Aren’t you glad the apple fell far from the tree?” she tries to joke. Clever, I think, but I’m not in the mood to laugh today.
“Sweetie?” Her tone is serious this time.
“What?” I mutter, my eyes burning.
“I want you to know that I don’t expect anything to come of this trip,” she admits, leaning forward in her seat for a second to check on snoozing Nellie.
“Then why’d you agree to this?”
“I don’t know,” she sighs, running a hand through her dirty blonde curls, glancing out the window to the clouds for a moment. “I just figured that if she goes to this orphanage camp thing or whatever it is and sees that this girl doesn’t exists…well, she’ll finally drop all of this nonsense about the savior once and for all.”
Hmm, I like the idea, but then I add, “But what about my stupid dreams? I mean they’re the whole reason we’re going to this camp in the first place and most of it’s true so far. The camp. Leslie. What if the girl exists too?”
A shadow veils her features. “I don’t want to think about that,” she mutters gruffly, turning to the window, and neglects to speak to me for the rest of the flight.
After breakfast, I leave Max and go find Alisha to apologize like I promised Leslie. I find her sitting on a bench, in the shade underneath an oak tree, staring blankly out to the soccer field. She sits alone, hunched over in her seat. It’s strange not seeing her with the rest of Max’s fan club since she is practically the Jim Jones of their cult.
Did they ditch her today? I wonder.
Her nose is dappled in black and blue spots, secured tightly under several strips of tape. Guilt unfurls in my chest. I sit down next to her and she flinches. I place my hands in my lap and stare down at them, watching my thumbs pathetically circle one another. “Alisha, I’m sorry what I did,” I tell her. “It was wrong.”
She nods lightly.
“Sorry,” I whisper again and then stand up to leave.
“Wait,” Alisha calls after me.
I glance over my shoulder at her. Several blonde strands of hair shield her face. “Yes?” I ask.
“I should be the one apologizing,” she begins in a sort of husky, strained voice, pulling those fallen golden strands of hair back behind her ears. “Sorry about what I said about no one wanting to adopt you.”
I hold out my hand, “Truce?”
She shakes my hand and smiles. “Truce,” she answers.
“Juna?” Leslie’s voice calls out from behind us.
My head turns to the sound of her voice.
Leslie stops next to us and then says, “Hey, you two.” At first she gives me a questioning look as though asking: You apologize yet? I nod. She smiles and then says, “Juna, there’s a family here and I’d like you to meet them.”
“Yes,” she says. “Would you excuse us Alisha?”—Alisha nods, smiling at me—“Come along Juna, they’re in my office right now.”
Holy! Holy! Holy!
Breathe, I tell myself. You seriously need to calm the freak down.
Nellie, Mom, and I drove to the camp. Yep, it really exists! We met Leslie who is a living, breathing human being and is about to introduce us to a girl name Juna.
Let me repeat that: J. U. N. A.
A swarm of bees rattle in my stomach right now and my heart refuses to calm down. I swear this intense pounding is unhealthy—it’s going to crack bones, tear through skin, probably plop out of my chest and splatter onto the floor, meaning goodbye Logan, which—not gonna lie—would be a pretty spectacular way to go.
Minutes inch away like centuries as my fingers beat impatiently against the cool tabletop, the suspense slowly killing me.
The door squeaks open and I suddenly can’t breathe. Leslie enters the room and behind her stands the most beautiful girl in the world—just as I remembered her too—long dark chocolate brown hair, mocha-colored skin, and dazzling emerald green eyes.
Nellie shoots up and holds out her hand, grasping onto Juna’s. “You have no idea what a pleasure it is to meet you, Juna,” Nellie says in a star-struck kind of voice.
“Nice to meet you too,” Juna answers with a friendly smile as Nellie shakes her hand vigorously.
Please don’t ruin this Nellie, I think. Please just act normal or as normal as you possibly can.
Juna draws back her hand and seats herself on the opposite side of the table next to Leslie. Our eyes lock and a thrill zips down my spine. My face burns and I immediately look out the window, pretending to be fascinated by something out there. I stare at a blue jay.
The kiss replays over and over in my mind. Why did I do that? I’m such a stupid pervert. Is there such thing as a smart pervert? Probably so, but let’s not think about that.
The group converses enthusiastically as I sit in my chair like a useless sack of rotten tomatoes. I don’t even know what they’re saying—I mean, I hear them talking, but it’s honestly just noise right now.
Logan is a tall, gangly boy with honey-color curls, pale skin, and bright amber eyes. He looks a lot like his mother, Brianne Newberg, who shares his curls and beautifully colored eyes, except everything about her is much darker. Her hair reminds me of wet sand, the kind that is constantly being licked by the tides and never gets a chance to sparkle in the sunlight. Beneath her Zen-like tranquility is something scared and wounded.
The exuberant elderly woman, Nellie Coonrad, is a complete opposite of the two. She bounces around in her chair when she speaks as though her body is entirely made of Jell-O.
The phone shrills. Leslie rises fluidly and apologizes, “Will you excuse me for a moment?”
“Of course,” Nellie says, smiling widely.
Silence lapses between the four of us.
The wall clock counts off the seconds and I glance over at Logan. His eyes meet mine for a brief second before darting back to the window again. I follow his gaze and honestly cannot see what fascinates him so much beyond that damn glass. I shrug.
“Juna?” Nellie asks, her chair squeaking as she leans forward in it.
I turn to face her and feel Logan’s eyes on me as I speak, “Yes?”
“This may sound a little strange…but…oh, how do I put this?” she asks herself, wrapping a hand around her chin in a studious fashion. “You are a unique individual.”
“Uh,” I chuckle awkwardly, “ok.”
“I have to ask you something before we continue,” she insists. Why do I get the feeling that Nellie is satisfied that the phone rang, happy that Leslie is out of the room now? Her tone has changed, more serious this time. It’s as though she has waited to tell me something, though this something is intended for my ears only, not Leslie’s.
“Sure,” I say hesitantly.
“Has anything strange happened to you in the past couple of days?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.
A spasm tingles up my spine. Oh god, she knows something. She is prying for a specific answer. Normal people don’t ask stuff like that. “I just had my sixteenth birthday.”—I shrug—“That’s as strange as it’s gotten around here,” I say calmly, trying to play this cool. I force myself to maintain eye contact with this strange woman.
“Hmm . . .” she hums incredulously. “That’s not what I was looking for my dear…and I think you know what I mean.” She tilts her head slightly, dark amber eyes boring into mine.
I’m stunned by how guilty I feel. How did this turn into an interrogation with her, the policeman, and I, the criminal? Heat rushes into my cheeks and I find myself squinting against the light, but there is no light I realize. I only feel as though there is a spotlight, shining down hotly on me, revealing any vulnerabilities. I feel sick, uneasy. The room seems to be spinning out of control because she knows. She knows! Why the hell else would she have said that if she didn’t? “Um . . .” I mumble, eyebrows drawing together in confusion because I honestly have no idea what to say.
“Tell me something Juna,” she begins, resting her hands on her plump stomach, seeming rather pleased with herself. “You have been enduring some irregular changes in your body lately that have got you frightened.” This isn’t a question.
Blood pounds behind my ears and my throat constricts, making it hard to swallow. “Who are you guys?” I ask.
A chuckle parts her lips. “As I mentioned previously, you are a very unique individual, Juna. We know exactly what you’re going through and we are here to help you. We are the only people on this entire planet, in fact, who know what you are and what you—”
“What am I?” I ask, unintentionally making a snorting sound.
She doesn’t answer me right away. Instead, she is silent for a moment and just stares at me, thinking for minute, choosing her words carefully. “You are the savior,” she says very seriously, like someone telling a child that his or her father just died.
Logan sighs and shakes his head, continuing to stare out the window.
“The savior?” I repeat her words, confused by them. I push my chair back a little. “What are you talking about?” I ask.
Nellie begins explaining, “About every two hundred years a unique”—she nods her head toward me—“individual is born. This particular person is endowed with unparalleled abilities. One such gift is the ability to transform into a wolf.”
Logan makes a strange groaning noise and shifts awkwardly in his seat. Brianne is gaping at Nellie. She looks sick. In fact, she resembles what I feel. I grit my teeth together to prevent my mouth from mirroring her’s.
Nellie says, “These powers, however, do not…hmm—how do I go about saying this?—well, I suppose you could say activate until he or she turns sixteen? During the night of the savior’s birthday, the blood boils to extreme temperatures, making the body malleable for severe changes such as transformations to take place. You will be happy to know that the first two nights are the most painful of these transformations. I’m sure you’ve noticed a change in your body temperature. Yes,” she says in a creepy high-pitched tone as she widens her eyes and leans forward in her seat. “That’s normal and permanent by the way. This—and I truly am sorry for the lack of a better phrase—activation causes the female’s body temperature to reach levels higher than any human being could possibly endure, causing them to feel hot to the touch. A male, however, will feel icy. Funny isn’t it? And true! Women are warm nurturers and men are cold-hearted beings.” Nellie slaps her knee and begins laughing harder than the joke warrants.
None of us laugh along with her; in fact, none of us even smile. Why should we?
Nellie pauses to compose herself for a moment, lick her lips and then continues, “If you are not properly guided through this tough and frankly, monumental stage in you life, Juna, there will be violent consequences, such as involuntary transformations and you don’t want that. No. You need to come with us. We are the only ones who know how to help you. I can guarantee you’ll have a safe place with us,” Nellie concludes, leaning back in her chair, which creaks against her weight.
Oh my god. I cannot believe this is happening. Savior? Someone who can transform into a wolf? I thought those were only nightmares. Was I actually turning into a wolf at night? These powers don’t activate until the night of the savior’s sixteenth birthday? Yes, that is exactly when my pain began, the night of my birthday. And the whole temperature thing! Yes, I’d have to say that one hundred and ten degrees is pretty extreme. In fact, I think I broke the thermometer. My temperature might have been higher than that.
These three aren’t some creeps who decided to stop by. They obviously know something about me. How could anyone possibly make this up?
This is too much, way too much. I feel sick. I clamp my eyes shut for a moment and pinch the bridge of my nose, taking in a deep breath. Pull it together, I try to reassure myself. Everything is going to be okay.
I open my eyes and then ask, “So…I thought I was having nightmares about turning into a wolf, but you say that I can actually”—I inhale quickly—“transform into one?” Exhale.
“As weird as it may sound, yes,” Nellie tells me. “See, for you this is normal, but if we never came for you, you’d probably go insane, not understanding what your body was going through. We are here to take you in, so that you can have a safe place to live where people understand you and you can understand yourself.”
I lean back into my chair, entirely shocked by all of this. “How did you know where to find me?” I ask. “I mean, after all you live in Oregon.”
“My grandson, Logan, is the chosen one. He is the reason we were able to find you—through his dreams,” she informs me.
“The chosen one?” I raise an eyebrow, glancing over at Logan. He won’t look at me. His face is bright red. Why he is so embarrassed?
“Yes,” she says, looking proudly at her grandson. “You see we are what you call the receivers, because we will take you in and train you. The chosen one”—she glances at Logan for a quick second, smiling—“is the only one in the family who can see the savior and figure out where to find you.”
“Wow,” I say under my breath, still stunned. This is strange, definitely, but there is a rightness to this bizarre encounter. It’s like things are finally starting to click into place for me. Like I found the long lost key to this mysterious lock presented in my life.
She smiles and says, “We can help you Juna.”
“I’ll go with you then,” Juna says and it looks as though she is fighting hard to keep calm.
“Fantastic,” Nellie shrills, clasping her hands together like an overly excited child at Disneyland.
The door swooshes open, causing all four of us to jump in our seats. “Whoops, sorry,” Leslie says, ducking her head apologetically. “What did I miss?”
“I want to live with them,” Juna says mechanically. She is in shock and it makes sense. Personally, I think she is taking this really well. I can barely handle sitting here, acting as though everything is normal when it sure as hell is not. The whole time Nellie talked to Juna I contemplated whether or not I could break through the glass of this window and make my grand escape because I really need some fresh air right now.
“And we would absolutely be thrilled for Juna to join our family,” Nellie says exuberantly, gleaming at Juna.
“Oh, wow…well…this is wonderful,” Leslie says, her smile fading like paint. And that right there tells me wonderful isn’t the true word she has in mind. “I have to grab some papers.”—She turns to look at Juna—“This is going to take a while, Juna. If you want you could show…um”—Leslie looks at me—“is it Landon?”
“Logan,” I correct her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, glancing back at Juna. “Why don’t you show Logan around?”
Uh-oh, I think, my awkward senses a tingling. Fresh air will do me good though, but…ugh…just the two of us? Alone?
“Alright.” She nods, forcing a convincing smile and rises from her chair. I get up and follow her out of the room, tripping over Nellie’s purse on my way out.
When we step outside I suck in as much oxygen into my lungs as possible, so I don’t pass out. Passing out would definitely be bad.
It’s an eerie feeling, wandering across a campground you visited twice in your dreams. Kind of like finding out Santa Claus is a real dude.
We walk in silence, both of us too overwhelmed to think, let alone carry on a conversation.
My arm accidentally brushes against her’s and we both flinch. Just like Nellie said, it is hot to the touch. Kind of feels like she just climbed out of a Jacuzzi.
“So…” She turns slowly toward me, emerald eyes meeting mine. “You saw me in your dreams?”
“Um…yeah,” I say, scratching the back of my neck.
“What did you see?”
Um, can we not talk about this? I think, but I tell her everything, everything except for the part when I kissed her. Yeah right, like I’d reveal that tidbit. Best-case scenario of that outcome would involve her punching me in the nads and then racing back to the cabin to call off the adoption.
“Geez…” she breathes. “I can’t believe—this is just so weird.”
“Yup,” I agree.
“And so you’re”—she points to me—“the chosen one?”
I nod, rolling my eyes.
She chuckles dryly. “Well,” she begins, “how do you feel about all this?”
“Well, I dunno. It’s weird,” I say, unable to find the right words. I’ve never been a big talker before, especially not with girls.
“Yeah,” she murmurs, nodding, eyes drifting down to the grass. I think she senses my reluctance or rather my awkwardness to speak and is trying to help me out here. Juna takes another breath, preparing to speak, but then someone calls out, “Hey Tiger!” which causes her to spin around.
“Hola,” I answer barely loud enough for anyone to hear, smiling as Max jogs toward us. He stops next to me, fingertips brushing along the skin of my left elbow. His touch is warm, making me realize how cold I felt before he came here.
Logan’s eyes flicker edgily between Max and me, looking like a kid at the fair who rode the Tilt-A-Whirl one too many times.
In the distance a group of kids playing kickball holler at one another, their voices echoing off the trees.
“Max,” I begin seeing that I need to say something. “This is Logan Newberg. His family is adopting me.”
“What?” he blurts out like I’ve just doused him with bucket of icy water. “You—you’re getting adopted?”
Throat swelling, I nod stiffly.
Max stares at me in disbelief. I can’t meet his eyes. My stomach clenches into a tightly knotted ball and all I want to do right now is dig a hole and hide. “Well,” I begin, staring uncomfortably at the ground. “We should probably head back to Leslie’s cabin.” I glance up at Logan.
He nods solemnly. “Sure,” he says.
Of course she has a boyfriend! I think, third-wheeling it out as I shuffle behind the pair. Why wouldn’t she?
He squeezes her hand tight as they walk forward and it looks painful. I try to look away, but my eyes keep returning to the same spot.
Can we not go back to Leslie’s cabin? I beg in my head. Please? I want to start chanting, No more Nellie! No more Nellie! No more Nellie! But here comes the cabin and no one seems to sense my internal chanting and so they head up the porch steps without pause.
Here we go again, I think, reluctantly climbing the stairs.
Tossing and turning in bed, I keep tangling myself within the sheets.
Sleep damn it!
Groaning, I lift my head from the pillow to see the time: 3:00am. Only a matter of hours now until I leave for Salem, Oregon.
Home sweet home.
It took a couple of weeks for things to be finalized, but at last, the paperwork is complete. Leslie and I will forever stay in touch. She’ll fly out to see me at the end of summer, then again in six months in order to finalize the adoption. A couple days ago, Abbey drove me back to St. Mark’s to help pack my things together—not that I own a whole lot, though—and it was one of the strangest feelings in the world to say goodbye to the only home I’ve ever known.
For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt about this very moment, the day when I truly belonged to a family, imagining the cracks in my heart and the dark void in my chest to be filled, feeling whole for the first time in my life. Loved. Wanted.
Now the moment is here I don’t know what I feel.
I am the savior.
What does that even mean and why don’t I get a choice in the matter?
The name alone sounds too monumental or superior to belong to someone like me.
Waiting to awake from this relentless nightmare, I realize, now, that no matter how twisted it may seem this is no dream.
My head aches.
Something clinks against my windowpane and I jerk around to see who it is, shuddering at the dark figure lurking behind the glass, but it is only Max, so I immediately calm down.
Throwing off the covers, I hop out of bed, and pull open the sticky window, cringing at the awful squeak it makes, hoping Leslie’s middle-aged ears failed to hear it.
I stick my head out the window, just inches away from his. Cool midnight air pours into the room, pleasant and refreshing. An owl hoots in the distance and a chorus of crickets chirp pleasantly beneath my window. “Hey,” I whisper. “What are you doing?”
He says nothing.
Miserable, that’s all I see. I see it in the set of his lips, the tight lines under his eyes.
Sighing, my eyes fall to the ground, noticing the tall weeds growing alongside the house, looking more like slithering monsters in the dark than harmless vegetation.
Standing together in the silence, I have no idea what to say, other than to ask him, “You wanna come in?”
“Sure.” He nods, pulling himself up and into my room. Stepping back, I allow space for him to enter. Once in, he just stands there like a dumb mute in his grey t-shirt and navy blue boxers. A brick lodges itself down my throat and I swallow to try to rid of it, but can’t.
I’ve never seen Max like this before… so sad… so lifeless. It physically pains me.
Walking up to him, I take both of his hands into mine and pull him to the bed. I get on and scoot over. He climbs in with me and I sink into the mattress, pulling the sheets up and over us. Wrapping my arms around him, I rest my head against his chest. Hand rising just below the sleeve of his shirt I stroke the muscle of his arm with my thumb. Next, I curl my left leg around his—skin on skin—sliding my foot down his knee and shin until, finally, my toes rest on top of his toes. I push my toes against his and he pushes back, until we are in equilibrium, but then after a couple minutes he relaxes and for some reason this causes a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Max curls his arm around my back and squeezes me tightly to him. “This sucks,” he mutters.
“I know,” I say. It totally sucks and he only knows the half of it.
“You know, you didn’t keep your promise,” he whispers into my hair.
“What promise?” I mutter.
“You said you’d take me with you.”
I feel like my heart is going to bleed to death and before I know it, tears slip from the corners of my eyes and drip onto his blue cotton shirt. “Sorry,” I breathe.
People have always known Max and I as being a pair, sort of like peanut butter and jelly or salt and pepper—you can’t have one without the other. So the thought of having to leave him is… well… it’s excruciating.
Silently lying there, my muscles begin easing as his heart finds a calmer, healthier pattern to beat to. I hold him tighter, imprinting the feel of his body against mine. Max strokes my hair, his fingers combing through the thick strands; occasionally kissing the top of my head, so soothing, I fall asleep.
When I awake the sky is purplish pink.
Snuggling closer, I cling to him tighter, his warm body easing my nerves, my own personal sedative.
I am addicted.
A door creaks open in the hallway and Leslie’s footsteps tread in my direction.
“You got to go!” I whisper harshly, shoving Max off the bed.
He scrambles out through the window, taking off in a sprint the moment his feet touch the ground.
Wrenching the sheets over my body, I clamp my eyes shut, head hitting the pillow. Leslie cracks the door open, whispering, “You awake kiddo?”
“I am now,” I murmur, trying to resonant grogginess.
Entering the room, smiling, she swings her arms awkwardly back and forth, slapping them in front of her twice as she says, “Today is the big day. Finally getting adopted.”
I nod, forcing a smile.
Grin fading as she approaches the bed Leslie’s posture suddenly straightens, her gait unnaturally stiff. Taking a deep breath, she seats herself at the edge of the bed, fingers nervously picking at a loose thread on my white cotton duvet. I rise into a seated position, my back leaning into the headboard. Leslie glances down at her hands and exhales.
“What’s up?” I ask, agitated.
“Oh,” she begins, awkwardly tilting her head to the side as though shaking water out of her left ear. “I wanted to speak with you about something.”
Expression tight and pained, her mouth eventually pulls into a cautious smile, asking, “I’ve told you about my life before St. Marks haven’t I?”
Nodding, I answer, “You were a lawyer.”
“Yes, you’re right,” she says, peering down at her hands again, “but there is more to the story. I fell in love at Harvard. His name was Collin Markham. We got married two years after graduation and eventually moved to New York City.”
I keep quiet, intrigued.
“Eight years into our marriage,” she continues, “I got pregnant with my beautiful baby girl, Michelle.” She swallows hard. “Michelle Eleanor Markham.”
I am gaping. “You—oh my god—you have a daughter?” I splutter.
“Yes…I…well, I had a daughter,” she whispers, eying me warily, sorrow deepening the lines on her forehead. “Named her after my two favorite Beatles songs. ”
“Oh,” I breathe, making sense of this all. Leslie has always been a die-hard Beatles fanatic, but I never understood why certain songs seemed to agonize her so much. At ten years old she drove me to the ER because in an attempt to scare Max I idiotically jumped off his top bunk, missed, and sprained my ankle. “Michelle” played on the radio and I remember her bursting into sobs. Menopause was her excuse, but I knew that wasn’t the true answer.
“I was in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks for a case and had a feeling it’d be a while longer till I got home, so I asked Collin to bring Michelle out to visit me for a couple days. She was only four at the time and was missing her momma.” She takes a deep breath between sentences. “The night Collin drove her to the airport, a man by the name of Michael Tolman was driving while intoxicated in his black Suburban.”—Her lower lip trembles—“He…uh…oh god…he killed them both.”
I cover my hand over my mouth.
Tears brim over, coursing down Leslie’s face. She wipes them away with both hands, my chest aching at the sight. Leslie, the invincible boulder, the foundation to my life, is not allowed to crack and crumble like this. “I’m so…sorry,” I whisper, removing my hand.
“She’d have been twenty-three this November.”
“Wow,” I mumble.
Forehead creasing, she presses on, “A few months later I moved back to California. To, you know, be closer to Abbey. I bought a place in San Francisco—an extremely large run-down place, not really knowing what to do with it at first. Definitely the darkest period of my life and, frankly, I did not want to carry on with it. There was no point. My soul mate was gone. My baby was gone. You see, a huge chunk of me had already died.”—Eyebrows constricting, she looks toward the ceiling, trying to swallow back tears—“I, uh…this is hard to admit…I definitely saw suicide as an option to ending the pain.”
Suicide, the word echoes in my head, searing my heart.
“Abbey is the only reason I’m alive today. She pulled me out of the darkness, saved me, and it made me realize that if I wanted to heal I had to help others—children in particular, and so I decided I’d spend the rest of my life devoted to foster kids. I went back to school, got my Master’s in Child Psychology, and fixed up the place,” she explains. “I, of course, loved every kid I worked with, but never allowed myself to get attached in a way that would hurt me in the end. I was good at it too. Of course, that is…until you came along.” She chuckles lightly.
I tilt my head, struck by her words.
“You were only a couple weeks old when you came to me. It amazed me how someone could abandon such a beautiful green-eyed baby girl. And boy”—the corners of her mouth rise—“could you ever scowl. I’d never seen a baby scowl like that before. You and Michelle looked so alike it pained me and yet I was drunk with love and for the first time in a long, long time I felt alive again. Better than ever. It came to the point when I forgot you weren’t mine to keep and I became incredibly protective over you,” Leslie sighs, staring at her entwined hands again, ashamed.
I inhale sharply.
“Couples wanted you so badly,” she continues, “I saw it in their eyes. Jealousy governed all my actions and I made up various excuses in order to keep you with me longer, which unfortunately happened all the time. And it wasn’t that I didn’t regret it. No. I’d cry myself to sleep all the time, debating over whether to let you go or to adopt you myself, but adopting you seemed cruel, too selfish, but of course, not making up my damn mind was the most unfair and selfish thing of all.” She huffs, tears streaming down her cheeks.
I chew at my lower lip.
“I love you so much Juna. My decisions have caused you a great deal of pain and I just want to apologize…apologize from the bottom of my heart and say how very, very sorry I am,” she cries, wiping at her face. “My days of being selfish are over. Now is your time to spread your wings and fly June Bug because I’m finally letting you out of the cage.”
“I just hope,” Leslie whispers, “ that one day you’ll come to forgive me.”
“I do,” I tell her, surprised at how okay I am with this, but how could I not be? Mad at her for loving me too much? That would be silly.
It isn’t until this very moment I realize that Leslie’s “selfishness” was a gift in disguise for a delay that was meant to be, for I was destined to be with one family and one family only.
Loading her bags into the rental car we wait for Juna to say all her goodbyes. I watch her hug Leslie and Leslie’s sister, Abbey, and several other people I don’t know. A weird feeling develops in the pit of my stomach as Max reaches out for her. When he kisses her forehead, my eyes drop to the ground and I head for the car.
Mom turns on the radio as I take a seat and what do you know? Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” comes on. This song used to make me think of Marley, but now I’m looking at Juna.As Juna takes her seat, bucking herself in, Nellie turns around in the front and tells us, “Now our journey begins!”
Click here for Chapter 4