Hleo: Book One in the Hleo Series – Sneak Peek

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Hleo – Chapter One

It’s been three years since my mother’s death; my adoptive mother, I guess I should say. Three years since she lost control of her car while coming home from work one night, skidded into a ditch and wrapped the vehicle around a tree. I was 14 at the time, and just about to start my first year of high school.

Knowing what I know now, I suppose that would officially be when the madness began, but it would be another three years before I would learn the truth. Not until I was completing my final year of high school would I be drawn into an entirely different world than the one I had known my whole life; an incomprehensible world where secrets hid in the shadows of everyday life.

Every year before her death my mother threw a huge farewell to freedom bash on the last day of the summer, the last day before heading back to the rigidity and routine of the fall. Since her accident I’ve done everything possible to keep myself busy on that day so I wouldn’t be able to dwell on her absence, including taking shifts at my part-time job.

I pulled into my usual spot in the parking lot of The Patch. A store that sells a mix of stylish used clothes along with new, but vintage looking apparel, and a lot of one-of-a-kind items that my boss, Carmen Stephanopolous, finds in flea markets or at auction sales.

As I locked the doors of my trusty Toyota, I shivered at the unseasonable chill in the air; it was going to be a slow night. The final week of the summer in East Halton always has a certain amount of winding down to it. The town is set right on Lake Pocotoa. It’s scenic, quaint, and just far enough from Hartford and New Haven to be a prime holiday location in the summer, when the population of the town nearly triples with all the cottagers. By the end of August though, tourists turn their attention to backpacks and new school clothes instead of sundresses and sandals, and things are almost back to the way they always are in the off-season around East Halton: like a big family.

I strode across the small yard and deck that Carmen has packed with merchandise, displayed under strands of white lights, and pushed the door open.

“Carmen, I’m here,” I announced as I entered the store. I quickly scanned the sales floor but didn’t see anyone. Carmen designed the place to have a sort of nature-meets-nostalgic-chic feel. Wood paneling gives the impression of a log cabin, and built-in shelves, painted in a variety of bright colors, line the walls, framed classic movie posters hanging between them. She also has an entire wall devoted to her massive vinyl collection, and always has some sort of music playing on her turntable and throughout the store.

I dropped my backpack at the sound of a loud thud in the back room, followed by a muffled but familiar voice. “Crap.”

When I reached the storage area, Carmen was on the floor, almost completely buried in the remainder of last year’s unsold sweater collection. A cardboard box was crumpled at her feet, and only her mass of curly black hair and her left arm stuck out of the pile.

“Hey Carmen, were you cold?” I couldn’t help laughing as I started pulling sweaters off of her, setting them on one of the free shelves in the back.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” She attempted a scowl but it quickly spread into a smile.

I helped her to her feet, and she started picking up sweaters as well. “It’s been incredibly slow today. I swear the tourists are taking off earlier and earlier every year. I figured it’s time to see what we still have from last year’s fall and winter collections that we can swap with the summer stuff.”

I piled the last of the sweaters on the shelf. “It must be slow if you’re going through stock; I know how much you love to do that.”

“You wouldn’t believe it. I think there have been maybe ten people in today.” Carmen grimaced. Then she turned her gaze on me with a mischievous glint in her eye.

She tapped a finger on her chin, deliberating, then pointed at me. “I really do hate going through old inventory, and since you’re here now, how about if you deal with this stuff?”

I rolled my eyes, but gave her a smile. Carmen’s voice was pleading, not commanding. That was her style; she treated me more like a co-worker than a subordinate, which made it difficult to say no to anything she asked. “I can do it, just let me know exactly what you want me to go through.” I surveyed the randomly sized boxes that lined the top shelves of the backroom.

“Why don’t you sort through those boxes.” She pointed to the containers right above my head. “See what we have lots of and we’ll start with that.”

I nodded. The bell on the door signaled that a customer had entered the store, and Carmen sauntered back to the sales floor.

I’d been right about the night. The doorbell only rang five or six times and the evening dragged on. Just before seven, I decided I should see if Carmen needed any help with the closing duties.

“She emerges,” Carmen proclaimed, as I came out of the backroom and joined her behind the counter where she was counting the day’s sales receipts.

The sun was setting, and Carmen had turned on the lights to compensate. I squinted as my eyes adjusted from the dimly lit storeroom. “Is there anything I can do before I leave?”

“I think everything is pretty much set out here, I’ve already brought in the stuff from the yard, but you can check the change rooms; there were a couple of people in and out of them and I haven’t had a chance to see if they left any merchandise back there.” Carmen waved a hand toward the back of the store.

“Sure.” I made my way towards the changing area, a curtained-off room with three wooden changing stalls, track lighting and lots of mirrors. I smiled at the inscription Carmen had painted on the full-length mirror fastened to the far wall. At the top it read, ‘you are beautiful’ and at the bottom she’d added, ‘especially in that outfit.’ I wasn’t sure if her strategy got her any sales, but it made people smile. My long auburn hair was messed up from lugging boxes around all night, and I took a second to smooth it down. Then I brushed the dust off of the front of my favorite—because it brought out the turquoise in my eyes—blue sweater, and pulled the sleeves back down before walking over to the changing stalls. The first two rooms were empty, and I moved on to the third one.

As I pulled the door open, I was met with the lean, well-sculpted chest and stomach muscles of an unsuspecting guy who was pulling a shirt over his head.

“Sorry,” was all I managed to get out before I quickly shoved the change room door shut again. I leaned against it, so mortified I couldn’t move. Blood rushed to my face as I tried to take a deep breath. Move! I screamed silently, not wanting the embarrassed sales clerk with the bright red face to be the first thing the guy saw when he exited the change room.

“I’m sorry, am I not supposed to be in here?” a warm baritone voice asked from inside the change room.

Now what do I say? I concentrated on my breathing for a second so when I did speak, my voice wouldn’t crack.

“Um, we’re sort of closed for the evening.” I was still leaning on the change room door, painfully aware that at any second this guy would try to emerge and I would have to look him in the face.

“The sign on the door says you’re open until 9 p.m.,” he replied with a mixture of confusion and amusement. Obviously the embarrassment I felt was coming through in my voice.

I slapped my hand to my forehead in annoyance. Carmen had gone back to autumn hours that week, but of course she’d forgotten to take down the summer hours sign; she was terrible at remembering little details like that.

“We’ve gone back to our fall hours; I guess the sign was left up by mistake.” I finally pushed myself away from the change room door. “I’ll just give you a moment,” I added, before he could respond. I strode out of the changing area and made my way right for the counter, where Carmen was sliding an album back into its jacket.

Her forehead wrinkled when she saw the look on my face. “What?”

“Carmen, there’s someone back there; I just walked in on him in the middle of changing,” I whispered. I glanced towards the back to make sure he wasn’t on his way out yet.

“Oh, is it that really good-looking college-age guy? I thought I saw him leave.” Carmen frowned. After a second she shrugged and wriggled her eyebrows. “So how in the middle of changing was he?”

“Enough that I didn’t see his face to know how old he looked, and enough for me to be incredibly embarrassed,” I hissed. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the guy come out of the changing area, making his way towards us. I dropped my head down and pretended to be tidying something under the counter to keep from making eye contact with him.

“Can I ring something up for you?” Carmen asked as he approached the counter.

“I know you’re in the middle of closing for the night but I wondered if it would be okay for me to pay for the shirt I have on?” My eyes grazed upward just a little. He was wearing the shirt he’d been trying on when I barged in on him. Another shirt was balled up tightly in his hand.

“Sure, no problem at all. Hannah, could you ring that up for the gentleman?” Carmen turned to me with a look of pure innocence on her face.

I clenched my jaw. I wanted to throttle her; I couldn’t believe she would put me in such an awkward position. Still, my curiosity was starting to get the best of me. I was dying to know what sort of face belonged to that torso, especially since, judging from the way Carmen’s voice was coming out an octave higher than normal, she was clearly impressed.

“Of course,” I muttered, looking up into the deepest green eyes I’d ever seen. Emerald in color with fireworks of gold and copper flecked through them, they were beautiful, and yet, they were layered with an unmistakable sadness. I recognized it instantly, as the same expression that reflected back at me whenever I looked in a mirror. A caring smile extended across his lips, and my knees went weak.

It was strange, but for a split second, I thought I saw something flash in his gaze that I could’ve sworn was surprise. I’m not sure what he’d expected his change room intruder to look like, but it clearly wasn’t like me. In any case, the look was gone, before I had time to analyze it further.

“Good choice,” Carmen spoke up abruptly, dissolving the moment and pulling me back to the task at hand. She motioned to the dark blue t-shirt he was wearing.

“Thanks,” the guy replied, breaking his gaze with me to look down at the shirt and then up at Carmen.

“Would you like a bag for your shirt?” I held up a brown paper bag with The Patch logo on the side, after I’d rang up the purchase, and given him back his change, still feeling incredibly self-conscious.

“Oh sure.” He took the container and slipped the shirt inside. As he did I caught a glimpse of red stains streaking across the material before he closed his hand around the top of the bag. “Thanks.” The guy nodded to Carmen and offered me a quick smile before he turned and left the store.

Carmen waited a second and then rushed to the door. “I’ll just flip the sign and lock up,” she called back over her shoulder. I shook my head, pretty sure she just wanted to watch the guy leave.

Meanwhile, I felt glued to my spot. The brief interaction with this handsome stranger had rattled me. He was gorgeous for sure, with his dark, almost black hair cut into an intentionally messy style, and his tanned skin accentuating those beautiful green eyes and incredible smile, but it wasn’t a polished Ken-doll type attractiveness. There was a slight ruggedness to his features that only added to his appeal. And I felt myself compelled to learn what had marred his expression with that underlying sorrow. I barely heard Carmen blathering on about how you never find a guy with looks and manners, until she was standing next to me again.

“He’s gone; you can stop your very convincing impression of a lawn statue.” Carmen laughed as she went back to counting receipts.

“Right,” I answered with a little nod.

“I wonder what he did to himself; the stains on his shirt looked like blood,” Carmen commented.

I frowned. “It couldn’t have been anything too serious or he would’ve been at the hospital instead of shopping.”

“I don’t know; we have some pretty fabulous deals on right now. Maybe he couldn’t resist.” Carmen grinned. “And I swear I detected a bit of an accent, Irish or Scottish maybe. I love a guy with an accent.” She shut the till with a decisive clang. “Anyway, I think I’m pretty much done for the day. I know you’ve got school tomorrow so you can go home if you want. That is, if you think you can stop swooning enough to pay attention to the road.” She jostled me playfully.

Carmen had moved my backpack from the middle of the floor where I’d dropped it, to behind the counter, and I reached for it. “I can’t believe of all the people I could have walked in on while they were changing it had to be that guy.”

“Well, I’m sure he’s just one of the straggler tourists trying to get the most out of the dying days of summer. You can console yourself with the fact that you’ll probably never see him again. Although you never know,” she added with a mischievous grin.

“I hope I don’t. I’ve already seen more of him than I should have.” I raised my eyebrows and headed out the door, waving goodbye as I went.

Hleo – Chapter Two

I pulled into my driveway and stared up at the quaint dormer window facing out from the third level attic of my house, still trying to convince myself that Carmen was right: walking in on Mr. Gorgeous wasn’t a big deal because I would never see him again.

My dad and I live right at the edge of East Halton, where the municipality meets the forest. Our house is a 150-year-old, two-and-a-half storey, board and batten farmhouse, painted a historical creamy yellow. My father and mother, Richard and Julia Reed, had bought it just after they were married, a few years before I came on the scene. At that time it had been pretty dilapidated, but they spent years carefully fixing it up and restoring it to its original charm. Trees had grown up around the place over the years so that now, instead of a farm, the property felt more like a retreat in the woods.

When my parents had adopted me seventeen years ago, the structural renovations of the house had been well under way. Still, for most of my childhood I’d been surrounded by rooms missing drywall, or in need of paint.

I could still remember the day my mother had declared the house was finished. I was twelve at the time, and she was about to nail the last piece of trim in place in the dining room. She called Dad and me into the room to witness the epic event. Afterwards, we’d gone outside and waited on the big white, wrap-around porch while she set up the camera on the hood of the car, turned the timer on, and ran up to join us for a picture to commemorate the day.

A little over a year later she was killed in the car accident. That picture is now one of my favorites; it sits in a frame on the dresser in my bedroom.

I thought of my mom as I climbed out of my car and headed up the front path. She would have been able to give me a healthy perspective on my embarrassing blunder. She probably would’ve laughed and made a joke about that not being what she meant when she told me to be more forward with boys.

Julia Reed had loved life. She’d been an art teacher at East Halton middle school. She was outgoing and giving, always volunteering and getting involved in town functions. She loved to talk, but she was also a great listener and my number one fan, even when it turned out the only natural talents I possessed were the abilities to sketch and paint.

I knew she’d been very proud of my aptitude for the arts. She believed, even though I was adopted, that I’d somehow inherited my skill from her, and I loved thinking that too.

As I opened the front door, I called out to see if Dad was home. If he were, I was confident he would be in his study, a small room, decorated in classic browns and crimsons, just to the left of the front foyer, behind our cozy living room. It was unlikely he was around though. Dad was a professor at Hartford University, and now that classes were back in session, he pretty much lived at the school. All I got as a response to my shout was silence, so I knew I was by myself.

I went upstairs to my bedroom, my thoughts continually drifting back to the guy from The Patch. There was something different about him, more than the fact that he was really good looking. I decided my best friend Katie Preston would be able to help me figure it out, or at least get a laugh over what happened. I grabbed my phone, punched in her number, and settled in on my bed cross-legged, as I listened to the phone ring.

“Hey, you won’t believe what I just saw on television,” Katie exclaimed, before I could even get out a hello.

“What?” I laughed.

“It was an ad for this private investigator guy that helps track down people’s relatives. He said he specializes in adoption cases, and he’s in Hartford of all places. What do you think?”

I struggled to keep up with the stream of words. I could picture her lying on her bed, twirling one of her crazy blonde curls with her finger while she talked.

Her suggestion caught me off guard; it was not at all what I’d expected. Normally Katie talked about infomercials for sandwich makers, or the latest episode of some reality show. I didn’t even realize Katie knew I was interested in finding my biological parents.

I think every child that’s adopted must wonder about where they came from, and over the years I’d daydreamed many times about what my biological parents were like. Ever since my mom’s car accident, I’d been thinking more and more about trying to find them so I could learn the circumstances behind their decision to give me up. I’d kept that desire a secret from everyone in my life though.

“Oh, wow, yeah Kate, that might be all right. I didn’t know you knew I was thinking about looking for my birth parents,” I responded, doodling circles and stars in an empty notebook.

“I saw you searching adoption agencies on Google one day, and I figured you had to be curious. I know if I was adopted I’d be dying to find out who my real parents were.”

“I am curious, and maybe we could check this guy out; let me think about it okay? I’m just worried about what Dad would think of me looking for them.” I glanced over at the picture of the three of us on the porch. My parents had been so great to me; I didn’t want Dad to think I was looking for something because he wasn’t enough for me.

“Oh right, that makes sense. I wrote down the guy’s number in case you want to do it, and I can go with you and stuff. But hey, you called me, what’s up?”

I settled back against my pillow and recapped my night at The Patch for Katie, and my embarrassment of walking in on the good-looking stranger.

Katie laughed hysterically on the other end of the line. “Hey, at least he was good looking.”

“I just keep telling myself that he’s a tourist, so at least I won’t run into him again.”

As Katie and I talked, I began to feel better about the whole thing. When I finally hung up, I sat on my bed and bit my thumb, thinking about Katie’s suggestion. I was curious about my birth parents and a little Internet research might be just the thing to keep that beautiful smile and those deep green eyes out of my head.

I sat down at my desk and entered The Crestwood Adoption Agency into Google. My parents hadn’t been able to give me many of the details surrounding my adoption, but they had told me the name of the agency and that it was a located in Hartford, forty-five minutes away. Two hours later, after scrolling carefully through over a dozen websites, I was utterly frustrated and wondering why it was so difficult to find anything that was remotely useful. I couldn’t even find a website for The Crestwood Adoption Agency. It was getting late and I was about to shut down my laptop for the night, when I spotted the mention of the agency on a girl’s blog about her quest to find her biological parents.

I clicked on the site and started reading her story. Josie MacArthur had been put up for adoption when she was two years old. She’d been placed with a loving family, had a great childhood, but like me, she was curious about her real parents, and decided to go looking for them. Her adoption had been set up through The Crestwood Adoption Agency in Hartford, and after much research she’d discovered that the agency had shut down almost fifteen years earlier. She had tried to get information about the agency through various channels, but unfortunately she found out that all their archived files had been destroyed in a fire years before she’d begun her search. She had created the blog for anyone who might stumble across it with any details about her real parents or The Crestwood Adoption Agency, and had added her contact email address at the bottom of the page.

After reading her story, I sat back in my desk chair, finally understanding why I was having so much trouble; closed down and fire devastation were a lot to contend with. I sent her a short email, curious to find out whether anyone had contacted her regarding her story, outlining who I was and what I was looking for.

Just as I hit the word send I heard the front door open, and Dad’s footsteps on the stairs. I drew in a deep breath. Since I was beginning this quest, I might as well get his opinion on the subject. The only way I would know if he could handle me looking for my birth parents would be if I asked him.

“Hey Dad,” I called out my bedroom door.

He appeared in my doorway and gave me a warm smile. “Hi, sweetheart, how was your day?”

“It was fine, nothing overly interesting to report.” I straightened up in my desk chair. I didn’t think me walking in on a half-dressed male customer at the store really qualified as news. “I was wondering if I could talk to you about something for a second though.”

“Sure thing, what’s on your mind?” He walked into my room and stood waiting for me to continue, his old leather book bag still in his hand.

“Well, I’ve been tossing around the idea in my head for a while now, but what would you think if I started looking for my biological parents?” I watched his face to gauge his reaction.

He set his bag down and took his glasses off, grabbing the bottom of his sweater to wipe them. It was a move he made when he really wanted to think through a question before giving an answer. After a moment he replaced the glasses and nodded slowly. “I think it makes sense that you would be curious about them. I understand the value of knowing your roots, and where you came from, it’s part of why I love history so much.”

“So, you’d be okay if I started trying to get some information on them?” I furrowed my eyebrows together.

Dad didn’t respond right away; his face grew thoughtful as he took a step forward and sat down on the hope chest that sat at the end of my bed. “You know your mother loved you very much, Hannah. Neither of us could have loved you any more if you had been ours biologically. But if you feel this is something you need to do, I will try to understand, and help you any way I can.”

I reached out and placed my hand on his gently. “Thanks Dad. I love you too, and I want you to know this has more to do with knowing where I came from, than with looking for something I feel I’m missing.”

“Of course, and as I said if I can help, I’m here.” Dad nodded and stood again.

“Well I was thinking the best place to start would be here. Is there some sort of adoption record I could check out to get me pointed in the right direction?”

Dad’s forehead creased. “There was a file, but unfortunately it was destroyed.  Do you remember when the pipes burst in the basement when you were seven, and flooded the whole downstairs? Your adoption file had accidentally been stored away with a box of my old school books down there, and it got completely saturated. I’m sorry, I know that’s disappointing, but maybe you’ll have some luck online. I don’t know if you remember or not, but your adoption was set up through The Crestwood Adoption Agency.”

“Oh, okay, I’ll try that. Thanks.” I didn’t bother trying to explain that I already knew the name of the agency.

“You’re welcome. You really should get to bed though, big day tomorrow.” Dad gave me a smile that seemed a little forced, and moved towards my door.

“You’re right, I should. ‘Night Dad.”

“Good night.” Dad left me alone and I sat for a second, contemplating our conversation. He’d sounded apologetic about my files getting destroyed, but there was something strange in his voice that made me wonder.

It reminded me of the time my pet bunny, Pablo, mysteriously went missing. Dad had told me Pablo had fallen in love with a wild girl bunny from the forest behind our house and they had run off together. I’d wanted to believe him, but the overturned patch of dirt at the back of our yard, and that strange tone of voice had made me unsure if I could. So if I’d been right then and he had been lying about my beloved rabbit, did that mean he was lying to me now? If so, why?

An odd feeling ran through me as I thought about the series of misfortunes I’d just learned about. A flood in our basement had ruined my file, and on top of that, the agency had shut down and their records had been destroyed in a fire. I frowned as I pulled back the covers and climbed into bed. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but it almost seemed like someone was trying to keep anyone who had been adopted through the Crestwood Agency from finding out the truth about their past.

Hleo – Chapter Three

I walked through the entrance of East Halton High for what would be the last first day I’d ever spend as a high school student. I glanced around, with a small sense of sadness, at the familiar halls that had once seemed so big and intimidating. I saw the same rows of light green metal lockers, the same trophies in glass display cases, and the same dark blue and white school colors on banners and posters advertising various upcoming events. In two short semesters it would all be over, life the way I knew it, and although it was exciting to be so close to adulthood, it was also a little frightening.

If I’d only known exactly how much life was going to change for me, and how much sooner it would be than the end of the school year, maybe I would have stopped to absorb the moment more, commit it to memory so I could look back and remember with ease what being average felt like.

“Earth to Hannah.” Katie waved a hand in front of my face.

Katie and I have been friends since our mothers enrolled us in the same dance class when we were in the second grade, hoping, I suppose, that their little girls would be the graceful ballerinas every mother dreams of. Unfortunately for them, Katie and I were the worst students in the class. For me the problem was a lack of co-ordination and for her a lack of focus. The only good thing to come out of the class was that Katie and I had bonded over the frustration we caused our poor teacher every week. We have been best friends ever since.

“Sorry, I was lost in thought.” I pushed the feelings of nostalgia aside for the time being.

“Hannah Reed, you get lost in thought more than any other person I have ever met. You daydream more than…” Katie scrunched up her face as she paused to think of someone she could compare me to, “… someone who daydreams a lot,” she finally supplied.

I laughed at her weak attempt to mock me. “Ouch Katie, you got me,” I teased.

“It’s early, give me a break.”

We maneuvered our way through the crowded halls to the second-floor lockers we’d had since grade nine. Katie had bribed the guy originally assigned the locker next to mine with a month’s worth of video game rentals to switch with her, and we’d had side-by-side lockers ever since.

Our friend, Ryan Deluca, worked at the town’s video store and had given her the rentals for free. It was probably because he was in love with Katie back then, but since she could only tolerate the ground he walked on, nothing had ever become of his crush. In fact, she’d been dating his best friend, Luke Van Den Graf, since grade ten.

“By the way, who did you get for English? I got Mrs. King for the second year in a row. I hope she doesn’t hate me like last year.” Katie turned the combination lock on her locker with ease and pulled the door open.

“I have Mr. Gunderson, and Mrs. King wouldn’t hate you if you wouldn’t make fun of her teaching skills.” I gave Katie a knowing smile.

That’s Katie though. I doubt she’s ever had a thought she hasn’t verbalized. She’s smart, hilarious, and confident. I’ve always valued Katie’s boldness and directness, qualities I wish I possessed more of. Even her wild blonde curls—which she keeps just long enough to throw into a ponytail—and her long, lean frame fit perfectly with her adventurous and worry-free outlook.

“It’s not my fault she got her teaching degree from a cereal box. Seriously, who cares what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, what does his state of mind have to do with the story anyway? Mrs. King’s such a flake, always going off on tangents about her glory days in university. I wonder if I could switch into Mr. Gunderson’s class. He smells like mothballs, but at least he stays on topic.” Katie paused as she looked over the pictures she had left up in her locker from the year before.

“I bet you’d really sell him on the switch if you told him that too.” From my angle of the photos I could observe just how opposite to my best friend I am in many ways. Not only because of my dark hair and blue eyes, but I am almost a head shorter than Kate, and my fair complexion is a stark contrast to her year-round tanned skin.

I spun the lock on my locker but nothing happened. I tried again, slower this time, but it wouldn’t work.

“My lock won’t open,” I commented to Katie, with a frown.

“Really? That’s weird. Here, let me try, I bet you’ve just forgotten the combination over the summer.” Katie nudged me aside and grabbed the lock from my hand. She turned the dial and tugged, but again nothing happened.

“Now what?” I leaned against the closed locker and sighed.

“It’s not a big deal; just get the janitor to cut it off, and get a new one from the office, they sell them there. I think they cost five dollars or something. You go deal with your locker, and I’ll explain to Mr. Sopkow why you’re late,” Katie offered, shutting her locker and clutching her books to her chest, ready for biology, our first class of the day.

“Okay, thanks.” I headed off in the opposite direction, towards the janitor’s room.

The halls were practically empty when I got downstairs and knocked on a door that read ‘custodial office.’ The two-minute warning bell rang, but there was no answer at the door so I ignored the bell and knocked again, a little harder; still no answer. Now what? Do I go to the office or start looking for the janitor? 

I spent the next forty minutes getting a new lock from the office and then tracking down the janitor. By the time he had cut the lock off of my locker so that I could finally get into it for the day, there were only ten minutes left in the period. I decided it wasn’t worth it, so I spent the free time getting my stuff ready for my next class.

When the bell rang, I looked up to see Katie and my friends Heather Liu and Kristen Silverstein hurrying down the hall towards me.

“I can’t believe you didn’t come to class. I mean, of all the days not to come to class.” Katie grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I nearly dropped my books.

“Why, what happened?” I wrinkled my forehead in confusion. Mr. Sopkow’s a fairly decent science teacher, but I struggled to see how osmosis and mitosis could be so thrilling.

“It’s not what happened, but who happened.” Kristen pressed the back of her hand to her forehead dramatically.

I raised an eyebrow. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Okay, so there’s a new guy, and he completely gorgeous. Don’t tell Luke.” Katie looked around to make sure her boyfriend was nowhere nearby. I doubted he would care even if he were. He was a pretty confident guy and I knew he trusted Katie.

“Really?” My stomach did a little flip-flop. For a split second I wondered if it could possibly be the guy from The Patch.

Heather shook her head. “I’m sorry, but there’s no way that guy is in high school, unless he’s failed a couple of times. He made all the other guys in class look like little kids in comparison.”

“He just looks mature, exactly my type of guy.” Kristen’s lips curled up in an approving smile. She usually had guys vying for her attention, and although she was far more interested in her studies, she did love to flirt and enjoyed the art of getting what she wanted from the opposite sex.

Their conversation was only adding to the uneasy feeling in my stomach.

“So what did he look like?” I tried to sound as casual and uninterested as possible, while silently praying Katie wouldn’t connect the same dots I just had.

“What does who look like?” Ryan came up behind Kristen and put his arm around her.

“The new guy in our biology class. And get your arm off me; if he walks by I don’t want him thinking I’m attached to you.” Kristen swatted Ryan’s arm away and flipped her caramel-colored curls over her shoulder.

“That hurts, Kris.” Ryan clutched a hand to his chest. “I thought I was the only man for you.”

“Yeah, maybe if you were a man.” Katie punched him in the shoulder.

“Ha ha, so funny.” Ryan made a face at her.

“Well, I’m off, maybe he’ll be in my Spanish class too.” Katie shut her locker and winked at me. My heart sank. She was clearly wondering the same thing I was. Thankfully, she didn’t share her thoughts out loud.

“Ready to go stare at me longingly in geometry?” Ryan turned his attention to Heather.

“In your dreams, but yeah, let’s get going, I want to get a good seat.” Heather pushed her thick-framed glasses up on her nose and she and Ryan headed down the hallway. In many ways, Heather was the stereotype of a studious Asian, but she had a crazy side too. Much to her parents chagrin, she had a tattoo of stars on her wrist and a tiny diamond stud in her nose, but when it came to her grades, she was as serious as she looked.

Kristen made a comment about finally having a guy worth looking at around this place then strode off in the other direction, and I was alone at my locker again. I grabbed my notebook, shut the door, and made my way to my English class. As I ambled through the crowded halls, I kept my eyes out for the new guy. Was there any chance it could be the same one I’d walked in on while he was changing? My cheeks warmed. No, I shook my head as I walked into the classroom. I’m being ridiculous.

The bell rang as I settled into my desk, glancing around to see if there was anyone new. All the faces looked familiar, so I opened my notebook as Mr. Gunderson, with his thinning grey comb-over and old-man sweater, began going over the course outline for the semester. He was getting on a roll when the familiar beep of an incoming text filtered through the class. Everyone’s head shot up, wondering whose phone it could be; it took until the second beep for me to realize it was mine. I immediately started digging through my backpack, but even with my head down I could feel Mr. Gunderson hovering over me disapprovingly.

“Miss Reed, have you forgotten my very firm no cell phone policy over the summer?”

I looked up as Mr. Gunderson scowled and crossed his arms. My cheeks burned as my classmates all stared at me. “I’m sorry.”

“Please return it to your locker immediately or I will confiscate it.” Mr. Gunderson waved his hand towards the door. “Don’t be long,” he added on my way out.

I got back to my locker, spun my new lock open and tossed my phone inside angrily. The text had been from Katie asking if the new guy was in my class. I could kill her for causing me the embarrassment she had. It was turning out to be a very frustrating first day.

I was about to shut my locker and get back to class when I noticed that one of the pictures from the inside of my locker door, a close-up of Katie and I, was missing. Trying to remember whether I’d seen it earlier in the day, I searched through my locker to see if it had slipped off and fallen in among my books, but I couldn’t find it. I knew I should be getting back to class, but I really liked the photo, and quickly scanned the surrounding hallway floor. The halls were pretty bare, so it should have been easy to spot, but I crouched down into a wobbly squat position just in case I could see it from a lower angle.

“Excuse me,” a male voice said from behind me. I hadn’t heard anyone coming, so he scared me. I lost my balance and sprawled forward onto my hands and knees on the floor.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” My gaze was directed towards the floor, but from my peripheral view I saw him extend a hand to help me. I took a moment to try and gather what little dignity I had left, and then rocked back onto my heels, positive even before I looked up who I would see.

“Hey, you’re the girl from the store,” the guy exclaimed, as recognition flashed in his emerald eyes.

“That’s me, in all my awkward glory.” I allowed him to pull me up. His grip was strong and warm, but I let go of his hand as soon as I was standing and balanced again. He looked even more incredible than I remembered. He was wearing a brown t-shirt and jeans, very casual, but the chestnut color accentuated his tan and made the flecks in his eyes stand out even more. Unlike most of the guys in the school, who carried a backpack over one shoulder, he had a worn canvas messenger bag slung across his well-formed chest.

“I should have made my presence known before I was right up beside you.” He sounded apologetic, but I thought he also sounded just the slightest bit amused.

“It’s okay.” I quickly closed my locker again. The picture would just have to stay missing for now. I was sure Mr. Gunderson wouldn’t be pleased I was taking so long. “Did you need something?”

“Actually, I was hoping you could point me in the direction of Mr. Gunderson’s English class; it’s my first day and I seem to have gotten myself lost.”

“You’re in high school?” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. The guy just smiled that fantastic smile of his, obviously finding my blunt question humorous.

“Sorry, of course you are, or you wouldn’t be standing here looking for Mr. Gunderson’s English class, right?” I drew in a deep breath. “I’m actually in that class, and I was just headed back to it. I can take you there.” I turned and started walking before he could respond, hoping to keep the awkwardness to a minimum. Fortunately the classroom was close to my locker, so the walk would be a short one.

“Thank you, I really appreciate it.” He repositioned his bag and followed one courteous step behind me.

“I’m Ethan.” He broke the silence that had settled between us.

“Hannah,” I replied, turning to look at him for the first time since we’d started walking. He gave me a friendly smile, and I smiled back, but then turned to look down the hallway again.

“It’s nice to meet you Hannah, officially,” Ethan said. He sounded sincere.

“You too.” I hoped he wouldn’t notice my lack of eye contact and figure out that I was remembering our encounter from the day before.

We reached the classroom before Ethan could say anything else, and I glanced in to make sure that Mr. Gunderson wasn’t in the middle of a lecture. He hated interruptions, but the coast looked clear; everyone seemed to be reading silently at their desks, so I opened the door.

“Miss Reed, you’ve finally returned, and brought someone with you I see.” Mr. Gunderson narrowed his eyes as he studied the two of us.

I pushed back my shoulders, aware that the eyes of every female in the classroom were on us. Mr. Gunderson looked from me to Ethan. “He’s new,” I blurted out. I shut my eyes and winced, wishing my brain would keep me from continually coming across like a complete idiot in front of Ethan.

Mr. Gunderson looked from me to Ethan, then walked around his desk and consulted a piece of paper lying on it.

“Ah yes, Mr. Flynn, is it? Take a seat in the front row here, beside Miss Jensen.” Mr. Gunderson motioned to the front seat where Ashley Jensen, one of the most confident girls I’d ever met, sat. She was head cheerleader, a member of the student council, and an all-around popular girl with her petite athletic body, long blond hair and always perfectly made-up face. Ashley was friendly enough, but she knew her status at East Halton High. At the moment though, she was trying very hard not to grin like a silly schoolgirl as Ethan sat down beside her.

The rest of the class was a blur. I couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork, and I kept catching myself staring at the back of Ethan’s head, wondering where he had come from. How he could possibly be in high school? And what he must think of me? He didn’t turn around, thankfully, but I had no idea what Mr. Gunderson talked about from that moment on. I found Ethan’s presence unnerving, and I hoped he wouldn’t be in any more of my classes. If he was, it was going to be a long day. In fact, it had already been a long day.

When the bell rang, I gathered my books as quickly as possible, avoiding Ethan as I walked by, and made my way back to my locker.

I rifled through my stuff, trying to convince myself none of this was a big deal. So I walked in on the guy when he was half-naked; I only saw what anyone at the beach would see. It was embarrassing, sure, but he didn’t seem to be offended. If only he wasn’t so beautiful, I thought with a sigh.

“How do you know Ethan?” I turned to see Ashley Jensen, her eyebrows raised and her head cocked to one side.

“I don’t.” I bit my lip. I really didn’t feel like explaining my connection with Ethan to her of all people.

“You walked him to class, and he acted like he knew you.” Ashley shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

I tried to think of an answer that would satisfy her and not humiliate me. “He came into The Patch the other day. I work there, and I guess he remembered me when we ran into each other in the hall. He was lost so I walked him to class.” I hoped that would be enough to make her go away.

“Okay, so you don’t, like, have any real connection to him then?” I could tell she was questioning me to find out about a romantic link, and from the smile on her face she was obviously glad to hear there wasn’t one.

I wish, I thought, surprising myself by the notion. “Um no, just in passing.”

“Okay, well, thanks for the information. I’ll see you around.” Ashley disappeared just as Katie walked up to our lockers.

“What was The Queen doing here?” Katie asked with a look of disdain on her face.

“She’s not that bad.” I shrugged. Ashley did walk around the school with an air of entitlement, but for the most part she wasn’t unpleasant.

“She has minions; no one who has minions can be considered ‘not that bad,’ but whatever. What did she want?” Katie crossed her arms when I hesitated.

“She wanted to know how I knew the gorgeous new guy in our English class.” I pretended to rummage for something in my locker, refusing to look at her.

“It’s the same guy, isn’t it? I knew it. I knew from the description you gave me that it was the same guy. Hannah, you weren’t exaggerating; he really is right out of a movie or magazine or something.” Katie pulled on my arm so I would have to meet her gaze.

I lowered my voice and leaned closer to her “He is something, isn’t he? His name is Ethan Flynn. Ashley wanted me to confirm that there was nothing romantic between the two of us, which I did, much to her relief. So one guess what her plans are for him.” I shut my locker and leaned against it, feeling very tired and ready for the day to be over.

“Why would she think there was something between you two?” Katie wrinkled her nose.

“Mr. Gunderson made me return my cell phone to my locker when you texted me, and I ran into Ethan in the hallway. He needed directions to class so I walked in with him and he kind of acted like he knew me, I guess. Ashley was worried that it meant something, which of course it didn’t.” I glanced around, hoping my friend would keep her reaction to a minimum.

Katie’s eyes widened. “So, he remembered you. Was he friendly? You must have made some kind of impression.”

“Of course I made an impression; I burst in on him while he was in the middle of changing,” I replied as we wove our way through the halls on the way to the cafeteria for lunch. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if I could spot Ethan as we walked. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to see him, or if I was scared to see him in case he tried to talk to me again. I didn’t want to have yet another awkward run-in with him, and I seemed to be incapable of coming across as intelligent or poised when he was around.

***

I didn’t see Ethan through lunch, but he turned up in my history class right after. Somehow I managed to concentrate anyway, and then I escaped to art class.

I love art class; my artistic ability is one of the few things in life I feel pretty confident about. One day, when I was about twelve years old, I was in my bedroom doodling. There were always art supplies in our house because of my mom’s profession, and I was constantly grabbing her sketching pencils and paper to fool around with. On this particular day, I’d been lying on my bedroom floor, sprawled out on my stomach, trying to create a drawing of our house with birds in the sky and flowers in the yard, when a picture popped into my head. It was as if I was looking at a photograph no one else could see. The image was a baby being cradled by her parents as she cooed with happiness and reached her chubby hands up to their faces. I found that it stayed fresh in my mind while I tried to get it onto the paper. All I had to do was focus my thoughts on the image, and it would be there, as clear and vivid as when it had first materialized. With my twelve-year-old drawing ability, the picture hadn’t turned out quite as well as the one in my mind—the perspective and scale were off, and the detail in the faces and hands wasn’t as crisp as I wanted it to be—but my parents had been very impressed.

I can remember overhearing my mom tell my dad later that night, when they thought I wasn’t listening, that the drawing showed real talent, well beyond a twelve-year-old, and that they should continue to encourage my artistic endeavors.

From that time on, different images appearing in my mind has become a pretty regular occurrence. It’s actually the reason Katie believes I’m such a big daydreamer, because I tend to drift off a little when this happens. The pictures always materialize out of nowhere, and I can never predict when they are going to come, but once I’ve committed them to paper or canvas they fade away and it’s hard for me to picture them again. Katie calls them ‘flashes of inspiration,’ and is convinced they prove I’m some sort of creative genius. I don’t know if that’s true, but they do make me appreciate the fact that I can draw and paint. There is something really special about watching a picture come to life right before my eyes, working on the line and shading, using light and dark to create an entire scene on a space that once was blank.

Being able to work on these images is one of the reasons I love art class. Ms. Woods, the art teacher I’ve had for my entire high school career, is the other. She’s a little different than most of my other teachers, but pretty much what someone would expect of an art teacher: free-spirited and relaxed about things like schedules and syllabuses. In fact, since this was our senior year, she told the class we were allowed to create whatever pieces of work we felt inspired to. Her only stipulation was that we complete twenty pieces by the end of the school year, since the class ran as a two-semester course.

I headed straight to the desk I’d claimed as my own for the last three years, right at the back, closest to the fire escape. I liked being in the corner; it allowed me to create without feeling like someone was watching over my shoulder. I kept an eye out for Ethan, but thankfully he wasn’t in this class. Art class was still all mine, my sanctuary.

The art room is a great place to create, since it’s actually the school’s old gymnasium. When the school board decided to renovate about a decade ago and add a new gym, there was some debate about what should be done with the old one. After much discussion, it ended up as the school’s art room. Drawing desks and shelving units have been added, but the bleachers and basketball poles are still intact, and the school’s faded blue and white grizzly bear logo is still painted on the side wall. Ms. Woods even put a garbage can under one of the nets near the back of the room, so frustrated students can ball up their work and shoot it into the garbage if they want to.

I got to work right away on a drawing that had been rolling around in my head for a while. The image was a woman walking along a city street. She was dressed in a dark red trench coat, and holding a red umbrella, while everyone else around her was dressed in grays and blacks. In my mind, the scene was set in the evening, beneath a sky that held the threat of rain. By the end of class I had the initial sketch done, and planned to start adding color detail the next day.

After a quick stop by my locker to gather up my things for the day, my friends and I made our way out the school’s back door ready to head home. Ethan passed by us, walking in the opposite direction. He smiled and nodded to me, and my cheeks grew warm.

“Did the new guy just nod at you?” Kristen slung her arm around my shoulder, her brown eyes wide.

“I showed him where our English class was, that’s all,” I said, quickening my pace.

“Oh.” Kristen grinned.

I rolled my eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sure, sure. Well he can nod at me anytime he wants to.” She wriggled her eyebrows at me, and then she, Heather and Ryan took off across the student parking lot, until only Katie, Luke and I stood by our cars.

“So, you think it’s going to be a good year?” Katie pulled Luke’s arms around her to keep her warm.

“I think it will be. It would be even better if I could find what you guys have.” I motioned to the display of affection between the two of them. I didn’t usually mention my lack of romantic attachments, or even give it much thought, but observing how much they cared for each other gave me a sudden pang of longing for the same thing.

Luke and Katie were perfect for each other. His laid back attitude allowed her, with her hyper nature, to take charge in the relationship, and also helped to balance her out a little. Even his blond shaggy hair, blue eyes, and six-foot stature were a perfect complement to Katie’s looks. From the moment they realized they liked each other, everyone had known they had something special. For the first time, seeing their happiness made me wish I could find it too.

“There’s always Ryan,” Luke suggested with a laugh. Katie and I groaned. Ryan was a nice guy, but everyone knew how needy he could be, reading into every bit of attention any girl happened to send his way.

“Or maybe someone else.” Katie raised an eyebrow and grinned at me.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll just wait until I’m out of this place. ” I shook my head for emphasis, not wanting Luke to catch on to who Katie was suggesting. “I should get going, leave you two to yourselves.”

“Thanks.” Katie gave Luke a playful smile.

I started to leave, but a prickling sensation on the back of my neck made me turn back. I couldn’t see anyone, so I shook off the feeling and climbed into my car. Just to be sure, I quickly locked all the doors even though I told myself I was being silly.

I didn’t have any homework after the first day, which was nice. I was looking forward to a relaxing evening. I changed into my pajamas and settled down on the couch in the living room, thinking about my day as I flipped through the channels trying to find something interesting. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the gorgeous Ethan Flynn attending East Halton. I had convinced myself I would never see him again. Now it looked like I was going to see him every day. One thing was for sure; I needed to get a handle on the way I became a babbling idiot around him.

I turned off the television and tossed the remote onto the couch, deciding to call it a night. A shiver ran through me as I stood, the feeling of being watched back again. Cautiously, I got off the couch and glanced out the living room window. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Still, I slid the curtains all the way closed just for peace of mind and turned on an extra light, wishing Dad would hurry up and get home.

Hleo – Chapter Four

It had been over three weeks since Ethan Flynn had appeared on the scene, and just as I’d predicted, the girls of East Halton High were flocking to him like seagulls to stray fries at the beach. He continued to say hello or nod to me in the hall, or in class. We shared a pleasant familiarity, and not much more than that. I kept telling myself that he was simply being courteous, but his smile was so perfect it was hard not to get sucked in. It didn’t help that he seemed to be everywhere. I’d seen him around town several times since his arrival, and I could swear his army green Jeep had driven by my house more than once.

“Hannah, could you wait for a second? I’d like to talk to you about something.” Ms. Woods stopped me as I headed towards my desk. I’d just walked into the art room, the one area I could count on to be Ethan-free, which meant I could fully relax.

“Sure, what’s up?” I shifted my backpack straps on my shoulders.

“Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Masks Gala. It’s a fundraiser that the school puts on every few years around Halloween, in partnership with some of the local charities, at the East Halton Country Club. Everyone dresses up in old-fashioned costumes and all the guests wear masks, like a classic masquerade ball.

“Anyway, the planning committee asked me if I could have a few of my students provide some pieces of artwork to help create the mood they’re looking for. The pieces will then be auctioned off, and the proceeds go to charity. I was wondering if you would be able to do two or three pieces for me? I know it’s not a lot of time, but they only asked me this week, and I knew if anyone could get together some amazing works of art in a short amount of time it would be you. You would get to attend the event for free, plus your work being sold would look really good on college applications.” Ms. Woods’ voice held a hint of desperation. It was already the end of September, which meant, if I agreed, I would only have a month to get the paintings completed.

I bit my lip. “I don’t know. You’re right, that’s not a lot of time.”

“Even one painting would be a big help to me.” Ms. Woods clasped her hands together to emphasize her request.

I sighed, wanting to please my favorite teacher. “Okay, I’m sure I can do one, possibly two. Would that be good enough?”

“That would be perfect, thank you so much. I’ll need them by the 27th.”

I nodded and walked to my desk. Hoping for inspiration, I sat for a long time with my sketchbook open, but none came. I doodled for a while, throwing around different ideas, until I decided to sketch an image from an ad I’d seen in a magazine, of a couple standing on a balcony under a starry moonlit sky. I dressed the pair in old-fashioned formalwear, and drew the image in a way that would make the viewer feel as though they were inside peeking out at the intimate couple through a large stone archway.

By the end of class I had a second sketch started of a group of people dressed in elegant ball gowns and suits, doing one of those choreographed dances from a bygone era where everyone ends up switching partners throughout the dance.

I was pleased with both sketches, even though neither had come from a flash in my mind. At the very least they would suffice for the Masks Gala when I had so little time to work on them.

I reached my locker at the same time as Katie. She flung hers open so hard it clanged against the neighboring one, as she tossed her backpack inside.

“So, it’s official, Mrs. King hates me again this year. She’s giving me an extra credit assignment because I was one day late handing in my paper on Paradise Lost last week. I just can’t wait until we are on the west coast in the perpetual sunshine, and far away from this small town Connecticut high school. That reminds me, did I mention I was looking into surfing lessons for when we get out there?” Katie shut her locker.

Neither of us was entirely sure what we wanted to do with our lives after high school. The only thing we were completely sure about was which school we wanted to attend: Stanford.

I had never been to the west coast before, and even though I’d grown up in a beach town, there was something very appealing about the idea of walking along the coast, digging my toes into the sand, and staring out at the vastness of the ocean.

“No, but that sounds good. In the meantime, want to console ourselves with shopping and pizza?”

Katie’s face brightened. “Sure.”

“I’m in.” Kristen came up behind me. “Heather has to work, but I’m free and in desperate need of some new boots.”

“Great.” I closed my locker and slung my backpack over my shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Katie, Kristen and I were making our way through the hall when I saw the now familiar dark head of hair near our gym teacher’s office. I could overhear Coach Fraser, the gym teacher, asking Ethan if he’d considered trying out for the football team. He said that even though tryouts were over for the year, they would be willing to make an exception for a guy with Ethan’s build.

“Someone seems to be fitting in very nicely around here,” I exclaimed to Katie as we reached the exit to the student parking lot.

“Who?”

“Ethan. I just heard Coach Fraser telling him they’d make an exception for him on the football team if he wanted to try out, and I always see at least two or three girls with him.” We reached my car and I jammed the key into the lock.

“You sound jealous,” Katie teased, waiting on the passenger side for me to get the car open.

“I’m not jealous; it’s just embarrassing. You’d think the girls around here had never seen an attractive guy before. I mean, besides looks, what’s so great about Ethan Flynn?” I yanked open the car door and threw my backpack in the backseat.

“Trust me, the girls around East Halton have never seen anyone as attractive as him, and besides good looking, he’s also smart, polite, and caring. I saw him helping Stacy, that girl with the leg braces, carry her science project to the bus.” Kristen pushed my backpack aside as she settled into the backseat of my car.

“And just because girls are throwing themselves at him, doesn’t mean he’s taking them up on the offers. Apparently he’s already turned down three girls, including Ashley Jensen, and come on, what high school boy would turn her down?” Katie turned to look from me to Kristen, wrinkling her nose.

I had to try hard to keep the smile from spreading across my face. So he does have standards, and hasn’t hooked up with some random girl from school. I felt better knowing that somehow. The sight of Ethan made my heart race, and seeing him with another girl would only hurt, although his actions were a little strange. Like Katie had said, what high school boy would turn down someone like Ashley Jensen?

“I wonder why he did,” I mused out loud, hoping for more news on Ethan Flynn.

“I heard he told each of them he isn’t into having a relationship right now; he’s still trying to get settled here.” Kristen dug her hand into her jacket pocket and pulled out her cell phone and I knew I wouldn’t get anything else out of her for a while.

Katie started complaining about Mrs. King again as we drove to the mall, and I tried to pay attention, but Ethan kept popping into my head. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately, and as much as I hated to admit it, I realized I was no better than all those other girls; I was just as infatuated as they were with the new guy.

This was new for me, and I found it very annoying. Of course I had had crushes on guys, and gone on dates, but high school had always seemed so temporary—maybe because my dad and my teachers were always telling me to think ahead to the future—that it never seemed worth it to me to get too involved with anyone. What were the chances, if I did fall for a guy, that the plans we both had after high school would coincide in a way that we could stay together? Maybe I’d change my mind if I was like Katie, and found a guy I clicked profoundly with like she did with Luke, but there had never been that sort of guy at East Halton. There were lots of great guys at school, both good-looking and nice, but none that ever made my stomach ache, or kept me up at night thinking about them the way Ethan did.

I was still intrigued by the subtle sadness I’d originally noticed in his expression, but I’d also picked up on a sophistication, an air about him that suggested life experience and understanding beyond just eighteen years. I wondered again where he had come from, and what his life had been before he moved here.

We shopped for almost two hours. Given that our little mall only had a handful of clothing stores, the trip was pretty uneventful, at least until I thought I saw Ethan heading into the electronics store. I turned away quickly and started rooting through a clothes rack. Since Kristen and Katie had already given me a hard time about Ethan, I didn’t want them to think the sight of him was a big deal to me now.

When we finished our shopping, we drove over to Papa’s Pizza, a restaurant on the main strip. As we walked into the eatery I glanced out the window and saw an army green Jeep turning the corner.

“I think that’s Ethan’s Jeep.”

Katie and Kristen turned to look in the direction I was pointing, just in time to see the taillights fading. Katie shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.” I could tell neither of them found a sighting of Ethan as interesting as I did.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I saw him at the mall.”

“Ooh, why didn’t you say something?” Kristen grabbed my arm. “We could have ‘accidentally’ bumped into him or something.”

I was still looking down the street where the Jeep had disappeared. “Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Not really. East Halton only has like three streets with stores on them; it’s pretty common for people who are shopping to be in the same areas,” Katie said as the three of us walked over to the counter to order.

We paid for our meals then sat down at the closest booth.

“What are the chances we would be going to the same areas of town, at the exact same time?” I asked, not ready to let the subject drop.

“Pretty good, actually. Hannah, come on; do you really think that someone like Ethan Flynn would spend his time following us around?” Katie took a big bite of her pizza “I mean, I know we’re awesome, but I doubt we’re that awesome.” She spoke with her mouth full of food, and Kristen laughed.

I stole one last glance out the window to where Ethan’s vehicle had disappeared. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get either of them to see my point of view, so I let it go. I hadn’t mentioned any of my other Ethan sightings to anyone and I knew what Katie was saying made perfect sense; East Halton was a small town, and you did run into people you knew all the time.

“Hannah, are you listening?” Katie’s voice snapped me out of my paranoid musings.

“Sorry, what were you saying?” I straightened up in my seat, determined to give her my full attention.

“I was asking what you guys think I should do about Ryan. He’s always around, and Luke and I aren’t getting any time just the two of us. I mean, I get it, they’ve been friends since kindergarten, and he has dibs because of that, but still, can’t he give Luke and me some privacy? It’s like last night, I asked Luke if he wanted to come over to watch a movie and, you know, hang out.” Katie’s tone and wide eyes alluded to more romantic activities than just hanging out.

“He said he’d be there in half an hour, he just needed to get rid of Ryan. 45 minutes later Luke is standing on my doorstep, with Ryan, and Ryan wants to know what we’re going to watch.” Katie groaned. She wadded up her napkin and threw it on the empty paper plate.

“Ryan is sort of needy. Maybe if you could find him a girlfriend of his own? I bet you’d never see him then, because he’d be glued to her side.” Kristen took a last sip of her drink.

“That’s true. I think a girl of his own would probably really help things.” I wiped my hands on my napkin and tossed it onto my empty plate.

“Yeah, but who? I love Ryan, I do, but he has no clue when it comes to girls. He’s too intense, and the whole needy thing comes across before anyone will give him a chance.”

“I’m not sure, maybe someone from another school. Don’t you know anyone from the pool?” I suggested. Katie was a lifeguard at the town’s aquatic center.

She thought about it for a few seconds, drumming her fingers on the table. “That might work; there are a few girls that I could see being desperate enough to give Ryan a chance. Hmm, I do like the idea of a girl for Ryan. Then Luke and I could make out without someone creepily watching, or sighing in loneliness.”

Kristen and I looked at each other. “You make out in front of Ryan?” I asked.

“Well it’s that, or not at all,” Katie replied in exasperation, but then she laughed, and I hoped she wasn’t serious.

The three of us worked on a short list of prospects as we finished up our pizza. I tried to pay attention and contribute, but my mind kept drifting back to Ethan until I suddenly straightened up in my seat. Enough was enough. This was my last year of high school, and I wanted to enjoy it. I had wasted more than enough time thinking about a guy that I had no chance of ever being with.

It was time to put Ethan Flynn out of my mind for good.

Hleo – Chapter Five

I was on my way to the library. My history teacher, Mrs. Benson, had assigned a report on the Hundred Years’ War and I needed extra research materials.

I had waited until after supper, then I’d grabbed my backpack and car keys and headed out the door. That was one of the convenient things about living with my father; he was usually so absorbed in his school work that he trusted me to decide on my own where I went and how long I was out. It was a freedom I didn’t take for granted.

East Halton’s town library was one of the oldest buildings in town, and was surrounded by a beautiful forest. It was especially captivating at this time of year, when the leaves created vibrant pockets of red, orange and gold amongst the emerald of the evergreens. Several trails led out from the library into the forest: one to the school football field, and, in the opposite direction, one that led to the first green of the illustrious East Halton Country Club golf course.

The brick library had served multiple purposes over the years. Large columns and archways lined the entrance, and a big stone staircase led up to the main doors. The windows and doors had stained glass sections at the top that cast a dim colored glow on the walls and floors inside.

When I got to the library, the musty odor of old books—one of my favorite smells—greeted me as I pulled open the front door. I drew in a deep breath before crossing the main floor towards the help desk. “Excuse me, would you happen to have Medieval Living & The Hundred Years’ War?” I asked the elderly lady behind the desk. She was the perfect picture of a librarian, complete with gray hair pulled into a tight bun, a lavender crocheted sweater around her shoulders, and a small gold chain that kept her glasses securely around her neck.

“Let me check for you, dear.” She typed the name of the book into the library’s computer system. “We do have it, and it is currently on the shelf. It should be in the history section on the second floor. I’ll write down the book number for you.” She grabbed a sticky note from beside the computer keyboard and jotted a number-dash-letter combination down for me.

“Thank you.” I took the little paper from her.

“The history section is just to the left at the top of the stairs.” She waved her hand toward the wide marble staircase and then went back to sorting a stack of books behind the desk.

After finding the book I was looking for, I looked over the section and chose two more books I thought might be helpful. I was just about to leave when I saw a familiar figure pass by my aisle.

“Ethan?” I called his name as loudly as I could, considering I was in a library.

If it was him, he didn’t turn around, and I wondered if I’d been mistaken. I got to the stairs just in time to see whoever it was disappearing up the next flight. I knew that I should probably just leave it, sign out my books and go home. It had only been three days since I’d vowed to put Ethan Flynn out of my mind, not exactly a good start at moving on if I chased him up a flight of stairs.

I started down towards the first floor again, but curiosity stopped me on the third step. I turned around and bounded upwards. I did a cursory search of the third floor, but there didn’t seem to be anyone on this level, let alone Ethan. When I got to the top floor, I did another quick search, but it appeared to be as abandoned as the third floor.

I was about to give up and walk back down the stairs, when I heard the creak of old floorboards near the last aisle. I turned around and took a few tentative steps forward. Suddenly Ethan came barreling around the corner, almost running into me.

“Oh, Hannah,” he exclaimed, stopping abruptly, his eyes widening in surprise. “I didn’t think anyone else was up here.”

“I thought I saw you, so I decided to come say hi.” My cheeks warmed as I realized I probably sounded incredibly lame.

“That was nice of you,” he replied with a sincere smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He seemed a little amused, and I wondered if he’d just chalked me up as another one of his adoring fans.

“What brings you to the library?” I asked as casually as I could. I glanced around the rows of old books, fully aware that we were alone.

“I was looking for a book to use for that history report Mrs. Benson gave us; how about you?”

“The same.” I held up the books.

“Where did you get those?” Ethan studied the titles with obvious interest.

“The second floor, in the history section.” I lowered the books to my side again.

“I thought the librarian said the fourth floor; I mustn’t have been listening closely enough,” Ethan replied, as we started towards the stairs.

“I can show you where the Hundred Years’ War section is,” I offered.

“That would be great, thanks.” Ethan nodded and we made our way back down to the second floor.

“So how do you like East Halton?” I asked as I led the way to the history section.

“It’s nice, smaller than I’m used to, but not too bad,” Ethan replied.

“Where did you used to live?”

“Lots of places.”

“That’s oddly vague.” I glanced over at him with raised eyebrows.

Ethan laughed. “I guess it is. I’ve just moved around a lot, that’s all.” He shrugged, and then quickly picked a few books off the shelf.

We each checked out the books we’d selected and started for the exit.

“Have you lived here your whole life?” Ethan asked as he held the door open for me. The sun had set while we were in the library, and the two of us walked down the stairs towards the lamp-lit cobblestone path that led from the library to the parking lot behind.

“Yeah, pretty much; since I was adopted when I was a baby.” I blinked. Why did I say that?

“Adopted? That’s interesting.”

“I guess. I’ve actually just started looking for my birth parents.” I winced as the words came tumbling out. What’s wrong with me? Why would I share such personal information with this guy I hardly knew?

“Wow. Have you had much luck?” Ethan sounded as surprised as I was that I was being so open with him.

“Not really. I’ve just-”

Ethan suddenly dropped his books and pulled me to his chest. A bright light flashed overhead and the air filled with shards of glass. My heart pounding, I pressed my face against Ethan’s navy shirt. He held onto me with one arm, and covered my head with the other, shielding me from the shower of fragments raining down around us. The incident was over as quickly as it had begun. When I opened my eyes again, I realized we were now standing in a pocket of shadow, and that the oversized lamppost above us had, for some reason, exploded.

“Are you okay?” Ethan’s face was inches from mine while he held his position as my human umbrella.

“I think so.” I glanced up at him and worked at steadying my breathing. My heart was still beating double time, partly with fear over narrowly escaping a glass shower and partly because of the strong arms that were still holding onto me. We were so close I could breathe in his scent: woodsy with a hint of soap. Ethan let go of me and stepped back. Slivers of glass tumbled from his head and shoulders onto the ground around us.

“What just happened?” I tilted my head back to take in the now burnt out remains of the light.

“I have no idea.” Ethan studied the top of the lamppost as well.

“How did you know the lamp was going to shatter like that?” When he didn’t answer, I dropped my gaze to the pieces of broken glass on the ground around us. A stick with a feathered tip poked out of the grass. “What’s that?”

“A crossbow arrow,” Ethan murmured, like he was speaking more to himself than me. “I thought I heard a rustling sound. It must have been the arrow flying over us.”

“Well, I just have to say, you have superhuman reflexes.” My voice shook and I pressed my lips together tightly to keep them from trembling as Ethan reached for the arrow. “Hey, you’re hurt!” I pointed to the long, deep-looking gash across his forearm.

He left the arrow and drew back his arm. “It’s not that bad.” He cradled his bleeding arm with the other one.

“Let me see.” I cocked my head to the side.

“Really, it’s nothing.”

“It’s too dark to see anything here. Let’s go to the parking lot.” I started toward my car. I glanced back to see if Ethan was following, and saw him scanning the woods as he walked. I wondered if I should be concerned about more stray arrows flying in our direction.

Once we were back at my car, I set the library books down on the hood and held out my hand, wanting to investigate his injury; as though I had any sort of medical knowledge to take care of it.

“Hannah, I’m fine, really.” Ethan kept his arm down at his side. I just stared him down until he sighed and held it up so I could see how badly he’d been cut.

“This looks pretty deep. You probably need stitches.” The gash ran about three inches across his forearm and fresh blood seeped across his skin.

“I’ll be fine. I should get it cleaned up though.” Ethan moved towards his Jeep.

“Wait. I have a first aid kit.” I held up a hand to stop him.

Ethan raised an eyebrow. “You do?”

“My friend Katie gave it to me as a joke since I’m sort of clumsy and tend to hurt myself a lot.” Before he could decline my help again, I popped my trunk and pulled out the little white plastic box that contained gauze patches, Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol.

“I think it just needs some gauze,” Ethan said.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” He took one of the little gauze packets from me, ripped it open and pressed it against the cut.

“What do you think happened with the light? I mean, a crossbow arrow? That’s pretty weird.” I frowned as Ethan finished up with his arm.

“It is kind of weird, but we are surrounded by forest; maybe it was someone hunting or practicing archery, and the arrow ended up off course.”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway, I need to get going, but thanks for this.” Ethan raised his bandaged arm.

“Thanks for protecting me from the falling glass.”

He nodded with a smile and headed off to his Jeep.

I climbed into my car and drove away, trying to shake off the strange events that had just occurred. As I drove, the oddity of what had happened kept nagging at me. I couldn’t believe that I had almost been filleted by shards of broken lamppost glass caused by a stray crossbow arrow. That was beyond weird, but so was the speed at which Ethan had been able to protect me. I was very glad he had been there to come to my rescue.

My brow furrowed. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how Ethan had just happened to be there.

It was completely logical that he would be at the library, and yet, as I added this to the growing list of sightings, I couldn’t help wondering why I kept seeing him everywhere. As crazy as it sounded, I was really starting to wonder if Ethan Flynn was following me around. I shook my head.

That was an idea even stranger than anything else that had happened that night.

Hleo – Chapter Six

I met Katie at our lockers the next morning, where she was waiting for me with a strange look on her face. A look that could only mean one thing: she planned to ask me to do something I wasn’t going to like.

“Morning sunshine; how was your night?” Katie asked sweetly, handing me one of the two cups of coffee she was holding, a classic sign she was trying to butter me up.

My eyes narrowed. “Fine.” I took the coffee from her and threw my bag in my locker. I decided it was better not to mention my encounter with Ethan at the library. I didn’t feel like being prodded about my emotions on the topic at the moment.

“So, I’ve been thinking about this whole Ryan thing, and I think I’ve come up with a solution.”

“That’s good,” I replied, still wary.

“I think you should go on a date with him.” Katie turned to look in her locker, likely so she wouldn’t have to witness my reaction.

My jaw dropped open. “What? Katie, no way! What happened to your list?”

“They all said no. They were either already in a relationship or not interested. Look, I will owe you the biggest favor ever. I know it’s not something you have any desire to do, but if I don’t get Ryan away from Luke and I for one evening I’m going to kill him, and you don’t want that on your conscience, do you?” Katie was on the verge of whining, but I wasn’t giving in.

“No way. I don’t want to give Ryan a single shred of hope that there could ever be anything romantic between us. And going on a date with him, well I’m pretty sure that would be a shred.” I glared at Katie and shut my locker door, a little harder than necessary. I felt bad for her but this was something I really didn’t want to do.

“Well, maybe going out with Ryan would make Mr. Perfect jealous; did you ever think of that? Because you can’t tell me you aren’t secretly in love with the guy. And I will tell Ryan you’re just going out as friends. I’ll tell him multiple times so it sinks in. It’s just one night; he’s been over at Luke’s every night for like a month, playing stupid video games.” Katie clasped her hands together. “Please, Please, Please.”

I couldn’t stand when Katie begged; she had more perseverance than I did. I exhaled in exasperation. “Fine, one date, but you owe me huge, huger than huge.” I pointed a finger at her to emphasize my point.

I shut my eyes and took a defeated sip of coffee, hoping it would console me. I thought I’d been doing an okay job of hiding my feelings for Ethan, but apparently I was wrong. Ethan and I barely interacted with each other and still he was consuming my thoughts; the sight of him got my palms sweating and made my mouth dry. I didn’t want to share this with Katie, though. She would immediately make it her mission to get the two of us together, and I didn’t need to be the fourth girl at East Halton High to be rejected by Ethan Flynn.

“Thank you Hanns; you are positively the best friend I could ever have. I’ll set it up, and I’ll mention repeatedly that it is strictly as friends. Hopefully he’ll get the picture,” Katie said.

Even with my eyes shut, I could hear the grin on her face. “Whatever. Just make it soon so I can get it done and over with.” I tried not to sound bitter as I threw my empty coffee cup in the nearby trashcan and headed off to biology with Katie in tow.

***

By the time I got to art class later that day, Katie had set up my date with Ryan for two weeks from Tuesday. Between both of our work schedules, and Ryan’s insistence on planning something special, the date had ended up further away than I’d hoped. It was going to be a long two and a half weeks.

As I sat at the back of the art room, trying to push my negative thoughts about the impending date aside and focus on my work, I remembered that I needed to get the canvases for the pieces for the gala. Ms. Woods was out of oversized canvases, but I needed to start painting. As it was, I was going to have to stay and work after school if I wanted to get both paintings done in time.

Ms. Woods had a pretty relaxed attendance policy, and this was especially true if the reason for your absence was somehow art related. I explained to her my need to get the canvases, and she let me sign out of class so I could head into Hartford to grab them.

After almost an hour of looking through all the supplies at the huge art supply box store, I bought three oversized canvases, a new set of paints, and six new brushes in varying sizes and shapes to use on the paintings for the gala. I also picked up a new charcoal set, some pencil crayons, and a sketchbook for myself.

I threw my purchases in the backseat of the car and checked my watch. Dad would be home soon. We hadn’t had dinner together in over a week, so I decided it was time. I called him and got his voicemail. I left a quick message saying I would be home in about an hour, and if he wanted to grab the lasagna out of the freezer, I would bring home garlic bread and Caesar salad. Then I left the parking lot and started on my way home.

As I stopped at a red light, I let my mind wander to the image of the couple from the advertisement I’d been working on. I could remember a sense of closeness between them in the original and I wanted to be sure to capture that feeling in my painting. The light turned green, but before I had a chance to put my foot on the gas, a sudden jolt from behind snapped my head back against the headrest.

“Hey,” I yelled. I took a second to mentally check myself over to see if anything felt strained or hurt, and then looked in my rearview mirror to see what had happened. I couldn’t believe it, but it looked as though a very familiar green army Jeep had just rear-ended me. I felt okay, so I got out of the car to see if there was any damage, and to yell at the other driver, who I was pretty sure I knew.

“Ethan!” I walked towards him. He was already standing between our vehicles. He didn’t look at me as I approached, but stared over my shoulder, his eyes full of concern.

I whirled around to see what he was looking at just in time to witness a dump truck speed through the red light, swerve to miss a minivan and slam into a parked car on the other side of the street. The crash was deafening as metal crunched and scraped against metal, and glass exploded from the parked car and went spraying in all directions. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, and before I could react, Ethan grabbed me by the waist and spun me around, putting himself between me, and any possible shards of debris.

Thankfully, we were far enough away from the accident to avoid any metal or glass hitting us. I stood still for what felt like an eternity; I was too shocked to move. As my senses slowly started to return, a buzzing sound rang in my ears. Ethan gently tugged on my arm, guiding me up onto the curb.

“Are you okay?” His hand still held me securely. It felt warm and comforting and I wanted to prolong the contact, but I nodded. He searched my face, as though trying to assess if I really was okay, before he let me go and ran across the street towards the cab of the truck.

The truck actually didn’t look too bad; the front was smashed up a little and the windshield had cracked, but other than that the vehicle seemed relatively unscathed. The parked car, however, was little more than a crushed tin can.

The driver of the truck, a stocky older man, probably in his sixties, stumbled out of his cab. He looked as shocked as everyone who had just witnessed the accident. I wondered what had gone wrong; it was a beautiful fall day, so weather couldn’t have been a factor.

“I don’t know what happened.” I could hear him telling Ethan. “The brakes wouldn’t work; even the emergency brake was seized.” He’d taken his baseball cap off and was scratching his balding head. He didn’t appear to be hurt. I couldn’t hear Ethan’s end of the conversation, but he seemed to be reassuring the man that everything was going to be okay. I noticed that Ethan’s eyes kept darting in my direction, and I wondered if he thought he had to watch me in case I went into shock or something.

Sirens wailed in the distance as a horrifying thought popped into my head. If Ethan hadn’t bumped into the back of my car, I would probably have been right in the path of that truck, and judging from the damage to the parked car, my little Toyota would not have fared well. I shuddered at the thought that I had just escaped being very seriously injured, if not worse. I glanced over at my car, still sitting at the intersection; it looked perfectly fine. Ethan’s Jeep had only hit the back end with enough force to surprise and stop me.

Ethan glanced over at me again. He must have noticed the odd expression on my face, because he left the truck driver with a passerby who had stopped to help and jogged over.

“Hannah, are you okay?” Ethan cupped my shoulders gently, his eyes searching mine.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not like I just narrowly escaped getting creamed by a dump truck.”

Ethan stared at me for a second and then gave me a wry grin. “Glad to see your sense of humor wasn’t damaged.”

I managed a shaky smile back.

Ethan’s hand slid across my shoulders. “How about we go sit on the bench over there?”

I nodded and complied with his suggestion.

“Can I have your keys?” Ethan held out his hand once I was sitting at the bus stop on the corner.

“Why?” I reached into my bag to fish them out, my body responding automatically to the request before my brain did.

“We should move our cars off the street. I’ll just pull them into the parking lot over there.” Ethan pointed to an open lot across the street and half a block down, away from the action by the truck.

“I can do that.” I started scrounging more intently in my bag for the keys, unable to find them. I looked up. “My keys are still in the car, I didn’t pull them out of the ignition after you ran into me.” I started to stand so I could go help move our cars.

“It’s okay, I’ve got it. You should sit for a minute.” Ethan put a hand on my shoulder and gently but firmly pushed me back down onto the bench.

I was going to argue, but he was around to the driver side before I could open my mouth. I didn’t feel entirely stable, so I gave in to his chivalrous gesture.

What is he doing here? The question broke through the distress I felt about the truck. I was thankful that he was there, grateful that his action had kept a more serious accident from occurring, but why was he there? How did he just happen to be behind me at an intersection in Hartford? It didn’t make sense and, stacked up with all the other Ethan sightings and encounters, I couldn’t just chalk it up to coincidence. I frowned as I watched him put my car in park and jog back over to me.

He stepped back up on the curb beside me. I’d just opened my mouth to ask him about everything that had happened when I saw his eyes dart up towards a window in the apartment across the street.

“Ethan?” I followed his eye line, trying to figure out what was so interesting about an open window.

“You know what, on second thought, why don’t I give you a ride home? You should lie down. You’re probably going to feel a bit stiff from the jolt I gave you. It doesn’t look like there’s any damage, but we can exchange insurance information when we get back to your house if you want.” Ethan turned his gaze back to me. There was a strange intensity in his dark green eyes, and his voice carried a hint of urgency. The accent Carmen had mentioned when Ethan left The Patch, came out in his voice. Up until now I hadn’t heard it and had thought she must have been mistaken, but suddenly a distinct trace of it was very clear.

“Shouldn’t we stay and answer questions for the police, as witnesses I mean?” I asked, wondering why he was in such a hurry to get going.

“There are plenty of people who witnessed the accident that can answer questions, and I don’t really want to be here all day, do you?” Ethan’s tone was even, but I wondered if there was something he wasn’t telling me.

I hesitated. Part of me wanted to make sure I did the right thing and stuck around for questioning, but I really did want to get home. Dad would be expecting me anytime now, and I was starting to feel my neck muscles tightening up a bit. “I guess we can go.” I rubbed the back of my neck.

“Okay, good. It’s a bit of a step up into the Jeep; I can help you if you want,” Ethan offered, moving towards the passenger side of his vehicle and pulling the door open for me.

“But what about my car?” My forehead wrinkled in confusion and I pointed in the direction of the parking lot.

Ethan crossed his arms. “I’m not letting you drive home.”

I might have been excited that he seemed to genuinely care about my wellbeing, if I wasn’t so freaked out by everything that had just happened.

“I can drive.” I squared my shoulders and started to walk towards my car even though my legs did feel a little wobbly.

“Hannah, you seem pretty shaken up; that means you shouldn’t be driving. I promise I’ll make sure you get your car back.”

I hesitated, but when a wave of dizziness swept through me and I swayed on my feet, I gave in. “Okay.”

He helped me into the Jeep, and I fumbled with the seatbelts he moved around to the driver side. The police had arrived but didn’t even look in our direction as they investigated the smashed up truck and rerouted the traffic that had started to back up at the intersection.

Ethan did a quick u-turn and we left the mess behind us.

Hleo – Chapter Seven

We drove back to East Halton in silence. My head was spinning, and I had no idea how to begin asking all the questions whirling around in my mind. This was almost as awkward as the way we had met, although he was fully clothed this time, so that was a step in the right direction.

I really wanted to know why he was in Hartford, but decided to start with our accident.

“You must think I’m a jinx. I mean, first the lamppost and now the … Ethan, your arm!” I turned in my seat. At some point he’d pushed the sleeves of his shirt up and I could see his injured forearm, except that now it was almost completely healed. There was little more than a red line running along where the deep gash had been the night before.

Ethan glanced down at it. “Oh yeah. I told you it wasn’t as bad as it looked.” He shrugged it off.

“But still, how did it get better so fast?” I leaned in closer. There was no way the cut I had seen last night was a scratch, but now that was all that remained.

“I don’t know. I’ve always healed fast. And it really wasn’t as bad as it must have looked in the dim light of the lampposts.”

“Yeah I guess.” I bit the side of my cheek. I understood what he was saying, but something still felt like it didn’t add up. The shock over Ethan’s rapid recovery had rattled me and we fell back into silence. I pretended not to notice a few minutes later when he casually pulled his sleeves back down.

I had traveled this route from Hartford to East Halton hundreds of times, but never had it seemed so long. Every second I spent with Ethan, things got weirder and weirder. I needed answers that made sense. “Why did you run into me?” I stared at the dashboard.

“I was watching the light and saw that it had changed green. I didn’t look down to see that you hadn’t started driving yet and I hit the gas prematurely. It was stupid, and I’m very sorry.” I glanced over; Ethan kept his eyes on the road as if he didn’t want to make eye contact with me.

“Oh.” I thought about what he’d said for a moment then turned in my seat to face him. “You do realize that you’ve sort of saved my life twice in two days right?”

“What do you mean?” He sounded caught off guard.

“Well, last night, the glass may not have killed me exactly, but I’m definitely glad it didn’t land on me. And this afternoon, if you hadn’t bumped me with your Jeep, I most likely would have been in the middle of the intersection right as that truck was barreling through. If it had hit my car the way it hit that parked one, at the very least I would have been seriously hurt.” I studied his face, watching for his reaction. We locked eyes for a brief second before he turned to look straight ahead again. The distress that filtered through his emerald gaze was unmistakable.

He drummed his hands on the steering wheel as though he wasn’t sure how to respond. There was an awkward silence for almost a minute, before he spoke up. “I guess that’s true, but you could’ve been through the intersection too, you never know. It didn’t happen so it’s probably best not to think about it. So where do you live?”

My head jerked up at the abrupt change of subject. I glanced out the window and realized we were already in East Halton, and almost back to my house. I wondered how he could possibly have known which direction to take, and thought back to all those times I thought I’d caught a glimpse of his Jeep driving by my house.

“Keep going down Maple Street, then turn left onto Black River Road. We live right at the edge of town. I’ll let you know when we’re getting close.” I watched him drive for a minute and then turned to look out the window.

As I sat, watching the trees with their brightly-colored autumn leaves stream by, the questions played over and over in my mind: How did Ethan just happen to be behind me at that particular intersection? And why did it seem he already knew where I lived? He was always showing up wherever I was, and I had to find out what was going on.

“We’re here,” Ethan declared, and I looked up to see that he was turning into my driveway.

“How did you know this was my house?” I blinked rapidly.

“You said it was at the edge of town; this is pretty much the last house before you head out into the country, and your last name was on the mailbox. I took a guess,” he replied, his face innocent. There wasn’t even a hint in his expression or tone that he was scrambling to come up with an answer.

The reasoning was all very logical, but I still had to know if I was crazy, or if Ethan was somehow keeping tabs on me.

“You already knew where I lived, didn’t you?”

“What?” This time his voice was full of surprise, and his expression matched.

“It’s just, I keep seeing you around town, like at the mall and then the library and I swear I’ve seen your Jeep drive past my place before. Then today, why were you in Hart–?” A thought occurred to me, interrupting me in the middle of my rant. “Did you see the truck coming? Is that why you hit my car? Were you trying to stop me from driving through the intersection?” I knew I probably sounded completely insane, but I didn’t care; I was going to get answers.

Ethan stared at me. His face was composed again into an unreadable expression, which only added to my frustration. He looked down at the gearshift, and then back to me. “Hannah, the mall and the library are pretty common places to run into people, especially in a town the size of East Halton.” He lifted a hand in the air. “And the truck came out of nowhere; how could I have possibly known about it?”

Heat began to rush to my face. I wanted to find a flaw in his argument, but I couldn’t. “I guess that makes sense. If you’ll excuse me, I just need to go find a cave to hide in for the rest of my life. It was very nice knowing you.” I scrambled to open the Jeep door so I could escape the excruciating situation I had created.

“Wait.” Ethan grabbed my arm to stop me.

“It’s okay, you don’t need to explain. The paranoid hardly ever know they’re paranoid, right? I get that I was seeing something that obviously wasn’t there. I should really get going though, my Dad is probably waiting for me.” I looked down at Ethan’s hand, which still gently gripped my arm.

“No, Hannah, wait,” Ethan said again with a sigh. He followed my gaze to his hand and let go of me.

I bit my lip and waited to hear what he had to say.

It was his turn to shift in his seat. He ran a hand across his forehead, looking like he was wrestling with himself over what to say.

“Hannah, you aren’t paranoid. I have been…” he paused as though trying to come up with the right word, “… around,” he finally finished.

I pursed my lips and studied him. That wasn’t what I’d expected to hear, and I needed more. “Around? What does that mean, exactly?”

“East Halton is a small town, so it’s easy to bump into people, and when I’ve seen you around I find myself watching you; I’m intrigued by you.” He searched my face. I tried very hard to stay composed, but on the inside my heart was beating double time.

“There are these moments when you seem to be focusing on your thoughts so intensely, you don’t notice the world going on around you. I’ve seen you nearly get hit in the face with a stray football, and you just missed walking into the middle of a fight between two freshmen girls in the hallway the other day.”

I wondered if he was alluding to different times I had seen a drawing in my mind, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough with Ethan to explain that part of myself to him.

“I’m a daydreamer, I guess.” I shrugged, hoping he would accept that explanation. He studied me intently and I could tell he didn’t fully buy what I was saying.

I held my breath and let it out in relief when he spoke again. “I was in Hartford today for a dentist appointment. I saw your car and I admit I did end up following you.” He slid his hands around the steering wheel.

Ethan had been watching me; I wasn’t crazy. All of those glimpses I’d caught of him, and those times I’d run into him, had been intentional. I felt vindicated for having been suspicious, and then remembered the feeling of being watched the first day of school.

“A dentist appointment?” My forehead wrinkled. I needed to know that he wasn’t out and out stalking me. As flattering as Ethan’s explanation was, and as amazing as he seemed, if he had followed me to Hartford, that was bordering on weird behavior.

“Yeah, I needed a filling, and the guy is an old family friend or I would have just gone to someone in East Halton. I know I probably shouldn’t have followed you. I didn’t know about the truck, but I am very glad you didn’t get hurt.”

I bit my thumbnail. Was it possible that this incredible guy was actually interested in me too? It seemed completely out of the question, but from the way he was talking, maybe.

“I hope admitting that I’ve sort of been watching you doesn’t freak you out too much. I was hoping we could be friends,” Ethan continued, bursting my romantic bubble with that one word.

So that was it then, friends; of course that was it, what had I been thinking? Ethan Flynn could easily date any girl at school, or in town for that matter; of course I was simply friend material to him.

“Sure, friends would be great.” I gritted my teeth. Great like that reoccurring dream where I’m standing in front of my history class in my skivvies.

“Good. Well, I should probably get going.” Ethan looked over toward my house.

“Yeah, I’ll see you around. Thanks for the ride,” I replied, getting out of the Jeep. To my surprise, Ethan got out of the vehicle as well. “I’ll walk you to your door to make sure you get in okay.”

We walked up the porch stairs; Ethan staying a casual two steps behind me.

“Do you want to come in for a drink or something?” No one had ever walked me to the door before, and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, but before Ethan could respond, my dad opened the front door.

He looked startled by our presence. “Oh Hannah, I didn’t realize you were home.” He had his book bag in his hand, which signaled he was on his way out. So much for our dinner together.

“I just got here.” I went to introduce Ethan, but he stepped forward and held out his hand before I had a chance to speak. “Hello sir, my name in Ethan Flynn. I’m a friend of your daughter’s.” I was impressed with his gentlemanly action, and smiled to myself.

“It’s nice to meet you, Ethan. I don’t recall ever seeing you around here before.” I swiveled my head to look at my dad when I heard the strange tone in his voice. It almost sounded like suspicion, and I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like he straightened his posture to appear taller.

I wondered if this was protective dad mode coming out. I hadn’t seen it before, but then I’d never given Dad any reason to use it up until now.

“I just moved to town,” Ethan explained, as pleasant as ever.

“I see.” Dad’s tone was still reserved.

I shifted from one foot to the other. “Are you leaving? I left a message for you about having dinner together.” I was feeling the effects of getting bumped by Ethan’s Jeep, and all I really wanted was to lie down for a little while.

“I’m sorry about dinner; I forgot some papers at the school that I promised my class I’d have graded by Monday.” Dad looked from me to Ethan. “You know what, on second thought, my teaching assistant can run them over to me. Why don’t we get dinner going?” He stepped back into the house.

So, it was protective dad mode. I almost smiled. He must not want me to be alone in the house with a guy. If he only knew how little he needed to worry, I thought.

“That sounds great. I had a little car trouble and Ethan offered to drive me home. I’ll be right in.” I hoped my vague explanation would satisfy Dad. I wanted him to go back inside and give us a few minutes. After today, who knew how it was going to be between Ethan and me at school? I liked having him to myself, not trying to fight my way through the girls that were practically glued to him all the time.

“Is everything okay with your car?” Dad asked, his forehead creasing in concern.

“It’s okay. I just locked the keys in it. I’ll take the extra set to school with me tomorrow and unlock it,” I said quickly, avoiding eye contact with Ethan. I didn’t like lying, but I didn’t think Dad would handle learning that Ethan had rear-ended me, which had kept me from getting squashed like a bug, very well.

“Okay, well, I’ll be inside.” Dad sounded satisfied, although he gave Ethan another once over before he shut the door.

“Sorry about that. I guess he’s trying to play the dad card and be all protective or something. He’s not usually like that. And I figured he didn’t really need to know all the crazy details of today,” I added quickly, hoping Ethan wouldn’t think less of me for lying to my dad.

“That’s okay, I get it. You don’t need to explain. I should probably get going anyway.” Ethan stepped off the porch and walked back down the front path.

“I’ll see you later, Hannah,” he called when he got to his Jeep.

“Yeah, later.” I waved as he climbed in and drove off.

I stood on the porch for a few seconds, trying to wrap my mind around the events of the last hour, before taking a deep breath and going inside.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Hleo: Book One in the Hleo Series – Sneak Peek

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