Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Things We Can't Change Part One: The Prologue

 The Things We Can't Change Part One: The Prologue


            Evie, I love you baby, I’d never do anything to hurt you. I love you so much, I’d die without you, Evie.
I scrub furiously at my hands, the words echoing through my mind, whirling round and round in a furious maelstrom, until his voice is all I can hear, the lies consuming me, filling my mind.
Ah, come on, Evie, you know you want to, I swear I’ll make it good for you.
            Memories assault me next, shapes and blurs more than actual images; a dark, looming presence right above me, countless times where my wrists are grabbed, stinging pain that seems to tear me apart from the inside out. It’s all disgusting and repulsive, and I scrub harder at my hands. They’re feeling raw now, bright pink under the hot water, but still I go on.
            Don’t do this, baby, I swear, I’ll never do it again, I’ll never lay a hand on you like that again. Please don’t leave me, if you leave I’ll kill myself, I can’t live without you, I swear I can’t.
            “GET OFF!” I scream, water flying everywhere as I violently pull my hands out of the water stream and shake them, rub them together fast and hard. The towel wrapped around me starts to loosen, and I grab at it, tears stinging my eyes. My hands fist in it, and my feet slip on the slick bathroom floor. I stumble, grab the edge of the sink and fall in a sort of slow tumble, landing on my right hip on the floor. I huddle there, pull the towel more securely around me, choke on my tears.
            I stare at my legs, and even though the blood is gone, I can still see it. A river down my inner thigh, streaked on my hands from trying to stop it, from trying to clean it. I had cleaned it, but in my mind’s eye, it’s still there, still so glaringly visible. There’s no more anywhere on my fresh, pink-from-scrubbing body, but I can still feel it, still somehow see exactly where it was.
It’s seeped into my pores, down in the layers of my skin. It’s been absorbed, deep down, back into my bloodstream. But now it’s poisoned blood, black and dark, floating along back toward my heart, where it will stay for the rest of my life, forever haunting me.
I’m still clean and normal on the outside, but my inside is forever changed.


            Acting the part of the badass would be a lot easier if I had something more impressive than the side of a high school to lean against. A motorcycle, or maybe a classic Camaro. As it is, those things are so far out of the realm of my life, I don’t even dream about them. Not really, at least. Instead, to keep up my image, I take one last drag on my cigarette and then toss it to the ground, grinding it beneath the heel of my battered steel-toed boots.
            I look up toward the school building and instantly meet eyes with Evangeline Parker. For a long moment, we stare each other down, polar opposites, the queen bee of Grandview Heights High School literally looking down her nose at the poorest, lowliest person on the social ladder. Her eyes are a startling violet color, and my fingers get the old itch. I banish it instantly. I don’t do that anymore.
            Instead, I sneer at Evie, and she tips her nose up even further at me. Before I can make any kind of move, to maybe scare her a little, just because it’s early and I have nothing better to do, her knight in shining armor appears. Anthony Stull, Evie’s boyfriend of three years, swoops in, every bit her equal; it’s fate, pre-destined, written in the stars. Tony and Evie are probably the two richest kids at school. Tony is the offspring of some hotshot lawyers and already has his name written on the Harvard acceptance list, while Evie’s father owns several pediatric clinics.
I can already see exactly how their lives will unfold: they’ll go to college, spend ten years getting degrees in medicine and law, only to graduate, have their parents die, and live off the lay of the land, dabbling in their parents’ businesses but not actually working. Tony will have some raging affairs with hookers and prostitutes, while Evie will pretend not to know that ‘staying late at the office’ really means he’s banging some chick. She’ll slowly fade, put all her focus on her children. Eventually, they may divorce, or she may cut off his dick. I’m not sure about that part, but I can see it all, and it’s yawn-inducingly predictable.
Tony is Evie’s knight in shining armor, rushing in to carry her off in his silver BMW any time she cries for help. He walks through school with his arm over her shoulders, carries her books, the smug smile on his face saying he knows he has the hottest girl in school and daring anyone to contest it. Sometimes I wonder, when I find myself thinking about life a little too deeply, whether he actually likes Evie, or just the status that they have together.
            This time, when he swoops in and throws an arm around Evie and tries to kiss her on her cheek, I notice how her shoulders stiffen and she almost pulls away, but at the last minute she restrains herself and allows Tony to lay a wet one on her cheek. He begins to whisper in her ear, and I’m the only one who can see Evie’s face. It’s drawn tight, her lips pinched together and her whole body still stiff, as if she can’t stand to have Tony so close to her. I even see her fingers, clutching the strap of her designer purse, trembling, just a little bit.
Finally, Tony manages to convince Evie to come away with him and they turn toward the school, but not before they both glance back at me, matching expressions of repulsion on their faces. I don’t give a crap. I’d rather die than try to get their approval, and if my appearance keeps everyone at a distance, all the better.
            I wish Tony luck holding onto Evie, because if there is one thing I already know well about life, it’s that everything you care for always gets taken from you. And that’s that.
            “Yo, Quain!”
            I jerk at the sound of my last name and look around until I see Dominic, my closest friend since the third grade, walking up toward me. He takes his time, probably hampered by the fact that his black jeans keep falling down over his butt and he has to keep one hand on his belt, looking like he’s walking with a mean swag, but really to keep the pants up in the front. His skin is a dark roast compared to my more coffee-with-cream tone, and he looks the part, with a Black Pyramid hat over his buzzed head, hiding the intricate designs shaved into his hair. He has on a baggy white t-shirt, and the only thing ruining his look is the backpack on his shoulders, loaded with books.
            I give him the nod and fall into step behind him, my own battered, literally-light-from-over-washing jeans belted loosely, but tightly enough so they don’t fall down over the curve of my ass. I have on an OSU hoodie, but it’s a little faded and gray, not red. My boots make a loud thumps on the sidewalk, competing for noise against the occasional squeak from Dominic’s much newer basketball Jordans.
            We attract surreptitious looks as we walk down the hallway, and while I know a lot of the disdainful ones are because of our clothes, there are quite a few girls who stare more openly at us as we walk by. Still, no one confronts us, because we look the part. I’m the only person who knows the black tear tattooed on Dominic’s left cheek is the result of a drunken dare two years ago, not a summer spent in juvie (he was actually at his grandma’s, helping restore her house). My own tattoos are mostly hidden by my long sleeves, but my Chris Brown/Rihanna style stars trailing up my neck, into my hairline and around to my right ear are visible, as are both the large diamond studs in my ears.
            It always amazes me, what old, baggy clothes, some tattoos, and a darker skin color can cause people to think about you. I’ve never cared. All I want is to keep people at a distance, and so letting them judge me and write me off is exactly what I want.
            At the end of the hallway is our usual crowd, and Cameron Fuller is heading the group, like always. Cameron has done time in juvie, and he’s a mean sonofabitch, but he doesn’t scare me. He’s knows that and it’s always caused a little bit of tension between the two of us, but I have no desire to lead his little pack of misfits and puppy dogs. I have a crowd to stand with in the morning and look tough, and that’s all I wanted.
            “Quain, Alverson.” Cameron greets us as we walk up, and Dominic and I both nod at him.
I resume my stance standing against the wall of the school, one foot propped up and resting against the interior bricks. I’m hoping it can be a peaceful morning and everyone will leave everyone else alone, but clearly that’s not meant to be.
            “You joining us after school today, Ezekiel?” Cameron asks, and I want to roll my eyes. How much more juvenile can you get, trying to humiliate someone by calling them by their full name?
            “For what?” I ask, keeping my stance light and easy against the wall.
            Something white and black flies through the air, making metallic clicking noises as it turns over and over, and I catch it reflexively. I know what it is even before I look down. A can of spray paint.
“Bridge on Riverside. Your marks are fading, I thought we could retouch it later tonight,” Cameron says. “Celebrate having only a few months left before summer break.”
I toss the can back to Cameron. “Can’t. I have plans.”
            He raises his eyes. “Plans without us? Found someone more fun to play with?”
            Dominic senses the rising tension between the two of us and lets out a big snort of laughter. “If you call babysitting his kid sister fun, then yeah, I would say so.”
            Everyone lets out a loud chorus of laughter at the idea of Zeke Quain babysitting, and even though I hate being laughed at, I’m glad Dominic was the one to say it. I’m not able to have that sarcastic tone where Cindy is concerned.
            “You get off kid duty early, you know where to find us,” Cameron says, pointing at me with his finger. “We’ll keep a cold one ready for you.”
            I nod that I understand, though I hate being pointed at like a child. Everything about Cameron rubs me the wrong way, but I put up with it because I don’t care enough to start a fight. Just as I’m thinking no way in hell will I meet up with them tonight, no matter how early Cindy is done at practice, the warning bell rings. We all groan at the thought of class and begin to separate ways. Dominic and I head for the closest flight of stairs.
            As we walk, we pass Evie Parker and Tony Stull again, and my eyes can’t help but be drawn to Evie’s. My fingers itch to pick up a pencil every time I see her, she has such a classic face; full red lips, Marilyn Monroe beauty mark on her left cheek, high cheekbones, and those eyes, feline with the unique violet color. I squash the urge, just as Evie looks my way and our eyes meet.
            I’m struck by how empty they look. Normally, Evangeline Parker looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world, or she’s frowning down her nose at me. Right now, though, she looks as if she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she doesn’t have a hope left.

Something stirs inside me; sympathy? Pity? I squash it as ruthlessly as I push down the urge to draw, and just because she’s made me feel emotion, emotion of any kind, I wink and smile at her, and Tony sees. Both of them look horrified, and the last I see of Evie right then is Tony’s arm tightening around her, keeping her safe as he rushes her away down the hall, away from the ugliness of the world that consists of people like me. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Purpose For Beginning This Lovely Blog....

My name is Kassandra (yes, with a K. Get over it already). I like to write. All the time. It's my greatest ambition in life to be able to quit my day job and write full-time. I write about many things, religion, young love, paranormal things, good and evil, love triangles, all those wonderful good things that you, my good people, love to read about. Or so I hope as I feverishly type away at my computer every day at 6AM. So without further ado, here is the blurb and first chapter from my debut novel, Guardian, out on Kindle this May:

                Lyla Evans just wants to be left alone; to fly under the radar and not attract attention. After seventeen years, she knows how the game is played. Her parents are hardly ever home, and when they do show up, they’re quick to anger and even quicker with their fists. With foster care comes the threat of being separated from her two younger siblings, and Lyla would die before allowing that to happen. She’s learned to keep her head down and depend on no one but herself and God to get by.
                When a strange man starts paying too much attention to her and her siblings, showing up to rescue them and then disappearing without a trace, Lyla begins to panic that everything she’s been hiding is about to come out. But as she slowly becomes friends with Rafael and even trusts him with her deepest fears, Lyla learns he has secrets far bigger than her own that will turn everything in her world upside down.
In this story of abuse and rescue, love and faith, angels and demons, an unlikely friendship grows into a fantastical love story appealing and appropriate for readers young and old alike.



I was always the strong one. I had to be. I did what I thought was right, and I always protected those I loved. I never really wondered about the world outside my own. Never did I think I would find someone to help me fight my battles, or that I would have my faith challenged in the strangest possible way. I didn’t know I would meet somebody extraordinary, and that my life would change, forever.
                But it did.

On every side the wicked strut; the shameless are extolled by all.
Psalm 12:9

“And don’t bother coming back! I’ve never seen such worthless children in all my life!”
            I held tight to Colton’s and Grace’s hands as the front door slammed closed behind us. Grace was, as always, holding back her tears with noisy sniffles. Only a seven-year-old could manage this while still looking angelic. With her halo of golden curls and glassy blue eyes, Grace always put me to mind of a china doll, every feature flawless, as though carved from ivory. A single, perfectly round tear rolled down her cheek as she wiped at her eyes. I scooped her into my arms as Colton, already an old soul at ten years of age, followed me down the sidewalk.
            “Don’t worry,” I told them, much more confidently than I felt. “You know Mom and Dad always cool off after a few hours to themselves.” Yes, after a few hours of drinking together, they could never quite remember attempting to kick us out of the house. “We’ll just have to pray very hard for them tonight, won’t we?”
            “It’s a good thing we’re on our way to youth group then, isn’t it, Lyla?” Colton commented, catching on and aiding my cause.
            I nodded, pleased. “Exactly. We’ll just have to keep them in mind all night, isn’t that right?”
            Grace and Colton, almost twins with their honeyed hair and cornflower-blue eyes, nodded in solemn agreement. Comparing me to the two of them was just like comparing night and day. I was night, my hair a dark, glossy brown with identically brown colored eyes. My skin was olive colored year round, as opposed to their porcelain complexions, and my nose and cheeks were dusted faintly with darker freckles. Perhaps it was the fact that I looked so different that had cast me in the role of guardian from our wayward parents. That, and because I was so much older. At seventeen, Grace and Colton saw me as an adult, though at times like these, I felt far from one.
            “There’s going to be all kinds of food tonight, and cake and cookies,” I said, to take their minds away from the trouble at home. “It’s the kick-off for the youth group, after all. Are you excited to see all your friends?”
            This set talkative Grace on a rampage about which classmates she hoped would be there, and which ones she didn’t care to see. I reminded her gently that it wasn’t nice to play favorites, and she should be nice to everyone. Colton began to put his two cents in about whom he wished would make an appearance, and the subject lasted us the whole mile and a half walk to our church, St. Rose of Lima. It was situated in downtown Columbus, our private Catholic school just across the parking lot.
            I deposited Colton and Grace at the rectory, where the younger grades were having their party, and circled the church for the door to the church basement, nearly running into someone as I turned a corner. It wasn’t dark quite yet, but I still didn’t recognize the person as I stopped short and smiled at him. It was a man, tall and big, staring at the church before us.
“Hello!” I said cheerfully, sticking my hands into the pockets of the black cardigan I wore over my simple jeans and white t-shirt. “Are you here for the youth group kick-off?”         
            For a long moment, he didn’t move, and I wondered if he hadn’t heard me. Then his head slowly turned and he looked me in the eye. Though we stood about two pavement squares apart, I was captivated by this man’s eyes. They were a deep, clear green, ringed with unnaturally long lashes. I couldn’t say why, exactly, but his gaze struck me dumb and motionless. There was just so… much in his eyes. Though he appeared only a few years older than I, his eyes were very, very old. We stared at each other for a very long, pregnant moment, and then the man gave a small smile, and the spell was broken. I blinked several times, blinded by his straight white teeth.
            “I don’t think you want my sort in there,” he said quietly. His voice rose up, deep and silky, surrounding me like the impending darkness of the night. He was dressed in well-worn dark blue jeans, with a black t-shirt underneath a black leather jacket. His short, wavy hair appeared to match in the dim light. Taking in all the black, I was put into mind of a thief. All of the sudden, his smile was menacing in my eyes, and my instincts warned me to run. Goose bumps covered my arms. I kept myself still, however, unwilling to appear rude.
            “We’re open to having anyone,” I said, though my voice shook a little. “It’s just a kick-off party, and we have plenty of food to go around.”
            The man gave a long, slow grin, and a chill went down my spine. Looking past his scarred leather jacket, the unkempt hair, and the too-long stubble on his jaw, he was extremely handsome, but appeared older than at first glance. Yes, he was definitely dangerous. I began to regret my decision to invite him to the party. What if he accepted?
He shook his head, still smiling, though I got the distinct impression he was inwardly laughing at me. “Thank you for your invitation, but I’ll have to decline. I think you’ll have more fun without me there.”
            “If you’re sure,” I said, and walked quickly away. Behind me, I heard him laughing out loud. I didn’t care. Deep down, I was absolutely terrified. I only stopped jogging when I reached the safety of the church basement door, which was being held open by my best friend, Natalie.
            “Who was that and where can I get one?” she asked, waggling her eyebrows at me.
            I swatted her arm. “Oh please!”
            “I’m serious!” she insisted, abandoning her post at the door to our friend, Austin. “Don’t you know that’s the guy I was telling you about at school yesterday? He’s been here all week, standing outside!”
            I looked at her in surprise. “Really? That’s him? What does he do out there?”
            Natalie gave a sigh of impatience. “I told you this! He was here Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, and now again tonight! He just stands there, staring up at the church. I don’t have the slightest clue what he’s looking at.”
            I frowned, trying to think what could be so interesting about the exterior of the church. As far I knew, there were only the stained glass windows, which were various Biblical scenes of things like the Visitation, the Annunciation, and of course, depictions of the life of St. Rose of Lima.
            “What did you say to him?” Natalie wanted to know. “I can’t believe you actually talked to him! I thought he was homeless, but homeless or not, he’s a hottie.”
            I rolled my eyes as I checked over the tables of food and drinks. People were beginning to arrive for the party, and I wanted to be sure everything was perfect, since Natalie’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. “I just invited him to come join us for the kick-off, that’s all.”
            “Get out!” Natalie cried. “What did he say?”
            “He… said ‘no, thank you’,” I said, skimming over the details.
            Natalie wasn’t having it, however. She planted her hands on her hips, and I knew she meant business. “Lyla Marie Evans, give me the full story, stat!”
            “Full story of what?” It was Austin, who had left the door-holding post in someone else’s hands so he could join us.
            “The full story of how Lyla invited that bum that’s been hanging around outside to our kick-off party!”
            I rolled my eyes again – Natalie was never one to keep things to herself – and Austin’s head whipped around to look at me in alarm.
“All by yourself?” he asked, shocked. “Lyla, you shouldn’t go around talking to strangers all alone! Who knows what he could have done to you?!”
            “Really, guys?” I asked. “I was standing in full view of a church, and there were people all around! He was just standing there, so I thought I would invite him in. Who knows what he’s going through?”
            “Obviously nothing terrorizing enough to make him want to join us,” Natalie observed seriously.
            We all laughed and turned to other matters as the subject of the strange man was forgotten. Except by me. All evening, I tried to peer out of the small upper windows of the basement, wondering if he was still there. I was mystified; why would anyone stand outside of a church for a whole week, just staring? True, many churches were beautiful, but St. Rose of Lima certainly wasn’t beautiful enough to stare at for a week straight. I sighed and tried to keep myself in the present.

“Pretty fun night, all in all, don’t you think?”
            I looked up at Austin, giving him a pleased smile. “It did go well. And since you stayed to help me clean up, I’ll be able to get home at a decent hour. I’m glad Mrs. Mescher volunteered to drop Colton and Gracie off at home, they were dead on their feet before ten o’clock even came.” Late enough, I hoped, that my parents had either left to find other amusement or passed out.
            Austin made a show of checking his watch. “A whole half-hour to spare before curfew! Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
            “Oh, that’s okay. I can walk,” I said quickly. I thought of what undoubtedly awaited me at home: my parents at best, gone, at worst, passed out on the couch or floor; a disaster in the kitchen for me to clean up. Hopefully, Colton and Grace safe and sound behind our locked bedroom door. I felt a trickle of unease, and wished after all that Mrs. Mescher hadn’t dropped them off for me, that I had kept them at my side where I could be assured of their safety.
            “Lyla,” Austin said firmly. He put his hands on my shoulders and spoke slowly, as though I were dull. “It’s almost midnight. You live in downtown Columbus. I’m driving you. End of discussion.”
            Though his authoritative manner chafed a little – I was the one used to calling all the shots – a small part of me was still relieved. It was late and dark.
            “Okay, fine.” I gave Austin a smile of defeat and grabbed my cardigan. We headed up the stairs and out of the church basement, Austin waiting patiently as I locked the door before getting into his car and setting off toward home. We discussed the party, laughing over the memories of the games everyone had played and silly things people had done.
            “I can’t wait to develop all the pictures,” I said. “I’ll have to make a display. I’m hoping to get an even bigger turn out at the spring dance. And maybe we can sell tickets this time to raise money for charity.”
            Austin chuckled. “Do you do anything besides school, sleep, and church?” He caught my hand over the console and gave it a friendly squeeze.
            I grinned at him. “Not right now. Its senior year, I need to get scholarships. And church is important to me. You know that.”
            “All work and no play makes Lyla a dull girl,” Austin commented.
            I glanced over at him. “What do you mean? You think I’m boring?” I teased.
            The car cruised to a stop as Austin looked over at me. “What I think is that you’re hot,” he said.
            I began to get a very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, but tried to shrug it off. I had known Austin nearly all my life, there was no reason to feel uncomfortable around him. Still, I tried to pull my hand gently out of Austin’s and pushed out a laugh that sounded forced and too high pitched. “Hot? Excuse me? Austin, you know I think that term is degrading.” The harder I tried to pull my hand away, the tighter Austin held it.
            “I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’ve always thought so.” Somehow, his dim smile seemed to have transformed into a leer.
            “I think it’s time for me to go,” I said firmly. The creepy crawlies were back, riding a roller coaster up and down my spine at full speed. “I’ll see you Monday at school, okay?”
            I pushed the car door open and started to get out, but realized with a jolt that Austin hadn’t stopped in front of my house. No, he had parked on a narrow side street that I didn’t recognize in the gloom. An empty, deserted alley lined with brick buildings.
            I wasn’t sure what the most unwise course of action was: braving the foreboding street, or staying in the car with Austin and ordering that he take me home.
            “Why didn’t you take me to my house?” I demanded, half in, half out of the car, still unsure and wavering between decisions.
            “I wanted a second to talk, Lyla,” Austin said. “Get back in the car, come on.”
            I wasn’t sure why this felt so much more uncomfortable than the awkward scene of longtime friend attempting to declare his feelings. Maybe it was the sneering smile, or the ominous glint that kept flashing in his eyes. Perhaps it was because all Austin’s words and actions seemed incredibly foreign from the friend that I knew. Or maybe it was simply because he was trying to do it all in a dark alley in the middle of the night.
            Whatever the reason, my sixth sense was screaming danger! at top volume, and I decided I was done and it was best to brave the street. “I’m going home,” I said, as forcefully as I could. I hoped he didn’t detect the traitorous tremble in my words. “I’ll see you Monday, okay? Goodnight.”
            I swung out of the car and began to walk down the sidewalk at a quick clip, headed for the distant street sign that I knew would orient me. I swallowed back both annoyance and a cold thrill of fear when Austin’s door slammed and he called my name. Footsteps sounded behind me, quick ones as he jogged to catch up.
            “Lyla, don’t act like this,” he pleaded, reaching for my hand to slow me down.
            I jerked my hand away with such force that my body lurched to the side. I didn’t want him to touch me, not now, possibly not ever again. “Leave me alone, Austin,” I said, more sharply than I’d ever spoken to anyone. “I need some space.”
            “Lyla, come on,” he said again, and this time he managed to catch my hand, and no matter how I tugged, I couldn’t slip away from him.
            “Austin, let go of me!” I cried, unable to keep panic from lacing my words.
            I backed away again, pulling my hand as hard as I could, but Austin advanced a step for every one that I retreated. Real panic began to pump through my veins.
“Austin, we’ve been friends since second grade, why are you acting like this?” With mounting horror, I realized I had done the worst possible thing; I’d backed up against a building, and there was nowhere left to go.
“Because I want you, Lyla,” Austin whispered, and I quivered with fear all the way down to my toes.”
            “Austin, stop!” I cried, and tried to run. Instantly Austin’s arms were around me, and he pushed me up against the wall. My head connected with the bricks with a solid crack and I saw stars.
            Suddenly Austin’s hands were everywhere on my body, groping my sides, my bottom, my neck, and finally my breasts. I screamed as loud as I could before Austin’s mouth cut me off, meeting my own in a sloppy kiss. I slowly began to gather my wits once more, though my head was still ringing from its collision with the wall. I started to struggle wildly, tried to scream past Austin’s lips, but had trouble gasping in enough air. My arms, which had been pushing against his chest, were grabbed and pressed tightly to my sides.
            Austin finally lifted his mouth off of mine, panting. “You like it rough, huh? Won’t go down without a fight. I see. I always knew you were feisty underneath that uniform of yours.”
            Before I could catch my breath and scream again, Austin moved in once more, trying to pry my lips open again, but I kept them tightly pressed together, still struggling to get away. Somehow, he captured both my arms in one hand and kept me pinned against the wall with his larger body. The other hand came up and gripped my jaw with crushing force. I whimpered in pain, knowing I would have bruises.
But there would be more if I didn’t get away soon. There would be worse than bruises. I began to wriggle, testing this new hold he had on me. But I was small and slender, while Austin topped six feet and played rough sports all year long. I felt my strength begin to ebb away, felt dangerous thoughts of giving in seep into my panicked brain. Austin’s hand finally left my aching jaw and began to roam around my body once more. I twisted away, panting with effort, knowing I should resist, knowing I couldn’t stop fighting. I fought to keep my body from going limp. I was getting tired, so tired.
            Suddenly, I was jerked forward as Austin’s body was pulled violently away from my own. With the pressure of him pressing me against the wall gone so quickly, I fell to the ground in shock. It took me a moment to realize that he was gone, that I was free, and I looked up to see who had saved me.
            A loud “Oomph” pulled my attention to the left of the alleyway. I gasped when I saw the shadow of Austin doubled over in pain, a stranger pummeling him in the belly. Austin whimpered and whined, and I could hear him pleading with the man to stop. As much as the proper, God-fearing part of me knew violence was wrong, I couldn’t bring myself to halt the beating. I trembled from head to toe, and I wanted some of the pain I had suffered to be experienced by Austin’s hands. Austin fell to his hands and knees, and the stranger kicked him savagely, and then with a swift uppercut to the jaw, Austin collapsed.
            Or did he?
            From my huddled position against the wall, I was sure I had just seen Austin fall flat, but the dark stranger was still fighting someone. Glancing at the ground, I confirmed that, indeed, Austin’s blonde hair shone in the slight moonlight that entered the alley. Had there been a second person with Austin? Had someone else been following us, or heard the commotion? Or was my rescuer not really saving me at all, but fighting for the right to have his turn with me? A dozen thoughts raced through my head, all in the blink of an eye.
            Suddenly the building I was backed up against shuddered violently, and I looked up to see my supposed rescuer jumping out from a large crevice in the brick. The huge crack was a good five feet up from the ground, as though someone had thrown him into the side of the building. I gaped, watching him run back to the third person who had taken over Austin’s place in the fight. Now that I was watching, I saw that this fight was nothing like when Austin had stood passively and allowed himself to be beaten and defeated. These two moved with supernatural speed, shadows in the dim light, darting in for a kick or punch, the other moving so fast they nearly always missed. They performed a flawless dance, just missing each other each time. I could easily pick which shadow was the one who had beaten Austin; he was much taller and bulkier than his opponent, who seemed to have grown shorter and more hunched since his arrival.
            But how could I trust my own eyes? Not when it seemed that these two were bouncing off the sides of buildings, jumping easily up onto dumpsters with one leap, and leaving cracks in solid brick structures without seeming to get harmed themselves. I felt hazy, as though I was drifting in and out of sleep. When another loud BOOM echoed through the night, it was like a wakeup call. Bits of brick and mortar dust sprinkled down onto my head, and then something fell before my feet with a sickening thud.
I screamed and attempted to back up closer to the wall, but the figure made no movement. In fact, it began to grow smaller and smaller, until it no longer bore any resemblance to a human being at all. I watched in horrified fascination as the little horned creature in front of me hissed and steamed, turning into a puddle and melting right down through the pavement. After just half a minute, there was no trace of anyone or anything on the ground before my feet. I gaped in wonder and fear. Then footsteps distracted me, and I saw my rescuer coming toward me. I gave a squeal of fright and scooted backward on my bottom again, only to hit the brick wall as I had before. Trapped.
            “Shh, shh, Lyla, it’s all right. You’re safe.” The man continued forward, slowly but steadily.
            I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that he knew my name, or the fact that I recognized his smoky, silky voice, but I relaxed fractionally. It was the man who had been standing outside the church before the youth party. He didn’t seem half so threatening to me now, despite the fact he had just beaten Austin, and a mysterious something, into submission.
            I squinted, trying to make sense of my muddled, hazy thoughts. Was it just my imagination, or was this stranger glowing around the edges? I closed my eyes and shook my head, trying to clear the fuzziness from the edges of my vision. When I opened them once more, the man was crouched right in front of me, and I couldn’t deny that he emanated a slight white light. A terrible fear that I was going blind, that somehow, Austin had affected my sight when he had slammed my head against the wall, ran through me, made my breath catch.
            “Lyla? Did he hurt you? Does anything hurt very badly?”
            His soft voice made me feel even sleepier, and a little less panicked. I struggled to make sense of what he was asking. When had my brain decided to shut off?
            “Lyla!” This time his voice was a little sharper, more impatient. “Did he hurt you?”
            “N-no,” I finally said. “Just some buh-bruises, I think.”
            “Come on, let’s get you home,” he muttered, and before I could guess what he meant to do, I found myself swung upward by the strongest arms I ever could have imagined. Holding me seemed to be completely effortless, as though I were a feather pillow. Around me, the world seemed to blur as he started walking, going faster than I ever could have. The exhaustion I had been fighting off now seemed to overwhelm me, and I felt my eyes closing of their own accord. I wasn’t strong enough to keep myself awake, and so, I let myself fall into the blissful darkness.

            “Does this mean we don’t have to go to church today?”
            “No, silly, you know Lyla would never miss church. She has to get up in time!”
            “But he said she needed to rest!”
            I groaned and rolled over, only to be stopped mid-roll by the two small bodies whose talking was disturbing my sleep.
            “See?” Colton said triumphantly. “She’s alive and about to wake up!”
            I cracked one eye open, meeting four smaller blue ones. “What are you two arguing about?” I asked in a sleep-hoarse voice.
            Grace regarded me seriously. “It’s ten forty-five and we were deciding if you wanted to go to church today or sleep.”
            “Ten forty-five?!” I yelped, tossing back the covers and jumping from my bed. I never slept past eight, never. Mass started at eleven thirty, and we had a twenty minute walk to boot! A sudden aching sensation in my arms and back stopped my mad dash, and I looked down, confused. Only when I saw the bruises around both my arms in the shape of a perfect handprint did the memories come flooding back; Austin driving me home, attacking me, and my rescuer saving me. I turned slowly to Grace and Colton. “Colton, who brought me home last night?” I asked carefully.
            Colton’s face screwed up. “Some man I’d never seen before. I opened the door ‘cause I was getting a midnight snack and heard him knocking. Grace came too. I know we’re not supposed to open the door to strangers, but he was carrying you, so I did it anyway. He was big, bigger than Dad. Grace almost started crying because she thought you were dead.”
            “Did not!” Grace hollered.
            “Did too!” Colton shouted back.
            “Hey, hey now!” I said, standing between them. “No fighting, please! Colton, just finish the story.”
            “The man told us you weren’t dead, you were just really, really tired from helping at the party. We showed him where your bed was and he laid you down. We let him out the front door, and by the time we looked out the window to see him leave, he was already gone!”
            “His name?” I asked urgently. “Did you ask him what his name was?”
            Grace looked at me curiously. “Isn’t he your friend? Don’t you know his name already?”
            I shook my head. “He . . . was a new friend. So new I don’t even know his name.”
            “Gracie asked what his name was,” Colton said, pleased with his all-knowingness. “You know how nosy she is. What was it, Gracie? I forgot.”
            “Rafael,” Grace supplied helpfully. “He said his name was Rafael.”