Mom and Brian were both at work by the time I woke. It was late afternoon, and I felt just as frustrated as I had when I’d showed up on their doorstep. I didn’t get out of my lavender four-poster for a good fifteen minutes, and my fingers automatically traced the hand-painted doves on the headboard. Mom did them not long after she and Brian were married. I considered walking across town to Rosehaven Downs University to visit them, but I couldn’t work up the energy to do anything except eat a bowl of cereal.
After about an hour of zombie-like wandering, I decided to get on the computer and check in with Audrey. As I was headed for the household PC, my cell phone started ringing. I didn’t have to look at the screen to know it was Dad. My stomach squirmed as I tapped the answer option on the screen.
“Hello?” I couldn’t help the chill in my voice; I knew this conversation was not going to end well.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST TOOK OFF!”
“I came back to Mom’s.”
“I just couldn’t deal with the fact that you randomly got married while I was out of the country, especially since you know how I feel about Michelle!”
“I don’t believe you’ve been very fair to Michelle, Lauren. I’ve never seen/heard her say a cross word to you.”
“Just because you haven’t heard it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened, Dad! She delights in making me miserable when you aren’t around.”
“I have a hard time believing that.”
I considered throwing my phone out a window. “Why am I not surprised that you trust your girlfriend—who is twenty-one years younger than you are, by the way—more than you believe your own daughter?”
I hung up and refused to answer when he tried to call back. “That conversation was going nowhere but bad,” I muttered, doing my best to ignore the guilt nagging at me as my phone continued to ring. I slumped into the well-worn leather desk chair in the study and waited for the ringing to stop. Dad gave up after twenty-five minutes. The study, with books piled on every available surface, bordered on being cramped, but I liked it anyway.
I got five offline messages from Audrey the second I signed into my instant messenger.
|OMG, Lauren, did you seriously just take off back to England after you came home? Your dad called me looking for you and sounded like he was having a panic attack.|
|I hope you’re okay, hon. Message me as soon as you get this.|
|Seriously, I’m worried about you. You being offline for this long is totally unnatural.|
|Please let me know you’re okay.|
|I know you’re upset. Please talk to me.|
She was offline, but I sent her a message anyway. |Hey, Drey. Just wanted to let you know I’m okay…mostly. I didn’t bring my laptop with me, so all I have to work with is Mom’s PC. The only thing I brought is my purse. Anyway, I love you. I’ll probably be on later.|
I signed back out and shuffled upstairs for another hot shower, hoping it would wash away the dull ache that was taking over my body. I stood under the spray until the hot water ran out and then went hunting in my closet for warmer clothes.
I bundled up in a light-gray turtleneck and my favorite coat, a purple fleece peacoat before I set out in the direction of Rosehaven Downs University. I was halfway hoping to run into Mom or Brian on campus, but I guess my feet had other ideas because they wandered to the west of campus. I found myself in an unfamiliar but obviously low-rent, high-occupancy side of town. Shabby apartment complexes crowded on top of one another, and I started feeling claustrophobic just from looking at them. Dusk closing in did nothing to relieve the cramped feeling of the neighborhood.
I turned up an alleyway that I thought pointed in the direction of Mom’s neighborhood and shuddered. Piles of trash had collected against the cracked and aging, graffiti-covered brick walls. I couldn’t help gagging as I passed a dumpster. It smelled like rotting seafood, vomit, and other things I was too staggered to put a name to. All of a sudden, I knew it was well past time for me to leave.
I never realized before that Rosehaven Downs had such a poor, neglected, seedy side of town. It was pitiful and frightening all at once. Alarm bells started going off in the back of my mind, and I relocated my iPod from my coat pocket to the waistband of my skinny jeans at the small of my back. I pulled my shirt and jacket back down over it with a sigh. Even if I get mugged, I don’t think they’ll take the time to strip-search me. I had never really encountered poverty head-on before, and it left a permanent mark on my mind.
The alley went on for far longer than I had anticipated and the echoes of my own footsteps raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It didn’t take me long after that to realize that echoes weren’t the only things chasing me. There were other footfalls, too, accompanied by two slender figures in hoodies with the hoods up so I couldn’t make out their faces. I could tell they were both male, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance of getting away. They were both taller than I was and exuded strength in spite of their apparent hunger.
I didn’t have time to pull out my phone and call for help. I was running as fast as I could, and it was nowhere near fast enough. I started screaming seconds before a hand clamped around my arm. I began to scream louder, but a sickening crack and sudden, blinding pain in the side of my head cut it off. I reeled and went down, landing in an oily puddle from yesterday’s rain. I felt hot blood pouring down the side of my head and felt like I was going to throw up.
They must have hit me with a brick.
I tried to move, but a sudden rush of darkness swallowed everything.
I couldn’t open my eyes for what seemed like forever. As time passed, I realized that they were, in fact, already open. I was suspended in sensationless oblivion. There were no lights, nothing to see, nothing to feel, nothing to hear.
Am I dreaming? What is this? I wonder if this is what out-of-body experiences feel like?
Instantaneous sensation interrupted my thoughts; it felt like a million icy wings were beating against my skin. It made me dizzy and more than a little nauseated.
The darkness faded, shifting into forms around me. An ageless woman with fiery red hair and silver eyes materialized and scowled down at a tangled thread on a spinning wheel. “I cannot stand what this little fool is doing to her life,” she muttered. A pair of silver shears appeared in her hand and she cut the thread, shaking her head.
Cold shot through me as the scissors touched the thread and I shuddered.
The redhead didn’t seem to hear my panicked cry. When she pulled the shears away, she blinked several times like she suspected her eyes of lying to her. The shears had failed and the thread refused to separate. “Sisters!” Her voice rang out in that void between worlds, searing everything like a massive lightning strike.
A willowy brunette with golden eyes appeared, her opalescent brow furrowed with confusion. Half a moment later, a bronze-eyed, petite blonde joined them. Each woman held the essence of something far greater than her deceptive human form.
“What is it, Aithne,” the two asked in unison.
She gestured at the thread with disgust. “This silly little Telluvian girl is mucking up her life so badly that I decided it might be best if I cut this knotted mess of a thread. Look, Alyssa, and tell me if my eyes deceive me.”
The brunette glided past her hot-tempered sister and stared down at the thread. “This thread is not so much as frayed, Aithne. Is there something wrong with your shears?”
“Perhaps her thread cannot be severed because her destiny is too strong for your shears?” The blonde clasped her hands and looked down as if she expected a rebuke from her elder siblings.
Aithne arched a brow at her, but Alyssa held up a hand to quell whatever remark the redhead had been ready to make. “Karita may be right. We should watch over her until we know more.”
“Excuse me! Who are you? What the hell are you talking about?” I was screaming at the top of my lungs, but my voice sounded small and frail, even to me.
It was Alyssa who answered. “We have many forms and have been called by many names. I will try to make this easy for you to understand. We serve a higher power and many know us as the Messengers. I am Alyssa, and these are my sisters, Karita and Aithne.”
“Why am I here?”
“You are here because you refuse to accept yourself and your destiny! You are so busy trying to please everyone else in your life that you are destroying yourself. I’ve got a mind to have another go at cutting your thread now in hopes of sparing us any further frustration over you,” Aithne snapped.
Karita’s voice was calm and soothing as she whispered. “You needn’t be so hard on the girl, Aithne. We all failed to foresee that her thread would become so tangled.”
I couldn’t stop staring at them, my eyes moving from woman to woman at a dizzying pace. “This has to be some kind of weird dream. I don’t understand what you’re talking about! I didn’t even know I had a thread.”
Karita sighed and shook her head. “You are in a dire situation, my dear, and souls that have not yet realized their true potential cannot pass away in peace. When I wove your thread, the potential for courage, wisdom and compassion was written on your soul. However, in the life you’ve led thus far, you have not even scratched the surface of the woman that you were supposed to become. The choices you’ve made have tied your life up in knots, and you are not moving forward as you should.”
Aithne scowled down at me. “I thought to end the nonsense by cutting your thread and being done with it. However, I could not break through so much as a strand of it.”
“That is because it is not yet her time to die.” Alyssa fixed her older sister with a stern gaze. “You were somewhat unfair. You have seen that her thread stretches far beyond these knots she has created. Do not be so eager to end her because her mistakes have caused her life to take an unexpected turn. Humans have free will.”
“That is their greatest downfall.”
“No.” Karita laid a hand on her sister’s shoulder and I saw something like pity in her bronze eyes. “It is their greatest strength.”
I pressed my fingers against my temples and squeezed my eyes shut. “Wait just a minute, okay? Am I dead?”
“Not yet.” Karita shot her sisters a cryptic smile. “Your life on Tellus, the planet you know as Earth, has been suspended. We believe that the universe has more in store for you. Therefore, we are offering you a choice.”
Aithne stepped forward, her silver eyes burning my soul. “You have not lived up to Destiny’s expectations for you. You may accept this and move on if you choose.”
Alyssa made a sweeping motion with her hand and billions of points of light appeared in the distance. “Or, you may take a chance at reclaiming your former life. However, this choice comes with a particular responsibility. You must prove your true worth before you can return home.”
“How can I do that?” I wrung my hands, desperate for any chance to get my life back.
“There are infinite worlds scattered across the cosmos, many of them in crisis. We have searched the universe and found a world in need of a heroine, one who has your innate traits. If you can stop Daraglathia from succumbing to chaos and destruction, then you may return to your former life.”
My mouth dropped open with an indignant snort. “Wait just a minute, what have I not done? What choices have knotted up my life?”
Aithne stepped forward with a caustic smile. “Your passive-aggressive refusal to face unpleasant situations and confront people has halted your progress in life. You seem to have no ability to solve your own problems in a satisfactory fashion. Instead, you ignore and avoid them, hoping they will just disappear. You have spent your entire life saying yes when you mean no. You make yourself miserable trying to please everyone around you. A cowardly way to live, is it not?”
“Enough!” Alyssa glared at Aithne, radiating cold disapproval. “There is no reason to insult the girl when she is already in turmoil.”
I stared in silent shock. How can they expect me to save an entire world if I’ve failed to live up to my potential in my own life? I stared down at my hands and chewed on my bottom lip. What if I try and fail? I don’t know how long I waited before I raised my head and faced them again. “I’ll do it. I may fail, but I have to make an effort to get my life back.”