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Chapter 01

Chapter One

Redwood Memorial Cemetery

Salt Lake County, Utah

Though winter, no snow could be found on the ground. The vast cemetery was young; its trees only saplings and many of the furthest plots were yet unmarred by grave markers. Standing in the expansive grounds feeling the bite of December, Elizabeth cast her grey-blue eyes to the sky, her smooth ebony hair shifting in the frigid breeze. She thought it should be snowing; it felt wrong that the sky hadn’t acknowledged the young man’s passing. His was the first funeral Elizabeth had ever gone to.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. She had gone to her father’s funeral three short weeks after her birth, but she had no memory of the event nor the man himself. Though Beth had never experienced the loss of her father, she felt his absence daily. This feeling, this aching, gnawing, burning pain was an entirely new sensation. She felt like the world stopped when the case-worker called to notify Beth of his death.

Jezebel, her widowed mother, tried for the second time to gently urge Beth to join the rest of the mourners by the graveside. Elizabeth just shook her head and shrugged off the comforting arm her mother had put around her. Her mother let out a slow sigh and asked if Beth could hear the minister from such a distance.

Beth buried her icy fingers deeper into her coat pockets, cursing herself for forgetting her gloves. “It doesn’t matter, Mom. I have no right to be here, anyway.”

On the other side of Jezebel, someone scoffed. “Kiddo, you’ve got more right than any of that bunch. Weren’t you two dating?”

Elizabeth didn’t need to peer around her mother to see that Carter had joined them. She’d grown up hearing that gruff voice almost as frequently as she heard her mother’s own silvery one. It was a sound that felt like safety and family; a sound that felt like home.

Though her mother whispered, Elizabeth was hard pressed to ignore the words scoring her heart. “No, hon. It happened when he was on his way to pick her up for their first date.”

“Hasn’t this been going on since September?” Carter’s voice was low, though not quite a whisper. He had never believed in shielding Elizabeth from the hard things in life. Being a military man, he didn’t believe in shortcuts and easy-outs; he helped to raise Elizabeth accordingly.

In truth, she’d met the young man at the end of August. They’d had a lifetime of stolen glances, passed notes, shy flirting, and late-night texts in that four months. Being a senior and focused on life after high school, Elizabeth had been reluctant to rush into a relationship she’d have to end upon graduating in June. Now, she wondered if she could go back to August, knowing what she knew now, would she have chosen differently.

Seeing movement in the corner of her eye, Elizabeth flinched when she realized Jezebel was tucked snugly under Carter’s arm. The two had been growing closer in recent months and she’d suspected they’d been dating on the sly. Though previously, Beth was thrilled at the development of their relationship, now it stung.

Turning her back on the small group assembled before the coffin, Elizabeth said thickly, “We should go.” She began to move through the maze of headstones, both upright and flat, making her way to her mother’s car. She didn’t look behind her to see if her mother and Carter followed, nor did she make any effort to wait for them to catch up. Normally a considerate and friendly person, Elizabeth’s heartbreak had left her in a state of apathetic numbness.

Upon reaching the red crossover, Beth fumbled with her keys, dropping them. Before she could bend to retrieve the keys, Carter snatched them up and studied her a moment while withholding the keys. He shook his head, “Sorry, kiddo. You know better than to get behind the wheel in such a state.” He tossed the keys to Jezebel who only just arrived at the curb.

“What state would that be?” Beth asked, feeling a prick of anger. She’d never been through a truly rebellious stage but fancied she felt one coming on.

Carter nodded once to Jezebel, who then climbed into the car shutting the door and starting the engine to get the heater warmed up. He turned his attention back to Elizabeth, the spark of flame already fading behind her eyes. “Numb,” he said firmly. “Driving while emotionally numb can be as bad as driving under the influence. I think you should consider staying off the roads for a few weeks.” The last he said, softly, pulling Beth into a bearhug.

Elizabeth pushed against him, not wanting the embrace. She wasn’t ready to feel the deluge of emotions his loving gesture was threatening to loose. Carter planted a kiss on her hair before letting Beth push off of him. He muttered an apology as she rounded to the passenger door and climbed in, slamming the door behind her. Carter’s words went unheard.

***

By the time they pulled up to their powder-blue house, nestled in a middle-class development some thirty years old, Elizabeth’s temper had cooled; her ire turning to guilt and shame. She stole a glance at her mother, noting the tension hiking her shoulders up halfway to her ears, and knew she’d caused it. Beth waited until they were inside shucking off their winter layers before she attempted an apology.

“Carter said I was numb,” she said, unsure of where to begin.

Jezebel studied her daughter, concern in her hazel eyes, her pert nose and cheeks still pink from the chill outside. “I agree with him. Sweetpea, aside from the evening we got the call, you’ve been wandering around like you’re dead inside.” She stepped closer to her, brushing a lock of dark brown hair away from Beth’s face. “I’ve been worried.”

“I didn’t mean to worry you, Mom,” Beth said with a sigh.

“I’m your mother. It’s my job to worry.” Jezebel chastised. “Besides, you know how these things can affect young people. I know you’ve seen the new stories, just as I have, Beth. One teen’s death can set off a domino effect, triggering a string of suicides.” Jezebel paled as she spoke, her mind going to dark places.

“I’m not going to hurt myself, Mom. I promise you.” Beth took her mother’s hands in her own and squeezed them in an effort to bring Jezebel back from her place of worry. “I’m,” she paused, considering how she felt beneath the numbness. “I’m hurting and confused. I’m angry and sad. I feel a little lost like I’m in a canoe without a paddle, adrift on a vast lake and unable to get my bearings.” When Beth stalled out, unable to continue, Jezebel pulled her into her arms and held her tightly.

“I know, baby.” Jezebel’s chest was heaving with emotion and Beth could hear the tell-tale sniffling; her mother was crying. Elizabeth blinked back her own tears, unwilling to let the dam break.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth spoke softly, “for going with me.” Gently, she extricated herself from Jezebel’s arms.

“How could I let you go alone? Losing the man you love is no easy thing.” Jezebel hesitated for a long moment and turned away to straighten her coat in the closet. “I know I wasn’t as young as you when Franklyn died, but I felt like the world had ended. Widowed at twenty-two. Perhaps, we Wilson women are cursed.” The last she whispered as though to herself.

“No, Mom,” Elizabeth said thickly, waves of emotion crashing against the walls she’d erected. “First off, I am a Reynar. Secondly, if you’re a cursed Wilson woman, then how do you explain what’s going on between you and Carter?” Beth was hoping this would bring a smile to her mother’s face, or at very least a blush of embarrassment.

Jezebel started for the kitchen, running a hand through her mass of blond hair. “I never said Wilson women couldn’t find love. I think our curse is to always lose the men we love. Your grandpa Wilson died when I was a toddler, you know.”

“We aren’t cursed, Mom,” Beth growled, her anger was rising to the forefront once again. She shuffled moodily passed her mother in the kitchen and started for the stairs to the basement and her bedroom. “I think I’ll lay down for a bit.”

Elizabeth paused on the landing by the back door, awaiting her mother’s reply, but all she heard was Jezebel muttering to herself. The only thing she could make out clearly was, “What does this mean for Carter?” Rolling her eyes, Beth continued on her way to her basement apartment.

***

Elizabeth woke to the gentle tap, tap, tap of someone poking the tip of her nose. Growling, she rolled over. “Oh my god. I hate you so much.” Though every word had been mumbled into the pillow, Sarah had no difficulty understanding her best friend.

“Oh, you do not,” Sarah said, a smile in her voice. “Wake up! I didn’t see you at the cemetery; you said you’d be there.” Sarah tugged on her shoulder and Beth rolled with a grown.

Elizabeth studied the shadows cast on the ceiling before offering any reply. “I was standing a ways off, but I was there.” She took a steadying breath and mentally pushed back against the sensation that the shadows were closing in on her. “I left before the service was over.”

Sarah smiled a little when Beth sat up and hugged a pillow to her chest. “It’s just as well. Ms. Ruiz - that is the name of his case-worker, right?” After a confirming nod from Beth, Sarah continued. “Ms. Ruiz blew a gasket at Justin. It was just like you predicted. Hardly anyone who came actually knew who he was; they only came for the novelty of it.”

“I can’t see Ms. Ruiz doing something like that.” Beth shook her head, unbelieving.

“Well, Justin told her that ‘Tommy was taken before his time,’ and she flipped. I think it was the last straw for her.” Sarah zipped her coat up as she spoke. “No wonder you don’t want to get out of bed! It’s freezing down here!”

“They didn’t even know his name,” Beth whispered.

After some cajoling on Sarah’s part, Elizabeth followed her best friend out of the basement. They watched movies through the evening and late into the night. Though they didn’t talk about the elephant in the room, Elizabeth drew comfort from her companion. She knew that when she was ready to talk about what happened, Sarah would be there.

***

The Guardian stood in the corner leaning his shoulder against the wall, watching his young charge. Two weeks had passed since the boy’s death and each night that followed had been torturous. There had been many times over the years that the Guardian had needed to make use of his gifts to protect, aid, and care for this girl, but never had he seen her like this.

Elizabeth was unable to sleep without his compulsion to do so, and though she slept, it was fitfully. Tossing and turning aside, she wept in her dreams and cried out the boy’s name on quiet sobs. Though she denied it to herself and anyone who cared to ask, those closest to Beth knew she’d been in love with the boy. “Not boy, man,” the Guardian corrected himself.

He’d been less than pleased when Elizabeth began dreaming about the young man, and while awake her thoughts regarding the fellow were so loud the Guardian wished he could teach Beth to keep them to herself. Of course, that wasn’t an option. She wasn’t to be made aware of his existence, nor the role he’d played throughout her life. It was a source of great pain, being that the Guardian treasured the girl as a daughter. “Not girl, young woman,” he corrected.

Sensing Elizabeth was fighting the compulsion and was about to wake, the Guardian thickened the shadows he’d wrapped himself in. Moments later, she woke and shuffled to her bathroom, walking past the corner where her Guardian stood shrouded in darkness.

When she reemerged, Elizabeth paused halfway back to her bed and turned to look at the corner. The Guardian monitored her thoughts closely to be certain she couldn’t see him. While her thoughts confirmed he was invisible to Beth’s eyes, the Guardian got the impression that she could sense there was something in the shadowy corner.

The Guardian lifted a single eyebrow, intrigued. More and more frequently, of late, Elizabeth sensed his presence and there were times when he’d wondered if she was staring at him and needed to slip into her mind to be sure. He knew he should be reporting such incidents, but he felt protective of Beth, even from The Order.

Muttering to herself about being too old for monsters, Elizabeth returned to her bed. The Guardian allowed her five minutes to fall asleep on her own before he sent the compulsion into her mind. Her body relaxed and her breathing deepened. He enjoyed seeing her at peace for a few moments, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the tears would dampen her cheeks.

He was still tuned into her mind when the dream came again; it’d been recurring a few times a week. Elizabeth was dreaming of when she’d met the young man.

The excitement from earlier in the day had worn off. It no longer felt like a thrilling new adventure. True, it was the first day of her senior year of high school, but Elizabeth expected it would feel differently. She’d been disappointed. Her classes were mostly filled with the same faces she’d grown up going to school with. Many of the teachers on her schedule she already knew. Aside from now having one of the full-size lockers reserved for seniors, nothing was different.

Now, she sat on the dance studio floor along with her classmates, awaiting her second to last class to begin. The tardy instructor rushed in and called roll before pairing up the class. A commotion at the other end of the group drew everyone’s attention, including Beth’s.

Mrs. Sanders rushed over to the pair causing the fuss and attempted to resolve the issue quietly, but Alexa, one of the students in question, wasn’t having it.

“He looks like a hobo! I mean, look at him! His clothes have holes and that hair!?” Alexa made a gagging noise.

“She’s not wrong.” Elizabeth’s partner, Justin, laughed running his hand through his tight brown curls. Beth glared at him.

“Sandy,” Alexa whined, using the cutesy nickname the school dance company had for their coach, Mrs. Sanders. “I can not stare at this mess every day. I can’t.” Alexa folded her arms, tossed her strawberry blond hair over her shoulder and pouted.

Just as Beth thought to volunteer to swap partners, Justin spoke again. “You know, Mrs. S, I’m not thrilled with who I got paired with either. Maybe Alexa and Betty here can swap?” Alexa blushed adoringly at Justin’s gallantry.

“Mister Covey, I hardly think that’s gentlemanly of you to say!” Mrs. Sanders said reproachfully, pulling back her shoulders and straightening her back to stand to her full five-foot-two-inches of intimidating shortness. Her purple-tipped blonde ponytail was quivering with offense.

Before her instructor could continue, Beth stepped away from Justin and spoke, raising her hand at the same time. “I’ll gladly switch partners if it will move things along.” She made a shooing gesture towards Justin. “Alexa is welcome to him.”

Thus dismissed, Justin swaggered over to Alexa and her unwanted partner quietly strode to where Elizabeth stood. For a moment, Mrs. Sanders looked about to stick to her guns and force them to keep their assigned partners, but then her shoulders slumped and she muttered under her breath about how dramatic high schoolers were.

“Sorry about that. We’re not all such elitist jerks.” Elizabeth said, quietly to her new partner. She offered her hand, saying, “I’m Elizabeth Reynar.”

At last, the guy smiled. He took her hand in his and gave it a firm and overly-formal shake. “Pleased to meet you, Elizabeth not-a-jerk Reynar. The name’s Toney. Well, it’s Anthony, but my friends - when I have them - call me Toney.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Well, then I’m glad to be counted a friend, Toney! Thanks for saving me from Justin. I didn’t think my toes would survive the semester.” Realizing Anthony was still holding her hand, she pulled it free and cleared her throat. “Alright, let’s see what Alexa found so abhorrent about you, shall we?”

Starting from his shoes and working her way up, she took in his worn apparel, the dark stubble on his face, the freckles peppered across his nose and cheeks, and then the natural black hair that looked as though it were overdue for a cut. He’d blend right in with the other guys at the school - well, most of them anyway. Alexa was just creating drama. When she looked back down at his eyes, she saw wariness in their green depths.

“I’m sorry. I’m at a loss. You look fine to me, Toney,” She felt a blush start to color her cheeks and turned away breaking their eye contact.

“Fine, huh?” Toney said with a jokingly suggestive tone.

Mrs. Sanders barked for them to stop chattering and pay attention to the steps she was demonstrating. Still, Beth only waited a moment before brazenly replying, “Fine, indeed,” just loud enough for Toney to hear her. When she looked back at Toney, she felt as though she were drowning in his emerald eyes. Never had she been so thankful for the churlishness of her peers. Perhaps, her senior year would be different after all.

***

Elizabeth stared at her reflection, at the dark circles under her puffy eyes. She’d woken to find her pillow tear-stained, yet again. She analyzed what she saw. It was three weeks since the night of the accident, two weeks since the funeral, and a week and a half into the new semester at school. Beth was struggling. She lost her passion for activities she previously enjoyed, couldn’t focus in class, and nearly everyone she interacted with told her she looked ill or sleep-deprived. The mirror confirmed what they’d all said.

At dinner the previous night, Jezebel told Elizabeth about a group therapy meeting for grievers hosted by a local church. She asked Beth to consider going to a meeting. After ranting about it to Sarah via text messaging, her friend surprised her by siding with Jezebel. Sarah had been concerned about Beth, thinking that she might need more help than she could get from friends and family. Their conversation had ended on a sour note.

However, standing before her reflection, studying her appearance, mood, and thoughts, Elizabeth was beginning to understand why her loved ones were so worried. She nodded sharply to her mirror image and said, “Therapy it is.”

As she readied for her day, she made a mental note to thank her mom for finding out about the meetings, and to patch things up with Sarah when she got to school. Heartsore though she may be, Elizabeth wasn’t about to continue causing her family pain and worry. For the first time in weeks, something like purpose pulsed through her.

Next Chapter: Chapter 02