Chapter 1

A light breeze fluttered over the field of tall grass that bordered the rural homes surrounding Kira’s property. She lay perfectly hidden in the recent bedding ground of the local deer. The soft stalks embraced her, brushing against her skin with every breath of wind. Fluffy, white clouds raced across the brilliant, blue sky. Kira closed her eyes, gently breathing, smelling the sweetness that accompanied the air of the oncoming spring. The official start of her favorite season was only days away. The sun chased away the goosebumps appeared on her olive skin. The air was getting warmer, but it wouldn’t be hot for some months. Summer was going to be excruciating, if their streak of unusual heat was any indication.

She lifted herself up, the sun now much lower in the sky, cast intricate shadows through the tree line upon the surface of the field. The grass tickled her bare feet as she turned back toward the tree line that ran along the perimeter of her home. Her small forest was silent. The expanse covered her family’s property, which spread over ten acres. None of the land was cultivated, unlike most of the surrounding area.

The soil beneath her feet was cool and soft, the recent rains had soaked the ground. All around her, the air was filled with the lingering sharp scent of winter, but it smelled like home. The shadows were still cold, but in the sun it was heavenly. There was a dusky hint of smoke in the distance. Soon that would all fade as spring took hold and brought plant life to the world.

There were plenty of animals left, the birds were returning already. From high perches, they serenaded the world. Squirrels darted up branches and hid in any crack they could find. There had been some larger animals returning.

Before they’d started living there the previous owners had erected a deer hunting stand. Neither she nor her mother had any desire to hunt. So it had served as a ‘treehouse’ when she’d been a child.

The sound of a twig snapping caught her attention, and she paused. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a solitary doe standing amongst the trees. Its ears flicked and angled towards Kira. In a delicate move, it turned its head to see her.

For a moment their eyes met.

A sudden gust of wind whipped her ashen chestnut hair around her face, blinding her for a brief moment. Branches creaked above her as the trees swayed. Had the leaves returned to their rightful places after winter, it would have mimicked the crashing of waves.

Tranquil peace filled her chest as she took a step towards the doe. Her heartbeat slowed and drummed in her ears, a hum of energy seemed to fill the air and time slowed.

When she was close enough, she raised her arm to reach out for the deer. It did not flinch away from her, she could almost feel the texture of its dappled fur. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised when the animal calmed its breathing and remained as still as stone. Her outstretched hand tingled as if an electric current of connection was flowing between her and the animal.

She took another, tentative step in the deer’s direction, then another. All the while it watched her with dark, emotive eyes. The creature’s tail was down, signaling its lack of care as it balanced on its lithe, delicate legs.

Deafening sound erupted from her pocket, breaking her concentration. The deer, now alert and alarmed, dashed off into the underbrush. It was gone in the blink of an eye as if it had never been there at all.

Kira sighed as she reached into her back pocket to pull out her cell phone. A picture of her dear friend, Lakia, with an exaggerated smile and a thumbs up, popped onto the screen. The phone’s speakers thundered Joan Jett & The Blackheart’s "Bad Reputation," a ringtone chosen by Lakia herself.

The girl sighed and gazed into the bush where the doe had disappeared. She pushed back her disappointment then accepted the call and held it up to her ear. "Hello?"

"Hey, where are you?" Lakia asked over the sound of a guitar riff blasting from her speakers. The smile was clear in her voice as she spoke to her friend.

"I’m in the woods. Where are you?" She queried, even though she had the feeling she knew Lakia’s exact location. Even from the far edge of the forest, she could hear the boom of the bass, which matched up well with the feedback from the phone.

"I’m in your driveway and you need to get your ass in my car," Lakia ordered. The background noise faded a bit, "Erin’s going to be on break soon, and I need to get my caffeine fix before class." It was a rare day that Lakia went without a café affogato with at least three shots of espresso.

Kira laughed and hung up without another word. She jogged back home between the trees. Her feet followed the trail that she’d known all her life without any effort. She leaped over the same fallen trees and dodged the half dried creek that had carved its way through the forest and to the pond down the hill from her house.

When she reached her home she grabbed her leather boots, then plopped on her front steps and pulled them on.

Sure enough, Lakia was waiting for her in the gravel driveway in her light blue car.

Lakia tilted down her color-changing sunglasses and watched Kira hop in the car. "Took you long enough." She teased and winked. The girl shook out her dark hair and leaned back in her seat. "Like the hair? I just got it done." She beamed and ran her fingers through the cropped ends which were dyed a vivid purple. Longer portions framed her sunkissed, freckled face, and bangs hung down between her eyes.

"Wild as usual, but it fits you," Kira replied with a smile. She examined herself in the visor mirror. Her cheekbones were slightly pinkened from her nap in the sun and speckled with dirt. She used the sleeve of her pullover sweater to wipe the grit off. Her light brown eyeshadow smudged under her hazel eyes, creating a smokey effect. It was rare she wore makeup, but when she did, she pursued natural looks. Lakia reveled in self-admiration. Unlike her long time best friend, vanity made Kira uncomfortable.

Deft fingers plucked a piece of grass from Kira’s hair. "You were laying out there staring at the clouds again, weren’t you?" Lakia asked as she flicked the debris out the window. She reached for the black mascara she kept in her cupholder. "Touch up?"

"No thanks," Kira shut the visor, unconcerned with the state of her long eyelashes. Not to mention the act of application would be brave, and possibly painful, considering the number of potholes on these farm roads. She ran her fingers through her hair, loosening the tangles. The setting sun caught her natural highlights as she shook out her hair. There was a comfortable attunement after her day out that gave her a fresh feeling of peace.

The breeze streamed in through the cracked windows before Lakia shut them. She turned off of the country road onto the evenly paved street, towards town. "Excited for your special day coming up?" The girl asked with a broad grin.

"Only if you guys promise not to get strippers. I may be turning eighteen, but I think we should start our legal debut off slow." Kira held her laughs, knowing how to get her best friend going.

Lakia smirked and chipped off some of the dark polish from her thumb. "No promises." She winked as she turned another corner onto the street that went straight to the heart of Sangamon. They passed by acres of fields that in just two months would be plowed for the annual corn or soybean crop. As they got closer to town they crossed over the Sangamon River, a low and gentle stream that glided alongside the road all the way into town.

"Sangamon is right next to the Sangamon River. Can’t miss it." Lakia joked with an exaggerated country accent.

Within minutes they were driving over old, cobblestone streets lined with historical buildings now renovated and used for boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Lakia pulled her little car into a parallel parking spot right in front of the coffee shop their friend, Erin, worked.

Kira grew excited. Nothing was better than getting together with her two best friends. They were more like her sisters. They grew up together due to their mothers being just as inseparable.

Lakia popped open the door and climbed out onto the sidewalk. She kicked the door shut, another scuff joined the myriad already marking the surface, courtesy of her rubber soles. She brushed polish chips off her jeans and then stretched out her arms.

A bell chimed as the shop’s door opened, signaling for everyone to say their greetings. The shop was busy as usual. Across the room, Erin was at the counter taking complex coffee orders and repeating them back to her co-workers. Her blonde hair tied back into a braid, further revealing her fair skin and modelesque features.

The warm, bitter scent of coffee wrapped around them in a familiar embrace. It awakened their senses and made them feel at home.

"Erin! Café affogato with three espresso shots." Lakia cupped a hand to her mouth as she shouted her order over the crowd. Her eyes, which were a unique purple in the right light, gleamed mischievously.

Erin gave out a gentle laugh and shot a bright smile toward her visiting friends, "Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. Chai tea latte, Kira?"

"Definitely! Thanks, Erin." Kira responded cheerfully.

Lakia and Kira made their way to the back corner to claim their usual booth. As they weaved their way past the bustling counter, the shop owner called over to Kira, "Hey Ki-Ki, got a new one for me?" He asked, pointing over his shoulder toward Kira’s painting that hung above the array of coffee and cappuccino machines.

Painted with vivid oil, the landscape was a place far away from Sangamon’s natural reality. In the foreground was a rich forest with trees larger than redwood. A complimenting cobalt sea accented the background and brought a sense of dynamism. In the upper left corner was the small form of a citadel. The bastion stood sentry atop a great cliff looking over the sea. Moonlight basked the painting with brilliant silvers. A perfect final touch.

Because of the natural beauty held in this faraway land, it had been easy to sell. Kira had dozens of paintings stored away in her portfolio. She had slaved over them for the last years. Most of her scenes depicted landscapes she had seen only in her dreams. These places, she wasn’t sure if they were real or all in her head.

At one point, the ethereal imagery had given her endless streams of inspiration. They’d given her the perfect chance to build her portfolio so she could apply for art school. However, things had drastically changed. Inspiration was dwindling due to insomnia and a thick artist block.

"Not today, Mike. Soon, though, I promise." She said with a forced smile, struggling to speak over the elderly men that sat at the counter for their afternoon gossip. Lakia grabbed her wrist and pulled her friend towards their table.

The girls slipped into the booth and made themselves comfortable.

"So what’s up with the twigs in your hair? Grass I can understand, but did you just roll everywhere?" Lakia asked as she slid the sugar shaker across the table between her open hands. "I know you were out in the woods, but you were definitely rocking the ultra wild child look." The dark haired girl teased.

Kira sighed and shook her head, a passive smile appeared on her face. "We both know you’re more of a wild child than I am." She countered.

Lakia put a hand on top of the sugar to still the container. "Hmm." She said and tapped her lips with a finger. "That would be a true statement. Thanks for noticing." She winked.

"You’re welcome," Kira said and folded her hands on the table.

Lakia placed the sugar where it belonged and leaned onto her elbows. Her face was much closer to her younger friends. "But, no, seriously. What’s up with you being out in the woods more than usual lately?" Her purple eyes scanned Kira’s expression. "When was the last time you painted something? I’m worried about you."

Before Kira could respond she spotted a delicate figure approaching the booth. She wore a pristine, white short-sleeved button-up shirt, and a blue-jay colored skirt. Over her skirt she wore a black apron, tucked inside the pockets were straws, napkins, a dish towel, notepad, and pen. In her hand, she carried three steaming drinks.

"Hello!" Erin sang in her near perfect soprano voice as she sat down, divvying the beverages between the three friends. "How is everybody’s day?"

Kira couldn’t help but smile. "It’s been good." She said and wrapped her fingers around her warm mug. "How about you?"

"Work’s been good, finding time to do homework is… fun." The girl beamed. "Ya’ know, between the eight-hour shifts every day." She giggled and rested back in her seat. The second she looked comfortable she jumped up, throwing her hands up. "Not that I’m complaining! I love this place." She tossed her long flaxen hair behind her shoulder.

"Oh yeah, school is super fun." Lakia rolled her eyes. "There’s a reason I’m not working right now. Most importantly, are you forgetting something?" Lakia asked, making exaggerated gestures. She posed, her hands framing her pixie cut, each one emphasizing the bright colors in her hair.

"Oh my gosh!" Erin gasped, her hands flew to her mouth then gripped the table tight. Pink flushed her otherwise alabaster skin. "I’m so sorry I did not see when you walked in! I’m sorry! You look amazing, Lakia, really. The purple rocks, and makes your eyes pop-"

"Chill." Lakia interrupted, putting a finger over Erin’s thin lips.

Erin chuckled and twirled a lock of her blonde hair. "Sorry," she smiled then pressed her hands across her apron to flatten it. "What did you guys do today?" Her bright blue eyes flashed in excitement.

Lakia looped a finger around her cup and lifted it to her lips. "This." She said through a sip of ice cream laced espresso, and pointing at her hair. "A certain someone was going to tell me why she hasn’t been accessing her artsy mojo. Especially considering when she has two stunning muses like us." Her eyes flashed as caffeine began to course through her system.

"I thought she mostly painted forests," Erin muttered. Her head popped up as a thought entered her mind. "I still can’t thank you enough for the one you did for my birthday last month!"

Kira smiled. "It was no problem, eighteen is a big year." The girl looked over at Lakia and said, "And Erin is right. I paint forests, thus my need to spend time in the forest. You can’t rush the process, Lakia." Kira finished, taking a tentative sip of her chai tea latte, refusing to look her friends in the eye. She felt guilty keeping secrets from two of the most important people in her life, but she knew she wasn’t ready to reveal anything she herself did not fully understand.

Lakia took a sip of her drink and snorted. "Sure." She drew out the word then laughed. The girl looked over at Erin. "Oh, yeah, dude! I have to tell you the thing!" She shifted her foot below her in her seat and pressed her hands into the table.

"What thing?" Erin asked, tilting her head.

Kira held her cup in front of her face to disguise the confused look that had taken hold. She glanced between her two friends and waited for her now caffeinated friend to further explain.

The purple haired girl grabbed Erin’s hand, her eyes were wide and full of energy. "You know. The thing!" She repeated and struggled for the right word. "Last night, it happened again. It was a bit different this time, but--"

"Oh! Would you look at that? How is my break over so soon?" Erin interrupted. She stood, taking away Lakia’s empty cup. "You should really relax with the caffeine, Lakia. You won’t sleep tonight." Erin chuckled and wiped the table with the cloth she kept tucked in her apron.

"You still have fifteen minutes," Kira stated as she watched Erin nervously clean their near spotless booth.

Lakia now sat utterly silent, fiddled with the sugar container off to the side once again. She looked a bit like a puppy who knew that it had done wrong.

Kira pushed her cup away, and faced forward, "What’s going on?"

Erin and Lakia made eye contact, and Kira could have sworn Lakia shook her head towards Erin. Erin stood wide-eyed and frozen at Kira’s side.

"Erin…?" Kira reached out toward her friend.

"Oh, fine! It’s my fault." Lakia threw her hands in the air, beaming down at Kira, "I nearly spilled the beans on a surprise we have planned for your birthday. You know how Erin gets when a surprise is spoiled." Lakia laughed, gesturing toward her blonde friend, and leaning back in the booth.

Erin remained still, and took a breath, smiling she smoothed out her apron, "I just want to be sure Kira has a special birthday." Erin’s sapphire eyes connected with Kira’s. Erin’s sincerity stifled her curiosity, but Kira could sense there was more.

Lakia grasped Kira’s shoulders and shook them lightly, "See! Relax Ki-Ki. Come on, let’s get you home. I’ve got class soon." The girls scooted out of the booth and each exchanged an embrace with Erin before departing.

Kira hopped into the passenger side. Outside, Lakia used her thumb to rub off some of the scuff marks on her driver door, she joined Kira and started up her engine. When the key turned her music began to blare. It rattled the windows until they rolled down, letting the night air rush in, sending a slight chill down Kira’s spine.

The motor revved as Lakia sped off through town.

The wind tore through the open windows, their hair whipping around, striking their faces. The night time bugs chirped from somewhere in the darkness.

The silence between them became their newest companion. Kira pressed her fingers together and nibbled her lip. Her friend didn’t so much as glance over more than a few times. It was clear to Kira that there was something going on in Lakia’s mind, but she wasn’t sure what.

She wanted to say something, but the words were stuck on her tongue. She sighed and looked out the window. Beyond the trees, the sun had begun to paint the sky rich pinks and oranges. A midnight blue sky began to descend on the rural midwest, and Kira admired the emerging diamonds above. Within the next few months the crickets would emerge and fill the warming nights with their song.

When they pulled into Kira’s driveway Lakia switched off the music out of respect. "Here we are." She said and leaned back. The girl absently flecked off more polish off her thumb until it was completely bare.

"Guess Mom’s not home yet," Kira said, glancing up at her still, dark two story farm house. "Well, have fun in class." Kira chuckled, knowing Lakia wouldn’t.

"Tell Aoife I said hi," Lakia said with a yawn.

Kira nodded. "Of course." She began walking towards her front porch, stopping on the stairs to wave Lakia a goodbye.

"Three days!" Lakia called out the window, shooting a smile and a wave toward Kira. She turned the car around. Her taillights disappeared into the darkness. Kira stood on her front porch watching in silence long after Lakia was no longer visible. She closed her eyes to listen to the crickets and feel the comforting breeze graze against her skin.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up, interrupting her tranquility. Her eyes shot open to scan the acres of land before her. In the dark she saw the figure of a doe standing before her, silhouetted by the last burning light of the horizon.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2