* * *
The next day, I was determined to find Gamut as soon as he was up for the day. I had to tell him I would be leaving and couldn’t be in any romantic relationship. We could be friends and nothing more. I didn’t know exactly how to go about it but, if I didn’t tell him, I knew things could get bad. I found him in the cafeteria a couple of hours before his shift. He was sitting at a table full of people. I decided not to interrupt and remained just inside the doorway, staring at his back. After a few seconds, he turned toward me and smiled. He said something to his friends, got up, and walked toward me. They didn’t seem too interested in what he was doing, and I was suddenly very nervous. I wiped my palms on my pants.
“Hey, Sunshine,” he said, as he reached me. I didn’t answer and was too anxious to smile. “Something on your mind?” He frowned.
I nodded. “Yeah,” I managed. “Can we talk somewhere in private?”
“Yeah, sure. This way.” He led me to a room near the stairs and closed the door behind us.
I suddenly wasn’t sure if being alone with him in a tiny, dark room was such a good idea. But he must have sensed my anxiety, because he didn’t attempt to touch me. “What’s wrong? Is it something I did?” He paused. “It was the kiss, right?” I didn’t answer. “I knew it. I’m sorry, I’m moving too fast. Are you mad at me?”
I finally answered. “Mad at you? No… it’s just… We—I, um… Sheesh, I’m always getting flummoxed here. Uh, what I’m trying to say is it’s not really a good idea to see me in that way, to feel the way you seem to feel about me. We shouldn’t act this way around each other, we’re not… Can’t we just…” I paused, shaking my head, trying to put a coherent thought together.
He laughed slightly. “Hm, you’re kinda cute when you’re ‘flummoxed’.”
“See! That’s exactly what I’m talking about! You can’t feel this way about me—”
“Haylee. I can’t help the way I feel. I can’t change that. It’s not something I can controll. It’s just something I feel. I don’t know why or how, I just do. And not only can I not change that, I don’t think I want to,” he sounded insulted by my suggesting such a thing. “I’m not saying that I’m in love with you, or anything. Just that I like you. A lot. And I don’t really even understand how it’s possible. I do understand, however, you just want to be friends, for now. And I think I can do that. At the moment, I feel I could wait forever for you, as long as I have some shred of hope you might one day change your mind. And I do have that hope. So I’m willing to be your really good friend in the meantime. Now, I’m not promising I won’t kiss you again. It seems I can’t fully control myself around you. Sorry, I’m just being honest. But I’ll do my best. Okay? Does that suit you?”
I could hear the smile in his voice, at the end of his little speech, and it made me smile a little too. “Yeah,” I said in relief. “That could work for me. I just have one other thing to tell you. Just hear me out… Don’t hope too much, I don’t want to let you down… to hurt you. Because I will be leaving, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. I have to go home. I can’t stay here forever, no matter how many great people I meet.”
“You think I’m great?” he asked, teasing.
“You heard what I said, right?” I asked, exasperated.
“Relax, relax. I heard you and I understand what you’re saying. We’re friends right now and that’s all that matters, okay? No worries. I don’t want to waste what little time we have together, so let’s forget about the tension.” He placed his hand on my back and led me toward the door, which I still could barely make out even once my eyes had adjusted. “Come on, let’s go. Have you eaten anything today?”
“I ate quickly this morning. I’m not hungry right now. Thank you.”
He opened the door and ushered me out into the hall. No one seemed to notice us, and I was grateful. “Alright. How’re your muscles today? Are you sore?”
“Well, it’s not as bad as I expected… I’ll live.”
“Good to hear it. Hey, I’ve got a few things to do before my shift. Will you come by later? Spend some time with me up front?” He looked hopeful.
And maybe I should have said no but, “Sure. I think I’m supposed to meet with Sabella sometime today, but I’ll come by if I can.” I couldn’t help but smile at him, as usual.
Gamut went on his way, leaving me standing alone in the hallway. That had definitely gone much more smoothly than I had anticipated. I went upstairs and found the red door. Maybe she was ready for me.
I felt a sudden urge to open it, almost a beckoning. I decided to follow that impulse and place my hand on the dull metal knob. It turned easily in my hand, and I heard Sabella’s voice as I opened the door. “Hello, dear. I’m glad you decided to come on your own. Are you ready for some more training?” I heard the welcoming smile in her voice.
I nodded, suddenly in awe of her presence. I had trouble speaking.
“Good, good. You may enter. Come on, now.”
I stepped over the threshold, as a single flame came to life. The door closed behind me.
She laughed. “It’s a little dramatic, I know. But it’s so much fun.”
I came forward and sat in the chair across from her. I could not take my eyes from the older woman’s face. Nothing about her had changed.
“Would you like to know what we will be doing today?”
I nodded and finally found my voice. “Y – yes, I would.”
“Alright. Today we will be practicing mental blocking. It’s very important, you know. Very. For a number of reasons. Alright, let’s begin as we did the other day. Just relax. It seems you won’t have very much trouble doing that… you experienced a certain amount of relief from worry only a short time ago. Very interesting. Now, if you had already been trained to block your thoughts from others, it would not have been so easy for me to see.”
I wasn’t really surprised by her ability to sense this, but I was slightly embarrassed, as I realized she would most probably know the cause. My gaze finally left her face, and I stared at my hands clasped in my lap.
She laughed a little. “Well, I suppose it’s no surprise he has reacted this way to you. He calls you ‘Sunshine,’ but I think he misunderstands why he calls you this. Also, I think you may not fully understand the implications of such a nickname. It has much more meaning today than it did in your time. The sun has become much more precious, as the Pale Ones tend to stay out of direct sunlight. I know I do not have to tell you, but be very careful where young Gamut is concerned. He has always been rather impulsive and direct, but his willingness for patience in your case is cause to be on your guard. He may not relinquish whatever claim he feels toward you.” Her voice had turned more and more serious throughout her observations. “Does Derik know of your interactions with Gamut?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. What did she mean? “I – I don’t understand… He knows I’ve spent some time with him, but beyond that there’s nothing else he should know. I’ve done what I can to defuse the situation. I think I’ve done that about as well as I possibly can. It’s really not any of Derik’s business anyway, is it?” I frowned. What made people think it was? I never acted in any way toward him to cause people to do so, at least not where anyone would see. Had he noticed my reactions to him? Was that it? Did Sabella mean he thought there was more between us than there was? No, that wasn’t possible. He most certainly didn’t feel that way toward me. And here I was thinking about it again. Maybe it wasn’t so unfounded, after all.
She laughed again, catching my attention. “Oh, child. Your mind is so conflicted. I know you did not mean for anything to happen between you and Gamut, just as you could not control your reaction to it. But I also know that you know your reactions to Derik are much more intense and follow you around all day and night. No matter who is in your proximity, your thoughts wander to him. You should take it as a sign. I have. Of course, Derik feels it too, but he is much more stubborn than I took you for.” Her look was gently reproachful.
I blinked for a moment. “Is that why you’re having him train me? Karroll says he doesn’t normally train beginners. He trains fighters, those who are most likely to be found in some sort of combat, I believe she said.” I looked at her.
“Dear girl, what makes you think you are not a fighter? Or you will not have to fight? I simply placed you with our best combatant and trainer. I have seen you will need it. Though…” She trailed off, as her eyes glazed over. “Though I am afraid the first time you are called to protect yourself, you will not be fully trained.” Her eyes refocused. “I am sorry. The time is much sooner than I expected. That is all I see.” She looked away from me for the first time since I had come into the room.
“What do you mean? I don’t understand. You saw something? Something about my future?” I sat on the edge of my seat.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I’m afraid we do not have much time to practice. So we must begin now.” She changed the subject smoothly, and I knew the topic was closed. “Let’s begin. Try to relax.”
I sat stiffly for a moment, then took a deep breath and sat back in my chair, doing my best to relax every muscle in my body, one by one.
“Good. Very good. Now, close your eyes and find the quiet and the dark. Clear your mind of everything. I know it can be very difficult. Eventually, this will be all you need to keep others from your thoughts. If you mind is clear of thought, there will be nothing for them to use against you. However, until then, you will need to focus more on blocking. Alright, stay as blank as possible. Now, begin thinking of one thing and one thing only. Something solid, hard, impenetrable. Focus intently, until you can see nothing but it. Okay? Continue focusing…” Her voice was low, almost inaudible.
Something was in front of me, only in my mind’s eye, but it seemed so solid, so real. I thought I could reach out and touch it. I couldn’t see it exactly but sense it there. I focused on it, afraid my train of thought would cause it to dissipate, until it became clearer. A large, heavy door stood before me, just like the ones at the main entrance of the compound. I didn’t move or speak, I was almost afraid to breathe. Suddenly, I felt the door tremble before me, as if something was hitting it from the other side. It startled me, and my focus slipped a bit, causing the image before me to shake violently. Suddenly, I could see a pinprick of light shining through. Was that a crack? No, I couldn’t allow it. I focused even harder and pushed against my shield. It stopped shaking and the crack had disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief and backed down for a second. A second was all it took. My focus must have lapsed enough, because suddenly my door had fallen at my feet. I felt like crying though I didn’t know why. I was shaking now, and I realized tears did roll down my face.
Then I heard her voice. “Very good, Haylee. Amazing, actually,” she sounded slightly winded, “for your first time blocking. What image were you using, do you know? What stood between your mind and mine?”
I thought for a second, my eyes still closed. I took a deep breath. “I think it was like the main doors downstairs. It fell. Can I get it back?” I asked dejectedly.
“Oh yes. No need to worry. With a little focus, it will be just as it was. You must not lower your guard. You felt as though the attack was over, so you let your guard down. That was your only mistake. Like I said, very good for your first time.” She smiled, proudly.
I opened my eyes, which were no longer watering. “Why was it so crushing? I felt as though someone died, or something, when it collapsed.”
“Well, I suppose you will know the answer when you discover exactly what the door represents to you. Once you do, it will be stronger. You are tired, are you not? Mental defense can take much more out of you than physical self-defense, at times. When you have collected yourself, we will begin again.”
In a few moments, I felt well enough to try again, so we did. After a couple of hours, I was too tired to continue.
“Each time was better than the time before. Do not worry, you will do fine. Continue your training with Derik, and I will call for you in a few days to continue here. Alright?”
“In a few days? No sooner?” I asked.
“There are things I must reflect upon and see to. This will give you more time to your physical defenses and time to recuperate from today.”
“Oh. Alright.” I got up slowly, feeling the fatigue in my body. “So, I guess I’ll see you then.” I smiled slightly and moved toward the door.
“Yes. Good luck… with your training and ‘boy troubles’ until then.” Her face was perfectly blank, as far as I could see in the dim light. Was she teasing me? I couldn’t tell. I stepped through the red door without glancing back to see her blow out the flame.
I made my way down to the cafeteria now. I was famished. When I had my bowl, I began looking for a seat. I saw Derik sitting off to one side. He wasn’t necessarily sitting alone but he didn’t seem to be sitting with the people near him. It seemed as though they had merely happened to sit nearby. Derik was off in his own world. It was interesting seeing him like that. Unfocused and distracted. I stood in one place for a long moment, faltering. I glanced around, catching sight of an empty bench near the door, and considered my options. I looked toward him again, indecisive, then straightened my back and moved to the seat next to him.
“Is it alright if I sit here?” I asked, trying to conceal any nervousness.
At first I wasn’t sure he had heard me. Then, he turned his head, a slight look of confusion on his handsome face. Dear God, this was getting bad. As if noticing every other aspect of his near-perfect body wasn’t bad enough, I had to decide he had a handsome face to boot.
“Sure, why not,” he said as he turned back to his bowl.
“Thanks.” I lifted my leg over and lowered myself to the bench. I ate nervously for a few moments before attempting to speak. “Um, so… how are the plans coming for the water expedition?”
He paused. “Fine, I guess. A group will be going out tomorrow. Looking for an old well just southeast of here.” He didn’t say anything else.
“Close to where you found me? There was one on our neighbor’s—the Logan’s—farm, I think. It would probably be about, uh… I don’t know, maybe a quarter-mile before you come to our farm from here.” I was suddenly excited. Maybe I could help after all. “Yeah!” I turned in my seat, my spoon half way to my mouth, when I set it back down. “I could find it! I know I could. I mean, I know there have been a lot of changes with the layout of the land since… well. But I’m sure I could find it.”
He stared at me for a moment, his eyebrows raised, an amused twinkle in his eyes. Then they turned serious, maybe even a little suspicious. “Are you kidding? I could never let you do that. It’s much too dangerous. Anyway, based on what you just said, I know one of us could find it. So, thank you.” He turned back to finish his food. “I’ll let the guys know the location immediately.” A moment later, he was up and gone.
I stared dismally at my own food, no longer hungry. At least I had eaten most of it before my spirits had been so completely crushed. Why had I sat down beside him, again? The answer was becoming fuzzy. I narrowed my eyes, as I remembered the look on his face. Had there been a trace of suspicion? If so, why? A thought entered my head. He didn’t think I was offering to help in a chance to run home, did he? No, that couldn’t be. Surely, he knew I wouldn’t do something like that. I had just told him I wouldn’t try to leave yet. I wanted to help out as much as possible first. No, I had only imagined the suspicion.
I tried to eat a few more bites and was somewhat successful. When I was finished, I decided I had time to visit with Gamut, as I had promised. Gamut and Grange were the only two at the door today. I was relieved. Hopefully, we could put the previous day’s scene behind us and no one else had heard about it. I wondered briefly what the rumor mill was like in a place like this but tried to keep the thought from my mind.
Gamut was as happy as ever to see me, and Grange was as indifferent as ever, which suited me just fine for the time being.
“How was your training with Sabella?” he asked immediately. “What did you learn?”
“Well, it went really well. She’s begun teaching me mental blocking.” This statement came out sounding more like a question, as I wondered how much he knew about such things.
He nodded. “Oh, yeah. I’ve had to learn a little of that with my ability. You’d be surprised by how intense it can feel at times. Sabella’s never taught me personally, but indirectly through others,” he added quickly. “When will you be going back?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure… She was kind of cryptic about it, just saying she’d call for me in a few days.” I shrugged and leaned against the wall beside him. I didn’t mention her reasons for waiting.
“Hm. Well, that’ll probably give you some more time to recoup, anyway. And more time to spend with me,” he grinned, teasingly and mussed my hair.
“Hey now.” I smiled, as I rearranged my tresses. “Yeah, that’s true, I guess. It did take a lot out of me today.” I sighed.
“You should probably get to bed early tonight. You’ve got training with Derik in the morning, anyway, don’t you?” The dim lighting didn’t allow me to see his face, but his voice held a hint of jealousy.
“Yep. I do,” I replied as nonchalantly as possible.
“Hey, maybe I should train you instead,” he said, enthusiastically. “I’ve heard he’s pretty tough. What do you say?” He gently poked me in the ribs, making me gasp.
“Gamut!” I exclaimed as quietly as I could and held his hands away from me.
He stared down at me, serious now. “I wouldn’t be too tough…”
“Gamut… don’t. You know it’s under Sabella’s say so.” I released his hands. “Besides, Derik has been fine so far…” I looked away from him, and something in the corner caught my eye. “Hey, what are those? Are they for the excursion tomorrow?” Several large cloth sacks were piled together.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah… They’re full of bottles, any container we can find with a lid, really. Most of the time, they’ll leave the empty ones by the door for the next water hunt. They’ve just got them ready for the morning.”
I stared at them for a moment, remembering my conversation with Derik and wishing I could help. But, I guess, if my directions could do just as well, I’d have to settle for that.
“What’s the matter?” he sounded worried.
“Huh? Oh, nothing really. I told Derik where a well was, or used to be anyway, said I could show them, but he’d hear nothing of it. It’s ‘too dangerous,’ he said.” I laughed a little.
“Well, it is. Too dangerous, I mean,” Gamut replied. He narrowed his eyes. “But that’s not what bothered you the most, was it? Just him saying you couldn’t go?”
I sighed. “No. Not just that.” I rolled my eyes at myself. “It’s probably just nothing, I’m being silly. But I almost got the feeling he thought I was going to take the opportunity to run away, to go home. When all I really want to do is help.” I flung my arms out helplessly, then dropped them back to my sides. “Like I said, silly.”
“No, that’s not silly. It’s just like him. Just like him to think the worst of someone. Everyone, really. But especially, to think the worst of someone like you. Someone so goodhearted…”
I looked at him, sadly. “You don’t even know me. How can you know whether or not I’m goodhearted? I could be a horrible person… I could—I could work for… them.” I looked around surreptitiously, hoping no one had heard.
He smiled down at me and placed a hand on either side of my face. “But you don’t. I know. Anyone who couldn’t see that as soon as they laid eyes on you is either blind or stupid, or both.” He laughed a little. “You’re too… I don’t know—something—to have anything to do with them.” He was completely serious now. “I don’t have a term for it, but you’re too light for that. It’s obvious in everything you do, everything you say—holy ball of fire, this sounds incredibly corny, doesn’t it?” He seemed surprised.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, it kinda does,” I said.
He took his hands away. “Sorry ‘bout that…” He smirked a little.
“Quite alright. Everyone deserves a relapse now and again. How ‘bout we just talk about something else?”
“That sounds golden…”
So, we spent some time asking each other questions about our lives growing up and about ordinary things. Of course, I began to see ordinary things for me were quite different from ordinary for him. He had never experienced many of the things I had, such as chocolate ice cream. And, while I was taking piano lessons, he was learning to defend himself against monsters. Not the under-the-bed variety but the real kind. The steal-your-life-force, kill-your-beloved-aunt-who-raised-you kind of monsters. By the time I was having trouble keeping my eyelids open, we had learned quite a bit about each other.
He didn’t kiss me that night, and I dreamed of a life I had not lived. A life full of fear and running and fighting and confinement. A life I was sure I could not have survived, if I had lived it. I awoke with that certainty and the conviction I could never belong in a world like that.