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Author's note: Hope you enjoy! If you want to read the next chapter just post me a comment and I will. ^_^
The sign swung back and forth in the chill wind with a squeaking noise like it hadn’t been oiled for years. Once it had slowed to a gentle back and forth motion, she read the faded gold letters on the wood background.
MATCHMAKER’S MANSION- the elegant letters spelled out on the sign. Hesitantly, she looked to the door that it hung over.
Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. Asha shuffled in place, glancing at the door again. Yes, I am mad at my ex-boyfriend but is that reason enough to enter the creepy-looking place? The windows were covered with dust so that she couldn’t see through and the mint-colored paint was peeling off the front door in long strips.
NO! I have to prove him wrong- prove to him that I am capable of reeling in someone other than him. I don’t need him anymore, and I can find someone 500 times better.
With her courage boosted by her self-lecture, she strode over to the door and turned the door handle. She expected a huge creak like the sign over the door, but instead the door didn’t make a sound. It opened easily into a room dimly lit by a myriad of small candles strategically placed so that the entire room glowed. The scent of roses tickled her nose, the room perfectly warm compared to the biting cold of outside.
As she unwound her scarf from around her neck to let herself breathe better, she spotted a white velvet chair sitting before a desk. At the desk sat a man in an extravagant red wine suit that looked like it belonged in the Victorian era along with the white chair.
“Come right in, miss, wouldn’t want you to catch cold on this blustery morning,” he said in a pleasant tone, but all she could think was- Who talks like that nowadays? –and- I like his accent.
The door was already closed, so she took a few steps forward. He motioned her to come closer with a waving hand and she obeyed. She lowered her thawed-out self into the white chair, feeling like she was dirtying it by sitting on it.
“Well, since this is the Matchmaker’s Mansion, I can presume what you are here for. You’ve come for a match…correct me if I’m wrong,” he leaned forward on his elbows. The candlelight bounced off of his gelled hair, making it extremely shiny.
“You are 100% correct, sir,” she smiled despite the fact that her heart was shivering with uneasiness.
“Right then, I suppose you’d like to fill out a form then. Here are the papers,” he dropped a stack of papers in front of her on the desk that made her mouth gape wide open. “Once you’re done— ring the bell. Our master matchmakers will go through every one of your answers and I will notify you in letter form when we have found the choice few that will most likely be your match. From there the fun begins.” He rubbed his hands together. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he rose from his chair and before a single word could escape her mouth—he was gone.
She looked down at the stack of papers, having the sick feeling that a schoolgirl gets looking at her homework. Might as well get started. She pulled a feather pen from the marble cup on the desk and read the first line:
Would you be willing to die for the person you loved?
With her backpack slung over one shoulder, Asha reached into the mailbox to pull out a handful of advertisements and letters. As she walked up the porch steps, she shuffled through them, letting out a cry of excitement when she saw one labeled Matchmaker’s Mansion.
Dropping her backpack inside the door, she tore it open to read:
Your presence is requested at 4’clock tomorrow evening to meet the three persons we have chosen to be capable of being your match. But only you can decide who the lucky man will be. –Matchmaker’s Mansion.
Hugging it to her chest, she twirled. Her heart fluttered with the idea of meeting true love. Sure, she was only seventeen…but a seventeen year old could still dream of being a princess swept off her feet! Couldn’t she?
She slowed her twirling to stop by the dining room window, looking out into a drizzle of rain.
The first question of the Matchmaker’s Quiz still burned fresh in her mind, warning her that perhaps what she was doing still wasn’t a good idea.
Asha stood before the door again, her eyes fixed to the doorknob. Nobody knew what she was doing—nobody knew where she was. She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of home. Her mom was at home reading a book in the Lazy Boy, thinking she was upstairs doing her homework like the good little girl she’d always been…until now.
With a guilty feeling sitting at the bottom of her stomach, she turned the doorknob and stepped into the same candlelit room. The same man sat at the desk, his hair slicked back with gel. He waved a white gloved hand that matched his white suit.
“Hello again, miss. You apparently received our letter since you are here.”
Asha sat down on the edge of the white velvet chair, the feeling of being dirty mixing with her guilt.
“From now on you must call me Shaun,” the man smiled, his white teeth sparkling in the dimness of the room.
“Then, Shaun,” she smoothed her sweaty palms on her long wool coat. “What are we doing today?”
The man clapped his hands. “I’m so glad you asked. Today we have three young men who are eager to meet you…but unfortunately you will not be able to “see” them. You will hear them. Come this way, please,” he stood up from his chair, the long coattails of his white suit jacket falling to the backs of his knees.
Asha moved around the desk to follow him through a curtained door into a long hallway. Mounted candlesticks lit the small passageway between the gray brick walls.
They must bring only skinny people down this hall, Asha thought, turning sideways a little.
“As you know already, I am not the owner of this place, but rather the clerk. I will always be in the front room and will guide you to the places to which your matchmaking sessions will be held in,” Shaun said as they turned down a different hallway leading off of the main one they had been walking down. He stopped at a polished oak door, turning to see if she was still behind him.
“Will the matchmaker be with us during the sessions?” she asked, her eyebrows pinching together in worry.
Shaun smiled, “Very rarely do people ever get to meet their matchmaker. Instead the matchmaker assigns quizzes for every day. In order for you to continue with your sessions you must pass the quiz…along with your partner.”
“But how do they know if we pass or fail if they aren’t with us during the session?” she said as Shaun took hold of the door handle in front of them.
“Trust me…they know,” he said without looking at her. Asha’s confidence shrank to the size of an apple seed. What if she didn’t even pass her first quiz? What would she have to show to her ex-boyfriend. He had only given her a few months to prove her capabilities in getting a new boyfriend. And if she didn’t…well…
“Don’t worry so, miss,” Shaun put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You did excellent on your first quiz. We’ve never had a client fill out every single question before.”
He gently propelled her forward into the room, closing the door behind them. Asha laughed lightly, “I have to admit though, it took FOR-EVER!”
“Yes, well,” he led her to a red velvet seat before a wall that was entirely a mirror. “The longer the quiz is, the more we know about you and who would be the best partner for you.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Asha said as Shaun handed her a white headset that she put over her ears and wiggled the microphone around so that it was off to the side of her lips.
“Very good,” Shaun stepped back to take a look at her. “Now I’m going to exit and when I do the first young man should come on. Don’t be afraid and talk your heart out. I will be back when your session is over. Have a splendid time,” Shaun smiled and clapped his hands. Asha smiled back but there was a weakness in it.
She watched his whiteness disappear out the door and waited silently in the velvet chair, looking at herself in the mirror.
“Hello…hello?” she whispered in the mic, pressing the headphones to her ears to help her hear any noise that might come through.
“HELLO, WOMAN I DO NOT KNOW,” a deep voice echoed through the headphones and Asha flinched, shivering in her seat. “Wait.” She heard someone tap a mic, “Is this even on?” A boyish voice came through the headphones. “This better be on, because I hate talking to myself, it gets very boring.” The boy must’ve been talking to someone else because his voice faded in and out like he kept turning away from the microphone.
Asha swallowed the lump in her throat, “Hello?” her voice was a little shaky and she hoped she didn’t sound as frightened as she was.
“Hey, I heard something!” the boy’s excited voice bounced. “If you’re there, say, ‘Chase is the awesomest guy in the universe.’”
Asha obeyed, saying it a little stronger this time, “Chase is the awesomest guy in the universe.”
“GAH!” the mic made a weird noise from his exclamation. “I love her already—she’s so cute! Can I marry you?” Asha could feel his boyish energy through the headphones.
Without even realizing it, her fear had dissipated into the air, a huge smile on her lips.
“So…you’re name is Chase?” she nearly whispered instead of answering his proposal question.
“Sure is—what’s your’s?” Chase asked back.
“Aa-shuh, Ash-uuuuh,” he tried to pronounce her name in different ways, putting the emphasis in a different place every time. But his final pronunciation of her name was entirely emphasized, “AAASHHHUUHH!” he said dramatically in a deep booming voice like he was announcing her on stage.
Asha giggled, feeling her heart beat a little faster every time he said her name.
“It’s very pretty, just like your voice,” Chase said sweetly. The compliments seemed to just roll off his tongue, and she couldn’t imagine him saying anything mean ever with his smooth tenor voice.
“Hey, Asha, can you see me?”
“No, all I see is a mirror. Can you see me?” Asha said, looking all around for a camera.
“I can kinda see you…are you sitting on a chair and wearing a black winter coat?” Chase spoke slowly as though he were trying to focus on something and wasn’t sure if he was correct or not.
“Yes, how did you know?” Asha’s voice rose with excitement. Perhaps she would get to see him after all today.
“Can you walk forward? If you can…come to the mirror.”
Asha obeyed, walking straight up to the mirror. But the only thing that looked back at her was her boring brown eyes.
“So close, yet so far away,” Chase’s sad voice floated through her headphones. “Could you please put your hand out and touch the mirror?”
Asha reached out and placed her left palm on the mirror. On the other side of the mirror Chase had his hand against the mirror, right over her hand. “Gah!” Chase exclaimed, “Our first touch. Oh gosh, I’m blushing.”
Asha laughed at his silliness and Chase joined in, sounding adorable. Chase suddenly stopped laughing, and so did Asha, wondering what was wrong. “Oh, Asha, I have to go now. Your next dude is coming in soon, and you can’t fall in love with him. After all, I saw you first.”
“Ok,” Asha nodded, though she doubted he could see it very well.
“You’ll like me no matter what I look like, right?” Chase’s voice rose with concern.
“Of course I will. It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” Asha tried to comfort him with her soft tone.
“You better come back, ok? I’ll be really angry and depressed if you don’t,” and with that last sentence he was gone. Asha squinted her eyes, but it didn’t help any, she couldn’t see through to the other side.
Asha waited in silence, wondering how long it would be until the next “dude” arrived.
“Hello, Asha. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,” a deep harmonious voice, one that would be used for advertizing a romantic honeymoon resort, spoke into her headphones.
“Oh, hello…” Asha said hesitantly, not quite sure what to make of the new person. Chase’s energy still tickled at her brain.
“I have to say that when I read your answers to the Matchmaker’s Quiz, I thought, ‘Why has a pure white rose come here?’ Honestly, your answers were average, sometimes boring, but perhaps over time your true colors will show. After all, white is composed of all the colors.”
“Uh…I didn’t know that,” Asha fiddled with the silver buttons on her jacket as her heart sank.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you uneasy,” his voice softened.
“It’s all right. We’re both learning,” Asha offered a weak smile to the mirror.
“Do you still wish to know my name, or will I not be seeing you again? My first impressions are always terrible,” his voice was thick with emotion and her heart caught in her throat from the way his voice gently flowed into her ears.
“I still wish to see you,” Asha said, then quickly hurried to say, “In my eyes your colors are all black—unknown—and I too want to know your true colors.”
She heard his deep chuckle and wondered if he was laughing at her.
“The name is Everett, but please…call me Ever. And thank you for your kindness to this poor soul.”
“No problem, Ever,” she smiled for real this time.
“I must go now, but I’ll look forward to your return,” Ever said.
“See you soon, white rose.”
Asha blushed, feeling his deep voice brush against her heart.
Once he was completely gone, several minutes passed. Worried, Asha tapped her foot against the marble floor in a steady rhythm.
She couldn’t take the silence any longer. “Hello? Hello?” she said into the mic. It echoed in her headphones. “Heellooo, hello,” she said in a singsong voice.
She flinched at a hissing voice that responded faintly, “Talk to the girl.” Then silence. “Talk to her now.” There was the sound of a chair toppling over and a few grunts of pain. “Say something and then we’ll go,” the hissing voice said again.
She heard the faint sound of heavy breathing, then a raspy voice spoke, “Don’t come back…ever.”
Asha cringed, taking in a deep breath of scentless air.
“I’m sorry, miss,” a man’s voice said. “Your session is going to be a little short than planned. I’ll be right over to take you back to the front room. Again, I’m sorry for the trouble.”
Asha didn’t respond—that one sentence that the third boy had said still rang through her mind.
Don’t come back…ever.
She was in a daze for the rest of the evening, only remembering being led out of the room to the front room. Vaguely, she remembered writing down “yes” on a paper, but she couldn’t recall what the question on the paper had been.
That night, lying in bed with the cover’s wrapped tight around her, the same sentence rang through her head.
Don’t come back…
“It’s so good to see you again,” Shaun clapped his hands together, a short lock of his gelled bangs bouncing over his forehead.
“Yes, well,” Asha shifted on the white chair. Her heart was battling with her mind, arguing whether she should leave or stay.
“Oh, and look at the results of your last quiz. They’re excellent! Oooo….except for the last boy…but that wasn’t your fault.” Shaun’s eyes roved over the papers he held in his hands. He shuffled a few. “And you said at the end of your last session that you wanted all three of the boys back today. I hope you’re excited.” He slid a paper across the desk towards her and handed her a pen, which she took.
A single line sat in the middle of the white paper. “I grant any of the partners assigned to me permission to kiss me.”
A shocked Asha looked up at Shaun with wide eyes.
“We have to warn you ahead of time. Some people don’t like to be kissed without notice.” He smiled warmly.
“Oh,” Asha said, not being able to find anything else to say. She swore she was cursed with a tongue-tied disease whenever she stepped into Matchmaker’s Mansion.
She read the sentence one more time and signed on the line beneath it.
“Very good, I’ll lead you to your room then,” Shaun said, quickly putting her signed paper in a business folder.
Through the curtained door they went, weaving in and out of brick-walled corridors that smelled of wet stone until they stopped at a door with a golden sun engraved into its woodwork.
“This,” Shaun said as he pushed the door open, “is the Sun Room.” A wave of fragrances poured out of the room.
Asha gasped at the sight of the floor-length windows and the flowers so bountiful they were nearly spilling out of their flowerbeds. On little raised islands of marble, the flowers sparkled with dew drops in the rich dirt.
“Wow, it’s so beautiful! This place looks like it could be in Heaven,” she twirled in the sunlight streaming through the windows, looking up at the ceiling painted blue with puffy white clouds.
“Yes, it does seem that way,” Shaun said as she bent over to smell a patch of red roses. “But we have a quiz to complete and only so much time to complete it. Please take a seat on this bench.” He pointed with his entire hand at a stone lover’s bench. Its rock surface was warm from the sun and the heat soaked into her cold legs when she sat down on it.
“Now don’t be alarmed. I have to blindfold you,” he produced a long white clock from his suit pocket.
“But why?” she said as he tied it behind her head, unintentionally catching a few of her brown hairs in the knot. The flowers vanished from her view, only seeing the cloth.
“Because the results of this quiz will only be determined correctly if you have not met or seen your three partners.”
Asha sighed. “When will I ever get to finally see them?”
“Patience, miss. It will be soon enough. Can you see my hand?”
“Only a faint shadow,” she said.
“Very good. I’ll send them in soon. Expect three kisses, one from each. Afterwards we’ll collect information on your feelings toward each one. I’ll be leaving now.” She heard his shoes clap on the polished stone as he walked over to the door. The door opened and shut with a thud and once again she was alone. But not for long.
She stiffened at the sound of a soft patter on the floor and a shadow darkened in the blindfold over her eyes. His presence was nearly overwhelming. She could feel the way he held his rigid back, his body resonating with power.
Slowly, he leaned forward, pausing a few inches away. His minty breath caressed her skin, which had formed goosebumps from his closeness. Her heart beat rapidly, almost near ready to explode.
Leaning forward just a little, her lips met his. His lips were soft against hers, becoming gentler as he deepened the kiss. His kisses were so light as though he were afraid that if he kissed her too hard that she would shatter. Asha’s mind buzzed with electricity, but slowly he pulled away, his gentle warmth receding into the shadows. His only remnant was a minty smell that hung in the air.
Asha was left feeling confused. He had been willing yet withdrawn at the same time.
Before she even had time to recover from the last kiss, a pair of lips aggressively pressed against her’s, then softened. He pulled away a little, then when he went back for more, teasing her by flicking his tongue over the edge of her bottom lip. Asha’s heart did a flip, wishing she could rip off her blindfold and jump into his arms. But the kiss slowed and he ended it with a soft kiss to the corner of her mouth.
She smiled once he had completely pulled away, relishing the sweetness that lingered on her lips and brain. Little sparks bounced up her arms and she shivered them away.
Pausing, she felt a new presence in the room, a dark and mysterious mood. It neared and connected with her when his finger turned her chin up. His lips descended, lightly touching her’s, and then pounced, nearly devouring her lips.
Asha never thought someone could tell who “the one” was through a kiss, but as his soft lips moved over her’s…she felt like they were two opposite magnets locked together by a powerful force. Fireworks exploded in her head, making her feel as light as a cloud. And she literally found herself floating upward—rising from her seat to push deeper into the kiss. They didn’t miss a beat as she stood up on her tiptoes, his chest warm beneath her hands. Their hearts thumped a million times per second, lips working in perfect synchronization.
All of a sudden, when the kiss was nearly at its climax, he broke away, leaving her breathless and in slight shock. She stood there, missing his hard chest under her hands and his passionate kiss. Standing all alone she couldn’t handle the mystery any longer, she ripped off the blindfold to find herself alone in the Sun Room, the dying sun hovering above the horizon through the window.
She slowly licked her lips, the pressure still fresh on them along with the taste of strawberries. Sighing deeply, she wondered which of the three boys he was. She would find him somehow…
Asha absentmindedly swirled her dish towel over the dripping plate.
“Asha, are you alright?” her mom looked over at her with an alarmed expression. “You’ve been drying that same plate for the past few minutes and it still isn’t dry.”
Asha snapped out of her daydream to realize what she was doing. She laughed guiltily, “Sorry, mom.” She put the dish down and took a new one from the drying rack. “Mom?”
“Yes?” she said as she leaned over the sink, stray locks of her brown hair hanging over her tired face.
“How did you know that dad was truly “the one?” Asha tilted her head.
“Well,” her mom said, pulling off her rubber gloves and laying them on the edge of the sink. “I’m not really sure there was a certain moment…it was more like an instinct.” She handed Asha another wet plate. “But there was that one thing that sealed it all, like everything just clicked.”
“What was it?” Asha leaned forward, ready to absorb her every word.
“A kiss,” her mom smiled, gazing out the kitchen window into the night. “And he wasn’t even a good kisser,” she laughed lightly, but her eyes were misty.
Asha quickly put down the plate and enveloped her mom in a tight hug. “I miss him, too, mom. But he’ll be back soon. Right after he gets enough money and finds a job closer to us.” She squeezed her mom a little tighter.
Asha licked her lips, remembering the three kisses from two days ago. She could still taste the strawberries from the last kiss.
As Shaun looked over her papers, she examined his desk. Off to the left she noticed a glass model of a man.
“What is that?” she pointed to the glass miniature of a man standing on his desk.
“That, miss, is a Deum,” he picked up the glass model. “This here,” he pointed to something floating inside of the glass. “is the love demon that inhabits a Deum.”
“That is so strange. Can I see?” she took the glass model from his outstretched hand. She looked through the foggy glass to a floating ball inside of the man. The ball was a purplish color with threads of black surrounding it. She looked closer and noticed that inside the ball a light was pulsing every so slowly as though it were alive.
“So they’re like demon-possessed humans?” Asha said as she put the glass man back.
“You are correct…but they’re only folklore just like werewolves and elves and other such things. I’m very fascinated with them in the same way that many people in our culture today are drawn to werewolves and vampires.”
“Ahh…” Asha said, nodding her head.
“Well,” Shaun stood up, “shall we take you to your session?”
She smiled and nodded. Following behind him, she focused on his red velvet suit, watching the tails of his jacket flap back and forth as he walked. The air chilled her face as they walked down the corridors and she wished she could go back to the Sun Room again.
Shaun stopped and turned to look at her. “Today you finally get what you’ve been so patiently waiting for. You get to meet them!” He opened the door before them, but all inside was pitch-black. She looked back over her shoulder at Shaun, who had stepped in with her. “Just wait- you’ll see.”
She flinched when a bright light flashed down into the center of the room, illuminating the person standing there. His blonde hair was nearly white with the light. Another ray of light burst on at the left for her to see the figure of a tall person, the light bouncing off the tips of his spiked hair. When the last light on the right shone down, she could only see a shadow, like a black piece of paper had been cut out of the light in the shape of a man.
The whole room gradually brightened and the white spotlights faded to leave the room at a golden glow. Before her eyes, in the center of the bare room stood three teenage boys all dressed up in matching black suits.
“Asha!” The middle one raced across the room to her, enveloping her in a quick squeezing hug. He let her go, keeping his hands on her shoulders to hold her out at arm’s length. “You’re just like I imagined!” Chase smiled, the slight gap between his two front teeth only making his smile cuter. A mixture of caramel, honey, and pale blonde hair curved across his forehead to cover his right eye. The seeable eye, a blue-green color, sparkled with happiness.
As she gazed up into his tan face, she had to wonder why he had been worried about her not liking him because of his appearance—he was absolutely stunning.
Her eyes drifting down, she noticed his disheveled appearance—his untucked white shirt underneath his black suit jacket and his loose tie resting beneath his unbuttoned collar. She had the urge to reach out and fix everything but stayed where she was.
“Wow, you’re so short! Like a little dwarf,” Chase showed her with his hands, one at his own 5’10” and his other one lowered down six inches to her own height.
“No,” Asha smiled. “You’re just tall.”
Chase rubbed the back of his head, fluffing the shorter layers of his hair. A small silver loop jangled from his ear. “I never thought about it that way before,” his eyes widened like he had just discovered treasure and he turned to look at someone else. “Then Ever must be a giant compared to you.” He took the other person by his arm, pulling him over to squish him right next to Asha.
Asha looked up from her shoulder pressed against his arm, to his face. Ever was looking down at her with a good-natured smile. “Good to see you,” Ever said. His hazel eyes burned down into hers, entrancing her instantly.
“Wow! He is a giant! You’re not scared of him because of your height difference, are you Asha?” Chase’s visible eye saddened, loosing a few sparkles.
Asha managed to tear her eyes away from Ever to look at Chase. “No…” she looked back at Ever, her voice drifting a little. “Not at all.”
“Good, just think of him as a giant teddy bear,” Chase put his arm around Ever’s shoulders, using his other hand to ruffle Ever’s chestnut hair.
Ever pushed Chase away with an annoyed look, then tried to smooth his hair back up into its previous spiked state. He smiled when he caught Asha’s eyes looking him over.
“Don’t hurt yourself thinking too hard,” Ever said. Asha flushed and looked away, but found herself glancing at him again. She had been thinking that if there ever were such things as vampires, Ever would fit in perfectly with them—his sharp features and lean tallness, his wise old eyes in a young face, and his deep voice that spoke in an old tongue. When she looked at him she couldn’t help but have the feeling that he didn’t belong.
Realizing that there was still one more she hadn’t met, Asha willed herself to look away. Looking over Chase’s shoulder, she tried to see the last boy by standing on her tiptoes. Chase turned to see what she was looking at.
“Oh, right! You haven’t met Shay yet, have you?” He took her hand, running his thumb gently over her skin, “Our second touch…” he grinned, his face turning a little pink, “But who’s counting?” Chase led her over to where the trio had previously been standing in the spotlights. Shay stood exactly where he had been, on the right.
“Hey, Shay,” Chase bumped the guy’s arm which was holding a book up in front of his face. “Stop reading the dumb thing and start creating you own story,” Chase grabbed the book out of his hand, but Shay kept his hand poised like he was still holding the book. Above his hand, a gray eye flashed open to look down at Asha. Looking into his blank and empty eyes, Asha hoped with all her heart that he hadn’t been the third kiss. Suddenly she felt so much smaller standing in front of Shay than she had next to Ever.
“Hi, Shay,” Asha smiled, one corner of her mouth falling a little lopsided.
“Aww, see how cute she is,” Chase said, his grin the exact opposite next to Shay’s dead-pan look. Shay kept his eyes locked to Asha’s as he reached over and took the book from Chase’s hand, positioning it back in front of his face so that Asha could only see his black hair over the top of the book. Chase’s face was at first of pure shock, but then his eyebrows lowered. “Shay,” Chase said in a threateningly deeper voice. “At least say hello.”
Chase grabbed hold of Shay’s white dress shirt and shoved him back against the wall, his face inches from Shay’s. “I’m warning you, if this is how it’s going to be then—“
“Chase, calm down,” Ever suddenly appeared, laying a hand on Chase’s shoulder, but Chase wouldn’t let go of Shay’s shirtfront. Ever’s hazel eyes glanced over at Asha’s horrified expression. “Chase, Asha’s watching.”
Chase snapped out of his anger and looked over his shoulder at Asha. Immediately, he let go of Shay’s shirt, realizing what he was doing. He hung his head as he turned, his shiny variety-blonde hair covering both of his eyes, “I’m sorry, Asha.” He straightened. “My wild side gets the better of me sometimes,” he ran a hand through his hair and smoothed it in the back, smiling his apology.
“Please, forgive us,” Ever said politely and steered Chase away to a door, Chase willingly going with him like a lost and confused puppy. The door closed behind them, leaving Asha to stand before Shay all alone in an uncomfortable silence. A sweep of Shay’s dark locks covered eyes and Asha took the opportunity to look him over. Dark hair framed his face in jagged cuts, emphasizing his harsh jawline. He was the same height as Chase, but as he leaned against the wall he looked infinitely smaller.
Asha reached down and picked up the book he had been reading, dusting off its cover as she stood up. In golden letters, Romeo and Juliet decorated the cover. Glancing from the book to Shay, she couldn’t understand how the two could possibly mix. Not knowing what to do with it, she nudged the book against his dangling hand. His fingers clenched around the spine of the book and she let go.
With one final glance, she pivoted 180 degrees and exited through the door she had entered.
Shay’s eyes opened to focus on the book in his hand, trailing up to the door. With a sigh, he slid to the ground, folding his knees to his chest. “‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,’ ” he whispered, peering through the strands of his dark hair at the closed door.
“Do you want to explain what happened back there?” Ever said with his eyes focused on Shay who was slouched in his seat. In the large armchair, Shay lifted his head to nail him with his stormy gray eyes, apparently hating the confrontation.
“Yah, what’s up with you! You’ve never acted like this before.” At his outburst, Ever glanced over at Chase sitting beside him on the couch with his arms folded across his chest, his eyebrow lowered defiantly over his visible eye.
Shay, deprived of his books, had nowhere to hide and his glares proved his annoyance with Ever and Chase.
“I don’t understand, Shay,” Chase unfolded his arms to fiddle with his hands in his lap. “Usually you’re perfectly fine with outsiders, but today your attitude stinks.” Chase’s forehead furrowed with question.
Ever and Chase pinpointed Shay to the armchair. Shay’s black hair and suit blended in perfectly with the ebony armchair to the point that it looked like he had become a part of it. Only his white face stood out.
Shay leaned back further into the chair, and nonchalantly said, “I simply dislike her.”
Chase shot up out of his seat, “What’s there not to like? Name me one thing!” His pointer finger stood up out of his clenched fist for emphasis as he held it out at Shay.
Shay looked surprised for a moment at Chase’s sudden defensiveness, but covered it with an unreadable mask. “Her hair is a dirty brown color that’s always frizzy.”
Chase’s mouth formed an “O.” “That’s it?! That’s the reason why you don’t like her!” Chase started towards him, but Ever caught hold of his arm, hindering him from going any closer to Shay.
“No,” Shay said. Chase’s astounded face reflected in Shay’s grey eyes. “There’s more. She has too many freckles on her face, boring brown eyes, and a tiny stature. Overall, she resembles an irritating little mouse.” He loosened the black and white checkered scarf from around his neck, appearing bored with the whole conversation.
“How can you SAY something like that! You know her freckles make her cuter!” Chase tried to pull out of Ever’s grip, but Ever, who was afraid the suitcoat arm might rip off, held him still.
“He doesn’t want us to understand him, Chase,” Ever said in a soothing voice and Chase relaxed to look back at him. Ever’s gaze turned on Shay, “Frankly he has to lie to himself because he’s too scared to handle the truth. Hopefully Asha has enough magic to crack his thick skull.”
“Don’t cry when you find yourself helplessly in love with her then,” Chase clenched his teeth as he spoke, his eyes locked to Shay, “Because she’s mine.”
“Because you’ve officially met them, you’ll be spending the rest of your sessions in this hallway.” Shaun pointed down a long hallway, doors occasionally breaking up the ongoing brick walls. “You’re allowed only to this hallway though, none others. These angel statues are your clues as to which hallway you’re supposed to be in.” He motioned to the two standing angels, each one holding a stone rose at the end corners that led to the hallway. A brick wall at the end of the hallway revealed that it was a dead-end.
“First door on the left is where you’ll find them,” Shaun smiled and Asha walked hesitantly to the door. At the door, she turned back to see that Shaun was already gone. She lifted her hand to the doorknob and saw that her fingers were shaking. Excitement and dread pulsed through her. Clenching the doorknob, she turned it. The door opened smoothly and she stepped in.
Drapes of cream laced the red walls, a heart shaped mirror on one wall with a wreath of roses around it. The other walls were decorated with various pictures and lamps.
The center of the room held a scatter of sofas, chairs, small cabinets, and a table.
She softly shut the door behind her and stepped forward into the dim lighted room. A lamp on the wall beside her instantly brightened.
“Chase, Ahsa has arrived,” she heard Ever’s voice and squinted in the light to see where he was. The room lay still, without the stir of human life.
“Hey, Asha!” a hand waved in the air amidst the chairs. She hurried her steps till she stood behind a couch. Lying down, with his head propped up by the arm of the couch, Ever’s fingers lightly strummed the strings of his black guitar. On the other side of the couch, Chase sat on the floor with his back towards her, leaning over a low table.
Asha rounded the couch to stand next to Chase. “What’re you doing, Chase?” Asha leaned over him.
He responded several seconds later, holding up a picture for her to see. His eye watched her face intently, his mouth set in a firm line. “Do you like it?”
Asha’s eyes lit up, “Did you draw this?!”
He nodded, a smile forming on her lips from her excitement, but his eyelids still drooped like he had been up all night.
“You drew this?! Wow! Chase, it’s amazing!” she took the paper from him, staring in awe at the waist-up drawing of a girl. She had large sparkly brown eyes and long wavy brown hair. A sweet smile rested on her pink lips.
“It’s you,” Chase said. Asha’s head flew up to give him a startled look. “In anime form,” he added.
She opened her mouth a couple of times like a fish out of the water. “I…I…I don’t look like this, Chase. She’s so gorgeous.”
Chase’s eyebrow shot up. “Then…” his face brightened. “Just think of it as a picture of your inner self.”
Asha’s heart skipped a beat looking down into Chase’s serious face and innocent eye.
How could one person be filled with so much lovableness? Asha thought.
“Chase, thank you so much!” she dropped to her knees to give him a hug. A small tear threatened to escape her eyes as she thought about her ex-boyfriend. He had never said anything close to what Chase had just said.
Beside them, Ever struck a chord on his guitar and started to sing:
I’ve been awake for a while now,
You’ve got me feelin’ like a child now.
Asha leaned out of the hug to watch Ever as he strummed the chords and with his soothing voice sang more:
‘Cause every time I see your bubbly face,
I get the tingles in a silly place.
“Ever!” Chase said and punched Ever lightly in the shoulder, but he kept going.
It starts in my toes and I crinkle my nose,
Wherever it goes I always know.
“Come on, Ever,” Chase tugged on the headstock of the guitar. “You promised you wouldn’t do this again in front of girls.”
“Why?” Asha said. “I like it.” The tune was catchy and bouncy, making her want to sing along.
Ever finished with a rolling chord, “It’s the theme song I gave to Chase that describes the feelings of nearly every girl towards him.” He smiled over at Chase, a hidden secret in the smile as though there was more to the story.
As Chase gave Ever a glare that threatened him to say any more, Asha looked around the room for the one person that was missing.
“Where’s Shay?” Asha said, still looking.
“Oh…he’s in “his” spot,” Chase said, looking around to. “Over there,” he pointed to the far left corner that was darker than the rest of the room.
“What is he doing over there?”
“Oh,” Asha said, wondering how he had enough light to read the words.
“Now you draw a picture, Asha,” he slid a blank piece of paper towards her. Asha looked down at it with dread. She was a horrible artist, but… She picked up a pencil from among the myriad of graphite and colored pencils.
Glancing uneasily at Chase’s drawing, she tried to mimic the face shape he had drawn. The pencil left streaks across her paper as she tried desperately to meet his expectations. With her tongue sticking out the left side of her mouth as she focused, she added one more scratch with the pencil and straightened her back to look down at it.
She smiled, feeling she had done the few classes of art she had ever had a service of honor. Looking over it one more time, she slid it across the table to Chase. He looked down at it, his eye devouring the details.
“This is how you see me?” Chase said.
“Well, not everything can be drawn on paper, but yes, I suppose that’s the way I see you physically,” Asha said, trying to avoid any criticisms.
“You drew me with two eyes,” Chase said, holding up the paper and pointing at the two blue-green eyes.
“I know,” Asha said.
“Why?” Chase looked at her with a slightly pained expression.
“Because I know that the other one is just as beautiful as the one I’m looking into right now,” Asha smiled. A tear fell from the corner of Chase’s eye and Asha’s smile fell.
“Chase, what’s wrong?” Asha said, and gave a little yelp when Chase’s eye suddenly closed and his body started to fall backward. Thankfully, Ever managed to catch him before his head hit the ground. Asha reached out a hand to help, but flinched when an arm dressed in black blocked her way.
Shay’s eyes pierced down into her, warning her to move any closer. He turned away from her to look towards Chase. His crouched body blocked Asha’s view of Chase’s face and she leaned to the side to see around him, but moved back to her previous position when Shay looked over his shoulder at her from behind the black strands that had fallen in front of his eyes.
“He had a rough night last night,” Shay said, turning to Ever. “Thanks to her,” Shay flicked his head back to gesture in her direction.
For a moment, Asha was speechless, but then her fuming heart spat the words up, “What have I done!”
Both Ever and Shay ignored her as they sat Chase up. His blonde head rolled forward in limpness. “Chase,” Asha whispered, wanting to hug him tight. Her gaze flickered between all three of the boys as they heaved him up, Chase’s arms around their shoulders to keep him up.
On numb legs, she followed them to the door, opening it for them. Before going through the doorway, Shay paused to look over at her. His grey eyes were like daggers to her soul when he said, “You have yet to understand how love can hurt a person.”
Her breathe made a pain in her chest by her sharp intake of air. His stormy eyes stayed connected with her’s for a few more seconds until he finally walked through the door, taking Ever and Chase with him.
Asha wiggled her toes beneath the soft blanket as she stroked the lollipop back and forth over her tongue in a slow movement. Her eyes followed Ever’s fingers dancing on the guitar strings like a cat fascinated by a rolling ball of yarn. The light of evening poured in through the window to strike against Ever’s face, putting the other half in a deep shadow.
With a sigh she leaned back against the padded wall of the window seat, looking to the left into the dim room. There was no Chase to cheer her up and no Shay to bring her down. Only Ever. She turned to look at the tender expression on his face which frequently changed with the tone of the music.
Her mind drifted as she continued to stare at him. Ever is…well…Ever. He’s the one that’s in between- the one that seems to be there just to fill in the blank. Chase is the extreme of happiness while Shay is the hidden darkness. Ever is the gray between the black and white.
The guitar strings slowed till sound no longer came from them. “Asha?”
“Hmm?” she snapped out of her daze. Quickly she swiped away the drool that had leaked out of the side of her mouth due to her lollipop.
“Were you always so quiet?” he said, looking up at her with his deep hazel eyes that she felt her eyes lock to.
Asha’s mind overloaded with instant memories: her laughing loud with friends as they walked down the sidewalk together, dancing with all the boys at a middle school dance, and her dad spraying the hose at her as she screamed.
“Uh, I suppose I was a little louder back in the day,” she said, feeling a little guilty when she cut off the subject by looking out the window.
“I had a feeling,” Ever said as he strummed a chord. He kept his focus on the guitar as he spoke, “You seem like a shell with the real-live person of you living inside of you- deep deep down there. Your opinions and expressions are disconnected from your face like you’ve cut the chord attached to your heart.” He strummed louder so that his words weren’t as loud and didn’t hit her like the ton of bricks like they had. “I don’t know what your past is and I don’t know what caused you to become like this…but I just want you to know that you’ve got a brand new start here. You can be whoever you want to be…but Chase, Shay, and I—truly we only want to know the real you. So please…just be you.” He smiled, finally lifting his head for her to see his eyes deep with emotion. At the corner of his eye she saw a small tear.
He strummed his guitar and began to sing. His voice hitting her heart, and as he sang- she knew he sang it for her- but the tear…she felt was for someone else.
(I don't believe that typing out lyrics will do enough justice...so please look up "Firework (Katy Perry) Boyce Avenue" on youtube to listen to the song. ^_^ Listening to it is so much better than just reading the lyrics.)
The song stuck in her head for the rest of the day: when she walked down the hallways of Matchmaker’s Mansion, down the sidewalk, and finally to the front door of her house. As she stared up at her bedroom ceiling, she couldn’t help but feel like his words had peeled away a layer that encased her heart.
Shay’s head nodded off of the hand that held his head up. He jerked his head back up, blinking several times. Flicking his head to get his hair out of his eyes, he looked over at Chase in his bed just staring up at the ceiling. His body shook slightly beneath the covers.
“Feel better?” Shay asked as he pushed himself over on the rolling chair.
“A little,” Chase said. His hair was slick with sweat on his forehead. He managed a small smile. “A lot better than last night.” Shay frowned down at him, his thoughts immediately turning to Asha. “Don’t blame her, Shay,” Chase said, but rolled away from him when a seizure of pain made him groan.
Once Chase’s shivering had slowed, Shay said, “Do you want to watch something?”
Chase sat up in his bed, pushing a pillow behind him to support him. “Sure,” he said. A drop of sweat quivered at his chin. Shay threw a towel over his head on his way over to the TV across from Chase’s bed.
“What do you want to watch?” Shay asked, browsing the TV guide.
“Oh! Beastly is on!” Chase said and Shay looked over at him with a raised eyebrow.
“You’ve already watched it five times,” he said in a bored tone.
Chase scrubbed at his face with the towel, a red color splotching his white face. “So! Just put it on.”
Shay shrugged and obeyed, taking his seat once again on the swivel chair beside the bed. He leaned his elbow on the desk to the left of him to prop up his head with a hand, watching Chase’s face intent on the movie.
“You know...he’s just like us,” Chase said without looking over at him.
Shay’s eyes flicked to the TV screen, understanding that Chase was talking about the main character on Beastly (a modern version of Beauty and the Beast). “He should count himself lucky that he wasn’t born with it like we were," he said.
Chase folded his knees to his chest, hugging his legs tight. “True,” he mumbled and fell silent to watch the movie.
Shay scooted away to lay his tired head down on the desk, feeling his ear pressed to the desk turn cold from the surface. His gaze fell upon a picture frame standing upright at the far end of the desk. He sat up with a jerk, his eyes locked to the picture. With a hesitating hand, he reached out and lifted the picture, bringing it to sit in front of him. Old memories spiked his cold heart, bringing pain to the surface that he had kept away for so long.
“You know, Shay, even though you think that no one understands you- and you may even try to keep it that way- you’re very easy to figure out,” Ever said as he shut the door behind him and sauntered over to stand next to Shay. “All one needs is the facts.” Ever looked over Shay’s shoulder at the picture sitting on the desk and Shay turned to look at it too. “It doesn’t help that they look so alike, does it?” Ever said softly and Shay knew exactly what he meant.
Gazing at him from the picture was a small girl not but eight years old. Her brown hair was woven into two braids that rested behind her ears that stuck out slightly. Tender brown eyes stared out at him, piercing into his very soul, but all he could see in them was alarm and horror as memories blurred into the present. Blood speckled the little girl’s face like the freckles that dotted her face. His head swirled with the memories mixed in with hurt. He hadn't protected her…it was all his fault she was gone.
“Shay,” Ever gently lowered the picture of the girl till it was face down on the desk. “She’s going to keep coming back. It’d be easier just to accept it.”
Ever’s mind flew back in the past to earlier in the day when he was walking Asha to the end of the hallway. She had been lost in thought, especially after he had played her the song.
“Shay hates me, doesn’t he?” Asha turned her worried eyes to him.
Ever paused, “You remind Shay of someone very special to him, someone that’s no longer in this world.” Asha’s face fell. “But don’t let his coldness keep you away, Asha. He needs you.” Ever smiled and stopped at the end of the hallway, letting her walk the rest of the way herself. When she disappeared from sight, he stood there for a little while longer with his hands in his dress pant’s pockets. His unfocused gaze turned to the standing angels beside him. He smiled faintly down at the statue, “It’s ironic how you guard the hallway of your opposites.”
Ever’s mind came back to the present when Shay moved- crossing his arms over his chest. Through the midnight bangs that had fallen over his eyes, he could feel Shay’s glare. He really didn’t like lectures, especially when they were about his past.
Ignoring his silent attitude, Ever looked over at Chase—his variety blonde head had fallen back against the headboard, his eyes closed, mouth wide open. In his arms he hugged a purple dinosaur plushie.
“Is he over it yet?” Ever asked.
Shay followed his gaze, “It’s never lasted this long before,” his voice rasping a little like it always did when he tried to sound like he didn’t care.
“He must be serious about her then,” Ever felt a sense of pride for the younger boy, but didn’t know why. Perhaps because Chase had learned to love again…and he couldn’t.
Asha peaked through the crack into a new room. All the other rooms that she had previously been in on other days were empty. Every day it seemed as though she went further down the hall, a new door opening to new surprises.
Light poured out of the crack, blinding her one eye that she had put up to it. “Ever?” said a boyish voice that she recognized to be Chase.
“Yes?” Ever said back.
“What does ‘nefarious’ mean?” Chase said, and she opened the door wider to stick her head in. Ever sat on the edge of a blue sofa, leaning over a glass coffee table as he scribbled something on a piece of paper. Chase sat in front of a tv screen, staring up at it with his fingers clicking at a controller.
Ever wrote something on his piece of paper, then reached for his guitar sitting beside him and strummed a chord. He strummed again, bending his head to listen carefully. Writing a quick note on his paper, his eyebrows pinched together in thought, “Uh, I believe it means ‘extremely wicked’. Why do you ask?” Ever looked back down at his guitar.
“Oh, no reason. It just popped into my head and I thought maybe I had invented a new word,” Chase said slowly as though in a daze- all his mind power was on the TV screen.
Ever chuckled and glanced up, catching Asha’s eye. “Well, I just came up with a new word.”
“Tell me,” Chase said in a flat tone.
“Asha’satthedoor,” Ever said.
Chase repeated it under his breathe, looking confused. Several seconds later his face lit up and he looked over at the door, his eye sparkling bright. “Asha!” he raced to get up, hopping on one foot when he lost his balance. Asha smiled when he opened the door wide.
He looked perfectly fine, his face was back to it’s original tan color but it looked a little thinner than normal. “Are you ok now?” Asha said as she stepped in, getting a small feeling of shyness when she noticed how cute he looked in his jeans and t-shirt that fit his lean body perfectly.
“Definitely,” he ruffled his hair at the back of his head and smiled wide.
“What was wrong with you?” Asha asked, still curious as to what it was that had made Shay say that it had been “her” fault.
“Uh…” Chase’s eyes flicked to Ever, “well…”
Ever quickly said, “Let’s just say that he came down with love-sickness.”
Asha glanced between them and laughed. Chase joined her but said, “The funny part is he’s serious.”
Asha opened her eyes wider, still smiling, “Wait, really?” She looked back at Ever.
His face held a small smile that quirked the edges of his lips, “Chase is a little different than every other guy out there.” He turned his attention back to his guitar.
Asha continued to stare at Ever, feeling as though he had forgotten the most important piece of information that she needed to know. But Chase took her by the hand, distracting her from the feeling tickling at her brain.
“You have to play this game with me!” Chase said. “Ever stinks at it and I can’t peel Shay away from his books. Guess you’re my victim of fun for today.” He pulled her in front of the TV screen and left her standing there as he pushed some buttons on the TV screen.
The game loaded- the title Super Freak coming on the screen. Immediately Chase motioned for her to sit down on the couch next to Ever who scooted over for her.
As soon as “loading” had vanished from the screen, Chase started to move. His body swayed, moved, and danced to the digital people on the screen.
“What is this?” Asha leaned over to Ever so he could hear her.
Ever looked up and smiled at Chase dancing perfectly. “It’s his favorite game- Kinect: Dance Central. I’m not a fan of it.” He turned his attention back to his guitar and music sheets.
Chase continued to dance, his body moving with fluidity. She giggled when he turned around to dance facing her. He exaggerated his hip movements and tossed his head to make his blonde hair fly. At the end of the song he winked as she clapped loudly.
“Now it’s your turn,” Chase said and pulled her up before the TV.
“Bu-but,” Asha started but Chase had already sat down next to Ever and the dancers on the screen were starting to move. She glanced over her shoulder at Chase and Ever watching her. Nervously, she turned back to the screen and tried to follow the steps shown off to the side on the screen. Her feet stumbled, fumbling it out. Why couldn’t she do it anymore- she had been an amazing dancer back in middle school!
The words freestyle came up on the screen but she stood unmoving. She turned around and in frustration said, “Chase, I can’t do it. I can’t dance.”
Chase stood up and walked over to her. “You were doing pretty good there.”
“No, I wasn’t,” she pointed a finger at him, “and you know it.” A guilty smile cracked onto his face and he chuckled.
“What can you do then?” Chase said, stepping back to give her room. The music from the game kept going but they were no longer following the steps even though freestyle time had ended.
“Uh, well,” Asha racked her brain for a dance move, but only coming up with the stupidest one. Hesitantly, she started:
(Here is Asha’s dance- and I stink at descriptions, so I decided to just show you it.LOL! It's the pizza dance-http://v7.tinypic.com/player.swf?file=acq2va&s=7- and if this link doesn't get to you then look up "korean girl's pizza dance". You'll find it somehow. ^_^ And if you don't want to look it up then it's not really a loss. In fact, you've just gained a few spare minutes!!!)
Chase laughed loud as she danced, his eye twinkling with humor. “She’s too cute,” he yelled to Ever, who nodded back with a smile on his face. Chase’s smile widened as she danced and just when her dance had ended he grabbed her by the waist, lifting her up in the air. She yelped with excitement as he gently lowered her, keeping her hands in his as he guided her in random dance. At that moment she was in bliss as she danced with Chase, her heart pounding with the music.
“Don’t dance with your feet, dance with your heart,” he bent forward to whisper into her ear. The music continued to go as he made her laugh when he did the body roll, looking like a wave of water. Gently, he twirled her like a ballerina and as she turned she caught a glimpse of Shay on the far side of the room with his book lowered for her to see the small smile on his face.
Asha sat on her solid blue comforter with her back slouched, staring in a daze out her bedroom window. Little snowflakes drifted down in the black night past her window to layer the ground in a frosty whiteness that reminded her of powdered sugar.
Her mind drifted like those snowflakes back to a warmer moment in the past, just a day ago when she had been dancing with Chase—and when Shay had smiled for the first time.
Smiling dreamily like an idiot as she thought about the three boys, she wished for the first time in her life that it wasn’t Saturday—it was the only day during the week that she didn’t have a session at Matchmaker’s Mansion.
A knock on her door spooked her out of her daydream. She quickly picked up her Physics book and flipped through a few pages to make it look like she had been doing her homework. The door slowly opened and her mom poked her head in.
“Still working on homework?” her mom said. Her voice held a sound of worry. She opened the door to watch Asha flip through a few more pages. Asha looked up when she felt her mother’s weight on the edge of the bed. “You know if all these after-school activities are taking up too much of your time you can always quit.”
Asha felt a jolt of guilt hit her conscience. After school activities were really sessions at Matchmaker’s Mansion and if her mom ever found out…well, she’d become the modern version of Rapunzel.
“Uh—“ she managed to stutter out a coherent sentence, “no…Mom..I’m perfectly, perfectly fine. It’s my senior year and I want to be involved in as much as possible. Ya know? I won’t be in high school forever.” Her lips formed a lop-sided smile that she felt made her look more guilty than innocent.
Her mother’s brown eyes gave her that “all-knowing” look that every mother seemed to possess. “I’m so proud of you.” Asha had to replay the message in her mind again, because when her mother said it, it didn’t match up with the expression on her face. Her mother leaned forward to squeeze Asha tight. “You’re finally making an effort to become involved with other people your age.”
“Mom,” Asha moaned, the air squished out of her lungs. When her mother released her, she leaned back from Asha with a smile on her face. “Keep it up, Asha,” she kissed Asha’s forehead. “I love you,” she said and left the room without another word.
Asha gazed after her, the closed door all that she saw. She pulled her knees up to her chin and rocked back and forth on her bed. Her heart felt the same way: a door had been shut between her mother and herself, cutting off all trust. And it was all due to the lies she had woven.
Deep down she felt like there was a danger that she was ignorant of and it would cost her…someday. Of course, her mom would be there to say, "You should've listened to me."
Chase stared up at the ceiling above with his hands behind his head. The glow-in-the-dark stars he had put there years before were only faint smudges of green on the ceiling. A thought bugged the back of his brain like an annoying mosquito that he couldn’t swat away.
He looked to the side in the dark room, the bunk beds in the right corner a dark indistinguishable mass.
“Ever?” he whispered. “Shay?” he said a little louder.
A light swept across from the top bunk like a blinding spotlight as it shone onto his face. “Of course Shay’s awake,” Chase mumbled.
“Man, that light is blinding!” Chase said when Shay kept the light on his face. Shay clicked it off.
“Why are you still up?” Shay whispered.
“I have a question.”
“Mmm?” Shay said, turning over on his stomach to look down at Chase from his top bunk.
“Why exactly do I get lovesick?” Chase said with all seriousness.
Shay chuckled in the darkness, “That’s just what Ever calls it.”
“Sooo….” Chase drew it out to show that he didn’t understand.
“Chase,” Shay said with alarm in his voice. “Do you even know why we’re here?”
Chase’s mind went blank as he stared into the darkness, spotting Shay’s head as a dark lump on top of the dark mass in the corner.
“Do you remember when we first came here?” Shay said slowly.
“It was too long ago,” Chase felt guilty for not remembering.
Shay sighed, “I suppose I’ll just tell you what I remember of my own personal experience then.” He paused to swallow, then started. “After I…” images of the girl from the picture flashed through his mind, blood smeared across her face. “Never mind, we’re skipping that part…When I arrived here at the age of seven—“ His mind flew back in the memories of his past and stopped at that moment when he had first come to Matchmaker’s Mansion.
Shay’s seven-year-old self looked up with his pained grey eyes to the black brick building towering over his small stature. Cold metal handcuffs bit into his wrists and he winced when a strong grip clenched around his thin arm. Tears pricked the backs of his eyes from the pain not only in his wrists but in his heart. The harsh hand around his arm led him to the heavy iron door. A man in a police suit kept his gun pointed at Shay’s forehead as he opened the door with his free hand. The man’s grip finally released him when he shoved Shay through the door, the harsh sound of grating metal as it swung shut behind him.
Through bangs that needed a trim, Shay took in his new surroundings. Short white candles sat on every surface that was large enough to hold them. For a moment he thought he had been kicked out of Hell into Heaven. In the soft glow of white light he saw a white velvet chair and beyond that a heavy oak desk. Behind that desk sat a man dressed in a pure white suit that made him look like the butler to Heaven. He took a few steps forward, expecting to see a huge tome to be sitting on the desk, full of the names of those going to Heaven, and wings sprouting out of the man's back. But there was nothing on the desk but an inkwell, a stack of papers, and a glass figurine of a man.
Shay shook his head, feeling as thought everything was just a dream. After all, there was no way he was going to Heaven after what he had just done. The handcuffs gnawing at his wrists were proof enough.
“It’s so good to see you,” the man ,that apprantly didn't have wings, said in what seemed to be a genuine tone, but Shay still felt as though something was a little off. “You may call me Shaun. What’s your name?”
Shay stared at him, watching his every move through his black bangs. He never answered. “That’s quite alright. I’m sure you’re not comfortable enough to be friendly just yet. Please take a seat,” Shaun motioned to the white velvet chair. Shay looked the chair over, then back to Shaun. He turned for Shaun to see his handcuffed hands behind his back.
“Oh my,” Shaun said, “let me take care of that for you.” Shaun stood up from the desk, his full height revealed to be near six feet. He rounded the desk, kneeling behind Shay to unlock the handcuffs. Shay never wondered as to how he unlocked them, just rubbed at his sore wrists, thankful to be free.
Once Shay was sitting in the white chair, his feet dangling a few inches above the floor, Shaun kneeled before him to equal his height. Shaun lifted the glass figurine off of his desk and placed it gently in Shay’s small hands. The glass figurine of the man was heavy from the water that filled it up on the inside like a snowglobe without the fake snow to shake around.
“Do you see it?” Shaun asked the young boy. Shay glanced up at Shaun’s smiling face, then back down at the glass man. Inside of the glass man, floating in the water was a small purple ball the size of a jawbreaker with threads of black wound around it. Slowly, the ball began to pulse with a dark light and as it sped up the glass man heated in Shay’s hands. The glass rose to a scalding hot temperature, yet Shay didn’t let go. His hands felt like they had been glued to it. Screams gathered in Shay’s throat, clawing to come out, but they didn’t. The ball inside of the glass man started to unfurl to reveal a monster so hideous, so evil that Shay knew it had come from Hell. The fangs, the horns, the eyes, the forked tail: Shay’s eyes grew with fright, wincing as the monster inside of the glass man stared out at him, nearly burning the insides of his eyes.
The screams were just about to release themselves from Shay’s throat when Shaun pressed his hands over Shay’s smaller ones and said, “This is what rests inside of you—a monster. And the only thing that can remove it is love.”
“I remember this now,” Chase said softly, interrupting Shay's verbal flashback. “But I still don’t understand the lovesick part.”
Shay frowned though Chase didn’t see it, “When that monster inside of you is drawn out by love, in your case Asha, it literally is trying to come out of your soul. And in the process it hurts you physically.”
“Love really does hurt then,” Chase whispered.
“Indeed it does.”
When they had fallen silent for a few minutes, Shay dozed as Chase stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. “Shay!” Chase said.
“Shhh,” Shay hissed.
“Sorry,” a guilty smile spread on Chase’s face.
“What is it?” Shay said in a half-awake state.
“How did the monster get inside of us in the first place?”
“You have the worst memory ever. It’s called a Deum, or the love demon. And you’ll just have to read the book Shaun gave you to find out. I’m going to bed.” With that, Shay turned over on his top bunk that creaked with his shifting weight.
A blue glow emanated from the screen of Asha’s cellphone, illuminating the spot in the dark hallway where she stood as she looked over her text one more time:
Hey Christie, I’m going out shopping for something special for my mom. I told her that I was over your house. Please cover for me. Thanks!
That jab of guilt pried at her heart as she clicked the send button. Snapping the cellphone shut, she turned to the faint outline of the door in front of her. She had received a voice message from Matchmaker’s Mansion earlier in the morning, telling her that they had a special long session for her today. Immediately, she had started coming up with lies to get away from her mom.
Turning the doorknob, she entered the room, a golden glow pouring out. Shutting the door behind her, she noticed the same red walls and cream drapes, remembering the room to be the one that Chase had fainted in. But why had they asked her to come back to this room? She glanced at the TV screen on the left as she passed, memories of the dance fresh in her mind. She paused when she saw that among the sofas, in the middle of the room, stood a tall man with his back to Asha, apparently ignorant of her entrance.
Taking a few steps forward, she heard him speaking in low tones and wondered if she was interrupting anything important. She instantly relaxed when Chase leaned over to peak out from behind the man. A smile broke out on his face and he waved excitedly from his seat on a couch.
Asha smiled and waved back. The man turned and she recognized him as Shaun. It’d been a while since she had last seen him, but he looked the same as always with his hair slicked back and his ever-present smile.
“Hello, Miss Asha,” Shaun said.
“Hello,” Asha said timidly, not used to such formal greetings, “did I interrupt something?”
“No, no,” Shaun waved a hand as though dismissing the idea. “As a matter of fact, you’re a part of this too. So please listen in on this.”
Asha moved up to stand beside Shaun as he spoke to her and the three boys who sat in a row on one long sofa. “These blank notebooks are for your personal use,” Shaun pointed to the four books sitting in a perfect stack on the low glass table. “But we have certain rules for you to follow. They are to be used only for the purpose of your sessions. You are not to write about anything pertaining to outside occurrences since your master matchmakers will be reading this to get further insight on your thoughts. Your matchmakers have also made it a little more fun by assigning special entries for you, although you are not required to fill them out. But I would highly recommend it since it will help you all to understand each other more.”
Asha nodded when he paused, looking to the boys who sat there with blank faces. When Shaun saw no response from them, he turned to Asha, “Now—I’ve asked you here for a very selfish reason.” Shaun clapped his hands together and held them there in front of him, which made him look like he was about to pray. “I call you here for an unscheduled session because our cook has fallen ill. We, as ignorant men, beg you from the bottom of our hearts to help us.”
Asha laughed at Shaun’s pleading expression, something she’d never expected to see on the face of someone so distinguishably dressed in a suit. “Of course I will,” she said sweetly with a smile.
“Thank you so very much,” Shaun said with a mock swipe of his brow. Quickly, he looked to his watch and said, “It’s about ten o’clock right now and lunch is served at 12:30. Start whenever you feel necessary—the boys know where everything is.” And with that, he left with the long tails of his suit jacket flapping behind him.
Chase picked up the book on the top of the stack and flipped through some of the pages. “This could be fun…I think,” he said. The dark mass that was Shay, sitting between Chase and Ever, picked up one too. He mumbled “How lame” under his breath as he thumbed through it, tossing it back onto the glass a few moments later.
Ever leaned forward on the sofa, picking up the one Shay had tossed aside to look inside the cover. His dark blue dress shirt was open at the top and when he bent forward she caught a peak at his muscled chest. Slowly he said, “Why don’t we fill out the first entry and then at 10:30 we’ll start on lunch. Sound good?” he looked to Asha, then to the boys. Shay looked resentful, slouched in his seat and arms crossed loosely across his chest, his light black scarf pulled up to hide his mouth. Chase said, “Sure!” and stood up as though to go somewhere else.
“Chase,” Ever said in a deep tone. Chase stopped mid-stride to look back over his shoulder. “You didn’t ask Asha which one she wanted before taking your own.”
“Oh,” Chase said with a look of innocence. “Which one would you like, Asha?” He picked up all four of them to show her.
“Well…I… which one do you want, Chase?” Asha said, looking at the different colored books.
“Asha,” Ever said, shaking his head. “It’s your decision, don’t try to get out of it.” Asha stared at him, her eyes locking to his hazel ones. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? Her eyes moved to his lips as he mouthed the silent words of “Baby, you’re a firework.” Is that what he wanted, for her to be herself?
She still didn’t quite understand, but obeyed by saying, “I’d like the white one with the stripes,” she said. Chase handed it over and sat back down beside Shay, forgetting where he had previously been heading.
Asha took a seat on the smaller sofa across from them. She cracked open the soft cover notebook to the first page. Signing her name on the owner line, she flipped to the first entry. At the top was written: “Describe your partners with detail, examining their looks and personality.”
Asha chewed on the end of the pen Ever had given her, frequently glancing up at the boys across from her. Ever was feverishly writing, Chase was looking at his paper dreamily, and Shay sat looking at the closed book on the table like it was an alien.
As she wrote her thoughts, Shay watched her before picking up his own notebook. He gently pried open the blue cover to the first page, the leather of the cover soft beneath his fingertips. Reading the requirements of the first entry, he groaned in disgust. His pages stayed blank until he leaned over to look at what Chase had written. Instantly, a mean idea grew in his mind and he turned back to his own notebook to start his first entry.
The end of her pen now bitten till it was flat, Asha admired her list of descriptions. Glancing up, she saw Chase holding up his notebook wide open. Her eyes took in what he had drawn on his page. In pen, he had drawn on the white lined pages a rough sketch of her with little sparkles decorating the space around her. It was done so beautifully that she couldn’t help but smile wide. But her smile became a frown when her gaze shifted to the entry that Shay was holding up: a drawing of a stick figure girl in a dress. The stick figure had a large head with a mop of hair on it with plenty of stray hairs. She had zombie-like eyes that were just empty circles, little line for a mouth, millions of freckles, and “Asha” written in scribbly letters above her. A huge arrow was connected to the girl and pointed towards a large door on the other side of the page. Over the door was written- “Exit Our Lives.”
Asha sat in shocked silence, staring at the picture until Ever leaned over and grabbed the notebook away from Shay. He snapped it shut, shooting a warning glare at Shay. Ever set Shay’s book down on the glass table, then slid his own notebook over to Asha. It was already open and when Asha glanced down she read one word on his page- “SIMPLE”. Her heart fell even more, and Ever reached over and turned the page for her to see the back of the page. The entire page was filled from top to bottom. She lightly skimmed it, her confidence rising with every word she read and when she reached the last paragraph she read it over more than once:
“Asha is a young lady who tends to go with the flow. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s natural to want to please others. But someday I hope she’ll realize that she needs to stand up for what she thinks and what’s important to her. She needs to value her opinion, only then can people see the real her.
The choices you make, make you.”
Asha stared at Ever’s notebook where it sat on the table, the gears of her mind starting to turn after years of staying still. He was right. She had grown to let others make her decisions for her, never fighting against it.
Quickly, she grabbed her pen and started to draw ferociously on an empty page of her own notebook. She wasn’t sure if Ever had meant for her to take his advice the way she was, but she had the sudden urge to fight back- to show that she wasn’t going to be pushed around.
She finished the picture with a flourish and held it up in Shay’s face. Shay stared at the page with an even gaze, but deep inside he felt the hard casing around his heart crack a little.
Situated in the middle of the page was a stick figure of a boy wearing a shirt and pants. He had the same zombie eyes but with a drape of black hair cutting across them. An empty circle sat in the middle of the boy’s chest. Pointing to the circle was an arrow; at the end of it were the words: “this is where your heart is supposed to be.” Shay’s eyes traveled over to another drawing. It was a remake of his drawing of Asha and in the stick-figure Asha’s hands was a huge heart with the words “since you don’t have one, you can have mine” above it.
Asha lowered the book to see Shay’s expression, but he didn’t have one. He was blank. Slowly, his eyes rose to meet her’s and when they did she felt like she had had the wind knocked out of her. For several moments, she sat staring into his grey whirlpools of emotion.
“Well, it’s 10:30. We better get started on lunch,” Ever’s voice cut their connection.
Asha forced the knife through the apple. It’s juices squirted out, sprinkling her hand with stickiness. The two halves of the apple toppled onto their sides when she removed the knife and placed it to the side. Licking the droplets off of her hand, she observed the boys.
Ever was busy dropping chunks of beef into the stew they had formulated while Chase was cutting oranges beside her. Shay…she had no idea where he was and she was thankful for that.
“Uh, Asha?” Chase said, looking at her with a surprised expression. She was sucking on her thumb, due to the apple juice she had gotten on it. Quickly, she took her thumb out, wiping it on her kitchen apron as she smiled sheepishly.
Chase smiled back and quickly spun around so that his back to her. He fiddled with something and when he turned around he had shoved a slice of orange in his mouth, the orange peel showing when he smiled on purpose.
Asha giggled at his childish act and crossed eyes. “Did you do that a lot when you were a kid?” she asked when he had spat the orange out. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his eye wide as he focused on her, his blonde bangs draped across his face to cover the other eye.
His eyes clouded over for a moment before he cleared his throat and said, “Are you saying that I’m still a kid?”
Asha was confused for a moment how he had gotten that out of it, but went along with it and said, “Yup, that’s exactly what I meant.” She reached up, feeling like a midget as she stood on her tiptoes to ruffle his blonde hair.
He lightly touched her nose, pushing her back by applying more pressure, “You’re the one that’s still the same size as a four year old.” She was surprised by his comeback, and he laughed when he saw her face. Scrunching up her nose, she tried to look hurt, giving it up to laugh with him.
Chopping away at the fruit in order to fill a huge bowl of fruit salad, Chase continued to talk. His active yet random imagination flitted from the topic of art to clouds to flowers.
“If I were a flower,” Chase started, “I would be…a sunflower.” He started to peel another orange as he looked at her. “You look like you would be a violet.”
Asha considered his statement before saying, “Why do you say that?”
“Oh…I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Your personality just screams purple and your face has that…sort of” he motioned with his hands around his face to show a heart shape “look to it.”
“Chase,” Ever called over. Chase immediately turned in response. “Can you stir this for a while I go get the bowls?” Ever didn’t wait for an answer and just took off, disappearing around the corner.
“Yah…” Chase’s voice faded out, “Sure.” He left the oranges to peer down into the huge pot on the stove. As he stirred, he stared down into the stew in fascination as the chunks of meat and vegetables floated around. Asha went back to her own fruit, wondering how personalities could scream a certain color. But if they did, then she knew that Ever would definitely be a dark emerald. Chase would, of course, be a sunny yellow. And did she even have to think about Shay- she just had to look at him and she thought “black.”
As if on cue, a dark presence moved in next to her. Her muscles tensed as she watched Shay pick up the knife that Chase had been using. Silently, he started to continue Chase’s work. Asha watched him out of the corner of her eye, feeling as though his presence was overwhelming.
Her fingers in a flurry of nervousness, she reached for another apple and pressed the knife into it, but her wrist wobbled as she did and the knife cut off in the wrong direction. An exasperated sigh hissed through her clenched teeth and she pushed the hair that kept falling in her face back behind her ear. As she did, a line of blood appeared on her cheek.
Asha went rigid at the touch of a fingertip to her cheek. It felt as though sparks were jumping between their skin. She slowly turned her head, feeling him drag his thumb across her cheek, smoothing the blood off. But it didn’t come off, only tainted her pale skin further.
Her brown eyes fastened on Shay. As his thumb continued to run over her skin, his features seemed to loose the haziness that had been over them and he became crystal clear: his gray eyes seemingly lost in thought with a layer of fog over them, the black edges of his hair caressing the sides of his sloping jaw, and a stray hair stuck to the side of his slightly open lips.
Her eyes lowered to the necklace peeking out from beneath his skinny black scarf. The pendant looked like an old bottle-cap with the words “I <3 Vampires” on it, and a tiny little pink stone winked out from it's place on the heart. That was something unexpected.
When his thumb continued to stroke her cheek, she looked up into his dazed eyes staring fixedly at her. “Shay?” she said and he froze. His grey eyes blinked twice, thumb jerking away from her face. For the first few moments he rocked back and forth on his feet in nervousness, avoiding her gaze, but when their gazes locked again she saw the inner turmoil that had risen to the surface. With a groan, he turned straight around. His long stride took him around the kitchen corner out of view just as Ever was coming around.
Ever set his armful of bowls on the counter, looking back over his shoulder in the direction Shay had went. “Did I miss something?” he turned back to say to Asha.
“I’m not sure what you missed,” Asha said, in a daze herself.
“Ever, I think this is done,” Chase said with a bit of uncertainty mixed in his voice. He turned away from the stew to look at the both of them, but when he saw Asha he gasped. “Asha, are you bleeding?” He rushed over, staring at the spot on her face where Shay had touched her and searching her for any other wounds. “Aha!” he said, lifting her left hand in front of her face to show her the small cut on her finger. He whipped his head around in search for something to stop the thin line of blood inching down her finger, but not finding anything—he stuck her finger in his mouth. Shivers raced up her spine as she felt his warm tongue run over her finger, the cut hurting for the first time when his tongue touched it.
Taking her finger out of his mouth, he held it up, looking it over. “All clean,” he said. He looked past the finger to see Asha’s open mouth and wide eyes. His mouth formed into a goofy smile, but it didn’t last for long when he looked past her shoulder.
She turned to see what he was looking at. The kitchen door had opened and a group of boys filtered through. Boys of a variety of ages: a toddler, children, tweens, and a few teens who were close to Chase’s age.
Her eyes followed Chase as he moved around her to greet the newcomers. The smallest one of the group, a blonde haired-blue eyed little boy, he swung up into the air. Giggling with joy, the little boy poked Chase’s cheek. Chase grinned back, pressing his lips to the little boy’s neck to make a strange noise. Giggling even more from the vibration, the little boy spouted off a few words of nonsense.
The rest of the boys sat down at the long table, there being about twenty of them. Ever passed around the bowls of stew, and when he had finished he came to stand next to Asha. With her eyes intent on watching the boys, Asha said, “Who are these boys and why are they here?”
Ever sighed, feeling the tips of his spiked hair with his hand, a trace of a smile on his lips, “You’ve probably caught some of the hints from being here for so long, but we all live here. As for them,” he leaned back against the counter, “most of them are orphans, myself included. There are a few though that are the exception and still have family alive, Chase being one of them.”
Asha took her eyes off of the boys to give Ever a brief glance. “This place is more than just a matchmaking business, isn’t it?”
Ever gave her a sad smile, his hazel eyes reading deep into her own, “Oh yes, much much more.”
Shay’s grey eyes roved over the tops of the building surrounding him. From his rooftop view he could see the people walking below: blurs of color on the dull brick street. The dark clouds overhead matched his mood. Wind stirred his clothing.
He breathed in and out into the scarf around his neck that kept him warm from the cold weather. Flashes of memory spun before his eyes. When he had seen that streak of blood on Asha’s face it had taken him back years ago when he had seen a face just like her’s but with so much more blood on it. He had done the same in the past as if on instinct, reached out and tried to wipe it off her face, but it wouldn’t come off. It had become a permanent stain in his memory.
“I’m so sorry…Dawn,” his whisper came out in puffs of white. “I’M SORRY!” he bent over with the effort of his screaming. It was all Asha’s fault. Why did she have to be here? If only she would leave…then he would be fine…and his sister would no longer haunt him. Also, she would be safe…
“Please sit down right here,” Shaun pointed Asha to a plush black chair that swiveled in one place in front of a wall mirror. A sink and other products lined the counter before the mirror.
She lowered herself down into it, practically sinking in the cushion, and waited for further instruction.
Shaun stood before her in another one of his Victorian suits, this time a forest green that actually looked quite good on him. His angular face seemed to match his outfit perfectly. He clapped his hands together, “Today we have a special treat for you.” He started to pace in front of her, waving his finger, “It seems that the boys at times do not look kindly on your appearance.” Asha was taken aback: the boys had never looked at her like she was some ugly little thing. But then she remembered Shay’s drawing. She suppressed the urge to giggle.
“So,” Shaun smiled with delight. “we’ve taken the liberty to improve your image.” He snapped his fingers and through the door came a woman. Her hair was perfectly curled in long black ringlets, eyebrows defined, and lipstick applied. The woman considered her, tapping her cheekbone with the comb she held.
“Have fun!” Shaun said and left.
Asha looked to the woman. The woman gazed back with a twinkle in her dark eyes and said in a thick accent, “We have a lot of work to do.”
Asha gazed out through the floor-to-ceiling window with a curl wrapped nervously around her finger. Scents of flowers swirled around her in the room that she remembered to be the one she had kissed the boys in.
Her reflection looked right back at her in the window and she still had trouble believing that the reflection was her no matter how much she looked. The frizzy locks that she had never taken the time to beautify were now smooth waves of chocolate. Her boring brown eyes actually looked somewhat mysterious with the light smoky eye makeup accenting her eyelid.
She turned at the sound of the door opening.
Chase stood in the doorway with Ever behind him. Chase’s face had turned to stone in a mixture of shock and surprise while Ever smiled sweetly behind him.
“You look beautiful, Asha,” Ever said in his deep voice that made her tingle with excitement.
Chase swallowed, his one visible green-blue eye staring at her. He shook his head, his blonde hair swaying with the motion. Lifting his head, he said, “Are you a princess?”
Asha giggled, “Nope, it’s just me.”
“Waaah!” Chase said, taking careful steps towards her as though she was dangerous. “You look totally different!” He slowly circled her, looking her up and down. She twirled for him in her flowy pink dress, not blaming him at all for thinking she was a princess—she certainly felt like one.
Ever joined them, grabbing Chase by the collar to stop him from circling her again. “Would you like to continue dancing around the princess or with the princess?”
Chase glanced from Ever to Asha, smiling. “With,” he said. Ever reached over his shoulder and pulled over his guitar. The black instrument almost seemed to be a part of him—she couldn’t recall a single time he hadn’t been without it. Chase reached out and gently wrapped an arm around her waist. Pulling her into him, Chase took her arms and placed them on his shoulders.
Asha ducked her head to hide the heat that colored her cheeks. Ever strummed a chord and Chase immediately began to slowly dance, leading Asha along with him. His arms around her waist sent a welcome warmth around her, like he had created a bubble of happiness around them that no one could pop.
Gently drifting with the music, Asha let her head rest against his chest. His heart beat along with the music in a slow rhythm and she could feel it thump against her cheek. She closed her eyes as she felt Chase’s arms tighten around her, sending slight sparks up her back.
She caught the words “falling for ya” among the strum of the guitar and wondered if she was…falling for Chase. He definitely wasn’t making it difficult to do.
She yelped with surprise when Chase suddenly scooped her up in his arms. He twirled, Asha hugging his neck desperately. Her dress flowed out behind her in a ripple of pink.
He laughed aloud and she could feel it vibrate in his chest beneath her hands. With her arms around his neck, she laughed along with him in giddy happiness. The air around them was a blur, the colors of the flowers bleeding together as they spun.
They slowed gently, Chase tottering a little. She rested her head against his shoulder, trying to make the dizziness stop.
“Are you ok?” Chase said and she opened her eyes to see his face looking down at her. A gentle smile rested at the edge of his lips and she found herself staring at them. His arms tightened around her, holding her up in bridal style. Bending his head, his lips neared. She closed her eyes, waiting for it. His lips lightly brushed her’s as soft as a pair of butterfly wings.
Her heart skipped a beat.
Her eyelashes heavy with mascara lifted to see Chase staring down at her.
“Um…could you help me with something?”
“Sure,” she said, a little half-heartedly. It wasn’t exactly what she had been expecting to hear after a kiss. She looked over his shoulder to see that Ever had disappeared. Looking up at him in his arms, she said, “What do you need help with?”
“I know it’s around here somewhere,” Chase said, rummaging through a drawer.
“What’s the title again?” Asha said, fingering the books stacked on a desk.
“I think it’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” he said.
Asha straightened to survey the room. A bunkbed sat in the corner, another bed in the center of the room with a tv across from it. The rest of the room was full of desks, cabinets, littered with sheets of music. She knew Ever definitely occupied the room. Evidences of the other boys was few.
Collapsing into a swivel chair, she stared blankly at the row of books in front of her. Each one had a brown leather cover exactly the same with a tail of silk coming out the bottom of them. None of them had a title down their spine. With a finger she pulled one out, the first one in the row.
The cover cracked as she opened it. On the first page was the sentence “this journal belongs to” and signed beneath it was “Shay Augustine.”
Asha flipped the page to the first entry and read the first paragraph. Her head jerked back, astounded by what she had read. Immediately, she got up and in a rush ran for the door.
“Oh! I think I found it,” Chase said with excitement. He reached to the back of the drawer and tugged at the book that had managed to get itself lodged beneath a box. Pulling it out, he smoothed a hand over it’s velvety cover. The dust floated into the air around him, but the title “Beauty and the Beast” was clear on the cover.
“Hey, Asha! I found it,” he waved the book in the air, but Asha wasn’t there. He got up quickly, looking all about for the pretty girl in the pink dress. His eyes locked to the open book on Shay’s desk. Written in scribbled handwriting that looked like it belonged to an elementary kid, were the words:
“HELP ME—there’s something wrong with me. I didn’t mean to do it! I didn’t mean to kill Mommy, Daddy, and Dawn.”
Asha opened every door as she passed, jerking her head in to look around. Shay had to be around somewhere. She opened the door to the room they used they most, the one with the couches and huge tv, to see Ever on the far side. She dashed through the room, lifting her dress a little so she wouldn’t trip on it.
“Ever!” she said hastily. He didn’t turn from where he was. She stopped beside him to see that he was staring at himself in a round wall mirror.
“Yes?” he said, his eyes moving to the side to see her.
“Do you know where Shay is?” she said, trying to catch her breath.
“He’s on the roof,” she turned to go before he even finished talking. “Wait!” She stopped. Wiggling his arms, he managed to slide his leather jacket off and flung it around her shoulders. The weight of it pressed down on her. “The stairs to the roof are at the end of the hall.”
“Thanks,” she said and sped off. Ever’s eyes followed after her and when the door slammed shut he turned back to the mirror. A youthful face reflected back at him, one with smooth skin and a strong jaw. But if he stared hard enough he could see through the youthful mask to the man beneath—one that was much older.
Shay stood with his feet forced between the metal bars of the gate lining the edge of the roof top.
If he jumped everything would be over. He wouldn’t hurt any more people. He would atone for murdering his family. In fact, he would be with them.
Shay leaned forward to see the street far below. But perhaps he wouldn’t die. Maybe the demon inside him wouldn’t allow him to die. After all, Ever still looked youthful after all the years that he had lived. It was like the demon inside made them immortal.
The thought of living forever with himself was horror. He unstuck his foot and raised it over the gate to step out onto the ledge. His other foot soon joined the other one, the tips of his shoos placed in line with the edge of the roof.
The breeze ruffled his midnight hair as he closed his eyes. One more second and he would be gone. Gone from pain. Gone from the people he didn’t want to hurt.
He shifted his weight to the front, feeling himself slowly lean forward. In a few moments he would be gone. There would be pain, but then there would be bliss. His balance was just about to go—one little push with his toes and he would be over.
A hand yanked back on his jacket and instead of falling forward, he fell backwards. His eyes flashed open to see the stormy sky above him. Crashing to the cement of the rooftop, he groaned. A bruise already began to form on his backbone. The rest of his muscles spazzed from the impact.
Rolling onto his side, he cracked open his eyes to see Asha sprawled out beside him. Like a wounded princess, her beautiful waves of hair floated around her head and her pink dress billowed out around her small form on the cement. Her eyebrows were pinched together, one eye squinted open to peer over at him.
He tried to find his breath as he stared at her with his wide gray eyes, realizing that it wasn’t the impact that was making him breathless.
A scrape bloodied the side of her cheek and a driblet of red sat at the edge of her lips. With pain-filled anger, she said, “You selfish brat,” and closed her eyes.
Asha glared hard at Shay through an eye squinted with pain. Her entire head throbbed from the fall and she closed her eyes to wish the pain away. “Stupid, stupid Shay,” she muttered.
She heard the scrape of shoes on the cement roof and then a hand raised her head slowly. Wincing, she bit down on her lip that tasted of blood. Shay lowered her head and she sighed at the comfort of the cushion he had placed there. A pleasant warmth covered her legs that had begun to numb from the harsh wind.
When the shadow over her had vanished, she turned her head and peeked an eye open. Shay lay close beside her with his arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed. Glancing down, she saw that a plaid blanket was tugged snuggly around their legs, his legs peeking out way beyond the edge of the blanket.
Snuggling back into Ever’s coat, she shoved her hands into the leather pockets to guard them against the wind. Feeling something cold and smooth, she pulled it out. A pair of white headphones dangled from a flame-bedazzled iPod.
Smiling at Ever’s music-centered life, she pushed an earbud into her ear and scrolled down the list of songs. Her fingers paused at one particular song and she glanced over at Shay. His dark hair swept back and forth in the wind over his closed eyes, scarf pulled up to his chin.
With fingers still shaking, she pushed the earbud into Shay’s ear, amazed when he didn’t respond at all. It was like he had died despite the fact that she had just saved him. Clicking the “play” button, she watched his face intently, waiting for any kind of response.
The music started and she prayed with all her might that it would reach his heart.
----This is where you look up "Start Again" by Sam Tsui on Youtube-----
As the music faded, Shay reached up and tugged the earbud out of his ear. “Did you really kill them?” she quickly said now that he had actually shown signs of life.
“Yes,” his firm voice barred no room for arguing.
“No, you didn’t,” Asha said. “You’re not that kind of person.”
“And how would you know that?” Shay turned his head slightly to look over at her. She stared defiantly back at him, as though trying to hypnotize him into thinking he hadn’t done it. “I did it…but there’s more to it. And do not ask me to tell you what that “more” is, because you’re not ready to hear it and I’m not ready to tell it.” He stared up at the sky, the buildings on the horizon, anywhere but at her pleading brown eyes that seemed to always see right through to his soul. If she saw, then she might see the monster within him.
Asha turned onto her side, ignoring the jab of pain in her back, so that she was fully facing him. “You can start again.”
“This kind of broken heart doesn’t heal with time. It lasts forever.”
“But I can give you my heart, remember?” she said, gazing at his side profile. She saw his grey eyes between the strands of his dark hair.
A few moments passed as he thought carefully. “I’ll start again…under one condition,” he said.
“And that is?”
He turned his head to the side to look her straight in the face. The white puffs of his breath blew into her face as he said, “You can’t fall in love with me…ever.”
His grey eyes pleaded with her's in silent agony. With her mouth dried up, she could hardly bring herself to say the words. He was so close, his shoulder pressed to her's. "I---I won't," she said in barely a whisper.
He uncrossed his arms to stick out his pinky. "Promise?" he said, ducking his head a little to see her face clearly.
Asha glanced between his eyes and his pinky. Didn't everyone have the yearning to be loved? What was wrong with this kid! Sighing, she wound her own pinky around his and shook once.
Like nothing had ever happened, they settled back on the rooftop, but Asha kept finding herself taking quick peeks at his face. There was just something about him...
Asha twirled a lock of silky hair around her pointer finger, remembering how she had gotten up early this morning just to beautify herself just like the foreign hairdresser had showed her too. She hadn’t exactly gotten every curl perfect like she had, but she felt that she had outdone herself with the very little experience she had with hair.
Before her Shaun was fiddling around with wires and a movie projector, and she was surprised to hear him grumbling to himself. He always seemed like he had everything under control and had all the patience in the world to overcome any obstacle.
She let her eyes glaze over as she sat back in the plush velvet chair and thought about a few days ago…when Shay had said the words she thought that no human being would ever say. Who didn’t want to be loved? She shook her head at Shay and the sudden dimness of the room.
“Now, Asha,” Shaun said with a pleasant voice. He was standing in front of her, the projection of a blazing red heart on the white screen behind him illuminated his tall stature. She kept her eyes fixed on him despite the fact that his face was hidden in a deep shadow.
“I’m afraid you won’t be seeing any of the boys today…in person. They are, I am afraid, quite hung up in an ordeal that could not be put off. I hope you’ll forgive us and be satisfied with a different view of them.” He stepped out of the way of the screen.
Her eyes took in the big red heart and the phrase “Asha + ?” in the center of it. She didn’t even hear Shaun leave as the video began to play. Her days at the Matchmaker’s Mansions flashed before her eyes to the beat of the music. She felt as though she were watching a second-by-second review of her life in drama form as she saw herself and the boys on the screen: her white face as she stepped in the door for the first time, talking through the headphones to Chase, Ever singing “Firework” on the window seat to her, Chase whirling her around in his arms, and herself pulling Shay back before he fell over the edge of the roof.
As the music and video faded to black she realized that the three unknown kisses had not been shown- the day that she had been blindfolded. And then she felt as sort of nausea in the pit of the stomach as she realized: the matchmaker’s (whoever they were) were watching their every moment. The boys and her were truly never alone. She shrunk back in her chair as the nausea increased.
A slow music began to play and white letters punctuated the black screen: Now it’s time for you to know their feelings…even if you do not know your own.
The letters faded to black but soon switched to a picture of a stage. The golden lights brought everything into focus and she realized that the floor was covered with glitter. It sparkled like a thousand diamonds as the camera moved closer to the stage. The music started and she watched intensity, waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly Chase was there with a microphone in his hand, his blonde hair shining like a halo in the light. His voice echoed through the empty stage, and her breathe caught in her throat as she heard what he was singing.
-----look up "Just So You Know" by Jesse McCartney------
He sincerely looked heartbroken as his blue eye gazed straight into the camera and she felt as though he was staring right into her heart. At the climax he leaned back as he thrust his chin up to let the note ring, pillars of fire shooting up at the front of the stage.
She felt a tear prick her at the corner of her eyes and she brushed it away, and when she did she found that she was staring at a blank screen.
Slowly the light came back on, but this time there was nothing but a spotlight in the center of the stage. In that spotlight was a white piano, Ever sitting on the bench in front of it. His eyes quickly looked to the camera that zoomed up to the piano and she saw him mouth the words “I’m sorry”. She didn’t even know what to think as his fingers reached out to fall on the keys of the piano.
-----look up "A Thousand Miles" by David Archuleta (Studio Version)----
She listened as he sang, loosing herself in the high notes, but through the entire song she felt that Ever wasn’t singing for her…for someone else. His heart was in the song, in every note, and now she knew that Ever for sure was not the one for her. He was already taken by the one who owned his heart.
Sighing, with relief and wonder, she brightened as the final stage came to light.
A fog drifted over the floor, a cold blue accenting the wall in the background. As the fog curled over the edges, Shay walked in. With his hands in his black jeans pockets, he looked up at the camera with a smirk at the edges of his lips. Asha felt herself lean forward, wanting to know what the smirk was about. A pale blue tie swung from his neck. It wasn’t cinched to his throat but loose, though not to the point that it looked messy. The rest of him was dressed in black, like a blot of ink in the smudge of fog.
He didn’t hold a microphone, but he must’ve had one on him somewhere because when he opened his mouth to sing she could hear him clear as crystal.
------look up "Already Gone" cover by Colton----
She shivered as he sang, looking into the bad-boy glint in his eye. He was doing this intentionally…and he knew it. As the song drew to a close, she felt as though she had been written off.
The entire screen went black till white letters once again burst on the screen: “Who will you choose?”
Her mind went numb as the letters faded and the room was completely still. The songs echoed in her mind, stabbing at her heart. But all she could do was stare blankly at the screen, wondering if the matchmaker’s loved tormenting her.
“Man, I haven’t been to the time-out room in a long time,” Chase said, looking to Shay and Ever on either side of him. With rope tying his body tight to the chair, Shay glared at him, while Ever just looked at him with a blank stare.
Chase smiled back at Ever, and then looked to the ropes encircling his own body. They pinched him a little bit, but he was familiar with it. The authorities never could come up with any creative new ways of discipline. Sure, they were getting a little too familiar with Asha and perhaps maybe telling her a little bit more information then they should about Matchmaker’s Mansion, but couldn’t the authorities just sit them down and tell them that instead of tying them to a chair?
“Do you think Asha liked our songs?” Chase said, turning to his companions in misery, totally bored with nothing to look at but grey metal walls. Shay’s eyes were as cold as the walls surrounding them as he looked back at Chase. “I totally blew you guys out of the water,” Chase boasted, trying to puff his chest out but found himself a bit restricted.
All three of them sighed together in hopelessness.
With her chin rested in the crevice between her folded knees, Asha watched as Chase very carefully painted her toenails a bright pink. He had randomly pulled the nail polish out of a drawer in the generous supply of closets around the room.
Ever rested sprawled out in his usual place- the sofa with his head propped up on the armrest. He slowly played a lullaby that sounded more like a harp than a guitar.
Trying to keep herself awake, Asha let her gaze flicker about the room. Her gaze stopped on the wall mirror, the one Ever had been staring into the day before. Since that moment he had become even more quiet, if silence could possibly become even quieter. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t smiled at all the entire day.
Sighing, Asha let her gaze slide to the dark chair in the corner of her eye. Sitting in it was an even darker object. Shay.
His hair fell over his grey eyes that looked as though they were closed, but were only focused downward on an ancient-looking book. He sat slightly leaned into the corner of the chair, one leg folded up so that his foot was actually on the chair. Pausing, she thought that he looked too content to bother, but decided to pester him anyway.
“What’re you reading, Shay?” Asha said, trying to sound completely interested. Honestly, she just wanted to hear him speak since he had been ignoring her all day. Chase stopped painting her left big toe, his blonde head turning to look at Shay, apparently waiting for the answer too.
He didn’t even pause to look up, and only said, “A book.”
Chase shook his head, his caramel highlights vanishing and appearing in between the strands of his light blonde hair. Squinting even though he sat right beneath her on the carpeted floor, she tried to see through the side sweep of hair that covered his eye. It bothered her at times that she wasn’t able see both of them.
Sighing, she thought, “What a frustrating day.” Glancing over at Shay, she decided to try again.
“What’s your favorite book?” she asked, already not expecting an answer. But surely a book-worm would want to talk of nothing but books.
Shay glanced over the top of the book he was reading, his grey eyes pinning her to her seat. Sighing, he laid his book carefully down on the wood stand next to him.
“Beauty and the Beast,” he said, his entire attention on her for the first time that day. He watched her carefully behind a lock of hair that fell over his eyes. “But it’s not the Disney version you’re thinking of.”
“Oh,” she nodded her head, pretending to understand. “Then what version is it?” she linked her arms around her knees, pulling them tighter to her chest only to get a gasp from Chase, who had gotten a bit of the nailpolish on her skin due to the unexpected movement.
“You’ve never heard of it, so I’ll just have to tell it to you.” She nodded once and he started, her eyes watching his pale lips. “Long ago there was a man, conceited and vain, who only desired materialistic things. One night he had a ball in honor of himself, inviting every woman and man for miles around. On the night of the ball he danced with every woman that had arrived…all except one. She was a miserable looking creature, almost witch-like in her being. He refused to dance with her, claiming that she was too ugly to dance with a beautiful man like himself. She laughed at his insolence and asked him to bring forward one person who truly loved him, then would she believe that he was beautiful. But when twilight arrived and the ball came to a close, he still had no one who professed to love him. And being the witch that she really was, she cursed his vanity and pride. Encasing a monster within the man, she pronounced the monster a “love demon” that could only be released once someone truly loved him for more than his appearance. And in a whirl of smoke she became a beautiful young woman, everyone’s mouths agape as she stalked out the door never to be seen again.”
He stopped and reached for his book.
“Wait!” His hand hovered above the book. “What happened…please…can you tell me what the ending is?” Asha yelped, as did Chase because she had kicked the bottle of nail polish over. Chase scrambled to pick it up and cap it as Asha held Shay’s gaze.
“He falls in love with a lady who also falls in love with him. Blah blah blah…demon released…blah blah blah…they live happily ever after.” He picked up his book and stuck it in front of his face so that she couldn’t see him.
“Oh,” was all she could say. She tucked her chin between her folded knees and rocked back and forth in the chair, not knowing what to feel.
“Miss Asha, I’m afraid your time is up for today,” Shaun’s voice met her ears. Unwillingly, she unfolded herself and left the room, glancing over her shoulder to see the boys once more before she left. The door shut with a sense of finality.
“Why did you leave out parts of the story?!” Chase yelled as soon as the door shut; now ignoring the puddle of pink on the floor to focus on Shay. “And don’t act like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I read most of the story, just like you told me to.”
“I didn’t want to scare her,” Shay said, flipping a page.
“She still deserved to hear it…after all…she’s a part of the story,” Chase slowed to a whisper and he looked down at the spilled nail polish on the gold-embroidered carpet. “Wait…” his head snapped up, “why would it scare her?”
“I suggest you read the ending,” Shay said as he stood up, stretched, and left the room without his book.
Shay wiped the blood away from the corner of his mouth, “Give her up, Chase. You’re only hurting her by loving her!”
“I’ll never let her go!” Chase yelled and threw a punch at Shay.
As swift as a shadow, Shay ducked, Chase’s punch landing in the wall. Shay took the chance to clamp down on Chase’s arm, looking him right in the face. “You’ve read the end of the book, Chase. Now what’re you going to do when she finds out what you really are—a monster.” His voice seethed with anger, “Sooner or later she’ll find out, and that’s when it’ll all be over. Either you let her go and she’s safe…or you love her and she’s gone forever.”
Chase glared hard into Shay’s eyes that resembled the cold metal walls surrounding them. Shay sneered, “After all, who could love a face like your’s?”
The next moment happened so fast that the last thing Shay saw was Chase standing high above him with a bloody-knuckled fist at his side, then all went black.
Asha giggled at what Chase had written down in his journal and scratched out her answer in her own journal entry. She held it up for him to read: “Unicorns don’t poop butterflies.”
“How would you know—you’ve never seen one!” Chase grinned as he held up his journal.
Asha started to write back another response when she glanced over at Shay. He sat beside her, staring down at his journal and the one sentence he’d written.
“What did you write?” she asked, leaning over to see. Shay snapped the journal shut before she had the chance to see anything.
“Hmph!” she said and wrote down an angry sentence that included the words “Shay” and “hate.” Preparing to draw an ugly sketch of him, she looked his profile over to make it recognizable enough in her journal, so just in case the Matchmaker masters were to see it they’d be able to know who it was she disliked. But her eyes paused on the weird coloring decorating his cheek.
“Hey, Shay,” she said and his head turned slightly at the sound of his name. She was about to say “you have something on your face” when she recognized the yellow and green tint to it. “Shay…wait…is that a bruise!” she said, reaching out to swipe away the hair that hid the mark. But Shay suddenly stood up and headed for the door.
Asha stood up with him, tailing him to the door. “I hope that’s not a bruise! Is it a bruise? Who did this to you?” she said, flittering around him like a little bird. She nearly bumped into him when he abruptly halted with his hand around the doorknob. The movement was so subtle, but she caught the look that darted out from his eyes to hit Chase.
As Shay slid swiftly out the door, Asha turned on Chase, “Chase…did you?” she pinpointed him with her eyes to the chair he still sat in at the table.
Chase stared back with a wide eye, a frown on his lips, “Well…I might’ve taken a couple…” he nervously reached up to scratch the back of his head, “swings at him.”
“Chase…I can’t believe you’d do such a thing, especially to your friend!” She scowled at him once before she exited the room also, yelling, “Shay…wait!”
Shay was already halfway down the hallway when he stopped at her call. He half turned to look over his shoulder. “Um…I have something that could help heal your bruise,” she said, a little uneasily.
The toe of his shoe scraped on the cement floor as he paused to move towards her, like he was considering something. Casually, he walked back towards her. “Yes, you do,” he said in a soft low voice that rooted Asha to the ground. She instantly turned cold looking up into his eyes. The slight smirk at the edges of his lips scared her.
He came to a stop in front of her to look her over once before leaning down and firmly pressing a kiss to her lips. As he broke away, he said in a breathy whisper, “Kisses heal everything.” Asha’s mind buzzed as though it were on overload. She could feel the bright red light going off inside her head as he walked away, his slim body fading into the darkness. The distinct words of ERROR flashed in the backs of her eyes. His kiss didn’t match up with his song at all.
Chase slowly closed the door and leaned against it. The image of Shay leaning down to kiss Asha brought the words ringing into his head, “Who could love a face like your’s?” He glanced back towards the door, wanting to reach through and pull Asha into a tight embrace. Did Asha understand his song, or was she too infatuated with Shay to care?
As he sat back down at the table, he heard Ever say, “Where’s Asha?”
“Already gone,” he muttered.
Ever took a step forward to be shoulder to shoulder to Shay. Wind ruffled Shay’s black hair like it was silk, but couldn’t move the stiff strands gelled to perfection at the top of Ever’s head.
Ever blew out a mouthful of air, watching a cloud of white vanish in front of his face to reveal the city on the horizon. “You’re the worst thief ever,” he said with a chuckle.
Shay didn’t budge an inch.
“So I’ll give you a tip to help you on your newfound career: steal the things you WANT,” Ever laid a hand firmly on Shay’s shoulder. Shay’s black hair rippled in the wind, his grey eyes flickering in and out of view as he turned to look side-long at Ever.
“And that would be?” his voice lowered to a defensive tone.
Ever’s face slackened to become completely serious. With a tinge of threat he said, “I’ll tell you what it’s not, and it’s not Asha. So don’t steal her away from Chase unless you truly want her.”
Ever let Shay’s shoulder go, leaving him alone on the rooftop to muse.
Shay watched him vanish out of sight, and as soon as he was gone he smirked. “Know-it-all,” he said, shaking his head.
Asha looked at Chase as he hung his head, his hair falling forward to hide his face. His voice drifted through the curtain of hair, “So, in order to prove I’m sorry to you both…” he lifted his head to show his smile, “I’m going to give you guys make-overs!”
Both Shay and Asha looked to the other with startled looks, then turned their wide eyes to Chase.
“Make-overs?” Shay said while Asha sat there stunned, not knowing what to say. She hadn’t expected this at all.
“Yup!” Chase nodded his head. “It’s the least I could do for you…and this,” he poked Shay’s cheek with a look of disgust, “could use some improvement.”
Shay jerked his head away from Chase’s finger while Asha tried to smother a giggle.
“First things first—I’ll go get the cucumbers!” Chase said with a raised fist, and off he went in a dash.
The cucumber inched slowly down her face, wobbling at the edge of her cheekbone before sliding further into the crème covering her face. Asha opened an eye when the cucumber was removed, leaving a cold spot on her cheek.
Shay sat beside her, holding the cucumber. He glanced over at her as she sat up in her chair. With the facial mask on he looked even whiter, like a mime with black hair outlining his sharp jaw.
“Do you like Chase?” Shay said boldly looking down at the cucumber he held.
Asha opened her mouth, and then closed it. He had no skill in subtleness. “Well, yes,” she said.
“Like like?” he said, turning his grey eyes on her that seemed to grow larger as she continued to stare in them. She blinked, breaking the stare before his eyes could swallow her whole.
She blushed. It was weird confessing her feelings to a guy who was also winning part of her heart.
“If I told you…” at these words Asha turned to him and he looked back at her with all seriousness. “That you would die if you stayed with Chase…would you still stay with him?”
Asha felt like he was testing her, wanting to know how much she truly liked Chase. Making him jealous was the key. “I would stay with him, die, and bring him to Heaven with me.”
Shay’s eyes narrowed. He took a swift chomp on the cucumber slice only to gag and spit it out again.
Chase stood before Asha, Shay, and Ever who were all seated in chairs. Slowly, Chase spoke as though he was still thinking, “Now that you’re all beautiful, there’s only…one thing left to do,” Chase said, tapping a finger to his gently rounded chin.
“What’s that?” Asha asked while Shay grunted with annoyance.
“Photo shoot!” Chase said, raising his arms to the ceiling, clearly excited.
Asha gripped the arms of the chair, a little scared of how this activity would turn out.
After another hour or so of make-up that had to be done and redone numerous times because Shay wouldn’t keep still, Ever kept smudging his, and Asha being extra primped; they finally stood in front of the camera.
Not knowing at all what she looked like, because Chase had been determined to keep her from looking into any mirrors, Asha stood before the camera for her individual photos. As Chase had been styling each of them to perfection, blabbing on about everything, he had mentioned what the theme of the photo shoot was.
“This is how I think you guys look like on the inside: I’m bringing your inner beauty to the surface if you can call it that,” Chase had said as he did Shay’s eyeliner for the third time.
Asha smiled brightly for the camera, wondering how she appeared to Chase on the inside was different from how she was on the outside.
As they all posed together for a group photo, Asha in the middle with Chase and Shay on her sides and Ever behind her, she knew that it would be hard to pick only one of them as her true love, but the hardest would be to someday leave them all.
Asha ripped off the seal of the large envelope and peered inside. Pieces of thick paper filled the bubble-lined package that had the label of Matchmaker’s Mansion on the front. Carefully she spilled them out onto her bed, spreading them apart so she could see each one specifically.
They were photos in a large print, the size of notebook paper, and each one held a beautiful picture: a picture of the boys at Matchmaker’s Mansion.
She picked up one and examined it: It was a picture of Ever. Dressed in a pale blue dress shirt, white tie, and white jeans he was the picture of serenity and calm. His hazel eyes were an explosion of blues and greens, tilted to look through a window he had been modeling by. There was a far-off look in them that aroused a sense of mysteriousness.
Asha picked up another picture. This time Ever had his back turned to the camera, head turned to the side as though looking back one last time, and his guitar strung over his shoulder to rest solemnly against his back. The pictures portrayed everything he was: polite, formal, serene, and that underlying hint of secretiveness.
With her thoughts a whirl, she picked up the next. In a glow of light, Shay’s grey eyes glared out at her. A black suit coat rested firmly on his shoulders, but beneath it he wore a dazzling shimmery shirt of every color imaginable. She couldn’t help but laugh. Why would Chase dress Shay in something like that? What was his meaning?
Slowly, she lowered the picture, remembering what Chase had said. “This is how I think you guys look like on the inside: I’m bringing your inner beauty to the surface if you can call it that.” She gave Shay one more glance before setting the picture aside.
A picture of light colors amid the darker ones brought her attention and she drew it out to sit before her. She gasped in alarm as her eyes scoured the picture. There wasn’t much to see…in fact Chase seemed to be baring all. He sat in front of a background of white with no shirt on, his tanned skin dark against the background. A black tear was painted on his face with a single sparkling diamond in the center of the marking.
Asha considered the picture with Chase’s words ringing through her mind. Was Chase really an unhappy person on the inside? She looked at his eye, trying to read into the gaze that looked out from the picture. Was he trying to tell her something?
Shaking her head, she lectured herself on reading too much into the pictures and moved on. She smiled and she frowned as she looked through the rest of them, feeling as though each one was sending her a message….but of what? Did the boys have something to hide?
Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes fell on the last picture. It was of her. Chase had dressed her to look like an angel.
“I hope you’re coming close to a decision, Asha. You don’t have much time left,” Shaun leaned back into his office chair, his face solemn, as he looked directly at her. “I’ll give you three separate dates with each of the boys. Hopefully this will help you to decide.”
Asha sighed. Who could make a final decision with three beautiful guys to choose from?
He gave a small smile. Picking up his fountain pen, he made a swift scrape across a page. “Your first date will be with Chase.”
“No, you have to blow it like this,” Chase blew gently into the circle. A bubble grew, separating from the wand to float into the air.
“It’s beautiful,” Asha smiled, watching the surreal colors of the sky flow over the bubble’s translucent surface. POP! It was gone.
“I confess I’ve never done something like this in winter,” Asha said, dipping her wand in the bottle of soapy water.
The bubble died on Chase’s wand as he looked over at her, “You don’t like it?” His eyebrows were pinched together in a slight worry.
“No, that’s not it, it’s warm out so—“
“I’ll show you something special!” Chase suddenly said, taking her by the hand. He pulled her across the roof and down the stairs. She soon lost track of which way they were going as he led her through a maze of hallways. Finally they stopped before a wooden door, and Chase turned to her, smiling.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” he said and pushed the door open with a sweep of his arm. She stepped forward into the dark room. With a click of a switch, the room exploded with light.
For several moments Asha stood still, taking it all in. The walls surrounding her were covered with art, each blending into the next, like one continuous picture comprised of millions. It was like walking into a fantasy world. But her eyes were locked to the far wall across from her. She slowly walked forward, and gingerly reached out to touch the painting.
“Do you like it?” Chase whispered behind her.
Asha nodded her head, biting her lip as a tear fell down her cheek. As she pressed her hand to the wall, she felt like she could touch the wings that Chase had painted on a picture of her. It was like staring into a mirror as she gazed at the painting.
Beside the painting of her angel-self stood replicas of the photos they had taken: Ever looking off into the distance, Shay with his glittery shirt, and Chase with his bare chest and diamond tear.
“Oh! But why are you crying?” Chase turned her to face him and smoothed his thumb across her cheek to erase the tear.
“I’ve never felt so loved in all my life. You make me feel like I’m a special part of your life,” she smiled through another tear.
Chase’s eyes gazed softly into hers, then he drew her to him and held her close in a warm embrace. Asha let go of the air she had been holding in her lungs. She felt like staying forever in his arms, and forgetting about the worries of the world.
But it wasn’t to be. Chase broke away and said, “Want to paint something with me?”
She smiled up into his boyish face and said, “I’d love to.”
Hours later they were still painting, having painted anything on their mind. Asha finished signing her name at the bottom of one of her paintings when Chase reached over and wrote “+ Chase” next to her name.
Asha looked over at him with a questioning eye. His face was spread wide in a look of mischievousness. Reaching over again, he drew an equal sign so that it all read “Asha + Chase=”.
“Now it’s your turn,” Chase grinned, waiting for her to finish the equation. Asha narrowed her eyes, staring long and hard at him. What exactly did they equal?
Her eyes focused in on a line of blue paint splattered across his nose. With a finger, she motioned for him to lean towards her. His warm breath tickled her face as she rubbed at the paint. To make sure she had gotten all of it, she lifted the bangs gliding over his face.
She regretted the gasp right after it passed through her lips. Chase jerked back, knowing immediately that she had seen what his hair had been hiding. He sprang up from the ground, his motions in a flurry to hide.
She scrambled up after him. “Chase!” she yelled and he stopped cold like her words had chained him to the floor.
At first she hesitated to go to him since his shoulders heaved up and down as he took in deep breathes. His anger was boiling up inside of him, just beneath the surface of his skin. But her shoes softly pattered on the painted scene of a pond till she stood before him.
His head was lowered so that his chin rested against his chest, hair falling like a shield over his face. “Chase,” she whispered, “let me see.”
She took a step closer to him, lifting his chin with a fingertip. Her other hand smoothed aside the hair to reveal the full view.
Silently she stared at the disfigurement. Chase’s eye left eye was nearly sealed shut, only a thin slit of blue-green proving that an eye was existent beneath the bloated eyelid that covered it. The skin around his eye was wrinkled and mashed like someone had beaten it with a rolling pin and forgotten to smooth it out. Carefully she reached up a finger to trace around his eye. The skin felt normal, just a little bumpy from the disfigurement.
She paused in complete shock when she remembered what Chase had said at their first meeting:
“You’ll like me no matter what I look like, right?”
Without another thought, Asha stood up on her tiptoes and lightly pressed her lips to the swollen skin of his eyelid.
Chase touched his fingers to the pink heart drawn in chalk. Among the many pictures he had painted on the walls, this one heart stood out like a blazing star. It rested right after the phrase that he had written on the wall: “Asha+Chase=”. The heart was the answer to what she and he equaled…but Asha had avoided a direct answer once again.
He sighed and leaned his head back against the wall. Just before she left, Asha had said only one thing: “You’re beautiful.”
“Wait up!” Asha called, clouds of vapor spilling out of her mouth along with the words. She rubbed her hands together, and pulled her jacket tighter as she shuffled along after Shay.
The black hood of his jacket was pulled up over his head, a long white and black striped scarf wound around his neck snaked out of his jacket to wave in the breeze over his shoulder. With his hands shoved deep in his pockets, he strode along the sidewalk, shoulders hunched against the cold.
Asha leapt over a sheet of ice, gliding unsteadily for a few moments when her feet hit the other side. Her heart forgot to beat as she felt her entire balance shift backwards. In a struggle to right herself, she clawed the air with her hands, catching hold of something and pulling hard.
Asha groaned as her body met the pavement, her tailbone throbbing and the taste of blood in her mouth. Beside her, Shay rolled over to face her, biting his lip in pain. “You constantly have to drag me down with you, don’t you?”
Then he smiled a cheeky grin, “I guess you can’t control it—falling for me.”
Asha huffed, pushing his shoulder so that he rolled the other way. She managed to stand up, wobbling a few times and cringing as she took a step.
“So—where exactly are we going?” Asha asked once he had stood up beside her.
Shay looked down at his scratched palms, and then thrust them back in his pockets, “A place that every girl loves.”
Asha cocked her head to the side, thinking hard. Shay started walking again, and she winced as she tried to catch up.
“Ooooooooh,” Asha said, gazing up at the many signs lining the long central aisle. “The mall!” Asha caught Shay’s eye. “This is your idea of a date?”
“Is that criticism I hear?” he said, leaning towards her.
“No…just curious,” she watched a group of teenagers as they passed. “Chase and you definitely think differently.”
“I have eighty dollars total. We’ll use some of it for lunch, but the rest we’ll split.”
“Aha! So you were the one who wanted to go shopping.”
“You didn’t let me finish. The money we split, we have to use to buy things for the other, not ourselves.”
“Okay,” Asha nodded, an evil plan already formulating in her head.
“Oh..” Shay turned around to look back at her as they casually walked down the line of stores. “And we have to go in every store.”
“WHAT?!” Asha hurried after him as he practically ran away.
Asha looked over the handcuffs, their shiny surfaces reflecting back at her. Her eyes shifted to Shay, who was looking through a stack of magazines.
Clipping one handcuff to her own wrist, cinching it tight, she brushed up against Shay. With a click, the other handcuff locked around Shay’s wrist. He flinched, looking down at what she’d done.
“I hope you have a key to this,” Shay said, glaring hard at her.
“K-key?” Asha’s eyes widened. “Um,”
she bolted for the stash of handcuffs in the bin, dragging Shay with her.
“Ow! Don’t pull so hard,” Shay hissed. His wrist jerked along with her’s as she dug through the bin.
Several minutes later they stood before the cash register. “I’m using the money I was going to spend on you, to pay for this,” he lowered his head to speak in her ear. “Why couldn’t you have picked one of the pink fuzzy ones, for goodness’ sake!”
Asha bit her lip as she turned her head to look back at the bin. Fuzzy handcuffs in different colors lay among the hard metal ones. She sighed, looking guiltily back to Shay.
Their spree was a bit hindered from that point on. Asha couldn’t go in the dressing rooms to try on clothes with a guy attached to her…they found that out the hard way. One of the maintenance had chased them out, shaking a hangar viciously at them.
As they continued down the central aisle, Asha found herself wincing as they walked. The handcuff kept rubbing at her skin with Shay walking ahead of her. With her other hand, she rubbed at it, wishing it would go away.
At one point, Shay noticed and slowed down to walk beside her. With his fingertips he turned her wrist to observe the damage done. “It’s hurting you, isn’t it?”
Asha nodded, keeping her eyes lowered.
“Then there’s only one thing we can do to fix this,” Shay said. Asha watched as he entwined his fingers with her’s. Little shivers traveled up her spine as a small smile lifted the edges of her lips. Glancing up shyly at Shay, Asha tried to focus on walking calmly beside him, but their clasped hands were like a power plant, small sparks of electricity traveling up their arms, making her heart beat on hyperdrive.
For the rest of the day, Asha’s wrists never hurt again.
Asha’s smiling face glanced at the stores as they walked past, her face going slack when she saw what store was coming up. Victoria’s Secret.
Hastily, she pushed against Shay to make him walk sideways.
“What are you doing?”
“Let’s walk on this side now,” Asha said hurriedly, pushing him until they were opposite Victoria’s Secret. She glanced to the store, hoping Shay wouldn’t see it, but he was following her gaze and knew exactly what she was doing.
“Ah, we only have a few stores left. Which one shall we go in first? Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie and Fitch?” he looked innocently down at her, a smirk at the edge of his mouth.
“Neither! Let’s just go,” she tried to pull him on, but he didn’t budge.
She looked back at him, her eyes sending threats. Shay calmly said, “We have to go in every store.”
He gently pulled her towards the entrance of Victoria’s Secret, her feet slightly skidding on the floor as she resisted.
Just as they reached the entrance, Asha whirled Shay around to face her. “Fine, we’ll…go in. But you have to let me do one thing.” Letting his hand go, she unraveled his scarf from around his neck and raised it to cover his eyes, tieing a firm knot at the back of his head. Gently, she pulled his bangs out from underneath the scarf to fall over the black and white stripes.
“There,” she stepped back a little.
“Now you won’t see the—you won’t see what guys aren’t supposed to see.”
She wove her fingers into his again, and led him into the store.
“Are you always this—“ Shay couldn’t think of the words to say. “Modest?”
“Victoria’s secret is meant to be a secret,” was all Asha said, which Shay chuckled at.
As she breezed through the merchandise, Asha ignored the many stares that followed her as she lugged Shay behind her, especially when Shay picked up a thong and said “I think you’ll look great in this one, honey.” She quickly snatched it from him and put it back on the table.
“You’re determined to make a scene, aren’t you?” she whispered, but found herself giggling. “Let’s go home,” she said and Shay lifted the scarf to reveal his grey eyes.
“All right,” he smiled and Asha felt her heart quicken.
They were halfway home from the mall when it happened. A voice yelled out at them, screaming Asha’s name.
Asha stiffened as if she had suddenly turned to cement. Shay turned around to see who it was, but Asha couldn’t turn—couldn’t move.
Shay watched as a teen boy, around eighteen, jogged up to them. He wore a Yankees baseball cap over his shaggy hair, blue eyes penetrating into Shay. After a harsh glare, he ignored Shay and touched a hand to Asha’s shoulder.
“Asha, I know it’s you. Don’t try to hide,” he threatened in a low voice as she flinched away from his touch.
All of a sudden, flashes of Asha’s memory came back. The real reason she had gone to Matchmaker’s Mansion.
“You’re time’s up, Asha. I’ve given you two months. Now where’s your new boyfriend, or have you not got one like you promised?” he wrenched her arm back so that she whirled around to face him.
Shay watched her eyes glare like laser beams into the boy’s face, something he’d never seen come from Asha before.
“I’ve got one,” she said, her voice steel as she reached out and clung to Shay’s arm. They were no longer attached by handcuffs since Shay broken them off with a heavy rock.
The boy’s eyes turned onto Shay, like loaded guns ready to fire at the smallest move. “So this is your boyfriend?”
“Um…” Shay glanced between the two. Should he get mixed up in this? Asha looked up at him with pleading eyes.
“I’m not her boyfriend,” Shay said as the boy nearly thrust his chin up into his face.
“That settles it,” the boy said and grabbed Asha’s wrist. “It’s your turn to pay the other end of the deal.” He pulled her away, Asha jerked behind him.
She turned back to look at Shay, her hair in her face as she called out. “No, Shay!” She tried to wriggle her arm out of his grasp, her fingers clawing at the hand around her wrist.
Suddenly, another hand was clamped around her free wrist. Her body hung between two boys, her arms stretched out.
“I’ve just decided,” Shay started as the boy turned to see what had stopped him, “that I am.”
“Am what?” the boy spat.
“Her boyfriend.” Asha’s eyes grew, staring up into Shay’s face. But Shay wasn’t looking at her, he was staring hard at the boy who held the other end of Asha.
“You tub of lard! I’m her boyfriend, the one and only!” he puffed himself up as he strode over to Shay, their chests nearly touching. “What have you got to say to that?”
Shay glanced over him to look back at Asha. She stood with her head hanging, tenderly rubbing at her wrists. She didn’t look like she wanted to be the girlfriend of the baseball-cap boy.
Shay sighed, seeing only one way to solve this. His fist connected with the boy’s stubborn jaw, emphasized by a sharp crack. Not wasting any time, he grabbed Asha and ran. The boy staggered back, his hand held to his face as he watched their blurry forms vanish.
When they had run at least a block down the sidewalk, Asha pulled her arm out of Shay’s grip. She ran on ahead in a dash, leaving Shay to run on his own with the shopping bags swinging wildly from his hands.
“Asha!” he called out, and after the third time she whirled to face him.
Shay flinched inwardly, stunned into silence at her sudden outburst. Her hair was disheveled, a snarled mess, and her face looked taught with pain.
“Look. I just—“ she paused with her hands in the air, poised as though she wanted to tear something apart. She lowered them to make fists at her sides, and with a sigh said, “I just want to go home. I’ve had enough of being abused…and not wanted for one day,” she glared daggers at him before turning. Shay watched her go, remembering the small tear that had been falling down her face.
Shay fell back into his top bunk, spreading his arms wide. Staring up at the ceiling, he tried to untangle his thoughts. Why had Asha looked so hurt? He understood how a past boyfriend could bring up unpleasant emotions, but Asha had seemed…scared.
Letting out a sigh, he glanced over the side of his bed to the shopping bags below. Seconds later he had the bags on the top bunk with him.
Sitting up, he pulled out the stuff he had bought for Asha and put it to the side.
Flipping the bag, he dumped out the rest of the items. A clutter of things littered his bed, and among them a large paper. He pulled it out to see that it was the guide around the mall, but before he could throw it away he saw a hand written list down one side of it.
Unfolding the mall guide, he read:
-T-shirt: I know you like black, but I chose the white one. It has black angel wings on the back. Do you know why? It’s because when I look at you…you seem trapped inside yourself. Be free!
-Scarf: I chose it because of its many colors. Your eyes are pretty, but sometimes you need to wear something other than black in order to make them stand out.
-How To Draw People: Hee-hee. Once you drew me…remember that? Well, I think you need more practice.
-Sleep Mask: Chase once told me you have trouble getting to sleep. It says “sweet dreams” on it. I hope it helps.
-Fuzzy socks: I couldn’t resist! You don’t have to wear them…but no one will notice them if you wear shoes.
-Bracelet: It says “Smile!” on it. Obey it!
I enjoyed being with you!
Shay lowered the paper, resting his eyes on the objects she had just described. Slowly, he reached for the socks and pulled them on, trying to ignore the hearts and teddy bears decorating them. Then he changed into the angel wings t-shirt, secured the “Smile!” bracelet around his wrist, and loosely tied the bright scarf around his neck. Lying back down, he slid the sleep mask over his eyes. As he quietly drifted off to sleep a small smile curved the corners of his lips.
Asha twirled the daisy between her thumb and middle finger, watching as the petals twirled around and around its yellow center.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Asha lifted her eyes to see Ever watching her closely. “That’s the sixth time you’ve asked me that,” she whispered, not wanting to break the pleasant silence she had eased into like a warm blanket around her shoulders.
“It’s because I haven’t believed the last five answers you’ve given me. Something about you is different today…I feel like you’re shutting me out.”
She sighed and threw the daisy into the bed of flowers behind her. Ever was always so honest with what he thought. Glancing around the flower-filled room quickly, she admitted, “You’re right.” She opened her mouth again to speak, but stopped the rush of air that was about to come out with her words. Pressing her lips together, she felt the pressure build up in her chest. She gripped the edge of the marble bench she sat on, remembering that she was sitting in the same place where each of the boys had first kissed her.
“Sometimes it helps to talk about it,” Ever said softly.
Asha couldn’t look up into his eyes. She found herself focusing on the crimson tie resting on his chest. He was dressed so magnificently, like he was going to meet the queen. But he wasn’t, he was dressed like a perfect gentleman just to be with her.
Ever stood up then in front of her, and offered her a hand. Her gaze flickered from his hand to his face, and hesitantly slipped her own hand into his. He grasped her fingers firmly and led her into the clear space in the circle of benches.
She watched him as she stood right in front of him. Slowly, he pulled a pair of headphones out of his pocket. With his fingertips, he brushed her brown hair behind her ear and pushed the bud of the earphone ever so softly into her ear. Her skin tingled as his fingers brushed against her cheek, but he didn’t even seem to notice.
He smiled at her as he tucked the other earbud into his own ear, the cord hanging between them.
“Now…” he said as he lowered his right hand to her waist. “Just follow me. Don’t stop for anything. Everything else doesn’t exist. It’s just you and me and the music.”
Taking her right hand in his, he cradled it in his loose grasp. His thumb smoothed her fingers as he started to sway in a slow waltz.
Asha tried to follow his slow movements, stepping on his foot the first step she took. She gave him a guilty smile and mouthed “sorry.” After a few moments of silence, she looked up at his tall figure to say, “Uh…Ever? There’s no music.”
“Shh…” he whispered. “It’s coming.”
Asha looked all around her, wondering where it was going to come from. Then in a low hum, she heard words. She looked up at Ever as he started to sing, his eyes closed.
*this is where you look up the song "Safe and Sound" cover by Julia Sheer on youtube*
As he sang, he opened his eyes every so often to smile down at her. Slowly, she lowered her head to rest against his chest. The top of her head barely reached the middle of his pecs, but she didn’t feel small at all. In fact, she felt even safer being small beside him.
She ducked her head, letting a tear moisten her eyelashes, then fall down her cheek. But more tears followed. When his gentle voice faded, and the vibrations in his chest ceased, she pushed away from him a little. Her fingers trembled as she brushed away the tears, but a cool finger under her chin made her stop.
Her eyes rose to connect with Ever’s. He didn’t even have to say anything; his eyes spoke his questions. His thumb brushed away the tears she had missed.
“Do you ever feel like you’re being used?” she softly said as he lowered his hand to rest on her shoulder.
“Always,” he whispered, and she looked up to see her pain reflected in his eyes.
“Would you break a promise if you knew it would be harmful to yourself?” she said, searching his face.
“What kind of promise?” he said, his voice taking on a firm tone of protectiveness.
“Never mind,” she said, and quickly turned away. The face of a boy with shaggy hair and a Yankee baseball cap on his head flashed through her mind as she let one more tear fall.
Shay leaned over the edge of the railing and breathed in a lungful of the city air that rushed up the side of the building to blow into his face. Suddenly, a sharp pain pierced his heart, or at least what felt like his heart. He knew what it really was.
“So you’ve got it too, huh?”
Shay’s eyes darted over to see Ever leaning casually against the iron railing. His mouth was quirked up in a knowing smile.
“You always pick the most annoying times to show off your observation skills,” Shay spoke through clenched teeth.
“You’re right,” Ever said as he turned around to face the railing. He looked down at the cars speeding by. “But I never really thought you would warm up this fast. I knew you would crack at some point….but not…this soon,” his words drifted away into the breeze.
“Yah, well,” Shay gasped as a fit of tremors overtook him. He slumped to the ground, his back against the fence. Ever was immediately beside him, staring at Shay’s face glistening with sweat.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go inside?” Ever spoke as he wrapped Shay’s scarf around his neck several times and buttoned up his coat collar. Shay shook his head slightly, the edges of his hair shining with wetness.
Ever quietly sat beside Shay, pushing in his earbuds as he watched the boy’s jaw clench and unclench. Shay wrapped his arms tight around his stomach, wishing the pain would fade. Inside of him, he could feel the Deum moving, uncurling from its compressed ball shape. He knew what was going to happen, just like Shaun had explained to him so many years ago. The demon would grow larger and larger until it completely filled his physical shape, and when it was time for it to be released….No, he didn’t want to think about it.
“Asha seems to be in a lot of pain,” Ever commented when he saw that Shay’s face has slackened.
“Well, so am I.”
“Did you do something to her?”
“She was going to tell me a very important piece of information yesterday. She said she had a promise that she was being forced to keep. But it’s harmful to her and she doesn’t want to keep it anymore,” Ever looked down at his hands, remembering her small delicate hands in his.
“What’s the promise?” Shay asked, hugging himself again as he felt the Deum pulse like another heartbeat beside his own.
“She never told me, that’s why I was hoping you knew something about it.” Shay thought hard through the haze of pain in his head. There was a connection in his
mind…somewhere….he could see a Yankee baseball cap…the boy’s hand around Asha’s wrist…But he wasn’t able to tell Ever before his mind went black.
Asha walked past Matchmaker’s Mansion, not giving the door that peeled paint another look. She marched past, determined not to go in. In her mind she had become too dependent on the boys.
She swerved into an alleyway and paused. Looking over her shoulder, she thought of Ever who had almost learned her terrible secret, the real reason why she had first gone to Matchmaker’s Mansion. But then she remembered Shay, and how he had totally disowned her after leading her on the entire day. Her emotions were swirling about her as she sank onto a crate inside the alleyway.
In the dark and damp she didn’t see the figure that had been following her until he grabbed a hold of her shoulder.
She shrieked, jumping away, but the hand held her shoulder firmly like pincers.
“Asha, it’s just me,” she looked up into the shadowed face of Justin. The hair curling out from underneath his baseball cap made his silhouette look like that of a disfigured monster.
“Just you? I don’t want to see you again,” she spat, and used her hands to try to pry away his grip on her shoulder.
“Well that’s too bad, isn’t it, since you haven’t got a choice,” he shoved her away from him, out of the alleyway and onto the sidewalk. “I lived up to my end of the deal. And don’t say that two months wasn’t enough time, ‘cause you said your pretty face could get you any guy in a matter of days.” He sneered, “Guess I was right.”
“Please, Justin. Please don’t make me do this. You’re abusing my rights as a woman!”
“What?!” he gripped her shirt front and dragged her close to him. He bent his face down to her’s, his eyes glaring into her’s. Her breath came out in ragged gasps as his fist clenched the fabric tighter around her neck. “Your rights? As I recall, you were the one who introduced this whole idea.”
“I was just using it as an excuse to get rid of you,” she spat into his face, then bashed her forehead against his.
He released her with a bellow, then grabbed her hard by the shoulder and shook her. “You’re not go—“
A strong hand appeared in front of Asha’s face and wrapped itself around Justin’s neck, squeezing hard. Justin’s hands tore a piece of the shirt from her shoulder as he was thrown back against the alley wall. Asha stood stone still as she watched the blonde-haired boy leap after Justin. Her eyes blinked as she watched, transfixed. The blondie slammed Justin’s head against the wall, blood smearing the brick when Justin pulled away to land a blow on the blondie’s jaw.
As the blondie stumbled back onto the sidewalk, Asha caught a glimpse of his face, and gasped when she saw it was Chase! His lips were curled back in a growl, his eyebrows pointed downward, and jaw set. A bruise was purpling on his jaw.
Both boys leapt at each other, their hands grasping for anything to hold onto and yank or tear. They pulled hair, pushed each other against the wall, and landed their blows wherever they could. Five minutes later they were bruised and broken, blood streaming out their noses.
Just as Chase lifted the crate, ready to dash it to pieces over Justin’s head, Asha cried out, “STOP!” Chase’s arms stopped mid-air, and his bruised face turned to look at her.
Justin tumbled to the ground, and then scrambled to get up. Without a look at either of them, he grabbed his Yankees cap and ran.
Asha stared off into the shadows where Justin had vanished, her eyes unblinking. She came back to her senses when she felt warm but sticky arms around her shoulders. Chase laid his cheek tenderly on the top of her head, wincing at the bruises but holding on tight. Asha couldn’t move her arms with the way he was holding her, but leaned slightly into his embrace. He smelled of sweat and blood, but she thought he smelled like an angel sent to protect her.
Suddenly, the only thing embracing her was cold air, his warmth gone in a split-second. His whispered words floated around her, “I’m sorry.”
Asha adjusted the backpack strap on her shoulder, her hands clenching it tightly. Why was she being summoned to the principal’s office? Had Mom figured out that she wasn’t at extracurricular activities after school but actually at Matchmaker’s Mansion? She veered off the main hall into the principal’s open door.
The short pudgy man was seated at his desk, a distraught look on his face.
“It’s for you,” the principal reached out his hand to Asha, the shiny black telephone ready for her to take.
Hesitantly, she lowered her backpack to the ground, sank into the uncomfortable plastic chair, and received it. Why had she been called out of class just to answer a phone call?
“Hello?” she said, her throat going dry.
“Hi baby, it’s Mom. Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” she said, her mind filling with the incident from a few days ago. Images of Chase bashing Justin’s face in made her heart throb with pain. Thankfully he hadn’t had the nerve to show up to school.
“Honey, I have something important to tell you.” Asha knew she was telling the truth. Her mom always overused pet names when she was about to tell her something tragic.
“I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone, sweetie, but I couldn’t wait till I got home. I wanted you to know right away.”
“What is it?” Asha leaned forward in her seat, her eyes moving back and forth rapidly as though she could see her mother’s pinched face across the distance.
“Asha---your father’s gone missing. The last time anybody saw him was four months ago.”
The phone dropped onto the carpet with a dull thump.
The tears were blinding, making everything she saw turn into blobs of color in her vision. But she knew Matchmaker’s Mansion by heart, and when she felt the face of the angel statue that guarded the boy’s hall, she knew she was going in the right direction.
Her fingers trailed along the cold brick walls of the hallway, pausing when she felt wood. Her shivering grasp found the metal doorknob. She wrenched the door open, and felt herself stumble blindly in, the tips of her sneakers catching on the carpet.
Her eyes lifted to see the dark shape of one of the boys. She let out a sob and reached out for him. Arms wrapped tight around his warm body, she let all of her tears go.
Looking down at her with wide eyes, Shay gulped down his nervousness. He was standing stick straight with his hands raised in the air, like he was being arrested. His eyes glanced down as he gulped in a breathe of air, her arms squeezing him tighter. He slowly lowered his hands in hesitating movements to pat her back methodically. Her tears were creating a huge wet spot on his shirt, but he found that he didn’t mind too much. When her sobs grew louder, he wound his arms tight around her, one hand cradling the back of her head. It sounded as though someone were pulling her heart out, with the way she was crying.
When Asha finally stepped back from him slightly, her hands gripping the loose fabric of his shirt, her eyes lifted shyly to meet his. He was looking down at her with questions in his grey eyes, but his mouth never opened to ask them. Instead, he unwound one of his arms from around her to catch a tear that was falling down her cheek.
With the tear on the edge of his pointer finger, like a perfect dewdrop, he casually lifted his finger to his lips.
“Your tears taste like the ocean,” he said with innocent wonder.
Asha let out a little laugh that cracked, but her smile still stayed on her face. “You’re so weird. But…you’ve never tasted tears before?”
Shay lowered his finger as he said, “I’ve never cried.”
Asha’s eyes widened, “I don’t believe you.” But Shay’s face stayed serious.
Asha sighed, “Well, I have plenty to spare,” At that, Shay smiled.
“Well, well, well—“ Ever leaned against the open doorway. “You two are getting cozy.”
Shay looked up from watching Asha’s peaceful face as it rested on his lap. He made no move to comment.
Once Ever was comfortably situated beside him on the couch, Shay said, “She’s hurting. A lot.”
“Chase took care of her scummy ex-boyfriend for the moment, so I can’t tell you what else could’ve harmed her,” Ever said, and picked up his guitar that had been leaning against the couch.
Shay gazed down at Asha’s sleeping figure as he said, “Why won’t Chase see her? It’s like he’s just handed her over to me.”
Ever played a harsh note on in his guitar. Shay glanced over at him with a quirked eyebrow. “You are so contradictory it’s almost sickening. First you tell Chase to stay away from Asha because he’s hurting her, but now you’re doing exactly what you told Chase not to do. And you’re asking why?”
“How else can I protect her? She keeps coming back.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Ever said as he got up. He looked over his shoulder at Shay, “Chase has been protecting her in the areas that you haven’t. And I must admit that Chase is doing a much better job than you.”
Ever strolled away as he strummed his guitar, Shay’s eyes piercing holes in his broad shoulders.
Asha wrote down the order quickly, scratching down grilled cheese and hot dogs, but she wasn’t focused at all. Her eyes slid to the side. Her scalp tingled, like it always did when she knew someone was watching.
“I’ll be right back with your drinks,” she smiled at her customers. She swiveled on her black high heels and caught the jerky movement of someone lifting their menu. As she passed by the table, she noticed blonde hair peeking out from under his cap, but the menu obscured her view of his face.
When she returned with the drinks, he was gone.
Ever glanced over at Asha and noticed how her shoulders slumped.
“Are you cold?”
Her head jerked up to look up at him as if she had just been woken up. With a haze over them, her eyes focused on him.
“You make me feel so underdressed,” she said, not answering his question. He looked himself over- his suit, tie, and dress shoes. Honestly, it wasn’t that he dressed up, but that it was the clothes he was most comfortable in.
“You have no reason to feel bad. This is a very relaxed date. No fancy parlors.” He smiled, and she returned it in a weaker form.
As they continued to walk, he felt like draping an arm around her shoulders to ward off cold, but he didn’t. She was too distant, and he felt like if he touched her that she would flinch. So he opted to strolling along beside her, brushing shoulders often to make sure she was still awake.
At one point, Ever lifted his eyes to spot their destination. A wheel of lights lit the sky, turning slowly.
“There it is,” he whispered.
He looked over at Asha’s curious expression. “There’s our first activity,” he pointed at the ferris wheel. Her eyes lit up a little as she looked it over and then turned to smile at her.
Minutes later they sat in a booth, slowly rising higher into the night sky. It gently rocked them, the voices of the crowd below drifting away. Their only companions were the stars in the sky.
Glancing over at her and her starlit eyes, he felt his heart warm a little. He felt like asking her what had been going on recently, wanted to know why she had been crying a few days before. But instead, he just quietly took a loose end of her red scarf and draped it around her bare neck. Her lips parted as he bent forward to do so, but he resisted the urge to brush them with his own.
He sank back into the cushioned seat with a sigh. “I’ve always noticed something about life.” He paused and was about to look over at her, but stared straight ahead. “It’s just like a ferris wheel. When you get to the highest peak in your life, something always happens to bring it back down again. The good thing is that it never stays down. Eventually it rises. It’s not about circumstances that cause it to rise, but rather it’s the attitude in which you look at it and the choices you make.”
When he did look over, he saw that it wasn’t stars shining in her eyes, but tears. And that’s when he decided it was right to pull her close and keep a steady arm around her shoulders.
“Wow, I haven’t been on one of those in forever!” Asha pointed at the horses turning round and round with little kids screaming on them.
“Alright, let’s do it,” Ever headed towards the carousel. They boarded the ride, taking two golden horses beside each other. Ever’s knees touched the ground whenever the horse would dip down and Asha would laugh hard.
Ever laughed with Asha, thankful her tears were gone and the lights illuminated a joyful face. But just as he was filled with relief, he felt his heart constrict.
The lights transformed and flashed at him. Colors blurred together and a new image was born before his eyes. Pure green eyes stared at him in the golden glow of a sunset. Ella’s face shone pure white as she rode beside him on her black steed. The colors smashed together and he suddenly found himself staring down at her broken body. His hands were cradling her head, feeling for her pulse, knowing that she wasn’t alive. Her horse lay a few yards away, struggling to rise on its broken foreleg.
Ever drank in a breath of night air, his eyes snapping open.
“Ever? Ever! Are you alright?” He felt Asha’s hands on his face. His hands clutched the pole in front of him, the horse motionless beneath him. A feverish chill crawled over his body.
He groaned. “Let’s get off now.”
“Alright, alright…” Asha whispered to herself as she helped him stumble off the platform. With Asha’s shoulder to balance him, Ever reached a bench and collapsed onto it.
“Thank you,” he muttered.
“No problem,” Asha answered as she buttoned up the collar of his coat. Her cool hand felt his forehead again. “We’ll rest here for a while,” she said as she slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.
Ever remained still, his eyes flickering between flashbacks and reality. He was barely conscious as Asha’s head nodded and rested against his shoulder. Eventually, he lowered her head into his lap and draped his coat over her small body. The cold chill kept him awake to what was real. He forced himself to keep his eyes upward at the stars, not letting them drift down to Asha lest he see Ella’s face in her’s.
Asha groaned as she struggled to open her eyes. She was astounded to see ice crystals on the edges of her eyelashes. Slowly, she looked around, gasping as she noticed the street she had been on last night.
Jerking herself upright, her eyes took in a frozen looking Ever.
“This is the first time I have regretted being a gentleman,” he whispered, his blue lips barely forming the words.
“You should’ve woken me up!” Asha worriedly whispered back, helping him put his stiff arms into his jacket.
“You were so peaceful after a week of heartache, I couldn’t bear to do it,” he said, his breathe coming out in puffs of white in the twilight air.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said and forced his feet to raise his body. Asha hurriedly placed her shoulder against him, helping him walk. His feet shuffled along, his body swaying as though her were drunk. With his head hanging, Asha looked up into his face and noticed crystallized trails of tears at the corners of his red-rimmed eyes.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Ever?” Asha said.
“Don’t worry. I can never die.”
“Asha, I have something I must tell you.” He reached out to grab a lamppost on the edge of the sidewalk. There he clung as he looked down into her face. His hand gripped her arm with fierceness.
“We-Shay, Chase, and I-are something that you should not mess around with. You’re in extreme danger, Asha. Not from someone else, but from us. We are monsters, a grotesque form of human. It is our love, and your love that will be the end of us, Asha. You must stop this now. Go home and stay home.”
Asha shook her head hard. “Ever, what are you talking about?” She wanted to back away and yet wanted to cling to him at the same time.
“Asha,” he shook her a little, “remember the Deum. That is your clue. That and the first question of the Matchmaker’s quiz. If you value your life, you won’t see us any longer.”
Asha paced back and forth, her pink bunny slippers gathering static on her bedroom carpet. She paused at the end of her bed, and then let herself drop onto the covers. Every muscle in her body screamed for rest; she had worked late at the local diner. But it was a satisfying feeling, knowing she had earned enough money to pay off the rent. She tried to block out the thought that her father should be here right now, taking care of her and mom.
When she sat back up, a damp circle decorated the place where she had buried her face into the comforter. Who would’ve guessed that her father had fled to California with another woman. The truth hurt like a knife wound in her chest, a wound that would never heal.
Thank goodness high school would be over in a week. She wouldn’t have to worry about anything else but paying the bills after that. But that wasn’t true at all. There was a niggle just above her heart, telling her that there was more than bills to worry about.
Her eyes focused on the huge cork board hanging on her wall. Every inch of it was covered in the pictures of the boys. Chase, Shay, and Ever stared back at her and she felt her heart suddenly grow heavier.
Ever had made it sound like she would die if she saw him again. But why? Her head spun from exhaustion and concentration. After several minutes, she broke out of her mind-whirling thoughts to hit the play button on her stereo. Tonight, Tonight by Hot Chelle Rae blared out at her and she couldn’t help but grab her hairbrush and sing along. “La, la la,” she sang loud, dreaming that she was dancing with Chase.
“I think she got the jist of what you were saying,” Shay said, closing his journal to meet Ever’s eyes. Ever was stretched out on his bed, his guitar lying across his chest. His fingers tweaked a chord.
“How long has it been, two weeks?”
“About that,” Shay fidgeted with the end of his black and white striped scarf.
“Chase’s love is undying,” Ever stated. “He still keeps an eye on her, and makes sure she gets home safe each night from the diner.”
“His skills at stalking are ever improving,” Shay muttered.
“It’s not stalking, Shay. It’s…” Ever let his hand drop from the guitar. “I don’t know. Valiant effort.”
Ever stood up, running both of his hands through his hair as though he could brush out his nervousness. Shay had seen it both in Chase and Ever for the past few days. They paced often, their minds elsewhere. With their stares roaming, their conversation would always turn back to Asha.
Shay had not wanted to betray his emotions so easily, so he had grabbed a handful of Shakespeare from the library. He had finished all of them, pausing when he had come to the sentence: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” He remembered mumbling that once to Asha. Of course, back then he had been completely rude to her, had not known what she would mean to him.
Turning back to his desk, his eyes caught the picture of his little sister Dawn. But the more he stared at it, the more he saw Asha instead of Dawn. “Where is Chase anyway?” he said slowly, transfixed the photo.
“Uh, I think he had a family call today,” Ever said. Shay sighed at Ever’s uncertainty. Ever was never uncertain. He was supposed to know everything. What was happening to them all?
Chase clutched the edges of the chair, his moist fingers slipping slightly on the plastic. His eyes were closed, almost as though he had fallen asleep in his chair, but the rapid breaths pumping his chest counteracted any image of sleep.
He flinched at the click of the doorknob turning. His eyes flashed open, but his hands stayed clamped to the chair. A man, woman, and teenage boy filed in with stiff backs, their eyes scraping over his body.
They each took a seat in the three plastic chairs facing him. Their presences were overwhelming, like the room had suddenly filled with water, the pressure squeezing his body.
“Hello, Chase. How have you been?” the woman was the first to speak. His eyes took in her petite stature, her white blonde hair, and the wrinkles beginning to form around her eyes and forehead; but there was one thing he couldn’t bear to look at—her eyes. Whenever he looked into their blue-green depths, he couldn’t help but think of the countless days he had spent staring into the mirror, seeing a single blue-green eye staring back at him. Tears had raced down his face as he had wished desperately to have both eyes and be rid of the nasty memory.
He shifted his gaze to the floorboards, but noticed the man’s fists begin to clench on his lap.
“I know what you expect,” Chase’s flat tone cut her off.
“You want me to be all happy to see you again in—how long has it been?—five years,” Chase said bitterly. “It’s great to know you guys were thinking about me, because I haven’t thought about you at all.”
Before Chase could say another word, his mother’s arms were around him, cradling his head. He started to say more, but the tears choked anything that tried to get out. His arms circled around his mother’s waist and together they rocked back and forth.
“Why do I have to stay?” he cried between sobs.
“It’s for your own protection, honey, you know that,” his mother soothed.
“It wasn’t my fault the demon came out. I didn’t even know it was there.”
“I know, honey, I know…”
Chase lifted his fingers to his face, beneath the long bangs that covered his eyes. He could still feel the cool touch of his mother’s lips on his ugly scar…a good-bye kiss.
Sprawled on top of his bed, Chase stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling, his mind drifting. His body remembered the stiff embrace his father had given him. Things had never been the same between them since that moment when his father had hit him with the glowing fire poker. His conscience tried to tell himself that it wasn’t his father’s fault; his father had just been defending himself from…from his own son.
Chase grabbed the fuzzy blanket beneath him and clutched it to his chest. He could feel the hot iron searing across his face, the red puffy flesh, and half of the world blinking into darkness as the metal touched his eye. The demon that had been emerging from his six year old body had suddenly withdrawn back into its human shell where it sat like a heavy weight on top of Chase’s heart, waiting for the next opportunity.
Chase’s hand touched the skin of his chest, right over his heart. Even now he could feel the Deum throbbing as if he had a second heartbeat, but there was no pleasure in the feeling. It only brought foreboding as he thought of the last tragedy it had ensued. If the demon escaped because of Asha, then there would be no doubt what would happen. His father had been able to defend himself, but Asha? No.
Asha clenched the postcard in her hand, the edges of it wrinkled from her constant fiddling. The door seemed to laugh at her as its strips of peeling paint wavered in the breeze. The familiar creak of the sign sounded above her head, but she didn’t look. She already knew what it read: Matchmaker’s Mansion.
The postcard had said:
Judging from your past three dates, the Matchmaker’s have made their choice. Will you come to see who they have chosen as your fated love?
p.s.-This will be your final date. In a weeks time you will see your three lovers at the Ball of Roses. There you will make your one and final choice. Enjoy your date while you can!
Asha crumpled the postcard in her fist, then loosened her grip. The wind snagged the piece of paper out of her hand, spinning it down the sidewalk on currents of air. Ever’s threat may be true, but she was sure the suspense would kill her just as much. With a steady hand, she turned the doorknob and let herself in.
It was all as before: white Victorian chair surrounded by flickering candles, the great block of a desk before it, and the same Shaun with too much gel in his hair.
“Ah, Asha! We were beginning to worry about you.”
“I needed some time off,” Asha whispered.
“Oh, I understand. Love can be a tiring thing. But we’re happy to have you back. Wouldn’t want you to waste all that hard work for nothing!” Shaun smiled as he put down an enormous feather pen that could’ve been a swan’s wing.
But instead of feeling at ease, Asha had a sick feeling growing in her stomach. Her eyes drifted to the statue at the left of Shaun’s desk. The Deum, he had called it. A mythological creature that had the love demon trapped inside.
Shaun noticed her gaze wrapped around the statue and put his feather pen in the wooden cup directly in front of it, blocking her view. Asha blinked, turning to Shaun.
“Shall we get started? This must be an exciting day for you. You get to see which one the Matchmaker’s believe is compatible for you,” he stood up, the light bouncing of his slick hair.
“Of course,” Asha followed after him down the dark skinny hallway. She hesitated at the hallway that led down the boy’s corridor, but Shaun continued, leading her down a way she’d previously been forbidden to go.
She kept her eyes pinpointed to the back of Shaun’s neatly cropped hairline. At first she thought she was dreaming it up, but she was sure she could see pale scars swirling over his skin in an odd formation. Like he had had white tattoes imprinted over his entire body. It was hard to see in the dimness, but whenever they passed under a sky-light, she saw how the tattoos shimmered.
“Oh my goodness. Ever was right. I shouldn’t have come,” she thought. Asha felt her lungs start to constrict, her heart begin to pound. Her breaths came in small gasps as she realized that Shaun could be…
“Is everything all right, my dear?” Asha looked up into Shaun’s worried eyes. “Did something frighten you? I’m sorry, I should’ve realized that bringing you down dark hallways could intimidate you. Next time I’ll bring a lantern. But you don’t need to worry, because we’re here!”
Light poured into the hallway, and Asha gazed through the open doorway into a luxurious bathroom. A mirror covered the entire left wall, gleaming white vanities pushed up against it. On the right wall, an open shower was inlaid in pink marble. The far side of the room was taken up by a large bathtub, propped up on the legs of a lion. White lacy curtains brushed the floor as the window behind the bathtub breathed the smell of spring flowers into the room.
“You have exactly an hour to get ready. Leave the clothes you’re wearing by the door, since you won’t be needing them. The closet to the right of the bathtub holds all of the garments you will be using as well as towels. Enjoy yourself, my dear.”
Asha was too busy looking to hear the door lock behind her. For a few moments she just stared, taking baby steps into the room. Crystal, glass, and porcelain winked at her from every corner, glittering like it was on fire. When her state of shock finally broke, she went exploring, pressing every knob and button she could find. She found the stereo, the light dimmer, and the bag of rose petals that she dumped into the bathtub of steaming water. When she pushed the light down low, she found herself sitting in a tub that actually glowed a myriad of every changing colors.
When she stepped out of the bathtub, her legs were weak beneath her, softened by the hot water. She lazily dried herself, loving the feel of her skin that smelled of roses. Among the amenities she found an entire counter of make-up that slid out of the vanity. A dash of pink on her lids and cheeks, mascara curling her eyelashes, and a dab of lipstick- she turned toward the wardrobe.
The door swung open soundlessly, but the gasp that escaped her mouth was not. Her stomach twisted, and suddenly the past two relaxing hours was wasted as her muscles tensed. Her brown eyes flitted over the myriads of outfits searching for a solution, but there was none. The closet was full of lingerie.
Her fingers turned the hangars of netting, corsets, and barely-there undergarments. Finally, she found one that wasn’t half-bad, quickly slipping into it. Turning slowly, she gazed at herself in the mirror wall. A blue silk cami hugged her bust tightly, cupping under and then flowing loosely around her hips in sheer material. The hem barely fell over her blue hipsters, leaving her white legs exposed. Fingering the ruffle that drew attention to the low cut, Asha looked away from the mirror.
Whatever happened next…She blew out a breath of pent-up air. Forget that. She knew she could trust the boys.
A slice of light punctured the darkness. The soft moan of an opening door expanded the band of light, raising the darkness of the room to a dim gray. A footstep awakened a faint glow of light that illuminated the room just enough for her to make out the shapes in the room.
Asha shut the door softly behind her and hugged her arms, warding off the chill of the room. They could’ve at least made the room warm if they were going to force her to be scantily clad.
Sheer drapes fell from the ceiling, filling the room with silently wafting fabric. Her hands pushed the drapes away as they hugged her body like soft seaweed tangling about her. As she looked through a waterfall of fabrics that misted her vision, her eyes grasped the outline of a large mass.
She walked towards it, drifting through the drapes, until her gaze fell on a bed. A plush white cover was decorated with rose petals. She quirked her head to the side, looked down at her outfit, and then eyed the bed. The pieces were coming together, and so far the picture wasn’t looking too good.
She pressed a hand on the bed, the bed giving way to leave her hand print. Her mouth quirked in a wry smile and she sprang onto the bed, the rose petals jumping into the air and settling on her like feather kisses.
The sound of a door opening was like an electric shock, turning her veins to ice.
Shay rubbed at his black hair with a towel, stopping the drips before they fell on his bare shoulders. He didn’t notice the figure sitting on his bed until he was almost there, the ceiling lamp above the bed casting a golden glow around her feminine curves.
With an arm he pulled the drapes aside, his eyes dropping to meet Asha’s. Her eyes grew wide with shock, her mouth falling open. Shay followed her eyes down his body, finally realizing that he was only in his boxers.
He took a step forward, putting his arms out like he was about to explain, when she screamed. A scream that seemed to shake the drapes as they rippled. He advanced towards her, pumping his hands up and down like he could possibly hush her if he did it enough. But her eyes just grew wider, and that’s when she ran.
Tears streaming down her face, she bolted away from the bed, tangling herself in the drapes. As he ran after her, he heard her tear-laced cries.
“Please don’t make me do it…don’t make me do it…”
“I don’t want to do it this way…please don’t force me…go away!”
He found her in a corner, wrapped in the darkest colored drapes, a crimson red. Because she was wrapped up so tightly, he could see every shape of her figure pronounced clearly. He reached out and touched his fingertips to her shoulder. She flinched.
Her sobbing increased. “Please don’t make me…I’m not ready…not ready for this.”
“I’m not making you do anything…what are you talking about?”
“You’re just l-like h-him…I should..should’ve known. You just w-want me for m-m-my body.”
Shay didn’t know what to say. He thought back, trying to remember if he had implied any kind of lust towards her. No. He hadn’t. But that guy had- the guy in the baseball cap that had been pulling her away, saying something about her needing to keep her promise.
“Asha…I’m not going to treat you like your ex-boyfriend did…I promise,” Shay’s voice faded. He realized that nothing he said could change her mind.
He left her in the drapes, like a cocooned butterfly that he was tempted to unwrap, and strode back to the bed. Grabbing fistfuls of downy comforter, he yanked it off the bed, rose petals springing into the air.
Her sobs ceased when he gently placed the comforter around her drape-wrapped shoulders. He hugged her tight, the comforter a layer of safety between their bodies. Slowly, he felt her melt into the warmth of the comforter and his arms holding it close around her.
“Do you want to come out now?” Shay whispered, his breath rippling the drape that obstructed his view of her face.
He saw a tiny nod through the fabric, and with his help she slipped out of the drape with the comforter drawn close around her. His guiding arm helped her shaken self back to the bed where she nearly collapsed.
Her feet stuck out of the bottom of the comforter, and he felt the urge to reach out and trace the curve of her heel. Instead, he tucked the comforter down over them, patting it gently.
“Shay? Are you still there?” her voice was muffled.
He knelt down by the edge of the bed where he could see a small piece of her face in the mounds of down. Her brown eyes still sparkled with tears.
“I’m right here,” he said.
A small hand emerged from the comforter to rest on his bare chest.
“You’re a real man, Shay,” she said, her hand warming the place above his heart. He wondered if she could feel the Deum throbbing within him beside his heart.
“Thank you for…not being a…” she couldn’t finish.
“Did he hurt you?” Shay said, iron in his voice.
Her hand started to withdraw back into the folds, but he grabbed it. “Did he hurt you?” he pronounced every word.
“Yes,” she paused, breathing in sharply. “In more than one way.”
Shay’s grip loosened on her hand as he whispered, “I’m sorry.”
He saw half of her teary smile. Gingerly, he pushed the blanket away from her face. Her eyelids fluttered closed as he smoothed the tangles of hair that had fallen into her eyes.
“Please hold me.”
The bed sank beneath him as he lay down beside her, and she turned her cocooned body into his open arms. The night was spent with occasional sobs from Asha and gentle hushes from Shay, his chin resting on her head as he smoothed her hair.
Shay scowled at his book, flipping a few pages, trying to focus his eyes on the words and not the ones spinning through his mind.
“It’s very rare for you to be in so dark a mood that you can’t read,” Ever commented over the cup of tea he had raised to his lips. He set it down without a sound, and leaned back into the couch, his demeanor patient.
Shay glared at him over his book, but Ever only returned a blank gaze. Shay snapped the book shut and tossed it onto the coffee table where it lightly bumped into Ever’s teacup. Ever’s eyebrow twitched slightly, but otherwise he stayed still.
“The matchmakers pulled a brave one last night. A dangerous one, too. They put Asha in the master bedroom with a seductive nature in mind. It seems they’re getting desperate to pull the Deum out,” Shay said in a flat tone.
“How did Asha take all this?” Ever said, his face softening slightly.
“She…she’s been traumatized by something before…I think with her ex-boyfriend. He wanted her body more than her herself as a person, and he hurt her…bad,” Shay bit down on his thumbnail, his mind wandering to the night before.
“Nothing…happened?” Ever said softly.
Shay only shook his head.
“This all needs to stop—now,” Ever stood up abruptly, reaching for his coat draped over the armrest.
Shay’s eyes followed him to the door. “And how are you going to do that? You have feelings for her too, Ever. Maybe not quite like mine or Chase’s. How are you going to be able to do what we can’t?”
Ever paused with his hand on the doorknob, “We’ve hurt her enough by letting it go this far…I’m not going to let it go any farther.”
Shay shook his head as the door shut.
Asha hugged her purse to her chest, wincing as her high heels squeezed her toes with every step she took. A chill wind blew over her neck, and she pulled her coat closer around her, wishing she could get home faster.
She eyed the alleyways with fear, remembering how Shay had saved her from her ex-boyfriend. If only he were here now to see her home safely. Turning to face straight, she spotted her home in the distance, the soft glow of lights in the dining room a welcoming sight.
Her hurried footsteps clinked on the sidewalk. She power walked up the short drive to the front door, pulling her keys out of her coat pocket. A dark shadow separated from the shroud surrounding the door.
Gasping, Asha tripped backwards, her heel catching in a crack in the pavement. Her arms flailed, but a hard hand grabbed one of her wrists and pulled her to him before she could hit the ground.
She cried out, twisting herself in his grasp, but he held her firmly.
“Shh, Asha, it’s ok. It’s just me, Ever.”
Asha fell silent, almost instantly melting into his embrace. “Why are you here?” she mumbled into his coat.
“I had to come…to say good-bye.”
“What?! You’re leaving?”
“No, Asha. You are,” he said it with such abruptness that it left Asha speechless.
“I—I don’t understand,” she felt her emotions well up in her throat, forming a hard ball.
She felt, more than heard, Ever’s sigh through his coat. “The Matchmaker’s have decided that none of us are compatible for you. I came to say good-bye before they broke off all contact between us.”
“What?!” Asha stumbled backward. “How can they say that…after all we’ve done…and been through?”
“It’s true. Shay only sees you as a sister, Chase sees you as one of his playmates, and I…well, I’ll leave that for you to decide.” His tall form melted into the shadows, leaving Asha alone on the doorstep. She shivered, not from the chill of the night, but from the cold smile on Ever’s lips before he left.
With her forehead creased in worry, she turned to the door and let herself in, the bright lights welcoming her no longer cheery.
He felt a warm liquid on his hands, and glancing down he saw that they were stained red. His grey eyes rose from his hands to the little body lying on the bed, her arm draped elegantly by her head, palm open, like a fallen princess.
He inched forward, feeling his heart burning inside of him, searing his conscious. As he moved forward, he noticed that a stain on her white nightgown matched his hands. All at once, a million voices screamed out at him in a multitude of tones. He couldn’t see them, but he felt like they were hovering right over his head.
Shay, what have you done?!
How could you? She was your sister! What did she ever do to you?!
Hot tears slipped onto his crimson hands as he reached out to put a hand softly into her cold one. She had never done anything to him, except the one thing that had caused this to happen to her. She had loved him, and he had loved her back with all of his seven-year-old heart.
His breathe left him in a sharp exhale as his eyes moved to the little girl’s face, and instead of it being his little sister, he saw Asha. He was about to cry out in terror, when a blanket of warmth enveloped him. His heart calmed…beating slower…the voices faded…
Shay blinked away wetness from his eyes to stare right into blue-green eyes.
“What the?!!!” Shay pulled out of Chase’s arms. He stared with wild eyes at Chase’s hurt look. “What are you doing?” Shay spat.
Chase shrugged slowly. “Everyone needs a hug every once in a while.” Then he started to smile, pointing at him.
“What?!” Shay said, his harsh tone hurting even his own ears.
“You were crying…”
“Shay…” Chase smiled. “You were crying!”
Shay’s eyes widened and he reached up to touch his face. He smeared his fingers across his cheek and gingerly brought his fingertips to his lips. He almost smiled as he tasted them. They tasted just like Asha’s.
“Sometimes,” Chase began, “you just need a shoulder to be there to cry on.”
Shay’s grey eyes focused on the blonde-headed boy lying beside him on his top bunk, and considered punching him. In an awkward movement, he reached out and grabbed Chase by the shoulders. Pulling him close, they locked together, their arm muscles bulging as they crushed each other.
“Thanks, bro,” Shay whispered and let one more tear slip out.
Asha dropped her keys on the counter, the metal clattering against the marble. Her arm was poised to reach out and pull open the fridge when she heard a muffled sound.
With perked ears, she peered around the corner towards her mother’s room.
She edged around the corner and down the hall, her sneakers making soft footsteps on the carpet. With hesitant motions, she edged the door to her room open. Her mother lay sprawled out on her bed, a pillow crumpled to her chest and her face buried into it.
“Oh my goodness!!! Mom, are you okay?” Asha rushed to her mother’s side, putting her arms around her mother’s shaking shoulders. She smoothed the hair out of her mother’s tear streaked face, wiping her thumbs under her eyes to wipe away the dark make-up.
Her mother clung to her, her arms squeezing Asha tight. Her mother’s sobs shook them both as she struggled to get out any coherent words.
When her cries had died down, her mother pulled away, her hands wiping at her face.
“Tell me everything, Mom,” Asha put her hands on her mother’s shoulders, squeezing them gently.
“Oh…baby, I don’t know what to do,” her mother hung her head, gazing down into her clenched hands like they might hold the answers.
Asha sat silently for a few moments, looking into her mother’s tired face. The lines that were usually smiling around her eyes were crinkled with worry.
“You remember how we couldn’t find Dad?” her mother started slowly.
Asha nodded, remembering the phone call as if it was yesterday.
“Turns out…he isn’t the only one who hasn’t been missing,” her mother’s chin quivered.
“What do you mean?” Asha tilted her head to see her mother’s face better.
“Dad…ran off with a nineteen year old girl who just graduated from high school,” her mother said it like she was discussing someone else’s life, disconnected.
But that one fact, as simply stated as it was, slammed into Asha like a semi. Her whole body ached, the coldness starting from her heart and reaching out with icy fingertips until her whole body was numb.
“You’re joking with me, right? This is all some prank that you and Dad are pulling…” Asha rose from the bed and started to back away. An ice cold smile was pasted to her face, her mind trying to convince her heart that it was all a trick and there was no need to worry.
“I’m so sorry, Asha, I…” and her mother started to heave with sobs, bringing the pillow back up to cover her face.
Asha turned around and ran, out of the bedroom, past the kitchen, and out the front door into the cold till her body was as numb as her heart felt.
Asha fumbled blearily for her buzzing cellphone, wishing the noise would just go away. She wished everything would go away. Her whole body ached as she sat up, remembering last night with a sharp pain in her chest.
She had run so hard and long that she had found herself all the way at Matchmaker’s Mansion, but that had only hurt more to look at, opening another fresh wound, knowing that the boys were no longer there to turn to. Was everyone she loved soon to be cut off from her?
Snapping the phone open to answer, she pressed the speaker to her ear. “Hello?” she croaked.
“Is this Miss Asha?” a smooth voice asked.
She sat up a little bit straighter and cleared her throat, “Yes, it is.”
“Ah, I’m glad I was able to reach you, Miss Asha. Are you available today?” she recognized the voice to be Shaun’s.
Her brow furrowed, “Um…yes, but I thought that my matchmaking sessions were over. I guess that the matchmakers didn’t think that anyone was compatible with me. I failed.”
“I’m sorry…” Shaun paused, “there must be some kind of misunderstanding. The matchmakers believe all three boys make fine matches for you, but it is for you to decide the one who wins your heart. You are still coming to the Ball of Roses in two weeks time, correct?”
Asha’s gaze skipped to her corkboard, covered with the pictures of the boys and her together, and lastly drifting to a picture of her father.
“Yes, I’ll be there, whether they like it or not,” she said icily and snapped the phone shut.
It was eating away at her like a disease, crushing her bones, squeezing her heart, this emotion that she’d rarely experienced in such magnitude. Revenge.
As she stared at herself in the mirror, she willed the edges of her mouth to quirk upward in a slight smile, but it only came out looking like she was smirking. She felt her hairdresser pause, and quickly fell back into her morose state under the woman’s staring.
Several messy braids entwined themselves to the back of her head, where they joined together to form an elaborate bun, the ends falling down in small curls. The hairdresser tweaked a few hairs, finishing the last few adjustments to her messy “sexy” hairstyle as she called it.
“Now, what should we do for your make-up?” the hairdresser smiled at Asha despite the somber look she was getting in return.
“I want to look…” Asha paused, wondering how to phrase her exact feelings, “dark and mysterious. The girl who wants to make all those boys remember her and stun them. The girl who says ‘you had your chance, and you won’t get another one.’”
Her hairdresser stood behind her, her makeup brush poised in the air, her mouth about to fall all the way open. Slowly, she closed her mouth, her eyes slanting, “I know exactly what you mean, girl,” and she dabbed her brush into the “midnight purple.”
“You all remember your exact parts?”
Chase snapped to attention, his hand saluted to his brow, “Yes, sir, Mission Asha’s Escape is underway.”
Shay rolled his eyes and just said, “yes.”
Ever crossed his arms and smiled, but his lips settled into a grim line. “You all understand the seriousness of this?”
Chase lowered his eyes.
“You read the end of the story, right?” Ever leaned forward and Chase bent away.
“Sadly, yes,” Chase let his bangs fall over his disfigured eye.
“Good. I’m glad you understand,” Ever headed towards the door, but turned when he saw that only Chase was following him. “Shay?”
Shay didn’t even twitch, “I’ll be right there.”
When he heard the door shut, Shay collapsed onto Chase’s lower bunk bed. This was his chance to make everything right. He couldn’t mess up this time. His heart slammed into his ribs, and he pressed a hand over the Deum, as if his hand could block it from getting out.
He sighed and looked over at his sister’s picture, her smile so similar to Asha’s. “I promise,” he said.
“Goodness, how long is this going to take! My toes are practically twinkling,” Chase exclaimed, jogging in place in his white tuxedo.
“Twinkling?” Shay’s glare proved his displeasure for the choice of words. He lowered his chin into his black and white checkered scarf, the ends dangling beside his knees, his eyes squinting as he scoured the crowd.
“What if we don’t recognize her…or…or she’s hiding from us,” Chase’s voice accelerated with every word.
“Only time will tell,” Ever said, his hands clasped neatly in front of him, cuff links sparkling in the golden light.
Chase struggled to raise his voice above the music, “Or what if—“ he broke off, his eyes locked onto a dark image in the crowd. He took a determined step in the direction of his eye’s focus, but a black clothed arm jutted out to bar his way.
“You know your place Chase. Shay has the first dance. Get in position,” Ever lowered his arm. “Have you found him, Shay?”
Shay lifted his chin, “In the northeast corner. The white tux with red rimmed sleeves.”
“How appropriate,” Ever said and stalked off.
Now that Ever was gone, Chase began once again in the direction where he had spotted Asha.
“Chase, you’re going the wrong direction,” Shay hissed before Chase left earshot.
“I’m taking the roundabout route,” he yelled back, his footsteps dramatically matching the rhythm of the song.
Shay let a smile slip across his face, letting Chase go twenty yards before following behind him.
Chase couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. He was almost convinced that she had dressed this way for him. After all, he was the one who told her that she had the personality of a violet. Like a dark princess, the purple gauze floating over her gown sparkled around her, but it didn’t hide the gentle curve of her body and a slit in the side of her dress let a piece of her ivory skin peek through.
His fingers ached to reach out and place his hand in the small of her back, pulling her to him. But as he came close to her, he walked right past, their shoulders almost brushing. Her perfume almost pulled him back, but he straightened his shoulders, remembering his duty.
Instead, Shay slid into the place Chase wished he was in, gently grasping Asha’s wrist.
Shay opened his mouth to comment on her appearance as he rested his hand on her waist, but instead gently closed his lips.
“What, at a loss for words?” her eyebrows rose cockily, the dark wings of her eye make-up accentuating the deep brown of her eyes.
“Not exactly,” he said stiffly, shifting under the weight of her hand on his shoulder. “I wasn’t expecting you to show up.”
“Why? Think I’m too weak?”
Shy almost shied away from her. Where had this defensiveness come from? Did she feel the need to protect herself from him too? Oh wait…she should. He almost slapped his forehead.
“Just a little,” he said and squeezed out a smile, “but maybe that’s only because I want you to fall into my arms.” He nearly kicked himself for being so cheesy.
Meanwhile, Ever zeroed in on his target. Casually drifting up to him, he pasted on a smile. “Good evening, Mister Shaun. I just wanted to thank you with my greatest gratitude for creating this event.”
Shaun looked down at him with piercing eyes, the light nearly sliding off of his gelled hair. Ever gulped and glanced back over his shoulder, wondering where Chase was. Then he saw him in the corner of his eye, and breathed out a sigh of relief but sucked it back in quickly when the whole room went dark.
Chase stopped in the middle of his tracks, gripping his wine glass in his hand. What on earth was going on? Then the laser lights danced across the room, zipping across the dozens of couples strewn across the dance floor. Flecks of silver flashed across the room from the disco ball, but still he couldn’t quite see where Ever and Shaun had gone.
His eyes locked onto a white tux and he pounced, knocking into the heavy body. Dramatically, he spilled his wine onto the man’s coat. When the man’s eyes met his, Chase’s face fell. “Wait…you’re not Shaun!” Chase “grrrrd” and grabbed the half full wine glass from the man’s hand.
Where did he go? He puffed out breaths of hot air. He couldn’t mess this up after all their careful planning! His fingers curled around the cold wine glass, his eyes scanning the crowd, flickers of their bodies outlined by the flashes of light. In the corner of his eye, he saw the white suit, the red-trimmed sleeves burning for a short second before being subdued in darkness.
His footsteps quickened, his heartbeat hammering against his chest. It took more steps, a harsh brush of the shoulder into the middle of Shaun’s chest and splash of red wine onto his perfectly white suit that brought a shout of terror from Shaun’s lips.
“Are you alright, sir?” came Ever’s sympathetic response to the blood-like stain on Shaun’s suit. “That doesn’t look quite proper, sir. Perhaps you should find a respectable suit. It wouldn’t do to appear like that on stage.” Ever’s voice faded out as Chase kept walking without a break in his stride to the next position.
Weaving through the sparkling dresses and dark suits, Chase’s blonde head bounced among the crowd, Asha’s noticing him instantly. She shivered as Shay’s hand withdrew from her side, leaving a warm place in the middle of her back. It was almost as if Shay knew that Chase was there, because he turned and left just as Chase stood before her.
“It’s too crowded here. Want to go somewhere quieter?” Chase’s innocent eyes smiled down at her.
But her heart clenched with terror as she heard those familiar words, words that her ex-boyfriend had once said to her. For a dramatic moment, she gulped, trying to push the bad thoughts down into the dark depths where they belonged. She forced a smile onto her face, and said, “Sure. Why not?” After all, Chase would never do anything like that.
With his gentle hand leading her through the crowd, Asha looked up at the back of his head, watching how the reflection of the disco ball sparkled over his blonde highlights. Ever so slightly, she felt the ice in her heart melt. How could she have such revengeful thoughts toward someone who had never hurt her?
Chase opened the balcony doors with a dramatic sweep of his arm, leading her out into the chill night air. Quietly, he took off his suit coat and draped it around her shoulders, carefully drawing it tight around her with a blank expression on his face.
“Chase?” Asha whispered, about to reiterate all of her apologies.
“Shhh….” he said, as he pulled a pair of headphones out of his pants pocket. With light fingertips that send shivers down her spine, he moved the hair away from her ears and gently pressed the ear buds into her ears.
“I want you to close your eyes…and listen,” his calm words came out with puffs of white. For a long moment her eyes focused on his face, memorizing every line every detail, before she let her eyelids drift shut.
The lyrics drifted through her head, like a lazy river, buoying her up into the clouds. The only words she remembered clearly were “forever and always.”
Then, just before the second verse was about to start, she heard whispered, “I’m sorry.”
A harsh shove lurched her to the side as she felt her body flung into nothingness, only the wind like knives searing through her body. Suspended in air, her heart seamlessly stopped, and before everything went black the words “forever and always” drifted through her head.
A heartbeat thumped loud in her head, like her heart had switched places with her brain. As it pounded throughout her body, she lifted her head, grimacing at the sharp shock that coursed through her. Squinting from the pain, she forced one eye to open, then slowly the other one.
In the darkness she recognized the backyard of Matchmaker’s Mansion, the garden slowly starting to come to life with spring’s warmer breezes. Spears of light sparked across the garden, illuminating the trees and bushes and benches, and then fleeing back through the windows of the building.
Untangling herself from the blanket that was wrapped about her, Asha managed to rearrange herself until she sat on her folded legs, knees digging into the earth. Gripping the edge of the windowsill, she pulled herself up till her eyes cleared the cold brick to see through the clear glass.
Squinting, she peered into the dimly lit ballroom. Torches and candles burned all about the room, the smoke floating hazily in the air like a curtain. In the flicker of gold, she made out two rows of people, one a line of girls in glittering dresses facing a line of boys barely discernible in their black tuxedos. A white suit stood out like a beacon, the man clearly noticeable by the way the light slid off of his gelled hair. A smile glinted on his face.
Suddenly, each of the girls raised their right hands and in their outstretched grasp was a red rose, offered to the one they had chosen. The boys reached out in unison to receive the rose, their fingers pricking the thorns as they took them. As soon as the rose was in their’ hands, the boys doubled over, their backs hunched. A dark smoke curled off of their bodies in torrents, enveloping them. They shook violently, hugging their sides as if they were trying to hold themselves together.
Their’ heads snapped back, mouths wide open with their screams, dark purple smoke pouring out with the noise. Then all went silent as the boys’ heads dropped and they swayed on their feet. Eyes jerked open, a glowing blood red filmed over the entire white and pupil.
Asha clamped a hand over her mouth to catch the cry that tried to escape. Tears flooded her eyes and shivered down into her shaking hand as she watched, eyes wide in hysterics.
Teeth like daggers, fingernails like claws, and ugly horns like huge thorns tore into the innocent girls in front of them. The beasts destroyed every perfect face, beautiful body, and love-filled heart.
Asha turned away, her back scraping down the cold brick, till she sat hugging herself. Crying with heart-wrenching sobs, she tried to shake the awful images out of her head. The tearing apart, the blood-curling screams, the wild expressions on the girls’ faces before they were devoured.
Shivering with fear, she wobbled to her feet, forcing herself forward. Stumbling away from the garden, she knew she had to get to the only safe place—home. Scrambling away, she never turned to see Shaun’s blood-red gaze watching her flee.
The door shut with a harsh clap, her shaking fingertips unable to grasp the doorknob. She thanked the silent stars that her mother had started to take sleeping pills, ever since her father had…
Her fingers were fumbling with the zipper of her dress just as a sharp beeping noise cut through her muffled crying. Eyes skidding across the room, she saw her cellphone vibrating across her nightstand. On the caller ID read “Matchmaker’s Mansion.” She reached out to pick it up, but then drew back like it had bitten her. She couldn’t pick up after what she just saw. Those horrible monsters. The poor girls.
Her chest tightened each time the cellphone rang until she was almost fighting to breathe by the time the phone went still and the little voice message icon occupied the left corner of the screen. Blowing out a nervous breathe, she picked up the phone and punched in the password.
“Hello, Miss Asha,” Asha’s head jerked away from the phone. The voice was gravelly and deep, but she recognized Shaun’s silky voice beneath it all like it was in the background.
“I recall seeing you at the ball earlier, but it was to my greatest disappointment that you were not present at the most exciting moment of the night. This was a pinnacle moment of your love life. I fear it can not be rescheduled. But…you see, for you I may be able to pull some strings. Especially since I have your father here in dire need to see you.”
“Ash—Asha! Baby, I never left you don’t liste—“
“You see, you may not come for your little boy lovers, but surely you can not bear to lose your father. If you wish to save him, be at the ball room at midnight. Not a second later. Good night, Miss Asha.”
The phone clicked as the call was cut, a sharp noise in her ear. The dull thud of the phone hitting the floor sounded miles away. Her whole body had gone cold, her mouth gaping open, the air crushed out of her. But suddenly it was like a fire surged through her, catapulting her whole body into action. The door swung back and forth in the wake of her frenzied rush.
Asha fought for breath as she tripped up the last stair. Halting with her nose barely brushing the peeling doors, she inhaled sharply. Months ago she had walked in sheepishly, a wimp. What was she now? She didn’t even know. But she would be what she wanted to be, and if this is where the first question was to be finally answered she knew that it may be her last impression.
Grabbing hold of both handles, she swung the doors open, a breeze ruffling her dress as they whooshed past her. She took one strong stride into the dark room, but her cover was immediately shattered by the bang of the doors shutting behind her and the click of the lock. She stood rigid, hoping that she looked bold and daring, because she knew she couldn’t take another step forward without crumpling to her knees.
A spotlight pierced the center of the room, a white circle surrounding a throne on which sat her father. He raised his head, the light catching the glitter of his eyes. When he saw her he tried to stand, “Ash!”
“Dad!!!” she bolted forward, but just as she reached the throne his body vanished into a cloud of steam. Her arms thrown over the seat, where his lap would’ve been, she realized it wasn’t even warm from his body heat.
“Oh-ho, you thought it’d be that simple, Miss Asha?”
Her head snapped up to see Shaun leaning against the back of the throne, one hand propping up his head while the other draped over the edge, his white hand accented by dagger-like fingernails.
She didn’t bother to cover the intake of air that sounded like a strangled gasp. “What are you?!”
His lips peeled back to flash a sharp canine in what looked like an attempt at a smile, but it chilled her instead of warming since it didn’t quite reach his blood colored eyes.
“Shaun…I-I don’t understand! What is all of this?! The Mansion, what you did to those girls!!” Asha screamed at him.
The air flooded out of her, squeezed out of her chest. Her eyelids fluttered as she realized she was pinned to the chair, her neck held tight by some invisible force.
Shaun leaned in close, his warm breath stinging her face. “You ask for an explanation, do you? But do you really want to know? No matter, I shall tell you anyway since the secret of our existence will die with you.”
Casually, Shaun leaned against one of the ballroom pillars, flicking one of his nails. “My dear Asha, you are living in a fairytale story at this very moment. But there is something that you might not have realized. The fairytales of old are all true, but over time man transformed them into stories of love, romance, and happy endings. Quite the opposite of the original.”
He paused and the force around her throat loosened but did not let go. Her eyes stabbed at him, but her mouth remained still.
“Long ago, there was a beautifully handsome man who ruled one of the many castles that governed the land, as most dukes do. But the duke’s heart was not as beautiful as his appearance. He abused his staff, soldiers, even his wife. No one loved him, in fact, they loathed him. One day, a witch did the duke a favor by protecting his castle from his rivals, unbeknownst to him. Wounded and expecting nourishment, she dragged herself to his castle doorstep. But she did not receive a proper welcome. Instead, the duke laughed and scorned her for her terrible acting skills, for he had not seen the great service the witch had done for him.
Knowing she would not last much longer without any treatment, she cursed him with an ugly demon that matched his heart. With her last breathe she told him how the only way he could release the monster inside was if someone were to love him.
It may be easy for someone to love you for your appearance, but the ugly inside will always shine through, damaging the outside no matter how beautiful the outer shell that you inhabit may be. He was tormented, day and night, by this demon inside of him. Like a disease, it festered inside of him. But he could not die until this demon was released.”
Shaun fell silent for a few moments as if recalling a memory, his scarlet eyes glassing over. Shaking his head, he pulled himself back to the present.
“But there was still one hope. His wife. The one he had abused was his beautiful counterpart. She had always been his other half, the one who was beautiful on the inside even though her countenance was rather plain. Over time, she selflessly started to love him again. She saw the pain that tormented him and she offered her shoulder to him to carry his heavy burden. At first, the pain started to fade, but as he started to love, the demon began to claw its way out of his body as if to escape.
See, the witch had told him that when someone loved him, the demon would be released. But she forgot to tell what would happen to the one that did the loving…”
Asha breathed in sharply. His eyes held her’s for several seconds before flicking away.
“You humans will never understand how painful it is to be trapped inside your pathetic bodies like a prison. The desire to be free. It’s a good thing that witch died when she did, or I would have killed her myself.” Shaun straightened. “My brothers don’t deserve this mockery of being bonded to a human. We have much more profitable things to do. Now comes the moment where that important question is to be answered,” Shaun’s lips quirked into a smirk. He snapped his fingers. Three spotlights punctured the darkness, one directly in front of her at twelve o’clock, one left at nine o’clock, and the last to her immediate right at three o’clock. Each light illuminated a throne exactly like the one she sat on with a body drooping on its seat.
In the chair directly across from her, a dark head lifted, the light sparking as it caught his eyes.
“Ever!” Asha gasped.
“Asha?” he groggily replied. His eyes flickered around till they latched onto Shaun. “NO!” he started to thrash against the cuffs that locked his arms to the chair, the chains rattling around his chest. “Shaun, you can’t do this! Not to Asha! Take me but please don’t let this happen!!”
Two other voices joined Ever’s in the commotion. Asha’s head whipped to the left and right to see Chase and Shay chained to the other two chairs as well.
Asha cringed from the deep rumble that accompanied Shaun’s voice, like an unearthly thing was speaking through him.
Shaun’s fingertips lifted her chin. “With you, my dear Asha, I hit the jackpot. Not only will I retrieve one of my brothers, but three. So, here is the question that you must answer. Do. You. Love. Them?”
Asha’s eyes drifted to Ever. To Chase. To Shay. Their sparkling eyes stared back at her, their faces twisted into a wistful hope along with panic. Slowly, a pulsing noise started to grow in the silence of the room. At first, she thought she was hearing her own heartbeat in her ears, but as she looked around at the boys she saw a purple light pulsing in their chest. The purple light glowed beneath their skin, shining through their shirts.
“What’s happening?” she gasped, turning to Shaun with fear in her eyes.
The boys bodies started to writhe in their seats.
“Your answer, Asha!” Shaun leaned over her in the seat, staring down into her eyes. “This is your last chance!”
“No, Asha! Don’t—“ she heard Ever’s strangled voice from behind Shaun.
Her heart beat against her ribcage like it too wanted to escape. She was going to die and she knew it. What more could she do? She might as well confess what was in her heart while she had the chance.
“I do,” she whispered.
“Louder!” Shaun rocked the chair that she was constricted to.
“I love you, Ever! I love you, Chase! I love you, Shay!” she screamed with all her might. She slumped back into the chair, and whispered, “I pray that you’ll forgive me…but I do.”
The ground quaked beneath her toes that barely touched the ground. High pitched screams echoed off the walls, but she could still hear the boy’s screams mingled among them. Through tear-blurred eyes she watched the boys convulsing in their chairs, the purple light branching out from their chest in swirling patterns across their skin like it was cracking through a shell. Just as their bodies looked as though they were about to break into two, Asha shut her eyes and screamed, joining the thousands of screams that ricocheted off the walls.
Three explosions went off simultaneously, throwing her head back against the seatback. Her eyes flew open to see the monsters break free of the boy’s bodies, their horrible eyes pinned on her, her love drawing them to her like fresh blood to a predator. She squeaked, a pain exploding within her. A heavy weight came crashing down on her body as she felt the life drain out of her.
Water droplets dripped off the edge of her black veil, denting the soft earth beneath her. Looking up, her red-rimmed eyes drifted over the name on the gravestone “Everett Romano.” Next to it sat a much older gravestone that was crumbling around the edges. The faded inscription read “Ella Romano.” After going through his belongings, they had found out that he had previously been married…over a hundred years ago.
Sunlight glinted off of the streams of rain falling in front of her face, the mist mixing with the tears on her face. Her eyes glanced over at Chase who had a water hose pointed at the sky and was holding down on the handle to make it “rain” over them.
Asha sighed softly, “Chase…is that really necessary?”
Chase looked over at her and in all seriousness said, “Ever would have wanted it. He always enjoyed drama. I figured it would help the mood.”
Shay sulked on the other side of Chase, the ends of his black hair dripping. Asha caught herself looking around for Ever when she had to remind herself he was here….but in the ground beneath them.
She had passed out, but the boys told her how it all had happened. After the Deums had been released from their bodies, Ever had managed to snap his chains as he had used the power of the Deum during its release. With his last moments he had beat the Deums to Asha and had flung himself over her body. The Deums had chewed through his torso. Asha was grateful she had not been awake to see it all take place as they destroyed Ever’s pale body.
Shaun had left with what he had come for, his brotherly Deums following after him. The boys had fled as well, carrying her and Ever to her home. Her mother had nearly fainted when she opened the door. When she woke, Shay and Chase had already explained everything. But there had been no need to contact the police, because the next morning the Mansion had been flooded with FBI agents without them tipping them off as to what had happened the night before. Asha’s father was found chained to a chair in one of the rooms.
Asha snapped back to the present when she felt a warm hand close around her cold one. She looked up into Chase’s blue-green eye, his sun-streaked hair ruffling over the disfigured side of his face.
“You know, he loved you. Maybe not in a way that you thought. It was more like a fatherly, protective love. But it was love all the same, even though he didn’t want to…because he didn’t want to hurt you,” Chase smiled but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“I realize that the moment was not exactly a romantic one, but I did mean what I said that night. I do love you,” Asha wove her fingers into his.
Chase’s eyes widened. “What kind of love would that be?”
Asha smiled, but this time it made her face glow. “True love. The kind of love that lasts forever and always.”
Still holding the water hose with his left hand, he reached down to slide his fingers under her chin, gently lifting it to bring her lips to his in a kiss that made her insides melt.
Shay kept his eyes locked to the gravestone. This couldn’t keep happening. His sister. Almost Asha. Everett. It had to stop. He flicked his scarf over his shoulder to bury his frown into it and turned on his heel.
“Careful! You can’t keep being wonderwoman all the time!” Chase grabbed the groceries away from her with one arm, holding his arm around Asha’s bulging waistline with the other.
“I’m not going to die carrying a couple of groceries, Chase!”
Chase huffed, putting the groceries on the counter, then pulled her close to him. Wrapping his arms around her shoulders, he rested his chin on the top of her tangle-haired head.
“I’m sorry…I just worry.”
“Oh!” Asha exclaimed. She pushed Chase away to place her palms to her stomach. She chuckled, “You know she does that every time you hold me close. She kicks me square in the belly. Wonder what she’s implying.” Asha winked and reached up to smooth the hair away from Chase’s eyes.
She had told him she had loved him just the way he was, but he had insisted on the plastic surgery to correct the scarred skin around his eye. He had claimed that it only made him think about the past and he wanted a fresh new start.
Her heart began to beat hard as she remembered all that they had been through. Looking up at him, she still saw the boy he had once been hidden deep down inside. But mostly she only saw the man he had become.
Hugging him tight, she mumbled into his shirt, “I haven’t heard from Shay in a long time…how do you think he’s doing?”
Shay scanned the sky with squinting eyes as the desert sun beat down on him. The long tails of his black jacket beat against his legs as the wind whipped by. His boots crunched on the edge of the sun bleached building, pebbles drifting down to the distant ground.
A chopper dropped out of the sky to hover around the building, a door sliding open on the side of its metallic body. He didn’t even wait to see if there was a sniper trained on him; he dropped over the side of the building.
His belt dug into his sides as he felt the resistance of the climbing rope being sucked through the harness. Running along the side of the building, he swore as his foot punctured a window and the glass bit into his leg. Letting himself drop the rest of the way down, he sucked in a breath as his feet thumped hard, unclipped his belt, and sprinted away. Diving into an alleyway, he heard the explosion and watched as debris flew by. Cringing, he tried to ignore the rivulets of blood starting to leak down his boot to stain the ground.
Shifting the guitar case on his back, he turned to leave the alleyway when he heard a sniffle. Looking further down into the smoky haze, he saw a little body crouched against a doorway. Slowly picking his way through the garbage so as not to startle it, he stopped a few feet away.
Liquid brown eyes looked up from pillowing her head in her arms, dust sliding off of her tangled mess of hair. Snot dripped from her nose over her lips.
Sighing, Shay slid the guitar case off of his shoulder to lean it against the wall. He avoided the side that would reveal the sniper hidden inside the case and unlocked the other side where he pulled out Ever’s guitar. His touch left fingerprints on its dulled and dusty surface as he slid down to a crouch in front of the girl, wincing as he did so.
Strumming carefully, he picked out a tune that Ever had always played whenever he had been depressed. It was a lonely lullaby that made you want to cry but as the end neared the tune seemed to grow wings and lift up to the sky. When he finished, Shay reached over and lifted a tear off of her face, placing it on his tongue.
“Your tears…they taste like the ocean,” his husky voice cracked, mostly because he hadn’t talked in so long, but also because the last time he had said those words it had been to Asha.
She blinked at him in wonder. He didn’t even know if she understood the language he was speaking. He tried again, in the language he knew belonged to the area. This time she quirked her head.
“Are you…alone?” he asked.
She nodded her head, “All gone.” More tears began to fall.
“There is no place that is…safe,” he fumbled for the words. “I am on important mission to save people from evil creatures. It is dangerous.”
The little girl smoothed the hair away from her face and he caught side of the bright red dot on her forehead. But then she reached out with her hand and ran her fingers over the strings of the guitar, the chord sending chills down his spine. But his heart warmed when her hand drifted down to latch onto his.
“I want to see ocean,” she said in a bold voice.
Shay took the scarf around his neck and wrapped it around her brown neck, making sure not to catch her hair in it. In her liquid eyes he saw only one thing—hope. And he held onto it, this little hope as hard as he could.