So the sequel and the novella are in the process of being merged into a book. I promised I would post the first chapter here (when I was happy with it) and so I shall. This is original work. Enjoy responsibly.
Chapter one – The Trip
I was in a dark room lit by a single thick beam of light from above. Standing in that illumination was a tall, somewhat light-complected woman with sparkling skin and very long, braided blue hair. She was dressed in a black sports bra and dark jeans with boots. Her arms were toned and strong, and her visible stomach muscles flexed as they moved a bit, giving her a graceful, dangerous feel. She wore an enigmatic smile on her pale cold lips, with no teeth showing. Her upper face was mostly covered by a black mask but her blue eyes, surrounded by sparkling blue eye shadow, were clearly visible through two large holes. As I studied her, those blue eyes began to change and glow until it seemed they were lit from within by bright candle flames. I stepped toward her and that gold light brightened considerably. Since eyes are not normal if they glow like candle flames, I realized I was asleep and shook myself awake.
The scenery passing by my side of the small car hadn’t changed much. It was still a beautiful view of the stark winter landscapes prevalent in this part of the country. Today was Saturday, December 20. Next week I would celebrate my fourth Christmas in these parts and I still hadn’t tired of it as it’s so unlike where I was born. I’ve come to enjoy seeing the seasons in all their glory, from leafless and cold to brilliantly clothed in green and back again.
I glanced at the woman behind the wheel of the vehicle and grinned ruefully as I adjusted my tired slouch to a more comfortable upright position.
“Guess I dozed off on you. Sorry about that. Hope I didn’t drool on your car.”
Vishi laughed merrily. “You and your legendary napping abilities. Considering I fell asleep not once, not twice, but three times while you were driving, I think I can understand a little drool. I didn’t understand what you said, though. Something about a tutor? Don’t tell me you need a tutor in one of your classes. You’re the one making perfect grades, Sara, not me.”
“I said what? Tutor?”
“Yes, in your sleep.”
“Huh.” I rubbed my jaw and twisted my long braid of brown hair around in my fingers while I considered. “I don’t remember saying anything. You were talking to me and then I saw something strange that made me believe I was dreaming, so I woke up.”
My roommate, Vishi, is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tempered little thing. Half Italian and half Mexican heritage, her feisty side is hard to reckon with at times, but she more than makes up for it by being one of the kindest and sweetest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Her only true downside is her cooking ability, which doesn’t really exist, but I’m happy to do all the cooking with her pitching in for half the groceries and the cleaning duties. We live in a little house in a little city where she goes to a university full time while I work pretty much full time and go to a community college two days a week. It’s a good situation; we get along pretty well, having met in high school where we became friends. If she said I was talking about a tutor in my sleep, then I was, as she is also one of the most honest souls I know. Funny thing is, I hadn’t realized I was worried about my grades. I have other things to be concerned with, though I wasn’t going to let her know that.
The strange dream was one of them, and it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced it.
I looked over at her. “Yes?”
“I didn’t mean to worry you. Sorry.”
I smiled. There she was proving me right about her being a good soul.
“You didn’t. I’m just wondering if maybe it was another word, like Tudor, from my history class, or maybe tooter, from my boss, Mrs. Milford.”
She giggled. “Tooter? Really? The cafeteria lady? She says that?”
“Yep. Every time she farts.”
We both laughed out loud and it eased the situation. We were on the outskirts of a small town now, one decorated for the holidays, so we spent a few moments taking in the sights before the conversation continued.
“What were you dreaming about?” she asked as she navigated the light traffic.
I frowned and decided on the truth. “You know that alien costume you had me wear for Halloween? I dreamed I was looking at myself, I guess in a mirror, still wearing it. Weird, huh?”
Vishi’s brows furrowed. “Hey, that was one of my best costume ideas yet! It’s not weird at all. You looked fantastic in it. I’ll bet you were dreaming you could look like a blue-haired alien all the time.”
“While I’m tutoring someone?”
She gasped. “That’s it! You’re getting ready to tutor me! You’re going to help me get into shape come January when I start my workout regimen. That way I can look as good in that kind of a costume as you did.”
“You have solved the problem,” I said with a sly drawl. “My hero.”
“Heroine.” She paused for a half a second. “Actually, let’s keep with the alien theme here. Call me your padawan. You can be all Jedi Knight-like and teach me the ways of working out and protecting myself.”
“Just so long as my hair stays brown.”
She eyed the rear-view mirror. “Think you can reach in the back seat and grab a bottle of water for me from the cooler?”
My eyebrows furrowed. “You said I was not to get you a bottle of water as you hate having to stop at every convenience store and gas station bathroom on this long trip back home, especially as most of them are not very clean and to your liking.”
“I did say that, didn’t I?” Her face sported an impish grin. “But we are about to stop at a known, clean restroom.”
“You also said you hated stopping because you feel you have to buy a snack or drink as a guilt offering for using a bathroom. You and I both know there usually aren’t healthy food choices on the road.”
“Also true,” she admitted as she flipped on the turn signal of her little car, “but we need gas, and they shouldn’t mind if we use the restroom since we are filling up at the pump, right?”
“True enough.” I watched traffic on my side while we pulled up to the pumps of the station. “They shouldn’t. Good call. I need a pit stop myself.”
“Dibs on the restroom first!” she said, handing me the gas card.
I chuckled. “Then I will do the filling up.”
Vishi purposely kept the interior of the car cold so we wouldn’t get too warm and both fall asleep as we traveled. Given that we started out at 4:30 in the morning and it was now 2:00 in the afternoon, that was a wise move on her part. It did mean we had to wear light jackets inside, though. The weather was cool when we left, but we hadn’t stopped for a good three hours, so we were unaware how much things had changed outside the car. Traveling northeast and moving upward in elevation made quite a difference in temperature. When Vishi opened her door to climb out, we learned the harsh truth: the car was warm compared to the world around us. Our light jackets, short-sleeve shirts, jeans and boots (well mukluks in her case) were not a great help against the frigid air.
“Good God!” Vishi hollered out. “Let’s make this quick!”
I grinned as I watched her scamper off across the parking lot toward the convenience store, her arms folded against her chest to keep her ungloved hands warm.
She was right about this being a familiar place. We’d stopped here on the way to and back from the university after our junior year in high school when Vishi’s daddy drove us down for a visit to Vishi’s choice of schools. They dragged me along because of the community college in the same city. Even then Vishi was setting her plan in motion for both of us to go to school and room together. I’m not sure if the reason behind it was to assuage her daddy’s fears and aching heart, having his only child go to school so far away, but it worked. With me in the picture, he knew I would take care of her and he agreed to let her go. We stopped here twice when we made the trip down and back to sign papers on a house to rent and change our residence status last summer, and once more to start school a few months ago. It was a nice store, with clean bathrooms, a fairly healthy mix of food to choose from, and a pump that accepted the gas card Vishi’s daddy gave her.
I grasped that card and pulled the keys from the ignition as I exited the vehicle and locked the passenger door behind me. Then I inspected the card swipe on the pump for any abnormalities before I used it. Back in August, I didn’t take such precautions. Now, a few months later, I did. I guess I’m far less trusting nowadays.
While I pumped gas, I did a little people watching. Since no one struck me as particularly villainous, I rested my eyes briefly on the strange old wooden Indian statue positioned to one side of the main doors. Why they displayed it here, outdoors at a convenience store of all places, I had no clue. If thieves were around, they would’ve stolen such a beautiful antique long ago.
Vishi exited the building and I focused on her. She stepped out and kindly held the door open for a woman going in. She’s always been a courteous person like that, but I noticed it was also a safety maneuver. It forced the man walking directly right behind Vishi to step out and away and go about his business.
It was clear to me Vishi had lost trust in her fellow man, too.
An icy shiver skated up my spine, one that had nothing to do with the frigid temperatures and the small flurries falling in the air around me. I closed my eyes briefly and shot God a fervent prayer of thanks once again for giving me the help I needed to save her life on Halloween night.
Vishi trotted over, arms still folded tightly across her chest for warmth. Her short cropped black hair was dotted with some of the small white snowflakes ominously descending. They were melting as they touched the warm ground, but it wouldn’t be long before things cooled a bit further and made our trip more challenging.
The pump shut off about the time she reached me, and I put everything away and handed her the keys, receipt, and gas card.
“My turn,” I said.
She nodded. “I’ll move the car and park near the door while you use the facilities. And they are clean, I promise.”
“I’m not the one with issues on that,” I said, laughing.
“No, with you it’s kitchens that have to be spotless,” she stammered out between chattering teeth. “Go already!” She nearly jumped in the car to get away from the cold.
“Will do,” I replied as I jogged away.
About a minute later, I found her parked right outside, as she said she would be. I tapped on the driver’s window, but Vishi shook her head and blew on her fingers while she remained stubbornly buckled up and behind the wheel. Shrugging, I scooted between the Indian statue and her front bumper and grabbed for the passenger door handle when my boot slipped a little on the wet parking surface.
“I had a nap,” I offered as I slid in quickly (after she unlocked the doors). “We don’t have much distance left to go. I could take it on if you want some shut eye.”
She glanced at the dash clock. “I think I’ve got it. You already did your half of the driving. There’s only two and a half hours left, in theory.”
My eyebrows rose in amusement. “In theory?”
“It’s a new phrase I’m trying.” She waited for me to buckle up and then checked the surroundings before backing out. “Like it?”
“Sounds intelligent.” I smiled at her as she put the car in drive and headed out. “In theory.”
Vishi smacked me upside the head lightly with a free hand as both an admonishment and a sisterly like endearment. “Stop that!” she said, laughing. “Other people were impressed. Oh, would you grab a bottle of water for me from the back? I forgot to do that while you were indisposed.”
I turned and reached for the cooler, but snatched my hand back quickly. “God bless America!” I yelled out.
“What?” cried Vishi as she tried to keep the car straight. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?”
I gulped in a calming breath and blew it out slowly. “I’m sorry,” I said, touching her shoulder in apology. “I could have sworn I saw something strange in the back seat.” I wiped a trembling hand across my brow and smiled at her. “It was just my imagination.”
She laughed. “Don’t do that! You nearly scared me half to death. Sheesh!”
“I’m sorry,” I offered again as I reached back and opened the cooler to remove two bottles of water, I avoided putting my hand anywhere near Vishi’s suitcase or the very intimidating but cramped and out-of-place Roman solder sitting on top of it.
The soldier was dressed only in a tan-colored ancient short-sleeved tunic and dark leather boot-like sandals, but the chilly interior of the car didn’t affect him. There was no wisp of warm breath from his lips to show white against the cold air. That’s because he didn’t breathe. He didn’t have to. He was a ghost, and it was his scarf and his spirit that helped me rescue Vishi on Halloween night.
He’d latched onto me the moment I touched that red piece of cloth in the thrift store a few days before Halloween, and he wasn’t about to let go anytime soon. No one knew of his haunting me but me and him, and I accepted it. I mean yes, he’s a soldier, trained to be dangerous and deadly by one of the most aggressive civilizations in history, but his heart (or soul, I guess) was in the right place, as far as I could tell. Still, I hadn’t expected the ghost to be with us on this trip. I’d already explained why I couldn’t take him with me before I tucked his scarf away in my closet.
How the hell had he followed us without the scarf being in my possession?
“Oh, by the way,” said Vishi as I handed her an opened bottle of water, “I spotted your red scarf on the back of one of the kitchen chairs and stuck it in my suitcase for you. With this weather, you’ll need it. You can thank me later,” she said before taking a sip.
Since the soldier controlled the scarf, he put it where Vishi would find it, knowing she would take it with us on our travels. He’s no slouch in the intelligence department and he’s already proven how sneaky he can be, too. If he hadn’t helped save Vishi’s life (and mine), I’d be angry with him for stowing away. As it was, I was simply ticked off because he ignored my valid reasons for him to stay behind.
I glanced back at the luggage and frowned at him. He shrugged off my concern and lifted the corners of his mouth up slightly in a mischievous grin.
We were going home, to my parents, to my mama, who was probably psychic, definitely prone to reading auras and vibrations, and had thrown more seance parties than anyone I’d ever met. I was taking a ghost into her house, a real ghost. This was simply asking for trouble. Did he not understand this?
I turned around and faced forward. My Christmas vacation was about to become very interesting.
“Thanks, Vishi. What would I do without you?”