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. 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. She wore an enigmatic smile on her pale cold lips, with no teeth showing. I stepped toward her and the gold light glowing behind her eyes 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 had not tired of it as it was so unlike the state where I was born. I enjoyed 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.
“Sorry about that. Hope I didn’t drool on your car.”
Vishi laughed merrily. “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 the 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 have 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 had experienced it.
I looked over at her. “Yes?”
“I didn’t mean to worry you. Sorry.”
I smiled this time. 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 began to giggle. “Tooter? Really? The cafeteria lady? She says that?”
“Yep. Every time she farts.”
We both laughed out loud and it eased the situation.
“So what were you dreaming about?” she asked.
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 frowned slightly. “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 am tutoring someone?”
She snapped her fingers. “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 can stay brown.” I watched as she eyed the rear-view mirror.
“Think you can reach in the back seat and grab a bottle of water for me out of the cooler?” she asked.
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 held onto an impish grin. “But we are right down the road from a known, clean restroom.”
“You also said you hated to buy a snack or drink as a guilt offering for using a bathroom, especially as you are trying to eat healthy and 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 confirmed as 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 had purposely kept the interior of the car cold so we both wouldn’t get too warm and fall asleep as we traveled. Given that we had started out at 4:30 in the morning and it was now 2:00 in the afternoon, even with switching out drivers, that was a wise move on her part. It did mean we had to wear light jackets inside, though. Since we hadn’t stopped for a good three hours, we were unaware just how much the temperature had changed on the outside. The weather had been somewhat warm when we left. Traveling northeast and moving upward in elevation had made quite a difference. 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 while 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.
This was a familiar place. We had 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 had 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 appease her daddy’s 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 had made the trip two more times, first to sign papers on a house to rent and change our residence status last summer, and then to finally 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 had given 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. On our way to my home state to live and go to school, we had been far more trusting of things and had not taken such precautions. Now, traveling back to Vishi’s home state and the town where our parents all lived, we did. Funny how things changed in such a short span of time. All it takes is one run in with the wrong kind of people, well actually two run ins, and the ability to openly trust gets twisted into a guarded wariness.
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 to one side of the main entrance and exit. Why they displayed it here, outdoors at a convenience store of all places, I had no clue. If thieves really were around, they would have stolen such a beautiful antique long ago. Even so, it didn’t hurt to be on guard. I was positive my roommate was keeping an eye out for things, too. Sure enough, when Vishi left the building, she kindly held the door open for a woman going in, but I noted it was also a sidestepping maneuver to get the man walking right behind her to step out and away and go about his business. While it was clear Vishi was still a courteous person, the way she watched the people in the parking lot spoke volumes.
She lost her trust on Halloween night a couple of months ago when two men had drugged her and tried to kidnap her. The memory of the ordeal skated an icy shiver up my spine that had nothing to do with the frigid temperatures and the small flurries starting to fall in the air around me. That had been one dangerous situation, one I would never have been able to save her from if not for something that had invaded my life a few days before that: an ancient red scarf I had picked up at a thrift store. I closed my eyes briefly and shot God a small prayer of thanks once again for letting me find it and the help attached to it.
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.
A couple of minutes later, I found her parked right outside, as she had 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 as 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 looked around 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 have been impressed. Oh, and 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 to show her it was nothing. “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, carefully avoiding putting my hand anywhere near Vishi’s suitcase or the very intimidating but obviously cramped and out-of-place Roman solder sitting on top of it.
Dressed in a tan-colored ancient short-sleeved tunic and dark leather boot-like sandals, the chilly interior of the car did not seem to 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 had been his scarf and his spirit that had helped me rescue Vishi that Halloween night.
He had latched onto me the moment I touched that red piece of cloth, and he was not 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 was 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. His influence had saved us twice because he had, thankfully, been with me again when those two men, pursuing me and Vishi, had broken into our house the day after Halloween. I just hadn’t expected the ghost to be with us on this trip. I tried to explain why I couldn’t take him with me before I put the scarf away in my closet chest of drawers.
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 had put it where Vishi would find it, ensuring his ability to follow me because he knew she would take it with her on our travels. He is no slouch in the intelligence department – that I knew already – and he had already proven how sneaky he could be, too. If he hadn’t helped save Vishi’s life (and mine), I would have been 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 smiled at me with one of those slightly mischievous grins of his.
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 had 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?”