Zarah is an enthusiastic writer and qualified therapeutic radiographer who enjoys using and adapting real-life experiences to create interesting, often comedic, works of fiction for the young adult audience. She has an MA in Creative Writing and Publishingfrom City, University of London and has published feature articles discussing a wide variety of topics with Quench Magazine. Inspired by the array of fantasy and supernatural series that have become popular of late, she is currently working on her book, Torn.
My best friend’s name is the latest on a growing missing list. The church caught fire. I’ve brushed death’s door three times this past week alone and witnessed frightening and impossible things that made me doubt my sanity. I mean, Basil can talk!
Sky says I’m in danger. That our past association has put me in the fray. I don’t rightly know about that; know only that while she might be the key to uniting entire worlds together, when we last parted, it was after her actions tore the two sides of mine apart.
Regardless of grades, deciding whether to stay home for the local college in New Hope had always been a no-brainer. I didn’t have to. Gina and Gregg far from depended upon me. The opposite, in fact. My adopted parents had squirreled away nothing short of a small fortune just so I hadn’t felt pressured into making my educational choices based on financial strain. But leaving them, leaving New Hope – a place that knew no winter unlike the British Isles where I’d formerly lived – and my friends who had also decided to stay to be close to their ancestral roots didn’t bear thinking about.
Our house here was one of character. A cosy sunflower yellow chalet – not my first choice in colour but it was growing on me – right on the coast, overlooking the beach fringes. Rustic, it was, and one of the few residential properties in the area with the rest finding occasional use as holiday homes for some modern-day Midas types with more money than they reasonably knew what to do with. There were, however, two perks to this; the first being that their arrival was good for business – practically every board stall and restaurant put hiring posters up during tourist season – and the second, the number of vacant pads there were to choose from whenever we wanted to drink or party, our guardians none the wiser.
My eighth week back of the first semester, I was awake long before my alarm could ever ring, and it wasn’t because I’d went to bed early the night before. Dark rings circling my sleep-swollen eyes stared back at me mockingly from the mirror. The dreams were back. They shouldn’t have been. Pandora’s box was what they were, events best left unanalysed and unopened. But my mind that day seemed bent on tormenting me in what was the plague of a guilty conscience.
“You’re quiet today,” Jasper interrupted my thoughts as we ambled down the usual dusty road towards our campus’ gates. The sleek, towering buildings ahead were somewhat out of place with the aging shoe-box-in-comparison sized ones that surrounded them and populated the rest of the town. Reclusive as it was, even New Hope could not escape the revolution that was modernisation. “You okay?”
Removing my gaze from the giant wolf mascot – grey, white and snarling – plastered across the wall above the main entranceway, I tipped my head to his, the top of which sprouted obstinate golden locks that curled and seemed to grow upwards instead of down and was carried by his hulking frame.
“Of course,” I shot him a smile from beneath the brim of my baseball cap. “Just a tad nervous about second period.” This, at least, was only a half-lie. “Grabowski will be getting back to us on our submissions for the NIC Portrait competition.”
“Rather you than me,” he laughed, ducking under Lisa’s low-hanging ‘Vote Me for Student President’ advert in the main corridor. It was no secret my fastidious art professor never minced words, so much so that her reputation preceded her. “Still, at least you don’t have a math quiz first thing.”
“Bummer. But it is kind of your fault for choosing such an anaemic discipline.” I pointed out, holding my hands up when he widened his eyes in feigned offense. “Did you get any revision in last night?”
As if he needed it. Jasper’s mind was a cut-through-the-competition kind of sharp and everyone knew it. I dodged paths with the students filtering out of the library and adjacent common room. A few nodded my best friend’s way as they passed us by. Jasper, as extroverted as they came – it was testament to our friendship that he still hung out with me when there were so many other options – returned the gestures and, when they were out of earshot, said;
“Actually, I was out with Warren.” Sheriff Ward, that was; Jasper’s uncle. He adjusted the strap of his messenger bag to the centre of his chest, voice lowered so that the information wouldn’t carry. “Mr Atwell didn’t show up for work again this week. He hasn’t been calling in either.”
My brows drew inward. “Strange. That’s not like him.” And I should know. The man had been a stickler for punctuality as my supervisor last summer, manning the tills at the Radwell Mercantile. “Is he sick? Hurt?”
“Missing is what he is.”
“No!” I gasped. “Another person?”
“Seems like it.” Seemed like it indeed. Carrie Bates, the girl who’d sat beside me in band practice all throughout high school had simply vanished three weeks prior. Her parents were sick with worry but, for everyone else, it had seemed only natural to assume the girl who’d openly fantasised about moving to a big metropolis had finally found the courage to do so. The idea that she mightn’t have left so willingly after all unsettled me.
I wondered whether the new out-of-town boyfriend had anything to do with these mystery disappearances. I mean, I had thought he’d had more than a little something to do with Carrie’s as I’d told Deputy Anand. And so I had thought it a little uncharacteristically irresponsible of her, cruel not sending word to either of her parents about her intentions or whereabouts, she’d looked happy the last time I’d seen her and I’d figured she’d had her reasons.
I’d run into Carrie and her boyfriend, Seth I believe he’d called himself, at Pepper Jack’s during a double-free the week before she’d left. Or vanished. Whichever had been the case. Carrie had run right up to my makeshift study in the diner with an unexpected enthusiasm given the two of us had rarely ever shared more than a short word or two even when we’d been forced to sit together. But I figured she’d probably wanted to introduce her new guy to some people from her hometown and, from what little I knew, had few enough friends. Was one of those people who kept mostly to themselves. Had her nose in a book more often than not.
The two of them had slid into the opposite side of the creaky booth and I’d moved all my open books and plethora of uncapped multi-coloured pens aside to make more room for them. Seth, with elaborate markings shaved near his scalp and cheekbones that jutted out against the barrier of his taut skin, hadn’t talked much. Just observed, giving the perfunctory nods here and there, his arm about Carrie who’d happily chatted away with more gusto than I’d previously imagined her capable of. Hadn’t ordered anything or picked at his girlfriend’s food as the two of us demolished two double cheeseburgers, a basket of fries and a freak-shake between us.
He’d stared for far longer than could be considered polite, but I’d chalked that up to the horrid sunburn streaking the bridge of my freckled nose and cheeks, legendary affliction of the red-headed that it is. When Carrie had excused herself to go to the toilets, I’d tried staring back in the hopes Seth would realise how uncomfortable I’d been getting and avert his gaze but he’d stared even harder then, if that were possible. Not admiring or flirty. It was more the way one might study a zoo creature as they stare at them, without shame or reserve, through the glass of their enclosure and the bars of their metal cages.
And when a smirk had tipped his lips, I’d gotten the sense it was the first real sign of emotion I’d seen all night. Only, I hadn’t been in on that particular joke.
Something about being in the studio tended to bring me a great sense of peace and comfort. Art had always been my preferred form of therapy and the building was quiet, far removed from the remainder of the bustling campus. The outer walls were made almost entirely of glass, allowing for a spacious and airy atmosphere and the background music we periodically put on added to the liberal vibe. My efforts to calm and concentrate that morning, however, were to prove futile.
By the end of Mr Simpson’s, or Aaron’s as he so fervently insisted upon us calling him, two-hour lecture on Late Renaissance and Early Baroque Art, I’d managed to populate the margins of several pages in my notebook with doodles of eyes instead of the body with relevant notes, each of them except the last discarded with no more than a scribble owing to their being wrong in one way or another. But all held that same expression of hurt, of fury and betrayal.
They were her eyes, of course. Who else’s?
But I couldn’t seem to recall the exact shade they’d been. Hard as I tried, I could only envision red. Eyes that flashed red with venom. With animosity. An animosity I’d well deserved but could scarcely believe existed, despite having witnessed it first-hand. Despite what everyone around me, her and us had claimed. That we needed to be apart. That we weren’t good for one another and that my presence would only worsen her illness.
I hadn’t allowed myself to think of her in a while. Had blocked the memories out to save myself from falling into the endless abyss that was depression once more. But it had never occurred to me that I might forget her. That I might forget a single thing about the girl who’d once meant everything to me.
My eyes moved over the tubes of oil paint in my open case and their array of labelled colours as Professor Grabowski made her way over to me. Manganese.
“I see you have hesitated for quite some time when it’s come to today’s task,” she said as I dithered between phthalo turquoise and cobalt teal. Or was it a simpler cerulean blue? “Not stuck, are you?” Grabowski asked, the words thick with her native accent.
I shook my head, unwilling to hold conversation for longer than needed be lest I should lose track of my train of thought. The shrewd look on the professor’s face could easily have been mistaken for one of disapproval. It was the severity to the woman’s features, I think. The frown lines and the propensity of her poorly fitted glasses to fall halfway down her nose that scared most people away. That, and her bread-ish attitude. Crusty around the edges – Mrs Grabowski rarely did compliments – but soft in the middle in that she cared a great deal for her students.
“Good.” A single strand of white hair fell into her face and away from the rest collected in a barrette at the back of her head as she nodded. “It is best not to think too much when it comes to topics like this. Just think of a subject, a person or a place that you have truly cherished. Generally, it is the first that comes to mind that produces the finest work. You might not know it, but your attachment to the subject will always shine through. Emotion is what truly transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary.” She paused and watched me closely as she said, “And extraordinary it must be if I am going to submit it for exhibition at the Walker and Pope gallery in New York.”
“Hold that thought,” she ordered as the door sounded open behind us and, seconds later, clicked shut. “I am just going to welcome the new student.”
Now, ordinarily, I’d have shown as much interest as everyone else, leaning past their easels to catch a glimpse of said new student but I was occupied then with the squirting of various shades of blue onto my plastic palette and the mixing of them with my brush. My piece at Walker and Pope? Most of the works there sell for thousands!
It wasn’t until the new student passed me by, until I’d caught a glimpse of her – of the girl who should not and could not possibly be there – from the corner of eye, that my palette clattered to the floor. I was unaware of when I’d stood and indifferent to my making a spectacle of myself. In that moment, I had eyes only for the owner of hair so dark it must have been inked in a thousand nights and a gaze so heavy it was impossible to move from beneath it as she rose and held out my fallen palette. Those eyes, true to her namesake, were a perfect-weather-for-a-picnic sky blue. The room flashed with the colour.