14. THE CAVE
Ryan looked me intently and asked, “Are you cold?”
“A little,” I admitted.
“You know,” Ryan began, as he set me on my feet. “Eventually the cold won’t affect you as much—when you’re a full Vampire, I mean.”
I’d already guessed as much—Ryan’s body was almost as cold as ice all the time, so I figured it was a Vampire trait I’d be inheriting.
“But for now,” he continued, and began walking away from me. “We need to keep you warm.” Suddenly, he collapsed and rolled off the edge of the mountain. I yelped.
“Ryan?” I shrieked, rushing over to the edge to see if he was all right. He was standing in the grass bellow, right where the mountain started sloping upwards.
He looked up at me. A grin was stretching across his face. “It’s hard to hurt a Vampire, remember?”
I laughed, nervously. Right. “What are you doing?” I called.
“I’m going to collect some twigs and sticks so we can build a fire,” he explained. “Just stay there,” he commanded. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He turned his back on me and headed into the forest.
I sighed, surprisingly content. Even though Ryan had left me, I knew he was coming back, and I was comforted by that thought. I sat down on the rock below me, preparing to wait. I crossed my legs and looked towards the horizon. There were some blackbirds twittering through the gray clouds. I watched them for a couple of minutes as they swooped and chattered. By the time I looked away from the birds, Ryan was standing next to me again.
I gasped. “Ryan, don’t do that,” I breathed.
“Do what?” he asked, genuinely confused.
“Sneak up on me like that,” I clarified.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to,” he apologized, attempting to hide a smile.
I sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”
He stretched out his right hand for me to grab onto and pulled me up so I was standing in front of him. In his left arm, he was carrying a few handfuls of sticks and twigs, along with some dry leaves. He turned around and walked into the dark cave-like opening in the side of the mountain. I opted for staying where I was. It was pitch black in the “cave,” so Ryan disappeared from view quickly after going in. I could hear him building the fire—sticks scratching the stone floor, whispered curses when the little pile of twigs collapsed on him.
Eventually, I saw a tiny pillar of smoke rising out of the hollow. Then I saw a spark and a small orange flame. I could see Ryan’s pale hands strategically placing more twigs on the fire and stuffing dried leaves underneath, trying to build the flame. Before I knew it, there was a full tepee fire blazing in the center of the cave, cutting through the darkness and illuminating Ryan’s face. He was smiling, triumphant. I walked into the light and stood on the other side of the fire, facing him.
“Congratulations,” I told him. “You’ve earned your campfire merit badge.”
“Ha-ha, very funny.” He glared at me from across the fire.
“I couldn’t resist.” I grinned.
“Actually, when I was younger, my parents did sign me up for boy scouts,” he admitted, matter-of-factly.
“Seriously?” I asked. Somehow I couldn’t picture Ryan doing the whole wilderness thing.
“Yeah, it only lasted about a month. They wanted me to be a normal twelve year old.”
“And why weren’t you normal?” I asked jokingly.
His playful smirk disappeared instantly. “Uh, it’s nothing. You know…” he muttered, looking down.
Yeah right. I could feel the tension rolling off him, but I ignored it. I wanted to ask him another question.
“Are you ever going to tell me about your family?” I asked, hesitantly. Ryan had only mentioned his family once before, and he’d seemed real uneasy about it, which had, of course, only made me more curious.
“Uh, there’s not much to tell,” he mumbled, shifting his gaze so he was staring at the flames instead of the ground. I could tell he was lying. There was something about his family that he obviously didn’t want to tell me. But I wasn’t sure what is was or why he didn’t want to.
“You can trust me, you know,” I encouraged.
He sighed, looking up and into my eyes. “I know that, Emma. I will tell you. Another time, though, okay?”
I sighed in defeat. “Fine,” I grumbled, crossing my arms.
He looked at me for a fraction of a second more, then rushed over to my side and pulled my arms apart. He grabbed my hand. “I want to show you something,” he said, excitement appearing on his face.
“Okay,” I said, hesitant. He grabbed a flaming, thick stick from the fire, then he led me to the back of the mountainside cave. It was about twenty feet from the entrance. We turned a corner and walked into the most stunning, beautiful room I had ever seen. It was a deep, cavernous room with crystals everywhere—colorful, huge, shiny crystals on every wall and in every corner that glinted and sparkled as they caught the light from Ryan’s stick. Blue crystals, white crystals, pink crystals, yellow crystals—every color you could imagine. There were crystal covered stalagmites and stalactites, as well. It was all absolutely breathtaking.
“Do you like it?” Ryan asked.
I was speechless.
“Is that a yes?” he asked.
“It’s amazing,” I whispered.
Ryan smiled. “I like to come here sometimes to relax, or think. I’m pretty sure no one else knows of it because I never get bothered. It’s peaceful. And beautiful.”
“How is this possible?” I whispered, fascinated.
“Anything’s possible,” Ryan murmured.
He turned towards me and lifted a hand to my face. He brushed away a bit of hair that was covering part of my cheek, and rested his hand on my neck. I got goose bumps from his touch. He leaned in and pressed his lips to mine.
I guess I was a bit euphoric from all the magnificent crystals and perfectness of the moment, because I ended up overreacting a tiny bit. I reached up and gripped Ryan’s waist, pulling him against me. I was glad when he didn’t hesitate. He dropped the fiery stick and it went out, plunging us into darkness. Then he placed the hand that had been holding the stick on the opposite side of my neck, tilting my head up so he had easier access to my mouth.
I stood on my toes, doing anything I could to be closer to him. My lips tingled as Ryan’s moved fiercely against them. I felt myself leaning into Ryan and felt him backing up. I stumbled forward as he stumbled back, our lips never coming apart. His hands dropped from my neck and I felt vibrations run through his body as he slammed into the cave wall.
Watch it, Emma. It was that annoying, voice of reason again.
Shut up, I told it.
I pressed myself into Ryan even more. Our bodies fit perfectly together, contouring to each other’s curves. He cupped his hands on either side of my face. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to listen to the voice of reason for once and stop this. I wasn’t sure how far Ryan would let this go, and, honestly, I wasn’t sure how far I would let this go if I got too carried away.
I reluctantly pulled my lips from Ryan’s. He gasped. “Emma,” he murmured, leaning forward, trying to kiss me again. I couldn’t resist him. I pressed my lips quickly to his and pulled away again. This time, he did the same, leaning his head back against the wall. I stood flat on my feet and let my hands fall to my sides, then leaned my head against his chest, breathing hard, just as he was. I could feel his chest moving up and down underneath me.
I felt his lips come down on the top of my head, then he rested his chin on the spot where his lips had been.
“Sorry about that,” I mumbled into his chest.
“That’s okay,” Ryan chuckled, his cool breath blowing through my hair. “I don’t mind.”
I know, that’s the problem. But I just smiled and laughed, feeling slightly embarrassed. “Yeah, me either,” I admitted—though, it was probably pretty obvious that I had enjoyed it, without me having to say anything.
“So,” he began, changing the subject. “Do you want to go out by the fire?”
I was reluctant to leave the crystal room, but I was a little cold. “Sure.”
I stood straight and Ryan led the way out of the dark crystal cavern. I followed him out into the glow of the crackling fire. Outside the cave, the sky was still a light gray, and little white chunks were still plummeting down. Ryan sat down in front of the fire, pulling his knees up and leaning against the dark gray walls of the mountainside cave. I watched him as he gazed into the orange glow. I leaned against the stone wall, next to where he was sitting and stared into the fire, as well.
“Did you look around a little today?” Ryan asked softly, switching his gaze from the fire to me.
“Uh, yeah. Me and this girl, Julia, from my dorm checked out the laundry room and the library,” I muttered, distracted, still gazing at the flames.
“Way to be the practical one, Emma. Laundry and books,” he chuckled.
I smiled and looked over at him. “Yeah, well, we didn’t have time to see anything else, so I figured the library and the laundry room were the most important rooms,” I explained.
“Of course,” he said, amused.
“I can’t wait to go back to the library,” I told him. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”
“It is,” he agreed. “And how about the laundry room?” he asked, a smile creeping back onto his face. “Do you think that is wonderful, as well?”
“I suppose it is,” I laughed, as I sat down next to him. “Do we get the weekends off?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yes, we do.”
I’d meant the students, but…Wait. Was Ryan a student? No. Or, at least, I didn’t think he was. Then what was—
…“Once you start your training, you’ll need the weekend to rest,” he explained, distracting me from the question forming in my head.
“Ah. Will we come here again, though?”
“The cave?” Ryan clarified.
“Yeah. I really like it up here.”
“Of course. Whenever we’re able to, we can come back,” he assured me.
“That’s good,” I mumbled, leaning against his shoulder. I suddenly felt exhausted.
“You’re tired,” Ryan observed.
“I don’t know why,” I yawned.
“Well, it could be because it’s part of the natural process of becoming a Vampire, or because we walked up a mountain, or because you ran at lightning speed. Your choice.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I guess it’s one of those.”
Ryan wrapped his arms around me, pulling me closer to him. I leaned my cheek against his chest and he gently put his chin down on the top of my head. I yawned again, forgetting everything for the time being, but Ryan’s arms around me.
“It’s okay, Emma,” he murmured. “You can sleep.”
“No, I’m fine,” I mumbled. I did not want to go to sleep and not be able to appreciate this experience. I closed my eyes and thought for a moment, trying to remember the question I’d been planning on asking him earlier. “You said we,” I noted, remembering. I looked into the flames, curiosity spreading across my face.
“Huh?” Ryan asked, confused.
“You said, ‘we’ have the weekends off,” I explained. “What exactly do you do at Arborson?”
“Oh,” Ryan said, realizing what I meant. “Well, I was technically a student at Arborson last year, and now I kind of work there, I guess. You know, I just help out around the school and stuff like that.”
“Oh. Do most Vampires do that? You know, after they, uh…” I didn’t want to say ‘win the fight.’
He knew what I meant. “Sometimes. They usually just go back to their normal lives if they can. Some who can’t, or don’t want to, live alone or with other Vampires. The school contacts certain Vampires when it’s time to create newborns again and they do that,” he explained.
“What do you mean don’t want to?” I asked.
“I mean, if a Vampire chooses to live off of human blood instead of creating more of its kind to be able to live off of animal blood.”
“Oh. Why would someone choose to kill?” I asked, confused and slightly appalled.
“Because they are against dooming others to their fate. You see,” he began, then stopped short. My eyebrows furrowed, curious as to what he was deciding not to tell me. “Some Vampires believe that creating a new Vampire is equal to taking a human life. Or worse.”
I wondered what he was going to say, but I let it go; for now. “But it’s not equal,” I mumbled. “If you’re dead, you’re dead. If you’re a Vampire, you’re still living—I mean, you breathe, and age, and die. How are they the same?”
“They’re not. But that’s how some Vampires think. They rather kill someone and get it over with, than change them into a monster. They think that if they kill one person, instead of changing them, that they will save more people’s lives in the long run.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I argued.
“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “But that’s what some Vampires think, and there’s not much anyone can do to change their minds.”
I sighed. This whole ethical issue thing was getting complicated.
“I know,” Ryan soothed me. “It’s complicated.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” I mumbled.
“Do you want to talk about something less complicated?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Anything’s fine with me,” he smiled.
“Hmm,” I pondered.
“You could tell me about your family,” Ryan suggested. “I don’t know much about them, and I’m curious.”
Well, my family wasn’t exactly uncomplicated, but I figured, what the heck.
“If I tell you about my family, will you tell me about yours?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but not able to resist testing my luck.
“I told you. I will tell you eventually,” Ryan countered. “Just trust me.”
I knew it. I sighed, giving up. “Well, what exactly do you want to know about my family?”
“Hmm.” He looked up at the rock ceiling, thinking. “Why don’t you tell me about your dad, first.”
“Okay,” I began. “His name is Paul Garett. He’s a second grade teacher at Gunnison Elementary, and um, that’s basically it,” I concluded.
“Come on, Emma. Anything else?” Ryan asked, impatient. Why did he want to know about my family so bad?
“Uh, well, he’s really more like a grandfather than a dad,” I admitted. “You know, the stuck-in-his-ways grandpa that makes you eat your dinner and shoves his ideas and morals down your throat?”
“Yeah,” Ryan smiled gently. “Is that what your grandpa is like, too?” he asked.
“Actually, I suppose he acts more like the way a dad should act. I guess the roles got reversed between generations,” I chuckled.
“What about your grandpa on your mother’s side?” Ryan asked, but then grimaced slightly about mentioning my mom, and said, “Sorry Emma.”
“It’s fine,” I sighed. “My mom’s dad is dead, but I suppose he was your average grandfather—except maybe a little more emotional and passionate. But that was okay; his passion made him able to love more than anyone else I knew. Plus, he was a writer, so it meant for some awesome poetry.”
“I’m sorry, Emma,” Ryan apologized.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “He died when I was eight, so I didn’t get to know him that well, and some of the memories are fading anyway, since it was so long ago.”
“When you were eight?” Ryan asked, a slightly confused and sympathetic look crossing his face.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “A couple of months after my mom”—I hesitated—“went missing, my grandma died of a heart-attack. He was really upset, obviously—he lost his daughter, and then his wife. He uh…” I trailed off. I knew Ryan would figure out what I meant.
“Oh, Emma,” he said, sympathy and anguish coloring his tone.
“It’s fine,” I pressed. “Really, Ryan, don’t worry about it.”
“I know, but—” he went on.
I cut him off. “…The past is the past. There’s no sense in worrying about what you can’t change.”
Ryan sighed and kissed my forehead. “You’re right,” he said, then hesitated. “Is it okay if I hear more about your father, then?” he asked.
“Whatever you want,” I said, rolling my eyes playfully. There wasn’t many more interesting things about my dad that I could tell him, but if he wanted to know… Ryan smiled with me.
From there, I went on about my dad’s beliefs, his habits, everything about his life that I knew and thought was at least half interesting, or bugged the crap out of me—including how he called me “kiddo” all the time, and how I hated it. Ryan laughed a little at that one.
“My mom never called me kiddo,” I told Ryan and the smile faded from his face.
“Is it hard?” he asked me, his expression and tone of voice solemn.
“Is what hard?”
“Not having your mom around.” He looked at me sympathetically.
“Well, of course it hasn’t been fun,” I admitted. “I mean, she was my mom.” I started to choke up a little at the end, thinking about what had happened to her.
Ryan squeezed me tighter to him.
“I barely had enough time to get to know her,” I confessed, holding back tears. Ryan leaned his head against mine. “I don’t know if she’s still alive, even.”
“It’s okay, Emma,” Ryan murmured. “You don’t have to be strong.”
“It’s not okay!” I exclaimed. “And I do have to be strong. Because if I’m strong, I can ignore it. If I’m strong, I can pretend everything is okay. I can forget about the fact that I’ll never see my mom again. I have to be strong. Because if I’m not strong, then I’m weak. And if I’m weak, I won’t be able to block it from my mind. And if I can’t push them away, the emotions will overcome me. The sadness, the hurt, the loss, the hopelessness, the fury…” By the end of my rant, I was mumbling and blubbering so much, Ryan probably hadn’t understood a word.
I buried my head in his chest and the tears overflowed. All the pent-up emotion I’d been holding in for years finally escaped my grasp. I just couldn’t control myself anymore. Ryan had been able to break through my carefully placed, rock-hard shield like no one had ever been able to do before. Anger and sadness, and abandonment, among other emotions, streamed out my eyes in the form of wet, thick tears.
Ryan scooped me up off the cave floor, into his lap and pulled me tightly against him. He just let me cry into his shirt, never once loosening his grip on me.
“I know she’s dead, Ryan. I know it,” I confided in him. I had never wanted to admit this, but I’d known all along that it was true. When I was blubbering, a tear got in my mouth. It tasted like bitter lemons. “What the hell is happening?!” I growled, furiously frustrated, attempting to extricate myself from Ryan’s grasp. I flew up and stumbled backward. I heard something crunch beneath my shoe.
“Emma!” Ryan screamed, a look of horror crossing his face.
I felt a searing, burning pain creeping up my leg. I looked down and saw that my left pant leg was on fire. I jumped away from the burning twigs, but it was no use. Ryan shot up and sprinted over to me. He stopped, seeming dazed, fixated, for a moment. What was he doing? My leg was on fire! In a second, he snapped out of whatever he was in and ripped off his light blue long-sleeved shirt—stained with my tears—and began beating it against my leg, attempting to put out the fire. I felt a burning pain caress the skin above my ankle.
“Ryan!” I shouted over the thumping of his shirt against my leg.
“I’m trying, Emma!” he shouted back. I could tell adrenaline was rushing through his veins, just as it was through mine. He beat furiously at the flames, and eventually they receded, turning into black smoke, spiraling away into the air.
When the last flame was out and the tingling, burning sensation was leaving my leg, I looked down. My pant leg was blackened, with charred little embers floating delicately on top of it. Then I looked at Ryan, who was standing in front of me—I was pressed against the cave wall. He had a look of shock and fright in his emerald green eyes. His arms were hanging limply at his sides; he gripped his light blue shirt in his right hand.
After a couple of seconds of us just staring at each other, breathing hard, he spoke.
“Emma, are you alright?” he asked, concern briefly masking the horror on his face.
“I’m not sure,” I replied honestly. Ryan walked towards me and bent down over my leg. He set down his shirt, then gently rolled up my pant leg, so it was about halfway to my knee. I watched the muscles in his bare arms move as he did this.
Ryan murmured something, but I couldn’t look at his face as he spoke—I was too distracted by his body. My eyes followed his arm up, scanning over his shoulders.
I felt his finger stroke my shin gently. His cold touch felt good on my tingling leg.
“The burn is very minor,” he said. My eyes wondered over his shoulder blades and down his spine.
“It’s just a little red,” he continued, as my eyes continued tracing over every detail of his pale, perfect features. “It might scar. I’m not sure, what with your skin being more like a Vampire’s now, and lacking blood.”
“Okay,” I was finally able to mumble. Ryan leaned back a little, still crouched in front of me. I stretched my leg out slightly and looked down. The burn wasn’t bad at all. There was barely any discoloration. I couldn’t say the same, however, for my white (well, they weren’t white anymore) Converse.
“Does it hurt?” Ryan asked, concerned again.
“No. It only tingled a little, but even that is pretty much gone now.”
“That’s good,” Ryan sighed in relief, and smoothed down my pant leg before he sinuously uncurled himself from his crouch and stood straight in front of me. Just like me, Ryan was still breathing hard. But it seemed like he was trying to slow his breathing by taking long, deep breaths. He was standing merely inches away from me, so I could see his smooth, well-formed, alabaster chest moving up and down methodically. I tried to do the same, tried to calm myself along with him. In no time, our breathing was synchronized, our chests moving up and down at exactly the same time.
After we’d calmed down, Ryan glanced down. I glanced down, as well, and saw that he was holding out his left hand for me to take. I reached out willingly, and grasped it. His cold fingers wrapped around mine. He looked up and into my eyes briefly, once more, before turning around and leading us back towards our spot against the wall. When we got there, he pulled me down slowly with him and we sat side-by-side, holding hands, staring into what was left of the fire.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ryan asked.
“Talk about what?”
“Before you, uh, caught fire, you asked what was happening. Would you like me to tell you?”
I suddenly felt a little embarrassed about my tirade. It was stupid. I knew I shouldn’t have reacted like that. It felt like I was blushing, so I looked down. Ryan reached his hand over and lifted my chin up so I was looking at him. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled. I was sure he’d noticed me blushing, anyway.
“Emma,” he pleaded.
“Just blushing,” I admitted.
“You weren’t blushing,” Ryan informed me.
“I wasn’t?” I asked, confused.
“Emma, you’ve already lost a lot of blood, remember?” Ryan said. “I’m not sure exactly where the rest of your blood is, but it’s not in your cheeks—at least, it’s not right now.”
“Oh,” I said, only a little surprised. Okay, that made sense. Duh. “It felt like I was blushing, though,” I told him.
“You’ll still have the sensation,” he explained. “Just like you’ll have the sensation of other things—like blood pounding through your veins, your heart beat accelerating as it pumps blood through your body, etcetera.”
I opened my mouth to argue. He cut me off.
“You’ll feel all the sensations that come along with blood, but really, it is your venom that is running through your veins—not blood.”
“So every time it feels like I’m blushing, or it feels like my pulse is pounding behind my ear, that’s the venom?” I asked, trying to make sense of what he was saying.
“Everything will continue to happen normally,” he answered me. Then his eyes narrowed slightly; he was thinking. “All it is, really, is that the venom replaced the blood,” he said, looking back into my eyes, his look of concentration gone. “Does that make sense?”
“So the reason for the Purging was to make room for the venom?” I asked.
“Yes, I suppose you could look at it that way,” he said, shrugging his shoulder. “I guess that’s the basic idea.”
“Okay. That makes sense, then,” I admitted. Then the question that I’d meant to ask earlier—the one Ryan had originally planned on answering— popped back into my head.
“The tears are venom, too, aren’t they?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” Ryan murmured.
I thought back to when I’d been crying in Ryan’s arms and had tasted the tears and freaked out, pretty much for no reason at all.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For freaking out like that. It was completely unnecessary.”
“It’s okay. You were stressed out. I understand completely. And no one’s badly hurt, it’s fine,” he soothed.
“I still feel bad, though,” I mumbled.
Ryan leaned over and kissed my forehead. “Don’t worry about anything, Emma,” he murmured into my skin. “Everything will work out.”
I sighed and Ryan leaned back against the stone wall. He stroked my cheek once before turning back to gazing into the remains of the destroyed fire. There were only a few mini-flames left, thanks to my stepping on the delicate tepee structure; most of the flames had gone out or gone up my leg.
“Emma,” Ryan began after a few minutes of staring into the dying fire. “Would you tell me about your brother?”
I was slightly taken aback. I didn’t think Ryan would ask this of me—he obviously knew that Sam would be a touchy subject. “I, um, well,” I stammered.
“Oh, Emma, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to,” Ryan breathed, realizing quickly what he’d asked.
“Well,” I began anyway. I didn’t want to deny Ryan what he wanted, and it felt cowardice to not speak about Sam. The truth was the truth and not talking about something that was painful wouldn’t make it go away. Ryan looked at me when I spoke. “Sam was at to Yale to become a lawyer.”
Ryan’s eyes widened infinitesimally. I knew why. The whole fighting, obstruction of justice thing wasn’t going over well with Sam, either, I assumed. And so did Ryan.
“He was an athlete in high school, though,” I continued. “Everyone thought he’d get into college on a track scholarship. No one really thought he was that smart. Of course, the teachers knew obviously, since they graded him, but still, everyone thought that such a talented track star wouldn’t want to waste his time on law.”
“It’s terrible that people judge like that,” Ryan said, sympathy and a bit of anger in his voice.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But he was okay with it. Sam’s cool that way,” I explained.
“I can tell that you really admire him,” Ryan observed.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “He’s my best friend—or was I guess.” My eyes started tearing up again.
“Emma, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m sure you could get in contact with Sam if you wanted to. And maybe he’s against this whole thing, too. Maybe…” Ryan trailed off. I could tell he was trying to cheer me up despite his better judgment on the matter. But it didn’t make much difference because it wasn’t working anyway.
“Maybe what, Ryan? Maybe Sam and I will both be like, ‘Hey, this is unfair. We don’t have to do this,’ and walk off the battlefield holding hands and smiling? Do you think anyone would let us do that?” I asked, rhetorically.
Ryan just stared at me, pity and shock in his eyes. “Obviously, Emma, rules can be broken.”
“But this is different,” I argued, gesturing to him and then to me. “No one knows about us. With Sam…” I trailed off.
“There’s always hope, Emma,” he said, sternly, shifting his gaze to the floor. I got the feeling we were slowly drifting away from the point—the point being Sam.
“I suppose there is,” I sighed. “In most cases.”
Ryan’s eyes snapped back to mine and the look in them was so—so…vulnerable.
“But in some cases, nothing can be done. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and deal with it.” Hold on. What was I doing? Was I trying to console Ryan...and myself? Talk about a turn of conversation. Was I finally admitting that there was no hope? No hope for making things right with Sam, and…no hope for being with Ryan?
“What are you saying?” Ryan asked, a more distinct look of shock crossing his face.
“I’m saying…” I began, hesitant. I didn’t want to say anything that could be taken a different way than I wanted it to be taken. “I just mean that some rules can’t be broken,” I finished, trying to get back on the topic of Sam. I didn’t want to talk or even think about not being able to stay with Ryan. It was too painful. I honestly had no idea why he even decided to lace it into the conversation in the first place, and was a bit irritated with him for doing so.
So I’d rather discuss fighting my brother to the death than think about being separated from a guy I’d only known a week. What kind of sick, twisted logic is that?
I sighed and turned back to the fire. Actually, it was more smoke-engulfed, burnt-to-a-crisp twigs than it was fire. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ryan staring at me, his eyes boring into my face.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked him, still staring into the dying fire.
He hesitated before speaking, only slightly, but enough for me to know that he wasn’t telling me the exact truth. “I’m thinking we should probably head home.”
Home. Yes. Arborson was home—my home. Our home.
“The flame is out,” he said, nodding toward the fire. “And it’s getting kind of dark, anyway. Plus, I think we’d have the best chance of sneaking back in if it was during dinner. No one would suspect anything, and everyone would be distracted.”
He was right. I sighed and pushed myself off the cave floor. I stood a few feet from the exit, waiting for Ryan. He walked around to the other side of the fire and grabbed his shirt off the stone floor. He flapped it out as he walked towards me. I noticed a few dark spots on it where the fire had burnt it slightly, but other than that, it was unscathed. The black spots would, however, be conspicuous if he were to walk into the school wearing the shirt. He obviously felt the same way, because he quickly flipped the light blue shirt inside out, and then slid it on over his smooth, white shoulders.
After he was fully clothed again (somewhat to my disappointment) he met me by the mouth of the cave, grabbed my hand, and we walked out together. It was only snowing a little bit still—just small, discrete little ice crystals; no more of the fluffy Q-tips that were plummeting down this afternoon. We walked to the edge of the mountain, where it began sloping down again.
“Come on, Emma,” Ryan urged. “Let’s run down the mountain.”
“Okay,” I agreed easily. It’s not like I didn’t like running at lightning speed. I just hoped, again, that I wouldn’t run into anything—I’d been lucky the first time.
Ryan didn’t let go of my hand as he began down the side of the mountain. He started out running at a fast jog, which I kept up with easily. Eventually he got faster and faster until he was running at light speed, dragging me along next to him. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would’ve been, running with Ryan. I’d been afraid I wouldn’t be able to run as fast again, but I kept up for the most part. It was a little hard at the beginning and he was pulling me more than I was running, but once I got the hang of it again, I had no problem keeping up with him the rest of the way down the mountain.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we slowed down, jogging into the forest.
“Is there a mountain on the other side, too?” I asked, as we slowed to a walk. We stepped over a fallen tree.
“Yes,” Ryan replied. “We’re literally in the mountains, remember.”
“Oh, right,” I sighed. “We are in the Rockies?” I clarified.
“Yes. The Colorado branch of the Rocky Mountains.”
“Okay, so how far are we from Gunnison?”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “We’re about one hundred and seventy miles from Gunnison—give or take a few.” He shrugged lightly.
“Yeah,” he agreed. Arborson is located in a deep, hidden valley about halfway between Creede and Durango.”
“Has anyone ever found it?” I asked. “The school, I mean.”
“Not yet.” He paused. “Or, at least, not to my knowledge.”
I had to ask. “What would happen if someone discovered Arborson?”
As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer and immediately regretted saying anything. “Never mind,” I spat out quickly, before he had the chance to even open his mouth to reply.
“Right,” he muttered. “So the answer’s kind of obvious.”
I frowned at the sick logic.
“I was wondering,” Ryan began, changing the subject, hopefully to a lighter one. “What is your mother’s name?” I didn’t fail to notice how he used the present-tense.
“Her name was Abigail,” I replied. “I was named after her.”
“What?” he asked, a look of confusion crossing his face.
“My middle name,” I explained.
“Hmm,” he pondered. “Emma Abigail Garett.” He looked at me and smiled. “I like it.”
“Ha, thanks,” I mumbled.
“Don’t you like it?” he asked.
“Well, I like the Abigail part. I love being named after my mom. The Emma and the Garett seem kind of ordinary, though,” I admitted.
“Sometimes ordinary is beautiful,” Ryan murmured, and squeezed my fingers tighter. I rolled my eyes and he leaned over to give me a quick kiss on the cheek.
We walked through the snow-covered trees and moss for about another half hour, just muttering little things here and there and enjoying the serenity of the moment. Finally, I could see the end of the gravel trail up ahead. As we neared the trail, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and little shafts of sunlight shot down through the leaves of the trees above us. It stopped snowing for a bit, which was good, because I didn’t think my Converse—or my socks or feet for that matter—could retain anymore water.
Ryan and I stepped out of the forest and onto the icy, gravel path that led back to the entrance. The sun shone even brighter above us, since there obviously weren’t as many trees near the path as there were in the forest. I sighed, thinking about having to endure the uncomfortable feeling of the sun on my skin. Then I gasped and froze on the trail. Since he was still holding my hand, Ryan stopped when I stopped. Using my peripheral vision, I could see him staring at me, confusion tinting his features.
“What’s the matter, Emma?” he asked, concern in his voice. I just continued to stare straight ahead. I could see Ryan turn his head and follow my gaze. He gasped, as well.
On the path ahead of us, shielding his face from the sudden ray of sunlight as he walked in our direction, was a spiky-haired boy dressed in all black.