Chapter 1

Chapter 1: MY ESCAPE

Alone. Horribly and utterly alone was the most positive feeling I could muster. I longed to be free from the despair that engulfed me. I could barely focus. Gwyneth, my best friend, had been excused from exams. When your mother dies, you’re afforded certain concessions. When your mother “figure” dies, you get to write exams.

I looked around at my peers, who were concentrating on their papers, trying to write as much as they possibly could before the clock ran out. Their pens moved furiously. I chuckled out loud at how insignificant the entire process was when the teacher cleared her throat and gestured for me to continue with my exam. To appease my intrusive teacher, I glanced back at my paper even though I knew there was no hope of concentration.

I found myself staring out of the window. It seemed to be a beautiful spring day. The sun was shining, leaves and flowers were blooming, and birds were chirping. Why, with such bright and beautiful prospects in front of me, did it feel so dark and cold?

The bell rang, startling me and bringing me back to reality—a reality where, upon glancing at the half empty pages in front of me, I had next to no hope of passing this exam. I wondered if it was even worth turning in. I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave but had nowhere to go. The teacher had to insist twice that student’s stop writing, I had already packed up my bag.

Up until two weeks ago, grade eleven was proving to be an amazing year. I was at the top of my class academically, my soccer team had just won the championship, and socially, let’s just say, I was no longer a pariah. Things were great.

Gwyneth wasn’t as athletic as I was, but we pretty much did everything else together. We lived beside each other, and our mothers were best friends. Our families were always together, and so, we felt very secure around each other.

That may have been why neither of us had ever really had a serious boyfriend. There was never a void that needed to be filled or a guy either of us liked enough to spend any real time with.

About six months ago, we overheard our mothers chatting about how lucky they were that we never got into any of that foolish “boy stuff.” It’s funny that we never felt abnormal; I suppose most people would have.

Our summer was set to be incredible. Gwyneth’s family had friends who lived in Bay City. They kept a boat at their local marina and had invited us to stay with them for a couple of nights. It was going to be our first road trip. We would drive up together, spend a couple of days on the boat, and catch a concert before heading home. We were so excited. We had never been away by ourselves before.

It had taken a lot of convincing by Clara Hill, Gwyneth’s mom, but my mom eventually conceded that my staying with family friends at seventeen wasn’t the worst idea in the world. Although she would never admit to it being a good idea, the best we could hope for was that it wasn’t the “worst” idea.

Gwyneth wanted to go shopping, insisting she had nothing to bring with her on our road trip. I didn’t like to shop but agreed to go with her as I always did. The longer I could go without having to enter a mall, the better. Gwyneth or my mom would always show up with a new shirt or pair of jeans when they felt I had sufficiently “loved” my current ones enough.

I brought a book to occupy myself with while Gwyneth tried on clothes. Vampires that wreaked havoc on normal societies while trying not be detected were my guilty pleasure. For some reason they intrigued me although I never understood why they didn’t just rise up and take over if they were so much more powerful than humans.

I wasn’t a chapter in when Gwyneth came out of the change room empty handed. Still looking at her phone, she said, “My mom just called. She wants me home for dinner. Apparently, our relatives from Greece decided to surprise us with a visit. She said for you to come too.” She was still staring at her phone as though she was in a daze.

“Gwyn, are you alright?” I asked, feeling like she wasn’t telling me everything. Snapping out of it and looking at me with what seemed like a forced smile, she said, “Yeah, I’m fine. Come on, let’s go.”

The entire way home she was unusually quiet, concentrating way harder than was necessary on the road. It was like she intentionally didn’t want to make eye contact with me; she seemed very uncomfortable. When we pulled into her driveway, she just sat there, staring at her house with the car still running. It wasn’t until I asked her again if she was okay that she smiled and turned off the car.

When we walked into the house, everyone was waiting for us in the living room. As soon as I walked in, I could feel the atmosphere stiffen. There were four relatives; all were men and all were very old. They were dressed in suits; I found this to be strange for an impromptu dinner visit. The youngest looking of them stood up and stretched out his hand to introduce himself. I shook his hand and thought I saw him shudder. He smiled and looked at Mrs. Hill who looked down uncomfortably, unwilling to return his gaze. I had never seen her lacking in confidence before.

He then returned his smile to me; it wasn’t warm. He said, “Hello, my name is Christopher. It is nice to meet you Elizabeth.”

“Yeah, thanks. You too,” I replied pulling my hand from his intense grasp. I found it strange that he didn’t acknowledge Gwyneth. He was still holding out his hand, staring at it. He looked up while wiggling his fingers and smiled, but it was more sinister than genuine. He then looked at the other three relatives and paused in their gaze. It was strange.

I really wanted to leave but was afraid to. Christopher answered my wish when he said, “Okay, Gwyneth, Elizabeth. You may go upstairs.” Giving orders in the Hill’s house, while they sat there and said nothing—it made no sense. If I hadn’t been so grateful for the opportunity to leave, I may have questioned it more. I turned to go, but Gwyneth didn’t budge. She just stood there, looking at her mother, fear and defiance outlining her demeanor.

Christopher elaborated and said, “We need to discuss…family business.” Gwyneth’s gaze never left her mother’s. Mrs. Hill stood and walked over to her daughter. While brushing the hair away from Gwyneth’s face she said, “It’s okay. You girls go and have fun,” she said. Her smile was warm, but she definitely wasn’t herself. A smug looked traipsed across Christopher’s insincere face. Gwyneth hesitantly turned to leave.

On our way out of the room, I told Gwyn I was going to go home. She didn’t discourage me in any way. She just hugged me and walked me out. It was the strangest interaction I’ve ever had with her and her family.

That night I slept very little. My dreams were plagued with monsters. Every time I would fall asleep, I would see terrible things inflicted by faceless people. Everyone was faceless except one: Christopher. His face was haunting me but in some unreal, paranormal way.

The third time I woke up it was in a cold sweat. I immediately blamed my recent vampire reading coupled with the strangeness of the real Christopher. In my dreams, though, he wasn’t a vampire, but he was torturing people—well one person actually. I couldn’t see who it was and didn’t really want to know; I was just grateful it was over.

I lay back down afraid to close my eyes again. I couldn’t get the image of him torturing that person out of my head. I couldn’t see him using anything to hurt his victim though. He was just standing there with his arms stretched straight out, his palms up, speaking words I couldn’t understand while his victim writhed in pain before his evil, uncaring eyes.

I shuttered. I looked at my clock. It was blinking 3:23 a.m. over and over as though it had stopped at that exact time. I turned on the lamp beside my bed to check my phone. It was almost 4 a.m. I decided that I had to find a new guilty pleasure; 4 a.m. wake ups do not work for me.

Gwyneth called me later that morning and told me she wouldn’t be walking with me to school as she was going to spend time with her relatives. I didn’t hear from her again until the next morning. I was getting ready for school when she called. She didn’t even say hello. Her first and only words were, “My mom is in the hospital. The doctors say it’s cancer. It’s not good. I’m on my way there now. Tell your mom. I’ll call you later.” And she was gone.

I looked at the phone, unable to digest the information she had just relayed to me. She was cold, lifeless. There wasn’t any emotion in her voice. It was like she had already come to terms with the inevitable.

I ran downstairs two steps at a time as though the faster I told my mom, the easier it would be for her to fix. How childish. After retelling the story I still didn’t believe was true, my mom sported the same astonished, disbelieving look I imagine I had after receiving the news. It was a very rare occasion that my mother was at a loss for words.

After a prolonged silence that none of us were used to, my mother snapped out of it and went into planning mode. “I didn’t even know she was sick!” she said to me as though I must have misunderstood Gwyneth.

“Me neither,” I replied. “That must have been why everyone was acting so strange the other night. She must have just told their relatives.”

My mother immediately called her assistant to cancel her meetings, classes, and anything else on her calendar that day. She wanted to go to the hospital to see if she could help. “You need to go to school. I will let you know as soon as I find anything out,” she said as though she could read my mind and knew I would be intent on going with her. There was no point in arguing; there never was.

The school day could not have been longer. When you’re tired and worried the clock practically stops ticking. Finally, after a day that seemed like a week, I raced home to meet my mother. She was already there, in the kitchen with my dad.

As I entered the room, my mom just looked at me; her eyes were red as though she had been crying the entire day. She seemed afraid to say the words that I was afraid to hear. Saying things out loud so often makes them more real. My mom just shook her head from side to side, keeping me in her gaze, unable to speak.

It was my dad who eventually said, “It spread through her entire body. She doesn’t have long.”

Tears immediately started streaming down my cheeks. I don’t think I even realized I was crying. Panicked and completely unaware of my weakened state, I replied, “Well, I have to go and see her. There has to be something we can do—something somebody can do!”

My mom continued to shake her head, unable to do anything else as the grief over her best friend started to overtake her. My dad replied, “No, she doesn’t want to see anyone. She wants everyone to remember her as she was. Your mother said goodbye to her today, and she wants you to know how much she loves you and how proud she is of you.” He gasped at those last words, which made my mother flee to her bedroom for the solace of solitude.

His words made me sink to the floor. I wished that it would open up and swallow me whole, that it would save me from the abyss that was promising to consume me. As though knowing where my mind would go to next, my dad continued, “Gwyneth is with her mom and will remain at the hospital until…” he trailed off, searching for the least devastating word. “…Well, until it’s over.” With those words, my dad made his way to me, and I crumpled into his arms like a child who had been pushed by a bully on the playground. I wasn’t sure what to do next; or where to go from here. My life would never be the same.

We hadn’t heard anything from the Hills since that horrible day. Occasionally, we saw their car in their driveway late at night. I imagine they were getting a change of clothes or whatnot. It actually gave me comfort to have no contact; no news was good news.

It was two weeks after we found out Mrs. Hill was sick. We were eating dinner; it was unusually quiet. The phone rang, and we all looked around, daring each other to answer. Somehow, I think we all knew who was calling and why.

My father eventually got up to answer the phone. As soon as he said, “I’m so sorry,” my mother left the table and retreated to her room. I sat there frozen. My brother seemed to have no idea what to do. My dad hung up the phone, which was behind me, and put his hand on my shoulder. I felt like a deer caught in headlights, frozen, unable to run away to save myself.

My dad explained, “She passed. Everyone is by her side saying their goodbyes. The funeral will be in a couple of days.” He hugged me and went to check on my mother. I just sat there in a state of shock.

Time flew by—as it always does when you’re dreading something—but we found ourselves dressed and ready for the funeral way too early in the day. Trying to waste time while you’re waiting for something horrifying is not the easiest thing to do. It would be the first time I would see Gwyneth since that horrible night—the night I met Christopher.

The funeral was small and tasteful—only Mrs. Hill’s close friends and family were there. The casket was closed. I was relieved. After a ceremony, which I tried very hard not to listen to, there was a brief reception during which I finally got to see my best friend. I really had no idea what to say to her.

We stood there for a few moments, both with tears in our eyes. When words escaped me, I reached out and hugged her. What could you possibly say to make anyone feel better about this kind of situation? We both cried in each other’s arms and were reluctant to let go. My brother Robbie tried to console Gwyneth’s older sister Sasha but was so uncomfortable that she ended up comforting him.

Gwyn told me she wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the school year. It wasn’t a big deal since only exams were left, which she had been excused from anyway. I told her I understood, but I secretly wished I could join her.

School used to excite me. It represented all of my interests and all of my dreams. Now, walking the halls by myself and experiencing the grief I felt without Gwyneth was excruciating. I didn’t feel like socializing with anyone. I barely heard people when they said hi to me in the halls. Once again, I had become a pariah, only this time it was self-inflicted.

After Mrs. Hill’s death, I was devastated. I had never known real tragedy, and I didn’t know how to deal with the loss. I felt like a piece of me had died with her. But in some way, I felt that she was still with me. This made me feel even more abnormal, if that was even possible.

Our summer plans were definitely off but I seemed to find solace in the idea of travel. Getting away seemed to be the only reasonable thing to do. I had very strong feelings for France. With the entire world available to me, France was the obvious choice. Maybe it was the food, or the romance, or simply the fact that it was far enough away for me to escape, but close enough for me to get back. Regardless, everything about that country seemed to appeal to me.

I was able to convince my parents to let me finish my final year of high school at an international school in the south of France. After that, I would return home and go to university. They agreed that it might be good for me to leave behind the tragedies of home and flee to a different country, at least for a while.

There was just one small problem. Ever since I met Gwyneth, I had never been away from her for longer than a week or so for a family vacation. Even then, she usually came with us. It would be strange going away to France for a year. I could tell she didn’t want me to go, but I knew she would never ask me to stay.

The day I left, she came with us to the airport to say goodbye. She had just lost her mother. And my mother had just lost her best friend. I secretly hoped that they would find in each other what they had just lost and so desperately wanted back.

Even though my mother would never let me see her cry, I found out later from Gwyneth that she had cried all the way home from the airport. I guess the thought of me being so far away was harder for her to take than I had realized. I just wanted to leave. To be completely honest, I was very excited to have a whole year to get away from the sadness that had been overwhelming me.

In France, I was supposed to board with a girl named Sophie. We would live with the Jardines, an older couple whose kids were all grown up with families of their own. Sophie was British, from a town not far outside of London. Like many students from the posh boarding school she attended back in England, she was completing her last year of high school abroad.

There were a few other students from her school there. All the girls were boarding with families, and the boys were staying in dorms at the school. I felt very lucky to be handed a social group. Even though I always had my fair share of friends, I was never overly comfortable with the notion of making new friends. I was, of course, a master at hiding this, so no one knew that I never really felt heard or understood; because of this everything seemed slightly superficial.

I was always fairly comfortable with my appearance. I have an athletic build and am average height with brown eyes and wavy brown hair that’s just past my shoulders. There is one exception to my comfort. I have two small moles side by side on my left cheek. Gwyneth used to call them my vampire bite. “Bitten by a blind vampire who missed my neck and bit my cheek”, she would tease. My mom used to call them my “beauty marks.” But it didn’t matter how pretty she made them sound because they would never be anything but moles. Although I was never the prettiest girl in school, I was pretty enough. Cute seemed to be the most typical way to describe me. Cute became my least favourite descriptive word.

I had never had a real boyfriend. Sure, I had dated, but it never got serious. I asked my dad once how he knew my mom was “the one.” He said, “When it’s the one, you just know.” I had always thought that was a cop-out and that he just didn’t want to open up to me…until I met William. I will never forget the moment I met William.

Sophie asked me if I wanted to go with her to a party to welcome the new students. It was at a place called Peppers. I guess that’s where everyone from the school, past and present, hung out. She introduced me to her friends. He was wearing jeans, a tucked in, button-down shirt, and a chain around his neck. Perfect. Except for the chain. I’m not a fan of jewellery on guys. His hair was messy, but consciously so. It was like he cared, but didn’t at the same time. His smile melted my insides.

I felt drawn to him immediately, even though he hadn’t noticed me. It was like something inside of me was pulling me towards him. I couldn’t catch my breath. He was beautiful and confident, and I wasn’t sure why he was staring at me. We exchanged glances before someone pulled him to another group. He didn’t seem to want to go, but he did.

That’s when Sophie started telling me about William. It was as if she was reading his resume—she knew everything about him. They had grown up and gone to school together. Apparently, he was the head boy: captain of the rugby team, smart with great marks, and from an amazing family.

Somehow, I felt like I already knew what he was like without the tutorial. I also sensed that she had feelings for him and wondered if they were mutual. I couldn’t believe I cared. I wasn’t there to meet some guy. I was there to deal with my despair, or that’s what I thought anyway. Besides, if he were all of the things Sophie had mentioned, he would definitely have a girlfriend or, at least, several prospects.

Still, I had never been so drawn to anyone. In the ten minutes that passed, I found myself thinking of nothing else. I must have met a dozen new people, not one of whom I could remember. When William made his way back to us, I felt very awkward and uncomfortable. I was not used to having such strong feelings, particularly about a stranger. He approached me and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m William,” he said with his hand outstretched. Afraid my hand would turn to jelly, but deciding to risk it, I shook his hand and said, “I’m Elizabeth.”

“Oh, you’re American,” he said without letting go of my hand and in a manner I wasn’t sure how to respond to. “And you’re British,” I replied as matter-of-factly as he did. He chuckled, sensing my discomfort and said, “For some reason, I expected you to be French.” He looked down at my hand. Realizing he was still holding it, he let go, hesitantly.

Then he smiled the most amazing smile I had ever seen in my life. I was captivated. Sophie had forgotten to mention how perfect his smile was. “Have you ever been away from your family before?” he asked. “Not this far away,” I replied. “How are you coping?”

William immediately put me at ease; all of my anxiety was gone. All that existed around us was us. He held out his hand, asking me to take it. I did, and he led me to the dance floor. There was a fast song playing. We danced for a while, and then Sophie joined in with the rest of the group.

William wanted to go for a walk, so we left and found ourselves in the garden amongst a number of other students taking a break from the music. There was a huge, magnificent tree surrounded by flowerbeds and benches. We chose a bench away from the others and talked like we’d known each other forever. We were both afraid that if we stopped talking, it would end.

It was late and getting cooler. Most people had jackets but it never occurred to me to bring one. I couldn’t think about anything except William. I shivered. William put his arm around me. I looked up at him in the dimly lit night sky, and I knew.

After that night, William and I barely left each other’s side. We took the same classes when we could, toured the city, and explored the south of France. We were the talk of everyone who knew us or of us: both great students, destined for great things, finding each other so far from home. It was like a romance novel that middle-aged women who weren’t completely happy with their lives bought at the supermarket.

Everyone had the same question, “What happens when you have to go home?” This had never occurred to me. Sophie was especially interested in this question. It seemed that she had feelings for William since boarding school in England. Apparently, she took the year abroad to be closer to him.

Both William and Sophie came from very old families. They had similar backgrounds. It made sense to everyone that they would be together. Everyone but William and me. Partway through the semester, Sophie’s parents came to visit. They knew all about me. They seemed very disappointed, even cold, when they met me. To them, Sophie and William grew up together and were supposed to end up together. They were close friends with William’s family and wanted the match, perhaps, more than Sophie did.

William always seemed to know what I was feeling and what I needed. For the first time in my life, I felt heard and understood. It was beyond choice. We were like magnets. We were drawn to each other. Somehow, when I was with him, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. And I knew he was too. I had no doubts about his feelings for me. I may not have understood why, but William was very good at making sure I knew how he felt. He also seemed to understand and accept, without question, my feelings for him.

My grades started dropping. They weren’t what they once were because I had never had this level of distraction before. But William seemed to be able to keep on top of everything. He also had a way with the teachers. It seemed to hurt them more than him if he didn’t receive top marks. After his final year of high school abroad, he was to go to Oxford University. He had already been accepted. Both his father and his older sister had gone there. It was tradition.

I was starting to learn that the English were big on tradition. Sophie was slated to attend Oxford as well. I assumed she was just waiting for me to go home to Michigan so she could have William back. I was sure she didn’t care much for me at this point, but she always tried to keep me close so she knew what was going on. She was a nice girl, but I doubted we’d be lifelong friends, especially since she was interested in me only to keep William close.

For some reason, this didn’t bother me as much as it maybe should have. But it did force me to think about the future. I had been so engulfed in despair, and then in William, that I hadn’t given it much thought.

The plan was simple: I was to return home from France after graduating high school to attend the University of Michigan. My mother was a professor of English at the university, so tuition was free, and acceptance wasn’t an issue. My father owned a bookstore downtown. Both of my parents valued education, so my path was pretty much laid out for me.

Although I had been with William only a short time, I couldn’t fathom being away from him. It seemed impossible to be with him, but at the same time, I couldn’t see myself without him. Oxford. Even if I wanted to follow him to university I doubt I had the marks to get in.

A sudden wave of fear washed over me. Sitting in the library, I looked down at the closed books in front of me and decided to open them. Options, I needed options. My mother was a big fan of options probably because her mother had nothing—no money, no education, no job prospects. She was a stay-at-home mom living on a farm with eight kids.

My mother remembers her mom being happy and loving her children more than anything; but, she also remembers that her mom had few choices in life. That’s why my mother made it her mission in life to have as many choices as she needed or wanted.

She was a top student, a top athlete, and dated very little as dating was a distraction she couldn’t afford. After graduating university at the top of her class, she met my father at a friend’s birthday party. My father knew right away that she was the one, but it took my mother a little longer to figure it out.

When I asked my mom why she decided to give up her career and everything she had worked so hard to achieve just so she could stay home with us, she said she couldn’t bare the thought of leaving us every day. She said that she had worked so hard all of her life to have options and that one of those options was to be with the people she loved for as long as she could. I think that the only reason she went back to work was to heal her broken heart when we no longer needed her as much as she needed us.

Now, I would take a page from my mother’s book and try to create options for myself. I was sure, or as sure as I could be, that William and I would be together. But why leave it to chance? A slight twinge of panic erupted within me. Had William thought of these things? He must know my grades aren’t up to Oxford standards anymore. Has he thought past this year? Maybe he doesn’t see us together after this year. Sadness took over.

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