Fields of Elysium Chapter 1-3


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Praise for
FIELDS OF ELYSIUM

"The novel's take on otherworldly travel is a compelling one, and the romantic plot will likely appeal to Twilight fans."
—Kirkus Reviews 

"I expected a good love story with a paranormal twist. I got so much more. I think you should take the chance and read it. Let this book take you on the adventure, fall in love."       
—Young Adult and Teen Readers

"Fields of Elysium is an enchanted reading adventure that left me longing for a World that doesn't exist. Oh, why can't it be real!?"
—What’s Beyond Forks

"This coming of age sci-fi story involved jumping back and forth between two world and the many exciting adventures had on them. There was plenty of action which kept me on the edge of my seat and wanting more."
—Larry Gray's Reviews

"Fields of Elysium is a fabulous read . . . Whelan paints her faith into the fabric of her story with deft, light brushstrokes, making her work accessible to all, no matter their spiritual beliefs or background."
—Readers Favorite (starred review)

"This book was thoughtful, yet exciting. I LOVED the descriptive style of author AB Whelan."
—Clean Teen Reads

"Fields of Elysium is captivating in its unique sci-fi paranormal story combining love, hate, and the ability for forgiveness."
—Insane About Books

"Fields of Elysium is one of those books that completely takes you by surprise with how involved and wrapped up in it you become. I never expected to love this as much as I did nor to become so engrossed in the story that I would have to sit down and read it all in one sitting simply because I had to know how it all played out."
—My Guilty Obsession (Winner of the Book of the Week Award)

"This novel has everything I like in a book. A strong female protagonist, a moody good looking boyfriend, a mysterious world and enough action to make things exciting."
—Why Not Because I Said So

"Fields of Elysium is a truly exceptional novel, with a love story that goes straight to your heart."
—The YA Lit Chick


"A.B.Whelan has an amazing imagination, she has certainly developed a very complex and rich world." 
—Mei's Reviews




Fields of Elysium
Copyright © 2012/2015 by Andrea Bizderi Whelan
Published by inMotion Capitol

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Fields of Elysium is a young adult romantic fantasy.

Can love mend a heart full of hate?

Small town girl, Molly Bennett, moves to Los Angeles where she becomes an outsider while attending Beverly Hills High School. It seems life cannot be any more dreadful. Then one day after school, something magical happens. On a secluded hike in the Hollywood Hills, Molly chases her disobedient mutt and only friend into a hidden cavern. She stumbles upon a strange glimmering gateway that transports her to Arkana, a planet that is the cradle of an advanced human race. There, teenagers navigate amazing flying vehicles, compete in perilous games for glory, and possess supernatural powers.

While Molly tries to wrap her mind around this unbelievable discovery, she meets the alluring and mysterious Victor Sorren. He is a Sentinel Apprentice, whose hatred toward people from Earth is beyond understanding. Yet every time Victor unpredictably saves Molly's life, his heart draws closer to hers, no matter how much he tries to fight against it. It further complicates things that their growing friendship is strictly forbidden. Earth people are prohibited in Arkana, yet Molly continues to cross through the portal to Arkana to see Victor. Torn between their double lives, they go down a dangerous path, from where there is no return and multiple endings.







DEDICATION

For my husband, without your support none of my books would be complete.




For as the new heavens and the new earth,
Which I will make, shall remain before me,
Saith the Lord,
So shall your seed and your name remain.

Isaiah 66:22





Preface



“What is she doing here?” A fierce voice penetrated the room, making me jump. Victor was standing by the door, his face hard with resentment.
Weston pulled away from me, raising his hands to his chest as the sign of surrender. “Calm down, Victor. I don’t think she means us harm.”
Victor drew in a deep breath, veins bulging on his neck.
“You know exactly what Terrakas did to us, yet you let her into your home?” His tone was harsh as if he doubted his best friend’s sanity.
Looking into his piercing eyes, fear gripped my heart.
“We didn’t know what she was. She showed me the Sacred Passage, and I didn’t know what to do.” 
Ignoring Weston’s rambling, Victor ripped a black bow off his back and stretched it out wedging an arrow into place.
The tip of the arrow pointed straight at my heart.









1

Sunlight pierced through the gap between my curtains and caressed my face. It was a beautiful morning and, after a dreadful first week at my new school, it was finally Saturday.
I used to live in Hopewell, New Jersey where I had a bunch of friends and a life, but my dad got a promotion, so we had to move.
“Molly honey, think about it as a new opportunity,” Mom said, preparing our last dinner at the old house. “You can be anything you want there.”
“Yeah, right,” I’d grumbled, shoving a pie into the oven.
My life was perfect. I had no need for new opportunities. Los Angeles was on the other side of the country; 2,750 miles away. I knew I’d never see my friends again.
It hadn’t been easy to start at a new school. All week long, instead of hanging out with friends that I’d known since kindergarten, I was eating my lunch alone. The kids at Beverly Hills High were entirely different from the ones in my old school. They didn’t notice me or ask where I was from. I was a ghost just drifting down the corridors unnoticed by their Gucci bags and Prada shoes. I could feel my old life slipping away, turning into a distant memory.
I wasn’t sure how I felt toward my parents for uprooting me. There was definitely some anger with an after taste of disappointment. It just wasn’t fair for my parents to make a choice that impacted my life too without even asking for my opinion. I knew I would never do the same to my children . . .
I missed my friends and my old life terribly. I wanted to go back to my favorite pizzeria with the girls, ride our bicycles to the lake, and steal apples from Mrs. Collins’ tree . . .
Adults always say time heals everything. In my case, as the days passed, the more miserable I felt.   
I pushed the troubling thoughts from my mind and crawled out of bed. I went to my window to see my car parked on the street. Lately, that car was the only thing that could make me smile.
I think my dad felt bad ripping me away from my old life because a couple of days after we moved in to our new house, he brought home a black Audi A3 for me to use. It was five years old, had a few bumps, but with the red leather seats it looked awesome.
“How did you know that this was my favorite car?”
“Your brother read it in your diary,” he said nonchalantly.
 I felt the urge to roll my eyes. My twelve-year-old little brother Nick had a bad habit of snooping around in my stuff. I tried every possible hiding place for my diary, but Nick would always dig it up. He was the only person in the entire universe capable of evoking two strongly contradictory feelings out of me: One moment I loved him more than anything; the next I wished he had never been born. But what could I do? He was like the freckles on my face, just always there.
 It was getting late, and I needed to get out of the house. I crouched in front of a giant moving box to find some clothes. I yanked out a pair of khaki shorts and a black tee, quickly assured myself that they weren’t wrinkled too much, and started to get ready for a hike at the Griffith Observatory. My dad drove us there yesterday, so I kind of had an idea what to expect.
  As I pulled my shirt on, the faint mark on my left wrist caught my eye. The skin was still lighter from the watch I had been wearing my entire life.
I felt a shiver run down my spine.
One of the most published crimes of the 20th century was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and it also happened to be in my hometown. The story is still fresh in people’s mind and the memories linger. When I turned one, my dad bought me a watch with a built in GPS. My brother got one on his first birthday, too. The only good side about our moving was that he removed my watch and granted me more freedom. I guess he believed that at the age of sixteen I was finally able to take care of myself.
“I’d never lie to you or do anything you wouldn’t approve of,” I promised, rubbing the spot where the straps almost became part of my skin. Without it, I felt a little bit naked—vulnerable. 
“I know,” he said, a mixture of love and worry crossing his face. “You’re a smart girl, and I trust you,”  
I launched myself into his embrace. I was like a fragile butterfly that got to fly out of its jar at last.
Once we separated, Dad held the watch in his hand for a moment. Then he slipped it into his pocket. Just like that. A part of my life was over, and a new era was about to begin . . .
As I bolted down the stairs to eat breakfast, my dog ran up to me. Pandora was a mutt. We saved her from a dog pound years ago when she was about to get the fatal needle. You would expect that after being rescued she would be the most obedient and grateful dog ever. Wrong. She never listened to me. Never listened to any of us for that matter. But I loved her. Well, who couldn’t love a dog that wakes you in the morning with a slobbering tongue, brings your cell phone when it rings, and sheds golden hair onto your pants every day? She was a sweet nuisance that I would miss if gone.
Pandora followed me to the dining room, excited about my hiking shoes. The rest of the family was busy in the kitchen, getting ready to eat. I grabbed the plates to help set the table.
While having breakfast, I announced my plans for the day. To my surprise, Dad didn’t try to talk me out of hiking on my own, but instead encouraged me. He only insisted that I take my emergency bag with me.
Dad was the type of man who kept a survival backpack in his car with non-perishable food and basic tools, enough so we could outlive a major disaster. Of course, he packed a smaller, portable version with pepper spray, a knife, a light stick, water, and a protein bar for me. I thought he was being way too paranoid, but I wanted to make him happy. Besides, carrying a survival pack was nothing compared to wearing a tracking device.
When I’d finished eating, I hit the road with Pandora.
It was hard to believe that I was driving my first car. It gave me a feeling of independence, yet scared the heck out of me.
Following the GPS, I navigated the route, gripping the black wheel so tightly that my knuckles turned white. The traffic was just as crazy as always, typical L.A., but getting to the park didn’t require driving on the freeway so I managed.
To avoid the busy lot by the observatory, I parked closer to the bottom of the hillside.
There was no one around, so I let my dog off her leash.
As we hiked higher up on the bluff, I spotted tiny light beams dancing on the ground where the sunrays found their way through the parched, bare branches. This was a different type of forest, more open and baked, nothing like the dense green woods I had grown up with. Still, it was nice, and the diamonds of dew glistening on the spider webs added a magical touch. Surrounded by nature and despite the obvious differences in the landscape, I felt a little bit like I was back in Hopewell.
After a good twenty minutes of climbing the steep hillside and inhaling the dust that rose from the ground, I was out of breath. I slumped down onto a fallen tree trunk and called Pandora closer. She positioned herself between my knees, seeking a little petting. I rubbed her head, and she wagged her tail in contentment.
This path was peaceful and solitary. My eyes could wander as far as downtown Los Angeles where skyscrapers yearned to reach the heavens, surrounded by small buildings and houses as far as the eye could see. The entire picture looked as if slaves were bowing before their masters. One of those slave-houses is ours I thought smiling.
Stroking Pandora’s chest, I closed my eyes to hear every little ambient sound. One minute just the usual forest hissing was audible, followed by the waft in the crown of the trees; then I heard a soaring hawk’s shriek right above us. I looked up at the clear blue sky when Pandora flexed and tapered her ears. I followed her gaze and got a glimpse of a squirrel, making its way along the dirt, jumping nimbly on the dry, lackluster leaves.
“No!” I shouted and tried to get a firm hold on my dog, but it was too late. She was gone—chasing after the little ball of fur. I leaped to my feet and ran after them. I sprinted between trees and yelled at her to stop. Even though I lost sight of them both, Pandora’s barking was loud in my ears, and it kept me running.
As I advanced higher on the hillside, the whispering of the trees intensified, the wind had picked up. Then the sun hid behind a single cloud making the bright light disappear from around me. Ignoring my uneasiness, I kept moving forward, deeper into the untamed area while dry branches and twigs tore at my skin and scratched my legs. I only stopped when I reached a clearing.
I waited and listened when a repressed yip made me shiver.
“Pandora, where are you?” I cried in frustration.
I heard heavy panting and the sound of thumping paws, but I couldn’t identify from which direction.
Behind a cluster of bushes by the mouth of a dark hole, there she was padding into my view. She spotted me and started jumping elatedly on the edge of the rock shoulder barking as if to give me a signal to follow her.
“Stop fooling around, girl! Let’s go home!” I yelled and motioned to her by slapping my thigh. She leaped back inside the dark opening, not paying attention to me at all.
Angry now, I climbed the jagged rock wall, trying to follow her path.
About half way up, I slipped and scraped the skin near my ankle. Although not a bad wound, it hurt.
I positioned my foot on the last jutting rock rim before I could pull myself up on the top of a boulder. Pandora showed up again, scaring the life out of me. I almost slipped off the ledge. She must have seen something exciting.
One last pull brought me inside the cavern.
The air was chilly, and a moldy, stale smell caused my nose to twitch.
Light still penetrated the side of the cave where I came from. It gleamed through the barren bushes that concealed most of the entrance, but the stomach of the spacious cave was eerily black. I pulled the light stick out of my bag and cracked it. The green neon glow lit up my path. Calling for Pandora, I advanced deeper into the darkness. Running my fingers along the uneven wall, I pushed forward cautiously, sideways.
“Pandora? Are you there?” I asked in a low voice and stretched out the arm holding the glowing stick.
The same stupid squirrel ran across my feet, sending adrenaline shockwaves through me.
This is not a good idea. I should turn back.
My mind set on leaving, I made one last attempt to call my dog back to me. First, my voice echoed in the tunnel, then was engulfed by silence. I narrowed my eyes at what looked like a flickering blue light. My mind kept ordering me to head back to the safe open air, but my curiosity won the battle.
I made a few more steps forward when Pandora appeared in front of me, scampering back and forth toward the light.
What is that? I stared in wonderment at the sparkling bluish swirl blocking the path. It looked like the gas in a fluorescent tube. Rays of violet, blue, and turquoise swirled around in it slowly, while sparkling stars twinkled on the mesmerizing surface. I saw a similar image in a planetarium once. It was called Aurora. But this couldn’t be an Aurora. That effect is caused by the solar wind with charged particles that get agitated by the magnetic field of the Earth—at least that’s what I learned at the Planetarium. But how could a solar current get into a cave? It made no sense.
Moving closer, I stared at the phenomenon, clueless as the many different shades of blue and purple light beams began to coil together, turning the core into a blindingly bright white. I’d never seen a more beautiful . . . thing.
Standing in the cavern and hypnotized by the light, I wasn’t frightened. I was calm. I felt that getting closer to the light was the most natural thing ever. It called me—invited me nearer.
From the corner of my eyes I saw movement.
“Stop!” I screamed at Pandora, throwing myself at her. But I was too late. She jumped into the field and disappeared. Just then a strong, overpowering energy seized me and started to pull on me. I tried to get a safe grip on the wall, and strained my feet, but my efforts were useless. In spite of all resistance, I was sucked in as well.







2

I opened my eyes but it took a minute for my vision to clear. “Okay, okay. That’s enough.” Sitting up, I pushed Pandora’s head away, my face wet from her saliva.
We were still inside a cavern. However, this cavern was significantly different from the one I entered. A watery veil poured over the entrance and pelted against the rocks making the air fresh and humid.
I rolled over onto my knees, keeping one arm wrapped around my dog’s back. I tore my eyes away from the waterfall to inspect the twirling blue light in the opposite side of the cave.
It had all happened so fast. One moment my feet were grounded and the next my body was weightless, a force taking hold of me. When the light sucked me in, my body experienced no pain, only the warmth of the air as it brushed against my skin. During the journey, I had entered into a state of numb terror, readying myself for the pain, and my eyes had sealed themselves. Yet kneeling on the damp soil, strength returned to my limbs.
I pushed myself to my feet, using Pandora’s body as support, and backed against the rocks. I followed the curve of the tunnel and advanced deeper into the darkness. I glanced back at the bright opening in the opposite direction where a greenish light filtered through the semi-transparent waterfall.
Being confused with my surroundings, I had failed to notice that Pandora wasn’t beside me. I could still see her though. She was standing by the waterfall, wagging her tail.
I frowned, wondering what I was even doing here, when my eyes caught a ray of light dancing around my legs.
I snapped my head up and peered at the same calm blue circle that had mesmerized me earlier. I took one step closer. Suddenly, a whirlpool of colorful light beams broke out on the smooth surface. I moved an inch nearer, and the whirlpool turned silvery. I had a feeling that if I made one more step toward it, the power of the light would seize me again as had happened earlier.
I was marveling at the light when Pandora’s playful yelps echoed through the tunnel. I looked at her. She was bowing with her legs stretched forward, her rear end lifted high and her tongue lolling out of her mouth. She let out another high-pitched bark, looking at me pleadingly, her brown eyes sparkling with excitement.
“What do you want me to do, girl?” I asked in a low voice, sensing that I already knew the answer to my own question.
I gave in to my, and Pandora's, curiosity. I decided to take a look at what was behind the waterfall before trying to find my way back home.
We climbed out into the open, next to the waterfall, onto a rocky and steep path. Thanks to Pandora’s fantastic skills and instincts, we made it down onto the ground in one piece. Feeling the solid ground under my feet, I turned to take a better look at the pond at the edge of dense, lush woods. The scenery was the absolute opposite of the drought-stricken grounds on the other side. Here the forest was so green that it almost hurt my eyes and was bursting with the scent of blooming flowers. Even the weather seemed strange because the fierce sun was shining, and warm air enveloped my body.
Behind me was a fifteen-foot-high rock wall with white frothy water crashing down on giant moss-covered rocks. In the distance, sky-high maple and spruce trees stood in great numbers embracing the meadow. The undergrowth was rich with bushes of every shade of green. Some with blooming flowers, and some with brightly colored berries.
I crouched and scooped some water up with my palm. It was warm and tasted sweet.
“What is this place?” I asked Pandora. She just sat next to me with her tongue out. Her presence was soothing, but I couldn’t drive away my racing thoughts. The idea that I had traveled through space started to form in my mind.
Puzzled and a little afraid, I looked back at the waterfall, trying to figure out what was happening. I took a deep breath and ended up coughing. Something in the air irritated my lungs.
I heard rushing footsteps coming from the woods. I glimpsed a jaguar chasing a deer. Fear pierced through my thoughts. It was time to find my way home.
“Hey there!” A male voice from behind startled me.
Six guys my age were walking toward me in hiking outfits and backpacks. I could tell that the boy with rusty-brown hair in the front of the group was the one who called out to me.
Maybe I hadn’t traveled through space after all. Hikers are so common around the planetarium.
I slipped my hand into my survival bag to make sure I still had the pepper spray and knife.
“Hi,” I replied suspiciously.
“What are you doing up here alone?” asked the same guy with the rusty-brown hair. His tone was smooth and his body language nonthreatening, giving me the impression that there was nothing to fear. Nevertheless, I expected Pandora to growl and show that I wasn’t without protection; but instead she dashed up to the group of boys and only sniffed at them.
“I’m just walking my dog,” I said and pulled out the knife imperceptibly.
“Nice.” The boy smiled, his eyes glinting with a strange light. “We came to swim in the pool. Do you want to join us?” he asked, turning his head as if he was looking for someone else. “Unless your friends are waiting for you.”  
“Oh . . . I shouldn’t. Er . . . I better go home now. My dad’s waiting for me,” I stuttered.
“Home?” he wondered with a smirk. “It’s the end of summer. Today might be your last chance this year to swim here. It’s too early to go home,” he teased.
Summer? I repeated the word to myself. Something strange was going on around here. But what could I expect after traveling through a light tunnel?
I stole a glimpse of a blond, blue-eyed boy, combing his hair in the shadow of a muscular guy who was munching on something out of a plain brown bag. They all acted naturally, bored even, but I still couldn’t escape the idea that perhaps I was messing with nature here: that I had traveled into the future or past, and it would cause a ripple somewhere in my own world.
Probably seeing my undecided expression, the boy with reddish hair stepped closer to me. I tightened my grip on the handle of the knife.
“Forgive me for being so ill-mannered. I’m Weston . . . Jenkins,” he apologized and gestured at himself politely.
“Molly Bennett. And this is Pandora.”
“Pandora?” Weston’s eyes grew large. “Quite an unusual name for a dog.”
“You know, like the ancient myth about Pandora’s Box. When we brought her home from the shelter, she trashed our house like a tornado. Like we had opened Pandora’s box and all the evils flew out,” I explained.
“You seem to know a lot about ancient Earth stories,” Weston said, looking impressed. I shrugged. “You aren’t evil, are you?” he babbled to Pandora and pulled at her muzzle.
“So to finish the introductions let me give you the names of these gentlemen here. The bald one over there with the big ears is Benjamin Armstrong—”
Ben’s face turned red as he gave me a barely noticeable wave with his left hand.
“The blond is Jacob Bruhn,” he said nodding towards the one that was combing his hair. “Those dark eyes belong to Edwin Bronte. But don’t be fooled by his good looks; he can be pretty bad-tempered sometimes.” Edwin pounced on Weston and they started to wrestle.
“And the one with girlish hair but a man’s face is Roger Harrington.” Weston finished the introductions laughing, keeping Edwin’s head in an arm-lock. With a blank face, Roger sent a handful of nuts flying at Weston, then wiped his hand on his shorts, and ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair.
 “Hi.” I raised my hand at them and nodded, not knowing what else to say. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I tried to avoid looking like more of an idiot. Who would believe me if I told them that I came through a strange swirling light? First I had to figure out where I was and who these guys were.
I was still gathering my thoughts when I spotted the sixth boy who hadn’t been introduced to me. He was crouching by the lake, some distance away from us, but his eyes were set on me.
“Are you nervous?” Weston asked, ducking his head to see my face. I must have been chewing on my nails again.
“Nope,” I said, braiding my fingers behind me to keep them away from my mouth. “Who is he?” I asked, diverting my eyes towards the guy by the lake and shifting the conversation away from me. From the distance, I couldn’t make out the color of his eyes, but I could feel their power on me.
 “Who  . . . oh, Victor?”  Weston smiled, his eyes following my gaze. “He’s my best friend, Victor Sorren.”
“Why is he staying so far away from us?”
“He doesn’t talk to strangers.” Weston draped an arm around me and began leading me towards the lake.
 I recoiled a bit at his touch, but allowed him to lead me anyway. I looked back at Victor over Weston’s arm.
He still hadn’t moved.
“So where are you guys from?” I asked, his arms heavy around my shoulders.
“Tirus,” the boys stated in chorus, punching each other on the shoulder like they were proud of living in such a place.
Tirus? The name sounded very unusual but no more so than many urban names in California. It could be a Spanish word for all I knew. Besides, we all spoke English, even though these guys had funny accents. Obviously I hadn’t gotten sucked into some space tunnel and wound up on a bizarre planet.  
“Is it close by?” I asked.
“It’s not far. So are you coming to swim with us?” Weston urged. All the others had already moved toward the waterfall.
I stole one more glimpse of Victor’s face. He was still staring at me. I felt as if he was undressing me with his eyes, which gave me a strange feeling in my stomach—embarrassment maybe? My legs started to shake and sweat broke out on my palms.
What’s going on with me? This isn’t the first time a boy has looked at me.
“Where are you from? You talk a little weird,” Weston said, flashing a set of bright white teeth. Small freckles embellished the tip of his straight nose and his barely discernible cheekbones. I had the same kind of brown skin spots on my face, too. I felt oddly pleased that Weston and I looked a lot alike.
“I grew up very far from here. Blame it on my parents,” I said, intimidated.
“I’m glad that I’m not the only one who can blame the parents for his predicament.” Weston winked at me with an alluring smile. One of his eyes was a strong bluish green, while the other was light green.
A good twenty paces from the pond, Jacob, Edwin, and Roger carried big smooth rocks and set them in a circle while Ben collected everyone’s bags.
Weston stepped away from me and wriggled out of his olive-green T-shirt and crouched by his bag. I tore my eyes away from him and searched for Victor. I heard Pandora’s barking. Victor was playing fetch with her.
“Good girl. Yes, you are,” he said, rubbing a spot behind her ears.
Another twig flew through the air and Pandora dashed after it. Victor’s eyes met mine while he was still smiling. I was about to return his smile when his face drooped back into seriousness. That expression of delight was clearly not meant for me. I looked away, my cheeks burning.
“Let the fun begin!” Weston shouted, running towards the water. At the edge he jumped, hugged his knees, and cannonballed into the water.
I sat down on the side of the bank and watched the boys leaping off the cliff one after the other. From time to time one of them splashed water on me or floated in front of me and joked around.
Victor never neared me.
As I soaked my feet in the warm water, scrutinizing the boys and scratching Pandora’s head, I couldn’t erase the memory of the light I found in the cave from my mind. Everything seemed so normal around here. It must have been only a gas cloud or a trick of the light. I was sure that I was still on Earth, and not somewhere in outer space.
After I reassured myself that everything was fine, I used my alone time to study the boys a little bit more in detail.
They all had lean, athletic bodies. Only Edwin had a little belly and Ben looked more skinny than muscular. A smile sneaked onto my lips as I remembered the comment Weston made about Ben’s ears. He did have big ears and combined with his hairless head he looked cute. Ben was the clown of the group, no doubt, performing crazy dives, coming up behind others and jumping up on their backs—pushing them underwater.
Victor on the other hand seemed like the serious guy of the team. His arms were strong, his face troubled and four parallel scars lined his smooth chest.
Who are these people? I wondered.
From the corner of my eyes I spotted Weston pulling himself up out of the pool, flexing a V shaped muscle on his back I didn’t even know we had. As the water dripped down on his lightly tanned skin, he planted his teasing eyes on me. I broke into a sweat once again as I watched him walking towards me with such elegance. I became fidgety as if I were sitting on a colony of fire ants. I tried to hide my discomfort—very unsuccessfully no doubt—but I didn’t know what to do with my hands. First I crossed them on my chest. Then I sat on them. Finally I just grabbed the edge of the flat boulder I was sitting on.
“You should really join us,” Weston said, shaking the water out of his hair.
“I’m good here. It’s quite entertaining watching you guys.” I swallowed hard.
“We’re headed to the slide now. You shouldn’t miss that ”
“What slide?”
“Up there. In the cave.” He looked at me with suspicion. “You know where it is, right?”
“No, not really,” I said between tight lips. “And I don’t have anything to wear either.”
Weston tilted his head a bit, studied me for a second, and turned to the boys who were still goofing off in the water. Only Victor held himself up by his crossed arms resting on a rocky ledge by the poolside. His eyes were dark and penetrating.
“Do any of you guys have some extra clothes? Anything that Molly could use?” Weston yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth.
“I have an extra shirt and a pair of shorts,” Victor offered. His voice made my heart to skip a beat. What is going on with me?
Before I could protest, Victor leaped out of the water, and I watched his tanned and muscular legs walking to his backpack.
“Problem solved,” Weston said, clapping his hands once. “The last one to the slide has to skin the prey,” he shouted. But before he’d finish his sentence, he sprinted toward the hill that guarded the lake from the east side—a fifty-foot swell with flourishing green parasite plants, and disappeared. The others ran after him, jostling each other and laughing.
Only Victor didn’t stir, just stayed statue-like. From his glare, suspicion sneaked into my mind. He must have smelled out that something was off with me. It was only a matter of time before he started asking questions.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, taking the clothes from his hands, looking away. From the touch of his fingers a strange feeling rippled through me.
“You can keep them if you want,” he announced flatly.
“Just until my stuff dries,” I opposed, feeling the urgent need to chew on my nails again. Instead I just massaged the back of my neck.
“Take your shoes off and let’s go then,” he said as he pulled the leather strip out of his damp golden hair. He leaned forward, shook his hair, then fixed his braid back. I watched him with my mouth open, awed by the sensation he impressed on me.
“Are you okay?” he asked, when he found me standing in the same position.
I nodded and plopped to the ground to remove my hiking shoes. I listened to the leaves rustling from his footsteps as he walked toward the hill, giving me some space.
I was stuffing my socks into my shoes when Weston’s joyful whooping cut into the air as he exited a dark opening on the hillside and dropped into the pool.
“You have to try this. It’s so much fun,” he shouted swimming back to shore, his face a mask of joy.
I glanced over to the waterfall. If he only knew that just over on the other hillside there was a cave with a strange light-passage. Feeling my secret growing heavier, I trailed after Victor around the hill.
The path to the top was on the spine of the hillside, cutting through the frayed vegetation. It took me a few minutes to climb to the top, even though the trail had been walked smooth. At the end of the path was a black hole, carved into the mountain. I poked my head into the giant gap.
“Hello?” I yelled, but there was no echo.
Victor’s serious face eased with a smile. “Do you want to go in together?”
“Um . . . I don’t know. Should I?” I wasn’t sure what he meant by going together but the very thought of touching his bare skin made me shake with embarrassment.
Adam Gates was my first boyfriend back in Hopewell, but I’d never seen him without his clothes on.
Victor left me no time to think as he seized my hand, spun my back to his chest, and swept me off my feet. With his muscular arm keeping me on top of him, we slid through the tunnel.
 In the darkness, the only definite thing was Victor’s body under me, cushioning my ride. I put my hand down next to my thigh and my fingertips felt a marble-smooth surface. I was terrified yet thrilled, and that combination kept me screaming.
When a dim light illuminated my limbs submerged in water, I knew the end was near. We plummeted into the lake and Victor was gone. 
I whipped myself back to the surface to see him floating next to me, only his face above water. The serious look returned to his eyes as if he were busy cataloging his thoughts.
“Do you want to try it again?” he asked dully.
My blood was on fire and my fingers and toes tingled. “If you don’t mind.”
He gave a slight jerk of his head beckoning to me just as Weston pounced on his back. They started wrestling under and above water. I paddled out to the dry land and squeezed the water out of my shirt. It clung to my chest in an uncomfortable way.
I climbed the hill alone. From the top I saw Weston and Victor racing up after me. The other boys’ exultations echoed in the tunnel. I filled my lungs with a big breath of air and let the darkness swallow me.
I made my way around three more times, until my muscles couldn’t take it anymore. With Victor’s spare clothes in hand, I hid behind the bushes and changed. I was laying out my damp clothes on a tree branch that was touched by the sun when Weston called me back to the clearing.
“Hey,” I greeted him, smoothing down my unruly hair.
“There you are.” He tousled his spiky hair using both of his hands, sprinkling water drops around. His abs flexed, and I watched him wide-eyed until a disturbing sensation passed over me. Someone was watching us.
I turned to see Victor clad in a grey V-neck shirt and long black shorts piercing me with his eyes. I felt like I had been caught doing something naughty. I wanted to excuse myself, saying that I wasn’t ogling Weston, but Victor spun on his heels and disappeared, leaving me feeling embarrassed once again.
“I hate that kid,” I fumed to myself.
“Care to join me for a walk?” Weston asked. Both of his eyes appeared to be the same color this time, light green. Maybe it had just been the sun reflecting at a different angle off his eyes before.
Pandora, napping in the shade of a giant maple tree until now, leaped to her paws. I agreed, and we walked toward the camp the boys had set up earlier. Weston crouched in front of his backpack, pulled out a clear glass box and flipped it open. He then took out a bluish-green disk that reminded me of a contact lens and placed it into his right eye.
“What’s that?” I asked, wondering why he only needed one lens.
“It’s my SHREMI,” he responded, looking at me surprised.
“Your what?” I had never heard of such a thing.
“Well, you know. It’s my area scanner unit. Where did you come from, girl? Another planet?” He chuckled.
Now I did feel like an idiot. Here I was from the East Coast. If there were any new inventions, especially high-tech ones like this thingy, then I should have known about it.
I shrugged, watching Weston buckling on a belt with knives, securing a shiny metal bow on his back, and grabbing a handful of arrows.
Okay, now that was definitely strange. I had every reason to freak out. So far this guy seemed pretty much chilled about everything before. So why was he preparing himself for a little walk as though he was going off to war?
I checked on my pepper spray and knife again.
“You should leash your dog. We don’t want her to startle the cocktoopi away,” Weston said, adjusting the straps of the bronze-embossed quiver on his chest.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go.” I hesitated, smoothing out Victor’s oversized shirt on me.
“I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t. Just keep her close to you.” Weston flashed his charming smile.
Whatever. Nothing today has made sense anyway.
I whistled for Pandora and put the leash on her.
We left the waterfall behind and walked along a shallow river that led the water away from the pool and into the forest. Smooth rocks in the colors of black, grey, and beige jutted out from the water, stopping the flow and creating white foamy strings. Slender trees towered into the sky, and our path was almost completely shielded by their crowns, leaving the woods in a mystifying veil. At times, the sun managed to hack its way through and sprinkle the air before us with golden light. Bathed in sunlight, the bushes and undergrowth paraded proudly in brilliant shades of green.
“Molly. What a unique and beautiful name!” Weston observed, initiating a conversation.
 “Thanks. Your name’s not so common either. But I like it.”
“It’s pretty usual where I came from.”
Once again I saw a trace of perplexity in his eyes.
“Today is my birthday. I turned seventeen,” he announced, changing the subject.
“Happy birthday!”
“Thank you.” He bowed to me, his right hand crossing his chest. “How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen. My birthday isn’t for another few months.”
“I’m trying out for the Progeniem next month. How about you?”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I . . . I don’t know yet,” I averted. “So what do your parents do for a living?” I asked, while struggling to drag Pandora with me. Every leaf and every blade of grass seemed vitally important for her to sniff at.
 Before responding, Weston looked away into the distance like a Byronic hero. “I’d rather not talk about my father. Everybody knows him anyway, because he has more platinum and gold rings than anybody else on Arkana. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that only the Prophet is wealthier than we are.”
Arkana? What’s that mean . . . a county or something? My thoughts deepened, but I guess I was still too afraid to admit to myself that something very strange was going on.
“You do know my father, don’t you?” My companion’s voice cleared in my ear, lifting the troubling thoughts from my head.
“Mr. Jenkins?” I asked absentmindedly, still lost in my thoughts.
“You see? I can never meet a person who doesn’t know that name. The great Thomas Jenkins, the inventor of the inventors, the golden brain, the genius! Oh, for a rotten egg of an eagle! Will I ever be recognized for my own greatness, or am I just doomed to live in the shadow of my old man?”
I stared at Weston, dumbfounded. He must have seen that I was just being funny. He had introduced himself as Weston Jenkins. The odds were very high that he shared a last name with his father.
We walked in silence for a while, and from the corner of my eyes I noticed him glance at me a few times. I hardly knew him, but I was absolutely positive that he wouldn’t be able to walk very long without talking.
“What do you think about my friends?” he asked, snapping off a twig from a nearby tree. 
“They seem cool. It was nice of you to let me crash your party.”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t we? You aren’t a fugitive from the law, are you?”
I shook my head, smiling. How could he even think that?
“They’re my best friends. But lately it’s been hard to find the time to hang. I’ve been busy with the Ecmentur training and school. I’m sure you know how it is.”
“You always come here to celebrate your birthday?” Hearing another strange new word, I had to change the subject again. Ecmentur?
He nodded. Then the smile froze on his face and his eyes got lost in the dense woods behind me, freaking me out with his sudden mood change.
“Don’t move,” he whispered. The blood curled in my veins. Was there a poisonous spider on the top of my head or something?
He peeled off his bow from his back and drew a black-shafted arrow. The twang of the strained cord was sharp in my ears as Weston aimed into the distance—determination on his face. And just when I was about to ask him what was going on the whoosh of the arrow cut through the silence and Weston bolted away from me.







3

Stunned by Weston’s sudden disappearance, I knelt down to hold Pandora. I stayed motionless, listening to her breathing and mine.
Weston’s figure finally came into view. A lifeless bird, similar to a turkey, dangled from his hand.
“We have our dinner! A cocktoopus!” he exulted, lifting up his trophy.
You got to be kidding me! I’m here in a strange forest, hunting for food. Nobody’s ever gonna believe this.
Then Weston’s words sank in. “Dinner? What time is it?”
He touched the black face on his watch and a bluish light appeared.
“It’s almost three, but it’ll take a while to roast this bird.”
I glanced at my own watch, trying to hide its outdated style. It wasn’t even noon. I’d been using the same watch since we moved to the West Coast. I distinctly remembered changing to Pacific Time the very moment we landed.
“Time seems to fly here,” I said, swallowing hard from the raising panic.
“It always does in good company.” Weston winked at me, adjusting the straps of his bow. Then his eyes got stuck on Pandora.  “You can let her go now.”
“Do you do this often? . . . Hunting, I mean?” I asked, bending down to release Pandora.
As soon as I set her free, she darted away from us, barking. 
“Not again!” I fumed, rolling my eyes.
Weston let go an earsplitting whistle, and my hands flew to cover my ears. “Wow!” I looked at him, amazed. “You got a serious talent there.”
“One of my many talents,” he bragged, knitting his eyebrows.
I cupped my hands around my mouth. “PANDORA! HERE GIRL!”
A horrific yowl echoed through the forest. My stomach in a cramp, I dashed toward the sound without even considering what might lie ahead. As I ran up the slope, a thick layer of leaves and twigs crackled under my feet, and spiky branches swept against my arms, but I didn’t stop. I only came to a halt at the edge of an immense flat surface that reminded me of a frozen lake. Pandora stood in the middle of it with legs apart. Her nails tore into the shimmering surface and her tail was tucked between her legs as if glued to her abdomen.
I dropped to my knees and touched the shiny surface. It was as cold and hard as ice, and even though it made absolutely no sense since it was a very hot day, I was sure I was looking at a frozen pond.
Weston touched my shoulder. “You sure can run, girl,” he said, leaning over and trying to catch his breath.
“What is this place?” I asked, stepping onto the ice.
Weston yanked me back.
“You can’t go on it! It’s a deep lake, and there’s a thin layer of ice on it. No one knows why, but it never melts.”
Pandora slid her right paw toward me. I could hear the cracking sound as a zigzagging line started at her feet and advanced with frightening speed toward the bank.
“Stay still, girl. Easy.” I raised my hand, trying to calm her, although my own voice was gripped with terror.
She let out a series of whimpers, making my eyes well up with tears.
“I have to go get her,” I cried, tearing Victor’s shirt off me.
“Wait! I’ll get Victor. He’ll know what to do,” Weston said and raced back into the woods.
The very thought of watching her drown made me dizzy, yet somehow a unique feeling of courage poured over me. And in that burst of boldness, I kicked my shoes off and jumped out of my borrowed pants and top, lessening my weight. Clad only in my underwear—as lightly as I could—I clamped the folded leash between my teeth and slid onto the surface. Breathing in small gulps of air, I pulled myself toward Pandora. As I looked into her brown eyes I could make out the depth of her terror.
“Easy, easy. Just don’t move, please,” I whispered between clenched teeth, hoping that for the first time in her life she’d listen to me.
The ice snapped again, this time right under me. Petrified, I bent my head to watch the crack running beneath me. My pulse drummed in my ears, but I didn’t panic; I just waited, breathing in a controlled manner.
When the lake fell back to silence, I inched my body forward again, enduring the bitter taste of the leather leash in my mouth. 
 At last I reached Pandora. I took the leash out of my mouth, hushing her in the process. Lying with my legs apart and trying hard not to put too much weight on one spot, I attached the clip to her collar. I started to back away from her, allowing the leash to unfold between us.
“Come. Slowly, slowly,” I breathed, gazing into her fear-stricken eyes, where the terror was still apparent, but now beginning to show a spark of relief.
Pandora, copying my move, crawled after me. From our joint weight, the ice began to crack again. I closed my eyes and prayed for it to stop. When the cracking sounds seized, I slowly peeled my eyelids, and we started to slither back to shore again.
By the time my feet touched the ground, my belly and fingers were unfeeling, numbed by the cold.
Warm hands wrapped themselves around my ankles. “I got you. You’re safe now.” It was Victor talking; I was absolutely sure of that.
Pandora, probably seeing a familiar face, jumped. I watched as the surface of the lake separate around her. The big plates of ice rolled into the dark water, swallowing up my squealing dog.
On my knees, I tightened my grip on the leash, while Victor held onto my waist. Weston jumped to my side and helped me haul Pandora out of the water.
I pulled on the leash with all my might. Losing my balance, I fell back and dropped to the ground. Pandora’s cold drenched body fell on top of me. I could feel her heartbeat hammering against my chest for a moment, until Weston pulled her off of me.
I looked down at my underwear that was wet and dirty. Before I could even fold my arms in front of my exposed body, Victor wrapped me in a blanket, lifted me up, and started to carry me to the direction of the camp.
His warm chest was burning on my skin as my bare arms clung to his neck. I looked up. Our eyes met. At that moment I thought he was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen. Even though he was not smiling, the emotions that he made me feel were enough to take my breath away.
“That was a brave move out there,” Victor said, in a baritone that set my heart on fire.
“I think I can walk by myself,” I said, slipping out of his arms. For some unexplainable reason, I couldn’t bear to be so close to him.
I squatted and invited Pandora into my arms. Holding her was the only safe thing I knew right now. I stroked her hair and patted her chest.
What happened out there, on the lake, was a surprise to me. Never in my life had it occurred to me that I possessed this kind of courage. Though I wanted to smile, the muscles in my face were rigid and my teeth chattered relentlessly.
“You should sit by the fire,” Victor said, pulling me up.
I glanced back at Weston, who was carrying my clothes and leading Pandora after us. He smiled at me and nodded his head.
These guys were the kind of friends I’ve always wanted, but never had.
Back at the camp, the fire was up and running. Blazing logs crackled fearlessly and orange sparks ascended with the smoke. Assembled over the fire was a glossy metal structure for roasting meat, I supposed.
As I moved into the confines of the woods to change back into my clothes that were already sun dried, I tried to figure out where this Molly had been hiding herself all these years.
Back in Hopewell, my dad’s eyes were on me at all times. He believed that no child was safe from the wicked minds of sick men who were out to destroy lives without remorse. I listened to his lectures about not trusting strangers and what to do in case of an abduction attempt, how to kick, punch, and scream with full power, and how I should never ever give up trying to escape.
However, the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life was when my ex Adam and my friend Jessica betrayed me and turned me into the object of school gossip. But I got over it. And today there I was, surrounded by six cool guys who were nice to me; who had invited me to join in their birthday-hiking-hunting celebration. I had been struggling to have someone, anyone, just talk to me at my new school. Perhaps … just maybe, there was a small chance that I wasn’t as drab as I thought. And perhaps the world wasn’t as cruel as I was told. 
I finished putting my own clothes on and walked back to the fire. I eased myself down on one of the small boulders the boys had carried there earlier and ordered Pandora to lie down next to me.
I tightened Victor’s blanket around me. I searched for his face, but when I found him watching me with those piercing eyes, my palms started to moisten and dryness settled in my throat again.
He tossed a small log onto the dying flames and slumped down on the other side of the fire pit.
The others finished up around the camp and joined us. They pressed something on their watches and the next moment acoustic music could be heard. Each watch played a different instrument, creating a surrounding system of sounds, as if we all were part of an orchestra. The melodies played together in perfect harmony. It was calming and extremely pleasant. I sighed with contentment, thinking that this had to be the most wondrous picnic I’d ever been a part of.
My eyes became fixed on Victor. I noted the tangled, blond curls draping over his neck, and his fingers dexterously carving a piece of wood. Strangely, all I could think of was how my dad would freak out if he ever found out what I had been up to today.
Roger started to clean the feathers off the cocktoopus with some sort of tool that shot a golden laser beam, and Victor moved in to assist.
I couldn’t stop staring.
In no time the meat was rotating on the spit above the fire. I was having the time of my life, and I had to pinch myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The lack of conversation was quite alien to me, but real friends don’t need to fill every minute with chitchat. Surprisingly, I wasn’t fidgety at all. The atmosphere they created was relaxing to the point where my eyelids became heavy. I had to fight drowsiness to stay awake.
Jacob and Roger started singing. 
Weston slid closer to me, as if he weren’t sitting close enough already. “I really like your dog.”
“Yeah, she’s cute.”
“What breed is she?”
“A mix of many breeds, I guess.” I laughed.  “But I don’t care.”
“No, she’s beautiful. I wish I had one, but I just don’t have time for pets.”
“Yep. They are time-consuming trouble-makers all right.”
“You seem to love her a lot.”
I lifted Pandora’s head and played with her ears.
“I do, even though I think her head is a little bit small for her body.”
Weston laughed out loud and patted Pandora’s side. “Small head, big brain, right?”
Victor tossed another log onto the fire, sending orange flakes into the air. A little too close to us.
“Watch it, Victor!” Weston grunted, but when Victor frowned at him, he turned back to me.
Edwin leaned over Weston, his small, dark eyes eager to serve his friend. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’m good.” Weston flapped him away.
Edwin didn’t ask me. I should have spoken up because I had been licking my parched lips, but obviously Weston didn’t notice.
“Hey, Mol. Catch!” I looked up at Victor just in time to see a black metallic container flying toward me and landing right in my lap.
“That’s no way to treat a lady,” Weston grumbled, and grabbed the container and handed it to me.
With a nod of appreciation, I opened it and cautiously took a sip. It was fresh water.
“Thanks,” I said, tossing it back to Victor. He caught it with his arm outstretched way over his head, not a very accurate throw. Once again, our eyes locked, but soon enough Weston’s nudge on my side broke our stare.
I laughed, playing along with his game. After all, Weston has been very kind to me. 
“Finally!” Roger exclaimed, standing up.
He was the bulkiest of them all: the muscleman of the group. His forehead was kind of short, and he had no lips, only a straight line where his mouth was supposed to be. He wasn’t my type, but I could see girls falling for him easily.
I followed the gazes of the boys and spotted four girls emerging from the dense forest. They were wearing white silk tunics with deep-cut neck, arms covered with golden bands. One of them had long, straight hair as dark as a raven; the short one had back-brushed curly hair, the same color as sun-kissed wheat; the slender one’s hair color was similar to my own: a lifeless, lusterless brown, only mine was curled up right above my shoulders, while hers hung over the middle of her back; and the fourth was just plain gorgeous with golden hair that draped over her shoulders in perfect spiral curls.
I marveled at their beauty, not without a touch of envy, and sighed.
Weston sprang to greet the girls, his face flushed. Edwin was busy setting up some kind of electronic equipment next to me. I found myself eavesdropping in on their conversation.
These girls were from some kind of an underground dancing club, of which the boys were members as well. Victor has arranged this surprise as a birthday present for Weston.
Dancing? I smiled. No way would I take any of these guys as dancers.
Apparently the equipment Edwin was working on was a sound system because as he stood up, loud, erotic music burst through the air, startling the birds from the trees.
“Come on,” Weston called out to me, while from the corner of my eyes I was watching the raven-haired girl moving toward Victor, shaking her hips.
“I can’t dance,” I mumbled. My eyes kept stealing glances of Victor and the girl.
“Come on. Everybody can.”
“I want to see you dance first. Can I?” I put my puppy eyes to work on Weston.
He sighed. “Sure, if that’s what you want. But careful; my moves are electrifying.”
He spun the brunette around. Their bodies connected in the most intimate manner as they started swaying with the beat. If I danced like that, especially in front of others, no way I’d survive it, yet everybody else seemed to act natural.
Victor rose to his feet, the hip-shaking girl’s arms around his neck and his hands on her hips. Only a few paces away from me, they moved around like graceful birch trees in a stormy wind.
If that view hadn’t bothered me so much, I might actually have admired them. But it did bother me.
Victor leaned the girl back, holding onto her waist. She tossed her head back, burying her hands into her glossy hair in a sexy way. The air became hotter around me, and I dropped the blanket.
I didn’t know how much time had elapsed, but the smell of the roasting cocktoopus got stronger, and it attracted the boys back to the fire.
Edwin, using the same laser tool he prepped the bird with, cut a wedge onto the bird’s breast and called out for the others.
Jacob returned first and turned the music off. I averted my eyes from Victor, which was a lot harder than I expected it to be, and watched Jacob pull a comb from his back pocket and run it through his light-blond hair.
I didn’t notice Benjamin loading up his plate, but when everybody was settled, Victor grumbled something at him that made Benjamin stop eating and place his food on the ground, his face a red mask.
The girls’ behavior was surprisingly chilled after their heated dance as they sat together, keeping their distance from the guys.
Sitting around the fire, Weston reached for my hand from one side and Roger from the other. Holding hands, I became one of the elements of the circle. Weston offered thanks for the great birthday with his friends, and for the prey sent their way by someone they called The Almighty. The prayer was similar to the way my grandparents used to recite the blessing at meals. 
The thanksgiving ended and Victor, using the laser tool, cut slices of the meat and offered me the first plate. His eyes were so penetrating that it made me wonder what he might be thinking about me. The more I tried to decipher the meaning of his behavior towards me, the more convinced I became that he didn’t trust me.
I waited until everyone’s plate was full before taking my first bite. The meat tasted a little weird to me. It reminded me of the lamb I once had at one of my dad’s Greek friend’s rather than a turkey.  
Holding a thigh, Weston turned to me. “You really don’t talk much.”
“I’m just shocked a little bit, that’s all,” I said, leaning to the side as Ben took the empty plate from my lap.
“Shocked? By what?” He looked at me wide-eyed.
“I just didn’t expect to find a bunch of cool guys here,” I confessed, blushing.
 “Thanks, but you’re quite interesting yourself. The way you saved your dog was very impressive. Too bad we don’t have more time to get to know one another.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulders, and I drew in, feeling awkward. “I have to go home. My mother will kill me if I don’t show up at my own party.  But hey, do you want to meet here again tomorrow?” he asked and licked his lips.
I took a sip of water to win some time to think over his offer.
“Sure. Why not? Same time?”
“Same time.”
“Okay.”
“Perfect,” he exclaimed. “Let’s pack up, boys. We still have a good two-hour hike back home. Are you coming with us, Molly?”
“I’ll just go back the way I came. My car is parked on the other side.”
“Your what?” Weston asked loud enough to draw everyone’s attention to us. 
“My ride,” I corrected myself guardedly.
Something was really off here, and I was dying to find out more. I couldn’t wait to get home, do some research online, and come back to the forest to swamp the boys with questions.
“Well then.” He clicked on the face of his watch. “Would you do me the honor to share your PIC with me?” he asked, looking at me expectantly.
PIC? I made a mental note to look that up, too.
“Next time,” I promised.
From the rejection, a wave of shock spread across his face. “Okay.”
Smiling uneasily, I looked over his shoulder and swept my eyes over the others. Victor was no longer in the meadow with us. My shoulders sagged in disappointment.
“It was very nice meeting you all,” I yelled toward the others, waving my hand.
“Be safe,” said Jacob, buckling up his backpack.
“You, too,” murmured Ben, kicking dirt onto the ashes.
Roger just nodded and Edwin waved back at me. The girls were already out of hearing range.
“Have fun at your party,” I said, looking at Weston again.
“You should come.”
“I can’t but maybe some other time,” I promised.
“See you tomorrow then,” Weston said and leaned in for a hug. It turned out to be very awkward as his right shoulder bumped my chin.
“Oh, sorry. I don’t know how that happened.”
“Don’t worry about it, Weston. You better go. Your friends are leaving.”
Weston looked back. “Wait for me!” he shouted rather authoritatively and started to back away from me. “Until tomorrow.”
With a sigh, I waved one last goodbye and whistled to Pandora, who surprisingly came to me. I patted her side and attached the leash on her collar.
I looked around the meadow one more time to make sure I was alone. Sharing my discovery was not an option.
Not yet at least.
At the waterfall, I trekked after Pandora through the slimy boulders along the pool. Once, a half-decayed tree trunk faltered under my feet. I lost my balance and stepped into the water, soaking my shoe. Next, Pandora tugged on the leash, and I tripped. As I fell forward, my left hand slammed against a rock.
“Slow down, girl!” I grunted. “It’ll be hard enough as it is to explain why I’m so dirty. I don’t need a bloody cut on my face to add to it.”
Pandora let out a short whimper, shifting on her paws.
I waded through the pool to reach the edge of the rock wall to continue my way on the moss-covered path. By the water cascade the temperature plummeted rapidly, and I climbed as fast as I could on the black rocks. Riding on a draft a familiar odor reached my nose. I knew I was close to the entrance of the mysterious cavern.
I gazed at the meadow for a moment, absorbing all its beauty. Then gaining support on a sizeable ledge, I pushed myself up and slipped behind the waterfall.
I had used up my glow stick on the way here, so I needed to depend on Pandora’s sharp eyes to lead me through the moist and dim cavern. I stumbled after her, darkness falling upon us not allowing a photon of light to penetrate. My fingers wrapped around the leash as I tried to stay close to the cave wall. The surface alternated between hard and mushy. I was glad not to see what my fingers were touching.
By the time I could see the same colorful whirlpool that attracted me on the way here, I was so desperate to get out of the cave that I didn’t rely on common sense. I allowed the energy to suck me in without resistance.
While I was gliding through the light tunnel, I kept my eyes closed. I only realized that my travel was over when I got spouted out on the other side. From the rough impact, I smashed my back on the dry, hard ground. A sharp stinging began to spread up from my tailbone. I touched my skin and my hand returned with blood on it.
Golden sunbeams speared through the opening of the cavern, lighting up the hovering dust and bringing some warmth. I followed the light and crawled out into the fresh air.
Perched at its highest, the sun radiated, but it wasn’t warm enough to make me feel comfortable as I was still soaking wet. I ran down the bluff, holding the leash tight, my teeth chattering. The soles of my wet shoes slipped a few times on the leaves while the cold water from my hair was dripping to my shoulders. I couldn’t wait to get back to my car and turn on the heater. 
At last I saw the sunshine glinting on the shiny black Audi.
I popped the hatch open with my rigid fingers and ushered Pandora to her place.
I jumped onto my seat, cursing myself for not keeping a blanket in the car, and desperately groped for the keyhole. The roar of the engine was pleasing to my ears. I turned the heater on to the highest. Hugging my knees to my chest, I closed myself up into a ball and waited for the heat to come.
I peeked at the digital clock in the car. It was only eleven. I looked at my watch and it showed one twenty-five. I could swear that it was ten in the morning when I entered the cave.
I pulled a piece of paper and a pen out of the glove compartment and jotted down the numbers. I recounted three more times, but the result was the same. The time I spent hanging out in the forest passed by five times faster than time did here. I should have been freaked out, but the first thought that came to me was that tomorrow for Weston was less than five hours away for me. From this sudden realization, I slapped at my forehead and screamed. I pinched myself a few times, but I was wide-awake, all right, wet, and cold. Knowing that I had only a few hours to get home, take a warm bath, and come back, I put the car into motion.
It was impossible to concentrate on the road, though, because my brain sparkled from the activities. My curiosity was running wild and Weston was the only one who could tame it. I must have driven like an idiot, but I didn’t care what people might think about me right now, because I had made the discovery of the century, or maybe for all mankind—I, Molly Elizabeth Bennett, a girl from Hopewell, New Jersey.
 I turned the music on and pumped up the volume. Despite being damp and tired, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The heater had been running at full capacity since I left the park, and my hair was dry by the time I turned onto the driveway of our Spanish-style rental. I had already decided to keep what happened today to myself. So far, all I knew was that the time in the forest wasn’t passing in equilibrium with ours. I needed more time to think all of this through. The first step was to take notes of everything I experienced today: the fragrance of the blooming flowers, the gurgling of the river, Weston’s laughter, Victor’s hypnotic eyes, Victor’s mystical glare, Victor’s strong arms, Victor’s . . . ” I stopped my daydreaming with a slap on my forehead. Snap out of it.
I let out a long, agonizing breath before I opened the door of my car. Then I froze with the door handle in my hand. Oh, no. I can’t write about my day in my diary, because no matter how hard I try to hide it, Nick always finds it. What to do? What to do?
As I was chewing on my nails an idea came to me: keep the diary at the cave instead. I drew courage from my brilliant plan, put on a serious face, and walked inside the house.
It was vacant. I let out a sigh of relief.
Skipping steps, I ran upstairs, turned on the bathwater, then went to get my laptop. I snapped the toilet seat cover down and positioned myself on it. Sitting cross-legged, I opened up my laptop and typed time machine into the Google search bar. Science fiction movies and a few similar images of a metallic manmade machine turned up.
This wasn’t the image I was looking for.
Then I searched for Aurora. The images in color were more like it, though the light I found in the cave was circular, a swirling whirlpool, while all the pictures of the Aurora were light waves across the sky.
I scratched my chin as I racked my brain for a better guess. And then it hit me: wormhole.
In the excitement my fingers hardly wanted to obey and type the letters. I pressed enter, and from the loaded images, I immediately knew that I had found what I was looking for. The only problem with this theory was that the wormhole was supposed to be in outer space.
Well, there were times when people thought Earth was flat.
I opened up one site after the other, read an article and watched a YouTube movie. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t notice that the water in the tub was overflowing.
“Damn it!” I cried, and laid my computer on the toilet seat. I pulled out the plug to drain some water. Then I ran over to the laundry room for the mop. My father’s voice drifted up from the floor below. He was talking to my mom. I rushed back to the bathroom and locked the door. This sneaking around was more exciting than I ever anticipated. I just wondered about the consequences I might have to face later.

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