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Excerpt for The Lightning Conjurer by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




THE

LIGHTNING

CONJURER

  • The Awakening -





Rachel Rener







© 2018















For my husband – without your encouragement, support, boundless patience and enthusiasm, this book would not exist.














Prologue



The rain seemed interminable, crashing down on the slanted roof of the small wooden house tucked safely away behind rolling green foothills. There, nestled in the seat of the Rocky Mountains, torrential rain was a rare occurrence before dawn; yet on this particular April morning, dark gray storm clouds obscured the pale sunrise. Inside the cabin, a young woman sat quietly in the dim light that filtered in from a small, sooty window. Wrapped in a scratchy blanket on a plain wooden chair, her bare legs tucked beneath her, she watched the fat droplets rolling down the window. As her eyes darted across the glass, the drops of water appeared to move in synchronized patterns along with them, dancing across the window, leaving delicate trails of swirling water streaming behind them.

She shuddered slightly from the draft coming through the window and pulled the rough blanket closer around her bare arms; the fire she had lit the night before was mostly embers now, and, with no electricity in the house, the pouring rain made for a cold spring morning. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance.

The woman glanced at the calendar nailed to the wall across the room. It had been just over three years ago that she had awoken in this house, without any idea or indication of where – or who – she was. She had only the clothes on her back – a dirty white sweatshirt and torn, faded jeans – and a small, dark blue pendant around her neck, nearly the exact same shade as her peculiarly-colored, heterochromatic eyes. At first glance they both appeared a deep sapphire blue, but a discerning look in just the right light revealed one eye to be just a touch darker than the other – so deep in hue it was nearly purple. They claimed a striking contrast to her pale, porcelain skin and raven black hair, which tumbled below her shoulders in cascades that she could never fully tame. Her age was somewhat indiscernible – on some days, with a hint of chagrin, she thought she might look as young as twenty; on other days, particularly after nightmare-addled sleep left dark circles stamped under her eyes, she supposed herself closer to twenty-five.

She absentmindedly fingered the pendant at her throat as she watched the rain fall. The first day she had found herself in that cabin had felt like a dream, a persistent remnant from a deep and troubled sleep before she had awoken in a strange bed, alone and confused. She’d stumbled around in a heavy fog, desperate for some fragment of a memory to return. There was no phone in the house, though she wouldn’t have known who to call if she had found one. The cabin was sparsely furnished, with no photos on the walls nor any decoration of any kind. Its paneled walls were a deep mahogany; their dark austerity made the modest house feel even smaller than it was. Though stark and near-empty as it was, it did not feel as though it had been abandoned, or even neglected; only a thin layer of dust covered the bare floors and the few pieces of furniture within. Otherwise the house was in adequate shape, with a working well and, to her relief, running water.

Clean running water, a bed to sleep in, a fireplace to warm herself beside; these small triumphs were what had helped the young woman persist in those first few months. She persevered, learned to survive on her own, and eventually, she even thrived, but still no memories of her past returned. Many never would.

While her previous identity would continue to elude her, one profound and instinctual directive forced its way through her mental haze from Day One: Don’t attract attention. Don’t let them find you. It was a feeling that emanated from her very bones, chilling her from the inside out, and if she knew only one thing in this world, she understood inherently that the feeling was not paranoia, but fact.

As her pensive indigo eyes surveyed the gray forest outside through curtains of rain, she wistfully remembered her first sight upon stepping outside of the unfamiliar house three years prior. The sun was so bright she had to shield her face, having not gone outside for what felt like several days. When her vision focused, she saw dozens of obsidian eyes etched into the snow-white bark of the aspen grove behind the cottage. She gave a start; the sight, the feeling as though she was being watched, was unsettling at first. But then a familiar word came to her. Aspens, she remembered, both cheered and reassured that she could place a name to them, that some memories from before that day had persisted beyond whatever it was she had been through. From that day forward, she took their namesake as her own as she began the daunting task of re-entering the world, about which she could not remember one familiar thing. But she had a name, so that was a start.

Aspen started, abruptly pulled back into the present as a bright streak of purple-white lightning splintered across the sky, momentarily transforming the dark forest into stark silhouettes of gray and white. As she shivered again from the cold draft seeping through the window, the embers in the fireplace behind her glowed brighter.



Chapter 1



I looked up at the gray sky warily. I was by no means a materialistic person, but of the three earthly things I loved in this world, my smooth, soft, deep brown leather jacket was one of them, and rain was not something that paired well with conditioned leather. Still, it was cold and damp outside – something I’ve never tolerated well – and it was the only jacket I had. With one last pleading glance upward, I locked the front door of the log cabin that I had called home for the last three years, then walked around to the side of the house, just past the shoulder-level pile of firewood I scrupulously kept stacked through the spring. There, I greeted my second beloved item, which was leaning beside the neatly-stacked logs: a 1969 Honda inline-four-cylinder CB750 motorcycle, which my only friend, Evelyn, had gifted me a couple winters back. Her husband had passed away a long time ago, and, at seventy-one years old, with no family of her own, she and I had forged a natural bond over the years. She was also my closest neighbor; though at three miles away – up the winding, two-lane county road – “close” was a bit of a stretch.

I took a moment to admire my cherished motorcycle, its fresh coat of blue paint catching the light from the parting clouds, the chrome on the twin exhaust freshly-buffed and shining. I strapped on my vintage steel WWII helmet as I straddled the bike, then punted the kickstand, the electric start roaring to life.

Safely tucking my third and most-beloved possession – my blue sapphire necklace – into my white t-shirt, I zipped up my leather jacket all the way to my chin and revved the engine. All 736 cubic centimeters thundered to life as I shot away from the house, making my way up the winding back road that led to Evelyn’s. My hair flew behind me as I tore past towering evergreens which sheltered lush foliage that, for at least a few months, would remain thriving and green. I breathed in the smell of wet earth and ionized air and pulled just a bit more on the throttle. The forest was a green and brown blur as I flew past it.

In the city, I always drove at exactly five miles below the speed limit to avoid being pulled over and having an officer ask for my identification. But on this particular drizzly April morning, I felt free to fly across the smooth, damp asphalt while the rest of the world remained sleeping in their warm, dry beds. As for me, I was headed over to cut more kindling for Evelyn’s fireplace. Unlike me, she didn’t live as an electricity-deficient pseudo-hermit, but I knew she appreciated the crackling of a warm fire on a cold day.

And, if I was to be totally honest with myself, I didn’t really want to be alone that morning.

I pulled off the road and made my way up her winding driveway. It was early, just before 6:00 a.m., so I cut the engine and walked my bike the last third of the way up, leaning it against the side of the faded green shed outside her house. I opened the shed door and grabbed a slightly-rusted axe, hoisting it over my shoulder, then walked over to the big stump where I had stock-piled the logs I’d cut the month before. My sturdy boots squished in the rain-soaked grass, but thankfully the clouds were clearing and the morning was slowly beginning to warm by the dim light of the late-waking sun. Taking one of the logs and carefully balancing it on the stump, I pulled the axe behind my head and swung down, hearing the satisfactory thunk as my axe easily hocked through what was now two halves of a log. I stood one of the halves on the stump again – thunk! – and repeated the process.

Chopping kindling is tedious, laborious work but I always enjoyed it. When you have a false identity, a past you can’t remember, and you’re living off the grid, life is, unsurprisingly and unrelentingly, dull. I possessed no identification of any kind, so I didn’t have a gas and electricity account. Or a bank account. Or a telephone. And, apart from Evelyn, I also had no friends. It’s not that I was unpleasant or off-putting – at least, not to my knowledge. It’s just that, beyond the fact that I had a natural instinct to avoid most people, even if I had managed or allowed myself to have a friend, anything that I shared about myself would just be a lie anyway, which just felt unscrupulous. When you’re a person who hates being dishonest, living a lie is a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. Hence my desire to simply not let anyone in; having no friends meant having no one to lie to.

After an hour or so of splitting wood, my hands were cold and raw. I glanced toward the house but saw no lights on yet. The pile I had accumulated was big enough to provide kindling for the month. I carried the pieces of wood over to the porch, trying my best to neatly stack them as close to Evelyn’s front door as possible without making too much noise. When I was done, I walked back down the driveway towards my bike, tugging at a splinter in my finger. I had a list of items I was saving money for, but sullenly conceded to myself that gloves would probably need to be added to that growing list.

I sighed heavily.

I was feeling anxious – that uninvited, disconcerting kind of dread that sometimes would just rear its ugly, unfounded head. I had barely slept at all the night before, which was by no means a rare occurrence, yet that morning I felt unreasonably tense. I was desperately seeking something to distract myself with, but on that Thursday morning, I was unwillingly subjected to a rare day off from work, Evelyn was still asleep, and the library wouldn’t open for two hours. When I reached my motorbike at the end of Evelyn’s gravel driveway, I stood there a moment, eyes closed, taking a few deep breaths of fresh air to center myself.

The thought of going back home to the relentless silence seemed unbearable, so I strapped on my helmet and decided to just ride, with no particular destination in mind. The air was crisp with the smell of fresh rain and the clouds were parting to reveal glimpses of the pale early morning sky. I took the road that wound tightly above Evelyn’s house and the hills, slightly more cautious on the throttle than before. My chest still felt tight but the lively wind whipping around me, the clean smell of the forest, and the gorgeous views of the mountains lifted my spirits. The curves of the road coiled around and between the undulating hills, and my bike and I swayed along with them. I approached a hard curve and leaned left, the motorcycle tilting with me. The exhilaration from the ride momentarily replaced some of my anxiety, and, for the briefest moment, I felt exultant.

Then everything happened at once.

My eyes filled with blinding white light as a deafening blare filled my ears. The breeze carried an acrid, burning stench to my nose and I realized in horror that a semi-truck was careening down the road straight toward me, plainly out of control. The road was narrow, and the steep, rocky side of the hill prevented any escape to my right. The truck was wildly veering into my lane and I realized instantly that I had nowhere to go. So I did the only thing I could do: I slammed on my brakes. The back wheel locked up, sending the bike skidding across the asphalt until it slid out from under me, throwing me to the ground. I slid two bike lengths across the road, barely registering the pain tearing across the entire right side of my body as I looked up in horror. The truck was rushing straight at me. I shielded my face, doing all I could to not squeeze my eyes shut, knowing this was the end.

Suddenly, the truck’s horn was replaced with another ear-splitting noise as a howling gust of wind came barreling through the narrow road cut, scattering dirt and sharp debris in all directions. My hair was blowing wildly, slapping against my stinging cheeks. It was as though a tornado had materialized out of thin air. The force was staggering; and yet, as I cowered there in the street – curled up in the fetal position, bracing myself to be swallowed by the ferocious gale – I somehow remained rooted to my spot. I watched in wide-eyed shock as the tornado tore past me, hitting the side of the truck with such might that, for the briefest moment, it teetered preposterously on only its left-side wheels – and then suddenly, horrifyingly, slammed to the ground as it was overthrown, spraying bright orange sparks across the asphalt. It skidded only perhaps a dozen yards on its side, its momentum rapidly dampened by the force of the raging wind, before coming to a smoking halt barely a bike’s length in front of me.

A moment later, the wind was still and all was quiet, save for my heart slamming loudly in my ears.

I scrambled to my feet, pain searing through my body. The truck, the skid marks, the trees, my bike on the road – all spun around my head as the ground seemed to lurch violently beneath me.

My knees buckled and abruptly the world went black.



Chapter 2



Seconds passed, perhaps minutes.

I groaned, squinting my eyes against the intense morning sun, and lifted my head with effort. It felt heavy. Every limb felt heavy. Propping myself up on bruised elbows, I blearily took stock of myself. My heartbeat sounded like crashing ocean waves in my ears. I reached for my necklace instinctively. Still safe. I wiggled my toes in my boots, relieved.

I sat up slowly, wincing from the pain in my right side. My jeans were torn and streaked with blood. My beloved leather jacket was shredded from the gravel but in one piece, thankfully protecting most of the skin on my arms. My knuckles were bleeding on both hands and my right wrist was throbbing painfully. I gingerly opened and closed my fist; it hurt – badly. I took a shaky breath and the ribs on my right side seethed with pain. The helmet Evelyn had gifted me was mercifully still resting on my pounding head. I shuddered to think of what my fate might have been had I not been wearing it.

I looked around me. My bike lay on its side in the road several feet away. The right mirror had been knocked off and I could see streaks of blue paint scraped across the asphalt. My throat caught when I saw the truck, lying on its left side, hydraulic fluid seeping across the street, smoke still trailing from the brakes. The front windshield was completely shattered and lay in hundreds of blue fragments on the road. I could make out the driver, slumped against the left side of the cabin, parallel to the road. There was blood, but I couldn’t tell how much. I stood up – very cautiously and slowly this time – and took as deep of a breath as I could without causing my ribs to spasm. I took a shaky step, and then another. My heart was banging against my chest and I was gripped with fear at the thought of what I might find.

I approached the truck from the front, where the windshield had blown out. I was holding my breath. Crouching to get closer, I peered inside and let out a relieved sob when I saw the man was strapped in and seemingly in one piece. He was unconscious; his forehead was cut fairly deeply but he was breathing.

I surveyed the cabin of the truck. It had a CB radio, which had been knocked from its stand on the dash but otherwise appeared to be in one piece. Wheezing with effort, I reached down beneath the dashboard for the receiver, which was dangling by its coil. I didn’t know who to call but I knew I had to radio someone to come help him.

Don’t attract attention. Don’t let them find you.

The admonition seared through my head and my hand stopped in its tracks. The man let out a small groan and moved his head slightly. His eyes fluttered and my stomach wrenched with fear. Before I could make a move, I heard the sound of a distant car approaching.

Too many questions, you’ll be endangered.

I staggered back away from the truck and stumbled to my bike. Using all my strength, I hoisted it back up, grunting from the pain in my side, and somehow managed to mount it. It was by sheer willpower, and a good dash of luck, that I didn’t immediately topple back off the other side. I turned the key, which was still in the ignition, and it stalled, sputtered, coughed, then finally roared to life. I took one last look over my shoulder as an old brown Corolla with a mismatched red hood approached the scene. I knew that the truck driver would be okay. Wrenching the throttle back without another glance behind me, I tore away from the scene as quickly as I could.

***

I can’t tell you how I made it home, I honestly don’t remember anything but blurs of trees and searing pain. But somehow, I found myself back at my cabin. I haphazardly leaned the bike against the side of the house and took off my helmet. The green paint was cleanly scraped off one side and there was a small dent in it from what was probably a rock in the road. It barely registered in my mind that that could have been my skull. I tossed it in the grass near the bike. As I stumbled over to the well behind the house, I vaguely remembered that I had left the right mirror lying in the road at the accident and, in my delirium, was rather irritated at myself for forgetting to retrieve it. It took much more effort than it should have to turn on the generator connected to the well pump, but miraculously, I managed. After hitting my head as hard as I did, the deafening roar of the machine was almost unbearable; I clamped my hands over my ears and made my way back to the cabin.

I limped through the back door into my kitchen, tossing my threadbare jacket on a kitchen chair, and fumbled through the drawer full of junk until I found scissors. Sinking inelegantly to the cold linoleum floor, I peeled off my boots, my ribs protesting with pain, and set to work cutting off the remainder of my shredded jeans, which were matted to my skin with dried blood. I grimaced, wondering how bad it would be once I washed the blood away. Leaving the bloody shreds of denim on the floor, I stood up precariously, steadied myself on the kitchen table, then made my way to the bathroom, using walls for support. Cradling my right hand, I used my left hand to turn on the water to the cast iron clawfoot tub in the middle of the small bathroom and peeled off the remainder of my clothes while it filled. Normally, I would try to heat the water in the fireplace before climbing into an otherwise-frigid bath, but at that moment I had neither the strength nor the mindset for that.

My head was throbbing and the tiny room felt as though it were spinning. I leaned heavily on the bathroom sink and regarded my scraped face in the mirror, idly wondering if I had a concussion. I leaned forward, examining my pupils, trying to determine whether or not they were the same size. Weirdly, my darker eye, the right one, seemed even more purple than usual. As I peered closer to look at it, my iris… Well, there’s really not another word for it – it flashed – a bright purple, almost-ultraviolent glint. Much like a sun’s ray catching a polished river stone. But there were no bright rays of light coming through the tiny, dirty window set high on the wall behind me. I blinked twice, shaking my head. That made me wince.

God, I must have a concussion, I thought to myself grimly.

The tub was nearly full so I twisted the squeaky faucet closed. I dipped my bloody knuckles in the water and grimaced at the glacial temperature. Gingerly, I raised my leg and hoisted myself into the tub, gasping from the cold. I looked down, surveying multiple bruises purpling beneath my skin, persuading myself that a cold bath would be therapeutic. As I slid down into the freezing water, goosebumps erupted across my flesh but I welcomed the numbness. The tub became red and murky as the dried blood and dirt from my abrasions dissolved in the water. In hindsight, it must have been a relatively macabre scene.

As I sat in the frigid tub, I thought about the day Evelyn had first given me the motorcycle. It was more than two years ago on a winter morning that had felt as frigid as that bathwater; the snow had been relentless for days and was accumulating in deep, white drifts against the cabin. Even by Colorado standards, it was unbearably cold. At that time, I hadn’t yet admitted to her that I possessed no mode of transportation, save for my overused feet – one of which was boring an actual hole through the right toe of my tattered boot. Like the snow piling outside my windows, the guilt of not visiting Evelyn for a week was weighing heavily on my mind, creating a rather intense conflict of interest vis-a-vis my deep aversion to the cold. That struggle of right vs. snow was what ultimately brought me to rather desperate measures.

Two and a half hours after making up my mind to venture out into the icy tundra, I found myself on Evelyn’s doorstep shivering like a frost-nipped leaf, sheepishly averting direct eye-contact while nervously admitting to her that, well yes, I had borrowed a rusty, abandoned bicycle that I’d found leaning on a light post just outside of town in order to avoid walking the whole way to her house. Much to my chagrin, I had managed to make it nearly halfway up the partially-plowed road before I quickly realized that the battered ten-speed bicycle was not going to make it through the two-foot snow drifts. Ergo, I concluded my miserable story while closely examining the nondescript brass numbers nailed to the left side of Evelyn’s front door, I unceremoniously deserted it in the ditch and trudged the rest of the way to her house. In the blizzard. Without gloves… or a hat.

Her eyes narrowed to nothing more than slits as she regarded the icicles in my hair, the holes in my boots, and my frozen fingers, which were ineffectually stuffed into my damp jacket pockets. Despite being slightly stooped and at least a head shorter than me, I confess there were moments where I was a little bit terrified of Evelyn. This was absolutely one of those moment. I squirmed awkwardly, sincerely fearing for an instant that she might hit me over my snow-dusted head with a rolling pin. Mercifully, she instead yanked me inside and wordlessly handed me a thick blanket from the couch. I wrapped it around my wet shoulders, obediently following her around the house as she began lecturing me about stealing, gesticulating enthusiastically as she spoke: Doesn’t matter if the bike looked abandoned, the owner might very well have come back to find it missing and been beside themselves – and how mad she was that I’ve been walking all over the place like some poor frost-bitten vagrant, and demanding, as an aside, for me to fetch that Tupperware, it’s too high on the shelf… Damn builder making everything in this place fit for a professional basketball player

She poured me a hot cup of tea as she continued her harangue, and I sipped it appreciatively, warming my fingers on the steaming mug. Eventually we made our way out to her garage where she marched over to a large lumpy item with a dirty sheet resting on top of it. She tugged off the covering, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Coughing, I looked through the falling haze of years-old microparticles to find a slightly-rusted, paint chipped, decades-old motorcycle. I knew nothing about bikes at the time but even in its slight state of disrepair, I thought it was just magnificent. My throat caught.

She peered at me through a bit of a stink-eye. “This was my Donald’s and now it’s yours. Don’t want anything for it, save for you to return that bicycle from exactly where you got it.” (For many months afterward, I would continue to get earfuls about having taken that damn rusty bicycle, even though the bike was faithfully returned to its previously-abandoned spot with a letter thoroughly detailing how sorry I was. To this day, the bike – and the tattered remnants of that note – are still leaning against the exact same light post where I first found it.)

Evelyn walked over to the handlebars where a green, metal helmet was hanging. She took it in her hands, tenderly regarding it for a moment, then turned to press the helmet into mine with the stark admonition: “This was my father’s, from the War, before it passed to my husband. I always told Don that if he ever left home without a helmet and survived the trip back, I’d kill him anyway.”

It was then, in that musty garage, that my eyes overflowed, partially from the motes of dust still hovering in the air, but mostly because it was the kindest thing I could remember anyone having done for me. I hugged her tightly and she muttered something gruffly into my hair about renewing the registration for me and lending me her winter boots for the return trip.

Back to the present moment, shivering in my tub, I couldn’t help but smile at the old memory. Then I immediately grimaced. Evelyn knew I didn’t have a driver’s license and she didn’t like it one bit, but I had always assured her that I would be careful. She generally replied to that with some variation of a half-satisfied grunt.

I wonder what she’ll say when she finds out? I wondered anxiously, suddenly realizing I couldn’t feel my toes.

When I opened my eyes to survey myself again, my numb-white fingertips were wrinkled and my muscles were appreciatively numb. The urge to sleep overwhelming my already-dampened senses, I reached for a towel with my left hand, the one that hurt less to move, and gently wrapped myself in it. I stepped into a pair of old slippers and shuffled out to the living room, where I slumped down into the old, broken-springs sofa in front of the fireplace, which was almost completely out, save for a couple hot coals. I curled up under nothing but the damp towel, teeth chattering, too worn out to reach for the wool blanket on the far sofa arm.

As I faded into a long, fitful sleep, I dreamt that the coals of the fireplace suddenly roared to life and could almost feel the comforting warmth wash over my battered body.

Chapter 3



I awoke suddenly to the shrill voice of Evelyn.

“Oh my Lord!” she wailed upon seeing me. I looked up from the couch at her through bleary eyes. She stood at the foot of the sofa in a brightly-flowered dress, both hands to her mouth. Her normally impeccably-styled, steel-gray hair was rather disheveled, thrown in a loose bun at the nape of her neck; unruly strands framed her distraught face. Her eyes were wide and anxious as she knelt down next to me.

“Child, I have been worried sick,” she fussed as she stroked my hair from my face to get a better look at me. “I just saw on the news that there was a motorcycle accident yesterday involving a semi-truck on the county road just above my house, but the motorcyclist fled before help could be called.” She deftly put her hand against my head and peered intently into each of my eyes as she spoke. “Naturally I came here straightaway, only to find your backdoor unlocked, bloody clothes strewn all over the kitchen, and no answer when I called your name.” Her voice was becoming increasingly shriller as she spoke. “Thank God you aren’t dead! Good Lord above, why didn’t you come to me?”

My head felt like it was stuffed with sawdust. I mumbled something incoherently.

She took a seat on the edge of the couch and carefully took my chin in her hands, surveying my scratched-up face with a worried frown.

“We need to get you to the hospital, sweets.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I slurred, struggling to sit up. My right side spasmed in pain. I slumped over, pathetically.

Evelyn looked at me with frustration and pain in her eyes, knowing from experience that I’d never let her take me somewhere where they would ask for my identification. I never explained my situation to her in its entirety, but she knew enough. Despite her inquisitive nature, in general she tried not to pry about these subjects, and we usually maintained a comfortable balance between a trusting friendship and tacit respect of certain boundaries.

This was one of those days, however, where I already knew those boundaries would be chucked out the window. In that moment, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if she had attempted to pick me up and carry me to the doctor herself. I anchored myself more firmly to the couch just in case. She sighed in exasperation.

“What time is it?” I asked groggily.

“Two in the afternoon,” she replied. “Friday,” she added, quickly grasping my compromised state of mind.

My eyes bulged and I gasped, struggling to gather the towel closer around me so I could get off the couch. “Oh god, I’m late for work! Gina will kill me, I’ve gotta – ”

Evelyn placed her surprisingly-firm hand against my shoulder. I winced. “You will do no such thing!” she commanded, her grip unyielding. “You will sit right here on this couch while I get you a warm robe and some medicine. How you managed to make a fire is beyond me, but I will be the one to tend to that now.”

I glanced at the crackling fireplace, confused. I didn’t remember making a fire…

She continued without pausing. “I will call the restaurant from my house when I go to get supplies for you and let Gina know you fell and sprained your wrist badly. Judging by the swelling” she nodded to my wrist, “that’s not too far off.”

I started to protest but she shot me a look so frightening it would have put even Attila the Hun in his place.

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled obediently.

She patted my arm, gently. “Come now. Remember, I used to be a nurse. Let’s see how much of you we have to put back together.” She carefully helped me off the couch, again surprising me with her fortitude, and slowly walked me to the bedroom where she fetched me my green flannel robe from the bed post and gently helped me into it. My muscles and joints had tightened badly since the accident and moving any part of my body felt excruciating.

Evelyn’s impromptu, yet thorough, medical examination yielded: a minor concussion, bruised ribs on the right side, a sprained right wrist, road rash on both my legs including a deeper laceration on my hip from an embedded chunk of gravel, a wide variety of cuts and scrapes, and an assortment of eggplant-purple bruises which blossomed across most of my torso and hip. She tsk-ed and muttered to herself every time she discovered a new trauma to my body. Most of it was about the various supplies she would need to retrieve, but I heard some choice words about truck drivers as well.

“Was he okay?” I asked anxiously.

“Who…? Oh, the idiot who nearly killed you? He’s fine. Was on the news this morning with a band-aid on his forehead. Spewing some nonsense about burnt-out brakes and a tornado that came out of nowhere, but no one in the nearby neighborhoods, including yours truly, experienced any kind of gales. No doubt drunk and making excuses, the no-good louse…”

I frowned, but she started prodding at my ribs again, the pain immediately distracting me.

“You must have left the generator on all night,” she said gruffly, carefully inspecting my swollen wrist in her hands. “It was sputtering like the dickens when I pulled up so I shut it off. I’ll bring a few extra gallons of gas with me later today. Do you still keep them behind the well?”

I nodded meekly.

After checking every inch of me twice for injuries and lecturing me three more times about seeing a doctor, Evelyn gently tucked me back in on the couch. She added two more logs to the fireplace, then left to get gauze, supplies, and medicine from her place, assuring me she would let the restaurant know on my behalf that I wouldn’t be in for at least two weeks. She said that last part with an audible note of authority, underscored with a hint of well-intentioned menace. I knew better than to argue, but my heart sank.

How in the world will I go without income for that long? I fretted drowsily, settling into a deep sleep filled with various distressing nightmares about tornadoes, haunted fireplaces, and one particularly aggravating, recurring dream about coconuts incessantly falling on my head.



Chapter 4



The first three days under Nurse Evelyn’s care are a bit foggy to me. I spent most of those 72 hours sleeping, and the remaining hours in so much discomfort from my injuries that I wished I were sleeping. Even after the bruises faded and my joints loosened up a bit, the worst of it was actually the road rash, which felt like severe burns all up and down my legs and the entire right side of my body. Despite my protests, Evelyn cared for me relentlessly. She changed the gauze on my legs twice a day and had a constant supply of balms and ice packs, as well as soup and sandwiches, which she made at her place and carted over to mine in her old brick-red Buick. Had I not also been fed such a steady stream of sleep-inducing pain killers, I would have been overwhelmed with gratitude and guilt. I don’t know what I would have done without her during that time, and several times I inelegantly tried to tell her so.

“Nonsense,” she replied, brushing me off. “It’s just what you do when you love someone.”

After the first few days I was finally able to convince Evelyn to go home and rest for a while. Her eyes were tired and I knew she had to have been worn out, despite the fact that she betrayed no indication that she was. She eventually relented, but only after filling a large cooler with ice and enough food for a small militia, as well as lining up every bottle of medicine I might possibly need, arranged according to pain type, in a neat line on an end table placed within an exact arm’s length of the couch on which I was camped out. She also left me a long-range walkie-talkie she had found while digging through her attic, scolding herself under her breath for not thinking of it earlier.

I reassured her repeatedly that I would absolutely not leave, and that if I needed anything at all, I would immediately call her on the walkie-talkie, no matter what. After checking my gauze one last time and reminding me for the third time to keep my door locked after she left, she finally made her way for the door.

“I left you a pile of books from the library on the kitchen table, enough to keep you reading for at least the next month – so you’ll be less inclined to go out and get more yourself.” She gave me a pointed look. “I’ll be back first thing tomorrow morning. If you need anything at all –”

“I promise I’ll call you!” I grinned, waving the red walkie-talkie in the air from the couch. I did everything I could not to grimace from the sudden spasm of pain on my right side as I did so. Had I so much as raised an eyebrow peculiarly, I knew she’d insist on staying another week.

Grunting, but seemingly satisfied, she pulled on her rain jacket and stepped outside into the drizzling gray, giving me one last hard-nosed squint through the window before she stepped into her car. I chuckled to myself.

To be honest, I had really enjoyed having Evelyn’s company during those three days. It was the most time I had ever remembered spending with another person. During the hours I wasn’t sleeping, she had brought over her hand-crank radio, providing us laughably-short intervals of oldies music, the names of every song and band she recited by heart. We played War with an old deck of cards and talked and laughed until I winced and then she scolded me for laughing, even though it was usually because of something funny she had said that had caused it. Without her, the house was silent again, and the loneliness I had grown so accustomed to came thundering back, more intrusive than before.

I sighed. I wasn’t used to being idle; for three years I constantly kept myself busy as a way to ensure everything was taken care of – who else would handle the chores and responsibilities if not for me? – but also because keeping myself occupied prevented the anxiety from creeping in. It was during quiet moments such as these where my mind raced, asking questions about things which I resigned myself to believing I would never find answers to.

My eyes watered for the briefest moment as I sat on that unsightly, sagging couch feeling sorry for myself.

“That’s enough,” I said aloud. “This is just a minor setback. Things will be back to normal in no time.”

Not in the mood for solitaire, I got up from the couch unsteadily, using the armrest as support, and walked into the kitchen to find the large pile of books Evelyn had left. I shuffled through the titles with my good hand, many of which I had already read: East of Eden, Jane Eyre, An Anthology of Hans Christian Andersen, To Kill a Mockingbird. There was a guidebook on motorcycles that I hadn’t read before, but the thought of reading it made a lump form in my throat.

Who knows when I’ll ride again, I lamented to myself. I didn’t even know what kind of repairs the bike needed yet. Evelyn insisted I not look at it until I was better healed but assured me that most of the damage that she observed looked fairly superficial. I took her word on it, knowing that if I went out to check for myself I’d end up sitting on the muddy ground struggling to control a wrench with a sprained wrist, which is most definitely something she would kill me for if she caught me.

Taking my attention back to the mountain of books on the table, a tattered textbook caught my eye: An Overview of Medieval Europe. I picked it up and thumbed through the chapters, rather awkwardly with my bulky wrist brace. As I skimmed the pages, which had been highlighted and heavily notated in the margins, a pamphlet fell out of the book and onto the table. The front page read:

Medieval Studies – Free Course Audit

Auditing a course allows a student to take a class without the benefit of a grade or credit for a course.  An A&S undergraduate student who audits a course does so for the purposes of self-enrichment and academic exploration.   The course is offered ONLY on a space-available basis with the approvals of both the instructor of the course and an academic dean in the College of Letters & Science.  Available courses:

ANTH 3391-Archaeology of Prehistoric Europe

ENGL 3003-Historical Survey of British Literatures I

HIST 2109-Introduction to Medieval History

HIST 3461-Introduction to East Asia In the Imperial Age

HIST 3613-History of the Crusades

SPAN 3503-Pre-Modern Spanish Culture and Thought

The rest of the pamphlet had information on the classes, enrollment support, and a campus map. It was for the major university in town, a world-renowned tech school that pumped out droves of accomplished engineers, chemists, and mathematicians every year. It never occurred to me that they would have a Liberal Arts program as well.

I stared at the booklet, feeling absolutely dimwitted. I had always fantasized about going to college but there were three fairly-insurmountable obstacles in my way: One, I didn’t have the money. Two, I didn’t know my real name or any other likely-mandatory information. Three, I wasn’t aware of any prior school enrollment and to my knowledge, I didn’t possess SAT scores that I could present as part of the application process. It never even crossed my mind that I could simply attend college classes unofficially. Granted, I knew I wouldn’t take the formal steps of obtaining approvals from both the instructor and an academic dean, since I didn’t actually attend the University… but according to this booklet, the classes were large, so who would notice if I unobtrusively sat in the back of the lecture hall, taking notes for my own – how did they put it? I glanced back down at the front page: Self-enrichment and academic exploration.

I grinned ecstatically, giddy at the prospect that I might be able to attend entire college courses, for free, unregistered and unnoticed. The things I could learn! I sat down at the kitchen table and skimmed the course descriptions. I stopped at HIST 2109 - Introduction to Medieval History, for which the textbook on my kitchen table was required reading:

Course Catalog Description: Europe from decline of Rome to early Renaissance. Politics, institutions, society, economy, and culture of Middle Ages.

Class Description: This lecture course begins with the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and covers such topics as the development of Christianity, the Muslim invasions, the Merovingians, the Carolingian empire, the Crusades, the making of England and France, the German Empire, the Spanish Reconquista, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death. It ends with the Renaissance. Political, Military and Religious history is the major focus of this course.

Textbook: An Overview of Medieval Europe.

Class Times: MWF, 6:00-6:50pm

I glanced at the calendar on the wall. Monday, April 9th. That meant there would be a class tonight, and I already had the book for supplemental reading. I was pretty sure Spring semester had started sometime in mid-January, so I would have already missed over two months of classes. But what would that matter? I wouldn’t be able to turn in any exams, anyway. I could still attend in time to hear about the Crusades. And, Gina only ever needed me at the restaurant from early morning to 3:00 p.m. for the breakfast and lunch shifts, so I could keep attending even after I went back to work the week after next. The timing was perfect.

Maybe after this class finishes, I could find a summer lecture on the Renaissance! I thought excitedly. And then the Age of Reason! What happened after the Enlightenment? The Industrial Revolution? I wasn’t exactly sure from where I knew that information, but the realization that the memories indeed persisted from my life before made me feel even more elated. I hurried back over to the end table by the couch, fumbling to pick up the walkie-talkie Evelyn left me. I pressed the button on the left side and called into it excitedly, “Evelyn? Are you there?”

Half a second later, she answered, her voice slightly shrill, “Aspen? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Oops. “I’m completely okay,” I answered quickly, “Everything is great. I was wondering if I could ask you for one quick favor?”

“Anything,” she answered, “Tell me.”

“Could you drive me to the university tonight? Around 5:30? There’s a class I’d like to attend.”

After a slight pause, the grin almost audible in her voice, she replied, “I’ll bring extra pencils.”

Chapter 5



Evelyn came back around five o’clock that evening with a thermos of tomato soup and a few warm grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. As promised, she also brought about a dozen sharpened number-two pencils. I raised an eyebrow questioningly.

“You can never be too prepared!” she said brightly, tucking them back into her purse, next to a small writing pad, a fresh pack of tissues, and a gold tube of lipstick.

I ate as quickly as I could, all-too-happy to deprive her of the opportunity to chide me to eat more. I cleared our plates with my good hand, ignoring her protests for me to rest, then hurried to the bedroom to grab my backpack. Earlier that afternoon I had dumped out my restaurant uniform – a white, button-up shirt, black dress pants and a green apron, which was in dire need of a good washing – and re-packed it with An Overview of Medieval Europe, an old spiral notebook, and a few mismatched pens I had amassed from around the house.

The backpack was bright red, which I had specifically chosen for its attention-grabbing color a couple years back since its main purpose was for carrying my things on my back while riding my motorcycle. Being highly-visible was a good safety technique on a bike, but I couldn’t help but wish it was a little less conspicuous for this occasion. You’re being paranoid, I scolded myself. There are hundreds of students in this class.

I wrestled my thick, black hair into a high ponytail (a hard-enough feat to accomplish with two good hands) and surveyed myself in the mirror. It was a warm evening but I chose soft black leggings to cover the remaining bandages on my legs and a blue, long-sleeved blouse that hid the bruises on my arms and was comfortably-loose around my ribs. It was pretty, I conceded, but not ostentatious. Satisfied enough with my reflection, I carefully slung my backpack over my left shoulder. Here we go, I thought excitedly, feeling only a twinge of nervousness.

Emerging from my room a moment later, I walked over to Evelyn, who was still sitting at the kitchen table.

“All set!” I announced.

She surveyed my bandaged wrist and the residual scuffs on my face but simply smiled and said, “You look just like a typical University student. Except far prettier.” She winked and stood up, straightening the chiffon scarf on her head, then gestured to the Buick outside. “Your brick-red chariot awaits!”

***

After naïvely wandering around the east side of campus for quite some time (in our defense, it was a sprawling campus with dozens of different buildings, and some of the building names were rather obscured by various overgrown flora), we finally found the right lecture hall at ten past the hour. Hastily taped to the right of the heavy mahogany doors was a sign that read “HIST 2109, Dr. Borstein”.

Flustered and breathless, I cautiously (and with effort) cracked open the heavy door and peeked through, observing a cavernous auditorium with three sections of theater-style seating, divided by two narrow aisles. Most of the seats were already occupied. The professor, a bearded man in his early seventies, sporting a hackneyed brown tweed jacket and stark-white hair that was in slight disarray, stood at the front of the room. Far below us, already well into his lecture, he had an impressively-stentorian voice. I scanned the room and spotted two empty seats about a third of the way down on the far-right side and motioned for Evelyn to follow me.

She squeezed in behind me through the double doors as I did my best to be quiet and discreet. Naturally, the door forcefully slammed shut behind us, making a preposterously loud BANG.

It echoed thunderously through the great hall like cannon fire. Evelyn, wide-eyed and sheepish, made a wild I-didn’t-do-it gesture as every single head in the room spun around in unison, straining to see what the sudden racket was. My face felt as though it had turned a deeper shade of crimson than my backpack. The fluorescent lights in the ceiling flickered, making the entire scene even more unnecessarily-dramatic.

The professor cleared his throat crossly, obviously annoyed by the interruption. I bowed my head in shame and made a beeline for the two open seats, stammering apologies to all of the toes I clumsily trampled.

“Aiden…” the professor addressed a dark-haired man sitting in the front row, who at that moment also happened to be staring at the maladroit buffoon – a.k.a., me – clamoring to get to a seat in the back of the auditorium. Hearing his name, Aiden turned back towards the professor.

“Yes, Doctor Borstein?”

“Please remind me to bring a screwdriver and a can of WD-40 before our next class. If the department won’t fix that damned door, then I will.” I saw the back of Aiden’s head nod as he leaned over in his seat to jot down the note. He looked older than the rest of the students by several years. One of the Teaching Assistants, I figured.

Professor Borstein raised his voice. “If it would please the class, we’ll continue on with the Siege of Constantinople, which marked the culmination of the Fourth Crusade…”

I slunk down in my seat. Evelyn plopped down next to me, chortling like a school girl. I raised an eyebrow at her questioningly and she just shrugged, flashing me a big grin.

“If I had known the professor would be this good-looking,” she whispered, “I’d have crashed this course a long time ago.”

I stared at her incredulously, my own heart still racing from the fresh humiliation. She, on the other hand, seemed positively unruffled. I looked around at the other students, but the rest of the class had mercifully gone back to taking notes or surreptitiously surfing through social media on their laptops. One guy hid a comic book in his open textbook. I glanced down toward the front of the class, where Aiden again twisted around to glace over his shoulder. Probably at the loose-hinges of that supernaturally-heavy door, I thought with chagrin, my face flushing again.


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