King of Hearts

Little soul, your dreams are waiting

Grab them up, hold them closely

Never let go

Little soul, you're finally here to

Live and breathe your every fear

Love and hate. Smile and touch.

Hope, despair, loathing and lust.

Who we are, what we are.

It's nothing but a point of view

Life's waiting here for me. But I

Keep pushing it away and am left alone

Here wondering. Is there more to this

More than just stars above our heads

And earth beneath our feet

If you will it, there is no dream

We all turn back to dust

Back to the beginning.

-We All Turn Back to Dust, lyrics by From First to Last (2008)

I was about to put my sweatshirt through the wash when something came fluttering out from between the folds of the fabric. It landed between my bare feet, wedging itself into the thick cream carpet. It was a poker card, the queen of hearts.

I sighed. I didn't own any poker cards, but my little sister did. This wasn't the first time I found a stray card of hers that wasn't where it should have been. I guess it wasn't her fault that she doesn't know the meaning of the word organization; she's just a kid, after all. I put my laundry to the side and went to hunt down my sister.

I found her in her room. She was playing solitaire, ironically enough.

"Hey, Ivy, I think you're missing a card." I said as I leaned against her door frame.

She was lying on her stomach on the floor, the cards spread out in front of her. She looked up at me, her eyebrows scrunching in a line over her eyes.

"Nope, I'm not." She said.

"Then why did one of your playing cards end up in my laundry?"

"It was the elves. Well, it would've been if I had really lost a card, but I didn't."

I rolled my eyes. "Well, maybe the elves made you an extra card that you didn't realize you lost."

Ivy shot me a look that clearly said I didn't know anything. "Elves aren't like that. They hide things, not make them."

I started wondering what kind of fantasy books she had been reading lately. I'd never heard her talk about elves before.

"Maybe not," I said. "It doesn't change the fact that I have one of your cards."

I flicked the card at her. It twirled and spiraled in the air before landing in the opposite direction. Ivy rolled her eyes and crawled over to retrieve it. I shook my head and went to go finish the laundry.

"Raylin, wait," Ivy whined after me. "This isn't my card."

My fingers twitched in annoyance. I didn't have time for this; I had a million things that I had to get done.

"Ivy, please." I turned around to look at her. "I have to do the laundry right now; can we talk about this later?"

She pursed her lips and then molded them into a pout. She was evil, she truly was. She knew the pout always worked and wasn't ashamed to use it.

"Sis, the backs of my cards are red." She told me. "This one's white with a big yellow smiley face in the middle. Plus, mine don't have words written on them."

"You've got to be joking."

"I'm not." She sounded offended.

"Okay." I waited a moment. "So what does it say, then?"

Ivy narrowed her eyes slightly. She thrust her hand toward me. "You have to read it."

With my eyebrows raised, I reached out and plucked the card from her hand. She was right. There really was a big yellow smiley face on the back of the card. It was kind of creepy. You know, to have something smiling all the time like that. My cheeks hurt just thinking about it.

The words (which were written in purple ink, I noted) startled me. It was the last thing I ever expected to be written on the back of a playing card. Notes for cheating or something would seem plausible, but this…it was beyond weird.

I reread the words: Return the card, because you've stolen my heart and my blood can't pump properly without you.

"I wonder who the card was meant for," I mused out loud.

Ivy rolled her eyes. "Duh, it was meant for you, sis. You found it in your laundry, right? The elves were making sure you got the message."

"What is it with you and elves?"

Ivy ignored that. "Stop pretending you don't know the truth."

"What truth?"

"That someone likes you, of course," she said. She made it sound like it was obvious.

My body froze and I got this hollow feeling. I didn't want anyone to like me. It's why I spent time making sure I wasn't noticed at school.

"I'm sure it was a mistake," I told her. "Things like this are never meant for me."

She stuck out her lip. "Why not?"

"Just because."

A few moments of silence trickled by, but then she said, "Well, I think it was meant for you."

I gave her a smile and ruffled her hair a little. "It's a nice thought, but it's not the best thing for me." I shut myself in my room before she could say anything else. She was only eight, so she really didn't know what she was talking about.

Regardless of all that I had said to her, I ended up sticking the card underneath my mattress. I was going to throw it out, but I got this gut feeling that I should keep it. I tried to ignore the fact that the phone number that was scrawled beneath the words was seared into the back of my eyes. I hoped Ivy hadn't noticed that part. About the phone number that was written on there, I mean. She might have tried to call it or something.

And that only would have lead to disaster.

"So, how'd it go the other night?"

I looked up at my dad, who was leaning down under the hood of the car, tinkering around. I was sitting in a lawn chair right outside the open garage door, gazing out at the fall colors of the trees, making note of the red and yellow leaves that were still clinging onto the branches. I hadn't really been paying attention to what was going on around me until my dad spoke.

I frowned at his choice of topic. "It was fine," I finally said. I was hoping he wouldn't bring it up, since he hadn't mentioned anything about it yesterday, but I guess he was just biding his time.

"It was just fine, huh?" He straightened up a little and glanced at me over his shoulder. "Nothing too interesting happened then, did it?" It was more of a statement than a question.

I kept my voice and expression neutral. "No, not really; I was forced into going, if you'll remember."

My dad sighed. I hadn't been totally able to hide the underlying bitterness in my tone, but maybe it was better that way. "Raylin, no one forced you to do anything."

My face tightened. "You went behind my back with Meredith, Dad. That was low."

He paused what he was doing and turned to face me as he gently eased the hood of the car down. His chocolate eyes were pleading. "You know I just want what's best for you, honey. I don't think shutting yourself away from people is healthy."

"Just because I don't chose social interaction doesn't mean there is anything wrong with me. Besides, I talk to you and Ivy." I hooked my hands into the creases of my elbows.

Dad just shook his head, his forehead lined with worry. He didn't bother arguing about it further—we'd had this discussion so many times that it seemed fairly pointless anymore.

"I have to go meet Casey," I muttered. I folded my chair up and leaned it against the wall right inside of the garage. "See, there are people I talk to from school."

He raised one eyebrow. "What happened to Naomi?"

I suppressed a wince at the name. I told him vaguely, "We didn't click very well." Naomi had only bothered to notice me when she got in a fight with her friends. When they eventually made up, she went back to treating me like I never existed in the first place. I had an urge to tell her friends all the nasty things she'd said about them when she was with me, but I didn't feel too justified in sinking to their level.

"Well, go on then. You should call Meredith and to see if she would like to hang out with you and Casey. That would be real nice, don't you think?" My dad asked.

I ignored him and started walking down the sidewalk. "Bye, Dad."

He heaved a heavy sigh and waved half heartedly. I didn't know what he saw in Meredith, but she sure had him hoodwinked. She wasn't exactly BFF material. Casey was my fellowship in seeing the evil ways of Meredith Rockwell, and when I met up with her we started ranting about it.

"I think she's planning something," Casey was telling me as we swung on the swings at the park. "I mean, Meredith's anything but secretive when it comes to her dislike of you. So why would she be asking you to do things with her?" Casey firmly gripped the chains of the swing and let her body lean back so that her red hair brushed along the mulch underneath us. "I smell something fishy there, personally."

I let my foot drag across the ground lightly as I swung. Casey's words didn't surprise me; I had come up with nearly the same conclusion as she had. I didn't know why Meredith was acting like we were friends, but I wasn't looking forward to finding out what her motives were.

Casey looked at me when I didn't say anything. "Did anything weird happen when she took you to that local concert on Friday night?"

I hesitated. "That depends on what you would define as weird."

"Well," she said. "I would define weird to be anything that didn't feel natural."

I scrunched up my nose distastefully. "Nothing feels natural when I'm hanging out with Meredith."

"Yeah, I know, but I'm talking about things that were weird other than the crappy circumstances of the situation."

"There was something that happened," I said, mostly to myself. My mind strayed back to that queen of hearts card I found in my laundry, my lethargic mind finally putting things together. I had to have come across the card at the concert.

Casey waited patiently for me to elaborate as I thought over in my mind what had happened that night:

They sat, huddled together, in a circle, the dim yellow light from the streetlight above them casting shadows across their faces and the poker cards that they held in their hands. A steady thrumming of music played in the background, ignored by the plethora of seriousness that hovered over each of the four card players.

I stood behind an older teen that wore a black and purple checkered hoody, and I got to sneak a peak at the cards he had fanned out in his hands. Just because I could see his cards did not mean that I was any less ignorant of what they were playing, or even whether he had been dealt a good hand. I had, more or less, just walked up to a small group of people and started watching them like they were some sort of live reality show. I should have felt intrusive, considering that I liked to keep at least a hundred yards between me and the rest of the world, but I didn't.

Finally, the only female player broke the silence. "So, who wants to call the bet?"

The guy to my right, the one with shoulder length red hair that was so light it looked orange, opened his mouth as if to volunteer but then quickly snapped his jaw shut. The female was glaring at him. "You always call the bet, Waylen," she said. "So let someone else call it, because you know you're going to win anyway. You always win."

The redhead, Waylen, sighed in an exaggerated manner. "Lily, must you always torture me?"

She just gave him a very wide, and very devilish, grin before raising an eyebrow suggestively at the remaining two guys. I saw the shoulders of the guy in front of me roll in a slight shrug, as if he couldn't care less. Or maybe it was because he didn't want to be the one responsible for making the bet. It was hard to tell without seeing his face.

The last guy, who had a more classical look than all the rest, with his cream colored turtleneck, dark cargo pants, and neatly groomed white blond hair, just shook his head. Lily pursed her lips, clearly not liking the way things were going.

"Well, someone has to choose," she said. Waylen raised his pale blue eyes to look at her, but Lily just glowered at him. "And it can't be Waylen, because we all know he'll choose something to suit him because he knows he's going to win."

There was a slight pause and the increased tempo of the band that was playing just yards away settled in my ears, reminding me that I was supposed to be having a good time tonight. But after trying to brave the crowd and avoid being slammed into the middle of the mosh pit, I felt justified in leaving to find some other way to pass the time. I promised my dad I would try not to be shy and antisocial, and I did try, but it just didn't work out.

And yeah, okay, so maybe I was just trying to ditch Meredith, the perky bleached blond track runner at school. The one who had won over my dad with her mass manipulation skills and the one who was determined to make my life a living hell. It was a mystery to me why she would lug me around with her every weekend like she didn't hate my guts and then go right back to being a bitch come Monday morning. The truth was I had given up trying to find what her motive was and merely went along with it. That wasn't to say I didn't have my suspicions about what she was up to—she just hadn't given me any evidence to back those suspicions up.

I vaguely wondered what Meredith would do once she realized I was no longer brooding behind her in the crowd. My thoughts got shuffled a moment later when a semi-deep voice spoke to me directly.

I blinked, my ears failing to catch what was just said. The nicely dressed blond was looking straight at me, expecting some kind of response. I pried my tongue from the roof of my mouth. "I'm sorry, what?" I asked. My words were rushed and clumsy as they tried to keep up with my mind as it tried to figure out how I should be reacting in this kind of situation.

Socializing wasn't exactly my forte.

He smiled at me. It wasn't a mocking smile, like I had been expecting. Instead it was a real, genuine smile. His eyes crinkled at the corners behind his black rimmed glasses. "I said would you mind calling the bet for us? We could sit here all night and I really don't have time for that. So, would you mind?"

I didn't even have to think about my answer. "Yes."

"Great, so what will it be?"

I flexed my jaw slightly. He had misunderstood me. "I'm sorry, I should have been clearer," I said. "I meant yes, I mind. I don't get involved in bets, even if they won't directly affect me. The way I see it, bets always do more harm than good."

The guy in front of me swiveled around and stared up at me, just as the others were staring. I stood in awkward silence for a while, my mind trying to figure out if I had committed some kind of faux-pas, when I noticed that the guy with the checkered hoody was grinning like a fool.

"That's the wisest statement I've heard all night," he said. He reached up with his hands and tucked his ebony hair behind his ears. I saw a flash of silver from all the ear cartilage he had pierced and I tried not to stare. Pierced flesh had always kind of fascinated me, mostly because I couldn't imagine how people could deal with the pain. I had never been keen on pain.

"Uh, thanks. I guess." I mumbled.

He shrugged. "Not a problem. I'm Rezin, by the way, and clockwise to me is Waylen, Sergey, and Lily."

I hesitated before speaking. I was always afraid I would end up saying something foolish, which was why I favored being laconic and tended to keep to myself, among other reasons. "It's nice to meet all of you," I managed to say. "I'm Raylin."

Rezin's honey brown eyes bored into me intensely. I looked away, feeling more than out of place standing here. His eyes felt like they were analyzing me, and I wasn't sure that I was okay with that. It was always hard to tell how perceptive a person was if you just met them, and I didn't like perceptive people.

"Hey, I know!" Waylen shouted. "Let's make it that whoever loses has to let Raylin take their place!"

The other three looked at each other and shrugged concurrently. "Well, problem solved then," Rezin said. He smiled at me again, a warm, convivial smile.

That was how, after Lily lost miserably, I was roped into playing cards for nearly the rest of the night.

I started at Casey's hand waving frantically in front of my face. "Raylin?" she said, loud and distinct. "Raylin Masami Forbes?"

I pushed her hand away and scowled at her. "I know I told you not to use my middle name."

She pulled her hand back and let it rest on the chain of the swing again. She sighed heavily and looked up at the sky. "I don't know why you don't like it. I think it's cool."

"You know why," I whispered so low that I wasn't sure if she'd heard me. The way her eyes softened when she looked at me told me that she'd heard every word.

"I know, and I am sorry," she said. She paused warily before she continued. "I think your mom would like it if you used it. I know she passed away, and that the name opens doors that you don't want open, but you shouldn't let it become something with a bitter connotation."

I squeezed my eyes shut when she started talking, because I knew she was going to bring this up. I didn't feel like opening them again. I breathed in through my nose. "I have to go, it's getting late," I said. I forced open my reluctant eyes and hopped off my swing. "I'll see you at school."

"Yeah, see you," Casey said. I could hear her sigh of weariness as I walked away. I always walked away from things I didn't want to face.

I didn't go home after I left the park. I didn't know where I was going but my feet kept pushing forward, so I just let myself wander until I got tired. I had been trying all day not to let myself sink down into the darkness of depression—I struggled to ward it off everyday, a constant battle, and it left me physically and emotionally spent. Try as I might, however, the familiar foggy cloud of dark thoughts seeped into my mind.