Chapter 1:


A slight autumn breeze teased the gaudy, fallen leaves, lifting them skyward in a narrow spiral of red, orange-yellow, and brown before withdrawing its support and allowing the discarded foliage to resettle upon the woodland floor. After several rounds, the breeze abandoned its game and was still.

In the darkening sky, the first star peeked from behind a cloud, relinquishing its veil of water vapor to peer nakedly through the frosty atmosphere. The atmosphere, and the ground beneath it, paid little attention to the tiny light and its stare. Sera Wallace, however, did notice. She lay on her back, taking up four feet twelve inches of the woodland floor. Her brown eyes blended well into the foliage she was crushing, but her hair, a wave of blackish-purple that fell to her shoulders, ruined any chance of camouflage. The star shone through the bare, intertwining branches that formed the skeletal canopy while the back of her apartment stood as a wide, gray-blue backdrop to the entrance of the half-acre wood, which she had stomped through about three hours ago.

Her morning had begun in its usual way. The sun streamed through the blinds above her bed, tugging on her lashes until, growling, Sera opened her eyes. She pulled the comforter over her head and nestled into her pillow. Only then did the alarm go off. Grumbling, she trudged into the bathroom, turned on the cold water, and stepped into the shower. She had always sworn by a good, cold shower to wake a person up in the mornings. Unfortunately, a level of coherency was necessary before doing so. She peeled off her pajamas and dropped them onto the bathroom floor with the sort of splat one might expect from a syrupy pancake.

It was Sunday. God, she would have to be at church in thirty minutes.

It was not that she was the anti-church sort of person. Sera had been attending St. Paul's Episcopalian Church since her mother's womb. But, she did feel more at home in the woods—despite the vicious, nut-chucking squirrels and menacing, squawking birds—than she did in a building stuffed with nosy, brabbling people. Although, when you think about it, the noise level was about the same.

Hurrying out of the bathroom, she threw on black dress pants and the only top that was clean, grabbed her heels, and walked out the back door into the wind. She instantly regretted not taking the time to dry her hair, but she was running late and had already locked the door. She ran barefoot over the pavement to her green Honda Civic, tossed her heels onto the passengers seat, and drove to church with her usual skill, which oddly resembled a little girl chasing a butterfly through a heavily populated garden, weaving among rose bushes, fig trees, and the gaping hole in which the gardener intends to plant a weeping willow.

After speeding past the construction zone, Sera arrived at Dannersby, Kentucky's only Episcopalian church just as the bell rang to begin Sunday School. She entered the classroom to find her students being their usual well-behaved selves: running around the room, bashing into walls, and stabbing one another with pencils. She was in charge of fifteen preciouses who attended the attached St. Paul's Preparatory School for Boys and Girls somewhere in the range of kindergarten through second grade. Sera knew what awaited them. She pitied them.

"Good morning, Miss Sera," said one of the girls, who ran up to hug her.

Sera patted the girl on the head and ushered her to a seat. She ran her fingers through her own half-dry hair.

Just another Sunday.

Thinking that was her first mistake.

Her second mistake was forgetting it was her day to speak during the morning service. Once a child reaches 13 at St. Paul's, he or she takes part in a rotation of pre-sermon speakers, which encourages the development of public speaking skills.

Sera had participated in this ritual for the past ten years, and each time she spoke, she left Father Nordstrom reconsidering his logic.

Relying on the four hours of sleep she had gained that morning for sanity and on her ability to turn even the most abstract noun into a suitable illustration for applicability, Sera spoke. The meeting with Father Nordstrom immediately following the morning service reinforced her mother's theory that four hours of sleep a day did not help to sustain an acceptable level of sanity. It also poked at her suspicions that abstract reasoning skills were only applicable to herself.

"Honestly, my child, what demon of this Earth possessed you to stand in front of the congregation and tell them that Jesus Christ, our Savior, is like a zebra? He may have been born in a stable, but He, Himself, is no more like a beast than His Father, our God..."

Sera sat politely deaf, watching with disgust the bubbles of saliva forming at the creases of the priest's lips. He had to be at least 90. The "Episcopalian Powers," as she called them, needed to send a replacement soon. He could just topple over now, his heart finally caving in from years of relentless beating. His face would freeze in a contorted gnarl of lip, nose, and teeth, the saliva crusting over the creases around his mouth. She jerked.

"...It is blasphemous to think otherwise..."

After the unpleasantness of the meeting, Sera drove to her parents house for lunch. Her mother insisted on the values of a family meal, but Sera had yet to see any evidence of them.

Holiday meals were the worst. Each Christmas someone cut herself opening a can or setting the table, every Easter at least part of a ham flew in Sera's direction, and all of the Fourth of Julys Sera had ever known ended in at least first degree burns. Sunday meals faired a bit better, the injury usually limited to Sera's wounded ego. That day's lunch was no different…except for the ham.

Sera entered the house, receiving a silent greeting from her mother in the kitchen. Her father left the living room, mumbling something about washing up. Isaak, Sera's younger brother, smiled from the beige leather sofa. Sera stuffed her keys into her pocket and sat down beside him.

In appearance, Isaak resembled a younger version of his father: short dark brown hair, brown eyes, and the prominent Wallace nose. In personality, however, he resembled no one but himself.

"Interesting talk this morning," he whispered. "I stayed awake for once."

Sera smiled briefly and craned her neck to peer into the kitchen. Her mother, a short woman with mostly pepper hair and muddy blue eyes, wordlessly shuffled food from oven to counter to dining room. She had a small, round face that complemented her short, round body.

Her father was probably sitting at the head of the table brooding over her talk.

"Don't tell Mom and Dad that," Sera replied. "You're their last hope."

"There's a lot of things I don't tell them."

Sera nodded appreciatively.

"Sera, Isaak!" Mrs. Wallace called. "Please come join us at the table."

Sera shut her eyes, took a deep breath—supplying herself with enough oxygen to go deep sea diving with the angel fish in the aquarium that separated the living room from the den—exhaled, followed her brother into the dining room, and sat across from him. Mrs. Wallace placed a basket of rolls on the table and sat on the end opposite her husband. Mr. Wallace blessed the food. As Sera handed a bowl of green beans to her father, he shifted dark eyes toward hers. His bald head and clean-shaven face reflected the chandelier's light.

"Please don't look at me like that, Dad."

"Then what would you have me do? Lecturing you does no good. We've exposed you to many good lectures, but all you seem to be able to regurgitate is that trash you call Philosophy."

Sera gnawed on the back of her tongue. She looked away, taking the basket of rolls from her mother.

Her father continued. "You are a disappointment to this family, Sera. We hoped you would achieve greater things than..." Mrs. Wallace nearly dropped a bowl of mashed potatoes, which thunked against the table, but Mr. Wallace continued to eye Sera. "But with your current standings..."

Sera had obtained her bartending license two years before and dropped out of college to work the 10 to close shift at Harley's, a pub on 9th. She loved mixing drinks, and the hours complimented her preferred sleeping schedule. The pay was good, and Denise Gretson, the owner, treated her like the daughter she never had. The job offered all sorts of interesting, though mostly drunk, people to watch, and best of all it was smoke free. Denise hated cigarette smoke. Sera could not imagine a better way to spend her life. It was too bad her parents didn't feel the same way.

"I've told you a thousand times, Dad, I don't drink, just serve. And I have never taken drugs!" She set down the rolls and took the mashed potatoes from her mother.

"How can a person work in a bar and not drink?" His voice was low, calm. "Drugs probably wouldn't be that hard to buy either.

Sera rolled her eyes and gnawed at her tongue again. She didn't bother reminding him that she didn't like the taste of alcohol or that it was more fun to watch other people destroying their livers when she is sober. She wasn't Rachel. She slapped a spoonful of potatoes onto her plate.

"Your body is supposed to be a holy temple, Sera," Mrs. Wallace said.

"Why would she care about that, Sherry, when she doesn't care about the holy temple she attends on Sundays? Did you see her this morning? In pants and a t-shirt...and her hair!"

She hated how her father treated arguments, shifting his audience to criticize the other person as if she were not there. "I always wear pants. It's easier to deal with kids in pants. This shirt was the only one clean. And there is nothing wrong with my hair."

"You see what I mean?" He raised his voice. "She doesn't even care about her own clothes, how unnatural her hair looks, not even when she's speaking!"

"I forgot I was speaking today!" She slammed the bowl of potatoes onto the table.

"She can't even give a speech without making a fool of herself! The most irrational thing I've ever heard: Jesus Christ our Savior reduced to a lowly zebra. Sherry, have you ever heard such a thing? It is certainly no idea she would have picked up from St. Paul's. It must be more of that nonsense Philosophy, comparing omnipotent beings to African versions of livestock. She might as well have taken the church on a safari…"

"There's an idea," Isaak murmured to Sera from across the table. She fought to suppress a smile.

"A zebra is just stripes away from a horse, which is an offspring away from a mule, which is sired by a donkey." He flashed his face at Sera. "Were you intending to call our Lord and Savior a jackass?! I don't know what you mean by insulting someone who controls your very soul in the palm of His hand, but you are treading on very thin ice!"

The seriousness on her father's face warned Sera and Isaak not to laugh.

Mr. Wallace settled back in his chair and stared at his plate. His wife chose that moment to change the subject to a more healthy one. "Here, Sera, have some ham."

Sera glared down at the non-kosher remnants of an animal that her mother slumped onto her plate. Sera did not eat pig, despite its being--as her friend called it—an intelligent and relatively clean animal. She also did not eat cow, chicken, turkey, fish, shrimp, or deer. In fourth grade, she read a book in which the main character learned to kill a chicken and pluck its feathers, and since then Sera ate only fruits and salads and quite a bit of potatoes. Bread was good, too.

Sera's mother dismissed this as a foolish waste of food, and for fourteen years she had been unsuccessfully forcing meat upon her daughter.

"What's wrong, Sera?" her father asked.

Sixteen Easters of ham throwing contests made Sera twitch. "You know I don't eat meat."

"And I cannot imagine why," her mother replied. "A little meat in you every now and again would do wonders for your health. You heard the doctor telling you that you should start eating it."

"I'd rather eat that chicken paste you call barbecue," Sera said without thinking.

"Well, if you don't like my cooking, then you can just go back to your apartment and fend for yourself. I don't have to feed you, you know."

"Mom--" Isaak began.

Sera shook her head at her brother and left the table, frowning at the concept of abandoning her plate of mashed potatoes.

Isaak looked to his father, but Mr. Wallace said nothing, silently cutting a piece of ham.

Sera mouthed "bye" to her brother and shut the door behind her. She was pulling out of her parent's driveway when her cell rang. Denise's voice drawled through the speaker.

"Hey-a Sera, Are you scheduled for tonight?"

"Yeah, I always work—"

"Just making sure, hon, before I asked you this. Do mind if Becka takes your shift? Her little boy's at her ex's for the weekend. I think he wanted to take him fishing or something. Anyway, you know she could use the extra cash, poor thing."

"Sure, that's okay. I could use—" Sera noticed movement in the road and stomped on her brake pedal. The tires screeched, graffitying the road with rubber. Sera screamed.

"What's wrong?!"

Sera gaped at the road.

"What'd you do?!"

"I, I hit a…"

"A what?!"


"A dog, a child, a bag lady, a what?!"

She hung her head. "Cat."

"You hit a cat?" Denise chuckled. "Was it black?"

"No, it was…Oh, that isn't funny!" Sera beat the steering wheel with her fist.

"Oh, lighten up, hon; It's not like it has a soul. Did you actually kill it, or did you just hit it?"

"I don't want to check."

"Well, it's the least you can do since you hit it."

Sera grudgingly abandoned her car and approached the small form, white with tan spots.

"It was a kitten, Denise. I killed a kitten."

"Don't lose any sleep over it, hon. They'll be plenty more where that one came from. See you tomorrow."

With teary eyes, Sera looked from the disconnected cell in her hand to the dead kitten on the street. There were no houses near the road, and the kitten was collarless and scrawny, obviously homeless. She placed it on the side of the road, and leaving civilized Nature to her course, Sera returned to her car and sped home.

She did not bother to change clothes before retreating to the woods in which she now lay. She took the cell from her pocket. 6:38. She flopped her head into the leaf litter and stuffed the cell back into the pocket.

The star still shone through the skeletal canopy, glittering like a shard of glass reflecting the headlights of a car from the dark corner of a sidewalk. She started to compare the star with Jesus as the Light of the World but thought better of it. If abstract comparisons were inappropriate, she decided, she would revert back to a time when simply believing in the unseen was acceptable. Reviving a habit she had not kept since she was eight, Sera wished upon the star.