We gasp for air and fall onto the grass when we make it back to my house. That's my exercise for the day. I do not believe that I will be going to Moon Park anytime soon.
I get two bottles of ice cold water from the mini-fridge we have in the garage and toss one to Kyle, who's still on the grass. He catches it and chugs it. I hate doing that, but right now, I feel like I have no choice.
"What the freakin' heck was that about?" he yells.
"Just shut up and chill, Kyle. I dunno who he was. Before you came to Moon, he was staring at me, and then on the court, he was staring at you. He's probably just some freaky stalker, and we probably won't see him again, okay?" I don't quite believe these words, but I say them anyway. "Just calm down and stop yelling."
Kyle shuts up and stares at the sky. I look up too and see that the clouds that I spotted earlier were now an ugly shade of gray. How odd. The clouds were a stunning white when I saw them...
"Sorry, Jessalyn. You just had me worried there."
"It's fine. Hey, are you hungry? I haven't eaten yet and I'm starving."
Kyle nods and we enter my house. When we get to the kitchen, I'm surprised to find Mom already up and about. She's buttering her toast with full concentration, like it's the most important thing in the world.
"Hey, Mrs. Day," Kyle says.
Mom looks up and stares at Kyle for a minute like she doesn't quite remember who he is. "Mom?" I say. She looks at me, then back at Kyle and bursts out laughing.
"Sorry, Kyle. Hey, Jessalyn. Back from your walk already?" She sets her toast on the table and puts two more slices of bread in the toaster.
"Um, yeah." I say, shooting Kyle a look. Mom nods and eats her toast. Kyle and I stand around, amidst an awkward silence. Mom laughs again and sprays chewed up toast on the table.
There's a new movie coming out today. Not that I like movies or anything. I don't even know what it's called. Kyle asked if I wanted to go, but I said no. He said he'd look stupid if he went by himself, so he's not going.
So I'm going to paint my nails. I'm aggravated by the fact that Mom can paint her nails and make them look beautiful, and I always mess mine up. But you know what they say. Practice makes perfect.
I take the "Purp-uh-licious" colored polish downstairs from Mom's room and sit with my back against the front door. Hopefully, this will look good.
I've never been interested in painting my nails although I have always been fascinated by the bright and beautiful colors some girls at school painted their nails. I remember one time when Delia, this popular but not very nice girl, asked me in the fifth grade: "Jessalyn, don't you ever paint your nails?"
I pretended not to hear her and went back to solving my fractions. But when she literally sat on my desk and repeated her question, I looked up at her and gave her an annoyed look and said "Delia, don't you ever mind your own business?"
She pouted and went back to her desk. Ugh. I really hate her.
As of now, my left hand looks bearable. There is some polish around the nails and onto the skin, but bearable. I don't even want to look at my right hand. It looks awful and I don't know how Delia and Mom mange to-
The doorbell rings and startles me. I accidentally knock down the bottle of nail polish, and the stuff rushes out of the bottle and onto the floor. Shoot.
I pick the bottle back up and open the door, but not before the doorbell rings again. It's Kyle.
He walks right in and takes a look at the purple on the ground and another at my beautiful nails and breaks out into his goofy grin.
"I smell failure," he says.
"Yeah, well, you're probably smelling yourself."
"I wonder why there's a you in failure and a me in awesome."
"Just shut up."
"Seriously. It looks like you hired a five year old to come paint your nails."
"Well... Practice makes perfect."
"Well... I think-"
"Kyle, you have something stuck in your teeth." It's true. There's this yellow thing in the middle of his teeth.
He reaches in his mouth and takes it out. Gross. Kyle takes a look at it, shrugs, and says "Popcorn."
"Popcorn for lunch?"
"No. I went to the movies."
"You did? I thought you said that you weren't going. God, Kyle. You probably looked like an idiot, going alone. Everyone probably thought that you were-"
"No, I went with Delia."
Whoa! What? This did not sound like Kyle. "Delia? You went with her? I thought you didn't like her!" Unbelievable. Delia's never been mean to Kyle, just to me (and I never even did anything), but that should be enough of a reason for Kyle to hate her.
He shrugs again. "She's really not that bad. You're just dramatic-"
"I'm not dramatic!"
"- and take things too seriously. Remember that one time she braided your hair for you because you don't know how to braid? See, she's nice."
"Kyle, she ended up tangling my hair! On purpose! It took me forever just to brush it out."
"Hmm... I think someone's just a little jealous," Kyle says.
"Jealous?" I smirk. "Of what?"
"Her ability to braid her hair? To paint her nails? Her niceness? The way she looks, maybe?"
"She's only nice to you. And I'm not jealous."
"Yeah, right. Hey, wanna walk outside?"
"Maybe. But first, I have to clean this up," I say, indicating the spill. "And I'm not jealous."
He sighs and says that he'll clean it. I leave to go call Mom and tell her where I'm going. She's not here; I think she went to the grocery store. But I know that wherever she goes, she has her cell phone with her, so that won't be a problem.
She picks up on the second ring, and I explain to her where I'll be. She's good with it.
Hopefully, this walk will be pleasant and peaceful. Fingers crossed.
We've walked about a mile when I spot a black van going very slowly behind us. There's nothing on it; it's just black. The windows are tinted so you can't see into the vehicle. At first, I don't think much of it, but it becomes more obvious that it has something to do with Kyle and me.
All of a sudden, the van comes to a stop right beside us. I try to pick up my pace so that I don't get kidnapped, but Kyle grabs my wrist and pulls me closer to him so that our shoulders touch. I assume that he's making some attempt or plan to move us away from the van, but after a couple of seconds, I realize that we're not going anywhere.
"What are you doing?" I whisper furiously.
"Let's see what this is about, Jessalyn," he whispers back. "If it's the same guy from Moon Park..."
"For all we know, it could be some self-conscious guy who just got his driver's license."
"Then why are you so scared?"
"I am not scared!"
"Seriously-" I don't get to finish my sentence because the door to the van opens. Kyle's grip on my wrist tightens as Nike's Guy steps out. Hmm... Who would have guessed?
He's not seven feet away from us, so why on earth is Kyle just standing here? Nike's Guy is walking closer... closer still...
I try really hard to loosen Kyle's grip on my hand, but he won't let go. Prying his fingers off only makes it worse; he looks at me with narrowed eyes, whispers "no" furiously, and grips my wrist harder still. Was he trying to get us both kidnapped?
Now, Nike's Guy is right in front of us with his hair covering one eye. He raises his hand- I flinch, but when Kyle gently tugs my hand, I realize that he wasn't going to slap us. He just was brushing his hair out of his eyes.
His eyes. They're a deep blue that look like the water you would want to see at a beach. But right next to them is a long scar- it stretches from a little below his hairline all the way down to his cheek. It's scary.
He sticks his other hand out as though he might want us to shake it. Kyle briefly hesitates, but only so that I can see, and then sticks his hand out. Now luckily, I have fast reflexes (sports and all) and knock Kyle's hand away. Was he so stupid not to realize that he was going to get yanked into the van as soon as he made contact with Nike's Guy?
"Haven't you ever heard the phrase 'don't take candy from strangers'?" I whisper, but not quietly enough because Nike's Guy laughs and shakes his head.
"No, no, I'm not going to hurt you. And I have nothing to lure you into my van with." His voice is deep and soft at the same time.
"Then who are you?" I ask. Kyle's grip loosens on my wrist a little, probably because if I asked a question, I would most likely wait for an answer.
Nike's Guy shakes his head. "My name is James, but that's all I can tell you as of now. The rest will have to wait for the van. So if you guys will just come this way," he gestured to the van, "I can tell you why I'm here, and who I really am."
"See, Kyle! Even if he's not luring us with candy, he's doing it with words!" I say. I make as to run away, but James comes in front of me.
"No! Please don't go! I see you aren't going to believe me, so I'll have to show you what's in my van."
I stop moving, and Kyle does too. He still has a grip on me. I yank my hand away, mostly because I want to show him that I can be trusted. And also because it feels weird holding your best friend's hand, even if he is a guy. Kyle shows no reaction, just keeps staring at the van.
"Okay…" James proceeds to open the van door. When he does, the first thing I see is trash. Empty soda cans litter the floor along with wrappers of various snack items. But then I notice that other people are actually in the van. They look familiar…
"Mom?" Kyle and I say at the same time. I realize that Kyle's mom is sitting right next to mine grinning. "Hey, guys," Mrs. Smith says.
What on earth! "What are you guys doing? Did… Did James kidnap you too?" I ask feeling dizzy. Oh I hate this about myself. Whenever something bad happens, I get really dizzy, the whole world is spinning, I need something to hang on to…
My mom laughs. "Oh, no, sweetie." She immediately stops smiling. "We have something to discuss with you. And James won't bite, so why don't the both of you just get in here, and we'll explain."
I turn to look at Kyle and find that he is already looking at me. My head isn't spinning as much, but I still don't feel too hot. Kyle nods at me and we both walk into the van.
The first thing that hits me is the smell. It smells pleasant, like dandelions, which is a total contradiction to the mess on the floor. I look over at Mom, who looks at me with tears in her eyes.
Okay, the only thing scarier than sitting in a black van not knowing what the heck is going on is seeing your mom cry.
James slides our door shut and gets in the driver's seat and starts driving. He runs a hand through is hair, with one hand on the steering wheel. "Okay, people. This is everyone. Let's meet and greet. I'm James. This," he points over to the passenger seat, "is Judy. Say hello, Judy."
Judy turns around and gives us a big grin and waves. I think she is the most beautiful person I have ever seen. Judy has dark skin and black, straight hair. Some of it is in little braids, but most of it hangs loosely around her face. She's wearing what looks like black yoga pants and a fitted orange top.
Judy turns back around and James continues. "Okay, then. Here we have – in order- Jessalyn, Kyle, Kathy, and Miranda," he says indicating the middle row. Only then did it occur to me that there might be a back row… And in that back row might be more people…
"And in the back row, we have Adam and Delia."
Oh my goodness. Delia? I turn around really fast and see Delia sitting with someone who looks like he could be Delia's dad. Delia, herself, is looking at the middle row with shock and disbelief. Even though she isn't giving her flirtatious smile, she still looks pretty in her tight shorts and low green top. I see Kyle is turned around looking at Delia as well.
James clears his throat and says, "I understand that Kyle, Jessalyn, and Delia know each other. Is that correct?"
I nod even though James can't see me, and Kyle and Delia both mumble a "yes."
"Good. Then I'm going to let Kathy, Miranda, and Adam explain to you what we are here for," he nods as he says it. "Judy and I will add some of our comments as well, so don't worry," he adds seeing the horrified expressions of our parents.
Oh yes, because talking has become a chore.
Mom begins, looking right at me while she speaks. "Jessalyn, remember that time when you were seven and both you and Kyle went to Grandma's house for the weekend?"
The familiar pain starts up again. I feel dizzy and my stomach feels like it's going to eat itself- but not out of hunger. It's the worst feeling you can ever feel, but it makes no sense. I mean, if I love Grandma, and if I love Kyle, then there should be no problem with thinking of the time when we both went to Grandma's house. Right? We had the time of our lives there. We made water balloons and threw them at each other- even Grandma joined in. We went to the pool lots. So what's the problem?
Well, the problem is that the first thing I noticed when my mom and Mrs. Smith came to Grandma's house was that they were both crying. This scared me then, and it still scares me now. When Kyle asked what was wrong, no reply came- only more tears and Mom shaking her head. When I asked what was wrong, the same thing. But when Grandma put her arms around Mom and said, "Honey, you know you can tell us," she burst. I only had to hear the first couple of words ("Ryan… car… accident… unconscious…") to know something bad had happened. Two days later, Dad passed away.
So how can such a happy weekend turn into such a bad one? I don't know.
I simply nod at Mom. She nods back and continues. "Well, sweetie… Dad didn't die in a car accident. He died helping."
I could throw up. Right now.
Mrs. Smith starts talking. "Jessalyn, don't get mad at your mother. I know," she says to me as if she understands. "I know," she says again.
No, she doesn't know. So I've been lied to for seven years!
There are tears in Mom's eyes as she keeps talking. "Dad died helping us. Saving us. This may sound absurd but Jessalyn, hear me out-"
"So you lied to me? You lied!"
"I know, and I'm sorry. But listen, there's a world-"
"YOU LIED TO ME!"
Judy looks uncomfortable in the front seat. James looks like he might want to say something, but refrains.
Mom is crying now.
Mrs. Smith takes over. "Jessalyn, please calm down. We have a perfectly good explanation. Just listen, everyone. And questions wait until the end, please." Even though the words she's saying sound strong, her voice gives away that she might break down and start crying as well.
Kyle looks shocked, and I don't have the energy to turn around and see how Miss Delia is doing.
"Okay… Let's start with the beginning. In our early years of high school, we knew a girl named Calista. Calista means "the most beautiful one", which was funny to everyone because Calista was anything but beautiful. If anything, she was ugly. No one liked her at all, and she would spend lunches sitting in a booth by herself reading a book. Normally the book had something to do with magic. One day you would see something like today's Harry Potter, and on other days you would see a factual book on magic. As if magic existed. Or so we thought." Mrs. Smith says in one big breath. She sighs. "Okay any questions?"
No one says anything. I know I have a billion questions in my head right now, but don't feel like asking them. I instead turn my head to the window. We drove right out of my neighborhood, right past Moon Park, and are now on I-77. I have no clue as to where we are going.
The dizziness has mostly gone away, but my insides still hurt.
I hear Delia's dad clear his throat. He starts speaking. "Yes, that is correct. We all used to eat lunch together- that is, Jessalyn's parents, Kyle's parents, and your mom and I." I guess he was talking to his daughter. But before he could get any farther, Delia burst in.
"Wait, you were all friends in high school?" she asks.
I guess her dad nods, because he continues. "Now, we felt bad for Calista, unlike everyone else. So one day we invited her over to eat lunch with us. Calista was excited and the only thing she talked about that whole lunch was magic. She was clearly obsessed with anything to do with magic. After that lunch, she would wave to us whenever she saw us in the hallway and tell us a fact about magic. Now, we noticed that everything she told us about magic was dark. Dark as in evil.
"That obsession stayed with her for the next two years, until we graduated. We thought she would move on, eventually. We all went our separate ways to college but kept in touch through email and occasional phone calls. We tried to include Calista but she barely replied, and soon we lost touch of her. So Kyle and Jessalyn's parents and your mom and I met up every summer and talked about life. We eventually graduated college and got married… After that we would meet up and just talk about high school memories. We talked about Calista and wondered how she was getting along…" Delia's dad trails off.
My mom, face still wet with tears, starts talking. Wow. These people really know how to take turns. "Once, when you three were two, there was a huge storm. It wasn't like anything that had ever happened before. Meteorologists couldn't identify what it was. The clouds had turned an ugly color- they weren't just a dark gray. They were black. Black. There was one single gust of wind. Just one. And boom. All of the houses were down, except for ours. No one could explain it. And that was just the beginning.
"For the next week, there was no sun in the sky at all. Everything was black. Like the night. There were tremendous gusts of wind, and if just one could knock all those houses down, imagine what too many could do. But strangely enough, only our houses remained standing. It was astounding."
Mom stops and Delia's dad and Kyle's mom don't look like they want to say anymore, so she keeps going. So apparently, this Calista appeared out of thin air at all three of their houses at the same time. Oh yes, how believable.
"I mean, she looked like a ghost when she appeared! She was completely transparent. And then, in response to our questioning faces, she said one word. 'Magic.'" Mom stops and sits still. No one else says anything.
But James breaks the silence by saying, "Well, we're here."
"Here" turns out to be a small brick building with a cozy feel to it. James and Judy get out of the van after James parks, and open the doors so we can get out as well. They both direct us into the building as we enter, I hear James say, "Welcome to the House."
The inside looks roomier than the outside. There's a long hallway with two doors on either side. The rug, which bears two sofas and a table, covering the wooden floor is gold with a pink border on the sides. The walls have little lights lined the whole way. Again, it smells like a pleasant summer day. I love the coziness of the whole place.
"Okay, Kathy, that's your room," James says pointing to the door on the far right. "Adam, that's yours. And Miranda, over there."
They look reluctant to go, so Judy adds: "It's okay. We'll make sure they understand." Mom just shakes her head and rests her eyes on me. For the first time, I notice how tired she looks. She has circles under her normally bright blue eyes. After one long moment, she turns around and walks to the door James pointed her to. The other two parents follow her lead and go to their own rooms.
Judy waits until they're gone before she turns back to us and smiles. "Y'all can sit down on that couch over there," she says pointing to a brown one across from an identical couch. There's a table in between.
Kyle, Delia, and I move over to the couch, where Miss Princess decides to plop right in the middle. I turn to glare at Kyle as if to say See? See why you should hate her? But he just shrugs and sits on her left. Delia moves over to the right to make more room for him, which leaves me with no room. I just stand and hope that nothing this is the worst that can happen.
James and Judy have already seated themselves across from us. James opens his mouth as if he's about to speak, but then frowns at me. "Do you want to sit, Jessalyn?" he asks politely.
Kyle turns to look at me while I shake my head. As James says "Okay then," Kyle walks up and stands right next to me. "No, Kyle, I'm fine," I whisper. I don't need anyone to babysit me. I'm just as capable of standing as Kyle is. But he doesn't react, just keeps looking at James.
"I know this is hard to believe, but please listen…"
So Calista asked our parents to join her force and gain control of the world in order to express her gratitude to them for being nice to her. She apparently had created some very dark creatures with the magic she spent so much time reading about.
Of course they all refused. Calista got mad so she returned to her world that she created. Oh, and her world is on the clouds. Yes, the clouds. Our parents found this out, and so they kept going up there to try and stop Calista.
When we were seven, it came down to a nasty war between our parents and Calista and company. My dad died this way. No more details were provided when James said Dad died. My heart was screaming to ask if it was painful, what Mom was doing, how it happened, but my mouth remained closed.
And also, apparently Mrs. Smith had been telling Kyle that his dad was on business trips. But really, Mr. Smith was up on the clouds trying to collect some information to send back down to James and Judy.
No one said anything about Delia's mom, so Kyle and I let it stay like that.
I can't wait that long. I really can't. "How did- how did my dad die?" I ask quietly.
Everyone turns and looks at me. Judy is the only one who offers a small smile and says: "Your dad did everything he could to help us win up there. Jessalyn, do you know what his last words were?"
I shake my head, very aware that Kyle and Delia are staring at me. Tears are welling up in my eyes. Judy continues. "He said 'Tell Jess I love her. Tell Jess that everything has beauty, but not everyone can see it.'"
Tears are now spilling down my face. Of course he would say that. Dad used to tell me that all the time. "Everything has beauty, but not everyone can see it." I was too young to understand what that meant, but now, I know. I know.
I try to nod- but my head only goes up, it won't go down. Judy stands by my side and puts her arm around me. She is only about an inch taller than me, so that makes it easy for my head to fall involuntarily on her shoulder. I squeeze my eyes shut and let more tears fall.
"How about you guys go out and wait in the van? Jessalyn and I will catch up with you in a minute." This is Judy talking as she slowly leads me to the hallway.
I hear the door open and three pairs of feet go outside. I open my eyes just in time to see Judy open the fourth door- the one that doesn't have anyone in it- and lead me through it.
The room is about the size of my room- maybe a little bigger. There is a bed with two pillows as well as a table and a little armchair. Overall, it's spacious. The walls are all a sunny yellow; the bed sheets and pillowcases are the same sunny yellow; the table cloth is the same; and the chair is (you guessed it) yellow.
Seeing my expression, Judy laughs and says, "Yep. We call this the Yellow Room."
I don't say anything; I sit on the bed and hug my knees to my chest.
Judy opens a door to a closet I didn't notice before and takes out a box of tissues. "Here."
I take them and blow my nose. I keep the used tissue in my hands because I don't see a trash can anywhere in sight. Judy comes and sits down next to me on the bed. She doesn't say anything.
Finally, I break the silence by asking, "Who said that? The quote, I mean. 'Everything is beautiful, but not everyone can see it.'"
"Confucius. He was a very wise man," Judy replies. After another pause, Judy asks, "Do you know why your dad said that?"
I shake my head, but then say: "He used to tell me that all the time. But I never really understood it."
"Do you now?"
I let a couple of seconds pass before answering, "Yes. Yes, I think I do."
Judy smiles her sunny smile. "Good. Are you ready to go get some dinner?"
"Yes." And I am. But something is really bothering me. "Wait, Judy."
Judy is already at the door. "How come my mom never told me that?"
Judy looks at me a second. "She has her reasons, hon. C'mon. Let's go."
Back inside the van, Delia, Kyle, and I sit in the middle row. Kyle is in the middle, with me on his left and Delia on his right. James and Judy are in the front, whispering about something.
Kyle scoots closer to me and whispers, "Are you okay, Jess?"
My eyes feel wet again. The only one who ever called me "Jess" was my dad, and if he isn't here to call me that, then no one else can.
I turn my face towards Kyle and am surprised to see that he actually looks concerned. Kyle normally looks ready to go with his silly grin on his face no matter what the situation, so this is really surprising.
"Yeah but Kyle, don't call me that." I say it gently and his face softens even more immediately.
"Oh. Oh, sorry." He turns back and faces the front. I turn to look out the window, but there isn't much to see since we're not moving.
Delia speaks suddenly. "Hey, what about our parents?"
Judy says that they had some food in their rooms and that we don't need to worry about them.
After another minute (James can't find his keys), Kyle asks, "So what is this place?"
James glances back to the building and says, "The Home."
"It's a home?"
James smiles, then shakes his head. "Not a home. It's the Home. It's where everyone who works for us stays in between trips up the clouds."
Kyle looks surprised. "You actually have people who work for you?"
James smiles a sheepish grin. "Only three more than the ones you already know."
James finds his keys and drives us to a nearby McDonald's.
"Oh, no. I can't eat at McDonald's. I need to maintain my figure," Delia complains.
"Delia, trust me. Judy, here, pigs out here at least once a week and look. She still looks gorgeous." James says the last bit looking straight at Judy, who rolls her eyes but smiles.
And with some persuading and pushing, Delia finally gets out of the van ("Fine, but I'm not eating anything but a salad.")
I don't realize how hungry I am until I take the first bite of my burger. It tastes so good that I can't stop eating, and soon, I'm asking Kyle for the rest of his.
He shakes his head but then decides that generosity is good; he tears off a bit of the bun and gives it to me. I throw it at him and he ducks, laughing. Judy smiles; Delia looks like she wants to slap me; James gets up to go buy something else (another sandwich for me I suppose).
When he returns with the sandwich and places it in front of me, I eagerly unwrap it and take a big bite of my sandwich. Judy, James, and Kyle laugh. Delia smirks and says, "You know, fast food is unhealthy. And if you keep consuming amounts like this, then Jessalyn, you might become obese."
I turn to glare at her with food still in my mouth.
"Delia, relax, hon. She's just hungry," Judy says.
"I'm just saying. I don't want her to get fat and then not be able to fit in cute outfits."
"No, I think she's fine," James says.
Whoo! Go James and Judy!
Delia opens her mouth to say something else – probably some snotty response – but Kyle throws a French fry at her.
Delia's jaw drops open, but then quickly shuts it when she realizes who threw it at her. Kyle. Because it's okay if he does it, but if I had done that, then I would have been dead in one minute flat.
Delia giggles. Judy takes a fry and throws it at me, but I duck. Everyone is on their feet now, and even the employees are smiling.
I seize the ketchup bottle and squirt it straight at James, who moves to his right in the nick of time. But according to Newton's Laws, an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.
And in this case, the outside force is Delia. Let's just say it does not end well.