Shandry, quit being so damn polite and just give a mad-ass Viking battle cry to the fucking world at large. You need to kick ass and take names. Seriously, it would be totally therapeutic.
A Viking battle cry? I grinned at Taylor Lane, my new, somewhat warped, friend. Would I need to wield a large ax? Maybe do some raiding and pillaging of villages nearby?
- She said it with affection before turning back to the rock wall she was painting.
Can I see what you’re doing?
Pausing, she gave me a narrow-eyed look and pointed her drippy paintbrush at me. Keep your Picasso-ey self over there. I don’t need a professional looking over my shoulder while I work. Get me all nervous. Make me mess up.
Not even a peek?
Will you give me a mad-ass battle cry right now?
I half snorted my short laugh. Of course not.
Taylor’s dreamwalking visits were always a great time. I never knew where we would end up or what was going to come out of her mouth. Usually, it would be something shocking to my Sunan sensibilities, but I loved it. I needed it. She was completely outrageous without apology. Just being around her made me feel more daring. She represented possibilities, which felt like a lifeline to me at this point. And she was going to be part of the family soon.
One day she’d popped into one of my dreams and said she was my brother’s new hottie, for, like, ever, and in a flash took me to Venice Beach where she said she lived with my brother. Not only was she joining with Ryder, but now she had all these new powers to harness, which allowed her to take us to the Gods’ plane when she visited my dreams. The downside was once I left this plane, I never remembered her until we returned.
I’ve complained about this, of course, but she always says something like, I just do what I’m told, or even better, when she told me she was just being a tool. Somehow, the Gods control what she’s able to do because we haven’t officially met on the human plane. Yet.
No, seriously, Shandry. Get up in people’s faces. Take a stand. Make them your bi-atch. I promise, you’ll be a lot happier. She said this matter-of-factly as she continued to paint the rock wall with a few large, sweeping strokes that looked quite dramatic from where I was sitting. I craned my neck to see if I could catch a peek, but she noticed what I was doing and gave me a stern look, shaking her finger at me.
Well, fine, I grumbled good-naturedly. I didn’t want to see it anyway. But I really did. For some reason.
Why in the worlds wasn’t she going to let me look? I tried to brush it off and focus on the last nonsensical word she’d uttered. Bi-atch. And this was… Nope. Didn’t get it.
Okay, you’ve got me on this one. I shook my head. What does that even mean?
It means you have to demand what you want, when you want it and put your foot in someone’s ass when they blow you off. You’re too nice.
How can being too nice be wrong?
You ask that? Really? Look in the mirror. She gave her own unladylike snort as though I were being obtuse.
First of all, I have no mirrors, and second, that makes no sense.
Taylor gave me a knowing look. It makes perfect sense, and deep down, you totally get what I’m saying. You have too many resentful yeses in you when you need to find some good, coldhearted, queen of the kingdom no’s. When was the last time you got what you wanted?
My sigh held exasperation.
The lighthearted feeling I counted on with Taylor, the sense of fun and adventure, began fading around the edges. It was turning into something more serious and real. If I’d wanted real, I’d be awake. Real life needed to remain in reality, not follow me into my dreams.
Forcing a smile and a light tone, I tried to get this little interlude back on track. Everything’s great. My art is coming along. I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done. I’m trying new mediums. There was this block of marble that—
She shook her head, already smacking my words down.
You’re alone living in the middle of nowhere. You have no friends. You don’t get to meet anyone. You talk to no one other than your little animal buddies and Dreya. Don’t get me wrong, I love your grandmother to death. She’s a lovely woman, but you’re too young to let your family limit your interactions to a woman in her seventies. I bet you’ve never even thought about what kind of guy you’d like to meet! As she hammered each point home, my smile fell by degrees until I was frowning.
That’s just not true. But it was. The familiar burn of resentment slapped at me, and as always, I did my best to tamp it down. There was no way to fix my situation, but it was getting harder to accept.
I wanted more. My life had felt flat and colorless for a long time. Nothing ever changed.
Images of experiences I desperately wanted fluttered rapidly through my mind like I was thumbing a well-loved book: the warmth of spontaneous laughter with good friends; shopping with a confident, carefree spring to my step while not having to look over my shoulder in fear; travel to new and exotic places, and the heart-pounding excitement of romance. Meeting someone. A first kiss. What kind of guy would I like?
I thought of Sixteen Candles and Jake Ryan, when the theme music plays in the background and he’s standing there just waiting for Samantha at the end of the movie. That one still had the power to make my heart ache for what wasn’t happening in my life.
There were so many things I didn’t understand. Too innocent. Too unknowing. Wasn’t twenty-five too old to have so much to learn? At some point, innocent became flat out ignorant. And the years were now ticking by. Before long, I’d be twenty-six, then twenty-seven. What about my life?
I’d seen pictures and books and movies that Ryder brought me from Earth. Taylor had taken me places during our dreamwalking dates.
But what I craved more than anything was for my life to have meaning. I needed a place to belong. Who counted on me for anything of importance? Who needed my opinion on important matters? No one. Who needed me for any kind of responsibility? Who counted on me to get things done that affected others in serious ways? No one. Did I do anything of significance that was crucial to anyone else? Not at all. No responsibility for my own life. I may as well still be a child.
You’re missing out on some important life experiences, Shandry.
Didn’t I know it?
I forced my smile back in place and tried to ignore the burn of frustration over what I couldn’t control and repeated to her what I’d repeated to myself, over and over, using a light tone as though that would make it more convincing somehow. I think you’re exaggerating. Everything is great. I really like being on my own, in my own place. There’s no one else I need to worry about or check in with, I go for long walks in the forest, and I work in my garden. I help my grandmother harvest her sele` flower crop in the fall, and it’s kind of funny, but part of the reason my art is selling in the market place is because I’m so reclusive and mysterious. It’s beautiful. Certainly. I’ve worked hard. Incredibly hard. It’s taken me years to reach the level of mastery that I’m at, but my art is also the only evidence of my existence. Who knew that would help? I couldn’t be busier or more fulfilled. Orders are coming to me from all over the nation through the encrypted messaging system, the EMS, Ryder set up for me. Too much to do. I don’t have time for anything else in my life. I’m very content.
As I actually said these words outside my own head, even I could say it sounded like blah, blah-blah, blah-blah—a bunch of excuses. But it wasn’t. Not really. It was survival.
Taylor threw me a frown. You are a fraud. Being introverted is a natural state of being for some people. It’s a front for you. It’s fake. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. You need to find you.
I huffed a sigh, negating what she was saying. She didn’t understand. I couldn’t let myself go there. You don’t get it, Taylor. It doesn’t even matter. You know what’s important? I’m right here. I’m happy, healthy and safe. I’m lucky to live in the middle of a beautiful place. Have you been to the Blue Sage Forest? It’s gorgeous. What can I really complain about?
Taylor, I’m a target. Our enemies want me dead, and I still managed to carve out my own space in this blasted world. I practically had to give a blood oath and install all kinds of security measures to move, but that’s part of the price. Did you know that when I was a kid, there were attempts on my life? The fear of those moments was still fresh, and my heart skipped, remembering. I took a breath to calm it. My isolation keeps me and others safe. I have to stay out here, Taylor. There are no other options.
Besides, I’d asked my father if I could go to Earth last year, and he hadn’t let a second go by before stating in his no-nonsense voice that it would be impossible to keep me safe there. When would the threat be over?
Tamp tamp tamp. Tamp it down. There’s nothing you can do. Don’t drive yourself insane. I watched the movement of her paint strokes, which was kind of soothing and let me catch my breath. I didn’t want to get mad at Taylor over this stupid stuff. She didn’t deserve that from me.
There are always options, Taylor finally offered cryptically and resumed painting. She must have noted the tension in my voice because she gave me a moment before adding, My friend, you have got to find your inner badass bitch-on-wheels.
We’re not all made like you, Tay. I tried to say it teasingly, recapture the lightness of spirit we’d started with, but my smile was having a hard time coming back. You are one of a kind. And she was. Cute and strong and sure of herself, she was fearless when it came to speaking her mind. I envied her that.
Compliments will not distract me today. Wasn’t it Emerson that talked about giving a barbaric yawp over the mountaintop or something like that? She looked up thoughtfully, thinking hard on it. This was in Dead Poet Society. Made him yawp in class. Very cool. I loved that movie. Why can’t I remember? But anyway, you seriously need an attitudinal adjustment.
An attitudinal adjustment?
Yup. Attitudinal adjustment. I don’t go dream-hopping for nothing. You need me here, especially seeing as how this is a sensitive issue for you.
I just didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Why couldn’t that be okay with everybody? I need an attitudinal adjustment? You need an attitudinal adjustment. You won’t even let me see what you’re painting.
Taylor gave me a curious look. Why do you even need to see it?
That gave me pause. I don’t know. I guess I don’t. But the painting was…calling to me? Reaching out to me? So dumb. I was definitely not going to say this out loud. What I need is some fun, Tay. What nasty medicine did you have to take today?
I rolled my eyes and snarked, And it was Walt Whitman, not Emerson.
Wow. She threw a quick, face-splitting grin at me. Love the attitude.
I was being awful. I never talked this way, ever, and this was Taylor… Sorry. I’m not usually—
I mean it! You need attitude in this life. Bring it!
I took a deep breath, wondering why nothing made sense anymore. There was no reason for me to be resentful. There really wasn’t. What good was attitude going to do for me?
Taylor saluted me with her paintbrush. Okay. I stand corrected. Whitman said it. Whatever. Some dead white guy said it, and the message is still valid.
Okay. Fine. Whatever. I didn’t want to talk about this stuff anymore. Where are we now? Is this place on Earth?
A strong breeze whipped the end of my auburn ponytail across my face, and I tilted my head back to enjoy the feel of the sun, needing a balm for my spirit. Usually I would have had to worry about exposure, having the blasted redhead’s everlasting curse of pale skin, but in this place, the Gods’ plane, nothing could hurt me.
You brought me here, Taylor said succinctly as she concentrated on her painting once again, which had me scowling. She was being so difficult. It was just a painting. I took a deep breath, trying to refocus on the conversation, though my eyes felt like they were being dragged to what she was doing. Then her words caught me.
I brought us here? I looked around with some confusion, about to deny it, but then paused. It somehow was connected to me. I sensed it.
Someone did. I don’t know. I just know I didn’t. The Gods don’t always tell me what’s happening. I think I should lodge a complaint with management. I had to give it to her. Taylor was handling being an instrument of the Gods better than I would if I was only being handed bits and scraps of information. My grandmother suffered from the same problem. It meant anything could happen. There were no rules. Clearly.
Normally I wouldn’t have been able to bring anyone to a place I hadn’t seen, yet here we were. It was a picturesque valley and we sat at the mouth of it, against the rocky slope. I wondered if this was all a figment of one of our imaginations (I hoped not) or if it was truly a place within the Sunan nation.
Romantic, rocky crags jutted up behind us. Tall green grasses with yellow clover flowers swayed with the faint breeze in the valley before us, and the clear, blue sky blanketed us with sweet smelling air above us.
To actually visit here would be grand, but I knew I never would, which frustrated me more than usual in this moment since Taylor had decided it would be a fabulous idea to start picking at my scabs, so to speak. I couldn’t just be normal and make my own decisions about things, now could I? It was all about keeping me safe. If I was even considering doing something out of my norm, all kinds of people would up and protest.
But…there was cause.
As usual, any hints of anger or resentment that cropped up I immediately smothered. Didn’t need to start that fire burning.
Tamp, tamp, tamp. Things were as good as I could make them.
What good would it do to feel frustrated? It only sapped energy from me, and there was no one around who would actually listen to a complaint. My father had wanted to protect me. I was lucky to have been able to live with my grandmother. When I felt old enough to need to be on my own, I’d made it happen. It was the one time I’d argued for my own life, and though it had cost me in some ways, I got what I wanted. My little home was far away on the outskirts, just beyond where our civilization claimed borders, in a secret place, but still close to Dreya. At least it wasn’t underground. There was no way I could ever return to living underground, which my father had initially tried to make me do.
See? It was all for the better. There was nowhere else I could handle going anyway. There wasn’t another place I belonged…more. The frustration began to ease. I was able to take a deep breath of fresh air.
Are we talking about Shandry? Asily gave me an artful smile as she suddenly appeared on a rock near mine.I heard you guys talking about shouting off the mountain top or something like that.
Where have you been? I’ve been trying to lecture your sister on some serious shit, and you just up and left.
Didn’t you see that little curly-haired toddler running? He asked me to chase him. Very cute. I lost him in the crowd.
Nope. Didn’t see anything, I replied with a quick look around. Asily, there’s no one here.
Of course there is! Asily laughed. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t here. It’s actually very busy here. Can’t you feel them?
Taylor was impatient. I feel lots of things.
I don’t, I groused a bit sourly.
Asily’s tone was more of an understatement that lost its lightness. Well, trust me. There’s a lot happening here these days.
I was ready to tell them both they needed help, but realized that I was feeling a thread of something. I didn’t know what it was.
Taylor gave an as-I-was-saying look and continued, I was telling her to be more like a Viking and roar out her pissed-offness.
I thought we were done with this, I grumbled.
Who? Shandry? Asily laughed outright, which made me scowl at her. Shandry doesn’t have it in her to say boo at a mouse. In fact, she’d probably befriend it, start feeding it, and help it name its children. She doesn’t have a rude bone in her body. She’d never be able to shout off a mountaintop. Shandry’s always been the good one in the family.
Gods bless it. That familiar twinge of resentment—ah, there it was—that I was trying to get rid of pinched at me once again, hearing the certainty in my sister’s voice. I had the sudden urge to shove her off her rock. I could be rude. I could be barbaric if I wanted to. I could yawp.
Besides, I usually communicated with birds and squirrels, not mice.
You are so wrong, Asily. She’s hiding out. I’m telling you. She’s playing possum or something. This isn’t who she really is, and I can’t wait to see the real Shandry stop denying herself and finally step forward to demand the life she really wants.
You two are crazy, I said lightly, to sort of put the lid on the discussion, but Taylor just had so much to say. Bless the spirits.
Not even. You, Shandry-girl, are spiritually clogged like nobody’s business. I know I sound all hippy-love-child fruity when I say this, but I can totally feel your energy. You, girlfriend, have some deeply seated emotional issues. Trust me. If there’s one thing I know about, it’s deep, emotional issues. Am I right, Asily?
Taylor paused in her work to look questioningly over at my sister.
Yes, you are right. You have deep emotional issues, Asily repeated dutifully.
Taylor smirked. You’re a funny girl, Asily. I like that about you. But really, back a girlfriend up, here. Can’t you feel it? Shandry needs to just let it all go. Let it all hang out. She absolutely needs an attitudinal adjustment before she completely blows her lid.
Tay, I don’t have the same gifts you have, Asily responded with a shrug. I can’t see the same things you see. As far as I can see, she’s just perfect. Her dark blue eyes contrasted dramatically with her blue-black hair. Glancing at me mischievously, she winked. She’d always been so striking, just like our brother, Ryder, and our father. I’d taken after our mother, who had milky skin and red hair. My eyes seemed to be my own. The palest blue.
This is good counseling, Taylor groused as she continued her work. People usually have to pay good money for this. No kidding. So anyway, let’s not lose the point here. The point of this lecture is to help Shandry recognize that she is beautiful and talented and has a lot to offer the world. Maybe there was a time when you needed to hide, but that time is gone.
But she doesn’t even like being around people, Asily offered. She only likes doing her art.
Says who? Since when did I actually get the choice?
I’m not buying it. Taylor turned to me again. We need to think of a way to let you open up more. It would be good for you.
I gave an I-have-no-idea kind of shrug. At this point, I didn’t know what she was talking about.
Taylor turned back to us with this sudden, huge smile. Okay. I have an idea. I dare you to yell “cocksucker.” And you can’t say it quickly or quietly. You have to say it with gusto and mean it.
I’m not going to do that, I gasped, which had Asily grinning, which again, really bugged me for some reason. She was seriously close to getting that proverbial foot placed somewhere on her anatomy, just as Taylor suggested. Big sisters could seriously be pains.
Watch. I’ll do it first. Taylor balled up her paint-brush-free hand into a fist for added support, took a deep breath and yelled as loudly as she could, Cocksucker! She made it echo three times down the valley and laughed with delight. See? From the diaphragm. Trust me! It’s absolutely freeing.
I can’t say that. I shook my head with amused horror, though really, there was secret, sneaky part of me that was intrigued. Considering. Wouldn’t it be nice to show everyone, including my sister, there was more to me than just the good girl who did what she was told? I was tired of feeling so innocent and unknowing. I wanted to wipe that smile off Asily’s face.
So many different combinations, it boggles the mind. Okay. Try this one, then. Fucking asshole. Or goddamn motherfucking asshole. Please? Pretty please?
- Dual feelings of humor and horror battled for precedence on my face.
Part of me is just dying to hear this phrase coming from your mouth.
You’re just so innocent. You’re like this cute doll I had when I was a little girl. I swear. Her smile broadened. It feels like I’m corrupting Pollyanna.
I could probably use some corruption. I’d spent too much time alone. Maybe Taylor was right. Something needed to change before I started going insane.
I’m not even kidding, Shandry. You want to see a girl fall on the floor? Come up to me and tell me I’m a mother-fucking-cocksucking asshole, and I will be L-M-A-O, you hear me? It would be so Linda Blair from The Exorcist.
I’d scared myself silly with that movie. My brother got me hooked on Earth’s entertainment out of some misplaced sense of guilt that he was somehow responsible for me being exiled. The problem was, he only brought me PG, or at the most, PG-13 rated movies, but I soon moved on to a few of the R without letting him know. I found a means of pirating—yes, I said it!— movies that I thought would be more interesting, not that I didn’t love The Lion King. Of course, this led to many more questions that I had no answers for. And probably a few nightmares as well…
Taylor wasn’t finished being funny.
She gave me an arch look.
You know, there are other ways of letting off steam, and trust me, you have some steam to let off. Ever heard of porn?
Porn? I frowned, shaking my head. I hadn’t heard the word before.
Yeah, porn. Video images of people having loud, raunchy sex.
Tay–lor! I gasped my surprise and felt my cheeks get hot. At the same time, I wondered if people were really having sex in a video or if it was, like, faked… I shut the thought down quickly. Was it wrong to be so intrigued? My desire to ask her questions about sex battled the natural Sunan reserve I’d grown up with.
Disappointingly, I let my conservatism win out and gave her a good, miss-ish frown. I wasn’t ready yet. Just wasn’t ready to be so open with my curiosity.
Really, Shandry! It’s very educational. Seriously. A good “O” can work wonders, let me tell you.
I’m not trying to get up in your business or anything, I’m just saying…Taylor flung some paint at me playfully from her brush.
I shielded my face. I can’t believe you’re talking about this.
You won’t remember anyway.
I always end up remembering something of what we talked about even if I don’t remember you! It somehow ends up working its way into my life—
Taylor looked like she’d just had a Eureka! moment. Well, shit. If that’s the case, I’m going to say you have to know your body. Go exploring. I’m not even kidding. Get naked, think of a hot guy, and see what happens next.
Geez, Taylor. I am not going to have this conversation with you. I won’t. Go exploring? What did that mean? Touch myself? My mind secretly latched on to this. I was sure Taylor would answer any question I put to her, but I was too embarrassed to ask. So, I kept my mouth shut.
Okay, okay. But someone needs to have this conversation with you. It’s time you learned about the birds and the bees.
Asily suddenly narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the painting. A little more shadow on the left.
I’m getting there, I’m getting there, Taylor grumbled good-naturedly, reluctantly turning her attention back to her painting on the rock wall. She got to work with a vengeance, then. Adding daubs here and there. Going back to outline this part or that part to make it darker, clarify lines and shapes.
Don’t be a perfectionist, Asily complained.
Don’t be a backseat driver, Taylor replied without heat, though she was looking up at the wall questioningly.
What in the worlds are you painting? I needed to know.
Truthfully, I’m not sure yet. Taylor looked up at her wall with uncertainty. I just work here, you know, and do as I’m told.
Bless the spirits, Taylor. You’re just standing too close to it. Back up and take a look. And then get out of the way so we can all see. Asily suddenly hopped off her boulder and joined Taylor some distance away, looking at the image with her head cocked consideringly.
Is he anyone you know? Taylor asked Asily.
No. No one I know. Shandry? Asily beckoned me over.
Finally! I jumped off my rock, and a few quick steps had me standing next to the two of them. I got my first full glance at the larger-than-life face Taylor had painted on the wall and felt my heart stutter wildly in my chest.
He was beautiful. Striking. Strong, square jaw, full lips and an arresting pair of deep, soulful eyes that seemed to be looking just at me. Whispering to me. Reaching out to me. It was like he was there, somehow. The heat of his energy reached out to mine with provocative tendrils wrapping around me, pulling me in, beginning to warm me from the inside. With some fear, I wondered what was going on. I suddenly felt the need to catch my breath and still my madly pumping heart. I tried to pull back, strengthen my mental shield against him and breathe normally again.
I—I don’t know him, I stuttered quietly, calmly, though my face was definitely heating up yet again. I wondered if Asily or Taylor knew what had just happened.
Well, he’s a totally hot guy, Taylor offered. If I weren’t completely over the top for your brother, I’d be getting me some of that. Believe you me.
She knew. The heat to my cheeks only increased, radiating like a beacon.
You don’t need to be embarrassed, Shandry. Taylor frowned at me. You’re a healthy, twenty-five-year-old woman who’s alone out in the boondocks.
That’s silly, I protested, my voice sharper than usual. I’m perfectly content with my life.
This time I agree with Taylor, Asily said quietly, her young face looking wiser
than her years as she studied my expression. You’ve put your life on hold long enough. It’s time.
Time for what? I asked hesitantly, afraid I knew the answer.
Time for you to wake up.