BLACK EMERALDS – First 30 Pages
Chapter 1 (Decisions)
“What do you mean, ‘it’s best for him to go?’”
“My dear, as I have explained repeatedly, he has boundless potential. We both know this, but in order for him to realize it, he needs to go. He can’t stay here his whole life. Kayden’s not a child anymore.”
Josie Verus’ sandy-blonde hair had a slight hint of grey, highlighted by the sunlight streaming through the window in her tiny kitchen. She had soft features, rounded hips reminiscent of a curvy youth, and kind, hazel eyes that danced with life. Her usually delicate, warm demeanor began to turn into a heated fury with the suggestion that her only son leave their little town of Alexandria. The now repetitive argument was finally coming to a head after years of discussing his future.
Kayden stooped low beneath the dusty window outside Josie’s kitchen. The old pane was cracked just enough to allow their voices to carry to his devious ears. He’d heard their arguments before but they’d never been so specific… He spoke lightly to himself so they wouldn’t hear. “Anymore? I just turned seventeen, Mom. Go where?”
“You see, that’s the thing; you haven’t really explained anything!” she exclaimed as she pointed her finger at the old man they affectionately knew as Uncle Henry. “Hasn’t it always been your incessant rambling that true education occurs outside the classroom?” mocked Josie in her best impersonation of his tendency to preach. “Why is Summit any better than anywhere else?”
Kayden slipped on the grey, wet gravel along the edge of the little cottage. He gathered his balance and gritted his teeth in hopes they didn’t hear his clumsiness. “Summit? Yeah, like they’d have anything to do with me.”
Henry smiled gently at her. “Yes, dear, that’s true.” He paused to regroup his cluttered mess of thoughts and explain himself. His tone became that of an emphatic orchestra conductor. “I do believe a complete education has to occur beyond a school’s controlled atmosphere but I also believe his path can’t fully be revealed unless he ventures out into the world. That’s why Summit is the perfect place for him. He won’t be stuck in a classroom learning nothing but theory. It won’t be like his schooling here. We have to look at this as an opportunity, not a threat.” His voice became calm and sympathetic. “Nothing will ever change for him in Alexandria. You know that. Eventually you have to let him grow up.”
“You don’t know any more about his future than I do. Let’s not pretend to be clairvoyant, shall we? This is complete guesswork on both sides so don’t pretend it’s otherwise,” said Josie. “You have no idea what awaits him out there.”
Kayden leaned in closer as their voices lowered. “Out there?”
“That’s the point: neither of us do. The only thing we can know for sure is that he’ll waste away in this small town. He needs to find out for himself.”
“Find out what? What the hell are they talking about? Uncle Henry may know some people, but I’m pretty sure even he couldn’t get me into that place. Why would I even want to go to Summit? It’s for the spoiled kids, like Henley and Willium.”
Henry had the gift of persuasion which squelched the heated animosity in any argument. To others, it made him seem like he had a hidden agenda behind his actions. In this instance, Kayden’s mother was less than amused. She was protective of her son and furious with the change in Henry’s previously consistent feelings toward his education. She was so worked up over the argument that she spilled her glass of wine. She jumped up and began scrambling to wipe up the red stain that had begun to seep into the butterscotch rug of her humble dining room. Kayden caught the slight hint of a smile as she tried to clean the stain from his old, dusty jacket. He’d never seen her act more like an adolescent, happy she ruined it.
“I’m not sure Kayden would even be interested,” grumbled Josie as she continued to scrub the crimson spot. It didn’t appear to be coming out. The weary muscles in her arm tensed at the sound of her voice. Her eyes fell to the floor in disgust as the words escaped her lips. It was only a matter of time before she gave in.
Kayden had seen that same look many times before. He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pushover.”
That was the loaded response Henry needed to hear. It was too late. Josie couldn’t take her words back now. They were an inadvertent signal that she wasn’t going to hold her ground. Kayden could see that he was fighting back the smirk that threatened to spread across his face.
Henry was an older man who had the appearance of someone who had put his body through a great deal of pleasure over the years. The enjoyment had finally caught up with him, though. He was stoutly, appearing at times to be older than he actually was. His ragged, gray hair was loosely combed and his eyebrows were in desperate need of a trim. His cheeks had started to droop a little from what used to be a chiseled, sturdy face. His once athletic legs looked slightly shaky with the additional weight he had steadily added over time. Despite his disheveled appearance, there was no questioning his wisdom and cunning. Henry always had an angle, a point to get across. He knew just what buttons to push in order to get his way and still leave the other person with an unexplained feeling of satisfaction. His parlor tricks never seemed to work on Josie, though. She was much too passionate when it came to Kayden and she knew Henry better than anyone else.
“Dear, I know it’s been incredibly difficult raising a young man without a true father. His Phaedon dad should have been around.” Josie’s muscles clenched at the mention of a father. She was still resentful after all these years for having to raise Kayden on her own. “It may be difficult to hear, but a young man has to find himself before he becomes an adult.” Henry sighed. “He can’t do that while he’s living here with his mother. Alexandria, while safe, is no substitute for real world experiences.”
Kayden peaked careless overly the sill to see how much wine was left in the bottle, his left eyebrow cocked upwards. “Phaedons? Since when do they talk about fairy tales?”
“Don’t start with that!” She leapt forward until she was within arms’ reach of the old man. “You’re not even his real uncle. You don’t get to waltz in and act like you’ve been the one raising him for the past seventeen years.” Henry must have seen the burning passion in her eyes as he cautiously waited for her to calm down. There were too many glass objects around for his comfort level. She was visibly furious, but still looked guilty as soon as she exploded. He was the closest thing Kayden had to a father. Henry had made very difficult decisions in the past to ensure he was able to be there for her son.
Kayden barely understood what was going on but he could tell that she was arguing out of fear. She would never admit Henry was right, even if he was only doing what he thought to be in Kayden’s best interests. It had been so hard raising him alone, but she clearly wasn’t ready for it to be over yet. And now he was forcing her to turn this chapter of their life before she was done reading.
Kayden was still a young man, but they both agreed he should have the final say. “I know you have more ideas up your sleeve,” she said accusingly.
“That’s not exactly a vote of trust, is it? We’ve already had this argument and we’ve made all the arrangements together. It would be hard to back them out now.” His debonair smile was irritating and even though Josie was well aware of his games, they were still hard to resist.
“What’s your ulterior motive?” Josie’s penetrating stare bore into him, challenging him to hold his ground. Henry looked into her eyes and matched her gaze as long as he could, but he never answered the question. Instead, he kissed her on the forehead before heading out the door.
Kayden waited for him to get out of earshot before he stealthily found his way to the porch. Luckily, he’d replaced the creaky boards just last week. Henry hadn’t even bothered to shut the front door. He wondered if Henry knew he was there the whole time.
He continued on into the living room where Josie nearly jumped from her
skin at his sight.
Kayden smiled but didn’t actually acknowledge her presence. He walked into kitchen and grabbed the one of the apples from the counter. He glanced at the back door and waited to hear footsteps. There weren’t any.
“I’m gonna go find Logan!” Again, he waited to hear footsteps… Nothing.
“Let me know if you guys come to any conclusions!” Still Nothing.
“It will just be good to know when you guys have my life all figured out!” He slammed the door behind him and didn’t wait to hear a response.
As he crossed through the wall of greenery leading to the road, he finally heard footsteps back in the kitchen.
Chapter 2 (The Savior)
A group of four, crooked shadows crept over the hunter green field where Logan McReedy was enjoying his last afternoon of freedom in Alexandria before he left for Summit. The day had been unseasonably warm and it was only proper that Logan take some extra time and enjoy the fruits of Mother Earth’s labors. The vast ocean of trees closing in on the uneven field were turning from their bountiful, full-summer form into a cornucopia of colors, eventually leading to their barren, stick-like appearance in the winter. The cold, leafless images had, unfortunately, become a trademark of Alexandria. It was once just a quiet village nestled into the cliff tops along the southern ocean, unknown to most people and flourishing with small town, community spirit. Now it seemed a mere shell of itself as tourists marked it as a wintertime delight to get away from the hustle and bustle. He hated the commercialism that consumed the tiny town during those few, cold months. It was like someone had stolen the true character of the town he had grown up in.
The particular group headed his way was not a surprising sight to Logan, but it was still something he wished to avoid. Avoidance didn’t appear to be an option, though, as they were now only fifty meters away. He decided to stand his ground to see what became of the situation. The shadows belonged to a small set of young thugs who liked nothing more than throwing around their over-inflated sense of entitlement. Logan was, without question, the smartest kid in school and time after time had denied their requests to cheat off him. Mickey Tanner was the largest of the four and, naturally, had become the leader in their caveman-like culture. Reilly Chevus was the slimy, stout bully and the other two were the Laughlin twins, Tim and Lauren. Their collective families unofficially ran the town as the local elders and, therefore, the boys held a certain aura about them. They felt as though they could to do what they wanted, when they wanted, without the need to explain themselves.
Logan wasn’t the largest guy of all time, but he didn’t run from a fight. He also wasn’t afraid of taking a beating if he had to. Any lack of strength was overshadowed by a fearless abandon of self-preservation. He liked fighting. It was something physical to escape his usual bookworm persona. For that reason, he was never shy to throw his wiry frame around, even if it got him into trouble. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone around to watch, the risk to his self-esteem was also considerably lower.
“Where are all of your friends?” shouted Mickey.
Resisting the urge to begin what seemed to be an unavoidable spat that would leave him in shambles, he kept his mouth shut and looked down like he didn’t hear them.
Reilly chimed in at the top of his surprisingly high-pitched voice, “Don’t shy away now, smart guy! You’re never that quiet in class. It’s different when you don’t have Kayden and Willium around to fight your battles for you, isn’t it?”
Instead of getting into a debate with a bunch of power-bloated, trust fund brats, Logan stretched out his lanky frame and made as if he was going to ignore them and head back home. He really didn’t have the energy to martyr himself today.
Mickey apparently decided Logan wasn’t allowed to turn his back on them. “You don’t get to run away this time.”
A snicker of laughter started behind him quietly and before he knew it, the football they’d been tossing back and forth pelted him in the back of the head. As he fell forward, he remembered thinking that turning his back on scum like them probably wasn’t the most intelligent move he’d ever made. The next thing he knew, an oversized, dirty boot with a thick, ridge-filled, rubber sole began pushing his face deep into the mud of the soggy field. Judging by the immense pressure, he guessed the oversized foot belonged to Reilly, as there was no way the rest of them combined could have weighed enough to match the steady force being applied by the anvil sitting on his skull. Logan could feel the breath leaving his body and wondered if he would really die of suffocation. It wasn’t exactly the honorable death he had pictured for his obituary.
He ignored the throbbing spot on his head, twisted out from under the foot, and grabbed Reilly’s ankle. The obese boy was surprised by the swift movement. Logan twisted with all his might and sent the overweight hoodlum to the ground with a splattering of mud sitting just beneath the layer of thick grass. He started to get up before the others jumped in, but he was already too late. They were closing in before Reilly had hit the ground.
The next moment would happen in a blur, but depending on who was telling the story, it would be incredibly different. According to Kayden, the knight in shining armor appeared at the top of the hill and rode in on a cloud of white mist. Trumpets sounded as he charged into battle and angels played hymns to his valor.
In reality, as the twins launched themselves at Logan’s muddy head, a flourish of blue flames seemed to spring up from the ground, ready to consume the four boys. Even Mickey was scared enough to take off running in fear for his spoiled life. Logan never saw how it had happened, but later Kayden explained that he had taken some incendia berries from his Uncle Henry’s house. He had begun tossing them when he saw Logan’s predicament. While Reilly had tried to get back on his feet, Kayden had caught Mickey in the jaw with a wild punch. The brutes were gone before Logan was back to a standing position.
The little berries that exploded into blue flames upon impact were one of Kayden’s favorite things about Alexandria. He didn’t understand how the seeds spread so well, but the strange, twisted wood of the incendia vines could be found growing wildly throughout town. After all, the berries would burn up anytime they fell to the ground. Logan, of course, knew the answer and had told him at one point, but Kayden hadn’t paid attention.
“You could’ve killed me!”
“Yeah, maybe… but what a way to go,” chuckled Kayden. “Oh, come off it. It’s not like I was aiming for you. I could have just left and not worried about saving you… again.”
“You have an interesting definition of saving, Chief,” replied Logan as he shook his head. “You know we’re going to hear from the elders for that one. Before long, the whole town will have their own version of the story that’ll be passed around Growley’s like a new beer on tap.”
“First of all, I’m pretty sure Growley’s hasn’t had a new beer since alcohol itself was invented. And second of all, the elders can shove it. I don’t care if I hurt their precious little angels’ egos. Mickey keeps acting like he can order everyone around and someone has to put an end to it.”
Logan’s eyes grew wide as he said, “Well, excuse me, Your Elegance. I didn’t realize you were holding court. You do understand the little angels you refer to will eventually run the town, don’t you?” Logan didn’t wait for a clever response. “Look, you didn’t have to help out, anyway. It’s just going to lead to trouble.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you were about to corner them.” Logan began to imagine how he would’ve ended up had Kayden not been around to pull him out of the mud. Most of their childhood youth had been spent in similar situations. Kayden was always the one doing the saving and Logan would never admit it, but he probably wouldn’t have seen his seventeenth birthday without him. On the other hand, about ninety percent of Logan’s troubles were probably brought on by Kayden in the first place, so it roughly evened out in his head. The skinny kid was incredibly fragile, despite his scrappy attitude. He was sick all the time and, despite missing more days of school than anyone, still managed to be at the top of their class. He constantly missed weeks at a time without losing his grasp on the subject matter.
Logan knew Kayden’s biggest fear was that he knew he couldn’t always be around to protect his friend. Kayden was a rebel, as his reputation went, but Logan always felt more like the little brother that had to keep him grounded. Sure, Kayden brought on some of the trouble, but he was also the only one that would get Logan out of it. He always knew Kayden didn’t particularly relish the responsibility, though, and would obviously rather spend his days chasing girls at Growley’s.
The underlying truth hiding in their banter was how their lives were about to change forever in very different ways. They were no longer the headstrong teenagers without a care in the world. Logan was leaving town to attend Summit tomorrow; Kayden was not.
It was an incredible honor to be accepted to Summit. Only a small percentage of kids were invited to attend. World leaders—be it scholars, kings, doctors, or scientists—all came from Summit. The most promising youth came to realize their destiny in the unique school. They were whisked away from the boredom of their mundane high schools after their sophomore year to prepare for their future greatness.
Logan had gotten in the old fashioned way—by earning it. His incredible book smarts had earned him one of the few scholarships offered. Kayden, however, didn’t have such an option. Logan was trying to mask his excitement about the opportunity. He understood that Kayden was trying to avoid the unavoidable wave of misery to follow once his best friend left.
“Look, man. I know it’s going to be tough staying here—”
Kayden cut him off, “You know there is something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Are you still going to be such a tool after you start chasing some of the rich girls at Summit?”
They both started chuckling, but Logan knew Kaydn was using the joke to get around the uncomfortable conversation. He suspected Kayden really did want to go and he didn’t want him to be left behind in their small town. He didn’t want to lose his friend, and he really wanted Kayden to see what all the fuss was about. In his head, it wasn’t just another high school like Kayden kept saying.
“In all honesty, you can have all the glory and what not. You’re just going to have to learn how to talk to girls without me. I’ll just have to steal them when I come to visit, though.” Kayden smirked. His confidence was not without merit—the girls always seemed to love him.
“And how exactly do you plan to win those ladies over? Your charming good looks? Your family’s hidden wealth? How about your prestigious name?”
Of course Kayden had no fortune and his family’s name couldn’t get him a loaf of bread, but Logan’s judgment of his looks was purposefully off base. After all, there was a significant difference between the two. Kayden was built proportionally well for his above-average height. His tan complexion, dark hair, and striking brown eyes that seemed a slightly lighter shade in the fading summer sun completed the well-rounded package. He’d never had difficulty getting girls and Logan couldn’t envision it being terribly different at Summit. Logan was long and lanky with dark blonde hair, a round baby face with an awkward smile, and light blue eyes. In many ways, he seemed very plain next to his confident friend.
“Okay, then, a beer at Growley’s says Galena Flaherty is sitting on my lap by the end of the night,” said Logan. He was trying to match Kayden’s confidence, but it would help if he believed it himself.
“Well, let’s see. You owe me a drink for saving your tail tonight already, and Galena Flaherty doesn’t even know you exist.”
At that moment, Josie’s voice began echoing in Kayden’s mind loud as day. “You need to come home right away. We have something to talk about.”
He seemed to wake up from a trance and raised his head. It was reverberating loudly against the cool summer breeze as he rubbed his forehead. Thankfully, the voice disappeared. “Josie just told me I need to stop back by the house before we head to Growley’s. Sounded urgent.”
Logan’s twisted facial expression gave away his distaste for the thought of someone roaming around in his mind. “Doesn’t it bug you that your mother can just talk to you through your mind whenever she pleases? It would creep me out. Imagine if you were on the toilet and she just started talking to you. Between you and me, my mother probably shouldn’t hear the thoughts in my head while I’m on the toilet.”
Kayden laughed. “It’s not actually like that. She can’t hear my thoughts. She doesn’t even enjoy having the power because she is too straight-laced to have fun with it. I’ve actually only felt it a few times. It must really be important. It must have to do with her fight with Henry.”
“Either way, it still seems creepy,” said Logan.
Kayden ignored his complaint and the boys crossed the field under the Alexandria sun; their last afternoon of youth setting quietly behind them.
Chapter 3 (Growley’s)
The boys marched to Josie’s modest, country-style house where Kayden had grown up. They went up the drive, passing the abundance of flowers that Josie took so much pride in. Their destructive dogs, Satchel and Cooper, came running up to Kayden’s side as he passed the old pecan tree. His mother had never gotten even a single pecan off the decrepit tree. The squirrels emptied it every year before she got around to picking them. Logan began tossing sticks with the dogs like he always did, but kept his distance from the house.
“I’ll stay out here with the Satch and Cooper to let you guys have your family moment. You sure you want me to wait?”
Kayden smirked and walked into the house. He had no intention of staying in tonight. Theirs was an old, decaying cottage that had been passed down through three generations so most of it was in poor shape, despite Kayden’s amateur repair work. The cliffside location overlooking the ocean, however, was breathtaking. From their vantage point, they could see the sun set perfectly into the water. The spiritual event would turn the whole sky rich, carmine pink for thirty minutes each night. Kayden remembered watching it throughout his youth as he dreamed of being a pirate out on the open seas.
Kayden entered the kitchen and sat down at the dinner table that was humorously too big for the two-member family occupying the house. It was another family heirloom Josie had inherited with the house. Had it not been for the extravagant family hand-me-downs, which were often nicer than the house itself, they really would’ve struggled. Henry helped out when Josie would let him, but for the most part, they made it work living off her meager beauty shop salary.
Josie seemed to tip-toe across the room as if she was literally walking on eggshells. He noticed her precautious body language and knew this wasn’t about him forgetting to feed the dogs. There was something bigger on her mind. He brainstormed for anything he’d done that would have caused this level of anxiety, but nothing came to mind.
“Kayden, there’s something I need to tell you and then there is something we need to discuss,” said Josie in the most calming voice she could muster as she entered the kitchen. Her hair was more frazzled than he was used to seeing and her dried mascara revealed she’d been crying.
“What is it? Where’s Uncle Henry?”
Josie became visibly frustrated. “Look, I know how important Henry is to you, but I need your undivided attention right now. Is Logan outside with the dogs?”
“Yeah, we were headed out.”
Kayden watched her bite her lip on passing any judgment as she knew it meant they were headed to Growley’s. She had never approved of his inclination for the bar, especially being only seventeen, but it was a small town and nobody paid much attention to underage drinking unless it caused problems. She obviously had more important things to discuss than his nightlife activities.
“Do you remember what I told you about your father? I realize I haven’t told you much. I’ve done a pretty thorough job of ensuring that… I had my reasons.” She looked down and to the right as if she was ashamed.
Kayden knew there was more to their story but he had never pushed to find out more than he was told. He couldn’t bear the sight of his mother crying. “He was a cowardly piece of shit who left us. What else could I possibly need to know?”
Kayden watched her focus on staying calm. Apparently, she wasn’t going to join him in his hatred for his father right now. There would be plenty of time for that later. “I won’t argue with you about that, but there is something more you should know. Your father—”
“Look, it’s been seventeen years. I’m pretty sure anything you have to tell me about my loser father can’t be that important if you’re only bringing it up now.” Kayden started toward the door. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with this right now. He was about to lose his best friend to school and his mother wanted to talk about her pathetic partner in what he imagined to be a one night stand seventeen years ago.
“SIT BACK DOWN AND LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY. THIS IS HARDER FOR ME THAN YOU REALIZE.” The telepathic voice splintered through his head so much that it gave him a short, blinding headache, leaving the room in momentary darkness. He slowly turned from the door and sat back down feeling dejected and a little scared. “Twice in one day?” he said under his breath.
Her tear-soaked eyes returned to their normal hazel color as she dried them with her sleeves and ignored his complaint. “Your father left and there’s nothing we can do to change that now. However, there is more to the story than you were ever told. He had a… gift; something I never told you about.”
Kayden was confused. Where is she going with this? She’s never been open about him before. She practically went crazy any time I brought up his name and now she was openly sharing secrets? What kind of gift could that worthless prick possibly have?
“Your father was a Phaedon.”
She paused to consume his entire reaction. An unsettling silence filled the room. Kayden was focused on her eyes, but they seemed to be frozen in a mix of emotions he couldn’t describe. He shifted his stare to an empty space on the wall. Everything he knew about his broken family faded into a cloud of lies behind his mother’s suddenly deceitful face. His hatred for his father shifted to a concentrated elixir of outrage for his mother’s deception.
“Why did you hide that from me? Are you telling me I might be—”
Now it was Josie’s turn to cut him off. “We don’t know for sure. Look, I’m so sorry I never told you.” He knew she was trying desperately to avoid the word lie. “I was very hurt by your father and I didn’t want to be reminded of him. It was too painful. However, I should have told you. Yes, it is possible that you, in some ways are, well…”
“Ageless? Eternal?” said Kayden angrily. “Yes, I’ve heard the fairy tales. I know the terms.” He stared her down.
The fading sun was descending over the edge of the cliff on its path to the ocean. Burnt orange rays were hitting Kayden’s disheveled face displaying his sparkling brown eyes as he searched for what to say.
“I know this is a lot to take in. I talked to your Uncle Henry today and he thinks you should attend Summit, considering what you might be. He already talked to the school and they said they would make a special exception for you.”
“Where in the hell is this coming from? How about a clue? I’m just going about my life and then one day before I’m left alone in this little town without my friends, you decide it’s time to drop a bomb. What do you want me to say? You’re telling me I might live forever and hey, while I’m at it, I should attend Summit? You’ve kept this hidden this from me for seventeen years so why are you revealing this now? You know what? I’m guessing Uncle Henry is the only reason you’re saying anything to me at all. I can’t believe you would do this.”
“Kayden, I love you more than life itself, but that doesn’t make me perfect. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I have made, and will continue to make, mistakes, but I would never purposefully hurt you.” The sun was now completely gone and he was sure she was beginning to see his anger starting to boil over. He knew his overactive eyebrows always exposed his true emotions. She abruptly took a step toward the door, anticipating his reaction. She knew he was going to storm out even before he made the decision.
Sure enough, the piercing in his head erupted wildly. He threw down the wooden stool without saying a word and for a moment, their eyes met.
“Kayden, please don’t shut me out. I’m praying that someday you might understand why I waited to tell you. You’re the most important thing in my life. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
He felt betrayed by the one person he had unconditionally trusted. Kayden turned around, slammed the door open, and headed north with Logan urgently trying to keep up. Josie followed helplessly as her only son disappeared into the night. They began the short walk down the back alley and through the timber toward the town square.
Alexandria was quiet that evening. The light wind was whistling through the trees and the only sound of life was the random dog howling in the background. Logan kept looking at him strangely as they walked. He was used to Logan thinking he was a little crazy and out of control, but there was something else in the moonlit gleam in his eye.
“How is it possible?” Logan asked in disbelief. “I’ve known you my whole life. Quite frankly, the idea of you being a Phaedon seems like a joke. Are you feeding me a story? I mean… how could you be?” Logan seemed to wince at the very mention of the word.
Kayden tried ignore the crazy undertones of Logan’s questioning.
“Wouldn’t there have been some kind of sign? What about your Mom? What did she say? I mean, is she absolutely sure?”
There was a long pause as Kayden, for possibly the first time in his life, seemed completely clueless how to handle the situation. Kayden was viciously searching for his usual poster boy grin and cocky reply, but they eluded him.
Kayden took long, slow strides along the dirt path leading to Growley’s. He was taking his time passing through the cobblestone back alley of the aging stores just outside the town square. He wanted some time to process what had just happened so he walked in silence.
They passed by the post office and then by the library where Brietta Benson worked. Kayden was distracted by Logan’s sudden change of focus. He knew his friend was longing for those beautiful almond eyes lurking inside. Logan had spent most of his youth quietly chasing after her to no avail. Of course, she probably hadn’t noticed since none of the “chasing” involved an actual exchange of words. Kayden always tried to sooth his ego by saying she just wanted someone who was going to settle down and grow old in this little town. He was too big time. Yeah, that was it…
As he caught Logan’s break in concentration, Kayden looked up from his own thoughts and stopped abruptly. The sly grin Logan knew all too well started to form at the corners of his mouth. He stared at his friend for a moment without saying a word. Then, calmly as ever, Kayden finally spoke, “You know what I find funny?”
“I find it pretty funny you’re so concerned about your best friend, yet as soon as we get near the library you start thinking about Double B.”
“Her name isn’t Double B and I wasn’t even thinking about—”
“I believe tonight’s events have taught us a lot.” Kayden enjoyed the fact that, despite Logan’s overwhelming intelligence, he never seemed to be able to keep up with Kayden’s quips.
Logan hesitantly responded, “What do you mean?”
“Well, between you daydreaming about some library broad and me having to save you from a beating again, it just goes to show…”
“It just goes to show what?”
“Apparently I am the better man. It makes sense. I probably should live forever,” he said with a smug grin that made Logan want to take a swing at him.
“You son of a bitch!” Logan lunged at Kayden, but he was too strong and quick. Kayden grabbed him by the back of his neck as he dodged to the left and threw Logan playfully to the ground. Kayden was always extraordinarily fast when it came to sports, but situations like this showed how quick he actually was.
“I was worried about you, you selfish bastard,” yelled Logan from the ground.
“Get up and take your beating like a man. Besides, you have bigger things to worry about; like calling your shot,” laughed Kayden.
“Come off it. There’s no way you win tonight. I’m leaving for Summit tomorrow. That’s got to count for something.”
Kayden and Logan had been playing a game for as long as they’d been able to drink at Growley’s. The rules of the game were incredibly simple, yet the game had become increasingly difficult over time. They had decided that it wasn’t enough fun to merely impress girls. Instead, their competition was more challenging and required more creativity. They named the game was “Call Your Shot,” and the point was for each of them to pick out a girl for their opponent upon arrival. The first one to receive a kiss from their respective girl won. The key to the challenge was in the selection of the girl. It would be very easy just to point to someone the opponent had no shot with, but the boys had learned the game was more fun if they each had a fighting chance. Of course, Kayden always argued that it was skewed since every girl was fair game for him. Upon the kiss from the girl in question, the winner would announce his victory; thus, the name. Once victory had been claimed, the losing party had to then buy shots for the table—another reason for the game’s title. It was a common occurrence for Kayden to walk away with victory, but Logan had a good time playing, and every once in a while was able to sneak away with a win. They never revealed the game to anyone else or news of the game would spread fast and all the girls of Alexandria would know the routine.
“Tonight is going to be an easy win. Darlings are going to line up to buy me drinks tonight. All I need to do is say I’m leaving for Summit tomorrow and it will be an assembly line of girls,” Logan said, puffing out his chest.
As they opened the door to the pub, the living organism of Growley’s came spilling out into the night. The noise was deafening in comparison to the otherwise quiet street. Kayden coolly replied, “You think so?”
Growley’s Pub was the oldest building in Alexandria. It was built over 176 years ago as a library. It had taken on numerous roles including a morgue and a courthouse. The building had been used for multiple purposes because it was large and there hadn’t been a lot of money for new construction back in those days. However, as time went on and new buildings eventually sprung up, Growley’s had been reborn as the first pub thirty-five years later. It was a perfect match as it already had plenty of cooler space originally used for the morgue. This was the dirty little secret of the pub every local conveniently chose to forget.
When someone walked into Growley’s they were hit with billowing smoke from the front section of seating. The folks at the front tables could be found smoking all sorts of various cigars, pipes, and other strange weeds to combine in a twisted, bronze-colored haze. The smoke swallowed patrons whole, like a provocative perfume luring them closer. It smelled so interestingly toxic that they couldn’t resist searching for more. However, once past the cloud, the rest of the bar opened up into a spectacular lodge atmosphere most people wouldn’t believe until they saw it for themselves. The structure was made of teak, all the way up to the high, vaulted ceilings. Most patrons swore they were in an ancient church complete with cobwebs working their way up to those remarkable rafters. Toward the middle of the floor, there were three flat steps leading up to the most astonishing, nature-inspired bar anyone had ever seen. The bar itself was actually the twisted stump of a large redwood. It was sealed with a clear substance to protect it, but the roots stretched below the ground and made an unpredictably uneven floor. It was hollowed out in the middle for the bartender’s workspace and all of the liquor was hung from above like ornaments on a glamorous holiday wreath. The counter was another thick slice of the trunk, finished and placed on top of the hollowed base to create the unique alter of alcohol.
If Growley’s beauty wasn’t enough of an attraction, the pub’s history was enough to capture anyone’s attention for some great story telling. Supposedly, Alexandria was actually founded by an old sea captain named Growley many years ago. He came to the little spot by the bay and fell in love with the cool, summer temperatures by the water and the cold, snowy winters that followed. He decided he was done sailing and instead of selling his ship, he sank it in the bay. Nobody understood why he sank the ship, but it was a favorite topic of speculation. He built the first structure in Alexandria, his home, in the very spot Growley’s now stands. The house was supposedly destroyed during a tornado leaving only the redwood stump in its place. Years later, a library was built in his honor and the history of the building followed. On most nights, the boys loved to hear the guests twist the story to their imagination, but not tonight.
Kayden’s ability to process the earlier events and still keep his confident demeanor was remarkable. Nobody could tell from looking at him that his entire life and existence had been twisted into a mess of confusion. Of course, if there was one place Kayden felt completely at home, this was it. He didn’t think of Growley’s as a pub; he thought of it more as a safe haven. He was just as happy to sit peacefully in front of the fireplace with a book as he was partying.
His overly dramatic entrance wasn’t premeditated. Like most things for the brash, self-assured youngster, they just seemed to happen. The smoke slowly cleared a path for Kayden as he moved through the haze in the front of the building. He scanned the room as he moved past the bar and on to the back tables. The usual glances from some of the Alexandria girls didn’t faze him a bit. It was no mystery why Kayden was so successful with the town’s women. His tall, athletic build was framed by wide, commanding shoulders. He had a sharp jaw and a smile that exposed the wild, confident spirit within. Kayden was blessed with Josie’s strong features and naturally tan skin. He dressed shabbily at best, partly because he didn’t care and partly because he hadn’t grown up with any money. His clothes never seemed to be a focal point of the attraction, though.
Kayden had a huge grin on his face as he saw Willium and Henley sitting at a table with a couple of drinks in front of them. Henley Mannus was one of their oldest friends. She had lived on the other side of town in one of the big houses for most of her life. She was the only daughter of the richest man in Alexandria. Her father, Patrick, was the sole beneficiary of his family’s collective wealth and he flaunted it whenever he could. Somehow, despite her father’s arrogance, Henley was able to mature into one of the nicest people anyone would ever meet. She was generous to a fault, which exquisitely contradicted her extravagant upbringing. Summit was not an option, but rather a requirement, for her because Patrick was on the board of trustees and was happy to pay his daughter’s way. He was not one of the town elders, but everyone knew he would buy his way in if possible.
Willium Cassidy was the son of one of the town elders, and even though he was a shoe-in for the governmental old boys’ club, he’d done everything in his power to distance himself from it. His interest wasn’t in the affairs of their small town, but rather on the much bigger political picture overall. He had cropped hair and a face that reminded Kayden more of a whetstone than actual skin. His rugged, square jaw and protruding muscles would make any grown man proud.
Kayden had gotten to know him pretty well over the past few years as Willium had saved him from big trouble a number of times. The most memorable was when Kayden had flooded Dan Mulligan’s crops. The sick and twisted farmer had been harassing Henley when she walked home from school. He had told her how pretty she was in outfits only a princess should wear. Kayden hadn’t trusted his inappropriate banter and believed it was just a matter of time before Mulligan got too boozed up and took advantage of the young, innocent girl. He went on to claim he had destroyed the crops for fun since he hadn’t liked him anyway, but Willium believed he had done it for no other reason than saving Henley from the disgusting old man. Either way, the old man had gotten the message when his entire years’ crops were completely destroyed. Willium had convinced the town elders to be lenient since Kayden had only been protecting a friend.
“Well it’s about time you two finally made it happen,” announced Kayden. “I can’t wait for the power couple to start owning this town.” Logan chuckled as he pulled up a stool.
Willium sat very quietly with his usually half smile, half smirk. He always seemed to be quite amused with Kayden’s fearless approach to otherwise delicate subjects.
“Seriously, I just want to make sure I get a good seat at the wedding because that will be a party like no other,” he continued. “I can already imagine drinking the top shelf liquor on Patrick’s dime.”
Henley shot a glare at Kayden from across the table. She tried to look threatening, but her doll-like appearance was entirely too sweet to pull off any level of hostility. Henley was a shapely blonde with a natural smile that could light up any room. In many ways, she reminded him of a younger version of his mother, only extravagantly rich and much more fashionable. At first glance, she could easily pass off as the stereotypical trust fund brat, but it only took a little time to realize how thoughtful she actually was. On personality alone, you would never be able to tell that she was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the country.
Her irritated stare turned into a safer, more annoyed look of amusement. “Kayden, you should learn to keep your mouth shut.”
“Now honey, there’s no need to get all worked up. I’m just expressing my joy in seeing you guys finally start to figure out what everyone else has always known.”
“Just because you’re distraught over your own catastrophic attempts with the girls of this town doesn’t mean you need to pick on everyone else.” Despite her lavish good looks, he had never pursued her because he knew how Willium felt. Kayden was loyal to his friends. They fought too much to really go down that route anyway.
Kayden leaned sideways in his chair and smiled, exposing his perfect teeth and deep-set brown eyes. His shadow looked intimidating as the lanterns behind him flickered downward over his frame. With supreme confidence, he turned to face the giggling girls at the bar looking his way. Looking back at Henley, he replied, “Yeah, I’ve been struggling.”
A loud chuckle finally came to Willium’s chiseled face as he rocked back in his chair. Logan rolled his eyes and started to get up from the table.
“Okay, I’m ready for a drink. Who needs?” Kayden peeked up at his skinny friend from the corner of his eye. “Yes, yes, I know. I was speaking to everyone else,” Logan replied quickly.
“No, thanks. I’m still working on this one.” Henley cradled her drink in her perfectly manicured fingers and smiled. Willium answered by shaking his empty glass and cocking a brow.
“I’ll come with,” said Kayden with a grin.
Kayden was excited to get the game started and couldn’t think about anything else. He was already perusing the room as he walked up the stairs towards the giant redwood stump.
“All right, all right, who’s it going to be?” Logan asked.
“I’m not sure yet. I have to make it interesting, since it’s your last night and all.”
“Does that mean that you’ve decided to stay?”
“Now, now, stay on topic. As always, you have a small mountain to climb in this competition, so you’ll need to keep your concentration.” Kayden accepted Logan’s silence as agreement.
The two boys had extremely different methods of choosing their opponent’s challenge. He knew Logan had already chosen his target earlier when they had first come in. His approach was to pick someone who would be painful for Kayden to go after. Logan always tried to find someone that would completely annoy him in hopes that it would buy him enough time to win. A genius strategy could not guarantee victory in this game, though. A certain amount of charm, which Logan didn’t typically possess, was required.
“There you go! There’s your prize,” Logan announced as he pointed to the far corner of the cavernous building. Logan was pointing at Shayla Roberts.
At the mere sight of Shayla, Kayden’s stomach sank. Utter disdain was probably an understatement for how he felt about her. Even as a child, she was on her way to becoming Alexandria’s biggest gossip artist. She was constantly in everyone else’s business and loved to announce anything she learned from the mountaintops for all to hear. Shayla basically stood for everything Kayden hated about a small town.
“I can tell from the look on your face you’re excited about tonight’s game,” Logan said while he ordered two dark beers and the wheat beer Willium was drinking.
“I’ve always wanted a challenge.” Even Kayden was having a hard time figuring out how he was going to pull this one off. “Well, I guess tonight’s game is going to be especially interesting.”
“That one!” exclaimed Kayden abruptly with his outstretched finger pointed toward the door of the bar. He watched Logan’s fearful cringe in reaction to the excitement in his voice.
Logan handed over some paper bills to Diane the barkeep. She’d been at Growley’s longer than the boys had been alive. She was a short, cheerful, dark-haired woman who’d seen it all. She spoke the truth, even if it was painful, and she had taken a liking to the two boys. Diane was smiling at Kayden as she’d obviously seen the game enough times to figure out what was going on.
“You’re going to give that boy an ulcer!” cried Diane.
Logan finally gave in and appeased them both. There, just entering the bar and finding a small booth near the front with some friends, was none other than Brietta Benson. Logan turned ghostly white. They watched as all of his blood rushed to his feet and his hands started pouring ounces of frigid sweat.
“Th… tha… that’s just not right Kayd,” Logan said after a long silence.
“Sorry, Logan. You know the rules. There’s no turning back now.”
“You know this is—”
“This is going to force you to stand up and be a man. Do it. I’m sick of watching you drool after that girl for the past five years.”
Kayden knew he’d just broken about a hundred unwritten rules between men, but it was completely justified in his mind. His best friend needed a nudge in the right direction and he was providing that good little nudge.
Logan didn’t stand out from a crowd. He was of average height with an average build. He had messy, dark blonde hair and a round face that made him seem younger than he was. His nice persona and underwhelming looks often found him in the friend zone. He looked quietly over at Diane and said, “He will have a double shot of Serilla.” Logan had already laid the cash down on the bar as he shot a sneer over his shoulder to Kayden and slowly walked away to meet his doom.
Kayden couldn’t believe the brass he had just witnessed. It was the most courage Logan had ever displayed in all the time he had known him. Kayden now had to face the music himself. Serilla was a backwoods concoction that could bring a man, especially Kayden, to his knees. It had the taste of half vodka, half tequila, and half pure evil. He knew it was mathematically impossible, but it was the best way to describe something so horrid. He’d had many battles with the fire-water and all he had ever learned was to distrust and hate it with all his might. As Kayden thought about the awful liquor, it occurred to him the same description could be applied to Shayla. Not only had Logan just ordered him the worst thing ever created by man, but he had also set him on a course to dance with his own personal demon. She was a miserable pain that wouldn’t go away. Unfortunately, he couldn’t just take that particular poison and quickly be done with it.
“To hell and back,” whispered Kayden with a sly little grin that might have been only for him. He drowned the shot and, with all the force in his body, tried to keep a straight face. It was like someone had lit a large, flaming torch and tossed it recklessly down his throat. He headed back to the table as the burn spread to his extremities. Willium and Henley were watching him while Diane gazed in silent amusement.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but that double didn’t look like something to mess with. Was that Serilla? What the hell did you do to Logan?” asked Willium in disbelief.
“I told him Henley was finally coming to grips with her crush on him.” Kayden chuckled. He was still fighting back the burning feeling.
Henley calmly looked over at Kayden with a sparkle in her eye and said, “You think I don’t know what you two are up to? You think I don’t know about your little game? You’re disgusting and I hope you get what’s coming to you.”
“Darling, if it makes you feel any better, you were the muse that started this game,” said Kayden. “You never knew it at the time, but we watched two guys hard up on impressing you try their turn, so we decided the noble thing to do was to take bets on who would win; payment being shots, of course. Strangely enough, Willium, who wasn’t even playing, won, if you do recall.” He knew how to turn on the charm and he watched as Henley fought back a smile. “From that event, we came up with a fair, rule-based competition for ourselves.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better? I couldn’t care less about the games you little boys play.”
Kayden knew she was only trying to sound tough. His mind was starting to dance carelessly and he could already feel the near immediate effects of the Serilla. That was something to worry about.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Willium. “I’ve known you for as long as Henley and she’s the muse? Somehow I feel slighted.”
Henley turned her attention back to Willium and gave him a stare that made him look down at his glass like a lectured child.
“So, as long as the secret is out about your amusing sport, why not give us the scoop? What’s going on?” prodded Willium.
“Well, since our game is ruined, I guess I could give you a play by play. You see, our hero,” Kayden nodded in Logan’s direction, “is busy trying to find enough nerve to talk to his Everest.”
“No way! He is not going to finally take a shot at Brietta, is he?” cried Henley in disbelief.
“Atta boy! Our little Logan is finally growing up and being a man,” said Willium.
“What are you talking about? Being a man? Wasn’t it just five minutes ago you were telling me about your adventure killing an itsy-bitsy spider?” mocked Henley. She looked overly proud of her dig as Willium promptly gave up a rough smirk.
“Anyway… Seeing how it is Logan’s last night, I felt it was only fitting to raise the stakes of our little pastime. Tonight, he has to face his fears and romance our elder scarlet.”
“That only explains half the story. What is your end of the game?” Willium asked.
Kayden looked down as he painfully admitted, “Yeah, Logan had his own trump card up his sleeve. Shayla Roberts is now my problem.” Willium and Henley began laughing hysterically and almost fell out of the clunky wooden chairs.
“You have to seduce Shayla Roberts?” Henley exclaimed as she continued to laugh loudly.
“Dude, you hate Shayla. Everyone hates her. The girl is a walking tabloid. How in hell are you going to stomach being around the little vixen?” asked Willium.
“Well, for starters, you are going to have put up with her for a while as well. I’ll need to bring her over to the table.”
“Tell me you aren’t serious,” Henley exclaimed. “Exactly how much Serilla did you have?”
“I’m a little unsure why we are the ones who have to suffer in a bet that you made with Logan.”
“What can I say, guys? I can’t win the match from across the room.”
There was a moment of silence while they desperately searched for any alternative to her at their table. Finally, Willium decided to make the best out of a bad situation. “All right, if we’re going to make it through this, we’ll need a little help.”
Henley watched him out of the corner of her eye while he headed to the bar.
Kayden leaned back in his chair, took a swig of his drink, and smiled at her.
“Don’t give me that look. There is nothing going on. You may have some sort of twisted fantasy about the two of us ending up together, but that doesn’t make it true,” Henley said.
“I’m just sitting here minding my own business. I’m not even entirely sure what you’re referring to.” Kayden’s crooked smile continued to antagonize her.
* * *
On the other side of the spacious tavern, Logan was hard at work. He had downed another drink before he had gotten up the nerve to approach the table. He nervously strode to the tall corner booth, ignoring the steady flow of sweat beads engulfing his palms.
“I’m not sure I should do this, but I’m actually going to lead with, ‘Haven’t I seen you at the library?’” said Logan with suppressed tension.
Brietta, caught by surprise, giggled a little and responded, “Well, I do have to confess, I’ve never quite heard that one before. Are you a fan of our humble library?”
“I also have to confess. I’ve only been there a few times, but I definitely think it’s the best one around—”
Brietta cut him off mid-sentence, “That was me, giving you an out, not me looking for an answer. Why don’t you sit down?” she said with an innocent, but controlled look. “What are you drinking?” she asked as he sat down at the rickety old table.
“Um… I’m having a Timberlager,” Logan replied. He was trying to play it cool and suave but it just wasn’t happening. She made a motion to the waitress to get him another. He was overpowered by her beautiful almond eyes dissecting his every move. She had an interesting tic, like she was trying to read his facial expressions like a book when he spoke. It was provocatively adorable and Logan was completely at her mercy. She had total control of the conversation from the minute he got near the table. He was helpless. This girl was going to be the end of him.
“Logan, it seems interesting you chose now to come and talk to me rather than at the library where you’ve seen me before.” She waited for him to respond. Even Logan knew this was a loaded question. He paused to take a quick drink of his lager.
“Well, if I were to introduce myself to you in the library, I would have to be charming and smart. Here at the bar, I can get away with only being charming.” He was particularly proud of himself for the clever answer.
He thought she looked amused, but she wasn’t doing him any favors. “So, when does the charming part start?” She continued to giggle as she said it. She had to know how hard she was making him work for it. “Besides, from what I hear, intelligence is more in your wheelhouse.”
Logan swallowed hard as he acknowledged his lack of wisdom in trying to hit it off with an older woman without help. He realized he wasn’t going to be able to outsmart his way through this conversation. She continued to smile in return, but it was becoming evident her interest would soon run out.
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m intelligent, but I was able to trick Summit into letting me attend,” Logan said, his voice trembling.
“That’s not exactly what I’ve heard. Didn’t you actually earn a scholarship? By the way, that’s typically something to lead with when you’re hitting on a girl.”
Brietta brushed back her long, straight, brown hair off her shoulder and leaned her thin frame into a close, flirtatious position. She was beautiful, without question, but her beauty was overshadowed by her intelligence. Most guys in town were too intimidated to ask her out. It would appear to be a pretty lonesome existence, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
Logan, furiously fidgeting with his hands under the table, found a fresh batch of courage and responded, “So, tell me, is it a bad thing if the girl is actually giving pointers on how to approach her?” His honesty and self-deprecating joke seemed to hit the right spot.
“It’s comforting. Are you actually this honest all of the time?”
“Although I’m sure Kayden would be telling me to shut my mouth right now, yes, I believe I am. For better or for worse.”
“Kayden Verus?” asked Brietta with an interested expression on her face.
Logan had seen this look before and it didn’t sit well with him. “Yes, do you know him?” he asked, even though he was sure he didn’t want to hear the response. He imagined taking her back to the table only to watch her fall for Kayden.
“No, nothing like that. He’s just interesting. I’ve met his mother and I’ve read about some of his local exploits.”
Logan felt a little more at ease, but he still wasn’t sure how he felt about her interest in Kayden. “His exploits?”
“You know, the scandal with Patti Finnegan, the numerous fights with the elders’ children, the alleged event at Dan Mulligan’s farm… He isn’t exactly shy about being the local news.” She looked a little embarrassed but Logan couldn’t understand why.
“I suppose that’s true. Kayden certainly isn’t frightened of finding the spotlight,” chuckled Logan. “Would you like to join me at the table we have in the back?” He was a little surprised by his newly-found valor. Kayden always said not to be afraid of the moment. Was this what it felt like to be him around girls?
No. Kayden wouldn’t have to try so hard. It would just come naturally. He’d flash a smile, say something shocki