A/N: Hi everyone, I’ve been busy this year. Got sick a couple of times and had to stop writing altogether for a while and might have to resume writing this story after February. But since it’s Christmas, I’ve decided to upload a new chapter as a Christmas present to you. 🙂
The frown Cheska wore smoothened as Fred told her about Louis’ arrival up to the point where they left her in the guest room. Her face was impassive when he reached the end of the narration. Fred began to feel uneasy at first. Minutes passed and she still hadn’t spoken. His apprehension rose. The others in the room also waited in tense silence. Fred had never seen Electra this quiet and expressionless nor the artist he’d gotten to know for the past few days. They’re just one person, Fred reminded himself.
“What will happen to those people?” Cheska asked.
“Usually, we would interrogate them,” Mr. Roucan explained. “After the information we need has been extracted, they would then be handed over to the authorities as illegal immigrants.” His lips pressed into a thin line showing displeasure.
“But?” she urged.
“The disturbance earlier would have reached the President by now. I am expecting a call from him. He will arrange a meeting with all individuals concerned.”
Presently, my staff has released a statement regarding the incident. The public would be led to believe that the area is part of a scene in an upcoming film. Fortunately, we have found one movie production that fits the criteria. We called the producers and settled into an agreement. They would hint that one of the action scenes was shot in our city to the press.”
“In exchange, Roucan Global would give financial support in the movie’s promotion.”
“Is it any good?”
Mr. Roucan questioning gaze landed on his daughter.
“Satisfactory.” A corner of his mouth quirked.
“And Louis’ phone calls?” she asked.
“A separate statement from our Telecommunications Department will be issued. They will state that a virus had infected the server causing substantial damage to the system. The public will be reassured that we are taking pre-emptive measures to avoid reoccurrence. We will, of course, have a few similar incidents in random areas to throw off suspicion. After some time, the department’s representative will announce that the virus has been successfully removed from the system.”
“Do I have to attend the meeting with the President?”
Mr. Roucan and Louis spoke simultaneously: “I don’t think it’s necessary.” “You don’t have to.”
“I should go then,” Cheska decided. She turned towards the opening on the wall – the entrance to a secret passage.
“Sis,” Louis grabbed her.
She stared at the hand encircling her upper arm. Cheska’s eyes met his. She said, “It’s alright. I’m just going to head back to the ivory room.”
“You can use your old room,” Mr. Roucan interjected.
“My old room,” Cheska murmured, smiling to herself. “Thank you, but I’d rather not risk it. People might talk.” Her gaze returned to Louis’ hand that still held her.
“Sis,” Louis repeated helplessly.
“I won’t leave without you knowing, Louis.”
“Promise.” Cheska gave him a reassuring smile. “I’ll wait in my room.”
Louis freed her. She stepped out of his reach, turned her back to them and started to leave. Fred excused himself and caught up with her at the door’s opening. She directed a questioning glance his way.
“Just a brief physical check-up. You were in shock earlier,” Fred added as an afterthought.
Wordlessly, she entered the hidden passage. Fred took this as a cue and followed her inside. The wall panel slid in place. Darkness engulfed them briefly until lamps embedded on the stone walls came to life. The lighting was dim but enough to be able to tell that they were in a dim narrow hallway.
The space too small, the sinister walls bore down on him. He had overcome it, yet… Fred staggered and had to lean on the wall for support. I should’ve known. He had not been mentally prepared and the unexpectedly cramped surroundings triggered his fear. Shakily, he swallowed and tamped down his fear. Fred focused on breathing, Cheska’s back, and placing a foot forward then another.
A minute or an hour didn’t make much of a difference. Time passed with horrifying slowness for someone stuck in a narrow corridor. Fred regretted for not having invested on a wristwatch. He relied too much on his smartphone. Still, it was probably for the best he couldn’t track the time. It would be torture to be aware of how long it had been since they left Mr. Roucan’s study. When was it that he was last stranded in an enclosed space pretty much like this one?
A long while, a voice in his head answered. Echoes of laughter, a boy’s pleas, and darkness from a distant past came at him. Fred shut his eyes, gritting his teeth. No! That was long ago. He shook his head as if to clear his mind. Worse, still, was if he started picturing morbid scenarios. For example, an earthquake could…
Something soft and warm clasped his hand. A voice, different from the ones in his head, spoke. It was too far – too faint. He couldn’t understand what it was telling him. Fred concentrated on the sound. Finally, he recognized the speaker. Cheska was calling his name. She was worried.
“Gi—” His voice was hoarse. Fred cleared his throat. “Just give me a second.” He squeezed her hand to assure her.
“Okay.” Her thumb rubbed circles on the back of his hand. He gratefully let himself be distracted by the sensation. When his breathing slowed and his heart didn’t feel like it would burst, Fred opened his eyes and found himself drowning in two golden pools. Dark thoughts vanished.
Electra. He had thought he’d lost her, yet here she was.
“Fred,” she said.
Her voice made him drop his gaze to her lips. It formed words Fred couldn’t comprehend. His mouth went dry. It was close…so close.
A spark erupted in their clasped hands, jolting him. Cheska gasped, but held on preventing him from putting distance between them.
“I’m sorry.” Fred searched her face. Did it hurt her? No, she wasn’t in pain. Her cheeks were flushed. Cheska was embarrassed.
“No, It’s fine,” she spoke a little sharply. “It took me by surprise. I’m not hurt,” Cheska added on a softer note. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?”
Fred stared at her in confusion. She should know. Electra knew, unless… He rubbed the back of his neck, noting that his hands were shaking. Discussing his condition to others had become a rare occurrence once he had somewhat overcome it. The passage here was just especially cramped.
“I was claustrophobic,” Fred replied. “I mean, I still am – slightly.”
“Not to worry. We’re halfway there.” Her eyes widened at his pained expression. “I shouldn’t have said that.” She bit her lip. “How can I help?”
“Let’s not talk about it.” He gave her a weak smile.
“Right.” She nodded. Then her eyes shone as an idea formed. “Close your eyes.”
Bemused, in spite of himself, Fred obeyed.
“Think about a place where you want to go.” She paused. “Imagine you’re there. I’ll guide you the rest of the way.”
He felt her rearrange her hand in his then tug him forward.
The shift in the air and the click of a door behind them indicated that they were finally in the guest room. Sunlight beat down on his eyelids. Carefully, he opened his eyes letting them adjust to the brightness. Fred inspected the room. The ivory room’s holographic flooring showed clouds. A majority of it concealed a wide expanse of an ocean and specks of small islands. The view gave him an impression of having taken up residence in the heavens. Two damaged souls for angels. Fred smiled at the irony.
“You can let go of my hand now,” Cheska said, amused. He found her studying him. His gaze lowered to their joined hands. Fred complied. Another spark erupted as he pulled his hand away. A tingling sensation traveled up Fred’s arm and his pulse quickened. He reached for her hand, but Cheska had already turned from him. Again, pink stained her face. With reluctance he let her move further into the room.
What was that? It also happened in the car prior to the attack. For a moment, he had wanted to pull her to him. He had wanted her. Still, the first one felt more like static. Was his ability reacting towards her? If it was, he had to be more careful.
“You were smiling just now,” Cheska pulled him from his thoughts.
She was referring to the place that he pictured in his head at the remainder of their walk in the secret passage. “I was,” Fred replied.
“I’d like to continue that game,” she half-turned and met his eyes, “where you answer my question and then get your turn to ask me.” Cheska took his silence as a yes. “Why were you smiling?”
“Next question, please.”
Her brow knitted together. “That’s not an answer. Is that even allowed?”
She sighed. “Fine. There’s a story behind your phobia, isn’t it?”
Of course, she would pick on the topic I least want to talk about. The concern she showed towards him both as Cheska and Electra, however, made him pause. “There is,” he admitted.
“Is it alright to ask about what happened?”
“It was a long time ago,” Fred shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Tell me something first. How much of your past do you remember?”
The corners of her mouth curled, ruefully. She sat on the bed and said, “I should’ve known about your phobia, right?” She glanced at him. “I know you were my friend – the only person I allowed in the forest who isn’t related to my family.” Cheska regarded him. “So, can I hear your story now?”
Fred sat beside her, making sure there was enough space to prevent physical contact. “Are you sure you want to?”
Cheska bobbed her head.
“I was eight and scrawny and timid. I got bullied a lot because of it. The worst thing that happened was getting trapped in an unused janitor’s closet in the school’s basement. It was after classes. The maintenance staff found me the next morning. The following week, I was taken out of school and met my psychologist and teacher in self-defense.” Fred remembered it in detail:
The bell had rung. He had taken a detour to avoid the bullies in his class. The route hadn’t helped. It led him straight to a group of older and meaner students. They had crowded and herded Fred to the basement and locked him in the closet. They promised to let him out before going home. They forgot about him. He shouted for help until his voice grew hoarse; banged on the door of his prison to make noise, and, possibly, get out. Fred spent the night huddled by the door, crying and shivering because of the cold.
A janitor who had come to move some boxes in the basement noticed a key that went missing the previous day. It hung on the closet door. The janitor’s curiosity on the contents of the closet was what saved Fred. He was found unconscious and delirious with fever.
His parents had flown back from overseas when he was reported missing. His mom, furious, threatened to file a lawsuit against the school. Fred’s dad was displeased with everyone, him included: Fred was expected to do better than let himself be pushed around; disapproved of dragging their family name in court; annoyed with the school for its poor implementation against bullying, and looked down on the parents of his son’s tormentors.
His dad’s decision was swift and final. Grievances were forwarded to the school board. Fred was home-schooled for the rest of the year while attending therapy and self-defense training.
“How can they be so cruel?” Cheska frowned.
“Children can be without meaning to,” Fred answered. His dad had harshly criticized the other parents for rearing spoiled brats and bullies. He smiled to himself. His parents were close then. When his mom became emotional, she overreacted. It was his dad who kept a cool head and dealt with the problem.
“In the end, it was kind of a blessing,” Fred said. “I transferred to another school the next year. Made good use of my training when one of the mean ones tried to mess with me. People avoided me like the plague but, at least, I wasn’t bullied anymore.”
“You didn’t have friends.” Cheska had caught his meaning and gazed sadly at him.
“I had a few.” Fred didn’t add that it was only in Roucan Academy did he make friends. He had made a reputation for skipping his boring classes and getting into fights, especially when students accused his mom of practicing witchcraft. Strangely, James, Paolo and Michael’s opinion about his reputation and life bordered on mild interest and fascination.
“Are you happy now – with how things turned out for you?”
“I’m lucky than most. I guess, I am happy.” Fred glanced at her. Mr. Roucan’s words and Cheska’s reaction to Louis returned to him. He decided to broach the subject. “Are you happy, Cheska?”
She flopped back on the mattress, staring at the ceiling. In a soft voice, Cheska said, “I don’t know, Fred. I suppose I am but there’s also this sadness. I know that things won’t go back to the way they were.”
He heard her sniffle then cry quietly. Fred laid on his side and wiped her tears. Eventually, he pulled her close, tucking her head under his chin.
“Everything’s going to be alright, Cheska,” he consoled her.
“No, it won’t,” she said, crying harder. Her hands clutched at his shirt, tears dampening the cloth. “It won’t. It’s going to get worse. And I’ve ruined your shirt.”
Fred chuckled at her worry over something trivial. “It’s fine, love. I don’t mind,” he said. “Just let it all out.”
Cheska quietened after an hour. Fred gently pulled back to check if she had fallen asleep. She wasn’t as far as he could tell with the way his shirt was bunched up in her hands. A couple of minutes more, Cheska shifted up until their eyes were leveled to each other. A small frown formed between her brows while she scanned his face. Then Cheska closed the remaining distance, her lips meeting his.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: So what do you think Cheska’s up to?
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