I reached for the door of my dusty aqua sedan to head to the grocery store. During this routine activity on just another typically mundane day, there was no hint that it would be my last normal moment for some time.
The day started like every other. I’d taught one of my Pilates classes and, as usual, sped past the front desk on my way out of the gym, avoiding Tami, the receptionist. After two years, she still hadn’t tired of prying into my personal life. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if there was actually something to tell. Now and then, she managed to detain me and ask the same questions she always asked while leaning on the counter, her greed for potential gossip smeared across her face. Really, I could have written down my responses on a sheet of paper, made copies, and just handed her one every time she caught me. The answers never changed. No, nothing’s new. Yes, I’m still living at the same place. No, haven’t gone out anywhere interesting lately. No, I’m still not seeing anyone…
Relieved that Tami had been on the phone, I’d made an easy escape. Exchanging a brief wave on the way out with Eric, one of the fitness trainers, I was soon safely in my car, driving home. The Ventura, California, sun shone across the dashboard and on my pale skin. There was something comforting in that warmth. I turned on the radio and set it to the preset jazz station, keeping the sound at a humming background noise. Why had I thought of my car as safe? Why did I always feel the need to escape from talking with my coworkers? Picturing Eric and his always friendly smile, I couldn’t come up with an answer. I never had. All I knew is that it felt wrong to me. It was fine when I taught class, leading the exercises, analyzing a student’s form, and doling out the appropriate corrections. That was all done on autopilot, robotic. It was technical, not emotional, unlike real life. Real life was shaken up hard when my parents died twelve years ago, and my only sibling and I parted ways for good. Then, when William was gone, real life dried up like a rose in the desert sun. Now, any situation where I was expected to feel seemed wrong. Even a fake smile was too much to ask of such an empty person.
Back at home, I soaked in the shower, mentally going over my shopping list, then dried off and threw on a peach cotton T-shirt and short, flowing skirt. Perfect for the August weather. A vision of William flashed uninvited through my mind before I could stop it. Those are some sexy legs there, lady!
Snapping my eyes shut, I shook my head rapidly. I needed to push away his voice and the mental picture of him. Humming often helped block out these random intrusions, so I started in on a Maroon 5 tune and headed downstairs for some coffee.
Still humming, I dug through the stack of mail that had been piling up on the kitchen counter, and pulled out the most recent installment of my weekly news magazine. Then I sat down to read the cover article on President Obama while the coffee brewed.
Twenty minutes later, with cup drained, article finished, and teeth brushed, I walked to the front door, then paused to look at the gold-framed picture on the little table where I kept my keys. There was William, smiling like a catalog model, with his spiky blond hair, sun-kissed, freckled skin, and strong fireman’s chest and shoulders. Maybe if I wanted to stop hearing him talk to me, I should cut out this part of my usual routine, stopping at this picture every time I went out the front door. For what felt like the hundredth time, I picked up the picture, told myself it was probably time to put it away, then set it back down on the table.
Outside, I tossed my reusable shopping bags onto the backseat of the six-year-old car. I had to slam the door closed to compensate for its dented frame. Rexy, the neighbor’s dog, bounded happily through the yard across the street. Tears threatened as I thought that maybe I could, or should, get a dog. Sighing, I reached for the driver’s door. The car keys slipped from my grasp and seemed to fall to the pavement in slow motion…
Out of nowhere, a fast, hard blast of wind assaulted me. I squinted against a bright burst of light. My stomach lurched as if I’d just dropped down the steep slope of a roller coaster. When I opened my eyes a moment later, everything was…different.
Brown, serpentine roots replaced my concrete driveway. I cried out in surprise. The roots tripped me as I stumbled forward. Gasping, I threw my arms out for balance as whiplike branches with plate-sized leaves assaulted me. Thorns scratched my bare arms and caught and held my skirt along with waves of my hair as I tried to beat them away. A dense forest surrounded me like a wall of green fog. Noise flooded my ears, but I was too disoriented to focus on what made the sounds. The air was thick, stifling, with heavy floral scents, making me light-headed and adding claustrophobia to my rising panic.
Shoving, fighting, and stumbling toward what I hoped was open space, it was several miserable minutes before I broke, with relief, into a large, grassy clearing. A glance back gave telltale signs of my passage. Several long strands of strawberry-blonde hair still clung to some of the prickly branches. I dropped forward, then rested my sweaty hands on my scraped-up, stinging knees, and panted while mentally chanting, What the hell, what the hell, what the hell?
Carefully lowering myself to the ground until I was kneeling with my palms flat on the grass, I continued to gasp and try to steady myself. How in the name of heaven and earth…?
I looked in every direction, desperate to find something familiar or anything that could help me understand what had just happened.
There was nothing. Nothing but trees, bushes, grass, blue sky, and a lot of noise that must have been birds, but they sounded different than the birds in my neighborhood. No sweet little tweeting or deep cawing of the crows, but a crazy chatter and trilling that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe I’d heard it in a movie? Or at a zoo?
What had happened? I was at my car. Had I passed out? No. Wouldn’t I have come to right there in my driveway? Perhaps I’d done some sort of blacking-out thing where I managed to wander off? No. There had been a strong wind and bright light, and this was nowhere I’d ever seen before. How could I have just walked here?
I crawled over to the nearest tree trunk, shakily pulled myself to my feet, then bent my head and stared at the ground while I collected my thoughts. There must be a path somewhere nearby. I would find it and look for help—which I fervently hoped wouldn’t include a trip to a psychiatric ward.
!” someone shouted.
Snapping my head up, I saw a tall, thirtysomething-year-old man with jet-black hair, olive skin, and wide, dark eyes, staring at me in astonishment from across the field. Distracted for a moment by how handsome he was, more cries soon pulled my focus away.
Wikom?” Other male voices rose above the sounds of the wildlife. I took in each one as they appeared from various parts of the forest. The second man to emerge from the trees had smooth brown skin and a bald head. Following shortly behind him was a man with pasty-white skin and buzz-cut, sandy hair, whose eyes had a crazy look that didn’t do anything to ease my distress. Next was a man who must have been about six feet five, with waves of brown hair halfway down his neck, and facial scruff. Then two younger-looking ones, maybe in their early to midtwenties, arrived together. One was sweet-faced and possibly Middle Eastern, while the other had milk-chocolate skin and an impressive head of golden-brown curls.
Then yet another arrived, not far from where I had entered the clearing. He caught me in his gaze, and it took a moment to remember to breathe. All these men that suddenly appeared here in what seemed the middle of nowhere were eye-catching, but this one was so beautiful he almost seemed inhuman. His eyes were both green and blue, and his brown hair was tinted with red and gold. His full lips, chiseled features, and intense stare were mesmerizing, but my attention was reluctantly yanked away as one last man stepped out of the forest. He was tall like the others, but more slightly built, with white-blond hair and blue eyes.
After straightening up and breathing in the moist air, I leaned on the tree while taking in the sight of these eight men, who were frozen in place and staring at me with shocked expressions. The pants and long-sleeve shirts they all wore were green-and-tan camouflage. The fabric was thin, almost sheer, and clung to their well-defined forms. Each of them also wore a wide silver band that glinted in the sun, on the left wrist.
For several moments, we all stared, silent and trancelike, until the tallest one, with the facial scruff, abruptly broke into a wide grin and yelled, “Wikom
!” He rushed at me. I took a nervous step back while the first man I’d seen, along with the beautiful man, aggressively blocked the one rushing.
Arguing between the three ensued in a language I didn’t recognize, and soon the entire group joined what appeared to be a heated debate. No, not the entire group. The slim blond stood apart, his arms crossed, his lips tight, and his ice-blue eyes boring into me.
Aware of rough bark cutting into my skin, I looked at my fingers digging into the trunk of the tree. Loud, agitated words drew my focus back to the men. A word here or there might have been English, but I couldn’t understand the phrases nor liken it to any other language. Their diverse appearances gave no clue, either. Unease began to overshadow my confusion as the tension between them escalated. Several hands balled into fists as they closed in on each other. The oldest couldn’t have been more than forty, and they all had fit, athletic builds. If this became a fight, it promised to be a long, ugly one.
Whatever was going on, it was time for me to exit. Turning back to the brambles, I dreaded enduring another blind search. It might lead to nothing, but staying here seemed a worse idea. These crazed men in their bizarre outfits and foreign language did nothing to indicate they would be helpful. Could I somehow find my way home by walking back the way I’d come?
Behind me, the voices abruptly changed from angry to urgent. Barely had I turned back when two of them, the bald one and the pasty one, flanked me and blocked my thorny escape route. They stood so close I could feel the heat pouring off their bodies. I swallowed hard as the first man I’d seen, with the black hair and dark eyes, walked toward me.
A hand slowly brushed down my left arm, and I stiffened. It was the pasty man with the crazy eyes. The black-haired man barked, “Viktor! None veet
!” The hand on my arm fell away. Was this first man the leader of this strange tribe or platoon or whatever it was? He held out his right hand, ducked his head, and gesturing to himself said, “Niku.” His name, I assumed.
Staying mute, I took his proffered hand with some hesitation. At that moment, in a sea of boiling testosterone, with no idea where I was or how to get home and no one speaking my language, this man’s gentle gesture made him appear to be the safest port. His eyes closed briefly as his hand encased mine, then held it tightly. With an authoritative tone, he addressed the others. For quite a while he spoke, the others listening with some grumbling and the occasional interruption, and me watching them in shocked silence. I heard the word she, and a few others that sounded familiar, but couldn’t make sense of the conversation as a whole.
When he finished speaking, the rest of the group remained where they were, eyes fixed on the two of us, as Niku led me away. Glancing around at them and their hungry expressions, I stayed close to Niku, hoping he was leading me somewhere that would get me back home. We stopped several yards away from the other men but still in the grassy clearing, with nothing around us. I glanced at my escort in utter confusion as he tapped his silver wristband. Suddenly, the world fell out from beneath my feet, and we dropped. I gasped and squeezed my eyes shut, bracing for impact. In a split second, we were still again.
My eyes opened to an alien sight. We were in an underground room. Dirt and roots of the earth were visible through walls and floor that appeared to be made from some sort of clear gel. The space was small but with enough height for standing. On the floor was a lumpy bed with a pillow and thin blanket. Several small black boxes were stacked against a wall. A light was stuck to another wall; it was tiny but lit the room well. The “apartment” could have been suffocating, but fresh air came in through vents in the ceiling.
Niku still held my hand. I hadn’t pulled away because my head had been spinning and his grip helped me balance. But now I reached out, wanting to touch the strange substance of the walls. Niku grabbed back my hand even more tightly and startled me by pulling me closer. Slowly, he looked me over, assessing the scratches on my limbs. There were many, but they were not deep. I backed away as much as the space would allow, but he stepped forward, put his fingers to my face, and gently touched the few scratches there. My breathing became heavier. At first I thought it was because I was nervous, panicking, but then I realized his touch sparked a creeping, pleasant sensation. A feeling I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. The warmth of his fingertips left tingling spots on my skin. Then I began to notice his scent, perhaps because we were in the enclosed space. It was of dirt and woods and sweat. Man smell. I hadn’t been this close to a man in a very long time, not since William. His hands slid gently over my arms while I remained still, looking up at his face. His dark eyes stared back as his hands moved to my waist and onto my hips, where his fingers pressed more deeply into my flesh. His breaths grew heavier as well, and without blinking, he leaned into me, softly placing his mouth onto mine and wrapping his arms around me. He trembled as he kissed me, and a long-forgotten ache began building in my center at the feel of his rough lips. I couldn’t explain this instant attraction, but I also couldn’t help the arousal budding in my core as I returned his kiss.
He pulled away, and an involuntary whimper escaped me. Despite my fear and confusion about what was happening, and the possibility that I might be losing my mind, a fire simmered in my body. He sat down on the mattress and reached a hand out, beckoning me to him. With trepidation, I took one step nearer, then another, until I stood before him. He put a hand on my calf, then slid it slowly up my leg. I gasped when he reached my thigh, and because my legs were starting to tremble, I sat down beside him. He leaned forward, putting a hand back on my cheek. He kissed me again, more deeply this time. Perhaps I was in shock, but I didn’t resist. Or maybe after all this time, deep down, I just wanted to be touched. Whatever the reason, I allowed myself to be guided onto my back, allowed myself to get lost in this man’s warmth and woodsy scent. With his mouth so hot and eager on mine, those old physical aches flared through me. As his weight pressed onto me, his hips working my legs apart, I had a vision of a light shining down on me, and not just on me but on my life as well, exposing the solitude and misery I’d tried to ignore these past years. But now I could see how pathetic I’d become. It felt like I was waking up, because Niku was making me feel.