Alexis Davenport gathered her water bottle and sunglasses, shouting good-bye to her mom as she ran out of the guesthouse.
“Be back by lunchtime, Alex!”
“I will, Mom!” She rolled her eyes. It’s not like I’ve never been to the Monument before!
Jennifer, Amy, Simon and Paul were waiting outside. They were watching the gardeners her aunt Karen had hired to tackle the huge back yard. The men worked together like a well-oiled machine. They never seemed to get in each others way and they instinctively seemed to know which job to do next.
“Took ya long enough,” Jennifer teased.
“You know how my mom is. Wants to know exactly where I’m going, who I’m going with, the exact time I’ll be back, blah blah blah.” Alex’s voice took on a high-pitched mocking tone.
“Let’s get going. It’s gonna be a scorcher today,” Simon said.
The group made their way through the back yard, and for the scenic beauty of the Colorado National Monument. Many people from the neighborhood were out early, enjoying the exercise before the temperature grew unbearable.
After a few minutes of walking down the well-worn trail, Paul took off and began walking over a large boulder field.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be off the trail,” said Alex, glancing about nervously. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them.
“People do it all the time,” said Paul.
Alex shrugged. As long as no adults called them out, she didn’t care. She was just glad to have an entire summer without having to deal with the likes of Catelyn Montgomery and Beau Johnson. The thought of not seeing those two for three months made her want to sing and do cartwheels.
“I’m so bummed your mom won’t let you come to Hawaii,” Jennifer said.
“It’s so lame! It’s not like we’re going by ourselves or anything. It’s not fair. She never lets me do anything.” Alex’s mood took a bad turn. She was so angry at her mom for saying no she hadn’t spoken to her for days.
She forced the anger down and tried to enjoy the day. Alex loved exploring the Monument. There was so much to see. Paul had been raised here and his dad had taught him the names of the plants and how to lift rocks to find all sorts of little insects and bugs. As they walked, Paul pointed out various shrubs and flowers, telling them their names and what the native Americans had used them for.
“Paul, are you sure you know where you’re going?” Amy sounded a little nervous.
Alex didn’t blame her. They had gone so far from the trail. Nothing looked familiar. The desert landscape began to take on a sinister air. Paul told them once that mountain lions roamed these hills. Alex pictured a predatory cat pouncing on her, digging its teeth into the soft flesh of her neck.
“I know exactly where we are. Trust me.”
“Check it out!” Jennifer pointed.
Paul had led them to a large amphitheater that nature had carved from the red sandstone. The sun filtered through the pinyons and junipers, like stage lights shining on the large flat stage. Several sagebrush lizards skittered across the ground, frightened by the intrusion into their quiet world.
“Look at that bird!” Jennifer squealed, pointing to a blue bird perched on a branch of a large pinyon pine.
“That’s a pinyon jay. They bury the pinyon nuts in little caches and dig them up in the winter to eat,” Paul said.
“Sounds like a lot of work to me,” Simon said. “Why don’t they just bury them all in one place?”
“If another bird saw that, they would eat the cache and the jay would starve come winter.”
“Whatever. I’ll stick to McDonalds, thank you very much.”
“You’d never survive in the wild.”
“Why would I need to?”
“What if you ever get lost and needed to spend the night outside?”
Simon barked laughter. “I just won’t ever get lost!”
“Let’s stop this talk of getting lost and having to spend the night out here, shall we?” Amy suggested.
Alex nodded emphatically. A mountain lion would eat us for sure.
Paul called to the group, urging them to follow him. “I have something I wanna show you guys. But you have to swear not to tell anyone as long as you live.”
They all swore, curious as to what Paul was so excited about. Alex wondered if he would burst with the news. He walked so fast they had to yell at him to slow down.
“What’s the rush?”Jennifer sat on a rock so she could catch her breath.
“I just want to show you guys before we have to be back.”
“We won’t see it if we die of exhaustion first.”
Paul rolled his eyes. “You’re not gonna die.”
They got moving again, groaning at his urging and pleading. Alex got excited the further they walked. The climb was steep. Alex kept her eyes down, unwilling to look at the horizon to see just how far they still had to go.
“This way.” Paul squeezed himself between two rocks, disappearing into the darkness.
“I’m not so sure about this. What if there’s a snake in there?” Alex stopped short of following Paul into the crack.
“Then I’ll be the first to get bit! Come on!” His voice ghosted to her out of the darkness.
Alex took a deep breath and followed Paul. She had to walk sideways. The rocks scraped her back and her chest constricted as she moved through the darkness. The rocks seemed to be closing in on her. She wanted to turn back but she could already hear the others behind her, grunting and shoving as they made their way through the crack.
Get a grip, Alex. After a few moments, her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could see the faint outlines of the rock walls. Paul had disappeared and her heart thumped in her chest.
“It’s this way.”
Alex screamed when Paul’s voice sounded from right behind her.
“Damn it, Paul! That’s not funny.” Alex punched him in the arm as hard as she could.
“Alex! Everything okay?” Jennifer called out.
“Oh, everything’s peachy! Paul just jumped out at me from a hole in the freaking wall, nearly made me crap my pants. But I’m good, thanks.” She threw as much sarcasm in her words as possible.
She ignored the giggles and whispering from Jennifer, Amy, and Simon. The hole in the rock wall now occupied her attention. It was hidden in shadows, making it invisible to anyone who didn’t know it was there. Alex reached out her hands and jumped when Paul grabbed it.
“What are you waiting for?” Jennifer had arrived at Alex’s back.
“The hole is off the ground a bit so make sure to step up.” Paul’s face materialized out of the inky blackness.
“Well, look out so we can get in there,” Alex grumped. Crawling through cracks and holes wasn’t exactly her idea of a fun time. Walking out in the open breathing fresh air was more her style. Although to be honest, sitting home curled up with a juicy history book was her idea of heaven.
Fear gripped her as thoughts raced through her mind of what she might be setting her hands on; something slithery, or slimy, or hairy. She could hear Paul moving ahead of her and Jennifer coming up behind, moaning and hissing at Amy to stop shoving.
Suddenly, a light appeared. Alex crawled toward it, eager to emerge from the dark, tight tunnel. She saw a shadow moving back and forth, and the sound of mumbling reached her.
“Come on in!” Paul said as Alex awkwardly pushed herself out of the tight space.
She brushed dirt and bits of gravel form her legs and hands, wincing at the dimples the gravel had made in her knees. All of that was soon forgotten when she got her first good look around.
Paul was standing in the center of a small cave. A lantern sat on a rickety green plastic table, keeping the shadows at bay. Alex felt comforted by the slight hissing noise of the lantern. It reminded her of camping trips when she was young.
“Hey! What the heck is this?” Jennifer’s voice went up a couple of octaves as she stepped from the tunnel.
“I found this years ago. Was just out exploring one day and just came across it,” Paul said.
“How did you manage to find the tunnel? I mean, it’s damn near impossible.” Alex hadn’t seen it when she was fumbling her way in the darkness of the crack in the sandstone rocks.
“Well, I sorta accidentally found it. Lucky, really.”
“I’ll say! This is bad ass!” Simon said.
Alex agreed wholeheartedly. The cave had many natural shelves that Paul had stocked with all sorts of things. She poked here and there, encouraged by Paul.
“I brought all this stuff up here little by little, ya know? So my mom and dad wouldn’t find out.”
“This is the coolest hide-out ever! Why haven’t you told us about this sooner?” Simon asked.
“It’s my secret place. It’s something that’s just for me.” Paul shuffled his feet, looking embarrassed.
“Well, we won’t tell, I promise,” said Amy.
As Alex stood watching her friends sharing in this amazing secret, she was filled with happiness and contentment. The fact that Paul had shared with them made her feel like a part of a very special group indeed.
I wonder what they would say about my secret.
She wished she could tell them all about her trips through the mirror to the past, and her encounters with the man trying to change history. Jennifer knew, but only because she had come across Alex while her spirit was inhabiting the body of Anastasia, a Venetian courtesan.
Alex didn’t think she would have been able to get through the other trips without Jennifer. She was always there to talk to Alex about her trips through time. It made the experiences much less frightening.
“I gotta get back, guys. Mom said I could only be gone for a few hours.” Alex hated to be a kill-joy but she didn’t want to face the possibility of being grounded for part of her summer break.
“Oh, crap! I forgot about that! You guys head out first, and I’ll turn off the lantern and follow you out,” said Paul.
Simon offered to take the lead. This trip wasn’t nearly as frightening as the first time. Alex knew there wasn’t anything dangerous in the tunnel. But when the light winked out, her heart skipped a beat and she began crawling faster. When she heard Paul coming behind her, her fear escalated to the point of near panic. She knew it was Paul, and yet she pictured a faceless man crawling after her, holding a knife, ready to slit her throat.
“Alex, you okay?”
Alex couldn’t answer Jennifer. Her throat had closed tight. She shook her head, trying to shake the horrible images from her mind.
“Guys, crawl faster! Alex is freaking out or something.”
Alex inwardly groaned. Leave it to Jennifer to blow things out of proportion. Except that she was sort of freaking out. She moved so quickly she ended up almost crawling over Amy in her haste to exit the stifling tunnel.
“This way. Just follow me.”
Alex was grateful that Jennifer grabbed her hand. She wasn’t sure she could even remember which direction to go to get out of the crack.
She thought there was never such a beautiful sight as sunlight and blue sky. When she squeezed out of the crack in the rock, she made for the nearest boulder and sat down before her legs gave out.
“Better?” Jennifer asked, her brows furrowed in worry.
“I just need a minute. Claustrophobia or something.” Alex waved her off. Now that she was out on the open, her heart was slowing to a normal rhythm and her breath was slowing.
The group hurried back to the main trail. Alex was impressed that Paul could even remember how to find it again. Everything looked the same to her: the rocks, the pinyon and the juniper trees scattered about, the various bushes and cactuses. I’ll never be able to find this place again.
Alex checked her watch. “I gotta run, guys! It’s noon already!” She waved to her friends and took off jogging down the trail. She didn’t think her mom would ground her for being a little late; then again, she wasn’t positive. Better to be safe than sorry.
She burst through the front door of the guesthouse. “I’m home! Mom?” Alex frowned when she didn’t get an answer. She had expected her mother to be waiting at the dining room table, eyes on the clock, just waiting for the stroke of noon.
She went to the intercom and dialed “0”. “C.C.? Is Mom around?”
“She and Karen ran to the store right after you left.”
“Thanks.” Alex hung up and fumed. I didn’t need to hurry back! She wouldn’t have even noticed I wasn’t back on time!
With nothing to do, Alex sat and idly flipped through channels on the TV. Not even a month into summer vacation and I’m ready to go back to school. At least she had rehearsals for Wicked to look forward to. The students met once a week on Sundays at the theater at the local college. And she worked in her aunt’s clothing store three or four days a week. Karen usually gave her Saturdays off to spend time with her friends, which Alex was grateful for.
Alex lost herself in mindless boredom until her mom got home late that afternoon. As soon as she walked in the door, Alex knew she had some sort of news.
“Hey. I know we never got a chance to talk about this more, but I called a lady today about looking at her rental,” Patricia said.
“Where is it?” Alex tried to sound enthusiastic, but she just couldn’t pull it off. She didn’t want things to change. So many things had changed about her life in the last year, and she just wanted things to stay just like they were.
“It’s really close, only a few streets down. I think it’s close to your friend Paul’s house. She’s a really sweet old lady, but the house is just too much since her husband passed away. Her kids want her to move to Ohio to be closer to them. And since she’s a friend of Karen’s, she’s giving us a really good deal on the rent.”
Alex had to admit that the idea of living in the area didn’t seem so bad. Maybe her house is really big too! And I can have a bigger room with more bookshelves!
“I told her we would meet her at 7:30.”
“Sounds good. But if I don’t like it, I don’t want to live there.”
“Give it a chance, Alex,” Patricia said, her tone indicating to Alex that she had better not press her luck.
Well, I won’t live there. I will ask Karen if I can stay here in the guesthouse by myself.
Karen and C.C. had just taken the ribs out of the oven when Alex and Patricia came in through the back door of the main house.
“Smells good! What’s for dinner?” Alex closed her eyes and savored the smell.
“This here is Mark’s recipe. He doesn’t make ribs using BBQ sauce,” Karen grabbed a bowl off the counter. “He mixes together equal parts honey, soy sauce, apricot jam, and a little garlic.”
“What do ya do with that?”
“This is a glaze you smear on after the ribs are almost done. Trust me, Alex. You will never eat ribs any other way again.”
“If you say so.” Alex looked at the glaze suspiciously.
“Help C.C. with the salad fixins will ya?” Karen called back over her shoulder as she carried a huge tray of ribs outside.
Alex grabbed a large cutting board and began helping C.C. cut the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and bell peppers for the salad. All of the vegetables came from the garden. Alex thought they tasted better than the veggies from the supermarket. As she cut, she popped several pieces in her mouth.
“Hey! If you eat them all, there won’t be any left!” C.C. teased.
The smell wafting through the open window made Alex’s mouth water. It was unlike anything she had ever smelled before. She finished cutting the salad and grabbed the plastic plates and cups Karen used for outdoor entertaining. Her mom had already washed the table and was in the process of hooking the tablecloth to the edges of the table.
“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Patricia asked.
Alex heartily agreed. She set the plates and cups at each chair, then ran back in to grab the silverware and napkins. C.C. had placed a large jug of sun tea and a bowl of lemons on the counter, and a bowl of watermelon. Alex’s eyes lit up as she grabbed a piece from the top and took a bite, wiping juice from her chin. I can’t even remember the last time I had this. Gary had taught her how to spit seeds when she was younger, laughing when she would miss, and the seed would fall out of her mouth and land on her chin.
She shut down the memory before it could take hold. Alex didn’t want to remember her father fondly. In fact, she would rather forget the man ever existed. There had been no word since the divorce papers had shown up last Christmas; only the checks that came like clockwork every month.
I can’t believe he doesn’t want to see me at all. Alex hated being so torn. On the one hand, she hated the man. His leaving had hurt her so badly. But she also missed having a father, even a bad one. She couldn’t help but think that maybe her parents would have been happier if she had never come along. Deep down, she knew that was ridiculous. And yet the thought always snuck into her brain anyway.
“Ribs are almost done!” Karen’s voice broke into her reverie.
Alex carried the large tray with the tea and the watermelon outside. Karen was deftly piling ribs onto a platter.
“Voila! Get ready to sink your teeth into the best ribs you’ve ever tasted!” Karen declared as she placed the platter in the center of the patio table.
Alex piled her plate with salad, garlic bread, watermelon, and ribs. As soon as she bit into the crispy, charred meat, she was ready to admit that she had never had ribs this good in her whole life. She ate every bit of meat off the bone, leaving it as polished as any predator would have.
“You must’ve had a busy day.” Patricia stared wide-eyed at her daughter as she piled her plate high with seconds of everything.
Alex told her mom about most of the hike, leaving out Paul’s secret cave. She still couldn’t believe he had his own hideout. It reminded her of something out of Batman.
“Let’s get these dishes done, kiddo. We have to meet Ms. Forsythe in a little bit.” Patricia stood and began stacking plates.
After the dishes had been put in the dishwasher and the leftovers put in the refrigerator, Patricia and Alex climbed into the Blazer and headed for their appointment. Alex didn’t talk much. She was anxious about seeing the house. What if it’s a dump? What if it’s too expensive and we can’t afford to live there? What if we have to go back to the way things were before we came here?
Alex had grown used to having the things the other kids had: fancy cell phone, cool clothes, lunch money, spending money. She was terrified of having to walk into school wearing thrift store clothes, or having to give up her phone. It was nice seeing the looks of envy from the students in the mall, or in the hallways when they saw her texting or looking up some YouTube video for her friends.
Alex’s heart raced when she saw the gorgeous house in front of her. There has to be some mistake. She had prepared herself for the worst; this house was nothing like she had pictured.
It was smaller than her aunt’s home, but still enormous, with a huge immaculately trimmed front yard bordered by beautiful trees and flowers. The house was all adobe like most of the other houses in the area, with a beautiful bay window.
Ms. Forsythe opened the door as they walked up the driveway. “I’m so glad to meet you, Alex. I’m Vera. I’ve met your mom a few times at the store.”
Alex mumbled, unable to peel her eyes from the gorgeous flowers and bushes. Ms. Forsythe’s roses put Karen’s to shame.
“I already have everything moved out. My landlord, Chet, is out back.”
Patricia and Karen followed Ms. Forsythe into the foyer. Alex had never seen someone with hair so silvery white. She thought her skin was the prettiest pale pink. I hope I look as good when I’m old. Ms. Forsythe’s stylish heels echoed in the empty house.
“I am leaving the television and other equipment behind. You will have to call for your own satellite service.”
Alex couldn’t believe her eyes. There was a huge TV mounted on the wall and a dark cabinet held assorted equipment. There were speakers mounted on the walls around the entire room.
“My late husband, Ernie, loved his gadgets.” Vera looked at the cabinet with sadness evident on her face.
Alex didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
“Here’s the kitchen and dining room. I am leaving the dining set as well as all the appliances. And I think I will leave the patio set as well.”
The kitchen was immaculate and simply gorgeous. The skylights let in the sun’s rays, bathing the kitchen in a warm glow. There was a butcher’s block in the center and pots and pans hanging above. The appliances were all stainless steel and shone like new.
“Through here are the bedrooms. There are three bedrooms, two of which have their own bathrooms. There is another bathroom in the hallway.
Alex didn’t hear anything else after the mention of two bedrooms having their own bathrooms. Oh my God, my own bathroom!
When she got a look at the smallest of the rooms, her heart leapt for joy. The smallest room was enormous, and even had a set of built-in bookshelves. The room had a walk-in closet and two large windows. The bathroom had white tile with pale blue flowers, perfect for a teenage girl. Alex clapped her hands and squealed.
“I think we’ll take it.”
Alex turned to her mom, who was standing in the doorway. “I really like it, Mom.”
“Me too. It’ll be so nice having our own place, Alex. You’ll see.”
They followed Vera to the backyard. It wasn’t nearly as big as Karen’s, but Alex didn’t care. The porch was covered and had two ceiling fans. There were wind chimes and bird feeders everywhere. The Colorado National Monument was only a few short steps away, rising above the house in pink and red sandstone cliffs. To Alex, it was the best backyard she had ever seen. Glad I’m still close enough to go hiking and stuff.
Vera introduced Chet, who wiped his hands on his jeans before shaking theirs. “I’ll just go get the paperwork and we can get started.”
Alex wandered through the house, peeking into every nook and cranny, opening closet doors, looking out of the windows, enjoying the spectacular views. She met her mom and Vera in the kitchen, where her mother was just finishing up the paperwork.
“I can’t thank you enough for this.” Vera said as she took Patricia’s hands in her own.
“I should be thanking you! I could barely rent a little apartment for the rent you’re charging me.”
“I’m glad I can help!”
Alex wished they could move in that very night. She was already planning her very first sleepover with the girls. They’re gonna flip out when they see my room!
Chet handed Patricia the keys and Alex felt her throat close up at the look of joy on her mother’s face. It had been so long since her mom had anything much to smile about. Now that she had seen the house for herself, her eagerness to move in was overwhelming. She would miss her aunt and C.C., but having their own place was going to be great.
“I wanna go look at my room one more time.” Alex ran down the hallway. She spun around and decided to take another look at her bathroom. The counter was big enough for all of her stuff, with plenty of room left over.
Alex gasped when the image in the mirror shifted to the girl from Egypt. She hadn’t seen the strange girl since the double date with Drake, James, and Jennifer. Alex focused on memorizing any details she could that could help figure out who this girl was.
She was exotically beautiful, with dark eyes rimmed with black eyeliner. Her head was completely bald. Alex jumped when someone passed in front of the mirror. They situated themselves behind the strange girl and placed a black wig on her head, adjusting it until it fell perfectly.
“Come on, Alex!” Patricia yelled.
Alex shook her head as the girl disappeared. I wonder who she is and what kind of trouble she’s in?