The only thing on my mind was to run away as far as possible from that science building, filled with horrible, conceited science-minded jerks. The tears drifted off my face and into the wind, evaporating before they hit the pavement. I had no idea where I was going, only that I wanted to be close to what I loved and far from anything science-related.
I could have gone to the library, the seventh floor to be exact. It was filled with the books I loved—not a biology textbook in sight. But I knew Khit would be going to Dr. Bratsin’s office soon, and when he found out that I’d run off, the library would be the first place he’d look.
Dr. Bratsin’s words echoed in my head. A complete waste of time.
The exact words my parents had used, only back then I hadn’t been able to defend myself. I couldn’t help it though. Whenever my eyes glazed over the pages of a science textbook, I’d retreat into the fantasy world I’d created and then feel like a rebel afterward. Guilty, because I’d unintentionally wasted time I should have used to study.
Because deep down, maybe those words, a complete waste of time, had been so driven into my head that I’d believed them myself. Doctors had a purpose—to heal. But what did writers do? I’d never asked myself this until Dr. Bratsin had challenged me today. When he’d said that writers couldn’t help people the way doctors could, something had just clicked in my head, and I’d been able to churn out a defense for my stories.
Oh my God. A hand flew to my mouth as the thought occurred that maybe Dr. Bratsin hadn’t been criticizing me. Maybe he’d been trying to make me recognize the reason I wrote—that it wasn’t a waste of time. After all, he’d just told me how Khit had been aimless all throughout college, until he’d decided to do what he loved, instead of what his father wanted.
Well, it was too late to turn back now. I was already on the bus that would take me to my favorite place in the world. And it was just as well. I didn’t want to think about anything serious right now.
Only two people knew that I only went to Book Lovers’ Lane when I was wallowing in the most despondent of despairs: Liana and me, and Liana was sworn to secrecy. I’d never even told Khit. Somehow, I felt that if he knew, I would lose my secret base, the place where I could escape from everyone and everything I knew for just a few hours.
Book Lovers’ Lane was a used bookstore, run by two cute, old ladies with half a dozen cats. They were probably richer than the president, so they ran the bookstore simply out of interest, not a means of financial profit. The bookstore was right next door to a coffee shop, run by their daughters. There was no partition between the bookstore and the coffee shop, so the owners allowed customers to borrow a book to read in the coffee shop, as long as they purchased a drink.
I loved the fragrance of the bookstore—a delicious mix of freshly ground coffee beans and wonderfully aged pages of words. Books, like cheese, only got better with age.
Used books were two stories wrapped in one. The first story, of course, lay between the pages of the novel, but the second story was the book itself, an unwritten tale that one had to imagine. Often, I would grasp the book with both hands, close my eyes, and wonder how many people the story between the covers had touched.
What kind of people were they?
Maybe the novel had first passed as a present from a friend into the hands of a disenchanted business woman, more successful in her career than in life. Although too busy to even order take-out for dinner, the woman had decided that she needed just one night of solitary quiet, with a bubble bath and a book. Then having finished the book, she’d sold it on the internet for half price.
From there, maybe the book had traveled into the lap of a stay at home mother, overwhelmed by five loads of laundry and three screaming kids. But while waiting for her son at the doctor’s office, she’d started the book, and late at night, after her kids and husband were asleep, she’d found herself continuing to eagerly turn the pages, desperate for the survival of the characters she’d grown to love.
And as the beloved tale passed from one pair of hands to another, it had somehow found its way to Book Lovers’ Lane, waiting for me to pick it up.
As soon as I walked into the bookstore, a sense of comfort and security surrounded me. Rows of shelves beckoned me to come, like the sound of Mom’s voice calling me for dinner. But the books were not neatly arranged on the shelves. The charm of Book Lovers’ Lane was that the books were arranged in random little piles, lying flat on the shelves, instead of with their spines standing uniform to the front. Arrangements of books, like bouquets of flowers, were stacked on the tables and sofas that encircled the shelves.
You could stay here for hours, sifting through books, and never find the title you were trying to find. Book Lovers’ Lane was not for a busy soul with a one-track minded, time is money attitude. To find a specific book with a known title and author, you could always visit the library or the bookstore at the mall. But here at Book Lovers’ Lane, you didn’t pick the book; the book chose you.
“Oh, hello Caren,” Nancy, one of the owners, was shelving books, but she stopped her work as she saw me. The wrinkles gathered about her eyes, forming laugh lines as she smiled. “I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“I’ve been busy,” I replied, but not without revealing a hiccup.
Nancy immediately looked sympathetic. “I won’t ask you what’s wrong, but I’m sure a good book is just the cure. And let’s get you some coffee too.” Kindly gesturing me to look around the store, she headed towards the coffee shop, calling for her daughter to fix up a caramel latte.
I headed to the back of the store, deciding to start there. One of the cats, a brown and white calico, stretched lazily on the shelf, briefly flitting open one eye to see what had disturbed her nap, and then closing it again when she realized it was just another customer browsing books. Another cat, pure black except for the two front white paws, sauntered behind me, climbing the shelves to join his friend.
It was like I’d traveled into another world, secluded from anything horrible or heartbreaking. Time disappeared completely as I turned over covers and read excerpts without any disruption, with the only break back into reality being Nancy, arriving with my coffee, and briefly, the sound of other voices, as more customers came in.
And finally, a book chose me. It was a black hardcover with gold engraving, spelling the title The Kingdom under the Sea, the genre being fantasy. It was about a quiet girl with low self-esteem who after discovering that her best friend is a merman and the prince of an ocean kingdom, overtaken by the prince’s godfather, must overcome her sense of low self-worth to help the prince take back his rightful kingdom.
I sat back on a comfortable bean bag that lay between the shelves and began to read.
I’d just started chapter three, when I heard a strange wailing sound. As customers and cats headed out of the shelves and started to congregate towards the front of the store, I realized it was the fire alarm.
Moving to get up from the bean bag, there was another noise—the creak of metal or wood and the thudding crashes of something like a champion weight lifter unburdening himself of his heavy load. I looked up just in time to see the book shelves and their contents on either side of me caving in like the Red Sea on the Egyptians.
Then some force knocked the wind out of me, and the next moment, I was on the ground, feeling like I’d just had my head bashed by a log. I became aware of furious shouts all around me.
“It was him! He pulled the fire alarm and toppled the bookshelves!”
And a softer, feminine voice came from beside me, where a petite form crouched. “Caren, are you all right?”
“Rina?” I moaned, trying to sit up.
“Oh dear, you really must learn not to run off when a murderer is out there looking for you,” she said. “Tyler just tried to kill you again. Let me call Mil and Khit before that fiancé of yours takes out half the city looking for you.”
It took several seconds for her words to register. “What?” Mil and Khit? Why would Rina call them?
But by now, Rina was pushed away as the crowd closed in, trying to assess my condition.
“I’m fine Ms. Nancy,” I said, as the elderly lady told someone to call 9-1-1. “There’s really no need.”
“Of course there’s need,” she pronounced stubbornly. “Some horrid boy almost smashed your skull using my bookshelves. And why aren’t the police here yet? They’re never here when you need them.”
“I’ll drive her to the hospital,” Rina volunteered eagerly. “It would be faster than waiting for an ambulance.”
“You do that girl,” Nancy approved.
Despite my protests, I was shoved unceremoniously into the front seat of Rina’s car. As Rina got into the driver’s seat, she piped up cheerfully, “I know you think I work with Tyler, but really, why would I ever want anything to do with that disgusting creature?”
“Oh, I know you have lots of questions,” she said. “But all will be explained when we find Mil and Khit.” She turned the key in the ignition and abruptly emerged into traffic, while horns blared, before pleasantly adding, “By the way, sit tight. I don’t actually have a driver’s license, so this might be one bumpy ride.”
If Tyler hadn’t finished me off yet, I thought Rina’s driving just might. No traffic laws were obeyed. We sped through red lights, dodged oncoming traffic, and changed lanes every three seconds. I shut my eyes tightly, chanting prayers to Heaven.
“Don’t worry. I’ve never gotten into an accident yet. Although,” she added, “I’ve only been driving for two days. But I figure it can’t be much different than swimming, which I have been doing since the day I was born.”
When we finally reached the hospital, I stood on the pavement with my legs shaking like jelly fish.
“Mil and Khit are waiting inside,” Rina said, having just got off her cell phone.
I’d barely reached the automatic sliding doors, when a large male body burst through, wrapping his arms around me until I couldn’t breathe. “Where the hell did you go?” Khit sounded angrier than I’d ever heard him. “Do you know how worried I was?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, when he allowed me some breathing room. I peered beyond his shoulder. “Dr. Bratsin?” The professor was standing a few feet behind Khit. His lip was bleeding, and he was developing a black eye. “What happened to you?”
“I-I received a few well-deserved punches,” he said, his eyes cast down.
I eyed Khit suspiciously. “Don’t tell me you hit a defenseless man.”
“He deserved more than a few punches,” Khit growled.
“Yes I did,” Dr. Bratsin agreed. “I’m v-very sorry Caren. I was only trying to make you think about w-what you really want to do in life. I didn’t mean to put down your stories, and it w-was the wrong time to mention it, knowing all the t-trauma you’ve been through recently. I can o-only say I can be insensitive at times.”
“No,” I shook my head, “You did get me to think. And I realized on the bus that you were only trying to help me.”
“All right now,” Rina chirped up. “Maybe we let Caren see the doctor before Tyler strikes again.”
That brought all of us back to our surroundings, where patients glared as they tried to pass us to get through the double doors. We were blocking the entrance. As we moved to the side, I shook my head. “I really don’t need to see a doctor. Rina saved me before anything fell on me.”
Khit scanned my arms, feeling around my body, then looked at me alertly. “I don’t see any injuries, but are you sure there isn’t anything you’re not telling me about?”
“In that case,” his narrowed gaze zoned in on Rina. “You’d better start telling us why you’ve been following Caren. Mil seems convinced that you’re trying to help us, but I’m not as trusting.”
We moved to a more private location, driving to a nearby park. I was only glad that Khit drove all of us. I was never going near Rina’s car again.
Sitting on a bench under the shade of a poplar tree, Khit drew me close, wrapping an arm protectively around my shoulder before glowering at Rina. “Talk.”
“What point should I start with?” she asked herself, tapping a thoughtful finger against her chin, and then looking to Dr. Bratsin for a hint.
The professor shrugged. “You started with Tyler when y-you told me.”
One of Khit’s eyebrows arched up. “You know everything she’s about to say?”
“She told m-me this morning,” Dr. Bratsin confirmed.
“All right then,” Rina said decisively. “Tyler it is.”
She verified what we already knew. That Tyler was a shi’an—in her words, a shi’an with a brain the size of an emaciated ant—and that he was working for the yaojing.
“But his boss isn’t the Yaojing Elite,” she said. “In fact, none of the yaojing know what he’s doing because he was hired by only one of them. A wolf girl named Adelaide.”
I felt the quick intake of breath rise in Khit’s chest. “Isn’t that the name of—”
“Yup. Lang’s daughter. She’s a firstling.”
“What’s a firstling?” I interrupted.
“The offspring of a-any of the Yaojing Elite,” Dr. Bratsin answered. “Lang is the wolf leader.”
Rina drew something out of her pocket. It was a photo. “I think you’ll find that Adelaide looks very familiar.”
We crowded around the picture, and recognition immediately dawned. “That’s the girl we thought Tyler was cheating with,” I said.
My mind flashed back to when the yaojing had caught me at Scyther’s restaurant. Briefly, I recalled the name Lang when I’d faced the leaders. I’d seen all the leaders but not their children, except for Scyther. Apparently, neither had Khit, or he would have recognized Adelaide. “So Scyther was a firstling too?”
“Unfortunately,” Rina said. “Which is why Adelaide wants revenge. Rule three hundred and fifty three of the Yaojing Book of Governance: in the event that a firstling is unjustly killed, the mate of said firstling may decide the appropriate punishment only if one of higher authority is not at liberty to do so.”
Khit shot her an alert look. “How do you know about the Book of Governance? The only copy is with the Elite.”
“Nah ah ah, sir,” Rina waved a finger admonishingly. “You’re getting ahead of yourself.”
“Can’t help it if you’re moving too slowly,” Khit bristled, but he settled back, trying to be patient. “So let me get this straight. That wolf girl was Scyther’s lover, and because I killed Scyther, she wants revenge by killing Caren.”
“She wasn’t precisely Scyther’s lover,” Rina corrected. “He was her teacher, and she had a huge crush on him. But you got the rest right. The Elite decided not to take action when Scyther was killed, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.”
“So we’ve answered the why,” Khit said. “Now tell us how you know so much.”
“Simple,” she answered. “The sea lions gave Tyler away.”