For as long as she could remember, Halle Michaels had heard voices. They spoke to her in faint whispers. They kept her from walking into the path of traffic or eating the blue play dough, even though all the other five-year-olds were sneaking a taste when the teacher wasn’t watching. She always thought it was her conscience, some inner voice telling her right from wrong – that is. . . until recently. “We have to stop them, we have to do something. . . I KNOW she hears us.”
She couldn’t get the words out of her head, “I KNOW she hears us,” couldn’t make the broken record stop. Sliding the small pink buds into her ears, she cranked up the volume on her iPod trying to drown out the words that kept replaying in her mind. With a deep breath, she adjusted her book bag and stepped through the metal door out into the sunlight.
A maze of students spread out in front of her making their way toward the parking lot to start the weekend. Sometimes being surrounded by so many people was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the commotion and chattering made the voices blend into the background of her mind. On the other, well. . . the word schizophrenia seemed to fit.
She stepped from the sidewalk, avoiding a broken beer bottle. The school’s back parking lot was close enough to the river to park and walk down to the well-known – and well used – make-out area known around campus as “Rockin’ Rapids.”
An emptied can of last weekend’s courage rattled into the vacant parking space beside her as Halle pushed it away with her foot and reached in her backpack for her keys. A tap on her shoulder spun her around, bringing her face to face with the one person who would understand why she might have her iPod cranked up. Halle plucked one of the ear buds from her ear.
“My, my. . . aren’t we jumpy!” Jenna Tanner’s voice choked back laughter. “Whatcha listening to?”
Halle rolled her eyes. “Anything but the voices in my head.”
Jenna arched an eyebrow. “New band?”
“No. . . they’ve been around for, I dunno, seventeen years. Just changing it up a bit lately.” Halle gave a half-hearted smile.
It was a relief to see any kind of smile on Halle’s face. Not wanting to darken the mood, Jenna hesitated before asking softly, “Are they still getting louder?”
Halle wished she could say the voices had vanished, or at least returned to the whispers she’d grown used to over the years, but no such luck. “I have my tunes at a decibel that your great grandmother could hear if that tells you anything.”
“Wow. You know, I think she’s completely deaf now.” Sarcasm was Jenna’s second language.
Sliding into the driver’s seat, she closed the door. Her hands clenched the steering wheel as Jenna climbed into the passenger side. “I keep hearing those words echo in my head.”
“No offense, Hal, but. . . are you sure that’s what you heard?” Jenna was sincerely beginning to worry about her best friend. Halle had never been one to take things too seriously and she hadn’t been herself for days. Jenna couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard Halle really laugh.
“It’s possible I’m hearing things, I mean, let’s face it. . . I’m so not normal,” she paused, “but I like to think I know what I’m hearing.” She tried to sound more convincing than she felt. She wasn’t even sure she was sane anymore. How Jenna could be so calm about it all was beyond her.
Halle thought back to Jenna’s reaction when she first told her about the voices accidentally. Somehow she knew she could trust Jenna with her secret, but she kept waiting for Jenna to freak out, to bolt for the door and never come back, to think she was pink padded room material. Instead, Jenna’s first question was, “I don’t suppose the voices could give you Scott Mabry’s phone number, could they?” Halle couldn’t help but smile.
Only Jenna, she thought.
They hadn’t talked about the voices much since that conversation, until now. Disturbed by recent changes, Halle had to talk about it to someone, and Jenna was the only confidant she had in the matter. She had never even told her mom.
After a few stops in town, the ride home was quiet. Today, quiet was a good thing. One of the things Halle loved about being friends with Jenna was that they didn’t have to talk every second they were together. Sometimes they could just exist. No words. No expectations. Just be. She often felt like Jenna could read her like a book. She knew just when Halle needed a laugh, when she needed a shoulder to cry on, and when she just needed to be alone.
Jenna broke the silence. “Have you heard anything since we left for school this morning?” She began fumbling through her purse for a pack of gum. “I mean. . . are they louder all the time now?”
There was no need to say “are the voices louder,” Halle knew what she was referring to and let out a heavy sigh.
“I don’t know. There were no whispers again today, just like yesterday. I’ve heard things, but school is so loud and noisy that paranoia makes more sense. When they’re louder, they get mixed in with every other ‘real’ one around. Maybe you should just go ahead and call the guys in little white coats on me.”
Jenna picked up her cell phone like she was going to dial and grinned just as Halle turned into their neighborhood. Brakes squealed as the SUV came to a screeching halt, sending the contents of Jenna’s purse into the floorboard.
“Geeessshhhh.” Halle blurted out.
Standing square in the middle of the road was a large, snow white German Shepherd. Staring directly at her. A rush of déjà vu smashed into Halle full force.
“What the. . . ” Her voice trailed off. She stared back at the dog. Yet another reminder of just how not normal she was. There was no mistake, it was the dog she had dreamt about the night before. After all, how many white German Shepherds could there be? Yet another dream forcing its way into her reality. Halle had confided in Jenna about the voices. . . but the dreams, they were another story.
“Move dog,” she mumbled under her breath, wishing she could be surprised by his appearance. The ‘dream realities’, as she called them, had been sporadically occurring since she was about thirteen. It was around then she began writing her dreams down, desperately in need of proof she wasn’t imagining things when some of her dreams unfolded into her reality. It was never anything that would alter the fabric of the universe – a conversation with a classmate, finding the sketch pad she’d misplaced a week earlier, horrifically spilling her lunch tray on a table of upperclassmen – ok, maybe life altering for a teenager, but from those occurrences, the dream journals began.
She gave the horn a quick test to get the dog into motion. He just stood there, looking at her. She tested the horn again, a bit longer in frustration.
The dog finally trotted off. After two more uncertain glances toward the animal, she continued with an answer to Jenna’s question.
“It’s like they aren’t talking to me.”
“Huh?” Jenna took a moment to catch on to the fact that Halle was answering her question from earlier. Jenna was still looking back at the dog. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. You were saying?”
“It feels like I’m eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. It’s kinda creepy.”
Jenna didn’t respond. Partly because she didn’t know what to say, partly because she was too busy checking out the moving van parked in the neighbor’s driveway. “Looks like you’re getting new neighbors, Hal. I wonder if your mom has the scoop.”
Of course Lana Michaels had the scoop. If it had to do with the real estate market in Lake Arella, she would know about it. If it was next door, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance the owner of the most reputable real estate firm in town didn’t know the whos, whats, whys and hows.
“Hey Mom.” Halle tossed her book-bag into the corner of the mudroom as she entered the kitchen.
“Hey, Ms. M.” Jenna followed suit.
“Hi girls, how was school?” Lana Michaels was the epitome of class. . . even while preparing dinner. She looked exquisite no matter what she was wearing.
“School was fine, Ms. M, but what we really want to talk about is the goss on the moving van next door.” Jenna was never one to waste time with small talk. To the point. Plain and simple.
Lana chuckled and glanced to Halle, waiting to see how her day had been.
Halle knew the drill and answered her mother dutifully.
“Just another day at school, Mom. What’s for dinner?”
Lana glided smoothly across the Italian tile floor from the refrigerator to the sink and back the stove, without so much as a slip in her three inch black and white patent heels. Halle didn’t know how, but she made it seem effortless. Those shoes were cute, but they were not made for stability. Sometimes Halle wondered if she had always been so graceful, or if she’d skipped that completely gawky teenage phase where every move was clumsy and awkward.
Lana answered Halle’s question first. “We’re having honey glazed chicken stir fry.”
Before she could begin another sentence, Jenna’s impatience interrupted. “Hello. Moving van?” Jenna offered her best, falsely innocent, smile.
Lana laughed as she readjusted the strings of the apron protecting a collared white shirt tucked into the high waist of a long black pencil skirt that accentuated her hourglass figure. “The new neighbors, huh? What makes you think I know anything about that?”
Jenna threw up her arms in artificial defeat.
“Really? You expect us to believe you don’t have every microscopic detail about that moving van, the contents of said van, and the owners of said contents? Seriously?”
Lana’s green eyes twinkled as she let out a quiet chuckle. “Okay, okay, so maybe I have a teeny bit of information.” She held her fingers close together as she spoke.
Hopping onto a barstool, Jenna got comfortable and snagged a handful of grapes from the bowl on the counter. “So let’s have the scoop, Ms. M.”
Lana brushed away one of the soft red waves that had escaped from behind her ear. There was never any doubt of Lana’s heritage. Her hair color had always been a few shades lighter than Halle’s deep auburn locks. Paired with her striking green eyes, her features screamed ‘Irish’ and she never had to speak a word, though her accent was practically nonexistent. She hadn’t lived in Ireland since she was a small child.
“Well, believe it or not, I don’t have the 4-1-1 on this couple that I normally would. They are something of a mystery.” The fact that Lana Michaels didn’t know everything about these people, down to their credit score, actually intrigued Halle.
Lana continued. “They came into the office yesterday wanting to buy the house. No one had shown it to them. Said they didn’t need to see the inside. The woman just had a ‘good feeling’ about it.” Lana’s mouth twisted slightly. Clearly she was intrigued by the couple as well.
“Too bad you can’t always make sales that easily,” Jenna smirked.
“Tell me about it.” Lana agreed.
Halle leaned against the counter and tried to sneak a slice of carrot from the dish her mother was arranging. She was met with rejection. “And here I thought you were just picky about who moved in next door, Mom.”
“That isn’t the most unusual part.” Lana paused and continued. “After coming in for the first time yesterday, they show up this morning with a cashier’s check for the full amount, plus closing costs, and a bonus if we could arrange with the seller for them to have the moving van bring their stuff today. A substantial bonus.”
Halle stared out the kitchen window toward the still vacant house, her thoughts in gear. Great. Cranky, old, rich neighbors. Just perfect. “So when do the Havishams move in?”
“Well, little miss optimistic – and might I add you’ve clearly read Great Expectations too many times if that was the first reference that came to your mind – they are in fact a really nice young couple. I’d say late twenties and both are disturbingly beautiful, actually.”
That did it. She said beautiful and young in a sentence referring to a male. Halle could almost see the curiosity burst from every cell of Jenna’s body. “Just how beautiful is he?” Jenna didn’t even pretend to be interested in his female counterpart.
Not a bit surprised by Jenna’s question, Lana answered, “Pretty darn beautiful.” Returning her focus to the stir fry, she doused the pan with a round of soy sauce.
Jenna rarely passed on Lana’s cooking, so when Lana asked if she’d like to stay for dinner she shook her head up and down in short quick motions with a distinctively teenager look that screamed “duhhhh.” Lana handed Jenna the plates and silverware and motioned for Halle to grab the glasses from the cabinet. The three of them set the table.
Her curiosity still piqued, Halle asked her unanswered question again after she sat down. “So, when are they moving in?”
“I’m not sure when exactly. They said maybe a week or so.” Lana shifted her chair up to the table. “They both seemed very nice and it was very easy talking with them. Seemed like old friends, like I knew them from somewhere. Anyway, I think they’ll be good neighbors.”
Halle loved that Lana always noticed the good in everyone. It wasn’t a trait she had inherited. She tried, but in her experience, the world was so full of morally deprived, hurtful people that she had given up on finding good in everyone a long time ago.
They all bowed their heads as Lana said grace. Once the “amens” were complete, Jenna jumped straight into her most recent thought pattern. “Sooo. . . someone has a birthday coming up. Any ideas on the celebratory festivities?”
“Yeah. . . I have an idea.” Halle muttered in a tone that didn’t hide her disdain for the thought of any big celebration. She could sense the probing stare from across the table.
“Does it involve a masquerade ball?” Jenna lit up with a giddy grin.
“Ummmm. . . no.”
“Well, what fun are you then?”
Halle could almost feel the amused smile of her mother as Jenna’s light bulbs clicked on one after another. It was clear she wasn’t going to let it go.
“Ya know, Jen, I’m pretty exhausted from the mentally challenging day I’ve had,” Halle gave her friend that I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-this-right-now look, “so if you don’t mind, can we talk about party plans tomorrow?”
One last light bulb exploded and mischief dripped from every word that spilled from Jenna’s lips. “Sure, we can talk about party plans tomorrow.” Halle knew that tone. “When I have someone to help me gang up on you. I’ll let Matt know to be ready.” With that, Jenna took her empty dinner plate to the sink, rinsed it, and downed the last of her lemonade.
“No need to drag Matt into this, unless you just don’t think you’re up to the challenge alone.” Grinning, Halle tossed a wadded napkin at Jenna. She ducked and grinned back.
Ignoring Halle, Jenna politely thanked Lana for a wonderful meal and picked up her book bag by the door. “Wish I could stay, but we have that family thing to go to. Yaaayy fun.” Jenna rolled her eyes and twirled a finger in the air like a mock party favor. “I’ll see ya in the morning. . . and Hal, work on that aim, m‘kay? ‘Kay.” Jenna stuck her tongue out like a six-year-old and closed the door behind her before Halle had time to respond.
As Jenna walked home – an entire five houses away – Halle’s mind was already thinking of ways to avoid the birthday discussion certain to rear its ugly head again the next day. Her thoughts turned to Matt, the proverbial “boy next door.” He wouldn’t be a problem. Matt was never a problem.
Tossing the dish towel onto the counter, Lana thanked Halle for helping clean up and went to the living room to relax. Halle headed up the stairs to her room, slowly passing the elegantly framed artwork in the hallway. Lana could make even the artwork of a child look like it belonged in a gallery. Pausing to admire the finger painting from her first year of pre-school, she smiled and continued down the hall.
Halle kicked off her shoes as she entered her room and walked toward her plush bed. Usually, she would pull out her laptop and check her emails, maybe log into her Facebook account for her weekly cy-by. Tonight she had no desire to deal with the trivial chitchat of who dumped who, who was eating ice cream and watching a flick, or which party was on the menu for tomorrow night’s merriment. She often wondered if she was the only seventeen-year-old who truly couldn’t care less about the social ladder and how many rungs up she had climbed on it. Did these people really have nothing more substantial to do with their time?
She fell back to sit on the edge of her bed. The annoying voice inside her head was still faintly singing the same song. I know she can hear us. Snapping to reality, she shook the memory from her mind and made her way to the dresser on the other side of her room. She traded her jeans for a pair of cotton pajama pants and tied her hair up into a chaotic ponytail, then removed her jewelry and placed it on the dresser beside her most treasured possession – the porcelain angel her father bought for her the day she was born.
Running a finger across the smooth as glass finish, she wished she could remember more about her dad. She could picture him in her mind with ease; her mother had albums of photos from the short time they were together and at times she had vivid dreams about him. A guilty twinge of jealousy stabbed at her heart thinking about the years she never got with him – the years her mother had before she was born. Not even two years, she thought. Not enough time for a child to have real memories of her father. Even the videos didn’t begin to fill the hollow caverns his absence left.
Turning, the framed snapshot on her nightstand grabbed her attention – her favorite photo of them. The last one taken of her dad before he died. His forehead leaned softly against hers. . . as if he were trying to relay some telepathic message. Why did it hurt so deeply? How could she miss someone so profoundly she never really knew?
Halle picked up the bound journal she kept by her bed and thumbed through to an entry from the last week. A strange dream she had written down in painstaking detail. The last dream she had about her dad.
Dreams about him were few and far between, but when they came, they felt so real. Something her dad had said in the dream kept coming back to her. She read over the entry again, word for word.
After not sleeping well for almost a week, I crashed tonight. I think I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. Not sure if that has anything to do with the dream being so realistic or not. Maybe I was just so deep into sleep mode that it made it seem different.
For the first time in months my dream was about Dad. He was here, in my room, standing by the picture window that looks out toward the empty house next door. His hands were clasped behind his back. I could feel that I was irritated, but I didn’t really know why. It was like I had picked up in the middle of a movie scene and didn’t have a clue what had been going on to that point.
Someone was sitting in the chair in the corner. I couldn’t make out who it was, but I knew it was a man. His presence felt familiar even though I couldn’t see him. After what felt like only seconds of getting a grip on my surroundings, Dad turned toward me with a look on his face I hadn’t seen before. He was concerned, maybe even a little scared. I didn’t understand why, but then he spoke.
His voice sounded urgent, but in a strange way I don’t ever remember hearing him sound in any videos or previous dreams. The conversation was pretty much the following (as well as I can remember it):
Dad – Halle, you’re in danger.
Me – What? Why would I be in danger? What are you talking about?
Dad – Things are changing for you Halle, and you’re putting yourself in unnecessary situations. You have to stop.
Me – Dad, I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. And what situations are you talking about exactly? What’s changing?
Dad – There are a lot of things out there Halle, things you don’t understand. Things you aren’t aware of. Things that can hurt you. . . and your mother.
Me – Like what, Dad? Things that go bump in the night? Or things like you leaving us? I don’t see how anything could hurt us more than that.
Dad – Halle, now is not the time to hash out disappointments we can’t do anything about. I need for you to listen to me. I need to know that you will listen and do as I ask you.
Me – Why? You’re just a dream. A figment of my thoughts. I don’t owe you anything.
Dad – You’re right Hal, you don’t. But I owe you. I owe you explanations that you may never get. I owe you memories I can never offer. I owe you guidance you will have to find elsewhere. But there is one thing I owe you that I have always tried to make certain of, and I have no intentions of changing that – especially not now.
Me – And what is that, Dad?
Dad – Protection.
* Ok, this is the point where I remember getting REALLY ticked. I still can’t say why it made me so mad, really. But I could almost feel my blood boil. Back to the conversation.
Me – Protection? Really, Dad? Where was that protection when you died? Where was the protection when Camden Hartford. . . (I stopped for a few moments here. . . I was crying, but trying to keep it from showing. Dad didn’t say anything, he just looked at me and then I spoke in almost a whisper. I’m sure if it hadn’t been a dream he wouldn’t have been able to hear me say it.) What is it that I need protection from, Dad? Because I can’t imagine anything more than. . . (Dad interrupted me here)
Dad – Me, Halle. You need protection from me and everything that I have inadvertently brought to your doorstep. That’s why he is here. . . to protect you.
*This is where Dad nodded toward the guy sitting all quiet like in the chair in the corner of my room. I was suddenly furious. I have no idea why, but I felt like I was being insulted. Like I was ten years old and needed adult supervision or something. Anyway, back to the conversation.
Me – I don’t need protection, Dad! I don’t need your bodyguard. There isn’t anything so dangerous out there that I would need some watchman for. It’s not like I’m the President’s daughter or anything. People aren’t out to take me hostage and use me for ransom, you know.
*That’s when the chair guy joined in on the conversation. He stood, but stayed in the shadows where I couldn’t see him. I could, however, feel the hostility projecting from him. His voice cut through the darkness like a jagged knife. Harsh and callous. But it also held a hint of something else. Something I couldn’t/still can’t quite put my finger on. Ok – conversation.
Chair Guy – Noah, I’m not a glorified babysitter. Clearly she thinks she can handle this on her own.
Me – Babysitter? You think I need a babysitter?
*My comment was directed at “chair guy.” I was livid. The sound of my voice was calm but sharp as a blade and didn’t hide the fact I was ticked. I remember feeling anything BUT calm on the inside. My next thought was – How dare he? I was about to rip into giving “chair guy” a piece of my mind when he took a step toward me and the shadows disappeared from his face. He couldn’t have been much older than me. Maybe 23 or 24. And he was beautiful. Dark, reckless hair and eyes that catch your attention and hold it for what seems like eternity, but in a dangerous kind of way. However, he was still insulting me and that won out over how gorgeous he was. Beautiful or not, something about him was pissing me off. Ok. . . back to the conversation. . . again.
Chair guy – Miss Michaels, what I think you need is an attitude adjustment.
Me – Excuse me? (& might I add. . . I was liking chair guy less and less)
*Dad interrupted here. I’m sure the “conversation” was about to get ugly if he hadn’t. . . I swear these dreams are so weird sometimes.
Dad – Halle, I know you don’t fully understand, but soon you will. I can’t be there to take care of you, to watch over you like I had wanted to be. Like I had planned to be. This is the only way I can be certain of your safety.
Me – You’re right, Dad, I don’t understand. And I DON’T need Mr. Happy over here to protect me from anything.
This is the point where I turned and semi-stomped off in classic angst-ridden teenager fashion. Sooo unlike me. But it’s a dream, right?
The last thing I remember before waking up was hearing my Dad tell “chair guy” – “I’m trusting you to take care of her.” I don’t really know what it was all about, but I could sense chair guy wasn’t thrilled about it any more than I was.
The whole thing almost felt like a real parent/teen argument. It wasn’t like the ones I have with Mom though. It was the kind I’ve seen Jenna or Matt have with their dads on occasion. I guess it’s more of a father/child thing. You know, rebellion against the dominant male parental figure or something.
Regardless, I woke up darting my stare from one corner of my room to another, my heart pounding hard against the inside of my chest. I halfway expected to find my Dad and “chair guy” still in my room. I had to look at the chair in the corner several times to convince myself it was empty. It felt like it had really happened. I swear, if Dad wasn’t gone, I think I’d be waiting for this one to pop up into reality at any time.
Going to go sketch “chair guy” in my sketch pad now. Not that I’d forget his face. . . or his voice. . . or those eyes and. . . yeah. . . sketch pad.
Halle closed the journal and pulled it close to her chest. Just reading the dream again made her pulse quicken. She collapsed backward onto the cloud of pillows on her bed and just lay there, thinking about the dream. Thinking about the unusual conversation with her father, the things he had said, the expression on his face, the tone in his voice. . . and chair guy. What was it about him? She almost got mad all over again just thinking about him.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the echo of resounding words. I know she hears us. Even in her empty room she wondered what being truly alone felt like. With the voices, she had never felt alone. For some reason, today, the voices were not the subdued, soft voices she had grown used to. Today they were different. Flawlessly clear. Distinctive. Things were changing. Her last thoughts before drifting to sleep were how familiar these voices seemed and her father’s words “things are changing for you Halle.” So familiar.