The Elementals: Fire First chapter

~Chapter One~

 
     Death comes for us all.

     I think I heard that once in a movie. At the time it meant little to me. Now, the words hovered in my mind like a dark shroud hanging over my life.
     Staring out the window of the plane with unshed tears burning behind my eyes, I was amazed that I had any fluid left in my body after all the crying I’d done. Maybe I’ll die of dehydration. I sighed. No, I couldn’t get that lucky.
     I found it hard to believe it hadn’t even been a week since my parents told me they were going on a trip. Dad had to go to Las Vegas on business, and Mom was able to go with him this time. They’d be gone for three days. Fifteen years of boring, and one tragic moment is all it took to change my life irrevocably.
     I want boring back, I thought as the hot tears spilled over my lashes. I swiftly wiped the offensive liquid from my cheeks, hoping the person next to me wouldn’t notice; but even without looking, the woman knew, and, damn it, she had to say something.
     “You know, anger is sometimes easier to deal with than pain, and that’s okay too,” she murmured, her face angled toward me.
     If she was waiting for a reply, she wasn’t getting one. After a moment of silence, she nodded in resignation and turned away.
     Four days ago, on June twenty-second, the woman—Angela is her name—had been waiting for me when I walked home from the local convenience store. My whole day had felt off, and I knew something was wrong the moment I saw her standing on our porch with Mrs. Hall, the neighbor my parents had recruited to keep an eye on me.
     I don’t remember much after that, vague flashes really—Angela telling me my parents had been killed in a car crash the night before. I think I passed out; everything went black, and suddenly I found myself on the ground with Mrs. Hall’s arms around me. She babbled something about Angela being sent by my grandparents. I wasn’t even aware I had grandparents. My mom never talked about her parents, and Dad’s parents had died while he attended college. Angela helped me up, planted me on my couch with a glass of water, and went on about how the hospital had contacted my grandparents because they were my next of kin. My father didn’t have any siblings. I remember feeling hollow as the condensation from the glass dripped over my numb fingers.
     Everything that followed was a surreal blur. Angela took care of all the legalities. She said the house would sell, and the money from it would go into a fund for me, along with my parents’ stocks, bonds, and savings. Their car had been a company lease, and she said I wouldn’t need the furniture. The rest of my memories were packed away to be shipped to my new home. I didn’t really care one way or another. I had lost my whole world. My parents were my life, my best friends, everything that had ever been important to me.
     Three days later, we were at the funeral. The memory is hazy at best, blurred faces, a procession of soft voices: sorry, Sera; sorry, Sera; sorry, Sera. I stared at two urns for a half an hour while the funeral director word-painted a montage of their lives. The funeral proceedings lasted only one day, and then it was over.
     Angela hadn’t said much, or maybe she had and I just didn’t hear her. She helped me pack my clothes and some personal items. The next day we drove to the Eugene, Oregon, airport. We waited only a few minutes for the plane and then boarded first class.
     Angela cleared her throat, snapping me back to the present. When I shifted my eyes upward, I caught the flight attendant standing there, watching me expectantly.
     I stirred uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
     The too-bubbly blonde responded, “I just needed to know what you picked from the menu.” She gestured to my lap.
     I dropped my eyes, confused. In my lap sat a menu.
“Nothing, thank-you.” I handed it back to her.
     Angela ignored that and asked her to please bring me the chicken. When the blonde woman walked away, Angela faced me, and I caught the clean, fresh scent of her perfume. “You need to eat. I’ve been with you for several days now, and you’ve hardly eaten anything. You may feel a bit better with some food in your stomach.”
     I shrugged and gazed out the tiny window at the fluffy white clouds. I used to love to fly. I once thought the clouds resembled a blanket of cotton over the world, protecting it. Now, I realized, that had just been my naive and innocent view of a cruel world.
     The next thing I knew, I had a plate of roasted chicken in front of me. My stomach rumbled in reaction to the aroma of the steam wafting up to my nose. I ate half of the chicken to appease Angela, even though I didn’t really taste it.
     Before my parents’ death, I would have been excited to fly first class. I would have liked the feel of the cushy, smooth leather under me and the copious amount of leg room—not that I needed it, being all of five feet two inches.
     Like I said, my life consisted of boring. I went to school and had some friends who I never kept for very long because my dad’s company moved us every two years. I remained aloof, knowing that when the time came to pack it all up and move, I would never see these people again. I didn’t do well with keeping in touch. I e-mailed for a little while, and then it would trickle away into nothing. My mom didn’t want me to have any kind of social networking accounts, so e-mail was my only recourse. Funny, I can’t recall what she had against all the social networking. Maybe it had something to do with my newfound family.
     I didn’t have any siblings, aunts, or uncles—that I knew of. Books were my friends and outlet. I loved doing my own thing, being a loner. It may seem mundane to the socialites of the world, but that mundane life seemed so much more precious to me now. Now that I’d lost the only people who mattered to me.
     Angela took my plate and handed it to the flight attendant. I felt bad for acting this way to my grandparents’—um, I wasn’t sure what she was, their personal assistant?
     I sighed, getting Angela’s attention. “I’m sorry; I know I haven’t been a pleasure to be around. I’m sure coming here and getting me was the last thing you wanted to be doing.”
     Her eyes widened in genuine surprise before she schooled her features back into a neutral expression. She replied, “Exactly how much do you know about your mother’s family?”
     My shoulder twitched. “I don’t know anything about them. My mother never talked about them, and when I would ask, she’d close up tighter than a clam. I assumed they disowned her or something—seeing as how they never had anything to do with me either.” I smiled tightly, trying to appear as though it didn’t bother me but failing miserably.
     Angela narrowed her eyes. “I see. I will let your grandparents tell you what they want you to know. I can tell you this: they just found out about you for the first time when the hospital contacted them. Apparently, in the event of both your parents’ deaths, your grandparents were to be reached and made legal guardians.” Her voice became quieter. “Needless to say, we were all saddened and disturbed by the news of your parents, but we were ecstatic to learn about you.” She gave me a sad half smile. “I’m sorry we were not a part of your life before now. It’s unfortunate the way things worked out.”
     I could have sworn she blinked away tears. For the first time, I realized how much this woman resembled my mother.
     Angela had a slightly darker skin tone than mine and my mother’s. Like me, my mother had fair skin, but Angela had the same full mouth and straight nose as my mom, as well as the same large almond-shaped eyes as my mom and me—but hers were a soft, warm brown, and mine, like my mother’s, were a dark amber.
Where my mother had flame-red hair, Angela had brown hair like mine, only my hair had strange red strands running through it, as if someone had pulled my mother’s hair out and glued strands of it throughout my own.
     The biggest difference, and probably why I didn’t notice it before, was that my mother had an earthly beauty to her that I had never seen before. She never wore makeup and still turned every head in the room.
     As it dawned on me, I asked in a quiet voice, “Are we related?”
     Angela’s lips twitched up at my not-so-quick assessment, and she nodded. “I’m your mom’s cousin. My father was your grandmother’s brother. You have an uncle, and he has a son, Sam. You also have several distant cousins.”
     “Wow,” was my dumbstruck reply.
     She nodded. “This must be very overwhelming for you.”
     “Were you and my mother close?” I ventured.
     She made a strange noise in the back of her throat before uttering a quiet, “Yes.”
     I thought she might say more, but we were interrupted by the captain announcing our descent.
     We rushed through the airport and out into the heat—not what I expected for New England.
     A limo awaited us out front. As we approached, two men in suits got out and took our luggage tickets and then went into the airport to retrieve our bags. Ten minutes later we were on our way.
     We drove in silence for an hour. I kept my eyes closed for the first half, drifting in and out of sleep, listening to Angela tap away on her smart phone. For the second half of the drive I stared out the window, noticing the change in the architecture. The houses were becoming fewer, farther between, and larger.
     In all the traveling I’d done with my parents, I had never been to New England—or the East Coast, for that matter. Not for lack of wanting to on my part; it’s just that Dad’s company was only located on the West Coast.
     I gawked in awe of the inspiring beauty of the painted landscape around us. The old trees exploded with pastel blooms. The stone and brick houses had a charming character all their own. The people, trotting by in their riding habits, looked as if they belonged in an English horse-and-hound magazine, not on a modern countryside.
     We had driven through at least two covered bridges, and by the time we had passed a third bridge, a group of mountains broke the horizon. A whimsical sign read: WELCOME TO HAWTHORN.
     Not long after, we pulled up to a huge double iron gate flanked by stone walls. When we approached, the gate swung open to admit us.
     Within, a curving drive encircled a fountain. Its center held a red marble statue of a lithe young woman rising from black stone, carved into curling smoke. She held something in her hands—I couldn’t quite make out what—from which water poured into the pool below, throwing off flickering showers of light. Both the red and the black stone contained flecks of iridescent white that glinted like frost in the sun.
     I pulled my eyes away from the mesmerizing fountain and scrutinized the “house” or manor; I wasn’t sure what to call it.
     Ivy clung tenaciously to the front and sides of the massive stone building. Chimneys stood upon the metal roof like sentinels watching over a medieval castle. Paned glass windows that opened like small French doors decorated the facade.
     The lawn resembled a golf course, its grass immaculately cut. Dogwood trees blooming with soft pink and white flowers dotted the yard. While we approached the front of the house, I noticed apple and cherry trees mixed in as well. Flowers and shrubs lined the front of the mansion on either side of the double doors in perfect manicured rows.
     An older man and woman stood waiting on the steps leading to the front doors. I swallowed back the fear and angst that quickly overwhelmed me. This was so strange; most of my friends already knew their grandparents. I had to wonder why Mom had kept mine a secret. Maybe they were cruel. I watched the couple as we pulled to a stop.
     The woman’s beauty matched my mother’s. Now that I was close enough to see the resemblance, I had no doubt that this was my grandmother. She wore her auburn hair pulled up into an intricate configuration, enhancing her heart-shaped face; the same shape I inherited from my mother. The sunlight sparked off the strange red strands running through her hair. The white at her temples, laced in with the rest of the colors, only made her more stunning. She was of average height, with a slender build and the same fair complexion as me.
     The man standing next to her had short, wavy salt-and-pepper hair. Crinkles surrounded his warm, smiling eyes. I recognized the same nose as my mother’s, straight and aristocratic. Mine was slightly rounded like my father’s; the only feature I inherited from him. This man was tall and thick—not fat, but built like a tree trunk, sturdy and solid.
     Before I could analyze any further, my door opened and a hand appeared to help me out. I wiped my sweaty palm on my jeans before taking the offered hand. The warm breeze caressed my face, and I tasted the sweet fragrance of the blossoms on the back of my tongue.
     I hadn’t taken two steps before my grandmother gasped and closed the space between us, grabbing me and hugging me tightly, a sob escaping her throat. She held on for a few long seconds before she pulled back. The scent of sweet perfume drifted around me, and when she spoke I noticed the same dark amber eyes as mine and my mother’s.
     “Welcome home to Hadyn Manor, dear.”
With a joyful smile, she gracefully moved back so my grandfather could step forward and embrace me. I grunted as he gave me a strong, quick squeeze, smelling like cherry tobacco and musk aftershave. When he pulled away, his vivid green eyes shined with moisture.
     “Yes, welcome home, Sera.” He smiled my same smile.
     Home. I swallowed the lump in my throat and managed to say, “Thank-you.”
     My grandmother gestured toward the house. “Let me show you to your room. If you don’t mind, you may call us Grandma and Grandpa.”
     I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, and followed her into the mansion that would be my home from now on.
     When the front doors swung open, I focused my gaze on them as I walked by. Male genies mirrored each other, intricately carved into the shiny redwood, their arms crossed—posed in such a way that spoke of ultimate power. I made an effort to tear my eyes away from the pair.
     The cool air inside felt refreshing after the heat outside. I glanced behind me and noticed Angela and my grandfather talking in front of the limo.
     When I turned back around to follow my grandma, I almost stumbled while I gaped at the vast entryway. After the front doors, I’d half expected an Arabian Nights theme. The era in which this house was built must have been the Victorian. I remembered from one of my classes the importance of African and Arabian influences in the decorative arts during that time period.
     The walls were lined in hardwood paneling. Inlaid marble covered the floor, disappearing under three closed doors, one in front of us and one on either side. I wondered what could be behind the heavy arched wooden doors.
     A double staircase on either side of the entryway led to the second floor. Dark, polished wood handrails and decorative wrought-iron balusters ran the length of the stairs. The warm cherrywood steps met at the top, where a balcony overlooked the entryway. An enormous amber-colored crystal chandelier hung above us.
     I followed my grandmother’s lead and took my shoes off by what appeared to be a closet door. I tried not to think, as I climbed the stairs, that this was where my mother grew up. Instead of picturing her as a little girl running up these same steps, I focused my attention on the handrail under my fingertips. It felt as smooth as glass.
     My OCD kicked in, and I counted my steps. By the time we reached the top, I was able to accompany my grandmother without a total mental breakdown. She took a right and continued down a long hallway, glancing back at me every so often as if I might disappear. Finally, she opened the last door on the right.
     A king-sized, four-poster canopy bed carved with a subtle flame motif stood against the opposite wall in the center of the room. I wandered a few feet behind my grandmother as I took in my new room with a sense of awe.
     To the left of the bed, a love seat and matching chair faced a wall unit with a flat-screen TV. A wooden coffee table sat in front of the love seat. Frosted glass French doors, with heavy curtains pulled to either side, stood closed on the left wall. I imagined a balcony just beyond the doors.
     My eyes traveled past the nightstand on the right side of the bed to where an open door jutted out. The right wall bore a lonely fireplace with a red marble mantel and a light stone front. On the wall to my right sat a rolltop desk that held a laptop computer. All of the furniture had the same intricately carved flame pattern. The room had a hadn’t-been-used-in-a-while smell. Not musty or even dusty, but like the dust had just been cleaned and the room hadn’t had a chance to be lived in yet.
     “If you want to redecorate, I can call our consultant.” My grandmother said this hesitantly.
     I shook my head. “No, it’s perfect.”
     “Good, I’m glad.” Her shoulders seemed to relax as she spoke. “Now go on, look around.”
     In a sort of daze, I walked through the door near the bed and discovered a gigantic bathroom, very modern, with an enormous whirlpool tub and an open shower. A rough-looking reddish-brown stone with smoky veins covered the floors and shower walls, giving it the appearance of an indoor grotto. The sink exhibited the same marble as the floor, only it was polished to a perfect shine. Under it sat a cherrywood double-door cabinet. Above the sink hung a large mirror framed with the same flame design as all the cabinets and the rest of the furniture.
     On the opposite wall, another door stood open. As I walked across the bathroom to investigate, I was surprised that the stone under my feet felt smooth, and not rough like I expected. I stopped in the doorway, shocked to find a room-sized closet with a mirrored vanity and an oval, full-length cheval mirror. I inhaled deeply as the smell of cedar with a hint of cinnamon tickled my nose. I couldn’t help the little sigh of pleasure that escaped me; I’ve always loved the smell of cedar.
     Back out in the bedroom, my grandma sat on the bed, waiting for me. She patted a spot beside her, and I walked over and sat down.
     She met my eyes. “This was your mother’s room.” She fiddled with a lacy handkerchief as she went on. “When you’re ready, I will tell you her story. Until then, know that we loved your mother very much.”
     I focused on the bedspread. I couldn’t quite make out the design through the blur of tears, but I counted the repeating pattern anyway. I needed something to center on so I wouldn’t lose it.
     I watched my grandmother out of the corner of my eye as she looked up, staring at the wall. She swallowed back tears and spoke in a trembling voice. “We had our differences, your mother and I, and I let that get in the way. I will regret that, forever.” She paused for a few moments and I thought she was finished, then she went on. “You see, events occur throughout our lives that forever alter us, and it is how we react to those circumstances that define who we are.”
     I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to my mother and what happened here, or to me losing my parents.
     She leveled her watery gaze on me as I met her eyes. “I wish she knew how much I loved her.” A tear escaped to trail its way down her cheek.
     I didn’t know what to say or do. I couldn’t exactly reassure her because my mother never talked about her. So I sat quietly with a lump in my throat, staring down at my hands. My mother was something I definitely was not ready to talk about, no matter how much I wanted to know why she had never mentioned her family.
     Patting me on the knee, my grandmother smiled. “Listen to me. I’m a blubbering old fool.” She dabbed her eyes with the lacy cloth and stood up. “I’ll let you get situated and will call you when dinner’s ready.”
     Pausing at the door, she looked back. “I’m so glad you’re here, Sera. You can’t possibly understand what this means to all of us.” She hesitated as though she might say more, but then just shook her head; her eyes reflected the wonder in her voice. Smiling, she left the room, shutting the door behind her.
     Too stunned to move, I sat on the bed for a while. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all. Why would my mother leave all of this? It didn’t make any sense. She had a loving family, a beautiful home, a seemingly bright future—why hadn’t she ever told me about this life? What had happened to her here, for her to never want to talk about any of this?
     “Mom, I wish you were here,” I whispered into the empty room.
     I studied my surroundings, trying to get a sense of my mother in all the fancy furnishings, but try as I might, I just couldn’t feel her.
     Startled by a knock at the door, I quickly searched for a clock and found one on the nightstand. It read 4:00 PM—too early for dinner.
     “Come in,” I called, curious, but at the same time just wanting to be left alone.
     The door opened, and a middle-aged woman wearing black pants and a white shirt entered. Smiling, she waved a tape measure and a pad of paper with a pencil.
     “Sorry to bother you, miss, but I need to measure you for clothes.”
I frowned in confusion. Clothes?
     She didn’t wait for an invitation, just came right over and started measuring me. She wrote everything down and then beamed another smile at me.
     “My name is Mary. If you need anything at all, just let me know.”
     I stammered a thank-you as she left, shutting the door behind her.
     Beginning to wonder if this was real, I thought, What if I’m dreaming, or maybe my parents’ death made me go insane and I now reside in an asylum somewhere and this is all a delusion in my head. I gazed around at my opulent surroundings. Well, at least it’s a nice delusion.
     I lay down on the bed to rest my eyes. I swear it felt like only ten minutes went by, but when I turned on my side and caught sight of the clock, it was 5:20 PM.
     Getting up, I walked through the bathroom and into the closet. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, I studied the stranger who stared back at me, pale and ghostlike. I appeared to have lost ten pounds, not that I needed to. I didn’t share the typical teenage delusion of being too fat no matter how thin you are. In fact, I seemed gaunt and too thin, complete with dark circles under my eyes.
     I stared at my heart-shaped face. My cheekbones were not too high. My hair fell to my shoulders in layers of waves. If you wanted to be generous, you could call it chestnut, with that strange fire-red running through it—a trait I’d obviously inherited from my grandmother.
     Interrupting my introspection, a glimmer of light caught my eye from a window I hadn’t noticed before. Cautiously, I pulled the heavy curtains aside and peered out over the driveway. I spied several expensive-looking cars parked outside that hadn’t been there when we pulled up.
     I felt a rush of panic. What if there’s a crowd of people at dinner? I can handle Grandma, Grandpa, and Angela, but what if the rest of the family is here? I regarded my old faded jeans and wrinkled T-shirt. Not that I should really care. After all, I had just lost my parents. But a lifetime of my mother drilling etiquette into my brain was hard to erase, even in grief.
     Walking back out to the bedroom, I searched around for my bag, wishing I could remember what I had packed. A quick glance at the clock gave me the time: 5:30 PM. Just when I was starting to worry, someone knocked on my door.
     Before I could reply, Mary pushed open the door, wheeling in one of those bellhop-type clothing racks. Angela followed behind her. I gawked at all the skirts, slacks, blouses, and dresses. Wow. I watched Mary leave and then focused my gaze on Angela.
     She gave me an apologetic smile. “Sorry, we weren’t sure what you would like, so we picked a variety.”
     “Um, thanks,” I managed.
     They’d brought more dress clothes than I had owned in my entire life. Unlike other girls my age, I had never really cared about name brands and designers. As far as clothes went, I liked what I liked. Now I just stared at the wardrobe on the rack.
     “Dinner is in half an hour. I’m sure you will find something by then.”
     I nodded absently as the door clicked shut. Worried about who would show up for dinner, I started sorting through the slacks. I found a black silk pair and slid my jeans off. The luxurious fabric glided over my legs. Selecting a dark burgundy sleeveless blouse that wrapped at the waist, I smiled, thinking of what my mother would have said. Perfect, it sets off your highlights. I pushed back the tears and swapped my T-shirt for the blouse. I stood in front of the mirror in the closet, making sure I was presentable. That would do.
     I ran a brush through my thick hair and splashed cold water on my face. As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, Grandma’s words came back to me. “It’s how we react to those circumstances that define who we are.”
     I made a promise to the girl in the mirror: I would not feel sorry for myself. I would suck it up and get through this. I refused to let this tragedy twist me into a bitter, angry person. I thought about all the horrible things I saw on the news every day. I could get through this. Mom and Dad would want me to. I just needed to keep busy and not think about it. Time heals all wounds, right?
     With some resolve I took a shaky breath and went back out to the bedroom. I picked a pair of black flat shoes from an assortment of boxes on the bottom of the clothing rack. They fit perfectly. I stared at my feet. Yeah, denial will be my friend.
     Hearing some commotion outside, I opened the doors and stepped out onto a balcony, searching for the sound. An oak tree extended toward the roof on my left. Beyond that, in the openness of the side yard, a boy with brown hair stood out on the grass with a neon-yellow tennis ball in hand. A German shepherd accompanied him, jumping up and down in anticipation of a good game of catch.
     I watched as the boy pitched the ball and then angled himself to peer up at me, almost like he felt me standing here. He just stood there watching me. I ducked back into the room, mortified at having been caught spying on him.
     Another knock at the door startled me. With my face still burning in embarrassment, I opened the door. Angela stood there, looking amazing in a knee-length deep-blue silk dress that hugged her curves to perfection. Her hair, pulled up into a French twist, finished off her elegant appearance.
     She tilted her head. “You look great.” She smiled as she examined me. “So much like your mother.”
     I blinked in surprise. My mother was beautiful. I didn’t think of myself that way.
     “Thank-you,” I said politely; then more sincerely, “You look stunning.”
     She beamed with pleasure at my compliment and swept her arm out in front of her. “Thank-you. Shall we?”
     I steeled myself and set forth down the hall, suddenly wishing it would stretch longer. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I turned to Angela and asked, “Which way?”
     Laughing, she pointed to a door opposite the front doors. “I’ll take you on a tour tomorrow so you’ll know your way around.”
     As I moved toward the door, the buzzing sound of voices drifted to my ears. Then the main doors behind me opened. A warm breeze ruffled my pants, carrying in the scent of earth and spice along with fresh-cut grass and dogwood blossoms. I involuntarily moved in that direction and then froze.
     He stood in the doorway, the boy from the yard. Up close, he was by far the most gorgeous male I had ever seen. He strode forward, his movements confident. He appeared to be about eighteen or nineteen, and at least six feet tall. His brown hair was slightly longer on top. When he stopped in front of me, I met his eyes. They were unusual, with an outer ring of dark forest green and an inner ring morphing into a lighter, new-plant-growth green; situated under arched eyebrows and thick dark lashes. Chiseled features, perfect lips—not too full. Muscular and solid. Not as brawny as my grandfather, but straight like him, with a more athletic build. He wore dark green, almost-black pants and a fitted long-sleeved black silk shirt, untucked with the sleeves rolled up, as if to rebel against the dress code.
     He smiled at me then. “Hello, you must be the much-anticipated Sera.”
Oh my God, I’m actually blushing. “Hello,” I managed by way of an answer.
     Angela saved me with an introduction. “Ah, Adam, this is Sera. Sera, this is my nephew, Adam Crandell.”
     Somewhere in the undamaged part of my brain I thought, Not my cousin, please.