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Chapter 1: The Stranger in the Cafe

I’ve always been careful, anxious, slow to trust. I come by it honestly—my parents aren’t social butterflies, either, though they’re masters at conflict avoidance, both within our family and outside of it. Keep the peace. It’s such a family mantra I’m surprised we don’t have it framed on the wall. We’re not exactly a family of risk takers. So it’s no surprise that the few times I pictured what my final moments might look like, I imagined myself living a long life and fading peacefully into old age, breathing my last breaths like falling asleep, tucked safe in a comfy bed.

I never imagined this.

As the writhing vortex expands in front of me, sucking me toward it, I realize nothing about this moment is at all what I expected, including the uncertainty. I’m at peace with this death, and what it will mean for those I love, but as the black abyss swallows me, one final, panicked thought tremors through me: Will it be enough to save them?

Two Weeks Earlier

The popular kids were here again. If I hadn’t been able to tell by their raised voices and exaggerated laughter when the cafe door dinged open, I’d have known it by the orders the cashier, Larissa, called back at me a few moments later: “I need four medium, non-fat, soy milk macchiatos with two caramel shots each!”

I sighed—Madison and her friends’ signature order. My stomach tensed with anxiety, and I briefly wondered how long I could hide in the kitchen without Larissa or my boss, Gary, coming to look for me.

I grabbed four cups and lined them in a row on the counter, poured two steaming-hot shots of Gary’s signature espresso into each, then grabbed the soy milk from the fridge and poured it into the small frothing pitcher. I had just grabbed the steam wand to froth the soy milk—a process I was still perfecting even after a week working here—when Larissa’s cheery voice called back, “Ayla, make sure those caramel shots are stevia only, none of the corn-syrupy stuff, and make it quick, please!”

A smile tugged at my mouth despite my anxiety. I knew Larissa had repeated Madison’s order word for word for her own amusement, but also for mine.

I could picture Larissa’s faux-innocent face as I heard Madison’s voice rise from the front counter. “Are you guys making fun of me?”

Worry tightened in my gut. A confrontation with Madison Kane was the last thing I needed today. It was bad enough that the week after I got hired at Gary’s Cafe, Madison and her friends decided the one coffee shop in Havenridge that had been hiring for after-school and weekend jobs was their new favorite afternoon hangout. Or was that intentional? I wouldn’t put it past Madison to come here for coffee with her friends simply to make my life more miserable. I’d at least hoped on a Saturday she’d have something else to do, but here she was again. As if trying to ignore her icy glares all day every day at school wasn’t torture enough.

Larissa’s response was too quiet for me to hear clearly over the strange ambience music Gary broadcasted through the overhead speakers, but based on Madison’s clipped, “Whatever, just tell me when my order’s ready,” I assumed Larissa had diffused the situation.

I squirted in the caramel shots, finished scooping milk foam onto the top of each macchiato, snapped lids on all four cups and stuck them in a drink carrier, then pasted on a smile and stepped out into the front area.

Madison’s glare hit me like a slap in the face the moment I emerged, sending my pulse racing. She flicked her glossy blonde hair over her shoulder and leveled her perfect green eyes at the drink carrier in my shaking hands. “It’s about time. What took you so long?”

I shrugged, frozen in the kitchen doorway as my brain sped through clever responses, failed to find any, and then realized the moment had passed and we were now in awkward silence territory.

Madison’s trio of best friends—Ashley, Ansley, and Sasha—clustered behind her, tittering and whispering to one another behind their hands, their gazes flicking to me every few seconds. One of them swept her gaze to the top of my head, where a messy bun held my dark hair—which was surely sticking out everywhere as usual; my frizzy hair had a mind of its own—and rolled her eyes.

I felt my face flush red and immediately berated myself for it. Why did I care so much what these people thought of me? But the truth was, I just hated for anyone to be upset with me, period. It made me feel like I’d done something wrong. And Madison Kane wasn’t just upset with me—she hated me. Not that I could blame her. I had gotten her perfect brother, Rory Kane, expelled from school last year, after all. It turns out the small town elite don’t take kindly to it when you get their star quarterback expelled his senior year and then all his choice colleges immediately cancel his athletic scholarships and recruitment offers. He was the one who sold answers to the exams, but honestly, I never meant for that to happen to him. If I’d realized what telling his teacher the truth would cost him, I might’ve answered differently when she asked me what I’d seen in the parking lot. But I hadn’t wanted to lie.

Even though Madison and I had gone to school together since Kindergarten—like almost everyone in this small town—she and I had never really been friends. I wasn’t part of the “popular” crowd. But until the end of last school year, she’d basically just ignored me. Now we were the seniors, and it was like it was her life’s mission to make me miserable.

I swallowed down my discomfort and carried the drinks to the front counter. My smile felt stiff like a mask, but I forced it to hold. “Here you go!” I set the drink carrier on the countertop and backed away a step, scanning the cafe for anything other than Madison’s eyes to focus my gaze on until I could make a polite exit. Unfortunately, the only other patron at the moment was a quiet, middle-aged guy in the corner with headphones on, typing away on his laptop between sips of iced coffee. He wasn’t much help in terms of a plausible reason to extricate myself from this conversation.

There was another awkward moment of silence as Madison waited for me to say something, or maybe tried to decide what new insult she could throw at me—she was always subtle in her torment of me, never anything outwardly cruel that I could report her for—and then she sighed and grabbed the drinks. “Let’s go.”

The four of them bounced out of the cafe, hair swishing, designer purses slung high on their shoulders.

The bell over the cafe door dinged as the door shut behind them.

As soon as they were gone, Larissa turned to me. Her green-dyed bangs flopped over one heavily mascaraed eye as she tilted her head. “Okay, spill. What is the deal between you and those girls?”

Larissa was new to Havenridge, at least compared to the rest of us native townies from who-knows-how-many generations back. I’d never even spoken to her until I got the job at the cafe, but she was kind and easy to talk to. When I’d asked her why anyone would move to a place like Havenridge, her answer was just that it was cheaper than Miami, which is where her parents had wanted her to go to college. Instead, she’d decided to take a year off to work. Rather than catch her transfer flight to Miami, she picked up a map at the Tampa airport where her layover had been, chose a random small town within bus distance of the airport, and used her graduation gift money to rent a cheap efficiency room at the motel until she could secure a job in town. Gary’s had been the first place hiring, though she soon got a second job at the hardware store down the street, as well. That had been two years ago, and she was still here, with no plans to move. She said she liked it here, though I couldn’t help but wonder what her parents thought of all that.

Larissa’s fingers fidgeted with the edges of her green Gary’s Cafe apron, and her dark eyes peered at me, waiting for an answer.

I shrugged.

She put her hands on her hips. “Should I beat them up for you?”

A laugh escaped me, but I shook my head. “No. Definitely don’t do that.” I quickly summarized what happened the year prior with Madison’s brother.

Larissa narrowed her eyes in concern. “And you can’t just, like, apologize?”

“Believe me, I’ve tried!” I threw up a hand in exasperation. “More than once, especially right after they expelled him. I told her I never meant to ruin his plans for college. But Madison just said I should’ve thought of that before I ran my mouth.” I dropped my hand. “‘Sorry doesn’t unruin his life,’ I believe were her exact words. She’s gone out of her way to make my life difficult every chance she can get since then, along with convincing most everyone else to just pretend I don’t exist. Hardly anyone in our senior class will even talk to me.”

Larissa’s face softened with sympathy. “I’m sorry, Ayla. I know it can’t be easy to deal with that. Maybe she’ll come around, in time?”

I sighed. “I hope so.” Not that I was putting much weight on those hopes. I’d resigned myself to just getting through the rest of my senior year and hoping Madison would get into some fancy college far, far away from wherever I ended up going, if I could even save up enough to attend anywhere. At least my two closest friends, Jordan and Reina, still talked to me. I wasn’t super close to anyone, if I was being honest, and didn’t hang out much with Jordan and Reina outside of school—but since elementary school they’d been the two who didn’t seem bothered by my shyness or awkwardness, and we had a comfortable rhythm for sharing a lunch table, hanging out between classes, and partnering up for group projects. Making it through senior year would have been so much harder if I didn’t have at least them to talk to.

Larissa patted my shoulder, then glanced at the clock. “I’m sorry, Ayla, but it’s time for me to go.” She slid past me and pulled off her apron. “I’ve got to go grab some actual food before I start my late shift at the hardware store.” She smiled. “Can’t live on pastries and coffee, you know?”

I was pretty sure you could, but I didn’t argue. “Sure, no worries. I’m locking up tonight.” The cafe closed at ten, but Gary liked for someone to do a full inventory of the kitchen supplies every night, as well as wipe down all the tables, refill all the utensils and napkin holders, and leave a fresh list on the counter of anything that needed extra cleaning, so the cleaning person who came early each morning wouldn’t miss any gum wads stuck in the corners of tables or anything like that.

Larissa quirked an eyebrow. “You’ve been working the closing shift a lot for a newbie. Your parents okay with you working until midnight?”

“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged again. “It’s Saturday, so granted I stay awake in church tomorrow, they don’t care if I’m here late as long as I check in. They stay up late anyway.” School nights were a different topic, since I had to be at school at 7AM, but I got paid extra for closing, so I’d taken every late shift I could convince Gary to give me for the coming week—which wasn’t many. My parents were not thrilled that I was scheduled until midnight two nights of the week, but they said they’d let it slide as long as my grades didn’t suffer. It helped that they’d known Gary for basically forever, like everyone else in this town. Besides, the cafe was at the corner of a small intersection just outside our subdivision. The stray dog who ran through a few weeks ago, chasing down anyone on bicycles, was literally the most dangerous thing that had happened in this part of town in decades.

Larissa shook her head. “If you say so. Just don’t push too hard, okay? It’s just a job.”

“Don’t you have two jobs?” Now it was my turn to shake my head.

Larissa laughed. “Yeah, but I’m at least three years older than you. I’m an adult. Adulting is hard, don’t you know that? Enjoy your youth while it lasts.” She hunched over, hand on her back. “My aching spine! Oh, to be young again!”

I chuckled and gave Larissa a playful slap on the shoulder. “Whatever.”

Larissa straightened. “Anyway, I really do need to go.” She signed out, then darted to Gary’s office and rapped her knuckles on the door. “I’m leaving!”

“See you tomorrow, Larissa,” Gary’s muffled voice answered through the door.

She grabbed her purse from the hooks below the counter, then turned to me with a smile. “Have a good night, kiddo.”

The bell above the door dinged as she slipped out, and again as the door shut behind her. The cafe felt suddenly so much quieter and emptier, despite Gary’s eclectic mood music, which was still trilling some kind of piccolo duet through the speakers above. Laptop Man was nearing the bottom of his iced coffee, but seemed to be in his own little world with his headphones and work. I glanced around, noticing a spill on one tabletop. I grabbed a rag and the spray cleaner. Time to get back to work.

About thirty minutes later, Zach showed up, the skinny, quiet kid a couple years younger than me who’d been working here since last summer. He was pleasant enough, but incredibly shy, and since I’d never been able to get more than a couple words at a time from him in any attempt at conversation, we settled into working in comfortable silence instead.

I worked the kitchen while Zach manned the front counter. More patrons trickled in over the next few hours, ate their pastries, drank their coffees, chatted a bit, then left. Eventually, Laptop Man left, too, and another new trickle of patrons cycled in. Finally, 10 PM hit, and Zach clocked out without even saying a word. A few moments later, the cello duel in the overhead speakers cut off suddenly, and Gary emerged from his office.

“Long day,” he muttered through his hand while covering a yawn. “Got all the inventory checklists updated and ready for you. You gonna be okay locking up?”

I nodded. “Yep. Totally fine.”

“Tablet’s on my desk if you want music.” Gary eyed me seriously. “Don’t forget to text your parents.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” I reached under the counter and slid my cell phone from my purse. “See? Doing it right now.” I tapped out a quick text to my mom—Gary’s leaving. I’ll lock the door behind him. Be home after midnight.

He nodded in satisfaction, then headed for the door. “Lock it behind me!” he called out as it dinged shut.

“Already on it.” I turned the deadbolt until the lock thunked closed, then waved through the glass door. “Night, Gary.”

“Goodnight, Ayla.” He waved back, then disappeared down the sidewalk. A moment later, I saw his headlights as his car started up and pulled out of the small parking lot.

I stifled a yawn myself and headed to the kitchen to start inventory.

Nearly two hours later, my feet were killing me and my back was aching from stooping to count boxes of napkins in the bottom of the storage closet, but the inventory was done, the tables were wiped, and I was almost ready to go home. I walked to the front counter and bent to retrieve my cell phone from my purse, then sank down to the floor, stretching out my cramped legs. About to sign out. Be home soon, I texted.

We’re still up, my mother texted back. Your father just got back from the convenience store down the street. Grandpa wanted popcorn.

I chuckled. Of course he did. Grandpa had been living with us since I could remember, and most of the time we all got along fine, but when he was in a late-night snacking mood, there was no convincing him otherwise. I dropped my phone back into my purse, but before I could stand, a strange trill sliced through the air.

I froze mid-crouch. Had Gary’s weird music somehow turned back on? But no, this had been different, almost like... an electrical sound. My heart raced as I stood slowly upward, eyes scanning for a sparking outlet, a frayed wire—I don’t know what I was expecting.

I certainly was not expecting the strange man I found curled in a ball on the floor by the cafe door, trembling and clutching his side.

I rushed toward him, though not too close. “Sir, are you okay?” My heart lurched with concern, but my pulse raced with panic. I’d locked the front door, hadn’t I? I was sure I had—How did he get in here?

He turned his face up at me, and I gasped as his gorgeous, deep-blue eyes locked on mine. He looked to be about my age, though I’d never seen him before. He was wearing strange clothes, like the ones the theatre kids liked to wear to the Renaissance Fair a couple of towns over. His brown hair fell haphazardly over one side of his forehead, and his face was just about the most perfect face I’d ever seen on a guy.

“Help me,” he whispered.

And then he passed out.

“Oh no. Oh no no no!” I muttered, but as I turned to run back for my phone and call for help, my foot caught on his outstretched arm. A glass vial clattered from his hand.

A strange, iridescent liquid glinted inside it, and something about it captivated me. I knew I shouldn’t—it could be illegal drugs or something—but I reached for the vial. It was warm to the touch, whether from the guy’s hand or the contents, I wasn’t sure. The stopper was partway pulled loose, like he’d been trying to open it. What if it was a medication or something? Like anti-seizure meds? Heart meds? Without knowing what it was or how much to give him, I didn’t dare risk it. I glanced at the counter, knowing I should get my phone and call 911, but something deep within me whispered, The vial. I debated only for a second, then rushed for my phone.

While I waited anxiously for the call to ring, I hurried back over to the guy and popped open the vial, wafting its contents like Mr. Slate showed us in chemistry class. It had no odor I could detect.

Just then, the guy twitched.

I screamed and dropped the vial. It hit the guy’s shoulder, dumping most of its contents on his shirt before shattering on the floor.

I jumped backward, but not far enough—a shard of glass jabbed through the bottom of my sneaker as my foot came down. “Crap!” I yelled, yanking my foot up in pain.

“911, what’s your emergency?” the voice over the phone asked.

“Um, there’s…” I hobbled to the nearest table and sank into a chair, then peeled the sneaker from my foot. The ball of my foot was bleeding, but not badly. Just a small cut. “There’s a guy here, and he’s—” I looked up, and the words died in my mouth.

The guy had vanished.

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