12. SHARK SMILE
It was very early in the morning, dawn hadn’t even broken yet, and Lucianne was sleeping peacefully, until a metallic clonk outside her room woke her up. Her clock said it was four in the morning. She rubbed her eyes and shifted, thinking maybe she had imagined that noise, but just as she was putting her head back on the pillow, she heard it again. It was like someone carrying bags full of empty cans.
She sat up, mystified, and went to the door out of curiosity. She opened it, trying to make the least possible noise, and leaned out carefully. At the end of the hall she saw her father’s room semi-opened, right where the metallic sound seemed to come out from, until it stopped short, followed by a clank against the floor. Afterwards, she saw him leave and close the door, heading to the stairs suspiciously.
“Dad?” she called, but he didn’t answer. She walked over the railing and only got to see him closing the main door behind his steps.
She sighed and turned to his father’s room, intrigued. She approached the door and pressed her ear to the wood, remaining there for a few minutes, unsure of what she was expecting to hear, until she turned the knob and let it open slowly with a creaking.
She stepped inside, but there wasn’t enough light. So she turned on the lights and found several bags full of objects on the floor. From where she was standing, she noticed some of them were decorative items and even jewelry, objects she had never seen before at her house and even worst, they all seemed stolen. Why would her father confiscate stolen items at home? They had a special vault on the police department where they stored them, and he hadn’t returned there since the day he was attacked. Then it hit her, an even worse idea crossed her mind: he was the one who had been stealing.
Her breath stopped and had to hold herself from the door frame. The whole house was plunged into complete dead silence and she felt lonelier and helpless than ever now that doubt had planted its seed on her.
She wasn’t the only one with sleep problems that Monday morning either. Around at five in the morning, Marianne was awakened by a voice that kept repeating her name in a whisper, as if she were in the middle of a dream.
“Marianne . . . Marianne . . . Marianne . . . ”
She opened her eyes, despite her eyelids weighing down on her, and a silhouette began to dance at the edge. When it dawned on her that it wasn’t a dream, her first reaction was to slap them. She then sat down, hearing someone groaning, and she rubbed her eyes to see clearer. Samael was sitting on the floor, next to the bed, with his hands on his forehead.
“… What are you doing here? Someone could have seen you!”
“I was careful enough to become invisible while coming down, and didn’t make any noise either,” he justified, straightening again.
“Why did you come here anyway?”
“I’m hungry,” he said with a straight face and she looked at him, trying to decide whether to laugh or throw a tantrum.
“You woke me up . . . at five in the morning . . . because you’re hungry?”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t adapted to this body’s needs yet.”
She dropped her face wearily into her pillow.
“You can’t go back anymore, right?” she asked, and he tilted his head. “You know. To my mind.”
“Would you rather having me back there?” he inquired sadly.
“No, I don’t mean that! Just . . . ugh!” She snorted again, burying her face in the pillow. “I’m just saying you could go back whenever I can’t be watching over you, for example when I’m at school. That way you wouldn’t be alone.”
“It’s impossible. I have a physical body now, I’m not the kind of angel who can move from one plane to another at will.”
“Is there a kind like that?” she asked with interest.
“I don’t know, I guess. Although I have never run into one,” he answered, shrugging. “Come to think about it, I don’t remember having spoken to anyone but you before.”
“Do you mean that all along, even before I could hear you, you’ve been totally isolated?” she asked, incredulous, and Samael just nodded. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. “That is depressing.”
“I didn’t feel alone. I could hear you and even talk to you, although you never answered me, I always harbored the hope someday I would reach you,” Samael explained with a smile. “And I finally did.”
“But before me, you should’ve met something else, someone, I don’t know. Any other kind of celestial entity, the big pink fluffy unicorn or whatever, otherwise, how would you know everything you know and what you have to do?”
He stood silent with a blank stare, as if it hadn’t even occurred to him.
“When I was created, I had some preconceived knowledge about what to do. That’s why I tell you I don’t know everything, I just have a few ideas and certainties.”
Marianne thought about how awful would be to stay locked in a place all alone, with no one else around, only listening to a voice that in turn could not hear him or respond. Then she felt remorse for having even hinted at him to go back to that state. Even if it was possible, it would be crazy to even consider it. She got up and headed to the door as Samael’s gaze followed her.
“I’ll go get you something to eat. Wait here, don’t go out.”
She quietly went down the service stairs directly to the kitchen without anyone unexpectedly coming out in her way, and decided to make two sandwiches and take two boxes of juice.
Closing the fridge, she found a note stuck on the door. It was her father telling her not to worry about lunch that day, he was going to ask for something to eat when he returned from the hospital. That meant the house would be empty for at least the rest of the morning. Back in her room, she handed one of the sandwiches and a box of juice to Samael and sat beside him on the floor to talk about their plans for the day.
“You could stay home and wait for me to come back. But most likely dad and Loui would be here when I return, and that would complicate our exit.”
“Whatever you decide is fine by me,” he answered with a smile that, she felt, hid his insecurity about making such decisions.
That could be a problem if she wanted him to be able to fend for himself in her absence and not only in times of danger.
“Listen, how about . . . you come to school with me this time so you can start getting to know the route? And so the next days you could go on your own. Although this time you would have to wait outside, is it okay?”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me,” he agreed without protest and Marianne shook her head.
“Seriously, you need to learn our customs as soon as possible, you can’t accept everything you’re told, they will eat you alive.” He looked at her, horrified. “Not literally, just saying you’ll have to build more character to survive.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll try,” he meekly answered again, and she sighed.
“Okay, let’s just forget about it for now. These sandwiches won’t get eaten by themselves,” she finished, taking a bite of hers. She knew it would maybe take her some time, but she was already drawing up a strategy in her mind to make Samael learn the basics to develop himself and act normal in front of others.
“Well, here are some rules,” she said once they were out of the house. “Don’t talk to strangers, let alone if they ask you for something. If somebody greets you then it’s okay for you to wave back. If someone asks for your name, you’re Samuel and a family friend, don’t you forget it. You’re here because . . . you’re thinking of moving to town and want to know your options. Hmm . . . now that I think about it, this might be a good excuse to infiltrate you to school, we have to implement it one of these days.”
When they arrived at school and stopped at the entrance, she no longer felt so sure about making him wait outside for so long. The weather threatened to get cold and the shirt he was wearing wasn’t very warm despite having long sleeves.
“Are you sure you can wait so many hours out here?”
“Of course, I don’t see why not,” he replied, putting his hands in his pockets. Marianne grimaced and swayed her head, trying to think of something.
“Oh, I know!” she said, pulling him around the corner. “Do you see that place across the street? The one with the sign that reads ‘Retroganzza’. It’s a coffee shop and opens up at about ten o’clock. Just go there and wait for me.” She took out her watch and put it on his wrist. “Well, I have to go to school.” She took a few steps back, but still didn’t seem comfortable leaving him alone, so she ultimately stopped in her tracks and went back to him, both of them sitting down. “I guess it’s okay if I wait until eight.”
She stayed there, sitting beside him, explaining some other things he should know, and while she was at it, a car passed by the bus stop. In the passenger seat was Kristania, who took a glance at her and completely turned her face, surprised at the fact that Marianne was out there, with an unknown boy. Noticing this gesture from the backseat, Mitchell also turned and stuck to the glass like a bumper sticker.
“What the hell!” he shouted in a dramatic tone, causing his mother to lose control of the steering wheel for a brief moment.
“Mitchell! Don’t you ever do that again!” she claimed, fitting her nails into the wheel.
Kristania rolled her eyes and buried herself into the seat.
Marianne turned around, wondered at the sound of the screeching tires, but seeing the car had moved on, she decided to disregard it.
When the bell rang, she ran to the school and down the main hall where she saw the principal coming out of his office with a somber face, as if he had received bad news.
Naturally she felt curious, but decided it was none of her business and continued to her classroom. Luckily, the teacher hadn’t arrived yet.
As days went by, she had stopped receiving as many long faces as in the beginning, but Kristania wouldn’t let go, and she gave her a mischievous smile this time.
“We thought you wouldn’t make it,” Angie said as she dropped into her seat.
“I had . . . something to do before.”
“Hey, hey! Did you see?” Lilith whispered, lifting Belgina’s arm as if she were a doll. “It’s a miracle! She won’t tell us how this happened.”
Marianne gave Belgina an odd look and she responded with another one, meaning it was up to her to tell them.
“What’s up with those glances? Are you hiding something from us?”
“Uhm . . . about that . . . We have to talk after school. There’s someone I need to introduce you to,” she commented, trying not to give away too much information in the presence of everybody.
“Woo, who? Is it a boy? Is he cute?” Lilith asked with immediate interest, but any answer she could give was interrupted by the teacher’s sudden arrival, shuffling heavily with a handkerchief in her hand.
“I’ll tell you later,” she murmured, settling into her seat.
“Today is officially our first day at the basketball club, by the way!” Lilith said in her ear eagerly excited. Marianne wasn’t, but she’d committed to it, so she had to go on.
The teacher began to speak in a trembling voice. Her bloodshot eyes were still wet and she was constantly wiping her nose. No one dared to ask the reason for her state, so they remained engrossed in an awkward silence, which increased at times when she paused to whimper and blow her nose.
“Perhaps she was dumped,” Lilith assumed a couple of hours later as they headed to the auditorium for their first day at the club. “Miss Anouk has always been needy.”
“I’m sure it must be something more serious,” Marianne replied, trying to go as slowly as she could, wondering if Samael had already entered the coffee shop as she’d instructed him to.
Three girls ran past them and stopped in the front. Kristania and her minions, Sela and Tanis, looked down to them. They were wearing shorts.
“Were you going without us? That’s not very team spirit-like on your part,” Kristania said and the two girls looked them up and down. “Do you like our outfits? We bought them to start with the right foot in the club, because there are some people who think we’re only going to waste our time and aren’t taking it as seriously as we should.”
After saying this, she glanced at her friends and turned around. At her sign, they walked down the corridor, arms linked. Lilith felt her blood boiling.
“Did you see that? They did it to make us look bad! God, I hate them so much!” She clenched her fists while her face reddened.
“Don’t give them the pleasure to see you angry. If they want to play ‘team’, we’ll play. Let’s see who gives in first,” Marianne proposed, taking her shoulder and pushing her to reach the other girls. They wouldn’t let them get there first, assuming they would use some ruse to discredit them in front of the coach.
Down their path they saw the three girls already about to push the auditorium door so they redoubled the speed and touched it at the same time as them, getting tangled up in a death-glare contest while opening the door. Inside, the boys from the team were already practicing and warming up, but the coach wasn’t around.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Demian asked, stepping away from his teammates, but stopping abruptly after noticing Kristania was also there.
“Hello, Demian! I’m so glad to see you’re okay. I was very worried after Saturday,” she said with a smitten expression. Certainly, he looked healthier compared to the previous day.
“Yeah . . . well, it wasn’t a big deal. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but you’re not allowed to enter the gym while we’re training, that’s only for the recruitment week.”
“Well, we can do it now because we’re officially part of the girls’ team,” Lilith announced proudly, puffing up her chest. The rest of the boys immediately stopped their practice and turned their faces like prairie dogs. For a moment Marianne felt like they were all juicy steaks in a pond of piranhas.
“Really? You were able to form the team after all?” Demian asked, unable to hide his surprise and unsure of what kind of expression to show at the prospect of sharing space with Kristania from then on.
“Had I known it was possible I would have joined before, I swear. I love basketball!” Kristania intervened with faked enthusiasm.
“We promise not to bother you. We just need to see the coach so he can assign us our activities and hopefully a different schedule from you,” Marianne said defensively after noticing the boys’ skeptical looks, as though they were joking.
“Well . . . actually we’re also waiting for him. He hasn’t come and it’s a bit weird, he’s usually already here with a list of activities for us. We already sent someone to ask for him.”
“Oh, no. Not on our first day,” Lilith bemoaned, dropping to the front bench. “Now what do we do? I was so ready to start training. It’s so unfair!”
Demian turned to his teammates and beckoned them to return to practice.
“Well, while we hear news about the coach, I may be able to help a little with some basic exercises,” he offered, thinking it was his duty as team captain. It wasn’t even a second before Kristania tossed everyone aside to get in front of the line.
“You’re always so kind. We were so excited to get started and now you offer to help us? That’s why you’re so wonderful!”
He forced a smile and stepped back to put some distance, quickly addressing the rest of the girls.
“Okay, let’s start by learning to bounce the ball then,” he suggested, pulling out a box of balls from under the stands, and throwing one to each girl.
Lilith stopped hers very easily with renewed vigor while Marianne barely managed to keep her ball from falling to the ground, though she got it better than the other girls, who ended up chasing theirs all over the floor. Demian sighed with resignation, imagining the next minutes would be endless.
After a while, he decided that they should start throwing the balls to each other to exercise their reflexes, instructing them on the right way to hold the ball. The girls didn’t seem to understand a thing he was saying, so he thought with practice it would be easier, and told them to pair up and face each other. But being five of them, Kristania immediately asked to practice with him.
“How about you make a group of three over there and throw the ball in turns?” he suggested, placing her in a group with her friends.
“But it wouldn’t be fair! They had it easy that way!” she argued, pointing at Lilith and Marianne, already throwing the ball. “I don’t want to think you’re favoring them, are you?”
Demian had to hold back and took a breath.
“Okay, let’s do this, we’ll rotate turns as I suggested,” he said, standing in position to throw the ball and starting to bounce it.
Kristania stood in front of him, combing her hair and trying not to make any unaesthetic movement in his presence. Marianne and Lilith exchanged annoyed gazes and continued throwing the ball from one to the other.
Every time Demian threw the ball to Kristania, she just whined and asked him to be more gentle, which drove him even madder, until a couple of minutes later he asked for a switch, claiming the five minutes were already up. Marianne was next.
“Oh, please be gentle. I had a manicure,” she said in a farcical tone and he suppressed a smile.
“Very funny,” he said while throwing the ball, and she caught it with her fingers flexed in the position he had taught them. “Not bad.”
“I’m a fast learner,” she replied, throwing back the ball.
“I wish your reflexes would work that well all the time,” he said, returning the ball. He was clearly referring to the accident.
“Says the guy who one day looks out of a zombie movie and the other day is like nothing happened.” She hurled the ball even harder.
“Welcome to the 21st century, meds perform miracles,” he replied, smirking, and all the while Kristania didn’t take her eyes off them. “By the way, did you say something to Mitchell? He’s been dejected all day.”
“And what would I have to do with it? Are you best friends now or what?”
“He’s not that bad once you get to know him. I think everyone has a certain level of insanity, he exceeds it, but still, he isn’t what he seems. He’s very different from . . . ” he discreetly tilted his head slightly towards Kristania as a sign.
“Whatever, I don’t care if you’re now BF’s and French-braid each other’s hair, but don’t try to play cupid for your new best friend, not with me,” she warned him and he couldn’t help but chuckle, which caught the other guys’ attention, so he immediately tried to recoup.
“Relax, I wouldn’t do that,” Demian said, his turn to throw the ball, and beckoning his teammates to mind their own business. “Though I’ll admit it’s a little funny to see you fuming whenever he’s around.”
“Well, not to me!” she objected, getting riled and tossing the ball to his face. He stopped it in time. She requested for another change of partner and now faced Kristania.
“What were you talking about?” she asked warily, throwing the ball as if her head were a huge pin and she was bowling.
“None of your business,” Marianne replied curtly, the ball going from one to the other. Kristania looked at her with a grimace until it transformed in a wicked grin.
“If it weren’t for the guy I saw you with earlier this morning, anyone would say you’re one of those girls who hate boys.” Marianne gave her a questioning look. “You know: the blond guy. My brother threw a big tantrum at the sight of you two. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s better that way so his fleeting infatuation will end sooner than later.”
Marianne said nothing, but the pressure on her jaw was noticeable. She hadn’t thought anyone could have seen them at the bus stop, but either way she couldn’t care less. It was her tone that annoyed her. When it was her turn to throw the ball again, she was already preparing herself for a particularly strong shot when suddenly a boy with the club outfit came running into the auditorium.
“An accident! Coach had an accident!” he cried, making everyone stand still. The boy leaned on the stands to take some air.
“What exactly did they tell you?” Demian asked, throwing the ball so carelessly it bounced and slammed right into Kristania’s face.
“My nose!” she cried, clutching her face. “Not my nose!”
Demian stopped halfway and turned, bewildered to hear her cry.
“Take her to the infirmary! Aren’t you her friends?” Marianne stepped towards her minions until they both reacted after a moment of confusion and pulled Kristania out of there. Demian sighed, relieved, and tried to refocus on the news his teammate had just brought.
“It was a car accident or something,” the boy told as clear as the lack of air allowed him to. “He was coming to school when suddenly he lost control of his car and crashed into the guardrail over the dam. It was so hard he was ejected through the windshield, and landed in water. They took him out and headed to the hospital immediately.”
“When I arrived, the principal looked pretty distressed,” Marianne recalled.
“Not a big surprise, Coach Jayden is his son,” Demian explained, brushing his lips with his thumb thoughtfully.
“Oh, now that you say so . . . !” Lilith interrupted, remembering something. “Last year Miss Anouk was obsessed with one of the coaches, it might be him.”
“Miss Anouk? That’s the teacher he’s being dating.”
“No wonder she was a mess this morning,” Lilith murmured, raising her eyebrows.
“Did they tell you anything else?” Demian asked.
“I heard something about how he’d been pronounced dead after arriving at the hospital, but they managed to bring him back. No more news about his condition.”
Marianne blinked at those words, and for a moment she even expected to hear Samael’s voice telling her to go to the hospital, but then remembered he was no longer with her. Despite the fact that Umber was gone, the sight of the red eyes staring at her through that black hole was still fresh in her memory, and for sure they were going to face their owner at any moment.
What to her was just a few seconds immersed in her mind, apparently to everyone else was a lot more as Demian and Lilith stared at her as if they had been talking with no response.
“Sorry, what were you saying?” she asked, slightly shaking her head.
“I asked if your mother was still at the hospital and if you would go visit her,” Demian said. “You could ask then for the coach. I would go, but I have to work.”
“Oh . . . okay. I’ll see what I can find out,” she agreed. Lilith gave her an inquiring look, expecting her to explain about her mother, but she only expressed with her eyes that they would talk about it later.
“Would you wipe that face? You’re starting to annoy me,” Demian said later while opening the door to Retroganzza’s and getting inside, followed closely by Mitchell who looked demoralized and gloomy.
He responded with a defeated exhalation and walked discouragingly behind him, sitting right on one of the stools by the counter and starting to spin around until coming to a sudden stop. He stared at one of the tables.
“It’s him!” Mitchell pointed at the booth next to the entrance.
Samael was there, with a couple of empty glasses with lonely ice cubes melting beside him and about three accumulated plates.
“What are you talking about? I’ve told you not to bother any client,” Demian said while preparing himself behind the counter.
“I’m talking about him! The towhead over there! That’s Marianne’s boyfriend!”
“Boyfriend?” Demian asked, looking at the boy with disbelief. He was so absorbed reading the menu that he didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. Demian smiled thinking it was all a joke. “Yeah, sure he is.”
“Tell me the truth, if you were a girl . . . who would you rather be with? I’m surely the better choice…don’t you think?” Mitchell asked in a pleading tone.
“Don’t ask me.”
Marianne entered the coffee shop then with a sense of urgency, glancing quickly around the tables until finding Samael right in her favorite spot, as if somehow he would know where to sit. She sighed and walked up to him. Samael lifted his gaze and jumped up, his face lighting up with a smile.
“I can’t believe the nerve! Right in front of me! And there’s no way she didn’t see me. C’mon, it’s impossible not to see me!” Mitchell protested, shrugging with displeasure, while Demian watched the two of them intently, analyzing their expressions and body language. They seemed to be more than mere acquaintances indeed.
Mitchell said something else, but his voice sounded somewhat distant, as though he were speaking through a funnel, until it became clear again.
“Hello? Still on planet Earth?”
“I heard you. I just had nothing to say. Now I have work to do, so excuse me,” he replied with aloofness, going into the kitchen, leaving a confused Mitchell behind.
Angie and Lilith got into the coffee shop soon after and approached the booth curiously.
“I knew it was a guy!” said Lilith as if she were always right.
“This is Samuel, he’s like family to me. They are . . . ”
“You must be Lilith, and you Angie,” Samael said before Marianne could even finish, coming closer to the girls and contemplating them with that look of fascination every time he saw something new. He first took Lilith’s hand and looked intently at the sea sunflowers she had for eyes, and then he moved on to Angie, watching her freckles. Angie stood motionless, unsure of how to react.
“Stop it, you’re scaring her,” Marianne said under her breath, taking him away from Angie before he began to count her freckles and made her even more uncomfortable.
“How do you know our names?” Lilith asked while sitting down and Samael looked at Marianne for help.
“Well, that’s part of what you need to know,” Marianne said right when Lucianne appeared at the door.
This time she seemed to be alone and sat next to Lilith and Angie after offering a somewhat dull greeting.
“Is something wrong?”
“I . . . have too many things on my mind,” she said without adding anything else, but Marianne had an idea of what it could be.
Since her uncle had lost the moral gift, she’d been wondering when he would show it, and judging by Lucianne’s face, it must have already happened. But before she could ask anything, her cousin noticed Samael’s presence.
“Who is he?”
“Oh, yes . . . well, back to the news. He’s Samuel . . . and he’s like us,” she decided to let it out without further ado, and the three girls looked at them unsure of her meaning.
“You mean . . . he’s actually a she?” Lilith speculated and Marianne took both hands to her face, trying to think of a better way to put it, but Mitchell interrupted by coming to their table with an indignant expression.
“Ladies,” he pronounced formally, glancing accusingly at Marianne, and then at Samael, using the same patronizing tone. “ . . . Gentleman.” The girls only wondered what his new fit of wackiness was about. “Given the current circumstances, I have no other choice but to accept my defeat but not before showing you one last time what you missed.” He placed both hands on the table and turned his neck so Marianne could see what he considered his best assets in detail. “Say goodbye to all of this!”
“I’m appalled,” Marianne said, annoyed, while Mitchell straightened back.
“You can no longer have any of this! You can see, but not touch!” he rambled nonstop. Then he leaned back on the table, looking now at the girls, drastically changing his attitude to a more seductive one. “But I’m available for you girls, of course.”
“No, thanks,” the three replied in unison.
“You need time to think about it, I get it, but patience is one of my virtues and I’ll gladly wait for any of you.”
“Sorry I’m late! Someone blew the spectrometer and we had to stay and clean the lab!”
Belgina showed up at the booth, still with the lab robe and the security glasses on, trying to catch her breath.
Mitchell took a look at her up and down with a thoughtful expression, he then raised an eyebrow and moved his head sideways, as though thinking ‘Not bad’.
“Well, hello. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you. My name is Mitchell and you are?” he introduced himself, kissing Belgina’s hand. She stood still, unable to react, until she quickly withdrew her hand and turned to her friends, her face as red as a tomato.
“Leave her alone,” Marianne warned him and he placed his hand upfront.
“Uh-oh, talk to the hand, you missed your chance,” he repeated, returning his attention to Belgina. “Well then, how should I call you, babe?”
She looked back at her friends for support and they shook their heads negatively.
“Be . . . B-Belgina,” she stuttered and the girls closed their eyes as a sign that she had made a big mistake.
“A beautiful name for a beautiful girl,” added Mitchell, offering the seat next to Marianne, so she had to move to make room for her. Then he took another chair to join the group, sitting with the backrest forward and resting his elbows on the table, staring at Belgina and ignoring the unfriendly glares from the girls. “Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, what about we get to know each other a little better?”
“Is he bothering you?” Demian appeared behind him, tapping his note pad with a pencil.
“Actually, he is. Make him disappear,” Marianne demanded, looking at Mitchell as though she wanted to kick him out.
Demian grabbed the boy by the shoulder and dragged him away.
“Come on, I warned you.”
“No, wait! Give me a chance!” he begged, trying to unsuccessfully return to the table.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Belgina asked, noticing all her gazes.
“Be careful, Belgina. He’s a hopeless and unscrupulous flirt. And furthermore, he’s Kristania’s brother,” Marianne warned her.
“H-He just . . . caught me off guard. No one had spoken to me that way before so I didn’t know how to react,” Belgina said, feeling ashamed. Her eyes fell on Lucianne right in front of her. “Sorry, I haven’t had the chance to meet you properly. You must be Lucianne.”
“That’s right, nice to meet you. I guess we’re all here for the same reason.”
“That’s what I want to know, I don’t think we’re just here to be introduced to a cute boy. Although I don’t complain about that, really,” Lilith said, winking at Samael.
“Well, back to the issue. When I said he was like us I meant—”
“I’m an Angel Warrior,” Samael let out at once, leaving the girls lost for words. They exchanged glances in silence for several seconds, until Demian interrupted them.
“Can I take your orders?”
The table remained silent until Marianne decided to speak.
“I think two pizzas will be enough, one for Lilith and the other for the rest of us,” said Marianne to lighten the mood. “Oh, by the way, he’s Samuel! Finally someone who doesn’t know you.”
Demian only gave a blunt nod as a greeting.
“Anything else?” he added hastily, as if he had something else to do.
“And drinks for everybody, is that okay?” Marianne threw in, waiting for everyone’s approval.
“Iced tea, please,” Lucianne said, trying to smile despite all.
“Me too,” Belgina seconded her.
Demian smiled at them and walked back to the kitchen. They all took the moment to bombard Samael and Marianne with several questions at the same time while she tried to impose order.
The girls lent an ear while she told them the alleged truth about him being the original Angel Warrior who had recruited her. Samael listened as attentive as the girls, not to miss any detail. Finally, she narrated how they got rid of Umber and that the gifts had been absorbed by someone else.
“Does that mean there will be another demon taking his place?” Lilith drew up after listening to the whole story.
“It seems so,” Marianne nodded gravely.
“So that’s how this is going to be then? We kill one and another one appears. And even if we kill him, there will be someone else,” Lucianne intervened, discouraged and surely more concerned about the consequences of not recovering her father’s gift.
“We shouldn’t really worry about how many there are, but rather about the chain of command. Demons can create others, but the latter turn out with considerably less power than their makers. In addition, the creators lose some of their own power to do it, so it’s not convenient for them to create that much,” Samael explained.
“You know a lot,” Angie commented, as surprised as she was enraptured. “How do you know so much?”
Once again, he felt like threading through dangerous territory and had to be careful to step on it.
“I just . . . know stuff,” he replied with a smile, hoping that would be enough for them, at least for the moment. Before they could ask anything else, Demian came back with their orders, so they had to pause for now.
“Where did you leave Mitchell by the way? You can even breathe the peace in here without him hovering around like an annoying fly,” Marianne said, taking a huge bite of her slice of pizza.
“I left him in the dungeon. Enjoy your meal,” he said, going back to the kitchen, and she seemed to take offense by his curt reply.
“What’s his problem? I wasn’t rude this time, was I?”
“There are so many people at the coffee shop. He must be too busy,” Belgina said.
“And all thanks to the gargoyle. I hope she gets a huge bump on her nose,” Lilith said, stuffing an entire slice of pizza into her mouth.
“By the way . . . I need to go to the hospital to visit my mother and ask for our coach’s condition. Apparently, he’s been in a serious accident and I think you all should come with me.” The girls didn’t seem to understand the reason why, so she turned to Samael. “He was brought back to life.”
His reaction was immediate.
“She’s right, we must go.” His reaction was instant, creating more intrigue among them.
They finished their meals and while they were getting up, Demian came to clear the table.
“Thanks for everything, Demian. Say hello to your dad,” Lucianne said with a smile, and he smiled back.
“Maybe you could come visit us, he’ll be glad to see you again.”
“I would love to,” she nodded with a wider smile, while he finished cleaning and headed back to the kitchen.
“Hey! You want me to say anything to the coach for you?” Marianne asked, but he was already out of sight and past the swinging doors. She had no idea if he had chosen to ignore her or if he just hadn’t heard her, but either way she felt outraged. She took her backpack, hung it abruptly over her shoulder, and got out of there.
At the hospital they all entered walking in a row, drawing patients and visitor’s attention. Lilith greeted one of the nurses (whom Marianne and Belgina recognized as her mother) with a hug, and Marianne took the moment to visit hers.
She was confident that both Loui and her father wouldn’t be there, but once she turned down the hall, she saw her mistake. Her father was sitting on one of the couches, reading a book. She stood still and quickly turned around to get back on her tracks, but her friends had followed her, making her start and forcing her to step out.
“You’re here!” Her father closed the book and approached her, noticing she wasn’t alone. “Oh, are these your friends?”
“You didn’t tell us you had an older brother,” Lilith said as Marianne remained in the same position between two corridors.
“He’s my father,” she uttered under her breath.
“For real? Wow! Looking young! Isn’t he?”
Marianne sighed, feeling like she was back in middle school. During the few times her father was in town and attended school meetings, he always ended up the center of attention while she couldn’t even make friends of her own.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Marianne sighed again as if she could foresee what was coming next.
“I present you my father,” she said reluctantly.
“Call me Noah,” he said, greeting with a smile. Lilith nudged Marianne to properly introduce them.
“Okay, okay. Lilith, Belgina, Angie, Lucianne, and . . . ” she stopped. Samael wasn’t there anymore. She scanned the place with her eyes, but couldn’t find him, so she assumed he had become invisible or simply chosen to step away and not show himself to her father. Meanwhile, Noah peered intently at the girls until stopping at Lucianne.
“You’re Red’s daughter, right?”
“Yes, he’s my father,” she replied, surprised that he recognized her and he opened his mouth about to say something else, but immediately closed it again and decided just to curl his lips into a smile.
“You’re family then, you can come in with Marianne,” he said, stepping aside and pointing at the door. Lucianne didn’t know what to say and turned to Marianne for her decision.
“It will be just for a moment, we have lots of things to do,” Marianne said, pulling her into the room and glancing at the rest of the girls, hoping her father wouldn’t ask many more questions.
When they came out again minutes later, she tried to make the farewell as quick as possible to avoid the conversation from getting longer.
“We have to go now. I’ll go home later.”
“Oh, okay. It was a pleasure to meet you all.” As Noah waved goodbye, Marianne practically pulled her friends away.
“Why the rush?” asked Lilith, trying to delay their steps.
“Your dad is really kind, you know. He was telling us stories about when you were little,” Angie said while following her.
“Really? I’m surprised he even remembers one,” Marianne replied in a resentful tone, immediately reproaching herself for making such a comment in front of others. The girls exchanged glances, but decided not to say anything.
As soon as they left the hall, Samael joined them, making it seem like he just had been loitering around.
“I’ll go ask for Coach Jayden,” Lilith announced, heading to the reception.
At that moment, a man in a white robe walked by them, tripping over his feet and stepping on Marianne.
“Sorry,” the man apologized, trying to hide under the coat, and she seemed to recognize him.
“There’s a problem,” Lilith said, returning to them. “They can’t find the coach anywhere, he’s missing. I saw the principal arguing with someone. They don’t know how they could lose him.”
“I just saw him,” Marianne said, looking at the door where the guy in the robe had left. Without saying anything else, she ran out to catch him. Samael went after her and seconds later the girls followed through.
She ran three blocks straight until stopping at a corner, feeling tired, with Samael close behind.
“Where to?” he asked. He didn’t even seem worn out.
She pointed to the man in the white robe turning into an alley down the road, and he continued the chase. The girls were still coming from the previous block, when Lucianne stopped abruptly.
Across the street there was a man wrapped in a thick hooded coat who hastily stormed out of a jewelry store and after zipping up to the height of his face, he briefly glanced at her and quickly ran off in the opposite direction. Lucianne felt a jolt of recognition and ran after him without thinking twice.
“Where are you going? It’s the other side!” Lilith called her, changing course and following her. “I’ll go get her! You carry on!”
Angie and Belgina decided to resume the race towards Marianne, who was leaning on her knees to catch her breath.
“Where is he?” they asked, and Marianne pointed to the alley, taking another push to continue.
Samael was standing at the end of the alley, and crouched next to the wall was the coach, cowering down with his arms over his head. He had a few bruises and scrapes, but looked in good shape.
“I don’t dare to get any closer, he thinks I’m going to hurt him,” Samael explained.
“Coach? Do you remember me? I’m one of the girls who joined the basketball team,” Marianne said, carefully approaching him. “You shouldn’t be here. They’re looking for you at the hospital.”
“I can’t go back, he’s going to kill me,” the man shakily mumbled.
“Who are you talking about?”
“The red-eyed man.”
She had a flashback, bloodshot eyes standing out from a black hole. If the coach had seen him, there was no doubt that he was the target now.
“Come with me, I promise you’ll be safe,” she assured, offering a hand.
He looked hesitantly at her and then began to slowly stretch his hand. Suddenly, Samael stood in their way. He pulled her away right when a hand came out of nowhere and took the man by the wrist. He began to writhe and twist, while the hand kept emerging from the black hole. Marianne tried to go after him, but Samael forced her to back out of the alley.
“We must help him!”
“Not like this. Remember what happened when the others found out about you.”
She gritted her teeth. He was right and she should keep a cool head. Then she looked at the street’s periphery. Bystanders appeared in the distance, but were out of sight.
“It’s dangerous to transform out here, on a public street, someone could see us,” Angie said, and Samael stood beside them.
“Hold on to me.”
They exchanged glances, but did as he said. From one moment to another they felt some kind of tingling that ran down their bodies from the head to the tip of their fingers.
“What was that? What did you do?” Marianne asked since nothing seemed different.
“We’re invisible now,” he replied as his body was covered by the flexible silver-hue armor. “I suggest you start doing the same.”
The coach stood paralyzed in the alleyway, bug-eyed. The grayish hands coming out through that hole restrained him, followed by a head that seemed crowned with prongs of the same murky material that shaped his coat. One could hear his bones creaking when his body arched as he was getting out. The entity pulled him by the robe and lifted his head, facing him with those red eyes that made his blood freeze.
Then, without uttering a single word, the entity opened his right palm and placed it on the man’s chest, making a slight movement by pressing his thorax. A sphere shot out from his back and remained floating until the demon took it in his hands, dropping the man’s lifeless body. Beside him appeared a vessel, which he quickly took and introduced the gift inside without any further delay, but it was rejected within seconds and fell to the ground, leaving only a dull orb.
The demon gave a breath and let out a grunt. Once he was fully out of the hole, he placed a foot on the sphere, exerting pressure on it. And then he felt a blow on his back, like a blast of air. Someone was approaching along the alley. He quickly turned and easily stopped the sword blade that was falling over him. After smoothly putting it away, he laid his red eyes on the person wielding it.
“Get away from that gift right now,” Marianne warned him, trying to act fearless.
“You must be the Angel Warriors,” the demon said dispassionately. Other figures were approaching behind her.
“Who are you?” she asked and he smiled, showing a row of sharp teeth.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” he replied while his eyes flashed like fire. “But you can call me Hollow.”
With a quick movement, he tossed the sword aside and pushed her away, giving her no time to react. Samael went to help her and she looked back at the demon who maintained his foot firmly settled over the gift, his caustic smile announcing his intentions.
Marianne wanted to scream ‘Don’t you dare’, but as soon as she opened her mouth the demon pressed his foot on the sphere until it shattered.
“Oops.” His wicked smile spread across his face.
Then a hole appeared above, absorbing him and leaving only the echo of his vicious laugh. Marianne sat up and ran towards the coach, watching with disbelief the dull remnants of what was once the gift.
“He broke it. Shattered it to pieces just like that. What can we do now?” Angie asked, unsure of what that meant, but Marianne knew very well that, without the gift, the most she could do was to create a temporary substitute that wouldn’t last long anyway. At least in the other cases she was hoping to get the original gifts back, but this one would be impossible.
“You can make him react, right?” Belgina asked. “You’ve done it before. Even without the gift.”
Marianne didn’t answer. Her armor retracted and she leaned next to the coach, disappointed for not acting in time and stopping the gift from being destroyed. Now the remains of the sphere lay there, as if they were pieces of broken glass.
An idea sparked her mind. She didn’t know if it would work, but it was worth the shot. She jumped on her feet and ran to Samael.
“Restore it,” she said, pointing to the fragments. Samael looked at her hesitantly. “It will be as if you were healing any other wound.”
“I . . . I don’t know if that . . . ”
“Just try it, please,” she insisted, and Samael sighed, unable to refuse.
He knelt beside Marianne and carefully took the broken pieces that once were the coach’s gift, gazed at them and tried to imagine it was a wound that required healing. He closed his eyes, hoping it would work, and concentrated on the crystal pieces in his hands. They were drawn in his mind as a part of a dissected whole. He could see the glow of the edges waiting to be joined like pieces of a puzzle. And then he felt a tingling in his hands that transformed into a heat wave that flowed from his palms.
Even with his eyes closed he could see the glow as through a heat map. Once it disappeared, he opened his eyes and saw the reconstructed gift on his hands, although it was still off.
“You did it! I knew you would!”
Angie and Belgina silently looked at each other, astounded, wondering how he could do such things, how did he know so much, if there was something they hadn’t told yet. But their questions were dispelled once the gift was returned to the coach’s body and he reacted. They had to take him back to the hospital soon and avoid any mention of what had just happened.
They bumped into Lucianne and Lilith at the hospital, but they only gave excuses about where they had been, as if they had made some sort of pact.
There was much to assimilate yet. Especially for Lucianne after seeing her father running away with his loot and act indifferently upon being discovered by her.
She didn’t know what to do under those circumstances, but one thing was for sure: she had to protect her father, not only from the authorities but from himself.