Tap. Tap. Tap.
The excruciating wait to hear a sound, any sound, sat as a heavy burden on Geleon’s tense shoulders. This was his fifth attempt to garner her attention, yet he was no better off than the first. He glanced to the cracked numbers on the door’s frame, confirming they were indeed the same as her waitress friend had written on the slip of paper last night. Frowning, he tried to peek around the blinds of the front window. Nothing but darkness.
Surely, she should’ve roused by now. Despite the pleasantly cool Houston morning, he could feel another trickle of sweat sliding across his temple to drop silently onto his faded green T-shirt. His gut burned again, pissing him off. He hated that little slip of weakness. If he couldn’t be strong for himself, what the hell good was he to her? Geleon quickly shoved the disconcerting emotion aside. There was no time for the whirl of self-analysis to disrupt his goal.
It’s too quiet. Where is she? Unable to hold back his growing angst, Geleon raised his fist and struck the door again.
Crap. That’s too loud, you idiot. Calm down. You’ll wake the neighbors.
Swiveling around, Geleon tracked the long shadows within the small unfamiliar courtyard and still couldn’t find anything worthy of making a lasting impression. He counted nine down and four across. Nothing but little gray boxes with two windows, a door, and a cracked sidewalk running through the center of the depressing view. Even though the surroundings remained eerily quiet and free of bodies, he knew the sun would fully rise soon, coaxing them from their habitats. He was running out of time.
Ear squashed to the pale red door, frustration saturated his emotions at only hearing his thundering heart. The time for second-guessing was over. Flash images of her unable to call out for help overrode his sense of decency. He was going in. If she was just asleep or in the shower, he promised to retreat and attempt the civilized manner to gain her attention.
Moving into the deep shadows of the partially enclosed porch, Geleon relaxed his muscles and misted into his pure form. Gods! It felt good to shed the heavy layer of his human structure, to free himself from the constant reminder of its fallibility. If only his darkest emotions could so easily be changed into wisps of floating molecules, easing their clustered, churning burden.
With no decent seal on the cheap door, Geleon slid effortlessly into the dark apartment. It was unnervingly quiet—no hum of an air conditioner or even the soft tick of a clock was present. A quick glance at the small blue couch directly ahead and the empty bedroom on his right sent relief rushing through his essence. Even though he’d experienced disappointment at not finding her, there was comfort knowing she wasn’t incapacitated by one of her mysterious headaches.
Relief was short-lived by his own growing paranoia.
Perhaps she’s walking down another long stretch of road, hand stuffed in her purse, and gripping a can of Mace as she’s done time and time again. Was she using the bus pass he’d given her? If she was, how far did she have to travel to find her stop?
Unsure of her safety, Geleon knew he needed to locate Jaelyn’s new place of employment or he was going to go bat shit nuts. Sitting across the street and awaiting her return wasn’t going to cut it. The answer had to be in here somewhere. After reforming into his physical shape, Geleon flipped the light switch and immediately felt overwhelmed with sadness.
“This is no place for my Jaelyn,” he groused while his observant eyes soaked in the sparse surroundings. There were no pictures on the dull beige walls, plants to bring it color, or signs that it was a place of comfort. It was hollow and empty—a belief made more evident as he moved left into the small kitchen area and began flipping open the cheaply made brown cabinets. Three ravioli cans, one white plate ringed with little cherry images, and a tall clear cup was all that met him. The drawers revealed she owned only two forks, a spoon, and a dull knife. He reached over and opened the refrigerator.
Geleon shook his head at finding the meager fare of two pre-packaged dinners in the freezer, a half-filled carton of milk, and a banana. The fruit was beginning to turn brown, somewhat mirroring his increasingly bleak mood.
A quick glance to the rear of the small room revealed an area for a dining table, but it contained nothing more than an empty laundry basket. How many times has she leaned against this counter and eaten her meals in silence? Had she stared absently at the cracked vinyl floor while she tried to fill her belly?
Phone retrieved from his pocket, Geleon recalled the one photo that he’d surreptitiously captured of her at work. She’d been standing next to the diner’s kitchen window and waiting patiently to collect his morning meal. She’d appeared deep in thought while absently brushing back loose brown and gold strands of hair escaping from her long ponytail. He’d snapped the photo the moment she’d turned his way. The glow from the kitchen had illuminated her dewy complexion and gorgeous bluish-green eyes. She is so lovely.
Geleon smiled, despite knowing the image had been taken hours before he’d witnessed her panic attack behind the diner and she’d asked that he stay away for his own good. Did she quit her job because of me? Had she instinctively known that he wouldn’t give up that easily? No. That made no sense. She’d never shown fear of him. It had to be something else that had driven her away. He prayed to Dii that it was just an attempt to improve her monetary circumstances.
Lifting the phone, Geleon backed up into the living room and maneuvered the device until he had the image of her lovely form appearing to stand next to the cabinets. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t imagine her actually living within this depressing place. He snorted and slipped the phone back into his pocket.
“Get a grip, you idiot.” Two careful steps backward and he plopped down onto her couch. He wanted to see it from her perspective. His brows furrowed at spotting what he believed to be a television resting on a blue plastic crate butted up against the scarred wall. The TV was much smaller and fatter than the one in his hotel room. Two rusted wires sporting crinkled silver material on the tips extended upward from the back. Are those antennae? He’d never seen one such as this described within the training vids. There were round knobs on the front. How odd. It must be antiquated.
Geleon felt himself slumping further into the cushions. No wonder she rarely smiled. How lonely must it feel to return here to this cramped, nondescript space day after day? He quickly shook his head at the irony.
“It’s probably no different from me sitting in the warrior barracks, staring at the ceiling, and wishing my mate was draped across my chest,” he whispered.
Geleon knew that sense of emptiness all too well. Despite the pasted smiles and continuous reassurance to friends that all was okay, nothing could fill that empty hole residing deep within his heart. Nothing except Jaelyn. The moment he’d experienced recognition of her energy, he’d finally felt hope. I’ll be damned if I’ll let that slip away without a fight.
Sighing, Geleon pushed up from the couch. It took only three strides to reach the bedroom. Leaning against the door’s frame, he stared at her neatly made bed for a few beats—quickly dragging his gaze away before images of him curled around her curvy body could consume his brain.
Flipping the light on revealed the same dreariness as the living room—no pictures, cute curtains, plants, or anything that shouted of Jaelyn. Even the adjoining bath was unadorned and devoid of color. Just the lovely green bedspread and matching pillow spoke of any effort to make it a home. His eyes widened when spotting a short dresser shoved into the far corner. Two white envelopes stood out in stark relief against the dark wood. Seconds later, he was gripping one in his hand. Sadness stepped forward and landed a solid punch to his weary heart.
He instantly recognized the fat blood-red letters stamped at the bottom and spelling out “Final Notice.” This had been mentioned in the training program. It was frowned upon by the empire to allow any bills to become overdue. It brought unnecessary focus on the individual and eventually the race. The Trejani had no qualms in sending offenders home to Insedivertus. The males lucky enough to have come to Earth were fastidious about ensuring payments were timely. The last thing they wanted was to lose an opportunity to find their mate for something that stupid.
Geleon ran his thumb across her name displayed behind the envelope’s small cellophane-covered cutout. “Ah, my sweet Jaelyn. I don’t think less of you. The abundant resources of the empire are not at your disposal. Your circumstances are much different.” Placing it back onto the dresser, he quickly noticed that the other wasn’t an envelope, but a neatly folded paper. Bold handwritten letters revealed it was addressed to a Mr. Ledbetter. Instinct encouraged him to open it.
I apologize for being late on the rent again. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything of value for you to sell other than my bed and couch. Please take them and apply it toward my balance. I’ll pay the remainder of what I owe the first chance that I get. I appreciate the kindness that you’ve shown me this past year. It’s best that I leave before I cause you any further grief.
Geleon felt the blood leaving his face as he read and reread her neatly penned words. No. No. No. That can’t be right. Gut churning, he reached down and began pulling out the dresser drawers. Empty. Empty. Empty. Nothing. It was all gone. Flinging the closet door wide, he could only gape at the lone garment hanging from the short metal rod. It was the blue server uniform she’d worn at Silvia’s Diner. Without thought, he pulled it to his face and inhaled deeply of her unique scent—the instinctive movement bringing him a sense of calm. He straightened his spine and slowly released his breath.
“That’s okay. I have your full name now. Cato will help me find you.” He had faith in the eerily proficient Seeker’s ability to make that happen. Hearing her stunning voice again was the only outcome he could perceive.
Realizing his time here was over, Geleon stepped back to close the door, hesitating when noticing a small object at the back of the closet shelf, hiding in the shadows. It lay on its side and appeared to be a child’s toy. The moment he touched it, he knew it was too delicate for play. Moving it toward the light, he discovered the figurine to be a masterful rendering of a muscular black and tan dog with warm caramel eyes and tall ears. It sat on its haunches, blue leash dangling from its long jaws. He slipped it into his pocket.
Turning to leave, Geleon’s boot struck a thin stack of paper peeking out from beneath her bed. Squatting, he noticed they were held together with a black and silver clip. A pen lay to the side. He recognized the handwriting as soon as he lifted it to the light. She’d written “Jaelyn’s Thoughts” in the center of the top sheet. Peeling back the page despite the title’s warning, he instantly spotted his name and quickly let the paper drop back into place. Geleon faltered in his guilty attempt to slide it back under the bed.
“What am I doing? This might help me.” Knowing full well that it meant more than a possible clue to her whereabouts, he stood and made another assessing scan of the room to ensure he’d missed nothing else. Folding the papers, he snorted, flipped off the lamp, and strode quickly to the front door. “You give me no other choice, Jaelyn. Others would’ve found it. Why not me?” Despite the confident words, his belly still flipped over on itself.
Easily slipping into mist form, Geleon seeped through the abundant crack of the door and reformed within the shadowed entranceway. Retrieving the phone, he called for the hotel courtesy van, and stepped out into the dim glow of the coming day.
His mind churning out one nonsensical thought after the other, Geleon felt like kicking his own ass as he stomped down the walkway while steadily mumbling his malcontent.
“Don’t bother her so late at night, you’d said. I should’ve come here as soon as Destiny gave me her address. Great! You just had to choose fate’s hardest path, didn’t you? Have you learned nothing? Go with your first gut instinct next time. They warn you for a reason.”
“Hey! Are you looking for Jaelyn?”
Startled, Geleon swung around, instantly assessing the young female standing several doors down from Jaelyn’s abandoned apartment. She was reed thin, her small frame even more noticeable with the oversized pink shift dress hanging past her knees. She was barefoot. Not yet in her teens, the child’s lovely golden skin matched well with the caramel-colored hair running in four rows of tight braids across her scalp. Small ribbons matching the dress held the ends in place. Wide, dark brown eyes accompanied the huge smile. She took a tentative step down from the porch step and cocked her head.
“I saw you walk away from her door. Hi. I’m Bethany.”
Geleon backed up to stand beneath the courtyard lamp so as not to frighten her. “Hello, Bethany. Yes. I’m looking for her. Do you know where she went?”
Her sweet smile drifted away, and she pursed her lips. “No. I’m going to miss her. She always walks with me to the mailboxes so I won’t get hurt. She gives me food, too.”
“That was nice of her. Did she say why she was leaving?”
“No, but she was upset yesterday.”
Geleon’s stomach rolled. “Do you know why?”
Thin shoulders lifted and fell. “She was okay until she opened her mail.”
“Was it white and have fat red words on the front?”
Her nose crinkled and she shook her head. “It was a dark yellow one. Jaelyn tried not to show it, but I could see she was about to cry.” Her chin lifted, chest puffing with pride. “She didn’t because she’s tough. My mom cries all the time. Not Jaelyn. I heard her leaving last night, but my brother wouldn’t let me out of the apartment.” Excitement lit her face, and she lifted to her toes. “She left me a note on the door, though.”
“What did it say?”
“Goodbye, and that she’ll miss me. She gave me five dollars. Wasn’t that sweet?”
“Yes, it was. Did someone come pick her up, Bethany?”
“I didn’t see nobody. She was walking just like she always does, but this time she was pulling a bag with wheels.” She giggled and chewed on the end of one braid. “They squeaked. That’s what made me look out the window.”
Glancing toward the main road, Geleon squashed the need to ask which direction. What would it matter? She might as well have turned into a ghost and melted into the blackness of the night.
“No one comes to see Jaelyn. You’re the first. Who are you?”
He looked back and gave her a warm smile that was in total opposition to his unsettled emotions. “I’m a friend. My name’s Geleon.”
“Are you a wrestler?”
She pointed over her shoulder to her apartment. “My brother loves wrestling shows. You look like one of them.”
He had no control over the chuckle releasing to drift across the quiet courtyard. “Oh. No. I’m sorry. I don’t wrestle.”
She shrugged. “Are you going to find her, Geleon?”
“I hope so.”
She threw him a beaming smile. “If you do, tell her that my brother promised to walk with me today so I won’t get hurt.”
Geleon scanned the area, wishing he could find whatever was causing this little girl’s fear from something as simple as retrieving the mail. The only thing he spotted was the rapidly approaching hotel van. He needed to pound something. Anything. Without an outlet for his growing angst, Geleon bit his lip and suppressed his instinct to punch the light post. He looked her directly in the eye and calmed his voice.
“Will you promise never to go without your brother? Jaelyn won’t be happy if she knows you did that. The mail’s not worth getting hurt over.”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Good. That makes me happy. I have to leave, Bethany. I enjoyed speaking with you. Go back inside so you’ll be safe.”
The little girl smiled and waved. “Okay. Bye, Geleon.”
He forced himself to walk away. Settling onto the back seat of the courtesy vehicle, Geleon refused to look over to see if Bethany had done as he’d asked. He was already fighting the urge to jump out of the van and hang around until time for her to retrieve the gods damn mail that brought nothing but grief. Pushing out a hard breath, Geleon tapped the driver on the shoulder.
“How far is Silvia’s Diner from here? It’s on Cypress.”
“Is it in the Ridgeway Shopping Center?”
“About eight blocks. Do you want to go there?”
“No, I was just curious. Thank you.” Slumping back against the seat, Geleon stared blindly at the passing neighborhood.
My precious, sweet Jaelyn. You walked sixteen blocks every day to survive and probably just gave away your last few dollars. You’ll never have to do that again. I’m going to find you. That’s a promise.