23. Breakfast With Daniel
I have no how idea how Grandma did it, but her call to my parents resulted in a week’s stay with her. She told them that she had met an old friend who was just leaving on vacation to her holiday home on the west coast of Scotland, and that we were invited.
“It’ll be a wonderful opportunity for Dana and who knows when she may get the chance again?” Grandma had reasoned. “Soon she’ll be immersed in her studies.”
This was a good enough story, but how she managed to make my mother accept my leaving without visiting home first to pick up clothes was nothing short of a miracle.
Mom always wanted to know where everyone was going and created a strict timetable for it in advance. She had folders for every trip, and lists of things to take, and she carefully ticked these off while she packed – and unpacked – bags. Her folders included timetables for trains and buses, maps of the travel destination and every conceivable emergency phone number. She felt insecure if people just went off impulsively and wanted to know the exact minute someone was expected back home, or was intending to visit.
“So you’d better be ready with some convincing tales about how wonderful it was up there,” Grandma said. “I have enough photos of the area. I can send them to you, to make your story more believable. Let’s just hope they don’t begin to wonder why you aren’t in any of the images.”
So there I was, a few hours later, wearing my borrowed clothes at the private cafeteria for the center’s personnel, where Diana had taken me for dinner. The clothes were more or less the right size – it seemed there were other tall people there too.
Now I was getting more openly curious glances from the people than I had when we arrived. I tried not to stare at them, but it was hard. I had never known any time travelers and just had to look at them to see if they appeared strange in any way. Well, they didn’t.
There were people of all ages. Many were young, like us, but about half were older, and a few quite old. They were sitting with their trays, dressed in ordinary, casual clothes, the kind that were familiar to me. Jeans, T-shirts, hoodies, trainers. Comfortable seemed to be the main theme.
“Diana!” Someone was greeting her.
Diana waved her hand in the general direction of the caller. I stole a casual, sideward glance, because I recognized the voice.
Daniel was sitting there with four other people. He was by far the tallest of them. I quickly looked away and concentrated on choosing my dinner so I would not embarrass myself by blushing. Why did he have such an effect on me? And from whom had I inherited the tendency to blush anyway…
“I was told Daniel is one of the most experienced of the… what do you call yourselves, really?” I asked Diana.
“Travellers. Or Walkers. It wouldn’t be great if we accidentally called each other Time Walkers and an outsider heard. Traveller is neutral enough not to make anyone too curious,” Diana answered, selecting chicken for dinner. I noticed something that looked like vegetarian Thai food and piled my plate full.
“No meat?” Diana observed.
“No, I prefer vegetarian food,” I replied.
I half expected her to ask next why did I not eat meat. For some reason people often asked that and then continued by either telling me I could not get all the necessary nutrients, or started defending their own consumption of meat, but instead Diana just shrugged.
“Here you can be vegetarian, but in the past – well, it can create difficulties if you don’t eat meat.”
“You mean I might get the chance to travel into the past, too?”
“Possibly, if you can manage it. It is not easy.”
We carried our trays towards an empty table, past Daniel. I had another quick look at him and nodded, when I saw him looking straight at me..
“Hello there!” he flashed a beautiful smile at me. “Glad you made it!”
I couldn’t come up with anything intelligent to say in response, so I just nodded again and headed towards our chosen table, focussing on where I was going and praying I wouldn’t stumble against something this time. Thankfully my legs cooperated and my tray didn’t end up anywhere it shouldn’t have done.
Diana was already sitting down. She hid a smile as I approached.
“He’s quite something, isn’t he?” She winked at me.
“Hmm? Who?” I pretended I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. “Oh, I don’t know…”
“Oh, I do. He has that effect on everyone. If he wanted, he could twist anyone around his little finger. But that’s because of what he is…”
“What do you mean? He is what?”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. Lilith and the others will explain when the time is right,” Diana’s lips snapped shut.
Yeah, great… Like dangling a carrot on a stick in front of a donkey. I tried to look nonchalant and shrugged my shoulders.
The food was delicious and as I was ravenous, it wasn’t difficult to concentrate fully on eating. And when I finished, Daniel and the others had gone.
“So can you tell me about what was behind the gate? I saw Daniel walking there. What was that place?”
“Well… I’m sure you will learn all about it soon enough,” Diana was clearly being careful with her words.
It looked as though I wasn’t going to get any decent answers out of her. Best to wait for the official explanation about the gate, then.
I didn’t have to wait long. I slept restlessly through the night and never deeply enough to have dreams. It was always like that when I slept in strange places. It was as though the child within me raised her head again and all the childhood nighttime fears and nightmares came rushing back. Diana slept like a log in the other bed, but her peaceful slumbers did not make me feel any more relaxed. I opened my eyes to check the time at the digital alarm clock at least once every hour.
And then the morning came and someone knocked on the door.
Diana was nowhere to be seen. I thought I had not slept at all, but obviously I had dozed off for a while and she had left quietly, not wanting to wake me up.
I got out of bed in my checkered pajamas and, quickly combing my unruly hair with my fingers, opened the door. I expected Grandma, or Lilith, or perhaps Diana would be standing in the hallway.
It was Daniel. He was leaning to the opposite wall in his jeans and T-shirt looking like a film star, arms folded across his chest. He appeared to be quite amused by my undisciplined appearance.
“Hey, sleepy head!” he smiled down from his heights. “Nice hair-do you’ve got there!”
I blushed like a ripe tomato, my fingers still smoothing my hair.
“I’m here to tell you more about the gates and what we do here,” he told me. “I’ll wait for you in the lobby. We’ll go and have some breakfast first.”
I wanted to slam the door shut, but managed to close it in a dignified manner. Only then did I swear like a sailor. Then I ran through the bathroom door to the mirror, which confirmed that I looked like something out of a horror story. My hair was sticking out like the antennae of a satellite, and I had no makeup on, obviously. I looked horrible.
I went into the small bathroom and cleaned my teeth (the Centre had given me a bag of basic bathroom items). Then I realized I had no makeup with me, except for the pink lipstick I’d been carrying in my handbag. As a rule I didn’t wear much makeup, but right now I would have given just about anything for a little mascara. Or a concealer – I had deep dark circles around my eyes.
I did all I could – splashed cold water onto my face and combed my hair (there was no brush in the necessities bag and of course no hairspray so I had to tame the sputnik-look with plain water. I decided against the lipstick – it would have looked strange on its own without any other makeup. Then I put on my borrowed jeans and shirt and trainers. I was as ready as I could be, so I opened the door and faced the world for the last time as I currently knew it. I had the feeling that the way I saw it was about to change forever.
Daniel was standing in the lobby, as promised, talking seriously to an older lady. When he saw me, he left the woman and walked over to me.
Yes, I admit it: he was so gorgeously handsome; I felt my heart melt in my chest. It felt awkward, and rather than feeling elated, I hated myself for it. I was sure I looked just like one of the Blonde Crew at school, drooling over some handsome hunk – with the exception of the lack of makeup. However hard I tried not to, I was sure I was ogling him like a spaniel by the dinner table.
“Good morning,” I greeted him stiffly, trying to be as matter-of-fact as I could.
He looked a bit surprised at my formal words, but did not respond in kind. He just gestured towards the cafeteria. I turned and started walking. He was not walking quite as closely to me as when we had left the bookstore, but I could still feel his body heat.
“Are you all right? Or do you have a fever?” I hadn’t intended to ask him, but to my horror I just heard the words come motoring out of my mouth. It was as if I lost all my self-control when he was around.
“I am fine, thanks for asking,” he smiled, which brought out the dimple.
Hell, did he have to smile all the time?
We quietly took our trays and started choosing breakfast.
After a sizeable omelet, a big mug of coffee, some toast with bitter orange marmalade (my father had taught me to like it too), and lots of orange juice I felt sure enough of myself to lean back and look at him directly.
As before, he looked right back at me. I saw golden dots swimming in the brilliant blue of his eyes. I gazed into them again. Yes – golden dots that were so bright they appeared to be moving.
“What…?” I almost asked, but didn’t.
“What what?” he looked slightly amused (he seemed to find me permanently amusing), leaning back in his chair, measuring me openly with his gaze.
It felt like a caress on my cheek.
I managed to form an ordinary sounding question.
“So, what am I supposed to learn today?”
“You are supposed to learn what the gates are, and what the buffer zone is.”
“I already know that. The gates are doorways to the Unseen Worlds, or afterworld… and the buffer zone is between those other worlds and ours. Oh, and it is also a pathway to different times. The book and Lilith already told me that much.” I needed to sound smart; I was so off balance in his presence.
“That’s the easiest explanation. But you need to learn more. Such as how they are used, and for you to have better understanding, you need to experience the whole thing yourself. That is why I’ll be taking you through our gate in the lobby.”
My breakfast suddenly wanted to get out again. The scared little girl fearful of the dark was howling somewhere inside me.
“Is it safe?” I heard a mousy voice blurt out the question, and realized it belonged to me.
“It will be, with me.” Daniel put down his coffee mug. “So, are you ready? Shall we go?”
“Just the two of us?”
“Yes, just the two of us.”
“No better time than right now. Let’s go.”
I really had no other choice but to follow him, with my knees wobbling, towards the lobby. Now that I was going to face the other side for real, I was not so sure I wanted to. Dreams were one thing, but to physically enter the place where the dead go… I began to feel nauseous as the fear crept into my mind, dragging itself to the front of my consciousness with sharp claws. Zombie faces swam up from the dark depths of my brain. Fangs, blood, curses… creatures half human, half beast. Every bad horror film I had ever seen, or book I had ever read, was suddenly playing out in full colour in my head. I had forgotten how terrified of the unknown I had been as a child.
Daniel seemed to sense my emotions, even though he had his back to me. He stopped and looked at me over his broad shoulder. What he saw on my face made him turn around. I must have looked like a doomed deer in car headlights. His expression became concerned.
“Hey…” he cupped my face between his hands and leaned down to look into my eyes, “there’s nothing to be afraid of, I swear.”
“What about the shadows…?” I squealed, panic squeezing my voice higher.
His hands were burning hot on my cheeks; his blue eyes were swirling with strength.
“They cannot enter where we go. Trust me.”
I was drawn deep into his eyes, and for a while was really afraid my knees would melt and I would turn into a puddle on the carpet. The warmth in his eyes was radiating a comfort that I’d never experienced before and it finally convinced my fearful mind that he could be trusted. I was sure he could clearly see all the fear of the dark and shadows that was lurking in my head. All I saw in his eyes was sympathy, and self-assurance. He wasn’t the least bit scared.
I breathed deeply, slowly gaining my composure. He had to know what he was doing.
“Thank you. You’re an angel… I have always been so afraid of the dark and the unknown. About what happens when we die…”
He blinked with a look of surprise. Then he smiled, took my hand, and led me to the hall and the gate. I concentrated on looking at the solid frames around it. It was the weirdest sight. Here were these old fashioned gilded frames, and between them was an opening to… somewhere outside our physical world. The odd thing was it looked perfectly normal and physical to me. I felt a twinge of embarrassment for feeling so afraid.
Daniel put his arm around my shoulder, and pulled me tight to his side. I swallowed, feeling his body against me, warm, safe and strong.
I took one deep breath and nodded.
“Ready,” I managed a whisper.
He gave me one tight squeeze, and led me through the gate.
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