Chapter Seven: Premonition

The iced tea with blackberry flavor was refreshing and delicious. There was, however, a slight after taste of bitterness. Bittersweet just like the moment because as he drank his tea, he stared at me for some kind of conversation starter, I could only assume. It was beautiful but left me feeling a bit awkward. I drank my tea and finally took it upon myself to break the ice, “So, do you come here often?” “Oh, here?” he asked and pointed toward the floor. I nodded as he continued, “yes, I live in an apartment upstairs.” “Oh really? What’s it like?” I asked, feeling a blushing coming over my cheeks. He smiled at me as if he noticed the slight pinker tint and pointed upward toward the ceiling. “It’s nice, I help Ruby and John with the place from time to time and they let me stay there for a reasonable rent. I am attending school. Biology major.” “Wow! Interesting field. I think that’s incredible. I am a ballet teacher at Julio Performing Arts downtown.” I said with pause of awkward silence. I looked away to see the crowd of people at the bar as the noise seemed to suddenly go up five decibels. “Hey”, Grant said a bit more abruptly to distract me away from the noise, “Would you like to go for a walk and get some fresh air? It’s getting stuffy in here.” He flashed a dashingly tantalizing smile at me. It made the desire to be alone with him crystal clear. I nodded gently at his request.

We walked to the door very shortly after I agreed to go on the walk with Grant. This mysterious man with brains and beauty. A very challenging combination of traits to find in one person. I wanted to get to know Grant so I suggested we take our walk on the sea of concrete in the city with the lights and hustle bustle around us but then, as part of the deal, go for a walk on the shore by the ocean. He agreed. So we set out to walk under the lights of the city with the beams of a full moon shining down as well. It was a clear night and the stars were easy to see. They were absolutely brilliant. The smog from the city often blots them out so being able to see them as clearly as we could was magnificent. We had no clue where we would end up. The very idea that we were leaving this evening all up to chance had such an appeal like a sense of freedom. A beautiful and clear night sky, a walk among the hustle bustle of the beautiful city, a sea shore walk, and then where else was all up to a bridge we would cross when we got to it. It was so perfectly romantic.

We talked about life topics in general and broke opinions down to specifics. We were getting to know each other. Our conversations became passionate and deep as waters in motion. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ocean. For some reason since I had been alone with Grant, it had become all that lingered on my mind. When could I get him to the shore? Why did I feel such a strong pull to be alone with him near the waves? The question nagged on my mind throughout our conversations. When one conversation would end, another one would begin. One would lead to another and through all of it, I couldn’t wait to be alone with him at the shore.

I couldn’t answer that nagging question to my own inner satisfaction. I supposed I would figure it out when we got to the ocean. I was becoming exceedingly curious about why it was. I held my composure, nonetheless. I turned to him and said, “Grant, would you like to accompany me to the beach?,” as my curiosity would no longer stay quiet. He flashed that stunningly beautiful smile at me again. My heart jumped into my throat for a moment. “Absolutely”, he said and then added, “but, first, could I ask for your hand in mine on our next stroll near the waves and breeze?” “Well”, I smiled shyly, “perhaps, since you said it so gently. I am willing to consider it.” I winked at him. I was really enjoying the moment. I didn’t realize how much I longed for his company until then. I was becoming comfortable with his presence. What was going to happen next, I thought, as I placed my hand into his. “Do you think we should take my car to the shore and then walk on the beach?” I asked with a touch of bewilderment of the enticing thoughts that were starting to race through my mind. I am sure he noticed in my voice. My instincts told me he noticed. Even though the racy thoughts were unbeknownst to him and I couldn’t help but to wonder what he could’ve been thinking as well. Were we thinking the same kinds of thoughts? “That would be great!” he said.

We turned around and began walking back toward the diner. The night continued to stay decently clear as the stars kept shining and hanging on to their brilliance. It was ironic how the setting, the scene, and the stage just seemed to flow so deliriously perfect as I walked with Grant. “So far,” he began, “Yarah, I know you were adopted in Brazil and moved to New York when you were young and had a happy adolescence, but, I can’t help but wonder if you ever think about your country of birth? I have often been curious, myself, about South America, Brazil, in particular. You ever consider visiting there?” He turned me toward him and we stopped on the sidewalk under a street light. His light touch on my shoulders melted me in ways I have not known until then. He brushed a piece of hair behind my ear and smiled at me with his eyes as he started to peer into my eyes with the lingering question. Goosebumps plagued my entire body as if it were cold outside. The breeze was light and mellow and there was no chill to it. “I mean, forgive me for the intrusion….”his voice trailed off. Cars, people, sounds of the sirens of the night in the city were hurling around us, but, for that moment, all of it sort of just silenced as the spotlight from the streetlight shone upon us. I met his stare. His eyes were a deep green, like the deepest ocean green, gazing into mine. It took my breath away. Everything felt like it was moving slowly. I felt a shaking, ragged, and shallow breath moving into my lungs and beneath my ribs as it slowly filled up my diaphragm. I could hear a heart beat fluttering. A deafeningly powerful sound rang of the peculiar beat kept rhythm inside my head and in my ears as if it were inside my own body. He grabbed my hand as it had slipped away without my will, without my knowledge, without my permission. My index finger lightly touched his wrist. I could feel his pulse. The sound of the heart beat fluttered stronger and louder. I couldn’t answer his question as I felt frozen. I had realized that the sound of the heart beat in my head matched the feeling of his pulse beneath my finger. It was a maddening and rushing sort of sound and it kept getting louder. I felt the familiar hunger pangs coming on. OH NO, this can’t be happening, NOT NOW, I thought. I began to panic.

He stared into my eyes and I felt his pulse quicken even faster, heavier against my finger tip. I could hear the blood rushing through his arteries….What the hell is going on here, I couldn’t break the stare. I couldn’t stop the hunger. How do I stop? Instinctively, I took my hand out of his and grabbed the back of his head. Within a millisecond, my lips crashed against his with a force, only the deep hunger I could no longer contain, could muster. I felt his tongue flicker in and out of my mouth. My own thrust deeper and deeper into his mouth. I was whirling out of control. My hands began to wonder. Incredulous! I couldn’t believe myself. His hand frantically yet nervously moved softly over the small of my back. I couldn’t stop. I wanted all of him. I wanted to feel him against me. I wanted to taste him. Oh my god, I have to stop……NOW! I let go rapidly upon the realization of the monster I had begun to feel like. I looked at him with startled fear. He probably thought I was a lunatic, I thought, maybe I am becoming one for all I know. I turned around and started to run as fast as I could toward the diner without him. My stupid heels were not easy to run in and by the time I was really running hard, I was cursing the wretched shoes. Good thing I know ballet which probably helped me keep from breaking an ankle. Regardless, it was rough to run in heels. As I ran, my thoughts raced and when I glanced back, I realized I hadn’t gotten very far. He was still standing there looking toward me. His appearance had changed. I had left him looking so rustled like a feather pillow I once slammed into Dean during the memorable pillow fight we had had in my childhood. I kept running, fighting the hunger with every step, every leap….fighting against the new side of me, coveting the strength I once knew.

I reached my car, finally, after what seemed like an eternity of running. I didn’t look back after the one time that I had. The memory of the way in which I left Grant still burned behind my eyes. I couldn’t turn back. Now that I have committed to running away, I stayed on the path. I felt I must. I felt like I was dangerous.
“Hey, you can’t do that……Yarrrrrrah! What’s wrong?” yelled a voice behind me in between gulps of panting breaths. I felt my head want to turn around and stopped it against my raging instinct. I stopped running, my car two feet in front of me, frozen like a cat about to pounce, out of fear. “What do I do now?” I said aloud to myself as if the voice that had been stalking me in my dreams would answer from within. Nothing. The safety of my car awaited me. I grabbed my keys out of the small bag I had been carrying on my arm and then dropped them to the ground. Frantically, I reached down to pick them up, my hand quivering violently out of control. I felt his hand on my forearm. I felt my body twist around as I tried to put up a fight against his embrace and then his hands on both arms at that point. I can’t fight this, I thought, so, I turned to face him and fell to my knees. That was when everything just faded out to darkness….

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Chapter Six: Innate

Chapter Six: Innate

My instincts told me to rush to the diner where I had seen the beautiful stranger who held my interest from a glance. An impulse that I was getting comfortable with lead me to drop my foot on the accelerator like a brick. I dashed to the road that would take me there. To where I knew he was. I didn’t understand how I knew he would be there. I just followed my innate drive. There it was, the road, the direction, of my destiny for the night. In moments, the diner came into view. Such a small place, with a flickering neon light. I knew there would be such a profound happening there. I was intent on making it so. It was such a strong intuition that I could feel. I followed it like a moth to a flame. It stood out to me like a little rabbit to the eagle’s eyes. The racy impulses began to slow as if I were on the right track. I was hesitant and anxious about going in. I, then, quickly, realized that if I didn’t, the impulses would come back to regain my senses, taking me over, like the familiarity of something I’ve never known.
Three minutes to the front door and my feet felt heavy and reluctant. A walk, that felt like an entire lifetime, played over, in my head, in my soul, like flashes of deja vu. I savored the moments, suspended in a nostalgia, an unfamiliar, yet, tangible ache of remembrance. Memories of events, not yet embarked, came flooding into my recollection. I paced myself as I was a bit bashful to find what I may be getting myself into. Though I had full knowledge of the risk awaiting. I slowed down even more as I opened the door. Then, I let go and the bell hanging on the top of the doorway clashed loudly against the glass two or three times. My face began getting so warm. I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks. People turned to look at me and then, to my excitement, there he was. The room became quiet as some form of highly energetic music faded to the background. He looked up from his table. Our eyes met for the first time….
I felt my whole entire body stiffen a bit and stood, chillingly still, until I snapped into reality. “Wake up, Yarah,” the eerie voice in my head, of the familiar yet, strange person from sometime in my past demanded of me. I walked to the jukebox trying to be as nonchalant as possible. Intuitively aware that there were people wondering how strange my entrance was. “Hello,” a soothing, grounding, and masculine voice said behind me startling me out of my deep thoughts. I turned around slowly and he was two feet in front of me. I could feel the gravitating pull his presence seemed to demand of my body. I wanted to gracefully move toward him. My feet! Oh, where did my feet go? I couldn’t feel them. “Haven’t I seen you before?” he asked in such a way that made me want to fall to his feet to worship him like he was some kind of god. I ached for his touch, the closeness of his voice in my hair, the feeling of his breath on my skin.
He moved closer to me. We were face to face. Slowly, with each foot step recorded in my memory, as if this was the only moment we would ever share. At this point, I was so impressed with my own ability to keep my composure. The tingly longing his voice alone caused in my very core was astounding. He moved his hand out as an invitation to shake. I obliged him. My hand moved out with confidence. I was surprised at how well I contained myself regardless of the amazing and achy longing to pull him into me. I desired, so intensely, to have him inside of me in a way that is not even fleshly possible. He flashed a charming smile and said, “Hello, my name is Grant. I really hope you don’t mind but I have to admit that you look absolutely stunning,” he took in a shaky breath that I am sure no one else would’ve noticed, but I was so in tune with his every motion, already, as if I have known him for centuries, through past lifetimes. “May I ask, what is your name?” He seemed so gentle and sincere when those shaky words came out. I saw his delicate vulnerability he so seemingly wanted to hide. Maybe that was me. I couldn’t tell. Maybe I was projecting, but, I wanted him. I wanted to feel his breath, heartbeat, and the taste of his sweat in my mouth. I felt achy waves deepen like a current of reverberating waves through the core of me.
“Yes, of course, it’s Yarah” I replied so subtly, hiding the profound emotions he aroused inside. I have no idea how I was holding myself together so. It was almost sheepish and childish, the sound of my voice. I could hear the words that I had spoken echo back a few times in my mind. The strange impulses that were so strong and unrelenting from earlier had evolved into this new hungry longing, yet, I had the feeling of being a child in this beautiful man’s, Grant, as I had learned, presence. A longing for the submissiveness, a woman might have felt in ancient times, flooded through my soul.
“Would you like to sit at the table with me and have a drink? Your choice. It’s on me,” he asked as he placed his hands in a sort of prayer position towards his upper chest. It was a lovely gesture! I was a goner. It was over at this point. He won me over. I was easy. Wow! How could I possibly resist such a sweet request, or, any other that he may have in store for me? I was putty in his hands. I didn’t even say anything, just nodded my head, sort of assuredly and cautiously at the same time.
What was happening to me? I couldn’t take my eyes off of his face as I walked with him toward the table. Nothing in the entire diner existed, except him. Time could have just stopped. I would have had my fulfillment just staring at his face. I moved my gaze down to the nape of his neck and every detail of his skin, even, his pulse was so apparent. My heartbeat slowed down to meet the rhythm of his every detail. The way his neck curved down into his shoulder. The contours of his chest through his tee shirt. The tiny beads of sweat that were producing from his pores were so clear to my eyes. The thoughts that were racing through my head all at once made me crave something really cold and easy to slam down fast. I was becoming exceedingly thirsty with every step.
My body was submitting to his request by parching as if I had been running a marathon. We made it to the table, finally. I sat down. He smiled at me and motioned to the waitress close by with a quick and polite hand movement. As he did this, he stared at me, piercingly, as if he could sense my hunger for him. I couldn’t help but commit every movement that he made to memory. The waitress came over to the table and he ordered our drinks.
“So….what brings you to this area? Or, I mean, this particular diner? Well, looking so absolutely amazing as you do?” he asked, breaking the heat waves that were trying to consume us both all at once. After which, he added, “I’m not trying to pry or be rude but you look like you belong in a five star restaurant atop the highest building in New York,” he smiled in a sort of shy way as if the words he said just slipped out. He was compelled by my appearance. I was surprised by my own appearance earlier so I couldn’t really blame him.
I felt my cheeks blush hot and looked down at the table where I noticed I was tapping my thumb. I paused. Then, like it was second nature to me, I looked at him and said, “I came to this diner to have a bite before I go have a drink somewhere else.” I winked and smiled as enticingly as I possibly could, though I couldn’t see my own smile, I seemed to just know what kind of smile to use in that very moment as if I have been this way all my life. This new side to myself was taking over whether I liked it or not. I was starting to feel a bit comfortable with it. I felt powerful and strong and independent and sexy. I was flirting passionately with him. It felt great! Although, I didn’t wish to give him the wrong impression. Or did I? I really liked him. I just knew that he liked me as well. It was so apparent in his gaze, not to mention, the lovely compliments he had shot my way. I let my guard down like it was my choice to. Just then, the waitress arrived with our drinks.

Chapter Five: Changes….

Chapter Five:  Changes….

Two weeks had passed and I felt completely normal, no more insatiable hunger, no strange dreams, or voices and moodiness…..and on one particular evening after getting off work, I decided that I had been home so much that it was starting to become monotonous. Everyday I was going home after work and I’d fall into the same routine of talking to Dean and Natalie on the phone, taking a bath, reading, and going straight to bed directly after. I realized I needed to go out someplace new. Meeting some new people would be nice as well. I hadn’t heard from nor seen Bailey or Julie in so long that I didn’t know when we would see one another again. I really just needed to break out of the repetitive lifestyle I’d fallen into and in a big way.
After a bubble bath, I dried my hair and put some makeup on but not such subtle makeup I would have worn to work. My eyes were lined with dark black. I had glittery silver and green eye shadow right above the liner on my eyelids to bring out the wolf-like grey irises of my eyes. Rich mauve darkened my lips and whipping a quick braid that wrapped atop my head like a crown seemed to accessorize gloriously. I put on a light brown dress that flared out leaving my thighs slightly exposed. Then, I decided to wear my spike heeled boots that zipped up to my upper shins right below my knees.
I stood before my mirror for a moment astonished at how much I changed when I dressed up this way. My skin seemed to glisten as if it knew exactly how to complement my look. A biological response to an external force. It seemed impossible or maybe I was just imagining things. I looked as if my appeal could seduce someone. I felt like I needed some indefinable attention. “What in the world am I doing?” A bit of panic tried to consume me for a brief moment as I stood there staring at my expression inside of a what appeared to be a stranger’s reflection in my full length mirror. I felt nervous about the new hunger pang I was experiencing.
All this time, I had been focused on what I want to do, my chosen career path, that something was amiss, maybe even neglected. Until now, this side of myself had never complained, living in the dark repressed crevices of my core, quietly, and without obvious need or want or desire. No voice. It was nice to not need anything except what I was on a mission for….my ambition was my companion. It was easy that way. Now, I am heading down a road with shadows and unfamiliarity I have never known. “I don’t feel like myself!” I exclaimed aloud to the mirror as if the comfort zone was screaming out in that vulnerable moment of self-realization. It was protesting the new, strange side of myself that had broken through as the desires seemed to pour through every place inside, bleeding out a glittery perspiration. I am stranger to myself. It was scary. The real me was breaking down and this new side was rupturing out in reckless abandonment. All of the sudden, the urge to just walk out the door took over and I quickly heeded the impulse. It was as if some kind of other entity had taken over and even though I was still inside, all I could do was….obey.
I felt vibrant and alive, a sense of renewal, by the time I reached my freedom machine. I stood back admiring my green beauty and had some amazing pride overwhelm me. Pride that everything I was working for had come to fruition and this was the prime of my life. Dean had been right; I do need adventure right now. Now, knowing what kind of adventure, however, was a conflicting debate going on inside of me by two sides of myself that only one seemed to be winning in this moment. Although, this was my only justification for what I was about to do and I really had no idea what it was, exactly, that I was about to do. Nonetheless, my father’s words circled around inside my head, unrelenting, giving me the green light and just enough permission to let go and give in. What was I going to do? Who would I meet? Would this night lead to something I’m not accustomed to? A sense of danger was thick in the atmosphere, it felt freeing…..

Chapter Four: Unfolding

Chapter Four:  Unfolding

BEEEEEEEEEP, BEEEEEEEEEEEP, BEEEEEEEEEEEP, the sound of my alarm startled me out of what seemed like a drugged sleep. I shuddered as I remembered the dream I had just been jerked out of. I rubbed my eyes and tried to catch my breath as I slammed a shaky hand onto the snooze button. I laid there for a moment and tried to take in what I remembered. “That was such a creepy dream,” I rationalized. I tried to chalk it off as just a dream as quickly as I could but I was left with such a vague uneasy feeling. When I was able to finally gather up the composure and competence to pull myself together, I looked at the alarm face to see that it was 7:44AM. “Oh shit, I am going to be late,” I exclaimed loudly as if I were talking to someone in the room.

I threw on my day’s attire consisting of a black leotard, a navy blue skirt, and a black shirt that clung to my upper torso so that I could move freely without clothing getting in the way. I brushed my teeth quicker than I liked, grabbed my keys off of my wooden chair, and sprinted out the door. I briskly, yet, cautiously went down each stairwell until I reached the exit. I was cursing my phobia of the elevator by the time I was in my car. I felt a sudden, maddening rush of excitement, just what I needed, to get me through this morning without my usual cup of espresso, I habitually grabbed on my unhurried mornings, on the way to the studio. As I reached the side road, I came to a dreadful halt behind the traffic I had expected, dreadful all the same. I began to rummage through my bag in a predetermined and hasty attempt to locate my cell phone. I had known that I would need to call Amy, the secretary at the studio, to stand in for me until I was able to arrive to my class. She was probably on the phone chatting with her boyfriend and would be irritated with me for interrupting her morning routine, however, my consideration of that eluded me for obvious reasons.

As soon as I dialed the number and the ringing ensued, I realized that it may take about three tries to get through but she answered right away, surprisingly, on the second ring. “Hello, Julio Performing Arts Studio, how may I direct your call?” she said in a bubbly tone. “Amy?” I answered back, in pleasant bewilderment! “I am running late and I need you to stand in my class until I get there. I will be there shortly. Okay?” I said in a more curt tone than I had planned. “Okay, no problem,” she said so sweetly. “Hey, Yarah, guess what?” She continued, excitedly. “What?” I was getting a little anxious because she was not sounding like the Amy I knew. “I’m getting married!” she almost yelled into the phone. I held the phone out away from my ear. “Ray proposed last night!” “Really??!!!” I coughed a little into the phone as I spoke. I tried to sound surprised but I really wasn’t, in the least. Amy and Ray had been so smitten for one another, it was literally sickening and at times, even annoying. I was happy that the relationship was evolving to this point, finally, but, not entirely for the same reasons Amy was. It has been too long of watching Amy walking around in oblivion and not paying attention to her job. I felt like firing her a couple of times. She is my secretary. I didn’t have the heart. I am just happy that it was finally going to climax and the thought of having someone who was present in the moment was relieving. “That is pretty awesome, girl! I am so happy for you two! When’s the big date?” I asked trying to match her excitement with my tone as much as I could.

“Yarah, he proposed to me over dinner, it was so romantic and adorable,” she paused as if to build anticipation of what she would say next, “he put the ring in my wine glass!” She said it kind of breathlessly. “Ah, that is cute,” is all I could muster up to say as I was thinking, BLAH! I wasn’t unhappy for her, I just couldn’t think about mushy stuff at the moment when I had a meaningful purpose for calling in the first place. At that moment, I was still stopped up behind a long line of traffic and Amy’s voice sort of faded away. When the traffic began to clear out, I started moving forward, then, a cat just walked right out in front of my car causing me to screech my tires on the pavement. “Damnit!” I muttered. “Is everything alright?” Amy asked breaking me out of my thoughts. I had almost forgotten I was on the phone with her as she went on and on about her getting engaged to Ray. “Heya, Amy, I am in the middle of driving, can we talk more when I get to the studio?” I emphatically asked. “Sure, I will be in your classroom with the cuddly, adorable little ones,” she said seeming to float off the phone on cloud nine, which I was so thankful for. She definitely wasn’t herself at all. “Cuddly, adorable little ones?” I mumbled under my breath as I patiently waited for the cat to slowly cross the road. I honked my horn. The cat just stopped dead in the middle of the road and stared at me, then seemingly startled, speedily dashed off to the other side of the road. “Well, that was freaking weird,” I thought to myself. I realized I still had my phone out so I tossed it into my bag in the passenger seat before proceeding on. So many obstacles to overcome. Will this day continue to be so strange? Many thoughts started rushing through my head all at once about the events over the day before and the crazy dream. I could only hope for a better and smoother day.

Fifteen minutes later…..I pulled into the rather large parking lot of the studio, feeling irritated at the company policy of having employees park at the very last row away from the building. I grabbed my bag in haste and swiftly opened the door. I leaped out of my car and ran to the front door. I hated to be late. It was one of my worst pet peeves. I went in to the front desk, everything was just as normal as could be. Little Adriane, one of my students, was sitting at the desk. “What’s going on, Adriane?” I asked with deep concern in my voice, expecting what I already knew she was going to say, as often, she has some kind of ailment going on and wants to go home or cling to me or Amy. “Mommy has to come and get me early because I have a sore tooth,” she said in sort of a weepy tone. “Okay, sweetie, does Amy know where you are?” I asked, feeling slightly annoyed that she was alone in the front office. “Uh-huh,” she said. “Well, do you think you could wait for your mommy in the classroom, sweetheart, because I don’t feel very comfortable with you being all by yourself in here? Please, dear, come with me. Bring the chair and you can sit and watch us while you wait, okay.” I really couldn’t just leave her in the front. I felt like having a little chat with Amy about this.

Adriane hopped off the chair and held her handover her cheek as we walked down the hall to my classroom. I pushed the chair as she kind of lagged behind. When we arrived to the class, I helped her get settled in as I began to put away my belongings in my locker. I was trying to think of the best way to broach the subject with Amy. She was doing some stretches and freestyle dance with the girls. The music was so loud that it tore through my eardrums and felt like a knife blade cutting though my senses. It irritated my nerves adding to the annoyance of witnessing one of my young four year old students in the front office alone. For some reason, I was feeling anger building up. Usually, I am slow to temper, but, not today. My face began to burn. I realized that my anger was becoming fury, but why? I knew it is logical to feel somewhat protective over my littlest ones but this was extraordinarily angry. I had to get away. I walked briskly to the door and went to the bathroom as gracefully as possible.

I slammed the door when I got to the bathroom. I slammed it hard enough to hear the loud crash in the front if someone had walked into the studio. Hopefully that was not the case though. I locked the door and began splashing cold water onto my face. I looked into the mirror trying to get a hold of myself. I looked in my eyes and noticed that my irises had a glint of glow for a split second. It were as if I were back in my dream. “What the hell is going on with me?” I whispered to my reflection staring back at me as if it were a stranger. I felt tingly sensations begin to flood over my face like waves of the ocean then I started feeling the hunger pangs again. I tried, to no avail, to think of something else to calm myself again but the waves of tingly hunger jolts were so distracting, consuming even, that I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to run out of the building. Where would I go? I can’t even drive like this even if I tried. I rapidly walked to the door and slid down it as I braced my back against the door, held onto myself, and began rocking to and fro trying to ease the pain. Then, out of no where, I heard a soft humming tune in my head, a familiar tune, the one in my dream. It was such an eerie and strange voice of a time, place, and person that I didn’t recall.

I put my hands on my temples and felt the pain and heard the humming ease up and fade away, finally. I took a deep breath and pulled myself to my feet by holding on to the door knob. I took one last glance in the mirror at my reflection and wiped the perspiration from my brow. That was so rough. I couldn’t understand where the episodes were coming from and why. I tried to dismiss it, again, so I could get back to my work.

When I arrived back in my classroom, I noticed that Adriane was gone. I looked at Amy with questioning eyes and pointed to the chair that she had been setting in and Amy mouthed quietly, “MOM came to get her,” and I nodded because I had figured on that. I just wanted to really make sure that Amy was paying attention. I was ready to take over my class for the rest of the day, granted, another episode like the one before didn’t occur again. I really needed the normalcy and hoped that I would continue to feel better. I motioned to Amy to let me step in and she smiled. She asked the children, with enthusiasm, “Are you ready for Ms. Yarah, everyone?” She riled them up and they were so happy and yelling “YAY” and running at me like they hadn’t seen me in years. They started dancing, clapping, and skipping around the room. I laughed a lot. I found it more funny that Amy was so teacher-like at the moment. I hadn’t ever seen her put on such a demeanor. It was quite amusing. She was normally really irritated if I asked her to step in and look after the girls when I needed to take a break or something. I threw myself into the rehearsals wholeheartedly once we became all serious in class in the last twenty minutes. The energy keep me focused on my lesson plans. I felt much better with the exercise as it seemed to balance out my swinging emotions from the day before and earlier…..

Chapter Three: Sweet Dreams…

With every step toward my building, I could feel an odd heaviness increasing within. It was as if the world looked different and strange to me. It must be the fatigue settling in, I settled on this explanation and carried my heavy feet to the front door. It was much easier to deny all the crazy happenings of this night. I began the climb upstairs to the seventh floor, home sweet home. One thing I did not like about my apartment building was the elevator. It was an old elevator with the chain link door that rattled going all the up. It made me feel trapped the first and only time I rode in it.

I could feel intense anticipation for the feeling of my cold metal doorknob beneath my fingertips. On the way, I heard some music in one of the apartments on the second floor. There must have been a party going on. There was a couple kissing on the stairwell nearby as I continued to climb. I pretended not to notice, but the sheer passion that seemed to heat up the entire vicinity was irresistible and planted curious little thoughts in my head about the way it might feel to kiss the strange yet alluringly beautiful man I had been so unusually attracted to at the diner. Here I go again with the irrepressible, creeping thoughts.

When I finally got to my door and placed my palm upon the cold metal doorknob I had been trying to distract my thoughts with, I took a deep breath and went inside. No MORE of those crazy thoughts tonight, I told myself. I threw my keys on an old wooden chair next to my door and picked up the mail that had been strategically jumbled and crammed underneath my door across my floor. “Careless people,” I muttered in a whisper as if someone were listening. I flipped on the lights and began scanning through it, half of which seemed to be addressed to someone who I have never met. I will need to visit the post office soon about this. I paced forth to the bathroom. The only room in the apartment with a wall of it’s own. Every other room was connected to another like a ziggy-zag maze. I threw the mail onto the dresser near the bathroom entrance. My sink was shaped like a small porcelain tulip. It was one of the characteristics that I believed really gave this place a unique quality. Leave it to me to notice some small insignificant item in a place to give it the value I placed in it, a sort of sentiment. I gripped each side of the sink and stared at myself into the little picture frame like mirror on the wall. “Get a grip, Yarah,” I whispered to myself again, as if anyone else could hear me.

I pulled five little lavender candles out of my linen pantry and placed them one by one on the edge of the sink and lit them. I turned on the water in my lion clawed vintage tub that stood in the middle of the floor and began to disrobe for a bath. Perfumed steam began to rise up above me as I waited to take a hot bubble bath. I needed this right now. I mustn’t wait until the morning. Feelings of soothing comfort began to take over my senses as I slipped into the tub. The smell of lavender filling the air rejuvenated my overloaded senses. The candle wax melted slowly making its way down the candles almost in sync like the overture of a symphony of sights. I was feeling more serene as my tension from this night began to rise up with the steam and melt away collaborating with the wax and silence of flickering white noise only candles can make.

I took a rather long bath. I almost fell asleep even. If the water would had stayed warm I would had stayed in the peaceful embrace of the scented atmosphere of my bathroom all night long. The water was cooling and getting quite uncomfortable, however, so I reached for my towel and unplugged the drain with the toes of my left foot. I got out, wiped the condensation from the mirror, grabbed my toothbrush in a ritualistic manner, blew out the candles, brushed my teeth…as I made my way out the door of the bathroom, steam bellowed out behind me as if to say, “you are new again.” I dressed in a peach silk gown that came down to my knees and embraced my damp skin, clinging to me in such a way that the chills of the slight breeze seemed to move right through the very core of me. I wrapped my shoulder length, jet black, hair into a smaller towel as I glanced at myself in my full mirror. My face appeared tired and small bags were forming under my eyes. This day had really worn on me. I noticed my olive toned skin was getting pale. I must have been exhausted which is something I cannot allow being how I must work with my smallest students in the morning. I looked at my alarm clock which read 11:22 PM and I had to get up in 7 hours. This would be enough sleep for me on any other night but I felt I needed more. I couldn’t wait to feel my body wrapped up in my fluffy down comforter, the coolness of it against my restless and exerted skin. I laid in a fetal position on my left side clutching my body pillow between my knees. I closed my eyes…and there he was behind my eyelids. The stranger. The eyes that had met mine for a minuscule fraction of a moment at the diner. I was just too tired to fight the thoughts any longer so I submitted for the sake of much needed rest. His body and eyes and smile danced and swayed in distorted visions through my mind leaving me with shallow breathing and a feverish feeling all over. I permitted the illusion to take over me and embraced the full effect of the peculiar attraction to the strange dark haired man from the diner. Just the vision of him left me breathless…

“Yarah,” whispered a deep, gruff voice from what seemed like far away. “What?” I whispered back in a much weaker voice, “I can’t see you…” I tried to make out where the voice was coming from to no avail. Everything around me seemed to be covered in a thick fog, even I was, as if it were enveloping me into a darkness. I was standing in what seemed to be a forest because I could make out shadows of treetops above my head and they were blocking what was left of the view from the fog. There was scarce light from the moon and the stars. A few inches in front of my face was nothing but black and thick and dark fog. I could feel the moisture of the fog upon my face. I started to panic. I squirmed and thrashed a bit from the impending doom feeling I was getting inside in waves like the hunger pangs I had felt from the diner. I noticed that my feet were locked to the ground and when I tried to move them, they would not even budge an inch as if bricks that weighed more than I were tied to them. I started thrashing more as the panic made my heart feel like it was in my throat. I screamed, “HEEELLLLPPPPP, PLLLLLEEEEAAASSSEE” as loud as I could and then all of the sudden, I heard the whisper again calling to me, calling me by my name, “Yarah” it said in a sing-song sort of way. Then the voice began to hum in a peculiarly familiar way. Where have I heard that song before? I tried to reason with myself and then the voice. Asking lame questions like, “Who are you?” “What is going on?” “How do you know my name?” I literally could not think of anything else to say. I was like a victim from a horror flick that I despised so, the ones I always told myself I would never be like had I found myself in similar situations.

Frantically, I began to try to move my feet again, pulling on my legs from the backs of my knees, but they wouldn’t budge. I was glued to the ground or rocks. I bent down to try to figure out what was going on by feeling around near my feet. That’s when everything around me became so much darker, as if it were possible. I felt a ruffle behind me…”OH NO, NO, NO, what is that?” Before I knew it I had screamed out. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins and hitting my heart like a drum pounding the fatal blows of sharp pains through my back. I looked up and there was a surface of water above my head in the place of the previous fog. I raised my hands up and pushed the tips of my fingers through the top and felt air through the water as if I were under water but I didn’t feel wet. I closed my eyes as I thwarted my hands forward and enclosed my arms around me. I tried to calm myself by telling myself that it wasn’t real but when I opened them back up, I was still there. What was I about to see? I wondered. Maybe if I face it, this will all be over. I gathered up the courage to look up again. This time I saw what seemed to be my own reflection in the water floating above me and staring at me with such scrutiny as if my reflection didn’t know me. I noticed that my eyes were different and my skin seemed to be glowing. “Yarah,” there’s that damned voice again! Only, it was coming from right behind me. I looked at the reflection above me once again, trying to maintain bravery, to inspect closer. The man from the diner was looking up at me from behind me. His expression was pure fear….I wanted to scream and run. I was stuck and then I felt a feeling like I have never known before, control. My eyes in the reflection changed and I was smiling at myself, looking at the man from the diner. My reflection lurched toward me and the man crouched down to try to guard himself.

Chapter Two: Hunger Pangs!

Chapter Two: Hunger Pangs!

I slowed my sprint while making my way to my green Volkswagen Beetle. Dean had bought it for my seventeenth birthday. I got into the driver’s seat and put my hands on the wheel moving them to the ten and two positions. I sat there for a moment realizing that the time had flown by as the afternoon was now fading into the purplish haze of evening. I moved my hand down to place the keys into the ignition, turning them slightly to start the car. It fired up and ran like it was still brand new. My car was one of my prize possessions, not only because of it’s sentiment to me, but, also, because it was my first ticket to the feeling of freedom. I could drive where I wanted and the simplicity of that thought had been such an exciting rush to me. It still is. On my drive home, I decided to stop at this little diner I saw down the road from my apartment building when I was first moving in. Something about it enticed me. It left me with a sensation of curiosity that I couldn’t help but submit to.

I pulled off the road and parallel parked in front of the building. It had an old neon OPEN sign on the door which was missing a few bulbs. It flickered and buzzed in the darkness. The flickering made my eyes a little sensitive. I must be getting tired I thought to myself as I opened the door and walked into the dimly lit diner. The floor was black and white checkered tiles and the walls were dark blue. I felt instantly calm as I walked toward the bar table. An older woman was crouched down cleaning the cracks of the tiles on the floor behind the bar. She turned toward me to investigate who was sitting behind the oak bar table she had apparently just cleaned as it shone like it was still wet with polish. She had a flowery apron on with a name tag that said “Mel”. Her gray tinged dark hair was up in a bun. She smiled at me even though I could tell she was ready to close up the diner and instead she said in a very welcoming and warm manner, “We close in thirty, sweetie, but I have a lot of the special of the day left over. It’s beef stew with croissants and peach cobbler. Would you like some?”

“Sure,” I said as I sat down on the beige bar stool. She handed me a napkin with silverware wrapped up in it. I watched her walk toward the kitchen until she disappeared behind the swinging door which caused a loud squeaking sound as it swung back and forth a couple of times before closing. It felt cozy here, I observed, in this dim and sort of darkened, cave-like diner. It felt home-like for some reason. I walked over to the old jukebox in the corner of the room to browse through the music when I heard someone behind me. I turned to see, still keeping my hand on the jukebox buttons as if to guard it from something, when I saw a young man with dark hair and a beautiful smile holding a chair in his hands. I didn’t see where he came from but the dim room lit up as he stopped for a moment to glance at me. He was talking to a man with an apron on. I assumed the man was the owner of the diner. I looked away quickly back to the jukebox. I didn’t want him to see how startled I was. I was instantly attracted to him. I haven’t ever felt intrigued like this by someone I had never met. I could feel my body wanting to gravitate toward him but I held my composure. I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks and I knew I was turning red. I just stayed there grasping the sides of the jukebox till my knuckles turned sort of white, pretending to be uninterested in him and focused on the jukebox. I couldn’t see anything. It was like it all went fuzzy and my hearing became so clear. Clearer than before. I found the courage to turn and look when everything went silent and he was gone. “Thank goodness,” I told myself under my breath as I began to make my way back to the stool. I wasn’t ready for that kind of an attraction in my life yet. I needed to think logically and not allow frivolous and unnecessary complications to enter my life. I shook myself out of the fuzziness.

I waited patiently for my dinner to arrive as I tried to put the thoughts of the beautiful smile from my mind. Mel came out through the kitchen door abruptly interrupting my thoughts,thankfully so. The smell of the beef stew and warm croissants refocused my attention to my hunger pangs. I watched attentively as she set my dinner on the bar table in front of me. I began eating slowly realizing that my hunger was not going to wait any longer. Mel asked me if I would like some ice tea with my dinner. I hadn’t really thought about whether I would be thirsty. Strange. I gratefully nodded my head. “My, dear, you act like you haven’t eaten in weeks,” Mel said with a hint of surprise in her voice. I widened my eyes at her enthusiasm, unable to speak with a mouth full of beef stew. I actually felt like I hadn’t eaten in a long time. It was weird because I don’t usually have such a voracious appetite. However, I sensed that Mel felt some pride in my display of enjoyment of her cooking. At least, that is how it seemed in her expression.

The food was delicious and I was glad she didn’t think I was being rude as I ate rapidly in her presence. When she sat the iced tea down in front of me, I grabbed it and began gulping it down until I felt like I was getting brain freeze. I couldn’t believe how hungry I was so suddenly, not to mention, the thirst, to boot. It was so very strange, the hunger pangs seemed to never end and I was wondering if I were becoming a bottomless pit. I tried to become more composed and hoped that Mel wasn’t seeing the maddening sense of sudden loss of control on my face. Then, just as quickly as the hunger hit me, it was gone. I looked down at my bowl of beef stew, which was now about three quarters gone. I wondered where the insatiable appetite came from. I was thinking about chalking it off as a strange, yet, admissible sort of episode, when I realized another wave was hitting me. I began eating the croissant like there was no tomorrow. What the hell is wrong with me? I started to become a bit panicked when, again, the hunger just went away. It was like what I was eating was not hitting the spot in such a huge way, yet, I couldn’t stop eating it. I took a deep breath and anxiously awaited the next wave but nothing happened.

Mel turned around from the dusting she was doing for the end of the night and looked at me with some bewilderment on her face. Oh no, she saw my fear and loss of control. She saw it all. “Are you alright, child?” she asked as she widened her eyes a little more with each word. “Um, yes, I think I am, I mean. I just feel kind of tired all of the sudden. I don’t know………..I should get going” I muttered out in haste as I began moving up off of my stool. I took in a sigh of relief that the episode hadn’t returned and when my feet hit the floor, I felt strange sensations racing through my entire body and my knees were rather weak. I braced myself on the bar stool for a moment as Mel began moving toward me from around the other side of the bar. “Are you sure, dear, maybe you need to see a doctor. you may be anemic or something,” Mel said with a combination of shock and concern now replacing the bewilderment from earlier, as she came over near me. “Do you need any help?” “No”, I blurted out and then softened my tone a bit, “I….am not sure what just happened but I am fine, maybe I am just really tired or something. I am certain that in the morning I will be better. Thank you.” I smiled at her trying to hide my anxiety. “Oh, I am terribly sorry about earlier, I mean, if I seemed a bit rude, I really wasn’t myself at the moment.” I apologized as I reached into my purse. I was so ready to sprint to the door, “how much do I owe you, Mel?” I asked. I must have sounded like a little girl because Mel who had been so very welcoming began to look upon me with pity. I hated that. Nothing bothers me more than being pitied or looked at like a victim. Although I didn’t understand what had come over me earlier, I didn’t want to appear as a lunatic.

Oh, sweetie, you don’t have to pay, it was left over and I would’ve probably thrown it out anyhow. You should get home and rest up. Should I call you a cab?” She said with concern or practiced concern, who knows with the way she was looking at me at this point. “Nope, ma’am, I have a car parked outside,” I said a little hastier than I would have wanted but I was feeling quite irritated by the undeniable pitiful atmosphere that set the tone of the restaurant and the look in her eyes. I didn’t want anyone to ever think I am incapable. I am in control of me. I hollered a quick yet appreciative, “Thank you”, and walked briskly to the door.

When I walked outside, the fresh air hit my nostrils with a sudden intensity I hadn’t ever noticed before. It was like I could smell every scent in the air. I could smell the warm concrete which was also wet with evening dew. When I got to my car, all I could think about was getting home to go to bed. I was so busy thinking how I needed this night to be over that the feelings of excitement in having moved into a place of my own were replaced by dread of being alone because of a new fear of the strange episode that had occurred in the diner. I was kind of wishing that I could race home and talk to Natalie about the way I had felt toward the man followed by the waves of insatiable hunger that washed over me. It was unlike anything I had ever known. Why did that happen to me? Why can’t I get the man I saw in the diner out of my head? Was it connected in some strange way? These thoughts were making me feel crazy. How could I think so irrationally when I am usually so logical in most instances? I mean, of course, it wasn’t connected. What a stupid thought! I just want to take a bubble bath, relax, and maybe try to wash this insanity from my mind as soon as possible. Sleep, I need sleep. Maybe I should take some kind of sleep aid tonight, like allergy medicine, they always make me sleepy. I pulled up into my reserved parking space across the street from the apartment building. I slowly got out of my car stretching in a palate way, zipping my core, feeling each muscle tense, and relax trying to release some tension that I hadn’t wanted to feel in the first place. I shut and locked my car door and began to cross the street toward my building. The night was alive. There was an amber color in the moon. I could tell something was at the edge of discovery. Change was inevitably near. I wanted to run and hide in my apartment or the arms of my mother or both all at the same time. I felt my heart beating in my throat. As anxious and unsure of my footing I felt, I kept on walking.

Chapter One: Cashmere Chrysalis (continued)…

“Yarah, dear, what’s wrong?”  Natalie startled me out of my daze.  “I am alright, I was just remembering some things about the past, and that’s all.”  I said with a sort of hastiness in the attempt to excuse the emotional overcast.  I wanted to clear the atmosphere so that Natalie would not think I was regretful about moving out.  “Well, dear, you know that you can always just move back into your room and stay forever if you’d like.”  Natalie replied as she placed her warm hand on my shoulder.  “I know that, but, it’s time to move on and be a big girl now.”  I said trying to equate her warmth with my voice.  “Well, you know, that there is no rush on your moving out.  We would welcome you back, always, with open arms.”  As she spoke there was a crackling in her voice.  “I know, mom,  I really feel ready to do this, I am twenty-one now with some education under my belt, you’ve had me under your roof long enough,”  I explained.  Natalie intentionally turned to me gently as she looked me in the eyes, and said, with intensity and sincerity, “Then understand that it is always an option.  Just knowing that you have a home to come back to if ever need be is sometimes what can help you pull yourself up when you feel overwhelmed.”

The back door  creaked shut and Dean appeared in the kitchen doorway that opened up to the den, where Natalie and I stood.  He looked a bit worn as if he had just been working hard outside.  His dark hair dampened by sweat and his brown eyes sort of glazed over with slight somnolence.  “Well, hello, my beautiful ladies, how are you two doing this afternoon?”  He looked around seeming to try to place a joyful energy into every word.  Natalie disconnected her intense stare from me and moved in a sudden and graceful pivot, as if to dance the emotional energy out of the air.  She turned to Dean with the loveliest smile and asked,  “Are you thirsty, Luvvy?”  “Why yes, yes I am, sweets, whatta ya got,”  he asked.  Natalie followed Dean into the kitchen and their voices faded behind the sound of running water.

Ever since I can remember they have always been so in love, making up cutesy pet names for each other.  Innately seeming to just know how to blend the perfect combination of sappiness and playfulness.  It made me long for that in my own life.  I am just so grateful they weren’t like my friend, Julie’s parents, who didn’t seem to be into one another at all.  I am fortunate to have witnessed such wholesome and satisfying togetherness as it gave me the opportunity to see real love so I can distinguish the difference when I find myself falling in love one day.  Most people I knew have not seen such beauty in their own homes and are even somewhat fearful of love.  I have always had such a stability to encourage me to grasp for the rose instead of the thorns in life.

I went upstairs to scrutinize my bedroom to ensure that I had everything that I needed for my first actual night in my apartment.  My bedroom here at my parent’s house was pretty nice sized with a studio area near the closet equipped with a bar and mirrors. Dean installed them so that I could practice dance in my room.  They really enclosed me into such a lacy and cashmere sort of cushioned chrysalis.  I felt like a butterfly coming out of it and spending my first night away was just the beginning, the drying of my wings.  My only window was adjacent to my bed near the studio with long pink lace curtains.  I sat on the bed and took one last glance around the room, taking it all in with a sigh.  “Time to fly away,” I whispered to myself and then I briskly rose up from the soft, pink, cashmere, cushioned, bed and walked toward the door.  I didn’t look back as I enthusiastically skipped out of the room!  I hadn’t forgotten anything.  The room still had a presence to it like it was alive even though most of everything I owned was no longer there.  It still had the feel of belonging.  I had such a surge of comfort and excitement come over me as I walked down the hall and back toward the staircase to descend back down to a refreshed perspective.

Dean and Natalie were still in the kitchen leaning against the kitchen counter talking and drinking glasses of lemonade.  They didn’t seem to notice that I had entered the room so I sighed to get their attention.  Natalie looked toward me and asked, “Would you like some of my homemade fresh lemonade before you go?”  “Well, since you put it that way, sure, sounds good!”  I said as I moved toward the fridge.  “Eh, eh, ehha,” Natalie said with a playful grin, pointing her finger toward me, “you are a guest right now and I am the insistent hostess.”  I was hoping it wasn’t real obvious the array of emotions I was experiencing from relief to nostalgia to excitement, and in the mix of them all, a kind of bittersweet sorrow.  I was a bit anxious as well but Natalie didn’t seem to take notice of it at the moment.  She was tuned into Dean, which was fine by me, I could use a little less fuss over my departure.

“Are you okay, pumpkin?”  Dean asked when I went to stand beside him.  “Yeah, yeah, why do you ask?”  I reflected the playful curiosity in his voice as I desperately tried to hide my earlier emotional outburst which I was certain lingered in my expression.  He just broadened his curious grin and changed the subject, “your mother and I are going to be having some pretty amazing pool parties this summer.  Are you up for some fun?”  “You know I wouldn’t miss it for the world, dad.”  I smiled joyfully, so appreciative for the diversion.  “You can invite Julie and Bailey over like old times,”  he said cheerfully.  I smiled back at him hoping he could see my gratitude for the delightful light conversation he had stirred.  “Well, Julie seems too busy these days with her residency and I haven’t heard from Bailey in a long time, dad.  Last I heard, she was working in Brooklyn at her father’s firm,”  I winked as I explained, “but I will call them.”  Julie and Bailey are my best childhood friends.  They loved coming over to swim in the pool in the backyard.  We used to hang out nearly everyday back in high school and had even gone to prom together but lately we all had been so busy with our own lives and hadn’t been in touch for nearly three months.  I missed them which made me go back into a moment of nostalgia and I shook it off instantly.

“Well, I better get going, I have a long day tomorrow at work with my beginner’s ballet,”  I said feeling fatigued suddenly at the though of the patience it was going to require for twelve four and five year old girls, “my littlest ones are going to be putting on a recital next week, we need to rehearse.”  I gave Dean a quick hug and whispered thank you in his ear.  He pulled me up close to him lifting me off the ground for a quick moment and then let me go, winking as if to say, “yep, got it, anytime.”  He looked me in the eyes and replied, cheerfully, “don’t you go getting all adult on me yet, you should still be having fun!”  “Dad, I am just being responsible,”  I said back to him.  “Hogwash responsibility, you need adventure right now, I am just trying to protect you from getting jaded,” he shot a playful grin my way.  Dean is the type to always make light of heavier moods.  Perhaps, it is his way of coping when everything seems too unnecessarily serious.  I loved this about him.  I want to emulate it and yet, be balanced out just like he is.  He makes things fun!  Like, once,when I was a child learning to ride my bike, I fell, he knew the right things to say to make it seem more funny than scary.

“I will be adventurous when I can say that I am the best dancer in New York, well, besides mom!”  I giggled as I turned my eyes to Natalie.  She smiled back!  “Well, there is certainly nothing wrong with ambition, darling one, and you definitely have what it takes,”  he lectured in a tone that showed me how much he actually believed in me, in such a balanced manner, it made me bite back a sudden knot in my throat.  He said it so sincerely like it was wise advice that I should never forget, branding them into my heart, his words like warm fire on a cold camping night,  and I knew I would, one day, hear them over and over, echoed, even in his absence.  He boosted my humble confidence and when I had finally ventured out the door of my childhood, into the wonderment of this new world, I was beaming with pride as his words continued to circle in my mind.  Nothing can stop me from taking flight.  I had the support of caring parents, a circle of encouragement that I could never replace, nor would I ever need to as I really understood, for the first time, what the cliche, “the ones you love are always with you,” truly meant and I felt free to fly away, knowing that there is a place to return when I need, if only in my mind. I understood.  I sprinted toward my car, feeling a bountiful and enduring energy overtaking me.