For the past year, I'd had the strongest urge to toss my cookies after we finished every summoning we did. Maybe it was the overwhelming scent of espresso that permeated the air all the way from the café upstairs down to the wet, clammy basement.
Yeah, that's all it is. It couldn't ever possibly be that I was having doubts about what we did. It couldn't be that I lived in guilt and shame because I didn't know what to think about my dedication to the Druid doctrine anymore. The doctrine my family had died for. I was supposed to have died for it, too. But I survived that night at the community center for reasons I couldn't explain.
As I ascended the stairs and approached the kitchen doors of Earthen Roast, I could hear the dim roar of the packed café, backed by the flurry of activity in the kitchen. I frowned to myself. It all seemed so normal, but it was far from it.
The kitchen staff didn't even so much as glance at me. They were Druids, just like me. The trickle of people from the basement, leaving through the back door and kitchen, didn't faze them in the least. I slid out of the hooded brown robe, the scratchy material rough against my skin, and hung it in a closet next to the door. Until next time. A shameful part of me replied, I hope there isn't one.
I pushed through the swinging doors and stepped out onto the floor, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight streaming in through the wall-length windows. I looked through the sea of gleaming wooden tables seated with customers and saw several faces that ranged from confused to devious. My stomach sank. Like clockwork, our summoning had worked. Yet, every single time, I sort of hoped we would fail.
"We did so good, Hazel," said a giggling voice to my side. "It looks like we got at least twenty this time."
I looked over to see my friend Abby tying on her apron. She worked here at Earthen Roast as a cashier. Most of us Druids worked somewhere connected to our clans. Not only did it make it easier when you had to clock out for an hour to summon souls, but it was also one less risk of anyone reporting you missing if you died for the balance. When it came to work, I was lucky, if you can call it that, because my parents left inheritances for me and my sister before they died, and she left me hers. I had nobody to leave mine to.
"There's no need to gloat, Abby," I murmured, sweeping my eyes over the crowd once more. Several of them were getting up, mischief in their eyes. My already unsettled stomach churned at the sight. I could still remember what it felt like to be possessed by a soul. Would they remember what happened when the souls finished taking their bodies for a joyride? I hoped they wouldn't.
Among the crowd, one person caught my eye more than the others, someone who remained seated, unaffected by our summoning. I was happy for him, but that wasn't why I stared. He was beautiful. His hair was such a light blond it was nearly white, and his eyes were a sparkling bright blue. He smiled at me. A sad smile found its way to my lips in return. He was the opposite of Edwin in every way. I closed my eyes and looked away. I couldn't do anything without thinking about my mysterious dark knight anymore.
"Ah, crap," Abby said under her breath. "Elders are coming. Better pretend like we're strangers again. Still on for drinks at your place this Friday though, right?"
"Of course." I looked forward to our occasional nights together. We could pretend for a short while that we weren't as abnormal as they came.
Abby gave me a conspiratorial grin before she zipped over to the front counter. As the Elders—a man and a woman, nameless to me—walked through the kitchen doors, I stepped aside and focused anywhere else.
Druids weren't supposed to forge bonds or connections. Our loyalty was to the balance. That was it. Having no ties beyond your family, who shared in the cause, made it easier to die if you had to. But we all cheated in our own ways, I was sure. Maybe if I had followed the rules, I wouldn't hurt for my lost family every single day. I told myself they died honorable deaths, but it didn't seem so honorable when my sister's face contorted with pain as she collapsed on the floor of that community center.
I tried to shake off the thought as I started for the café's exit, but my thoughts only shifted to Edwin instead. He'd been there that night. I still didn't know why. But then again, he didn't know why I had been there either, so I figured it was best if we avoided talking about it.
We'd been seeing each other maybe twice a month for the past year. Emphasis on the maybe. It'd been three weeks since I saw him last. There was never much talking. He always appeared at random times and we went straight to my bedroom every time. We both liked it that way, I think.
I sighed as I stepped out onto the sidewalk. The sun was shining down from high in the sky, leaving the ground hot beneath my feet. It was unseasonably warm, something that worried the Druids. The Earth was crumbling to pieces as far as they—we—were concerned. Our summonings didn't seem to help much either.
We didn't talk with our fellow Druid clans, but I was certain they were still working just as hard as we were. So why wasn't the Earth getting better? I had nobody I could ask. I'd be shunned if I dared, and my clan was the only thing I had left in this world.
I'd only been walking down the sidewalk for a couple minutes when I heard a voice shout from behind me. "Wait, Miss!"
Even though I didn't think it was for me, I couldn't help but pause and look over my shoulder. To my surprise, the blond-haired man from the café was jogging toward me. I looked to either side of me, then ahead. There was nobody else.
I turned around and pointed to myself. "Are you talking to me?"
The man came to a stop in front of me, not the least bit winded. He was so staggeringly tall that I had to crane my neck to look at him. He smiled down at me when our eyes met. "I saw you back at the café and I—I was hoping to get your number."
"So, you chased me down? That's a little weird, don't you think?" I cringed internally. I hadn't meant to sound so rude. I liked to blame my social awkwardness on my Druid upbringing, which had discouraged socializing, but Abby didn't seem to have my struggles. I probably would've been a social misfit no matter my circumstances.
He rubbed at the back of his neck and let out an awkward laugh. "Uh, yeah. That's fair. I guess I was just too much of a coward to say anything back there and I figured it was now or never."
I couldn't help but be suspicious. I knew what I looked like. I wasn't an ogre by any means, but I was best described as your average, mousy, light-haired brunette. The kind you could imagine sitting at a table full of people with her nose shoved in a book, ignoring all of them. Because that was me all throughout school. I even spent my lunches in the library. Friendships were forbidden, so I turned to books—my secret little escape that got me through the hardest years.
At twenty-five, the height of my fun and flirty twenties—at least according to some article I once saw—I still thought turtlenecks were a great fashion choice. I was okay with makeup, but I wasn't wowing anyone with my skills. I certainly didn't know how to contour. I still really wasn't even sure what contouring was. But I did know who I was and had no qualms about it.
This guy, however, was most definitely model material. He was the sort of guy who belonged with a girl that could gain millions of followers on social media just by photographing her face. Sure, Edwin was equally handsome in his own way, but we connected on some weird, primal level. We'd been sleeping together for a year and we were still practically anonymous to each other. I didn't even know his last name. We could just give each other something that nobody else could, so it made sense. This guy being desperate enough to follow me, on the other hand, didn't make sense.
"You want my number?" I asked, my eyes narrowing ever so slightly. "Why?"
"Obviously because I'd like to get to know you better," he replied with a crooked smile. It was such a sweet look I almost smiled back. "Unless you're opposed to getting to know me better. In which case I'll politely walk away."
"Politely walk away? Such a gentleman."
His grin widened. "I try."
I eyed him in silence for a moment. ”You're not a serial killer, are you?"
His brows rose to his hairline. "I'm the opposite of that, I think. For one, I don't even kill bugs." He lifted his fingers and started to count them off. "I'm a vegetarian. I give to charity. If I stop and think about it, I'm basically a saint."
"None of those things disqualify you from being a serial killer."
He tilted his head to the side and laughed, genuine and hearty. "You know, I'm used to getting a much different reaction when I ask women for their number. I don't think I've ever been called a serial killer."
I shrugged. "I call it like I see it."
"And I like that about you already." He held out a hand. "I'm Nathaniel."
I shook it. "Hazel."
"Go out with me, Hazel. Just once." He leaned down and said, "Somewhere very public, so you won't have to fear for your life."
That one earned an honest smile from me. A rarity to anyone who knew me. But it was a smile that faded quickly as Edwin's face flashed in my mind. I liked what we had. Most of the time. But it wasn't just Edwin that crushed my smile. It was the fact that even if this Nathaniel guy and I were to hit it off, I couldn't ever be with him.
A Druid could only ever have children with a Druid, and even then you were just creating fodder for the balance. If you didn't train your child to become a Druid, to harness their innate abilities to use the powers of the Earth to bring balance, then you were just ruining it. I couldn't have a child knowing they would either be a sacrifice or a disruption.
I touched a hand to my temple, roughly rubbing it, despite how weird it might've looked. My head hurt. This was why I didn't do relationships. They were too hard for my kind. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I don't think it's a good idea, I'm not really looking—"
"Just one date," Nathaniel insisted, his eyes imploring mine.
I bit at my lower lip for a moment, considering the possibilities. As wrong as it was, it would be nice to go out for a night. Feel normal for a bit. If Nathaniel was really that interested, then maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Before I could convince myself otherwise, I blurted out, "Okay!"