Illusions: part one — condensed

photo+by+Alex+Schroeder

photo by Alex Schroeder

Ashley Tanner

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This is a post combines all 12 chapters into one post. Chapter 12 concludes part one, part two will begin on Jan. 7.
 
Illusions is a novella written by Nicole Schroeder and Ashley Tanner, about a girl named Gemma who has the ability to see people’s true character at a single glance. Each post in the following blog series is one chapter of Illusions. [/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Chapter 1

“Good morning! What can we get started for you?” The cheery cashier smiled expectantly, sounding all too happy to be filling people’s coffee orders at 7:30 in the morning. Gemma pretended to study the menu behind her as she ordered, carefully avoiding meeting the girl’s gaze as she spoke.
“A medium mocha, please.”
“Alright,” she said, the register beeping as she punched the order in on the screen. “That will be… $3.47.”
Gemma nodded, glancing away from the menu to fish a crumpled five from her wallet. Holding it out, the girl took it without looking up, still engrossed in punching the buttons of the register. Gemma watched expectantly as the girl slid the bill into the drawer of the register and figured up her change.
“And here you go,” she finally said, tearing the receipt from the printer and handing it over along with her change. She placed the coins in her hand and flashed a pearly smile, her sparkly eyes meeting Gemma’s for a moment. Yet that moment was all it took.
Empathetic. Deceitful. Dedicated.
In a flash, the words popped into Gemma’s head, defining the girl in front of her — well, at least two of the words did. One was wrong, and she could only guess it was Deceitful. One of them was always wrong, though for the life of her Gemma could never figure out why, or how to tell which one it was.
Well, anyway, this girl seemed to be a fairly genuine person, at least from her first impression. Blinking a few extra times to clear the Labels from her head, Gemma smiled feebly as the cashier assured her the coffee would be out shortly.
Wandering down the counter to where finished drinks were being delivered, Gemma was careful to keep her gaze down and away from other people. Even so, she still managed to catch the eye of a few innocent patrons who sat across the café. An older man’s gaze, his white hair growing in wisps on his sun-spotted forehead, met her eyes critically as she passed, probably wondering why her face had turned downward into an anxious frown.
Temperamental. Keen. Talented.
Another customer sitting in a back booth, her short curly hair pinned away from her face while she scrolled through her phone, smiled warmly at Gemma as she passed. Out of the corner of her eye, Gemma saw the girl studying her.
Timid. Creative. Perceptive.
Quickly, she cast her eyes to the floor, suddenly absorbed in the gaudy orange tiles that overlaid the bistro. If she hadn’t stayed up so late last night and needed the extra caffeine before work….
This was one of the reasons she hated going out. People were everywhere, their Labels seemingly impossible to avoid. Since high school, no matter how she worked to avoid it, she still saw them with every passing glance, every polite conversation that inevitably made her face the person talking out of fear of seeming rude.
She didn’t quite know how to describe it, exactly, except that it was as if a flash of color filled her vision for a split second and then faded as quickly as it had appeared. What she was left with were the three words that would echo in her mind, bouncing around in her brain every time she saw the person again. After a while, of course, the Labels would get easier to ignore, especially if it was someone she knew well like her mother or Irene. But even then, sometimes the colors would shimmer from their eyes again, a new Label forming as she got to know them better.
After a few more minutes of nervously studying the floor, Gemma heard her drink called out from the barista behind the counter. She headed up to the counter to take the warm cup, nodding her thanks as the girl looked up from filling another order.
Modest. Impatient. Unconventional.
With a sigh, Gemma turned back toward the door, taking a sip of the coffee and wincing slightly as it scalded her tongue. Clutching the cup in her hands, she headed back toward the door, casting her eyes back toward the ground as she headed out of the store. As she reached for the door, however, a voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Gemma Abbott?”
She paused, a smile spreading across her lips. That was one voice she recognized, though she hadn’t heard it in a long time. She braced herself for the Label she knew was to come before turning around to face Elijah, his eyes sparkling at her just like they had in their high school’s journalism room nearly six years ago.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 2

*bzz*
Elijah pulled out his phone with a sigh, knowing it was most likely his arrogant boss asking him to pick up his dry cleaning for him again. Before he unlocked his phone, he glanced through one of the shop windows as he passed. That was when he saw her.
Her long, thick auburn brown hair was unmistakable. It followed her movements effortlessly as she was glancing around at her surroundings waiting for her coffee. He noticed her shy smile hiding behind the wall of hair she had famously worn since high school.
Elijah’s phone buzzed again, bringing him back to reality.
‘Pick me up a medium with 2 shots of espresso and 3 creams. –Theo’
Elijah promptly opened the cafe door, excited for his opportunity to see Gemma.
“Gemma Abbott?” Elijah said, trying his best to hide his excitement.
She stood there for a moment, staring at him. The confused look in her eyes worried him. Did she not recognize him?
“Elijah Beckett?”
The last time he had seen her was in 2009 at his high school graduation. Gemma was a sophomore his senior year. Their lives didn’t intertwine much because he was a popular athlete and she was a silent genius except for one class: journalism.
“I haven’t seen you since you graduated,” Gemma said. “That was like six years ago, right?”
Elijah flashed his classic smile.
“Yeah, I can’t believe it’s been that long!”
Elijah began to walk towards the counter, Gemma followed.
“So what have you been up to since high school?” Gemma said intently.
Elijah paused for a moment after ordering Theo’s coffee to think about what he had done in the last six years. He attended Harvard for four years and went on to get his masters in preparation to become a lawyer. He began working at a lawfirm as a paralegal where he running errands for his hot-shot boss, the lawyer Theo Wolf.
“I went to Harvard to study pre law. Now I’m a paralegal at a law firm down the street,” he replied as the barista handed him the coffee cup. “What about you?”
She flashed a nervous smile. “Oh you know…I went to college and majored in graphic design. I work for New Perspectives—the magazine,” she clarified.
Elijah could sense she was seemed uncomfortable as they awkwardly stood in silence in the middle of the cafe.
“I work down the street a bit, would you like to come and see my office?” He was hoping to get to spend a little more time with her.
Her brows furrowed as she pondered her options.
“Uh, yeah. Sure.”
Elijah motioned towards to door, he stepped out first so he could hold the door open for her. The sun was bright compared to the dim lighting of the cafe. As his eyes began to adjust the light, he noticed how much more beautiful she looked out in the sun. A slight breeze picked up her hair and the sun glistened on her skin. She was wearing very little makeup, but she didn’t need any. She had sculpted cheekbones, a delicate nose and the soft dimples. Her lips were a natural shade of pink that fit her heart shaped face perfectly. She had matured immensely from the last time he had seen her six years ago.
They walked down the sidewalk in silence for a while. Gemma continued to look uncomfortable and he couldn’t figure out why. Almost as if she could read his thoughts, she looks at him and smiles weakly.
“So…do you enjoy being a paralegal?”
Elijah hated being a paralegal. It was the bottom of the justice food-chain. He was more of an errand boy than anything else.
“Oh. I run a lot of errands.” He lifted up the coffee cup to emphasize his point. “Well, I am just paying my dues I suppose.”
“What do you hope to do as a lawyer?” She seemed intrigued.
“I don’t know yet. I guess at this point I uphold the law, but I haven’t experienced enough to know where I want to go. Personally, it’s easier for me to think about the next goal, which for me is passing the Bar.”
She nodded her head acknowledgingly.
“I think it would be cool to be a lawyer. You essentially try to prove people wrong for a living. It’s like a puzzle for every case, trying to figure out whether or not your client is innocent or not. Even if they are guilty, you try and lessen their punishment. I guess that’s the hard part, defending someone you know has done something wrong, huh?”
Elijah thought about what she had said for a moment.
“I hope I never have to defend a man who claims to be innocent of a crime a horrid as murder, but is truly guilty. I guess it just all depends on what kind of law I decide to go into.”
As soon as he finished her sentence they had arrived to his office.
“This is where I work.”
Gemma had a stunned look on her face.
“Oh.”
She walked to the door and he followed, a smirk spreading across his face.
story by Ashley Tanner

Chapter 3

It was late that night when Gemma finally returned to her apartment, a soft smile still visible on her cheeks. Padding up the stairs to her room, she paused to rap softly on the door, hoping her roommate, Irene, was home like she’d said she would be. Just as Gemma was resolving to dig through her bag and attempt to find her keys, however, the door swung open.
“You’d better have a juicy story to tell me, Missy. Since when do you stay out on the town at all hours?”
Gemma rolled her eyes, shifting her backpack up farther onto her shoulder. “Fine, fine. Just be quieter, for goodness sake.” Irene grinned, stepping aside and letting her in.
She headed into their living room/kitchen, tossing her backpack on a nearby chair before heading to make some tea. Irene flipped the deadbolt on the door and headed over to the couch, flopping down and looking up expectantly at Gemma, who shared a naive look of her own.
Lively. Friendly. Introverted.
“Spill.”
“Geez, you are so impatient,” she groaned, but a hint of a smile played across her lips. “Okay, do you remember Elijah Beckett? He was on the paper my sophomore year, so your … junior year, I guess.”
“Yeah, I remember him. He was on staff during my sophomore year, too.” Irene had been a writer for two years for their high school’s newspaper, working alongside both Gemma and Elijah. She wasn’t able to take the class her senior year because of sports, but nevertheless she and Gemma had kept in touch after graduation. “Don’t tell me you guys hooked up?” She wriggled her eyebrows, and Gemma sighed as she popped a mug of water into the microwave to heat.
“We did not hook-up. We just ran into each other this morning and got to talking is all.”
“Uh-huh.” Irene stared skeptically at her roommate for a moment. “And this ‘talking’ just so happened to last until 9:30 at night?”
“No,” she admitted, blushing a little. The microwave dinged, and she took her time taking out her mug and starting to steep her tea before answering. “He showed me the law firm where he works this morning, and then we ran into each other again on our way back home. We started talking again and lost track of time.”
At this, Irene squealed, hugging a nearby throw pillow close to her chest. “That’s actually adorable. What were you guys gushing to each other about now?”
“Okay, hang on a second,” Gemma said, moving to sit on the couch next to her. “First of all, there was no gushing. There was never any gushing, and there will never be any gushing.”
At this, Irene faked a cough. “You’re blushing,” she pointed out in between fits of hacking. Gemma’s hand drifted to her cheek, feeling the warmth beneath them.
“Whatever,” she said, waving her off. “Secondly, what do you mean ‘now’? As opposed to when, exactly?”
“C’mon,” Irene said. “Everyone on staff could tell you guys liked each other. Remember convention, and how you guys were always taking the same workshops?”
“That is so not true,” Gemma argued. “We did plenty of stuff separately. And anyways, you were always off with the EICs working on the news package. Who else was I supposed to hang with?”
Irene sighed. “I’ll give you that one. But you still didn’t answer my question.”
Gemma shrugged. “We didn’t talk about anything in particular, really. We talked about how college was for both of us and what we were doing now, if we were still doing anything with journalism and stuff like that. I don’t know, we just … talked.”
“Well, okay,” Irene said, nodding eagerly. “Are you guys going to talk anymore?”
This time, she noticed her cheeks growing warm, and she sipped at her tea to hide it from Irene. “Yeah. He invited me to have lunch with him tomorrow.”
Irene squealed again, though this time she muffled it with her pillow. “You have no idea how happy this makes me,” she said, a huge grin stretching across her face. “Please tell me you’re going to Simon’s?”
“No, we are not going to Simon’s, especially if you’re going to act like this the entire time,” Gemma said, smiling playfully. Simon’s Bar and Grill was the restaurant Irene worked at, and one that Gemma thoroughly tried to avoid. Too many people and, more importantly, too many Labels.
“Okay. Well, you’d better at least tell me everything tomorrow. I’m not kidding, pretend you have to interview someone for an infographic or something and sneak out of the office and call me.”
Gemma groaned. “Fine,” she said, trying to hide her own smile. As she lay in bed that night, however, her grin was much harder to hide. Even as she drifted off to sleep, she couldn’t stop smiling, instead falling asleep while feeling happier and more eager for the coming day than she had in a long time.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 4

Elijah could feel his heart beating out of his chest as he awaited the arrival of Gemma. All he could think about was ‘what am I gonna say to her?’ and ‘was this a good idea?’ But all of his nerves went away when he saw her walk through the door of the little French cafe; her presence brought an immediate smile to his face. She was wearing a maroon knit hat, dark skinny jeans and a large loose sweater. Her dark brown hair was curled perfectly and bounced with every step she took.
“Hey!” Gemma said as she sat down across from Elijah. “Sorry I’m late, New Perspectives kept me later than I had anticipated.”
Elijah was taken back by what she just said.
“You work for New Perspectives?”
Gemma looked flushed, she was clearly embarrassed by his question.
New Perspectives was a modern fiction and media outlet. It provided humorous stories, as well as emotionally intense stories. It was quite popular and has locations all around the world. Working for NP was a dream that most writers never got to achieve.
“Yeah…I got an internship in college and they recently added me on as a graphic designer. I work a lot with the funnier posts and social media humor. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I’d still like to work on the actual stories at some point.”
It was kind of hard for Elijah to hear that Gemma had an amazing job fresh out of college and he is still the errand boy.
“That is amazing! Have you gotten the chance to meet anyone famous yet?”
“No not really, I am still at the bottom of the totem poll. I am ranked only slightly above an intern. But my boss has been raving about me to the CEO, so hopefully I will get to work with the faces of NP or at least meet some celebrities.”
As soon as she had finished her sentence, their waitress stopped by.
“Hi! My name is Meg, I will be your waitress today. What can I start you guys off with?”
As soon as Meg had finished talking, Gemma let out a giggle. Meg’s eyebrows furrowed with confusion, but quickly bounced back.
“I will have a pinot noir,” Elijah said.
Gemma looked indecisive as she examined the wine menu.
“I guess I will have a riesling.”
“Okay, I will be back with your drinks shortly!” She then trotted away to the next table.
“So, you’re a white wine kinda gal?” Elijah said flashing his perfect smile.
“Haha, yeah, I guess I am.”
Silence fell over the table as they both looked over the menu trying to decide what to eat.
Meg came back and took their orders, but the silence remained for a few more minutes.
Elijah broke the silence.
“So, how is Irene doing?”
Gemma has a stunned look on her face.
“Uhh…how do you know I’m still talk to Irene?”
Elijah froze. What exactly was he supposed to say now?
“Oh, umm. Well I just remember you were pretty close. And I assumed you guys are still friends.” Elijah’s voice waivered, but he hoped Gemma hadn’t noticed.
Gemma thought about it for a moment.
“Well, she’s doing great. We are roommates actually.”
“That’s awesome! I’m not friends with anyone I went to highschool with. You are the first person I have reconnected with in the past couple years. The further away from graduation it got, the harder it was to talk to my football buddies who were playing at colleges all around the country.”
Gemma had a sad look in her eyes.
“Irene and I have been best friends for as long as I can remember, and I hope she will remain my best friend till we’re old and in the nursing home,” Gemma giggled.
Just as she had finished talking, Meg was bringing them their food. Both Elijah and Gemma cleared a space in front of them for their plates.
They ate in silence for a while until Gemma, uncharacteristically, broke the silence.
“You know, this is like my first real date,” she said slightly embarrassed.
Elijah looked shocked.
“No way,” Gemma nodded her head. “How? You’re beautiful, smart and adorably awkward.”
Gemma’s face reddened.
“I don’t know, I just have never caught the eye of anyone worth my time.” As soon as she had finished talking, she darted her eyes downward to her plate and began pushing food around with a fork.
Elijah laughed.
“Well I am honored to be your first date, and I hope to be your first second date too.”
story by Ashley Tanner

Chapter 5

As the watch in the next room beeped 8:00 p.m. a few weeks later, Gemma groaned from her spot at the bathroom sink. Slipping in her third pair of earrings of the night, Gemma stared, unimpressed, at her reflection in the mirror. She still looked too … plain. Yes, that was the word. Sighing, she glanced down at the few pieces of jewelry she owned that lay spread out on the counter, debating which she could wear and still manage not to look out of place next to her date.
Then again, she thought to herself, who cares if I look out of place?
Well, she cared, but she wouldn’t let herself think about that. Besides, if she was indecisive much longer they were going to be late for their reservation. Before she could argue with herself any further, she grabbed the silver dangles and pinned them to her ears, briefly watching them catch the light around them and send it dancing outward. Then, grabbing her wallet and phone from the kitchen table, she slipped out the door, butterflies fluttering slightly in her stomach as she left.
***
Elijah was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for her as she descended from her apartment, his piercingly blue eyes meeting hers as she walked.
Dependable. Resolute. Contented.
It was strange, but for once, the Label echoing in her head was comforting and brought a nervous smile to her lips. “Hi,” she offered as she reached the last step, taking the hand Elijah held out for her.
“Hi.” He grinned before stepping back to admire her dress. “You look amazing.”
“Oh… thanks.” She glanced down at her flowing black dress to hide her bashful smile. “Not as great as you.”
He laughed. “This? Oh, this is nothing,” he said, gesturing to himself before leading her out toward the car. “If you really want to see me dressed up, go find the picture of me in my prom tux.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Seeing that once in my life was enough.” Being able to tease him seemed to lighten Gemma’s worry about the night. Any butterflies she had felt earlier happily melted away with his warm laugh, bringing a comforting smile to her lips.
“Okay, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” he asked as he graciously held the car door open for her. He waited until she was situated in the passenger seat before walking around to the driver’s side door and climbing in.
“Mmm, I don’t know. It was pretty bad.”
“Ouch,” he said, wincing playfully. “I worked hard to pick out that suit.”
She shrugged, turning to watch the world whiz by outside her window as she spoke. “I’m just saying, that shade of blue with that white tux was not very flattering.”
Elijah feigned shock. “I’m so offended, Gemma. You’ve just gotten so rude since you started working for those magazine snobs.”
“Yeah, well,” she said, flourishing her hands dramatically, “I guess you’re just jealous of all my fame and fortune.”
“Something like that.” He turned briefly to wink at her, and Gemma was glad when he turned back toward the road so he didn’t see her blush.
***
As Elijah pulled into the parking lot of Pacifica, Gemma could understand why she hadn’t recognized the name of the restaurant when he’d first mentioned it to her. She couldn’t help but stare at its patrons as Elijah helped her out of the car, and as he finished locking up the car she began wringing her hands nervously at the number and type of people she saw going in. Even if she didn’t think about the number of Labels she would see, she could practically smell the money these people waved around; undoubtedly more than she would ever hope to make in her lifetime.
Elijah seemed to sense her distress, and a worried look crossed his face. He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently turning her to face him. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked. “If you don’t want to go here, we can leave and find somewhere else….”
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s just —,” she paused, searching for the right words. “I don’t normally fit in with these kinds of people. I don’t know… I mean, what… I’ve never been to this kind of a place before.”
A small smile spread across his face. “Just act like yourself. That’ll be enough for me.”
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. Anyways, she didn’t want to ruin his night by being stubborn. Steeling herself for the Labels that would come inside, she let him guide her toward the front doors. She avoided making eye contact with anyone as Elijah asked the Maitre D for their table, his smooth voice fitting perfectly with the atmosphere of the restaurant.
“Right this way,” the girl’s cheery voice said, leading them through a crowded dining area to a back corner of the restaurant. As they walked, Gemma fought the urge to close her eyes for the rest of the night in an effort to block out all the Labels she could see around her. As the girl slipped past a velvety red curtain, however, she quickly realized she wouldn’t have to. Turning to Elijah, her jaw dropped.
“I knew you weren’t a fan of people, so I had Theo pull some strings.” He gestured to the room in front of them as he spoke, completely empty except for a small table for two in the corner. “Do you like it?”
Gemma nodded, unable to speak for the lump forming in her throat.
“Thank you, Elijah.”
“Don’t thank me. It was all Theo. And he said a premature ‘you’re welcome’ at work today, anyway.” He laughed.
And for the first time that night, Gemma laughed, too.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 6

Elijah pulled off to the side of the street and parked. He got out of the car and opened the door for Gemma, extending his hand to help her out. He walked her to her door where they stood in silence.
Elijah’s heart was racing, she looked so beautiful. He lifted his hand to her face to push her hair behind her right ear, slightly brushing her cheek with the back of his hand. He leaned down and kissed the top of her forehead, she leaned into him.
“I need to get going,” he whispered.
“I know, I know.”
She took a step back, smiled, then opened the door. Elijah walked back into his car and drove off.
The sun had already gone down by the time Elijah arrived. He looked both ways as he crossed the street to make sure he wasn’t followed; he was headed to the law firm he worked at.
He pulled out his keycard that he used to unlock the door, and once again looked both ways before he entered. It was dark inside, unlike usual, the firm was empty. He made his way to the back of the building to what seemed like the supply closet. He reached towards the cold, metal handle and turned it.
A room dimly lit by a flickering light bulb revealed a room filled with cleaning supplies. He walked in and moved a mop that was covering a fingerprint scanner. He proceeded to scan his finger a secret room was revealed.
“Ah! You’re here!” Elijah’s boss, Theo Wolf, proclaimed.
Elijah smiled slyly and gracefully entered the darkly lit room.
Elijah seemed to fit right in. He took off his coat and threw it onto a chair. He walked past a series of large computers to a lounge area where Wolf and a woman sat.
The woman had a pale caramel complexion. She had delicate facial features that complemented her short, black hair.
“Say hello to my friend Jayde Spoon,” Wolf leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
“Well hello Ms. Spoon and Wolfgang,” Elijah kissed her hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”
Elijah then focused his attention to Wolfgang.
“Ah, yes. Jayde if you will excuse us, we have business to attend to.”
She got up and walked out of the room.
“So, what can you tell me about Gemma?” Wolfgang asked with a villainy grin.
Elijah thought about it for a moment. Gemma, a girl who he had known since high school. A girl he had grown fond of for a second time. A girl he found himself thinking about when he probably shouldn’t have been. A girl who made him feel, something he hadn’t done in a while.
“Uhhh…” Elijah couldn’t meet Wolfgang’s gaze.
“Now, now. Remember the mission. The mission was not to fall for her. It was to get to know her. To gather information on her,” he paused for a moment. “So, what have you learned?”
“So far, not so much. Her roommate’s name is Irene, she was also on the newspaper staff. She is a year younger than I, a year older than Gemma. They have been best friends for as long as I can remember.
“Gemma basically goes from home to work, and back to home. She works at New Perspectives, where she has dreamed of working for years. When she does go out, she goes to Simon’s Bar and Grill, where Irene works. Or to The Daily Roast, her favorite coffee shop near her apartment. Other than that, she has the occasional grocery store trip, and dates with me.”
“That’s not enough. You need to learn what makes her tick. What she would live and die for. What or who she thinks about just before she falls asleep. Every single minute detail you can find out, the closer we will be to phase two.”
Elijah nodded in agreement.
Wolfgang stood up and led Elijah to the door.
“I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
Elijah started to step out the door when he felt Wolfgang grabbed his arm tightly and yanked Elijah around. His eyes filled with disdain.
“If you let me down, I will end you.”
Elijah met Wolfgang’s gaze.
“I will get the job done.”
He yanked his arm out of Wolfgang’s grasp and walked away.
story by Ashley Tanner

Chapter 7

“What a pleasure it is to finally meet you! You must be Gemma.”  Theo smiled warmly as Elijah led her into the large windowed office. Getting up from his desk, she watched as Theo walked around to the front of his desk and offered his hand to her. She took it politely, her own smile matching his.
Cunning. Dynamic. Bumbling.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Wolf.”
“Oh, please,” he scoffed. “Call me Theo.” Gemma chuckled and nodded, taking a moment to glance around the room. Situated on one corner of the highest floor of the office building, Theo’s office was nearly immaculate, with the only mess confined to the top of his ebony desk. The better part of the room was filled with the light filtering in from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the outer walls of the office. Outside, the city skyline stretched endlessly, the sounds of cars on the streets below faintly filtering in past the glass walls.
“You’re office is amazing,” Gemma said in awe. Theo laughed at her amazement.
“Why thank you, though I’m sure it’s nothing like yours,” Theo said. Gemma frowned and turned around, confused. “Elijah was telling me the other day that you work at New Perspectives,” he clarified, and she thought she saw him glance knowingly at Elijah.
“Oh, I do, but it’s nothing like this. We just have a small downtown office, nothing fancy…like this,” she said, gesturing out at the view from Theo’s windows. He and Elijah laughed in unison, and she couldn’t help but blush a little.
“So it sounds like you’ve liked your tour thus far?” Theo asked hopefully. Gemma took the opportunity to save herself from her earlier blunder and nodded.
“Yes, definitely. The building is huge. I didn’t realize your law firm was so big. I mean, of course you must be very successful, but this is … amazing. I’d love to work in a place like this.”
Theo grinned. “Well, I’m sure we’d be able to find a spot for you here, if you ever were truly considering it.”
Gemma smiled. “For a graphic designer?”
“Of course! We need someone to design a new website every once in a while.” He chuckled, the corners of his eyes wrinkling.
“Ah, I don’t think you give New Perspectives enough credit,” Elijah said, speaking up from behind her. “You’re guys’ office was pretty neat, you have to admit. No cubicles like in here.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true.” Gemma smiled and shrugged, glancing toward Elijah before turning back to the windows. Elijah grinned, coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her.
“Wait, you visited New Perspectives?” Theo asked in surprise. Gemma turned to him and grinned.
“I took him there earlier today so he could meet a few people,” Gemma explained. “Nothing fancy, but figured that way they’re not pestering me about meeting him anymore.”
“Interesting…,” Theo said, glancing back at Elijah. “You never told me you were leaving the office.”
“We left on my lunch break,” was his clipped reply.
Shaking his head, Theo turned back to Gemma, his cheery face plastered on once more. “Well, you’ll have to come back and visit some time. But I’ll go ahead and let you take a look around the rest of the building. I’m sure Elijah would love to show you his desk and the things he’s been working on….”
He scoffed playfully. “Right. My lovely cubicle. It’s so wonderful, you’ll never want to leave!”
Gemma laughed, turning around to face Elijah. “Well, then, lead the… way….” She trailed off, frowning as she looked at his eyes. For some reason, his Label was acting strangely, showing up as a blur that she couldn’t quite make out. She squinted a little more, trying to read it more clearly.
“Something wrong, Gemma?” Elijah asked, worry lacing his voice. “You don’t look so good….”
Gemma didn’t hear him however, instead focusing on Elijah’s Label. His new Label.
Deceitful. Insubordinate. Devoted.
Was she going crazy? Had his Label really changed? She was certain it had, remembering distinctly the words she had seen for the past few weeks of spending time with him: Dependable. Resolute. Contented. The words she saw now were all heavier, carrying deeper connotations than the last. But, she’d never seen any Label do that before, even with the people she’d dated in the past.
Suddenly, she grasped her head, a sharp pain seemingly piercing her skull. “Gah… headache. Sorry.”
Her eyes were closed, but in a flash she felt Elijah’s arms wrap around her, steadying her. “Are you okay?”
“Umm… I’m not sure….” She mumbled, trying to ignore the throbbing in her brain.
Elijah frowned once more. “Alright. I’m making the executive decision that I’m taking you home. You can see the rest of the office some other time.”
She nodded, slightly grateful that she hadn’t been forced to back out of the plan by herself. She muttered her thanks to Theo as he held the door for them out of the office, leaning on Elijah as he led her back out of the building and toward his car. “You feel warm,” he said with a sigh as he helped her into the passenger side and brushed her hair back from her face.
The drive home felt extremely long to Gemma as she cradled her head in her hands, trying to avoid Elijah’s worried glances. Each time their eyes met, another wave of shooting pains stabbed at Gemma’s brain, sending her back to leaning against the cool window of the car and holding back a whimper. After a while, though, they reached her apartment, and after leading her up to her room and giving her a gentle kiss on her forehead, Elijah left her to deal with her head and the realization that her entire understanding of her power to see Labels was quite possibly wrong in the most critical of ways.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 8

Climbing back into his car, Elijah sighed and rubbed his temples. He didn’t know what had happened back at the office, but he knew it wasn’t good, and he knew Wolfgang wasn’t going to be happy if Elijah didn’t give him something to work with after all this.
Suddenly, his phone buzzed in the seat next to him.
“Speak of the devil,” he muttered sarcastically, hitting the speaker button on his steering wheel and listening to the car’s bluetooth click on.“Hello Wolfgang.”
“Well, that was quite a scene, wasn’t it?”
Elijah thought about how to respond for a moment.  What was Gemma thinking? She didn’t know about him, did she?
“Yes, yes it was.”
“Did she say anything during the car ride home?”
“No, she didn’t say anything. I think it was the migraine.”
“Well, that’s most unfortunate. You need to get her to tell you about all of this. You need to get her to trust you.”
“I know, I know,” he said through gritted teeth.“I’m working on it.”
“And when I say trust, I don’t mean develop feelings for her.”
“I’m not falling in love with her, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Elijah said defensively.
“Just remember what the goal of this mission is and stay focused on that. We don’t have time for true love to get in the way.” He spoke the words as if they left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Good, because that’s not what’s happening here.”
Wolfgang was silent for a while, though Elijah could hear the occasional sound of breathing through the phone.
“So, what have you learned about her power so far? Are they visions, like we suspected?”
Elijah thought about what he knew, which was basically nothing. The past couple months he had spent with Gemma hadn’t involved her powers much. The late night talks and dates at the café began to seem normal and perhaps meant to be rather than the mission.
“I know that everytime she sees someone, she sees… I don’t know. Some vision of some sort. I guess something happened tonight, but she didn’t exactly elaborate. She-…”
“She what?”
He couldn’t decide whether or not to tell him about the accident she was in as a teenager that most likely caused her powers to develop in the first place.. He felt it was too intimate, that it wasn’t his story to tell.
“She hasn’t eluded to anything else. I’m still working on it.”
“Well then you need to start working faster. I am growing impatient. If you don’t start getting things done, maybe I’ll just take over.”
*click*
Elijah sighed, the last few minutes replaying like a movie in his head. He couldn’t be developing feelings for Gemma — it wasn’t good for him or the mission. But most of all, it wasn’t good for Gemma. Elijah was a monster and Gemma deserved better.
He couldn’t deny that she wasn’t beautiful, because she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. And he couldn’t deny that she wasn’t intelligent or talented because he’d seen her talent with his own eyes. But he also knew that if she didn’t get smart about what was going on soon, she was going to be in big trouble. And once Wolfgang got ahold of her, there was nothing he would be able to do to save her.
story by Ashley Tanner

Chapter 9

Gemma awoke some time later on the couch in her apartment, her hand numb from having slept on it for over an hour. Nevertheless, as she blinked to let her eyes adjust to the sudden dimness in the room, she refused to move, instead focusing on her head and the dull ache she still felt pulsing behind her eyes. It had certainly subsided from the pain she had felt earlier, which was in itself a slight relief. Still, it brought with it a nagging worry that something had happened to her in that office.
What had really happened back there? Had Elijah’s Label really changed?
Of course, she could’ve imagined it all. Besides, she hadn’t seen a Label do that in all the years she had seen them — for all she knew, they couldn’t do that. If they did, it would imply that the person — Elijah himself — had… changed somehow. And not just temporarily, but changed who they were, their most basic defining characteristics.
Yet she swore it was different. The aura of the words had changed and almost become foggy in her mind, and the next thing she had known, they were different.
Then again….
“What if it was the migraine?” she muttered to herself. There was only one way to be sure. Pulling herself off the couch, she headed into her room, shutting the door behind her out of habit. Moving over to her bed, she carefully peeled back the sheets on her mattress, laying them neatly over the edge of the baseboard so as to keep them from getting wrinkled in her search. Revealing the duvet cover underneath, she found the edge with her fingers and unzipped it at its seam, just enough to reach her arm through.
It took a bit of searching, but it wasn’t long until Gemma found what she had been looking for. She grasped at the familiar object and smiled, pulling it out from between the folds and the cover where she had hidden it for so many years. To everyone else, it didn’t look like much — just an old leather-bound journal, its cover scraped and torn in places. Some of the pages had loosened with time and use of the small notebook, and she was careful not to lose them as she flipped through the book.
Inside was a list of entries, dating back to February of her freshman year — the first time she’d ever seen a Label. Well, second time, really — the first time she’d seen one she’d had a hard time convincing herself she’d actually seen it, blaming it instead on grief and a sign of PTSD after the accident. The accident that had nearly killed her father. The accident that had sent her into a coma for three days, a time she hadn’t ever been able to recall but had left her family shaken and, in some ways, wary of her ever since.
She shook her head, trying to clear her mind from the thought. Turning back to the pages in her hand, she began flipping through them carefully, studying each one briefly before turning to the next. She was looking for something in particular — a certain date in her book, one that had stuck in her mind as the first time she’d truly seen Elijah, and not just from across her drawing tablet in the newspaper’s computer lab.
Finally, she found it, her eyes shining in a moment of celebration. October 11. The night of the Homecoming dance in her sophomore year. The entry that night had been short — she herself had been exhausted as she wrote it. But amid the chaos and commotion that had happened that night, she had felt a certain buzz in her veins, like electricity from the excitement in the people around her. The colors of the Labels had blended together and swirled in indescribable patterns — it had been the only time she hadn’t felt uneasy about the thought of being in a large crowd of people. And Elijah… it was the first time they had talked, after one round of dancing that had left them both breathless and laughing. She had looked at him then, really looked at him. And his Label had stuck in her mind, echoing like a song until she’d written it down that same night before falling asleep.
Dependable. Resolute. Contented.
The same one from before her headache. His Label had changed, there was no doubting it anymore. As she felt the lump form in her throat with this realization, however, a knock sounded at the door, startling her away from her agitated thoughts.
“Hey, Gemma? I forgot my key again….”
It was Irene. With a start, she leapt up, tucking the journal back into its hiding spot before throwing the covers back over the bed. In her haste, she ignored the zipper, deciding it was covered enough by her sheets that no one would question it. “Coming!” she shouted at the door, hurrying to meet her roommate before she got an earful for taking too long. Figuring out what all of this mess with Elijah truly meant would have to wait until life was done getting in the way.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 10

Elijah couldn’t shake the feeling he had in the pit of his stomach. Gemma hadn’t been responding to his texts or phone calls for a few days and he was worried he had lost her. The mere thought of losing her made Elijah sick; he had never meant to hurt her.
Elijah picked up his phone off the table and dialed Gemma’s number.
He listened to the daunting ring, realizing she probably wouldn’t answer.
“Sorry I missed your call, please leave a message and I will get back to you.”
“Hey Gemma, please call me back. I am really worried about you.”
He hung up the phone and frustratedly threw it on the couch.
Elijah knew the mission but he also knew his feelings for Gemma, and he had let both of them down.
He grew increasingly nervous about what Wolfgang would do if he lost Gemma. He knew what Wolfgang was capable of, no punishment was too small for someone who crossed him.
As he thought about his next move, his phone began to vibrate.
He picked it up and to his surprise, it was Gemma.
“Gemma?”
“Hey,” she said quietly.
“Is everything alright? I’ve been calling you for days.”
“Yeah, I just needed time to think.”
“Think about what?”
“This. Us.”
Elijah didn’t know what she meant. He thought their relationship had been going well, he thought she was falling for him.
“Oh. And?”
Gemma didn’t respond for a while. The silence between them was deafening, and he tried to busy himself with a loose string on the hem of his shirt as he waited for her answer.
“Look, will you come over for Christmas? We could talk about it some more then, and….”
Her straight forward question took Elijah off guard; he hadn’t lost her after all.
“I would love to spend Christmas with you!”
“Great.” He could hear her small smile on the other end of the line. It was so cute.
He smiled goofily for a few more seconds until finally remembering his manners. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“Mashed potatoes,” she said with a chuckle. “You make them way better than I do.”
“Will do. See you in a couple days.”
“Bye.”
With a click, Gemma hung up.
Elijah grinned, hitting the end call button on his own phone’s screen. He was excited to their first Christmas together, maybe she would finally open up more about her own gift.
story by Ashley Tanner

Chapter 11

Gemma couldn’t help but smile as she taped the last few tags onto the small stack of Christmas gifts beside her. She had finished wrapping them all the night before, staying up into the early hours of the morning to make sure they were perfect. She hoped they would be — Elijah would be coming over soon. She could barely contain her excitement at the idea of having an actual Christmas — not just the small affair that she and Irene usually had as they exchanged two or three small gifts for one another.
Her timing couldn’t have been more perfect; just as she carried the last of her pile in to the small tree in the corner of the room, a knock sounded at their door.
“I’ve got it!” Irene hollered from the bedroom, maybe a little too eagerly. She bounded out of the room and to the door, breathless as she opened it. “Hey, Elijah! Come on in — Gemma’s in the living room. I’m almost done wrapping these last few things, and then I’ll be out.”
He chuckled. “Alright,” he said, watching her disappear back into her bedroom. Gemma watched then as he turned and sauntered into the living room, taking a seat on one of the couches across from where she was.
“Hey, you,” he offered as he sat down, playing it off as if she hadn’t been ignoring his calls and texts consistently the week before.
“Hey,” she answered back, blushing slightly as she remembered the past few days. She turned her attention back to the gifts she had been arranging so as to hide her embarrassment. Her diversion didn’t last long, however, as before she knew it he was kneeling down next to her, reaching a hand into his messenger bag to pull out a few small boxes of his own.
Guiltily, she avoided his gaze, instead busying herself with straightening the stack of gifts and making sure they looked perfect. Suddenly, however, she felt his hand brush against hers, and her cheeks grew even more red. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered into her ear. She turned to face him, matching his smile with a bashful one of her own.
Deceitful. Insubordinate. Devoted. Well, it wasn’t any different than last time. At least her headache hadn’t come back.
“Merry Christmas,” she answered back, feeling her cheeks still grow warm under his gaze.
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything, you two,” Irene said, startling them both. Gemma’s cheeks grew even more red as she turned to face her roommate, who carried her own pile of presents to add to the tree.
Elijah stammered as he moved back to the couch. “Sorry. We were just, um —“
“No need to apologize. You’re fine!” she grinned politely, taking a seat near Gemma but leaving room for Elijah as well. “That being said, I really want to see your guys’ faces when you open your gifts, so….”
Elijah laughed. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”
***
“Oh my goodness,” Gemma said, grinning and laughing as she looked at the random presents and wrapping paper now strewn across the floor around them. “We made a mess.”
“Hey, nothing that a few extra hands can’t fix,” Elijah offered, holding up the hand-shaped back massager Irene had given him. The three laughed again, glancing at their own collection of miscellaneous knick-knacks and novelties.
“Well, merry Christmas, you guys,” Irene said. “This was fun. Maybe we’ll have to do it again next year.”
The group smiled and nodded. Even if they didn’t know what the year was to hold for them, it was nice, they decided, to sit and revel in the quiet joy of the holiday while it lasted.
story by Nicole Schroeder

Chapter 12

Elijah.

Elijah opened the car door for Gemma and helped her out. He couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked; she was wearing a full length dark teal gown, it’s skirt ruffling slightly in the breeze. Her dark brown hair was pinned back, revealing her caramel-colored eyes. Elijah couldn’t help but smile when he looked at her, but at the same time he felt guilty for how he was deceiving her.
He escorted her towards the law firm, hand in hand. The closer they got, the louder the music was.
“Wow, not quite what I would expect at a party full of lawyers,” she said laughing.
“Didn’t you know lawyers could party?” Elijah opened the door as he finished his sentence and it was like a light show. It wasn’t the average work New Year’s party for sure.
They spotted Theo Wolf and walked over to him.
“Gemma! I am so glad you could make it!” Theo said enthusiastically.
“Yeah! It’s quite the party,” she said as she scanned the room.
“Many of the lawyers at the firm are young, so why throw a boring party?” and on that note, Theo disappeared into the crowd of dancing people.
Gemma and Elijah stood where they had met Theo for a few minutes, taking in the party. The desks had been pushed off to the sides of the room, leaving a large space in the center of the room. There was a DJ in the far right corner, where the source of most of the light show was. There was a table right as you walked in with plastic hats and glasses displaying ‘2016’ in various ways as well as beads in gold and silver white feather boas.
Elijah led Gemma to the table, he picked up a hat and sunglasses and put them on. Then he grabbed a feather boa and wrapped it around Gemma’s neck. She picked up a pair of sunglasses and a hat and put them on as well. They both began laughing.
“I’m gonna go get us some drinks,” Elijah said with a wink.
He scanned the room for the open bar he had been promised. He made his way towards the left far corner and picked up two champagne glasses. The bartender had wavy, short red hair and smiled at him.
“Happy New Year!” he said cheerily and handed Elijah the drinks.
Before he even made it a foot away from the bar, Theo cornered him.
“Hello Elijah,” he sounded frustrated.
“Hi Wolfgang,” he said trying to keep a look of concern off his face so Gemma wouldn’t get suspicious.
“Has she told you anything?”
“No, but I am hoping she will tonight. Maybe with a drink or t-,” Wolfgang cut him off and put his hand on Elijah’s shoulder.
“You are putting us behind schedule and I am growing impatient,” he squeezed Elijah’s shoulder hard and then walked away.
Elijah had been unable to keep the concern off of his face because Gemma looked worried.
He made his way back to her and handed her the glass.
“Is everything alright?” she asked worriedly.
“Yeah, everything is fine. Just a problem on a case,” he said with a smile.
Elijah put his arm on her back and pulled her into him, and gently kissed her forehead. He could hear a sweet sigh of relief from Gemma.
They both walked into the crowd of people and started to dance. Elijah had never seen Gemma let go and have as much fun as she was right now. Her hat had fallen off and her curled hair was bouncing all over place. She was signing and laughing, she had never been more beautiful.
Elijah got close to her and before he knew what was happening, it was too late.
“I love you.”
She stopped dancing, and just stood there. Elijah’s heart was racing, he could feel his face turning red.
Gemma didn’t say anything, she just stared at him; first she looked confused, then she looked frustrated. He couldn’t read her.
“I love you too,” she said as she put her hand delicately on his face.
They stood still for what seemed like an eternity. He felt horrible for saying he loved her, not because he didn’t mean it, because he did. But because she didn’t know who he was and what he was doing. He wished he had never agreed to spy on her; he wished he could quit and run away with her.
Gemma began to dance again, happier than ever. Elijah forced himself to look happy, because it should have been the happiest moment of his life thus far. But, he felt more disgusting than he had ever felt before.
 
story by Ashley Tanner

Gemma.

As the night wore on, the songs playing over the speakers in each corner seemed to blur together, blending into an endless cacophony of sound and excitement. Gemma could barely remember which songs she danced to and when she stole away with Elijah to meet someone, much less who she was meeting and why they were important.
Of course, there were a few that stuck out in her mind, like the man who had proudly demonstrated his unique dancing abilities — much to Gemma’s amusement — or the girl who she’d been sure could’ve been the president with the way she carried herself. There were many others, of course, but between the glass of champagne she’d been sipping on and the commotion of the others around you, she barely remembered them. Even the Labels slipped her mind, swirling into a mix of beautiful colors that was hard to imagine and even harder to describe.
As the clock inched closer to midnight, though, she found herself noticing Elijah more and more. Of course, it wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed him before, but something seemed … different tonight. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but it was almost as if he was conflicted somehow, like being near her made him nervous or sad. She frowned, watching him make small talk with one of his coworkers nearby from her seat at the bar. Her brown curls bounced as she tilted her head, watching him and trying to read him. Aside from his Label, though, there was nothing more to the mystery, nothing more than the pained look in his eyes that clashed with the dazzling smile he shot her way.
Sending him back a smile of her own, she got up, her skirt trailing behind her as she made her way to him.
“I’m gonna go get some air real quick,” she whispered in answer to his raised eyebrows.
“As long as you’re back before midnight,” he murmured.
“Of course I will be.” She grinned, her eyes dancing up to meet his as she slipped away into the crowd.
It took a little bit, but she finally made her way to the door that led out to the staircase they had come from, slipping out easily into the bright, harsh light of the hall. She slipped her heels off in her hands before making her way to the staircase, heading down one floor to the only other place in the building she knew: Elijah’s floor.
Just as she had suspected, the floor was empty, the only sound around her the faint hum of the party above mixing with the sound of the lights buzzing in the ceiling above. Her feet were nearly silent as she padded across the rows of cubicles to Elijah’s desk, knowing his chair would be the nicest one around for her to take some weight off of her sore heels for a couple minutes or so. Finally, she found it, recognizing the picture he’d tacked up of him on his senior trip to Europe, posing in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Shaking her head, she ducked into the small grey box, practically collapsing into his chair with a sigh. Holding the devilish heels in one hand, she rubbed her sore feet with the other, letting her eyes glance around absentmindedly as she waited. Most of it seemed foreign to her anyway — legal jargon that she didn’t understand, random files and court cases stacked beside his keyboard. Suddenly, though, she stopped, a stray word sticking out on one of the papers from the corner of her eye.
She dropped her shoes without warning, turning instead to the paper in the stack, the corner just peeking out. Her eyes had to have been playing tricks on her, but no, this was no trick. She took the paper and, careful not to disturb the rest of the stack, pulled it out to study it more.
There it was. On the footer of the paper, beside the page number. “Gemma Caroline Abbott.” Her name, and not just as a doodle on a notebook but as a case file. Her mouth fell open as she scanned the rest of the paper, each word stinging like the slicing of paper against skin. Suddenly, she couldn’t be here anymore, couldn’t be in this room, couldn’t be in this building with the man who just before had told her he loved her.
Not bothering to slip her shoes back on, Gemma picked them up hurriedly from the floor, fighting back tears as she headed toward the stairwell. Elijah stood on the landing just above her as she made her way back out into the hall, calling her name as she left, but she didn’t hear him above the pounding in her head and the echoing of his Label in her ears. It had been a warning, and she hadn’t listened, hadn’t trusted it….
It was only a minute or so before she was outside, the tears finally breaking through and cascading down her cheeks. Her chest tightened and she gasped for air as the clock struck midnight, and an all-too familiar chorus sounded from the voices of those in the office building above her:
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.”
story by Nicole Schroeder
END OF PART 1
 
Read part two, here. Read part three, here.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]What do you think is going to happen in part two? Leave comments below. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]