"Hello there. Mind if I join you?"
Suddenly everyone was utterly silent, or maybe it was me who become completely deaf. His voice had come right from behind me and my legs shook as if they were too tired to hold me standing. The line of people in front of me became distorted and twisted and I felt my consciousness slipping away.
"But of course," Steph answered pleasantly. "I'm Stephanie," she introduced herself and I wished I could scream at her and just tell her to run. "This is Joanne. We're both attending your English Literature class," she went on as if it was her duty to introduce the rest of the group. "This is Kevin and, as it seems, you have Philosophy together. Then we have Joe who belongs to the Sports and Health Department, and Sarah and Albert, both in Arts."
"Nice to meet you. My name is Gabriel." They returned his greeting.
"Oh, and of course, you already know Mari," Steph added, placing an arm over my shoulders like she always did, the sudden movement dragging me back from my state of stupor.
"Of course ... Mariane." My heart jumped and I forgot to breathe. My name in his voice was like a magic key containing enough power to, just like that, completely destroy me. The others started asking him casual questions and Steph dragged me along the line.
Surprise hit me when I finally dared to take a peek at him. The perfect statue smiled and laughed openly. His dark eyes seemed genuinely interested in what my friends were saying. He looked indecisive when he had to make food choices and ended up picking what Joe recommended. He was obviously taller than most, standing out in the crowd, perhaps the tallest in the entire school. But, apart from that, no one couldn't point anything strange about him.
We took our places at an empty table and the conversation went on. My new cousin was telling stories about his old school, how they also had a sulky teacher just like Mr. Frederich. I saw him raise his fork and fill his mouth with food. I felt lost. The perfect statue ate. When I realized I was the only one not eating and stupidly staring at him. I immediately grabbed my fork and stuffed my mouth with food.
I'm such an idiot!
Why was I the only one who had to deal with that uncontrollable feeling of fear when he was around? How could everyone else accept his presence so naturally? How did they not feel the icy cold waves emanating from him, even while he smiled gently as he heard Steph's tainted opinion about Mr. Frederich?
"But really, no one would ever guess you guys are related," Joe pointed out and I slightly choked.
"Right? You two are so different!" Joanne unusually agreed.
"That's because my mother is Mariane's father's cousin." I put down my fork and knife to hide how my hands were shaking. "It's not like we're first cousins. Besides, as it turns out, I take after my father's side," he added casually and I feared I wouldn't be able to keep down what little I'd been able to eat.
"Right. It had to be," Joe agreed laughing. "Mari's family must be all shorties!"
"Joe!" Steph's tone of reprehension was lost amongst the general laughter. Only she knew how much that subject hit a nerve.
"Um, not really," Gabriel disagreed and everyone was suddenly quite again, as if it were strictly forbidden to utter a single sound while he spoke. "Aunt Rachel is quite tall, for a woman." I don't know what shocked me the most, him knowing my mother's name and appearance or the feeling that he had somehow defended me.
"Oh, then Mari is the only one with a problem," Joe replied with a smile and Steph kicked him under the table. His loud 'Ouch!' made everyone else laugh again and I stood up, knowing I'd never be able to finish my lunch.
"Going already?" Joanne asked and I noticed that, unlike my usual self, I hadn't even bothered to make sure I'd leave as discreetly as possible.
"Hey, Mari, you sure that teacher isn't kind of exploiting you?" Joe asked, sounding worried, and I stood there trying to make sense of his question. "Making you categorize all those books, every single day!" It came out more like a protest and I forced a smile as I understood that that had probably been Steph's excuse for my daily absences and early departures from lunch.
"I don't mind," I answered, praying my voice wouldn't falter. "It's only for an hour ..."
"Just go already!" Steph encouraged me with an accomplice's smile. "And good luck!"
I grabbed my tray with shaky hands and noticed that he was staring at me. The glass jingled against the plate and I rushed out of there.
I went through the corridors at a rapid pace, grumbling and protesting under my breath and yet unable to stop all that trembling. I was especially annoyed with myself, for not being able to act normally whenever he was around, even though I knew there was nothing to fear for the time being.
I stopped by the stairs that led to the first floor and leaned against the wall, feeling some measure of comfort in its cold hardness. He'd invaded my world, but I could hardly blame anyone else but me. After all I had been the one who'd invited him in.
"You fear me that much?" His voice, in that casual tone, paralyzed me from head to toe and I clenched my fists furiously. "Not that you shouldn't. But you seem to be the only one to feel that way," he noted, apparently devoid of any emotion and, once more, I had to make use of all my willpower just to face him. He stood right in front of me, his back against the opposite wall. Two girls passed between us, talking cheerfully, and it was as if in that short fraction of time we were in completely different dimensions.
"What are you doing here?" I managed to ask, my dry voice scraping my throat, and he looked surprised by my question.
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? Fulfilling our Contract, of course."
"Steph and the others ..."
"You have nothing to worry about. Contracts must be followed to the letter. Besides, once it has been fulfilled, once I disappear, they will all forget about me. It will be as if I had never existed." I couldn't help noticing that it was the second time he told me those exact words. "Aren't you going to see him? Isn't that what you normally do?" He smiled mockingly and I noticed that nothing had remained from the nice and friendly expression he'd had on his face while answering my friends' questions.
He was right, I thought. That was what I would normally do. However, just thinking that my presence near Michael would mean he'd be there too, made my fear even more palpable and real.
"I see," he said. "That's fine too, you know? Because we won't need to take a single step ... Mariane." I held on to the wall so I wouldn't collapse right there and his words stopped making sense at the sound of my name.
"Stop. Just stop calling my name," I whispered, my chest burning due to the lack of air, and he looked genuinely amused, tilting his head forward as if to see me better.
"And why is that?" he asked innocently, although it was written on his face he knew perfectly well why. "You may call me Gabriel, since it seems you don't remember my name. Did you know that Gabriel is the name of an angel? Don't you think it fits me perfectly?"
I regained my balance and faced him. That creature ... was pure evil.