Congratulations!! You made it to the very end! I hope you enjoyed reading this book as much as I did writing it. If you’ve become addicted to reading serialized books, never fear: my next YA novel, The Ring of Leilani, starts next week. Thanks for reading!
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Nic stood in line at the UCLA bookstore, leafing through the top book on the stack he carried. Outside, the grassy quad was thronged with students, the sun shone, and there was just a hint of crispness in the air. It was a perfect fall day in Los Angeles.
Three months had passed since his return from the past. Upon his arrival at the university in Mérida, he had written down everything that had happened, more to distract himself than for academic reasons. In fact, his dreams of academic success had backfired. He had soon realized that all his first-hand knowledge of early Mayan society and culture was worthless since he had no archaeological evidence to back it up. Sometimes it seemed it couldn’t have happened. As a result, he had been forced to cram two months of research into less than a week, coming up with a paper that was a disappointment to his professor, and worse, to the director of the program. Nic remembered standing before his desk as the director paged through it.
“It’s passing work, no worse than I’ve gotten from some of the other students.” He shook his head. “But I’d expected more from you.” He’d paused, waiting for an explanation. Nic felt heat suffusing his face. “Was there a girl involved, by any chance?” the director had asked with a smile. Nic had stammered an excuse and left the office as soon as he could. Fortunately, his GPA was high enough that the C he’d received hadn’t affected him too much. Then there’d been the unpleasant scene at the library when he’d had to explain that he had lost all the books he’d been allowed to take to Chichen Itzá. That required an emergency call to his parents and more lies to get them to wire enough money to cover the cost of the books.
At least he had managed to avoid having to explain the reason he had arrived at the University after a two-month absence dressed in a threadbare shirt of antique vintage and worn polyester bellbottoms, both several sizes too small. He’d waited until it was dark enough to sneak into his room using the key that was still hidden under the rock near the door. Inside, he’d changed into his own clothes, taken the small amount of cash he kept stashed for midnight vending machine raids, and gone out again to a nearby barbershop.
Looking back, Nic didn’t know how he’d made it through the last couple of weeks of the semester. No doubt his sudden taciturnity had caused speculation among his professors and the other students, but they had kept their distance. Nic had shown no interest in going out with his companions for one last underage fling at the antros. All his attention was focused on getting through the remaining time and leaving for Los Angeles. Not because he was dying to see his parents or his friends at home, but because he wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and everything that reminded him of Itzel.
And now he was starting his senior year and it was a time for new beginnings. Looking through his books as he waited in line, bringing his nose close to inhale the pleasant acrid smell of crisp paper and ink, Nic almost believed it. He felt more hopeful than he had for a long time. Just take one day at a time, that was all he had to do. He would make it.
Twenty minutes later he was crossing the quad, his backpack heavy with new books, on his way to his first class: Musical Expression among the Classic Maya. Nic smiled, wondering if the teacher would mention a puzzling artifact that had been found in the ruins at Chichen Itzá: a small white rectangular object that looked very much like a modern-day iPod, yet had been carbon-dated and definitively proved to be of the Classic era. It was frustrating not to be able to publish a paper on all his experiences, but at least he had the memories. If he remained in this field, what he had learned had to be of some use to him professionally. Much as he loved history, Nic wasn’t sure he wanted to continue immersing himself in a subject that reminded him of Itzel. It was too late to change his major now, but perhaps when he graduated he would become an insurance salesman or a lawyer. Something safe, with no memories attached.
He pulled open the heavy door to the lecture room and entered on tiptoe. The room was an amphitheater, with semicircular tiers of seats rising around a central space where the professor was standing with his back to the class, outlining on the blackboard the various eras of Mayan civilization. Nic slipped into a seat at the end of the top row. A gangly, red-headed boy two seats down gave him a brief smile and turned back to his notes. Nic opened his notebook, took out a pen and looked around. The auditorium was quiet save for the scraping of the chalk on the blackboard. Students bent over their desks, copying the professor’s chart. Nic took a deep breath. It was good to be back in school. This was where he belonged. He could never be an insurance salesman.
The professor turned toward them and pointed to the blackboard. “Can anyone tell me whether string, wind or percussion instruments were used during the Classic period?”
Nic didn’t remember hearing any music during the two months he’d been at Nachancán’s house—other than that produced by his own iPod, of course.
Several students raised their hands.
“The young lady in the third row, please.” The professor pointed to a girl sitting about ten rows down from Nic.
“Flutes of various kinds have been depicted in many paintings.”
The girl’s voice sounded like Itzel’s—without the quaintly-accented English, of course. Was there nowhere he could go to be free of his tormenting memories?
The professor nodded his approval. “Yes, as you say, Miss. . .”
“Moreno,” the girl supplied.
“Thank you, Miss Moreno. Recorder-style flutes were used in almost all important ceremonies, for religious purposes. Can anyone tell me if music was used on social occasions as well?”
Moreno? That was a coincidence. Of course, it was a common Spanish surname. Nic sat up straighter in his chair to get a better look, but all he could see was the girl’s back. He craned his head to the side, but she was bent over her desk writing, her face hidden by the sweep of her long black hair. A sudden wild hope surged in him.
Nic was unable to concentrate for the rest of the class. He couldn’t keep himself from smiling with excitement. When the redheaded boy down the row frowned at this unwarranted enthusiasm, Nic took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself. Zafrina had said Malinali and her family had moved either to Chicago or Los Angeles.
When class was over, Nic positioned himself under a tree about fifty feet away so he could see the students as they exited the lecture hall. His heart hammered every time a girl walked out the door. At last she came out, deep in conversation with another girl, her books cradled in one arm and her cell phone in the other hand.
It was Itzel. Now that he could see her face, there could be no mistake: the same delicate aquiline nose, the same black, almond-shaped eyes, the same white teeth. Something was different, though. He studied her face, trying to figure out what it was, then realized: no dark circles under her eyes.
The other girl noticed him staring and nudged her companion, who turned to look at him. He began to move toward her, talking as he walked.
“Excuse me for staring at you, but you look a lot like someone I used to know.” The girlfriend rolled her eyes, but Itzel—if it was Itzel—looked at him, a puzzled look on her face.
“You seem familiar to me too,” she said, in her lovely Itzel voice, “though I don’t think I’ve ever met you before. Maybe I’ve seen you around campus?”
He wanted to reach out and pull her to him, never let her go. Don’t scare her away, he cautioned himself. She held his gaze, the same doubtful look on her face.
“Hey. Itzel. Let’s go,” said the girlfriend. “Class starts in five minutes.”
Itzel. It was Itzel. Tears started to Nic’s eyes and he hastily blinked them away. Itzel’s expression became guarded.
“Come on. This guy’s a weirdo,” her friend said, pulling at Itzel’s arm.
“No, please,” Nic said, holding out a hand and taking a step toward her. “I’m sorry, it’s just that the girl I knew. . . ” She took a step back and, with a brief smile, turned to walk away with her friend. He’d blown it.
“Is your mother’s name Malinali?” he called after her.
She stopped and turned back. “How did you know that? Do you know her?”
“Yes.” Her curiosity had given him the advantage now. “And your father’s José, right?” She nodded. Her friend said,
“Hey—lovebirds—I don’t want to be late on the first day of class.” She hesitated, but Itzel ignored her. “Okay, just for the record I warned you not to talk to this weirdo. I’m leaving.”
“I’ll be there in a minute. Save me a seat.” Itzel turned back to Nic. He felt his tense muscles relax.
“I don’t want to make you late for class,” he said. He tried to keep the goofy smile off his face as he consulted his watch. “I’ve got to go too. But could we maybe get some coffee after class? In a public place, of course.”
She gave him the smile that had made him fall in love with her. “Sounds good. I’ll bring my bodyguards.” She glanced at the retreating figure of her friend. “At eleven? Right here?” Nic nodded. Itzel slipped her cell phone into her pocket, gave him a brief wave, and began to walk away, then turned back.
“It’s the weirdest thing. I feel as if I know you already. Am I crazy?”
Love threatened to lift Nic off the ground. He shook his head. “Not unless I am too. See you at eleven!” He waved and sprinted away in the opposite direction.