Autumn Leaves || A.I.

**PROLOGUE HAS BEEN CHANGED**

"You are one of a kind, love. You got into this mess on accident. But you can get out of it easily. All it takes is for you to think." --Ashton Irwin

Tatum Dawson was a 25-year-old who lived a great life. She had her own apartment, a job as graphic designer, and a fiancé who loved her unconditionally.

But at one point things went south. A day after she met a temporary neighbor named Ashton Irwin, a friend died, her fiancé disappeared, and her ill mother got worse. Then, to top it all off, Tatum got kidnapped. How would she deal with her great life being disturbed?

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4. 《Chapter 1》

"Oh, my gosh!" "I know right? Like, I can't believe he actually told me that! Like I'm no a slut if I just wanna dance!" "He's trash, hon. Don't listen to him!" Driving a car full of drunk girls at two in the morning can be annoying. It's only annoying, I presume, because I was not drunk myself. I was their ride home, so I was not allowed to be drunk. These girls were actually my friends. Two of them I met at college last year, one I met in high school, and the other one I had known since-- well, since what felt like forever. Laura and Grace were identical twins. The only way to tell them apart was by their taste in fashion. They're the two I met last year. Anne was the one I met in high school. She was one of those friends who was first in line to give advice, though it wasn't always the best. Lola was my long-time friend and bestest friend of the best friend group. She understood me the most and always came to aid when the others backed out. I don't know what this five-some would be without her. "Tatum," Anne said. "How can you see with all that... blur?" "Because," I answered, "I am not drunk." "Weird, neither am I. Lola, aren't you seeing the blur?" "Yeah! Tatum, I think you're going crazy. The blur is everywhere!" "I don't think Tatum is the only crazy one," Laura commented. "Both of you are as well. I don't see any blur. I see everything swirling." "Laura," I saed. "We're here. Time for you and Grace to go home and sleep." "Sleep? Sleep is for the week!" Laura retorted. "Right, Grace?" Laura turned to her sister, who was asleep with her head against the window. Laura shook Grace and she woke up with a snort. "Huh?" "Come on. Time to go home!" I got out of the driver's seat and walked over to help Grace. She's a complete mess. I put her hand over my neck and practically dragged her to her house. Laura fumbled with the key and when she opened the door I brought Grace to the couch. There was no way I was taking her all the way upstairs to her room. I said good night to the girls and left, ready to take the other girls to their destinations and then arrive at mine. I was the only one who lived in an apartment building out of the group of friends. It didn't take long, since we all lived in the same neighborhood. I waited for Anne and Lola to walk into their houses before driving off. I wanted to know they were safe in their drunken state. When I arrived at my own building I parked my car in the building's garage and made my way to the lobby. The lights were dimmer in the garage than they were in the lobby so it was normal if someone walked quickly through the lot. But I didn't walk quickly. I never did. I knew this place like the back of my hand. I already knew there was nothing to worry about. There was no one I needed to fear in this neighborhood. Even the ghosts were friendly. If there were any. I greeted Jack, the security guard in the lobby, and was rewarded with a warm smile and a "Hey, Tate." I was also greeted by Mrs. Everly, the old florist of the building, who was on her way to her shift as security at a bank. She was one of the kindest people you'd ever meet. But get on her bad side and you'd regret it for the rest of your life. I walked into the well-lit elevator. A familiar tune quietly played in the background and I tapped my foot to it. I guess you could say it seemed like a good life so far. Friendly people in the building, great friends, nice elevator tunes. I guess. But then there's the stress of doing great at work. I was a graphic designer, and while the job seems easy, you need to have the artistic talent and imagination. And the photoshop skill. If I didn't do what the client expects I might not get such a good payment. Sometimes the clients were so mad they decided to sew. As I got off the elevator I accidentally bumped into someone. We both mumbled an apology, though mine was heard a bit more clearer. I didn't get a good look at the guy but I saw enough to know that I didn't recognize him. You see, this was a pretty small building. Everyone knew each other and what floor they lived on. It was weird when you came across someone you have never seen before. So the fact that I saw this guy here was odd. All I saw was a red bandana on brown hair and muscular arms. Also these really pretty eyes. It was hard to tell what color they were. I knew that if I came across this man again I would identify him as the "Stranger Man" just because of his eyes. In the end I just shrugged it off and assumed that maybe he visited someone on the floor. Maybe he left at two in the morning because he had a one-night-stand. Speaking of which, I could guess he was here for that girl that lived on my floor who brought a new man home every night. I walked into my dark apartment and turned on the light. I sighed, taking in the sad, small apartment. I've been living here since senior year of high school. Why senior year? Because I told my parents I wanted to begin dealing with life then to get used to it faster. Worst decision of my life. It was hard to keep homework, studying and work in order. Sleepless nights, stress, exhaustion. It was horrible. But at least it got me ready for the years to come. College was way harder than high school, so I got myself prepared for the worst. It didn't turn out as hard as I thought it would. I turned on the light in my apartment and looked around. Everything was here, just as I had left it when I went out. But not quite. When I walked into my bedroom I noticed something strange. My closet door was open. That struck as odd, because I was pretty sure I closed it before I left. But then again, Anne was texting me nonstop, rushing me as I got dressed. Maybe because of that I forgot to. I left the thought alome and forgot about it the instant I began taking off my makeup. I slipped on my pj's and crawled into the comfortable warmth of my bed, where I momentarily fell into the arms of unconsciousness. ¤¤¤¤ It was six in the morning and I was in my Chevy Impala '67. The first time I saw this model was in my favorite television show when I was nine. Ever since then I fell in love with it. It was hard to find the car. Mine is a four door, shiny surface. The ones I kept stumbling upon were two or four door matte surfaces. It was a miracle when my parents bought it for me for my seventeenth birthday. I stopped at my favorite coffee shop before going to work. As I entered the cozy shack, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted into my nostrils beautifully. I loved going here to chill out and relax. Especially with a thick, interesting book. But there was no time for that now. I had to get to work. There was a line that looked pretty long leading up to the register. But that's fine. I woke up earlier than needed for a reason. I went to stand behind a guy with a man bun who seemed to be last in line. I checked my phone for the time. It was 6:13. I had another forty-two minutes to get to work. The man I was standing behind took a moment to turn around and looked out to the street. When he did, my breath hitched in my throat. It was that guy I bumped into as I was walking out of the elevator at two in the morning. But the reason my breath hitched wasn't because he was in front of me, but because he was just so... pretty. He was beautiful. I coun't tell if his eyes were hazel or murky green, but those eyes I could never forget. He had some beard scruff on his chin. Just looking at him made me want to know him. Not finding what he turned to look for, he turned to face back at the register. In doing so he laid his eyes on me for a split second, and before he got to turn back all the way, he did a double take. When he looked at me again, he smiled. And when he smiled, dimples as deep as the Pacific Ocean formed on his cheeks. "Hi," he said. Damnit. He caught me staring. "Uh, hi," I said. "You're the one I bumped into when I was walking into the elevator, right?" As he spoke I noticed he had an accent that wasn't American. It sounded more... Australian. "Oh, yeah. I'm so sor--" "No, no," he interrupted me. "I wasn't looking where I was going. I- I'm the one who should be sorry. I am sorry." Oh, he stuttered. That's so cute. "It's fine," I assured him. "Neither was I." "Okay." He put his hands in his sweater pockets awkwardly. "So... you're on your way to work?" "Yeah," I replied. "Yeah, um, I usually stop here before going to work." "Where do you work?" he asked. "Um, I'm a graphic designer. I work down by Main Street." "Oh, that's nice. Do you enjoy your job?" "Yeah. I love it. I've wanted to be a graphic designer since I was fourteen. I guess I'm a witness that dreams really do come true. What about you? Are on your way to work too?" "Mhm. I'm a photographer." Wow. A pretty face and a photographer. "And do you enjoy your job?" I asked. "It's the best job ever," he told me. "Well, maybe we can cross paths and work together some time." "That would be great. I'm Ashton, by the way." "Nice to meet you, Ashton. I'm Tatum." Ashton looked surprised. "Tatum? That's a weird name for a girl." And in that moment his surprise turned into a face palm moment. It was there for a split moment, but I caught it. The change in his eyes, the way his smile dropped a fraction. I decided to not let him suffer . "I know," I said. "My parents didn't want anything usual. They liked the name Tatum when they first heard it at a Christmas party. So that's what they named me." "I think it's pretty cool," Ashton said. "Good morning, may I take your order?" the lady at the cash register called to Ashton. "Oh, yes. Hi," he said. Ashton made his order and went to stand by the pick-up area. He ordered a large black coffee, caramel flavored, with no sugar, and a strawberry glaze donut. Two very different tastes yet he didn't mind. When it was my turn to order I asked for my usual: a large hazelnut coffee with cream and two sugars, and a plane bagel with cream cheese. Then I went to stand by Ashton at the pick-up area. "Are you afraid you're gonna be late for work?" Ashton asked as I came up beside him. "Not really," I told him. "Are you?" "Nope." "Okay." Then, saving us from what I felt would've been an awkward silence, the barista gave Ashton his order. Looking at the time on his wrist watch, Ashton cursed quietly under his breath and told me that he had to go, and that it was nice meeting me. I told him likewise and he took off. I stood by the pick-up area and waited for my order. As I waited I thought about Ashton. He looked so perfect, and his accent was even more so. The way his dimples took form on his cheeks when he smiled was breathtaking. His beard stubble suited him but it madr me wonder what he looked like without it. He even pulled of being awkward, if that's even possible. But I couldn't think of him like that. I shouldn't. With those looks he probably already had a girl under his arm. And I was not available either. I couldn't believe that I had already forgotten about my boyfriend upon meeting this stranger. And Carl was more than just my boyfriend. He was my fiancé. My soon-to-be husband. I thanked the barista for my breakfast and walked off to my car. On the way to work I couldn't help but still wonder about Ashton. I really hoped that upon meeting him my feelings for Carl wouldn't subside. But then again, what was I thinking? It's not like I would ever see Ashton again. I saw Carl every day, and Ashton just this once, not counting the time we bumped into each other. I tried to forget about my early encounter and turn on some music. As the music began to play, I started singing along to Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones. I see a red door and I want to paint it black No colors anymore I want them to turn black I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes I have to turn my head until my darkness goes Ah, classic rock. One of the many beauties of life. I became obsessed when I was little (I don't remember how old I was, but I think it was about the time of first grade) when my dad bought a tape with Queen on it. After listening to them I wanted to learn more. I wanted to hear more music similar to it. My father was only happy to show me. Turned out he had an entire box full of classic rock tapes, varying from The Who, to the Beatles, to The Doors, to AC/DC. Then, for my fifteenth birthday, my dad passed that box full of classic rock tapes on to me. And now that boxwass in the back seat of my Impala. In about twenty-five minutes I arrived at work. It was a big building reaching up to fifteen floors. It looked really intimidating at first glance but once you got to be inside you saw that it was quite the opposite. Everyone working at the office was far from serious. Jokes wee told, pranks were played, songs were sung, laughter was heard. No one was ever dressed formally. Not a single face looked like it's made out of stone. Even the managers of the different floors were never 100% serious. Meetings were far from formal also. We employees actually looked forward to attending them. I walked into the building and hopped onto the elevator that woud take me to the fifth floor. In this workplace each floor represented different sections. The first floor was the lobby where the reception desk was, along with the head of the building's office and auditorium. The second floor was the newspaper section. This was where the town newspaper was published. The third floor was the editor section, where people sent there transcripts for their books to be edited and evaluated. The fourth floor was the printing section. That's pretty self explanatory. The fifth floor, where I worked, was the graphic design section. That's where the photoshop toom place. As I got off the elevator on my floor I was greeted by the sound of voices morphing in conversation and laughter. Despite my lack of sleep due to late night partying I smiled at the sight before me. Colleagues shared their ideas with one another, helped out and showed off. Over the years this place had become my real home, my family. Everyone was kind around here and real with each other. I made my way to my workspace. I sat on my black spiny chair and turned on my laptop. My space was always a bit messy. So it was routine when I accidentally knocked a manila folder off my table and bent down to pick it up. "Morning, Tate," Lola said as she came up to me. She also worked as a graphic designer. "Mornin'," I replied. "I see you aren't fully awake yet." She' was referring to my sweat pants, my messy bun, and the bags under my eyes. "Not really." "Neither have I. Have you seen Derek anywhere recently?" Derek was Lola's boyfriend. He hadn't shown up for work for over a week and hadn't even called or texted. Which wasn't really like him. "No, I haven't," I told her. "I think you should have filed a missing person report a long time ago. He would've contacted you by now if anything." "You're right. I'll go do that now in case I'm gonna be packed later." "Wise." Lola took out her phone and walked off to make the call. I turned back to my laptop and led my mouse to the files folder. Then... Someone put their hands around my eyes. "Ms. Dawson, it's nice to see you on time. I was thinking of giving you a raise." Carl. "Good morning to you too, Carl," I said with a smile. "I see you went out last night," he said, taking his hands off my face before kissing me on the cheek. "Yeah," I confirmed. "So many guys were on me, and I wasn't even drunk. But don't worry, I didn't get anyone's number." "That's my girl." "Except Jem's, " I teased. "He's great! And oh, damn he's the best in bed. He just makes me wanna y--" "Okay, enough," Carl chuckled. "I don't wanna hear about your awful night. Because you know I'm better than any Jem." "Hmm. Are you?" "Oh, come on. Don't do that." "And what if I do?" "We'll just have to see tonight." Carl winked at me and walked off to his workspace. Just then my desk phone rang. "This is Dawson. How may I help you?" I answered. "Tatum?" a familiar voice said. Where have I heard it before? "Yes, this is she." "It's me, Ashton."
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