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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8. 《Chapter 5》

*filler*

We drove Ashton's blue Toyota Corolla 2015 into town. When we stepped out of the cabin I saw that we were in the middle of the woods. The trees were beginning to bloom with flowers and the ground was littered with tiny specks of flowers here and there. There was a path disappearing into the trees a bit off from the house, which I guessed lead into town.
It was still a little chilly out, so I was hugging myself in hopes of being a little warmer. My jacket was taken from me while I was out cold and I was redressed into a pastel pink long sleeve shirt and sweatpants. Not much to keep the chill away.

The car ride was silent. I looked out the window of the passenger seat the entire time while Ashton looked out the front with his hands on the wheel, his face contorted in guilt. As much as he wanted to say something he didn't, knowing that will only be answered with sarcasm or more silence.

The town wasn't so busy with people. It was Monday and everyone was at work. But it wasn't completely deserted. Stay-home moms walked from store to store, some with strollers or with toddlers held by the hand. All the stores were open, waiting for costumers to walk in and buy stuff. It all looked so neat. There was almost no litter on the streets, store windows were kept clean. Cars were dotted here and there along the curbs. Dogs of all breeds and sizes were walked by their owners, carefully groomed and taken care of.

Ashton parked the car and took me to a clothing store. As I walked around he followed me, and as I went into the changing rooms to try on my choices he waited. It was like having your personal body guard. I had to admit, it was a bit annoying. We walked around clothing stores for a while until I decided it was enough for now. Then we went to a couple shoe stores and spent about thirty minutes on it. Ashton paid for everything. I guess this is what Mark meant by me not needing a salary.

"When will you let me explain everything to you?" Ashton asked when we dropped the bags off in the car's trunk. Again, I didn't say anything. "Oh, come on. You can't give me the silent treatment forever. You even tapped me when you were ready to pay for your stuff instead of telling me. This can't go on forever, Tatum, you know it as much as I do."

As much as I didn't want him to be right about this, he was. He was too right about it, actually. I couldn't keep silent forever. At some point, I had to give in and let him explain himself. So I turned to Ashton and said, "This better be a good damn of an explanation, Irwin."

"Why don't I treat you to some coffee," Ashton said.

¤¤¤

Ashton took me to a bakery that smelled of coffee and caramel. It invaded my senses just as the door opened and the wind blew that sweet smell into my nose.

By now it was already 6:48 in the evening and the sun was making its way farther West. I had changed into some of my new clothes: a pair of black skinny jeans, a grey Nirvana band tee, a black leather jacket, and a pair of black and white tennis shoes. Also, around my neck was a Samulet, a replica of the one from Supernatural. I guess you could say I was a freak for the show. I wouldn't deny it, either. They took the one I had originally, so I got a new one.

"We're the good guys," Ashton said through a mouthful of cheesecake. "We're protecting you."

"From who, the 'bad guys'?" I asked.

"Exactly." He took a sip of his coffee and continued, "There are people who are looking for you, Tatum. Bad people. They're trying to kill you."

"You're trying to say, that people are out there, looking for me and want to kill me? That's crazy. Who would want to kill me? I never had beef with anyone. This can't be true."

"But it is. Can you please try to think of anyone that would want to cause harm to you? I know you said that you never had problems with anyone, but maybe someone from the past?"

I thought it over. But no matter how much I thought about it the more confused I was. I didn't remember arguing with anyone that could cause me harm. Most of the arguments I had were with Carl when we disagreed about something. And Lola, for the same reason. I never tried interacting with someone outside my friend circle unless they started the conversation first. And that was really rare. I also did my best to not get into any badly heated moments. Nope, there was no one I could think of.

"No, sorry," I said. "I don't know anyone."

"Maybe someone secretly hates you," Ashton suggested. "And they planned to get you for something you did that you thought was innocent. It happens quite often."

Again, I couldn't think of anyone. Then again, everything I did was innocent to my eyes, unless it was truly wrong. I was wondering if Ashton was telling the truth or not. Could I trust him after what he did?

I shook my head and shrugged. "Sorry, I don't believe you. I don't believe there is anyone out there trying to kill me."

"Don't worry," Ashton said, ignoring my statement. "I'll do anything to get you out of this mess."

"I do have one question, though," I said. "Why didn't Mark tell me anything about this, if this is all true? Why did he say he kidnaped me to keep me? That I won't be able to go back?"

Ashton sighed. "Mark didn't want you to know that you were being hunted down. He said that it would be easier to lie to you and take care of the business at hand without your knowledge of it."

"How did you know I was being followed?"

Suddenly, Ashton looked up to stare out the window. He looked frightened. When I looked where he was looking I saw a car that pulled up, it's headlights glowing in the growing night. Ashton grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the back of the café.

"They're here," Ashton muttered in my ear. "They found us."

"What? Who found us? Ashton, what's going on?"

"It's the people who are looking for you. We gotta get out somehow so they won't see us."

I followed Ashton out the back of the café and sneaked to the alley between the café and a clothing store to the right of it. We hid behind some dumpsters, peering out carefully. A couple men stepped out of the black Sedan dressed in black sweaters, their hoods over their heads. They leaned on the car for a moment and then walked into the bakery.

"Come on," Ashton whispered. We can make it to the car. But we'll have to cross the street to not be seen."

I followed Ashton carefully, his hood up over his head. We kept our heads low and speed walked across the street. When we got to Ashton's car we got inside and drove off without turning on the headlights. We drove carefully past the café and then picked up speed once we were out of sight. When we broke onto the path between the forest Ashton turned on the headlights.

"Is anyone following us?" Ashton asked with a serious tone, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

I looked back. When I saw no one at our heels I turned back and said, "No." I didn't believe for one moment what Ashton was telling me. And for all I know, those men we saw probably just wanted to enjoy some cheesecake. They most likely were not deadly men working to murder me.

Ashton didn't break speed on the way back to the cabin. When he finally stopped the car I got out and walked over to the trunk. Ashton unlocked it and helped me carry my bags upstairs to my room. Valeria was nowhere in the room or the reck room when we passed it. Ashton noticed my confusion and said, "It's dinner time. She's probably in the dining area."

"Oh, okay. Thanks," I said. "I'll just wait for her in the room then." I didn't feel like eating after Ashton's kind gesture of taking me to the café so I stayed in my room and decorated. Ashton helped, first with painting my side of the room in a forest green color. We left the walls to dry and made my bed. I hung the dream catcher that I got above the spot where my head would be. Then I set up my bedside table with a few books and an alarm clock. I filled my closet with my clothes and shoes. I didn't really have anything else save for the wall decorations. So I thanked Ashton and he said there was no problem and that he had to get going. Just as he was about to leave Valeria came back from dinner. The two shared their hellos and Ashton left, closing the door behind him.

"What happened?" she asked, giving me a skeptical look.

"We went shopping," I said.

"And bonded quickly, I see."

"He told me what he calls 'the truth'. Plus, we've bonded before, so it's not much of bonding as it is making up."

"What truth?" Val asked.

"The truth to why I'm here."

"Oh, that truth. I really do wonder who wants to kill you."

"He got to you too?"

"What do you mean? It's the truth."

"Who else knows?"

"Only me, Ashton, and the rest of the guys," Valeria said.

"How about the girls?"I asked.

"Nope. For all they know, you ran away from home because you were mistreated by your fiancé."

"Val, tell me about this place."

So she did. This cabin belonged to Mark, who was a billionaire. He helped refugees who were looking for a place to stay. Some ran from home because of abusive family, others ran because they didn't fit in and had no money to afford a place in a different city. Some girls did stuff around the house to take up their time here. I asked her if it was true that sometimes the guys here took advantage of the girls for their own pleasure. She told me no. There were couples here, though. Basically, no one took advantage of anyone here. Everyone was nice to each other here. I mentioned Max, how he tugged me by the arm and shoved me when I woke up. Valeria said Max had his own problems. Something obviously happened in the past that he didn't want to converse about with others.

So basically Mark lied to me. Just like he lied to me about why I'm here. I noted that I would have a word with him when I could and decided that I should go to bed. It was 11:47 at night and I was growing tired with every second. I took a quick shower to wash away the sweat from the hard work of decorating and passed out in my bed.

¤¤¤¤

I followed Valeria to the dining room for breakfast the next morning. Ashton and the guys already ate. Now it was our turn to eat. There were seventeen girls at the table, including me and Valeria. We sat next to two girls that were Val's best friends.

One was Mona, a flat-chested Korean. She was twenty-six. She loved video games and had higher scores than the guys who lived here. She wanted to be a video game designer but couldn't afford a place to stay, and university was out of the question. That was two years ago. Now she was nineteen and not only hung out with the girls but also entertained the guys by beating their asses in video games.

The other one was Evie. She was a calm twenty-year-old girl from Portland who loved to read and was crazy about coffee. She also had a great voice. Or so I was told. Evie was here because she had no family and didn't know where to go. No one was willing to take her for any job, which meant she couldn't pay rent or tuition. When she heard about this place she packed whatever she had of her belongings and called Mark. Mark had one of the guys pick her up and take her here, where, just like Mona, she was immediately accepted.

Val also told her story. She was from a town not far away from here. Her boyfriend abused her constantly. Wherever she would go he would find her and not act so kindly towards her. She was too scared to go to the police or to anyone else. So she ran away to a place she knew no one would find her. She heard of the cabin on the streets. People thought it was only a rumor. But it turned out to be quite the opposite.

Something about their stories made me believe Ashton's words. Maybe it was the way they told them. Or maybe it was just my brain telling me that these girls were just like me. Whatever it was, I believed Ashton's explanation to my stay in this cabin.

My hopes were really high that I would be welcome here by everyone else like these three were. And that whoever was looking for me, if anyone was looking for me, would not find me here. It looked like I was going to be stuck here for a while.

 

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