Nicolas and MaKayla Ruggiero were a happily married couple . Nicolas, an Electrical Engineer, was looking for that just right Surprise Getaway to celebrate their upcoming 1 year Anniversary. The day would be here in just 2 weeks, and MaKayla, whom he felt was more beautiful than ever, deserved something special. Her job as a Real Estate Agent was keeping her busy the past few months leading into Spring. They would talk about kids from time to time, but agreed to wait at least 2 years before starting a family. Married in Bora Bora, Nicolas originally planned for a surprise Hawaii Trip for their 1st Anniversary, but his workload wouldn’t allow the time off. He figured it would have to be a weekend getaway.
Although he wasn’t exactly sure of what he would do to surprise her he had one go to idea. From childhood, his wife had been fascinated with hot air balloons. The met in a South Carolina high school and shortly after their first date, MaKayla began telling her stories of the first time she’d seen a hot air balloon. Remembering the vivid and exciting recollection of her experiences, Nicolas began to plan a hot air balloon excursion for their 2nd Anniversary. He knew that MaKayla would be thrilled at that so he would stop at no expense to make sure it was a Special Getaway.
A week before their Anniversary, Nicolas checked his reservations with Colorado Clouds, a hot air balloon company he’d found near Denver Colorado. Everything seemed to be in order and he was pumped. It was all he could do to keep it from his unsuspecting Bride of nearly 1 years. All he told her was to clear her calendar for their Anniversary Weekend. Knowing her husband, MaKayla knew that he had something special planned for them. She didn’t have a clue as to what he was up to, specifically, but was fully confident that they would have a blast. A day before the Ruggieros were supposed to fly out to Colorado, Nicolas received a voice message stating that their Colorado Clouds reservation would have to be rescheduled due to overbooking. Nicolas was devastated.
In a panic he called the company as soon as he got the message. When the operator picked up, he remained cool, but explained in great detail the purpose behind his selection of their balloon company and how much this 2nd Anniversary Surprise would mean to his wife. The operator was understanding and switched him to another person that could help him with his dilemma. He couldn’t believe this was happening so close to their Anniversary. Colorado Clouds was a 5-Star Company with nothing but rave reviews on their website. After speaking several minutes, to a representative from the company, Nicolas was set up with an affiliate company, Up&Away. Not exactly thrilled about the switch, Nicolas couldn’t refuse when Colorado Clouds offered to refund all of his deposit and pay for their entire trip to Colorado. They also offered to pay for the Up&Away experience. How could he refuse? As far as MaKayla knew, nothing had changed about their surprise getaway.
Within the hour, Nicolas received an email from the Up&Away Balloon Company who thanked the Ruggieros for choosing their company. Actually we didn’t, Nicolas thought, but figured how bad could this company be? He did find a small blog featuring Up&Away Balloon Company, but he could find no reviews… good or bad. Since there was virtually no time left to fully check this company out, he figured he’d have to trust the recommendation from Colorado Clouds. Not good at keeping things from MaKayla, Nicolas had begun to slowly reveal his plans over the course of the week leading up to their flight out. Not to spoil things, but he felt that she may have been thinking Hawaii since that’s what they last spoke on a few months back.
They arrived at the South Carolina airport in the early hours of Friday morning. Their balloon flight was scheduled on Saturday morning, the day of their 2nd Anniversary. So the plan was to fly out of South Carolina Friday morning, touch down in Colorado Friday afternoon and prepare for their Balloon Flight on Saturday morning. He would tell MaKayla about the flight on the way on the way to Up&Away. He wouldn’t tell her about all of the confusion that happened leading up to their take off from South Carolina. Not now a least. Maybe one day. But he knew that she really didn’t care as long as they were together doing something, anything. That’s what he loved about her. Just being in her presence made him feel like he could do anything. Like he was Clark and she was Lois. They had actually dressed up as the Power Couple this past Halloween winning a couple of contests, her with her reporter gear and high heels. Him with the glasses, the hair and the suit, with the tie and shirt undone, just enough so you could see the red, yellow and blue beneath. What a night.
Their plane touched down in Colorado about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. From the airport the Ruggieros caught a shuttle to their hotel. Once they were all checked in, and in their room, MaKayla took time to freshen up. As she slipped into the restroom, Nicolas slipped down to the Front Desk to inquire about Up&Away Balloon Company. The Desk Attendant, not familiar with Up&Away, did know of Colorado Clouds. He went on and on and on about how great Colorado Clouds was. Bringing him back to his original question, Nicolas asked again, ‘So you’re sure you’ve not heard of Up&Away? It’s my understanding that it’s not far from here..?’ The Desk Attendant stared at him blankly for a few moments like he wanted to say something, but only said, ‘No, I can’t say that I have.’ This concerned Nicolas. As he walked back into their suite, he realized that MaKayla was still in the restroom freshening up. He decided to MapQuest the location and found that it was only 45 minutes away. How could the Desk Attendant of such an upscale establishment not know of this company? What had he said..? No, I can’t say that I have.’ Maybe Nicolas was becoming a bit paranoid. Reading into stuff that wasn’t really there. Or was it? He couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t right. But for the sake of MaKayla, their Anniversary and the whole trip he ignored that gut feeling he was having.
MaKayla finally stepped out of the restroom and Nicolas put his phone on the nightstand. She was more beautiful than ever. Glowing. ‘Wow, is that a new fragrance?’ Smiling, she said, ‘Why yes Sir. Just for you.’ ‘Yeah,’ responded Nicolas, ‘We’d better get outta here before things get any hotter.’ They laughed, kissed and headed out the door. They decided to have lunch there in the Hotel at Benihana’s. Neither had ever been to Benihana’s and had the best time ever. Their chef, Chef Toshi was absolutely amazing. He was a very talented Chef and had a keen sense of wit. As he prepared the Ruggieros’ meal, he congratulated them on their Anniversary, he created an ‘I Love You’ sign using chicken, rice and shrimp while cooking them on the flat grill. The Ruggieros were blown away with the talent of Chef Toshi and when MaKayla asked him, ‘So, how long have you been doing this?!’ Chef Toshi responded in his heavy Japanese accent, ‘Ohhh, since about 10am.’ With that Nicolas laughed out loud. MaKayla laughed too and it was the highlight of the trip so far. At the end of the meal preparation, the Ruggieros thanked Chef Toshi for a memorable experience and he left them to enjoy their meal.
After lunch, the Ruggieros took a stroll through the town where they stopped at several of the local shops. One of the more memorable shops, Rockinergy, was quite intriguing. Neither of the Ruggieros were into crystals, but they could both feel the vibe of this place as soon as they entered. Greeted as soon as they walked in, Nicolas and MaKayla began to look around at all of the different ‘stones’ in the room. The prices ranged from $3 to several thousands of dollars, depending on the type, strength and size of crystal you were looking to purchase. MaKayla pointed out a woman who had picked up a crystal that resembled polished wood. It was a brown oblong crystal that resembled the old school paneling used in homes back in the 70’s. As she held it, she began to rub it around in her hands and seemed to be whispering something. She also seemed to be slightly trembling. MaKayla looked over at her husband. You know witches frequent places like this. With that, Nicolas laughed, but quickly quieted down when he realized that MaKayla was serious. ‘Are you for real?’ asked Nicolas.
Looking at the woman, there was something….off… about her. She looked a bit weathered and her legs had blue veins running on the surface, just below the skin. They ran along her arms, too, and as she rubbed the crystal, they bluish purple veins seemed to … spread… The store had a total of 10 people walking around at the time. The Ruggieros thought they were doing a pretty good job of being low-key about watching the lady since they were behind her and a couple of aisles over. When she turned and stared at them, they both froze. What the heck? Had she heard them? She couldn’t have! There were at least 6 people between them and the lady, all talking and admiring crystals as well. Nicolas thought that maybe MaKayla was on to something with her observation of this lady who were no longer staring at them. But it still left them feeling a bit strange. As the lady paid for her crystal she glanced back over at the Ruggieros once more before leaving the store.
‘Do you think she had her broom parked outside?’ Nicolas asked MaKayla. ‘Nic, that’s not funny. Something was strange about that lady. You could feel it.’ ‘Yeah,’ Nicolas responded. ‘I’m glad she left.’ As they continued to browse the crystals, MaKayla became enamored with a section of crystals that seemed to come from the bottom of an ocean somewhere. Nicolas mentioned that he would be right back and went up to speak with the man behind the desk. He noticed that the gentleman had a reference book that he was allowing patrons to use to help look up specific crystals. This was big business and Nicolas was intrigued. As he looked through the book of stones, he flipped over to a picture of the crystal the strange lady purchased. Sure enough, it was a powerful crystal used for both good and evil. It was also stated that it was a go to crystal for witches and warlocks. Wow. No kidding. A witch.
This made Nicolas suspicious of everyone in Rockinergy except MaKayla. He suddenly felt the urge to grab his wife and leave, but again he felt that he might be overreacting to nothing. He confirmed what she believed about the lady and after a little more browsing, MaKayla ended up with 2 crystals. Nicolas picked up 3. They all had significant meanings and gave off positive energy according to the information provided by the Crystal Book Nicolas had thumbed through to find out about the crystal the witch bought. The most powerful one of the bunch was the BloodStone, which belonged to MaKayla. She felt she needed it after the brief encounter with the Strange Lady. Perhaps there were more like her around, so MaKayla didn’t want to take any chances. Neither of the Ruggieros were superstitious, but both agreed to watch each others backs while here in Colorado. It was a lot different than their small South Carolina town. A few more stops later and the Ruggieros headed back to their Hotel. The weather was perfect, not too hot or cold, so they decided to spend time in the Jacuzzi before retiring for the night.
Later that night, while they slept, Nicolas was awakened by a terrible dream. Drenched in sweat, he hardly ever dreamed, and couldn’t remember the last time his sleep had been disturbed in such a way. Thankfully, he realized the MaKayla was still sound asleep. Maybe it was the Moscato they shared before drifting off to sleep. Nicolas sat on the side of the bed collecting himself before he stumbled into the restroom. He washed his face for few minutes as he tried to sort out his nightmarish encounter with…? He couldn’t quite remember it all, but it was very strange and scary. He was sure it involved a hot air balloon and it falling from the sky, but couldn’t grasp the details of the dream.
The whole ordeal reminded him that he never actually got the opportunity to check out the Up&Away Company. Here he was, having nightmares hours before his Anniversary Flight, with a company he knew virtually nothing about. But to cancel everything at this point would devastate MaKayla, even though she didn’t know about the Up&Away Flight. All he could find on this company was a blog that seemed to have been created by one of the Up&Away Balloon Company’s employees. Nothing official. Just pictures of patrons before the flight. None during the flight or after. This didn’t sit well with Nicolas which he believed help lead to his nightmare. Eventually, he made his way back to the edge of the bed where he sat gathering his thoughts, until a tug at his shoulder startled him. MaKayla looked up half-asleep and asked Nicolas if he was ok. ‘Sure, Honey. It must’ve been something I ate or drank.’ With that, they both laughed and he snuggled up to her in bed. Soon she was sound asleep as he just lay there unable to drift away. He didn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night.
The alarm sounded bright and early the next morning. Nicolas rolled over, turned off his alarm, rolled over to his other side and hugged his wife. Happy Anniversary my Love! Happy Anniversary Babe! Once their early morning routines were done, the Ruggieros grabbed breakfast at the Hotel. At this point, Nicolas couldn’t hold it any longer, so he spilled the final beans about the Anniversary Surprise for the day. Overjoyed, MaKayla jumped up from her seat, hugged Nicolas and screamed, I knew it! Several nearby patrons, also enjoying breakfast, began to clap, whistle and congratulate the couple. Most thought the couple must’ve just gotten engaged. How cute. Thirty minutes later, they were waiting down in the Hotel Lobby for an Uber to take them to Up&Away Balloon Company. It made Nicolas happy to see MaKayla so full of excitement. It was clear that he’d made the BEST choice for their Anniversary Weekend. But there was also this nagging thought in the back of his mind. It started long before his nightmare last night. He would never repeat his concerns to his wife for fear that it would ruin their trip. Soon the Uber driver arrived and when Nicolas mentioned their destination, the Uber Driver admitted he’d never heard of the place. He also admitted that he was fairly new with the Uber Company. This concerned and relaxed Nicolas at the same time. It didn’t help when Nicolas asked the driver if he’d ever heard of Colorado Clouds and he said, ‘Of course!’ He typed in Up&Away and told them to prepare for a 45 minute trip. As they headed out for Up&Away, MaKayla seemed to sense her husband’s well hidden stress. ‘Are you okay, Nic?’ He nodded and responded, ‘Sure! This is the best day ever, right MaKa?’ With that they kissed and hugged.
After some time, the Uber Driver pulled up to what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse with a large faded sign, ‘Welcome to Up&Away Balloon Co. – Home of the flight you won’t soon forget!’ The parking lot only had a couple of cars and MaKayla commented something about being early. It was 8:55am and, according to the information Nicolas had received, the “Gathering Time” should be 9am. As they stepped out of the car, the Uber Driver congratulated them on their 2nd Anniversary and wished them well. Looking around the parking lot, MaKayla jokingly said something about being the only ones there for a flight and V.I.P. status, but Nicolas’ mind had started to drift. ‘Nic?’ ‘Oh sure Honey, this is our V.I.P. Day!’They walked towards the entrance when MaKayla looked over the roof and pointed. ‘Look Nic! There’s one now!’ It was just a little dot in the sky but they both clearly see it. Seeing one floating by made Nicolas feel better about the whole situation and gave a burst of excitement. MaKayla became a ball of energy. Once the made it to the entrance door, the found an arrow pointing to a button. As Nicolas pressed it, a loud buzzing sound startled both of them. Nicolas looked around and noticed several security cameras on each corner of the building. The one above the entrance door moved or followed every move the Ruggieros made. Again, Nicolas had an uneasy feeling creep across his whole body. MaKayla hadn’t noticed the cameras, or she just ignored them, determined to have a wonderful time. All of a sudden, a loud voice came through the voice box located above the buzzer, ‘State your names.’ Looking at each other, they both said, ‘We are the Ruggieros.’ Silence.
Nicolas pulled MaKayla closer to him as they waited for a response from the box. Deep down, Nicolas felt that maybe they should call the whole thing off. At the moment the voice came through the box. This time with almost too much excitement. ‘Why yes! Yes! We have been expecting you 2. Welcome to Up&Away! Please, do come in!’ The door buzzed and the Ruggieros stepped inside.
In front of them there was a long hallway. On the walls, down the length of the hallway, there were pictures of Hot Air Balloons, some in flight and others grounded. The pictures on this end of the hallway were in black and white. As they traveled down the hallway, the pictures eventually became colorful. MaKayla commented on the nice effect of the pictures. At the end of the hallway, the Ruggieros came upon an old wooden desk with an old rotary phone. There were a few disheveled papers all around the top of the desk with a few on the floor. The trashcan was overflowing with papers as well. As they both looked around the area, MaKayla noticed that there were no computers anywhere in the room.
How could they efficiently run a successful business without a computer? She looked at Nicolas and whispered… ‘So where are the computers?’ Nicolas responded, ‘Yeah, I noticed that too. Kinda strange, huh?!’ ‘Very,’ MaKayla responded. So as they continued to stand there, waiting for someone to formally greet them, the Ruggieros both began to feel an uneasiness about this place. The more they looked around, the more they noticed. There were several photos of people that had apparently taken flight here with Up&Away Balloon Co. What was strange was the fact that they were all pre-flight pics. None during or after the flight. Strange. As Nicolas continued to stare at the pictures, MaKayla wandered into a small room, to the side of where the desk was located. In there she found a line of lockers.They reminded her of the lockers that were found in schools except these were mounted on the wall and they looked very old. A large sign, posted above the lockers read: Leave ALL cell phones, cameras, knives, weapons, tobacco products in one of the provided lockers until you return from your flight. Up&Away cannot and will not be responsible for any lost or stolen items. Thank You, Management. At about the same time that MaKayla read this sign, Nicolas noticed a familiar face in one of the pictures on the wall in the office. ‘Hey MaKa, come here a sec.’ MaKayla responded, ‘No, you come here. You have got to see this to believe it.’ Since Nicolas couldn’t remember when or where he’d seen the face, he headed over to where he’d heard MaKayla’s voice. He entered the locker room and MaKayla pointed to the sign. ‘Wow. That must be some kind of joke..?!’
‘No. It’s no joke at all . . .’ Completely startled by the voice behind them, the Ruggieros spun around and MaKayla gasped. Nicolas, now remembered where he had seen the lady in the photo and MaKayla recognized her as well. She was standing right in front of them. Staring. And writing something in her hands. It was the Strange Lady they had seen yesterday in Rockinergy. It was the witch.
To be continued . . .