Remember that these chapters are only rough drafts and may change drastically before publication.
All material contained within this post is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any way without written permission from the author.
“There was no-one there.”
I shake my head. “Not even a sheet.”
“So it wasn’t some stupid prank?”
And, after that, the nightmares got worse?”
“Is it a nightmare if you aren’t asleep?” I ask.
“You didn’t know who she was. So that must have been frustrating.” His sympathy is edged with almost laughter. He doesn’t believe me. That I didn’t know her, that I saw her when I was wide awake, I don’t know which. Or maybe it’s both.
“Not then. It didn’t take long to find out, though.” I wonder if I care if he believes me. Once, I would have cared a lot. Now, though… what others think of me has become trivial. “There were more visions. More of everything. She was there when I was sleeping, a nightmare like you said. But she was also there when I was awake. She was familiar, but not, and it drove me mad, not knowing who she was or where that lake might be.”
“You found her in the end, though,” He’s watching me with careful eyes.
I shrug. “You could say that. But it would be closer to the truth to say she put a chain around my neck and led me straight to her.” I ignore the sting in my eyes. “But first, James found me.”
“Right. He left you Caroline’s picture.”
“That was his first gift,” I say. Then I pause, listening. I thought I heard something deeper in the building. A shuffling or footsteps, maybe. But all is silent. All is still. “I started to see him around, just this face in a crowd, someone that was always there, but never seen. At least, most people wouldn’t have seen him.”
“But you did.” I can tell he’s interested; he looks more attentive, now, more curious, as if this is the thing he’s been waiting to hear.
“My parents did,” I say, frowning. I’m still a little angry at them. Not for trying to protect me. That is their job. But for taking it so far. “They saw him in the parking lot when they took me grocery shopping.” I smile at his raised eyebrow. “I was not left alone. Not ever. Not if they could help it.” I am not angry. But I am still annoyed; they behaved as though I was made of glass. And, considering that they didn’t know what I was capable of or what I’d done, that was understandable. But their over-protective behavior was only bearable when nothing mattered. After I came back to myself, it grew old very quickly; almost the moment I came back from that first, desperate night run, in fact.
“My parents love me,” I whisper to the trees outside. He makes no comment. He doesn’t need to. If they’d loved me a little less, I wouldn’t be here.
Everyone with over-protective parents has a moment. Maybe it’s while they’re still young, maybe when they are older. But it is a moment that must be had if the person wants to live any kind of life. It is the moment of reckoning, of not just saying ‘I am not a child’, but proving it by turning around and walking away from the chains of restriction.
That moment is not to be mistaken for disrespect; it is simply an act of demanding that respect is given. And mine did not happen after the first run. Or the second. Or even the third. Oh, I wanted to yell at them, but I was caught, see? I was like a fly in a web, stuck between child and adult, unsure I was ready to move forward, but certain that I no longer needed coddling. I didn’t know how to respond; screaming was childish and left a person powerless while tears were equally demeaning. For my mother, I was still to be guarded like a new puppy that didn’t have the sense to stay out of the street. Yet I was no innocent. Not anymore.
It wasn’t until I found the picture that things began to crack open. But it took time. It took James to shake me loose of those last vestiges of childish reticence to disappoint my parents.
I knew the word cadaverous and had believed I knew what it meant. But James made me understand it. He wasn’t just thin or pale. There was something about him that made me think of corpses. It could have been his scraggly beard or the way his bones stuck out from his skin like sharp, awkward objects thrown into a bag without care for order. But, really, it was his eyes, sunken and glittering within the depths of his skull. It was the sort of gaze that gave you the shivers; it was a look that spoke of ghostly things, of death and mental scars so deep they cut the bone. It is the look of someone with terminal cancer two days before they die, the eyes of someone who had a gun pressed to the underside of their chin. Only someone standing with Death’s skeletal hand on their shoulder has that aura. It is the look of someone who is already dead.
“Did you find the picture first? Or James?”
I shiver. “The picture. But James left it for me. He knew where I was. He’d known for a very long time.”
“So he left the photo for you. The girl on the dock.”
I look hard at him, mouth tight. “Caroline on the dock,” I say. I take a small pleasure in the way he flinches from the sound of her name. Guilt or fear, I cannot tell; her name has a way of drawing her. But she is already here. And we both know she doesn’t care if he believes in her or not.
“That’s just what he called it,” he says, leaning back, fingers tracing the lines of the gun. “The original is probably worth a fortune.”
I shrug and don’t comment; the picture left in those woods for me was not the original. Not really. Because the real art came later. After she was gone. “It’s just a picture.” But it isn’t. Not really. And it isn’t just some piece of art, either. It was the beginning of something and the girl in the picture didn’t know where it would end anymore than the boy taking it.
“You found it in the woods?” he prompts me.
I nod. “Pinned to a tree.” I can smell the rain coming over the mountain. It reminds me of that day; spring had come suddenly, as it had a tendency to do, sweeping in on a singular night, rain and wind, thunder and rage. The morning dawned with golden sun streaming, butter soft, over the trees, turning clinging raindrops to diamonds, filling the air with the rich, deep scent of earth.
Dad was waiting for me in the kitchen. There were lines around his eyes that I was certain weren’t there before Roxy and the nightmare that followed. His smile was strained and a little guilty; he knew I didn’t need watching. “Thought I’d go out with you, Ladybug.” I raised an eyebrow. Dad wasn’t unfit, not by miles. But he was not a runner and never had been. I knew instantly this was Mom’s idea. Her way of trying to keep me safe.
“In those?” I waved a hand at his sneakers; they were once white, but time had turned them dingy gray and they looked as if the fist hill might leave them in tatters.
“I know they aren’t fancy, like yours, but they’ve got a lot of miles on them and they are nice and broke in,” he said.
I snorted. “I can see that.”
He grabbed at his chest in mock pain. “Breaking my heart, kid,” he said and, just for a second, everything was okay. There was no Daniel, no Roxy, no dead boys. It was just me and Dad, making jokes and being normal. Maybe that was my chance, the universe offering me a door back to a life that was not haunted. Or maybe it was just giving me a comforting pat before the lights out punch. Maybe I could have went into the living room with the Twinkies Mom kept stashed in the cabinet above the stove, sat down with the T.V. and proceeded to slip back into the life I’d had before Roxy. But I don’t think so; she was already there. She’d found me. And she wanted Blood. Mine or theirs, I don’t think it mattered.
We went out into the forest. I was still a little out of shape, but I still had some stamina. Enough that I found myself looking back and realizing I’d left my father behind more than once. I would take those moments to walk, cool off, stretch. I made a game of it; I still had so much anger inside me. At Roxy, for leaving me behind, at myself for not trying harder to stay with her, at Daniel for not doing a better job of killing me. I could see how easy it would be to let that spill out and drown my family. I didn’t want that. They were just trying to take care of me.
It was during one of the breaks that I saw it. A flicker of movement off in the woods. At first, I didn’t think anything of it; just a deer or a bird diving in and out of the forest. But then it happened again, a flash of blood red in the dim. My stomach tightened. I could hear my father, shuffling feet scattering stones, heaving for breath as he struggled up the hill. I suddenly realized how far we’d come. How far we were from help. A nasty little titter came from my left. I swung, but there was nothing there. “Want to play a game?” The voice was light. Childish. But not a child. More like an adult woman mimicking a child. Something hot and painful flashed through me, but ti twas gone before I could understand it. Anger? Shame? I still don’t know.
“Who’s there?” I hissed. I didn’t expect an answer. The forest had gone silent and still. I saw another flash of red. A cruel laugh was punctuated by a flash of red, closer this time. Someone in a sheet darting from tree to tree? I could hear Dad and I knew he couldn’t be here. I might want to believe spirits had not real power, that it was all my imagination but I remembered to well the mug of hot coffee, broken pottery, blood. I saw another flash of red and I swallowed hard.
“Tag, you’re it,” I managed to say. And I started to run.
This was not gentle stride. It was a sprint. I knew I couldn’t keep it up for long, but I needed to get this thing, whatever it might be, away from my dad where it couldn’t use him as part of the game.
I fled down confused, twisting paths, turning away from movement in the woods, from sharp, mean giggles, and breaths of cold air that felt like the sweep of reaching hands just missing me. Every time I tried to pause and catch my breath, something would begin brushing up against my hair and face, something cold, wet, and horribly soft, like fingers too long in the water.
At a crossroads, I was driven one way by a flash of something running down the path, toward me and, at another, driven again by sharp, unkind laughter. I ran until I was gasping, until it felt as thought my heart would burst, until, at last, I fell to my knees, oblivious to the gravel digging into my hands and knees. My phone began to ring, but before I could answer, Dad’s caller ID vanished from the screen and my music app popped up. Sweet Caroline, a song I knew I did not have, began to play. But the words kept fading in and out, running together in an eerie hell version of the song.
“Eva,” the pained, whispered gasp of my name, the sort of thing I’d always imagined coming from Roxy in her last seconds, echoed out of the air. A plea. A warning. Damnation. Then a giggle. I jerked away, clawing up the trunk of the nearest tree; I’d discovered not just a need to live, but fear of this unknown thing hunting me. Roxy had been mad, but she had still loved me in a way. This felt like pure hatred.
A soft, wet whisper in my ear. “Olly, Olly Oxen free.” I spun to face hands that caressed my hair and found myself looking at a picture. The picture. It had been pinned into a bit of sun which fell perfectly upon it, a beam that would not have been there ten minutes before or ten minutes after. Even then, he could not deny the artist within him.
With trembling fingers, I reached out and touched the smooth face of the photo. “Hello?” I called. I was already reaching for the small, but very sharp blade I had hidden under my running shorts, safe against my left hip despite my many frantic turns and the rough collapse in the center of the path. I heard no answer. Just the silence.
I pulled the picture to me. It was old enough to have been taken with a real camera, the girl smiling softly at whoever held it. Just as her vision, she was beautiful in her soft way and the lake behind the color of moonless midnight. I turned the picture over and saw the line written there in dark, flaking red-brown. Come play with me, Eva.” I whispered the words and, all around me, the woods were suddenly full of birdsong and light.