The creature’s eyes dart back and forth between me and Ryker, as if taking its time, contemplating who to kill first. Ryker takes advantage of its hesitation, shoving me away. “Dani, go! Run!” The command is raw and guttural, impossible to ignore.
I take off, running as fast as I can toward the school. Adrenaline rushes through my bloodstream like a bomb went off inside me. There is no thinking. I have tunnel vision. All I see is the grass in front of my feet. The door that leads to sanctuary inside the school building. All I hear is blood pounding inside my skull and the rush of air as it bursts in and out of my lungs. It’s as if I’m breathing fire.
I’m halfway there. He said he’d be right behind me. I can’t hear him. Where is he?
I risk a glance back, over my shoulder. I expected him to follow. When I look behind me, I see he’s still staring the creature down. He has a dagger in one hand and he is slowly circling the monster, waiting for it to strike.
Shit. What is he thinking? Is he trying to buy me time? I don’t need more time. I’m almost there. Worse, that thing huge, easily the size of four large men. Maybe it is, because I count eight legs sticking out of the goo.
I slow to a jog, then stop, turning completely to watch him and the creature pace one another. As Ryker did with me, with each step he’s moving just enough not to incite an immediate attack, but positioning himself for a straight shot away, toward the school’s garden.
No. Oh, God. Shit.
I know how this ends. I just saw it. There are more of them, in the garden. Waiting. An ambush. They are here to kill him. Why? Why? Why?
I sprint toward him, away from the school. Away from safety. I can’t allow him to run for the garden. More of those things are waiting. They’ll gut him. Cut him open. He’ll bleed out, blood soaking the gravel path. Just like my vision. No. No. No.
“Ryker! Run! They’re in the garden! It’s a trap! It’s a trap!”
I scream at him, my legs pumping as fast as I can make them go, faster than any track meet or workout I’ve ever run. A terrified part of me knows it’s not fast enough.
I push my muscles to their limit, trying to reach him in time. I don’t know what I can possibly do to help him against that thing, but two is better than one. It has to be. We’ll run for the woods. Anywhere but that fucking garden. Literally anywhere.
“Dani, no! Get back!”
“The garden! It’s a trap!” I sprint, my gaze dropping to the abandoned high heels shoes on the grass. The four inch points aren’t exactly one of my grandad’s shotguns, but they’re better than nothing. That thing has eyes, doesn’t it?
I’m forty meters away when the creature lunges at Ryker. He is looking at me, yelling at me to run.
My heart stops dead in my chest. I yell out a warning, but it’s too late.
I unlock the bathroom door and step out into the warm lighting of the dorm room. I stop in my tracks when I see Ryker, frozen, standing next to the undecorated desk in the corner of the room.
My cheeks flame instantly as I meet his gaze and my heart does a funny little flip in my chest. I am hyper-aware of the fact that I am totally naked beneath the towel. Check another box on the this-is-a-dream list.
If this is a dream, why does Ryker look so real? So… amazing. He’s dressed in a clean, dark gray t-shirt and faded jeans, fresh from his own shower. His hair is wet and hangs in waves, and he’s clutching a bundle of clothes in his hands that looks like it’s for me. I don’t normally go for pink, but beggars can’t be choosers.
His eyes scan me up and down, taking everything in before settling on mine again. He clears his throat and shifts his gaze away from my body. “I brought you some clean clothes. I figured they might be more comfortable than your own right now.” He places the bundle of clean clothing on the wooden desk, his cheeks bright pink. “Sorry, I thought I could—I didn’t know… I’m gonna go.”
He walks toward the door, head down, but I stop him with a hand on his wrist. “Ryker…” I swallow hard, my throat tightening with emotions. I take a hesitant step toward him. The air between us is thick, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to act. I want to reach out and touch him. I want so badly for him to wrap his arms around me and make the last hour fade away. Being alone with a boy would normally make me too nervous to speak. But being with him feels so right. Simple. Easy.
I want to burrow into his arms and pretend everything is okay. Instead, all I can manage is a nervous smile as our eyes meet again. “Thanks.”
I watch him intently as his ice-blue eyes, rimmed with gold, burn right through me. My heart races as move toward him. I know my eyes are wide and lips slightly parted. I ache to kiss him.
His muscles tense under his freshly laundered t-shirt and he takes a step back. “Dani…we can’t”
Pour an ice-cold bucket of water over me, why don’t you? I want to be cool and composed, but after the night I’ve had, I don’t have it in me. Instead, I blurt out my insecurity like an idiot. “You don’t want to?”
“I don’t want to? No. Trust me. I want to.”
My breath catches in my throat at the raw desire I hear in his voice.
“You’re in front of me, looking gorgeous, in nothing but a towel. If we start… one kiss won’t be enough.”
My cheeks burn and I tear my gaze from the heat in his eyes, look somewhere much safer, the floor. “Maybe you should go.”
Ryker nods and turns toward the door. His hand rests on the doorknob as he pauses for a moment and looks back to me with a fire in his eyes that’s difficult to ignore.
The thought of dropping the towel and doing something really stupid sends sparks down my spine. I don’t. Of course I don’t. I’m scared, nervous, and I’ve only really been kissed once. By him. I’m not ready for more than that, no matter how insistently my horny teenage body demands otherwise. One thing regular nightmares taught me, is control.
“Dress quickly. It’s time to go.”
Our eyes meet and I forget to breathe. He is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Something about him is hypnotic. My heart races so fast it’s more like a fluttering that makes me dizzy. Everything tilts, but I can’t look away. I don’t want to lose contact with him, even though I know this moment is where the vision ends; the instant life fades from his eyes. I can’t leave him to die alone.
Any second now, I will wake up from this hallucination, this nightmare, and sob because he’s gone. I didn’t know him. This isn’t real. But this feels so sad. So wrong.
I hear it then, his last, shuddering breaths, the rattling in his lungs as they fill with blood. The light in his eyes—the awareness—fades, and I am shocked at the difference between life and death. Intensity and—emptiness.
“No! Don’t leave me.” The sound of my own voice startles me. I’ve thought the words, many times. I never make a sound. I’m always trapped, locked away as an observer.
I know he won’t obey, and I can’t stand staring into his lifeless face. I’m weak, I know, but this is asking too much. Too damn much. I shudder and close my eyes, will my miserable mind to be snapped away, back to reality, where a lifetime of experience and pure logic tells me I’ll find myself slumped over on the sidewalk, or unconscious in the grass.
All of this is in my mind. An illusion.
But I can’t wake up this time. A strange jolt of energy spreads inside me, unpredictable and wild, like cracks advancing across a pristine piece of glass…except I am the thing about to shatter. My insides are as hot as a scorching sun in the desert.
Heat radiates from my gut to my hands, where they rest on his chest. I risk a peek, afraid I will see them burning.
A flash of light blinds me. I slam my eyes closed but the brilliant red-orange color chases me into the darkness.
“What is that?” I shake my head to try to clear my mind. I can’t believe this is real. I don’t want this to be real.
“I’m so sorry, Dani. Fuck!” Ryker shoves me behind him and faces off with the creature. Monster? Thing.
The moment the creature’s eyes—I assume that’s what the big, rolling, marble-like things that stick out of its head must be—lock on Ryker, it lifts onto its back two legs like a bear and makes a howling sound so resonant, the noise slams onto my head like an icepick. I cover my ears, but that is almost no help. It’s too loud. Too close. Worse, years of nightmares about creatures like this crowd into my mind like an ant swarm. So many. Too many. They drown out everything else.
These things can’t exist in the world. None of this makes any sense.
Ryker takes a step back, arm out, shoulder in front of me like a shield. He moves me with him, slowly, like he is trying to sneak away before the monster notices.
Our small step back cuts the creature’s bellowing short and it drops to all fours, staring straight at us.
“You aren’t supposed to move.” Everyone knows that. Bear up on its hind legs is trying to see its enemy. This thing looks stupid. Dumber than a bear. If its face wasn’t almost human, I wouldn’t think it had a brain at all. Like that thing in the Blob movie.
“We don’t have a choice. It just summoned its friends.”
Oh shit. “It has friends?”
One slimy shoulder lifts and slams back down as the thing moves closer. The creature looks, and smells, exactly like I remember from my dreams, like fresh meat left in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator for at least a month past its ‘use by’ date, when the raw meat has turned gray and smells like—death . Rot. Like this thing taking another lumbering step toward us.
I step back. Stumble. Grab Ryker’s shoulder to steady myself.
Fuck these high heels. And this dress. I feel like I’m a gift wrapped monster snack.
Ryker bends his arm and rotates his shoulder back so he can grab onto me. “We’re going to have to run, Dani.”
“Okay.” I kick off my shoes.
“I’ll distract it. You run back into the school.”
“What about you?”
“I’m faster than I look. I’ll lead it away.”
“But—” This is not a good plan. I hate this plan.
“I’ll be fine, right behind you. Trust me.” Ryker sounds calm as it crawls, stalking us on all fours. It is about the size of a small horse, but is shaped like it could have been a man, once upon a time. Or multiple men. It uses four limbs to walk, but I swear I see ribs, bones, fingers and feet sticking out of its body from places they shouldn’t be. “Dani?”
I try to answer, I do, but I can’t stop staring. Analyzing. Wondering why I would dream about something so disgusting. Most of its bulk isn’t covered in hair, but in wet, greyish clumps of what I can only assume used to be muscle, except none of the attachments are in the right places. This monster looks as if Dr. Frankenstein randomly sewed parts of multiple corpses together, animated it, and then let it all rot. The decaying flesh slides ever so slowly down its body and drips onto the ground in sloppy clumps. The green grass dies and turns yellow when the muck covers it, as if the creature itself is dripping acid.
Its face is a mass of twisted flesh and bone. The two eyes that stare at me from the top left side of its head are the only things on its face that looks like they belong, eyes the same dark, soulless black as the ones that belonged to the creatures from my dreams.
The one in front of me has no nose, only two holes that make it seem like a large reptile. The mouth is a gaping hole of black teeth, four rows of jawbones stacked one behind another. Its teeth are sharp and jagged. It reeks, the repugnant odor makes bile rise in my throat. The smell is so much stronger in person.
“Dani? Are you with me?”