Her porcelain face twisted into a nightmare. That smooth flesh looked ripped from her skull. Her dress was torn and tattered. I could make out leaves and twigs in her tangled hair. Where once she had been silvery light, she was replaced with shades of grey and darkness.
I did the one thing that made sense to do: I ran.
The night air was frigid and harsh in my lungs, but I ran; harder than I’ve ever run with a nightmare on my heels and no idea what lie ahead of me. It didn’t matter. Nothing could be worse than that freezing pond, that eerie light and nothing could be worse than her.
If I’d had breath left to call for Connor or Trent or Luke, I’d have yelled every step of the way. I hoped they were at the car. I hoped I was heading for the car because useless and horrible as it was with Mason’s body stuck inside, it was my only point of reference in this place.
With every step, I focused on two words: Get out. Get out. Get out. Branches and saplings, too small to see in the dark, slapped against me. They snatched at my skin, stinging my arms, my face, my legs. I stumbled and felt pain snap through my hand like fire, but I didn’t stop. I ran to the refrain on endless repeat in my mind: Get out. Get out. Come back.
I ran until my limbs were warm and the pain in my lungs was a distant, beautiful burn and I knew I’d be able to run forever if I needed to. It was the moment I craved on the court because it was the moment I knew I’d become unstoppable. I’d be able to go until the final buzzer sounded and it didn’t matter how good the other team was, I was in the zone and nothing was so exciting and so relaxing as being in that place of knowing that your body knew what to do before you did.
Come back. Come back. Come back.
With some space between me and the pond and no sound of being pursued, the forest seemed less dense than before, less dark and ominous and I moved through it with all the ease of a good offensive play. The air, though still cold, was sweet and didn’t burn my throat as it had. Still no sign of my friends or the crash, so I kept running.
I ran until the ground became soft and I found myself again standing at the edge of a pond. The same pond I’d been racing to escape with that same light hanging in the mist above it. My forgotten panic reasserted itself full force and I felt all my limbs fill with spiders and jelly. I wasn’t sure I could run again – not that it would do any good – and cast around for any sign of that woman.
It took a second for me to recognize that the shape crouched by the bank five feet to my left, was a person. Light glinted off dust colored hair and the shoulders were angular and wide. Strong as he was, his letterman jacket always made him look scrawny.
“Connor!” My shoes slipped in the mud as I sprinted to his side. His shoulder rolled beneath my grip, soft as dough. “Connor, what are you doing? We have to get out of here.”
He didn’t look up at me. His eyes remained fixed on the water; wide and confused, like he’d just dropped his cell phone in the toilet.
“It’s Trent. He found the way out.” One hand stretched toward the still water. “She showed him the way out.”
I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what he was staring at, but I turned my head anyway. I didn’t see it at first. The water was so flat and dark that all I saw was black until Connor’s fingers broke the surface and made three little holes my eyes could follow. And there, just beneath his fingertips, were Trent’s eyes – unmistakably huge and dark – looking right back up at Connor.
“Let’s go,” Connor said as if we were deciding to go to a party.
It sounded reasonable. Rational, even, which wasn’t typical for Connor, but Trent was right there, waiting for us in what was clearly the way out of here and Trent was reasonable. Trent wouldn’t do anything that didn’t make sense or benefit him in some way and there was no reason to believe this was any different. I stared down into the water and Trent’s eyes and knew that Connor was right, this was how we would leave. But where was Luke and how would he find us?
He’s coming, Alex. Her voice soothed my mind. Come this way.
As if he’d heard it too, Connor stood and prepared to jump. He looked calm and determined and very tall standing over me.
“C’mon, Captain. Get up.” He said it with a smile, the glow from the pond washing him in pale yellow and blue. I knew it was wrong, because Connor wasn’t the smiling type. He was the brooding, quick to anger type, but it seemed okay, like things were finally going to be okay. We’d found the way out.
Pressing my knuckles into the ground for support, I pushed and pain flashed through my right hand. It sailed right up my arm and straight into my head, clearing of all the mist that’d gathered there leaving only the insane reality of what we were about to do.
“Connor,” I said, sharp and low. “Back away from the pond.”
He only shook his head in response and bent his knees. We leapt at the same time, my body crashing into the side of his. I felt my shoulder connect with his ribs and then we were on the ground and Connor was spitting curses.
“Dude, you just broke my lung!” He was holding his side, but sitting and frowning, looking much more like the Connor I knew: pissed off and confused about it.
Pain. He was in pain and that was clearing his head of whatever was messing with us. I squeezed my hand, sending a fresh wave of hot knives coursing through my blood. It sent a cold shiver down my spine, but I wasn’t having thoughts of finding home at the bottom of some fathomless pond. I considered that an improvement.
“Alex.” Came the whispered voice in my ear and dread balled up in my stomach as the light coalesced over the pond. I didn’t need to look to know she stood there. Connor’s face said it all. “Alex, stay with me. I will keep you safe. I will keep you forever.”
I could feel her voice worming its way inside me and nibbling at the pain in my hand. It was starting to feel good and right. I made a fist to clear my head and thought of Trent and how he’d just worked up the nerve to ask Amanda Miller to prom and now he never would because this thing had convinced him it was safe in that pond. Armed with pain and memories, I turned to face her. She was much closer than I’d imagined and her face was pristine and enticing. But I knew what was waiting behind that façade and I didn’t want to see it again.
Beyond her, I could see now that the forest on the other side of the pond was thinner. The trees looked younger and very different from those around us now. If we could get there, past her and to the other side of the pond, I was sure we could get out of this place altogether. I was almost sure.
“We are leaving,” I said with all the authority I could dig out.
She didn’t frown. She didn’t make any expression, but I felt more than saw that she was more than a little displeased.
“Very well, Alex,” she brandished my name as if it were a weapon. “You have a choice.”
I felt the dread in my stomach expand like a star about to go supernova.
“You may leave with one of your friends.” She extended one hand to Connor, still wincing and gripping his side like it would fall apart if he didn’t. “Or you may stay here with me and your two friends may go.”
Her other arm floated up in the opposite direction and I turned to see Luke standing at the edge of the water a short distance from us.
“Alex,” he said, “Connor, I’ve found the way home.”
Up next: Part 4 by L.J. Come back next Tuesday for the final piece!
*Photo courtesy of Dia via Flickr Creative Commons
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