Sara Codair © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“They don’t like the sunlight, but that doesn’t mean they won’t venture out in it. Demons aren’t like Stoker’s vampires or anything else you read about in civilian novels. Even the Bible isn’t accurate when describing the denizens of Heaven and Hell.”
-A letter from Gertrude Bearclaw to Genevieve Evanstar, 21 Jan 1921, archived in the Vault under St. Patrick’s Church in South Portland, Maine
The cold March air burned my lungs and my legs itched as I sprinted by boarded-up beach houses. Mel may have turned our warm-up into a race, but she was not going to win it. Grinning, I ran harder in an attempt to close the space between us. Despite my efforts, her footsteps grew softer and the ones behind me grew louder.
I glanced over my shoulder. The man behind me was closer. Steam rose from his pale nose as it peeked out from under the black hoodie. I shuddered. It wasn’t unusual to see another runner follow us around two turns, but this one had followed me around five.
I sucked in the icy air as I crossed a bridge. The metal grates groaned under our feet. Water rushed below, blanketing brown muck with blue, breathing color and life into the field of dead marsh grass. Mel was so far down the winding road I could barely make out her short, muscular form.
I glanced at my phone. It was dead. Mel was too far ahead to hear me yell, and there was no one else around. I wasn’t exactly defenseless, but I was tired and hadn’t been in a real fight in almost two years.
Still, a small deplorable part of me hoped the man would catch up and he’d want to hurt me. I imagined myself ducking as he reached out to grab me. I’d jam my elbow up into his stomach and crush his face with my knee. I almost heard his jawbone crack, saw the shock in his eyes, and felt the pure bliss of adrenaline coursing through my body. I’d win. He’d end up hospitalized or worse, in the morgue. The last time I was forced to defend myself against someone who wanted to hurt me, Mel had to pull me off his unconscious body. The ghost of the rage, the rush and the guilt made my stomach churn.
I was a monster.
I couldn’t let this man catch up to me. It was too dangerous for him.
My calves cramped. My side felt like a knife was jabbing into it. Mel vanished around a bend. I growled. She was shorter than me and worked out more, but she was my cousin—the daughter of my late father’s twin sister—not some kind of professional athlete. If she could go that fast, then so could I. A few seconds later, I rounded the same bend. Our finish line, the gate for Foster Park, came into sight.
Picking up more speed, I closed the distance between me and the run-down guard shack. Mel got to it first and jogged in place, facing me until I arrived. I glanced over my shoulder and didn’t see the man. Relieved, I nearly toppled over, gasping for air with my hands on my knees.
“Erin, you need to cool down before you stop.” Mel wasn’t even out of breath, and she had a smug smile on her perfect pink lips. I didn’t see a drop of sweat on her face. Her gray spandex was dry; mine had soaked through my base layer to my baggy T-shirt.
I stood up straight, filling my aching lungs with big gulps of air as I looked around again. An iridescent blackbird leaped from a leafless maple with its wings slowly flapping as it flew across the path in front of us, but the man was nowhere in sight. “What was our time?”
“I didn’t have my timer on.” Mel walked down the dirt road.
“I really want to know how fast I went.” Every part of my body throbbed as I moved. The bare birch branches around us were filled with warbling blackbirds; their screeches needled my eardrums.
“Not fast enough,” snapped Mel. Her voice hurt more than the birds.
“You can do better. How is school going?”
“Mel, I don’t think I have ever run that fast in my life.”
“How is school going?”
I glared at her.
“How is school going?” she asked for the third time.
Shivering, I scratched my neck. “My teachers are determined to dispel the myth that senior year is easy by piling on hours and hours of homework. It takes forever without ADHD meds.”
Mel frowned. “You thinking of going back on them?”
“We’ll see how I do on my English test tomorrow. I don’t want any of my college acceptances getting revoked.”
“What does your mom think?” Mel’s frown made deep crevices in her usually smooth forehead.
“Mom and the doctors want me to try a different kind. I think they forgot I took that in middle school and it made me equally sick.”
“Both drugs stop your dreams,” muttered Mel, staring at the gravel.
“And how is that a bad thing?”
Heavy silence hung between us as we approached our Jeeps. Hers was an orange Wrangler with a soft top, a spotless paint job, and a lift kit. My ancient Cherokee resembled the offspring of hers and a station wagon, pockmarked with battle scars from shopping carts and telephone poles. She opened her door, took out two water bottles, and handed one to me. “Are you still dreaming every night?”
“Yeah.” I drank half my bottle in one long gulp.
“Did you try my suggestion?”
The Thursday before, Mel had told me to try focusing on one thing before I went to bed, so instead of dreaming of burning cities, gory battles, and apocalyptic storms, I would only dream about that one—hopefully more pleasant—thing.
“Did it work?”
“Sort of. Did you bring the sabers?” The whole purpose of the meeting wasn’t so much the run but the subsequent sparring match. Since I hadn’t found a good Kendo dojo in Portland, Mel was my only sparring partner.
“Of course.” She pulled two bamboo practice swords out of her Jeep and handed one to me. “What does ‘sort of’ mean?”
“I focused on a person. The dreams stayed chaotic, but that person was in all of them.”
Mel smirked as we walked across the grassy hill leading down to the pebble beach. “Which boy did you focus on?”
“I didn’t say boy.”
Mel arched her eyebrows. “I’m pretty confident we can rule out all the girls at St. Pat’s. Who was it?”
“José.” My cheeks burned.
Mel barked out a laugh that was simultaneously musical and abrupt as she stepped onto the beach. “And what did you dream about the boy who you won’t admit you’re in love with?”
“We’re friends. I’m not in love with him.” I stopped walking, leaned my sword against a rock, and stretched.
“Tell me what you dreamed.”
I watched rippled waves roll onto the black and gray stones. Once wet, they glistened in the afternoon sun. Two cormorants floated around the jetty while seagulls perched on the rocks. Looking up, I stared toward the sun without blinking and imagined my eyes drinking in its warmth. It made them water, but my face relaxed.
When I couldn’t take the light anymore, I turned my attention to a splashing at the end of the jetty. Minnows leaped out of the water followed by the stripers that were trying to eat them. Suddenly, a humanoid head covered in Irish moss burst from the surface, devouring a striper in one bite. I stumbled backward. A green tail flickered where the head had been, spraying water at the gulls. The head leaped back up and lunged toward the cormorant, sinking its fangs into black feathers and pulling the bird below the water.
“Holy Shit! Mel, did you see that?”
When she didn’t answer, I turned my head and jumped a mile backward. She was completely engulfed in brilliant light that burned my eyes like the sun had. My feet landed on slippery seaweed, and this time, I did fall. I’d seen some weird things lately, but this surpassed them all.
“Erin, are you okay?” She reached out with a glowing hand, but I didn’t touch it, afraid it would burn my skin right off.
“Why are you breathing so hard?” Mel’s head tilted. Her eyes were maelstroms of grass green and sky blue.
I wanted to tell her that she was wrong, but I choked on every breath. I couldn’t speak. This was weirder than the Pixies that perched in the trees near my house and pruned the bushes at school. It was more terrifying than the Mermaid I had just seen. Those had been straight out of Grandpa’s stories and I vaguely remembered seeing them as a child. Mel had never been in Grandpa’s stories, and I had never seen her glow.
“Erin, what are you staring at?” She crouched next to me. Her eyes seemed to see straight into my soul.
“I’m staring at you.” The words were quick as quick as my racing heart, sharper than the rocks cutting into my hands.
“Why?” Her hair floated around her head, wriggling like a halo of eels.
“I don’t know how your hair stays so neat while you work out.” While part of me was desperate to confide in someone, I knew it couldn’t be Mel. She had only ever kept one secret for me. Otherwise, she was a total snitch. Sophomore year of high school, I had discovered that cutting soothed me better than punching things. I told Mel and she told my mom. I doubt I would’ve broken the habit if Mel had stayed quiet, but this was different. Seeing Pixies didn’t hurt me. Still, if she thought I was developing some new mental disorder, she’d tell. I’d recently stopped taking a bunch of medications because they made me sick to my stomach and dizzy. I wasn’t ready to try something stronger. What if I was allergic? What if the side effects were worse?
I know you’re not hallucinating whispered a quiet voice in my head. The stories are all real. Your illness is real. There is a reason the side effects were so bad. It sounded like Mel, but I didn’t see her lips move. I shuddered. If I was hearing voices, then maybe I was getting sicker.
Mel sighed and plopped down next to me with enough force to scatter pebbles and send a plume of dust into the air. She cradled her head in her hands. “Are you going to tell me what you dreamed?”
I stared at the jetty. The surviving cormorant was on the rocks, with its oily wings spread out to dry in the wind. All that remained of its companion were a few floating feathers.
“Erin, I asked you a question.” Mel’s voice was painfully loud.
I took a deep breath. Perhaps talking about something else might make me feel more normal. “I watched José argue with his dad. It got physical; Dr. Estrella broke José’s nose. I saw José dump Jenny via text message. Then things got weird. José fought this white thing that kind of looked like a skinny orc. First, it was in a parking garage then it was on a big dark field. I was fighting monsters too. José and I watched a city burn. We made out…”
The right half of Mel’s lips curved up. “I see. And did anything from the dreams repeat night after night? Or happen in real life?”
“Nothing happened in real life, but the battle was in all of the dreams, and the parking garage part repeated until I figured out how to make José survive it. The kissy stuff was in a lot of the dreams too.” My shoulders tensed and my hands balled into fists. I enjoyed the kissy parts, but sometimes, they were scarier than the monsters.
“Let me know if anything from the dreams does actually happen, even if it’s not exactly the same as the dream.” Mel put a hand on my shoulder and rubbed until the tightness drained from my muscles. She giggled. “You should totally ask José out after he breaks up with Jenny.”
“Bad idea.” Just because I dreamed the answers to my math quiz and predicted which colleges my friend Sam got accepted to didn’t mean my dreams were premonitions. My subconscious was probably working through things my conscious mind couldn’t focus on. My unconscious mind was very attracted to José and his secrets. Of course, I dreamed doing stuff with him. Unfortunately, my conscious mind knew he never stayed with the same person for more than a couple months and that he liked to “hit a home run” before he dumped them. It wasn’t worth risking our friendship.
Mel chuckled then said, “The color of your cheeks tells a different story.”
“He was kind of flirting with me today.” I glanced at her. The glowing was gone. Her hazel eyes were back to normal.
Her giggles turned to full-blown laughter. “What did he do?”
“Played with my hair in front of Jenny. She almost shoved us into a locker. .”
“Boys aren’t the brightest creatures on the planet,” said Mel.
“Humans, in general, aren’t so bright,” I muttered. José’s gender had nothing to do with his stupidity. Boys, girls, and people like me, who never identified as a boy or a girl, could be equally stupid.
“Are you ready to spar?” Mel smiled, showing her perfectly white teeth. Without the blinding light, I saw muscles bulging under her spandex. She was barely five feet tall, but she could bench press me if she wanted to.
Mel touched her phone, making movie theme songs play. We stood, grabbed our swords, and bowed. We touched the tips together then stepped backward. I barely had time to block before her weapon swiped toward my neck. Shock waves traveled from the bamboo to my shoulder. Mel wasn’t holding back; I wouldn’t either. I smiled. My sword whipped toward her throat. She batted it aside like a cat did a fly and was on to her next attack.
The dance went on as more music played. Our feet moved in rhythm while we swung, parried, stabbed, and blocked. The longer we danced, the faster she got. Her sword was a blurred extension of her hand. I struggled to keep up, but I relished the challenge. The swift movements, burning muscles, and threat of blows made me feel more alive and focused than anything else.
After three tracks, she whacked my leg and thunked my shoulder. The sharp ache was lighter fluid on a campfire. I growled, swinging faster and harder. She matched my pace. My Shinai didn’t touch her. Pebbles shifted under my feet, making it harder to balance. I stepped on a slimy strip of kelp and wobbled. Mel never lost her footing. By the fifth song, my arms were burning. Her next jab was aimed at my heart. When I parried, my sword flew out of my hand.
“Dead,” she said with the tip of hers touching my chest.
Panting, I dramatically fell to the pebbles and sand. I twitched a few times and lay still. Mel made choking laugh sounds that reminded me of bells in a storm. I opened one eye, saw hers were closed, swung my legs at her feet so she fell, grabbed a piece of seaweed, and stuffed it down her shirt. She squealed, rolling until she had me pinned, and smeared the seaweed in my face. We grappled until we were both on our backs in a fit of uncontrollable laughter, staring up at a sky full of towering cumulous clouds that morphed into angelic shapes whenever I went too long without blinking.
“You don’t practice enough. I shouldn’t be able to beat you so easily,” said Mel.
I stood up and stretched. The sun was starting to get low, bathing everything in golden light. Behind us, muddy grass stretched back to the ruins of stone forts and the gravel lot our Jeeps were in. They were still the only cars, but there was another person in the park now. He leaned against a cracked concrete wall. Baggy black sweats hid most of his body, but they didn’t hide his beaky nose. “I wonder how long that man has been watching us. He was behind me while we were running but disappeared when we got to the gate.”
I glanced over at Mel when I didn’t get a response. She was staring at the man with her eyes narrowed and her hands hovering over her hips. The cross hilt of a medieval sword faded in and out of my vision, just under her hand. Her shoulders were tense, and her teeth were bared. A halo of white flames surrounded her head but dissolved after I blinked a few times. “Mel? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Let’s get out of here. I’m starving.” She exhaled slowly, gathered our practice swords, and walked over to me without taking her eyes off the man. She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me close, placing herself between the creep and me. Her grip tightened as we passed him.
“Mel, my water is still on the beach.”
“Forget it. Let’s get to the Clam Hut.” She practically pushed me into the car and didn’t get into her own until my door was shut and my key was in the ignition.