The front porch swing pounded a tattoo on Ash's brain as he stirred against the couch. His eyes flittered open slowly as memory crashed in on him in bloody, black gouts.
He rubbed a hand across his eyes, trying to knock away the fog, his eyes crawling across every inch of the parlor as he tried to remember how he got her. In the instant it took for his eyes to clear and the world to right itself, he saw an inky shadow spread across the ceiling.
Tense, his hand came to rest against the butt of his gun, and his eyes frantically followed the pattern of shadow to a woman sitting cross-legged at the center of the floor. Slowly, Ash sat up...slowly, he approached the woman.
He'd expected it to be Linda; poor, sweet Linda, the broken china doll, the ballerina without a head. But it was his sister, looking as she had the morning they'd left Michigan, holding her shattered hand close to her breast.
"That hurt, Ash."
He felt as he had when he was a small child, "Guess a door through the hand should." He felt much as he had when they were small, and he would get down on his knees to comfort her. He reached for her but she moved away. The side of her face was visible through the foggy air, but Ash was smart enough to keep his distance. "Let me see?"
She held out her hand and he saw the livid red/puple bruising he had caused. Old hurts surfaced to haunt his mind; broken wrists from bicycling, bruised hands from fighting. Her and Cheryl had been born holding each other up, these long years gone by. "Put some ice on it," he told her. He was, he realized, always telling her that.
"I'll take some ice," her head whipped around and he saw those EYES again. "Your cold body, Ashley!"
He was, impossibly, shocked by this turn of events. Even screamed as he fell backwards...
...And then his body hit the floor.
The first thing Ash saw was Bobby Joe's hiking-boot covered feet, and then he felt someone poke him with the butt of a gun. "He's fine. Just had a nightmare."
Ash sat up and glared at the woman. "For God sakes, why didn't you wake me up?"
"Miss fancy britches said you needed to rest. She's translating the pages now. Said there might be a fight soon."
Ash's jaw squared; his eyes sharpened as he sat up. "When it happens, I'll be ready."
He had been back for some time now. Had brought her with him, too, carrying her in his mind like a precious diamond. And then next time he saw her, she was impossibly beautiful and thirty (like him, somehow, just like him).
They were sitting outside at a picnic table by the S-Mart, eating burgers with greasy fingers. She laughed at something he had said, her head falling back, back in red waves that matched his brown.
"I knew you'd get home," she said.
"'Course. We Williams ain't meant for travel."
She laughed at him - she was always laughing at them, he realized, even when they were just little kids. "I got home, too." She showed him the sleeve of her jacket, which sported patches like emblems on a Girl Scout's sash. There were red-ringed, ragged patches marked 'purgatory' and patches marked 'hell' and another marked 'heaven'.
"You know that's not true, honey. I doomed you. Doomed everybody. "
She grabbed him from across the table, wrapping her arm around his neck. "You saved us all, Ash. So you'd better get used to being a hero." She squeezed him and let go.
He woke up on his feet in aisle four, hugging a mop.
The next time there was a meadow filled with flowers. Why the hell he was dreaming of flowers Ash couldn't understand, but he found her in a clearing, younger than he'd seen her in years, with the face of a child.
When he came close, she ran away. "You love her, don't you?" she asked, running away as he approached, peeking coquettishly from behind a tree.
"Maybe," Ash said, dodging around to catch her, but Cheryl was fleet-footed in death as she had been in life. By the time he caught her, she was a girl of no more than five.
When she danced through the field. "You're gonna marry her," Cheryl said, and it wasn't a question. "You'll have lots of babies." A frown. "And I'll be gone."
"Yeah. Sucks doesn't it?" He smirked and reached out for her, picking up his sister. She squealed and laughed. "But you're here now," he exclaimed, and tickled her, like he had when she really was a child and he was a boy of nine.
She laughed and kicked until hiccupping herself into a coughing fit. With those beautiful, wide eyes of hers, she regarded him quietly. "You're gonna forget all about me, Ash."
"I promise I won't." He kissed her between the eyes. "If I have a little girl," he promised, "I'll name her after you."
"I think I'd like that," she declared, serious, Cheryl-like, and kissed him right on the nose.
When his eyes opened, he smiled.
He hated this playground at rush hour. Too many damn cars and pushcarts, and city lights blinking on and off. How the hell could he protect her when there were so many dangers trying to stalk them down?
Leaving, they made their customary beeline to the McDonalds across the street. "Hold daddy's hand," he ordered, as they stepped out onto the crosswalk under a white do-walk sign.
He never saw the redhead in the white dress until they banged into each other.
"Sorry," she muttered; Ash was stricken silent by her looks, the sharp nose and dark eyes that were his sisters. He awkwardly offered her his metal hand.
The woman smiled enigmatically as she got up assistance-free. She eyed the little girl clinging to his good hand. "What a pretty little thing. I knew she's be. See you around, Ashley."
Ash watched her leave, his jaw hanging open, until he felt a tug on his jacket pocket. "Who's the lady, daddy?"
"It was nobody you know," Ash explained. "Let's go, Cheryl."