Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
The world is muted around her.
A flash of lightning chased by a crash of thunder, a deafening crack that echoes off the canyon walls like a twenty-one gun salute. Sheets of rain, drops the size of quarters pelting metal surfaces in every direction, the persistent thrum building to a roar. Blades buzzing and belts whirring, screeching while the sparks fly, metal yawning as is it twists and buckles and folds. A motor hums, men shout, radios chirp static in her ear.
Nicole hears none of it.
Nothing but the constant tick, tick, tick, tick as the lights spin, painting pale skin in a dizzying cycle.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
“It’s time, Haught.”
Water drips from the brim of her hat. From her hair. From her ears. From the end of her nose and her chin.
Her entire body is completely numb, but she doesn’t know if it’s from the cold or the shock. Her teeth are chattering and her eyes burn, her vision bleary from the wind and the rain and her stubborn refusal to blink.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
“Haught.” The voice is gentler this time. Closer. There’s pressure on her shoulder. “You have to let her go now.”
It’s the first time she’s spoken in over an hour, and despite the fact that she’s waterlogged through and through, her throat is dry and scratchy, her voice cracking, thick and raspy and full of distress.
The only thing that keeps her in the present is the weight in her hands, cold and solid and heavy. It’s the eye of her hurricane, the chaos around her fading away as her focus narrows in on the death grip she maintains.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
She feels a sudden warmth wrap around her deadened fingers, gently prying them loose one at a time, stiff and aching and cracking with the movement. An arm around her waist pulls her backward and she feels like the world is tilting beneath her feet. Her head spins and she falls to her knees, her stomach emptying violently.
The hands are back, on her shoulders, hauling her to her feet. She sees the last of the metal pried away and then the men swarm in, lifting the lifeless body.
A stretcher. A sheet. Straps and buckles and wheels.
And then it’s gone.
Loaded up and whisked away and already forgotten by the ones still busy with their trucks and tarps and tools. She watches the lights fade in the distance while the others continue to illuminate her face.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
“Let’s get you home, Haught.”
“I… I can…”
“No. You can’t.”
She wants to argue. To resist. But her limbs aren’t listening to her and she feels herself being herded into the SUV.
“M-my c-cruiser…” Her entire body is shaking, distorting the words as she forces them out.
“Stanton will take care of it.”
His voice carries a tone of finality, and she sinks back into the seat, her ears still ringing. He closes the door and makes his way around to the driver’s side. The lights continue to spin, the tick, tick, tick, tick deafening inside the cab of the vehicle.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
He cranks the heat up as they pull away, but the silence and the hot air and the enclosed space are stifling and she has to roll the window down to keep from getting sick again. The wind whips through the cab and the rain pelts her in the face, but he allows it, slipping his phone out to send a message when they stop at the intersection before turning onto the main highway that leads back into town.
She just stares at her hands.
Red blood and blue fingertips.
It’s raining again.
Water droplets beat a steady rhythm into her scalp. Her shoulders. Her back. The feeling starts slowly returning to her extremities, and it burns uncomfortably, a thousand tiny flames licking beneath her skin. As she begins to thaw, a fleeting thought makes her wonder if she might just melt, dissolving entirely and washing away with the warm water that rolls off of her in waves.
The rain is so warm.
Nicole flinches, startled.
She turns too quickly and stumbles on the slick surface, getting a face full of spray.
“Shhh… It’s okay. Shhh…”
The words bounce around the tiles, echoing in her ears. Firm hands steady her when she slips again, pushing the hair that’s now plastered to her face out of her eyes and behind her ears. She shivers at the gentle touch despite the hot water and the steam that seeps into her chilled skin.
She tries to gulp down a deep breath of air, but it’s thick and damp and heavy and her lungs refuse, contracting while she gasps. The panic sets in, confusion and fear rising within her to match her heart rate. She can’t breathe and she doesn’t know where she is and she—
“Nicole.” Hands cradle her face, soft and sure and solid against her cheeks. “Look at me. Look at me.”
Her lungs burn and her chest heaves, but her eyes finally focus. There. In front of her. Soft, searching eyes and a brow etched deeply with concern.
“Breathe, baby.” One of the hands slides down from her cheek. Over her shoulder. Around to her back. Waverly steps closer and begins to rub circles on her wet skin. “Just take a breath.”
Nicole feels lightheaded, like she’s floating three feet above her body, watching everything happen, but she finally manages to draw a lungful of air and blow it back out slowly.
And then again.
It’s not raining. She’s in the shower.
She’s in the shower and Waverly is with her and the blood that was on her hands is gone.
“Good. That’s good.”
Waverly’s voice is soft. Calm. Soothing. She smells like springtime, fresh and clean.
Nicole looks down at her own body and sees a few remaining suds. She’s fresh and clean, too. Not ragged and sweaty and caked with mud like before.
She doesn’t know when that happened.
Waverly ushers her out of the shower and carefully dries her off.
She doesn’t know how she got here.
She doesn’t care.
Sirens and chainsaws and screeching metal. But all she can hear is the muffled gurgling noise. A choked voice calling to her.
She jerks and her eyes snap open, a dim light flashing in the darkness. Fear grips her. Wraps its icy fingers around her heart and squeezes a sob right out of her chest.
The voice calls her name again, but it’s different this time. Closer. Stronger. Her face is pressed against something warm and soft. A featherlight touch strokes across her forehead, drawing forth an involuntary whimper.
“Nicole. Hey. Shhh...”
Her eyes begin to adjust to the dim light. She’s on her couch. In her pajamas. Sweatpants and her old academy hoodie. Fuzzy socks. There’s a blanket across her legs. Her body feels warm even though her blood is running cold.
“It’s okay, baby. I’ve got you.”
Her head is resting on Waverly’s thigh, cheek rubbing against the soft flannel. Fingers thread through her hair, gently massaging her scalp. The television continues to flicker in the corner, the faint glow casting shadows across the room. Ghosts dance along the walls, just like the ones in her head.
“Her name was Dana.” Her throat is raw, gravel and sand. She can hear it in her voice, detached and mechanical. Deeper than it should be. “Dana Kline.”
The fingers in her hair don’t stop, but Waverly’s other hand reaches down to find Nicole’s, gripping it tightly. An anchor in the storm. Grounding her to this moment while she relives the past.
“This is Haught. Go ahead, Ruthie.”
“Got a single vehicle 10-50. Canyon Creek Road. Tree vs. car. RP still on the line. EMS dispatched.”
“10-4 Ruthie. I’m en route. ETA fifteen minutes.”
“Better make it ten, Haught. Sounds bad.”
“10-4.” She flips on her lights and sirens and floors it.
“Go ahead, Ruthie.”
“The roads are getting bad out there. Be careful, will ya?”
“You know me, Ruthie.”
“Yeah. That’s the problem.”
“It was so bad.” She stares at a point on the bookshelf, but doesn’t actually see it. “Worse than I’ve ever seen.”
“Mark me 10-23, Ruthie.”
“I lost contact with the caller. Status report?”
“I’m getting out of my car now. Will advise.”
Nicole pulls her jacket tighter against the rain as she inches closer to the large tree completely blocking the road. There’s debris strewn across the pavement. Twigs and leaves. Splintered branches. Rocks and mud.
She feels something crunching beneath her boot, and when she crouches to examine it, she realizes there are slivers of colored plastic and shards of glass scattered around the area. She picks her way through the limbs jutting out at awkward angles until she reaches the trunk itself. Leaning over it for a better look, the air is stolen from her lungs by what she sees.
Nicole scrambles over the fallen tree, ripping a hole in her pant leg in the process, and skids to a stop next to a twisted hunk of metal and glass. The trunk is resting across the hood and partially up the windshield. The front half the car has been smashed almost flat.
“Oh, my god…” she breathes again.
There, in the driver seat, is a pale figure pinned in by the steering column, slumped forward against the steering wheel. Her hair is matted to the side of her face, caked with blood, her lower body completely crushed beneath the tree that has ripped through the front half of the car.
“Ruthie,” she rasps, fumbling with her shoulder mic.
“Go ahead, Haught.”
The door is bent at a funny angle and she can’t pry it open, but the window is busted out and that’s enough for her to reach in and check for a pulse.
“Haught. What is it?”
It’s faint and thready, but she finds it on the third try. The woman stirs, leaning back in her seat, her shallow breath rattling in her lungs.
“Haught! Answer me, dammit!”
“Ruthie…” she whispers into her mic again. “Send… send everyone.”
“She was in shock.” She tastes salt and realizes her cheeks are wet. “It’s a miracle she was even still conscious.”
“I’m here.” Nicole reaches through the window and takes the woman’s hand. “Can you hear me?”
The woman grunts softly, but manages to squeeze her hand weakly in acknowledgement.
“Can you tell me your name?”
She turns her head slightly to face Nicole, and she can see the deep gash above her eye. The woman is young. Can’t be much more than twenty-five. There’s a baby blanket in the passenger seat and a diaper bag in the floorboard and Nicole’s instincts kick into overdrive, fueled by the dread settling into the pit of her stomach.
“Hi, Dana. I’m Nicole.” She tries to keep her voice even. Steady. But it ripples like the puddles of rain beneath her boots. “Was anyone else in the car with you?”
Nicole leans further in the window, eyes scanning the rest of the vehicle for any sort of evidence to the contrary.
Dana tries to squeeze her hand, but it’s barely more than a twitch. Nicole tightens her grip.
“H-he’s at m-my—” She coughs heavily, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. “My m-mother’s.”
“Good. That’s good,” Nicole says, her voice breaking. “What’s his name?”
“I tried to keep her talking.” Waverly is still holding one of her hands, but the other reaches up and clings to her pant leg next to her face, the fabric damp beneath her fingers. “They were coming, but they weren’t fast enough. They took too long. She didn’t… There wasn’t enough time.”
Sirens wail and lights flash and the deafening buzz of the fire truck’s horn splits the air of the canyon. The rain picks up and dulls everything beneath the constant rumble, muting the voices of the first responders swarming the scene.
Nicole learns Dana is a teacher. Second grade. The kids call her Mrs. Kline and draw pictures for her to hang on her refrigerator. She keeps every last one of them.
The paramedics try to move Nicole out of the way, but she refuses, so they work around her. They start an IV. Dress the wound on Dana’s forehead. Splint her other wrist, limp and purple and swollen.
The firemen set to work on the tree, stripping away its limbs and branches before laying into the trunk, slowly removing it piece by piece. Others begin peeling back metal panels like the lid on a tin of sardines, trying to find a way to retract the front half of the vehicle and jack up the steering column from where it had collapsed.
They say the tree was dead and mostly rotten. That it was only a matter of time before it gave way. That the three straight days of rain had softened the earth so much that it never stood a chance.
It wasn’t the only one.
“I don’t think any of it mattered, though,” she whispers, still staring unfocused into the darkness. “Catastrophic, I heard one of them say. Her injuries were catastrophic, and the shock and adrenaline were wearing off.”
“I’m here,” she says quickly, crouching lower to bring her face down even with the window.
“I’m s-scared.” Her eyes are closed. Her voice faint. She’s fading fast. “D-don’t want to b-be alone.”
“You’re not alone, Dana. I’m here,” she chokes out. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She covers both of their hands with her other one, squeezing tightly.
“N… N-Ni… c-cole…”
“I promise.” Her tears mix with the rain streaking down her face.
Dana finally lets go.
Nicole never does.
She breaks down against Waverly’s thigh, her entire body heaving. Both of her arms are drawn up around Waverly’s waist now, clinging for dear life as she is wracked with sobs, unable to stem the tide any longer. Waverly runs one hand up and down her back while the other continues to stroke the hair out of her face.
“I couldn’t save her, Waverly,” she whimpers.
They fight monsters. Literal, actual monsters. On a daily basis. They slay witches and exorcise demons and send the risen dead back to hell.
But today had thrown her a curveball. No bad guy. No lurking evil. No clear cut villain to hunt down and punish.
And a reminder of how fragile it really is.
“I failed her.” God, how she had failed.
“You didn’t fail her, baby.”
Waverly’s voice is soft. Gentle. It makes it a thousand times worse.
“Don’t,” Nicole snaps, sitting up. “Don’t do that. Don’t give me an ‘I promise you did your best’ speech.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Waverly says, showing no recoil from the harsh tone. She reaches out and cups Nicole’s tear-stained cheek. “All I was going to say was that she wasn’t alone. You didn’t let her die alone, and that matters, Nicole.”
“I just… I can’t…” She breaks down again, her emotions continuing to pour out.
“I know. It’s okay.” Waverly shifts on the couch, spreading her legs and opening her arms. “C’mere.”
Nicole hesitates, but Waverly draws her in, holding her tightly against her chest.
She cries for what feels like hours. Until her lungs burn and her body aches and her eyes are nearly swollen shut. But Waverly never once lets her go. She is still wrapped securely in her arms, her face tucked into Waverly’s neck, a continuous stream of calming whispers ghosting against her ear.
“What if I can’t keep doing this, Waverly?” she finally croaks, sniffling as she fists her hands into Waverly’s sweatshirt. “I looked into the darkness today, and it stared right back at me without blinking.”
“I know it feels like that right now, baby. But this isn’t the time to make that kind of a decision.” Waverly tightens her hold around Nicole when she stiffens slightly in her arms. “But if, after you’ve given it some time and really thought about it, you still want to give it up, I’ll support your decision,” she says, pressing a kiss to Nicole’s forehead. “There’s just one thing you should know first.”
“What’s that?” Nicole asks, tilting her face up to look Waverly in the eye.
“I’m not afraid of the dark. And I’ll always be here to walk through it with you.”