She’s in the woods.
Not just any woods; the woods, The Sam Woods, on the outskirts of campus – and she’s running. Running for her life, as fast as she can, faster than she’d known she could. She doesn’t know how long she’s been at this, but the muscles in her legs burn and ache, and her breathing is ragged, and she’s lost her way, gone off the path, turned around from whatever direction she’d been heading in before. Not that she’d been heading in any particular direction.
She doesn’t know. Doesn’t know why she’s running, or where; she only knows that she has to, that something’s chasing her, and somehow, in her bones, she has the sense that it’s more of a someone than a something, growing closer by the second.
They’re close. Getting closer, just a breath away, right behind her.
It’s almost too dark to see, the silver moonlight filtering down through the branches of the trees and barely lighting her way. The only sounds she can hear are the crunching of leaves beneath her feet and her own gasping, frantic pants. She’s been running so long that every breath she sucks in feels heavy and hot, like lava in her lungs. The air is cool around her, thick with rain and the smell of dirt and lighter fluid and smoke – God, the smoke… It’s almost suffocating in its intensity, though there isn’t a fire in sight.
She’s heading towards a clearing in the distance, staggering and stumbling around bushes and vaulting over branches. Darkness seems to slither towards her from every angle, boxing her in, and all she can think to do is run, run, run, but somehow, no matter how fast she runs, she knows she hasn’t moved an inch. The clearing keeps getting farther and farther away the closer she gets. There’re faces in the trees, now; ones that look vaguely familiar, but they’re blurred beyond recognition, and she can’t quite make them out. There’s whispering, too, hushed tones that wash over the otherwise silent forest, swarming around her, until finally she clamps her hands over her ears to block them out and slows her pace. And then-
Something catches her foot.
And it ends how every chase scene in the movies does: she trips, flying forward and feeling her ankle give a sickening pop out of its socket, and landing in a pile of damp leaves, a sniveling, shaking, pathetic mess on the ground. She waits, for a second, trembling and screwing her eyes shut, waiting for the death blow to come raining down from above.
It never comes. Instead, the instant she raises her head, she finds herself face to face with Sam Keating.
He’s paler in death, eyes glazed-over, blood oozing down the side of his face from the hideous, gaping hole in his head. The lines in his face are more pronounced, his skin a sickly hue, not quite rotting but drooping, in an odd lopsided kind of way. Recoiling at the sight, she tries to scream, tries desperately to beg for help, and nothing comes out but a barely-audible croak.
After a moment he opens his mouth, and his voice is steady, almost warped in its deepness. “You killed me.”
“No,” she manages to sputter, her stomach lurching. “N-no, no, W-Wes, it was Wes-”
“It was you.”
Shaking so hard that her teeth chatter, she finally manages to prop herself up and angle herself away. She closes her eyes once more – out of sight, out of mind, Michaela, out of sight, out of mind, breathe, breathe – and tries to do just that: steady her breathing, but it’s coming in half-hysterical gasps now, and she can feel a panic attack hurtling its way relentlessly toward her. Her body is violently, painfully awake. It hurts. She doesn’t know what hurts, which part of her; all she knows is that she hurts, all over, every ligament and nerve and joint and muscle prickling, even down to her bones.
Everything is silent, for the longest minute in the world. The whispering gradually grows softer and fades away, and so she opens her eyes, praying that the apparitions will be gone.
But they aren’t.
It’s Rebecca who comes, next.
Rebecca, in her same torn-up jeans and ratty clothes and huge dark blots of eyeliner encircling her eyes, which are sunken in like Sam’s. Rebecca, half-decomposing, her arm gory shades of black and grey, the flesh dead, decaying. Decay. That’s the only word Michaela can come up with to describe her. She’s in a state of horrifying, irreversible decay, and the stench almost makes her gag. Her face is skeletal, a gruesome hole in her cheek where flesh should be, like some animal has hollowed out the bone. Her body looks like it’d collapse into a pile of rotting flesh if she took even one step forward, arms hanging limply at her sides, pieces of meat about to slip off the bone.
Her message is the same.
“You killed me.”
There’s no sneer in her voice, no typical lilt of sarcasm she would always use in life; just the words, just the fact, calmly-spoken and grim as ever. A sob escapes Michaela before she can swallow it, rattling through her chest, and she clamps her palms over her ears again, tight as she can, drawing her knees up to her chest.
“No. No, you’re… you’re not dead, go away, go away-”
That’s what she’d always been told as a kid: tell the monsters under her bed to go away, leave her alone, and they would. Somehow, she has the sense that this… This isn’t the same. That these people are monsters, demons that she’ll never be able to exorcise.
Sinclair is to her left, then. Clothes bloodied. Head split open like a melon, like Sam’s. Everything seems to speed up, like time is on fast-forward, turning seconds into mere flashes before her eyes. They all loom over her, forming a circle with their beady eyes locked on her, and she tries to run, tries to haul herself to her feet, but she can’t move, not a muscle. It feels like her limbs are cemented to the dirt beneath her, and a weight is pressing down on her chest, squeezing the air out of her, coiling itself around her chest and constricting. She can’t breathe. She can’t breathe, can’t breathe…
“Stop!” There’s another voice, now. She thinks it may be hers. Isn’t sure. Can’t be sure. It doesn’t sound human. She doesn’t sound human. “Stop! I didn’t… didn’t – I, go away, goaway-”
Philip is there on her right. Not dead. Terrifyingly alive, expression similarly hollow, impassive as a statue. It doesn’t take her much by surprise when she feels a sudden tug on her hair, jerking her head up and exposing her neck. It’s then that she sees the knife in his hand, sees it catch the moonlight and gleam. She still can’t breathe. She thinks she can feel hands around her throat, too. Sam’s. Like he’d done to Rebecca. Like he’d done to Lila. She can hear the voices around her again, but they’re unintelligible, speaking in tongues like the demons they are. Her lungs cry out for air, throat tightening, eyes bulging in some invisible grasp.
It’s so much agony that the slice of Philip’s knife is almost sweet release. It cuts blessedly easily – not painlessly, but easily, like her flesh is butter, offering no resistance. She’s vaguely aware of the blood pouring from the wound. It’s hot. Scalding.
The voices crescendo. Whoever was holding her hair lets go, and she falls back, meeting the earth, a limp, lead weight as she bleeds out. Sam is gone. Rebecca, too – and Philip and Sinclair. But the voices are louder, now. They’re muffled, but as she clings to consciousness, feeling herself slip fast, she thinks she can just make out what they’re saying.
It’s a feminine voice. Warm. Almost perplexingly so. She can feel herself moving, vibrating. Being… shaken. Still, she can’t breathe. Her hands go to her throat, and come away coated with her own blood. It burns, too, so bad it feels like her flesh is dissolving on contact. This must be what it’s like, burning in hell, licks of flame eating at her body for all eternity.
No. No – she recognizes that voice. She’s slipping, almost like she’s being absorbed down into the earth beneath her, but the voice offers her a lifeline, pulling her toward some blindingly white light that’s both impossibly close and impossibly far away, forward, out, up and up and-
Michaela shoots up, propelled forward by a gasp.
It takes her a while to realize where she is, the fog of sleep still clouding her mind. She’s not in the woods – not anymore. It’s been replaced by the quiet sanctity of Asher’s house, with faint lines of orange streetlight seeping in through the blinds, and a light on down the hall. The room is peaceful and still, disturbed only by occasional snores from across the room, where she’s pretty sure Asher is lying, sprawled out on his bed still in his ridiculous dinosaur onesie. There’s cold leather beneath her. The couch, Michaela realizes.
Laurel is there sitting up with her, half-awake, shaking her shoulder.
It all floods back to her after that. The couch – Asher’s couch. They’re camped out at Asher’s place, hunkered down in their makeshift safe house because of Philip, ‘Mr. Psycho killer-stalker dude,’ as Connor has affectionately code-named him. Somehow during the night she and Laurel had managed to arrange themselves semi-comfortably so that they could both share the couch, with her legs beside Laurel’s back and Laurel curled up on her side away from them. Her neck aches from sleeping at an angle, goosebumps prickling her skin from the cold. She looks around for her blankets, and finds them lying in a heap on the ground. Probably she’d kicked them off sometime during her nightmare.
A nightmare. That’s all it had been. Just a dream.
“Philip,” she manages to choke out, her hands reaching for her throat. She can still feel the pressure there, of hands around her neck. “I – he was… they were all-”
“Hey,” Laurel soothes. She scoots closer, rubbing her shoulder gently, up and down. “It’s okay. You’re okay. It was just a nightmare.”
“Why are you-” She jerks back reflexively, frowning. “What-”
“You were saying Philip’s name in your sleep,” Laurel explains, pulling her arm back and sighing. “And… kicking me. Hard.”
“Oh.” She lowers her eyes, letting out a shaky breath. “I, um… Sorry. I-I was having a dream, I…”
She drifts off. Doesn’t know what she was planning on saying, really. It was a stupid dream – well, not stupid, but… Still, not real. She feels like a pathetic little kid, having night terrors. That’s not her. She has nothing to be afraid of. She’s okay.
Only she’s not. Not even a little.
“I still have nightmares sometimes, too,” Laurel confesses. “You don’t have to be ashamed of it.”
For a minute, all Michaela does is look at the girl seated next to her, eyes hazy with sleep and sympathy. Laurel looks different, somehow, in the dim orange light. She’s dressed in a loose Middleton t-shirt and sweatpants, face bare of makeup, less put-together than Michaela thinks she has ever seen her before. Her hair is tousled, one side of it thrown sloppily over her part. Her thin lips are pursed, forehead creased with worry, and she’s looking at her with sympathy, yeah, but it’s not the judgmental kind of sympathy. Not pity.
That freaks her the fuck out. She doesn’t need – or particularly want – anyone’s understanding. She doesn’t want to talk about her feelings, or go trudging up old secrets or skeletons in closets. She just wants-
Sleep. God, more than anything she just really wants to sleep.
“I’m gonna-” Michaela shakes her head, swinging her legs over the side of the couch and standing. “I-I’m going to use the restroom.”
It’s a lame excuse, but it’s all she can come up with in her shaken and sleep-addled state. Numbly, she makes her way out of the room, doing her best to tiptoe and keep from waking Connor and Oliver, who lay cuddled together under a pile of blankets on the carpet. Connor has his head on Oliver’s chest. She thinks she can see a droplet of drool hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and she almost laughs; for some reason she wouldn’t have pegged him as a drooler. But the half-laugh dies before it can leave her lips, as her words flood back to her, when she’d asked him not to transfer – to stay, here with her, because she can’t do this alone, can’t survive in this mess by herself.
She gets it, though. Gets the need to escape, get away, start over. Run. Normally her instinct is fight but these days, the wearier she becomes, the more tempting an option flight is starting to seem.
So. She gets it, him wanting to leave. Doesn’t mean she likes it – but she gets it.
Shaking the thought away, she makes her way out of the room and down the hall, stopping at the second door on the right, the bathroom, and stepping inside. Michaela locks it behind herself almost immediately, and turns to press her back up against the door, the breath she’d been holding hostage in her lungs finally escaping her. It’s surprisingly nice, Asher’s bathroom. Cleaner than she’d thought, but most likely he has a maid who takes care of that. It’s all white tile floors and navy-blue walls, the sink and toilet gleaming porcelain. Spotless.
As good a place as any to have a nervous breakdown.
The dream. The faces. Sam. Rebecca. Sinclair. All the blood on her hands. All the death they’ve wrought. She thought she’d been good, not thinking about it. Blocking it out of her dreams, out of her thoughts.
Healing – if she can ever heal from this, ever be normal again.
It’s warm in the bathroom, heat blowing from an air vent up on the wall, but she’s shivering. She makes for the sink, turning the faucet to its coldest setting, cupping her hands, and splashing the water onto her face. She doesn’t know what she’s trying to accomplish, really. Some part of her faintly hopes the cold will shock her mind into forgetting, back into a happy state of knowing but not acknowledging. That’s the only way to live with these kinds of things: shut it out. Put it away. Pretend to be normal, until the rest of the world starts to believe it, until maybe even she starts to believe it.
It doesn’t work.
Michaela thinks about rooting through the cabinets. More than likely Asher has sleeping pills somewhere, after mowing down Emily Sinclair with his car like some fucked-up real-life version of Grand Theft Auto. Almost certainly he has something expensive, probably illegal and bought with daddy’s money, and that sounds really damn good right about now, because it is, admittedly, pretty hard to get a good night’s sleep knowing a psycho killer is stalking your every move. She can see in the mirror that there are bags under her eyes, and a permanent slump in the shoulders. She just looks… heavier. Sadder.
But something stops her. There’s a heaviness in her head too, weighing her down all at once, so much so that she finds herself unable to keep standing. The fatigue rolls over her in waves, until every muscle in her body feels loose and rubbery. So instead of popping pills she plops down on the closed toilet seat and stares ahead blankly at the wall, as her breathing slows and the panic abates.
She’s okay. Really, she is. Or if she’s not okay now, she will be later. She will. She’s Michaela Pratt.
She’s okay. She is.
There’s a knock on the door just then, stirring her from her thoughts. Her first instinct is Philip. Philip, against all logic and reason, is here, pursuing her instead of the others, about to jam his face into the crack of the door like that guy in The Shining and take her out with a few stabs of his knife – or maybe Philip is a gun kind of guy. Or the kind of psycho-murderer who prefers heavy objects for bludgeoning. Since there’s no trophy around, the ceramic toothbrush holder on the sink might do the trick, she thinks. Put her out of her misery effectively enough.
The voice that follows, however, is familiar, and warm.
“Michaela? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” she calls back, resting her head on her chin.
A pause. Then:
“Can I come in?”
No. That’s the answer she wants to give, but instead, something inside her – some tiny, itty bitty part of her that really doesn’t want to be alone, anymore, can’t be alone – compels her to answer differently.
“Yeah,” she tells her, sighing. “Yeah, fine.”