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Eric’s eyes flashed open. He was lying in bed, clutching the sheets to his bare chest and staring up at the familiar, white ceiling of his bedroom. The morning sunlight poured through the window blinds and painted brilliant stripes across the wall. He could hear birds singing outside, but it was otherwise quiet. Peaceful. Deceptively calm. As if all were well with the world.
He was trembling. His heart was racing. He struggled to catch his breath. A strange terror was welling up within him, slowly overwhelming him.
Don’t let it take me!
His cell phone rang. He snatched it off the nightstand beside him and held it to his ear.
“You can’t ignore it,” said Isabelle.
He ran a hand through his tousled hair and groaned. “I know.” He pushed aside the covers and sat up. “Damn it…”
He’d prayed that it was only a dream when it woke him the previous morning. But the fact was that he didn’t have very many dreams that he could actually remember in any detail. Not anymore. What little he could recall was usually nonsense. Most mornings, he woke up with no memory of his dreams, only a curious feeling that he’d been dreaming of something very profound.
But this dream had not only been incredibly vivid, it had come to him two nights in a row. And it left him feeling oddly restless…as though he had somewhere he needed to be…
“It’s a lot like the first dream you had,” Isabelle said. “The one that brought you to me.”
It was. It wasn’t as strong, but he felt that same, irrational compulsion to get dressed and go somewhere. The difference was that he hadn’t been able to remember that dream. Not until he set out to silence it. This one, however, he remembered quite clearly.
It was deep winter under a gloomy, gray sky. A thick blanket of snow had settled over the floor of a naked forest. The wind was blowing stiff and cold. He could remember precisely how it felt, biting his skin right through his clothes.
Except that they weren’t his clothes. It wasn’t even his skin. It wasn’t he who was out in this bleak wilderness. It was someone else. A woman, he thought, though he couldn’t be entirely sure. It was bizarre. He seemed to be inside her skin, feeling the wind that stung her face, struggling through the snow, gasping for every icy breath. He could feel her pounding heart as if it were inside his own chest. He saw the frozen wilderness with her eyes, felt the gripping terror that was rapidly swallowing her. And yet he also felt as if he were miles away, like he was looking up from the bottom of a deep, dark well.
Something was in that forest. Something terrifying. He could hear it. She could hear it. Behind him. Behind her.
Eric rubbed at his eyes. It was all so confusing. It was only a dream, but it was so vivid. So real. He was still tangled up in those emotions.
He remembered a steep slope. He—no, she—stumbled and fell, sliding through the snow, scraping the numb flesh on the palms of her bare hands. He looked down at his own hand now. It felt so real, even now, that he was surprised to find them unblemished.
Great, rocky bluffs rose up on either side as the woman fled deeper into the wooded gully. Then she went too far. The ground vanished beneath her. She dropped twenty feet and landed hard on the ice.
So much pain…
“You know it won’t stop,” Isabelle reminded him. “You’ll live through that every night until you go. It’ll drive you mad.”
He wanted to argue that they knew no such thing, but he’d only be stalling. Deep down, he understood. It was too much like the other dream. He knew it the first time it woke him, if he were to be honest. It was why he’d gone to sleep with his phone on the nightstand, with Isabelle only an arm’s length away.
He was being summoned again.
“You already know where you have to go.”
He sighed and stood up. “North,” he said. He scratched his neck and shook his head, frustrated. “I go north.”
“I’ll be with you the whole way,” promised Isabelle. “Like always.”
“I know. Thank you.”
He hung up the phone and turned off the alarm that never had a chance to wake him. Usually, he wouldn’t even hit the snooze for the first time for another twenty minutes yet.
He dressed himself as his mind circled around the awful, lingering dream. He couldn’t stop thinking about the end, those last few moments before he was mercifully torn from the nightmare and returned to consciousness. Through tears of terror and agony he saw a wide, frozen lake stretching out from the narrow cove where the woman lay broken upon the cracked ice. Above her, high bluffs and crowding trees. And something else, too, something big moving through the forest. A burning glow high up in the branches. An awful shriek.
And more pain.
She cried out for help, and although he was sure she must have been crying out to God on that bloody ice, a final, desperate prayer, he could’ve sworn that she was speaking to him.
Don’t let it take me!
He shuddered hard at those words, the final thing he’d heard before the dream shattered and ejected him back into his peaceful bedroom again.
It wasn’t just a dream. It was real. That woman was real. The thing that was chasing her was real. Her suffering was real. But those events didn’t happen recently. That lake was deeply frozen. It was the middle of winter. It was now late April.
That left one important question: had the awful scene taken place in a winter past…or in a winter yet to be?
He made his way downstairs, where he found Karen in the kitchen, already busying herself with her baking. She had four hundred cupcakes to bake for a wedding the next day. For most people, waiting until the morning before would be pushing it, but Karen was not most people. She was ridiculously talented in the kitchen and made a considerable amount of spending money as a freelance cake decorator and caterer. She was perfectly content to simply rise a little earlier than usual.
“You’re up early,” she observed, barely sparing him a glance as she poured sugar into her mixer.
Holly sat at the table, separating paper baking cups and slipping them into muffin pans. She turned and looked up at him, brushing her long, red hair from her pretty face and offering him her usual, sweet smile. “Good morning!” As always, she was exceedingly cheerful, as if she’d never been dealt a single reason to be anything but optimistic and full of hope.
“Good morning,” he said to both of them as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Did you have the dream again?” asked Karen. It wasn’t a secret. He hadn’t kept it from her. He never kept things from her. Not for long. He might occasionally downplay just how much peril he’d found himself in, like that time he was shot at by a fat, psychotic cowboy. (It was better that she not know just how narrowly he’d escaped that encounter.) But he always told her the rest of it, regardless of how frightening or disturbing (or unflattering or embarrassing) his exploits might be.
They were always honest with each other.
“So you’ll be leaving again?”
“Looks like it.”
To anyone who didn’t know her, she would have looked unnaturally calm, as if the idea of him venturing off on another of his weird adventures wasn’t the least bit terrifying to her. But Eric knew her far better than anyone. She wasn’t comfortable expressing her feelings. She bottled them up inside and put on false faces. It was an old coping mechanism that had served her through some rough adolescent years, and an apparently unbreakable habit even after all this time. Right now, she was feigning disinterest and a little bit of annoyance. He was about to go off on another stupid road trip to get himself hurt again. A silly boy and his silly adventures. But he knew that deep inside, in that fragile part of her that she kept locked up tight, she was very much afraid.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked as she started up her mixer.
“North,” he replied.
“That’s not very specific.”
Eric took a sip of his coffee and then cocked his head thoughtfully. “It’s pretty specific. When you get down to it. I mean, it’s precisely as specific as a compass needle.”
“How far north?” she pressed. “Like, up north? In Northern Wisconsin? Upper Peninsula? Or are we talking Canada north? Or Santa’s workshop north?”
“Can’t say. I guess I’ll know it when I get there.”
“The lake,” agreed Holly as she continued prepping the muffin pans. “Where the people in the mist wander. With the beast with many names. And where the funny space men play with their toys.”
Eric and Karen both looked at her, but she kept her eyes on the task before her, as if she hadn’t said anything strange at all.
“Right…” said Karen. “There you go. Just look for all that stuff.”
Eric nodded. “Yeah. That should narrow it down for me.”
Holly smiled her sweet smile.
“What does Isabelle say?” asked Karen.
“That I should hurry.”
“Definitely,” agreed Holly. “Something’s going to happen there. I can’t see what it is, but it’s going to be bad.”
Eric had been lifting his cup to his lips, but he lowered it again without sipping. “How bad?”
“Can you give me an example of what ‘way bad’ might entail? I’m still a little hazy on just how bad things can actually get.”
Holly set aside the prepared muffin pan and reached for the next one. She seemed surprisingly casual for someone discussing dire portents about his eminent journey. “It’s hard to say for sure. But I’m certain that anyone near that lake is in terrible danger.”
Karen frowned at Holly. “One of your spells told you all this?”
Eric met Holly Shorring the previous summer. She was a member of a coven of witches who had sought his help against a powerful and murderous wizard who was hunting them down one by one. Although he hadn’t believed in magic when he met her, she and her sisters had thoroughly convinced him otherwise.
(He didn’t understand it, but he absolutely believed in it.)
Holly was young, only twenty, and strikingly beautiful. She also possessed a remarkably endearing personality. She was sweet, kind, resourceful and clever. Everyone who had met her since she moved to Creek Bend adored her.
But when he first laid eyes on her, she was dancing provocatively on a stage in a nude bar in rural Illinois.
Karen had been understandably irate about him returning home just prior to their wedding anniversary with a gorgeous, young stripper. And she still hadn’t let it go. Nor would she. Ever. She had no intention of letting him forget it as long as they both lived, regardless of how and why it happened. And he could hardly blame her. He knew perfectly well how fortunate he was to have survived that ordeal, and with all his bits and bobs intact, no less.
At the same time, however, Karen had managed to harbor not a single ounce of ill will toward Holly. In fact, like everyone else, she’d quickly grown quite fond of the girl. She’d taken her under her wing and treated her like a member of the family almost from the start. Hardly a day went by when she wasn’t here in this kitchen, helping Karen with her baking, or out assisting with a delivery.
Eric had long ago stopped trying to point out that if he’d never brought her home, Karen would have missed out on having such a dear friend enter her life. That wasn’t the point. That had nothing to do with it. His crimes remained unforgivable, regardless of her fondness for the very object of her insatiable wrath.
(He’d also long since stopped trying to makes sense of the situation.)
It didn’t hurt that Holly and Karen had turned out to have a lot in common. They were practically made to be best friends. They could’ve been long-lost sisters. For starters, Holly was a skilled baker in her own right. She had a particularly special talent for making cookies.
Also, Holly had a peculiar way of encouraging people to be nice to her. It was a gift she possessed, a sort of psychic power of suggestion. She was a sweet girl who wanted everyone to like her, and so almost everyone who met her found her instantly endearing.
(But Karen insisted that this curious ability had nothing to do with it, of course.)
“Did your spells tell you anything else?” asked Eric.
“Not that I could really understand,” she told him. “Not yet, anyway. Just random images. Nothing that makes much sense.”
“I guess that explains the funny space men.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s all a little wonky. Maybe once you’re there it’ll be clearer. I’ll call you if I see anything else.”
Karen cocked her head and tucked a strand of her brown hair behind her ear. “Wait… You’re not going with him?”
“Not this time. The spell said he has to do this on his own.”
“Oh…” Karen hadn’t intended to let her go without a fight. She’d made it her business to take care of the girl, after all. But she hadn’t expected to win that argument, much less that there would be no argument at all.
Eric nodded. “Then that’s settled,” he decided. He was relieved, actually. As helpful as she’d be if he took her with him (she had saved his life more than once) he was thankful to not have to worry about her getting hurt. Especially since people always managed to get hurt on these weird adventures. “I should get going.”
“Oh, and stay away from the water,” added Holly. “At least until I know more.”
“No swimming,” confirmed Eric. “Got it.”
“What’s wrong with the water?” asked Karen.
“There’s blood in it,” replied Holly.
Karen shook her head. “Why do I ask these things?” She turned to Eric, looking him over. “Maybe I should go with you.”
“You’ve got too much to do,” he replied quickly, gesturing at the cupcakes. The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along. He’d never forgive himself if anything happened to her.
“Jess would take over for me if I called her,” she reasoned.
“You’d never trust anyone to take over one of your jobs,” he challenged.
“Jess is very talented. I know she could handle it.”
“You’d worry about it the whole time you were gone.”
She knit her eyebrows. He was right, of course, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She took an enormous amount of pride in her work, especially when the job was for something as special as a wedding. It had nothing to do with how much she trusted anyone else to do the job. Once she’d made a commitment to do something, she always saw it through to the end.
(Like when she committed herself to never letting him forget how he mucked up their last anniversary weekend.)
“He has to do it on his own,” Holly explained. “Neither of us are supposed to go.”
“There you go,” said Eric, trying not to sound too relieved. “Can’t argue with magic.”
Karen fixed her eyes on Holly for a moment. Although her expression was only thoughtful, he thought he could almost see the real emotions swirling behind her dark eyes. She knew he was right. She couldn’t just abandon her responsibilities here. It was her job to make sure these cupcakes were finished, were beautiful, and were on display in the church before the guests began arriving tomorrow afternoon. It wasn’t even about the money she’d already been paid. It was about keeping her word and ensuring that her part of someone’s beautiful day was as perfect as she could make it.
But she also didn’t care for being told what to do. If she wanted to accompany her husband into the unknown, why shouldn’t she be able to? It was also her responsibility to take care of him, to make sure he was safe. What kind of wife would she be if she didn’t do everything in her power to protect him? And this self-proclaimed witch had no business telling her otherwise.
Yet the deepest truth of all was that while she was afraid for him, she was even more afraid to go with him. The things he’d described to her, the terrible things he’d seen… She was too cowardly to even sit through a horror movie, much less to live through one. The first time this happened, she didn’t believe it. She thought it was some kind of early mid-life crisis kind of episode, that he’d subconsciously begun to feel trapped in his mundane, English teacher existence and realized that he was only getting older. He just needed a little adventure to make him feel young again. Even when everything started getting weird and he began describing the insane things he was seeing over the phone, she didn’t really believe it. Not even when he began sending her pictures. She told herself it had to be a prank of some sort. At worst, she feared that he might be suffering a serious psychological break, but that was even more terrifying than the idea that all these things were real, so in the end, she’d just gone along with it, almost numb to it all. But it was real. And she had no idea how he kept doing these things. If she’d been with him when that first golem burst from the old wardrobe in that empty house… Well, she doubted very much that she would’ve handled it with half the bravado as her courageous husband (and he’d confidentially admitted to her that he pretty much just ran away screaming like a girl).
And now Holly was telling her she wasn’t supposed to go…
Finally, she let out an exasperated sigh and met his gaze again. “You be careful out there.”
“I always am.”
“No, you’re not. You’re always getting yourself bitten by things and falling from high places.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘always’…”
“Or getting sliced up by something with huge claws.”
“But I always come home, remember?”
She did remember. It was the one thing he brought back from his time with Holly’s coven that hadn’t earned him her fiery wrath. A prophecy of sorts. A magic spell had given him an assurance that although he would continue to be called away on these strange journeys, he would always return to her. It was a heartening message and it helped to ease her fears. But only a little. “I still don’t know how much I trust this witchcraft stuff,” she told him.
Eric glanced at Holly. He recalled his brief time with the coven the previous July, all that he went through, all that he saw. “I trust her magic,” he told her. And it was the truth.
Karen stared thoughtfully at him and said nothing. Though Holly had offered to teach her to use spells, too, she’d refused. In fact, she’d discouraged the girl from using any magic while she lived in Creek Bend. It wasn’t that she disapproved, exactly. After all, this magic had saved her husband’s life. But she found the very concept difficult to handle. It seemed so unnatural.
Holly hadn’t pushed the matter. After all, she hardly needed to rely on witchcraft in her everyday life. A man she called “Grandpa,” but who wasn’t a father to either of her parents, had long ago taught her that magic wasn’t something one relied on for just anything. It was only for emergencies. Or special circumstances. Like these dreams Eric was having, for example.
“Paul won’t be able to help this time,” said Karen.
“I know.” Paul was his older brother. Usually, Karen would call him soon after Eric left and send him to keep an eye on her wayward husband. But today Paul, his wife, Monica, and his son, Kevin, were in Minnesota for a wedding. “It doesn’t matter. He wasn’t much help last time, remember.”
“That wasn’t his fault.”
“I know. But I still don’t need him.” In fact, he’d prefer that Paul, like Karen and Holly, stay well away from whatever bizarre trouble he was heading into. It was hard enough worrying about his own ass out there, without having to be concerned about someone else’s safety.
“Have Isabelle keep me posted.”
She gave him a kiss and then turned back to her mixing bowls. “Well, get going. You wouldn’t want to be late for whatever trouble you’re about to get yourself into.”
She was good. He could almost believe she really wasn’t concerned about him.
Eric snatched up his keys. “No. I guess I wouldn’t.”
“I love you. Be careful.”
“I love you, too,” he assured her. He headed for the door.
“Good luck,” said Holly.
As he opened the door, Karen added, “And try not to bring home any more strippers, ‘kay?”