Messenger of Fear Page 1

MY EYES OPENED.

I was on my back.

A mist pressed close, all around me, so close that it was more like a blanket than a fog. The mist was the color of yellowed teeth and it moved without a breath of breeze, moved as if it had a will.

The mist swirled slowly, sensuously, and it touched me. I don’t mean that it was merely near to me and therefore inevitably touched me; I mean that it touched me. It felt my face like a blind person might. It crept up the sleeves of my sweater and down the neckline. It found its insinuating way under rough denim and seeped, almost like a liquid, along bare skin. Fingerless, it touched me. Eyeless, it gazed at me. It heard the beating of my heart and swept in and out of my mouth with each quick and shallow breath.

The mist spoke to me, wordless, soundless, and yet so that I understood, and it said, Shiver.

I shivered, and goose bumps rose on the insides of my arms and on my belly, and the mist laughed as silently as it had commanded me.

I called out, “Mom?”

But the mist would have none of that. It took my word, stopped it, flattened it, made a mockery of it, and echoed it back to me.

I felt something prickling and tickling the side of my face and turned my head to see that I was lying in grass of such a color that it could never have known spring. It was the gray-green of bread mold, the color of decayed life. I could see only the nearest stalks, those pressed closest to my face. How had I come to be here? And where was here?

I searched my memory. But it was a box of old photos printed on age-curled paper. Here a face. There a place. Not quite real, too faded, too fractured, too far away to be real. Pictures, snatches of conversation, distorted sounds, and sensory echoes—the soft scraping sound of paper pages turned by an unknown hand, liquid poured from a bottle, the strike of a match, the smell of sulfur, the—

I had the thought then that I was dead.

It was not a certainty to me but an uneasy possibility, a doubt, a guess whose truth I was not willing to test.

Why were my memories so far out of reach? I had a life, didn’t I? I was a person. I was a girl. I had a name. Of course I had a name.

Mara.

Yet even that seemed unsteady to me—a fact, perhaps, but a shaky fact. The word Mara did not carry with it some flood of emotion. It was a flat thing without depth or shape, just a word.

Mara.

Was that me? Let it be me. Let it be me because I needed a name, I needed something definite to hold on to.

I raised a hand to my face. I watched the fingers appear, swirling through that unnatural mist. I touched my face and felt tears. I touched my face and felt. Both finger and cheek felt and therefore I lived. I lived.

Then, as if discouraged by my discovery, the mist began to clear. It withdrew from me, sliding away from my flesh like a wave retreating into the sea.

I wanted to stand up. I did not want to lie there any longer in the dead, gray grass. I wanted to stand and see, and then run, run far from this unsettling nightmare. Running would awaken me, and all of it, all my memory, all that I was would come flooding back. It must.

I was shaking so badly that the simple act of standing erect became a challenge. My limbs did not want to cooperate with each other, and I made a mess of it, rising first onto hands and knees and then stumbling, nearly falling, before finally rising to my full unimposing height.

I was in an open place. It was dark, darker than it had been in the mist, and no starlight, still less moonlight, shone down from above. But it was not complete darkness. Patterns of gray on black, and black on blacker still, emerged as I looked around me.

There was a building. Had it been there the last time I looked? No light escaped that building. Nothing about that building called to me to approach except for the fact that it was the only object in sight.

I moved one foot and another. That fact, the fact that I could put one foot in front of another, let me take a deeper breath, a less agitated breath. To move was to live, wasn’t it? To move was to choose a path, and that meant I still had some volition, some control. I felt and I moved. Hadn’t there been some lesson in class about the definition of life and hadn’t it been that . . . sensation, movement, something else . . .

Had there been a class? A school?

Of course, no doubt. So why couldn’t I see it in my mind? Why, when I asked myself that question, was the only image like a stock photo, filled with unfamiliar, too-bright, too-pretty faces?

Was I dead?

Never mind, Mara, I told myself, trying to accept that name as the truth. Never mind, Mara, you can feel and you can move. You can choose. Mara.

I could go in a different direction. I could choose not to walk to that building, that outline of black against black, that shadow within shadow. My feet made sounds like sandpaper as they brushed the brittle grass.

The structure was taller than a house, narrow and long. There was a suggestion of high windows ending in pointed arches. And a suggestion, too, of a strong, heavily timbered door, and above that door, atop the building, a sort of tower.

A steeple.

It was a church. That knowledge should have reassured me, but instead it drove a spike of cold terror into my belly, for I knew one thing: this church was no place of comfort and peace. There was a sullen, silent hostility from this structure. It was not calling me into God’s presence; it was warning me to go away.

Yet at the same time I could now feel the door drawing me to it. It had a strange gravity, a force perhaps unknown to science that pulled me toward it not by magnetism but by acting on my fear, turning my fear into a vortex. I had to know what was inside that church. I had to know, though I feared the knowing.

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