Messenger of Fear Page 3

I was so intent on her face that I failed at first to notice that the light all around me had changed.

I looked up and saw that the church was gone. The coffin, that terrible object, that reproach against life itself, grew transparent.

And then, the pale flesh of the dead girl began to regain some aspects of life. It grew pink. And I was certain I detected the movement of her eyes beneath their lids.

I cried out, “She’s alive!”

And just then, as though my exclamation was a signal, she sat up. She sat up and now, dreamlike, the coffin was no longer there. Feeling wildly unstable, I put my hand out as though to steady myself, but there was nothing within my reach but the shoulder of the boy in black.

My fingers closed around his bicep, which flexed at my touch. It was reassuring in its solidity. He was real, not some figment.

He shook his head and did not meet my eyes. “I am not to be touched.”

It wasn’t anger but a soft-spoken warning. It was said with what might have been regret but with absolute conviction.

I pulled my hand away and mumbled an apology, but I was less concerned about him than I was consumed with the horror of looking directly into the dead girl’s eyes. She had risen to her feet. She stood. The hole still a testament to brutality, bloody, only now, now, oh . . . oh . . . It was bleeding. Wet and viscous, the blood drained from the hole in her head as the blood seemed to drain from my own limbs. Little globules of something more solid slid down the trail of blood, bits of her brain forced outward as the bullet had forced its way inward.

Her eyes were brown and empty, her face blank, her blond hair fidgeted in a slight breeze, and the blood ran down her cheek and down her neck and pooled at the hollow of her throat.

I wanted to say that we needed to call 911. I wanted to say that we must help. But the boy in black stood perfectly still, looking at me and not at the girl, the girl dead or living or whatever unholy cross between the two that defined Samantha Early.

Dead too early.

“The question you want answered,” the boy in black said as though no time had passed, “is whether you are dead.”

I licked my lips nervously. My throat burned as though I’d been days without a drink of water. “Yes,” I said to him.

“You live,” he said. “She does not.”

“WE HAVE TO HELP HER.”

“She is past help,” the boy in black said.

“She’s standing, she’s . . . Can you hear me?” I addressed this to Samantha, knowing how foolish it was, knowing that my words would fall into the inconceivably vast chasm that separates the living and the dead.

No flicker or recognition in those brown eyes, no sudden cock of the head. I was inaudible and invisible to her.

Then she began to move, to walk. But backward. Away from us but backward, not awkward but with normal grace. As though she had always walked backward. Backward across what was now a suburban street. A car came around the corner, not fast, the driver seeming to check for addresses as he drove. If he saw Samantha, he gave no sign of it. I was sure, too, that he did not see me or the boy in black.

The car moved forward normally. Across the street a dog raced along its enclosure, moving forward as well, seeing the car but not us. Only Samantha was in rewind, only she moved backward to the sidewalk, to the flagstone-paved path, to a front door that opened for her. Now it was opened by her but all in reverse. It was a disturbing effect, part of what I was now sure had to be a strangely elaborate dream. Dreams could play with cause and effect. Dreams could show you bullet wounds and staring girls and people walking backward. Dreams could move you from blackhearted un-church to sunlit suburbia without effort.

“A dream,” I whispered. I looked again at the boy. He had heard me, I was sure of that, but his expression was grim, focused on Samantha.

The door of the house closed and should have blocked her from our view, but we were now inside that house, though we had passed through no door. We were in a hallway at the foot of steps leading upward.

There were framed photos on the wall beside the steps: a family, parents, a little boy and Samantha. And other pictures that must have been grandparents and aunts and cousins. I saw them all as, without thinking about it, I began to ascend those steps. Even as Samantha walked backward up them.

She disappeared around the corner at the top, but the boy in black and I arrived at her room before she did. By what means we came there, I could not say, except that that’s how dreams are.

I felt sick in my stomach, the nausea of dread, because now I was sure that I knew what terrible event I would soon witness.

And oh, God in heaven, if there is one, oh, God, it was happening, happening before my eyes. Samantha sat on the edge of her bed. The gun was in her lap. Tears flowed, sobs wracked her, her shoulders heaved as if something inside her was trying to escape, as if life itself wanted to force her to her feet, force her to leave this place, this room, that gun.

“No,” I said.

She was no longer moving backward.

“No,” I said again.

She raised the gun to her mouth. Put the barrel in her mouth. Grimaced at the taste of steel and oil. But she couldn’t turn her wrist far enough to reach the trigger and yet keep the barrel resolutely pointed toward the roof of her mouth.

She pulled it out.

She sobbed again and spoke a small whimper, a sound so terrible, so hopeless, and then, she placed the barrel against the side of her head, which now no longer showed the wound, the wound that was coming if she didn’t—

BANG!

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