He looked at the blood covering his hands and choked back a sob; choked back the acrid bile that rose in his throat. The blood ran up his arms in rivulets to drip incessantly from the crooks of his arms and his elbows, droplets hitting the cement floor with sickeningly sharp splats. The boy's shoulders shook as the swallowed tears broke free of their repression and spilled to the floor like the blood, leaving shockingly white trails in the ash and grime covering his pale face. Numb with pain, fear, and grief, he could only sit and weep.
The body lay in a tangled heap a few feet away, on its knees and slumped forward with its face to the floor. She had been beautiful once. Her large emerald green eyes stared unseeing at the boy collapsed with his back to the nearby crumbling brick wall. Pale skin peeked out between deep gashes and the blood, like crimson paint, covering her body, soaking her clothes and flooding the floor. She had been dead for hours.
It moved in the darkness. Crouched low to the ground on all fours, it watched the boy across the room, the two separated only by the corpse of the woman it had already killed. Glancing casually down at its sharp claws, it sat up and began to lick at the blood-soaked fur of one of its enormous paws, cleaning away the evidence of its indiscretion. It dropped its paw back the floor, the weight of it sending a cloud of dust swirling into the air as particles from the ceiling drifted down to meet it. The creature rose and stretched languidly, arching its large, fur-covered body in a way reminiscent of a cat. It turned its cloudy grey eyes back to the child opposite itself and lowered the front of its body, preparing to pounce.
It attacked. She stared. He screamed.
Cade woke to the sound of his own raw scream as he sat upright in his bed. Panicking, he kicked at the tangle of blankets ensnaring his legs. Freeing himself, Cade pushed his back firmly against the bed's wooden headboard and closed his eyes. "It was just a dream," he whispered to himself shakily. "This time it was just a dream."
Opening his eyes, he focused his attention on the familiar shapes around his room. Early morning light snuck around the edges of the closed blind to spill across the wood floor towards the foot of the bed. The clock on the nightstand to Cade's left glowed in defiance of the sun, from the safety of shadow. His heart pounded uncomfortably against his chest as the clock's alarm sounded noisily.
"Shit," he groaned as he scrambled to shut it off quickly. Rolling to the side, he sat and pressed his feet flat against the cool, wooden floor of his bedroom. Taking deep, slow breaths, Cade tried to calm himself as best he could. Somewhere beneath his panic he was vaguely aware that this was not the first time he had had this dream, and likely would not be the last. Freaking out did not begin to solve the issue.
He dressed mechanically- black shirt, black pants, black sneakers- and glanced without seeing into the mirror above his dresser. Cade's attention finally landed on the myriad of prescription bottles covering the dresser top. His hand hovered over one hesitantly, before sweeping the lot into the top drawer with a scowl. With that, Cade stomped from the room without a second thought for his medications.
"Good morning Cade!" his younger brother Aiden shouted happily over the noisy cartoons he was watching.
"Aren't you a little old to be watching cartoons?" Cade muttered, mussing Aiden's dark hair as he passed through the living room.
"Aren't you a little young to be such a miser?" Aiden quipped back, ducking the expected swipe of Cade's hand. Cade smiled briefly at the fourteen year old as he escaped to the relative quiet of the kitchen.
"Hey dad," Cade called to his father's back. The smell of bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan should have been appealing, but after his unsettling dream, it left Cade feeling more nauseous than hungry.
"Cade. Good morning," Gared replied, turning to examine his oldest son warily. Cade sat quickly at the table and hid his face behind the newspaper that sat before him. "Doing alright?"
"Um, yea," Cade offered weakly. "I'm fine."
"Did you take your meds?"
"Hm." Gared seemed unconvinced, but Cade was not about to fight that battle today, if he could help it. "Don't forget you have your appointment with Dr. Aaronson after school. I'll pick you up to make sure you get there on time." Cade ignored the jab at his appointment attendance record and pretended to read an article with great interest. "Cade, listen to me for a minute." Gared snatched the newspaper from his son's unsuspecting hands and glared at Cade sternly.
"Ok, what?" Cade asked, trying to make eye contact with his father like he knew Gared wanted, but settled quickly for a place over the man's shoulder instead.
"This isn't anything new, Cade," Gared said, in the tired voice that seemed to be reserved just for Cade. "You need to take your medications, and go to your appointments or you won't feel better."
"I had the dream again," Cade blurted before he could help himself. Why didn't Gared ever understand? The medications had never done anything to help, as far as Cade could tell.
"That's nothing new either, Cade." Gared's voice was gentler now, but his words still felt like a reprimand.
"Maybe meds aren't the answer," Cade argued pleadingly. "They haven't stopped the dreams, so maybe…"
"Cade, enough. I know what happened to your mother will never go away, and every day I wish that you hadn't been there with her, but you're sixteen now. Maybe it's time to let go. There's nothing you can do to change what happened."
"No, but maybe there's something more I could do now," Cade said hopefully, letting his eyes move to his father's face. It seemed to be Gared's turn to shut down. He stiffened and turned his back on Cade to tend to the food cooking on the stove.
"That's enough Cade."
"Why don't you believe me?" The official police report coincided with Cade's dreams and memories. Every single detail was the same, with the exception of the creature. Adult imagination seemed to stop there, and no amount of pushing or pleading on Cade's part had brought anyone around.
"We'll talk about this later, after your appointment."
"Yes, I'm sure Dr. Aaronson will be more open minded than you," Cade snapped bitterly, knowing that his discussion with the doctor would come to the same conclusions. He grabbed his backpack angrily and wrenched open the back door of the small house. "I'm walking to school. I'll see you later."
Predictably, no one tried to follow him. Gared had stopped trying to drag Cade back home the day he had turned eleven, and presumably responsible enough to make it to school on his own. Usually Cade enjoyed the peace, but the recurrence of his dream had left him unsettled.
But there was something more, he sensed. Something that was not quite right. Cade had the overwhelming sensation he was being followed. He whirled suddenly to glare at the tidy rows of homes behind him only to find the street was empty as far as he could see. Just like in a cheesy movie, he chided himself for his behavior.
Ignoring his tensed muscles and the rising hair on the back of his neck, Cade continued on his way. What did he have to worry about? His father would say it was all in his head.
Cade couldn't decide which was more irritating: the ticking of the too-slow wall clock or the through-the-nose voice of Dr. Aaronson as she tried to reason with him. "Cade, you simply must take all of your medications as prescribed if you expect any resolution of your symptoms." Her expression was one of exasperation as she focused her brown eyes on her unruly patient.
Neat and tidy in a grey suit with her brown hair pulled back tightly, Dr. Aaronson was the definition of no-nonsense. While Cade had often found her quite sympathetic to what other doctors referred to as his "unique needs", her compassion was usually benched when it came to his chronic fiddling with his medication.
"I don't care about resolving symptoms I don't have," Cade replied simply, his mouth set in a stubborn line. "Besides, that's not what I want to talk about."
"Oh?" Dr. Aaronson inquired, raising an eyebrow but allowing him to continue. Cade tucked his knees up to his chest and inhaled deeply.
"I had the dream again last night," he began, "and I think I was being followed on my way to school this morning."
"What reason would someone have to follow you to your school?"
"It obviously has something to do with the dream," Cade insisted, his body visibly tensing. "Maybe whatever killed my mom was supposed to get me too. Maybe it's coming for me now." His eyes widened nervously at the prospect, but the doctor looked utterly nonplussed.
"Cade, we have gone over this again and again," Dr. Aaronson said, leaning forward as though to drive her point home. "This panic, and paranoia that you feel, they're both symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. You've experienced a horrible tragedy, which has scarred your mind." Cade hated it when she spoke to him slowly and softly, like he was a baby. He lowered his feet to the ground and leaned forward too, in an attempt to stare Dr. Aaronson down. She disregarded him and continued, "You know yourself from experience, that you feel much better than this when you take your medications."
"I don't feel better," Cade muttered. "I just feel dead."
If Dr. Aaronson had heard Cade's remark, she did not acknowledge it. Instead she stood and opened the door, politely indicating it was time for Cade to leave.
"How did it go?" Aiden chirped happily as Cade threw himself into the front seat of the SUV and slammed the door roughly. "Well I presume." Cade cast a dark look over his shoulder at his younger brother before fixing his gaze out the window.
"What did Dr. Aaronson say?" Gared asked quietly. He started the car and merged into the steady flow of traffic. Cade made a "humph" sound and growled, "Guess."
"She reminded you to take your medications, I bet."
"Look dad, I think my feelings have been dismissed enough for one day." Cade pressed his head against the window and watched the trees pass by as they traveled down the tree lined highway. He wanted nothing more than to pass the half hour drive in as much silence as possible. Glancing in the rearview mirror, Cade watched his brother happily playing a handheld videogame, his blue eyes brightly reflecting the illuminated screen. As always, Aiden was the light to Cade's dark.
They had gone only a mile when Cade caught a dark smudge in the woods from the corner of his eye. Turning to stare into the thick line of trees flashing by just off the road, Cade watched intently for the shape to reappear. There it was: keeping pace with the car though it seemed to weave deeper into the woods and back towards the road again frequently. Cade tried to think of any large animal that might be native to this area, but he could only think of bears, and as far as he knew, bears could not keep pace with a speeding car. He was just about to ask his dad how fast deer were when the blur leapt the metal barrier and darted in front of the black SUV.
Tires screamed as Gared slammed on the brakes, but the vehicle had been going too fast for them to find much purchase so suddenly. Cade experienced the unpleasant sensation he often felt on carnival rides, and it took him a moment to realize the car was spinning. "Dad, look out," he shouted, reaching for Gared's arm in warning. The barrier along the opposite lane of the road rushed closer, and though Aiden was yelling frantically now as well, there was nothing for Gared to do. The SUV smashed headlong into the unyielding metal bar and began to spin again. Cade fainted on impact, losing his grip on reality as the car continued on its destructive course down the empty highway.
The sky was dark by the time Cade regained consciousness. His head swam as he tried to recall why his father had stopped the car. Memories of the crash came flooding back with a surge of pain.
A terrible, agonized moan shattered the heavy silence in the vehicle. Cade felt detached from the sound his aching throat was making as he struggled to raise his head.
"Aaah." The sound was all his now. Pain gnawed at his right shoulder, reaching up through his neck as he moved his head. A twisted piece of metal was the source of this particular agony: It had gone clean through to pin him to his seat. Moving much was out of the question.
Lifting his head more slowly this time, he shifted his gaze to the shattered dashboard. Blood rushed to blind his right eye, and the shapes around him began to blur as his stomach rebelled against the pain conquering his body.
A scrap of navy blue caught the attention of his usable eye. Forcing his head to the left, he rested his chin against his shoulder and tried to make sense of the scene before him.
Cade had not been sure what he had expected to see, but he was sure it had not been Aiden's mangled face staring back at him.
Aiden's body had been thrust from the back seat by the force of the crash, flying between the front seats to rest against the unforgiving console. Cade tried to lift an arm to shake his brother; tried to tell him to go back to his seat, but he felt paralyzed. His eyes began to close of their own accord, and the dark pull of unconsciousness overpowered him once more.
"Shit, this is a bloody scene." The voiced wormed its way into Cade's ears, rousing him from the stillness he had been floating in for as long as he could remember. Was this what death was like? He had hoped it might be quieter.
"I doubt there's anyone alive in there." This was a new voice now. Cade struggled to open his eyes again, rediscovering that only his left was of any use to him. Red and blue lights flashed dully somewhere beyond the web of cracks in the windshield. Glass crunched outside the SUV, and shadowy figures momentarily blocked out the lights.
"Ready to have a look?" the first voice asked shakily. The second voice grumbled inaudibly in response. It dawned on Cade that this was not death; this was a rescue. He tried to move, tried to make a sound as the two forms made their way around the wreckage to the driver's side door. He could vaguely make out a hand reaching in the shattered window, presumably to check on his father and brother. The second voice announced the lack of vital signs and Cade's head began to throb and swim dizzily.
Only the sound of footsteps and falling glass alerted him to the presence of someone on his blind right side. Frantically, he forced his breath out more quickly in an effort to get their attention. A short moan was the only sound he could manage, but it seemed to be enough. "Oh my God, he's alive. Joel, get over here!" the first voice, belonging to a woman, shouted. "Hold still sweetie, we'll get you out of here."
Cade wanted more than anything to acknowledge her, but his neck refused to move back to the right more than an inch. How exactly did she plan to move him when he was pinned to the seat? Had she not noticed that yet?
The officer had leaned into the vehicle now, coming in to view of his left eye. "Ok," she breathed, as she checked over his position. "This is going to hurt a lot, I'm afraid." Cade allowed himself a mental laugh, finding it hard to believe he could be in any more pain. He soon found himself corrected.
"Ready?" the woman asked, reaching around to grip his back as best she could. "One, two…" Cade's screams drowned out three as she pulled him forward and off the shrapnel which had kept him trapped against his seat. He dug his fingers into the officer's arms, unsure if he was trying to pull her closer or push her away. Another set of hands grabbed him as the second officer came to help lift him completely free of the SUV.
Cade's screams continued to echo far down the icy, abandoned road.