She made a noise at the back of her throat, something caught between annoyance and acknowledgement. Then there was a impatient jab to her arm, but Taryn simply rolled over to ignore it.
Her eyes snapped open, greeted by morning light, and she turned over to find the source of annoyance hovering over her, his lackadaisical grin lifting his features. Taryn had always envied his complexion, how his golden-brown hair complimented his bronze eyes; the natural tan he always sported was the envy of most girls, too, as well as earning their admiration.
'Morning,' Seth said pleasantly.
She glowered. 'Who let you in?'
'Your uncle, since it is his apartment.'
'No,' Taryn said slowly, 'who let you in my room?'
Seth waved his hand absently at the bedroom door. 'You left your door open. Since I know you're not a morning person I won't be too offended by your attitude right now.'
'Aren't you a saint,' she mumbled, puling her blanket up over her head to shut Seth and the morning light out.
Her night had been plagued by a restless sleep, having been jolted awake every time she was about to be thrown into another nightmare. Now that the sun was up and the darkness had faded from the corners of her room, Taryn though she might be able to sleep without jumping at every shadow.
Taryn felt the mattress dip, so she peered outside of her blanket to see Seth sitting patiently beside her, his eyes on the window.
'Now you're making me feel bad,' she said.
'Well, guilt trips are my specialty.'
Taryn laughed, her sour mood easily brushed aside by Seth. She sat up with a stretch and glanced at her clock, seeing that she had slept until eleven o'clock.
'Did you forget I was meeting you before class?' Seth asked.
Taryn made a face. 'Maybe.'
'Then it's good I know you so well. Get changed,' Seth told her as she went to the door. 'I'll wait out in the lounge.'
Taryn dragged herself out of bed and found clean clothes hanging in her wardrobe, which was surprising – since half her wardrobe was currently scattered across her bedroom floor. She supposed it was lucky Seth knew her so well; anyone else might have reeled at the sight of her bedroom.
'Is Emmy meeting us?' Taryn called through the walls.
'She's working, remember? Aren't you seeing her tonight for dinner anyway?'
Taryn paused, brow furrowing. Was that tonight?
'The answer is yes, by the way,' Seth added.
She laughed to herself as she pulled on her jacket, then grabbed her bag from the floor of her wardrobe. Checking that her materials were packed, Taryn walked out of her bedroom.
'Who needs a day planner when I've got you?' Taryn quipped.
Seth was lounging on the couch, his arms thrown over the back of it. 'And my purpose in life reveals itself. Ready?'
They took a tram across town, and while they stood between commuters packed into the tram, Seth asked, 'Did you get any study done last night?'
'What study?' Taryn scoffed. 'You know I don't study.'
'You used to,' he said.
Taryn wrapped her arm around one of the poles lining the aisle, keeping her steady as the tram jerked along. She looked out the window, watching as the busy streets drifted by. She had never been a good student, Taryn knew that, but she did like to learn about what interested her, and that was the reason she had chosen to study ancient world history. She had enjoyed it enough in the beginning that she studied routinely, though maybe not effectively, but in the last few months she had lost that motivation. She put it down to her poor sleep, and being too tired during the day to motivate herself. Was there a cure for nightmares?
As if reading her thoughts, Seth said, 'Emmy told me you haven't been feeling well lately. Have you been to a doctor?'
'She's going to make a terrible psychologist, you know,' said Taryn. 'Can't keep anything to herself.'
Seth chuckled. 'Only when it concerns you.'
Taryn hadn't even considered going to a doctor – she hadn't even told her uncle about the nightmares, but considering how often she fell out of bed she was sure her uncle had noticed. Maybe he didn't see it as too much of a concern, or maybe he was trying not to pry. Not like he did when she was younger, at least.
'I'm fine,' Taryn insisted, looking back to Seth. 'I'm just tired, that's all. Maybe I need more iron in my blood or something? It's not a big deal. Emmy needs to stop being such a drama queen.'
'Emmy will never stop being a drama queen.'
Their conversation stopped when Taryn saw Mike, one of their lecturers, step up into the tram through the doors behind Seth. He was dressed in a casual suit, his charcoal blazer open over an open-collared grey shirt that was loosely tucked in. Taryn understood why some of the other girls in their class fawned over him, given how young and disarming he was in comparison to some of the other lecturers.
Mike noticed her as well and carefully crossed the tram toward them. 'On your way to class?'
'We've got a lecture with Professor Willis,' said Taryn, almost cringing at the thought.
Mike gave a small laugh and nodded. 'I see. She is a little old-fashioned, isn't she?'
'A little historical, more like it,' Taryn remarked, and then quickly covered her mouth in shock. 'Could you please pretend I didn't say that?'
Seth shook his head with a laugh, and Mike dismissed her apology with a charming smile. 'It's all right, just don't let her catch you saying that. I hope the students don't say such things about me?'
'Of course not!' Taryn said quickly.
The tram came to a stop outside Melbourne University, and since most of the commuters were students the tram emptied quickly. Taryn and Seth walked with Mike onto the campus, and as they did Taryn asked, 'So how do you know Rafe?'
Mike looked to her in surprise, then glanced to Seth who said quickly, 'We saw you there the other day, at Rafe's café.'
'Ah,' said Mike, pausing for a moment. Taryn looked between him and Seth, feeling like she had just missed something, but Mike answered, 'Well, we're old friends you could say.'
Taryn got the sense not to ask any further, though it wasn't because his tone suggested consequence if she did. It was the hint of nostalgia she caught, of fond memories, and since Taryn didn't know Mike all that well she was respectful enough not to pry.
Mike changed the subject as he said, 'How are your studies going?'
'Why does everyone always ask me that?' Taryn said, a little sourly.
'Not well then, I take it,' Mike sympathised. He stopped at a staircase that zigzagged down to the lower level of the campus grounds, where several cafes and bench seats occupied the space.
'Can't say the same for me,' Seth quipped.
Taryn shot him a glare.
'The first year is hard, I know. High school doesn't fully prepare you for the work load at university, but there are plenty of options for help. Like me, for example,' Mike added. 'I'm more than happy to help you if you need it, Taryn.'
Taryn knew she wouldn't ever ask him for help, but she appreciated the offer regardless.
Mike began walking away. 'See you both next class.'
'You look exhausted. Still not sleeping?' Emmy asked, right before shovelling a fork full of pasta into her mouth.
Taryn threw her hands into the air with a groan. 'Is it that obvious?'
Emmy gave her a pointed look. 'You've got dark circles under your eyes, girl, so yes it's obvious.'
'What a waste of makeup then,' Taryn muttered, prodding at her salad with a fork.
'You know, most of the time insomnia is due to mental reasons. Depression, anxiety, guilt or stress… which means curing insomnia is based on identifying the psychological issue,' Emmy explained smartly.
Taryn rolled her eyes. 'I'm not an insomniac, Emmy.'
'If you say so,' she said with a shrug. 'So you're probably not interested in going out tonight to that new rooftop bar.'
'Not in the least,' Taryn replied.
'Great, now Seth is going to back out.'
'He said he was going, didn't he? Why would he back out?'
'Because you're not going.'
'That shouldn't matter,' Taryn scoffed.
Emmy shook her head but said nothing, and Taryn's brow furrowed in bemusement. But she dismissed Emmy's words as she spotted a familiar purple-haired waitress nearing their table, and Taryn signalled her over.
'Where's Rafe tonight?' Taryn asked.
Abby, the waitress and "second-in-command" as Rafe had dubbed her, offered a sharp grin that had her lip-piercing catching light. 'He told me to tell you that he knew you were coming here, and so he took the night off.'
'Seriously?' said Taryn, and considering how much she, Seth and Emmy teased Rafe she figured it was entirely probable that he had grown sick of them.
Abby laughed. 'Nah, I'm kidding. He has some family stuff.'
'Nothing serious?' Emmy asked, her ears perking at potential gossip.
'If it were, do you reckon I would be able to tell? The guy only has one expression, and that's of a grouch. I'm sure it's nothing though,' Abby added. 'Can I get you anything while I'm here?'
They waved her away and she flittered to another table.
Emmy spent the rest of the night telling Taryn about her studies and her new crush, while Taryn listened in mild amusement at the theatrical way Emmy discussed her life. She made it sound like a soap opera, with twists and turns and laugher and gasps, when in reality Taryn knew Emmy's life was as mild as her own.
But Emmy had her life planned, whereas Taryn didn't. Emmy would travel after graduating, and maybe even chose a country overseas to work in rather than Australia. She wanted excitement and adventure, and not for the first time Emmy insisted that Taryn come travelling with her. And like every other time Emmy had suggested, Taryn shrugged and gave a non-committal smile before Emmy continued talking.
Taryn wasn't sure what she wanted to do after graduating – she didn't even know what she wanted to do before graduating. Had she always been this unmotivated? Not just in her studies, but in life as well? She certainly had nothing to complain about in her life, but lately she felt… despondent. Something had settled on her shoulders, something that had her avoiding thoughts of the future because she couldn't see one for herself. Every time she imagined life after graduating, Taryn's mind went blank.
How depressing, Taryn thought as she and Emmy left Rafe's.
'Are you sure you don't want a lift?' Emmy asked again. She had driven into the city if only because of an evening study group she was a part of – and because she hated public transport at night.
Taryn waved away her offer. 'It's a five-minute tram ride, Emmy, so I'll be fine. See you tomorrow.'
Emmy hesitated, but Taryn walked away before Emmy could protest any further. She left Degraves Street that had just begin to quieten and took the first tram she could, which only transported her half the way before she had to jump off and walk the rest.
In Melbourne, winter always seemed to last longer than summer if only because the nights grew chilly well before the winter season even officially started. The days grew steadily shorter while the nights grew colder, and tonight was no exception; Taryn cursed herself for not bringing a thicker jacket. She pulled the sleeves down to hide her hands and zipped the jacket up to her collar, but to avoid the frigid bite in the evening wind she ducked down an alley where two tall buildings either side helped shield her.
But the nearby skittering of a rat amongst some litter had Taryn quickening her pace, her shoulders shuddering. The lane was dark, lit only by the lights on the sidewalk at either end and a few windows above, but cars sped past the lane on the main street Taryn walked toward and as she neared it she realised she was feeling unusually anxious. She had cut through this lane almost every night when she returned home after dark, and never had she felt this anxious. But her recent nightmares were lingering at the back of her mind, images of shadowy tendrils reaching for her from dark corners and crevices, and Taryn couldn't help but feel as if one of those tendrils was about to reach out for her now.
Stop it, she told herself. Here she was bragging to Seth about how easy walking through the city was – don't go down dark alleys, she had said – yet now she was acting irrationally nervous.
And that was when the quiet of the lane was shattered by a violent screech, the sound so piercing and abrupt Taryn thought a car was tearing down the lane toward her. But she didn't get the chance to turn before something slammed into her from behind, the force throwing her to the ground with barely enough time to throw out her hands to catch herself. She crashed, the world twisting dizzyingly around her, and she grimaced at the lash of fire along her palms and forearms where the asphalt had scraped her skin raw.
Groaning, Taryn rolled onto her back so she could sit up. She looked across the lane to see what had struck her and found a steel dumpster had come away from the wall and was now askew in the middle of the lane, as if it had been pushed.
Taryn heard the skittering noise of a rat again, but this time it was louder. She realised it was because the rat sounded as if it was crawling up the back of the dumpster, its claws feet clanging against the steel. Instinct told her to run, but logic dismissed it as irrational, and Taryn watched as the rat crept up over the edge of the dumpster to perch itself on the led.
It took Taryn all of a heartbeat to realise it wasn't a rat.
Sickly yellow eyes stared, unblinkingly, at her and its hulking body seemed to hunch like a lion about to pounce on its prey. A tail appeared, flicking up from behind the creature and in the light of the street lamp somewhere behind her she saw that the tail was like thick, corded rope except the tip had been ripped back to reveal the bone underneath. Then the tail flicked back down, slamming into the side of the dumpster like a warning.
And it was a warning Taryn took.
Scrambling to her feet, Taryn tripped against the curb and caught the wall beside her before she could fall again. She turned for the mouth of the alley but the creature launched itself off the dumpster to land in front of her, blocking the escape. Taryn backed into the wall, her breathing sharp with panic, and when the creature lunged toward her she ducked quickly out of the way. The creature thudded to the wall and Taryn turned to face it, watching as it shook its head – which was shaped more like a crocodile's than a rat's – but Taryn didn't spare another second.
She ran, only to have something snag the back of her jacket. She heard it rip and tore herself free, glancing back to see the creature swallowing her jacket like a piece of meat. But the meal didn't distract it, and Taryn made it four paces before the creature leapt up onto the wall beside her and then launched itself at her like a ricocheting bullet.
Taryn didn't even get the chance to draw breath for a scream. She threw up her hands to shield her face and then collided with the ground, pain lancing through her back and chest from the impact. The creature's weight pinned her down and instinctively Taryn grabbed at it, something thick and oily coating her fingers. Jaws snapped at her, revealing razor teeth, and Taryn wasn't strong enough.
It reached for her, jaws closing around her throat – and then it stopped. Taryn dared to look at it, but it exploded in a cloud of dust and dirt before she could see what had happened to it. She turned on her side, coughing and gagging from the dust she had breathed in while her eyes watered, but from the corner of her eye she another shape loom over her. Her eyes were too blurry to see, and her throat was too raw to scream, but the shape leaned down, reaching for her, and she felt warm hands on her shoulder.
Then Taryn saw gold, the colour of gold glinting under the sun, and it was the last thing she saw before she slipped into darkness.