Original Chapters 1 & 2
This is back from the very first complete novel version of Sing Sweet Nightingale. The story changed so much from this point that very little of this remains canon within the Dream War world. Essentially only the basics: Mariella is bound to Orane by a vow of silence and Hudson has been kicked out of his home after the death of his little brother. Everything else no longer applies, but I thought it would be interesting for people to see where the story started once upon a time and how far it's come.
Sleeping is the best part of my day. Everything goes slowly downhill from there. Waking up, searching for new music, faking my way through school, studying useless information for hours, suffering through dinner. The only thing I look forward is the buildup of anticipation before it’s finally time to go to sleep.
Can you imagine living like that? What kind of life that would be? I can tell you right now.
It’s no life at all.
That’s why I’m trying so hard to make sure I spend the rest of my life asleep. Who wouldn’t if they had a choice between Paradise and Swallow’s Grove?
I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. In most people’s lives, this wouldn’t be a story that goes beyond that sentence. That’s it. I saw my mom at the grocery store this morning. The End. That, however, is not my life.
In my life, this event is much, much more complicated. Don’t believe me? Just watch. You’ll see.
Horace forgot that we were almost out of food, so he asked me to make a run for necessities. I don’t think twice about this because A) I don’t really have the right to refuse Horace such a simple request and B) it’s the grocery store. What can happen? I grab a cart at the door and start coasting through the aisles, automatically pulling our usual staples off the shelves as I pass. The normality of it, the routine of the actions lulls me into complacence; I don’t see the danger until it’s too late.
It’s the hair-raising tingle that alerts me first. My head snaps up and some inner sense I’ve always had immediately locks on to the watcher. I almost drop the glass jar of spaghetti sauce in my hand when my gaze meets my mom’s.
I haven’t seen her in months. To be more precise, I haven’t seen her in two months, twenty days, and eighteen hours. And that’s just the last time I saw her. The last time she saw me was two weeks previously when she told me in no uncertain terms in front of an entire hospital ward that she never wanted to see me again. She looks tired. Stressed. Her normally straightened hair is still curly and pulled back into a ponytail, and instead of stylish clothes of one name brand or another, she’s wearing an oversized shirt I recognize as my father’s and a pair of yoga pants. Even so, she’s a sight for sore eyes.
Indecision is a rarity in my character; my mind seems hardwired to use a fight or flight reaction to everything. Somehow, though, I’m locked in place, unable to approach and unable to retreat. Part of me—a very small part of me—hopes that seeing me will change her mind, that she’ll realize I couldn’t stop what happened and let me come home. That hope blooms just a little bit more when she shakes herself out of her shock and pushes her cart toward mine. That hope dies just as fast when I see the expression on her face.
She halts the cart so sharply that the whole thing rattles as she says, “You look like you’re doing well.” The disdain and fury are obvious in her voice. I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder, but I can’t let myself care because that’s a road that definitely goes nowhere.
I cannot think of a single thing to say that won’t make her even more furious with me, so I drop my eyes and say nothing. Unfortunately, that, too, makes her mad.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, Hudson Charles Vincent.” Her voice is low, barely carrying over the chatter and background noise of the store. I raise my eyes and that’s when she sees the change, the one obvious to everyone on the outside looking in.
“Holy hell!” she shrieks, stepping away so fast she slams back into the opposite shelf. Cans clatter off the shelf and boxes of pasta thud to the ground, but she doesn’t notice any of it. Her large hazel eyes are locked on mine; my eyes used to be mirror images of hers but now they look like orbs of onyx set in a human face. Like most people who have looked me directly in the eye for the past three months, my mother is terrified. She’s attracting attention of other shoppers, but since no one can tell what is actually going on, no one interferes.
“You stay away from here,” she orders, wrapping her arms around herself and scooting sideways as though I might grab her and… I don’t even know what. Tear her limb from limb in front of a store full of witnesses and security cameras? I know I have a violent history, but I’ve never hurt her. Not even when she almost deserved it. Watching her now, I’m surprised she doesn’t fall over she’s shaking so much.
“You stay away from us,” she screams. “Leave! I never want to see you again. You are not my son.”
After reaching what she must consider a safe distance, she turns around and runs like the furies are after her. I watch her go until I can’t see her anymore.
Groaning silently, I turn and see a couple employees cleaning up the mess. I’m careful not to meet their eyes as I bend down to retrieve a can of diced tomatoes that rolled under my cart. I really hope they won’t remember her little freak-out if she ever comes back in here.
Looking across the aisle, I see my mother’s cart. With her purse still sitting in the child seat. She’s going to need that, but since she always keeps her keys on a cord around her wrist, she probably won’t even miss it until she’s home. That’s another detail confusing me. She never used to shop in this store before. It’s miles from the house I grew up in.
I glance over my shoulder, glad to see the other shoppers are gone. They probably left as soon as my mom did. It bothers me a tiny bit I didn’t notice the movement; guess I was so wrapped up in the meeting that everything faded away. I need to pay better attention. What other horrors will I need to face before I learn I have to be ready for anything?
After one more check to make sure no one is around, I pull Mom’s wallet out of her purse and read her license. Well, that answers that question. She and Dad moved. As I replace the wallet, I make a mental note to tell Horace he either has to do all the shopping from now on, or we’ll have to find a new supermarket. It takes some maneuvering, but I manage to push her cart in front of me and pull mine behind until I reach the registers. I drop Mom’s cart in an empty lane, quickly explaining to a nearby cashier that I’ll be back for it.
Finishing my food run in record time—and now alert for even the minutest hint of menace—I hurry back to the registers.
As I pay and load the groceries into Horace’s silver and black Camaro, my thoughts are spinning in a million different directions. I’m thinking this is probably a horrible idea, a gesture of goodwill that will probably blow up in my face. I’m thinking Horace is going to start wondering where I am soon. I’m thinking I need to get out of Trenton, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.
I feel myself caught in the whirlpool of memories and they suck me into a dark recess in my own head, a place I’ve been trying to lock away for three months. All I want to do is drive the Camaro into a pit of quicksand, and let it suck me into blackness. But I don’t. And I won’t. Partially, because the car belongs to Horace and partially because the destruction of a ’69 Camaro SS would be abominable. Mostly, though, it’s because I know where I’ll end up when I die and I don’t see much difference between that and being alive. Hell is any place my baby brother isn’t. I drive toward my parent’s new house, trying to stop the flood of images floating in front of my eyes, but I know it’s a lost battle even before I start.
I see the three thugs sauntering forward as I enter the park with my brother. I see their faces twisted with anger and hatred. I see their fists descending over and over again as I’m powerless to stop them, trapped by the power I’d thought would be my salvation. I hear my brother’s cries for help. I see the glint of metal as they all pull out switchblades. I hear the scream as my baby brother attacks and catches a death-blow meant for me. I see my parents’ faces as they arrive at the hospital only to be told they’re too late to even say goodbye. I see my bags already packed and sitting on the front porch directly in front of the new locks installed on the door. I see his funeral from a distance and the shock of realizing that they even made coffins that small.
He’d never stood a chance. Neither of us had. Not when the one being who should have helped, the only person I’d ever counted on to help me with anything, had sat back and done nothing while my brother bled to death in my arms.
In a way, Horace felt responsible for my trouble. In a way, he was right. Saving Horace’s life four years ago had started a chain of events that had directly led to that morning in the park. I’d stepped in and stopped three gang kids from killing Horace. Horace’s testimony had put those kids in juvie and when they’d gotten out, well, they blamed me for their incarceration. It should have been obvious that Horace hadn’t actually had anything to do with the disintegration of the world as I knew it, but nothing I’ve come up with has convinced him of that. I see another not-so-rational conversation in our future when I tell him I’m leaving.
I turn onto their street and watch the houses pass until I find number 23. It has brick front and a two-car garage, something my mom had always wanted. Bigger than I expected, the house also looks like it comes with a fenced in backyard. A chill settles into my bones as pieces of random information slowly begin to form a picture I don’t want to see. She’d been sleeping a lot, even before the funeral. I remember hearing her throwing up one morning. They’d moved, but they picked a house perfect for a family just starting out. If I’m right about the timing, she should be showing by now, but the shirt she’d been wearing was so baggy, I could easily have missed it if I wasn’t looking. I slam on the brakes one house down from theirs as a cold kind of certainty washes over me: my mother is pregnant.
If I hadn’t been sure leaving was the right thing to do before, I am now. No way am I staying and risking another sibling of mine. I don’t think I could survive if anything happened to them. I don’t think my parents would survive either. Decision made, I let the car idle up to the house and shift into reverse, slowly pulling into the driveway and popping the trunk. I hope to be in and out before I run into anyone. My luck holds only until about half the groceries are sitting on the porch; then, my father arrives.
He stares at me as though I’m Big Foot before pulling into the garage and opening the door. As soon as I know he can hear me, I cut off whatever he’s about to say.
“I’m leaving as soon as I’m done with this. I ran into mom at the supermarket. I didn’t know you guys had moved. She freaked out and left her purse and her entire shopping cart, so I’m just bringing them back.”
He’s still staring at me with wide eyes, but he nods slowly which I take as a good sign. Then again, my mother had always been the dominant personality between the two of them. Dad would hide in the den before taking sides in an argument.
“Did you pay for it?”
I can see him already reaching for his wallet. I don’t want his money. “No,” I lie, if only to stop him. “She’d already paid.”
We stand there facing each other for a minute, hundreds of things left unsaid floating between us. I know I won’t be the one to break the silence, but when my dad opens his mouth I’m somewhat disappointed when all he says is, “I’ll start bringing that bunch inside, then.”
Dad passes by to go up to the porch and I find myself looking down at the crown of his head. No one could ever understand how two tiny people like my parents—both under five foot seven—had produced a son who finally topped out at six foot five. They were both petite, I was built like a linebacker. Only in coloring did I fit in—I have the same blond hair and hazel eyes as my mother. Well, at least I had her eyes before…
We work in silence for a while as I carry bags to the porch and he brings them inside the house. Neither of us comment on the arrangement that keeps me from stepping foot inside their home; I know he’s protecting his wife and her child. When at last I’ve unloaded the last bag, I close the trunk and turned to leave.
“Hudson? You have somewhere you’re staying, right? Not like… Not like last time?”
Last time. I’m vaguely surprised he’s bringing that up, the last time they kicked me out of their house. I’d been twelve and they passed me off to Social Services. I’d run away and lived on the streets for two and a half years. In a strange way, I suppose it’s touching that he worries about me at least that much. Just not enough to let me come home.
“Yeah. I’m staying with someone for now.”
“Good. Good.” He walks forward, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a stack of folded bills. He holds it out to me, but I shake my head and step away.
“I told you. She paid.”
“I already talked to her. I know she didn’t pay.” He holds the money out again and I know he won’t let up until I take it. As timid as the man usually is, he has a hidden stubborn streak that rivals even mine. “I would try to talk her around, you know, try to convince her to see reason if not for…”
“The baby,” I finish for him. “Yeah. I know.” I take the money, feeling as I do that he’s offering as much as he can and taking it will make him feel better. A quick glance shows me it’s twice what I paid for the groceries. “Congratulations.”
He nods, but I can’t tell how he really feels about it. I would have mixed emotions too, if I were in his shoes. “Thank you.” He looks up at me, really looks at me, and shudders before he looks away. “Hudson, I don’t know what happened to you, but I hope you’re going to be okay.”
“I’ll be fine. I know how to take care of myself.”
He flinches and I’m horrified to see a tear run down his cheek.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know you didn’t. But it’s true. And it’s because of us you had to learn.” He looks at me for a split second and holds up a finger. “Don’t leave just yet.”
Waiting while he rushes back into the house, I tuck the money into my wallet and lean back against the trunk of the car. This is a dangerous place for me to linger. I don’t want to be here, but my dad has never asked me for much, so I wait. A minute later, he reappears with a manila folder and what looks like a framed photo.
“I saved these from your mom’s rampage after that night at the hospital. I thought she might tear them up or burn them, but you need to have these.”
I take the folder and look inside. It’s my birth certificate, my social security card, my passport, my legal identity. Possible to replace, but expensive and time consuming.
“And this.” He hands me the frame and my throat instantly locks. It’s a picture of me and J.R. from the park last year. He’s on my shoulders, his tiny arms wrapped under my chin like a hatband to keep from falling off, and he’s laughing. He was always laughing. And he could always make me laugh.
“Thank you,” I whisper. He couldn’t have given me a better present.
“I hope you find someplace better than this, Hudson. I hope you find what you need.” He says it, but he still can’t look at me in the eye. He doesn’t understand what my eyes mean and it frightens him. I frighten him. He wipes his eyes and sighs.
Somehow, without me saying a thing, he already knows I’m leaving town. I step back, adding physical distance to the figurative miles that already lie between us. Even if he asked, I already know there’s no going back. Not now, not ever. This is probably the last day I’ll see either of them ever again and all I feel is relief. Relief that I won’t have to worry about hurting them anymore. Relief that my last action on their behalf is a gesture of goodwill, that I’m closing the door on a slightly more positive note. I take a deep breath and offer him the only other thing I have.
“If you think she’ll listen, tell Mom I didn’t mean to scare her. I never wanted to hurt her.”
“I know you didn’t, son.” He pauses and takes a hesitant step forward as though he’s going to reach out for me, but he seems to change his mind. He rocks back on his heels and crosses his arms over his chest, his eyes focused on the house across the street. “I think you mother knows that too. Or she will once she’s able to step back from it all.”
And then that’s it. Neither of us has anything else to say. I get into the Camaro and leave it all behind. For good this time.
Mari: Chapter 1, Version 3
A few versions into the revision process, Mariella's first chapter became a full-length section. It still wasn't right--still wasn't what needed to be the opening of the story--but it was a step I needed to take.
Here you get a look at another piece of the development of Mariella's character. She was especially hard for me to pin down (to find a balance between distant/reserved/determined and bitchy/cruel/ignorant) and I hadn't quite managed to find that sweet spot yet when I wrote this. Keep that in mind when you're reading!
Most people know words can hurt, but they probably aren’t aware silence can inflict just as much pain. I wish I could say I was one of them. I haven’t spoken in four years and every word I haven’t uttered hurts my parents more than yelling at them would. Every minute of my silence is like another dose of a slow-working poison that’s leeching the color and the joy out of their life. But I’ve made a promise that means even more to me than their suffering. To keep my promise and to minimize the damage I do, I’ve distanced myself from them. From everything.
It’s entirely possible to walk through the world as you would a dream. It takes a lot of practice and the ability to separate part of your mind from reality, but it’s possible. What surprised me once I mastered this art is that it gives the world a quiet sort of splendor, almost like an impressionist painting.
I push the remaining food around my plate with the edge of my fork and let my parent’s conversation wash over me in a soothing hum. They refuse to allow me to listen to my iPod at dinner, but I’ve learned over the years to find a quiet kind of music in the cadence of their voices. If I tune out the words and only listen to the pitch and tone, it’s almost beautiful.
Until, of course, one of them attempts to bring me into the conversation.
“Mariella? Right, Mariella?”
I look up at my mother, a woman who still doesn’t understand nothing she can say will convince me to speak. Nothing’s worked in four years and she keeps trying. What she doesn’t know is I promised my silence to the man I love, and I fully intend to keep that vow. Even if my mother knew my secrets, though, she still wouldn’t give up hope. She’s convinced she can find a way to bring her only child out of self-imposed silence. Why can’t she see her attempts only cause both of us pain? Honestly, I find her persistence both endearing and unendurable.
Her brown eyes widen when I meet her gaze—surprise she caught my attention maybe?—but she continues with her statement levelly enough.
“I wasn’t sure if you heard what I was telling your dad. About the music festival coming to Syracuse in November?”
Not this again. She’s planning a lot further ahead than usual. Most of the time they spring things like this on me, but November is still months away. My gaze drifts to my father who is sitting across the table pretending not to be intently focused on the conversation. He doesn’t play it off well. His entire body is angled in my direction, and even though his eyes are locked on his plate, his fork hasn’t moved in at least a minute.
I want to groan and drop my head onto the table, but even that much of a reaction would send the wrong message. My parents have both taken my silence hard and I feel bad about that—in fact, it’s my one regret—but they’ve tried tempting me with music before and it’s never worked. It only leads to disappointment for them—for them and for me—and adds to the guilt I carry.
Glancing back at my mother, I can see she won’t let this one drop until I actually acknowledge the statement. No matter what I do she’ll misinterpret my meaning, so I shake my head and go back to rearranging my dinner. The guilt is already gnawing at the lining of my stomach, burning and making me feel nauseas. What little appetite I had is now completely gone.
My mother takes a deep breath and even without looking I can hear the strained smile on her face. Her voice always raises half an octave when she’s faking a smile.
“Well, I heard from the music teacher at your school that there are going to be quite a few special concerts this year.” She pauses, probably waiting for me to respond. I pretend to amuse myself by building a castle out of my mashed potatoes, hoping she’ll drop the topic.
“Mr. Niles—that’s the music teacher, Mari, you remember?—he said the lineup is impressive. Even Michele Ward is going to be there. Do you remember her? You used to sing her songs all the time.”
Why does she do this to herself? I stopped singing even before I stopped talking. At least, that she knows of. Without looking at her, I shake my head again. If only I could explain to her why I’ve retreated from the world. If only she understood that my silence isn’t her fault, rather something I had to do in spite of her. But I’m not allowed to talk about my reasons and even if I could, I don’t think she’d believe me. Not many people would. It’s hard to believe in something you’ve never seen before.
Both my parents expel a heavy breath at the same time and the air is suddenly tinged with their disappointment. It tastes like copper in the back of my throat and it feels thick, almost like I’m trying to pull oxygen out of smog. It’s suffocatingly strong tonight, much stronger than usual, but I don’t dare leave before they do. They’ll only make me come back downstairs to do the dishes. I know. I’ve tried it before. Anyway, it’s not as though the gates of Paradise will open any earlier tonight. The doorway only exists at midnight.
“Well, think about it, Mari,” my mother says. Her voice has lost that edge of optimism I’d heard in it earlier. I’m glad, but at the same time I hate that I’ve disappointed her again. “I can always take you if you change your mind.”
I manage another few bites of food in the silence while my parents muster the strength to force a new round of conversation. It doesn’t take them long tonight. By now they’re used to living with disappointment. Closing my eyes, I wish I could disappear.
Once they start talking again, I tune out and my left hand drops to the pocket of my hoodie where my glass nightingale rests. The tiny glass bird slips comfortably into my hand and I gently run my thumb along its back, the movement soothing and familiar. There are so many memories attached to its crystalline form. I lose track of time reliving them while I wait for this punishment to end.
My father’s voice jerks me out of my reverie.
“Will you help with the dishes?”
He phrases it like a request, but it’s not really. It never has been, but he always says it like that. As though walking away is truly an option. Does he really think I’m capable of inflicting more pain on them by refusing?
I don’t acknowledge his words, but I pick up my plate and push my chair back from the table. This has all become routine and I can easily gather the dirty plates from the table without seeing anything in front of me. In my mind, I’m not here; I’m in a world no one else knows exists. It’s a world of magic and possibilities and secrets and it’s the reason this gulf exists between my parents and me. They haven’t been chosen by that world. I have.
My father dries while I wash. Part of me wonders if he does this night after night because he honestly likes our routine or just to make sure I don’t have any extra time alone. I can tell just by looking into his eyes spending time together hurts him just as much as it hurts me. At least he seems content with what I’m willing to give. Unlike my mother who’s constantantly pushing and pulling at me, trying to change my mind and change who I am.
When he places the last dry dish into the cupboard and closes the door, I turn toward the stairs, waiting for my final permission to flee.
He sighs and says, “Goodnight, Mari,” releasing me at last.
I dart for the stairs, running up them much faster than I descended almost two hours ago. Once I’m locked inside my bedroom, I move through my nightly ritual on autopilot, my mind already walking through Paradise with the man I love. What else but love would make it worth the boredom, loneliness, and pain I suffer in the “real” world?
When I lay down to sleep, I wonder if it’d really be so horrible to let my parents take me to the festival. I won’t enjoy it the way they want me to—how can I when the acoustics will be horrible compared to what I’m used to? Plus, I’ll be forced to listen to the music while pressed in on all sides by thousands of people who think consonance is the opposite of a vowel. But my parents would enjoy it and it may be one of the last gifts I can give them.
Paradise smells of gardenias, which is something that’s always amused me; I’ve never seen a single gardenia here. Opening my eyes, I reach for the end of my braid that dangles by my knees and unravel my golden-blonde hair as my gaze roams the vista that never fails to take my breath away.
A narrow, cobblestone path runs through an orchard of cherry trees in full blossom, their flowers not only the usual whites and pinks, but a wild rainbow of reds, blues, and golds. Wrapped tightly around the trunks of these trees is a field of wild lavender, lilac, and forget-me-nots, their blooms blending into a blanket of blues, purples, and greens. The sky above is trapped in a perpetual twilight, never fully dark, but never quite day. The beauty of this world is amazing, but my favorite part is the one in the distance.
At the end of the stone path on the edge of a crystal-blue lake stands a towering willow tree with a curtain of bright green leaves. A replica of my favorite place in the waking world—one of my few sanctuaries there—the tree’s natural drapery protects a chaise lounge where my love, Orane, waits for me.
His shoulder-length auburn hair is blowing in the gentle breeze and when his violet eyes meet mine he smiles and steps forward. That step is the only encouragement I need to lift the hem of my red silk nightgown and run toward him. Trees fly past in a blur as I cross the seemingly vast expanse in seconds. Time and distance mean nothing here. All that matters are dreams and whether or not you have the will to make them real.
Once I’ve nearly reached him, I let my nightgown drop and launch myself into his arms. Orane laughs and catches me easily, spinning me in a circle as his soft lips find mine. Even after four years, his kiss sends a frisson of energy down my spine and I can barely contain the desire to slip my hands under his linen shirt and finally explore skin that has been forbidden for so long. But I don’t because I know well that Orane’s sense of propriety is almost strong enough to suit a Victorian English maiden’s chaperon.
As though he can read the turn my thoughts have taken, Orane gently places my feet on the ground and takes my hands, holding me at a distance as his eyes take me in from the roots of my golden-blonde hair to my pink-painted toes.
“Tell me about your day, Mariella.” He steps backward, leading me to the chaise. “What ills has the world placed on your poor shoulders today?”
Orane sits down first and gently pulls me down in front of him. Before I can explain that today really was uneventful, his talented hands start massaging my shoulders. I sigh with pleasure and let my head fall forward while I sweep my hair over my shoulder and out of the way. Tension I didn’t even realize I held on to slowly eases out of my muscles as Orane fingers work in deep, slow circles along my back. As he works, I think back to my parents’ conversation at dinner. Did all this stress come simply from that one encounter? I sigh again as he continues to work, but this time the sound isn’t nearly so pleased.
“What is it?” Orane asks, shifting closer and leaning down to leave a kiss on my bare shoulder. “You can tell me everything, you know.”
I smile and turn my head to rest my cheek against his hand for a moment. “I know.”
“So, what has you in such a tangle tonight, my nightingale.”
Even knowing I can trust Orane my darkest secrets, I’ve always felt guilty complaining about my parents. He’s never met them, and never will, so even when I’m frustrated with them for attempting to pull me back into a world that holds no interest, I can’t justify saying only horrible things about them. Their motives are pure even if their understanding is excusably flawed.
“School starts on Tuesday,” I finally say, grasping onto something worrisome enough in its own way. Summer has been blissfully quiet. Being able to delve into music theory and music history during the day and share everything I’d learned with Orane each night has been wonderful. But in two days I will be forced to re-enter the world of juvenile gossip, academic and social pressure, and unreasonable expectations otherwise known as highschool.
“So it does.” His fingers make one last pass at the knots on my shoulders before drifting to my hair. I shift to let him pull the long strands into his lap. The gentle stroke of his touch would lull me to sleep if I wasn’t already sleeping. “Is there some new requirement worrying you?”
“No,” I admit. “But I still don’t want to go.”
“Just remember what I always tell you, Mariella. They can only hurt you if you let them close enough to do so. Humanity is full of deceit and hatred. Children can be especially cruel. There are few exceptions and I have seen none in your town save you.”
It took me a long time to admit he was right, but once I did I couldn’t go back to seeing the world as anything but tainted. “Don’t worry. I remember.”
We sit in silence for a moment and, as Orane continues to run his fingers through my hair, I wonder if I’ve avoided bringing my parents up tonight. I should know better by now. I can’t hide anything from him.
“That is not your only worry. What else troubles you?”
For a moment, I imagine making something up, but then I remember who I’m talking to and I relent.
“Dinner with my parents wasn’t fun. They want to take me to a music festival in a couple months and I just… I don’t know. I kind of want to go.” When I tilt my head back to look up at him, I’m disheartened but not surprised to see the thin set to his lips. There’s only one thing I can try to sooth his disappointment and, oddly enough, it’s the same card my parents tried to play on me. “Michele Ward is going to be there and you know how you love it when I sing her songs. She might have something new.”
Orane finally smiles. “You would already own a copy were that the case.”
He has a point. Still, remembering my mother’s crestfallen expression makes my chest ache. I resort to desperate measures and actually ask. “Couldn’t I go? It would mean a lot to my parents.”
“Mariella, nightingale…” He trails off and the corners of his eyes turn down making him look ancient and weary. “You know I can deny you nothing. Of course you can go if you wish, but have you thought of your parents?”
Of course I thought of them. Why else would I ask to go? But he seems to have realized something I haven’t seen yet. “How do you mean?”
“Well, I—” He presses his lips together and shakes his head, his auburn hair swaying across his shoulders and his violet eyes looking so sad. “It is not important. Of course you should go.”
I turn around, pulling myself to my knees to face him. “No, tell me. What is it?”
Orane sighs and tries to pull me close, but I resist, staring into his eyes until he acquiesces.
“It has been so long since you have participated in their plans, I worry doing so now might only raise their hopes, excite their expectations.” He pauses and his words filter through my mind and settle like a rock in my stomach. “They might hope for other changes and it will only hurt them more when you do not return to them.”
All else is forgotten with Orane’s final words. I hold my breath as hope flutters like butterflies over my skin. For years I’ve begged him to let me stay with him in Paradise forever and though he’s always hinted at the possibility, he’s never spoken of it as reality. Or even as a forgone conclusion. I’ve given up my friends, my family, and my voice to make the eventual separation easier. I’ve endured therapists and school counscelers and dozens of meaningless labels and diagnoses that never come anywhere near the truth. Here at last is the light at the end of the tunnel, the goal that makes all the pain of the last four years worthwhile.
“Orane, do you mean it?” I breathe. “When?”
He glances away and smiles sheepishly, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. “There you go again, Mariella. How do you always make me ruin my surprises for you?”
I press closer, wrapping my arms around his neck and sitting on his lap. “Oh, who cares about surprises? Do you mean it? Please, tell me you mean it.”
He pulls back, just far enough to stare into my eyes. “Have I ever lied to you, my nightingale?”
“No, never.” In the ten years I’ve known him, from the first time he visited my dreams, Orane has been my trustworthy confidant, my strongest supporter, my best friend. He has become the standard by which I measure myself and everything in the “real” world. Nothing even comes close. Not even me. “But when Orane?”
Orane wraps his arms around me and shifts me more comfortably on his lap. “You already ruined one surprise. Will you not let me have any pleasures?”
“Orane, please?” I whisper against his skin, brushing kisses along the line of his jaw. “Please?”
Orane laughs, a low rumbling sound that echoes through his chest. “All I will tell you, my impatient girl, is it will be soon.”
I sit up, adrenaline shooting through my veins like lightning. “Soon? How soon?”
“No. You shall not trick another word from my lips.” He grins at me and touches the tip of my nose with his finger. “Not another word.”
He cuts me off in the simplest and most effective way: with a kiss.
I melt into his arms, shivers of fire and ice chasing each other up my arms and down my body. His hands run through my hair and trace patterns of my arms and I feel like my skin can no longer contain me. His touch has me shooting in a million directions at once and I don’t come back together until he finally pulls away.
“That’s better,” he whispers, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.
I blink, confused. What were we talking about? He must see my blank expression because he laughs and lifts me into his arms, standing from the chaise in one smooth motion and placing my feet on the ground. My head is spinning and I lean on him for support. How can his kisses still affect me like this? Four years and it still feels like the first time.
Once I’ve caught my breath, I look up into his eyes. “You’re not going to escape so easily, you know. I still want to know.”
Orane smiles and his hands slide down my arms until his fingers link with mine. “I am sure you do. But enough talking for tonight. Will you sing for me, sweet nightingale?”
I glance over my shoulder at the stone façade of the opera hall he built for me almost ten years ago. The cream-colored marble is carved in intricate designs and dark-wood doors stand open, ready to accept us. Even without closing my eyes, I can picture the interior. I helped him design it all. Statues stand in nooks along the walls and hundreds of seats covered in red velvet fill the auditorium. A luxuriously soft black velvet curtain hangs from the proscenium arch and even though the orchestra pit sits empty, the finest music you’ve ever heard will rise into the air the moment I begin to sing.
We leave the protection of the willow and I pick up the hem of my ruby nightgown, draping it and the ends of my hair over my arm to keep them from trailing in the water as we walk along the edge of the lake. As I listen to Orane tell me about the modifications he’s made to the acoustics within my opera hall—the better to amplify my natural talent, he promises—I realize he’s right. Going to the festival with my parents would only lead them to hope for a change that will never come. Especially not now when Orane is finally saying soon. Soon.
Orane leads me through the door, down the aisle of the auditorium and up to the stage. Only once I’m in place does he retreat into the darkness of the orchestra seats, his face lost under the glow of the stage lights.
I concentrate on the song we chose and the first strains of music fill the air. When the time comes, I close my eyes, open my mouth, and pour my heart into my song. I sing for what feels like hours and all I know is I never want to leave this place.
Soon can’t come soon enough.
Hudson: Original Dream
This was originally part of chapter four in an early version (three or so) of the novel. The action is the same as what happens in the book, but only in that Hudson has a dream that guides him to Swallow's Grove. In this version of the book, he makes that move alone. Horace still helps, but he doesn't travel with him.
I’ve heard people say they have a hard time getting up in the morning. It’s the opposite for me. I have a hard time letting myself go to sleep. In sleep I lose control of my own mind and the dark memories I’ve been trying so hard to erase escape the box I’ve locked them in and plague me incessantly. I can fight it for a while, but eventually I succumb. The only upside is I don’t sleep much. An hour unconscious is all I need to keep going. Only one hour of absolute torture before I can wake up and go back to living in the muted version of hell my life has become. It wasn’t enough to destroy my life, the dream demons had to steal any chance of a break from the waking world, too.
Taking a deep breath, I sit down on my bed. This is ridiculous. I didn’t even make it a full day this time. It was only this afternoon that I had my last episode. I pushed it too hard and now I’m going to pay. Two hours of sleep in one day. My eyes are already heavy, like my subconscious is claiming victory. Even before my head hits the pillow, I’m drifting into a dream. For the first time in three months, though, I’m not in a place I recognize. This isn’t a memory.
I step through the double doors and breathe the air-conditioned coolness with a sigh of relief. Even in the northeast, summer can be brutal. Walking through the hall, I try to absorb the normality of the décor around me. Lockers line walls interspersed with classroom doors and corkboards displaying announcements, rules, and awards. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, it’s a familiar setting and that makes it comfortable. The papers I’m holding in my hand crinkle as my grip tightens, nervous I won’t be able to pull this off, but as soon as I take a breath and open the door to the main office, I know I won’t have any problems.
After filling out the forms the office assistants request, I return to the desk and wait, forcing myself to hold the horribly vulnerable position of having my back to the door. My overly alert senses warn me someone is approaching the entrance, but I still hold. The door opens and closes and I tense, automatically waiting for an attack that, this time, doesn’t come. I release my breath and refocus on the assistant in front of me. She says something and though I miss the exact words, I understand I should turn around to meet the person standing behind me. For some reason this notion sets off every danger alarm in my body. I barely regain control of myself enough to turn and see what lies behind.
My vision is unfocused, like I’m trying to see through warped glass. I can make out dark, baggy clothes and a profusion of wheat-gold hair. I blink and the image clears slightly, enough for me to see her pale skin, dark eyes, and full lips.
I open my mouth to speak, but she shakes her head and looks down. I follow her gaze, horrified to see flames swallow her shoes and slowly climb up her legs.
I try to grab her shoulders and lift her free of the danger, but I can’t move. It feels like my feet are stuck in quick-dry cement and my arms locked to my side with superglue. Just when my confusion and my terror peak the girl opens her mouth and screams. I don’t hear a sound, but I can feel it like a sonic wave washing over me. It shakes me out of my paralysis enough that my upper body is free, but my feet are still locked to the floor. I reach for her, trying to pull her free of the flames, but it’s too far. I can’t make it.
“Let me help you!” I scream. The sound of my own voice doesn’t register, but she seems to hear me. She stops screaming, closes her eyes and points to a corkboard on the wall. I can’t see it clearly, but certain words jump out at me as though I’m seeing them through a telescope lens.
Suddenly, the fire roars higher. My heart starts pounding as I wrench out of whatever has me pinned to the floor. Lunging across the space between us, I reach into the fire, ignoring the burning pain and the smoke that completely obscures my vision. Blindly I search until my burning hands meet something solid. I don’t know what or who it is, but I can’t stand the heat any more. Wrapping my hands around it, I pull as hard as I can.
It’s her. I clutch her tight as we stumble backward out of the flames until my back slams against the counter, bringing me up short. My breathing and my pulse are still running at triple speed. The girl is shuddering violently but there’s nothing I can do. I look down and everything seems to stop, including my heart.
I am looking down into agonized eyes the color of milk chocolate. Her hands clutch my shirt and her mouth is forming words but I can’t read lips. Somehow she sees I can’t understand her. Bringing her hands up to my face, she grabs my head and tilts it toward her. Tears the color of blood escape her eyes and her hands brand my cheeks with fire that seems to come from inside her skin. I try to pull away, but she holds me tight, still trying to talk. Forcing myself to ignore the pain, I concentrate on making out what she’s saying.
“Help me,” she’s pleading. “Find me. Help me, Hudson.”
The fire bursts out of her skin. I see visions of things I don’t understand, a lake, a demon, a girl sitting under a willow tree. She vanishes into a puff of smoke and dust and I’m left feeling as though I’ve lost something precious. Then the room goes black.
I bolt out of bed, every sense alert for the threat. It takes me a moment to realize there isn't one. What was that dream about? Usually I remember my dreams, but like my dream yesterday afternoon, this one is gone. In fact, the more I try to remember a piece of it, any piece of it, the more I feel as though I’m chasing a drop of water as it gets sucked down a drain. Only the fact that I don’t feel like I’ve been running through a gauntlet assures me this wasn’t a visit from the demons. Even if I’ve survived those encounters, I don’t come out without some new wound to show for it. Whatever this was, it’s different. New. Sketching seemed to help a little bit last time. Maybe doing it again will help me figure out what in the hell that willow tree is supposed to mean.
Gathering my sketchpad and my broken pencil, I breathe in cycles of four and let my mind go blank. My hand moves without conscious command and I feel the lines forming on the paper. More detailed this time, the strokes shorter. It takes longer this time, but at last my hand stops moving.
I can’t tell for sure but I think I’m looking at the person I saw under the willow tree. They’re standing in what might be an office or a classroom, their face and their figure obscured by the shadow of an oversized hoodie. The hands reaching out seem to pop right off the page. I look down at their feet. I drew this person standing in a ring of fire.
A small part of my mind hoped the image of the willow tree was some kind of message from my brother telling me he’s okay, but if this second dream is from the same person, whoever it is is far from okay. But what am I supposed to do without a face or a name to work with? And why waste my time trying to find someone that might not exist? My mind is probably just coming up with new ways to torture me in my sleep. For now, putting it aside seems like the best idea, so I check the time to make sure Horace will be awake, pull on a t-shirt, and head downstairs.
I find Horace standing in the middle of his kitchen bouncing back and forth between the skillet on the stove, a counter full of chopped vegetables and fruit, a toaster, and a waffle iron.
“Perfect timing, kid. Grab a seat. Everything will be up in a sec.”
I sit on a stool at the small island countertop and watch him put the finishing touches on breakfast. I’m going to miss Horace, which is why I put off telling him I’m leaving. He could see that something was bothering me yesterday, but he knows it’s best to leave things like that alone. I’ll tell him if he needs to know. This, he needs to know.
A few minutes later I’m working my way through breakfast and Horace is watching me out the corner of his eye. He’s like a mother hen that doesn’t want her chicks to know she cares. His patience does have limits though and he’s apparently only willing to wait long enough for the dishes to be put away before he starts grumbling.
“Spill it, boy. Seriously, with the way you dance around the point you’d think I had all the time in the world left. I’m old, Hud. Might die before you even start talkin’.”
“I doubt it,” I tell him.
He grunts. “What happened?”
Taking a deep breath, I let it all go. “I saw my mother yesterday.”
I watch the emotional battle play across his face. Years ago, over three decades ago, Horace lost his daughter in a car accident with a drunk driver. This means he knows what it's like to lose a child and can empathize, but he can't even begin to understand willingly losing a second by cutting off all ties. “Even if my Greg had been driving the car that hit Honor’s,” he’d raged when he took me in two months ago, “I still wouldn’t have dropped him like those…”
He never let himself finish the sentence because no matter how angry my parents’ decision made him, they were still my parents and didn’t want to insult people he’s never technically met.
On his face I can see anger, guilt, curiosity. I watch him decide curiosity is probably the safer emotion right before he asks again, “What happened?”
For less than a second I want to tell him the whole story, every single thing, but I don’t. It’ll only piss him off. Instead, I tell him the only thing he needs to know.
“She’s pregnant. Probably about five months along now.”
Shock drains the expression from his face. When he seems able to process the information again he starts counting on his fingers, probably making sure the timeline is right. “She was pregnant when she lost JR?”
“Je-sus H Christ.” He rubs his face again. “I don’t know if I should feel glad or sad. No wonder that woman went off the deep end.”
I take a breath and just hope he takes the next part as well. “I have to leave, Horace. I need to get out of Trenton.”
“What!” He shoots to his feet, his face quickly flushing red. “She can’t run you out of the city! She ain’t no queen to be ordering the peasants to come and go, I don’t care if she is pregnant!”
I almost smile. From mother hen to mama bear in the blink of an eye. “She didn’t tell me to go,” I lie. “I decided to leave when I found out about the baby.”
“It’s a baby, not an atom bomb!” he yells, slamming his hand down on the table. “You ain’t gotta go runnin’ for cover just cause there’s gonna be a baby. This is your town as much as it is theirs. Don’t you let them run you out of here. They ain’t got no say over who lives in my house. That’s why it’s my house.”
“I know that. I’m not leaving because of the baby. I’m leaving for the baby.” He knows the full story. He carries the same guilt I do because of actions out of either of our control. If anyone is going to understand, it’s Horace. “Bad luck follows me. I’m a dangerous person to be around. If someone is old enough to know the danger and accept that, fine, but I can’t and won’t put another innocent life at risk.”
“Hogwash,” Horace mutters, but I can see his mind spinning. He’s looking for an argument, any argument strong enough to counter the one I’d just laid out. “You leaving won’t change anything. If something bad is going to happen to that kid, it’s going to happen whether or not you live in Trenton,” he argues. “All you’re doing is depriving them of their older brother.”
Maybe. Maybe not. “I can’t take that chance.”
“Shit.” He starts pacing and running his hand over the bald crown of his head. “And I can’t go with you. You know I’d like to, but I can’t leave.”
“Not asking you to. I’ll figure it out. I just wanted you to know.”
He stops short and stares at me as though I told him he’d look cute in a sparkly pink tutu. “You don’t honestly believe I’m gonna let you just fall out of this house and hope you land on your feet, do you? I know you ain’t that stupid, kid.”
I can already see his stubborn streak kicking in and I don't think I'll be able to defeat it without sneaking out in the middle of the night. “I know how to take care of myself,” I try to tell him.
“Just ‘cause you know how to be alone doesn’t mean you should be on your own.”
“I have some money saved. Really, Horace, I’ll be fine.”
“Some money?” he scoffs. “What, five? Eight hundred dollars? How far do you think that’s going to get you? You gotta think about transportation. You gonna buy a car? All your money is already gone, then. You gonna take the bus or jump on a plane? Most of your money—gone. Hitchhiking? No one in their right mind will pick up someone on the side of the road, especially not someone who looks like they can tear a phone book in half. And that’s just getting outta Trenton. What happens when you get where you’re going? You gotta worry about rent and utilities and insurance. You gotta find a job to pay for all that, but you gotta have an address to get a job most of the time. You’re gonna need gas, and food, and clothes. And what about school? You were gonna try to go back to high school this year, Hud. What about that? You can’t make enough money to live on if you gotta be in class all day every day.”
My stomach sinks slightly with each point he makes. I always planned to leave, but I thought I’d have more time to save up. I thought I’d be able to leave next summer, after I went back to high school and finally graduated. Without leaning on Horace’s generosity, I’m going to have to fall back on old ways of life, old—and not-quite-legal—habits I was more than happy to leave behind. Maybe I should consider it penance.
“I can manage.”
Suddenly, Horace is leaning across the table, his face only inches from mine. “What if I told you I was a millionaire, Hudson? What if you taking my money wouldn’t be putting the least pinch on my pocket?”
I look around the first floor of his three-bedroom house. It’s spacious enough, but the place shows the wear and tear of generations. The neighborhood surrounding us isn’t the worst of places, but it definitely leaves a lot to be desired. I look back at Horace and raise an eyebrow. A millionaire? He can’t come up with a better lie than that?
“Goddamn it,” he growls, pushing off the table again. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to judge by appearances? Haven’t you ever heard of living below your means?”
“This is way below your means then.”
He gets quiet as he looks around the house. “It’s Dorothy’s. She was born in this house and she died in this house. I can’t abandon it.”
We sit there silently for a minute as I try to imagine Horace as a millionaire. It doesn’t fit. Finally, I ask, “You’re not really a millionaire, are you, Horace?”
His eyebrow quirks up. “Maybe. Maybe not. The point is I ain’t gonna starve because I’m missing what little you’re willing to take. This house has been paid for for years. I don’t have payments on either of the cars. I have social security and my retirement plan and all I need to pay for is eats, electric, and entertainment. It won’t bother me any to set you up in a studio apartment somewhere, Hudson. You can at least let me do that much.”
Let him do that much. As though I’m doing him a favor. Still, unless I want to set myself back another few years, taking him up on his offer is the logical choice. At least both of us know going into this that I won’t accept anything beyond the necessities of life.
“All right. You win.”
“As if there was any doubt I would,” he says with a snort, but he’s smiling underneath the bravado. I don’t think he believed I’d give in so fast. And if my need to get out of this town wasn't growing by the second, I probably would have given him a better fight.
“Now, where you heading?” he asks.
A valid question. “I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
“Kids these days,” he grumbles as he stalks into his office. “Not a practical bone in their bodies.”
I follow him into the room in time to watch him turn on his computer and pull up Google maps. Then, he turns to me and says, “Better start figuring it out.”
I sit there staring at the computer screen the rest of the day, mostly looking at cities west of the Mississippi; I am, after all, looking for something that won’t remind me of home. If that’s the case, why would I want to stay in the northeast? I look at satellite images and resident reviews of cities like San Francisco, Denver, Austin, Santa Fe, and Minneapolis waiting for something to call out to me and say “Here. This is where you need to be.” I feel somewhat mystified by my own belief in signs, a belief that seems to come from nowhere. I’ve always thought of “signs” as a way for idiots to blame their mistakes on something other than themselves. Why am I expecting one now?
Suddenly, an odd sort of tingling runs down my arm, the kind of feeling you get when a limb falls asleep and you can't quite tell if it's still attached to your body. It's disconcerting to say the least and I find myself staring at my hand as it moves like Thing from The Adams Family, practically with a mind of its own. Weird things have happened since my fight with the dream demons the night JR died—like my ridiculous sensitivity to light and sound—but this is insane. I look back at the screen and see I'm scrolling back to the very place I don’t want to be. I center over upstate New York and zoom closer and closer until I find myself staring at a tiny dot east of Lake Ontario, less than an hour south of the Canadian border: a tiny town called Swallow’s Grove. It’s just a dot on the map, a tiny grid of streets, but “Here,” the place seems to say. “This is where you need to be.”
“Horace,” I call, knowing he’s nearby. I wait until he settles over my shoulder and point to the screen. “There.”
“Swallow’s Grove, Swallow’s Grove…” Horace mumbles to himself. “Boy could go anywhere and he picks a little bit of nothing like Swallow’s Grove. Now why do I know that particular bit of nothing?”
It takes him a minute to remember, but eventually it clicks.
“Greg!” he yells. “Gotta call Greg.”
His son, Horace Gregory Lawson IV, refuses to answer to anything but Greg. I don’t know a lot about him, only the basics: he’s in his mid-fifties, works in real estate or real estate development or something. He married young, divorced a decade later, and during their marriage his wife gave birth to an amazing number of children for such a short time span. Horace is eight times a grandfather including two sets of twins, one pair identical, one pair fraternal. He also has three great-grandchildren already. None of them live within a hundred miles of him.
I listen with half an ear as Horace starts asking his son questions about Swallow’s Grove, but begin to pay more attention to the conversation when I realize it’s centered around an apartment building in the middle of the town. Apparently, Greg bought a complex and renovated it six months ago, something he’s been doing in lots of small, underdeveloped towns.
“Horace Gregory Lawson the fourth, don’t you dare give me that horseshit,” Horace barks. “I’m not asking for a handout! It’ll be paid for.”
I go back to the computer and zoom in on Swallow's Grove again. Not understanding my own decision is unsettling. Did I know Greg owns an apartment building there? I don't think so. There was no flicker of recognition when I stared at the town for the first time, just an overwhelming sensation of purpose, of rightness. Searching the town street by street, I wait for that feeling again. It doesn't come.
"His name? Hudson Vincent." I look up as Horace pauses, obviously listening to whatever Greg was saying. Whatever it was, it makes Horace stop short and blink. "Yeah, the same kid." He pauses again and his eyes widen for a second before I begin to see the glint of tears there. "Thank you, Greg-o."
His lips thin and he shakes his head as he scoffs, "Parents. For all intents and purposes, that's me. Though, the kid's eighteen, so I don't think it matters any."
I refocus on my examination of the map, trying to learn the layout of the town. Should be easy given that it's a fraction the size of Trenton. I locate the school, the bank, the supermarket, and an area outside of town that looks like it may be a good place to go running—all the necessities of my life.
“You’re sure? Tuesday? That soon?” I look up to see Horace staring out the window, his hands stuffed in his pockets as he holds the phone between his cheek and he shoulder. “No, I’m just surprised you can get everything set up so fast is all. That’s perfect. I think the sooner the better in his head.”
They wander off topic, talking about Greg’s kids and catching up on family news, so I start thinking about logistics. It’s Sunday now, so I only have to lay low for twenty-four hours. I think I can manage to avoid my parents for another twenty-four hours. But, first…
As soon as Horace hangs up the phone, I say, “You really don’t have to pay for anything.”
“Boy, I thought I told you—”
I hold up a hand to stop him. “You did. I just want to make sure you’re sure.”
“I’m not getting into this with you again.” And so he doesn’t. He starts something new. “And while I’ve gotten you to shut up about it, you’re taking the Camaro.”
Did I just hear that right? He can’t have just given me a car like it’s a party favor. “Horace—”
“I just said I’m not getting into this again!”
I close my eyes, reaching for patience. “This is a different conversation.”
“Kid, you’re gonna need a car. I always meant to give it to one of the grandkids, but none of them seemed to like it much,” he says, his eyebrows furrowed. “Their loss, I guess.”
I wait a moment, trying to find a single argument that will work on him when his lips suddenly purse and his head tilts. He focuses his eyes sharp on me and asks, “How did you know Greg had a building there, Hud? He told me about that buy before you moved in here and I can’t think of a reason in the world I would have thought about it after that.”
“I didn’t know.” And that is the truth. It appears to be one of the few fortunate twists in my life. When I started my search I looked into real estate pricing and worried Horace would end up paying a lot for housing. I’m hoping Greg gave him a family discount. The weird sensation guiding me to the town has disappeared, leaving behind only the feeling that Swallow’s Grove is where I need to be. Why? I have no clue.
“You didn’t know…” He narrows his eyes, peering at me as though the answer to his question might appear in bold face type on my forehead. After a minute he finally says, “Well, I’ve always said there's more to you than meets the eye. What other fourteen year old kid woulda done what you did?”
I try not to remember Horace as he looked that night, all bloody and bruised and half-conscious. It was gruesome then and somehow time has only made the image worse. At least he survived. JR wasn’t so lucky.
We both fall silent and I wonder what our lives would look like if I hadn’t walked by that evening. My brother might still be alive, but Horace would have died. Maybe in the long run it wouldn’t have changed anything. Even in hindsight, it’s impossible to know. You can only see the path you’re walking, not the ones you passed by.
Hudson: Moving to Swallow's Grove
Over the course of its edits, Sing Sweet Nightingale has had somewhere between eight and ten completely different beginnings. Nothing seemed to work! It took my editors and me a long time to decide what the right moment to start the book at was. This is one of the versions of chapter one that didn’t make the cut. Well, the last half of it anyway. It's from one of the last versions of the book, only one revision before the version of the story you see in print. The print version still begins with Hudson’s point of view, but at a different point in his life. In fact, this moment where Horace decides to move with him isn’t in the book anymore at all. The decision is still made, but you don’t get to see it. This is essentially how it happens, though, so consider this canon! Which is why I wanted to share this scene with you now! I hope you enjoy.
When I walk into the house, Horace is already making breakfast.
“You’re back early,” he calls from the kitchen. “Didn’t expect ya for another half-hour at least.”
Horace is a grandfather, just not mine. He’s spry for a guy in his late seventies who survived being beaten half to death four years ago. His blue eyes still flash with quick wit and observational skills worthy of a PI, his hair is just a halo of thin white curls from his ears to the back of his head, he’s a good deal shorter than me and looks as frail as kindling, but he’s the only person I’ve met who can look me in the eye. I saved his life four years ago and now he’s saving mine. He’s also the only person who knows the whole story behind J.R.’s death. He’s the only one who stuck around me long enough to listen.
He looks up when I walk into the kitchen and the smile freezes on his lips.
“Is it that obvious?” I thought I was keeping my jitters pretty much under control. Guess not. It’s hard, though.
He points at me with the wooden spoon in his hand. “Grass stains. And you tore your damn shirt.”
I look down. Huh. Hadn’t even noticed that. There’s a couple drops of blood and a tear in the shirt from where I must’ve caught a rock in the grass, but no scratches on my skin.
“So?” He keeps his eyes on me but goes back to finishing breakfast. “You gonna tell me or do I have to beat it out of you?”
Now that I’m standing here, I don’t know if I want to tell him. Don’t know if I can. My own parents kicked me out of their house. Horace took me in. He’s the only person in the world I trust. I don’t want to leave, but I have to or he might be the next one to get hurt. J.R. didn’t know anything about the dreamworld and he got caught in the crossfire. If the same thing happens to Horace… My chest clenches and the hole J.R.’s death left behind gets a little bigger. A little more ragged around the edges. I barely survived it once. No way am I letting it happen a second time.
“I need to leave.”
Horace’s eyes narrow and he stares at me for a second before turning back to the scrambled eggs on the stove.
“All right, kid. So where we headin’?”
“What?” I step closer. He’s already put himself to too much trouble for me. “No, Horace. That’s not what I—”
“Boy!” Horace turns and whacks me with the spoon so hard bits of egg go flying across the kitchen. “I know exactly what you meant, but I’m not stupid enough to let you go running off into trouble alone. And don’t you try to tell me I can’t go. I didn’t get to be this old to get ordered around by some eighteen-year-old hothead!”
His blue eyes stare up into my black ones as if he’s daring me to argue. Before I can think of a single thing to say, Horace grabs a couple of plates off the counter and shoves them into my hands.
“So, where we going?” he asks as he dishes eggs onto the plates.
“Uh… I don’t know yet.”
Horace rolls his eyes and drops the empty frying pan into the sink, muttering to himself as he bumps the faucet on and the waters hisses against the hot metal.
“I had a dream,” I tell him. The muttering stops and he slowly turns to look at me. “I know I have to leave, I just haven’t figured out where yet.”
“A dream like the one you had before I showed up?” he asks.
I nod. One of the three other dreams I’ve had so far hit me the night before Horace found me two months ago. I’d been living in a motel and spending my days working my way through the entire metaphysical and paranormal sections of the library when I wasn’t looking for a job. I dreamed that he insisted I come live with him. The least he could do, he said, after what I’d done for him years ago. The next day, that’s exactly what happened.
But moving? It seems like moving is asking too much.
Over breakfast, I tell him everything I saw even though none of it makes sense yet. He listens carefully and sits there chewing slowly when I’m finished, his bushy eyebrows pulled together.
“Swallow’s Grove, Swallow’s Grove…” Horace mumbles to himself. “Why do I know that?”
I grab his laptop from the office and type the words into the search engine. Most of the results don’t mean anything to me, but there’s one in the middle of the page that might be something. A list of small towns in the northeast. One of them is called Swallow’s Grove.
“There’s a town in New York called Swallow’s Grove,” I tell Horace.
As soon as I say it, his hand slams down on the table and he grins. “Knew it! Greg! Gotta call Greg.”
His son, Horace Gregory Lawson IV, refuses to answer to anything but Greg. I don’t know a lot about him, only the basics: he’s in his mid-fifties, works in real estate or real estate development or something. He married young, divorced two decades later, and during their marriage his wife gave birth to an amazing number of children for such a short time span.
Horace is ten times a grandfather including two sets of twins, one pair identical, one pair fraternal. He also has three great-grandchildren already. None one of them lives within a hundred miles of Horace. I think the fact that he misses his family is one of the reasons Horace has been so willing to let me stay.
The conversation with his son doesn’t last long, but I catch a couple mentions of a fixer-upper. After a few minutes, Horace ends the call and slides his phone back into his pocket.
“Just what I thought,” Horace says. “Swallow’s Grove is a little bit of nothing town buttin’ up against the Canadian border in New York.” One eyebrow raised, he crosses his arms over his chest. “Greg has a deal in the works for a place he was planning on flipping. It’s ours if we want it. You sure that’s the right place?”
I push my plate away and shake my head. “No, but it’s the only lead I’ve had since this thing started. I’ve gotta try.”
“Well, say goodbye to city life, Hud.” He shakes his head and sighs. “Looks like we’re movin’ out to the country.”
“You don’t have to come.” His eyes narrow and I’m glad he doesn’t have a spoon in his hands right now or he’d probably smack me upside the head with it. “It’d probably be safer for you if you didn’t.”
“Would’ve been safer for you to walk away and call the cops from a payphone four years ago. Don’t mean it was the right thing to do,” he snaps. I try not to remember Horace as he looked that night, all bloody and bruised and half-conscious after three gang kids tried to use him as their initiation murder. It was gruesome then and somehow time has only made the image worse. At least he survived. I stopped them, saved Horace, and our testimony put the three behind bars. They came looking for me as soon as they got out. When they found me, J.R. wasn’t as lucky s Horace had been.
What would our lives look like if I hadn’t walked by that evening? My brother might still be alive, but Horace would have died. Maybe in the long run it wouldn’t have changed anything. Even in hindsight, it’s impossible to know. You can only see the path you’re walking, not the ones you passed by.
“I’d be dead if you’d picked the ‘safe’ choice,” Horace says. “How you think I’d feel if you got yourself in trouble ‘cause I was playing it safe?”
“About as good as I’ll feel if you get hurt for following me.”
Horace snorts and shakes his head, but he doesn’t really have a retort for that.
I know I can’t force Horace to stay if he’s made up his mind to go, especially since he knows where I’m headed. If I leave him behind, he’ll just follow me and make an even bigger stink about it. But I try anyway. “I can’t be sure I’ll be able to protect you. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing.”
Horace grins and slaps me on the shoulder. “Kid, no one does.”
He wanders off, talking about rental trucks and furniture remainders, and I almost smile. As much as I hate the idea of something happening to him, I gotta admit that moving to a new state is going to be a lot easier with Horace behind me the whole way.
I just hope I actually find what I’m looking for when we get there.
Mari: Becoming a Mentor
In an early version of the book, K.T. was working on her own when she talked Mari into being a mentor for Hudson, a last-ditch effort to bring her out of her silence before her birthday. It doesn't happen like this anymore within the Dream War universe, but I have a soft spot for Mariella and K.T.'s friendship--or, more honestly at this point, K.T.'s dedication to her friendship with Mariella.
The bell rings and I follow the line of students plodding like cattle toward the door. I wonder how anyone can find anything enlightening or stimulating in this kind of environment. The very building seems to sap the life out of everything within its walls.
The sound of my name pierces through the music and I jerk to a stop, looking around. My eyes meet the pale blue eyes of the brunette who left class early. I’m surprised she knows my name; I would have bet only people with access to my attendance records know I exist. I switch my hand from my iPod to my nightingale and nod at the girl since she seems to be expecting some kind of a response. Stepping to the right to pass her, she surprises me again by quickly blocking into my path. I glance at her and slowly pull one of my headphones out. What is wrong with the world today? Do I have a sign on my back that says, “Talk to me, please”?
“Um, you’re the only person left in Honors who hasn’t served as a mentor.” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear as she shifts her weight. “There’s a student waiting in the main office. Will you do it?”
You have got to be kidding me. Without even remembering what in the word “mentor” means within the context of her request, I know it’s a job I do not want. Suddenly, an old memory surfaces and it clicks. Mentors play tour guide to new students for their first week. They provide directions, explain the rules of the school, and are generally helpful. In other words, they're the complete opposite of me. Being a mentor will mean paying attention in school. It will mean knowing things like people’s names and will definitely mean speaking. I can barely remember what my own voice sounds like—I only open my mouth after I’ve gone to sleep.
Turning to Blue Eyes, I raise an eyebrow and shake my head.
“It won’t be easy for you and I would do it myself, but I can’t. Just…” Blue Eyes trails off and starts rubbing a silver bracelet on her left wrist. “Ask someone if you don’t know the answer to his questions and use a notebook to talk to him.”
I look down at my empty hands. I don’t even own a notebook. I stopped bringing anything to school a couple years ago after I realizing I never used any of it. I don’t even have a pen.
Blue Eyes sighs. I’m either annoying her or she thinks I’m pathetic. I can’t tell. She reaches down and unzips her messenger bag, digging through it for a minute and coming back up with a black and white patterned book and a blue pen. She flips the book open and leans against a locker to write something on the inside cover before passing notebook and pen to me.
“Here,” she says. “I wrote down my info for you, just in case.”
Opening the book, I see KT Dowling and an email address written there. Her thoughtfulness surprises me. She must know I won’t use a phone number. I ponder turning her down, but the bell rings; we’re already running late. The moment is now. Yes or no.
Refusing will mean more than not dealing with a new kid. KT will plead with me for a while, hoping to change my mind. She’ll tell whoever is in charge of the mentor program that I refused. They’ll probably tell my parents. Who knows what my parents will decide to do about it, especially since they’re working on this new let’s-get-Mariella-into-college scheme. Refusal will be complicated, but submission is impossible.
Shaking my head, I try to pass the notbook back to her.
“Really?” Her eyebrows pull together as she takes the book and spins it in her hands. “Um, all right. Guess I’ll see if anyone else can do it. Just don’t forget to let the office know where you’re doing your comminuty service project.”
Wait. What? I cock my head to the side and stare at her, waiting for an explanation. She never mentioned a community service project. Blue Eyes sighs a third time and I start to feel guilty for bothering her so much… well, almost feel guilty.
“The students who opt out of the mentor program have to participate in community outreach instead. It’s not so bad, you just have to put in about thirty hours somewhere in town and write a two page paper about the experience.”
I’ve been backed into a corner I didn’t even know existed. What kind of stupid requirement is this? I do not want to guide a stranger around school but I really don’t want to waste time on some pointless after-hours project. Damn. Today is going downhill so fast.
Covering my eyes for a moment, I take a deep breath and nod. I’ll mentor. It’s the lesser of two evils.
“Great!” KT quickly gives me back the notebook and pen, a wide smile curving her lips and lighting up her eyes. “He’s waiting for you in the office. I have to get back to class. I’ll see you there, okay?”
She practically runs away, probably scared I’ll change my mind again, so I turn and head in the opposite direction. Walking through the empty halls is odd, almost eerie. As much as I ignore the people who usually surround me, I’ve never passed through these halls without them. It’s almost as though their presence strengthens my resistance. Now my resistance is met by nothing. A fizzing sensation begins to fill my body, starting in my stomach and traveling out to the tips of my fingers and the bottom of my feet. I shift the notebook and pen into one hand and quickly reach for my nightingale. It soothes me as soon as I touch it, but the uncomfortable feeling falls away only after I breathe like Orane taught me and expand the light of the nightingale until it covers my entire body.
I hold tight to my token for the rest of the walk, moving as slowly as I can manage without actually stopping. A sign sticking out from the wall on my left tells me I’ve reached the office. Now all I have to do is open the door and go inside. Right. Easy. If I want to do it. I take down my hood and adjust my headphones, stalling for time.
At last I admit there’s nothing else to do except reach forward and push the door open.
“That should be your mentor now,” I hear someone say before I step inside. Sighing, I wonder if this poor schmuck has any idea what he’s in for.
Hudson: Meeting Mari
This scene is from an early version when they meet for the first time on the first day of school. First impressions are important, right? Well, Mari and Hudson didn't exactly have the best first impressions of each other. In any version of the book.
The late bell rings and I find myself in a deserted hallway, but that’s fine by me. It gives me a chance to take it all in. Lockers line the walls interspersed with classroom doors and corkboards displaying announcements, rules, and awards. The main office isn’t hard to find, but before I enter, I pause and take a deep breath.
The two women behind the tall desk dividing the room are so deep in their own conversation they both seem incredibly startled to see someone come through the door. Or maybe they find me startling. They’re an odd pair, the closer one so thin it looks like she’d break in a strong wind and the other one is large enough to make it justifiably questionable she’d survive running a mile. I keep my eyes down as I step up to the desk, concentrating on making a good impression. That’s not easy when the first things people notice are my height, the scars on my arms, and my pitch black eyes. Usually in that order.
As the office assistants guide me through the necessary forms and regulations, an increasingly annoying tingling sensation climbs up my spine and down my arms. The last time I felt like this was just before being jumped by two idiots with knives and one with a 9mm and a twitchy trigger finger. Without this slight warning, I would have died instead of simply adding a gunshot graze and two knife wounds to my collection of scars. But I’m not in the alleys of Trenton. What could possibly be lying in wait for me here?
When I finally hand over the last of my paperwork, the skinny secretary, Ms. Laurel, begins to give me instructions, but the sound of the door opening pulls my attention away. Automatically, I tense, hating my vulnerable position, but forcing myself to hold it. I’m not in Trenton, I remind myself. No one is going to attack me here. No one has a reason to attack me here. Not yet, anyway.
“That should be your mentor now,” Laurel says, apparently oblivious to my distress. I don’t turn, happy to put off the inevitable for another minute, so I’m watching Laurel as her smile dims and her eyes widen. Mrs. Quinn has frozen with a baby carrot halfway to her mouth, staring at person at the door.
“Oh, dear.” Laurel glances at Mrs. Quinn and hisses in the loudest whisper ever, “Can we really expect her to mentor anyone? She hasn’t said a word in four years! It never even crossed my mind they’d put her name on the list, bless her heart.”
A mute? Awesome. Maybe I’ll be able to escape the usual ritualistic grilling. Still, I feel a little bad for this girl. Why are they talking about her like she isn’t standing right behind me? Maybe she’s deaf. I don’t remember much sign language. It doesn’t matter right now, though, ‘cause I can’t ignore the growing certainty that I’m standing under the sword of Damocles.
Wait... A mute?
The image of the blonde girl silenced with a pink ribbon fills my vision. Can it be this easy? Am I really going to get this lucky for once in my life? I want to turn around and find out, but I make myself hold my position. I’m too amped up now. If I turn around before I get myself under control I’ll either latch onto her until she tells me what I want or have to face the disappointment of finding out this isn’t the girl I’m looking for.
“Mariella, sweetie, this is the newest addition to our honors program.”
Mariella. The name slams around my head like the clapper in a bell. Laurel is speaking directly to the girl, so she’s not deaf. But she’s also talking to Mariella like she might not understand English, slow and over-annunciated.
“His name is Hudson and he just moved here from… I’m sorry, Hudson, where was it?”
My backpack starts sliding off my shoulder. I pull it back up before placing my hands on the counter, turning my right hand palm up and staring at my brother’s initials on my wrist trying to ignore the ugly blue glow. My muscles are tensing, preparing for disappointment or danger, just in case.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell Laurel. “I’m sure she doesn’t care.”
I expect Laurel to argue my dismissiveness, but she frowns and shakes her head. Standing up, she beckons me closer and whispers even louder than last time, “Mariella is a very bright girl, but she has trouble connecting with people.” She heaves a sigh and shrugs. “I don’t know how you’re going to communicate with her. Silent for so long, the poor dear.”
Poor dear indeed, if only for having to listen to some office assistant pass judgment on her. But at the same time, everything Laurel tells me makes me even more sure this is the girl I’m looking for. This is the person who can help me find a way back into the dreamworld. I prepare to say something to take the heat off her—I don’t know what, just something—when a light tapping noise from behind me makes Laurel and Quinn spaz like frightened cats. Conversely, it allows me to relax just a little. I don’t know what she did to make them jump like that, but good for her. I hope she flipped them off.
It takes Laurel a minute to refocus. Her gaze keeps darting to Mariella.
“This should be everything you need,” she whispers, this time quietly. Maybe because she finally remembers being mute doesn’t make someone deaf or stupid. “Good luck. You just let us know if you need anything, honey.”
I thank them and roll up the paperwork since I can follow Mariella from class to class. Now, the only thing left to do is face the music. I take a deep breath, turn around, and say hello to clue number three.
There’s no way the woman I saw at the supermarket yesterday isn’t Mariella’s mother. They’re practically clones of each other. But the physical features are where the resemblance ends.
Mariella is wearing baggy jeans three or four sizes too big and her shirt is hidden by a black hoodie I probably can fit into with her still inside it. Headphones hang out of the neck of the hoodie and she’s holding a composition book in her hand, but she doesn’t have a backpack. Mariella's wheat-gold hair seems dull, but it’s hard to tell since it’s all wrapped up in a hairdo I’d expect to see at a prom. Her skin is too pale, her lips too white, and her eyes too wide and glazed.
But none of that matters compared to what I see glowing against her skin. If I’m a smurf, this girl is an orange. No. Not even. It looks like she walked out of a horror movie. She’s on fire, burning from the inside out.
Was everything in my dream literal? The sign, the trees, the ribbon, and now the flames eating this girl alive. I’ve never seen another victim of the demons, but even when I was fully under their spell, I don’t think I ever glowed as bright as this girl. I blink to lower a dampening filter over my vision, protecting my eyes from the glare of the light she throws off. As soon as I do, though, I realize it might not have been the best idea.
Underneath the pallor, underneath the orange mist caressing her skin like the flames in my dreams, Mariella is gorgeous. I remember the end of the dream, the girl I pulled out of the blaze. I remember the expression in her eyes as she tore at the ribbon embedded in her skin. I thought I saw her clearly in the dream, but it can’t compare to standing this close and looking directly into her eyes. My heart stops. I stop breathing. Time stops. Lush, full lips under a small nose and overlarge eyes. Her porcelain-like appearance contradicts the set of her chin and tells me she may not be the fragile flower she looks like. She is built to smile and tease and laugh, but I bet she’s practically forgotten how. Just like I have.
She jerks back just a little as her eyes meet mine, sticks her hand in her pocket, and grips onto something that intensifies that sickening light tenfold. Even through my dampening filter, the light intensifies a lot, the strongest glow centered around her pocket. The glass nightingale, maybe? If this girl is still sucking energy from the dreamworld, she isn’t going to be much help. Whatever she knows will be locked inside her head and she’ll be watched by the demons twenty-four/seven.
If I look only at her eyes, I can almost see who she used to be. I can remember the girl in the dream who fought against the ties binding her and I can picture the woman from the supermarket, living her life with that unbearable sadness eating away at her. It takes me a moment to shake myself free of the spell Mariella seems to have thrown over me. Luckily, only a second has passed and neither of the office assistants has noticed anything odd. Yet.
“I know you two will manage,” Laurel says. Trying to make the best of it, I guess. “Mariella may be quiet, but I’m sure you two will find something in common.”
I can’t tear my eyes away from her. I’m a passing asteroid sucked into orbit around a planet. Every instinct in my body screams at me to tear that token away from her and save her from the demons plaguing her dreams. I want to, but I can already see it isn’t going to be that simple. But when has anything in my life been simple?
“I have a feeling you're more right than you know,” I manage to say.
Hudson: Telling K.T. the Truth
Second only to K.T.'s friendship with Mariella (and maybe Hudson's relationship with Horace), I love K.T.'s friendship with Hudson. It used to develop differently from the way it appears in the print version of the book, though, and this is how it began once upon a time.
Since I remember overhearing K.T. whisper about a meeting to set up the new Visual Arts Club, I have a good idea where to start looking. Luckily, the Arts Club is something I can add to my list of extracurriculars, so even if I can’t get KT to spill her guts, the afternoon won’t be a complete waste.
“I know there aren’t many of us yet, but it’s important for the school to have a club like this since our arts programs are practically nonexistent,” she’s saying as I open the door and slide into the room. Her eyes widen and then narrow as she sees me, but she nods her head toward the empty seats and continues. “My goals for the first year are to give you all a place to work if you don’t have one at home and to help you get some recognition for your art in different state sponsored contests you have to enter under the aegis of a school.”
“My parents can’t really afford any of the high-quality paints,” a girl with curly black hair sitting at the front of the class says. “Is there any way we can buy supplies as a group or through the school to save money?”
“Exactly,” KT says. She starts outlining a plan for purchasing communal supplies that will be kept in the office and distributed only to club members, but warns us the school doesn’t have much, if any, budget. “It’s all going to have to be personal contributions, donations, and fundraising.”
The meeting only lasts a few more minutes, long enough for us all to introduce ourselves and say a little bit about the kind of art we do. I’m the last to go, but when I tell them I dabble in a little bit of everything, the number of raised brows and narrow eyes tells me that proof might be required. All I have to do is unzip my backpack and pull out the sketchbook that lives there. Their eyes widen and everyone crowds around as I place the book on the desk and flip it open.
The first page is a colored pencil sketch of Horace’s house, a bright burst of color and warmth in a very gray neighborhood.
“Wow,” one of the freshman boys, Henry, says. “That’s really good. Look at the cat on the roof.”
I flip the page and there’s a watercolor of Van Sciver Lake. Another page and there’s a charcoal sketch of the two librarians I got to know well during my homeless years. I practically lived at the library from open to close back then. On the next page I glued a photo I took of Horace.
KT keeps her eyes trained on the sketchbook, but her lips are pursed and her arms locked tight across her chest. I can’t get a read on her. She could fall anywhere on the scale between confused and annoyed.
“Those really are fantastic, Hudson,” she says when I close the book. Her eyes meet mine and hold for a second before she turns to the rest of the group. “So, next week, same time same place? We’ll come up with a solid strategy for raising money and sharing supplies.”
Everyone agrees and wanders off to collect their bags before walking off in ones and twos. I pack up slowly, waiting until the room is clear before I say anything. KT beats me to the punch.
“There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye, huh?”
I look up at her and shrug. “Could say the same about you.”
She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. It seems a little sad. “Maybe some, but this is a small town and it’s hard to keep anything to yourself for long.”
She touches that bracelet again and looks out the window. After a minute, she asks, “You wouldn’t be able to give me a ride home, would you? It’s out of the way of everything in this town, just forewarning you.”
KT stares out the window for a little while longer before nodding and moving to pick up her bag. “Thanks. I would have had to walk today otherwise.”
Curiosity almost makes me ask why, when I’d bet half her friends would have stayed, she’s left without a ride, but I don’t push my luck yet. From the sounds of it, there’s quite a drive ahead and I don’t want to piss her off too early. I rub at the spot on my chest despite knowing it won’t make the ache go away. Even touching my tiger iron pendant doesn’t ease the pinch much, not even as much as it did at lunch. We walk out to the parking lot in silence, which is only broken when she stops short at the sight of my car.
“Wow. Is that a ’69 SS?”
I glance back at her as I unlock the passenger door. “Yeah. You know cars?”
Her eyes are wide as she shakes her head. “No, just this one.” She swallows hard and takes a hesitant step forward. She places her bag gently on the floor of the front seat, but reverently runs her hand along the top of the car before climbing in. She reaches across the car to unlock my door as I walk around, so I open the door, slide in, and start the engine.
She points off to the right. “That way. And then straight for a few miles.”
We fall into silence again, but I can feel something building. It’s in the way her right thumb is rubbing the plaque on her bracelet and the way she stares around the interior of the car as though it’s a work of art.
“My sister always wanted a car just like this one,” she says at last.
“You have a sister?” JR’s face pops into my mind and I have to force myself to concentrate on KT. “Older or younger?”
She clears her throat. “Older. Her name is Emily.”
“She in college nearby?”
After a minute of silence, I start wondering what was wrong with that question. Just before I take it back, KT takes a deep breath and says, “No. She’s in a coma.”
My hands tighten on the wheel and my heart starts racing. No. KT can’t be heading where I think she is.
“That sucks,” I say while silently telling myself to remain calm. Remain calm. Remain calm. Remain calm. She might not mean what you think. “How long?”
“Four years.” KT takes a deep breath and turns toward me, her eyes intent on my face. “She fell asleep the night of her eighteenth birthday and never woke up.”
She waits, still watching my face, but my brain has seized. Words can't form. I'm not even sure if I'm capable of speaking anymore. What are the chances of someone falling into a coma on their eighteenth birthday who isn’t a victim of the dream demons? I haven’t really researched the statistics yet, but I’m guessing the odds aren’t good.
What is it about this town? What are the odds that two people in this tiny population attracted the attention of these demons? Not for the first time, I wonder how many of them there are scouring the planet for humans to destroy.
“Emily used to paint,” she says, finally looking away from me and out the windshield. “That’s why I decided to start a visual arts club before I graduate. Em always complained about the lack of a good support system for artists. She was really talented. Brilliant. It didn’t matter what she decided to create, she could work with anything. Paints, sculpture, photography, mixed media, even embroidery.” She hesitates, her gaze locking on my face again. I can feel its weight like a hand pressing against my skin. She takes a shuddering breath and asks, “Do you know how scary it is to watch someone you love disappear before your eyes?”
“Yes.” Just not in the way she does. I wonder though, which is worse: losing someone entirely or having to watch as years pass by without knowing if the person you love will ever recover? God. It would be like having this pinch turn into a metal rod shoved through the middle of my chest. And knowing I’d never get rid of it.
KT nods slowly as though I’ve confirmed something for her. “Only I noticed at first because it started with little things no one else paid any attention to. She was just different. Not herself.”
Yeah, I know that feeling. I remember that feeling well. They convince you they can make you better, turn you into something extraordinary if you just do what they say. They’re trying to help you, they promise. The thing is the demon actually did help me. I never felt in control of my anger until it taught me how to manage it, lock it down, and make sense of it. The more KT talks the more convinced I am her sister met the fate I missed by days.
“This was Em’s.” KT fingers the bracelet, spinning it around on her wrist. “I can still remember the morning she told me there's another world only a few people can see. I was still pretty young, so I thought we were playing make believe. She never talked about it again, even when I tried to bring it up, but I could see it in her eyes after that, the way she looked at everything around her as though she had lost interest in it all. As if everything had lost its color.”
Everything does lose its color. They wrap you in their sickening light and you can’t see the world for what it is anymore. It’s like an addiction and only they have the drugs to keep you floating. They do everything they can to make sure you need them more desperately than you need your next breath. And they are very, very good at what they do.
How did KT know I’d believe her? I suspected she knew something about Mariella’s past, but I never would have guessed she had her own connection to the dream demons.
As though she can hear my thoughts, KT says, “I'm telling you this, because you see Mari. Actually see her instead of writing her off like everyone else.”
Just hearing her name sends shivers down my spine and sets the ache in my chest throbbing in time with my pounding heart. I’m already involved in this so much more than I want to be. And I’m only getting deeper.
“Somehow, you know she needs help,” KT says. “I think you know exactly what's happening to her. I think you can keep what happened to Emily from happening to Mari.”
KT takes a deep breath and holds it. Willing to wait me out unless I’m going to bodily pick her up and toss her out of my car, I bet.
“Even if you are right,” I tell her after a minute, “you don't want to know what I know. Trust me.”
This time, there’s no hesitation in her response. “I don't want to know, but I need to know. I've been looking for answers for almost eight years and I'm not going to let a chance like this escape. You have those answers. I know you do. Please.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” I tell her. “Knowing the truth is like hanging a target around your neck. I don’t know if they can tell who knows, but I don’t sleep much anymore. When I do it’s knowing I might not live through the experience.”
KT opens her mouth, but pauses and closes it again. She sits back against the seat and looks out the window. “Take the next right.”
I take the turn and wait for her to consider all the unknown implications of this decision. At least she’s taking me seriously. Before she says anything, I know what her answer is going to be. It’s written in the squaring of her shoulders and the deliberate placement of her palms against her thighs as though willing herself to be still.
“I need to know.”
We’re in a heavily wooded area on a two-lane road, but I see a track that looks like it’s used for u-turns. I pull off and park between the two tree lines, hiding the car from view.
“I can’t be responsible for anything that happens because of this. I barely know how to protect myself, let alone someone else. I’ll give you a list of things it might be useful for you to have, just in case, but you have to know going in that I’m not gonna have the answers you want. I have absolutely no idea how to help your sister or even if she can be helped.” I hold her eyes, letting the words sink in. “Do you understand?”
She closes her eyes for a second, her hands tightening on her thighs. But then she opens her eyes and nods. “I understand.”
I tell her everything. I include every single gory, graphic, depressing, disturbing detail to make sure she really does understand what she’s up against. What Mariella is up against. After a while she gives up the pretense of control and sits crying quietly in the passenger seat, but she doesn’t stop me. I fill her in on everything except why I decided to leave Trenton. That has nothing to do with the demons and nothing to do with her sister. She doesn’t need to know.
Once I finally shut up, I realize I haven’t talked that much at one time in years. Possibly ever. I force myself to take deep breaths, focusing my mind into the calm center I learned to create. My heart slows and I can finally unwrap my fingers from the steering wheel one by one. Looking out the window in an attempt to give KT some privacy, I think about the emotional roller coaster this day has been. For someone used to the serenity of neutrality, it’s exhausting.
“How did you end up here?” KT asks, her voice soft and low. I turn toward her and try to pretend I don’t see her red-rimmed eyes and quivering lips.
“Temporary insanity.” So temporary I’m considering calling Horace, saying I changed my mind, and moving back to Trenton. Or maybe I should build myself a hut in the middle of the woods and avoid human contact entirely. After today, that is looking highly appealing. But KT disagrees.
“It’s fate,” she breathes. “You’re supposed to come here. You’re supposed to help Mari. Why else did you survive unless you’re supposed to use what you learned to stop other people from making the same mistake Emily did?”
Even though I don’t usually believe in fate, KT’s theory is actually plausible. First, my dreams, next, the momentary symptoms of alien hand syndrome that lead me to Swallow’s Grove, and then, the random coincidence of Mariella out of all possible candidates being chosen as my guide. There’s not believing in signs and then there’s ignoring the obvious, and I don’t like living in denial. Plus, what would JR think of me if he knew I saw someone on the brink of jumping off a cliff and didn't pull them back? What would I think of myself? Walking away is the easier option, sure, but when have I ever gone for the easier option?
I take a deep breath and notice the ache in my chest has eased by half. Because I’ve decided to stay and risk my neck for a girl I dreamed about night after night before I met her? Guess it makes as much sense as anything else in my life. I almost smile.
Facing KT, I attempt to make her realize fighting this battle is going to be harder than climbing up an avalanche. “There is the very real possibility I will fail miserably.”
But KT smiles with still-shaking lips. “I’d only consider it a failure if we didn’t try.”
Hudson and Mari: Shopping with Dana
This section is split, so you get both Mariella and Hudson's POV. It's a moment I wish I could have found a way to keep, but it just didn't fit once I revamped the book. It's a perfect lead-in to the section of the story where Dana brings Mariella a new wardrobe that she'd bought and hidden in her own closet. So, although Hudson never does go shopping with Mari and Dana, imagine this scene happening without Hudson. Imagine Mari moving through the store like she does here and Dana keeping a close watch on what catches her daughter's attention.
“You’re a modern day Anne Sullivan,” Dana says as we walk through Walmart Sunday afternoon. Mariella walks beside us and only rolls her eyes when she hears the comment. “Roll your eyes all you want, Mari, but Hudson has gotten you out of the house on a weekend. Twice. The last time I tried, you threw a shoe at my head, honey.”
The aura surrounding her looks like blue fireworks against an orange sky. She blinks and stops walking for a breath, a frown on her face. The pause only lasts for an instant, but I notice it. So does Dana. She waits until Mari wanders a little away to absently finger a bright blue t-shirt before she asks, “She doesn’t even remember that, does she?”
“I don’t think she does.”
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” she asks, her eyes still on Mari who has wandered away from the blue shirt. Dana walks over to the rack, searches through the hangers, pulls one out, and tosses it into the cart. “It’s just that you seem to know how to reach her.”
I glance at Dana out the corner of my eye. It’s hard to tell how much she’s deduced. I guess it depends on how well she knows the Dowlings and how much she remembers about the years before Emily’s coma. But she’s not stupid, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she can see I know more than I’m letting on.
“I knew someone who went through something similar,” I finally tell Dana, keeping to the practice of telling her the vaguest possible version of the truth. “But, no. I’ve never seen anything like Mariella.”
I walk through the store but I can’t quite remember why I’m here. Looking around I see a blond giant leaning down to hear something my mother is saying. Right. Hudson is why I’m wasting my time here.
Something about studying Hudson from a distance appeals to me and I find myself watching him with a faint sort of fascination. I’ve never seen anything like him. So imposing and stubborn, yet damaged and soft underneath. The contrast between his almost white blond hair and his black eyes is striking, and the features that surround those eyes employ a strangely attractive combination of broken angles and soft curves. His obviously reset nose against the fullness of his lips. The scruffy, short, careless hairstyle against the soft curve of his cheeks. The strong jaw against the intelligent set of his forehead. If the rest of him is as intriguing as his face, I can easily see him as a favorite subject of a Renaissance sculptor. Plus, he’s convinced he’s riding in to rescue me from some impending doom, and while the actions are unwelcome, the thought behind them are kind of sweet.
I shake my head and look away. Loneliness is obviously addling my brains.
Two nights have passed with no word or sign from Orane. No tokens. No gifts. No letters. Nothing. All I have is Hudson’s constant presence. Only the reassuring glow of my nightingales to remind me that Orane’s love is not just a dream. But the longer he stays away, the more I need him.
The flash-headaches attack incessantly and with ever-increasing power. And they always hit in my weakest moments. Like when I first open my eyes in the morning and realize I’ve passed another night has passed without Orane. Sometimes it’s almost like there are words echoing through my mind—screamed messages I can’t hear over the roar of the pain—but I can’t decipher them. I can’t hear anything in those moments. Not even my music.
And that’s another thing. Orane is going to be so disappointed in me. I haven’t been able to find new music in days. I’ve spent some time looking, though not as much as usual, and nothing strikes me as worthy of my opera hall. Nothing seems worthy of Orane’s attention.
I look up from my inspection of a pair of ripped, embroidered jeans and see my mother and Hudson watching me.
“Why don’t you and Hudson take the cart and pick up some groceries, okay? Whatever you’d like for dinner the next few days.”
We follow her instructions, neither of us speaking as Hudson leads us through the aisles, picking up this and that and piling it into the cart. I pull at the tattered edge of my hoodie’s sleeve; it sort of reflects how battered and broken I’m starting to feel. Attacked from all sides, secluded from the one person who offers me love and comfort, forced to endure noise and company when all I want is silence and solitude. I’m fraying and pretty soon the last threads holding me together are going to snap. What happens then, I don’t know, I just hope Orane returns before I find out.
My mother meets us at the front registers and hums to herself as she pays. She’s smiling, too. I can’t remember ever seeing her smile. But, wait, that can’t be right. She hasn’t smiled in eighteen years? I listen closer to the song she’s humming. It’s her song, the one I sneak out of my room to listen to. My hand lifts and my fingers start following the melody just the pain strikes.
I can’t stop the hiss that escapes my lips, but I clench my hands to keep them from curling around my head and drawing attention to myself.
“I think she stubbed her toe,” I hear Hudson say, but his voice is far away and distorted, as though I’m hearing it underwater.
A tug on my sleeve and I walk in that direction, letting the gentle pulls guide me. The battle grows in ferocity and the first line of defense buckles. In desperation I grasp my pendant and my token, clutching them tightly and breathing deep. It doesn’t happen fast, but by the time we’ve reached the car I’m in control enough to open my eyes and climb into the backseat.
“Are you okay, Mari?” my mother asks, turning around in her seat.
I nod and look out the window, but not before catching Hudson’s eyes in the sun visor mirror. It shouldn’t be possible, but I think he can see it when the headaches come. Each time, his eyes lock onto me even before I react, almost like a warning system.
I wonder what the world looks like to Hudson. What does the world look like through eyes that seem to see everything when it looks like they shouldn’t see anything at all?
Hudson: Carroll's Introduction
Once upon a time, Carroll made a physical appearance in the story sooner. This section actually stayed in the book until a pretty late draft, but eventually had to be cut for various reasons (mostly pacing and clarification). I still like it, though, so I wanted to include it here.
Also, this kind of starts abruptly. Sorry about that.
“All right, fine. I’ll meet him. No promises on actually telling him anything though.”
KT grins. “Good! He’s meeting us at Horace’s in fifteen minutes.”
“You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“I try not to.”
It only takes a couple of minutes to explain who this guy is to Mari. I give her the option of staying here while we talk to him as long as she promises to stay in her room where most of the stones are, but she opts to come with us. I try to ignore the way the knot in my chest loosens when I know I won’t have to leave her alone for an hour. It’s ridiculous—it’s not like she’ll willingly put herself in danger—but if Orane managed to break through the defenses while I was gone… I just feel better when she’s somewhere I can make sure she’s okay.
By the time we get to Horace’s, there’s already an ugly gold 90s model Sentra sitting on the street. We troop into the house lugging our collection of crystals and find Horace standing in the nearly empty living room with his bushy eyebrows pulled together.
“What the hell does that kid want with a neurologist?” he says as we come in. When he sees me he shakes his head. “Hud, what’d you do now? Why can’t you warn me when company is comin’ over? This place is embarrassing enough without being surprised by strangers.”
“Hey, I only found out he was going to be here a few minutes ago. Blame KT.”
KT blushes a little, but just smiles and gives Horace a hug. She learned fast that the old man just likes grumbling. “Sorry, Horace! I didn’t know where else to send him when he called and told me he’d crossed the city limits.”
One arm still around Horace’s waist, KT reaches out to shake the guy’s hand. “Hi, Dr. Carroll, I’m KT.”
The guy is about six-foot, but he’s so skinny he looks like he’s all arms and legs. His sandy brown hair is scruffy and his white button down is a little wrinkled, dingy, and starting to come apart at the seams, but his brown eyes are bright and he’s grinning like someone just told him he won a million dollars.
It takes a couple of minutes to get introductions out of the way. Looking for the paranormal he might be, but even Carroll jumps when he sees my eyes. The shock turns to fascination faster than usual, though, and once I almost catch him reaching up to poke me like he’s trying to make sure I’m real. Escaping for a moment, I gather the few chairs we have in the house to give everyone a place to sit. By the time we’re all settled, Carroll is nearly bouncing.
“I’m sorry, but you said you had information concerning my theories on certain sudden onset coma cases?” he finally blurts out. “I don’t mean to push, but you have to understand how many times I’ve chased down a lead to find out it was just a bunch of kids who thought it’d be funny to prank the crazy doctor.”
KT looks at me across the little circle we’ve formed, but doesn’t say a thing. I raise an eyebrow; she shakes her head.
Oh. She wants me to tell the story? Haven’t I been the storyteller enough the past week?
Groaning, I lean forward and rub my hands over my face, trying to gather my thoughts. I was already focused on next week. Trying to pull my attention backwards is like swimming against a riptide.
“Right.” I exhale and drop my hands, looking across the circle at this guy. “Just hold your questions till the end, all right?”
I only wait for him to agree before I start telling him the story. It’s a drier version than the one I gave KT and Mariella, the worst of the details about what happened to JR left out, but from the way Carroll’s face pales, I think he’s smart enough to get what I’m not saying. I fill in what I know about Emily and then, with a glance at Mari to make sure she doesn’t mind, Mariella’s story.
But his first question isn’t about Emily or what’s happening to Mariella. When I finally stop talking the first words to burst out of his mouth are, “Can you really heal?”
I pull a pocket knife out of my backpack and hold my palm up to show him only healed scars. Then I place the blade in the center of my hand.
“Hud,” Horace warns just before the blade slices my skin open. “Damnit, kid! You’re dripping on the floor.”
Still grumbling, he walks over to the kitchen to grab a napkin while Carroll pops out of his seat and grabs my hand to watch the skin close up before his eyes.
“That is the single coolest thing I have ever seen.” He runs his thumb across my palm, moving the blood out of the way. “Where’s the scar?”
“There isn’t one.”
“What about all these other scars?”
I pull my hand away and wipe it clean on the paper towel Horace hands me. “Got ‘em before the healing thing. Apparently is only works on new wounds.”
“Holy shit!” Carroll laughs, running his hands through his hair forgetting the little bit of blood still on his thumb. He walks in circles, his grin getting wider and wider. “This is amazing! Do you know what this means?”
“Yeah. That I become a fucking lab rat if you ever tell anyone. So don’t.”
He stops short, his face flushing and the light in his eyes dimming a little. “Right. Yeah, of course. I just—this means I was right. I was right about what happened to Jaime and the last ten years of my life haven’t been a complete waste of time. It means I was right.”
“So, what now?” I ask after I realize he’s lost in his own thoughts.
“What? Oh. Um, I guess I get your parents permission to visit Emily and go through her medical records,” he says to KT. “Do they know all this?”
KT starts grabbing her things even as she shakes her head. “No. They’re not exactly open-minded about this, so I wouldn’t bring it up if I was you. Stick to the whole neurology specialist angle if you want a shot.”
And just like that KT sweeps him off to her parents and Mari, Horace and me are left sitting in the empty living room.
Mari: Inside Her Coma
These chapters are still canon.
Let me say that again.
THESE CHAPTERS. ARE STILL. CANON.
I had to delete them from the book for pacing reasons, but I held out on that decision for as long as possible. I love this section. It gives the reader such incredible insight into what exactly is happening to Mariella in those weeks after her battle with Orane. When they were included in the book, they were very short chapters interspersed with Hudson's descriptions of what was happening with Dana and Frank and Horace. It stayed in the book until, seriously, the LAST POSSIBLE SECOND. Everything that happens here still applies within the Dream War universe.
It’s possible to find color in absolute blackness. The darkness becomes a canvas where the mind can paint whatever it wants, tricking the eyes into believing they see something that’s not there. Or maybe it really is there. How do you know when something in your head is real or if you’ve only imagined it?
I see lonely villages nestled at the base of a mountain and tiny apartments in tall buildings at the center of a large, dirty city. I hear wind filling the sails of a monstrous wooden ship and the call of brightly plumaged birds in a hot, dense forest. I smell spices that burn my nose and soft sweet scents that comfort me. I taste salt on a sea breeze and the bite of noxious, smoggy air. I feel sub-zero temperatures and the skin-stripping burn of a desert wind. I am everyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere.
I’m lost and there’s no light to guide me home.
It’s too much. I force my mind to empty and the darkness returns, comforting and simple but so barren. Even if I didn’t understand them, the images I saw reminded me of the world I used to occupy, a world I’ve somehow fallen out of. I need to get back there, instinct tells me. There’s something important I need to do. Something I left unfinished. But how do I escape from a prison with no walls?
Pain strikes out of nowhere. The world explodes with color. Voices are screaming unintelligible words. Energy shoots off my skin like lightning and swirls of blue and orange light twirl around me like a tornado. I’m laughing and crying as joy, grief, pain, love, loneliness, come and go, flashing by so quickly I lose track of what the words even mean.
A thousand images fight for my attention. Each time one grabs me, I become someone else.
I’m a young woman arranging my pincurls because my beau is going to propose tonight. I’m a vet just back from the war in Vietnam and struggling to learn how to walk on my new prostheses. I’m a little girl sitting on a chair, watching my feet swing below me and trying to pretend I don’t hear the man in the white coat whispering the word terminal to my father.
It goes on forever. A constant circle of lights, pain, noise, people. They all flash by so fast I can’t make sense of any of it.
Aching for the peace of the darkness, I beg for the pain to end. I plead for this to stop and let me go back to floating through the nothing.
The images and the emotions spin faster and faster until I’m caught in a whirlpool there seems to be no escaping.
Just before I lose my mind in the swirling chaos around me, I notice something new.
There’s a ball of light that seems to contain every color imaginable. The longer I stare, the more defined it becomes until it finally coalesces into a nightingale. A glass nightingale.
It calls to me, vibrating a tune I almost remember. I want to touch it. Need to touch it. Reaching, stretching, pushing past the burning lights and the senseless images, I finally reach the nightingale and close my fist around it.
The world still swirls around me, but it’s as though I’ve slipped into the eye of the storm. I am the calm center of a world in riot.
Staring at the nightingale in my palm, I try to figure it out. Where did it come from? If it can keep me free of the raging cyclone surrounding me, I’m never letting it go.
As I stare, an image forms inside the glass bird: a girl with insanely long blonde hair and wide honey-brown eyes and a smiling boy with eyes as black as an empty night sky who towers over her. My gaze locks on him and everything else disappears. I’d know him anywhere.
That’s Hudson. And I am the girl standing by his side.
In a flash of blue light, the cyclone vanishes and the rest of my life settles in around me. The childhood that was stolen from me. The years I spent twisted around Orane’s thumb. The whirlwind two weeks that Hudson has been in my life.
Hudson showed up like a knight in shining armor ready to battle a dragon and he found me instead. He found a fight he couldn’t win and helped me prepare for a war I didn’t know I was about to lose. Hudson did everything he could to save someone he’d never met because that’s who he is. It’s what he does. He’s incapable of letting something bad happen without trying to stop it.
He’s huge and looks terrifying, but he’s also strong and over-protective and persistent and wounded, still healing from the fights that left scars on his skin and the ones no one else can see—the ones inside that haven’t stopped bleeding yet. He’d do anything to help someone in need, but he’s not with me now.
I remember all the details of my last conscious moments. There was a battle and I won, but when we landed on my bedroom floor, the pieces I’d absorbed from Orane, the talents and the powers he’d stolen over the years, all tried to work at once. My brain couldn’t handle the overload of information. Still, none of that explains where I am.
Whatever happened, Hudson can’t help me here. Wherever “here” is.
What is this place? Where am I? More important, how the hell do I get out?
As soon as I ask, my vision blurs and fades.
I fall into darkness again.
Out of the blackness, a blue light appears. Other colors swiftly follow, building faster until I blink and find myself somewhere new.
Marble pillars stand so tall I can’t see the top. Attached to them are shelves of dark wood stretching off in either direction. The pillars and the wood look fine, but the information that should be sitting on them is in tatters. Scrolls and books are torn up and pages are strewn everywhere. Some of the books still smoke as though the fire burning away the pages just went out. It’s like I stepped into the library of Alexandria moments after its destruction.
I remember the glimpse I caught of Orane’s mind, the sense of vast space and depthless knowledge. How much of that ended up here and how do I even begin making sense of something like this let alone organize it into usable bits of information? There has to be somewhere to start.
I pick up a scrap of paper, but it’s written in a language I don’t know, one I don’t even recognize. I place it on an empty shelf and move on.
I keep walking, picking my way through the debris all over the floor. Pillars and rows pass and down each aisle I see the same destruction of the first.
Then, it’s as though I crossed a line the devastation couldn’t pass. The shelves to either side are full of books bound in bright colors. Intrigued, I pick up a blue book nearest the aisle.
I open the book and gasp. On the first page is a picture of Hudson that’s so real I reach out to him before I realize what I’m doing. Pulling my hand back, I flip through more of the pages. They’re all Hudson, snapshots of the hour before I faced Orane. The last page in the book is his face as I saw it before everything went black.
Running my finger over the image, I wonder what’s going on where he is. How much time has passed? He must be so worried. And my parents, too. Jesus. Haven’t I caused them enough stress yet?
Closing the book, I hug it tight and survey the organized shelves. This is my life. My own memories and knowledge. I remember all of it, can touch the spine of any of these books and call up its contents. Is this what the rest of this mess is supposed to look like?
Turning, I take in the aisles of chaos spread out before me and try not to collapse. The prospect of putting this disaster area into order seems as impossible as cataloging the contents of the internet without a search engine. Alone. By hand. But that’s essentially what I have to do. Piece together more information than my mind was ever supposed to hold and find some way to organize it into an accessible system.
Dammit. This is going to suck.
I pick up the book and groan.
“Russian? Really?” I’m talking to no one and I don’t even care. “What the hell am I supposed to do with information in Russian?”
Shaking the book, I drop it on an empty shelf and reach for a half-torn scroll, but something catches my eye.
The letters are still written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but the words aren’t as indecipherable as I thought. The longer I stare at the page, the better I understand what’s written there, like the page is being translated before my eyes. Except it isn’t. It’s still Cyrillic.
The page isn’t being translated; I’m learning Russian.
Aleksei, a young man with an affinity for fire. Ability to withstand much higher temperatures than normal. With the right push, could become a pyrokinetic ability.
It goes on and on like that. The entire first page reads like a doctor’s notes on a patient. In a way, they are.
Orane’s observations on a Russian boy named Aleksei—only fifteen when Orane found him—who’s life ended on his eighteenth birthday when he unknowingly relinquished control of half his mind and fell into a coma he never came out of. What chance did medicine in twelfth century Russia have of saving him? He died two weeks later.
I hear a scratch, like the striking of a match. My entire body is paralyzed an instant before immense heat rushes over me.
It doesn’t hurt. I scream anyway.
No! I haven’t gotten this far just to let myself burn.
Closing my eyes, I think of water, of ice, of blizzards and thunderstorms, of calm and cool and rain. Anything that puts out a fire. At first, the only thing I notice is that the temperature has stopped rising. After that, the change happens slowly. My body cools degree by degree, dropping until I’m no longer on the edge of combustion.
I take a breath and open my eyes. Still alive? I think so. I’m also still stuck.
Okay. Right. Now what?
My gaze lands on the book sitting alone on the otherwise empty shelf, the book containing a story about a Russian boy with an affinity for fire.
I learned Russian as I read the book. Could I have activated Aleksei’s pyrokinetic ability by reading about it too?
Thinking about the fire brings it back in bellows-like whoosh. The heat climbs higher and hotter, but at least this time I have some idea what’s going on.
I push it back, focusing it into the palm of my hand, forcing it into a single spot until the air just above my upturned palm ignites. I’m holding a tiny ball of fire.
Holy crap! I’m holding a tiny ball of fire!
Whatever had locked me in place releases me and I stumble forward, my fireball vanishing when I catch myself on the shelf in front of me.
Aleksei’s book is eye level, but it doesn’t look like the same book I first picked up. It’s once battered cover is fixed and the torn, smoking pages are whole. And not on fire. They’re also incomplete.
Shaking myself off, I flip through the book, learning more about Aleksei, whose short life ended centuries before mine began. Chunks of text are missing, though, cut off sometimes in the middle of a sentence. It’s like the information I pulled from Orane was incomplete.
I place it on the shelf and look down at the books and scrolls and pages still scattered on the floor.
How many more broken lives will I have to face?
I keep working, processing as much information as I can put together at a time. What I have here isn’t just information on the dreamworld or Orane’s life. There are the stories of the children he found, the hundreds he tricked into giving up their most precious talents and gifts. The ones he abandoned, taking what he wanted and disappearing.
Each one is different and yet the stories are still so similar.
This boy had a gift for music. That girl could paint a picture in such realistic detail viewers were sure it was a photograph. This one was an actor. These three could sense the energy that wasn’t quite of this world, and eight others would have been capable of prophecy if they’d had a chance to grow into their powers.
Empaths, artists, seers, mediators, athletes, illusionists. Some of the memories are Orane’s, but more often I find lingering pieces of his victims. How these memories survived—and some have lasted thousands of years—I don’t understand, but now these bits of his victims have carried over to me. Their stories are lost to everyone except me now.
I have become the repository of lost souls.
Just like I did with Russian, I eventually learn to read Mandarin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, French, Urdu, German, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and more.
The languages seem to filter into my consciousness automatically, but it’s not so easy with the dozens of abilities I’ve picked up.
Each time I find a new power, I have to understand it before I can move on. The activation of each power hits me like a stun gun and I can’t move until I’ve learned to think around it, to find a place for it in my head or shut it off completely and hide it away.
What’s weird is that the more of my battered library I catalog, the more awake, alert, myself I feel. Even though progress means I’m absorbing the memories of Orane’s victims. And Orane himself.
What I’ve learned about Orane isn’t exactly comforting. Most of the information centers on his search for the ultimate weapon. That specific, seemingly unattainable combination of talents that would make him invulnerable. Invincible. Immortal. All-powerful.
And now most of his work has ended up locked inside my head.
I am so screwed.
On the plus side, I’m multi-lingual.
The leather of this book’s cover is pitted and scratched, charred in places and torn in others. The pages are stuck together in places and it’s a struggle to even get the thing to open.
Gemma is an extremely perceptive girl, capable of reading the most minute facial expressions and determining their meaning. Also perceptive of emotional shifts. With training and evolution, possible telepath.
“Bryan said his boss would give him a bonus but—oh, crap! Did I leave the stove—”
“—pocket full of poesy! Ashes, ashes, we all fall—”
“Oh, shit that feels good! Would he want to try—”
“Blue… or green? Maybe the green is too dark. Blue. No, green. Or red?”
Dozens of voices are screaming inside my head, the disjointed thoughts of every person within a mile of my parents’ house demanding my full attention. I drop the book and slap my hands over my ears, squeezing my eyes shut tight, but it doesn’t help. At all.
Taking a deep, slow breath, I force myself to focus on one voice. I try and try, but the noise is overwhelming, a physical thing that’s slamming into my head like a volley of cannonballs. My legs tremble and I collapse to my knees.
Breathe, I tell myself. My own thoughts are barely audible in the chaos, but I can sense them even if I can’t hear them. Breathe. Focus. Calm down. Find a voice you know.
It takes me longer than I’d like to find a rhythm, to breathe in even cycles and concentrate through the pounding noise. The voices begin to shift, though, warping louder and softer as I press them back. Then, like a rubber band reaching the breaking point, the resistance disappears and the screams fade into soft, meaningless conversation.
All but one.
“Wake up, Mari. Wake up, wake up, wake up. Please, wake up.”
My breath catches.
That’s Hudson’s voice.
I look down at the blue book by my feet, the one I’ve carried with me this whole time, for some reason never able to put it back where it belongs. I concentrate on him and his voice gets louder, the others slowly falling away until they’re just a rush of white noise in the background.
Is that all I need to do? Concentrate on a single person?
Experimenting, I focus on my mom. Her voice instantly comes up, like I’ve tuned a radio to pick up the right frequency.
“She looks so pale,” I hear my mom think. “Was she this pale yesterday?”
I can still hear Hudson chanting his pleas, but Mom’s voice seems closer. Louder.
“I know he says she’ll wake up, but why hasn’t she yet?” Even in her thoughts, Mom’s voice is thick and heavy with tears. “Wake up, Mari. Come back to us, please.”
“I’m trying,” I whisper back to them. “I’m coming back. I promise. Just hold on.”
I move on, picking up another book and glancing at the first page.
“Oh, shit,” I mutter as the scrolls, books, and debris around me shift and tilt in my direction. “Telekinesis.”
Most of the abilities I shut off as soon as I master them—if I can—but some are amazingly useful.
Like healing. I have the power to heal people. Anyone. That power I leave on.
I can’t quite make myself lock the telekinetic abilities away either. It’s too much fun to watch the books fly into my hand instead of bending to pick up each one.
And telepathy? It doesn’t suck as much as I thought. Not once I got the hang of it.
“I wonder if Mari will remember me when she wakes up,” I heard KT think one afternoon as she sat on the edge of my bed. “Would Emily remember me? It’s been so long.”
Every time Dawn stops by, she leans over the bed and I can see myself through her eyes, like I’m looking into a very fuzzy mirror.
“Wow. She’s even more staticky than the last time.” Dawn holds her hand an inch away from my skin. She can sense the energy surrounding me, the way it’s growing and changing with each ability I trigger. “Goddess bless. What are you gonna be like when you wake up?”
I flinched when she thought that and even shut the telepathy off for a while. It’s a question I don’t know the answer to, one I’ve avoided thinking about in detail for a long time.
Even though I don’t always like what I hear, I can’t keep from switching the power back on. Usually sooner rather than later.
Listening to the thoughts of the people around me is the only way I know how much time has passed or what they’re doing while I’m lying in bed hooked to IV’s and monitors. It’s the only way I know that Lucas Carroll, the doctor KT called in hopes of helping Emily, is now helping my parents watch over me. It’s how I keep track of what’s happening to my friends and family and how I can agonize with them over Nadette and Julian’s sudden disappearances. It’s how I know that out of everyone who comes to visit—my parents, Doctor Carroll, KT, Dawn, and even Danny—none of them are as constant as Hudson.
In some moments, it feels wrong listening to him talk to himself inside his head—thoughts, ideas and confessions meant only for him—but then there are moments like this.
“C’mon, Mari. You’re stronger than this. You’ve gotta pull out of it. You’ve gotta come back to us. We need you; I need you.”
The faith and the hope and the love pouring out of him feels like stepping into a warm home on a freezing winter night, like sitting by the fire and having the person you love most wrap you in a blanket.
Hudson is the only one whose thoughts sound like conversation, like he’s whispering to me, knowing I can hear him. Or maybe only hoping I can.
Either way, the longer this lasts, the more Hudson’s whispers are what keeps pushing me forward. When I feel like a rag doll on the verge of falling apart at the seams, Hudson’s encouragement is what gives me the energy to try one more time, to patch up the holes and keep moving.
I just hope I find the end soon. Before I can’t patch myself up anymore.
Hudson: Alternate Ending
This ending didn't remain in place for more than a draft, but I thought people might like to see it. With a few minor alterations (like that fact that in the final version of the story, neither of them are quite ready to say the L word at this point), something very like this moment happens in between the end of Sing Sweet Nightingale and Hudson and Mari's appearance in Deadly Sweet Lies. So this is not quite canon, but it's damn close.
Warning: There may be kissing involved in this scene. 😉
“But you know that already, Boy Scout.”
The smile is already spreading across my face, but when the words really click, my heart stalls. Did she just call me a boy scout?
Swallowing, I ask, “How’d you know I was a boy scout?”
It was only for a year. They not-so-politely asked me to leave when I couldn’t stop fighting with the other kids. Really, it was just these three guys with a habit of playing cruel pranks on the smaller kids. And I refused to let them get away with it.
Mari glances at me, biting her lip. She didn’t mean to say that, or maybe forgot it was something we’ve never talked about. After a second, she sighs and lifts her hand to trace a scar I’d forgotten about hidden in my hair on the back of my head.
“You got this when those three kids in your troop pushed you off your bike in the woods. You hit your head on a rock. They thought they’d killed you. They lied and said you just fell and you never told anyone what happened.”
The head injury had made the entire day a little fuzzy. Not even I remember the accident very well, but she knew what happened and I have a feeling she could give me their names, too. The parents of those three assholes funded practically everything the troop did. Who was gonna take my side in that argument? I take a deep breath, my hands tightening on the wheel.
“No one would’ve believed me.”
“I believe you.”
Her hand slides down my neck, traces the line of my arm—lingering for a moment on the tattoo on my wrist—and then she twines her fingers through mine. I lift her hand to my lips and kiss the soft, unscarred skin before letting our hands rest on her thigh. Neither of us says anything for the rest of the drive, but it’s the kind of silence that speaks volumes.
When we finally end up back where we started, I look up at the craftsman style two-story, searching for signs of life. Mari was right, though. It doesn’t look like anyone noticed we left.
As we quietly head upstairs, I try to prepare myself to say goodnight, to let go of her hand and head into the guest bedroom alone. When we reach her bedroom door, Mariella glances up at me, her honey-brown eyes sparkling in the tiny bit of light filtering through the hall window. She opens the door and, still holding tight to my hand, pulls me in after her.
The door clicks shut behind us and I hold my breath, not sure what to do. I know what I want to do, but that doesn’t means she’s thinking the same thing.
But then her smile grows wider and she shifts closer, her hand releasing mine to slide up my arm. It’s enough of a sign for me. I wrap my arms around her tiny waist and lift her lips to mine. Her legs wrap around my waist and her fingers dig into my hair.
Mari’s touch sends electric shockwaves across my skin so strong the hairs on my arms stand on end. Her lips are as lush and full as I dreamt they would be and when she opens her mouth and lets me in, she tastes like strawberries.
With her legs wrapped tight around my waist, I’m free to run my hands from her knees, up her thighs, and slip my fingers under the hem of her shirt. When she does the same to me, sliding her hands down my back and under my shirt, she doesn’t stop there. She grabs the bottom of my shirt and rips it over my head.
The movement and the shock send me off balance and my knees buckle. We crash onto her bed. Her lips never leave mine, but her fingers make a game of exploring my chest, tracing the contour of each muscle until I know I’m about to turn to liquid in her hands. Groaning under her onslaught, I flip us over, pinning her hands over her head and plundering her mouth with mine. No thoughts exist outside of this moment. The rest of the world could have disappeared and I would never know or care as long as Mariella keeps kissing me.
“We have to—have to—stop,” Mari gasps.
My brain is so fogged with her scent, her touch, her everything that it take a second for the words to filter through. And even longer for my body to obey my commands. I roll over, my breath coming in shallow pants as I struggle to keep from reaching for her again.
“I’m not—” She swallows and takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I have things under control, but it’s harder when I’m awake. If I lose focus I might bring the house down around us.”
I blink and push myself up on my elbow so I can look down into her eyes. “You could do that?”
She bites her lip and glances at me without moving her head. “Yeah.”
Her face pales and she nods. “Really.”
I take her face in my hands and press my lips to hers, still stunned I have the right to do this. “That is so hot.”
Mari laughs, a short bark that’s so loud we both freeze to see if it woke anyone up. When she relaxes, I know the coast is clear. She smiles up at me and shakes her head.
“Exactly.” I kiss her again and again, determined to taste every inch of skin she’ll allow. “Only me.”
I trail kisses from her lips, along the line of her jaw, under her ear, and down the side of her neck. It is so incredibly tempting to slide the strap of her tanktop out of the way and keep going, but I know if I don’t stop myself now I won’t be able to. And I have a feeling we shouldn’t put her control to the test quite yet. Frank wouldn’t be very forgiving if we crumbled his carefully restored Craftsmen into rubble.
Pressing one more kiss to her lips, I drop to the mattress and pull Mariella against my side. She sighs and snuggles closer, tucking her head onto my shoulder, draping her arm over my chest, and wrapping her leg around mine. We lay there in silence for a while as I try to remember what rational thought is like. The patterns she’s tracing on my stomach don’t help. As soon as I think that, I feel her smile. She keeps going.
The smile doesn’t.
“I can see them all.”
Her fingers trace the welt left behind from a chain whip and she shudders. “All the people you fought. The people you saved.”
I hold my breath. The last thing I want is my horrific memories plaguing Mari. I take her hand in mine and draw her away from my scars, only to realize I can’t. There are so few patches of unmarred skin on my body I have no safe place to lead her.
“Don’t,” she whispers, gently pulling her hand out of mine and placing it on a rough patch of skin over my ribs. Road rash from my run in with the Bishop Kings four years ago.
Mariella pushes up until she’s looking down at me, her hair cascading off the side of the bed like a waterfall and her eyes so solemn and sad.
“It’s not over, you know. I don’t know what’s coming, but I can feel it. It’s like there storm clouds in the distance and fire in the air. What we did, it’s already changing things. You… you did what you came here to do. I’m safe. If you want to leave, I would—”
My heart starts beating so fast all I feel is a tremor running through my chest. I pull her down to the bed and press my lips to hers, shutting her up the fastest way I know how. Only when I’m sure she’ll listen do I let her come up for air.
“Listen to me you crazy, gorgeous, stubborn, girl,” I whisper, staring into her eyes. “I’ve helped take out two of them already. There’s nowhere on this planet for me to hide. All me leaving would be doing is hurting both of us, and I don’t want to do that. I love you. The only way I’m leaving is if you order me away.”
But would I go?
“Actually, never mind. I wouldn’t even leave then.” Not now that I know she loves me too.
She opens her mouth to argue, so I kiss her again. Even after I pull back, she still looks like she wants to try to convince me she’s right.
I put a finger over her lips and shake my head. “No, Mari. This time, you’re wrong. It’s something you’re gonna have to learn to live with.”
Slowly, the color comes back to her skin and her smile returns. She kisses the tip of my finger and reaches up to entwine her fingers with mine. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” It’s not an answer that requires thought.
“It’s not going to be easy.”
I grin. “I have a feeling nothing with you ever will be.”
She grins right back, pink tinting her cheeks and her eyes lighting up. “I choose to take that as a compliment.”
I kiss her temple and her cheek and then her lips, lingering there the longest and pulling her back toward me. “You should.”
Mariella tucks herself against my side, sighing happily. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or nine months from now. For tonight, though, we have each other and that’s more than enough for me.