Prologue & Chapter One
It wasn’t how she’d thought it would be.
It wasn’t bright or intense, gentle or inviting, it was just there, as was she.
Both herself and the door hovered, humming slightly in the space between being and oblivion.
The only light in the room seeped under the door, washing the floor in a silver glow that pebbled her skin.
There was no feeling attached to the door, no overwhelming emotion, it was just a void.
She couldn’t help but think that was the point.
Leighton Connors was dying. Dead? She wasn’t sure about the tense.
But dying or dead her time on earth was over.
Leighton had never been fussy over her nails. She wasn’t one to experiment with nail polish or file her nails into perfect semi-circles. When they were long she bit them. The rest of the time she used them to open cans of soda, hit the keys on her phone and pick at the rough skin around her cuticles.
Now Leighton wished she had paid her nails some attention, washed them thoroughly, shaped her cuticles and applied some sort of pick-me-up colour to them. Leighton curled her fingers into her palms and placed her hands beneath her arms, hoping no one had noticed the shape they were in.
No one was paying attention to her. Teenagers mulled around, occasionally knocking her shoulder or stepping on her exposed toes. They laughed and cried, hugged and fought, made the most of their last foreseeable get together before they separated, heading for different paths of life.
Leighton had promised herself that she wouldn’t be one of those girls who went to prom. But in the end, nostalgia and the fear of missing out pushed her out the door wearing one of her mother’s cocktail dresses. The dress didn’t fit right in the chest and the sleeve continued to slip down her shoulder but it was all her mother could round up in such short notice.
Leighton pulled at the material uncertainly, careful to keep her nails out of sight. She hated to think what people would say if they saw the destroyed cuticles and thin layer of dirt beneath the pink nail.
The dress clung to her hips in an unflattering manner and was no comparison to the multitude of floor length gowns that covered the dance floor. Majority of the girls present let their eyes slip past Leighton, unaware of her presence. A few noticed her appearance and smirked, tugging on their friend’s skirt to pass along the view.
Leighton looked down, her eyebrows pulling together as she once again caught sight of the horrid state her nails were in. If she were to be honest, looking at her nails made her feel more out of place than her ill fitting dress or wobbly high heels. She thought that perhaps being a completely unpolished stone was better than only shining in a few places.
She folded her hands behind her back.
“Leighton, I didn’t expect to see you here. I thought you weren’t coming?” Bethany’s smile was stretched and plastic looking. Her eyes shifted underneath her glasses, indicating she was only approaching Leighton out of the obligation of old friendship.
“I wasn’t going to come.” Leighton tried to swallow but her throat was dry.
“I know,” Bethany forced a laugh. “That’s why I was surprised to see you here. You look nice.” Leighton bit down on her tongue, suspecting that Bethany had seen her nails.
“You look great,” Leighton replied, making an earnest effort to appear sincere. It was hard since she hated the colour yellow. Leighton might have even hated Bethany, but she didn’t have the energy to.
Bethany fiddled with the wilting corsage on her wrist. “The dress was my cousin’s, I just tailored the bottom.” Leighton nodded, lips pressing together as she averted her eyes.
“What college did you say you were going to again?” Bethany asked the question like she didn’t know the answer.
Leighton shook her head slightly, embarrassment closing the column of her throat. “I―I um, I’m not going to college.” Leighton closed her eyes tight, wishing she had put on some damn nail polish. “I just want to take a year to think about... about things.”
Bethany appeared sympathetic but Leighton could read the underlying agitation. The look made Leighton feel anxious as it dredged up memories of Bethany pushing her to ‘get over it’. “Of course, you’ve had some tough years.” Bethany reached out and placed a hand on Leighton’s shoulder, blinking expectantly through her glasses.
Leighton grimaced and sidestepped, letting her hand fall. “What college are you going to again?” Leighton rearranged her features in the hopes of appearing interested.
“UCLA,” Bethany beamed, thankful the conversation had moved onto the topic of her success. People were good at talking about themselves, especially when it concerned their acomplishments. If there was anything the last two years had taught Leighton it was that no one knew how to handle a complete failure.
“Congratulations,” Leighton said on reflex. She had no idea of the school’s performance, just the draw of a big name. It was always better to congratulate than to question, Leighton knew this well.
Bethany smiled, “Thanks.” A few awkward minutes transpired before Bethany removed herself, once again commenting on Leighton’s appearance and wishing her the best in the future. Leighton did the same.
As Bethany was Leighton’s only companion, the rest of the night passed in silence. She mulled around the gymnasium, smiling when she thought she caught someone’s eye and downing cups of watered down fruit punch.
Halfway through the event she pulled her meek blonde hair from its bindings and shook it out half-heartedly, hoping to draw attention away from her ruined cuticles. The clock ticked away, song after song came on but time was best measured by the amount of people who disappeared from the dance floor.
When all but three couples had left the gym Leighton turned and exited, walking through the hallways of her high school one last time before pushing the front doors out in front of her and hovering on the front steps.
It was raining as it usually did in St. Hope. When it wasn’t raining it felt as though the sky might burst open at any moment to drench whatever was unprotected. Leighton didn’t mind though, she liked the rain. She enjoyed its power to cleanse, to wash away whatever happened that day, to make the bad experiences roll down the street and into an awaiting drain.
Leighton stepped out from the overhang and into the rain, smiling as her hair grew a shade darker and her dress started to stick to her skin. Let it all wash away, she thought to herself, let it all be gone. Leighton closed her eyes and smiled wider, feeling better the longer she stood there.
She wished desperately that a few seconds in the rain could take away the disappointment, the shame, the fear, the frustration, the loneliness. Above all the loneliness. Lonely was a strange concept. While Leighton was seldom alone in a room, she always felt distant from those around her. It didn’t matter if she was within her mother’s embrace because she couldn’t feel her touch.
Maybe the rain would take care of it. Maybe the drops would roll down the skin of her arms, picking up the traces of the suffocating isolation as they made their way to the ground. Maybe when she was dry she would feel better.
Opening her eyes, Leighton let her smile drop. She knew that it didn’t matter how long she stood in the rain, because loneliness would still be there. Settled snuggly in the centre of her ribcage, beating right alongside of her heart and infecting the rest of her body with every pump through her veins.
She forced herself to keep moving. After all, that was the way to combat the familiar sinking feeling. The feeling that your feet were slowly being claimed by the earth and that the ground under the soles of your feet was trying to swallow you whole.
She had no ride. Her mother was with her boyfriend and her father was three states over with a different family. Leighton slipped her feet out of her shoes and picked them up before heading down the street, sticking close to the curb and jumping onto the grass each time a pair of headlights approached.
She didn’t live far from her school, a rough half an hour walk or a ten minute drive. Close enough to walk to and from school but too far to escape an empty table in the cafeteria at lunch. Leighton’s cheeks burned despite herself. The memories surfaced and her stomach clenched. Every day she ate opposite four empty chairs.
Could the rain erase memories?
No. It couldn’t. She had tried for years to rid herself of theses recollections, to scrub her skin free of their clutch, to eradicate the oppressing feeling of those memories slinking over her arms, her stomach, her legs. She had attempted to empty her mind, to make the recollections of her experiences stop bouncing around her skull.
The sound of laughter silenced her thoughts.
She searched the trees frantically, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. There were no pedestrians on the street, no joggers on the side of the road, no cyclists on the pathways. It was just her standing at the mouth of the forest.
She eyed the trees hesitantly, not sure if she felt inclined to take the path that cut through them any longer. The lamps that lined the pathway stopped halfway through the forest and after that she’d be left in the dark.
A chill ran through her and Leighton rubbed her arms absently as her teeth started to chatter. She loved the rain but she didn’t love what happened if you were exposed to cold, wet weather for an extended amount of time.
She continued walking, another shiver passing through her body as she left the safety of the street and was swallowed by the trees. The lamps above her buzzed with a comforting orange glow that washed out the first five feet of the forest and plunged the rest of the area in complete darkness.
Leighton walked as quickly as she could, dodging broken twigs and sharp rocks to save the soles of her feet from abrasion. The forest was calm, the only sound that echoed off the trees was the gentle patter of rainfall that soothed her.
But then she heard another laugh and stopped walking. Leighton stopped at the last lamppost, staring off at the darkened path ahead of her. There was no more orange glow after the light she was under, she’d be on her own.
The laughter grew louder and Leighton jumped, her teeth clicking and catching her tongue. She frowned as she tasted blood and touched the tip of her tongue to her finger. Clutching her mother’s shoes in hand, Leighton was about to continue on when the laugh echoed louder, rooting her to the spot.
“Who’s there?” she called out, voice strangely strong despite her fear. Another laugh hit her ears and then the strange clink of glass. “Who―” her voice was jammed into her throat as a figure stumbled out of the trees just ahead of her. She clutched the shoes to her chest, the sounds of the rain blotted out by the thumping of her own heart and the drastic inhaling of her lungs.
“Leighton Connors?” a voice slurred, followed by the same laugh. Her body tensed for the briefest moment before the figure stepped into the orange glow and revealed its features to her. Jack Norton, fellow graduate and lacrosse snob.
“J―Jack,” she stuttered, “what are you doing?”
He grinned, lifting the beer bottles in both hands. “Having a good time trying to get home, I suppose. Why are you here?”
She was so relieved she laughed, a sound that wasn’t often heard. “I live across the street from you,” she reminded gently, not surprised he had forgotten in his shape. “I have since we were kids.”
He frowned. “Shit, sorry Leighton. I just never see you anymore after... after the tenth grade and I forgot you... yeah.” A pressing silence filled the air and Leighton looked at her bare feet and then at her fingernails.
“Would you like to walk with...” Leighton’s voice trailed off as her attention was drawn somewhere other than Jack Norton. Strangely, the orange light above her had started to flicker. The rain picked up and so did the wind, to the point where it was difficult to keep her eyes open.
Leighton turned back to Jack and tried to ignore the odd flickering of the lights. “Do you want to walk home with me?” she yelled over the wind. Leighton threw her arms up as she waited for an answer but quickly realised Jack hadn’t heard her. He was staring behind her, eyes wide and mouth hanging open.
Heart in her throat, Leighton turned around slowly to see the entire pathway flickering with the orange light. Her first thought was that the storm was causing power shortages, but she knew better than that.
“Jack?” she called out as she turned around. The wind whipped ice cold water into Leighton’s face and she blinked rapidly, trying to regain a portion of her obstructed vision. Jack hardly reacted to the storm.
He was pale and gaunt looking, his entire expression full of misery and dread. Jack’s eyes stared off in the distance as a beer bottle slipped from his hand and crashed to the ground, shattering everywhere and hitting Leighton’s bare ankles. She jumped as pieces of glass sliced her skin and immediately drew tiny streams of blood.
Instead of apologizing profusely Jack just kept staring in the distance and suddenly the wind became so strong Leighton was forced to her knees. The lights around her started to flicker faster, keeping time with the frantic beating of her heart.
Jack’s blonde hair was plastered to his forehead, his brown eyes unblinking as he kept his gaze even on the tree line. She shouted to him but couldn’t hear her voice over the wind. Something told Leighton that he wouldn’t have reacted even if he had heard her shout.
Leighton screamed as a light above her popped and exploded, raining down glass and wayward sparks. She covered her head on instinct, her mother’s shoes still clutched in her grasp.
She looked up as Jack lifted his arms out to the side and smiled, just in time for a figure to tackle him from the side and into the trees. Leighton screamed and rocketed to her feet, her vision fuzzy as she stumbled forward.
As soon as her toes touched the soft earth every light on the path went out and the wind stopped just as the rain did. The only sound was the rough breathing emanating from Leighton and the soft sound of a moan.
Chills rooted Leighton to the spot as her breath left her body, her skin pebbling from the sudden change in temperature. She was cold, freezing in the middle of June. She blinked and wiped her eyes, finally letting her mother’s shoes drop to the ground.
Her eyes adjusted and slowly she could begin to make out what was only a few feet away. Jack was lying on the ground, arms and legs sprawled out around him and a figure was hovering over him, back to her.
Leighton’s mouth fell open, her throat squeezed shut and her head started to pound. She strained to stay conscious, to watch what was happening, to stay aware for what she was seeing but suddenly the cold and the panic started to overwhelm her.
The figure leaned over Jack, their hands placed firmly on his chest and their head bent low. Slowly, a sinister silver light started to seep out of Jack’s chest in slithering tendrils that raced each other to leave his body.
The silver light slipped off of Jack’s chest like fog rolling down a hillside and stretched out a few inches before seeping into the ground and causing a string of ice to mark the ground it passed over.
Leighton watched in horror as the last portion of light left Jack’s body and crawled up the figure’s hand, travelling the length of his arm, crossing over his chest to slink under his skin. The figure cried out as the light disappeared into his chest and Jack became limp.
The person grunted and pushed himself to his knees and then to his feet, swaying slightly before bending over to rest his hands on his knees. The man coughed a few times and ran a hand through his hair before turning around to face her.
When their eyes met he froze, body tensing. Leighton stared, open mouthed and shocked as she waited for Jack to get up as well. The lamp’s light hadn’t returned yet leaving it too dark to see the man’s face completely.
Leighton looked at the ground around Jack and resisted the urge to vomit. The entire floor of the forest was covered in frost. Frost in the middle of June. Jack hadn’t moved yet; she wondered if he would ever.
Leighton took an involuntary step back and hissed in pain as glass inched its way into her flesh, igniting a flow of blood to exit the wound. Where had she put her mother’s shoes? Was Jack going to get up? Why was it still so cold? Hadn’t it been raining? Where was she and why was she there?
The figure took a step towards her, arm outstretched. Leighton yelped and moved backwards again, her foot catching her ankle as she tumbled backwards and fell onto her rear. Shaking with fear, Leighton picked herself back up as the figure approached.
“S―stop,” she cried, “don’t come any closer.” The figure didn’t stop. Didn’t speak. Didn’t react. He just kept coming closer, hand outstretched, menacing in his slow pace.
“I’ll scream,” Leighton warned. Why wasn’t she screaming already? “I’ll call for help.” Who was around to hear her pleas? “I’m not afraid of you.” The closer he got the more Leighton began to shake with fear.
The figure was uncommonly tall with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He was dressed in a grey t-shirt and jeans, the biceps of his arms were exposed and smooth, marked with symbols Leighton couldn’t make out in the dim light.
“No,” Leighton yelled, “Stop. Don’t come near me, you—you’re a murderer!” The figure paused at the side of the trail and let his hand drop. Leighton’s breath came a little quicker as panic licked the insides of her stomach.
She flinched as memories invaded her skull. Memories of invasion, of pain, of suffering. Memories of violence, and dominance, and forced obedience. She couldn’t stop them coming and soon her hands were shaking as the figure in front of her took another face, a face that made her stomach roll and her head thump.
A touch took it all away.
Leighton looked up sharply as her vision cleared. The man stood in front of her, imposingly tall and pressingly powerful in a way that she had never experienced. The moon was behind him, darkening his features to the point of being indescribable.
She looked down at where his hand touched her skin and felt a tightening in her jaw. Why wasn’t she running? Because her feet were glued to the ground. Why wasn’t she screaming? Because her voice was stuck in her throat. Why wasn’t she calling for help? Because she wasn’t in danger.
She watched with muffled alarm as the skin of her forearm pebbled and then turned numb from the chill of his touch. Her skin shined and as she watched the space just under her skin turned silver. Leighton looked up to the stranger just as she felt a sharp prick in her arm, a similar feeling to a needle drawing blood.
“Relax,” the man murmured. His voice attacked Leighton’s nerves, having the opposite effect he wished for. Leighton was transfixed as the light in her arm left her body and jumped into his skin, travelling to the crook of his elbow before sinking into his flesh.
He made a sound of pain as the light flashed brightly and then disappeared, leaving a tiny symbol where it had dissolved. An oval with two diagonal lines through it. As soon as the transfer was done the edges of Leighton’s vision started to darken and the man released her.
Leighton started to fall and she couldn’t stop herself as she tumbled into oblivion.