Chapter 1: The Beginning
It was the adrenaline pumping through her veins that spurred her across the basketball court. Ball beneath her hand, legs screaming from the effort, her breaths came ragged as she pushed herself toward the hoop on the opposite side of the court. Sweat beaded her brow, her face, the palm of her hand. Any slight misstep threatened to send the ball careening onto the court and into the opposing team’s hands. They were so close—so very, very close—and with each step she took, they seemed to gain.
The entire championship game was riding on her.
Scarlet Jane could not afford to lose.
The screams from the audience compelled her forward—her coach’s instructions to watch her flank preventing her from slowing in even the slightest. They sounded like dogs, rabid with intent—barking, snarling, and foaming at the mouth—and their roars continued to deafen her with each passing second on the timer. Her head rang from the blood pumping through her eardrums and her lips trembled as she thought of everything that was going on.
At one point, she felt as though she were in a different world—in a time and place where nothing mattered except winning the game. Then she realized she was in the present and could not afford to falter.
I’ve got this, she thought.
One minute remained, and she was some fifteen feet away from the hoop. A three-point shot would be damn near impossible from this distance, but if she were to get closer—if she were to bridge the gap just a little bit—then maybe she could make the shot.
She couldn’t afford to screw up—not now, not at this crucial point in the game. They were tied, and risked running into overtime if she didn’t secure their win now. If she didn’t make the shot—if something happened—
An opposing team member came up alongside her and attempted to swipe the ball away from her.
The girl’s hand lashed out.
She just barely missed the ball.
Scarlet swore—not unlike her considering the circumstance—and increased her pace, pumping her legs as hard and as fast as she could to outrun the girl who was desperate in her attempt to intercept Scarlet. The sweat that beaded along her brow ran into her eyebrows and dripped into her eyelashes, temporarily blinding her.
No, she thought.
She couldn’t afford to panic—not now, not while there was so much at stake.
She shook her head to clear her eyes and continued to make her way forward.
Her teammates screamed for her to pass the ball.
The opposing team cried for someone to stop her.
“Get her!” someone shouted.
“Don’t let her make the shot!” the opposing team’s coach yelled.
“Go Scarlet!” her own coach encouraged. “Go! Now!”
The situation was desperate. On one hand, it was possible she could pass the ball to someone else and let fate take its course—for the Gods of basketball and everything they were worth to determine whether they would win this championship game. On the other, she knew she couldn’t do it.
If she passed the ball, and if her chosen teammate didn’t make the shot—or worse, the ball was intercepted—then it would all be over.
All their hard work, all their practice, all their training and hours in the gym would be for nothing.
This is it, Scarlet thought as she drew near the hoop, her chest raging with the effort to draw air into her lungs. It’s all on me now.
“Now or never,” she mumbled.
After sinking her teeth into her lower lip, Scarlet did the unthinkable.
She tried for the shot.
Her gut constricted and her heart raced as she watched the ball soar through the air. As it neared the hoop, growing ever so close to its red-and-white rim, all sound ceased within the room. The tension built to a fever pitch. A pin could’ve dropped and been heard at that moment—when, at the crucial point in the hour, mere seconds remained in the game.
For one brief moment, Scarlet thought the shot wouldn’t connect. Then the ball whipped into the hoop and it was all but over.
The crowd surged.
The timer depleted.
The referee officially declared them the winner.
Her teammates rushed her, dragging her into their sweaty embraces and screaming words she could not hear. Her ears were ringing, her heart still thumping, the sweat beading down her black skin.
Then it hit her.
They’d won the 2003 regional championships.
She couldn’t believe it—absolutely could not believe it. She didn’t even have time to process her winning shot before her five-foot-four frame was lifted from the ground atop the hands of her teammates.
The crowd kept chanting, “Jays! Jays! Jays!”
Her teammates screamed, “SCARLET! SCARLET!”
Her coach beamed as he came running. His bright teeth were on full display while he rushed the crowd of Louisianan Bluejays, Hembrooke High’s regionally-recognized basketball team. “Scarlet!” he cried. “You did it! You did it!”
“I did it,” she said, breathless as he reached up to take hold of her hand. “I won the championship game.”
Her seventeen-year-old heart couldn’t believe it.
She was on top of the moon.
If only her mother had been there to see it.
Scarlet’s thoughts instantly went to her only parent as the crowd continued to scream and her teammates continued to cry. Though her mother had promised she’d try her best to make it to the game that would decide who won the championship, she worked long and grueling hours at the hospital. She couldn’t guarantee her attendance. Still, the glimmering possibility caused Scarlet to search from her place atop her teammate’s hands for the one woman she loved more than anything else in the world. She scanned the bleachers from top to bottom, left to right. Still she found nothing.
Her defeated sigh could not be heard over her teammates’ exclamations, their tears, their loving adoration for the girl who had won them the regional championships.
How she wished her mother could have been there to see it. She would probably be asleep by the time Scarlet arrived home, and as such would have to wait until morning to hear her daughter’s triumphant story. Still—there’d be victory then, just as there was now.
She’ll be proud, Scarlet thought as she was set upon the ground.
The teams lined up in parallel lines, then slowly began moving alongside one another and slapping hands. Then they headed to the locker rooms to shower and change so they could make their way home.
“I can’t believe we won,” one of the girls on her team said.
“I can’t believe Scarlet made that shot,” another added.
Scarlet smiled as she undressed, as in the nearby mirror she caught sight of her black skin and pretty features. Her full lips parted in an enormous smile and her black eyes gleamed with untold happiness. She’d worked all year for this moment—for this defining moment in her high school career—and it had finally paid off.
“Good game girls!” Coach Vasquez shouted into the locker room. “And good shot, Scarlet!”
Her teammates applauded her—showered her with praises and smiles and thumbs-ups as she stepped beneath the shower and washed away the sweat from her form. The cool water felt amazing against her hot skin, and soon, everything drew to a close.
She turned the faucet off.
She wrapped a towel around herself.
Drying herself from head to toe, she returned to her locker and began to dress.
As she finished, she slipped her feet into a pair of tennis shoes and gathered her straight black hair away from her face. She contemplated what Monday morning would bring and realized, after a moment’s contemplation, she’d be seen as nothing less than a God amongst men. After all these years, the Girls Basketball team—the Bluejays—would finally have outdone the boys’ Cardinals team; and she, Scarlet Jane Brown, would have the admiration of every boy, girl, and teacher within the school.
“You did good tonight,” her best friend, Ariana—another player and the girl who’d been her rear defense—said. “I still can’t believe you made that shot.”
“I can’t either,” Scarlet laughed. “I didn’t think I’d make it.”
“I don’t think any of us did,” Ariana replied. “Still—congratulations!”
The two hugged and left the locker room, then the gymnasium, and walked toward the school’s back doors. They were just about to exit when a voice urged them to stop.
“Scarlet!” Coach Vasquez called. “Scarlet!”
She turned to face the older Hispanic man and smiled as their eyes met. “Yes, Coach?” she asked.
“I just wanted to congratulate you for winning the regionals,” he said, then reached out to take hold of her hand. “You did great out there, kiddo. All your hard work has finally paid off.”
“I’ll see you Monday. We have Nationals to think about.”
“That we do,” Ariana said, and ushered Scarlet out the back door and into the humid Louisianan air.
They crossed the school grounds toward the parking lot, careful to avoid loitering students or parents arriving to pick up their children. As they walked, feet treading the blacktop with newfound confidence she couldn’t have found anywhere else, Scarlet inhaled a breath. A smile bloomed as the adrenaline coursing through her veins continued to die down.
“Are you sure you don’t want my mom to give you a ride?” Ariana asked as they approached Mrs. Chamberson’s old red car.
“It’s not that far,” Scarlet replied. “Besides—I don’t think I could bear to sit still.”
“You’re sure? It’s really no trouble. I mean, it’s on the way.”
“I know. Don’t worry about it.”
With a nod, her friend wrapped Scarlet in a brief hug before stepping back toward the car. “Call me so we can make plans this weekend,” she said. “We need to celebrate!”
“I definitely will,” Scarlet smiled, then turned and headed down the street.
Darkness began to encroach upon her as she traveled down the longest street she would have to walk on her way home. Lit only by the curbside lamps and the full overhead moon, it offered her solitude she wouldn’t have found elsewhere, especially not in a car with other people. She was still too jittery—still too excited—to simply sit still. Though she tried her hardest to suppress it, she couldn’t help but grin.
“Mom’s gonna be so proud,” she said. Her mother would be thrilled beyond compare over her daughter’s win, and at the same time feel guilty for not being able to see it. She’d say she was sorry, promise to make up for it, but none of it was important. Scarlet had won—and that, above anything, was all that mattered.
The sound of cicadas continued to follow her as she reached her street. Here, so far away from streetlamps or any active traffic, the road was almost pitch-black. For this reason, she kept to the picket fences that lined the roads—knowing, without a doubt in her mind, that at this time of night she could easily be accosted, or worse. She’d heard horror stories from some of the high school girls about their college friends walking home in the dark only to get robbed or raped by armed men. While she knew she could outrun most anyone, she could never escape an armed man.
Why are you even thinking about this? she thought. It wasn’t as if any of those crimes had been committed in this area, so why was she so fixated on something that had not, nor likely ever would, happen? Was she just being overly cautious, or was it because she felt, in the back of her mind, that something was wrong?
Either way, the feeling of utter dread continued to follow her, to the point where she began to speed up—half-walking, half-jogging down the road to her home, which lay at the far end of the lane that ended in a roundabout driveway.
The wind picked up its pace, as if giving chase as she fled.
The cicadas went silent.
The moon disappeared behind the clouds, thrusting the world into darkness.
Run, her consciousness whispered.
But why? Why was she running? And what was she running from? Or to? Home?
She bolted, not bothering to look behind her to see if anyone or anything pursued her. As her footsteps slapped against the concrete, rocking the silent world with harrowing sound, dogs barked. A flock of grackles took flight from the trees over her head, their cries like murder in the dead of night. Her legs—trained from years of running up and down basketball courts—carried her without issue, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw next.
As she came to a stop at the end of her drive, she found that the porchlight was on—that the front door sat open and the light in the living room shone bright.
Her mother wouldn’t have just left the door open… not at this hour of the night.
Stepping forward, Scarlet reached into her pocket and fingered for her keys. When she found them, she took them in hand, armed herself with one as if it were a knife upon her middle finger, and started toward the house.
The scent of something bitter hung on the wind. Something that smelled like—
The thought occurred to her in but an instant—completely irrational, but all the more plausible given that the front door gaped open at nearly nine o’clock at night.
Her mother should’ve been on the couch, dozing while waiting for her to return home.
Scarlet mounted the porch, cleared her throat, and asked, “Mom?”
She cursed herself for the action shortly thereafter. If anyone had broken in, she’d just announced her presence. And if she’d announced her presence, then surely she would—
A shuffle of movement sounded inside the house.
With a sigh of relief, Scarlet stepped onto the porch.
Her eyes couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing.
Hovering above a puddle of blood was a creature with blood-ride irises and razor-sharp teeth.
It hissed at her as she stared in complete and utter horror—in shock, and awe, and outright terror. Flesh dangled from its mouth. Blood ran down its lips. Vicious and calculating eyes watched her with the intent of a hunter looking upon its potential prey.
Her mother, dead beneath the monster’s form, looked back at her, a silent scream upon her face.
“No,” she whispered.
The creature hissed as it began to rise.
“No no no!” she cried, taking several steps back and nearly stumbling off the stoop. “Mama! Mama! NO!”
The creature bared its fangs and began to crawl toward her.
Her shrill cry echoed throughout the neighborhood as across the street several lights burst into life inside her neighbor’s homes—as from the windows curtains parted with questioning looks. Breaths ragged, chest heaving, eyes weeping from the sight she had just witnessed, Scarlet stumbled into the street and fell to her knees as she swiveled to regard the home.
The creature was gone.
It had vanished.
Her mother, though—she was still there. Still lying on the ground. Still in the mess of her own blood.
“Dead,” she whispered, almost unable to believe the word as it left her lips.
Then it hit her—hard: like a freight train colliding with an unfortunate victim of the night.
The creak of a nearby door opening entered her ears. “What’s going on?” a man asked.
“My mother!” Scarlet wailed. “It killed my mother!”
“What?” the man asked.
“It… it… it—”
Scarlet couldn’t finish.
She bowed her head to the asphalt and sobbed.
The man—still trembling above her—reached down to take hold of her arms. “Come here,” he said, trying to drag her to her feet, but to no avail. “You can’t stay here.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Scarlet sobbed. “I don’t want to… to—”
Sirens wailed in the distance. The man who’d tried to help her waved his arms in the air. It wasn’t long before the police were upon them.
“What’s going on?” Scarlet heard one of them ask.
“There was a break-in,” the man replied. “She’s saying her mother was killed.”
Scarlet’s vision began to fade. “I,” she started, her eyes beginning to roll into the back of her head. “I think… I think I’m gonna—”
She couldn’t finish.
Moments later, her head struck the ground and she blacked out.
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