The scream at the back of her throat would not surface.
They were coming.
Shouts - angry indecipherable - rang out from the back of the church. Footsteps pounded down the aisle. A draft of cool air blew out the candles and darkness enveloped her. Shards of torchlight began to criss-cross in all directions. They flashed across empty pews, marble columns and elevated statues. Large shadowy figures rushed towards her. She cowered below the church dome.
She could only watch in horror as they reached her grandfather, now on his feet by the front pew. His arms flailed as he tried to beat them back. They were too strong; they had him.
Caught between beams of light, he turned his head to her. “Run!” he mouthed, eyes wide and imploring.
Faceless shapes bore down upon her. Forcing her body to mobilise, she clambered up the marble flight of steps to the altar table. It seemed that she ran in slow motion, her heart pounding with each step. Giant arms swung at her and angry voices shrieked as she twisted, dodged and dived around the solid table to escape their grasping clutches.
Terrified, she leapt towards the colossal crown that hung, like a canopy, above the altar. The jewels in the crown rim glittered, amongst them a small circular black sphere pulsed eerily.
Hands lunged, ready to clamp around her feet.
The crown, the sphere, drew her up and she was swathed in a blackness so impenetrable, it swallowed every sense. Suspended, unable to breathe, lungs about to burst. She heard a cry: a slow, droning, desperate call of her name, as she struggled to take a breath…
And then, in an instant, her eyes sprang open and she was awake in the cold, grey light of dawn.
Wiping beads of sweat from her brow, Imogen sat up breathlessly in bed. She reached for the glass of water. Her heart was racing and the panic of her nightmare remained a clenched fist in her stomach. A glance through her open door to her mother’s bedroom reassured her that nothing had changed. The heart monitor silently winked in the background. Her mother’s sleeping form lay, as it had for nearly ten full years, in a deep and persistent sleep encircled by a soft halo of pastel colours.
Biting her lip, the drill kicked in and Imogen forced herself to take a deep breath. Sipping the water she gradually slowed her heart and soothed her sparking colours until they dulled to a slight glimmer and finally to neutral.
She checked the clock, less than three minutes. Not bad.
Her childhood nightmare had resurfaced and begun to disturb her sleep regularly in the last few weeks. At least she was getting faster with the drill and, as she had been taught, she could already put her mind to analysing what she had seen. More clarity this time, although she could still not see the church in its entirety, or gain any clues that would identify its whereabouts.
Turning on the bedside lamp, she slowly reached out to smooth Sadiki who was lying luxuriously at the bottom of her bedding. The small rust-striped cat awoke instantly and recoiled, baring its teeth and giving her a warning hiss before jumping down. Grandad had always said he was wild at heart. “Leave him well alone,” he had cautioned. When awake, the cat was mistrustful and wore a permanent melancholy expression, which made her think he was yearning for something he couldn’t have. By contrast, he looked so relaxed and soft in his sleep, that she couldn’t stop herself trying to give him a gentle stroke each day. One day he will let me.
With a sigh, Imogen took her sketch pad and pencil from next to the bed and added more detail to the latest drawing of inside the church: the altar table; the grasping hand of a shadowy figure; the pulsing sphere in the crown. Critically examining the picture she had built up over the last fortnight, she knew it was an accurate representation. The small, frightened depiction of herself in mid leap sent a shiver down her spine.
Determined she would not be sucked into its power again, she flicked the page and leafed through her other sketches. Her mother’s face appeared everywhere: smiling, laughing, eyes wide open. These disturbed her almost as much as the nightmare illustrations. They were just as dreamlike, just as unreal and totally without assurance.
The sound of the alarm on her clock interrupted her thoughts, which she filed away for reflection at a future time or date. Stay focussed and practical, she told herself, and with resolve she got up and set about the morning routine before college.
Imogen rose early each day, to spend precious time alone with her slumbering mother before the first of a chain of carers arrived. The start and end of each day was her time to share her innermost thoughts and fears; to trace the fine features of her mother’s beautiful face with her fingers, soothing her sleeping brow; to stroke the faint birthmark next to her right eye and to watch the corona of colours for any slight flicker or change. When she touched her fingertips to connect to those on her mother’s dormant open hand, she mentally described the intensity of the nightmare and she was sure there had been a hint of grey filter into her mother’s normally unchanging stream. It was nearly imperceptible, but it was there: the colour of worry.
She may seem lifeless to others, but Imogen knew that her mother was aware; she could feel the pulse of her being, it was beyond words or physical expression. She sensed the immeasurable love, no matter how distant, each time she made the connection; it flowed deep within. It was her greatest comfort.
Annie was the first carer to arrive, a quiet, gentle lady of advanced years with a calm blue-white radiance that spoke common sense and efficiency. It always reassured Imogen to see the shine of silver interwoven amongst Annie’s colours; the silver thread she had come to associate with those in the caring and nursing professions. ‘Check for the silver,’ were Grandad’s words. ‘Silver is safe.’
Knowing all was secure, she got ready for college and by the time Chrissie called at 8.15am, she had showered, grabbed some breakfast, fed Sadiki at arm’s length and kissed her mother goodbye. She routinely activated the bedroom camera and switched her phone to standard & silent, as she did every time she left the house, and descended the stairs to grab her college bag and step outside.
Imogen loved Chrissie; she had earth colours of brown and green, complemented with a blue calm. She lacked bright yellow and was therefore not overly inquisitive or intrusive, but had a sprinkling of dreamy orange tinged with soft white showing her warmth, honesty and purity. Chrissie was a friend who would not pry, who would take Imogen at face value and who could be trusted implicitly. They set off together, opting to walk on such a pleasant, and untypically British, May day.
“Gen, I’ve been thinking, we could make my party night a joint one, as your birthday is only a few weeks after mine... and I know with your mum that you, well you may not be able to...” Chrissie trailed off feeling embarrassed, but Imogen could see the sincerity and affection behind the offer, as chromatic glows of white-blues and reds accompanied the suggestion.
She hurriedly said: “That’s really nice of you but honestly, Chrissie, you know me. I’d rather not; I hate all that fuss.”
“Yeah – I know you do!” Chrissie answered with her usual good-humour, carefully changing the subject as they walked. “Did I tell you that my brothers have finally agreed to play at the party? I had to let them choose most of the music but it’s going to be so good. I told them they should form a band but Callum reckons the ‘brother thing’ is dead cheesy so won’t hear of it.”
Imogen smiled as she noted the spectrum of hues in Chrissie’s Chroma as her emotions flickered through frustration, excitement, and calm acceptance. Her friend was very easy-going and it was taken as read that she was not required to respond as Chrissie continued to chatter cheerfully.
“Wish this morning was over with,” Chrissie grumbled as they crossed a road, “I know I haven’t done enough revision.”
English Literature! The exam leapt to the front of her mind as Imogen immediately quelled the grey surge that threatened to surface as anxiety.
How did I forget that? She acknowledged, internally, that the nightmare had unsettled her more than she cared to admit. Chrissie continued, oblivious to any change in Imogen, bemoaning aloud the difficulty of remembering excerpts and passages, which ‘did not stay in her brain’.
Imogen let Chrissie witter on as she mentally switched her thoughts to preparation for the exam. In her mind’s eye she summoned the main text, flicked pages and memorised quotes. Layer upon layer of notes, essays and discussions assembled themselves in multiple tiers of perfect recall: Shakespeare, poetry and the set books.
Satisfied with the odd nod and smile, Chrissie babbled all the way to college unaware she did not command Imogen’s full attention as she silently completed a month’s worth of revision.
Arriving in the crush outside the main hall, Imogen’s focus came back to Chrissie who suddenly nudged her, urging her to look down the crowded hallway towards a dark-haired student standing against a far wall, his black leather jacket thrown over one shoulder. He was slowly scanning the numerous faces that passed him as they joined the exam line.
“Now that’s enough to take your mind off an exam!” exclaimed Chrissie, sparking scarlet attraction, “Not seen him before… Mmm! This way!” Chrissie pulled Imogen forward as they headed for the end of the line right opposite where he stood.
Imogen briefly sharpened her vision on the impossibly good-looking face of the stranger as they approached. Something triggered an instant defensive response deep within, causing her stomach to shrink.
It was a combination of signs: the confidence he exuded as he held his head high, the undulating reds and golds in his Chroma which drew admiring glances from the females nearby, the intermittent peaks of dazzling yellow as he appeared to study each person in turn, but the overwhelming sense of disquiet came from his strong chromatic black edging: the indicative sign of power and authority.
As they got closer, Chrissie’s scarlet tones began to jump wildly and Imogen quickly brushed her own colours with a swathe of dull neutral shades. Looking left and right, he began to walk down the corridor directly towards them. Imogen stared listlessly ahead subduing every response. Passing within inches, he gave them only a cursory glance.
“Swoon!” exclaimed Chrissie as her eyes followed him until he disappeared beyond a huddle of students entering the hall.
“Out of our league.” Imogen quipped to her friend who was oozing colours of attraction that matched the flush in her cheeks. Inwardly Imogen sighed and thanked her grandfather for the drills.
So what or who was he looking for?
“I hope we haven’t seen the last of him,” sighed Chrissie.
Imogen, who could only think the opposite, encouraged her friend to turn her thoughts to the exam as they filed into the hall and she put her unease to one side in preparation for the test.
“Turn off all mobile phones please and place them in the box at the end of your row,” called the invigilators.
“Gen, we have to get you a new phone,” scorned Chrissie, as Imogen placed a rather bulky handset into the box next to the latest slim line model that Chrissie had put in. “Yours belongs in a museum!”
“I like my phone, even if it’s a bit old fashioned,” responded Imogen good-naturedly.
“Old fashioned? Look at it - it’s a brick!” teased Chrissie with a shake of her head as she crossed to her exam desk.
Some brick! Imogen smiled to herself as she went to her numbered seat near the centre of the hall. Chrissie would never know its hidden capabilities, another of her grandfather’s amazing inventions.
“No more talking please,” announced the examiner. “Put today’s date at the top of your answer sheet: May 23rd 2016. You may now open your papers and begin.”
Imogen loved the silence of exams. The forced concentration guaranteed she would not be in anyone’s focus and she could temporarily drop her shield for a few hours, a rarity in her life of concealment.
The exam had a tedious start with nothing to tax her. She answered two questions with precision and accuracy but the last question on her favourite book, set in wartime, filled her with thought and contemplation: the meaning of true love. She mulled over the relationships between the heroine and her two suitors, the childhood sweetheart to whom she was betrothed and the handsome, intelligent member of the enemy forces. Who would I have chosen? One deserved loyalty; the other evoked feelings of a deep and forbidden passion. Which man could she truly love?
Imogen pictured the beautiful Greek island where the story was set; imagined walking amongst olive groves dappled in sunlight, where a peaceful world had been turned upside down by an unwanted violent war. How would I have felt? Her pen flowed as she experienced the conflicts of the book’s characters and tried to grapple with the meaning of a true and deep love. Lost in the storyline and totally absorbed by the changing bonds between the characters, she wrote her last line just as the invigilator called time and placed her pen on the desk with a heartfelt sigh. It was only then that Imogen became aware of the tell-tale prickling sensation, the feeling that always accompanied a threat to penetrate her aura. Annoyed she had lost track, she tentatively looked around the room for the cause of the intrusion.
Her heart skipped a beat. At the back of the exam hall, the dark-haired newcomer sat staring straight at her.