“Shit!” I yelled. It was dark, and I was definitely not in my apartment anymore. An icy wind was whipping my t-shirt, threatening to tear it from my body. I hugged myself tightly, trying in vain to get warm. “Where the hell did you take me?” I demanded loudly.
“El!” I heard a man shout from somewhere in the darkness. I ran in the direction of his voice. “El!” he called again, closer this time. I knew it was Dillon’s voice that I was hearing. I knew it, but I didn’t want to believe it. He wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be alone in these nightmares. Somehow, Dillon being close to me had sucked him in, too. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
So far there were no Shadow Men, but I knew they were coming. They were never far away.
Dillon plowed into me, hugging me tightly. He was panting and sweaty despite the icy wind.
“They’re coming,” he panted. “I managed to get away from them, but I could feel them following me. We have to run. Now!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me along as we ran down unfamiliar deserted streets.
Snow was starting to fall now, and I was freezing. Dillon led me through the streets as if he knew exactly where he was going. When I felt like I couldn’t run anymore, he led me down a small alley and out into a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by towering buildings.
The snow had already covered the entire courtyard in a blanket of white. A dried fountain stood in the very middle, highlighting a fierce warrior angel in the center of her pool, sword aloft, armor, and helmet adding to her intimidating presence. Tables and benches lined a path that wound through flowerbeds, shrubs, and weeping willows. It was a little piece of paradise hidden in the middle of the city.
“I knew it,” he whispered and pulled me under the safety of a thick weeping willow’s branches.
“You know where we are,” I whispered. It wasn’t a question.
He nodded. “We’re on campus. This is where I used to come to study until...” he trailed off, not finishing his sentence.
I didn’t know the rest of that sentence, but I knew it wasn’t good. The Shadow Men never brought me to happy places. They were always places soaked in tragedy, heartbreak, hatred, and violence. Terrible things had happened in these places and the Shadow Men feasted on it.
“They’re going to find us, aren’t they?” he asked in a whisper.
I nodded. “They always do, but you shouldn’t be here. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I don’t know how I am,” he said. “I got back to your place and you were sound asleep on the couch. I touched your hair and I felt like I was being sucked away, then I woke up on the street a couple of blocks away from here. They were already there. Those faceless men. I saw them.” He shuddered. “They’re real.” He shook his head, his face was haunted. “I knew what would happen if I stuck around, so I just ran as fast as I could. And then I heard your voice.”
“I am so sorry, Dillon. I never wanted this for you. You’re not supposed to be here,” I repeated.
“We’re going to have to fight them, aren’t we?” he whispered in horror.
I nodded. That much was the same in every dream. The locations may change, but the fight was inevitable.
“Then let’s do on our own terms,” he said with determination.
“What?” I asked confused. “How?”
“This is our dream. Our memories they’re messing with, so let’s be ready.”
Dillon grabbed two fallen branches and weighed them in his hands, finally deciding which one to give to me. I took it, but stared at him, unsure what he wanted me to do with it.
“What happened to staying calm and not letting them get worked into a frenzy.”
“That was when I thought you’d be alone. I’m ready to give them hell.”
I raised an eyebrow at him and let out a big breath, releasing a puff of fog into the night. “All right, let’s do this. I’m with you.” What could go wrong?
We waited for what felt like forever. I was shivering and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. Thankfully, I still had sandals on; at the very least, my feet weren’t freezing. Dillon was fully clothed, too, but neither of us were ready for a Michigan winter night. It was summer in California after all.
“Distract me,” I whispered to Dillon. “I’m freezing. And I’m getting sick of waiting.”
Dillon had been bouncing from foot to foot, and stopped suddenly, looking over at me.
His eyes roamed my face then slowly made their way down my body and back up, lingering on my lips. Blood rushed to my face, and I stopped shivering. A shy grin spread across Dillon’s face.
“This is a dream,” he said so quietly I thought he was talking to himself. “Screw it.”
He took a step toward me, then another, so close that we were almost touching. He slowly ran his hand up the side of my body from my thigh to my neck. Then he ran his hand down my arm until he twined his fingers with mine and pulled my hand up so that it was cupping his cheek. I left my hand there, looking at him through hooded eyes, as he switched his branch to the other hand and repeated the process on the other side of my body. Both branches dropped to the dirt with a muted thud and suddenly Dillon was kissing me. It was hard and fast. Fierce and desperate. A clash of teeth and tongues. His hands were unbelievably gentle on my bruised body, completely at odds with the desperate way he was kissing me. I clung to him as if he were a life preserver in this nightmare turned beautiful dream.
Hands wrapped tightly around my waist and yanked me backward. I went flying away from Dillon. Away from the safety of the willow’s canopy and the warmth of his arms.
I screamed, but it was no use. I was dumped unceremoniously on the snow and all the air rushed out of me, sending shocks of pain in every direction. I groaned and tried to sit up. I managed to get to my knees, but was kicked in the shoulder and sent sprawling. I had no idea where Dillon was, but at the moment all I could do was curl into a ball and pray for the blissful blackout that would come soon enough.
I was kicked in the legs, the arms, the back, all the while I tried to listen for sounds of Dillon. When there was a brief lull in the assault, I tried to crawl toward where I thought Dillon might be but was met with a fist to the belly, and I curled up again, wanting to vomit from the pain of that punch.
I heard a loud, primal roar coming from mere feet away from me, just off to my left. I risked turning my head to the side just enough to peek under the protection of my arm, and I saw Dillon fighting for his life against at least a dozen of the faceless men. He had both branches in his hands, and he was swiping and jabbing at anyone who came near. No wonder I was only getting a kick and a punch here and there; they were feeding off of Dillon’s ferocity; much more interested in him than me.
I watched in awe as Dillon fought them back. He was using the branches to his advantage, but I could tell he was beginning to tire. More and more of their jabs were connecting with Dillon’s chest and arms.
One of them landed a kick to Dillon’s knee, and he went down. Without thinking, I got up and fought my way to Dillon’s side. Already battered, I attempted to cover his huge body with my small frame. I was instantly kicked and punched hard over every exposed surface of my body.
Dillon grabbed me by the shoulder and roughly spun me around so that he was now on top of me, protecting me, but he was not quite quick enough. One of the Shadow Men kicked out at my head and made contact with my temple.
I woke up to the heavy weight of Dillon’s body draped protectively over mine. I tried to shake him, but he was unresponsive. The Shadow Men were gone as if they’d never been there. Apparently, passing out was all it took to get them to disappear; that, or it just wasn’t any fun to fight someone who didn’t fight back, so they just left after beating their prey unconscious.
It was still dark and still snowing lightly, but the wind had stopped. The snowflakes were now falling lazily toward us. It was absolutely gorgeous but made zero sense. It was summer. Logically, it should have been summer in Michigan, too, so it definitely should not be snowing. My mind reeled at all the unanswerable questions: How was this possible? How did we get here? When are we? Did they transport us to another time? If they could do this to us, what else could they do?
“What the hell, El?” Dillon said rolling off me and groaned in pain.
“Welcome to my nightmare,” I said.
“Jesus, El. That was brutal.”
“Well, I definitely believe you now, 100%.”
“Thanks,” I said in a small voice.
“My head,” he groaned, clutching either side of his head. He shivered violently. “I’m freezing.”
I had already had my moment of panic before he woke up. I guessed now it was time for him. I watched his eyes go wide. He sat up quickly then clutched his head again, regretting his sudden movements. “It’s still snowing.”
I just nodded. I know.
“What does this mean, El?”
I shook my head. I don’t know.
The internal struggle was almost comical as I watched it play out in his head.
He shook his head back and forth slowly for a solid ten seconds before he shivered violently and finally looked me in the eye.
“Come on,” he said getting gingerly to his feet. “I’m freezing. There’s a 24-hour coffee shop down the block that we can go to warm up while we figure out what the hell we’re going to do now.”
He helped pull me to my feet and kept his hand in mine as we walked out of the now peacefully serene snow-covered courtyard.
At the end of the alley, the street glowed under an orange-tinted streetlight. I frowned at the brick sidewalk. There was no snow on the ground out there. Now that I thought about it, I was no longer shivering, either. As we emerged from the alley onto the brick sidewalk, I breathed in a sigh of relief at the warm air that enveloped my body.
Dillon stopped abruptly, turned to face the courtyard, and frowned deeply. I looked too, and to my complete shock, the courtyard was now a lush and green, inviting courtyard, filled with flowers and full leafy trees. Not a trace of snow anywhere.
“What the hell?” Dillon said under his breath.
“Indeed,” I said. You’d think that after being sucked to four different locations, four different times now, that nothing would shock me anymore, but here I was, shocked again at what these things were capable of.
“I still want coffee,” Dillon decided, and we turned our backs on the courtyard and the past.
The coffee shop was at the corner of an intersection, thankfully out of view of the street we had both woken up on who knew how many hours — or was it months — ago.
The coffee shop was so normal and grounded that I had to fight back tears at the sight of it. Dillon opened the door for me and the smell of fresh coffee, the soft music playing in the background, and the soft squishy armchairs were almost overwhelming in their normality.
We walked to the counter and Dillon ordered us two coffees, giving the bartender a large tip. Thank heaven his wallet came with him into our nightmare.
We chose two squashy armchairs that faced an unlit fireplace in the far corner of the room, as far from the barrister and the one other patron as possible; although, he appeared to be sleeping anyway.
We sat in silence for a while, Dillon seeming to be lost in thought. This was his first encounter with them, so I was content to let him be for as long as he needed to process all this.
The barrister brought our coffees in huge steaming mugs and I thanked him. Dillon turned to me suddenly, with a sharp intake of breath. “I think I’ve figured out a few things,” he said excitedly.
“Do tell,” I said, taking a sip of the delicious hazelnut coffee.
“I think we were taken to that courtyard because they were drawn to the violence that happened there.”
“Right,” I agreed, having already figured that much out.
“Right,” he echoed. “But I think we were also literally transported to the time of her murder when the pain of the violence was the most palpable; at its freshest if you will.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding my head. “I’m with you.”
“I bet if you really thought about it, you’d notice changes in the air as you left all your other attack sites, too. Since those were all in Southern California, the changes wouldn’t be as obvious as they were tonight because the weather is so mild year-round, but I bet you my entire life savings that each of those times you were taken to the very night of whatever evil had happened there, then as soon as you left that immediate area, you were brought back to the present.”
I nodded in understanding. “The past bubble popped.”
“Sure,” Dillon nodded. “Yeah. We left the past bubble and it dissolved.”
“So those things, the Shadow Men, they’re what? Manifestations of that violence?”
“Maybe. It would be a decent guess anyway.”
I nodded. “Have you figured out why you were dragged along for the ride this time?”
He shook his head sadly. “No, I haven’t.”
“I’m so sorry, Dillon,” I said, my heart breaking for him. “You must hate me now.”
He frowned at me and took my hand in his. “El, no. How could you think that? You didn’t ask for this.”
“You didn’t either,” I said. “You got sucked in just for trying to help me. I’m nothing and no one, but you’re going to be someone someday. You’re going to make a difference in the world. You matter.”
“You matter, too, El,” he said quietly, stroking my hand with his thumb.
“That’s sweet of you to say, but I know that when I die there will be no one to claim me. I’m alone.”
Dillon frowned at me. I could see his jaw clench. He got up from his chair and knelt in front of me so that we were face to face. “You are not alone, Eleanor. You matter to me,” he said fiercely. He leaned in and kissed me hard on the lips before I could protest. He broke away quickly only to kiss me gently, sweetly on the forehead, then pulled me to my feet to hug me protectively.
I leaned back to look up at him. “Let’s just say for funsies that I believe you. You’re still going to leave at the end of the summer to come back here to Michigan to be a fancy doctor. You’re leaving. Probably forever.”
Dillon shrugged and said, “We’ll see.”
I squinted at him, but he smiled at me and kissed me sweetly on the lips before releasing me to sit and sip his coffee. I rolled my eyes and did the same.
The barrister came back to ask if we needed a refill and Dillon said yes, but also asked if there was somewhere with computers that was open at this time of night. The barrister offered up a tablet from behind the counter and Dillon used it to book our flights back to California for that afternoon.
“Mom’s going to want to know what this credit card charge is all about. That will be super fun to try to explain, but that’s for another day.”
“I’ll figure out how to pay you back, I promise,” I said. Not sure if I’d ever be able to fully repay him for any of the horrors he had endured tonight.
A thought suddenly occurred to me, but I didn’t know how to bring it up to Dillon. When it was just me, every time I was attacked, I was taken to a place that had personal significance to me. This attack tonight had nothing to do with me. I had never even been out of California. It had to have personal significance to Dillon, but I didn’t know how. Yes, a girl had been murdered in that courtyard, but how was that event tied to Dillon? It was none of my business, but I was curious nonetheless.
“We’ve got a few hours until we need to be at the airport,” Dillon said, breaking me from my thoughts. “Since you’ll probably never get another opportunity like this, how about a tour?”
“I would love that!” I said sincerely. He was definitely right; I would never get another opportunity to visit such a beautiful place. I’d never been outside of the desert. This was practically a foreign country to me.
“This is the first time I’ve been out of California,” I admitted.
“No way!” he exclaimed. “For real? Not even to Vegas? We used to go all the time in high school.”
“We didn’t exactly run in the same crowds remember?” I said dryly. “My friend’s idea of a great adventure would have been LA.”
“Well then, this is going to be one for the history books because Michigan is absolutely nothing like our hometown.”
“That much is already very obvious,” I told him.
“But first,” he said, his good mood vanishing. “How are you feeling? What hurts?”
“Ugh. Everything,” I groaned.
“Be more specific please,” he said with a smirk. His good mood not all the way gone.
“My ribs are still the worst. I got kicked there again at least twice. And my shoulder is a little sore.” I rubbed my right shoulder to show him where.
He gingerly lifted my sleeve and clicked his tongue. “You’ve already got a bruise forming, but it’s not swelling. You should be fine. Let’s see the ribs.”
I lifted my shirt a bit, looking over at the still sleeping dude to make sure he wasn’t watching. Dillon peaked under the wrapping. “Doesn’t look much worse than it did,” he said.
“Cool. Now you,” I said adopting my best doctorly voice. “Tell me where it hurts.”
He chuckled softly and smiled slyly at me, pointing to his lips. “Right here,” he teased.
I snorted loudly and covered my mouth with my hand, laughing, but leaned in to plant a sultry kiss on his lips that left both of us wanting more.
“Better?” I said softly, seductively.
“Much,” he said with his eyes still closed.
“Let’s go before we cause a scene.”
Dillon cleared his throat. “Good idea. It’s almost breakfast time and I know the perfect place.”
“Lead the way,” I said with a smile.