A murmur of thunder woke Ru from heavy sleep. It was only a whisper in her ear, but she sat up and threw off her blanket, ignoring the chill air. She rushed to the window and shoved the dark curtains aside. The first thing she did every morning was look at the sky, but rarely with such energy.
The maple and birch trees along Plover Road were in a frenzy, the sky dim and the slate clouds bulging. Lightning stabbed down at rows of houses. Ru jumped into her T-shirt and jeans and tore down the stairs. Still at top speed, she grabbed a bowl of cereal, then bolted to the living room and slid in front of the TV. Her mother had left the news on.
The weatherman, in a brown corduroy suit that seemed decades too old for him, pointed and waved over a blotchy map of northern Illinois. A Severe Thunderstorm Warning, in effect for the entire station viewing area. Corduroy Man mentioned the squall line would likely pass north of Quarterhill, but Ru knew from her glance out the window that she would still see quite a storm.
Ru’s mother watched from behind the kitchen counter. “Be careful out there. No missing the bus to walk in the rain.”
“What? But I want to see –“
Her mother cut her off. “I don’t want you getting caught in a hailstorm. Or being late for class.”
“But Mooom,” Ru whined.
“This kind of weather is dangerous.” There was a note of warning in her mother’s voice that had more to do with patience than with the weather. “How many times do I have to tell you that? Take the bus.”
A peculiar silence fell. That was when Ru’s younger brother was supposed to make some smart remark. “Where’s Jayson? He’s going to miss the bus too.”
“Jayson’s riding with the Fresnels.”
Ru was momentarily jealous of Jayson’s ride, but if she’d rode with them, she would have to put up with Jayson’s annoying friend Randy. She wolfed down the rest of her breakfast and ran out the door. If she couldn’t walk in the storm, she’d at least enjoy it before the bus came.
She settled at the corner where Plover met Cardinal and glanced up the sparsely-lit road. It was narrow, chipped and unmarked except for cracks patched with tar. It was hard to believe that further north, Cardinal was one of the busiest roads in Quarterhill. It passed some of the town’s most famous sites, like the Breckenridge Mansion and Tanager Park. Ru’s best friend Colleen lived at the mansion, and as for Tanager Park, well, every resident of Quarterhill knew it backwards and forwards.
Colleen was supposed to be at the corner, along with several other people. No one was there yet, which was unusual even though Ru had left late. She wondered absently if, despite her mother’s best efforts, she’d missed the bus anyway. She peered up the street, up the big hill where Breckenridge was. She could not see the house itself, but the gate always shrieked with age when it was opened. Ru only heard the wind hissing in the trees. A few crows cawed nearby, swaying back and forth on the tops of a towering cottonwood.
Thunder rolled, and the patter of rain followed. Ru tilted her head up and closed her eyes. She felt the fresh wind swirl around her, felt the rain trickle down her face and wash away the last lingering bits of muggy morning sleepiness. She spun on her toes, dancing, laughing, singing. She didn’t care if any of her classmates saw her, it was the best morning she’d had in a long time. She felt alive.
Someone was walking down Cardinal. She stopped dancing, not out of embarrassment, but because she couldn’t see the person clearly. They were hidden entirely under a red raincoat that reached the ground, with a hood that shrouded their face in shadow. Ru had never seen a coat like that. At first, she considered it was Randy Fresnel trying to pull some quick prank, but even Randy wasn’t this short. Still, there was something about this person that sat in Ru’s mind the wrong way.
It didn’t take long to understand what it was that bothered her. There were no footsteps flashing under the fringes of that coat, no bob of a normal walking rhythm, but the stranger was approaching quickly, at least at a jogger’s pace. Rollerblades? Would she be able to hear the wheels over the storm brewing? No, the stranger couldn’t have been on wheels. They were slowing as they traveled further down the hill.
They drew closer and closer. The hairs on the back of Ru’s neck bristled. The rain on her face felt more like sweat. She stepped out of the way. As the stranger started to cross Plover, the dark opening in the hood twisted towards Ru.
Ru was alone. The rain speckled the air around her in silvery bubbles. A fork of lightning lay silent across the clouds. The only sounds were her heart thudding her ears and her shoes scraping the pavement as she spun around, frantically trying to make sense what she was seeing. She reached for one of the floating raindrops.
Before her fingers made contact, something tried to push her down, something big. It felt like the sky itself suddenly pressed down on her. Her ears swarmed with noise. There were words coded in the rhythm of her heartbeat, words that didn’t make sense, so unfamiliar she couldn’t even think of how to write them. The pressure reduced her to a hunch. Out of the storm she saw a blinding shaft of light, smoothly weaving, searching, lunging straight for her heart.
She woke with a jolt and a snort. Her head ached from leaning against the bus window. Her stomach roiled, and she wasn’t sure if it was from the memory of that light or the fishy smell of the bus seats. Groaning, she rested her head on the scarred vinyl in front of her. She soothed her pounding heart by telling herself she’d had worse nightmares, and there was still a storm to watch. She knew she was back to normal when she wished the stranger hadn’t been a dream after all.