Chapter 8 ★ The Gray Man and the Hawk

A sky, inky, endless, glittering like fresh snow and full of promise. Colleen forgot where she was, forgot that she had been here before. This place was reached by going inward, inevitably the dream took her deeper, and yet she was outside. Inside out, dreaming on the other side of a mirror.

It must have been a great city once. The ground was rusty sand, powder-soft under her bare feet, but cold. She curled her toes and saw the bottoms were stained. Light came from the horizon all around, a ring of molten gold, welding the dome of night sky to the ground. There were what Colleen supposed were ruins, but not ruined, parts pristine and neatly ordered. Whole ivory columns stood like stock alongside stacks of chessboard floors. Heavy stone arches sat on the ground, bridges without roads. Pedestals, elaborate stone railings, and in stark black and white. Doors and frames stood on end. Colleen had a feeling if she opened one she might see a gateway into another universe.

Cold wind howled through the ruins, stirring none of the dusty ground, but it came with the first inkling of dread she always felt. Once she recognized the dread, recognized this desolate, sterile desert city, the dread magnified a thousandfold. Her eyes began to dart from place to place, alert for changes. What she was meant to see would come soon, that was assured by memory, but for some reason she felt she could lessen the impact if she could anticipate what was coming. It never worked, nor did trying to force herself awake.

The one comfort she had was that she was always a spectator. She was never involved even if she tried. Once, two men, giants in her estimation, rolled out from behind a pillar. Their grizzled faces were taut with rage, yellow teeth bared. They both had torn leather jackets and jeans smeared with oil. She could smell their sweat, hear bone and skin smack when their fists landed. Too real. The bigger of the two eventually slammed the other against one of the pillars, stunning him. A switchblade came out. Colleen, knowing that it was only a dream, felt anger rise within her instead of the usual fear, and dashed to grab the man’s knife arm. She could see the seams in the jacket’s leather, the hair on the back of the man’s grimy hand, real and detailed as anything, but her fingers went through him as if he was nothing more than light from a projector.

It would come. Sometimes it came gradually, echoes of sound from beyond that fiery horizon, coming together like focusing vision. Sometimes something would spontaneously fall into the world, like those two men. Colleen walked, digging her toes in the dust, head swiveling. The stars winked at her.

To her right there was a path, an opening to a completely empty plain. A silhouette bobbled in the distance. Something running. It ran without disturbing the surface, not a speck of scarlet dust in the air. A human shape revealed itself. Or was it? A young man, but his skin was gray. Not the ordinary pale gray of someone badly frightened — she had seen enough of that in the bathroom mirror in the morning — but a dusky, slate gray.

She focused. In her mind, the sterile ruins were nothing more than one of those haunted houses in downtown Quarterhill. The young man was a mannequin, mechanical, predictable. He couldn’t hurt her. She studied him as he came closer. He had broad shoulders, toned arms, a barrel chest and thin, colorless lips, but also wide hips and curvy legs. His face was soft and round, when his mouth was closed. He reached a hand towards her. It was much flatter than her own, the ends noticeably flared and square. He ran awkwardly, almost tripping over his own feet, as if he wasn’t used to running. It might have been funny if he wasn’t screaming. There was no sound, but she could see his face clearly now. His eyes were wide, the whites visible all the way around, his face contorted as his mouth worked, flashing flat, canineless teeth. She averted her eyes. The panic in his expression was contagious.

The shadows on the pillars were turning red. The tint of the stars changed. One was shining brighter than the others, right behind the gray man. A bloody haze began to obscure him. Was that star getting brighter? It was, brighter than Mars, almost like the moon, then a distant sun, in thick, bulging crimson.

Colleen imagined the world coming apart. It was a dream, why couldn’t it be changed? It was all in her head! She imagined the wind scraping every bit of dust off the ground, breaking what was underneath like thin ice, the columns sucked into the light beyond, the pedestals and floors, the stars bursting like fireworks. Nothing she pictured affected the imagery of the world. Every muscle clenched, quivered, not knowing where to take her.

As she came to the brink of a decision, the bright star flickered and exploded. A monstrous shadow unfurled from the fire, blotting out most of the supernova’s light. Vivid red released upon the world, saturating everything from the horizon down to the gray man’s dull skin. The shadow stretched, a hawk with clawed wings spread. Colleen’s racing heart skipped a few beats. Despite taking up only the moon’s portion of the sky, it clouded the whole thing with its cold, jarring presence, its wingspan loomed like an oncoming storm.

The hawk stooped. It came down on the gray man.

The gray man jerked, then his face crumpled in pain. His hands went to his chest a moment before his knees buckled. He dropped heavily into the dirt, revealing the shadow behind him.

The shadow was not a hawk. It was a man, more human than the gray man. Colleen swallowed, her breath short, but she forced herself to look. He was alien too. His proportions were correct for a man, but in the harsh red light something seemed off. His wings had been the ends of his coat, a long, black garment that reached to his ankles. His left eye was covered by his straight, pale hair. The hawkman coldly considered the heap of an alien lying at his feet, then his one visible eye met hers.

Her mind snapped. Everything became impossibly clear, colors burned her eyes, red deeper than the brightest dawn, his eye a colder blue than an arctic sky. Blood smeared the long blade in his hand. The wind gusted, her hair tangled, her skirt flapped, goosebumps spread across her skin. The alien at his feet gurgled and stopped his hoarse, agonized breathing. Sound. He can’t see me, she thought frantically. I’m not here! This isn’t real!

He stared. A voice broke through the mist, a shredding sound that not only emanated from the hawkman, but from every part of the cold red world. The stone pillars shuddered, Colleen’s brain rattled. Her trembling hands cupped over her open mouth, her stomach lurched. In her darkest nightmares she had never seen, felt, or heard anything so horribly wrong.

He could see her, and from the hard look in his eye, he hated her for it.

The hawkman lunged. Colleen felt herself grow faint. The mist filled her vision with red, then black. She couldn’t see, but his footsteps approached. She was not escaping fast enough. This was the end.

A shove, and she found herself staring bleary-eyed at the ceiling of her Breckenridge room.

Shaking violently, she pushed herself up from the carpet. Her blanket draped half on her, half still on her bed. Her head throbbed, probably from hitting the floor. Daylight silhouetted the origami animals that hung in front of the window. The door was open, and Misty’s bed was empty. The other girls milled about in the hall.

The hawkman’s voice drowned them out. It ran through her head with every throb, though the words made no sense. Confusion threaded through fear. It was a prophetic dream, it had the same feel as the others, but — aliens? Were the two men wearing costumes? It had to be some kind of show or movie being filmed, she decided. The hawkman’s voice hissed in her ear, terror surged afresh. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.

The boxes in her closet were overturned and the contents spread across the carpet. The pockets of her coats were inside out. Gritting her teeth, Colleen began to gather the scattered photographs. Who was it this time? Was it worth even thinking about? One last echo of the hawkman’s voice in her head convinced her, for now, things weren’t so bad at Breckenridge.

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