I was tripping. Not from a falling perspective, but from a stoner’s perspective. I kicked the white shadows that carried me, the fog clinging and suffocating. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t scream. Was I dead or just stoned?
I jolted out of the fog with a bone-jarring smack. I rolled to a sitting position, rubbing my elbow and waiting for my brain to tell me something other than how my jammied butt was freezing.
Trees…moon…cave…fog. With every blink, something about my surroundings came into focus. I pushed myself to my feet and let my hazy brain take control.
In the moonlight, I picked out carvings around the edges of a cave. Familiarity flickered. I was in Kent Falls State Park, far off the path where I’d discovered some old rock carvings. I studied the cave—there were no caves in the park—and squeezed my lips between two fingers.
“What the…” I stroked the carvings…the same faces on my ugly box thingy.
I leaned forward to poke my head inside, but the opening zipped up with a soft zzzzt, burping a shot of air that lifted my hair.
“Mom!” I slapped the rock. “Mom! What’s going on?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, mentally demanding my heart to slow down so that I could think.
Okay, I had to be dreaming. I’d dreamt that whole door-smashing-Mom-screaming episode, and then I’d been whisked by my dream to Kent Falls State Park.
Good. I could deal. I’d just wait until I woke up. No biggy. I tiptoed across the clearing and peeked over the edge of a cliff, again, something that shouldn’t be there. I’d never had a dream feel so real before; the rocks pinching my feet, the breeze cooling my cheeks, the smell of the air so clean.
“Jahme,” snapped a voice behind me.
A glaring guy barked, "What is the meaning of this?"
I ducked my chin and stepped back, but my heel caught nothing but air, and I flapped my arms to keep my balance. "Ahh!"
The guy yanked me by the arm and I flew forward. He cleared out of the way a second before my knees slammed into the ground.
"Ow. What's your..." My glare evaporated. A hint of blue seeped between the guy's crushed eyebrows. Blue, as endlessly deep as the sky right before twilight, as painfully beautiful as cupid's arrow stabbing your heart. "Problem," I said, the word faint, and useless.
"How did you come to be on Eyidora?" One side of his mouth curled as though he'd discovered he'd stepped into a pool of bat shit.
“Eyidora?” I felt like I’d gained a hundred pounds when I stood.
His voice held the contempt my science teacher had used when I’d refused to dissect a frog. “Is that not what I said?”
I brushed my jammies, secretly checking him out. He looked my age, maybe a year older. He wore a loose brown shirt and butt-hugging tan pants, both made out of suede that looked as soft as his body was hard. His short jacket hung open in the front, and what looked like a knife with a blue handle hung from a belt. Standing more than a head taller than me, his dark blond hair brushed the tops of his shoulders. He was just about the hottest guy I’d ever seen off the movie screen, second to Ian, of course.
I pulled my tongue back before I licked my lips.
“Answer,” he snapped.
A muscle in his cheek rippled.
I tugged the hem of my jammie top. Didn’t people usually dream about nice people that they knew, not total strangers who were total tools?
“What is wrong?” He had a slight accent; I’d never heard one like it before.
I liked it.
“I’m just trying to figure out who you are,” I said.
“I am Tuggin.”
I didn’t think I could ever forget a hall god with a name like something you’d find in a Happy Meal. An animal screeched somewhere in the dark, and the guy turned to look. His clothes were dorky, but he could have worn anything with that jacked body. He turned back to me, and I quickly averted my gaze from his backside.
He ran his fingers through his hair. A tiny hoop with small colored beads dangled from one ear. A second earring, a single black bead, had been pierced through his lobe right above the hoop. His gaze drifted away from me; across the trees, at the mysteriously-disappearing-cave-now-turned-rock, back to the trees. His eyes snapped to my face with the suddeness of a guard dog being jerked back on a choke chain. “Haley.”
He made it sound like an accusation, as if being Haley was some sort of crime. I crossed my arms and tried to tune out his voice, and his face, and his body, so I could speak. “Yeah? So?”
“I do not want you here.”
What an ass. His gaze snaked upward from my feet and landed back on my face, a movement that made me feel naked. My body vibrated in a shudder.
He glanced past me at the silent hillside. “Jahme. Wait.” He strode toward two horses standing at the edge of the trees. He marched back and flung a red backpack at me. “Change your clothing. You cannot wear those…” another sweeping gaze over my body, “…things.”
Another ripping shudder. I grabbed the pack, my fingernails scraping the stiff material. “They’re my jammies.”
“They are absurd. Change.”
I calmed myself with a deep breath. I’d wake up soon, and Snarky Boy would be a distant memory. I dropped the back pack. “I’m dreaming.”
His cheek did that twitchy thing again. “Do not be absurd. Have you learned nothing on Earth?”
Now, I could do what I wanted in my dream. I could plant a big wet one on his lips in my dream. And he would kiss me back in my dream. He had seriously delicious-looking lips, and I’d bet he was a damn good kisser. Something hot and electric nibbled my skin.
“You will come with me.” He added a sigh, as if I couldn’t tell by his tone how royally pissed he was.
I shook my head, trying to toss my thoughts back in order. He was crazy gorgeous, but he was a major tool. “Yeah, I don’t think so. See, there’s an issue with my Mom and…”
“That matters not. You are coming with me.”
“And I’m supposed to listen to you…why?”
“You are wasteful of my time. Change your clothing. Now!”
“And if I don’t?”
He took one slow step toward me. His hand drifted to the knife, sparkling like blue fire in the moonlight. “Then you will die.”
I gulped. This was beginning to feel very un-dreamlike. Maybe I wasn’t dreaming. Maybe I’d been drugged, and then kidnapped by this knife wielding whack job. Which would mean Mom was really in trouble. I had to escape Snarky Boy and jet back home. We didn’t live far from the park.
I took a step back, wondering if I could outrun him. He took another step toward me, his face muscles tightening into a squinty-eyed snarling look that could terrify the devil’s pit bull. His knife made a whink sound when it slid from its sheath.
“Fine,” I said.
I darted behind a tree then leaned against it. He had a knife—a knife!—so I didn’t have a freaking choice. I’d follow him for now, and then make a run for it at the first chance. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were, but I’d hiked off the park’s trails often enough to find my way home.
I checked out the stuff in the pack: a couple of pants and shirts, shoes, soap. My cheeks burned when I saw the bra. Digging deep inside, I finally accepted that there wasn’t a single pair of socks. Why did he want me to change into these ridiculous clothes? The guy coughed in the darkness, so I hurriedly started to change.
I snapped the bra into place, and made a face. It could have used a little more help from my chest to fill it out. The clothes were so seriously soft to the touch, I couldn’t wait to feel them against my skin, but the look was ruined: the long sleeves inched past my wrists, and the pants brushed the ground. These clothes weren’t meant for me. Maybe Mom had been the guy’s intended target. No wonder he was pissed, even though I wasn’t the one who’d screwed up the kidnapping.
I slipped on the soft-soled shoes and these, too, were a little big so that when I walked they rubbed the backs of my heels. Now I looked as goofy as that guy, except I was going to flop around like a clown while he strutted around looking all hall-goddy.
Why would he kidnap Mom anyway? We had no money for a ransom, unless….was this the guy Mom was afraid of? Did he have something to do with killing my parents? It felt as though a flock of penguins had waddled into my gut and frozen there.
My nose flared at a metallic smell and the hair on the back of my neck stiffened. A sudden bold of lightning streaked across the sky, and my ears rang from the rolling boom that followed. The ground woke with a sick shudder, nearly rocking me off my feet as it retched. Curling my toes in the too-big shoes to keep them on, I stumbled toward the clearing. The horses nickered and swung their heads. Where'd that dumb guy go?
Another bolt flashed, lighting the sky with a network of electricity and sending electric fingers skittering over my scalp. It struck the hillside, tearing through stone, sending small rocks pinging down the side of the mountain. Boulders hurled through the air to pummel the ground with colossal thuds.
My breath, escaping in short spurts, matched my heart beats. I clutched my chest with both hands, searching for somewhere to hide.
Lightning struck another thundering blow at the mountain. The ground heaved, and I spread my legs and flung out my hands to steady myself. I was launched backwards, and I winced when the back of my head cracked against a tree.
I hid behind my arms. Peeking from behind my elbow, I looked for that guy again. Unable to remember his name, I screamed, “Help!”
A tree burst into flames and sparks scattered in the air like a cloud of fireflies. The ground split, inhaling the fiery tree with a loud whoosh before snapping shut.
Half-crying, half-moaning, I scratched at the tree. Heat roasted my face, and my body was drenched in sweat. The tree wobbled; I screamed as it pitched toward me.
The guy dragged me by my hair across the dirt. I tucked my head in my arms, a gust of air, leaves and dirt rushing over me. Between my throbbing head and chattering teeth, I almost didn't hear the silence. I lay there, afraid to move, or look, or breathe.
His voice ran like warm honey over my shredded nerves. I peeked through the hair hanging over my face. The guy knelt in the dirt, watching me. A cut from his forehead leaked a trail of blood down one cheek. What was his name? Something weird, like tofu, or tugboat. Tuggin.
I spit out dirt. “I’m all right.” Not that he’d asked, but I felt better saying it.
We got to our feet and surveyed the chaos. Trees criss-crossed the tilted ground, looking as if a giant had ripped them out during a temper tantrum, and boulders sunk into the dirt like gravestones.
“Was that an earthquake?” I wished my voice didn’t sound so Chip-and-Dale-ish. I’d lived in Connecticut all my life, and we’d never had an earthquake like that, an occasional tremor maybe, but nothing that rocked you off your feet.
“Be silent. Be still.”
I nodded and rubbed my scalp where Snarky Boy had pulled my hair. I mean, really, was that necessary? Tuggin left me to climb over trees and boulders.
He came back with a black backpack. “The sleipnir have gone.”
“You mean the horses?”
Tuggin ignored my question and poked around the place where I’d changed. He picked up the red pack, pulled out a jacket, and tossed it to me. “Put it on.”
My brain switch was in the off position, and I did what I was told. When I finished buttoning up he flung the backpack to me, but my reaction-time was slow. It bounced off my chest and fell to the ground before I moved my hands.
Tuggin turned. “Follow me. Do not fall behind.”
“Wait!” I clamped my legs together to stop their shaking.
His gaze slid down his nose and captured mine. “Follow me.”
“But my mom...”
“I would be more concerned with your safety than hers.”
His words weren’t in sync with his lips, which had a woozy effect on me as they spun through my mind. I swayed toward him.
“You must come with me,” Tuggin said. “Now.”
In hazy confusion, I fought the urge to follow Tuggin like a lost toddler, but a desire to obey him welled inside me. I concentrated on blinking to break the mesmerizing connection, and my head cleared. “No.”
Tuggin’s eyes widened slightly, his nostrils flared. With one swift movement, his knife was pointed at my throat, and the cold pinch of steel triggered an avalanche of ice down my spine.
“You will come with me, now,” he said.
My brain made one last attempt to resist. I would not keep gulping in shaky breaths. I would not pick up that backpack. I would not follow him.
Of course, in the end, I did all of those things.