ONE Running down a
narrow dark corridor, trailing her fingers along the walls to guide her. Heart pounding in her chest, a frightened bird desperate to be free of its cage. Gasping for breath, throat closing up even though she hasn’t had an asthma attack in years, rivulets of sweat pouring down her face and neck, trailing along her spine and trickling between her breasts. She’s been running for what seems like forever . . . Running and running and running . . . How long is
this damned hall, anyway?
She’s not even sure why she’s running. To
from something? Is there someone pursuing her? She’d stop and turn around to look if she could, if for no other reason than to break the monotony of this endless flight, but she’s compelled to keep moving forward, and it seems there’s nothing she can do to change that. And so she runs . . .
She doesn’t know how much time has passed before she realizes that the distance between the walls is beginning to shrink. What do they say about the span of your outstretched arms—that it’s
as wide as you are tall? She’s a hair over five feet, and for the longest time, she’s run with her arms stretched out to the sides, her fingertips brushing across the walls’ smooth surfaces. But now her elbows are bent and her palms pressed almost flat against the walls, and they aren’t so smooth anymore. They’ve become rough and craggy, like stone, and they’re cold now, ice-cold.
With a stab of fear, she realizes that the walls are closing in on her, and she tells herself it’s ridiculous, that no one builds a house with a tapering corridor. Houses don’t do
those kinds of things.
But she knows one house that does, or rather did, and much worse. But that was years ago, and it’s long gone. She can’t be back there now . . . can she?
A voice echoes in the air, hollow and distant, like a midnight wind blowing through a desolate canyon. A male voice, a familiar one, although she doesn’t recognize it. You’re always there, Amber. You never left
Without warning, the walls rush inward as if propelled by unseen machinery. Amber draws in a breath to scream, but before she can release it, the pain hits, and everything goes black. Amber Lozier became
aware of a sound hovering on the edge of her perception, but it took her several more seconds to put a name to it: phone
. Eyes still closed, she reached toward her nightstand and fumbled around until her fingers closed around
her cell. She brought it to her ear, flipped it open, and answered.
“’Lo,” she mumbled.
“Amber? Hi, this is Greg Daniels.”
Her stomach dropped at the sound of his voice, and her heart pounded in her ears. She sat up, flung the sweat-sodden sheet off her, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. A wave of dizziness came over her, and for a second, she considered flopping back onto the mattress, but she managed to ride it out and remain upright.
“Greg?” As soon as she said it, she felt like an idiot. After all, he’d just told her who he was. But she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. She hadn’t seen or heard from Greg Daniels since . . . since . . .
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me.” His tone was teasing, but his voice held a bit of an edge, as if he were daring her to pretend she didn’t know who he was.
Memories danced at the edge of her consciousness, trying to get her attention. She ignored them, and they remained where they were. Formless shadows, like hazy shapes viewed out of the corner of your eye, indistinct and nonthreatening . . . as long as they behaved and kept their distance. She’d had a lot of practice at keeping her memories at bay over the years, and most of the time, she was successful. As long as she was awake. When she was asleep, well, that was a different story.
“Of course I remember you,” she said, well aware of the irony, considering how hard she was fighting not
to remember. Her mouth and throat were dry, and the words came out soft and raspy. She’d kill for a drink of water, but a glance at the nightstand told her she’d forgotten to pour herself one. Several prescription medicine bottles sat atop the nightstand, and resting next to them was a black sleep mask she wore when it was too bright, even with the heavy curtain drawn across the room’s single window. The clock-radio display said it was 4:48, and for a moment, she didn’t know if it was morning or evening. Evening, she decided. Greg wouldn’t be calling if it was almost five in the morning.
With her free hand, she brushed sweat-matted blond hair off her forehead, the gesture a futile attempt to cudgel her cotton-wrapped brain into working.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. Banal and predictable, but at least it gave her something to say. She frowned as something occurred to her. “How did you get my number?”
A greasy, burning-food smell filled the air of her small bedroom, the thick odor making her stomach roil with nausea. She lived in a one-bedroom efficiency apartment above the Flaming Wok, a fast-food Chinese restaurant, and her place always stank of fried food and cloying spices. She hated the stink so much that she hadn’t eaten Chinese
in the two years she’d lived there, and she doubted she’d ever touch the damned stuff again. The apartment wasn’t much, and the location sucked, but it was all she could afford on her monthly disability checks. The nausea set off a pounding headache, and she considered asking Greg to hold on so she could take a painkiller, but he was in the middle of saying something, and with an effort, she forced herself to focus on his voice once more.
“—from the alumni organization. They don’t normally give out people’s numbers, but I told them this was a special case. It didn’t hurt that I made a healthy contribution to the alumni fund this year.” A small chuckle.
She usually slept in a pair of panties and an oversize T-shirt, and now that the sweat was beginning to cool on her too-thin body, she felt a chill coming on. She drew the damp sheet around her, but it felt cold and clammy and did nothing to prevent her from shivering.
“What do you want?” Then, realizing how that sounded, she added, “Sorry, that was rude.”
“No worries. You don’t talk to someone for fifteen years, and they suddenly call out of the blue, of course you’re curious about why they decided to get in touch again. Do you know what’s coming up this weekend?”
“Our fifteenth reunion.”
The news seemed so random that for an instant,
she considered the possibility that, like in a cheesy movie, she only thought she’d woken up and in reality was still dreaming, but she dismissed the notion. The terror quotient was way too low for this to be one of her
“Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, does it?”
Her gaze fell on the prescription bottles on her nightstand. “I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like it’s been a hell of a lot longer.”
There was an awkward pause before Greg continued. “Well, like I said, I’ve been in contact with the alumni organization, and not only did I get your number from them, but they told me you haven’t signed up to attend the reunion.”
The pounding in her head grew worse, and she reached up with her free hand to massage the back of her neck, not that it did any good. “Yeah, well, what can I say? High school was hard enough the first time.”
Greg chuckled again. “I hear you.” Of course you do
, she thought. Greg Daniels had been a bona fide geek in high school, the kind of kid everyone else hated and made fun of. He’d been overweight, wore ill-fitting secondhand clothes, and possessed few social skills. But there’d been something else about him, too, a sense of . . . otherness, for lack of a better word. As if no matter what he said or did, no matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to fit in with others,
as if he’d been born to be an outsider—something the other kids in school had been only too glad to point out to him. She had felt sorry for him back then, had even befriended him to a certain extent, although now that she tried to remember, she found the details somewhat fuzzy. But that didn’t worry her; given the amount of meds she took, she was used to feeling as if her brain were wrapped in layers of wet burlap most of the time.
“So you’re calling to, what, exactly?” The words came out harsher than she intended, but her head was really starting to hurt now, and her nausea was getting worse.
If Greg had detected the harshness in her words, he gave no sign. “To try to convince you to come to the reunion. Things have changed for me since high school—a lot.” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “I guess you could say that after fifteen years, I finally grew up.” He gave a small laugh that held a trace of bitterness. “I’ve never been to any of the reunions, either, but I’m going to this one. Partly as a ‘screw you’ to all the people who treated me so badly, to be honest. Show them the ugly duckling has morphed into a swan, that kind of thing. But mostly, I’m going because I hope to get some kind of closure on that part of my life, make peace with my past.” Another pause. “I don’t know. It sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”
It took her a few moments to reply.
“No, it doesn’t sound stupid at all.”
“I know we weren’t close or anything, but I considered you a friend. Probably the only real one I had. It would mean a lot to me if you were there to witness the debut of the new Greg.”
She gritted her teeth and forced herself to concentrate past the throbbing in her head and the churning in her gut. What was wrong with her? She hadn’t had a reaction to a nightmare this intense in months. And the nightmare she’d had—the walls closing in on her—wasn’t all that bad. Not like some of the horror shows that went on inside her skull when her eyes were closed. Why was she reacting so strongly? “That’s . . . sweet of you, Greg, but I don’t know if I can make it. My . . . health isn’t all that great these days.”
“I’ll understand if you can’t make it.” Greg sounded sincere enough, but there was an undertone of disappointment in his voice. “But mull it over a little. Who knows? Maybe you’ll change your mind. It sure would be great to see you again . . . not to mention Drew and Trevor.” “Amber? Are you all right? Amber!”
A memory slipped past her defenses: Drew shouting, his voice muffled. He was calling to me
, she thought. From somewhere in the house
. She felt more memories coming then, rising from her subconscious like a vast sea creature leaving the depths of the shadowy ocean where it had lain slumbering in the muddy darkness for far too long. The thought of what
those memories might look like once they reached the surface of her mind filled her with a terror she hadn’t known since, since . . . That night
She spoke then, her voice seeming to operate of its own accord.
“Drew and Trevor are coming?” The words were almost a whisper.
“I hope so,” Greg said. His voice was calm, soothing, reassuring, and she grabbed hold of it with the grateful desperation of a drowning woman reaching for a rescuer’s outstretched hand. “But that’s up to you, Amber. You’ll need to convince them. Do you think you can do that for me?”
Blackness nibbled at the edges of her vision as her mind began to shut itself down to protect her from the rush of oncoming memories.
“Yes,” she breathed, before giving herself over to darkness and silence.