When Nightmares Become Reality
“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” – William Jennings Bryan. American Politician.
If I’d known that the last normal day of my life would be spent pining over a girl, I might have made some different choices. I probably would have been a little smarter about my time, a little nicer to my mother, a little more forgiving of my father. But, hindsight is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, ready to bite you the moment you turn your back.
To say the least, I was not ready for what was to come.
Instead, the last day of my normal life began with a phone call to my friend Nick as I rode the bus on the way to school one morning.
“Willow is the love of my life,” I declared to him. The loud conversations and shouts from the other kids on the bus nearly drowning me out.
“You’re fifteen, Eugene,” Nick said. “I don’t think you can say that.“
“But it’s true. Who says you have to be, I dunno, twenty-four,” I said, taking a stab at his age, “to know what it means to have a ‘love-of-your-life’?”
I glanced out the bus window and pressed the phone close to my ear to hear over the road noise and the other kids shouting. Houses passed in blurs, coming into focus only when the bus stopped to pick up another kid standing on a street corner. I still hadn’t gotten used to riding the bus alone.
Willow lived within biking distance of the school, so she never rode the bus anymore. When we were younger, we lived on the same block and went to and from school together every day. Before the Pattersons moved a couple years ago, I had never been more than a mile from her at all times.
“She’s mine, and that’s all there is to it,” I said, sighing. “I can’t imagine going on without her.”
Nick was originally my brother’s best friend. They were the same age, and had gone to school together most of their lives. They parted ways when Jacob joined the Peace Corps at nineteen.
I was twelve years old when Jacob left, and Nick had quickly inserted himself into my life as sort of a substitute older brother. It didn’t hurt that Nick was close enough to my parents to come and go as he pleased.
The time after my brother left wasn’t an easy one. I thought I could never be as good as he was in my parents’ eyes. I felt the weight of my parents’ high expectations pressing on me. Jacob was good at everything. He excelled in school and decided to skip college entirely to start working with the Peace Corps.
Having an older-brother figure like Nick eased some of the tension. When I was thirteen, I decided to run away after an argument with my parents; but Nick talked me into spending a few days with him on a trip to some universities in New York instead. When we returned, I wasn’t angry with my parents anymore.
Nick was the first one to teach me how to play basketball. When he wasn’t on a business trip, he came over every Saturday and played one-on-one with me, talking to me about school and life in general. He listened to my frustrations and my successes with an open ear and offered calm replies.
When I was fifteen, I failed an exam. After beating myself up over it for hours, Nick sat me down and went over the whole thing with me. “You can’t change a failure, but you can learn from it and do better next time,” he said.
He was usually the one I went to when I had important things to talk about, but he was out of town, so I had to settle for the phone.
My feelings for Willow didn’t come out of nowhere. I had known her for most of my life, and I’d recently started to get the “warm fuzzies,” as Nick liked to call them.
“Sure, E-man,” he said, still laughing. “I’m sure that will last about a week, kinda like the period you’re having right now.”
“Nick!” I knew I was whining, but I didn’t care. I hunched into a ball and tried to avoid the sideways glances my classmates were giving me.
Nick was having a great time at my expense. He was treating my life-changing realization like a skit on a comedy-hour show.
It frustrated me, but he was the only person I felt like talking to about it. The only other person I would talk to about stuff like this was Willow, but since Willow was the subject…well, I had few options.
“All right. Let’s say that, hypothetically, she’s the love of your life. Then what? What’s your game plan?”
He was still laughing, and I really wanted to reach through the phone and sock him in the jaw.
I scratched at a bit of gunk on the window, taking my frustrations out on many years of grime and who knows what else.
Finally, I replied, “I don’t know. She’s been hanging out with that senior, Harry.”
“The nerdy football player?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I’d forgotten that I’d told him about Harry. He had been at our school only a year, but already he was popular, good with football, good with the teachers, good with classes, and apparently good with Willow.
She’d had nothing but googly eyes for him since the honors club had gone on a camping trip over spring break a few weeks before.
“What? Did he sing her mathematical sonnets in the bleachers or something?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t see the attraction.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re about as attractive as a doorknob.”
I ignored him and continued to scratch the bits of crusty dust off the window. My fingernail dug deeper into the gunk.
Before spring break, I had planned to tell her, to let her know that I was…well, that I really liked her. Nick had always said that sometimes it’s better to go slow with things like that. Telling her she was the “love of my life” might scare her off.
Nick chuckled. “You gotta admit it, though, the girl’s got some class going after that oxymoron.”
“Moron is right,” I muttered.
“Since when did you get straight As in all the AP classes?”
I finally erupted. “Nick, I love this girl and she’s my best friend, and I don’t know what to do!” I flung my one free arm out, hitting the seat in front of me with my fingers.
I got more stares and a few snickers. I knew I was making a massive fool of myself.
“Tell her. What is she gonna say? ‘No, thanks’?”
“Yes.” I said flatly. “I can see that happening.”
And I could. Willow could be irritatingly flippant about the most serious things. I could see her laughing at my confession of love.
“Well, you’ll never know unless you ask.”
“I already know,” I said.
I didn’t know what else I could say to that, but I knew that telling her right now wasn’t an option. She was practically hip-to-hip with Harry every day. They were in three classes and a club together, and she spent a lot of time at his place every few days out of the week to study.
I didn’t think a lot of studying was going on.
I was, at that point, facing inevitable rejection. I was more willing to let the warm fuzzies quietly stew than to face Willow and get the “no” that I knew was waiting for me.
The bus jostled roughly as it turned into the school parking lot, and I let out a breath of air.
I was ready to stop talking about it.
“We’re at the school now. I’ll catch you later.”
“Don’t stress, dude,” Nick said, reassuringly.
Easier said than done. Willow was taking up more of my head space than I could deal with at the moment.
Nick said goodbye and hung up, and I shoved my cellphone into my pocket.
“Don’t stress,” I said to myself.
I walked off the bus into the morning sunlight and unknowingly into the last normal day of my life.
I found Willow sitting outside our first class. It was the one class we shared all semester, and it was usually the best part of my day. She was always early, reading a book or jotting down notes in her journal. And she always sat in the same place with her back to one of the big windows in the hallway.
Today, the sun was out enough to catch the red strands of hair escaping from her braids. She had a cloud of light around her head brightening up her already pale skin. It was beautiful. She was beautiful.
The hallway was buzzing with kids catching up on last night’s television show or talking about video games. There was even a crowd of girls bickering loudly in a corner, but all I could see was Willow.
How could I not love her?
She looked up from her book and smiled at me. “Hey,” she said.
I grinned. “Hi.”
I plopped down on the bench next to her, shooing away any betraying feelings and putting on my poker face. “Whatcha reading?”
She chuckled. “Something incredibly dry by an author you’ll forget the second I tell you.”
I frowned playfully, bumped her shoulder with mine, and leaned over her shoulder to look at the page she was on. “Try me.”
She gave me a pitying smile. “Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle.”
“You’ve read that before,” I said, glancing at the words on the page like I knew what the hell they meant.
“Yeah. I’m thinking of doing my next English paper on it.” She put her bookmark into the pages and closed the book.
“Ugh. How do you do it? AP English?”
She laughed. “You know I like a challenge. Besides, it’s fun.”
“I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use for it.” I leaned against the window pane and the heat from outside seeped into my back.
“Of course you wouldn’t. And that’s okay.” She rested her head against the window and smiled at me.
I shrugged and smiled back. “What can I say? With your brains and my brawn we could take over the world.”
“Brawn?” She shook her head and grinned. “Are you hiding it under your hat?” She lifted my cap and ruffled my hair. “No brawn here.”
I swatted away her hand and tucked the runaway strands of black hair back under the brim of my hat.
“Cut your hair, you bum,” she said, tugging teasingly at the back of my hair. “You could compete in the Rapunzel Olympics and probably win.”
“What about you, Little Mermaid Einstein?” I shot back.
She lifted her nose at me and smiled. She always said that she hated her wild, frizzy, red hair. If her mother wasn’t one hundred percent against it, Willow probably would have already dyed it brown and cut it short.
“I’d give you a piece of my mind, but class is about to start and we both know it would take too long.” She rolled her eyes comically at me as she tightened her braid.
“Noted, you pretentious ass.” I shoved her arm.
She stuck out her tongue and laughed. As we stood up to enter our classroom, one of the bickering girls in the corner pushed out and ran past us. All I saw was a blonde head flash by and disappear into the throng of students making their way to class.
I looked at Willow, but she shrugged. Neither of us knew the girl.
We took our seats in our first class, and the teacher began his instruction.
“Monday, as you all know, is the start of Career Week. On a piece of paper, I want you guys to tell me about your plans after high school, be it college or traveling the world, anything. We’ll discuss them when you guys come back on Monday.”
Mr. Grant walked around the room as papers rustled.
I tapped the piece of paper with my pencil, but nothing was coming to mind. It’s not that I didn’t have plans, but the empty space on the paper was daunting. I knew anything I wrote wouldn’t determine my whole life, but not a lot interested me besides hanging out with my friends and talking with Willow.
I wasn’t good enough at basketball to think about pursuing a scholarship or a career. My second best class was math, but I didn’t want to be a mathematician. What did they do? Write equations on a dusty chalkboard and stare at it for hours? Yeah, not for me.
“Two more minutes, guys,” Mr. Grant said, tapping his watch.
I copped out in the last second.
Go to college, get a degree in math, play basketball on scholarship., I wrote.
I glanced over at Willow, who was smiling over her notebook. She’d filled an entire page with her plans.
What was I thinking? Trying to even get to her level was impossible. I looked down at my meager sentence and sighed.
I walked with Willow out into the hallway and to our next class. My class was located in the hallway past hers, so our route worked out well. I hated that since high school began, Willow had been taking all the advanced and honors classes. We had few classes together. Meanwhile, she was set to leave high school with enough college credits to graduate in two years.
“What did your folks say about taking classes at the community college?” I asked, bringing up the tail end of a conversation we had on the phone the night before.
As if high school wasn’t enough, she was gearing up to start taking actual college classes. It wasn’t hard to feel dwarfed.
“They think it’s a great idea. I’m probably going to start next semester.” She said as she hugged her books to her chest and skipped a few feet with a smile.
“Yup.” She sighed wistfully and picked at a loose strand of her hair.
“What’s that about?” I asked, frowning. “Don’t you still want to be a doctor?”
For as long as I’d known Willow, she’d aspired to be a doctor. Sure, we went through the fireman and policeman stages together as children, but when the doctor stage hit, she stayed there while I moved on to action star and astronaut.
She knew the Hippocratic Oath before she ever memorized her own address.
If anyone was going to be a doctor, it was going to be her.
“Of course.” Her expression brightened, and she smiled at me. “It’s nothing. I had another thought. Don’t worry about it.”
“Hey!” another voice interjected before I could reply to her.
Harry, the nerdy football player, ran up to Willow and tugged on her braid. I looked away to hide my scowl. He could have been the poster child for tall, dark and handsome with his suntanned skin and brown hair that seemed to always look perfect.
I hated his guts and the way Willow looked at him with something akin to adoration. Heck, every girl in school looked at him with adoration, but he only had eyes for Willow.
“‘Sup, Red?” asked Harry. He didn’t acknowledge me. Not that I expected him to.
“Harry!” Willow grinned up at him.
I clenched my teeth to keep from making any remarks I would regret.
“I’ll catch you later,” I said.
I moved to leave, but Willow caught my shirt sleeve.
“Hey,” she said. She smiled, but her eyes were serious. She seemed to sense that something was wrong. “Still want to meet up after extracurriculars?”
I nodded and waved as I started to walk away.
I had to leave before I heard any of their conversation. I didn’t want to know how much of a fool I was for feeling the way I did. She paired well with Harry, the too-smart, nerdy, football player; not me, the directionless idiot.
I continued to my next class. Alone.
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” ~ Albert Schweitzer. German philosopher and theologian.
My last extracurricular class of the day was basketball practice.
Every Tuesday and Friday, the team met up in the gym to play a few games while our coach tried to teach us new plays.
“Dude! Pass it!” Pete yelled to me from the other side of the court.
I dodged around some of the other guys, dribbling fast. I faked a throw toward Jerry, but caught the eye of Tim, the center, and passed it to him instead. Tim swerved with the ball and spun in a tight half-circle around an opponent. He threw the ball, and it spun around the rim of the net before finally falling in.
I high-fived a couple of the guys.
“Alright, guys!” Coach Greene clapped his hands and blew his whistle. “Good try. Form up again!”
When I think back on it, I don’t remember that much of the game or exactly what happened. But between the shouts and cheers, something was being drowned out.
One of the other guys had scored and the few kids sitting in the bleachers cheered. It wasn’t until we formed up to start again and the gym quieted that we heard it.
They weren’t the shouts of spectators, which normally accompanied our games and occasionally our practices.
They were screams of terror.
The other team’s center stopped with the ball in his hands and looked around. Others also stopped and began to listen. Within seconds, everyone was looking toward the double-doors that led into the school.
“What’s happening?” Pete asked, wiping at the sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“Everyone stay back,” yelled Coach Greene as he waved us back. He peered through the doors’ small windows.
“Coach, what is it?” someone asked from the back of the room.
Coach Greene’s face paled, and his eyes darted back and forth.
“Outside! Go outside,” he yelled, pointing to the gym’s back door, which led out into the parking lot.
The others looked at each other, waiting for someone to take charge. I sucked in a breath, not fully sure of what to do, and ran for the back door. I slammed my hands on the bar latch. It swung open, hitting the brick wall adjacent to it.
I stopped in my tracks.
About twenty feet in front of me on the grass, was a pillar of fire that blasted up from a single point in the ground. Suddenly, it began to spread, engulfing the school in a wall of fire that now separated us from the outside.
I was in total shock. I wanted to get away from the wall of fire, but my legs would not cooperate. In my head I was screaming at myself to back up, close the door and hide. But every muscle in my body was stiff. I don’t remember feeling any heat coming off of the fire, but it didn’t matter. I was too close, heat or not.
Tim had followed me out. He snapped himself out of it before I could.
“Fire!” he yelled.
He quickly grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me inside, yanking the door shut behind us. I tumbled back and hit the floor hard.
I gasped, not realizing that I had been holding my breath, and looked down at my hands. They were shaking violently. I pushed through the shock and got to my feet, refusing to look behind me at the door standing between us and the raging fire.
My friends, teammates and I gathered around Coach Greene, looking for some explanation for the chaos rising around us. The screams from inside the school were getting louder. We were trapped.
And then it hit me: Willow was still in the school.
She could be in trouble.
“I have to go in there. Willow’s in there,” I said.
The adrenaline that had taken over while I stared at the wall of fire rushed back through my limbs. I ignored the protests from my friends and sprinted for the door, ducking under Coach Greene’s hand as he tried to catch me.
I slammed the doors open and tumbled through. My legs when I saw what lay beyond the doors.
Students and teachers alike were writhing and screaming in pain on the floor of the hallway, blindly lashing out at things only they could see. Screams echoed down the hallway from every corner of the school. The ceiling lights were flickering in and out and whole sections of hallway were doused in darkness.
I hesitated for only a second before I took a breath and started to jog down the hall toward the Willow’s classroom.
I carefully stepped over people lying on the linoleum floors. Some were muttering under their breaths, and others were outright screaming.
One of the janitors was crawling across the floor shouting, “Bodies! The bodies.”
I inched around him, trying to stay away from his grasping hands. He saw me and held out his hands. “Save me. Save me!”
I jumped away from his grasp. He rolled over and hugged the wall, slamming his fists into the concrete and drawing blood.
Shaking, I crept down the hall, careful not to step on anyone.
They were all the same. All the students and teachers in the halls were caught in the same hallucination, and a sinking feeling in my gut told me it was only a matter of time before it would also happen to me.
Not before I find Willow, I scolded myself.
Willow had to be safe.
I ran past a wall of windows which should have offered a view of the schoolyard and skidded to a halt.
Instead, the view was that of the same fire that we had seen from the back door of the gym; I felt myself start to shut down again.
Willow, I reminded myself. I have to keep going.
The fire was at least three stories high, but as I sprinted past the windows, I noticed that the fire had no source other than the grass. What was feeding it? Was it surrounding the whole school?
I looked away, determined to make it to Willow’s classroom before the fire or the chaos could get to me.
Finally, I reached her classroom, but she wasn’t there.
I shouted her name over the chaos of voices and screams. I searched the faces of people sprawled in the hallways and into the classrooms, but I saw no sign of her.
I began running from room to room, kicking doors open and repeatedly shouting her name. I stumbled to a stop in the main hallway.
Willow was standing across the expanse of the hallway staring at another girl whose back was facing me.
The other girl was unaffected by the insanity around us. I couldn’t see her face, but I saw messy blond hair. Her shoulders rose and fell harshly as she breathed.
I slid behind an overturned table and watched the silent, staring battle between the two girls. Willow took a step forward. The other girl, who I vaguely recognized as a transfer from a few weeks ago, stood her ground but clenched her fists.
Willow took another step forward. Her eyes never blinked, never wavered. Beads of sweat trailed down her brow. Her expression was more intense than I’d ever seen.
I shifted behind the table, and my foot knocked into a jar and it rattled across the floor. The other girl’s head snapped in my direction, and fierce blue eyes found me.
I wasn’t in the school anymore. Instead I was surrounded by a hurricane of fire. It roared and hot winds circled around me, whipping my clothes.
“Stop!” I shouted, but the fire closed in. The heat was nearly unbearable. I wanted to close my eyes but they wouldn’t close.
“It’s all your fault, Eugene,” whispered a familiar voice in my mind, resonating through my skull and into my bones. As I heard the words, a face protruded from the fire and a flame shot out towards me.
“You should never have been born,” said another voice, louder this time. Another face. Another flame.
“You could have killed us all,” shouted a third voice. A third face appeared, and the three joined together, whispering and shouting their hatred.
Each of the voices and faces belonged to my mother, father and brother, all rolled into one judgmental, three-headed fire beast. It circled me from the waves of the flames, licking at my heels and my face, growling angrily. My family stared down at me, their faces reflecting the hatred in their words.
“You killed us, Eugene,” it said, the faces bobbing. “You made us die because you were too weak.”
Their voices had merged, creating an entirely new one.
“No,” I said. “No, I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry!”
I shielded my eyes against the hot glare of the fire beast.
“TOO LATE!” it screeched, and the monster rose up like a snake preparing to strike.
I covered my head with my arms, yelling, “I’m sorry!”
The monster struck, but when it did, the fire exploded around me and dissipated, leaving me in total darkness.
I spun around, reaching with my hands to find something, anything. The darkness was so absolute that I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. My breath sounded loudly in the silence.
I reached down in the darkness to touch the floor, but there was nothing there.
I was standing on air.
My heart beat faster. What if I fell? What would I fall into?
Something sparked in the distance. A light. I ran forward, not entirely sure that I wouldn’t fall into nothingness. I could feel the heat at my back. The fire beast was bubbling back up from the darkness. I could hear its vicious whispers rising.
The closer I got to the light, the more I realized it wasn’t just a light. It was a person. It was Willow. She stood reaching her arm out toward me. She glowed.
-Be strong,- echoed her voice in my mind. –It’s an illusion. It can’t hurt you.-
“Willow,” I gasped, clasping her outstretched hand.
The darkness evaporated, and I was in the hallway again, standing in front of Willow and holding her hand.
Willow was on her knees, but she was looking past me at the other girl. She let go of my hand.
The girl gritted her teeth and screamed in frustration.
“You need to stop,” Willow said to her. “You don’t need to do this.”
“Who are you to tell me what I need to do?” the girl shouted. The others, still stuck in illusions, gasped and screamed.
“You’re hurting people, Laura!” Willow pushed herself to her feet, never letting her gaze waver from the girl.
The girl, Laura, sobbed. Hey blue eyes were red-rimmed and angry.
“They hurt me first. It’s my turn.” She stamped her foot, and the whole school shuddered.
All around us monsters made of black slime, glistening like an oil slick, began welling up from cracks in the floor.
They were huge salamander-like, with bulbous limbs and dripping claws. Their teeth and eyes were molten red, glowing with the light of a waking volcano.
The kids on the floor began emerging from their personal nightmares only to enter the one we were all sharing.
Willow didn’t break eye contact with Laura, but instead reached out and grabbed my hand again.
Her fingers were slick with sweat. I squeezed them tightly, hoping some of the strength she had given me would pass back to her.
“Willow, what is this?” I whispered.
I could see tears forming at the corners of her eyes. They were angry tears, frustrated tears.
“When this is all over, Eugene, I’ll explain everything. But for now, trust that I know what I’m doing.”
I had never seen her serious about anything but her schoolwork. Everything else was a joke or a game.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Don’t let go,” she whispered, squeezing my hand. She closed her eyes.
Cries from the slime monsters pierced the air as they crawled out of the floor, joining the shouts and screams of the students on the floor. The monsters filled the entire space of the hallway within seconds.
Willow squeezed my hand, and she dragged me away from Laura, through an emergency exit and out into the front lawn of the school.
The wall of fire surrounding the school burned even taller and brighter. It roared and reached toward us like grasping hands. Dark smoke spilled upwards.
Willow didn’t let me stand there long before she was dragging me toward the fire.
I screamed in protest.
“It’s not real!” she shouted before dragging me with her into the fire.
I expected heat. I expected to feel the pain of my skin burning off.
But I felt neither.
We landed hard on the other side, rolling across the grass. I touched my chest and hair, expecting them to be on fire, but I was fine.
Willow scrambled up and pulled me to my feet.
The fire was gone and the school looked like it did every other day. No fire or slime monsters trawling every surface. The blue sky wasn’t tainted with smoke, but instead lazy white clouds passed overhead.
“Where’d it go?” I asked, shocked.
“You can only see it from inside her sphere.”
Willow turned to look back at the school.
“It’s the area she can influence.”
I had more questions than answers, and my whole perception of Willow was beginning to change.
She clutched at her hair, loosening it from the braid that had come partially undone.
“I know this is all confusing, but I promise I’ll explain later. Come on.” She took my hand and led me quickly across the lawn.
“Who is she?” I asked, breathless, as we ran.
“Her name is Laura,” she replied. We stopped on the side of the school where the gym was. “She’s a sophomore who transferred from a school in Indianapolis.”
“How is she doing this?”
“Somehow she’s taking people’s fears and nightmares and turning them into hallucinations.”
“What do we do now?” I expected her to say we should go for help, but I should have known better.
Willow clung tighter to my hand.
“We have to find the source.”
“Yes.” She pulled at my hand and we plunged back into what Willow called the sphere.
Fire surrounded us again, but it was now even higher and louder. From somewhere above us, ash began to fall and coat the ground in a fine, gray blanket.
“Laura made a decoy. That’s what I was facing in the hallway. She’s actually somewhere else.”
“I don’t get how you know all this,” I said as Willow let go of my hand to open the back door of the gym.
My teammates inside had succumbed to Laura’s illusions and were screaming and shouting.
“Eugene, the second you feel her trying to make you see illusions, tell me,” she said.
We skirted around the edge of the gym to get to the door. As we stepped out into the hallway, which now stood eerily empty, she reached her hand out again and smiled at me. I took it and nodded.
We ran hand-in-hand through the school. Willow seemed to know where she was going, so I let her lead me through each hallway. I didn’t know what was going on or why this was happening.
Willow was so focused on finding the real version of Laura that I was sure any questions I had would go unanswered.
We turned a corner, still running, and collided with someone.
We fell to the floor, but I scrambled to my feet and stared at the person we had run into.
“Harry.” Willow smiled and got to her feet using my arm as leverage.
Harry, the nerdy football player stood in front of us.
“I believe that we are at a precipice. A middle ground of sorts. We are confronted with a great leap into darkness from the relative safety of light and familiarity. The question is: Are we truly ready to take the leap that on one hand could lead us into a time of prosperity and increased safety but on the other hand could herald the beginning of our certain end?” ~ Former Chief Minister of the Anyan’s Alliance Thomas Reddinger in a speech to the Council of Six.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I picked myself up and eyed Harry.
“Have you seen Laura anywhere?” she asked him. He shook his head.
“Not yet. I was coming to find you to make sure you were safe.”
Willow flicked some stray hair out of her face.
“Thanks, Harry. But I can keep myself out of trouble.”
“Obviously.” Harry quirked an eyebrow and glanced behind us.
I glanced back and there were about a dozen people with glazed-over eyes and dull expressions on their faces walking toward us.
“They’re sleepwalking,” Willow said. “We should go.”
“I think she’s in the eighth-grade-English classroom,” Harry said.
“How do you know that?” I asked fueling every syllable with mistrust.
Why wasn’t he affected by the illusions?
“All the people under her influence are collecting in the area,” said Harry. He was either unaware, or didn’t care that I was implying he knew more than he was letting on. “It’s like there’s something drawing them there.”
Willow turned on a heel and sprinted down the hall, waving a hand for us to follow her. She didn’t get far.
The double-doors in front of us slammed open, and people writhing in pain and shouting incoherently tumbled through.
They saw us and ran toward us.
“Your fault! Your fault!” they shouted as they ran.
The sleepwalking people collecting behind us began shouting in unison with the people in front of us.
Laura’s nightmare monsters began oozing out of the cracks again, joining the sleepwalkers in tightening the circle around us.
A loud crash sounded behind us, and a boy in a blue hoodie jumped through a broken window. Water pooled at his feet, and then in a move that would resonate with me the rest of the day, he lifted his arms in an arc and the water slammed upwards and over the sleepwalkers.
The rushing water pushed them away from us, but the water parted around us, not getting a drop of it on Willow, Harry or myself.
The kid, hoodie pulled tight around his head, didn’t give us a second glance before jumping back through the window, taking the majority of the sleepwalkers with him.
The slime monsters were unaffected by the water, though, and continued to close in.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Not sure. But I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth,” Willow replied, pushing forward.
The slime monsters didn’t move out of her way, but reacted like oil to water as she passed through them.
I glanced at Harry, who merely shrugged and followed after her.
“C’mon, Eugene. They can’t hurt you, they’re illusions,” she said.
“So you keep saying,” I muttered before running through the clutch of nightmare monsters.
I looked over my shoulder and saw the monsters re-form to continue following us. I tried to ignore the fact that they were beginning to light up like candles around me.
“Eugene!” Willow was now down the hall. I jumped, not realizing that they had gotten so far ahead of me already. I turned on a heel and ran after them.
But I was too late. They were gone. The hallway stretched out in front of me, empty and dark. Behind me the nightmare monsters came closer with their heatless flame. I shuddered to look at them.
“Willow!” I shouted down the hall, but Willow and the nerdy football player were gone. I was alone.
Alone with fiery monsters.
I ran down the hall, repeatedly screaming Willow’s name.
They can’t have gotten far. They wouldn’t leave me, would they?
The hallway seemed to stretch endlessly. Finally, I burst through a set of double-doors only to see a strange vision of myself bursting through another set of doors in front of me and disappearing.
“What’s happening?” I asked out loud. My voice was small and muffled.
I ran through the double-doors again, and again I saw myself burst through and disappear.
I gasped, realizing I had been holding my breath. This was impossible. I tried again, but with the same results. I was stuck.
“No, no, no,” I whispered. I opened the door behind me and went through and watched myself do the same on the other side. I was in a loop.
The monsters oozed through the cracks in the door and began filling the small space. I stepped into the center of the hallway, where I was furthest from the walls. But fire continued to grow beneath my feet. I sucked in a deep breath.
The fire was eating through my shoes. It spread up my legs and over my stomach. Lit up like torched oil slicks, the monsters leapt off the walls closed in on me.
I screamed as their burning claws reached my face.
It’s an illusion… An echo of something Willow had said resonated through my mind.
It’s not real, it’s an illusion!
I was losing myself. What had happened to the teachers and students had begun to happen to me. I was losing my grasp on reality. I looked around at the monsters circling me and at my limbs on fire. How do you escape an illusion?
I closed my eyes tightly.
“It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.” I made it a mantra and walked toward the double-doors. I opened my eyes and pushed through, half expecting to come out on the other side seeing another illusion of myself. But instead I was in a bedroom.
It was a room I could only remember from pictures. My bedroom from when I was a baby.
I turned around to try opening the door, but it was locked.
Everything was weird in this illusion. I could see ghost images of my hands moving before I did, preempting my actions.And unlike before, there was no sound. I couldn’t even hear my own breath.
I turned back toward the room and looked around.
It was nighttime in this illusion. Through the window I could see a sliver of the moon between the branches of a distant tree. A baby’s crib sat in the middle of the room, an orange glow emanating from inside.
I hesitated for only a moment before walking over to the crib and looking inside. There was a baby sitting in the middle of the crib, its blanket was pushed back and little stuffed animals were scattered at its feet. The baby was me. I was little more than a year old.
The baby was on fire.
He looked at me and screamed a scream that made no noise. He seemed frightened, but who wouldn’t be if they were on fire?
The door burst open and a young boy ran in. I recognized this boy, too. He was my brother–a much, much younger version of him, but unmistakably him. The illusion slowed as my brother reached my crib. His mouth was shouting in slow motion.
The world was spinning. The illusion blurred, and we were back in the room I grew up in. It was the same place but a different time. The decorations in the room had changed and there was a small toddler bed in the corner. And there I was, sitting on the floor playing with blocks, a couple years older than the baby I had seen in the crib.
And then it happened again. Fire shot from my small hand and set the blocks on fire. First the blocks, then the floor, and soon the curtains and the walls themselves were on fire.
The younger version of me was standing in a ring of fire, crying and screaming. The illusion slowed again as a woman, my mother, came through and grabbed me from the fire. Her clothes and her hair caught the flame. I shut my eyes trying to shut the illusion out, but there it was, under the darkness of my eyelids, forcing me to watch my mother burn alive.
I screamed, trying to force the vision from my mind. And then it was gone.
I could feel heat around me. I let my eyes flicker open and saw flame again, but this time it was mere embers on the fringes of papers, billboards and the walls around me. It was dying out and I could feel the heat coming off it. I looked around and saw that it had made a perfect charred circle around me.
There was no one around and the monsters were gone. I sucked in a breath and jumped out of the circle.
I ran, not caring what direction I was going in. I had to get away from the fire. I only stopped when I tripped on a fallen chair strewn haphazardly across the hallway.
Only then did I realize hot tears were leaking from my eyes. I jammed the heels of my hands against my eyes and stopped myself from sobbing.
I had to be strong for Willow. I had to always be strong.
I pushed myself up and tried to find my bearings. I was near the media lab, close to the front of the school. In the distance, under the screams and shouts, I could hear someone speaking.
I followed the muffled voice to a classroom. And inside was the girl, Laura.
She stood in the center of the classroom with her hair falling over her face in blond waves. With her hands clutching a chair and her face hidden and shadowed, she looked more like someone deep in thought or prayer than someone wreaking havoc throughout the school.
“It’s okay. It will all be okay. They can’t hurt me here,” she muttered to herself.
“Laura?” I called out.
She looked up at me. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. Her mouth was set in a frown.
“Laura, whatever you are doing, you… you need to stop.” I stepped forward, holding up my hands to show that I was no danger.
“They’ve hurt me enough!” she screamed, throwing the chair she had been clutching. “It’s my turn!”
I was breathing hard, trying to figure out what I could say to her to stop the screams filling the school.
“No one’s going to hurt you,” I tried to assure her, stepping around the chairs and tables.
“Too late.” I felt the invasion into my mind the second it happened. At the corners of my vision, I saw fiery monsters rising from the depths of my subconscious. She was trying to frighten me.
“Stop!” I shouted, pushing away the vision. I could feel heat at my fingers and didn’t dare speculate what was happening.
She grabbed two clumps of her own hair and sobbed. “No!”
I forced myself to step toward her.
“Look, I don’t know about anyone else in this school, but I won’t hurt you. I’ll help you,” I said.
She glared at me with clenched teeth and tears flowed from her eyes in streams.
“It’s too late,” she said softly and looked away. “I can’t go back.”
“Yes, you can.” I said. I wracked my brain trying to think what Willow would do in this situation. She was ten times smarter than I was and she probably would have known what to do here seconds ago.
Laura shook her head, her eyes dull and distant.
“Tell me what I can do to help you.” I didn’t know what I was saying. But she needed to stop this terror.
“Make it stop,” she cried, looking at her hands. “I can’t make it stop. It’s too late.”
Willow was beside me. I didn’t know where she came from or how long she’d been standing there. I never heard her approach.
She touched my shoulder and smiled.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll take over from here.”
Willow walked to Laura. Not like she was afraid of her or about to fight, but like she was a friend.
“I want you to look me in the eye, Laura,” she said, holding her arms open wide. “It’s not the end. It’s never the end. You can always come back.”
“No…It’s impossible.” Laura looked at Willow in the eye and shook her head. “I’m tired.”
“I know.” Willow reached Laura, wrapped her arms around the sobbing girl and held her.
“I’m so sorry!” Laura said into Willow’s hair.
Willow had turned slightly, and I could see a soft smile on her face and tears in her eyes.
I saw her whisper something into Laura’s ear, and almost instantly the firewall that I could see through the classroom windows flickered out, and the lawn returned back to normal. The screams echoing through the halls receded into sobs.
But that all seemed unimportant compared to the sight in front of me.
Willow was glowing. Every strand of her red hair was bathed in a white light coming from under her skin. The girl in her embrace was soaking in the glow, and for the first time since I’d seen her with red eyes and an unhappy face, she looked content.
Willow let go of Laura and the glow faded.
I was so stunned that I didn’t notice Harry had come up behind me.
“Did you see it?” I asked.
Harry shook his head.
“The illusions are gone,” he said.