Notes: This is a scary story. So it contains some scary things. Blood, death, and spooky noises may come into play. There's nothing incredibly graphic here, but I want you to know what you're getting into. And ladies and gentlemen, I've finally managed to write a story my parents can read without feeling too incredibly weird about it. That means no sex. Crazy, right?
It's been quite some time since I've completed a new story of this length. Between editing two novels, writing short erotica pieces for Bold Strokes Books' Erotic Interludes anthologies (2 - 4), and dealing with real life, I've been pretty busy. Since I've kind of taken a break from putting new stuff out in the public realm, I'm both nervous and excited to have something to share again. If you like the story or want to comment on it, I'd love your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to read more of my stuff, I highly recommend you check out my Yahoo group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/meghanobrien/). I offer occasional updates on my work, and a few stories you won't find anywhere else.
~ Meghan O'Brien
By Meghan O'Brien
Andi woke up with her face pressed against the cold car window, and blinked sleepily at the large snowflakes that blew past their slow - moving vehicle. The radio was turned down low, Van Morrison singing about floating into the mystic, and Sean was quiet in the backseat. Sitting up, she turned guilty eyes to Clare's white - knuckled grip on the steering wheel.
"I'm sorry." Andi glanced over her shoulder at the car seat, and their four - month - old son dozing within. "Car rides seem to do that to both of us."
Clare smiled tightly. "It's okay."
Andi read the underlying tension in her partner's face, recognized the rigid set of her shoulders. "No, it's not. It's night, it's shitty outside, and I know we had a bad day. I'm sorry."
"It wasn't a bad day."
"Well, it wasn't a good day."
Clare turned off the radio with an irritated flick of the wrist. "They weren't that bad."
Andi winced at the tone of her voice. Defensive, hurt, full of stubborn denial. This wasn't going to be fun. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."
"Stop saying you're sorry. It's fine. You were tired, you fell asleep, it's no big deal. The roads aren't that bad. I'm a big girl."
Andi stifled a sigh. Clearly she didn't want to talk about Sean's first introduction to his grandparents. Clare always tended to gloss over her parents' imperfections. "Okay, then. I'm not sorry. That nap was fantastic."
"So happy for you."
This time, Andi let go with the sigh. "I love you, sweetheart. Want me to take over driving for a while?"
They were at least two hours from the hotel they had reserved by the airport. It was snowing hard now, and visibility out the front windshield was minimal. Andi squinted at the road, trying to discern the broken yellow line dividing the lanes.
"I love you, too. And no, I've got it."
Andi leaned against the window again and lifted her eyes to the sky. The darkness was all but obscured by fast - moving white flakes. Their headlights reflected against them to create an almost blinding effect.
"I hope the weather breaks by tomorrow. I don't want our flight to get delayed," Andi remarked in an even tone. She tried to keep the topic neutral, knowing very well after eight years of marriage that Clare was on edge.
"I want to get home, too. Sean misses Cleo."
Andi grinned at the longing in Clare's voice for her beloved Basenji. "Sean misses her, huh?"
Clare cracked a smile. "Totally. He couldn't stop talking about her when you were in the shower this morning. He told me he wants to master the whole using - his - hands thing so he can play fetch with her."
"Awesome. He's a pretty advanced little dude, so he should have that down in a week or two."
"After that, we're working on the X - Box."
Andi laughed. "I sure hope our son is a gamer like his mama."
"Me, too. And I hope he's at least ten before he starts winning when we play."
"Good luck with that." Andi felt a warm rush of pleasure at the thought of her partner teaching their son to work a game controller. He may not be able to have Clare's genetic legacy for video game wizardry, but with her as a mentor, he could very well be a prodigy in the making.
"Well, I'll teach him, but I'm not gonna teach him enough to beat - - "
Their rental car did a sudden, sickening slide towards the edge of the road and Clare stopped talking, knuckles going white on the steering wheel. Her dark skin was strangely pale as she drove them back into the middle of their lane.
"Honey, maybe we should pull over for the night," Andi suggested. She checked Sean in the rear - view mirror and found, with no surprise, that he continued to sleep peacefully. "The weather is pretty bad."
"It was just a little slippery patch." Clare's eyes stayed locked on the road, and Andi joined in her study of the frantic flurry of white. "Not a big - - "
A dark shadow shot out in front of their car, so close to their front bumper that Andi was sure they were going to hit it. A shout of alarm welled up in her throat, but it was supplanted by a frightened little scream from Clare. Slamming on the brakes, Clare sent their car sliding out of control as the dark figure finished its trek across the road and disappeared into the driving snow.
"Fuck!" Clare shouted as their car fishtailed dangerously, the rear end sliding this way and that on the slick asphalt. "Shit!"
"Ease up on the brakes, honey." Andi tried not to panic as she watched Clare's mishandling of the situation. She really should have insisted on driving. "Steer into it."
Things went from bad to worse as their car executed a 180 - degree turn, spinning in a still - forward motion, until they finally came to a grinding halt facing the wrong way on the other side of the road. For long moments, the only sound in the air was their heavy, anxious breathing.
"Well, that was scary as shit," Andi murmured when her throat unclenched enough to speak. She marveled that she hadn't wet herself.
"You're right. Maybe we should stop for the night." Clare's voice was quiet, shaky, and she turned to take a quick look behind them before steering the car back into their lane. She made a slow, wide turn on the slick road, sending them off in the right direction. "I can't believe it. Our boy can sleep through anything. He must have gotten that from you, too."
Andi couldn't help but smile despite the adrenaline that still thrummed through her body. A year and a half ago, she never would have imagined it. Her nose, her chin, her penchant for deep sleep. Sean really was a piece of her. "You're welcome for that one. There's plenty he'll end up pissed about, like the bad stomach, but at least his mommy can appreciate the fact that we're sleeping for hours at a time already."
"Oh, I appreciate it. Let's just hope he doesn't inherit your ability to leave clutter all over the house."
"I'll cross my fingers that he got your clean gene," Andi said. She watched a bittersweet smile tug at Clare's lips, and somewhat regretted her choice of words. But she wanted her partner to understand that even if her own parents didn't, Andi considered Sean Clare's son in every way.
"Yeah," Clare murmured. She blinked at the road, eyes shining. "So what was that thing back there, do you think?"
Andi flashed onto the shadowy figure that had caused their spin - out. Her eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. It moved fast and seemed light on its feet. Surely they had come close enough to strike it, but she hadn't felt any impact. And whatever it was hadn't reacted at all to the car's proximity.
"I have no idea," she said. "We'll stop at the first motel we see. It's too dangerous to stay out here."
Clare exhaled quietly. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you earlier. I was looking forward to going home."
"It's okay. You didn't know the roads were that bad. Now we know, and we'll find someplace to sleep. We'll still make it home tomorrow. We can just leave for the airport earlier than we planned."
As Clare nodded, her lower lip began to tremble. "I'm sorry I almost got us into an accident." She drove much slower now, almost overly cautious, and scanned the side of the road nervously. "It's… been a hard day."
"I know, sweetheart." Andi touched Clare's arm with tentative fingers, and marveled at the play of tense muscles beneath smooth brown skin. "But it's over now."
Clare tipped her head, then gestured at a dim light ahead of them. The words Bella Luna B&B glowed just bright enough to be seen through the swirling mass of snowflakes that stuck wetly to their windshield. "What do you think?"
"I think I need to hold you."
Clare swallowed, then turned the car onto a long driveway. "I think I need to be held."
The Bella Luna Bed and Breakfast was an old, pale blue Victorian house covered in white snow and freezing ice that clung to its every surface. Soft light glowed from within, on the first floor, the only point of warmth in an otherwise cold visage. A small, hand - painted sign hanging on the front door advertised Vacancy.
"Perfect," Andi declared, even as her stomach flip - flopped with subtle unease. She couldn't put her finger on the source of her discomfort, beyond the simple helplessness of being beaten by weather. She had no idea where they were, though it couldn't have been more than eighty miles to the Bangor airport.
"You think they take people without reservations?" Clare asked. She killed the ignition and sat staring up at the long wooden porch. "It is awfully late - - "
"Only one way to find out." Andi pulled on her thick winter coat and zipped up. She hadn't seen another place to stay within twenty miles or so. No way did she want to keep driving without making sure that they couldn't stay here. "Do you want to wait with Sean while I check?"
Clare gave her a reluctant nod. "Sure. But hurry."
She leaned over and dropped a gentle kiss on Clare's full lips. "Quick like a bunny."
When she flung open the car door and stepped outside, the frigid air took her breath away. She planted her feet on the snow - covered ground, careful not to slip and fall on her ass in her enthusiasm to seek out the warmth of the house. Shutting the door behind her, she started a slow walk to the front door through the freshly fallen snow.
She was almost surprised to find it unlocked. Even more surprising was the gentle - looking old woman sitting behind a large oak desk to her immediate left. The woman lifted her eyes at Andi's blustery entrance, patted at her grey hair with a frail hand, and flashed a welcoming smile.
"Cold outside, isn't it?" Her smile grew wider, and somehow kinder. "Need a room?"
Andi nodded as she brushed wet snowflakes out of her hair. "Yes, thank you. You have a vacancy?"
"Indeed we do. Is it just you tonight, dear?"
"Oh, no. My partner and our son are waiting in the car."
If the old woman had any outward reaction to this hint of an alternative family dynamic, Andi didn't see it. She felt more aware of reactions here in Maine than she did back home in Santa Rosa, and so she watched the old woman's face for any sign of surprise or disapproval. All she got was a subtler smile.
"Well, go on and get them, young lady. No sense in letting them freeze out there when I've got a warm bed upstairs. How old is your son?"
Andi returned the woman's vague smile. "Four months."
"I'll put you in the big suite, then. Let me see if I can scare up a bassinet for him." She patted at her hair again, the wispy grey strands barely moving beneath her touch, and scooted back in her chair. With a great sigh, she stood and rocked on unsteady feet. "What's his name?"
"Sean." She could hear the great pride she felt in the way she said his name. Sean. Their baby. Their commitment.
"A fine name. Why don't you bring him and his mother inside?"
When Andi made it back to the rental car and threw open the back door, Clare immediately leaned over the passenger seat with an anxious look on her face. Sean murmured happily from behind her. "Andi, there's something out here."
"What?" Andi furrowed her brows, aware of the panic shining in her partner's eyes. The quiet urgency of the words didn't make sense to her. "What do you mean, something?"
"Something," Clare said in a clipped, nervous voice. "I saw it in the rear view mirror. I don't know what it was."
Andi backed out of the car and straightened, making a slow, cautious sweep of her surroundings. Next to the Bella Luna was a vast clearing dotted with gnarled trees that were bent low under the heavy burden of snow and ice. There was no movement except for the unrelenting swirl of white flakes through the frigid air. She ducked back down and peered into the car, into Clare's wide eyes.
"I don't see anything."
"Do they have a room?" Clare whispered in a soft hiss. She darted her gaze back and forth between Andi and the rear windshield.
"Indeed they do."
"Well, let's get inside. I don't know what that was slinking around out there, and I don't have any desire to find out." Clare unbuckled her seatbelt and gathered her coat around her body.
Surely it was just Clare's exhaustion and frustration about their trip that was making her act so unsettled. She really did need to be held. Andi reached out to stroke their son's soft, nearly bald head. "I'll get Sean, okay? You just grab the diaper bag and our backpacks."
Clare opened the car door and scurried out, sliding a bit on the slick driveway before gaining surer footing. "Sure. Let's just hurry, please?"
Andi found a fuzzy yellow blanket on the rear passenger seat, and tucked it around Sean's little body. Then she disengaged his car seat from the base, and smiled at her drowsy son as she lifted him out into the snowy evening. "Quick like bunnies, right, Sean?"
One day he would even respond when she talked to him. Andi grinned at the thought.
When the three of them entered the Bella Luna, all the lights were off except a single lamp on the desk where the old woman had greeted her before. There was a key attached to a plastic tag sitting next to the lamp, and Andi carried Sean over to look at it while Clare shut the door behind them.
"Isn't there anyone here?" Clare whispered from the dimly lit foyer. "Are you sure they have a room for us, Andi?"
Andi picked up the key with a frown. "She said she did. Looks like she left a key." She wondered where the woman had gone.
"I'm creeped out."
Andi graced her with an amused smile. "Baby, you get creeped out at The Dark Crystal."
Clare snorted. "Because that's some creepy shit."
Andi gestured at Sean, and gave Clare a playful look of disapproval. "Thank God there's no language comprehension there yet, potty mouth."
"I'm getting it out of my system now."
Andi took another look around at the interior of the Bella Luna. The whole place screamed Victorian. She could make out the shape of an ornate love seat in the sitting room situated behind the front desk, and a large mirror reflected shadows and light from the wall behind. An expensive - looking chandelier hung over their heads, unlit.
"Well, shall we go upstairs?" Andi checked the key. "It says we're in the Woodhouse Suite."
"Yeah," Clare said. "The sooner we go to sleep, the sooner we can wake up and get home."
"Smart. That's why I love you."
They ascended a spiral wooden staircase, carpeted in rose, and found a long hallway at the top. Andi went to the left on instinct. The last door on the right was labeled Woodhouse Suite.
"Here we are." Andi unlocked the door and pushed it open, stepping inside with Sean's carrier in her hand. He burbled sleepily as Clare let out a low whistle behind her.
"Nice." Clare walked to the four poster bed and touched the thick down comforter that was spread across it. "Not bad for a creepy place in the middle of nowhere."
"It does look cozy," Andi said. She spotted an old maple bassinet that had been set up next to an ornate armoire. "Oh, good. She told me she thought she had a bassinet for Sean. That's awesome."
"Perfect." Clare sat on the bed and bent to untie her shoes. "I'll give you a million dollars if you change him and put him down. I've got a killer headache all of a sudden. I'm going to go to the bathroom for a drink of water."
Andi was already unbuckling Sean from his carrier. "Sure thing. You all right?"
"Yeah," Clare said. "I think the day just caught up with me, you know?"
"I know. Go on. I'll take care of the boy."
She settled him on the bed and stripped off his tiny little blue jeans, then his sweater, and pulled a fresh diaper from his bag. He lay quietly and stared up at her with his big blue eyes as she worked, occasionally flashing her smiles that took her breath away.
"You're a cutie pie, you know that?" she murmured to him. "Are you going to let mama and I get some sleep tonight? We're going on an airplane tomorrow."
He wiggled around a little as she guided his arms and legs into the warm blue pajamas she had pulled out for him. Footies. There were just so many adorable things about babies, and footie pajamas were near the top of the list.
True to form, Sean fell asleep as she finished dressing him. Andi picked him up and carefully placed him in the bassinet, satisfied when he reached out to grab hold of the cotton blanket the woman had left for him. He cuddled into it, and sighed deeply.
Smiling, Andi glanced toward the bathroom. Clare had been in there for a while. She decided to check on her.
"Honey?" Andi rapped on the bathroom door with her knuckles. "You okay?"
"I don't know," came Clare's muffled voice from the other side. She sounded confused.
Concerned, Andi opened the bathroom door. And gasped in shock. Clare was sitting on a shag rug between the shower and the toilet, her hand pressed to her forehead. Her fingers were slick with red blood.
"Oh my God, Clare." Andi rushed to her side, knelt on the tile floor. "Sweetheart, what happened?"
"Huh?" Clare took her hand away from her head, and, as if just noticing that something was wrong, brought it in front of her eyes. "I'm bleeding?"
"Yes, honey, you're bleeding." Andi pulled a washcloth from the top of the toilet and turned on the faucet so she could wet it. She knelt beside Clare again and dabbed at her head, wiping away the blood. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"I don't think so," Clare said. She continued to stare at her fingers, where the blood was turning brown and tacky, then raised her gaze to Andi's. "I must have, though, right?"
Andi cleaned the last of the blood from Clare's head and peered intently at her scalp. She couldn't find the source of the bleeding. Using gentle fingers, she parted her hair and searched. Nothing.
"I don't know," Andi said finally. "I can't find anything."
Clare blinked tiredly. "Can we go to bed now? I'm exhausted."
Andi chewed on her lip. She didn't understand what had just happened. But if she couldn't find an injury, surely it couldn't be that serious.
"Yeah." Andi rose and tossed the washcloth in the sink, then offered Clare her hand. Clare teetered, a bit unsteady, and made her way to the bathroom door. Watching her, Andi couldn't push away her niggling concern. "You sure you didn't hit your head in the car? Maybe you have a concussion."
"No, I'm okay," Clare said. "Just tired. Need to sleep."
If she had a concussion, Andi hated to let her sleep. But she had been in the car right next to Clare, and she believed her when she said she hadn't hit her head. The spin - out had been scary, but she just couldn't see how it would have produced that kind of head injury.
"All right," Andi said. "But if I wake you up every couple of hours, don't get mad at me. I just want to make sure you're okay."
"So you're saying that even if Sean decides to let me sleep, you won't?" Clare managed a weak smile. "I call bullshit on that."
Feeling just a little relieved by the good - natured tone in her voice, Andi sat down to use the toilet. "Deal with it, lady. I happen to care about you."
She heard Clare yawn, then pull back the comforter. "Fair enough."
When Andi was done, she turned on the sink, determined to wash her hands of this awful day. In the morning, they would leave this place - - and the memories of this whole trip - - behind.
Andi woke up sometime in the middle of the night with a stomachache. She kept her eyes closed, curled on her side, one arm draped protectively across Clare's middle. Listening hard, she tried to determine what had pulled her from slumber. Sean was quiet, Clare snored lightly, and the winter breeze rattled against the windows in a way that made her glad she was cuddled beneath a down comforter.
Andi rolled onto her back and tried to get comfortable enough to fall back asleep. The pain in her stomach was dull and throbbing one moment, sharp the next. It was possible that dinner hadn't agreed with her. She tried to remember what she'd eaten, but couldn't.
Maybe a glass of water would help.
She opened her eyes and immediately sucked in a terrified breath. A dark figure loomed over her, standing silently at her side of the bed. Her gaze was drawn instinctively to his face, but she couldn't make out any features. Just inky blackness, the complete absence of light.
Andi opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She strained with the effort and could only produce a weak croak. Immediately her throat grew sore and the sick feeling in her stomach intensified. The figure seemed to shift on his feet, then reached out to touch her arm.
Its hand was cold. All the warmth of the blankets disappeared and an icy tendril of dread crawled from their point of contact into her chest, down to her legs, up through her skull. Andi felt paralyzed. Darkness encroached on the edges of her vision, until the nothingness that was its face was all she could see. Her stomach pain intensified then receded, and she felt as if she were beginning to descend into some deep, dark hole from which she would never escape. She could no longer feel Clare's soft curves beside her, nor the mattress beneath her. She felt nothing, and it scared her to the core.
A bloodcurdling scream shattered the silence of the night. Andi's terror grew stronger until she realized that the sound was coming from her own mouth. Gathering strength she didn't know she had, she twisted away from the shadow man, and shot out her arm to turn on the bedside lamp.
The figure was gone. Sean was crying. Andi sat up in bed, gasping and panting, as feeling returned to her body. Inexplicably, Clare only stirred slightly beside her.
Worried, Andi reached out and put her hand on Clare's arm. "Honey?" When Clare didn't respond, she shook her. "Sweetheart, wake up."
Finally Clare blinked her eyes open. Brow furrowed, she reacted to the light, and turned her confused gaze to Andi's face.
"I'm sorry," Andi said. "I just had this really fucked up dream and woke up Sean when I started screaming. I got worried that maybe you did have a concussion when I didn't wake you up, too."
Andi crawled out of bed and walked to the bassinet, scooping Sean into her arms. He calmed down immediately.
"Andi?" Clare's voice sounded thick and quietly alarmed.
Andi rocked Sean in her arms, trying to soothe him back to sleep. "Yes, honey?"
"Andi?" Clare said again.
She turned and looked at the bed, where Clare had the comforter pulled up to her chin, hair mussed and eyes wild with some indefinable emotion. Andi set Sean back in the bassinet, amazed that he was already drifting off again.
"Are you okay, Clare?"
Clare's eyes went wide and she started breathing heavily, grabbing at her chest with both hands. "Something's wrong."
Andi moved back to the bed and settled beside her. "What's going on? Is it your head?" She tried not to show her panic. There was something very odd about the way Clare was acting, but she couldn't put her finger on it.
"I can't hear anything. God, Andi, I can't hear you at all."
"Fucking thing," Andi muttered. She held her cell phone in the air slightly above her line of sight and completed a third circuit around the room. No matter where she stood, she couldn't get even one measly bar. She turned and pointed at the phone, meeting Clare's frightened gaze. "No signal," she said in a loud voice.
Clare nodded. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her fingers picked at the comforter nervously. From what Andi could gather, she was almost completely deaf. They needed a doctor, and fast.
Andi was trying to keep her cool for Clare's sake, but inside, she was reeling. Between the weather, her bad dream, and Clare's injuries, she was afraid of what else the night would bring. Outside, it continued to snow heavily. Even if she could get a signal, she wasn't certain that she would be able to get them to a doctor - - or that a doctor could come to them.
But she had to try.
She sat next to Clare and gathered her in her arms. "I'm going to go find a house phone. Surely they have one." When she got no response, Andi pulled back so Clare could see her lips. "I'm going to look for a phone. Maybe at the front desk?"
Clare shook her head, chin trembling. "I… I don't understand."
Of course she didn't. She'd only been deaf for an hour, tops. Not nearly enough time to learn to read lips.
"I'm sorry," Andi said. She opened up the drawer in her nightstand and rummaged around inside. To her great relief, she found a pen and a pad of paper. She didn't want to leave the room without making Clare understand exactly why she would do such a thing at a time like this. Waving her find in the air, she flashed Clare a reassuring smile. "This'll help."
Clare gave her a weary little smile. "Great."
Andi opened up to the first page and uncapped the pen. I need to find a phone so we can call a doctor.
Clare snatched the pen from her and scribbled furiously. We can't go back out in this weather. We can call tomorrow.
Andi shook her head. This is serious, honey. You can't hear anything. Your head was bleeding. You're hurt.
Clare sighed deeply. My headache isn't as bad anymore.
Liar, Andi wrote, and smiled over at her partner.
Taking the pen, Clare wrote, Where will you get a phone?
They must have one here. I'll look at the front desk. Andi shrugged. Or I'll find the woman who runs the place. Maybe she knows a doctor.
I want to come with you, Clare scribbled. Don't want to be alone.
Andi glanced at the bassinet. Sean slept soundly, curled up with his blanket. She wasn't sure she felt comfortable having the three of them tromp up and down the stairs with Clare in this condition. Knowing it would upset her, but not knowing what else to do, she put pen to paper again. You should stay here with Sean. I don't want to wake him up again.
Clare bit her lip, and a fresh tear tracked its way down her cheek.
You'll be fine, Andi continued. I'll only be gone a couple minutes.
Clare continued to cry quietly, and turned her gaze away. Andi touched her face, then offered her the pen. Finally, Clare turned to the next page and scribbled another message.
That made two of them. Andi took the pen and paper from Clare's hands and laid them on the bed. Then she gathered her partner into her arms. "I love you," she whispered. Clare wouldn't hear her, but she knew she would understand. "Everything is going to be okay."
Clare clung to her as if desperate to keep her from leaving. It tore Andi up inside to even think of pulling away, if only for a few minutes, but it had to be done. They needed help.
Andi drew back and looked Clare in the eyes. She had a flash of inspiration and picked up the paper. I'll take the baby monitor with me. If you need something, just call out. I'll come right back.
Though she looked skeptical, Clare gave her a slow nod. "Okay."
Sighing in relief, Andi rifled through Sean's diaper bag until she found his monitor. Thank God they'd thought to pack it. She handed Clare the transmitter, and kept the receiver for herself.
"If you need me - - " Andi said, and waggled the receiver in the air.
Clare switched hers on. "Hurry."
Andi stood, eager to leave before she could change her mind. First she would check the front desk. If she couldn't find a phone there, she would start knocking on doors until she found the owner. At the bedroom door, she turned and held up two fingers. "Just a couple minutes. Then I'll be right back."
Clare scooted up the bed until her back pressed against the headboard. She held the transmitter in both hands, looking pale as a ghost. "Hurry," she said again.
Andi gave her a brave smile, then walked out the door. She locked it behind her.
The Bella Luna was silent, save for the wind whistling outside its cozy walls. Andi moved into the hallway swiftly, making it all the way to the top of the stairs before a wave of apprehension rolled over her. It hit her square in the stomach, more of that terrible pain. Sweat beaded on her forehead, liquid fear. She looked around, almost expecting to see the shadow man lurking behind her.
But that was ridiculous. It had just been a stupid dream.
She sucked it up and kept going. There was no time for her to hesitate. No matter how much she hated wandering around alone right now, she sure as hell didn't want her partner and son locked up in their room without her any longer than they needed to be.
The stairs creaked as she descended them. She didn't remember them being so noisy on their way up, but then she wasn't paying attention to anything other than her own exhaustion. Now she was anything but tired. Every time she put her foot down and the floor groaned beneath her weight, her heart pumped harder. By the time she reached the bottom of the staircase, she was sure it was going to come crashing out of her chest.
In the main room, everything looked just as it had earlier. The lamp still glowed on the front desk, and the sitting room beyond lay in shadow. Andi tried to ignore the dark shape of the loveseat, sinister and lurking. She took a deep breath and walked to the front desk.
A shadowy figure moved in the sitting room.
Andi yelped and leapt backwards. She turned to race back up the stairs when she realized that the figure did the same. The mirror. Facing the desk again, she squinted at the far wall and made out her own reflection staring back at her.
"I'm an idiot," she muttered.
She moved behind the desk, disappointed to find that there was no phone sitting within view. She opened drawers, looked under the chair, and turned in a circle searching the floor for the tell - tale trail of a phone cord. Nothing.
There had to be a phone in this place. Probably in the old woman's room. Andi sighed. She hoped she wouldn't scare the poor lady to death, waking her up in the middle of the night.
She decided to start her search on the first floor. Andi gathered her nerves, then stepped into the sitting room. She let her eyes adjust to the murky light, until she spotted another lamp sitting on a table next to the loveseat. She made her way over to it, careful not to bump into the coffee table in the middle of the room, and fumbled with the switch.
She reached around the base of the lamp and grasped the cord, tugging gently. It didn't feel plugged in. If she got down on her knees and felt around the walls, maybe she could find an outlet.
A noise came from the receiver clipped to her pocket. It sounded like a quiet sigh from Clare, but it was enough to make her drop the power cord. She turned and forged deeper into the dark room. Forget the lamp. She needed to get back upstairs as quickly as possible.
She searched the whole room for some hint of a telephone, but found nothing. There was a door on the far wall, away from the soft light that spilled across the carpet from the lamp on the front desk. The door was closed, but Andi didn't see a keyhole to suggest that it was locked. She hesitated, unsure that the owner would stay in a room she couldn't secure. Maybe she shouldn't even knock. There were plenty of rooms upstairs, and there was a good chance that one belonged to the old woman.
But she was down here already. It wouldn't hurt to try. And Andi wasn't certain that her skepticism about this particular door didn't have something to do with how freaked out she was. As much as she'd love to dash back upstairs right then and there, she couldn't leave any stone unturned.
Instead, she lifted her hand and knocked gently at the closed door. "Hello?" she called out in a quiet voice. If the woman were in there, she didn't want to frighten her. "Ma'am? I need some help."
Andi knocked again. "Hello? Do you have a phone I could use?"
Silence. Then, the door creaked open. Four or five inches - - just enough for Andi to see the outline of a bed inside, but not enough for her to determine whether it was occupied. The moonlight streamed into the bedroom through a window that she couldn't see, and lit the corner of the bed and a strip of carpet.
Andi switched the receiver from one hand to the other so she could wipe her sweaty palm on her pajama bottoms. She exhaled steadily. The most important thing was to stay calm. Poking her head inside the door, she strained to get a better look.
The bed was in the middle of the room, covered by a familiar - looking down comforter. It was stretched haphazardly across the mattress, and it looked like someone or something was beneath it. A large lump, unmoving.
Maybe the old woman.
"Excuse me?" Andi kept her voice a whisper, nervous that she was disturbing another guest. She kept her eyes on the shape beneath the blankets, scanning for any sign of life. "I need to call a doctor."
Nothing. The shape didn't move.
Andi swallowed. She could walk in there and investigate, or she could turn around and try the rooms upstairs. If that were the owner beneath the covers, surely she would have responded by now.
Unless she was hard of hearing.
Staring hard at the motionless lump beneath the comforter, she opened her mouth to call out one last time when her receiver made a loud noise. Startled, she dropped it to the floor and yelped. A moment of heart - pounding terror, then she realized that the sound was Sean. Just a random vocalization, a single, solitary cry in the night. It didn't mean he was awake. He was probably just dreaming.
She sighed and bent to pick up the receiver, keeping her gaze on the interior of the room. If someone were in there, no doubt that would have woken them.
The shape in the bed didn't move. But as her gaze slid across the swath of light that painted the carpet at the foot of the bed, a shadow bisected it, moving fast.
Andi stopped breathing. She didn't move. The shadow disappeared, and once again the beam of light shone upon the floor, undisturbed. There was no sound from the bedroom, no indication of what was inside.
Clutched tightly in her hand, the receiver released a burst of static. Andi fell back from her crouch and landed on her ass, almost wetting herself with the abject horror of it all. She fiddled with the volume knob on the plastic handset, terrified of being discovered by whatever was lurking inside that room.
As if in answer to her prayers, the static ceased. But a moment later, a slow, distorted voice came over the speaker. A male voice, the words clear as day.
"Is the baby breathing?"
Without a second thought, Andi got to her feet and took off running.
Their bedroom door was locked. Panting loudly, Andi tried the knob again dumbly, not registering this simple fact. Someone was in there. And the door was still locked, just as she'd left it.
For a few seconds, she didn't know what to do. Then she dug in her pajama bottoms frantically, praying that she hadn't lost the key when she'd fallen downstairs. She nearly cried in relief when she found it in her pocket. It was a struggle to fit the key into the keyhole and unlock it, but finally she managed and she threw open the door with a sob of panic.
She saw Clare on the bed, still sitting against the bed frame. She saw how she turned to watch her blustery entrance with wide eyes. There was nobody in the room with them. Andi ran to the bassinet, queasy with fright, and put a hand on their son's neck.
He was fine.
His skin was pink and healthy, and warm, and his lungs expanded and contracted with deep, even breaths. He seemed absolutely fine.
Unable to resist, Andi stroked his cheek until he opened his eyes sleepily, gazed into her face, then fell back asleep with a small smile.
It was only then that Andi felt the tears streaming down her face. Her stomach unclenched slightly, and her legs turned to jelly. She sank onto the floor as she recovered from the near certainty that their son was injured or dead.
A gentle hand landed on her back, and Andi cried out in shock.
"Honey?" Clare said loudly.
She willed her heartbeat back to normal, and tried to pull it together as she looked at her partner. "Was someone in here?"
Clare shook her head in confusion, then got up for the pen and paper. She brought it over and turned to a blank page. What's wrong?
Andi's hand shook as she wrote. Was someone in here? I heard a voice.
She knew the answer by the way Clare's brow furrowed. No. The door was locked. Just me and Sean.
Andi knew better than to ask if she heard him cry out. She frowned.
Did you find a phone?
Andi shook her head. "No." She grabbed the pen. We need to leave. Now.
Clare glanced out the window, gestured at the falling snow.
"I know," Andi said aloud. Then she wrote, This place isn't right. We need a doctor. I'll drive slow.
Clare hesitated, biting her lip, then nodded. "Okay."
She was relieved that Clare wasn't going to argue about it. She didn't want to upset her, but Andi was thoroughly terrified of staying in the Bella Luna even one minute more than necessary. The voice over the receiver had been real. She was sure of it. Clare may not have seen anybody in the room with them, but there was something very real and very sinister in the house.
"Come on," Andi said, and stood so that Clare would understand her intention. She offered her hand and helped Clare stand, then walked to their bag to start tossing their loose articles inside.
Andi glanced over her shoulder and gasped when she saw Clare sprawled on the ground. She'd fallen, and had one hand pressed to her forehead as she struggled to regain her footing.
"My God, Clare," Andi said, and rushed to her side. "Honey, are you okay?"
Clare shook her head, but Andi wasn't sure if she was telling her no or trying to clear her thoughts. Her brown eyes swam with confusion. "Andi?"
"Sweetheart, can you stand up?" Andi offered her arm, and Clare leaned on her heavily as she helped her to her feet again.
"I don't feel good."
They had to get out of the house. Now.
Andi half - carried Clare to the bed and sat her down. Then she scrambled for their pad of paper. I'm taking our stuff to the car. Stay here. Clare shook her head again, but Andi kept writing. I can't carry our bags, Sean, and help you at the same time. I need to make two trips. When Clare looked as if she were going to protest, Andi scribbled, You're not well enough to walk without help.
Andi saw the surrender in Clare's eyes. "Thank you," she whispered to her partner.
She grabbed her shoes and tied them as fast as she could. Then she struggled into her coat, and gathered their bags. She would strap Sean into his car seat once she got back to the room. She hated not to take him with her, but she refused to leave him in the car so she could come back for Clare. Slinging his diaper bag over her shoulder, she hurried to the door.
Clare was half - lying on the bed. Her dark skin was impossibly sallow. "I'll wait," she said weakly.
Tears pricked at Andi's eyes. "I'll come back for you guys in just a second." She hurried out of the room before she could second - guess herself, and locked them up tight.
I should leave money.
An absurd thought at a moment like this, but as she sprinted past the front desk, Andi decided that she couldn't take off without paying the woman. They hadn't even talked about a rate, she realized, so she rummaged through her bag until she found a wad of bills. She threw a few of them on the desk, she had no idea how much it was, and kept moving to the front door.
When she flung open it open, a freezing blast of winter took her breath away. It cut through her thick, warm jacket like it was nothing at all, chilling her instantly. Andi stopped short, gasping. As soon as she got her wind back, she plunged into the wintery night, shuffling across the slick pavement of the porch in a clumsy run.
She made it to the bottom of the porch steps and down the icy walkway without falling and breaking her neck, then rounded the corner of the house. Her mouth dropped open at the sight that greeted her. A mangled, smoking piece of wreckage in the Bella Luna's driveway. It was a car. She took a step closer, then realized that it was their car.
The black 2001 Subaru Outback they'd rented from Hertz at the airport, now twisted and smoldering right where Clare had parked it. Andi was struck dumb by the sight, unable to comprehend what it could possibly mean. There was nothing else near it, not another vehicle, not even disturbed snow.
"What the hell?" Andi whispered.
Nothing about this made sense, but her mind managed to process one cold, hard fact. They weren't going anywhere.
Andi was so busy gaping at their car that she didn't see the body in the driver's seat until it twitched, sudden movement in an otherwise deathly still tableau. "Oh my God," she said, and ran to the driver's side door. When she looked through the shattered window, a wave of stark agony hit her, wrenching a tortured moan from her throat.
Clare sat behind the wheel, body slumped to the side, head slick with fresh blood. Her seatbelt was still engaged, and her chest moved erratically beneath it as if she were struggling for air. As Andi watched in horror, Clare rolled her head to the side and stared out the window with sightless eyes.
"Help," she croaked, barely audible over the sound of the wind. "My baby."
"No," Andi moaned. She grabbed the door handle and pulled. It was stuck. Then she ran to the rear driver's side door and tugged at it frantically. The metal was crunched inward, making it impossible for her to yank it open. Stomach in her throat, she pressed her face to the window and peered inside.
Sean was strapped into his rear - facing car seat. His face was turned away from her, but she could see that his eyes were closed and his arm was bent at an unnatural angle. His head was bleeding.
He looked dead.
Andi took a step away from the car, turned her head, and vomited on the ground.
Her whole world threatened to collapse in on her. Everything she loved in life was in this metal wreckage. Her partner and their son. Everything. She dropped to her knees in the snow and began to sob.
But as quickly as she started, she stopped.
It couldn't be real. She just left Clare and Sean in their room, safe and sound. There was no way they could have gotten out here before her. And there was no way something could have demolished their car like that without leaving even a trace of its presence. Andi lifted her head and met Clare's eyes through the driver's window.
She wouldn't believe it. She refused to believe it.
Maybe she was crazy, but Andi wouldn't accept it until she went back upstairs and found their room empty. Until that moment, she would tell herself that this was just another bad dream. It was impossible.
Gathering her strength, Andi got to her feet. It took everything she had to leave Clare and Sean in there, but she turned back to the house. As she jogged up to the porch, she heard Clare's tormented voice behind her.
"Andi, help us. Please. Please."
Hoping like hell that she still knew what was real anymore, Andi ran back inside the Bella Luna.
The door to their room was still locked. She fumbled with the key for heart - stopping seconds, unable to make her hands work. Then the door burst open on its own, and she caught Clare in her arms as she tumbled out into the hallway.
Andi held on tight. Clare. In one piece, breathing, alive, not trapped inside their rental car. "Oh, thank God," she murmured, and hugged her close.
Then she realized that Clare was sobbing, in hysterics.
Dread skittered up her spine. "Clare?"
"Did you see it?" Clare yelled. She tried to pull away, but it seemed she could barely stand. "I couldn't stop it."
"Clare!" Andi shouted, even though she knew she couldn't hear. She held on tight, unwilling to let her get away. "Slow down and tell me what you're talking about."
Clare grunted as she fought Andi's hold. She seemed to have regained some of her strength, despite her trouble staying on her feet, and she put up a vicious fight. But there was no way she would let Clare go. She didn't want to let her out of her sight. It took everything Andi had to wrestle her back into their room.
Clare stumbled toward the bed, then cried out and collapsed onto her knees. She was taking big, gulping breaths, almost as if she were having a panic attack. "It took him. I couldn't stop it. God, it's all my fault. I tried, but I… couldn't - - "
Andi felt her bile threaten to rise again. Almost as if in slow - motion, she walked to Sean's bassinet and looked inside.
He was gone.
The soft blanket still remained, and the imprint of his little body on the sheets. Andi took a step backwards and pivoted numbly, looking all around their room. There was no trace of their son.
Everything seemed to speed up. No longer in slow - motion, Andi raced to Clare's side. Her heart thumped crazily, feeling as if it had relocated to her throat, and her head swam. "Clare! Who took him? What happened?"
"At first I thought it was you." She cried harder, buried her face in her arms. "It wasn't real. It couldn't be real."
"Clare," Andi shouted, and tried to shake her to attention. "Clare, tell me what happened!"
Nothing. Clare was beyond the ability to communicate. Andi fought a wave of frustration. If something had taken Sean, they needed to go find him immediately. But unless she wanted to waste time on a blind search, she would need to know whatever Clare had seen. She stood and ran to their pen and paper.
Andi grabbed the pad and flipped to what she expected would be the next blank page. It was filled with writing. She turned to the page after that. Again she found line after line of neatly printed manuscript. She raised the pad and studied the single sentence that had been meticulously written over and over again.
He isn't breathing.
Frantic, Andi flipped to the next page, then the next. She kept going to the very end. He isn't breathing. The phrase filled every square inch of every last page.
She went back to Clare. Kneeling beside her, she grabbed her chin in one hand and forced her to look at the pad of paper. "Who wrote this?" She watched Clare's eyes open wide as she read. Shaking Clare as gently she could, she waited until she met her gaze before enunciating. "What happened?"
"It was like a shadow," Clare said. Her sobs had subsided, and now she spoke in a thick, dreamy voice. "I know it sounds crazy. Maybe I am crazy. But this… this shadow was here, and it took Sean. I couldn't move. My legs wouldn't work right."
Andi looked back at the door, which stood ajar. As if sensing the unspoken question, Clare said, "I don't know how it got in. It was just… in here. Then it was… gone. It left right before you came back. Did you see it?"
Andi shook her head and met Clare's gaze. "No." She had seen their rental car in ruin, though. Sean in the backseat. She had to find him. Nothing was as it seemed in this place, but she knew that Sean was in great danger.
Andi grabbed Clare's hand and tried to pull her to her feet. It was like lifting dead weight. She couldn't seem to get her legs beneath her, and her whole body was limp.
"Come on!" Andi shouted. "We've got to get Sean back!"
"Stop yelling at me. I can hear you."
She could? Andi wondered at this turn of events. "Then get up. We need to go."
"I can't. Go without me." Clare sagged and fell back onto the carpet. "Go find Sean."
"Stand up, goddamn it." Andi kept on tugging at Clare's arm, desperate to make her join in the search. "I'm not leaving you here."
Clare jerked her arm away and glared up at her. Behind the anger in her eyes, Andi could see deep, dark fear. It mirrored the terror in her own heart.
"My legs aren't working right," Clare snapped. "Stop wasting time on me. Sean needs you."
My legs aren't working right. Andi was torn between deep concern for Clare and an almost hysterical need to find their son. But she knew Clare was correct. Sean needed her. She sank to the floor beside Clare and gathered her in a tight embrace.
"I'll come back for you. I'll be right back."
"Just find him," Clare said. "This is all my fault. I should have… Go find him. Find him, please! Just go!"
Andi tightened her arms. "It's not your fault," she whispered into Clare's ear. The words were futile, unheard, but she needed to say them. "We'll get him back."
Then she got to her feet and ran like hell.
This time there was absolutely no caution or quiet in Andi's search. If there were other guests at the Bella Luna, she wanted them awake. She wanted every living being in the place looking for their little boy.
"Hey!" Andi shouted as she pounded on the closed door next to theirs. It was labeled Lovecraft Suite. "I'm looking for my son!" She jerked the doorknob, frustrated to find the room locked. She banged her hand against the wood until her knuckles hurt. "We need help! Our son is missing!"
Grunting in disgust, Andi moved to the next room. The Freeling Suite. She knocked on the door hard, and when she got no response, she tried the knob.
It swung open immediately.
Andi felt around on the wall for a light switch. It seemed to take forever to find it, and when she finally did, she wasn't surprised that it didn't work. She took a step into the room and let her eyes adjust to the darkness.
What she saw was impossible. She felt the blood drain from her face, and she sagged against the wall for support.
She was standing in Sean's nursery.
Out here in the middle of nowhere, Maine, was the room she and Clare had worked so hard to create for their unborn son. The room they had been calling "the baby's crib" since the day they bought their Santa Rosa home, that they'd painted and decorated by hand, every bit of work their own as a promise of their devotion to the child that grew in her belly. The same green stripes on the wall, the same crib and changing table, even the plush jungle animals they had put on every unadorned surface they could find.
"How?" she murmured, and walked to the crib. She could already see that it was empty, but she found herself unable to leave the room and continue her search. She needed to look closer.
It was his nursery, but it wasn't. It didn't smell the same. There was no trace of his baby - scent. Andi rested her hand on the side of the crib, blinking when she touched solid wood. It was real. Then she realized that the crib was covered with a thick layer of dust, and pulled her hand away.
The dust stuck to her fingers. She brushed her hand off on the seat of her pants, shivering. Something about the feel of it clinging to her skin made her sick to her stomach. She turned, running her gaze over his diaper pail, then the changing table.
Which was also covered in dust.
Andi walked to the table and ran her finger along the edge. The wood was grimy with disuse. She stood a moment, overwhelmed by a wave of sadness that hit her for no reason she could identify. It crippled her. She forgot everything - - where she was and what she was doing - - and simply bent at the waist, whimpering from the physical pain of her sorrow.
She felt the world slipping away from her again, just like it had earlier in bed when the shadow man touched her. She could almost feel his cold fingers on her now, sensed his dark presence in the nursery with her. This time, instead of letting the sensation frighten her, she opened herself to the numbness it brought. Letting go seemed so much easier than fighting.
The cry penetrated her foggy brain, and she felt the shadow man loosen his hold. She tilted her head, listening to Clare's frightened voice coming from their room down the hall.
"Andi! Did you find him?"
She opened her mouth, but couldn't answer. Her tongue was thick and clumsy. And there was something wrong with her vocal chords; she wasn't able to control them to produce the words she strained to say. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
Something's wrong, Clare. I'm scared. I don't understand what's happening.
"Andi, please! Answer me!"
There was terror in Clare's voice. It quickened Andi's heartbeat and she struggled against the paralyzing force that held her prisoner. And just like that, it released her.
"I'm here, Clare!" she shouted. She turned and strode to the door, refusing to let her gaze wander around the room as she went. This didn't mean anything. It was an illusion. It had to be. She stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her. "I'll get him. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Clare answered. Her words were clipped, the pain obvious in her voice. "Just call out when you find him, okay?"
"Sure thing," Andi said.
She moved to the last room in the hallway. Knocking hard, she waited a moment and when nobody answered, tugged on the doorknob. The door came open easily, and the light switch even worked. This room was completely empty, and from the faint smell that tickled her nostrils, she could tell that it was freshly painted. She stepped inside and pivoted once to look at the bare walls, the empty closet that stood open, the curtainless windows.
He wasn't in there.
Refusing to dwell on the disappointment, Andi jogged back into the hallway, then down the stairs. She was familiar with the lower level now, and conducted a quick search of the front closet, the owner's desk, and the dark sitting room. She bypassed the bedroom earlier she had left open earlier in favor of exploring what one last room that she guessed should be the kitchen.
To her surprise, she was right. Just a kitchen, nothing more. Simple, well - stocked, with a table and four chairs, a refrigerator, and a stove. There was a big glass window over the sink, covered by flimsy white curtains, through which she could see the snowy night. She didn't test out the light, nervous about making herself visible to whatever might be outside. The glass - paned door next to the pantry, while offering modest protection against the elements, made her feel vulnerable.
As she turned to return to the sitting room, she caught a glimpse of a shadow from the corner of her eye. The shape of a man, visible through the window above the sink. On her second look, it was gone. Andi shivered and slunk back into the sitting room.
The bedroom door, still ajar from her earlier trip downstairs, taunted Andi. She knew she had to go inside to look for Sean, but she was terrified of what she would find. The shadow man had been in there earlier. But their son could be in there now.
It was that thought that injected her with courage. Andi strode to the door and pushed it open. She didn't bother with the light switch this time, and stepped inside without saying a word. The lump beneath the comforters was still there. Slightly surprising, Andi thought, and terrifying, but she was determined to follow through with her investigation this time.
Whatever it took to get Sean back.
She strode to the nightstand and turned the knob on the lamp. Nothing. Andi took a quick, paranoid look around the room. None of the shadows looked untoward, and she saw no sign of movement. Gathering her courage, she grasped the edge of the down comforter and peeled it back to expose what was hidden underneath.
The moonlight shone across the bed just right so that the corpse's face was illuminated as soon as she uncovered it. Her heart crashed to a halt in her chest, taking her breath away. She was staring at her own dead body. She threw back the blankets, revealing it to the upper thighs. She recognized the blue jeans, her favorite pair. The very ones she'd put on that morning at Clare's parents' house.
Andi let her gaze stray back to the face. It was strange to look into her own sightless eyes. She studied her expression, stiff in rigor mortis and full of anguish. She couldn't determine the exact cause of death, but her double was covered in drying blood and purple bruises.
Andi tore her attention away from the body - - she had to think of it as the body so she wouldn't think of it as herself - - and spotted a closet on the far wall next to the window. It was the only place she had left to search.
"He's - - "
She jumped at the sound of her own weak voice, coming from the not - so - dead body on the bed. Andi took a half - step backwards, then leaned closer so she could try to make out what it was saying. She didn't want to get too close, but she needed to know.
"He's… Sean… he's - - "
The body's eyes still stared vacantly at the ceiling, and it lay immobile on the bed. Andi perked up when she heard Sean's name. "He's what?" she whispered.
"He's - - "
Andi moved closer still. It was as if the voice was being played through the corpse. Not a muscle twitched. As she studied the thing's face, a stiff arm shot up and a cold, clammy hand grabbed onto her right wrist. Andi gasped and jerked away instinctively, but her double held on. Its grip tightened until she felt sure her bones would break.
"Oh," Andi whimpered in pain and fear. She tried to pull away. "No."
Its head whipped to the side, staring straight into her face, and its eyes seemed to regain focus. She watched it raise its rigid left arm, fingers crackling as it pointed at the window.
"He's out there!"
Andi followed her double's line of sight, and gasped when she saw the shadow man moving away from the Bella Luna. He seemed to float on top of the snow, and it appeared that he was cradling something in his arms.
"No," Andi whispered. She barely noticed when the body released its grip on her wrist. "No, it can't take him."
"Go!" her double shouted.
Andi didn't need to be told twice. She spun around and stumbled to the bedroom door. Without hesitation, she raced into the kitchen and yanked the door to the outside open, letting in a blast of frigid cold air. She didn't let it stop her. Tearing through the snow, she spotted the shadow man heading toward a stand of trees and concentrated on the ground she needed to make up.
She kept silent as she ran. She was afraid that if she shouted, the shadow man would speed up or disappear altogether. The very top of Sean's head was visible near the dark figure's left side, but her son wasn't making a sound. The snow was deep and it was hard to move fast, though the shadow man didn't seem to have the same problem. But then, he wasn't leaving any footprints.
Somehow she managed to close the distance between them. Thirty feet, twenty, then a scant ten feet separated her from the creature that had her son. Her lungs burned and her thighs were screaming. She almost expected the nebulous form to take on more detail as she approached, but it didn't. It was just a dark, man - like shape that didn't appear to be human in any way.
When she was about a foot away from it, Andi reached out and clapped her hand on its shoulder. Or at least she tried to. Her fingers passed through icy cold darkness, almost warmed by the winter night she found on the other side.
The impossibility of it all made her angry. "Hey!"
Shadow man turned, revealing Sean's sleeping form nestled against its front. It said nothing, and stood immobile. Andi closed the distance between them and reached for Sean.
"Give me my son back, you son of a bitch," she spat angrily. She touched Sean's leg, which was frighteningly cold, with one hand, and wrapped the other around his middle. Just as she was about to snatch him away, the shadow man laid its hand upon her arm.
Instantly, she went numb. She couldn't move a muscle, and dropped to her knees in the snow. Her vision became hazy and threatened to give out on her altogether. She kept her eyes on Sean's tiny body, trying to focus on what was important.
She couldn't let this thing win.
Andi struggled with everything she had, but couldn't break the shadow man's hold. It was like she was watching the entire scene - - the snowy night, the dark sky, Sean and the shadow man - - float further and further away. Another minute more, and she knew she would lose track of everything, surrender completely.
An almost inhuman snarl interrupted their silent stand - off, and Andi saw something charge at the shadow and somehow, impossibly, make contact. The shadow man released his grip on Andi's arm as he was knocked backwards.
She regained her strength instantly and lunged upward, grabbing for Sean. She caught his arm and torso, then pulled him to her chest into a close hug. For terrifying moments, he was deathly still, then he tipped back his head and began crying, full, throaty sobs.
Andi fell to her knees cradling him, then collapsed onto her back. Her strength left her, and while she no longer felt the paralysis of the shadow man's touch, she did feel like she had been broken into a million pieces. Her whole body ached. Searching with her eyes, she spotted Clare lying on her back in the snow where the shadow man had been standing. Clare's eyelids fluttered and her chest heaved with labored breathing, but other than that, she wasn't moving.
"Clare," Andi sobbed, and held Sean even closer. "Clare, are you all right?"
No answer, no sign of movement. Tears of helpless frustration rolled down Andi's cheeks. With her last bit of effort, she managed to crawl through the snow until she rested at Clare's side. She put her hand on Clare's neck, worried about the weak threadiness of her pulse.
A long shadow fell over their bodies, and Sean cried harder. Andi looked up at the dark figure that stood over them, watching silently. Rage burned through her when it seemed to reach out to Clare, as if to touch her. Andi wasn't about to let it get hold of her partner.
"Back the fuck off!" she shouted up at the shadow man, and kicked out at it weakly. "Just leave us alone!" When it kept moving closer, she shifted so she could shield both Clare and Sean with her body. "Leave us alone!"
Andi didn't understand what happened next. One moment she was shifting her gaze between Clare and the shadow, and in the next, she was sprawled out on the cold ground on her back. Terror swept through her as the extent of her helplessness sank in. She was incapable of standing, and even if she could, there was nowhere safe for her to go. The pain in her body kept getting worse, until it was so intense it made her vision blur. She looked up at the sky, desperately afraid.
A shadow blocked the moon, the outline of a head hovering above them.
Andi blinked and tried to scream, but no sound came out. She just clung to Sean, determined not to let him go again. The head didn't move any closer, but the moon around it grew brighter, until it was so blinding that it filled the sky and she had to squint up at the unbearable brightness.
The voice confused her. It seemed to be coming from the shadow, which was now just an indistinct blur against the too - white sky. But it didn't sound right. It was too loud, distorted. She could hear Sean still crying, but he seemed far away. Andi tried to shift her arms so she could make sure she was still holding him, but it was as though they were filled with lead. She couldn't move them at all.
"Andrea, can you hear me?"
A raspy croak filled her ears. She recognized that it was her own voice only when she managed to say, "Yeah."
The shadow moved, and more of the bright light was blocked by the outline of its head. She heard a machine beeping in the background, some kind of hissing noise, the chaos of shouting voices from all directions. Gradually she began to distinguish the light from the white ceiling tiles that surrounded it.
"My name is Dr. Morgan, and you're in the Beaumont Hospital ER. You've been in an accident. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Tears pricked at Andi's eyes. She was totally confused, and with effort, she managed to turn her head to the side. On a table to her left, a group of doctors surrounded a tiny body, all bent close, speaking to each other in rapid - fire phrases she couldn't make out.
"What happened?" Andi asked thickly. She remembered the Bella Luna. She remembered the shadow man. She remembered Clare being hurt and Sean being taken. But she didn't remember an accident.
"It sounds like you lost control of your car and smashed into a tree. The roads are pretty nasty tonight. Andrea, you're going to be just fine."
When had they gotten in a car? She couldn't remember anything past lying helpless in the snowy field behind the Bella Luna. She forced a question past the lump in her throat.
"Is that your baby?" the doctor asked. "His name is Sean?"
"They're working on him. He gave us a bit of a scare right before you woke up, but then you've given us a couple of scares, yourself. You're going to be fine. You're a fighter."
"Will he be okay?"
The doctor's face came into focus. He was handsome, probably in his early forties, and he gave her a tender smile as a nurse hooked something to the IV in her arm. "I think he's going to be just fine."
Andi blinked rapidly as relief flooded through her body. It was short - lived, however. "And Clare?"
The doctor's smile faltered almost imperceptibly. She could tell he was well - trained to keep a straight face, but she was able to detect the slightest tightening of his facial muscles.
"Clare's been hurt pretty badly. They're stabilizing her now."
The tears that had been threatening to spill did so then, rolling down her cheeks and snaking their way down into the crease of her neck. The dampness bothered her, but she couldn't muster the energy to raise her aching arm so she could wipe it dry.
"Can I see her?"
The doctor shook his head. "I'm afraid not yet. She's still in surgery. I'm not sure when she'll wake up."
Andi felt a wave of exhaustion roll over her, and her eyelids grew heavy. She stared up at the doctor, trying to convey her desperation with her gaze.
"Come tell me as soon as she does."
The doctor placed a cool hand on her forehead. "Just relax, Andrea. Just close your eyes and relax."
Andi surrendered to the darkness.
The next time Andi woke up, she was resting on her back in a vaguely uncomfortable hospital bed. Her head was turned to the side, and she was staring at a baby cradle that was set up between her bed and the wall. Sean was inside, sleeping. She could see that his tiny arm was bandaged in a cast. But his chest rose and fell with deep, regular breaths and his color looked good.
With some effort, she turned her head to the other side. She forgot about the pain in her neck when she saw who was in the bed next to hers. Clare was hooked to a number of machines that were beeping in regular rhythm, and she looked like hell. Her head was bandaged, and a little of her hair had been shaved away from her wounds. Her eyes were closed and her mouth hung open slightly.
"Clare?" Andi whispered.
She tried again. "Clare, honey? Please wake up."
Clare didn't move, didn't respond to her voice at all. Andi's stomach lurched with anxiety. She stared at Clare's closed eyes, noting the way her eyelids twitched as though she were dreaming. She hung onto that small sign of life. Clare had to be okay. There was no other option.
She had to have been staring at Clare for almost two hours when all of a sudden her eyelids stopped twitching, and then they shot open. Clare stared across the gap between the beds at her, looking thoroughly confused by their surroundings.
Andi forced a reassuring smile, even though it hurt her battered face to do so. "Clare, it's okay." She felt weak with relief, but still nervous that waking didn't mean that Clare was all right.
"Did we get him back?"
Andi swallowed at the urgent question. She flashed on the Bella Luna again, the menacing figure who took Sean, and the sight of someone tackling it to the ground. "What?"
"From the shadow creature. It was all my fault."
Andi's blood ran cold. She had been prepared to chalk it up to a trauma - induced dream. But she didn't understand how she could share that dream with Clare. She let go of that thought, though, because the important thing was that they had. "Yeah, sweetheart. We got him back. He's okay. And it wasn't your fault."
"I let it take him away from us."
"No, you didn't," Andi said. "We got him back. Both of us. And he's going to be fine."
Clare seemed to struggle to give her even a weak nod. She closed her eyes and Andi could hear her fading out again. "I wanted to let it take me instead."
Andi felt a growing lump in her throat. "I wasn't going to let that happen," she whispered as Clare slipped back into her deep sleep. She shifted in bed, prepared to continue her restless watch over her partner's slumber. "It wasn't going to take any of us."