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FIERY TORNADO OF DOOM
"By the suits and ties of Tim Gunn, I swear I will hunt you down and eat you for breakfast."
Above me, the flock of birds took off in a riot of indignant squawks while I sat horrified and covered in bird shit.
At least, I thought it was bird shit. I dabbed at my cheek with a hunk of rock moss, though a closer examination revealed nothing resembling feces, avian or otherwise. I briefly considered licking the moss to see if it was, in fact, bird urine-so I could be confident in my bird rage-but quickly ruled this out as totally insane. I sniffed cautiously at it instead, and it smelled pretty much like you'd expect: woodsy, and a bit like dirt.
"I'm sorry, birds!" I called after them, fully aware that I looked crazy. "That one was my bad."
They just honked at me irritably.
Well, I'd tried.
This part of the mountain was deserted; quiet except for the understandably irritated pigeons and a musical breeze, which was picking up into a full-on wind. My sketchbook whipped open, pages fluttering back and forth wildly. I slammed the cover shut and wrapped my arms around it to protect the design I'd been working on for the past three hours. Above me, the scattered cloud wisps from a moment ago multiplied dramatically, spilling like ink stains across the sky. The sudden weather change was weird, but I'd only been here two days-as far as I knew, storms popped up like this all the time. The thought of trudging back to the ranch in the rain ignited the acidy rage-fire in my stomach, but the safety of my art supplies was more important than not wanting to be anywhere near my aunt and uncle.
That's actually why I was out here-Rachel, in a seriously misguided attempt to be comforting, had gone into mom-mode and hugged me. I'd dodged her outstretched arms and escaped into the woods to let my gut-response anger simmer back down to a nonexplosive level. Figured it was better to have a meltdown in the middle of the forest than the middle of their living room. After a mile or two along what seemed more like a deer path than an actual trail, I'd found this gigantic rock and climbed up to sketch, paying little attention to the time or, apparently, the weather, which was beginning to spit a misty rain.
Up until two days ago, I'd lived by the ocean my entire life so the rain was nothing new, but the forest was. I was used to being home with my mom, in our town, on our street, wrapped up in our tiny little bubble of suburban normal. Or, well, normal enough, I guess, until my parents died. Separately, of course, from the usual sorts of things, nothing too dramatic. Just life, being a bitch. My dad's death was quick, mostly painless, but I was so young when it happened that I didn't really understand for a long time that he was gone, and he was never coming back. My mom's was more recent-dull by comparison-but by the end she couldn't even speak to me, and she never said good-bye.
That was four days ago.
But I couldn't think about that now. My basic survival strategy was to keep my mind as blank as possible. Eat, sleep, sketch, repeat.
A low rumble of thunder echoed through the mountains, which was my cue to leave. Getting down should have been simple: walk to the edge of the rock and slide down the upturned roots I'd easily climbed up earlier. Unfortunately, a creepy, dense fog was sifting through the evergreens, cutting off the sky, making it virtually impossible to see where I was going. I'd just groped my way to the edge of the boulder, cursing the whole way, when the misting rain sputtered into a hard, freezing downpour. Moments later, a flash of lightning and roll of skull-pounding thunder exploded so close I could feel the vibrations through my fingertips. Rather than illuminating my way, it made the forest feel like an ocean, deep and pressurized and terrifying.
I wasn't that far from my aunt and uncle's property, but the trail completely disappeared in the swirling fog. I couldn't see a damn thing, but some primal, gut instinct told me to move. Swinging the messenger bag across my shoulders, I turned, blindly feeling around for anything I could grab hold of. My foot found the nearest root from the overturned tree and I started down, panic making me move faster than was wise. Fumbling in the dark, I lost my foothold at the same moment my fingers tore right through the moss that was keeping me anchored to the boulder. I screamed and fell, still a good six feet off the ground-but didn't hit. Where the ground should have been there was instead someone's chest, which I crashed into, hard.
My momentum knocked us both into the prickly brambles, but before I could do much more than finish my scream, the stranger rolled, pinning me to the muddy ground. I started to scream again, but he (it was a he, I could tell that much) clapped his hand over my mouth, looking around quickly as if expecting someone else to be there. The wind rose, shrieking through the trees, whipping at my hair. Above us, another flash of lightning rocked the sky, followed by a bloom of orange light that looked suspiciously like fire. The clouds gathered slowly into a broad funnel.
So, unless I was hallucinating-which seemed more and more likely-we were in the direct path of a giant, fire-spitting tornado.
Which was totally insane, because upstate New York does not get fire-spitting tornadoes.
The temperature plummeted and the stranger's breath bloomed in heavy white clouds. When he finally looked back down at me (perhaps because my struggles had transitioned from "Hey, you're heavy, get off" to "Hey, there's a freaking fire-tornado behind you"), I could only stare at him, all my words forgotten.
Because there was something wrong with him. There was something very wrong.
His pupils were pinpricks and his irises were liquid, like molten silver. A glowing white light cast the rest of his face into complete shadow so I couldn't make out what he looked like.
He slid his hand from my mouth to my cheek, and placed his palm against my temple. I wanted to scream, to say something, to move, but the words were all caught in my throat and I couldn't remember my own name, let alone how to move my arms and legs.
He leaned in close-way, way too close-and whispered, "I'm sorry-there's no time."
And then the pain began.
All the warmth crept upward through my body, away from my fingers and toes, crawling through my knees and wrists on fiery pins and needles. It gathered in my chest and pounded up my throat and into my skull, pulsing behind my eyes.
I was going to explode. I was going to splatter all over the forest like lava, or shatter like ice. And all the while, I couldn't look away.
Then he muttered one final word and quite suddenly, it was over.
My head cleared instantly. I could blink, I could breathe. The pain was gone, but with it went my entire sense of self. On some deep, subconscious level I knew I was still real-I knew I had a name and a family and a purpose in life, aimless as it was-but surface-level me believed that I'd winked out of existence. I didn't think I was dead, exactly. I simply believed that I had never been.
Hunched over me, the stranger flinched, once, and shivered, but I didn't think it was from the cold. In fact, the pouring rain was steaming off his skin like he was burning hot. Above us, the night-black clouds pushed closer, crowding out the sky. Looking around, as if expecting once again for someone else-or something else-to be waiting in the shadows, he scooped me up effortlessly and sprinted off into the darkness. I tried to grab hold of his shoulder, but none of my limbs were working. I was weak, pure dead weight, but he had no problem hauling me at a full run through the impossibly dark trees.
It could only have been a few minutes later that my aunt and uncle's ranch appeared out of the darkness. At the end of the trail that led into the backyard, the stranger stopped for a moment and looked down at me, eyes flickering from gray to molten silver. I tried to look away, but it was too late. I was caught in the light.
It could only have been a moment, but when I opened my eyes, I had no idea who was holding me, or why I was in the rain, or why I was outside at all. All I knew was that I wanted to be warm, and I wanted very much to fall asleep. The man kicked urgently at the front door until it opened.
I remember my aunt yelling, "Caitlin!"
And then I passed out, and didn't remember a thing.
Copyright © 2015 by Temple West