Fearscape (Horrorscape #1) : chap 1
It was one of those days in late April when the weather wasn't quite sure whether it wanted to be hot or cold, and so settled for a cloudy, muggy hybrid of the two. In Derringer, California, this meant stifling humidity and a windchill that made people think twice about removing their sweaty jackets.
Out on the high school's track, Valerian Kimble had already made the conscious decision to knot hers around her waist. Sweat was dripping down her face, blurring her vision and making what was left of her makeup run. During meets like these, Val was immensely grateful that boys and girls trained separately.
Her eyes flicked to the bleachers where a few students sat reading or talking, or waiting for the football team to come out and start their practice. Most of the spectators weren't even spectating. Track wasn't a spectator sport, not really. If you weren't participating, it wasn't all that fun. Who wanted to watch a bunch of teenagers run in a circle, over and over?
One person did come to mind. But she wouldn't let herself think about that — not out here, with the wind in her hair, and the silvery light of a cloud-blocked sun shining bright in her eyes. This was no place for shadows.
“Looking sharp, Val!” Coach Freeman said, as she passed.
“Thanks,” Val panted. “How did I do?”
Coach Freeman looked at her stopwatch. “We're at seven minutes now. So I want to say six-forty? Why don't you go ahead and take ten.”
Sounds good to me. Val took a long drink from the fountain and then plopped down on the wooden benches in front of the bleachers. She was uncomfortably aware of her sweat-soaked shirt as the wind reasserted its presence. She untied her jacket and pulled it on, shivering a little as she pulled her hair out from behind the collar.
“You did good today, Val.” Lindsay Polanski sat down beside her with a loud sigh. “What did you get?”
Lindsay made a face. “Seven-ten.”
“That's still good. Better than most people. And didn't you get six-fifty last time?”
“Yeah — and my stupid boobs nearly murdered my back.”
“What's this about murder?” Rachel Lopez demanded, squeezing in on Lindsay's other side. “You guys planning something I ought to know about?”
“Breast reduction surgery,” said Lindsay.
“Oh, like when you forgot your sports bra?”
Lindsay glanced over to make sure the coach wasn't watching and then gave Rachel the finger.
Rachel grinned. “Well. I bet it did wonders for our ticket sales. I think you made a lot of fans out there in the bleachers that day. There was one guy staring so hard, I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel.”
“That is disgusting. Don't even joke about that.”
Like the shadows beneath the bleachers. Val shuddered.
They watched the other girls on their team finish up. Some were red-faced and had switched over to a brisk power walk. Coach Freeman didn't shout at them to “hurry it up now, or am I going to have to use a calendar to keep track of you?” the way Coach Able might have back in middle school, but Val suspected that most of those girls probably wouldn't be coming back next year, in any case. Track was all about survival of the fittest; if you didn't clock, you walked.
“Were you the first to finish?” Rachel asked curiously.
“Who? Me?” Val said. “No. There were, like, five others who lapped before I did.”
The last girl—a natural blonde with ruddy features, who was wheezing a little — finally finished and Coach Freeman stopped her timer. “All right, girls — that's it for today. Go ahead and dress down, and take the rest of the afternoon easy. You've earned it.”
The girls trundled like zombies, circling around the exercise gym and then cutting through the oak-shaded expanse where the skaters sometimes practiced their 180s on the concrete ramps. Juniper bushes surrounded the adobe-colored buildings, their thick, spiny foliage a magnet for spiderwebs, old leaves, and rodents. As she passed, the leaves rustled as some small creature wriggled its way through the tightly interlocked roots of the plant.
“I saw a rat in there once,” Lindsay said, following Val's gaze.
The face that peered out at them through the leaves wasn't murine, though, but feline. A small tabby kitten blinked large eyes at them and mewed piteously. Val dropped to her knees, unmindful of the dirt, old gum, and dead leaves. “Well, hello.” She wished she had some food.
“Rabies, Val,” Rachel warned her, shaking her head. “It's wild. The janitor is always chasing the mother away from the cafeteria dumpster. She's mean.”
“Forget it, Rach.” Lindsay sighed. “She's completely ga-ga. You know how she is.”
The kitten's hackles rose, and it puffed up like a little ball. It backed away from her outstretched hand, baring tiny fangs. Val lowered her hand back to her sneakers and waited. It was incredibly cute. She was pretty sure she'd seen the mother cat Rachel mentioned. Some boys had been throwing rocks at her. If she was mean, it was because she'd learned that she had to be, and not by choice.
“Bye, Val,” Rachel said, her voice distant now.
Val ignored her. “Come on, cutie. I won't hurt you.”
The kitten took a tentative step forward. Its paws were white, as if it had just walked through powdered snow.
“That's right. Come on. Look at you. Such a pretty kitty.”
A sound, probably an acorn falling from the oak, cracked through the silence like a gunshot. The kitten retreated into the bushes as fast as greased lightning, and did not come out.
The wind curled through the branches of the oaks, causing the leaves to rattle together, and a few more acorns fell, hitting the macadam with a sound like knuckles popping. Val jumped. She thought she saw something move from the corner of her eye; a sinister wisp of black, slipping soundlessly behind the gnarled trunk of one of the old trees. She caught her breath, looking around — and found herself alone.
“Weird,” she muttered to herself, taking another quick look around. The creepy sensation of being watched clung to her with a sticky tenacity as tangible as a spiderweb. She shivered and hurried toward the locker room, which had mostly emptied out now. With a final backwards glance, Val got to her feet and headed for the lockers. She stopped at the restroom first, though, to wash her hands — rabies, indeed. She splashed her neck and under her arms before returning to the locker room to change back into her regular clothes.
Lindsay and Rachel were on their way out when Val encountered them in the hallway. Lindsay was holding her car keys. Both of them grinned when they saw her. “Did kitten come out to play?” Rachel wanted to know.
“Almost. It was too scared.”
Lindsay chuckled. “You and your animals.”
“She is an animal,” Rachel said.
“Humans are animals, moron.”
“I know, that's what I was getting at.”
They shoved each other as they walked, Lindsay turning over her shoulder to wave and say, “See you tomorrow!”
“Right,” Val agreed.
And then she was alone. Her footsteps echoed as she walked across the stone floors — stone because it was easier to clean, she supposed — and past the rows of lockers which stood sentry like an army of metal gravestones. Combinations locks hung from each, silver with a red dial. The names of the lockers' respective owners were written on strips of peeling masking tape,
Val found more than just a lock ornamenting hers. Someone had left a single red rose sticking through the ventilation grates on the door. A card fluttered to the floor on paper as pale and weathered as a dead leaf as she cupped the head of the bloom in her palm. In an elegant hand that slanted rather violently to the left, someone had penned:
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Her fingers tightened around the stem and one of the thorns pierced her finger. A drop of blood soaked into the creamy paper, as if sealing it with an unspoken promise.
Who is this from?
And were they still here? Watching?
She thought of the black flash she'd seen out in the deserted courtyard, of the shadows she'd seen in the corner of her eye at school when she was alone. Or maybe not so alone, after all. Val bit her lip, opened the locker, and shoved her clothes into her backpack. There's nothing there. I'm taking these home, but there's nothing there.
A sound echoed somewhere close to the door. It could have been water rushing through the pipes, or it could have been a brush of movement against one of the lockers. She stepped backwards, hugging her backpack to her chest, and then she jumped as the icy metal of her own locker permeated the thin material of her track uniform like a cold finger running down her spine.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
Silence. Then she heard the sound again, softer this time, as though toying with her. She couldn't tell whether it was a figment of her imagination or real. She thought she might hear breathing. It was enough to make her explode out of the locker room, back into the concrete clearing. Very faintly, carried on the chill-touched wind, she swore she heard laughter.
No. She zipped her backpack shut with a rough jerk and raced out of the locker room on legs that were only slightly shaking. She threw the rose into the garbage. She felt bad for a moment — someone had spent money on that — but she shrugged off her guilt. It's their fault for spending money on such a stupid practical joke.
And if it wasn't a joke?
Then someone will own up to it, she decided. Maybe. She kept the note, just the same. She had no way of knowing that her actions were being monitored — and silently approved of. As Val walked to the parking lot where her mother was now waiting to pick her up a figure stepped out from behind one of the oaks. A long-fingered hand lifted the rose carefully from the trashcan, neatly severing the blossom from the stem with two fingernails, before secreting the flower away into the pocket of a black trench coat.
A white '77 Camaro came close to colliding with Mrs. Kimble's champagne-colored Honda Civic as she attempted to maneuver her car out of the school's parking lot. She laid on the horn, much to Val's embarrassment, as the old car raced past. “Idiot,” her mother said emphatically. “That poor car, getting abused like that. It won't last long with that driver.”
Val picked at her cuticles and said nothing, letting her mother rant. Which she did. At length. Until she remembered herself and asked, almost absently, “How was practice, Val?”
“Good,” said Val. “I beat my time from last week.”
“That's wonderful, honey. What was your time?”
“Six minutes and forty seconds,” Val said, pride creeping shyly into her voice.
Mrs. Kimble laughed. “I wonder who you got that from. Your father wouldn't run if he were a computer, and Lord knows I never did better than a nine minute mile. Even at my prime.” She shook her head mournfully. “Which was a long, long time ago.”
“Nine minutes isn't so bad, Mom.”
“Please,” her mother said. “I'm an old tortoise.”
“No you're not — I think you look great!”
Val's mother cut her eyes at her daughter. “That's very sweet. What do you want?”
“Nothing. I was just — ” Val broke off when she realized her mother was laughing. “So not funny,” she mumbled, folding her arms and glaring out the window.
“I'm sorry. That was wrong of me. What do you say to some coffee to celebrate your victory?”
Val peeked at her mother. “Can I have a large?”
“You can have,” her mother said, with finality, “Whatever you want.”
One visit to the drive-through later, Val was walking through her front door and up the stairs to her bedroom with a green tea frappuccino. She paused in the doorway for a beat, regarding her room with a faint smile. As cliché as it was, her bedroom was her sanctuary. White carpet, white walls, with a fluffy pink comforter that was as soft as a cloud. Bookshelf pushed up against the far wall, beneath the window, with all her favorite classics from a childhood that wasn't so long ago filling up the bottom-most shelf. A pile of CDs stacked haphazardly on display beside her computer — Kelly Clarkson, Tegan and Sara, David Cook, and Michelle Branch. A pile of CDs hidden away in her closet, but not dusty — 'N Sync, Britney Spears (all of them, except for the eponymous album), and a handful of artists featured on Radio Disney.
Yes, she was home. Safe.
And yet, in the pocket of her track shorts the poem was burning a hole, whispering at a threat Val didn't yet understand. Her smile faded as she looked it over a second time. The poem was too good to be the work of a student — Val knew this instinctively, having read far too many of her friends' own creations, most notably Lisa's. She suspected it had been ripped from somewhere. Most likely the internet.
Time to find out.
She set her drink on her nightstand, dumped her backpack in front of her closet, and then sat down at her computer. To narrow her search she encapsulated the lines of the stanza between quotation marks. To her surprise, she achieved results far more quickly than she thought she would. The poem was an excerpt from a work by John Donne, a contemporary of William Shakespeare in Elizabethan England. It was entitled Batter My Heart:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But it is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me 'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The site listed some other works, as well, and Val read the first couple that were listed. She enjoyed The Prohibition the most. The others were either too confusing to understand, or so dark that she didn't want to grasp the meaning that lay behind them. Batter My Heart fell into both categories, but especially the latter. 'Imprison me?' 'Never be free?' 'Ravish?' These words and phrases evoked violent images that made her shudder. And part of her couldn't help but suspect that this was the intended effect.