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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Hidden Witches
by Dorothy McFalls

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The buzzing was too loud. My ears felt like they were about to burst from the pressure.

It was just a dream, I reminded myself. But still, it felt all too real.

"Pinch yourself, Rachel," a voice demanded. Probably my subconscious. It can be irritatingly demanding at times. Like I hadn't been trying to wake myself up for the last... ah, heck... time is pretty slippery in the dream-state.

I didn't have much time to ponder the question of time, either. A glob of hot spit landed on my shoulder. With my heart in my throat, I turned. My gaze traveled up and up and up until I was eye to eye with a snarled toothed, woolly purple monster with a bright orange horn growing out of the center of its head.

Out of pure survival instinct, I ran.

It joined in the chase, like I was some kind of tasty morsel or something. And that dang buzzing only grew louder. I ran down an endless hallway, pinching the heck out of my arm--and not waking up.

"Cold water, Rachel. What about cold water?"

What about it? My subconscious needed to do better than that. It can be pretty clever when it wants to be. But, then again, if it was the force behind the nightmare--and since it was a vain sort of subconscious--it most likely wanted me to hang around a while and be awed by how well it had tapped into my deepest, darkest, fears.

"Stop it!" I shouted.

On rare occasions that worked... but that had been before the nightmares had grown stronger. More frequent. In the past couple of weeks hardly a night went by that I didn't wake up exhausted and miserable from battling these nighttime demons.

A sticky glob of saliva landed on the top of my head. His steamy breath tickled my neck.

"His?" that voice in my head asked. "You can tell its sex? How?"

"Because you made it, and you're me!" I shouted back as I tried to run faster, while my feet grew heavier. Like blocks of concrete.

"Think again, hon," that voice warned. "It ain't us doing this. Think cold water. Icy water."


"Why not?"

Good question.

A frosty glass of chilled spring water appeared from thin air. It floated in front of me... just out of reach.

"Now what?" I asked.

My subconscious huffed. "Do I have to do everything?"

The glass tilted and I charged into the spilling water's chilling blast. The icy droplets slapped me in the face.

I shot up in bed. Alone.

Alone in the black of night and feeling damned shaken from getting stuck in yet another nightmare--the third one that night.

"Call Cyrus," my stubborn subconscious demanded.

"No!" I grumbled into the silent darkness.

Three o'clock. What?

Cyrus Donnovan gave his drowsy head a shake as he tried to figure out why he was sitting up in bed at three in the morning. He was a heavy sleeper and generally didn't open his eyes until the alarm wailed at six on the dot. So what in the world was he doing awake three hours too early?

The phone jangled a ring.

Had it been ringing before? Cyrus wasn't sure. He creased his brows, trying to remember as he reached out, stumbling his fingers across his bedside table to pick up his phone receiver, not even awake enough to realize that he should be wondering about who might be on the other end.

"Did I wake you," a sultry, yet slightly trembly voice asked.

"Rach?" He recognized Rachel's voice immediately, though he couldn't trust that his ears weren't deceiving him. He couldn't believe that she was calling him--now or ever. Wasn't that how she left things between them? On the far side of never?

A year and a half had passed and still her voice triggered all sorts of feelings and made his bed feel suddenly empty.

"I woke you," she said. She sounded as if she was about to drop the phone back onto its receiver.

"Hey, wait! I'm awake," he said, quickly, "and you know only too well how I can't fall back asleep once I wake up. So you might as well tell me what's up. Why are you calling me?"

"I shouldn't have called." A familiar edge was alive and well in her voice, like she was permanently perturbed at him. But there was something else there, too.

A tickle of fear.

"Talk to me. There has to be a pretty big reason for you to be calling me in the middle of the night... for you to break your vow of never, Rach. What is it?" He ran his hand across the empty pillow on the bed beside him. The stiff linen case was frosty cold.

"It just sounds silly now--" she started.

"Rach--" He used that tone that had probably pushed her away in the first place. "--it's late and I'm tired and no longer fond of your games." The last was a lie. His heart was beating faster than it had in months. A year and a half had gone by without her in his life--the sound of her voice shouldn't still affect him like this. He didn't want to miss her. She was unstable, unpredictable... an unhealthy choice for a long-term relationship.

"Your experiments," she said after a long pause, "did you ever run across any kind of psychic attack during the dream state?"

"Say that again. Slowly. And keep in mind that it's three in the morning and only the lower parts of my brain are working right now."

She sighed. "I'm afraid to go to sleep, Cyrus. It doesn't feel like nightmares anymore and I just know if I close my eyes again that I will slip into the trap waiting for me. I don't know how to battle it."

He wasn't quite sure what she was saying, but he knew only too well to know that Rachel was too damned serious for her own good and there was no way in hell that this could be a joke. He glanced at his bedside clock again. Thirteen after three.

"Meet me at the lab in thirty minutes," he said and hung up before he said anything stupid.

Like, I miss you.

He rolled out of the bed and scratched the back of his neck. He needed coffee. Lots of coffee.

A willowy white light cut through the darkness just outside the double glass doors of Dream Lab, Cyrus's brainchild at Unicorp. And more like a vision that might have dropped out of one of Cyrus's more erotic nighttime episodes than a flesh and blood person, she stood there... waiting for him. She was bathed in the security lamp's creamy light. Her goddess blond hair, longer than he remembered, cascaded lazily over her slender shoulders. A pair of black jeans and a confetti pink sweater hugged her luscious curves.

She tapped the toe of her leather boot in the slushy snow and glanced around, her eyes dancing like a skittish kitten's. Skittish had never been a word he'd used to describe that hell-cat. Bold, brash... daring. A warrior's spirit.

Never skittish.

God, he missed her...

Oh no, buddy boy, he didn't need to walk down that path again. Too many landmines were waiting for him there, just under the surface. Besides, she'd made herself only too clear the last time he'd seen her. She didn't want him in her life anymore. Period.

Thanks for the amazing sex, but no thanks, she'd said. He was one more emotional entanglement than she could handle.

Nothing more than a damned emotional entanglement.

"Rachel," he said somewhat stiffly, as his heart coiled around the frigid pain where those memories had been packed away. "You look..." How did she look? "Scared."

He unlocked the glass doors, punched in a series of security codes, and stepped aside so she could precede him into the building.

He ran every test imaginable on me. EEG, MRI, PET, EMG... the alphabet had been wrung dry. Nothing. Nothing.

Cyrus was shaking his head and frowning when he returned with the results of that last one. "There's nothing wrong with you. Physically you're perfect," he said and then cleared his throat as if embarrassed by that last remark. The strain in our relationship was as strong as the afternoon sun that was now streaming through his floor-to-ceiling office windows in earnest. "I can recommend someone," he said hardly above a whisper. "Someone you can talk to about why you're having these nightmares."

I didn't accept the card he was trying to slip into my hand. "I don't know what possessed me to call you." I leapt to my feet and started for the door. "It's all about facts and figures, tests and measures with you. Something plops in front of you--something that falls outside your precious parameters--and you discount it. Say it needs therapy."

My fingers were unsteady from the rage surging through me. They shook as I pulled up my shirt to bare my midriff and ripped off the hastily made gauze bandage covering my abs.

"Tell me this, Cyrus, will therapy stop this from happening? Can you guarantee that therapy can save me from the hairy, purple beast the next time I close my eyes?"

Cyrus crouched down and tentatively touched the deep claw marks that crisscrossed my belly. I'd been waking up with them every morning since the nightmares had started. Some were healing nicely. The really fresh ones--three tearing slashes right across my lower abs--were slowly oozing blood.

He blinked up at me. "This has been happening at night?"

I nodded.

He pressed the card into my hand. "I don't know what's been going on in your life, Rach, you made sure of that when you slammed your door in my face." He rose. The stark concern I'd read in his expression faded into something impossibly hard. "If you're hurting yourself like that in your sleep, you really need to talk to someone... a professional who can help you."

A professional who can help me... hah! I suppose he thought I was crazy. Loony as a toony. Bet he was sitting back in his office having a great laugh at my expense. Glad I got rid of her when I did, I bet he was thinking right about now.

"What did you say about the Loony Toons?" Missy asked me as she handed me a tall latte across the counter. She didn't wait for me to answer. Never does. "My Jimmy watches those Tiny Toons. Have you seen those? Funniest cartoons ever made. Those little bunnies get themselves into the most impossible situations. You should watch them."

I slid her a five dollar bill and held out my hand, waiting for my change while listening to a list of television programs she recommended I watch based on whether her five-year-old-son enjoyed them or not. Her pretty lips moving almost faster than the eye could follow. The tinted blue ponytail on the top of her head bouncing.

She stopped mid-sentence and leaned over the counter until her nose was nearly touching mine. Her grip on my couple of dollars of change tightened.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked. "You're not dying or anything, are you?" Not that she sounded sorry about it if I were. Hey, perhaps I wasn't her best tipper. But I did try.

"I'm not dying... at least I don't think so."

Missy wrinkled her nose. We've known each other since high school--split our first beer and then ended up in adjacent stalls in the gym bathroom, getting close and personal with the toilet, after downing four more. If not for that, I probably would have jumped back when she jabbed me under the eye.

"Puffy," she said. "Every time you come in here, you look puffier and puffier. I think you should go to a doctor. You look sickly... exactly how my Auntie Sims looked before she died last year."

At that, I did jerk my head away from hers. "I haven't been sleeping too well," I grumbled and scooped up my tall latte. I really did need it if I was going to get any work done that afternoon.

"Wait," she called after me, waving her hand in the air. I ignored her. If I were to return to the counter, it would have ruined a perfectly good stalk out of that crowded coffee shop. "But you forgot your change."

"What have you done?" Dr. Bea Marled barged into Cyrus's office and slammed her bony fists on the top of his maple desktop, sending spurts of kinky gray hair springing out from the bun she wore on the top of her head. "What have you done?"

Cyrus continued to rub his temples.

"Go away," he grumbled. "I haven't been anywhere near your lab for over a week. Not even in the same hallway."

After spending the morning with Rachel and his sour memories, he didn't have the patience to take a stroll into Dr. Marled's outlandish world of theoretical neuropsychology, where her brain mapping experiments led to lengthy dissertations on the energy of auras and duality entities and dimensional shifts. It was a bunch of rot, if you asked him.

But she was a fixture at Unicorp. One that none of the other scientists could understand. While the other departments scrambled once-a-year to put together detailed proposals that were often hundreds of pages long, Dr. Marled would hand in a one page memo with two words: "continued research". And always, always, she'd get her full requested budgeted amount. When the company released its fiscal plan for the upcoming year three weeks ago, Cyrus discovered he was only going to get 70% of what he needed.

It galled him that she could slide by with her vague hocus-pocus talk while he had to struggle with fewer staff and resources, wondering if the executives with their plush top floor offices would even have a place at the Unicorp sleep lab for him next year.

He turned his chair away from her decidedly perturbed grimace. And closed his eyes, while trying his best to relax his tightening shoulders.

"Dr. Donnovan," a soft voice belonging to his efficient assistant, Kera, broke through his rumbling thoughts. "Dr. Donnovan, there is something happening in sleep room #12. I think you should come have a look."

"Not right now," Dr. Marled answered for him. "He's in a meeting with me and cannot be disturbed."

Cyrus looked up in time to see the petite Dr. Marled pushing Kera, who was big-boned and nearly as tall as himself, out the door.

"I'm not in a meeting with you," he grumbled. "And I should go attend to my experiments. My funding isn't as assured as yours here at Unicorp."

"Tsk--tsk." Dr. Marled crossed her arms and propped herself against the door--blocking his exit. "Bitterness is a poisonous emotion. You would do well to avoid it."

Cyrus was tired, unhappy with how things had been left with Rachel, and worried as hell. He had no patience for Dr. Marled or the bee that had gotten stuck in her bonnet (to put it nicely).

"Listen to me, you young pup," she said, her singsong voice deepening. "The Watchers are screaming--have been for a while now. Being a mere mortal, I'm having a hard time understanding what is going on. This morning, however, I did catch your name amongst the voices."

"Watchers?" Cyrus parroted. Everyone knew that Dr. Marled was a little odd... but this, this was madness.

Her eyes turned midnight black as her expression darkened into something frighteningly grave. "I need to know what you've done, Cyrus. A cosmic law has been broken. And there is hell to pay... I mean that literally."

"I should have expected you would be involved with this." Not exactly a warm welcome.

"Hi Kera," I said as cheerfully as my overstressed self could manage. Kera Hartfield was standing in the middle of the sleep lab that was crowded with scientists in white coats. A somewhat dazed-looking lady was sitting up on the same examining table I'd used that morning. She was holding a bandage to her arm. "Where's Cyrus? He sounded somewhat frantic on the phone, insisting I get over here."

"In his office. Said he couldn't be disturbed."

Kera had never liked me. I couldn't blame her, seeing how she had a colossal-sized crush on Cyrus and he didn't even seem to notice that she was of female persuasion. He was dense like that sometimes. While we were dating, I was glad for it. Kera--with her high cheekbones, healthy curves, and luxurious red hair--was a very attractive woman. I'd have been jealous of her if Cyrus was even the slightest bit more attentive to such things.

Since he wasn't, and I wasn't in a good mood in the first place--my editor had pulled me from the Senator Kenner investigative piece this morning, thanks to my blooming personal problems--I skirted passed Kera without caring whether Cyrus wanted me to wait for him or not. He was going to see me.

Kera grabbed my arm. At the same moment a ripple of pain tore through my already ripped apart stomach. I clutched my middle and started to take a nosedive to the floor.

"Craig, get over here!" Kera's curt demand sliced through the pain. She slammed me into a barely cushioned plastic chair. I suppose I should have felt grateful. Sitting was better than laying facedown on the stark white linoleum. But what I felt was anger. I wanted to know what the blazes was going on, and I wanted to know now.

Before I could ask, the tearing pain gripped my middle again, tighter this time. The room disappeared from view. I hugged my knees, praying for whatever was happening to me to stop.

"Where does it hurt?" a male voice asked. I assumed it was Craig and didn't bother to ask.

"Stomach," I groaned, while gripping my legs so tightly that I was unwittingly digging my nails into my skin.

"I'm a medical doctor. And I'd like to have a look." Craig, crouched in front of my chair, gently peeled me open like he would a clam and touched his palm to my belly. His hand seared my through my clothes like I was on fire, nearly sending me flying out of the chair. Frowning, he lifted my shirt a little. "You're injured?"

"Just a few scratches," I managed to say through my gritted teeth. "I don't mean to... make a fuss. I've been... getting stomachaches lately. Job-related stress... too much coffee... too little food... I suppose."

Beads of sweat were breaking out on my brow. I gulped a deep breath.

"Could be an infection setting in." Craig ignored my efforts to bat his fire-hot hands away. At least he took great care to not touch my skin as he peeled back the makeshift bandage I'd made that morning.

I was more surprised than him to see the gauze soaked in fresh blood... and the appearance of a set of deep slashes that hadn't been there before.

"What's happening to me?" I whispered, tentatively touching my belly and abs. Both were beginning to resemble half-eaten flesh.

"These--um--scratches have been appearing over several days? Weeks even? Without apparent reason?" he asked.

I nodded.

Craig didn't appear at all surprised, but then again doctors were trained to be detached observers, right? He pushed the bloody gauze back over the wound (I was glad to not have to look at it anymore) and rose slowly. "Dr. Marled," he called rather loudly, "we've found the center of the disturbance."

"Her?" Kera started laughing. "Makes sense. She's a walking disaster!"

"Get your hands off me!" The cautious way those white coated, plastic-gloved scientists converged on me, dragged me from the chair I was beginning to enjoy, and started to cart me off to heaven knows where, you would have though I had the plague. I stumbled over my own feet... unexplained sores, the frenzied care these scientists were taking with me, and that queasy feeling I kept getting in the pit of my stomach. I looked up and caught sight of Cyrus. His mouth twisted into an expression I couldn't read--but certainly didn't like. His amber-colored eyes met mine.

"I don't have the plague, do I?" I asked him.

He shook his head and mumbled something that sounded like, "if only it were that easy."

Before I could ask for him to repeat himself, a small gray-haired woman put herself in between us. "Did you create the monster?" she asked. "And it got away from you?"

"Did I create... what?"

The woman huffed. "The monster. The monster. The thing that did this to you... and attacked that poor student who had the unfortunate luck of going into sleep room #12 after Cyrus had examined you in there early this morning."

"Monster?" I'm not usually this dense. But I still couldn't get my mind around what she was asking me. It would have been easier if she'd been telling me that I had the plague.

Ah... that was what Cyrus was grumbling!

"She's no help... probably doesn't understand the seriousness of all this," the gray-haired woman said with a clipped voice. "Take her to the Watchers room. We'll see what they want to do with her."

"Oh no you don't. Not without my consent!" I kicked one man in the shin. Another... well, someplace a girl shouldn't kick a guy. And ran. There was a bunch of shouting behind me. I didn't slow down to see what it was all about. Without really thinking about where I was heading, I charged toward the lab's double doors.

An ear-splitting banshee scream sailed toward me, chilling the blood in my veins. It was as ghastly as something out of one of my nightmares. Shuddering, I glanced over my shoulder.

"No!" Cyrus shouted. I watched--helpless to stop her--as Kera slammed a microscope against the side of my head.

And then the darkness.

Not too bad, I remember thinking in that blinking moment when the subconscious collided with the conscious world. I could use the sleep.

"Watchers? You mean, like that British guy on Buffy who taught her how to fight the vampires and knows bunches about demons and black magic and the like?" Rachel asked. A heavy blanket was wrapped tightly around her bare shoulders. While knocked out, Dr. Marled and her assistants had stripped Rachel of her clothes--tossing them into an incinerator. As a precaution, Dr. Marled had explained. And had added something about negative magnetic energies lingering on clothing that needed to be destroyed.

While Cyrus was leaning up against the wall, feeling like an ancient sentry with his arms crossed and his jaw clenched, Rachel was sitting up on a small cot in the middle of Dr. Marled's lab. She seemed to be taking the attack on herself in stride... perhaps it was the painkillers. The side of her face where Kera had hit her was puffy and beginning to darkened from the scarlet red to deep hues of purples and blues.

Dr. Marled was sitting in a chair that had been set up beside the cot and speaking softly to Rachel. Doubtlessly, relaying the same long string of nonsense she'd told him. He should have never let his arm be twisted into calling Rachel back into the office. If not for that strange accident in sleep room #12, where the young volunteer's arm had been slashed in her sleep, he would have sent Dr. Marled back to whatever topsy-turvy fantasy world she was living in.

And what had possessed Kera into acting like some damned avenging angel? Hitting Rachel with a microscope? He'd sent her straight home.

Cyrus shook his head, trying to shake away his confusion. His world was coming apart... and once again Rachel was at the center of it all.

"Does this mean I'm the chosen one? Like Buffy?" he heard Rachel ask. A fiery spark brightened her Codeine-dilated eyes. Excitement, if he remembered that look correctly. "Will I have to leave my position at the newspaper in order to devote my time to fighting evil? Or can I be like Superman with a dual Clark Kent personality?" He should have known she'd take all this tension and craziness and turn it into a game. An adventure. She grabbed Dr. Marled's hand. "But it's more like Buffy than Superman. I won't have to wear a cape, will I? I don't look good in red or capes. Or tights, for that matter."

A smile stretched the wrinkles on Dr. Marled's wizened old face as she laughed. It was a low, rusty chuckle. "You watch too much television, my dear," she said, patting Rachel's hand. "They twist the truth around until there is nothing left of it but lies. Watchers aren't of this world. Or from this plane of existence, for that matter. I'm not even sure if you could say if there is one or many of them. I don't think such distinctions exist where they're from."

Rachel nodded slowly as she bit her plump lower lip. "So I'm not an emerging vampire slayer or defender of justice?"

Dr. Marled shrugged. "I don't know. You could be both. The mysterious work of the fates isn't my area of expertise. I'm only a sort of handmaiden for the Watchers. And you, my dear, have created quite a stir among them."

"What did I do?" Rachel asked around a wide, jaw-cracking yawn. Her eyes were beginning to droop again. The medicine was taking its toll. She'd soon be dead to the world. "How do I fix this? Make... it... stop?"

Dr. Marled patted Rachel's hand. "I don't know how you managed to create the beast. Even most accomplished occultists can't manage that feat. But, seeing how it's been attacking you, I'd say it has gotten completely out of your power. We need to help you absorb the energy back into your aura. And then you must answer to the Watchers."

"Okay," Rachel said, yawning again. "Whatever you think is best. As long as it can stop the nightmares, I'll go along with anything you say."

She shouldn't agree so easily. Cyrus remembered only too well how Dr. Marled had said that there would be hell to pay for whatever was happening. Literally, hell to pay. Conventional religion taught him enough about the struggle between good and evil, heaven and hell to know that hell only used one currency... the human soul.

"Whoa, whoa there." He pushed away from his spot where he'd been leaning against the wall and crossed the room. Dr. Marled's well-muscled assistants followed him like a pack of dogs on the hunt. "You're not going to do anything, Rach. With all due respect, Dr. Marled, I'm not going to let you do anything to her."

He pulled Rachel off the cot. She immediately started to sink toward the ground. He quickly wrapped his arms around her waist. With her warm body pressed against his, he could feel her pulse racing through her veins with a rabbit's speed.

"I'm going to take her home with me. Now. Before anything bad happens."

Rachel rubbed the side of her head and blinked up at him as she raised her brows.

"...before anything worse happens," he corrected.

He glared at Dr. Marled's assistants, daring them to try and stop him.

"You'll be back," Dr. Marled predicted as Cyrus swung Rachel into his arms. "Sooner or later, you'll be back... begging for my help. You just better hope that it won't be too late to save the woman you love."

The woman you love... that sentiment haunted my mind as Cyrus drove rather recklessly through the city streets. At least he had given me the workout outfit he kept in his office to wear, so I wouldn't be sitting beside him wrapped in nothing but a blanket. He was taking me to his apartment, I suppose. I wasn't sure how I felt about going there.

I'd tucked my emotions for him away, somewhere behind his sofa, I think. And I truly didn't want them back.

The coffee shop, my favorite haunt, was only two blocks away. Not only would a detour there delay a visit to my past, it would also fill my body with caffeine--something my drug-fuzzy head could use by the bucket-load. Missy should still be on the clock, too. Whenever I'd bring a man into the coffee shop, she'd have this way of wedging herself between my date and me. Since this wasn't a date and I could use the distance from Cyrus right now, a visit with Missy sounded pretty perfect... as long as she'd feed me caffeine too.

"Turn at the next light," I said aloud, my voice only slightly slurred from the lingering affects of the Codeine. "I want to stop at The Grind Shoppe."

"I have coffee at home," Cyrus said, his gaze glued to the backend of the car in front of us. His powerful hands strangling the steering wheel. "That's where I'm taking you... home."

"I'd feel better talking about all this on neutral ground... like at The Grind Shoppe," I persisted.

"That's your home ground. I'd hardly call it neutral."

"You're right. You're right, it's the newspaper hangout. I feel comfortable there." But I wasn't ready to give up. I pulled out the big guns, stroking the stiff muscles on the back of his hand and softening my voice a smidge. "Please, Cyrus, don't be stubborn on this. Let's go anywhere besides your apartment first. Even just so we could set some ground rules over a small cup of coffee." I drew a deep breath that stung my ripped up middle. "This is important to me."

"Okay," he huffed as he whipped the car around the corner. "Okay. But then we get you to my home and locked behind my sturdy steel front door."

I nodded, a purely noncommittal kind of gesture.

The rich aroma of coffee awakened my senses even before I stepped foot into the coffee shop. My coffee shop. It was odd, though. I may have considered The Grind Shoppe to be my own special place, but whenever I came here during the last couple of weeks an unfamiliar twang seemed to strike me in the gut. Like I was no longer welcomed here or anywhere.

Until today, I'd written it off to lack of sleep and to the stresses I was under at the newspaper, where my career was beginning to falter. As I glanced around at the familiar faces of fellow reporters, a peppering of weary-looking editors, and Missy, who gave one of her ready smiles and waved us over to the counter, I began to wonder if the uneasiness I was feeling wasn't being caused by something else altogether.

After downing a cup of coffee and chatting with Missy about her son and her hectic day, I felt like I'd shaken off enough of the painkiller and was alert enough to confront my own problems... and Cyrus.

Especially Cyrus.

"Let's move to a booth," I said after Missy refilled our cups. Cyrus had turned quiet, sinking into himself. He'd neatly sorted and stacked the sugar and sugar-substitute packets in the sugar bowl and had begun to thumb through the napkins in the chrome holder that was sitting near him on the counter. He was clearly unhappy with me... and our situation. His dark mood only tempted me to turn broody along with him.

Only, I couldn't. I needed solutions. And wallowing in one's own problems rarely resulted in solutions. Not positive ones, that is.

"A corporeal manifestation of an angry thought form," I said, repeating what Dr. Marled had said to me, once we were settled into a corner booth, away from anyone who might overhear what could prove to be an embarrassing conversation. "I know, I know, it sounds insane. It's outside the bounds of reality. But I think Dr. Marled is right."

Cyrus frowned and raised a dark brow.

"Don't interrupt me yet," I said, quickly. "I need to follow this thought through to the end. These nighttime accidents--the slashes on my belly--have no explanation. No reasonable explanation. Nor do the injuries your test subject suffered in the sleep lab. So perhaps we do need to look outside of the accepted, the known. Perhaps we should consider what Dr. Marled was telling us."

"You think that you created a corporeal manifestation of... of... anger?" Cyrus grumbled into his cup. "There has to be a reasonable explanation, Rach. Just because it isn't obvious to us, doesn't mean one doesn't exist."

I slashed my hand through the air. "Something about what Dr. Marled was saying rang true to me. I'm not discounting that there isn't also a scientific explanation. I simply need to explore her ideas for a while in order to get my arms around what has been happening to me. I..."

Cyrus gave a nod. "Don't let me stop you."

A nagging feeling of unease, which had started buzzing about me ever since Cyrus and I had entered the coffee shop, stepped up a notch. The cuts on my abs and belly began to burn. I glanced down to see if I'd inadvertently spilled coffee on myself.

I hadn't.

"In the past several weeks, I've not felt quite right," I said as I heaved a deep breath. "I've been walking around with a tension my shoulders. It's the same tension I get right after someone who is royally pissed at me lets me know about it in no uncertain terms. And my luck has turned from generally good to generally bad."

"Your luck?" Cyrus made a face.

"Yes," I was quick to say. "My grandmamma always told me that I born under a lucky star... and I tend to agree with her. Opportunities have fallen in my lap. Heck, I even met you by happenstance."

"I didn't think you'd consider that a good thing."

"What? Not a good thing? Cyrus, I don't regret a spending a moment with you. You know that. What we had together was great... too great. Could make a girl forget her priorities."

With him sitting across from me, his light brown hair disheveled, his amber eyes glinting with golden light, a lump formed in my throat. He was too good for me. Too perfect a mate. A year and a half ago I wasn't ready for the kind of forever commitment he wanted from me. I hungered for the freedom to hop from city to city, paper to paper, in order to build my career. No strings attached.

I still did.

Even so, seeing Cyrus so rumpled and worried tugged at a piece of my heart I'd thought I'd completely locked away.

If there wasn't this big bad horseshoe hanging over my head, ready to fall on me like some comical anvil, I probably would have slipped out of that booth and dragged him home so we could have some privacy.

"You're straying from the point," he said. There was a strain in his voice. "Do you have any concrete examples how your luck has changed?"

I thought for a minute. "I'm up for promotion at the paper. The senior editors all said I was a shoe-in for the position, that it should only be a formality before I was made the lead investigative reporter. And that's now falling apart. I've been pulled from three articles. The senior editors won't look at me at the staff meetings. And I have to scrape and beg to get a story to work on."

He pulled out a small pad of paper and flipped it open to write, "1. Trouble at work."

"Anything else?" he asked.

"I've gotten three flat tires in as many days. But then again, one of my assignments was to visit a construction site."

Cyrus nodded and wrote, "2. Flat tires."

"My computer crashed last week. And the backup was corrupted. I lost everything I didn't have as a hardcopy."

"3. Computer crash."

"Sounds like this is all tied to your work," he said. "Anything going on in your personal life? You can tell me. I won't judge you."

I glanced away. It felt like I was blushing, which was impossible. I never blushed. I'm a thirty-something adult and thirty-something adults do not blush over their love life--or lack of one.

"I don't have anything," I grumbled. "There's nothing going on romantically in my life right now." There hadn't been since I broke things off with Cyrus. The thought of taking another ride on that emotional roller coaster made me blanch.

Cyrus leaned back. The plastic upholstery on the booth's seat crinkled as a layer of tension seemed to drain from his shoulders. "Okay," he said, forming the word with great care. "That could be considered bad luck, too."

"No, it's my personal choice."

His shoulders eased a little more. "It is?"

"Whether I'm jumping into bed with a string of men or not isn't the issue here. It's the nightmares and the psychic attacks."

"Psychic attacks?" Missy exclaimed.

I jumped.

Missy must have tiptoed up to our booth on pillow-soft cat's feet. If not for the inviting pot of steaming coffee in her hand--a special Turkish blend guaranteed to keep your eyes from blinking for at least two days--I probably would have shouted at her for eavesdropping into private conversations.

This wasn't something that I wanted to share with the world. Whatever was happening to me was madness... the kind that would make friends and co-workers nervous. "She was always a quiet girl, a good worker," they would doubtlessly be thinking while wondering when they'd be asked to spout such nonsense to the press.

Gad, I wasn't dangerous. And I refused to believe, as Dr. Marled had suggested, that I had inadvertently brought this trouble on myself.

Before I could protest, Missy plopped down on the bench next to Cyrus and scooted her spandex clad body over until she was smashed up against him, her blue-tinted ponytail bouncing.

"My great grandmother was a great believer in the--" Missy lowered her voice to a feathery whisper and moved her lips in an exaggerated manner as she said, "--the great beyond and its terrible powers. She said a person could kill another person with thoughts alone. Literally commit murder."

"And did she have any concrete examples of this?" Cyrus asked as he edged toward to the wall to give himself room to breathe. Room away from Missy. "Or did she simply hear talk of strange things happening to a friend of a friend? There's a host of anecdotal evidence of such happenings, but no hard and fast proof. Especially when dreams are involved."

Missy's gaze bounced between Cyrus and me. She frowned for a moment and then shrugged. "I thought you two couldn't stand each other. What gives? A vacation from all that pent up hostility? A quick creep into the naughty zone?" She winked. Actually had the audacity to wink at me.

"I'm helping Rach in a professional capacity," Cyrus said a little too quickly, a little too easily. "There's nothing between us anymore."

Okay, I did have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from protesting when Missy, discovering an unattached bachelor in her midst, latched onto Cyrus's arm with the staying power of superglue.

"You still in the medical field?" she asked, batting her luscious eyelashes at him.

"I was never in the medical field," Cyrus said as he squirmed, in a hopeless attempt to pry himself from Missy's clutches. Unfortunately, since the booth was pushed up against the wall, he had no escape other than to crawl up over the table.

"But I thought you were a doctor?" she whined.

"I'm a scientist." Cyrus began swatting at her and her seeking hands that were roaming all over his chest.

"But they still call you doctor? I suppose that might be okay. As long as we don't go too deep into the details of your profession with Mom."

"Missy, behave yourself," I said, taking pity on Cyrus because he had the most irresistible hunted look on the planet. "Get your hands off Cyrus."

"But he is your ex?" She tried to crawl onto his lap.

"Back off, Missy." I used my do-it-or-suffer voice. "Cyrus and I are in the middle of an important discussion."

"Riiggghhht, your so-called psychic attacks." Missy peeled herself from Cyrus's lap and turned uncharacteristically serious. "Besides the doctor-turned-spurned-lover here, who are your enemies, Rachel?"

"Enemies?" I truly wanted to believe that I didn't have any. It wasn't as if I were a villainous ogre stomping through the city, crushing people's lives.

My gaze met Cyrus's.

I'd crushed his heart. Even a year and a half later, I could clearly see the pain lingering in his amber eyes.

"I am sorry," I whispered. "I'd never set out to purposefully hurt you."

Missy hooted. "We have our first candidate!"

A half-hour later, I was about to add Missy to my growing list of enemies. She was too eager, too pleased to make suggestions and to provide reasons why someone might wish to hate me.

"Let me repeat this so I can get it straight in my mind," I said in an effort to keep myself from screaming in frustration.

I flipped over the piece of paper containing the list of "suspects" and placed my hand on top of it, unable to bear looking at the list of familiar names any longer. It felt like the letters were glaring at me, accusing me of being a self-centered horror.

Could it be true? Could there really be so many people in the world who--not just disliked me in the same way someone dislikes carrots--but hated me with a bone-aching loathing?

"Someone doesn't like me," I said. Missy nodded with enthusiasm. I think she was getting a thrill out of being a part of this freak show. "The someone hates me. Hates me so much that this hatred has consumed this person's life, thoughts, and even the very essence of his or her soul."

Cyrus was shaking his head. He crossed his arms. "There has to be a logical, scientific explanation for what has been happening to you."

"It really is very common," Missy said. "My great grandmother, she knew all about this kind of thing. And then there's the voodoo. And the black magic. And the wiccans."

"And me. Whatever is happening to me appears to be out of the bounds of explanation."

"My great grandmother said that her neighbor once conjured a werewolf by accident. The woman had been depressed and angry with the postman for some reason--I can't remember what--anyhow, this werewolf hangs around the house, chasing the poor postman, harassing him until he becomes a nervous wreck. But one day the werewolf grew bored with toying around with a harmless, underpaid federal employee. He goes and gnaws the woman's arm off." Missy eyes grew wide. "Good gracious, perhaps we should add you to your own enemy list."

"It's not me!" I insisted and snatched the list away from Missy's greedy clutches. She was not going to add my name to that list. Not when this wasn't my doing. "I'm willing to take the blame for the troubles in my life. Heck, I'll even accept that I might have done something thoughtless to someone that pushed that person over the edge. I'm not trying to shirk responsibility here. I'm not perfect. No one is. I'm sure there is a monster lurking beneath my surface that is just as scary as the one plaguing my dreams. I know all that. And I also know deep down in my soul that this particular beast is not part of me."

"O--K," Missy said as she slid the list from my trembling hand. "Who do we have so far? There's Cyrus, of course. And his assistant Kera."

"You're wrong about her," Cyrus said.

I merely pointed to my bruised and puffy head, letting the damage speak for itself.

"You don't suppose they have joined forces, and are somehow working together, do you?" Missy asked. I glared. The subject was dropped. She read off several more names, co-workers mostly. We were all vying for the same position at the paper. A little animosity would be expected.

"And Trent." Missy had insisted we add her ex-husband, who happened to also be my ex-boyfriend. But he dumped me, for Missy. I should be the one to feel anger, not him. He got the girl when I had gotten the metaphorical shaft.

It seemed to please Missy to add him. She then spent fifteen minutes detailing to us how he'd turned into a fat, lazy, lying devil after their marriage. No new information there. She began replaying her sob story again, like a broken record stuck on a single track. I launched myself from the booth.

Cyrus followed, climbing over the back of the bench in order to escape Missy. He flashed me a quick smile.

"It's not me," he said. He took my hand and gave it a squeeze. He raced toward the door, with me in tow, his keys out of his pocket. "Even if this stuff is true. You can't believe that this beast is somehow my doing. Maybe a year and a half ago, I might have been able to fuel such rage. But not anymore. You are who you are. And I accept that."

"Thanks for the help, Missy!" I called to her. "Hope to see ya tomorrow!"

"How long have you known Missy?" Cyrus asked as he drove his car, much too fast to be safe in my estimation, to--heck, I didn't even know where he was heading. Away from the coffee shop, that much was clear.

"Ever since high school. We were close friends. On the school paper together. She was the editor. I was the crack investigative reporter... still am, even if my editors don't know it. Things haven't been quite the same between Missy and I since I went off to college and she got married. Although she stole my boyfriend and ultimately married him right after graduation--too young and too soon in my book--I don't hold a grudge or anything. I consider us to still be good buds."

He took his eyes off the road a moment and slanted me a look.


"She doesn't," he said. "Add her to your list."

"What?" He couldn't have been more wrong. Missy had always welcomed me into the coffee shop with a warm smile and an interesting story on her lips.

"She doesn't think of you as a friend," he said slowly, as if I was daft or something. "Didn't you see how she bristled when she thought we were back together? And then, when she learned how there was still tension between us, she breathed a deep sigh and relaxed. She warmed up to me... really warmed up."

"She bristled? Are you sure?" Cyrus wasn't the kind of guy who noticed such subtleties... at least I didn't think he was. But perhaps I was the one who was missing all sorts of signs. "She's an outrageous flirt, I'll give you that one. That's just who she is, though."

He had to be wrong about Missy holding some kind of grudge against me. It wasn't as if I was the one who was totally oblivious to the devastating crush his assistant had on Cyrus.

"I'm positive about this. In the time I've known you, I've never seen her be honestly friendly to you. It's like she's waiting for you to fall on your face. She wants to be there to cheer when you do."

"But she was all smiles when I told her that I was in line for promotion. She even sent me a card congratulating me."

"And when was this?"

I didn't have a chance to answer, because the sky fell down on us, caving in the roof of Cyrus's car.

"What the--?" Cyrus shouted. The roof of his 1964 Ford Mustang--his treasure--smacked him on the top of his head. The heavy steel in the car shuddered. Rachel gave a shout. It sounded like she'd yelled that she wasn't dreaming. But that didn't make sense. Of course she wasn't dreaming. The blood dripping down his forehead was proof enough of that.

Something must have fallen on them. Something big. While swerving off the road, he slammed on the breaks. Rachel latched onto his arm, tugging at him and screaming for him to stop, that he shouldn't leave the car. He pushed her away and continued to try and wrench the door open so he could see what the hell had happened to his car.

"You can't! It will kill you!"

It didn't matter whether he wanted to get outside or not, or whether Rachel wanted to stop him. The thick steel frame had been so badly damaged that the door wasn't going to budge. Unwilling to give up, Cyrus started to roll down the partially shattered window. The splintered glass crackled and crunched in the process. Several large pieces dropped into his lap.

"Don't you smell it?" Rachel whispered. Her generally confident voice had turned all quivery and soft.

Now that Rachel had mentioned it, Cyrus did detect a thick scent in the air--stale ozone--which made him wonder if a meteor hadn't landed on his near-mint quality Mustang... formerly near-mint quality Mustang. Would a meteor be covered under his insurance policy?

He reached over and gently brushed aside a loose strand of blond hair that had fanned across Rachel's face. Her stricken expression kicked him low in the belly. The hell with his car, he would give anything to chase her troubles away. "It will be okay, Rach. I won't let anything hurt you."

Fate didn't waste anytime testing that sentiment. A massive arm covered with a silvery-purple fur reached through his open window. Three long yellow talons curled at the end of its meaty paw slashed at Rachel's face. She jerked away just enough that the tips of those lethal talons barely scratched her cheek.

Cyrus snatched up one of the shards of window glass that had landed in his lap and hacked the beast's arm with it. The glass and his hand passed through the shaggy fur and out the other side as if it was merely a holographic projection. No more solid than smoke. The blood on Rachel's cheek told him otherwise. He struck again. And again, the glass moved through the arm with no resistance.

The car shook and groaned as the beast's arm reached across Cyrus, slashing and clicking it talons. Rachel had pressed herself up against the crushed door and had shielded her face. But there was nowhere for her to go. The beast had her cornered and at its mercy.

Without considering his own safety, Cyrus tossed himself over to the passenger side and covered Rachel with his body. He kicked frantically at the car door as the beast slashed deep gashes into his back.

The door just wouldn't budge. And he was getting killed by a creature that was no more real than smoke. This was insane. There had to be a tangible weapon he could use against the beast.

"I always run," Rachel said. "It's the only escape."

Even if he couldn't get them out of the car, perhaps he could outrun it. He pushed Rachel to the floorboards and sat back up, ignoring the pain pulling on his back and gunned the engine. The car lurched, the wheels spinning under the force of the powerful engine. With a screech, his trusty Mustang took off down the road. The batting arm disappeared.

So, it could be outrun...

"We have to go back to Dr. Marled," Rachel said.

"No." He wouldn't take Rachel into hell. There had to be another way to fight this. They could keep running. They could both wake up and discover that this was nothing more than a horrible dream.

Rachel put her hand on his leg. "We have to go back to Dr. Marled. The beast has already hurt others. It has to be stopped before an innocent gets killed." Something about the glassy determination shining in her eyes told him that she was worried, above all else, that he might be killed.

"Don't worry about me. I can take care of the both of us," he said with a swaggering arrogance he knew was a lie. "We will figure this out."

"There isn't time. It's chasing after us. I can hear it coming. I can feel its heavy breath on my neck."

Damn. He felt it, too.

"There must be another way," he insisted.

"Please." That wasn't a word that came to Rachel's lips easily. He knew only too well how her pride ruled her... sometimes made her seem cold and distant. "Please, I beg you, do this as a favor to me."

Several minutes later Cyrus's flattened Mustang tore into the nearly empty parking lot at Unicorp. Dr. Marled was standing outside, waiting for them. She was gripping a large golden cross-shaped talisman and holding it above her head. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was moving. It looked like she was chanting something over and over.

Her head snapped in their direction as soon as Cyrus mashed the Mustang's brakes and brought the car to a quick halt at the lab's front doors. "Come quickly. I can't hold it at bay for long. It has grown too strong."

Cyrus killed the engine and leapt out of the driver side window. Rachel followed. Holding hands, they ran into the building.

"It isn't solid unless it's attacking the flesh," Cyrus told Dr. Marled. He heard her keeping up with them as they ran down the long, sterile hallway. "What can we do? How can we fight something like that?"

"We don't."

That stopped Cyrus dead in his tracks. "What do you mean?"

Dr. Marled was breathing hard when she caught up to Rachel and him. They were a few steps outside her laboratory. "I mean we don't fight the beast. There is no fighting a force like that. We stop it."

Something about the way Dr. Marled stressed the difference between fighting the beast and stopping it didn't sit right Cyrus. "Stop it, how?" he asked, his grip tightened around Rachel's hand. He planned to keep his word and protect her.

Dr. Marled slanted Rachel a look and raised a lonely brow. "Come on inside. Quickly now. We don't have much time. Soon, it will grow too strong and will be completely unstoppable."

"I didn't create this," Rachel said as the passed through the swinging doors.

"How can you be sure?" Dr. Marled asked. "It seems to be focused on you. And the Watchers... they, too, are focused on you."

"And me," Cyrus said. "You said that yourself. The Watchers were calling my name."

"Yeessss," Dr. Marled drawled out the word. "I did. But things have changed. You're no longer part of the equation."

Like hell he wasn't.

"I'm not going to let--!" he started to argue.

"I have a list of suspects." Rachel pushed the crumpled paper into Dr. Marled's hands.

"Hmmm..." Dr. Marled studied the list of names they had come up with in the coffee shop. "This is incomplete. And not precisely accurate. Cyrus isn't your enemy." She pulled out a pen from her pocket and struck his name from the list.

"Wait--" Rachel said, propping her hands on her hips. "He hasn't exactly been my biggest fan, either. You said that negative emotions can hurt others and, if strong enough, they can manifest themselves as creatures like the beast. I sure have been feeling tons of negative vibes from Cyrus. Admittedly, he has good reason, but that doesn't mean that they aren't real... and dangerous."

"As real as the wounds on his back? Didn't he get them while trying to protect you?"

A deep blush flooded Rachel's cheeks and spread down her neck.

"He loves you, honey. Love might get all twisted around in hurt feelings. But true love, like he obviously has for you, isn't going to conjure a beast."

"Well, it's not me!" Rachel snapped. Clutching her middle, she started to pace the room. She flapped one hand in the air. "It's not me! I don't know where the beast came from, but it's not from me!"

"That would be a problem," one of Dr. Marled's assistants said.

Dr. Marled nodded her agreement.

"It's Missy." Cyrus didn't why he'd said that. He didn't know for certain that the grudge Missy had been holding against Rachel ran deep enough to make the impossible possible.

All he had was his gut. It was telling him not to trust Missy.

"No, not her." Rachel slashed a hand through the air.

The floor rumbled. "It's coming," Dr. Marled's assistant warned. "We need to do something."

"Missy?" Dr. Marled asked.

"She's a friend from high school," Rachel explained. "If anything, I should be the one holding a grudge against her. She stole my boyfriend away from me days before the senior prom."

"Ah." Dr. Marled said.

"And ended up pregnant and married to a man she grew to despise, while you followed your dream and became the kind of reporter you both had aspired to become," Cyrus added. "This trouble started shortly after Missy learned about your chance for promotion? She made a big deal out of it?"

"So?" Rachel's pacing picked up speed. The floor's shaking became more pronounced. "She was happy for me, that's all."

"She was seething!" Cyrus shouted. "We just left her not a few minutes ago, and she was seething at the very sight of you!"

"You were with this woman?" Dr. Marled asked in a strangled tone that was growing louder as the strain grew tighter. "A few moments before the attack on the car, you were with her?"

"Yes," Rachel said. "But--"

"It's outside the door. We have to do something," the assistant said. His gaze was hopping around the room like a nervous rabbit.

"Okay," Dr. Marled said. "I think you are right, Cyrus. I think we need to assume this beast arose from Rachel's girlhood friend."

"Then why were the Watchers calling my name?" Rachel asked.

"Who knows?" Dr. Marled shrugged as she gathered up several vials of various colored powders, and began to mix them in an ancient-looking dish made from rough stone. "Perhaps they want us to protect you from harm. Or perhaps you were the key to tracking down its owner. The Watchers aren't of this world, Rachel. Their language is too advanced for us. Their way of thinking too far-reaching for our comprehension."

"What are you doing?" Cyrus asked.

"Nothing has changed with my plans. I intend to send the beast back to the person who created it. It would be best if she could be here, so we could help her survive the absorption process. But there's no time." Her hands moved with lightning speed as she measured and poured and measured some more. "If the beast is allowed to break away from its host, it will be free to wreck havoc, maiming and killing with no one to stop or control it. It will be a danger to the world until the end of time."

Rachel stopped her pacing. For a moment she appeared to be frozen with fear. Cyrus knew better. There were few things that frightened Rachel. And none of them would freeze her into inaction.

"Missy will die?" she asked.

"Yes." Dr. Marled didn't hesitate or try to soften the blow.

"If the beast kills me before it is separated from Missy, will that stop it?"

Dr. Marled carefully placed the vial in her hand back onto the countertop and looked up.

Rachel's jaw tightened. "I won't let Missy die. She has a young son who depends on her. I have no one."

Dr. Marled was shaking her head. "No. To give yourself over to the beast would mean you'd be consigning yourself to the lower depths of hell... forever."

"I won't let Missy die," Rachel repeated, her conviction unwavering.

At that very moment, the beast--a giant of an animal with unkempt, shaggy fur, long teeth that dripped blood, and eerie yellow eyes--appeared in the room. Dr. Marled's assistants scattered.

Cyrus grabbed hold of Rachel and pulled her to the far side of the room. He didn't care what Rachel wanted or that she planned to make a noble sacrifice. He wasn't going to let her do it.

Only Dr. Marled held her ground. She began chanting as she mixed the last few ingredients of the mystic beast-banishing soup she seemed to be preparing.

"No!" Rachel twisted and turned as she fought to free herself from Cyrus's arms. He tightened his grip, unwilling to let her break free. She bit and kicked him. His hold loosened when she landed a fierce blow to his shin. He lost his balance and she was gone.

"Take me!" She ran straight up to the beast and held her arms out, giving herself over to him. "I will not let you hurt anyone I love... not even Missy. If you want to hurt someone, hurt me."

Dr. Marled tossed the contents of the stone bowl into the air. The powdery particles sparkled as they hovered for several breathless seconds. The display appeared to distract the beast. It looked up and watched the glittering specks turn an ashy red as they gathered into a cloud and floated about its head.

The beast growled and batted at them.

"If you're going to do this, Rachel, open your heart. You have to fill your heart with pure compassion toward your friend, Missy, in order to absorb the beast for her. It will kill you otherwise."

Tears burned Cyrus's eyes as he watched the beast give up on the glittering cloud surrounding him and turn his attentions back to Rachel. It swiped its huge claw against her chest. She stumbled backwards, but didn't fall. Blood bloomed on her clothes.

He tried to reach her, to stand between her and the beast. Dr. Marled's assistants held him back.

Rachel remained, putting herself in harm's way... an incredibly stupid, but brave move. Her arms were shaking as she faced the creature of her nightmares, giving it free reign to do its worst.

"Keep your heart open," Dr. Marled warned. She started to chant again.

The glittering, red-ash cloud grew in size. The smoke mingled with the beast, flowing through it. Cyrus had to squint to make out the barest outline of the monster through the thick cloud filling the room. It smelled faintly of paprika.

Rachel screamed as the beast struck out again and again. He was digging deeper and deeper into her. Merging with her.

Cyrus tried to break away from Dr. Marled's assistants. They were too strong for him. Three against one, hardly good odds. He could do nothing but watch as Rachel sank to the ground.

The red cloud lifted and the room returned to its natural sterile white hue... the difference was nearly blinding.

"It's gone," Dr. Marled said. "She did it."

The assistants released Cyrus. The moment he was free, he charged over to Rachel. Dr. Marled beat him to her. She moved with the energy of a woman half her age and had no trouble dropping to her knees beside Rachel.

"Is she--?" Cyrus asked, afraid to finish that question. Even more afraid to hear the answer. His heart wrenched at the sight of his Rachel, broken and motionless on the cold laboratory floor. He'd been angry with her for breaking his heart, true. Never, not even in his deepest rage, did he ever wish her--

"Hey girlie," Dr. Marled shouted at Rachel. "There's nothing that gets the higher powers--angels, if you will--in a more frightening fury of fire than a mortal giving up on life before her time." Dr. Marled's nose was nearly pressed to Rachel's. She grabbed hold of Rachel's limp shoulders and shook her. "You don't want to face them when they are raging. Do you hear me? You don't want to be the recipient of their wrath. You think that beast was scary... just wait and see what the higher powers have waiting for you."

A long silence followed. Cyrus's hopes dropped. She was gone. He'd tried to protect her, but because he didn't understand what they were fighting, his efforts were inadequate.

She was gone... and there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do.

"It's all up to her now," Dr. Marled said. She gently laid Rachel's bruised and all too motionless body on the shiny linoleum floor and then turned her soulful gaze toward Cyrus. "She has to make the decision."

"Come back to me," he pleaded, suddenly believing in something unseen and untested--a higher force that can cross the membranes of reality and find miracles in the depths of despair. He believed, simply believed, because his heart told him to. "Don't leave me, Rachel. Don't take your light away from this world."

A heartbeat later Rachel visibly swallowed. And then--as if an angel had touched down onto earth--her body jolted from the force of a sudden breath being sucked back into her lungs.

Her eyelids slowly parted, revealing a pair of the most welcoming cornflower blue eyes he'd ever seen. Her mouth widened; her blood-smeared lips formed the mischievous smile Cyrus had fallen in love with the first time he'd laid his eyes on Rachel from across the frozen food aisle at the supermarket.

"We're like newly fallen snow, you and I," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. "A second chance on fresh ground... and with lives that have benefited from a few more seasons of growth." She drew a deep breath. "I love you, Cyrus."

And with that overly gushy sentiment, I began a new life that day. One where I became more aware of the people around me and of their endless tumble of emotions.

A great power lies within each of us, an awesome and somewhat frightening gift bestowed upon us by a divinity I won't pretend to fully understand--I doubt I ever will.

All I know is, that from now on, I intend to use that gift to do the works of the angels.

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