“Let’s get the formalities over with before we begin.” Dean Nelson shifted through paperwork scattered across the table. “Patient identification number A692. Age, seventeen. Mother, unknown. Father, unknown. No living relatives.” He rubbed his bearded chin. “Hmm, that’s unfortunate. Name, Zzz…” He flipped back through the case file.
Zanya watched everything from her special spot—center stage in the nearly vacant evaluation room, in a single wooden chair—as he butchered her name, yet again. She should have been used to it, considering every dean who had come and gone did exactly the same thing. “Zan-yuh,” she said, “with a short a.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “Right. Well, now that we’ve been introduced, let’s continue. Nice to meet you, Zanya. I’m Dean Nelson.” He smiled, though the deepening creases in his forehead made it seem painful. “How are you feeling today?”
She glanced at him between layers of chestnut brown hair draped along her high-set cheekbones. Squinting, she and blinked under the burning lights, then turned her gaze to the floor. “I’m okay.”
She shrugged. Why the hell was he acting like he cared, anyway? He was just one in a long line of interim administrators. The stress of working with a school full of insane teenagers every day ran most of them off pretty quick. This one had that eager zeal—all too happy to pick her brain—and he probably wouldn’t last long either.
Dean Nelson set down the papers. “I know I’m new here, but in order to conduct your evaluation, you need to answer my questions.”
The two board members flanking him shifted in their seats. Zanya’s breath sped up. Damn it. If she didn’t want to be sedated again, she’d have to keep the panic attack at bay.
She shut her eyes and played a classical melody in her mind. Ludwig van Beethoven’s violin concert in D major, Op. 61—Larghetto. That piece always slowed her heart rate. She imagined the sounds pouring out of her violin as she caressed imaginary strings.
Dean Nelson cleared his throat, jarring her out of the moment. Annoyance tugged at her, but at least she could breathe again.
She lifted her chin. “I said I’m fine.”
“How are you managing the panic attacks? Have you had any recently?”
“Yeah. I had one last night…and the night before.”
“They’re becoming more frequent?”
If he had bothered to actually read her case file instead of just skimming through it, he’d already know the answer. “Not really. Pretty much the same.”
“And how are you sleeping?”
“It says in your case file you suffer from night terrors. Are you still experiencing them?”
Dean Nelson frowned. “Okay. Let’s talk a little about The Man. Is he still hurting you?”
The mention of him made the hairs on Zanya’s arms twitch. She pulled her sleeve over the blue and yellow bruise that encompassed her wrist. This team of board-certified, renowned medical professionals didn’t know the first thing about what could be found in her dreams.
They claimed she suffered from severe anxiety and night terrors. They had no idea. The knots in her stomach tightened. She balled her fists, but stayed quiet.
After all, what could she say? If she told them the man in her dreams hurt her almost every night, they would continue to believe she was delusional. If she lied and told them she hurt herself, it would only confirm their misdiagnosis. She’d just tell the truth and prove both theories correct.
“He’s always in my dreams.” Bits and pieces of her nightmares reeled in her head. “He’s always waiting for me.”
“But you do understand that a dream cannot hurt you? Dreams are simply images, feelings, and sensations that collect and pool involuntarily in your mind during sleep. They can seem very real, but once you wake up, they’re gone. A simple figment of your imagination.”
Zanya fidgeted nervously with the sleeve of her uniform, twisting a seam that had come undone.
“And dreams certainly don’t leave bruises or any of the other alarming wounds Nurse Faber has found on you over the years.” He flashed photos taken during Zanya’s countless visits to the hospital.
“I guess.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, forgetting about the fresh gash on the back of her hand—evidence of last night’s brawl with a demon of some sort.
Nurse Faber leaned forward in her seat and peered at the swollen wound. “Where did you get that cut? I haven’t seen that, and it needs to be treated—maybe with stitches.”
Dean Nelson scribbled a note on her evaluation paper. “Perhaps we should continue this patient’s assessment once we get an updated report of her physical condition.”
The nurse stood and waved Zanya to her feet. “Come on, honey. Let’s get that taken care of.”
* * *
The stone sat high on the altar’s peak, as it always did, glowing like a beacon in the darkness. Its whispers echoed in Zanya’s mind, guiding her blind footsteps. It drew her in with some invisible tether—a connection she couldn’t explain.
She never understood why she searched for it.
Longed for it.
With each careful step, her bare feet padded up the cool, smooth steps. Then another source of light flickered on, casting a soft glow around her.
The light churned out from her chest, pulsing with hues of blue and white—colors of recognition. The stone and the illumination in her chest seemed to be connected; only flickering to life when they were close.
At the temple’s base, she steadily ascended the narrow steps until she reached the peak. Zanya cupped the stone in both hands and lifted it from its perch. Orbs of light twinkled over its smooth surface.
Searing pain tore through her belly. She gasped and jolted forward, then wrapped shaky fingers around a blade protruding from her gut. Scarlet liquid slowly seeped through her shirt. The stone dropped from her hand and thudded to the altar, rolling down one step at a time until it reached the bottom. The blade was yanked out of her, though she couldn’t see by whom. No matter. It was always the same person who watched her die.
Zanya stumbled down the steps while gripping her belly. When she reached the bottom of the temple, she fell to her knees and curled into a fetal position, the pain more than she could bear. The edges of her vision became fuzzy. Darkness closed in while she stared helplessly at the stone lying just feet away.
Warmth cradled her body. Death was warm. She’d always heard passing would be peaceful, like slipping into a pool of serenity. With her cheek rested against the cold ground, hot liquid saturated the dry, cracked dirt.
A slithering creature slinked toward her, its eyes as black as onyx. Thousands of legs stuck into the hard soil, pushing its armored body forward.
It was not a creature Zanya would soon forget, as the last time she encountered it, it had killed her—again.
The Man had to be lingering somewhere nearby. His bitter scent whirled through the air. His footsteps grew louder as he approached.
Not again. She lay like a suffocating fish, gulping in her final breaths.
Zanya jerked awake and shot up in bed, gasping for air. She clawed at her chest where a thin mark etched her skin. It burned, as if someone had pressed a cattle brand to the delicate curve between her breasts. She moaned, willing away the pain. It never took longer than a half hour, but it hurt, and this time, it nearly made her cry.
Zanya glanced at a clock mounted on the far wall. It read three thirty. She wouldn’t be able to sleep for the rest of the night. She lay back down in bed and rolled onto her side, searching for a hint that Tara was awake. Only a few feet separated their beds. Tara was the only person in the world who understood her.
Tara shifted under the covers, and Zanya caught a glimpse of her face—her angelic, freckled cheeks, rosy and flawless, under dark auburn lashes. Tara yanked the thin blanket over her shoulders and under her chin.
Zanya whispered, “Are you awake?” After a moment of silence, she sighed and exercised her only option—to stare at the ceiling and wait for the morning community alarm.
At six o’clock sharp, the bell sounded. Tara blinked open her eyes. With a sleepy stare, her lips tightened and she let out a deep sigh. “Another nightmare?”
“What else is new? That’s the third one this week.” Zanya rolled on her side to face her. “At least it wasn’t accompanied by a midnight panic attack this time.” Zanya touched the now faded mark on her chest. “They’re getting worse.”
“Any real-life damage?”
Zanya shook her head. “Not this time.”
The day unwound as usual. Secular studies followed by a mid-day group therapy session, journal entry writing, and their afternoon dose of medications.
Zanya found her last class of the day and ascended to the fourth row in the music room. Miss Lippard must have been sick. A sub had written his name on the stand-alone chalkboard in the front of the class: Dr. Fitzgerald.
Zanya slouched in her chair, pinching her violin case between her feet.
Great, another doctor. He’d be watching the students during class, assessing, and trying to pick out which students needed more psych work. “Patient B843 has the beginning symptoms of early onset Diogenes Syndrome, and patient A119 seems to be suffering from clinical depression, brought on by early childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect.” Blah, blah, blah. Ugh, she hated doctors.
Tara skipped in, holding her clarinet; an instrument she wasn’t particularly good at. All students were required to take up an instrument. Apparently, music helped to express emotion and heal physiological damage.
Tara sat beside her. “Hey.” She tucked a curl behind her ear. “New teacher?”
“Just a sub. Miss Lippard is out sick. I needed to ask her a question about our sheet music.” Zanya leaned forward and propped her elbows on her knees. “I guess I’ll have to wait.”
“Yeah. The sub probably doesn’t know a thing about music, anyway.”
“Well, just try not to be,” she waved her hand in the air, “yourself. I don’t want him picking your brain.”
Tara grinned. “Afraid he’ll discover what a genius I am?”
“More like what a—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” Tara puckered her lips, then smiled.
When the bell rang, Dr. Fitzgerald made his way to the center of the room. A tailed sports coat hugged his tall, lean frame. His skin—like toasted caramel—complemented his dark brown eyes. He was handsome for a middle-aged man, and she tried to imagine what he might have looked like twenty years ago.
He locked his hands behind his back and cleared his throat. Zanya sat up straight as the room fell silent.
“Good morning.” He had a charming Spanish accent. “As I’m sure you have already noticed, your teacher is out for the day. Everyone please get your books and arrange into groups.” He pointed to several areas of the large music room as he spoke. “Strings in the upper right corner, percussion in the lower left, and winds in the center. I understand from Miss Lippard’s instructions the advanced strings students are working on a piece, Canon Pachelbel in D Major. Those students, please break off to the lower right corner. Everyone else, practice your sheet music.”
Violin in hand, Zanya descended the stairs, the soles of her shoes catching on the Berber carpet along the way. Canon. She rolled her eyes. If the other advanced students practiced more often, they’d be on to something more challenging by now.
She reached the right corner of the room and took her place at first chair. With the rest of her group ready, she tucked the chinrest in place.
Her fingers relaxed, and she held the bow with balance rather than tension. Her pinkie pinched against the frog, loosely cradling it in her hand, her index finger draped over the top.
Just holding the sleek wooden tool made her breath rhythmic. It was a rare feeling—peace. But with her violin cradled against her and the familiar strings calling out, all her fears melted away.
She drew in a cleansing breath and began to play. The notes pulsed through her body, feeding life to parts of her soul that lay dormant, hiding from the realities of life.
She became lost in the melody while each note stirred her heart and awoke her senses. The darkness, the pain, it all stepped back, overpowered by the light and energy of the notes. Music was always there to fill the space in her heart that she had locked away.
With one final pass over the strings, the vibrato left her with a feeling of drunken satisfaction. Her muscles relaxed as she exhaled and opened her eyes, then lowered her bow to her lap.
Dr. Fitzgerald watched her intently. His gaze did not waver as she sat motionless, returning his stare. He peered into her. Through her.
The bell rang, and she slinked out of the room, avoiding eye contact with the sub.
* * *
Weekends weren’t much fun at the institution. To kill time, Zanya sometimes listened to Tara’s stories about what normal kids did on Friday nights. Parties, bonfires, sleepovers. Teenage girls painting each other’s toenails, their polished feet later dressed in fuzzy slippers, and blushed cheeks that accompanied stories about a boy and a kiss.
None of that happened here. And although religion was only taught for educational purposes in their institution, Zanya often felt like she was stuck in purgatory. Long, terrifying nights. Tedious, drawn-out days that always ended in the same way with lights-out in her assigned bed.
Someday it would be different. Someday, things would change.
“Lights out in fifteen minutes,” the dorm mother announced, shuffling through the sleeping quarters. Her shoes squeaked against the tile with every step. “Let’s go, ladies.” She clapped to gain everyone’s attention. “Get changed and into bed.”
Zanya snatched her pajamas and slipped into the bathroom. When she came out, all but the backlights were switched off. The soft glow cast over the room painted tall shadows of headboards on the walls.
After settling in bed, she braced herself on the edge and leaned over to inspect the dark space beneath her mattress.
“There’s nothing under there,” Tara whispered.
Zanya glanced up. “I know.”
“No, you don’t, or you wouldn’t be checking.”
Zanya’s attention returned to the dark space. If Tara only knew what could be hiding in the darkness, though it was best she didn’t. Zanya was glad her friend wasn’t taunted by the same horrifying images she was every night. It gave her someone to talk to—someone who wasn’t equally paranoid, and who made her feel normal.
A shudder crawled up her arms and down her spine. “There’s no harm in checking.”
“There’s plenty of harm, Zanya.” Tara played with the corner of her pillow. “The board will never place you with a foster family if you don’t show them you’re getting better.”
“Who said I want a foster family? Besides, I have you. You’re all the family I need.” Zanya slipped under the over-starched sheets.
The lights shut off and the room fell silent. Zanya closed her eyes, wishing, praying, that just for one night she would sleep peacefully.
The fire alarm sounded. Bright red-and-white emergency lights cast color over the room. The screaming sirens sent every student shooting out of bed. Staff members flooded the sleeping quarters. They rounded up the children and shouted instructions to form a line and exit the building.
Zanya jumped up and followed Tara to the back door and down a ramp, which lead them outside into the bitterly cold night. She hugged herself as breath flowed from her lips in clouds of white.
Emergency vehicles sped down the gravel driveway. They skidded to a halt, and a team of firemen loaded with gear poured out of the trucks.
While Zanya watched the men in uniform, a strange sensation tugged at the back of her mind. Her eyes narrowed. Shivers quaked her muscles. She blinked and huddled against Tara as a stretcher was unfolded from an ambulance.
“Oh, crap!” Tara’s eyes grew wide. “Do you think someone got hurt? I hope it’s not another suicide attempt. I swear to God…”
As Tara rambled on, Zanya couldn’t shake the feeling someone was watching her. She glanced over her shoulder at the tree line of the forest—aspen and beech trees sprinkled between a thick blanket of fallen leaves. But there was nothing. No one.
She turned back around, the freezing temperatures biting at her toes. She hadn’t thought to put on her slippers, and the soles of her feet were paying a heavy price. She balanced on one foot, then the other.
“I mean, if every kid here who hated their lives tried to kill themselves, we’d have nobody left,” Tara continued to rant. “Just two more years and I’m so outta here.”
A whisper, from what seemed like far away, caressed Zanya’s ears. She glanced over her shoulder at the tops of frail trees swaying under the moonlight. Leaves danced across the soggy ground, blown by gusts of chilled wind. She rubbed her arms.
Maybe it was just the breeze. Through the branches, it could sound like a whisper. Just as she prepared to chalk it up to fatigue and chaos, she spotted a tiny shadow lurking between the trees.
Zanya gripped her arms tighter. She blinked once, twice… Her eyes watered from the cold. When she blinked again, the shadow was gone. She spun back around, determined to ignore any more noises.
The image of the tiny shadow pulsed in her mind. Another whisper. Zanya’s heart raced. The urge to look again grew stronger, and when she finally collected the nerve, she turned around one last time.
The figure stood motionless just beyond the first row of trees.
Not just a figure—a girl in a thin, white nightgown with her hands hanging at her sides.
Zanya tugged on Tara’s sleeve. “Turn around.”
Tara’s attention was solely focused on the broad-chested firemen. Zanya tugged harder. “Turn around and look at this.”
Tara finally obeyed and followed Zanya’s attention toward the trees. She gasped. “What the hell is she doing out there?”
Zanya shook her head. Without saying another word, Tara stalked toward the woods.
“Wha… Where are you going?” Zanya’s voice cracked, her gaze flickering between Tara and the child.
“To get her.” When Zanya didn’t reply, Tara stopped and spun to face her. “Well? Are you coming?”
“Am I coming?” The eerie night suddenly consumed her. “I can’t. You know I hate the dark. And there could be…” She frantically searched her mind for some epic excuse to keep Tara from trekking forward. “Wolves.”
Wolves? That was the best she could come up with?
Tara snorted. “It’s fine, Zanya. I’ll go alone. It’ll only take a sec.”
Zanya shifted her weight as Tara walked toward the shadowed figure standing unnervingly motionless in the woods.
“I…I…” Zanya forced her feet to uproot from the ground and rushed to catch up. “I’ll come with you.”
Tara grinned. “You have to admit, being eaten by a hungry pack of wolves is still better than being stuck in this loony bin by yourself.”
Zanya’s eyes widened. She’d made the wolf thing up, but what if…
Tara rested her hand on her hip and cocked her head. “Oh, come on. I’m just kidding.”
“Definitely not funny.”
“Sorry.” She grabbed Zanya’s hand. “Now come on. The longer we wait, the more likely it is she’ll catch frostbite. Poor thing is out here in nothing but that dress.”
Zanya walked over the damp leaves, pushing muddy water through the moss, between the cracks of her toes.
Now just yards away, Tara reached out to the young girl. “Hey. Come here. We’ll take you back.”
A gust of wind blew, carrying the child’s blonde waves off her shoulders. Her bright green eyes seemed to glow in the silky moonlight.
Tara dropped her arms and sighed. “I guess she likes freezing her ass off in the middle of the night.” When Tara stepped closer, the child darted into the woods. Tara scoffed. “I never want to have kids.”
Zanya blinked at the maze of shuddering trees. “Let’s get out of here.” She stepped back. “Now.”
“We have to get that girl. If she stays out here overnight, she’ll freeze to death.”
Zanya couldn’t feel the cold anymore. Whether that was good or bad, she wasn’t sure.
The little girl carved a deeper path into the forest.
Tara shook her head. “Something’s not right. It’s like she’s running away from us.”
“Maybe she’s one of the more critical psych patients.”
“I don’t know, maybe.” Tara cupped her fingers over her nose and mouth to keep them warm while she searched their surroundings. “You’re right. We shouldn’t have come out here alone. Let’s go back.”
A tiny girl, no older than eight or nine years old, stepped into sight. Her nightgown was damp and smeared with mud.
Tara’s eyebrows crooked downward. “There you are. Now we can get out of here.” Tara held out her hand to the child, who only stared at her reaching fingers.
The child stepped to the side and slid her small hand into Zanya’s. The little girl’s bare feet was covered in pine needles.
“Come on,” Zanya said. “I’ll carry you back. You must be freezing out here with no shoes.” She would know, being in the exact same situation. She lifted the small-framed child to her hip, and the girl wound her legs around Zanya’s body. “What’s your name, sweetie?”
She didn’t reply.
“She’s probably too freaked out to talk,” Tara said. “Let’s just get back.”
Zanya did her best to shield the child from the wind as she followed Tara back toward the orphanage. She hummed the tune to Romance softly in the little girl’s ear. The melody had always calmed her. Maybe it would do the same for the kid.
The girl’s cheek pressed against hers. “Thank you for rescuing me,” she whispered in a tiny, angelic voice.
Her humming must have worked. “You’re welcome, sweetie.”
The girl’s blonde hair bobbed up and down with a subtle nod. “Everything will be fine, Zanya. Do not be afraid.”
Zanya smiled softly. “I’m not scared. Are you?”
“No.” The little girl hugged her tighter. The stars twinkled above them blurred into streaks. Her head spun and her knees buckled. She collapsed onto the damp forest floor.
Trapped in a thick mental fog, she fought to break through. Her eyes fluttered open and closed. Snapshots of what was happening around her filtered through the cerebral haze.
The girl stood over her, staring down with a sweet face and bright eyes. A tiny smile curled the corners of her delicate lips.
Another voice. It was stronger. Deeper. Who… God, she was so tired. She would give anything to be able to just relax her mind and drift off.
A mixture of voices and a shout from Tara sprouted a renewed resolve, and Zanya pushed against the desire to sleep with all her might. When she managed to force open her eyes, a dark-haired man leaned over her. Tara crept toward him with a small log clenched in her hand.
Heavy lids drew over her eyes.
A loud thud followed by scrambling movements forced Zanya’s eyes open one last time.
The man struggled to hold a flailing Tara under his arm like a bag of potatoes while rubbing the back of his head. Was he talking to himself? The child seemed to be paying attention, but didn’t reply. Still, while Tara kicked and punched, he continued to hold what seemed like a one-sided conversation.
A second later he dropped Tara to the ground with a shout, and lifted his shirt to find a crescent bite wound over his ribs.
The young girl loomed over Tara; then, silence.