"Okay... Explain to me what this thing is supposed to do again?" I eyed the bit of oddness I held warily. It looked a bit like a new age Christmas ornament. That is, assuming Christmas had anything to do with spider webs and feathers. I had a vague suspicion I'd seen something like it in a truck stop at one point.
My roommate Katrina looked up from her textbook and sighed, clearly I was harshing her good vibe. "It's a dreamcatcher, Betts. It catches dreams." Oh great. Thanks, Kat. You really told me there.
"Oh, that's a relief. I thought it was a Wiccan tennis racket." I smacked my forehead. "Thanks so much for clearing that up for me."
"Hey, you're the one that keeps waking up with nightmares." She drew a smiley-face in the margin of her text with a pink highlighter. "I'm just trying to help. Insulting my religion isn't exactly the best way to thank me." Angry eyebrows were added to the smiley as an afterthought. Cute.
"What happened to Buddhism?" I arched an eyebrow, trying hard not to glance at the happy Buddha perched on top of the fridge. He creeped me out. No self-respecting god should look that perversely cheerful.
"That was last month." Well, I gave her that much, at least she could admit she was flaky. It was actually one of her more endearing qualities. She cooked, she cleaned, her music was (usually) not obnoxious. As long as she was happy with the condition of her immortal soul, who was I, the classic Agnostic, to judge?
Leaning on the back of the couch, I eyed the odd little thing I held again. It was pretty enough, typical of the sort of knick-knack you'd find in the dusty little bookshops Kat frequented. I'd been dragged into enough of them, mostly because as long as she didn't push her luck I didn't complain. That was sort of the basis of our friendship, cheerful neutrality. Kat and I had known one another since the freshman year of undergrad. I think she'd been dabbling in Judaism then. Most Religions majors thought of their work as a form of higher calling. To Kat it was a buffet. Try a little of this, and maybe a dab of that. My mom would have called her a hippie, with her long dark hair, broomstick skirts and John Lennon sunglasses, but I think Kat redefined the word and made it her own.
"Okay Kat, now that we've covered basic semantics," I said after a moment, "how does it work?"
Taking pity on my poor, unenlightened soul, she plucked the dreamcatcher from my hand and let it dangle from her fingertips. It twisted slowly, the crystal at its center catching the light. "You hang it above your bed. The nightmares are attracted to the crystal and become ensnared in the web." She made an appropriately mystical flourish. "The good dreams slide down the feathers, and into your head." Her fingers wiggled at me significantly. "Did you miss the class on this in high school, Betts?"
"Hm." I took the dreamcatcher when she offered it back, regarding it thoughtfully. Well, I guess it couldn't hurt. "Are you sure it will work?"
She lifted one shoulder in a shrug and turned back to studying for her final. "Try it and see, Elizabeth."
Frowning slightly, I straightened and padded down the hallway to my bedroom, toeing the door closed behind me. Casper was asleep on my bed, a fluffy cloud on the dark blue, celestial-patterned bedspread. I snagged a thumbtack out of my desk drawer and knelt on the bed so I could stick the tack into the wall above it, trying to gauge how high I needed to go to prevent the dreamcatcher from becoming a cat toy. Threading the loop over the tack, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. Somehow it didn't look nearly as impressive, lost in a sea of white plaster. Oh well.
I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Half an hour until Tae Kwon Do, which meant I had five minutes to check my university email. I sat down at the desk, flipped open my laptop and tapped the touchpad, watching my OSU wallpaper come up as it came back from standby.
I'd come to Oregon State as a freshman for their biology program. My undergrad degree was Bio with a minor in Zoology, and for a brief while I thought my destiny had been vet school. A part of me still hadn't quite given up on that, actually, but junior year always came back to haunt me. That entire fall semester had been rough, and none of it looked good on a vet school app. It was time to cut my losses and move on.
Let's see... Email from my boss, spam, spam... Tilting my head, I clicked on the last new message, skimming through it. It was a summer internship notice, odd because it was so late in the term, a research position in conjunction with the University of Washington. 'To study the re-emergence of the native wolf of the Olympic Peninsula.' Hm. My eyes flicked to the little wolf statue that sat next to my monitor, and I impulsively reached out to pat his head. Wouldn't hurt to run it by one of the profs tomorrow, get a feel for what they wanted. If nothing else, it would be nice to get out of Corvallis for a while. Summer time here had too many memories associated with it.
Speaking of which... "Crap, I'm going to be late." Five minutes had become fifteen, which left me barely enough time to stuff myself into my uniform, tie on my red belt and go scooting out the door.
The forest was an ancient thing, and it folded itself around me, holding me prisoner inside a brilliant green cage. There was no sky, no light beyond the odd, filtered half-light, and the ever-present chill crept into my bones, leaching deeper with every breath. I shivered, tried to find the path I knew I'd been walking only moments before, but it eluded me, sinking back into the primeval depths of the forest floor. Uneasy, I picked a direction and started walking, looking for some distinction to the trees around me, some sign I was going the right way.
A heavy stillness lay on the trees, with not even a rustle of leaves or the call of a bird to break the silence. The world seemed to be holding its breath, whether in dread or anticipation I had no way of knowing. All at once, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, a chill going through me. Something was watching me. I whirled, hands pulled up into fists, but there was nothing behind me. Teeth on edge, I searched my surroundings, but there was nothing to be found but more green.
Then a sound broke the stillness, carrying through the trees as though in some medieval great hall. A wolf's howl. It felt as though someone had dumped a bucket of icy water on me. I trembled, frozen with a fear I didn't quite understand. Breathing hard, on the edge of panic, I slowly turned to face the way I'd been heading.
He was huge, easily the size of a horse, with a thick pelt of a reddish-brown color. Like ground cinnamon. We faced each other, and his dark eyes watched me with a fierce, human intelligence. I was shaking so hard I could barely stand, reacting with the instincts of some distant ancestor that remembered what it meant to be prey. Shifting my weight, I took a step back... and the wolf pulled his lips back from teeth as long and sharp as daggers, and a growl like distant thunder rumbled to life in his chest.
I'm going to die. The thought had no peace, no mental images of meeting with long-lost family pets... of finally being held by Josh again. What screamed through me as the wolf leapt was how very much I wanted to live.
I sat bolt upright in bed, unseating an indignant Casper from the crook of my arm. I was shaking so hard it hurt, my heart racing in my chest. Twisting, I looked up at the dreamcatcher, and I could swear that for just a moment, the crystal at the center of it glowed.
I fell out of the bed, stumbling to the door and into the bathroom I shared with Kat. Twisting the cold water on, I flipped the lightswitch, staring into my own, haggard face. Wild, red-blonde curls were in disarray, the circles beneath my eyes almost the same dark blue of the irises. "It was just a dream," I muttered softly, filling my hands with cold water and splashing it on my face. Just a dream... and every time I closed my eyes, I could see that intelligent, preternatural gaze, trying to pierce into me as though it meant to turn me inside out.
Putting my hands over my face, I sagged back against the door, sliding down it until I sat on the bathroom rug. There was no way I could go back to sleep now. I knew with near-certainty that the moment I let down my defenses, the wolf would be waiting for me.
Fine. I'd just have to wait him out. Even wolves have to sleep sometime, right?
Kat found me slumped against the door the next morning, asleep with a contented Casper in my lap. Fortunately, what little sleep I had gotten that way was dreamless. While she showered and got ready for her morning class, I shuffled into the bedroom and fell into my desk chair. I had an Intro to Zo class I had to be ready to do an exam review with before lunch, I was going to have to pull myself together somehow.
Kat came through for me once again, drifting in with her hair in a towel and two mugs of the fragrant gourmet coffee she preferred. She set one by my elbow, then turned and leaned against the desk as she sipped her own. "You know, Betts," she began cautiously, "I realize sometimes the nightmares are worse than others. But... the accident was three years ago." She bit her lip. "I'm just wondering if you need to talk to someone."
"No." I shook my head, burning my tongue on the coffee.
"You know I'm just worried about you."
"I know." I sighed. "It wasn't about the accident last night, Kat. It was different." It took every ounce of control I possessed not to turn and look at the dreamcatcher.
"Oh." She had a way of packing a lot of worry into a single syllable. In a different situation, I might have laughed.
"I don't want to talk about it right now, I can't." I took another swallow of coffee and got to my feet. "I'm going to take a shower. If I miss you on the way out, I'll see you this afternoon." What a coward. Too afraid to tell her, even more afraid she might bring up the accident again. So I fled.
The shower felt good after my sleepless night. Casper jumped up between the two layers of shower curtain, walking along the edge of the tub and purring like a mini lion. I smiled, stepping under the spray to wet my hair. As soon as I closed my eyes, I could see the wolf again, staring at me with those eyes.
Gritting my teeth, I set my jaw... and glared right back at him.