For Mom, who always encouraged me to dream
(even when it weirded you out)
Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
ever dared to dream before.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Edgar opened one eye to a slit.
The passenger car jostled, and there arose from beneath, one long metal-on-metal cry. The sound squealed above the clatter of tracks, then faded with the hot sooty belch of smokestack steam. It merged, at last, with the staticky whispers that had awoken him.
“Does he sleep?”
Edgar felt his muscles clench. He took pains to stay calm, to not move, to keep his breathing steady, measured.
It had been during the passage through the last tunnel, when the world had once again gone black, that he’d first become aware of their renewed presence. The demons. They had returned. Always they returned. To drag him from this world into the other.
A shudder ran through him. He let his eye slip shut.
“Watch him,” rasped another voice. “He will take the next train.”
Edgar’s hand on the armrest twitched. The sweat of his fever now became the cold sweat of fear, and it beaded on his broad brow until he felt a trickle slide down his temple.
He could not go back with them. Not when he had come so close to severing his link with their world— her world—forever.
He heard the sharp slide of the compartment door and stealthily hazarded to raise his eyelid once more.
A stout man in a snug uniform pushed into the compartment.
“Arriving in Baltimore,” he announced, his voice a mellow drone. Edgar knew the man would not— could not—perceive his pursuers, their grotesque grins, their fiendish claws.
The man brushed past. Edgar seized his chance. He stooped low, making use of the conductor’s wide frame to shield his movement as he slid from his seat. Instinctively, his grip tightened on Dr. Carter’s malacca cane, the one he had taken such care to switch out for his own. The one within which slumbered a sleek silver blade.
The wheels squealed again. Without warning, the train lurched to a halt.
Edgar faltered, crying out. He caught himself, gripping the sides of the door frame, and turned in time to see the hollow black gazes of his pursuers lift and capture his.
He broke into a run.
They slunk after him, their furious whispers now like a torrent of rushing leaves.
Edgar dashed through the next compartment and the next. His pathway ahead narrowed with travelers gathering their belongings, blind to the monsters that followed in his wake.
Someone shouted as he shoved through, nearly toppling another man to the floor.
He closed in upon the nearest exit and stumbled out, almost losing his hold on the doctor’s cane as he staggered onto the platform. He grasped the silver handle, itching to draw forth the sword concealed within, even in the midst of such a dense crowd.
With a piercing hiss, the train released a clouded burst of steam. Edgar slipped into its enveloping cover and raised the hood of his cloak.
He watched the creatures emerge from the train, their forms loosening into miasmic coils of black. They spilled forth from the doorway, curling with the steam before re-forming once more into wholeness.
Tall, gaunt, and rakish, the demons convened for only a moment, then dispersed in search.
Edgar merged with the assembly of fellow travelers. He made his way through the sea of the oblivious, his sights narrowed on the train that could return him to Richmond. To the singular hope that waited for him there.
Reaching the second platform, he lingered, hesitated, his back turned to the crowd. Then, with the conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” Edgar grabbed the railing and hoisted himself up.
“There!” he heard one of them growl.
He hurried into the compartment, glancing behind him once—once only, peering through the darkened windows. Yes, they followed, dogged him like hellhounds!
Not until the first chug of the steam engine fell upon his ears did he fling open the closest door and leap from the moving train back onto the platform. Staggering to his feet, he rushed headlong into the crowd while behind him the train, puffing hard, picked up speed, his pursuers still aboard.
He knew that they would not be fooled for long.
No matter. There were other means of reaching Richmond.
Edgar pushed through the throng and found his way to the busy street, where he hailed a carriage.
“To the harbor,” he called, and rapped the cane upon the rear wall as he shut the door behind him.
The carriage jerked, tottered, then rolled into action.
Edgar fell back within the coach, allowing himself a deep breath. He braced a quavering hand at his heated brow, where, behind his right eye, a dull ache began to throb.
The carriage swayed as it ambled through the narrow streets, and soon the pain in his head was replaced by a queer yet familiar tingling. It crept upon him, pervading his senses like the dull, faint prickle of a limb gone numb.
Slowly Edgar lowered his hand.
He turned his gaze to the shifting shadows at his right.
She sat beside him, her slight form draped in luminous white gossamer.
“No,” he murmured.
But the enveloping blackness had already begun to take its hold.
It wrapped him like a sheet, and as her hand, cold as marble, grasped his, he felt the pitch overtake him as it never had before.
In an instant, the blackness devoured him, leaving the coach vacant.
By the end of fourth period, Isobel’s espresso buzz from that morning’s venti latte had long since worn off. She yawned, fast approaching crash-and-burn territory and shifted in her seat as Mr. Swanson droned on and on about the green-eyed monster, Desdemona, thus, thou, and yea verily. She traced and retraced the looping spiral design she’d all but ground into the front of her blue notebook.
“And with that,” Mr. Swanson said, finally snapping closed his ultrathick teacher’s copy of their text, cueing the rest of the class to follow suit with a unanimous thunk, “we’ll leap into further discussion about Iago and his supposed honesty on Monday.”
Isobel straightened in her seat, brushed her sheet of blond hair behind one shoulder, and shut her own book with relish.
“But hold on, hold on,” he said above the rustling and scraping of chairs. He raised both hands and lowered them through the air, as if such a motion somehow held the power to still the room and reinstate the Elizabethan-literature-inspired stupor he’d managed to cast over all.
Kids jonesing for lunch and already halfway out of their seats sank back down again, their butts reconnecting with their chairs like magnets snapping together. All around, backpacks slipped from shoulders and chins returned to hands.
They should have known better, Isobel thought wryly. Swanson never let them out early. Never. Especially not as early as a quarter till.
“Don’t go and get antsy on me yet, folks,” he warned, now brandishing a stack of what looked suspiciously to Isobel like fresh-from-the-copier pages.
“Heads-up to the syllabus being passed around,” he called, licking a finger and leafing through the first few. Then, rewetting his fingertips, he sent out the next stack, and the next.
Isobel blanched as she watched the papers make their way toward her, and she hoped she’d be lucky enough to snag one relatively free of Swanson saliva.
“We’ve avoided it long enough.” He sighed in mock remorse. “Now, I’m sure the seniors all warned you about this one. Well, here it is. The big one. Better to get it over with early in the year, I say. You guessed it—the Swanson project.” He announced this last bit cheerfully (if not maniacally), and a grin spread its way beneath his wiry gray-white mustache.
Groans arose from key points around the room, Isobel’s own buried in the back of her throat.
Projects took time. A lot of time.
“This is to be a partner project,” Swanson continued, “due the last Friday of the month. That’s Halloween, for those of you who haven’t got your iPhones or BlackBerries or Kicksides or whodiwhat calendars handy—which I hope for their sake no one does.”
The boredom that had only a moment ago made Isobel’s limbs heavy and her mind sluggish slipped away from her in a quick whoosh, like a magician’s cloth.
Hold up. Did he say Halloween? Uh, yeah, where was his calendar? Did he not know that was the night of the rival football game against Millings? Lift up the rock, Swanson. Breathe.
It’s called air.
Isobel’s grip tightened around her pen. She kept her gaze steady on her English teacher, all dials now tuned to the Swanson channel.
“This project,” he said, “will consist of both a presentation and a detailed ten-page paper. I want you and your partner to select a famous American author—any American author.
Though, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s make sure they’re dead, okay? In other words, no Stephen Kings, Heather Grahams, or James Pattersons. Also, this is an assignment to be completed outside of class, since we’re currently in the middle of Othello.”
Ten pages? Ten pages. That was epic. That was like . . . the freaking Gettysburg Address. Was Swanson really going to sit down and read all those papers?
Probably, she thought. And love every minute of it too.
She just didn’t get it. Why did Swanson have to assign a huge project due on the day of the rival game? No one ever got any work done that week. He could have at least given them that weekend.
It always amazed her how teachers seemed to think that students didn’t have lives outside of school. They couldn’t seem to grasp that by the time she got home from cheer practice, ate dinner, and scribbled down something on the mound of homework she already had, it was practically time to go to bed.
Isobel started an immediate scan of the room. This was serious, and she needed to locate a brainer—stat.
She eyed Julie Tamers, marching band geek extraordinaire, and began to plan a strategic route to the open chair next to hers when Mr. Swanson spoke again.
“FYI,” he began, class roster poised in one hand, chin tilted down, wire-rim glasses perched at the tip of his nose, “I’m trying something different this year in hopes it will both broaden your perspective and improve overall project results. That said, I’ll take a moment to include my little disclaimer that all pairings have been made at random. So after I read your names off the list you can partner up, brainstorm among yourselves, and then head to lunch. Starting with Josh Anderson and Amber Ricks.”
Isobel felt her jaw unhinge.
Wait, she thought. Just wait. Random pairings were so third grade. He could not be serious.
“Katlyn Binkly and Alanna Sato,” he continued. “Next we have Todd Marks and Romelle Jenkins.”
Around her, those whose names had already been called rose from their seats to find their corresponding partners. Isobel sat stunned at their willingness. For real? Was she the only one who felt the burn of injustice? Wasn’t anyone else going to say anything?
“Isobel Lanley and Varen Nethers.”
She felt her chest contract.
Oh, no. No way.
She turned her head slowly and took a long, reluctant look to the opposite end of the room. He sat in the back row against the far corner, slumped in his seat and staring straight ahead through shreds of inky locks, his thin wrists lined in black leather bands specked with hostile silver studs.
This could not be happening.
Her hunger forgotten, a gnawing discomfort tugged at her insides instead as she wondered how many of the freaky rumors about him were true. For a moment she seriously thought about requesting another partner, but knowing Swanson, she realized that would probably fly about as fast and well as cafeteria meat loaf.
Isobel frowned and bit her lip. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t going to be as bad as all that. Another glance at him, though, had her thinking otherwise.
Lost in the curtain of his dyed black hair, he hadn’t even acknowledged her presence, let alone the fact that— hello—they were supposed to be using the time to discuss this monstrosity of a project.
She wondered if she should get up and go to him, since it didn’t seem like he would be heading in her direction anytime soon.
Resigned, Isobel rose and collected her notebook. She fumbled for her backpack strap as her mind repeated all the whispers she’d ever heard linked with his name. There were rumors that he sometimes talked to himself, that he practiced witchcraft and had an evil eye tattooed on his left shoulder blade. That he lived in the basement of an abandoned church. That he slept in a coffin.
That he drank blood.
She approached him with steady steps, the way someone might inch up to a sleeping snake.
Slouched in his seat, one arm draped over the desktop, he was one long line of black, his well-worn, tightly strapped boots crossed at the ankles. Pinned beneath his arm dwelled the ratty black hardback book she’d seen him disappear into more than once during class.
In fact, it always seemed as though he was jotting or sketching something into its pages, though she could only guess at what. And maybe part of what made that whole thing so weird was that Swanson never called him on it, just like he never asked him to read out loud or answer questions. And that was weird too, because no one ever called Swanson out on that.
Isobel drifted to stand at a solid and safe four-foot distance. She waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. What was she supposed to say? Howdy, partner?
She glanced to the clock on the wall. Seven minutes left until lunch.
Aaawwkward, she thought as he continued to just sit there and stare off like she didn’t exist. His enthusiasm was almost catching.
“Look, I’m not doing the work all by myself,” she said at last, deciding to crack the rather thick ice with that little mallet of for-your-info.
He didn’t move, but he spoke.
“Did I say that?”
Isobel felt a sting of surprise at the sound of his voice. It was as if she’d half expected him to be made of wax. His voice was calm and low and reasonable, not troubled and gruff like she’d assumed. He’d never spoken in class before, though. Ever, that she could remember.
“No,” she said, stiffening, tempted to just bail. Nikki would never believe this, she thought. Her getting paired up with the king of goths? Talk about breaking news. “I just thought I’d let you know,” she said, clearing her throat. “I mean . . . because, actually, you’re not saying anything.”
Feeling dumb for being the last person in the room standing, Isobel finally slid into the seat next to his, her gaze darting over the room.
A low murmur started among the pockets of groups, growing in volume as everyone went about exchanging ideas. After swapping scribbled sheets of notepaper, two groups even got up and left. And here she was, still stuck trying to commune with a member of the living dead.
Her jaw tightened. She was starting to think that Mr. Swanson’s claim that all pairings had been made “at random” was a bunch of bull. This was probably his idea of a great joke, his way of getting back at her for not turning in that stupid paper on Don Quixote.