It had started as a light jog, welcome exercise after a long day to clear her mind of a full load of college classes. She’d been alone running through the familiar trails in the park, and she had missed Brad’s presence at her side, the sound of his strides falling in the same rhythm as hers, like a heartbeat echoing her own.
She wasn’t jogging anymore, though, nor concentrating on her breathing, daydreaming about Brad, or watching the birds flittering through the branches above her. She couldn’t have said when or why things had changed, but they had.
Vivien still ran. But now, she ran for her life, adrenaline rushing through her as she tried to force her feet to hit the ground always faster.
She didn’t know who was after her, and she was too scared to dare look back and catch a glimpse of her pursuers. But she knew they were there, so close, almost close enough to reach her, and so she couldn’t stop running. At times, she could have sworn she could feel warm breath at the back of her neck like a fetid wave, or fingertips brushing against her arm. When it happened, a jolt of energy rushed through her, and she tried to run even faster.
Twice, maybe three times, she barely avoided falling when her bare toes slipped on the wet grass. She threw her arms out, regained her balance, and kept running. Her blood was pounding in her ears, so loud it blocked the sounds of whoever was after her. They were still there, though; she knew they were. And if they caught her...
She didn’t want to think of what would happen if they caught her.
Her name resounded all around her, bouncing off the trees, reverberating off every leaf, every stone, in an infinite echo. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman calling out for her, if it came from behind, from those who were after her, or from someone ahead of her, beyond the edge of the woods she would soon reach. Was she running to safety? Why did she feel like she would never be safe again?
Something brushed the back of her ankle. She shrieked—or rather, she tried to; panting as she was, with her lungs burning from exertion, her fear came out no louder than a gasp. Bile burned the back of her throat, and she swallowed hard to wash away the acid. Her mouth was too dry for that, however.
“Vivien! Over here! Run!”
She finally entered the clearing. Straight ahead of her, the sun drifted upward in a perfectly blue sky, blinding her, drawing tears from her eyes. She could distinguish a silhouette in the distance, not clearly enough to recognize him—yes, it was a man, wasn’t it? He was the one calling out to her. She still didn’t know who he was, but his voice was full of fear when he called her name again. Fear for her. Fear he wouldn’t get to her before the others did. He was running, too. Running toward her, his left arm extended in front of him. She looked at that hand reaching out to her and held out her own as far as she could. If she reached him, she repeated to herself like a mantra, she’d be safe. If he caught her hand, she’d be saved.
Something gleamed in his hand, catching the sunlight; a piece of jewelry, maybe. It looked like a circle, or maybe a spiral, thick silver lines right in the middle of his palm. She focused on it and ran faster, clinging to that image so she wouldn’t have to acknowledge she was exhausting the very last of her resources.
“Vivien!” he called out one last time.
She looked up at his face. All she could see were his eyes, colored the lightest blue she’d ever seen.
The moment her fingers brushed against his, she woke up with a start.
Her heart still thundering in her chest, she reached blindly for the nightstand and fumbled before she managed to turn on the light. She could still see those eyes in her mind, staring at her through an eerie veil. She shook her head as she pushed off the covers and slid out of bed.
“Stupid dream,” she murmured to herself.
She never called it a nightmare. It was only a dream, familiar images her mind threw at her every so often whenever she was stressed about something. She refused to let it be anything more.
A glance at the alarm clock told her it was still early, earlier than she usually woke, but she couldn’t imagine falling asleep again now, not when the discomfort from her dream was still clinging to the edges of her consciousness. She pulled on a robe and went to take a shower. By the time she went downstairs to the kitchen, she had put the chase, her pursuers, and the clear-eyed man firmly behind her.
“Morning Ana,” she said as she set down her book bag on her chair.
Anabel looked up from the cards laid out in three neat rows on the kitchen table in front of her and blinked a few times, as though pulling herself out of deep thoughts, or more likely a daydream.
“Blessings,” she offered. Her absentminded smile pulled at the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes and mouth. “Would you like some tea?”
“Not today, thanks.”
Not any day, in fact. The blend Vivien’s aunt favored smelled like flowers after the rain, but the taste didn’t live up to the aroma. Still, Anabel always brewed enough to share, be it with Vivien or the customers she received for séances in the front room.
“You’re up early. Bad dreams?”
The guess would have been more impressive if Anabel had not asked about Vivien’s dreams every morning. As a small child, Vivien had enjoyed sharing what she remembered of her dreams and hearing what her aunt thought they meant. It had been a long time since she had outgrown that particular ritual, though, and stopped believing her dreams or Anabel could predict the future.
“Not at all.” She moved around the table to grab a glass from the cupboard. The door creaked lightly. “I’m meeting with some people about a school project before class. I don’t want to be late.”
She could practically feel Anabel’s eyes on her back as she helped herself to a glass of orange juice and dropped a piece of bread in the toaster.
“Some people?” Anabel repeated. “Will—”
“Yes, Brad will be there.” Vivien set her glass down with more force than she meant to, and the juice leapt along the sides of the glass as though trying to escape. Turning to face her aunt, Vivien struggled not to cross her arms and appear even more defensive. “And no, I don’t want to hear again that I shouldn’t get too close to him.”
Anabel sighed softly. She raised her teacup to her lips and took a small sip. When she set the cup down again, the silence was so heavy that the small clink of the porcelain on the saucer seemed magnified.
Lately, Anabel’s warnings and unsolicited advice had begun to grate more often than not. Vivien loved her aunt, she really did; Anabel had been both mother and sister to Vivien for as long as she could remember. It might be time, however, for Vivien to look for a place of her own.
It would mean finding a job, which in turn would mean cutting down on the number of classes she could take in a semester. But Vivien was an adult and more than capable of taking care of herself. She’d had that thought more and more often as her birthday approached. Twenty was a nice, round number—an important number, Anabel had often claimed while reading the cards or tea leaves. Maybe Vivien would make that claim when she told Anabel about her intentions.
“He’s a good man,” Anabel said at last, looking up to meet Vivien’s eyes. “But he’s not for you. Not like that.”
Vivien’s teeth clenched tightly. From the first time she had mentioned Brad to Anabel, her aunt’s response had been the same, and it didn’t seem to matter that she had never even met Brad; she spoke of him as though she knew everything about him. Sometimes, she definitely took her supposed ‘psychic gift’ much too seriously. Then again, she had guessed Vivien’s attraction to him quickly enough to be unnerving.
“He’s my friend,” Vivien said, “nothing more.” And even calling him a friend was somewhat of a stretch, though she kept that to herself. They were classmates and running buddies…although she wished they’d been more than that.
She could hardly remember the time when she had run without him. At first they’d sometimes crossed paths, or she’d seen him ahead of her on the trail, or caught a glimpse of him behind her when she looked back. He had only asked if she wanted company running once they had started taking a class together this semester. She had accepted, thinking it was his way of flirting with her, but he had yet to make a move. Maybe she’d have to take the first step. Maybe even soon.
The toaster chimed and the bread popped up, as though signifying the end of this round. Vivien turned to the counter, hoping Anabel would take that as her cue to change the subject. That would have been too much to ask, however.
“Child... There are things I need to tell you. Will you sit with me?”
Vivien spread jam onto the toasted bread to the very edges on the crust with a single-minded focus—the same crusty edge she had once refused to eat. She was not a child anymore. Would Anabel ever realize that?
“I don’t have time now,” she said, clinging to restraint. “I can’t be late today. We can talk later. There are things I need to tell you, too.”
She took a bite of her toast before washing it down with orange juice; the berries didn’t seem quite as sweet as they usually did. Behind her, Anabel’s chair scraped against the wooden floor, then quiet, uneven steps approached her. Anabel’s hands were small, her skin wrinkled like crumpled paper that could never be smoothed out again, but her grip was strong when she squeezed Vivien’s shoulder.
“There won’t be time later,” she said in a soft voice. “I won’t be here when you return. It’s important, child.”
The repeated use of that word irked Vivien a little more.
“So is that school project,” she said tersely and pulled away. “I have to go.”
She transferred the toast to her left hand, picked up her school bag, slipped the strap over her shoulder, and started for the door.
She paused with her hand on the back door handle and looked at Anabel. Standing with her back to the counter, a strand of silver-streaked hair curling against her cheek, she looked small, almost frail, and her smile seemed forced.
“Your gift is in the first drawer of my dresser. Don’t forget it.”
Confusion washed over Vivien like an unexpected wave. “My gift?” she repeated. “You mean... My birthday gift?”
Her birthday wasn’t for another three weeks; why was Anabel mentioning this now?
Anabel didn’t answer. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Vivien before kissing her once on each cheek. When she stepped back, her eyes were gleaming as though full of tears. She nodded toward the door.
“I can hear the bus coming. Don’t be late. Run.”
That last word sent a cold shiver down Vivien’s spine as her dream and the anxiety it had brought to her slammed back to the forefront of her mind. She wanted to say something, but the words remained stuck in her throat when she looked at Anabel.
Anabel was sitting down again in front of her cards. Her fingers were brushing against the topmost one. The design of the fortune telling cards was original, and Anabel had once tried to teach their meaning to Vivien. One of the few meanings Vivien could recall was that of the card Anabel was now touching—the metal circle, broken in two places—signified the end of something, or death.
“I’ll be back early,” Vivien said, the words a little rough. “We can talk then.”
Anabel looked at her and smiled. Rather than agreeing, she said again, “Run.”
The familiar whistling of brakes resounded outside. The bus was slowing down to stop on the other side of the street. With her half-eaten toast in one hand, her bag bouncing against her hip, and a bad feeling spattering her thoughts like cold mud, Vivien ran.