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Read Messenger of Fear

Prepare to be scared - here's the first chapter of Michael Grant's upcoming new novel, Messenger of Fear...

Posted on 4th August 2014 by Guest contributor

 

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My eyes opened.

I was on my back.

A mist pressed close, all around me, so close that it was more like a blanket than a fog. The mist was the color of yellowed teeth and it moved without a breath of breeze, moved as if it had a will.

The mist swirled slowly, sensuously, and it touched me. I don’t mean that it was merely near to me and therefore inevitably touched me; I mean that it touched me. It felt my face like a blind person might. It crept up the sleeves of my sweater and down the neckline. It found its insinuating way under rough denim and seeped, almost like a liquid, along bare skin. Fingerless, it touched me. Eyeless, it gazed at me. It heard the beating of my heart and swept in and out of my mouth with each quick and shallow breath.

I had the thought then that I was dead.

The mist spoke to me, wordless, soundless, and yet so that I understood, and it said, Shiver.

I shivered, and goose bumps rose on the insides of my arms and on my belly, and the mist laughed as silently as it had commanded me.

I called out, “Mom?”

But the mist would have none of that. It took my word, stopped it, flattened it, made a mockery of it, and echoed it back to me.

I felt something prickling and tickling the side of my face and turned my head to see that I was lying in grass of such a color that it could never have known spring. It was the gray-green of bread mold, the color of decayed life. I could see only the nearest stalks, those pressed closest to my face. How had I come to be here? And where was here?

I searched my memory. But it was a box of old photos printed on age-curled paper. Here a face. There a place. Not quite real, too faded, too fractured, too far away to be real. Pictures, snatches of conversation, distorted sounds, and sensory echoes—the soft scraping sound of paper pages turned by an unknown hand, liquid poured from a bottle, the strike of a match, the smell of sulfur, the—

I had the thought then that I was dead.

It was not a certainty to me but an uneasy possibility, a doubt, a guess whose truth I was not willing to test.

Why were my memories so far out of reach? I had a life, didn’t I? I was a person. I was a girl. I had a name. Of course I had a name.

Mara.

Yet even that seemed unsteady to me—a fact, perhaps, but a shaky fact. The word Mara did not carry with it some flood of emotion. It was a flat thing without depth or shape, just a word.

Mara.

Was that me? Let it be me. Let it be me because I needed a name, I needed something definite to hold on to. I raised a hand to my face. I watched the fingers appear, swirling through that unnatural mist. I touched my face and felt tears. I touched my face and felt. Both finger and cheek felt and therefore I lived. I lived.

Then, as if discouraged by my discovery, the mist began to clear. It withdrew from me, sliding away from my flesh like a wave retreating into the sea.

I wanted to stand up. I did not want to lie there any longer in the dead, gray grass. I wanted to stand and see, and then run, run far from this unsettling nightmare. Running would awaken me, and all of it, all my memory, all that I was would come flooding back. It must.

I was shaking so badly that the simple act of standing erect became a challenge. My limbs did not want to cooperate with each other, and I made a mess of it, rising first onto hands and knees and then stumbling, nearly falling, before finally rising to my full unimposing height.

I was in an open place. It was dark, darker than it had been in the mist, and no starlight, still less moonlight, shone down from above. But it was not complete darkness. Patterns of gray on black, and black on blacker still, emerged as I looked around me.

There was a building. Had it been there the last time I looked? No light escaped that building. Nothing about that building called to me to approach except for the fact that it was the only object in sight.

I moved one foot and another. That fact, the fact that I could put one foot in front of another, let me take a deeper breath, a less agitated breath. To move was to live, wasn’t it? To move was to choose a path, and that meant I still had some volition, some control. I felt and I moved. Hadn’t there been some lesson in class about the definition of life and hadn’t it been that . . . sensation, movement, something else . . .

Had there been a class? A school?

Of course, no doubt. So why couldn’t I see it in my mind? Why, when I asked myself that question, was the only image like a stock photo, filled with unfamiliar, too-bright, too-pretty faces?

Was I dead?

Never mind, Mara, I told myself, trying to accept that name as the truth. Never mind, Mara, you can feel and you can move. You can choose. Mara.

I could go in a different direction. I could choose not to walk to that building, that outline of black against black, that shadow within shadow. My feet made sounds like sandpaper as they brushed the brittle grass.

The structure was taller than a house, narrow and long. There was a suggestion of high windows ending in pointed arches. And a suggestion, too, of a strong, heavily timbered door, and above that door, atop the building, a sort of tower.

A steeple.

It was a church. That knowledge should have reassured me, but instead it drove a spike of cold terror into my belly, for I knew one thing: this church was no place of comfort and peace. There was a sullen, silent hostility from this structure. It was not calling me into God’s presence; it was warning me to go away.

Yet at the same time I could now feel the door drawing me to it. It had a strange gravity, a force perhaps unknown to science that pulled me toward it not by magnetism but by acting on my fear, turning my fear into a vortex. I had to know what was inside that church. I had to know, though I feared the knowing.

You fear me, come to me, the church seemed to whisper to my heart. Your terror demands an answer. Come.

Come.

And flee.

I reached the door. There was a brass doorknob, strangely shaped, as though it was a carved figure. A head, perhaps. I touched it and my curious fingers could make nothing of the curves and ridges, though I thought I might almost make out the outlines of a face.

I turned the knob and it moved easily. I pushed open the door. An answer was close now, I felt, some piece of knowledge that I both dreaded and desired.

I stepped across the threshold and glanced up, sensing something overhead, and where I thought I would see rafters, there was the sickly mist again, a shapeless carrion feeder greedily awaiting my death.

I moved down the aisle, like a bride slow-walking between rows of family and admirers. There was no altar or cross or other symbol. There was only an oblong box set upon a low stone so that the top of the box would be just lower than my breast if I were to stand close.

It was a coffin.

Something told me it was not empty.

I was sure that I would see a familiar face in that coffin. I was sure I would see myself. But why would I be lying in a church that was no church?

Cold fingers of horror squeezed my heart, wrung the blood from it, and left me gasping for air. Each inhalation was a sniffle, each exhalation a shudder. My fingernails pressed into my palms, and the pain of it was proof that I was alive, or something like alive, and yet I knew, I knew what I would see in that coffin.

I took another step.

Another.

And I looked down to see a face. I stared in confusion. This was not me. Could not be me. I could not bring the image of my own face to mind, yet I knew this was not me.

He was a boy or young man. He stood a dozen feet away and did not move toward me or flinch at my upraised fists.

Maybe she had been fifteen years old, maybe a year older; it is not easy to judge the age of a dead face. My age, perhaps?

That she was dead was not in doubt.

“Her name was Samantha Early.”

A voice!

I spun around, raising my hands already formed into aching fists. Adrenaline chased away the lethargy of dread as instinct took over.

He was a boy or young man. He stood a dozen feet away and did not move toward me or flinch at my upraised fists.

He was tall and thin. His face was pale as a ghost, pale almost to translucence, and made all the whiter by the long black hair that framed it.

He wore a black coat that fell to midcalf over an iron-gray buttoned shirt. His pants were black, and his shoes seemed to be tall boots of black leather, though they were dusty. The buttons of his coat were silver but not brightly polished. Each was a tiny skull, no bigger than a hazelnut.

On his right hand was a silver ring in a shape I could only vaguely make out. It looked like a warrior, a woman, gripping a sword.

The other ring, the one on his left hand, was a face contorted in unimaginable terror. A young face, and in between nervous glances it seemed to change, as though the face was animated, alive.

I had as well the impression of tattoos at wrist and neck in the few visible patches of skin.

His eyes were the only color in that monochromatic picture. They were blue. They were a blue I had never seen before in any human eye. His eyes were the turquoise of the Mediterranean, like something from a travel poster of a Greek island.

I wanted to ask him where I was, but that would have made me seem vulnerable. It would have invited him to take some advantage of me. Better to be tough, if tough was something I could pull off. So instead I asked the question that was inevitable.

“Who are you?”

He looked at me and I had to force myself not to turn away. He looked at me and I felt quite exposed suddenly, as if his eyes were seeing the things I showed no one. I fought an urge to squirm, but still my shoulders hunched forward, and my eyes lowered, and my lips pressed tightly and my lungs labored to take in breath so that my nostrils flared.

All of it was beyond my ability to control.

“Her name was Samantha Early. It is a terribly apt name. Dead too early is young Samantha Early.”

Was I supposed to laugh? Was that some effort at a joke? But nothing about him suggested humor.

“Tell me who you are,” I said. My voice sounded pitifully thin. If there was any threat in that voice, then it was a laughable one.

“That’s not the question you want answered first,” he said.

He had a strange voice. It was as if his mouth was pressed close against my ear so that I could hear every shade of every word, the inhalation and exhalation, the play of tongue against teeth, teeth against lips, lips softly percussing the b and p sounds.

I recoiled a bit from that voice, not from fear but from a sense that its intimacy was somehow inappropriate.

“Are you reading my mind?” I asked.

There was the slightest narrowing of his eyes, and if not a smile, there was a softening of the stern lines of his mouth.

He did not answer. Instead he said, “Samantha Early. Age sixteen. Dead by her own hand.”

With that he laid his pale fingers softly, reverently on her cheek and then rolled her head to the side so that I could see.

“Oh, God!” I cried. It was a hole, just large enough that a little finger could have been stuck into it. The hole was in her temple, and it was the color of ancient rust. Around the hole an elongated oval of scorched skin and crisped hair.

It was the most terrible thing I had ever seen in my life. I looked then at her face. She was not pretty; her chin was too big, too meaty. Her nose was perhaps too forceful, and there were dark circles under her eyes. I felt, seeing this face, that she had endured pain. It was a sad face, though how can a face in death ever be happy?

I was so intent on her face that I failed at first to notice that the light all around me had changed.

I looked up and saw that the church was gone. The coffin, that terrible object, that reproach against life itself, grew transparent.

And then, the pale flesh of the dead girl began to regain some aspects of life. It grew pink. And I was certain I detected the movement of her eyes beneath their lids.

I cried out, “She’s alive!”

And just then, as though my exclamation was a signal, she sat up. She sat up and now, dreamlike, the coffin was no longer there. Feeling wildly unstable, I put my hand out as though to steady myself, but there was nothing within my reach but the shoulder of the boy in black.

My fingers closed around his bicep, which flexed at my touch. It was reassuring in its solidity. He was real, not some figment.

He shook his head and did not meet my eyes. “I am not to be touched.”

It wasn’t anger but a soft-spoken warning. It was said with what might have been regret but with absolute conviction.

I pulled my hand away and mumbled an apology, but I was less concerned about him than I was consumed with the horror of looking directly into the dead girl’s eyes. She had risen to her feet. She stood. The hole still a testament to brutality, bloody, only now, now, oh . . . oh . . . It was bleeding. Wet and viscous, the blood drained from the hole in her head as the blood seemed to drain from my own limbs. Little globules of something more solid slid down the trail of blood, bits of her brain forced outward as the bullet had forced its way inward. Her eyes were brown and empty, her face blank, her blond hair fidgeted in a slight breeze, and the blood ran down her cheek and down her neck and pooled at the hollow of her throat.

I wanted to say that we needed to call 911. I wanted

to say that we must help. But the boy in black stood perfectly still, looking at me and not at the girl, the girl dead or living or whatever unholy cross between the two that defined Samantha Early.

Dead too early.

“The question you want answered,” the boy in black said as though no time had passed, “is whether you are dead.”

I licked my lips nervously. My throat burned as though I’d been days without a drink of water. “Yes,” I said to him.

“You live,” he said. “She does not.”

Taken from Messenger of Fear by Michael Grant

 

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