Chapter 14

The tops of the eucalyptus trees swayed rhythmically in the wind, back and forth. He stole down the narrow, asphalt trail through the woods in the dark. Faint wisps of fog sailed past his feet. Progressing, the mist began to thicken, forming a billowy white blanket over the ground. As he waded through, the moisture layer started to rise, enveloping first his knees, then his thighs, and up to his waist. A painful, paralyzing chill spread over his body. His muscles began to stiffen as the fog bank continued to climb. Reaching his neck, he found it difficult to breathe. He charged headlong through the fog. It was up to his nose now, threatening to swallow him whole any second. In a last ditch effort to save himself, he dove.

Hoot. Hoot.

Rising to his feet in the underbrush, the air perfectly clear, he came face-to-face with an enormous grey owl, clinging to a low-lying branch with razor-sharp talons. The speckled bird blinked its massive blue eyes, but was otherwise unruffled by his abrupt appearance. He stared at the remarkable animal, mesmerized. Its body remaining motionless, the owl spun its head around in a near full circle. The hooked beak, acting as a pointer, like a spinner for board game, landed on an area to his immediate right. Following the owl’s gaze, he turned in time to see a shadowy black figure, bigger than he was, dart through the trees and vanish. He went on alert, crouching down in a defensive wrestling pose, ready to wrangle with whoever was out there. The owl spun its head a second time, and the beak stopped at ten o’clock. The phantom materialized, thrashing through the fallen sticks and leaves. This happened again and again: everywhere the owl’s beak pointed, the ominous figure appeared and, just as swiftly, disappeared. Then the owl spun its head, and the beak landed directly on him. The wise bird stared with unblinking eyes, and he tried to read its mind, understand what the animal was trying to communicate to him. But the sound of cracking twigs and crunching leaves told him all he needed to know. The figure was directly behind him! He saw the owl stretch its mighty wings and fly away before spinning around. The encroaching, featureless black form proved too large to tackle, so, instead, he ran, as fast he could, tearing through the woods until he found the path. And then he saw her.

She lay on the ground, a delicate figurine, broken in two. Her porcelain skin glowed in the moonlight. Her blonde hair shimmered like gold. He approached her gingerly, on his tiptoes. Getting down on one knee beside her, he cradled a hand against her fragilely beautiful face. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. He was exuberant. She wasn’t dead! Prepared to scoop her off the ground, he saw her eyes fill with terror. She opened her mouth, possibly to scream, and a torrent of crimson blood poured out, washing over his tennis shoes, up past his ankles, gushing and gushing, staining everything red. He traced the flow, to the tips of someone else’s feet. The dark figure stood directly over him, brandishing a heavy wooden plank. There was no time to react. The phantom lifted it high overhead then struck.        

Vince jolted awake. He was covered in sweat, and his heart was pounding. Disoriented, he looked at the clock: 9:05 PM. His physics book lay on the floor beside his bed. He must have drifted off to sleep while he was studying. He shook his head in an effort to revive himself. It ached.

There was no escaping the horror of his discovery. Awake, grisly images of the dead girl appeared every time he closed his eyes. Asleep, she invaded his dreams, provoking vivid and violent nightmares.

His cell phone rang, and he answered it. “Hello?” Silence on the other end. Vince consulted the caller I.D. and recognized the number. “Hannah?”

Several seconds passed before she spoke, timidly asking, “Can you come and get me?”

Vince sat up. “Sure. Where are you?”

“The library.”

“I’ll meet you in the lobby in …” He paused to look himself over. Seeing he was fully dressed, he estimated how long it would take to walk there. “Ten minutes?”

“O-okay,” she replied nervously, seemingly uncertain whether she could bear to be alone for that length of time.

“I’m on my way,” Vince assured her.

Aaron J. Pintner Library was situated smack in the middle of campus. According to celebrated architect Cameron Delacroix, his design for the ultra-modern building was supposed to represent “a compass of knowledge.” Many, including Vince, however, felt the five-story structure looked more like a giant spider, the circular glass tower being the body, and the six, congruent, concrete wings, shooting off in different directions, legs.

Eight-and-a-half-minutes later, Vince pushed through the revolving door and stepped into the belly of the beast. Seeing him, Hannah clomped across the flagstone floor of the lobby. Vince thought she looked even more distressed than she had that morning. “Ready to go?” She nodded, and they stepped out into the cool night air. Vince zipped up his windbreaker and asked, “Aren’t you cold?”

Hannah, who was dressed in a short-sleeve cotton top, shook her head. “This is warm compared to where I come from.”

“Where is that?”

“South Lake Tahoe.”

“You’re a long way from home,” Vince observed. Lake Tahoe lay at the complete opposite end of California, 540 miles north and 6,200 feet up, amidst the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Late October, it was probably snowing there already, Vince imagined. “Do you have any family nearby?”

“No. It’s just me and my mom.”

“Did you call her? Is she coming down?”

Hannah hesitated so long in answering, Vince thought she’d opted to ignore the question. But she finally replied, simply and unemotionally, “Nope. Too busy.”

Vince’s heart went out to her. He knew how it felt to be let down by a parent. His father had disappointed him, over and over again, his entire life.

They traversed the main thoroughfare across campus, side-by-side in silence, dodging the foot and bicycle traffic of students heading home to settle in for the night. Inexplicably, Vince’s internal alarm system sounded, and he went on immediate alert, glancing over his shoulder anxiously. For who or what, he didn’t know. The guy on the skateboard? The two girls chatting? The dude sitting on the bench?

Hannah sensed his mounting agitation. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He smiled to put her at ease. If she’d known him better, she would have been able to tell he was lying. Vince rarely smiled.

Not wishing to upset Hannah further, Vince attempted to distract her with casual conversation, inquiring about her studies, asking her what she liked to do and how she liked college. From their strained dialogue (much like him, words didn’t roll easily off her tongue), he learned she was majoring in sociology, enjoyed going to movies and taking walks on the beach, and, although she didn’t admit so directly, she was having a difficult time adjusting to college life. Not once did she mention any friends, and Vince was left with the impression that with her roommate dead, Hannah Singer was, for all intents and purposes, utterly alone.

“Here we are,” he proclaimed, stopping in front of 2A in the Playa dormitory. Because 2J, the room she’d shared with Courtney, was sealed off while the police gathered evidence, Hannah was bunking temporarily in a single belonging to her Resident Advisor, who’d offered to stay with a friend one floor down.

Hannah retrieved a key from her pants pocket and slipped it into the lock.

“What time is your first class tomorrow?” Vince asked her.

“Nine o’clock.”

“Meet you here at a quarter to?”

She smiled faintly in appreciation, wished him good night, and then shut the door.

Vince turned to go and had only taken a few steps down the hall when her door flew open.

“Vince!” There was panic in her voice. I’m scared! I don’t want to be alone! I hate not having my stuff! I want to go home! She didn’t say as much, but her frightened eyes betrayed her deepest feelings.

“Don’t worry, Hannah. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. That’s a promise.” Vince meant what he said, however, he knew he had his work cut out for him. Walking back from the library, he’d had the distinct impression they were being followed.

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