“Yes. Bird had told me they may have been the guys who were attacked by the fox at-”

“I’m going to fucking kill Bird,” Dex muttered angrily. “He shouldn’t have told you that.”

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I was too sick to argue. “So I talked to them. I don’t remember what they said but there was something off.”

“Did they buy you a drink?” Dex asked.

“Yes. A Coors Light.”

“Was it already opened?”

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I tried to think. “Maybe,” I said. “I felt sick soon after. They took me outside. I tried to tell you but I couldn’t. Then he…he attacked me.”

I started feeling a rush of emotions building up inside of me. It felt so cliché, to start crying while explaining this but I knew it would happen.

“He didn’t…rape me,” I said, trying to brave, trying not to blink. “But he would have if you hadn’t shown up. Or worse.”

Dex’s eyes were a bit moist too and dancing between extreme empathy and absolute anger.

“I am so sorry I wasn’t there earlier,” he said softly, his voice cracking. I inched closer to him and put my hand on his face. It was cold, his stubble rough.

“I’m OK, Dex,” I said.

“You’re not OK,” he murmured. “You were hurt.”

I remembered the clawing. I felt down at my stomach. There was a bandaged pad there. If I ever got out of Red Fox, I was going out as a mummy made of gauze.

“Oh jeez,” I said feeling sick. “How bad is it?”

“Rudy fixed you up,” Dex said. “You’re OK. He gave you some shots, some antibiotics to be safe. It just the wounds…I can’t even talk about without wanting to kill someone, I’m sorry.” He looked disgusted.

“What about them?”

He reached up for my hand which was still at his cheek and took it in his.

“I think he may have had a knife,” Dex said.

A knife. Or claws. But I didn’t want to mention that now. In fact, I didn’t want to know anymore. Except for one thing.

“Did you undress me?” I asked, squinting at him.

He turned a bit pink in the cheeks, a color I rarely saw on him.

“Yes,” he said wryly. “But I didn’t look, I swear.”

“Right,” I rolled my eyes. The fact that Dex saw me naked, and in a totally incompetent state, was just another mortifying thing to deal with. Yeah, I had bigger things to worry about but apparently I was still going to embarrass easily over something as vain as that. That was actually kind of a good sign.

“Hey,” he said, squeezing my hand again. “It’s all good. Don’t worry about it, kiddo. Just get some sleep now. We both need it.”

I smiled knowing he was right and dared to close my eyes again. The room slowly stopped swimming and I fell asleep holding his hand, my heart swollen with gratitude.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

I stood on the edge of precipitous cliff. In front of me lay a dark and undulating land lit by the icy power of a full moon. There were no clouds in the night sky but there was a strong wind that came from invisible origins and ruffled my hair till it was blowing behind me like a flag. I was in bare feet, just inches from falling into the shadowy canyons below. My arms were outspread like a young condor about to take its first flight.

“The truth is in the fire,” a voice whispered from behind me.

I dropped my arms to the side and slowly turned around. I was facing a fire that smoldered and crackled high in the star-lit sky. Around it sat two people in high-backed chairs. On one side was a man dressed in denim overalls, on the other was a woman in a black dress. They had deer heads poking out of their collars, watching me with those blank, liquid eyes.

“Look in the fire,” one of them said, though their deer mouths didn’t move.

I looked at the fire. It swirled and flowed like a red river of flame. In the base of the fire, where the logs burned and cracked, the ashy black kindling moved. A snake made of charcoal crawled out of the flames leaving a trail of black soot in the ground behind it. It made its way to me and was about to strike.

I gasped and stepped backward. There was nothing left beneath my feet.

I fell and I fell through the air like a stone sinking in a bottomless pond. The angry mouth of the canyon below was open and waiting to engulf me with its sharp rocks and horrible depths. I was gone for.

“Perry?” I heard someone say.

I opened my eyes. I was standing outside, in between the Lancaster’s house and the barn. Dawn was breaking somewhere in the east, bringing hazy light to the horizon and warming up the ending night.

I looked down at my feet. They were barefoot. In front of me was the remains of a fire, only blackened logs remaining. My hands were bloody.

“Perry!” I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Dex peering anxiously at me, dressed in just his pajama pants. I showed him my hands, frightened out of my gourd.

He swallowed hard and looked me over.

“It’s OK, you must have ripped open your cuts,” he said softly. I looked down at my stomach. Blood had seeped through my tee shirt.

Dex leaned over and cupped my face in his hands. I had a hard time focusing on him, or on anything, really.

“What happened? Why are you out here?” he asked.

I didn’t know. I didn’t remember coming outside. I remembered my dream but…that was just a dream. Wasn’t it?

I told him about it. He took in a deep breath, trying to process it.

“And there’s a fire,” I said slowly. “I don’t know what that means.”

“What happened?” we heard Bird yell out from behind us. He came barging out of the house with his shotgun in hand and ran up to us.

“What happened?” Dex sneered. “What happened to you? You were supposed to be watching her.”

Bird shook his head looking worse for wear. I felt sorry for the old man.

“I must have fallen asleep for a second, I never heard her leave,” he said helplessly.

“I’m sorry,” I said meekly. “I guess I was sleepwalking or something.”

“Let’s hope that’s all this was,” he said. He peered behind me at the fire remains. “Somehow I doubt it. Come on, it’s freezing out here.”

He took one of my arms while Dex took the other and they led me back in the house like I was some kind of invalid.

Inside it was warm and the floor felt delightful against my cold feet. They led me into the kitchen. Bird brought the first aid kit out of the top drawer. It was certainly getting a lot of use lately.

It was dark in the kitchen except for a small lamp in the corner but the day outside was coming on brighter by the minute. It didn’t seem Will or Sarah were up yet, which was a huge relief. I waited patiently while Bird lifted up my shirt and put on a new bandage on my wounds. It looked disgusting but he said it wasn’t infected.

“Do you remember now how you got this?” Bird asked.

I told him the truth, what I had kept from Dex last night.

Dex was shocked. “Are you serious? Claws?”

“That’s what it felt like. It wasn’t knives, he didn’t have any. It felt like I was being raked by a giant bird. I think I know what that feels like now. It’s what it looked like.”

Dex folded his arms and mulled that over. I noticed he was still shirtless. And with madness comes the light. I had to disagree.

“I’m not surprised,” Bird said, his voice heavy. “I think I’ll give Rudy a call. The sooner we can get a start on things today, the better. I’ll be right back.”

He pulled my shirt down over the wound and left the house. I looked at Dex and managed a small smile. “Sure. That’s what they all say.”

Dex walked over to the doorway and peeked out at the rest of the house. Satisfied, he came back in the kitchen, grabbed my hand and sat me down at the tiny kitchen table. He took both my hands in his and looked at me intently.

“Listen,” he said softly. “I think you should leave.”

I opened my mouth to say something, though I wasn’t sure what yet, but he continued.

“Just listen to me. Maximus is right. It’s still early, I doubt he’s left yet. You can get a ride back with him to Albuquerque. The longer you stay here, the worse things are going to get. And I can’t forgive myself for what happened to you last night.”

“Dex,” I started.

“I’m responsible for you,” he said. “And clearly I’m not very good at taking care of anyone, let alone myself. I don’t know what I’d do if anything else happened to you. So you need leave, today. Now.”

I looked into his eyes. I had never seen them so worried, so sincere. I squeezed his hands lightly. His concern melted me inside but I couldn’t leave him. I wouldn’t leave him here with these people. These things.

“I’m not going unless you go too,” I whispered, paranoid that people could be listening.

“Don’t do that,” he shook his head. “You know I have to stay here.”

“No, you don’t!” I said. “We’ll just do something else. There are a lot of other things. Or just make something with the footage we have. We have those rocks and stuff on film, that’s something. Nobody said we had to be freaking Paranormal State.”

“Yes. I did. If I go back with just that, Jimmy’s going to laugh me out of the office and this whole thing will be done. We will be done. We only get one chance.”

“It’s not worth risking your life over,” I implored.

“It’s not worth risking your life over. Mine means nothing.”

I was surprised at how serious he was about that. How could he say such a thing?

He must have noticed my frustration because he added, “And nothing is going to happen to me. It’s obviously you that they want, that’s what Bird and Rudy said and I really believe them now.”

I leaned back in my chair and squared my gaze. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m not worth it,” he challenged back.

“Yes. You are,” I said. “And if this is what it takes to make something of my life, then so be it. I’d rather die here then leave without trying.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said roughly.

“Well, no, I’d rather not die but staying here is worth the risk.” I was even unsure about that.

“Why do you care so much about this? You’ve got plenty going on for you back at home.” He narrowed his eyes and tried to read me.

Was this the time to tell him I was not only jobless and living a lie, but there was a possibility that I was in love with him as well? Nah.

“I just do,” was my winning answer.

So we were kind of between a rock and a hard place as we sat at that kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning, when the house was still quiet and the nightmares of last night were swept away like flimsy cobwebs. We were both too stubborn to give up and neither one of us wanted to see the other one hurt.

“What if I can’t protect you?” he said softly, looking down at my bandaged hands. Rare waves of his vulnerability and honesty were flying all over the place and hitting me straight in the chest. I had the biggest urge to tilt his chin up and kiss him gently on the lips. Just to let him know it was OK, just to see what it would feel like, just to tell him how I felt. It seemed the most fitting thing to do.

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