Yellow lines streaked by through the black, and the wind was chilly on his face, stinging his eyes.
He had to keep going, had to keep driving, had to keep rolling through the dark.
It was for the best, he knew. He had to go, had to do this on his own.
The memory of her face popped up in his mind suddenly, viciously, and he winced. He wished he was a smoker, because this would be a good moment to light one up and suck it down. Or if he drank, to heck with DUI's, he'd gulp down a cold one. Or a hot one. Anything, anything to blur the clarity of his memory--the memory of her confused face, confused tears, confused love.
Unfortunately for him, he didn't smoke, didn't drink.
And so she stayed with him in her absence, her invisible hand stuck through his chest, ripping at his heart with those long, unpainted fingernails.
He was doing this for her, keeping her safe. So he clenched his hands on the wheel--knuckles white--to keep from turning around, burning rubber, and speeding back to her. One of his hands twitched, and he clenched his teeth, made himself remember the shadows, the secrets, the danger.
The cold helped. He wouldn't care now if it rained. Top down, bare headed, he would welcome it, welcome any mind-numbing cold. Heart-numbing would be even better.
Madeline Harley woke up cold. Gasping at the sudden, violent ending of her dream, she sat up in bed. Coming to her senses, she realized that she had kicked off the blankets and sheets sometime in the night. Shivering, disturbed, she gathered up one of the blankets and wrapped it around herself.
One word, one name came whispering from her lips. "Silas…" She squeezed her eyes shut and tightened the blanket around her shoulders, trying not to think of her dream. But, of course, she failed.
Clearly, the dream came to her, and she saw Silas standing in the forest, oblivious to the black shadow looming behind him. "No!" Madeline shrieked, jumping out of bed before her mind could replay the horrors of her dream, her nightmare.
She rushed to her kitchen, flipping on light after light, dispelling darkness and shadows. With shaking hands, she programmed her coffee maker and filled it with grounds, then breathed a deep sigh as she leaned against the kitchen counter to wait.
Her thoughts were filled with worry for Silas.
Somehow, she knew--was sure--that he was doing something dangerous. He always was. She had cried when he had last left her house. She had known.
And he had kissed her--softly, gently, fleetingly--for the first time.
"Silas…" She said his name again, which made him seem more real. Sometimes she wondered if he was.
"Room 209 is empty," said the bored-looking man behind the motel counter. "Up the stairs, near the middle."
"That'll be fine," said Silas absently, sharp eyes wandering the lobby as he lowered his backpack to the floor. The room was clean, plain, cold, empty. "Just fine."
"Sixty-three eighty-five," said the clerk.
"Right." Silas paid quickly, in exact change. "You wouldn't happen to have a recent newspaper would you?" he asked as the clerk handed him a key.
"Sure would." Slowly, the clerk reached under the counter and drew out a paper, slapping it down on the counter. "Fifty cents."
Sighing, impatiently shouldering his backpack, Silas fished two quarters out of his jacket pocket and slid them across the counter, taking up the paper. He flashed the clerk a brief smile. "Thanks, man."
The man shrugged.
Silas was nearly to the door of the lobby when the clerk spoke.
"It's a shame about those murders."
Silas stopped walking, his heartbeat racing. Managing a sickly smile, he turned to glance back at the clerk. "Yeah. Sure is."
"Wish the police would find the son of a gun who's doing it." Seeming uncharacteristically moved, the clerk shook his head. "Ripping people's throats out like that… It's unnatural. Like something an animal would do."
"Yeah." Silas swallowed. This time, he failed to smile. "Yeah, it is."
"Have a pleasant stay," said the clerk dispassionately, abruptly, turning back to his own reading material--an auto trader catalogue.
Hands shaking, teeth clenched, Silas made his way out of the lobby. His footsteps sounded loud and brash in the cold silence of the parking lot. Tightly gripping the key and the newspaper, he walked along the parking lot to a stairwell, ascending to the upper row of rooms. Room 209 was nearly in the very center of the row.
As Silas tried to slide the key into the lock, his fingers shook so badly that he dropped the key. Muttering a curse, he bent to pick up the key. As soon as he straightened, he knew something was wrong. He felt cold all over, and the hair on the back of his neck rose slightly.
Eyes wide, Silas glanced to the left… the right-- There was a man standing there, just outside Room 211, staring at Silas. He stood just inside a shadow, formless, vague…
And then he was gone.
Silas' breath hissed in between his teeth, cold and sharp. He shoved the key back into the lock and turned it quickly, shouldering the door opened and sliding around it. As soon as he was inside, he slammed the door shut, hands wandering in the darkness, searching for any type of locks. He found a chain lock, bolt lock, and doorknob lock--locked them all. Panting, shaking, he slid to the floor, back against the door, dropping his backpack and the key, but holding onto the newspaper.
He had to read it, had to read about the murders. But he didn't want to. Not at all.
"Charlie…" He sighed. "What have you done?"
Not being able to sleep was one thing. Not being able to sleep without seeing nightmarish images was quite another--and, in fact, worse.
As Madeline dressed for the day, at 4 o'clock in the morning, she could not shake the feeling that Silas was in danger.
It was the same feeling she had experienced a few days before Charlie disappeared.
Madeline's eyes went to the picture on her dresser. The resemblance between Madeline and Charlie was strong. After all, they were brother and sister. Charlie was laughing in the picture, one arm around Madeline's shoulder and the other around Silas's. Charlie looked practically angelic--tall, blond, and willowy--and in this particular picture, he was wearing contacts, which seemed to intensify the deep brown of his eyes. Madeline, blond and tall like her brother, but with blue-green eyes, was smiling softly, looking across Charlie to Silas, who was a bit shorter than Charlie, with light brown hair, a lean, athletic body, and long-lashed, greenish-hazel eyes. Silas was the only one looking at the picture, and he was affecting a "model face," which was making Charlie laugh and Madeline fairly swoon.
Madeline sighed as she looked at the picture, weary and troubled.
"Where are you?" she whispered to the two young men in the picture--her brother and the man she loved.
Across the campus green of Dresden University, Silas could see trouble brewing. He could hear it, too.
"That's what you get for telling on us in chemistry, Harley!"
"You stupid tattle!"
"You're a loser, Charlie Harley!"
Silas glanced at the watch on his wrist. He was going to be late for baseball practice if he didn't hurry. Sighing, he picked up his pace, trying to ignore the three guys yelling threats at the fourth guy…
Silas took a deep breath and stopped walking, turning to face the scene that seriously conflicted with his sense of justice. Straightening his shoulders and lifting his chin, he walked toward the group with what he hoped was confidence and an aura of authority. "What's going on here, guys?"
The three hecklers, all punks as far as Silas knew, spun on him with a mixture of fear and annoyance on their faces.
"None of your business, McNeal," the tallest of the three spat. Silas recognized him from a calculus class--Terry Ratchet, a sneaky, thoroughly disreputable slacker.
Silas ignored Terry. He looked to the victim of the situation--a tall, willowy young man with wavy blond hair and glasses. "Hey, these guys threatening you?" Silas asked him.
The young man seemed hesitant at first, glancing at the three punks. "Well…" His eyes trailed back to Silas, and suddenly smiled, as if thinking of something funny. "Yes."
"Shut your mouth, Harley!" shouted the shortest, stockiest of the attacking trio, taking a step toward the tall blond kid.
"Leave him alone!" Silas shouted, his voice stern and gruff.
The short punk turned on Silas, face red with rage. "Who do you think you are, anyway?"
Silas smiled indulgently. "I'm pretty darn sure I'm Silas McNeal. I'm also convinced that it's not a good idea to gang up on somebody when I'm around." He narrowed his eyes dangerously on the short guy. "Got that, slick?"
Terry shook his head and crossed his arms. "Seriously, McNeal, this isn't any of your business. This guy--" He pointed at the kid with glasses. "--He ratted us out."
Silas's grin broadened, and he looked to the blond kid. "Oho! Did you now?"
The kid had the audacity--and guts--to grin and nod. "They were cheating on a lab experiment. I told the professor."
"Good for you, kid!" Silas exclaimed.
"Thanks." Kid took off his glasses, cleaned them on the sleeve of his hoodie, then put them back on. "And the name's Charlie. Charlie Harley."
"Nice to meet you, Charlie," said Silas.
Terry was fuming. "Would you beat it already, McNeal? This is none of your business!"
"Well it's Charlie's business, isn't it?" Silas asked. "Which means he should get a say-so in whether or not I say." He walked to Charlie's side and patted the kid on the shoulder. "So, kid, what's it gonna be?"
Charlie smiled smugly at his three attackers. "You can stay, Silas."
"Thanks, pal." Silas met eyes with Terry. "See? I ain't goin' nowhere."
"Then you'll have to pay, too!" shouted the short, stocky guy. He stepped toward Silas and tried to punch him with a right hook.
Silas easily sidestepped the blow and grabbed onto the punk's forearm. "That was a mistake," he told him in a low dangerous voice. In a flash, Silas had the punk's arm behind his back, and the short, stocky kid was screeching for mercy.
Silas looked from Terry to the thus far quiet third punk and back again. "No more messing with Charlie. You're just gonna have to deal with the repercussions of cheating and ganging up on people."
"Mercy!" the short punk screeched.
"Let him go, man!" Terry cried, real fear evident in his face and voice.
Silas bowed slightly, grinning, and held the stocky punk for a few moments longer than necessary, just for fun, then letting him go, giving him a push with his foot. "Beat it, fellas. And no more messing with Charlie, ya hear?"
The short punk took off running, followed by the quiet one. Terry hesitated.
"So that's it, Harley? You gonna let McNeal fight your battles?" Despite the bravado in Terry's voice, his eyes were wide with obvious fear. "You're a coward and a loser, Charlie Harley!"
"I think Charlie here could kick your butt if so inclined," said Silas archly. "What are you, Charlie?" He glanced back at the younger man. "Six four? Six five?"
Charlie just grinned.
Silas turned back to Terry. "Kid was going easy on you. They always say it's the quiet ones you have to worry about. And Charlie here… He's a quiet one."
Terry looked for a moment as if he would challenge Silas's logic, then he just shook his head, swallowed, and held up his hands. "Fine, McNeal. You win." He started backing away, then a sneer twisted his features. "I hope you get kicked off the baseball team for being late to practice!" he shouted, and then he was off, following in the wake of his lackeys.
Silas turned to Charlie, grinning and exhilarated. "I do love a good dose of justice now and then." He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Charlie."
Charlie firmly shook his new ally's hand. "Silas, right?"
"That's the name." Silas struck a heroic pose, and Charlie laughed. "Seriously, though…" Silas narrowed his eyes on Charlie. "You alright, kid?"
Charlie nodded. "I'm fine." He smiled slowly. "Maybe I'm just as dangerous as you insinuated."
"Dangerous, but a lover of peace, am I right?"
Charlie shrugged and nodded.
"Well, my man--" Silas patted Charlie's shoulder. "It's off to baseball practice for me. I'm late already. The coach is gonna give me crap for sure." He made a face. "Oh well." The grimace morphed into a smile. "It was worth it…"
Charlie frowned. "Dude, you didn't have to get in trouble for my sake. I feel really bad now."
Silas raised an eyebrow. "Well, I think there's a way you can make that up to me."
"How's that?" Charlie asked.
"You free most evenings?"
"Well… Yeah…" Charlie fiddled with his glasses, appearing confused.
"You see, Charlie, our baseball team is without a manager," said Silas slyly. "And I was hoping…" He held up his hands.
Charlie grinned. "Fine. I'm coming with you."
"Great!" Silas jerked his head toward the baseball diamond in the distance. "Come on!"
The two young men started walking toward the field.
"Hey, since I possibly saved your life and all…" Silas looked askance at Charlie, mischief gleaming in his golden-green eyes. "You know any single girls?"
Charlie laughed incredulously. "Well I just might!"
Silas raised his eyebrows, genuinely surprised at the response. "Really?"
Charlie smiled smugly. "I happen to have a very single sister."
Silas gasped out her name and sat up suddenly, sweating and breathless. For a moment, the darkness confused him, and he reached out into it. Then he remembered and bowed his head.
"Charlie…" He sighed wearily, his heart clenching with an inner pain--pain for himself, pain for Charlie, pain for Madeline.
"What happened, Charlie?" he inquired of the darkness. "Where did you go?" As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, they settled on the newspaper lying on the bedside table. Surely… Surely Charlie wasn't the one. Surely Charlie hadn't done it…
Not Charlie, the tall, gentle lover of peace.
Not Madeline's brother.
"Madeline," he said again, eyes closing, the name almost a sob. He clenched his fists, clenched his teeth, longed for her and fought the longing.
He could never go back to her.
Not until he found Charlie.