Chapter Seven

I opened my eyes to see my brother standing over me, his face full of anxiety. I was about to throw my arms around him when my vision cleared and I realized that it wasn't my brother. No, the person standing over my bed was Simon. The handsome prince from the magical kingdom across the sea who had promised to take me to a place where we could be free together.

"Simon?" I said, my voice weak and shaky.

"Lucie!" he called. "She's woken up!" My best friend rushed to my side and propped up my pillow so that I could sit up.

"What the hell are you doing here, Simon?" my head swam as I sat up and my body wobbled, threatening to fall over. Lucie grabbed my arm and steadied me.

"Careful; not too fast now," she warned.

"I was walking down the street when I heard Lucie scream. I guess her attic was open or something. So, I came in to help, but by the time I got here, you were already unconscious," Simon explained. He looked nervous, like he was embarrassed to be there. I smiled. I hardly knew him, but I felt safe with him for some reason. I remembered now. We had been planning on running away together. The plan was that we were all going to meet at his house and while our friends were having a good time, we would sneak out and steal his dad's car. It was crazy and foolish, but we were in the prime of our lives and it was summer. We thought that we were invincible; that nothing could touch us. It was only later that we both realized how stupid we had been. And Alex had paid for it with his life.

But none of that mattered. We were older now. We could just leave this stupid place and live our lives together. I knew that was what I wanted; it was what any sane girl would've wanted. But something was holding me back.

"We have to find Ashley and Julia." Lucie nodded slowly, pleased with my suggestion.

"Yeah. And after that, we can get the hell out of this place. I'm sure the last thing any of us want is to be attacked by another one of those…things." Lucie shuddered as if the mere thought of the creature that had attacked us was something to be feared.

***

The trip to Julia's house was uneventful, to say the least. We armed ourselves as best we could with kitchen knives, led pipes, and the crowbar that Lucie had killed the monster with. Even though we knew that the town was crawling with monstrous creatures, we didn't see a single one, which was somehow more unsettling that seeing one would ever be.

Now, as I sat on Julia's couch eating a sandwich that Simon had made, everything seemed to have a surreal quality to it. There had to be something that would explain why the town was overrun with monsters, but I had no idea what that might be. There was just no reason for this to be happening. I prayed to God that Dad would find someone in Forest Path who was insane enough to believe what was going on soon, if he had even made it to Forest Path.

Simon sat down next to me, throwing his arm casually around my shoulders as if he had done it a hundred times before. My first instinct was to move away, but the warmth of his body was comforting. In fact, his body wasn't just warm: it was hot to the touch. I didn't think he had a fever, but I didn't want to break the silence between us by asking.

But I decided to anyways. I hadn't told anybody about the letter that I got from Alex. It was still in my duffel bag that I had left in my house, so it's not like I had any proof. Besides, even Lucie, who had always been so open-minded and understanding, would've told me that I was sick. Ashley and Julia would just point and laugh, not even thinking about how much it hurt.

"Simon?" I said hesitantly. I couldn't believe that I was about to tell him, a complete stranger, when I couldn't even muster up the courage to tell my childhood friend.

"Mmm?"

"If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone else?"

"I'm listening."

"You know what happened to my brother five years ago, right?"

"Yeah, it was all over the news. You know how it is; as soon as something interesting happens, the media swarm all over it like maggots on old meat."

"You know, that's why I didn't show up that night. Alex was afraid that if Dad found out he'd be the one who got blamed. He rowed us out to the middle of the lake, and then we told him that we wanted to go to the other side, but he refused. When we got back, the light in Dad's bedroom turned on, and we ran. Me and my friend made it to my room before Dad found out, but Alex never made it back. The police searched for weeks, but they never found him."

"Where are you going with this? Has something happened?"

"I think he might be alive, Simon." Simon withdrew his arm and grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly. Maybe, just maybe, he would believe me.

"Anna, you're sick. You need help." As soon as he said it, my heart dropped down to the very bottom of my stomach. I snatched my hand away as if it had been burned.

"I'm sick? No, you're the one who's sick, you bastard. I'm not the one who's obsessed with someone I hardly know. I'm not the one who says over and over again that I love someone I met once, five years ago. Well, you know what? You can take your 'love' and shove it up your ass! Are you really so desperate for a girlfriend that you have to come to this hellhole just to hit on a stranger? You're pathetic Simon, and I wish I'd never met you!" I knew it was cruel, but it felt good to let out my anger for once, and I wasn't sorry that I had done it. I had trusted Simon enough to confide in him, and yet he had the nerve to call me insane, even after all of the impossible shit that we had gone through. Simon stared at me, his mouth opening and closing, unable to think of a half-descent response. I could tell that my words had hurt him more than a slap in the face ever would.

Suddenly, Julia burst into the room. She looked like she would burst into tears at any moment. Her dark blonde hair was a mess, her eyes were red and puffy, and her hands were shaking uncontrollably.

"Julia, what the hell's wrong with you?" I said, my anger at Simon forgotten for the moment.

"There's something wrong with Ashley. I think she's sick…or something. Don't just sit there, come help me!" I rushed upstairs with Julia, Simon following closely behind. In Julia's room, Ashley was sitting on the bed, staring out of the boarded up window. Her eyes were vacant and cloudy and her hands gripped the sheets so tightly that her knuckles were white. She was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, which was odd, considering that Ashley was a huge girly-girl who would be caught dead wearing something as unflattering and unstylish as a baseball cap. I could hear a low, faint buzzing sound that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.

"What the hell's wrong with her?" Simon asked impatiently. "She looks fine to me."

"She's not making any sense. I think she's lost her mind or something." Julia was growing more distraught by the moment. Feeling sick to my stomach, I walked up to Ashley.

"Ashley, what's wrong? Are you feeling okay?" Suddenly, she whirled her head around and stared deep into my eyes, her gaze intense and unwavering.

"You're too late," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "You can't save me. You can't save anyone." Her eyes were cold; inhuman. I took a step back, suddenly afraid of this girl who I had known since high school. Then, the life returned to her eyes. They cleared and it was as if she were the same girl who had been one of my best friends for four years. Her hand flew up to her head and she began to scratch it violently. "My head's been itching like a bitch." Suddenly, her eyes rolled back into her head and she fell over backwards. I rushed forward, alarmed, and felt for a pulse. There wasn't one. The buzzing had grown louder and louder, and now it was almost deafening.

"Oh God…Ashley…" I heard Julia gasp behind me.

"Go get Lucie out of the bathroom," I barked at Simon. He nodded and left the room, but he didn't take his eyes off of Ashley. My hands shaking uncontrollably, I reached for Ashley's Red Sox cap, afraid of what she had been hiding under it.

I yanked the cap off in one swift motion and immediately dropped it. I jumped back covering my mouth with my hands as a huge insect crawled out of a gaping hole in Ashley's scalp. The disgusting thing must've been the size of a baseball. It had a hideous face that seemed almost…human, and two knife-like front legs. As it sat on Ashley's face, it rubbed its front legs together, producing a horrible screeching buzz. It sat there for a few moments before lunging at me. It latched onto my arm and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Terrified and repulsed at the same time. I felt it bite down into my flesh with razor sharp teeth and lap up the blood that spilled out of the wound. I shook my arm vigorously, to no avail. I tried to rip the disgusting thing off, but it held on fast. I screamed again and Simon came rushing in with Lucie in tow.

"Get it off now!" I said, trying once again to pry the horrible thing off. I could feel my head becoming light and I started to get dizzy. I had lost too much blood. It wouldn't be long before I passed out. Simon rushed to my side and began to pry the thing's front legs out of the small holes they'd poked in my flesh.

"God damn it!" he swore under his breath. "The bastard doesn't want to come off! Come sit down, Anna. Lucie, go get a knife or something to get this thing off." I did as I was told and sat down on the bed next to Ashley's corpse. My head was pounding painfully and I felt as if I could fall over at any moment.

Simon tried, without success, to get the bug off my arm. By now it had made a large, deep gash in my skin that was gushing more and more blood by the minute. After what seemed like an eternity, Lucie came back with a knife. Simon took it from her and in one quick, strong motion, he thrust it between the insect's hideous face and the mangled flesh of my arm and heaved upward, upending the insect. It landed on its back, hopelessly trying to right itself.

With a loud grunt, Lucie brought her foot down on the now helpless beast. I watched with grim satisfaction as its disgusting yellow-green insides spilled out onto the floor.

"Come on, Anna. We should really put a bandage on that."