Notes: I'm happy to say that my biggest debate when I finally finished this chapter was on what to name it.

Chapter 24: Still Alive

Pain. That's all I can think about. My eyes shoot open and I sit up, grasping at where I know the blade went in. Air can't come in fast enough, I breath in greedily. I...wait. There's no wound. The pain, it's gone. All of it. Even from my shoulder. I look at it and...wait. Is that...? I'm in a hospital gown. How did I...? I'm...I'm home.

Blue curtains hang from either side of me, and a white blanket covers my legs. I let out a loud sigh. Wait...where is the pain? I did get stabbed, right? That wasn't a hallucination, was it? Maybe it was. Maybe it was all just some weird dream. A weird nightmare. I'll get out of the hospital, go home and see mom and dad. Be happy. Be normal.

The light's are out in this room. I guess it's past my bed-time. I flop back in the bed and grin. It's all over. It had to be a nightmare. Hate doesn't exist, I never went to Hell. The car accident happened and I'm waking up just now. Mom will be alive and then...and then...

Fuck, what is that smell? I've smelled it before. Awful, sticky, metallic...wait a minute. I sit up in the bed again. It's coming from behind the curtain to my right. I stare at it. That's all I can do right now, is stare. Something wants to leap out of my throat. To break out of me, rip out my tongue and smack me over the head with it.

Slowly I slide out of the bed. My feet hit the cold marble tiles and I step up to the curtain. I reach up for the curtain, grip it tightly. I don't think I want to see what's on the other side. Close my eyes, take a breath, and...I slide the curtain to the side.

My mouth drops open, and every bit of air leaves my lungs. The white hospital bed in front of me, stained red. On top of it, a man with his skin, his flesh, boiled off, leaving the steaming, bloody remains of the almost-skeletal. This...this is why I'm not in pain from the stab or the gash on my shoulder...

I can't do this. I can't I just...the dark voice of the serpent laughs in the back of my head.

"I will break you, my child," it says. A chill runs up my spine and tears well up in my eyes.

"Don't let Him break you," another voice says. Younger. Across the bloodied bed stands...stands my unborn baby brother. Raven-haired, big, innocent brown eyes.

"You can't win," another, older voice comes. At the end of the bed my Uncle Barney is standing, broken skin all round his neck. "Nothing can stop Him."

"You have to fight," my baby brother says.

"It's impossible."

"You're strong."

"He's stronger."

"You're the only hope."

"There is no hope."

They both stop talking and just stare at me. They're ripped out of view by whatever that thing I talked to in my head was. And then it laughs. Laughs at me. Darkly and intimidatingly. And then it fades away.

Dad drives me to school today. It's the next Monday since I got back...which was a Wednesday. I guess he didn't want to put me back in school right after that whole thing. He hasn't asked me anything about where I went or what happened when I got there. In fact, he barely talks at all. Every once in a while he'll look over at me and smile on the way to school. It's a fake smile, a mask. Those are easy to spot, but all I can do is smile back. He needs time, that's all. The accident only happened like two weeks ago.

We pull up to the school. All the cattle are being herded inside. He looks at me and smiles again, I smile back again, but we don't say anything. After about half a minute, I unbuckle my seat belt.

"Love you, kiddo," he says to me as I open the door. Something breaks inside me as I hear those words. Well...I don't know if that's the right word. It just feels like something snapped. Whether it snapped together or snapped in two, I don't know.

I turn back around and reach across the car, hugging him as tightly as I can. He hugs me back, and we sit there for a while more. Suddenly I'm crying into his shoulder. I really hate crying. Dad doesn't seem to mind, though.

"I love you too, dad," I say, my voice muffled by his shoulder. I'm sure he heard it. He hugs me tighter. I almost don't want to go to school. I know, it's almost always like that, but part of me just wants to stay here in my dad's arms, as if I'm a little kid all over again, back when things were simple.

I pull away. Dad's eyes are a bit red, like he was crying too. This time he gives me a genuine smile. I smile back. We don't say anything more. I get out of the car and step into the cold winter air. Slush crushes under foot as I walk towards the doors. Hannah's standing there, waiting. Thank God, she made it back. I almost thought I sent her to...Spain or something. She grins at me.

"You live in a world beset by darkness," the dark voice says in the back of my mind. "The consequences of your actions will soon be realized, and then what? Hate will consume you. You will submit to your anger and leave ruin in your wake. Your will is breaking, my child. Watch as it crumbles, and embrace your true nature." Fuck you. I block out the sound of his voice with that Barbie Girl song. It'll be stuck in my head all day, but it's well worth it.

That serpent fucker, whatever he's supposed to be, he won't break me. He can throw whatever he wants at me, but I am strong. I just need to remember that, to keep telling myself that even when I feel like giving up. I will not break. I am strong. And I'm not alone.

Hannah eyes me strangely as I mumble "I'm a barbie girl, in a barbie world," while we walk inside. Please. It's hardly the strangest thing she's caught me doing. After all, we've been to Hell and back together. Next up, therapy.

So ends The Darkwater Chronicles 3: Hell and Back. I hope you enjoyed it! I know I enjoyed writing it, even the tragic bits. Does that make me sadistic? Maybe.

If you want to continue following Alex on her dark adventure, keep an eye out for The Darkwater Chronicles 4: Deep Earth.

And if you really enjoyed it, leave a review, share this series with your friends. Both Alex and I love the attention.