Firelight flickered across the walls, glittering in the eyes of all the strange men and women in robes standing in a circle around me. It was warm in the house but their stares made me feel so much colder. I shivered on the stone table beneath my back and turned my eyes to the ceiling. The scent of smoke hung thick in the air and it was getting harder to breathe.
A person approached with a long, thin knife in their hands and I jerked away on instinct. All of the people moved closer to make sure I couldn't leave and the knife-wielding stranger grabbed my arm to prick the tip of my index finger, drawing blood to the surface of my skin. I was only five years old and that seemed like the greatest agony in the world so I began to cry. Soft hands stroked my hair.
"No tears," murmured a familiar voice. Mom?
They dripped my blood into a cup and began to chant… I couldn't breathe…
Gasping, I tore free of the nightmare and flew up in bed, hands clutching my throat. The voices vanished, vanquished by the fear coursing through my veins, and I panted for a few minutes to catch my breath. My heart was straining against my sternum like it wanted to burst out and splatter on the floor.
On cue, my alarm blared at a terrifying pitch from the nightstand and I was thrown into an adrenaline-fueled frenzy all over again. I threw myself across the bed and fumbled with the switch to turn it off. It was already shaping up to be a shitty morning. I rubbed my face and took a few more steadying inhalations before slipping out of bed into the streams of the May sunrise across my floor.
The smell of eggs helped brighten my mood a bit. I stepped into the long hallway curving through my apartment to find my boyfriend, Anthony, standing over the stove cooking. Both of our cats were swirling around his feet in a blur of white and black meowing for their own food but Ant ignored them, utterly focused on the task at hand. His brown hair was tied in a ponytail at the base of his neck and he was wearing a wife beater with flannel pants. He looked like a lumberjack.
I stepped up to kiss him chastely on the cheek and he smiled down at me. We had been together for a year and recently decided to move in together. He worked as a bartender while going to school to become an engineer and I worked as an illustrious legal aide.
"You're up early," I said, examining myself in the mirror in the living room. My brown hair was a tangled mess from the dream and I tried drawing my fingers through the long locks to straighten them out. "Do you have that one class today? What is it, some math bullshit?"
"Math… bullshit?" Ant laughed and shook his head. "Sure, we can call it that. Since you've got the day off work would you mind straightening the apartment up? I was going to have the guys come over."
Our apartment was fairly small—two bedrooms for when we had guests over. We had stuffed it with whatever fancy-looking furniture we could find so it was a cornucopia of nonsense items. Ant was much more neurotic than me and it drove him crazy but I liked the mess. I flopped down in our big red sofa and shrugged indifferently, examining my nails. I needed a mani.
"Sure," I said.
"Thanks, Keira. I made the reservation for dinner for your birthday, too. Only two more months until you're 21; can you believe it?"
I grinned. "Nope, but we're gonna have a blast."
We had breakfast together and Anthony finished getting ready for work. I didn't like to talk about my dreams so I decided to act like it never happened and gave him a passionate kiss before he left. Everything grew quiet and the cats, Annie and Oakley, gravitated toward me in their search for handouts. I sourly stared at both of them before going to get their breakfast ready.
I took a shower and sent a few texts back to people I had received overnight. My two best friends, Paige and Hannah, wanted to grab a quick dinner later on. I puckered my lips and agreed—Ant would be busy with his goofy friends and I didn't want to bother them.
Bored, I rolled off the couch and began the long process of cleaning the apartment. It didn't have to be outstanding like it was when dad and Lila visited but I wanted it to be semi-orderly. I threw a couple of old food items away, making a face the entire time, and shooed the cats off the couch while I vacuumed all their hair off it. I had an older sister named Katrina who was quite the house wife and taught me a lot of good cleaning tips. Unfortunately, I hated cleaning.
When everything was done around three I sat down again with my laptop to catalogue the nightmare. It popped up every once in a while and I liked to keep track. Mom had died in July, around the time of my birthday, and that was when they got the most intense. I furrowed my brow while I added in the date, noting they were appearing with greater frequency nowadays. Three times a week was a lot.
Oh well. I checked my social networking, including my email to see if my boss sent me anything, and shut the laptop to start dinner for Ant. Paige tried to tell me I should have the dreams 'read' or something but I wasn't interested. It was just something my brain was hooked on.
The girls came to get me around five just before Ant got home. Paige was in a skirt and blouse, probably fresh out of work, with her blonde hair thrown into a bob. Hannah had her black hair in a braid with all the stray strands held back by bobby pins and she was in casual clothes, also fresh out of work. Paige worked at a bank and Hannah was a web designer so she was lucky enough to work from home.
"The boyfriend still at work?" Paige asked, peering inside while I pulled on my jacket.
"Hm? Oh yeah, he'll be back around six. He's having his boyfriends over so I don't want to be a pain." I rummaged through my purse and frowned. "Weird, I thought I threw my wallet in here. Hang on a second, guys; I'll be right back."
"Hurry up, the season premiere of The Walking Dead is on!" Hannah whined.
I walked back through the apartment to find my wallet and was surprised to see it resting on my bed. Huh. It must've been misplaced during my cleaning spree. I threw it in my bag and rushed out with the girls while Annie and Oakley watched indifferently from the living room.
"Is Anthony gonna pop the question?" Paige asked loudly when we were at dinner.
It was a bar on a Friday night so I wasn't terribly surprised. I looked at her over my cheeseburger and shrugged. We hadn't been dating for very long so I wasn't expecting that kind of commitment yet.
Hannah smacked Paige on the arm. "Are you seriously asking her that?! You're so rude sometimes!"
Paige had a… traditional upbringing and she wasn't entirely fond of my living with a guy I wasn't married to. Hannah had married straight out of high school to a nice guy named Peter and things were going pretty well for them. I nursed my beer and rolled my eyes when the two started bickering.
We lived near the Gulf in the lovely state of Florida, but the beach was a ways away. It was okay, mostly hot and uncomfortable during the summer with a brief respite in fall and winter. I had been born and raised in Florida further south while Paige and Hannah both came from Louisiana. We'd all met when visiting a state school we wanted to attend and while I didn't end up going, both of them did. They were nearly done with their bachelor's degrees.
All of us paid our tabs and piled in to my SUV. We went back to the apartment where Ant was standing outside with one of his friends, Jake, and casually waved when I parked. Damn, I'd come back too soon. I winced and stepped out of the car to kiss Ant on the cheek while Paige immediately cuddled up to Jack.
"We were just going out," Anthony said with a small smile. "Thanks for dinner, Keira."
I shrugged. "It was no big deal."
The girls both left in their respective vehicles and I found myself alone on the sidewalk when Anthony drove off in his little coupe. Goddammit. What an exciting Friday night for the underage girl.
The apartment complex was quiet as always. It was home to a lot of elderly people. I trudged up the stairs to my place on the third floor and fumbled with my keys, still a bit tipsy from the beer, before letting myself into the apartment. I sighed as I flicked on the lights and yawned profusely.
Both of the cats were sitting on the couch staring into the corner of the ceiling. I furrowed my brow and walked up to look up as well, wondering what had them so intrigued. Annie's head twitched to the left like something had moved suddenly and both she and Oakley were promptly staring at the bathroom door, tails sweeping irately. I laughed and rubbed Oakley's head.
"Too much catnip, girlies?" I teased, walking over to the door.
As I approached I noticed the temperature dropped a few degrees. Confused, I turned to examine the window and rolled my eyes when I saw it had been left open. Of course.
There wasn't much else to do. I changed into pjs and sat on the couch to watch soap operas for an hour and almost passed out into my popcorn bowl before I decided to go to bed. Ant still wasn't home. Groggy, I slipped beneath the sheets and pulled them up close to my chin.
The cats climbed into bed with me, much to my shock, and Oakley lay down to sleep. Annie sat at the foot of the bed near my feet and stared pointedly at my bedroom door. Cats were weird.