Fuck. How had that happened so quickly? Emily's reaction time wasn't what it used to be. She refused to lower her gun, but both she and Alex knew the circumstances had changed. Was he testing whether Emily would shoot Dog first? Never. Emily wasn't so cold. She could make her own options, and currently, she leaned toward voiding the problem altogether and shooting Alex in the legs.

Dog shook her head. No. Though Alex gripped her shoulders, her hands were free from the elbow down. Dog contorted her arm behind her back, face twisted in pain, and reached with agonizing slowness to her right hip. Her thin fingers fumbled with her sweatshirt, and she pulled at the folds near the waistband of her pants. With a low exhale, she tugged something loose and dragged it back to her other side. She gave Emily a subtle nod.

"Okay," said Alex, "how about this: I'll let her go if you drop the gun. We'll do it at the same time so no one has the upper hand. Then we can both—"

"No," said Dog.

Alex glanced down, and Dog pulled her hand from behind her back. The barrel of a revolver, identical to Emily's, was pressed into Alex's side. Dog's finger hovered over the trigger, and her eyes flicked up to meet his.

Alex lurched back and stumbled over a tree branch.

Emily bit her lip to contain a high laugh of relief as Dog, breathing hard, scrambled back to Emily. The rope lay forgotten in the middle of the trail, Alex scooting to his feet.

"Dog, cover me." This was an Emily job. "I'll tie his hands," she said.

02/20

Hey, it's been a while since I wrote in here, but I had some free time today. Which is good because Dad just dropped a BOMBSHELL.

Dad and Rhonda are going to put Liv up for adoption.

I know, crazy. But I guess it makes sense. Liv is really quiet and weird, and Dad honestly doesn't like her. Rhonda really doesn't know what to do with her either. Even though Rhonda is her mother, I don't think she ever actually connected with Liv. Rhonda and my dad are both unemployed right now (except for dad's part-time job at Lowe's), which is another reason why they need to put Liv up for adoption. Rhonda wants a fresh start after they get married, but they can't support two kids without going WAY into debt. I guess going bankrupt isn't a good way to start a new life with someone. Even though it kind of makes sense, I still feel really bad for Liv. I can't imagine how it would feel if Dad rejected me and put me up for adoption. I would feel like he didn't love me, and that's a horrible feeling to have.

I hope Liv makes it through this okay and finds a family who does care for her. They said at first they were going to send her to her Aunt May's house, but we all know Aunt May is an alcoholic. They're still trying to pretend they're not REALLY putting her up for adoption, but social services aren't going to let Liv stay with Aunt May for long. Same result, different route. But that's life, isn't it?

Alex's epiphany finally came, and once Emily stopped debating whether to kill him, he wondered how he hadn't seen it before.

This was all a dream.

In hindsight, it was painfully obvious. How could a situation this ridiculous not be a dream? In real life, for example, hiking trips didn't end in gruesome murders. In real life, wood-dwelling girls didn't hold innocent guys at gunpoint. If Alex had to play armchair psychologist, he would guess the whole murder-y stuff was little more than a manifestation of his own fears. Of his subconscious dread for the date he had tomorrow with the real Mia.

"We'll bury her right here," said Emily. She leaned over a shovel and pointed at a bare patch of ground beneath the vines.

Alex stopped a couple feet short of her, and Dog followed his movements with her gun. He did his best to ignore her. What was the worst a bullet could do? Wake him up?

"Do you need help?" Dog said.

"Later, probably," said Emily. "But if you pack up the campsite, I can start digging."

"With him?" Dog said, motioning to Alex with her free elbow.

"Yeah. I don't trust him with a shovel."

The paranoia made sense. Alex's mind could be a subterranean underworld of conspiracy theories and wild connections. It made sense his dream characters would reflect that. That Emily feared Alex would whack her over the head with a shovel if given half a chance. But Dog agreed, and the two of them set out deeper into the forest, Emily left behind by her bare rectangle of dirt. Alex heard a dull thunk, of metal shovel breaking through hardened dirt, then no more.

They walked on, Dog directing him from a safe distance of eight feet back. Birds called tunelessly from the treetops, and dark, granite boulders rose from the mist. As if Alex needed more proof this was a dream. None of it made sense. To top it off, they came to a dirty, two person camo printed tent, straight out of a survivor TV show. It was worn, mud-stained, and draped with branches. The rope, once white, had been painted a gritty green. To blend in. If Dog hadn't told Alex to stop, his eyes would have glazed over this place.

"Stand against that tree," said Dog. "With your hands at your head."

"Sure." As Alex backed against the nearest tree and placed his hands on his head, he resolved to be nothing but agreeable. Let's see where this dream would take him.

Dog unzipped the tent and crawled half in, though she never let Alex out of her periphery. The sharp objects—kitchen knife, machete, pocket knife—were the first to go. She rolled them in a muddy sweatshirt and stuffed them into the bottom of a large, navy hiking backpack. Alex watched, his attention split between her packing and him marveling at the novelty of the situation. His dreams had always been vivid, yes, but never this realistic. The horrible thought crept into his mind that maybe this wasn't a dream after all—

No. It had to be.

"Why does she call you Dog?" Alex said before his thoughts could rush away from him again.

Dog's hand hovered over an empty water bottle. "It's just a nickname."

"Why Dog, though?"

She lifted the bottle and let it clunk to the bottom of the bag. "When I first met Emily, I wouldn't tell her my real name. So she gave me a nickname."

Her tone was brief, too nonchalant, but Alex didn't press her. Instead he said, "Why are you travelling with Emily?"

It was the nicest way he could ask why a middle school girl was holed up in the woods with a serial killer. Even for a dream, that was pretty wild.

"It's a long story," Dog said. "And boring."

Ah. Maybe a subject change was in order. Alex doubted the story was boring in any sense of the word, but if Dog didn't want to talk about it, he wouldn't press her. "So," he said, trying for a more neutral question, "where are we going after this? Another forest?"

Dog drummed her fingers on the side of the tent. "I shouldn't tell you much. We'll restock our food supply. Then we'll try to find someone with dark brown hair—on some other trail, of course. After that," she said, "the finale. Black hair, the last color. We finish Emily's gradient, and the collection is finally complete."

"Oh." Her words ricocheted through Alex's head. The finale, black hair—and like an idiot, Alex had asked why she was travelling with Emily, as if that were the biggest mystery here. Forget the elephant in the room, this was a whole zoo. Dog's hair was about as black as you could get. "Oh. You're the last… you're the last—"

Dog let out a short, hoarse laugh. "Emily isn't going to kill me."

"Then why…?"

"She can find someone else with black hair to kill, easy. I'm too important to her."

"Too important to her?" Alex said, stuck over the phrasing. Emily didn't exude any sentimentality, but she had seemed shaken when Alex grabbed Dog back on the trail.

Dog considered this. "I, um… I don't think I can tell you," she said.

"Oh."

Alex couldn't think of anything else to say, so their pause gave way to long minutes of silence. As Dog disassembled the rest of the tent, Alex made a fun game of counting how many trees he could see without turning his head. Many, many, many. Was it possible to bore yourself awake? Because he was coming pretty damn close.

"Come." Dog shouldered a backpack and beckoned to Alex.

"What?" he said.

"We're done here." She swept a hand back to their former campsite, now bare. The only indication there had been a tent there were four indentations circle beneath the boulder. In time, those would be gone too.

"Let's go," Dog said. "Emily needs help burying the body."