The scars on her wrists itched, like tiny, sharp beads moved through the white lines in her flesh. Like microbe-sized aliens, digging their way out.
Dawn snorted at that last thought and grinned.
A lot closer to the truth, anyway.
She leaned back against the cab of the truck, half-sheltered from the worst of the slipstream, and watched the highway recede. She tried to ignore the itching, just like she tried to ignore the heavy feeling of a storm that hovered just out of sight, waiting to break.
A storm today was impossible, despite the certainty itching in her scars and in her gut, waking memories and dreams. The Weather Channel, the local radios and Mr. McGinty's bad knee all predicted glorious weather today. That's why half the staff of Rolling Hills Ranch had left at five a.m. to drive north to Sandusky, to spend their day at Cedar Point. There were only so many days left to summer vacation, and even fewer days left when screaming, spoiled brats weren't running everywhere at the ranch, demanding constant attention. The college and high school students who worked as camp counselors and staff weren't about to waste a single moment of freedom, and the biggest amusement park on the North Coast was the place to get their money's worth.
Dreams about lightning and holes in reality and enormous, silent, silver-eyed black dogs wreathed in electric blue fire weren't about to intrude on Dawn's fun. She refused to allow it.
"Not so bad back here, huh?" Flash shouted against the roar of the wind. He grinned when Dawn shook her head.
Then, as if to prove that bouncing around in the open bed of the pickup truck didn't bother him at all, he stretched out on his back, crossed his arms under his shaven head, and closed his eyes. His feet brushed the tailgate and if he slid another inch forward he would bang the cab with his head.
The truck-size inner tubes that usually floated in the pond had been brought out to dry last night before bed. Now they were covered with blankets, held down with bungie cords, and made comfortable seating in the bed of the truck. Dawn knew she would appreciate the softness this evening, after a long, hard day of playing. Right now, the constant shifting and bouncing beneath her bottom exaggerated every bump in the Turnpike pavement. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, praying that twisting sensation in her head and gut wasn't incipient seasickness. Maybe she should have listened to Todd and Bonnie and squeezed into the back compartment of the cab. Or maybe rode in the van with the other ten staffers jammed in there. Even if Tim Cargroe was in the van.
No, riding with that slimy octopus, even with two rows of seats between them, would have definitely made her sick to her stomach. She was better off in the truck, even whipped by the wind.
Blue lightning flashed against a magenta sky in her memory. Dawn clenched her fists. In her mind's eye, the same blue lightning wreathed her wrists, digging into the thin, white lines of scar tissue.
A long, fish-belly-white face and bulbous eyes, so pale they looked silver, intruded into the stormy vision. The mouth opened in a sneer, revealing a black, empty cavern instead of the fangs and forked tongue Dawn expected every time the memory ambushed her.
"Gahlmorag can't find me here," she whispered. She couldn't hear herself above the wailing of the wind that tore at her hair and clothes. Flash definitely couldn't hear her. Feeling the vibration of her voice in her lips helped, though. The sense of something huge and nasty, dripping slime, about to leap on her from the dark...faded.
Dawn opened her eyes and pushed her heavy turquoise and silver bracelets up to look at the thin white lines circling her wrists. Nothing. No sparks. No white flashes of uncontrollable power. No hints that something amazing and world-changing was about to happen.
Her dreams were just dreams. She was sixteen years old, lived in an orphanage in Columbus and worked at Rolling Hills in the stable, and sometimes in the kitchen when they were short-handed. She had no plans, other than to save up money so she wouldn't have to scramble once she was out on her own. Dawn planned to leave the orphanage after she finished her senior year of high school and not wait until her eighteenth birthday before they gently threw her out. What would she do when she was on her own? She had no idea. After six years of being completely alone, she had learned to take things just a step or two at a time, and never look more than a few months down the road. It saved a lot of disappointment and frustration.
She certainly didn't look forward to returning to the orphanage in the fall. When the storms had started last month, she had been so sure it meant the others, her family, her peers, were on the move, gathering together, finding each other. Or were the people she remembered just hallucinations, maybe a few steps down the road to insanity? Had she made up another life, another world, another reality, to block out some hideous past?
Dawn snorted, as she always did when those doubts trickled into her mind. She knew better. She had proof that her dreams and memories were slivers of reality. They had to be. They gave her something to work toward. Her dreams had been of joyous reunions with her cousins. And Stayn.
The days wore on after her hopes awoke with a leap. Storms without rain split the sky with blue lightning, her scars itched and no one came to find her, to gather her up with all the others. Her dreams the last week had shown her Gahlmorag devastating everything around her. Stayn, her childhood friend, was nowhere around and her family lay dead. The hope that had kept her upbeat and active for the last six years felt bruised.
Worse than being abandoned by her family, or thinking them dead, was the sense she would be alone for the rest of her life. Stayn had promised he would find her before anyone else did, when the journey started and they fled Gahlmorag. In six years he hadn't shown up. Dawn had waited for him, even discouraging the only boy who showed her any interest.
It was silly, she knew, to worry about her approaching seventeenth birthday, dateless and kissless, but there it was. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that she didn't have a boyfriend probably meant as much as a grain of sand in a desert, but it still hurt.
Maybe it was time to give up on Stayn? So what if their parents had betrothed them when she was eight and he was twelve? Home and the ceremony were both long ago and far away.
If Mike Evans asked her to go to the end-of-camp hoedown after the next session, she was going to say yes.
Mike was nineteen. Stayn was twenty. Wherever he had landed when they were sent away to safety, he would have been free to move around and search for two years now. Why hadn't he found her? Maybe he didn't care? Maybe he had never looked, because he liked his freedom. Dawn thought of Stayn deciding not to be saddled with a girl he hadn't seen in six years, and hooking up with someone else. Someone more accessible. Someone who didn't remind him of all the things they had lost when Gahlmorag invaded their world and threatened their lives and freedom and minds.
And really, in a place and culture that was still new after six years, where sometimes she still didn't think she understood the language, would it be that easy to find less than two dozen other lost, abandoned children? Maybe she should be more patient. Maybe she should run away from the orphanage, hit the road, start hunting for herself and stop expecting to be rescued?
The problem was, Dawn was sick and tired of being the adult. She was a Big Sister at the orphanage. She had worked her way up from an assistant in the stable to being in charge of the trouble animals. Everybody always depended on her. When would someone look out for her for a change?
"Something eating at you?" Flash shouted, and thumped Dawn's jean-clad leg to get her attention.
"Boy problems." She managed a smile with her shrug.
"Jerk hasn't contacted you all summer, huh? Serves him right if you came home with somebody else in your pocket." Flash waggled his eyebrows at her and gave her a suggestive leer. "Anytime you're interested, sweet-cheeks..."
Dawn had to laugh. Flash was twenty-eight, so in love with his girlfriend he wore out her picture showing it to everyone. The other staff at the ranch had voted him 'Most Likely to Become a Monk', because of his clean lifestyle. That was why he had been allowed to organize this little trip to Cedar Point for the day; he was trustworthy and would never take advantage of a lonely, frustrated sixteen-year-old.
"That's better. Hey, what're you going to do first when we get there?" He sat up and scooted around so he could lean against the cab and they could talk without shouting over the wind.
"Find me some vinegar fries."
"At nine in the morning?" He made a face and shuddered.
They talked about the rides, the games, the food, the I-Max Theater movie and song-and-dance shows they wanted to catch at the amusement park. Dawn's stomach started to hurt just thinking about all the treats to indulge in. Her wallet would take a year to recover, but what was the use of living if she didn't enjoy herself once in a while?
The cracked sliding window at the back of the cab behind them creaked and screamed as it moved along the dirt-filled track. Bonnie stuck her face in the opening.
"Bathroom break!" she called, and hooked a thumb over her shoulder, toward the turn-off to the Turnpike rest stop.
The other two cars in the caravan from the ranch honked at them as the truck pulled over. Neither one slowed down to turn off the highway and wait with them. Dawn waved at them as they passed by. They still had plenty of time to get to the amusement park before the gates opened.
The truck rattled and bumped over an obstacle course of potholes and shreds from several blown semi tires. Todd pulled up in front of the long building with restrooms, vending machines, a gift shop and three fast-food restaurants crammed inside. Dawn stood up and hopped over the side. Her stiff back muscles protested the jolt from landing on the concrete.
When she and Bonnie and Megan came out of the bathrooms, there were only two cars in the gas station part of the rest stop, and only one other car pulled up to the curb in front of the building. Todd and Flash stood by the car. The hood was propped up, and the trunk hung open. From the scattered tools on the ground, Dawn guessed the driver had changed the tire and found something else wrong with the car. She felt sorry for him.
"We can give you a ride to the Sandusky exit," Todd said. "Plenty of room in the back. Is that okay with you?" he added, turning to look at Flash and Dawn.
Dawn glanced at the stranded driver once before shrugging. Sandy hair, slightly shaggy; pale gray eyes; the sleek build of a runner; two days' worth of stubble. Nothing felt wrong about him, other than the cuts on his hands, visible through the grease. He didn't make her scars prickle and itch with warning, any more than they had been itching already. If anything, he looked too tired to be a danger.
"Can you help me push my car out back?" the stranger asked, when it was agreed on.
He gestured around the side of the building, to the place where semis and other large vehicles could park for longer stops. A line of trees separated the area from the main parking lot. The lopsided grin he summoned up didn't brighten his face so much as enhance his weary, strained look and darken the shadows under his eyes.
"I got some buddies who travel this stretch of the Turnpike just as much as I do," he continued. "If they saw my car sitting here while I'm away getting help, I'd never hear the end of it."
"There's a pay phone," Dawn said.
"Already called, but nobody can get out here for two hours." He shrugged. "It's faster if I get there and come back."
His name was Tom and he said he was a courier. Dawn wondered what kind of things he couriered, since he didn't have any bags or boxes or envelopes, either on him or in the car. He took a few things out of his glove compartment and stowed the jack and other tools in the trunk before the three men pushed the car around the side, out of the sight of the slowly growing traffic. Everything he took went into his jeans pockets and the pockets of his heavy, new, dark denim jacket. It was too heavy and warm for this summer day. Dawn could understand why he wouldn't want to leave it behind, but why wear it buttoned up like that? Wasn't he hot?
Dawn and Flash sat in silence after they got back on the road. Tom didn't try to carry on a conversation. Dawn watched him through the dark tangle of her shoulder-length hair, blowing in the wind. He didn't look at either her or Flash, and maybe ten minutes after they returned to the highway, he closed his eyes. A few minutes after that, he slumped down on the inner tubes and blankets and seemed to go to sleep.
"Will you look at that?" Flash nudged Dawn with an elbow, pulling her out of that half-asleep state where everything sounded louder, every rumbling bump of the truck felt deeper. She blinked and looked at him. He pointed up at the sky.
Gray streaked the fluffy white masses of cotton candy that hadn't been there just twenty minutes ago. Dawn shivered, even though the wind tearing at her hair and clothes still felt warm and humid.
"I hope we don't get drowned out of our day off," he continued. "Just goes to show you can't trust the weatherman."
Dawn nodded and glanced at Tom. He looked paler. Maybe the slowly fading sunshine did that to him? Was he asleep? She didn't like the idea of waking him to free up the blankets he was lying on, in case they needed shelter of some kind. Why had they taken the old pickup truck today, anyway, instead of a car? She could have squeezed into the cab.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and sternly commanded her innermost self to calm. The itching in her scars had turned into a buzzing. The memories that sensation triggered were the foundation for the panicky feelings and thoughts racing through her. That was all. There was nothing wrong. Nothing but strange atmospheric antics, irritating her body.
"Hey, buddy?" Flash's yell yanked Dawn out of her mental scolding. She opened her eyes to see him shift onto his knees and crawl a few feet to where Tom lay. He grabbed the man's shoulder to shake him. "We might need to get under the blankets. You want to..."
Flash glanced at Dawn. Something stern and concerned in his eyes brought her up onto her knees. She watched from her safe distance as he yanked on the brass buttons of Tom's coat, pulling it open.
"Todd!" Dawn pounded on the window of the cab. "We gotta stop! This guy's bleeding all over the place."