"You okay?" Gregg asked as they walked down the hall crowded with students rushing toward their next class.
Gwen Nicholson-Nelson knew her friend's expression as well as he knew hers. He knew she was picking up on something, and he was already worried.
He's here. I can feel him. Or he's here, in one of these kid's minds, and I'm feeling him through them.
"Gwen?" Gregg said again, taking her elbow.
She looked up at him sharply. Reality flooded back in, and she wanted to call herself foolish. Paranoid. She hadn't felt him for two years. Him--her nemesis, the psychic like her. Like her, but more powerful. Much, much more powerful.
"I'm all right," she said softly. "Kyle's probably waiting."
They picked up their pace through the emptying halls until they reached the small classroom set aside for their counseling. Gwen and Gregg worked for an outreach program that helped teenage boys who were in trouble. Wayward Angels for Boys had a sub-out policy that allowed them to counsel the boys in the local schools.
Kyle Meadowbrook had a multitude of problems. He'd come into the Wayward Angels shelter on his own several weeks before, after slamming down a bottle of whiskey and snorting enough crack to put him into a coma. When he'd come to, he didn't have the vaguest memory of cutting into his own flesh with a razor. At that time, Kyle's father and the Oak Creek Police Department had been called in for intervention. Kyle had been so shaken, he'd agreed to counseling. His workaholic father didn't seem to believe his son's condition warranted more than that. Mandatory twice a week sessions for the past three weeks had gotten them nowhere. Now that the immediate crisis was over, Kyle showed up late for each session and refused to communicate outside of insisting he was fine.
Fine didn't explain the black shadows around his eyes, nor the haunted expression that made Gwen believe a part of him no longer responded to reality.
"Monday was his last mandatory session," Gwen said softly, five minutes after the appointed time for the session to start, when Kyle hadn't yet joined him. "He won't show."
"He'll show," Gregg insisted.
"Let's have him called out of class."
"Let's wait a few minutes. We don't want to humiliate him in front of his friends. Give him time."
Gwen looked at Gregg, one of her oldest friends, before nodding. He could be right, even if it went against her instincts. Until a year ago, Gregg hadn't had any formal training as a counselor. Life experience had been his teacher. He'd been through what these boys went through. He knew exactly where they were, and he could draw them out the way few others were able to. The troubled boys--including Kyle--trusted him. And he had faith in them, even the hard cases, like this one.
The sick feeling in the pit of Gwen's stomach seemed to be growing stronger. He's close. He can't be, but I feel him coming closer.
Kyle appeared in the doorway.
Gwen gasped like she'd been struck forcefully head-on. Don't let this be, she thought desperately when Kyle came into the room and sat in front of them without looking at either of them. Why wouldn't I have felt his presence during the other sessions with Kyle? Or was he blocking me?
Forcing herself to breathe regularly, Gwen looked closely at Kyle. Before his drinking, drugging, and suicide attempts, he was probably good looking. Even the rings he wore in his ears, his nose, bottom lip and eyebrow didn't detract from that, yet his deathly pallor and the pronounced darkness around his eyes had stolen the life from him. He was obviously agitated as he sat facing their expressions of concern. He's afraid, Gwen realized.
"I don't wanna keep comin' to these," he said.
"You're not better," Gregg reminded him. The gentleness in his voice was also remarkably firm.
Gwen's stomach flipped, and she closed her eyes while Kyle insisted he was doing all right.
Gregg asked him if something had happened.
Blackness swept over Gwen, and she was standing in the tunnel where all of her visions began. Something pulled on her, but she tried to resist, forcing her eyes open. Reality refused to take her back. The vision was calling too strongly for her to function in her role as counselor today.
Get out of my head! Leave me alone. I don't want you here. Why are you here?
The voice sucked her forward through the tunnel until she emerged into the black and white world beyond the half-light. She saw Kyle on his bed. The pillows around him had been slashed and the feathery insides had burst out like entrails. Something forced her forward, closer to him. Blood. Blood red against the stark white of the pillows.
"Nothin's goin' on. I told you, I'm okay."
The voices of reality tugged at her again, and she blindly reached out toward Kyle, knowing he was nearby. If she touched him, she would know everything the boy didn't want to tell them.
Gregg understood, and prevented her reach in order to secure Kyle's right to privacy. Gregg's dark eyes looked at her with concern. Something in her tortured expression must have convinced him not to stop her a second time. Kyle's life depended on it.
"Kyle, take my hand."
His blue eyes narrowed, and he shook his head immediately.
"Please, take my hand. I can't help you if you don't." Just let me see.
His reluctance made him move in slow motion. Timidly, he offered her his hand, palm up at first, then turned it over at the last minute like that could stop her from sensing what was so close.
Gwen clasped her hands around his cold one, and then she was flying back through the tunnel to the half-light, the black and white with one splotch of color. Kyle's eyes suddenly flew open on the bed, he sat up, and Gwen followed his attention as he looked down at himself. The word 'Loser' had been carved into his chest with a razor. Bright red blood dripped from the fresh wounds. Screams burst from his throat.
Gwen shook uncontrollably, fighting her own screams.
The laughter beneath the piercing screams was insidious. He's here. He's inside Kyle. He'll destroy another, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. He knows that. He relishes that--that's why he lets me in at the last minute.
He spoke to her the way he always did--as if she were a helpless creature under his power, the way the children he destroyed were helpless. Yes, I'm here. I've blocked you until this moment because Kyle won't be here for long. 'Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row. Mary, Mary...'
The familiar chant washed out even Kyle's screams until Gwen cowered beneath it, shaking and trying to drive his voice out by begging Kyle not to give in to him.
Then she was torn out of the tunnel and thrust back into reality in a shower of icicles, a lurching stomach. She knew better than to eat before any of her sessions, but hot acid filled her throat. She was on the floor on her hands and knees before Kyle. When their eyes met, she whispered the bloody word she'd seen in her vision: "Loser."
Kyle shrank back from her immediately, horror in his eyes. When he tried to get out of his chair, get to his feet, Gregg was up, holding him back. Kyle struggled until Gregg's voice penetrated the fear pervading his mind. "Tell me, man. I can help you if you just tell me."
Gwen wrapped her arms around herself, trembling uncontrollably. "Show him," she urged when Kyle looked down at her with repulsed reluctance. The teenager swallowed, but then he stepped back, reached down and grasped the hem of his t-shirt under this jacket.
Streams of fresh blood dripped over his lower stomach when he revealed the cuts forming the word Loser on his chest.
"Oh, s*t," Gregg muttered under his breath.
"I don't remember," Kyle said, his voice breaking. "I don't remember doing it. I'm goin' crazy. I think I'm goin' crazy, Gregg. I don't remember."
Gregg put an arm around the boy, murmuring comfort to him in a weak voice. "We'll get you out of school. Get you to the shelter clinic."
Gwen felt no relief despite his compliance, especially when Gregg's eyes met hers in a silent promise that they'd talk later. He wanted to know exactly what had happened.
All she wanted to do was forget.
* * * *
Gwen sat at her desk at Wayward Angels, willing herself not to give in to the tears she so desperately wanted to release. Her professionalism as a counselor had only failed her three times previously, years before. At that time, her visions had debilitated her so completely she'd been unable to do anything, except react to the presence of the other.
It was happening again, and she was as helpless as she'd always been against him. Her stomach clenched at the reminder. I can't stop this. I can't prevent it. And I can't help Kyle. I don't have that power.
The door to her office opened. She raised her head, knowing it would be Gregg.
He looked at her sympathetically for a long minute, then swore in a soft voice.
"How is he?" Gwen asked after he closed the door behind himself.
"He's checked in. I've set up a round-the-clock watch on him. He also agreed to let us talk to his old man again, when he gets back from a business trip next week. I asked him to tell his old man over the phone, but he says doesn't want to tell him anything specific until he's actually here. Kyle wants to be in the room when we tell his dad. I got the feeling the old man suspects what it's about."
Anger filed Gwen's head like a fire. "He won't even come home for this?"
"Since I agreed to Kyle's terms and his old man's not willing to leave the trip without specifics, there's nothing else to do. The kid will run if we don't agree. And you know as well as I do, he's not safe out there alone."
The tears Gwen had tried hard to fight rose up against her will and filled her eyes. She knew Kyle's father's type. She'd seen it far too many times. Maybe alcoholism was better than this problem. At least there was some treatment, some recourse. There was no treatment for workaholics like Kyle's father--nothing short of a complete lifestyle make-over. Gwen had learned that the hard way.
She'd spent more than ten years of her life working herself into the ground, just to avoid life. To avoid feeling anything she didn't want to feel. She'd even ascribed the best of intentions for her actions. Her daughter would be well-provided for all her life. Ally would lack for nothing, except precious memories of quiet, unhurried time spent with her mother.
Gregg walked to her desk, pulled a chair around, and sat in front of her. He reached for her hands, careful to speak as he did so, so she would be grounded in reality instead of more visions. "What did you see?"
The blood in the black and white vision threatened to yank her back in, but she shook her head to clear her mind. "He was there. The one I've felt before."
"It's been two years," Gregg reminded her of what she knew only too well. "Are you sure it was the same one?"
"He spoke to me. He told me Kyle wouldn't be around much longer. He... 'Pretty maids.' Oh, Gregg, it was him. There's no way to mistake him." Contrary to what false psychics and those who eagerly followed after them believed, there were very few true psychics, precognitives, telepaths, or clairvoyants. As a supermodel for most of her life, Gwen had been all over the world. In fifteen years, she'd met only one other like her. Her power was limited compared to his. She could only see. He could influence or affect anyone or anything. He was the one with power. Power beyond anything Gwen had ever feared in herself or imagined could be possible in others.
Gregg nodded. "What did you see of Kyle?"
"I saw his room. His bed. His pillows had been slashed, and there was blood on the feathers spilling out. I saw him come awake, look down at his chest. And then he couldn't stop screaming."
"He did it himself?"
"Yes, but just like with the others, he didn't do it of his own free will. He's there, there in his mind, making Kyle do these things."
Gregg sensual mouth twisted slightly as he looked at her. "You didn't feel him all the other times with Kyle."
"I told you, Gregg, this other one has powers I don't have. He told me he's blocked me deliberately until now--and that makes it clear to me that it won't be long before he takes Kyle. He can more than suggest things. He can make those he gets inside do anything he wants them to do, even the things they fear the most." A sob rose into her throat until she had to forcefully push her words out: "He has all those powers, but I have none, outside of seeing. I can't help Kyle. I can't stop him this time any more than I did the last times, when he destroyed those kids."
"So the other one isn't hiding anymore. Wish he'd died, like we hoped."
The last time she'd felt him, a young girl had died by her own hand to escape the things she'd felt compelled to do, not of her own will. She'd died to escape the chant that wouldn't leave her, or Gwen's, head: Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.
Gwen hadn't been able to stop him. She'd reached out instinctively to the victim, but she'd been powerless to bring her back over the edge. How do you stop someone you can feel, but can't find? She didn't even know what he looked like. All she knew was the sound of his mocking voice in her mind.
Blood. Bold. The only color in a world of black and white. The screams...
The vision dissolved when Gregg eased her forward, murmuring comfort, as he pulled her to him. She'd broken her own dependency on him, but she couldn't deny his arms were still one of the few consolations she responded to.
"Don't let Kyle out of your sight," she said, quietly fierce.
"I won't, baby. I promise."