Was I really going to do this?
I gnawed on my lower lip and hesitated in the middle of the school hallway. I stared at Tina Miller where she stood a few feet away in front of her locker. Despite her five foot nothing height, Tina's preference for sunshine yellow made her easy to spot: yellow scarf holding back her blonde curls, yellow top with a round neckline and a yellow belt cinching her tiny waist.
Someone in the crowd jostled me, and I took a step forward, still arguing with myself. Don't be stupid, Lissa. Even if you tell her what's going to happen she won't listen to you. Until afterward. Then she'll remember and blame you.
That's what usually happened when I warned someone about what I'd foreseen in my dreams. But Tina had been my friend once, six years ago back in grade five. Before I became an outcast. And whatever lingering hurt I might feel over Tina's long ago rejection, her mother, Mrs. Miller, had always been nice to me.
Yes, I was going to do this. Which didn't mean I couldn't try to limit the damage.
I took a deep breath to settle the nerves tightening my stomach then walked toward Tina. "Call your mom," I murmured under my breath as I passed by. I didn't want anyone else to hear me. The fewer rumours that started the happier I'd be.
There. Now it was Tina's decision to either call or not call. My conscience was clear. Except Tina didn't follow the script. "What?" she said loudly, attracting attention I didn't want.
Our gazes met for a second before I looked over her shoulder and told the wall, "Call her right now."
"Why?" Tina asked, blue eyes wide with alarm.
I didn't answer. While it made a nice change to have my warning believed, I wished fervently that she would just do as I'd suggested. I averted my eyes and kept walking down the crowded hallway, pretending we hadn't spoken at all.
I took a half step to avoid running into two seniors holding hands, then squeezed though a gap and melted into the lunchtime throng until I reached a bank of red lockers. I found #187 and started to dial my combination.
But instead of leaving me alone in my bubble Tina followed me down the hall. "Why do I need to call her? What's wrong?" Her anxious voice had everyone staring. So much for being discreet. "Lissa, please."
Sweat broke out along my spine, but I kept my eyes on my lock. Ignoring her felt cruel, but I knew that explaining would only make things worse.
Finally, Tina realized that I wasn't going to say anymore. I expected her to go to the office, but instead she caught the arm of a boy walking down the hall.
The boy jerked away, but checked the motion when he saw who it was. Tina didn't notice, single-minded. "Can I borrow your cell? I have to call my mom."
I admired her strategy. The teachers at our school had declared outright war on cellphones and texting and confiscated them left and right. But Tina had asked the new guy, who might still have his cell.
The very cute new guy whose name I didn't know yet.
His green T-shirt, black jean jacket and black jeans were nothing special, yet he stood out. I told myself that I’d noticed him because Grantmere was a small town and new faces were rare.
Yeah, right. The new guy would have stood out in a student population of a thousand. His hair was a gorgeous shade of light brown shot through with gold highlights. He had a good build, great cheekbones and a killer smile. He was hot. As in looking at him made my face warm. The reaction put me off balance, and I didn't like it. I rarely noticed guys—at least, not the guys I'd gone to elementary school with. I had difficulty feeling romantic over a guy that used to compose arm fart symphonies. Which was why I usually crushed on movie stars. Much safer.
Plus, Carly Jackson hung on the new boy's sleeve. Underneath her flawless makeup she looked annoyed at having her monologue interrupted. She flipped back her mane of red hair. "Mitch?"
So that was his name. I liked it. Not too trendy, or geeky, just solid. Mitch.
"Please?" Tina asked. "Lissa says I should call her now."
"Uh, sure." Mitch frowned at Tina's frantic face, but dug his cellphone out of his jeans and handed it to her. She snatched it away and started pushing buttons.
I dawdled at my locker, getting out a binder and my math textbook so that I could listen in.
"Tina, you're not listening to her, are you?" Carly demanded. She flicked a scornful glance my way. To Carly, I was less than a person, unworthy of a name.
Tina pressed the cellphone harder against her ear. "Mom? Mom are you there?" she asked. A sigh of relief.
I fished a pencil out of my pencil case. Then, when that didn't take long enough, I shut the door with one of my books sticking out. I affected a small frown as I pushed on it, pretending I didn't know why it wouldn't shut.
"Is everything okay?" Another pause. "Well, I'm calling because... because I wanted to ask you—"
"See?" Carly said. "Of course everything's okay."
I opened the locker again, squared the textbook away and this time shut the door.
"Mom? Mom?" Tina sounded frantic. "She hung up on me." Tina redialed. "Come on, come on... She's not answering."
Carly made another sound of disbelief. "You don't actually believe—" she started.
Since I had a pretty good idea why Mrs. Miller wasn't answering her phone, I snapped my lock in place and strolled away. Mission accomplished. I headed for the library to do my homework, just like I did every noon. Not because I enjoyed math, but with no one to talk to noon hours dragged.
I'd decided years ago that I could either have secrets or friends, but not both.
I blinked when Mitch suddenly caught my shoulder. "Hey, not so fast. Your friend wants to talk to you." I found myself staring into a pair of gold-flecked hazel eyes. Eyes to match his golden brown hair.
My heart beat faster. No. Don't do this to yourself. Do not develop a crush on the same guy as Carly.
Tina inserted herself between the two of us, breaking our eye-lock. "Lissa, please, what's happening?"
She looked so worried that I bent my own rules and relented. "Everything's fine," I told her.
And it should be—now.
"Of course everything's fine. There was never anything wrong," Carly said in disgust.
"I don't understand," Mitch said, but when I moved past him he didn't stop me. "Who is she?" I heard him ask.
A scoffing laugh from Carly. "That's Lissa Foster. She likes to pretend she's psychic, but it's just a game. Ignore her."
I didn't look back and took care to keep my expression serene. My strategy for handling Carly was not to let her know when she'd gotten to me. I'd had a lot of practice at the technique; Carly had hated me since we were ten. My fault. Back then I'd liked the importance of my ability and I'd told her a truth she wasn't ready to hear.
In a weird way I felt Carly had a right to her hostility. I did wish, though, that Mitch's first impression of me hadn't been as the school freak.
Not that a skinny nobody like me would have had a chance with him anyway.
I'd barely made it to the library when I heard the sirens. And if I could hear them so could everyone else. I stopped dead in front of the index tables, my hand on the back of a blue plastic chair. Crap. I'd forgotten just how close to school the Millers lived.
Already, heads were beginning to turn. Students got up from their study tables and went to the bank of tall windows to look out at the fire engine.
Time to make myself scarce.
I'd barely taken a step when someone exclaimed, "Oh, my God, isn't that Tina's house?"
Two girls from my class who'd just come into the library heard and looked speculatively at me. They'd obviously been either close enough to overhear some of my conversation with Tina, or someone had already told them. As soon as I walked past they started to whisper.
I exited the library through the security sensors, then looked around for the dreamline. I spotted it wavering off to one side.
If I stared at it, the dreamline often retreated as I approached, so I came at it from an oblique angle instead. In the world of dreams it was raining. Great. Just great.
Still, I'd rather be wet than get cornered by a curious mob.
I headed toward the junior high wing, turned the corner, and, in the split second I was out of sight, physically crossed the dreamline.
Rain slapped me in the face, but I ignored it long enough to pull a chain with a gold button strung on it out from under my T-shirt. With a practiced flip, I sent the button spinning around so that it hung down my back. The change in position signified that I now walked the world of dreams.
The gesture was more of a good luck ritual than a necessity anymore. The habit dated from my childhood when I'd often confused reality and dreams—one of the perils of being born, literally, a dream-come-true.
Cold water drenched my long-sleeved shirt and darkened my light brown hair. I hunched myself protectively around the math textbook and binder I still carried and took a moment to concentrate. A second later, a red umbrella appeared in my hand, and I swiftly opened it. Raindrops pattered angrily on the plastic shield. I could have made the rain stop, but that would have taken a lot more effort of will. Easier to conjure up the umbrella, not from thin air, but from my memory of a red ladybug umbrella I'd owned as a child. The real one had long since died, but the dream model worked fine. It took about the same amount of energy as doing a push-up. A similar mental effort dried my hair and clothes.
Being able to change my surroundings once I'd stepped into the world of dreams was the cool part about being a dream-come-true. A definite perk. Too bad it didn't make up for the other things.
Like being the only one able to stand as guardian against the wulfdraigles.
From under the brim of the umbrella, I looked around the rain dream, but it seemed harmless: gray rain sleeting down onto the shores of a huge lake. Oddly, a paved road led directly down into the water, but the dream wasn't about Grantmere and that was good enough for me.
I knew I ought to find a dry spot to do my math homework, but curiosity got its hooks into me. I slipped off to find out what was happening with the fire.
The world of dreams parallels our world. It's thinner during the day when few sleep, but hardly empty for all that. Other people's daydreams and subconscious yearnings gave me enough fodder to move around.
There's an art to travelling through dreams, one I'd mastered long ago. Oh, I could just brute force my way through, and make the rain dream conform into what I wanted, but the effort of will required would give me a pounding headache. No thanks.
Instead I peered down the rainy shoreline until I spotted a small building. I kept my eyes fixed on it as I walked toward it. The dreamer's image was vague and insubstantial, so it took only a little concentration to build it into a school. My high school.
When I arrived, I pushed through the blue double doors and found myself in...a classroom. A dozen students took a test under the gimlet eye of—I blinked, barely recognizing our school principal, Mr. Darning, as the dream's nightmare figure. Mr. Darning didn't tolerate any attitude, but he wasn't ten feet tall with red eyes either.
Pencils scratched furiously. Most of the students looked like washed out ghosts, but the pony-tailed girl in the middle—the daydreamer—was in colour. Her test seemed to be twenty pages thick, and the clock on the wall ticked oppressively loudly.
Like a mouse, I brushed through the back edges of that dream, then exited into the gym into one about dancing under coloured spotlights. Ballroom music at rock music volumes stunned my ears. I saw Cinderella and a zombie dance by before a fog machine filled the air with white vapour, hiding them.
Perfect. I tinged the white fog gray and added the smell of ashes. I quickly found myself in a haze of smoke out on the street in front of Tina's house.
I picked a spot on the dream side of the dreamline with my back to a fence and carefully studied the shadowy edges of the dream.
Yes. Over there. One of the shadows had an extra density to it. I watched and caught the gleam of yellow eyes. It could have been any wild animal, but I knew it for a wulfdraigle by the sense of evil exuding from its pores.
Aunt Elise claimed that wulfdraigles looked like bigger cousins of wolves, but the only ones I'd ever seen here in the dream world had been shapeless, like this one. The wulfdraigles had been trapped in the world of dreams for so many centuries that most of them had lost their form and become shadows. Shadows with snarling fangs, but still insubstantial for all that.
Their true danger lay in their ability to twist the dream world into horrific nightmares.
Another minute's scrutiny turned up four more shadows. My stomach tightened. I'd never seen so many at once. Wulfdraigles fed on human fear and pain—but only emotions they'd caused, not random pain and fear. The scene of the fire I'd dreamt of last night with its potential for mayhem was drawing them like flies to blood.
I kept a wary eye on the wulfdraigle shadows, but they seemed to be intent only on the human drama so I let myself watch what was happening, too.
The fire engine had screamed to a stop and was parked in front of the nearest fire hydrant, several houses down the street. As I watched, a fireman hurried double-time to attach his hose to the water main.
"Get back!" he shouted at the growing crowd of high school students.
Smoke poured, not from the house, but from a small shed in the backyard. The yard was fenced on only two sides, backing onto the alley and a black car was parked next to the shed. The grass, still mostly yellow at the beginning of spring, began to smolder.
"Mom!" Tina shouted, pelting down the sidewalk.
Before I could decide whether or not to step out and stop her, Mitch took hold of her arm. Good. He'd keep her from running inside the yard. He didn't let go, even when she elbowed him. Then Mrs. Miller came around from the other side of the house, one hand holding a clawing, spitting kitten and the other hand clutching two framed photos. "Tina, get back!"
Relief unknotted the muscles in my back.
In the dream I'd had the night before Mrs. Miller hadn't been hurt—but the house had been on fire, too, not just the shed, and she'd fallen down on her knees, coughing. Convincing Tina to phone her, and thus drawing her mother into the kitchen to answer it and notice smoke out the window, seemed to have mitigated the seriousness of the fire.
Sometimes changing one element changed others in unexpected ways, but this time everything had worked according to plan.
I'd done the right thing. Even if I was going to be Exhibit A in the Freak Zoo this afternoon.
If anyone asked me questions, I would just pretend I couldn't hear them. Most people gave up in disgust if you did it long enough. The trick was not to make eye contact.
I turned, preparing to withdraw back to the school library, when I caught Mitch staring at me. His eyes looked straight into mine, his expression puzzled.
It shook me. I glanced down, but my feet still stood on the dream world side of the dreamline. He couldn't actually see me. He must be looking at something behind me. But it felt as if he saw me. I was used to people looking through me, like Carly did. Only rarely did someone make direct eye contact. I was too odd, too strange. I made other kids uncomfortable.
The sound of my name broke the strange spell.
"Lissa told me to phone you," Tina told her mother. "I think she knew about the fire."
"I'm sure it was just a coincidence," Mrs. Miller said, but she looked uneasy. Ignoring the bloody scratches on her arms, she absentmindedly petted the gray fluff ball, calming both the kitten and herself.
It wasn't just people my age; I spooked grown-ups, too.
"Why don't you ask her why she wanted you to phone?" Mitch asked. "She's right over there." And he pointed directly at me.
Five minutes later I was back in the school library, bent studiously over my math homework, as if I'd been there the entire time.
Too bad my seeming calm was a total fake. If I'd actually tried to write with my pencil, I would have made squiggles because my hand was shaking. My whole body felt like jello, and my heart beat double-time.
My thoughts were scrambled. Crap, crap, crap. Mitch had seen me. I wrestled with the memory, examining it from all sides, hoping I was wrong, but no matter how I looked at it the truth remained. Mitch had seen me while I was across the dreamline and, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Which meant...
He was a scum-sucking conduit.
Wulfdraigles couldn't affect the real world by themselves, they needed a human conduit.
The wulfdraigles had a time-tested system for acquiring conduits. First they sent tempting dreams to someone they thought would be a good candidate, until the person was tricked into wishing their specific sleep dream came true. That person then became a true dreamer, like my sister Brianne.
The wish created a weak spot between the dream world and our world, so that the true dreamer's dreams would leak from one world to the next and come true. Then the wulfdraigles would send nightmares. The wulfdraigles would use bribes—and okay, sometimes blackmail, too—until the true dreamer actively started helping the wulfdraigles and became a conduit. Conduits happily traded in their conscience for minor matters like money and good looks.
And Mitch was one of them. I should have known. I should have freaking known when I saw his face. No one that gorgeous could be real.
That I'd actually been attracted to that fake handsome exterior made me feel ill.
The last conduit I'd met, Rex Tremont, had been a movie-star handsome blond and serious bad news. It had been his fault that the forest fire that blazed through the area eight years ago had come so close to charring Grantmere. Both of my older sisters, Brianne and Suzy, and my dad had almost died.
If the wulfdraigles had brought a conduit to Grantmere, it meant something bad was going to happen. Probably soon.