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Isabella DeMarco was moaning in her sleep. Her fists clenched her pale blue sheets; tears and sweat trickled down her forehead as she rolled her head against her pillow.
Hustle it up, a voice urgently whispered to her. They're dogging you!
Izzy raced through the nightmare forest, a terrifying landscape of fleshy black trees garroted with hangman's necklaces of Spanish moss. A fiery moon blazed overhead, casting flickering shadows over rotting ferns and a matted bunting of ashy gray leaves.
Her surroundings heaved with menace and danger. The surface of a blood-colored swamp roiled as shapes glided toward the boggy earth where she ran. She saw it all with a strange clarity, as if part of her was a camera recording every moment instead of a young woman in flight for her life.
She heard herself panting in counterpoint with her over-cranked heartbeat. Her footfalls ricocheted like shell casings pinging off a tile floor. Heat seared her lungs and her ankles ached from running too long and too hard. Then the screaming of night birds swallowed up the sounds.
The voice echoed all around her. If you don't move it, it's all over. They'll die, too. You're on point.
Then everything shifted and the panting was inside her head, echoing in her temples. The monsters that lived in the forest were after her. They were always after her. They hunted her, night after night. She ran, night after night. She could not stop. She must not stop.
Deep in Izzy DeMarco's soul, she knew that if they caught her, she would die.
And die horribly.
She tried to remind herself it was only a dream. But it wasn't, not when she was in it. It was all so very real. Her gauzy white nightgown molded to her body as she raced barefoot over sharp rocks that sliced the soles of her feet. Slimy, shredding vines tumbled from twisted canopies of dank, dripping leaves. Skeletal branches yanked painfully at the untamed corkscrews of her sable-black hair.
As she raced past a gnarled live oak, four huge gashes in the bark warned her that they had been here first, crisscrossing the forest, searching for her. They were always hunting for her.
But they had never found her.
Not yet. Don't get cocky. Refracting the beam of the burning moon's light, her mother's gold filigree crucifix flashed between her breasts. She put a hand over it to hide the gleam in case it might give her away.
A wind whipped up, twisting her nightgown around her knees. Branches slapped her arms and face; wincing, she pushed them away and tried to move on. Then the hem of her gown caught on something behind her, drawing her up short.
A wolf howled, its wail piercing the fierce rush of the wind. It was joined by another. And another...until the forest rang with eerie, inhuman cries.
Get out of here!
About fifteen feet to her right, a shadow glided through the darkness. The crazed whooping rose to a shrill shriek. The trees and vines jittered in a frenzy. Clouds raced across the moon, slicing the bloody sphere in two, fog spilling out like clots.
She tugged wildly at the nightgown. It wouldn't give. She tried to run, was held fast. The fabric had tangled around a tree root that looked like a gnarled hand, gripping the ruffled hem so that she couldn't get away.
When she grabbed the nearest piece of the root, it curled upward as it tried to capture her hand.
Isabella yanked back her arm in horror. The root slithered back to rejoin the main section, which was still holding on to her nightgown.
The forest is alive.
It wants to kill you.
She pulled again, and again, but it was no use.
Then she reached up to her shoulders and gathered up the gauze around the sweetheart neckline. She jerked her hands toward her shoulders, trying to tear down the front so she could strip the gown off and get away. Try as she might, it would not rip.
She balled her fist and brought it down on the finger-like root. Another howl echoed through the forest, bold and feral and eager. Ice-water chills skittered up her spine; she looked frantically around and —
Get out of here! the nightmare voice commanded. That was when the gun went off. * * *
Izzy gasped and sat upright in bed, gasping for air. Sweat trickled between her breasts and ran down her cheeks like tears. She wiped it away with a clammy hand and blotted her palm on her sheet, which was wrapped around her body like a shroud.
"Just a dream, just a dream," she chanted, her heart beating so fast it was out of rhythm. She pressed her hand against her chest, feeling the damp ivory satin ties of her nightgown against her fingertips. Touching reality.
"Where are you? In your room. In your home. You're fine," she said out loud, a technique she had learned to quell her night terrors.
She forced herself to take a deep breath in, a deep breath out, looking for her center, finding the calm place where the monsters could not go.
It was increasingly difficult to go there.
Because it wasn't just a dream. It was the dream. The blood-red moon, the swamp, the root that grabbed at her and the whispering — that insinuating, sandpapery voice — Izzy had been having the same dream ever since her mother, Anna Maria DeMarco, had died of a lingering, undiagnosable illness ten years before. Today was the tenth anniversary of her death. Izzy had been sixteen then. She was twenty-six now. For ten years, shrieking creatures had hunted her half a dozen times each year. For seventy nights or more, she had outrun them.
What if, one night, they caught her? "Don't go there," she ordered herself. Forcing her body to stand down, she rolled her shoulders forward, made herself slump and lower her head. It was a submissive posture, a surrender, and it frightened her to perform it, even in the safety of her bedroom.
She was still on high alert. Her body was flooded with adrenaline. She glanced over at her clock. It was three in the morning. Nevertheless, she was half tempted to dress and go for a jog.
Dr. Sonnenfeld, the shrink she had finally agreed to see seven years ago, said a recurring nightmare was caused by unresolved issues. In Izzy's case, the obvious trigger was her mother's death.
Izzy fully accepted that she had been angry with Anna Maria for dying. It also made sense that she was trying to flee the pressures of her role in the family. She didn't need a stranger to point out that the dream had started the day after her mother's funeral, coinciding with the fact that her father had held her close and whispered brokenly, "You're the lady of the house, now, honey. You need to look after Gino."
And look after her father, too. He hadn't said it, but she knew that was what he was hoping for. Izzy had taken to calling him "Big Vince" when she was five — everyone called him that — and maybe there was a reason she didn't call him "Pa" the way Gino did. Her father was an excellent cop, but he was the kind of man who needed a female family member to look after him. Before his marriage, that woman had been his sister, Izzy's aunt Clara. Then Ma.
By the time of her mother's death, it had been Izzy. At sixteen, she had already been doing all the housework and cooking for years. Gino was supposed to help, but her parents had never enforced that, and she couldn't make him. Frankly, it didn't leave a lot of time for being the "lady" of the house. Despite the urgings of her schoolmates and their moms to develop some fashion sense and cultivate a little style, she had found it necessary to skip over a lot of the detail work of growing up. Makeup, hairstyles — maybe later, after Ma got better.
But Ma didn't get better.
The death had made it official — as if the closing of the coffin lid over her mother's tired but still lovely face had also signaled the end of Izzy's girlhood, such as it had been.
The dream had begun then. But Dr. Sonnenfeld kept prodding her to come up with something more than what she told him, some deeper problem between mother and daughter.
"The fact that no one could figure out why she was so sick, for example," he'd suggested. "You feel menaced by unseen shadows. They're chasing you, trying to kill you as they killed your mother."
"Okay. So now what?" she had challenged him.
"So we keep talking," he'd replied.
It did no good, did not stop the dreams. Izzy thought he was crazy and, besides, her insurance would only cover a finite number of sessions. Also, he took a lot of calls during her sessions and one time asked her if she was seeing anyone special.
Her father had approved of her decision to stop seeing him. "We're Catholics," he told her, making a fist with his big, beefy hand and waving it at the crucifix on the living room wall. "Talk to our priest."
Only at that point, they were lapsed Catholics at best. They had stayed lapsed until her little brother, Gino, had been accepted by Holy Apostles Seminary in New Haven, Connecticut. After that, Big Vince had taken to attending Mass on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings if possible, as well as two or three mornings of his workweek — a schedule that varied all over the place since he was a patrol officer. Izzy often accompanied him to Mass, but she had never talked to Father Raymond about her dream. She was a very private person.
Taking another breath, Izzy unwound the damp sheet from around herself. Her hands were still trembling.
I wonder what this is doing to my life span.
She stepped into her slippers and walked to the window, pulled back the dark blue curtains and stared out onto the familiar, snow-covered street. Her parents had moved into this row house on India Street when she was three months old. Though her life had changed drastically since then, the old Brooklyn neighborhood had not. The old twin Norway maple trees still guarded the entrance to the pocket park, magical in their dustings of frosty-white.
Beside the park stood Mr. Fantone's old one-story cobbler shop with its pitted brick exterior and grimy storefront window of multiple panes crisscrossed with security bars. The neon sign in the window had been missing the "e" in "Shoe" for so long that people had nicknamed it the "sho-nuff store," all the more humorous for their nasal Brooklyn accents imitating a Southern drawl.
Russo's abutted Fantone's, the Italian deli owned by the DeMarcos' next-door neighbors. Her little brother Gino had worked at Russo's during high school part-time to pay for college. She still shopped there, and all she had to do now was to close her eyes and she could smell the garlic and dried cod, mortadella and hard salami.
The Russo family brought over a lot of "excess inventory" — cold cuts about to go past the sale date — for the cop and his kid. Izzy took them, but Big Vince cautioned her. They had to be careful not to let the Russos presume. "One day a guy is giving you free coffee, the next day he wants you to ignore that he double-parked in the alley. And the day after that, he's asking you to help him with a little scrape his nephew's gotten himself into...."
You're fine. Everything's fine, she thought as she watched snowflakes drift across the windowpane.
To her right, on her bureau, the little votive candle at the feet of her mother's statue of the Virgin Mary had burned out hours ago; but the light from the street cast a gleam on the frosted glass that made it appear to burn. It comforted her. Its warmth reminded her that Gino had blessed their home tonight. He was asleep in his old room; he'd stayed over an extra night from his weekend visit home so they could go to Mass together tomorrow morning. Surely God watched over His own.
It was chilly in the silent room; she rubbed the goose bumps on her arms as she grabbed up her pink chenille bathrobe and slid her arms through the sleeves. An embroidered French poodle sporting a pompadour of turquoise rabbit-fur "hair" beneath a black-velvet beret trotted along the hem. The robe was nothing she would have ever purchased, but her nine-year-old cousin Clarissa had given it to her last Christmas. For that reason alone she treasured it.