Read an Excerpt
By Barbara Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Barbara Steiner
All rights reserved.
He can't breathe. He doubles over and sucks in air, but none reaches his lungs. His wheezing gets louder and louder. Soon he is whistling when he inhales. The boys think that is hilarious. Their laughter surrounds him, echoing through his head, down into his throat, filling his lungs with their squeals and shrieks.
Their leader, who is dressed in black, eggs them on. They stand in a field of yellow flowers, yellow like the paint that coats his skin, drips onto his toes. He starts picking flowers. Everyone starts picking flowers. And laughing—laughing—laughing.
They stuff flowers into his mouth. What little air he can draw into his lungs disappears into the flowers. Yellow pollen coats his throat, making it close tighter, tighter, tighter.
He struggles. They laugh. He falls. They shriek. He lies still. They walk away, pounding each other on the back and bending double with hysterical laughter. It is a good night's work. A deed well done.
Karen woke. She lay twisted and tangled in her bed clothes, the sheets wrapped around her legs like soft yellow manacles. She was sweating and freezing, all at the same time. Her mouth felt dry and her head ached. She needed to go to the bathroom. What time was it? It was barely light, but probably time to get up. She certainly didn't want to go back to sleep.
When she stood in the shower, turning the water up as hot as she could stand, she tried to remember the dream, the dream she knew she had lost the minute she jerked into consciousness.
Why could she never remember? It frustrated her even more now that they were taking the special psychology class. Everyone else remembered his dreams. Why couldn't she? Dr. McArthur said that everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers. She wished he hadn't commented that maybe she didn't want to remember. Immediately her twin brother, Kerr, and her boyfriend, Jesse, had started to tease her.
They were horror dreams, Kerr said. She was such a goody-goody, she had to be awful, do terrible things at night. That way, no one would know. She would still be popular.
She turned so the water pounded her neck and shoulders, then laughed and shrugged. Who knows? No one would, unless she could start some recall. Maybe she was trying too hard. All she knew was that sometimes, like this morning, the dream woke her up. Or that it was so stressful, she couldn't continue in it. So she woke herself up.
She dressed quickly, wearing her favorite yellow sweater, and hurried down to breakfast. Her father had left early, as usual. He was a workaholic. Certainly the opposite of their mother, who yawned and tried to pour herself a cup of the coffee that Dad had left ready for her.
"Here, Mom, let me do that." Karen took the glass pot from her mother's shaky hand and poured a mug full. Then she took the cup to the table and pushed her mother gently in that direction.
Quickly she scrambled four eggs, three for Kerr and one for herself. The toast popped up just as her brother flopped at the table and poured himself a tall glass of orange juice.
"Just once, you could get down here in time to cook the breakfast," she said, only half teasing. She scraped off most of the yellow mess onto Kerr's plate and dumped the rest on hers. Grabbing the two slices of toast, she dug the butter out of the cluttered fridge and plopped the crisp bread on Kerr's plate.
"You're doing fine." Kerr smiled, and she forgave him. Who wouldn't? Not only was he tall and handsome and charming and intelligent, he was a masculine version of herself. Hating him for being lazy—hating him for any reason—would be like hating a part of herself.
She wasn't handsome, but she knew brown eyes and dark curly hair looked good on her, too. There was one guy in her life who told her so every day.
She looked at Kerr. Damp curls framed his face. He was still smiling at her, then grinning, teasing her. It made her want to hug him and tell him she loved him, but she didn't. He was spoiled enough now.
"What's so funny?" She wiped her mouth with a napkin. "Have I got egg on my face?"
"No, big sister, you look fine. And I feel great. I slept like a baby. And I have three dreams for Dr. McArthur." Kerr buttered his toast and started to eat, shoveling in the eggs.
"I think you're making them up." Karen was even more frustrated by Kerr's successful and fanciful dream life. "You're showing off as usual."
"You don't remember last night's dream?"
"You know I don't. I think I'm trying too hard." She stared out the window and changed the subject. "It's snowing again. How can it snow so much this early in October? I don't ever remember this happening before. There must be twenty inches piled up by now."
"It's almost winter. We live in the mountains, at seven thousand feet to be exact. What do you expect?" Kerr tipped back his head and drained his glass. "I like it."
"I'm so tired of it." Their mother said her first words of the day.
Karen took a good look at her mother. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked pale. "You seem tired all the time, Mom. Why don't you get an appointment with Doctor Young? Get a complete checkup."
"Maybe I will after this storm lets up. The roads will be terrible." Mrs. Newton pulled her robe tighter as if just watching it snow made her cold.
Karen turned back to her brother. "Kerr, I need a ride to school. Jesse had to go in early to make up the test he missed because of Friday's out-of-town game."
"That's the penalty he pays for being such a jock. There's no reason for him to come out here and get you every day, anyway. He's just being a macho football hero to impress you."
"Certainly being a jock or a macho athlete isn't something you lose sleep over." Karen felt tired from the sleep she was losing, and it seemed to be happening more often—waking and knowing—knowing a dream had disturbed her. Then she would lie there for an hour trying to remember, sometimes with a vague fear of going back to sleep.
"If I wanted to play football, I'd play football." Kerr took his dishes, rinsed them, and placed them in the dishwasher.
Karen sat over her cup of tea for a few more minutes after Kerr left the kitchen. She knew that was right. Kerr could do anything he set his mind to do. She had always felt stronger than him physically, which might have come from having been born first and having weighed more. But Kerr was a match for her mentally any day of the week. In fact, she thought he was probably much smarter, but she'd never admit it. Especially when he flaunted it so. He was smarter than anyone they ran around with, and he knew it.
Coffee was helping Mom wake up. "Can you and Kerr stop at the store on your way home, Karen? I'll make you a list." She searched the pockets of her old robe for a pencil.
"Oh, Mom, you go get groceries. It will get you out of the house. The roads will be plowed, especially by noon. Don't be such a chicken driver." Karen chided her mother gently, but she meant what she said. She was pretty sure her mother hadn't left the house for days.
"Why should I go out when the two of you will be in town anyway? Shopping won't take you long."
But it will make Kerr angry, Karen thought. He wasn't the least bit sympathetic to their mother's fears, the depression she had fallen into of late, whatever problems she dwelled on that kept her practically a prisoner in their house.
There wasn't time to keep protesting. Karen grabbed the grocery list, kissed her mother quickly, then dashed to finish getting ready and catch her ride with Kerr.
Kerr had the car warm by the time she got in. They lived up Little Cub Creek Road, about three miles from school. Snow was piled in soft pillows on all the evergreens as they bumped along slowly.
"Oh, Kerr, the snow is pretty." Karen stared out the windows of Kerr's four-wheel-drive Toyota as they drove toward town. "It's the prettiest winter—well, fall, actually—I can remember since we moved up here."
"The snow makes me feel safe." Kerr concentrated on his driving. The back roads hadn't been plowed.
"What a funny thing to say." Karen looked at him. "Why?"
Kerr shrugged as if he'd already forgotten he'd said such a thing. He speeded up a little and spun into the school parking lot, making the car fishtail. A trio of girls laughed and jumped onto the sidewalk, pretending to be scared. It was the attention he had expected from the stunt.
Karen smiled at him and shook her head. She stepped down from the high car seat and looked for her best friend, Alysia.
"Karen, there you are. Did you listen to the news on the way over here?" Alysia took her arm, practically whispering.
"No, what's happened?"
"You didn't hear about Gordon Anderson?" Alysia's eyes were huge, like bright blue cornflowers in a spring meadow.
"I said I didn't." A sudden fear swept over Karen, making her lose patience.
"Dead? You mean like in cemetery dead, funeral dead?" It was the last thing Karen wanted to hear.
"Worse than that."
"What could be worse than dead?"
"Oh, Karen, it's awful." Alysia hooked her arm into Karen's, huddling close to her, eager to share the details of her story. "His mother found him in his bed, stark naked." She giggled a little. "He was lying on his stomach, and there was a huge yellow stripe painted down his back. And that's not all—get this. His mouth was stuffed full of daffodils. They figure he suffocated."
For the first time in a month, Karen remembered a dream. The dream that had waked her this morning. And she wished she hadn't.CHAPTER 2
By late afternoon, everyone in the school had heard about the death of Gordon Anderson. It was all anyone could talk about. The more Karen overheard snatches of conversation, the more she thought about what had happened, the worse she felt. She'd bring it up on their psychology class. Wasn't that what the class was for, discussing the inner workings of people's minds? Well, hers was working overtime, and it was all she could do to keep from screaming, standing in the hall and yelling at the top of her lungs.
"What's the matter, Karen?" Alysia reached out and placed her hand on Karen's arm. She and Karen were very close, having been friends since elementary school.
"Nothing, nothing." Karen studied her notebook while Alysia waited, not buying her lie. After a few minutes' silence, she said, "Okay, I finally remembered a dream, but it was more like a nightmare. Alysia, I dreamed about Gordon dying. Why would I do that?"
Alysia frowned. "I don't know, Karen. It isn't like the two of you were close."
"I had known him a long time. We all had. On some level, I guess we all hated him equally. Hating someone bonds you just as much as loving someone, doesn't it?"
"We hated the part of us we saw in him. He was an unhappy person." Alysia doodled on her notebook page.
"This psychology class has been too successful, hasn't it?" Karen laughed, but not because anything was funny. "We have all the logical answers, but there's nothing logical about my dreaming about Gordon."
They were interrupted before they could analyze their feelings or the personality of Gordon Anderson further.
"Hey, gorgeous. Going out with me tonight?" Kerr plopped into the seat beside Alysia, grinning at her, his smile spilling over onto Karen.
"She knows you too well, Kerr. Forget it." Karen realized her brother really would like to date Alysia. Who wouldn't? She was probably the most beautiful girl in school. Naturally curly black hair fluffed around her face and spilled onto her shoulders. Her eyes were almost too blue to be real. But they could turn to ice in seconds if you were dishonest or pushed her sense of humor too far. She had once confided to Karen that she really liked Kerr, but that his intensity frightened her.
"That's because you tell her all my secrets." Kerr formed a pistol with his fingers and shot down his twin.
"What secrets? Your life is the proverbial open book, and despite what you think, not everyone wants to read it."
"Don't you two ever get tired of cutting each other up into little pieces?" Alysia asked.
Karen escaped answering when Jesse joined their group.
"Hey, gang, discussing the bizarre mystery of Gordon Anderson's death?" Jesse took the desk across from Karen and smiled at her. His smile said, "I love you." Karen's said, "Me, too, love you back."
"I don't know about bizarre," Kerr said, "but you'll have to admit it was fitting, well-deserved."
"Kerr, no one deserves to die." Alysia had a tendency to side with underdogs, or maybe to understand people better than they understood themselves. Kerr was just the opposite. If he could catch anyone down, he'd step on them. It seemed to amuse him to torment anyone who was close enough to attract his attention. If you couldn't take it, you moved out of his range.
"Oh, yeah, how about hardened criminals? The perverts of society?" Kerr was serious. In the mock election they'd had in government, he had lobbied for a return of the death penalty.
Karen reached out and touched Kerr's arm. "Kerr, Gordon wasn't a criminal. He may have been a bully all his life, but I think he was a very unhappy person."
"And he made a lot of kids just as miserable as he was. I say his death was good riddance." Kerr welcomed Bret Sandoe and Easy Miller, who pulled their desks close to him. He was always the center of a group of admirers, like a planet with its satellites.
"Don't you guys agree?"
"If you say so, Kerr." Bret didn't even hear what Kerr had said, but he was always on Kerr's side of an argument.
"I'm saying that no one will mourn Anderson's demise." Kerr let them in on the conversation.
Easy, labeled because of his initials—standing for Earl Zachariah—and after his ease on the football field, grinned at Karen. "His parents will. I guess your parents have to love you, no matter how much of a dweeb you are."
"Not necessarily." Kerr had the last say on that subject, too, since their teacher called the class to attention.
Professor McArthur drove from the University of Colorado's Denver Campus to Evergreen High to meet with the special class of gifted and talented seniors for their last hour. They were used to his being late, especially if the weather was bad. He's instructed them to talk about the day's material among themselves until he arrived and he knew he could depend on their doing so. As often as not, the class extended well beyond the time for school's ending, almost like a psychology club.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume your conversation has centered on the death of one of your classmates."
All ten of the students in the group nodded or murmured yes, some a bit ashamed to admit it.
"A very unfortunate circumstance. I read the newspaper story. It would seem that Gordon died of suffocation. I understand he had asthma from early childhood." McArthur took off his horn-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes, then cleaned the glasses and put them back on. A suddenly bare face made him look vulnerable. Short and bald, he was never an imposing figure, but Karen admired his mind—and his volunteering to teach this special class. In the beginning, he'd said it gave him a chance to study the variances of the adolescent mind. He pretended he was teasing them, but she suspected he was really being frank.
"Then he died of natural causes?" Lucy Bosch asked, lisping around a mouthful of metal braces. "What about the—the—flowers?"
"And the paint?" Danah Thompson asked.
"The police have been called in," McArthur answered. "My opinion is that he wasn't alone when he died, even though no one actually killed him."
"This is someone's idea of a joke?" Kerr grinned.
"You could say that, Mr. Newton. Do you find it humorous?"
"I'll admit I do." Kerr was honest. "If I'm not mistaken, I think a number of us do." Kerr looked around as if to count those who agreed with him.
Excerpted from The Dreamstalker by Barbara Steiner. Copyright © 1992 Barbara Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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