Ari’s Nightmare

I figure it’s time to bring you in on Ari’s background. Most of her backstory you’ll get in Book One of the Houses of Thanah series, The House of the Black Dog. And yes, I know it starts with a cliché line – that was our first writing prompt from my local writing group. We couldn’t not use it!

So here’s the story of how it all began…

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1 Lightning struck tree 4 by Unobtrusivetroll10

It was a dark and stormy night. It was inevitable, she thought; the phrase had to pop up some time. A cliché, maybe, but true enough right now. First of the feeder bands for Hurricane Frances, it had come up behind her like—well, like a hurricane. God, was her brain going to keep on doing this? Yeah. Anything to keep her mind off the real issue.

Lightning struck a tree off to the side of the road; lit the world up around her like daylight and deafened her with the crack and instant boom of thunder. The concussion hit her ears and her chest simultaneously, no time to open her mouth to lessen the impact. She jerked in reaction and the motorcycle swerved wildly, its responsiveness a handicap in the driving rain. She corrected automatically, keeping the rubber side down the way her Dad had taught her.

She knew it was crazy, doing this. Crazy enough riding a motorcycle in a driving rainstorm; crazier still when there was not only rain but lightning—but in a hurricane, for God’s sake! She knew she’d hear all about it from Dad when she got home. Hers was the only vehicle on the road, tallest thing around till you got off into the fields. Can you say target?

But she had to get home. Had to. When Dad called and told her Mom had had a heart attack, she’d said, “I’ll be there,” tossed her phone on the bed and started to pack. Come hell or high water, she’d be there, just like they’d always been there for her. She grabbed her backpack, stuffed in some clothes and the case with her laptop, and was out the door.

It wasn’t all that far from UF in Gainesville to the Ocala forest; about 80 miles. An hour or so, two at most in bad weather, and this was sure-hell bad enough. She was already soaked to the skin, and her laptop would’ve been useless trash except for the waterproof case Mom and Dad had given her when she went off to college. Her clothes would need to go in the dryer, backpack and all, when she got in. Her copper hair slithered out of her hoodie and whipped in her face, and she raised a hand to tuck it back.

Not too much longer, now. There was the Silver Springs exit, lit up by another flash of lightning. Further away than the last strike, thank God. She took the exit ramp down, the cycle hitting every puddle and throwing up a rooster tail behind her. She pulled out slowly onto SR 40; there wasn’t any traffic at this late hour, but with the weather this bad it didn’t pay to be stupid.

The road went through Silver Springs, then wound around through a number of small towns. At one point she looked down at her gas gauge and blinked in dismay. When had it hit empty? There was a little mom-and-pop gas station on the outskirts of Mill Dam, and thank God it was still open. She pulled in under the roof over the gas pumps and turned off the cycle. The downpour thundered on the metal roof, drowning out any sound, and the lights turned the rain coming off the roof into a dancing silver curtain. She could barely see the store’s lights through the deluge.

She set the motorcycle up on its stand and dug through her pockets, looking for her phone. Would Dad have left the hospital yet? Was Mom okay? The phone was nowhere to be found. She started to reach for her backpack, and then had a flash of memory—the phone hitting the blanket on her bed. Shoot fire, she’d left the darn thing back in Gainesville. Well, she’d just have to do without. She’d hit home first, then decide which way to jump. If Dad wasn’t home, she could always call him from the trailer. She dug through her backpack for her wallet and pulled it out.

A car pulled in behind her. She glanced back at it; a sweet red Camaro, nice. She shifted the cycle up on its wheels to move it forward, giving the other vehicle plenty of room to reach the pumps without the driver getting wet. She pulled her credit card out of her wallet and swiped it through the reader, then put the wallet back in the backpack. God, she was tired. Worried.

Scared.

She hoped Mom would be alright. She couldn’t shake the bad feeling that had just come over her. What would they do if Mom—she refused to complete the thought. Instead, she put her hands on the small of her back and stretched, then twisted from side to side, easing her back from the tense ride. Behind her the driver got out of the Camaro and fiddled with his gas cap. She pulled her hood back and shook out her hair, then ran her fingers through to loosen the worst of the tangles. She heard the Camaro’s driver give a sharp intake of breath and looked over at him curiously. He was nondescript: medium height, medium brown hair, nothing to make him stand out except for his intent stare. She nodded at him with an uncertain smile and went back to filling her gas tank.

“Excuse me.” She turned and looked at him again, and saw that he had come closer. He had one hand out to her, a questioning gesture. “Do you know this area well?”

“Pretty well,” she said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“Oh, good.” He stepped forward again, and gestured. “I’m lost—at least, I think I’m lost. Can I get to Daytona from here?”

“Oh, sure,” she said and smiled again, then turned to point. Behind her she heard the scuff of a shoe, and then his arm came hard around her waist. His other hand rose and pressed something against her nose and mouth. She struggled, but his arms pinned her against him, and she suddenly felt dizzy, faint. Her knees went weak, and she started to fall. He turned his head into her damp curls and inhaled deeply.

You have such pretty hair.”

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Off the Grid and Lost – Danny Ryder

I figure it’s time you meet someone else on Thanah – one of the Gathered, Danny Ryder. He starts out as a bad boy – an ex-con, one with a desperate need to belong to something, a gang, whatever. So long as they’ll have his back, he’ll have theirs. But things don’t work out the way he planned… and he realizes there’s someone he wants to protect.

Month 5, day 26 – 186 days on Thanah

somewhere in the House

Nobody seemed to know where Ryder was lately, not his bad-ass homeboys, nor the Ouroi. He showed up for his work shift every day, looking rougher than usual but doing his job with a dogged focus. Just sort of keeping his head down, like he was thinking hard while doing something else. Shift done, he’d ghost over to the dining hall and eat—and then disappear off the House radar. Since in general no-one was much interested in looking for him, no-one much missed him either. His pack could care less—Roach was still pissed at him over the stupid kid, and the others found it safer to follow Roach’s lead rather than risk crossing him anyway. Still, even Roach wondered every once in a while where Ryder’d got to, in an annoyed, sort of missing-having-a-whipping-boy kind of way.

Where he was, was lost. Something—or someone—had poked him in a place he’d thought long dead, and now he was trying to figure out if this was a good thing or a bad thing. It had been a very long time since he’d thought about anyone but himself, and now he couldn’t seem to think about anyone else but her.

He didn’t really know why yet, hadn’t figured it out, but ever since he’d talked to the redhead in the back hall she’d been sort of there in the back of his mind. How she’d given him his space, coming on him like that. How she’d listened, really listened, to what he’d said; had seemed to believe him. How she’d caught on so quick that he had to cover himself, caught the ball and didn’t fumble. There was something to her that stuck in his mind like a sandbur and wouldn’t let go.

There was something going on with her, too, something big, something that when he thought about it set his teeth on edge like biting into a piece of tinfoil. She didn’t dress or act like a skank or a ho, but there was still the rumor in the House that she had some guy outside, real rough trade. But it didn’t fit with what he saw of her, and he couldn’t figure how anyone else could believe that. So something was going down, and she was deep in the middle of it.

Jimmy Spitz, a young kid he’d met in the House that was also from Brooklyn, he worked in the gym and he said she was in there like three-four hours every day, working out like a crazy person with some guy Arvanis and that security guy, Sinclair. Said they were teaching her all sorts of stuff he’d never seen before—not just karate stuff but wrestling and boxing and like that.

He’d learned she went out every two weeks with the Keeper, Kanti, but then Kanti came back alone every time and the redhead came back hours later all beat to shit and looking like she’d been run over flat by a garbage truck. Now maybe the word was true and she had some rough trade going—but those hours in the gym said something else to Ryder. That kind of drive said obsession to him, that there was something so big in her mind that was worth taking that kind of punishment.

He remembered back to that day in the dining hall when she’d laid the smackdown on him. She’d been beat all to shit like they said, and looked like she’d been through six kinds of hell. She’d hit him like a piledriver, looking crazy, freakin’ like she was on drugs. Now he was thinking it was something else—something worse, something sick. He knew a girl who’d been gang-raped, back home. She’d had that same look in her eyes, got the same freak on if somebody touched her when she didn’t see it coming. He’d heard she’d walked off a subway platform in front of an inbound.

The redhead, though—she was taking it the other way, fighting it, trying to make herself stronger, strong enough to take whoever was doing—whatever—to her.

The only thing he couldn’t figure out was why. There had to be a reason why someone would go out on purpose to take that kind of shit, and keep going back.

Maybe if he could figure out why, he could get her out of his skull and get back to his damn life.

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