Dreamland – Part One is now available!
Below is the prologue and teaser chapter. Please enjoy!
“We should go back to the hotel. If we explain, they’ll let us back in.” Regina said.
Gwen closed her eyes, her nostrils flaring as she took a deep breath. Regina didn’t notice the warning signs, but Charles did.
“How are we going to make more babies? The nursery was safe for them,” she continued.
“No!” Gwen snapped, losing her patience. This wasn’t the first time Regina had made the same unsettling argument. The word ended the conversation for now, and Charles shifted in the tense silence that followed. Demetri began to fuss in Gwen’s arms and she busied herself with him, turning away from the outspoken girl.
Charles glanced around at the other sullen children he sat with. They had been playing up until a few minutes ago, but the conversation was a reminder of their circumstances. Some were too young to understand, but the dark mood was noticeable by all. Charles slid backward from the huddled group until his back pressed against the wall, using the tense situation to put distance between himself and the others. His movement caught Gwen’s attention and she turned a sharp look at him. Ignoring it, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, doing his best to look innocent. A moment later, his eyes opened a slit to see Gwen’s attention turned back to Demetri.
Charles let his eyes close again. He had time. It would take a while before Gwen would forget about him so he could slip away. She was the only one watching over them this evening, unless you wanted to count Sal standing at the door, which Charles didn’t. Sal never noticed Charles. In fact, Tristan wasn’t exactly the watchful type either. The only one he had to worry about was Gwen.
Regina was the worse of the two, because she wanted to go back there. Charles couldn’t understand why. They hurt people there. Charles knew more than any of the other kids, though. He had seen more than any of the other kids. That was because of Helen. Helen appreciated him and his skills and helped guide him. Poor Helen.
A knock at the door silenced the room again, a rhythmic tap-tap-tap, thud-thud to let them know Tristan returned. This was good. This was the distraction he needed.
All eyes turned to the door, Gwen and Regina’s most importantly, and Charles began to scoot along the wall away from them. It was customary for Tristan to kiss Gwen upon his return, no matter if he had been away for ten minutes or an hour, and Regina always watched them for some reason, eyes wide and curious. Charles didn’t understand. Kissing was gross. However, he was thankful for it because it gave him the time he needed to disappear behind the aisle of chairs.
Once out of their line of sight, he flipped to all fours and began to crawl along the old, moldy carpet. Gwen called this a movie theater, whatever that was, and the room was enormous. They only had enough candles and lanterns to light the one end, so Charles was absorbed by the darkness the further down the aisle he descended. His goal was the door at the bottom of the room.
“I’ll be right back. Need to talk to Sal.” Tristan’s voice drifted down to Charles and he quickened his pace. He needed to be out the door before Tristan left! Gwen might remember to look for him once this distraction was over.
Gwen responded, but Charles didn’t hear the words. He was focused on scampering to the door. He was so close. If he got caught now he wouldn’t be able to shake Gwen’s attention for days! Holding his breath, he reached the door and rose up enough to glance over the rows upon rows of chairs to see Tristan’s back retreating to the front door. Thankfully, Gwen was watching him go instead of inspecting the kids.
Charles pressed on the door and slid out, squeezing through the small space and pulling a rag from his pocket once he was on the other side. He rolled it up and let the door close on it so it muffled the sound. He would try to come back in this way later, but the chances of his escape route being found were high. His mission was more important, though.
He rushed down one hall to check a door leading to another huge room, except that exit door led to the outside. After making sure it was unlocked, he retraced his steps and turned down the long hallway that led back to their camp. If Tristan wanted to talk to Sal alone, Charles wanted to hear what he had to say.
Sidling along the wall as quiet as he could, he dared to go all the way to the end where the smaller hallway intersected with the larger corridor. Tristan and Sal were right around the corner. He could hear them speaking.
“… if it isn’t too late,” Tristan was saying. There was a pause then, and Charles thought he was too late and already missed the good stuff. Then Sal began to speak.
“No,” Sal said. “If Breck caught him, he would have his body hanging out one of those windows like he did with Anna.”
Charles shivered at the reminder. He had seen her although no one knew. No one knew he’d been back to the hotel since that morning. No one knew Anna wasn’t Anna anymore when the bad men killed her.
Yes, she had left them, intending to go back and plead forgiveness, but she never made it. Charles had followed her to an apartment building. Charles was brave, but he wasn’t stupid. The rank smell coming from the building was enough to keep Charles away, but he assumed grownups knew what they were doing. He was wrong. He was too far away to help when she started screaming.
Anna beat the demon, whoever it was, but it was too late for her. Charles saw that right away. He slipped away without her ever knowing he was there. It made him sad, but it wasn’t the first time he had to do it. It didn’t hurt as bad as when he left his sister. Nothing hurt that bad.
A week or so later, the bad men must have found her and killed Demon Anna. They hung her body out one of the hotel windows. That scared the other grownups, but Charles didn’t want to tell them what really happened to Anna. If they knew what really happened, then maybe they would want to go back too, just like Regina. He was okay with Sal and Tristan thinking it was a warning if it stopped them from going back.
“They’re still out there. They must be holed up somewhere, that’s all,” Sal said, breaking the silence.
“For three days? With no trace?” Tristan sighed and Charles chanced a peek around the corner. Tristan was leaning against the wall, his head bowed and eyes closed. “What are we gonna do, Sal?”
Charles pulled back. He waited a few seconds, hoping Sal would have some comforting words for Tristan – for him – but nothing else came. Charles turned away. He couldn’t waste any more time. The sun would be setting soon and he wanted to get there before night fell. He didn’t like being outside at night with the demons.
Charles didn’t understand what went wrong. After they had beaten the bad men, everything went back to normal again. They lived in the hotel and the kids didn’t notice much difference, although they had more freedom. They ate better and were sometimes allowed to play in the yard. Then Remy disappeared. Charles didn’t know the details, but it was enough to spook Ryan and Tristan. Charles had a feeling something else was going on when they moved everyone to the movie theater one early morning. It was fun and exciting for a while, but it didn’t take long for Charles to get bored. He had the whole movie theater scoped out and explored within a few days.
Then, three days ago, Miguel disappeared. Ryan went out to search for him and never came back.
Charles did his best to listen in to what he could, but the grownups sure liked to whisper. When he grew up, he wasn’t going to do that. Kids deserved to know what was going on. Grownups were always underestimating kids, too. He could help, but they wouldn’t let him. That wasn’t going to stop him, though. He would just do it on his own, then.
Slipping out of the movie theater, Charles squinted his eyes against the dying light as he pulled on a backpack full of dried food and water bottles. It had been tricky getting it packed and hidden. Taking a quick look around, he darted down his usual trail. So far, it was yet to be discovered by the grownups. If they managed to find this, he might have a harder time moving around, at least for a while. He’d be able to make himself another path soon enough.
He darted from building to building. Moving fast when he was exposed, and stopping as soon as he found cover. There he waited, watched and listened. Once he was sure he was clear, he moved on. It wasn’t the fastest way to travel, but it was the safest. Grownups, they walked around out in the open, holding guns and weapons, and expecting to fight off any demon that attacked. That wasn’t Charles’s way. Charles thought it better if the demons never noticed you. That was the best way.
The sun sank as Charles made his way across town, the world shifting to a hazy, gray twilight as the hotel came in sight. Perfect timing. The guards changed right about this time, and Charles would have a chance to make it to the building. They didn’t have enough guards left to watch all the entrances and exits, so Charles wasn’t worried. They’d never caught, or even seen him before.
He ran to a tree, one big enough to hide his entire body, and from there he dropped to his belly and slithered across the ground to the first wall of cars. He crawled his way around the metal wall until he could barely see the hotel doors flush against the wall. He couldn’t see the guard, but he knew he was there.
It took a while, but Charles waited patiently. The sky continued to darken, but he was okay with that now. He was close enough to the hotel that it didn’t matter. There were no demons around here anymore. Not this close, anyway.
The door opened and Charles nodded to himself. A man stepped out and prodded the guard that had been laying down. They spoke, but Charles was too far away to hear. He wasn’t interested in their conversation though, only the distraction. He was already moving.
He ducked low, crawling underneath the bumper of a pickup truck, and then scampered across the courtyard. His feet barely made a sound as he ran over the dirt and concrete. Once he hit the wall, he straightened, running along it faster now. The side door was around the next corner. No one ever used this door, not anymore at least. As soon as he got there, he wasted no time pulling it open and disappearing inside, safe.
Charles panted. He had no doubt in his mind he was going to make it, but it still excited him. His pulse raced and he liked the feel of the adrenaline pumping through his body, but he didn’t like how being in the hotel again made him feel. He stopped and listened as was his habit before moving down the hallway to an unused stairwell.
Before he made it, the light of a lantern reflected off the wall and his eyes went wide. He dashed back to the outer door just before the lantern’s bearer rounded the corner. He made it, but he wasn’t hidden. The door-frame was nothing more than a dent in the wall, only a few inches deep, and he couldn’t chance opening the door with the man so near. If the man looked up, he would be caught. Charles reached back, grasping the doorknob and ready to bolt if he was spotted. He held his breath.
“Fucking Breck,” the man muttered to himself. Charles didn’t recognize the voice. “If he don’t let him go then we’re all dead. What the fuck is he thinking?”
A door opened and closed, swallowing the lantern light. Charles peeked out in time to see the man disappear into the stairwell – his stairwell! That gave him a moment’s pause. His mind raced through what he remembered of the halls, trying to find another route up.
There was a stairwell by Reed’s room and another past the pits. Neither were a good option, but he couldn’t stay here. Charles started down the hallway the man came from. Maybe he could make it to the kitchens. The kitchens were big and had plenty of places to hide, but the chances of running into someone in there made it risky. Charles didn’t like risky. He didn’t have much choice, though. Now that his only sure path had been compromised, he would have to take some chances.
Everything was quiet. It felt odd. He hadn’t been to this area of the hotel since they’d fled. Before, when the bad men had control, coming down here had been dangerous, but there was always activity. His quick motion and quiet shuffles were disguised by everything else that was going on. Now, the stillness seemed to draw more attention to his movements. He stayed in the shadows as much as he could, but he felt conspicuous.
A tall, fat vase sat on the floor in front of him. In the old days, it was decoration for the fancy table that sat next to it, but now it was full of dusty, plastic flowers. No one had ever bothered to move it. Charles ducked under the table, pressing against the vase. It wasn’t much cover, but grownups didn’t ever look down, and judging by the hodge-podge of things sitting on the table, this area didn’t receive much attention. Charles waited.
Dust covered the floor and Charles preemptively put a hand to his face so he could pinch his nose closed. Now was not the time to let the dust tickle him and cause him to sneeze. At least he didn’t have to wait long. The lantern light returned shortly, swaying from side to side as the man walked back from the stairwell.
It wasn’t until he called for Breck that Charles realized it wasn’t the same man as before. He recognized this man. His name was Waylan.
“Breck!” Waylan snapped. “I’m sick of this shit!”
Movement came from within the kitchens and Charles’s blood ran cold. He had dodged a bullet by waiting. Breck came walking out, followed by two other men. Charles shrunk down into a knot, taking up as little space as possible. All it would take was one glance, one grownup paying attention and he would be seen.
“What do you think we should do, eh?” Breck said as he stopped in front of Waylan. “I ain’t leaving.”
Waylan scoffed and turned away. He scratched his head before saying, “Just kill ’em. I don’t want them taking any more of our food.”
“And have to deal with the rest of them? We’re dead for sure if we kill them.” That was said by a scrawny man standing to Breck’s side. Charles couldn’t remember his name.
“Then let them go!” Waylan said, spinning on them with his arms out wide, causing the lantern light to spiral across the ceiling and walls in dancing arcs. “We ain’t ruffed ’em up that bad.”
“Then Hawk will kill us for sure,” the scrawny man said.
“I’m not having this conversation again,” Breck said, turning away from the other men and retreating into the kitchen, out of Charles’s line of sight. Waylan wasn’t swayed.
“We need to figure something out, Breck,” he said, taking a step after him. “Those fuckers won’t wait much longer, I guarantee that. You remember how hot headed Tristan is, and he’s got most of the guns!”
“Stop,” Break said. “Just stop. Let me think on it and we’ll figure something out by the end of the week.”
“I ain’t dying for this.”
“Then leave! I ain’t holding your ass here!” Breck roared back at him. There was silence for a while before Waylan shook his head as he turned to go. Breck followed him, his voice softer. “Wait, man…”
“No,” Waylan said. “We have to off Hawk. Ain’t no way he’ll let us live after that! Then we deal with Tristan and the rest.”
More tense silence while Charles broke into a sweat. He caught sight of a beetle waddling close to his shoe, but he ignored it.
“Alright, man,” Breck said. “Let’s talk this through.”
It took a moment, but Waylan relented, following him into the kitchen. The bickering continued, but Charles no longer cared to hear anymore. He heard enough. He chanced to poke his head out and as soon as he saw it was clear, shot down the hall towards Reed’s old room. That was one place he avoided, but he wasn’t about to take the stairwell the men had used. One of those men was still up there.
The hallway was dark, growing darker by the second as the light from outside disappeared with the sun. He paused at the door, giving his eyes time to adjust before pulling it open. A void of blackness greeted him. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.
After the door had shut behind him, he listened to the silence, hoping his eyes would be able to cut through the darkness. He remained blind, but there were no odd smells. That meant it was clear of demons. He stretched out a foot, feeling in the darkness, inching forward until he bumped into the stairs. His hands followed, finding the railing. Searching the darkness with one foot, he found the first step and began to ascend the stairs. He remained cautious as he counted out each step. One flight. Two. Three. Four. There he stopped and began to search the blackness for the door. His fingers found the wall and he traced it until he felt the familiar crack of the door frame. From there, finding the latch and opening it was easy.
The hallway wasn’t well lit, but it was a world of difference after being in the stairwell. Now he could move faster. He rushed down the dusty hallway, passing door after door. This floor hadn’t been used before, and he hoped the men below hadn’t found a reason to come up here. He’d been away too long.
He stopped when he saw the bloody hand print on the door. That was his marker. He tapped the door with his fingernails three times before pushing it open. As soon as it shut behind him, a light within the room flared to life.
“That’s my boy,” Helen said, her voice even rougher than usual. Charles rushed to her, pulling off his pack and trying to hand it to her right away, but she brushed it away and pulled him into a frail hug. “Any problems getting here?”
Charles shook his head.
“Good boy.” Helen let him go and reached for the pack. “I have a little water left, but the food ran out yesterday.” She pulled out one of the bottles and fumbled with it to get the cap off. She took a long drink before turning back to him. “I told you not to come back.”
He looked at her with his wide brown eyes. He’d never leave her stranded here, but it would be so much easier if she would let him tell the other grownups she was alive. His eyes glazed over her twisted, blackened leg before settling on her chamber pot. He would clean that up before he left, he wasn’t worried about that. It was the conversation he heard below that bothered him.
“What is it boy?” Helen said, grasping his arm with her claw-like hand. The worry must have shown on his face. He swallowed, not knowing if he should tell her or not. After a few seconds, Helen shook him. “Spit it out. No reason to let me die here in peace.”
“I…” Charles started but stopped to lick his lips. “I think they have Ryan.”
For a moment, the grip on his arm grew tighter but Helen’s expression didn’t change. She released him, her voice a whisper. “Are you sure?”
Charles nodded. “Ryan and Miguel have been gone for three days now. I heard Breck and the other men talking below. I don’t know where they’re keeping him, but I can look.”
“No,” Helen snapped, almost cutting him off. That didn’t matter though. Charles was going to look anyway. “No, you hand me my cane.”
Charles frowned, but he obeyed. She snatched the cane from him and struggled to swing her twisted leg off the edge of the bed. She tried to stand by herself but couldn’t manage it. Charles offered her his arm, and she made it to her feet… well, kind of. Only one foot was capable of supporting her weight. She tried to take a step but staggered, and Charles caught her before she fell.
“Well,” Helen said as she righted herself again. “Maybe I could use a little help. Grab my gun and let’s get me to the nursery. No point in me dying in here all useless. Besides. It stinks in here.”
Charles nodded, but he cringed inside as he tucked the shotgun into his pack. It barely fit. He turned to study Helen. She was so frail, and the fall that had broken her leg hadn’t been bad. She just broke that easily. He slipped an arm around her thin waist and supported her as best he could as she limped along beside him. He would help her with whatever she needed. She wasn’t useless any more than he was.
It felt like hours before Charles got her to the stairwell and then the stairwell posed a whole new problem. He might have been small, but he was strong and Helen was thin. He hoisted her onto his back, and she hung on as he began to descend the dark stairs. They had to rest every flight, and it was slow glowing in the blackness, but Charles did it. They made it to the nursery, safe for now.
As they entered the old, familiar hallway, Charles pointed to her room, but Helen shook her head. She whispered into his ear, “Let’s take Anna’s old room.”
Charles nodded, and even though it was dried, he still avoided stepping on the blood stained carpet. That’s where Demon Allan had died. Helen was leaning on him again as they passed Gwen’s room when something hit the door from the other side. They both froze.
Charles looked at her, a shot of fear rattling his nerves. He wasn’t scared for himself, he was scared for Helen. He could get away, but she couldn’t, and he wouldn’t leave her. In the dim light, her eyes hardened and she leaned against the wall, reaching for the shotgun in his pack.
“If things go south, you hit that door running and don’t look back. You understand me, boy?” Helen said.
Charles nodded. His wide eyes watched her as she braced against the wall and aimed her shotgun at the door. He slid to the side of it, reaching for the latch and waited for a signal. It came a second later in the form of a nod.
Charles threw the door open.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the door caught on something that didn’t allow it to close. A form stood in the doorway, tall and lanky and somewhat familiar. It stumbled forward and Charles froze. A demon.
It hadn’t sensed them yet, but it was only a matter of seconds before it did. Then, something stopped its advance. His body jolted and it stood there, half in the hallway, half in the room. Charles could make out the features now. Demon Remy. Charles’s heart sank.
Helen made a quick, simple motion, telling Charles to step back, but he was afraid to move, afraid it would alert Demon Remy. He had to obey Helen, though. He took a slow step backwards, holding his breath the whole while. Helen pointed the gun at Demon Remy’s chest when a soft glow from the other end of the hall caught Charles’s attention.
Someone was coming!
His first thought was for Helen. She hadn’t noticed the light yet, but Demon Remy had. As his head began to swivel in that direction, Charles reached for Helen, hoping the light would distract the demon. It didn’t.
Demon Remy hissed as his head snapped back to witness Charles’s movement and then it screeched, ear-splitting and horrible. Seconds later, the shotgun blast scattered Remy and the wall beyond him with pellets and sent Helen to the floor. Remy stayed standing.
Charles reached for her, frantically trying to pull the old woman back to her feet, but there was no time. The light at the end of the hallway paused for a second, then whoever was holding it was running.
“Who’s there?” a voice from within the room yelled, surprising Charles and Helen both, and setting Demon Remy into another crazed scream. “What the hell is going on?”
“Ryan!” Helen gasped, leaning up on an elbow and leveling the shotgun again.
The demon fell to the floor, grasping for Helen, but it couldn’t advance. As the man ran closer with the light, Charles saw why. Demon Remy was tied up! A rope circled his waist, keeping him chained to one spot. How did they do that? Why did that do that?
A hand reached out, grasping at Helen’s foot. It clawed at her, raking against the carpet and Charles screamed, a sound of shock and anguish. Demon Remy’s hand took hold of the twisted leg and jerked Helen’s body toward him before she could fire again.
Helen never made a sound when teeth sank into her flesh. She didn’t flinch. She only aimed and fired. The shot was closer this time, truer. Demon Remy convulsed and went still. Tears squeezed out of Charles’s eyes and he moved to grab Helen again, still wanting to save her.
“What the fuck?” the guard said, pausing several feet away. It was the first guard Charles had encountered. He recognized him now. Was his name JD? Charles couldn’t remember. Helen turned the empty gun on him, but it was enough to keep him from advancing, at least for a second.
“Run, Charles,” she said. “Tell them.”
“No!” he shouted back. “I won’t leave you!” He moved to pull her up again, but she brushed him away.
“Grams?” Ryan’s voice came from inside the room, muffled, but Charles was sure it was him.
Helen turned stern eyes on Charles and this time he would obey. He couldn’t deny her. “I said run, boy.”