The curse word of the emergency room, and Vivian had been careful not to say it aloud. Still, it wandered through her head and lodged there.
Too quiet. The waiting room was empty, as were all seven treatment bays at Krebston Memorial Hospital. Staff puttered in silence, cleaning and restocking with the watchful air of coast dwellers preparing for hurricane season.
Knowing the inevitable storm could manifest in any number of forms, Vivian took the opportunity to slip into the staff lounge and dial a number on her cell. Eight rings before a drowsy voice answered.
“How is she?”
“She, who? Who is this?”
“Sorry—this is Vivian Maylor.”
“Checking in on Isobel.”
“Your mother is sleeping.”
Vivian suspected the speaker had also been sleeping. At River Valley Family Home we care for your loved ones every hour of every day, the brochure claimed. Comforting to families, but much more likely that the night worker was settled into a reclining chair with a blanket and a pillow, just resting her eyes.
“Are you sure?”
“Dr. Maylor.” Thinly veiled annoyance now. “It’s one–oh–five A.M. She was in bed and asleep by eleven.”
“Humor me. Check on her. Please.”
A heavy sigh. The sound of breathing and feet tapping on tile.
Vivian fidgeted, sank into a chair, and drummed her fingers on the table. Sticky. She withdrew her hand and wiped it on a napkin from the ragged pile next to the box of stale Walmart doughnuts.
“I’m standing in the bedroom doorway. Your mother is in bed. Snoring. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
The words offered no relief for the unease itching beneath the surface of Vivian’s skin. So many years of watching out for Isobel, so many near disasters. It was hard to delegate all that to a casual stranger. “She took all of her meds? ”
“Are you sure? She sometimes cheeks them. Or stockpiles them in her drawer for—”
“Dr. Maylor—we are taking good care of her. Isobel is fine.”
“She’s breathing, right? Is—”
Roxie stuck her head through the door before Vivian could succumb to the temptation to call back. “Hey, Doc—burned teenager in five—walked in, no parental units in sight. Weird one—definite screws loose. All vitals copacetic except he’s running a temp—one–oh–two.”
Vivian sighed and pocketed her cell. Roxie cocked her head on one side, sharp nose twitching like an inquisitive rodent. “You look wasted. Big party on your night off? ”
“Funny. My life is a little tamer than yours.”
“So, what then?”
“Not sleeping.” Understatement of the year. Over the last few weeks her dreams, always vivid, had taken on a new intensity that carried her into waking with a pervading sense that she had traveled endless miles through a twisting maze where dragons lurked, an armed warrior at her side. Today she’d wakened aching with exhaustion and found a blister on her heel that had no rational explanation. If this trend continued she’d be joining her mother at River Valley Family Home.
“Sorry.” She sagged in exaggerated weariness and held up her hands. “Too tired to move. Help me up.”
“Buck up, Doc, we’ve got miles to go.”
“Don’t I know it.”
The little nurse gripped her wrists and heaved her to her feet. “Go see crazy boy in five and then you can sneak a nap.”
Vivian followed Roxie out of the lounge, the door falling shut behind her with a small thud. Max, all three hundred tattooed pounds of him, sat at the desk paging through an edition of what looked like Oprah magazine. Shelly, the tech, intent on texting, didn’t bother to look up.
Everything was clean, quiet. Again, Vivian winced as that word passed through her brain, and involuntarily she reached up and touched the pendant she wore beneath her clothing, a dream catcher with a rough stone carving of a penguin woven into its center.
Her sneakers made sucking noises on the linoleum, all the way down the hall to bay five—squeak, squeak. She definitely needed to rethink her footwear. Outside the drawn curtain she paused, a cold finger of apprehension running the length of her spine. Dizziness rocked her as reality collided with dream. She stood still, listening to the rapid thudding of her own heart, until she was able to pull herself together, knock, and enter.
Arden Douglas, sixteen, location of parents unknown, resident of the small town of Krebston. Also a nameless player in one of Vivian’s dreams. This much she remembered, along with a general sense of cold dread. But the details floated around the edge of her brain, elusive as mist when she tried to capture them.
He lay unmoving on the exam table, shirtless and barefoot, his faded jeans torn and grass stained at both knees. Chest, right arm, and face were reddened, as if from a long day at the beach, and beginning to blister. A blood pressure cuff on his left arm automatically tightened and released, one hundred over sixty. A little low, nothing to worry about. Pulse at one hundred. O2 sats good at ninety–eight percent.
But something was off; there was a subtle wrongness in the air that set her skin to crawling.
“What happened?” She gloved and masked, then squeaked over to examine the damage. First–degree burn; a couple of areas maybe second. It was going to hurt like hell but should heal up okay. No scars for the kid to worry about.
He spoke through a jaw clenched around pain. “I already told the nurse. She thinks I’m fucking crazy.”
“So tell me again.”
Tell me you got too close to a fire—a campfire, a grease fire, a blowtorch. Got dunked in a cauldron of boiling water. Something explainable. Not—
She shivered, but kept her tone light. “A dragon? In Krebston? Now there’s one I haven’t heard. Open your mouth. Say ah.”
His brown eyes were opaque, almost black, the pupils dilated with pain and fear.
“Ahhhh. Like I said. Nobody believes me.”
Airway clear, no signs of inflammation or swelling.
“Okay. So you saw a dragon—”
“I’m telling you, it was a dragon. Breathing fire.” He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the gurney. “You know, fuck this shit. I’m leaving. You all think I’m crazy—”
Vivian put a gloved hand on his shoulder, gently pressed him back. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s not a tale you hear every day. Lie down, and tell me. Please.”
He hesitated, his breathing a little too rapid and shallow. A burn could do that, but she’d seen that look on other faces; it was the look of a survivor waking up to the reality that he was still alive, that someone else had not been so lucky. Her guess was that Arden hadn’t been alone, but there was time yet to ask that question.
“You hurt anywhere else?”
“Shoulder. Thing spiked me.” He indicated a smear of blood in the flesh just below his right clavicle.
“Lie back, let me look.”
With a sigh, he complied. She wiped the blood away with a piece of gauze, revealing a puncture wound the diameter of a large nail. “When was your last tetanus shot?”
“I don’t remember. Man—we knew better than to go down to the Finger. Stupid—”
He didn’t answer. He had begun to shiver. Sweat slicked his face, his breath rasped in his throat. The oximeter alarm went off—his oxygen level had dropped to eighty–five.
When Vivian put her hand to his forehead, his skin burned through the glove. She frowned. Felt a damned bit hotter than 102.
She turned on the oxygen with one hand, pushed the call button with the other. Roxie popped in. “Get an IV started, stat. And check his temp again, would you? He’s burning up.”
“Got it.” Roxie skittered off to follow orders, but before she hit the door Arden gasped, one long indrawing of breath. His eyes rolled back in his head; his back arched like a bow and he began to convulse in great wrenching spasms that threatened to throw him off the table. Vivian flung her body over him, anchoring him. Heat flowed into her, uncomfortable even through several layers of clothing.
Roxie yanked the cord from the wall and the emergency alarm went off.
Max appeared in the doorway, took one look, and headed for the crash cart.
As suddenly as it began, the seizure stopped. Arden lay twisted, knees drawn up a little and to the side, head corkscrewed at an odd angle, eyes wide open and staring. His mouth gaped, a string of bloody drool festooned over his lip and down his chin.
The oximeter alarm continued to bleat. He wasn’t breathing—no rise and fall of the chest, no air on her cheek when Vivian put her face close to his. She checked the carotid—no pulse.
Shelly stood in the doorway, mouth fallen slightly open, eyes wide.
“Code,” Vivian said through clenched teeth. Shelly ran.
Vivian began chest compressions, aware through her peripheral vision of Max pulling out equipment and Roxie prepping an IV. A disembodied voice floated out of the loudspeaker: “Code blue, ER. Code blue, to the emergency room.”
Max slapped pads on the boy’s bare chest and hooked up the EKG. Vivian stopped compressions and they all stared at the monitor, waiting for some kind of a rhythm.
“Damn it,” Vivian ground out. She’d been hoping for something that could be shocked, a convertible rhythm. Asystole was ominous. She resumed compressions, the heat radiating through her hands and body. Sweat trickled down between her shoulder blades, itching.
“Get some fluids in him.”
“I can’t find a decent vein,” Roxie said. “Going for an IO line.”
The respiratory tech arrived and stepped up beside Vivian, breathing hard. She knew him slightly, a stocky Hispanic guy named Tony. Quiet, competent.
“I’ll tube him.”
Vivian nodded consent, keeping up the chest compressions while Tony inserted an airway. Shaking the sweat out of her eyes, she saw Roxie cut off the blue jeans and toss them aside, then deftly insert an IO line into the right tibia. “Got it,” she said, hooking up a bag.
“Tube in,” Tony said. Vivian paused compressions while he checked placement. Her hands smarted and stung; she turned her palms up to see that the latex had melted away over her palms, which were an angry red. This can’t be happening, it’s not possible . . .
“Epinephrine, one milligram,” Max said, injecting it into the IO line.
A lab tech trotted in with a tray of supplies.
“You’ll have to draw from the line,” Vivian said.
She stepped away to grab a new pair of gloves while Tony hooked up the ambu bag and began squeezing air into the lungs. He frowned. “Too much resistance; something’s not right.”
“Are you sure the tube is in the right place?”
Alarms continued to blare. Max checked the leads. Still flatline.
Vivian positioned her hands to resume compressions and hesitated. During the time taken to pull on new gloves, the skin on the kid’s chest had turned brown. As she stared, it cracked in a dozen places and began to ooze a pinkish fluid.
Roxie wrinkled her nose. “What is that smell?”
Hamburger. The skin on his cheeks looked like his chest—for all the world like well barbecued chicken, crispy skin and all.
Vivian began compressions again, but the skin and flesh slid away beneath her hands, revealing the ivory curve of ribs.
Max stepped back, making the sign of the cross. “We’ve lost him, Viv. You need to stop.”
Brown eyes stared sightless up at the ceiling out of a face stiff and masklike. The flesh had sloughed off his ribs and his right arm. Bare feet splayed to the sides.
All eyes in the room were fixed on her, with the exception of the one pair that would never see anything ever again.
Vivian stopped. She drew an arm across her forehead to wipe away the sweat. “Fuck. Time of death one forty–five A.M.”
She swallowed, hard. Twenty minutes ago the boy had been moving, speaking, fully conscious. Now his body looked like something out of a horror show. Behind the fragile barrier in her brain, Dreamworld surged. As always, she fought it with logic.
“What the hell happened? Ideas?”
“Be serious, Rox—”
“I am serious. What if he goes up in flames or something? Tony, you should turn the oxygen off.”
Tony snorted but complied.
“There has to be a scientific explanation.”
“Up to the M.E. now. Weirdest damned thing I’ve ever seen.” Max drew a sheet up over the wreck of flesh and bone that had been a sixteen–year–old boy.
“We’ve got this, Viv,” Roxie said. “Go do your report or whatever.”
“It was a good code,” Max said.
Vivian nodded, not trusting her voice. She shed her gown and gloves and exited the scene of carnage. Once in motion, her body wanted to keep moving. Down the hall, out the door, into the clear sweet Krebston air.
But she was still on duty, and Deputy Flynne stood propped against the nurse’s desk. He was not smiling.
“Not a social call, I gather.” She lifted her hair from the back of her neck to feel the cool air, took a deep breath. Waited.
“Something ugly went down at Finger Beach. Heard you had a burned kid up here.”
She just looked at him.
“Small town. News travels quick.”
“He’s dead, Brett.”
He ran one hand over his buzz–cut hair. “Shit. What happened?”
“He—burned. From the inside out. Came in walking and talking and then, just—” She choked on the words. Come on, Vivian. It’s not the first patient you’ve lost. “Your turn.”
“Someone reported seeing a fire down there. Kids drinking, we figured. Me and Brody swung by, just to check it out. Found a body, charred down to the bones.”
“God.” Vivian closed her eyes.
A shimmer in the air, nothing you’d notice while distracted by a campfire and a pretty girl. A creature, squeezing, unfolding through an invisible doorway . . .
Her hand reached for the pendant. “Camp fire got out of control? Accelerant, maybe?”
Flynne shook his head. “Don’t think so. Well away from the fire. Also found a pelvis and a pair of legs. Female, we think. The rest was—missing.”
Vivian pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, her heart beating against her ribs with such force that surely he could see it, could hear it . . .
“No ID on the ah, body. Nothing survived whatever burned the other one. It’ll be a while before we know anything.”
Arden, laughter on a face bright with life and adventure, his arm around a plump brunette . . .
“Sorry. I was just—processing.”
“If you’ve got an ID, anything, on this kid, it might help.”
Brett’s face creased. “Knew him. Good kid. Any idea what killed him?”
“Honestly, no. Autopsy magic all happens in Spokane.”
“Right. At the speed of a handicapped turtle. Wish we could block that damned beach off for good and all.”
In the small town of Krebston, population around five thousand, give or take a birth or a death, the Finger was a legend. Strange things happened on that beach, so rumor said. A giant red stone dominated the spot, thrusting up out of the sand like a warning finger. Teenage boys called it other, more vulgar names, and if they were bold or stupid or very drunk they covered it with graffiti. Or claimed they did. The stone was always smooth and unmarred by light of day.
Sensible people avoided the place or ventured to the beach only at high noon in large, noisy groups, equipped with plenty of beer. Tourists cruised by, craning their necks to look. Sometimes they parked and ventured out of their cars to snap photos, but they never stayed long. Some said the pictures they took never came out.
Local legend had it that years ago a group of boys, led by a rebel who proclaimed to fear nothing and nobody, built a fire pit and lingered long past sunset. They straggled home just before dawn, blistered and footsore, scratched by thorns and snowberry bushes. Not one of them would say what happened. They slept for days, waking at night from nightmares that made them cry out in their sleep. The ringleader stayed missing for a week. When he reappeared he was changed: thin, silent, staring for hours at a corner or a ceiling where there was nothing other eyes could see. Those who told the story said he’d been sent to an asylum in the end.
Catching the look in the deputy’s eyes, she pulled herself together. “So what now?”
“We investigate.” He offered her a mock salute and walked away. She watched him go, down the wide, brightly lit hallway, and overlaid like a double exposure saw a corridor running as far as the eye could see. On either side, doors, green doors with brass handles. All of them locked. And unseen but always prowling, always searching, the dragons.