Chapter 1: Little Girl Lost
The dreams started when she was old enough to remember them. Maybe they’d begun earlier, but who’d give credence to the nightmares of a child too young to speak?
Images of cavernous mouths, glowing red eyes, the feeling that there was no escape from whatever was chasing her. There were other dreams, too, though. Dreams that were wondrous.
Dreams of flight, the feeling of wind rushing over outstretched wings. Dreams of running through the forest, moving too fast to be possible. Flowing over fallen logs, around trees, no sound but the crunch of rapid footsteps and the panted breaths of the runner. The feeling that there were others, nearby. That family was close, and that all would be alright, for nothing could ever stop them.
Those dreams were good, and though she always seemed to wake up tired after either kind of dream, she couldn’t help but carry the feelings of the dreams throughout her days. Other kids thought her distant at best, strange and an object of ridicule more often. It didn’t help that she was also the weird kid who’s parents had pulled her out of school just after first grade, in order to homeschool her. Though perhaps there was something more to her dreams than they seemed.
Karyn Allaway lived in a run down apartment building across the street from an elementary school – the very elementary school that she had attended until her parents saw fit to school her at home. She would regularly walk across the dead-end street and squeeze through the gate to the school’s basketball court and playground. Many times she did this with her father, who would sit quietly and watch her play in the sand. Sometimes they would bring a basketball, but more often he would sit on the stairs that lead to the main school building and watch as she played on the school’s equipment as if it were a park. More often than not, however, when Karyn crossed the street to play, she was alone. This was the case one day in the summer between third and fourth grade. Despite being pulled out of school, living across from one made it almost impossible not to measure time in school days and school years.
On this afternoon, she’d thought she was alone on the playground. That was fine with the eight year old. Her most recent friends had just moved out of the apartment complex – and too far away for her to see them regularly. Yet again, she was on her own. But that didn’t matter to her – her favorite playmates were those that didn’t usually talk back. As she crouched in the sand below the slide, carefully forming what, to her eye, appeared to be a fairly accurate sand sculpture of an Ankylosaurus, she could hear Dylan moving around behind her. Today, her imaginary pet took the form of a small brown dog, who delighted in dancing through the sand in the playground without ever leaving a single pawprint. A child of powerful imagination, she could hear the little dog’s happy panting and feel the breeze when his prancing brought him close to her back.
Her parents had asked her several times where the name “Dylan” had come from. She’d responded incredulously that “That’s his name,” and her parents hadn’t pushed the issue farther. The name had come to her much as Dylan himself had – suddenly, and out of nowhere. She’d been lonely that day, wishing that she could have a friend who wouldn’t move away – and there he had been. That first day, his form was misty and unclear. When she thought about it later, she would have guessed that he was either a small dog or perhaps a raccoon. Since then, he’d appeared in many forms, usually depending on the game she was playing at the moment, but she knew it was him. The nice thing about Dylan was that he knew how to entertain himself if she didn’t want to play with him right that moment, but he was always there when she was ready to play.
She finished working on her sand sculpture and stood up, dusting the sand off of her koolots. “Come look, Dylan. He’s all done.”
The little brown dog trotted over immediately, stopping by her feet. His current form was an ambiguous mutt with floppy ears and a feathered, waving long tail that resembled that of a Golden Retriever. His mouth was open wide in a panting grin as he looked at his friend’s handiwork. It looked a little like a turtle, but she liked it. That’s all that mattered to him. With a sharp bark, he turned and tore up the ladder (another benefit of being imaginary – Dylan didn’t always behave all the common laws of physics and reality, even if Karyn understood them), barking at her from the top.
Karyn giggled and climbed up the ladder after her imaginary friend. They slid down the twist slide together. Who needed human friends when Dylan was always there for her? She got up and started to head back around for the ladder again, when a sharp growling sound from behind her made her freeze in place. She turned to see Dylan, now in a bigger canine form, more the size of a coyote than the small hound dog he’d been moments before, with his ears laid back and the fur raised from the base of his skull all the way down his tail. He was staring at the gate to the school. A moment later, Karyn registered why he was growling.
Three of the meanest looking kids she’d ever seen were climbing over the gate. They had to be in sixth or seventh grade by the looks of them, and they were coming straight for the playground. Terrified, Karyn looked for a place to hide – but her physical reaction times weren’t the best, especially under stress… and the boys were upon her before she’d made her decision.
“Hey, look at that, Jarred. It’s the weirdo girl.” The biggest of the boys sneered down at her from what felt like two or three times her height. “Your empty-headed father forget you here?”
Karyn felt her eyes burn. Her father was NOT empty-headed – he just always had a lot on his mind and didn’t have time for silly things. But she was too scared to retort aloud to the boy.
“She probably can’t talk yet, Max,” the one “Max” had called “Jarred” said, stepping closer to Karyn. Terrified, she was rooted to the spot.
“Check out the giant turtle the weirdo made, guys!” The third boy was walking around Karyn’s Ankylosaurus sculpture slowly.
Karyn’s tongue untied, artistic pride pushing through her fear. “I-It’s not a t-turtle…”
Max smirked. “So it CAN talk.” He turned and looked at the sculpture. “You know, Sammy, I think she’s right. It isn’t a turtle.” He walked very deliberately over to it – and kicked it in the head, then stomped on the back, reducing the sculpture that it had taken Karyn an hour to make back to the sand from whence it came in seconds. “It’s roadkill!”
The boys laughed, and Karyn’s little hands curled into fists, the first tears escaping her eyes. Their laughter was like hyenas – vicious, mean, without even a trace of humor. The sound of Dylan’s snarling filled her ears, and she threw herself at the leader of the bullies, screaming, “You killed him! You killed him!”
Max was caught off guard by the girl actually attacking him, but she didn’t even land more than a weak smack to his chest before he caught her arm and threw her onto her back in the sand. The one hit she’d gotten in, however, had his accomplices laughing at him, saying that maybe a little girl could take him. Fury clouded his vision and he kicked sand at the girl. “Freak! I’ll show you what happens to freaks who don’t know their place!”
Karyn was still stunned from the fall into the sand and didn’t fight when the boys hauled her to her feet and dragged her across the empty school grounds. By the time she started struggling, it was too late.
Sammy laughed as he flipped the lock outside the chain-link fence that surrounded the old, nearly two story tall generator and air conditioning unit that stood against the wall of the main school building. The boys were jeering at her, laughing, as she pushed herself up with scraped and bloody palms. The gate had been unlocked, or perhaps while she was fighting the two that held her, the third had picked the lock somehow. However they had gotten it open, she was now locked inside it with no way to reach the lock to let herself out.
“Freaks go in cages, in side shows and at carnivals!” Max jeered from outside Karyn’s new cell. Dylan snarled from somewhere behind her, but Karyn didn’t look for him.
A panic unlike anything she’d ever felt before filled her as the boys turned to leave, still laughing, and she ran to the gate. She banged on the chain-link fence with her injured hands, crying and screaming. “Let me out! Let me out! Don’t leave me! Let me out!!”
She kept screaming until long after the boys were out of earshot. Finally, she turned and pressed her back against the gate. The tears blurred her vision, but even with her sight impaired, she could tell that the sun was beginning to set. Her parents would be looking for her, soon. She prowled the area between the fence and the big machine that this cage was meant to house. Scared and alone, Dylan’s bark finally broke through the haze that had wrapped itself around her brain. She turned in a circle, and wiped her eyes on her sleeves, confused that she didn’t see him right away. He’d barked, which indicated a canine form – but she didn’t see him. Then, as if something had grabbed her chin and tilted her head up, she spotted him – on top of the machine that shared this too small space with her.
“Dylan?” Her eyes were drawn down to the paws of her friend – the front paws that stood on the first rung of a ladder that lead all the way up to where he was. Karyn’s eyes lit up. A ladder! Just like the one in the playground! Maybe if she climbed up with Dylan, there would be some way to get out of the cage she was in.
The climb seemed to take forever – two stories was much farther than any playground ladder she’d ever climbed before. Every time she felt that she might look down, a sharp bark from Dylan kept her eyes on the prize in front of her. Finally, arms and legs trembling with the effort, she hauled herself on top of the monstrous machine. Dylan cavorted happily around her legs, back in his little brown dog form, as proud of her as she was of herself for having made it.
And there, across the expanse of the top of the machine and the many maintenance hatches that dotted it’s surface, was her way out. The concrete stairs that went up the outside of the school building for easy access to the second floor seemed very close to the far side of the machine. She practically ran the distance to the far side, only to freeze in terror when she reached it and realized that the distance between the edge of the machine and the far side of the stair-rail was more than three times her height. There was no way she could jump it.
As she stood there, staring at the impossible task before her, Dylan launched himself off of the top of the machine and landed gracefully on the landing of the stairs, then barked at her. His message was clear – “What are you waiting for?”
Karyn felt like sitting down and crying. Her parents would never find her up here, and her arms were too tired to climb back down; her voice too hoarse from her screaming at the boys earlier to be heard if she DID call for help. She had Dylan, of course, but she knew full well that no one else could see or hear him. Despite her immersion in her fantasy world, she was quite aware of where the line between fantasy and reality was drawn.
Giving up, she sat, then laid down atop the machine. She curled into a fetal position and closed her eyes against the tears that once again flooded her eyes. Her hands hurt horribly, the muscles in her arms felt like they’d been run through some sort of washing machine, and she was trapped two stories off the ground – less than four hundred feet from home.
As she lay there, a pigeon landed in front of her and began preening it’s wing. Grateful for the distraction, she stared at the bird and watched the careful, intricate way it cleaned each individual feather. I could get down if I were a bird, she thought. I’d just fly right over to those stairs… Her eyes closed, and she felt herself drifting off to sleep, the exhaustion of her ordeal taking it’s toll despite her fear.
Almost instantly, she was dreaming.
She was still on top of the machine, but she was where the pigeon had been a moment earlier, running her flight feathers through a beak that was perfectly designed to act as a comb. A moment later, and she fluffed her feathers, spread her wings and leaped into the air. Her flaps were rapid, and her human mind didn’t seem to be able to process the many minute adjustments that were made to individual feathers as she flew. She was vaguely aware of Dylan nearby, likewise in some sort of avian form, but the bliss of flying was too much for her to bother concentrating on him for too long.
She woke up hours later, in her own bed, her night light the only light in the room. She sat up, confused, not remembering how she’d gotten down from the top of that awful machine – out of that cage. Then the dream came back to her and she felt herself relax – the whole situation was one of her dreams. She was never trapped two stories up, afraid and with no one but Dylan. It was just a dream. Her hand reached reflexively for Wacoon – the stuffed raccoon that lived on her bed, who she had named before being able to pronounce the letter “R” properly. She found him right where she’d left him, but gripping his tail to pull him to her caused a pain to shoot from her palm straight up her arm.
Karyn cried out, both in shock and in pain, and pulled her hands back until she could see them clearly. Her palms had been bandaged, but there was no doubt about it – the scrapes she’d received when she was thrown into the cage were real; and they looked exactly as they had in her dream.
Dylan didn’t make a sound from where he was curled up in a fuzzy ball at the foot of her bed. His form was his quietest and most cryptic of all – a gray fox gazed at her silently from the corner of her bed.
* * * * * * * * * *
As Karyn grew up, she tried not to give much thought to what had happened – or hadn’t happened – that day at the playground. Her parents told her that when they’d gone out looking for her, they’d found her asleep under a tree – less than a hundred yards from her own front door. Her hands had been scraped, and she barely woke up enough to walk back to the house. After bandaging her hands, her mother had tucked her in bed, thinking she’d exhausted herself playing somehow. Karyn never told them about the dream.
She grew older, and in time even Dylan faded to a fond memory, replaced by her first real life pet – a parakeet named Buddy. Unliked but by her few friends (until they moved away) and the ever increasing menagerie of animals she cared for, her life wore on. Years passed, friends moved away, pets died and new pets appeared. She studied, wrote, drew, and lost herself in her own small world. The dreams continued, as well, but became less frequent as she aged. Dylan’s appearances were becoming more rare, but were still fairly frequent – especially when she was upset. It seemed her imaginary friend was content to simply make sure she knew he was around, should she ever need him again.
Her studies moved on. She devoured every book on the natural world that she could lay her hands on. Karyn possessed mountains of knowledge about the world outside her parent’s apartment, but no real practical experience of it. She was resigned to her life, as well. Until one day – a day of loss, and a day of revelation. The day her aunt died.