The Reaping
Author:M. Leighton

CHAPTER THREE





A dull throbbing at my right temple woke me. I tried to open my eyes, but a blinding whiteness poured through the cracks. Pain cut through my head like a hot knife. Quickly, I squeezed them shut. I waited a few seconds then opened my eyes again, though just a slit. This time I was prepared for the pain. I waited for it to subside as my eyes adjusted to the brightness. When they finally did, I opened them wider.

Above me were bare tree branches, crisscrossing the sky like bony, dead fingers laced together. Beyond them were ominous gray clouds. They looked like snow. That would explain the brilliance. And the cold.

I was lying on my back and it was freezing. My fingers and toes had lost most of their feeling, but I could still wiggle them. Slowly, I turned my head to follow one of the trees to the ground. At its base, about ten feet away, was a dense patch of mountain laurels. Their evergreen leaves sagged under the weight of a thick dusting of snow. I looked to my right and saw a similar scene. I was in some sort of clearing in the middle of a laurel thicket.

A spot of color drew my eye. A bright red dot marred the fluffy white topping on one leaf. I raised my head a few inches off the ground to get a better look. There was another drop on a lower branch. Then another. And another. I followed the crimson drops across the snow as they neared where I lay. The size and number of them steadily increased the closer they got to me.

I reached out to touch one that was within arm’s reach. I dipped my fingers into the cold snow and scooped up the red drop. The snow didn’t melt in my hand. But it turned pink.

My hand was covered in blood.

A wave of fear washed over me, squeezing the air from my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. I sat up quickly, my head spinning in rebellion. The forest around me spun and swam. I closed my eyes until the vertigo subsided then I slowly opened them again.

I held my hand out in front of me and examined it. I didn’t see any cuts or scrapes, nothing to account for the blood on me or in the snow for that matter. I straightened out my arm. It was covered in blood, too.

Then I looked down.

The pale yellow parka I was wearing was drenched in blood and torn to pieces. My legs were stretched out in front of me and they were saturated as well, the denim shredded. No wonder I was so cold.

I scanned the ground in the clearing. There was blood all around me—splatters and streaks, even puddles. It was pooled between my legs. When I saw what I was sitting in, I hurried to my feet. What was left of my clothing was soaked with it. I could feel the wet weight of it all over my back side, too.

I took stock of all my parts and was relieved that I seemed to be intact. I checked for wounds elsewhere, but again I found none. I waited for pain, but none came. After that, only one thing was on my mind: whose blood was it?

I looked left and right and, besides the blood, the snow was completely undisturbed. There was not so much as a footprint impressed upon its perfect surface. I’d have to question later how I’d gotten to where I was without leaving any trace of which direction I’d come.

I spun in a tight circle, looking around for the source of all that blood. That’s when I saw him.

I managed to stifle the scream that bubbled up in my throat. I stood there, in the bloody snow, motionless, just staring at him.

My first thought was that he was dead. And that I might have killed him. My eyes scanned his long form in a quick once-over, looking for blood and injuries. I didn’t see any. Relief washed over me when I saw his wide chest rising and falling rhythmically. He was alive. Alive, but unconscious.

I doubted he was much older than me, maybe just over twenty, and he was clothed entirely in black leather. Only his arms and head were bare. I saw what looked like a black strip of leather lying beside his head. I thought it might have once held the longish hair that was currently spread about his head in a dark halo. Even in his present state, I could see that he was handsome and incredibly intimidating.

Then a troubling thought occurred to me. I looked at his big hands where they lay limp in the snow at his sides. Hands like that could easily rip a girl my size to pieces. There was no blood on them, but still…what if?

My eyes snapped back up to his face when I heard a low moan. A frown pinched his thick brows together, but I could still see the dark crescent of his lashes as they rested on his sharp cheekbones. I knew that if I had any chance of escaping whatever gruesome things had taken place here, I had to move fast. Very fast.

Slowly, I stepped back with one foot, the snow crunching lightly under my weight. The rise and fall of his chest stopped and I held my breath, praying that he wouldn’t awaken. I waited what seemed like an eternity for him to start breathing again. When he did and it looked unlikely that he would wake up, I stepped back with my other foot. Then I stopped. And waited. And watched.

Nothing.

Encouraged, I took another step back. Then another. When still there was no indication he was waking, I picked up the pace a little. I kept my steps as light and soundless as possible.

When I’d successfully put nearly ten feet between myself and the stranger, I turned to navigate the trees. I shifted sideways to slide between two laurels then stepped around a huge oak tree…and ran right into a wide chest covered in skin tight, black leather.

My breath caught in my throat. I looked behind me, back at the now empty impression in the snow. The stranger was gone and was standing right in front of me, staring down at me with furious silver eyes.

The chirp of my alarm clock woke me. Really woke me. I was in my bed, in my room, gasping for air like I’d run a marathon. My heart was hammering against my ribs.

It was just a dream, Carson. Just a dream, I reassured myself. It had felt so incredibly real; I was still shaken from running into that huge stranger.

I lay back against my pillows and concentrated on taking slow, steady gulps of air. I counted backwards from ten and, as usual, it calmed me. Another Porter family trick.

Pushing my covers aside, I made my way to the bathroom to turn on the water for my shower. As I shed my pajamas, I noticed how cold my fingers and toes were and decided that I must’ve kicked the covers off at some point during the night.

As I walked past the mirror to step into the shower, a dark spot on my cheek caught my attention. I leaned over the sink to look closer. It was a single red drop. I wiped it away with one finger and brought it around for inspection. My heart kicked up to a quicker pace. It looked like blood.

I stepped back to examine myself for injuries, almost hoping to find one. I’d rather have scratched myself during the night than think that it had somehow come from my dream.

I stood in a shaft of Saturday morning sun that was streaming through the bathroom window. The light turned my normally mousy-brown hair to a glistening spun gold in a way I hadn’t noticed before. It looked almost as if the color had lightened overnight to a beautiful honey blonde.

Shaking off the distraction of my hair, I inspected my face. I saw no injuries or scrapes and still no evidence of the abrasions that had been there the evening before. In fact, I was as good as new, the skin on my arm, hip and leg having healed as well.

“What is going on?” I asked my reflection.

Having no answers, I pushed the troubling thought aside and focused on the day ahead and skirting Dad’s questions about where my scratches had gone.

After a quick shower, I dressed and went out to the garage, knowing Dad would already be out there. And he was. Still working on the exhaust, too.

With an internal sigh of gratitude, I slipped into our routine. For once, it was welcome and comforting.

After lunch, I was helping Dad with the Flowmaster mufflers, tightening up some bolts he had started for me while he held the muffler assembly in place. He had been grilling me about engine parts. Any time we worked on a project, he used the time to teach me everything there was to know about the subject and then quizzed me relentlessly about it until we were finished. Today was no exception.

I had both hands on the wrench, straining to make the bolts as tight as I could when Dad threw me a curve ball.

“So, Carson, is there something you’d like to tell me about your hair?”

At first I was confused by his question then I remembered the lighter, more golden tint I’d noticed in the light that morning. I didn’t think anyone else would detect it.

“No. Why?”

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

Just the way he said it was enough to irritate me. “Notice what? I haven’t done anything.”

“Carson Marie, you know better than to lie to me.”

“I’m not lying. When have I had time to do anything to my hair?”

He was thoughtful for a second before he answered. “Last night I guess.”

“Well I didn’t. I think it’s just getting lighter.”

“Overnight?”

“I guess so, Dad. What’s the big deal?”

My temper was escalating by the second.

“No big deal. You know how I feel about that kind of thing. And you know I’d better not catch you in a lie, young lady.”

“I’m not lying!” I was shouting, suddenly fuming.

I was jerking at the wrench furiously when it slipped causing me to mash my fingers against the floor of the trunk. I dropped the wrench, barely able to hold back the string of obscenities that rushed to the tip of my tongue. I was positively livid; a reaction way out of proportion to what was happening, but not one that I seemed to have any control over.

Within seconds I heard Dad yelp. When I looked down at him, he was shaking his fingers.

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know why, but that muffler got hot all of a sudden. Really hot!”

I could see that it was beginning to take on a reddish glow like metal typically does when it is superheated. As quickly as it had come, my anger dissipated, eclipsed by concern for my dad.

We rolled out from under the car, each examining our injuries. Neither was bad. I felt sure we’d live.

“Maybe it’s time for a break. How about some lunch,” I suggested.

As soon as we went inside, I poured myself a huge glass of water before I fixed us each a sandwich. I was suddenly parched.

After that we ate in silence, neither of us willing to broach the subject of my irrational anger. As I nibbled my sandwich, more thirsty than hungry, I couldn’t help but wonder where all this temper was coming from. And the language! I never used bad language and was shocked that it had come so quickly to mind.

When we were finished, we headed back out to finish the exhaust. When it was done, thankfully, Dad let me off the hook and said we’d start on the suspension Monday. I had a free night.

I decided to go for a run before taking another shower. I changed into my running clothes and shoes and hit the pavement. I thought of my options for a free Saturday night. It only took about a half mile to realize that I had few and those weren’t very appealing. Homework, science fair project prep, call Leah or lock myself in my room.

What a depressing thought! I shook off that funk, unwilling to let it ruin one of the few things I truly enjoyed. I redirected my thoughts and let my mind drift to the incident with Stephen Fitchco the previous evening. I wondered what he would be doing on a Saturday night. I doubted his options would be as boring as mine.

All too soon, I was back at my mailbox with no better choices than when I’d left. Resigned, I decided to shower and spend the night locked in my room.

The next morning I woke feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. I had fallen asleep before I had a shower and then dreamed the same dream about the bloody snow and the stranger. It took a lot of effort to drag myself from the comfort of my warm bed and make myself get into the shower.

I spent a little extra time on my right shoulder, having seen a smudge of grease on it as I undressed. I scrubbed the spot with my loofa, knowing that would get it off. The rough sponge could remove anything, and I mean anything, including several layers of skin if I wasn’t careful.

Spontaneously, I decided the rest of my skin could use a nice exfoliation, too, so I squirted some shower gel onto the sponge and went to work buffing the remainder of my body.

I stepped out of the shower feeling soft and smooth from head to toe. Unable to see my reflection because of the steam, I took my lotion into the bedroom to complete my morning ritual.

Just to be sure I’d gotten the spot off my shoulder, I walked to the full length mirror on the back of my door and turned halfway around where I could see my back. Not only was the smudge not gone, it seemed to have gotten bigger and was turning a reddish orange color. It had a teardrop shape to it, fat on one end and dramatically tapered on the other. It reminded me of a flame, licking up toward my neck. Maybe I’d burned myself and not realized it. After all, Dad said the muffler had been hot.

As I turned back to face the mirror, I noticed how the light shone on my skin, even without lotion. I walked over to the window and held my hands up. My skin looked different. Better. Luminous. I turned my hands over then held out my arms.

My skin was practically flawless. It looked like a thin, peaches-‘n-cream veil covering a pool of shimmering liquid. I looked at my belly and legs and they, too, were covered with the same sheen. The tone and texture were absolutely perfect, looking airbrushed like I’d seen on models in magazines.

I walked back to the mirror to put on lotion. As I massaged the scented cream into my skin, I noticed several other subtle, nearly imperceptible changes as well. My waist, it looked a little more trim that usual, my belly flat and taut. My hips flared out in a more womanly curve then tapered down to legs that had never looked leaner. And my boobs—they seemed fuller and were tipped with a perfect dusty rose.

If I didn’t know my body so well, I might not have noticed. But I did. I don’t know how long I stood studying my reflection and all the differences I found there, but I was so immersed in my own thoughts, I jumped when Dad knocked at the door.

“Hurry up, Carson. We’re going to be late,” he boomed.

Pushing the bizarre thoughts out of my head, I hurried to the closet and pulled out a neat fitted dress in black that buttoned up the front. Church clothes were the one area in which Dad never fussed about me splurging and looking like a girl.

I slipped on my shoes and went to stand in front of the mirror one last time before heading out the door. Sure enough, even my clothes fit a little differently, the material a little more snug around my hips and chest, looser around my waist. I shook out my hair, which looked even lighter against the black of my dress, and then rushed out to meet Dad.

I hopped into the truck, which was already running, and Dad sped away. I saw him cast several sidelong glances in my direction, but, much to my relief, he didn’t say a word about my appearance. I hoped he wouldn’t notice anything but my hair. I doubted that would be the case, however, because Dad is extremely observant.

We walked into church just as the choir was starting to sing. There were no seats near the front so we had to walk all the way down the aisle to the back row where there were still a few empty spaces on the pews.

As we passed, I saw several people who normally never paid me any attention looking at me and whispering. Some were girls, some were guys. I wondered what they saw. A freak, a weirdo, a pretty girl, something different they couldn’t quite put their finger on? It made me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d been a wallflower all my life, plainly not noteworthy. I’d wanted attention, yes, but in a good way. The good kind of attention. I didn’t know if I could stand the curiously repulsed attention that being a freak would get me.

Appropriately, Mike, Dad’s pastor, taught in 2 Corinthians 12:6–8. I didn’t usually pay much attention, but this time I couldn’t help but see the parallels to my own life. Paul had some sort of affliction, one he called a “thorn in the flesh”. Three times he asked God to remove the thorn, but God didn’t.

What a God, I thought bitterly. Paul was one of His best helpers and He wouldn’t even take away a simple “thorn”. I’d never really thrown in with Dad’s beliefs. And hearing lessons like this did nothing to convince me that I was missing out on much of anything. But Dad always made me go, though usually it wasn’t too bad. I mean I got to dress up to go sit and daydream for an hour. I’d definitely had worse hours in my life, that’s for sure.

That night, my sleep was anything but restful; my dreams were plagued with the same images. Over and over, I’d find myself in the bloody snow, terrified by a dark stranger. And each time, at the same instant, I’d wake up in a near-panic, only to fall back asleep and dream it all over again.

By the time Monday morning dawned, I was exhausted. I got ready in a daze, dressing in my usual jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt. After brushing my hair out straight, I had a quiet breakfast with Dad then walked up the street to meet Leah.

She was waiting by her mailbox, as she always was. Dressed in a plaid skirt, red sweater and knee-high socks, she looked like a Catholic school girl, as she always did. A geeky Catholic school girl.

She fell into step beside me, matching my rhythm. She had to take almost two steps for my every one, though, what with her shorter legs and all. But we moved together like a well-oiled machine. She started chattering instantly, telling me all about some book she’d read over the weekend. As usual, I tuned her out.

Leah’s hand on my arm brought me back to the present. She stopped and faced me, fists on her hips. “So what’s the deal? Are you going to tell me about your makeover or what?”

“Huh?” I was lost.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Come on, Carson. Spill,” she urged in a conspiratorial tone, pushing her tortoise-shell glasses up her pert nose.

“There’s nothing to spill,” I said, turning to resume our walk to school.

“So your hair just got lighter all by itself?” She was teasing. I could see that by her mischievous grin, but it was poking my increasingly ever-ready temper.

“I guess so,” I snapped.

“And I guess you didn’t get contacts either, right?”

That got my attention. “What do you mean?”

“Your eyes. They’re really, really green. I guess that happened overnight, too?”

I hadn’t paid much attention to my reflection this morning, although it seems that I should have.

“And I suppose the teeth bleaching fairy paid you a visit as well?” She giggled, really having fun with this. Even so, it was all I could do not to slap her silly. “Does she work with the Tooth Fairy or does the Tooth Fairy just moonlight?”

“Leah, I’m really not in a very good mood today. Can we have this conversation later?”

If my tone wasn’t enough to warn her off, my expression must’ve been. “Sorry,” she said quietly, instantly contrite. Poor Leah, I was ruining her rare bit of fun all because I suddenly couldn’t handle a little good natured teasing.

I sighed, feeling guilty, but rather than apologizing for my prickliness and inciting more questions (thereby furthering the conversation), I chose to ignore her altogether and remain silent the rest of the way to school.

When we arrived, it became apparent just how obvious the changes actually were and who was to be the most affected by them—males.

From the courtyard that led to the front doors, down every hall on the way to my locker and inside every classroom, guys and girls alike ogled me. I saw them stop and stare, mouths agape. I saw them whisper to one another as they watched me walk by. From the guys, I got catcalls and explicit comments, as well as pledges of undying affection and promises of carnal delight. I’d never seen this side of them before, mainly because I’d never made it onto their radars. But suddenly I was noteworthy. Suddenly I was interesting. Suddenly, judging by their comments, I was beautiful.

Things took a turn for the worse in gym class. I kept noticing the other girls looking at me and whispering to one another. Then, as we were changing back into our school clothes, I heard some girls talking at their lockers the row behind mine.

“I guess she thought no one would notice, but come on! She looks totally different.”

“Yeah, she could at least try not to be so desperate. I mean, anybody can see she’s trying to look like Brianna Clark. Maybe she thinks she’ll have a chance with Stephen Fitchco now that they broke up. Because, like, everybody knows she has a crush on him.”

“I know. She stares at him all the time.”

I could feel my cheeks burn with embarrassment. I didn’t think anyone ever noticed the surreptitious glances that I gave Stephen, but apparently I was wrong. Very wrong.

I heard giggles then another voice chimed in.

“Some people will do anything to be popular, but it doesn’t mean that anybody will actually like them.”

I dressed as quickly as I could, unable to bear any more of their torment.

By the time I got to the lunch room, I was debating the merit of leaving school completely—until I saw Stephen Fitchco crossing the lunchroom, making a beeline for me.

Seniors were allowed to leave for lunch and Stephen and his throng of followers usually took advantage of that privilege. And yet, on this day, here he was, carrying his lunch tray to my table where I sat in the area not-so-fondly dubbed Lose-Air, the upper echelon’s attempt at wit, combining loser and Bel-Air. They were the pride of our school no doubt.

“Hey, Carson,” Stephen said, interrupting my internal musings and treating me to his award-winning smile. With no effort whatsoever, I provided the expected response by nearly swooning and quickly losing the aptitude for intelligent speech. He was like a surfer Greek god, all blond and muscular, and the prototypical jock, with his jeans and letterman’s jacket, all rolled into one. And right now his highly-coveted attentions were focused on me. And it felt great!

I’d never really had a crush until I’d seen him my second day of school here. I’d admired him from afar all this time, never daring to even try to get close to him. Until Friday, that is, when he almost killed me.

“You look good,” he said. “Feeling better?” He tossed first one leg then the other across the seat of the lunch table. His blue, blue eyes twinkled with something I had only seen in movies bar scenes where drunkards doled out cheesy come-ons like breath mints.

“I’m fine,” I said, anxious yet suspicious.

“I can see that,” he said, leering at me. Unfortunately, I’d already seen that same look several times today.

“H-how are you?”

“Feeling bad about what happened.”

“Don’t. It was an accident, nothing to worry about.”

“Well I’d like to make it up to you anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’d like to do something with you.” That’s what his mouth said, but his eyes said what he really meant was he’d like to do something to me.

Baffled by the difference between the guy sitting in front of me and the one that had given me a ride home on Friday, I wondered if perhaps I was reading more into our exchange than was accurate.

“What did you have in mind?”

“How about I show you a better way to spend time on your back?”

Much to my dismay, my assessment of Stephen’s intent was correct. There was no mistaking the meaning behind those words. I couldn’t stop the keen disappointment that flooded me. I was crushed to discover that the guy who’d inhabited so many of my daydreams and fantasies was just a run-of-the-mill jerk.

Stunned and consequently mute, I simply stared at the handsome exterior that covered such a shallow interior, as I mourned the death of my dream date.

Stephen mistakenly assumed my silence was consent of some sort, which was apparently all the encouragement he needed. He leaned across the table and took a lock of my hair between his fingers. His knuckles brazenly grazed the swell of my breast and a satisfied smile slid across his lips. “Is that a yes?”

My upset tripled with his bold and embarrassing action. I was debating the merit of slinking right down under the table and never coming out when I saw Stephen glance over my left shoulder. I turned and saw a group of his jock friends watching us from against the wall on the other side of the cafeteria. They were laughing and pointing, some giving him two thumbs up. Then I got it. I realized what was going on. And I was mortified.

Humiliation washed over me in a cold, clammy wave. My mind scrambled for a way to escape, to evaporate and drift away in the air, never to return to school again. But today I wasn’t a wallflower. Today, there was no quiet, easy way out.

The sting of bitter tears burned at the backs of my eyes and I willed myself not to shed them.

For several seconds, we sat that way, Stephen’s knuckles continuing to brush my chest, my mouth agape in disbelief. His lips moved, but I heard no words; my ears rang with the sound of his friends’ laughter. The hundreds of eyes trained on me stabbed at my nerves like tiny needles.

Then the hair trigger on my temper tripped, completely eclipsing all other feelings, including embarrassment. Anger surged and swelled and built within me until it was a blinding rage. It burned away the unshed tears, bubbling along my veins and blazing across my cheeks. My fingers squeezed around the milk carton I held. I felt the liquid warm against my palm, my hand shaking with fury.

“I know you want me,” he whispered, his pupils dilating as his bravado increased. He was oblivious to the storm that was brewing inside me. “And I can make you feel so much better.”

The smell of scalding milk drifted to my nose as it began to boil inside the carton. I watched it happen as if it was in slow motion. Hot milk erupted from the carton, hitting Stephen square on the chin and splattering all over his face.