For the second time that week, Cassidy woke in an unfamiliar place. Pieces of hay pricked her back through her thin nightgown. The movement of hooves stomping on dirt, and wings flapping in the rafters above shocked her further awake. A barn, she must be in a barn. The darkness clutched at her, hemmed her in like an oversized comforter. The salty tang of blood hung in the air stronger than the animal musk or hay. It turned the darkness into something fearsome. Something alive.
She stood on shaking legs, the front of her nightgown heavy, wet, and chilling on her skin. With sticky fingers, she pulled the material away from her chest. It sent up a dizzying aroma of blood-tinged air. She cringed before licking her chapped lips, and breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t taste of copper. Her eyes adjusted and made sense of the shapes around her. The bales of hay stacked behind her. The ladder that lead up to a loft. The horses eyed her warily from their stalls. When she held her hands up to her face, the congealed blood streaked across her dusky skin.
Her stomach clenched as she searched her scalp for a wound. Her fingers brushed unbroken skin, and she shivered down to her bones. For seventeen years she had been waking up in strange places. Her mom put extra locks on her bedroom door; she slipped out of her second-story window and woke up near the eighth hole on a country club’s green. Her mom nailed the window shut; she managed to pry it open using a nail file and woke up in the park on the other side of town. All these things she did while asleep.
She squeezed her eyes tight waiting for a headache to bloom behind her eyelids. Nothing happened, and the fear she’d done something terrible crept in. Nested deep in her psyche. After a careful once over, she couldn’t believe that nothing hurt except the soles of her bare feet—blistered and raw—but the blood came from somewhere. Someone?
“Hello?” she whispered. Then louder, “Is anyone here?”
A horse nickered, and the wind picked up outside, but no human voice answered. Cassidy took a deep breath and dared herself not to cry. Crying never magically transported her home to her own bed. It didn’t wipe the blood off her hands or keep her in her own bed. Warm teardrops fell down her face in waves anyway. She hated each one she wiped away with the back of her hand, hoping it didn’t leave streaks of blood across her cheeks.
Pale starlight fell through the wooden slats and pooled intermittently along the ground like drunken guide lights. Farther ahead of her a side door stood open, letting in faint light and an escape. She shuffled toward it, dragging her toes, praying she wouldn’t step on something sharp. Or worse, trip over a bloody broken body.
She exhaled fear in the shape of a harsh laugh. “I’m the one with the bloody broken body.”
Exiting the barn, she didn’t recognize the landscape. She reached into the zippered pocket all her nightgowns possessed and pulled out her phone. Careful not to get the touchscreen dirty, she dialed her best friend and wiped her hands down her sides to get some of the blood off while it rang and rang.
A voice thick with sleep answered, “Where you are this time?”
“I don’t know. A barn. I can’t even see the city’s light pollution.”
“Gonna need more than that, Cass. It’s three in the AM times. Use your GPS.”
Cassidy fumbled with the apps on her phone. Out of the corner of her eye, something raced by and she jumped. A cat stopped midstride to stare at her and hiss before disappearing under the porch.
“I’m in a barn near Third Bridge,” she gasped.
“Are you off your meds?” On the other end, she listened as Mel banged around in his bedroom. “How’d you walk all the way out there? That’s, like, ten miles from your house!”
“Just hurry.” She tried to breathe slow and relaxed. “Please!”
Every morning that week, Cassidy scanned the headlines for the one that would confirm her fears: Unidentified Body Found Mauled on the Prairie. Every evening, she watched the news from start to finish. So far, no body. No body, no evidence.
“Why the sudden interest in current events?” Her older brother, Scott, asked.
Cassidy rolled her eyes. “Senior project. Ms. McAllister’s making us watch the news for a week. We get quizzed and stuff.”
“I remember that. It’s easier to scroll through the big stories in the morning from your phone.”
“Can’t. She makes us put our phones in a basket on her desk during class. Plus,” Cassidy paused to remember the details, they’d finished the news week last semester, “she asks which anchor matches which story.”
“Brutal.” He dropped a FedEx box on the kitchen’s island. “This came for you.”
After Melvin rescued her from the country on Monday, they’d spent hours clicking through forensic sites. Mel found the type of test that distinguished between human and animal blood. One site advised testing the sample, a control, and repeating the sample three times if inconclusive the first. Each field kit contained five tests for almost a hundred bucks. Exactly thirty dollars waited in Cassidy’s bank account. She ordered one kit, plus overnight delivery, and promised Mel she’d pay him back. Of course Scott would answer the door when it arrived.
“Finally! It was supposed to be here Wednesday.” She reached for the package. Scott moved it out of her grasp. “Hand it over.”
“The return address is a medical company.”
“So.” She knew she should’ve sent it to Mel’s house. His parents never cared what he did as long as he remained in contention for Valedictorian.
“So, what does a seventeen year old need from a medical company?”
She huffed and racked her brain for yet another lie. When the silence threatened to reach out and grab her by the throat, she decided to tell the truth. Mostly. “Mel and I are conducting a biology experiment.”
Scott shook the package. “Are you pregnant?”
“No. Gross. I wouldn’t order pregnancy tests off the Internet.” She gritted her teeth as he continued to shake the box. “They sell them at the Dollar Store.”
“And you would know this how?” Scott stopped mid-shake and stared her down.
Cassidy took the opportunity to tear the package from his hands. “Because I’m not an idiot.” Without further explanation, she left the kitchen. The weatherman’s bright commentary followed her down the hallway.
o . O . o
The longest ten minutes of her life ticked by as Cassidy paced the room. Two cassettes sat on Mel’s desk. The control required human blood, and Mel supplied it happily enough saying, “When else does being diabetic have an upside?” The other contained a sample from her nightgown, carefully prepared.
Cassidy and Mel avoided eye contact. The alarm on her phone shrieked. Cassidy let out a small yelp, and Mel lunged for the control assay.
He held it up for her inspection. “Definitely human blood present, which is good. I used to worry I wasn’t entirely human.”
“When you were five, Mel.” Cassidy forced herself to grab the second cassette. Her hands shook.
“It would be easier to read, if you opened your eyes first.” Mel rubbed her arm.
She bit back a terse response, and opened one eye. One thin red line crossed the cassette. She opened the other. “Hand me the instructions.”
Mel swiped the unfolded instructions off his desk, and squinted to read them. “One line next to “C” means no human blood. Two lines means human blood. One line—”
“It failed.” Cassidy threw the test on the desk. “What did we do wrong?”
“Nothing, but we should get a new sample of the blood off your clothes. They did say it could take three tests before we got a result.”
Another ten minute wait to prepare the sample. Then another ten minute wait after that to start the test. The last three cassettes sat on the desk. Cassidy chewed at the cuticle on her thumb until it bled, too late to use as the control. Mel paced for them both. This time when her phone alarm went off, they faced each other. Neither moved, until Cassidy’s eyes filled with tears. Mel stepped over to hug her, but she ducked under his lanky arm and stared down at the desk.
The control showed two red lines, just like before. The next one over had one red line next to the “T”, inconclusive again. The final test, the last of their hundred-dollar purchase, also had a red line next to the “C” and a faint, faint red line next to the “T”.
“What does this mean?” Cassidy’s voice cracked, and she held her sleeve against her mouth. She dropped her arm and shouted, “What does it mean?”
Mel shrugged, his brows knit. “The blood’s not entirely human, I guess? I get paid next week. We could buy another kit and try again.”
“You’re awfully calm for someone who might be an accessory to murder.” Cassidy sat on the edge of his bed, her heart pounded out staccatos, as if any one beat might be the last.
“Fact check!” Cassidy smiled in spite of herself. Mel continued, “One, there’s not enough blood on your shirt for murder. Two, you’re a tiny person. Three, you were asleep. Conclusion: no one your size could possibly kill someone in their sleep and not have a mark on them.”
“Four,” Cassidy held up four fingers, “tonight we’ve made an important discovery. Non-human/humans live somewhere nearby, and I killed one Monday night.”
Her friend cracked a goofy grin. “Hot damn! We’re going to be famous.”
“Mel?” she breathed into the phone, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. “It’s happened again.”
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Audrey. Return next Monday for Julie’s answer to this prompt.