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Everything is blurry around the edges of my sight. My breathing is labored. Every fiber in my being is on high alert. I hear a whinnying horse in the distance and then galloping hooves. I’m running away from him. The dark shadow. My feet are crunching on the dry hay in the hall between the stalls. Everything is silent ... and spinning. I’m falling. Everywhere around me is endless black...and...soft.
My eyes flash open as my body instantly pulls away from the bed. Warm rays of sunlight are creating pools of light in my bedroom. These strange dreams have been waking me up every Saturday morning for the past month and I’m still left wondering why. It’s very frightening.
“Alex! Jace is here to pick you up!” My mother calls from downstairs. “I’ll be right there!” I reply. After quickly pulling on my boots, riding gear and brushing my teeth, I hop down the stairs for a 30 second breakfast. Before the nightmares, Saturdays were something to look forward to. Now they’re leaving me exhausted.
I snag a granola bar and dash outside making sure to close the door hard enough so my mom knows I’ve left. My best friend Jace is waiting by the passenger side of his old, rusty red, Chevy truck. “Took you long enough.” His sarcastic tone never fails to make me smile even on mornings like this one. “Hi, Jace.” I yawn. He opens the door for me to climb aboard, and then gets in the driver’s side. Thanks to that stupid age law declaring the youngest age to drive a car is 16 and not 15, I have to depend on Jace to transport me to the stable where we board our horses. He backs out of the driveway and asks, “Are you feeling alright Alex? You look really tired.” I lean my head against the window trying to block out the fast-approaching headache. “I’m fine.” I’m not sure why I feel like keeping these weird subconscious visions to myself, especially when I know I’m a horrible liar and Jace, who’s known me all my life, can tell when I’m feeling under the weather. To my surprise, he doesn’t push it.
When we arrive at our destination, I am filled with hope that my beautiful mare Syndara will bring comfort to my jumbled thoughts and annoying headache. Jace leaves to go greet is stallion, Rusty, and I take off at an all-out sprint towards my Syndy. (When Jace and I were kids, we ran everywhere together and he would always complain that I was going too ‘cheetah-fast’ for him.) As I walk into Syndara’s stall, she seems to sense my almost constant discomfort and rubs her satin-soft muzzle on my cheek. “Hello” I croon as I wrap my arms around her white, furry neck, entwining my fingers in her mane, and breathe in that heavenly horse aroma that I never tire of……
SLAM! I flinch and Syndy jumps as her stall door bangs shut… What just happened? There isn’t a wind blowing. How did that close so hard? I calm down my horse and try to pry the door open…It doesn’t budge. I shove as hard as my weary muscles can, but to no avail. I’m trapped.
No……this reminds me too much of one of my Friday-night horrors. In it, I was cornered in a dark empty stall and I had felt like a mouse in its hole dreading when the cat would thrust its paw in and snag it. And of course the ever-present shadow walking down the corridor was there.
“JACE!!!!!!!!” I scream. This has to be a dream. I pinch myself. I will not let stupid hallucinations of the night invade my favorite place in the world. “Alex?” Jace lopes in sitting upon his trusty steed all tacked up and ready to ride. “I thought you would have been ready by now.” He says with a hint of confusion in his voice. “Please help me. I can’t get out of here…the door closed and…” I plead, in a trembling, breathless cry. Jace immediately dismounts Rusty and rushes toward me. He instantly transfers into his protective mode and starts pushing on the door. His more capable muscles manage to push the doorthe slightest bit open, but as soon as he lets go to stretch his hands and begin again, the door clamps shut once more as if it has a mind of its own. Syndara nickers nervously and I start hyperventilating.
“Calm down Alex. I’ve got an idea. I’m going to get you out of here alright?” He attempts to soothe the panic in my eyes. Worry etched across his features more prominently now. I nod my head which somehow ended up between his hands. “What kind of idea?” I wonder, hysteria making my voice sound higher in pitch. “One that’s going to get you out.” Equipped with a determined look in his deep blue eyes, he grabs Syndara’s lead rope from the hook next to her stall and darts over to his obedient horse who seems oblivious to our increasing anxiety. I watch from my cage as Jace attaches one end of the lead rope to the horn of his western saddle, and the other end to one of the bars on the door. He mounts Rusty once more and commands him to walk. The door slowly but surely moves to the side. When it’s about half-way open, the creepy weight on it somehow lifts and all of the pressure makes the door roll open too fast with a loud CLANG!
I gasp. Syndara and Rusty whinny and paw at the ground. Jace dismounts and promptly gives me the biggest squeeze-the-breath-out-of-you hug I’ve ever received. I hug him back. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!!” I cry, breathless. He lets go of me and as soon as he does, I miss the warmth. He looks at me straight in the eye with the most serious expression on his face and says, “Are you ok?”
“……I-I am now.” I answer. I can tell that he notices my hesitation but once again does not voice his obvious concern. “What do you say we ride this all off and talk about it later? Does that sound good?” I suggest. He smiles. “I’ll help you tack up.” is his wonderful response. I am definitely moving Syndara to a new stall next week.
Once we we’re both mounted and inside the fenced 10 acres of Painted Pines Stables, we warm up our horses at a walk and just relax. I feel good for the first time in a long time and I close my eyes; just breathing. After about ten minutes of the same bliss, we best friends start trotting at exactly the same time with no communication whatsoever. I’m not surprised. We do the exact same thing every Saturday. This speed makes me smile in anticipation for the next gait. After another ten minutes of that, Syndara and I start cantering one second before Jace and Rusty. My hips rolled to the rhythm of Syndara’s stride as her hooves strike the lush green grass beneath us with the sound of a quick heartbeat. Rusty’s hooves, when compared to Syndy’s, are a little offbeat because Jace is just a hand’s reach behind me. Cantering is a very comfortable and exciting pace for us, so we stay like that for about 20 minutes…maybe more. I don’t keep track when I’m having this much fun. Then, we rush in to the most rapid gait and it feels like I’m flying.
Galloping on Syndara is like being a feather in a hurricane. All my fear of what’s going on with my dreams, the weird stall door experience, and the dark shadow man disappear and becomes replaced with exhilaration. “Woohoo!” I exclaim. I feel so free… as my mahogany curls whirl in the wind behind me, and with Jace by my side, I believe anything is possible…
When we get back to the barn, Jace and I un-tack our sweaty companions and we’re giddy with the rush of flying on our horses’ wings. Unfortunately though, after riding horses, you have to come back to reality sometime. It’s just that Jace manages to do it before me. So I am not prepared when he asks me, “So what’s really going on with you?” We are walking back to his truck and I stop dead in my tracks with the shock of his sudden question. “Ummm……” No sense keeping it from him now. “Well…I’m… ah…kinda sorta…having…” He turns to face me and places his hands on my shoulders. He has that really serious look on his face again. “You know I’m going to figure it out sometime. I see you almost every day. So please, tell me what’s got you so on edge lately because I’m really worried about you.”
Gazing into those deep ocean-blue eyes, how could anyone refuse? I take a deep breath and whisper, “I’ve been having really scary dreams recently…and they’re keeping me up at night, but that’s not the creepiest part. It’s that…they only happen on Friday nights and there’s always this spooky shadow that looks like a man… and that when you were saving me from staying locked in that stall, it was a lot like one of the nightmares I had…” He lays an arm around my shaking shoulders and leads me to his car while tears roll down my cheeks.
We climb into the back for more room and he sits me on his lap while I silently sob into his shirt. Jace’s arms never leave my waist for the next 10 minutes in which all of my negative emotions pour out in the form of salt water. When we finally have to get back home, once we’re disentangled, we get into our usual positions-Jace driving and I riding shotgun- and he drops me off –after a quick, comforting hug-at my boring, horse-and-Jace free home. I practically drag myself up the stairs and into my plain bedroom only to fall into a restless sleep.
“Come to me…Alex…” His deep, spine-chilling voice seems to come out of nowhere standing in this black, sinister place. “What do you want?” I whimper. “You.” He answers. My breath is now coming in ragged gasps. The only thing I can see is darkness all around…no escape from him. Then…red. Blood red. Nothing has changed except my perception. My anger. I want him DEAD. To leave me alone. What’s he going to do anyway? What can he do? I’d like to see him try to hurt me. He’s just a stupid shadow………right?
I awake not with screams or fearful gasps or whimpers of fright but with a newfound bravery. I will fight back. I look at my alarm clock. Its red numbers reading 3:20 AM. Perfect.
I’m feeling a little guilty standing outside in my jeans and jacket calling Jace at 3:30 in the morning, but I’m sure he won’t mind. He’s one of those friends you can call in the middle of the night for no reason and they won’t be mad at you for it. Sure enough, Jace picks up on the second ring and appears on my driveway without his headlights on, as requested, along with his truck at no later than 3:35. I hop into my usual spot and explain everything including my need to fight back. I know exactly where to find him too. Painted Pines Stables seems to be his desired haunting place. So I will meet him there.
I am extremely shocked when Jace volunteers to go with me. I thought he was thinking I was crazy for coming and he was just going to drive me here but…… it seems I thought wrong. We have little to no trouble jumping the fence and getting into the tack room which will apparently be our headquarters for tonight. I feel so courageous but afraid at the same time. I did not know someone could feel such opposite emotions in the same moment.
“I know you’re here…” I recognize that voice. I suffer that familiar tightening in my stomach when I hear it. Hearing him in my head is one thing. Listening to him when I’m awake is a whole different story. I will not show him my fear though. I’ve got to face him. “Did you hear that?”Jace whispers grabbing a flash light. “Yeah…do you trust me?”I inquire. “With my life.”I was expecting a simple ‘yes’, but this…is great.
Creeeaaak…… I slowly turn toward the noise coming from the tack room door. My heart is pounding for a second, I was sure I had seen the doorknob turn. Then……nothing. Just silence. “THAT’S ALL YOU’VE GOT? HA!” I yell at him, for I know he’s here. Jace grips my shoulder, silently telling me to be careful. He leads me out of the tack room with the flash light in front of him. Protecting me from my living nightmares.
Out of nowhere comes a flying piece of sharp wood whirling down the hallway…aiming at my head. A few of the newly awake horses see it and paw at the ground. Everything seems to be moving in slow motion as Jace, swift as lightning, swipes at the wood with the flashlight, knocking it out of the way. I congratulate him by hugging him around his waist, but the celebration is short-lived for I suddenly feel a cold breath on the back of my neck making the hairs there stand straight out. “Alex?”Jace turns to face me and certainly sees the huge shadow looming behind me. I stand stock still. Not a muscle moves.
“I’ve got you now…”
I fight to hold back a blood-curdling scream. Jace grasps my arm at the same moment that I decide to literally face my fear. I see eyes as deep as graves and blackness envelopes me, but even though I can sense my whole frame shaking as if I’m in an earthquake, I still feel the warmth if Jace’s protective hand holding my arm and I take all of the strength I didn’t even know I had from that. I stare straight into those bottomless monster’s eyes and calmly say, “I’m not afraid.” His form wavers for a second and he steps back. I step forward. I add more volume and confidence to my voice “I’M NOT AFRAID!” The darkness around me lifts and he sinks into the ground. One last time. “You can’t stop me.”
“Wanna bet? I’M NOT AFRAID!”
And just like that, with a little puff of smoke my demon is gone. Jace stands in front of me with a dazzling smile on his face as the first rays of sunlight shine over the horizon.
Right there was where I received a wonderful gift that I did not even know I’ve been longing for. My first kiss. For once as I kissed Jace back I was absolutely fearless.