Chapter 1 – Rachel Holbrook
Fog. Nothing but thick fog all around her. She ran in every direction but couldn’t find her way out. The dirt beneath her muted her steps and sprayed out when she finally slid to a stop. There had to be something—anything—in this grey wasteland. She’d even settle for another person. At least then she wouldn’t feel like the entire world had disappeared without notice. She called out.
“Hello!” Rachel’s voice echoed throughout the void, bouncing off of unseen walls. She turned her head every which way and spoke again. “Hello? I don’t know where I am.” When no answer came, her stomach dropped and her hands sweat. Falling to her knees, she wrapped her arms around her as her body began to shake. She let the feeling build up until she couldn’t take it anymore and let it burst out in a guttural scream. “Somebody please help me!”
But, that wasn’t like her. Not at all. She stopped shaking and wiped the tears from her eyes. Rachel wasn’t the kind of woman who needed help. Why would she be begging for someone else? She knew how to take care of herself. No. She didn’t need anyone. And why was her voice echoing when there was nothing around. None of this made any sense.
A dream. It was only a dream. Every nerve calmed as she stood up and brushed the fake dirt from her skirt. Now, all she needed to do was wake up, which shouldn’t be hard. She’d taught herself to wake up from dreams a long time ago. She just had to close her eyes and say, “Wake up, Rachel. Wake up.”
This time, though, it didn’t work. Her eyes opened, and the fog persisted. So, she closed them again and repeated more firmly, “Wake up, Rachel. Wake up.” Still, the fog would not dissipate.
Why wasn’t she waking up? She’d done this plenty of times before, and it always worked. Maybe she was in a really deep sleep, and she needed to focus a little harder than usual. Fine. She balled her hands into fists at her sides, scrunched her eyelids, and drew in a deep breath. Slowly and clearly, she spoke every word. “Wake. Up. Rachel. Wake. Up.”
A few seconds passed before she relaxed her eyelids and let them flicker open.
“What the h—” she started before something within the haze caught her attention: two small orbs, slightly lighter grey than everything around them. The eyes, fixated on her, moved closer until an outline of a body appeared. The figure had no color. The body couldn’t even be called black. It was as if there was a void in the shape of a man in front of her with only the light grey static of the two orbs providing any contrast.
Rachel stepped back when two more figures formed on each side of the first. She brought her hand up to her mouth as the number doubled again and again until she was completely surrounded by… whatever they were. The heaving was the only sound they made. Closer and closer they came. Rachel yelled out.
“Go away! You’re not real! Leave me alone!” They moved in with their arms outstretched and their teeth bared. The fingers and teeth were exaggerated into long, sharp points. Rachel fell to her knees and threw her head into her arms. “Please, wake up! Please wake up!”
Hot breath washed over her neck and dozens of icy fingers slid across her back. Chills sped through her entire body as she shrieked out a long, “No!” Under her own howl, the soft voice of a little girl whispered, “Welcome, Rachel. You’ll be one of us, soon.”
Rachel awoke to her head smashing into the seat in front of her as the wheels of the bus skidded to a halt on the concrete. Her forehead burned as it scraped across the felt. She pushed off the seat to regain her balance and brought a hand to the sting on her head.
“Son of a bitch!” She remembered the eight-year-old girl sitting in the seat next to her. Hadley had her arms folded around her tucked up knees and her face buried in them, her sniffles and whimpers muffled. Rachel forced herself to put a hand on her head and stroke her brown, wavy hair. Hadley looked up with a little snot on her upper lip and tears still streaming from her eyes—those bright, blues eyes that reminded Rachel so much of her brother.
“Aunt Rachel, I dreamed about the Empty People again.”
The Empty People. That’s what it was. Hadley had told Rachel about that dream a couple times before, and now Rachel was letting it get to her. That’s why she had that dream. All of the stress she’d been under, and now she was letting the imagination of a little girl give her nightmares. She put a hand on her hip and the other on her forehead, the scrape she had just forgotten about burning anew. She winced and pulled her hand away. Well, that’s not how she wanted to wake up.
The lights in the bus were on. Rachel looked at her watch. 11pm. They were still hours away from Denver. She reached over Hadley and pulled the curtain open to reveal a pit stop on the right. A sign above a small office building in the middle of the complex read, ‘The Midhaven Motel.’ Behind it, an L-shaped, one-story motel. Behind that, a dense spread of trees.
Great. They were in the middle of nowhere. Rachel reached down into her purse and pulled out her phone. Just as she figured: no reception. She put her hand to her head again, and winced again. There had better have been a good reason they’d stopped. She leaned to her left and peered down the aisle. Some of the passengers were whispering to each other while the others stayed asleep. Rachel looked at the bus driver, who was still staring down the road. Even from her seat near the back of the bus, she could see the whites of his knuckles strangling the steering wheel.
After a few moments, just as Rachel was about to call out to him and ask why the hell they’d stopped, the bus driver stood up, turned around and clapped his hands three times.
“Everybody wake up!” He waited a few seconds as those who were still asleep finally roused. A young man in front asked what was going on. The bus driver looked down at him. “We have a problem.”