When the first cry broke out behind us, Henry froze. It was like the previous night in the apartment; he went from excruciatingly present to gone in an instant, leaving just a shell behind.
The human reaction would have been to whip around and stare at the source of chaos, but something about his stillness was magnetic. I couldn’t look away, even as the cries escalated, voices joining together in horror. The sidewalk quivered under my feet, and I grabbed at the nearest thing to stabilize myself. Which happened to be Henry. Which was even weirder - to feel the warmth of his skin, the flex and resistance of him - and yet for him to be so completely unresponsive, so absent. It was enough to keep me from realizing, for a moment, just how wrong the situation had become.
Voices. Multiple screams tearing through the golden light of a quiet late afternoon on the coast. That wasn’t possible… The nightmares don’t attack crowds; it’s always a single victim. It’s personal, not mass attacks like terrorism or something. I’d never heard of…
I risked a glance over my shoulder as the sidewalk shook and cracked underfoot, keeping hold of Henry’s unmoving arm for balance. I had to blink a few times to work out what was going on. It was like staring through a heat wave or thick, uneven glass; the shapes were dark blurs, barely recognizable as human. A mirage across the desert; silhouettes through a cloudy curtain. If it hadn’t been for the tree at the centre of the chaos, tilted at an impossible angle now as the ground beneath it crumbled, I could have pretended I didn’t know what was going on.
But the attack was right out in front of the office, the neat, slightly mossy grass crumbling to earth and broken pipe, the carefully groomed bushes tilted with gnarled roots in the air while cracks spiderwebbed through the stuccoed facade. The tree sinking down as I watched, only moments ago Henry had been leaning against it, surrounded by curious admirers. And now their voices carved up the skies as the blurred attack took on a red tinge.
Nightmare. Even as I stared, the near-invisible disturbances took on shape, the hint of a fang here, the suggestion of rough scales there, too-wide eyes blinking and staring and murderous on every side. I shuddered to think what it must be like at the heart of the attack; did they each only see their own worst fear stalking them? Or a horde of nightmares all at once? Or maybe a hideous amalgamation of shared horror stitched and blended together in a Frankenstein’s monster of deadly intent?
It helped to consider the unheard of rarity of the attack, to ponder it academically. It kept me from trying to match the screams to familiar voices. It kept the cold sweat beading on my skin at a distance, the memory of my own all-too-recent terror at bay. It was icy, grim insulation from the horror that I was, now that I thought about it, really too close too. I braced myself against Henry’s unresponsive arm and pushed away, staggering across the cracked concrete. He thawed to life as my hand left his skin.
I paused, a few steps away, to watch. His eyes were wide and liquid with pain, his hands clenched into fists, his body rigid as he turned away to stare at the attack. And turned back to stare at me. His lips were bloodless, pressed so hard that I felt like I could hear his teeth creak behind them.
“Just go,” I said, bracing my feet and gripping my elbows. I felt cold and trembly. Must’ve been the ground shaking. Yeah. That was it.
If anything, the anguish on his face deepened when I spoke. Then it vanished, wiped away by a mask so smooth, I almost thought he was gone again. But this time he wasn’t frozen. He lunged forward, his face set, grabbed my arm and dragged me down the sidewalk so fast I felt like a balloon caught in a gale, just the toes of my shoes bumping along the ground to bounce me airborne again. At the corner he hesitated, lost or disoriented, maybe. I seized the moment of distraction to rip my arm out of his grasp, stumbling backward and sitting down in a heap on the grass.
“Wha-” Henry’s hand hung in midair, fingers outstretched where I’d pulled away. “April. Get up. I need to get you out of here.”
I sat on the grass and dug my fingers into the dirt below. In the time it took me to find the words, he’d knelt and got both hands around arms, ready to haul me bodily along.
He flinched, but reached out again almost immediately.
“I said, leave me alone!” I twisted away, falling back on my elbows and glaring up at him. He was holding on to his calm, contained mask, but only just. A vein pulsed above his left eye, and tiny lines around his mouth and between his eyes kept creasing and then smoothing away. It was terrible to watch.
“It’s not safe here. We need to go.” He said, kneeling over me. I couldn’t sit up without bumping into him, couldn’t pull further away. A bandaid on his shoulder was lifting, and I shifted my weight to yank it away, revealing a barely-closed red welt curving over to his back.
“Not safe for who?”
It wasn’t fair, I knew. He’d shown every indication of caring about my well-being over pretty much anything, or anyone, else’s. Including his own. Which wasn’t right. I wasn’t about to let him get away with it.
“You’re not safe here.” Henry shrugged away, as if to hide the wound. I waved the bandaid in his face.
“Neither are you.”
“That’s not… it’s different for me. They’re not after me.”
“But they’d hurt you all the same, if you got close enough.”
“Wish to god I could!” He choked on the end of the exclamation, jerking back and away from me. I sat up. “Sorry. Sorry, I- it’s not your fault, April. Can you just… can you just trust me? Just let me help you?”
“No.” I said. He gave me this look, like he didn’t know whether to strangle me or cry, but I held my ground. “I won’t say I don’t need your help. Maybe I do. Maybe I should even let you. Maybe I will. But not now.”
“What do you want?”
“April, I- to help, I just-“
“No. You don’t just want to help. What do you want?”
He wasn’t getting it. He was so focused on me, so determined, whether I wanted his help or not, that he wasn’t thinking straight. A part of me was standing a long distance off, laughing at the whole exchange. What did I care, really? Why insist on playing word games with him, now of all times? Why make him confront the source of his anguish, instead of taking what I could get - what I needed, maybe - and letting him suffer, if he wanted to? The rest of me was too focused on him to be amused. He’d helped me, even if I hadn’t asked for it, hadn’t wanted his help. Maybe this was a way of paying him back.
I rolled forward onto my knees and shoved Henry, knocking him off balance.
“What do you want?”
“April, I just-“
“No. WHAT! DO! YOU! WANT!”
It took screaming in his face to break down his insistence, his determined blindness, and he yelled back, every vein in his neck rigid with fury, “To make it stop!”
“Good. Do that.” I held myself from jerking away, but only just. His face fell as he searched mine, anger falling away to pained sadness, resignation.
“No, April. No. We need to get out of here. I promised. I told you I wouldn’t leave. I’d keep you safe.”
“I don’t accept that. Go.”
“April.” He reached out for me, and I slapped his hand away. His expression shifted to frustration. “Look, I-“
“I’m not leaving you to get killed, ok? I can’t!”
“Then I won’t.” I was being unreasonable, I knew. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to be his excuse, his anchor dragging him down, dragging him away from what he wanted. I didn’t appreciate being forced to find the solutions for him either, but since he seemed to be burdened with a one-track-mind, needs must.
“Look,” I said. “There’s got to be an alternative. How about I wait from a safe distance while you go deal with it? You can keep an eye on me and take apart some monsters at the same time. Win-win, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. That’s-“ He trailed off, his gaze turning inward. “That could work, maybe.”
Henry was starting to look excited. If he’d been a dog, his ears would have pricked up and there might even have been some tail wagging involved. Disgusting. I had to stifle a laugh.
“Sit right here, ok?” He said, pushing down on my shoulders with both hands as if he could root me in place. “Don’t move. Promise you won’t move, ok?”
“I’m not going to-“
“Promise, April, or I won’t go.” He insisted, staring me down. I could have lied, I guess, but honestly, I was a little curious about what this next step was going to look like.
“Whatever. Fine. Cross my heart.” I settled, cross-legged on the ground and held my hand up like a pledge. Henry’s focus had shifted; he’d half forgotten me already.
“Don’t move.” He said. And then, “it’s gonna be ok.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. He ran back toward the screaming.
Only then did it occur to me that he was unarmed.