Awakening the Nightmare: Chapter Two

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Their journey into town was relatively uneventful. It was sleepy during the weekdays, inhabited only by drowsy-eyed locals whose attention remained singularly focused on their chores. They had walked together, arm in arm, to the nearest diner.

Eyes were on them, sure. Sanctuary Hills was small and hidden enough that anyone who showed up wearing something other than a flannel button-up and a trucker hat stuck out like a sore thumb. Eli, with all her tattoos and leather jacket, was impossible to overlook. Yui earned just as many stares, despite her ink being covered up. Yui muttered something under her breath about her surprise that people this far north had never seen an Asian person before. They ate quietly, dodging personal questions with as much grace as possible from an intolerably nosey waitress.

By the time they had scraped their plates clean, they were both desperate to get back to their exploring. Yui admitted discomfort at being gaped at, but she didn’t experience the same uneasy feeling that Eli did. She felt no pinpricks, no shivers, no sweaty palms. They tipped the waitress (more than they should have, given how much she pried), and slipped out the front doors into Sanctuary Hills’ autumnal chill.

At a glance, there was nothing particularly special about this place. The town proper was its glittering gem—old, brick buildings with stone features and stained-glass windows. Rose of Sharon shrubs and hydrangea bushes flanked cobbled pathways. The leaves overhead were starting to turn, freckled with gold, orange, and crimson. It felt, for a brief, beautiful moment, like she had stepped onto the set of Gilmore Girls.

Eli was so busy looking at the scenery she hardly took a moment to appreciate what there was. Belatedly, she took note of another café-bakery. There was a small library sitting kitty-corner to an ancient-looking laundromat. Much to her surprise, there was even a headshop. Grateful Dead played over the speakers, and the neon lights painted her a faint shade of green as she walked past.

This place seemed to be a mecca for small businesses. There was even a storefront for pet groomers, with a sign that proudly boasted: “HOME OF THE WAGGIN’ WAGON!”

It didn’t take long for them to find a general store. The carpet had seen better days and smelled like it hadn’t been properly cleaned in months. At the far back of the store was a pharmacy that barely shielded a seemingly too-keen-to-see-them overweight gentleman with half-white-half-ginger hair. They skillfully avoided his gaze, both knowing that if they were to make eye contact, they would be gridlocked. They lingered only long enough to pluck up two “burner” phones.

While Eli was busy drinking in the scenery, Yui was busy searching for HELP WANTED signs. They reached a run-down-looking bar named “Sanctuary” she showed any real interest.

You can take the girl out of Vegas… Eli thought wryly.

Yui gave her a pleading look. Eli waved her off, which earned a squeal of delight. With careful instructions to keep in contact via text message, they parted ways.

The strange feeling persisted, stalking her through the rows of houses and around the parks. It continued as she stopped in various other storefronts. Paranoia nearly drove her into a bridal boutique, but her better sense grabbed hold of her before she could go through with it.

The sun was starting to go down, and Eli’s stomach was leading a full-scale rebellion. With a few texts exchanged, Yui and Eli met at a different diner across town for dinner. It would add an additional fifteen minutes to their walk back to the squat-house, but it was worth it to avoid another interrogation.

They dined on comfort food, bloated and satisfied from cheese and potatoes. They plodded heavily down the road, noting that the town itself was far livelier in the evenings. Gaggles of women bundled together on porches and draped themselves in blankets as they sipped from their mugs. It was courtesy of her preternatural sense of smell she knew that there was more than just hot apple cider in their cups.

Neither had much to say as they walked. But as the darkness closed in on them, Eli’s unease grew unbearable. Yui softly implored her to slow down, but her legs felt like they were moving of their own volition.

It was a relief when they found themselves back at the abandoned house. Eli started a small fire in the fireplace, lit a cigarette, and started to unwind.

Yui seemed oblivious to her tension as she flopped bow-legged onto the weathered wooden floor. “So. How was your day?”

Eli squinted at her, drawing in an inhale through her teeth. “You’re asking because you want to tell me about yours, aren’t you?”

“Am I that transparent?”

She smirked, allowing her silence to be the answer.

“Okay, yes. Fine. I want to talk about today.”

“Then talk,” Eli said, gesturing for her to continue. She flicked the end of her cigarette and watched as the ash danced with the hearth’s flames.

“Well! I got an interview! At the bar!”

“Really?” Eli asked, her brows arching quite abruptly. “So soon?”

“I guess they’ve had that sign up for almost a year. There have been no takers yet.”

Eli grimaced, her mouth quirking lopsidedly. “There might be a reason for that, Yui.”

The Siren shrugged and let her attention shift to the hem of her socks. “I mean. I can take care of myself now.” Her hand slid to the front of her throat, her fingers tracing over the space where her collar had been as if she was afraid that her bare flesh might burn her.

“This is true. You can.”

Yui smiled. Too brightly. It did strange things to Eli’s insides. Things she didn’t want to think about.

“You know you don’t have to work, right?”

“Yeah.” Yui nodded. “I know. We have more than enough money to take care of us for the rest of our lives.”

Eli frowned, her cigarette hovering a hairsbreadth from her mouth. “Then… what’s the rush in getting a job?”

There was a long, uneasy quiet. The Siren’s expression grew glassy and distant as she stared up at the dust-coated ceiling. “Community,” she stated at long last. “I don’t want to be a stranger in the place I live. I want to be a part of something. Not… kept locked away. Not again.”

Slowly, Eli nodded her understanding. A small, sentimental smile twisted her lips as she reached for her. Their fingers laced as they settled into companionable quiet. “That’s understandable.”

“Besides, you picked this place specifically. That means that we’re probably going to be here for a long while.”

Eli’s expression twisted. Not even she was sure what she felt at Yui’s assessment. “What makes you think that?”

“You’re very deliberate, Eli. If you want something, you want it for a specific reason. And you’ve, not once, not ever, changed your mind about wanting to come here. So…” Yuina shrugged. “That means that, this place, to some extent, is special to you. I figured that it was safe to assume….”

“It’s not this place,” she said, perhaps a bit too hastily.

They stayed in uneasy silence for a heartbeat too long. “What is the reason, then?” Yui gently probed.

Eli felt the iron gate she kept around her feelings beginning to close around her. It was on the tip of her tongue to decline to comment. A second glance at Yui and the openness of her expression made her rethink her impulse.

Friend. Yui was a friend. A real one.

Drawing in a slow breath, Eli steadied herself. She stalled by taking another drag of her cigarette and tossing it into the fire. It wasn’t until the butt had been reduced to a pile of ash she dared to speak again. “I know I never told you much about my life before I got to Vegas, but.” She paused, her eyes narrowing as she searched the flames for words. “I went to college. You know that. I uh… there was a girl. I fell in love with her, and we were together for a long time. And then it just… was over. And I never really got an explanation. I don’t know.” Eli frowned, hating how infantile her words sounded. After everything, she seemed like she was unhinged. “Anyway. I don’t even know if she’s here. This is just her hometown. And after college, she came back here.”

Yui’s expression softened as she inched closer. Her knee brushed against hers as she reached for her hand. The pair sat with their fingers laced, both quiet for the moment.

“You’re still in love with her?”

“Yeah,” Eli said quietly. “At least, the girl I knew in college. Who knows. She might be a completely different person now.”

“Maybe,” Yui shrugged. “But you might love that person just the same.”

Eli chuckled and shook her head from side to side. “And it’s… it’s not just that. I mean. Coming here. It’s not just about maybe seeing her. This place has a reputation for protecting supernatural creatures. And Omnus hasn’t managed to get its fingers in—”

“You don’t have to explain it to me,” Yui said, holding her hand up to interrupt her. “We’re here. That’s what matters, right?”

“Right,” Eli agreed as she nodded slowly.

“So… When are we going to start looking for her?”

“Aria?”

Yui nodded.

Eli shook her head. “I don’t know. After we get settled. Maybe after we find an apartment or something. Though,” she grimaced, her teeth grinding together. “I didn’t see very much.”

“Maybe we should get a car,” Yui said thoughtfully. “At least, that way, we can look a bit further outside the town if there’s nothing here.”

Eli’s brows lifted in appraisal. “Hot and smart,” she grinned, leaning over to brush her nose against Yui’s. “Sanctuary’s customers aren’t going to know what hit them.”

“Or their wallets!” Yui giggled as she thumbed up Craigslist on her cell phone.

They spent the remainder of the evening flipping through increasingly less promising-looking cars for sale and talking about Aria—about the life Eli had left behind. More and more, Eli wondered if she had done the right thing. If she had done it for the right reasons, too.

Yui didn’t allow her a moment to doubt. Not even as she was drifting off to sleep. “I think it’s romantic,” she said, barely suppressing a yawn.

“What is?”

“You. Aria,” Yui gestured vaguely.

“I’m kind of a stalker.”

“No,” Yui protested, shaking her head. “You love her. When you love someone, you don’t let them go. Not ever.”

Eli studied her for a long moment, her expression softening when she started to make better sense of why Gunner’s disappearing act hurt her so badly. “Which is why I’m never going to let you go.”

“Me either,” Yui yawned, rolling to bury her face in Eli’s chest. “You’re stuck with me.”

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