Awakening a Nightmare: Chapter Nine


TW: Vague references to childhood abuse



The cold bit at the back of her neck, breathing her regrets down her spine. Aria shivered and tugged her jacket tighter around her frame as she walked further away from her home. Furth away from Eli.

The mere thought of her ex-lover caused a flush to stain her cheeks.

Their separation was only made bearable by the thought that Eli would somehow turn out better for it. Aria had filled her thoughts with daydreams of a thriving tattoo shop settled at the heart of Las Vegas. She imagined a life of finer things and even finer friends. But, unfortunately, the life she had imagined for Eli wasn’t the one she had led. Instead, she seemed frightened. Alone. And worse, injured.

Aria tried not to think about how it was her fault. Like so many things.

Hugging herself tightly around the middle, she rounded the corner, now entirely out of the apartment’s sight line. But, even still, she could swear she felt Eli’s eyes tracking her. For the first time in a long time, she felt like she was sneaking. A teenager slipping from her bedroom window to sneak around with girls.

She tried to convince herself that her guilt was born of leaving Eli alone with her girlfriend. Salena wasn’t exactly the warmest person. And despite having been broken up for quite some time, seeing your ex with someone new was always strange. In Eli’s situation, it was merely salt in the wound. She had been shot, and now she was crashing in her ex-girlfriend’s “guest” bedroom while on the lam.

But from what?

From us.

She smoothed her palm over the front of her throat and forbade the thoughts from dominating more space than they’d already claimed. It was ridiculous. Paranoid. Eli wasn’t a monster. She couldn’t be.

Sure, she was acting strange about letting Eli change her bandages, but who wouldn’t be? If Eli needed to tend to her wounds, she might bat her hands away, too.

And then, there was the matter of what she was doing in the woods…

Lost, Aria reminded herself. Eli was lost. She went to a bar, cut through the woods, and couldn’t find her way out.

Even as she tried to justify it, she felt her girlfriend’s eyes pinning her in place. She recalled the judgmental stare. Her tight jaw, her hardened gaze. There would be much more to discuss when Eli left, she was sure of it. Their relationship had been on the rocks for a while, and now, Eli was there. The woman who had, at one point, made her life brighter. Better. More tolerable.

Though, there were some things that even Eli couldn’t fix.

Aria stood frozen in place in front of an old colonial. Its brick exterior had seen better days. It had been painted years before she had been born, and had never seen a coat since. Once painted a cheery emerald green, the faux shutters had faded to a murkier green, peeling and graying. An equally dated sign hung over its entrance, welcoming in patrons: McNally’s Hardware and Home.

She had been to this place hundreds—maybe even thousands of times—and the feeling never changed. Dread turned to rot in her belly as she plodded up the front steps. Her hand closed around the wrought iron railing, forcing herself to move forward when every instinct screamed that she should turn on her heel and run in the opposite direction.

The door opened with the slightest touch, jangling a too-cheery-sounding bell. A middle-aged man looked up at her from the front counter for only a second before turning his attention back to something in his lap. The sound of sandpaper scraping against wood cut through the quiet, nearly drowning out his baritone when he said, “you’re late.”

Aria nodded primly. “I got held up.”

“They’re downstairs.”

She nodded again, resisting the urge to remind Colby that was where they always were. But this place had a way of ripping her voice from her throat and rendering her mute. So, instead, she carved a familiar path through the store, weaving through rows of screws, nails, power tools, and electrical tape until she found a heavy oak door labeled “Employees Only.”

The wooden steps creaked hideously as she made her descent. Aria grimaced as she walked, gripping the railing tighter like it would somehow make her footsteps quieter.

The scent of mildew and dampness filled her nose as she reached the bottom step. There were rows of men and women, all twisted in their seats to inspect her. A hot flush crawled across her cheeks as she lifted her hand in an embarrassed wave.

Everett lifted a hand in greeting. His head tilted toward the seat to his left. A lifeline. She hurried, cutting through the group with soft apologies. Everett scooted to the seat beside him so she didn’t have to embarrass herself by crawling over his lap.

“You’re late,” a basso gritted from the front of the room.

Aria didn’t dare look up. “I’m sorry about that, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“You say that every time.”

It was a simple dismissal, but it stung all the more. It was bad enough that her father held her in such low regard, but getting a dressing down publicly was more painful than words could ever express.

Malcolm McNally was an imposing man, standing at a bowel-loosening six-foot-six inches. He was all hard lines and chorded muscle, making it so that every doorway shuddered in fear when he came near. He looked like a Marine with his square jaw, sharp features, and even sharper flat-top haircut. Some might have considered him classically handsome with his gray eyes and dark hair, but Aria always likened him to the make of nightmares.

She supposed those who considered him handsome had never seen him with his belt.

Everett looped an arm around the back of her chair in their familiar feigned display of affection. Her father continued his speech while Everett quietly murmured what she had missed into her ear. Attacks were down, kills were up, the same song and dance they heard at every meeting.

Aria’s hands tightened into fists in her lap when her father mentioned a downed monster. She swallowed hard, trying not to think about Eli—trying not to be angry at what she was being called.

“We need to find it,” her father announced in his eerily calm way. “We can’t let them start thinking they can come into our town and get through safely. We swore to protect.”

“And protect we will,” the crowd replied in unison. Her lips moved, but the words didn’t come. Not today.

They didn’t need protection from Eli. Eli needed protection from them.

Aria was barely able to pay attention as her father continued his speech. It had its usual fanatical fervor and sanctimonious diatribe. Then, at some point, he started issuing orders. It wasn’t until Everett’s elbow met her ribs that she decided to tune back in. Her brows lifted in acknowledgment when her father addressed her.

“Everett, Aria, Whitney, Andre, and Butch take the northern quarter.”

Aria balked, her head swiveling to look at the listed members. His select team?

Everett again nudged her, fixing her with a silencing look.

Their eyes met briefly before she lowered her head to hide her thoughts.

He never puts me on his select team.

The meeting ended in its usual way, and the hunters filed out one by one.

Everett crowded her space, looping an arm around her waist in a too-familiar way.

He was a handsome man. His complexion was somewhere between dark and light, with strong, ambiguous features. His curls were cropped short and shaved clean on the sides, always perfectly styled. His hazel eyes bore into hers as his fingers tightened against her waist. Aria did her best to relax against him, but despite how many times they had acted like this, she couldn’t get the hang of it.

“Aria,” her father greeted, his voice filled with ice. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m sending you with our best team.”

Everett pressed his lips into a thin line, pleading with her with his eyes not to argue with him.

“Of course, sir,” she replied, pinching Everett’s side in a way that said it was more for his benefit than her own. Aria had long ago accepted her role as’ family fuck-up.’

“Everett is a good influence on you,” Malcolm began, nodding gratefully to the man at her side. “I want you both to carry on the McNally legacy when the time comes. I’ve coddled you for too long. It’s time you step up to the plate.”

“Yes, sir.”

Despite her acquiescence, he did not seem moved. His expression only softened when he turned to Everett and slapped a hand on his shoulder. “Make a hunter of her, Rett.”

“I will, sir.”

She hated that her father’s paternal pride was reserved for the man he had picked out for her. The man he believed had cured her of her “affliction.” Being gay made her something of an aberration in her father’s eyes, which was why they had a “guest” bedroom. Perfectly staged to make it look like Salena laid her head somewhere else at night. Everything about her life was perfectly orchestrated for his benefit, including this fake relationship with Rett.

She’d never know why he went along with it, but she was grateful for him. Grateful for his friendship.

It wasn’t until Malcolm left the room that she could breathe again.

“So,” she sighed. “You’ll make a hunter out of me, yet.”

“I’ll let you claim some of my kills.” He reassured, squeezing her shoulders. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you come out looking good.”

Aria sighed heavily. “To be honest, Rett… For once, his approval is the furthest thing from my mind.”

Usually, she dreaded hunting. She hated everything about it with every fiber of her being. But this one, she hoped, would yield something. Eli couldn’t be the monster they were looking for.

She couldn’t be.

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4 thoughts on “Awakening a Nightmare: Chapter Nine

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