Aveny awoke peacefully, long silky tendrils of nocturnal illusion still gently entwined in her psyche. Their tender embrace warmed her soul and soothed her normally chaotic mind. She marinated in the sweet sensation.
As consciousness dawned, she felt the dream slipping from her like loose feathers from a soaring bird. She clenched her eyes tightly, straining to hold on to the impossible.
The sun cascaded across her face, unfractured and vibrant. It was heavenly to ease into consciousness naturally. She rarely woke before her alarm. She smiled a little at the realization that she must have slept well. It was nearly as foreign as the contented feeling itself.
Aveny felt something flutter against her cheek and knew Tali was waiting for her to open her eyes. She savored one last moment of peaceful, unadulterated joy. Then she stretched, coaxing her body awake.
As she extended her arms and twisted her torso in her usual morning ritual, her fist connected with something hard.
Her eyes flew open.
It wasn’t her daughter’s cherubic face that greeted her. It was a shock of brilliant yellow, jutting downward, directly at her nose. She flinched, then recoiled in realization.
She was staring at the long, yellow beak of a seagull.
The bird cocked its head to one side and stared at her with inquisitive black eyes. A single white feather perched vertically on its crown, swaying unsteadily in the breeze like an inebriated sentinel as it shifted jauntily from one foot to the next.
Surely, she must still be dreaming, Aveny thought.
The sheer discomfort of cold, hard earth told her otherwise.
The seagull twisted its neck and peered directly into Aveny’s right eye with one beady, black orb. Then it flicked its head, screeched and snapped at her nose.
The shock shattered her immobilization. She sat up with a start. Adrenaline coursed through her veins and something cold cascaded down her back. She blinked her eyes rapidly, her pupils darting manically back and forth, attempting to absorb the scene before her.
It didn’t make sense.
The sun was just peeking over the hills, sending reflective sparks of light over the dancing water. Its shimmering surface spread out before her in a wide, gaping expanse. Forested mountains framed the opposite shore; her gaze followed their outline, turning in a wide arc, until it met the massive wall of pine and deciduous trees guarding the scene behind her.
Their branches extended out over a rocky beach like a canopy draped with elegant spider webs of moss. Tiny crabs gamboled between the stones, their miniature appendages clicking almost imperceptibly.
The seagull, which had retreated at Aveny’s sudden motion, continued to stare. The tide waved gently along the shore and Aveny was overcome with the odd sensation of somehow knowing this place, while having no idea where she was – or, more importantly, how she had gotten there.
Ocean surf tickled one bare foot, drawing Aveny’s gaze. Despite her confusion, she found herself lost in the repetitive motion of its mesmerizing dance.
Am I dreaming?
Am I crazy?
The wind shifted and Aveny shivered, realizing for the first time that she was cold.
Very cold. Too cold.
Her blue-tinged hands flew instinctively to her shoulders.
Gravel dug into her fleshy bottom as if to confirm the current state of affairs.
Aveny pulled her legs to her torso and glanced furtively about for unseen witnesses. She and the seagull were alone.
Now fully awake, Aveny clambered unsteadily to her feet. Her legs bucked awkwardly as they struggled to stabilize against the rough, rocky terrain. She cast about for something to cover herself with. Nothing but rock and seaweed met her gaze.
But, wait – there was a small pile of something heaped nearby. She prayed it was her clothes.
It was the skin.
Aveny snatched it up and quickly wrapped its soggy form protectively around her torso. Then she rushed, hunched, into the trees. With each step, freezing water coursed from her saturated hair down her back, igniting spasms of sensation that reverberated across her flesh.
Thoughts flashed through Aveny’s head like a strobe light in hyper drive.
Why am I so wet?
Where are my clothes?
How did I get here?!
Beneath the slowly easing dark of the forest canopy, she spotted one lone sock. Farther up, another. Then underwear. Shirt. A mud-encrusted bra. She followed the pieces like Hansel and Gretel, slowly donning one abandoned item at a time. Finally, she discovered her pants suspended on a dewy fern.
She felt her car keys jangle in the pocket as she pulled them on. Relief washed over her. She wasn’t stranded.
But where is my car?
Aveny’s hands quivered with cold and fear as she attempted to manipulate the zipper. Her mind continued to race.
Where am I?
Why am I here?
Why is the skin here?
Her eyes flicked furtively around her as her mind worked, searching for some shred of evidence or the return of an unseen perpetrator.
Is any of this even real?!
Each urgent query was silenced by one overarching need: to get home – now.
Still damp but fully clothed, Aveny charged up the forest path, hoping for a miracle. It led her upward, weaving between trees and mounds of wild undergrowth. Her fingers dug into loose soil as she scrambled over mountainous roots and up rapidly degrading hillside.
She halted at the precipice, blocked by her own white Honda. It was pulled off the road at an odd angle, its nose buried in underbrush. All the windows were down and the seats were flecked with rain droplets. It looked abandoned.
Aveny jumped in, turned the key, reversed and accelerated in the direction the car seemed to have come from. Within minutes, she recognized her first landmark: Burfoot Park. She had taken the kids there just a few weeks prior.
Only then did she remember her children. Her gut ached.
Where were they?
Were they safe?
She scrambled for her cell phone. It wasn’t there. She just had to get home. There was no time to stop. She had to get there. Now.
The drive was a blur.
Aveny peeled into the driveway and her heart sank. The front door was ajar. She abandoned the car and flew into the house. The clock had just struck 7:00 a.m. All was quiet.
She raced to the boys’ room – and there they were, safe in their slumber. Their breath came in long slow stretches, completely unaware of any duress.
She took no time to savor the relief.
She charged onward, down the hall to her daughter’s bed.
Her soul screamed.
Frantic, she yanked blankets to the floor and upended her daughter’s princess tent. She wasn’t there. Aveny tore into the living room and found both couches empty. Tears burned red hot behind her eyes.
Did someone take us?
Or worse yet, did I somehow wander away and leave them here unprotected?
Aveny ran down the hall, searching wildly for her phone. Her breath came in panicked constrictions. She found it still plugged in next to her bed. She could barely force her shaking hands to dial 911.
And then she noticed the pink blanket poking out beneath her own comforter. She lifted the flap carefully, revealing a tiny tussle-haired head. Her chest deflated.
Thank you God. Thank you God. Thank you God.
Her daughter’s tiny shoulder rose and fell gently, her breath a butterfly whisper.
They’re all here.
They’re all safe.
Aveny ran her fingers along her daughter’s soft forehead. Tali recoiled slightly at the cold.
Realizing herself, Aveny stood and backed away, trying to collect her thoughts.
What the Hell happened?
Her back collided with the bathroom door. She ducked inside and locked it behind her. She needed a moment. And, as it turned out, she also needed to vomit, which she did in a hot, salty rush, right down the sink. Her arms shook with the effort and tears streamed from her eyes.
She wiped her mouth with one shaky hand and lifted her gaze to the mirror. Dark eyes stared back at her, wild beneath a mane of tangled hair, spotted with clumps of sand. An emerald hued leaf stuck out at an odd angle behind one ear. Something wet, green and slimy ran in a flat slick down one side of her face and … was that a crab claw?!
Aveny peeled the soggy clothes from her body and jumped into the shower where she stayed until Brecken banged on the door and yelled, “Mom! It’s 7:45 – we have to go! We’re going to be late!”
Aveny climbed numbly from the shower and stared at the pile of sandy clothes on the floor. She gathered them mutely, dumped the entire lot unceremoniously into the garbage can, and went to find something clean and dry.
Aveny drove the kids to school in an anesthetized state. They bounced out in turn, seemingly unaware of the gulf between them. And then she was alone.
Was it all a dream?
Normally, she would go to work. But she couldn’t move. The world felt strangely distant and intangible. Layers of contradicting reality enveloped her mind, each the more obscure for their strangely shifting combination.
Then something came slamming into focus – the sand-encrusted skin laying discarded on the car floor. Aveny was seized by the only solid emotion she’d felt that morning. But it wasn’t really an emotion at all. It was an urge; a primal, unarguable instinct.