I follow her finger to the grave. My gaze slides off into the darkness. I glance back at Jasmine, partially shrouded by my hair. She stands, unwavering, a stark contrast to the shivering cowards behind her. The redhead has already shrunk back into the trees, his glassy blue eyes flashing from the bushes.
I smile. If Jasmine wants a talent show, she’ll have to catch me first.
For a moment, the world stands on its head. I’m surrounded by a tapestry of stars, all swirling around me in blurs of light. Then, I’m flying down the hill, my feet barely touching the ground. I’m hurling towards my death, but I’ve never felt more alive.
There’s a tree looming ahead. With every step, it grows larger. I barely scrape by it, only for another to sprout up before me. A twig catches my hair, and nearly rips it from my skull. Valuable time oozes through my fingers as I struggle to undo it.
My curls fall into my hands, free. But now, it’s too late. Cold, sharp fingers dig into my arm. The pain is like lightning in my veins. I start to yell, but now, their arm is wrapped around my head, suffocating me.
Too far, Jasmine. I think, struggling against her grasp, panic pounding against my chest, too far!
“Hey! Let go of her!”
My heart stops. I contort myself to see Jasmine and her friends standing at the base of the hill. It all comes crashing down on me. If she’s not the one who grabbed me, then I know who is.
I wrap my hand around the arm and tear it away from my head- if only for a moment.
“Run!” I scream.
The undead tries to drag me back into the trees. I dig my feet into the dirt and mud. I kick at its legs, where I can.
I realize that the other kids must be throwing rocks because one slams into my side. Dozens more rain down, but the undead doesn’t cry out once.
I try to pry away. The monster as dragged me so far, I can’t see the hill anymore. I’m lost in the woods, again.
And grandmas not coming to save me.
I clench my teeth. My mind is so fuzzy. Stamina leaks from my body like gasoline, and I’m choking out my final breaths before I fall unconscious.
The crocodile, the hare, the man! Someone in my mind, far, far away screams. My lip trembles, as I close my eyes and search the darkness.
The trees melt into oozing slime. The streams run feverishly hot, like the blood of a dying man. The marsh squelches and burps, dead things emerging from the mud as the tide recedes.
The skin melts off the bone. My head burns. With every step I sink deeper into the swamp. I can’t breathe. I never could.
I can see myself, slumped over in the mud. A strange, unearthly calm has washed over me, soothing the fire and fear that blazes through my soul. I observe my corporeal reflection the same way I observed my classrooms frogs; dissecting every detail.
Everyone has a general grasp of what they look like- black, braided hair and dark skin- objective stuff, what I’m good at. But outside of time, space, and body, my eyes glitter like the night sky above me, and my skin’s the color of trees as the sun sets.
I think, if I hold my breath any longer, a slight breeze will blow me away. If I look down at my hands, I’m afraid there will be nothing at all.
Remember what’s at stake.
The marsh as the sun rises. A cold glass of lemonade on a summers day. Bells ringing and friends laughing.
Flowers bloom with every step. The river cools until its safe to drink. I find that I can breathe again.
I open my eyes.
The undead collapses like a Jenga tower, and falls apart just as easily. I scramble to my feet, away from its broken remains.
Jasmine collides into me, and we both near topple over into the mud. I wince as my wound flares. My feet slip around for a moment before I find solid ground again.
“That thing was going to kill you! Are you alright?”
Her eyes are open so wide, I’m frightened they might bulge right out of her skull. I finagle my way out of her grasp so I can look her head on.
“Blimey,” says an apparently British kid. I remember him from the supermarket- he was the one wearing the tie-dye shirt. Benjamin was his name. At the moment, he’s on the verge of fainting. He sloshes past me- splashing more mud than is due- and staggers to a halt. “Jasmine,” he said, his voice wavering, “come get a look at this.”
Jasmine scowls and plugs her nose, as those she’s about to dive right in. She’s barely made it past me before she screams.
“Quiet.” Both me and the other boy- Gabriel- say. He offers a good-natured smile.
Jasmine turns, paler than ever. “It’s Mr. Havick.”
“What!” Cries Susan, the final member of the crew. She looks incredulous. Even in the dark, I can tell she’s frowning, like she’s already dismissed Jasmines analysis. “Lemme see.”
The four of them examine the now-dead-undead for several minutes, silent aside from the occasional murmur of dismay.
Jasmine straightens, “It’s him alright.”
“It can’t be!” says Susan, “Why would Mr. Havick try to murder some random kid? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s him alright.” Benjamin whispers. Both girls fall silent. Jasmine drops her arms to her side and inclines her head. Gabriel starts to cry.
“If it makes you feel better, he’s been dead for some time.”
All four of them whirl around to face me, as thought they forgot I was there.
“No! That does not make things better! Not in the slightest!” Susan yells. She storms towards me, and maybe it would’ve been more intimidating if she wasn’t a full six inches shorter than I am. “And he’s not dead! We just saw him walking around like a… like a…. very much alive individual!”
“Oh my god! Did you resurrect Mr. Havick, and he tried to kill you because he was angry for making him a zombie?”
“No, shut up Jasmine.” I say. I push Susan aside and kneel beside the body. It is undeniably human, which might explain why he was so much more difficult to dismantle compared to the alligator.
But was he the one who tried to drown me? Did he send me the album? Why?
“Who was he to you?”
They hesitate to answer. But finally, Gabriel pitches in. His voice wobbles like jelly as he speaks, “He was our science teacher. He disappeared three days after you arrived in town.”
I bite my lip. There’s a pang in my chest, one I’m not used to.
“There were others too.” Jasmine volunteers, “On and off for years. We became a ghost town.”
“He was the first one in years to vanish.” Gabriel says.
“But you haven’t told us what you have to do with it yet.” Susan says, “He was very clearly alive moments ago, and it certainly wasn’t our rocks that got him.”
I decide not to reply to that thinly veiled accusation- only, Jasmine does it for me.
“She didn’t kill him! He was already dead!”
“Oh my god,” Susan snaps, “You’re an idiot! Get a grip, girl. You’re lunatic brain nearly got us murdered by our serial killer science teacher, and now you want to tell me he’s actually a zombie?”
“He is!” Jasmine insists, “And she’s a necromancer!”
“I’m calling the cops.” Benjamin says, fishing through his pockets for his phone.
I bite my lip, wondering if I should stop him.
“We’re going to be in so much trouble,” says Susan, “Out late at night, found with a dead body and a witch-girl. I should’ve never listened to you.”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Jasmine yells, “Our science teacher was murdered!”
“Yeah! By her! But now, we’re all implicated!” She frets.
“I didn’t kill him.”
She whirls to face me, “Oh yeah? I suppose he just happened to drop dead, then.”
I shrug, Jasmine interjects, “She did the same thing with the alligator!”
“Are you implying witch-girl can kill things with her mind?”
“Jasmine,” I say through gritted teeth, “Do me a favor and cut out your tongue.”
My head is killing me. I can barely keep the girls’ fight straight.