The rhythmic plod of hooves on grass woke Bliss up. She ignored the question her brain posed, and tried to recapture the fog of sleep before it scattered. Then her bladder woke. Willing it to wait, she reasoned that she was too warm, too comfy to get up and go to the toilet. At the thought of a toilet, her bladder gave an internal high five.
With a sigh, Bliss opened her eyes.
For a second she thought she must be dreaming. Then she wondered if her other dream had been a dream. Maybe Salty really had reared and hit her in the face, knocking her out, and this was her jolted brain’s way of coping. How else could she explain the silver bay horse that carried her on its back, or the people walking beside her?
She lifted a hand to her face, her bladder grudgingly taking second place to the more urgent need to make sure her nose wasn’t plastered to her face. It wasn’t. She breathed a sigh, then frowned. Maybe she was still unconscious.
Her movement drew the attention of the horse, which stopped and looked back at her. One by one, the people walking stopped, their gazes bouncing between her and something behind her. She turned to look, and nearly fell off the horse. The boy with the dark hair and purple eyes stared back at her, his arms full of clothes he hugged to his chest, his mouth working, but no noise coming out.
He took a few steps towards her, then stopped. The clothes in his arms moved. Her hand going to her mouth, Bliss realised that they weren’t just clothes, that he held a small child to his chest. A familiar sensation traced a cold finger down her spine, buried its nail in her lower back.
Sliding from the horse, she walked to the boy, her gaze on the face she could see peeking out from the jacket cuddled around it. A little boy, his dark hair matted against his cheeks, his orange eyes tinged with pain. She reached out a hand, and smiled when he curled cold fingers around her thumb.
Running her free hand across his forehead, her fingers tingling over bumps and scratches, she sighed, glad they were only minor injuries. The nausea in the pit of her stomach told her one of them, if not more, had serious injuries.
Sick of being put off, her bladder kicked, making her suck in a breath.
‘Are you okay?’ The boy holding the young child frowned down at her.
So many things fought to bounce off her tongue. ‘I need to pee,’ leapt out before she could clamp her teeth shut.
His frown deepened, his head slowly shaking.
‘She needs the toilet.’ A girl with bright pink eyes and black hair that glinted blue in the sun, stepped up to stand beside the boy, her hand resting on his arm.
Bliss swallowed and looked away. Just because he’d smiled at her in her dreams, and now centred in this bizarre black out she was having, didn’t mean she should feel jealous of another girl touching him.
Besides, as soon as she went to the toilet, her brain would kick in, wake her up, get her to really go to the toilet, then go back to sleep, and hopefully not dream anything else for a while.
‘I’ll just...’ She hooked a thumb behind her where the track they followed melded into golden stalks of grass that stood a foot taller than her. No one stopped her as she walked into the forest of grass. Ten steps in, and she had a moment of panic. What if she couldn’t find her way back? ‘I don’t need to find my way back,’ she said. As with all her “need the toilet” dreams, she would wake with a jolt, either in hospital, or still in bed.
The panic rose once more and settled in her chest, knocking against her heart, as her bladder sighed a relief at finally being emptied. Righting herself, she looked up at the clear blue sky, breathed in the heat, coughed, took a step forward, realised she had to turn around, and didn’t catch the panic before it hit her lungs, squeezing them until she could hardly breathe.
Her knees hit the ground, followed by her elbows. Air circled around her, but kept just out if reach of her mouth and nose. The grass pulsed, thunder rumbled, heavy weights pushed at her back, gripped her arms. Then she was lifted off her hands and knees, hoisted up until her feet dangled, her nose inches from another.
‘Breathe,’ the blurry face said. He’d only spoken to her once, but she knew it was him. She tried to focus on his purple eyes, a part of her brain noticing the silver that sparked through them as he frowned at her.
It calmed her enough to drag in a breath, then another, until her vision cleared. Licking her lips, she gave a small nod. His frown stayed as he set her back on her feet, his hands still on her arms as he watched her for a moment.
‘I’m not dreaming, am I?’ she said.
He shook his head, his jaw working as though he chewed gum.
‘I’m not unconscious?’
Another shake of his head.
This time she caught the panic before it tried to explode from her chest. Desperate to get out, the panic pushed its way up her throat. She clamped a hand over her mouth, ran two steps, then fell to her knees again.
Warm hands combed her hair from her face and held it back as the panic heaved its way out her mouth. Rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around her waist, she knew tears rolled down her cheeks, knew she looked a mess, but didn’t care.
She wasn’t dreaming, wasn’t unconscious. Dead could be another option, but she knew that wasn’t it either.
Snapshots of her dreams flicked through her mind, seeing the purple eyed boy, thunderstorm, the weird clear ball that had come into her room and taken her away…
‘That wasn’t a dream.’ She stopped rocking. As much as it didn’t make sense, it made sense. ‘A ball took me from my bedroom, and brought me here.’ She looked up at him.
He didn’t look at her, instead, his gaze skipped around her left shoulder. Then he gave a slow shrug, spread his hands out in front of him, and opened his mouth. ‘I had no idea this would happen.’ He looked at her then, eyes wide, cheeks flushed. ‘Forgive me.’
Bliss didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what she should be forgiving, or why. She tried to ignore the bigger question, but it poked at her tongue until she opened her mouth to let it out. ‘Where am I?’
The boy rubbed the back of his neck and looked at the sky. ‘We need to find somewhere to sleep.’
‘You’re not going to tell me?’ She stood up, the panic sharpening into anger, settling in the pit of her stomach.
‘I will tell you.’ He started walking, looking over his shoulder at her. ‘But we are all exhausted, hurt, scared, and confused. The little ones are nearly asleep on their feet.’
Bliss didn’t move.
He stopped and turned towards her, his hands shoved in his pockets. Or, she noticed for the first time, what was left of his pockets. She’d been so immersed, again, in her own little hell, that she hadn’t taken in anything other than he was the purple eyed boy from her dreams. Now, as she noticed the darkness under his eyes, the tightness of his shoulders, the dust in his hair, blood on his shirt, she covered her mouth with her hand.
‘What happened?’ She stepped closer to him, reaching for his bloodied hand.
‘They attacked our school, blew a hole through the middle of it.’ He shook his head slowly, letting her examine his hand.
‘I promise to answer all your questions as best I can, but I have to get everyone to safety first.’
She let go his hand, satisfied he wasn’t hurt, and sighed. The icy fingernail lodged in her spine wiggled, reminding her of the pain she’d felt from those around her. Whatever had happened to bring her here, wherever she was, she couldn’t do anything about it now. She could do something about those hurt by the attack the boy spoke of. ‘I’ll help you.’
He gave a single nod, turned, and made his way through the tall grass.
‘What’s your name?’ she said, keeping an eye on her feet, as well as his back.
‘Stix.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘What is yours?’
‘Bliss.’ She felt like she should shake his hand, but didn’t. They stepped back out onto the track. The horse stood where she’d left it, its tail swishing at flies, one back foot resting, a makeshift harness she hadn’t noticed before dangling around its neck.
Three small children sat in the shadow of the horse, their faces smeared with blood and dirt, eyes drooping. Bliss went to them, squatting beside them as she gently ran her hands over their backs. Fear rippled at her fingertips, making her palms sweat. Other than minor scratches and dragging tiredness, she found no injuries on the three.
‘We need to go.’ Stix stood beside her. ‘I’ll help you onto Sox.’ He nodded towards the horse.
Bliss shook her head.
‘He won’t hurt you.’ Stix put his hand on the thick neck, the horse turning its head to look at her.
‘I know.’ She picked up one of the children, the little boy with orange eyes, and sat him on the horse.
Seeing what she was doing, Stix picked up the next child, a little girl with pink hair and green eyes, and sat her behind the boy. Bliss lifted the last one up, a boy, smaller than the other two, his yellow hair matted, and sat him in front of the first boy.
‘You hold onto him, okay?’ She waited until the older boy wrapped his arms around the younger one, then turned to
Stix. ‘I just need to check everyone.’