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Dark Angel (Chapter 2)

Everything was freezing confusion. Her head was under water and she was being tumbled over and

over. She couldn't see, couldn't breathe, and she was completely disoriented.

Then her head popped up. She automatically sucked in a huge gasp of air.

Her arms were flailing but they seemed tangled in her backpack. The creek was wide here and the

current was very strong. She was being swept downstream, and every other second her mouth seemed

to be full of water. Reality was just one desperate, choking attempt to get enough air for the next breath.

And everything was so cold. A cold that was pain, not just temperature.

I'm going to die.

Her mind realized this with a sort of numb certainty, but her body was stubborn. It fought almost as if it

had a separate brain of its own. It struggled out of her backpack, so that the natural buoyancy of her ski

jacket helped keep her head above water. It made her legs kick, trying to stand firm on the bottom.

No good. The creek was only five feet deep in the center, but that was still an inch higher than Gillian's

head. She was too small, too weak, and she couldn't get any kind of control over where she was going.

And the cold was sapping her strength frighteningly fast. With every second her chances of surviving

dropped.

It was as if the creek were a monster that hated her and would never let her go. It slammed her into

rocks and swept her on before her hands could get hold of the cold, smooth surfaces. And in a few

minutes she was going to be too weak to keep her face above water.

I have to grab something.

Her body was telling her that. It was her only chance.

There. Up ahead, on the left bank, a projecting spit with tree roots. She had to get to it. Kick. Kick.

She hit and was almost spun past it. But somehow, she was holding on. The roots were thicker than her

arms, a huge tangle like slick, icy snakes.

Gillian thrust an arm through a natural loop of the roots, anchoring herself. Oh-yes; she could breathe

now. But her body was still in the creek, being sucked away by the water.

She had to get out-but that was impossible. She just barely had the strength to hold on; her weakened,

numb muscles could never pull her up the bank.

At that moment, she was filled with hatred- not for the creek, but for herself. Because she was little and

weak and childish and it was going to kill her. She was going to die, and it was all happening right now,

and it was real.

She could never really remember what happened next. Her mind let go and there was nothing but anger

and the burning need to get higher. Her legs kicked and scrambled and some dim part of her knew that

each impact against the rocks and roots should have hurt. But all that mattered was the desperation that

was somehow, inch by inch, getting her numb, waterlogged body out of the creek.

And then she was out. She was lying on roots and snow. Her vision was dim; she was gasping,

open-mouthed, for breath, but she was alive.

Gillian lay there for a long time, not really aware of the cold, her entire body echoing with relief.

I made it! I'll be okay now.

It was only when she tried to get up that she realized how wrong she was.

When she tried to stand, her legs almost folded under her. Her muscles felt like jelly.

And … it was cold. She was already exhausted and nearly frozen, and her soaking clothes felt as heavy as medieval armor. Her gloves were gone, lost in

the creek. Her cap was gone. With every breath, she seemed to get colder, and suddenly she was

racked with waves of violent shivers.

Find the road … I have to get to the road. But which way is it?

She'd landed somewhere downstream-but where? How far away was the road now?

Doesn't matter… just walk away from the creek, Gillian thought slowly. It was difficult to think at all.

She felt stiff and clumsy and the shivering made it hard to climb over fallen trees and branches. Her red,

swollen fingers couldn't close to get handholds.

I'm so cold-why can't I stop shivering?

Dimly, she knew that she was in serious trouble. If she didn't get to the road-soon-she wasn't going to

survive. But it was more and more difficult to call up a sense of alarm. A strange sort of apathy was

coming over her. The gnarled forest seemed like something from a fairy tale.

Stumbling… staggering. She had no idea where she was going. Just straight ahead. That was all she

could see anyway, the next dark rock protruding from the snow, the next fallen branch to get over or around.

And then suddenly she was on her face. She'd fallen. It seemed to take immense effort to get up again.

It's these clothes… they're too heavy. I should take them off.

Again, dimly, she knew that this was wrong. Her brain was being affected; she was dazed with

hypothermia. But the part of her that knew this was far away, separate from her. She fought to make her

numbed ringers unzip her ski jacket.

Okay… it's off. I can walk better now…

She couldn't walk better. She kept falling. She had been doing this forever, stumbling, falling, getting up.

And every time it was a little harder.

Her cords felt like slabs of ice on her legs. She looked at them with distant annoyance and saw that they

were covered with adhering snow.

Okay-maybe take those off, too?

She couldn't remember how to work a zipper. She couldn't think at all anymore. The violent waves of

shivering were interspersed with pauses now, and the pauses were getting longer.

I guess … that's good. I must not be so cold—–

I just need a little rest.

While the faraway part of her brain screamed uselessly in protest, Gillian sat down in the snow.

She was in a small clearing. It seemed deserted-not even the footprints of a ground mouse marked the

smooth white carpet around her. Above, overhanging branches formed a snowy canopy.

It was a very peaceful place to die.

Gillian's shivering had stopped.

Which meant it was all over now. Her body couldn't warm itself by shivering any longer, and was giving

up the fight. Instead, it was trying to move into hibernation. Shutting itself down, reducing breathing and

heart rate, conserving the little warmth that was left. Trying to survive until help could come.

Except that no help was coming.

No one knew where she was. It would be hours before her dad got home or her mother was…

awake. And even then they wouldn't be alarmed that Gillian wasn't there. They'd assume she was with

Amy. By the time anyone thought of looking for her it would be far too late.

The faraway part of Gillian's mind knew all this, but it didn't matter. She had reached her physical

limits-she couldn't save herself now even if she could have thought of a plan.

Her hands weren't red anymore. They were blue-white. Her muscles were becoming rigid.

At least she no longer felt cold. There was only a vast sense of relief at not having to move. She was so

tired…

Her body had begun the process of dying.

White mist filled her mind. She had no sense of time passing. Her metabolism was slowing to a stop. She

was becoming a creature of ice, no different from any stump or rock in the frozen wilderness.

I'm in trouble… somebody… somebody please…

Mom …

Her last thought was, it's just like going to sleep.

And then, all at once, there was no rigidity, no discomfort. She felt light and calm and free-and she was

floating up near the canopy of snowy boughs.

How wonderful to be warm again! Really warm, as if she were filled with sunshine. Gillian laughed in

pleasure.

But where am I? Didn't something just happen-something bad?

On the ground below her there was a huddled figure. Gillian looked at it curiously.

A small girl. Almost hidden by her long pale hair, the strands already covered in fine ice. The girl's face

was delicate. Pretty bone structure. But the skin was a terrible flat white-dead looking.

The eyes were shut, the lashes frosty. Underneath, Gillian knew somehow, the eyes were deep violet.

I get it. I remember. That's me.

The realization didn't bother her. Gillian felt no connection to the huddled thing in the snow. She didn't

belong to it anymore.

With a mental shrug, she turned away-

-and she was in a tunnel.

A huge dark place, with the feeling of being vastly complicated somehow. As if space here were folded

or twisted-and maybe time, too.

She was rushing through it, flying. Points of light were whizzing by-who could tell how far away in the

darkness?

Oh, God, Gillian thought. It's the tunnel. This is happening. Right now. To me.

I'm really dead.

And going at warp speed.

Weirder than being dead was being dead with a sense of humor.

Contradictions… this felt so real, more real than anything that had ever happened while she was alive.

But at the same time, she had a strange sense of unreality. The edges of her self were blurred, as if

somehow she were a part of the tunnel and the lights and the motion. She didn't have a distinct body

anymore.

Could this all be happening in my head?

With that, for the first time, she felt frightened. Things in her head… could be scary. What if she ran

into her nightmares, the very things that her subconscious knew terrified her most?

That was when she realized she had no control over where she was going.

And the tunnel had changed. There was a bright light up ahead.

It wasn't blue-white, as she would have expected from movies. It was pale gold, blurred as if she were

seeing it through frosty glass, but still unbelievably brilliant.

Isn't it supposed to feel like love or something?

What it felt like-what it made her feel-was awe. The light was so big, so powerful… and so Just Plain

Bright. It was like looking at the beginning of the universe. And she was rushing toward it so fast-it was

filling her vision. She was in it.

The light encompassed her, surrounded her. Seemed to shine through her. She was flying upward

through radiance like a swimmer surfacing.

Then the feeling of motion faded. The light was getting less bright-or maybe her eyes were adapting to it.

Shapes solidified around her.

She was in a meadow. The grass was amazing- not just green, but a sort of impossible ultra green. As if

lit up from inside. The sky was the same kind of impossible blue. She was wearing a thin summer dress

that billowed around her.

The false color made it seem like a dream. Not to mention the white columns rising at intervals from the

grass, supporting nothing.

So this is what happens when you die. And now… now, somebody should come meet me. Grandpa

Trevor? I'd like to see him walking again.

But no one came. The landscape was beautiful, peaceful, unearthly-and utterly deserted.

Gillian felt anxiety twisting again inside her. Wait, what if this place wasn't-the good place? After all, she

hadn't been particularly good in her life. What if this were actually hell?

Or … limbo?

Like the place all those spirits who talked to mediums must be from. Creatures from heaven wouldn't

say such silly things.

What if she were left here, alone, forever?

As soon as she finished the thought, she wished she hadn't. This seemed to be the kind of place where

thoughts-or fears-could influence reality.

Wasn't that something rancid she smelled?

And-weren't those voices? Fragments of sentences that seemed to come from the air around her? The

kind of nonsense said by people in dreams.

"So white you can't see…"

"A time and a half…"

"If only I could, girl…"

Gillian turned around and around, trying to catch more. Trying to figure out whether or not she was really

hearing the words. She had the sudden gut-trembling feeling that the beauty around her could easily come

apart at the seams.

Oh, God, let me think good thoughts. Please. I wish I hadn't watched so many horror movies. I don't

want to see anything terrible-like the ground splitting and hands reaching for me.

And I don't want anyone to meet me-looking like something rotting with bones exposed-after all.

She was in trouble. Even thinking about not thinking brought up pictures. And now fear was galloping

inside her, and in her mind the bright meadow was turning into a nightmare of darkness and stink and

pressure and gibbering mindless things. She was terrified that at any moment she might see a change-

And then she did see one. Something unmistakable. A few feet away from her, above the grass, was a

sort of mist of light. It hadn't been there a moment ago. But now it seemed to get brighter as she

watched, and to stretch from very far away. And there was a shape in it, coming toward her.

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