As soon as I walk into the party, I know that it’s going to suck.
I tug at my leather biker jacket – the product of one of those kismet moments in an op shop which makes hours of fruitless searching worthwhile – and fold my arms defensively across my chest. Tilly has darted back outside to double check she’s locked her car, and there is no way I’m venturing any further without her.
I’m not even really at the party yet. The narrow hallway in front of me is empty, except for a rack of coat pegs on the wall covered in the sort of pick n mix spread of fashion choices you see when young adults share a house. There is a red tartan bomber jacket hanging from its huge hood, trimmed with fake black fur. There is a full-length, leather duster which looks like it would fit more appropriately in The Matrix than an Auckland flat. And there is a pink, fluffy pea coat in a fleecy material which strongly reminds me of something I might have spurned when I was 11 and thought I was too cool for pink.
I shuffle from foot to foot, peeling the soles of my shoes from the sticky floor and then setting them down again. Clearly libations have already been poured to honour the party gods. Inhaling deeply and holding the sweet, hoppy smell in my nostrils, I make an inexpert diagnosis of beer spillage. Yuck.
Leaving my feet to adhere more comprehensively to the floor, I cock my head, absorbing the sounds of the party echoing down the hallway. Under the clatter of numerous competing voices, there is the deep thump of bass which instantly prompts a matching throbbing in the back of my skull. The song is probably something every other 17-year-old in the world knows. Of course, I’ve never heard it before. I sigh deeply.
“Now, now,” Tilly chirps from behind me. “None of that. You’re not allowed to give up before you’ve even spoken to anyone.”
I turn to her, a sticky ripping noise coming from one of my boots as I free it from the floor to pivot. “I’m just getting it all out now,” I protest. “Look,” I paste a smile on my face. “I’ve got my party face on, see?”
Tilly gives me an assessing look. “We might need to work on that,” she says dubiously, swinging her shiny black hair over one shoulder. I am caught for a moment by pure jealousy as it cascades down her back like a waterfall. I shove my own hair out of my face, the curly brown mop doing its best to expand to full helmet style in this damp, chilly weather.
Tilly clomps over to me and grabs my arms just above the elbows, pulling me in for a pep talk. I look into her brown eyes – wide set in her delicate, Taiwanese face and animated as usual by a mischievous pixie energy – and brace myself.
“Elle,” she says in a tone that is part encouragement, part rebuke. “We are going to this party. There are going to be lots of hot uni guys here. That means, intelligent. That means, mature. Not like the usual idiots we have to deal with at school.” I stare at her, wondering why she would think this is some sort of incentive for me.
“It’s going to be fun,” she says firmly. “You are going to have fun. I am driving, which means you get to drink.” She winks at me. “Lower those mile-high inhibitions of yours.”
It is taking every spare iota of will I have not to roll my eyes. Tilly gives me a sharp look, knowing me well enough to feel the rolled-eyes-that-weren’t. “You can’t just hide in your house studying,” she says for the millionth time. Why not? I want to ask her. What’s wrong with studying hard? I’m investing in my future. I don’t, though. I know she’ll just say I need balance or something.
She steps back, spreading her arms in appeal, warming to her theme. “You can’t keep denying the badass inside of you. You have to give her a chance to shine.”
“Okay, okay,” I interrupt her, unable to listen to the rest. “Consider me psyched and ready to go. I am amazing. I am awesome. I get it.”
Her eyes sparkle as she smiles wryly. “Well, someone’s full of herself all of a sudden.”
I can’t help it, I roll my eyes at this point. “Don’t you want to look for Jake?” I ask, looking for a distraction.
Tilly’s whole demeanour changes at this magic word – her new boyfriend’s name. Her eyes gleam with excitement. “Just promise you’ll try?” she asks, pulling out her phone and quickly checking her reflection in the screen.
“I promise,” I lie solemnly.
Tilly sighs, but has clearly decided that she’s done all she can. She wipes a smudge from under her eye, runs a hand through her hair again, and slides her phone back into her bag. Forgetting the lecture, she gives me a cheeky grin. “Shall we?” Momentarily infected by her enthusiasm, I grin back and follow her as she practically dances down the hall and into the chaos of the party.
My grin quickly fades as we emerge into a packed room crowded chock a block with arty student types. People are everywhere, and the room is vaguely smoky, which I absolutely hate. Holding on to my arm, Tilly darts through the bodies, forcing me to squeeze along behind her, and hones straight to a guy I assume must be Jake. He is holding court with a large group. She bounces up to him and his face lights up. He seems genuinely delighted to see her.
I eye him speculatively. This is my first time meeting Tilly’s new man, and I try to match him to one of the coats I saw earlier. He doesn’t seem arty enough to pull off a pink fluffy number. Is he the bomber jacket or the duster? He’s currently wearing shorts and jandals despite the cold, paired with a plaid shirt.
Tilly kisses Jake and shouts my name, grabbing me by the hand and pulling me over. Jake gives me a classic Kiwi grin and leans in for a cheek-bump-kiss. He puts an arm around Tilly’s shoulder, and she glows up at him. I smile, basking in the warmth of their connection. Tilly is my best friend in the world. Putting aside her irritating desire to prise me out of the warm cocoon of my largely solitary existence, I do love her like crazy and I’m really happy she’s found someone nice. Now I just have to convince her that I don’t need to do the same.
Jake embarks on a round of introductions that I can barely make out over the din of voices and music. I do catch the word ‘flatmate’ as he gestures to a girl who has a couple of eyebrow piercings and is wearing a lot of ripped black denim. I decide she’s owner of the duster. That makes Jake either the bomber or maybe a chronic ‘a jumper will be fine’ type.
I nod and smile as I’m introduced around, waiting a friendly – but precise – three minutes before excusing myself. “Grab yourself a drink!” Jake shouts at me, clearly trying to make good with Tilly’s best mate. “There’s punch in the kitchen!”
The kitchen is only marginally less full than the living room, but I’ve decided I need to have at least one drink so Tilly thinks I am making a real effort. I duck and smile apologetically as I make my way over to the gigantic bowl of punch by the sink. I grab a plastic cup and fish a sticky ladle out of the bowl, trying not to grimace. I fill the cup to the brim and turn to search for a quieter spot, keeping my eyes down and hoping not to be drawn into any conversations.
However, my tactic fails spectacularly as I collide with someone heading for the punch bowl.
“Whoa,” he says, leaning out of the way as liquid spills out of my cup, just missing him.
“Sorry,” I say, grimacing with contrition and trying to angle my shoulders so I can slide around him. The guy plants his feet, and I realise that he has actually approached me, not the punch bowl. My heart sinks.
“No worries,” the guy says, giving me a cheerful grin. He’s only just taller than me, a bit lanky, with dark blonde hair and light, freckly skin. He seems friendly enough, which is bad news for me. It’s going to be really hard to get rid of this one, I can tell.
“My name’s Nick,” he says, and waits for me to introduce myself.
“I’m Elle,” I say reluctantly. “I’m friends with Tilly. Jake’s girlfriend.”
“Ah, great!” Nick says, as though my being friends with Jake’s girlfriend is some sort of brilliant achievement. “I play rugby with Jake.”
I try to keep the surprise off my face, given his size, but Nick notices. “I’m scrum half,” he says defensively.
I blink at him. “Oh,” I say lamely. “I thought the scrum was pretty… rough?” I realise as my voice tails off that I have said exactly the wrong thing. Nick’s face animates as he realises that he has a potential convert on his hands.
“Yeah, but the scrum half isn’t in the scrum,” he explains. “So, you’ve got your hooker, right, and then your props…”
Nick launches into a full description of all rugby positions, the ideal physical proportions for each, with references to current and historical All Blacks for good measure.
Okay, I was right. This is officially the worst party I’ve ever been to.
I take a deep swig of the punch, and feel an ache in one of my teeth from the intense rush of sugar. The good news is it is slipping down my throat easily. The bad news is I have no idea how much alcohol is in this.
Nick pauses for a breath, but before I can use my pre-prepared bathroom excuse, he’s off on a new tangent of who the best-ever All Black was. “I know most guys will say Jonah Lomu or Richie McCaw, but I think for me it’s got to be Beauden Barrett. He’s just so light on his feet…”
I’m halfway through the punch by now, and am enjoying a faint buzzing sensation in my head. I take another large sip. It doesn’t even taste bad, really. I think there might be pineapple juice in there. I swig some more, just to test my theory. Yep. Pineapple.
Nick is now describing some of Barrett’s best plays, to ‘prove his theory’. “And then, he just pops the most delicate kick, right, just pops it right past the defensive line…”
I go to take another sip and realise that the punch is all gone. Whoops. Well, we are still right by the bowl…
I reach past Nick and refill my cup. He barely even notices, his hands moving in the air, representing players as he recreates the pitch for me. I sip from my refreshed cup and wonder idly how long Nick can sustain this conversation on his own. There is now a tingling sensation in my arms, and my head is a little fuzzy. I pause for a moment, wondering if I should stop drinking, and then decide that it can only make the situation better. I lift the cup to my lips and tip more punch down my throat.
Nick is now using his whole body to re-enact Barrett’s try in slow motion. A couple of other people had drifted over to get punch and have somehow been dragged in to play the part of opposition players attempting to tackle him. At this point, I’m actually quite impressed by Nick’s wholehearted commitment to this play by play.
Nick sways to one side, pointing out the misdirection to me over one shoulder as he steers the girl in front of him to the other side, his empty beer can clutched to his side in lieu of a rugby ball. I nod sagely in response, but as Nick slowly pretends to dive to the ground in the final triumphant motion of the try, my vision flickers slightly. Nick’s blonde hair is suddenly replaced with a blonde ponytail. I close my eyes and rub them, then open them again. Everything looks normal for a moment. Nick is grinning and bowing.
And then some other guy says – “Nah, mate, you’re joking, that wasn’t his best try…” and Nick is turning to him, arguing, and I swiftly grab the opportunity to back quietly away.
I pad through the house, passing groups of partygoers leaning against doorways and sitting on couches. My limbs feeling vaguely disconnected, as though they might float away. What the hell was in that punch?
I find a door to the backyard and let myself out, passing a few shivering smokers. The cold, damp air does little to revive me, the buzzing in my head stronger than ever. I lower myself into a wooden outdoor chair, my pulse thrumming in my veins.
And then –
I’m not in the backyard anymore –
I don’t know where I am –
Something takes hold of me, and I leave my body behind, thrust headlong into a waking dream of some kind.
I enter the vision as the first shadow sweeps over her. I find myself floating high above her, a pair of disembodied eyes looking down on a lithe blonde girl about my age, running swiftly and steadily through the brisk dark night.
A small smile plays over her face as her feet pound the dirt; she seems to take pleasure in the exercise, the movement.
Her rhythm is quick but steady, her breath shooting out in controlled bursts, fogging the chill air like dragon’s smoke. She starts the steep ascent up the hill, slowing only slightly. Her hands remain loose as she swings her arms, pushing up the slope. Satisfaction sparks in her eyes as she drives her body upwards, careless of the strain. Everything about her is alive. Dynamic. A bird in flight.
Another shadow darts past her, on her left side. This time it catches her peripheral vision, and she turns her head slightly, but she sees nothing amiss and does not break her stride. She is nearly at the crest of the hill now and appears to set her mind to the final climb.
The next shadow skims behind her, and a moment later she shivers, as though feeling the draft. She reaches the top and shivers again, her shoulders shuddering with the strength of it. She slows for a moment and shakes her arms out, dancing in place, looking around her. Again she almost catches a glimpse of a shadow sliding to her right, but then it is gone, and she is alone on the hilltop. There is nothing for miles. Still, her intuition is kicking in; her face shows the first dawning of fear.
She looks up to the sky, where the full moon hung just a moment ago, but the clouds have rolled in, smothering it completely. Her eyes widen, the unease in them deepening. She takes a shaky breath, as if to calm herself, but it doesn’t seem to help. She looks back over her shoulder –
And sees one –
Then, two –
No, three shadows, darting over each other, roiling, crackling with sinister energy.
She freezes for a vital moment and then stumbling, turns to flee.
I am her.
I feel my long legs fly under me, feel the frigid air on my cheeks, feel the grass underneath my pounding feet. My hair streams behind me; my breathing is not coming so smoothly now, but in fits and stutters. My heart thunders in my ears. I don’t dare look back.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see another shadow dart past my right side. I am starting to panic now, gasping, pushing my legs as fast as they can go down the hill, running much faster than is safe down a slope this steep.
The gravity of my descent drags me forward and I am accelerating beyond a speed I can control. As I near the bottom of the hill one of my feet catches a stray root and I fall, careening head over heel, feeling the harsh shock of earth against my elbows, skin stinging –
But I am up again, ignoring the pain in my knees and the trickle of blood I feel from my eyebrow –
I can’t stop –
I jerk my head to check behind me, wheezing, only to see that more shadows have joined the storm behind me. It’s close – too close.
I yank my head to the front, lurching forward.
My heart leaps into my mouth.
Ahead there is another storm, even larger than the one behind, with shadows gliding over each other like a bottomless pit of snakes, slithering and sliding.
I careen to the left, breath coming in sobs, my face wet with tears. I run toward the forest, adrenaline urging my feet to fly faster than they have ever gone before.
I slow for a moment to look behind – I can’t help myself – and the shadows have massed together, a squirming cloud of terror.
I don’t scream. I don’t have time.
I thunder into the forest, crushing ferns under my feet and dodging trees. But I can feel the darkness behind me. It’s catching up.