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The flowers close in and push me toward him, rough, leafy hands scraping across my neck and cheeks, cinching my hair at the scalp so I can’t lean away. He smiles, so close that I feel the heat of his breath on my face.
“I won’t let you,” I insist. “I won’t let you into my world.”
“Too little, too late,” he murmurs against my humming skin. “By the time they find your body, I’ll already be there.”
Find my body? I want to scream but can’t even manage a moan from beneath the leafy hand clamped across my mouth.
Morpheus stands, his duster’s hem swirling at his ankles. He settles his hat in place, gestures to the flowers, then transforms into the moth that haunts my memories: black wings, blue body—the size of a bird.
The vines drag me down, and the mud surrounds me like a syrupy, sticky fist. All outside sounds grow muffled. I’m left with only my heartbeat and my whimpers, nothing but vibrations contained by vocal cords and a cage of ribs.
It’s impossible to open my eyelids, my lashes plastered against my cheeks so tight they can’t even flutter. Each article of clothing constricts, as if a layer of glue adheres them to my skin. I’m paralyzed. Not only physically but mentally.
It’s too tight … too constricting. The claustrophobia I thought I’d defeated a year ago comes back in a crashing wave.
Pitch-blackness. Dead silence. Helplessness.
I struggle not to breathe, terrified the mud will enter my nose. It seeps inside anyway, filling my nostrils. I gag at the squeezing sensation in my lungs as the sludge fills my body.
I attempt to thrash, move my muscles, but barely manage more than a spasm. My efforts draw the mud tighter around me like quicksand.
My heart pounds and panic prickles my nerves.
Don’t do this! I cry out in my head to Morpheus. I never thought he would take it this far. Like a fool, I believed him when he told me he cared for me.
How will killing me fix things? I try to reason with him. But the logic goes to work on me, instead. Morpheus doesn’t do anything without a reason. He’s trying to push me into action. He expects me to free myself.
Morpheus! I scream in my mind once more. My raging pulse echoes back.
The swollen pressure in my lungs is agonizing. Tears burn behind my eyelids but can’t escape. My body aches from tensing against the muddy walls. I’m dizzy and confused.
Exhausted, I start to give in to drowsiness. It’s safer there, where there are no feelings … no fear.
My muscles relax and the pain numbs.
“Would you fight back already!” The shout inside my head rouses me.
I tense up again. How? I’m trapped.
“Be resourceful.” Morpheus's voice is softer now, gentle yet prodding. “You are not alone in the mud.”
Of course I’m alone. The zombie flowers slithered away after they pulled me down. No doubt they’re on the surface now, laughing with Morpheus. The only thing sharing my tomb are the bugs burrowing around me.
All these years I’ve been listening to their whispers. Yet I never once tried to talk back, to really communicate. Maybe they’d be willing to help, if I just reach for them.
It takes little more than that thought, that glimmer of hope, and a silent plea asking them to dig me out, for something to puncture the mud around me.
Bugs and worms creep along my legs. The pressure eases, and I’m able to wiggle my ankles. Next, my wrists find movement. Finally, my arms and legs are free, and I dig, working my way through the sludge.
Up, up, up. The mud becomes fluid, and I swim my way out. Then something goes wrong. The bugs and worms make a detour and fill my nasal passages. My throat clogs with the creeping, slithering sensations. I gag, my windpipe stretching to accommodate their bodies.
Morpheus shouts again: “Fight … fight to live! Breathe. Breathe!”
But it’s not Morpheus yelling. It’s Jeb. And I’m not digging out of a sea of mud. I’m surrounded by water, wet skies, and paramedics. Something other than bugs is being shoved down my throat. I gasp, sucking in oxygen through a tube. Next thing I know, I’m on a gurney covered with sheets and being rolled toward an ambulance. I shiver. My soaked lashes flutter, the only part of my body that isn’t aching too much to move.
Jeb’s face hovers into bleary view as he hunches alongside me, fingers entwined with mine. His hair drips on my forearm. His eyes are red, either from crying or from fighting the flood. “Al, I’m sorry.” He nuzzles my hand, sniffling. “I’m … so sorry.” Then he chokes to silence.
I want to tell him he’s not responsible, but I can’t speak with this tube in my throat—and it wouldn’t matter. Jeb doesn’t remember who Morpheus is. He would think I’m having an oxygen-deprived delusion. So instead of trying to answer, I surrender to unconsciousness.
I have the sense of something touching the birthmark at my ankle and a rush of full-body warmth. Then I wake up in a hospital room.
A window stretches across the wall on the right side. Sunset filters through the blinds, settling in a pink haze over a rainbow of beribboned Get Well balloons, stuffed animals, flower arrangements, and potted plants on the ledge.
Everything else is colorless. White walls, white tiles, white sheets and curtains. Disinfectant and the fruity notes of Mom’s perfume waft around me, blending with the scent of the lilies on the windowsill.
The fresh-cut flowers grumble about their vase being too tight around their stems, but my mom’s voice drowns them out.
“He has no business hanging around every day and night,” she says. “Go out in the hall and tell him to leave.”
“Would you stop?” Dad answers back. “He saved her life.”
“He’s also responsible for nearly killing her. She wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place if he hadn’t taken her there for”—Mom’s voice lowers, but I can still hear it—“God only knows what they were doing. If you don’t tell him to go home, I will.”
Jeb. I jerk, only to have an IV tug at the tender skin of my hand. A sense of confinement rolls over me, reminding me of the mud. Fighting the sick turn of my stomach, I attempt to ask my parents to take the needle out, but my throat is on fire. The tube that was shoved down my windpipe is gone now, but it left its mark.