PRW Runner-Up Tour: Unnatural by Sam Hardy
He holds me tight, his breath tickling my skin and his teeth on my neck. I’m trapped beneath him, one hand in his hair and the other grasping at his shirt because there is nowhere else I can put them, and there is no place I would rather be. His body is hard and warm against mine, his lips rough; he moves up my neck, to my mouth, and bites, sucking on my bottom lip before kissing me properly. Finally.
I pin him closer, wanting all of this, and I feel him smile against my mouth. It only spurs me on; our actions become heated, our wants driving us over the edge and bringing us so close… so close…
Then he moves, and leans back to hover over me. He keeps his face just a couple of inches above me, teasing me. “What?” I murmur.
“Wake up, Snow,” he whispers, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. It scares me. “And run.”
The panic jolts me awake; I find myself back in my room, alone in my own bed, as though none of my night had actually happened. And it never does; they’re dreams, every single one starring him is a dream, starting off so good and then the fear comes and wakes me. He always tells me to run. I don’t even know my imagined lover’s name.
The cry of my name is what has me getting up; at least I try to. The energy it takes just to sit up is almost too much and I fall back onto my elbows, using my hands to push me to the edge of the double bed and using the post to get to my feet. I wobble, the action making nauseous and causing my eyes to blur for a moment. With every effort and willpower driving me, I manage to get to the desk and the mirror that sits on it; I grasp the sides to keep myself up and look at myself.
I have always been pale, ever since birth, but this is not natural; my skin has become sickly, a grey tinge to my cheeks, my eyes is bloodshot and I have lost weight. Too much weight. No one will tell me to my face, so I tell myself – I look terrible, I look like Death is knocking on my door and is waiting for me to let him in. And I do not know why; I haven’t a clue what could be causing this, or why, but I do know that it started with my dreams.
If only I could tell people when they asked if I was okay, but who would believe the idea that inappropriate dreams about another boy were making me so ill? I don’t even believe it. There must be another, more rational, explanation for my condition. I just have to look harder.
“I’m coming!” I yell back, wincing as I hear my throat croak. It feels like I’ve rubbed my insides raw with sandpaper.
I push myself away and get dressed; I know they’re connected with my illness, but I wish I could return to my sleep – I feel safer in my dreams.
Breakfast is a quiet affair, same as every other day; I sit at one end of the table, my step-mother sits at the other and after each saying good morning, we eat in silence. I try to pretend that nothing is wrong with me by putting food onto my plate; it’s not much, a slice of toast and some scrambled egg, and I don’t think I can keep that down. I pick at the toast, eating the moist, buttery parts in small pieces and leaving the crusts on my plate. I’m halfway through my toast and have had a couple of forkfuls of egg when my step-mother chooses to speak to me.
“I have called the doctor, she’ll be here in an hour to look at you,” she says monotone.
I honestly can’t remember use saying a word to each other since my father died a year ago. He was always the one who kept us talking, and that was always directed at him, never each other. I can only nod in response.
I don’t want the doctor to come, to give me the same words as last time – I don’t know what is wrong with you, Gawain. Here’s medicine that won’t work and try to get a good night’s sleep.
I admit, they may not have been her exact words, but that is all I heard. I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell her that a good night’s sleep seems to be the problem.
She says nothing more and after another bite, I excuse myself and wait in the sitting area for the doctor. The room is spacious and light and quiet, not the uncomfortable silence that exists whenever my step-mother and I are in the same room; it’s… nice. I spend my time reading, hoping it’ll calm my nerves and clear my head, help me to think and figure out what is going on with me.
Only I don’t get that far; I’m two pages in and have barely met the hero when I feel my eyes droop and all I see is black.
I doubt I’ve been asleep for very long when I’m shaken awake. I look around, confused as to where I am for a minute. Seeing the doctor watching me surprises me more than it should have; has it been an hour already? I also find myself disappointed; I shouldn’t be, I shouldn’t want a person who only exists in my head as much as I do, but I hate that I didn’t dream of him while I slept in the sitting room. I didn’t dream at all.
“How are you feeling, Gawain?”
“I’m okay,” I mutter sleepily. I don’t try to get up, not this time.
The doctor sits beside me on the edge of the couch, her puzzlement soon becoming worry as she examines me. It’s the kind of worry that has me genuinely fearing for my health; I’m not wondering what’s wrong, what’s wrong is becoming painfully obvious – I’m dying.
Run. His voice comes back, haunting me and warning me.
“You’re getting worse, Gawain,” she tells me, reluctant to give me the truth. Maybe she doesn’t want to tell me until she knows why it’s happening, or maybe she hopes she doesn’t have to because she’s going to find a way to stop it; I’m just glad she doesn’t say the words out loud.
“Are you taking your medication? Are you sleeping properly?” she demands gently.
I nod. I think it’s a nod. “I take it every day as prescribed and I go to bed at a reasonable time and I sleep through the night.”
And I dream.
“I don’t understand,” she mumbles, checking me over again. We share the same concerns. She pauses to process a thought she has, nodding determinedly and watching me intently when she knows what to say. “I’m going to give you a stronger dosage, I’ll bring it by tomorrow, and I’m going to make you an appointment for further tests. They should tell us what’s wrong.”
“Okay,” I answer because I don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her I don’t believe they’ll help.”Thank you.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.” The doctor places her hand on my face and smiles reassuringly, but her eyes tell me differently. “Get some more rest, Gawain. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I do as I am told; I don’t hear her leave the room.
The sun is starting to set when I wake up and I still didn’t dream of him; I can’t believe that she let me sleep, there is usually a list of chores for me to do, and being ill doesn’t stop that. They tire me out, it’s part of the reason I go to bed so early. Her letting me sleep all day is not normal; I pull myself up off the couch and go looking for my step-mother. I don’t particularly want chores, especially now, but I am hungry and if she has me making dinner at least I can make something I like and might be able to keep down.
The best place to look is always my father’s old study, which she took over the day after he died. The thought of going inside brings back memories I’ve tried so hard to force down, bringing my heart rate up alarmingly; I haven’t near the room since he died, hated myself for not being with him that die. He wasn’t meant to die, not that die, not for years; the doctor said his heart just gave out. And I should have been with him, but had chosen instead to go out.
Maybe my illness, whatever it may be, is my punishment.
Taking deep, quick breaths and hoping I only have to go to the door, I turn the corner… and stop. The door is already open, her voice harsh and soft. I have to strain to hear her, have to peer into the room just to see what’s happening. She’s talking to someone, someone who isn’t there – all I see is a mirror, smoke circling it from inside and no face that I can see, just a voice. It’s male, that much I know; it’s a low hiss, unrecognisable to me. He’s making my step-mother angry.
“Why is it taking so long?” she snaps at him, pacing the room. Her back is to me and with the mirror full of smoke, I’m allowed me to watch unnoticed. “It should be over now.”
“Patience, it’ll be over soon enough; he is dying, is he not?” the voice whispers to her.
What? No, this can’t be. I have always known that we would never get along, but to want me dead is something I have never considered. To have someone do it for her is even worse, somehow.
“How long until Gawain dies?”
“A day, two at most,” he replies.
A day. I will die in a day. I step back, more and more until I’m pressed against the wall furthest from her and the magic mirror. I need to go, that’s all I tell myself, I need to go. He can’t kill me if I’m not here, he can’t touch me if he can’t find me. I need to go before he finishes his poison.
Run. His voice comes back, loud and clearer than ever; my warning. Yes, I need to run. So I do. I sneak away, leave my belongings and head for the door. Then I run and I don’t look back. It’s a lot of effort, almost too much for me thanks to the poison already running through my body, but I don’t let myself stop, not for a moment. I push on through, past the estate’s gates, through the village and into the trees that surround my hometown.
Only when my lungs are constricting in my chest and my legs are burning, do I stop. It’s not by choice; I can’t keep myself up any longer. I can’t see; dots blind me and I fall to my knees. I roll onto my back, watch the moon shine over me and shut my eyes; I’m lost in the woods, hidden by the dark and all I can do is sleep.
In my dreams, I’m strong again, healthy. My skin is still pale, but a normal white rather than a sickly grey; my hair is black as nice and soft, not straw-like and dying; my lips a full and red. My knees don’t buckle and my hands don’t shake. And he is here.
His skin is paler than mine, which I never thought was possible; his hair is light brown, creating a golden shade when the sun hits it. He is unnaturally beautiful and all mine. I wish he is real every night. His hand, cold against my skin, brushes my cheek and I lean against it. He hovers over me, as he always does, and lowers his head to mine; it’s my turn to move back before he can seduce me.
“What?” he asks, our roles reversing tonight.
“What’s your name?”
I need to know; something is coming and if this is the last thing I will ever know, I’ll be happy. I just need to know him.
“Lucius,” he whispers and I know that tone from somewhere. No…
He kisses me, his lips softer than ever before, his touch gentle. I stay still, my fear returning faster on this night than it usually does. I can’t bring myself to stop what’s happening, though I know my dream is turning into a nightmare. And I know the ending.
“How did you find me?” I ask, gasping for breath as reality and nightmare come together.
Lucius cups my cheeks. “I’ll always find you, Gawain.”
“But you told me to run,” I sob.
“Well, I didn’t want her to kill you,” he says, as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“Saving that job for yourself?”
He laughs softly and lowers me to the ground, shaking his head. “Oh, I’m not going to kill you, Gawain. You have my word.”
He kisses me until my world goes black.
Lucius hovers over Gawain’s sleeping body, listens for his faint heartbeat. The sun is barely beginning to rise and soon the snow that fell in the night will melt, leaving no trace of their encounter behind. Lucius sits for a while, watching the boy he’s come to know so well; he might honestly be sleeping, but Lucius knows better – he didn’t take Gawain’s entire life force, he couldn’t, so now he will lie comatose, unable to move or age or die. But not fully alive either.
To say he is sleeping will work for now, but it is not true. You can always wake from a sleep. Gawain will never wake.
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