xvi. time

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	— Obey

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— Obey. You will obey. —

I lifted my hands to cover my ears. The voice rang loudly around me, reverberating off the trunks of trees larger than my house, bouncing back and shaking me to my core. A nausea that I never knew could exist threatened to pull me under. It was as if every molecule in every bone in my body was vibrating with pain: I couldn't escape the voice.

— Obey. —

I can't! I can't do it!

Tears streamed down my face. Images of everyone I cared about flashed in front of me, shimmery and staticky like a bad hologram. I saw Harlow, my mother. I saw a younger version of my father, all ear-flapped fishing cap and flannel. I saw Earl. Another face flickered into existence, but I couldn't make it out through my shuddering tears. It melted away into silver, dripping onto the damp forest floor and pooling like mercury, hissing where it met organic matter.

... Don't worry, Jenna, baby. The Everything is a home for broken souls. ...

It burned.

I screamed so violently that I could feel the delicate flesh of my throat rip and bleed, turning my stomach as the irony tang of my blood made its way there. I clawed at my restraints, my soft patterned duvet and knit blankets, the flood of tears blinding me. Suddenly I was on the floor, pressing my face to the musty wood there and wailing into the grains.

A light flicked on in the hallway, throwing a thin line across the space just beneath my door. I heard heavy footfalls slam against the floor just outside my room. My cries had simmered into hiccuping intermittent sobs, and soon a gentle pair of hands were turning me over, pulling me up, lifting me into someones lap.

"Hey, honeybunch, it's just a dream — just a dream," careful hands caressed my hair, smoothing it, tucking it behind my ears. "I'm right here with you. You're safe, Jennacakes, you're safe."

I sucked in a huge lungful of Harlow's coconutty musk, another sob ripping from my chest. I pressed my face into her sleep-plaited hair, letting the ribboned end tickle my nose.

"I'm not a monster," I warbled out, barely comprehensible in my weeping. "I'm not a monster, Harlow, I'm not."

"Shh," Harlow soothed, wrapping her arms tighter around me. "How could you be anything close to a monster, babycakes? You're honey on biscuits and a warm cup of coffee while the sunrise turns the world to gold. Never a monster."

I sobbed again, squeezing my eyes even tighter shut.

"What's going on, Jenna?" My mother stumbled into the doorframe, and I winked my eyes just open enough to see her glare at it, rubbing her eyes sleepily. Her eye mask hung around her throat, and upon seeing my distress, she rushed to Harlow's side.

"I think it was just a dream, Winn," Harlow murmured, softly humming the tune to a gentle song I didn't know.

"Oh, sweetie, nightmares again?" My mother pressed her palm to my cheek, stroking small circles on the delicate skin there. Her brows were slanted in worry, and her lips pursed as if she wanted to say more.

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