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At first, Kimberly Sumner thought it was the thunder that had awakened her.
Her eyes fluttered open and she listened. The steady ‘chirp’ of crickets and the distant rumbling of thunder were the only sounds that met her ears.
A draft of cool air fluttered the drapes, bringing with it the soothing scent of summer rain.
When her elbow bumped Gary, she started, then relaxed. She had almost forgotten he was there. She watched him for a moment. He slept on his left side, facing her.
His mouth hung open, and the outflow of his breath caused the hairs of his mustache wave back and forth in an almost comical fashion. One arm was tucked under the pillow, the other reached toward her.
She was just about to crawl underneath the safety of that arm when the noise that had awoken her shattered the night again.
This time there was no mistaking its source. It was Lynn and she was screaming.
Kimberly bolted out of bed and raced down the carpeted hallway to her seven-year-old daughter's room.
Lynn thrashed in her sleep, the covers tangled around her small frame. For a moment, Kimberly felt incapable of moving beyond the threshold. It was as though her bare feet were glued in place.
Lynn's body was contorted at an odd angle, as though she were suffering a seizure. Her long, blonde hair fanned out over the bed, tendrils of it matted to her red and sweat-soaked face.
Her lips and eyes were squeezed shut as though someone had thrown her toward a cold lake and she was preparing for the unpleasant, but inevitable splash.
Then, those locked lips parted and another scream ripped out of her, punching Kimberly in the gut.
Unglued now, Kimberly's feet took her to her daughter's bedside. Her hands, shaking now, worked desperately at the sheets, which were wound so tightly, they felt like springs.
“Lynn!” Kimberly cried. “Lynn, honey, it’s Mommy, wake up honey, wake up.”
Somehow winding herself deeper and tighter into the sheets, Lynn screamed again.
“No! No! Mommy! Daddy!”
Fighting with the sweat-soaked sheets, she managed to free one of her daughter's hands and was immediately rewarded with an errant blow to the breast.
Ignoring the sudden jolt of pain, Kimberly managed to slide on arm around Lynn's back, and continued to work at the sheets with the other.
“Baby, wake up, it’s Mommy. It’s just a bad dream, honey. Wake up. Wake up!”
“No! No! No! Mommy! Where are you?” Lynn howled in her ear, tears leaking from her still-clenched eyes.
As Kimberly forced her daughter's shaking, flailing body against hers, she felt the heat from Lynn’s skin burning into the silk fabric of her nightgown.
“Lynn.” Kimberly trained her wavering voice into a stern tone she rarely had to use with her daughter.
“Lynn!” Kimberly yelled through clenched teeth. “Lynn, wake up right now!”
“Shadow!” Lynn shrieked. “Shadow!”
Lynn was then seized by a sudden fit of violent, hacking coughs that seemed to shake her to the core. Then, as though suddenly deflated, she let out a sigh and sunk her against her mother, body completely limp, lungs hyperventilating, heart racing like a Jack rabbit's.
“Lynn,” Kimberly said. “Lynn, honey, can you hear me?”
The sudden and eerie silence settled upon them both; a living thing. In the distance, thunder rumbled as Kimberly slowly and carefully unwound her child from her prison of bedclothes.
She tilted her daughter's chin upward, smoothing the matted hair out of her eyes. Lynn was a naturally fair-skinned child, but her pallor now was gray, sickly.
No response. Not even a flutter of an eyelid.
Kimberly took her by the shoulders and gently shook her.
"Baby, wake up."
Her voice cracked. It sounded more like a whimper than a command.
She shook Lynn's limp frame again, harder this time.
"Lynn! Wake up!"
She shook her again.
She was screaming now, her tone bordering on hysteria.
Her daughter's pink lips parted and worked. A soft whisper imparted what might have been two unintelligible words.
Kimberly held her breath, leaned in, and took her daughter's face in her hands.
"Baby, what are you trying to say?"
Silence. Another rumble of thunder.
Leaning in closer, she studied Lynn's features. The long eyelashes clumped with dried tears, the round cheeks splotched with red, the tiny freckles on her nose, her bow-tie pink lips, clamped tight once again.
Kimberly had a momentary flash of seeing her daughter for the first time. As soon as that perfect little infant had been placed in her arms, the grief of not being able to give birth to children of her own melted away. In that instant, all she felt was love. Complete, overwhelming, and fiercely-protective love.
Kimberly's eyes welled with tears as she looked into this face now.
"Honey, wake up."
Closing her eyes, allowing the silent tears to fall, she pressed her forehead against Lynn's.
Lynn's body suddenly went rigid and Kimberly jerked away. She found herself staring into wide, glassy eyes. Lynn's mouth unhinged and dropped open.
Kimberly was reminded of a hiking trip she'd been on during her Girl Scout years. The troupe had come upon a black rat snake, honoring its namesake by working its jaws around a still-squirming rodent.
Mouth open to jaw-cracking capacity, Lynn's neck stiffened and a ripple worked its way upward. At first, Kimberly thought her daughter was going to vomit.
Then two words escaped on a raspy wave of breath, the voice seeming to emanate from deep inside an underground tunnel: