There was something in her hair. A bug, or a piece of string tickling against her scalp. Harlene’s arms flailed, hands immediately combing through the deconstructed strands of what was once a tight French twist. The tickling thing brushed across the tops of her knuckles, and she ducked down, a high-pitched shriek tearing through her throat and reverberating through barren trees. Overhead, a branch bobbed, and though she knew it was the culprit, that it had been the source each time it happened, she couldn’t shake the feeling, the sensation of something crawling in her hair.

And like spider-walking fingertips up the inside of her thigh…

Hand slapping the top of her leg, the sting pulsed into a consistent itch and the abrupt crack of flesh on fabric made her ears ring. She burrowed her head into her right shoulder, hoping to stifle the sound, but all that did was muffle the high-pitched, enduring clang and draw attention to the unnatural, eerie silence of that place.

9035438_sThat was the only thing she knew about it: It was a place. How she’d come to be there, she couldn’t say. Whether or not she would ever get out, a mystery. One minute she’d been rifling through Mrs. Wilmington’s linen closet, stretching up onto the tips of her toes to retrieve the Egyptian cotton sheets—1000 thread count, even though Mr. Wilmington told his wife a thousand, thousand times those higher thread counts were a marketing ploy, and the highest number of true threads that could be woven into decent, durable sheets was just around 400 threads—when she slipped and went sprawling the neatly stacked piles of towels and old sheets.

She expected to hit her head, had even dropped her arms down to try and catch and maybe shield herself so that didn’t happen, but there was nothing to hold onto, nothing to break her fall at all. She went spiraling and tumbling downward through some kind of chute, sliding into that dark and eerie world where the sun hung like a silver Christmas ball behind the same black cloud, an unreachable mountain of bones towered in the distance, and all the trees were claws raking the dreary sky.

She must have bumped her head at some point, and the barren world around her was the resulting illusion. It was the only explanation. Several times she felt through her hair when trying to swat away the crawling things for the nasty goose egg she was going to have when she woke up, but there was no lump. No bruise.

She should have been grateful for that, after all, there was nothing worse than a goose egg, but the absence of reasonable explanation only worried her more. Hours passed, several of them, and she was growing convinced she was never going to wake up. She ran and ran, but the scenery never changed. She screamed and begged, her voice echoing through that voided place until she swore her ears would bleed from the sound, but no one ever answered. She pinched her own arm, the way they always did in books and movies to wake up from a really bad dream. She pinched so hard the skin nearly peeled away, but she never woke up.

She only walked onward, toward the Christmas ball sun and the towering bones she wanted to climb. She was sure she’d see the other side from atop the mountain, maybe find a way out if she could just reach higher ground. But she never arrived. She just kept walking, even when she was too weary to take another step, even when she felt the crawling things tickling up her thigh and into her hair.

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