All around, images slid past. Her last thought was of drowning in a tube of liquid fire.
The next thought came as a bit of surprise, because Chloe was certain it’d never happen again: she was still breathing. And something was clenching her waist tight enough to make her squirm with discomfort. Survival instinct kicked in for one final chance to gain the advantage and she twisted against the grip.
A new surprise came in the shape of an arm and a voice behind her, in her ear. It insisted that she calm down. A deep voice, laced with anxiety. In the several seconds it took to gain readjustment, she realized it was Cort who held her thus, face down, flat against the ground, and almost completely beneath him.
If the previous moments hadn’t been so dire, she might not have objected.
“I’m fine!” she practically shouted, and wrenched herself to get out from under him. He rolled away.
“Careful!” he told her, tone half-scolding. “I don’t mind close calls, darlin’, but that’s too close!”
Cheeks burning, Chloe pulled her knees up under her and covered her head with her arms. Panic gave way to a bright surge of fury, but what she was angry about she couldn’t guess, except maybe embarrassment and fear.
A hand fell on her shoulder and the wash of comfort that diffused those emotions were even more confusing. How could a person who made the blood spin in her veins be so reassuring?
“Are you okay?” He asked once more. “Chloe, you gotta speak to me. Are you alright?”
She lifted her head enough to reply, “I’m not hurt. Just…shocked.”
A few more intakes of air to steady her, and she sat upright. Cort got to his feet and retrieved his hat. Onyx padded toward them, chewing with nonchalance on a piece of grass. The field around them went on with its own placid business, as if there had not been a black hole that opened up to swallow her.
“Are you really okay?” he asked again, standing in front of her. He held out his hand.
“Not to sound petty, but I’m getting asked that once too often around here,” Chloe snapped, and got to her feet without his assistance. She didn’t trust that she’d be able to hide her reaction to his touch.
“Sorry,” she muttered, seconds later. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to take offense.
“I just landed on you pretty hard. I was worried I’d hurt you,” Cort apologized, running his hand through his hair. “Chloe…what the hell just happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” she replied. She looked at the spot where the vortex had erupted. The necklace was nowhere in sight. Nothing around her gave any indication that something weird and powerful had just tried to suck her into a black hole. “Is this normal for the Point?”
Cort shook his head.
“Great,” she muttered.
“I’ve seen some pretty bizarre things, but this is the first time the Point tried to…well, I dunno….”
Chloe sensed that Cort was someone who was not usually at a loss for words and being flummoxed was not a good feeling for him.
“What did you see?” she asked.
He fixed her with a piercing stare.
“You were fading. I can’t describe it any other way. It was like there was this…fog…and you were caught in it, and you flickered and faded, strugglin’ against something. You were beginning to…” he faltered, as if describing what he witnessed would offend her, “disappear.”
Chloe considered that for a moment. She’d been struggling to breathe so other sensations had been shunted aside in favor of getting air back into her lungs. But there was, in the back of her mind, the idea that the vortex was doing more than cutting off her oxygen. It was taking her someplace she would never be able to leave.
She shuddered and Cort stepped forward, concerned. She held up a hand to stop him.
“I knew if I didn’t grab you somehow, you’d…well, it wouldn’t be good,” he concluded.
“I’m glad you’re a fast thinker, then,” Chloe replied.
“Fast enough, I suppose,” he remarked. “Tell me what was going on with you.”
“Me? Oh, well, all I did was pick up a necklace. It was something I had put in my suitcase to bring here. A gift from Tina and John. I thought it was weird that it was out here in the middle of nowhere, when I know it had been packed. But strange things happen in car wrecks, right? Then, when I touched it, this thing…vortex started pulling at me. I was getting sucked into something. And I couldn’t breathe.”
Cort didn’t look appeased. She didn’t feel any better about it herself. He turned to her, expression full of questions, but she knew by the sweep of his gaze the primary question was still there.
“We should go back,” she said hastily. “Before the trees decide to pick us up and throw us.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, as he returned his hat to his head. “Tina and John’ll want to hear about this. Especially about that necklace.”
“You’re right. They’re gonna love hearing how the Point tried to excommunicate me. Again.” Chloe said, darkly. “I should just call it a nice attempt and go home…”
“No. Something else is going on,” Cort said. “And don’t let it chase you away,” he added, this time catching her by the arm. She hoped he didn’t notice the way her breath caught. She had to really refrain from stepping into his personal space. “I think it has to do with that necklace.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Point has a way of handling things. If it doesn’t like something…”
“It doesn’t like me,” she said, and her breath caught for another reason. Cort distracted her by giving her one of the sweetest smiles she’d ever seen.
“If John and Tina didn’t want you here, you’d have never been allowed close,” he reassured her. “What makes you think the rest of us wouldn’t like you here?”
“The Point, huh?” She scoffed after a few seconds. Any minute now, she’d start crying or throw her arms around him. “You talk like it’s some kind of entity.”
“I’ve been here long enough to figure out there’s more to this place than the obvious,” he replied cryptically. “Kinda odd, though, that John and Tina would give you something that would spell trouble.”
The visitation by Jane Long and her advice came roaring back. Chloe stuck her hand into one of her jeans pockets and pulled out the pebble. She’d stowed it there this morning when she got dressed, the dream of yesterday evening still strong in her mind. Was that the reason why…?
“Well, I’m getting a mite bit hungry, myself,” Cort interrupted her thoughts. He whistled at Onyx, who ignored him. “We can get back faster if we ride.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve used up the bagel I had this morning,” she said, and her stomach growled on cue. She returned the pebble to her pocket. If that was a good luck charm, she was going to need it.
Cort had to take the horse’s reins to get the creature moving again. Chloe watched him readjust the fittings and check the saddle, as if there were trouble looming there as well. He finally turned to back to her.
“If you…” he began, and then cleared his throat. “If you don’t have plans this evening, would you join me for dinner?”
“Oh.. at the Tavern?” she replied, remembering the Point Tradition of Social Introduction. “Sure. I was planning to show up for a little bit, anyway, just to say hello to everyone. I know I’ve been anti-social, but I think everyone will understand. At least I hope they….”
“No.” The tone in his voice was direct. “Just you and me.”
Chloe stared, mouth slightly open. It wasn’t the most gracious way to react, but she was caught off guard by the idea that someone of the male persuasion would want to individually spend time with her. How long had it been since that happened?
“Of course, if you have other plans,” he added, calm, cool, and collected, but his hand reached up to smooth back strands from his face again, a dead giveaway to prepare himself for the worst. Instead, his hat came off and he fumbled with it a bit. There was a moment where Chloe wondered if he would let her run her own fingers through the mop of wavy, sun-streaked hair. “Tina and John probably have something planned for you.”
“No, no other plans,” she replied, her heart rising up in her chest. He was asking for a date! “That would be nice. I’ll meet you for dinner.”
“There’s a bench right outside the hotel, if you’d can meet me there,” he went on and Chloe nodded in agreement, certain that if she opened her mouth, the tell-tale heart would fall out.
Onyx was none too happy to be pulled away from the tasty field treats nearby. She grinned widely as Cort talked nonsense to the beast to coax him away, but cast one last look at the spot where her necklace had disintegrated. There was nothing left. Gone. In all honesty now, she wasn’t upset at losing it.
Wasn’t going to be fun explaining it to Tina, though, she thought.