Shades and shadows slithered over and around her, trailing wisps of damp air, sticky-sweet honeysuckle, and the acrid smell of rotting leaves. Her heart pounded, and she grunted with exertion, struggling to get through the tangle of vines, knowing--even in her sleep--what she would find when she broke free. The crumpled body lay half in, half out of the water, eyes stretched wide with horror, mouth open in a scream no one could hear.
In her nightmare the body was always there.
Emily Wood's mother twisted, reaching from the front seat of the car to clutch Emily's knee. "Wake up, love," she said, her voice filled with concern. "You're having a bad dream again."
Emily gasped for breath as she opened her eyes to the overbright early-afternoon sun that flooded the car. In spite of the air-conditioning, she was clammy with sweat, and her mouth felt dry and fuzzy. She struggled to sit upright, pushing back damp strands of the curly, pale hair that had fallen over her face, and willed the familiar nightmare to vanish from her mind.
Mrs. Wood's face sagged with worry. "Emily, if you would only tell us about the dream and talk about why it frightens you . . . perhaps if we found a good therapist--"
"It's only a stupid dream, Mom. It doesn't mean anything. I don't want to talk about it. I just want to forget it."
"But this nightmare has recurred ever since you were a little girl, and now you're sixteen--almost seventeen. Isn't it time that--"
Emily's father, Dr. Robert Wood, quickly glanced from the road, then back again. "Let it go, Vicki," he said softly. "We're almost there."
Mrs. Wood swung forward, ducking her head and burrowing her shoulders into the contoured padded leather of the passenger seat. "I was only trying to help her," she complained, as if Emily couldn't hear. "She has never let me help her. It's like her hair. If she just let me take her to a good stylist . . ."
Emily didn't respond. She was tired of trying to explain to her mother that talking about it would make the nightmare more real. The bad dream had first popped into her mind, terrifying her, when she was much younger. Had she been eight? Ten? And every now and then it would unexpectedly reappear. The dead body . . . the blood on its face . . . the sickening smell of too-sweet honeysuckle blossoms. Emily was completely puzzled about the nightmare and what it might mean. She had never told anyone what she saw in the dream. She was sure she never would.
The car slowed and turned into a wide drive under an arched sign that read camp excel.
Emily made a face. Camp Excel? Who did they think they were kidding?
Her mother sat upright and, in what Emily thought of as her let's-all-be-in-a-happy-mood voice, began commenting about the beautiful rolling hills and the bursts of gold black-eyed Susans and pale Queen Anne's lace that dotted the roadside. Her father added a few enthusiastic comments about the beauty of the Texas Hill Country in contrast to the flatness of Houston, but Emily slumped against the backseat, unable to believe what was happening to her.
It had been no surprise when teachers had labeled her an underachiever. The surprise was that anyone expected her to do any better. Her oldest sister, Angela, had aced every test she'd ever taken. She'd been valedictorian of her high school graduating class and was now among the top ten at Harvard Law School, planning some day to join their mother's law firm. Monica, next in line, was also valedictorian. She had chosen to follow in their father's medical footsteps and attended the University of Southern California, majoring in premed.
Angela and Monica gave speeches, led programs, and walked across stages to win honors and medals. The idea of trying to match what her sisters did, in rooms filled with eyes staring at her, terrified Emily. Content to disappear in any crowd and in any classroom, Emily was comfortable being little known and hardly ever noticed. She didn't even mind being classified as an underachiever, if that was what it took to be invisible.
Emily suppressed a sigh, wishing everyone would just leave her alone. It was plain bad luck that her tenth-grade guidance counselor had called her parents, excited about Camp Excel, a new, intensive six-week experimental summer program for students who were not performing to their abilities.
"It certainly wouldn't hurt to send you, darling," Mrs. Wood had announced at the dinner table. "Nothing else--rewards . . . tutors . . . praise . . . Nothing we've tried has helped." She had tucked a loose strand of her light, gray-streaked hair behind her ears and had smiled encouragingly at Emily. "According to Mrs. Carmody, Dr. Kendrick Isaacson has developed an absolutely marvelous summer program to help underachievers learn to do their best. He's gaining fame among both psychiatrists and educators."
"I never heard of him," Emily had said. "I bet you didn't, either, until Mrs. Carmody told you about him."
"Of course I have. His field is psychology. Patty Foswick, my friend in Dallas, has raved about him and urged me to take you there for an evaluation. But I realized that Dallas would be too far away for you to do any extended work with him, but in the Hill Country resort they're using for the summer school--"
Emily's father had interrupted. "Is he in private practice?"
"No," Mrs. Wood had answered. "He's one of the founders of the Foxworth-Isaacson Educational Center in Dallas."
Emily had dropped her fork with a clatter, her fingers suddenly unable to hold it. For an instant she was numb, unable to see or breathe or think.
"Emily?" she'd heard her father ask from a long distance away. "Emily? Is something the matter?"
Gripping the edge of the table, Emily had forced herself to take a deep breath. As she'd felt her mother's hand clamp onto her forehead, she'd opened her eyes. "I--I'm okay," she'd said. "For a moment I just . . ."
She couldn't finish the thought. She had no idea why she'd suddenly felt a horrible fear rush through her body. It didn't make sense, so there was no way she was going to say anything to her parents about it. She'd repeated the words over again in her mind, The Foxworth-Isaacson Educational Center. Had she heard the name before? She had no recollection of it. So why had it made her so afraid? Emily could find no explanation.
"She isn't running a fever," Mrs. Wood had said, and had taken her hand away. "But did you see, Robert? The color absolutely drained from her face. I thought she was going to faint. Is there some new virus going around Houston?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary," he'd answered.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Nightmare by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 2003 by Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.