On a Dare

Tina Grimes. Aka, Death Hunter or Ghost Breaker. Savior to some, devil to others.

Until now, she refused to share her origin story. When asked, she dismissed the question. Not important.

Now she reveals the story, a story that answers few questions, a short answer on how she got started. Flatly, on a dare.

💀

People often ask me how I got my start. I wasn’t always like this.

In 2003, I was twenty-two years old, Tina Grimes. Not the Death Hunter, the Ghost Breaker. Nothing like the hardened and scarred woman I have become now.

Take highway 101 down the Washington coast. A little way past Raymond, in South Bend. A small fishing town along the Willapa River known for its oysters. That’s where it began, on Halloween night, of all things.

I’d gone there with two of my friends, Brianna and Kayla. The dare was Kayla’s idea. She loved horror movies. Her big idea for Halloween was to dare us to watch a horror movie marathon in an actual haunted house. Just the three of us. And we were crazy enough to go along with it.

How different would things have turned out for us, if we hadn’t dared? Since graduation, we’d been drifting apart and I think we all knew it was one of the few chances we’d have to spend together like this.

And it was hard to resist Kayla.

She was a year younger, a petite pixie of a girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She always said she got her mother’s coloring and her father’s short stature, but she didn’t actually know the truth. She’d never known her parents, orphaned on the way home from the hospital after birth when the car was hit by a drunk driver behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup. Both parents died, and she ended up in an orphanage.

At the time I didn’t understand how she hadn’t ever been adopted. She was impossibly cute, had no end of guys asking her out. She must have been the cutest baby ever, and yet was never at home anywhere.

Brianna, was dark in contrast, with big dark eyes like pools of night. Her hair, too, was a mass of curls that had a mind of their own. She was the tallest of us three, even taller than me at five foot eight. In heels, she might have been striking if she wasn’t so ungainly and awkward, with a laugh like a donkey. Not that we’d ever say that—we loved her and her laugh.

The house Kayla had found stood in the hills above the town, back up a dirt road that switchbacked up the hill. If it hadn’t been surrounded by tall Douglas firs, it might have had a lovely view of the river and the town below. Instead, it was cut off and buried deep beneath the dark branches.

Kayla drove us to the place, hunched up over the wheel of her little red VW Beetle. She kept giggling.

“You’re going to love it,” she promised as we turned into the drive. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”

At last, she turned up a weedy drive, splashing through puddles from the rain the night before. It wasn’t even five o’clock yet, and already dark with thick gray clouds above and the smell of new rain in the air.

The Beetle’s headlights speared ahead, lighting up only trees and a drive that was looking like no one had been up it in years. A thin tree hung across the drive, hung up in the trees on the sides.

In the passenger seat Brianna, twisted her head, leaning forward as the Beetle passed beneath. Safe on the other side, she slumped back into her seat.

Brianna looked at Kayla. “You realize that this is exactly the sort of place that people always go in horror movies and end up stalked by a crazed killer?”

Kayla’s teeth flashed white in the dim interior. “I know! Isn’t it perfect?”

The trees pulled back, only slightly, and we saw the house. I don’t think it was ever a pretty house. It stood two stories tall, the spine of the roof slumped now, shingles covered in moss, branches, and debris. Windows boarded up. Nothing decorative about the place. It was grayed with age and weather.

“Okay, that’s a spooky place,” Brianna said. “I’ll give you that much. It’s also probably full of black mold and asbestos. How about we go back, find a nice motel room and watch movies there? Motels are scary by default.”

Kayla shook her head as she pulled up in front of the house. “No way! This is perfect!”

“It probably leaks,” I said.

“That’s why I brought the tent, just in case,” Kayla said. “We can set it up inside.”

“Really?” Brianna said. “Why are we doing this?”

“I dared you, and you accepted.” Kayla shut off the engine. Darkness swallowed the car.

Brianna laughed, a hitching, nervous laugh. “Uh, guys. It’s like really dark! How are we going to see anything at all?”

A bright light clicked on, shining in Brianna’s face. She winced and held up her hands. Kayla laughed, waving the flashlight she held.

“They’re called flashlights? I’ve got more in back. Come on, let’s get the gear and get inside!”

💀

I don’t know how Kayla got the key to the place, I never found out. I don’t even know how she found it, but she did.

She let us in with a flourish. She threw open the door as if it opened onto a grand ballroom, while somehow holding onto the sleeping bag and tent that she carried. She had the straps from the camp chairs over her shoulders.

Brianna was right. It smelled like mold. Mold and piss and dust. Cobwebs and dust coated the floor and wallpaper peeled on the walls. The entry way was narrow and as gray as the exterior, everything swathed in dust as our flashlights flitted around the entry.

It wasn’t much of a foyer. There was a small space facing a narrow passage straight ahead, and a staircase rising up to the second floor. Off to our right was closed door, and to the left an archway into a front room.

Kayla bounced in and went straight for the stairs. I stepped in front of her, managing to hang onto the sleeping bags, and camp stove that I carried. It was hard hanging onto all of that, and manage the flashlight at the same time.

“Don’t think of going up there.”

She twisted around. “Why not?”

“How long has this place been empty? Let’s see. The stairs might give away. Or the floor. You could get hurt. We’re here, but let’s stay on the ground floor.”

“We can still leave,” Brianna said, moving into the archway. She carried the bags of food in her arms. Her light moving around the room. “There’s no furniture or anything!”

I joined her. She was right. The room was empty except cobwebs, dust, and some leaves. And pitch black except our lights. Another door stood open in the back corner, past the empty fireplace. Even if it’d been light out the room would have been dark with the boarded up windows.

Kayla joined us. “Look, there’s plenty of room. We can set up the tent, if you want. We’ve got camp chairs and the cook stove. Everything we need.”

The front door slammed shut.

We all screamed. Brianna dropped the food in a heap and rushed to the door, her eyes wide. For a second I thought it wouldn’t open. We’d be trapped.

I didn’t drop anything. Instead I was frozen in place, watching Brianna reach the door.

The door opened just fine, hinges groaning. She went out onto the porch, realized we weren’t following and turned her flashlight back on us.

“Why are you still in there?”

Kayla dropped the tent and sleeping bag. “I dared you. Remember what happens if you back out?”

“Oh, come on! The door closed on its own!”

“The wind,” Kayla said.

Brianna waved her arms. “There’s no wind! Let’s go!”

Kayla shook her head. One of the camp chair bags started to slip from her shoulder. She caught it, hitched it up and grabbed the tent. She dragged it through the dust into the empty room.

Brianna looked to me. “Tina, you’ve got to convince her.”

I couldn’t give a reason for it, but I didn’t want to. Between problems with my parents’ health, the prospect of finding a job still bleak months after graduating college, I wanted a fun night away from everything. I wanted to face imaginary bumps in the night with my friends, rather than another day trying to find a job.

I didn’t say that, even if it went through my head. “We took her dare. And I can’t afford to pay up if we back out.”

“This is seriously messed up,” Brianna said.

I smiled. “Maybe it’ll be fun? We’ve got marshmallows.”

“We can make s’mores!” Kayla was already pulling the tent out of its bag.

Brianna took a step closer. Her voice took on a pleading edge. “Really? We’re really going to do this?”

I looked at Kayla and she looked back. We shared something then, something I don’t think either of us was even conscious of yet. This started on a dare, but neither one of us was going to give it up.

How different would things be if we had?

💀

Thirty minutes later the room looked less grim, as long as you didn’t look away from the circle of light from Kayla’s portable DVD player sitting on top of a camp stool, in front of our chairs. The tent was behind us, the camp stove set up in the fireplace. We wouldn’t build a fire, the chimney was undoubtedly clogged from years without maintenance, but the place was drafty enough to risk using the stove indoors.

Kayla unzipped a DVD case holding a bunch of discs in sleeves. She collected horror movies. “What’s first? Friday the 13th? The Hills Have Eyes? Evil Dead?”

Brianna was huddled up in her sleeping back, sitting on the camp chair like a giant purple worm with only her head exposed.

“Don’t you have anything funny?”

“Evil Dead is funny,” Kayla said.

“It doesn’t sound funny.” The sleeping bag rustled as Brianna huddled deeper.

Kayla laughed. “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?”

“I haven seen any of those! You know I don’t like horror movies!”

“I know, but really? None of them?” Kayla laughed again.

I chuckled too, then said. “Let’s go easy on her. Night of the Living Dead.”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” Brianna said.

“Oh, it is.” Kayla flipped through the discs. “And it’s a classic. There’s so many references to it in other movies.”

“Maybe later we can watch Shaun of the Dead,” I suggested. “It’s funny.”

Kayla laughed again and pulled the Night of the Living Dead dvd from its sleeve. She did that with all of her movies, got rid of the packaging and kept them in cases. Easier to move, she said. She’d gotten an iPod earlier that year and had converted her CDs over to MP3s as well. It was only 2003. She never kept much, always ready to move.

Brianna’s gaze moved between the two of us. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you? This is scarier than the others, isn’t it?”

“It’s pretty scary,” I said. I crossed my legs and arms. “If you find being in an isolated old house surrounded by zombies scary.”

Brianna moaned, as Kayla laughed and the movie started.

💀

Half the fun of the marathon was watching Brianna hide her face like a little kid during the movie, and hearing Kayla’s laughter.

We’d watched about thirty minutes of the movie when a board creaked upstairs. Kayla’s laughter died. I sat up in my camp chair, planting my feet on the floor.

“Okay, I didn’t imagine that, did I?” Brianna asked.

We were all quiet. Listening.

“Old houses —” Kayla started to say.

Boards creaked again. The squeak and release of someone stepping on a board, then stepping off again. A footfall echoed through the roof, and another board creaked.

“Ohmygodtheressomeoneupthere!” Brianna said.

Kayla stood up. So did I, and then stopped. The next footstep hadn’t come. We waited, looking at each other in the flickering glow from the player’s screen. The sound effects from the movie weren’t helping.

I pointed. “Pause it.”

Kayla hit the button. The movie froze with Judith O’Dea clutching her head, face twisted.

Quiet settled in around us. I turned away from the light of the DVD player and clicked on my flashlight. The beam lit the dust in the air and hit the peeling wallpaper by the stairs. Nothing moved except those slow-floating motes.

Brianna whispered behind me. “We didn’t imagine it.”

“It’s just the movie,” Kayla said. “It spooked you, that’s all.”

The sleeping back rustled, making more noise than you’d expect. They’re like potato chip bags, except for people. Brianna’s feet were loud on the floor.

“We should go. Come on, it could be some crazy person up there!”

I knot of unease settled into my gut. Maybe there was someone up there. It’d be sensible to listen to Brianna and leave.

“It’s the movie, our imaginations, and an old house,” Kayla insisted.

“Who are you trying to convince?” Brianna asked.

Good question. I twisted around, turning the flashlight on them.

A person walked through the doorway past the fireplace. Walking away_ from us, as if they’d been standing in the room and were leaving. I only caught a glimpse, a bit of a pale arm and a pale leg.

A naked arm. Naked leg. A suggestion of a face with dark eyes, all of it gone before I could move the light over.

My friends saw it on my face when I aimed the flashlight at the doorway. My skin was cold.

“What is it?” Brianna turned on her light, pointing it at the doorway. Her light bounced around as her hand shook. “What did you see?”

“Stay here,” I said.

I didn’t say that I’d be right back as I pushed between them. I at least knew that much.

I also knew we weren’t alone. You’ve all felt it before, the difference between an empty room and one with someone else in it. You don’t have see the person. You can sit in a room with someone else, your backs to each other, silent, and still know that you’re not alone. With the right person, it is comforting.

This wasn’t a comforting feeling. We weren’t alone in the house. If Brianna had seen even that glimpse of what I saw she would have gone running from the house and probably wouldn’t have talked to us again.

She didn’t see it. Neither of them did. Kayla must have suspected something even though she didn’t say anything. She did move over next to Brianna and stood at her side. Both of them had their flashlights on my back so I kept mine down, pointed at the floor.

That’s why, when I turned the corner at the doorway, I saw her feet first. Maggot-pale and dirty, with cracked, bleeding toenails, just the feet at first, caught in the light while the shadows swallowed all but her silhouette standing there in the darkness.

I snapped the light up, catching her square in the face. She screamed into the light, blood-shot eyes wide. Her mouth was a dark, pit lined with bloodied cracked and broken teeth. Stringy hair hung down in mats around her dirt-lined face. The smell was rotten, decayed and thick.

My gut did somersaults and I held my ground the way you stay still when a vicious dog comes at you. Run, and they’ll get you.

“Is there anything there?” Brianna asked. “What do you see?”

The woman ducked her head, reaching up with filthy hands against the light. Her skin was pale beneath the dirt, fingernails as cracked and bloodied as her toenails. Her head twitched and shook. All of her twitched and convulsed with spasms. Her rolling eyes didn’t hold any sanity.

“Tina?” Kayla called. “You’re freaking Brianna out, come on. Joke’s over.”

The woman screamed again, blood-tinged spittle flying from cracked, peeling lips.

No answering screams from my friends. They didn’t hear her. It was obvious. If they had, they’d be screaming too, and running.

I held my ground, holding the light on her. I didn’t know what she was, I was acting on instinct.

“Kayla, Brianna, you need to get outside. Now.”

Kayla laughed. “Come on, Tina. Don’t —”

I turned a hair. Only a bit, still not taking my eyes off the woman, but that was enough. She growled and ran at me, her bare feet slapping the floor.

When she got close enough she shoved me. I reacted too slow to get my arms up. Her momentum knocked my hands aside and hit me low in my chest.

It hurt. My breath exploded out of my mouth. And the force of it knocked me off my feet into the room. I dropped the flashlight.

There was more screaming. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t breathe. Tears stung my eyes. The screams weren’t coming from my attacker, it was my friends.

I rolled onto my side as lights danced in my face. I raised a hand to shield my eyes, trying to see where the woman was.

I didn’t see her anywhere.

“Holy shit!” Kayla crouched in front of me. Her hand touched my shoulder. “Tina? Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

“Please tell me you did that?” Brianna said. “It was a joke, right?”

I sucked burning air into my lungs along with the dust. I started coughing.

“I don’t think she’s joking,” Kayla snapped.

“What are you saying?”

The coughing subsided, but my throat stung. I pushed myself up and found my voice. “You didn’t see her? The woman that hit me?”

“What?” Brianna’s voice rose higher. “That’s not funny!”

“No one’s laughing.”

I got up with Kayla’s help. Brianna’s light hit my eyes again. I raised a hand. “Brianna, not in my eyes!”

“Sorry.” She moved the light.

The woman was standing right behind Kayla. Her eyes locked on mine. She reached around Kayla’s neck like she was going to strangle her.

I grabbed the woman’s wrist.

Brianna screamed. Kayla screamed in my face and jerked away. The woman hissed and grabbed at Kayla’s arm. Her nails raked across Kayla’s skin but didn’t find purchase.

My friends could see her now!

I hung onto her arm. “Who are you?”

She snarled, lips curling in a sneer, and swung at me. I blocked the blow with my arm. Her flesh oozed and split beneath my hand. The smell was terrible. I shoved her away from me.

The woman stumbled back and hit the camp stool with the DVD player. It tripped her and she fell, knocking it over.

Brianna was still screaming. I glanced at her, and when I looked back where the woman had fallen she was gone.

I spun around, searching the dark around us for any sign of her. Nothing.

Kayla went to Brianna and pulled her into a hug. She stroked her hair. Brianna stopped screaming, crying instead into Kayla’s shoulder.

I took three steps to pick up my flashlight and did another sweep with the light around the room. No woman. We were alone.

Kayla looked at me over Brianna’s frizzy hair. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” I surveyed the room again.

Empty. Quiet.

“Get everything together and let’s go,” I said.

Brianna lifted her head, tears streaking her face. “Let’s just go! Before anything else happens!”

Kayla shook her head. “I’m not leaving without my stuff. Help me.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “You two get things together.”

Brianna jumped into action. She grabbed her sleeping bag and shoved it into the stuff sack. Kayla picked up the fallen DVD player.

“The screen looks fine.” She turned it over. “The battery compartment popped open.”

She pushed it back into place and hit the power button.

“What are you doing?” Brianna asked as she scooped food up into the bags.

“I want to see if it’s broken or not.”

“That can wait!”

I was inclined to agree but stayed silent, watching the shadows. The woman had come out of nowhere. It was Halloween night. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was only one explanation I could think of.

She was a ghost.

Brianna pulled the supports free on the tent, letting it collapse in on itself.

“Guys?” She said, her voice quaking. She backed away from the tent.

She pointed her light at the tent. I added my light.

The fabric had fallen down, over the shape of someone lying inside the tent. The bright blue and yellow fabric showed the curves of someone curled on their side.

Kayla still held the DVD player. The screen came to life and O’Dea’s voice rang out, screaming. Kayla hit the pause button and the sound stopped.

A ragged rasping breath noise came from the collapsed tent. The fabric rose and fell with the breath.

Brianna made a high-pitched noise in her throat and broke into her clumsy run. She was making a high keening noise as she ran to the front door.

Neither Kayla or I moved.

Brianna reached the door, opened it and ran outside.

Slowly, Kayla put down the DVD player, closing the lid as she put it on the floor. She pointed her light at the tent as the fabric rose and fell again.

“What is that?” She asked.

I was scared and pissed. Sure, we came out here to have a spooky Halloween night, but this? This was something else.

“Let’s find out.”

“You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”

I shook my head. “Go with Brianna if you want. I want to know what this ghost or whatever it wants. There has to be a reason for this.”

Another ragged breath came from beneath the collapsed tent. A sound like a sob.

“Maybe we should leave it alone.”

I’d made up my mind. The part of me that was scared was pushed down deep inside.

It only took a couple of steps to reach the tent. I didn’t hesitate. I bent down and flipped back the fabric revealing a pale, dirty foot. A decaying stink rose up and the foot kicked, squirming deeper like a grub trying to get out of the sun when you turned over a rock.

I grabbed the foot and pulled. She screamed then, the ghost. She kicked and came out of the tent clawing the fabric away. She came not at me, but at Kayla. Her nails scratched at the floor as she kicked and squirmed, trying to get to Kayla.

I held on and yanked the ghost back. For a ghost, she felt solid enough. My fingers sank deep into her flesh, parting pale skin into the cold oozing flesh beneath.

Kayla moved around her, staying out of reach, but then she crouched, staring at the woman’s maddened face. “Mother?”

At the word, the woman collapsed on the floor. She sobbed into the floor boards and stopped struggling. I let go of her leg.

She vanished.

The instant I let go, she was gone. Kayla looked up at me, her face pale, and in the dim light, I saw a resemblance there to the ghostly woman.

“Where’d she go?” Kayla asked.

I turned, using the flashlight. I got a glimpse of something by the front door and steadied the light.

It wasn’t the ghost. It was Brianna, peeking in through the open door.

“Guys?” Her voice still had that frightened whine. “Come on, please! I don’t have the keys!”

Kayla stood up, her light on me. “Make her come back.”

“I don’t know how.”

She came at me in quick steps, stopping when she was inches away. “That was my mother. How is that possible? Bring her back.”

“I don’t know how.” I looked right back into her eyes. “Why do you say it is your mother?”

Kayla’s eyes flicked away. “I recognize her. I have a few photos. Well, I did. I don’t have the originals, I scanned those. Digital lasts forever.”

“Why is she here?”

“Guys?” Brianna said. “Please —”

The door slammed shut in her face. She screamed outside.

I looked around with the light and didn’t find the ghost, but she was there. Watching us from the shadows. Listening, maybe.

“This was my house. Our house,” Kayla said. “It sold after the accident. It’s had a few owners since then, but they always left quickly. Eventually, it was bought as a rental, and no one wanted to rent it. Then it sat empty. I don’t remember living here, but I wanted to come back and see it.”

Kayla turned away from me, facing the dark. “Momma?”

Upstairs boards creaked again, the clear sound of footsteps.

Kayla took off running. I acted on instinct and chased after her.

“Kayla, stop!”

She didn’t listen.

She was fast for her small size. She got to the stairs before me and ran up the old steps. About the fourth step up, a board cracked but Kayla was already past it and continuing up.

“Guys?” Brianna called from outside.

I didn’t stop. Brianna was out, I was more concerned with Kayla.

I followed her up, keeping close to the wall and the front of the steps where I figured the wood would be stronger. By the time I reached the top, she’d already gone around the corner and the light from her flashlight was fading.

At the top it was easy enough to see where she’d gone. Light came out of one room. There was a sob from that room. I didn’t hesitate. People think I don’t hesitate to go into these situations because of my experience. I don’t think that’s it. You either have it or you don’t. Some people run toward the emergency, others run away. I’ve known plenty of cops with the same response.

Whatever else was going on, my friend needed me.

💀

The room had been a small bedroom once upon a time, lost now to the past. The only thing that remained was a pale, faded and moldy floral wallpaper. Broken glass lay on the floor from the boarded up window, and long dark streaks ran down the wall from the window like tears.

Kayla stood in the middle of the room, her face in her hands, the flashlight pointing up at the ceiling. Her shoulders shook with the sobs.

“This was your room?”

Kayla dropped her hands and turned around, shrugging. “I don’t know! I don’t remember. I thought maybe I would, you know? If I saw it?”

Her mother came through the freaking wall.

If there was any question of her being a ghost, that cinched it. Ordinary decaying people don’t walk through the solid, mold-ridden walls.

And she wasn’t interested in some sort of tear-drenched reunion with Kayla either. She came at Kayla fast, pulling her arm back, fingers like claws.

Kayla didn’t see her and didn’t react.

I jumped forward, and then Kayla screamed, shrinking back from me.

I caught the ghost’s arm and pointed the flashlight at her face.

She screamed and swung her other arm at me. I blocked her strike.

For a ghost, she was solid enough that the blow was hard and painful. It was like being hit with a hammer.

She tried to pull away. I held on. I didn’t dare let go. The last time I let go she disappeared on me. I wasn’t letting that happen again.

When I didn’t let go she went crazy. She screamed. She thrashed and twisted. The skin on her arm tore and my grip slipped.

I dropped the flashlight and grabbed on with my other hand too, gripping her arm in a two-handed grip. I wasn’t letting go.

She kicked and spun and I hung on.

Kayla screamed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Her mother, what was left of her, hissed and lunged for Kayla, clawing with her free hand. She almost got away from me.

I planted my feet and swung her away from Kayla. She slammed into the wall and bounced off. I brought my knee up, hard, into her gut.

Her head snapped up. Her eyes were empty of anything except madness and pain. I twisted her arm around and shoved her at the floor. She fought but she was skinny and dead. She went down with me on top of her.

The stink of dead flesh choked me. She thrashed and screamed beneath me.

I glanced at Kayla. “Get out! I’ve got this!”

For a second, Kayla hesitated, then she ran.

“Mine,” her mother hissed beneath me.

I pressed my knee down into the center of her back, pulling up on her arm. “She’s not. Not anymore!”

The ghost fought to get free. She was strong, slippery and determined. I was just as determined to keep her from following Kayla. Why had Kayla never been adopted? Why did she have such bad luck all the time? Maybe because her dead mother hadn’t fucking moved on?

Sounded right to me. I pulled harder. Bones snapped and the ghost screamed.

Whatever else she was, she still felt pain. My gut tightened. I’d do what it took to stop her from following us.

It took a long time.

Ghost Breaker, they call me. The woman who makes ghosts flesh and fights them. Kayla’s mother was the first one. The first time I touched a ghost and made it solid. Why then? I don’t know. The combination of the house, and Halloween? Whatever the reason, after that night it didn’t go away.

There are no friendly ghosts. Those people, the ones that call me evil? They don’t know. They can’t see, not until I touch the dead. I give the things that go bump in the night substance, and with enough effort, I can break them. Force them to move on.

To where? I don’t know. I don’t see that.

💀

After I was done, tired and sick, I rejoined my friends outside. Kayla wouldn’t talk to either of us. She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric facility a week later for nightmares she couldn’t shake. She’s better now. I’ve checked. We haven’t spoken in years but she seems happy now. Married, two children as beautiful as she is.

I lost a friend that night and it was worth it to save her.

Brianna? That’s a different story.

That’s how it started. I’m Tina Grimes, also called the Death Hunter and the Ghost Breaker. I got my start on a dare.

💀

5,094  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 96th short story release, written in March 2013.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Child of Their Minds.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This Book is Haunted

Librarian Scott Taylor enjoys the quiet at the end of the day. Picking up the books, straightening up, spending a few minutes to get the library ready for the next day.

Books have a way of capturing memories and feelings. And tonight Scott discovers that a connection to a book lasts.

💀

Librarian Scott Taylor paused at the door to give the library one last look before he stepped outside into the October rain. Lights off, night service on, overdue money locked away in the safe, it all looked good except just then he saw someone slip between the stacks back by the mysteries.

“Hello?” Scott let the door close as he stepped back into the building. “Hello there, the library is closed?”

The Pearce Public Library lacked hiding places. From the circulation desk Scott had a clear line of sight down the fiction aisles to the mysteries along the back wall. To his right, the bathroom and the storage room, but the person he’d seen had been going the other way. And they were small. Like it’d been a kid.

Scott frowned. It wouldn’t be the first time a kid ended up at the library at closing without a ride. But they usually didn’t hide in the library. Most of the time he ended up calling their parents and waiting for someone to come pick them up. How any parent could leave a child alone at the library and not be there before it closed he didn’t understand. Especially not these days.

“Hello? Come on out. I need to close up the building. Can I call someone?”

No answer came from the nonfiction stacks. With only five aisles they didn’t have much of a chance of eluding him. Scott listened carefully but he didn’t hear any noises. After closing the library always was so much quieter. During the day, between the computers, the buzzing fluorescent lights, kids that lacked quiet voices and people on cell phones, he could hardly think sometimes.

Scott reached over past the doors and flicked the light switches up. One. Two. Three. Four. The ceiling tubes came on and lit up the library. He walked around the desk and started walking along the aisles. The kid didn’t have anywhere to go now that he couldn’t see. No one in the aisle with the travel books and poetry. No one in the arts or self-help sections. Cookbooks, dogs and sciences all empty. Scott got all the way up to the first aisle, to UFOs and Microsoft Office books without finding anyone.

He frowned. The only place that left was the kid’s section, but the shelves there were low enough that any kid as tall as the one he’d seen would be visible. Unless he crouched down.

“Come on, now. No more hide-and-seek. I need to close up.”

No shame-faced kid came out of hiding. Scott walked away from the nonfiction sections, past the reading and browsing area by the new books and into the kid’s section. He walked quickly along the aisles of juvenile fiction, looking past the rows of chapter books to the picture books along the back wall. He found nothing.

Impossible. No way the kid got away. Scott walked along the start of the picture books to the back of the juvenile section and made a circuit around the entire chapter book area. No one hiding at the ends of the aisles. But now that he thought of it, maybe that’s what the kid had done in the nonfiction section.

It only took moments to walk up the back aisle. Nothing. He went into the computer section along the front wall and looked beneath the long counter in case the kid somehow got there and hid beneath, behind the chairs. Nothing.

Scott stopped by the display case at the entrance and scratched his short beard. There couldn’t be a kid in the library. But he saw a kid. He was sure of it. He looked over at the restroom and storage room. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe the kid hid at the end of one of the nonfiction aisles, then went the other way after he passed by the first time.

The restroom was empty, except for the faint smell of urine tainting the air.

No one in the storage room either. For good measure, Scott checked his office. No one. The library was empty. Either he imagined seeing a kid, or the kid got out somehow. Scott turned off the lights one-by-one, plunging the library into darkness again. He unlocked the door and pushed it open.

He looked back one last time.

He didn’t see anything. Scott stepped out and shut the door. He got in his car and backed out. He drove around the block to the pharmacy, parked and walked back to the library.

Walking back he shivered in the chilly rain that seeped down his collar. He couldn’t shake the certainty that he had seen a kid in the library and he couldn’t leave without being absolutely sure that the library was, in fact empty.

At the back of the library, he picked his way around the puddles in the parking lot to the front of the building where the windows were low and large. He rounded the corner and peeked into the window.

Light from the streetlight behind him made it hard to see anything except the reflections of the rain-slicked street and the houses across the road. Hopefully, Mrs. Stanfield in the green ranch house across the way wouldn’t notice him and call the police thinking he was trying to break in. He could explain what had happened, but it would be embarrassing.

He cupped his hands around his face and leaned against the glass.

Now he could make out the new books area and the kid’s areas. The only light in the library came from the security lighting up above the circulation desk and those two small lights did little to illuminate the building. It looked empty.

Scott felt relieved. He didn’t know why a kid would hide in the library after it closed, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Now he could go home without a worry.

“What’re you doin’ there?”

Scott jerked and turned around to face the speaker, his heart racing. Mrs. Stanfield stood behind him in a bright red raincoat with a broad yellow umbrella clutched in one liver-spotted hand.

“Oh, Mrs. Stanfield, you startled me.”

“Mr. Taylor? What’re you doin’? Locked out?”

“No, no. Just making sure everything was okay.”

Mrs. Taylor’s perpetually downturned mouth opened, then closed again. She shook her head. “You’d best get out of this rain. Catch your death, you will.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Scott watched her walk off across the street, her blue rubber boots squeaking. Quite the colorful lady.

As he turned to go he saw a blue light flicker in the library, between the juvenile shelves. A lighter? He looked back at Mrs. Stanfield but she was still making her way across the street. He leaned against the window again.

There was a light. He could only see it through the books, not directly, but it flickered and danced like fire. Arson! Scott ran around towards the front of the building, his hand going into his pocket for his keys.

At the door, he fumbled them out, unlocked the door and yanked it open. He ran towards the juvenile section. The light still flickered, dimly but there, on the aisle that started with Beverly Clearly and ended with C.S. Lewis. Scott reached the end of the aisle and saw the girl.

She looked small with long hair that tumbled down her back in waves over her dress. She sat on the floor with her back to him and the flickering light he’d seen came from her. It looked like a blue flame, like burning alcohol. Except it didn’t just sit above her, it seemed to come from within her. Scott shivered and felt cold air flowing away from the girl past him.

He didn’t know what to say, or what to do. He stared at her.

A faint whispery sound and the movement of her arm told him she had a book in her lap. She was sitting and reading a book. A girl that looked like she was made of blue fire.

A ghost. What else could she be?

“Hello?”

She stiffened but otherwise didn’t move. Then slowly she turned her head slightly to the left.

“I’m the librarian.” Scott took a breath, sure she could hear his heart pounding. “Do you need help?”

She twisted around then and looked up at him with deep black eyes. In her lap, she held a copy of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

“I can’t read it,” she said and her voice sounded like leaves blowing down the sidewalk. “It’s my favorite.”

Scott swallowed. He tried not to shake too much as he crouched down in the aisle and extended his hand. “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes, please,” she lisped.

She twisted around to face him and handed him the book. Scott felt tears stinging his eyes as he faced her, recognized her, and took the book. “What happened to you, Noelle?”

In whispers like rain, she told him about the bad man that had come for her after she left the library. His chest felt both heavy and light. He couldn’t have prevented what happened. The police said as much when he had talked to them. Tears dripped from his eyes. He brushed them away and turned to the first page and started reading by Noelle’s light.

The further he got into Sophie’s story tendrils drifted away from Noelle to the book, touching it lightly before sinking into the words on the page. She got fainter and fainter the more he read but the happier she looked. She streamed into the book page by page until he couldn’t see any more.

Scott stood up, ignoring stiff legs and carried the book up to the desk where the emergency lights glowed. He sat down in his chair there and continued reading the story. As he read he felt a joy spreading through his limbs from his hands and through his head from his eyes. It was Noelle’s joy in the story, coursing through his veins. He finished and didn’t resist the urge to hug the book close to his chest. His very favorite book.

💀

The next morning when he opened the library he displayed the book right on the desk. Who should come in first but Mrs. Stanfield herself?

“You ought not be out in the rain,” she admonished.

“I know, ma’am.”

She reached out and fingered the cover of The BFG. “What a sweet book.”

“You can check it out,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “It’s a children’s book!”

Scott smiled. “Maybe, but there’s a child in all of us. Take it, I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay,” she said.

Scott pulled up her record and scanned the book. He felt a twinge of regret when he let it go but she needed the book more than he did right now. Noelle would see to it that she enjoyed the book. Her and anyone else that checked it out. He almost considered a sticker in the cover reading, “This book is haunted.” Except that wouldn’t make sense. Besides, he didn’t support labeling books based on content.

He waved to Mrs. Stanfield as she left then turned his attention to processing the returns from the book drop. The day looked to be a good one.

💀

1,410 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 85th short story release, written in October 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Bone Magic.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.

Truth-Seeker

Regi finds the busy world outside his Airstream trailer too full of misery and pain to tolerate. He leaves it all behind for the quiet of his land, the company of his dogs, and the freedom from the thoughts and dreams of others. His magic shows him the truth of things – no matter how dark the truth revealed.

Cali Spencer knows his power might save the life of a child and interrupts his peace. How can he deny her?

💀

The dogs barked, waking Regi from his fitful sleep. The hammock swung beneath him as he rolled on out to land on the cold floor with his bare feet. A big man, Regi filled the small Airstream trailer. Filled it to the bursting point just standing in the small center space. He wore only his blue shorts which left the rest of his well-defined body exposed. He went to the door and had to bend over so he didn’t hit his shaved head on the top of the opening.

On stepping out into the clearing he felt a prickle on the air. Another mind, several of them, at a distance yet back in the trees. The dogs barking had made them nervous. Regi rubbed the space between his eyes and hoped that he could keep a headache at bay.

Quiet. He didn’t say it aloud but the two dogs standing in front of the Airstream, Genghis and Khan, two big brindle mastiffs, calmed to an alert poise. Regi rubbed his eyes. A few clouds hung above Mt. Rainier, stained red by the sunset. Whoever was out there he wanted them gone.

“Hello?” Regi called. “You’re trespassing. Best you get back on the road.”

When had that ever worked? This time wasn’t going to be the exception. They came on foot, three of them. The boulders he’d put out at the end of the drive had at least stopped cars from getting any closer. The man and woman he didn’t recognize. White, well-dressed for the city but not dressed to be out in the woods and mud. He recognized the third member of the group. Officer Cali Spencer, the perpetual thorn in his side. She might be small but she was tenacious.

Spencer hooked her thumbs in her belt and assumed a wide-legged stance. Her wide mouth opened in a broad smile. “Regi, how’s it going man? You’re looking good.”

“Better before you showed up. I was sleeping. Peacefully.”

“Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep but I need your help.” She turned her head slightly towards the couple standing nervously behind her. Genghis and Khan eyed them. Khan licked his lips.

Lie down. Both dogs stretched out on the ground. Khan, always willing to push his luck yawned widely to reveal his big teeth. When Regi looked at him Khan gave him an innocent who-me-look.

“I don’t dream anymore.” Regi looked at the couple, out of place white folks trusting this cop enough to bring them out in the middle of the woods to face a big giant of a man wearing nothing but blue shorts and his scars. Between the scars, his muscles and the two equally muscled dogs it was a wonder that they hadn’t already taken flight. He didn’t like that his size intimidated people but he couldn’t do anything about their reactions. In case Spencer hadn’t heard him he repeated himself. “I’m serious. I don’t dream anymore.”

“I heard you.” Spencer’s smile widened. “And you know what Regi? I don’t give a fuck. You’re going to do your magic thing that you do for these people. You’ll change your mind. You know it. I know it. So let’s stop doing this pissing contest and talk like civilized people. You can make us some coffee.”

Only her. He flushed. Anyone else and he’d have gotten pissed off but she made him weak. He hated that about her. Or he loved it. He never could decide. Both were true.

“You push your luck.”

She shook her head. “No I don’t. Come on, that’s a good boy.”

Regi growled. He turned back towards the Airstream. “Give me a few minutes.”

He resisted the urge to slam the Airstream’s door when he went back inside. He grabbed a clean white t-shirt from the bins beneath his hammock. In a standard Airstream they had a bed there but he didn’t fit the bed. A hammock hung diagonally fit him better and was more comfortable. He’d converted the space beneath into additional storage. He pulled on the shirt. Then he went to the small kitchen and put on hot water.

A knock at the door.

Spencer. He leaned on the counter, took a breath, then turned and leaned over to open the door. Spencer looked up at him. “Need a hand?”

“I can manage.”

“Let me in, I’ll help.”

Regi growled and drew back. Spencer bounced up the steps into the Airstream. She shut the door behind her. He caught a glimpse of the couple talking in hushed whispers while shooting glances at the Airstream and the dogs.

“Do you have mugs?”

Regi pointed to the cupboard. Spencer opened it and took down three of his four plain white mugs. In the small space he couldn’t help but be standing close to her. The only way to get further away would be to climb into the hammock and that wasn’t the message he wanted to send. He could smell the clean soap and gun-oil smell of her. He took his can of instant coffee out of the cupboard. No reaction from Spencer. Her thoughts felt carefully ordered. She didn’t let anything slip.

“A child is at stake, Regi. That’s why I came. Their child has gone missing.”

“They aren’t suspects?”

“No. Not so far as we can tell. It sounds like a genuine abduction. We need to find this child. I need your magic.”

How could he argue against helping a child? He couldn’t. Except she didn’t know what she asked of him. She saw results. Helping people. Her big heart for everyone else blinded her to things she couldn’t understand.

“Of course,” he conceded. He peeled off the top of the coffee can. “It isn’t as easy as you might think and there are risks.”

“I know you’re up to any risk.”

“Me, maybe. But what of the child? There are two ways this is going to work and they both might fail. Or we might be too late.”

Spencer shook her head. “I won’t believe that. We’re going to get this child back.”

The kettle whistled. Regi moved it off the burner started spooning coffee into the three mugs on the counter. He poured in the hot water and stirred. Spencer watched. After he finished she picked up one and headed for the door. He took the other two and followed. She opened the door for him and they descended back out into the darkening evening. As soon as he approached the couple they tensed. He held out the mugs.

“Here, be careful. They’re hot.”

The offer overcame their hesitation and they both took the mugs. Spencer gestured at Regi. “This is Regi Banks, the man I told you about. Regi, Michael Smith and his wife Ann.”

Regi nodded. He didn’t have any furniture out here in front of the trailer. Nothing but the overgrown road that led to this clearing. The rest he let go to wildflowers. There was no way all of them could fit comfortably into the Airstream.

Michael spoke up first. His mind flared with suspicious and fear that mingled around him. A flash of distrust burned through his aura. The sight of it nauseated Regi. He took a deep steadying breath and looked past the man and the soothing colors of the sunset.

“You don’t look how I expected a wizard to look.” Michael laughed, as if to suggest it was a joke.

Regi still couldn’t look at the man. He looked at Ann when he answered. Her aura flickered with soothing traces of hopefulness amid the sadness. He wanted to fan her hope. “Wizard, sorcerer, magician, psychic, all of these words fail to describe who I am. I’m not a Gandalf of any color. I don’t have any spell books. I can’t mutter some sort of incantation that will teleport your daughter here.”

“Then what good are you!” Michael ran his hands through his hair. He looked at his wife then leveled a finger at Spencer. “Why’d you bring us out here?”

“Cool it.” Spencer approached Michael. She didn’t lay her hands on him but she looked him squarely in the eyes. “Cool it now. Regi’s a friend of mine and what he can do is miraculous and it costs him more than you can imagine. So just cool it. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t tell Regi that your child was a daughter.”

That caught Michael’s attention. His protests died on his lips. He looked at her, at Regi and then over at Ann. He took his wife’s hand. A tiny bit of hope from her aura spilled into his, dousing the distrust somewhat. It made it easier for Regi to look at the man.

“I’m sorry your daughter has been taken. I may be able to help you find the truth of what has happened, but the truth isn’t always comfortable. It isn’t always easy. I find the truth of things. That’s the magic I possess.”

“Truth.” Ann’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“Just the truth.” Regi looked out at the sunset. He looked back at the couple. He didn’t want them here with their minds and auras demanding his attention. Spencer’s on the other hand, she felt soothing. Comforting. He didn’t pay too much attention. He didn’t want to pry but she helped him. Like the dogs helped him, but in a different way. “I can’t do this by myself. I serve as a guide of sorts. A protector. ”

“What do we have to do?”

Regi spread his hands and looked up at the darkening sky. “We need to sleep and I will help you discover the truth of what happened to your daughter.”

Suspicion flared up again in Michael’s aura, mixed with distrust. “Sleep? Out here? How is any of this going to help?”

Ann spoke before either Regi or Spencer could say anything. She touched her husband’s arm. “We are going to try this.”

“I brought the camping gear.” Spencer jabbed her finger back at the path. “It’s in the truck. I’ll bring it up.”

“I’ll help you,” Regi said.

They walked through the tall grasses with Spencer in the lead. Genghis and Khan ranged around them through the grass, their minds filled with curiosity and wonder at everything they smelled. It made Regi smile. Of course that’s the moment Spencer looked back at him.

“What are you smiling about?”

The smile vanished. “Nothing.”

“You were smiling.”

Regi shrugged. Spencer shook her head and kept walking. She was aware of him behind her. He shifted his attention to avoid prying deeper. The light was failing fast but there were enough stars and moonlight to light the clearing. As they went beneath the trees even that light disappeared and the darkness enveloped them.

“Just a sec.” He heard Spencer pulling her flashlight free from her belt and waited. She clicked it on. “There. That’s better.”

Regi stayed silent. He didn’t mind the dark and he knew the path well. It’d be little issue to walk in but he let her have her light. Khan ran past them with Genghis hot on his heels. Beneath the trees the road wasn’t as overgrown yet and there was more room to spread out. He moved up next to Spencer.

“How is your family?” he asked, politely. Spencer’s two boys must be getting taller than her now. They took after their father who had died in the line of duty overseas.

“The boys are good. They’d love to come out here and camp. Maybe do some fishing.”

It sounded nice. Regi pictured relaxing with Spencer and the boys. Just enjoying their company. Too bad that was just a fantasy. They’d tried it once. His head hurt for two days afterwards.

“Maybe some time.”

“I know that tone. You’re just trying to be polite. Forget I mentioned it Regi.”

He touched her arm, only for a second. Her face turned up to him. “I don’t want to forget. I’m not good around people. It is difficult enough with one. Several people, that’s hard.”

“So you’re going to live your life as a hermit?”

“It’s worked for others.”

Spencer shook her head and walked away.

At the end of the drive several big rocks blocked the drive. Past that was Spencer’s black SUV. She unlocked the back and started pulling out the camping gear without saying another word. He didn’t need her to say anything. Not with the disappointment and tension tinting her normally calming aura. He picked up the tents and a couple sleeping bags, tucking the bags first beneath his arms and then holding onto the tent bags. Spencer picked up the rest of the gear and the last sleeping bag.

The silence lasted all the way back to the clearing. Genghis and Khan showed up from their romp just as they reached the grass and raced ahead. Even across the clearing Regi keenly felt the Smiths’ emotions. He walked into it anyway. For their child’s sake.

Crickets sang in the field while he worked on setting up the tents. The dogs lay down in their usual places in front of the Airstream. He erected both tents close to the trailer.

“What do we do?” Ann asked.

“Sleep,” Regi said. “Just go to sleep.”

“You’re not going to chant or dance around a fire?” Michael asked, his tone sarcastic. “No smoking peace pipes?”

“That’s not how my magic works, but if it makes you feel better be my guest. Try not to set the whole place on fire. I’ll be going to bed now. The sooner you do, the better.” Regi looked at Spencer. “Good night Cali.”

She met his gaze and he saw the tension drain from her aura. She smiled. “Good night.”

He went back into the Airstream, ignoring Michael’s angry whispered argument with his wife. Michael obviously didn’t like feeling out of control. The dogs got up and followed him into the Airstream. They waited for him to climb into the hammock and then spread out on the floor. Between the two of them they took up about all the space. He lay back on the hammock, reached over and flipped the light off. Outside he could feel the minds of his guests slowly settling down. Like it or not Michael must realize he wasn’t going to change anything tonight.

Regi closed his eyes. He breathed deep. He claimed none of the labels applied to him but there was one that fit. Magic. It had always been part of him. He’d known things about people. The truth of who they were. Over time it became harder and harder to bear. He isolated himself as much as possible but still they came.

He felt the magic grow. It flowed out along his limbs, crawling over the hammock beneath him. The hammock didn’t change. The Airstream remained. Even so Regi felt like he had moved to another place. He blinked and sat up in the hammock with that sense of dislocation persisting. He swung his legs down towards the floor.

Genghis glowed with a rich amber light. Khan glowed with more of a healthy greenish light, like that from Spring plants. Their light illuminated the Airstream and caused shadows to dance and twist. Regi looked at the world with new eyes as he stood up. Parts of the Airstream looked covered in patches of some sort of scaly white scabs. It was a kind of other-worldly fungus that grew in spots where metal was fatigued. He scrapped it off sometimes but it always grew back.

The dogs panted happily at him. Khan sat up. “Going out, are you?”

Genghis rolled over. “Can we come?”

“Of course.” Regi opened the door and the dogs ran on ahead. He stepped down into the cool night air into a field transformed.

Fairies lit the grasses like stars from above. They floated around just above the tops of the waving grass. Dozens clustered on the tents canvas, licking off the dew. Up close Regi could see through their lights to their chitinous bodies that gleamed with a rainbow of colors. Realizing they’d been seen the fairies took off in a buzzing cloud. The dogs ran around the tents snorting the fairy dust.

“Stop that,” Regi told them. “It’s a disgusting habit.”

“You should try it, Man.” Khan flopped over and rolled in the dust. “Nothing like it.”

Genghis sneezed.

“Don’t wake them,” Regi warned.

He walked over to the Smith’s tent. At his gesture the zipper parted silently. Both Michael and Ann lay sleeping in separate bags. Ann lay on her back with her mouth open and a soft snore. Michael had curled into a tight ball within his bag so that only the top of his head stuck out.

Regi stuck out both hands and made a grabbing motion. He yanked back. Michael and Ann both stumbled up onto their feet, tripping on the sleeping bags. They had to duck to avoid the low tent ceiling. Both were dressed in pajamas, Michael’s stripped and Ann wearing blue pajamas decorated with clouds.

“Come on,” Regi told them.

Confusion and fright flared in their auras but they followed. His command compelled them out of the tent into the clearing. He left them gapping at the transformation of the clearing and went to Cali’s tent. The zipper parted at his gesture. She looked completely relaxed, twisted on her side. She still wore her uniform and gear. She knew what asking for his help meant.

With her his gestures took on a gentler movement as if he was reaching out to pick up a baby. That’s all it took. She sat up and crawled out of her tent. He enjoyed watching her grin grow when she saw the fairies dancing above the grass.

“It’s so beautiful! I didn’t know if they’d be here this time. Are they always here?”

“Not always.” Regi turned to the Smiths. “Are you ready to find out the truth?”

“Of course not,” Genghis said.

“Humans are never ready for the truth,” Khan observed.

Michael stared at the dogs. His mouth fell open but nothing came out. Regi walked over to the couple and place his hands on their shoulders. “Ignore the dogs. Pay attention to me.”

Michael’s head snapped up and he looked at Regi with real fright. Ann’s brow wrinkled. Tears filled the corners of her eyes.

Regi gestured for Spencer. “Join hands.”

“This should be fun,” Khan said.

Shush. Go play!

The dogs looked at one another, tongues lolling out of their mouths and then they took off across the clearing. Fairies scattered out of their path like leaves on the wind.

Spencer joined them and took Michael’s hand on one side and Regi’s on the other. Regi held his free hand out to Ann. Unlike Spencer’s warm, confident strength her hand felt soft and limp in his. She took Michael’s other hand. Regi looked across the space between him and Michael and locked eyes with the other man.

“Don’t let go. We’re going to go back now, back to the moment when your daughter was taken. We will discover the truth. Just remember not to let go. Understand?”

Michael nodded. Ann’s jaw trembled but she nodded sharply. Spencer squeezed Regi’s hand.

“Okay. Here we go.” Regi reached out for the slipstream of time. He found it and locked onto it.

It felt like a rope pulling at his insides. He didn’t resist but he held onto his charges. The clearing vanished in a blur. A riot of color that lasted only a second before everything snapped into focus. Somewhere, some when else.

A suburban ranch house, nothing fancy. Blue with white trim. The lawn needed to be mowed. A beachball and a small child’s wading pool sat at the center of the yard. A tiny delicate-looking girl with black ringlets stood in the driveway, in front of a closed garage door. She wore a bright yellow dress. She swung her arms and sang to herself in a high voice.

“Marrry had a litttle lambb!” Over and over, she repeated those words.

Beside him Ann sobbed. It seemed they stood not four feet away. Regi could feel the warm sun on his skin. Spencer had turned her head away to look past Regi.

“Look,” she said.

Regi turned his head. A navy blue van with no back windows drove slowly down the street. TER883 on the license plate. A white man in sunglasses and a black baseball cap sat behind the wheel. The van slowed even more as it came up to the driveway. It sat for a second and Regi could feel the man’s eyes on the girl.

Leaving the van running the man opened his door. He got out and went around the van to the back and opened the doors. Then he reappeared holding a fluffy stuffed lamb.

“Hey there,” he called out.

When Mary turned he held out the lamb. “Is this yours? I found it.”

“Mary! No!” Ann cried.

Neither the girl or the man heard her. Regi squeezed her hand. “Don’t let go. We can see what happened. That’s all.”

His head throbbed and his chest hurt. Soon it would be hard to breathe. The pull on his midsection was growing more intense. He couldn’t keep them here long.

Mary walked closer to the man. “You found her?”

“That’s right. And then I was going past and heard you singing. I thought she might be yours.” He straightened up and let his arm drop to his side. He shrugged. “I guess not.”

He turned as if to leave.

Mary ran right up to him and tugged on his sleeve. “She is mine!”

He looked down at the girl and stepped away. Back towards the rear of the van. He shook his head. “I think you’re just saying that because you want her now. You didn’t lose her, did you?”

Mary bit her lip. She walked up closer to the man. Regi could hardly hear here answer. “No. But can I have her?”

“Sure.” The man tossed the lamb into the back of the van. While Mary stared in shock at the back of the van he reached down, covered her mouth and carried her up into the back of the van. A second later the doors closed.

Regi couldn’t hold on much longer. He looked at Spencer. “Enough?”

Spencer nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ve got enough to ID him.”

“Mary!” Michael cried out. The van had started moving.

Regi let go. Everything blurred for a second and then went black. He woke up instantly and sat up in the hammock. The dogs lifted their heads and he could feel their disappointment that the adventure hadn’t lasted longer. Regi got down and eased between them to the Airstream door. As soon as it opened he heard Ann crying. His headache threatened to blind him but he made his way down to do what he could to help them through the night.

 

💀

Two days later he looked up from his book at the feel of a mind on the path. He was feeling better today, first time since the other night. He really didn’t want any company.

Still, he went out into the clearing and watched Spencer come out of the woods. She wasn’t in uniform today. Instead she wore a long cream-colored dress and had let her hair down. And he discovered that her presence didn’t set off warning bells in his head. He met her halfway.

“We caught him.” She took Regi’s hands. “Mary is okay, scared, but he didn’t hurt her. Had a room all made up in his house for her. It was probably only a matter of time before he did something, though. They’re still digging up remains out of the crawlspace.”

Regi shook his head and looked at the trees and the grass. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Cali laughed. “Funny, I was going to say the same thing.”

Regi looked down at her open face and pulled her close. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Magic.”

💀

4,054 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 61st weekly short story release, written in February 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Time That Remains.

Stay Extended

Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.

Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.

Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.

A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.

💀

Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.

Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.

He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.

Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”

Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.

Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”

Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”

Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”

Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”

“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”

Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”

“Marlene Carlton.”

“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”

Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.

As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.

“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.

Cole’s chubby face flushed.

“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”

Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”

Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”

Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.

When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.

“How’d it go?” Ben asked.

Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”

Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”

After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”

Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.

He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.

And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.

“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”

Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”

Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”

Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly.

“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”

Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”

Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.

Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”

“Of course.”

Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.

“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”

Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?

Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.

Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.

“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”

Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.

So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.

“Mr. Carver?”

“Think again asshole.”

Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.

“Did you see Carver when you came in?”

Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.

“Asshole, think you can order me around!”

Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.

Cole grunted and charged.

Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.

Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.

Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.

Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.

The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.

“Fine.”

Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”

“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”

“No.”

“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”

Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.

Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.

Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.

It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?

Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.

Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.

Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.

Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,

Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.

And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.

Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.

“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.

Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.

Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”

Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”

“That’s it?”

Carver spread his empty hands.

“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.

Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.

Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.

He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”

Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.

Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.

“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”

Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”

Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.

He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.

Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.

Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.

As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.

Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.

There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.

Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.

The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.

He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.

It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.

Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.

1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.

Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.

Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.

There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.

Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.

By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.

 

#

 

Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.

He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.

Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.

At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.

He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.

His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.

Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.

Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?

Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.

Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.

He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.

Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.

Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.

The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.

Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.

He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.

Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.

“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.

Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”

The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”

“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”

“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”

“What are you doing?” Trina asked.

“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”

“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”

Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”

Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”

“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”

“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”

Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”

Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”

Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”

“Connor.”

“Fine.”

Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Go on now.”

They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”

“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”

“How are you marking it?”

Ben held up the package of Post It notes.

“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”

“You think it’ll move?”

“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”

“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”

Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.

“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”

“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”

“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.

They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.

“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”

Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.

Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.

“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”

“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”

The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”

Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.

“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.

“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”

“But —”

Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.

Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.

Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.

Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.

“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”

A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.

It was moving!

Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.

A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.

“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”

Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”

“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”

The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.

“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”

Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”

And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.

Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.

Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.

“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”

No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.

Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

“Ben!”

Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.

“Hold on! Let them go past!”

Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.

Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.

“Are you okay?”

She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.

“Sorry.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.

“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”

Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”

“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”

Tuyet covered her mouth.

Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.

“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.

He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.

“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”

Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.

“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”

Laughter floated out of the darkness.

Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”

Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?

Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.

The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.

“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”

Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”

Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.

Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.

It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.

Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.

“Dear boy, why?”

“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.

She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.

Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.

Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.

Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”

“They’re both gone.”

She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.

Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.

“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.

Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.

💀

8,088 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Truth-Seeker.

So Little Time

Veronica’s Ma warned her about dead men. Stay away. It don’t matter how pretty—stay away!

When the Craven Wench pulls into dock with a cargo spoiled by fire Veronica jumps at the chance to earn extra money cleaning the ship.

She didn’t count on meeting Nathan—the sailor who died in the fire.

A story about loves missed and final chances.

💀

My Ma always said that you can’t trust dead men. They’ll steer you wrong every time.

So why is it that I had to go and fall in love with one? It isn’t like I don’t see them all the time. They’re like the cries of the gulls, the shouts of the men unloading their catches, the stink of fish guts, the chill of ice and the grit of salt in your skin and clothes. It’s part of life working down on the docks. Sometimes men go out alive and come back dead. In Seatco death doesn’t stop them from doing all the things they’ve always done. But sometimes it changes them.

I knew something was up the minute the Craven Wench limped back into the harbor. Black smoke pumped out of the hold and that wasn’t normal. The smell of it was a mix of burnt oil and fish. I stuck the fillet knife into the cutting board, shucked my gloves off and left the table. The other gutters left their tables too. Too pale Marjorie with her flaming red hair came over to stand next to me. She rubbed her bony fingers together. Working with the fish and ice all day you get frostbit if you’re not careful. She didn’t have enough meat on her to keep a babe warm, much less a full-grown woman.

“What do you reckon’?” She nodded at the Craven Wench.

“Some sort of accident.” I pointed at the starboard smoke stack. It was a couple feet shorter than it ought to be. “Stack fire, maybe. Looks like they lost some there.”

The crew scrambled about on the decks while dock handlers caught ropes and brought the ship in. Hoses were dragged across the boards and soon water was being sprayed down into the holds.

“A fire.” Marjorie cracked her knuckles. “That’ll be a mess.”

“Sure will.” That’s when I hatched an idea I’d regret later. “Probably need someone to help get the boat cleaned up. Might pay decent.”

Marjorie arched an eyebrow. “Might at that.”

I took the lead and headed over to the Craven Wench. We stayed back out of the way of the crews working. Captain showed up on deck covered in soot. Mackenzie, don’t know his first name. Don’t know anyone that does. He’s a swarthy little toad of a man known for his fierce temper. I’ve heard stories from the girls at the taverns about him that make me glad I spend most of my days gutting fishes rather than deal with the likes of him. But a job like this would pay well and it’d only be a one-time thing. I wouldn’t have to deal with him long. He stomped his way down to the dock and shoved past the crews.

“Get that fire out!” He shouted at them. “Stop mucking about.”

He came towards us with a face like a cross between a storm cloud and a toad if such a thing were possible. People practically dove into the water to get out of his way. Marjorie nudged me. I took a breath and stepped right into his path.

He came up short and swore. His breath smelled of alcohol and fish. “What the hell do you want?”

“My mate and I can clean up your boat for you. We’ll do a good job.”

His normally bulging eyes seemed to shrink back into his head a bit. “You’re volunteering to clean my boat?”

“No, sir.”

He scowled.

“We’ll clean it but we expect fair pay for the job.”

The scowl melted a bit. “I didn’t think you’d offer to do it for nothing! Can’t pay much. Fire ruined the catch.”

“It’ll be more than that catch if you can’t get back out. We’ll do the work.” I named a figure I thought was high, equal to a month’s wages as a gutter.

Captain Mackenzie spat in his filthy hand and stuck it out at me. “Deal.”

I didn’t grimace as I spit in my own hand and took his grimy paw. He squeezed, as all men do, to show off his strength. I handle ice and fish for a living. I squeezed right back. His eyes opened up and he showed me all four of his teeth. He laughed and let go before stomping off.

With him gone Marjorie did a little hop and clapped her hands. “Wow, a month’s wages!”

“We’ll meet on board after our shift. I’ll bring the cleaning supplies.”

“I’ll get food,” Marjorie said, but I hardly heard her.

I’d turned to take one last look at the Craven Wench. No particular reason for it, but I did and that’s when I saw him. He’d just come up from below. You could tell he was a dead man right away. It wasn’t just his burned clothing hanging in tatters on a body muscled from fighting the sea. The dead are beautiful. Whatever they’d been in life, in death their flaws melt away. That’s only one of the reasons that my Ma warned me away from them as soon as I was old enough to notice that boys weren’t the same as girls. This dead man wasn’t large but his chest was defined and bare. He had that sheen about him that all the dead have. Like phosphorescence on the ocean waves at night. His dark hair dropped in waves about his shoulders. While I watched a surviving member of the crew came up to him and obviously offered his condolences. They shook and as the survivor left the dead man’s eyes met my own.

You know that electric feeling when you lock eyes with an attractive man? Well, this was a lightning bolt. My heart skipped a beat or too. My tongue seemed to swell to a size that would cut off my air and my limbs tingled. My Ma’s warnings were like the distant call of thunder in my head.

Then the fire crew got in the way and our gaze was broken. I turned away immediately. I tucked my hands into my apron and hurried back towards my table. Ma always said that you shouldn’t even notice dead men. Stay away from them as nothing good can come of it. I picked up the next fish, slit its gut and pulled out the insides. For the first time I wondered why Ma warned me so much? Did it come from first-hand experience? I wished she was still around so that I could ask. It isn’t like my life has turned out all that wonderful anyway. I tried to set those thoughts aside. I had fish to gut now and later a boat to clean. I didn’t need to be thinking about a dead man. Unfortunately gutting fish doesn’t do much to keep the mind occupied.

💀

Marjorie and I met at the boat when we’d planned. I showed up carrying bucks full of brushes, rags, soap and mops. She had a couple paper wrapped parcels in a net bag along with a couple bottles. It was already late and activity had died down on the docks. Most of the fishermen were off turning their wages into alcohol or sex or both. Those fortunate enough to be married had headed home. That didn’t leave many people about. We sat down on the edge of the pier to eat the fish and chips Marjorie had picked up from Rick’s place. Some of these fish might have been ones that we’d gutted earlier in the day. Someday I’m going to eat something other than fish, I tell myself. And not chicken because even the chicken around here tastes fishy from all the fish guts that they eat. We washed it down with the beers and kept the bottles to turn back in. Then it was up onto the Craven Wench.

I noticed right off that she sat low in the water. Too low if her holds had been emptied and pumped. We headed towards the hatch when he stepped out, the dead man I’d seen earlier.

It was dusk and the shine about him looked even more pronounced than before. He hadn’t bothered changing out of the charred rags he wore. He looked at us both and then his eyes fixed on me with an unsettling stillness.

“Captain Mackenzie hired us to clean the boat.” I lifted the mops by way of illustration.

“And you’d be?” His voice sounded clear and almost normal. You couldn’t put your finger on it but there was something about his voice that made it feel like it echoed deep inside your bones.

“Veronica.”

“Hi! I’m Marjorie!”

His eyes hardly left mine. “Nathan. I died today.”

“Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. I’d noticed. Why are you hanging around here?”

“Thinking about things. Everything that I didn’t do when I was alive.”

I managed to look away. I lifted the buckets. “Everything sounds like a lot. I’m sorry, but we don’t have time for that. We’ve already done a full shift and we have this boat to clean. If we get finished in time for a couple hours of sleep before our next shift we’ll be lucky.”

“I’ll help you,” Nathan said.

“No thanks,” Marjorie said. “No offense, but we’re not looking to split our pay.”

Nathan shook his head and again hardly looked her way. “Not interested in money. Maybe we can talk while we work?”

He clearly meant his words for me. I knew what my Ma would say if she was here but he was so pretty. If we had help we’d be done that much faster.

“I’ll listen,” I told him. “Can’t say that I’ll talk much. I don’t usually.”

“That’s true,” Marjorie said.

“This way.” Nathan ducked back down into the hatch.

We followed him down. The reek was even worse in the hold. Burnt fish, wood, oil and sea water all mixed up with fish that hadn’t gotten on ice to create an eye-watering stink. Nathan reached the bottom first and plunged waist deep into water filled with floating much and debris. I stopped.

“You got to be kidding.”

He turned and looked back up at me. With his sheen I could see his features clearly. “Captain Mackenzie didn’t get the hold pumped yet. I can help get the pumps going but we’re going to have to watch the intakes or it’ll get clogged.”

“This is why he agreed so quickly,” Marjorie said. “He gets off cheap by leaving it to us.”

It was a cheat, plain and simple. But dealing with a man like Mackenzie you couldn’t help but expect something like this. Trouble is, walking away now he might prove to be more of a problem.

“It’s fine. Let’s get it done. I want to see the look on that gap-toothed fucker’s face when he sees the boat cleaned.” I stepped off into the water beside Nathan. He steadied me and my body reacted to his touch despite our surroundings.

“Do I have to?” Marjorie whined.

Nathan took down a lamp and lit it. He sloshed off into the boat. I followed and, making noises of disgust the whole time, Marjorie did as well.

Nathan showed us the pumps and the intakes. We left Marjorie at the bow to watch that one while we took the stern.

“I was down here when the fire broke out.” It didn’t seem that he spoke loudly but I could see him over the noise of the pump. “Someone dropped a lantern. There were oiled rags that hadn’t been properly stowed. The fire spread fast. It was the smoke that kept me from getting out. I couldn’t breathe. The heat melted the ice so I couldn’t get low enough to get under the smoke without putting my face in ice water.”

I could imagine it standing hip deep in water cold enough to chill my bones. The sharp scent of burnt wood and fish mixed with the smell of the ocean. It would have been dark even with the flames. My eyes hurt thinking about how it would have been. I took a brush and shoved fish bits and charcoal away from the intake. I felt the suction of the pipe. The water was getting drawn down.

“So I died. I tried to get out but I got dizzy. I lost my sense of direction. I tried getting away from the flames but that drove me deeper into the ship. My clothes caught on fire. I don’t remember passing out. The next thing I knew I woke beneath the water and it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to breathe. I stood up and knew I’d died. I’ve worked with others who had died.”

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t,” I offered. I swept the intake clean again. “What’s your reason?”

Nathan looked at me with clear eyes. I won’t say they glowed but almost. Glimmered, maybe.

“You,” he said.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Why did it have to take a dead man to say something like that? Why’d he have to be so pretty? Truth is I knew this man. I’d seen him around enough. Nathan Whedon. All easy smiles and charm when the luck was on him and hard drinking when it wasn’t. Seatco isn’t that big a place that a single woman doesn’t have some idea of the prospects.

“Me? I think being dead has addled your brains a bit. You sure aren’t thinking clearly.”

“I’m thinking more clearly than ever. Truth is I’ve seen you. Veronica Bell, keeps to herself and until last spring took care of her Ma. Works with the catch as a gutter where it’s known that she is as quick and clean as they come. Captains want you working their catch because it gets to the market faster. Your supervisor knows this and charges a premium to get you on their catch.”

Really? That came as news to me. George and I would have to have a talk after this.

“If you noticed so much how come you’ve never said as much as a hello to me?”

“A down-on-my-luck fisherman like myself? One too quick to fold and too quick to hit the bottle? What chance would I have had with the prettiest woman in Seatco? No matter that she tries to hide it beneath a slicker and hood?”

I flushed a bit, him saying that, and hid it by shoving the intake deeper into the draining hold. As more water left the hold the thicker it became so we were standing in knee-deep burnt chowder. I shoved away a half-charred flounder. I didn’t give a carp what he said. Ma’s advice still rang true in my ears.

“Not much,” I answered.

Nathan nodded. “Just so. I’ve thought about that these last few hours since I died. Everyone says that the dead have a reason for sticking around. I don’t know if someone living can really understand what it’s like. Death changes your perspective. Your life is over no matter how you stick around. You see everything about your life from a different perspective and from that you figure out —”

“Your reason. Right.” I didn’t want to hear this. I brushed the intake clear and stomped it down into the ankle deep water remaining. “Everyone knows that. I don’t know that I buy it. I mean I see plenty of dead folk carrying on as if nothing at all changed by their dying. They don’t seem to have any particular insight into their mistakes. They just keep drinking, whoring, or gambling, same as they did when they were alive.”

Nathan killed the pumps. “Could be they can’t face their reason. Or maybe it is impossible for them to resolve.”

“Yeah, in other words the same excuses they gave when they lived.”

“It isn’t that way for everyone.” His voice sounded soft now that the noise of the pumps had died. Waves lapped against the gently rocking ship.

“No?”

He appeared right in front of me the way the dead can. He stood so close that when I brought my hands up they touched his chest. He put his hands on my arms. Not holding me. Touching.

His breath was like a cool sea breeze on my face. “Most die and aren’t moving around. Even those that stick around often don’t for long. They take care of things and move on. Otherwise we’d be overrun in the dead.”

It was hard to think with him so close. “Seems like we are, sometimes.”

I stepped back and my foot slipped in the muck and fish parts. I started to fall but Nathan did another of those movements where he somehow was instantly behind me. He caught me in strong arms and held me fast. I looked up into his face. My eyes followed the long line of his jaw. His hair hung down above me. His eyes were a mystery.

“You’re my reason.” His lips grazed against mine like a hint of ocean spray. My heart hammered in my chest and not only because he was dead.

I stood up and pushed him away. “I don’t get any say in this? I’m your reason and that’s it? What if I don’t want to be your reason? Have you thought of that with your new clarity?”

I didn’t want to give him a chance to answer. I grabbed my gear. “I’m going to go give Marjorie a hand. If you think you have the answers then you can start on this end.”

I couldn’t run in the muck but I made my way as fast as possible. I found Marjorie in one of the holds at the end of the walkway. In the lamp light her face looked even more pale and ghostly. Almost more than Nathan.

She quirked her lips at me. “What are you doing down here? Shouldn’t you be back with that dead gorgeous man?”

“Dead being the operative word.” I shoved a mop against the muck. “Do you want to use the mop or hold the bucket?”

Marjorie wrinkled her nose. “I’ll mop, if that’s okay?”

“Fine my me. I’m getting used to the stink.”

A shovel would have been better but we managed to shove the burnt and rotting fish into the bucket with the mop. Which then one of us had to take up topside and pitch over into the bay. The gulls were going to go crazy when they caught on to what we were doing. It was hard work. Even at a month’s wages, Captain Mackenzie wasn’t paying us enough. I would have been tempted to quit except that I wanted to see the look on his face when he saw his holds cleaned out. I didn’t worry about how Nathan might be getting on.

“I’m tired. Let’s take a break for a few,” Marjorie said.

I didn’t bother saying anything. I up-ended the bucket and sat down. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and closed my eyes. The gentle rocking of the boat threatened to send me off to sleep. It might have worked if the place didn’t stink so bad. Better than smelling salts. Just when I thought I’d gotten used to the smell something would change and it’d hit me with full force again.

“So what’s going on between you and him?”

I barely lifted my head. Marjorie sat on the other buck, her legs outstretched and back against a support beam. “Nothing.”

“You didn’t come back here with nothing on your face.”

“He says that I’m his reason.”

Marjorie sat up. “His reason? And you’re back here?”

“He’s dead.” I shook my head and looked at my fish-stained, pruning hands. I remembered him calling me the prettiest woman in Seatco. “What’s his reason to me?”

“You’ve got eyes. You’ve seen him. What more do you need?”

“There ain’t no future in it! My Ma —”

Marjorie waved her hand. “Your Ma. Blessedly she didn’t stick around when she died. Not in the least because you didn’t give her a reason. But she wasn’t one that should talk about dead men.”

I glared at her. “What are you trying to say?”

“I hear things. I’m not completely detached from everything, the way some might be. While you were off taking care of that poor woman people talked. They’d say things.”

“I can imagine.”

“Most admired you for it. But it led to them talking about her too and you know how stories get told.”

“So you’re saying there was something between her and a dead man?” I stood up and flipped over the bucket. “Let’s get back to slopping fish. The sooner we’re out of here the better.”

Marjorie picked up the mop. “You’re his reason. Until you figure that one out I don’t think you’ll be happy.”

Lacking anything witty to say I just went back to work. What was the point in arguing? We were soaked, stinking and tired. Even if I wanted to find out what it meant this wasn’t the time.

We mucked up the mess, gradually working out way towards midship. By the time we got there we found Nathan hard at work. The hold past him was spotless, except those parts of the containers that had been burned by fire.

“How’d you manage that?” Marjorie asked.

“I don’t talk to myself,” he said. “With the three of us working on the remaining half we should finish quickly.”

I wanted to argue but I also wanted the job done. It was getting late. I didn’t even know if we’d finish on time. “Fine.”

Nathan was true to his word. He worked. Nothing fancy or magical about it. He couldn’t crook his finger and make the mops clean the place on their own. He put some of that shimmering muscle into it and moved with purpose. I didn’t see him waste any motions. Marjorie and I weren’t nearly so regular in our approach and I think we felt the effects of the hour more. I didn’t dare let him get ahead, though, so I worked harder than ever to clean my portion. He still finished first, but not by much and even then he didn’t stop. He moved over to Marjorie’s section and started cleaning back to meet her. I finished and together they finished the last spot soon after.

I leaned on my mop with the filthy bucket beside me. “I think that does it.”

Marjorie leaned on Nathan. “Thanks for your help, Nathan.”

“My pleasure,” he said, but he looked at me when he said it. “I’ll slip out after you. We wouldn’t want Mackenzie to know someone on his crew helped. He’d just want to cut what he owes.”

“Let him try,” I said. “He set us up and is under-paying as it is.”

“It’s fine.” Nathan handed me the mop. “I don’t need the money anyway.”

“Don’t you have gambling debts?”

He seemed to consider that for a while. “I guess I do, but I’m dead? What more can they expect? At least I came back so there’s a chance they might get paid. Otherwise they’d just be out the money. No widow or family to try and get it out of. It isn’t like the captain is going to pay them.”

“Okay.” I gathered up the supplies. “Thank you for the help. We’ll be going.”

Marjorie tried to protest but I didn’t listen. I was sick of the Craven Wench and I wanted out. Coming out on deck was fantastic. The sky was already lightening out over the ocean. The air tasted crisp and cool with the flavor of rain on the wind. Later today, I thought. It would be a downpour.

We waited on the docks no more than half an hour before Mackenzie came staggering back to his ship. With a couple equally intoxicated companions. It took his beer-blurred eyes a second to focus on us.

“You owe us.” I cited the figured promised. “Your holds are cleaned.”

“Snots possible,” he said with great deliberation.

One didn’t have to check his nostrils to know the truth of that pronouncement. Nonetheless. “Captain. We cleaned the holds. The Craven Wench is pumped, empty and ready for more. So pay up what you promised.”

He looked at the tall brunette on his right and then the smaller red-haired wench on his left. I knew just what he must be thinking. In front of these ladies of the night how could he appear not to be a man of his word? It might go badly for him. He dug into a greasy wallet and pulled out a wad of bills. Both women made happy noises and clung even tighter to him. Captain Mackenzie staggered and gave them his best gap-toothed grin.

“Captain?”

He blinked and looked at me. It took him a moment but then he laughed. He peeled off bills and thrust them at me. I knew without counting he’d taken too much and that was fair so far as I was concerned. I pocketed the wad and picked up the cleaning gear.

“Thank you, Captain. Marjorie?”

She followed me away from him while he went off in search of the Captain’s cabin. I felt badly for Nathan. I couldn’t imagine being stuck on that ship.

💀

We split the money, and yes, he had over-paid. I wasn’t about to return the difference. There wasn’t time to do much more than stash the gear, get rinsed off and into dry clothes before I had to be back down at the docks again. Fat seagulls sat on the piers stuffed from the ruined catch we’d tossed overboard. My eyes wanted to close. I felt as though I could sleep while still working. My fingers knew what to do whether I stayed awake for it or not. I shook my head. I couldn’t do that. For one, I might slit my hand open instead of the fish. Even if I avoided that fate I could still get in trouble with the boss over my apparent absence. Although I still wanted to have a talk with him about charging extra for the catches that I processed. If he was doing that I might as well go into business for myself and save him the trouble. I thought maybe I’d get a raise out of it inside. I’d have to thank Nathan.

That thought gave me pause. I couldn’t thank Nathan without seeing him.

“So what are you doing later?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I know both feet left the dock. Nathan was leaning against the pier behind me. He held up a basket. He asked, “How about another picnic?”

In the daylight it was both easier and harder to identifying him as a dead man. The sheen was harder to see, but he still looked as pretty as ever. It’s more than the sheen to his skin or the fact that he looked flawless that identifies him as dead person. There’s something about a dead person that makes them seem not quite a part of the world. It isn’t that you can see through them or anything, it’s a feeling you get in your gut facing dead person. I’ve never heard of any of the dead passing themselves off as the living. Even with make-up and everything else there’s something that can’t be hidden.

“Sleeping, if I get the chance,” I said.

“You can sleep when you’re dead.”

I stared at him.

His smile wilted. “It’s funny if you’re me.”

I picked up the next fish and slit the belly open. “I’m not. I’ve got work to do. I’d thank you to shove off. Oh, and thanks for your help last night.”

“Don’t mention it.” Nathan was standing on the other side of my table. “I’ll see you around, Veronica Bell. Like it or not, you’re still my reason for being here.”

I didn’t answer. He left. I don’t know if he walked or just wasn’t there anymore. I told myself I didn’t care.

💀

In the native tongues Seatco means evil spirit or devil. I don’t know about the devil part, but I was beginning to think Nathan had been a worthless gambler while alive and was an evil spirit after he died. It seems like I saw him everywhere. I’d go to work and he’d be working at a table two stations away. He’d walked away from the Craven Wench. He told Mackenzie that he didn’t want to work on the ship that had killed him. That might be true, but why did he take a job as a gutter? Most other ships would have taken him.

I go into a bar only to find him sitting nearby. He didn’t try to talk to me. I didn’t walk down my street in the early hours only to find him following me. I couldn’t even say that he was paying any attention to me at all. When I did see him someplace like a bar he might be keeping company with someone or not, but either way he never said so much as hello to me. Maybe he’d changed his mind about me being his reason? It didn’t make sense, but that made me a little sad.

Three weeks of this after the night we cleaned out the Craven Wench and I’d decided that I couldn’t stand it anymore. The next time I saw him was when I went to get some fish-and-chips. Like so many of the other gutters he was there. You’d think we couldn’t stand fish after gutting and cleaning them all day but it was close and cheap. I always found it satisfying to think that something fresh caught and cleaned on my table might end up in my basket. But that day Nathan was in line two people ahead of me. The sight of him infuriated me.

I charged past the other people in line. “What are you doing here?”

Nathan looked down at me. “Getting some lunch. Why don’t you join me?”

“You’re following me!”

Nathan raised an eyebrow. “I was here first. Maybe it’s you stalking me?”

“Everywhere I go you’re there. You even took a job cleaning fish!”

“If I’m already someplace when you get there, again, it sounds like you’re following me. Although I’ll grant that you were cleaning fish before I started. But I needed a job.”

A sailor who’d replaced his hair with a tattooed crown of mermaids tapped Nathan’s shoulder. “Bud, she can’t cut the line.”

Nathan looked at the sailor with his dead eyes. It seemed for an instant that they flickered like the dark depths of the sea itself. “The lady is my guest. She isn’t cutting.”

“I —”

“What will you have?” Nathan asked.

I looked at the stand and realized we were next. “The special. I always get the special.”

“You could splurge today,” Nathan said.

The sailor was back, shoving me aside. “Bud, I’ve always wondered if the dead can die a second time.”

I saw the flash of the knife. It never hit. Nathan was behind the guy with his own knife pricking the sailor right above his left kidney.

“The answer is no,” Nathan whispered in the sailor’s ear. “But you could always join us.”

I thought I heard waves breaking in his words. The sailor swallowed and held up his hands. “My mistake.”

“That’s right.” Nathan wasn’t behind him anymore. His eyes looked like storm clouds above the ocean now. I thought I almost saw flickers of lightning in their depths.

The sailor put away the knife and looked down at his feet. Nathan turned back to the bored looking matron sitting in the booth. He placed our orders. She served them up quickly and we walked over to one of the tables. I sat down opposite Nathan. He slowly ate a chip.

“You think I’m following you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know but you seem to be around all the time.”

“I’ve respected your feelings.” Nathan picked over his food. Then he looked up at me with troubled eyes. “I haven’t bothered you. You’re my reason, but I’ve given you space. Now you’re telling me that even seeing me in Seatco is too much? I should leave? Go somewhere else?”

Put that way I felt like gull droppings. Even worse when he mentioned leaving Seatco I felt a wrenching in my gut as if an undertow had grabbed me.

“No.” I hardly whispered the word. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“What do you want?” Nathan’s tone was as smooth and warm as a summer breeze. “Should I tell you want it means for me, that you’re my reason?”

I caught my breath. I didn’t dare speak. I picked at my fish and didn’t look up. But I nodded.

“Veronica Bell.” The way he said my name made me look up and meat those eyes again. He smiled and reached across the table. He took my hand. “In life I missed opportunities. All sorts, but the one I regretted the most was never being the man I could have been. A man worthy of you. I told you I noticed you. I knew I didn’t measure up. I could have given up gambling. I could have saved and bought a nice little house up on the bluff. The sort of place right for a family.

“One night at sunset I saw you after you got off work. You’d left your table and walked out on the pier to the very edge. You took off your hood and opened your slicker. The setting Sun and wind caught your hair. You spread your arms and took it all in. It was only a moment and then you buttoned up and headed into town.

“But that moment stuck with me. I wanted to say something to you but I didn’t and you walked right past. Our eyes met for a second. I had my chance and I didn’t take it. I let my fears and self-loathing get the better of me and then I proved it all true by going out and getting plastered.”

Nathan gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “I could have been a better man. I could have said you were beautiful. I didn’t and of everything in my life I regretted that the most. That I didn’t ever tell you. That’s the reason, so I could tell you. Thank you.”

Tears stung my eyes. I snatched my hand back. “No! No, Nathan. Don’t say that! There has to be more to it.”

There wasn’t and he couldn’t answer me anymore. His eyes were clouded and lifeless. His skin was pale and ashen in death now. Truly dead.

Ma told me the truth. You can’t trust dead men. I didn’t want to fall in love with Nathan. Somewhere in running away from him I did and now I regret that I never got the chance to tell him that. I only hope that I live my life well enough so that I don’t come back. I don’t want him to be the reason for me coming back. I’d be trapped, unable to ever get rid of that regret. That’s no way to live. Or die.

💀

5,880 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 57th weekly short story release, written in July 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Hidden Nests.

What Dragged in the Cat?

In this quiet suburban neighborhood, Monica Clayton runs a successful online business collecting and selling old books.

Violence shatters her peaceful life with the terrifying death of her cat, Scrunch. Something stalks her.
Toying with her. Taunting.

To survive she must uncover the secret, and answer the question.

What dragged in the cat?

💀

It all started Tuesday morning with Scrunch in the living room. His flat Persian kitty face looking back at the rest of his body with a familiar look of indignation, as if his last thought was, shit, doesn’t that beat all?

Monica couldn’t go back down there right away. She stayed on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest, and tried to reason it out. After the first half-hour she wondered if she had simply imagined what she had seen. His body smaller without the inside parts.

Maybe it had been some laundry she left on the floor? It was early and the living room was still sort of dark. His legs scattered like sticks. Except she didn’t leave laundry around the house. She kept the place neat and clean. Blood flecks bright red on the pale carpet but not as much as she would have expected. Something else then. Or maybe nothing. Maybe she had dreamed that she woke up and went down to the living room. Long black and white fur, the softest fur, matted with blood.

Except she was dressed to meet with a seller later, she had on her makeup, and the sunlight made the loft look bright and cheery. Monica pushed her hands down against the bed. She had to go look. She got off the bed and took a shaky breath.

“You can do this,” she whispered.

Monica crossed the loft to the railing, grabbed onto the smooth wood, and looked down. She screamed.

💀

It took the police twenty minutes to arrive. Two squad cars pulled up into her driveway. Four officers got out. They all walked towards her. A big blocky woman officer took the lead.

“Ms. Clayton?”

“Yes. Monica Clayton.”

“I’m Officer Fabin. Are you okay?”

Monica let loose a strangled laugh. “Sure. Great.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I had to cancel my meeting.”

“Just tell us what happened.”

It didn’t take long. There wasn’t that much to tell. When she finished the officers talked among themselves for a minute and then the other three moved off towards her house. Officer Fabin stayed with her in the yard.

“This is a nice place you have here. You live alone?”

Monica nodded.

“Boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Can I ask what you do?”

“I buy and sell rare books online.”

Officer Fabin looked around at the yard. “You must be doing okay?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice any signs of forced entry? Did you hear anything?”

“No. There’s blood in the kitchen, and on the pet door.”

Officer Fabin talked into a mic on her shoulder for a second. “Okay. I know this is hard. Can you think of anyone that might bear a grudge against you?”

“God, no. I don’t think so.”

“Are you going to be okay if I go help the others? Do you need me to stay?”

“No.” Monica forced herself to smile. She wouldn’t fall apart. “I’ll be fine.”

The police had been inside for fifteen minutes. Monica knew because she kept checking her watch while she waited and paced the yard. The neighbor’s pug, Popeye, charged up and down in their yard on the other side of the fence. He wheezed when he barked. Popeye’s smashed in face was a canine reminder of Scrunch. This is silly, she told herself. Scrunch is dead. Deep breath. She had to deal with it. She couldn’t stay out in the yard all day. She started up the stairs to the porch. Before she reached the top Fabin opened the door and came out carrying a white plastic trash back. In the light Monica could see streaks inside and something heavy and dark at the bottom.

“Ms. Clayton,” Fabin said gently. “We cleaned it up the best we could. You’ll need to do something about the stains. Would you like us to help you bury him?”

Monica felt like someone had their fist down her throat. She coughed. “No. I can manage. Do you have any ideas how…?”

One of the other officers, a nice looking guy about her age, stepped forward. “A raccoon, Ms. Clayton. It must have injured the cat outside and then followed it in through the pet door to finish the job.”

“A raccoon?”

“Yes,” Fabin said. “It must have been shocking to see that this morning.”

Monica gave a nervous, relieved laugh. A raccoon. Of course. She felt a bit flushed. “I’m sorry to call you out for something like this. I was so startled.”

“No problem, Ms. Clayton.” Fabin gently let down the plastic bag. “Take care.”

Monica squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will. Really, I’m sorry to bother you.”

The officers left. Monica retrieved her shovel from the garage and buried Scrunch in the front planter near the rock where he liked to sun himself. She cried a bit saying goodbye, then went inside to clean up. The police had cleaned up everything except a few brown stains on the carpet. After scrubbing away the stains she showered, then made some tea and decided to use the remainder of her day off lost in a good novel.

💀

Wednesday morning Monica slapped at her alarm and instead hit something warm and a bit squishy. She opened her eyes. Popeye’s head sat on her nightstand looking with cross-eyed surprise at his corkscrew tail which hung from his mouth. Monica screamed. The alarm buzzed on.

She scrambled back from the nightstand. Her hand landed in something wet. Monica slipped and fell back against the sheets and felt the back of nightgown become instantly soaked. A thick butcher shop smell ran across her face. Screaming in great shuddering breaths Monica thrashed and rolled off the bed. More liquid splashed against her front but she got off the bed. She backed away while great sobs shook her body.

Blood pooled on the sheets. Popeye’s deflated corpse lay scattered on the pillow. Monica fled to the bathroom. For several minutes she kept her eyes closed and tried to regain control. It was on her, she knew. She didn’t want to see. It stank. She stank. Monica opened her eyes. She looked ghastly. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. Most of her nightgown clung to her in vibrant wet red. It was splattered across her arms, her neck, and even her face. A drop ran down her lip. She licked automatically.

Monica heaved and collapsed against the sink. Her gut kept heaving until nothing was left. Gradually it subsided. Monica shuddered and pulled the nightgown off. She dropped it in the trash can without looking and climbed into the shower. She didn’t come out until the water turned cold and even then it took her several minutes to open the door.

Monica dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. She called the seller and left a message apologizing for canceling twice. She’d reschedule later. After hanging up she pressed nine and stopped with her finger shaking about the one. She set the handset down. How would this look to the police? Popeye was killed in her bed and she didn’t wake up? How was that possible? And putting his head on her nightstand—his curly tail sticking out of his mouth—that wasn’t something that a raccoon would do. What if they thought she was crazy? They might decide that she had done this. Monica took a deep breath. But what had? She couldn’t go to sleep tonight not knowing.

Monica stood up. First she’d clean up the mess upstairs. Then she’d start investigating.

💀

A search online failed to turn up any recent reports of attacks on pets. Monica settled back in her chair and absently rubbed at her hands, still raw from scrubbing her fingers. She had buried Popeye along with her bedding and nightgown in a new flower bed along the back. She didn’t want the neighbors to think that there was anything odd so she had dug out the sod in a large curving bed. She had gone Home Depot and came back with bags of soil, bark, and a selection of new plants. Then she had spent the better part of the day working on the flower bed. At one point Joseph, Popeye’s owner, had been out in the yard calling for the dog. She had felt guilty when he asked if she’d seen the dog that she didn’t say anything. What could she have said? Yes, I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning with his butchered carcass in my bed? Monica took a deep breath, let it out, and looked back at the screen.

There wasn’t any sign that anyone had broken into the house. She hadn’t noticed any signs that anything else had been disturbed. The possibilities seemed limited. Could she have done it? Maybe in some sort of unconscious state? Popeye had been barking at her yesterday when she was in the yard. Monica didn’t think it likely but she refused to rule it out right away. What other options were there?

Bookshelves lined the walls of her study. It was a collection unlike any that would usually be found in someone’s home. The shelves were full of rare volumes. She had cases for the most delicate and valuable volumes. A couple safes for the really spectacular finds. That’s what she did—collect and sell rare books online. It was the perfect job. She traveled around the world. She got to work at home. Best of all she had the opportunity to read some of the most extraordinary things. Yet with all of this knowledge at her fingertips, and the internet through her computer, she was still at a loss to explain what had happened.

Maybe she should have called the police. Monica sighed and pushed her chair back from the computer. After dinner she’d try again. She got up to leave, stopping to straighten a box of new deliveries that had fallen over beside the door.

Scrunch’s fault, she thought as she picked up the books. He was always jumping on things he shouldn’t. Her eyes moistened. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Monica wiped her eyes and picked up the last book. The binding was broken. It might have happened when the box fell. Some of these books were very fragile. When she had a chance she would see if it could be repaired or not. She put it in the box, then went to the kitchen.

Although Monica spent the evening looking for answers she didn’t find out much. Raccoons did, at times, attack and injure house pets. There wasn’t any mention of the sort of thing that had happened to Popeye. She checked the newspaper’s online archives, animal abuse sites, and arrest records. Nothing came up that sounded like what had happened to her. So far, except for the notion that she might be doing this in an unconscious state, she didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Monica rubbed her eyes and groaned. She should get to bed. She was afraid to sleep. Would it be so bad to stay up? She could watch movies all night. If anything happened she would call the police. But first she wanted to make sure that nothing would happen. She shut down the computer and left her study. Then she went through the house and made sure every door and window was locked. She taped the pet door closed with excessive amounts of duct tape. When she finished she made some popcorn and settled in to watch her musicals, starting with Singing in the Rain.

Monica jerked awake. Something had woken her up. She listened. Other than the music for Brigadoon’s menu she didn’t hear anything unusual. She hit the mute button. There was a sharp intake of breath behind her. Monica twisted around.

What light there was from the television reflected across a curved, boney spine. Monica’s first impression was of a skeletal child, skin stretched tight over bones. It was crouched over something with its back to her. There was a stiffness about the bony shoulders. It knew she was watching. It was waiting for her to do something. Monica felt a scream building in her throat. What would it do if she moved again?

The head lifted slowly and Monica lost the impression of a child. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a child. It had a bald skull with a few bristly black hairs. There were spots on the papery skin like liver spots. But the ears were what really killed any childlike impression. They looked chewed. Mangled strips of flesh which hung in tatters around the ear channel. Monica didn’t dare move.

Bony arms reached down into the shadows around its lap. Monica heard flesh tearing and bones snapping. With a faint snarl it threw something away towards the wall. The object landed wetly and looked back at her with glazed eyes. It was the head of a Scotty dog. Smacking sounds drew her attention back to the creature. It was eating with great gasping, gobbling sounds. The noise and the stench made Monica’s stomach clench painfully. Her head swam. No—

She stood up.

The creature hissed and dissolved into a thick black smoke. The dog’s remains splashed on the floor. Monica swayed as the smoke oozed across the floor into her study. She waited a moment then edged around the couch and followed. She turned on the lights as she went. Much of the study remained dark but there was some light in the doorway. Monica crept up and reached in for the light switch.

Claws darted into the light and raked across the back of her hand. Blood poured over her fingers as she snatched her hand back, crying out. She backed up and her heel hit the dog’s head. She bit off her scream and took a step to the side. She saw a sense of movement, just out of the light. It was in there, probably on the box of books next to the door. But it doesn’t like the light, she thought. She didn’t think the light hurt it since it hadn’t been enough to drive it away from the dog. Monica edged towards the floor lamp.

It still hadn’t moved. At least she didn’t think it had. Monica grabbed the lamp with her good hand and pointed it at the doorway. For a second she saw it starkly illuminated. It was crouching on top of the books as she had thought, licking its claws and fingers with a broad purplish tongue. It had a wizened bat-like face. When the light hit it the big yellow eyes snapped shut. It hissed. A second later it vanished, replaced by the inky smoke which sank down into the book.

Monica carried the lamp as far as the cord would allow then stretched out her injured hand towards the study light switch. She could just about reach. With a grimace she sat the lamp down, took a step, and flicked the switch. Warm light filled the room. There wasn’t any sign of the creature.

Carefully, to avoid bleeding on it, Monica picked up the book that had absorbed the smoke. It was the one she had noticed on the floor earlier with the broken binding. The invoice for the shipment was in the box too. She gingerly picked it out. The translated title on the invoice was A Collection of Stories about Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

Whatever that thing was it had come from the book. And if a broken binding had let it out she didn’t dare burn the book or otherwise destroy it. She looked at her hand and winced. First, she’d bandage her hand, but then she’d come back in here and repair the binding and clasp on that book. Then she’d take everything out of the safe and lock it in there. She could get a new safe in the morning.

Monica carried the book to her desk and pointed the task light at the cover. Her Latin was rusty but a literal translation seemed to be A Gathering of Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

No mention of stories. From now on she was going to do her own translations. She winced again looking at the ragged cuts on her hand. She didn’t think she needed stitches but it was going to be sore for a while. Plus who knew what that thing had under its claws? Monica shuddered. She’d better take care of it right away. Two steps away from the desk she stopped and looked back at the book starkly illuminated by the task light. She hated to leave it alone.

She turned and went over to her work table. She pulled down a large number sixteen plastic book cover and spread it out on the work table. Then she turned on the table’s task light so that it was pointed directly at the center of the cover. She went to the desk and carefully picked up the book with her free hand. The cover twitched in her fingers.

Monica gave a startled gasp and nearly dropped the book but managed to keep a hold of it. She hurried back to the table and put the book face down on the cover. Quickly she wrapped the long ends around the book and then folded the short ends over as if she were wrapping a present. She pulled a large piece of book tape from the dispenser and taped the cover shut around the book. For good measure she turned the book face up so that the flaps were held down the back the book’s own weight.

“Now just rest,” she whispered. “When I get back I’ll fix up your binding.”

Monica still didn’t like leaving the book, but she was dripping blood on the floor. The sight of the blood was making her sick. She hurried out of the study, edging around the dog’s remains, and went upstairs to her bathroom. After pouring a liberal amount of hydrogen peroxide on the cuts she pressed a gauze pad to the wounds and wrapped her hand with an Ace bandage. It didn’t leave her with much mobility in her hand. She took a couple ibuprofen.

Her reflection looked pale. There was a smear of blood on her chin. Monica scrubbed her face with a wash cloth. She took a couple deep breaths until her shuddering subsided. She just had to finish this and everything could go back to normal.

💀

Downstairs, she froze in the study doorway. Her hands went to her mouth.

“No,” she moaned against her fingers.

The plastic cover was swollen. Inky black smoke, so thick it looked liquid, pressed against the cover, ballooning it out around the book. A trickle started to run out from beneath the book, bleeding down from the work table.

“No!” Monica ran to the table. She slammed her hands down on either side of the book, ignoring the pain that flared in her injured hand. She yelled right at the bulging blackness. “No! Stop it!”

That twisted bat-nosed face swam up out of the blackness. Yellow eyes squinted against the light as it pressed against the plastic, distorting its wrinkled face further. Its fat purple tongue writhed against the cover and left slimy tracks as it made slobbery noises. Sharp teeth snapped as it tried to get purchase to chew its way free. More smoke oozed from the underside of the book, bringing with it a fecal and blood smell. Monica took a step back from the table. She looked around for something that could help her.

The task light on the desk! Monica rushed over, grabbed it and yanked the plug free. She hurried back to the table and put it down so that it pointed right at the struggling face. Her hand shook as she plugged it in.

The thing’s face vanished back into the smoke. More light, Monica thought. She needed more.

She ran back out to the living room and unplugged the area lamp. She carried it back inside, plugged it in and pointed the lights at the work table. With a faint crinkling sound the cover started to deflate. The edges of the book reappeared. Monica thought quickly. What else?

Finally, after several minutes of scouring the house, she ended up with two more area lights, a large flashlight, and her Coleman lantern. The book lay bare within the blaze of illumination. Monica eased into her chair. Her sore hand was throbbing with her rapid pulse. She bit her lip as she turned the book over and began cutting the cover free with her Exacto knife. Once she had it free she discarded it to the floor. Gingerly she turned the book over and opened the cover.

It was a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Under other circumstances she could see a collector paying a handsome price for such a rare find. She laughed nervously. Of course they wouldn’t have any idea just how rare this book was. She turned the pages and covered her mouth. Horribly disfigured creatures leered from the pages with almost life-like intensity. Monica bit her lip as she turned to the section with the broken binding. There it was. The creature glared at her from the pages. The drawing was split by the broken binding. Monica felt chilled as she stared at the stark illumination. Her hand shook as she reached for the glue and started to work.

When she finished she bound the book by a large four-way rubber band that would hold everything in position until the glue was firmly fixed. Outside the sky was turning pink as the Sun started to rise. If Scrunch had set the creature free by knocking over the box, causing the binding to break, then repairing the book should bind the creature once more. But she had to make sure.

With a careful eye on the book Monica started turning off the lights. As each went off the study darkened. She kept her hands on the last two switches after turning them off and watched the book. Nothing moved. She didn’t see any smoke coming from the pages. She watched it until the Sun came up and flooded the room with light again. Then, stiffly, Monica got up to take care of the final precautions.

She shrink-wrapped the book. Three times. Then she emptied her fireproof rare items safe and locked the book inside. For now it would be enough. Eventually, however, she knew that more steps would have to be taken. Books decay over time. This one would have to be preserved against acid and environmental degradation. She needed to do far more research into the book’s origin. Maybe she could discover another way to bind or destroy the things bound in that volume.

For now, at least, she was safe. The book was repaired. Nothing else would be coming out. She had another unfortunate victim to bury in the garden and some cleaning to do but after that she wanted to get some much deserved sleep. Monica yawned and went out to face the day.

💀

3,875 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 54th weekly short story release, written clear back in July 2003. It’s the oldest story I’ve kept in my inventory. Why? Because it was the first story I sold, appearing in Alien Skin Magazine. It wasn’t a pro market but I was still happy to sell the story. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Garden of Evan.

Playing Possum

The best way to start the day? With a bike ride to work. Even with the chance of rain, it looked like a great day for a ride.

The only drawbacks? The stretch of old highway, logging trucks doing 60mph , and a narrow shoulder littered with debris from the trees.

Wishing didn’t change anything. Mostly.

A light, humorous fantasy with some crude language—for readers who like that sort of thing.

🍀

In the early morning, fresh from sleep and facing a partly cloudy Puget Sound sky, riding to work—that is bicycling to work—sounded great. It didn’t take Derek more than three looks out the window at the slowly brightening day, chowing down on home-raised eggs and bacon, to make up his mind.

Yes. Yes! A day with only thirty-percent chance of rain was a good day to ride the bike.

Out came the black, padded cycling shorts, great for keeping the balls from becoming ball jam on the ride, the bright yellow cycling jersey, great for keeping him from becoming street jam beneath the massive double-wheels of the logging trucks that did sixty down the fifty mile hour old highway. And of course the bright yellow helmet, but between that helmet and a logging truck he expected the helmet would make about as much difference as squat.

Work clothes, decent tan pants and a blue button down shirt, along with a fresh undershirt and boxers—he didn’t wear anything under the cycling shorts—plus his shoes and belt all went into the dry sack that he strapped to the handle bars of his 29er, a Gary Fisher Marlin, metallic green.

Fifteen minutes to get ready, then twenty miles of blissful riding to work. Or at least ten, because the first half didn’t really count.

The first half of his commute followed the old highway which meant sharing the road with commuters that buzzed the rumble strips and the logging trucks blasting past with a wind that threatened to rip him right off the bike. He tested his reflexes dodging all the broken tree branches that had come down in the storms, that the road crews never bothered to clean off the shoulder.

Nearly at the halfway mark—looking forward to joining the trail for the final ten miles— Derek sped down a hill with a couple S-curves. You really had to watch the commuters because some of them liked cutting those corners, and instead of slowing to forty-five like the signs said they gave it more gas. And for the same reason the road crews spent even less time cleaning those narrower shoulders.

The only thing to do then was stand up and pretend that the mountain bike was a racing bike, take the lane and haul ass. Every couple pedal strokes he ducked his head back to look past his left arm and check the traffic behind him.

Coming around that last corner his head came up and there, right there by the side of the road, was a massive bald eagle. The bird’s white head swiveled around, tracking him with a predatory intensity and it was only then that he realized that it was standing on a gray-furred body.

At that point he was doing a good twenty-five miles an hour, taking advantage of the gap in traffic, swinging wide across the lane to get positioned for crossing to the trail.

The eagle, clearly seeing this strange yellow-clad skinny man barreling down the hill, must have decided that it’d rather eat its road kill someplace a little more private.

Thick talons gripped the body and the bird flapped enormous wings, laboring to lift the corpse from the road.

Derek was moving. Legs pumping, heart-pounding like a steam engine. Thick saliva filled his mouth demanding he spit or swallow. The wind tore past his helmet.

The eagle looked so cool! It was right there, close enough to see individual feathers, struggling to rise. Its first attempt carried it another few feet down the road, right to the edge of the trail.

A massive horn blasted out behind Derek. He very very nearly—for the first time since kindergarten—peed his pants at the sound. He didn’t even need to look to know that there was a logging truck behind him, most likely loaded with logs straining against rusted chains, moving over fifty-miles per hour.

No way that mother was going to stop because some scrawny cyclist got in the way. Even if the driver wanted to, he couldn’t. Not that fast. Not if he didn’t want to jack-knife his rig and send the logs and truck tumbling down the road.

Which would still add one more white cross to the side of the road in Derek’s memory.

The other lane had a Prius coming toward Derek, but he didn’t even think before he swerved, cutting across the lane in front of the Prius, out of the way of that logging truck.

He hit the shoulder on the other side, turning to glance back as both the Prius and the logging truck tore past.

His front wheel bounced. He looked forward, expecting to see the trail and instead he saw the eagle.

Time enough to see the pure snowy feathers on its head, the sharp yellow-orange beak, wings out, catching the wind. Flying right at head-height across the trail. Beneath it, clutched in wicked talons, the limp raggedy gray-furred body of a possum.

The eagle’s white tail twisted. Wings dipped and beat powerfully. Derek swerved, trying to avoid the imminent collision. He saw the eagle release its meal, the possum falling as the eagle shot up into the air, free of its burden, and then he bounced off the trail.

Riding a mountain bike down a single-track was one thing. Bouncing out of control off the trail was quite another. The moss-covered boulder could have erupted from the ground right in front of him for all he knew. He saw it.

Hit it.

Sky and earth. Earth won with a bone-jarring slap as if to disabuse him of any notion of flying.

Stunned, not even remembering to breath for a second or two, every part of his body clamored for attention with shrill pain signals. Somehow he’d gotten spun around in his brief flight. He could see the top of the boulder, the spinning rear wheel of his bike, making a metal grinding sound as it slowed that couldn’t be good, and above that the partly cloudy sky turning to blue as the sun rose higher.

Derek hurt, but he couldn’t decide if it was broken-hurt or bruised-hurt. Should he try moving, or wait until someone decided to stop and see if the crashed cyclist was okay? That could be a long wait. He’d gone onto the trail, then off it, down a bit of an incline, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that it’d be hours before anybody’d even notice him lying there. And even then, what if they assumed he was taking a nap or something? People didn’t like to stop and get involved.

Of course a dog-walker might come, even if they didn’t usually come out to this spur of the trail. There weren’t any houses nearby. All around his small patch of sky were tall Douglas fir trees, all undeveloped land. Someday it’d be housing developments and little strip shopping centers along the old highway, but not now.

Nearby, someone grunted.

He still hadn’t decided if it was safe to move or not—the pain was bad—but he couldn’t make up his mind if it was so bad that he shouldn’t move. It came in waves, but he was breathing at least, so he called out.

“Help? I could use some help here?”

More grunting and then a small man covered in raggedy gray fur climbed up on the boulder and stood silhouetted against the partly cloudy sky. He had a fat broad face with pinkish, squinty eyes and a long naked gray tail that he held in two tiny black-clawed hands. His hands ran over and over the tail like it was a rosary. The small man wasn’t wearing anything, Derek could even see his junk hanging out of the fur beneath a rounded belly.

“What’re you looking at?”

The small man’s voice was scratchy and deep, but the words were clear enough. Derek looked back up at the squinty face. Seeing the pointed nose sniffing the air, it occurred to him that this was the possum, the one the eagle had beside the road.

“You’re the possum.”

“Am not!” The small man’s possum tail snapped like a whip and he spread his arms wide. “You see a lot of possums walking the fuck around on two legs, do you?”

“No. If you aren’t a possum what are you?”

“A fucking leprechaun, genius!”

Derek considered this for a second or two, also still trying to decide if it was safe to reach up and see if his helmet was still attached, or if his brains were oozing out onto the rock.

“You don’t look like a leprechaun.”

“Oh asshole? You don’t think I fucking know what I am? I’ll bet you think leprechauns are all wee little fairies dancing around in gay green outfits, don’t you?”

Derek tried shrugging. It hurt, but not collar-bone-broken kind of pain.

“Think censors, asshole.” The leprechaun, if that’s what he was, slapped his hands against his rounded belly. “We’re naturalists. Nudists, if you’re one of those prude fuckers. But no one wanted to draw us that way! They thought it was funny to draw us with queer little hats and outfits. Of course they didn’t know what the hell to do with our tails so they fucking amputated those!”

It seemed like there had to be holes in that argument but clearly Derek’s brain was too rattled to find them. Instead he seized on something else.

“You don’t sound like a leprechaun either.”

The leprechaun jumped up and down screaming, a rather alarming sound that brought to mind cats fighting. Derek was tempted to try and crawl away, but he didn’t want to risk hemorrhaging or something if he was busted up inside. This went on for several long seconds before the leprechaun stopped his fit.

Huffing, the leprechaun held up his hands. “I’ve had an awfully shitty day, but that just pisses me off! You think I should be all top o’ the morning, and shit, don’t you?”

“Well, is that wrong?”

“Listen, asshole, I was fucking born here! My parents were born here. I’ll fucking bet you that I can trace my lineage back a hell of a lot farther than you, and we’ve been here most of that time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That means, asshole, that I’ve got yer damn blarney stones right here, if you think I give a shit!” The leprechaun grabbed his junk and thrust his hips in Derek’s direction.

That didn’t make Derek feel better. He wiggled his fingers. They moved alright. The sharpest pain was coming from his left hip. The rest of his body just hurt, but his hip felt like a deeper pain.

“If you’re gonna fucking just lay there on the ground crying, we might as well get this business out of the way.”

Derek looked at the leprechaun, glad to see that he was stroking his tail again instead of other things.

“Business?” Derek asked. He lifted his arms up in the air as if signaling. Both arms seemed intact.

“Yer fucking wish! I wouldn’t waste my fucking time with you, but you did save me from that eagle, by being a complete asshole moron.”

Derek put his hands down and pushed himself up, anticipating great pain, but it didn’t happen. He hurt. A stinging pain on his right elbow turned out to be a four-inch long road rash full of embedded gravel, dirt, moss and Douglas fir needles. Blood oozed out around the debris. That was going to take a lot of meticulous cleaning to get all that shit out, and then he’d be lucky if he didn’t get an infection.

“Ouch.” Derek looked down at his body. More scratches on his right calf. He didn’t even want to look at his left hip, but he did.

A pointed stick stuck out of the ground. The end of it was wet with blood, and there was a small pool forming on the ground beside his hip. He’d gotten impaled, stabbed clear through his shorts! Bacon and eggs churned again in his gut, he could almost taste them, and quickly looked away from the wound.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Stop your whining and make the fucking wish! I told you I’ve had a shitty  day already, let’s get on with it!”

Derek looked at the foul leprechaun on the boulder. “You’ve had a shitty day! Look at me!”

Then Derek noticed his bike on the other side of the boulder. Shit! His bike! He got to his feet before the pain stopped him. He staggered and went back down, catching himself with scrapped palms on the rock.

“Watch the fuck out!” The leprechaun jumped backward on the rock.

This close Derek could smell a musky, animal smell from the leprechaun. It didn’t help his upset stomach at all. On top of that he could smell the blood, and a glance down showed more blood oozing out of the wound in his hip.

Suddenly it felt like the world was spinning, trying to throw him off. Derek clung to the rock until the sensation passed. When he raised his head he saw the bike’s front tire first.

Totally taco’d. Irreparable. It even looked like the fork was bent. Damn, he’d hit that rock hard.

“Yer bike is toast, asshole. How ‘bout you wish for a new one?”

Derek blinked, looking at the leprechaun’s broad squinty face. Whiskers sprayed out from his tiny nose.

“I could do that?” Derek asked, as an expensive high-end Cannondale 29er came to mind.

“It’s a fucking wish, of course you can! Make the wish so we can both get on with our fucking days. I don’t give a shit.”

That was something to think about. Derek’s hip pulsed with pain. He made himself look down at it. Gingerly he picked at the torn shorts. The wound wasn’t bleeding that fast, a slow ooze. He wasn’t in danger of bleeding to death, but a puncture wound was serious. Now that he was up the road rash on his arm, hands and leg were all  burning, pain ramping up.

He really needed a hospital, as much as he hated the idea.

“Well?” The leprechaun demanded.

“I —” Derek stopped. Why rush it? It was his wish, wasn’t it? If this leprechaun wasn’t just a sign of a head injury, then that wasn’t something to rush into. “I’m not ready.”

The leprechaun snarled. His tail snapped down against the rock, scattering moss. His tiny hand shot out and poked Derek’s arm, a dark claw digging into a smaller patch of road rash that Derek hadn’t even noticed yet. The pain was like getting an electric shock.

“Hey!” Derek jerked back, nearly tumbling himself off the boulder. “Stop that!”

“What’s your fucking problem? Just make the wish!”

Derek eased back and stood up. The world didn’t spin him off. He hurt, each movement hurt, but he could move at least. He limped around the boulder to his bike, considering the possibilities. The bike was in worse shape than him. The front tire and fork were lost causes, but that bad of an impact could have fractured the frame too. The rear tire looked wrong somehow, misaligned or something.

Wish for a new bike? Wish away all of his injuries? That was tempting. The pain seemed to be growing more intense in spots, while most of his body just ached.

But a wish? Why not wish for millions of dollars? Then he could buy whatever he wanted, and his wounds would heal on their own.

The leprechaun was watching him, glaring with those squinty eyes. His lips curled in a sneer that showed sharp teeth on one side of his mouth.

If this wasn’t a delusion, and it certainly felt real, then the world was a lot different than he’d imagined. The leprechaun was different than any leprechaun he could have imagined. That alone argued that this was real. If he was suffering hallucinations from a head injury then it should have looked like the guy on the Lucky Charms box.

“Asshole!” The leprechaun waved his arms. “Are you going brain-dead on me?”

Derek shook his head. “No, I’m just thinking. What are the consequences of making a wish? Like if I asked for money would the feds show up on the doorstep to arrest me for robbing a bank?”

The leprechaun let out a nasty little chuckle. “Didn’ hit your head too fuckin’ hard did you? Hell, when you went acrost that boulder I thought you were toast!”

Derek shivered, feeling like he’d just missed another car flattening him. “Then maybe we should just call it good and skip the whole wish thing?”

“Oh no, boyo. I don’t owe anyone. You’ll make that wish!”

The dirty wound on his arm suddenly sent a breath-taking jolt of pain up his nerves. Derek gasped and nearly sat down again, but he didn’t want to be within reach of the leprechaun. He needed a hospital.

Phone! He wasn’t thinking, he needed to call 9-1-1. He reached behind his back with his left arm since it hurt the least and reached into the left-side pocket on his jersey.

When his fingers touched sharp edges he knew it wasn’t good. He reached deeper and found several edges, and pieces that rattled beneath his fingers. He scooped it all out and looked at it in dismay.

The phone was shattered. It looked like it’d been smashed with a sledgehammer.

Derek looked up and saw the leprechaun smirking as he crossed his arms over his protruding belly.

“What’re you gonna do now, asshole? I don’t know, maybe make a fuckin’ wish?”

With the phone smashed Derek couldn’t call 9-1-1 for help. He couldn’t let his boss know what had happened. Not all that far away, just past the mouth of the trail cars rushed past on the road. Everyone going about their day, not even noticing the bloodied cyclist standing just down the trail with a smashed cell phone in his hand.

He dumped the ruined cell back in his jersey pocket. He wasn’t going to litter the trail. Then he bent, an action that caused more things to hurt, and grabbed the handle bars on his bike. He pulled it up.

The leprechaun jumped up, catching the handle bars and pulled himself up onto the dry sack. His long tail wrapped securely around the handlebar. Derek shook the bike.

“Get off!”

The leprechaun shook his head. “Not until you make your fucking wish! Come on! Is it really that hard?”

Derek had the left grip in his left hand, his right held onto the frame, and his wounds screamed at him. He tried to ignore the pain. All he had to do was drag the ruined bike over to the road and flag down one of the cars. Somebody would stop, even if they only called for help that’d be enough. But he didn’t want to leave the bike here, busted or not. That just felt wrong.

“Make the fucking wish!” The leprechaun snarled, baring sharp teeth.

Derek shook the bike again. “Get off!”

The leprechaun just laughed. His fat little body shook while his tail kept him firmly anchored to the handle bar. The laughter grated on Derek’s frayed nerves. He couldn’t take it anymore.

“Fine! I fucking wish I had decided to drive today!”

The leprechaun roared, “No!”

🍀

Ever since Derek turned the car onto the highway he regretted backing out of riding the bike. It was a fantastic day! It’d looked like it might rain, and he rode in the rain often, but today for whatever reason he hadn’t felt like it, but there wasn’t any rain in the sky. Plenty of patches of blue sky and sunshine, but no rain.

It was frustrating. He always, or almost always, regretted driving.

Coming down the S-curves on the hill right before the trail he had a logging truck behind him. He didn’t miss that, at least. Having that monster behind him while on the bike would have been nerve-wracking. He’d have been up standing on the pedals, pounding as hard as he could to make the mountain bike move like a racing bike.

Hell, he even missed that.

On the other side of the road a flash of white caught his eye. A bald eagle! It was on a raggedy gray body, possum from the look of it. The eagle looked at the approaching cars and evidently decided to take its meal someplace more private.

Powerful wings beat. It struggled at first to take off, but slowly gained height. For a few seconds it flew, right by the mouth of the trail, at head height and then it flew on, carrying its meal.

Derek sighed as he drove around the last curve and continued on to work. If he’d been on the bike he would have gotten a much better look at the eagle.

But that’s what he got by driving instead. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he’d ride. Or better yet, after work he could go out for a ride just for fun.

🍀
3,526 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 52nd weekly short story release, written in March 2012. Hard to believe that a year of stories has already passed! I plan to continue the weekly story releases. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Bouncing Baby Boy.

The Caretaker

The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.

Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.

He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.

Warning: Graphic content.

 

They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.

The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.

Continue reading “The Caretaker”

The Bug Builder

Jeb Petersen discovers an inexplicable talent. Give him a few dried maple leaves, a bit of walnut shell, twigs and blades of grass and he can create a butterfly. But what gives his creations life?

When ten-year-old Katie trespasses on his farm her presence threatens his creations and the tie they give him with his son.

A story of love, loss, miracles and healing.

1

Jeb Petersen watched his property from Peter’s room on the second floor of his old, weathered gray farm house. He wasn’t watching the apples rotting on the trees in the orchard. Or the chickens scratching in their yard.

He was watching for the bald girl that had trespassed on his property. Twice!

Shaking his head, Jeb looked down at the desk. The same worn desk where Peter had done his school work, put right beneath the window so he could look outside. Sometimes Jeb had threatened to put the desk over in the corner if Peter couldn’t focus on his work. That boy loved being outside.

One finger stroked down the smooth spine of a dried apple leaf, carefully pressed so that it lay flat and brown beneath his finger. Each rib stood out. Beside it, another brown and pressed leaf. A matched set for the apple bug he was building.

Jeb pulled over a dried brown cigar-shaped piece of apple. It looked just about perfect. It took practice to carve the shape you wanted out of a fresh apple and know how it would look when the apple dried in the sun on the window sill. It felt tough and leathery beneath his finger.

Working carefully, Jeb picked up one of the leaves and studied the stem at the end. Out came his pocket knife and he carved off a couple woody slivers, leaving a sharp point at the end. He poked the end of his finger. Just about perfect, or as perfect as you got this side of the rainbow.

Jeb pressed the pointy end of the leaf stem into the flesh of the dried apple. It stuck nicely out at an angle. He picked up the next and carefully trimmed its stem down to a point, then stuck it into the apple as well. Two wings for the apple bug and they looked real good too.

He picked it up and gave it a good eyeballing. Even unfinished it looked like a bug, especially the way some bugs could mimic leaves or other parts of plants. But there was still work to get done.

Jeb put the unfinished apple bug down and picked up two apple seeds. They had to be small, not too big or they looked wrong. He shoved the pointy end into the apple bug’s head, first one than the other. Two black eyes glimmered up at him. All the other parts were laid out and ready, but they were delicate and easy to break.

A couple antenna from dandelion puffs.

Legs selected from tiny delicate twigs on the apple tree.

He was sticking on the fourth leg when he glanced up, looked out the window and there was the bald girl, just running behind the old oak tree out by the chicken coop! Jeb shook his head, but the hand holding the apple bug was steady.

Jeb had to work quickly now and sweat beaded on his brow. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up this bug. He got the fourth leg stuck on fine. The fifth was harder because he didn’t have much to hold on to and for the sixth he pinched the body of the apple bug with a pair of tweezers. That worked and he got the sixth leg stuck into the dried apple body.

His breath blew out and the wings rustled with the faint sound of falling leaves.

The bald girl was out there, getting into who knows what. Jeb put the apple bug down, gently, gently! It stood proudly on its six legs, one front leg raised as if caught taking a step.

He clutched the desk and waited. Come on!

Then the apple bug reached up and ran first one front leg, then the other across its antenna. The wings flexed, swung forward and back, then vibrated so fast that they made a faint humming sound. Its twiggy legs creaked as it crouched and then it sprang up into the air. The apple leaf wings beat rapidly, carrying it on up into the space above the room’s rafters.

Jeb jumped up and ran out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the apple bug, now walking upside down along one of the rafters. His throat tightened.

“I’ll be right back. I’ve got to chase that trespassing girl off before she causes more trouble.”

The apple bug fluttered its wings. Jeb left.

Downstairs he banged out the screen door onto the wide wrap-around porch. His boots crunched on dried maple and oak leaves blown up on the porch during the storms. He kept meaning to get out with a broom. Ophelia wouldn’t like it, the place looking like this, but he thought that maybe she understood.

Jeb stomped out to the top of the steps. “Hey! I saw you! I’m going to call the police if you don’t get off my property!”

She popped out from behind the oak tree like a jack-in-the-box. A tiny wisp of a thing, not more than a couple turkey’s weight on her bones. She wore glasses with dark cat-eye frames. Not a bit of hair on her head. She had on a pair of worn blue jeans, frayed and holes in the knees, and a white t-shirt. A man’s t-shirt, much too large for her that it hung off one bony shoulder, and hung so low it almost reached her knees.

“Will not!”

Jeb took a step down onto the middle of the three steps off the porch. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Damn thing wasn’t even charged but she didn’t have any way of knowing that. He waggled it in the air at her.

“I will. I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll call ‘em and press charges of trespassing. They’ll toss you in jail, child, so you’d better high-tail it on home before I stop being nice!”

The bald girl planted her hands on her hips. “Will not, ‘cause I’ll tell them about those bugs you’ve got.”

Jeb felt a knot in his stomach like he was going to be sick, but he knew kids. He had to stay firm. Make her go home and stay there before she ruined everything.

“And you know what else will happen then? CPS, you know what that is? Child protective services. You’ll get locked up as a trespasser and then they’ll come in with their social workers and their rules asking if your parents are really good parents or not. They might just decide that you have to be taken out of your house and given to a different family. One that will teach you manners, teach you to listen to your elders and not trespass on other people’s property!” That left Jeb feeling a bit dizzy and breathless but he held the phone up, flipped it open. “So what’s it going to be? You gonna get out of here and leave me alone or am I going to make that call?”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Call who you want, but they aren’t gonna do any of that to me.”

“No?”

“No.” She said it so confidently Jeb felt like the time he had played poker in Las Vegas, only to realize that the other players at the table were taking him for everything that he had in his pockets.

“Why’s that?”

“‘Cause I’m dying.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with a hint of regret, that Jeb believed her instantly.

All the wind went out of his sails. He sank down, reaching back as he sat on the edge of the porch, his hands draped over his knees holding the useless cell phone. “Oh child.”

Jeb heard a scratching noise and saw one of his spiders, made from dried melon rinds for the body and long willow twigs for the legs, crawling along the porch railing. It stopped for a minute and then crawled onward. Out in the yard the girl lowered her arms and took a few steps forward.

“So? Are you gonna tell on me? I just wanted to know about the bugs.”

Jeb rubbed his upper lip. His tongue felt thick, useless and he could taste a bit of the chicken that he had for lunch stuck to his teeth. A flutter of wings and a maple butterfly, its bright yellow wings made from pressed maple leaves, fluttered past his head as it flew around the porch. He watched it fly in a circle, then flutter off around the corner of the house. When he looked back into the yard the girl was closer, her eyes big as she watched the maple butterfly disappear around the corner.

“What’s your name, girl?”

Her name was Katie. Ten years old and bald because of the cancer treatments that didn’t work. She didn’t come closer than ten feet from the porch at first, as skittish as a feral cat, but that was okay with Jeb.

Just thinking about how Katie was going to get buried beneath the black earth made his head hurt so bad that all he wanted was to curl up on the couch and sleep with the afghan Ophelia had knitted. After Peter’s passing he had done a lot of that.

Jeb cleared his throat. “How —” His voice broke. He tried again. “How long?”

Katie shrugged her bare shoulder. “Any time, I guess. They don’t know. I have seizures. They say that one of these times my heart will just stop and I’ll go to heaven.”

Words escaped him. What did you say to a ten-year-old after that?

The girl edged a couple steps closer and he saw her watching one of his egg shell beetles trundle along through the leaf cover. Dry leaves tumbled out of its path as it clambered up and over obstacles. She reached out with her hands as if she could catch it, grab it —

“Don’t!”

Katie jerked, jumping in place.

I have seizures. Jeb heard her say it again and felt badly for barking at her. He forced himself to take a breath.

“They’re very fragile. It might break if you touch it.” Or worse, like the last time.

“I’m not going to try to break it. I just want to see.”

“You broke the last one.” The words came out harsher than Jeb intended. He didn’t shout, but the shout was buried there in his tone, ready to erupt again.

One of these times my heart will just stop. He knew how that felt. He still couldn’t understand why his heart hadn’t stopped yet.

“I didn’t!” Katie crossed her arms tightly, hugging her thin ribs. “I didn’t do anything to it, but it did something to me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

Her fingers brushed across her forearm. That’s right where he’d seen the hazelnut ant, three days ago when she’d first come onto his property. He’d come out back to check for the eggs and found her sitting on the porch with the hazelnut ant on her arm. She jumped up and the ant tumbled onto the porch and had broken apart, nothing but nuts and grass and twigs. She left him there staring at the pieces while she ran off.

“I had a bruise. I bruise easily. But I didn’t do anything to it, I just held out my hand and it crawled onto my arm. I just wanted to see it, I wasn’t trying to break it or anything. It got to my bruise and just stopped. Then you came out and scared me!”

“I wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“Well you did!” Katie rubbed her arm again. “I didn’t notice until I got home, but the bruise was gone. Just like magic. I kept coming back because I thought the ant might help me more, because I’m sick.”

Jeb saw that Katie was about to cry but he steeled himself against that. It wouldn’t work. Not with him. “Maybe you didn’t mean too, but you killed it. It fell down and just fell apart. And it was a piece of my son, a piece of Peter. That’s what they are, pieces of his soul. He makes them live and you took that away.”

“I didn’t take anything. It crawled onto me. I didn’t pick it up or anything!”

“It was still broken.” He’d taken the pieces and tried putting them back together again but it hadn’t worked. The hazelnut ant hadn’t moved again. It was still on top of his dresser. “That piece of his soul, it’s gone thanks to you.”

Tears glimmered in Katie’s eyes like drew drops on the grass. “It isn’t my fault.”

She jumped up and dragged an arm across her nose. Jeb couldn’t keep looking at her. He looked down at his hands. On the ground the egg shell beetle kept going on its way, exploring whatever there was to see down among the leaves.

It was Peter. He had loved being outside, and that love of the outdoors, that’s part of what kept the bugs going. Jeb knew it, he felt it down in his bones. Watching the bugs was like hearing Peter’s laughter on the wind or catching a glimpse of his reflection in the pond. He was gone but as long as the bugs were here part of him was still here, too.

The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to explain, make Katie understand but he heard leaves crunch underfoot and when he looked up she was running away.

Poor child. Any time, I guess.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb said. The egg shell beetle stopped. Two chicken feather antenna waved at him.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb whispered again. “And what am I supposed to do? I can’t lose you again.”

The beetle trundled on, pushing under the next leaf as Jeb lowered his head onto his arms. What could he do? The bugs were all he had left of Peter. He had to keep them safe. If she thought they could make her better, she might come back.

Jeb slid down off the porch, watching his feet, and crouched in front of the eggshell beetle. It crawled out from under the leaves. Ever so gently, as carefully as the first time he had held Peter after his birth, Jeb scooped up the eggshell beetle. He held it in his hands, twig legs scratching at his skin as it tried crawling up over his thumbs.

“I’ll keep you safe. Shhh. Don’t worry.” Jeb turned and carried the beetle back up into the house.

2

Gathering up the bugs took the rest of the afternoon ‘cause they kept finding ways to hide and then each time he tried bringing in another one into the house he had to watch out because the others kept trying to escape. The maple butterfly, oak-leaf moth and the new apple bug fluttered against the windows like a fall storm. The spiders and beetles and stick bugs crawled around the room scritching and scratching.

Jeb sat on the couch with his face in his hands.

This was as bad as the times he had to send Peter to his room for something or another. All that boy wanted to do was run and play out in the fields and woods. To be outside breathing fresh air. Locking him up was the worst punishment Jeb ever inflicted. He never raised a hand to the boy, never had to because mostly Peter was a good boy.

Wings and legs scrambled, seeking a way out.

Jeb rubbed his face, wiped his eyes and looked up where the bugs battered themselves against the windows. If they kept it up they’d break something. The egg shell beetle had tipped over and was kicking its legs in the air.

Peter couldn’t understand being punished now. The bugs held pieces of his soul. His laughter. His love of sunlight on fresh green leaves. The fun of twisting dried grass into new shapes. The joy of walking through dry leaves in the fall. The delight he had of snow on tree limbs. Everything that Peter had loved about being outside, that was in the bugs and here Jeb was, punishing him for it.

Outside the sun hadn’t quite set yet, in fact the sky was turning a lovely shade of red with the setting sun. It was going to be a real fine sunset. Jeb let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and choked back a sob that threatened to overwhelm him. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes again and stood up.

“Shhh.” He took a couple steps toward the door. The bugs kept trying to get out. “Shhh. It’s okay. Let’s go back out. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”

Jeb took a deep breath. “Let’s go see the sunset, okay?”

On the way to the door he righted the eggshell beetle and moved it aside so he could open the door. The apple bug, the newest one of the bugs, flew past his head. The others followed and Jeb stepped outside as they all flew and hopped and crawled out with him. The butterflies and moths flew in circles around him and the sound of their wings reminded him of Peter’s laughter.

He wasn’t even surprised to see Katie back. She came out from behind the oak tree. He saw her look at him, look at the bugs flying around him and she laughed and her laughter was clear and lively, the pure joy of a child. It made his heart feel good to hear.

Then the bugs left him. They flew and hopped and crawled toward Katie. The eggshell beetle stopped next to Jeb’s foot.

“It’s okay,” Jeb said, though the words threatened to stick in his throat. “You go on now.”

The eggshell beetle waved its feathers and then crawled off down from the porch.

Katie saw the bugs coming and she took a step back and raised her hands as if to ward them off.

“Don’t be afraid, child. They aren’t gonna hurt you,” Jeb called. “I think Peter wants to help you. I’m sorry I tried to stop him. I shouldn’t of done that.”

Katie lowered her arms, clasped her frail fingers together and watched the bugs with wide-eyed wonderment. The apple bug reached her first, fluttering around her head and then it settled gently on her bare shoulder where it stuck out of the too-large t-shirt.

The other bugs reached her and Katie carefully sat down on the ground and reached out her arms to them. She laughed when the melon-rind spider crawled up onto her hand. She giggled when the maple-leaf butterfly landed on her head. They all came, pushing through the leaves to reach her, crawling up on her faded jeans to settle on spots where she had worn holes in the knees.

Each one found a place of bare skin. The eggshell beetle reached her last and she cupped it gently in her hands while the others balanced on her arms.

She sat like that for a couple minutes and Jeb thought his heart would break from the beauty of it as she sat with the bugs beneath the oak tree and the brilliant red sky above. Then the sun slipped over the horizon. A wind came up, stirring the leaves in the yard and when it reached Katie the bugs just drifted apart. They floated away into all of the other leaves.

The wind died and the bugs were gone. Katie looked up at him and he could see her tears catching the fading light. She stood up and brushed off her pants.

“Thank you,” she said.

Jeb shook his head. “No need to thank me, child. That was Peter. I believe he wanted to help you. I don’t know if he did or not, but that was my son. He was the sweetest boy.”

Katie smiled a brilliant smile like a sunrise. “I know he helped me. I can tell.”

“That’s good, then.” Jeb’s throat tightened. “You’d best get home before your parents worry.”

“Okay.” She waved and then she was gone, sprinting off with the grace of a deer.

Jeb sat back down on the porch. He watched the wind blow the leaves and heard Peter’s laughter. He saw the stars come out and saw Peter’s bright smile.

3,405 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 35th weekly short story release, written in November 2011, originally published under my pen name “Michael Burges.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the Halloween story Trick or Treat.