Gallery

The Watchmen Part IV – I’ve Decided – A Horror Novella

I stood outside for a moment as I watched the cars slowly pass. Everything moved so much slower here than it did in Dallas. No one seemed to be in a rush, or cutting each other off. It really was beautiful and even from here I could make out the mountains in the distance. I would be going back home tomorrow. Not back up to mom and dad but to my place in Dallas. I still had to figure out what I was going to say to both my parents─what I could say to anyone. Devon’s smile flashed in my head. I found myself wondering if he would smile at me like that again before we all faced the end. I think given time, I would have liked to get to know him better. I’m not sure in what way, but I know that I enjoyed his company. I certainly didn’t want him to die in the way that I have been. No one deserved that. 

 

I trudged into my room, setting my key-card on the nightstand and my bag on the floor. Whether I wanted to or not, I was going to that funeral tomorrow. Not just to show my support to the company, but to talk with a close friend of his. Maybe he spoke to someone before he passed away or he had confided in someone from our department. I’m not sure of the dynamic between him and his team, but I knew that him and Devon worked together a lot and seemed comfortable talking to one another. I would worry about that tomorrow. 

 

I picked up my phone and checked my messages. Mom had sent me a link to a pie recipe she found and asked if I would like her to make that this year. Leave it to mom to ask something like that a solid three weeks before Thanksgiving. She was forever worried about including everyone. Last year she had managed to cook a full traditional thanksgiving and a full vegan one for her sister. Aunt Marie was always obsessed over something─ her fine wrinkles, the little bit of weight around her tummy, the horrible meat industry and how they all lobbied together to get the public to buy into meat and animal products. I would get a link to a documentary at least a few times a year. Everyone had an agenda. Though, admittedly she probably wasn’t wrong about the lobbying. I’m sure it happened in just about every industry. 

 

I admired her for it none-the-less, I certainly couldn’t do it. I tried being a vegetarian for a while and promptly lost my shit. Even my mom had broken her no cursing rule and told me to stop being such a bitch. I still laughed at that from time to time. My mom, miss prim and proper cursing me out and shoving bacon in my face. I guess we all had our limits and I apparently was a real asshole when I didn’t eat meat. 

 

I opened up my work email and glanced through. There was a few messages from corporate about Zedd and a personal email from Devon. It was titled ‘I’m sorry for all of this.’ I immediately opened it. 

Hey Kate,

 

I just wanted to say again that I am so sorry your first week happened this way. Zedd was a good friend of mine and to say that I am in total shock is a bit of an understatement. I hope that this hasn’t changed your mind about working for us in any way. I hope to have you on our team for quite some time. I’ll see you in the office tomorrow, we’re all going to work half a day and then attend the service. You are more than welcome to join us or head home. You won’t be judged either way. 

 

Take care, 

Devon  

 

I reread it and then hit reply. 

 

Devon,

 

I want you to know that I plan on staying with the company for a long time. In no way is this anyone’s fault and I would never hold you or the company accountable for someone else’s actions. I’m sure that Zedd had a reason for all of this even if we couldn’t understand them. I lost a good friend of mine this way before high school, so I do have a bit of an idea as to what you must be going through. Just focus on the good times and the time you shared together. I’ll see you tomorrow at the office. 

 

Yours,

Kate

 

I was surprised to find a bit of wetness had gathered in my eyes. It had happened nearly ten years ago but I remember James. In some ways, he had reminded me of Zedd─ quick witted, shy, but very vocal when he was passionate about something. Why did it seem like the best people in the world took their own life? This thought depressed me more and more over the years. I remembered taking several psychology courses talking about how some of the most brilliant minds struggled with daily depression. I could believe it. Seeing the world as it really was had to have its downfalls. 

 

I sighed heavily on the bed and then pushed one foot over the other as I shoved my shoes to the floor. I just wanted to be done with all of this─ done with knowing about it and most importantly, done with feeling it. I had a few hours before I would have to leave for Dallas since it was a ten hour trip. We were expected to be in tomorrow morning, so I would have to go back to my place in time to shower and dress. I wasn’t honestly sure if I had something appropriate to wear to a funeral. Most of my clothes were very casual and the few dresses I owned were sun dresses. I couldn’t exactly show up in a flowery sundress for the death of a coworker, and jeans just seemed wrong somehow. 

 

After a little bit of searching, I found an online delivery service that would pick up something for a nearby store and deliver it tonight. I quickly browsed through some dresses and pantsuits before deciding on some slacks and a blouse. I at least had some black flats at home just for this sort of occasion. My parents had always told me to have a pair of black dress shoes in case of a wedding, or funeral. 

 

I sigh, browsing through the t.v. It had been a long time since I’d been to a funeral. The last one had been my Nana Genny’s. It had been a very cold day, the sort that made you shiver no matter how many layers of clothing you put on. I was still in my teens, old enough to understand death, but still immature as to what it actually meant. It didn’t really hit until grandpa Jay had started dating again. When he remarried, mom had stopped talking with him. I’m not sure why she did, after all he was only human. He’d been with nana for over forty years. It must have been hard to have been used to being with someone for so long and then they were gone. I don’t think I would want to be alone either. I still called him from time to time to check in and see how he was doing. Grandpa Jay had hoped someday mom would come around. I did too.

 

A chill ran along my arms and up through my head. I wondered if maybe I was getting sick from all the stress. I wasn’t one to get sick often, but when I did it normally took me out for a few days. I had the flu once as a child and I’ll never forget it. It was probably why I got my shot every year and washed my hands like it were some sort of religion. The kids always poked fun of me for it, but guess who never got sick? Let them laugh, cleanliness always wins and I was the proof. 

 

After wasting some time browsing my phone and trying again for the hundredth time to find these mysterious Watchmen, I decided that a trip to the sauna sounded better. I was worried that since it was still somewhat early in the day it may be crowded, however when I arrived there was only a family in the pool and an older man in the hottub. The sauna was people-free. I slipped my shoes off and walked into the heated bliss. I sighed, stretching out on the bench and wiggled my toes. It felt good─ really good. The heat stung a little to breathe but I didn’t mind that. I just wanted this chill to ease away. I couldn’t tell if it was all in my head or if I was actually getting sick. 

 

I close my eyes and breathe deeply, only focusing on my breath drawing in and out. I imagined that I was floating in my own ship in the middle of space, staring at the small particles floating by. The sun heated my back as I faced out toward the galaxy. Jupiter loomed nearby, huge and deadly─ but beautiful. I stared mesmerized by the swirling multicolored gas as I bathed in the glow of the sun. I am completely alone. This has been my form of meditation for years. Somehow, the thought of being completely isolated and floating through space comforted me. I think it would probably have the opposite effect on most people. For me, it was a haven.

 

I find myself often wishing that I could be alone. Totally alone with nothing more than me, my computer, and art. Art has been a way of life for me for as long as I could remember. I would love to sit outside and draw everything I saw, especially people. I’d brought my sketchbook along on the trip and thought that it was probably time to do something calming before the funeral. Plus, I would need to present something at work tomorrow. We had the weekend off, but I always grew anxious not having anything to do. 

 

I took several long, slow breaths. Don’t think about that now, I say to myself, think about the warmth. I focus on the heat and my breath. Suddenly, my mind wandered to the first night I experienced all of this─ the first night I experienced them. Despite the terrifying sensation of another being thriving off of my pain, I was curious about what they were. Their black hoods flashed in my mind, nothing but blackness behind them. Their long, thin bodies would disappear into a sort of translucent grey haze. They would never move, but stand perfectly still and stare.

 

They never said anything. They didn’t need to. You could just sense them. Sort of like when you were a child and tried to sneak up on your parents. No matter how quiet you thought you were being, they would turn around and shout, ‘boo!’ scaring you instead. Only, these things were more like a heavy and dense presence, pressing in upon you until you could barely breathe. Your breathing becomes shallow, your chest heavy. Your heart feels as though it will tear its way from your chest. Then comes the cloying, damp air as they invade our plane of existence.

 

They stand there, merely existing where they should not. Yet, all of that I could get used to if it were something as simple as discomfort. Nothing compared to the sensation of dying again and again, painfully with no sign of reprieve. If it was as bad as my dreams, if that’s even what I could call them, I would lie there suffering until they released me. Death didn’t scare me, living did. I could handle knowing that the blast would take me out in one shot and I’m gone. 

 

There was a thought that had started sprouting with each passing day. Little by little, I watered it and you could see the bud forming just above the soil. It’s perfect little leaves wrapping protectively over it. Zedd was right to do what he did, and I was going to follow suit. Whatever these creatures were, they weren’t going to stop. I was going to die slowly, and horribly. I could try getting out of the city, stock up, and move out to the middle of nowhere, but it wouldn’t save me from the fallout. Unless I could find someone with an underground bunker, that’s willing to share. There had to be a few of them out there, right? 

 

That would save me, but what about the nearly eight billion people out there? In seconds, entire cities would be wiped out, followed by radiation poisoning and then black rain. The bombs would take people out directly in the city immediately, but the ones just outside of it would suffer slowly, painfully, and then finally die after days of agonizing pain. People like my parents. Families. 

 

Even if a decent sized population had managed to somehow make it, the hospitals wouldn’t be able to keep up with that sort of catastrophic event. It would take decades to recover from it. 

 

I sigh, my eyes opening as I stared up at the wooden ceiling. I wanted to be hopeful. I wanted to be one of those people that have decided that no matter what, humanity could prevail and I could save them. The truth was, no matter how hard I tried or what I said, I had zero proof. 

 

And proof was all that would matter. If I was me, listening to someone tell me that the world would end, I would laugh, maybe roll my eyes and move on. 

 

No matter. I would do my best to warn them all and leave with a clean conscience. 

 

I had made up my mind, as soon as I got back, I would make it my mission for the next five days to do what I could. I didn’t want to live in this world, or the way it would be, but I could help everyone else that would be stuck here. 

Gallery

The Watchmen – Part II – No Escape – A Thriller Short Story

Part I

Nine days. 

 

I stare up at the ceiling in my room, completely lost in thought. Just to be sure, I had even asked Zedd what his dreams looked like. He had described in vivid detail my worst fears: his suffering was identical to mine. There was a small part of me that hoped these monsters just showed us our worst fears. That maybe they were some sort of creature that fed off of fear and pain. The more he shared with me, the more I wanted him to stop talking. 

 

I rolled over on my side and frowned at the poem on my nightstand. The 9 seemed more bold than usual. 

 

There’s no escaping it.

 

His words echoed in my mind. If that were true, there would be absolutely no reason for me to continue any of this. My whole entire existence was pointless. I wanted to cry but nothing would come out. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs and never stop screaming. It ached to be in my own skin and I was angry. Angry that I was one of the few people that actually knew what was going to happen, but powerless to stop it. 

 

Even if I were to try and call someone, or reach out to people─ no one would believe me. If someone had told me this a few days ago, I wouldn’t have believed them. I would have thought they were some conspiracy theorist or nutcase. Unless─

 

I sat up and checked my phone. It was early, but Devon normally got in about eight or eight thirty. I might be able to chat with him for a while. I had an idea, but I wasn’t going to come off as completely crazy until I was sure. I dressed as quickly as I could and jumped on the first train. 

 

#

 

“Kate, hey” Devon said smiling, “what brings you in so early?” I was surprised to find him already there when I came in at seven forty-five. I smiled nervously at him, checking my pocket for the hundredth time to make sure the piece of paper was still there. I relaxed as I felt it crumple against the weight. “Hey Devon,” I said, “I sketched this out last night and thought you might want to take a look at it.” He raised an eyebrow, “Oh yeah? Sticking to those old-school guns, I like it. Let’s take a look.” I tried to steady my hand as I reached into my pocket. 

 

I unfolded the paper and stared. More hooded figures had appeared and the skyline looked less blurry. I could make out shapes and finer details of the buildings. The hooded figures all stood outside of the city, staring at it. Waiting. 

 

“Kate?” 

 

My legs moved and I walked over to his desk, passing the little paper over to him. His hand briefly touched mine and I was suddenly very aware that I hadn’t showered that morning. I must look an absolute mess. I fidgeted with my hair and tugged at my shirt.

 

He was quiet for a few moments and then furrowed his brow. “I don’t get it.” His face broke into a wide grin, “Did one of the guys set you up to this?” He chuckled and handed the paper back to me. “ Is it some secret code that I have to pour milk or lemon juice on it? Maybe wave it over the stove?” he waved his hands around. “Already messing with the boss, huh?” I smiled at his words but at that very moment I died inside. Why could Zedd and I see it, but not Devon?

 

It must have been awkward for me to walk in there like that and not have some sort of a come back, so I forced a chuckle of my own, “You got me.” I wanted it to sound casual but it ended up sounding even more awkward than anticipated and it hung in the air, stagnating. I cleared my throat and turned to leave. 

 

“Hey, Kate.” His voice sounded off. I turned back toward him from the doorway. “Take care of yourself, this job can get really stressful.” My face burned but I managed a lame, “oh totally, no worries.” I spun around, nearly plowed into the wall and shuffled my way out. 

 

Great, the end of the world comes and I’m still managing to make a complete and total asshole of myself. I guess some things will never change. 

 

#

 

I’m still feeling slightly sore over my love life a few hours later, but I’ve knocked out a ton of progress on my main character. So, that’s a bonus. I’ve rationalized that if nothing else, this gives me something to do. It’s pointless, the game will never be released. I don’t even know when the bomb will go off. 

 

But I know the day. 

 

It made me wonder if it was just going to happen here, or all over. Maybe the beings only showed what would directly affect us. That gave me an idea. It’s my first week, but considering I’ll only have just over a week left to live, I figured fuck it─ road trip it is. 

 

I finished up my tasks for the day with a couple of hours to spare. Zedd had been oddly quiet today, in fact, I hadn’t seen him all morning. It’s a possibility that he is going to work on the night shift. Most of us hated that schedule, but there was a team that worked from four until midnight. 

 

Even if he never showed up to work again, it’s not like I could blame him. I mean, there was at least some hope that you are just over-tired and hallucinating, but to have someone confirm your worst fear? That’s true terror. I was hoping to at least talk with him a bit more today. The way we had left things last night made me feel beyond depressed. 

 

I felt more helpless than I ever have in my life. I was desperate to cling on to some hope that we could find a way out of this. Somehow. 

 

I woke up feeling a little better today, but having the kind of unwanted knowledge that I did made it that much harder to breathe. I shot him a text, just to check in on him and then headed to Devon’s office. 

 

I tapped lightly on the door. There were a few murmurs on the other side and finally I heard, “come in.” I peeked my head around the door and smiled. “Hey, there’s my favorite gal. I just got your completed works for the day. Careful─ you’re making the other guys look bad.” He winked conspiratorially at me and grinned. I laughed and shook my head, “Oh, that can’t be true. I’ve seen their work.” He typed a few things on his computer and then turned his full attention on me. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”     

 

I smiled at the southern drawl. I noticed that people here tended to address each other as sir or ma’am but it wasn’t in a professional way, it was polite and respectful. I was still getting used to their drawn out words and pronunciations. It took me ages to figure out the guys were saying pen instead of pin, which they pronounced as ‘pin’.

 

“I’m so sorry to ask this, but I’ve had a family emergency come up. Is there any way that I could work remotely and maybe take half a day off to drive up there?” His face suddenly grew serious. “Oh, Kate. I’m sorry to hear that, is everyone OK?” I shake my head feeling guilty over the lie. “No, no, nothing serious. My dad is out of town and my mom broke her leg. She just needed me to help out at the house until dad gets back Friday.” 

 

“No problem at all. Honestly, just go ahead and take tomorrow off and you can work a half day Friday, how’s that sound?” I’m shocked at how understanding he is. 

 

I’m also slightly disturbed how easily the lie slipped from me. I’d have to address that with myself later. One thing at a time. “Oh, and Kate?”

 

“Hmm?” I responded. “Zedd is not feeling well, but he’ll be in tomorrow. I’m loving the direction you two have come up with.” 

 

I thanked him and quickly made my exit. This was a weird day, but it wasn’t entirely bad. I felt accomplished, which was a weird feeling given the circumstances. I’m taking this all too well. 

 

 #

 

I stare out the bus windows for the hundredth time. I’m not sure what I’m expecting to see, but the tree lined roads are finally giving way to mountains. It’s something to stare at as I listen to my audio-books. I knew going too far would be silly, and if I went back home I felt like I would somehow get the same result. I decided on New Mexico. It was twelve hours from Dallas, but it was at least another state and would help prove my theory. 

 

I was still working on that theory, but at least this would hopefully get me another step closer to figuring something out. It was better than sitting at home and sulking. My eyelids grew heavy as we got to the last hour or so stretch. This state was huge. I couldn’t believe how long it took to get across. I could have gone to Louisiana or Oklahoma, but I figured if I was going to go somewhere it was at least going to be pretty. The constant drone of the audio-book’s narrator wasn’t helping and before I knew it, I was out. 

 

I blinked a few times, staring from the familiar building. This time, the entire floor was filled with everyone at the office. Devon walked past and flashed his winning grin, his warm brown eyes crinkled around the edges. I smiled shyly back and then started walking toward my desk. Usually the things had appeared by now, but instead it seemed like a typical day. 

 

I glanced around, curious about where this dream was going. I was vaguely aware of movements at each cubicle as I passed by. People were glued to their monitors, little clicks of the mice sprinkled through. At any moment the terror would unfold and I would stare at my insides. 

 

I would sit helplessly as the blast would blow me apart and I would feel every agonizing second. 

 

I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself to wake up. Please, I silently begged, I don’t want to go through it again. Don’t make me go through it again. The second I close my eyes I feel it. The office shifts and then trembles violently. Seconds later, the screams began. My eyes open and I’m once again faced with the tall, spiraling cloud that mushrooms and expands. It hurtles toward us and then slams into the building with a crushing blow. 

 

God, no. 

 

The glass cuts into me, embedding itself as the flesh peels back from my face. Adrenaline will not kick in, I can feel everything. People drop like flies around me, their screams eventually replaced with wet gargles. My lungs fill with blood and my one good eye watches as the earth shifts and I fall to the ground. My exposed nerves and bones take on a dull ache as my body finally accepts what is happening. Just like the ones before, I’m alive and I won’t die.

I had always thought that this was the part of dreams you would wake from and scream. Even in my more terrifying dreams I would wake up just as I was attacked or fell. Not only could I feel the pain, I could taste my own blood, feel the aftershock as the building groaned and tilted.    

 

And then, they are there. Or they always have been and I am just now noticing them. I try and close my one good eye, but to my horror I realize that my eyelids are gone. The debris lands softly on my exposed eye. The reflex to blink happens but all I can do is stare forward. The burning is so intense against all of my softest parts that I’m sure I will pass out from the pain. 

 

I can’t die. 

I can’t die.

I can’t fucking die.

 

They close in on me and groan in ecstasy, peeling my suffering from me as if I were a bit of string cheese. They fed on the others in seconds, but me, god fucking help me─ they were having a four course meal. I tried any way I could to die faster. I tried biting my tongue, but there wasn’t enough left of it for me to get ahold of. I tried in vain to move either of my arms, but too much of the muscle lay piled on the floor. I was stuck here, being consumed piece by piece─ layer by agonizing layer. 

 

#

 

 

I roared awake, my screams filling the bus. I heard a man curse in the seat in front of me and the driver came to a screeching halt. I ran my hands over my face, and then my body searching every bit just to make sure I was there. I drank in the air, so much clean, fresh air thank god. 

 

I sat back in my seat and let out a sigh. “Hey,” I jumped at the loud shout from the driver, “everything OK back there?” I peered around the row of seats and crumpled slightly at all the confused faces of the passengers. I cleared my throat, “um, yeah sorry,” and then I added “bad dream.” The entire bus groaned and people muttered, throwing angry looks my way. Sorry, I mouthed at them, my face on fire.  

 

I disappeared back to my seat and hugged my legs to my chest. 

 

Whatever that was, it wasn’t a dream. I’m not sure what it was that kept those monsters feasting on me but I had a sinking feeling they were the reason I was kept alive. I shuddered, running my hands along the length of my legs trying to spread some sort of warmth through them. The air on the bus had grown colder, we must be in the mountains. 

 

A quick glance outside confirmed it as we chugged along uphill. 

 

My thoughts turned dark as I stared out across the misty mountains, I had been able to sleep OK last night, but what if the dream returns tonight? Could I ever sleep again? 

 

#

 

The hotel was nothing fancy, but it was cozy. After speaking with the front end and getting my room key I was all set up. I walked down a few hallways until I found the first set of double doors the man at the counter had described. I walked through and saw to my delight that it opened into a large pool area. It was all enclosed and there was a hot tub. I’m glad I decided to pack my bathing suit. I was hoping the place had a sauna or something I could relax in. 

 

My mood got even better when I saw they had a sauna as well. At least there was something to look forward to tonight. 

 

After I got in my room, I set up my work laptop and placed my phone on charge. The signal here was awful and my battery was already at forty percent. I checked my messages and email. Devon had sent one about an hour ago and it was just to check in and make sure I had made it to my parents. I sent him a response that I was fine and I would be able and work by tomorrow afternoon. I added that he could call or text me for emergencies and then sent it. 

 

I was surprised to find that I felt energized. Despite the dream, it must have refreshed me. I glanced over room service and then checked out some local food on my phone. I was starving. I finally spotted a local pizza place that had decent reviews and placed my order. In less than an hour it was sitting on the dresser and I had a scary movie playing in the background. Even though my own life was the stuff of nightmares, I still found it comforting to watch someone else go through hell instead of me. 

 

I’d seen just about every horror movie made, even the campy ones from out of the 80’s. The boogeyman always fascinated me because they never died. I loved Halloween, Michael Myers just kept coming back. Ironic, given that my own hell in these visions paralleled that. Maybe he was just pissed off that he couldn’t die and took that out on others. Suddenly, I had a soft spot for the guy. 

 

I devoured three pieces before I finally slowed down. I was ravenous and sure that even if I ate this entire pizza, I’d want more. But after the sixth slice, it seemed to do the trick and I sighed and patted my belly.  

 

I wasn’t entirely sure how all of this would work, but I checked the image when I first arrived and it hadn’t changed. It was still the Dallas skyline and the hooded figures surrounding it. 

 

I was hoping that spending a night in another state may change it. And if that were true, maybe these things did prey off of scaring you. Or, it meant that this was going to happen everywhere. Maybe we were witnessing the end of it all. Surely we could travel miles out from major cities and be safe right? Isn’t that what someone sending a bomb would do? Target all the major cities? I remember learning in one of my science classes that if several bombs went off it would affect the entire planet and that eventually the fallout would kill us all. Radiation poisoning was no joke. We’d not only die, we would die horribly. 

 

There really was no brighter side to this no matter which scenario was true. 

 

#

 

After finishing off the pizza and the movie I decided to go ahead and hit up the hot tub for a good soak. The chill in the air brought a chill to my bones, even with the heater on. I opened the closet and smiled as I pulled out a robe. This place may have been old, but it was full service. You would never find things like this in a normal hotel. At least not one that I could afford. I slipped it over my bathing suit, grabbed my key card, and walked down the hall. 

 

A few doors down I could hear someone’s T.V. blaring. It was loud as hell, the person watching it must have been ancient. Reminded me of my grandfather’s shows of old westerns. I’m pretty sure I heard a horse whinny. Well, at the very least it brought me comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone. I walked into the pool room, hung up the robe and slipped into the tub. I sighed and then smiled, I was in complete bliss. If the end of the world really was happening in eight days, this was my idea of a great way to spend my time. It was perfectly quiet, just me and the warmth. 

 

My body sagged as the weight of the world slipped away. My eyes shut and I rested my head against the cool concrete. Seconds after I closed my eyes, there was a thunderous boom. I jumped, whipping my head around. The sound echoed and vibrated around the room, but nothing was out of place. Both doors were sealed tight. My lower lip trembled as the water trickled down my face. 

 

That boom, I knew it anywhere. I had it etched in my memory. I expected at any moment the room would collapse around me. I imagined the burning blast of air that stripped me of my insides. 

 

Stop it, I told myself, just stop. There is nothing there, you’re just tired. I tried to rationalize it. Maybe it was my neighbors T.V. Or maybe, I thought, every time you close your eyes you’ll relive your own death again and again. My blood ran cold at the thought of possibly never being able to close my eyes. 

 

How long could I last? One day─ two? I shuddered despite the surrounding warmth. Suddenly, the sauna didn’t sound so good and I decided to head back to my room. 

 

#

 

It was around three a.m. when I got the call. When I’d gotten back to my room earlier I had ordered as many caffeinated drinks as I could. After two monsters and several diet cokes, I was fairly sure I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. I kept action movies on and played games on the laptop. I figured, as long as I was moving, or doing something I couldn’t fall asleep. 

 

I was in the zone blasting away at bad guys when my phone went off. I paused and looked at my phone, it was Devon. Confused I answered immediately. 

 

“Hello?” 

 

There was a pause on the line, followed by a few sniffles. I decided that maybe he had dialed me by mistake, but I answered again anyway. “Hello? Devon?” 

 

“Hey, Kate. Yes, I’m here.” His voice sounded shaky as if he had been crying. I was instantly alarmed. 

 

“Hey, is everything OK?” I asked. There were a few more sniffles. “Kate, I’m so sorry to be calling this late, but I thought it would be better to hear it from me than the news.” 

 

“OK.” I answered. My heart was beating out of my chest, I didn’t know what to expect. 

 

“This is really hard to tell you, especially since it’s your first week. I’ll be making an announcement on Friday, but I’ve also been making calls to all the team members.” He sniffed again. “I’m sorry to have to let you know that Zedd will no longer be coming in to the office.” 

 

My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I had just seen him less than two days ago. “Was it an accident?” I asked softly. 

 

There was a long pause on the other end. I thought maybe he had hung up, but then finally he answered. “Zedd, I’m afraid, took his own life earlier today. I’m so sorry, Kate, but I have to go. We are closing the office down tomorrow, so don’t worry about work, OK?” I thanked him for letting me know and hung up the phone. 

 

Part III coming soon.

❤ Grey

 

I will be posting this story on RoyalRoad.com

The Watchmen – Part I – A Thriller Short Story

And the Watchmen wander the streets, gazing at the scampering rodents;

 

The flurries and flutter, a wisp of a coat. With weary eyes they usher;

 

Tick-tock, little rabbits run to your den.

 

For on this night, hallowed night, We send the world to silence.

 

Ever still, ever curious in your abode, you watch;

 

wait.

 

The Watchmen release their hymn to fall upon deaf ears.

 

Let the breeze stir, let the night rise; Oh peace, dear quiet surely now come.

 

You will huddle, sweet nothings, such dears in your homes; Oblivious, diurnal, and fear of the unknown; Eyes drooping and bones weary.

 

For the world, in one night, the Watchmen did see. They gazed from the dark, the mist, while it crept;

 

into the crevices, through humble dwellings and at last, Their eyes cast up to the sky.

 

This night, hallowed night, They gifted the world to silence.

 

14

 

It was just a note, some silly poetry I’d stumbled across in my old high school backpack. I remember taking a few creative writing courses before college, and then a few more in college. I thought most of my work had been transferred to my blog online, but I guess I had missed one.

The number at the bottom intrigued me. I have no idea why it was there, or what it was meant to be, but the font on it was different and bold like it held some sort of importance.

I can hardly believe that I graduated just a few weeks ago and already starting my new job. My story is like something out of a dream. I doodled all through college, worked on projects with my friends, and submitted a few of my art pieces to companies with some silly dream to be a character designer for games.

I couldn’t believe it when I got not one but two different offers─ from the companies I never expected to hear back from. We’re talking major game titles, the guys that went to conventions with millions at their disposal.

 

I still can’t believe it.

 

I was floating on a cloud as I packed my things to move down to Dallas. Texas, man that sounded weird. I was always picturing that I would be in Eerie, or some small town in Pennsylvania for the rest of my life. I don’t even know where to begin with clothes shopping, or what to bring. I stared at my shovels and snow boots. I guess those definitely won’t be going with me.

 

#

 

After several tear-filled moments and lots of convincing, I told my parents that I would be sure to call them once I got in my new place and I was all settled in. I had made arrangements for my new place over the phone, but I hadn’t actually gotten to see it. Saying I was anxious to step foot in it was an understatement of the year. Part of the perks of this new job was I got to live in the complex just next to our office. It was newly built and within five miles of Downtown. I’d be able to drive anywhere. I was bummed that I would have to look for a car, but according to my new boss I was definitely going to need one in Dallas. Apparently public transportation wasn’t anything close to what we had back home.

I smiled as the thought crossed my mind. I was still thinking of mom and dad’s place as mine. This was definitely going to take some adjusting. Thankfully, they had given me the weekend to get settled before I started work Monday.

 

My space was actually larger than I expected. I had room for everything and then some. It was a sad realization that I really didn’t have a lot. Except my art supplies and computer which I kept exceptionally organized and stored away. I wasn’t the sort to collect things, or buy unnecessary items. Basically, in less than a handful of hours, the internet was hooked up and I was good to go.

 

I streamed some music as I dug through the last box. I’m not sure why, but I decided to go ahead and look at that poem again. Hell, maybe I’d run up to a hobby store and get a frame. It was kind of a neat piece, I’d even doodles some hooded figures around it.

 

After rummaging around, I located it near the bottom shoved between some art folders. I looked at it and frowned. There were drawings on it, but this time it was a city skyline that was surrounded by hooded figures. To top it all off, something else had changed. 

 

I could write off the doodles changing as maybe my memory hadn’t been right, or someone was playing a joke on me.But the more I tried rationalizing that logic, the more concerned I got. My parents weren’t the joking sort, especially my mother. They both wouldn’t have done that. Despite it being odd, that wasn’t what was really concerning me. The number had changed from 14 to 12. It had been exactly two days since I looked at it last. My hands suddenly felt very cold and the color drained from my face. Was the numbers a sort of countdown? More importantly, a countdown to what? 

 

I turned the paper over in my hand, looking from the back to the front. There was no other information on it, no date, just the same words. The skyline looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen it. I pulled out my phone and snapped a few pictures, thinking maybe I could search it up online later and then put my phone away.

 

#

I frowned at the screen, shifted in my seat and then zoomed in on my character. It was my first design for a new game that was still in the planning stages. They had trusted me to come up with the side character designs. I was insanely happy at my role here as it was, but this was going to be a major release game and I got to be a part of it. Me. It really all was too good to be true. My first character, to my amazement, was approved and I was adding the finishing touches on her shirt and jeans. 

 

I added a patch, removed it, and then added it again. I decided the cute little hooded emblem would work with the dystopian theme and kind of gave it a punk edge. I grinned as I turned on the final layer. She looked badass, and not overly complicated which means other artists could duplicate the style in the department. I clicked save and got up from my desk to stretch. I looked down and blinked a few times. 

 

I couldn’t believe it. Had I really been here for twelve hours? A quick peek out at the office confirmed it. Everyone was gone except me, the building was completely dark. My mind shifted to the letter and I wondered if the numbers would change again and what, if anything, they actually meant. 

 

I’d just pushed the down arrow on the elevator when I noticed a light flickering in one of the cubicles. I guess I wasn’t here alone, one of the other artists must have stayed late to finish up. It was near the back and toward the middle of the isle. The sporadic light patterns reminded me of gameplay on a computer, like a shooter or something with fast movements. We didn’t have lamps, so it must have come from a monitor. I smirked, turning back toward the elevator. Someone was probably just chilling in the quiet office and playing games. 

 

It had been a while since I pushed the button, so I thought it would be close to our floor but the light had gone out. I pressed the down arrow again and it once again rimmed in the golden light. A loud bang erupted behind me. I spun around, expecting to see the person had stood and knocked something over or maybe something fell down. 

 

Instead, I was greeted with complete and total darkness. I panicked and froze in place, I didn’t move or dare to breathe. Ok, I reasoned, maybe the lights were on automatic timers. Suddenly there was a flash, and then the flickering started again. Except, it was the only light coming from the entire space. I turned toward the button, fumbling my way in the darkness to find it. Why hadn’t the elevator come up? The light continued its rhythmic pattern, only now there was a distinct noise to it. It ground into my head, the loud buzzing. 

 

My eyes were glued to the light, I was terrified that if I turned away something would get me. The hairs on my arms stood on end and I struggled to breathe. There was a whoosh, and then a sigh as a low groan sounded in the darkness. I could feel it. It was there, waiting just beyond the light. I didn’t think it, I knew it. I could barely make it out, but just to the left was a dark, hooded outline.

 

Its presence was full of hatred, it wanted to hurt me─ hurt me in unimaginable ways. It showed me what it was thinking. It wanted to watch as me and all of my own kind stood helpless at the towering mushroom cloud that formed in the city less than twenty miles away. I watched as my face went from a curious stare to an apprehensive one. The cloud seemed so far away, but then it was on me in an instant. Bile rose in the back of my throat as I watched myself smile wide, the skin and tissue blasting against the wall in a large, gorey pile. The whole time my grin growing impossibly large. My now half-blasted body crumpled to the floor in a loud, wet thud as the roar dissipated giving way to silence. 

 

I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed as I slammed my hand on the down arrow again and again until there was wetness. The buzzing stopped and I opened my eyes. I was shocked to find the lights were back on. The bell sounded behind me and the elevator doors opened. On shaky legs, I stumbled toward the elevator and yelped as a pair of hands gripped my shoulders. 

 

“Jesus christ. Kate, are you OK?” 

 

I wanted to cry at the familiar voice, but then I remembered that this was my boss. I glanced back at the space but found nothing there. It was calm, soft light filling the room. My lower lip quivered, but I managed to straighten myself up. 

 

“I’m so sorry,” I stuttered, “I─thought I saw something.” Devon released my shoulders and took one of my hands in his. “What on earth happened to your hand? Are you sure you’re OK? I was just coming back up to check on you and close everything down.” His voice sounded guarded as he peered into the office.  

 

I steadied my breath, convincing myself that I was just tired. It had, after all, been twelve hours and my first week. I was just stressing over the new job and move. I forced a smile, “Yeah, I’m fine really. I bumped into something and didn’t realize I cut my hand.” His shoulders relaxed and he reached out again to grasp my hand. He turned it over and looked at the jagged wound, “Either way, that’s a nasty cut. You should go get that cleaned out at the very least. You may need stitches.” I blushed scarlet and looked at the ground. I must have appeared ridiculous, like a scared little girl in an empty office building that freaked out when she was alone. 

 

Which is exactly what happened but I am way too proud to admit that in front of him. It’s bad enough that I realized it. 

 

I managed to nod my head in response, “I will. It’s been a long day,” I offer weakly. Devon smiles and clears his throat quickly releasing my hand, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to touch you, I was concerned about your cut and didn’t think about it.” I shake my head and smile, “No, no, it’s fine. I think I probably would have done the same thing.” We stand awkwardly for several moments before he takes a step toward the office. “You mind if I take a look at your progress since we’re here?” I grinned wide, “Sure. Let me go clean up and I’ll meet you at my desk.” 

 

#

 

I’m speaking a mile a minute as I spin the camera around my imported designs on the character. Devon’s face is a mask, I’m not getting anything from him. Occasionally he nods and murmurs as I explain the textures I used and the designs that can be easily duplicated by the team. When I finish, he’s quiet and we sit for a moment as he stares at it. Finally, he gestures with his hand toward my keyboard, “do you mind if I drive for a second?” I shake my head, “no, go ahead” and I slide my chair over.

 

 “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he pauses and clicks a few buttons, then grabs with the mouse, “but I can tell you aren’t as used to Maya as some of my other guys.” He rounds out a section and then pulls back to take a look. I felt my face grow hot, but smiled anyway. “Yeah, I mostly use illustrator and Photoshop with Z-Brush. I learned Maya, but I’ve grown a bit rusty.” He returned my smile, “Old school, nice. But, I wasn’t trying to say you aren’t talented, I very much think this is a great start. We’ll go over it with Zedd tomorrow.” 

We sit in comfortable proximity as he pointed out a few hotkeys and helped me with my settings. He’s really getting into depth, so at some point I grabbed a notebook and started jotting down the things that I needed to learn. 

 

I’m not sure what I’m more impressed with, the fact that he is taking time out to share so much knowledge with me, or that the owner of a game company seems to genuinely care about all his employees. I’d heard so many nasty rumors from other buddies that I was steeling myself before I got here, waiting to be yelled at. Devon seemed to be a perfect mix of teacher and boss with a lot of open discussions. He welcomed me to speak about any issues I was having and pointed out my mistakes in a way that I could learn from them. This was perfect. 

 

I don’t think either of us realized that it had been as late as it was when I got a text from my mother. 

 

It’s midnight honey, did your first day go OK? We haven’t heard from you.

 

I quickly responded to her and let her know that my first day was great and that I was sorry for worrying her. She told me that it was fine and to get some rest and call her tomorrow.

 

Devon mentioned something about us both getting some rest and that my mother was right. He walked me all the way out to the train station when it dawned on me─ the trains wouldn’t be running this late. I walked over to the schedule just to double check and sagged. The last one had been twelve thirty, I’d missed it by less than ten minutes. I could walk, I reasoned, it’s less than three miles. Or, I could Uber. I got a slight thrill as I pulled out my phone. I’d never gotten to use an Uber before, my mom had driven me everywhere when I couldn’t use the train. 

  

Devon caught on really quick what had happened and offered me a ride. I’m thankful for the dim light because he had seen me blush enough for an entire lifetime, let alone one night. He’s insistent that it’s fine and we’re on my way in less than five minutes. 

 

I’m pleasantly surprised that I get to see what the inside of a Tesla Model 3 looked like. I’ve seen a few on the road, but I have never gotten to sit in one. I’m amazed at how clean everything is, especially considering the white seats. It was so quiet, I couldn’t get over it. 

 

“So, how are you liking it so far?” Devon says. I grinned like a schoolgirl, “oh, I’m loving it,” I say excitedly,  “this car is amazing, I’ve never been in one.” His eyebrows raise and he lets out a surprised chuckle, “Well, I meant at the office but thank you. I’m pretty fond of it too.” I’m again thankful for the darkness as I yell at myself to stop being an idiot. I recover quickly, “you should be more clear about the questions you ask,” I say, shaking my head. We both share a laugh as he pulls up to the stoplight. 

 

“Sorry, let me be clear─ how are you liking everything at the new job?” He turns onto the street and I’m almost sad that we will be to my place in less than a handful of minutes. “It’s hard work, but I knew that going into it.” I pause for a few seconds and wait on him to respond, when he doesn’t, I quickly add “but it’s a great job and I’m very thankful to have it. I’m one of the lucky few that can say I draw for a living.” That got a smile out of him and I relaxed a degree. 

 

“I’m glad that you feel that way,” Devon said. He looks out the window and then glanced at me, “I meant to ask earlier─ Did you get a look at Zedd’s design already?” I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips, “At Zedd’s? No, I didn’t. Will mine clash with his?” My heart started to sink thinking about all the hours I put into a few of my characters today. Maybe I should have checked in with the team first, I hadn’t even thought about it. 

 

“Oh no, nothing like that. I just noticed that you both used a black hoodie design on your characters and had collabed. Just an odd coincidence I guess” Devon responded. I smiled at him despite the growing nausea. 

 

“Did he design his today too?” I asked. He nodded as we both pulled up in front of my place. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s why I thought the two of you had spoken about it.” “Oh,” I said, my awkward smile growing, “how odd. I guess great minds.” Devon smiles at me as I try to shrug it off and reach for the handle, “See you tomorrow Kate.” 

 

 

It’s not until I get out of the car and wave goodbye that fear started creeping its way back in. Had Zedd seen them too? I mean, a hooded figure is always related to death I suppose. Apocalyptic themes, blah blah─ It could just be that our minds were in sync. Yes, that had to be it. 

 

I tossed my keys on the counter and then sagged into my computer chair. I’m thankful that our hours are flexible at work. I could work the early eight to five, or take the ten to seven. I’m tempted to go in earlier, but honestly it’s crunch time so I know it won’t really matter and I won’t have much of an evening left even if I did come in at eight. I decided that sleep sounds better and to take the second shift. 

 

#

 

When sleep finally comes, it comes in fitful bursts. I can’t purge the image from my mind and it again keeps going back to my skeleton grinning from ear to ear, half of my face dangling by a thread. The hot, white light is blinding as the boom echoes throughout the city. 

 

And the worst part is It is there, watching from the corner. Then all at once, I realize─ not just It, but They. There, just in the building next to mine and then another standing below. They’re all staring at me, their dark hoods as black as night. I can feel the joy as they sense my suffering. They’re─devouring it. To my absolute horror, I can feel there, just there behind me. It’s right there.

 

I can’t move, and somehow I’m still alive. I can feel my bones creaking and the pain, like searing pokers jammed into my belly. My skin is slithering from my sleeves, falling to the floor in a sickening wet thump. I reach up and tear at my face wanting the sensation of dangling to stop. I can still see with the eye that now faces the floor and the one that remains in my head. I try and move, but I just fall to the ground. All I can do is lie there, suffering. Jesus.

 

I can’t take it, I just want to die.  

 

Let me die.

 

I screamed and screamed but nothing came out. There’s nothing but the deafening quiet. 

 

#

 

My eyes try to focus as I stare at the screen. I rubbed at them and stood for the hundredth time to grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen. I needed to get my shit together before I had my first team meeting with Zedd. He’d looked over my files and seemed happy with the direction I was going. I was a little nervous because this would be the first time I’d actually met the guy. We may have worked in the same building, but most of us sort of kept to ourselves. 

 

I got to meet the sound team earlier today and was slightly envious that they got to spend their time recording different noises for our game. It looked like a blast watching the actors get into character, or the strange things the guys used to make all the different sounds. I’m sure they had a sound bank, but Devon had explained that they like to add a little flair to each game. 

 

I hadn’t got to talk with him much today, but he seemed just as friendly as he did yesterday. I’m lucky to have a boss like him. Really, I’m lucky to be here. That’s why it was imperative that I make the best impression possible. I didn’t want to be seen as the newbie that can’t keep up. This morning, I’d even walked through some of the hotkeys and shortcuts Devon showed me so that I could use them with confidence. 

 

In the end, all I managed to do was stay awake and flesh out a few characters and vehicles. I was feeling pretty shitty when one thirty hit and I needed to show a team of people some scribbles and color concepts. I sighed heavily as I saved it to my folder in our drive and trudged over to the kitchen for one last pick-me-up. 

 

#

 

“Wow. Kate, was it?” I nodded over at Zedd as he shuffled through my files. He projected them up for the team to see and I felt my face growing warmer by the second. I kept trying to convince myself that I would be ready, but I was dying inside at the attention. I couldn’t wait for them to move on. “I want you to take a look at something,” he said. I watched the screen as he opened a secondary folder containing his work and then pulled it into an image viewer next to mine. My jaw dropped as I looked back and forth between the two. They were in different spots, but our characters had matching hooded tattoos. His was way more clever, hidden between the character’s knuckles and going halfway up his arm in a badass old-school reaper style. Mine was clearly displayed on my characters back and shoulder that went up into a reaper hoodie. I’d decided against the patch today and went with something a little less obvious. Zedd had caught it right away. 

 

“I can take out the flair if it messes with one of the mains,” I offer wanting to be done with it. He looks over at one of the other guys and they both grin. “Are you kidding me? This is great. Honestly, I think we should add her to one of our main crew.” Zedd pauses and then leans in to get a closer look. “Is that a scythe, that converts into a hoverboard?” I blink a few times and then stutter, “yeah─ I guess I got carried away.” The whole team laughs as I silently try to melt into the chair. 

 

“I don’t say these sorts of things lightly,” “he really doesn’t,” one of the other guys muttered. That gets another hearty laugh and it’s a few more seconds before Zedd calms them down. “But seriously, I see why Devon hired you. Did you get to see our concepts before you drew yours?” I press my lips together and shake my head side to side. “I probably should have, that would have been smart.” He chuckles. “Well, we can clean it up a little bit with the rest of the team and she’ll fit right in. Missy, I think we got ourselves a new main character.” 

I’m mortified at the thought, “Well, no, I mean it’s just some scribbles. We should ask Devon first right?” I’m practically stumbling over every word. The corners of his mouth turn up and there’s an unsettling gleam in his eye. “There’s a reason I’m team lead, Kate. Devon trusts me.” “Oh no, well, I didn’t mean that you weren’t─” words fail me and I’m left speechless at the thought of my new responsibility. This is all too much too soon, but I thanked him and smiled. 

 

I’m flooded with relief as they move on to the rest of the team. I couldn’t believe the talent I saw and they are all working on backgrounds, and side characters. I definitely didn’t deserve this. As soon as the meeting ends, I was determined to pull Zedd aside and tell him to just put me back on the side characters. 

 

The meeting lasts for just over an hour and we’re all packed up to leave. I made a beeline for Zedd and tried my best to argue that someone else’s work should be used before mine─especially since they had been there longer. That got me nowhere fast, and in the end Zedd finally convinced me that it would be fine and that he would supervise me every step of the way. 

 

After pouting for all of five minutes and slinking away, it suddenly hit me─ why am I being such a baby about this? Anyone else in my graduating class would have killed to be in the position I was. I just needed to get over this fear and allow myself to believe I was hired out of talent. 

 

I thought back to the comments earlier during our meeting and smiled, There’s a reason I’m team lead, Kate. Ok, maybe I was being a little harsh on myself. 

 

#

 

I nibbled on my stylus as I sat back and stared at my submission art. I wanted it to be perfect and I’d been playing with my Maya all day. I pulled her into a standing, and then crouching pose before I decided to send her bent on the hoverboard. Both her hands were sprawled out with flair and I made a quick gif of her pose animation for the opening credits. Technically, it’s a whole other team that does that part, but I wanted to present her with style. 

 

Zedd told me that the social media guys were working on a fun build up to release her as a surprise and asked me to sit in on a quick skype with them today. It felt super awkward at first until one of the dudes and me hit it off on another game we loved. I described in detail about her abilities, and we came up with several ability trees in less than an hour. It was going to have to be run through Devon, but Zedd said that the rough draft was looking great and that we were early enough in that adding a fourth lead was no big deal. 

 

After what felt like a long, but productive day I stood and stretched. I sent over my final draft and copied Devon on it like Zedd mentioned. I looked at my fitbit and frowned, I had barely gotten in three thousand steps today. I was definitely going to the gym tonight, especially after the team meeting donuts. I suddenly felt very aware of how many I’d eaten. Was it two, three? I shook my head, yep definitely gym time. 

 

“Hey.” I leapt at the voice and spun around. It was Zedd, but he looked─ different. His normally well kempt hair was wild and his eyes were rimmed with red. He looked as if he had rolled out of bed from a long night of drinking. 

 

And god, he smelled

 

What was that putrid odor? I tried to smile, but my wavering words gave me away, “oh, hey Zedd,” I replied, “what’s up?” He staggered toward me, his eyes trained on mine. His arm came up and he pointed at me, jabbing in my direction, “you saw them too. Didn’t you?” My eyes grew wide at how angry he sounded. “Saw who?” I asked carefully, edging my way back toward the elevator. 

 

His red, watery eyes bored into mine. He looked as if he would fall over at any moment. His hand stayed mid-air but he jabbed it in another direction, “them,” he whispered hoarsely. I swallowed thickly, but remained quiet. Zedd looked over toward the area I had first spotted the creature and nodded, “I saw your sketches and it made me curious,” he slurred. Was─he drunk? 

 

Then it dawned on me, that was the odor I had smelled, it was vomit mixed with liquor. “So I went back and reviewed the cameras.” I covered my mouth and shook my head, “oh god, I’m so embarrassed, I was really tired and it had been a long day.” His finger came up to his mouth and he shook his head, silencing me. “I saw how scared you got,” he whispered.  I shifted uncomfortably at his words, not really sure what he wanted me to say. 

 

Before I could say anything, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. The crinkling sounded loud in the large, open office. “Here,” he growled, “take a look at this.” He thrust his hand toward me. I leaned forward gingerly and took the paper from his hand. “I thought it was just me until I saw your drawing.” I glanced up at him confused and then down at the paper. 

 

The hooded figure glared back at me from the sheet, nearly filling the page. There was no denying it─ the darkness glared back at you, gleefully inhaling all the pain, the suffering. I could feel the entity’s eagerness oozing from the page. And there, right there were the words. The same poem that I had discovered in my box from college. “Where did you get this?” I demanded. He blinked in surprise at my anger. 

 

“You’ve seen this before?” He grabbed my shoulders and shook me, hard.  I tried to pull away, but he held on tight. “You have to let me see it. Does yours─change?” My body grew cold as I realized what he meant. The numbers. He released me slowly as he studied the look on my face. My legs felt like they were going to give out. I didn’t want to, but I scanned the page all the way down to the bottom. There, in bold print were the neatly typed numbers: 

 

10    

 

#

 

“I’ll have the number four, well done, with a coffee,” Zedd responded mechanically.  I could tell he’s been here a few times, the waitress smiled and called him by name. I ordered a muffin and coffee, smiling politely back. Zedd had managed to clean himself up some. His brown hair was combed back and he smelled a little less sour with a hint of mint. He must have swigged some mouthwash. 

 

As soon as the waitress left, Zedd turned his attention to me. He cleared his throat, “hey, listen─ sorry I gave you a scare earlier. It’s just, no one else has” he trailed off, taking a deep breath. He seemed to really be struggling with the next sentence, “seen what I have. I thought I was going crazy.” I nodded sympathetically, “it’s ok. I thought I was just, you know, tired or something. But, how did you know we saw the same thing? I mean, it was just a hooded figure. There’s tons of those around. It’s not exactly original.” He stared at me, quiet for several beats. 

 

“You’ve seen them, right?” his voice is soft, but it’s emotional.  I tilt my head to the side, “I saw them, yes. But I only saw more than one when I─” I hesitated. He was the one that brought me here, but suddenly I felt dumb saying it out loud. “That wasn’t a dream. It’s going to happen.” It was my turn to stare at him, “how do you know that?” I asked. 

 

“You asked how I knew we saw the same thing. I know because I felt that same feeling when I looked at your drawing. Plus, check this out” he pulled out his tablet and opened the files back up. It was our drawings sitting side by side. “It took me a while to spot it, but there it was, plain as day.” He tapped on the screen and then zoomed in on both images. “Do you remember drawing this?” I frowned at the screen, squinting to see what he was trying to show me. 

 

At first all I could make out were what appeared to be a bunch of squiggly lines. I looked from one character to the other, trying to find some similar pattern or shape. “You can’t spot it yet, can you?” I shake my head, “no, sorry.” He taps on the screen a few times and then desaturated the images. The color drains from my face as he pushed the screen toward me. “How about now?”

 

Suddenly, I can see them everywhere. Words scrawled across their clothes, skin, making up part of the scythe, on the hoodie, covered in the background repeating over and over again:

 

Tick-tock, little rabbits.

 

My stomach is in my throat as I think about the joy that creature plucked from me as the skin slid from my bones and my insides sprayed the walls. How delighted It was to dine on my terror. 

“There’s no escaping it.” Zedd’s voice sounded defeated, tired. “It has to be what that countdown is on our papers.” I don’t know what to say, because there is nothing to say. After several moments of silence, the waitress brings us our food. We both thank her, but neither of us touch our plate once she’s gone.

 

Part II coming soon.

❤ Grey

I will be posting this story on RoyalRoad.com

Gallery

Recipes moved to my food blog – Link below!

Hey guys! I’m slowly working toward moving all my recipes over to the new food blog. It’s a work-in-progress, but I’ll have them up as soon as I can.

Pinterest

Food Blog

So what happens to this blog? I will keep this as articles, and stories so it doesn’t become confusing for people that are following this for the articles and writing. So, easy peasy─

This blog will be for writing and podcasts, and the food blog will be just for food!

I hope you guys have a great week, and I look forward to posting tons of fun stories (and spooky stories with the holiday’s coming up) and audiobooks.

Take care all,

❤ Grey

Gallery

Fantasy Stories – Anna’s Adventures Part III

Part I

Part II

Here is the next chapter of our Twitter stories. More to follow soon. If you’d like to adventure with us, you can vote on my daily polls to see where Anna goes and what she does next!

Anna dove into the grass, rolling out of the direct path of destruction. She pumped her legs as fast as they would carry her. Dirt, and debris showered her. It was getting harder to see. Was she still running in the same direction?

There was no sense in looking back. She ran forward as long as her lungs would allow, the deafening whistle ever-present. Something hard smacked into her side, then after a few more strides across her face. She’d managed to stumble into the woods.

Even as far as she believed she had pushed herself, the screaming of the tornado had not lessened. Trees were being pulled, uprooted as close as 50 feet away. Her body felt as if it would be lifted at any moment. This was it, she really felt it. The end of everything.

#

The ground rushed at Anna’s face as thousands of tiny specs dug into her flesh. She clawed at anything she could as her legs flew out behind her. Her arms were quickly giving out. Maybe this was for the best─ maybe it was meant to be.

Her face crusted with dirt as tears streamed from her eyes. What had she done with herself? What had she done with her life? She was already twenty-nine with a dead end job and living off of her mother’s insurance money. How pathetic could you be?

Anna’s hands kept finding dirt. She stretched with all her strength, each grab more disheartening than the last. How long could this last? When would her arms finally collapse? She choked and sputtered as the dirt flew into her lungs.

Her arms collapsed, the wind whipping her hair in a tangled mess behind her. She felt herself being dragged backward as she pawed feebly at the dirt. The debris pummeled her head as she kept it low to the ground. It was the only way she could breath in the storm.

Anna felt the second she let go. All the good and the bad things she had done with her life flashed into her mind. What would her mother think? Simply letting go without a fight─to what end? Being swallowed up and ripped apart by a bit of rotating air?

A curious thing happened. One that Anna never knew she had within her. It bubbled up and yelled from deep within her, “I will not!” Her hands flew out and clawed deep into the earth. She gripped with all her might, pulling at all the roots, dirt, and debris beneath her.

With a hearty yell, Anna lunged forward a foot, maybe more, and then another. And another. Until her hand found air. She searched it frantically─ looking for solid ground. Finally, she found it. It was directly below her body. A cave? A drop? She didn’t know.

A tree ripped away beside her, a rock narrowly missed her head. It was as if the earth itself were coming uprooted. It was do or die, this moment, and it was her choice. She decided it far better a death than this and took the leap of faith.

#

Anna fell flat onto the other side. She wasn’t quite sure how she had landed on her back and remained upright, but somehow─ here she was.

She sat up, brushing the debris from her face, hair, and neck. The roaring had ceased, leaving behind a deafening silence. She sat very still, just inhaling and exhaling. She wondered if the boy was looking in on her. ‘We’re watching your every move.’ They’d said.

She drew her legs up, and though she didn’t trust them completely, and there was quite a bit of wobbling, she finally stood up. After a few more steadying breaths, Anna finally took a look at her surroundings. Her eyes widened.

The bridge seemed to stretch on forever. The more she looked, the further it went. Surely this was an optical illusion, there had to be a support somewhere. She looked up, and then behind her. It was a dead end, a solid wall of rock. Suddenly she felt very vulnerable on this small, grassy island. It couldn’t have been more than five feet in diameter, the whole of it! She peeked over the edge, only to find that the few pebbles that fell over from her shoes hadn’t made a sound. Was she…on a pillar? Anna spun around searching.

Yes, she found. There was literally nothing around and even if there were, you wouldn’t be able to see it. There was miles, upon miles of fog! It was a wonder that the bridge was so clearly visible. But then, now that she thought on it, they must have done this on purpose.

Anna ran her hands along the rails and gingerly pressed her foot onto the first few boards. There were no creaks or groans, it was incredibly solid. Like it were new, and yet old all at once. Someone had put some incredible work into this bridge.

The first dozen or so feet went by slowly, but after she neared thirty feet, she relaxed to her natural gait. It was a strong bridge, the sort she remembered walking across as a girl when her family went abroad. Those were good times, before her father had gone.

There were noises in the air now. Things that she hadn’t heard before. They were low and continuous, like a drone, and then high pitched sounds mixed in. It was as haunting as it was lovely, ethereal in its own way.

The smell reminded Anna of the sea. The air was chilly and damp. It was the kind of breeze that made you get goosebumps and all the hairs on your arms to stand on-end. She wasn’t sure, but it sounded like water was very near.

To be continued!

Thanks for adventuring with me. Let’s see what Anna gets in trouble with next time. ❤

❤ Grey

 

Fantasy Stories – Anna’s Adventure’s Part II

Here is the next chapter of our Twitter stories. More to come soon!

The boy opened the box to reveal a set of soft, grey robes. He left briefly, and then returned with strange bottles filled with varying liquids. The boy trilled at her, the noise calming and pure.

He waved toward the small enclosure. His hand glittered and then suddenly, the room brightened behind her. His eyes crinkled slightly at the corners and soft, pillowy black soot flowed from them. They didn’t leak, but rather dissipated into thin air.

He tugged at her gently and she gathered that the robes and liquids were for her. He glided from the room, the only sound the door closing behind him. She stared down at the bottles, her brows creasing.

After a few whiffs, she noted one smelled like earth, another very flowery, and a third clean and mild.After making an executive decision, she chose the mild, clean scent. The space that was lit was carved from the same stone as everything else. Jetting out from the space were 3 triangle shaped rocks. Below them looked like some sort of pulley.

When she returned to the room, a letter had been placed on her bed. “The High Order has requested your presence before the hour of normal rising tomorrow. Please arrive on time, and in proper attire.” A strange symbol was stamped at the bottom. Something Anna could only assume to be one of the High Order’s names. Then she remembered earlier conversations with the boy about names, power, and meaning. This must have been their way of protecting their name. How very curious.

Anna shrugged off her robe, stepped into the space, and gently pulled down the latch. A blast of very warm water sprayed from every direction. She opened the bottle and poured a bit onto her palm. It smelled delightfully like laundry detergent.

When she woke, she found a tray of what looked like food. Upon closer inspection, it also smelled like food. She brought it up to her face and nearly melted at the smell of freshly baked bread. She devoured the entire loaf and was on her second, when the door opened.

The boy looked at her, smiled, and then sat in the nearest chair. He had a large book with him that he laid across his tiny lap. Anna looked to him, brushing the crumbs from her face. She suddenly felt very dirty sitting next to him and his tidy robes.

His voice sang out beautifully, like a bit of poetry on a wall of text. The book flew open, there was a flash and then images sprung to life before her. “We, the generation of the few, have waited for some time for a moment such as this.” A beautiful swirl of purple skated across the surface of the book and then formed into images of his people─ somehow managing to perfectly illustrate the swirling soot of their eyes. “Once, we lived side by side in perfect harmony.” The shapes changed to form their kind and hers walking together, laughing and hugging.

“But, like all things, that time came to an end.” The boy closed the book before she could see the lighted story that would follow his words. His expression was as silent as his words, showing nothing. “What happened?” she asked quietly.

“That, I’m afraid, must be saved for another time.” He stood and walked her over to the box. “I must advise that you be sure to dress yourself in the clothing provided.” The boy paused, looking up at her through long lashes. “Unless of course you prefer to die a horrible no good, and very painful death.” He giggled at the last statement & then strode toward the door. “Wait─” she called, “what trial? What do you mean death?” The door snapped shut with a metallic click. She sighed looking over at the box. Well, maybe he’ll disclose that later too.

#

The morning air was far colder than Anna expected it to be as she shivered beneath the robes. Some parts, colder than others. This cloth they gave her was far too thin for her liking. She trailed slightly behind the attendant that had come to get her.

They were now crossing into an even further underground area. She could tell it was further underground because the air had grown damp in her lungs. After several heartbeats, they reached an open field. Human sized grass stretched as far as the eye could see.

A scroll fell to the ground & the attendant boomed loudly, “You will be up against your first trial of many. First, we will see how you compare & judge every action that you make. As we have been doing since your arrival.” With that, the girl nodded curtly and turned away. “Now just hold on a min-” she chased after the girl but ran face first into an invisible wall. “What test?” she yelled as loud as she could. But to no avail, the woman kept distancing herself from Anna.

She turned and the clouds behind her roll in hard and fast with a flash of lightening. 

To be continued as the voting progresses!

Stay tuned for our next adventure. You can vote on my Twitter to add your own spin. Let’s see where the fun takes us~

Until we adventure again.

❤ Grey

🌫️

🌧️

A spiral cloud forms out in the field less than a mile out. It begins to grow larger and with horror Anna realizes it’s getting closer!

 

 

Gallery

Fantasy story – Anna’s Adventures!

Deep in the recesses of Grey’s mind is a story aching to be told. Just about all day every day I imagine things, I daydream, and I love to share it. It’s literally killing me not being able to release the novel I’m currently planning on getting published!

But, (oh, hohoho~) that doesn’t mean I can’t write for all of you still in some capacity. I love interacting with all of you, so I have a fun Twitter account that I like to poll, and tell tales. I realized, however, that some of you might not be able to keep up. So I can recap here! Here we go, enjoy~

Today, a young boy no more than 10 stumbled onto the driveway behind Ms. Anna’s home at 2401 Miracle Drive. He was lost, tired, and very malnourished. As luck would have it, she had just arrived from her trip to the local grocer.

The boy was quiet and answered none of her questions, except that he was lost and hungry. It was late, nearly 10 p.m. and Anna was unsure of what she should do.

Anna offers the boy food, not too much as it seems he hasn’t eaten in quite some time. Curiously, he eats most of it but stores the rest in his pocket. After some convincing, she managed to get him to follow her inside.

Anna knows that it is late, but she feels sorry for the boy and decides to let him stay the night before phoning the authorities. After a huge struggle, mainly because the boy was terrified of the shower, she managed to bathe and clothe him.

After several restless hours, Anna wakes to discover the boy has vanished from the bed. There is a soft light coming from the front of her home. The boy’s small frame is outlined by the bright glow of her phone. He stares at it, hunched over like a little golem. He’s watching videos, enamored by the lights and sounds. He hums along and mimics words. Almost like a baby would do.

Anna shook her head and smiled. The poor child probably couldn’t sleep. As she turned to leave, she bumped into her comfy chair. The boy froze and turned toward her. She blinked, then blinked again. Had her eyes played tricks on her? Maybe her tired mind had made it up. Surely smoke had not drifted from the child’s eyes. He smiled at her and reached his arms up, motioning to be held. Swooping him up, she shuffled them both back to bed.

Morning came just as sure as the March Drench. Anna poured the waffle mix into her iron and glanced over at the boy. He stayed glued to the small screen, kicking his legs and humming. He looked serene and so small in one of her shirts.

Suddenly the thought of losing him felt worse than calling the authorities, but in the end she caved. Anna dialed & waited, each ring more jarring than the last. Finally the brisk voice answered. She said child services would be in touch & then the line went dead.

They spent the day watching t.v. & eating junk food. Anna had tried getting his name a few times, but he wouldn’t say. She was sure child services had forgotten when her phone sounded. The woman on the line sounded cold & detached.

Anna finished making his care package & got him ready for the person who would pick him up. She had sewn his tattered clothes & added in a few colorful patches from her old scarf collection. She’d just dressed him when her phone rang.

The woman on the line sounded apologetic as she explained that she was having car troubles. “Would it be alright if I come by in the morning? I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.” Anna smiled and agreed to have her come then. How exciting! Another night.

They had just finished up a movie when the boy yawned and stretched across her legs. He gazed up at her adoringly with deep, dark eyes. She instantly was drawn to how deep a brown they were. They were, in fact, so deep that she spotted something jet across the space next to her t.v. Her head snapped up to barely catch the hint of a small, furry creature no larger than a guinea pig with a long, pillow-y tail. A twinkling laugh escaped from her small visitor as he leaped up & chased after it.

Anna’s eyes grew wide as he rushed through her front door! She had no idea that he could move so quickly. She rushed after him, calling out “boy─wait, it’s dangerous!” She barely saw him fly into the trees behind her home.

Without thinking Anna dove into the forest after the fleeing child. She charged forward as fast as her legs would take her over small dips, brush, and finally leaping over a small creek. She sighed, bending over at the waist.

The boy seemed to have endless amounts of energy, but for some reason or another he paused, staring up at the trees. Anna gulped down a few breaths and lumbered over to him. Her arms wrapped around his small frame and she pulled him close.

Something shone on the edge of her vision, a flash of soft, yellow light. Anna stared at the bend of light, like an event horizon. The center was as black as…the boy’s eyes the other night.

She approached the ring of light, enthralled by the thin yellow line. The black was so dark that it continued forever. Anna felt the boy’s hand encircle her own and he tugged at her gently. His laughter sounded and his other hand extended into the darkness.

For a second, his eyes crinkled and she saw swirls of the same darkness spill from his eyes. Then he stepped into the darkness, keeping his grip on her. Anna stared hard at the direction of her home. What if this sealed up? Would she be able to get back? Her arm passed over to the other side─ It felt warm and safe. When she really thought about it, her life had really taken a turn for the dull.

When had she ever done anything with it? Making a snap decision, she stepped forward and left her world behind.

As soon as she crossed over she felt it. There was no going back. At least, not the way they came in. As far as she could see, there were low ceilings, long stretches of tunnel, & no light. It was just just tall enough for her to stand up─ a little over 5 feet.

Anna screamed as something furry zoomed past her leg. The boy didn’t even seem fazed by it, giggling at her outburst. She quieted, allowing her eyes to adjust. But they never seemed to. Everything was horribly out of focus and dark.

There was a shuffle, and then the child spoke: “lumena” He called softly. From his fingertips came a purple glow. It seemed to encircle only the two of them. It was her turn to latch on to him. “Where are we?” she whispered.

He didn’t answer, but instead let a sort of hum mixed with a …purr? Anna’s brain had decided a purr sounded right. She mimicked the sound back at him questioningly. A loud laugh from him gave her all the response she needed.

Anna sighed as they continued taking a left at one bend, and a right at another. They had been walking for what felt like miles. “At some point,” she said, “you’re going to have to tell me a name.”

He paused, staring back at her. His expression was impossible to read, the only thing that seemed to make any movement was the swirl from his eyes. She’d gotten used to it by now, slowly accepting that it was part of his reality. Which was quickly becoming her own.

“Why do you name all of your things?” he asked. That took her back. “Well, don’t you?” His mouth twisted up at the corner from her question. “We name what is important. And a name, is sacred.” They continued forward, the glow from his hands extending further out.

Finally, they reached the end of the tunnel. By the sounds, Anna knew that they were in a very large space. The boy flicked his wrists & the light streaked over to another area which then lit another, & then another.

A towering, glittering city with millions of lights stand before them. A slight wind picks up Anna’s hair as she stares at thousands of tiny movements below. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Her hand sought his as they moved forward.

After several more hours of walking, they finally reached the entrance. She stared into the open area with people roaming around. They were like the boy, but slightly taller. They took notice of the two of them, but went about their own way.

After several curious moments, she couldn’t help herself. “Why aren’t there any guards?” The boy cocked his head to one side & his eyebrows pressed together, “Guards? Why would we?” She had many more questions after this, but decided to keep them to herself for now.

The two of them finally came to the center. A tower stretched before them, stairs spiraling the outside and lit every ten feet. A double door with carved oak and two brass knockers stood dead center.

The boy pulls her toward the door, knocks three times loudly, and then stands back. The doors open inward with a deep echo. Anna stared around in awe. Everything had been carved completely from stone.

Four large statues depicted human-like faces surrounded by robes. They all surrounded a beautiful glowing stone that shone with a vibrant, purple hue. It dimmed, then grew brighter. The boy next to her froze in place, looking from the stone to her.

Anna watched as the boy’s shoulders dipped down and he let out a sigh. From the shadows, two large figures appeared. A gargled voice sounded from the left, “why have you brought It here?”

A second, smooth and higher pitch voice says, “and on such an occasion, young one.” The boy pressed his hands together in front of him, then spread them apart like he was opening a book. A soft light flashed for a second, and then it was gone.

There’s the briefest of silences and then finally the smooth voice speaks. “You believe It to be so?” The boy hums, then nods. Anna suspects it to be for her benefit. “If I ma─” the smooth voiced figure holds up a hand, silencing the garbled voice.

A long, tense silence follows. The boy’s face stays calm, but there is a gleam there Anna never noticed before. “A trial, then.” The garbled voice states matter-of-factly. The boy flushes, then again nods.

Four symbols appeared in the amethyst stone before them. The boy looked at Anna from head to toe. He appeared to be sizing her up. After a few seconds of deliberation, he chose.

She wasn’t sure what the boy had decided for her as the vertical lines appeared by themselves floating for several moments before vanishing. She was quite certain that this couldn’t be a good thing. Trial? No, definitely did not like the sound of that.

The boy tugged at her arm and inclined his head toward the shadows. After a few heartbeats, he again tugged at her arm. Following suit she bowed her own head and then stood. In seconds, maybe just a breath away, their presence was gone.

#

After sitting in her room for some time, Anna began to worry that maybe the boy had left her. Alone in this strange world. She had no idea where ‘here’ even was. They had traveled through a portal. Were they even still on earth?

The more she puzzled over it, the more it hurt to think about. What of her home? Her job? Would she be here, lost forever? Mother had always warned her she had a squirrel of a brain and jumped from limb to limb without thinking. Anna grinned as the door to her room opened.

Her grin fell at the sight in front of her. It was the boy, yet he was different. He was adorned in deep black robes. So dark in fact that the light wouldn’t bounce from it. With him, he carried a beautifully engraved box. It was purple, with intricate silver etching.

 

More of our story to come soon. Hugs my fellow adventurer’s.

❤ Grey

 

 

Gallery

My Family is Falling Apart – Conclusion

Part I

Part II

Part III

I stare across the house from the living room and then turn back to the patio door. So this is it. This is what being insane is like. It’s Monday morning and I’ve scheduled an emergency appointment with a psychologist first thing. I have to run by the office first but it shouldn’t take long. Kyle is giving the presentation instead of me. It’s the first personal day I’ve taken in nearly five years. Suffice it to say everyone has already asked if I’m dying.

 

I roll into the parking lot, jet up the three flights of stairs and then slip into my office. I don’t intend to stay long, just look over the presentation and make sure it doesn’t have any obvious mistakes. Kyle is usually great with this sort of thing when I need to sit one out, so I’m not worried. I skim through most of it and grin. Good man, I think, looks great. I sigh in relief and send out an email that it’s approved. If this doesn’t seal the deal I don’t know what will. It was four months of hard work with a more than capable team. Minus Carroll.  

 

I stare across at the empty office. What on earth was she afraid of? Why did she call Jenna instead of me? Jen doesn’t work here. It just doesn’t make sense and the more I think about it, the angrier and more hurt I get. Did they talk about me behind my back? Had they always been this close? At this point I know it’s useless to dwell on it, but it’s the one thing that just doesn’t fit into the equation. Shaking my head I scoop up my keys and pull my door shut. I’m turning the lock when the smell hits me.

 

Jesus, it’s bad.

 

I glance up as people start to funnel through toward me. “Hey Tom, I thought you were taking a personal day?” I grin and wave at Kyle. “Hey man, you know I trust you to do an amazing job, but I’m still going to check.” Kyle gives a hearty laugh, shaking his head. “I would expect no less from our top guy, and honestly I welcome the second set of eyes. You never know, and with Carroll gone─” he sniffs and turns toward her office. “Holy shit. Did something die in there?”

 

I stiffen and turn toward the office. “You smell it too? Carroll mentioned it the other day. I thought I was going crazy.” Kyle turns toward me, his eyebrows raised. “Wait, Carroll called you? What did she say? Is she OK?” I study his face. His breathing has picked up and his nostrils are flared. His eyes are wide, scared-looking with a hint of anger. Then it dawns on me. They were seeing each other. I chuckle uneasily, “well, she was here a few days ago before she quit. Said she needed to take a few personal days.”

 

Kyle’s face turns pale and his fists ball at his side. “This is so typical. She hasn’t responded to me in over a week. She just disappears from the office, randomly shows up and then asks for more days off.” He wipes at his eyes muttering something about needing a minute and then he’s gone.

#

“Tell me more about the women in your life, past, and present.” Dr. Tanner says. I expected to talk a little bit in this first session, but these questions are leading to something I don’t like. What does this have to do with anything I’ve just said to him.

 

“Look, no disrespect but I’ve just told you that my house was torn apart by a non-existent tornado and that my soon-to-be ex-wife was a monster and some weird wind-beast is following me around. Why are you even asking me about this?” I say.

 

He smiles across at me with that infuriating calm all physicians seem to possess, “Yes, you mentioned these things, but one of them was before a head injury, the other was around bedtime, and the third you said you were looking out of your back window.”

 

OK, I think, and? I stare over at him and cross my arms.

 

When I don’t answer, he sighs and continues, “Tom, all of these things have a pattern. Do you not see it?” I frown, “That I’m going insane?” I offer. He shakes his head, “Far from it. When was the last time you had more than a few hours of sleep?” I pause awkwardly and think. Holy shit, he’s right. When was the last time I had enough rest?

 

I let out a long sigh. The weight of the world rushes from my shoulders to my fingertips and then finally the floor. The known side effects of sleep deprivation, all of them added up. I place my face into my hands and cry. Finally, things were making sense. I feel his warm hand on my shoulder and then he places a box of tissues in front of me.

 

“I tell you what, I’m going to go ahead and prescribe you something to help you both relax and sleep. It’s just a mild sedative and it is non-habit forming.” I nod automatically and sniff as I wipe the soft tissue against my face.

 

He reaches into his drawer and scribbles on a piece of paper. “In the meantime, let’s schedule another session and we can get more into the heart of the issue. I think this may be all stemming from much more than sleep-deprived hallucinations.” What could possibly be worse than this? I wonder.

The drive home has never felt so long. It’s as if my body has caught up to what Dr. Tanner said. I ache, from head to toe and my eyes are so raw I can feel every vein pulsing beneath the surface. I really want to talk with Karis, but I think it’s better that I just close my eyes for the next twelve hours.

 

I can’t believe how dumb I’ve been. Monsters? Conspiracies? Damn, man. Get your shit straight. I’m really glad that the pharmacy was around the corner from the doctor’s office. I don’t think I would have made it another mile past what I have. My knees wobble as I turn the lock and stumble inside. I don’t think any amount of caffeine could keep my eyes apart. I want to collapse in bed, but remember I won’t get actual sleep unless I take my meds. He warned me that I may be able to fall asleep while anxious, but I won’t be able to stay asleep.

 

I down the pills, kick off my shoes and collapse into pillowy bliss.

 

#

The sound I hear next is not the one I expect. I expected the familiar soft jingle that wakes me every single morning. This one is different. Like a low drone, a humming. I roll and pull the sheets over my head. Not alarm, I think, go back to sleep. Then it happens again, and then a third time before I realize that my phone is ringing. Angry, I roll over and look outside. It’s still light out, I must have only been out for a few hours. Damn it. I scoop up the phone and look at the caller I.D.

 

I clear my throat a few times and then answer, “Hey man. How did the meeting go?”

“Hey. I’m sorry, were you sleeping? I didn’t know you were taking another day off.” I bolt up and look at my phone. It’s 10 a.m.

 

Tuesday at 10 a.m.

 

“Christ, dude. I’m sorry. The doctor gave me some pills yesterday, I haven’t been sleeping. I must have slept straight through my alarm.” “Oh wow,” he says, “hey, no worries man. You must have needed it. I can hold down the fort another day, you get some sleep.” I clear my throat again, slowly starting to clear the fog in my mind, “You sure? I don’t mind coming in if you need me to help. Everything go alright yesterday?” I can hear his smile from the other end, “we crushed it. They signed first thing this morning, that report was freaking phenomenal man. You added some stuff in there I didn’t even think of. I really appreciate that.”

 

I grin, “well, keep at it and you’ll be where I am in a few years.” He chuckles. We both knew he was just as good. I’m hoping to see him promoted by the end of the year. The guy was a genius.

 

He shifts and then sighs, “there is one thing you can do for me.” he says. “What’s up?” I ask. “Can you ask Carroll to please call me when she can? I just want to know if she’s OK.” He sounds really sad, almost broken. Poor guy, I know where his head is at right now. “Of course. I’ll let you know right away if I hear anything.” “Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. Speaking of which, this is a little off-topic but can you have Brett call maintenance and check out her office? That smell really needs to be taken care of. People have been complaining all day.”

 

“Sure, I’ll give him a call right now. And Kyle, thanks again for all your hard work and taking care of yesterday and today.” I say. He thanks me and hangs up. I make another note to promote him asap and then roll out of bed. First thing’s first.

 

“Brett Manning.” he rumbles on the first ring. “Hey, Brett. I need you to email maintenance about Carroll’s old office. There’s a─” “Smell like putrid ass coming from there? Yes, I know. I put in a complaint a few hours ago, hopefully, they get to it today. Honestly, if it isn’t taken care of tonight, I think I may have to quit. Sorry, not sorry.” I laugh and shake my head, good ole Brett. “I don’t blame you. Let me know if they fix the problem today. If not, we may just go ahead and give a staff holiday tomorrow or let people work from home.” “I vote staff holiday,” he quips. “You would. Thanks, man, I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.” “Maybe,” he says and hangs up the phone.

 

The rest of the day goes by pretty uneventful. I pick up my phone for the thousandth time and look through my text messages. Still nothing. If I don’t get a call by 8 tonight, I’ve decided I’m going to call her instead. Normally, I like to let her be the one to call me in case they are in the middle of something. Just relax, I think, they are probably having a good time and forgot to call last night. Besides, would I have even heard it?

 

My stomach complains at me in a high pitched squeal and then a deep rumble. My first instinct is to reach for a box of cookies, but when my stomach turns just thinking about it, I realize I need actual food. A quick glance in my fridge tells me all I need to know. Take out it is.

#

I settle on some pepper beef and rice and then plant myself in front of the computer. It’s been so long since I’ve used this thing for fun that I forget I have at least three new games I’ve purchased recently. I used to be an avid gamer. In college, it was all I did. Hell, my degree was wrapped around becoming a 3d modeler for the game industry. My buds and I had won several competitions for most innovative. That was just before the crash in ‘08. I basically graduated with a useless degree, and here I am now managing teams of people that make websites for other companies. It wasn’t a dream job, but it paid more than enough to keep us comfortable. At the end of the year, I’d be looking at a possible promotion and making over $200k. It wasn’t what Jen made, but it was a decent living.  

 

The game fires up and I’m pumped. I’m a super nerd for sci-fi, especially shooters. Add mechs and I’m all in. This one checked all the boxes. Before I knew it, the doorbell sounds.

I glance at the camera and see the young delivery guy there. I’d have to go AFK for a minute, but I was in free play mode so I wouldn’t be holding anyone back. 

I let out a long sigh and pat my stomach. Man, that was some of the best Chinese food I’d had in a while. Or you were just hungry, I think. I stand and stretch, yawning loudly. I’m beat. I glance at my watch. It was well past Karis’s bedtime. I look at my phone and instantly feel guilty, there’s a missed call. Then, on closer inspection, I notice it wasn’t Jenna. Damn. Part of me is hoping that she got voicemail for once. Then a new feeling sets in. Why haven’t they called? It’s now been two days. While that wouldn’t really be a point of concern for many, it was for me. Jenna is an extremely punctual and respectful person. The silent treatment wasn’t her thing. Even when they fought she would tell him that she was angry and needed a moment to herself.

 

Maybe she sent a text, or she’s in an area without reception, I reason silently. I pull up my messages and then click on her name. I send a quick, ‘hey haven’t heard from you in a couple days, everything alright?’ Message and then wait. Fifteen minutes drag on, and then another thirty. I pace, staring at my phone and willing it to light up with the little rectangle of light. Don’t be crazy, I tell myself, they do live in the country. Unable to stand another minute of this I leave the room. I needed a distraction. A shower. My body responds with a slight shiver. Not the bad kind, but the sort that tingles you all over in anticipation. How long had it actually been since I’d taken a nice, long one? I sigh, pausing just outside of the bathroom. Best to keep it nearby, just in case, I think. I circle back to the living room, scoop up my phone and then pad to the bathroom. The cool tiles are unwelcome to my feet, but I ignore the slight discomfort in lieu of what is waiting for me. The hot liquid instantly bubbles out, splashing my arm as I pull it back. A sneak peek of what is waiting for me once I leave the frozen floor rocks that are my tiles behind.

 

I check the ringer, see that it is on and that no new text messages have arrived. Let it be, I tell myself. If you don’t hear from them by tomorrow, then worry.  This seemed to calm me. I shrug off my clothes and toss them aside. I pull at the glass door until the soft clink happens. My legs fold and I sit on the bench, allowing my head to get completely submerged.

My body melts into the water and despite the warmth, I shiver. I might as well be outside for all the heat I’m retaining. A cold creeps along my spine and seeps into my bones. My eyes close and I feel myself drift from the beating water against my skin.

 

Flashes of Karis’s smile pop into my mind. We’re walking along the beach, the sky an endless blue. I love you, daddy. Her giggles sprinkle across my mind like a summer breeze. I’m all grins, smiling at her sweet face. I love you too, baby girl, I say, reaching out and taking her little hand. The sky fades from the warm, sunrise colors, to an ugly grey and blue. Thick, dark clouds roll in. Not just any clouds─ those clouds. Its clouds. Instinctively, I reach to pull her close to my side and grasp at air. Karis is gone.

 

I spin frantically, searching the whole area, but the only thing I can see is the tall, dense grass. Miles and miles of nothing but the tall mess of green that reaches to the sky. There are no trees, no place to hide. Lightning explodes around the sky, and an angry rumble growls from the distance. Then it starts. This time it’s not just close to me, it’s behind me. No matter which way I turn, it is always a step ahead. It’s loud enough to be annoying, but soft enough that I can’t get a handle on just how close it is.

 

The suction sound drones on. It’s now moving all around me. Coming from every which way. I cover my ears and spin on the shore. There must be some way out of here. Some way back to the comfort of my home. I’m struggling to remember what it was I was doing. Something to do with warmth, I was vulnerable. The draining noise stops momentarily, and all that can be heard is the gentle rustle of grass behind me and the waves lapping at my heels. Something about the water dug at me as I stood there. Why am I here? Could it be possible that I fell asleep?

 

Yes, that sounds right.

 

I had stayed up late to play a game and checked my phone. After that, I─

What was it? My head is pounding as the deep rumble sounds again. Shower. The thought jumps into my head and I remember. I had been checking my phone before I turned on the shower. Then I sat down and closed my eyes. This time, it is distinctly closer. I know this because the spider webs of light are blinding, and the earth shifts beneath my feet. This can’t be real, I reason, because I’m dreaming.  I can feel Its vibration as It crawls toward me. I’ve fallen asleep in the shower, and I am safe and alone. The shiver returns as I sense the movement behind me. To my absolute terror, I know that It is standing there.

 

Click

Click

Click

Click

 

It’s swirling is now mixed with a new sound. Insect-like pops and chitters that blend with the draining-suction. Wake up, I yell. The clicking now sounds questioning, prodding even. It’s backed away, but I know full well that the demon is less than twenty feet from me.  I have acted, but not in a way that It expects. It’s not sure how to react, Its clicks and pops almost sound confused. I take a step forward, inching my way toward the water. When nothing happens, I take one more. Suddenly, the pattern starts again, click whirr, click, click, cli
God damn it, wake your ass up now I growl. I howl in agony as a new sensation rips into my left wrist. I spin toward the pain, cradling my left arm with my right. Blood oozes down my arm, then drips to my feet. It’s the only noise that fills the air. The wind has died, the lightening subdued. Not even a blade of grass dares to stir. It’s as if the entire world is holding its breath, terrified of the beast. 

My eyes are glued to my arm. There are two distinct slices trailing from the top of my wrist down to the forearm. Neat, precise cuts. Deep ones. I stare at the blood as it pools from my wounds. It wraps my arm and drips to the ground. I’m mesmerized by the amount that flows from me.

It isn’t real, I tell myself. Over and over again. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real.

There’s movement behind my arm. A darting movement that is so fast I can’t keep up with it. It’s as if the monster exists in two places jumping between the planes. I can see that it towers me. The gargling, and then clicks continue. Almost as if this is Its way of drawing breath. There’s a waving movement, like thousands of wriggling worms.  I want to look up, but I can’t bring myself to. Somehow I think that if I don’t look at it, it can’t harm me.

If I can’t see it, it can’t see me. 

I smirk, remembering the logic I’d had as a child hiding beneath my covers. I guess we never really grow up.

It sighs, breathing a rancid stench into my face and lungs. I squeeze my eyes shut. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real. 

The pop-click, then click, click, click is inches from my face. Every muscle in my body tenses up as I ready myself for the inevitable blow. My legs buckle and I drop to the ground.

I’m surprised as my hands shoot out and are met with smooth, wet tile. I’m crouched on the shower floor, my head leaning on the wall. Suddenly, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I curl my legs under my chin and rock back and forth beneath the stream. It’s long since gotten cold, but I don’t care.

I’m free from the evil creature. At least, for the moment.

#

I groan and roll over, willing the annoying sound to stop. The jarring noise sounds again, and then again. I growl and roll towards it. Scooping the phone up, I look at the screen and then hastily hit the green button.

“Hey, I was wondering when I would hear from you guys.” I sit up, excited to hear Karis and Jenna’s voice again. “Daddy?” I clear my voice a few times, trying to get the grogginess out of it. “Yeah, baby. Daddy is here. How is your trip going?” Static fills the speaker. It sounds like she’s trying to say something, but it keeps cutting out. “Sorry baby, Daddy can’t hear you. What was that?” I struggle to make anything out. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” I smile as she finally comes through. “You’ve had fun? That’s great! I miss you, sweetie.” There’s silence on the other end.

“Sweetheart, are you there?” There’s a burst of static, then “Daddy?” I panic and respond instantly, “Yes, I’m here. I’m glad you’ve had a great time.” There’s a long static filled pause. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” A knot forms in the pit of my stomach. “Yes, baby. You just said that.” I swallow thickly. “Can you put mommy on the line?” I’m met with more static. “…Daddy?” A lump forms in my throat. “Who is this?” I manage to choke out. There’s a long pause, then, “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” This time her voice sounds different. As if she knows something that I don’t. My hands tremble as I hear the static grow louder from the other side.

Her laughter breaks through the static. Not Karis’s soft, twinkling laughter. It’s something else. Something that sounds like my little girl. My throat goes dry. I’m finding it harder and harder to breathe. How long is it going to toy with me?

“Daddy?” it’s her. It sounds like her. She’s frightened. “Baby? Where are you? Are you OK?” “Daddy, are you OK?” I let out a long sigh, covering my hands with my face. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m alright. How is your trip?” The silence that follows makes me nervous. I’m worried that I am being messed with again when I hear, “Oh. It was good. I told you that a long time ago.” I sit up. “A long time ago?” She sighs really loud, “yes,” she says, “like, a long time ago.” I’m immediately alarmed and confused. I glance at the date on my phone, then bring it back to my ear. “When did you talk to daddy about the trip?” I can hear her fidgeting on the other line. “Daddy?” My stomach twists, “yes, baby?” “When are you going to come to get me?” I frown at how small and scared she sounds. “I can come now if you want.” I tear up as I hear her start crying on the other end.

“Honey? Don’t cry. I’ll come over, right now.” I hear a few more gasps and then the phone goes quiet. Confused, I immediately dial Jenna’s number. It goes straight to voicemail.

I roll out of bed and throw on my clothes.

#

I’m in Jenna’s driveway, tearing across the parking lot when my phone goes off.  I pull it out frantically, then frown at the screen. It’s the same number from last night. I swipe it to go to voicemail and beat on the door. I wait.

Thirty seconds go by, then a minute. I’m not sure if she has heard me. This time, I knock louder.

I take a step back and yell, “Jenna, it’s me.” Thirty more seconds, still there is only silence.

My phone jingles and I look at the message that’s popped up:

Voicemail 00:31

Maybe it was work. I am supposed to be in this morning. I look at the time and frown. Not this early, it’s barely 7:30 in the morning. The office won’t be open for another thirty minutes. Probably a telemarketer or scam. No one calls me. Except Jenna.

I try the door again and gasp as it pops open. I stare as it slowly comes back toward me and snaps shut. I try the knob, and it easily swings open.

“Hello?” I call inside. I hesitate at the entrance, unsure of what I should do. I didn’t want to intrude. Maybe I’m just overreacting. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed. What if Karis is just having a moment and I read too much into it?

“Jen? You here?” I glance around the living room and then over to the stairs. A thin streak of red lines the stairs all the way to the top. Now I’m really worried. I’m very aware that the only thing I have is the clothes on my back, and my phone. What if someone else is here? What if they have a gun?

I ease the door closed and quickly run over to the kitchen. Without thinking, I reach above the refrigerator in the cabinet. Strapped right where it was in our house is Jen’s gun. I rip it out and check the clip, exactly fifteen bullets are still there. She hasn’t had a chance to use it. I pull back, getting one bullet in the chamber and turn toward the stairs.

I jump as the phone vibrates in my pocket. Jesus, I swear silently, Good thing I didn’t have my finger on the trigger. I edge up against the wall and look at my caller I.D. The same number is calling me. Maybe I should go outside and answer it. Maybe it’s Jenna.

I sneak back outside and manage to answer on the last ring. “Hello?” I say quietly, not wanting to alert anyone that may be inside. “Jesus, dude. You’re hard to get a hold of. Did you get my message?” I relax at Kyle’s voice. “No, sorry man. I had to run and pick up kiddo early this morning. I may be bringing her into work today.” There’s a slight pause on the other end. “You getting to see her again?” I frown, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” “I don’t know man, there was a lot of…you know. With you and Jenna.” I sigh. Oh right, he wouldn’t have known about the agreement between me and her recently. “Oh, yeah that all got worked out. So, what’s going on?” He cleared his throat, “well, turns out they found something in Carroll’s office. They are shutting down the whole office for the day. I just wanted to let you know to not come in.”

“They found something?” I ask. “Yeah, they think an animal might have crawled up between the floorboards and died. They hired a crew to come in and clean it up.” “Oh, OK.” I say. “I appreciate you letting me know. We all coming back in tomorrow?” I look over at the door. It’s still propped open, no Jenna in sight.

“Yeah, it shouldn’t take too long. The crew actually got here about twenty minutes ago. I just wanted to catch you before you left.” “Alright,” I answer, “thanks again, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He mutters something and then we both hang up.

Good. That means I can see what the hell is going on. Hopefully, Jen is just upstairs and can’t hear me. My mind goes back to the first time I saw her in this place─ the way her skin moved beneath my touch. Her long, unnatural stride.

I glanced up as a dark cloud rolled over the sun, bathing the area in an eerie green light. Again, I pause by the door. What if this is a trap? What if…It is in there, waiting for me to walk right into Its trap. Is Jenna a part of it? I started thinking about how different she had been acting lately. This huge, expensive looking home. How young she looked the last time I saw her.

Tom, I just want you to know─ I’m sorry. 

I stare into the house as I push open the door. What are you sorry for? I wonder for the thousandth time. Sorry that you tore us all apart?

I climb the stairs, the gun weighing heavy in my right hand. I peek into Karis’s room, then double check the hallway. It’s quiet as ever. The sun shines for a moment, bathing the room in a warm glow. It’s a peaceful feeling, almost safe. I know why she loves this space. It’s completely open. You can see the entire house from up here and most of the kitchen. Jenna always hated walls.

The sun slips back behind the clouds and the putrid green is back. I take a deep breath and push on Karis’s door. It makes contact with something and stops. Something solid. I grunt and push harder. A loud whimper comes from behind the door. I pause, crouch down and call softly, “here boy, come here.” Another whimper. I look down the hall again and then back to Karis’s door. It’s wide enough for me to squeeze through. I have to make a decision. I look into her room.

Her bed has been made and everything is neat. It looks as if she hasn’t even been here. I reach in and grasp at the door handle. The whimper gets louder and I feel something jump on the door. There’s a soft woof and then another whine. I feel around until I grip something tangled around the door. It feels like─ I pull it off the handle and then bring it around the door. The lump on the end hobbles toward me and then the dog is suddenly in front of the door. He’s been completely tangled in the leash, no doubt trying to get out of the room and then shutting himself in. He nips at me as I untie it from around his neck, and then shoulders. It doesn’t hurt, I can tell he’s just scared. I coo down at him, running my hands behind his ears and neck.

He whines but allows it, desperate for human contact. I pick him up and take him downstairs. I’m reluctant to tie him up, but I need him to stay out of the way while I search for Jen and Karis. I fill a bowl of water and another with a little bit of food. He doesn’t seem to take notice as I hook the leash around the table and tie it off. He’s happily chowing down on the food as I climb the stairs.

Now I’m really worried. Jen never mistreats animals or leaves them alone for longer than a few minutes. The dog would have been with her, or in the back room where he could go outside and then back into his crate. I glance down at my arms and gasp. They’re covered in blood. A quick glance tells me it’s not my own. It must be from the dog. I want to run and check his injuries, but I need to find them first.

I’m at full speed. If someone is still in the house, they would have attacked me by now. Or got out. I’m being incredibly stupid, but I need to know.

Fuck it. 

“Jenna?” I burst into Karis’s room. I drop to look under her bed and then search her closet. They all turn up empty. “Karis? Honey, are you OK?”

I scream through the hallway, busting down every door on the way to Jenna’s room. Empty, empty, fucking empty. 

My phone goes off just as I round the corner. Jenna’s room is a few feet away. I halt at the entrance. It’s then that I notice all the water. It’s pooling into the room. My phone hums several times as I trace the source back to the right. The door is closed.

My lip trembles as my knees wobble, threatening to buckle beneath me.

I can’t breathe. Can’t move. I’m vaguely aware that my phone is going off again. I stare at the silver door handle. My own reflection is small, weak. Jesus, I look so small.

My hand trembles as I reach for the phone. It’s buzzing again, this time with a voicemail. I know what is waiting for me behind that door. I bring the phone up to my head and play back the message.

“You sick son-of-a-bitch. I know it was you. I KNOW IT WAS YOU─ Do you know how they found her?” The phone drops from my hands. There’s more screaming and yelling, but I can’t make it out.

I don’t want to do what my legs are doing, but they won’t stop. I’m in another person’s body opening the door.

All I wanted was to be a husband, a father.

I stagger into the room and reach for the handles to turn off the water. I stare down, numb. I can hardly move. I don’t want to move─ I don’t want to look. Her delicate, pale hand is cradled by a smaller hand resting on the side of the tub. Karis is laid across Jenna, curled in a fetal position. They look so beautiful, it’s as if they were asleep.

I jump as Jenna’s eyes flash open and she smiles. She grins lovingly up at me as she cradles Karis in her arms. My wife, my beautiful wife is back. I cry, holding the two in my arms. The drain sounds, swirling and whirling around us. The room darkens as rain pelts against the glass.

I feel Jenna wrap her hand around my own and pull me back toward them. She smiles, wrapping her hand against mine. I’ve missed her touch so much, how I’ve longed to just be here in her arms. She caresses my cheek, then runs the length of my arm down toward the gun. I cradle the other side of her, Karis positioned in my lap. I felt her hand in mine as she guided my hand up to my mouth.

Her blues were so perfectly calm, her skin smooth as silk against mine. I stare into them as I hold her and Karis. I feel her squeeze my finger and I close my eyes.

Finally we’re together again, a whole, happy family.

 

 

 

 

      

 

 

 

 

Gallery

My Family is Falling Apart – Part II

I wave goodbye to Karis after dropping her off at her new class. It’s been two days since she last went. I had taken what happened Monday to be a sign that both of us needed a break. I didn’t press too much, but I had a long chat with her about keeping what happened to herself. Especially for the other children and teachers. I don’t like telling my daughter to lie but in this case, it is best that we lie to everyone─ including ourselves. I left that last bit out, of course, an eight-year-old doesn’t need to learn the depressing truths of adulthood just yet.

I’m not even sure what is going on. The last two days have been quiet, no real incidents or weird indoor rain clouds. Just thinking that should be enough to make me feel stupid. Indoor rain clouds. What’s next, gnomes, faeries or maybe the boogeyman? Karis has been spending the night with me. As a parent, I know I really shouldn’t be feeding her fear─ she needs to see reason and logic. Unfortunately, there is no reason behind what has happened. I even got paranoid about it possibly be carbon monoxide poisoning and changed our detector. No luck, no explanation, so I’m relying on the loss of sleep and added stress theory. We’ve both been playing games, watching shows and movies. It was a nice stay-cation, but it is time to get back to reality.

Traffic is incredibly light today. I pull into the parking garage with 30 minutes to spare. I can’t remember the last time it’s happened. I sigh, my shoulders falling as I walk to the stairs. For once I can sit, read the news, and enjoy a cup of coffee before the work day begins.

#

“Tom?”

I look up as she peeks around my office door. “Hey, Carroll what’s up?” I ask. She inches her way into the space, nervously looking around. Carroll was one of those sorts that always looks guilty, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. With her brown hair and slight frame, I’m always reminded of a mouse or rat. Her voice is soft, sometimes it’s hard to hear. “I was wondering if I could have the rest of the day off?” I blinked a few times up at her and then looked over at the clock. It was barely eleven. “Everything ok?” She looks stunned for a moment, then drops her gaze to the floor.

“You…can’t ask that.” I blink a few more. She’s right, I didn’t think of that. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I was just concerned is all.” Carroll doesn’t react, just shuffles her feet a little and hugs herself. Something is definitely wrong. When she stands in silence, I realize she is waiting for me to approve her time off. My next sentence comes out stilted and awkward, “yes, of course, you may. Take all the time─” she’s out the door before I can finish and the words die in my throat.

In all the years we’ve worked together, I’ve never seen her so upset. I stand and walk across the hallway and then through the small door that leads into her office. An odor immediately hits me, strong and sour. I cover my mouth and nose, searching the room for the source of the smell. Everything is pristine as usual, it’s spotless, so where on earth is that vile smell coming from? I open each of her drawers, scan the desk, and open her cabinets.

“What are you doing?” I jump and spin around. Carroll is blocking the doorway, her eyes rimmed in red. As I get a closer look at her face, I realize she looks terrible. Her features are tired and drawn, her skin a sallow color. Like she hasn’t slept in days. “Do you smell that?” She inhales sharply, her hand coming up and hanging awkwardly as she points in my direction. “You smell it?” I furrow my brows, “Of course, it’s awful. What is that?” She lets out a long sigh, her shoulders sagging. “Oh thank god,” she says, “I thought I was going crazy.”

I walk over to the trash. “Don’t bother,” she whispers. I stop mid-bend and look over my shoulder, “What do you mean?” Carroll shakes her head, “You won’t find the source. I’ve looked everywhere─ even had maintenance go above me to see if a rat had died in the ceiling.” A rat.  I look across at her and she suddenly is aware of me. She wraps herself in a hug, looking over at the glowing monitor.

She looks even more mouse-like as her eyes widen in fear. An overwhelming stench fills the space. It’s so strong I feel like I’m going to vomit, it’s putrid─ rotten. Carroll covers her face and steps back into the hallway. Her eyes water, “please, get out.” I look over at her sudden angry outburst. “Wha─” “Get. Out.” she repeats slowly. I walk from the room, “listen, I’ll have someone take a look at that, you take the day off, ok?” She barely hears me, her eyes staring at the dark space. “Carroll─” she jumps, “stay away from me,” she snaps. I’m stunned into silence. I’ve never seen her behave this way. She spins on her heel and bolts away.

 

#    

 

“Daddy?” I look up from my meal, wondering how long I’ve been staring at my food. Karis’s plate is empty. “What is it, honey buns?” I ask.  Her lips purse and she scrunches her eyebrows together. She looks so much like Jen right now it hurts. It’s the look she gave me when I brought work home. “Does your tummy hurt? You didn’t eat.” I shake my head, “no, baby girl, I’m just worried about your mom.” Her eyebrows go up “why?” she asks, “did you guys fight again?” Then quietly she adds, “is it about me?”

I stare across at this girl that is now definitely on the path to adulthood too soon and wonder if this is what causes it. I’ve never experienced divorce, well, except for my own, but not in life. Kids always called me sheltered. I look at the ground and frown, this is probably what they meant. “No, honey. I haven’t heard from mommy in almost a week. That worries me, doesn’t that worry you?” I’m shocked when she starts laughing. “Daddy, don’t fib to me─ are you playing a trick?” I look up at her face, it’s crinkling near her eyes and her eyes are sparkling. It’s the kind of look a child gets just before you’re about to bring out the tickle monster and they scream, ‘nooo don’t!’ but always stay just within your reach.

She really does think this is just a game. Some secret family joke. I can’t tell if she is in denial or really just believes─ I pause mentally. “Karis, have you heard from mama?” She laughs harder. “Daddy, you’re silly.” “Karis.” I snap in that no-nonsense adult speech we all somehow master. She stops laughing but the glint is still in her eyes. There’s something she’s not telling me. “Why are you asking me? You’re the one that told me mommy is picking me up this weekend.” My jaw drops and I fight the urge to yell, the audacity of this girl lately. “Karis, you know that’s not true. Why are you lying?”

Her lips pressed together and her chin raises, “I am not lying.” she sputters. “Your phone went off last night and you answered. Mama said that she would be here Friday to come and pick me up. And you said─” “Alright if you want to continue with this,” I reach into my pocket and remove my phone. I swipe across the screen and go into my recent calls. It’s the second time tonight my jaw comes unhinged.

She isn’t lying.

I pour through my text messages. There are dozens of new messages between Jenna and me. There’s even one from this morning telling her about Carroll’s strange behavior. Then another message about confirming her picking Karis up at 6 p.m. tomorrow night. “What the fuck,” I say out loud.

Karis gasps, “Oooo. Daddy that’s a no-no word” she whispers. I sigh, “I’m sorry, baby. I guess I forgot about mommy talking with me.” I press my fingers over the bridge of my nose. The pressure feels good, reassuring. What like you aren’t losing your damn mind? I shake my head and try not to fall apart. Karis scoots her floor across the chair and walks over to me.

I feel her little arms wrap around my body and her gentle squeeze. “It’s ok daddy, I get confused sometimes too.” She pauses, “especially with reading─ the words jumble funny. I don’t like them.” She backs away and puts one arm behind her back and then one up to her mouth, nervously biting at the nail. “Does that happen to you?”

I melt at her innocent words. She is trying to make me feel better the only way she knows how. I wish adults were this sincere, it would solve so many of my problems. “Yes, baby it does. It does to everyone that first starts. Speaking of which, go run and do your homework.” She pouts and chews on her nail more, her shoulders slumping. “Now, Karis. I mean it,” I say. She sulks the whole way, but I hear her grab her backpack and go into her room.

I wait until I’m sure she will actually be focused on her work before I slip outside and dial the number. Please pick up, I pray silently. The phone rings a second time, and then a third. By the fourth ring, I’m about to hang up when a sharp click sounds. There’s a brief silence and then shuffling.

“Jen?”

She doesn’t answer. Maybe the connection is bad. “Jenna? Can you hear me?” I ask, worried that maybe she’s in the middle of a surgery. But, if that were true she wouldn’t have her phone on her. It isn’t allowed in the room while she’s working. Maybe she pocket answered. I listen to see if I can hear any rustling or a swoosh.

A long breath of air blows across the microphone, it sounds like a sigh. “Jen, are you on mute? I heard a sigh is that you? If you said anything, I didn’t hear it.” Click.

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Cli─ “Tom?”

I jump, then sag and let out a huge sigh of relief, “Oh thank god” I whisper. “What’s that? What’s going on?” Her voice sounds extremely tired like I’ve woken her. I pull the phone away and look at the time. Shit. She normally wakes up in an hour for her shift. Now I feel like even more of an asshole.            

“I’m so sorry to wake you, Jen. I just needed to hear your voice.” I instantly regret saying that. I know what she’s going to say.

“Tom─” she sighs, “Nevermind. Are you OK? Is this about Carroll?” I shake my head and then feel dumb, she can’t see me, “no, no just listen OK?” I know how crazy it’s going to sound, I know it isn’t true, but I feel like the right thing to do right now is be honest. Jenna is a doctor first, she’ll listen and tell me what I should do.

Am I safe to even be around Karis? My mind starts wondering what else has been going on while I took a mental vacation from life. I don’t like it, but I tell her everything─ Karis’s troubles at school, the otherworldly cloud visiter, and the missing timelines and not remembering that we had texted or called.

She’s silent for a few seconds. “Have you told anyone else about this?” “No, no one. You know how bad that would look?” My shoulders droop as the weight of the last few days leaves my body. “Besides, who the hell would believe me?” I hear a click on the other end and some rustling. She must have turned on her bedside lamp. “Honey, I love you, but you have got to start taking care of yourself. Stop worrying about me and everyone else.”

Even when I just told her something that I’d convinced myself was a mental breakdown, she still has that focus and pragmatic nature I love. She is thinking just like me, knowing that I must be under a lot of pressure. There is nothing about this woman that is horrible, no flaws, she handles herself and others so well. That’s what is making this all so hard, I can’t be angry when she’s so level-headed. How can I yell when she makes perfect sense? It was between her words that she wanted me to read, not what she was actually saying.

It’s a way for her to say that I needed to get sleep, eat, get mental rest from work and life. I haven’t given myself enough time to heal. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, “I know you have a life now─ a new one and I keep screwing it up.” She sighs on the other end, but it’s a candid one and somehow gentler.

“You honestly think I’m doing this because I want to?” She’s awake now, there’s no trace of grogginess. She has my full attention. This is news to me, after all, she was the one that filed for a divorce. “What do you mean?” I ask hopefully. “Tom, I’m not doing this right now.” I pace in the kitchen. I’m edging dangerously close to feeling optimistic. I want to ground myself, but it’s no use─ the words just fly out, “Jen, what is all this? Why are you doing this to us?” I hear her sniff on the other side, it’s a wet sniff, she must be crying.

Now I’m really confused. If she didn’t want all of this, why the insistence, why the new place, why any of this? At first, I thought what any newly divorced man thinks─ another man. But after a while, I realized that wasn’t it at all. There would have been plenty of signs, Karis would have seen him by now or hear her mommy talking with him.

“You know why.” her voice is really wavering, a cross between frustrated and sad. I instantly feel guilty. I have no idea why, I haven’t done anything, but her crying is something I’ve never been invulnerable to. I take a long breath in and then exhale. Ok, she is on one of her manic bouts. She probably thinks that we have talked about this before. I calm myself down before speaking.

“Honey, I really don’t. I’m sorry if we talked about this before, but I really don’t remember.” The tears start coming on the other end. She sputtering and sniffing, she sounds really upset. I wait patiently as she collects herself on the line. This is the first time I’ve really heard her get upset, well to this degree. The last time was the day that she left me.

“Tom, I really can’t do this right now. I have less than an hour to my shift.” I sigh, glancing up at the clock. She’s right, but it’s awful timing. If it weren’t for the hour, I would assume she is purposely avoiding me. Would it really matter? I think bitterly. It’s over, and she won’t even tell you why.  That’s not fair, but I need to feel that right now to separate myself emotionally. “Alright, I get it. We’ll see you tomorrow.” She hangs up and I’m the idiot that’s still sitting here and staring at the screen.

#

Karis giggles as we pull up to the building. I stare for several moments from the parking lot. “Wow daddy, it’s like a castle” Karis squeals as she jumps up and down in the back seat. She isn’t kidding. I can’t believe places like this actually exist. I frown, realizing that while I make well over a hundred thousand, it’s nowhere near what Jen makes. I gape at the brickwork and tall iron gates, being a specialist definitely has its perks.

I open the passenger side door and gather Karis’s bags. A whole week away is going to be torture for me. Being a dad is really all that I know. I swallow thickly as I cross over to Karis’s door. I knew it was coming, I had gotten her a whole extra week during the transition of Jen getting a new place. I frown at the extravagance. This isn’t her, maybe she is going through something too. I’ve never known her to get something over $1200 a month─ which was tough in this city, but she had a way of negotiating.

This isn’t just a normal loft─ town-home? I squint at the windows, there are several bay windows, paired off in two’s and then a ten-foot gap between them. These have to be lofts, a town-home would have an entrance on the ground facing the main road and all I see is one entrance and a main roll-up garage door.

Still, these have to run at least three grand a month, we’re barely five minutes from the main city and that’s with traffic. No way she isn’t spending twice our mortgage on this place, I don’t even need to see what the inside of it looks like.

The weird part is this place is new─ it has to be, and yet the bricks look authentic, like something you would have seen in the early twentieth century. I can almost hear the blend of weird car horns and horse-drawn carriages. I glance around feeling incredibly uneasy. Where are the other people? I haven’t spotted a single car since we’ve pulled up. It’s Friday night and we are barely one street over from the main bars and restaurants. Where is everyone?

Karis’s door swings open and she peeks out her little head, “Did you get lost, daddy?” I crack a smile, “har-har” I say. I reach into the car and tickle under her arms and belly. Her giggles are like music to my ears. “OK, OK, I give!” she yells between gasps of air. Man, I’m going to miss this bundle of fun.

#

Jenna looks absolutely stunning and she’s not even trying. I swear she is getting younger, just last week she looked like she was in her late twenties─ she doesn’t look a day over 23. I always thought blue looked really great on her, there’s something about the way her hair looks against it, but these clothes seem like they were made just for her. It’s just a shirt over tights but somehow she manages to make it look like an evening gown.

“Hey Jen,” I say, hating how shy I sound. I’m 42 years old for christ’s sake. “Hey” she replies warmly. There’s something in her eyes as they linger on mine. I can’t help but respond, my body growing warm and heart racing. She bends down to Karis balancing on her legs. “Hey honey-bunny, you want to run upstairs and check out your new room?” Karis squeals again and tears up the stairs.

I shake my head. “Man, I wish I had a tenth of that energy. I’d get so much done.” Jen laughs leading me toward the stairs. “Right? I’d kill for that some days.” That gets a real laugh out of me, “Hun have you seen yourself? I have never seen any woman look as good as you at 39.” Her laughing stops and she pauses near the top of the staircase, “Looks can be deceiving.”

I’m confused by her sudden moment of silence. Had I offended her?

A scream sounds from down the hall─ it’s long and loud, really loud.

 

Conclusion coming soon! xoxo – C.A.

Gallery

My Family is Falling Apart – A Short Story

“Jenna”

She pauses, her back turned to me. Her shoulders are drooped more than usual, her frame wispy. She’s so light this time it looks as if a large gust of wind would knock her down.

She sighs and then turns around, leaning on the brick outside of the door. Her breathing is labored like she had just run from the house. She had only dropped off our little girl in her bed and used the restroom. She was winded walking from the bathroom to the front door. Now I’m really worried.

“Are you taking your medication?” Her features stay in that mask she wears when she can’t talk about her feelings, smooth, and lifeless. “Yes,” she answers, her tone taking on the same emotionless effect. A few seconds of silence pass before she makes eye contact with me. Her eyebrows raise as if to say, ‘anything else?’

Jenna is every bit as stunning as the day we had promised each other forever. Her smooth, creamy skin hasn’t changed and I’ve never seen her have a bad hair day. Her blonde hair has a slight wave to it and if you catch it in the sun it has bits of red. Strawberry blonde, I think I overheard one of her friends call it once. She’s always had one of those small frames, even after Karis was born. She just bounced back into her pre-maternity clothes no problem. Secretly, I think many ladies envy her for it.

Even now, with her face lacking emotion her beauty can’t be hidden. It’s always been a mystery to me, how she’s stayed looking youthful all these years. She’s pushing 40 and hasn’t aged a day since we met. I don’t mean that in an emotional sort of way that a husband sees a wife as beautiful at every age, I mean I’ve tried to find any sign of it and damned if I haven’t found any. I know that’s a thing men aren’t supposed to notice, or I guess be happy over─ but it’s just always struck me as odd. You know?

Well, I say wife. I’m still not used to this next part. She’s going to leave, head back home to her place near downtown. She got a job working at Baylor. Which was both good and bad. It meant long hours and being on-call at any time of the day. Why she chose to be a trauma surgeon, I’ll never know. The horrors she sees, I can only imagine.

The divorce finalized earlier this year. Ten years gone, I can’t believe it. It’s my worst nightmare.

Karis mostly stays with me. We decided given her mother’s hectic schedule, it would be best that she have a stable environment for home and school. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked. I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than a husband and a father. It is my life goal. I don’t really buy into that ‘ball and chain’ nonsense, never have. I’ve loved every step of the way.

 

Well, except this part.

 

Her face draws up into a tired smile, one of those forced ones she gives all of her patients when she has just pulled an eighteen-hour shift. It isn’t that she doesn’t mean them, it’s that her body starts to shut down most of the unnecessary functions. Such as excess of emotions. I’ve seen this woman shut down in mid-cry with razor-sharp focus and attentiveness that would rival any politician. It’s an amazing trait to have, I do envy her that.

Without realizing what I am doing, I place my hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you alright?” I feel her tense slightly, but she doesn’t move from my grip. I’m tempted to hold her, but I do the gentlemanly thing and back away, clearing my throat. Jenna had made it very clear that things were done, no sense in putting myself through all of this a second time. She relaxes and slowly bobs her head up and down. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired,” she pauses and then adds, “you know, with the new place and all. Moving and work has been draining.”

I don’t buy it. Not completely, but I know exhaustion when I see it. “Listen, Jen─ don’t drive. If you need me to get you an uber or drive you, let me. I don’t think you should be driving in that state.” She bristles, her chin raising a degree. A bit of her stubbornness flairs, and I’m reminded of the side of her that really turns me on. I know it’s not an appropriate thought, and I quickly flip the switch in my brain. Whoa, boy, shut it down. This venue is closed up for good, windows boarded.

She must sense my hesitation, or something in the way I look. “Who would watch Karis?” Her words are soft, inviting. It reminds me of simpler times. She’s looking up at me with those big doe eyes. I know she isn’t doing it on purpose, I know when she’s trying to seduce. This is different. Then, as quickly as it comes, she turns away and walks over to her small honda civic. I’ll never understand why she doesn’t buy something better, she’s owned that car forever. She easily makes enough to drive anything she wants. Yet, she sticks with this tiny, white car. My guess is she’s saving for an early retirement. Can’t say I blame her, my parents taught me well. I’d only need to put in another 7 to 10 years at most and I’d have enough to retire on. Even if I live to be 150. After that, well, I guess I’m fucked. But I’ll be old as hell and probably shitting myself, so who cares?

She leans on the door for a moment, her hair picked up by the breeze. “Tom, I just want you to know─” she trails off, her brows press together and she bites her lip. I want to be impatient with her, yell and scream and demand to know what’s going on. Problem is, I can’t anymore. I’m no longer entitled to an answer and it kills me inside. I’ve gone from anger to sorrow in seconds, depressing myself. What I want to say is, Spit it out, god damn it! Instead, I smile and say, “What is it, Hun?” Her eyes dart from the house to my face, no doubt looking back at Karis’s window.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

Then she’s gone, driving down the road and turning onto the main street. I stand there for a long time. Long after the dust has settled and my neighbors have turned out their lights. All I wanted was to be a husband, a father. Why is that so hard?

“When do I get to see mommy’s new place?” Karis asks. Her legs are dangling from the stool as she stuffs the waxy chocolate donuts into her mouth. I don’t know why those things taste so good to kids. It’s basically solidified fat and sugar. The film on your teeth is the worst. I don’t let her have them too often but today was the first day back to school and I wanted her to have something comforting.

Karis, much like myself at her age, is showing all the signs I did. She has bad anxiety. Yay genetics.

I can tell she’s already dreading school, her face falling as I usher her along to finish her breakfast. I can’t believe she starts 3rd grade this year. Seems like yesterday I was chasing a bouncing, squealing kiddo running in her diapers. I frown as I check my watch. Jenna was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago. Normally, Jen would have Karis giggling and forgetting about her first day jitters, excitedly telling her how much fun she’s going to have for the year. She was famously a few minutes late, but never this much. If she didn’t get here soon, I’d have to leave without her. This wasn’t like her at all. She always made time for Karis. Especially on the first day of school. It was a tradition for all of us to walk with Karis hand-in-hand to class and wish her a good day.

10 more minutes go by and I can’t wait much longer. I text her one last time, hoping that maybe she had slept in, or that she would respond with an immediate apology, explaining herself. Then a full 5 minutes go by, and then 7. This time, I really can’t wait anymore. For the first time ever, Jenna will miss Kara’s first day at school. I look over to Karis as she downs the last of her milk and smile, “You ready honey bunny?” She grins ear-to-ear at the nickname and nods her head.

I blow Karis a kiss from the hallway as she sits at her desk. She’s already chatting with a girl across from her and laughing. I recognize the girl from Karis’s 1st-grade class a few years back. Glad to see that Karis has already found a friend. Maybe it’s true what they say, kids are simple and they don’t think about things as much as we do. She seems to be adjusting just fine in her new desk, all smiles, and semi-toothless grins. I stare at her from the hall, she really is a spitting image of her mother. Except for her eyes. Her eyes are green like mine and she’s tall and lanky. Jenna and I would always joke about how Karis would be as tall as her in a few years. It wasn’t an exaggeration. Karis was easily going to reach six feet tall in her teens and she would be strong. Real strong. Every sport we’d put her in, she was number one on the team. I don’t mean to brag, but in this case, she actually is a hardworking kiddo. 

Now if she would apply herself more to reading, we would be all set. I’ve never seen a kid that could melt to the floor the way she can when she has to sit at a table and focus on letters. $1500 dollars and a reading tutor took care of it this past summer, but damn if the girl wasn’t stubborn about it. Took that from her daddy too.

 

I’d almost forgotten about Jenna’s odd behavior as I walk out to my car. Then the rage hits me. How the hell does she promise to be here and never show? How could she do that to Karis? No call, not even a text. At this point, I’m not sure if I should be angry or worried. But in the end, the anger fizzles and worry creeps in. My mind switches back to her face last night and her words. I’m sorry. What was she apologizing about? Was it because she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it this morning? If so, why didn’t she just tell me? I pull my phone from my pocket. It vibrates and I get excited. Maybe this was her. I frown at the text message alerting me that my phone bill has gone through─ and nothing else. What the fuck is going on?

I can’t worry about it too much, so I head into work. I’m hopeful that in the next few hours she’ll call, or text before I really start to freak out.

It’s not too bad of a day and nearly 2:30 when I get the call.

“Mr. Holloway?” the woman croaks. It’s one of those smoker’s voices, the stereotypical kind that you hear in cartoons.

“Yes, speaking,” I respond.

“This is Leslie Smith from Hawthorn Elementary. I’m the school nurse calling about Karis.”

The blood drains from my face. “Is she OK?” I ask. I stride across my office and then shut the door. Best that no one hears something else to give the office gossip. She sighs on the other end, and then is silent for a moment. It’s as if she’s carefully weighing her words. “Karis is fine, no cuts or bruises.” More reluctance and then, “It’s more what happened that really concerns me” she says. “Ma’am?” I’m confused for a moment as to why I’m getting a phone call if Karis isn’t hurt. Then my chest tightens. “Did─ she harm someone else?” I silently hope this isn’t true, it’s the last thing I needed after this day. “Heavens no, that girl is as kind as they come. Never seen her get upset even when she ought to,” the nurse chuckles despite her earlier reservations. “Ms. Smith─” “Mrs. Smith,” she interrupts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith─ if my daughter isn’t harmed and she hasn’t harmed anyone, then what is the nature of this call?” I’m beginning to lose my patience. She’s silent on the other end again, but I can hear her shifting the phone. “Look, maybe it isn’t my place, lord knows I’ve had my fair share of problems, but, Karis said some very strange things today. Is everything OK at home?” I tense up. So, she had been paying attention to what happened this morning. “Well, normally her mother and I walk her in on her first day and her mom never showed” I finish. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I finish the sentence, it’s awkward having to say it out loud. “Well, now, that’s exactly what I mean” she sounds genuinely confused. “I’m not following” I say, trying to get her to the point. “Mr. Holloway,” she clears her throat and shifts on the other line. There’s that odd crackling that comes with a landline, they must still be using one of the ancient ones with a cord that connects to the base. “Karis was sent to me today because she asked the teacher if she and mama could go to the restroom together.” I’m still confused and even more so now. “You mean Jenna came up there? What’s wrong with that?” Relief floods my system. So she had finally got up there and had sat in with Karis. The relief is quickly replaced with anger. Why hadn’t she made an attempt to text me or call me back? I had been worried sick.

The silence on the other end makes me rethink my assumption. Something is wrong. I don’t know how I know it, something in the shifting, in Mrs. Smith’s sighs and heavy breath on the other end. My mind swims with the possibilities, but in the end I just ask, “What is it?” The nurse finally speaks at my question, “Mrs. Holloway never came in to see Karis today. As a matter of fact, Karis has been very cross with the staff and all of the other children are, frankly, afraid to go near her. During recess she sat on a bench and talked to an invisible person next to her. The teacher, bless her soul, tried to give the girl the benefit of the doubt─ first day jitters, you know that sort of thing. But as the day has gone on, she still insists on it.” I sit quietly, soaking in what she has just told me. I know Karis might have been upset, but I didn’t realize she was this upset. I am going to have to have a chat with her, see what’s really going on. Finally, I say, “Mrs. Smith. I know if this divorce is hard on me, it’s got to be harder on an eight year old.” I slowly start warming to the thought.

This isn’t some abnormal thing, it’s probably fairly common with children of divorcees. I hate thinking of that word, I hate that it applies to me and I hate even more that it includes her. Another broken family, nothing new─ welcome to America. Suddenly my lunch turns sour in my stomach and I’m unsure if it will stay put. I put on my best reassuring voice, the kind I use with my own mother, “Let me have a chat with her tonight and see what’s really going on.” I hear Mrs. Smith shift again and then a sigh, “See that you do, Mr. Holloway. Dr. Norris thinks that transferring her to a different class would be helpful as well. Children can be quite judgmental, as I’m sure you know. It may be good for a fresh start.” I bristle but the anger gives way to weariness. She’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. It would probably help ease her into the school year. I nod before answering, “I think that would be for the best. You have my permission.” She’s smiling as she says the next part, I can hear it in her voice. It’s forced, but I know it’s out of sheer politeness, she wants me to feel at ease. “I think that’s wise of you, Mr. Holloway. We’ll need you to fill out a transfer file, but we can send it via email. Just be sure to sign it before tomorrow.” “Thank you,” I say, quick to be done with this conversation. “Of course,” she says, then adds “and it’s a real shame to hear about all of your struggles. I hope it gets better for the two of you.” I awkwardly mumble a thank you and then hang up.

#

Karis is all smiles as she rushes up to the car. The crossing guard calls out for her to slow down, but she’s already at the passenger door. I wave and mouth sorry to the portly, scowling woman. She nods curtly, red-faced and then turns back to her duties, guiding the others across. “Daddy!” she gushes as she hops in the front seat. Her bag gets tossed and she reaches for her seat belt. “Let’s go home, I want to play VR!” I laugh at her eagerness. I’m ready to celebrate too, another end to a long work day.

Less than ten minutes later, we’re home dropping our things by the front door. That’s future us’s problem. I adjust the visor and goggles to her small head and then step back, knowing that she’s about to tear up the room on Beat Saber. I shake my head as she starts her latest pop obsession, really getting into the dance. Girl’s got some moves, just like her mama. Then I think about that and frown. I silently send out a warning to any and all potential suitors with a death threat so vile Fidel Castro would cringe at its savagery. I used to feel that way about anyone that looked at Jenna when she rocked Dance Dance Revolution at the mall arcade.

After dinner, I tell Karis to go brush her teeth and change into her jammies. I’ve avoided it all day, but it’s time for the chat. I know it’s probably normal so I make a mental note to not be overly serious, but enough that I get my point across. No one ever tells you about this part of divorce─ the ugly parts where you have to accept and understand how your child processes the inevitable change.

“I’m ready for my story, daddy!” she calls from her room down the hall.

#

“Karis, stop it.” I snap. Her green eyes are brimming with tears as she shakes her head at me. “No. Mommy was there, in class with me. No one else saw her, but she was there.” I let out a long sigh and squeeze the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. I thought for sure this would play out way easier in real life─ how naive of me. I really want to be an adult about it, but in the end, my tiredness wins. I try a different approach, a more human one, “honey, I know today was tough and we’re going to have a lot of those, but I need you to be honest with me right now. Was mommy really there today, or did you just pretend like she was there?” Her chin raises and she squares up to me, “I am not a liar-liar pants on fire, daddy.” She crosses her arms in a huff and turns toward the wall, her little jaw trembling but held firm. I have to stifle a laugh by moving my hand over my mouth. The only time she ever gets this worked up is when she believes in what she is saying.

This is her truth, and while I don’t believe that her mom was actually there, I know that Karis believes it. After a few moments, I speak carefully, “Sometimes, when we get upset we see things. Things that aren’t really there.” Her shoulders stiffen and she still won’t look at me, but I sense a hesitance. “Daddy, Mama was there.” Her words are so soft, they almost come out a whisper. “Why won’t you believe me? I saw her.” Little droplets spill down her face as she presses her eyes together. I wince as she starts ugly crying, the kind that sends her whole body into shakes, and snot dripping down her mouth and chin. “Shh, shh,” I say, running my fingers across her back. I stand briefly, grab the box of tissues from her desk and then offer them to her. She grabs a handful and blows noisily into them. “I swear,” she says between sniffles, “I’m not making it up. I don’t know why, but no one could see her but me.” The last sentence seems to calm her and she relaxes, finally able to get it all out.

Poor girl. I continue to massage her back as she lays down under the covers. I draw them up to her chin and then tuck in the sides cocooning her the way she likes it. I massage her back until her breathing comes out heavy. I stroke her hair, then bend down and kiss her forehead, “I love you, bunny.” I whisper. She still smells like she did as a baby, that faint hint of baby powder and lotions and some unknown floral scent that has stuck with her for years. It’s that scent of youth, indescribable yet everyone knows what you mean.

#

I’m in bed when I hear the sound. The t.v. is up loud, so I tap the mute button and listen. The only sound is the wind outside rustling the grass next to my window. There’s a few creaks and pops, the house bending in the unforgiving September winds. I exhale and press the button. I jump as the movie blares into my room and I quickly turn it down. Apparently, I’ve been listening to it much louder than I thought. The main character is jumping into oncoming traffic, guns and car horns blaring. Finally some action. I’m tensing and balling my hands into fists as the bad guys squeal next to Detective Peterson. You got this, I scream mentally. He makes a quick decision and then he’s down a dark alleyway, the bad guys zoom past, losing him. Yes, I think, pounding my hands on the comforter. The detective gets out of his car and makes a call to the local PD. He’s one of those traditional grizzled types weathered from a career of seeing too much of humanity’s bad side. He lights up, and exhales a large puff of smoke when I hear something again. It’s almost perfectly timed to the scraping noise the detective hears in the dark alley. This is no movie sound, it’s here─ in my home.

It sounds closer this time and I can make out new details. Before it sounded like tapping, or a crinkling bag. Sometimes Karis sneaks out of bed for a cookie or some chips. My room is located right across from the kitchen and living room. So I’ve almost always caught her. The back door is attached to the breakfast area, it’s a design for parents to be able and keep an eye on their children in the backyard while they cook. We haven’t gotten a puppy yet, but there is a dog door installed. Recently Karis has been asking for a dog and admittedly, I would welcome anything to keep me company. Especially tonight. I frown as I hear it again. It’s a wet noise, like dripping onto my tile floors. Annoyed, I pause the movie. The sound stops. I’m probably just tired, I reason. It’s the wind or maybe it’s starting to rain outside. A couple of beats pass and I’m starting to doubt myself again when there is suddenly a few more droplets, and then it’s pouring rain.

It’s nearly three in the morning when my phone goes off. I jump at the invasive jingle. Light spills into the room, bathing everything in a dull, green hue. I know it’s a text, I’ve disabled all of my email alerts and all the other crap alerts that come with apps these days. It was a text, or a voicemail. And since the ringtone never went off, I know it has to be the former. There’s only one person that would be texting me this late. A lump forms in my throat as I reach for the phone. It jingles a few more times and vibrates in my hand. What on earth? I wonder. I stare at the name on my phone, shaking as I swipe at the lock screen. It’s her. I stare up at the repeated message as it continues to fill the message screen, over and over:

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m─

“Daddy?” I let out a howl and the phone drops from my hands and onto the floor. It makes a loud clack and then slides to the wall under my window. Karis jumps and screams, scared and confused at my outburst. She pauses as I quiet and then bawls. I sigh in relief. “Karis, honey I’m sorry, you scared Daddy.” She continues to cry but walks toward my bed. “I’m scared,” she moans, “there was a monster in my room.” I pat the bad and wave her over. ” Now, baby, there’s no such thing as monsters.” She cries harder and wails, “There is so, and it was in my room.” she’s almost as hysterical as she was when I yelled. I look at the bright red lights on my alarm clock, 2:45 a.m. Best to just let her sleep in here or neither of us will get a wink. “Alright, alright” I say gruffly, “Come on up then.” She pulls herself onto the bed and dives beneath the covers. Karis’s tears dry up instantly in that annoying ability that all kids tend to have when they get their way. I shake my head as I get out of bed and scoop my phone up from the floor. The jingling has stopped, but the message has not changed─ just a few more of the same thing, I’m sorry.

I’m not sure how to respond. Is she sending this out of guilt? It was the same thing she had said last night before she left. Is she apologizing for missing Karis’s first day? That has to be it. Jenna probably just got off her shift and sent a message in a dead zone. Sometimes it takes a while for a message to send so it stores it until you hit an area with signal. It probably just sent a bunch after an attempt to send it the first time it didn’t go through. My gut reaction is to attack her, ask her what she was thinking, not even bothering to send me a text, or at least call. Even if she had to work overtime, she could have let me know─ something.

I take a few breaths, steadying myself. No, maybe something happened. Jenna isn’t the sort to make up excuses, that is one thing I know for sure. Finally, I send: is everything OK? I expect the response to come later, but one comes immediately: come find me. I stare at the message for a while. Is she standing outside of the house? I sneak out of bed and look down at Karis. She’s fast asleep, her head tilted back and mouth hanging open. I’m not sure what is going on, but I know it has to be serious since Jen is at my house at three in the morning. Not that her being awake at that hour is odd, just that she is here. She normally waits until at least six to call or message. I slip out of my room and turn toward the front door. I grip my sides as I walk across the cool tiles. The rain really dropped the temperature outside.

My teeth are chattering as I pull on the front door. My feet hit the cold porch and I’m tempted to go back inside. It’s absolutely freezing. When did it get this cold? I walk down the covered path and turn to the driveway. Her car isn’t here. I look up and down the street to see if maybe she parked further down. The only thing visible on the street is the streetlight three houses down. The wind picks up and I shiver, running my hands up and down my arms. My body is shaking uncontrollably. I’m not sure if it’s from the cold, or the sudden urge to run back inside and lock the door. My phone goes off again in my pocket, it sounds small and thin in the approaching storm.

Confused, I pull it from my pocket.

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come─

A scream fills the house. The blood drains from my face as I spin on my heels and charge through the front door. It’s Karis, I know that scream anywhere. It’s the same one she does when she falls or hurts herself. I’m nearly to my room when the shadows bend toward the back window in the living room. They jerk, twist upward and tower over me. I stare at the dark swirl in awe. Not shadows, I realize. It’s more of an ooze. A moment of insanity takes hold of me and I reach out, extending my fingers. I should run, I should scream─ but what good would that do? If I am going to die to it, I want to know if it’s tangible. Perhaps this is a dream, I convince myself, some vision my brain has concocted from the film earlier. I frown. No, that can’t be right because there was nothing like it. Only people. This isn’t a person.   

I take one step. Then, another. It’s staring at me. I say stare not because it has eyes, but because I can feel it. I know it’s looking at me. It’s crazy, I realize, but it’s the only way I can describe what I’m sensing. I’m five feet from it, maybe less and it’s taller than I realized. It’s nearly to my ceiling. I stop as a streak of white light screams across it and branches in several directions. It almost reminds me of…“Lightning” I murmur out loud. It lurches away from me, diving toward the back door. My voice must have startled it. I hear the dog door crash open and the thing pushes its way through. It makes the same sound that a bathtub does when the last of the water drains out. Almost a suction noise.    

I want to move, but I can’t. I’m shaking all over. I want to say that I am completely in control and I have convinced myself that I’m simply tired. That the noises are the rain outside and what I just saw is the result of stress and sleep deprivation. Deep down, I know this is a lie. A smaller scream comes from my room, more of a scared whimper. Karis. My feet finally cooperate and I’m in my room. Karis is pressed against the headboard, the covers drawn all the way up to her chin. Her eyes are bulging, stuck wide open. I flick on the light and scan the room. Whatever that…thing was has left but it’s not going to stop me from searching the entire room. Now gaining some courage, I drop to my belly and scan under the bed.

If there was something here before, it is gone now. I know it to be true. Whatever it was left earlier through the back door. I stand and look down at Karis, my voice comes out heavy, tired, “was that the one?” She blinks at me a few times, her eyebrows pressed together in confusion. “What do you mean, daddy?” she whispers. “Was that the monster in your room?” A heavy silence fills the room and Karis’s lips quiver. Her teeth start to chatter. Suddenly, I don’t want to know the answer. I just want to lie in bed and close my eyes.  I want to dream of simpler times when it was Jenna, Karis, and me against the world. I want to forget that any of this has happened. I glance at my phone and check my messages again. I frown at the phone, close my messages and then re-open them. I try it once again, and then a third time before finally closing them for good.

The messages from when I was outside are gone. All of them are except for a single: I’m sorry.

Maybe it’s best if we just call it a night. We were both upset, the storm caused the sounds, I reason. Tricks from the lightning outside had created a shadow. Yes, that must have been it. I reach over and switch on the lamp. Then I walk to the other side of the room and turn off the overhead light. Karis hasn’t answered, but she is watching my every move. I curl up next to her and pull her into my arms. She rests her head between my chest and shoulder. I can tell the exact moment that she falls asleep. Karis’s breathing deepens and her body goes limp.

I stare up at the ceiling hoping, praying that all of this is a nightmare. I’m frightened to sleep, but it finds me anyway. The last of my thoughts drift to Jenna’s warm eyes and kind smile.

Part II coming soon.

❤ Grey

This will be posted on royalroad.com