The residents of Pasoken, Wisconsin aren’t amused. For the past two years, the city has been plagued by unsettling sightings of a creepy clown lurking about at night.
That’s right, I said clown. Someone has been dressing up like a freaking clown and creeping around at night. No one knows the man’s identity, but he’s clearly trying to scare people, and I suspect he’s succeeding magnificently, considering that this scares me and I’ve never even been to Pasoken.
The prankster was first sighted on Sinnow Creek Road, just outside the city limits. Reportedly, he could be found on certain nights walking up and down the shoulder of the winding road in the dark, where unsuspecting travelers would get a scare as they came around the curves in the dark. This quickly earned him the name “The Sinnow Creek Road Clown.”
But the painted terror didn’t stay on Sinnow Creek Road long. Soon after he appeared, he began to turn up on other quiet roads in the area. And as of this past summer, he’s been spotted inside the city limits as well. Witnesses have reported catching sight of the clown crossing parking lots and sitting on darkened benches at night. He’s been spotted loitering in parks and even staring back from dark alleyways.
So far, authorities haven’t apprehended the clown. Of course, they also have no reason to. Although he’s scaring the pants off people, he technically hasn’t broken any laws. It’s not illegal to dress like a clown or walk around alone at night. He hasn’t trespassed on private property, harassed anyone or even attempted to hitchhike. Being creepy isn’t a crime, so residents of Pasoken are out of luck and I’ll be staying well away from there pretty much forever.
People love an unsolvable mystery. I know I do. There’s just something about the idea that you’ll never know what really happened. Take this one, for example, from Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Seventeen-year-old Aiden Chadwick went missing in Creek Bend, Wisconsin, never to be seen again. It sounds fairly mundane, but what makes this particular missing person case stand out is that it stubbornly defies logical explanation.
What we know about the case is that at 4:23 pm, Aiden entered a small, gas station convenience store with his mother. He can be seen walking in on the closed-circuit security cameras. He’s seen wandering around, even grabbing a bottle of soda from one of the coolers. He’s acting perfectly normal. Nothing suspicious. Then he steps out of frame and into a blind spot in the security footage and simply never steps back in.
There were plenty of witnesses on the scene, but none of them saw anything unusual. He didn’t leave through any door. All the exits were covered by cameras and there was no tampering found on the film. A thorough search of the property turned up nothing. No trace of Aiden was ever found. It was as if he simply ceased to exist.
The story went viral. For the next few days, it was all over the news. The media did what the media does and sensationalized it. The internet gave it wings and carried the news across the globe. Then, not surprisingly, came the crackpot theories and the conspiracy nuts, claiming everything from alien abductions and government cover-ups to time paradoxes and wormholes. People were scrutinizing every frame of the footage, pointing out every flaw on the film, claiming to see orbs, shadows and odd glitches that were somehow irrefutable proof of the presence of trans-dimensional beings.
But really, why not? No one else had any clue how to explain it. I know I can’t. It was like a locked room murder mystery, but there wasn’t even a body. I’m a proud skeptic and even I have to wonder if Aiden Chackwick didn’t fall through a freak hole in the universe.
Sadly, none of us will probably ever know the truth. But personally, I think I’m okay with that. Are you?
On the morning of Friday, July 14, 1978, Isabelle Emilia Albin, age 13, vanished without a trace from Gold Sunshine Resort, a naturist camping grounds near Blochard, Wisconsin. She had long, brown hair and blue eyes. She was last seen just after breakfast, wearing yellow shorts and a pink halter top. No one saw her leaving the property, nor did anyone observe any suspicious activity, but she never returned for lunch.
The primary suspect in the case was a Green Bay resident named Herbert Kozachik, who had a prior record of sexual assault and was known to frequent the resort under an alias. But no evidence was ever found to convict Kozachik.
The case dragged on and eventually suspicion began to shift toward Isaac Altrusk, owner and operator of the rustic resort. At first, he was dismissed as a suspect owing to a solid alibi. Several resort guests had testified that his whereabouts that entire morning were well-known, making it impossible for him to have had any hand in her disappearance. After months of investigation, however, it came to light that Altrusk had a number of past aliases, all of them known con-men. But before the authorities could interrogate him, Altrusk, too, vanished without a trace and was never seen again. It is now widely believed that he murdered Isabelle and hid her body somewhere on the property, regardless of his alibi. At the very least, he is believed to have been an accomplice in the crime.
Authorities suspected that the nature of the resort might have made it a target for sexual deviants, and the negative media surrounding the case led to the permanent closure of the resort and a bad image for the naturist lifestyle, which was largely misunderstood by the locals at the time, many of whom were shocked to discover that there were children staying at the resort.
Naturism, or nudism, is a family-oriented lifestyle that emphasizes being comfortable in one’s own skin. Lewd behavior is strictly prohibited. But conservative locals were quick to demonize the resort and even demanded that Isabelle’s parents, Jerrell and Reta Albin, be held responsible for what happened. But fortunately, no charges were ever filed against them.
More than three and a half decades have passed since Isabelle was last seen, with absolutely no evidence to explain what became of her. Today, her parents only want closure. “All we want is to know the truth,” said Jerrell. “All we want is to be at peace.”
The Albins are no longer naturists. “There used to be joy in it,” said Reta. “But that’s all gone now. There’s no point in it. There’s no point in any of it.”
It’s time again for another Eric Fortrell adventure!
Rushed: All Fun and Games
The sixth book in the Rushed series finds Eric facing some of his greatest fears when his wife, Karen, drags him to an eight-year-old child’s birthday party at the circus-themed family entertainment center called Bellylaugh Playland. Almost immediately, he discovers something horrifyingly amiss with the building and is hurled into a life-or-death race against the clock to save everyone from an ancient, slumbering evil. The ghostly children and temperamental décor he thinks he can handle. It’s the clowns that are really freaking him out.
Available May 31!
Can’t wait? That’s okay. Read the first chapter right now! My treat.
This was seriously going to suck. And that was saying a lot, considering some of the massively sucky things Eric Fortrell had done in his life.
He sighed. It was one of those big, deep sighs that he reserved for times when he had no choice but to resign himself to something he really, really didn’t want to do.
He was standing beside his silver PT Cruiser, staring at the imposing form of the building before him. It wasn’t much to look at from the parking lot. Blocky, mostly windowless, it kind of resembled an enormous barn, really, with its featureless, tin exterior. It was big, but from this angle, it was perfectly unremarkable.
The horrors were all inside.
And they were substantial.
Even if he could somehow avoid going in there, there was nowhere else to go. There was nothing else here. Behind him was the highway, but everything else was open pastures bordered by forests, as if he were a million miles from civilization.
It was all an illusion, of course. He was less than half a mile from the city limit sign. Pasoken, Wisconsin and its population of twelve thousand lay just beyond that strip of woods to the west. But he might as well be in the middle of the Sahara because whether he liked it or not, he was going to have to go in there.
And he’d put it off too long already.
He opened the Cruiser’s lift gate and stared at the huge bundle of colorful, bobbing balloons and the two huge, plastic sacks containing all the goody bags Karen and Holly had assembled the night before, each one stuffed with candy, party favors and a homemade cookie.
An eight-year-old child’s birthday party.
He’d almost rather drive back to Hedge Lake and go for another swim.
He felt a blush creep up his neck as traffic sped by on the highway. It was silly, but things like this always made him feel extremely self-conscious. He hated the idea of people staring at him. It sounded weird, he knew. He was a high school teacher, after all. He spent all day in front of a classroom. But somehow that was different. They were his students. It was supposed to be that way. It was natural. But the idea of complete strangers looking at him, judging him… It was unnerving. He didn’t even like it when he was mowing his lawn and people drove past on the street. It was irrational, but it was real. He couldn’t help it.
And why wouldn’t every passing driver be staring at him right now? They couldn’t possibly miss him. All these bright balloons were like a rainbow-colored beacon, irresistibly drawing everyone’s eyes straight to him.
He knew nobody was laughing at him. Lots of people had their kids’ birthday parties here. No one would give him a second thought. Just like no one thought anything about a man mowing his lawn. But he just couldn’t help it. It was who he was.
Everyone deserved to have their own peculiarities, right? (Although he supposed he might have claimed more than his fair share…)
He fumbled the lift gate closed again and started across the parking lot toward the main doors. Four hours, he told himself. It’s only four hours. How bad can it possibly be for just four hours?
But he wasn’t fooling himself.
It was going to suck for four… Long… Hours…
He stared at the sign over the glass doors as he approached.
Bellylaugh Playland was one of those little Wisconsin treasures you sometimes read about in travel pamphlets. A family entertainment center containing a three story, indoor playland (like the ones you found in McDonald’s restaurants all over the place, but on mega-steroids) with plenty of slides, tunnels, bridges, obstacles and climbing nets. There was also an attached mirror maze, a large ball pit and a two story arcade. For the grownups, there was a full restaurant and bar attached, but they weren’t open on weekends.
Back in the eighties and nineties, it was a major family attraction. Open seven days a week, people brought their kids from all over the Midwest to eat and play. Over the years, however, the place had aged and lost some of its charm. Prices went up. Visitor numbers went down. (And the owners had grown too old to keep up with it all, he’d heard.) Now it was only open for private events and an extremely popular all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry.
As soon as he opened the door, his ears were accosted with the sounds of children screaming their heads off. And most of the guests hadn’t even arrived yet. The actual party didn’t start until eleven o’clock, more than half an hour from now.
His four hours hadn’t even begun and already he felt a dull pain beginning to blossom in his right temple. He hoped Karen still had aspirin in her purse. He was going to need some before this day was over.
But the children and all their noise didn’t bother him quite as much as the clown that met him as he entered the building.
Six and a half feet tall, made of plaster and in need of fresh paint, the goofy, overexcited greeter was obviously supposed to look fun and friendly. Even his proportions were made to look silly, with too-big eyes and ears and a spindly little neck and hands that looked like Mickey Mouse gloves. And to some, he probably did appear endearing. (There were plenty of weirdos out there who actually liked clowns for some reason.) But to Eric, that huge, cartoon grin was less inviting than it was hungry and menacing.
As far as he was concerned, any kid that didn’t burst into tears at the sight of that thing needed therapy. Immediately.
And it wasn’t the only creepy statue in the building. Bellylaugh Playland was full of frightful and lifeless clowns. They were scattered all over the place, standing against walls, leaning against posts and perched over doorways, watching the children play and eat with their huge, dull eyes. There was even one guarding the doors to the restroom. (Good luck making it past that abomination if you were already doing the pee dance.) Some, like the one guarding the entrance, were freakishly tall, towering over the children and even most of the adults. Others were comically short, only about four feet tall. With very few exceptions, the tall ones were long and skinny and the short ones were squat and fat.
There weren’t any real clowns, thankfully. At least, no fully-dressed, rainbow wig, baggy trousers, big shoes, horror-makeup-wearing clowns. (Karen had assured him of that.) But the staff here all wore those big, red clown noses all the time for some reason.
God, he hated clowns. He always did. Even when he was young. They creeped him out for some reason.
He was standing on one side of the party room. It was little more than a large, open space filled with tables and booths, surrounded by festively painted, circus themed walls and dotted with those god-awful clown statues. From where he stood, he could see Karen putting her considerable decorating skills to work at the cake table by the far wall.
He shot the plaster bozo one last dirty look and then made his way over to his wife, careful not to pop any of the balloons on the low-hanging light fixtures overhead.
His cell phone rang in his pocket, but he ignored it. He didn’t have a free hand to answer it with. And besides that, he didn’t even like the stupid thing. Cell phones were annoying devices worshiped by idiotic people who couldn’t bear to remain unentertained for more than thirty seconds at a stretch. He didn’t tolerate them in his classroom and would never have owned one if Karen hadn’t insisted that he have it in case of an emergency. (And so that she could always reach him, of course.) So yes, he had one of the stupid things, but that didn’t mean he used it everywhere he went. He refused to be one of those obnoxious people in the grocery store with their phones perpetually glued to the sides of their heads.
It was no secret that he felt this way. Anyone who actually had his number knew this, so it was probably either a wrong number or one of those damned recorded messages instructing him to call about an urgent matter with a nonexistent credit card. (He’d been getting more of those just lately, and it annoyed the hell out of him.)
They’d leave a message. Or they wouldn’t. It didn’t really matter to him.
Either way, the ringing stopped.
Karen was talking with two women. One was a skinny, older blonde, the other a very short, younger brunette. They looked enough alike to be related, mother and daughter, perhaps, or maybe even sisters. It was hard to say for sure. Eric didn’t recognize either of them. He didn’t expect to. Karen was catering this party for a friend of her mother. Even she didn’t know anybody here.
Both women walked away as he stepped up beside her. “Your balloons,” he said.
“Finally!” She turned and looked them over without sparing him a glance. “What took so long?”
Eric almost never lied to her. And he didn’t this time, either. “I didn’t want to come,” he told her.
She wasn’t amused. The look she gave him said so in no uncertain terms. But he met her humorless gaze without flinching. It didn’t scare him. On the contrary, he found that look perfectly adorable.
(She had another look that she sometimes gave him that was considerably less adorable. It was a little bit scary. But not this one.)
Without dropping his gaze, he lifted the plastic sacks and said, “I grabbed your goodies.”
That almost earned him a smile. It was there for just an instant. Not on her lips, where anyone else could see it, of course, but in her pretty, brown eyes.
She took the sacks from him without a word and immediately began arranging the goody bags on the table around the cake. It was going to look fantastic when she was done. It always did. Karen had an incredible eye for detail.
He watched her for a moment, then glanced across the room at one of the creepy clown statues. “Doesn’t this place scare the kids?”
“Not everyone shares your weird clown phobia,” she told him.
“It’s not a phobia. I just don’t like them. There’s a difference.”
“Where do you want me to put these balloons?”
“Just give them to Holly.”
“Where is she?” But as soon as he turned around she was there, already reaching out for them. To his extreme disappointment, she was wearing clown makeup. “Not you, too,” he said.
She stared back at him for a moment, confused. “What?”
It wasn’t so bad, really. It wasn’t the whole costume. Not even the hair. For the most part, she looked perfectly nice. All she’d done was paint her face with a few clownish details. Her lips were bright red, with lines extending from the corners to exaggerate her mouth. There was a little red heart on the tip of her nose, some blue eyeshadow, little circles of pink blush on her cheeks. And she’d drawn a number of small, swirly lines and dots beneath her eyes, exaggerating her long eyelashes and simulating little freckles on her cheekbones. It was really well done, too. Neat lines, smooth colors. She actually made a damn pretty clown.
“He’s afraid of clowns,” Karen told her.
“Oh…” She pressed one hand against her heart, as if wounded. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” grumbled Eric, embarrassed. “I just don’t like them.”
“What’s not to like?” asked Holly. “Clowns are adorable.”
“Ever heard of John Wayne Gacy?”
Holly took the balloons and set off to finish decorating. As she walked away, a tall, athletic-looking woman with a deep tan and short, spiky hair walked up to the table. “Karen, can we put the refreshments out now, or do we have to wait until eleven?”
“I think we can have them whenever we’re ready for them. I’ll go check on it as soon as I’m done here.”
Karen supplied the cake and the treats, but the kitchen was supposed to supply the pizza and soda. She would’ve happily provided all the food and refreshments, drawing on all of her many talents in the kitchen to whip up a fantastic spread of delicious and healthy, kid-friendly snacks and her own homemade punch—sugar-free, of course—but the birthday child wanted pizza and soda. Eric, for one, was relieved. She was already taking this far too seriously.
A little boy, about three years old, ran over to the tall woman and seized the hem of her skirt. He looked upset about something.
The woman bent over him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t like the clown!”
Eric glanced over at Karen, smirking, but she was making a point of ignoring him.
“They’re just decoration, sweetie. They’re not going to hurt you.”
But the boy shook his head. “Not them. The one in there.” He pointed across the floor toward the mirror maze.
“There aren’t any real clowns here,” she insisted. “They’re all just decorations.”
But the boy wouldn’t let go of her skirt.
Finally, she straightened up. “Fine. Let’s go see.”
The little boy didn’t look too thrilled with the idea, but he allowed himself to be led away.
Eric watched them go and then glanced over at Karen again.
She still didn’t look at him. “Don’t say it,” she warned.
“I’m telling you, clowns are evil. It’s not just me.”
“He’s a little boy. I’m sure he’s afraid of lots of things. I’d expect a little more from someone your age.”
Again, his cell phone started ringing. Again, he ignored it.
“Doesn’t matter what age you are. Clowns are creepy.”
“Just because you think they’re creepy doesn’t mean they’re evil.”
“I’m pretty sure it does.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just stop it. I’ve got work to do.”
“Speaking of evil…” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “She-devils at four o’clock.”
Karen glanced over to see her mother and sister walking through the door. “Oh goody…”
“Well, on the bright side, the clowns suddenly look a little less demonic.”
“You be nice,” she snapped.
“Me? I’m always nice. You’re the one who starts all the fights.”
She didn’t argue with him. He was right, of course. He wasn’t particularly fond of his in-laws. He thought they were all a little stuck-up. And he didn’t appreciate how critical they were of Karen, of course. But they’d never been openly rude to him and he’d always remained civil to them.
“Go check on the soda,” she told him. “See if we can have it brought out now.”
He glanced around the empty party room, confused. “Uh…where do I do that?”
“At the bar. It’s at the back of the dining room in the restaurant, right through the arcade.”
She didn’t have to ask twice. He walked away, happy for an excuse to not be present for the impending family reunion.
“Ladies,” he greeted as he walked past his in-laws.
Karen’s sister gave him an obligatory smile and a polite, “Hi,” which was about all he ever got from her.
“Good morning, Eric,” said Karen’s mother. “How are you?”
Peachy, he thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m just fine, thank you. Yourself?”
Eric smiled politely and continued on with his task without telling her that he was pretty sure she could complain. And would. About everything. And poor Karen was going to have to listen to it all.
She’d always had a tense relationship with her parents. Her older sister, Joyce, was practically perfect in every way. (According to them, that was.) She was thin, beautiful, popular and intelligent. By contrast, Karen was chubby, awkward, shy and combative. Her parents—particularly her mother—never missed an opportunity to let her know how much they wished she would be more like her sister.
As a result, she’d developed something of a mild eating disorder as a teenager, dieting to an extreme degree, eating as little as she could get away with. And when she went off to college, more than a hundred pounds lighter than she left middle school, she rebelled in a big way. Ironically, she and Eric met for the first time when she picked him up with the intention of having her first one-night stand.
They’d been together ever since.
She no longer worried about her weight. She redirected her energy and cultivated her skills in the kitchen. Instead of starving herself, she began making much healthier choices in her cooking and was much happier with herself in spite of gaining back some of that much-hated weight. And he couldn’t possibly love her more. As far as he was concerned, she was perfectly flawless.
(And for the record, he’d have picked her over her stuck-up, fake older sister any day.)
These days, Karen didn’t live under Joyce’s shadow or her parents’ scrutiny. But those relationships remained strained, especially when it came to her mother. She still felt compelled to prove herself. So when Blanche Dashton called her daughter to ask if she’d plan and cater a birthday party for her friend’s grandchild, Karen took it as a challenge.
And that was how Eric ended up here.
He crossed the floor, pausing only to let three hyper boys run across his path, shouting at each other that the zombies were right behind them. (What was everybody’s deal with zombies, anyway?) Once the boys had run off again in search of a safe place to ride out the apocalypse, he continued on into the arcade.
From here, the screaming from the playland was a little more muffled, but now he was surrounded by loud, overlapping music and muffled, recorded voices from the dozens of brightly lit arcade machines that were all continuously competing for everyone’s attention. It was difficult to decide which was worse.
His cell phone rang again. Who the hell kept calling him? Nobody ever called him. He reached into his pocket to look at the number, but before he could pull it out, he was distracted by the sound of someone calling his name.
He turned and looked around. There were a couple kids playing with the machines. Not playing the machines, but playing with them. They didn’t seem to have any money to actually play a game, so they were just sitting behind the steering wheels of a racing game, pretending to play. They weren’t paying any attention to him. And there was no one else there.
On the far side of the room, he could see a very bored-looking college-age kid standing behind the prize counter, playing with his cell phone and wearing one of those stupid clown noses. (He had no idea how they could stand wearing those all day. It’d drive him nuts.)
It must’ve been his imagination. A random recording from one of the machines that he misheard.
Maybe there was a character named Eric in one of the games.
He continued on, but quickly stopped again and turned to stare at a game screen next to him. It was some kind of zombie shooter. (Them again?) It was playing a demo of a scene in a dark hallway. But for a second there, in the corner of his eye as he walked by, it’d looked all wrong somehow. It wasn’t a crisp, colorful image like the one he was seeing now. It was grainy, distorted, more like a weak video feed.
It was probably just a part of the game. Maybe a creepy title screen of some sort. But for that one, brief moment it had struck him as incredibly unsettling. As crazy as it sounded, it seemed like something was staring out at him from that screen…
His imagination. It was probably those stupid clowns. They made everything a million times creepier.
He continued on through the arcade, past the doors on the far side and into the restaurant. There were windows here, on the far side of the room, but the blinds were all closed. The lights were out. The dining area was dark and uninviting.
And yet the atmosphere here was considerably nicer than in the rest of the building. It still maintained the circus theme, but in a classier, more nostalgic way. There were vintage circus posters hung on the walls, along with all manner of antique carnival memorabilia and countless photographs of acrobats and elephant trainers, circus tents and Ferris wheels, midways and clowns. There was also a miniature circus train that traveled around the entire dining area on an overhead track and a decorative carousel behind the hostess station by the main entrance.
Overall, a far less obnoxious take on the theme, in his opinion.
He could see the bar in the back corner, by the restroom sign, but there didn’t appear to be anyone over there. Now what was he supposed to do?
His cell phone rang again. He started to reach for it, but was again distracted by a voice. This time, it wasn’t his imagination.
He turned to find a young boy standing in the doorway he’d just entered. He looked to be about seven, with shaggy, blond hair and big, blue eyes. “What?”
“What’re you doing?” the boy asked again.
“I’m looking for someone to open the bar,” he replied.
The boy squinted at him. “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking?”
Eric frowned. “Aren’t you a little young to be the booze police?”
He shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
Eric chuckled. “Right. Well, I’m supposed to ask somebody about the soda for the party,” he explained. “I was told there’d be someone at the bar.”
He turned and looked around, but there was no one in sight.
“Maybe you should check the kitchen.”
Eric looked back at the boy. “Kitchen?”
He pointed toward the corner of the room, to Eric’s far left.
The layout of the room made it impossible to see that corner from where he stood, so he walked farther out into the restaurant. Sure enough, there was a door back there. A light was shining through the window. That was where they’d be making the pizzas soon, if they hadn’t already started. “Ah,” he said. “Thanks.”
“You’ll need the key to find her.”
He stopped and looked back at the boy, confused. “What?”
“Not a regular key. It’s something else. I don’t know what, but you won’t be able to find her without it.”
Eric stared at him. Find who? The bartender?
“And if you don’t find her, you can’t save them.”
This conversation was getting stranger by the second. “Save who?”
The kitchen door opened and a young, dark-haired woman stepped out into the dining room She was nicely dressed and wearing a bright-red clown nose. As soon as she saw him standing there, she stopped, startled. “Can I help you with something?”
He looked over at her, still puzzled. “Uh… Yeah. Sorry. I was sent to ask if they can put the soda out now.”
“Oh.” Over her initial (and perfectly understandable) surprise at finding a grown man lurking in a dark, unopen restaurant, she relaxed and offered him a polite and professional smile. “Of course. I’ll get it right out.”
“You’re very welcome.” She turned and vanished back into the kitchen again.
He turned back to the boy, but he was gone. He must’ve run back out into the arcade while the woman was talking.
There was no one else in the room.
The cell phone rang again. This time he removed it from his pocket and saw that it was Isabelle.
“Oh my god!” she yelled as soon as he lifted it to his ear. “Answer your phone!”
Eric cringed at the volume of her voice. “Okay. It’s answered. What do you want?”
“It’s not your imagination. Something is seriously wrong with that place!”
Find out what happens on May 31! Available at all major ebook retailers!
It was only a matter of time…
The fifth Rushed book is almost here! When Eric finds a mysterious letter written twenty years before he was born, but describing events from his own life, his simple existence as a normal high school English teacher once again takes a bizarre turn into the weird.
Coming Christmas Eve 2015!
Read on for a sneak peek of the first two chapters of Rushed: A Matter of Time!
“I don’t care what anyone says. Truth is stranger than fiction.”
“You have no idea,” muttered Eric without looking up from the box he was rummaging through.
Chad looked across the desk at him, his owlish eyebrows raised. “What?”
He considered Eric for a moment, and then shrugged and looked back down at the papers stacked in front of him. “Truth is stranger,” he said again. “And much more interesting.”
Eric used to argue this point with him for hours at a time, but somewhere between his first run-in with a golem and that business with the insane, sentient mansion where he first met the little girl who lived in his cell phone, it became clear to him that Chad was right on that particular point, even if Chad couldn’t possibly comprehend just how right he was.
“I mean, what’s the point in wasting your time reading something someone just made up?”
This was where Eric drew the line, however. “Human imagination is infinitely more vast than human history.”
“Vast, maybe. But also useless.”
He knew this argument well enough. Chad was teasing him, egging him on. But he played along. “History would be pretty boring if no one ever had any imagination.”
“It would certainly be easier to research.”
“That’s probably true,” agreed Eric. It only took a few imaginativejournalists to turn any simple truth into a convoluted fantasy. It was impossible to know how much of what we accepted as history was actually history and how much of it was fabricated for one reason or another. (Especially given some of the things he’d learned about the world in the past couple years.) “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather just focus on the task in front of us.”
Chad shrugged and did that stroking thing he liked to do with his beard. (He thought it made him look distinguished, but Eric thought it only made him look like he was trying to look distinguished, which he was pretty sure was exactly the opposite.) “I suppose so.”
Between them, the desk in Chad’s classroom was buried under cardboard boxes filled with stacks upon stacks of old papers. A lot of it was research of one kind or another, but the vast majority of it was forty years of middle school English writing projects.
“Did you ever meet Terence?”
Eric shook his head. “He retired before I came along. Just by a year or two.”
“I had him all three years of middle school.” Chad Whelt was only five years older than Eric, but he was the youngest of eight children and it delighted him to be anyone’s senior. The result was that he sometimes managed to sound less like thirty-eight than eighty-eight. Now he gazed off into the corner of the room as if recalling some long-lost golden age of his youth and said wistfully, “He was a really good teacher.”
Terence Gawes taught English at Creek Bend Middle School for almost four decades before retiring in 1996. In the twenty years since then, he’d written a few little-known crime novels. Eric had read them all, but he couldn’t honestly say that he was a fan. The dialogue was unnecessarily wordy and unconvincing. He was pretty sure that people in 1930s Chicago didn’t talk like…well, like stuck-up English teachers, frankly.
Gawes was much better known for a short series of books on Creek Bend’s German heritage and his work in the town’s historical society, where he’d collaborated with Chad on a number of projects over the years.
The former teacher, author and historian had passed away a few weeks ago, and his widow had entrusted Chad to sort through his papers and donate anything of academic value to the school and museum, the two things he’d loved most after his own home and family.
“I just don’t see the point in saving all this stuff. I mean, it’s middle school. Most of these kids didn’t care about the assignment. Hell, I can’t even read most of them.”
“True. But every now and then you get one who surprises you.”
Chad pulled out a large stack of yellowed papers and shook them at him. “Not this many.”
Eric had to laugh. “No. I wouldn’t think so.” And he didn’t blame him for getting frustrated. They’d already been at it for two hours, and it didn’t seem like they were making any headway. Both of them were beginning to doubt that there was anything of any value in all this mess.
Chad dropped the stack of papers onto his desk and started shuffling through them.
The high school was quiet today. Summer vacation had begun. The kids were gone. Only a few teachers were in the building, finishing up whatever work needed done before graduation day on Sunday. Eric liked these last quiet days of the school year. He liked the peacefulness. But he was quickly growing bored with thisproject.
“Sixth grade creative writing assignment. Nineteen…” Chad squinted at the top paper on the stack in front of him, trying to read the faded print. “Sixty-two? Wow. He would’ve been…what? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Can you imagine him that young?”
“Like I said, I never really knew him.” He was pretty sure he’d only ever met the man face-to-face a few times in his entire life, and those encounters had been little more than a polite introduction and handshake.
“Right.” Chad began going through the decades-old papers, glancing over each one and then systematically dropping them into the trash.
Eric could think of roughly a million things he’d rather be doing this afternoon, but Chad was his friend and he’d promised to help with this project. Still, he hadn’t expected there to be so much. At the rate they were going, it was going to take weeks to sort through it all.
But there were little treasures scattered throughout the hoard. They’d already found some of the notes on his published works, along with some research for books he never got around to starting. And the school was sure to be interested in some of the student work he’d accumulated in his forty years. Some of the research papers he’d assigned addressed current events of the time, like the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Watergate scandal, among others. He’d also discovered a handpicked collection of favorite poems and short fiction written by his many students over the decades. Rhoda Inman, the school’s superintendent, was always on the lookout for this sort of stuff.
Chad chuckled. “Here you go,” he said, holding out one of the papers for him to look at. “Mr. Future.”
“You like imagination. Here’s an imaginative one for you.”
Eric took the page and examined it. It was written by a boy named Hector Conant in much neater handwriting than most of his students used today. It was in the form of a letter addressed to a “Mr. Future”:
I had a dream about you last night. I saw your face. I saw the things you’ve done. I heard the words you’ve spoken. I know a dream is only a dream. People tell me that all the time. But the truth is that sometimes my dreams come true. Sometimes. When a dream is particularly vivid. And the dream I dreamed about you was the most real dream I’ve ever dreamed in my life. Deep in my heart, I know you are real. And I know I dreamed about you for a reason.
No one here can help me. No one will believe me. But you would believe me. You would help me. It’s what you do. I saw it in my dream. You help people who need help, when no one else can. And you have done such amazing things.
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god. You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten.
And now I need your help. But you are Mr. Future. You are in a world I barely understand. I’m not sure you are born yet, or even if you will be born in my lifetime. For all the amazing things you do, I am sure you cannot travel back in time.
I have to face the fact that I am on my own.
But maybe, if only in my dreams, you can show me what I should do.
You see, two men arrived in our town a few days ago. They are not normal men. I dreamed about them, too, but it wasn’t a nice dream. It wasn’t at all like the dream I had about you. These are bad men. They have strange powers. They are looking for something. And they have terrible plans for when they find it.
You know who they are. I dreamed that, too. But for all my dreams have shown me, I still don’t know why they are here. I have to find out what they are up to. I know I have to stop them. I know it just like I know that you are real. If I don’t, I believe a lot of people are going to die.
I also dreamed that you found this letter. That’s how I know you’ll one day read it.
I’m going to look for the bad men after school. If I find anything, I’ll leave a message with Mr. Silver. I don’t understand why, but I feel very strongly that I should write to you again.
I really wish you were here,
Eric stared at the page, hardly believing what he’d just read. It’d begun innocently enough. It seemed to be a creative attempt at some simple, experimental fiction. A short story of sorts in the form of a letter to a made-up man from a dream, a man from the future. But those things he wrote…
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. That described eerily well the experience he had almost two years ago, when he first discovered that there were incredible things in the world. He did, indeed, walk between worlds. More accurately, he’d followed a fissure north through Wisconsin, a sort of crack between this world and another. He’d encountered ghosts on that journey. And he narrowly escaped a trio of golems, frightful, incomprehensible beasts that couldn’t be stopped, only distracted, and only then by something considerable…like two fistfuls of dynamite… And in the end, at his final destination, he descended into a great, dark pit, at the bottom of which really was an incredible secret, something so profound that he couldn’t handle it. It had to be buried in his subconscious mind, where only his dreams could access it.
But that was only the beginning of his adventures. The following summer he discovered strange, unseen sites all over this very town. Invisiblesites.
I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god.
The tower of the old, forgotten high school, unseen for decades, invisible to all without a special shard of glass from a mysterious, broken artifact. But it wasn’t a god that he bargained with. Not exactly, anyway. It was a jinn.
You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten. Indeed he had. He met an entire coven of witches in Illinois. There were no goblins, precisely, but there were plenty of goblin-like imps and ogres and even a few giants in those endless fields. And he’d nearly been eaten by a monstrous fish in a lake in Upper Michigan. And he’d prevented a potentially devastating disaster while he was up there.
Chad chuckled again. “It’s clever. I’ll give him that. Everyone knew Terence kept all those assignments. Any letter would be found by some ‘Mr. Future’ or another. Or Mrs., I suppose.”
“Yeah,” said Eric. “Clever.” Much more so than he could ever know. Chad read this letter and saw only the creative imaginings of a boy, but this letter wasn’t fiction at all. It was real. Hector Conant was actually writing to a man he saw in his dreams. A man who really was from the future and would one day have this very letter find its way into his hands.
That future had now become the present, and Eric was that man.
He didn’t even waste time trying to rationalize it. This was the fifth time his life was interrupted by the strangeness of the world. By now, he recognized it when the weird came to call on him.
He even recognized the two “bad men” of which Hector had spoken. Strange men with frightful powers… They sounded remarkably like the nameless agents he’d run into on two separate occasions. They were all dangerous psychopaths who worked for a mysterious organization with an unhealthy interest in all things weird and unnatural. The same organization was responsible for a devastating fire in 1881. If they were back in Creek Bend again in 1962, then Hector really was in trouble.
But he was Mr. Future. He was now. And Hector was the past. He was then. All that would happen to this boy had already happened. Nothing would change that.
His cell phone came to life in his pocket, alerting him to a new text message.
“Since when do you keep your phone on?” asked Chad.
Eric fished the phone from his front pocket. “Karen,” he lied. The truth was that the phone was off. Or, at least, it was set to the “do not disturb” feature, which wasn’t the same as being off, but made sure the stupid thing stayed quiet during class, he guessed. (He still didn’t really know how this new phone worked.) But calls and messages from Isabelle always came through, which was a good thing, because Isabelle was the one person he wanted to always be able to reach him.
IT’S TOTALLY POSSIBLE FOR THAT BOY TO HAVE SEEN YOU IN HIS DREAMS
She was right. He’d had more than one prophetic dream himself. But dreaming of people and events that were decades in the future? What good would that do?
AND THOSE DO TOTALLY SOUND LIKE AGENTS
Eric read the letter again.
Strangely, the thing about it that he found most absurd wasn’t that the boy seemed to actually be talking to him. (Not two months ago he’d shared a brief conversation with a man’s severed head, after all.) It was that Mr. Gawes had only awarded Hector a barely passing D for his trouble. He’d even made notes in the margin about it being lazy, unrealistic and without resolution. “In the future, please try to remain within the parameters of the assignment,” was scrawled across the top in red ink.
“That’s crap,” he muttered.
Chad looked up at him again. “What?”
“I would’ve given him at least a B. Just for creativity.”
Chad gave him a bewildered look.
HE SOUNDS LIKE HE’S IN REAL TROUBLE
But that was over fifty years ago, thought Eric. Whatever trouble he was in was done and over with two decades before I was even born.
BUT THERE MUST BE SOME REASON WHY YOU FOUND THAT LETTER. THINGS DON’T HAPPEN TO YOU JUST BY CHANCE
That was certainly true. But he simply couldn’t comprehend what that reason might be. He couldn’t change the past. He couldn’t even communicate with the boy. All he could do was read his letter.
HE SAID HE’D LEAVE ANOTHER MESSAGE FOR YOU
Mr. Silver. She didn’t ask him if he knew what that meant. Although the few people who knew about her frequently joked about her being “the little girl who lived in his phone,” she didn’t actually live in his phone. The phone was merely the tool that allowed her to speak to him. She was out there in the world somewhere, traveling between mysterious locations that existed in a strange state of duality, straddling rifts between two or more worlds. She was trapped in that mysterious, timeless realm, but she was never entirely alone. The two of them shared a psychic link that allowed her constant access to his mind. Although she was able and willing to tune him out and give him his privacy when appropriate, she was capable of reading his every thought at any given moment.
She knew very well that he knew who Mr. Silver was.
YOU NEED TO LOOK INTO THIS. NOW
Eric folded the letter twice and then went to drop it in the trash can, but while Chad was looking through his papers, he instead slipped it into his pocket along with the phone. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.”
“Everything all right?” asked Chad. The look of genuine concern that crossed his face made Eric feel guilty about lying, but Isabelle was right. He needed to look into this.
“Karen’s having some car trouble. I need to go and help her out.”
He sat up, as if suddenly very interested in the subject of car repair. “Need any help?”
Chad looked disappointedly at the mountain of papers in front of him. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry about this,” he said, motioning at the boxes. “I promised to help and I will.”
“I’m not worried at all,” said Chad. “I’m about ready to give up for the day anyway. I’ll stick around for a little while longer, then I’ll just head home early. We can finish it on Monday.”
Eric started toward the door. “Sounds good. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t. Good luck with the car. Tell Karen I said hi.”
“Sure. See you later.” He walked calmly out the door and then hurried out to the parking lot. He couldn’t go straight to see Mr. Silver. He was going to need to stop at home first. And all the way there, he pondered the boy’s letter.
Even accepting that the boy really did dream about him and his strange adventures (which, in itself, was no stranger than those very adventures, after all) and that the letter really was meant for him, what were the odds of it actually finding him? Sure, Hector would’ve probably known that his English teacher kept all these assignments and that someone, someday, might come across it. Might. That was assuming someone didn’t just throw out the entire box without looking through it, which would’ve made more sense than going to the trouble of sorting through it all, in Eric’s opinion.
But it wasn’t as if Gawes, himself had sought him out to deliver the letter. He’d happened to befriend a former student, who, like Eric, wasn’t even born when the letter was written. If Chad hadn’t been in Gawes’ class, or if the two of them hadn’t both been members of the Creek Bend Historical Society, or if Chad and Eric had not been friends, or if either of them had done something different with their lives than choosing to teach at the same high school, it never would’ve found him. Chad probably would’ve tossed the letter in the trash without another thought. For that matter, what if Mrs. Gawes hadn’t entrusted her late husband’s intellectual estate to Chad? Or even if Eric had not been free to help him on this particular day?
I THINK YOU’RE OVERTHINKING IT, said Isabelle. The phone was resting in the PT Cruiser’s cup holder, where he could see the screen.
HE SAID IN THE LETTER THAT HE SAW IT FINDING YOU IN HIS DREAMS. HE SAW THAT IF HE TURNED THE LETTER IN AS AN ASSIGNMENT, THAT YOU’D ONE DAY READ IT
That was true, he supposed…
NOTHING THAT CAME BETWEEN MATTERED. ALL HE NEEDED TO KNOW WAS THAT YOU’D READ IT IF HE GAVE IT TO MR. GAWES
“It just seems a little convoluted to me.”
YOU WERE CHOSEN TO HAVE THE DREAMS YOU HAD, she reminded him. YOU WERE CHOSEN FOR ALL THE AMAZING THINGS YOU’VE DONE. WHY COULDN’T YOU BE CHOSEN TO FIND HECTOR’S LETTER?
Eric frowned at the screen. “You’ve been spending too much time talking to Karen.”
THAT DOESN’T CHANGE THE FACT THAT I’M RIGHT
No, it certainly didn’t. But it was still annoying.
Karen was in the kitchen, as usual. A half-dozen strawberry pies were cooling on the countertop (her modest contribution to the big bake sale at the library tomorrow morning) and she was tidying up after herself. She was understandably surprised to see him.
“Home already?” she asked.
Eric walked past the kitchen and into the hallway. “Only for a minute,” he replied. He opened the closet door and began rummaging inside.
Karen leaned against the doorway and watched him. “Is this one of those surprise inspections to try and catch me and my illicit lover red handed? Because he usually hides under the bed.”
“That’s right, I always forget he can fit under there. Where’re the garden tools?”
“In the basement. You going to chase him off with a rake?”
Eric closed the closet door and walked back through the kitchen, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek as he squeezed past her. “I need a shovel.”
“Now you’re just getting ahead of yourself.”
“Well, I do like to plan ahead.” He opened the basement door and hurried down the steps. Karen’s gardening basket was there in the corner.
“You’re acting weird. Is everything okay?”
He grabbed a hand trowel and then turned and started up the steps again.
“You might want to grab a bigger one,” she told him. “I’m no expert, but I think it’d take a long time to dig a grave with that.”
“I only need to make a little hole.”
“Ouch. You’re scary good at this jealous husband thing.” She took a step back and let him pass. “I’m not sure whether to be really disturbed or really turned on.” She brushed a loose strand of brown hair away from her lovely face and followed him. “Is it weird that I’m pretty sure I’m leaning toward ‘really turned on’?”
Eric placed the trowel on the table and checked his watch. It was almost one o’clock in the afternoon. “Huh?”
“Seriously,” she said, taking him by the arm. “You’re starting to freak me out. What’s going on?”
He turned and met her gaze. “It’s…um…”
Those beautiful, brown eyes narrowed. “Weirdness?” she asked.
Eric sighed. “I think so.” He pulled Hector’s letter from his pocket and handed it to her.
She unfolded it and read the first line. “Mr. Future?”
“Chad found that in one of Mr. Gawes’ boxes. It was written by a sixth grader more than fifty years ago.”
Karen began to read. After a moment, she creased her eyebrows and said, “Wait… Is he talking about you?”
She finished reading the letter and looked up at him again. “Who’s Mr. Silver?”
“A clue to tell me where to find another letter.”
“And you know who he’s talking about?”
“I can’t be positive until I check. But yeah. I think so.”
“So you’re just going to run off and do your thing again? Get yourself hurt? Scare me to death?”
Eric stood staring at her. “I’m sorry.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know you are. You’re always sorry.” She looked down at the letter again. “These are agents, aren’t they?”
Not much got by her. She was a very bright woman. And he didn’t keep secrets from her. She knew everything about every one of his adventures, with the sole exception that he sometimes told her that his close calls weren’t as close as they really were. And he was pretty sure he wasn’t even fooling her about that.
“What does Isabelle say about this?”
“She says I have to look into it. She doesn’t believe in coincidences.”
“And neither do I.” She read through the letter again and then handed it back to him. “I’m coming with you this time.”
He thought for a second that he must’ve misheard her. “What? No. Absolutely not.”
But he might as well have been talking gibberish, because she ignored him and hurried off to put on her shoes.
He called after her: “I’m serious. It might be dangerous.”
“You said yourself that letter is over fifty years old,” she called back from the hallway. “What could possibly be dangerous about it?”
Eric looked down at the letter again. He had a very vivid imagination. He’d always had a very vivid imagination. And he could think of a lot of things that might be dangerous about it. There were agents involved. Those guys were always bad news. For all he knew, they might still be alive and lurking around. He doubted if elderly agents would be any less dangerous than young ones. Or for all he knew, some agents might not even age. He’d met a man just a few weeks ago who claimed to have been alive for several hundred years. “These things always turn out to be a lot more than they first appear.”
“We’re just looking for a second letter,” she reasoned.
She wasn’t backing down, so he changed his strategy to one that never failed. “You have too much to do,” he argued. She was a freelance cake decorator and caterer, and a damn good one. She made good money off her talents, and they typically kept her busy. Especially on the weekends.
But today was going to be different. “I’m already done with everything,” she countered.
“What about that potluck at the church?”
“That’s not until Sunday. I won’t even start that until tomorrow.”
“Didn’t you have a graduation cake, too?”
“Two of them. I delivered both of them this morning.” She walked back into the room and took her cell phone from the charger, then she turned and gave him a quick kiss on his lips. “Bonus points for paying attention to my life, though.”
“I don’t want bonus points,” huffed Eric as she hurried out of the room to grab her purse. “I want you to stay home where it’s safe.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and said, “Tell her she needs to stay home where it’s safe.”
I’M NOT THE BOSS OF HER, replied Isabelle.
“Isabelle agrees with me,” said Eric.
But Karen didn’t seem to be listening. “So do you think this Hector kid is like you? Your stuff started with dreams, too.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t dream about things that wouldn’t happen for fifty years.”
She walked back into the room, already slipping her sunglasses onto her face. Her hair was tied back now. It was amazing how good she managed to look in something as simple as a pair of khaki shorts and a scoop neck tee shirt. “No, but you dreamed about things that would happen in the next few hours. Sort of…”
Eric gave his head one of those wobbles that wasn’t quite a yes or a no. The first time the weirdness crashed into his life, it started with a dream that woke him in the middle of the night with a pressing urge to get up and leave. But he couldn’t remember what the dream was about, so he ignored it. After three nights of this, he gave in to the compulsion and took a drive. What followed was a terrifying trek through a monster-infested fissure between two worlds. It turned out that the dream was showing him the things he would see and do, but only as they would’ve happened if he’d left the first time he awoke. By leaving two days later, things had changed. So technically, that had been a dream about the future. It just wasn’t the future that actually came to be. And it had only revealed a few hours to him, less than a single day, not even close to Hector’s fifty-four years.
“Maybe he had adventures like you do,” suggested Karen.
“It’s really interesting.” She picked up the trowel and handed it to him. “I want to see what you dig up.”
“I always keep you posted,” he reminded her.
“This time you won’t have to. And, I can keep an eye on you. Make sure you don’t go visiting any strip clubs.”
Eric groaned. “One time! I didn’t even want to be there! Isabelle even told you I didn’t want to be there!”
But she’d already turned and was on her way out the door.
Eric followed after her. “I’m serious. This kid mentioned agents, remember? Those guys are bad news.”
“Those guys are probably collecting social security by now. If they even live that long. It’s got to be a hazardous line of work. You killed three of them yourself.”
Eric glanced around, startled. “Can we not talk about that outside?”
Karen opened the passenger door of the silver PT Cruiser and climbed inside. “Sorry, killer.”
“Seriously?” He sat behind the wheel and slammed the door. “And I didn’t kill any of them. I just…didn’t save them…”
“What does it matter? They all had it coming.”
She lowered her sunglasses and met his eyes. “You never had a choice. Not even in Illinois. You did what you had to do every time.”
He shook his head and started the engine. She was right about the rest of them. The foggy man in Minnesota, the two agents here in Creek Bend last year, even the psychotic and inhuman Jonah Fettarsetter in Michigan…all of them had been cold-blooded killers with deadly agendas. He had no choice but to stop them. But the girl in Illinois was different… He was sure there was another way. He just wasn’t wise enough to find it.
Karen didn’t say anything else about it. She knew it bothered him how those encounters went down. Instead, she pushed her sunglasses back into place and said, “So where’re we going?”
Eric began backing out of the driveway. He wasn’t going to win this one. He’d known that from the start. She was coming with him whether he liked it or not. Few forces on this planet were as powerful as his wife’s stubbornness. “Boxlar Road,” he replied. “To see Mr. Silver.”
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