The seventh Rushed book is now available for preorder!
Eric’s past comes back to haunt him when he arrives home to find old friends waiting for him. Now he’s in for a rough night of magic, mayhem and terror as he races the clock against a murderous coven of dark witches with incredible and gruesome powers. Failure means he and his friends won’t survive the night. But their only chance of seeing the sunrise might mean a fate even worse than death…
Rushed: Something Wickeder will be available on August 15, but keep scrolling for a sneak peek at the first chapter!
Eric sat down behind the wheel of his silver PT Cruiser and started the engine. It’d been a long day, one of the longest he’d had in a long time, and he was happy to finally be at the end of it. He didn’t even stick around to finish up his grading. He just wanted to go home. He was tired. He was irritable. And he was positively done with teenagers.
At least he had dinner to look forward to. Karen promised she’d make him fried chicken. It was one of his all-time favorites, and she didn’t make it very often. She preferred to take a healthier approach to cooking, and rarely fried anything. He didn’t mind, of course. Healthy was good. And she was a fantastic cook, so anything she put on the table was virtually guaranteed to be delicious. But it was an old favorite, his mother’s specialty when he was growing up, so every now and then, just to show him some extra love, she’d indulge him.
(And Karen’s fried chicken was way better than his mother’s…though no one alive was scary enough to make him admit that to Mom.)
But although he was eager to get home, he didn’t shift the Cruiser into gear. Instead, he leaned back in the seat and withdrew his cell phone from the front pocket of his khaki pants.
He’d never really liked cell phones. He was annoyed by all the people in the world who constantly seemed to have them glued to their faces. He found it rude, obnoxious and utterly unnecessary. Especially when it came to high schoolers. He was notorious among students and faculty alike for confiscating cell phones in his classroom. He never would’ve owned one in the first place if Karen hadn’t insisted. She believed it wasn’t safe to be without one. (And she liked for him to never be more than a phone call away, of course.) He absolutely despised them. But in recent years his cell phone had become far more of a necessity than he ever expected it to. Begrudgingly, he was forced to admit to himself that he actually needed the stupid thing.
But he was far too stubborn to admit it to anyone else.
It rang as soon as it was in his hand, as he knew it would. He accepted the call and put it on speaker, just the way Karen had shown him to do. Then, as he looked out at the parking lot, at the last few straggling students making their way home for the day, he said, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay,” replied Isabelle. There was no pause. No hesitation. She knew everything he was going to say well before he said it, after all.
“Really?” he pressed.
This time, there was a pause. “Yeah. I mean, I think so.”
He didn’t push the subject. He merely stared out at the sunny afternoon around him and waited for her to go on in her own time.
It was a beautiful day for mid-November. People were out enjoying the weather. There was a small group of boys walking down the sidewalk, goofing off. On the other side of the street, an old man was walking his dog. A very pretty girl with long, black hair walked past his parking spot. She saw him sitting there and gave him a small, friendly smile and a wave. He didn’t recognize her. She wasn’t one of his students. But he waved anyway.
“I don’t really know if it’s possible for me to not be okay, you know?”
He nodded. He did know. Or at least, he thought he did. Isabelle wasn’t like anyone else in the world. She was different. She was special.
“I’m not sure if I can even feel anything for myself,” she went on. “Sometimes I think all my emotions belong to someone else. They’re stolen. I just feel whatever you’re feeling. You and…” She paused again. “And them,” she finished quietly.
“I don’t believe that,” said Eric.
Isabelle wasn’t a part of this world anymore. She was trapped somewhere outside of the normal flow of time. For her, the passing of days was meaningless. She never grew hungry or thirsty. She never tired or grew bored or felt impatient. She never yearned for anything because she was frozen in place both physically and mentally. The only concept she retained of the passage of time was the three psychic connections she shared. One with Eric, one with her mother and one with her father.
Except that two nights ago, Isabelle’s father suffered a stroke.
Eric could scarcely imagine what she must have already endured. She had a terrifyingly personal perspective of the moment, a back-stage view as the clot began starving his brain of blood. She’d described it to him as something like a strange and disorienting cloud rolling in over his consciousness, leaving him confused and helpless.
Jerrell Albin might have died that night if the phone hadn’t rung so late, waking his wife, Reta. Isabelle hung up without speaking, leaving her mother to wonder whether the call was an exceptionally well-timed wrong number or a sign from heaven. (The truth, of course, would never in a million lifetimes occur to her.)
But although her father was still alive, the true extent of the damage still wasn’t known, and Isabelle had since been overwhelmed by the almost constant deluge of raw emotions gushing from her terrified mother’s tormented mind.
Eric felt awful for the poor woman. She’d already suffered more than any parent ever should. She’d been waiting thirty-eight years for the truth about what really happened to her thirteen-year-old daughter that awful July day. And she had no one left in this world but her husband. If she lost him, too, she’d be all alone. For the rest of her life…
“Don’t worry about me,” she insisted, forcing herself to perk up. “You need to get home and take a load off. You’ve had a rough day.”
The psychic connection only worked one way. She could read his thoughts, feel his emotions and even sense certain things about his surroundings, but he couldn’t do any of those things. If not for this trick with the phone, he, like her parents, might never have even known she was there. But the two of them had shared a lot of conversations since the day she rescued him from the deranged Altrusk House. They’d grown close. And he knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t entirely okay. She was only pretending to be brave because she didn’t want him to worry about her. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I know you will. But I also know you’re tired.”
He was. It wasn’t the worst day he’d ever had by any means, but it certainly wasn’t the best. It’d been exhausting. The students had seemed unusually wound up for some reason. And not just his. Chad Whelt kept blaming it on the full moon. And poor Charlene Tonnes, the new science teacher, was nearly in tears by the end of the day. Even the best and brightest students had all seemed unfocused and restless. The rest were moody, disruptive and even downright disrespectful. Overall, it was a pretty lousy Monday.
“I can’t relax much when I’m worried about you.”
“You’re sweet,” she told him.
“I mean it.”
“I know you do. But there’s nothing you can do. Just go home. Relax. Enjoy your dinner. We can talk more later.”
Without disconnecting the call, he placed the phone into the cup holder and shifted the Cruiser into gear. “We can talk while I drive,” he said. “I don’t want you to be alone right now.”
Isabelle gave a quiet little huff of a laugh. “Always my hero,” she said, almost too soft for him to hear.
“You were mine first,” he reminded her.
He left the parking lot and set off across town toward home. For the first couple minutes, they were quiet. Then, just when Eric was beginning to wonder if she’d disconnected the call on him, she said, “I know how I should feel.”
He glanced down at the phone, surprised.
“I should feel scared. Scared of losing my dad. Scared I won’t be able to find my way home before he dies… Scared of never seeing him or my mom ever again… Scared…” She fell silent for another moment. He waited. Finally, she said, “Scared I’ll never even be able to see them in heaven because I don’t know if I can even die…”
Eric wasn’t sure what to say to that. He couldn’t tell her that would never happen. He didn’t know that for sure. And it wasn’t like he could lie to her.
“I do feel scared,” said Isabelle. “But I just don’t know if I feel scared because I’m scared, or if I only feel scared because I can feel how scared my mom is.”
Most days, she could easily tune everybody out. She wasn’t always in their heads. She let them have their privacy. But strong, negative emotions, like anger, sadness and fear, were impossible for her to ignore. They dragged her into their consciousness and wouldn’t let her go. For as long as this crisis with her father lasted, regardless of the outcome, she was going to be forced to experience every moment of it with them.
“What if I don’t ever find my way out of here?” she continued. “Everybody dies. Nothing I can do will stop that. My parents will die. You’ll die. And when you’re all gone, when you all go silent… What then? What’s going to happen to me? Will I stop feeling anything? Will I be anything when all the voices are gone?”
Eric felt a profound sadness deep in his heart. He wished he had the answers for her. Any answer. But he was just an unremarkable high school English teacher with an odd habit of finding weird and fantastic things. Things like Isabelle. He couldn’t tell her who she was or why these things had happened to her.
Maybe it was just that God was cruel.
He didn’t know.
He pulled into his driveway and killed the engine. For a moment, he just sat there, staring through the windshield, feeling helpless.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle. “I shouldn’t have dumped all that on you.”
“It’s fine,” he insisted, taking the phone out of the cup holder. “I want you to talk to me.”
“I keep thinking I should call them. Talk to them. Tell them the truth. I know they’d want to know. But… I also know they’ve worked so hard to move on. I just… I’m just not sure knowing the truth would make things better. They want to believe that I’m alive and well out there somewhere, but deep down they’re sure I’m in a better place. The truth might bring them some joy…but it would also bring them fresh pain and worry…because I still can’t go home. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go home.”
His heart ached at the thought, but she was right. After all these years, all their hope had almost certainly shriveled and died. Their thirteen-year-old girl would be fifty. They knew by now, no matter how much they might deny it to themselves, that they’d never see her again in this world. Telling them the truth, even if they’d believe such an outlandish story, would only bring all the pain that’s gone numb over the years flooding back.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle.
“Don’t be. I mean it. I’m here for you if you need to talk. Always.”
“There’s nothing either of us can do anyway,” she said. And she was right. The doctors said it could be days before they knew anything more. Jerrell Albin was still alive. For now, there was nothing to do but wait and see what the future held. “We’ll talk later. Go inside. Go to Karen. I like when you’re with Karen. She makes you happy. I could use some happy.”
Eric smiled. “I’ll try my best,” he promised.
Isabelle disconnected the call and the phone went dark. He slipped it back into his pocket and made his way inside, his thoughts swirling like a thunderstorm inside his head.
She was right, of course. Worrying about Isabelle wasn’t going to help her. She was already getting far too much worry from her mother. What she needed was something warmer, more comforting. He tried to focus on Karen. He tried to focus on how happy he was to be home after the day he’d had. He tried to focus on the delicious dinner he’d been looking forward to all day.
But as soon as he stepped into the kitchen, he knew immediately that the fried chicken was canceled and his bad day had only just begun.
“Oh good,” said Karen. “You’re home.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee clasped between her hands. She looked a little frazzled, and understandably so. Right next to her, with her own cup in front of her, sat Delphinium Thorngood.
“Hello, Eric,” said the beautiful witch. “It’s good to see you again.”
Rushed: Something Wickeder
by Brian Harmon
August 15, 2017
Hands of the Architects is a brand new, dark adventure trilogy that should delight fans of both Rushed and The Temple of the Blind. Book one, Spirit Ears and Prophet Sight, will be available for sale on August 4, but you can preorder it right now on Amazon.
Persephone can see things others can’t, like those ghostly ears atop Piper’s head. Piper can hear things no one else can, like the eerie whispering that preludes the arrival of the murderous wraiths that will hunt them to the ends of the earth. Their only hope is to obtain an ancient and powerful artifact that has been hidden since the creation of the universe.
Read on for a sneak peek of the first two chapters.
Persephone Kipp hadn’t slept well the past two nights. She kept having strange dreams. They weren’t nightmares, exactly, although there were some nightmare elements strewn throughout the overall chaos that rolled through her mind like a violent storm each time she managed to nod off. More than once she’d found herself running from some horrible, murderous thing that she couldn’t quite see. And there was a particularly frightening bit about being lost in an endless darkness. But mostly the dreams were just strange and meaningless and disturbing in a way that intruded upon her waking life. It was taking a toll on her, leaving her weary and distracted. And today was the worst possible day for her to be off her game.
“Earth to Seph. Hello? Do you copy?”
She blinked and sat up. “Huh?”
Phoenix laughed. She had an annoying laugh. It was nasally, and sort of shrill. Today it was almost painful to hear. “Better snap out of it fast,” she advised, checking her watch.
Persephone took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I’m trying,” she said.
“She can’t help it,” said Alton. “She’s exhausted from celebrating all weekend.”
“Seph doesn’t celebrate anything that hard,” countered Kaitlyn, brushing aside her pink-streaked hair to give her an admonishing look. “No matter how hard I try to talk her into it.”
Alton chuckled and leaned back in his chair. His naturally dark hair had streaks of blond so bright they were practically yellow. It was long and unkempt in a way that required a considerable amount of work in the mornings to look just that way.
Phoenix laughed that annoying laugh again. Her hair was a more subtle purple, but shaved on one side, better to show off her many earrings and the stream of tattoos that started behind her left ear and ran down the side her of her neck.
Persephone was the only one at the table who preferred her hair to remain natural. She liked it just the way she grew it, raven black and fine, cut shoulder-length and simple.
“I’d love to see Seph celebrate that hard,” said Phoenix.
Almost everyone called her “Seph.” It was much less of a mouthful than “Persephone,” which she’d hated for most of her childhood. Teachers rarely pronounced it right. Kids with normal, simple names like “Ellen” and “Julie” made fun of her. But by the time she started college, she’d made peace with it, and by the time she’d earned her bachelor’s degree, she’d learned to love it. She found that she enjoyed having a name that made her different from all the boring Ellens and Julies out there.
She checked her watch. It was almost time to leave. And two espressos hadn’t helped her to find her focus at all.
“It’s a big deal,” said Alton. “I’d be too excited to sleep, too.”
It was a big deal. It was her big opportunity. A job interview with the area’s leading graphic design company. It was what she’d worked so hard for. It was what she wanted to do with her life. And it all came down to this interview.
Well…not just this interview. It was only the first of three. She’d have to make a very good impression today just to get a second one. But you only got one first interview. And if she blew it today…
She drained the last of her espresso and forced herself to focus on the menu board.
“You’ll do great,” promised Kaitlyn. “Relax.”
Seph gave her a tired smile.
“Of course she’ll do great,” agreed Phoenix.
She met Phoenix Carasik, Kaitlyn Jernam, and Alton Ripna in the art department during her first semester of college. They’d all just kind of clicked, as they said. And they’d remained friends ever since. She didn’t see them as much now that they’d all graduated and gone their separate ways, but they managed to get together every couple of months. Mostly thanks to Kaitlyn, who seemed to have made it her personal crusade to prevent them from ever drifting completely apart.
“It’s the same thing she always does,” declared Alton as he fingered the silver ring in his left eyebrow. Both of his eyebrows were pierced, as was his nose and lip. And he was always touching them. He couldn’t seem to help himself. “She can’t just do something great and show the rest of us up. She has to do it sleep deprived and jacked up on coffee, just to rub it in that much more.”
“She does!” giggled Kaitlyn. She leaned forward and poked her tongue ring out between her teeth.
“I don’t show anyone up,” returned Seph, looking down at her cup. She hated when Kaitlyn played with that thing. It was even more annoying than Alton fiddling with the ones on his face.
All three of them had piercings. Kaitlyn’s tongue and eyebrow. Phoenix’s lip and nose. It was their thing, apparently. Seph, however, didn’t have anything pierced but her ears. She had four in each ear, two at the top and two at the bottom, but that was all. And she didn’t have any tattoos, either. She liked her body like she liked her hair: Natural.
“You always show me up,” argued Alton. “Anything I can do, you can do better, and during some kind of personal crisis.”
Seph wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s not true.”
“Of course it is,” he insisted. “You could catch ebola and still give the best damn interview.”
Seph gave a snort of a laugh.
Phoenix sat back in her seat, smiling broadly. “I’ll bet I know what it is,” she declared, her violet-lensed eyes widening with mischievous delight. “She says she hasn’t been sleeping well, but she hasn’t said whose bed she hasn’t been sleeping in.”
Seph shot her an unamused look over her cup, which only managed to make her break out into that annoying, nasally laugh again. Phoenix had a morbid fascination with the scandalous. Nothing pleased her more than the idea of people caught up in sordid mischief, especially sexual mischief.
“I’m just saying,” pressed Phoenix. “The girl’s not getting any younger. She should get herself some action.”
“She’s twenty-three,” said Alton. “I think she’s still got time.”
“Seph’s a good girl,” said Kaitlyn, managing somehow to make it sound like both a defense and a reproach. “Not like someone else I know.”
Phoenix bit her lip and made an exaggerated “who me?” face.
Seph stood up. “Anyway… I’m not going to even make it to my interview if I don’t get going. I have to leave time for traffic.”
“I’ve got to go, too,” announced Alton, rising to his feet.
Phoenix shrugged. “Fine. Me, too.”
“This was fun!” said Kaitlyn. “We’ll do it again.”
Everyone agreed that it was and they would. They gathered their jackets and purses. (Alton insisted his was a satchel, but Seph knew a man purse when she saw one.)
“I’ll talk to you guys later,” said Seph as her friends headed for the door. “I have to get something to go.” She waved goodbye and then walked over to the counter and ordered an Americano.
The barista was a tall, dark-haired young man who looked a couple years younger than her. Sort of attractive, but also sort of average, with the kind of everyday face that would be hard to pick out of a crowd ten minutes from now. She barely spared him a glance as he rang up her order and took her money.
It was as he was handing her back his change that things first turned weird.
She glanced up at his face as she thanked him, actually looking at him for the first time. There, on the very top of his head, two strange, hazy shapes protruded from his thick hair.
He turned away and set about making her drink, but Seph had forgotten about the Americano. She even forgot about the interview. It took all her weary mind could manage just to try to process what it was she was seeing.
It looked like one of those stupid cat-ear headbands, like the ones you see everywhere on Halloween. But these weren’t made of plastic and fake fur. They appeared to be made of a strange, luminescent, gray mist.
He caught her staring at him and stopped. “Is something wrong?”
She glanced around the room. No one else had strange, ghostly ears sprouting from their head. And no one else seemed to have noticed the ones on the barista. No one was staring at him like she was. A few people, however, were staring at her.
“No…” she said, blushing. “I mean, yes. I’m fine. I just…” Her eyes fixed on those ears again. They looked a little bit like fox ears, tall and triangular, pointy, but not as big in proportion to the head as a real fox’s ears. As she watched, one of them twitched to the side and then back again.
And yet they weren’t really there. They couldn’t be. She could see through them. They were faint around the edges, as if made of smoke.
“Can I get you anything else?” asked the confused barista who clearly didn’t realize that he’d sprouted an extra pair of ears.
Seph had to make a conscious effort to compose herself. “No. I’m fine.” Then, lamely, she said, “I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m sorry.”
He assured her that it was no problem and went back to work, but those strange ears seemed to rotate toward her as he turned away, as if watching her. (Listening to her?)
Needing to find something to focus on besides the top of the barista’s head, she opened her purse and dug out her keys. When she looked up again, the ears hadn’t gone away and still no one seemed to have noticed them.
She looked to see if any of her friends were still in the shop, but they’d all three left by now.
Another customer approached the counter, an older woman with a prim look about her, and Seph stepped out of the way.
This woman looked right at the barista as he assured her that he’d be right with her, and yet she completely ignored the perky, transparent ears, even though they were plainly visible and even appeared to be faintly glowing.
Was this some kind of elaborate prank? Was she on camera? Was this guy one of those street magicians or something?
Even that didn’t make sense. How would you pull off an illusion like this? The ears—or whatever they were—moved with his head, remaining in place even as he moved about behind the counter. It looked far too perfect to be any kind of holographic manipulation.
Finally, her Americano came up. She took it, thanked him and then quickly walked out of the coffee shop, somehow resisting the urge to break into a run.
She slipped behind the wheel of her truck (a full-sized Ford pickup; she might be small at only five-foot-three, but she was formidable enough on the highway) and sat there for a moment, her eyes closed, trying to make sense of what she’d seen.
It couldn’t have been real. It was too ridiculous to be real. Clearly she’d imagined the whole thing.
She hadn’t slept well the past two nights. She’d tossed and turned. She’d dreamed those strange dreams. Obviously, she was even more sleep-deprived than she thought. She was hallucinating.
She took off her glasses again and rubbed at her weary eyes. She might’ve laughed, if she wasn’t so worried about the interview. She still had to drive all the way to Cakwetak, which was practically Milwaukee. Once there, she’d have to find a way to not look like a total mess in front of the human resources director.
Returning the glasses to her face, she looked out across the parking lot. She could see several people walking around. None of them had spectral ears sprouting from their heads.
She’d be all right. It was the stress, she realized. She was so worried about this interview. Once it was over, maybe she’d be able to sleep again.
She pulled out of the parking lot and headed east.
The interview went well enough, she supposed. She didn’t start hallucinating any animal parts on the human resources director and make a complete fool of herself, at least. She thought she responded with all the right answers. But she kept thinking that she looked terrible. She felt twitchy, wired, probably from too much caffeine. No matter how hard she tried to forget the strange incident at the coffee shop, her mind kept returning to it.
“He thought I was on drugs,” she said. “I know it.”
“Will you just relax already?” sighed Amethyst. “You did fine.”
Amethyst Wilhoit was Seph’s roommate. They were paired together by chance their sophomore year in the dorm and hit it off much better than did Seph and her freshman roommate. (That girl had some serious baggage.) Now they shared an apartment close to the campus, where Amethyst had moved on to graduate studies.
She was tall and slender, shapely, with long, wavy, brown hair and soft features. She had a lovely face, except for a faint, wide scar beneath her left eye, a remnant of a nasty fall when she was just a girl. She was utterly convinced that this blemish was an insurmountable flaw, but Seph thought it gave her a unique kind of character. And it’d never deterred the boys from flocking to her. In fact, it was impossible to tell if any man had ever even noticed the scar. Their eyes didn’t usually go that far up. They never made it past her huge breasts.
They were sitting at a table at a little café just a couple blocks from their apartment, waiting on their lunch. The place had become a favorite for both of them almost as soon as they moved in. It was quiet, cozy, within walking distance and the food was tasty and reasonably priced.
Seph groaned. “I totally blew it.”
“Stop it,” said Amethyst. “It’s only been two days. They probably haven’t even finished interviewing the other applicants yet.”
This was probably true, and yet Seph couldn’t help it. She was sure she’d botched it. And it wasn’t even her fault. It was those dreams. The restless nights. That bizarre hallucination at the coffee shop.
“You couldn’t fail,” Amethyst assured her. “I was sending you good energy all day.”
“I told you I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“You don’t have to.” She took a sip of her tea and stared across the table at her.
Seph didn’t bother arguing with her. There wasn’t any point in it. Amethyst was an unwavering believer in the power of positive energy. She was utterly convinced that people could affect the world around them with little more than a sickening dose of cheerful optimism.
Okay…so there was a little more to it than that. Amethyst believed in karma and in the idea that what you fed into the universe determined the quality of your life. She believed in positive and negative emotional energy, which could somehow be used to affect those around her. And which could be measured by examining a person’s aura. Apparently. Amethyst, who meditated daily and adhered to a strictly vegan diet, supposedly possessed a very clean aura. Seph, who did neither of those things, was burdened by a “muddy” aura. Or so Amethyst had informed her.
Seph’s personal opinion of the matter was that the only thing making anything “muddy” was the large quantity of bullshit, but she was polite enough not to say so.
Seph stared out the window at nothing in particular. “If you say so.” She was too tired to argue about this right now. She slept a little better after the interview, but only a little. She was still plagued by those weird dreams, still tossing and turning. Last night was a little better still. It seemed to finally be going away, but the damage had been done. If she’d blown this interview, she was going to be sorely disappointed in herself.
“You’re totally going to get that second interview. Just wait.”
Seph sipped her Coke and let her gaze drift across the room. Just wait. She hated the waiting. The waiting was the worst part. It could be another two weeks or more before she heard back, regardless of their decision. And if she didn’t start getting more sleep soon, it was going to be a very long wait.
She needed this job. All through college, she’d lived on her student loans and the moderately sizeable bank account that her father left her. The money would sustain her comfortably for a few more years, even after paying back the loans, but it wouldn’t last forever. If she didn’t want to end up flat broke she was going to have to find a job with some kind of future. This might be her one chance to do what she wanted with her life, instead of laboring away in some bleak factory somewhere.
But then something caught her attention that made her forget about the interview.
A television was on in the corner of the room. There was a news story. A picture of a familiar face. A sort of average face. The kind of face that was kind of attractive, but easily forgotten. Except she hadn’t forgotten the barista’s face at all. She could still picture him clearly in her mind. And although she couldn’t see any ghostly animal ears on the young man whose face was on the television, it was clearly him.
The headline announced that a body had been identified.
Amethyst turned around, confused, and looked at the television. “Oh… You didn’t hear about that? It was awful. It was all over the news this morning.”
“I was trying to sleep in.”
“They found that guy in the middle of an empty parking lot. His body was all…broken.” A look of revulsion passed over her face as she recalled the gruesome details of the report. “I guess nobody saw anything, not even on security cameras. It was like he just dropped out of the sky. Super creepy.”
Seph stared at the screen, horrified. “I just saw that guy…” she breathed.
Amethyst’s eyes grew wide. “You knew him?”
She shook her head. “No. I just…saw him. He was a barista at this coffee shop where I was meeting some friends. I’d never seen him before then.”
Amethyst shuddered. “That’s creepy.”
Creepy wasn’t the half of it. She stared at the guy’s picture. His name was Coby Bilk, according to the caption on the screen. But she never got his name. She never looked at his nametag. She was too busy staring at his ghostly ears.
That this guy, of all guys, should turn up dead…
The news story switched over to something else and Seph lowered her eyes as the waitress appeared with her plate. Suddenly, she’d lost her appetite. She decided to get her chicken salad to go.
Seph didn’t sleep very well again that night. She had nightmares about Coby Bilk and his strange, ghostly ears. It was late at night and even darker than it should’ve been. The streetlights were all out. Nobody was around. He was running for his life, screaming, begging for help.
But she didn’t know how to help him.
The next night was a little better. And the next night was better still. By the end of the weekend, she was feeling much more like her old self again. Better still, she was offered a second interview for the graphic design job, scheduled for Thursday afternoon. She dismissed her curious hallucination as a side-effect of stress and lack of sleep and even managed to push from her mind the strange coincidence of the barista’s terrible death.
It helped that the news story had been brushed aside in favor of an even more awful story about some kind of freak accident at a manufacturing facility in Sewart, Wisconsin. Thirty-seven people were dead. And it seemed as though no one could explain exactly how or why this tragedy happened. There were too many conflicting and confusing reports. It might have been either a disgruntled employee, a terrorist attack or some kind of insane viral outbreak, among other bizarre theories. She’d stopped paying attention to the reports. It was too disturbing. As sorry as she was to hear about all the victims and their poor families, there simply wasn’t anything she could do about it. She had her own life to lead and she needed to stay focused.
And she did stay focused. She was well-prepared and much more confident for her second interview. By the time she left, she was quite proud of herself.
In all, it was a good day for her. She walked out of the building with her head held high, confident this time that she’d be asked back for the third and final interview.
But as she walked to her truck, she looked out across the busy street and glimpsed a middle-aged man pushing his way through the crowd as if in a hurry, a cell phone pressed to his ear, wearing a suit jacket and tie.
He looked just like any other self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk, except for the ghostly, glowing ears protruding from his graying hair.
Seph stopped and stood there, her car keys dangling from her hand, staring.
He didn’t see her looking at him. He didn’t seem to see anyone. He practically knocked an old woman over in his rush. He appeared to be having a heated conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line.
People saw him perfectly fine. They gave him dirty looks as he passed. But none of them stared at him in any way that would suggest that they saw glowing animal ears sprouting from his head.
She watched him walk, trying to blink away whatever it was that was making her eyes hallucinate this strange vision again, but they wouldn’t go. The ears stubbornly refused to disappear, no matter how hard she tried to look past them. They looked different from the ears she’d seen on Coby Bilk. They were more round than pointy. More like a bear’s ears, perhaps, although it was difficult to tell from this distance.
Then the man turned the corner and was gone.
Seph looked around. No one else had ghostly animal ears. Everyone else looked perfectly normal.
She stood there a moment, confused, and then continued on toward her car.
Seph was nervous for the next couple days. Partly because she was waiting to hear back about the interview, but also because she couldn’t stop thinking of those two, bizarre hallucinations.
What did it mean? Why was it happening to her?
She was beginning to fear that she was having some manner of mental breakdown. And this was a lousy time to have one of those. She was so close to achieving her career goal.
It had to be the stress. She was so worried about this interview process. It must have been messing with her head. And as the weekend came and went, that seemed to be precisely the case. The world went on about its business as she waited to hear back about the job. She went out several times. She even went to the mall and had lunch with her mother, who wanted to hear all about her interviews. She saw hundreds of people. Thousands, perhaps, and not one of them had a pair of weird, ghostly ears sprouting from their skulls.
She didn’t tell her mom about her hallucinations, of course. She didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t want anyone to know how badly her mind had unraveled itself. It was no one else’s business.
Then Wednesday evening came around and Seph found herself sitting in front of the television, staring at another familiar face on the screen.
Baxter Winger had turned up dead alongside Interstate Ninety-Four, his mangled body left within plain sight of traffic, and yet there were no witnesses. She stared at his picture, her stomach twisting into a hot, slimy knot inside her. He didn’t have animal ears in the picture, ghostly or otherwise, but she recognized him immediately as the rude man on the far side of the street in Cakwetak.
Twice she’d seen those strange ears and twice the person had ended up dead. And violently so. What was going on? Why was this happening? Were the ears some sort of death omen? And if so, why was she the only one who could see them? What the hell was she supposed to do about something like that?
It wasn’t as if she could tell anyone. They’d tell her she was crazy. She’d tell her she was crazy. It was ridiculous!
She tried to make sense of it. She must be mistaken. Maybe these weren’t the same people at all. Maybe she was only projecting the faces of these dead men onto her memory of those people her stressed brain decided to fool her into thinking had those stupid, phantom ears.
That had to be it. It didn’t make much sense, but that was the only possible explanation.
She turned off the television and went to bed. But she didn’t sleep well again that night.
Seph was offered her third and final interview. It was on Thursday, the sixth of November, about a week after Baxter Winger was reported dead, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Overall, she was confident. She hadn’t had any more hallucinations to rattle her, and she’d been avoiding the news, just to be certain nothing else would distract her, so she felt well-composed and perfectly professional. She was even running early that morning, arriving in Cakwetak with plenty of time to spare, so she stopped at a drive-through and treated herself to a pumpkin spice latte.
That was when her luck turned sour.
As soon as she pulled out onto the main road again, she was cut off by a moving truck that changed lanes without signaling. She slammed on the Ford’s brakes and swerved, narrowly avoiding a collision and spilling the latte on her good dress pants.
She cursed at the other driver—and at the scalding pain of the hot beverage soaking into her pants leg—and merged into traffic. This was going to be a problem. She couldn’t possibly expect to be taken seriously if she showed up for this important interview in stained clothes, but it wasn’t as if she’d thought to bring a spare outfit. She did her best to mop up the spill with a napkin, but the stain wasn’t coming out. And it wasn’t subtle, either. It was huge.
She groaned, frustrated, and checked the time. She was still early. There was time to fix this.
She changed lanes and turned at the next intersection instead of going straight. The Cakwetak shopping mall was directly ahead. If she was quick, she could pop in, get a new pair of pants, change and then be on her way again. It might be cutting it close, but she was certain she could pull it off if there weren’t any more unexpected complications.
She parked near the bookstore and started inside, resisting the impatient urge to pick up her pace beyond a brisk walk. It felt like a mile to the nearest apparel store, but she still had time. She didn’t need to run. Or even jog. There was no good reason to tire herself out and show up to the interview looking like she’d just left the gym.
But that bad luck was still with her. As she was riding up the escalator to the second floor, gazing down at the storefronts below her, it happened again.
A young woman emerged from the Bath and Body Works and set off toward the food court. She was slender and pretty, wearing skinny jeans, stylish boots and a yellow, long-sleeve shirt. She had a playful, blonde ponytail and a pair of ghostly, glowing ears protruding from her head just above the neat line of her bangs.
Seph’s heart instantly sank. No. She couldn’t deal with this right now. She didn’t have time.
But the last two people she saw with those ears had turned up dead, and violently so. How long would it be before this blonde girl turned up on the news as well, her body brutally mangled?
She couldn’t let it happen again. She’d never have a good night’s sleep again if she had to deal with that kind of guilt. But what was she supposed to do? Just forget about her interview? Throw away all that she’d worked for? This was her dream. This was her chance to do what she wanted with her life.
Besides, she couldn’t just walk up to this girl and say, “Excuse me, but do you realize that you have a pair of phantom animal ears stuck to your head? No? Well it’s no surprise since I’m the only one who seems to be able to see them. The problem is that I’m pretty sure you’re going to die horribly sometime soon.”
The only thing the poor girl would be afraid of would be the crazy, bespectacled weirdo with stained pants who approached her in the middle of a crowded mall to tell her this.
No. That wouldn’t do at all. In fact, she couldn’t think of a single thing she could possibly say or do to convince the ponytailed blonde that her life might be in danger without sounding like a complete mental case.
It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means. It was downright unfair. But there simply wasn’t anything she could do. It wasn’t her duty to protect these people. She wasn’t responsible for them. She didn’t even believe in this kind of stuff.
And she had important things to do today.
Seph reached the top of the escalator and walked away from the doomed blonde.
Piper Holleworth had a lot of nicknames. She wasn’t sure why. People just seemed to decide for whatever reason that she needed to be called something different than what she’d been named, as if “Piper” were too long or cumbersome, or simply wasn’t the right fit for her. Almost nobody called her Piper. Various people called her Pipe, Pipes, Pip, Pippy, Pips, Pipey, Peeps or sometimes just Pi. Her childhood best friend, Wanda Janger, for reasons utterly unbeknownst to anyone except Wanda because she refused to explain it to anybody, called her Babs. And when she was nine, she had a little cousin who took to calling her Peepee, which was mortifying to Piper, but apparently uproariously hilarious to every other member of her family. She still couldn’t attend a holiday gathering without her uncle bellowing, “Peepee’s here!” the moment he caught sight of her.
Piper preferred to be Piper. That was her name, exactly as it appeared on her birth certificate, exactly as her mother had intended, and exactly as it was printed on her Bath and Body Works nametag as she left for lunch that peculiar Thursday afternoon.
The day hadn’t been peculiar up until this point. In fact, it’d been a perfectly normal morning, even rather pleasant. It didn’t become weird until she made a detour to use the restroom at the end of the rental lockers hallway.
It wasn’t even unusual for her to use this restroom. She couldn’t count the times she’d made this exact same stop on her way to lunch. The food court was at the far end of the mall, and the restrooms near there naturally tended to be busy this time of day. It was almost always much better to use this one. Today, she had it entirely to herself.
As she was washing her hands, and while she was checking her makeup in the mirror, she glimpsed something moving beneath one of the stall doors.
At first, she thought it was a shoe, but the stall door was cracked open, as if empty. This made no sense, of course, because who used a public restroom and left the stall open? Didn’t that defeat the purpose of even having a stall?
She stared into the mirror as she finished scrubbing her hands, watching for it to appear again, but there was nothing there. She dismissed it as her imagination and moved over to the automatic dryer.
The motor was loud enough to drown out most of the surrounding noises, so she didn’t hear anything. But when she glanced up at the mirror again, she saw one of the stall doors—a different stall this time—swing slowly closed.
Piper stopped and turned around, her slender hands still damp.
The hand dryer roared on for a moment longer, then wound to a stop. The silence that followed was heavy. No music played in here. No voices drifted this far from the main floor. She could hear the ventilation system humming faintly. She could hear the soft buzzing of the overhead lights. But other than that, the only sound was the thumping of her heart in her breast and the rush of blood in her ears.
She could see no one from where she stood. The restroom still seemed to be empty. Was it only a breeze that nudged the door? Was that first shadow she glimpsed only a loose strand of tissue gently tossed around by a draft from the heating vents? She’d been working at one store or another at this mall for the better part of six years and had used this very restroom more times than she could recall. She’d never had any reason to feel spooked before. Not here. But now her heart was pounding. Her reflection in the mirrors stared back at her with startled eyes. A frightful panic was building inside her.
She took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down. Nothing was happening. It was her imagination. It wouldn’t be the first time it got the better of her. As a little girl, she’d frequently frightened herself. She was always convinced that there was something hiding under her bed or in her closet or else lurking just outside her window. She’d run her poor father ragged every night, peering into all the places a boogeyman might be able to fit, sometimes places no one else ever thought to look.
But that was a long time ago.
Well…not that long ago. She was only twenty-four. But she’d grown up. She wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore. She didn’t believe in monsters. It was just…nerves, perhaps. Too much caffeine. Or maybe she hadn’t been getting quite enough sleep. She needed to stop staying up so late reading those paranormal romances, but she couldn’t help herself. She was addicted, and had been since she was thirteen.
Her cell phone buzzed in her purse, startling her as it alerted her to a new text message. Embarrassed by her own silliness, she fished it out and glanced at the screen.
As far as roommates went, Meg wasn’t the worst. She and Piper shared a dorm room their first three years of college, and had since upgraded to an apartment. They got along fine. She cleaned up after herself and did her share of the chores. Even her various boyfriends had all been tolerable. The only problem with Meg was that she was considerably prone to crises. It seemed that every few months her world completely fell apart for one idiotic reason or another. And every time it happened, she could be counted on to behave like a complete lunatic about it. She became brash, impulsive and paranoid. She’d jump to the most ludicrous conclusions. She’d make wild accusations. And she’d almost always end up doing something regrettable. Just last night, her fragile plane of existence was once again shattered when she discovered her laptop had gone missing.
Piper wasn’t all that concerned about the laptop. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about Meg’s plight. It was that this was the fourth time she’d misplaced it. It’d always turned up before, usually having been left somewhere stupid. But that hadn’t stopped her from completely flipping out about it. Again.
The text message was a rambling, poorly-spelled and far-too-long account of her failed attempts to retrieve her lost property. Her boyfriend, Martin, didn’t have it. Her friends hadn’t seen it. It hadn’t turned up at the library or coffee shop or in any of her classrooms. It seemed to be gone, and she was sure it’d been stolen this time.
The contents of the missing laptop included three term papers and one essay due first thing Monday morning, yet she seemed far more concerned with her photo album, which contained her only copy of many of the pictures she’d taken throughout her college years.
(Why these things weren’t properly backed up after having experienced this very same crisis three times previously was unconceivable to Piper, but here she was again.)
She patiently responded that the last time she’d seen it was the day before yesterday, when she was using Facebook to procrastinate on her homework, and wished her good luck in her search.
As she slipped the phone back into her purse, she heard a distinct “clunk” from one of the stalls in front of her and she froze.
That stubborn, childhood fear crept through her again, driving dark things from the long-buried depths of her imagination.
Seconds ticked by as she stood there, listening, waiting. The noise didn’t come again. And she still seemed to be alone in the room, and yet it seemed to her that she could hear something else. It was a low, drawn-out murmuring…almost whispering… But she couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
Maybe it was the plumbing making noise. It was, after all, a very big building, with no-telling how many miles of pipes running through the walls and ceilings, feeding toilets, sinks, water fountains and kitchens. A single broken fixture could affect the water pressure and make noise up and down the line, she was sure.
She scolded herself for being so ridiculous and turned back to the mirror. She checked to make sure her makeup and hair were still as they should be (and also that she didn’t look exactly like someone who’d just had a strange, mini-freakout for no apparent reason in the restroom). But before she could turn and walk away, she saw a strange, black shape dart over the top of one of the stall walls behind her, out of one and into another. It happened so quickly she couldn’t possibly perceive what it looked like. It was little more than an inky, black shadow.
As if to assert that it had not been her imagination, the door of the stall into which the shadowy thing had just dropped suddenly slammed shut, startling from her a shrill scream.
She turned and faced the stalls again, her heart pounding harder than ever.
“Is someone there?” she called.
Nothing answered her, of course. Why would it? What would a scary, black shadow-thing say?
But she could still hear that eerie whispering noise. It seemed to float on the air, like a faint stench.
Her wide, blue eyes flitted toward the door. It was time to leave. But would she be able to? Every horror novel she’d ever read came flooding back to her in a single, blood-curdling instant and her only thought was, Oh god, I’m that pretty, clueless girl who’s body is the first to turn up!
In her defense, her first thoughts about things didn’t usually include something about her being pretty. She had a fairly good idea that she was an attractive person. There’d been a seemingly endless line of boys in her life that’d had obnoxious crushes on her. She enjoyed looking pretty. She enjoyed fashion. She liked making her hair cute. She loved shopping for makeup and accessories. But she wasn’t obsessed with those things. Not like she was with her books.
Still holding her breath, she started moving toward the door. Slowly. She didn’t want to provoke the thing into attacking her if she could help it. For all she knew, it didn’t yet know that she was even there.
Except, of course, for the fact that she’d just asked it if it was there… So, yeah… It knew she was there. And that she knew it was there.
It was time to go. But before she could move, she heard a terrible gurgling noise from right behind her.
With a startled, “Eek!” she turned and almost tripped herself backing away from the sinks as a strange, gooey mass boiled up out of each of the four drains. Strange, tentacle-like shapes were rising from the goo and reaching outward. Some were stretching toward her. Others were intertwining together, converging into a single, larger shape that crawled up the mirror like a fat, misshapen spider.
Piper stared at the awful thing, horrified. Strange, shadowy shapes writhed inside it, shades of gray pulling themselves apart from the black, creating patterns that almost looked like human body parts.
The whole time, that awful whispering continued. It felt as if it were inside her very head.
She didn’t realize she was still backing away until her heel struck the wall. She stood there, too numb with fear to think what to do next, her mind struggling to find a reasonable explanation for what was happening, but she couldn’t think of one.
This couldn’t be real. This had to be some kind of bizarre hallucination.
Something moved in her peripheral vision and she dared to look away from the thing clinging to the mirror. More of those strange, black tendrils were slithering out from under the stall doors and across the floor, joining with the ones that oozed down over the edges of the sinks, merging into a single entity.
It was all one creature, she realized. An awful thing, like nothing she’d ever seen before. Like nothing she’d ever even imagined. Able to pull itself apart and knit itself back together again. It was coming out of the drains, a blob-like thing emerging from the dark, stinking depths of the sewers.
Black, pulsing, snake-like tendrils reached across the walls, branching out like veins as the larger shape on the mirror swelled and began to take form. Within seconds, it had become a crouching, menacing figure that was almost man-shaped.
This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t real. It couldn’tbe real because things like this didn’t exist. Not in the real world. And yet here it was, perched atop the sinks, clinging to the mirror right before her startled eyes. She stared at it, her terror growing with each frantic thump of her heart. She’d never been so afraid in her entire life. She needed to leave, but she was too scared to move.
Those queer shades of gray ran together, forming patterns that looked like bones, and a ghastly face emerged, an impossibly gaping mouth and screaming eyes that were somehow both empty and hungry.
It turned its strange head to one side and then the other, as if taking in its surroundings.
She told herself again that it wasn’t real…but it was right there…she was looking right at it…
The door was only a few feet away. All she had to do was run. Yet her brain wasn’t functioning properly. She couldn’t seem to shift her body into gear. All she could do was stand there, her mouth open in a frozen, silent scream, staring at the horrible image before her.
The thing tilted its head and leaned forward, as if studying her. Then it lifted a hand…or at least, something that vaguely resembled a hand. It was impossibly long, skeletal, with sharp, hard angles, but also strangely droopy, like a plastic doll that was half-melted. It seemed to point at her for a moment, as if accusing her.
Go!she told herself. Get out of here!
Slowly, her back still pressed against the wall, she began to move sideways toward the door.
The awful, gaping shape of the thing’s mouth opened even wider, as if in a silent scream, and those creepy, skeleton fingers crept toward her. Overhead, those strange, vein-like tendrils began to ooze downward, closing in around her like the bars of a hellish cage.
There was a scream bubbling up from somewhere deep inside her. She could feel it. But somehow, it just wouldn’t come. Her throat wouldn’t open to let it out.
She reached out with her hand, reaching toward the doorway beside her, and bumped one of the automatic hand dryers. It roared to life, startling her, and she snatched her hand back a split-second before the creature lashed out at the sudden sound, shattering the dryer’s plastic case.
She dropped to the floor, terrified, and let out what she thought would be an ear-splitting scream, but turned out to be nothing more than a shrill squeak.
The monster let out an awful groan and slashed at the dryer again.
She ducked under its outstretched arm and bolted from the restroom. She ran back down the empty corridor, past the rental lockers to the open space of the mall’s main floor.
She filled her lungs to scream for help, determined to do much more than just squeak this time, but when she glanced over her shoulder to see how close the thing was, she found that it wasn’t there. It hadn’t chased her out into the corridor. She was entirely alone.
She stopped, her eyes wide, her heart still hammering in her chest. She was practically panting.
Where was it? She knew she didn’t imagine it. There were still flecks of shattered plastic on her shoulder, as real as her own skin.
She searched the corridor for the slightest motion, the faintest of creeping shadows, but it was utterly silent. There was nothing. Not even that bizarre whispering noise.
No. That was no hallucination. She was sure of it.
She took a step backward. No one would ever believe her. They’d say she was crazy. She’d be locked up for sure.
Then a thought occurred to her: She couldn’t see it because it wasn’t in the corridor anymore.
She turned, terrified, to find a black figure standing right there, reaching out for her.
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