Hello everyone. I’d like to thank you all for being so patient with me these past several months. I know I haven’t been posting much on social media. I haven’t been updating my website or my blog. And my next book release is long overdue. I don’t blame you if you’ve become frustrated with me. I’m sorry. The truth is that things have not been well here. You see, I recently lost my father to Leukemia. It’s been a very difficult time for me and for my family. I’m sure at least some of you will know what it’s like all too well. The whole world has changed… Everything feels different than it did before… Heavier… Hollower… And I’ve had trouble finding my way back to the comfort of my fictional worlds. It’s hard to be a writer when all the words in the world seem to fall short… So I hope you’ll bear with me just a little longer while I sort things out and try to get back into the swing of things. I just need a little time. Just a little more… And then I promise I’ll be back again. Thank you.
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.”
Don’t miss what happens next! Rushed: A Matter of Time goes on sale Christmas Eve. Preorder your copy now at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B018R5MQWO.
If you follow me on Facebook, you probably already know that I was blessed with a new arrival earlier this year. I’m now a father of three. As a result, I’ve had a serious, but I hope perfectly understandable impediment to my writing. It’s not nearly as easy as it once was to find time to work on my next book, and my progress has slowed down noticeably. Often times, I’ve no more than just found my word flow when Dad is needed again. There’s a diaper emergency. Or the other two kids are fighting. Or someone desperately
needs a snack right now
, even though mom is feeding the baby. Or someone has their head stuck between the stairs railings. Again. Every day is a new adventure. And a new opportunity to find yourself saying something you never thought you’d hear yourself say. Like, “We don’t put deodorant on the cat,” and, “Because you’re not a licensed dentist! That’s why!” There’s no preparing for this stuff. You just have to wing it.
Regardless of how crazy it gets, I’d never give up this life for anything. Even now that my work is earning enough that my wife was able to cut back her work hours, I refuse to entirely give up my status as “stay-at-home dad.” I’m far too proud of that title to let it go.
I truly have the best two jobs in the world. I have the best kids and the best fans! And I promise you many more dark adventures are on the way. I’m just moving a little slower than usual right now. Thank you so much for reading!
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.
Can’t wait to see what happens next? Get it as soon as it’s available. Preorder at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00XVDROF2.
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The fourth book in the Rushed series is here December 11!
When a terrifying dream leaves Eric with a familiar, urgent compulsion to get up and leave his home, he fears that he’s in for a frightful case of déjà vu. But what he finds waiting for him at the end of his long drive north is unlike anything he’s yet seen. The Hedge Lake Triangle is a hotspot of paranormal activity claiming everything from mysterious disappearances and hauntings to UFOs and monster sightings. He’ll need all his wits and then some, because something unthinkable lurks beneath the surface of the lake and he only has until the rain falls to navigate the endless horrors and face the evil that awaits him at the bottom of the triangle.
Read on to preview the entire first chapter!
Eric’s eyes flashed open. He was lying in bed, clutching the sheets to his bare chest and staring up at the familiar, white ceiling of his bedroom. The morning sunlight poured through the window blinds and painted brilliant stripes across the wall. He could hear birds singing outside, but it was otherwise quiet. Peaceful. Deceptively calm. As if all were well with the world.
He was trembling. His heart was racing. He struggled to catch his breath. A strange terror was welling up within him, slowly overwhelming him.
His cell phone rang. He snatched it off the nightstand beside him and held it to his ear.
“You can’t ignore it,” said Isabelle.
He ran a hand through his tousled hair and groaned. “I know.” He pushed aside the covers and sat up. “Damn it…”
He’d prayed that it was only a dream when it woke him the previous morning. But the fact was that he didn’t have very many dreams that he could actually remember in any detail. Not anymore. What little he could recall was usually nonsense. Most mornings, he woke up with no memory of his dreams, only a curious feeling that he’d been dreaming of something very profound.
But this dream had not only been incredibly vivid, it had come to him two nights in a row. And it left him feeling oddly restless…as though he had somewhere he needed to be…
“It’s a lot like the first dream you had,” Isabelle said. “The one that brought you to me.”
It was. It wasn’t as strong, but he felt that same, irrational compulsion to get dressed and go somewhere. The difference was that he hadn’t been able to remember that dream. Not until he set out to silence it. This one, however, he remembered quite clearly.
It was deep winter under a gloomy, gray sky. A thick blanket of snow had settled over the floor of a naked forest. The wind was blowing stiff and cold. He could remember precisely how it felt, biting his skin right through his clothes.
Except that they weren’t his clothes. It wasn’t even his skin. It wasn’t he who was out in this bleak wilderness. It was someone else. A woman, he thought, though he couldn’t be entirely sure. It was bizarre. He seemed to be inside her skin, feeling the wind that stung her face, struggling through the snow, gasping for every icy breath. He could feel her pounding heart as if it were inside his own chest. He saw the frozen wilderness with her eyes, felt the gripping terror that was rapidly swallowing her. And yet he also felt as if he were miles away, like he was looking up from the bottom of a deep, dark well.
Something was in that forest. Something terrifying. He could hear it. She could hear it. Behind him. Behind her.
Eric rubbed at his eyes. It was all so confusing. It was only a dream, but it was so vivid. So real. He was still tangled up in those emotions.
He remembered a steep slope. He—no, she—stumbled and fell, sliding through the snow, scraping the numb flesh on the palms of her bare hands. He looked down at his own hands now. It felt so real, even now, that he was surprised to find them unblemished.
Great, rocky bluffs rose up on either side as the woman fled deeper into the thickly wooded gully. Then she went too far. The ground vanished beneath her. She dropped twenty feet and landed hard on the ice.
“You know it won’t stop,” Isabelle reminded him. “You’ll live through that every night until you go. It’ll drive you mad.”
He wanted to argue that they knew no such thing, but he would only be stalling. Deep down, he understood. It was too much like the other dream. He knew it the first time it woke him, if he were to be honest. It was why he’d gone to sleep with his phone on the nightstand, with Isabelle only an arm’s length away.
He was being summoned again.
“You already know where you have to go.”
He sighed and stood up. “North,” he said. He scratched his neck and shook his head, frustrated. “I go north.”
“I’ll be with you the whole way,” promised Isabelle. “Like always.”
He hung up the phone and turned off the alarm that never had a chance to wake him. Usually, he wouldn’t even hit the snooze for the first time for another twenty minutes yet.
He dressed himself as his mind circled around the awful, lingering dream. He couldn’t stop thinking about the end, those last few moments before he was mercifully torn from the nightmare and returned to consciousness. Through tears of terror and agony he saw a wide, frozen lake stretching out from the narrow cove where the woman lay broken upon the cracked ice. Above her, high bluffs and crowding trees. And something else, too, something big moving through the trees. A burning glow high up in the branches. An awful shriek.
She cried out for help, and although he was sure she must have been crying out to God on that bloody ice, a final, desperate prayer, he could’ve sworn that she was speaking to him.
He shuddered hard at those words, the final thing he’d heard before the dream shattered and ejected him back into his peaceful bedroom again.
It wasn’t just a dream. It was real. That woman was real. The thing that was chasing her was real. Her sufferingwas real. But those events didn’t happen recently. That lake was deeply frozen. It was the middle of winter. It was now late April.
That left one important question: Had the awful scene taken place in a winter past…or in a winter yet to be?
He made his way downstairs, where he found Karen in the kitchen, already busying herself with her baking. She had four hundred cupcakes to bake for a wedding the next day. For most people, waiting until the morning before would be pushing it, but Karen was not most people. She was ridiculously talented in the kitchen and made a considerable amount of spending money as a freelance cake decorator and caterer. She was perfectly content to simply rise a little earlier than usual.
“You’re up early,” she observed, barely sparing him a glance as she poured sugar into her mixer.
Holly sat at the table, separating paper baking cups and slipping them into muffin pans. She turned and looked up at him, brushing her long, red hair from her pretty face and offering him her usual, sweet smile. “Good morning!” As always, she was exceedingly cheerful, as if she’d never been dealt a single reason to be anything but optimistic and full of hope.
“Good morning,” he said to both of them as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Did you have the dream again?” asked Karen. It wasn’t a secret. He hadn’t kept it from her. He neverkept things from her. Not for long. He might occasionally downplay just how much peril he’d found himself in, like that time he was shot at by a fat, psychotic cowboy. (It was better that she not know just how narrowly he’d escaped that encounter.) But he always told her the rest of it, regardless of how frightening or disturbing (or unflattering or embarrassing) his exploits might be.
They were always honest with each other.
“So you’ll be leaving again?”
To anyone who didn’t know her, she would have looked unnaturally calm, as if the idea of him venturing off on another of his weird adventures wasn’t the least bit terrifying to her. But Eric knew her far better than anyone. She wasn’t comfortable expressing her feelings. She bottled them up inside and put on false faces. It was an old coping mechanism that had served her through some rough adolescent years, and an apparently unbreakable habit even after all this time. Right now, she was feigning disinterest and a little bit of annoyance. He was about to go off on another stupid road trip to get himself hurt again. A silly boy and his silly adventures. But he knew that deep inside, in that fragile part of her that she kept locked up tight, she was very much afraid.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked as she started up her mixer.
“That’s not very specific.”
Eric took a sip of his coffee and then cocked his head thoughtfully. “It’s pretty specific. When you get down to it. I mean, it’s precisely as specific as a compass needle.”
“How far north?” she pressed. “Like, up north? In Northern Wisconsin? Upper Peninsula? Or are we talking Canada north? Or Santa’s workshop north?”
“Can’t say. I guess I’ll know it when I get there.”
“The lake,” agreed Holly as she continued prepping the muffin pans. “Where the people in the mist wander. With the beast with many names. And where the funny space men play with their toys.”
Eric and Karen both looked at her, but she kept her eyes on the task before her, as if she hadn’t said anything strange at all.
“Right…” said Karen. “There you go. Just look for all that stuff.”
Eric nodded. “Yeah. That should narrow it down for me.”
Holly smiled her sweet smile.
“What does Isabelle say?” asked Karen.
“Definitely,” agreed Holly. “Something’s going to happen there. I can’t see what it is, but it’s going to be bad.”
Eric had been lifting his cup to his lips, but he lowered it again without sipping. “How bad?”
“Can you give me an example of what ‘way bad’ might entail? I’m still a little hazy on just how bad things can actually get.”
Holly set aside the prepared muffin pan and reached for the next one. She seemed surprisingly casual for someone discussing dire portents about his eminent journey. “It’s hard to say for sure. But I’m certain that anyone near that lake is in terrible danger.”
Karen frowned at Holly. “One of your spells told you all this?”
Eric met Holly Shorring the previous summer. She was a member of a coven of witches who had sought his help against a powerful and murderous wizard who was hunting them down one by one. Although he hadn’t believed in magic when he met her, she and her sisters had thoroughly convinced him otherwise.
(He didn’t understand it, but he absolutely believed in it.)
Holly was young, only twenty, and strikingly beautiful. She also possessed a remarkably endearing personality. She was sweet, kind, resourceful and clever. Everyone who had met her since she moved to Creek Bend adored her.
But when he first laid eyes on her, she was dancing provocatively on a stage in a nude bar in rural Illinois.
Karen had been understandably irate about him returning home just prior to their wedding anniversary with a gorgeous, young stripper. And she still hadn’t let it go. Nor would she. Ever. She had no intention of letting him forget it as long as they both lived, regardless of how and why it happened. And he could hardly blame her. He knew perfectly well how fortunate he was to have survived that ordeal, and with all his bits and bobs intact, no less.
At the same time, however, Karen had managed to harbor not a single ounce of ill will toward Holly. In fact, like everyone else, she’d quickly grown quite fond of the girl. She’d taken her under her wing and treated her like a member of the family almost from the start. Hardly a day went by when she wasn’t here in this kitchen, helping Karen with her baking, or out assisting with a delivery.
Eric had long ago stopped trying to point out that if he’d never brought her home, Karen would have missed out on having such a dear friend enter her life. That was not the point. That had nothing to do with it. His crimes remained unforgiveable, regardless of her fondness for the very object of her insatiable wrath.
(He’d also long since stopped trying to makes sense of the situation.)
It didn’t hurt that Holly and Karen had turned out to have a lot in common. They were practically made to be best friends. They could’ve been long-lost sisters. For starters, Holly was a skilled baker in her own right. She had a particularly special talent for making cookies.
Also, Holly had a peculiar way of encouraging people to be nice to her. It was a gift she possessed, a sort of psychic power of suggestion. She was a sweet girl who wanted everyone to like her, and so almost everyone who met her found her instantly endearing.
(But Karen insisted that this curious ability had nothing to do with it, of course.)
“Did your spells tell you anything else?” asked Eric.
“Not that I could really understand,” she told him. “Not yet, anyway. Just random images. Nothing that makes much sense.”
“I guess that explains the funny space men.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s all a little wonky. Maybe once you’re there it’ll be clearer. I’ll call you if I see anything else.”
Karen cocked her head and tucked a strand of her brown hair behind her ear. “Wait… You’re not going with him?”
“Not this time. The spell said he has to do this on his own.”
“Oh…” Karen hadn’t intended to let her go without a fight. She’d made it her business to take care of the girl, after all. But she hadn’t expected to win that argument, much less that there would be no argument at all.
Eric nodded. “Then that’s settled,” he decided. He was relieved, actually. As helpful as she’d be if he took her with him (she had saved his life more than once) he was thankful to not have to worry about her getting hurt. Especially since people always managed to get hurt on these weird adventures. “I should get going.”
“Oh, and stay away from the water,” added Holly. “At least until I know more.”
“No swimming,” confirmed Eric. “Got it.”
“What’s wrong with the water?” asked Karen.
“There’s blood in it,” replied Holly.
Karen shook her head. “Why do I ask these things?” She turned to Eric, looking him over. “Maybe I should go with you.”
“You’ve got too much to do,” he replied quickly, gesturing at the cupcakes. The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along. He’d never forgive himself if anything happened to her.
“Jess would take over for me if I called her,” she reasoned.
“You’d never trust anyone to take over one of your jobs,” he challenged.
“Jess is very talented. I know she could handle it.”
“You’d worry about it the whole time you were gone.”
She knit her eyebrows. He was right, of course, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She took an enormous amount of pride in her work, especially when the job was for something as special as a wedding. It had nothing to do with how much she trusted anyone else to do the job. Once she’d made a commitment to do something, she always saw it through to the end.
(Like when she committed herself to never letting him forget how he mucked up their last anniversary weekend.)
“He has to do it on his own,” Holly explained. “Neither of us are supposed to go.”
“There you go,” said Eric, trying not to sound too relieved. “Can’t argue with magic.”
Karen fixed her eyes on Holly for a moment. Although her expression was only thoughtful, he thought he could almost see the real emotions swirling behind her dark eyes. She knew he was right. She couldn’t just abandon her responsibilities here. It was her job to make sure these cupcakes were finished, were beautiful, and were on display in the church before the guests began arriving tomorrow afternoon. It wasn’t even about the money she’d already been paid. It was about keeping her word and ensuring that her part of someone’s beautiful day was as perfect as she could make it.
But she also didn’t care for being told what to do. If she wanted to accompany her husband into the unknown, why shouldn’t she be able to? It was also her responsibility to take care of him, to make sure he was safe. What kind of wife would she be if she didn’t do everything in her power to protect him? And this self-proclaimed witch had no business telling her otherwise.
Yet the deepest truth of all was that while she was afraid for him, she was even more afraid to go with him. The things he’d described to her, the terrible things he’d seen… She was too cowardly to even sit through a horror movie, much less to live through one. The first time this happened, she didn’t believe it. She thought it was some kind of early mid-life crisis kind of episode, that he’d subconsciously begun to feel trapped in his mundane, English teacher existence and realized that he was only getting older. He just needed a little adventure to make him feel young again. Even when everything started getting weird and he began describing the insane things he was seeing over the phone, she didn’t really believe it. Not even when he began sending her pictures. She told herself it had to be a prank of some sort. At worst, she feared that he might be suffering a serious psychological break, but that was even more terrifying than the idea that all these things were real, so in the end, she’d just gone along with it, almost numb to it all. But it was real. And she had no idea how he kept doing these things. If she’d been with him when that first golem burst from the old wardrobe in that empty house… Well, she doubted very much that she would’ve handled it with half the bravado as her courageous husband (and he’d confidentially admitted to her that he pretty much just ran away screaming like a girl).
And now Holly was telling her she wasn’t supposed to go…
Finally, she let out an exasperated sigh and met his gaze again. “You be careful out there.”
“No, you’re not. You’re always getting yourself bitten by things and falling from high places.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘always’…”
“Or getting sliced up by something with huge claws.”
“But I always come home, remember?”
She did remember. It was the one thing he brought back from his time with Holly’s coven that hadn’t earned him her fiery wrath: A prophecy of sorts. A magic spell had given him an assurance that although he would continue to be called away on these strange journeys, he would always return to her. It was a heartening message and it helped to ease her fears. But only a little. “I still don’t know how much I trust this witchcraft stuff,” she told him.
Eric glanced at Holly. He recalled his brief time with the coven the previous July, all that he went through, all that he saw. “I trust hermagic,” he told her. And it was the truth.
Karen stared thoughtfully at him and said nothing. Though Holly had offered to teach her to use spells, too, she’d refused. In fact, she’d discouraged the girl from using any magic while she lived in Creek Bend. It wasn’t that she disapproved, exactly. After all, this magic had saved her husband’s life. But she found the very concept difficult to handle. It seemed so unnatural.
Holly hadn’t pushed the matter. After all, she hardly needed to rely on witchcraft in her everyday life. A man she called “Grandpa,” but who wasn’t a father to either of her parents, had long ago taught her that magic wasn’t something one relied on for just anything. It was only for emergencies. Or special circumstances. Like these dreams Eric was having, for example.
“Paul won’t be able to help this time,” said Karen.
“I know.” Paul was his older brother. Usually, Karen would call him soon after Eric left and send him to keep an eye on her wayward husband. But today Paul, his wife, Monica, and his son, Kevin, were in Minnesota for a wedding. “It doesn’t matter. He wasn’t much help last time, remember.”
“I know. But I still don’t need him.” In fact, he’d prefer that Paul, like Karen and Holly, stay well away from whatever bizarre trouble he was heading into. It was hard enough worrying about his own ass out there, without having to be concerned about someone else’s safety.
“Have Isabelle keep me posted.”
She gave him a kiss and then turned back to her mixing bowls. “Well, get going. You wouldn’t want to be late for whatever trouble you’re about to get yourself into.”
She was good. He could almost believe she really wasn’t concerned about him.
Eric snatched up his keys. “No. I guess I wouldn’t.”
“I love you. Be careful.”
“I love you, too,” he assured her. He headed for the door.
As he opened the door, Karen added, “And try not to bring home any more strippers, ‘kay?”
Get the whole book on December 11!