Elsewhere — or not so damn much.

So as it turns out, Dean Koontz, who happens to be one of my favorite authors, just announced the upcoming release of his new book entitled….

“Elsewhere.”

[insert expletive here]

So I may have to rename the series I’ve worked so hard to create.

That’s why I haven’t yet published Part IV yet. Call it a creative block caused by the realization that the title itself needs to change.

… or the fact that I’ve gone back to work after three months of downtime and am finding less and less time to be able to devote to my creative endeavors.

I hope to be back with Part IV soon.

Hell, in my perfect little world, I’d write full time.

Hear that, Universe?

Just throwing that out there.

Love,

Shel

 

 

Parabol (Cover)

black headset hanging on black and gray microphone
Photo by Barthy Bonhomme on Pexels.com

I do not own the rights to these lyrics.

This is “Parabol” by Tool.

In my opinion some of the most meaningful lyrics ever written.

I felt musical today.

-Shelly

So familiar and overwhelmingly warm
This one, this form I hold now
Embracing you, this reality here
This one, this form I hold now
So wide eyed and hopeful
Wide eyed and hopefully wild
We barely remember what came before this precious moment
Choosing to be here right now
Hold on, stay inside
This body holding me, reminding me that I am not alone in
This body makes me feel eternal
All this pain is an illusion

Let’s Talk “Beliefs”…

Let’s talk “beliefs.”

(And if this is “too long to read,” then you might want to thoroughly investigate what your belief system is based upon. If you don’t read the lengthy articles and spend time exploring legitimate sources of information then chances are your beliefs may be based upon opinion.)

Your “beliefs” are called beliefs because that’s exactly what they are.

They are what you “believe” to be true.

There is no evidence to support your belief is true; otherwise, it would be called a “fact.”

Beliefs are meant to be held loosely, because as time passes and evidence is gathered the belief may become a fact, or it may be proven false.

You may now understand that to condemn, judge, or belittle someone who disapproves of your belief (now that you know the definition of what a “belief” is) is absolutely nonsensical… and can instantly make you look like the uneducated ass in any given situation.

The world is not “your” world, and others do not have to believe what you believe to be true, whether it’s commonly accepted as truth or not.

We are all entitled to believe what we choose to believe.

That’s what makes the world so wonderfully diverse and interesting.

Anything else would be mundane and grey.

Just think about this the next time you have a conversation (whether in person or online) with someone who’s beliefs upset you.

Discussions are wonderful, but anger stems from “believing” your own “beliefs” to be fact.

Speak to others with kindness, even if the same courtesy isn’t being extended to you.

Lead by example.

And remember…. your beliefs can (and should) change as you learn. Let them bend and sway as you gain knowledge throughout the course of your life.

And never, ever mistake kindness for complacency.

♥️

An important note: 

Some people were just born to argue, regardless of the validity of their argument. 

Be kind, but don’t waste your time trying to prove a point.

It’s like trying to paint a wall with a toothpick. 

-SMC

Elsewhere: Part III

silhouette of a man during sunset
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Elsewhere

Part III

“Ginny”

Two nights had passed since LeighAnne McAddams and Neil Glassman watched as a woman they only knew as “Lauren” caved her own head in by striking herself repeatedly with a rock. Leigh continued to dream about it every time she closed her eyes; the ghastly image playing on repeat using the back of her eyelids as movie screens. Neil could only hold her to comfort her, and when she’d awaken screaming, he’d pull her closer. She’d witness the blood spray take flight with each self-inflicted blow, and bits of brain matter and bone as they fell onto the rock around them over and over on a torturous loop in her mind.

Leigh had been sleeping in Neil’s bed beside him since that night, due to the fact that she was only able to catch a few fleeting moments of precious sleep while safely nestled in his arms. She had barely spoken since the incident, but Neil continued to take care of her as a mother would for its sick child. There was no romance taking place in the shared bed at nights; instead the nights were filled with terrified shrieks and cries as the atrocities played repeatedly on the backsides of two sets of eyelids.

This morning as Leigh lay in bed listening to the water pour onto Neil as he showered, she replayed a different scene. The horrific sound of the shadow man sent what felt like shards of broken glass into the soft tissues of her brain, followed by the explosion of light that brought them home. She then watched the memory replay of Neil coaxing her into the shower that night; gingerly helping her to undress, carefully shielding his eyes to preserve her modesty. She watched as the warm water fell over her chest and stomach, down her legs, and then into the drain below. The water ran clear at first, but she watched it gradually turn from pink to red as it washed Lauren’s blood away. She saw something drop from her hair to her feet, and quickly closed her eyes to avoid seeing the small bits of flesh and bone that had taken flight from the beautiful woman’s once flawless face.

Neil sat on the toilet as she showered per her request. She didn’t want to be alone.

“You okay in there?” he asked, but heard no reply. “LeighAnne?”

Only the sound of the water flowing from the shower head replied. He covered his eyes with one hand as he reached for the shower curtain to pull it aside, but not without a final warning. “LeighAnne?”

Silence. He removed his hand from his brow, pulled the curtain aside, and saw Leigh sitting with her knees held tightly to her chest, rocking back and forth, and crying silent sobs as the warm water fell upon her. He quickly reached for the faucet to shut the water off, grabbed a towel, draped it over her naked body, then helped her stand.

“It’s okay, Leigh. It’s okay. Let’s get you into some warm clothes and feed you,” he said to her.

She opened her eyes to clear the shower scene from her mind. She sat up straight, then stared out his bedroom window. The tree she had watched him park under countless times was just beyond the window, and she watched as a robin flew to a branch in which its nest rested upon. She watched the small bird as she fed her hatchlings the worm she had brought back from this rainy morning’s hunt. It was a beautiful sight, Leigh thought to herself, and it helped to ground her in a way that aided in bringing her back to the present moment. She looked down at the over-sized scarlet and grey Ohio State hoodie and matching sweatpants Neil had lent her the evening after her shower. She looked over into her reflection in his dresser mirror, and barely recognized herself.

“God damn, LeighAnne” she said to herself as she tried to comb through the rat’s nest of blonde curls with her fingers, “Pull your shit together.”

She heard Neil, still in the bathroom but with the door left open, on the phone, “Yeah, delivery please. Two Colorado omelets with home fries, and a side of hash. Two cranberry juices, and two large coffees with sugar, no cream. Do y’all have blueberry muffins?” he asked. “Two of those, too. Thanks.”

It was the first time she had heard him use the word, “y’all,” which made her smile for the first time in days. His Ohio roots were showing, and she found it as endearing as anything she’d ever heard before.

He came around the corner wearing only a blue towel around his waist, and was startled to see her sitting up in his bed, looking directly at him.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry… I thought you’d be asleep still. I just need to grab some um… some shirts. I mean a shirts. I mean a shirt… with pants,” he stumbled on his words, his face quickly turning ten shades of red.

“It’s okay. You’ve seen me naked,” she said, far less modest than he would have been if the situation had been reversed.

“Yeah. Sorry about that, I was just trying to -”

“I know,” she interrupted. “Please don’t apologize. Thank you for it. Really.”

“No need,” he said as he pulled a shirt over his head. “I ordered breakfast, okay?”

“I heard. Thank you,” she said. “I’ve been selfish the last couple of days, lost inside my own head. I never stopped to think about how you were holding up. I’m really sorry for that.”

He joined her on the bed, sitting beside her.

“I’m fine. Really. No need to worry, and you haven’t been selfish, so you can knock that shit right off. I’ve been dealing with insane things since I was fifteen. This is all brand spankin’ new to you.”

“You’ve seen someone bash their own brains in with a rock?” she asked.

“Well, no. I just meant that maybe it’s just more of a shock to your system,” he said.

She stared somberly at her hands in her lap.

“What we saw was awful,” Neil continued. “No one should have to witness something like that, and on that note, I’m really sorry for bringing you into all this, Leigh. If I could turn back time, I’d have pushed you out my door with the letter opener and changed my locks. I’m so, so damn sorry.”

She looked up at him. “I’m not. I’m not sorry, Neil. Not even a little bit. I’m glad I’m a part of this,” she said. “Yeah, what we saw was awful, but that’s not what has me so shaken. What gets me is… Neil, she had to live ten years with that bastard inside of her. Ten whole god damn years.”

“I’m grasping at straws here, but I really don’t think he was inside of her the whole time; I think he probably came and went as he pleased,” Neil said in a failed attempt to console her.

“What do you think he did during all that time, Neil? I mean, he had physical control over a human body for an entire fucking decade. What do you think he was capable of during that time?” Leigh asked.

“I don’t know,” Neil replied simply. “I’ve never really considered it. I can’t say it hadn’t crossed my mind from time to time, but I could never bring myself to go down that dark rabbit hole.”

“We need to find out more about Lauren. Who she was, what she did for a living, who her parents are, her friends… all of it. We need to dig deep and see what else we can find.”

“It won’t bring her back, Leigh,” Neil said, gently taking her hands in his, then bringing them up to his mouth to kiss them.

“I know that,” Leigh said softly, “but maybe it can offer more clues as to who this shadow being is, and why it is he thinks you’re so powerful. We need to figure out why he’s singled you out so that we can stop him.”

“I’m not afraid of him, Leigh. I know how to keep us safe. I’ve kept myself alive for this long, haven’t I?”

“Yes, but how do you know this incident won’t have pissed him off to the point where now not only is he driven, but on top of it he’s now vengeful, spiteful, and full of rage… when a person is in that position they’re capable of doing just about anything, but he isn’t human, Neil. He’s a damn psychopathic demon, and the truth is we don’t know what the hell he’s capable of.”

Neil looked deep into Leigh’s eyes and could almost see the gory scene on repeat within the depths of her mind.

“I get it,” Neil said, lowering her hands to her lap. He stood and began to pace around his bedroom. “All these years I thought it was him bringing me to Cerulean Creek. He would show up in my house, the hum would intensify until my brain felt like it was on the verge of exploding, and then the blinding flash of light; the next thing I knew I’d be in that forest. I thought he was bringing me there to kill me. He’d stand on those banks and he would just watch me for as long as I was stuck there.”

“I think the bright flash, the blinding explosion, is separate from him,” Leigh surmised. “I think he gets to and from on his own, but the bright flash is what brings us there, not him.”

“I think you’re right, but what is it exactly? Who or what controls it, and why?”

“Someone or something that’s on your side, and that’s important. That’s key. Someone is trying to save you from him. The blinding explosion brings you over there when he’s in your room, then brings you back home from the waterfall. The waterfall….” Leigh trailed off. “Did you see the light coming from the waterfall?”

“I did, “Neil replied. “It looked as if the water itself was luminescent, and it brightened as his scream intensified… and then again, just as I thought my head was about to explode the bright explosion of light happened and we end up here on my living room floor.”

Neil’s brow furrowed as he stared into the pattern on the woven carpet beneath his feet.

“The trees… we can’t forget the trees. They must have something to do with this also,” he said.

“What if,” Leigh pondered, “the trees and the waterfall are communicating with one another? I know that sounds crazy, but what sets the standard for crazy anymore? I feel like maybe they’re working together somehow to help you. I think they worked together tonight to protect us from the shadow entities. Think about it. First, we heard the trees and then the waterfall started emitting its light, which then increased to match the intensity of the shadow man’s scream. That can’t be coincidental, Neil. I think they are communicating,” she said, wide-eyed with profound realization.

Neil took a moment to gather his thoughts into a coherent sentence, then said simply, “I think you’re right.”

Breakfast arrived and Leigh devoured her omelet, home fries, and blueberry muffin as if she were trying to win a competition. She showered, then changed back into her own freshly laundered clothes, thanks once again to her devoted caretaker, before joining him in his office.

He sat behind his desk with turtle-rimmed readers on, which Leigh mentally added to the ongoing list of things she found ridiculously endearing about him.

“What is this, a fucking dungeon?” Leigh asked as she opened the curtains and drew the blinds.

“There she is. Welcome back,” Neil said, jokingly referring to her sense of humor and sailor’s mouth returning. “I’ve been looking things up.”

“What kind of things?”

“Things about things. I don’t know. Just searching whatever I can in the hopes that something will pop up that could be helpful. I mean the internet is full of useful and useless information, but I can’t exactly Google, how to defeat a shadow man, and expect to have the answer at my fingertips. Trust me, I’ve already tried. Twice,” he said.

“How about searching something like light versus darkness or something like that,” Leigh suggested.

Neil typed it into the search field, hit the search button, and instantly the web provided one hundred and thirteen million results, the entire first page of which referred to biblical verse.

They spent the next four hours reading through article after article, trying to weed out the useful information from the useless.

“Can we please take a break? My eyeballs hurt,” complained Neil.

“Yeah, I’m starving. Let’s get out of this house and walk down to the market and grab some things for dinner, and maybe something for lunch, too.”

“I can’t believe you’re hungry after that giant breakfast,” Neil joked.

“I’m always hungry,” Leigh replied.

As they walked down the sidewalk toward the market, Neil grabbed her hand in his and she complied happily, feeling a flutter in her heart and one in her belly. They walked hand-in-hand and laughed, as if the events of the past were all but forgotten, replaced by butterflies in the belly and flirtatious nudges.

The market was packed with patrons, so Neil held Leigh’s hand tight as they wove between people in the produce section.

“Shit, we should have grabbed a basket. I’ll go grab one, you stay put. I’ll be right back,” Neil said as Leigh made her way toward the lettuce section. As she picked through the freshly misted bunches of romaine, she heard a voice whisper in her ear, “LeighAnne.”

She dropped a head of lettuce on the floor as she spun around to see who had spoken her name, half expecting to see Neil playing a terrible joke on her. She was surrounded by people; a man and his wife arguing over the perfect tomato, a woman pushing a twin baby carriage, a teenage girl with earbuds in her ears searching for perfect cantaloupe – none of which seemed the least bit interested in her. She felt her knees begin to weaken and tremble, and beads of nervous sweat began to form on her brow. Her eyes continued to scan the crowd searching for the culprit, when she noticed Neil making his way back over to her.

“Are you okay? What happened?” he asked as he reached her, noticing her demeanor.

“I heard him. I mean her. I heard Lauren say my name,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.

“Let’s go home. We’ll just order dinner,” Neil said as he set the basket on the ground beside the fallen lettuce and guided her out the door and back home.

Seated on the couch, covered in his grey fleece blanket, and pacified with a hot cup of fresh coffee, Leigh had finally calmed her nerves.

“It was her, Neil,” she explained. “I mean… it was him speaking through her voice again. I’m not lying. I heard it clear as crystal in my ear.”

“I believe you,” Neil could only manage to say.

“It’s the middle of the damn day, Neil. How did he… Why did he…” Leigh trailed off.

“I don’t know. I wish I did,” Neil said.

“Has he ever spoken to you during the day like that?”

“No, never,” Neil said. “Well, sometimes I’d hear that hum… that vibration… but it’d come and go. I never heard words.”

“Maybe because he hadn’t inhabited a human body yet. Maybe he didn’t yet know how to form the words,” Leigh said.

“Maybe.”

“Why me, though? Why did he speak to me and not you?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Leigh. I wish I had these answers, but I just don’t,” he said, exasperated.

That night, as she lay safely nestled in Neil’s arms, Leigh fell into a deep sleep for the first time in days. Beside her, Neil wasn’t quite as lucky.

He dreamt he was back at Cerulean Creek, standing chest-deep in the middle of its rushing waters. The banks on either side of him were lined with hundreds, if not thousands of frenzied shadow beings of varying shapes and sizes. The once vibrant azure sky was now a dulled brown tinged with shades of mustard yellow throughout. The leaves had been stripped from the trees and they stood barren before him; the bark singed as if they had been set afire. The hum of the shadow man had been barely audible over the sound of the rushing waters just moments ago, but quickly began to crescendo until it consumed every cell of Neil’s body. The pain it caused within him was torturous and unbearable, and as he held his palms to his ears he screamed in agony, “Please, someone please help me!”

As if a switch had been flipped, the scene muted. The chaotic scene continued around him, but it was as if the audio cable had been switched to the wrong television set and he was now picking up a different channel. He heard music, as if an entire orchestra of string instruments were playing in the far-off distance. Then he saw the light shining from the waterfall ahead.

“Come, Neil,” he heard as clearly as if someone had been standing beside him. “Come to the stone.”

Neil had already begun making his way against the current through the water to the stone near the waterfall before the last words had been spoken. He caught movement out of his periphery, and when he turned to look he saw the shadow man standing six feet from him on the left bank amongst the smaller savages. He continued through the water with steely determination, choosing to ignore the evil entity keeping pace alongside him.

Now within reach, the waterfall was emanating light as bright as a dozen stadium lights and Neil had a hard time seeing the stone without squinting and shielding his eyes. Neil climbed onto the stone and stood facing the waterfall, the scene still chaotic yet unnaturally silent, save birdsong, around him.

“Now what,” he said aloud to himself.

“Be still, and know that you are protected always, Neil.”

He heard the voice loud and clear but couldn’t’ tell from which direction the sound originated.

“WHO ARE YOU?” he yelled, not in an angry manner, but more so because he wasn’t sure how far away the person was who was speaking to him and wanted to be sure he was heard.

“We are everything and nothing, Neil. We are the waters you wade in, the rock beneath your feet, and the trees all around you which sway in our winds. We are the animals which feed on our grasses, we are the insects which burrow into our soil, and we are the soil in which the Benevren now watch you from.”

“Benevren?” This was the first Neil had ever heard this word, which puzzled him. “Is that what the shadow entities are called? The Benevren?”

“They are the Benevren and they are not meant to be here. They are a plague. You are to send them back from whence they came. That is the duty we have assigned you, and in exchange for this we will protect you from them. We will allow no harm to come your way while you are in both our plane and yours.”

“Does the shadow man control the Benevren?” Neil asked.

“The Benevren act upon their own free will just as humans do. Svethren is the name of who you call the shadow man, but rest assure he is no more a man than he is a “he,” and rather a collection of evil that had been cast out of many different planes eons ago. He is a deep, dark well of miscreation; an abomination that wreaks havoc on all it can. It will consume our peaceful plane, drinking the life from it like fine wine from a goblet, and then move onto yours.”

“How am I supposed to stop something like that? I can’t even stop the damn mice in my garage from eating my Christmas decorations, for Christ’s sake,” Neil paused for a moment, then asked, “Why does he think I’m powerful? Why have you chosen me to help you?”

Just then, Neil awoke to Leigh shaking him by the shoulders. “Neil, wake up! Someone’s at the door!”

Neil sat up and said groggily, “What? Wait, what time is it?”

He picked up his phone to look at the clock. 2:46 am.

“Who the hell would knock on your door at three in the god damn morning?” Leigh asked.

“Hell if I know. Stay put,” he said as he threw his legs over the side of the bed and slipped his bare feet into navy blue slippers.

“Screw that, I’m coming with you,” she said.

Leigh flew out of bed then ran past Neil and down the hall to the office, emerging seconds later with the silver letter opener in hand. They made their way down the stairs together, Leigh behind Neil, and whoever was on the other side of the door knocked again, this time much more forcefully.

“Who is it?” Neil asked sternly.

Three more knocks.

“I’m not opening the god damn door until you tell me who it is,” Neil shouted loud enough for the person on the other side of the thick door to hear.

“It’s Roddy, Leigh’s brother,” a muffled voice said from the other side of the closed door. “Leigh, are you in there? We need to talk, ASAP.”

Leigh jumped in front of Neil and opened the door.

“Roddy, what the hell are you doing here? How did you find me?” she said as she hugged her brother and pulled him inside, closing the door behind them.

“I found this address written on a piece of paper on your nightstand. This your boyfriend?” he asked, looking Neil up and down. “Not what I expected.”

“What are you doing here?” Leigh asked.

“It’s Ma. She’s acting real strange lately, Leelee,” Roddy said. “A few days ago, I caught her watering her garden out front at one in the morning. Told her to go back inside and she mumbled something about it probably being safe now.”

“Maybe she couldn’t sleep,” Neil interjected.

Roddy shot him a disapproving look and said, “Her garden is dead and has been for years. She hasn’t planted anything in there since dad got locked -” he stopped himself, “went away.”

“Have you talked to her?” Leigh asked. “Have you asked her about it?”

“Yeah, she denied it, you know Ma, but any who that’s not why I’m here, Leigh,” he said. “An hour ago she knocks on my door. When I opened it, she’s going nuts telling me there are shadow dogs chasing her around her house and watching her sleep.”

Leigh and Neil looked at each other worriedly.

“What else did she say, Roddy? Tell me everything. I need to know every single god damn detail that she told you, no matter how crazy it sounds, okay? Tell me everything,” Leigh said with her hands now on her brother’s shoulders.

“She said she told Ruth at church once about the shadows, and Ruth said she’d seen ‘em too, sneaking around in her back yard. Crazy old women. Remind me not to get old, Leigh.”

“Wait, Ruth Wenslack? Isn’t that Hayley and Jake’s grandma? The one they live with?” she asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Is Jake still missing?” she asked.

“Yeah, why?” Roddy asked again.

Neil and Leigh looked at each other again.

“You guys want to share with the damn class, or are you just gonna leave me hangin’?”

“I can’t right now, Roddy. It’s too much to explain -”

“Try me,” he interrupted.

“No. Not going to happen. It’s work-related, so I need to keep it under wraps for now anyway, okay?” she said, bending the truth just enough to temporarily pacify her brother. “What else did Ma say?”

“That’s it. She’s at our place now, Leelee. I’m letting her stay in your bed so she doesn’t have to be home alone. She’s probably loving all over Professor Fluffybutt right now.”

“You need to get back to her right now and stay with her. Do not leave her sight, do you hear me, Roderick? Do not leave the apartment,” Leigh said sternly.

“10-4, tough stuff, although I do have a boatload of questions about all this nonsense,”

“Well they’re going to have to wait. I’ll explain later, I promise. For now, you just must trust me, please Roddy,” she said to her brother.

Roddy looked back and forth between Neil and his little sister a few times, then said, “Whatever. You and your damn secrets. Ma’s gone nuts, just like old bat shit Nettie who thinks the damn shadows are stealing her silverware -”

“Wait, what? Nettie has been seeing shadows, too?” Leigh interrupted.

“Probably where Ma got it from. Planted the crazy seed in her damn head,” Roddy said.

Once again, Neil locked eyes with Leigh, then Leigh proceeded to gently push her brother backward and out the front door.

“Go home, Rod. Watch Ma. Keep her safe. She’s not crazy. I can’t tell you anything else, but please, don’t go home and treat her like she’s some mindless old bat that needs to be put in a home, I can’t deal with that right now,” she said as she kissed her brother on the cheek, then shut the door in his face.

“What the actual fuck, Neil? What are we supposed to do with all this?” she asked, completely bewildered. “They’re everywhere now? How long do you think this has been going on? God only knows, because we all just assumed old Nettie lost her marbles ages ago so no one listens to her ramblings. Now the grandmother of a missing man is seeing them in the house ? Neil! Are you even paying attention to me right now?” she asked, frustrated.

Neil’s face was glued to his phone’s screen.

“I am, I swear I heard every word. Nettie’s marbles. Missing grandson. I’m searching local missing person reports. Get this, thirteen missing men, four missing women, and six missing children just in our town alone in the last ten years. I don’t know shit about missing person’s statistics, LeighAnne, but that seems abnormally high to me for small town America,” he said.

“Hell yes it does. What are you thinking?” she asked.

“It all has to be related somehow,” he said.

“No shit, Sherlock,” she said sarcastically.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” he replied, the corner of his mouth twisted into the adorable smirk that made the butterflies in Leigh’s belly flutter furiously.

“We can’t flirt right now, we have shit to figure out,” she said.

“Oh, is that was you were doing?” he joked. She ignored him.

“So, why? Why are the shadows here, why are they stalking people, why are so many people missing, and what does this have to do with the shadow man, the singing trees, and Cerulean Creek?” she asked. Neil suddenly remembered his dream.

“I can help with some of that,” he said.

“Well then, have at it, because my brain is about to implode,” she replied as she plopped down onto the sofa motioning for him to sit beside her.

“I had a dream last night,” he said.

Leigh listened from start to finish without so much as a single interruption, and quite frankly Neil wasn’t sure if she had blinked even once during the entire monologue.

When he had finished, he asked, “Intense, right?”

“Intense is an understatement,” she replied.

Svethren,” she said, feeling the name as it fell from her lips. “How did… whoever it was that you were talking to… know its name?”

“They didn’t say, but I believe them. I think you and I both know that it was more than just a dream, just like yours. I think whoever has been helping me all these years came to me in my dream last night to relay the message,” he explained.

“How are we supposed to kick this bastard out though? I mean did they give you any more info?”

“No, like I said, you shook me awake before I could get any more answers,” he said.

“Dammit, Roddy,” Leigh said under her breath.

“Hey, he came with good info. Another piece to the puzzle. I’m glad he showed up, although probably not the best first impression of me,” he said.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of other chances,” she said.  “So, what do we do now?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m going back to bed. I’m not wired to be up this early,” he joked as he took her hand and pulled her along with him.

The following day the pair spent most of their time on their phones and laptops researching all the missing persons cases. Out of the twenty-three missing persons cases, only two, they agreed, didn’t quite fit the bill of what they were looking for. They focused on the remaining twenty-one, and Leigh began making phone calls to their families. Once she had someone on the line, she’d pretend to be a private investigator, which was only untrue because she didn’t have an official license, and she’d ask questions like, “Can you tell me if you or anyone else in the home has experienced anything… abnormal? Even if it sounds crazy, it could help to provide an integral clue in an ongoing case that’s all but come to a standstill, so please let us know.”

Sixteen of the twenty-one calls she placed had mentioned experiencing, or had recalled hearing the victim recall experiencing, interactions with shadow beings. Some called them ghosts, some referred to them as demons, and one lady even referred to them as “Elementals,” which Leigh later discovered was a term used to describe nature spirits such as fairies, gnomes, and leprechauns. She also discovered, to her surprise, that millions of people around the world believed elementals to be every bit as real as humans. A few weeks ago, she would have laughed and said these people must be a few fries short of a kid’s meal, but with everything she had experienced in the last week… well, until she was shown proof that they absolutely do not exist, she would give the believers the benefit of a doubt.

“So what then, the Benevren are snatching random people up? Why? I feel like we are missing something critical. Something so damn integral it must be right in front of our faces and we just can’t see it,” Neil said. “This is so damn frustrating.”

“Why and how,” Leigh replied. “How are they snatching them, and what are they doing with them once they have them?”

“Do you think they are taking them over there? Over to the in-between plane?” he asked.

“Maybe. I really don’t know,” she replied. “Can we please for the love of God order a giant pepperoni pizza? I’m literally starving to death as we speak.”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Neil said. “Consider it ordered.”

“My head hurts from staring at this screen all damn day,” Leigh said.

“Let’s take a break,” Neil said, closing her laptop in front of her. She set it aside and rubbed her temples, then her neck.

“You know, I’ve been told I give a pretty decent massage,” he not-so-subtly hinted.

She rolled her eyes, “That is the cheesiest god damn line I’ve ever heard. Does that work on all the ladies, Neil?”

“Most of them,” he shrugged. She threw a pillow at his head.

“What happened with June?” she asked.

“How the… Oh yeah, I almost forgot you’re a stalker,” he replied.

“I shouldn’t have asked. None of my business, really,” Leigh said, “but I’m still interested. Did she know about any of this crazy stuff?”

“You are the first person I’ve ever told about any of this insanity,” he confessed.

“No suh,” she replied, revealing her Boston roots and in that moment Neil could no longer stifle his desire to reach over, cradle her face in his hands, then lean in for a long, slow, savory kiss.

“About damn time,” she said as they reluctantly pulled apart.

“Who knew I’d fall for a woman who stalked me for nearly a year and broke into my house,” he said.

“Twice,” she added.

“What?”

“Twice. I broke into your house twice. I’m really sorry about it,” she said. “I stole your magnet. I promise I’ll give it back.”

“I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” then he kissed her again, and twice more for good measure.

*

Neil shuffled the papers around his desk as if rearranging them would suddenly reveal a critical clue he had somehow missed during the last four days of research. None of the missing people seemed to have anything in common whatsoever. Leigh had checked into their employment history; the bars they frequented, who they hung with and more but nothing seemed to line up. John Renfris, Peter Piccoloux, Shannon McDermett, and Lori Sunderling all frequented Noops, which was a local watering hole, but none of them seemed to know each other outside of them simply being familiar faces. Judy Arnoldson and Frank Tappas worked together at the post office from 1991 through 1993, but no one else on the list did. The children, perhaps the most perplexing, all vanished while the rest of the house was asleep leaving not a single clue behind. Two of the children were sisters, eleven and eight, who slept in twin beds in the same room. One child, Sally Mae Stiles, was sleeping between her mother and father one minute, then seemed to have vanished into thin air the next. Her father, Joseph Stiles, was being looked at by the local police for it, but Leigh discovered that was only due to his awkwardness during questioning. When Leigh spoke with him on the phone and asked if he had seen anything abnormal he went silent for a moment, then said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, which is exactly why I didn’t tell the police.”

“Try me,” she had said to him, which was followed by more silence, and then a click as the line disconnected.

“I need to take a walk, clear my head. Care to join?” Leigh asked.

“Let’s walk to the market. Would you be up for trying that again?” Neil asked.

“Let’s do it,” LeighAnne replied. “I feel like cooking. How about some big ass sloppy burgers with sweet potato fries?”

“I have never been more attracted to you than I am right now,” Neil replied.

They grabbed two jackets on their way out the door, not because it was cold, but because it had been raining lightly on and off all day and the jackets had hoods that could be utilized in which case the sky decided to spittle along their walk. They walked hand-hand-in hand again until reaching the automatic doors at the entrance of the market.

“I’ll grab the basket this time,” Leigh said jokingly.

While standing in the checkout lane, Neil people watched as Leigh unloaded the basket onto the conveyor belt. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination or not, but it seemed as if an alarming number of people; both patrons and employees, were staring at them as they checked out. He looked at their cashier, who’s name tag said, “Ginny,” and realized she was staring at him as well.

“How’s it going?” Neil said as he attempted small talk. Ginny said nothing. “You guys have been pretty busy lately, huh? Hope they aren’t working you too hard,” he said. Ginny only stared. Neil nudged Leigh to get her attention.

“So, uh, Ginny, is it? Ginny I bet you’re old enough to wear adult diapers -”

“Neil what the hell?!” Leigh admonished, but Neil kept going.

“Your store is on fire, Ginny,” he said. “There are aliens raiding your meat section, the produce has sprouted arms and legs and run away, and the moon has been knocked off course and is now speeding toward the earth. We’ll all likely die within the next hour. How’s that soggy diaper feel, Ginny?”

Ginny only stared. Leigh looked around and now realized every set of eyes in the store was now solely focused on herself and Neil.

“Um, Neil…” she said.

“We need to leave now,” he said as he grabbed Leigh’s hand and began to quickly lead her toward the automatic door, leaving all the unpaid and unbagged groceries behind on the conveyor belt. Two men, an employee and a patron, stepped in front of the door, blocking their exit.

“Neil…”

“I don’t know what’s happening, Leigh,” he said, shielding her body with his own.

“LeighAnne,” said a woman with a baby carrier affixed to her front side with a newborn inside.

“Yes?” Leigh answered, hoping this woman somehow knew her from something terribly boring and mundane like the two times she had gone to the gym three years prior, but knowing that likely wasn’t the case.

“Neil,” said a pimple-ridden teenage boy from behind the register in check-out lane seven.

“What the hell do you want?” Neil shouted.

“We told you. We need your help,” this time from an elderly man on a walker near the guest services counter.

“I don’t know how to help you,” Neil said to the man.

From the opposite end of the store, a little girl of about four with long, blonde braids and a doll in her arms said, “You do know, Neil.”

“No I certainly fucking do not,” Neil replied.

“Leave these people alone!” Leigh shouted.

“We will,” said a twenty-something with a green spiked mohawk and dog collar around his neck, “but first you have to help us.”

“Tell me how and I will. I don’t know how. I don’t know how to get that through to you, but I do not fucking know how to help you,” Neil said.

“Or tell us who can help us understand,” Leigh added.

“Purple flowers,” the man directly behind LeighAnne said, startling her. “Little purple flowers with white lace cover her windows. She likes books, and drinks chamomile tea with honey every night before bed. She writes in a journal at night and cries for her husband; not tears of grief, but tears filled with anger and humiliation.”

“Stop it!” Leigh shouted, realizing he was talking about her mother. Intimate details to let her know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they had been watching her mother for a long time. “Leave my mother alone!”

Neil punched the man in the nose instantly breaking it and sending blood spraying across the glass doors behind him. The man fell to the floor, and Neil used the opportunity to push the other man to the floor then pry open the doors with his fingers. He grabbed Leigh by the hand and they ran as fast as they could the whole way home. They locked the door behind them, then sat side-by-side against it.

Neil held Leigh and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “You probably shouldn’t have knocked that guy out though. He was innocent. A pawn,” she said.

“I know, I feel really bad about it,” he said.

“You have a mean right hook, though. It was a bit impressive,” she said.

“Thanks,” he laughed, but the smile quickly faded. “How are we going to figure out whatever it is we need to do to send that bastard back to where he came from?”

“I think we should sleep on it,” she said. He raised an eyebrow, and she clarified, “We seem to get good information while we sleep.”

“You aren’t wrong,” he said.

“I rarely am. I can’t sleep on an empty stomach though. Guess we’re ordering again tonight,” she said.

*

Sufficiently full of Thai food and freshly showered, they crawled into Neil’s bed and laid face-to-face quietly at first, just looking into each other’s pained eyes, but after a few minutes LeighAnne broke the silence.

“Do you think it’ll work?” she asked.

“I hope,” he said, then kissed her on the forehead and they both closed their eyes and drifted off.

Neil found himself in the forest again, but Cerulean Creek was not within eyesight, nor could he hear it. The trees were scarred with burns and their limbs were barren, and the sky again held the brown and yellows he had seen in his previous dream.

“Hello?” he called out. “Hello? Are you there? We need your help. We don’t know how to proceed from here. We need some sort of direction, please!”

He wandered aimlessly among the trees and the scorched earth beneath his feet crunched with every step. He stopped and listened for the sound of the creek, but could hear nothing. He looked to his left, and then to his right, and saw nothing but trees for what seemed to be miles.

“Hello, Neil,” a voice said from behind him. Neil spun around to see a little boy of maybe eight years old standing ten feet from him.

“Who are you? Neil asked.

“You ask hoping to find out who I once was, or rather who this body once belonged to. However, you already know who I am,” it replied in a voice so sweet it was hard for Neil to wrap his mind around the evil that he knew now inhabited its small body.

“You need to tell me how to help you,” Neil pleaded.

“You are powerful, Neil,” it said.

“Bullshit,” Neil replied. “Listen asshole, I don’t know who lied to you, but I am a lot of things. Powerful, however, has never been one of them.”

“You don’t know,” it said.

“Now you’re fucking getting it! I don’t know shit, and I won’t be able to help you unless you fill in the god damn blanks for me,” Neil yelled.

“You bring yourself in and out of this world,” it said to Neil. “I do not know how, but it is you that opens the doorway to pass through.”

“Bullshit. It’s the bright flash. Whoever is causing the flash, that’s your guy. Whoever they are is much, much more powerful than I’ll ever be. They save me from you. I have nothing to do with it, buddy. I just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

“That is simply not true,” said a woman’s voice from behind him. She was tall and athletically built, with brunette hair that fell to her clavicle, and bangs that draped across her forehead. “You are the one who creates the white light. The white light, you see, is your doorway.”

Neil noticed movement among the trees around him. The Benevren were here.

“This is just a dream, you can’t hurt me,” Neil said.

“Also untrue, Neil, as you have somehow figured out a way to bring yourself here now even in sleep, but nonetheless you are very much here in this place, just as are we. We do not plan to hurt you, but your girl… well, she’s another story,” the boy said as a malevolent smile slowly spread across his pale little face.

“Don’t you dare fucking touch her, you bastard. Don’t you touch a hair on her head or I swear to God I’ll never help you. Do you hear me? Don’t fucking touch her,” Neil said angrily, spittle flying from his lips as he spoke.

“If you do not help us,” the woman now spoke, “we will take everyone you love from you. We will take your brother Paul in Ohio and use him to slice the throat of your dear, sweet mother, Matilda. We will use your grandmother, Patsy, to smother the twins your sister-in-law just birthed mere months ago with a pillow. We will steal the body of your elderly grandfather, James, and have him douse both his beloved book business and his own body in gasoline, then set it alight. We will drop them like flies, one by one, Neil, until you help us.”

Neil was trembling with rage and he felt as if he might vomit.

“If it’s really me that’s opening the doorway, I don’t know how I’m doing it. You have to believe me,” he pleaded.

“We do believe you,” said the boy, “but it’s up to you to figure it out. That’s why you’ve brought yourself far out into these woods, Neil, instead of next to the creek. You did that. You did it because you knew I’d find you, and you knew I could give you the answers you were so desperately seeking.”

Suddenly in the distance Neil heard Leigh calling his name. The boy and woman must have also, because their heads turned toward the direction from which the sound had come.

“Don’t fucking touch her,” Neil warned again, then he turned and began running toward her.

“Leigh! Leigh, where are you?” he yelled as he ran. “Leigh!”

“Neil! I’m over here!” she yelled back. She was closer now, and Neil could hear the sound of the rushing creek water behind her.

Neil ran full throttle until he saw her standing on rock inside the creek next to the waterfall.

“He’s here,” Neil shouted to her. “Svethren. He’s here. Stay on the rock. You’ll be safe there.”

“This is where it brought me, right to this rock. I didn’t even have to cross the water, Neil,” she shouted back to him over the noise of the waterfall.

Neil made his way across the water and up onto the rock, where he hugged her and kissed the top of her head several times.

“Wow, good to see you too, sailor,” she replied.

“He wants to hurt you, LeighAnne. Do not move from this rock, do you understand me?” he warned.

“I won’t, I promise,” she said.

“He told me I’m the one opening the doorway between dimensions. He said that I cause the bright flash, and that’s what opens it.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yes, really. I don’t know how though. I have to figure that part out still.”

As he finished his sentence, Leigh noticed a man walking toward the creek’s edge. The man looked strangely familiar, and she squinted trying to get a better look at his face. As he approached the water’s edge he said, “Hi LeighAnne.”

“Jake?” she said. Then to Neil, “That’s Jake Wenslack. The guy my brother knew… he’s one of the missing people.”

“That might look like Jake, but it’s not, LeighAnne. Don’t forget that. Jake is long gone,” Neil warned.

“LeighAnne you have to help me! Some shadow guy came and grabbed me from my truck and brought me here. Leigh, you gotta help me! He’s trying to kill me!” he pleaded.

“Don’t listen to him, LeighAnne. It’s a trick,” Neil said putting his arm in front of her.

“It’s a wicked convincing trick,” she said. Then a voice shouted from behind them on the opposite side of the creek.

“Someone please help me,” a young woman cried from the shoreline. She had bright red curls that cascaded across her shoulders and down her back until they stopped just short of her hips. She had beautiful freckles, and couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old. “These little shadow monsters have been chasing me… I’m so scared! Please help me!”

More people emerged from behind the trees and joined Jake and the redhead in their cries for help. Leigh tried to count them, but struggled as their numbers grew beyond twenty… thirty… fifty. She covered her ears and looked at Neil and said, “We have to help them! They don’t deserve this!”

“Come on over to the rock, then!” Neil shouted at them. “Go on, walk across these shallow waters and join us. You’ll be safe here.”

A hush fell across the crowded creek banks.

“See, Leigh? They can’t cross the water. They aren’t in there anymore, they’re gone.”

“But Lauren… remember? I saw a piece of her soul leave her body that night. Some of her was still in there, Neil. What if all these innocent people still have pieces of their souls stuck inside? We have to help them somehow,” Leigh pleaded as tears streamed down her face and onto the rock below.

“Lauren was able to cross the water,” Neil replied, “likely because of that small piece of her soul that remained.”

Neil watched as hundreds of Benevren emerged from the forest to join the humans that stood before them. They slinked along the soil, then crawled up the pant legs of the men and down the shirts of the women. Neil turned Leigh’s head to face him, and buried it in his chest to shield her from what he knew he was about to witness. He held her tight and kissed her head, telling her loudly enough to drown out the screams around them.

“Everything is going to be alright. I’ll get us out of here. We will figure this out. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay,” he said as he watched the Benevren ravage the bodies of all who stood on the shoreline, feasting on their souls and delighting in the horror they had inflicted. Neil did witness the tiny balls of light Leigh had referred to, but these unfortunate souls never made it to the safety of the waterfall. He watched in horror as the Benevren consumed each and every one of them as if they were the finest chocolates the universe had to offer. After doing so, the beings would tremble and shake as if in a state of orgasmic ecstasy.

He looked to the waterfall, but saw no light. He closed his eyes and thought, “Please help me get out of here. I don’t know how. Please help.”

“All you ever need is ask, Neil,” a voice replied in his mind, which was followed immediately by the familiar bright explosion of light.

{To Be Continued…}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elsewhere: Part II

timelapse photography of falls near trees
Photo by Fabian Reitmeier on Pexels.com

Elsewhere

Part II

“Cerulean Creek”

Neil awoke before Leigh, so he took full advantage of the opportunity to study her delicate face. One of her blonde curls had fallen in front of her eyes as she slept, and he pushed aside the overwhelming urge to tuck it gently behind her ear. He noticed now that the silver stud she wore on her left nostril was in the shape of a tiny flower, which perfectly matched the studs in her ears. He then took notice of a small butterfly tattoo on her inner forearm and two odd-looking symbols on the other, which were significantly larger than the butterfly. He didn’t seem to recognize the symbols, and they didn’t appear to be Chinese hanzi or Japanese kanji, from what he knew of them anyway.

His phone slid off his knee and hit the wood floor with a loud thud, which startled Leigh awake. She instantly sat up and pulled the blanket up to her chin as if to hide herself.

“What the hell? Why are you staring at me, freak? How long have you been watching me?”

“I’m sorry,” he laughed. “I’ve only been out here for a minute or two. Did you sleep okay? I know this couch isn’t the most comfortable thing on the planet. It’s a hand-me-down from my aunt’s house. The love seat, too.”

“I slept alright. Not great. Weird dreams. Super fucking weird,” she said, relaxing a bit. She lowered the blanket and ran her fingers through her curls to tame them before using a black band she had around her wrist to tie them up into a messy bun on top of her head.

“Is that coffee?” she asked, eyes fixed on the mug Neil held between his hands. “I’d kill for some.”

“Stay put, I’ll fix you a cup,” Neil said as he stood and made his way to the kitchen. As he walked he called out loudly enough for her to hear, “Tell me about your dream. Every detail.”

“Well,” Leigh said as she adjusted in her seat on the sofa, “I’ll try to remember it all. We were back in that place. That weird forest place with the brook.”

Neil chuckled, poked his head out from around the wall so she could see him and said, “I’m not laughing at you, don’t worry. It’s just that back in Ohio we call them creeks, not brooks. Over the years, I’d given it the name “Cerulean Creek,” due to its color, of course.”

“I like that. It’s… pretty. You can keep calling it that,” she said.

“Anyway, sorry to interrupt you – please continue,” he said then ducked back into the kitchen.

“So, you and I were in the forest next to… Cerulean Creek,” she said, feeling the words for the first time as they exited her lips, “but we were being chased by something. We were running and then you vanished right in front of me. So there I was, totally alone and scared out of my mind, and then I saw a pinpoint of light in the distance,” she squinted, and outstretched her arm as if she could see it again. “It was coming toward me so quickly I hardly had time to think before it like, exploded, I guess would be the best word for it.”

Neil exited the kitchen and made his way back to her, fresh coffee in hand. He handed it to her gently, “It’s hot. Be careful.”

“Well I didn’t expect it to be cold, dummy,” she joked, flashing Neil a coy, but extremely attractive, Neil thought to himself, smile.

“Keep going,” he said, “don’t stop.”

She blew the on the surface of her coffee, then took a sip. She then lowered it to her lap and continued.

“There was no sound so it wasn’t like an actual explosion, but that’s really the best way I think I can describe it. Like what happened at the waterfall right before we showed back up at your place, only on a much larger scale.”

“That’s interesting,” Neil said. “Anything else?”

“Actually, I do remember something else,” Leigh said as she cocked her head slightly to one side as if trying to tune into an invisible frequency which was broadcasting the details of her dream. “While we were running… the trees… they were like… singing…”

“Singing?” Neil interrupted. “What were they singing?”

“Neil, I’m going to need you to hold your questions until the end, okay?” she joked, mocking what Neil had said to her the night before.

Neil laughed then zipped, locked, and threw away the key.

“There were no words, but it was definitely singing. It was a mixture of the sound they make as the wind blows through their leaves and as the birds sing their songs from the branches, but it was like all the sounds from all the trees in the forest were connected and formed a sort of… network… and with the sounds woven together they became a sort of perfect melody…” she stared off into a memory Neil couldn’t himself view, then snapped out of it to take another sip of her coffee.

“What did it sound like?” Neil asked. He had never been so genuinely interested in anything, or anyone, for that matter, in his entire life. She held his full attention in more ways than one.

She shot him a look that wordlessly called him an idiot, then said, “I can’t reproduce that sound, Neil. I don’t think it’s humanly possible. It was beautiful though. Unlike anything I had ever heard before. I remember in the dream when I heard the trees singing it felt as if they were telling us everything is going to be alright, and that they were helping us somehow.”

“I don’t mean to burst any bubbles by saying what I’m about to say, but the thing is I’ve been to that place hundreds of times over the years and I don’t think I’ve ever once heard the trees sing, nor have I heard anything that even resembled -” he stopped himself.

“Actually, one time I did hear something,” he remembered. “It was the first time I was there. The time I got stuck there for days. The second night, I was sitting on the rock crying, feeling sorry for myself, and I thought I heard someone singing my name. The roar of the waterfall nearly drowned it out completely, but I was sure I had heard it. Then it happened again the night after, and repeated itself until the day I finally went back home.”

“How do you forget something like that?” Leigh asked.

“Well it hasn’t happened since, and I was only fifteen. It’s been a long while,” he replied.

“So maybe my dream is trying to tell us something, Neil,” Leigh realized.

“I think maybe you’re right, but I don’t know what.”

“I have a much bigger, much more important question though,” Leigh said as she stared into Neil’s eyes.

“What?” Neil said, his heart racing.

“What sort of food do you keep in this bachelor pad? I’m starving.”

Neil picked up the small accent pillow that had been supporting his back as he sat, and playfully threw it at her as he stood.

“Hey, man! Hot coffee in hand!” she laughed.

*

Tuesday morning came quickly, and Leigh locked her apartment door behind her then walked back down the pathway to her car. She climbed in, shut the door, then reached for her seat belt.

“Everything okay in there?” Neil asked from the passenger’s seat.

“Yep. Roddy’s been holding down the fort. I think he’s actually really enjoying the fact that I haven’t been home in days, although he sure had a lot of questions,” she said, glancing into her rear-view mirror as she backed down the driveway.

“What did you say?”

“Well I explained to him that we had shadow beings and soulless women to tend to, so he should mind his own fucking business,” she said sarcastically.

“What did you really say?”

“I told him it’s work shit, and to mind his own fucking business,” she said with a smirk.

“That one I believe,” Neil smirked back. “I called in sick to work again while you were in there. Told them I couldn’t seem to shake this flu, and that I needed another week off. They weren’t happy, but sure as hell didn’t want me coming in and getting them all sick. I told my dad I was going on a hiking trip, so I’m good for the weekend, too.”

“Let’s go over the plan again, cool? I want to make sure we both have it down. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I just found you, for Christ’s sake,” she said casually, which caught Neil off guard.

Although Leigh hadn’t left his duplex in a week, she had continued to sleep in a separate room. Things hadn’t really progressed to any other level other than the friend zone, although they both been flirting progressively heavier with each passing day. They were focused on the deadline, which was now just hours away, and that stark reality was beginning to hit them both like a sack of bricks.

“We have a plan?” Neil asked.

“Well, yeah, I mean sorta kinda… right? You said we’d tie her up so she couldn’t hurt you, then take her with us to Cerulean Creek,” she said.

“That’s hardly a plan,” Neil replied.

“Well, it’s what we’ve got so far, so let’s figure it out. How are we going to get her to let us tie her up? I don’t see her being a willing participant if these shadow beings did, in fact, eat her soul… and what if your theory about one of them actually living inside of her is correct? What if that bastard takes the reigns and she tries to kill you in your own home?”

“I thought you were convinced that wouldn’t happen. That’s the whole reason I even agreed to this, LeighAnne. Now you’re second guessing yourself? Great. Just great. All confidence I had in this just flew out the window,” Neil said, now noticeably agitated.

“I’m just being logical, Neil. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

“Easy for you to say, she wants me dead, not you.”

“Fair enough, but I’m just trying to work this out with you so we aren’t caught off guard. It’s the smart thing to do,” Leigh said, “and besides, she’s known where you live for at least a year and she hasn’t once tried to kill you. I think that’s enough evidence to prove she’s not going to try tonight.”

“I think what little of a plan we do have at this point is going to have to suffice. This is an… odd situation. Plans rarely work in odd situations. We’ll have to just play it by ear,” he said.

“Fine.”

Leigh pulled up to the curb in front of Neil’s duplex and parked behind his car under the tree. She concealed a smile as she realized this was the first time she hadn’t had to park her car far enough away so that she could watch him through binoculars without being seen. What a strange turn of events. Had she time traveled back to her former self just a week or so ago, she would have never believed the story that she had now become a part of.

Neil dumped the contents of the bag they had purchased at the local hardware store earlier that morning on the coffee table, and both he and Leigh took a seat on the floor beside it.

Fifty feet of half inch diamond braided poly rope. Neil, of course, had picked it out solely because it was blue, to which Leigh had rolled her eyes. It was likely much more than they’d need, but seeing as how neither of them had ever tied anybody up before, they’d mutually decided it’d suffice.

They stared at the rope as if it were a foreign object for several moments before Leigh finally broke the deafening silence.

“What are we doing for lunch?”

“I’m starting to think that food is the only thing you think about when you aren’t sleeping or stalking innocent, albeit incredibly good looking book binders,” he joked.

“You wouldn’t be wrong,” she replied.

“Good. It’s one of the many reasons I like you,” he said. He wanted to reach over the table and kiss her, but held back, just as he had many other times this week.

She kicked him hard, though playfully, under the table, and he threw a wooden drink coaster at her.

“I’d be careful with all this rope laying around, you know. I could tie you up and no one would ever know what happened to you,” she joked.

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” he replied.

“All jokes aside-”

“Who said I was joking?” he interrupted.

She rolled her eyes, then continued, “Do you even know how to tie a knot? I mean other than the ones you tie in your shoelaces? Will you be able to tie a knot solid enough to keep her from breaking free?”

“I was kind of hoping the woman who stalked me for eight months then broke into my apartment would have that kind of skill stashed away in her arsenal,” he replied.

“Unfortunately, I do not. So grab your phone because we need to google this shit, and google it fast. We need to practice before she gets here. We need to be pros by the time she rings your doorbell.”

“I don’t have a doorbell,” he said.

“Okay, before she knocks at your door. Who the hell doesn’t have a doorbell?”

Leigh crawled over to Neil’s side of the coffee table and sat beside him so that she’d have a better view of his phone screen as he googled, “How to tie someone up.”

“I’ve seen episodes of Dateline where this sort of search can come back to bite you in the ass, you know,” she said jokingly.

Neil looked at her and smirked, only then realizing their close proximity, and again fought every testosterone-driven instinct he had in his body to not kiss her. He quickly focused again on his phone.

“Who the hell knew there were so many ways to tie a damn knot,” he said, trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to affix his mind back into its proper place instead of what her lips might feel like on his. He could smell her hair. It had hints of lavender and vanilla and was absolutely intoxicating.

Over the next few hours, Neil practiced making knots on the blue ropes, while Leigh walked down the road to a small market, purchased two bags full of groceries, then made a large meal that wasn’t quite early enough to be lunch, but not quite late enough to be dinner. “Linner,” she had called it, consisted of Leigh’s infamous homemade chicken piccata with linguine; a meal she had thoughtfully chosen to prepare for him this day because lurking in the back shadows of her mind she was very well aware it could be their last.

After their meal, Neil continued to practice his newly acquired knot tying capabilities, and Leigh sat close by on the sofa reading every metaphysical article should could find regarding these shadow beings. She was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of personal accounts she was able to find and read about, and even came upon some supposed photographic proof of their existence. Some photos were clearly ridiculous and totally explainable, but a few others she had a hard time finding an explanation for.

What was fascinating though, was that many people had reported seeing a shadow man in a tall hat, and nearly every time he showed up in a personal account the author also mentioned seeing smaller shadow beings accompanying him at some point. Like a hunter with his pack of hunting dogs, Leigh thought.

Many theories existed for who these beings were and why they come here to the earthly dimension, but of course none could be proven factual because the fact was that we simply do not know.

What she found to be common throughout all the theories however, was that they were not good. In fact, they seemed to be the very antithesis of good. People reported horrific nightmares accompanying sightings of the shadow entities, not unlike what Neil had experienced as a child. Dreams of murder, suicide, genocide, homicide, and every gory detail that comes along with these atrocities. Some accounts had even claimed to have heard whispers in their ears urging them to do things like harm their loved ones or themselves.

Arguably the most troubling, Leigh found an alarming number of accounts where people had reported seeing these entities over a period of time before actually committing the atrocities. One man had reported seeing a shadow man come to his bedroom every night for three solid years who would tell him to murder his family. One day he woke up covered in the innocent blood of his wife and three young children, but claimed he couldn’t remember committing the heinous act. He later hung himself with a sheet in his jail cell as he awaited trial.

A woman in Nebraska claimed her mother used to see shadow beings on their property and inside their home. Her father would dismiss her mother’s claims and tell her she’s crazy, or that her imagination could rival that of her grandchildren. The husband found his beloved wife hanging from the beams in their barn one morning, with a letter beneath her dangling feet that simply said, “They’re real.”

The most heartbreaking account was that of a young woman in Louisiana right after Hurricane Katrina had hit in 2005. She delivered twins in her apartment alone, then strangled each with their own umbilical cord. She then drew herself a bath, lit candles, and climbed inside with her two dead infants, where she proceeded to slit her wrists and bleed out. Her landlord found her a month later, after showing up to ask why the rent was late. Beside the tub on the tiled bathroom floor she had written in her own blood, “I saved us.” Later it was revealed that she had authored blog in which she had written detailed accounts of shadow beings visiting her since she was a child. In her final blog she had written, “An angel came to me in a dream last night. She stood among odd looking trees and a brook that ran bluer than any ocean I’ve ever seen. Her lips never parted but she spoke to me and told me I’d be safe here. I awoke and can only assume the place she spoke of is heaven, and she had come to me this night to tell me how to save myself and my babies. I will listen.”

Leigh shivered.

“I think you should read this,” she said to Neil. He stopped mid-knot as Leigh threw him her phone with the article pulled up on its screen.

“Holy hell,” he said somberly.

Just then, someone knocked twice on Neil’s front door.

Neil and Leigh looked at each other with wide eyes. Neil looked at Leigh’s phone again and said, “10:38. She’s late.”

“Game on, I guess,” said Leigh nervously.

Neil walked to his front door while Leigh followed closely behind. Neil opened the door slowly, cautiously, but not before looking back at Leigh to shoot her his infamous half-smirk in failed attempt to tell her everything will be alright.

Standing on the other side of the door was a petite woman with short black hair. She wore a modern grey suit and skirt with black, pointed-toe heels, and lipstick the shade of an expensive glass of cabernet sauvignon. Sunglasses covered her eyes, although the sun had set hours before, and she lowered them once the door stood open.

“Nice to meet you,” she said to Neil, a flirtatious smile creeping across her wine-colored lips, “again, I should say.”

She let herself into Neil’s humble dwelling, removing her shoes at the door, then carrying them to the love seat in his living room, where she took as seat as if she had done the same many times before. She sat the shoes on the floor beside her, then crossed one leg over the other before glancing over her shoulder at Leigh and Neil who still stood silently at the open door. Leigh reached behind Neil to push the door shut, then nudged him to snap him back into the present moment.

“I’d say make yourself comfortable, but it looks as though you’ve already done so,” Neil said as he made his way over to the couch. Leigh sat beside him.

“Well we don’t have much time for formalities, do we Neil? In about -” she brought her wrist closer to her face to check the time, “well, now we have less than twenty minutes – you’ll be taking me back to that place. You will be taking me back, won’t you Neil?”

“Yes, but first I have a few questions I’m going to need answers for before we go anywhere,” he replied confidently. Leigh felt a little less confident now in the presence of this perfectly put together woman, so she kept her mouth shut and her eyes locked onto her intimidating former employer.

“Well, you’d better get to it. Time’s a tickin’, as they say,” she said.

“You need to let me tie you up,” he said.

“Not going to happen, and that wasn’t a question,” she replied.

“How do I know you won’t try to kill me?” he asked.

“The short answer to that is I haven’t killed you in ten years, so why would I try now? The longer answer is that you don’t know whether or now I will try to kill you, Neil. All I can tell you is that right now I’m in full control of my own body and mind, and I have no desire to harm you as long as I am the one in control,” she said.

“Which is precisely why I need to tie you up. What if you lose that control, can the shadow things take over? Can they make you do things you don’t want to?”

“They have and they likely will at some point, but I can hear their thoughts and know when it’s about to happen. Right now, Neil,” she said, then looked at Leigh for the first time that night, “LeighAnne, you are both safe because I’m in control, and my desire to fix… myself… will hold them back for now. Got it?”

“How do we know they won’t take over and kill Neil the second we cross over into the other place?” Leigh finally said, “We’re tying you up and that’s that.”

“We’re losing time,” the woman said, frustrated. “How do we leave, Neil? How is it that you get from here to there so easily? Do tell.”

Neil looked at Leigh as if to say she had a point. Leigh looked down at her phone, pushing the side button to illuminate the screen.

“It’s 10:49, Neil. If we’re going to tie her up we need to do it now,” Leigh said.

Neil dropped his gaze from Leigh down to his lap, rubbing the back of his head with his palm.

“Fuck. Alright, listen. I won’t tie you up, but if you try anything I swear to God -”

“Like I said,” the woman interrupted, “I won’t as long as I’m in control. I have other plans.”

“Speaking of,” Leigh said, “how do you plan to go about all this? I hope you’ve done your research.”

“Don’t you worry about me, Miss McAddams. I can take care of myself. You two lovebirds should only worry about yourselves tonight. Just get me there, Neil. Get me there, and then you can come back home and go about your lives.”

“What’s your name?” Neil asked, which quite obviously took the put-together-as-tightly-as-a-finished-jigsaw-puzzle woman completely off guard.

“I thought we were skipping the formalities tonight, Neil. We have bigger issues at hand,” she said, nearly shouting in frustration by this point.

“It’s just a name,” Neil said calmly. “We met when we were just kids, you and me. I saw you in that place and I’ve wondered ever since not only how you’ve been, but even just what your name could be. Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted just a simple name to put with the memory I had of a girl that came to the place that I had thought only I could go. It’s just a name.”

The woman seemed to be touched, in what was left of the soul she had inside of her anyway, by Neil’s words. Touched by the fact that he had thought of her all these years. He had never forgotten her.

“Lauren,” she replied, and underneath the spoken name Leigh had sensed for the first time that evening that she might have good left within her after all. The name fell from the woman’s lips hiding within it an innocent child who had experienced absolute horror and been helplessly at its mercy ever since. For the first time, Leigh felt a deep sense of sympathy for this woman. Lauren was a child once, and that child had encountered unspeakable, terrifying things. Her soul had been unjustly ripped from her body at a time in her life when most girls her age would only just be getting their drivers licenses. Her story was a tragic one, and Leigh needed to remind herself of that.

“Nice to meet you, Lauren,” Leigh said with a sympathetic smile.

Lauren did not expect such a display of kindness, and it showed. Her eyes grew wide and Leigh thought she saw a small tear begin to well up in the corner of her eye. Lauren quickly put an end to the dramatic moment by saying, “Oh I suppose we’re all friends now that you know my name? Please. I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to… well it’s none of your business, so let’s just get on with it.”

“You came here to save your soul, Lauren, and what you need right now more than anything else in the world, is a friend. You need someone to help you. You aren’t going at this alone,” Leigh said empathetically.

Neil, shocked by Leigh’s sudden change of attitude, couldn’t decide which woman to keep his eyes on, so instead he picked up his phone and looked at the time. 10:57.

“He’ll be here soon. We need to hold hands. I think that’s how I was able to get you over with me last time, Leigh. Lauren, you need to hold hands with LeighAnne and I, okay?” Neil said.

“Who’s coming? Who is this “he” you’re referring to? I wasn’t expecting others, Neil, this wasn’t part of the -”

“The shadow man,” Neil interrupted.

Lauren’s demeanor shifted. She went from owning the room and everything in it to being a small, vulnerable, terrified child in a matter of a fraction of second.

“No. No, not him. No. Why is he coming? No, I have to go. I can’t do this,” she mumbled as she stood from her chair, ready to bolt out the front door without her heels.

He is who brings me over, Lauren. I can’t do it without him,” Neil explained.

“Never mind then. Screw this. I can’t do it. Not with him, I can’t,” she said as she reached for the front door. Neil grabbed her by the hand.

“I saw them knock you down. I saw them on top of you. I watched the whole thing,” Neil stared into her eyes, his own beginning to fill with tears. “I yelled for you to come to me on the rock. I tried to help you, Lauren. Do you remember that?”

A tear fell from her eye and rolled down her cheek. She stared into Neil’s big, brown eyes and said, “I do remember you. I remember seeing you standing on the rock, but no sound came from your mouth. All I could hear were the shadow monsters, their screams piercing my ears and bursting my ear drums until they bled. It felt as if they were tearing my organs from my body. The pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The world around me went black, but when I awoke I was in my own bed, in my own bedroom, and life seemed to just… return to normal. I told myself a million times it was just a bad dream, and I believed that… until one day a few years later when I visited a hole in the wall diner. The moment I saw you standing at the host stand, I blacked out. All the memories that I had worked so hard to forget forever came flooding back, and when I came to…” she paused, “three weeks had passed.”

The air in the room seemed to grow thinner, and the hum began to fill the room slowly.

“He’s here,” Neil warned ominously, taking Lauren’s hands in his. Leigh ran over to them and joined.

Lauren continued, her tone growing louder as she spoke so he could hear her over the hum as it increased in its intensity.

“He stole my body from me for three weeks, Neil. Three weeks that I have zero recollection whatsoever of any place I might have gone, or anything I might have done.”

Tears now fell freely from her face, which she quickly wiped away  with the back of her hand and replaced with a deep, stifling anger.

“After that, he’d speak to me inside my head. He told me my body was no longer my own, and that he had taken it so that he could get to you,” she was now yelling over the piercing noise enveloping the room in which they stood. “He wants to take control of you, Neil, like he did me. He said you are powerful.”

Neil watched as Lauren’s eyes fixed onto something behind him. There in the living room where they had been seated just seconds earlier, the shadow man now stood. He was every bit of seven feet tall and five feet wide. His silhouette, blacker and deeper than infinite space itself, was lined by what could only be described as thin paper burning away at its edges. He was vibrating so intensely that the very atoms around him shook and made the air around him appear as heat does when escaping from the hood of a hot car on a mid-summer day. Just as the ominous being began to glide toward them, Leigh thought she heard, but only for a brief moment, the trees singing their song once again. The bright flash of light exploded around them and cut the tree-song short, and the three now stood at the banks of Cerulean Creek.

Lauren held her hands to her ears attempting to block out the painful ringing. Leigh took hold of her hands comfortingly and thought, “It’s okay. We’re here.”

Lauren looked around, astonished, but before she could speak Neil said, or rather thought, to Leigh and Lauren, “Remember, no speaking out loud. They’ll hear you if you do, and they’ll find us before we make it to the rock.” 

Lauren looked helplessly baffled. Leigh, still holding her hands within her own, explained, “We can speak through thought in this place. Just think it, and we can hear it. Try it.”

Lauren remained silent for a moment, then Leigh and Neil both heard her say, or rather think, “I’m scared.

“Don’t be. We’re with you this time. We’ll get you to the rock,” Leigh thought to her.

Neil led the way as the three made their way along the creek’s edge. Leigh stopped suddenly, and Neil asked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I hear it, Neil. Can you hear it?”

“Hear what?”

Leigh closed her eyes and listened. It was the trees. She could hear the trees singing just as they had in her dream. It was very light, almost like a whisper, but she could hear it nonetheless.

“The trees,” she said simply.

“We have to keep moving,” Neil replied, and they continued along the water’s edge until finally the sound of the waterfall could be heard in the distance. They picked up their pace.

Just as the waterfall came into view, Lauren said, “It’s just as beautiful as I remember.”

Suddenly they heard movement from behind the trees.

“The shadow beings… they heard her,” Neil said.

“We have to make it to the rock,” Neil said aloud as he began to run while motioning for them to follow. “We’ll be safe there!”

He stopped dead in his tracks and held his arms out to stop them as well. It only took a moment for the women to notice the cause of his sudden halt.

Standing on the shoreline near the edge of the waterfall stood the shadow man and about fifty of his little shadow minions. The number increased with each passing moment as others joined from the nearby forest.

“We have to go in the water,” Neil said, “right now!”

Neil ran into the rushing water, followed by Leigh, then Lauren. The water was much deeper in this part of the creek versus near the base of the waterfall where it had only been calf-deep. As the shadow beings drew nearer from behind, they walked deeper out into the water, which was now up to the base of their rib cages.

“As long as we stay in the water, we should be safe,” Neil said loudly over the sound of the rushing water and frenzied shadow beasts.

The trio pushed their way through the rushing waters one step at a time until the rock was just a stone’s throw away.

“Almost there!” Leigh said, before glancing back at Lauren, whom she now realized had stopped several feet back and was now standing completely still, eyes fixed upon the creatures on the creek’s edge mere feet away.

“Lauren!” Leigh shouted trying to get her attention.

Lauren didn’t flinch.

“Lauren, no!” Neil shouted as well.

Lauren stood still, seemingly transfixed by the shadow beasts. She took a step toward them.

“Lauren, no!” both Neil and Leigh shouted in unison. “Lauren, we’re almost there! We’re safe here! Lauren, don’t leave the water!”

Lauren took another slow step toward the ravenous beasts, who were becoming increasingly agitated as Lauren drew nearer.

Leigh rushed toward Lauren as she continued to walk another step closer to the shoreline. Two more and she’d be at the mercy of the malicious beasts. Leigh dove into the water’s current and let it carry her quickly to Lauren, then grabbed her by the arm and yanked her backward. Lauren fell backward into the water, and when she emerged, she seemed to have finally snapped out of whatever spell the repugnant beings had placed over her.

Lauren began to sob, and hugged Leigh tightly.

“Oh my god, LeighAnne, oh my god… thank you so much for saving me,” she cried. “I couldn’t move. I tried. I tried to follow you but they took over. I fought them. I tried to force my body to go in the opposite direction, but they were so strong, LeighAnne. Too strong,” she cried and buried her head into Leigh’s shoulder.

Leigh stroked the back of her head and said, “It’s okay. We’ve got you now. We won’t let them get to you.” A promise Leigh now realized she might not be strong enough to keep.

Once they reached the rock, they climbed atop and sat, resting their weary legs. Leigh hugged Lauren tightly as she trembled violently from an overwhelming concoction of adrenaline mixed with fear of forever losing control of her mind and body at the hands of the shadow creatures.

“I want to go back home,” Lauren said weakly.

“I know, but we’ve made it this far, Lauren. There’s hope for you here,” Leigh reassured her.

Lauren closed her eyes while Neil and Leigh kept their eyes fixed on the ominous shadow man.

“Why do you suppose he told Lauren you were powerful,” Leigh asked Neil.

“Hell if I know,” Neil said.

Lauren sat up and looked as if she were trying desperately to quickly pull herself together. She wiped her eyes with the back of her trembling hands, adjusted her sopping wet shirt, pushed her hair back behind her ears and cleared her voice before saying, “He thinks you know how to get in and out of here. He thinks you could get him back into his dimension. He wants out. He’s trapped here. He figured out how to come into our world somehow, but he can’t figure out how to get back to his and he’s pissed.”

Leigh and Neil looked at each other, stunned by this new revelation.

“He told you all this?” Neil asked.

“Not exactly, but I know it’s true. I can feel him inside me sometimes, and when he’s around me I can read his thoughts. His mind. It’s like I’m tapped in,” Lauren said.

“Can you read his thoughts right now?” Leigh asked.

“If I focus,” she answered, lowering her eyes to the stone beneath her.

“What’s he thinking right now?” Leigh asked her.

Lauren stared at the shadow man for a moment. Leigh placed her hand on Lauren’s to keep her from slipping back into the trance he had held her in just minutes before. Lauren looked down at Leigh’s hand on hers, then back up at her face. Her eyes, once a vibrant shade of green had become solid black. She stared at Leigh through nefarious eyes that were not her own, as a venomous smile crept across her lips.

“Lauren, fight him. Don’t let him take you. Lauren, listen to me, listen to my voice,” Leigh pleaded.

Neil grabbed Leigh and pulled her backward toward the opposite edge of the rock.

Simpleminded and shortsighted,” Lauren said through a voice that was not her own; a voice that could only be described as a collection of voices, their tones ranging from the highest end of the vocal spectrum to the deepest, spoken simultaneously through hijacked vocal chords.

“Lauren, don’t let him do this to you,” cried Leigh.

“Lauren, you have to fight this,” said Neil.

“She’s already lost this battle, Neil,” the shadow man said using Lauren’s stolen tongue. “She lost it long ago on these very shores, while you watched and did nothing.”

“Leave her alone, you fuck!” Leigh cried furiously.

They watched in horror as Lauren, or rather the entity within Lauren, picked up an apple sized stone from the brook below, and proceeded to bash in its own head once, then twice, then while seeming to feed off the horror of its witnesses, it began to laugh while it continued to smash the rock into Lauren’s skull. Thick blood and grey matter  fell from the battered body, exposing bits of jagged bone protruding near what was once Lauren’s eye socket.

Leigh screamed and sobbed as Neil tried to cover her face to shield her from the horrific scene playing out before them. The bashing continued as the creature within laughed a hideous cackle, choking and gurgling as thick blood rushed down into the throat of what was once a beautiful woman. It said, “Do you understand now?” followed by another round of malevolent laughter.

“I can’t help you get back to your world!” Neil shouted at it. “I don’t know why you think I can, but I can’t! I don’t even know how I get to and from this world!”

The being stopped, held the murder weapon in its outstretched hand for a moment while it contemplated Neil’s words, then threw the bloodied stone into the flowing water beside it.

“You’re lying,” it said through as it choked on the blood now filling its throat and lungs.

“I’m not. I swear I’m not. I don’t come here by choice, you fucking prick. In fact, up until tonight I had assumed you are the one that brings me here,” he said.

The battered body gurgled and coughed, trying to clear its throat to speak, though it had damaged its host far too badly and in doing so had rendered itself silent. In an act of what seemed to be frustration and anger, it threw what was left of its host body’s head back and let out a hellacious scream which released it from within the host body. A black mass resembling a dense swarm of black flies flew from Lauren’s battered body to the shadow man on the shore, where it then became a part of his void. Lauren’s battered body slumped, then fell into the cerulean water below, and as it did Leigh witnessed what looked like a pinhead-sized ball of light fly from the water’s surface over and into the waterfall before disappearing completely.

“Did you see that?” she asked Neil, but his gaze was affixed to the shadow man so she knew he likely hadn’t.

“I know now it’s not you that’s bringing me here,” Neil shouted across the water. “But I still don’t know who is.”

Just then, Leigh heard the trees song growing louder than the roar of the small waterfall. She looked at Neil, who could now, as she could see by his expression, hear it loud and clear.

“You hear it now, don’t you?” she asked. “That’s the trees. That’s the singing I was telling you about!”

“It’s… it’s beautiful,” he stuttered, and it was. It was both mesmerizing and hypnotizing, as if the sound the trees produced spoke directly to each individual cell of his body. He felt every hair stand on end, and he had never felt more at peace than he did while the song rode the air around him. The exquisite sound permeated his soul and cleared his mind of anything that had ever occupied a negative space within it. He felt as if he could breathe more deeply than ever before, understand more clearly than ever before, and in this hyper-awake state he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that no matter what happened, everything would be okay.

The waterfall began to emit a strange light from within, and the shadow creatures on both sides of the creek responded by fleeing into the trees. The hum of the shadow man could now be heard, and its intensity heightened in an apparent attempt to overcome that of the trees song. Leigh and Neil held their palms to their ears in an attempt to muffle it, but it grew louder and louder until both had blood trickling down the sides of their faces. Leigh began to scream due to the excruciating pain, and Neil let go of his own to help cover hers in a final act of chivalry. He held her tight and watched as the light of the waterfall grew in intensity until an explosion of light, just as Leigh had foreseen in her dream, quickly ended their time in the in-between dimension and brought them safely to the familiar floor of Neil’s living room.

Neil crawled over to Leigh and held her tight as she wept.

“Ssshh, it’s okay. We’re home now. We’re safe. It’s okay, Leigh. We’re home,” he repeated, holding her tightly while rocking he, and kissing the top of her head.

“Lauren…” she now sobbed, completely inconsolable and ravaged by emotion. “She was so damn close…”

“We don’t know that. We just don’t know that, Leigh. Maybe she was already gone when we were just teenagers. We just don’t know Leigh, and it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault,” he said attempting to not only console her, but himself as well.

“It’s not fair,” she cried. “Poor Lauren. She never stood a chance.”

After several minutes, Neil finally stood and walked to the kitchen to go make a pot of coffee, per Leigh’s request. Leigh sat on the carpet, numb, trying to wrap her mind around the events that just transpired.

After a few moments, Neil returned with two mugs in hand, and sat them on the table beside her. He walked around the back of Leigh and lowered himself to the ground to sit, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her to his chest. He kissed her head again, then twice more.

“I just don’t get it,” Leigh said.

“Which part,” Neil replied.

“Why?” she asked. “Why would he let her go back there just to kill her? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well, if I had to guess I’d say that was likely not part his plan. He needed her to explain to me why he needed me,” he said.

Leigh sat with this for a moment and closed her eyes while Neil held her, taking solace in the comfort it provided. Eyes closed and head buried in his chest she said, “I think I saw her soul leave her body.”

“You what?” Neil asked.

“When her body fell into the water… I watched as a tiny ball of light flew from it toward the waterfall. It disappeared into the waterfall. I think it was her soul… or what was left of it, anyway.”

Neil said nothing, and instead just held her tighter and pressed his lips to her forehead.

{To Be Continued…}

Click here to read Elsewhere, Part III: “Ginny”

 

 

Elsewhere: Part I

curtain hands indoors light
Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

Elsewhere

Author: Shelly Moore

{Part One}

Most people are sleeping soundly at eleven pm on a Tuesday night in mid-October. By then, most people have had a nice dinner, watched a bit of mindless television, showered if they’re the shower-at-night type, maybe even got a little frisky with their partner, then dozed off to join the sandman on his nightly travels. Neil Glassman isn’t one of those people. Neil Glassman can only be found in one spot on any given Tuesday at eleven pm, and the only one who knows where that place might be, is Neil.

Neil, you see, is a fourth generation book binder, which although it may sound it, is quite far from exhilarating. In fact, it’s exhilaration rating lies somewhere between that of watching paint dry and counting blades of grass on a lawn. He would never have confessed this to his father, nor his grandfather, but Neil would much rather be doing pretty much anything over binding books.

He had dabbled in a various variety of vocations over the years, although he could only refer to them as hobbies in front of his father and grandfather. Some of these hobby/vocations included, but were certainly not limited to waiting tables, court reporting, nature photography, portrait photography, songwriting, stand up comedy, landscaping, and performing, which was his favorite of the lot. He played guitar quite well, piano well enough to get by, and sang about half as well as he played piano. He did play in a few bars on open mic nights years ago and somehow manage to make enough in tips to pay the rent, but not much else. Like the song lyrics go, Neil was a “jack of all trades, but the master of none.”

As far as relationships were concerned, Neil was just like every other warm blooded human being; he craved finding that ever elusive yang to his yin that understands his dry wit, gives him the space to be his own person, and makes killer homemade empanadas, amongst a laundry list of other desirable traits. His standards weren’t set unreasonably high, he thought, he just hadn’t quite found her yet, and that’s alright.

He had just recently ended, mutually, a three year roller coaster of a partnership with a woman named June, and was in no hurry to start hop aboard another any time soon, but also didn’t avoid it. His philosophy is, and always has been, whatever will be, will be. Just like the song.

On a Tuesday night when the birds have gone to sleep and the moon has risen to kiss the earth with its reflection, Neil wouldn’t be found at the local church’s Singles Paint Night or wrapping up a great first date with a smoking hot brunette by inviting her to his place. He also wouldn’t be out drinking with his friends, shooting pool at the pool hall down the road from his duplex, or mindlessly scrolling through stupid memes while at a friend’s house.

Leigh had been watching Neil through her binoculars for eight months, one week, and four days. She knew this because right around month two she had decided to start keeping tally of her time spent watching this poor bastard by scratching a mark on her dash with a key. She did what she was paid to do, and although eight long months had already passed, she had yet to figure out where it was he went at eleven pm on Tuesday nights.

She knew a lot about Neil. She knew he worked weekends at “Glassman Book Binders” in Hubbardston with his father, but on weekdays he’d work from eight in the morning until six at night at the local diner, doubling as both the host and busser. She knew he’d take Main Street to Lowell Rd on his way home, always stopping at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Dixon and Kirby, where he’d usually buy a twenty ounce soda, a bag of potato chips of some sort, and a handful of scratch lottery tickets. She knew if he needed gas, he’d always go out of his way by .8 of  a mile to the gas station near Starbucks because gas was always just slightly cheaper there. Leigh knew he would park in the spot under the tree in front of his side of the duplex, which was the left if you are facing it. She knew the right half was owned by his Tommy Chong-looking neighbor, whom he affectionately and appropriately called, “Chong,” and she knew that every single night right around nine, Neil Glassman would break the law. He’d sit on his front stoop and smoke a big, fat bowl.

Recently, as a sort of a game to entertain herself while doing this tedious, so-boring-she-could-die surveillance, she had started packing a one-hitter so she could partake in his night cap with him, offering silent camaraderie and an unheard “Cheers, mate,” from her inconspicuous little black Nissan Juke. Tonight, as always, she was parked just far enough away to avoid grabbing his attention. 

Leigh’s cellphone rang; she coughed, choking a bit on the hit, then firmly gripped the metal one-hitter, which was designed to resemble a cigarette, between her pursed lips. She answered without lowering the binoculars from her eyes, “Hello?”

“You’re an idiot,” the caller said.

“Screw you, asshole,” she replied.

“You left the door unlocked, again.”

“Christ. I swear I thought I locked it. I’m sorry, Roddy. I left in a hurry, won’t happen again,” she said to her brother, Roderick.

“Yeah it will. Don’t lie to me,” he said.

“You’re right. It’ll happen again. Probably tomorrow… and the next night, and the next,” they both laughed.

“You gotta knock that shit out, I mean it. We don’t live in the fluffiest of neighborhoods, Leelee. Sam had his new stereo stolen from his car last week and Nettie claims someones been stealing her silverware and dishes.”

“Yeah, well, Nettie’s crazy and we both known Sam’s full of shit. He probably just wanted the insurance money,” Leigh said.

“Ma said you didn’t come home till like 5 am yesterday. Where the hell are you going, staying out so late like that?” he asked.

“None ya. As in none ya business, and tell Ma to quit watching me across the street all the damn time, will ya? God that woman needs a damn hobby,” Leigh said.

“She said she heard your music all loud when you pulled in your driveway, dumbass. If you wanted to be sneaky, don’t crank your damn car stereo while the rest of the world is trying to sleep,” Roddy said.

“Touché, asshole, but that loud music is what keeps my ass from falling asleep at the wheel when I work those late night shifts, so screw you, and screw the rest of the sleeping world,” she said.

“Listen to you talking all tough. All five feet of you. Gonna go home and pet Professor Fluffensfuff and read Harry Potter, tough shit?” he mocked.

“Highly likely. And his name is Professor Wigglebottom, and he is a majestic little ball of kitty fluff who happens to love when I read him Harry Potter, so you can just suck it.”

Roddy laughed, “I stand corrected, tough stuff.”

“Damn right you do.”

“Hey, I actually called for a reason. Have you talked to Jake Wenslack recently by any chance?”

“God, Roddy. I haven’t even heard that name in ages. Last I saw him was down at Hoops sometime last summer. He was there with his brothers and that Kayla girl he used to see,” Leigh replied.

“He’s missing. No ones seen him for awhile, I guess. I saw a poster hanging by the coffee shop downtown. I called his sister and she said they found his wallet and keys in the drivers seat of his Explorer three weeks ago. It was parked at the trail head by the quarry in Chelmsford. Total mystery.”

“Damn, man. That’s insane. No, I hadn’t heard a thing. I’ll let you know if I do, though. Tell Hayley I’m sorry and I’ll help however I can.”

“She’ll appreciate it. Thanks, sis.”

Leigh pushed the end button on her phone and set it in the seat beside her. She watched as Neil stepped emptied the ash from his bowl over the side of the wooden railing, then walk back inside his half of the duplex.

She was hired to find out where Neil goes on Tuesday’s at eleven pm, and it really pissed her off that she hadn’t yet figured it out. It had never taken her so long to figure anything out, ever. Months ago, frustrated to her breaking point, Leigh had taken it upon herself to break into Neil’s house. She wanted to get to know him a little better, she told herself, so it was totally kosher. He leaves the first floor bathroom window unlocked, which she had discovered one day when he locked himself out, so Leigh had no problem whatsoever getting inside.

His bathroom was boring. Navy blue shower curtain, navy blue toothbrush holder, and navy blue bath rug. Leigh started quietly singing, “Blue” by Eiffel 65, which was just one of those songs, she thought as she laughed to herself, that either you knew or you didn’t.

In the hallway, the walls were adorned with photos of Neil’s four nieces, two nephews, mother, father, brother, and two sisters. There was a tacky gold framed picture of Neil and his father standing outside their shop, “Glassman Book Binders; since 1914,” and another of his father and grandfather posing in the same spot many years prior.

The living room was that of a typical bachelor; a sofa and love seat, both grey with navy stripes, a coffee table that Neil  had quite obviously made himself during his time as a carpenter last summer, and a flat screen television that was so large it nearly covered the entire wall. His tastes were simple, and Leigh could respect that. She also liked simple. He kept the place tidy, which Leigh also respected, although she hadn’t been a great housekeeper these days what with this new case keeping her away from home more often than not. She made her way up the stairs to the second floor where a small room which looked like it may have been used as an office first greeted her, followed by a half bath, and then Neil’s bedroom at the far end of the hall. She entered his room as if she had a hundred times before, pretending it didn’t slightly bother her to be invading the privacy of this man on such an intimate level. His bed was unmade; blue sheets and comforter, imagine that, and a grey fleece throw. Beside the door, a large pile of dirty clothes, which she now realized was what kept the door from fully opening. 

Seeing as how Leigh wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, she simply sauntered about that day, and when it came time to leave she grabbed a magnet from his fridge that read, “Virginia is for Lovers,” and put it in her pocket for no other reason than as a souvenir of her breaking and entering, now larceny, adventure.

Leigh hadn’t broken in again after that day, but had recently contemplated it. She stared at the, “Virginia is for Lovers,” magnet which she had since affixed to her dash using adhesive pads made for mounting photos on walls, and decided she’d not only do it again, but she would do it tonight while Neil lay sleeping.

Gutsy, maybe, but anyone who knew LeighAnne McAddams wouldn’t accuse her of being anything less. Her father, rumored to be part of the mob, had disappeared when she was only four years old. The truth, she would find out years later, was that he was completely criminally insane and got caught breaking into a fast food joint two towns over to rob it. He was found happily grilling himself a burger while singing Michael Jackson’s, “Beat It,” and he didn’t miss a single word or skip a single beat, even as he was being cuffed and thrown into the back of a police car. The kicker? All of this was accomplished while Mr. McAddams was wearing women’s lingerie and hooker boots. 

God knows Leigh and Roddy never wanted that version  of events to get out, so they kept the mob story alive, spreading rumors of their own creation about how Mr. McAddams was in hiding because he was being looked at for the murders of several local businessmen who had been found in the Ohio River. That part, however, was semi-factual. Three local men had, in fact, been found belly up in the Ohio River when Leigh was in high school, but the general consensus was one of them had drowned after falling overboard while fishing, while the other two were assumed to have fallen into the fast flowing river in their drunken stupor and simply drowned.

“Ma” McAddams, otherwise known as Emmalou, had a cousin on the local police force who helped keep the facts wrapped up nice and quiet so little Leigh and Roddy wouldn’t have to deal with the cruelty of the townspeople once they found out what a whack job their daddy was.

Leigh was getting real tired of all this watching and waiting bullshit, and was ready to put this case behind her. It paid well, but she had no time to have a life of her own. This case was eating her soul.

She grabbed a pair of black latex gloves from her purse beside her and shoved them and her phone in her back pocket, then closed her car door behind her quietly. She made her way to the grey duplex, then walked around back, seemingly without a care in the world. There were no Mission Impossible moved for Leigh. She walked with the confidence of a pro. She knew exactly where she would and wouldn’t be seen, and wasn’t in the least bit worried about anything other than whether or not Professor Wigglebottom was lonely at home without her.

Knowing Neil would most likely be in the second floor half bath either washing his face or brushing his teeth, Leigh opened the first floor bathroom window and slid in, feet first, just has she had done months before. Once inside she stood perfectly still just for a moment, listening, making sure Neil was where she expected him to be. A toilet flushed upstairs, and she had all the confirmation she needed to make her way deeper into the home.

She ran her finger along the hallway walls as she walked, taking notice again of the photos as she passed. Nothing had changed. Everything was exactly as it had been during her first field trip through Neil’s domain. She had a feeling it would be.

She stood at the base of the stairs and listened to Neil spit out his toothpaste, turn on the water to rinse it down, then sing Alice in Chains’ song, “Nutshell” as he made his way from the bathroom to his bedroom. He had a rather pleasant singing voice, and Leigh caught herself singing along, quietly. She liked that song. It was one of her favorites.

She waited another minute or two to be sure Neil had made it into his queen size bed and snuggled inside his blue and grey blankets, before she quietly made her way up the stairs, quickly and discreetly ducking inside what she had dubbed his office at the top of the stairs. Back to the wall, eyes focused on the hall that led to his bedroom, she listened.

“Who the fuck are you,” a voice said slowly from behind her. “Don’t fucking move.”

She nearly pissed her pants. She closed her eyes and sighed, realizing Neil must have gone into his office instead of his bedroom where she had expected him to go after leaving the bathroom.

“Well, shit. Now we’re in a predicament, Neil,” she said calmly, as if they were old friends.

“How the hell… who the hell… Why are you in my house?”

Leigh turned slowly, expecting to see a gun pointed at her face but was relieved to see Neil standing a foot from her holding a letter opener in front of himself for protection. She laughed.

“Don’t use that thing on me, Neil. I’m harmless. I’m not armed, don’t worry,” she reassured him. Leigh took two slow steps over to an older looking floral patterned upholstered chair, which was more colorful than anything else she had seen inside his boring apartment, then sat.

This seemed to further confuse the already highly confused Neil, but he didn’t stand down. He kept that dull letter opener outstretched in front of himself, ready to take her on should she pounce.

“Look, I’m gonna level with you here, Neil. I’m real tired of watching you every damn night doing the same ol’ shit over and over again.”

Neil was visibly shaken upon hearing this startling revelation. 

“Wait, watching me? Why the hell have you been watching me?”

“I’m just gonna stop you right there, Neil. Here’s the thing. I have an employer, who shall remain nameless, mostly for the fact that I don’t know what the hell his name is anyway. I get a big envelope shoved under my door every so often filled with cash and instructions, and I really don’t ask questions because whoever he is, he ain’t paying me chump change.”

Leigh picked her legs off the floor and sat cross-legged in the floral chair, with her hands holding her ankles. Her curly blonde hair fell in ringlets down onto her shoulders. She was pretty, Neil thought, in that possibly-psycho-stalker way.

“But… Why?” was all he could manage to ask in this moment, caught off guard by his most recent realization.

“All I know is, he wants to know where you go on Tuesday nights at eleven,” Leigh said. 

Neil’s posture changed. He lowered the letter opener to his side. 

“That’s all you know?” he asked.

“Yep. That’s it. So tell me, Neil Glassman of 532 Hobbles Avenue, who works at Toochie’s Grille Monday through Friday, binds boring ass books on the weekends with his pops and grandpops, and hasn’t done anything that isn’t completely and totally predictable in at least eight months, one week, and four days; tell me why I’ve been watching your every move for eight months, one week, and four long ass days and still can’t fucking figure out where it is you supposedly go on Tuesday nights at eleven god damn pm?”

Neil laughed. She was quite theatrical, he thought. It was a bit endearing, although completely fucking insane.

Leigh, not finding the situation the least bit comical, crossed her arms in front of her chest, blinked profusely to show her annoyance and said, “Now why the hell am I funny to you, Neil Glassman?”

“No, no,” he laughed, clearing his throat then taking a seat at another chair which sat opposite this strange girl he had just found in his home. “No, you’re not funny, it’s just… well, the situation is kind of funny.”

“Care to explain to me which part of this,” she motioned wildly with her arms, “situation is funny? I must be blind, because I’m not seeing it.”

“Calm down,” he laughed again, “first off, I found a stranger in my own home and I’m now telling her to calm down. That’s pretty funny. Both ironic and slightly funny. Second, someone actually hired you to watch me. That, my new friend, is hilarious.”

“Still not seeing it. Either you pay me what this client’s been paying me, or shit’s about to get real ugly,” she threatened.

“Oh is it? Why am I not scared? If you wanted to do something, you would have done it,” he said confidently.

“You have no idea what I’m capable of,” Leigh said.

They stared into each others eyes until it became uncomfortable.

“I don’t really go anywhere,” he finally said.

“Yeah I know. I’ve been watching you, remember dumbass? Normal guys your age go out drinking, but not you. You stay home and play dungeons and dragons, or whatever the hell it is you do home alone. I probably don’t even want to know, do I,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“No I mean on Tuesdays. Eleven pm. I don’t go anywhere. I never leave my house, is what I mean, but you’ve figured that out already, I’m sure.”

“Duh. So why does this guy want to know then? What’s his deal? I mean, he’s sure paying a whole hell of a lot of dough for me to find out,” she said.

“She. It’s likely a woman that’s paying you, if it is who I think it is.”

“I’m listening,” Leigh said as she sat up in her chair.

Another staring contest ensued, but Neil put a quick end to it. “This is going to sound a bit… out there… at first. Just stick with me, okay?”

“Sure thang, Captain. I’m not going anywhere until I have answers,” she replied. “I’d like to move on with my life.”

Neil dusted off the front of his fleece pajama pants for no other reason than to delay a bit while he gathered his thoughts. He then sat back in his chair, crossed one leg over the other, and again stared at this strange woman, wondering why he felt the need to tell her the truth, when the truth was something he had kept to himself for so damn long.

She was awfully pretty, he thought, but he’d had a lot of pretty girls cross his path over the years and he’d never even once told anyone. She was spunky, too, which he really found attractive. She obviously didn’t take much shit from anyone, and could hold her own if the situation called for it. She was tough, and Neil liked that. There was the whole she broke into his house and has been stalking him for the better part of a year thing, and that was a big negative, but yet here he was, the words about to spill from his tongue like water from an overfilled pitcher.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I don’t think so, cowboy. That ain’t part of the deal,” she replied, shaking her finger at him.

“It is now. You know my name, my address, my work schedule, and more… the least you can trade me is your name. I won’t ask anything else after that, promise,” he said.

He had a cute little half smirk that raised one side of his mouth, Leigh noticed. His dark hair was shaggy and tousled, and looked soft enough to run her fingers through, not to mention his big, brown, suck-you-into-the-depths-of-his-soul eyes. How had she never noticed how attractive this man was? Probably because she had always seen him through the lens of her binoculars, she realized. She bit her lip as if physically trying to keep herself from giving in, but ultimately decided a name would be okay.

“Leigh. Well, LeighAnne, but most everyone calls me Leigh.”

“Alright then, Leigh. That wasn’t too painful, was it?” he joked in an attempt to get her to lighten up.

She let the tiniest of smiles slip, but caught it immediately and adjusted herself in her seat to regain her composure.

“Go on then, tell me. I’m waiting,” she snapped.

Neil glanced at the clock, and Leigh followed his glace. 10:46 pm. 

“Well, it’s not quite eleven yet, so we have time,” he smirked.

Leigh raised an eyebrow, both annoyed and curious.

“When I was a little boy, I’d see shadows in my bedroom,” he began.

“What do you mean, like ghosts and shit?” she interrupted.

“Leigh, if you want to hear it, then hold your questions. Let me talk.”

She held her hand to her lips and pretended to zip, lock, then throw away the key. She sat back in her chair exaggeratedly, and crossed her arms in front of her once again.

“So these shadows; it all started when I started seeing this tall shadow that looked like a large man wearing a tall hat, you know, like the tall hats Abraham Lincoln used to wear. Then I started seeing shadows in all different shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’d look like just blobs; without any form, and they’d sort of slide along the walls and floors,” as he spoke he retraced their motion with his hands.

“Sometimes I’d think they were animals, like a dog, only to realize ours were locked in their crates at night so it couldn’t possibly be them. When I was real young I’d pull the covers over my head and convince myself if I couldn’t see them, then they couldn’t possibly see me, so I was safe. That worked for a few months, maybe even a solid year, until once while I had the covers pulled over my head… something grabbed my ankle.”

“No shit… you’re yanking my chain, right? This is bullshit. You’re not giving me the truth, Neil,” Leigh combatted.

“I swear to you, LeighAnne, every word I’ve spoken and every word I’m about to speak to you is the absolute, unequivocal truth. So, I beg you… just listen.”

She threw both hands up as if to say she was sorry, then settled back into her chair. Neil decided it might be fun, after all, to let someone in on his secret. 

“I had a really hard sleeping after that, as you can imagine. After my mom would shut all my lights off at night, I’d get up and turn them all back on. It didn’t matter though. These shadows didn’t need dark rooms to exist. They could come around whether the lights were on or off, there was no way to keep them away. For a few years early on they seemed to just watch me. They’d watch me all night long, from sunset to sunrise. They never made any noise, they’d just stand and stare. Sometimes there would be just one; the guy in the tall hat. Sometimes my whole room would be filled with up to thirty or more of them. The room would be so crowded I could barely breathe. I pissed the bed for years, and my parents always thought it was either me drinking too much before bedtime, or me just being too lazy to get out of bed to use the restroom in the middle of the night, but neither were true. I was absolutely petrified of stepping out of my bed and running into one of these… shadow things. I mean, to see them is one thing, but I felt like if I touched one and it had physical mass… it would have brought my fear to a whole new level that I just didn’t think I was strong enough to handle mentally.”

Leigh was on the edge of her seat and hadn’t blinked in what seemed like several minutes. Neil checked the clock again. 10:52.

“One night when I was about fifteen,” he spoke a bit more quickly, “the shadow with the tall hat came into my room and stood at the foot of my bed, which by itself wasn’t out of the normal, but what was abnormal was that he spoke to me,” Neil said, and a chill went up Leigh’s spine, standing the hairs on the back of her neck on end.

“What did he say?” Leigh caught herself saying before bringing her hand to her mouth again, and repeating the zip, lock, and throw the key away motion.

Neil smirked. “That’s the thing… it wasn’t words, really… it was more like a high-pitched noise. Like a buzz, but with a chime to it. I can’t really put it into the proper words, but I’ll tell you it hurt my brain. It made me feel as if there were a million insects inside my brain biting away at the tissue. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before,” Neil stopped briefly to catch his thoughts.

He glanced at the clock again. 10:58.

“We’ve run out of time, but you’ll be able to figure out the rest. Just please, don’t be scared, okay?”

“Wait, what? Are you kidding me? You can’t just leave me high and dry like that,” she said.

10:59.

He got up from his chair and got on his knees in front of her, taking her hands into his, and staring imploringly into her stunning green eyes.

“You’ll be safe. Okay? Trust me. I’d never let them hurt you. You’re far too pretty.”

And with that, Leigh was either pacified or rendered completely speechless, one of the two. She didn’t care which. 

Suddenly, movement behind Neil caught Leigh’s attention. 

“He’s here,” Neil said calmly.

“Who’s here?” Leigh asked, confused.

“The shadow with the tall hat. Don’t be scared. Just don’t let go of me,” he said to her.

Leigh began to notice a low hum in the room, but couldn’t tell from where it originated. It seemed to come from the walls, floor, and ceiling all at once. Neil spun around with his back to Leigh, but continued to hold her hands tightly, giving them a light squeeze to let her know everything would be okay.

The hum grew much louder, and began to weave other, more highly pitched frequencies into its rhythm. She could feel the vibration of it through the soles of her feet at first, and as its volume increased, she could feel it inside her chest and inside her head, god did it hurt, until it became so loud and the pain so overwhelming that she closed her eyes tight to try to block it out.

A few moments later the humming subsided, but Leigh’s ears continued to ring. She opened her eyes and immediately realized they were no longer inside Neil’s office, but instead in a vast, open forest with thin trees that were unlike any she’d ever seen, and a brook with turquoise waters which ran alongside them. 

“What the f-” Leigh started to ask, but Neil quickly covered her mouth with his hand and told her with his eyes she needed to stay quiet.

This is where I go.

Leigh clearly heard Neil’s voice inside her head, yet was staring directly at him and his lips hadn’t opened.

This is where I go on Tuesdays at eleven pm. I’m going to take my hand off your mouth now, but you have to stay quiet, okay?

Neil’s big brown eyes were staring deeply into Leigh’s as if this were a legit, out loud conversation they were having, but Leigh knew that to be inaccurate because Neil’s mouth was still very much closed.

Yes, my mouth is closed, but you can still hear me, right? In this place, you only have to think a thought in order for it to be heard. Try it. What’s my address, LeighAnne?

Leigh instantly thought, 532 Hobbles Avenue, Hempstead, Virginia, and your eyes are fucking incredible.

Neil smiled and held back a laugh, then lowered his hand from her face.

Don’t be scared of this place, LeighAnne. You’ll see scary things, but try not to be scared.

Neil, how the hell did we get here? Where are we? How do we get back?

Don’t worry. I make it into work every Wednesday morning at my boring job in my boring life, don’t I? We’ll make it back. Try to just… observe.

Leigh held his hand with a grip so tight you’d think if she let go she’d plummet ten stories to her death. Neil walked along the brook’s edge, seeming to know exactly where it was he was headed.

They reached a waterfall which, Leigh estimated, was about thirty feet across but only chest height. Neil began to take his socks off and motioned for Leigh to remove her socks and shoes as well, to which she obliged. He stepped into the cold waters, which rushed around boulders and pebbles but was only mid-calf high at its deepest, and motioned for her to follow. He led her to a giant boulder in the center of the stream near the base of the waterfall which had a wide, flat top, large enough for a handful of people to sit on comfortably, which is precisely what they did.

Leigh started to say something out loud, but quickly caught herself and instead nudged him to get his attention.

What are we doing here, Neil?

You’ll see. Be patient, and remember, try not to be scared. We’re safe here on this rock. Think of the water around us as an electric fence of sorts, keeping the bad things out. 

Wait, bad things? What bad things?

Neil held his finger to her lips, and she obliged.

Then she noticed his eyes lock onto something behind her. She spun around, and alongside the edges of the brook were dozens of shadow beings. They weren’t the fuzzy edged shadow you’d see of your own silhouette painting the ground beneath you on a fall day; these beings were a shade of black much darker than the deepest black she’d ever seen, almost as if they were more void than shadow. They were quite obviously every bit as solid as the rock they now sat on. She scrambled backward until she was nearly seated in Neil’s lap, and he wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug to show that he would protect her.

The shadow beings grew in number, and soon there were easily hundreds of them lining the shoreline. Leigh turned to look at Neil and discovered there were just as many, if not more, on the opposite side of the waterfall as well. 

What do they want, Neil? Why do you come to this place?

The short answer is: they want me. Well, now they want both of us, I think.  As far as what they are, well I haven’t really figured that out yet. All I know is that this is an in-between world. It’s not theirs, and it’s not ours. It’s like if earth is one dimension, and where they come from is another dimension, this would be the one between where we can both exist. It takes a lot of energy for them to exist in our dimension, which is why so few people see them. This is the place the shadow in the hat brought me to when I was fifteen. It took me several days to find my way back home, but I made it back safely. What’s odd is time hadn’t continued as it does on earth. Everything was exactly how I had left it that night he took me. I woke up the next morning, mom made pancakes like she does every Wednesday morning, and then she drove me to school. It was like nothing had ever happened.

You poor damn thing… Leigh said.

Since then, for some reason on Tuesday nights at exactly eleven pm the shadow with the hat comes and takes me back to this place. I think it has something to do with the way time works in his dimension, but that’s only a guess. As far as we know, he’s leaving this dimension every single night to come for me.

Why does he want you so badly? What do you have that he wants?

I’ve read a lot of books on this type of stuff over the years. I mean, the truth is no one really knows the answers, otherwise the world would be a different place where ghosts were as everyday normal as we are, I think. The only thing I’ve come up with so far in my research is that humans, living, breathing humans, carry more energy inside our bodies than all of these shadow creatures combined – and they want that. They want our energy. They seem to feed on it like we feed on spaghetti and meatballs, except the more they consume, the more powerful they become. I only know this to be true because over the years during my time here in this in-between place, I’ve sat on this rock and watched them grow so restless and furious in their pursuit to get me that they turn on one one another. The larger ones can consume the smaller ones, like some sort of weird ass cannibalism.

Then he said aloud, “We can talk now, we’re safe in the water.”

I want to go home. I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m sorry I broke into your home. Twice. I’m sorry I watched you. I’m so, so sorry, and I just want to go home and forget this ever happened, Neil. Please take me home.

Leigh closed her eyes tightly and pressed her head to Neil’s chest. “Please take me home, Neil,” she said aloud.

“I will, I promise. I can’t control when it happens, but it will. Until then, just trust that you’re safe. That time when I was stuck here, I discovered pretty quickly that the shadow things can’t go into the water. They have a definite aversion to it. Something about it. I don’t really know what it is, but I know that here on this rock we are safe. I’m brought back to this place night after night, and as long as I can make it to the rock before they know I’m here, I’m safe… until she shows up.”

“Who? Who’s she? Another person comes to this place? Another human?” Leigh asked.

“Yeah, and if I’m right, it’s your boss. Ha. The one who’s been paying you to spy on me.”

Suddenly the dark creatures calmed. Underneath the sound of the waterfall beside her, Leigh could feel the vibration of the same hum from back inside Neil’s office. Her grip on Neil tightened.

“He’s here. The shadow with the tall hat. I think he’s the… like, most progressed of all of them. Not exactly their ring leader, but the most powerful, by far. They all act different when he comes around.”

Leigh watched as the tall shadow man emerged from behind a tree, gliding effortlessly over to the brook’s edge just feet from where Leigh and Neil sat. Leigh trembled. Neil hugged her tighter.

“He can’t get you.”

“He gives me the creeps. He makes my skin crawl. I don’t like him,” she said.

“I don’t either. He used to give me terrible nightmares. Things like murdering my family with horrific detail. He is pure evil. I don’t know where he comes from, but I sure as hell hope I never go there.”

“Maybe he was so evil they cast him out, and that’s why he’s stuck here,” Leigh proposed. Neil had never considered that theory. “Were you ever able to understand them? Like what they were saying?”

Neil sighed, “Yeah, kinda, but I don’t like it.”

“What do they say?”

“It’s more what I feel. I can’t really understand words when they speak, but I can feel them. I can feel what they’re thinking. It’s mostly about all the fun-filled ways they want to rip me limb from limb and devour my soul. Once though, I thought one of them was talking, or thinking, about a girl. A human girl. A few months later, they brought her to this place.”

“Is this the woman who pays me to stalk you?”

“I believe so. I don’t know who else it could be, really. We were young when it happened. She was maybe seventeen if I had to guess. I yelled for her from the rock, trying desperately to get her to come to me where she’d be safe. She tried, but didn’t make it. They got to her just as she got to the brook’s edge,” Neil was looking at the water’s edge as if he was witnessing the sad scene once again.

“I watched as they knocked her to the ground and swarmed her body like a swarm of angry hornets. A few minutes later, she stood back up, glared at me, then the tall shadow being disappeared with her. I had assumed they’d kill her, but they didn’t seem to. She showed up here in this world twice more after that over the years, but when she’d show, it was never a fully solid person. It was almost like she was dreaming that she was here, so she was only a holograph from my perspective. She couldn’t cross the water, which I found odd, so she’d stand among the creatures and just glare at me until I left.”

“What do you think she wants?”

“I think they ate her soul. I think she’s empty. I think she’s one of them now, and they’re using her to try to get to me. She must want to know how I’m getting back and forth from this place, which makes me curious if there’s still a bit of her left in there, because if she wanted to kill me, it’d be easy in our dimension. All she’d have to do is show up to the diner with a gun, and bam, I’m dead. She’s now paying someone, you, to find out more information.. which pretty damn well confirms my theory. Maybe she wants to get back to this place because she thinks I can help her restore her soul somehow?”

“Wow. That’s legit crazy,” Leigh said.

Neil laughed a bit and said, “Yeah. It is legit crazy, but wouldn’t you do the same?”

“I suppose I probably would,” she replied.

A high pitched ding, almost like that of a wind chime but much, much louder, began to resonate throughout the trees and through the brook. The beings flew into a furied frenzy just before a flash of bright light exploded from the center of the waterfall.

Leigh opened her eyes and realized they were back in Neil’s office, finally. She jumped up and immediately began pacing the room. 

“Aren’t you glad you stalked me now?” Neil joked.

“You aren’t funny,” Leigh replied. “We have to help her. The woman. What can we do?”

“What can we do, LeighAnne. I don’t think there’s really much of anything we can do to help her. I don’t know much about how any of this works, other than what I’ve told you. I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to help her, and besides, what if we find her and she tries to kill me? Do you want to take that chance, because I’m not quite sure I am.”

“Well like you said, she hasn’t killed you yet, so maybe she wouldn’t,” Leigh said.

“I’m not sure I want to test that theory,” Neil said.

“But what if we can help her, Neil? What if we can but don’t?”

“I really like how you went from committing larceny to suddenly wanting to be a saint, LeighAnne. You wear both the angel and the devil hats quite well,” Neil joked.

“Screw you. I’m not a bad person, I just don’t like desk jobs, alright?”

Repeating her gesture from earlier, Neil threw both of his hands up to signal he was backing off of the subject.

“Did your so-called boss leave you any way to get in touch with her?” Neil asked.

“Nope. Already thought of that. She just slides shit under my door when she needs me.”

“Well then, I think you should probably just go home.”

Leigh spun around to face him, confused and slightly hurt by his suggestion.

“No, no, it’s not like that. I meant go home and see if she slides something else under your door. Or better yet, what if you wrote a message to her and left it under your door where she would see it when she comes?”

“I like where you’re going with this, good lookin’… What would I say, in the note I mean?”

*

To The Lady Who’s Lost Her Soul,

I found out where he goes at eleven pm on Tuesday nights. 

He knows about you. He showed me where they took you, and what they did to you.

Meet me at Neil’s house next Tuesday at 10 pm, sharp. Don’t be late.

Sincerely,

LeighAnne McAddams

Ps… if you so much as harm a single hair on his head, what I’ll do to you will make you beg for the hellish fate those soulless creatures have in store for you.

*

{To Be Continued…}

Click here to read Elsewhere, Part II: “Cerulean Creek”

Tall Pines (Short Story)

bright countryside dawn daylight
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Tall Pines

Written by Shelly Moore

 

There are few things I love more than laying supine on the pine needle covered forest floor, surrounded by the 150-foot-tall New England pines and various species of birds singing their morning song. The woods behind my house are far enough away from the road for me to close my eyes and pretend I’m lost in the middle of the Colorado wilderness; far enough removed from society and all its insanity that I’m able to finally breathe.

It’s been a few months since I’ve been out here, however. Last fall something happened. Something I’ve had a hard time wrapping my brain around. Something that changed me forever, and not in the, “Oh my god, this venti triple mocha caramel vanilla soy milk latte is so amazing it’s changed my life forever,” sort of way. I mean I’m quite literally not the person I was before. I could never be the person I was before.

It was about three in the afternoon on an unseasonably warm late September day in Massachusetts. The sun felt more like a mid-August sun, bringing along its humidity with it, so most people were outdoors enjoying it while they were able before the unforgiving Massachusetts winter crept in. My neighbor’s noisy, but ridiculously cute kids were outside splashing and screaming in their above ground pool, which I’m sure was pissing off our other, ex-firefighter neighbor two doors down who now worked third shift and slept through his afternoons. Across the street the young newlywed couple, who were the newest addition to the neighborhood, were out front picking and pruning their new picture perfect landscaping.

I sat at my picnic table, papers strewn in front of me. It had been sixteen months since the pandemic finally disappeared from the planet, or so they tell us, and life had just about returned to normal. During the outbreak, in order to maintain my sanity I had begun taking college courses online in nutrition, and two years later I was so close to the finish line I could taste it. (Nutrition pun?)

A shadow crossed from one end of the picnic table to the other, which broke my focus away from being the nosy Nelly neighbor that I am. I quickly raised my hand to my brow to shield the sun and to try to catch a glimpse of what might have caused it. Gliding far overhead, higher than the pines but not quite high enough to touch the clouds, was a magnificent bald eagle soaring effortlessly with the wind.

I had read in our town’s Facebook group that a pair of bald eagles had been spotted a few weeks back in a neighborhood not far from my own. “Watch your pups and children,” concerned citizens had warned, as if the eagles would swoop down and grab Karen DiMusio’s chunky 14-year-old son like a salmon from a stream.  I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to catch a peek, but here one was, directly above me, gliding effortlessly as he disappeared into the forest that abuts my property.

My first passion in life is photography, so without a second thought I hopped up from my seat, put my cell phone on top of my papers so the wind wouldn’t blow my work onto Boston Road, and ran inside my house to grab my Canon.

I hurriedly walked down the path that leads from my back yard into the woods and fidgeted with my camera, making sure everything was on and ready to go should I be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the magnificent bird again. I walked for about three miles, just until I came upon the area where I thought he might have been and stood silently, scanning the treetops through the magnified lens of this far too damn expensive piece of machinery that took me a full year’s tips to save for.

Forty-five minutes later, I realized he must have had other business to attend to and my opportunity had been missed. Slightly defeated, I plopped my rear onto a fallen tree nearby and sighed to audibly admit my defeat to the squirrel watching me from across the path. I set my camera beside me and decided to use this opportunity to simply enjoy the view.

I watched the trees above me sway gently back and forth in the warm wind, and I listened as the birds sang and chipmunks chipped. Using my arms for leverage, I eased my body down to the forest floor; my back supported against the fallen tree. I kicked my shoes off so I could feel the earth beneath my bare feet, and I closed my eyes and breathed in the earthy smelling forest air.

A twig broke somewhere behind me, which instantly snapped me out of my zen-like state. I turned to look over my shoulder to see what might have caused the noise and was surprised to see a boy of about 8 or 9 sitting against a tree about twenty feet from me, his head down, arms wrapped around his knees.

“Hey, you okay over there?” I shouted toward him.

I stood and clapped my hands together a few times to brush the dirt off, then started walking toward him. The boy either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care to answer because he didn’t move a muscle.

I pushed aside a few honeysuckle bushes and made my way off the path toward him. As I approached, I could see his light brown hair rustle a bit as the wind passed through it. He sat with his knees pulled to his chest, arms cradling them, with his forehead pressed to his kneecaps.

“Hey little dude, you okay?” I asked as I stooped down beside him. “Hey, can you hear -“ the moment I put my hand on his shoulder he looked up at me, and let me tell you… nothing in the world could have possibly prepared me for what I saw on his face.

Or rather, I suppose, the lack thereof.

He had no eyes, no nose, and his mouth was wide open and toothless as if in a silent scream. There weren’t gaping holes where the eyes and nose should be, but rather just naked, pale skin, as if the nose and eyes had simply been erased.

I fell backwards in shock and horror, unable to fully process what it was that I was looking at. He dropped his head to his knees again and let out a cry so deep and so agonizing it tore at my soul and sent chills down my spine. The wail seemed to come from all around us; it rustled the leaves on the trees and scattered the birds until the forest fell silent.

My palms to the earth, butt planted, and knees drawn, I tried to collect my thoughts and figure out what the hell it was that had just happened. Every ounce of intelligence within me was screaming to run as fast and as far as I could, but my stupid sense of compassion for this boy trumped all sense of sanity and against my better judgement, I stayed put.

After a moment, I sat up, once again brushing off my hands, and I crossed my legs in front of me.

The boy didn’t move, but his hair continued to rustle just slightly as the light breeze passed through. I tucked my own behind my ears.

After what felt like a dozen or so years, but was likely more like a few seconds, I decided I’d try talking to him again.

“What…. what happened to you?” I managed to ask through a voice that admittedly was so shaky it was hardly recognizable as my own.

He didn’t answer. I’m not sure I expected an answer at this point, but was admittedly relieved that he hadn’t let out another unearthly wail.

I picked up a leaf next to my foot so I had something to fiddle with as I sat there, waiting for I don’t even know what. I cleared my throat.

“Look, I’m sorry if my reaction was a bit… harsh. Obviously something terrible happened to you at some point, and I’m deeply ashamed for reacting in such an insensitive way. My name is Pen. Like an ink pen. It’s for Penelope. What’s yours?”

He said nothing.

“I have a nephew about your age. His name is Ian. He goes to Salem High, do you know him?”

Silence.

Eerie silence.

The birds had flown, the chipmunks had fled into their holes, and the trees had halted in their swaying. The only sound was that of my own breath. I was finally aware of the creepiness of the situation, and decided I’d better be on my way and leave this terrifying boy far, far behind me to deal with whatever it was he had come out here to deal with on his own.

I stood, brushed my rear off, and said, “Hey little man, I’m sorry. I really am. I’ll leave you be.”

I turned around to face the path again, and standing next to the fallen tree I had sat next to not twenty feet from me was another little boy. Same age, same light brown hair, same faded blue shirt and jeans. He stared in our direction.

“Hey! He’s over here! If you’re looking for your friend, he’s over here!” I shouted at him, hands up to my mouth to amplify my volume. I was relieved to see a friend had come with him and this little boy wasn’t, in fact, out here on his own after all.

I turned once again to face the boy against the tree but was completely caught off guard to realize he was no longer there. I spun again to face the boy on the path and now he, too, had disappeared.

Wait, was it the same boy? I think it was. It couldn’t have been, though.

“I’m losing my damn mind. That’s what I get for staying up until 2 am watching The Dead Files reruns,” I thought. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked back to the path trying not to think about what just happened.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

When I reached the path, I realized the silence was still deafening. I fidgeted with my camera and tried to calm my nerves as I walked, telling myself in just a couple of miles there will be good tea and most of a leftover pizza in the fridge with my name on it. I’ll drown my crazy day in pizza. Glorious, delicious, cold pizza.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

If I don’t think about it, it didn’t happen.

A twig snapped a few feet from me on the left. My eyes fixed onto the area trying desperately to figure out the source, yet I saw nothing.

I continued walking.

Shouldn’t my house have shown up by now? I had to have walked at least the few miles back that I had walked out to find the eagle. I stopped for a second to collect my bearings. I stood with my hands on my hips and camera hanging from my neck, taking stock of all that was around me. It looked familiar, but not enough to pinpoint exactly where I was, so I continued walking.

An hour later I had still not reached my house and I began to panic. There was one path through these woods. One. A single path that brings in you both into and out of the forest. I had walked it hundreds of times. It was as familiar to me as the route I drove to and from my job of the last ten years. I knew these woods like the back of my hand, so how could I be lost? This wasn’t the wilderness. I wasn’t in Nowheresville, Colorado; I was in small town Massachusetts and the woods I knew where only a few miles wide and a few miles deep. Nearly impossible to get lost in them. City surrounded them on all sides; houses, a large cemetery, and busy roads, including one of the busiest roads in the state.

I was not lost.

I couldn’t be.

So, I kept walking, making sure to stay on the solitary path and never to stray even an inch from it.

The sun had now set. My panic was full blown now and my confusion was as heavy as a lead coat. I had no food, no water, no headlamp, and I was wearing flip flops, so my feet began to ache.

I began to cry. Tears streamed down my face as I continued to walk. I should have reached the edge by now. I should have hours ago, in fact. This isn’t making sense. None of this was making any damn sense.

I stopped to take a break.

In the moonlight, I saw a fallen tree to sit on, so I sat to rest. I had just closed my eyes to silently pray for help when a twig snapped behind me.

I spun around but couldn’t see anything in the darkness other than what the moonlight illuminated, which wasn’t much. Again, it looked familiar though. Puzzled, I took inventory of my surroundings yet again and realized, although completely and utterly in disbelief, that this was the very spot I had stopped to rest at hours earlier where I had encountered the faceless boy.

Goosebumps covered my skin’s surface and chills shot up my spine from its base to the very tip of my skull. Terror sank its nasty claws inside my flesh.

Another noise, this time much closer.

I jerked my head to my right and standing six feet from me was the boy.

The terrifying, faceless boy.

I pushed my fear as far aside as I was able, which wasn’t much, and I gathered the courage to stand and face him.

“What do you want? What the HELL do you want?”

He didn’t move, only continued to stand, staring through eyes that weren’t there.

Even more perplexing than the fact that I had been walking for hours on a straight path that had brought me back to this same spot was the feeling of sympathy for this terrifying boy. I found myself wondering what had happened to him, and what had led him here to these woods. They say curiosity kills the cat, but in this moment I’d argue compassion might have just as likely killed it.

“Why won’t you talk to me?” I asked again, fear present in each word as it escaped my lips.

He said nothing.

Now anger began to surface within me.

“I’m talking to you. You may not have eyes but you sure as hell have ears, so let me ask you again: What. The. Hell. Is. Your. Problem,” I said defiantly, all traces of fear gone.

I took a step toward him, and then another.

He didn’t move.

I walked up to him slowly but steadily, one foot in front of the other, swallowing any and all fear and replacing it with determination to get the hell out of these woods and back home into my cat pajamas where I could finally shove cold pizza into my mouth and watch some mind-numbing television programs.

There I stood, less than eight inches between his face and my own. I could see the thin, pale skin that covered where his eyes should have been, and the gaping, toothless hole where his pearly whites should be. At this distance, I could now see the collar of his faded blue shirt was soaked in dried blood, which continued down the back of his shoulders and surely covered his back. More alarmingly than the blood, however, was that he didn’t seem to breathe; the lack of nose was concerning as it was but I noticed no air being inhaled nor exhaled as we stood silently facing one another.

My heart raced and my stomach turned inside out with terror.

Calmly and in my most motherly voice, I asked him, “Are you the reason I can’t leave these woods?”

He didn’t move.

Now he’s pissing me off. I’m Boston-born, dammit.

“Why can’t I seem to get out of these woods? Why can’t I find my way home? Do you have anything to do with that? Do you?” I asked more accusingly this time, my anger starting to spiderweb its way into my words. “Answer me, dammit. I’m talking to you! If you need me to help you, you have to tell me how.”

His head dropped suddenly, which startled me, and his focus was now on the ground below him.

“So it is you,” I said.

His head slowly rose once more so that his stare, if that’s what you would call it, was now directed at me again. He slowly tilted his head to one side while maintaining his blind glare, and his freak show mouth dropped open, revealing that he was not only toothless, but toungeless as well; mouth full of blood that dripped to the forest floor below.

I felt the hairs on my neck stand up on end and he abruptly shot his arms out to his sides and screamed a scream that could only be described as that of a legion of demons releasing from hell. I covered my ears and stumbled backward, tripping on a branch and falling head first into a boulder, which knocked me out cold.

Unsure of how much time had passed, I began to awake with a loud, high pitched ringing stinging my still sore skull. I had a really difficult time clearing the fog from my eyes, so I sat with my head in my hands and the taste of blood in my mouth for what felt like forever before finally attempting to reopen them to take a look at my surroundings. Before doing so, I prayed, “Please be at home. Please be at home. This was all a crap dream, and I’m just super hungover and in desperate need of an aspirin and a shower. Please be home.”

I quickly realized I wasn’t.

I opened my eyes and immediately recognized the fallen tree. That stupid fallen tree that I absolutely, unequivocally did not want to see in that moment.

I was still there. Still in that same spot. Nothing had changed, although it was now daylight. I sat up, head aching to high hell, and my stomach growling fiercely. I put my hands to the earth to help stand myself up, and realized there was an old paper cup of the fast food variety, sans lid, sitting next to me half filled with water. Beside the dirty old cup was a pile of berries neatly set upon a large maple leaf, almost as if they had been plated.

How odd, I thought.

I suddenly remembered my encounter from the night before and scanned the area around me to be sure I was alone and my faceless friend wasn’t waiting somewhere to startle me again. Once I was relatively certain I was alone, I ate the berries and drank the water my creepy host had left for me.

I stood, my head feeling as if it carried a million shards of glass within that rattled and sliced into the flesh of my brain with each movement, and began to walk.

I will walk.

I will find my way out of this, I told myself.

I walked, and I walked, and I walked until night fell, once again. That night I had no faceless visitor, which I was relieved about, and I slept about as soundly as someone in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops can sleep on top of pine needles. When I awoke the next morning, more water and berries were waiting for me, neatly plated on another large leaf.

As I ate the berries and wept, I yelled out into the forest, “How long will you keep me here? How long will I have to keep this up? You have to help me help you. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” and I cried and cried, and this day I decided against walking. What the hell was the point.

As night fell the second night, I gathered dried sticks and leaves to start a small fire. Looked easy enough on television, surely I could do it. Two hours and many frustrated tears later, I had a fire. I laid beside the fire, as close to it as I could get without burning myself; knees drawn to my chest, and dozed off with tear stained cheeks.

I fell rather quickly into a dream as real as the fire had been moments before. In the dream, I was watching a older man with a hunting dog walk through the woods, rifle slung across his shoulder.

“Keep up you piece of garbage. You’ll never learn to hunt if you can’t even keep up,” he grumbled angrily.

I thought, “How disgusting is this asshole, talking to his dog this way? What an awful man,” and then I saw him.

The boy.

The faceless boy except with eyes and a nose. He was running with a noticeable limp in order to catch up to the old hunter.

“Your mother got out of this easy, that lazy witch. She died while she was giving birth to you so she wouldn’t have to deal with you, you know,” he said to the boy. I stood witnessing this atrocity, unable to speak or intervene, my heart breaking.

“You worthless sack of – you know I told you to keep up, now keep up!” He screamed at the boy. The boy hung his head low, trying desperately not to make eye contact and said to the man, “I’m sorry, pop.”

The man cast a hateful glance back toward his boy and said, “Yes you are sorry. You are sorry, and worthless, and a big weight on my shoulders that I just don’t need. I should have given you to those nuns long ago when I had the chance.”

The boy stood just feet from me now, staring down at his battered shoes solemnly.

“I’m sorry, pop. I’ll do better. I promise,” he said meekly.

As the boy looked up to face his father, I saw his left eye was swollen shut and heavily bruised. Three teeth were missing. This poor, poor boy had obviously been a victim to his asshole father more than once.

“Get your worthless ass over here and help me finish chopping this tree down. Duke said he’ll give us ten bucks today if we bring him the wood. C’mon now, boy, we ain’t got much sun left in the day. Get your sorry ass movin’.”

The scene seemed to fast-forward and I was now standing in front of a tree that had been sawed almost to the point of falling.

“Just a few more, boy, and she’ll fall down. Go on now, this is a man’s work, but I’m tired. You finish,” he said to the boy, as he yawned and took a seat against another tree nearby.

As the boy sawed the tree, something caught the dog’s attention and he began to bark. I looked up into the sky and there taking flight from the branches of a tall pine was a massive, beautiful bald eagle. The dog instinctively took off after it, and the old hunter jumped to his feet calling after him, “Dag nabbit, George, you idiot, get back here!”

With his attention fixed onto the dog, the hunter had no time to react or notice the tree was falling directly on him.

The boy stood and watched as the tree crushed his father, still clutching his rifle, into the earth, with a solid thud.

The boy remained still for a moment, then cautiously walked over to where his father lay. To his surprise, the man was still breathing, although just barely, his breaths gurgling thick with blood. The man was wide eyed and near death, and glared at his boy with malice and deep contempt. The boy knelt down by his father, but didn’t say a word.

“You….” the man gurgled and strained to speak, “killed… me…”

The boy furrowed his brow as if to say, “I would never,” then stood and slowly took several steps back as he watched his father succumbed to his horrific fate.

The boy’s back now to me, I stood and watched helplessly with tears steadily flowing down my face. Then – a gunshot – one so loud it shook the very ground beneath my feet. I watched as the boy fell to his knees, and then face first onto the forest floor.

The man had managed to shoot his son in the face with his last bit of strength, and there, on that forest floor, they both perished.

I awoke from the vivid dream gasping for air; the embers of my fire still glowing red hot although the fire itself had gone out hours before. I sobbed, my chest heaving as if I had witnessed this tragedy not in a dream, but as an unwilling participant, and I struggled to regain control over my emotions again.

That’s when I noticed him.

He was standing on the opposite side of the fire, staring back at me through big, sad, blue eyes.

I wept, “I am so, so sorry this happened to you. No one deserves that. You did not kill him, but rest assure if I were there I would have done it myself! You deserve better. So, so much better. I am so, so sorry.”

He looked at me, and I at him, for what felt like an eternity. I wiped my face with the back of my hand, and again said, “I’m so sorry, little man.”

He smiled, but it was the faintest, smallest little hint of a smile, and when I blinked my tears away, he had vanished.

I stood, brushed my pants off, grabbed my Canon from the ground, and began my walk home.

 

{The End.}