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…}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s