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Waking Dreams

 

Waking Dreams

By R.R. Wolfgang

Copyright 2015 R.R. Wolfgang

Shakespir Edition

 

Waking Dreams is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2015 by R.R. Wolfgang

All rights reserved.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

And, lo, there shall come into this world a child of dreams,

a dream child,

and he shall walk between two worlds,

the waking world and the world of dreams.

And in his hands, he shall hold a key,

a key to that dark gate, which, if opened,

shall rend the silken veil,

[and bring the two worlds together.
And should the veil be sundered, and the world of dreams awaken,]

So, too, shall the Dreamer in the Dark be stirred,

And he shall rise from the depths of his cavernous sleep

And with him shall rise all his dark creatures –

[ . . . ]

And the worlds will be plunged into shadow

[and the children of men will know true darkness.
__]

—Translated from ancient Greek fragment, circa 5th century B.C.,

of unknown provenance.

PROLOGUE

The morning air was crisp as Dariah Coulton trounced down the steps of her dormitory. Although the sun’s rays shined brightly and the morning breeze smelled sweet, Dariah felt uneasy. There was a hard knot in the pit of her stomach and a sense of foreboding that was difficult to ignore. Sure, her mother was daunting, and Dariah wasn’t looking forward to meeting her for breakfast, but something else felt out of place. She flicked her collar up against the cold and set out for the school’s parking lot. As she approached her car, she resisted the urge to go back into her dorm room and pull the covers over her head until the day was over. It was just breakfast. She could do it. She bit her lip and climbed into her Volvo. The drive was familiar, yet the familiarity did nothing to settle Dariah’s nerves.

A few minutes later, she pulled up to Ziffy’s Diner and after circling the block a few times, she finally found a parking spot. Her mother’s slick Mercedes was conspicuous, parked close to the door of the diner.

Dang. She beat me.

Dariah took a moment and steeled herself for her visit with her mother. With any luck, breakfast would be over quickly. She tried to ignore the wave of trepidation that rolled over her, clenching her stomach in knots.

C’mon, Dariah. Get a grip. It’s just your mother.

Still, her mouth filled with the bitter taste of dread. After a minute, Dariah let out a sigh and climbed out of her car. She stopped briefly to survey her reflection in the side-view mirror. She grimaced at the unkempt reflection staring back at her. Tugging her wavy blonde hair into a pony tail, she headed into the diner. A gentle jingle of bells greeted her, accompanied by the welcoming aroma of melting butter, scrambled eggs and bacon. She spotted her mother quickly. Clad in a two-piece tailored dress suit, a pearl necklace strung perfectly around her slender neck, and her brown hair teased into a careful coif, Janene Coulton stood out amidst her comparatively humble surroundings.

From the wary, skittish glances of the waitstaff, Dariah guessed that her mother must have been waiting for a while. It was how she worked. She always arrived early. Her mother used to recite that trite cliché, “The early bird gets the worm,” but somehow that never quite fit. It would have suited her mother better if there was a saying more like “the first wolf to the farm gets the plumpest sheep.”

Dariah slid into the seat across from her mother. The smell of frying butter made her stomach growl, in spite of her nerves. Her mother barely spared her a glance while inspecting the silverware at the table. In that quick glance, however, she could see that her mother had taken in her crumpled jeans, worn-in hiking boots, and lack of makeup.

“You look tired, sweetie,” Janene said, her voice cordial and syrupy all at once. “You should really make sure you get your beauty sleep.”

Dear God, I will not strangle this woman, Dariah thought to herself as she plastered a smile on her face.

“And how was your fundraiser?” Dariah asked, pointedly ignoring Janene’s casual yet barbed observance. “What charity event was it again that brought you to my doorstep?”

“Tsk, tsk, Dariah, watch your manners,” her mother corrected her icily. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt for you to make an appearance in society once in a while.”

“Thanks, but I was volunteering at the hospital. I told you.”

And I have no interest in your idea of “society.” The words danced across the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed them, choosing to pick up her menu instead.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered breakfast for you,” her mother changed the topic as her daughter settled into her seat. “I knew you would probably order something just terribly unhealthy. You know how bad these greasy foods are for your skin.”

“I do mind, mother, actually,” Dariah said, struggling to keep her tone civil. And the power games begin already. “This place is famous for their bacon and hash browns.”

Dariah gestured to the waiter. Tom—that was his name. He smiled at her, and she felt her heart skip a beat. He nodded and she knew he would bring her the usual: eggs over easy, two bacon strips, buttery hash browns, and a black coffee.

“Well, you probably are wondering why I wanted to see you,” her mother began, looking at her daughter severely. “You finished your first year at Cornell, and I hear you final chose a major: pre-medicine. Your father tells me that you did very well.”

Dariah tried not to wince at the guilt-laden intonation of the words “your father.” Her mother was clearly angry that she kept in better touch with Dad than with her.

“So?”

“Your father and I have decided to throw a party in your honor, celebrating the successful completion of your first year of college.”

“You’re kidding.” Dariah found herself blushing in embarrassment. She eagerly greeted the distraction Tom provided as he set down a glass of water and her coffee at the edge of the table.

“Of course not. I don’t joke about these things,” her mother corrected.

No, of course not. Your parties are no joking matter. Dariah suppressed the urge to groan.

“And who am I allowed to invite, or is this one of your cocktail parties where I will be the only person my age?” Dariah asked, still attempting to hide her mounting hostility.

“Seriously, sweetie, you can’t expect me to allow you to bring any of those . . . hooligans . . . into our home.”

“Mom, those ‘hooligans’ are 4.0 students with scholarships to a prestigious university.”

“Do you really think a respectable person needs a scholarship, honey? Think of their relations.”

And there it was. Dariah rarely needed to be reminded of the reason she didn’t keep in touch with her mother.

God, I don’t know what Dad sees in you. I can’t believe I share genetic material with you.

“I honestly don’t know how to respond to that,” she said incredulously.

“Oh, don’t look at me that way,” her mother said. “You know as well as I do that even if a poor person rises above their means, their family will always bring them, and everyone who associates with them, back to their level.”

“Mother, you are a piece of work.” The words slipped out before she could self-edit. “Seriously, I really don’t need a party. I don’t want a party. It’s only my first year.”

“Always so modest,” Janene said as she took another dainty stab at the uncooperative melon. “But really, dear, you mustn’t protest about this party. I simply wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Her mother was paying her tuition, and as much as it pained her to say it, she really needed to just get through college and med school, then she would never have to talk to her again. Except when she tried to call Dad.

Without further ado, Janene launched into a description of the upcoming event. Dariah listened with growing numbness. As much as she wanted to tell her mom exactly where to shove it, she already knew she would go to the stupid party. Not so much for her mother’s sake, but for her dad’s. Closing her eyes, she gritted her teeth and waited for her mother to finish.

“It really is too bad, the strawberries in this fruit salad are clearly not ripe,” her mother said. “The melon is almost pungent. And the tea, don’t get me started.”

Janene Coulton exhaled deeply, seeming to mourn the sad state of her fruit bowl.

“Tragic,” Dariah let the word slip with more sarcasm than she intended, and quickly buried her gaze deeply in her own delightfully buttery eggs.

After inhaling her bacon, hash browns, and eggs, she stood up impolitely with a quick stretch, interrupting her mother mid-sentence.

“I hate to be rude, Mom,” she lied, “but I really gotta hit the road if I want to beat the rain.”

“Well, fine, I only drove all the way from New York City just to meet you, don’t worry about me.”

“Mom, your driver drove four hours last night for a fundraiser for your favorite art gallery. Not for me.”

“Believe what you want, dear,” she said as she got up stiffly from her seat, trying not to touch the table. Almost as an afterthought, she added, “Do try to be safe. You know how much your father and I disapprove of you going on these hikes by yourself.”

Trust me, I know, Dariah thought as she kissed the powdered cheek her mother offered her.

“I’ll do my best. I trust you can find the highway from here?”

“I’m not an imbecile.”

“Right. Well, it’s been fun.” She wished her mother was an imbecile. Then her pretentiousness may have been forgivable.

Dariah climbed into her Volvo, sparing time for a little wave to her mother, and set out for Taughannock State Park. A glance in the rearview revealed her mother’s prim, disapproving figure. Her grip tightened on the steering wheel as she sped away from the diner.

Why do I always let her get to me? It’s done. Aside from this stupid party, you won’t have to see her for ages. Nature will clear your brain.

A solo hike at Taughannock Falls was just what she needed to get her head straight. Unlike her mother, she loved the outdoors. There was something so clean and pure about nature. And quiet. When she was a kid, she had thought her mother’s distaste was because of the dirt. Now, she knew better. Something about the wilderness terrified her mother. Dariah wasn’t sure if it was the unpredictability or the messiness of it. Or maybe it was the quiet. She didn’t think her mother could stand to be alone with her own thoughts.

On a whim, Dariah decided to take the more scenic route to the falls. It doubled her distance, but it was a quieter, more relaxing drive. After breakfast, relaxing sounded pretty nice. By the time she turned onto Route 34, the tension was already melting from her body. On some level, her mom and dad probably had a point. She probably shouldn’t be hiking alone. But right then, she didn’t care. Paranoia would not run her life. Plus, she had her pepper spray and remembered her self-defense classes.

Rule number one: always be aware of your surroundings. Check.

As Dariah drove on Route 89 from Ithaca, her gaze kept drifting to the beautiful scenery. Through the break of trees, she occasionally caught glimpses of Cayuga Lake. The summer sun danced across the lake’s waters, the light shimmering like diamonds.

Suddenly, her head snapped forward as her car hit something. She slammed on the brakes. She didn’t see what she’d hit—just a blur and then it was gone, pulled underneath the car. The wheel jerked violently in her hand as the tires thumped over something large before her car finally screeched to a stop.

What the hell was that? Oh, God, God, God, she thought as she turned key in the ignition, half in a daze, she looked over her shoulder.

I couldn’t have been looking away that long, she tried to assure herself. It was only a second. Wasn’t it? Oh, fuck!

Dariah let a slow breath out and took a second to brace herself. Her thoughts came sluggishly and she barely noticed the dark clouds gathering rapidly across the horizon.

This isn’t real. It can’t be real, she found herself thinking over and over. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white.

Oh, God, please don’t let me have hurt someone, she prayed silently. I will always keep my eyes on the road, from now on. God, Dariah, move. If that was a person, they could be dying out there. Fuck.

Taking another deep breath, Dariah tried to gather a sense of calm. This was real. She had to deal with it. Gritting her teeth, she opened the door of her beaten up white Volvo and stepped out. As her feet hit the pavement, she marveled at its solidness. Yes. This was real. She had run over something. Probably roadkill. Yeah, just roadkill. Why the fuck was she freaking out so much?

Dariah’s ears buzzed for a moment as she took in the eerily quiet scene. There was no other car in sight. No bird song, no bugs buzzing, not a single sound of wildlife. Not even the distant sound of water lapping at the lake. Even for Route 89, this was quiet. The silence was deafening.

There on the road, unmoving, was the victim of her careless driving. Her stomach clenched. It definitely wasn’t a box or some junk blown off the back of a truck. Ever so slowly her feet moved her forward, taking her toward the lump that lay oh-so-motionless in the middle of the lane. Bile rose in her throat as the shape became increasingly distinct.

Oh God, it’s a person. I hit someone. What appeared to be an arm lay outstretched towards the central yellow divider. Her sluggishness fell away and she broke into a run towards the person, wildly hoping that her CPR and basic first aid training could help them.

That’s when the smell hit her. The stench was almost overpowering. The air was thick with it—a putridly sweet smell, laced with hints of decaying flesh. Somehow, she suppressed the urge to vomit. That smell was unlike anything she had ever experienced. It should have filled her with relief. No recently injured or, hell, dead person could smell that bad. Instead, a sensation of dread crept its way into her consciousness, tickling and grasping at her spine with its cold fingers. She shivered. She was almost ten feet away, and yet the body reeked of rot and decay in a way the cadavers in her human anatomy and physiology courses had never led her to believe was possible. Of course, the cadavers in class had smelled mostly of formaldehyde, but for some reason it had never occurred to her that an untreated corpse could produce such a terrible stench. She stared in incredulity, relief and dread tugging simultaneously at her nerves.

This poor fool had been dead for a while. Still, Dariah wasn’t quite sure what to do. The whole thing just felt wrong. She could have sworn she had seen something when her car hit this person, that whatever she hit had been more upright before it was dragged under her car.

As if it had been standing.

Calming herself, she retraced her steps back to the car and circled the front, inspecting it for the first time. She couldn’t find a trace of damage.

Well, none that wasn’t there before I hit this thing, she mentally corrected herself.

Her bumper was only dinged in the right hand corner where she had hit a pole when her father gave her driving lessons years before. Shaking her head in disbelief, she marveled at the nonsensical nature of what was in front of her. As her gaze drifted back to the body in the road, she hesitated at the thought of going back to it. Something about this just wasn’t sitting right.

Why am I trying to make sense of this? Someone probably had a heart attack hiking and passed away in the road. I’m letting my imagination run away with me. Like always.

There was nothing she could do for the person lying on the eerily desolate highway road. She might as well call the authorities. The police would be able to take care of all of this. Dariah fumbled in her jeans for her cell phone and immediately realized it wasn’t there. It was exactly where she left it, on the passenger seat, sitting next to her purse. With a sigh, she rounded the front of her car before something stopped her dead in her tracks. The body began to twitch and spasm in the road. After a moment, it pushed itself onto its hands and knees and slowly rose from the sticky black pavement. When it reached its full height, she was struck dumb. How had she ever thought that was a human being? There was nothing even vaguely human about it.

It had two arms, and two legs, but everything else was wrong. Shades of grayish, viscous skin shifted across its flesh, revealing brief but brilliant flashes of nightmarish shadows crawling underneath. As it straightened itself, its unnaturally long arms dripped a dark, tar-like substance onto the pavement.

It took a moment, but it dawned on Dariah that the dripping was an illusion. The constant movement across the creature’s skin only made it seem like some dark liquid dripped from its limbs, but that wasn’t actually right at all. In reality, the creature was sucking light from the road. She watched numbly as it gathered an eerie halo around itself, until it seemed to cast the whole world into shadow.

Then it lifted its head and looked at her—through her—its mouth gaping and slack. It wasn’t really a mouth at all, she knew. She didn’t know what it was, and she didn’t particularly want to find out.

It took a halting step towards her, a step that oozed across the pavement. Suddenly, the lack of damage to her sturdy Volvo was explained. It had stood in the road, waiting for a lonely passerby. It had let her believe she had hit it, because it had wanted to lure her out into the open. But it was malleable.

In spite of its seeming awkwardness, it was fast. In two steps, it covered a quarter of the distance to her. The shock of its speed startled her, and she felt a yelp escape her lips before she could suppress it. The sweet rotting stench filled her nostrils again. She jerked at the handle of her car and felt a sharp pain in her shoulder as she met hard resistance. There, through the car window, she saw the keys dangling from the ignition.

Fuck! FUCK! How could you be so stupid? Why didn’t you let your goddamned mom get you the new car with the keyless locking system? FUCK!

Dariah glanced over her shoulder, and felt divided into two halves – half of her was overwhelmed with curiosity at this creature. She wanted to see how it moved, to see if she could determine what it was. The other half, however, the part of her that operated on a more primal level, the part ruled by instinct, took over. She turned and ran.

Large drops of rain splashed down on her as she darted across the highway, running for the sparse woods and the houses that lay beyond them. As she cleared the edge of grass on the gravel embankment, she glanced frantically over her shoulder. The creature hovered over her car, its arm slithering across the hood before jettisoning back to its side. Its shadow spread around it, engulfing her car and the whole road behind it.

The creature turned its head toward her. The edges of its shapeless face tilted upwards. In horror, she realized that it was smiling.

Dariah turned and ran with renewed urgency. It was pouring now. The rain plastered her ponytail icily to her neck. Rivulets of water streamed into her eyes.

Time became irrelevant. Trees, rocks, mud, and gravel—everything flew by. Her lungs burned and her legs began to feel impossibly heavy, but still she didn’t stop. She was afraid that if she stopped, if she looked, it would be there. Just waiting for her to turn, waiting to pull her in and suck the life and light out of her. There should have been a house after the first copse of trees, but for some reason there was only this endless forest.

Wet gravel crunched beneath her stumbling feet, and she searched frantically ahead for any sign of a path that would lead to a public place. The creature’s odd footsteps were loud behind her, rocks sliding noisily and twigs breaking beneath the creature’s large, jarring frame. The sound was drawing closer. The thought filled her with terror. Any moment there would be a house, or she would be back on the road to Taughannock State Park.

But the trees only got closer and closer together. No house or road emerged from the downpour. Dariah began to suspect she wasn’t going to find refuge.

When the fuck did I fall asleep and drift into the Twilight fucking Zone?

After what seemed like hours, she tried to quicken her faltering pace, trying to push the logs that her legs had become. Each breath burned its way down her aching throat. She tried to ignore the pain welling in her side as she staggered through a small break in the trees ahead of her. She had not given up hope. There had to be someone in this seemingly endless wilderness. There just had to be. Sure, they would probably laugh at her and her unbelievable story, but they would be real.

Dariah’s vision blurred and she knew she didn’t have much left in her. As that reality sank in, a crushing sense of hopelessness overwhelmed her. Her legs weakened as she choked back tears. She clumsily ripped the branches that clawed at her face out of her way. Her fingers ached from the cold and wet. She could barely feel the pain from the dozens of interlaced cuts on her hands.

Why did I go on this stupid trip? Why did I take the stupid scenic route? Why the fuck why? The thoughts kept circling unbidden in her head. She bit her lip in frustration, tears leaking from her eyes.

Dariah knew it wouldn’t help to wish the whole thing away, but she kept doing it anyway. If only she could make her past self continue driving until she reached a gas station to report the incident. Or, if only she had decided to listen to her mother just this once.

Abruptly, Dariah emerged from the wooded area out onto a small stream. Slipping down the muddy slope, her foot caught on a half-submerged root. Desperately, she caught a handful of wet ferns in one hand as she tried to break her fall. The ferns snapped in her hands and she felt a flash of pain arc up her leg. The impact left her breathless as she hit the wet, soft moss, her face sliding in the mud. She felt her hands sink into the mossy leaves.

Dariah pushed herself slowly up from the mud, her arms aching from the effort. A moment’s survey told her the falls were nearby. Her breath caught in her throat. She didn’t know how it had happened, but she was close. She must have been running for miles.

Still, hope suddenly reared its tenacious head, filling her with its warm touch. Dariah tried to push herself onto her feet only to fall right back down as icy pain shot up her left leg. Looking down, she saw her jeans torn open, her leg twisted and bleeding.

Shit, it’s broken. That’s it. This is how your story ends. The thoughts tumbled at her and she realized they were true. Even without the broken leg, she had spent everything—she would not be able to get up again.

Well, at least you’ll see it coming. A small glimmer of courage filled her as she sat on the wet moss. Tilting her head skyward, she savored the feeling of the rain on her skin. She breathed in the fresh smell of rain and felt oddly at peace.

As the creature noisily broke through the woods, Dariah became aware of a distinct sensation that she wasn’t alone. There, at the very edge of her mind, there was a presence that wasn’t hers. It floated in and out of her awareness. There was a softness to it, an innocence. It was as if there was a part of her consciousness that belonged to someone else. And whoever it was, she could tell they were scared.

Don’t worry, she reassured it. Everyone dies.

If it could have trembled, she knew it would have. Great, now you’re talking to yourself.

Suddenly, she heard the thing crash through the clearing behind her. She reoriented herself so she could face it. Grimacing against the pain, she pushed herself into a straighter position just as some distant memory came to her.

In that moment Dariah knew what it was. Throwing back her head, she laughed. She had always naively believed that if she could identify an object, the mere identification would give her some measure of power over it. If she could recognize a disease and correctly name it, she would have found the key to conquer the disease. Just like Rumpelstiltskin. She knew now this wasn’t the case. The awful creature did not slow in awe of her discernment. Its head rolled on its shoulder-like appendages, and she knew it seemed pleased, but it did not halt.

What had appeared as clumsiness when it had first risen from the road now struck her as an incredible efficiency. Still, satisfaction filled her as death crawled towards her on two horrible mockeries of human legs. The innocent presence inside her quailed as the stench drew near. Reaching inward, she comforted it as best as she could. A part of her thought it ironic that she comforted this other part of herself. The whole thing was mad.

“I know what you are,” she said, giggling hysterically as it drew close. “You shouldn’t exist.”

Her giddy laugh filled the air until it was replaced by the piercing sound of her screams.

CHAPTER ONE

On the back porch of her best friends’ house, Jenna Elliott paused to absorb the beautiful day. The children were taking turns chasing the Eversons’ tortured yellow lab, and being chased by it. A happy sigh escaped her lips. Everything was perfect. So why did she feel like something terrible was about to happen? She closed her eyes and breathed in the soft, sweet scent of freshly cut grass wafting easily on the summer breeze. The children shrieked in delight as the Eversons’ dog pranced around them, tugging rambunctiously on the stick that had previously been used to propel a large white and blue beach ball around the lawn. The beach ball had been her idea, and it had entertained the kids for a good five minutes. But clearly the game of tug-of-war was far more entertaining.

I guess I’m from a different era, she thought. An era that still finds beach balls entertaining. Still, she couldn’t suppress her own giddy grin at the carefree, frolicking children and the goofy yellow dog.

“Hey,” she said, as she pulled a patio chair next to her husband.

“Hey you,” Thomas replied, as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” she said.

“Oh, please,” George Everson said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “She was only gone for five minutes.”

Jenna laughed. The years had been kind to her husband’s longtime friend. At just under six feet tall and sixty-two years of age, George Everson was still a stunning man. A glint of mischief lurked in the depths of his blue-gray eyes, a mischief that could not be dampened, no matter how hard he tried to pull off his old curmudgeon schtick. His trim, athletic figure hinted at the track athlete he once was. He had been the head of the Classics department at UCLA for almost a decade. His wife, Elaine, also in her sixties now, was also as striking as she had ever been. Her once-blonde hair was now mostly silver, and her face lightly creased, but she still had the poise and contagious energy that lit up any room she entered.

Together, the Eversons were Jenna’s lifeline. They inspired her and loved her. In many ways, they were the parents she’d always wished she’d had.

“So, Jenna, did you give any more thought to what we talked about earlier?” Elaine asked, as she scooped up a deck of cards from the glass patio table and began to deal a hand for poker.

“Oh, yes. Thomas and I talked about it. We’re free Christmas break,” she said, as she picked up her hand. “Your grandkids can stay with us over the break.”

“Excellent!” Elaine said.

“Very good. We’re long overdue for a vacation,” George chimed in.

“About time,” Thomas said.

“So,” Jenna began, as she surveyed the two children playing happily with her own son, Evan. “Richard and Ava are looking really well. Are they already getting geared up for the new school year?”

“Oh, I doubt they’re thinking about school yet,” Elaine laughed. “They have a whole month, after all!”

“And what about you two? How are you both holding up?”

The words slipped out, oozing with more sympathy than she had intended. The question had been at the back of Jenna’s mind all afternoon, and she posed it with her usual grace for sensitive subjects—none whatsoever. Ignoring her husband’s stare, she laid her hand on Elaine’s shoulder in support. Elaine’s gaze turned towards her husband and they briefly clasped hands. As acerbic and blunt as George could be with his students, co-workers, and friends, there was nothing but love and compassion in the expression he gave his wife.

“It’s been hard,” Elaine said quietly, her hands tightly gripping George’s in her lap. “We’ve had to be strong. For Ava and Richard.”

Pausing, Elaine gave her husband’s hand a quick squeeze before releasing it and smoothing her hands across her lap. Deep in thought, she reorganized her napkin and plastic silverware in front of her.

“Tomorrow would be Trevor’s thirtieth, you know.”

“He and Helen had so much going for them,” George said with a sigh. “They were so young.”

A year ago, Trevor and Helen Everson had left the children with George and Elaine before heading out for a romantic weekend at one of their favorite campsites, just outside the Mojave National Preserve in California. No one knew what caused Trevor to veer suddenly into oncoming traffic on a particularly treacherous section of Route 138, but both he and Helen had been killed instantly in the collision, along with the seventeen-year-old driver of the other car.

Their lives had never been the same.

Looking out at the children playing, Elaine appeared to be at peace with her sorrow.

“I feel too old to be going through all this again,” she admitted with a small shrug of her shoulders. “But what are we to do?”

“This is all we have left of them,” George added. “At times I wish Helen’s parents would become more involved.” Elaine snorted in derision, as she nudged the nearly empty plate of cucumber sandwiches further away from her. “But, well, you know how they are.”

Unfortunately, Jenna did remember.

“Elaine had to spend hours on the phone just convincing them to come to the funeral. She was their daughter.” George shook his head in disbelief at the memory. “It’s probably for the better that they have not been involved in Richard and Ava’s lives.”

“You’ve been so strong for the children,” Jenna reassured them both. “Helen wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

“Thank you,” Elaine and George both said simultaneously, their hands entwined tightly.

“It’s nice to actually talk about them,” Elaine confessed quietly. George nodded slowly in affirmation, his lips tightly pursed together. She could see that he had no voice to give words to his pain, and her heart ached for him.

“So many people avoid even mentioning him,” Elaine added with bitterness. “It sometimes seems as if he never existed to them.”

 

“No,” Jenna assured her. “It’s just hard to find the right words to say, that’s all.”

“I suppose so,” the older woman sighed. “Still, thank you. It’s nice to talk about him. We have two reminders we see every day, so it’s not like we don’t know what we’ve lost.”

“Okay, Thomas,” George interjected as he stood abruptly, with an air of finality. He beamed radiantly at Jenna’s startled husband. “I think it’s about time I showed you my garden. The tomatoes are simply superb. I have half a mind to enter one of those little farmers’ contests.”

Thomas rose, looking slightly confused as George grasped him by the elbow and began to lead him rather forcefully to his project of the year, a rather haphazard looking vegetable garden.

Elaine dabbed gently at her eyes with a napkin, blotting away any sign of tears. She chuckled softly as she watched George standing proudly above his modest garden.

“You shouldn’t listen to a word George says,” she warned her friend. “His garden is atrocious. The slugs have more say about what goes on than he does. He would never admit it, but it’s true.”

The two women slipped into silence as they watched the children playing. Jenna sighed in contentment, even as she reflected upon the events that had brought her into the presence of this amazing woman she now called her friend.

Elaine’s daughter-in-law, Helen, had been Jenna’s best friend well before Helen had even met Trevor Everson. No one could ever accuse her of anything more than living wholly in the moment, and she spread that happiness to everyone she knew. Now, there seemed to be an emptiness where Helen’s presence used to be.

Jenna felt a lump forming in her throat as she recalled the memory of their first meeting. She had been sitting in a women’s history class when the then-shy version of herself felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning to face the person with no small measure of dread, she had encountered a smiling, round-faced Helen. Dark hair fell in waves along her shoulders and into her deep brown, laughing eyes. Jenna had felt the twinge of fear and awkwardness she usually experienced when meeting new people, but it slipped away the first time she heard Helen’s good-natured laugh.

“Hey, can I borrow a pencil?” the girl with the laughing eyes had asked her. “And maybe some paper? I seem to have left my head at home, along with all my supplies!”

“Sure,” Jenna had stammered out, reaching for her canvas satchel and the abundant supplies she compulsively lugged around campus.

Somehow, Jenna had been drawn into conversation with this cheerful, lively girl. After class she found herself in a coffee shop, surrounded by all sorts of hip accoutrement and even hipper people. She and Helen talked for hours, setting the foundation for a friendship that would change Jenna’s life. Helen talked openly about her childhood. Her parents met young, and married shortly after, when her mother had found herself “in the family way.” Some families come together over children, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen with Helen’s family.

Helen had been reminded every day that she had ruined her parents’ lives. A beer bottle tossed here and there, a drunken punch that connected just right had often landed her in the hospital. In spite of her upbringing, she was always upbeat. When asked, she would just shrug, and reply with an infectious grin, “It could have been worse.” Her childhood instead had inspired her to be the person she knew her parents could have been.

It was Helen’s passion for people and for improving the state of the world that inspired Jenna to enroll in her first psychology class, a move that ultimately led her to a career in social work. Helen had laughed when she first learned of her friend’s career decision. Her laughter had doubled when she learned that she was the inspiration.

“Oh, hon!” Jenna could still hear her saying, “I meant that we should change the world one person at a time! Through friends, family, people we meet. You don’t have to make it your job. Then being good becomes a chore!”

She had tousled Jenna’s messy auburn hair with affection.

“Still,” she had added quietly and with emotion, “it’s a hard road to help those who don’t know how, or simply can’t, help themselves. I know you’ll be great.” Then she had wrapped her friend in one of the warmest embraces, a hug only Helen could give.

But now her friend was gone, and Jenna sat with her friend’s mother-in-law, wondering at the strangeness of fate that had brought them together. Both women could feel the pain that was shared in the loss of the two people they had both known and loved. The pain had lessened in the past year, but the memories were still fresh in their minds.

“So, with the grandkids out of the way for a couple of weeks, what are your special plans?” Thomas asked, startling Jenna out of her reverie. He and George had returned from the garden and were settling themselves back to the abandoned game of cards. George smiled at his wife of almost forty years.

“George is taking me to Venice,” Elaine announced with a grin. “We keep meaning to go and revisit our honeymoon spots, but we just never got around to it.”

“That’s wonderful,” Jenna said. “You two deserve a vacation.”

“Long overdue, if you ask me,” George said, as he leaned down and kissed his wife’s hair.

A loud, heart-wrenching scream nearly split Jenna’s ears, and she almost dropped her drink.

Jenna sprang from her chair. Her ears still ringing, she surveyed the yard, but didn’t see the kids anywhere. The cry sounded unnatural. Inhuman. Skip was barking frantically.

“Evan?” she called, rushing from the patio towards the line of trees at the back, trying simultaneously to locate the origin of the noise and suppress her growing panic.

“The blasted dog probably saw a cat again,” George said as he followed her.

Just then, Ava rushed around the corner from the side yard. The four-year-old stopped in her tracks when she saw them and gestured urgently for them to follow her.

“Sum’fin’s wrong with Evan,” she said, her four-year-old eyes wide with concern.

Jenna rushed after Ava. As she turned around the corner, she saw Evan immediately. He stood motionless, his head hanging forward, his arms limp at his sides. The stick he had been playing fetch with only moments before hung loosely in his hand. Skip pranced in place against the fence, as far away from Evan as he could get without breaking through the wooden gate.

“Evan?” Jenna spoke his name softly as she neared him. His face was ashen and his gaze fixed on the grass at his feet. She knew the other adults were behind her, and she could hear muffled talking, but she didn’t care what they were saying.

“Evan? Sweetie?” Kneeling in front of him, she touched his cheek and gasped at his icy skin. She barely resisted the urge to snap her hand away. His breath was shallow.

“Sweetie?” she asked again, her concern mounting. “C’mon, sweetie, you’re worrying mommy now.”

She shook his shoulders slightly and he rolled limply in her grasp, until he collapsed into her arms. The sound of the barking dog seemed a million miles away as she felt her whole world slam to a standstill. Her little boy lay limp and icy in her arms.

“Thomas!” She was in panic’s grip now. Thomas was beside her almost instantly. Maybe he was there the whole time, she couldn’t be sure. George and Elaine were talking, but she couldn’t hear anything over the damned dog.

Is this an epileptic fit? With a silent curse, she wished she had taken those CPR and first aid refresher courses the county had offered in the spring.

“Elaine, can you call an ambulance?” Thomas asked as he picked up Evan’s wrist and took his pulse. Elaine turned and disappeared. “God, he’s an icicle.”

“George? Can you take the dog?” Thomas said, as he gently laid Evan down on the grass. George started dragging the frenzied dog inside, half-carrying the animal as it strained frantically against its collar away from Evan. As the dog was dragged by, she could see the whites of its eyes as strained to get as far away from her son as possible. It dawned on her then—the dog was afraid of Evan.

What on earth could Evan have done? Looking back at her son, the sight made her shiver. He was so pale and motionless in her husband’s arms, so corpse-like. It frightened her more than anything she had ever seen before.

“What do we do?” Jenna whispered, her heart in her throat.

“We try and warm him up until the paramedics get here,” Thomas said.

Elaine appeared suddenly with blankets. “The ambulance is on its way. George is talking to dispatcher now.” She handed the blankets to Jenna. “George said you may want these.”

Evan’s head snapped backwards and he arched his back into the grass as a long, piercing scream escaped his lips. Jenna scrambled to hold him as he crumpled into his father’s arms, crying into his chest.

“Honey, are you okay?”

“Mommy,” Evan said, tears welling in his hazel eyes. “I saw something bad.”

“It’s okay,” Jenna said as she held him close. “You’re okay now.”

“I saw a girl go away, Mommy.” Jenna felt her stomach clench. He was too young to know about death. Much too young. He knew people got hurt and went away, like Auntie Helen and Uncle Trevor, but she had never had the talk about how they don’t come back.

“It wasn’t real,” Jenna said, so thankful to feel the warmth seeping back into his cheeks. “You had a terrible daydream.”

“But there was a monster and a forest that came out of nowhere, and the monster hurt her until she went away.”

“I know, sweetie, but it wasn’t real. None of it was real.” She rocked him and kissed the top of his head, continuing to feel relieved as heat crept back into him. “None of it was real.”

Once the ambulance arrived, she watched and nodded numbly as Thomas described what had happened. Only when the paramedics held their arms out did she allow her son to be taken out of her embrace. In a daze, she watched as the paramedics checked her son out before hefting him back into his father’s arms.

CHAPTER TWO

Later that evening, Thomas was struggling to focus on work. He could hear Jenna bustling around in the next room, humming faintly to herself as she reorganized her closet for the coming fall. He had always thought it a comical practice. They did live in Los Angeles, after all, and as far as he could tell summer clothes could be worn year-round, with the addition of a sweater now and then. But, as Jenna reminded him constantly, he knew nothing about fashion, and even less about women’s fashion. On more than one occasion she had pointed at one of his beloved, well-worn sweaters and told him that men who wore historical artifacts weren’t allowed to criticize anyone on fashion trends.

Thomas could tell from the disharmonious tune Jenna was humming that she was distracted and still thinking about what had happened earlier that day. Not that he could blame her. He was getting nowhere himself. He had done nothing more than fidget and push through stacks of old notes for the last hour. He dropped the pencil he had been absent-mindedly chewing onto the stack of papers strewn across his old mahogany desk. Abandoning any pretense of productivity, he rose and strode towards the window across the room. The syllabus for his class on Greek and Roman religion would have to wait for another day. As he reached for the tieback to the curtain, he paused to take in the sunset. The dazzling red and orange playing across the sky made it difficult to look away.

“There you are, scholar boy.” Turning, he saw Jenna’s head poking through the study door, grinning at him. A sheer layer of sweat glistened on her skin, strands of hair had escaped her pony tail, and her cheeks were slightly flushed from her chores. He returned her grin. She was at her most beautiful at moments like these. Natural, impish, and gorgeous.

“Here I am,” he smiled and gestured her in. “Come here, you. You gotta see this sunset.” She cleared the gap between them and put her arm around his waist. She leaned her head onto his chest as she joined him in enjoying the scenery.

“Yep, it’s a sunset,” she said after a moment. Inching onto her tiptoes, she kissed his cheek and tapped his nose. “But you, Mr. Dreamer, need to get yourself and Evan ready for dinner. It’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”

With a pat to his side, she vanished out the door, humming to herself again. Thomas reached up and dropped the curtain off its hook. He was startled by the sudden darkness as the heavy fabric fell into place across the window. He must have forgotten to turn the light on in the office. Again. Jenna hated when he studied without a light. She always said he was going to go blind before he attained full professorship at UCLA. As he squinted in the darkness and fumbled for the door to the hallway, he hoped she was wrong.

The crisp smell of garlic, onions, and roasted chicken greeted him as he opened the door to the hallway. He took a moment to revel in the savory smell of their traditional Sunday meal. He had always marveled at Jenna’s ability to manage multiple tasks—watching Evan, cooking dinner, dealing with stressful work calls. He didn’t really know how she did it all. He located Evan in the living room, watching a classic episode of Sesame Street. With a smile on his face, he rustled Evan out of the living room and to the bathroom for the pre-dinner rituals.

After they had both washed their hands, Thomas scooped Evan up and carried him giggling back through the living room and into the dining room. Jenna looked up at them as they came through the dining room door. Thomas could tell from her glazed look that she was still going over all the different scenarios that might explain Evan’s attack earlier that day.

The paramedics had found nothing wrong with Evan, and the emergency room doctors, after hours of waiting and tests, also had nothing. They had probed and found that there was no history of epilepsy on either side of the family and that Evan had never experienced any head trauma. Thomas got the feeling that the ER doctor thought they were overreacting. He had told them that if it happened again, or if they were still worried in the morning, they should make an appointment to see his regular physician, and look into possible attention deficit disorder treatment. As if Evan may have just temporarily become overly absorbed in his own world.

Jenna had been furious. He could still hear her voice ringing in his ear from earlier: “Attention deficit, my ass.”

Whatever it was, the hospital had given Evan a clean bill of health. He knew his wife was still worried all the same. For his part, Thomas had been relieved that the medical professionals had said Evan was okay. They were the professionals.

Evan, on the other hand, seemed to have reverted to life as usual. He helped Thomas set the table like nothing was wrong, while Jenna finished putting the last touches on dinner.

When dinner was laid before him, the famished little boy gulped down his portion of chicken and mashed potatoes with vigor and speed, only managing to smear a small portion of it on his face. The rest of the table was not so lucky. Gravy and vegetables were splattered around his plate like there had been an explosion of potatoes. He had managed to spill another portion of his potatoes down his shirt, which he scooped up with his fingers and shoved back into his mouth. Thomas tried not to laugh when a rebellious piece of broccoli fell off the awkwardly balanced spoon and hurtled onto Evan’s shirt. Chewing the last bite of vegetables with flare, he set down his fork with a loud clang and turned his enthusiastic gaze to both of his parents.

“Can I watch Cars now?” He never seemed to tire of that movie, as much as Thomas really, truly wished he would.

“I guess you ate your broccoli, so it’s fine by me,” Jenna said with amusement. “What do you think, Dad?”

“If that’s what you really want to watch,” he said with a laugh. “First, we should get you cleaned up and into your pajamas. I don’t want you getting any of that mess on the couch!”

“Okay, Daddy!” Evan said as he hopped down from his seat. “I can do it myself! Just watch!”

Evan jumped down from the table and scooted out the door with even more speed than he had finished his dinner. Thomas heard the flurry of feet rush up the stairs and grinned. He looked at Jenna and saw that she was still watching the door Evan had just disappeared through, a worried expression painted clearly across her face.

“You all right, Jen?” he asked. Startled, she came out of her thoughts with a quick jerk, almost knocking her glass over in the process.

“Oh, no,” she stammered out, before catching herself and the glass she had nearly knocked over. “I mean, of course. Yes. I’m fine.” She patted her mouth carefully with her napkin, in the self-conscious manner that usually indicated she was anything but fine. Sighing, she placed her napkin down. “You know. I’m just worried about him. I’ve never seen anything like that, whatever it was.”

“I haven’t either,” Thomas admitted. “But then, there are a lot of things that seem strange at first that turn out to be perfectly normal. This could be more normal than you’d think.”

Jenna snorted as she began to gather the dishes around the table.

“I don’t think anything about what happened today was normal,” she said with some indignation.

“No, of course not,” he said, backing off slightly as he stood up to help her clean up the table.

“And I don’t think this was ADD,” Jenna said angrily.

“I think the doctor was just trying to be reassuring, honey.”

“Yeah, well, he failed,” Jenna said. “Condescending, maybe, but not reassuring.”

“I think he was just trying to say that if something like this happens again, then we should make an appointment with Doctor Jakowski. Until then, since they can’t diagnose it now, it could be something as treatable as ADD.”

“Maybe,” Jenna admitted, leaning back slightly and rubbing her temples with both hands.

“I’ve heard that children Evan’s age can have blackouts or even mild non-recurring epileptic seizures that are nothing more than a side effect of neurological development.”

“Neurological development? Is that what you’re saying that was?” Jenna asked incredulously as she stood up from the table, a large stack of plates and silverware suddenly in her arms. He tried to ignore the look of skepticism Jenna shot back at him. He followed her into the kitchen with the sauces and gravy in hand.

“Give me a chance,” he said. “I read a study about this.”

“You read a study? Where did you read this?”

“I don’t know, one of my friends gave it to me. We had been discussing memory enhancers that students are taking these days.”

“I hope this is one of your friends from the science crowd,” Jenna said. “I wouldn’t trust one of your historian friends to know anything about neurology.”

“Oh, c’mon, Jen,” Thomas sighed before he gave in. “It was Jacob. And you know we don’t like being referred to as ‘the science crowd’ or the ‘history crowd.’ You make it sound like we’re members of a gang. Anyway, as I was saying, the theory is really fascinating.”

Thomas tried to think of a way to explain the concepts to Jenna without sounding either extremely boring or condescending. He suspected using the terms Hebbian mechanism, or even homeostatic plasticity might annoy her, especially since he didn’t have the scientific background to explain them as well as Jacob, and Jenna actually had a background in psychology.

“Well, essentially the theory is that young children, usually five and under, are still rapidly forming these neural pathways. Especially with language. It’s possible that Evan’s brain, because of his young age and the extent his brain is probably laying down these neural pathways—well, it could have become overly excited. He could have simply had a fit in reaction to this overstimulation. I mean, he’s only four, and look at his vocabulary already.”

Jenna nodded reluctantly in agreement.

“So,” Jenna said hopefully, “it could be that Evan is just forming these, these neural paths, then?” She had her back to him as she laid the dishes in the sink, but he could see her shoulders relax visibly. Much like him, Jenna was always more comfortable knowing that there was an explanation.

“I think it’s a possibility,” he responded. “I’m no expert in the field, but if it doesn’t happen again, then I don’t see why not.”

“I suppose there’s no reason to worry needlessly,” she admitted. “It’s just. . .it could be a sign of something horrible. Something really, really wrong.”

“Well, really, it could be anything,” Thomas said as he stepped closer to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. Kissing the top of her head, he savored the sweet smell of her hair. “Plus, I heard him knocking around in his room a little bit during the night, so he probably didn’t sleep well. That could have affected him in some way.”

“You heard him knocking around last night and you didn’t go see what was keeping him up?” He could tell from the incredulous tone of her voice that he may have gotten himself in a bit of trouble.

“I’m sorry, I was really tired,” Thomas said. “If he had really needed us, he would have come and asked to sleep in our bed. You know that. We’re still trying to set good sleeping habits for him, remember?”

“I suppose so.” She leaned back into him and he wrapped his arms tight around her waist. Resting the back of her head on his chest, she placed her hands on his forearms. “I would have been happier if you had gone to check on him.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Next time I will. I promise.”

She tilted her head back and looked up at him with a small half-smile.

“I suppose he is okay. So you’re not in trouble yet, Mister.”

“He is okay.” Thomas smiled. He grasped her shoulders and turned her gently towards him. He caressed her cheek softly, watching her eyes close in appreciation at the softness of his touch. He pulled her tightly to him, suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling of gratefulness.

Pressing her ear against his chest, Jenna seemed to be listening for his heartbeat. After a moment, she asked pensively, “What if this wasn’t a one-time occurrence?”

“We’ll get through this,” he reassured her. “We’ll take him to Doctor Jakowski and we’ll let the professionals figure it out.”

“Okay.” She finally caved, closing her eyes and allowing herself to be comforted as he slowly massaged the base of her neck.

“So,” she said after a moment of silence. “What did you and George talk about? It couldn’t have been about his garden.”

“No, you know George,” he laughed. “That garden has hope, but he’ll lose interest as soon as he’s asked to give a paper or talk about the state of philology studies in the modern world. Those vegetables are doomed.”

“You still didn’t answer my question, silly,” Jenna teased, poking him softly in the ribs as a reminder.

“Oh, we didn’t really talk about much that you’d want to hear about,” he said truthfully. “Some research. George wanted to bounce some ideas off me, that’s all.”

“Okay, fine. Don’t tell.” Jenna smiled up at him, her eyes tired but happy. She withdrew gently from his embrace. “I just want check on him real quick.”

Cracking the door open, they both peeked into the living room. Evan was seated cross-legged at the edge of their brown microfiber couch. He was wearing his favorite Superman pajamas, with his Transformer slippers spread out on the floor in front of him. He was leaning forward precariously, as if he could somehow fall into the television. Thomas was nearly overwhelmed at the adorableness of Evan’s rapture. Jenna closed the door just as quietly as she opened it, smiling back at Thomas.

“Well, it looks like he’s fully recovered,” he offered lightly.

“Yeah, he does,” Jenna admitted, moving in to resume cuddling with him. “I guess I also don’t understand why Skip was barking like he was. Like something was wrong. He looked scared.”

“He’s a dog, hon,” Thomas laughed. “Evan wasn’t acting normal and dogs are good at alerting others to abnormal behavior.”

“Maybe,” she acknowledged. Thinking back on the vivid image of Skip’s white-rimmed panicked eyed, she continued, “I mean, he looked terrified of Evan. That memory is going to stick with me.”

Thomas shrugged and nodded. He had grown up with many dogs and had come to learn that no animal was consistently predictable, no matter how well trained. “Dogs like predictability. If startled, they can react with fear.”

“I don’t know, that just sounds weird,” Jenna said. “If all dogs get spooked easily, I can’t imagine people would want to have them around.”

“I’m just saying, Skip might have smelled something or was scared of a change. There’s no way to know for sure,” Thomas said. “If you’re really worried,” he added in a teasing tone, “you can always check out old reruns of that Dog Whisperer show they have on the National Geographic channel.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, playing at being deeply wounded. “Now I know you’re mocking me!” She playfully punched his shoulder as he made an open-mouthed shocked face at her. Pretending to be injured by her light blow, he staggered to the door, clutching at his “hurt” shoulder with a dramatic flair.

“Oh, you’re in trouble!” she scolded him.

“I have to admit,” Thomas said as he scooped her into his arms, distracting her before he got himself into any real trouble. “I’ve actually heard some really good things about Cesar Milan.”

“Cesar who?” Jenna questioned, snuggling back into his chest with a few playful pokes into his ribs.

“Cesar Milan. The Dog Whisperer.”

“Oh, I thought you were joking,” she replied contentedly. “I didn’t know that was a real thing.”

“Yep. Totally real. Used to be hugely popular, too. Although, I think there may be some other dog TV show that’s all the rage now.”

“Well, then, Mr. Know-It-All,” Jenna said. “Since you know so much about television, why don’t you get the munchkin ready for bed while I clean up this mess.” She gestured around the kitchen. Thomas couldn’t see more than a few pots in the sink, with the dishes from dinner stacked neatly beside them.

“Oh, hon, I can take care of this,” he offered helpfully. He didn’t really see how knowing about the Dog Whisperer meant it was his turn to get Evan ready for bed, a process that could take ages if Evan wasn’t in the right mood.

“Oh, no you don’t!” She stepped away from him, shaking her finger in his direction. “I’ve seen the way you clean up after dinner! You’re still in the dog house for the hardened curry I found on the sauce pan from last night!”

It was true. Dishes had never been his forte. Making a chagrined noise, he slunk in defeat through the door to the living room. Evan still sat in the same position on the couch. Thomas smiled happily as he sat down next to the four-year-old, putting his arm around him and pulling him in for a side hug.

“Daaaaad!” the boy complained, pushing him out of the way, his eyes stilled glued to the television screen.

“Nope, sorry, bud,” he replied to the plaintive moan. “Your fifteen minutes of TV time’s up. Time for stories.”

Evan whined at the tragedy, but seemed to quickly accept this unfortunate turn of events. He sprung from the couch and rocketed towards the stairs, shouting “Race to the top!” back to his father.

“Oh, I’m gonna get ya!” Thomas shouted after him, stamping loudly up the hardwood stairs after his son. Turning left at the top of the stairs into the bathroom, he pretended to wheeze and pant, stooping over his knees. “Whew! You’re a fast one!”

“No, Dad!” Evan told him with all seriousness. “You’re just really slow.” Thomas laughed and bounced Evan up onto his stool.

“Well, this slow dad of yours needs you to brush your teeth.” Evan giggled and reached for his dinosaur-shaped toothbrush. After the completion of their nightly bath rituals, Thomas escorted the tiring child to his bedroom. Evan yawned as he pulled himself up and into his bed. Thomas sat down next to him, pulling the covers that were decorated with the cast of automobiles from Cars over his son’s small frame.

“How you doin’, Ev?” he asked as he lightly tapped Evan on the nose.

“Good,” he replied through a long yawn. His father waited patiently for his son’s usual response to hearing his nickname. “My name’s Evan. Ev isn’t a proper word. Mommy said so.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re doing well,” he said as he smoothed Evan’s messy auburn hair. He was always surprised at how soft his son’s hair was. So much like his mother’s hair. “You okay about what happened at the Eversons’?”

Evan nodded sleepily, adding only, “I had a bad dream.” He turned over, wrapping his arms around his favorite stuffed animal, a soft, blue lion.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” he asked softly. Evan’s eyes opened wide, his lips trembled slightly as he stared ahead at the wall. Thomas immediately regretted saying anything right before bed.

“Dreams aren’t real, are they?”

“Oh, no, bad dreams are never real,” his father assured him. “Never, ever. You have my word on it.”

“Okay. Good,” Evan said with firmness. “I didn’t think monsters were real.”

“Nope, no monsters,” Thomas assured him. “Not here, not anywhere.” Evan giggled again at his slight attempt to rhyme Dr. Seuss-style.

“You sound like Green Eggs and Ham, Daddy,” the little boy said, turning in his bed to look up at him, the stuffed lion tucked against his flushed cheek.

“Who, me? I don’t like green eggs and ham,” he teased.

“You promise, Daddy? No monsters?” he looked up at his father with such worry and fear that Thomas felt his heart melt.

“Cross my heart,” he said, completing the associated gesticulation across his chest as Evan looked on solemnly.

“Good. ’Cause it was scary,” Evan said.

“I’m sorry, bud,” Thomas said.

“I was running away from the road monster and it tried to eat me,” Evan blurted out. “‘Cept, I wasn’t me in the dream. I was a girl.”

“The road monster? A girl?” Thomas tried to think of anything that might have planted a seed of such a monster in his son’s head. Too much of Cars, maybe?

“Yes, the monster hurt my car and tried to eat me,” Evan said. “And it felt like it happened before. Like it had done this a long time ago, but everything was just so fuzzy.”

Evan’s lip crumpled and suddenly a thought clicked in Thomas’ head.

“Ev, you know that it wasn’t a monster that took Helen and Trevor away, don’t you?”

“I guess.” Evan didn’t sound entirely convinced as he sunk underneath his covers, only his eyes and the top of his head poking out.

“Well, there’s no such thing as monsters of any kind,” Thomas assured him. “And we don’t have to talk about this, either, if you don’t want. How about we think of happy things. Happy thoughts will chase all these scary nightmares away. Now, what story would you like me to read tonight?”

Werewolves in the Wall?” Evan asked hopefully.

“Oh, no. No monster stories tonight, buddy,” Thomas said. “I think you’ve had enough monsters for a while. How about something nice and light, like this Cars story?”

After reading a few stories, Thomas lay with Evan until he could hear the heavy breath of sleep from his son. He crept out of the small bed and kissed his son’s forehead before pulling the covers up around his son’s shoulders. He double-checked that the nightlight was on, and, as he exited the room, he left the door slightly ajar and tiptoed silently back down into the kitchen. Jenna was at the sink, with the radio on, scrubbing the last of the pots, absorbed in the task at hand.

“Hey there, sexy lady,” he whispered into her ear as he slid his hands around her waist. She gasped in shock, almost dropping the pot she was washing into the sudsy water.

“Tom!” she reproached him. “You scared the living daylights out of me!”

“Mmmm. I couldn’t help it,” he muttered into her hair. “You know how sexy I find those yellow rubber gloves.”

“Sexy? Really?” she said with bemusement, still absorbed in the dishes.

“Very.”

“Hey, your breath is tickling my neck!” She laughed and reached into the soapy water. He ducked away just in time as she flicked bubbles at him. Turning around to face him, she must have caught the look in his eyes.

“Oh, no you don’t!” she attempted to side-step him, but he was quicker.

“What’s wrong with the kitchen? No one can see us through these curtains,” he said as he caught her and spun her around towards him.

“Well,” she stuttered, looking worriedly towards the door, “what if Evan came down?

“Well, we could tell him we were dancing.”

“Oh, sure, I can already see how traumatized he’d be at the prospect of dancing for years to come.”

“As you wish,” Thomas bowed towards her as he released her hand from his. “To the bedroom then!”

In one quick movement, he scooped her slight frame over his shoulder and headed for the door.

“Tom!” Jenna whispered in surprise into his back. “The dishes! My gloves are still on!”

“Hey, I wasn’t lying when I said rubber gloves are sexy,” he told her. “Now, shhhh. We don’t want to wake Evan, now do we?”

CHAPTER THREE

Evan jolted awake. The images from his dream faded into a blurry mist. Today was a special day. Today was his birthday. He held up one hand in front of his face, waggling each finger carefully. I’m that many, he told himself, spreading his fingers wide. I should go tell Mommy. She would be happy to know. Grownups always forget the important stuff.

Now that he was five, he could go to school. Not now now, but soon now. Mommy and daddy had both told him that he would be going to school. It sounded a lot like playgroup, which Daddy sometimes called preschool, but with more kids. Evan shoved the blankets away and jumped out of his bed.

Going to school meant he was a big kid. Kin-dee-garden. He smiled proudly to himself. He had remembered the word. This made him happy. Daddy had told him the word was from a language called Germ-man. It meant “children garden.” Mommy said so, although his daddy said that wasn’t quite right. Evan had told Daddy that germs watching kids didn’t seem like a good idea. And he really didn’t like the idea of children being planted in the ground. Daddy had laughed and told him that no one was going to plant him. Evan decided that the grownups must know what they were doing. Even if they did plant him, he bet there was something to it. Maybe it would be fun?

Pushing his feet into his Transformer slippers, he slid his way across the hardwood floor. Pulling his door open, he could smell yummy egg smells. He loved scrambled eggs. They were his favorite. Them and pancakes. And waffles. And bacon. And French toast, with lots of syrup. He continued to slide down the hallway, scraping his slippered feet across the wood as he went. He imagined he was a large Transformer. Not just any Transformer. No, he was Optimus Prime. The best Transformer ever.

Evan slowed his pace as he approached the stairs. Just last week he had fallen at the bottom of the stairs and had landed on his face. That hurt a lot. Mommy had said he needed to be more careful. He could tell he had scared her. She had yelled and run from the kitchen. He was a little scared of the stairs now, but he would never tell Mommy or Daddy that. Optimus Prime wasn’t scared of anything. He just needed to be careful with the stairs, treat them like he would any other Deceptecon. He gripped the banister tightly and cautiously lowered himself down stair by stair. Finally, he got to the bottom step and took a giant leap to safety.

“Whoosh!” He cried out with pride before transforming back into the big, brave Optimus Prime on his journey to find the yummy eggs.

Darting into the kitchen entryway, he saw his dad sitting at the table. Daddy was busy reading the paper, which mommy thought was silly, since the whole thing was digital these days. She said Daddy needed “to get with the times.” Still, Daddy was too distracted to notice the arrival of Optimus Prime.

“Daddy!” he exclaimed happily as he rocketed towards his father’s lap.

“Whoa! There’s my birthday boy,” his daddy cried out in surprise as he pulled Evan up onto his knee.

“I’m Optimus Prime,” Evan corrected him with a laugh.

“Oh, really? I wonder where my birthday boy went?” his mommy said, and she set a plate of eggs and bacon on the table and looked around the room. “Well, here I thought our birthday boy might be getting a special breakfast. A breakfast just for him.”

She began to take away the eggs and other yummy things off the table.

“It’s me! Here I am!” Evan yelled. “I was just pretending!”

“Oh, yes, there’s my birthday boy!” his mommy laughed as she set his plate in front of his usual chair.

“Hmm, what was it we do with birthday boys around here, hon?” his daddy asked his mommy.

“Gosh,” she said. “Do we spank them?”

Evan made a loud protest to this idea. He was sure that wasn’t right.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “Well, what do they get, then?”

“Presents?” he offered tentatively. He was sure there would be presents. That sounded a lot better than spankings.

“Oh, surely not,” Mommy giggled. “I think I know what birthday boys get. Tickle torture!”

She tickled Evan’s exposed belly as he wriggled on his dad’s lap, shrieking.

“Nooooo!” Evan giggled loudly, writhing out of his father’s grasp. He loved it when his mommy tickled him. Unless she went on too long. Then it wasn’t fun anymore. She made a great tickle monster. Not as good as Daddy, but good.

“Oh, well, surely the answer must be a raspberry?” his dad said as he lifted Evan up and blew loudly on his tummy.

“No!” Evan said as he climbed from his father’s lap to his own chair in order to attack the yummy eggs that waited for him. “You guys aren’t very good at this game.”

“Well, then,” his father said. “I guess you do have a birthday party this weekend.”

“Oh, yeah!” Evan ran to his plate and started shoveling the eggs into his mouth. They were even yummier than they smelled. He mashed the bacon into the eggs and scooped up the last few bites. When he was done, he wiped his face with his pajama sleeve as he looked up hopefully at both of his parents. He remembered Kyle’s birthday party, and became very excited. “I’m going to get lotsa presents.”

“Oh, you’ll get some presents, lil’ guy,” his mommy told him as she reached down and messed with his hair. He wrinkled his face in protest and pushed her hand away. “But first, we need to get you ready for playgroup.”

Evan moaned in protest. He was old enough not to go to playgroup now.

“I don’t wanna go,” he said, pushing his empty plate away and scowling at the table. “I wanna stay home and play.”

 

“Oh, dear, look at that face! Sorry, buddy, you gotta,” she told him decisively. “Birthday or no. You only have two weeks left of summer. Then you get to start kindergarten!”

Squeezing his frowning cheek with a smile, she lifted him from his chair and pushed him towards the door.

“Now, up you go, sourpuss. You don’t want to miss out. I hear Mrs. Thompson made cupcakes for the last boy who had a birthday!”

Evan took a second to consider this. He decided that cupcakes didn’t sound so bad after all. Mrs. Thompson was the nice lady who ran the playgroup. She was a really good cook. She had a very nice daughter who helped her out named Grace. Grace was just as nice, but prettier than Mrs. Thompson. She always played with Evan, even when other kids wouldn’t. His friends always played with him, but sometimes they weren’t at playgroup. And when they didn’t come, Evan felt left out. He didn’t know the other kids as well, so he played all by himself. That wasn’t as much fun.

Plus, his birthday meant he was special that whole day. If he went to playgroup, then he could tell all the other kids it was his birthday. They would be jealous, he was sure of it. He was five, after all, and they were only four. Except for Cindy. She was five, too. But she was mean, so she didn’t count.

[ * ]

Jenna let out a sigh as she watched Evan race up the stairs to get dressed.

“What’s up?” Thomas asked, gazing at her from behind the newspaper, one eyebrow lifted in concern.

“You don’t think we’re pushing him too fast, do you?” she asked him, hoping for some kind of confirmation.

“What? Because of some arbitrary birthday guideline that somehow determines when children are ready to enter the challenging world of kindergarten?” Thomas asked, his voice laden with sarcasm. “He’s five now. If you have any doubt, he will happily tell you as many times as you want to hear it. He’s smart, able, and perfectly ready to handle whatever strenuous work they throw at him in school.”

“I guess so,” Jenna admitted. “I just worry.”

“I know you do, hon. If you didn’t worry, you wouldn’t be you,” he said as he squeezed her hand. “Look at it this way—what do you remember of kindergarten?”

“Not much, I guess. Playing, maybe.” Jenna laughed at the rush of memories of her chasing young boys across the playground, threatening them with a dreaded cootie-bearing kiss. “Okay. You win this one.”

“That’s right. He’s a smart kid. He’s going to be just fine,” he said. She wrapped her arms around him and leaned in to kiss his cheek. “Mmmm. Do I have to go to work? Can’t we just stay home? Play hooky?”

“We’re not in college anymore,” Jenna said.

“I know,” Thomas said. “You ever miss the freedom?”

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “But I love everything the way it is now.”

“Me, too.”

Jenna saw the time on the microwave, and groaned.

“Oh man, is it that time already? We’re running late.”

“We’re always running late,” Thomas laughed. He stood up from the table with a stretch and kissed her forehead. A part of her wished that they could just forget about work and spend the day snuggled in their bed as he suggested. Unfortunately, their days of lounging in bed were largely a thing of the past.

“You have a good day, ‘kay?” he whispered into her hair.

“Will do,” she said. “Oh, and don’t forget you’re picking Evan up today.”

Thomas nodded as he shouldered his canvas bag and threw back the last drop of coffee before rushing out the kitchen door. Jenna smiled at his last-minute flurry, but she also couldn’t help but feel a twinge of frustration. Between his research and his busy class load, he had somehow managed to duck out of most of the preparations for Evan’s new school. She had attended the parent-teacher conferences at the school all by herself. She knew Thomas had wanted to go, but somehow one thing or another kept coming up. She ended up being the one who took the time off from work.

At the group meeting with the other parents, Jenna had endured the whispered snide comments of a clique of moms, led by a woman with hair bleached so blonde it almost looked white. This peroxide mom and her crew clearly did not believe that Jenna was married. They had chatted nonstop behind their hands about the hardships of single parenting, and how they would never be brave enough to do it. Her anger was riled when she heard “that poor child.”

Jenna understood Peroxide Mom’s assumption to some extent. Jenna didn’t dress like a snazzy businesswoman nor did she look the part of a super soccer mom. She bit back the urge to tell the women to fuck off, she was married, and the dad was in the picture. She didn’t see their husbands around, so why the hell were they assuming she was a single mom. Why was that bad anyway? Judgmental moms.

Jenna found comfort in imagining that the bleach had soaked its way into the ringleader’s scalp, bleaching her brain cells away, and that the fumes were killing her friends’ brain cells, too.

Oh well, Jenna thought, stirring herself from her useless reverie. That’ll wait for another day. She sighed as she deposited the dishes in the sink. They, too would have to wait until later. There just wasn’t time. Poking her head through the hallway door, she called up the stairs to her dallying son.

“C’mon, birthday boy! We don’t want to be late!”

She listened hard and was rewarded with the sound of scurrying feet. Evan scrambled through the living room door. His hair was more ruffled than usual and his pale face flushed from the effort of changing quickly and rushing down to meet her.

“Let me check you over,” she told him. After a quick inspection, she gave him a pat of approval. “Yep, shoes are on the right feet, Velcro straps are securely fastened, clothes all appear to be on and in the right direction. Good job, mister! Let’s go!”

Evan smiled up at her, hugging her legs happily. In moments like this, with her son so happy and giving her that wide grin, and those hazel eyes of his twinkling, it was easy to feel so happy her heart felt ready to burst. She snagged his hand in hers, reveling in the softness of his small hand in her own, and the sense of peacefulness and calm it brought. She would miss it when he no longer needed to hold her hand, so she held on tight as she grabbed her purse and keys and headed for the car.

After dropping an excited Evan off at school, Jenna jumped onto the freeway to head to work. She went over her mental checklist for her day while driving. One of her clients had been readmitted to the hospital last night after a relapse with his addiction to pain meds. He had stolen prescription meds from his girlfriend’s mother and swallowed all of them. Jenna wasn’t sure if the overdose was accidental or if it had been a suicide attempt. He had been making progress, so this relapse sucked the wind out of her when she heard about it. She had thought that she would be able to add his story to the small book of success stories she kept in her desk to remind her why she did this work.

Another client had been evicted from her apartment, and the department was struggling to find a place for her in their already stretched social housing project. To make matters worse, yet another caseworker was on her calendar with a request for health leave. Stress, of course.

Jenna sighed in frustration as the traffic around her slowed to a stop.

Great, just what I needed. She drummed her fingers on her steering wheel as she glanced at her watch. After ten minutes of little to no movement, she realized that there was no way she was going to make it in by 8:30 a.m. Slipping her earbud in, she hit the speed dial for her work. A frazzled voice answered the phone after a couple of rings.

“Hey, Diane, it’s me,” she greeted the head receptionist. “I’m stuck in traffic. With any luck, I’ll be there in forty-five.”

“Okay, I’ll let Kevin know,” Diane answered.

“Thanks, Diane.”

Jenna silently cursed. She had entirely forgotten her meeting with the new supervisor this morning. Her calendar was still not syncing correctly with her new phone. This would be a great first impression.

“You should know, it’s been a madhouse.”

“Isn’t it always?”

“Yep, and today’s no different,” Diane assured her.

“Okay, thanks, Diane.”

Jenna removed the earbud and flung it onto the passenger seat. It was going to be a great day already.

As luck would have it, exactly forty minutes later she was walking through the front door of the gloomy cement Mental Health Services building. The building had always seemed ominous to Jenna. It sat low to the ground, with sinister windows foreshadowing a darkness that lay within. Brightly colored bushes were haphazardly dropped in front of the grim structure, creating an absurd attempt at cheeriness. It should have been a bright building, something to inspire the downtrodden who inevitably found their way through its doors. Of course, it hadn’t intentionally been built with county mental health services in mind. The low cost of the premises, however, made it an ideal acquisition for the then-homeless department. The grim building was evidence of the city’s need to cut corners wherever it could. Of course, her paycheck was also evidence of the city’s dire financial straits.

Jenna greeted a harried-looking Diane from behind the plexiglass window as she walked through the reception area. Sure enough, just as she had suggested over the phone, the waiting room was already full. A woman sat in the corner muttering to herself, rocking back and forth rhythmically as she held a tattered doll and a purse that was falling to pieces in hands cracked from sun exposure, fingers caked with dirt. It was Thursday, so Jenna was not surprised to see Marilyn. Almost as if she sensed her gaze, Marilyn lifted her eyes and saw Jenna. She smiled a sad, hopeful smile, her thirty-something skin dry and cracked from too many days in the hard sun. Jenna smiled back, trying to pour as much cheer into that smile as she could.

“Muh-muh, Ms., Miz Elliott,” a hesitant voice stuttered from behind her as she attempted to breeze through the waiting room.

“Oh, hi, John,” she greeted the stuttering man warmly, giving him a nod as she continued to the back. “I’m running late for a meeting, but I’ll call you in as soon as I’m free, okay?”

“Okay,” John said, wringing his hands while looking down at his worn shoes. His light brown hair was speckled with grey, hanging in rough patches around his overly tan face. Jenna felt a twinge of guilt as she headed for the dimly lit corridor that led to her office. John was a Vietnam vet. The war had left him broken. His body was sometimes wracked with uncontrollable spasms and a stammer that his physicians believed was caused by shrapnel lodged in his brain. He was unable to process the simplest of concepts. He could no more hold a job than he could sleep through the night. She could listen, but there really wasn’t much more that she could do. He was too afraid of registering with the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Mental Health Services. She had tried to explain the benefits of exploring this option, but each time he grew terrified that she was trying to force him back into the service. He wasn’t suicidal, he wasn’t a danger to anyone else, he was just afraid. Like so many others who walked through those ugly glass doors. And the county simply didn’t have the funds to help those who couldn’t find their way, even with someone guiding every step. There were too many people in need for that.

Once she entered her tiny office, Jenna opened the blinds to let in what little gloomy light reflected off the beige-painted concrete building across the alley. She turned and dumped her briefcase and shoulder bag, each full of client files and books, on the round wooden table by her desk. Switching her computer on, she grimaced at the Outlook alarms that blared at her from its flat screen. She tried to work out just how late she was for her morning meeting, and whether she had enough time to grab some of the awful coffee from the break room before barging into the conference room.

Aw, you’re late already, she told herself, and you need the caffeine. With this resolution made, she picked up a yellow legal pad and pen. She knew that there would be more doodles than notes on the paper, but even doodling could have the appearance of earnest concentration.

As she headed toward the door, she did her best to quash the feeling of dread that was lurking at the edges of her mind. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad lurked on the horizon.

  • * *

“What’s your party gonna have?” Patrick asked Evan as they worked together to assemble a Lego castle.

“Well, mommy said there will be cake,” Evan said with authority, placing a yellow Lego down and squirming it into place. He then produced a little Lego man, who was clearly supposed to be a knight or guard of some kind. With gravity, he placed the knight right next to the yellow Lego.

“Will there be presents?” Abe asked with awe, as he sat cross-legged watching the other two boys work.

“Oh, yes,” he assured his friend. “But only for me. It’s my birthday. Not yours.”

“Oh. Right,” Abe replied with some dejection.

“Hey! Will you get a puppy?” he asked with renewed hope. Abe loved puppies.

“No,” Evan replied with firmness. “I’m too small, still. Mommy says I have to be bigger.”

“Why?” Abe asked, clearly puzzled as to why this would have anything to do with getting a puppy.

“Mommy says puppies get big, an’ I have to be able to walk it all by myself. And I hafta be able to pick up its poopy.”

“Ew,” Abe said, crinkling his nose.

“How much bigger do you hafta be?” Patrick asked. These things were important, after all. Bigness was a continuing topic of conversation with the three boys. And Kyle, too, but he was sick today. This made Evan sad, since it meant Kyle wouldn’t be at his birthday party, which also meant that he wouldn’t get as many presents.

“My mommy said I grew an inch last week,” Abe blurted happily. “Would an inch be bigger enough?”

“Maybe,” Evan replied. He didn’t really want to let on that he wasn’t quite sure how big an inch was. He was the oldest of the three of them. He was supposed to know a lot more than them. He didn’t like this newness of one of his friends knowing more than him about anything. So he would have to do what he usually did. Pretend.

“Mommy said as soon as I am as big as Daddy, then I can have a puppy,” he informed them. They groaned and murmured over the Lego structure, agreeing that daddy-sized was really big. “But I’m growing real fast. I bet when I’m six I’ll be just as big as Daddy.”

Abe and Patrick nodded in awe. They would believe anything of him. He was five now, so he would know. They wouldn’t turn five for, well, forever.

“What kind of puppy will you get?” Abe asked the older boy with some excitement.

“A black one,” Evan replied with a firm nod. He didn’t know what kinds of puppies there were, but black seemed pretty safe. He’d seen lots of black puppies at the pet store, flopping around over each other, tugging on one another’s ears. They were cute. But Mommy had said that she wouldn’t buy a puppy from a place that supported puppy mills. Then she had led him away from the cute tumbling puppies and the store. He didn’t know what a puppy mill was, but he thought it couldn’t be that bad. He could imagine a big ol’ factory churning out puppies. It sounded like a really cool place. Maybe when he got to be bigger, he could work there.

“Okay, boys and girls!” Grace’s voice interrupted them. “Nap time. Grab your sleeping mats and blankets from your cubbies.” Soft music began to play, signaling that it really was nap time.

“Oh, thank you, Evan,” she said as he rushed to the cubby with his name scrawled beneath it. “You are so fast. Everyone, see how fast Evan is at getting ready?” She smiled warmly at him.

Evan liked to be the first to get ready, ’cause then Grace would say nice things to him. He liked her. She always said nice things about everyone. He especially liked it when she said he was the fastest at doing things.

I’m faster than anyone, he told himself as he lay down on the soft blue mat. Fast as Superman.

Curling onto his side, he realized that Superman would be a great game to play with Abe and Pat at his birthday party. He couldn’t remember who the other guys were who fought Superman, but they could be them. If they played real nice, they could even have a turn pretending to be Superman. Maybe they could even wear his cape.

Yawning, he closed his eyes, thinking happy thoughts about superheroes.

CHAPTER FOUR

Thomas’s day had gone pretty quickly. He met with a few grad students about their theses during his office hours, checked his e-mail, and dropped by the library to pick up some books that came in from the inter-library loan system for an article he was polishing for publication. He dropped his car off to be serviced, then caught the bus home. Riding the bus reminded him of his own days as a student. Except nowadays, he couldn’t read on the bus without feeling queasy.

As the bus approached the stop by the repair shop, Thomas found himself fidgeting nervously with his canvas bag as he contemplated the next few months. His coursework was prepared, with only some minor tinkering left. Jenna said he was a perfectionist, and that no student would care if he strayed from his precious outline. But he cared. Plus, he had slaved to finish his preparations early so he could help George with an upcoming research project. They were supposed to meet about it in a couple of days, and for some reason he was nervous. It was the first time since Thomas had become an associate professor that George had asked him to assist on a project. He was giddy and uneasy all at once, just like the first time he’d been asked to assist as a master’s student. If he published a paper with George, it increased his chance of obtaining a full professorship within the next year or two. It would be a dream come true for him and for his family.

The doors of the bus snapped open and he sprang up the dirty steps. After a quick scan of the aisles, already crammed with students, he found a seat between an elderly woman clasping a red cloth shopping bag on her lap and what looked like a fifty-year-old man covered in tattoos, piercings, and grime, bearing a large green Mohawk. Thomas didn’t know how this man had managed to claw his way through the generations that had passed since the sunset of punk, but there he was.

God, he probably hasn’t showered since the Seventies, Thomas thought, grimacing at the vague aroma of urine emanating from the man. Trying to ignore the washed-up punk’s glare, Thomas set his canvas bag squarely on his lap, careful not to touch the glowering man on his left. Green Mohawk, that’s what I’ll call you.

Green Mohawk reminded Thomas of his old friend from high school, Brian, and his bright orange Mohawk. They had all called Brian “Orange” back then. To this day, Jenna still could never believe that her own husband had been something of a rebel. Not that Thomas had ever sported a Mohawk. Sure, he dyed his hair black and listened to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, smoked a joint here and there, downed some beers when his parents weren’t looking, but that was the extent of his rebellious phase.

It had been a while since he had talked to Brian, Thomas realized. Maybe two, three years? Perhaps he should reach out, see how married life and the law practice were treating him.

The loud ding of the bus cord being pulled startled Thomas. He looked out the window and saw that the bus was pulling up in front of the stop at the corner mart close to his home. If Green Mohawk hadn’t pulled the cord just then, Thomas probably would have missed his stop, which would have cost him a lot of precious time. He hurried after the swaggering punk, thanked the bus driver and clambered off the bus. He sent a silent thank you to the punk, who was lighting a cigarette and glowering at Thomas from behind his dirty hands. The glint in the older man’s eyes warned him away. He didn’t even know the man, but that look was filled with loathing and distrust. Not wishing to provoke Green Mohawk, whom he now was tempted to dub “Lunatic Punk,” Thomas ducked past him and headed quickly down the block towards his own street.

The houses lining the street near the bus stop were faded and crowded claustrophobically close together. As he put distance between himself and the busy street behind him, each house became a little livelier. Flowers sprinkled the yards, lawn ornaments were thrown in here and there, and occasionally a gated lawn was strewn with children’s toys that happily announced that a child lived there.

As he approached the gate leading to his own house, it seemed to stand out from the others. Normally, he was in the car and went straight from the driveway into the kitchen door, but today he saw the house as Jenna probably saw it. On either side of the path leading to his doorstep, the grass grew long, bowing and touching the concrete with its tips. Thomas felt a twinge of guilt at the long blades of grass. It had been a couple weeks since the grass had been mowed. Okay, more like a month if he was being completely honest. It was definitely overdue for a trim. Even if she hadn’t said anything, he knew Jenna was probably fuming in silence at the state of the lawn. It was one of his few chores. The disheveled lawn did make the house look a little more ominous than normal, but he was pretty sure they hadn’t broken any city ordinances yet. He could probably get away with waiting until the weekend, mowing the lawn before Evan’s birthday party.

[ * ]

Please,” she sobbed, as the dark figures approached silently. She pulled her husband’s motionless body closer to her. “Please, please, please help him. I think he had a heart attack. Can you help? Or call 911?”

Her heart wrenched inside her chest. Why wouldn’t they acknowledge her? Why wouldn’t they listen? Couldn’t they see he needed their help? Why were they just standing there, in the shadows?

Please,” she begged again in a whisper. “Please help him.”

Looking down, she stroked his face, caressing the graying blonde hair out of his closed eyes. She looked back up at the strangers and knew with absolute certainty that they hadn’t come to help. She didn’t remember seeing them before her husband fell, then all of a sudden they were there, dark shadowy strangers, blocking out the light.

Please?” she said this time with growing fear. One hand clutched her stomach, a feeble attempt at protecting the life growing within it.

Suddenly, they were around her, circling, answering some unheard call to action.

In that moment, she knew she was utterly alone. He couldn’t help her. She couldn’t help him. There were only these shadowy men, circling, closing in on her until there was no room to breathe.

And they were on her. White hot pain seared through her sides.

As the shadow men dragged her, clawing her back, her clothes and skin, she tried to cling to him, to what was left of him, tried to clutch her stomach and all that would have been. She cried into his quiet chest as she felt her own flesh tear.

She had failed them all. She couldn’t protect anyone.

[ * ]

Evan woke choking, flailing.

 

“Get them off, get them off!” he cried, kicking his blanket off and away from him.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, Evan,” Grace comforted as she rushed to his side. He sat up, shaking. He rubbed at his arms and legs, wiping fiercely at his face. He could still feel something brushing against his cheek, and he tried to scrape it off. Grace sat down cross-legged next to him and put one arm around his shoulders.

“You okay, hon?” she asked. “Did you have a bad dream?”

Evan looked at her and nodded. He felt a tear roll down his cheek and rubbed it away angrily. He didn’t want to cry in front of Grace or the other kids. He wanted them all to think he was a big kid, and big kids didn’t cry.

“What did you dream?”

“I dunno,” he stammered, still rubbing his eyes. “Dark things were crawling on me. Hurting me.”

“Oh,” she said in a comforting voice, as if there was nothing worse than crawly things. She always seemed to understand these things. “That can be pretty scary.”

Muffled voices suddenly caught his attention, and only then did Evan realize he had woken the other kids. He felt his face grow hot in embarrassment. Directing her attention to the classroom, Grace said loudly, “Everyone, go back to sleep. Ten more minutes.”

“You want to know what I’m afraid of?” Grace leaned in to confide to him as she tucked him back onto his sleeping mat. “Small spaces,” she whispered and shuddered. “Nothing is scarier than being in a small room!”

“Really?” Evan asked her. He didn’t understand why that was scary. If she could be scared of something silly, then maybe he didn’t have to feel so bad. He was having a hard time remembering why he had thought his dream was so scary all of a sudden. Was it bugs that were crawling all over him? Spiders? He couldn’t remember exactly, but he decided that he wasn’t going to play with bugs any more. His mommy would be happy. She didn’t like the bugs he brought home. She said they were dirty, even though they looked pretty clean to him. Grace tucked him back in on his mat and for the next ten minutes he stared with wide eyes at the ceiling, trying really hard to think only about birthdays and superheroes.

*****

Thomas was only home long enough to drop off his stack of library books and grab Evan’s “go” pack full of coloring pads, books, and activities, then he was back out to catch the bus to Evan’s preschool.

As he retraced his steps to the bus stop, Thomas tried to enjoy the cool autumn breeze. Fall was his favorite time of the year. There was so much hope and promise in the air. School was about to start, and the new school year brought new students, all filled with energy. Sure, a lot of it was unfocused energy, but he could usually deal with that.

Thankfully, the bus ride was uneventful and although he had to get off once to catch a connecting bus, he was able to get to the school within an hour and a half, which was record time for him via bus. Even if he were caught in a reverie like earlier, the sign that stood on the sidewalk would be hard to miss—Emerald Playgroup School with the tagline in small italics underneath: “where learning is fun!”

Thomas welcomed the cool breeze that greeted him when he opened the double doors to the school. The yellow, red, and blue of the walls were garish yet soothing. Individual blocks of the alphabet were painted with care across the middle of the blue wall. The numbers one through ten hovered brightly on the opposite yellow wall, painted on multi-colored bouncing balls. A large teddy bear with a bright green bow smiled at him from the red wall.

The blond teenaged girl behind the wooden gate greeted him warmly as she checked something off of the clipboard she was working on at the counter. Her brown eyes lit up as she recognized him.

“Hello, Mr. Elliott,” she smiled at him, placing the clipboard and pen lightly down on the marbled counter next to a neat line of teddy bear toy soldier figurines. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine, Grace, thank you.”

“Great,” she said, beaming a wide smile at him. “Mr. Elliott?”

“Yes?” he said.

“I thought you should know—Evan had another nightmare.”

“Another nightmare?”

“Yeah, it’s kinda starting to upset the other kids. I thought you should know.”

“I didn’t know he was having nightmares at school,” Thomas said hesitantly.

“We’ve been reporting them on his day slips. Haven’t you been reading them?”

“Oh, um, not really,” Thomas said guiltily. He’d have to check with Jenna. Grace shrugged and turned to retrieve Evan. Before now, Thomas hadn’t been aware that Evan had been having nightmares at daycare. At home, on occasion, but not at school. “Okay, thanks.”

Moments later, Evan emerged from behind the wooden gate held open by Grace.

“Daddy!” The hurtling ball of Evan yelled. He held his Transformer backpack in one hand and his blue long sleeve shirt clasped precariously in the other.

“Hey there, little guy!” Thomas greeted his son happily, stooping low to get a hug. “So, let’s see. What was it we were going to do today? Were we going to go to the beach? I can’t seem to remember.”

“Daddy!” Evan squealed with exasperation. “My birthday! Remember?!”

“Oh, right!” Thomas said. As Evan began to squirm, he let him down, taking his small hand in his own. Opening the glass door to the street, he let Evan out, and waved to Grace.

“So, little guy. How was school?” he said, turning his attention to the three-foot-six-inch ball of energy beside him.

“Okay,” Evan replied hesitantly, as he swung his backpack back and forth idly. “I’m not a ‘little guy’ anymore. I’m this many.” He held up five of his fingers so his father could see just how many that was. “I’m almost a big guy.”

“Oh, I see,” Thomas said. “Well, then, almost-big-guy, did you end up getting a cupcake?”

“Yeah,” Evan said, as a sullen frown appeared on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Thomas asked as he escorted Evan carefully through the parking lot of the Emerald Playgroup School. “I thought you liked cupcakes?”

“I do,” Evan said scrunching his face up with what Thomas could only describe as woeful fury.

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Cindy made fun of me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, squeezing Evan’s hand. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Evan rubbed his eyes fiercely before responding, his curls falling flatly across his forehead.

“She called me a sissy,” he said finally. “She said . . . she said that only big kids should get cupcakes, an’ big kids don’t cry in their sleep. But I didn’t cry, I didn’t!”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” Thomas said with all the conviction he could muster. He couldn’t let Evan think there was even the faintest doubt in his mind about this point.

“An’ Pat laughed, an’ I told him he couldn’t come to my party, an’ he said he didn’t want to come anyway, an’ he said he wouldn’t be my friend anymore an’ Grace said he didn’t mean it, but now he won’t give me a present or play with me anymore.”

Thomas couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in surprise at the onslaught of words pouring out of Evan’s mouth. A stray tear trickled down the five-year-old’s cheek, which Evan wiped away. Pulling him into his arms, he told him, “That was not a nice thing for Cindy to say, Ev.”

His son nodded at him gravely.

“She was being mean, and you know what we say to mean people?”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

“That’s right,” Thomas said with a smile.

Evan gave him a tentative smile, still rubbing his eyes.

“Are you sure you really don’t want Pat to come to the party?”

Evan shrugged his shoulders.

“Would it help if I called Pat’s mom? I can tell her that we would still like Pat to come to your birthday party?” After a short pause while Evan inspected his black Velcro shoes, Evan nodded hesitantly again. “And do we want to say we’re sorry to Pat, too?”

This time Evan’s face became stubborn, and he shook his head vigorously. Too early for complete reconciliation, apparently.

“Okay, well, as soon as we get home, I’ll give them a call. Okay? Mommy and Daddy are taking you to Chuck E. Cheese tonight, remember? And this weekend, you’re going to have the best party ever.”

Evan turned around and hugged his legs fiercely. As the bus pulled noisily up to the platform in front of them, its doors clanged open. Thomas picked Evan up and mounted the dirty steps. He dropped the coins in the slot as the bus driver nodded him on, beaming a large smile at the sniffly boy being carried onto the bus. Finding a place to sit at the rear of the bus, Thomas sat Evan down next to him on the blue plaid seats.

“So, what’s this I hear about you having a nightmare?” he asked as Evan fidgeted against the blue fabric, trying to get comfortable as his feet dangled over the sides of the seats.

“I don’t ‘member,” the boy replied.

“It’s okay for you to tell me about it,” he tried to reassure his son.

“I don’t want to, Daddy,” Evan replied, his voice quavering. Thomas didn’t want to push him, so he handed Evan his activity bag and put his arm around his son. After a few minutes of reading his favorite chapter book, Evan seemed to change his mind.

“Something was crawling on me,” he said in a small voice.

“Something was crawling over you?” Thomas repressed a sympathetic shudder. He hated crawly things. “That’s pretty nasty sounding.”

Evan nodded somberly.

“Have you seen anything scary recently? Something crawly? Anything while you’re awake that’s scared you?” he asked.

Evan shook his head firmly, closing his eyes as he did so. Thomas weighed that response before deciding he didn’t want to push the matter. He didn’t want the poor boy to feel any worse about the day than he already did.

“Well, it’s okay, buddy,” he told him confidently. “Nightmares are totally normal. Everyone has them.”

“Really?” Evan asked hopefully, his face lighting up. “Even Cindy?”

“Oh, yes, even Cindy,” Thomas chuckled, resting his hand lightly on Evan’s shoulder.

“Good,” Evan said. “She’s mean.”

“Oh, she doesn’t mean to be mean,” Thomas said. “She just doesn’t know any better.”

The look that Evan shot him spoke worlds of what he thought about that statement. As the bus pulled away from the curb, a part of him wondered whether he should bring up the topic of Evan’s nightmares with Jenna. She was so worried already, and Evan was perfectly fine. Although he entertained the idea briefly, he knew that he could never keep a secret. He felt guilty for even considering such a question. He had never purposefully hidden something from her. He would just wait for the right time to tell her about it.

[ * ]

Saturday came all too quickly for Thomas’s taste, as he suddenly found himself putting the final touches to the party decorations in the dining room. Thankfully, the unpleasantness of the squabble between Patrick and Evan had been sorted out. Patrick’s mom, Nancy, had assured him that Patrick had already forgotten the argument and they wouldn’t dream of missing the party.

Evan was already bouncing off the walls in excitement, and Thomas, for his part, was about ready to hammer back a few Excedrin. And the rest of the kids hadn’t even started to arrive yet. To calm his impatient child, he had finally caved in and let Evan open a gift in exchange for his first moment of peace and quiet.

Gift in hand, Evan finally sat down and watched a DVD of Sesame Street. To the sound of Big Bird chatting personably to his best pal Snufflelupagus, Evan had opened his first gift: a Transformer. Thomas couldn’t be sure which one it was, but Jenna had picked it out, so he imagined it was a good one. He gauged from Evan’s squeal of delight that it was indeed a good one.

With a satisfied child now happily watching Sesame Street, clutching his newest Transformer, Thomas returned to his chores. He checked his watch. Half past one. Jenna should be home any minute. She had been called in to work for some client emergency, but the kids would be arriving at 2:30. He hated it when she cut it close like this. She had a particular way she liked things, and Thomas was always messing it up. Plus, Jenna was better at dealing with other parents than he was. He always felt a little adrift. He suspected that people could tell how awkward he felt without his other half.

Okay, stop it, Tom. You’re fine. He reshuffled the Transformer plates on the table and shifted the cups from the right to the left side of the plates before deciding that they made more sense on the right hand side after all. He heard the front door open and immediately relief washed over him.

“Hey, honey, I’m home!” he heard Jenna shout from the front door.

Oh, thank God. Stepping around the large oak table, he could see Jenna juggling an ice cream cake, her briefcase, and a bag with what looked like party favors. Somehow, she managed to close the front door with what looked like a dangerous backward swing of her leg without dropping anything.

“Hey, sweetie,” he greeted her, kissing her cheek as he rescued the precariously perched cake from her arms. “How was everything?”

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Jenna said. “I’m just glad to be home.”

Jenna set her bags down by the door, shrugged out of her coat and placed it on the rack by the door. He knew better than to pry, so he headed to the kitchen to see if he could find room in the overcrowded freezer for the cake.

“What about you? Nothing fell apart while I was out, I hope?” Jenna asked as she followed him into the kitchen.

“Ah, it was okay,” Thomas said as he shuffled the items around in the freezer. “Hey, I don’t remember if I told you, but there was some mild drama at school for Evan this week. But yours truly managed to smooth it over.”

“Really? What kind of drama?”

“Evan and Patrick had a little disagreement. Nothing major,” Thomas told her. She seemed so stressed this week, he hadn’t had a good chance to bring up Evan’s nightmares or the fallout just yet. She was still in shock about his fainting spell, and between that and her workload, he really felt she had too much on her plate. He had hoped they would have a few minutes alone to relax and talk about it, but it just hadn’t calmed down.

“They both seem to have forgotten that they would never be friends again, so it’s all good.”

“Oh, poor guys,” Jenna laughed.

“Jen, how much did you spend on all this?” he asked as he surveyed the goods Jenna was unpacking.

“It was on sale,” Jenna said, immediately defensive. “Plus, Evan only turns five once, you know.”

“I know, but I thought we agreed on a budget.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. With everything that’s gone on recently, I want him to feel normal and happy.”

“Mom!” Evan cried from the door to the living room. He looked a little sleepy and was still holding on to the Transformer toy he had opened well over an hour ago.

“Hey there, sweetiekins!” Jenna greeted him, stooping to the ground to get a hug from him. “Oh, I see that your daddy let you open a present.”

“Yeah!” Evan said excitedly, bringing it up to her eye level to give her a better view.

“Do you like it?” she asked, as she raised an eyebrow in Thomas’ direction.

Right. She spent hours looking for that particular transformer. You have to go vintage these days to get a Transformer that lasts. She probably wanted to be there when he opened it. I’m an idiot.

Thomas tried to convey his remorse in an apologetic shrug of his shoulders. It must have been successful, since Jenna shot him a smile and an understanding nod.

“Yeah!” Evan enthused, swooping it around the room in big circles. He pursed his lips together, and Thomas could tell that he was making silent “woosh” noises to himself with each dip.

“Wow! He can fly!” she said to him. Evan nodded in response.

“Which one is it?” Jenna asked. She knew the answer, of course, but Thomas knew she enjoyed hearing their son talk about things he liked.

“Bumble Bee!” Evan exclaimed happily, swooping the yellow robot car through the air.

“Yep! And are you ready for your party?” Jenna asked.

“Yeah!” Evan cried enthusiastically.

“Would you go wash your hands for Mommy?”

“Okay!” He ran out the room and thumped up the stairs as Jenna stood back up and began rubbing her temples.

“You okay, Jen?” Thomas asked as he stepped up behind her and began to massage her shoulders lightly. She leaned into his hands appreciatively, and he could feel the stiff lumps at the base of her neck slowly diminishing under his fingers.

“Yeah,” she replied softly, dropping her head forward as she gave herself in to the massage. “It just wasn’t how I planned on spending this morning.”

“I’m sorry, hon,” he sympathized.

“I just hate when a client backslides,” she sighed as she leaned into his hands. “This one’s afraid of his family now. He’s a vet and was mugged at gunpoint a few weeks back, so his brother decided to be helpful and bought him a gun. He forgot how terrified his brother is of guns. He almost drank himself into an early grave and now he’s decided his family is out to get him, along with the entire gun industry.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” Thomas said.

Jenna nodded in assent as he continued to lightly massage her shoulders and neck. He could only imagine how difficult it would be to navigate the muddy waters of helping someone with PTSD, but it was part of Jenna’s everyday life.

“Was he feeling better after you met with him?”

“No,” Jenna sighed. “I tried to set an appointment with his counselor, but he just wanted me to move him to a new housing project. Somewhere his brother wouldn’t find him.”

The front door bell rang. They both heard an excited squeal from upstairs followed by a mini-thunderstorm of feet as Evan rocketed down the stairs.

“Well, for better or worse, here we go,” Thomas said as he went to get the door.

Adults and children filtered in for the next twenty to thirty minutes. He could tell it was taking every ounce of Evan’s self-control to not tear into the presents. George and Elaine were the last to arrive, dragged by an excited Richard and Ava.

It felt like only moments later that he and Jenna were already working in concert to clear the tables of all the snack foods while the other parents continued to chat about schools and local news, and the children shoveled cake and ice cream into their mouths and rocketed to the living room to play.

After Evan hastily scooped the last bite of ice cream into his mouth, with only a few green sticky mint chocolate spots around his lips and cheeks, he sat upright and clapped his hands.

“Present time?” The smile and hopeful look were too much to resist.

“Yes! Let’s do it!” Thomas said, as he looked to Jenna for confirmation. She smiled widely and nodded back at him.

Gathering the children into the living room for the present-opening proved to be more of a task than Thomas had expected. Luckily, George and Elaine came to his rescue, herding the children into the next room as he and Jenna finished clearing the table.

Perched on the couch, and caring little about the “Birthday Boy” hat that looked close to falling off his head, Evan was the picture of happiness. He clapped his hands together as the mounds of presents were laid in front of him. Without ceremony, he began tearing into them. Jenna circled the room with her camera in hand and tried her best to have Evan thank those responsible for each gift, but with little success. Thomas was grateful that the frenzy was short-lived. After a brief spurt of playing with the new toys, one of the boys asked innocently to watch a TV show, which gave the parents the perfect opportunity for a brief moment of respite.

“Anyone want tea or coffee?” Jenna asked, as most of the adults escaped into the dining room.

“Oh, heavens, yes,” Elaine said with relief. “Tea, please.”

“Me too,” Thomas seconded.

“Black coffee for me, if it’s not too much trouble,” George nodded.

“Nope, not at all, that’s what I’m going for,” Jenna smiled at him. “Anyone else? No? Well, help yourself to any of the other drinks.”

Jenna leaned over and gave Thomas a quick peck on the cheek as she headed into the kitchen to prepare the drinks.

Yep, they had done pretty well. Thomas sat down at the table, feeling contented.

[ * ]

The cold steel glistened red. He knew it instantly, even after all these years. He tried to take a step backward, but his foot caught on something and he fell. He had always known, deep down, that it would come for him. It would come for them all.

It made no noise as it glided towards him, ripping through the shreds of reality he had clung to all these years. His hands, torn and stinging from the fall, pulled him backwards. He couldn’t look away. If he turned and ran, it would get him. He knew it. There was no outrunning it. There never had been. Not since that horrible, horrible day.

There had been a time when he had loved the heft of the metal in his hands. He had loved the power. It had been the symbol of freedom and power over evil. He had cleaned it lovingly, enjoying the feeling of every groove, the smoothness of the grip. He had felt invincible.

He had never wanted to hurt anybody. He had wanted to be a hero. That’s why he was there in the first place.

She was the one who shouldn’t have been there. What was a little girl doing out there? Out in the swamps, a gun in her hand, and that terrified, confused look on her face. She should have been home, safe, somewhere else. It wasn’t his fault. It was the metal’s fault. It was built for this, not him. This killing. He knew it was her blood dripping from the walnut grip. If any hand had been holding its grip, it would have been hers. It should have been hers, but he knew it was only the metal.

He had thrown it away, though. He left it there, somewhere in the trees, across the ocean—in another world. How had it found him?

Get away!” he yelled at it. He could feel the tears streaming down his face. He knew he was crying. Its silence laughed at him.

He saw the hammer cock back, and knew it had really come for him. After all these years. Terror rose in his throat and he nearly choked. He didn’t even hear it fire. His back hit the sidewalk and pain erupted in his head. He was vaguely aware of something warm trickling and spreading across his chest.

Somewhere off in the distance he could hear a little girl laughing.

[ * ]

Thomas’s heart skipped a beat when he heard Evan scream from the next room. All the parents jumped from their chairs in unison toward the other room. Most of the kids were spread out across the floor, with Abe and Pat crammed into the corner of the couch opposite from where Evan appeared to have fallen asleep over the arm.

“What happened?” Thomas said.

“It was him!” The kids all pointed to Evan, who was rubbing eyes groggily.

“You okay, Ev?” Thomas asked. Evan looked up at him and shook his head, his eyes welling up with tears.

“I’m tired, Mom,” Evan said, holding his arms up for Jenna.

“Don’t you want to play some more?”

“No. I don’t feel good,” Evan said. Those were not the words Thomas had expected to hear from Evan at his own birthday party.

“He is a little warm,” Jenna said after holding the back of her hand briefly to his forehead. “I’m going to go take him up and check his temperature.”

“Okay, guys, I’m sorry,” Thomas said to the parents. “We should probably call it.”

“I hope Evan is okay,” Patrick’s father piped in. “He might have the flu going around playgroup. Patrick had it last week.”

While everyone gathered their things and shuffled out the door, Thomas tried to give the parents an apologetic look as they muttered complaints about having parties when your kid was sick.

“Do you need any help?” Elaine asked as she helped Richard and Ava with their jackets.

“No, but thank you,” he said gratefully.

“Well, you ignore them,” Elaine said as she hugged him at the door. “And take care of your little guy.”

“We’ll do our best,” Thomas replied.

“Of course you will,” she said, looking at Thomas worriedly. “Just . . . take care.”

“We will,” Thomas reassured her. “I’ll give you guys a call a little later.”

“Thanks,” Elaine said.

After everyone had left, he climbed the stairs to Evan’s bedroom, where he could hear Jenna shuffling Evan into bed.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know, but he’s burning up now. Did he seem okay earlier?”

“Yeah,” Thomas responded. “This is the first I’ve heard of him feeling sick. I’ll call after-hours.”

The episode from a few weeks ago was looming large between them. For his part, Thomas hoped Evan would remember how great his party had been, not that he had gotten sick at the very end of it. He definitely hoped the kids would be sympathetic, and not tease him for the nightmare and tears.

But kids could be cruel. They could be sweet. But they could be cruel.

CHAPTER FIVE

In spite of the crowd of people crammed into the dimly lit waiting room, the clinic almost hummed with an unsettling, deep quiet. Patients shuffled, coughed, wheezed, and whispered, and yet that silence remained. No one talked. There was no conversation trilling, no music humming in the background, just the silence of misery. Jenna tried to focus her thoughts on something else. Something to take her mind off of her worry for Evan. Nothing in the room caught her eye. The room itself seemed darker than she remembered. The flickering halogen lamps lit drab green chairs which melded with the muddy brown carpet. The overall effect was of manic dreariness. But examining the aesthetics of the room was only making her nerves worse.

Jenna glanced at the clock hanging on the wall above the receptionist’s desk. Only two minutes had passed since she had last checked the time. She tried not to fidget in her seat, even as she became acutely aware of the throbbing discomfort in her legs that indicated they were falling asleep. Evan’s head rested on her lap. Dark circles hung beneath his eyes and the still-damp ringlets of hair plastered to his head hinted at the feverish night they had endured. A faint snore next to her informed her that Thomas had fallen asleep. His head rested against the wall, his mouth gaping open. She envied him his ability to fall asleep anywhere, even if it made her neck hurt to watch him sleep in that position.

“Evan? Evan Elliott?” a woman’s voice called from across the room. The nurse propped the door open between the waiting room and the brightly lit hall beyond. She held a blue plastic clipboard in her hand and scanned the waiting room from behind thick bifocals. Jenna raised her hand in acknowledgment as she nudged her husband awake. She gathered Evan into her arms as Thomas followed her, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

As the nurse guided them into the brighter hallway, Jenna began to feel tension mounting. The nurse came to a stop in front Exam Room 5, and gestured them into the room. With a tired air, she coaxed Evan into allowing his vitals to be taken. Normally, Evan would have fought, but he didn’t seem to have the energy, which worried Jenna all the more.

“Dr. Jakowski will be right with you, Mr. and Mrs. Elliott,” she said, as she closed the door behind her.

“Thank you,” Thomas said to the vanishing nurse. He hoisted Evan onto the paper covered examining table. “How you feeling?”

“I don’t feel good,” Evan said. Jenna’s heart ached for him—he sounded miserable. She perched herself on the table next to Evan and hugged him close.

“Well,” she said as she rearranged his zip-up sweater over his Superman pajamas. “The doctor will be here soon. Do you remember Dr. Zack?”

“He’s really tall,” Evan said as he nodded slowly.

“Yes, yes, he is very tall. He’s also very nice. He’s going to try and make you feel better.”

“Will he make me take ucky medicine?” Evan screwed his whole face up.

“Maybe,” Thomas said, “But if he does, it will be super magical medicine that will make you all better.”

“Oh. I’ll take magical medicine.” he said, leaning onto Jenna for support. “Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Can Dr. Zack make the nightmares go away?”

“I hope so.”

The door opened just then and Dr. Jakowski, known to his younger patients as Dr. Zack, bustled into the room.

“Hi there, Evan,” he said, as he snagged the rolling chair from the wall and swung it in front of Evan. Were it not for the sudden rush of relief Jenna felt just then, she might have been annoyed at the doctor’s upbeat nature and generally cheery disposition. Dr. Zack studied the chart and notes on the clipboard he brought in with him, before looking back up at them.

“So, it looks like you weren’t feeling well last night, Mr. Evan. How are you feeling this morning?”

“I still don’t feel good,” Evan said. Jenna could tell he was trying to put on a brave front for the doctor.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said with sympathy, looking down at his notes again. “And you’ve been having nightmares?”

“Yes,” Jenna and Thomas said simultaneously. The doctor nodded again as he began a routine examination of Evan’s vitals. He took Evan’s temperature, checked his ears, listened to his heart and lungs through a stethoscope and scribbled the results on the chart.

“How long has he been having nightmares?”

“More than a month,” Jenna said, looking to Thomas for confirmation.

“Yeah, it started about five weeks ago, he had some kind of episode,” Thomas affirmed.

“An episode?”

“Yeah, I don’t know what else to call it,” Thomas said. “He was playing in a friend’s backyard, then he screamed. Then he was just standing there, staring into space, completely unresponsive.”

“He was very cold,” Jenna said. She would always remember the shock of her son’s icy skin.

“Hmm, lowered body temperature and a brief neurological lapse?” Dr. Zack was looking at the chart, which clearly seemed to have some information about this.

“I guess so.”

“And how many episodes like that first one has he had?”

“Only the one last night,” Thomas said. “That we know of.”

“But we’re not sure if it was exactly the same,” Jenna said quickly. “He might have fallen asleep, but whatever it was, he woke up screaming and he’s been running a fever since then.”

“Well, he’s still running a fever,” Dr. Zack glanced down at the chart. “Of about 101.9 degrees. Aside from the fever, he seems to be in pretty good shape. In all likelihood, this is probably just a virus.”

“Just a virus . . . But the nightmares . . .” Jenna started, confused.

“The body is a complex mechanism. He could have been having fever dreams. That being said, it’s possible we are looking at a febrile seizure. The lowered body temperature from the previous incident is a bit of an oddball, but isn’t completely unheard of in febrile seizures. Most children who experience a febrile seizure don’t have a second one, but it is certainly possible that our Evan here may be one of the few.”

“Febrile seizures?” Jenna asked, horrified. She fought her urge to grasp Evan’s shoulders too tightly.

“Yes, and let me stop you. In most cases these seizures can be linked to a sudden spark in neuronal activity, or even the onset of a fever.” Dr. Zack said, as he began to scribble some notes down. “Since the first incident was so long ago, and wasn’t accompanied by a fever or subsequent seizures, then it’s not too likely that we’re looking at something severe.”

“But there could be something else?”

“Well, there could always be something else. As I said, it’s most likely just a virus. However, if you would like, I can run some tests, get some bloodwork on Evan here, and see if anything else shows up,” Dr. Zack told them. “There are several things I want to rule out. I want to eliminate the possibility of an infection of the brain, like meningitis or encephalitis. It’s not likely he has an infection, but we can rule it out. Does that sound okay?”

“But, what about the nightmares?” Jenna asked.

“The nightmares are most likely unrelated, but we won’t know for sure until we run tests.”

“Run them,” Jenna blurted. “I need to know he’s going to be okay.”

Dr. Zack looked over at Thomas, who nodded in agreement.

“Okay, I’ll authorize the tests. The technician will need you to sign the parental consent forms prior to running the tests, but this will get us started.”

“So,” the doctor said, addressing Evan directly. “Do you want to tell me about these nightmares you’ve been having?”

“I don’t like them,” Evan told him.

“Oh, yes, nightmares are awful things,” Dr. Zack agreed. His voice was soothing and friendly, even to Jenna. He seemed comfortable and confident, yet she was still nervous. “But can you tell me about one of your nightmares?”

“One of them?”

“Yes, just one of them. I want to get an idea of what’s going on in there,” the doctor said as he playfully tapped her son’s forehead. Evan nodded. He looked at the young doctor with complete trust. After all, Dr. Zack was the modern-day white knight. Instead of a shining coat of armor, he wore a white medical coat, and carried an almighty pen and prescription pad, instead of a sword and shield.

“I was playin’ with Richard an’ Ava an’ Skip,” he said.

“In the nightmare?”

“No,” Evan, shaking his head slowly, his brow knit in confusion.

“That was the first episode we were talking about,” Thomas chimed in.

“Was there anything that happened right before you had the nightmare, Evan?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Evan snapped. Jenna could tell he was feeling defensive. “I was just playing. Then it happened.”

“So, you were just playing and then you were in the middle of a nightmare.”

“Yeah.”

“And what happened in this nightmare?”

“I was runnin’, but I wasn’t me,” he said. “Wait. That’s not how it started. I was a girl—and she, um, I mean, I was eating with my mom, ‘cept it was the girl’s mom, not my mom. Then I . . . she . . . she got hurt.”

Evan wiped tears away from his face angrily.

“She got hurt? What happened to her, Evan?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“That’s okay. No one is going to make you. Are all the nightmares like that one?”

“What?”

“Are all your nightmares like that very first one you had?”

“I dunno.”

“Are they all about this girl?”

“No. Dif’rent people, all the time.”

“Evan, you’re doing really, really well so far,” Dr. Zack told him. “But can you tell me how often you have these nightmares?”

“All the time,” Evan said. He had begun wriggling on the table. She knew he was both bored and uncomfortable.

“So, every night?”

“All the time. I have a lot, whenever I sleep. The kids at my school laugh at me.”

“Can you describe any of the other nightmares? Tell me what happened in them?”

Evan closed his eyes and shook his head.

“I’m tired. My head hurts.”

“Okay, we don’t have to go on,” Dr. Zack assured him.

“I want you to make ‘em go away.”

“We’ll do our best, but it’s not going to be easy. It might help to know what goes on in your nightmares to make them go away.”

“Dif’rent stuff. People get hurt. I don’t like them.”

“You don’t like the people?”

“No, the nightmares. Nightmares are bad. People cry in them. Then they get hurt. It makes me feel bad.”

Turning from Evan, Dr. Zack spun on the chair towards the counter and pulled a pad from a drawer. He scrawled something on it and tore off a page.

“I’m writing a referral to a children’s sleep specialist,” he told her and Thomas both. “She works at the Sleep Disorder Clinic in Long Beach. We’ll run those preliminary tests on Evan to rule out the possibility of infections, but I would go ahead and arrange an appointment with Dr. Jasmeet as soon as possible. Her clinic is well-equipped for any additional psychological and neurological tests that may be necessary.”

“Okay, great,” Thomas said.

“Right now, I’m going to have the nurse take you to our lab. They’ll take some samples from Evan. I’m also going to send you over to get a CT scan and an MRI. The results will probably take a few days, so once the nurse says you’re done, I’ll be in touch with you when the results are in.”

“So, he’ll be okay?” Jenna asked with some hesitation. Tests. They would give her concrete results. For better or worse, she would have answers.

“I’m sure he will be,” Dr. Zack said confidently. “These tests are purely precautionary. Personally, I doubt there’s anything wrong. For now, I recommend seeing the sleep therapist since it’s possible the nightmares are something separate.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Thomas said. He grinned at her and she felt herself smiling back.

“Evan, now Nurse Beech is going to be here very soon. She’s very nice. She’s going to take you to some people who are very nice, too. They’re going to need to take a little bit of your blood. Will you be able to do that?”

“Will it hurt?”

“It might hurt a little bit, so you’ll have to be very brave.”

“I can be brave.”

“Good. I’ll tell them to give you a very special Band-Aid for very brave kids. I believe we even have some Superman Band-Aids for super little boys.”

Dr. Jakowski stood up then, shoving his chair back up against a wall just as the nurse opened the door and poked her head in.

“Oh, great, Nurse Beech, will you please take Super Evan here to the lab?” he tore off another sheet from the notebook he’d been scribbling in and gave it to the serious nurse.

“Yes, doctor.”

“Great.” As Jenna and Thomas got ready to follow the nurse, he added, “Mrs. Elliott? Can you hang back here for a second? Go ahead, Mr. Elliott, the nurse will need you to fill out parental consent forms for the lab work. I just have a few questions I need to ask one of Evan’s parents.”

“Sure,” Thomas said, shooting her a questioning look. She shrugged her shoulders in response. She had no idea what the doctor wanted to ask her. Thomas returned her nod and picked Evan up and carried him out the door.

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Elliott, you know I’m required to ask these questions, so please don’t be offended,” he began. “But is everything okay at home?”

“What do you mean? Of course, everything is fine.”

“Sometimes children’s nightmares are a reflection of troubles they see between parents. They’re very sensitive to their atmosphere.”

“Thomas and I are fine,” she insisted rather loudly. “We may be a little stressed right now, but we’re . . . we’re okay.”

“And there hasn’t been any violence at home? You’ve never felt unsafe or threatened by your husband?”

“For God’s sake, no,” Jenna said in shock as she realized what he was asking. “Thomas would never, ever do anything to hurt anyone.”

“Okay,” Dr. Zack said, looking down at his clipboard. “Has Evan experienced anything traumatic recently? Witnessed an accident? The loss of a loved one?”

“No, not that I know of,” Jenna said. “We try to limit his exposure to live TV. He mostly watches shows that we know are okay, like Disney and Sesame Street.”

“So he hasn’t suffered any recent traumatic experiences?

“Not that I can think of,” she started.

“What about any family or friends. Has he expressed any concerns about interacting with any family friends or babysitters?”

“No,” Jenna said. “Although, he would probably have been too young to remember this, but my best friend and her husband were killed in a car accident a little over a year ago. She was his godmother and they were pretty close. Richard and Ava, the children he was playing with when he had his first episode, those are her children.”

Jenna tried to ignore the twisting feeling of hurt that always happened when she talked about her friend in the past tense.

“It’s not impossible,” the doctor said thoughtfully. “He could very well have picked up on your sadness. How much it hurt you. I suspect these tests will come back negative for any infection, Mrs. Elliott. I suspect some form of anxiety is at the root of this. I’d really like it if you took Evan to that Sleep Clinic. Dr. Jasmeet is an excellent psychiatrist and has the best neurological facility in town.”

“Yes, of course,” Jenna said. “We will do that.”

“He’s going to be fine, Jenna,” he said as he opened the door and led her out into the hallway. “Now, just follow the signs on the wall to the lab. If you look lost, someone will come out of the woodwork to help you find your way.”

“Thanks, Dr. Zack,” she said. He nodded and headed back in the opposite direction.

“And, Jenna,” he called after her. “If his fever spikes or his nightmares or hallucinations worsen, come in immediately.”

“Okay.”

She found Evan and Thomas quite easily by following the blue “LAB” signs with directional arrows hanging from the ceiling. Evan was waiting for her in the waiting room, already looking brighter.

“Mommy, they shotted me!” he told her, proudly displaying a Band-Aid with the large “S” for Superman.

“Wow, that was quick.”

“Yeah,” Thomas said with a little incredulity. “I think if you looked ‘efficient’ up in the dictionary, you would find a picture of that nurse.”

“Mommy? The nurse lady said I might get a cat scan.”

“Really?”

“But I don’t think I can,” he said sadly.

“Really? Why?”

“’Cause I don’t have any cats to scan,” he informed her.

“Oh, no, honey, you don’t need any cats,” she said with amusement.

“Do the cats scan me?”

“Nope, no cats at all. It’s just a silly name,” she reassured him.

“So, what was that about?” Thomas asked her as she sat down next to him.

“He just wanted to make sure you weren’t beating us,” she said with a laugh.

“Whoa, you’re kidding,” he said, clearly taken aback.

“Nope, that was the gist of it. Standard procedure.”

It felt like hours before they left the clinic. Evan’s patience had deteriorated long before they had finished the scans, let alone the tests that followed. It had taken Jenna nearly twenty minutes to coax him to actually swallow the horrible concoction for the MRI. Overall, some of the tests had seemed painful, but mostly they had just bored him. To top it all off, Evan did not like the food available in the vending machines, either.

Although Jenna’s patience was thin, she felt somewhat satisfied when they finally exited the dark glass doors of the medical group.

“Where to now?” Thomas asked, as he loaded them into the Subaru.

“Home!” Evan said sleepily, as he pulled the blanket in the backseat over him.

“Ditto that,” Jenna said. She was anxious to call Dr. Jasmeet, which she planned to do as soon as she got Evan tucked in for a nap at home.

When they finally got there, Jenna was ready for a nap herself. Evan had fallen fast asleep in the backseat. He looked up at her with sleep-blurred eyes when she opened the back door.

“Hey, sweetie, sorry to wake you . . .”

“It’s okay,” Evan said, as he let her unbuckle him.

“No nightmares?”

“No.” He raised his arms and let Thomas lift him out of the car.

“I was real brave today,” he told them.

“Yes, yes, you were very brave.”

“Grace woulda been afraid.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Grace woulda been afraid to go in the big white machine.”

“Really? The MRI? There’s nothing to be afraid of in there.”

“She told me. She’s afraid of small spaces. But I’m not.”

“What a silly thing to say to a child,” Jenna whispered in disbelief. “Afraid of small spaces? Seriously.”

“There’s nothing wrong with honesty, Jen,” Thomas told her. “Grace is really great with the kids.”

“Yeah, when she’s not planting seeds in their heads,” Jenna said. She was really irked. “How do we know she hasn’t been filling Evan’s head with horror stories?”

“Jenna, you have met Grace, haven’t you?” Thomas said.

“She’s nice,” Evan added sleepily.

“I’m sure she is,” Jenna admitted. Jenna knew she was letting her anxiety and exhaustion run away with her. Grace was very nice and very good with the kids. Jenna knew Grace would never purposefully do anything to scare Evan. Still, she wanted to talk to Grace about this.

“There’s nothing to be scared of, Mommy.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not scared,” she said.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” he said with a yawn as Thomas laid him down on the bed. “The shadow men won’t get me.”

“The shadow men?” Thomas asked. She had never heard him talk about this before.

“What shadow men?” she asked, her tone sharper than she had intended.

“The ones from the nightmares. That’s what I’ve decided to call them. Shadow men.”

“Why won’t they get you in your nightmares?”

“Thomas!”

“Sorry! I wasn’t trying to plant any ideas in his head,” Thomas said. “Where are these shadow men from?”

“From my nightmares, I told you,” Evan said, as he dragged his covers over him.

“Did Grace tell you about them?” Jenna asked with suspicion.

“I just saw them in my dreams,” he told them. “But it’s okay. I’m not afraid of them. Dariah told me not to be afraid.”

“Dariah?” Jenna was clueless. She had never heard of a Dariah before. “Is she from your playgroup?”

“No, she’s the girl. From my nightmare,” Evan said.

“Oh,” Jenna said. Thomas shot her a confused look from the other side of the bed. “And Dariah told you not to be afraid of these shadow men?”

“No, Mommy!” Evan said tiredly. “She just told me not to be afraid. She couldn’t see the shadow men.

“Wait, this girl is from your nightmare? Do you know her from anywhere else?” Thomas asked.

“No,” Evan said as he cuddled closer to his teddy bear. “But she was nice. She wanted to help people.”

“Oh, that’s really nice. But nothing in those dreams are real. Not even this girl.”

“Whatever you say, Mommy,” he said quietly, turning onto his side and away from her as he hugged his teddy bear tight against his chest

“Remember, there’s no nightmares. Just me and Daddy waiting for you when you wake up, okay?’ she said quietly.

“Okay, Mommy,” he said in a voice thick with sleep.

Jenna kissed his forehead and she and Thomas ducked out the door. Nightmares and shadow men. He had never mentioned these shadow men before. Why didn’t he tell her?

She had no idea where her son was getting these stories, she just knew she didn’t like it. Not one bit.

CHAPTER SIX

Evan stared out the car window at the buildings as they shot by. He was bored. He had been super brave the other day. He had let the nurse lady take some of his blood. But now Mommy and Daddy said he needed to go to another doctor. The doctor had called and told them that he didn’t have an infection. That seemed like a good thing. But he had told Mommy and Daddy about the bad dreams, the monsters, and people getting hurt. That had scared Mommy and Dr. Zack had written in his book. Now he had to go to a special doctor. This doctor would be able to make the nightmares go away. Daddy said it was a dream doctor. That sounded neat. They were going there now. He hoped the doctor would give his dreams medicine so they would feel better.

“How you doing back there?” his daddy asked.

“Okay,” Evan said. He had toys and books, but the car was always boring. “Are we there now?”

“No, almost, though,” his mommy said, looking over the car seat at him. She gave him a big smile so he smiled back at her.

“I’m bored.”

“Don’t you have some toys back there?” his daddy asked. “I could have sworn your mom put that bumblebee guy in the car.”

“Bumblebee is a Transformer, Daddy,” Evan said. “Not a guy.”

“Oh, sorry. My mistake.”

“Where is the dream doctor?” Evan asked.

“She’s over in Malibu,” his mommy said.

“The doctor is a she?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Oh, cool.” Evan had never met a lady doctor before. He hadn’t met many doctors, though. “What’s a dream doctor again?”

“Well, dream doctors are a special kind of doctor,” his daddy said. “They fix broken dreams.”

“She’s not really called a dream doctor,” his mommy corrected his daddy. “But, yes, she’s going to see if she can find out why you’ve been having the bad dreams. And maybe make them go away. If there’s anything wrong, she can find out how to fix it.”

“How do they know if a dream is broke?”

“Well, dreams aren’t supposed to be scary or bad, so if you have a lot of scary dreams, then they must be broken. Dr. Jasmeet is a doctor who is very good at what she does, and she should be able to help you.”

“Is Dr. Jazz-meet nice?” Evan liked saying that name. Jazz-meet.

“I hope so,” his mommy said. “I’ve never met her.”

“I bet she’s nice. All doctors are nice.”

They got to the dream hospital place pretty soon after that. Mommy and Daddy let him take some of his toys in, which was pretty neat. Some places that were big and nice like this didn’t have fun stuff for kids to play with.

Evan followed Mommy and Daddy through the big sliding glass doors into the building. Mommy talked to the big man at the desk and then they sat down in the big room. This room looked a lot bigger than the room for sitting at Dr. Zack’s. It was nicer, too. There were big paintings hanging on the wood walls that looked nice. There were nice lamps on every table. Evan knew without asking that he should not touch any of the tables. He might break the nice things.

“Mommy?” he whispered.

“Mm-hm?”

“This place is nicer than Dr. Zack’s.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Why?”

“Because this is a specialist’s office.”

“What’s a specialist?”

“Someone who is very good at something special.”

“Dr. Zack isn’t special?”

“Oh, he’s very good, but he’s good at a lot of things. Specialists are the best in just one area. Dr. Jasmeet specializes in sleep problems.”

“Oh.” This wasn’t fun. He had hoped there would be something cool about dream doctors. But, looking around at this room, they didn’t seem to have any magic or powers. He sat on the floor and dug through the backpack Mommy had brought that had books and toys in it. Mommy had taken away his favorite book about wolves in the wall. She said it was too scary. That maybe it was giving him nightmares. She was wrong. He hadn’t had any nightmares about wolves in the wall. He bet that if he did have wolves in the wall, they would chase away the nightmares when they snuck into his bedroom at night.

Finally, he pulled out a Curious George book. He knew most of the words in it, so he could read it with no help from Mommy or Daddy. He turned each page of the book carefully as he sat on the floor. The man in the yellow hat tricked George with his hat. He trapped him in a net and took him onto a boat that went all the way across the water. A long way away, far from home.

Evan closed the book. He bet that George missed his own mommy and daddy, being that far away. It made him sad to think about. He decided he didn’t want to read the book anymore.

“Mr. and Mrs. Elliott?” the big man at the desk was talking. He had a really deep voice that Evan liked.

“Okay, time to see the doctor,” Daddy said.

A pretty woman with dark skin was at a big, dark wood door gesturing them into a hallway. She had a pretty smile. She looked nice. Evan decided he liked this nurse. As they followed the nurse down the hallway, he listened to the heels of her shoes clack against the shiny red floor. She took them up on the elevator and then led them into a really big room with a big desk. The biggest desk he had ever seen. There were lots of books all over, but they were all on shelves, not on the floor and all over the desk like in Daddy’s office. Evan thought this doctor must like books even more than his daddy.

The pretty nurse sat on the couch on the corner and Mommy and Daddy sat on the couch across from her. Evan squeezed himself between them on the couch.

“Evan, I hear you have been having trouble sleeping,” the pretty lady said. He decided he really liked her eyes, too. They seemed like nice eyes.

“No, I sleep good.”

“Really? I thought you had nightmares?”

“My dreams are bad. But I sleep good.”

“All right then,” she said.

“Are you a nurse?” he asked her. Normally, the doctor came in after the nurse showed them into the doctor’s room. She laughed and he decided he liked her laugh, too. She was prettier than Grace, even. Not as pretty as Mommy, but pretty close.

“No, Evan, I’m Dr. Jasmeet,” she said.

“You sound funny.”

“Yes, I sound different, don’t I?” Evan nodded. “I was raised somewhere else, a place called England, and we sound out our words just a little differently.”

“Oh. Cool.” He had heard of this Ingaland, and it sounded pretty neat. His daddy had talked about it. It was a place with knights and dragons.

“Evan, I understand you’re having nightmares. Is that true?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you tell me about them?”

“I already told Dr. Zack, Mommy, and Daddy.”

“That’s very good, but can you tell me, too? I would very much like to hear about them from you, if that’s okay.”

“Okay.” He wanted very much for this Dr. Jazz-meet to like him. She was so nice and she really wanted to help him.. He could hear it in her voice. “A girl was in one. Dariah. But then a monster came and got her, I think, and she was real scared.”

“Did you know this girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Really? Who was she?”

“It was Dariah.”

“How did you know her?”

“From my nightmare.”

“But did you meet her when you were awake?”

“No.”

“How did you know her name?”

“She knew it.”

“Okay.” Dr. Jazz-meet wrote in her book on her lap for a second.

“What did this Dariah look like?”

“I didn’t see her very good. I think she had yellow hair and was pretty.”

“You didn’t see her?”

“She looked in a mirror once. I saw her then.”

“But you couldn’t see her without a mirror?”

“No.”

“So, in this dream, you were Dariah?”

“Sorta, but not really.” He didn’t know how to say it and this was really making him grumpy. That was what Mommy said when she got in a bad mood. She was grumpy. “I was with her. In here.” He pointed to his head.

“Really? Okay.” Dr. Jazz-meet started writing in her book again. Evan looked at his hands. His mommy squeezed his shoulder and smiled at him. He was glad she was there.

“And is this Dariah in all your dreams?”

“No. Just that one. I think she woke it up, though.”

“Woke what up?”

“The monster.”

“Is this monster in all your dreams?”

Evan had to think about this one. His nightmares all seemed different, but the bad things always felt the same.

“I think so. It tries to trick me, but I feel it. It’s always there and it’s the same monster.”

“Okay, Evan, can you tell me about one of your other nightmares?”

“Sure.” He took a breath and thought about which one to tell. “There was a mommy and daddy in one. But they weren’t a mommy and daddy yet.

“They were expecting a baby?”

“I think so. But the monster got them.”

“How did it get them?”

“Is this really appropriate?” his mommy said suddenly. She sounded upset. It wasn’t good to make Mommy angry. The pretty doctor should be really careful. Otherwise she would get in trouble.

“Yeah, don’t you think this could be scaring him?” his daddy said, holding his hand.

“I’m a big boy, Daddy,” Evan reminded him. He wanted the pretty doctor to like him. “I’m brave, ‘member?”

“How could I forget?”

“Evan, you are very brave,” the doctor told him. “But, if anything I ask makes you afraid, let me know, okay?”

Evan nodded.

“Evan needs to talk about these nightmares,” she said, looking at his mommy and daddy now, “so we can find out how they’re connected. Once we do that, we can determine what’s causing them and start looking at treatment.”

“I’m not scared,” Evan added. In case they forgot.

“Really?” his mommy said, smiling at him.

“Really. There’re no monsters in the room.”

“That’s good to hear. Now, about this dream you were telling me about. So, this mommy and daddy, what did the monster do?”

“It made ‘em think they would be bad mommies and daddies and it hurt them ‘til they went away.”

“‘Til they went away?”

“Yeah.” It was sad. He didn’t like seeing the empty look in the daddy’s eyes.

“What does that mean?”

“They went away. They were still there, but they weren’t in their eyes any more an’ they wouldn’t move.”

“Okay,” Dr. Jazz-meet said as she looked at him from behind her desk. “Do you know anyone who has gone away like that in real life, Evan?”

“I guess.”

“And what really happened to them?”

Evan squirmed uncomfortably. He suddenly felt really hot and his hands were sweating. He knew Mommy and Daddy didn’t like talking about this.

“They were dead. They would never get up again. Like Auntie Helen.”

“So, in each nightmare, the people die? This monster kills people?”

“I guess so.” Mommy was holding his hand real tight now. He tried not to look up at her. He didn’t want her to be mad at him. He couldn’t help what was in his nightmares.

“Do you know why?”

“Why what?”

“Why the monster kills people?”

“I dunno. They didn’t do anything. The mommy and daddy were just walking. They were afraid that things wouldn’t work.”

“What things wouldn’t work?” she asked. He shrugged. He didn’t really know. “Why did you use those words?”

“She used them. The mommy.”

“So, the mommy was afraid things wouldn’t work?”

“Yes. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be a good mommy and that the daddy would go away. But then the monster came with his shadow men. The daddy’s heart was bad and it stopped working.”

“Evan, are you afraid your own dad has a bad heart?”

“No! Daddy has a good heart. It works real good.” Evan didn’t know why she asked that. It had nothing to do with his nightmare.

“Have you ever heard your own mommy or daddy say these things?”

“No.”

“So, this mommy and daddy weren’t your mommy and daddy?”

“No.” This doctor lady was supposed to be smart. He was starting to think he she wasn’t smart. He was starting to not like her. “These are stupid questions.”

“I’m sorry, Evan, I’m just trying to understand,” she said in a really nice tone of voice. “Dreams are really hard to understand, and sometimes they like to play tricks on us. I just want to make sure. Please be patient with me.”

“Okay, but can you ask smart questions?”

“Evan, don’t be rude,” his mother said under her breath.

“It’s quite all right,” the doctor said to his mom. “Evan, I’ll do my best to ask smart questions from now on, okay?”

“Okay.”

“So, this mother, can you tell me about her?”

“She was scared. She said some mean things to the daddy, but only ’cause she was scared.”

“Does your mommy ever say mean things to your daddy?”

Evan had to think about this. “Maybe, but my mommy never yells at Daddy.”

“And this woman yelled at her husband?” He nodded.

“Did you see this?”

“No. When he stopped breathing, she was real sad she had yelled at him. She wanted to take it back, but she couldn’t. She kept thinking it.”

“So he had a heart attack?”

“I think so,” Evan said. That clicked. He had heard about heart attacks. “But it was the monster’s fault. He did it.”

“So, the monster scared him to death? Is that right?”

He nodded again.

“What happened then?”

“The monster got her. She thought it was people, coming to help, but it was the monster. It tricked her.”

“And did the monsters get the dad, too? Is that why he stopped breathing?”

“Yeah, I told you that already. But she didn’t know it. She couldn’t see it.”

“It was only the one monster, though?”

“Sorta. It sometimes looks like a lot of monsters, but it’s really just one.”

“How can a monster look like a lot of monsters?”

“’Cause it’s super strong. It gets stronger sometimes. When it’s really strong, I think it splits itself up.”

“Why would it split itself to look like a lot of monsters?”

“For fun,” Evan said without thinking. He wasn’t really sure why it would do that, but he knew it was all the same monster. He could feel it. Evan had thought that talking about the dreams was stupid at first, but now he didn’t think so. He hadn’t really ever thought about all the dreams together before. He hadn’t really thought about the monster until he started talking about it to Dr. Jasmeet.

A beep came from the doctor’s pocket just then. She pulled a black thing from her coat and looked at it. It looked almost like a phone, but it wasn’t.

“Okay, we have some equipment ready for you to take home. I’m going to send you to our lab, and they’re going to set you up with a machine that will monitor you while you sleep, Evan.”

“Okay.”

“For now, this stuff is pretty high-tech and cool. We’re going to ask you to wear it at night, so we can watch what your brain does when you’re asleep. Is that okay?”

“Will it make me into a robot?”

“No, but you can pretend if you like.” Evan thought this was pretty neat. He wondered what the machine would look like. Would he have wires coming out of his head?

He decided he liked the doctor again. She was pretty neat. She was giving him a machine of his own.

[ * ]

“So do you know what’s going on yet?” Thomas asked the doctor as Jenna took Evan to the lab to get the sleep monitor from Dr. Jasmeet’s assistant.

“It is a process, Mr. Elliott,” the doctor said as she jotted some remaining notes on the page. She took her glasses off and threw them onto the desk, before turning to look at him. “It will take time to properly diagnose your son’s condition.”

“But do you have a clue yet?”

“Well, from the questionnaires you and your wife filled out, the medical reports Dr. Jakowski sent me, and after one brief interview with your son . . . No, not really. I can guess, pending lab results, that this could be simply a case of parasomnia with REM disturbances. The monitor will be able to better illuminate your son’s sleeping cycle.”

Thomas was beginning to feel relieved that they had come to this doctor. A sleep disorder. That was something doctors could handle.

“It’s possible he’s having night terrors. Disturbed nighttime breathing might contribute to this. He might have sleep apnea or have some allergen in his room that is sending his body into a state of panic due to lack of oxygen to the brain.”

“Wait, so this machine measures his breathing? I thought you told Evan the machine was to monitor his brain?”

“Well, not really, certainly not in the strictest sense. It’s more to monitor his breathing, but that doesn’t sound as cool as the brain. We’ll start with the pulse oximeter, which the lab technician will send instructions home with you. If the pulse oximeter readings don’t help my diagnosis, we may need to bring Evan in to run some polysomnograms.”

“Oh.” He didn’t really see the purpose of fibbing to his son in order to get him interested. He supposed the doctor must have her reasons.

As he left the office and met Jenna and Evan in the lobby with the bag full of gadgets, Thomas couldn’t help but think one thing: this was going to be expensive. He wasn’t sure what the insurance would cover, but he hoped they would cover most of it. It would be worth it, certainly, but expensive.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The remaining weeks of summer went by really fast. Evan talked to Dr. Jazzmeet a lot. She was very nice, and was much better at listening to what he said after that first time. Plus, he really liked the lab tech at the sleep center. He always made him laugh and gave him a lollipop whenever he sat in the machines really good.

Sometimes, all the adults hovered around the computers and machines and looked all serious, but they never told Evan what was going on. The word he heard them say most was “inconclusive,” whatever that meant. His daddy told him that meant that was just a fancy way of saying they didn’t know.

He still had nightmares. Each one left him with an icky feeling afterwards. They were always short at least. So that was good, he guessed.

Mostly, he was excited that he was starting school. Today was his very first day. It had been hard saying goodbye to Grace and all his preschool friends, but they said they would still come over and play at his house.

“Evan, I’ll be picking you up this afternoon, okay?” His mommy was looking down at him, shielding her eyes from the sun as they stood outside the door to his new school.

“Okay,” Evan said. He held her hand as she led him in through large orange doors. Bigger kids rushed by and bumped into him. They hardly even looked at him. He felt very small all of a sudden. There were posters on the walls and pictures of men he didn’t recognize. His mom caught him looking at one in a particular. “That’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Can you read the words on the wall next to his picture?”

“I. . . have . . . a . . . d . . . d . . . dream,” Evan said as he followed the gold letters, sounding each of them out.

“Very good! Oh, it looks like we’re here.”

She had come to a stop in front of an open door. Evan looked at the doorway to his classroom for the very first time. His stomach was in knots already. He didn’t like this feeling. He didn’t know anyone at this new place. And Mommy was just going to leave him there, with a whole bunch of strangers. He tried really hard not to cry.

“Do I really have to go?”

“Yes, you do.” She hugged him hard. Almost too hard, but he didn’t say anything. It made him feel better. She ran her hand through his hair, trying to straighten it. “All kids have to go to kindergarten. School is very important. You want to be as smart as Daddy someday, don’t you?”

“I guess. But can’t Daddy just teach me?”

“He’ll always teach you, honey,” she said. “That’s our job as parents. But there are some things parents can’t teach you. Things that are better taught at schools, surrounded by kids your own age. You understand, don’t you?”

“I guess.” He didn’t really, but it seemed to be the answer his mom expected.

“Plus, your father needs to keep working so someday we’ll be able to afford to send you to college.”

 

“What if I don’t wanna go to college?” This made her laugh. He didn’t think it was funny, but he was glad she wasn’t mad at him.

“Just don’t say that in front of your father, honey.”

“Okay.” He continued to stare at the closed door to his new classroom.

“You know, today is everyone else’s first day today, too.”

“It is?”

“Yep. It’s the very first day of school, in a very brand new school year. You’re going to make a whole bunch of new friends.”

“I don’t want to. I like the friends I have.”

“I know you do,” she said. She let out a big breath, and he could tell that he was being difficult. That’s what Elaine called it. “But I need you to do this. Can you do this for me?”

“I guess.”

“Good.” She opened the door to his new classroom, and waited for him.

Evan sucked all the air into his chest and dragged one foot in front of the other until he was through the door and inside the room. He could be brave for mommy. If mommy needed him to go to school, he could go to school. Looking around the room, he noticed it was much bigger than the main room at his preschool. It had small desks lined in rows facing a large blackboard. The tile was a dark shiny green. He liked the green. It reminded him of grass. At the back of the room there was a large red rug surrounded on either side by shelves full of toys and books. He could do this. He bet that Optimus Prime could beat kindergarten, and if Optimus Prime could do it, no problem, then so could he.

“Hello, Mrs. Elliott,” a woman said as she walked up to his mommy. The two adults shook hands, while Evan watched this new adult with suspicion. The woman looked down at him and smiled. She was older than mommy and had nice eyes. Her hair was gray like Elaine’s and she had a pair of green, purple, and yellow glasses hanging from her neck. He had never seen so many colors on glasses before. His dad’s were just black.

“And you must be Evan,” the woman with the glasses said. She leaned down and held her hand out to him. “I’m Mrs. Blake. I’ll be your teacher.”

“Hi,” Evan said as he reached out to shake her hand. He hardly ever got to shake anyone’s hand. He remembered what his daddy taught him when was shaking hands, and decided to repeat it. “Nice to meet you.”

“And manners!” Mrs. Blake said with a big, hearty laugh. He liked her laugh. It was loud, and made him feel like he could laugh, too, if he wanted. “The pleasure is all mine, young sir.”

His mommy knelt next to him and gave him a big hug.

“Have a good day, okay, honey?” she said.

“Okay,” he said. He watched her get up and leave the classroom. At the door, she turned around and gave him a little wave and blew him a kiss. He tried to smile and wave back at her. As he watched her leave, he still felt sick. And worried. He wanted her to come back and take him back to preschool. Mrs. Blake tapped his shoulder.

“You want to see your desk?” she asked him in a kind voice. He nodded. He got his own desk? That was pretty neat. He really was a big kid.

Mrs. Blake led him to a desk. It looked like all the others. It had a wood top and a metal frame. He peered inside. Empty. Other boys and girls filtered into the room. When just about all the desks were full, a loud bell rang. Mrs. Blake handed out a sheet of blank paper and large colored markers to each of the kids. They were going to make name tags for their desks. She wanted it to be in big writing, so everyone would be able to see which desk was theirs. He could do that. She was going to go around the room and help everyone draw the letters in their name.

Evan didn’t need any help. He could draw the letters in his name real good already. His mommy and daddy had told him so. He chose a dark blue for the first letter. He had already decided that the “E” was going to be way bigger than the other letters. Like some of the papers he saw on his daddy’s desk. He thought blue would be perfect. Everyone liked blue. As he dragged the blue marker across the paper, he heard the sound of metal crunching against metal.

He closed his eyes only for a second, and when he opened them . . .

. . . He was somewhere else. Somewhere with less light. He heard a breath rasping in his ear, and he was there with her. He didn’t know who she was. He tried to talk to her, to ask her where she was, but nothing came out. He looked around and saw that he was in a car with the girl. He could tell she was hurt. Blood trickled down the side of her mouth, and her eyes looked funny. She was wearing a seatbelt. A white cloth spilled out of her steering wheel. There was powder everywhere and the car smelled like burned popcorn. The powder looked like powdered sugar, except it had bits of red mixed in.

Gotta get away,” she choked out as she tried to unbuckle herself. Her hand looked funny and didn’t seem to work right. He didn’t think she was strong enough to open the buckle. He tried to open the seatbelt for her, but his hands wouldn’t work. His arms felt numb and tingly. He looked down at his hands and saw they looked different. Bigger. Bloody. Broken.

She looked up at the windshield and screamed. He couldn’t see anything through the windshield in the dark and rain, but he knew something was out there. He could feel it. As she fought harder against the seatbelt, he knew it was getting closer.

He could feel her panic rising, her fear swelling over her. He could almost taste it. And in the dark outside, he knew the monster could taste it, too.

“Evan, everyone else is almost done,” Mrs. Blake was standing over him. She peered at him over the edges of her multi-colored glasses. He blinked against the brightness of the room.

“I . . . I . . .” Evan stuttered. He couldn’t get any words out. He felt sick from seeing the lady in the car. The weird, sweet smell of something burning lingered with him. He was glad Mrs. Blake woke him before the monster got the girl. The girl. She wasn’t a girl at all, He didn’t know why he kept thinking she was a girl. She was all grown up. As old as Grace at least.

“It’s okay, honey,” Mrs. Blake assured him. He realized he was close to tears, and Mrs. Blake must have thought she was making him cry. “Next time, just let me know if you need help.”

Evan looked down at his partially completed “E,” and felt himself blush. He scribbled the rest of the letters quickly. His didn’t look as big or nice as some of the other kids, but it was still okay.

“Okay, class. Time for the circle,” Mrs. Blake called. She came to a stop at the red rug. “Come sit around me, children.”

He got up from his desk and walked to the rug and sat down at Mrs. Blake’s feet. He wondered if she was going to tell a story. He wanted to forget about the lady in the car. Mommy and Daddy kept telling him what he saw when he closed his eyes wasn’t real, but he didn’t know. His stomach hurt and he felt sad.

“Okay, class,” Mrs. Blake said when they were all settled. “We’re going to go around the circle and tell everyone our names.”

“My dad told me not to tell my name to strangers,” a boy said.

“Well, that is absolutely true. You should not tell your name to strangers,” Mrs. Blake said. “But we’re not quite strangers, José. We have to get to know each other, and the first way to do that is for us to share our names. Once we are finished introducing ourselves, we’re going to play a little memory game.”

This sounded like fun. Evan liked games. It turned out he was really good at remembering things. By the end of the game, he knew all the names better than Mrs. Blake. After they were finished in the circle, Mrs. Blake said it was time for recess. Recess was where you got to take a break from school and play outside on the playground.

If this is what school was like, Evan decided he really liked school.

“Hey,” a boy called out from behind him as Evan ran towards the bright yellow structures. “You wanna be friends?”

“Sure,” Evan said. The boy had dark hair and really tan skin. He looked a little bit like Dr. Jazzmeet. Not really, but a little bit. He liked that he already had a friend on his first day. He had been worried that he would have to play on the playground all by himself.

“I’m José,” the boy said as he hurried next to him toward the playground.

“I know,” Evan said. He remembered from the circle. “My name is Evan.”

“You have a funny name.”

“Yours is funnier.”

“No, it isn’t. I know lots of Josés,” José said.

“I don’t know any Evans,” Evan said proudly. “My mommy said my name is ‘unique.’”

“Cool,” José said. “Wanna play on the slide?”

“Yeah.”

Evan followed his new friend down to the playground and tried not to think about the broken girl in the car, and what might have already happened to her.

The rest of the school day seemed to pass in a blur. Recess seemed to be over before he even realized it had started. They got to draw the letter “A” a bunch of times on a page, and Mrs. Blake even showed them what the numbers one, two, and three looked like. He knew already, since mommy and daddy made sure he knew, but it was still pretty neat. Mrs. Blake kept telling him and the other kids that they were doing a good job, and he liked that. Then Mrs. Blake gathered them all on the red rug and read a book to them. When the bell rang, he was almost sad to go home.

“Mommy! Daddy!” he shouted when he saw his parents at the door. He couldn’t wait to tell them about all the new things he had done. He rushed at them.

“I made a friend today!”

“You did?” his daddy said and ruffled his hair.

“Yeah! His name is José. He said he knows a bunch of Josés, but I’m the only Evan he knows. That’s pretty neat, huh?”

“Very neat,” Mommy said.

“An’ we played on the slides, an’ drew our names on our desks, and Mrs. Blake said I knew my letters pretty good.”

“That’s fantastic,” his daddy said. He opened the door to the car and let Evan get in before closing it behind him. “I’m glad you had a good day.”

“It was the best day ever.”

“I’m so glad to hear that, sweetie.” His mommy kissed his forehead and took him by the hand. As soon as she touched his hand, he remembered the girl in the car and his broken hands. He wanted to tell his mommy about it. He knew she would want to know. But he also didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to scare Mommy anymore.

“You want tell us more about your day?” his dad asked.

“I’m really tired from playing. Can I just nap in the car?”

“Of course,” his mommy said.

[ * ]

The sun was bright in the sky. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. Jimmy wiped the sweat away before it could drip into his eyes. He was running, like he did every day. He had to stay fit. He could feel the strength in his legs as his feet hit the dirt and gravel, stirring up dust. He loved the spring in his step, the sureness of every footstep. He loved the feeling of control. Every step brought him closer to it.

Whatcha running from?” a voice called out softly, from somewhere behind him. He thought he had imagined it at first. The voice was so soft, almost a whisper. Then he heard it again.

I said, whatcha running from?”

The lilt in the voice—it was familiar. It sounded like his sister, but it couldn’t be. That was impossible. He spun around. The path stretched out behind him with only yellow, dry grass on either side of the trail for half a mile. No one was there. That was the point of running on these paths. He hardly ever encountered anyone. He liked the solitude. He turned a full circle while running in place, and still he saw no one. The heat must be getting to him. He must have imagined it. Shaking his head, he continued up the hill.

You’ll never be strong enough, you know,” the voice whispered again. It was definitely her voice. He picked up his pace, keeping his head down. He needed to run faster, get to his turn-around point so he could get back to the car. He had never heard her voice so clearly before.

You can’t run from it, you know,” she told him. “You never were very fast.”

Shut up,” he whispered under his breath. He ran faster, each step climbing up the incline of the hill at a quicker pace than the last. The sun must be getting to him. That was it. He had left his bandana at home, so perhaps the heat was addling his brain. Or dehydration. How else could he be hearing her?

Aw, your brains were addled before you stepped into the sun, Jimmy.”

Spinning around again, he tried to locate the owner of the voice he was hearing. It had to be coming from somewhere. He couldn’t be imagining her voice

What’s wrong, big brother?” the voice seemed to be whispering in his ear now. It was her voice, still eight years old and girlish in most ways, but at the same time, so much older. He could almost feel her breath against his neck. Shivers thrilled down his arms and spine. Goosebumps prickled on his arms and neck. A lone tree rose ahead of him—his turnaround point. As he drew closer he saw a shape step out from behind the tree. He felt his body slowing its pace. Before he knew it, he was walking towards it. He couldn’t stop himself. His stomach churned as recognition set in.

It was her.

You’re not here. You can’t be.”

Oh, yes, yes I can, brother dear. Even though you killed me.”

I didn’t. I tried to save you.”

Did you? Did you really?”

Yes,” he whispered, trying to convince himself.

Is that it? You couldn’t swim fast enough?”

Stop it.”

She took another step closer to him. He tried to take a step back but couldn’t. She was dripping wet. Her hair gathered in wet snags around the pale bluish skin of her face. Her eyes stared out at him with a cold hate. He had never seen that expression on her face. Not while she was alive.

You didn’t try, did you, Jimmy? You didn’t even get in the water, did you?”

I couldn’t.”

My big brother, such a terrible wuss.”

A glimmer from behind her caught his eye, and he realized that water was gathering behind her, slowly lapping around her bare feet. The water was rising around her, oozing towards him.

There’s no water anywhere near here,” he said in disbelief. There never was. This couldn’t be happening.

What? Still scared of a little water, Jimmy?” She was next to him before he could blink, her wet, cold skin pressing against his. She was strong, stronger than he had ever imagined she could be.

No, Cassie. Don’t,” he pleaded with his dead sister. Suddenly, he was an eleven-year-old boy again. Her clammy hands held his arms tight as she dragged him towards the glimmering surface of the water. “It wasn’t my fault . . . I was just a kid . . .”

The water is so warm, Jimmy. I’d love for you to join me.”

He yelled as the waters closed around him, fighting for every breath until the water filled his lungs and he could no longer scream.

[ * ]

Evan woke with a jerk. He was still in the car. He wasn’t a grown man in running clothes. He wasn’t in a dry place, full of dust and hills, and a weird water that shouldn’t have been there, but was anyway. He looked out the window. They were on the highway. There were cars all around them.

“You okay back there?”

“Yeah,” he said to his mommy.

“Were you done telling me about school?” his mommy asked.

“Yeah. It was fun.” He wiped the saliva away from the corners of his mouth and tried to push the nightmare away from his mind.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, craning her neck over the passenger side seat to look at him.

“I fell asleep.”

“You didn’t have a nightmare, did you?”

Evan thought a bit before he answered. He didn’t want to worry Mommy or Daddy anymore. And he didn’t want to talk about the nightmares. He just wanted to be left alone about it. He wanted to just be a kid.

“No,” he finally answered.

“Okay, well you can nap more when we get home if you’d like. You must have had a big day.”

“Okay.”

In truth, Evan wasn’t sure if he wanted to sleep anymore. He didn’t want to close his eyes and see the dead girl again. Her hair dripping wet, her angry eyes and smile. He didn’t like it. That was a very mean thing for the monster to have done.

And that was two dreams in one day. He’d never had more than one in a day. They were coming faster now. He felt his bottom lip shake as he went back to staring out the window. He tried really hard to remember how great the day should have been.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Days passed and Evan began to feel normal again. He hardly had any nightmares at all. He was happy because he was beginning to think they might be gone for good. School was pretty fun. It was harder and he didn’t get to play as much, but Mrs. Blake was really proud of how well he was doing. So were Mommy and Daddy.

“Evan!” a voice whisper-shouted behind him. Shifting in his seat, Evan saw José leaning over his desk, his toes barely touching the orange plastic of his chair.

“Yeah?”

“Wanna play monster tag at recess?”

“Monster tag?”

“Yeah! It’s like regular tag, ’cept right before the monster is about to get you, you shout a type of a monster and sit down! Then you have ten whole seconds that they can’t get you.”

“I don’t like monsters.”

“Nobody likes monsters, silly,” José said.

“Boys,” Mrs. Blake interrupted them. “Please finish your assignment. Face forward, Mr. Elliott, and please put your feet firmly on the floor, Mr. Sanchez.”

“Yes, Mrs. Blake,” the boys said in unison. Evan had never been in trouble with a teacher before. Well, not since he was in kindergarten. He didn’t like the feeling, feeling bad and like he had done something he shouldn’t have. He tried not to be mad at José. It wasn’t all José’s fault. He had wanted to know what the monster tag was and he wanted to play it, too.

Evan stared at the paper on his desk. The assignment was pretty easy. Mostly tracing all the letters of the alphabet and then writing the same letter over and over for a whole line. As soon as they finished, they could choose a book to read. Evan finished his last line of Z’s with a scribble and rushed to Mrs. Blake’s desk at the front of the classroom to show her his finished project.

“Great job, Evan,” she said, smiling as she looked down at the paper he had handed her. “Although, I know you can be a bit neater. Now, go ahead and quietly choose a book to read at your desk.”

He ran to the back and grabbed a large red and black-spined book that he had seen earlier that day, Splat! The Cat. While he was pulling the book from the shelf, he thought he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Straightening from where he was crouching on the red rug, he peered at the coat rack, where he thought he had seen the movement. Now he didn’t see anything. He must have imagined it.

As he looked in the corner, he noticed his head was beginning to throb. Something wasn’t quite right. Book in hand, he walked past the shelves with the cubbyholes and peeked behind them. There was nothing there, either. He felt relieved. It had all been in his head. He could go read, knowing that there were no monsters in his classroom.

As he turned to go back to his desk, he saw it again: movement, ever so slight, out of the corner of his eye. That’s when he really saw it. Hiding in plain sight. His head began to throb with a new intensity and his eyes got all blurry. He almost fell as the world swam around him.

When he could see again, he saw what was wrong. The grey metal garbage bin should have been in the corner of the cubby area, where it always was, but instead there was nothing. Just blackness. The entire corner had been swallowed by darkness. He knew that the shadow shouldn’t be there. It shouldn’t be so black.

Evan was suddenly aware of an intense hunger coming from the darkness. He knew then what that darkness was. The hungering shadow reached for him as the pit fell out from under his stomach and he tried to scream.

“Evan?” Mrs. Blake’s voice surprised him. His throat felt closed and he realized he had not made a sound. He blinked his eyes and the corner came into focus. The shadow was gone. He snapped around and almost dropped his book.

“Yes?”

“Didn’t I tell you to go straight back to your desk after you chose your book?”

“Yes, Mrs. Blake. I thought I saw something.”

“What did you see?” Mrs. Blake rose with some difficulty from her chair. Pulling the brightly speckled glasses from where they hung around her neck, she propped them on the edge of her nose. Her voice was soothing and Evan realized he must look like he was afraid of something. He felt his face turn red as all of the kids stared at him.

“I. . . I don’t know. Something in the corner.”

He looked back to the corner. There was the garbage can, plain as day. The shadow was nowhere to be seen.

“Well, I don’t see anything there now, Evan. Are you sure you can’t tell me what you saw?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Okay, back to your desk then.”

Evan’s face was burning as he rushed back to his desk, clutching Splat! The Cat. As soon as he was sitting, he opened the book and stared at the first page. He didn’t even try to read it. He tried to ignore the whispered giggles around him.

It seemed like hours before it was finally time for the morning recess. Evan rushed out the door and headed down the sloping hill towards the playground.

“So, what did you see earlier?” José asked as he caught up to him.

“I don’t know,” Evan said.

“Was it a mouse? My big brother says there are mice everywhere in this school. They live in the walls and creep out at night to eat your shoes and everything in your desk.”

“Really?” Evan asked. That was pretty cool if whole school was swarming with mice at night. “No, it wasn’t a mouse.”

“Then what was it?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe it was a monster.”

“What kind?”

“What?”

“What kind of monster? A zombie, werewolf, vampire, or like, one of those swamp thingy monsters?”

“A different monster. Something scarier than those.”

“Wow. So, like, a demon or something?”

“A demon?”

“Yeah, there are demons on this show my brother watches, and they’re pretty scary. They can look like people, but their eyes get all dark. They’re not very nice.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But I think it’s its own kind of monster. I thought it was coming out into . . .”

“Into?” José was really enjoying the talk of monsters.

“I’ve only seen the monster in my sleep before. When I have bad dreams.”

“Oh, so they weren’t real.”

“They were, too.” Evan was getting tired of everyone telling him that what he saw wasn’t real. At first he had believed them, but now he wasn’t so sure.

“Dreams aren’t real, though,” José said. “My mommy and daddy told me. Plus, my big brother did, too. And I had a dream once where Santa came and gave me a bike, but when I woke up, I didn’t get a bike.”

“These are real, though.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.” He remembered the dream of the man on the dry hill. He could still feel the cool water rising around his legs, lapping gently against his body. No, it was the runner’s body. Jimmy. And he could still taste and smell the dust, blood, and car on fire from his other dream. The dream he had when he could have sworn he had been awake.

Evan had thought the dreams were going away, but this was different. Now he knew the monster had been waiting. Gathering strength. He could feel things and understood things that hadn’t made sense before. And the words. Words jumped out at him. Sometimes, when the people in his nightmares were talking, they used words he hadn’t known before. But somehow, he was starting to pick them up. Sometimes they came so fast it made his head hurt.

It scared him. He didn’t know what was going on. And now he was beginning to see things while he was awake. Things no one else saw.

“What does the monster look like?” José asked loudly.

“I dunno. Whatever it wants to.”

“That’s pretty scary.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if it’s real, why do only you see it?”

“I dunno.” Evan was getting tired of talking about the monster and his dreams. He didn’t know why he had dreams and saw the monster. He was just like all the other kids. Smarter than Kevin, for sure, and a lot smarter than dumb-as-a-doorknob Doris. He didn’t really know what dumb-as-a-doorknob meant, but Doris was pretty silly at times, so he figured that it meant she was pretty dumb. He couldn’t say that in front of his mom or dad, though, because it made them mad. “Wanna play on the swings?”

“Sure! I bet I can swing higher than you!”

“No way! My legs are longer!”

As he raced to the swing set, Evan took the corner around the wooden structure and almost collided full-on with Doris. She was standing at the steps up to the slide, looking up towards the top.

“Just go already!” he yelled at her as he rocketed by. What a dork. Just standing there. Looking at the slide.

Slamming into the closest swing, he threw his shoulders fully back before kicking his legs out forcefully. José had a head start, since he had not run into Dorky Doris. Glancing over at her resentfully, he saw her blond head tilted upwards. He could see the terror on her freckled face plain as day. She wasn’t moving, hadn’t even budged an inch from their near-miss moments ago. He wasn’t that close to her, but he could tell she wasn’t blinking. As he watched, he noticed shadows gathering at her feet, swarming from underneath the slide and from the merry-go-round behind her. He felt a thrumming in his head again and gritted his teeth against the pain. The shadows continued to gather at her feet until it looked like she was standing in the middle of a black, oozing pit.

Evan felt that same rising hunger from earlier that morning.

“Hey, do you see another monster?” José was suddenly standing next to him, peering in the direction Evan was looking. Evan jumped at the noise.

“Is there something funny about Doris right now?”

“Other than her freckles?” José asked with a shrug. “No. What’s she looking at?”

“Something on the slide?”

Looking back at her, he saw that she was running away from the slide, crying. There were no shadows gathering on the ground. The slide was back to normal.

“I’m gonna go talk to her,” Evan said.

“No way! Some of her freckles could rub off on you, like warts.”

“I don’t think it works like that.”

“How would you know?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said with a shrug as he launched off the swing and ran to catch up to Doris.

“You okay?” he said when he got closer to her.

“Leave me alone,” the girl sniffled.

“I just saw something funny when you were by the slide. Are you okay?”

“I said leave me alone!” She stomped one white-sandaled foot on the cement before turning to walk away from him. He saw that her pink dress was ripped on the corner.

“What happened?” he said, continuing to follow her as she tried to escape him.

“None of your beeswax!”

“She’s just afraid of heights,” José said as he caught up to them.

“Am not!” Doris shrieked at him.

“Are, too.”

“You are!” she spat at him before running away.

“C’mon, Evan, let’s go play on the swings again,” José tugged on his sleeve. “She’s just a dumb girl, and I wanna beat you fair and square!”

“Okay,” Evan said. He was watching Doris’s pink dress disappear into the main building. He didn’t know what was going on. He’d never seen those shadows before. Now, he had seen them two times in one day. He didn’t know what any of it meant.

Evan turned on his heel and followed José back to the swings. He wanted to forget about the shadows, about his nightmares, Doris, and monsters. He thought maybe he should tell his mom about the shadows. After thinking about it just for a minute, he decided he would wait. If he had one more shadow dream, then maybe he would tell his mom.

Maybe.

CHAPTER NINE

Thomas lightly tapped the keys of his computer’s keyboard. The hard plastic keys provided some measure of solace, even if he wasn’t actually pressing hard enough on any key to bring words onto the computer screen. The act of almost writing was strangely comforting. He looked in the lower right hand corner of his screen: 4:23 p.m. He had made no progress on the article that was due in ten days. He had perhaps been overbroad when he chose the topic of Greek religion and politics. He knew what Jenna would say about that topic. Boring. He also knew that she and Evan would be back any moment, and he would have an excuse to leave the study and the cursor that kept blinking accusingly at him on the otherwise empty page.

Thomas leaned back in his computer chair as he stretched. Frustrated, he bolted out of his chair and began to pace the study. He knew why he couldn’t focus. Ever since Evan’s birthday party, his son had grown increasingly tired and withdrawn. He, Jenna, and Evan had visited Dr. Jasmeet every week, twice a week, but Evan’s answers to her questions were becoming increasingly terse. Almost evasive.

Now, he said he didn’t want to go at all. He told them that all the tests and talking was doing was making him tired and sad. Nothing Dr. Jasmeet was doing was helping so far.

Jenna was horrified and ready to stop everything. Thomas had tried to explain that miracles don’t happen overnight. What else were they supposed to do?

He hesitantly agreed to a compromise, and they had asked Dr. Jasmeet for a couple of weeks off as they reassessed their situation. She was more than accommodating, although she warned that there may be repercussions to any interruptions in the treatment. She believed they were making headway, but she understood that regular appointments were trying for children and their parents.

But after days without therapy sessions, Evan was still silent and distracted. He ate quietly and hardly noticed when either Jenna or Thomas were talking to him. The circles beneath his eyes seemed to darken with each passing day. He stopped looking at them when he spoke.

The light seemed to be slowly draining from his son and Thomas didn’t know what to do next. He hated that feeling of helplessness.

The sudden ring from the phone startled Thomas from his silent musings. The house phone almost never rang. Everyone usually used his or Jenna’s cell phone. It seemed silly that such a simple noise could scare him so much. Fumbling, he grabbed the black receiver and thrust it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Oh, God, Tom, is that you?” a familiar, masculine voice said on the other side of the line. He couldn’t quite place the voice for some reason.

“Yes. Who is this?”

“It’s Steve.”

“Steve!” the voice finally clicked. “I haven’t heard from you in ages. How are you doing?”

“Not so good, Tom,” Steve said grimly. “You heard the news?”

“No. What news?” Thomas felt is heart sinking. He could have used some good news just about now, but he was already dreading whatever news Steve held.

“About Orange.”

“What about him?”

“He’s dead. He and Edie were mugged. He had a heart attack, they think, but poor Edie. She was stabbed to death.”

“What the hell. Are you kidding?” He had just been thinking about calling Orange a few weeks ago, but somehow it had just slipped away from him. “No, of course you’re not kidding. Shit.”

Thomas felt his throat tightening. He and Orange had been so close back in the day. After high school, they had roomed in college. Done the usual college things. Smoked too much, drank too much, got into just enough trouble to keep life interesting, without getting a record. That had all changed when Orange earned his JD, passed the bar, and traded the orange locks for short brown hair and the grunge jeans and t-shirt for a suit and tie. Now, only Tom and Steve called him by that pseudonym, just to get under his skin. Everyone else called him by the name he was born with: Bob Grier. Not Robert. Bob.

“The police just released the bodies back to the families. So, the memorial is going to be this weekend. Sue would really like it if the old gang could be there.”

“God, of course. I’ll be there.”

Ten minutes later, Thomas found himself hanging up the phone in a daze. He stared down at the inanimate black plastic. Briefly, he entertained the thought of picking it up and smashing it against the wall. The last time they had talked, Orange had called with great news. He was ecstatic. He and Edie were expecting a baby, after all these months of trying. Now they were both dead. Edie had been stabbed so viciously that the coroner had initially thought it was an animal attack. Thomas felt numb as he sat back down and laid his head on the desk. When he finally heard the front door open and the jangle of keys, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed.

“Honey?” he heard Jenna shout.

“Coming.” He slowly pushed himself up from the desk and made his way down the stairs. She was just wrestling her bulging purse over her shoulder and into the closet by the front door.

“Hey, sweetie, how’s the article coming along?”

“Not so well.”

“What’s wrong?” Jenna asked, worry instantly in her voice.

“Where’s Evan?” he looked around the front hallway.

“In the living room. He made a beeline for the toy box.”

“Oh, good,” Thomas didn’t want to talk about this in front of him. “It’s Orange and Edie. They both . . . they’re both . . .” He couldn’t choke out the words. Actually saying the words himself made the whole thing more real.

“What? Are they okay?”

“No,” he said. “They’re dead.”

“Oh my God, Tom,” she said. Her hand came up to her mouth and her eyes widened in shock. “I am so sorry. How did it happen? Do we know?”

“They think it was a mugging,” he said. “Steve called. Bob’s sister, Sue, wants us to go to the memorial this weekend.”

“I am so, so sorry, Tom,” she said. “I know you and Bob used to be close.”

“He and Edie were going to have a baby,” he said, as he sat down on the bottom step. “It was supposed to be a baby girl. God. I can’t believe they’re gone.”

Jenna was right next to him, pressing her cheek against his chest. He pulled her in, taking comfort in the feeling of her body in his arms. Her warmth. He kissed the top of her head and savored the feeling of each hair against his lips, the citrus smell of her shampoo. He tried not to think about the horror poor Edie must have felt in her last moments. They would never hold each other like he was holding Jenna just then. He felt a profound emptiness roll over him.

“Daddy?” Evan was standing in the doorway with his largest Transformer toy in hand.

“Yeah, Ev?”

“I’m sorry you’re sad.”

“I’m okay,” Thomas said, as Evan came in and put his arms around his legs. He squeezed Evan’s small shoulder with one hand. “Thank you. But you should go play in the other room for a little bit, let your mommy and daddy talk for a bit.”

“Okay,” Evan said. As he pulled away, he didn’t turn to go. Instead, he just looked at the floor intently.

“What is it, sweetie?” Jenna asked him.

“I just thought that it was really mean,” Evan said. “How the monster hurt daddy’s friends.”

“This wasn’t a monster, Evan,” Thomas said. Aside from the brief discussions with the therapist, he and Jenna hadn’t really had the discussion about death with him. When Helen and Trevor had died over a year ago, they had tried to tell him about Heaven and that Mommy’s friends wouldn’t be around anymore. That had been tough. But it had been an accident. He had never really thought about how horrible explaining the concept of murder to a child would be.

“This was just very bad men,” Jenna chimed in to Thomas’s relief.

“No, it was the monster,” Evan insisted. “The monster squeezed the orange man’s heart and made it stop. It hurt him a lot, an’ then it hurted her with its claws.”

“Hurt her,” Thomas corrected immediately without thinking. “Evan, it wasn’t a monster, okay?”

“But Daddy, it was the monster. I saw it happen.”

“Evan, there’s no way you could have seen them die. This is not funny and Daddy is really not in the mood for this.”

“I’m not trying to be funny, Daddy,” Evan protested, raising his voice an octave higher. “The monster hurt your friend’s chest and ripped at the mommy with their sharp claws.”

“Almost like she had been attacked by animals . . .” Thomas muttered in horror, as he recalled the words Steve had used to describe the ferocity of the attack on Edie and Bob.

“Not animals, Daddy. It was the monster.”

“Evan, how on earth could you know about the way Orange and Edie died?”

“I told you. I saw them die. In my dream. I told you and Dr. Jazzmeet about it ages ago. I didn’t know they were your friends until now.”

“Okay, Evan, that’s it,” Thomas’s head was swimming and he just wanted the monster talk to stop. “I am sorry, but I can’t deal with this right now. Go to your room.”

 

Thomas could see his son’s lip wavering, his eyes filling with tears.

“But it’s true. I saw it. I’m not trying to be funny!”

“Just go to your room. Now.”

Evan darted past him up the stairs. He could hear sniffling, which did not make him feel any better. Nothing made sense right now. His friend was dead. He needed time to think. He just couldn’t think about all this nightmare/monster crap right now. When he heard the door slam, he turned back to Jenna.

“Jenna, where is he getting this from? I can’t take it anymore!” The anger just poured out of him. He was tired of it all. He didn’t have any answers and he was sick of it. “Bob died of a heart attack and Edie was stabbed to death. Steve said that the attack was so brutal, the coroner thought it was an animal attack at first.”

“Tom, it’s probably just a coincidence,” Jenna said as she sat on the steps above him and gently massaged his shoulders.

“Yeah, just a coincidence, of course,” Thomas said. “My child has become a warped little kid who thinks it’s funny to compare my friends’ murder to his nightmares.”

“Thomas!” Jenna was horrified.

“What? What the fuck is going on? Why would he think it was okay to say that shit? I don’t get it.”

“Honey, I know you’re hurting, but he didn’t mean it,” she said. “He’s five years old and in a world of his own hurt. He’s just trying to reach out.”

“God, I know,” Thomas said as he sat back on the bottom step, cradling his head in his arms. “I don’t know. It’s all just a little weird.”

“I did talk to Mrs. Blake today, though. She told me he’s been falling asleep in class. That apparently he’s seeing things.”

“He’s seeing things? What kind of things?”

“I don’t know. Shadows where there aren’t any,” Jenna said. “Mrs. Blake thinks it’s probably just the combination of tiredness and an overactive imagination.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“So, you’re inclined to believe her?”

“I didn’t say that,” he said. He was too tired for this conversation. “It has some merit. Look, I can’t do this right now.”

“Okay, okay,” Jenna said, backing off. “I’ll go up and talk to him and see if the little guy will tell me what’s going on. Either way, we should probably plan on making an appointment with Dr. Jasmeet again.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Tom,” she said as she stood up from the stair, letting her hand linger on his shoulder before squeezing it. He couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes just yet. He knew the sympathy would just be too much. She gave his shoulder another squeeze. He heard her footsteps climb the stairs behind him, head down the hall, and stop in front of Evan’s bedroom.

As he sat on the bottom step, he let his head fall onto his knees. He felt his shoulders shake, but for the life of him, he couldn’t tell if he was crying

CHAPTER TEN

Jenna took the stairs up to Evan’s room slowly. The week had started awful. And now, well, now things had gotten much worse than she ever thought possible. Last night, she had worked late, trying to finish all the paperwork that had begun mounting with all her time off for Evan’s appointments. She tried to plow through the paperwork without thinking about what it meant. Each file was one person, broken and hurting. One of her clients, John, had died sometime earlier that week. After many conversations with the morgue, she was no closer to closing her client file or reaching some kind of resolution for her own guilt-wracked mind.

The coroners said he had killed himself, which she just couldn’t believe. John had been terrified of guns. Just mentioning a gun caused him to shake convulsively and break into a sweat. On his bad days, he would sometimes babble about the guns he carried in Vietnam having their own mind and turning on him. It just didn’t make sense.

The police officers said they didn’t know where John had gotten the gun that killed him, or where it had gone after he died. They suspected that someone in the alley had stolen it. A gun for a homeless person could mean food for a week. Or beer. Nothing she said could make them think differently. Until some evidence emerged to point to homicide, they closed the case as a suicide.

Everyone had assumed John was a derelict, not worth the paperwork he had caused them. And to some extent she could understand their position. He was a lost soul. He probably would always have been a “drain on the system.” But, goddammit, he was her lost soul. She hadn’t given up on him yet.

Earlier that week, Jenna had arranged an appointment to see him Wednesday morning. She had chatted with him briefly and he had seemed in positive spirits afterwards. He was going to let her arrange a meeting with a doctor approved by the VA. With the doctor’s recommendation, she was absolutely positive he would qualify for aid. He had said he trusted her, and she thought he had meant it.

God, I just can’t take this. We need to get away.

Right now, she had to focus. Her son needed her.

“Hey sweetie,” Jenna said as she sat on the bed next to her son, tucking the covers up to his shoulders. “What you were saying about Bob and Edie, can you just tell me a little bit about it?”

“I told you, and I told Dr. Jazzmeet before I knew it was Daddy’s friends. I saw the monster kill them. Edie, she was scared.”

“I remember you telling us that,” she said as she smoothed the covers around him. “That was just a dream, though, honey. However real it might seem, what you see when you sleep is not real.”

“You and Daddy keep saying that, but I don’t believe you anymore.”

The words, so sharp and full of betrayal, stung. She had always known that one day her son wouldn’t believe everything she said, but she thought that time was ages away. Like, until he was a teenager.

“But it’s true, sweetie. Dreams don’t come true in real life.”

“I saw it.”

“Okay, honey, I believe that you believe that,” she said, trying to backpedal. She needed to be proactive. She needed him to know he always had her support. “Have you had any other dreams recently that make you think these are so real?”

“I saw a man jogging in the park. There was no water anywhere, but the monster brought her back and she drowned him.”

“The monster brought her back? Who did the monster bring back?”

“The running man’s little sister. She drowned when he was little. He was so afraid of water he couldn’t save her. Then there was the girl in a car. She was in an accident. She hit a tree, I think. There was a man in the car, I think. He tried to help her get out of her seatbelt but his hands were all broken. It wasn’t an accident, though. The monster did it all.”

“So this man and the girl in the car, they died, too?”

“They all die, Mommy,” Evan said as he pulled his stuffed teddy bear close to him.

Jenna felt sick to her stomach. It wasn’t fair that her son, who had never so much as seen a preview for a horror movie, was now living horrific scenarios in his nightmares. Where on earth was he getting these things from?

“Evan, do you have other nightmares?”

“I think so, but I don’t remember ’em all.”

“How do you know you know, then?”

“I wake up and feel like screaming, but I don’t remember why.”

“Evan, now tell me the truth. Have you seen any scary movies? Perhaps with your friends? Or perhaps at school, have you been seeing any picture books with scary drawings?” She could not imagine how he might have watched a scary movie, but she felt she had to check. As for the book—there was a particular book she remembered from her own childhood. A book with a story about a babysitter who had a tail that thumped and parents who never came home if a child was naughty just once too often.

“No, Mommy.”

“Watching scary movies or hearing scary stories can make our imaginations run away from us, and if you’ve been watching scary movies, I need you stop, okay?”

“Mommy, I swear. These are my dreams.”

“Okay, honey, I believe you,” she said as she squeezed his shoulder. “We’re going to have to bring you back into Dr. Jasmeet, then. You can’t hide these dreams from her. She has to know everything if she’s going to help you.”

“I just want them to go away. I don’t want to get hooked up to the machine anymore.”

“Okay, well, we’ll see what we can do,” Jenna said as she leaned in and kissed his forehead. “For now, do you want to stay in Mommy and Daddy’s bed tonight?”

“No, I’m fine,” Evan said as he turned onto one shoulder facing away from her.

“Well, if you get scared during the night, please come get us right away, okay?” she said. “Do you want me to have Daddy come in here and check the room for monsters?”

“No, Mommy, I’ll be okay.”

“You sure?”

“The monster won’t come for me.” He said the words with such conviction it startled Jenna.

“The monster won’t come for you?” she asked.

“Yeah. I think it knows I can see it. I think it likes it. It likes that I can see it,” Evan said. His voice was so sad, it broke her heart. She felt an anger surge at her continued helplessness. He was her son. She was supposed to protect and comfort him, and she could do neither.

“Oh, Evan, I am so sorry,” she said as she squeezed his shoulder again. The squeeze was such a small gesture—she wanted nothing more than to scoop him up and hold him until he felt safe again—but he was turned from her. “That is terrible. We’re going to figure this out. Trust me. We will keep trying until we find something that works.”

“Okay, Mommy,” Evan said. He turned over and looked up at her from the bed. She could see from the scrunched look on his face that he had a question he wanted to ask.

“What is it, honey?”

“Can shadows come to life?”

“Oh, no, no shadows at all have ever come to life,” Jenna said immediately. Her knee-jerk response seemed premature as soon as the words slipped from her mouth. “Why? Did you see a shadow coming to life?”

“There was a shadow in my classroom,” he said. “But it wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Jenna thought for a moment, trying to interpret what he might mean. The teacher had mentioned he had been seeing things, but she hadn’t really said much about it. Mostly because Evan was so quiet on the topic.

“Do you mean there was nothing that was casting the shadow?”

“Right. The shadow was there, but didn’t belong to anything. And it kept getting bigger an’ bigger. I was awake, but I could see it and feel it. It was so hungry.”

“Maybe you were having a daytime nightmare. We can fall asleep when we are standing up sometimes if we are very tired. I’ve never heard of shadows coming to life, but I promise I’ll look into it. Okay?”

“Okay.” She could tell from his tone of voice that whatever authority she had once had with him was close to gone. She didn’t know quite how to get that trust back, but she’d be damned if she let go of this easily. “Now, enough of this nightmare talk. What book would you like me to read for bed-time?”

“I don’t care.”

“How about Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? You love that one.”

“I don’t care. It’s boring.”

“But you said you loved it last week . . .” After a moment, he didn’t stir from his position on the bed, so Jenna went and inspected the bookshelf a little closer as she read off titles. She skipped over Where the Wild Things Are just because the topic was a little too close to home. “The Cat in the Hat? No? Curious George? What about Clifford? He’s pretty funny and a really nice dog.”

“I can read all those on my own, Mommy. Read me something I haven’t heard before.”

Jenna sat back on her heels, stunned. Just last week he was sounding the words out slowly. Now he could read them on his own?

“Like what?” She picked up one of the chapter books sets that he’d gotten for his birthday, still sealed. She opened it up and began reading the first volume. Evan remained silent while she read. After a few minutes and one chapter of the book, she thought he might have fallen asleep and allowed herself to trail off.

“Then what?” he asked when she paused too long.

“Then everyone went to bed, because it was way too late for little boys,” she said as she tickled his side. Evan let out a little giggle and flopped over onto his back. She could see some of the worry wrinkles had melted away from his forehead.

“Goodnight, Mommy.”

“Goodnight sweetie. I hope you have good dreams tonight.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead and tucked the blanket until it was just under his cheek. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay.”

Jenna got up, located the nightlight on Evan’s dresser and plugged it in before she turned off the light.

“And, Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“I’m sorry about your friend.”

“My friend?”

“Yes, your friend. John.” Her son yawned as the floor dropped out from her stomach. “You’re right. He didn’t shoot himself.”

 

Jenna stood in the doorway for a few minutes, jaw open, her hand tight on the door knob. She could hear her son’s gentle snoring from where she stood, frozen. She left the door ajar and headed downstairs. She found Thomas in the living room. He was watching television for the first time in months.

“Wow, now I know something is up if you’re watching the TV,” she said, trying to force herself into sounding more lighthearted than she felt.

“It rots your brain, so my parents always said. And I agree with them. I just needed to veg for a little bit.”

“No need to explain yourself, Tom,” she said as she curled up next to him on the couch. Leaning her head on his shoulder she stared blankly at the television. “He’s still having the nightmares, you know.”

“I gathered.”

“I know the timing is not, well, great, but this is serious,” she found the remote on the coffee table and hit the mute button. “These nightmares seem to be getting more intense. He dreamed that a girl was killed in an accident, that some guy was jogging and was drowned in a park, and now he’s seeing shadows come to life while he’s awake. And what he thinks he saw about Bob and Edie . . . And what he just said about my client who died this week . . . God, Thomas, I didn’t tell him about that, and I certainly didn’t tell him my client’s name. Frankly, it’s wigging me out, and I’m an adult.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? He has dreams and we can’t do anything about it. The tests came back negative for epilepsy and they found no conclusive evidence of any neurological disorders. There’s nothing medically wrong with him.”

“No, but something is wrong. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it’s something worse than parasomnia, a nightmare disorder, or night terrors. Or maybe he needs medication, since therapy alone is not working. He’s just learning to lie to us about his nightmares.” Jenna stood and began pacing the living room.

“Fine, make another appointment with Dr. Jasmeet, then. Tell her we’ll consider the medicine.”

“I will.” Jenna crossed the room and kissed the top of Thomas’ head. “I’ll also call Sue and let her know we’ll be at the memorial. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you, okay?”

He nodded numbly at her and reached around her for the remote.

“Oh, honey, I do have one more thing,” she said. “Evan is losing his faith in us.”

“He’s a kid,” Thomas said, still reaching for the remote. “It happens.”

“Not at five years old!” she said. “Sure, he might start realizing we’re not omnipotent at this age, but to think he can’t come to us if he’s afraid. . . That’s just horrible.”

“Well, of course he can come to us,” Thomas said.

“Like tonight? You sent him to his room because he tried to tell you he’s scared that he saw Orange get murdered?”

“Honey, he is just making that up, you know it.”

“Actually, I don’t know that,” she said. “Even if it’s not real, I think he really believes it’s true. We have to tread lightly here, Tom.”

With a sigh, Thomas finally turned his head to her. She had his full attention now.

“What do you suggest we do?” he asked. He looked so tired. Jenna felt her stomach sink as she realized that she was failing to help both of her guys; Evan and Thomas were both struggling right now.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should come up with a plan of attack?”

“Like what? What can we really do? I would love to know.” Jenna winced at the anger in his voice. She knew it came from a place of hurt and frustration, but it still pained her to hear it.

“You know, let’s just talk about this later. I am so sorry I brought it up.”

“No, don’t be sorry,” Thomas said glumly as he leaned forward on the couch and began rubbing his temples, like he did when he had a massive headache coming on. “It’s important, I just . . . I just don’t have a head for this now. Why don’t we just bring it up with Dr. Jasmeet, okay?”

“Okay.”

She looped her arm around his neck and dropped her head back on his shoulder while she tried to think of something comforting to say to her husband.

[ * ]

Jenna was able to squeeze an appointment in the very next day with Dr. Jasmeet’s office. Evan was unusually quiet on the car ride over, and in the waiting room. He wouldn’t read his books, and he didn’t even open his backpack full of toys. He just stared at his grey and red sneakers, barely acknowledging her when she spoke to him. Thomas couldn’t even engage him in a shoulder ride from the car to the waiting room. He appeared indifferent to everything.

When the doctor called them into her office, Jenna was relieved. Perhaps the doctor would be able to bring him out of this shell.

“Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, Evan,” Dr. Jasmeet greeted them from behind her desk as they walked in the door.

“Doctor,” Jenna said. She felt instantly uncomfortable. The office was so large and modern. It always made her feel a little out of place.

“Sorry, let’s move over to the couches,” the doctor said as she smiled at Evan. “They’re more comfortable.”

“So, Evan,” Dr. Jasmeet said as she sat down opposite from them. “I hear that you’re still having dreams.”

“Yeah,” Evan said, barely looking up from the floor.

“Are they the same nightmares you had before?”

“No, they’re different.”

“Can you tell me about these new nightmares?” Jenna listened to Evan recount the nightmares he had told her about last night. She felt each one like a gut punch, somehow telling her repeatedly that she was failing him as a mother. When he got to the description of the shadow, Dr. Jasmeet tilted her head and Jenna suddenly realized what the doctor must be thinking—that Evan might be slipping. He may be going crazy.

“So, this shadow you saw, Evan,” the doctor said. “Did anyone else see it?”

“No, it was just me,” Evan said. He was still inspecting his shoes. His feet dangled off the side of the couch and he rocked them back and forth aimlessly.

“Now, I know we didn’t have much luck before when we tried to get a description of the monster, but I brought some new things that might help us,” the doctor said, as she got up and strode to her desk and retrieved a large pad of white paper and a box of crayons, colored pencils, and pens. “Could you try drawing the monster for me?”

“I don’t know how,” Evan muttered just loud enough so Jenna could hear him.

“Give it a try,” Jenna encouraged him. He had never been able to describe the monster and she wasn’t sure why it had never occurred to her to have him draw it. They used drawing exercises at work all the time.

“But it can pretend to be anything it wants to,” Evan moaned.

“Well, when it’s not pretending to be something else. Do you have any nightmares where it wasn’t pretending?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you can just try for me, it might help,” the doctor said. “And you can think about it as much as you need to. And take as many tries as you want.”

“You can do it,” Thomas added. “Just try for all of us. We can go out to Chuck E. Cheese, too, if it helps.”

Jenna wasn’t sure if it was the Chuck E. Cheese offer or Evan’s need to please everyone that made him finally crawl off the couch toward the table coffee table where Dr. Jasmeet had placed the drawing implements.

He looked at the crayons momentarily before grabbing only three: gray, black, and what looked like a pale yellow. He set to work with hardly a word to the adults in the room. She looked over at Thomas and he shrugged his shoulders. Jenna felt a warm tingle. This was progress. She was sure of it. Finally, they might be able to identify whatever was terrifying their son. Thomas grabbed her hand and squeezed. She knew her husband was struggling right now, but he was still there, and she knew he would do his best.

Evan was drawing intently for almost twenty minutes before he finally put the crayons down and stood up.

“It’s not quite right,” he told them. She looked at the drawing and was impressed. He had never drawn something so complicated before, and certainly not with so few colors.

“So this is the monster, huh?” Thomas said as he picked up the drawing.

“I think so,” Evan said.

The gray creature had long arms that seemed almost long enough to reach the floor if it were to stand fully upright. Evan had drawn black-yellow streaks coming from its fingers. Squiggles were carefully drawn in gold around the creature, almost like it was surrounded by a halo.

“What is this stuff coming from its hand?” Thomas asked as he inspected the drawing.

“I dunno. It sucks all the good things out of the air,” Evan said. “It makes everything dark.”

“And where did you see the monster when it looked like this, Evan?” Dr. Jasmeet asked.

“It was at George and Elaine’s.”

“George and Elaine? Those are your mommy’s friends?”

“Yeah.”

“The monster was at their house?”

“No, not really. I . . . got sick and I saw it when I was sick,” Evan said. He seemed so uncomfortable.

“Evan had some kind of seizure,” Jenna reminded the doctor.

“Right, I remember that,” the doctor said, as she skimmed through some folders.

“And, Evan, what was the monster doing?”

“It wanted Dariah,” he said. That name again. Dariah.

“Dariah is that girl, if I remember correctly, you said the monster hurt her? In this nightmare?”

“Yes, it hurt her a lot,” Evan said as he crawled back on the couch between her and Thomas. She hugged him hard when he settled back into her arm.

“Why would it want to hurt her?”

“I don’t know why it hurts anyone. It gets stronger the more it hurts them.”

“So their pain feeds the monster?”

“No, no,” Evan said angrily. “You’re getting it all wrong.”

“I’m sorry, Evan. But the monster gets stronger from hurting these people?”

“It likes hurting them, but that’s not what makes it stronger. It gets stronger ’cause they’re afraid.”

“I see,” the doctor said. Jenna watched as she scribbled furiously in her notepad.

“Thank you, Evan, you have done a great job,” the doctor said. “Now Evan, you remember last time we talked, you said you would tell your mommy and daddy every time you had a bad dream?”

Evan nodded.

“And you were supposed to tell your mommy and daddy if you had bad dreams so you could feel better, right? Because when bad things are happening to us, it hurts to have no one to talk to? It makes us feel better to know we have other people looking out for us. Right?”

Evan nodded hesitantly, still looking at the floor.

“But you haven’t been telling your mommy and daddy about your nightmares, have you?”

“Talking about it doesn’t work,” Evan mumbled.

“Well, how do you know it doesn’t work if you haven’t given it a chance?”

“I told Mommy and Daddy about the nightmares, and it just makes them sad and angry,” Evan said. “It makes everything worse.”

God, have we made our son’s problem worse by trying to help? Jenna took Evan’s hand and squeezed it tightly. She felt her chest tighten at the thought. She had been trying to be strong and supportive. She didn’t realize that Evan knew just how scared she was, how helpless she felt.

“How did it make things worse?”

“I have nightmares all the time now.”

“What do you mean, all the time?”

“When I’m awake. I see things. I was drawing in class and saw a girl in a car accident. I see the monster coming in through the shadows.”

“Is the monster trying to get you?”

“No. It’s, it’s just hungry.”

“It told you it was hungry?”

“No, I just felt it.”

“You said the monster is coming in the shadows. What do you mean?”

“I don’t know how to say it. It’s just coming.”

Jenna noticed a change in Evan’s voice. It sounded tight. She realized his hand had become cold in hers.

“Sweetie? Are you okay? We can stop at any time.”

“It’s okay,” Evan was still looking at the floor. His face looked pale and pinched. He did not look okay. She fought the urge to just stand up, take his hand, and walk out of the office. She steeled herself. The doctor must know what she was doing.

“You are doing very, very well, Evan,” Dr. Jasmeet said, coming from the couch. She knelt in front of Evan. “I know it must be difficult. I know you see awful things. You are being very brave, telling me about them. I just need to ask a few more questions. Is that okay?”

Evan finally raised his face to peek up at Dr. Jasmeet before stealing a look at Jenna and returning his gaze to the floor. He looked so tired, older than he should at just five years old.

“It doesn’t matter how brave I am,” Evan said. “It’s coming.”

“The monster?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it can’t get you here,” Dr. Jasmeet said.

“You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not, I promise. There have never been monsters in here.”

“You’re lying.” His voice, much like his hand now, was like ice.

“Why do you think I’m lying?”

“Because you’re not telling the truth. You’re just saying what you think I want to hear.”

“Well, no monsters are going to come here.”

“You’re wrong. It’s too late.”

“Too late?”

“It’s already here.”

“Now? Where?” Dr. Jasmeet made a show of looking around.

“Over there,” Evan said, pointing to the opposite wall behind her desk.

Jenna couldn’t see anything in the corner that Evan pointed to, but she felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck anyway. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her, but it felt like the air in the room had grown thicker. She could almost taste the electricity. Perhaps Dr. Jasmeet felt it, too, because she abruptly stood up.

“I don’t see anything,” the doctor said in a comforting tone of voice. Even Jenna could hear the edge in the doctor’s voice. She must feel it, too. No, no, it was all in Jenna’s head. The worry and stress were eating at her, making her read into things.

“It’s there.” Evan was staring at the corner now.

“I don’t see anything either, hon,” Jenna told him, squeezing his hand. The look he gave her was one of betrayal and hurt. She wished she had not said anything at all.

The doctor walked over to the corner in question. Jenna felt Evan’s hand and body stiffen as the doctor approached the corner.

“Don’t go there!” Evan yelled as he catapulted off of the couch and out of her grasp before she could even move. Dr. Jasmeet jolted, but quickly turned a bright smile toward her son.

“It’s all right,” she said reassuringly. “See? Nothing here.”

The doctor made a point of prodding the corner with one heeled foot. Evan shrieked and his face took on a pallid, squeamish look of horror. Dr. Jasmeet rushed back to him and tried to comfort him.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Evan said, shaking his head slowly and sadly. His body slumped back on the couch. Jenna exchanged a worried look with Thomas.

“It’s okay, Evan,” Dr. Jasmeet said. “I am going to be just fine. See?” She did a single twirl in front of him. “No scratches, tears, or shadows clinging to me, right?”

Evan shook his head.

“Nothing has happened to me. Everything is going to be okay.”

“It saw you. It heard you and felt you. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I scared you,” Dr. Jasmeet said. “Trust me. Everything is going to be okay.”

“You can’t promise that.”

“Well, if the monster is here, then why don’t we go down to the lab?” the doctor offered with a kind smile. “Would that help?”

“Maybe,” Evan said, his voice muffled as he spoke into his own chest. She walked over to where they sat on the couch and held her hand out to Evan. Evan looked up and took it. He looked hesitantly at Jenna before slowly pushing himself off the couch and following Dr. Jasmeet out of the office.

Thomas took her hand and squeezed it as they followed the doctor and Evan. Dr. Jasmeet stopped at the silver doors of the elevator and hit the button to go down.

“Dr. Jasmeet?”

“Yes, Evan?”

“You should take the stairs if you’re afraid of elevators.”

“Oh, I’m not afraid of the elevator, sweetie,” Dr. Jasmeet said.

Evan nodded and remained silent. When they got down to the lab, Dr. Jasmeet had them wait by the door while she spoke to a couple of the technicians. Jenna held Evan’s hand, which had returned to its usual warmth. He continued to inspect the floor, but leaned into her leg like he used to do when he wanted to be comforted.

“Okay, I cleared it with the technicians. We can finish up our session here. Go ahead and take a seat in the chairs,” she gestured to the line of plastic chairs against the white wall. “No monsters here, right, Evan?”

Evan looked around the room slowly and cautiously before nodding. He was gripping Jenna’s hand tightly. For her part, Jenna took comfort in this small gesture. It meant she hadn’t totally lost his trust.

“So, Evan, since we haven’t tried medicine yet, I’m going to ask that your mom give you medicine tonight before you go to bed, and every night for a week. Is that okay?”

“I guess,” Evan said.

“That’s great. We want to control these symptoms, and stop the nightmares in their tracks. The medicine will help calm your mind and your body.”

“Is there anything more we should know?” Jenna asked. She hated the feeling of not knowing what to do. “Will these pills help for sure?”

“They have a very good success rate, but every patient reacts differently. This is a good place to start, and if it doesn’t work, we do have alternatives.”

“Okay.”

“I would like to run more tests, to see if there have been any new developments or abnormalities in Evan’s neural growth.”

After some convincing, Evan allowed himself to be subjected to more tests, while Jenna and Thomas waited in the other room. Dr. Jasmeet spoke quietly with the technicians behind monitors. When they were done, Dr. Jasmeet assured them that she would let them know if she found anything new. Jenna took Evan’s hand and led him out the door.

Only when she was buckling Evan into the car would he finally look her in the eye.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Dr. Jasmeet was lying. She is scared of elevators. The monster could feel it.”

“Well, Dr. Jasmeet is a pretty strong lady. She can fight off any monster.”

Evan just nodded glumly, and slumped in his booster seat. She didn’t know what was happening to her son, but she couldn’t stand watching him suffer like this. When she climbed into the passenger seat of the car and checked on him in the rearview mirror, he was looking directly at her, his eyes full of sadness.

“What’s up, hon?”

“Dr. Jasmeet’s going to die, Mommy.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

That night, Evan took the medicine while his mom stood by and watched. She had that worried-sad look on her face, so even though it tasted awful, he swallowed it all in one gulp. He tried not to scrunch his face too much as it went down. When he had swallowed it all, she took his glass of water from him. The medicine left a gross taste in his mouth even after the water, but he didn’t complain.

“You okay?” his mom asked. She brushed the hair off his forehead and looked at him.

“I’m okay,” he said. His whole body felt sore and his eyes throbbed and ached, they had been open so long.

“You want to sleep in our bed tonight? You can sleep between me and your dad, like you used to,” she said as she sat on the bed next to him and hugged his shoulders. He felt much safer when she hugged him. In those moments, he almost felt like everything would be okay. He wanted to say yes, yes, he wanted to sleep in between his mom and dad, to feel sandwiched in their safety, but he couldn’t.

“Nah, I’m okay,” he told her with more bravery than he felt. He didn’t know if the shadows would come to him again. If they did come, would they hurt her or dad? Even the thought scared him.

“You want the nightlight on, then?”

“Yes, please,” he said as she kissed his head and held the blankets out for him as he scooted down on the bed. Once his head was resting comfortably on the pillow, his mom tucked the covers to just under his chin.

“You want the Transformers nightlight, Superman, or the moon?”

He gave this some thought.

“The moon.”

“You got it.” She sorted through the items on his drawer and found the moon-shaped nightlight and plugged it in next to his bed.

“You sleep well, okay?” she said as she leaned over and kissed his forehead one more time.

“Okay, Mom,” he said.

“I love you, little guy,” she said. “I’m going to leave this door open a bit, so come get us if you need us, okay?

“Okay.”

Evan managed to give his mom a brave smile before she left the room. He turned onto his side and tried not to think about the different things that lurked in the night. After a moment he turned onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. The green stick-it stars glowed their familiar yellow-green at him. He was so tired. He wanted to sleep, to let his heavy eyelids fall, but he was afraid of what he would see. Like when he had touched Dr. Jazzmeet. No, not Jazzmeet. Jasmeet.

When he touched Dr. Jasmeet’s hand, he had seen a little girl in the elevator crying, her fear beating into his head like a hammer.

The green-yellow stick-it stars blurred and swam into a whirling pool of light like some stomach-turning laser light show at the planetarium. His head spun and he opened his mouth to yell for his mom as the shadows rolled in around him, but his lips were too heavy on his face. They would not move. He tried to claw his way out from the blankets, but the soft felt of his fleece blanket was now impossibly heavy. He could not move. He struggled to keep his eyes open and fought the sickening sense of expectation, as if something waited for him behind his drooping eyelids.

[ * ]

He opened his eyes to a world of darkness. His hand rested on the side of a dusty wall to his right. No, it wasn’t a wall. It felt like a rock. A really, really big rock. He was in some kind of cave, but as much as he strained his eyes, there was no light. Somewhere ahead of him he could hear the drip, drip, drip of water slowly dribbling into water. It was like when Mom had forgotten to drain the dishes in the sink and the tap was just slightly on, dripping into the full sink.

He paused at that thought. He was dreaming, he was pretty sure, and he had thought his own thought, of his own mom and his own kitchen sink. It seemed so mundane, but for some reason that filled him with a new sense of terror. Mundane? When had he thought a word like that on his own before?

The dripping noise stopped, and his ears buzzed and throbbed at the new silence.

He closed his eyes, just to orient himself in this sightless, soundless world. He breathed in the smell of dust layered upon dust, but was not surprised when he did not sneeze. This was a true dream, not like the others, where he saw, heard, smelled, and felt everything. This was not real.

Evan supposed he should feel relieved, but instead he was more afraid.

He opened his eyes again. He could hear the dripping water again, and now there was a glimmer of light in the cave. Off in the distance, he saw a small glowing orb hovering, falling, rising, and twisting about like a firefly caught on a string in an uncertain wind. His breath caught in his throat, but he knew with the certainty of a dreamer in a dream that this orb was for him. He was meant to follow this wavering light. It would lead him to that thing that must be done, whatever that thing might be.

Slowly, he trudged after that small globe. The pathway widened as he travelled further into the depths of that cavern. Here and there, he caught glimpses of shapes moving in the shadows, fleeing from the revelation the light brought. He tried to quicken his pace, but no matter how fast he went, the light always floated the same distance ahead of him.

The sound of dripping water grew louder, so he knew he was getting closer to wherever he was supposed to be. But, the closer he got to that noise, the more he realized the water sounded wrong. He couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong, but something was off about it. He just couldn’t place his finger on what.

Evan’s foot landed in something sludgy, then the other foot was in the same muck. The light was too far ahead, so he couldn’t see the ground at his feet. Each step found him thicker in the sludge, which meant he must be approaching the water source. The light bobbled ahead, almost like it was wondering what was taking him so long.

The mud got deeper and deeper, until he was up to his knees, mucking slowly through it. He felt something brush by his ankle, then something grazed his knee. He recoiled, but caught himself and trudged on. The sludge was up to his hips now. He kept his hands up, trying not to touch the muck if he could help it. It was warm for some reason, and he could almost imagine laying back and floating endlessly in this warm liquid. But the thought of the things that lived in this mud, the squirming, writhing bodies slinking in the shadows—well, they terrified him.

He was not welcome there. He felt it with an intensity he had not experienced before, and he knew he must get to where he was going soon. He wasn’t sure how much longer that little light would keep these creatures at bay, these creatures who did not like being seen. They liked their shadows and they liked being unseen.

He strove to catch up with the light and whatever protection it seemed to provide.

Suddenly, it froze mid-air, and the ghostly white of its light shifted spectrum, casting the world into a garish orange hue. It doubled in size. Evan struggled through the deep mud, finally digging with his hands so he could wade through the thick sludge more efficiently. He recoiled immediately. Now that his hands were in it, he knew. This wasn’t mud. It was too oily to be mud, too viscous.

That’s when he heard the rumble for the first time. A deep rumble from the dark, all around him.

It was laughing at him. The darkness was laughing at him.

The light shot high above his head, crackled, and exploded into shattered fragments of glittering dust all around him.

You do not need that little speck to see, it rumbled from behind him, and he felt something brush quickly by his shoulder. He tried to smack whatever it was away, like an unseen spider, but his hands were slow and caught in the thick, oily substance that was all around him.

The thing was right, though. The last light from the shattered orb had faded, but he could see the shapes in the darkness. The things rising and falling, twisting and collapsing back on themselves in the sludge that was all around him.

You see, but you do not perceive, little one, it boomed again, from all around him. There is no light without dark. But without light, there is always dark. Light is but a breath between the shadows.

The dark forms danced their writhing dance around him as the voice beat against him. The forms moved as if of one mind, one breath, one consciousness. Evan gasped as the figures stopped, encircling him, facing him. They were identical, and they opened their gaping maws and the voice boomed from each one: YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

You see me now, don’t you, little one?

It was all around him. To his horror, he realized he was standing in it. It was on his legs, on his hands, oozing up his arms, slowly coiling around his neck.

You cannot run from the dark, it hummed as it wormed its way inside his ear.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Evan woke in a sweat, his throat aching from a scream tearing its way out of him. The sound echoed in the room and he clawed at his ears, still feeling that thing oozing down him, inside him, and under his skin. He rubbed his skin down as if he could scrub it from outside. Gasping for breath, he choked back tears. His groggy eyes gradually adjusted to the shadows of his room. From the dark lump lurking against his wall, he could make out his dresser. He knew that the top was covered with Pokémon cards and Transformers.

There were no faceless, swarming things hiding in the dark. There was no monster crawling under his skin.

It was just him. He was in his pajamas, in his own bed, not in some horrible, horrible cave. Curling deep under his covers, he tried to pretend that the covers were a magical shield. So long as he was under their protection, no monsters could get him. His head thudded as if to the drumbeat of the monster’s voice that still thrummed in his head.

“Evan?” he heard a soft voice from his door. Working up his courage, he bravely peered out from under the blankets with one eye. He saw his mom standing in the doorway. The hallway light shone from behind her, and he couldn’t quite see her face. He was afraid that if he got out from under the covers to rush to her, some monster hiding underneath the bed would grab at his legs.

“Mommy?” he whispered. His earlier braveness was entirely gone. She flipped on the light and came to the side of his bed. He sat up and let her put her arm around his shoulders as she pulled him into an embrace.

“Is everything okay, sweetie?” she asked as she hugged him really hard. Normally, he would have complained, but right then he just didn’t care.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head against her shirt vehemently. “I had terrible dream.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said soothingly into his hair, rocking him slightly back and forth. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“I dunno,” Evan answered. He wasn’t sure what to say. There was so much in this nightmare. His head thudded louder and he reached for the words that had come so easily in the dream.

But they weren’t there. He bit his lip in frustration. Without the words, so many words that made everything easier, he wasn’t sure what to tell his mom. But he’d promised Dr. Jasmeet he would try tell someone about his dreams.

“I was in a cave, and I couldn’t see anything. Then, there was this little light, and I followed it to this bigger part of the cave, and then I realized the monster was there.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” his mom said, stroking his hair. He loved it when she stroked his hair like that. It made him feel safe.

“It was just me in the dream, but I think something or someone else may have been there. I thought the light was leading me to something, not the monster . . . and I think it got inside me or something, or it was trying to.”

He could feel it all over again and he wanted to cry. He had been so scared.

“It said something, something really scary, I just can’t think of the words right now.”

He was so angry he wanted to yell. Why couldn’t he think of the words, why couldn’t he say exactly what happened? It had been so clear in the dream.

“I could think better, say everything exactly how I wanted to in the dream,” he said in a furious whisper. “And the monster, it told me that I couldn’t run from the dark, ’cause the dark is everywhere. And it’s just like the dark—it’s everywhere.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, that sounds terrible.”

 

He pulled his head away from her shoulder and looked up at her face. Her tone was comforting and he did feel better for having her arms around him. He didn’t feel so . . . alone. But he had seen the sad look on her face and the little frown as she wrapped her arms tighter around him. He had upset her.

Evan had always thought his mom could make all bad things go away. But now he knew better.

“This nightmare sounds terrible, but it’s just a dream,” his mom said as she patted his head.

“It didn’t feel like a nightmare, Mommy,” he whispered. The specifics of the dream were fading, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the monster. Its liquid form, how it crept and oozed and danced pieces of itself around him. He knew now for sure there was only one monster in every dream. He could feel it. That same presence behind each of the horrible visions. The drowned girl, the muggers who killed Orange and his wife, the shapes in the car crash. It was the same evil in each dream, and behind every dream he could feel that same force. That same hunger.

“I know it didn’t feel that way, sweetie,” his mommy said. Her voice was soft and sweet. “This sounds like your scariest nightmare yet.”

Evan nodded. This one was so different. He had really felt like he was there. It wasn’t as fuzzy as all the others, and it was him. It all happened to him.

“I think so, Mommy. The first one with Dariah and the monster in the rain, that was just as scary, I think.”

“The monster in the rain? That’s the one you drew for Dr. Jasmeet?” his mom asked. He didn’t really want to talk about nightmares anymore. The monster was scarier in that dream than all the others dreams combined, except this one. He thought it had seen him when it looked at the girl, Dariah. But now he knew. It had seen him. And it liked being seen.

“Hey, what’s this?” His dad was smiling from the doorway, wiping his wet hands on the front of his pants like he did after doing chores. His mom hated his doing that, because she said wiping your dirty hands on your pants ruined them and made extra work for her. His dad looked like he had been out mowing the lawn. Someday Evan would be big enough to do that. It looked like fun. But right now, not even thinking about mowing the lawn made him feel all better.

“Evan had a nightmare,” his mom said, squeezing Evan’s shoulders.

“Oh, no,” his dad said as he crossed the room and sat on the other side of the bed. “Are you still scared?”

His dad got up from the bed and made a show of searching the room. He carefully opened the closet door and checked inside. Then, he tiptoed to the toy box and gingerly lifted the lid to peek in, before he finally knelt at the side of the bed and peered underneath.

“Nope, no monsters here,” he said as he rose, dusting his knees off. “Okay, mister, looks like this room is safe. Shall we check out the rest of the house, while your mom gets dinner ready?”

Evan was confused all of a sudden. It couldn’t be dinner time. They had already had dinner, right when they got back from seeing Dr. Jasmeet. He remembered his mom giving him medicine and going to sleep.

“But, Daddy,” he said, “we already had dinner. When we got back from Dr. Jasmeet’s, remember?”

Plus, it had been dark when he woke up. He remembered how Mommy had appeared like a dark shape in the door across the room from him. Looking at them now, he realized his mommy was in her sweat pants and sweater, not a nightgown. And daddy was dressed in his lawn mowing clothes. It just didn’t make sense.

“No, silly,” his daddy laughed. “Remember? We saw Dr. Jasmeet yesterday. Today’s a new day and you were feeling tired and wanted a nap, remember?”

“No,” he said. He didn’t remember. “I took the medicine and went to sleep. I tried to call for mom, but I couldn’t. And it was dark.”

Rubbing his eyes fiercely, he realized it was much lighter in the room than he had thought. His parents looked at each in that way that made him think they were having conversations in their head.

“Nope, check it out.” His daddy stood up from where he sat on Evan’s bed and stepped across the short distance to the window curtain. He opened it and afternoon light filled the room. The brightness made Evan blink in discomfort.

“But, it was dark,” Evan said, a new horror creeping in on him. His dad crossed back to him, crouching by the side of the bed.

“Well, sometimes our eyes play tricks on us, buddy,” he said reasonably, smiling comfortingly at his son.

He pushed his covers off fiercely as his mom helped him up. Everything was wrong. His head was throbbing and his mouth was drier than he had ever remembered. As the throbbing faded, he felt like something was slipping away. He was missing something, but the words were going away.

“Our eyes shouldn’t play tricks. That’s not very nice,” was all he could think to say.

“No, I guess it’s not very nice,” his mom agreed. She lifted him out of the bed and onto the floor. His head felt better suddenly, now that he was on the floor. He looked around for his Transformer slippers. He knew he’d feel better if he were Optimus Prime again. Finding them wedged slightly under the bed, he pulled them out quickly and shoved them onto his feet.

“Did you want to tell Daddy about your nightmare, sweetie?” she asked him as he began to slide his feet across the floor towards the door. “Or did you want to tell Mommy more about the monsters that attacked the woman in your dream?”

“I told you, Mom,” he said firmly. “There’s only one monster. The one in the dark.”

Evan didn’t want to talk about the nightmare anymore. He shrugged into the shirt Mommy was holding up for him. It had Superman on it, which made him feel a little better. A few weeks ago, he would have thought the T-shirt would make him super strong if the monster attacked. He entertained the idea of flying around like Superman and stomping or smashing the monster into the ground. If he were Superman, the monster wouldn’t stand a chance.

But he wasn’t Superman. And he wasn’t actually sure that the monster could be hurt. Touching it, clawing it, shooting it, whatever people did, nothing worked. It was like goo. Once it stuck on you, you couldn’t get it off.

“We might be able to help if we know more about what the monsters—I’m sorry, what the monster looks like.”

Evan stopped and gave this some thought. Maybe if he told his mom and dad about it, they could find the monster. And they could beat it up and make it never hurt anyone ever, ever again. Then maybe he wouldn’t feel bad anymore. He struggled to come up with the right way of saying it, but couldn’t quite get it out. And he knew, deep down, that they couldn’t do anything to fight the monster. They weren’t any stronger or better than anyone else who lost to the monster.

“It lives in the dark, but it is the dark.” He bent in front of his toy chest and dug out a beat up superman doll. Even though he knew it couldn’t help, it still made him feel better holding onto the blue and red doll. “It’s everywhere, all around us, and can look like anything it wants, I think.”

“That does sound scary,” his dad said sympathetically. Evan nodded somberly.

“What about the voice? You said it talked to you?” his mommy probed. “Have you heard it before?”

“No,” he stated matter-of-factly. “It just sounded . . . old. Not like Grampa or George, it just sounded old. Like when Daddy reads his old books.”

“Old like Daddy, huh?” his dad said, scooping Evan from the floor. He lifted Evan into the air and planted a kiss on Evan’s cheek. The sudden movement brought Evan out of his funk for a moment and he laughed. It felt good to laugh.

Evan was glad to not talk about the nightmare anymore. He wanted to get out of the room, out of the house, as far away from the bed as possible. Perhaps playing would help him. He had all his new toys that he could play with. He had hardly even touched them since his birthday. He just hadn’t felt like it. He hadn’t really gotten to play with the sword and shield his dad had gotten him, and they looked pretty cool. Dad had said he could be a night with a “k.” At the time, he hadn’t known what he would do with the “k,” but now he knew his dad had just meant that he could be a “knight.” They fought dragons and monsters and rescued innocent people in all the stories.

“Okay, honey,” his mom said after his dad put him back on the ground. “Mommy and Daddy need to talk about grown-up stuff for a moment. Can you head downstairs and get ready for dinner? I think we’ll eat out tonight.”

“Sure,” Evan said as he left the room. He didn’t like that his mom and dad needed to talk alone. That always meant they were going to talk about him. At least they would go out for dinner. Maybe they would let him have pizza with Canadian bacon and pineapples on top. He would like that.

As he headed down the hallway, Evan decided he would find his sword and shield and maybe sit down to watch Big Hero 6. He didn’t feel like watching the movie that Richard had brought him, Monsters University. It was supposed to be good, but Evan didn’t feel like watching a movie about monsters just then.

[ * ]

Jenna watched worriedly from the door as Evan slowly made his way down the stairs. He gripped the banister tightly with one hand, his other hand grasping the cape of his Superman doll. After his curly-locked head faded from her sight, she turned back to her husband.

“Thomas, I’m really freaking out right now,” she said, barely keeping the edge from her voice.

“Aw, c’mon, Jen,” Thomas tried to reassure her. “It was a nightmare.”

For some reason, his voice betrayed his own lack of confidence. She was well versed in the many voices of Thomas and could hear the tension behind his comforting words.

“This one was different,” Jenna said dismissively, shaking her head. The frequency with which their son was having nightmares disturbed her, but this one was different. She had seen something when she opened Evan’s door, and although she knew it was going to sound crazy, she had to tell him. “But there’s something else going on here.”

“What else could there be?” Thomas said. “He had a bad dream. It was just a monster this time, no horrible things happening to other people. As far as I can tell, no one died in this one, too, so that’s a bonus.”

“Thomas, this isn’t a joke,” she started in a low voice, shaking her head in disbelief at her own memory. “And it’s not just a dream. When I opened the door, Evan’s room was pitch black. It was so dark, I couldn’t see anything, not even the window.”

Thomas turned his head to look at the room, and she could see the disbelief on his face. Even with the curtains closed, the window allowed in enough of the fading September sun to light the room.

“That’s simply not possible, Jenna,” Thomas said, shaking his head.

“I know,” she responded, rubbing her temples with her forefingers, trying to relieve the pressure that was building inside her head. “It doesn’t make sense, I’ll be the first to admit it.”

When Evan had screamed, Jenna felt as if her world stopped. She had knocked over her laptop in her rush to leave the study.

“But I know what I saw.” When she had opened the door into that swirling darkness, her heart had leapt into her throat. She fought back waves of fear, then, much to her horror, she slammed the door against that terrible blackness. It had felt like it could swallow her whole. As soon a she shut the door, she hated herself immediately. What kind of mother shuts the door when her child is in the middle of that?

Get your shit together and get in there. Forcing her nerves to settle, she had opened the door again. Reopening the door was a little easier since she was prepared for it this time, but it still made her shiver. The darkness was so thick, she could have cut it with a butter knife.

After a second of staring into the blackness, trying to force her body to move into the room, she called out Evan’s name from the door. She had been so afraid she wouldn’t hear a response – that her moment of terror had been just enough time to allow her son to be consumed by the thick blackness.

“I’ve never seen a darkness so . . .” She paused for a moment, fishing through her aching head for the word she was looking for. “So palpable.”

“Honey, you’re tired,” Thomas said, stepping closer to her and stroking her face gently. He pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked at her with obvious concern. Jenna was suddenly irritated and slapped his hand out of the way.

“I know what I saw, Thomas,” she spat out angrily. She felt guilty almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth. The hurt in his eyes said everything. Sighing in frustration, she forced the words out that she knew she owed him. “I’m sorry.”

Jenna leaned back into the door frame, feeling the sharp edge of the jamb poking between her shoulder blades. She let her head rest against the jamb’s pointed corners. He didn’t deserve that anger. She knew she would have said the same thing in his place.

C’mon, Jen, pull yourself together. This isn’t like you. He was right, she knew that. She was tired. The week had been long.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the feeling of the edge of the door frame driving into the back of her skull with some satisfaction. Somehow, she felt it was relieving the pressure inside her aching head.

“It’s okay,” Thomas whispered softly, taking each of her hands in his own. She let out a soft sound of appreciation as he gently massaged the palm of her hand with his thumbs. “I know how hard this week was on you.”

She opened her eyes and saw him examining her intently, looking for something she couldn’t give him right then. She couldn’t say she was going to bounce back, but she didn’t need to lash out at him either. She knew he was having a hard time, coping with the loss of Bob and Edie, and the memorial would force him to face the reality of the loss.

“Thank you, Tom,” she said with fatigue. “But that’s no excuse to snap at you. I’m just worried about Evan. Between today’s weirdness, Elaine’s house, his party, the dreams at school . . . I’m just waiting for things to get back to normal.”

“I know,” Thomas acceded. “But we can’t obsess about this. You’re tired. What you saw was no more real than Evan’s dreams. I just need you to say that. Out loud. Please.”

His look of concern was too sweet. She let him pull her into a hug and rest her face against his shoulder, smelling the sweet smell of cut grass from his shirt.

“Tom, I know it wasn’t real,” she said. “It couldn’t have been.”

“Great,” Thomas replied into her hair, holding her tightly as she felt his lips press against the top of her head. “Speaking of the kiddo, though, we should probably go check on him.”

He turned and began to head down the stairs, holding his hand out for hers. She reached out and took it with a small sense of relief. No matter what, he always managed to make her feel better. He was right. It had been in her head. She’d been letting her nerves and sleeplessness get to her.

As she followed him down the stairs, she wished that she could make the lump of terror that had risen in her throat disappear.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Jenna woke up exhausted, with a dry mouth and an emptiness in her stomach she knew no food could fill. She lay in bed and stared at the sun glaring at her through a sliver of an opening in her curtains. It was Sunday morning, and she was sure that if she just tugged the curtains closed, she may be able to fall back asleep for a few precious minutes. As she climbed out of bed, she realized she couldn’t go back to sleep. It was that Sunday.

The day of Bob and Edie’s memorial, or celebration of life, or whatever it was called these days. She looked over at Thomas, sprawled on his back with the white comforter trapped between his legs and his arms flung above his head. In spite of the dark circles under his eyes, he looked peaceful. She gently caressed a brunette lock out of his closed eyes, before planting a light kiss on his forehead. Even in his sleep, a small half-smile played across his lips. She pushed herself out of the bed and headed for the shower. The cold tile of the bathroom floor pushed some of her grogginess away.

Jenna dragged herself in front of the mirror to brush her teeth and marveled at the woman staring back at her. Mid-thirties. Slight. Pale with a sparse number of freckles across her nose. Large hazel eyes. She tugged at the crow’s feet on the sides of her eyes, pretending she could stretch them out and make them disappear. She knew Tom would have said she was breathtaking, but the woman staring back at her looked tired, haggard, and exceedingly pale. She made her way to the shower, turned it on, and stepped in before the water had even begun to warm. The cold water hit her, jolting the last bit of grogginess from her body.

 

As the water warmed, Jenna went through her usual bathing ritual. Wash hair. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Her fogged mind kept playing the pictures from last night on repeat. A dark room, filled with shadows swirling around her son. Images of his nightmares danced around inside her head, tugging her insides into a knot.

She had no idea what was happening to her son.

Jenna slowly clambered out of the shower and dried herself. She threw on her robe and headed down to start the morning coffee. She looked into Evan’s room. The bed was empty. He was probably trying to catch some morning cartoons before they left for the service later that morning. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she went to investigate the sound of rustling paper coming from the kitchen. As her hand reached for the door, something made her pause. She was afraid of what might be on the other side of that door.

Steeling herself for the worst, she flung the door open. It was only Evan on the other side of the door. He was huddled on the floor, a newspaper spread in front of him, his crayons scattered across the floor all around him.

 

She curled her legs underneath her and sat next to him, placing her hand on the small of his back.

“Hey, honey, what are you doing?”

 

“Drawing.”

 

“Drawing on the newspaper? You know Daddy likes to read the newspaper.”

 

“I know. But it was important.”

“Your drawings were important, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s so important about this drawing?” she asked as she leaned over to get a better glimpse. She could see the red crayon clutched tight in his small fist. He pressed the blunt nub of the crayon so hard against the newspaper, she was surprised it didn’t snap in half. The actual drawing was obscured by his body.

“It just is,” Evan said.

“Well, can you show me what you’re drawing?” she said, trying to angle her head over his shoulders so she could make out the drawing he was carefully guarding.

“It’s the monster.”

“Really?” she said. As he leaned out of the way, she was able to make out what looked like the outline of a gun, with drops of red dripping from the muzzle, forming a pool of bright red. It could only be blood. She snatched the newspaper off the ground and stood up. She could not comprehend how he was able to draw such a grisly image with such a detail. “Evan, why on earth are you drawing this?”

She heard the shrill edge to her voice as the question whipped out of her mouth, but she didn’t care. There was no reason her son should be drawing something so terrible.

“It was for him,” Evan said, pointing at a small story on the third page. She skimmed it briefly and realization sank in. The little snippet of an article was about John. It claimed a homeless man had been found dead. Police were investigating. “The monster killed him.”

“Oh, Evan, no monster killed John,” she said, feeling a deep sadness stir inside of her. “John was just sad. He was having a hard time.”

“No, it wasn’t, ’cause he was sad,” Evan said, as he stood up with bleary eyes. “It was the monster. It hurted John, just like it stole Dariah away and hurted her.” Evan put his crayon down very carefully and turned the paper over to the front page. Girl Missing – Feared Dead, the heading read. Jenna examined the picture of the smiling, missing girl. Her shining eyes seemed simultaneously so innocent and hopeful. She was so young. Her heart went out to the poor girl.

“Are you saying that this is the girl you dreamed about?” Jenna asked as she continued to look at the picture. She tried to put together all the pieces of different dreams Evan had told her about.

“It’s Dariah,” he said. “She started it all.”

Jenna examined the article closely. Sure enough, the name underneath the young girl’s picture was Dariah Coulton.

“Dariah. You’re sure this is the same girl in that nightmare you told us about?” she asked him.

“I just told you that, Mommy. You weren’t listening,” Evan said. She realized he was watching her, waiting for her next move. The only problem was that she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do or say.

“Well, sweetie, this is just what we call a coincidence.”

“No, it’s not. I saw her, she was driving on a road by water and the monster got her. Chased her and chased her until she tripped next to the waterfalls, and I heard her scream.”

Jenna skimmed the article. The girl had been heading for an outing at Taughannock Falls, which could have just been a coincidence. It was possible Evan had read bits and pieces of the article to make it match his nightmare. She put the newspaper down and shook her head. Impossible. His reading was advanced, but to read and understand a newspaper article? That was just ridiculous. But the doubt nagged at her.

“Did you read any of this, honey?”

“No, I saw the picture. It was her. I remember seeing her face in my dream.”

“Okay,” Jenna said holding up her hand as a gesture to make him stop talking. “I’ll think about this and we’ll see what we can do. Why don’t we go get you ready? Dress real nice. Daddy would love to get going as soon as he wakes up. I can help you if you want.”

“I can do it on my own,” Evan said sulkily as he sprung to his feet and rushed to the bathroom.

“Okay,” Jenna said to the fleeing figure. She stooped and picked the newspaper up and set it on the counter. She looked at the image of the smiling girl and felt suddenly afraid. What if her son had seen something terrible happen to this poor girl? She wasn’t quite sure why the article was even on the front page of the local newspaper. She was rich and from an established family, but still. It was an east coast case. She flipped the pages until she landed on the article that had so interested Evan, and her heart almost stopped in her chest.

She had read the police reports, the psych profile, and none of it had prepared her for the images drawn in her own son’s crude handwriting. Underneath and to the right of the image of a gun lying in the midst of a pool of blood were the words written in red crayon: It’s coming.

Just like John had written in his own blood at the scene of his suicide. There was no way Evan could have known that John had written those words. There was no way he could have seen any of the reports. Hell, she wasn’t supposed to have seen the report, but the police officers had asked if the words meant anything to her. They were not in the newspaper articles. The waxy red of the crayon filled her with dread.

Jenna folded the newspaper and tucked it away in the drawer of the hallway bureau. She did not want Thomas to see that. Not yet, at least. She pulled cereal from the cupboards, grabbed milk from the fridge, and hit the start button on the coffee. She had tried to convince herself that the swirling dark in her son’s room was just her imagination, her tired eyes playing tricks on her, but she wasn’t sure. She had no idea what was going on, and she didn’t know where to start looking for answers. She only knew one thing for certain: no medicine could help Evan. He may have only had two nights with the sleep medication, but she already knew. What she saw in his room was not natural. There was no science that could explain that.

You are not going crazy, she told herself. The assurance didn’t help as much as she had hoped. No use doubting yourself right now.

Jenna ate breakfast and prepared for the memorial in a daze. When Thomas finally woke up, he was distracted. She hadn’t really expected anything else. It would have been one thing if Bob and Edie had died in an accident, but the horror of their murder had shaken him to the core. He spent twenty minutes looking for the perfect tie, one that Edie had sent him two Christmases past. Finally, he remembered that he had thrown it in with the Christmas decorations, since it had a little Christmas globe in the lower corner. He hardly ever wore ties, so he just hadn’t thought about it at the time.

Jenna remembered how hard it was to lose Helen, and tried to give him the room he needed. Before she knew it, they were already standing in front of the door of the blue and white house of Bob’s sister. Sue opened the door and flung her arms around Thomas. Her hair was shorter with just a few more strands of gray, but she was otherwise unchanged since Jenna had last seen her five years ago.

“I am so glad you could make it,” Sue said.

“We wouldn’t dream of missing this,” Thomas said, his voice cracking slightly.

“I know,” Sue said. “I just heard that your little guy has been sick recently, and wasn’t sure if he’d be up to getting out.”

“He’s fine,” Jenna said. She wasn’t sure how news of Evan’s illness had gotten to Sue, but it was the last thing either she or Thomas wanted to talk about. “We are so sorry for your loss.”

“I just can’t believe it,” Sue said. Her face crumpled and she turned her face away before wiping a tear out of her eye. “I was going to be an aunt. They were so excited, and then this. I hope they catch the animals that did this.”

“They will,” Jenna said as she wrapped Sue in a hug. “They have to.”

Jenna caught Evan opening and closing his mouth. She knew he wanted to say something about his dream, but she also knew that neither Thomas nor Sue would appreciate her son’s explanation of Bob and Edie’s death. She stepped away from the hug.

“I’ll leave you two together, to catch up,” Jenna said to Thomas and Sue as she reached for Evan’s hand. “I’ll go and see if I can keep the little guy entertained.”

Evan followed her obediently into the house and through the hall that led out into the backyard. They passed a few people Jenna didn’t recognize. Once outside she settled Evan down on the porch. He looked so small and pale. Dark circles were etched deep underneath his eyes.

“Okay, honey,” she said. “Now’s not a good time to tell Daddy and his friends about your dreams. They won’t understand and they’re hurting right now. I know I haven’t done a good job listening, so why don’t you try to tell me what you think is going on.”

Evan fidgeted in place. He opened and closed his mouth several times, and she knew she had been too vague.

“Start from the beginning, sweetie. Tell me everything about your dreams, your visions, and the things you see.”

“You said they were just dreams,” he said sadly.

“I thought they were,” she said as she sat next to him on the porch. “But even mommies and daddies can be wrong sometimes.”

“So you believe me? About the monster?”

Jenna had to pause. She wasn’t sure what she believed about the monster or dreams, or Dariah, but she needed to know what was going on. She was beginning to believe that her instincts were right, and it was everything she thought she knew that was wrong.

“Yes, I think I do. I just need you to fill me in on everything,” she said. “Like, what is the monster? What does it have to do with your dreams?”

“I don’t know what the monster is, Mommy,” Evan said. “But it’s scary. It hides in the dark, but it’s always there.”

“Always where?” Jenna said. “In your dreams?”

“No,” he closed his eyes and shook his head. “It used to be in my dreams. Only when I closed my eyes. But now it’s everywhere. All the time.”

“Like at Dr. Jasmeet’s the other day?”

“Yes.” Jenna tried to repress a shudder at the thought of an invisible monster following her son around. She tried to hold her doubt at bay. Right now, Evan just needed someone to believe him and listen to him. And she needed to be able to explain why it was so hard right now for Thomas to hear his stories.

“What about right now?” Jenna asked.

“It’s here.” Evan said, as he examined his shoes.

“Where?” Jenna looked around the yard and at the clusters of darkly clad men and women milling around uncomfortably.

Evan nodded to the corner by the buffet table. There was a man, dressed nicer than all the others. Her eyes had skimmed over him the first time she had looked. She didn’t know how she had missed him. He was so tall. Sharp features, dark hair that almost fell into his dark eyes. He was watching them intently.

“Is that man the monster?” Jenna asked.

Evan looked up at her.

“He’s just a shadow man.”

“A shadow man?” Whatever that was, Jenna did not like the sound of it. The harder she looked at the man, the more her head began to ache. It was like trying to stare at a screen when the image was slightly out of focus.

“You can see him?” Evan asked, breaking her concentration.

“Yes,” she said.

“No one can usually see them. No one but me.” Evan looked at her intently, squinting his eyes.

“What is a shadow man?” she asked again.

“I don’t really know. It’s like the monster, he’s split himself and a little piece of himself, a shadow of him, is here. He has trouble coming out. He’s trapped somewhere, I think. I think he’s trapped in that cave, but he can send the shadow men. I think they’re, like, little pieces of himself.”

“Well, it looks like a person.”

“It’s not.” Evan told her.

“What do you mean? I see a man, standing right there.”

“It looks like a man, but when I look really hard, it’s not a man. It’s a black smudge. Like a shadow getting bigger and bigger, and then smaller all of a sudden.”

“If we go somewhere else, will that man follow us?” Jenna asked. A thought occurred to her that she was surprised how real it all seemed. “Can that man . . . that shadow man . . . Can he do anything to you?”

“No. I don’t think so. I think he’s just watching. I don’t think it really knows where it is. It’s . . . it’s lost.”

Jenna’s skin crawled. She knew the whole thing sounded like a horror story straight from the silver screen, but she felt a strong urge to run. The man just stood there. Watching her. His stance was unchanged. Ominous, menacing, yet somehow lethargic. Suddenly, something changed. One side of his mouth tipped ever so slightly upwards, and he winked. It sent shivers up her spine and she couldn’t stand the thought of staying in the same vicinity as him for a second longer.

Jenna stood up and grabbed Evan’s hand.

“Let’s go inside.”

“Okay.” Evan said, as she pulled him back through the doors and inside the house. She waded through the groups of mourners, and saw Thomas in the living room chatting with Sue and a couple of older women. Jenna fought the compulsion to go to him and tell him they needed to leave. She felt Evan tug on her hand, pulling her towards the stairs. “This way, Mommy.”

“Sure.” She followed him up and into a small bathroom at the top of the stairs.

“There aren’t many shadows in here,” he said somberly.

“So, why isn’t the monster strong right now?” Jenna asked. Her head ached and she could not wrap her head around what was going on.

“I dunno. He’s just not. He’s getting stronger.”

“Evan, is the monster strongest when you’re asleep?”

He thought a moment before he finally nodded slowly.

“Is that why you’ve been trying not to go to sleep?” she asked. He waited another minute before nodding again.

“It hurts people, Mommy,” Evan said. “And when it does it, it’s like I’m them. I’m in their head. They’re so scared and I feel it. I feel everything.”

“Oh, God, honey, that’s horrible.” She pulled him onto her lap. He curled into her, and she could feel his tears soaking her shirt. She was filled with rage. What the fuck is going on?

Whatever else, she knew with certainty that no fucking shadow man was going to destroy her son.

“What can we do?”

“I don’t know, Mommy.” He sounded so small.

“Well, it might take me a while, but we’re going to figure out how to fight this.”

A single knock on the door interrupted them.

“Yes?” Jenna asked.

“You going to be much longer?” Thomas asked on the other side.

“No, not at all,” Jenna said, feeling relieved to hear his voice. She stood up and carried Evan to the door, sliding the lock out of place. “How much longer do you need to be here?”

She opened the door and stared into the pale face of a man who was not her husband.

“What, you’re not happy to see me?” the shadow man asked in Thomas’ voice. His lips twisted up into that same, unnatural smile that sent shivers down Jenna’s spine.

Jenna bolted by him and ran down the stairs, trying not drop Evan as her entire body seemed to go numb. She fumbled with the doorknob with one hand and was out and running for the car. She slid Evan into the front seat and hit the button to lock all the doors.

“What the hell?”

“He can’t hurt you, Mommy.” Evan said in a serious tone. “Not while I’m awake.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better. We need to get out of here.”

Evan nodded.

Jenna put her head on the steering wheel and tried to imagine what it would feel like to not be going crazy just then. She needed to get out of here more than anything else. But she felt terrible about running out on Sue and Thomas. She looked at the door. The man in the black suit was nowhere to be seen. She pulled her cell phone out of the bag and texted, “EVAN SICK. NEED TO GO. IN CAR.”

Jenna hoped Thomas came out soon. She really didn’t want to go back in the house with her son. But she also didn’t want to leave her husband with that thing.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Dariah slowly drifted into consciousness. She felt cold, wet, and her head beat to a dull thumping rhythm. Had she been drinking? She heard the squawk of a bird nearby, and her eyes shot open. A crow was perched on a log, its head cocked as it examined her. She tried to remember how she had wound up face down in the mud, in a forest she did not recognize. The bird spread its wings and squawked again.

She pushed herself off the mossy ground. Her leg ached, but when she used the nearby tree to steady herself, she was able to put weight on it. The bird cocked its head and watched, before hopping down the log towards her, continuing to make a ruckus at her.

I must be disturbing its nest, she thought to herself. Aside from the bird, the forest seemed unnaturally quiet. She turned in a full circle slowly. Nothing seemed familiar.

Suddenly, there was a flash of blinding pain in her head and she doubled over, emptying the contents of her stomach on the dirt in front of her. When the pain finally subsided, she remembered running through trees. Something had been after her. It all felt like a dream. But it must have been real. Whoever was after her must have lost her trail in the woods. She straightened and tried to brush the dirt off herself. As she did so, her fingers caught on the torn fabric of her shirt. She looked down and nearly fainted. Her jeans and shirt were ripped almost to shreds and a heavy network of fresh, bright pink scars ran their way across her stomach, arms, and legs.

“What the fuck?” She lifted the remnants of her shirt to reveal the heavy patchwork of scars crisscrossing her abdomen. The scars continued, wrapping around her breasts. One nipple was gone. She fought the wave of nausea and choked back tears as she scanned the wreckage of her body.

What the hell happened to me?

She knew then that she hadn’t escaped whatever had hunted her in the woods. Something had ravaged her and left her for dead. From what little she remembered of her anatomy and human physiology classes, she knew that she had no right to be alive. With a hesitant finger, she traced the pink interwoven mesh of scarred flesh. Any one of the deep scars should have killed her. She should have bled to death. Hell, the trauma alone should have killed her. It looked like her lungs must have been punctured and torn several times over. How was she breathing? How did her lungs heal? The questions just kept coming, barraging her already aching head.

Dariah blinked back waves of dizziness as another round of pain set in. As the pain faded and the world came back into focus, she realized that it was enough that she was alive. Questioning it wouldn’t make one bit of difference. The scars told her a lot. They told her that she was alone and that no one was looking for her. They would have taken weeks, if not months, to heal. Any search team would have presumed her to be dead. She fought back tears. She knew her mom had very little affection for her, but Dariah had always thought her dad would move heaven and earth to find his baby girl.

Dariah felt the self-pity rising and tried to nip it in the bud. Feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to get her anywhere either.

“Get your act together, Dariah.” She took a deep breath and tried to focus. She needed to get out of the forest. She tried to take a step and her legs nearly gave out. Her muscles felt like mush.

She took another deep breath. It was just another setback. She just needed to focus on the simple things. One foot in front of another. Slowly, it worked. She took one shuffling, slow step after another. She kept this up for a while, until she felt she couldn’t possibly take another step. She sank to the ground and tried not to cry. She was weak, hungry, and thirsty. She had no idea where she could find water.

Really, she was screwed.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat on the ground crying and feeling sorry for herself, but eventually that self-pity turned to anger.

“Fuck this. Fuck this to hell. I’m getting out of here,” she said.

Just saying the words out loud filled her with the conviction she needed to force herself up and forward. She didn’t know quite where to go, so she chose a direction at random—west. She tried to focus her thoughts and attention on just heading west.

After what seemed like forever, Dariah finally thought she heard something. She stopped moving, her breath heavy in the air. There it was again – it sounded like a car in the distance. Her legs were heavy, but she tried to hurry towards the sound. She stumbled a few times as her feet caught on clumps of brush or the uneven ground, but somehow she didn’t fall.

She stopped and listened again. There it was. The sound was real, and it was getting louder. She broke through the trees and stumbled onto a gravel ditch leading up to the road just as a car passed. She tried not to cry as she staggered and clawed her way up the gravel and into the road. It wasn’t a busy road. She turned and saw another car a few miles off, a beat-up blue sedan. As the car approached her, she frantically waved her arms.

She didn’t know how she must have looked, but the car came to a screeching halt and two twenty-something guys piled out of the car. One was tall with a shock of black hair and sharp features. The other was shorter and slightly rounder than his friend, with brown curly hair. They were both dressed for camping. Both looked disheveled and must have been in the woods for days.

“Dude, lady, are you okay? What the hell happened to you?” the black-haired guy said as he jogged up to her.

“I don’t know,” she said as tears began to flow. Once the tears started, she was powerless to stop them. “I don’t know what happened to me.”

“Shit,” the shorter guy said.

“Dude, did you want us to take you to the hospital?”

“Yes. Please.”

“God, yeah, get in. I think there’s one just close to Redding. It’s a bit of a ways away, but we’ll get you there.”

“Redding?”

“Yeah, Redding.”

“I’m sorry, where am I?” Dariah asked. She couldn’t think of any Redding nearby.

“Dude, you’re in the Shasta National Park,” the short brown haired guy said as he helped her to the car. Seeing the look of confusion on her face, he clarified. “In California?”

“No. No, that’s not possible. I was going to Taughannock falls. I thought I hit something in the road. But, it, it . . .” The memories came at her in flashes again, and the world blurred as another headache slammed into her.

“It?”

“It . . . It didn’t seem human,” she said. Her skin crawled at the image of its sallow skin and jerky movement. And the light.

“Dude, whatever attacked you couldn’t have been human. I’ve never seen anything like that.” The tall guy was pointing at her stomach.

“Dude, don’t be rude!” the shorter of the two said, as he shoved his friend.

“What? I was just saying . . .”

“I know what you were saying. You’re being rude. Anyway, I’m Scott, and this bonehead is Lance,” the one with brown hair said.

“Oh, I’m Dariah,” she said as she held out her hand. Seeing the scars on her hand and arm she paused and almost dropped the hand to her side.

“Dariah? Dariah Coulton? I saw you in the paper,” Lance said as he and Scott shook her hand in turn.

“You did?”

“Yeah, missing person. You’ve been missing for like, um, six weeks,” Lance said.

“God,” Dariah said. Her vision was swimming again. She wasn’t sure if it was tears or dizziness. Six weeks. What had happened to her? “That’s a long time.”

“It is,” Lance said. “So you, like, don’t remember anything?”

“No, nothing,” Dariah said slowly. “I remember stopping my car, and bits of running from something.”

“Like a bear?”

“I don’t think so, but maybe,” Dariah said. The more she tried to focus on any particular detail, the more she was pushing them out of her memory. The whole thing felt like bobbing for apples.

Scott and Lance both helped her into the backseat of the beaten up sedan. As she climbed into the car, she caught a glimpse of her face in the rearview and almost choked. Her face was just as ravaged as the rest of her body. No wonder the boys were having a hard time looking into her eyes. She looked like a monster.

“Can I borrow a sweater?” she asked as she settled into the backseat of the car. “I’m so cold.”

“Yeah, of course,” Scott said. He shuffled through a knapsack at his feet and handed a brown hoodie back to her.

“Thanks.” She was cold, but more than anything she just wanted to cover herself up. She felt naked and she knew she looked like a freak.

“There’s a backpack back there, I think I have some sweat pants, too, if you’re still cold, since those jeans look pretty thrashed,” Lance said, as he settled into the driver seat and turned the ignition on.

She looked at her feet, and there were a multiple backpacks strewn on the car floor.

“Uh, the blue one, the red one, or . . .”

“Blue,” Lance said with a laugh.

She opened the blue backpack, and pushed through the clothes until she found the grey sweatpants and tried to pull them out neatly. Her hands felt clumsy and all the clothes came tumbling out of the backpack. She tried to stuff them back in the pack, but her fingers barely seemed to work.

“I’m sorry, my hands aren’t working right.”

“Dude, with everything you’ve been through, don’t worry. I’ll put them back.”

“Thanks,” she said with relief as she gave up trying to repack the clothes.

“Hey, we don’t have any reception here, but you wanna hold on to my cell phone and call someone when we get a signal?” Lance offered his phone to her.

“Sure, thanks,” she said, as she accepted the cell phone from him and thought about who she would call first. Her father. Her friends, but she wasn’t sure she knew their numbers without her own cell phone.

She looked at the cell phone and saw there were zero bars. No signal. She wasn’t sure she would be able to use it if a bar suddenly appeared. The thought of actually calling and hearing a familiar voice terrified her for some reason. What would she say to them? Dad, I don’t know what happened to me. I’m deformed. I don’t look like your little girl anymore.

She knew the horror would seem more real if she saw the shock in someone else’s face when they saw her.

“You okay?” Scott asked, peering behind at her from the passenger seat.

“I think I will be,” Dariah said as she stared at the phone.

“You want an energy bar? Banana? Water?” Scott offered.

“Can I say yes to all of those?” Dariah said. She was starving. She tore into the energy bar as soon as they unwrapped it for her, and drank half the water bottle before she realized that something was wrong. She doubled over the car seat and wretched. Everything she had just eaten poured out of her.

“Fuck, are you okay?”

“I am so sorry I think I ate too fast or something,” Dariah mumbled.

“Here, use this, you can just cover it up,” Lance offered a rather gross-looking towel from his own duffel bag. “We’ll take care of that later.”

“Thanks,” Dariah mumbled, as she laid her head against the car window, and tried not to think about how much she had lost. The guys threw back random questions, trying to cheer her up, and she answered in a daze, ignoring the looks of sympathy and pity they shot at each other. She closed her eyes and felt warm for the first time since she woke up that day.

Before she knew it, they pulled into the parking lot of St. Mary’s.

“Oh, wow,” she said. “That was fast.”

“We totally went the speed limit,” Lance said.

“Yeah, ’cause ninety-five is totally the speed limit,” Scott laughed.

“So, uh, we’ll find a parking space and take you in,” Lance said, as he cruised slowly through the hospital’s parking lot, looking for an empty parking space.

“Oh, no,” Dariah said, “I can do this on my own.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lance said. “You’ve been gone for six weeks. The cops may want a police report, or to ask questions or something. I mean, you can’t have gotten all the way over here on your own.”

“You want to talk to the cops?” Scott asked Lance.

“No, not really,” Lance said. He turned his head over his shoulder.

“You really don’t have to,” Dariah said. “I want to do this on my own.”

“All right, but I don’t feel good about it. You sure you don’t want us to come in? We don’t have anywhere we need to be yet,” Scott said.

“No, I should be okay,” Dariah said with more conviction than she felt. Part of her would really have liked the two boys’ company. Their inane banter was comforting. But she really didn’t want anyone to see her cry and she knew she was going to cry when she entered the hospital and asked for her parents.

“It just doesn’t seem right to drop you off after everything you’ve been through,” Lance said as he pulled to the curb in front of the hospital entrance. “Cops or no cops.”

“Thanks, guys,” she said. She climbed out of their car and closed the door behind her. She looked down at the sweats she was wearing, and thought about the tattered remains of her clothes underneath. “You don’t mind if I keep the sweats, do you?”

“Of course not!” Scott and Lance said at the same time.

“Thank you both. I really, really owe you.”

“No worries,” Lance said. “Hey, you need anything, you give us a call, okay?”

Lance handed a torn piece of receipt out the passenger side door with their numbers scrawled across the white side of the paper.

“Thanks,” she said, staring at the token, before looking at their eager and worried looking faces. “I should be good.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Dr. Nivedita Jasmeet walked down the hallway as she reviewed the lab results from the latest tests on the Elliott boy. The charts displayed the most anomalous results she had ever seen. The readings from Evan’s EEG were off the charts. They were, in fact, so bizarre that Nivedita suspected some kind of localized electromagnetic interference may have compromised the results. Otherwise, she may have been looking at a brain so fundamentally miswired and overactive, well, frankly, she wasn’t quite sure how the boy could even function. If the results were real rather than an artifact, she might have an incredible case study on her hands.

As it stood, she could hardly wait to get up to her office to read the data more clearly on her computer. The computer would allow her to look at the data in greater detail than the printouts she was currently holding. After a brief review the printouts, one thing was clear: she would have to have the Elliott boy in for more extensive tests. It was clear that she would have to order a new fMRI.

Nivedita hit the button to call the elevator down to the basement. While waiting for the elevator, she continued to flip through the file. The ding of the elevator doors opening signaled her to enter the small, boxed room. She remembered what the Elliott boy said when she was last in the elevator with him. She wasn’t sure how the boy knew about her discomfort with elevators, but something must have tipped him off. She overcame her usual unease as she stepped onto the elegantly carpeted floor. This was not the dingy elevator that she had been trapped in as a child. It would not close on her, injure her, or trap her for hours. She would be fine. She let out a reassuring breath as she hit the button to send her to the tenth floor.

The elevator dinged again to alert her that she had reached the tenth floor. The sleek metal doors slid open and she slipped through and hurried down the hall to her office. The increase in the boy’s neural activity was really worrying her. She already knew she would have to call in a favor from her colleague, Dr. James Gregory. She hated the thought of having to do that. He was such a jerk. He was also one of the best neurophysiologists on the West Coast, and he owed her a favor. If her putting up with his constant, irritating innuendos and attempts to solicit sexual favors warranted additional favors, well, then he owed her big time. If he weren’t such a jerk, she probably would have caved and gone on a date with him. He was pretty cute. And intelligent. But he was just annoying enough that she hadn’t caved in. Yet.

Nivedita swiped her ID card in front of the security scan to unlock her door. Once the security light turned green, she hit the button and breezed into her office. At her desk, she slid into her chair while simultaneously turning her monitor on. She opened the file from last week and positioned the graphs of this week’s lab side by side with it. The peak magnitude of the evoked potentials in the ERP deflections had grown substantially and were now significantly beyond what the literature considered to be within the biological range. Absurdly enough, the same equipment didn’t display any artifacts when used on other patients. Likewise, switching equipment seemed to have no effect on curbing the errant readings. It was almost as if Evan, or something about him, was producing large electromagnetic fields. The previous fMRI results were even more bizarre.

Nivedita picked up the phone as she pulled up the most recent results of Evan’s sleeping patterns. As she had expected from her review of these images, the activity was also off the charts. The activity, hard as it might be to believe, seemed to increase exponentially when Evan was asleep. She had never seen anything like it.

Nivedita absentmindedly dialed James’s number without taking her eyes from the computer.

“Ah, hello, sexy. I knew it was only a matter of time before you gave into my charms,” James said as soon as he picked up.

“Hello to you, too,” Nivedita said. She thought for a moment and added a final statement. “Jerk.”

“Only for you, my dear,” he laughed. “What can I do for you, since this does not appear to be a booty call, as I had hoped?”

“I have a fairly unique case, and I wanted to pick your brain for ideas,” she said, cutting straight to the chase.

“Unique? I like the sound of that,” James said. If there was one thing James liked more than sex, it was work.

“The patient is displaying off the chart neural activity. He’s a child, aged six years old. We’ve run the standard psychological tests for cognition, executive function, even Raven’s Matrices. The results are all the same. The patient is showing increased speech recognition and cognitive development. His sleep patterns are, well, unheard of.”

“The patient file?”

“Patient number 01779908.” Over the phone, she could hear James quickly typing in the digits. There was a pause as he drew up the patient file.

“Got it,” he said. He was silent as she heard the mouse clicking through the files. “Wow, Nive. You have outdone yourself—this is amazing.”

“Patient is unresponsive to psychological treatment. He is experiencing disturbed sleep patterns and increasingly debilitating hallucinations, visions, and nightmares,” Nivedita added. “Also, he has a possible history of atonic seizures.”

“Well, the treatment you prescribed is exactly what I would have done,” he said. “This might take me some time, Nive. This is fascinating.”

“I know, but I really need help here. This kid is manageable right now, but if this pattern continues along its current course . . .”

“Of course, of course. But this will take time.” While he was talking, Nivedita continued clicking through the files. She opened a videotape of one of her sessions with Evan. She looked for any details she might have missed when she initially listened to the recording last night. Anything that might hint at a rapidly growing tumor, neurological disorder, or a burgeoning mental illness—change in tone of voice, fluctuation of word usage, anything that might indicate a personality disorder. The pattern of neurological activity did not necessarily fit, but nothing about this case matched any other case study she had ever seen. She opened another recording at random, which showed a date stamp of last week, her most recent session with Evan.

On the video, Evan was sitting on her leather couch with his parents on either side of him. He seemed dejected, shoulders slumped. She sped up the play time by ten times and muted the sound as she focused on observing his body language. He fidgeted here and there, but barely took his eyes off his shoes. He was getting worse. Then Evan jumped out of the couch in alarm and pointed toward the corner of her study. Nothing out of the ordinary, at first glance. But that’s when she saw it. When she had been in the room and he pointed at the corner she had seen nothing. But here, blown up on the thirty-two-inch screen of her monitor, she saw it.

“Holy fucking shit,” she breathed the obscenity out in a quick exhale.

“What?” James said, his voice piqued with interest.

“Holy fucking shit,” she repeated as she rewound the clip, slowed the speed, and hit play.

Dark tendrils crept from the base of her shelf and danced slowly on the screen, reaching out slowly from the corner and spreading outward. They almost seemed to be reaching towards the boy.

“What, fucking what? Tell me what you found!” James said impatiently on his end of the phone.

“This can’t be real. There’s something wrong with my recording.”

“What? Don’t do that vague bullshit on me, Nive. It drives me crazy.”

“Go to the video, session seven and jump to minute forty-eight.” She kept replaying the clip as she waited for him to find the spot and play. “You see anything?”

She continued to loop the recording. Maybe there was a bug?

“Is this some kind of joke? It’s not very scientific. You know I hate horror, Nive.”

“You see it, too?”

“Yeah, of course I see that creepy fucking shadow.”

“I don’t know what the hell that was, but part of the patient’s delusions are shadows and what he describes as shadow men. He thinks some kind of monster is trying to break into our world.”

“You’re being serious? This video is real?”

“The video is real, but I assure you, I was in the room. I did not see any shadowy tentacle thing. We left the room just to humor him. I’m still trying to build rapport with the patient.”

“Well, this is fucked,” James said.

“Thank you, that’s a very helpful assessment.”

“Let me comb through the files. I’ll put it through my pattern recognition software and let you know if I find anything.”

“That would be great, thanks,” Nivedita said. “Wait, you have pattern recognition software?”

“Sure,” James said nonchalantly.

“And how would that actually help?”

“Nivedita, I was trying to be diplomatic. I have a great program at home that will look for Photoshopped images or distortions in the integrity of the original file.”

“Why would you have that at home . . . Oh, God, forget I asked.”

“Some of us take our porn very seriously, Nive.”

Nivedita hung up the phone with a groan and continued to examine the file. The case had been hurting her head for weeks, and it killed her that she was beginning to accept the possibility that the explanation might lie outside of science. However, she could not in good conscience ignore what she had seen. If there was something to the shadows, she had to verify, document, and then diagnose. Above all else, she had to find a cure for her patient.

First, do no harm.

Nivedita had to call Evan’s family and see if they could bring him in for further analysis. She looked at the time. It was only 4:00 pm, so she could probably get away with it. Normally, her nurse would make the call, but it was Saturday, and she had not called her nursing staff in. She was never good at being patient. She clicked on the contact record in the patient’s electronic file and promptly found the family’s home phone number. She punched the digits in and waited.

“Yes?” An impatient, frantic sounding woman’s voice answered.

“Mrs. Elliott? This is Dr. Jasmeet.”

“It’s Saturday. We just got home from a funeral.” The franticness sounded more like frustration now. Nivedita swore at herself. Her impatience was always putting her in awkward situations. She rubbed her tired eyes and tried to formulate the best response.

“I am so sorry to bug you,” Nivedita said. “And I am sorry for your loss. I know this is frightfully rude of me, but is there any way we might make arrangements for another appointment for Evan? I know it’s not a good time, but I just came across something new and wanted to try a few other tests.”

“I don’t know if you can help him,” Jenna said in a flat, hopeless voice.

“Well, we have to try,” Nivedita said.

“I just don’t know what you can do.”

“Just tell me you’ll think about it, and call my office as soon as possible. I’ll make arrangements. Your insurance won’t even have to know you were here.” She knew she would get in trouble if this ever came back to management, but she also knew she could weasel a few tests and fudge paperwork to write it off. Hell, she’d even let it come out of her own pocket, if worst came to worst.

“To tell you the truth, we are going out of our minds with worry,” Jenna admitted. “Can you tell me what’s going on? What did you find?”

“Well, as I told you before, Evan is experiencing uncontrolled neurological growth. More than that, if it’s as I am beginning to suspect, there are bursts in his neurological activity that might be tied to yet undetermined external factors. I need to run some more tests, and time may be of the essence.”

Yeah, external factors. Smooth, Nive. That’s a great thing to call what looks like a bloody shadow growing out of the wall.

“What kind of external factors?”

“That’s what I need to determine.” Nivedita tried to sound as confident as she could. She paused as she considered whether to tell the worried woman on the other end of the line exactly what she was considering. It could jeopardize her career and the respect and trust she was trying to build with her patient’s family. “Mrs. Elliott, can I ask you something? I know this might sound odd, but I have been reviewing the sessions with Evan—you signed the consent that the sessions would be taped, if you recall—”

“Yes, of course.” Jenna was distracted again.

“Have you ever seen anything that might strike you as odd? Anything like Evan has described?”

“I’m not going crazy, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, of course not.” Nivedita could have kicked herself. Maybe she should have. “No, I have been watching the videos of the sessions, and there was one video that caught my attention. I thought I saw—well, I’m not sure what I saw. It was probably a glitch in the camera or perhaps the file has been corrupted. I just wanted to ask.”

Because I’m an idiot, she thought to herself.

“Oh.” There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“I’m really sorry, I didn’t intend to be rude . . .”

“No, you’re not being rude,” Jenna said. Now she just sounded exhausted. “I’ll meet you. Will now work? If you’re in the office anyway. . .”

“Sure,” Nivedita said. She didn’t need to look at her calendar to know that her Saturday afternoon and evening were wide open. After she hung up with Mrs. Elliott, Nivedita paged the lab and found that Scott and his team were running tests on the equipment. She had to call on all the good graces she could muster and promise coffee for life to each member of the lab, but they promised to help her out and begin prepping the machines for her patient.

In the meantime, she had some case files she wanted to catch up on about rapid and advanced neural and cognitive development.

[ * ]

Jenna hung up the phone and turned to Thomas. He was still in a state of disbelief about what she had seen at Bob and Edie’s celebration of life.

“Dr. Jasmeet wants us to come in,” she said.

“Now?” Thomas asked. She tried to ignore the incredulous tone of his voice.

“Yes, now,” she said. “She found something and wants to run more tests.”

“Jenna, you made us leave the memorial, Orange’s memorial,” Thomas said. “You said Evan was sick, but he seems fine. And now, you’re making sudden appointments without even consulting me.”

“Thomas, Evan could be really sick,” she said angrily. “Dr. Jasmeet called me because of something she found reviewing his file. She said time was of the essence. For God’s sake, I am not making any of this up!”

“I wasn’t saying you were.”

“You were implying it. I can tell you don’t believe our son, and you don’t believe me. I’m not making this up. And I don’t think Evan is seeing things. Not anymore.”

“Look, I want to believe you. I do. But that just doesn’t make sense.”

“None of this makes sense!” Jenna yelled at him. “Stop pretending you can rationalize any of this. Newsflash! You can’t. Something is happening to our son, and I am not going to ignore it anymore.”

“Okay, okay,” Thomas said in frustration, raising both hands up in surrender. “We’ll go to the doctor and see what she has to say. But I can’t say that I’m on the same page as you.”

“That’s fine. To be honest, I can’t blame you for not believing me. I just need you to trust that I am trying to do what’s best for our son.”

“I am too, and I do trust you,” Thomas said as he grasped her shoulders and looked into her eyes. She could tell he was upset. He hated it when they argued, no matter how small the disagreement. Looking into his eyes, she could see he wanted her to believe him.

She was no longer sure that they could figure this out, whatever “this” had become.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Dariah watched Lance and Scott’s blue sedan disappear down the road. Once it was out of sight, she headed towards the sliding glass doors of the hospital while folding the receipt with Scott’s number and stuffing it into the pocket of the sweatpants. Her resolve from a few moments before had all but vanished, and she wished she could go back in time and ask them to accompany her after all. They might have helped ward off the curious looks she was already getting. She tried not to touch her face as people walked by and openly gawked at her. But it was hard.

As she got closer to the sleek sliding glass doors of the hospital, Dariah realized she didn’t know what she was going to say when she got to the reception desk.

Hey, I have no idea where I am, how I got here, but clearly I’m fucked up. That summed it up, but she was pretty sure that’s not what she wanted to say.

As the sliding doors parted in front of her, a haggard-looking man in a hospital gown stumbled through the doors and staggered directly into her. She caught him as he stumbled and helped him back onto his feet. The man glanced at her face and recoiled, as if her touch were acid.

She felt her cheek and remembered—she was barely recognizable. What used to be a fresh, clean face was now covered in bright pink and white scars. Before she could be embarrassed about her appearance, she felt a wave of anger that was propelled by some new energy flowing throughout her body, rippling and surging in her fingertips. She gritted her teeth and clenched her fist tightly around his wrist. She felt lightheaded and weightless as an intense feeling of hatred and anger at the man grew inside of her.

“What do you think you’re looking at?” she spat at him. His eyes widened in terror and he fought to get out of her grip. She let go of his wrist and watched as he stumbled backwards and fell screaming to the cement. He continued to point at her, screaming wordlessly from the concrete.

Something in his eyes—Dariah knew that look of absolute terror. Her anger vanished and was replaced with mortification. She recoiled and fled through the hospital doors as staff rushed out to help the man as he continued to roll on the pavement, still screaming.

As the set of inner doors closed behind her, she felt ashamed and confused. She had no idea why she had become so angry at the man. It wasn’t like her. Admittedly, she hadn’t expected him to have a meltdown just because she looked at him. If seeing someone get angry was enough to send the guy into shock, well, clearly that guy was unstable. She looked around the brightly colored hospital and realized she felt a little more energetic somehow. The adrenaline pumping through her system after the man had fallen seemed to have rejuvenated her. Each step no longer felt like a huge effort.

As she approached the reception desk, something caught her eye and made her pause. It was the glass behind the receptionist’s desk. She stared and felt deeply unsettled. Her reflection had changed. The angry pink scars on her face were now faded to a soft white. She touched her face and felt a smoothness that matched what she saw in the mirror. The rough, ragged feeling of the new scars was gone.

Backing away from the desk, she noticed the sign pointing towards the women’s restroom, and stumbled in that direction. Once inside, she locked the bathroom door behind her before slowly approaching the mirror. Sure enough, the scars were faded on her face, her neck, everywhere. They were still noticeable, but the reflection was hers. A scarred Dariah stared back at her, not some monstrous freak.

Something had happened when she had run into that crazy man. It had energized her. And, whatever it was, it seemed to be healing her.

While she had no idea what had triggered any of it, she was suddenly afraid. She needed to call her father. He would help her through this nightmare. She turned to head back to the hospital’s reception, finally ready to check herself in.

As she approached the desk, Dariah realized that she was hungry.

Very hungry.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

A loud buzz startled Nivedita out of the file that had absorbed her attention. After a moment, she realized it was just the front desk alerting her that the Elliott family had arrived. She pressed the talk button and asked Hank to send the family up, before she quickly paged the lab.

“Scott, the patient will be here shortly. Can you send Sue in a few minutes?”

“Sure thing, Doctor,” Scott said.

“So formal,” she said with a smile. He knew she had a soft spot for him. “Thanks, Scott.”

A few moments later, Hank escorted Jenna, Thomas, and Evan into her office, and Nivedita rose quickly from behind her desk.

“Thank you so much for coming in on such short notice,” Nivedita said, as she gestured towards her couch.

“Thank you for calling us,” Jenna said. “We are pulling our hair out here.”

“It’s the least I can do. I know I haven’t been producing answers, and I can’t promise you any now, but anything I can do, I will,” Nivedita said. “Evan, it’s good to see you.”

“I don’t want any more pills,” the boy said, shooting her a defiant look. Nivedita laughed.

“Don’t worry, Evan,” she said. “We’ll see what we can do about that.”

“They made my head fuzzy, and they didn’t make the nightmares go away,” he said.

“Well, I’m really sorry about that,” she said stooping down to his level to look him in the eye. “There was a chance they would work. Sadly, they didn’t. Now we have to see if we can find out what’s going on, because it’s very unique. I will do my best, I promise.”

“Okay,” Evan said. He seemed relieved at the prospect of not having to take any more pills.

Sue stepped in the door in her lab coat and a cheery smile on her face.

“Ah, Sue, thank you!” Nivedita said. “Now Evan, Sue here is going to take you back to the lab and we’re going to run some more boring tests. Do you remember Sue and Scott?”

“Yeah,” Evan said. Like most of her patients, Evan seemed to brighten at the mention of Scott’s name. The lab technician had a way of worming his way into everyone’s good graces, and he had a particularly good way with kids.

“You are a trooper,” Nivedita said as the boy reached out and took Sue’s extended hand.

“Doctor?” Evan said as he got to the door.

“Yes, Evan?”

“Please don’t ride the elevators anymore,” he said, looking at her with wide, sad eyes.

“I’ll do my best, Evan,” she told him.

“Promise me. You’ll take the stairs from now on?”

“Yes. I will take the stairs from now on. I promise.”

Evan nodded and let Sue lead him away. After Evan had left the room, Nivedita turned back to the parents. “Now, Jenna, you said something on the phone.”

“This whole thing with Evan,” she started. “It’s just . . . I have seen things. Inexplicable things. I have no idea what’s happening to my son. It’s not natural. He’s terrified, and I’m terrified.”

Thomas reached over and held his wife’s hand. He remained silent, tense, and unreadable.

“What sort of things have you seen?” Nivedita asked. As she listened to Jenna describe finding Evan in his room, surrounded by swirling darkness, Nivedita felt a heaviness creep into her stomach. Then the horrible drawings of things Evan could not possibly have known about. When Jenna moved on to relaying her own encounter with the shadow man who could sound like her husband, Nivedita barely suppressed a shudder.

“Mrs. Elliott, that sounds frightening. Frankly, I’m at a loss for words,” she said, when Jenna finished recounting her experiences. If it had not been for the shadow on her video, she would have jotted notes exploring the possibility of genetic psychosis. The patient file would be so much easier if mental illness were behind the visions. But Nivedita had seen the shadow, and so had James. “I have no explanations for these events. Whatever is happening, our tests have been showing irregularities in Evan’s neurophysiology. His neurological activity during sleep has been progressing beyond anything I have ever seen.”

“What does that mean?” Thomas asked.

“For starters, it means that Evan’s brain activity is off the charts,” Nivedita responded. “We have already ruled out seizures, cancer, and almost everything else. At the outset, patients with similar case histories have shown rapid linguistic development. They begin speaking at a higher level than normal. Or, they can demonstrate an increased ability for motor control—a pronounced increase in their ability to paint, sing, draw, or even sculpt.”

“So, he’s getting smarter?” Jenna asked. That would explain the reading, the drawing of the guns. “What does that mean about what we’re seeing?”

“I don’t know how that may be linked. It could be a shared hallucination. There have been studies,” Nivedita said. “But, as I was saying, I should warn you . . .”

Nivedita hesitated. The next part was always the hardest.

“I don’t want to cause any alarm, but in the few studies that have been published, the neurological growth was not without consequence.”

“What kind of consequences are we talking about?” Thomas burst in. He had been mostly silent while his wife talked, holding Jenna’s hand and squeezing it now and then, but now he was animated.

“Now, the studies I found are only passingly similar to Evan’s, but in the interest of full disclosure, I want us all to be on the same page. The patients experienced a complete neurocognitive meltdown.”

“In English?” Jenna asked.

“Mental retardation in one case, and complete dementia in the other,” Nivedita said. She hesitated and decided against describing the final case, a complete schizophrenic break from reality, resulting in massive violence and self-mutilation. “The patients ceased functioning in any semblance of normalcy. Each experienced heightened capacity and mental acuity for brief periods of time, before succumbing to complete neurological degradation.”

Thomas and Jenna exchanged a look of mutual shock.

“So, these visions could be destroying our son?”

“We can’t know for sure,” Nivedita said. “There is only so much raw data the human brain can process, and I haven’t seen a display of this kind of activity before. And frankly, the literature indicates no one else has, either.”

Jenna sat back into the couch in shock. She had no idea what this meant. If Evan’s brain was on hyper drive, like it sounded it was, then she had no idea how to make it stop.

“Could we give him medication to calm his brain down?”

“We could, but the medication he was already on should have done that, and it clearly didn’t work,” Nivedita said. “If the dreams really do worsen with medication, then we should proceed cautiously. Also, before I make any new prescriptions, I wanted to show you something.”

She got up and went behind her desk and turned the monitor around.

“Here is the taping of our last session. As you remember, Evan believed there was a shadow in the corner of the room. That part of the monster was here.”

“Yes, we remember,” Thomas said. He shifted his body in the couch to better see the monitor. Nivedita hit play and turned the volume to maximum. She watched the parents’ reaction as they took in the scene that she now remembered too vividly. The swirling arms of darkness coiling out from the corner.

The voices from the recording were loud when they spoke, but at maximum volume she could hear a rustling, and what sounded curiously like water lapping.

“What the hell is that?” Thomas asked as he stood up. He sounded angry.

“I don’t know what it is, but I believe this is what your son is seeing,” Nivedita said in her most diplomatic tone.

“Did you doctor this up? If so, I’ll have your license. This is not funny.”

“Why on earth would I do that?” Nivedita replied in shock. “This was on the screen. I have a colleague working on this file to determine if we can match this to anything on records or if this is merely some data corruption introduced into the file.”

She hit pause and enhanced the visual on the shadow thing. Up close, the shadow seemed less like a shadow. It glistened and coiled like a tentacled creature.

“I am not sure what we are dealing with,” Nivedita said. “And as a scientist, I want to believe that this is a glitch in the computer. That being said, the image is simply too detailed to be a computer error. And the similarities to what Evan described are too significant.”

“I feel like we’re trapped in a horror movie,” Jenna said. Thomas stood still, entranced by the image on the monitor. “What do you think, Thomas?”

“I don’t know what to think.” He shook his head and looked to his wife in a sheepish manner. “I don’t know. Maybe, it’s possible . . . I just don’t know.”

“It’s okay, hon,” she told him and reached for his hand. “I understand.”

“This adds a dimension to my analysis, obviously,” Nivedita said. “If Evan is seeing things that are not visible to our eyes, but are there, I cannot in good conscience give him drugs to combat what I want to perceive as hallucinations.”

“But what are we supposed to do?” Jenna asked. “If this is all real, what do we do?”

“We have to determine what the root of all this is—to go back to the beginning.”

“To where it all started?” Thomas said with conviction. “George and Elaine’s.”

“What would George and Elaine have to do with this?” Jenna asked.

“It’s where Evan had his first vision,” Thomas said.

“Well, it can’t hurt. If you find any evidence of chemicals, or, hell, anything, we can test it in the lab.” It was a stretch to think Evan could have encountered something that could have induced these side effects, but it was something Nivedita had to account for. “It might be more basic than that, though. It might be about the first dream.”

“Nivedita?” A voice was coming from the speaker on her desk.

“Yes, Scott?” she said. She could hear Evan yelling in the background. “What on earth is going on down there?”

“You have to come. Now.”

“We’ll be right there.” Nivedita grabbed her key card and headed for the door. Evan’s parents were hot on her heels as she rushed to the elevator.

“Evan told you not to take the elevator,” Jenna said as the doors opened. She held back as the others stepped into the elevator.

“I know, but this is faster and I think we need to get there fast,” Nivedita said. Jenna stepped into the elevator cautiously. Nivedita held her breath momentarily as the steel doors closed behind Jenna. The elevator descended normally and they were down in the basement before they knew it. When they walked in, Evan was sitting upright on the paper-covered MRI bed, crying into Sue’s shoulder as she sat with him. When he saw that his parents had come in, he let out a wail unlike Nivedita had ever heard and stretched his arms out.

“Mom!”

“Evan!” His mother rushed for him and scooped him off the bed. “What happened?”

Evan let out an indistinct cry as he leaned his head into her shoulder. “Dariah is awake.”

“Dariah?” Jenna asked. Nivedita remembered the girl’s name.

“Evan, I thought the monster got Dariah?” she asked.

“It did,” Evan said.

“Then how is she awake?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said. “But it should have killed her.”

“Why on earth would you say that?” Thomas said.

“What it did was worse,” Evan said, as he choked up and began crying uncontrollably.

“What do you mean by that?” Nivedita asked.

“She’s different now.”

“It’s okay, honey,” Jenna said. “I think we should probably take him home, Doctor. But thank you so much—”

“We may be able to uncover something here. This Dariah is where the dreams began, isn’t she?” Nivedita said.

“Yes, Dariah . . .” Thomas said.

“Look at our son,” Jenna said. “Does he look like he is up to talking?”

“It’s okay,” Nivedita said. “We can reconvene when Evan is rested. We’ll analyze what data we were able to collect and let you know if we find anything.”

Jenna nodded in relief, so Nivedita escorted them to the door. She watched as Jenna carried the crying boy down the hall and to the stairs leading them to the first floor. Once they disappeared, she turned back to Scott.

“Were you able to get anything usable?”

“I think so,” Scott said. “That boy is seriously messed up.”

“Professional,” she snapped, as she brought her attention away from the door the family had left through.

“I’m just saying. I feel for the li’l guy.” Scott tapped the monitor. “I mean, take a look at these read outs. Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Nivedita stepped around the machines to look at the readings. As Scott had indicated, there was nothing normal about Evan’s neural activity. She wanted to share some of the information with her team, but she had no intention of spreading unsettling rumors about her patient. Especially if the rumors might call her ability to practice medicine into question.

Nivedita spent some time reviewing the results from the MRI with Scott and Sue. The results were abnormal, but she was not surprised. The activity was almost reminiscent of a Grand Mal seizure, but without any outward effects. The whole brain lit up. The anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, and pontine tegmentum, all on fire. She had never seen anything like it.

“Sue, could you send a copy of these results to Dr. Gregory as soon as possible?”

“Yes, Doctor,” Sue said.

“And, once you finish, if you two don’t have anything else, feel free to lock down and head home.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Scott said with a disarming smile. She knew she didn’t have to offer an early Saturday to them twice.

Nivedita headed back to her room with a copy of Evan’s readings in her hand. She paused momentarily at the door of the stairs as she considered her promise to Evan about the elevator. She was tired and the thought of climbing ten flights of stairs seemed daunting. She gave in and pressed the button for the elevator, feeling simultaneously silly and paranoid. She was a doctor succumbing to supernatural paranoia. She would just take the elevator up to get her purse, then she would take the stairs down to the parking lot. That was a compromise. One last elevator ride until she could figure all this out. She would study the files from home.

When the elevator arrived, Nivedita stepped in and pressed the button for the tenth floor. She tried not to hold her breath as the doors closed. The elevator whirred and began the ascent to the top floor. As normal. The elevator beeped to alert her when she reached her floor. Nivedita smiled and shook her head. She was being paranoid after all.

Nivedita stepped closer to the doors, waiting for them to slide open. Nothing happened. She leaned over and hit the “open door” button a few times. Still nothing. She tried to fight the claustrophobic panic as it began to rise. She hit the buttons again. The elevator seemed to be growing smaller. She knew it was just panic setting in and her mind playing tricks on her.

She hit the service call button and waited as it buzzed down to the service station. No one picked up. She held her finger down on the button and listened to the buzz for what seemed like minutes. Still no one picked up. There was supposed to be someone there at all times. The doors still would not open. Panic thrilled through her veins. Her limbs felt weak. She numbly tried to twist the knob to open the glass door to the fire alarm. Once she fumbled it open, she twisted the key and waited for the screech.

Nothing happened. No shrill fire alarm, no service light, no voice on the other side of the speaker to let her know someone would be there to let her out.

Suddenly, the light flickered above her, and she heard the door mechanics whir into action once more. Finally, she was going to be free. Her panic had been for nothing. She would have to report that the emergency equipment was nonfunctional. That was something the practice could get sued over if there was an accident.

But the doors did not open. The light continued to flicker as the room continued to shrink around her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the shadows creeping in. The shadow, it had been there all along. The elevator jerked and she heard what could only be the snapping of a thick metal cable above. She shut her eyes as the entire room jerked. She felt weightless for a moment as the ground underneath her shuddered. She knew it with certainty then—the elevator was dropping.

There should be an emergency brake, she tried to calm herself.

Somewhere, she thought she heard water lapping and a faint hissing. She knew it was there, that creature of shadows, taunting her. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she screamed. With a deafening crash of metal, Dr. Nivedita Jasmeet felt the ground crush her legs as metal crunched all around her.

Her last thought as unspeakable pain shot through every nerve of her body: she should have listened to the boy.

[ * ]

Gary Jenkins was in the basement when he saw the service light come on. He usually enjoyed the solitude of being the only maintenance man in the building on Saturdays. It was usually quiet. He could repair the ventilators that were busted in peace and quiet, without any doctors, nurses, or staff asking him how long he was going to be, and if he was going to clean up the mess when he was done.

Like he didn’t have places he would rather be, too.

Some doctor was probably going to complain that the fifteen seconds it took for the elevator door to open was still too long, and he needed to do something about that. He hit the button to talk to whomever was on the other line, but heard nothing. Looking at the service screen on his desk, he saw the elevator was parked on the tenth floor. Service button probably got jammed. He sighed and grabbed his portable toolbox and headed for the service elevator.

Gary got to the elevator in the basement and pressed the up button. He waited a couple of moments before he heard the elevator’s whir as it pulled down to the bottom floor. The elevator let out the familiar ding as the doors slid open in front of him.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, Gary screamed.

The elevator was almost spotless, save for a mangled body lying in the middle of the floor. Blood seeped outwards from the corpse, staining the white carpet with the dark liquid as Gary backed away.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Evan opened his eyes. He was at the dinner table, not in a dark hall looking into an elevator covered in red. Food was in front of him—his favorite dinner (aside from pizza), mashed potatoes and gravy.

Evan tried not to think of Dr. Jasmeet. After what he had seen, even thinking her name made him sad. She was nice and she was just trying to help. She just didn’t know how. He didn’t think anyone knew how to help him anymore. They couldn’t make the dreams go away because they weren’t dreams. He knew that now.

Just like he knew Dr. Jasmeet was dead. He had seen her die.

His mom and dad were on either side of him, being quiet at each other. He hated it when they did that. He knew the quiet meant they were mad. He wasn’t sure if they had been fighting, but he knew that if they were, it was about him. Him and his dreams.

When they left Dr. Jasmeet’s, he had thought they were going to George and Elaine’s, but his mom and dad seemed upset with each other. They had gone home instead.

“You okay?” his dad asked.

“No,” Evan said. He picked up his spoon and pushed the potatoes around on his plate.

“Aren’t you hungry?” his mom asked. She looked at him with worried, distracted eyes. Her own plate looked nearly untouched. The steak sat on its own, and she had stirred her mashed potatoes, peas, and gravy into a mix, but she also had not taken a bite.

“No,” Evan said. The thought of food after what he had seen made his stomach hurt. All that blood. The smell of buttery mashed potatoes did not help. He pushed his plate away and slumped back in his chair, trying not to be sick.

“Well, you should eat something, honey,” his mom said. He could hear how tired she was.

“I can’t.”

“You know, maybe we should check in with Dr. Jasmeet?” his mom said to his dad. “I’d like to apologize for leaving so abruptly. I was just worried about Evan.”

“We could. Maybe she’s had time to review the data or talk to that colleague of hers,” his dad said. They were making it hard for Evan to not think about Dr. Jasmeet. It was making him sad all over again.

“No. She can’t help us,” Evan said. “Not anymore.”

“Oh, honey, we don’t know that,” Jenna said. “She has an open mind, and she’s really looking for something to help us.”

“She can’t help us anymore,” Evan repeated. “I told her.”

“You told her?” his dad asked, turning to him. “What did you tell her? That she can’t help you? About the dreams?”

“I told her not to go in the elevator,” he whispered as he folded his arms and tried really hard not to cry. “She promised.”

“Honey,” his mom said. She put down her spoon and got up from her seat and came to his side. “Did you . . . did you see something? Just now?”

“Yes,” Evan said. He felt his lip tremble again, and he bit it to make it stop. He could still hear the screeching metal and the doctor’s screams in his ears.

“What did you see?” she said.

“I saw her die.”

“You’re sure?” his dad asked.

“Well, we don’t know how these dreams, these visions, work,” his mom said as she got up. She left the room and came back with her cell phone a moment later. “Maybe this hasn’t happened yet. I’ll give her a call and just remind her not to use the elevator.”

Evan allowed himself to feel a little hopeful. His mom believed him. And maybe she was right, maybe it hadn’t happened yet. Maybe what he was seeing was what would happen if no one stopped it.

“Would that help?” his dad asked. “If we called and just reminded her?”

Evan nodded. His dad slid his chair back from the table and held out one arm. Evan didn’t need to be invited twice. He slid down from his chair and climbed onto his dad’s lap, watching his mom as she dialed.

“Well, she’s not answering her direct line,” his mom said after a moment. She pulled the phone away from her ear. “But she could be down in the lab or at home.”

She took one look at his face and realized that was not quite enough.

“I’ll call the main line for the medical group,” she said and punched some numbers into the phone. “Huh, that’s weird.”

“What?” his dad asked her.

“Busy tone. I’ve never heard that before. Usually it goes to voicemail,” she said. Evan felt his stomach clench. He pressed his head against his dad’s chest as his dad stroked his head.

“We can check the TV,” his mom said. “The news might show if something happened.”

“Or we can look on the internet,” his dad said. “It’s faster and more likely to have up-to-the minute news. If anything happened.”

“Fine,” his mom said with some exasperation. “Go check the internet.”

Evan followed his dad and mom upstairs to his dad’s study. His dad sat at the computer and he watched him type as his mom played with his hair.

“No results for her office area. Nothing on crime mapping in the area either. No reports of any disturbance.”

“Maybe we should turn on the news while we’re doing this?” his mom said.

“Here, I’ll bring up the local news channel’s website and we can keep checking there.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Evan, see? Nothing in the news. Nothing has happened. Feel better?”

“No.” He wouldn’t feel better until someone actually talked to the doctor. “I saw it all. If we don’t talk to her, then I think it’s too late.”

“Well, we may have to wait a little bit. Mom and Dad will figure something out. Can you go play in your room while we talk for a little bit? We’ll be right in and see if we can put together a plan.”

“Fine.” Evan got up and left the room. His mom and dad seemed to believe him, but he knew they were just as helpless as Dr. Jasmeet. He threw himself on his bed and kicked it angrily with his heels. His mom might get angry that he hadn’t taken his shoes off, but he didn’t care. After a few moments of staring at the ceiling, he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

He woke with a start, scared that he had let himself fall asleep. But he felt more rested than he had in a while. He had not had any dreams. Sitting up, he saw that his dad was sitting on a chair at the edge of his bed and his mom was standing right behind him.

“So, we still haven’t heard anything, Evan,” his dad started. “About Dr. Jasmeet. But we will keep looking and as soon as we find something, we’ll tell you.”

“Okay,” he said, wiping his eyes.

“Now, we need to start from scratch, Evan,” his dad said. “Because your mom and I, we’ve been talking. We know now that we’ve been doing everything wrong. We thought your dreams were just dreams, but now it looks like they may be something more. We need to know everything.”

“I told you everything,” Evan said as he sat up. “I told Mom everything.”

“I know you did, Evan,” his dad said. “And maybe we just . . . maybe I just wasn’t ready to pay attention. I’m really sorry about that. This time, we’ll try to listen better.”

Evan felt a flood of relief. He wasn’t alone anymore. His mom and dad were really going to listen now. They were going to help. The doorbell rang before Evan could respond.

“I’ll get it,” Thomas said and smiled at Evan as he stood up from the bed. Evan thought the smile was supposed to be reassuring, but it was too forced. He saw the look that his mom and dad exchanged as his dad left his room. He slid out of bed and followed his dad to the top of the stairs. He watched his dad as he peeked through the peephole.

“Who is it?” his mom asked from behind him.

“The police,” his dad said. Evan’s stomach clenched. He knew what the policemen were here about. “Okay, Evan, go to your room, okay?”

“No,” Evan said. “I want to stay. It’s about Dr. Jasmeet. I know it.”

His dad looked over at his mom and shrugged.

“Fine, you can stay,” his dad said as he opened the door. Evan felt a soft breeze as the door opened. He could almost smell the trees.

“Good evening, officers,” his dad said. “How can I help you?”

The two men wore police uniforms and seemed to tower over his dad. They were so tall and Evan couldn’t quite see their faces. For a moment, Evan was afraid they were just shadow men disguised as policemen. He concentrated really hard to see if he could see any shadows around them. He didn’t see anything funny about them or their shadows, so he decided that they must really be just policemen. Plus, he didn’t get the awful hungry feeling from them.

“Hi, Mr. Elliott?” The policeman was looking at an open pad of paper.

“Yes, that’s me,” his dad responded.

“We’re investigating a potential crime,” the slightly wider police officer said. “I’m Officer O’Reilly and this is my partner, Officer Turner.”

His dad shook their hands. Officer O’Reilly had a deeper, almost comforting voice, and really nice skin that was a bit darker than Dr. Jasmeet’s.

“What kind of crime?” his mom asked, peeking around his dad’s shoulder.

“We’re investigating the suspicious circumstances around the death of a—” the older officer started to say as he glanced down at his small notepad. “Dr. Nivedita Jasmeet.”

The older officer was called Officer Turner. He had the no nonsense voice that reminded Evan of the mean substitute kindergarten teacher.

“She’s dead?” his mom breathed the words out in shock. “We just saw her a few hours ago.”

“Yes, her lab technician and assistant confirmed that your family visited her,” Officer Turner said again. “Now, can we come in? We do have a few questions, and it would be more comfortable to ask them inside.”

“Yes, yes,” his dad said and opened the door to allow them entry. “I am sorry, this is just a bit of a shock.”

His mom gestured them into the living room, and Evan followed, staying close behind his mom.

“Now, can you tell us why you were seeing the doctor on a Saturday?”

“Well, she’s been seeing our son now for a few months,” his dad said. “She called us because she had an idea. She wanted to run some more tests on Evan, see if she could find something that would help her narrow her results.”

“She thought time might be of the essence,” his mom added.

“Did anything about her behavior strike you as odd?” Officer Turner asked.

“No, not really,” his mom said. “I mean, she was working on a Saturday and she had shown us quite a few files. She said Evan’s case was quite unique.”

“Unique?” the officer asked. “How so?”

“Well,” his dad interrupted his mom before she could talk. “She was only able to find a few cases where the patients exhibited symptoms like our son’s. She was trying to see if she could isolate Evan’s symptoms to find a more effective treatment.”

“But the doctor so far was unable to find a cure for your son’s ailment?” Officer O’Reilly asked.

“So far,” his dad said.

“Did that make you angry?” Officer Turner asked. Evan did not like the way the officer looked at his mom when he asked that question.

“Heavens, no,” his mom breathed the words out. “She was helping our son.”

“If anything, Dr. Jasmeet was angry at herself,” Evan blurted out.

“Did she tell you that?” Officer O’Reilly asked Evan. He said it in a nice voice.

“No, I could just tell.”

Officer Turner nodded at him in the way that most adults nodded at kids, like they didn’t believe him and nothing he said was important. Both officers exchanged a look. The kind of look grownups gave each other right before they said, “kids will be kids.”

“Did you notice anything strange or out of place while you were there?” Officer O’Reilly asked his mom and dad. It was like he was ignoring Evan.

Evan knew that the policemen didn’t want to hear what he had to say. He knew who killed Dr. Jasmeet. He also knew that the policemen wouldn’t believe him and it would make his mom and dad mad if he told them about the monsters. He shook his head vehemently at the officers and flopped himself on the couch with arms crossed.

They continued to ask a bunch of questions, but Evan stopped listening. His mom had seen a shadow man, but she was still having trouble. She didn’t once try to mention the shadow man or monster to the police. That’s when he realized it—no one was going to do anything, even his parents. They may believe him now, but he knew with sudden certainty that they didn’t know how to help him. They didn’t understand.

As the grownups talked, Evan realized he had to do something. On his own. Otherwise, he was he might turn out like Dariah. That thought filled him with terror.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Dariah opened her eyes from an uneasy sleep and found herself in a hospital bed. The sheets felt crisp and the pillow gave a loud plastic creak when she shifted her head. It took a moment for her to remember how she had wound up there, in that sterile hospital room. She had been admitted for examination and observation. Something terrible had happened to her.

Flashes of forest, cold, wet branches. Pain.

Her head spun at the jumbled recollection. She sat up and looked around. The room was a sickening bright white, even with the lights off. She shut her eyes against the loud whiteness of the room.

For the first time in her life, Dariah was afraid of doctors. What would they tell her, when they finally showed up? What had happened? Had she been kept in a shack somewhere, raped and tortured? Why couldn’t she remember anything? She had told the nurse at the desk that she had been lost in the woods and had no memory of the last few weeks. Did she have a concussion? Permanent brain damage? Dariah couldn’t bear to think about all the terrible possibilities.

The admitting nurse had been sweet, if a bit brusque. She had given Dariah a phone to use when she heard Dariah’s story. The nurse attempted to appear busy behind the desk, but Dariah noticed the frequent looks of sympathy from her.

She had stared blankly at the phone, trying to remember a single phone number. She hadn’t had to memorize a phone number in ages. Finally, the digits swam before her vision and she slowly hit the keys on the phone and listened to it ring. After eight rings, a bell chimed in her ear and her father’s familiar recorded voice spoke cheerfully.

“Hi! You’ve reached Jerry. I’m sorry I missed you, but if you leave your name, number, and a brief message at the beep, I’ll get back to you!”

Dariah almost hung up as she felt her throat swell. She fought back tears. She didn’t get through to him. When she heard the beep, she choked for a second before the words just flowed out of her.

“Daddy, it’s me. I’m in Redding, California. St. Mary’s Hospital. I don’t know the number. I don’t know where I’ve been or how I got here, but it’s me. Daddy, please come and get me.”

She hung the phone up, and sat down in the chair at the reception desk. She didn’t try and hide the tears she felt streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t even try to wipe them away.

The nurse left abruptly and returned with a rather handsome, forty-something doctor who introduced himself as Doctor Jeffries. She had a feeling this was a breach of protocol, but she didn’t really care. The doctor escorted her to an examination room where they ran some preliminary tests, and he recommended admitting her for observation.

The police had come shortly after that. A man and a woman. The female police officer took her statement. She nodded sympathetically, and Dariah found herself near tears as she talked about her snippets of memories, of waking up near naked in a forest, her clothes torn to shreds. The police officers had taken the remnants of her clothes in baggies, and asked if she would be willing to submit to a rape kit. She nearly wept then, but she nodded her consent. After the humiliating process had been completed, the police talked in hushed voices with the doctors.

No one told her anything. The policewoman gave Dariah her card in case she remembered anything. Her voice had dripped with sympathy and concern, and Dariah remembered fighting the urge to scream and yell.

A stocky nurse popped her head into her room, breaking Dariah’s reverie.

“You have a visitor, miss,” the older woman said somewhat gruffly.

“Oh, thanks,” Dariah said as she slid her feet around so she was facing the door. She was ready for her father. She was ready for him to rush through the door and scoop her into his arms and hold her like he did when she was a kid. She was ready to feel safe again.

Instead, it was her mother who slipped through the doors and stood there, transfixed, with a look of surprise and horror painted across her perfect face.

“Oh, my darling baby girl!” she whispered shrilly, her hand covering her mouth, before she recovered and rushed to her daughter’s side. As her mother’s arms encircled her, Dariah tried not to recoil or to push the woman off of her. The cloyingly sweet perfume and the sharp edges of Janene’s shoulder bones pressed into her face. Her mother stepped away and examined her quickly, new expressions of horror sprinting across her face. Dariah supposed she should get used to those kinds of looks. “Oh, my pretty girl, what did they do to you?”

“I don’t know,” was all Dariah could manage. Her mother reached out one hand and traced a scar on Dariah’s cheek. In that moment, she had a look of resolution that Dariah had never seen before.

“We’ll make whoever did this to you pay,” she said fiercely. “No one hurts my child and gets away with it.”

Dariah felt a thrill of pleasure. There was no posturing, no artificiality in her mother’s voice. Just pure rage. The next moment, her mother’s face had slipped back into her usual mask of pretty artifice. Janene turned back to the nurse, sparing Dariah prolonged exposure to the artificiality that drove her crazy.

“Could you give us a moment? I want to talk to my daughter in private. It has just been so long.”

“Of course,” the nurse said dutifully.

When the nurse had shut the door behind her, Janene Coulton turned back to her daughter and examined her closely. She stepped around the table and looked at her from all angles.

“You’ll need plastic surgery, of course,” she told her daughter. “We’ll probably want hair plugs or hair transplants to hide the clumps of hair you’re never going to get back.”

“I don’t want to talk about that crap right now,” Dariah said. Her hands automatically went to her head as her fingers inspected her scalp self-consciously. There were missing chunks of scalp on the back of her head. She couldn’t believe her mom could not wait five minutes before bringing that up. “Where’s Dad?”

“He’ll be on the first plane from Boston,” Janene told her. “He was there on business. I was attending a function down in Los Angeles, luckily, so it only took me a few hours to get here after your father got your message.”

Dariah looked down at her bare knees poking out from under the green polka-dotted hospital gown she was wearing. She felt exposed and weak in front of her mother. She slid her legs back under the covers as she lay down again.

“Aren’t you happy to see me?” her mother asked.

“Thrilled,” Dariah mumbled as she lay her head back down on the pillow. “Just tired.”

“Well, that’s understandable,” her mother said as she eyed her daughter. Dariah didn’t like the look she saw on her mother’s face. It wasn’t compassion or tenderness—it was a wary look of someone eyeing a wounded animal, wondering if it should be put out of its misery. “Who knows what you’ve been through.”

“I don’t think I even want to know,” Dariah said as she fought the urge to turn onto her side and pretend to sleep so Janene would go away. She didn’t want her mother to see any of her other injuries, hidden by her gown and the blankets. Plastic surgery. Of course, that would be the first thing her mother would bring up. She was just a pawn in her mother’s game. Whatever the hell game it was that her mother was playing.

“So, what did the doctor say?” Janene asked as she settled into the chair next to the window.

“I don’t know, no one’s shared the results of any of my tests yet,” Dariah said. “I’ve been sleeping. I think he wanted to do an MRI.”

“That is simply unacceptable,” Janene said as she stood up. “We need answers now.”

Before Dariah could blink, Janene was out of the door on a mission to give some poor doctor hell. It got her out of the room, at least. She closed her eyes again and wished she was back in her dorm room and the last few weeks had all just been a very bad dream.

When she opened her eyes again, she was still in the same sickeningly bright room. No luck. This was no bad dream.

She closed her eyes again and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

When she woke, a doctor was standing over her with her chart in hand. He was a shorter man, probably in his sixties, and he looked tired and a little irritable. Looking over his shoulder at the icy face of Janene Coulton, Dariah had a good idea what had caused that irritability.

“What’d I miss?” she asked with a yawn.

“Your mother is insisting upon your release from our hospital,” the doctor said.

“Oh?”

“Yes, apparently there are more appropriate facilities to give you care on the East Coast,” he said.

“Do you agree with her?” She ignored the glare her mother cast her way.

“I understand her desire to have her daughter closer to home after such a traumatic experience,” he said as he flipped her chart shut and placed it in a holder at the end of her bed. He walked to her bedside and extended his hand. “I am sorry, you have been asleep each of the times I have come in to check in on you. I’m Dr. Preston. Given the trauma you have endured, I thought it best that you slept.”

Dariah shook the doctor’s hand. It was a firm, solid handshake. She liked the feel of his hand in hers. She reluctantly let his fingers slide through hers.

In that moment, she realized she would not be returning to New York. She was not going to go home. There was something she needed to do here, something close. She just needed to remember what it was.

“Mom, I am going to stay here,” she said as she sat herself up in the bed.

“Dariah, this is not up for discussion.”

“You’re right. It’s not. I am nineteen years old, and I am staying here. When the good Dr. Preston sees fit to release me, I will go about my merry way. Maybe then I will return to New York, but not just yet.”

“And who do you think will pay for these medical bills?” her mother said.

“Daddy will.” That was one thing Dariah was certain about. Her dad may have trouble standing up to her mom, but he would not endanger his daughter’s life or well-being. Dr. Preston watched the mother and daughter glare at each other in silence. When Janene Coulton finally turned on her heel and strode out of the door, Dariah let out a sigh of relief.

“Well, when would you like to begin the tests?”

“There’s no time like now,” Dariah said as she shot him her most winning smile. She had stood up to her mother finally. And won.

Nothing could dampen the glow she felt just then.

CHAPTER TWENTY

When the policemen finally left, Evan’s parents looked at each other and looked everywhere else but at him. After a moment of awkward silence, they sent him to his room to play. He knew what that really meant. They wanted to talk. About him. He had seen how upset his mom was when the police had told her Dr. Jasmeet was dead. He had seen the way she had looked at him in that moment. Like she didn’t know him—like she was scared of him now. After he left the room, he could hear their loud whispers as he climbed the stairs. They tried not to fight in front of him, but he knew they were fighting now, and he knew they were fighting about him.

Evan bit his lip as he threw himself into his bed. He never asked for the stupid dreams. He didn’t want to be different. Hot tears burned their way down his cheeks and he wiped them away angrily. He just wanted to make the nightmares go away. He wanted his mom and dad to smile at each other again. He wanted to close his eyes and dream normal kid dreams.

But the nightmares weren’t going to stop. The monster wouldn’t let them. He just knew it. And he couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Not anymore. He hated it, but he was different. He had to be able to do something to make them stop. He just had to.

The monster was getting stronger. He could feel it now, even while he was awake. He felt its need and hunger all the time now, not just when he was asleep. It had gotten stronger in the last few days. Ever since he had felt Dariah again. Except she felt different. The monster had hurt her, broken her into pieces, and it had brought her back again, but it had put the pieces back all wrong.

The monster had hurt Dr. Jasmeet, too. All Dr. Jasmeet had done was try and help him. He had told her not to take the elevator, and she hadn’t listened. Like all the other big people, all the other adults. They just didn’t listen, because he was little. And now she was dead. Nothing would bring her back.

As he lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling, he had an idea. He pulled his sneakers off and threw them down, watching as they skittered across the floor and into the wall. He lay down and pulled the blankets over his head. He squeezed his eyes tight and tried sleep, thinking hard about Dariah. He thought about her as he had seen her in his very first nightmare. Her blond hair pulled back tight, humming to songs on the radio as she drove next to the lake. He thought about how comforting she was when she thought she was dying. She had tried to be brave for him, and he had felt it. Remembering that sweetness brought tears to his eyes.

Minutes passed and nothing happened. All that was happening was he was getting sleepy, but that was it. He tried harder. His face was scrunched and he was beginning to get a headache, but still, nothing happened. He kicked his heel against the bed in anger. It wasn’t working. He opened his eyes and pulled the blankets back under his chin. He stared up at his ceiling and the stick-it stars. He tried to clear his head and just think about Dariah. He tried to reach out for her and will himself to her. As his mind drifted, he felt sleep, and something changed.

Something snapped in his head, and the world spun out from underneath him.

He was sitting in a hospital bed looking at a magazine he didn’t care about. His hands didn’t look like his own. They were bigger and longer, with chipped pink nail polish. He felt a moment of glee and realized he had done it. He had found Dariah!

In her head now, he could feel the monster’s hunger stronger than ever. He could feel that Dariah could feel it, too. It was making her antsy and angry. Dariah threw the magazine at the wall and hit a button on a remote clinging to the side of her bed.

A few minutes later, a nurse came in the room. She had a wary expression on her face.

Can I help you, miss?”

I’m so hungry,” Dariah said despondently,.

I’m sorry, but you just ate lunch half an hour ago. You’ll have to wait for dinner.”

No, I’m hungry now,” Dariah said in a horrible tone that Evan had not heard her use before. Something in Dariah’s face made the nurse take a step back. The nurse opened her mouth and closed it again. “Come here.”

The nurse took a step closer to Dariah. Evan could see the confusion on the poor woman’s face. He could also feel the hunger growing and a thrill coursing through Dariah. There was a thrumming noise across the distance between the nurse and the bed. He focused on the thrumming noise until he could see what was making that noise. A golden light danced around the nurse, flickering to some unseen rhythm. That light was what Dariah craved—what the monster craved. He wasn’t sure if Dariah could see it, but he knew it was there.

I said, COME HERE.” The nurse took another step towards the bed, her face becoming less confused and more afraid.

Evan felt Dariah reaching for the nurse—not with her hands, but something else. Some part of her pulled at the woman, pulling her against her will, closer to her bedside. The nurse took another step towards Dariah, and Evan could see the sweat streaming down her face and the terror growing in her eyes.

Please, miss,” the nurse’s voice cracked. Evan saw a tear roll out of her eye. He couldn’t let Dariah do whatever she was about to do.

It’s going to be okay,” Dariah said in a strange voice. “I am just so hungry. I just need one second. Just one second. Then I’ll be better.”

Please, don’t,” the nurse moaned. Dariah reached her hand out and he could feel the greed and hunger. The hunger he had felt before, behind each of those terrible nightmares, and in the cave. The monster was there somehow. It was in her blood now and it needed to feed.

Dariah’s hand wrapped around the nurse’s frail wrist and Evan tried to let go. If only he could make the fingers release the nurse. But he couldn’t. He could feel what Dariah was doing, but he couldn’t make her let go of her prey.

No!

Evan tried to yell. No sound came out. Frantic, he tried to think of something he could do. Anything. He had made Dariah hear him before, back in that first dream. If he could just remember what he had done, what he had thought, then maybe he could make it stop. He tried again. Still nothing. He fought the urge to cry. He had wanted to be here, he had wanted to do something. He wanted to save someone. He was failing.

Please, stop.” He whimpered, but again, no sound. Dariah’s grip tightened around the nurse’s wrist. The light around the nurse flickered and began to dim. Her face grew pale.

He tried to scream with every fiber of his being.

“STOP!”

And he was sitting up in his own bed again, sweating. He could feel the nurse’s hand in his own. He could see the whites of her eyes, and he could taste her fear.

He thought he understood now. The monster was somehow growing inside of Dariah. Evan crawled out of the bed, his head pounding. He went to find his parents. They were sitting in the study, not talking to each other. His dad was leaning over his desk, looking at a piece of paper. His eyes weren’t moving, so Evan knew he wasn’t actually reading. His mom was just staring out the window with a file open on her lap.

“Mom? Dad?”

“Yes?” his dad said.

“I found Dariah. She’s close,” he said. The rest came out in a tumble. “The monster is inside of her now an’ it’s using her to feed on people, an’ getting stronger and stronger. We have to stop it.”

“Do you know how to stop it, Evan?” his mom asked. She was still looking out the window.

“No.” Evan felt the world crashing down around him.

“We need to know more about this thing,” his dad said. “We can’t walk into this blind.”

“We are already in this, and we are blind,” his mom said, hopelessly.

“Yes, but we don’t have to be blind. We need to know everything about this monster, or whatever it is,” his dad said. “We can start with the file that Dr. Jasmeet was working on. She mentioned a video of the creature. We need to see it.”

“That’s right,” his mom said. She closed the file on her lap and stood up. “We should call the clinic.”

Evan felt a surge of hope. His parents were in it with him. They were going to help him. Maybe all of them working together could get rid of the monster. Maybe they could save Dariah. Maybe they could save everyone.

Just maybe. 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Dariah woke in time to see a nurse turn and run from her room. She vaguely remembered calling for a nurse because she was so hungry. Everything else was a little fuzzy. She looked around the room and saw a magazine flung against the far side of the wall. Had she thrown that? She didn’t remember. The hunger was stronger now than ever before. She needed to eat something, but she couldn’t pinpoint her craving. Everything the nurses and aides brought her to eat made her feel like wretching.

A vague fear filled her suddenly. What had she done to the fleeing nurse? She felt her face, and sure enough, the skin was slightly smoother. She remembered her first day at the hospital all too well. The man she had barely touched. Fear and shame washed over her. She had to get out of the hospital. Before she hurt someone.

Standing up, she ripped the monitoring cords off her arms and chest and padded over to the closet. Her mom and had left her some clothes and her purse and wallet. It was still torn and dirty. Her mom must have been carrying it with her this whole time. Dariah felt a sudden pang of guilt. Her mom must be more human than she thought, if she had carried this wallet with her wherever she went.

Grateful, Dariah dressed quickly. Once she was dressed, she stood at the door to her room and made sure the hallway was clear before slipping out and turning down the nearest stairway. On the main floor, she tried to slip past the checkout without anyone noticing her. The nurses appeared busy, and no one looked up as she walked briskly out the front door into freedom. She had only been in the hospital for a few days, maybe a week, but she had felt tethered there. The tests, MRIs, and the doctors huddling together as they examined screens just out of her hearing distance. Police coming and going asking if she remembered anything.

She was done with it all.

Plus, she no longer trusted herself with people. She wasn’t quite sure what happened, but she was pretty sure she had almost hurt that nurse. Thank God, something had stopped her. The nurse hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t deserve whatever might have happened. Not that Dariah really knew what would have happened to the woman, but she knew it couldn’t have been good. Not with the hunger and anger that had been building inside of her head, turning the world red.

Now that she was out of the hospital, her memories were becoming a little crisper. She walked down through the parking lot, finding comfort in the feeling of the concrete under her sneakers.

It was the voice, she remembered. She had heard someone in her head. That was what stopped her. And there had been something familiar about it. Through the fog in her head, she remembered why it was familiar. It took a moment to place it in the right context, but she had heard that voice before. She had heard it that night, the night everything had changed. The voice seemed older this time, more in control, but still frightened. Like a little boy. The more she lingered on the memory, the more she felt him with her. Almost like he had left an imprint on her mind. She could feel his concern, his fear, his anger like a soothing breeze.

Across from the hospital parking lot, Dariah found a graffiti-covered bus stop that had a map screwed onto the metal pole. It looked like if she waited long enough, a bus would come that would take her downtown. She could figure out where to go from there. She sat down on the rickety metal seat and waited.

She needed to find the boy. She closed her eyes and felt for the boy. Yes, she needed to go south.

The bus finally came that would take Dariah downtown, where she could rent a car or pick up a greyhound ticket to take her south. She pulled out her wallet and was relieved to find that her mother had left it fully stocked with cash, credit cards, and her ID. She climbed up the steps to the bus and nodded to the friendly-looking middle-aged driver. The bus was fairly crowded, but she was able to find a spot near the back where she could sit alone. A few seats ahead of her, two men in their thirties dressed in ragged clothes huddled together in quiet conversation. One turned his head back to her and she could see his greasy spiked brown hair and a tattoo snaking up his neck to crest on his chin.

“What you looking at, freak?” he said.

“Nothing,” Dariah said, as she turned to stare intently out the window. She could hear the two men laugh, and knew from the tone that the laughter was at her expense. The glass of the bus window offered a mirror to her new, grim reality. She had forgotten about the scars across her face, neck, and hairline. They were faded compared to what they had been, but they still gleamed against her flesh as evidence of a traumatic past. Hesitantly, she brought her fingers to her face and traced the mesh of scars across her eyebrow and down the right side of her face.

“Aw, Jake, you made the freak sad,” the man’s friend shouted. She saw out of the corner of her eye that both men had turned around in their seats and were leering at her. She continued to look out the window and dropped her hands down to her lap.

“The freak is pretending she doesn’t see us now,” the man she now knew was called Jake said.

“Boys, leave her alone,” an older woman said sternly. “It looks like she’s been through enough already.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” the one with the longer greasy black hair said. Dariah noticed he had a large tattoo of a spider across his left cheek. Both the men laughed again. They seemed to listen to the matronly woman and turned toward the front of the bus. Dariah mouthed a silent “thank you” to the older woman. The stern-looking woman smiled knowingly at her, then picked up her paper and went back to reading, leaving Dariah to her window.

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, thankfully. When the bus finally pulled into the downtown station, Dariah disembarked and headed straight for the brightly marked Customer Information booth. The harried attendant at the booth flashed her a signal of “one minute” as he continued to talk on the phone to what could only be a disgruntled passenger. She took that moment to survey the handouts spread around the booth and found a map of downtown that pointed her to the local Greyhound bus station not far away. Map in hand, she left quickly. The attendant didn’t even seem to notice.

As she drew closer to the Greyhound station, she noticed the buildings were more decrepit and the sidewalks grew dirtier. The pungent odor of what could only be human urine tickled her nose. She tried not to show obvious signs of disgust or distaste as she skirted around a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk. When she crossed an alleyway between two large tenement buildings, something slammed into her shoulder, sending her sprawling into the alley. Warm blood trickled down her elbow. Luckily, her arm had absorbed the worst of the fall, and she had not hit her head against the pavement. She pushed herself up from the dirty asphalt, wiping her hands free of the blood and dirt.

“Oh, look, the freak looks scared!” a familiar voice yelled. That taunting voice was joined by a mean laugh. Dariah tried not to groan as she clutched her purse tightly to her chest and turned to face her assailants.

“C’mon, freak, give us your purse,” the man said. The men from the bus. The dark-haired man now held a knife in his hand and was brandishing it in her direction.

“No,” Dariah said, forcing as much calm into her voice as she could muster.

“Freak, we will fuck you up,” Jake said. “Even worse than you already are.”

From his high-pitched tone and rapid pace of speech, Dariah could only assume he was on something. Maybe speed, heroin. She didn’t really have much experience with drugs, but something was off with this guy.

“Leave me alone,” she said firmly, as she tried to circle around them toward the alley entranceway.

“Give us the purse,” the other man said. “Then we’ll leave you alone.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

“C’mon, Simon, fuck her up,” Jake whined from behind his comrade. Dariah heard a humming in her ears as she felt a rumbling stir deep inside of her. The hunger rose. Her mouth grew dry and her hand holding her purse began to shake with need.

“Oooh, she’s scared,” Simon said with a grin as his hand flexed on the knife he was holding. “Look at her shake.”

Dariah looked at them again as she gave in to the hunger. She felt the seething anger wash over her. She let it consume her.

“Drop it,” she growled. The humming in her head jumped up several decibels. She could almost hear the air crackle between them, if that was possible. She could certainly feel some kind of connection between herself and the tall, greasy man called Simon. The knife dropped immediately from his hand and clattered against the cement as she watched a dumbfounded look flash across his face. “Come here.”

Slowly, he complied. One foot inched in front of the other as the look of surprise gave way to terror. He had no control over his body.

“Dude, what the fuck?” his companion screamed at him. She could hear the anxiety thick in his voice. “What are you doing? Fuck her up!”

Dariah stepped forward, ignoring the sudden look of terror on Simon’s face. She grabbed his arm eagerly and gave in to the sudden rush of ecstasy. Waves of a blissful sensation rolled over her, enveloping her in a feeling of satiation that she had not felt since entering the hospital. Simon began to howl and writhe uselessly in her grasp. But her hold was ironclad.

She closed her eyes and felt the hunger finally ease. She felt a pure energy course through her body like she had never felt before. She felt powerful.

Dariah opened her eyes a moment later and realized that she was now all but holding Simon up. His mouth was slack, spittle dripping down both sides of his face. His black hair was now a dirty white. Empty eyes stared back at her. She let go of his cold arms and let his dead body fall to the ground.

“You bitch,” Jake whimpered from behind Simon’s corpse. “You fucking killed him.”

“He deserved it,” Dariah said with grim satisfaction. “How many did he kill before me?”

“We didn’t bother no one, no one that cooperated,” Jake stammered at her. Dariah saw that he was now holding his friend’s knife. He must have picked it up while she was busy with Simon. “Why couldn’t you just give us your purse?”

“Because it’s my purse,” she said. “You have no right to it.”

“But now Simon is dead,” Jake yelled.

“And the world is a better place without him,” Dariah spat back at him. Somehow, she could feel Simon in her head still. Flashes of what could only be pieces of his memory flitted in and out of her consciousness. They filled her with contempt. “Simon tells me that you two used to like to follow girls home from the high school. You would play with them.”

“We didn’t hurt ’em,” Jake said as he began to back away. “Not much.”

“I think you did hurt them, quite a lot,” Dariah said as she took a step closer. She felt the hum rise inside of her, the energy course between her and Jake. She was charged, and he would not get away. She felt the energy surge towards her from him the instant she thought about touching him. His knife clattered to the cement again as Jake let out a blood curdling scream and dropped to his knees clutching his face. She felt the energy wash over her again and bathe her in its warmth. For the first time, she felt the source of all that energy and she reveled in his raw terror.

As she watched him die, his body crumpling to the ground, suddenly covered in bruises and gashes that were inflicted by some unseen force, Dariah felt pleased. With all the glimpses inside his mind, she had done him a favor. Him and everyone he’d ever hurt, or would have hurt if he’d been given the chance. The world was a better place without him.

Dariah had never felt so in control. She checked to make sure no one was watching before exiting the alley. She didn’t want anyone asking her questions. She didn’t think anyone could prove she’d done anything to these assholes, but she didn’t want to risk it. The few vagrants that had been on the street seemed to have cleared out. The yelling from the alley must have sent everyone scurrying.

Dariah walked out into the broad daylight, hands in her pockets and an extra bounce in her step. She glanced down at her arms and noticed that the faded pink scars on her forearm were gone. She brought her hand up to her face and neck and could no longer feel the raised flesh of scars. She smiled and began to whistle the theme song to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Today was going to be a good day and a good start to the rest of her life.

[ * ]

Somewhere in the dark, it rose from a pool of shadows. It stretched its limbs, and felt the stiffness of its new body. It had been so long since it had walked the world of men. Generations upon generations. It took a moment to fill its lungs, to breathe this new air. It had a name, it knew. It would remember it soon. After it gathered energy and rested. It had taken all its strength to cut through the hole the girl had made and step through the fabric between the two worlds.

To walk this world in a real form, that had taken everything it had. It needed to feed.

Then it would look for the artifact.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Evan woke with a start, clutching his stomach in agony. It took a moment to realize the pain was not his own—it belonged to those men. The men Dariah killed. He had seen everything this time. He had seen what she had done to the man called Simon, then to Jake. He had seen it all. He’d been in Jake’s head through the whole thing, had felt the fear clench Jake’s gut when Dariah turned to him. He had seen the look in her eyes. She wasn’t herself anymore. There was no kind sparkle, no laughter in her eyes. Just anger. Anger and need.

Then, in just a blink, Dariah faded from his view, and he was somewhere else. He was still Jake, but he was surrounded by strange, angry, tattooed men. These men looked mean, not like Daddy’s students who had tattoos. These men were members of Jake’s gang. The men turned on Jake, they said terrible, terrible things, things that Evan had never heard said before. Then they hurt him, cut him with knives. They beat him to death. Evan could still feel the terror rising as the men hurled their terrible words at Jake. The hurt and shame that boiled over and hurt almost as much as the knives.

Evan had tried to do something to make it stop, but it happened so fast. The largest one, with the snake tattoo curling up around his neck, stepped forward and plunged the knife into his abdomen, and he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. All the air left his lips and he woke up here. In his own bed.

He knew it was Dariah behind Jake’s death. He didn’t know how she did it, why Jake saw those men, but he knew it was Dariah making everything happen. He knew the men weren’t real. They were shadow men.

Now that he was awake, the memory of her face still frightened him. The old Dariah would not have been able to make a face like that.

Evan climbed out of bed feeling more exhausted than he ever had before. It was almost as if he hadn’t slept at all. The world felt different, too. Everything felt wrong. He didn’t think it was because of what Dariah did. Or maybe it was.

Maybe what Dariah did was connected with the thing he saw as he opened his eyes. The dark thing under the bridge. However it happened, the monster was here now.

And he still didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t saved the bad men. He hadn’t even really tried, and that ate at him.

Evan found his parents in the kitchen, looking sad. Things had changed so much in the last few months. He wished things could go back to normal, but didn’t see how they could.

“Mom, Dad?” he said.

“Yes, dear?” his mom said. She sounded as tired as he felt.

“It’s here now,” Evan said. He didn’t see any point in mincing words.

“What’s here, honey?” his mom asked.

“The monster. I think it came through. It’s here now.”

“Shit,” his dad said, before taking a moment to look at him. “You’re sure?”

Evan nodded.

“How long do we have?”

“How long do we have until what?” Evan asked. He still felt sick to his stomach.

“I don’t know, until it’s here, until the world ends? How long do we have to figure out what we can do to stop it?”

“I don’t know. It’s awake and looking for something, I think,” Evan said.

“So, it wasn’t awake before?” his mom asked.

“No, well—probably,” Evan said. The whole thing was confusing. He was just relying on how things felt. “It just wasn’t here. It was somewhere else.”

“Like an alien? Something from a different planet?” his mom asked.

“No,” Evan said. That wasn’t quite right. “No, it was somewhere really close. In that cave. I think the cave is somewhere we can only see when we’re asleep.”

“So, it was in some alternate world—some dream world?” his dad said.

“Yeah, something like that,” Evan said. “I think people can only see it when they’re dreaming, or when they’re really afraid, and then it’s almost like they’re dreaming.”

“This is sounding a little bit like A Nightmare on Elm Street,” his mom said. She sounded skeptical.

“No, there’s no Freddy Krueger,” Evan said.

“How would you know about Freddy Krueger?” his mom asked. “You’re not allowed to watch those kind of movies.”

“I don’t know, I think . . . I think maybe in one of my dreams, there was a girl who was afraid that Freddy Krueger was going to kill her in her sleep,” Evan said. It was stretching through the fog to see things he hadn’t even remembered. “And he did, sort of. Except it wasn’t really Freddy Krueger.”

“I feel like we’re looking at this all wrong,” his dad said, rubbing his head. “We need to know more about this creature and what it does.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, feeling useless. His parents were trying to help, but he couldn’t tell them anything they needed to know. He didn’t know what they needed to know. He tried to think really hard about everything he had seen, everything he remembered. But everything was just a feeling.

“I think it’s weak right now. It needs to feed.”

“Oh God,” his mom said, her hand clutched to her mouth. “It’s going to kill someone, isn’t it?”

Evan nodded.

“God, of course,” his dad said. “Do you know what the monster is looking for?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said. “Something called an ‘artifact,’ I think.”

“Anything more specific?” his mom asked.

“Not really,” Evan said. “I felt like this artifact was something new, though. I can’t really explain.”

“How new?”

“Newer than the monster. But the monster is really, really, really old.”

“Well, that doesn’t narrow anything down for us,” his mom said. She was pacing back and forth in the room now.

“This artifact could be anything,” his dad said. “A historical item from the ancient world. Or a Native American totem. A medieval token. It could be anything from anywhere in the world, and any point in history. Evan, we need to know more. Do you know anything else about the monster?”

“I told you everything, I think,” Evan said. “I don’t think the artifact would be old, though. It’s something newer. Something fresh is what it felt like.”

“Hm, it could still be rooted in the ancient world. Perhaps a replica of an ancient artifact? Or a new model of some older icon?” His dad was looking at the wall and talking. He didn’t seem to be talking to anyone in particular. Evan knew his dad did this when he was thinking. “You’re doing great, Evan, but we need to know more.”

“Have you heard it talk?” his mom asked, looking at him for the first time since he had come in the room. “Do you know how it sounds? Does it have an accent?”

“I haven’t heard it talk,” Evan replied. He tried to recall its voice. “It just thinks and I hear what it’s thinking. It doesn’t really think in words. I just have feelings about what it’s thinking. I think I’m the one shaping words, because it doesn’t really need to. It feels old.”

“Okay, well, then I may need to look into any myths about nightmares or beings in ancient history or literature that may have artifacts associated with them. Maybe if we find this artifact we can destroy it and force the creature to leave.”

Evan felt a surge of hope. His dad was really good at research. If anyone could find this artifact, his dad could. He felt like they finally had something to do. He watched his dad open up his laptop and begin typing.

“Tom, I don’t think finding one of your damn old books is going to help here.”

“Dammit, Jen, we’ve got to start somewhere.”

“You’re right,” his mom said after a moment’s silence. “We have to start somewhere. This could work.”

“It might,” Evan said. He felt relieved. They were doing something. They were together. It was a start.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Thomas glanced up from his laptop and saw that the room was nearly dark. He let out a sigh as he reached over and flipped the desk lamp on. The readout on the screen informed him it was now 12:35 a.m. There was a delicious-looking ham sandwich in front of him. He had no memory of Jenna delivering it, but he was grateful now that he realized how hungry he was. He had spent the last eight hours poring over UCLA’s library system searching for any combination of the terms “dream,” “nightmare,” “monster,” and “artifact.” He had even thrown in the term “god” just for the heck of it, in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and any language he could get his hands on. So far, the hours of combing through multiple databases had returned no results that seemed remotely possible.

Thomas dug into the ham sandwich as he continued to scroll down the thirty-seventh page of articles and references that might pertain to his search terms. Nothing seemed right. He was becoming more and more convinced that he was trying to look for a needle in a haystack. And in this case, he didn’t even know what the needle looked like.

He had no idea when he would know if he had found what he was looking for. He needed to bring in outside help. George was semi-retired now and teaching only the occasional class. Thomas was tempted to ask for his assistance, but he didn’t know how to phrase it.

He couldn’t very well call his friend up and blurt out, “Hey George! Could you lend me a hand? My son is seeing a demon/monster that is making his worst nightmares come true. Can you help me research an artifact related to the monster, so we can destroy it? Yeah? Super!” It was ridiculous. Thomas set his sandwich down and began pacing the room. He needed something more. He needed to know what was actually happening. The visions had to be connected somehow. As it stood, nothing made sense. His son had never met this girl, Dariah, who had been dead, but now was alive. Evan had never been on the East Coast where the monster, or whatever it was, first appeared. There were links that just didn’t seem to exist. There had to be a link between all the events and his son. There had to be something that he was missing.

Something they were all missing.

He felt like screaming and barely resisted the urge to pick up his globe and throw it against the wall. The incoherence of everything was driving him mad. A few months ago, his life had made sense, and now nothing made sense. His whole perception of reality was shattered. Creatures that went bump in the night did exist, for one.

He turned back to his computer and switched it into sleep mode. He would resume his work in the morning. First, he needed to see if he could get some sleep. He passed down the hall and looked in on Evan. Evan seemed to be sleeping quietly for the first time in many nights, so Thomas quietly shut the door and tiptoed on to his room.

When he slid the door open, he saw Jenna was sitting upright in bed, papers spread around her.

“Hey, hon, I didn’t think you would be up still,” he said, as he slipped into bed beside her.

“I can’t sleep,” Jenna said. “Not with all of this going on.”

“I’m sorry,” Thomas said as he snuggled in close to her.

“Did you have any luck?” she asked, looking up at him hopefully as she stood up and began to gather papers from the bed.

“No, nothing yet,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if I’m even looking in the right places. I’m combing through the university’s online references to publications across the world, but I haven’t found anything that seems right yet.”

“How long do you think this will take?” Jenna asked.

“Days, weeks, months. I don’t know,” Thomas said with exasperation.

“We don’t have that long,” Jenna said. “We don’t know what will happen to Evan if we wait any longer. This thing is eating at him. I feel it.”

“I don’t know how to speed up the process,” Thomas said. “I was thinking I might ask George to help me research.”

“Tom, we can’t do that,” Jenna said with a sharp intake of breath. She looked horrified at the thought. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. Dr. Jasmeet is dead because of the help she was giving us. If we ask George and something happens to him or Elaine . . . I could never forgive myself.”

“Honey, I don’t think we have a choice,” Thomas told her. He had wracked his brain, and he needed help. George just might have heard of something in all his readings that would help. “George has been in the field far longer than I have. He might be able to point us in the right direction. Or he might know something I don’t. I wouldn’t tell him anything about Evan. I can approach it as purely academic.”

“And lie to him?” Jenna asked. “You’re not a good liar, Tom.”

“Well, neither are you, but I am willing to risk it. If it helps Evan, then it’s worth it.”

“You’re right,” she said as she slumped back into bed. “Of course. God, yes, tell him anything, I don’t care. So long as he can help.”

“I’ll check with him tomorrow,” Thomas said with some relief.

“Also, a thought just occurred to me,” Jenna said as she pulled up the covers. “Dr. Jasmeet had mentioned that she had given Evan’s file to an associate of hers. Someone who could possibly assist her in Evan’s case. Maybe we can follow up with him. He might have some more information.”

“It can’t hurt,” Tom said. “I know it might be hard for him, since he probably knew Dr. Jasmeet, but he may have some helpful information.”

“I’ll give the office a call tomorrow.”

“Great. Thank you.” Thomas leaned over and kissed Jenna’s forehead before switching the bedside lamp off. Tomorrow was a new day.

All he had to do was figure out how to save his son.

He tried to close his eyes and breathe. At some point during the night, he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Jenna called the clinic as soon as their phone lines opened the next morning. After what seemed like an hour of endless holding and getting shuffled from one person to the next, she was finally asked to leave a message for the triage nurses at the clinic. She was assured that a nurse would call her back. Though she bit her lip in frustration, Jenna couldn’t blame the clinic for the disorganization. It wasn’t often that a doctor died so tragically, and it certainly had to be a shock that it had happened in the very building where everyone worked.

The police were clueless. The media weren’t much of a help either. They had initially stated Dr. Jasmeet’s death was under “suspicious circumstances” and now they simply stated that the doctor had died in an accident.

After leaving a brief message requesting a call back from the colleague who was working with Dr. Jasmeet on Evan’s file, Jenna hung up and sat listlessly in the armchair. Evan had dug up some of the older Disney movies from their dusty locations on the shelves and was watching Aladdin. Jenna pulled herself out of the armchair and snuggled next to Evan on the couch.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Okay,” Evan said, as he continued to watch the movie.

“Did you sleep well last night?”

“Yes,” Evan said. “No nightmares at all. I just slept.”

“That’s great!” Jenna said. She was surprised he didn’t sound more relieved. “That must be your first night in some time.”

“Yeah,” he said noncommittally.

“Evan, what’s wrong?” Jenna asked as she poked his shoulder. “I thought you’d be really happy to have had a dreamless night, but you seem really down.”

“Everything’s wrong,” Evan said as he looked up at her. “I didn’t have a nightmare, but nothing feels right. I just feel like something really, really bad is about to happen. I just don’t know what.”

“I’m sorry,” Jenna said as she hugged him close. “Daddy is working on tracking down that artifact, or whatever it is. He’s meeting George now and they’ll see if they can figure something out.”

“I hope they hurry,” he said.

“They’re going to do their best. I’m sure of it.”

Evan nodded as he continued to stare blankly at the television screen. Jenna patted his hand in what felt like an empty gesture and stood up.

“Why don’t I go make us a snack?” she said.

As she was leaving the room to head to the kitchen, Evan cleared his throat.

“I think it’s getting closer,” Evan said.

Jenna paused midway through the door, trying to fight the sinking feeling in her chest.

“To finding the artifact?”

“I don’t know. It feels closer though,” Evan said. “Like it’s not very far from here.”

“It’s closer to us?” Jenna asked as she looked at her exhausted son. Evan nodded. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Me neither.”

“I’ll go get that snack and give Daddy a call,” Jenna said. “Maybe he’s making more progress with George.”

“Okay.”

Jenna grabbed an assortment of food items from the fridge and cupboards while she picked up the telephone off the receiver in the kitchen and dialed her husband’s cell. It went straight to voicemail. She should have expected that, since she knew he and George were meeting in the university’s library. Cell reception was always spotty there. Still, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She clicked the talk button off and hung the phone on its cradle.

After she had thrown together a sandwich for herself and Evan, she delivered it to the now-quiet boy with a small grape juice packet and went back to the kitchen and laid her head on the smooth marble of the kitchenette. She had no idea what she was going to do about work right now, once Monday rolled around. She did not feel ready to face the stacks of paperwork, the appointments, and the people she couldn’t help.

But she didn’t know how long these horrible things would continue happening. What if her son had to deal with these horrible nightmares for the rest of his life? What would he do then? What would she do? What could she do?

And what did Evan mean when he said that this monster was getting closer to them?

What the hell did it want?

On some level, deep in her gut, she knew what it wanted. Or at least, what it was going to do. Wherever it seemed to go, it left mayhem and destruction in its wake. It was going to kill her son if she didn’t do something to stop it. And she didn’t know the first thing about how to stop it.

Jenna wasn’t sure how long her head had been resting on the cold marble of the tabletop in despair, but her reverie was interrupted when the phone rang loudly next to her ear. She answered in a daze.

“Hello?” she said, hoping to hear Thomas’s voice filled with excitement.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Elliott?” a young man’s voice said on the other line.

“Uh, yes, who is this?”

“Hi, Mrs. Elliott, this is Dr. James Gregory returning your call from this morning?”

“Yes, Dr. Gregory!” Jenna sat upright.

“The nurse indicated you requested a status update on the files Nivedita, I mean, Dr. Jasmeet, had requested a consult on.”

“Yes,” Jenna said. She winced at the pain in the young doctor’s voice as he faltered over Dr. Jasmeet’s name. “Anything you can give us. We’re at our wits’ end here. Although, I can’t even begin to imagine what your office is going through with the loss of Dr. Jasmeet. So I really don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful, but is there any way you can help us?”

“Well, Dr. Jasmeet had transferred me the entire patient file and requested that I pay particular attention to the data on the video recording of her first session with your son. Before I go into too much detail, it would probably be best if I schedule an appointment and have you and your son come in.”

“Do you have time today?”

“Probably not today, but Monday morning. Let me see,” Dr. Gregory said. “Yes, Monday at 9:00 a.m. should work.”

“There’s no chance you can see us sooner?”

“I have a really full docket today, Mrs. Elliott,” he said. “But I’ll see what I can do to reschedule. I would like to see you right away.”

“Oh, thank you,” Jenna was near tears. “Something is happening to my son, and I think it’s going to kill him.”

“I will see what I can do,” Dr. Gregory said. “My office will call you back as soon as we have a slot, okay?”

“Okay. Thank you,” Jenna said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try.”

“I really appreciate it.”

“Bye, Mrs. Elliott.”

“Bye, Dr. Gregory.”

An hour or so later, Evan was upstairs trying to take a nap while Jenna sifted through the newspaper, trying to focus on an article long enough to read one. A natural disaster in Asia, a hurricane on the East Coast, and a bombing in the Middle East. People continuing to be horrible to each other. Nothing new there. She closed the newspaper in disgust and slid it across the table away from her. Standing up, she walked to the fridge and opened it to inspect its contents. She closed it again once she remembered she had just eaten forty-five minutes before and had no appetite. Just a knot in her stomach that seemed to have become a permanent fixture.

She waited for the doctor to call, even though she knew the prospects were grim. If the things that were happening to her son were supernatural, she wasn’t quite sure how the doctor could help her son. Who was she kidding? She had seen the shadow man. She had seen the blackness enveloping her son. There was no question in her mind. Whatever was happening to her son was definitely not normal. Hell, it wasn’t natural and she certainly couldn’t see science explaining it. But she had to do something while Thomas combed through the libraries with George. And George—she had no idea what Thomas had told him to rope him into the research. When he had left that morning, Thomas had simply said, “Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him anything.”

Clearly, he had told George something, otherwise George wouldn’t be in a library on his Friday morning off. Whatever reason he had to be there and help Thomas search through tomes, Jenna was grateful he was helping. She had called in with another sick day since Evan did not feel up to school. She didn’t know how she was going to send him back to school if these nightmares continued. Thomas had told her that Elaine had insisted on bringing her and Evan some tea and cocoa when she had heard that Evan was staying home sick. Jenna was grateful, but she was also afraid that her astute friend would notice something different about Evan. He wasn’t carefree anymore. She also knew that Elaine would not take no for an answer when it came to taking care of her friends.

The phone rang and Jenna rushed to pick it up.

“Ms. Elliott?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Yes?” Jenna said, ignoring her urge to correct the “Ms.” to “Mrs.”

“Dr. Gregory will be able to see you at 1:10 this afternoon,” the woman said.

“Oh, that is fantastic,” Jenna breathed into the phone.

“You will need to come fifteen minutes early to complete paperwork,” the woman droned.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Jenna said as she looked at the time and saw it was 11:45 a.m. In order to make it to the clinic in that amount of time she would need to leave the house in fifteen minutes. She thought she could squeeze a shower in somewhere, so long as it was lightning fast.

“We will see you this afternoon, then,” the nurse said. “Goodbye!”

 

“Bye.” Jenna hung up the phone and fished her cell phone out of her pocket and typed a quick text to Thomas. Once he surfaced from the library, he would give her a call to catch up.

Jenna checked in the living room and found Evan still staring blankly at the television.

“Hey, hon,” she said. “I’m going to shower really quick and then we’re going to run to the clinic. Dr. Jasmeet has a friend who is going to see you.”

“He can’t help me,” Evan said matter-of-factly.

“We don’t know that for sure,” Jenna said. “Maybe he will have something. Dr. Jasmeet said he was technologically gifted and that he was looking at some files for her. He may have something new.”

Evan glanced at her from his place on the couch and the look broke Jenna’s heart. There was no hope in that look. No five-year-old child should ever have an expression so drained of hope.

“Anyway, we’ll be leaving in ten minutes, so go find your shoes and jacket,” she told him. “I will be right down.”

“Okay, Mom,” he said as he climbed from the couch.

Jenna ran upstairs, closed the doors to her bedroom and ripped off her clothes as she headed to the shower. When the hell did her life get so fucked up? She rushed through her shower and dressed quickly in the first pair of jeans and white T-shirt she could find. She didn’t bother with the usual hints of makeup or finding the right earrings. She slipped on her cloth flats and walked to Evan’s room. She found him sitting on his bed with his Transformer shoes already on, just dangling his feet off the side of the bed. His face was ashen.

“What’s up, honey?”

“Something’s coming,” Evan said. She could hear the fear in his voice.

“Something is coming? Here?”

“Yes. Here. It’s getting closer.”

“Then let’s get out of here now,” Jenna said, plastering a confident smile on her face. She reached out and grabbed his hand with more confidence than she actually felt. “We’ll go to the doctor’s and get ice cream. Then we’ll meet Dad and maybe we can go to George and Elaine’s for dinner. How’s that sound?”

“Okay, I guess.”

Jenna decided she would take that.

“Okay, buddy, let’s go,” she said as she took his hand and helped him off the bed. He was quiet as they locked the house up and got in the car.

“You know,” Jenna started as she got into the car and buckled in, checking to make sure he was safely buckled. “We are going to work this out. We will find whatever is going on and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop this.”

“I know you’ll try, Mom,” Evan said as he looked up at her. He gave her a weak smile before looking back out the window.

She was tired of being heartbroken and afraid. Now, she was angry. If only there was somewhere she could funnel her rage.

[ * ]

Jenna hardly had time to sit down at the clinic before Evan’s name was called. The same large black man Jenna had seen on several of her previous visits walked her and Evan to the doctor’s office. He led them directly to Dr. Gregory’s office and opened the door, motioned them inside, and left them. Normally, he would have announced them to the doctor and bantered with Evan before excusing himself to his duties. Unlike Dr. Jasmeet, Dr. Gregory’s offices were located on the first floor. The room seemed to be darker and smaller, and more cramped then the former doctor’s spacious office.

Jenna presumed from the fierce sound of typing that Dr. Gregory was seated at his desk, which was covered in computers and other gadgets. She could not see him from where she stood, on account of the vast array of technological equipment perched haphazardly on the desk. There were at least three monitors, what looked like an electronic tablet, and other gadgets and screens that Jenna could not quite identify.

After a moment, Jenna cleared her throat to catch the doctor’s attention.

“Oh, yes,” a young voice said from behind the monitors. The man stood up and Jenna was surprised by how young he was. He looked like he was a few years younger than herself, maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine. “I am sorry, I was just reviewing Evan’s files.”

“It’s okay, we haven’t been here long,” Jenna said. She held out her hand as the doctor approached.

“Good, good,” he said as he shook her hand. “Well, I’m Dr. Gregory. You must be Evan.”

Evan glanced at the doctor and nodded.

“Well, let’s go ahead and have a seat over on the couches,” he said, as he gestured vaguely towards a blue suede couch and loveseat set tucked into the far corner of his cramped study. “Now, as you know, I haven’t been fully briefed on your case, but I have had a chance to review your son’s files. Very interesting stuff.”

Jenna prickled at the “interesting,” but managed to bite off a retort.

“Can you tell us anything more about what is happening?”

“As I am sure Dr. Jasmeet told you, your son is experiencing neural growth unlike anything we have ever seen before. You may have noticed his language skills increasing. He may be bored with things that used to interest him.”

“Not in so many words, but she did insinuate that, yes,” Jenna said. She had been so focused on the dreams and sleep, she had not really thought about any of the other side effects.

“On top of this, he seems to be experiencing some kind of visual effect that Dr. Jasmeet reasonably interpreted as hallucinatory in her initial reports. After reviewing the video file, however, she came to question her initial judgment, due to the strangeness of what she found there.”

“None of this is new,” Jenna said as she shifted in her seat. She looked at Evan and saw him sitting quietly in place, staring at his hands which were neatly folded in his lap.

“I am sorry, but this is new to me, and not knowing exactly where Nivedita—” the doctor paused. “Not knowing where Dr. Jasmeet left off, I may cover similar ground or repeat what she has already told you.”

“I understand,” Jenna said. “And I’m sorry if I’m impatient, but we need this to be fast. Things are getting worse.”

“Well, I don’t have anything new to report, but Nivedita had sent me the digital files of her recording, and I was able to analyze the raw data. She had been concerned the video had somehow become corrupted, but I was able to isolate the strands of data to uncover very low level audio coming from the creature on the video.”

“Wait, that shadowy thing? That my son saw? It was saying something?”

“Yes, it was.”

“I don’t remember that,” Evan said. “I just saw it and it was grasping towards me. I could tell it wanted me to come to it. I could just feel it. It didn’t like Dr. Jasmeet.”

“Well, I am not surprised you didn’t hear it,” Dr. Gregory said. “I could only hear it because I had the technology to dampen out all external sounds with a band-pass filter. Would you like to see the video with the sound enhanced?”

“Yes,” Jenna said. She was surprised at her own lack of hesitation.

The doctor gestured her and Evan over to his desk where he sat down and brought up the video on the larger of the three monitors. On the monitor, the video was paused, and she sat with Evan on the couch opposite from Dr. Jasmeet. Evan was pointing to the corner where the creature’s black tendrils swirled from the corner.

“Are you ready for me to start? I’ll have to rewind this a moment so you can hear it from the beginning. In this video, I’ve edited out all the human voices. You won’t be able to hear your own voices, just what it is saying,” the doctor said as he rewound just a few moments. Jenna saw the black swirls fall back on itself until it was hardly more than a shadow, a shadow that was still somehow out of place.

“Yes, I’m ready,” Jenna said as she squeezed Evan’s shoulder. “You okay to watch this, honey?”

“Yes,” Evan said as he stared at the monitor. His face looked gaunt, and the blue light from the monitor screen made the rings under his eyes look all the darker.

“Okay, we’re ready,” Jenna said. The doctor gave a nod and hit a key on the keyboard. She watched as the shadow swirled slowly outwards on the screen, its tendrils reaching for Evan. She heard some kind of scratching, a sound that had not been audible the first time she had seen the video with Dr. Jasmeet. She realized after a moment that the scratching sound was a voice, and it was saying something.

“What is that?” she asked as she strained to hear.

“I believe that is the creature in the corner,” Dr. Gregory said. “It’s talking.”

“Can you turn it up?”

“A little bit, give me a moment,” he said as he turned a few knobs on his system, and adjusted the volume on the computer. He rewound the video again and started from the beginning. He was watching Evan intently.

Jenna listened harder. It had initially sounded like a scratching noise, like a chair being scraped rhythmically against the floor. Now, it sounded like a raspy hissing. The words came out slower than she expected. She could recognize that they were words, but couldn’t quite place them.

“I hear it, I just can’t quite make it out,” Jenna said.

“What about you, Evan?” the doctor said, looking at Evan. Jenna wasn’t quite sure she liked the way he was looking at her son. So intensely.

“I can hear it,” Evan said as he nodded somberly.

“Do you understand what it’s saying?”

“Yes,” Evan said.

“Could you hear this the first time, when you saw it in the room?”

“No, like I said before. I knew it was there,” Evan said, as he squirmed his shoulder out from her hand. “I knew it wanted something, but I didn’t know what.”

“Do you want to tell us what it’s saying?” the doctor asked.

“It doesn’t make sense,” her son said as he shook his head.

“Well, I can tell you what I think it’s saying, and you let me know if I got it right. How’s that sound?” the doctor said.

Evan looked at him and nodded his head. She saw a new confusion in his expression.

The doctor rewound the video and took out a yellow legal pad and began writing as he hit play. As Jenna read what he was writing, she was able to hear the words scraping slowly from the creature.

“We . . . found . . . you . . .” it rasped. She could now hear a note of what could only be triumph in its voice. Jenna put her arm protectively around her son’s shoulder and felt him crumple into her side. The doctor continued to write

“Tell us . . . tell us . . .” the creature continued, as the tendrils of darkness reached slowly out towards Evan on the screen. “Show us . . . what we must do.”

Dr. Jasmeet got up from her couch and walked over to the corner, and pointed as she spoke to Evan on the couch. After a moment, the doctor turned and began to crush her heel into the spot where the thing was coiled. New tendrils coiled slowly around her leg, and Jenna could see Evan screaming from the couch, his face wet with tears.

“Now, Evan, does that look about right?” Dr. Gregory asked. Jenna watched her son read the words on the page. Despite his still young-sounding voice, she knew he had been speaking at a much higher level than he should. She hadn’t expected that to mean he could now read just as easily.

“Yes,” Evan said. “You missed one word, though.”

“Yes, that’s right, I did miss a word, didn’t I?” Dr. Gregory said. Right after the words “show us” on the yellow legal pad, the doctor inserted a little carrot pointed upwards and added a single word. Jenna looked at the word and tried to puzzle it out. “Was that what it said?”

“Yes,” Evan said in a hushed voice. “I don’t know what that means.”

Jenna looked in horror at the word, as the knowledge set in. “This is a mistake. That can’t be right.”

“Evan agreed that that’s what he heard. I listened to this hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and I believe it is correct.”

“It can’t be right,” Jenna said again. The word was so simple yet glared ominously up at her from the yellow lined page. It changed nothing, but changed everything at the same time. She knew less now than she did before. But there it stood on the page. Simple. One word.

MASTER.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

It raised its head from the shadows of the concrete structure where it had remained hidden during the day. The day. How it hated that dreadful period when the ball in the sky shed light on the world. It could not show its form while the little ones walked, fearless, in the light of day.

So, it remained hidden. It wouldn’t do to show itself while it was still weak. Crossing the veil had taken more of its energy than it had expected. No matter how weary it was, it knew it needed to find the artifact. It needed to be rejoined with the source of its power. Only then, when it was rejoined with the artifact, would it be whole.

With the artifact, it would be what it once was. It closed its many eyes at the memory, basking in the adoration and fear of the legions. It had been great, once upon a time. It had been revered. It had been feared. It had done more than skulk around in the nether, wielding power over only those who allowed their sleeping minds to venture into its shadowy kingdom.

It had held sway in that world for many millennia. But now, now its time had come.

It had gone many millennia feeling the hunger gnawing at its insides. Now, it needed only to find the artifact and it would feast, and these creatures would know its wrath. These small creatures would know true fear.

It breathed in deeply. It could smell billions of humans roaming this world, each with their own unique aroma. It had never been in a world with so many individuals, so many souls. So much fear. Sifting through the individual strands, it savored the scent of each. It knew it would never feel hungry again.

Once the day’s light dimmed and the night spread across the land it had found itself in, it would set out from under the bridge. It would seek out the artifact. It would find the keeper, that little voice that held such strength. The keeper was not too far away, but the scent kept changing, moving, the power thrumming and swaying, before blinking out of existence. It was difficult to trace in its weakened state.

So, it would follow the girl to the artifact. She was of this world and of its world. She could find the way, and it could always find her.

It breathed in deep and closed its many eyes. Yes. It saw her clearly. She was close already.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Dariah woke just as the bus lurched to a stop. She looked out the window as she massaged a crick out of her neck with one hand. While she gathered her meager belongings from the seat of the bus, she felt a freedom she had never really felt before. Her possessions in hand, she slowly made her way towards the front of the Greyhound bus. She was in Los Angeles now. The City of Angels. A city her mother called “the place where dreams go to die.”

As she climbed down the steps, Dariah breathed in the smell of the city. The lungful of the exhaust fumes from the bus wasn’t quite the welcome she was expecting, but it brought a smile to her face anyway. She crossed the hot pavement towards the bus station. As she ducked into the nondescript brown building, she scanned the line of pamphlets spread across the hallway for something that would serve as a map. After skimming over several pamphlets in Spanish, she found a pamphlet that stood out: “Welcome to L.A.!” She turned the pamphlet inside out and found that it folded out into a larger map, and even included a list of bus routes.

She shoved the pamphlet into the pocket of her hoodie as she found a line that weaved towards a plexiglass window with a sign above it that read “Information.” She briefly considered edging towards the end of the line. Instead, she ducked into the women’s restroom to clean up. The bus ride had only been five or six hours, but she felt greasy and sweaty all the same. When she approached the row of sinks in the women’s restroom and looked in the mirror, she was pleasantly surprised by her reflection. The scars on her face had vanished. The clump of hair that had been missing was now fully grown in. Plus, she didn’t look nearly as greasy or nasty as she had expected.

Somehow, killing those men had healed her body. She felt a twinge of guilt at the thought of them, but she quickly pushed it down.

They had been rapists. Murderers. They deserved everything she had done to them.

To be truthful, she wasn’t quite sure what she had done, and that scared her. She knew it had been her. She had felt the horrible things happening to them, and had been repulsed. And euphoric. The mixture of feelings left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Dariah flexed her now unblemished hands and felt the energy coursing throughout her body and through each of her limbs. She didn’t know where this new power of hers came from or what the cost would be.

What scared her the most was that she really wanted to try her powers out again. She was itching to feel that energy surging through her body again. She wanted to feel that burst of energy, the complete control again. She wanted to feel the power of a life in her hands again.

And it made her sick.

Dariah looked in the mirror one last time before exiting the bathroom. Her reflection looked unchanged, as if nothing had ever happened to her. Plus, she still felt sated. There was not a trace of that aching hunger that made her kill those men.

Even though the hunger was gone, Dariah still felt a pull towards something in this city. When she closed her eyes, an image of a white house with an overgrown lawn floated hazily into her mind’s eye. She strained to catch a number on the house or anything that would help her track it down, but the image blurred every time she tried to focus on it. She wondered why this house called to her. She had never been there before. Hell, she actually had never been to L.A. before.

With her eyes still closed, she began to gently rock back and forth on her heels. The pull to the southeast grew stronger.

Dariah opened her eyes with a new resolve. Something was pulling her to the house. But there was nothing keeping her from trying out her new abilities. Especially if it was only on criminals. She was in Los Angeles after all. She had heard about the rampant crime in this city. There was no doubt that she could find trouble. She probably didn’t even have to look for it.

A smile played across her lips for the first time since she had woken up in the forest. The informational pamphlet ended up providing some useful tips. There was a youth hostel just a few blocks away from the station. Dariah had never stayed in a youth hostel and was a little thrilled by the opportunity. Her mother would die of chagrin if she knew where her daughter planned to sleep, but Dariah no longer cared. She was on a new path now. She wasn’t quite a superhero, she knew, but she could be something of a vigilante.

She pulled her cell phone from her purse. No calls or text messages. Her mother had probably told everyone that she was alive, yet no one had reached out to her. Not even her father. She bit her lip against the hurt. It was okay. She was following a new path anyway.

Dariah washed her face briefly in the sink before heading back out to find the youth hostel. After a few hours of wandering the city and picking up a few clothing items from charity shops, she managed to find the hostel. As she had suspected, the hostel wasn’t in the best neighborhood, which made it the perfect neighborhood for her purposes.

It would be her hunting ground.

She booked a room and deposited her recent purchases in the small locker. A quick survey of the room revealed that while the linens looked decrepit, they were actually clean. Threadbare, but clean. A few months ago, she would have backed out of the room politely and made any excuse she could think of to leave the hostel. But this was fine for her now. She didn’t care. Bedbugs, lice, germs, none of it bothered her anymore.

Now she was getting hungry. She needed to find food. She snagged a pair of Levi’s from her bag and pulled them on quickly, dropping her old clothes in a heap in the corner. She pulled out a yellow, lacy shirt and squeezed it over her head. She grabbed her purse and headed out to find something to eat.

A few blocks away from the hostel, Dariah saw the sign for a burger joint. The very idea of a greasy burger and a side of fries made her stomach rumble, so she crossed the street and entered the busy restaurant. As soon as she entered, the smell of salted fries and cooked meat assaulted her. She had not eaten anything since this morning, and that had been a small meal. She felt famished. But now that the smell of cooked meat was close, she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. She fled from the restaurant, almost knocking over a teenage girl on her way out. Once outside, she retched onto the asphalt.

Dariah’s head spun as she fled down the street trying to put distance between herself and the smell of food. She was now acutely aware of the smells of food emanating from several fast food joints on the street. Taco Bell, McDonald’s, a food stand on the corner. Bile rose in her throat. She needed to get away from it all. She managed to cross the street and stumble into a used bookstore. The elderly proprietor looked up at her from behind the counter.

“You okay, miss?” the older man asked with a worried look on his face, as he pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with one finger.

“I think so. Food poisoning, I think,” she said.

“Oh, yes, that can happen around here,” he nodded. “You want to stay away from the burger van. I’m not sure they’re licensed.”

“I think I’ll remember that from now on,” she said. Her stomach was heaving. She felt so hungry, but couldn’t stand the thought of food.

The older man nodded, and returned to reading the newspaper spread out on the counter in front of him. Dariah waited a few minutes in the bookstore, pretending to examine the book stacks. Her nausea eventually subsided to a more tolerable level. When she thought she might be able to venture outside without retching, she headed for the door. As she passed by the man at the register, she felt the wave of hunger wash over her. She could almost smell a sweet unfamiliar odor emanating from the man. It was almost like the smells from the men yesterday, but more complicated. There were more layers to this scent.

“Can I help you?” the man asked, his eyes kind as he leaned towards her. She blinked and realized with embarrassment that she had been standing in front of him for a while. As he leaned closer, Dariah could see everything. She caught glimpses of a young girl on a swing, and the man making sandwiches for her. He was a grandfather, raising his granddaughter on his own. Dariah fought the urge to reach out and grasp his arm. She knew what would happen if she touched him. The urge terrified her, and she fought the waves of nausea again.

 

“Miss, are you sure you’re all right?” the old man said.

“I’m good. Thanks.” She turned and fled from the store. She stumbled into the alley behind the store and emptied the remaining contents of her stomach onto the ground. Sweat trickled down her face as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. The reality of her situation finally sank in. Her body could no longer handle real food. It craved a different kind of sustenance now. She couldn’t hurt people like that old man, though. She just couldn’t. She would rather die than hurt someone innocent. There were plenty of fucked up people out there, people who needed to be hurt. The world would be a better place if she fed on them.

Dariah could live with that. She would have to now. As the day slowly turned to night, Dariah set out to find something to eat. Then, she would follow the little tug that pulled her south.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Evan sat in the backseat of the car, resting his head against the cool glass as he watched the world rush by. He tried not to think about the look of horror on his mother’s face in the doctor’s office, when she’d read that word on the page. She’d tried to hide it right away, but it was too late. He had seen it. When his mom had told his dad about it, his dad just seemed confused, which was better in some ways.

At least his dad wasn’t afraid of him right now.

Whatever that shadow creature had said, it was all wrong. Evan wasn’t anyone’s master. He’d told that to Dr. Gregory, Mom, and Dad. The monster was trying to trick them all. He just knew it. They didn’t know what to make of it, though, and nothing he said really helped.

The monster could make itself look like anything. It was funny that it kept saying “we” on the video. Evan was pretty sure it was all the same creature. Every thought had the same feeling behind it, no matter what shadow, monster, or nightmare he was in. It was all the same monster. He knew it. It was just confused somehow.

Fragmented. That’s the word for it.

Evan kicked himself mentally. What did any of it matter, anyway? He was losing and the monster was winning.

Evan tried to remember the last time he’d been happy. When he’d felt carefree. It was more than a month or so ago, when he’d been playing with Richard and Ava. He closed his eyes at the memory. He remembered playing tag, and Richard was chasing Ava as she squealed with laughter.

Suddenly, Evan felt disoriented, and the world fell away. He thought he was floating and he blinked the blurriness away.

And he was watching Richard climb a tree, trying to reach for a bright yellow beach ball stuck between the tree and the fence. Evan started to feel himself smile as he watched his friend grab the ball, until he felt a stirring somewhere at the darkest corners of his mind. He felt that hunger rise just as black tendrils swirled from the base of the tree Richard was climbing. Evan tried to cry out, tried to yell a warning to Richard as the darkness curled out from the base of the tree, reaching for the young boy.

As the dark strands coiled around Richard’s ankle, Evan screamed—

And the world snapped around him.

[ * ]

Elaine set down her cup of tea and folded the newspaper neatly in front of her. She felt sleepier than usual for a Wednesday afternoon. She stood up and felt her knees and spine creak. Keeping up with her grandkids was getting increasingly difficult. She glanced out the window at the backyard where the kids were playing and smiled. The body aches were worth every second she got to spend with them.

The kids were probably starting to feel pretty caged in, with only their old gran to keep them company. The Elliotts had canceled the last few playdates with Ava and Richard. Evan was still sick, the poor boy. She felt for him, she really did, but the last few times Evan had visited, Elaine had an unsettling feeling about him. There was something that just wasn’t quite right with him. He looked tired and older than a five-year-old should. He went through the motion of playing, but it was clear he wasn’t having fun. The whole thing seemed like a chore to him.

But that wasn’t what bothered Elaine. There was a knowing in his eyes, like he knew things he shouldn’t. When he looked at her, Elaine felt like he was looking into her very soul. He could see things she had hidden even from George. And what he saw made him older.

Elaine knew it was all superstitious garbage. The boy had some kind of insomnia and an as-yet-undiagnosed brain disorder from what Jenna had told her. He was sick, and she felt terrible for thinking otherwise. But she couldn’t get rid of that nagging feeling, no matter how much she chided herself. She stood up and went to the window. She watched as the kids happily played fetch with Skip. It was hard to stay sad in the face of that youthful joy.

She picked up her teacup and rinsed it in the sink before setting it in the dishwasher. Drying her hands on the tea towel, she went outside. The children had played outside for the requisite time and had earned an episode of Dora the Explorer. Perhaps some chocolate chip cookies, too.

Richard? Ava? Would you like a snack?” she called, as she stepped onto the back patio. There was no response. She scanned the yard and could not see their blond heads sticking out from the bushes. “Richard, Ava, time to come inside!”

Still no response. They couldn’t have gotten far. She’d seen them just a moment ago.

Elaine stepped off the patio and headed towards their favorite tree to see if they had gotten wrapped up in play and were ignoring her. The tall fir was empty of children. Their toys were scattered at the base of the tree, and a few hung from some of the lower branches, but there was no Richard or Ava. They were not hiding in their tree or in any of the bushes on the farther end of her backyard.

Children, come out. Gran doesn’t want to play hide and seek. Come out. Now.”

Her voice was authoritative, but she did not feel commanding as she looked urgently from one bush to the next. Her breath came quicker as she felt her heart begin to race. Her limbs felt weak as she fumbled in her back pocket for her cell phone and began shouting.

Richard? Ava? Where are you? RICHARD! AVA!”

Abruptly, she heard Skip barking loudly behind her. She turned and rushed towards the side of the house where she heard the barking. She felt a strange sense of déjà vu as she rounded the corner and saw the gate ajar. The kids must have used a branch to trip the latch and open the back gate. They knew better. The front yard was strictly off limits. She fought a small wave of panic as she rushed towards the gate. No matter what, the children knew they were never supposed to leave the front yard. Everything was probably fine.

Elaine pushed open the wooden gate and blinked as the sunlight hit her face. The street was eerily quiet. The children were nowhere to be seen. Neither was Skip. Elaine strained to hear the dog. His barking had led her here, but suddenly there was nothing. That’s when she noticed it. The dog was still barking, but each bark sounded like it had been stretched into an unnaturally long sound. She swiveled her head to hear where the sound was coming from, but her head moved slower than she expected. She thought the sound was coming from the other side of the house, so she made her way in that direction.

Her legs felt like they were wading through honey as she tried to run towards the noise.

What she saw as she turned the corner stopped her in her tracks. Richard lay at Ava’s feet, his neck bent at an impossible angle. Ava sat with her legs folded, her small face bunched up and wet with tears. Elaine could see that Richard had tried to climb the fence to get Ava’s ball, still stuck between a tree branch and the fencepost. She felt like she’d been hit in the stomach with a freight train. This couldn’t be happening. His eyes were open and staring, and she fought through the honey to get to his side.

She knew it was too late.

I’ll, I’ll, I’ll call the ambulance. It’s going to be okay,” Elaine tried to tell Ava. She wasn’t sure what sound came out as she tried to talk around the tennis ball in her throat. This couldn’t be happening. Her little boy. Her littlest little boy. She couldn’t touch him. If he was alive, that neck injury . . . She fought the urge to pick him up and rock his little body.

You . . . failed . . . me . . .” a soft, familiar voice whispered from behind her. She spun around and saw a man standing in the shadow beneath the large fir tree next to the sidewalk.

What?” she asked. “Please call 911—we need an ambulance.”

You . . . failed . . . me,” the man said again in a now familiar lilt. It was raspier than she remembered. But it sounded just like him. But it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be.

The man stepped out from the shadow and she gasped. She tried to step back and stumbled. As she fell, she realized that she had stumbled over her grandson’s legs.

No, no, no. He’s going to be okay. He has to be.” Elaine wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince herself or the hallucination.

The man approached her slowly, his head lolling to the side, dragging one mangled leg and leaving a trail of blood in her grass. Both his arms hung limp at his sides, broken and useless. The fabric of his blue button down dress shirt was torn to shreds. And his face. Oh, his face. Even with the shattered cheekbone, the blood and bruises, she knew that face anywhere. It was him. It was her Trevor.

Trevor?” she asked weakly.

You . . . failed . . . me . . . Mom.”

No, no, I can’t . . . I can’t lose anyone again. They’ll save him,” she pleaded with the broken man who looked so much like her son. But it wasn’t him. He was dead. She had buried him, him and Helen both.

He’s dead, Mom. He’s not coming back.”

This—this isn’t real, none of it. I must have fallen asleep, and this is just some horrible nightmare.”

This is real, Mom. So real.” He was getting so close and Elaine could smell a foul odor. Rot and death.

Elaine pulled herself to her feet and tried to reach out for Ava. She needed to take her away. She could save one of her grandchildren. Protect just this one. Her hand met with air. Elaine searched desperately, turning around and searching the grass for her granddaughter. Ava was nowhere to be found. Richard was nowhere to be seen, either.

You lost them both, Mom,” her dead son whispered as he drew close to her. She could feel the agony and truth in his words. “You. Failed. Me.”

No. No. No, no, no, no.”

You couldn’t save me, you couldn’t save my children,” Trevor said as he drew closer. His voice was layered with such despair, such sadness. It broke her heart all over again. “Not even my children.”

This is a nightmare. The children are okay. None of this is real, and they’re okay.”

Are they okay, Mom? Do you believe that?” He was close enough to touch her. The thought of turning and running entered her mind, but flitted away just as quickly. This was her son, standing broken in front of her. She wanted to reach out and touch him. Feel his skin just one last time. She looked into his eyes, her Trevor’s eyes, and saw the horrible sadness in them. Waves of despair crashed over her.

Answer me. Do you believe it?”

No.” The horror of the realization struck her. She had failed them all. Those little babies, her son’s little babies were gone, lost forever. She couldn’t protect her son. She couldn’t protect her grandchildren. She couldn’t save anyone. She had lost everything. She felt her body shake with sobs.

I failed . . . I failed you. My son. My baby. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Her hand touched the side of his unbroken cheek. It was cool to touch but seemed to warm under her fingers. Somehow, his hand covered hers.

I am so sorry,” she whispered. She saw the tears in his eyes.

Me too.” She felt an explosion of heat and pain in her chest. She looked down and saw her son’s hand, dripping with blood. He held a heart in his hand. Her heart.

I’m so sorry,” she tried to say one last time, but the words died in her mouth.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Evan opened his eyes and found himself sitting cross-legged in his bed. He didn’t remember how he had gotten there from the doctor’s office. He hadn’t been sleeping this time. The sharp tone of his mom and dad’s voices carried through the walls. They were arguing again. About him. Something warm and wet skimmed across his cheek and he wiped it away with his hand. The liquid was clear. It wasn’t blood, which was a relief. It was just tears.

Evan went to his parents’ room, listening as the sound of their voices grew louder and louder. No matter what, they were his parents. He had to tell them what he had seen, no matter how horrible it had been. They may not be able to help him, but at least he wasn’t alone in all of this. Not anymore.

“You don’t mean that,” he heard his mother say. “You can’t mean that.”

“No, of course not,” his father said. They both sounded so tired. But he had to tell them. They were going to find out sooner than later.

“He’s our son,” Jenna said. “He belongs with us.”

“Of course he does. I’m not saying he doesn’t.”

“Then what the hell were you trying to say?”

“I just suggested that there may be more . . . capable people for handling his situation,” his dad said. Evan paused, with his hand ready to push open the door. Were they talking about sending him away?

“No way in hell. We’re not running from this, or sending him to some hospital or asylum.”

Evan’s stomach bottomed out. He thought his father had believed him. That his father was going to help him, and maybe together they could stop the evil that was creeping into his head.

“I know it’s not ideal, but after searching the libraries for the last few days, I can’t help but feel . . . maybe we’re wrong. Maybe sleep deprivation is getting to us and we’re buying into the delusion. It could all be just terrible coincidences. Maybe it would be wise to—I don’t know—consider getting a second opinion.”

“No, I believe his visions are real, Thomas,” his mother said with a firm conviction that comforted Evan. “And so did the doctor. Or are you conveniently forgetting that?”

“From the way you described it, this doctor didn’t know what to believe,” his dad said. “Look, we’re just running in circles. This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Evan hesitated before he finally turned the brass knob and pushed. The creak of the door announced him to his parents. His mom was sitting on the bed in her night robe, her hair ruffled the way he liked it. Like she’d had it up in a ponytail all day and had finally let it down without brushing it. His dad was standing next to her. He was still in the clothes he had been wearing earlier in the day.

“Mom? Dad?” he said from the door when they didn’t look up.

“Oh, hon, how long have you been standing there?” his mom asked as she stood up quickly. A look of guilt flashed across her face. Evan had come to recognize that look over the last couple of months. She had worn the expression frequently.

“A bit,” he said. “I don’t want to go away.”

“Oh, hon, don’t worry,” she said. “We’re not sending you anywhere. Are we, Tom?”

“No, of course not,” his dad said as he heaved a sigh. “We’re just talking.”

“Okay,” Evan said. He wasn’t sure what to believe, but he supposed, in the end, it didn’t really matter. If they sent him away, then maybe it would be better. Maybe a hospital could hook him up to machines and it would help. But he didn’t know. And the thought scared him more than he liked to admit.

But that could wait. He didn’t know how to say it. He felt his face go hot again and realized he was crying. What he had seen was so horrible. It was so much more real than all the other dreams. He could feel every single thing. This was worse than the physical pain or the fear he had felt in all of his other dreams.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” his mom asked. “You can tell us.”

“Yes,” his dad said. “Please don’t be sad. We just want what’s best for you.”

“It’s not that,” he choked out. “I saw something. . .”

“What did you see? We’re here, we can help.”

“I think. . . I think Elaine is dead. And Richard. Maybe Ava, too.”

“Oh God,” his dad said in horror.

“What did you see?” his mom said as she kneeled in front of him. “Tell us everything. Everything you can think of.”

“Richard and Ava . . . they got into the front yard. Richard was trying to get a ball from the fence, I think. He fell and his neck was all funny. And Elaine found them. I . . . didn’t see what happened to Ava, but—”

“But what, honey?” his mom said bringing him into her embrace.

“I think they’re all dead,” Evan said. “All of them.”

The tears poured freely. He sobbed into his mom’s shoulder.

“So, Elaine, Richard, and Ava are all dead?” his dad asked. Evan could hear the disbelief in his voice. “Just like that? Isn’t this all just a bit . . . morbid?”

“Hush, Thomas,” his mom said.

“Richard, he fell. His neck was bent all funny and Ava was crying and crying, and Skip kept barking. Elaine, she found them . . . It only took a minute, that’s all.”

“But how?” Jenna said. “Was it her heart? She’s had such a weak heart since the accident.”

“It was the monster,” Evan said. “He was there. He made himself look like her son. He kept telling her she’d failed him.”

“Oh God,” his mom said, her hand over her mouth. His dad was looking at him with a look of abject horror mixed with disbelief. As if he couldn’t decide if Evan had made all this up, or if he was somehow responsible for the atrocities. It made Evan hate himself.

“Thomas, go call George. See if he’s okay, see if what Evan saw . . .”

“ . . . Is real,” Evan finished. His eyes stung and he had snot dripping from his nose. He used his sleeve to wipe it off. Normally, his mom hated it when he did that, but she didn’t seem to notice now. The despair was thick in the room. Everything about this dream was so much more vivid and real than the others. Elaine had been so scared, so filled with sadness and fear all intertwined. He had felt it. His parents exchanged a brief look before his dad stood up.

“I’ll go call George and see if I can get ahold of Elaine,” his dad said as he kissed the top of Evan’s head.

“You believed me yesterday,” Evan said. He didn’t know why his dad was being so distant.

“I did,” his dad said with a sigh. “I do. It’s just really hard for me right now, Evan. This is against everything I’ve ever believed. And what you described—they’re our friends.”

“I know. I was there. It was like I was in her head. Like it was with all the others, but it was so much more real. I could feel what she felt. She was so scared, Mom. She was so scared of losing them, and then she lost them. I’ve never felt such terrible sadness.”

“I’m sorry, I really am,” his dad said. “I’ll go talk to George and see what’s going on.”

After his father left the room, Evan sat on the ottoman at the foot of his parents’ bed. He felt lost. Maybe he should have them send him away. The more he thought about it, the more he felt he was responsible. His mother sat next to him and squeezed his shoulders. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her, to see the worry in her eyes, the exhaustion that was all his fault.

“This dream was so different,” he said after a while. “It was awful.”

“I am sorry, Evan,” his mom said carefully. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“It was so much worse, and, and. . .” He closed his eyes and went over the dream in his head, from start to finish. A sinking realization crept into his thoughts and left him feeling sick. “And I think it may have all been my fault.”

“Honey, none of this was your fault. You are not doing this.”

“But it is my fault, I just know it.”

“You can’t possibly know something like that,” his mother said as she knelt in front of him and cupped his cheeks in her hands. “You can’t.”

“Before. . . before it happened, I was thinking about Richard, how much I missed playing with him, and then I could see him. I was happy.”

“None of that is bad. You just miss your friends.”

“No, you don’t understand. I was thinking about him and then suddenly I was in Elaine’s head and it all happened. . .”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” his mom cut him off. “It doesn’t mean anything. I know you and you are not a monster. You wouldn’t do anything like this.”

“But it was so much worse than all the others.”

“This vision was so much worse than the others? Because they were people you knew?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I knew Dr. Jasmeet, but I guess it felt like it knew it was hurting someone I loved. And it felt slower. Yet stronger. It’s like it’s getting closer,” Evan said. “It’s still weak, but I think the closer it gets, the stronger it gets, and it wants me to know that.”

“The closer it gets?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“The closer it gets to what? What’s making it so much stronger?”

“Me,” Evan said, and he began crying all over again. With his appointment with Dr. Gregory and that horrible word on the paper, he had no idea where he fit into everything, but he hated that he fit into it at all.  

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Thomas left Jenna and Evan alone while he went to call George. He had been trying very hard to believe his son up until now. Perhaps a part of him had believed his story, had wanted to believe that his son’s visions were true. Hadn’t he spent countless hours researching references to monsters, dreams, nightmares, and dream gods? All for nothing, so far. All because he couldn’t face the fact that his son might be truly ill. His little boy might be dying. But now he simply couldn’t believe his son. He didn’t want to believe him. That Elaine and Richard were dead. And most likely Ava as well.

It was terrible, too terrible to be true. There had been too much tragedy recently for it to be true. The monster business was pure fantasy, a product of his son’s failing brain. He knew it deep in his heart. He had known all along, he supposed, and had simply allowed himself to fall victim to a shared hallucination. But Jenna was still falling for it. What he didn’t understand was why Evan was so fixated on such a horrible story. A year ago, everything had been fine. His son was a sweet boy who loved Superman, cars, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then that seizure happened and Thomas’s entire world changed. Evan became moodier. He slept less and less, and began to talk about this monster. The monster was somehow killing people. The recent deaths had been odd, Thomas couldn’t argue that. Dr. Jasmeet’s death was still inexplicable.

Thomas stood in the middle of the study for a moment, surveying the chaos. He couldn’t remember the last time his study had been this messy. Papers and books spilled over from his desk into piles on the floor and on the used leather couch underneath the far window. Cleanliness was never his forte, and he had been distracted of late. Evan’s illness had begun to consume his time and even his research. Evan’s mental growth was off the charts, but at what cost? Thomas had initially been excited by the sudden and rapid growth, but now . . .

Now he was tormented nightly by science fiction intertwined with horror stories that apparently had become his life, according to his son. Even the good Dr. Gregory seemed to be caught up in the horror Evan had concocted. Dr. Gregory had tried to get the identity of this “master” that was named in the video. Was the shadow creature from the video referring to something or someone else? What was it talking about? Or was it all some elaborate hoax? Were they interpreting a simple shadow on the screen as something more than it was? Those strange utterings could have been everyday noises that had been overamplified by Dr. Gregory’s analysis. They might have been snippets of conversations from another room that were distorted as the sound was carried from room to room.

From what Jenna said, as soon as Evan had confirmed the word “Master” on Dr. Gregory’s legal pad, he had become completely silent. He stared at the ground and refused to look up or talk to anyone. Jenna fretted and worried. But then, his wife saw significance in everything.

Thomas fought the frustration back. He couldn’t help but wonder if his son was reveling in the attention. He didn’t say as much in front of his son, but the thoughts were there.

Thomas stopped and took a breath. As the weeks wore on, he was standing on increasingly unsteady ground. He didn’t know where it was safe to stand anymore. He wanted to tell his son not to make up stories, but Jenna believed him. She had seen strange things. Terrible things. And to be fair, Thomas found himself believing the stories. How could he not? It was his wife and son at stake. Thomas didn’t know what to believe anymore.

His hand hovered over the phone for a moment before he finally picked up the receiver. He dialed George and Elaine’s home phone number first. The phone rang and rang before going to voicemail after ten rings. Thomas hung up without leaving a message. What was he going to say? Hey, my son had a vision you all died at the hands of some shape-changing monster. Give me a call if you’re alive.

George would never let him live that down. He gave Elaine’s cell a ring, just in case she was outside with the kids and couldn’t come to the landline. Still no answer. Thomas tried not to worry. There were many rational reasons why she didn’t answer. It wouldn’t be the first time she missed a call from him. He dialed George.

“Hey, Tom. What’s up?”

“Hey, George,” he greeted his friend. He hardly knew what to say. Sooooo. My son is living in a horror movie. He just told me the rest of your family died at the hands of some terrible creature. Sorry! He settled for a more innocuous path. “You haven’t heard from Elaine recently have you?”

“Nope, not since this morning,” George said. “Why?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Thomas said offhandedly. “Evan just had a nightmare. He thought something terrible had happened. I just wanted to check and see if everything was okay so I could help ease his mind.”

“Well, I’m just turning the light off here. I’ll give Elaine a call and once I know how everything is, I’ll give you a call back.”

“Thanks, George,” Thomas said.

“So, Evan’s condition hasn’t improved then, I take it?”

“No. He’s still seeing things,” Thomas said. Something stopped him from sharing what he had learned before Dr. Jasmeet’s untimely death. His son’s test results were now placing him at a high school level. He was growing rapidly and probably approaching the burnout stage Dr. Jasmeet had warned them about. Evan could be dying. “It’s getting worse.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” George said. “Well, I’m off. I’ll give you a call when I get home. I’m sure everything is all right.”

“I hope so,” Thomas said. “And George, be careful.”

“Of course,” George said.

Thomas hit the button on the receiver until he heard the dial tone. Then he dialed George and Elaine’s home number. It rang and rang, without an answer or even a forward to voicemail. After a couple of minutes, he headed back to the bedroom. He could hear Evan and Jenna talking. The sweetness of their hushed voices made Thomas pause before entering the room. There was nothing wrong with what his wife was doing. She believed their son. More importantly, she believed in their son. If his son was ill, he needed to be supportive. He knew Evan believed all the nonsense he was spouting, even if the nature of these visions was entirely horrible and just happened to coincide with horrible things happening in the real world. Even if they were just horrible dreams, Thomas would never be able to stand it if his son died thinking his father didn’t trust him. The least Thomas could do was pretend. They would learn the truth soon enough. And when they did, well, they would figure that out when they got there. He could do this.

“Hey guys,” he said, as he pushed the door open.

“What did George say? Is Elaine okay?” Jenna asked quickly. Evan was sitting next to her on the bed, curled into her shoulder. Her arm was wrapped around his back. The perfect picture of comfort. Thomas felt his heart warm and he smiled at her.

“George was at the office and hasn’t had a chance to talk to Elaine yet,” he said. “He’ll call once he gets home.”

“Something horrible has happened,” Jenna said. “Evan saw it and I just feel it.”

His mouth opened, but Thomas fought his initial urge to say that there was nothing they could do.

“What would you have me do?” he said instead.

“I think we should go there,” Jenna said. “It would ease my mind and we could be there for George. He shouldn’t have to be alone when he finds them.”

“If he finds them,” Thomas corrected.

“They’re gone, Dad,” Evan said. “I know it.”

“Okay,” Thomas said. He crossed the room and stroked his son’s head reassuringly. “We can go check on things. George and Elaine will understand if we pop by.”

“Yes, we have to go,” Evan said as he shot out of the bed and looked at his father with fear. The urgency in his eyes was palpable. “We have to go now.”

“Is there something wrong?” Jenna asked.

“Yes,” Evan said. “I couldn’t feel it before, but I feel it now. She’s almost here.”

“Who?” Thomas asked. Evan had always referred to the monster, or whatever it was, as an “it,” if he wasn’t calling it a monster. Never as “she.”

“Dariah,” Evan said in a hushed voice. “And it’s not far behind her.”

“Should we be afraid of this Dariah?” Thomas asked. “I thought she was good in your dreams.”

“Not anymore, Dad,” Evan said. “She hurts people now. The monster, it twisted her. She doesn’t know who she is anymore.”

“And you think she’ll hurt you?” Thomas asked.

“What does it matter, Tom? He’s afraid and we need to go,” Jenna snapped at him.

“Okay, clearly there’s something wrong. I get it,” Thomas said as he raised his hands in defeat. “Let’s go.”

Jenna scooped Evan up and Thomas dug the keys out of his pocket as he turned and jogged down the stairs to the front door. He slid his loafers on over his socks and rushed to the car. Jenna loaded Evan into the car and buckled him into his booster seat before she slid into the front. Everything felt absurd. Yet he couldn’t ignore that uneasy feeling mounting in the pit of his stomach.

As he backed out of the driveway, a bus pulled away from the curb across the street. He saw a blonde-haired young woman begin to cut across the grass to cross the street. She was pretty, maybe twenty, and dressed in grungy blue jeans and a faded green tank top. She looked absolutely normal and yet there was something about her that just didn’t feel right.

The girl looked directly at Thomas as she began to cross the street, and Thomas felt a chill run down his spine. She didn’t bother looking in either direction for cars, but kept her gaze locked on Thomas.

“She’s here,” Evan whispered from the back.

“Thomas, get the hell out of here!” Jenna shouted as she hit his arm.

Thomas floored the gas and put the car into drive. As he sped away from his house, he looked in his rearview and saw the blond girl standing in the middle of the street. She was watching them drive away. For a moment, he thought his mind was playing tricks on him. He could have sworn that shadows gathered at her feet as she stood motionless, watching them drive away.

“Who the hell was that?” Thomas said after he had put some distance between himself and the strange girl.

“That was Dariah,” Evan said in a flat voice. “She found me.”

Thomas remembered then where he’d seen the girl’s face. Her face had been plastered everywhere in the newspaper and the evening news. The daughter of some wealthy socialites who paid to have her MISSING image in every major newspaper across the nation. Then she suddenly turned up just a few days ago, with no memory of what had happened. The local news reported that the girl was covered in scars from whatever ordeal she had endured. If that was the case, Thomas had seen nothing like that in his fleeting glances. But maybe he hadn’t been close enough to see the scars.

All he knew was that he never wanted to be close enough to her to see any of those scars.

“That was Dariah Coulton? The wealthy heiress?” Jenna asked. “How on earth did she find us? Or you? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said as he turned his head as far around as he possibly could. “I’ve kind of felt her ever since she was awake. I didn’t even think that maybe that meant she could find me, too.”

“Are you saying that no matter where we go, she’ll be able to find us?” Thomas asked. The thought of that creepy girl loitering around his house, threatening his son, filled him with dread. And anger.

“I think so. I think I made it worse when I tried to see if I could make it all go away” Evan said. “I thought if I could find her, maybe I could stop things from happening. I found her and saw what she was doing to the nurses. She would have killed one if I hadn’t made her stop. But she saw me.”

“She saw you?” Jenna asked.

Thomas used the rearview mirror to watch his son. Evan sat on his hands, his lower lip quivering. He saw a tear roll down his cheek that Evan tried to wipe away.

“Yeah,” Evan said. “I was just trying to see if I could make it all stop. I wanted to be able to make it all stop.”

“Wait,” Thomas said. “I thought this monster was looking for some artifact. That’s what George and I were looking for, ancient references to artifacts.”

“It is looking for an artifact,” Evan said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what I have to do with anything. I just know now that it wants me, too.”

“Maybe it knows that we may find this artifact before it,” Jenna piped in.

“Huh,” Thomas said. Perhaps this was all just a coincidence, but after seeing that girl in the street, Thomas was starting to doubt there were such things as coincidences. And he was beginning to dread what waited for him at his friend’s house. He hoped he was wrong. He hoped that his whole family was going crazy.

With the way the world was going, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be sane anymore.

CHAPTER THIRTY

Dariah had started that day as any other normal day. At least, the day had begun as any normal day for her since she had left the hospital. The room of her hostel had been bright when she finally awoke. The pink ceiling confused her for a moment before she remembered that she had switched to a hostel a few blocks away just the night before. As she shoved the covers off, she realized that she had gone to bed fully dressed the night before. She was still wearing her jeans and a blue cardigan. She inspected her jeans and cardigan closely, but found no hint or trace of bloodstains on them. Relief washed over her.

It wasn’t guilt that made Dariah feel relieved at her bloodless clothes. She knew what she was doing. She was feeding. On people. But she only fed on the bottom feeders, the scum who preyed on other people. The criminals who enjoyed other people’s misery and reveled in destroying lives. She felt justified. The men and women she chose deserved their fate.

On the other hand, she didn’t want to broadcast to the world what she was doing. She wasn’t naïve. Local law enforcement would not see eye to eye with her on her newfound feeding habits. But she needed to be flexible now. She needed to feed. Regular food no longer sustained her. Hell, she couldn’t even stomach the smell of it anymore.

And now she had a whole new problem. The hunger was growing more intense. The first few days, she could cope by feeding just once a day. Now she needed to feed two, sometimes three times a day.

The hunger wasn’t on her yet, which meant Dariah needed start looking for her next victim. No, not victim. Her next meal. She needed to find someone suitable before the hunger truly set in. If she waited too long, the hunger would leave her weak and shaking. She might be tempted to do something she might regret. She might feed on an innocent. Her conscience wouldn’t let her do that. As strong as the urge may be to feed, she would fight it until she found someone who deserved to die. But she didn’t know how long she could fight it and she didn’t really want to find out.

Her old life was truly gone. The old Dariah was gone. In some small way, she knew she was an entirely different creature. Her dreams of becoming a doctor, eventually finding a husband, and settling down to start a family while she ran her own medical practice had crumbled to dust.

Dariah was surprised she didn’t feel a twinge of sadness. In fact, she didn’t regret anything. Not anymore, at least. She may not be helping society in the way she expected, but she thought she was helping all the same.

Trimming the fat, as her mother would say. Taking out the garbage, or whatever cliché you wanted to use. No one would miss the men and women she had killed so far. Hell, she didn’t even need her family’s money anymore. Some of the garbage threw her money or their wallets before the fear gripped them. She took the money but made sure not to touch the wallets directly. She didn’t want to leave a fingerprint.

Some of her victims died bloodless deaths, like the one last night. He just started vomiting and didn’t stop until he died. Doubled over, the asshole had actually asked her to help him. The skeezy jerk had planned on raping her, and then had the gall to ask her for help? Dariah had been revolted. She finished him off quicker than usual. Perhaps it was the vomiting. It reeked.

But he wasn’t like most. Most bled and bled. And screamed. Some tried to run. Others stood, paralyzed with fear. The vomiting, though, that was something she hadn’t expected.

If she was completely honest, the feeding was initially just a means to an end. She needed to eat, and these creeps had fear. Fear was what she needed to feed her hunger. But the more she honed her use of her power, the more she enjoyed it. There was a thrill to the hunt. Finding the right area of the wrong neighborhood and pretending to text or to listen to a stolen iPod. The thousand-dollar purse her mom had given to her marked her as an easy target. Any scumbag could see her from miles away. She was a ripe target.

The trick was separating out the criminals from the downtrodden. Making sure she knew the difference between those who were on the streets out of need, who mugged only to feed themselves, and those who had maimed and killed for the joy of it.

Luckily, her gift made it easy. She knew. They just had to get close enough and she could feel their innermost secrets clambering to get out. Just a little probe from her, and the images of their longings and memories came washing over her. Rapists, murderers, brutal thieves—those were her targets.

Dariah yawned as she climbed out of bed and clambered to her suitcase. She changed into a new pair of expensive grungy jeans and a tank top and threw her old outfit into the garbage. She only wore each outfit once. Where the outfits went after she wore them, she didn’t really care. If the clothes had blood on them, though, those were different. Those clothes she burned. She didn’t want anyone asking questions. Fully dressed and with her sparse belongings in hand, she headed out, ready for the new day.

The frazzled woman behind the glass screen at the hostel barely looked up from the book she was reading as she checked Dariah out from the hostel. A glance at the cover told Dariah all she needed to know about the book. The long-haired, muscled man with the open shirt sweeping a dark-haired vixen off her feet. Romance. Not the good kind, either, from the looks of it. She signed the papers and slipped the woman the keys to her room. That was that.

Now, she would walk until she found a new hostel or something to satisfy her hunger. Maybe she would stay at a proper motel tonight. The showers at most of the hostels were community showers and the idea of showering front of other people was distasteful, to say the least. So she hadn’t showered in a few days. For whatever reason, she wasn’t sweating as much, so she wasn’t feeling too greasy.

She glanced at her cell phone. Her father had tried calling her several times since she’d left the hospital, but she had not answered. She hadn’t talked to him or seen him since she woke up. She ached to call him, to pick up the phone and talk to him, but something always stopped her. She couldn’t even bring herself to listen to his voicemails. She knew she would melt if he asked her to come home.

But what would that reality look like? What would she do if she went home? Stay locked up in the house? How would she eat? What if she couldn’t find anyone else, and mad with hunger, ended up feeding on her own father? What fears would be eating his mind, what worries, what longings?

No. Dariah couldn’t bear to think about it anymore. She also knew he wouldn’t approve of what she was doing. She had no doubt. No, it was better this way. Better that he remember the old her. Better that she was dead to him.

Dariah dragged her suitcase easily behind her as she walked down the street. There was something pulling her to the south still, so she headed in that general direction. When she closed her eyes she still saw that white house, pulsing lazily in her brain. When the hunger grew stronger, she could sometimes see a little boy with auburn hair and sad, green eyes. She could even hear the little boy’s voice, softly calling her name.

The sky was overcast for the first time since she had arrived in Los Angeles over a week ago. The magnetic force grew stronger as the morning wore on, pulling her toward that white house and the boy. It was almost ten o’clock in the morning by the time she got to an underpass where many homeless people had taken up camp. Judging from the quick glances and the unsubtly hostile looks she got as she walked by, there were a few shady characters intermingled with the lost.

“Hey, miss?” a bedraggled woman said, stepping in front of her, holding one hand out. The woman looked to be in her fifties, but Dariah judged that she was probably in her early forties. Proper nutrition, hygiene, and abstaining from methamphetamines might have made her look younger at one point in time, but those days were long past.

“Yeah?” Dariah asked. She looked around. After the underpass, she had walked towards what looked like a string of broken-down, abandoned buildings. She couldn’t see anyone but this woman. The woman radiated fear and regret, but no malice. Dariah would move on.

“Spare some change, please?” the woman asked brokenly. The beggar woman smiled and revealed a string of missing teeth and cracked, swollen lips. Dariah took a closer look at the woman and saw faded brown and yellow markings on her face which she had initially mistaken for dirt. But it wasn’t dirt. Those markings were faded bruises. She had been beaten regularly. Dariah bit her lip in anger and began to rifle through her pockets. She found a few quarters and a couple of dollar bills wadded up and dropped the money in the woman’s extended hand.

“Good luck,” she told the woman as she began to continue on her way. From behind her, Dariah suddenly felt a wave of anger and smugness. Pain exploded in her head. The world spun and blurred as she collapsed onto the sidewalk.

“Get her purse,” another masculine voice said from above and behind her as she struggled to push herself off the sidewalk. Warm liquid trickled and dripped down the side of her face. Drops of red fell in front of her face as the back of her skull throbbed. She coughed and choked on her own blood.

“You didn’t have to do that. She gave me money,” the beggar woman said.

“Look at her, she could have spared more than a few lousy dollars,” the gruff voice said.

“But you stabbed her,” the woman said, crying now. “You stabbed her in the head. You killed her.”

“So what? The bitch had it coming, and you will too if you don’t get her fucking purse and get out of here!”

“I just don’t think you should have done that,” the woman cried as she reached down and grabbed Dariah’s purse.

Dariah gritted her teeth and pushed herself onto her knees. She reached to the back of her head where her skull felt like it was on fire. Her fingers wrapped around the grip of the knife lodged in the base of her skull, and wrenched it out with all of her strength. The pain sent her reeling to the pavement again as she almost passed out.

She opened her eyes seconds later and saw the man grabbing her suitcase next to her. He was shorter than she expected. Probably no more than five-foot-five, with salt and pepper hair and beard. He wore a red baseball cap to cover what looked like a mullet. As she lay on her side, she wondered if she was dying. Or if maybe she was dead already.

It hadn’t occurred to her that the bad guys could distract her, then gang up and attack her from behind. Her anger at the beating the woman had received had distracted her. She had been blind to the other men. Why had she been so careless? Why had she been so stupid? The hunger suddenly washed over her, followed by a second, more powerful emotion: rage.

Her vision snapped back into focus as she pushed herself onto her knees and forced herself to stand on two wobbly legs. She cradled one hand to the back of her skull as she extended the other towards the man who was rifling through her suitcase. All of her stuff was scattered on the sidewalk and in the street. Clothes, accessories, makeup, all turned out for everyone to see.

The man looked surprised when he realized she was standing.

“Fuck, lady, you’re dead. You don’t know it yet, but you’re dead,” the man said as he spat at her feet.

“No, I died well before I met you, you fucker,” Dariah snarled as she set her feet and sent the waves of rage and hunger spiraling directly at the man. The expression in his face was almost comical as his eyes widened, his mouth opening and closing in terror at whatever vision was assaulting him. Dariah closed her eyes briefly just to focus, for just a moment, on what her victim saw.

A man stood in front of him, yelling, growing larger and larger. A bottle of whiskey hung limply in one hand as he slurred, “I will tear you in two, you little shit! I know what you did.”

The thief just stood there quaking. “I didn’t do nothin’,” he said in a small voice.

You know what you did, you little fucker,” the man yelled, as he lifted a now giant hand and backhanded the thief, sending him flying into the wall of the abandoned storefront. “Lying, cheating, stealing, you’ve done it all, you little prick. Haven’t you?”

“I didn’t do nothin’,” he repeated in an even smaller voice. “Didn’t do nothin’, Dad.”

“What are you doing to him?” the woman cried. Dariah opened her eyes and saw the woman standing, frozen in place with Dariah’s bag clutched to her chest. She glanced over and saw that the thief was indeed crumpled on the ground on the storefront. Dariah ignored her and continued to focus on the would-be murderer. The head wound underneath her fingers slowly began to close as the flow of liquid from her skull ebbed and eventually stopped altogether. She could feel the energy coursing from him and into her. Her body reveled in it. She closed her eyes and saw the man again, towering even taller over his crumpled son.

What did I always tell you, boy?”

“I wouldn’t amount to nothin’,” the man whined as he huddled into himself.

Oh, that’s right, and you haven’t,” the father said as his ever-growing frame crouched over his son’s prone body. “I told you I would break you, didn’t I?”

Please, no,” the son begged, lifting one arm up to protect himself from another blow from his giant father.

Oh, you always did beg,” the father said, disgust and scorn dripping from his booming voice. “You needed whooping after whooping. You always were rotten to the core.”

No, I’ll be good, I promise,” the son said.

“What are you doing to him?” Dariah heard the woman scream again. She could feel the fear and panic pour from the woman and bathed in that small energy. It was nothing compared to the outright terror the thief was feeding her, but it was something.

Oh, but you always were a liar, weren’t you, you little prick,” his father roared, standing to his full height. The boy-man screamed at his feet and cowered deeper into the concrete. “You always needed a licking, just to put the fear of God into you, didn’t you, you fucker!”

Please, Dad, I’ll be good.”

No, you won’t, ’cause you don’t know how. I’m going to tear you in two, boy, and pour all those rotten secrets out for everyone to see!”

The giant reached down and grabbed the boy-man by the leg and heaved him into the air as if he was nothing more than a bag of apples. The boy-man screamed in terror, and Dariah reveled in the pure satisfaction that enveloped her.

Dariah snapped her eyes open to see the man fly through the air, propelled by some unseen force, until he stopped ten feet above the ground and hovered.

“Please, Daddy!” the man yelled as his body was forcefully thrown towards the pavement. She smiled at the sudden surge in terror, half-closing her eyes in pleasure at the flow of energy from the man, feeling the power pulse into her extended hand and course through her body. Halfway back to the ground, his body met some invisible force and the loud crunch and snapping noise almost startled her. She opened her eyes as the man was torn into two and blood exploded from his body.

She jumped back in an attempt to avoid the spray.

“You . . . you killed him,” she heard from behind her. She turned and found the beggar woman, her face ashen with shock. “You killed him!”

“No, he killed himself,” Dariah corrected. “I was just a tool.”

“No, he didn’t do that to himself,” the woman said as she slowly backed away from Dariah. “You did that. You’re. . . you’re a monster.”

The beggar woman’s voice was hushed as she said that last word, but Dariah grew furious.

“I’m a monster? Me?” she screamed at the woman. “You set me up to be murdered, you bitch, and I’m the monster?”

The woman began to cry as she continued to back away slowly.

“Please,” she cried softly. “Please let me go. I swear I won’t tell anyone. I didn’t see nothin’.”

Dariah looked around her then, really looked. Her clothes were scattered across the street, most splattered with the dead man’s blood, and some with his innards. Her lip curled in distaste. Her own blood was everywhere. And it was broad daylight.

“Oh, you stupid woman,” Dariah moaned. “You stupid, stupid woman.”

Dariah couldn’t let this woman walk away. Most people probably wouldn’t believe a homeless meth addict babbling about a blond girl with super powers, but she couldn’t be placed at this scene. Her blood was already everywhere. This woman’s description of her would make it all the easier to find her. If the police could trace the blood back to her, she had no idea what she would do. She had to be free to feed whenever the hunger took her.

Now more than ever she needed to be able to find that boy and the house. She now knew they were one and the same. The boy, the voice in her head, that house—that was where she needed to go.

But first, there was no choice. She had to take care of the woman. She was a loose end. It hurt her to admit it. All the others she had killed so far had deserved it. Not this poor, victimized, helpless woman.

“Please, miss,” the woman sobbed, as she clutched the purse tightly against her chest, her dirty face pinched in misery. “I won’t tell anyone, not anyone. I promise. Please.”

“I’m sorry. You didn’t give me a choice,” Dariah said sadly as she held out her hand and let the energy pour out and over the woman. The least she could do was make this quick. She closed her eyes and focused. The woman’s terror rushed to her, filling her with its sweet warmth. The terror was almost nonspecific. Images of various people in the woman’s life flitted quickly through Dariah’s mind, until it focused on the very last one, the man Dariah had just killed. The woman’s mind honed in on Dariah. She could see herself approaching the woman, except in this vision the woman saw her as a demon, surrounded by fire. Her eyes were angry, and her face twisted with rage. The vision made Dariah shudder. She reached out and pulled as forcefully as she could, intensifying the energy as much as she dared. She heard a snap and opened her eyes and watched the woman crumple, lifeless, to the ground. Her pale blue eyes stared at Dariah.

“You poor, stupid woman,” she said as she approached the woman’s body. She crouched down and gently closed the woman’s eyes.

Of all the horrible things you experienced, you were most afraid of me in the end. You were so terrified of being alone, you clung to scum. Scum who just used you as a punching bag.

She stroked the dead woman’s dirty, graying hair, feeling sorrow for the first time in days. Was this what she had become? How was she different than other cold-blooded killers? Reliving the woman’s flashes of memory, she felt a deep sadness at the woman’s desperate life.

The woman’s boyfriend probably would have beaten her to death one of these days. Dariah had spared the woman that. Her death had been quick, even if her last moment was filled with terror. She supposed she would have to find some solace in that.

“I am so sorry,” she whispered as she unclasped the woman’s hands from her purse and stood up. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Dariah quickly checked to make sure none of the items from her suitcase could be tied to her before uncovering a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt she could wear. She ran through the alley and changed, dumping her bloodied clothes in a dumpster. She took a small glass bottle from her purse and dumped the contents onto the clothes before dropping the bottle onto the pile. She lit a match and tossed it into the dumpster, walking away as the garbage burned. Careful to avoid detection as she left the alley, she pulled the hood over her head, trying to hide the drying blood that was already matting her hair.

Her power was growing every day. She could feel it flowing through her body, coursing through her very veins. The homeless woman was the first victim with whom she had used her will to make an actual kill, rather than letting their own terror finish them off. Her hunger was fully slaked for the first time in days. She had fed on two people in less than a few minutes, but something about the woman’s terror had fed her more than any of the others. Perhaps it was because the woman was terrified of her. It made the power all the more raw, all the more intense.

Perhaps it was the knife to her skull, but Dariah was starting to remember things. She saw flashes of running in a forest, and a dead thing on a road. The images started coming at her rapidly and she stumbled to the alley wall as she clutched her head. The world spun around her as the pieces slowly fell together.

She remembered everything. She had been right when she told the homeless man that she had died. She remembered now. She remembered dying. She remembered the rending claws slashing through her arms as she attempted to shield her face. She remembered what had killed her. But, oh, the gift it had given her. The joy the creature had felt poured over her as she died. It was so happy to have been recognized.

Eventually, Dariah was able to find a scuzzy-looking internet café. After dropping a twenty on the counter, the barista gave her a key to use the restroom. Dariah used the sink to wash the dried blood off her face and neck and out of her hair. This was different than all the other times she had cleaned blood in the past week. This was the first time it was her blood.

The knife to the skull should have killed her. Again. She was puzzled at the numbness she felt at that revelation. She wasn’t scared of death, not anymore.

The voice in her head. That’s what it all came down to. She had to find that boy. The pieces would all come together then.

The pull toward that white house was stronger than ever. She closed her eyes and focused on it, allowing herself to feel the little boy’s voice in her head again. It was stronger then. The house pulsed with power, calling her, louder and more clearly than before. The haze was gone. The house was clear, so crisp she could read the street name and number as if she was standing right there.

When she opened her eyes, she smiled. She knew exactly how to get to that house, how to get to that boy. With determination, she set out with a hop in her step. It wasn’t hard to find a bus to take her there. The bus ride to the house, however, was agonizing. She felt impatient and tense for the first time in ages. She didn’t know how the little boy fit into the picture, but she would soon. She just knew it. What if he didn’t recognize her? What if there was no boy at that house? Was he a ghost?

She hadn’t really thought about that. Maybe the house was the location of some horrible murder, and the child’s ghost called to her from beyond the grave. Okay, that was probably silly, but so was coming back from the dead to become a fear-eater or whatever.

As the bus drew closer to the house, she felt the power rolling over her in waves. She could almost taste the sweetness of it. The aura got so strong, she almost felt weak-kneed. This was the place. She pulled the cord to alert the driver to pull over at the next stop.

The whole thing was exhilarating. She hopped down the bus steps and oriented herself. The white house was easy to spot, just across the street. Exactly like she had pictured it.

She was just in time to see the green station wagon pull out of the driveway. The little boy’s face was gaunt through the car’s window, but she recognized that face. It was him. She could feel it. She could feel him. Oh, how strong he was.

As she watched the car drive away, she suddenly knew what she had to do. It wouldn’t be fun, but that changed nothing. And while she felt guilty about it, she took comfort in the knowledge that she was sparing him a much worse fate. Just as she could feel the boy, she could feel the other darker presence just as strongly. She could feel its joy as she watched the boy’s car drive away.

It would be better if the boy died at her hands rather than those of her maker.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Its strength had grown in the many days since it had passed through the veil between the world of these humans and the world it had known for the past many millennia. It had spent the last few days resting in shadowy places, waiting for those humans who ventured alone into the dark places. For those humans, it did not bother hiding itself or masking its nature. It had risen to its full height and showed itself in all its gloriousness. By night, it moved. It had much distance to cover to reach the girl. And when it found the girl and what she sought, it would have everything it needed to stay and rebuild its realm. Things would be as they had been so long ago. All it needed to do was claim the artifact.

Much had changed since it had been gone. The humans were fragile creatures, as always. They screamed their screams, tried to flee, urinated on themselves, and wept openly. Some stood in disbelief, and others tried to pretend that it wasn’t real. But no one fully mistrusted their eyes. The hint of belief—the hint of fear—that was all it needed.

So it grew.

There were no longer temples built honoring it by its many names. Those had long since crumbled to dust. There were buildings and tenements in this part of the world whose very foundations were built on the memories of it. The humans. So unchanged. They still feared its wrath, even if that fear was but a hint of a memory. Even banished to the netherworld, it had its agents, its fingers able to toy with and play in this world.

Through all the years it had been called many things. For a time, it had walked and been worshipped as a god, as it should have been. Men and women sacrificed themselves on its altar, and it had been content. As the years passed, the population of men grew and its power weakened as they drifted apart and built altars to other gods. Later, men had quaked in fear and called it a cherubim from those old Semitic scrolls. For them, it had loomed tall with fire dripping from its sword, watchful with its many, unsleeping eyes, and they had fallen to their knees and cried out, giving it their first-born sons. And it had fed. That time, too, faded. Then, it had been called a demon, and they had given it many names. It had not kept track of them, for the names of men were worthless things. They only held power so long as the men held their fear, their faith, close to their hearts.

Later, it had been feared and called a monster, but the sacrifices no longer came. It had been forced to hunt.

At first, it had hated the hunt. It was a disgrace. Thousands of years it had been worshipped, and now the men boldly tried to ignore it. Challenged it. They did not realize that they could never be free. Its reach was limitless. They made it hunt them, but their doors were no barrier to it. It walked in shadow. At full strength, it moved leagues in a breath. And no one could hide from it.

And so, it had learned to enjoy the hunt. The weaving of the thread of threads, the whispered promised of hurt and pain, and finally, breathing that crippling doubt into a man who thought himself strong. The manipulation of the souls of mankind had become an art form. And mankind would spread the fear like wildfire amongst other men. And it would feast.

As it observed this new world, it knew much had changed. The men and women moved around in little metal constructions. Some flew in the air. And there were so many of them, scurrying around all over this world like a pile of ants swarming around their precious anthills. They were completely unaware of the true nature of things. They surrounded themselves with their constructions, thinking it would protect them, but these homes of theirs could not even protect them from themselves. Theft, fire, rape, and murder were all still very much alive. And the little men still campaigned their little wars against themselves.

It smiled then. Much had changed, but much had not. Its time had come. All it needed was its artifact. When the artifact had been taken from it, everything had changed. The artifact was the key to this world; without that key, it could not remain here. So it had slept. Banished to the realm of shadows, the world of dreams, where it had clung and fed like nothing more than a parasite. Until the key was found. And the boy, oh, the boy. He had the key, it just knew it.

With the artifact, that would change. It would be whole once more. It would take measures to ensure that it would never be parted from the key again.

But first, it must find the girl. She had been useful, yes, but she had become unstable. The hunger was overwhelming her, filling her head with false grandeur. It would need to take care of her. It had made her. It would unmake her if need be.

Nothing would stand in its way.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

The rest of the car ride passed in silence. Jenna watched Thomas and the warring emotions that continued playing across his face. When they arrived at the house, George was coming out the front door. He wore a confused and worried expression.

“Hey, George, sorry to show up unannounced,” Thomas said as he closed the car door and approached his friend. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” George said as he continued to look around the front yard. His eyes settled on the yellow Corolla parked in the driveway. “I can’t find Elaine and the kids.”

“Really?” Thomas said. Jenna noticed the slight change in pitch in his voice and knew that he was worried. “Maybe she’s not home?”

“That’s her car,” George said, pointing at the yellow Corolla.

“She probably took the kids out on a walk,” Thomas said.

“She’s not picking up her cell phone and she’s not in the back or anywhere in the house,” he said. “It’s not like her to just take off like this without leaving a note.”

Jenna had that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she helped Evan out of the car. She had hoped that Evan was wrong about everything. But George was right—it wasn’t like Elaine to just disappear without leaving a note. She gritted her teeth. It was true, then. Her friend was gone. And the children. Helen’s little kids—were they really gone as well?

“Well, I’m sure she’ll turn up,” Thomas said. Jenna could hear the lack of confidence in his voice. He was trying to force himself to be cheerful.

“Honey, where did you see them in your dream?” Jenna asked as she helped Evan out of the car and closed the car door behind him.

“Over there,” Evan said as he pointed to right side of the house. “In the side yard, by the fence.”

George and Thomas both looked in that direction.

“How would Evan know where they are?” George asked Thomas, as they began to walk hesitantly over the lawn towards the side yard.

“He just thought he saw something in a dream,” her husband told George, trying to laugh it off uneasily.

“Well, that doesn’t make any sense,” George said, looking at Thomas as he followed him across the lawn.

“George,” Jenna called after him.

“Yes?”

“Be careful.” George gave her look of confusion, but nodded as he turned his back on her and followed Thomas. Jenna hung back for a moment and watched the backs of the men as they headed towards the side yard, and whatever waited for them there.

She held Evan’s hand. She wasn’t sure what to do. Part of her hoped that Thomas and George found nothing where Evan believed they would find Elaine and the children. Maybe it hadn’t happened yet. Maybe this dream was just a dream, not an actual vision.

“Mom,” Evan said as he squeezed her hand.

“Yes, hon?”

“We should be with him,” he said. “When he finds her.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said as she let him pull her towards the backs of the men. That last phrase echoed in her ears. When he finds her. A moment later, Jenna heard a startled choking sound from George. She knew then that the worst was true.

“Elaine!” George cried as he surged around the corner and out of Jenna’s sight. Her heart broke for him and she ran after him. She turned the corner just in time to see George drop to his knees and clutch Elaine’s limp body to his chest. “Oh, sweetling, wake up, please.”

Thomas ripped his cell phone from his pockets. She knew he was dialing 911. She also knew how futile that gesture would be. Thomas spoke in a hushed voice to the operator. She couldn’t make out his words. She stood in stunned silence as she watched George’s shoulders shake as he caressed Elaine’s ashen cheek, her arms hanging limply at her side. George kissed her head and cheek, crying as he continued to caress his wife’s face. Jenna choked back the tears as she let go of Evan’s hand and rushed to George’s side.

Up close, Jenna saw Elaine’s blue eyes staring blankly at the sky, her body shaking with the force of her husband’s sobs. She felt for a pulse, and was not surprised when Elaine’s cold wrist was still.

“Oh, George, I’m so sorry,” she said as she placed her hand on his back as he sobbed, not knowing what else to do. She looked back at her son and saw him staring wide-eyed at the scene. “Evan, please go inside. I’ll be right there.”

Evan looked at her blankly for a moment, then shook his head sadly.

“Evan, please. Go inside.”

“I can’t, Mom,” he said with a whimper. He pointed behind her and Jenna’s eyes followed the direction he was pointing. George must have looked as well, because he made a half-strangled cry as he set Elaine’s body down and scrambled on all fours towards the fence. That’s when Jenna saw it. Richard’s body lay crumpled at the base of the fence, his neck bent at an impossible angle. One of his sneakers lay just a few feet away from him.

“No! Don’t touch him!” Evan shouted.

Jenna lunged forward and grabbed George by the shoulder. He threw her hand off easily and continued to scrabble over the grass to where his grandson lay on the mulch at the foot of the fence.

“Don’t touch him,” Evan said softly, as he was suddenly by George’s side, his hand on the older man’s shoulder. For whatever reason, George listened to him.

“It looks like he’s breathing,” George said.

“Can I check his pulse?” Jenna asked Evan as she settled next to them. She was asking Evan.

“Yes, you can,” Evan said. Then, nodding at George, he said, “Just not him.”

“Why can’t I touch him? He’s my grandson!” George yelled. His shoulders shook, and for the first time, Jenna thought he actually looked his age. Older, actually. The liveliness in his blue-gray eyes was gone. If she could have, she would have run away from this. She had never witnessed such heartbreak firsthand. She wished she could be anywhere else, and that this entire scene could be erased from her mind and from history. Her friend’s mother lay dead in front of her, her friend’s grandson was dead or dying, and she had no idea where little Ava was. She looked around and saw no sign of the little girl.

“The darkness is still here,” Evan said, nodding at Richard’s prone body. “It lingers inside of him.”

Pointing at George, the boy continued, “You’re tied to him by blood. It would hold more power over you. It won’t be as strong for my mom.”

Jenna reached over to where the young boy was lying. His khakis and pin-striped button-down shirt were both slick and stained by the grass. His skin was pale and she could see his jaw was slack. His eyes were closed. She avoided touching his head or neck, choosing instead to pick up his wrist lightly. She didn’t want to disturb him too much in case he was alive and any heavy movement jostled an injury.

God, this was her friend’s son lying in front of her, looking so lifeless. The thought drove a wrench into her stomach and she tried not to cry. So small and frail. His skin was so pale, like fine painted porcelain. He felt so cold to touch. She bit her lip and tried not to think of her dear friend. So much loss delivered to just this one small family. It overwhelmed her.

“Mom,” her son’s voice broke through her sadness. She felt his hand on her shoulder suddenly. “It has no power over you unless you let it. Don’t give in.”

She nodded and Helen’s little boy snapped back into focus. She felt the sorrow swim to the background of her mind. It was still there, but it wasn’t strong enough to drive her into the ground. She felt for the young boy’s pulse again. He was less icy to the touch than she had initially thought, but there was something there. Still alive.

“I think he has a slight pulse,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief as she gently laid Richard’s wrist back on the ground.

“Oh, thank God,” George said, as he sat back and closed his eyes. Jenna continued to kneel by the boy, as she watched him. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and crawled back to where his wife lay. He scooped her up into his arms as if she was light as a feather and began to rock back and forth with her, pressing his cheek against hers.

“The ambulance is on the way,” Thomas said, as he reemerged from around the corner. His face looked strained as he surveyed the situation. “Where’s Ava?”

“I have no idea,” Jenna said, as she looked around. There was no trace of the girl. George looked up from Elaine’s body. “You don’t have to move, George. We’ll look for her.”

Jenna and Thomas scoured the house together. They frantically searched the front yard, the backyard, the basement, and each one of the bedrooms. The little girl was nowhere to be found.

“You won’t find her,” Evan said as they reemerged from the house a few moments later.

“Why? Do you know where she is?” Thomas asked.

“It has her.”

“Who has her?” George asked.

“The monster.”

“I thought you said that they were all here, that Elaine thought she had let her grandkids die,” Jenna said.

“That’s what Elaine thought,” Evan said. “It doesn’t mean it was true.”

“Wait, what in the hell are you talking about? A monster?”

“It’s hard to explain, George,” Thomas said with a sigh. Jenna felt his pain. How on earth could they try to explain this nightmare to a man who just lost so much?

“I don’t care if the Loch Ness monster is running around, I just want that ambulance and I want the police. And I want my granddaughter, God damn it.”

“The police?”

“If someone has my granddaughter, they have to find her,” he said as he stared down at his motionless grandson. Of course. A missing girl. George’s shoulders began to shake and Jenna watched in silence as the older man cried.

“I’m sure they’ll find her,” Jenna said. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore. There was a supernatural creature killing her friends and who knew who else.

They sat in silence, listening to the distant sounds of sirens that drew closer but never seemed to arrive. After a moment, George stirred.

“I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want you all to leave,” George said.

“You don’t mean that,” Thomas said.

“Yes, yes, I do,” he said firmly, and looked up at her husband with an anger and vehemence that stunned her. “I don’t know what you involved my family in, but I know this all comes down to you.”

“How on earth can you say that?” Jenna breathed out. “We would never do anything to endanger you or your family.”

“You may not have meant it,” he said, turning his bitter gaze to her. “But it’s on you. We were all fine before we met you. Elaine would still be alive. Trevor and Helen, too. Not to mention the children.”

“George, this is the grief talking,” Jenna said.

“He’s right,” Evan said quietly. “This is all my fault.”

“Oh, honey, this isn’t anyone’s fault,” Jenna said. “Sometimes bad things, horrible things happen to good people for no reason. No one is to blame.”

“No, this is my fault,” her son said, staring at George’s crumpled frame with a look of resignation. “I think the monster found Elaine because of me.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Thomas said. “How could it find Elaine and not you?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said. “I was thinking of Richard and all of a sudden I could see him. I saw the ball go over the fence, and I saw him climbing the tree.”

“Evan, even if you did see Richard fall, that’s not your fault,” Jenna said.

“I don’t think Richard would have fallen if I hadn’t been thinking about him,” Evan said.

“Honey, how on earth could you be to blame for that?”

“I think it saw Richard because of me,” he said. “I know it. I saw the shadows gather at his feet. And I just know that if I hadn’t started thinking about him, it wouldn’t have seen Richard.”

“Just leave me be,” George said softly, crooning into his dead wife’s hair. “I don’t want to hear your horror stories. Go let your kid be crazy somewhere else.”

Jenna tried not to wince at the harsh words. George was the last person she had ever believed would be callous. But then, this was not a normal situation.

“We’ll give you space, but we are not going anywhere.”

“Please, just leave me be. I want to be alone.”

“We can’t leave you like this, George,” Thomas started.

“I said, get out!” George yelled at them. “What’s so hard about that? Get the fuck out of here!”

Jenna had heard men yell before. In her line of work, it was commonplace to hear men and women in all states of mind. But she had never heard George yell. She had never heard George so much as raise his voice before, not even when the children put their jam-covered fingers all over his nineteenth century book of poetry by Walt Whitman. It didn’t look like much and had something to do with grass. She never could remember anything about poetry, but George had liked the book.

“George,” Jenna said quietly. “The police will want to take our statement. We can’t just leave.”

“Yes, you can. Get the fuck out of here before you make things worse than they already are.”

“What about Ava?” Evan said. “We may be able to save her still.”

“Just leave it to the police and leave me alone,” George said. “Elaine and I, we were always taking care of you. Always there for you. You brought us nothing but trouble.”

“Okay, George,” Jenna said. She couldn’t bear to watch her friend unravel before her eyes. “We’ll wait for the police over by the sidewalk.”

Thomas followed her silently. She could see the tears in his eyes. Like her, he had no idea how to deal with this tragedy. Evan held her hand in silence for what felt like a long time before speaking.

“I didn’t mean to hurt them,” Evan said. She could tell from the look on his face that he still felt responsible somehow. She didn’t know how these visions of his worked, truly, but she knew that he would never do anything to hurt anyone. She knew her son that well. At least she was pretty sure she did. A little worry niggled at the back of her head, but she pushed it down.

“Honey, it’s not your fault,” Jenna said. She darted an accusatory glare at Thomas, who had been silent far too long for her taste. “George is just hurting right now. Sometimes it’s easier to be angry than deal with your sadness.”

“Evan,” Thomas broke his silence finally. “You said something earlier. . . Can you find Ava?”

Her son leaned over and cried into her shoulder. Jenna picked him up easily. In doing so, she realized that he was lighter than he had been just a week or so ago. He was losing weight.

“Evan, this is really important,” her husband said again. Although this was obviously hurting her son, Thomas was right. If Evan could find Ava, he had to try. He was bound to have more luck than the police, where this creature was concerned.

“Honey, your dad is right,” she said, as she hugged him close. “This is important. Ava’s life could depend on you.”

“I don’t know,” he said in a muffled voice.

“I thought you said you might be able to save her.”

“I did. I feel like I should be able to find her. It wants me to,” Evan said shakily. “I just don’t know how.”

“Okay, we can figure this out together,” Thomas said. “We will figure it out. But we should probably also figure out what we are going to tell the police.”

The police. They would want to know everything. A woman was dead, a boy hurt, and a little girl was missing. And her family had shown up without being called with wild stories about the events that had transpired. This all sounded incredibly suspicious. Jenna’s mouth was dry. What if the police decided to detain them, and Ava died?

“Well, we can’t exactly tell them the truth,” Jenna said. Her mind was racing and she just couldn’t focus.

“They wouldn’t believe me, would they?”

“No, honey, I’m sorry,” Jenna said. “Most people don’t believe things that they can’t see themselves.”

“We could just say that Evan had a nightmare and wanted to see his friends,” Thomas said. “The best lies have a kernel of truth. We’ll just play it like a horrible coincidence. We don’t have to mention that whatever Evan dreams seems to be coming true.”

“What if they ask what kind of nightmare I had? What should I tell them?” Evan looked concerned.

“Just tell them that you don’t remember,” her husband told their son.

“What about the weird woman who was at our house?” Jenna interrupted. “Dariah? I think we should mention her. She may be connected to everything.”

“She is,” Evan chimed in. “I think she’s under the monster’s control.”

“Sure, we can mention her. We should mention her—she was at our house and she frightened Evan. Maybe the police can help us get rid of her.”

Jenna didn’t know how this all was going to look on the outside. Still, after all these weeks, it felt like a terrible, terrible dream.

“Evan, you just let us do the talking,” Thomas said. “If anyone asks, just say you had a bad dream. Can you do that? Say you had a bad dream and wanted to see your friends.”

“I think so,” he said hesitantly.

“You don’t have to tell them anything else,” he said.

The fire truck arrived first. After that, everything became a blur. Men hopped from the vehicle and Jenna pointed them to Richard. The ambulance arrived shortly after and Jenna watched numbly as the paramedics confirmed that Richard was still alive. She breathed a silent sigh of relief. He was still alive. The paramedics carefully strapped him to a gurney and loaded him into the ambulance. She watched from afar as George kissed his wife’s forehead and released her to another set of paramedics who felt for a pulse, before glumly shaking their heads. The paramedics escorted George to the ambulance with Richard, before the doors to the ambulance closed and the vehicle pulled away with a loud siren.

Jenna held Evan close as she watched the ambulance pull away. She was vaguely aware that Thomas was talking to two police officers. Thomas was always good in a crisis. She stood numbly and watched the world as it blurred by her. Evan clung to her, crying into her shoulder as the police officers attempted to ask them both questions. Jenna was hardly aware of their queries and answered each question with a short yes, no, or “I don’t know.”

Jenna numbly watched the gurney go by carrying the black bag with Elaine’s body zipped coldly inside. She realized with a start that she hadn’t shed a single tear yet, but she was so numb, she couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty.

She hugged her son’s shoulders close and wished the day could be over.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Dariah watched the car turn the corner, blocks down the street. After the car had disappeared completely from her sight, she turned and headed toward the house. She walked up the path, and reveled in the simplicity of it. Its overgrown lawn was still watered and cared for, with a few toys strewn and forgotten in the yard. Everything about the house looked so overwhelmingly normal. It was hard for her to believe that the little boy in her head lived here, of all places. Even the creaking of the porch under her feet felt comforting, rather than like the creepy squeaking of a decrepit house one expected to find in horror stories. This place felt lived-in. That was all.

She let her fingertips caress the bronze of the doorknob and, as she closed her eyes, she allowed herself to feel all the times other hands had grasped its metal. She absorbed the feelings of relief they had each felt as they pushed this door open. This was home. A home like she’d never experienced. A part of her ached with envy.

The knob turned easily in her hands. In their rush to leave, the family had forgotten to lock the door. Not that a locked door would have stopped her.

The oak door opened silently into a warm entryway, stuffed with jackets, hats, and kids’ shoes. It was messier than she expected, but not in a truly messy way. It was the disorganization of things that were strewn about, but somehow still had their place. She closed the door quietly behind her and took a deep breath in. She smelled coffee, nutmeg and cinnamon, which, for the first time in days, didn’t make her gag. It was a sweet smell that brought a smile to her face, a memory of how things should have been, not of how they actually were. The smile left as quickly as it came.

She ignored the doors that opened to her left and right. They were meaningless. She knew without looking that the left held the entertainment room with its television and videos, and the right held the dining room and kitchen. Boring rooms with boring tales of normalcy and family life.

The upstairs beckoned her. She placed her hand on the wooden banister and felt its smooth finish. She saw the hands of a toddler, grasping the banister with one hand and his mother’s hand in the other. She felt the love and laughter deep in the wood, down to the fiber of the house. She let go of the banister and climbed the stairs slowly, clutching her hands to her chest, afraid to let the house in. Afraid to let that love in.

At the top of the stairs, the doors all stood wide open. A bathroom, a messy study, what looked like the parents’ room at the end of the hall, and on her immediate right, the boy’s room. This is what called to her. She let herself be drawn into it. The walls were a muted blue, but somehow felt warm. Posters of superheroes hung on the walls, and the dresser and bookshelves were cluttered with toys. The bed sat on the far side of the room, next to a wide window that looked down on the back yard. She was surprised that the family had hardly any yard to speak of. She didn’t know what she had expected. Probably a large backyard with a doghouse and a swing set. A backyard that echoed with laughter.

She sat down on the bed, took off her shoes, then slid into the bed, laying her head down on the same pillow, with its Superman pillowcase, that the little boy used every night. She closed her eyes and felt one with his restlessness. She felt his tears and sorrow, but strangely felt nothing for him. He was just one voice of many in her head, clamoring for silence.

Even in this house, so warm and cozy, there was no comfort for her. Still, she remained in that soft bed for a while. She lost track of time. She might have drifted in and out of sleep, but she wasn’t quite sure.

Something familiar crept into her mind, so she opened her eyes and stared at the glow-in-the dark stars that speckled the off-white ceiling. She felt someone at the front door before she heard it open, and she sat up in surprise. That couldn’t be right.

“Dariah?” the woman’s voice called hesitantly from the open door. Dariah bolted upright and stuffed her feet back into her shoes. “Dariah, I know you’re here.”

“How did you find me, Mom?” she asked, as she stepped out from the boy’s room.

“Your father and I, we hired a private investigator to find you.”

“Why would you do that?” she asked, perplexed. She thought she had been pretty clear that she wanted nothing to do with her mother. Her mother stood, transfixed, in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs.

“Whatever you believe, I. . . Your father and I, we love you. You belong with us. At home.”

“Why didn’t my father come to see me?”

“He did. He’s here.”

Dariah peered behind her mother as she traced her way down the stairs.

“Where? I don’t see him.”

“He’s here in California. You disappeared. You’ve made it very difficult for us to find you. Heavens, we had to hire someone to locate our daughter right after we’d just found her!”

“You said he was here.”

“He is. I sent him to look after you in the hostel you stayed at last night.”

“But you came here.”

“Yes, you’re my daughter.”

“You came here by yourself.”

“Yes.” her mother’s assent was in the form of a shocked intake of breath as Dariah reached the bottom of the stairs. “Your face. . .”

“I know,” Dariah smiled. “I’m all better.”

“You’re beautiful again,” her mother spoke in a hushed voice.

“Yep, and I didn’t need a dime from you, thank you very much.”

“Why are you being so cruel?” her mother winced. Dariah couldn’t help but laugh.

“Why am I being so cruel? Me?”

“Yes, you’ve been nothing but rude since I found you in the hospital, then you ran away before your father could even visit you. He was devastated.”

He was devastated? Why did he let yours be the first familiar face I saw, then? The ice queen whose first thought was how to make me pretty again.”

“That’s not fair. I was trying to help.”

“I’m sure you were. So why isn’t he here now? He didn’t want to see me after you told him what I looked like?”

“No, I just thought it would be better if he got your stuff from the hostel and we met at the airport. To fly home. Where you belong.”

Dariah saw the way Janene grimaced as she looked around the house and saw the shoes spilling out of the wicker basket, the frayed coats and worn-in umbrellas by the door.

“You were never meant for this kind of mundanity. Surely, you know this.” That’s when Dariah saw the purse that was gripped tightly in her mother’s hand. It wasn’t just any purse. It was her makeup clutch, which she usually left at the hotel when she was out of town.

“You left Dad so that you could convince me to cover up my scars before he saw me again, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t want him to see you like that,” her mother admitted. “I didn’t want anyone to see you like that. Can you blame me?”

“I guess not,” Dariah said, but she did. She did blame her mother. Rage filled her chest, and every breath left her more enraged. “You’ve always wanted me to be your little doll. To make me up into the little girl you wanted me to be, not caring for me, or who I was.”

“That’s not true,” Janene gasped at the venom dripping from her daughter’s voice, but Dariah didn’t care.

“You need to get out of this house now,” Dariah commanded her mother. Something in her eyes must have conveyed the sheer hate she felt stirring inside of her, because her mother stepped back in her perfect heels and almost tripped over herself. “You shouldn’t be here. You’ll ruin this place.”

“What are you talking about?” her mother said, trying to regain her composure. She straightened herself on the porch and dusted off her pristine grey pencil skirt. “There’s nothing to ruin in this run-down hovel.”

“You look at this place and see a hovel?”

“Come now, darling, you don’t? Look, the paint is chipped on the porch, and even on the walls in the house. Everything looks used.”

“That’s what happens when you live in a place, Mother. When you truly are allowed to live in a place. Things look used, because they are. That’s what happens when people are more important than things. The people are made to feel important, and the things get used.”

“I’m sure you feel that way right now, dear, but that’s just the trauma talking.”

“No, that’s me talking. The daughter you ignored. The daughter you made to feel like nothing she ever did was right. That’s the person talking, not the doll you wanted.”

“That’s enough,” her mother spat. “You’re coming with me now, and we’ll take you home. If we need to have you committed, then so be it. I will not take your vitriol a moment longer.”

“Ah, there it is.”

“All I wanted was a daughter,” she said. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone through the trouble of carrying you in my body for nine miserable months, just to have a squalling, spoiled child who wanted to muck about in the mud with the help, rather than being a responsible girl and learning her manners. A doll would have been far less trouble.”

Dariah’s rage grew, and even she could feel it swelling out of her body. Her mother blanched, but remained where she stood on the porch.

“Down. Down the stairs.”

“Why? What are you going to do? Are you going to come with me?”

“No, I’m not going to come with you. You’re going down the street. Away from this house. I don’t want the boy to know you were here. I don’t want his family to see you, or any trace of you.”

The hunger was back, gnawing at her insides, and she almost fainted from the strength of it.

Her mother must have seen the sudden weakness that overwhelmed her daughter because Janene took a step towards her.

“Are you all right? Do you need to eat something? You look piqued.”

“I said, down!” Dariah growled at her. “Everything with you is about appearances.”

Her mother dropped the clutch and backed down the stairs slowly. Fear was etched onto every corner of her face, and Dariah felt a grim satisfaction.

“Well, that ends now. Down the street. Hurry. We don’t want anyone to see you in this neighborhood. I mean, look at it. It’s so thoroughly middle-class. It’s one step from being a slum.”

“There’s no call for being this horrible, Dariah,” her mother said. “I raised you better than this.”

“You raised me? The nannies had more to do with me than you! I was too much work, remember?”

“I had things to do. You have no idea how exhausting children can be.”

“No, and I guess I won’t ever know, either.”

“You’re young. You can still have children. Come, just let me take you home.”

Dariah shook her head as she backed her mother down the path of the boy’s home and as far away as she possibly could. Down the street, her mother’s words came quickly, just words and platitudes that meant nothing.

“Stop, Mother,” she said, finally, holding up her hand. “I will not have kids. My life ended in the forest eons ago. I died. And I was brought back. I was brought back better. Stronger. And yes. You’re right. I am hungry. And guess what? You’re the only thing here.”

Her mother looked confused as she looked around. Dariah licked her lips hungrily and saw the fear in her mother’s eyes.

“Relax,” she laughed. “I’m not a vampire or a cannibal.”

Her mother relaxed visibly, and gave a soft chuckle.

“What I am is far, far worse.” She let go of the hunger, releasing it without qualms on her mother, and watched her mother’s eyes open wide in terror. She didn’t try to focus it or harness the energy. She wanted to see her mother as she really was. She wanted to see the fears that drove her mother to be the despicable person she was. Maybe she would feel something for this creature then, instead of the overwhelming rage and nothingness.

She closed her eyes, to truly see what her mother saw, and . . .

There were men, haggard, dirty men, with rags hanging from their wretched bodies, reaching out for her with their grubby hands. A hand touched her white shirt, leaving a grimy handprint smudged onto her arm. She shrieked and stepped away, but they were everywhere. All these dirty, homeless men. All with their hands out, all wanting something.

She could sense it. The want. It was in each of them. They wanted everything to be handed to them, the grubby homeless. With their filth, their dirt, and their nasty ways. She’d heard about homeless camps. What happened there. They were the worst dregs of human society. All the want and need, taking what wasn’t theirs, and feeling somehow like they deserved it.

These stragglers, they hated people who actually worked for what they wanted. She could see it in their eyes when she saw them in the street. Now they were everywhere, all around her and closing in. She had no purse, but still they closed in. She took off her heels and threw them at the closest one.

Oh God, one of them touched her. Her skin crawled at the thought of the germs and disease. She felt a hand on her shoulder and her blouse was being ripped from behind her, and as she was forced to her knees, she screamed. She screamed as she felt hands, so many dirty hands on her hips, ripping her skirt from her body. She felt the filth of their dirty hands, their dirty needs on her body, and her skin crawled at the vile of their wretchedness. All these poor people, all these dirty people, they touched her with their filth. She cried out in fear and dread of what they were going to do to her.

No, no, no no no no no no no no no no no no no.

She sobbed. She could do nothing to stop them from violating her, from putting their poor diseased flesh on her, inside of her. She tried to fight them, but she couldn’t. They robbed her of all control, all will, all dignity. They took from her everything that made her who she was.

The weight of their limbs held her down, and she wretched at the smell of them.

No, no, no no no no no no no no no no no no no NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Dariah’s eyes ripped open, and even though she was no longer in the vision, she saw what was happening. She could stop it. She knew she could. But she bit her lip, and turned her back on her mother. She could hear the sound of fabric tearing, and the muffled screams, as if someone was covering her mother’s mouth with their hand.

She could stop it. She could. And she wanted to. She really did. But the terror from her mother was so personal. So sweet. It soothed that aching need that was gnawing her insides better than anything else she had felt since she had woken up.

She couldn’t watch what was happening in her mother’s eyes, but she could feel the sweetness of her terror. Now that she wasn’t watching, she eased her power back and slowed the onslaught. She let it run its course.

It took hours for her mother to die. When it was done, Dariah laughed. Then, and only then, did she weep.

She turned and looked at her mother’s lifeless body and was surprised at how little she felt. No remorse. Her mother’s clothes were torn and strewn in rags around her on the street, and she was all but naked. Her body was dirty, bruised, beaten, clawed, and covered in the bite marks of what looked like many men. Her eyes, open, stared out at nothing. Her face, her terror was still etched into every wrinkle, every fold. Tears had dried long after the mascara had run its course down her cheeks.

Dariah knelt by her mother’s body and ran her hand over her eyes, gently closing them. Then she stood up quickly and walked away.

That was the final straw. The walking away. She fought it, to be what she knew she needed to be to survive. She fought the urge to cover her mother’s body, to grant her that final dignity. But to do so would undo some of the power her mother gave her in her death.

Her mother’s biggest fear, beyond the horrible indignities she endured prior to her death, was to die in disgrace, and to have other people see her disgrace. That lingering terror nourished Dariah still.

She was everything that homeless woman had said earlier.

She was a monster.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

When the police officers finally came, Evan did as his mother and father suggested. He said he didn’t know anything. He told them that he had had a bad dream and wanted to see his friends. He cried. His parents didn’t have to tell him to do that. He did it all on his own. He didn’t even have to pretend.

Before he knew it, night had fallen and the sirens continued to flash brightly. Neighbors gathered behind the yellow tape the police stretched around George and Elaine’s property. They whispered and looked concerned. But none of them really were concerned about the Eversons. Evan could feel it. Some worried there was a murderer on the loose, someone who could come in and threaten their way of life. Some were just morbid; they wanted to catch a glimpse of a body so they could snap a picture and tell their friends. Most were just curious. Their curiosity compelled them to stay even if it was just to walk away and say “too bad” and feel lucky that it hadn’t happened to them.

The medics had taken Richard away quickly. He was rushed into an ambulance and George followed him. The medics barely touched Elaine. Even from where he stood with his mother on the sidewalk, he could see the female medic touch Elaine and shake her head. Then they left her for the police. People swarmed around her, touching everything with their gloved hands.

He held onto his mother’s shirt and jeans tightly and watched. She stroked his hair, almost rhythmically. He kind of thought she had forgotten she was doing it, the motion was so repetitive. On any other day, he might have asked her to stop. Not today. Today, he found it comforting. Elaine was dead. He had seen her die in his dream, and seeing her body on the grass shouldn’t have startled him, but it did. Until he saw her lying so still on the grass, he had held onto the glimmer of hope that everything was a dream. All of it. He would rather believe that he was going crazy than that everything he had seen was real.

Evan fought off tears again. Everything was all jumbled in his head. He couldn’t think clearly. His eyes burned again, and he rubbed the tears away roughly. George was so angry and scared and hurt. But Evan was certain that he had told the older man the truth. Ava was alive. She could be saved.

He just didn’t know how to save her. That part he needed to figure out. He knew he could do it, if he figured out how.

The police asked them to come down to the station. A child was missing and they needed to give statements. His mom tried to play it nice and make it fun. He got to ride in a police car. Isn’t that cool?

Even he knew that a police car was just a car when it came down to it. He knew that now. Maybe he would have been excited a year ago. Back before the dreams came. He and his mom and dad climbed into the back of the police car, and two officers got into the front. For some reason, the officers seemed so young to him. Their skin was unwrinkled, untouched by age.

Evan rubbed his eyes again, this time in confusion. He was only five. Why on earth would he think these men were young? They were grown-ups. They had jobs and probably families. One was in his twenties, the other in his early thirties. One was Hispanic, the other Caucasian. Up until a few months ago, Evan hadn’t really understood what Hispanic meant. He had known his friend José looked a little different and had a different name, but that didn’t matter. Now, there were so many words to describe things. So many different categorizations. People weren’t just people. They were young, old, male, female, Caucasian, Hispanic, Latino, black. Good. Bad. Evil.

“Everything is going to be okay, honey,” his mother told him, squeezing his shoulder gently and surprising him from his own thoughts.

“No. It really isn’t,” Evan said. “It will never be okay.”

“You can’t talk like that,” she said again.

“Mom. Elaine is dead. Richard is hurt bad, and Ava is missing.”

“We’ll find her, Evan,” his dad said.

“You don’t believe that,” Evan said. “I can tell.”

His father smiled and reached out and patted Evan’s knee and went back to looking out the window of the moving police car. Evan’s stomach sank when he saw that smile. There was no hope in it. No spark in his dad’s eye that would make him feel better. The smile acknowledged how lost they all were.

“Evan, we have to believe in something,” his mother said. “The police will find Ava, just you wait and see. Won’t you, officers?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the younger of the two said from the passenger side of the car. “The Amber Alert is already out. We have search teams combing the neighborhood already. Volunteers will line up to help the missing orphan girl.”

Orphan. The word stung Evan’s ears when he heard it. The word was so sad and lonely. He had never really thought about it, but Ava’s parents were dead. And now her grandmother. He didn’t know what was going to happen to Richard. His stomach knotted again and his eyes grew hot. It was so unfair.

“So why do you need to take us down to the station to give our statements?” his mother asked.

“We just have some questions to ask, and it will be easier to do away from the scene of the, uh, accident,” the driver said. Officer Gilbert, that was his name. He and his partner had introduced themselves at the scene. Officer Gilbert and Officer Sanchez.

“We don’t know anything, I told you,” Evan said. He was aware of how petulant he sounded, but he didn’t care.

“I know, son,” Officer Sanchez said. “It’s just protocol. You’ll get to see the inside of a police station. We’ll show you where we lock up the criminals. Just pretend it’s a field trip. We just want to get a better idea of what’s going on.”

“You have our full cooperation,” his dad said, still looking out the window. “Anything we can do to help.”

Evan felt a sudden tug at the edge of his mind. His vision blurred and he felt that hunger all over again. It was so close, it made his skin crawl. He felt sick to his stomach, but fought through the nausea. He tried to focus on the hunger, to see where it was coming from.

“Mom, something is wrong,” he said. His voice sounded far away. He felt like he did that one time when he was younger and had climbed onto the sink and gotten his mom’s cough syrup out of the medicine cabinet. He felt all fuzzy.

“What’s wrong?” his mom asked, her voice sounding even further away, like she was whispering in another room.

“I don’t know. I feel funny.”

His head began to buzz and he tried to shake his head to get rid of the sound. The buzzing grew louder and louder. As the sound amplified, the hunger also increased. Suddenly, he was aware of the panic growing from his mom. He could feel it. Taste it. Her fear tasted sweet. She was so afraid of losing him.

Everything snapped back into focus and he knew what was going on.

“We have to turn around!” Evan shouted.

“Everything okay back there?” Officer Sanchez turned around. He was so young, in his twenties. He wore a cross around his neck.

“We have to turn around!” Evan said. “She’s close. She’s going to kill us all!”

“It’s okay, little guy,” Officer Gilbert assured him from behind the steering wheel. He smiled reassuringly into the rearview mirror. His eyes were kind and Evan could feel waves of sympathy pouring from him. “We’re going to the police station. You’ll be safe there.”

“Yeah, you’ll be surrounded by police officers,” his mom told him. “No one can get us there.”

“Wait a sec, who do you think is going to kill us?” Officer Sanchez asked. “Does this have anything to do with the missing girl?”

“No, no, but we have to stop and turn around,” Evan said. “Please! She’ll kill everyone.”

“Do you guys know something about the kidnapping that you’re trying to hide?” Officer Sanchez said. “If the kidnapper tried to tell you that you needed to cooperate and keep us in the dark, it won’t work. You need to work with us.”

“It’s not like that!” Evan screamed at them. How could they all be this stupid? “She’s really close.”

“What the heck is the kid talking about?” Officer Sanchez asked, turning around to face them.

“I don’t know,” his mom said. “Evan, is it Dariah?”

Evan felt the hunger double as the buzz in his head grew to a loud roar. The knot in his stomach clenched tighter and he felt his heartbeat speed up. Something inside the police car smelled of burning plastic. Even though he couldn’t see outside the car, he knew. She was already here.

“We’re too late. She found us and she’s so strong.”

“What the fuck? What is that?” Officer Gilbert said from behind the wheel, as he suddenly slammed on the brakes and cranked the steering wheel hard to the left. Evan saw her then. She was standing in the middle of the street, dressed in the same clothing she had worn just a few hours earlier. Her blonde hair was now pulled back and she wore a look of triumph on her face. The car smashed into something, and his head snapped forward as the seatbelt bit into the skin across his chest. The airbags in the front burst out, filling the air with a white powder. Evan choked on the odd smell.

“Is everyone okay back there?” Officer Sanchez screamed after the car settled to a stop. “That girl came out of nowhere. Did you hit her?”

“I don’t think so,” Officer Gilbert said.

“I’ll go check it out,” Officer Sanchez said. “Probably some drunk chick. We may have to radio for someone to pick her up if she’s disorderly.”

“No, don’t get out,” Evan said. He didn’t know what she would do to them, but he didn’t want to find out. It couldn’t be good. “It’s her. It’s Dariah. She’ll kill you.”

“What? That slip of a girl?” Officer Sanchez snorted as he unbuckled the seatbelt and shouldered the car door open. He brushed the burst airbag out of the way as he stood up. “Don’t worry. You’ve been through a lot and your imagination is getting the better of you. She doesn’t have a gun, so I’ll be okay.”

“No, Officers,” his mom said, leaning forward. “He’s right. She’s dangerous. She was at our house earlier. I think she was chasing Evan.”

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Officer Sanchez said. “We know how to take care of ourselves.”

The young officer shut the car door and walked slowly towards Dariah, his hand on his firearm.

Officer Gilbert was already on the walkie-talkie to dispatch. He seemed to be alerting someone that the officers had been involved in a wreck. Evan could hear the nervousness creep into his voice as the older officer watched his partner approach Dariah outside the car. Even Officer Gilbert recognized the menace in her posture as the younger man approached her.

Outside the car, Evan could feel Officer Sanchez steeling himself for the encounter. Dariah raised her hand and Evan felt her pull at the officer, like he’d felt her do before, in the hospital. She pulled and Evan felt the fear rise and tumble from the officer as he stopped in his tracks, his hand still on his gun at his hip. He was paralyzed.

Evan could tell Officer Gilbert was about to call for backup when the walkie-talkie went dead. The entire car went dead. The headlights turned off and the lights and electronics inside the car went dark. Waves of fear rolled from the police officer as he sat behind the wheel, the useless walkie-talkie still in his hand.

He and his partner were all alone. Their equipment wouldn’t help them. Something was out there, something he couldn’t see.

“What the hell is going on?” Officer Gilbert yelled as he slammed his fist against the dashboard, trying to fight the fear he felt mounting.

Evan could feel it all. He moaned and held his head as the buzz became deafening. Both front doors were wrenched off their hinges, accompanied by a loud metallic screech. Officer Gilbert yelled, and Evan closed his eyes and could feel the large, clawed hand wrap around his waist, ripping him out of the car. Not his waist, the officer’s waist. Evan opened his eyes as the blinding pain seared through his body and the world swam in front of him.

Officer Gilbert’s body dropped, crumpled and broken, wetly onto the hood of the car. The cruiser shook from the impact. Waves of nausea poured over Evan. Dariah smiled at him through the windshield as she turned her attention back to the young Hispanic policeman, still standing in front of the police cruiser. Evan could feel the panic rising in the man.

“Fuck, fuck! What’s happening?” his father yelled as he tried to open his door. It wouldn’t budge. “Why is he just standing there? Run, godammit!”

“He can’t run,” Evan said quietly as he reached for the officer with his mind. “That’s the whole point. He couldn’t do anything. He could only watch as his partner was killed. Now he gets to wait for his turn. Helpless. Frozen.”

“Fuck!” his father yelled. With renewed passion, he fought the car door, slamming his shoulder into it, screaming at the officer. Much to Evan’s relief, there was no terror in his father. Just anger.

The officer was another story. As Dariah walked slowly towards him, Evan could feel the terror escalating. Except in the officer’s eyes it wasn’t Dariah, it was something else approaching him. Images flashed at Evan, making him dizzy.

A monster, reptilian, tongue flicking between dripping, razor-sharp teeth. Yellow slitted eyes and arms that nearly reached the floor with its nasty clawed hands dragging across the cement. He couldn’t move. Every muscle in his body screamed, but it was useless. He couldn’t even yell as the creature slowly lifted one talon and brought it raking across his stomach. He looked down and saw his intestines tumble to the ground. They looked so funny on his shoes.

Evan opened his eyes again as he saw Officer Sanchez drop to his knees, gripping at his stomach. Dariah stood over his corpse, smiling with satisfaction. His father yelled obscenities as he leaned back and kicked against the plexiglass separating them from the front seat.

“Tom, these seats were meant for criminals,” his mom said in a hushed voice. Evan felt the waves of fear rolling from her. He could feel her fear, fear of losing his dad, fear of losing her son. She held onto Evan tightly and he let her. “We’re not getting out unless someone lets us out. I’m not sure I want to get out of this car right now.”

“So we’re just supposed to sit here and wait?”

“I don’t know. Just please don’t go out there.”

The door locks suddenly popped up and the doors opened softly.

“Get out,” a lighthearted female voice commanded. Her tone was soft and playful, but Evan could tell there was no room for argument.

“Please don’t hurt us,” his mother said, clutching Evan’s hand tight in her own.

“I can’t make any promises,” Dariah said with a laugh. “Now get out before I get angry. As all the bad men say in movies, you don’t want to see me angry.”

“It’ll be easier if we do as she says,” Evan said. He unbuckled his seatbelt and nudged his father out of the car. His dad still didn’t look frightened or scared. He looked furious. He finally had a face to all this mess, and he was angry.

“Evan, stay here,” he commanded as he shut the door in Evan’s face. “What do you want from us? Leave us alone, or I swear—”

“No, Dad!” Evan shouted, as he somehow pushed the car door open and lunged out of the vehicle towards his father.

Dariah waved her hand, and Evan felt a surge of power from her to his dad. He could feel his father suffocating as his father grabbed at something on his throat. His dad’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and Evan watched as his body hit the pavement.

“No!” he shouted. He looked back at his mom and saw she, too, was slumped in the back seat of the cruiser car. He wasn’t sure if she was passed out or dead.

“Don’t worry,” Dariah said. “Your precious parents are still alive. Everyone’s a little afraid of suffocating, and having them out of the picture for a moment is just more convenient for me. You understand.”

Evan looked at where his father lay crumpled and tried to figure out what he should be doing. He thought he should run, but he couldn’t just leave his parents with Dariah. He knew what she would do to them.

“What do you want?”

“What do I want?” Dariah laughed as she rounded the cop car and approached him slowly. She circled him and looked him up and down as she did so.

“Please just leave us alone,” he begged her. He felt the tremble in his voice and bit his lip.

“Oh, poor dear, you must know I can’t do that,” Dariah said. “Although I’ll admit you’re even younger than I expected.”

“What happened to you? What did the monster do to you?”

“It gave me a gift, silly boy,” Dariah said as she laughed. “Much like the gift it gave you. But you don’t seem to appreciate the gift.”

“It’s not a gift,” Evan spat at her. “It’s a curse. I see people die and I can’t do anything to stop it.”

“Have you tried? I mean, really?” Dariah said with amusement.

“Yes,” Evan said. He thought he had. Hadn’t he? “I just don’t know how.”

“Well, you tried with me, and I think it may have saved my life,” Dariah said. He watched as a thoughtful look passed over her face. She bit her lip and blew the strands of hair that had fallen out of place away. “And for that favor, I promise I won’t kill your parents.”

“What do you want with me? Tell the monster I don’t have the artifact. I don’t know why you think I have it.”

“Oh, silly boy!” Dariah laughed again. Evan felt his cheeks flush. He didn’t like it when people laughed at him. “Surely you know. Even your parents know, deep down. You are the artifact. I knew that it was you that the monster was looking for, some human child caught in the middle of two worlds. Kind of poetic, isn’t it? A little boy is the key to everything. And lo! Here you are, all this power and not a friggin’ clue as what to do with it.”

“I don’t have any power,” Evan cried. “I just see things. I can’t control any of it. I can just sense where the monster is, and see what it’s doing.”

“Oh, honey, you can do so much more than that,” she said with what sounded like empathy. “You really are so young.”

“Is it coming?” Evan asked, looking around. He didn’t see any shadow men lingering in the darkness. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Not yet,” Dariah said. “And to be honest, I have no intention of calling him. Or ‘it,’ as you said.”

“Really?” Evan felt hopeful.

“Really,” Dariah said as she settled onto the hood of the police cruiser, next to the mangled corpse of Officer Gilbert. The officer’s body didn’t seem to bother her at all. It didn’t make sense. “But don’t get your hopes up.”

“Now that I’m here, you’re just too tasty to share. All that emotion—it’s so raw, so strong. Combined with the sheer power. . . It may help keep the hunger at bay for good.”

“You want to kill me,” Evan said slowly. “But you were so nice. I remember when I dreamed about you. You wanted to help people.”

“That was a different me,” Dariah said.

“You killed those policemen,” he said. “They didn’t do anything. They were good men.”

“Everyone has done something bad,” Dariah said nonchalantly, as she peered down at the dead officer beside her, stroking a piece of bloody hair from his face. “Even them. Did you know Officer Gilbert killed someone?”

Evan felt the truth in her words just as he saw the reality in his mind. Dariah was sharing the officer’s memory with him.

“That was different,” he spat at her. “It was in the line of duty.”

“Is it really?”

“That was self-defense. What you do is worse. You are a monster.”

“Sticks and stones, Evan, dear. Sticks and stones. I’m doing the world a favor. Who knows how you would have grown up, once you truly grew into your power. Once Ikelos found you.”

“Ikelos?”

“Well, that’s one of its names,” Dariah said. “I went to private school, so I got to read all the classics. So I called him Ikelos. I think it made him happy, to call him by an old name.”

“I don’t know what an Ikelos is,” Evan said. He looked around the quiet street. He had no idea why no one had come yet. The cop had radioed in the accident. Then all the screaming, the crunching metal—surely someone had called the police.

“No one is coming to save you, li’l guy,” Dariah said. “The stronger I become, the wider my reach. Everyone is terrified of being the one to call the cops, for fear of retaliation.”

“I still don’t know what an Ikelos is,” Evan said, changing the topic as he sat on the ground next his dad and took his bigger hand in his own. It was still warm. He could feel the life in his father’s body. She hadn’t been lying. They were still alive.

“Of course you don’t,” Dariah snorted, with a little more sympathy this time. “You’re just a kid. You don’t really know anything yet. So I guess the least I could do is share that bit with you.”

She paused as she leaned back on the cop car and looked up at the heavens above. If it hadn’t been for the damaged car and the bodies at her feet, she would have looked like a teenager caught in the act of stargazing.

“According to Greek mythology, Ikelos is the god of nightmares. He was more commonly known by the name Phobetur.”

“So that’s what the monster is? The god of nightmares?”

“Sort of,” Dariah said. “I get the impression that it’s older than that name—heck, older than the convention of naming. When it killed me, I had that name on the tip of my tongue. I just couldn’t quite place it, but as I died, I think it must have heard me think its name and it was happy. Not many people call it by any name any more.”

“So, if you know its name, then we can figure out how to kill it, right?” Evan said hopefully. “Then you can go back to being normal. You don’t have to kill me.”

“You really don’t get it,” Dariah said. “You’re smarter than most five-year-olds. Heck, you’re smarter than a lot of folks. This creature is older than the Greeks. The Greeks just had a name and it fit him. It, I should say. It was amused that I used an old name for it. On some level, as I died, I recognized it for what it was. A shaper of fear.”

Evan’s head was spinning. His dad would know all about this kind of stuff. He was always talking about the Greeks. The Greeks this, the Greeks that. He wished his dad were awake. Maybe this would make sense to him. Dariah continued to talk as she dawdled on the car, adjusting Officer Gilbert’s body, this way and that, until he looked like he was in a gentle repose. Evan felt sick all over again. Looking back, his dad and mom showed no signs of waking up.

“You know, I think that was really why it spared me,” she mused out loud. Now she was stretched across the windshield of the police cruiser again, talking to the sky more than anything. She didn’t seem to be concerned with Evan at the moment. “I recognized it. Somehow, a long time ago, it got banished to a world of nightmares, and now it’s back.”

“I still don’t see what any of this has to do with me. You can leave me alone and just kill it.”

“See, you just don’t understand, so I’ll say this in plain English. I don’t want to kill Ikelos. I like my life now. I’m stronger, tougher, more powerful than I ever could have imagined.”

“I don’t believe it,” Evan said. “You were good before. You were nice to me. There must be some part of you that doesn’t like what you’ve become.”

“You’re wrong, and you’re boring me now, little boy,” Dariah said as she hopped off the cruiser. “I can see everything with new eyes. I see what people think. All those little fears that people keep tight in their chests. The only reason anyone is nice anymore is because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the law, of being alone, what people will think, their reputation. Oh, what would people think if they knew what I had done? See, what sets me apart is that I am not afraid. Not anymore. I looked into Fear’s eyes, died, and Fear brought me back. It has no power over me anymore.”

“I’m just a kid,” Evan said. What on earth could she want with him? He didn’t have anything. He could see things, but that didn’t mean he was really special. “Why don’t you and this monster just leave me alone?”

“You clearly haven’t listened to a word I’ve been saying,” Dariah said with a sigh of exasperation. “It’s not a monster. It’s so much more than a monster. A monster hides in the dark. Eats people who wander into the forbidden part of the forest. Ikelos is woven into the very fabric of existence. You can’t kill it. You can’t get rid of it. It will always be there, tugging at the edges of all that is real.”

“I don’t care what it’s called! I won’t call it a monster anymore, okay? Just leave me and my family alone!”

For the first time, Dariah actually looked at him. Not in the way she had measured him up when he first fell out of the cruiser. She actually looked at him.

“I’m sorry, kiddo. I can’t do that,” she said, and she actually sounded a little sorry. It made him feel like he had a chance. “You’re the artifact, whether you believe it or not. You have power, although you’re too young or too stupid to figure out how to use it. I want the power. I’m going to take it from you. Then I’ll have the power to step between worlds. I’ll be able to do whatever I want. Maybe I’ll beat Ikelos to the punch. He wants to use you to strip down the walls between the waking world and the world of nightmares.”

“You wouldn’t,” Evan said. His own horror was mounting. Was he really this artifact? Everything his dad had said made him think artifacts weren’t living things. It was something left over from a different age.

“Why not?”

“Everybody would die.” He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but somewhere deep inside of him, he knew this would be true. “So many people.”

“I honestly don’t give a fuck. This world is full of shit. The people in it are all shit.”

“But I saw you with the book salesman—you didn’t want to kill him,” Evan said slowly. “I think you’re pretending to be meaner than you actually are.”

“Huh, you saw that?” She seemed to think a moment. He thought he felt her struggling with that memory, but she lifted her face and gave him a bitter smile. “Did you see me kill the homeless men?”

“They tried to kill you. That . . . that wasn’t your fault.”

“What about the men after that? Or on the way here? Or those cops? I didn’t need to kill the cops. They were just easy and fun. I didn’t want you to get away, though, so their deaths had to be quick.”

“You didn’t want to make them suffer,” Evan said, grasping at straws. “There is something left of the old Dariah in you. I know it.”

“Kid, you’re really starting to piss me off. There is no old Dariah. She died out in the woods. And I finally buried her. I don’t suppose you saw that I caught up to my dear old mom today, did you? Too busy, huh? Yes, she had some private investigator follow me. Can you at least sense that? Can you see through my eyes and see what I’ve done?”

Evan reached out with his head again, feeling that horrible hunger still, that buzz that made it hard for him to really think. That’s when he saw her. Janene Coulton in what had been a pristine white business suit, crumpled at Dariah’s feet. Her body absolutely still. Images flashed before his eyes of young homeless men grabbing her clothes and doing horrible things to her. Rape. That was the word. They were raping her to death. Evan felt sick all over again.

“Aw,” Dariah said with mock sympathy. “I can see that you saw. Yes, I buried the last remnants of Dariah Coulton when I did that to her. It started when I killed that innocent woman, that homeless woman, and Janene helped me bury the remaining bits of me.”

“You killed your mom?” Evan felt the pit fall out from his stomach. He had seen her mom. She was horrible. But she was her mom, and she had loved her daughter. That was why she had hired someone to find her. He knew then that Dariah was truly lost. “She was your mom.”

“She was a wretched human being and made this world worse for being in it. Ikelos has been a better parent to me than she ever was. At least he doesn’t manage my every moment. He guides me now and then, but leaves me to my own devices.”

Dariah was edging closer and closer to where he sat next to his father. Evan swallowed hard and stood up. She said he had some kind of power. Maybe he could do more than watch. Maybe he could use the power like she did. Although that thought made him sick. To be like her.

“Please don’t,” Evan begged. She was so close and he still had no idea what to do. The superheroes he used to believe in always managed to come up with something when the bad guy was getting closer, but he had no idea. Dariah was so much bigger. And stronger. And she had that weird magic. She could throw people around now. He didn’t know how she did that. “Please.”

“Sorry, kid,” she said. She actually did sound sorry. “But it’s either me or Ikelos. And personally, I’d rather have that power than leave it for him.”

She raised her hands, just like he had seen her do in so many of his visions – like he’d seen her do with the police officers moments before. He felt her hunger, that overwhelming ache, flow from her and begin reaching for him. She wanted to consume him. Colors like he had never seen flowed from her fingertips, tendrils spinning slow-fast and arcing in the air as they approached him, as if they would envelope him. The colors were so much brighter in person. He had never really thought about how much clearer everything would be if he saw it through his own eyes.

Evan scrambled backwards on the ground, trying to get away from the grasping tendrils of color. They reached for him, hungrily following his every movement. He had no idea what terror they would bring up from him if he let them touch him. His back hit something solid. He could not move to either side without going directly into Dariah’s grasp. He was trapped. He pulled his feet underneath his body and wrapped his arms tight around his legs, tucking his head down as he prepared for his own end.

He closed his eyes tight and tried to shut out what was about to happen. He didn’t want to see it. At least she would make it quick. She wouldn’t torture him like she had done the murderers. Not a little boy.

Silence stretched out. Nothing seemed to be happening. Maybe he was already dead.

Is this what death feels like? Nothing?

But his knee felt sore from where he fell. His head thrummed and his ears felt like popping.

“What the fuck?” he heard Dariah say. “You should be dead.”

Evan cracked his eyes open and peered through his knees. Dariah stood in the exact same position she had a few moments before. Where there used to be tendrils of brightly twirling colors, there was now a wall of darkness between Dariah and him. The light was not touching him. It could not touch him, from the looks of it. It was so close—he could almost reach out and touch it where it stopped inches from his nose.

Up close, even through the wall of black, Evan could see that there was a darkness hidden in those bright colors. He recognized it then—he had seen it before, in that first vision with Dariah. When that creature, Ikelos, had pulled itself from the pavement and that wet light had dripped from its appendages. It was the light pulled from the air. It was all the little hopes and dreams that fed desire, the dreams that were lost when despair pushed out the light, when everything felt lost.

Evan saw the glimpses of so many things in that growing ball of light. He thought he had seen all of Dariah’s kills, but now he knew he had only seen a fraction. Every single death had fueled her strength. But each death had also fueled the hunger. That hunger he had felt, that dizzying, nauseating hunger that was all her doing.

“You can’t kill me,” Evan said sadly as he looked at her through the brightly spinning globe. It pulsed as she attempted to expand its size to consume him.

“Yes, I can,” Dariah said. “And once I do, I’ll be rid of this fucking hunger. I’m so tired of being so fucking hungry!”

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, as he began to understand what was happening and what had happened to her. “You’re hungry because you can’t get the right food to eat. Nothing is quite right, is it?”

“Shut up and die, little boy,” Dariah said. “Once I kill you, I won’t have to kill again. I won’t be so hungry.”

“You’re wrong and I’m sorry,” Evan said. He felt a great sadness. He knew what he had to do. “You’ll feel better soon.”

He reached his hand through the shadow wall and into the globe of swirling colors. He felt a tremor of recognition that rippled from him, through globe, and down the line of light, all the way to Dariah. It brought Dariah to her knees screaming. The feeling of power he had felt secondhand through her in his visions coursed over and through him. He took a deep breath and took a step through the wall of shadows and into the light, letting it bathe over him. It did not consume him like Dariah thought it would. He consumed it. He soaked all the light inside of himself. He felt every single death rip its way inside his head and he fought the urge to fall down screaming, crying, at the terrors that coursed through his mind. She had choked, burned, broken, and sliced her way through so many lives, leaving their souls shattered. Their fear tied them to this plane until she consumed it. And when she consumed their fears, she consumed their very essence.

She had become more than someone who fed on fear. She had become a soul-eater.

Evan felt hot tears burning their way down his cheeks. Even the most evil of men didn’t deserve that. Dariah’s screams brought him out of his head. He had to finish this. He opened his arms and took a step toward her. Then another and another, until he had spanned half the distance between them. The last of it came rushing at him. She had been so busy. Hot tears ran down his face as he felt the deaths of so many of her victims. He had been too focused on what was happening with Elaine, he hadn’t seen what she had been doing.

“I can’t let you hurt anyone anymore,” Evan said. He let his head fall back as he opened his mind entirely and let all the rest of it in. He soaked in every death, every fear, and every look of wild-eyed terror. He opened himself to every single drop. When he opened his eyes again, the world spun. It took a moment, but slowly, his vision adjusted.

Dariah lay moaning on the ground, her jeans torn and shirt ripped and muddied. Her blond hair looked white and hung flat against her face. She looked haggard. Her flesh hung from her face, as if she had ripped her cheeks with her fingernails. Blood drenched through her clothing. He had won.

She was dying all over again.

She was growing thinner right before his eyes. The blood that had gushed from open wounds slowed to a trickle, her skin seemed to shrivel, as her entire body twitched. She kept gasping for air.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, horrified. He had done this to her. He knew it would kill her. But he still did it. He had to. He knelt next to her and slowly reached for her hand. One eyelid flicked open and Dariah attempted to recoil. She was afraid of him now. His touch. “Shhhhh. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. It’ll all be over soon.”

Leather. That’s what her hand felt like when he finally wrapped his fingers around hers. Harder than he had expected. It was withered, like a mummy’s should have been. He felt her residual strength wane as she tried to fight him off. All she was doing was hastening her own end. He reached out with his mind and felt those last strands of energy and beckoned them softly to him. He coaxed it softly, speaking comforting words with his mind. He felt her fear fade away as she finally gave in to him.

Dariah’s breath rattled in her chest and she was silent for a moment.

Evan bit his lip as he continued to hold her hand. Both of her eyes opened briefly. They looked cloudy and yellowed somehow. He wasn’t sure if she could actually see him, but she still seemed to look in his direction.

Her cracked lips moved, forming a word, but no sound escaped her lips. He couldn’t be sure, but Evan thought he saw her lips part as they mouthed a final word. He thought it was “thanks.”

With one last exhale, she was gone.

“Ikelos didn’t spare you,” he told her corpse. “He didn’t save you. He killed you and let you live again just so you could suffer and be destroyed all over again.”

Evan held onto her hand for a moment longer. She had been a person once. She was going to grow up and help people. But somehow, the creature had twisted her, warped her into something horrible. A monstrous version of herself.

He stood up and walked back towards the police cruiser. He sat down next to his dad, leaning back against the cruiser as he held his dad’s hand and waited for his parents to wake up.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

From where the creature lay in wait, it felt a rush of power followed quickly by a vast nothingness. It recognized the signature mark on that power. It knew what that nothingness meant. The girl had died. Anger surged inside of it, but only for a moment.

She had served her purpose. It did not mourn her loss. She had led it directly to the artifact. She had died by her own folly. Humans never could handle the little glimpses of power it granted them. But it was fun to watch them try. To watch them self-destruct. The process was always entertaining.

The girl’s essence was still strong, but fading. If it moved fast, it could find her. And the artifact. She had attempted to claim the artifact for her own, and the artifact had killed her. It supposed it had allowed her to think she could claim the artifact’s power for her own. Such a belief had suited its purposes. She may not have been so quick to find the artifact if she had known the truth.

After all these years, it would finally be rejoined with this waking world. It would be whole again forever and ever.

For the first time in many millennia, the creature felt joy.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

It seemed to take forever for his mom and dad to wake up. With so many thoughts and memories floating around in his head, it was difficult to think. He wanted to tell everyone to shut up, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Everything he was hearing was inside his head. Echoes of thoughts and conversations that had long since faded away.

Everyone was dead, after all. They weren’t living conversations or people talking to him.

He didn’t have time for that right now, though. There were two dead police men and Dariah’s withered, brutalized corpse. The sound of sirens grew louder and louder, almost drowning out the sound of the voices in his head. He needed to think. What was he going to tell his parents? The police? No one could actually help him. His parents couldn’t do anything against the likes of Ikelos.

That was one positive thing about his encounter with Dariah. He finally had a name for the monster. Ikelos had a nice ring to it. Ik-eh-lus. Perhaps that fondness for the word was just the little memories of Dariah floating around in his head. He couldn’t quite be sure.

Evan’s mom was the first to move. She twitched and groaned as she dragged her head away from the window of the police car. He noticed a smear of her blood against the window and tried not to feel angry at Dariah. She was dead anyway.

“My God,” his mom said as she came to. “What happened?”

“You passed out,” Evan said as he scooted closer to her. He could smell her blood. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” his mom said. She suddenly became alert. “Oh my God, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” he assured her.

“What about your father? Where’s your father?” she asked as she sat upright.

“He’s over there,” Evan said. “He hasn’t woken up yet.”

“Oh, God,” his mother said as she tried the door again. “Thomas!”

“It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “You have to go out through my door. That one is locked from the outside.”

He scooted out backwards and watched as she checked on his dad. She hovered over him and checked his pulse. Then she raised his dad’s eyelids. Whatever she saw seemed to bring her relief. She sat back on her knees and sighed.

“He should be okay,” she said. “But I bet he has a concussion. It looks like he took a pretty hard hit on the head.”

His mom looked around the street and seemed to take in everything.

“She killed the police.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“To get at me.”

With a grunt and long moan, his dad finally began to stir.

“Shhh, Thomas, gentle,” his mom said as she gripped his dad’s arm and brought his head up slowly from the pavement.

“What are we going to tell the police?” she asked. The sirens were closer and closer.

“We can’t tell them about the monster,” Evan said. He knew that would bring more trouble than it was worth. No one would believe them. And when Ikelos came, he would be surrounded by people. People Ikelos would have no qualms killing. Just for the heck of it.

“That’s goes without saying,” his dad moaned. “We should get out of here.”

“No,” Evan said, a bit louder than he had intended. “They know we were with these cops. It would look bad.”

“He’s right,” his mother said as she cradled his father’s head. Evan looked at the two of them and felt so alone suddenly. They were a unit. They understood each other. He was something else entirely. He wasn’t just their son anymore. He was so many other things. But he wasn’t a little boy anymore. He was the artifact. Whatever that meant. He had some kind of power, something like what Dariah had. He needed to learn how to use it, and fast. The creature was close. He needed to learn how to use the power inside of him to defend himself and save his family.

“So what are we going to say?” his mom said as she reached towards him and pulled him close. His dad grasped his hand and he suddenly felt whole again. “We can’t say that some supernatural bitch—I mean, woman, tried to kill us and ran away, can we?”

“She didn’t run away,” Evan said quietly. They hadn’t seen her. She was very small and her leathery skin almost blended into the grey pavement.

“Where’d she go?” his father said as he slowly sat up, with his mother’s assistance. Evan pointed over to where Dariah’s body lay.

“She’s dead.”

“God, she killed herself in front of you?” his mother asked. She could hear the horror in her voice. “What kind of a monster was she? To do that in front of a child.”

“No, Mom. I did it. I killed her.”

His mom looked at him, startled.

“How? She had so much, I don’t know, magic?”

“She tried to kill me, but her powers didn’t work on me,” he said. “And I had to stop her. I didn’t have a choice.”

Evan started crying again. This time, he couldn’t stop.

“Evan,” his father finally interrupted. “This wasn’t your fault. Not any of it. Whatever you did, you’re right. You didn’t have a choice. She didn’t give you one. Hell, I don’t know how she did it, but she wrenched the doors off the car and killed two cops.”

His mom was silent. Her eyes were locked on Dariah’s corpse. He could tell what she was thinking. How had he done that? How had her little boy done that? He sniffled and tried not to start crying all over again. He wished he could go back to the days when he didn’t know about any of this. When he had been carefree, playing Transformers and Superman. But no matter how hard he wished or how many times he wished, the wishing wasn’t doing him any good. He just couldn’t make himself stop.

Evan had never realized how hard it was to be the good guy. Dariah couldn’t manage it. She had been a grown-up and had all that power, and at first she’d tried to do good with it, but instead, she turned into a something evil. He was just a little kid. What chance did he stand?

Not much. The creature would kill him. Just like Dariah had wanted to, except, unlike Dariah, Evan was pretty sure the creature would succeed.

“We should tell the police it was a man on drugs,” Evan said. “The cops caught him in the act of dumping that body. He was high and strong, that’s why he did so much damage.”

The voices clamored in his head, and Evan shut his eyes.

“PCP. He was high on PCP.”

His father and mother just looked at him. Their expressions were indecipherable, but he knew what they were thinking. His dad’s thoughts were grim. Acceptance. His mom—from his mom, he just felt waves of sadness.

After a moment, they both nodded. They were letting him call the shots. They knew he was right. But the whole thing just felt wrong.

“PCP,” his mother said. “A man on PCP could do this kind of damage. Maybe.”

“You guys didn’t see anything,” Evan said. “The car crashing into the tree knocked you out.”

“Okay,” they both said simultaneously. Evan repeated the story to the cops. He knew they believed him. They went on their radios and reported the description he gave them. He knew they would never find the man. Dariah had killed him just yesterday. He had tried to knife her in an alley. He thought Dariah may even have had his knife in her purse. It may have had his fingerprints on it. The voices in his head assured him that fingerprints were a good thing.

The officers had an ambulance come and they were taken to a hospital so his parents could get checked out. They asked him questions and told him nice things. They said he was brave, that he did a good job describing the drugged-out man. It made him feel terrible. He was lying to them. Those other cops were dead because Dariah had come after him. They would still be alive if he hadn’t been in their car. Their children would still have parents, their wives would have their husbands.

The officers were angry, but not at him. Someone had killed their brothers. They did not like that. He did his best to sound convincing. He cried more. He talked in short sentences using small words, like he used to, before all of this. He mispronounced a few words.

Once his parents were given the go ahead, the police took them home. Evan felt lucky. The officers must have already found Dariah’s mother, because they took a circuitous route that avoided the area two blocks from his home where Janene had been killed.

The car ride was awkward. His parents were tired and scared. The police were quiet and seemed to sense the mood was low. He could feel waves of pity rolling from both of them. They felt sorry for him, for what he had seen. Still, they were nice and gave his parents their cards and told them that if they remembered anything else, then they were gone.

The walk up to the entryway seemed long. His mom fumbled for her keys and then they were inside.

“Okay, Evan,” his mom said, once she had closed the door firmly behind them. “Go ahead and sit down. I’m going to get us all some lemonade. Then you are going to tell us what really happened.”

Evan did as he was told. His mom’s tone of voice was very firm. He felt comforted by the familiarity. She was taking her role back, and things might have a chance of returning to normal.

Evan ran to the couch and threw himself into its soft brown microfiber cushions. He felt safer. Something about the softness and comfort of the cushions made him feel less afraid. His dad sat next to him on the couch and just looked at him like he was trying to figure out what he could say.

“It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “I’m not a monster.”

“I’m sorry, Evan,” his dad said as he quickly looked away from his son. “Of course you’re not. My mind is just elsewhere. This has been a crazy day.”

They sat in silence until his mom came back into the room, carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and three empty glasses.

“Okay, Evan,” she said as she poured each of them a glass and took a seat in the recliner next to him. “Tell us.”

Evan struggled for a moment. How could he start telling him everything he had learned from Dariah? What had he truly learned?

“Dariah came for me,” he said finally. “She said she wanted to get me before the monster could.”

Evan paused and took a deep breath. Then the words poured out.

“She said it wasn’t a monster but some god-like creature. It used to live in this plane, the waking world, but somehow it got banished. She kept calling it Ikelos, but said that was just one of its many names. I think humans gave it that name. She also said it was older than the Greeks.”

“Ikelos? That’s just a myth,” his dad said, shaking his head in disbelief. “God of nightmares? Impossible.”

“Well, we seem to be living the impossible,” his mom said quickly. “Evan, why on earth would she want to kill you? What could you have to do with all of this?”

“She said I was the artifact. She said that if she killed me, she would have all my power, and she wouldn’t have to kill anyone else anymore. She wouldn’t be hungry.”

“You’re the artifact that this creature is looking for?” Jenna asked.

“None of this makes sense,” his dad said, shaking his head. “Monsters, Greek gods, other planes? This is madness.”

“Well, it’s true,” Evan said. He tried not to be hurt by his father’s disbelief, but it still stung. His dad had been having trouble with all of this from day one. “I’m not making it up.”

“We know you’re not,” his mom said. He saw the angry look she shot his father. “We’ve seen too much of this strangeness to believe otherwise.”

Evan had hoped that telling his parents would bring some sense of peace. But it didn’t. Instead, he sensed the creature getting closer and closer. His own panic was rising. He had no idea what to do, how to fight it. Should he even bother? It was a god. Or god-like, at the very least. And he was a five-year-old, who had some unknown power and the memories of myriad other people now. He felt smarter, but tired.

“It’s going to be here soon,” he told them. He didn’t even try to hide the tiredness from his voice.

“What can we do?” his mother asked. His parents both looked at him expectantly.

“I have no idea. How do we kill a god, Dad?”

“Those are all myths, Evan,” his dad said. “In most Greek myths, the gods are immortal. They can be wounded, but not killed.”

“So there’s nothing about killing Ikelos?”

“Ikelos is barely mentioned. According to myth, he’s one of the Oneroei. Brother to Morpheus and son of Somnus.”

“None of that will help me,” Evan said sadly. “He’s older than all of that anyway.”

“My guess is that he was banished because he couldn’t be killed,” his dad offered.

“Still not helping,” he said again.

“I know. I’m sorry. Do we know how it was banished in the first place?”

“No,” Evan said as he dropped his head into his chest. He tried to imagine what on earth could have banished it. What could have forced it into another realm? He didn’t have a clue.

“What on earth are we going to do?” his mom asked. “Maybe we should pack our bags and run?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Evan said as he felt the voices in his head quell in fear. Doom approached. “It will find me wherever we go.”

“We can try to run,” his dad said. “It really can’t hurt.”

“We can’t run,” Evan said as he looked at his dad sadly. A chill entered the room as everything grew dark. “It’s already here.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Evan stared numbly at the growing pool of black collecting in the center of the living room. Somehow, swirling shades of black misted through this darkness. Evan thought he could see shapes of nightmarish beings in the gathering dark, but he wasn’t sure if that was just his eyes playing tricks on him. By comparison, all the light in the room seemed to grow brighter.

The hairs on his arm stood on end. Evan could taste the electricity rising in the room. His stomach sank and simultaneously twisted in knots. He had failed everyone. The creature was here. They were out of time.

He knew he could do nothing to stop it from killing him. Whatever he had done with Dariah wouldn’t work against Ikelos. With her, he had used some kind of power, but it had been reflexive, something innate. He didn’t know how to mimic or recreate what he had done, not against a creature as ancient and as powerful as Ikelos. All he could do now was wait.

The darkness continued to grow outwards and upwards until slowly the shape of a man began to emerge. Evan finally stirred from his numbness. He couldn’t just stand by and watch this creature destroy everything. He felt his resolve strengthen. If he was going to die anyway, he would do everything he could to stop it. Maybe he would succeed. Maybe he wouldn’t. The only thing he knew was that he had to try.

Evan opened up his mind and reached out for the creature, like he had done with Dariah. He felt it immediately. It was unlike any of his other experiences with Dariah. A coldness entered his being. His chest grew tight and his breath almost caught in his lungs. Terror gripped him as a feeling of despair and loss came crashing down.

You are doing that wrong, a familiar voice boomed in his head, sending Evan to his knees. He gripped the carpet on the floor tightly as he fought the urge to pass out. When the dizziness left him and his eyes regained focus, he saw his parents sitting with their hands over their ears. They had heard the voice too, apparently.

I am not that weak little girl, it said with what Evan could only guess was amusement. The voices in his head were suddenly silent. She did not understand the gift I had given her. Nor do you understand the gift you have been given. You reach for me with an open mind, like a vessel waiting to be filled, yet you recoil when you feel my presence.

Evan felt the coldness leave his limbs as he was suddenly able to breathe again. He leaned against the couch gasping for breath. When he looked up again, the creature was standing in the middle of the room. Ikelos. He had expected to see the creature from his first dream, the creature that had chased Dariah to her death. Monstrous, dark, and dripping light, a misshapen creature from his worst nightmares. A monster worse than any he had ever imagined until that day. If not that, he expected that oozing black being that could shape and mold itself into creatures like liquid.

Instead, a man in his twenties stood before him. He had wavy auburn hair and green speckled eyes, and a mischievous slanted grin that was oddly reminiscent of Evan’s mother. It took a moment for Evan to recognize him.

“You’re . . . me.”

Evan was looking at an older version of himself. Except, his eyes—they kept changing. The creature’s pupils kept expanding until its eyes were filled entirely with blackness, before they suddenly returned to green. And his shadow, his shadow kept pulsing so that it looked like the room behind him would be engulfed in darkness at any moment.

“Stop it,” Evan said to this older image. “Stop making yourself look like me.”

I have not done anything of the sort, little one, the voice boomed, this time softer, in his head. Evan winced as his head throbbed from the sound. At least this time he did not feel like dropping to his knees. This is my image. This has always been my appearance in this world. Sometimes with lighter skin, sometimes darker. But this is me. The other visage, the one you so fear, that is also my true visage, in the world of shades. But this is just as surely my true image in this world. It disturbs you, doesn’t it?

Evan opened his mouth to answer, but promptly shut it. He didn’t know how to respond. He didn’t want this creature to think he was afraid. He wanted to be strong. If not for himself, for his parents.

Do not worry yourself, little one, it said. Again, Evan felt as if it was laughing at him. I know that our similarity disturbs you.

“I thought you were supposed to take the form of animals in this world?” his father interrupted, prompting the creature to laugh.

You can’t believe everything you read, little man.

There was nothing funny about any of this. Evan wanted to scream at the creature. After all the hurt it caused, all the lives it had destroyed, it came here to mock him? To mock his father?

Angry now, are we? You cannot blame me for finding amusement in all this. The creature waved around the room. All that you are, and still, you settle for this, this mundane existence. Surely you’ve sensed what you are by now. Surely you sensed our connection.

Again, Evan felt himself at a loss for words. What he was? Their connection? The fact that he could see the horrors the creature inflicted on others? That he was this artifact, as Dariah had said.

“I’m just a kid!” he yelled at him. “Stop trying to confuse me. I saw what you did to all those people.”

I see, the older version of himself said. His voice was softer and softer. It seemed to grow increasingly human. You see yourself as a victim of horrible things? You do not understand.

“I understand just fine! I saw it all!” Evan said, not even trying to hide the hate and anger in his voice. “Dariah said you were some kind of god, but you’re just a monster. No god could be so horrible.”

Oh, dear me, it said, and this time it actually laughed. An eerie yet human sound. It left him with a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. You truly do not understand. I am not the one responsible for all those deaths. I was still in the world of shades.

“Your servants, then, whatever you call them, those shadow men,” Evan sputtered, trying to ignore his own confusion. He had seen those shadow men. He was sure they were servants of this monster. He had felt the connection. “They answered to you. They did your bidding”

Yes, you are right. These shadow men, as you call them, are my servants. They are extensions of me, I suppose you could say. But it was not my bidding they answered. Not directly, at least.

“You sent them here, so it’s your fault,” Evan said. Why couldn’t the creature just admit it? Why was it dancing around his accusation? It was acting like everything was a game. To Evan, it was all very serious.

The shadows do as they are told. They follow the hand that leads them, their master. This is all known, and this is all true. But I did not give them orders. That little girl? Yes, she was my doing, I suppose. I savored her death and rebirth. Even still, you share some blame in that. As your name day approached, the worlds, too, grew so close. I could almost taste her. But none of this would have happened if it had not been for you. Her rebirth? That was an entertaining game, but again, you are in part to blame. When she died, I obeyed your desire. I thought her rebirth would please you. But that is no matter. Her second death—as you well know—that is all your doing.

“I don’t understand,” Evan said. None of this made sense. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. “You’re the shadow men’s master. They must have been following your orders.”

I suppose one could say, strictly speaking, they were following my nature and my power. But not my orders. They simply followed where you guided them.

“Where I guided them?” Evan asked, stunned. “That’s impossible. I had nothing to do with any of this.”

Do you truly believe that?

“I was just trying to sleep,” Evan spat out. “You made me watch. I tried everything I could to get away from those nightmares. They are all your fault. Stop trying to confuse me.”

No. I cannot take responsibility for those things. I was not in this world. The people who have died so far, they did so in this world, this waking world. Until the transition is complete, my power remains in the world of shades. Or dreams, if you prefer. My artifact called to me, and I answered its call. It yearns for me, beckons for me. It wants us to be rejoined. Everything in this world must be the will of my artifact. Until we are unified, I am your servant, as are all my shadows.

Evan stood speechless. If what the creature said was true—no, it couldn’t be. If it was true, then all of this was his fault. He had unknowingly led the creature to all those people. In his dreams, he had somehow been searching for terror. He had witnessed so much horror, so many deaths. It was all his fault? Guilt and horror flowed through him and his stomach churned as an acidic taste filled his mouth. He choked back the urge to vomit.

“All those people . . .” he started and choked again. “No. That can’t be right. I didn’t know them. I could never do that.”

Ah, but you did, did you not? Your mind searched for them and found them, didn’t it? Whether you knew them in body, well, that is no matter to you. You are my artifact. You were fascinated with their little fears, were you not?

“I didn’t know,” Evan said, his world spinning. “I thought it wasn’t real. I thought they were all nightmares. I didn’t know how to make it stop.”

Perhaps you didn’t want to know. Perhaps you realized what you were doing, somewhere along the way, and you enjoyed it. If some part of you truly did not want to unlock the power you hold within you, each person would be alive. And I would still be waiting for my artifact to awaken.

Evan saw his mother and father, who had remained motionless until this moment, finally stir. They each seemed to look at each other and move closer to him. His mother had to skirt around the older looking Evan as she crossed the room from the recliner to where he still knelt in front of the couch.

“I won’t believe this,” his mother said firmly. “I know my son. He would never knowingly hurt anyone. You have tortured and terrified him long enough.”

Evan gripped the carpet tightly between his fingers. He could not bear the thought of the creature killing her. The older Evan’s mouth quirked into a leering half-smile, as if her outburst had been amusing.

Do not worry, Evan. I will not kill this one. She is yours, just as she is mine. Her spark is admirable. I would expect nothing less of a descendant of mine. She bears my mark, which she carried and passed on to you, my dear artifact. The one I have waited for all these years.

Evan’s gut continued to wrench. He had killed Elaine and all the others. That’s what it was saying. Evan felt the tears pouring down his face before he could think. Everything the creature said had a ring of truth to it. His parents’ friends. All those others he had never met. Crashes, fires, Dr. Jasmeet. Richard, and Ava . . . Oh God, Ava. They couldn’t find her, and it was all his fault.

Aha. And now you get to it. You finally remember the little girl. Do not worry. She, too, is safe. For now.

“I didn’t say anything,” Evan said, startled. It was a comfort to hear Ava was safe.

You do not need to speak. You and I are connected. You are an open book to me.

The monster could read his thoughts. Great. This wasn’t fair at all. How could he beat it if it could read his thoughts?

Therein lies your answer. You cannot fight your nature. You cannot hide from yourself.

“Tell me what you’ve done with Ava,” Evan shouted. “Stop playing games! If everything is as you said, then just give her back and get all this over with!”

For a split second, the creature seemed startled by his outburst. It quickly recovered and attempted to hide its surprise.

Ah, but the game is half the fun, little one. What is life without the little games for our amusement? The millennia stretch out and become unbearable without a little fun here and there. You will remember this soon.

“What you said earlier. You think I yearn for you? I don’t want anything to do with you!” Evan said. He slowly processed some of what the monster had said so far. “You say that I am your master? Until we are unified, or whatever, right? Well, if that’s the case, I order you to go back to wherever you came from!”

Ikelos threw its head back and laughed. Evan saw both his parents wince and knew the sound hurt them more than it did him. They both gripped his shoulders tightly.

How little you know. Your youth has probably made this difficult. I will admit, I had expected the artifact to be older. To be more akin to me in my full glory. But you should have grown in intellect with every passing day. This is how the artifact is known. It slowly gathers the strength I left behind in this world. It guides me into this world and waits for our unification. Yes, I am your servant. But you are also mine.

“I will never serve you!” Evan spat at the thing. The creature crossed the room and dropped itself into the recliner that had only recently been vacated by Evan’s mother. It smiled as it lifted its legs over one of the armrests and leaned back into the other armrest. It took nothing seriously, even now. It was sure of its own victory.

There you are wrong, little one. You do not have a choice. I cannot survive in this world without my human self. You cannot survive in this world without your supernatural embodiment. See? We are two parts of the same coin. We both serve each other, in a manner of speaking. We both require the other in order to live. If you reject the unification, you will die. But the artifact will be reborn. I have waited thousands of years, what’s a few more centuries? You seem ready to die to spite me. I knew this to be so. But, would you spite me and end your precious little Ava?

Evan’s heart sank. It was one thing to reject the creature, knowing he might die. But to knowingly sentence Ava to something that could be worse than death—an eternity in the world of nightmares—how could he do that?

“You monster,” his father spat. “How can you act superior while threatening a child?”

I am not bound by your rules of humanity, silly man. Its voice boomed loud again, and Evan saw his dad nearly crumple. Do not raise your voice to me again. You do not enjoy the privilege of my bloodline, no matter how attached my heirs may be to you.

“I will not stand by as you casually talk about murdering my son and my friend’s daughter,” his dad said as he started to stand.

“Dad, no,” Evan said as he put his hand on his father’s knee, trying to stop him.

And you think you have a choice in this matter?

“Of course,” his father said, as he gently brushed Evan’s hand aside. “What do we have but choices? I’m only a historian, but I cannot stand by and let you hurt anyone.”

Let? Such an interesting choice of words. Perhaps you would have been better suited using your word “allow?” “Let” can also mean to release fluids. It was quite a silly practice in human history, your doctors letting blood to release humors. Quite amusing, don’t you think? Bleeding patients while attempting to help them. In some instances the practice was useful, of course. In most instances, it killed.

The older version of Evan unfolded his legs fluidly and sat forward in the armchair, stretching his arms back lazily as if he was just getting up from a nap. Before Evan could blink, the creature was kneeling in front of his father, one hand resting gently on the back of his father’s head, the other hand completely obscured. At first glance, it looked like this older Evan was lovingly embracing his father. Until his father began to cough, a gurgling, liquid cough.

Evan jumped to his feet in time to see the creature slide its bloodied hand from his father’s chest. His mother began screaming as the creature stood up and released its grip on his father. His father’s body collapsed into his mother’s arms. He watched numbly as his mother grabbed one of the throw pillows from the couch and pressed it against the gushing wound. He watched as she cried and yelled his father’s named incoherently, over and over.

“What have you done?” Evan yelled, turning on Ikelos. The creature was reclining on the chair once more, using the blanket draped across the back of the chair to clean the blood from his hands.

What I promised I would do if he spoke to me again. Unlike so many of you humans, I am true to my word.

Evan dropped to his knees next to his father and watched the light slowly drain from his father’s once shining eyes. He felt his throat close and his eyes burned as he kissed his father’s limp hand and pressed it to his cheek. His father rasped a final liquid-filled breath, and Evan sobbed. He lay his head against his father’s bloody chest. There was no rhythmic thud, no rising and falling of his lungs expanding. He was gone. Just like that.

Sorrow gave way quickly to an anger Evan had never felt before. He stood up from his father’s body, almost blind with rage. He fought the urge to run at Ikelos, kicking and screaming. He wanted to claw its eyes out, rip out its hair and make it hurt. Make it hurt as bad as he was hurting. Clenching his jaw, he closed his eyes to ground himself. He knew it would do no good. The creature was fast. He blinked the tears away and rubbed them out of his eyes.

“Bring him back,” he ordered the creature.

You want that? The creature said, clearly surprised.

“If you do it, I’ll give you what you want,” Evan said. “I don’t care anymore.”

I am surprised, little one, it said. You were so angry about Dariah’s fate, but you would wish this on your father? He is not of our bloodline. He will crumble.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I want him back. I want to see him again.”

“No,” his mother said, her voice hoarse from grief. “I can’t let you do this. He wouldn’t have wanted this.”

“Mom, this is my fault,” Evan said. “I can’t let him die.”

“This isn’t your fault,” she said forcefully. “I keep telling you. None of this was your fault.”

He watched as she kissed her husband’s cheek and closed his eyes with her bloodied hands. She stood up and caressed the hair away from his forehead as she had done so many times before. “And I can’t let you do this. Whatever Dariah was in the end, my Thomas, he wouldn’t want that. He wouldn’t want you to watch him turn into a monster.”

“But Mom, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I want him back so much.”

“I know,” she said. He could feel her hurt, her loss, and it made him ache all the more. “He was my life, but I couldn’t let him turn into the monster Dariah was at the end. She hurt people. Thomas wouldn’t want to live like that. He would never forgive himself, and I would never forgive myself.”

Evan knew she was right, but he still didn’t care. He would never feel his father lifting him into the air. They would never play swords again. Or go to the museum and look at ancient warriors’ armor and weapons. He would never feel his dad’s arms wrapped around him. Even if Ikelos did what he asked, his dad would be gone, replaced by a thing that slowly turned the memories of his father to ash.

Ah, I thought as much, the creature said as it relaxed back into its chair. You are still too human, too weak to realize that human life is fleeting, meaningless. Humans come and go. You would have grown bored of him before long, do not worry.

Evan could hear and feel the relief in the creature’s voice. It had pushed his button intentionally, but had not realized the depth of Evan’s emotions. It hadn’t understood the bond between father and son. It had been removed from humanity for so long that it had somehow expected Evan to be more like it. Less human. Evan had assumed that his humanity had made him an open book, that the creature could read every thought and feeling he had. But that wasn’t the case. The creature could only read his strong emotions, the things he openly emoted.

He wasn’t as strong as it was, that much was true. But his humanity was an advantage here. It made him unpredictable. If there really was something inside of him that had opened this tear between the worlds and summoned all these horrors, he could find it. He could use it, and he could close that tear again.

Closing his eyes, he reached inside of himself, looking for that thing, that darkness that was supposedly at his core. Once he knew what he was looking for, he was surprised at how quickly he found it, what had been there all along. Just like Ikelos had said it was.

Yes, the creature hissed, leaning forward in anticipation. Its black eyes gleamed.

Evan had always looked outside, trying to stop the dreams from the outside. He had never thought the seed was planted inside of him. That such evil could be lingering, waiting right there. Growing. But there it was. This seed of darkness was right there, wrapped around his very core. He could feel the power throbbing with his heartbeat. That little seed, wrapped tightly underneath a barrier he had somehow created. Rather than opening his mind as he had done before, he focused on bringing that barrier down from the inside. It was difficult, more difficult than he had ever thought it might be. Sweat from the effort dripped down his face and he could taste the salt on his lips.

Yes, you see it inside of you, growing, it said again. You need not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

As he tore the barrier down, he reinforced it from the inside, letting that darkness merge into his being. He forced away the worry that he would turn into a monster and focused on the task. And then he knew.

“Everything you told me is a lie,” Evan said as he opened his eyes and looked at the creature with growing hatred and repulsion. It had wheedled its way into the world by allowing him to believe that it was the evil behind everything. Ikelos had encouraged and reinforced his belief that there was nothing he could do.

I do not tell lies, the creature said with a wave of its hand. I tell truths. There are many truths. Some truths are more true than other truths.

“You planted this seed inside of me,” Evan said. “I am just a tool to you. I’m a disk that you saved yourself onto, so you could reboot later, just the way you had left off. You made me believe you had done all those things so I wouldn’t find out the truth until it was too late.”

Yes, yes, you do see now, the creature said, waving its hand again dismissively. I have learned of these disk things, and yes, they are quite useful. But you delay. You are the one playing games.

“Fine,” Evan said. It was as he had come to suspect. Ikelos could not start the process. All the delays and games were just distractions. It was waiting for Evan to start. It had to be Evan’s choice. “We shall be joined.”

“Ah, yes,” the creature said in the most human voice it had used so far. “Finally.”

Evan closed his eyes and pictured that small seed, the little acorn of swirling shadows and darkness deep inside his being. He whispered to it, coaxed it, let that small seed grow, and let it extend outside the wall in his head. Everything else he kept inside, holding it tightly within himself. The mental exertion made him tremble and he began to sweat more profusely.

“Yes,” Ikelos hissed again. “It has been so long.”

Ikelos stood from the recliner once more, his arms and head thrown behind him as his chest was thrust forward, as if something had picked him up and was reaching inside his chest for something. The tendril of shadow grew and grew until it spanned the distance from Evan to Ikelos. The young man began to float, with his button-down white shirt open midway down his chest. As the tendril reached him, the man let out a satisfied sigh.

“Yes,” he said again, in ecstasy. “I can feel the change already.”

“Good,” Evan said angrily as he turned his gaze at the creature. Ikelos did not even open his eyes, he was so enjoying the feeling of Evan’s essence. The tendril suddenly lashed out and latched around Ikelos, drawing the creature to Evan. The creature did not seem perturbed. This was part of the process. Or it assumed it was.

Evan had hoped, but couldn’t have begun to dream, that the creature could not read his thoughts through the barrier. As he slowly dragged the creature to himself, he focused on the walls. The creature could not know. His eyes watered and his knees began to shake, but he pushed through the pain.

“Evan, what are you doing? Please stop it.” He ignored his mom. She didn’t know what she was asking. He was doing this for her and for everyone else. “Please, Evan. Don’t do this.”

“Sit down, Mom,” he said. Something in his voice had changed, and was more forceful than he had intended. Whatever it was, she sat down. He was not sure she had a choice. The creature was in bliss. Evan could feel the raw emotion pouring through him. Finally, the creature was to him. Evan was drenched in sweat, his hair plastered to his skull, and his shirt stuck wetly to his skin.

He slammed the walls inside his mind open as he reached out for the creature. Somehow, his speed matched that of the creature when it had reached for his father. He had the power. It was Evan who had brought Dariah back to life and given Dariah power, not Ikelos. He was rooted in this world, not Ikelos. He had the shades at his beck and command, not Ikelos.

Ikelos was the monster in the dark, casting a larger-than-life shadow. Evan felt the power trill through his skin as their skin touched.

“You do not know what you are doing,” it said in confusion.

“I know exactly what I am doing,” Evan said. He reached this time through the creature and through the swirling ether and into the darkest regions of his own mind. He found that fear and let it magnify and grow.

“I told you that you could not kill me,” it scoffed. There was some fear in its voice now. “No matter what power you believe you hold.”

“Yes, and I believe you. I believe that even you believe that.” He pulled the creature into a tight embrace, willing it to be joined into him. At the same time, he strengthened his resolve for what he must do next.

“I am so sorry, Mom,” he said. He could not spare her a glance. All his energy was focused on Ikelos now. He closed his eyes, pulling Ikelos to him. Ikelos screamed in joy, and Evan felt the joy ripple through him, ignoring his own pleasure at the sound. The joining was happening. It had begun.

It is too late now, a voice said in his head. You cannot kill me now.

I know, Evan said back in his mind. But you should have kept more copies.

With a smile, he cracked the seed at the center of his being open and let the darkness tumble out. Only then did it see and understand Evan’s intent. He recognized the fear that suddenly coursed from Ikelos. With his remaining strength, Evan focused his will on this final task as he felt the power course through his veins, he turned it on himself. He willed the darkness to crush the seed, to crush itself, to crush its heart.

His heart.

And the darkness always obeyed its master.

As he toppled forward onto the soft off-white carpet, his ears and head were filled with the sound of screaming.

He wasn’t quite sure if it was his mother’s screams or Ikelos as he felt the creature slowly fade from his mind. Liquid filled his mouth, as he thought he heard a familiar voice whispering comforting words in his ear. It wasn’t one of those other voices in his head. They were finally silent. This was a voice he knew. A voice that made his lips tremble into a smile. He would get to see his dad again after all. That didn’t sound so bad.

Evan closed his eyes, a smile on his lips.

He had won.

EPILOGUE

Jenna looked out the window of the car at the dewy grass and barren-looking trees. The morning was cold and wet. The sky was overcast, which suited her mood. It was the perfect kind of day for burying your son and husband, she supposed.

George opened the door for her and she numbly placed her hand in his as he helped her out of the car. She felt her lips move into a shadow of a smile as she slowly climbed out of the car. He had buried Elaine yesterday, and they had both visited Richard in the hospital. He was in an induced coma until his spine recovered fully and the doctors could better assess the extent of the damage. But the doctors were hopeful. That was one small shimmer of good news in all this sadness.

Countless people seemed to swarm around the cemetery grounds. She recognized faculty members at UCLA, some of Thomas’ friends from college and high school, Evan’s teacher and his little friend José. The people from Evan’s daycare had even shown up. It seemed like ages since she had seen or thought of so many of these people, but they still came for her son and her husband. And for her, she supposed.

Her in-laws circled the crowd and moved towards her. Grief was etched deeply across their faces. They had traveled so far to get here. They had barely had time to visit their grandson and had only seen him three or four times since he was born. Now, they would never have the chance to know him. Jenna held her head a little higher. She didn’t want them to know how empty she felt.

“Oh, Jenna, dear,” Denise, her mother-in-law, said as she rushed over and clasped Jenna’s hands. “Our poor Thomas! And Evan.”

Jenna squeezed Denise’s hand and hugged her mother-in-law.

“I am so sorry,” she said quietly. Whatever was between them, Denise had lost a son, too. She removed her hand gently from the woman’s grip, patted her on the shoulder and moved toward the crowd. Someone had set up folding chairs around the empty holes in the ground. Jenna wasn’t quite sure who had made the arrangements. People had swooped in around her and taken care of things.

The day after, the tragedy was on the news, and people from her and Thomas’s life trickled into the house. Moms from Evan’s school brought dishes and filled her fridge with food. She barely noticed them. An older woman whom she had barely noticed at Evan’s PTA meetings sat with her quietly. But she had shown up and stayed with her unobtrusively since the tragedy. She noticed when Jenna didn’t eat and heated food for her in the week after the worst day of Jenna’s life. Wordlessly, this woman spoon-fed her as she sat at the dining room table. She had not been in the living room since that day. She didn’t think she ever would be able to go into that room again.

Everyone was trying to be so helpful. She knew it. Some small part of her was grateful. But none of it really mattered anymore. She didn’t have anything to live for. They were gone. She would never feel Thomas’s touch on her cheek, his arms enfolding her, making her feel safe. She would never see her son’s twinkling smile, or be able to brush his hair out of his eyes.

She would never hear either of them laugh again. Everything had been taken away from her, and now she was left with nothing.

She didn’t know how to keep going.

George’s hand gripped her elbow just then, and before she knew it his arm was entwined with hers as he guided her to a chair closest to the empty holes in the ground.

Jenna had been expecting two holes of equal length, but then she realized that, of course, the second one didn’t need to be as tall. Her little boy didn’t need as much room. She felt her throat close and her eyes burn. She gritted her teeth and sat down. Little Ava bounced around her knees.

“I sorry you’re sad, Aunt Jenna,” she said in the sweet voice of a three-year-old. “But you’ll see them soon. No one stays gone forever.”

“Thank you, honey,” she said as she touched the little girl’s shoulder. “I hope that’s true.”

She was glad the little girl was safe. She knew how much that would have meant to Evan.

George told her that the police had found her asleep under his and Elaine’s bed sometime during the night. She claimed she had been hiding from a monster. She had heard a voice tell her to run away and hide, so she did. The police swore that they had searched the house up and down, and she had not been there the first time they looked. Knowing what she did, Jenna believed them. She liked to think that Evan had found her, somewhere in that darkness, and brought her to safety.

When asked about the monster, she had described Ikelos just as he appeared in her living room. His auburn hair, scary eyes, and a deep voice that boomed in her head. The police hadn’t been quite sure what to make of her description, but the man had been listed as armed and dangerous, and topped the most-wanted list.

George had recounted all this to her as she lay in the hospital bed. They had found her passed out in the carnage and were unable to revive her. He had felt terrible about the things he had said, especially after what had happened to her family. His grandchildren came back. He had something left. She saw his guilt and tried to assure him that she understood. His grief was his own, and hers was hers. She was grateful to have him there, even though he was so worn and tired.

And Richard, he was just down the hall, so it was easy for him to stop in and visit her. So he said.

The thought of Richard, so small on that bed, surrounded by tubes and covered with bandages made her heart ache, but she was still so envious. She would never tell George about this envy, though.

Because she wasn’t so lucky. More to the point, Evan and Thomas weren’t so lucky. No one can survive having their heart crushed inside their chest. That’s what the medical examiner had said had happened to them both. Both of their hearts had been crushed. Her husband’s death had been easy to diagnose, but her son’s was more difficult. There was no external damage to his body. His heart had been crushed internally. The medical examiner’s office was perplexed.

The monster, Ikelos, or whatever it called itself, had disappeared immediately, anger storming across its face, before it disappeared into the shadows. Her son had succeeded in killing it. At such a tremendous price.

Silence surrounded her and people stood up. The sounds of strings playing sad, mournful music filled the empty air. They had arrived. The guests of honor.

Jenna stood up and watched the matching ebony coffins approach. Her eyes stayed glued to the coffins throughout the ceremony. People got up and talked. There was even a reverend from some church she thought she might have visited on occasion, or at least once. She wasn’t even sure of the denomination. Someone asked if she would like to say a few words. A shake of her head was all they needed. She ignored the look of understanding and sympathy everyone gave her.

The coffins were lowered into the ground slowly to a somber hymn.

She imagined her husband resting peacefully against the white satin interior. Even though Evan was no longer the little boy he should have been, she still had placed his favorite Transformer in his coffin, along with his favorite Optimus Prime slippers. She wanted him to feel comfortable and safe, if there was any bit of him left. She knew it was absurd, but she did it anyway.

The reverend said a few more words. Probably the usual “ashes to ashes” bit. After a while, someone helped her stand and gave her a shovel. She walked numbly to the large mounds of earth and carefully scooped one shovelful of dirt onto the shining black wood of her husband’s coffin. She turned and did the same for the smaller version, her son’s coffin.

Jenna handed the shovel to a pair of hands that willingly relieved it from her grasp and returned to her seat, where she watched as the earth slowly covered all that was left of her happiness.

 

Acknowledgments

There is simply no way to acknowledge and properly thank everyone who helped me along the way in the arduous journey of writing this novel. That said, I’ll give it my best. Special thanks, of course, goes to my mom, who taught me to dream and to believe; to my sister, Deborah Robinson (fka Deborah Bryan), my kindred spirit who held my timid hand in childhood and roared my writing spirit to life; to my husband, Nick Wolfgang, for being my light – always – and believing – always, even after reading my novel in its myriad of forms; to the Second Sunday Writers’ Group (based in Eugene, OR), for workshopping the early chapters of this novel into manageability (special thanks to Martha Bayless, for her constant encouragement, grammar, and plot development pointers); and to all my friends who read bits and pieces or just gave an encouraging word to help me on my way. I am forever in your debt.

To my copy editor, Sydney Nichols, thank you for catching formatting, typos, and consistency errors. All remaining issues in this novel were re-introduced by yours truly, and Sydney holds no responsibility for them.

To all my beta readers who read various versions of this novel in its parts or in its entirety – I owe you a very special thanks. Your comments, pointers, and general criticisms were invaluable to me. So thank you, Nick Wolfgang, Sandie Price, Col Maggs, Victoria E. Ehmcke, Deborah Robinson, David Bryan, Madeline Cooper, E.L. Farris, Mike Plavin, Pieter Karlik, and Sarah Hocken.

About the Author:

R.R. Wolfgang was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and enjoys reading, writing, all things medieval, and sitting in front of the computer with a large cup of steaming coffee. This is the author’s first book. Stay tuned for the next project, an urban fantasy tentatively entitled, Shieldmaiden.

 

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Waking Dreams

Jenna and Thomas Elliott lead an idyllic life with their young son, Evan. Or so they thought - until Evan’s fifth birthday, when he begins exhibiting signs of a mysterious illness. Blackouts, seizures, and horrible nightmares that blur the lines of reality plague the boy. Doctors race for a diagnosis, hoping to save the boy before his symptoms lead to permanent neurological damage, but each time they come back with more questions than answers. And they, too, begin to question what is actually real. As their hopes for a medical miracle fade, the Elliotts are forced to watch their picture perfect life unravel around them as their son’s nightmares begin to reveal their true nature – and they realize just how dark the darkest dreams can be. Something lurks between the veil of the waking world and the world of dreams – and it wants out.

  • ISBN: 9781311734297
  • Author: R.R. Wolfgang
  • Published: 2015-12-28 10:50:22
  • Words: 109598
Waking Dreams Waking Dreams