Where the Cats Will Not Follow – Part I

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About
Ayden finds himself held captive by his former friend, Phillip. Phillip believes Ayden holds the key to finding Ginger, his missing girlfriend.

This shocking claim forces Ayden to revisit the adolescent world he shared with his older brother, Everett. It is a world where truth is uncertain and dreams and imagination blur with reality. Everett insists Ayden possesses powers of clairvoyance and has the ability to conjure entities from his mind. As Everett pushes Ayden into increasingly darker territories, events turn deadly.

Digging into this murky past, Ayden and Phillip awaken old demons they must face as they race to find Ginger.

Where the Cats Will Not Follow is a strange journey into the mind of a troubled young man who may be delusional—or may in fact possess the extraordinary abilities he was believed to once hold.

Horror/Dark Fantasy/Coming of Age

Where the Cats Will Not Follow is a beautiful example of a novel that refuses to live within the confines of one genre and is all the better for it. It’s a quality fusion of fantasy, horror and surrealism with the continual bleeding of a nightmarish dream-world into reality. Prepare for a unique coming of age tale. Highly recommended.” -Tony Jones, HorrorTalk.com  Read full review

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Prologue
The Trick

I found myself lost in an apple orchard at dusk. It was so foggy, I couldn’t make out the trees. I could only see the ends of their twisted, pointy branches. Behind the cloak of fog, I could hear scurrying and hushed chatter. I knew it was the monsters. They were waiting patiently in the mist for the right moment to attack and devour me.

I stepped forward blindly, hugging myself, waiting for the inevitable to happen—when suddenly, down the center of the path, the fog parted. Through the tunnel of swirling fog, Everett appeared, riding a bike. As he pedaled toward me, it looked as if he had just broken free from a smoldering fire. Behind the bike, he pulled a makeshift rickshaw. It looked like something he had made himself. Nothing more than a large wicker basket on wheels.

When he reached me, he climbed off the bike and gently lowered the kickstand before steadying the frame in the loose gravel. I couldn’t help but find the juxtaposition humorous: our ominous surroundings and him casually riding a bike through them. Moreover, taking the time to assure he had parked it properly.

“You know, they won’t get you if they think you’re already dead,” he reminded me.

“I know,” I replied. But I always forgot.

He pulled a sheet out of the basket and motioned for me to climb inside. So I did. He draped the sheet over my body. Since it was too small to conceal me completely, I hung over the edge with my arms stretched low and my head limp, trying my best to look like a corpse. As he began to pedal, I heard the grunts and whispers of the monsters slinking out from the trees and spilling onto the path. They crept behind us curiously, cautiously. Close enough to grab my dangling arms. Close enough to pull me deep into the murky night. Yet they did not.

Everett pedaled through the orchard. He pedaled until the fog lifted. He pedaled until dawn. The trick worked. Of course it did.


Interior

Part I: Cabin on Another Planet
1 – Hero in Restraints
2 – Eight Minutes
3 – Phillip’s Request
4 – Lilacs

Part II: The Adventures of Everett and Ayden
5 – The Metal Forest
6 – The Organic Forest
7 – The Dig
8 – Lightning Bugs
9 – Monsters in the Corn
10 – The Craft
11 – Body of Darkness

Part III: Ian Stein and Todd the Toad
12 – What Would Everett Do?
13 – Musk
14 – The Magnetic Ceiling
15 – The Fifteenth Row
16 – The Pit
17 – Owl in the Treetop
18 – Clever Vignettes
19 – Cold, Dark Winter

Part IV: Kirsten the Horse Girl
20 – Never-Ending Blackness
21 – Clip-On Ties
22 – Little Blue House
23 – The Hyperbaric Chamber
24 – Strange Aquarium
25 – Warrior of Peace

Part V: Voices from the Other Side
26 – Borrowed Energy
27 – Ruthsford Cemetery
28 – Paul’s Case
29 – Ginger the Meteor
30 – The Voice of Thomas Gouldman
31 – Evergreen Hill
32 – Rejecting the Null
33 – Space Junk

Part VI: Where the Cats Will Not Follow
34 – Touch of Evil
35 – Another Version of Me
36 – Effectively Pureed
37 – Summer’s Peak
38 – Multiplied by Thirty
39 – Netherworld
40 – Come, Look
41 – Not Human
42 – Unnatural Nature


Part I
Cabin on Another Planet

1
Hero in Restraints

My feet poking outside the covers made me feel even more vulnerable. Yet I didn’t dare reach for the blanket. Not that my stillness mattered all that much. I knew that what hid in the corners could smell me. Could see in the darkness. Could hear my heartbeat. To them, the simple functioning of my organs—my heart beating, my lungs rising and falling—must’ve sounded like thundering convulsions.

I scanned the room, lit dimly by the moon. The pale light allowed me to view the sinister faces hidden in the pattern of the faux wood paneling. Some had sloped, vacant eyes. Others had twisted, melted skin. And then there were the ones with sharp teeth and thick horns protruding from the sides of their heads. But the cheap paneling wasn’t the cause of my fear. It was the thought that these macabre portraits were merely impressions of what had escaped the wall, what had materialized into flesh and become whole. They could’ve been anywhere. The fields. The woods. Even within the swelling shadows. Watching. Waiting for the perfect moment to pull me off the bed and swallow me whole.

If only I could’ve gathered the nerve to leap out from the covers, maybe I could’ve been saved by the light. Maybe by my flipping on the switch, the brightness would’ve killed the shadows and disinfected the entire room of evil. But there I lay, worrying that my movements would only entice an attack, fearing that perhaps the switch was already on and that the light had been sucked away, overpowered by the darkness.

I desperately wanted to call out to Everett across the hall. He wouldn’t have been afraid. He would’ve protected me. But I couldn’t call out to him. My voice wouldn’t allow it. If I shouted his name, I just knew it would’ve come out a whisper. If I screamed, it would’ve come out a muted shriek. And I knew if I had tried and my voice had failed to reach his ears, it would’ve been worse than movement. It would’ve compelled them to instantly rush upon me. No, paralyzed silence was my best hope for survival.

Yet the longer I remained still, the more I became a ball of unreleasable energy. My neck ached. My legs boiled under the covers. And in the center of my stomach sprouted the most unbearable itch. I clenched my hands into tight fists, fighting against the temptation to scratch. But my concentration only made it more intense. No longer able to withstand the agony, cautiously I inched my hand beneath the covers. My movements were so slow, so careful, that the blanket barely moved. When I at last reached my stomach, I dug my nails into my skin with fervor. I had my relief. But what was more, I had moved—and hadn’t been attacked.

Released from my immobile prison, I looked down to see the hair on my chest—and a spark of awareness came over me. It was a peculiar sensation, realizing that although I was in my parents’ house, in the small twin bed of my childhood, I was in my adult twenty-six-year-old body. I was not the child I had once been, sleeping in that room, living in that house. Why then was I stuck, helpless, with Everett being the only one who could save me?

Brashly, I flung the covers to the floor. Warm air rushed over my legs and torso. In a flash, I scooted to the end of the bed, stood upon my electrified legs, and grabbed the doorknob. Yet before I left, I took one final look at the room behind me. It was then I realized my self-assuredness was premature. No matter what age my body was, I was still as vulnerable as a child. The shadows had grown into a single mass enveloping half the room. Darkness as black as oil oozed over the edge of the bed and inched near my feet. I hurriedly slipped through the door and pulled it tight behind me.

In the hall, I stood before Everett’s door. I gently placed my hand on it, and it creaked open slightly. I pulled away without looking inside, not wanting to know. Frightened he wouldn’t be there. Frightened to confirm I was alone.

I headed down the open stairway. A low wind must’ve picked up because the enormous blue spruces relentlessly scraped against the side of the house. They scratched not with violence, but with the slow persistence of a pendulum swinging without a force to stop it. Yet the more I listened, the less it sounded like pine needles at all. It was more like pointy fingernails poking through the window screens and tapping on the panes. So polite they were, as if asking permission to be let in. As I crept across the living room, a low growl overlapped with the taps that I hoped were nothing more than sudden gusts of air forced between the needles.

As I entered the dining room, I pleaded under my breath for the noises to stop. The pines pressed against the row of windows overlooking the table. Outside, the night was still. There was barely a breeze. No leaves dashed through the yard. And the pines—stood motionless. Yet something was ripping through the screens and incessantly tapping on the windows. And something outside was growling. The long row of windows was designed to let in light. Yet it was darkness that wanted to be let in that night. I rushed down the line, slapping shut the slats and latching every wooden blind. My stirring activity caused whatever was outside to become even more insistent. Tap! Tap! Tap!

Dizzy with terror, I tugged on the front door and then the side door by the basement steps to ensure they were secure. But the thought of checking the sliding glass door in the sunroom made me the most uneasy. If I was in front of the wall of glass, they would see me. And clearly, I would see them. Yet as I took one timid step into the room, I could only see my reflection in the glass. There was nothing but blackness on the other side. The stars that had shown themselves on so many nights had been snuffed out by the thick Michigan clouds.

Before I could test the lock, the sound of stairs creaking held me back. Our house was built over a hundred years before, and you could always hear when a person made their way down the stairs, even from the other end of the house. My mind raced, thinking of places to hide. But hiding would’ve been futile. What had escaped from my bedroom walls already knew all the hiding places. It dwelled in the hiding places. So I stood right where I was, deciding to finally face what pursued me. And into the sunroom, with his hands kept coolly in the pockets of his jeans, stepped—Everett. Everett, whose imposing stature alone could scare away demons. Everett, my protector.

“You’re home!” I shouted. It wasn’t a surprise that in his presence I could actually speak.

He smirked at me looking so frantic in my underwear. “What’re you doing up?” he asked.

“You know,” I replied gravely. I knew he did. He lowered his eyebrows, seemingly disappointed I wasn’t keeping up my half of the charade. “I wasn’t sure you’d be here.”

“I just came down for a drink.” He continued to play along with it all yet at the same time threw me a quick wink.

I was just glad he was there. I wanted him close until it was over, until the terrible night ended. I pushed on his broad shoulders like a needy child, insisting he be the one to check the door. It wasn’t like him to turn down a challenge. But Everett wouldn’t budge. And that’s when I remembered. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to help. He couldn’t. Wasn’t allowed. So instead, in a reversal of roles, he gently grabbed my shoulders and positioned me in front of him, at arm’s length, facing the glass door. I looked upon my reflection and took a deep, uneasy breath. “Remember the cats,” he whispered.

For him to bring up the cats, he understood my degree of fear. They were the furthest thing from my mind that night. But because of Everett, I did think of them. I thought of them circling me like they were performing a ritualistic dance. Momentarily, I was transported to the wonderful scene. The sun was a soft yellow, making the coats of the felines shimmer. I held my hand out to touch them. Their fur was soft. Such large cats. Healthy and muscular. They were perfect. I feared they’d be scared away. Yet no careless child stomped through the field. Not even a distant gunshot was heard. I smiled. On a night I never thought I would’ve been able to, I smiled.

Everett released me. Alone, I stepped forward, imagining the cats circling my body like a shield. While their faces remained hidden, as I approached the door, I could see their hands crowding the window. Their wet fingertips squeaked across the glass. Pressing. Sliding. Smearing. Their fingers were green, moldy green with black fingertips. The tips didn’t appear to be nails but rather bones, sharpened to a point, poking through the ends of their fingers. The reflection of my face warped and twisted as the glass strained from the pressure.

They were under the powerful floodlights that had allowed us to play outside at night when we were children. And light, I knew, they were not fond of. I flipped the switch beside the door and was elated to see that even against the oppressing darkness surrounding the house, the bulbs actually worked. Glorious light burst upon them. It shot over the patio and stretched into the garden. At last, the monsters were exposed.

It was the horned ones, at least a dozen of them. They were no more than four feet tall. The skin on the rest of their body was as moldy green as the skin of their fingers. And just like their impressions on the wall, bulky black horns protruded from the sides of their heads in the shape of shark fins turned sideways. Their red pupils had difficulty adjusting to the light, yet they dared stay beneath it. In fact, they seemed to relish the exposure no matter how painful it was. They opened their oversize jaws and bared their long, sharp teeth. They smashed their faces against the window, smearing it with their juices.

In the reflection, I could see Everett behind me. He looked on with his arms folded across his chest. Saddened. Powerless. They saw him too, and his presence made them furious. They rammed their horns against the glass. It shook and began to splinter.

I rushed to the dining room, petrified. In a final, desperate panic, I grabbed the edge of the table. As I managed to topple it over, the vase that sat upon it, filled with freshly cut lilac blossoms, rolled to the floor. The lavender blooms were crushed as I dragged the table into the sunroom. Their sweet scent permeated the air. I frantically propped the table on its side and shoved it against the door. The monsters crowded near me, licking the other side of the cracking glass. As soon as I had the table in position, the door finally gave way, showering me with broken glass. I stumbled backward. The monsters chewed on the shards, letting the broken pieces slice their lips and tongues. They grinned with delight as their teeth dripped green blood.

Drained, defeated, and as if a magnet had pinned me there, I surrendered by lying on the dining room floor. I looked up to see Everett towering over me. I couldn’t see his face at first, just the bristles on his neck and chin. When he finally brought himself to look upon me, I saw tears welling in his eyes. One slid down his cheek. I closed my eyes and waited for it to land on my face, but I didn’t feel it. Perhaps he had caught it? Everett was the one who watched them shred the table. He was the one who saw their small haunting bodies creep into the house and crowd around me.

I felt their bony fingers all over my body. On my chest and in my mouth. I felt their hot breath on my stomach. They liked my stomach most. They went for it first. It was like being tickled too hard when they tore into it. They used their pointy fingers to take the pieces they wanted and crammed their heads in to slurp up the rest. It didn’t hurt so bad. I wanted to tell Everett that it hardly hurt at all. I wanted to tell him there was pleasure in being devoured by these demons. Pleasure in finally submitting and being released from their torture. It might have made him feel better. But they were crawling all over my body, and I couldn’t communicate. I could only smell the powerful lilacs.


 2
Eight Minutes

I woke to the overwhelming scent of lilacs. I could hear birds. Bugs humming. I didn’t open my eyes. I didn’t want to confirm any assumptions that I had about my surroundings. I liked not knowing where I was. I could be anywhere I wanted as long as I didn’t open my eyes. Once I opened them, wherever I was couldn’t be changed, even if I decided to close them again. I imagined I was in my own bed. I imagined the familiar surroundings of my small apartment: my Siamese fighting fish in his bowl upon the dresser, my ivy plant cascading down the stand in the corner. I even began hearing the morning traffic not too far away on Holland Avenue becoming heavier and heavier the longer I procrastinated.

Yet as I attempted to trick my brain into believing this scenario, I couldn’t help but sense the musty smell of the room. I couldn’t ignore the rays of morning sun striking me when my apartment had no window facing east. And the aching in my wrists called attention to the fact that my hands were locked in place over my head. But most of all, his presence kept me from escaping the room. I knew that he was there. I sensed his slight movements beside the bed. He’d been waiting. If I opened my eyes, I knew I’d have to face him, disappoint him. Bits of my bedroom disintegrated with each floorboard creak and breath I heard him breathe. Slowly I was dragged away, flooded instead with fragments of how I had arrived in that foreign bed.

I recalled lying in the fetal position, my head resting on his leg or perhaps a bunched-up coat. My consciousness was hazy at best. The constant whirring of the vibrating engine held me under its spell, although the occasional bumps caused my eyes to slip open. It was in those moments that I realized how stiff my muscles were. How dizzy I was. My head pounded with painful rhythms that seemed connected to the beating of my heart. I caught glimpses of his black dress shoe on the gas pedal. But I could only hold my eyes open a few moments at a time before the droning engine would call me back.

I wondered how he got me from the truck to the bed. I was too heavy for him to carry, and I was sure he was alone. Perhaps I was dragged. I adjusted my legs under the scratchy blanket. If only I had the nerve to peel back the disgusting covering, at least the dry breeze could’ve reached my legs. My hair stuck to my face. The pillow was soaked in my sweat. There was a kink in my neck. I jerked my tingling arms forward only to be reminded that my wrists were affixed to the bedpost.

The power of the physical world was just too great. I was no longer able to drift. My surroundings, though my mind still hadn’t a picture of them, were winning. He had to suspect by then, anyhow, that I was truly awake. I feared that he’d call my bluff and shake me into joining him in cruel reality. So before I would let that happen, I opened my eyes, barely a squint. Immediately, a painful blaze of light exploded before me. All I could see were millions of dust particles dancing in the air, illuminated by the morning sun. Slowly I forced open my eyes the rest of the way, focusing on the figure bathed in light. Sunlight struck his blond hair, making it glow. I had caught my first glimpse. There was no turning back.

Phillip sat on an old wooden stool a few feet from the side of the bed. He had changed out of his work clothes and wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt with cargo pants. I looked into his tired blue eyes and remembered asking him once if he wore contacts that made his eyes that blue. “I don’t wear colored contacts! My eyes are always this blue!” he snapped. He made it sound so imperative that I understood that fact. He followed his statement with such a serious stare that only when his lips began to curl did I realize he had been using a mock offended tone. Laughing, he then revealed he did in fact wear contacts, but they were clear.

For a moment, I imagined it was Everett on that stool. It wasn’t hard to do. I’d often find Everett waiting bedside for me to wake. He’d spend entire nights watching me sleep, wondering, I imagined, like Phillip, which world I was in. Even though they didn’t look all that much alike, Phillip could’ve more easily passed for Everett’s brother than me. I was like a poor reproduction. A photocopy of a photocopy. Everett had deep brown hair that lightened in summer months. I had black hair, and my eyebrows were dark and thick. Everett was muscular and agile. I grew up tall but had little muscle tone. I was hopelessly clumsy, always tripping and banging into things. He had a smooth way of talking that was calm yet direct. I had to constantly remind myself to keep my mouth shut to avoid something ridiculous flying out. The contrasts were endless really.

Thinking of Everett, I was still hiding, in a way, from Phillip. It took his voice to make me focus. “Good morning.” He looked exhausted but somehow forced a measure of cheerfulness in his greeting. It was apparent he stayed up all night anticipating the moment I’d wake. He leaned forward, eager to hear what I had discovered for him. I didn’t want to open my mouth. Didn’t want to admit I had failed him. Instead, I began to rationalize, to defend myself in my mind. I had no need to feel ashamed! He was the one who dragged me, literally, to wherever we were! I was the victim! Yet as much as I tried convincing myself, I didn’t feel like Phillip’s victim—even with my hands tied to the bed.

I kicked off the covers. The air was stale, but at least my skin could breathe. To give relief to my back, I managed to stand up on my knees. I swiveled toward the headboard. My wrists, tied to the wooden dowels, had turned a reddish purple. “You were jerking like crazy.” He shrugged. He grabbed a pocketknife off the nightstand and sliced the rope. Freed, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and let the warm breeze blow against my face and dry my hair.

“Where are we?” He moved to the door without giving an answer. “I’m not going to run, Phillip.” I looked to the view out the window. “How could I run?” I said quietly. We were in the middle of what appeared to be an endless field. Bugs hovered above the dewy ground. Queen Anne’s lace and milkweed swayed in the breeze, intermixed with other weeds and tall grasses. The lilacs that must’ve grown nearby all but overpowered the faint fragrance of pine trees. “We’re up north, aren’t we? Still in Michigan, right?” I scooted to the end of the bed. “Whose cabin is this?”

Leaning against the door, he set his eyes on mine. I tingled with apprehension. I knew the moment I dreaded had come. He didn’t bring me there to discuss the wilderness. I was well aware of his purpose. “Did you see her?” he asked flatly.

“No.” I was stunned by his bluntness and stunned by my own blunt reply. His eyes fell to the floor, saddened. So callous I had been. I wondered sometimes why I was even given a mouth. He placed his hand over his eyes for a moment and then wiped his forehead. The natural fairness of his skin accentuated the redness of his face. The way his eyes shot daggers at me, I didn’t suppose he was red from the heat. I wanted to shrink into myself. I attempted to disappear by lowering my shoulders and taking short, unnoticeable breaths.

“Then as far as you’re concerned, we’re nowhere.” He brought his face to mine. “Nowhere!” He charged to the window and pulled down the shade. The tattered thing leaked light through its many holes. Tiny circles and gashes of light freckled the aged floral carpeting. “We’re not in Michigan! We’re not in America! We’re not even on this planet until—” He stopped short, finishing only with deep breaths.

His tone made me sick to my stomach. “It was just one night,” I said timidly. “I can try again.” He stood silent, staring at the sparks of light on the floor. I escaped the room as fast as I could by hastily thinking about the sun. I learned once that it took eight minutes for its light to reach the earth. I thought of how in another eight minutes, the awful floral pattern would be supplied with fresh light generated millions of miles away. “Eight minutes,” I said in a whisper.

He charged toward me and clamped his hand on my shoulder. His grip was so tight, I thought he’d strike me. I looked to his feet and braced myself for him to do his damage. That’s when I noticed he was wearing sandals. I let out a short laugh as I was brought back to the time he had driven the two of us to Lanford Community College and had worn sandals. I had never seen him in sandals before. And before I had a chance to censor myself, I found myself saying, “No one wants to see your feet.” The truth was I didn’t find his feet repulsive. In fact, I was never all that comfortable showing my own feet. It always made me feel a bit too exposed.

But Phillip knew better than to be offended. His lips curled downward. They did that when he found something humorous. “Sorrrry,” he apologized sarcastically, followed by one of his stuttered laughs. “Don’t worry. After today, you’ll never have to see my feet again,” he promised.

So as I stared down at his open toes, I blurted, “No one wants to see your feet.” I was so sure his lips would curl downward and I’d hear his signature laugh. Yet the look I received was void of emotion. Before I could say another word, he released his grasp on my shoulder. “Phillip—” He left the room, slamming the door behind him.

I stood from the bed. Dizzy. My head pounding. I staggered to the dresser and held its edge to keep my balance. Dust clung to my wet fingertips, leaving an imprint. I held my other hand firmly to my tingling stomach, trying to quiet the distant sensation of it being torn open by black fingertips. I stared at the doorknob, wondering if it was locked, if I truly was his prisoner. I didn’t attempt to turn it. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t much care if I was his prisoner, I supposed. Strange, I felt entirely safe in that foreign room. I found there could be safety and relief in submitting yourself to the whims of another, letting them think for you and determine your actions. Maybe he had taken me to another planet. He was right. It no longer mattered. I sat on his stool and gazed at the tiny bed. I imagined him watching over me the entire night. How uncomfortable it must’ve been. As I looked about the rustic room, I thought of how it had come to be, how gentle Phillip had been driven to such a thing.


3
Phillip’s Request

I received his desperate call at 2:00 a.m. I knew it was 2:00 a.m. because the voice on the line said, “It’s 2:00 a.m. It’s been five days, and it’s 2:00 a.m. on the fifth day.”

“Who is this?” I asked the question but immediately knew it was Phillip. I hadn’t heard from him in over five years. Yet even in his frenzy, I identified him by his first word spoken, by his light yet masculine voice.

“I’ve already called the police. Please don’t tell me to call the police. Why is everyone still telling me that like I haven’t already? Like I’m some dumb asshole? I left the light on. The light over the driveway. I always leave it on for when she comes back.”

I forced back a yawn. How could I listen to his delirium and still be tired? “Comes back from where? What are you talking about?”

“Jogging. She jogs at nighttime in the summer. It’s better to jog at night. You’re not supposed to jog in the heat of the day. The light, it’s on now. She’s not home. It’s been on for five nights. And she’s still not home.”

Confident Phillip was unraveling. He sounded confused. Frightened. Agitated. I figured the caliber of confusion coming from him was reserved for someone like me. Not rational Phillip. Not the young man who was disciplined enough to achieve perfect attendance in high school, never missed a class in college, and received his degree in accounting in just three years. It was frightening to think that his sanity, of all people’s, could be so easily shredded. “Are you drunk?” I wondered.

“No. I’m high.” As soon as he mentioned it, I began picking up on his nervous drags. “I haven’t smoked pot since college,” he revealed. “Remember when I asked if you wanted a smoke, and you said Everett wouldn’t let you?”

“I remember.”

“You always did what he said. Listened to him, didn’t you? When I first met you, I thought he was your mom.” Instead of a laugh, he let out staggered puffs of air from his nostrils. “Well, I should’ve too. Listened to Everett, I mean.”

“So why are you smoking then?”

“I didn’t believe him,” he continued, missing my point as I missed his. “She went for a jog. And now no one knows where the hell she is. I’ve called all her friends. I’ve asked all the neighbors. She’s not at her parents’. I’ve driven all over this goddamned city.”

“I haven’t seen her either,” I offered.

He took another drag. “Listen, Ayden, I have to find her.”

“You will,” I said automatically.

“Will you help me?” he asked. “I know you can help.”

I wanted to help Phillip. It was the least I could do after all he had done for me. He was the one who had pushed me into shallow water when I was in too deep. He was the one who had sparked the changes in my life that had finally given me a sense of normalcy. “Of course I’ll help.”

“OK. I’m coming over,” he declared.

“Wait . . .” But it was too late. The line was dead. He had never been to my apartment and hadn’t asked for directions. On top of that, he probably shouldn’t have been driving in his frantic state. But it was Phillip. He’d find his way.

No longer tired, I rushed to the closet. I chose a light-brown polo shirt accented with thin black stripes across the chest and put on my best pair of jeans. I attempted to look at my apartment as if I were seeing it for the first time, as if I were Phillip. Would he be pleased by my accomplishments? That I had my own place? That I had finally become an adult with adult responsibilities? I paced with an energy that was fueled partly by nerves and partly by excitement. I aligned the candle and coasters on the end table so they perfectly met its border. I straightened the pillows on the couch. I moved the dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. I cleaned the specks of toothpaste from the bathroom mirror. I dusted. I thought of vacuuming but figured I wouldn’t have time.

In only about a half hour after he hung up the phone, I heard the knock at the door. I opened it with an anxious grin. There he stood, now a successful accountant in a crew cut wearing a white dress shirt with pin-striped pants—smoking pot like a high school stoner. I felt shy, as if we were meeting for the first time. “Phillip the CPA and his doobie,” I finally blurted as a joke.

“Hey.” He flicked the short joint onto the cement and snuffed it out with his shoe. When his blue yet bloodshot eyes met mine, his lips curled upward for a moment before quickly relaxing to make a perfect line across his face. I had never known Phillip to be other than clean-shaven, but that night blond stubble grew from his chin. It was a humid August night. A drizzling mist caused his clothes to cling to his skin and his face appear to perspire. He rubbed his neck, where a tie surely had been knotted earlier. He pulled his shoulders close to his ears and shuddered as if it were cold. He looked past me and into the apartment.

I opened the door wide and stepped aside. “Come on in,” I offered. “I’ve got air-conditioning.” I rolled my eyes at myself as I shut the door behind him. He stepped past me without comment and made a direct path for the couch. He sat with his eyes to the floor. “I’ve lived here for about a year,” I said as I stood before him. “The rent is kind of expensive. But I think it’s worth it since the washer and dryer are included. Only bad thing is I can’t have pets. Well, besides my fish. But I really want a cat. Maybe someday. Maybe a black cat. I heard people don’t like to adopt black cats because of superstition. So it would be good to give a black cat a home. Don’t you think?”

His head remained low. He looked as if he was concentrating on something far away. I could see it in the narrowing of his eyebrows, in the bunching of lines on his forehead. I eased myself into the overstuffed chair next to him. “I picked out the furniture myself. It was pretty easy. Remember my favorite color is green? Anyway, I picked out the first green set I saw. The saleslady called it ‘hunter green.’” He said nothing. Did not even allow his eyes to scan the room. “Do you want something to drink?”

“No,” he said solemnly, finally lifting his head. “Have you seen her?” It was clear he only wanted to continue the conversation he had begun on the phone.

“No. I already told you—”

“No. In your dreams,” he clarified.

“Oh.” My heart picked up its pace.

“I know you can help me because”—he inhaled deeply—“because I know now that Everett was telling the truth. He was right all along.”

“No.” My voice cracked. “Everett never told the truth.” I tried to keep my breathing steady as the years I thought I had been so successful at burying began to instantly brew toward the surface. What was Phillip doing to me? “It was you who told me the truth. Not Everett. I listened to you. I even went to that psychiatrist because of you. And finally, it all made sense. Finally, because of you, there was logic to it all.”

“Logic? Some things cannot be explained logically.” He began to talk with more concentration, making sure his voice was heard through the curtain of marijuana. “Look, I’m not saying Everett was the best brother in the world. God knows he wasn’t. God knows he forced you into dangerous situations. I know what harm he caused. I know how bad he messed you up. All I’m saying is, he was right about one thing: you have a skill that no one else on this earth could possibly possess.”

I protested by emphatically shaking my head. I was horrified by what he was asking of me—and by his not entirely convincing change in theory about the past. He wanted me to use a gift he was suddenly so sure I possessed, a gift that he himself had helped convince me wasn’t real.

He persisted. “Even if you don’t believe me, don’t you think it’s worth a revisit? It’s worth a try at least, isn’t it?” His chin sank to his chest.

It was clear to me at that moment that Phillip was simply lying to himself. He was desperate, grasping for what he believed was his last hope. Naturally, I felt sorrow for him. He had literally lost her. Yet at the same time, thoughts of the Phillip I had known from years before flooded my mind. I wouldn’t have questioned that Phillip. I had trusted him always, even before Everett told me I should’ve. I trusted him like I had once trusted Everett. How could I have protested anything he had to say? That’s what made it all the more confusing—and frightening. “I don’t even remember her,” I said. “I don’t even remember what she looks like. Why don’t we go to the police station in the morning and—”

“I told you not to talk to me about the police! It’s been five days, and they haven’t found her. They don’t even have a lead. Do you think I want to wait until they find her dead? Dumped in some ditch? By the time they find her, it’ll be too late.”

“I don’t even remember her name.”

“Ginger.” He said her name as if the sound of those two syllables put together momentarily healed him. Ginger. I did remember her. I remembered her chestnut hair that framed her face in loose curls. I remembered her olive skin and the fluffy white sweater she wore that fall years ago. I remembered beautiful Ginger. How Phillip loved her brown eyes.

He leaned in closer. “Aren’t you tired?” he asked.

“Tired! After what you’ve just told me? How could I possibly be tired? I’m more awake now than ever.”

He checked his watch. “But it’s so late.”

“What am I supposed to say? You helped me see the world for what it is.” I looked about my apartment. “This is reality. This life I have now is reality.” I reached over and grabbed the edge of the couch. “Don’t take it away from me. You exposed Everett. You killed his myth. Please, don’t bring it back to life.”

He reached in his pocket and produced a photograph of Ginger. He held it before my face. There she was. While not in the white sweater I often visualized her wearing, it was Ginger, her brown eyes staring back at me. “What I am experiencing now is not reality. Her being gone is as far from reality as my mind can leap. Logic no longer applies. Logic is for police who do nothing but question me of her whereabouts, wasting time while she is somewhere frightened. Hurt. God knows what. So I say it’s time for bed.”

“Yes,” I answered to her photograph with barely a whisper. I was nowhere near tired, however. And as I stood, I was the one who began to shudder as if it were cold. Phillip had spoken, and I had no choice but to do as he requested. I slowly shuffled into the bedroom, my legs weak, as Phillip followed. I undressed slowly, methodically folding my jeans and polo shirt. As I eased under the covers, Phillip knelt beside the bed and handed me the picture of Ginger. I held it in front of me for a moment before placing it facedown on my chest.

“Help me,” he requested hauntingly.

Phillip watched over me, a transformed Phillip, one who had lost his reason and was begging me to do the same. I closed my eyes, attempting to force myself to sleep, attempting to concentrate on Ginger. Yet instead, I found myself struggling with thoughts—of Everett. I saw his face. Clearly, as if he were looking directly at mine. I was confused by his smile. My childhood instinct told me to be comforted by it. But my adult reason made me cautious, afraid.

Frustrated, I opened my eyes. “Even if you’re right, it’s been so long. Dreams don’t tell me anything anymore. I haven’t had one lousy dream that has led me to anything special. I can’t even find the socks that go missing in the laundry.” I turned to him. “I’m sorry Ginger is gone. I am. I just don’t think this is the way to find her.”

I should’ve felt satisfied with my honesty, yet I turned away from him with an incredible feeling of guilt. Phillip said nothing of my rejection, and the silence was agonizing. I hated silence. It could’ve meant anything. I studied the white swirls of paint on the ceiling, hoping that if I concentrated on them intently enough, I’d be transported out of the room and away from the awkwardness.

His response was more direct than words. In my peripheral vision, I noticed him digging in his pocket. Then, without warning, his half-closed hand slammed into my face like a brick. Before I knew what was happening, he pried open my mouth and jammed in two fingers. Out of instinct, I clamped my jaws shut. He bellowed in agony, but I wouldn’t release my grip. I felt his bones grind between my clenched teeth as he pulled with all his might. My front teeth ached as they ripped open his flesh. His blood pooled on my tongue. “Goddamn it!” he shouted before delivering a swift punch to my gut. As I grimaced from the blow, he was able to free his fingers. Immediately, he slapped his bloody hand over my mouth. And with his other hand, he pinched shut my nose.

It was then I could taste it. Among his blood was the bitterness of small pills he had managed to cram into my mouth. Mixed with his blood and my saliva, the pills quickly began to dissolve. He sat on top of me, his face red with anger. “Swallow!” he demanded. Squirming, convulsing for air, I had no choice but to swallow, to let the bloody mixture slide down my throat. To telegraph to him that I in fact swallowed, I overexaggerated the movement of my throat. Satisfied, he finally released me. I gasped for air as he grabbed my polo shirt and used it to wrap his bleeding fingers. “Motherfucker!” he shouted in pain.

“What’d you do that for!” I yelled as I leapt to my feet. He looked surprised I was so angry. I sprinted out of the room and down the hall. Just as I locked the bathroom door behind me, he began tugging on the cheap plastic knob. I flipped up the lid and knelt over the toilet. I eyed my index finger a moment before plunging it deep into the back of my throat. I gagged. My eyes filled with tears. But nothing. I tried once more, gagged again, but was unable to bring anything up.

“Open the fucking door!”

I stood at the sink and ran cold water. I splashed it on my face. I cupped my hands and took a drink. I looked in the mirror, trying to convince myself that the pills, whatever they were, would have no effect. But something strange began to happen. I struggled with the meaning of time. Moments seemed to stand still yet go by at warp speed. I had difficulty grasping how long I was shut in the small bathroom. I couldn’t focus. Couldn’t think. Each bang on the door, each tug on the knob sounded farther and farther away. “I just wanted you to sleep,” I heard a distant voice warble.

One thing was clear. They weren’t sleeping pills. Whatever he had forced me to swallow were much stronger. In my swirling haze, I decided I needed to defend myself. So I opened the medicine cabinet and rummaged for a weapon. But my vision was like a camera continuously zooming in and out at breakneck speed. I knocked a box of Q-tips on its side. As the swabs spilled out, I couldn’t take my eyes off them, tumbling in slow motion, hitting the tile like miniature, fuzzy drumsticks.

I managed to grab hold of a can of air freshener. I aimed it at the door, waiting for the moment he’d break in. I hoped I had the nozzle pointed in the right direction. A wave of relaxation crawled up my legs, loosening my muscles. Before I knew it, I was on my knees. It took all my strength to hold my arms in front of me until they too were taken over. Slowly, they lowered out of their firing position. My eyelids were heavy. I blinked slowly. I felt like liquid as my body oozed to the floor. The cold, hard tile felt soothing against my hot skin. Then it was gone. I had been lifted from it. I had entered another world.

—–

My feet poking outside the covers made me feel even more vulnerable. Yet I didn’t dare reach for the blanket. Not that my stillness mattered all that much. I knew that what hid in the corners could smell me. Could see in the darkness. Could hear my heartbeat . . .


 4
Lilacs

I pulled open the top drawer of the old pine dresser. Dust rolled out and added itself to the rest of the dust swirling about. The drawer was empty. I pulled open the second drawer and, to my surprise, found several of my own shirts. They had been folded and placed in two piles. I opened the third drawer and found a selection of my cargo shorts and underwear. In the bottom drawer were two pairs of my jeans. I slipped on my most comfortable shorts and grabbed my green T-shirt. What kidnapper would think of packing clothes? Phillip wasn’t a kidnapper. He was my friend. I grasped the knob confidently and swung open the door. As a dry breeze rushed into the room, the tattered shade blew out of control. Of course he hadn’t locked me in.

My eyes explored the old cabin as my lungs filled with the less stale air of the larger space. There wasn’t much to the place. There were two bedrooms, with a small bathroom in between. At the center was a living space furnished with mismatched chairs and a couch huddled around an old television. The kitchen was separated from the dining area by an open counter and low-hanging cupboards. On the table was a plate of scrambled eggs and a bowl of soggy cereal.

I opened the screen door. The humming bugs were even louder out in the open. The large porch I found myself on looked like it had been recently added, awkwardly affixed to the aging cabin. I stepped up to the railing. The view was panoramic. The sky was magnificent. It was the softest shade of blue. Endless. The few far-off clouds glowed, backed by the shimmer of the early-afternoon sun. The sky met the forest in the distance. And between it and the cabin was nothing but a vast field. Shadows of trees loomed over the overgrown yard, so I knew another forest must’ve butted up to the back of the cabin. Leading up to the gravel driveway was a thin two-track that mimicked a road. I had a good idea that if no one was to drive on it in a season or two, the weeds could easily erase it.

Phillip had traded his sandals for sneakers and was digging near the front of the cabin. He had already dug two holes, each about two feet in diameter. I clenched the railing, waiting for him to notice me. Afraid I’d continue to go unnoticed, I finally hollered, “Thanks for breakfast!”

He stopped digging, held his shovel at arm’s length, and faced me. “It’s gone bad by now.”

“That’s OK. I’m not really hungry. Must be the heat.”

“You’ve found your clothes. I guess I forgot to grab you some socks.” I looked to my bare feet. “You can use mine. Your shoes are by the door.”

“Thanks. So what’re you digging for?”

He nodded toward the bundle of uprooted bushes. “I found these lilacs growing in the field on the other side of the pines.” The blossoms were closed and drooping, yet their fragrance remained powerful. “I’m going to plant them along the front of the cabin. They’re Ginger’s favorite.”

He threw down the shovel and traded it for a bottle of water. He took a long drink and gestured the bottle toward me. I gladly took it, letting the water refresh my parched mouth and throat. Even though it was lukewarm, I didn’t want to put it down. I finished all but the last of it. He sat on the steps. I followed his lead and sat next to him. “My parents gave me this place when they moved out of state,” he said. “I hadn’t been here in years. Only started coming up this spring. I put this porch on. Strengthened the foundation a bit.” He looked to the lilacs. “We were going to spend our summer vacations here. Would’ve made a great spot for our honeymoon too.”

I was puzzled. “I figured you were already married.”

“No. Every time we planned it, something got in the way. We bought a house. Her father died. We helped my parents move to Virginia. I switched firms. It just kept getting put off.”

“But you’ve been together for so long. I just assumed—”

“I know. After a while, it felt like we were married. It was my fault. I just thought of marriage as a formality. But we should’ve done it. I should’ve married her years ago. I’d marry her right now. Today. Right here, if I could.” He lifted his gaze to the forest in the distance. “God, I miss her. You know what I miss most about her?”

“Her fluffy white sweater?” I let the air out of my lungs, embarrassed that I had said it aloud. “Sorry.”

Befuddled, he brought his eyebrows together for a moment before continuing, “I miss sleeping with her. Not just the sex. Holding her. Just sleeping with her and holding her. Keeping her safe. I wake up at night forgetting she’s gone, and then—” He closed his eyes, picturing her, I assumed.

“I dreamt of monsters last night,” I revealed. “And of Everett. I hadn’t dreamt of either since I saw that psychiatrist.”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead. “That’s not so surprising. You’re just getting started. I asked you to concentrate on finding Ginger, and in the past, you’ve associated your—talent—with Everett, with his sick games and tricks. Now that you’re trying to use it on your own, it makes sense that you’ve kept those associations.”

“I guess,” I answered reluctantly. “But I’ve got to know. Why do you believe Everett now? Why after all these years?”

“Because,” he paused with a long exhale before admitting, “I’ve tried everything else.” His eyes flooded, but he did not allow any tears to spill over.

“I’m sorry, Phillip.” Truly, I was.

We looked to the horizon, to the sun dangling over the top of the forest. He took a few deep breaths, calming and composing himself. The somberness of the situation turned strangely serene with the help of the continuous hum of nearby cicadas. “I’ll find her,” I said. I knew I was making a promise that in all probability I wouldn’t be able to keep, but I needed to offer him something. I would’ve done anything for Phillip.

“How’d we end up here?” he asked, still gazing into the distance.

“What do you mean?”

“How did we end up at this age? At this cabin? Where did this all start?”

I realized Phillip’s questions were rhetorical. I knew a person wasn’t supposed to answer a question that was rhetorical. But I also was never one to know the right moments to speak or not to speak. “I found myself standing in a forest,” I began.


Part II
The Adventures of Everett and Ayden

End of sample. To continue the novel, pre-order it here:
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Release date: Tuesday, May 1, 2018. To receive a release alert, join Stephen Stromp’s email list here.

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