We tried to appear like we were just a group of kids on a casual stroll through the neighborhood as we made our way to Lotus Lane. David halted in front of a small one-story home that looked out of place among the mansions that littered Bahia Bay. The house was painted canary yellow with a small, postage-stamp-sized yard adorned with a lonely palm tree. The bushes and plants that decorated the flower beds were obviously placed with care and perfectly trimmed into hedgerows. There was a beat-up Ford truck out front, parked beside a well-used GMC Yukon.
“This is it,” David said. “Shayne, go hide between the houses and see what you can hear. We’re going to hide across the street. We’ll keep an eye on the streets and try to watch what’s happening inside the house, if we can see through the window. I think we should only use the radios if we have no choice. If a person happens to find you…just say you’re hiding from your abusive boyfriend and then run for it.”
“Wait a minute. Wait just a minute!” Isaac hissed under his breath. “We’re going to watch through the windows? I am not a peeping Tom. This feels a little dirty. We might as well be a couple of creeps who belong in jail!”
David appeared daunted, like he hadn’t thought of that before. For a moment his face went slack and his eyes widened a smidgeon, but the assured expression I had come to know slid right back into place. “It’s not like we’re going to watch them undress or anything. But it might help to know what’s happening inside. What if they start to head outside, into the front yard? We need to do this to help Shayne.”
For a moment, it was easy to imagine that steam was shooting out of Isaac’s nose. His tight spirals of dark hair quivered with insolence. Finally, Isaac turned on his heels and stomped across the street.
David didn’t notice or care. He turned to me and smiled sheepishly with a short shrug of his shoulders. He took my hand and I blushed. “You’ll do great,” he said as he ruffled my hair playfully. “Just believe you can do it, and it will happen for you. But you have to believe. You have to believe you are in control of your gift. You understand?”
I nodded and suddenly David jerked me into his arms and gave me a tight squeeze before he darted across the street to join Isaac. As I watched David’s departure, a violent shiver caused my whole body to quake. And then I spotted Phinneas and Joshua, on the rooftop across the road, raising their binoculars right before they disappeared behind the roof line.
Now that I was here and realizing the reality of my task, I was getting a little angry. It’s not like I signed on to spy for the FBI. I’m not a brave girl. In fact, I was shaking in my gold sandals as I crept into the dark space between the yellow house and the mansion beside it. A linen curtain breezed through an open window and I froze, remaining still, listening. I crouched down on my feet, resting my hands in the crisp grass. There were two rectangular windows on the wall beside me, both cracked open halfway to let the briny air float inside. One window was covered in cheap metal blinds and the other was only obscured by tan linen curtains, pushed far to the right, flowing with the wind. My foot caught on something and nearly tripped me. I knelt down and discovered the object that assaulted me. An extension cord originating from an exterior outlet on the neighboring house snaked through the grass and disappeared through an open window.
I glanced at the metal blinds; a faint yellow light glowed through them. A television somewhere behind the first window was playing a children’s show, the volume turned down low. Barney. Back at the farmhouse, Mrs. Jenkins was always playing Barney for the toddlers. It was Lucy’s favorite thing to watch. The big purple dinosaur was currently singing about responsibility. I’d heard that song a dozen times or more.
For just a second, I wondered who would be dressing Lucy in the morning now that I was gone. Hopefully it wasn’t Olivia.
Feeling somewhat protected by the blinds, I slowly crawled to the second window. I settled into the grass, resting my back against a stretch of brick wall.
I peeked inside a bedroom, remaining as silent as I could. The room was dark. Mismatched candles littered every counter. They sat in clusters on the dressers and nightstands. A woman sat on the bed, her head hanging down, and her shoulder-length brown hair hiding her face.
I could hear the woman speak softly inside the room, her voice a tired monotone. “This is the third time in six months our electricity has been cut off. What are we going to do when the electric company refuses to reestablish our service? We can’t keep going through this, Jon.”
A man moved past the window. My whole body clenched. I couldn’t see his face, only a pair of grass-stained jeans and thick black fuzz on the back of his head. He was holding a beer and he bent down and snatched a shoe from the carpet, weighing it in his hand.
I closed my eyes and released the brick wall that I was using to block the demon flies. A buzzing hum filled my ears, accompanied by a flash of static. It sounded as if I was listening to bad radio station.
“Don’t give me that shit. I do my best to pay the bills. If you really gave a damn, you’d go out and get you a job, instead of sittin’ round here on your butt all day.”
The buzzing sound swelled in volume and a few indiscernible whispers swirled around me. I swallowed back my fear and let them move and hiss around my head.
The woman spoke on the other side of the window as the linen curtain fluttered in a gusty breeze. “Are you really going to go there? It’s always the same with you. ‘Get a job, Nicole’. But when I go out and try to get a job, you stop me. You pitch a fit about paying for daycare.” The woman stood from the bed and wrapped her arms around her chest. I saw her puffy eyes, pink from crying. “And I don’t sit around here all day doing nothing.”
The static disappeared and actual words broke through the buzzing. I was listening to a demon fly, speaking in the man’s voice. Glancing inside the room, I saw the man’s mouth pressed together in a tight line. Behind the spoken words was a steady humming that sounded like bees. She’s lying. If she did any work around the house, there wouldn’t be two piles of laundry crowding the kitchen, there wouldn’t be blocks scattered all over the living room floor.
Inside the bedroom, the man threw the shoe across the room, it crashed against the dresser. “Oh yeah? You don’t do nothing around this house. You sure as hell aren’t cleaning or doing the laundry.”
“I am too!” The woman shouted. “Why do you think you have clean clothes in your closet? And our house is always clean. It’s just hard for me to keep all the toys picked up. I can’t believe you’d even say that.”
“Don’t act like you’re some perfect little housewife,” the man yelled back, walking just out of sight. “You need a reality check.”
The static sparked and another demon fly started speaking, using the woman’s voice. He doesn’t care about you and what you go through trying to keep this house in order. He doesn’t care that you spend twenty-four hours a day taking care of a toddler. He only cares about himself. How can you stand to live with him?
I twirled onto my knees and peeked inside the window. I saw no flies, but the buzzing continued, the whispers returned, and I was unable to make out a single word. The man was standing in the shadows, taking a swig of his beer.
The woman plopped back on the bed and scooted against the headboard, pulling a pillow to her body. “You wanna hear the truth?”
Before she could go on, the whispers grew stronger, words spoken in a female voice breaking through the background noise. It’s his fault you never have time to finish the laundry. He’s the one who spends all your money, forcing you to wash those disgusting cloth diapers. That one little job of yours takes an hour out of your day. If he wasn’t wasting your cash on liquor and poker, your electricity would still be on. You could buy disposable diapers like everyone else. How dare he lecture you, when you are the only one doing any work around this house!
The woman threw the pillow to the side. “If I didn’t have to spend all day washing cloth diapers, I might be able to keep the toys off the floor. And here’s a reality check for you: if you didn’t waste all our money on beer and liquor and online gambling, our electricity wouldn’t get shut off. And I wouldn’t have to be up to my elbows in urine and feces all day long, washing those damn diapers. How’s that for the truth.”
The man stepped slowly across the room, drawing up to the woman, and poking one finger into her chest. “You don’t tell me how I spend my money. I earn it. Not you. And quit moaning about those damn diapers, I don’t want to hear it.”
The humming sound grew louder. A demon fly was speaking in the man’s voice again. Lazy, no good bitch.
Inside the room, the man turned away from the woman and mumbled under his breath. “Lazy no good…”
“What?” The woman shouted. “Lazy? You know what? Just get out of here, Jon. I can’t stand to be around you right now.”
The demon fly was yelling in the man’s voice, the strong buzz still present in the background. Don’t let her talk to you that way. She’s no treat to look at. She’s the one who’s getting uglier with every passing year.
The man tossed his beer can into the trashcan beside the bed. “You think you’re a treat to stare at…always dressed in sweat pants, never wearing make-up. I haven’t wanted to look at you for years.”
I stared through the window open-mouthed. The woman broke down crying. “Get out. Just get out. And I don’t want you coming with us this weekend. Megan and I will go see my parents by ourselves.”
The demon fly spoke again, in the man’s voice. As if that’s a punishment!
“Oh, that’s the best news ever. As if I want to spend a weekend trapped on a boat with your parents.” The man laughed inside the room.
The woman retorted in a hard voice. “Of course you wouldn’t. There’s no Internet access for your stupid poker tournaments.”
“Shut your trap!” The man barked. “You wanna go see your parents? Fine. But you’re not taking Megan. She stays with me.”
The demon fly was yelling now, using the woman’s voice, the buzzing background nearly overpowering the words I was hearing. He always says that. He doesn’t ever take care of Megan, but when you need to get away from him and his abusive words, he always demands to keep her. He only does this to punish you.
“Just…please leave.” The woman whimpered, climbing back into the bed.
“Fine. I’m outta here. I’ll be glad to leave. But I’ll be damned before I let you run off with my daughter and pretend like you’re the victim in this marriage. I’m sick of this shit.” The man slammed the bedroom door.
As the door popped closed, I squealed and slapped a hand over my lips, pressing my back hard against the brick wall, my body tensing as I feared discovery. I waited as silence swopped down on me. Slowly, I peered through the window. The woman was pacing the room, stuffing headphones into her ears, toying with a CD player.
I turned away from the window and wiped the sweat from my brow. I swatted at a mosquito fluttering in the air around me. Crawling to the window on my right, I tried to see through the blinds. Suddenly, the metal rustled and pulled apart.
Eyes. Two eyes. Locked with mine.
My mouth flew open. Horror immobilized me. A scream stuck just behind my tongue.
A tiny little hand, like a doll’s, pressed against the window blinds and for a moment the view into the family room was obscured. Petite fingers pried open the blinds, the smallest of noses poked out from underneath them. And a baby’s smile, an angel’s smile, appeared below the eyes.
I was suddenly alerted to the fact that I had stopped breathing and I began to suck hard for oxygen. All the while, the little girl who looked like a baby made faces, giggled, prodded the blinds with one itty bitty finger. I forced myself to answer her smile and wave. This delighted the little girl. She lifted her baby doll to the window to share in her glee. And then she pressed the doll to her cheek so that they looked like two dolls, side-by-side.
She was adorable. Her ringlets of blond hair, so light and reflective, framed a face pulled into the most beautiful grin. Her eyes were closed tight, her cheeks scrunched high, her mouth stretched wide, revealing dimples at the corners of her lips. So gleeful, so innocent. She looked just like Lucy.
I heard the front door shut with a bang. A strong force crashed into me, causing my body to flatten into the grass.
Anger, hostility, inequality. So powerful, so painful. I slammed a fist into the ground, my hand cracking with sharp physical pain. I was sure someone was on top of me. The weight was so heavy. The voices were so loud in my head, stronger than the blood thumping behind my ears. And the pain…it pierced my chest, and throbbed in my head. I felt so…angry and alone…I… wanted to lash out at something, anything.
Wicked, evil voices assaulted my mind and I groped for something to pull, something to help me escape. I was surprised to discover that no physical body was holding me flat to the ground.
That’s when I saw the man, the husband—Jon. He jumped into his truck and peeled out of the drive way. Abruptly the strange painful emotions lifted from my body, releasing me from the grass. I let out a cry and slapped a hand over my mouth. The little girl in the window stared at me with wide eyes.
Flight was all I could think about. I pulled myself up and ran. I passed under the street lamp; the yellow glow of light betraying my escape. My foot caught on the curb, throwing me to the grass, but I was on my feet quickly, crossing the sidewalk until I skidded to stop, whirling around…alone.
David hit me hard from behind, his arms circling around me easily, pressing me tight against his body. I could feel that we were moving forward, but my feet were dragging below me. And I was sobbing, the fat tears already making his shirt wet beneath my face. Suddenly, we crumpled, together, into the dark, into the grass.
“What happened?” His voice was sharp but quiet. Only then did I realize that the voices—the pain—had gone, but I was still crying.
I couldn’t even understand what just happened. It was like a wave of alien emotions crashed over me, a real physical force. Almost as if…the man’s pain…became part of me.
Ignoring David’s question, I let the release of my tears overtake me. David gathered me closer to him, one hand rubbing my back, the other hot against my hair. I could hear his heart hammering inside his chest, feel the way his ribs reacted to his jerky breaths. But it was his scent that calmed me. It was sweet and soothing—all his own.
I felt like a child in his arms, a child seeking comfort. And his comfort was all heat. I could feel his fingers twined in my hair. And it was heaven—a haven.
My sobbing turned to sniffling, which sounded pathetic.
“You want to tell me what happened now?” David asked again.
I shook my head against David’s chest and he sighed.
I didn’t want to explain something I didn’t understand. I felt invaded, like I had shared in the man’s pain, like it had been forced upon me. It still lingered like a bad aftertaste. One last emotion clung to me, refusing to leave. The man felt—I felt—alone.
“You’re not in this by yourself, Shayne. You can tell me. You can trust me. I can help you through this.” David said gently.
Abruptly, I pulled away from him and cradled myself, wrapping my arms tightly around my knees. I felt so ridiculous and exposed. “Don’t tell Isaac.”
“No. I won’t tell anyone, but…” David trailed.
“But?” I echoed.
“Well, everyone saw you…we all saw you panicking when you crossed the street. We thought someone had found you.”
I could feel the defiance bloom inside me as I glared at him. I wasn’t going to talk about this freaky incident…ever. David looked back at me and his face melted into pain—pain for me. How funny it was to me that pain seemed to pass from person to person, like germs.
“No one will say a word,” he declared, his eyes strong with promise.
I let my jaw rest on my knees to stop my teeth from chattering.
“Come here,” David demanded as his arms opened to me.
When I didn’t move, David moved to me. He pulled me against him, I stiffened and then dissolved into his chest once again, drinking his scent like a drug.
“I heard them,” I admitted in a low voice, trying hard to keep it from cracking, but not quite succeeding. “I heard the whispers…I mean…the voices.”
David nodded and squeezed me tight.
“Come on. Let’s go.” David stood first.
He offered his hand to me, a normal gesture, but for some reason, I was hesitant to take it. I wanted to and that was the problem. If I let myself want, if I let myself feel…it would hurt me so much more when it all went away.
Tara went away. She was the only person I came close to loving. After a year of feeling connected through friendship, it nearly killed me when I wound up disconnected and alone.
I stared at David’s outstretched hand and grasped it. And I liked its warmth. Maybe I should enjoy what I had when I had it. It’s just…I couldn’t help wondering if—one day—David might leave me, too.
David steadied me on my feet and then I felt his fingers slide underneath my chin, tilting my face so that his eyes burned fiercely into mine. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “You’ll never be alone. Never again. It’s time you allowed me—I mean, everyone—to show you what it means to depend on others, to rely on them.”
I stayed silent in grudging doubt.
David pulled me from the darkness and into the light of the moon.
“So? What’d they say?” Isaac asked.
“Wait. We’ll talk about it at the house. Come on, let’s go.” David gave Isaac a warning glance and then placed a hand on the small of my back as we wandered out of the darkness to stroll down the street. I cut my eyes to the sky as I remembered there was demon about and fear started tugging at my heart.
We made our way back to the rental house with no problems and once we were safely inside with Phinn and Joshua, we gathered around the dining table to discuss what happened. Thankfully, no one seemed to treat me differently or acknowledge that I had behaved out of the norm, but both Isaac and Phinn studied me with appraising eyes.
I relayed the entire conversation—my cheeks red with embarrassment—as best as I could and then waited for them to respond. They all stared at me, completely confused. Their baffled eyes were waiting for an explanation of my behavior, and I could feel their unasked questions traveling in the air around me. My cheeks burned.
“What do you think?” David finally asked as he tipped his chair back on two legs. “I mean, it sounds like they’re having marriage problems. But…that doesn’t tell us why there’s a demon stalking them.”
I sat back and pondered the conversation. I was surprised I was able to remember any of the actual words that were spoken. All I really remembered was that moment of alien pain. Maybe I left something out? I doubted it.
“Hmm...” David said wearily. “When we get back to the Kingdom, we’ll go see Zeke at the Library of Records and tell him what Shayne heard. Maybe he’ll be able to shed a little light on the situation. Or maybe the demon was just having some fun and there’s no real meaning behind his stalking.” David let out a long sigh and drummed his fingers on the dining room table.
Well that was a waste.
“Perhaps a little research might be required.” Phinn hissed from the kitchen where he was packing up the binoculars and then cheap radios we never used. “Haven’t you ever heard the saying, ‘you can’t see the forest from the trees’?”
I tensed at Phinn’s words.
David glanced toward the kitchen a moment and then turned back to us. “Let’s get back on track and talk about tomorrow. I’ve been trying to come up with a new plan. Obviously, Cash has no interest in speaking with us again. He clearly thinks we’re insane. He’ll probably waste no time calling the cops. I think our only chance at this point is for me to break into his dreams. So, I hate to say it, but I really need to hit the sack.”
“Well, I’m going to get food. I’m starving.” Isaac grumbled as he shoved away from the table. “I realize we’re on a top-secret operation with a couple of Vampires, trying to find a real-life Angel before the bad guys can find them first, but we still have to eat. If you keep starving me, I quit.” He loped through the living room and we could hear his loud footfalls as he traveled down the stairs.
Phinn was standing beside the kitchen counter. I turned away quickly and caught David giving him a stinging look. I glanced back to see Phinn wave a hand at Joshua and the two Vampires seemed to glide across the floor before retreating to the outside balcony.
David stood and stretched and then patted my back awkwardly. “Get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. If I didn’t have to work tonight…we could, you know…let’s hang out tomorrow night.”
My heart sped up. I moistened my lips. “Alright, goodnight then.”
As I retreated into my room I had to concentrate on walking without tripping. Hope flared inside of me. Did David like me? Did he just ask me out on a date? Does it count if you go out on dates while you’re dreaming?
I furiously rebuked myself for wanting something so badly. David was just David. He was only comforting me because I needed it. He was only offering me the chance to visit his own dream world because he knew that I could benefit from an escape. There was nothing more to it.
Yet…he wasn’t offering to take Isaac to Hushaby Mountain. Did that mean something?
When I hit the bed, my conscious melted into the smooth mattress, into the cotton sheets.
I knew I was dreaming because I was standing in the middle of a heavily wooded meadow, dressed in my nightgown.
All around me was a tangle of gnarly tree trunks, rising out of the ground like broken fingers, twisted and knotted. The branches thrashed in the stout winds. The leaves rustled against one another in symphony.
Only a few slivers of moonlight reached the meadow’s floor. The silver streaks broke the darkness and allowed me to see that I was alone.
My heart began to race.
For the first time, I noticed the slick wetness that covered my skin, the light mist that accompanied the winds that blew through the trees and swirled in the breeze. The drizzle of moisture splattered across my face. My nightgown was damp, growing wet. And I was cold.
And then I saw him. Golden eyes—rimmed in red—and the palest of faces, the whitest of hair hanging in clumps around an albino face. And I knew I was in a nightmare. This could only be a nightmare. My mind flashed to Ferris wheels, to clowns with fangs. And to him, his face giant in the sky, looking down on me.
I turned to run for the tree line—the wall of thorny grasses seemed like my only hope—but I wasn’t moving forward. The tree line began to recede into the distance, appearing further and further away. And my legs were moving slower and slower, becoming stone.
“You can’t run from me.” A dark chuckle.
My head could still move. I snapped it around to see over my shoulder. He stood directly behind me. Panic moved through me like crashing waves, towing me deeper and deeper into horror, and suddenly the meadow was spinning around me, the dark colors of night blurring together, leaving behind vaporous streaks with the dizzy movement.
Now I was facing him and the ability to move at all was completely stolen from me. I was rooted to the earth; I might as well be part of the twisted trees.
The hazy face that once floated in the sky like a helium balloon, watching my death unfold, was standing before me. Not just a face, but an entire man. He was tall; his head was well above mine. And he was dressed in black, only pale hands and a pale face showing.
I couldn’t move. I felt as if I was baked in concrete and suffocating.
“Shhh…” He shushed me, though I wasn’t making a sound. His voice was musical but the beauty of his tone only caused the terror to build inside me. He lifted one palm to caress my cheek.
My lungs thrashed within me as my heart petrified with fear. I was frozen solid; only my eyes were able to move.
“Just calm down.” he soothed. “It’s only a dream after all.” Another dark laugh. “Breathe.”
Though I was still nothing but a statue of fear, my chest began to rise and fall. My lungs filled with air and I could feel the blood return to my face as oxygen finally filled my lungs. And for the first time, I noticed that we weren’t alone in the meadow.
Perched on a gnarly, thick branch was a vulture, its yellow eyes looking down its hooked beak. And flanking either side of the golden-eyed man were two black creatures that could only be described as large beasts—a merge between wolf and Rottweiler, with the bulk and size of a lion.
I wanted to scream, to clamp my eyes shut, to plug my ears, and drop to the ground in a ball, but instead, I remained still, unmoving, wholly terrified.
His smile was both wicked and beautiful, revealing perfect pearly white teeth, but his smile didn’t touch his golden eyes. His eyes could only be evil.
“I’ve heard rumors about you. For once, they are true. I saw you from a great distance, of course. I wanted to cheat just a little. But…I decided I had to see you up close. I found the suspense unbearable.” His musical voice swirled in the misty winds. “I wanted to meet you. And I must say…I’m delighted.”
His whimsical laughter echoed through the meadow, causing the beasts at his side to stir.
“Oh. You seem confused,” he mused. “Now, this surprises me. And hardly anything surprises me.”
His long black trench coat swished around his shoes as he stepped toward me, lifting one pale hand to clutch his chin. The yellow-eyed vulture keened into the night and cut through the wet air, landing on the man’s shoulder. Once it touched down on the black coat, it skittered through the mist to perch on a branch directly to my left.
Suddenly, the albino man was toying with my nightgown, the cotton material brushing against my bare, slick legs. Though I couldn’t move, I felt my stomach lurch and roll inside me and I was sure I was going to vomit.
“No.” He laughed. “Why ruin the suspense completely? I like suspense, don’t you?”
I could feel the relief zap through my body as the nightgown fell from his fingertips to lay immobile against my frozen legs. Still, the misty winds had saturated the material so that it clung to my skin.
“I’ve been so alone,” he murmured as he stroked the foul looking beast beside him. “Humans can be entertaining, it’s true.” He shrugged. “The rest of the swine that surround me…well…I’d rid myself of their company if I didn’t need to use them to advance my goals. I hate them all.” His eyes tightened as he stared at me intently. “Hate is such a wonderful emotion, don’t you think? It’s very empowering.”
He lifted a white finger to my chin and I would have shuddered violently if I could move. His skin was like the a single layer of an onion. It repulsed me. The blue veins that snaked below the surface seemed to throb with each heartbeat. He tilted my head back and forth, exposing the length of my neck.
I inhaled sharply as he traced one finger, one paper-thin nail, across my lips.
“You’re like a perfect rose ready to be pruned.” His golden eyes blazed into mine and the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile.
He threw his head back and took a deep breath through his nostrils.
“Endorphins,” he uttered. After a moment, his eyes wandered back to my face and his smile reappeared. “I can smell your adrenaline. I can taste your fear on the air. It’s delicious.
“Shayne? That’s your name, isn’t it? So I’ve heard anyway. I go by Rocco. There. We’ve been introduced. You know…” He trailed and then seemed to change course abruptly. “No, no. I won’t rob you of suspense. Of course not.”
His wickedly beautiful smile widened. He tilted his head down, the choppy lengths of white hair falling around his sharp face. “I’m glad I got to see you up close, in person. You have exceeded my expectations. I can tell you are pure and innocent. I like that. More to corrupt. I can’t wait to have you. And I will have you soon.”
He stared at me a little longer, his eyes seemed to glint with flames, and then he snapped his fingers. The two beasts at his side turned toward the trees and the vulture glided through the air to disappear into the moving leaves.
“See you soon.”
His coat swirled around him as he turned his back to me. And I watched as he gracefully ghosted across the meadow, the beasts keeping pace. At last, he vanished into the darkness.
The weeping screams that had built up inside of me exploded from my mouth.