Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Diary of the Empties

Some urban fantasy and exploring lost youth on the blog today... I hope you all enjoy an excerpt from The Diary of the Empties by writing teacher Craig Soffer. After spending some time in Vietnam, Craig recently moved back to New York and will get his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find him on Twitter at @craigsoffer.

The Diary of the Empties
By Craig Soffer

It's an Empty time and I'm Drifting. The restaurant bar is packed but quiet, the conversations around me muted. The Phil Collins song In the Air ends and is replaced by Mummy Calls’ even Emptier Beauty Has Her Way. Talk shifts from the harsh realities of work and school, bosses and assignments, to dreamier things. Philosophy. Metaphysics. Star Wars. My gin and tonic tastes better than it should. Alcohol, like drugs, can open the way for the Empty. There's no smoking in the bar, and no one is lighting up, yet somehow there's still smoke hanging in the air. A line of conversation catches my ear.

"It's a great place, I mean, you'd love it."

I tune in on a guy in a shirt and tie, girl in a black dress.

"It's got like ten acres of woods, and you can see billions of stars in the sky at night."

"Really?" she says though her body language says she doesn’t care.

"Yeah,” he says. "My parents go up there, like every weekend. They're up there today, but they're coming back tonight. It's like their thing; they go up on Friday evenings, after work. It's like a two hour drive, straight up the Taconic."

"The Taconic, what's that?" she says, flipping her hair.

She's a different kind of empty.

"Look," he says, taking out a smartphone. "I'll show you on Google maps."

Office-Geek starts working an app on his phone. I move up behind them. I have to be subtle about it, but I'm also the kind of guy nobody ever notices.

"So," he says after we've all spent longer looking at the map than necessary, "what do you say? We can drive up any day this week if you can get off work. My parents won't be back up there until late Friday night the earliest."

She looks at him for a moment, then looks away and says, "I have to think about it, you know, because it's not so easy for me to take time off from work, especially this time of year and all," and he translates that into a very strong maybe, but I recognize it for the no-fucking-way that it is. I will be the only one heading to his parents’ place. My shoulder bumps Office-Geek as I slip to another spot at the bar.

"Sorry."

"Whatever."

My car, this weekend's car, is parked outside. It's an Empty, of course, a vehicle that spends its life in a long-term parking lot, heading out on the rare Saturday for a spin on Riverside Drive. Today is Sunday; the car won't be missed until long after it's taken me to this guy’s Empty weekend house where, hopefully, there will be a full fridge.

The music turns again, Jazz instrumental, Coltrane. Time to get moving before I end up part of something I'd just as soon avoid. As soon as I think it, out of the corner of my eye, I see just that something, not there one moment and then there the next, sitting at the very end of the bar, hands wrapped around a double shot of Jameson. A Dirtbag. A hunter out of the Deep Empty. He has a unibrow, sideburns practically muttonchops, hair that looks like a cockroach graveyard.

His eyes find what what he's looking for at the same time mine do. A conversation rapidly becoming an argument at a table for six, and one of those six slipping towards the Empty as the argument gets more intense. I follow the Dirtbag's eyes to a blond, maybe seventeen, maybe not quite, pale, light colored eyes, waif-thin, with an unusually large chest hiding under a heavy brown wool-knit sweater with a turtleneck the size of a life preserver, oversized sleeves that have swallowed her arms. She stares down into her soup bowl while her parents and siblings go at it around her.

I tune in as best I can, despite the distance, and I hear a lot of angry whispers and the father shouts, "Well, she's obviously never given a though to what it's meant to our family’s reputation!"

The girl looks away, staring off into the Empty. The Dirtbag moves, rises like wind through a pile of trash. I wonder why he wants her. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

The argument escalates. The older brother calls for the check. The older sister runs out. The father puts on his coat. When the server arrives, the mother materializes a credit card. The father leaves first. And then they are all gone, except her. They leave her, sitting alone at the table.

I stand and toss an old twenty-dollar bill I lifted from Office-Geek’s pocket moments before onto the bar. The girl is on the way to the restrooms. She stumbles through the smoky darkness. The Dirtbag follows her.

The nice car I stole is waiting outside. I have that Google map memorized. But still I’m moving.

Her ponytail disappears through a door and the Dirtbag catches the door before it closes, and then I'm there, behind him. "Hey, this one's the men's room," I say and jerk a thumb towards the adjacent door.

He turns, startled, glares. I take a deep breath. I can smell the Empty on him. I smile. I know what you are and you know what I am. Let’s not do this here.

He growls and turns away. I step back to let him go and try not to breathe in his stink. He moves out into the crowd, disappears into it, becomes part of the dark and the smoke and the sad music the way only something out of the Empty can. I push open the door.

She's in the stall. I turn to the sink and wash my hands, whistling a tune. "Man," I say aloud, pretending to be looking in the mirror, "but I need a haircut." It’s true. My hair pushes unruly into anarchy.

No response. The girl in the stall does not stir.

“Hey,” I say.

No response. Damn it. I can't leave her in here. Not with him out there. I try to open the stall door, but its bolted.

"Hey, open the door," I say, but she ignores me, or doesn't hear me. I have no choice. I work the hinges out with my pocketknife, his pocketknife--he’s the reason I’m doing this--work the door off, and set it aside. She never stirs. She's on the toilet, but her pants are on, the seat cover is down, and she's simply sitting there, staring at nothing.

I fold the knife away. "Hey," I say. "You need to come with me. You can't stay here."

She doesn't answer me. She's almost catatonic.

I reach out and take her arm by the wrist. It doesn't take any strength for me to pull her up, and we make eye contact for the first time. She smells like roses and vanilla and something citrusy. I lead her out of the bathroom and she follows uncomplaining, her eyes starting into Emptiness. Once we’re in the middle of the restaurant, I think she gets hold of herself for a moment and she says, “They left me here. They hate me because of what I write in my diary. It disappears after I write it.”

I'm still holding her wrist. I look around and spot the Dirtbag. He's watching us. He licks his lips with his fat tongue.

"Come on," I say, moving her through the crowded room. Ben Williams Things Don't Exist plays from hidden speakers.

I drag her through the restaurant, out through the even more crowded bar, and we finally make the front door and stumble out into the street. A flash of white in the sky and thunder booms. It's been drizzling and the rain has left on the pavement puddles that bend the light in strange ways. I get her moving. The Dirtbag follows, shambling, simian-like, knuckles practically scraping sidewalk.

"Come on," I say. We move a little faster and reach the stolen car I'm using. I hit the beeper hanging from the keys to the car, a 2009 gray Saab with dark leather interior, and the car responds with an answering beep and the sound of its doors unlocking. I reach out, open the passenger side door, tell her to get in, and move around to the driver's side. She doesn't move, so I have no choice. I come back around.

I could leave her. I could get on with my life. I could avoid this.

But I can’t. She's been cut loose like a ship that has snapped its mooring line. She’s Drifting, and that makes her my responsibility. I will find a way to push her back into the Bright, or I will teach her to Drift. I owe that much to the man who taught me.

At least I know where to take her. Looks like I’ll have company for that drive up the Taconic.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Memoirs of a Sex Addict

Hey everyone. Let's get controversial today with an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, Memoirs of a Sex Addict by Kevin Luttery. Kevin is the author of Chuck's Vigil and the forthcoming The Haunting at Beecher Hills. Enjoy! 

Memoirs of a Sex Addict
By Kevin Luttery

The summer of ’98 was a season of contradiction. I look back on it as being both a beginning and an end. The end of childhood innocence, the beginning of adult perversion. With only one month left before starting middle school, my buddies and I were outside riding our bikes. We raced up and down the street, the pavement so hot I thought our tires might melt into a sticky rubbery goo.

“Hey Ray,” I yelled. “What you got at your house to drink?”

Raymond did a few bunnyhops, nearly breaking his neck showing off his new trick. He then stopped and watched as Cory zoomed off like a rocket, hit his front brakes and did a crazy-mad stoppie.

“Whooooaaaaa,” Ray said. “You gotta teach me that one.”

Sweat crawled from my scalp and ran down my forehead. I pedaled over to Ray and parked beside him. As he continued gawking at Cory’s tight moves, I wiped my face with my sweat-soaked T-shirt. The wetness felt cool against my burning skin, but it wasn’t enough. Even way back then I was hard to satisfy.

“Ray,” I said. “What you got to drink?”

“I don’t know. But I can’t have company. My mom’s not home yet.”

“So bring it outside.”

Ray wasn’t hearing my plea. His mom was strict like that. She worked as a juvenile probation officer, and most days she brought her job home from the office. Ray stayed in check and lockdown.

“Cory,” I yelled. “You got some Kool-Aid?”

Cory raced toward us, skidding hard enough to leave a long black streak on the faded asphalt.

“Say what?” Cory said.

“Kool-Aid. You got some Kool-Aid or juice at your house? I’m burning up.”

“Naw. But we got some bottled water in the fridge. It’s real cold.”
Water. I could get water at home, but my house was three blocks over and I needed something ASAP.

“Let’s go get some,” I said. “Before I pass out.”

Cory lived four houses down from Ray. Being raised by his uncle, he never talked about his folks. I didn’t know if they were dead, in prison, or simply MIA. But Cory didn’t seem to mind. Half the time his uncle wasn’t home, and when he was home he was usually too busy to worry about Cory.

We parked our bikes in the driveway and climbed the front steps. As soon as we stepped inside the house I heard the noise. It sounded like someone moving furniture around or perhaps wrestling on the floor, but I was just a kid, 11 years old, too young and sheltered to have a clue what IT sounded like.

The three of us wiped our sweaty faces, walked through the den and went to the kitchen. We never made it to the cold water though. Between us and the refrigerator stood the kitchen table, and Cory’s uncle, sweaty and butt naked, had a woman bent over it. He was doing her from behind, so fast and hard it sounded like someone clapping their hands in wild applause.

“Dang,” Ray said. “They’re doing it.”

He and I looked at each other with eyes wide with shock. Then we looked back at the humping bodies in the middle of the room. Cory didn’t blink once, unmoved and unfazed. I figured he must’ve seen the exhibition plenty of times already.

“Uncle Paul?” he said.

Uncle Paul looked up, his face twisted, his bottom lip clamped tight between his teeth.

“Boy get the hell outta here!”

Uncle Paul said it like he meant business, but not enough business to cease his stroke. With eyes half-shut, the woman looked up, panting and moaning, but she didn’t stop humping either. She just dropped her head and tightened her grip around the table’s edge. The grunts rose in crescendo. Rose and fell. The wooden table creaked at the joints, the legs scraping hard against the cheap linoleum floor.

E-ink e-ink e-ink e-ink.

“We want some water,” Cory said. “From the fridge.”

“Boy I said get the hell outta here!”

Cory turned and stepped away.

“Come on,” he said. “We gotta go outside.”

Ray followed him into the next room, but I couldn’t move. The frenzied motion of their bodies, mixed with the strange guttural sounds, held me hypnotized, fascinated, my feet frozen in place.

What I saw, in a way, reminded me of my folks. They sometimes danced together at home, their arms wrapped around each other's waist, their bodies swaying back and forth to the music flowing from the speakers. Peeking from the hallway, I often had the feeling what I witnessed wasn’t the IT but instead the prelude leading up to the IT, the secret, mysterious finale not intended for staring eyes.

And yet there it was right before my eyes, the IT itself, filling the air with grunts and whimpers and a palpable kind of energy. As I stood at the doorway spying, Uncle Paul closed his eyes and scrunched up his face. It looked like he was concentrating hard, though on what I did not know. At least not then.

“Brandon,” Cory said. “Come on. Let’s go.”

But all I could do was stare.

At the naked bodies bumping together.

At the trail of sweat running down the woman’s cheek.

At the scuff marks on the floor, the spilled salt on the table.

At what seemed to be a mixture of pleasure and pain.

Cory grabbed my arm and pulled me away.

“Come on, B,” he said. “Haven’t you ever seen anybody screwing before?”

No, I hadn’t. Not on TV or the movies, and definitely not in real life. With my body swirling with all sorts of weird new feelings, I followed Cory into the den.

“Are they making a baby?” I said.

“No, stupid. They’re just doing it is all.”

“How come?”

Cory shrugged.

“I don’t know. That’s just what grownups do.”

I looked over my shoulder as we reached the front door. Even at a distance I still heard them going at it good. Doing it, screwing, having sex just because. It was a moment in childhood that would stick with me forever, like a photographic image imprinted on my mind.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Old and Angry

Hey everyone! Today writer, columnist, musician, and illustrator, Carl Pettit, is sharing part of his short story, Old and Angry. Carl writes for an array of colorful publications, and also finds time to produce a fair amount of fiction for adults and children. When not writing or working on his "very rusty" (his words) drawing technique, he's planning his next adventure. Check out his site, Raindrop's World, when you finish his story. Enjoy!

Old and Angry
By Carl Pettit

Routine

Every Monday morning, Willem Raven left his tiny Brooklyn apartment to taste life, lest life cease to exist. He needed to remember why he even soldiered on. The old man had lived alone for more years than he cared to count. His enemies had dwindled down to next to nothing, and most of his friends were now dead and gone. He was tired of this life, often too tired to care. Most of the week he stayed home and consumed soup, coffee and tea, but today was Monday. He planned a large breakfast, followed by a stroll through the park, and perhaps a visit to the library, or a movie later.

After he’d made it to the corner, and down the street, he bought four jam-filled croissants from the local bakery, which he took to the park with a bottle of soda, some olive-flavored biscuits and a few slices of cheese. He found a green bench, brushed off the dusting of snow and sat down. Despite the cold, he preferred to eat outside. The sounds of the park signaled that today was a break from his normal routine. He bit into the croissant and then opened the soda and drank exactly half, saving the rest for when he’d finished the bread and cheese. Willem pulled his coat tight against his sweater and nibbled on the biscuits, taking slices of cheese with some, and eating the others dry.

The Hawk

A red-tail hawk circled the trees and wove through the long branches. It extended its black talons and settled down on a bough, digging its claws into the frozen bark. Willem scooted to the opposite side of the bench, twisted his neck and tried to view the bird. Frustrated by the pain in his shoulders and back, he collected his food and moved to another bench, where he could observe the hawk without straining his joints. The creature cleaned its perch, sending snow and twigs down to the ground. Willem gazed at the bird for a while, and then turned back to his food.

Just as the old man was finishing his snack, the hawk whooshed past him and darted towards a patch of brushy ground. The bird loitered for a moment, and then flew off, foiled by what should have been an easy catch.

“Lucky squirrel,” Willem mumbled as he left the park. He bought a paper at a kiosk and browsed through the film listings. He would have preferred a stroll to the cinema, but hailed a taxi instead, afraid he might miss the first showing of the day.

The Movie House

The cab deposited him in front of the theater, and he rushed inside just as the lights were being dimmed. The old movie house was almost empty, save for a few patrons in the back. The cinema used to be a vaudeville theater, Willem recalled. He’d read that somewhere, in a magazine perhaps. The lip of the stage still protruded from beneath the screen. Tall columns supported an arch over the screen and the stage. The curtains had been drawn up to the gridiron, with a few broken ribs hanging below the border, which made the entire contraption look like a wounded animal, hiding from some dangerous prey. Willem nestled into his seat, happy to be anonymous in this house of fantasy.

When he left the theater, he found the sun’s glare too harsh. Willem shielded his eyes and began his stroll, although the strain on his muscles forced him to rest several times. By and by he came upon a rock wall encircling a small church. He leaned against the wall and caught his breath. The stones were large and gray with speckles of white and red. Heavy loam had been piled up against the gothic faƧade. It was a church he often passed by when out on his walks. He knew he sometimes confused it with another. Willem looked up and saw that the day’s light had already begun to pass.

Confusion

Was it Thursday? He would have to go home soon, but of course it wasn’t Thursday, and that made him laugh. He would write in his journal on Tuesday and Wednesday, and perhaps slip out Thursday morning for a small bite – but what could he eat now? He left the church and spotted a small diner. That would do. “I shall have breakfast for dinner.” He would eat eggs and bacon and drink coffee in warm surroundings and strike up a conversation with someone nearby and learn about his or her life. Perhaps he would meet that person next week and have breakfast for dinner again. Yes, he thought, it would be good. He found his seat, ordered his meal but ate alone. No one came over and sat beside him. The food was good, but a bit too oily, just as he’d expected. He cleaned his plate, paid and left.

Willem picking up some groceries from the market and went home. He found two boxes of chocolate and a note beside his door. Perhaps his grandson had paid him a call. He could feel a smile ripen as he picked up the note. ‘Happy Holidays,’ it read. The chocolates were from an elderly woman who lived several floors above. He glanced around the hallway and saw boxes of chocolates next to three more apartment doors. At that moment, he couldn’t even remember the old bat’s name. “Pity,” he said as he unlocked his door and went inside.

Home

Willem set his groceries down, changed into his nightshirt, and then dug into the chocolates. He placed one, then two in his mouth, and let them dissolve slowly until he could feel the nut inside the chocolate resting on his tongue. Willem went into the kitchen and made a cup of chamomile tea and took it into his bedroom. A small electric heater rested in the corner. He flicked it on. A soft humming chorus churned forth from glowing heat grates. He crawled under his covers. Being an old man, he limited himself to one last sip before settling in. He didn’t want to rise every hour in order to take a piss. As he drifted off, he tried to remember the structure of the film he had seen earlier in the day. It wasn’t half bad, he decided.

With the exception of Mondays, every morning, afternoon and night were the same. He woke early, made a small breakfast of oats and ham, drank one black coffee and then began to write in his thick journal, now over a thousand pages long. Remarkable, for he wrote no more than five pages a day. His previous work – a systemization of his life’s writings – since discarded, had been twice this size. He liked to lift this new book in his open palm. It had the hefty weight of accomplishment. His memoirs would be his final endeavor, a monument to his hard beliefs.

A Fleeting Hope

As routine dictated, he would often nap in the afternoon and then begin his work again. Refreshed, he would continue to write or reread something from his shelves. He would have a light dinner, usually soup, then remove a small television from a cabinet, plug it in and watch whatever was to be seen. Often he finished his days with a cup of warm milk before retiring. This had been his routine for almost five years...

He peeked out from beneath his covers, unsure of the hour. The floor was icy cold. Was it the weekend? After enough transient light had warmed the floor, he slipped out of bed and put a pot of coffee on, boiled some oats, added dried apricots and ate his breakfast. A loud knock disturbed him some time after nine. No one should be knocking at that hour. He didn’t answer. The knock came again. He ignored it until it became a pounding. At last he rose, frowned, finished his coffee and fetched his robe, pulling the garment tight about him. And then a thought struck him. Perhaps it was his grandson, come to visit him after all these years? He could apologize to the boy for all of the terrible things he’d done and said. He hadn’t meant to drive him off, but at the time, how could he have approved of his bride? The girl wasn’t even of the same race. But Willem had learned. He’d learned to let go of his hate. Love knew no bounds of belief or color. “Oh, let it be James,” he prayed as he slowly approached the door. “Lord, let it be him.”

Willem unlatched the lock. His hands shook violently. Then he pulled the door open. No one was there. He looked down the hall, and then at his feet. Someone had left him another box of chocolates. He picked up the gift, and went back inside.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Winterbringer

It's a dark and stormy Wednesday here in NYC, so what better day to bring you some old fashioned horror? The Winterbringer by Sarah Austin is about a Windigo - a Native American cannibal monster - that stalks a dying Michigan village in the middle of winter. The author is a college junior studying respiratory therapy who writes about monsters and Michigan in her spare time. The Winterbringer is her first novel, which she is currently querying, and she is at work on a second novel. Enjoy!

The Winterbringer 

By Sarah Austin

Just past two in the morning, Grady stomped out his fourth cigarette and loaded the double barrels of his shotgun before stepping out into the backyard. Ahead of him the woods swayed in the wind with no more noise than that of their branches rubbing together, a lonely groaning that set his jaw on edge as he tightened his grip on the trigger. An owl hooted from one of the closer oak trees before taking flight with a rustle; whether it was fleeing from Grady or something else was the question of the hour. He cocked the gun, the mechanical clack echoing in the night. Any time now and it’d start again, just another minute more, if even that.

“Come on, where are you?” His voice was low as he crept towards the woods, shotgun raised and nestled against his shoulder. “You know I’m here, I know you’re here…come on out, you son of a bitch. Lemme see that pretty face.”

Somewhere in the distance a train whistle wailed. Grady breathed deep, his nose stiff from the cold as he smelled the air, testing it for the reek that’d smothered the cabin where he’d found his dad. Jesus, that again…he winced as the memory came flooding back, the bodies, the blood, the smell, him reaching for his dad’s shoulder to turn the body over and finding nothing left of the man’s face but a crooked mouth wrenched down in a permanent scream.

“Graaaady.”

His hand slipped against the trigger but he didn’t pull, not yet. 2:15, then. Grady’s personal haunting hour.

“Grady, I’m huuungrrrry.” Except for the whine, the voice was exactly as he remembered it, the same tone, the same slight Canadian accent on the vowels. His murdered father’s voice. “I need you to feed me.”

“You don’t need any feeding.” Grady stepped into the woods and swept over the nearby brush with the gun. “Now just come on out where I can get a look at you.”

Silence. He froze, barely daring to breath.

“I miss you, boy.”

Grady swallowed. Barely louder than a whisper, the voice bounced between the trees, first here and then
there, both everywhere and nowhere at once. A ghost’s voice. “You ain’t my dad. Quit talking like him.”

“I miss you bad, Grady…come see me. Come see your old man again one last time and we’ll go fishing.”

“Shut your mouth.”

“You left me up there alone. You left me for that creature to come and get me.” There was a rumble in the voice now, a growl that made him shudder. “You left us all alone up at that shack and look what it did to us. Me and Charlie and Jeff and Jordan and Levi…it got us, Grady. It got us ’cause of you.”

Grady fired into the darkness and ran ahead, not knowing or caring where he was going as long as he found the thing and had it strung up in the highest tree around before morning. A shadow flashed on his left and tore down the hill after it, his boots crunching over the snow as it cackled after him. He stumbled through the underbrush until coming to the edge of the creek, then paused to listen for it again but there was nothing except the gurgling water. Everything around him was the color of old blue jeans, a dusty winter nightscape filled with bony shadows at every turn. The laughter came again, but this time it was much quieter, almost like it was calling to him from the far end of a tunnel.

“I’m gonna get you, Grady. I’m gonna make you bleed. I’ll tear out your eyes and let you find me in the dark, let you crawl on your knees through the woods until you come to me and I eat your lungs right out of your chest.”

“Where are you?”

“You know why I talk to you the same time each night, why it’s always this late? I killed your dad at this time, Grady, I killed him just like I’ll kill you one of these nights.”

Grady’s hands squeezed around the shotgun. “I’m done with your games--where the hell are you?”

More cackling. “I’m in your head, stupid. I’m your monster.”

A gust of wind rocketed through the trees and shook snow down from an overhead branch; it hit Grady on the shoulder and he jerked around and shot off the branch without thinking, splinters of dark wood and something else falling down to rest at the base of the tree. The mystery object was round and mud-colored, about the size of his hand, maybe a little bigger, and overcome with curiosity, Grady lowered his shotgun and approached the tree, then crouched to brush the snow off the surface. It was about half an inch thick, smooth on one side and…his hand froze as he turned it over and realization hit him. It was the back of a skull, the rounded part at the bottom with a good chunk of scalp still attached where strands of curly hair lay clumped together by dried blood.

“Who killed the boy, Grady? Me, or you?”

Grady opened his mouth, but even if he’d been able to find his tongue, the effort would’ve been wasted; the moldy smell was already gone and so was the monster. Alone, he looked down at the piece of bone lying in front of him, thought a moment more, then started to dig into the ground at the base of the tree. The dirt was frozen and the stiff earth tore at his fingers until they bled, but even then he didn’t stop working until the hole was five inches deep, at which point he wiped the back of his hand across his forehead before carefully placing the bone at the bottom of the pit and burying it again. By then, it’d started to snow again; come morning and the new fall would cover whatever dirt he’d thrown about. Finished with his work, Grady stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans before turning around and heading back in the general direction of the house, shotgun hanging limp in his hand.

He knew he ought to show the bone to Sheriff Miller, that’d be the honorable thing to do…more important than that, it’d be what his dad would’ve done. That thought alone put an ache in his heart that stayed for only a moment before Grady shoved it away again, his mind already racing ahead to a more practical plan. There wasn’t any time for the noble path anymore, not with a Windigo around, and especially not when he was already suspect number one. Even if his interview with Nick had cleared his name for the moment, Grady had enough sense to know Miller and half the town was ready to see him shipped off to Baraga max security. They all thought he was crazy, he couldn’t count how many times he’d seen a mother pull her kid to the other side of the street when they saw him coming, but the thing no one else knew was just how bad he wanted them to be right. If he were actually nuts, none of it would be real, there would be no monster waiting for him in the woods, no shadow creeping around and stealing lives. If it was only him, then it could stop.

He walked until the dwindling trees gave way to his backyard, then stopped halfway up to the house when he saw her sitting on the porch waiting for him. She looked up and raised an eyebrow, the butt of her cigarette deep orange in the dark.

“Where’ve you been?” his mother asked. “I heard shots.”

Grady shrugged. “Hunting.”

“Hunting what?”

“It don’t matter to you, so quit asking.” He walked up to the porch and tried to step around her but she grabbed his leg and glared up at him.

“Do you realize how this looks to people?” she demanded. “It was bad enough when you were going on about monsters before, but now with those kids missing and you running around with guns this late…you’re drawing yourself a noose and it’s not a long one, Grady.”

She turned away, hiding her face so he couldn’t see the red in her eyes, but he’d already heard the thickness in her voice. Propping the gun against the porch rail, Grady sat down beside her, waited a moment, then placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. At first she stiffened, so far removed were they from affection that she didn’t know how to react, but after a second passed and he didn’t leave, she leaned against him with a sigh.

“I just wish this would all go away,” she whispered. “I wish we could go back to how things were.”

“It’ll be okay soon. I’ll make it better.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You’ll see.” He kissed her forehead and rose. “Goodnight.”