This is Brian Harmon's personal blog about writing, publishing and life as a writer and stay-at-home dad.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Matter of Time

It was only a matter of time...

The fifth Rushed book is almost here! When Eric finds a mysterious letter written twenty years before he was born, but describing events from his own life, his simple existence as a normal high school English teacher once again takes a bizarre turn into the weird.

Coming Christmas Eve 2015!

Read on for a sneak peek of the first two chapters of Rushed: A Matter of Time!

Chapter One

“I don’t care what anyone says. Truth is stranger than fiction.”
“You have no idea,” muttered Eric without looking up from the box he was rummaging through.
Chad looked across the desk at him, his owlish eyebrows raised. “What?”
“Hm? Oh. Nothing.”
He considered Eric for a moment, and then shrugged and looked back down at the papers stacked in front of him. “Truth is stranger,” he said again. “And much more interesting.”
Eric used to argue this point with him for hours at a time, but somewhere between his first run-in with a golem and that business with the insane, sentient mansion where he first met the little girl who lived in his cell phone, it became clear to him that Chad was right on that particular point, even if Chad couldn’t possibly comprehend just how right he was.
“I mean, what’s the point in wasting your time reading something someone just made up?”
This was where Eric drew the line, however. “Human imagination is infinitely more vast than human history.”
“Vast, maybe. But also useless.”
He knew this argument well enough. Chad was teasing him, egging him on. But he played along. “History would be pretty boring if no one ever had any imagination.”
“It would certainly be easier to research.”
“That’s probably true,” agreed Eric. It only took a few imaginative journalists to turn any simple truth into a convoluted fantasy. It was impossible to know how much of what we accepted as history was actually history and how much of it was fabricated for one reason or another. (Especially given some of the things he’d learned about the world in the past couple years.) “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather just focus on the task in front of us.”
Chad shrugged and did that stroking thing he liked to do with his beard. (He thought it made him look distinguished, but Eric thought it only made him look like he was trying to look distinguished, which he was pretty sure was exactly the opposite.) “I suppose so.”
Between them, the desk in Chad’s classroom was buried under cardboard boxes filled with stacks upon stacks of old papers. A lot of it was research of one kind or another, but the vast majority of it was forty years of middle school English writing projects.
“Did you ever meet Terence?”
Eric shook his head. “He retired before I came along. Just by a year or two.”
“I had him all three years of middle school.” Chad Whelt was only five years older than Eric, but he was the youngest of eight children and it delighted him to be anyone’s senior. The result was that he sometimes managed to sound less like thirty-eight than eighty-eight. Now he gazed off into the corner of the room as if recalling some long-lost golden age of his youth and said wistfully, “He was a really good teacher.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Terence Gawes taught English at Creek Bend Middle School for almost four decades before retiring in 1996. In the twenty years since then, he’d written a few little-known crime novels. Eric had read them all, but he couldn’t honestly say that he was a fan. The dialogue was unnecessarily wordy and unconvincing. He was pretty sure that people in 1930s Chicago didn’t talk like…well, like stuck-up English teachers, frankly.
Gawes was much better known for a short series of books on Creek Bend’s German heritage and his work in the town’s historical society, where he’d collaborated with Chad on a number of projects over the years.
The former teacher, author and historian had passed away a few weeks ago, and his widow had entrusted Chad to sort through his papers and donate anything of academic value to the school and museum, the two things he’d loved most after his own home and family.
“I just don’t see the point in saving all this stuff. I mean, it’s middle school. Most of these kids didn’t care about the assignment. Hell, I can’t even read most of them.”
“True. But every now and then you get one who surprises you.”
Chad pulled out a large stack of yellowed papers and shook them at him. “Not this many.”
Eric had to laugh. “No. I wouldn’t think so.” And he didn’t blame him for getting frustrated. They’d already been at it for two hours, and it didn’t seem like they were making any headway. Both of them were beginning to doubt that there was anything of any value in all this mess.
Chad dropped the stack of papers onto his desk and started shuffling through them.
The high school was quiet today. Summer vacation had begun. The kids were gone. Only a few teachers were in the building, finishing up whatever work needed done before graduation day on Sunday. Eric liked these last quiet days of the school year. He liked the peacefulness. But he was quickly growing bored with this project.
“Sixth grade creative writing assignment. Nineteen…” Chad squinted at the top paper on the stack in front of him, trying to read the faded print. “Sixty-two? Wow. He would’ve been...what? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Can you imagine him that young?”
“Like I said, I never really knew him.” He was pretty sure he’d only ever met the man face-to-face a few times in his entire life, and those encounters had been little more than a polite introduction and handshake.
“Right.” Chad began going through the decades-old papers, glancing over each one and then systematically dropping them into the trash.
Eric could think of roughly a million things he’d rather be doing this afternoon, but Chad was his friend and he’d promised to help with this project. Still, he hadn’t expected there to be so much. At the rate they were going, it was going to take weeks to sort through it all.
But there were little treasures scattered throughout the hoard. They’d already found some of the notes on his published works, along with some research for books he never got around to starting. And the school was sure to be interested in some of the student work he’d accumulated in his forty years. Some of the research papers he’d assigned addressed current events of the time, like the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Watergate scandal, among others. He’d also discovered a handpicked collection of favorite poems and short fiction written by his many students over the decades. Rhoda Inman, the school’s superintendent, was always on the lookout for this sort of stuff.
Chad chuckled. “Here you go,” he said, holding out one of the papers for him to look at. “Mr. Future.”
“You like imagination. Here’s an imaginative one for you.”
Eric took the page and examined it. It was written by a boy named Hector Conant in much neater handwriting than most of his students used today. It was in the form of a letter addressed to a “Mr. Future”:

Dear Mr. Future,

I had a dream about you last night. I saw your face. I saw the things you’ve done. I heard the words you’ve spoken. I know a dream is only a dream. People tell me that all the time. But the truth is that sometimes my dreams come true. Sometimes. When a dream is particularly vivid. And the dream I dreamed about you was the most real dream I’ve ever dreamed in my life. Deep in my heart, I know you are real. And I know I dreamed about you for a reason.
I need your help.
No one here can help me. No one will believe me. But you would believe me. You would help me. It’s what you do. I saw it in my dream. You help people who need help, when no one else can. And you have done such amazing things.
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god. You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten.
And now I need your help. But you are Mr. Future. You are in a world I barely understand. I’m not sure you are born yet, or even if you will be born in my lifetime. For all the amazing things you do, I am sure you cannot travel back in time.
I have to face the fact that I am on my own.
But maybe, if only in my dreams, you can show me what I should do.
You see, two men arrived in our town a few days ago. They are not normal men. I dreamed about them, too, but it wasn’t a nice dream. It wasn’t at all like the dream I had about you. These are bad men. They have strange powers. They are looking for something. And they have terrible plans for when they find it.
You know who they are. I dreamed that, too. But for all my dreams have shown me, I still don’t know why they are here. I have to find out what they are up to. I know I have to stop them. I know it just like I know that you are real. If I don’t, I believe a lot of people are going to die.
I also dreamed that you found this letter. That’s how I know you’ll one day read it.
I’m going to look for the bad men after school. If I find anything, I’ll leave a message with Mr. Silver. I don’t understand why, but I feel very strongly that I should write to you again.

I really wish you were here,
Hector Conant

Eric stared at the page, hardly believing what he’d just read. It’d begun innocently enough. It seemed to be a creative attempt at some simple, experimental fiction. A short story of sorts in the form of a letter to a made-up man from a dream, a man from the future. But those things he wrote…
I saw you walking between worlds. I saw you conversing with the dead and escaping unstoppable monsters. I saw you descend into hell and claim an incredible secret. That described eerily well the experience he had almost two years ago, when he first discovered that there were incredible things in the world. He did, indeed, walk between worlds. More accurately, he’d followed a fissure north through Wisconsin, a sort of crack between this world and another. He’d encountered ghosts on that journey. And he narrowly escaped a trio of golems, frightful, incomprehensible beasts that couldn’t be stopped, only distracted, and only then by something considerable…like two fistfuls of dynamite… And in the end, at his final destination, he descended into a great, dark pit, at the bottom of which really was an incredible secret, something so profound that he couldn’t handle it. It had to be buried in his subconscious mind, where only his dreams could access it.
But that was only the beginning of his adventures. The following summer he discovered strange, unseen sites all over this very town. Invisible sites.
I saw you climb an invisible tower and bargain with a terrible god.
The tower of the old, forgotten high school, unseen for decades, invisible to all without a special shard of glass from a mysterious, broken artifact. But it wasn’t a god that he bargained with. Not exactly, anyway. It was a jinn.
You faced witches and goblins and swam with lake monsters and stopped the world from being eaten. Indeed he had. He met an entire coven of witches in Illinois. There were no goblins, precisely, but there were plenty of goblin-like imps and ogres and even a few giants in those endless fields. And he’d nearly been eaten by a monstrous fish in a lake in Upper Michigan. And he’d prevented a potentially devastating disaster while he was up there.
Chad chuckled again. “It’s clever. I’ll give him that. Everyone knew Terence kept all those assignments. Any letter would be found by some ‘Mr. Future’ or another. Or Mrs., I suppose.”
“Yeah,” said Eric. “Clever.” Much more so than he could ever know. Chad read this letter and saw only the creative imaginings of a boy, but this letter wasn’t fiction at all. It was real. Hector Conant was actually writing to a man he saw in his dreams. A man who really was from the future and would one day have this very letter find its way into his hands.
That future had now become the present, and Eric was that man.
He didn’t even waste time trying to rationalize it. This was the fifth time his life was interrupted by the strangeness of the world. By now, he recognized it when the weird came to call on him.
He even recognized the two “bad men” of which Hector had spoken. Strange men with frightful powers… They sounded remarkably like the nameless agents he’d run into on two separate occasions. They were all dangerous psychopaths who worked for a mysterious organization with an unhealthy interest in all things weird and unnatural. The same organization was responsible for a devastating fire in 1881. If they were back in Creek Bend again in 1962, then Hector really was in trouble.
I need your help.
But he was Mr. Future. He was now. And Hector was the past. He was then. All that would happen to this boy had already happened. Nothing would change that.
His cell phone came to life in his pocket, alerting him to a new text message.
“Since when do you keep your phone on?” asked Chad.
Eric fished the phone from his front pocket. “Karen,” he lied. The truth was that the phone was off. Or, at least, it was set to the “do not disturb” feature, which wasn’t the same as being off, but made sure the stupid thing stayed quiet during class, he guessed. (He still didn’t really know how this new phone worked.) But calls and messages from Isabelle always came through, which was a good thing, because Isabelle was the one person he wanted to always be able to reach him.
She was right. He’d had more than one prophetic dream himself. But dreaming of people and events that were decades in the future? What good would that do?
Eric read the letter again.
Strangely, the thing about it that he found most absurd wasn’t that the boy seemed to actually be talking to him. (Not two months ago he’d shared a brief conversation with a man’s severed head, after all.) It was that Mr. Gawes had only awarded Hector a barely passing D for his trouble. He’d even made notes in the margin about it being lazy, unrealistic and without resolution. “In the future, please try to remain within the parameters of the assignment,” was scrawled across the top in red ink.
“That’s crap,” he muttered.
Chad looked up at him again. “What?”
“I would’ve given him at least a B. Just for creativity.”
Chad gave him a bewildered look.
But that was over fifty years ago, thought Eric. Whatever trouble he was in was done and over with two decades before I was even born.
That was certainly true. But he simply couldn’t comprehend what that reason might be. He couldn’t change the past. He couldn’t even communicate with the boy. All he could do was read his letter.
Mr. Silver. She didn’t ask him if he knew what that meant. Although the few people who knew about her frequently joked about her being “the little girl who lived in his phone,” she didn’t actually live in his phone. The phone was merely the tool that allowed her to speak to him. She was out there in the world somewhere, traveling between mysterious locations that existed in a strange state of duality, straddling rifts between two or more worlds. She was trapped in that mysterious, timeless realm, but she was never entirely alone. The two of them shared a psychic link that allowed her constant access to his mind. Although she was able and willing to tune him out and give him his privacy when appropriate, she was capable of reading his every thought at any given moment.
She knew very well that he knew who Mr. Silver was.
Eric folded the letter twice and then went to drop it in the trash can, but while Chad was looking through his papers, he instead slipped it into his pocket along with the phone. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.”
“Everything all right?” asked Chad. The look of genuine concern that crossed his face made Eric feel guilty about lying, but Isabelle was right. He needed to look into this.
“Karen’s having some car trouble. I need to go and help her out.”
He sat up, as if suddenly very interested in the subject of car repair. “Need any help?”
“No. I’ve got it.”
Chad looked disappointedly at the mountain of papers in front of him. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry about this,” he said, motioning at the boxes. “I promised to help and I will.”
“I’m not worried at all,” said Chad. “I’m about ready to give up for the day anyway. I’ll stick around for a little while longer, then I’ll just head home early. We can finish it on Monday.”
Eric started toward the door. “Sounds good. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t. Good luck with the car. Tell Karen I said hi.”
“Sure. See you later.” He walked calmly out the door and then hurried out to the parking lot. He couldn’t go straight to see Mr. Silver. He was going to need to stop at home first. And all the way there, he pondered the boy’s letter.
Even accepting that the boy really did dream about him and his strange adventures (which, in itself, was no stranger than those very adventures, after all) and that the letter really was meant for him, what were the odds of it actually finding him? Sure, Hector would’ve probably known that his English teacher kept all these assignments and that someone, someday, might come across it. Might. That was assuming someone didn’t just throw out the entire box without looking through it, which would’ve made more sense than going to the trouble of sorting through it all, in Eric’s opinion.
But it wasn’t as if Gawes, himself had sought him out to deliver the letter. He’d happened to befriend a former student, who, like Eric, wasn’t even born when the letter was written. If Chad hadn’t been in Gawes’ class, or if the two of them hadn’t both been members of the Creek Bend Historical Society, or if Chad and Eric had not been friends, or if either of them had done something different with their lives than choosing to teach at the same high school, it never would’ve found him. Chad probably would’ve tossed the letter in the trash without another thought. For that matter, what if Mrs. Gawes hadn’t entrusted her late husband’s intellectual estate to Chad? Or even if Eric had not been free to help him on this particular day?
I THINK YOU’RE OVERTHINKING IT, said Isabelle. The phone was resting in the PT Cruiser’s cup holder, where he could see the screen.
“Am I?”
That was true, he supposed…
“It just seems a little convoluted to me.”
“You’re right.”
Eric frowned at the screen. “You’ve been spending too much time talking to Karen.”
No, it certainly didn’t. But it was still annoying.

Chapter Two

Karen was in the kitchen, as usual. A half-dozen strawberry pies were cooling on the countertop (her modest contribution to the big bake sale at the library tomorrow morning) and she was tidying up after herself. She was understandably surprised to see him.
“Home already?” she asked.
Eric walked past the kitchen and into the hallway. “Only for a minute,” he replied. He opened the closet door and began rummaging inside.
Karen leaned against the doorway and watched him. “Is this one of those surprise inspections to try and catch me and my illicit lover red handed? Because he usually hides under the bed.”
“That’s right, I always forget he can fit under there. Where’re the garden tools?”
“In the basement. You going to chase him off with a rake?”
Eric closed the closet door and walked back through the kitchen, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek as he squeezed past her. “I need a shovel.”
“Now you’re just getting ahead of yourself.”
“Well, I do like to plan ahead.” He opened the basement door and hurried down the steps. Karen’s gardening basket was there in the corner.
“You’re acting weird. Is everything okay?”
He grabbed a hand trowel and then turned and started up the steps again.
“You might want to grab a bigger one,” she told him. “I’m no expert, but I think it’d take a long time to dig a grave with that.”
“I only need to make a little hole.”
“Ouch. You’re scary good at this jealous husband thing.” She took a step back and let him pass. “I’m not sure whether to be really disturbed or really turned on.” She brushed a loose strand of brown hair away from her lovely face and followed him. “Is it weird that I’m pretty sure I’m leaning toward ‘really turned on’?”
Eric placed the trowel on the table and checked his watch. It was almost one o’clock in the afternoon. “Huh?”
“Seriously,” she said, taking him by the arm. “You’re starting to freak me out. What’s going on?”
He turned and met her gaze. “It’s…um…”
Those beautiful, brown eyes narrowed. “Weirdness?” she asked.
Eric sighed. “I think so.” He pulled Hector’s letter from his pocket and handed it to her.
She unfolded it and read the first line. “Mr. Future?”
“Chad found that in one of Mr. Gawes’ boxes. It was written by a sixth grader more than fifty years ago.”
Karen began to read. After a moment, she creased her eyebrows and said, “Wait… Is he talking about you?”
“About me and to me.”
She finished reading the letter and looked up at him again. “Who’s Mr. Silver?”
“A clue to tell me where to find another letter.”
“And you know who he’s talking about?”
“I can’t be positive until I check. But yeah. I think so.”
“So you’re just going to run off and do your thing again? Get yourself hurt? Scare me to death?”
Eric stood staring at her. “I’m sorry.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know you are. You’re always sorry.” She looked down at the letter again. “These are agents, aren’t they?”
Not much got by her. She was a very bright woman. And he didn’t keep secrets from her. She knew everything about every one of his adventures, with the sole exception that he sometimes told her that his close calls weren’t as close as they really were. And he was pretty sure he wasn’t even fooling her about that.
“What does Isabelle say about this?”
“She says I have to look into it. She doesn’t believe in coincidences.”
“And neither do I.” She read through the letter again and then handed it back to him. “I’m coming with you this time.”
He thought for a second that he must’ve misheard her. “What? No. Absolutely not.”
But he might as well have been talking gibberish, because she ignored him and hurried off to put on her shoes.
He called after her: “I’m serious. It might be dangerous.”
“You said yourself that letter is over fifty years old,” she called back from the hallway. “What could possibly be dangerous about it?”
Eric looked down at the letter again. He had a very vivid imagination. He’d always had a very vivid imagination. And he could think of a lot of things that might be dangerous about it. There were agents involved. Those guys were always bad news. For all he knew, they might still be alive and lurking around. He doubted if elderly agents would be any less dangerous than young ones. Or for all he knew, some agents might not even age. He’d met a man just a few weeks ago who claimed to have been alive for several hundred years. “These things always turn out to be a lot more than they first appear.”
“We’re just looking for a second letter,” she reasoned.
She wasn’t backing down, so he changed his strategy to one that never failed. “You have too much to do,” he argued. She was a freelance cake decorator and caterer, and a damn good one. She made good money off her talents, and they typically kept her busy. Especially on the weekends.
But today was going to be different. “I’m already done with everything,” she countered.
“The bake sale?”
“What about that potluck at the church?”
“That’s not until Sunday. I won’t even start that until tomorrow.”
“Didn’t you have a graduation cake, too?”
“Two of them. I delivered both of them this morning.” She walked back into the room and took her cell phone from the charger, then she turned and gave him a quick kiss on his lips. “Bonus points for paying attention to my life, though.”
“I don’t want bonus points,” huffed Eric as she hurried out of the room to grab her purse. “I want you to stay home where it’s safe.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and said, “Tell her she needs to stay home where it’s safe.”
I’M NOT THE BOSS OF HER, replied Isabelle.
“Isabelle agrees with me,” said Eric.
But Karen didn’t seem to be listening. “So do you think this Hector kid is like you? Your stuff started with dreams, too.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t dream about things that wouldn’t happen for fifty years.”
She walked back into the room, already slipping her sunglasses onto her face. Her hair was tied back now. It was amazing how good she managed to look in something as simple as a pair of khaki shorts and a scoop neck tee shirt. “No, but you dreamed about things that would happen in the next few hours. Sort of…”
Eric gave his head one of those wobbles that wasn’t quite a yes or a no. The first time the weirdness crashed into his life, it started with a dream that woke him in the middle of the night with a pressing urge to get up and leave. But he couldn’t remember what the dream was about, so he ignored it. After three nights of this, he gave in to the compulsion and took a drive. What followed was a terrifying trek through a monster-infested fissure between two worlds. It turned out that the dream was showing him the things he would see and do, but only as they would’ve happened if he’d left the first time he awoke. By leaving two days later, things had changed. So technically, that had been a dream about the future. It just wasn’t the future that actually came to be. And it had only revealed a few hours to him, less than a single day, not even close to Hector’s fifty-four years.
“Maybe he had adventures like you do,” suggested Karen.
“Maybe,” said Eric.
“It’s really interesting.” She picked up the trowel and handed it to him. “I want to see what you dig up.”
“I always keep you posted,” he reminded her.
“This time you won’t have to. And, I can keep an eye on you. Make sure you don’t go visiting any strip clubs.”
Eric groaned. “One time! I didn’t even want to be there! Isabelle even told you I didn’t want to be there!”
But she’d already turned and was on her way out the door.
Eric followed after her. “I’m serious. This kid mentioned agents, remember? Those guys are bad news.”
“Those guys are probably collecting social security by now. If they even live that long. It’s got to be a hazardous line of work. You killed three of them yourself.”
Eric glanced around, startled. “Can we not talk about that outside?”
Karen opened the passenger door of the silver PT Cruiser and climbed inside. “Sorry, killer.”
“Seriously?” He sat behind the wheel and slammed the door. “And I didn’t kill any of them. I just…didn’t save them…”
“What does it matter? They all had it coming.”
“Did they?” asked Eric.
She lowered her sunglasses and met his eyes. “You never had a choice. Not even in Illinois. You did what you had to do every time.”
He shook his head and started the engine. She was right about the rest of them. The foggy man in Minnesota, the two agents here in Creek Bend last year, even the psychotic and inhuman Jonah Fettarsetter in Michigan…all of them had been cold-blooded killers with deadly agendas. He had no choice but to stop them. But the girl in Illinois was different… He was sure there was another way. He just wasn’t wise enough to find it.
Karen didn’t say anything else about it. She knew it bothered him how those encounters went down. Instead, she pushed her sunglasses back into place and said, “So where’re we going?”
       Eric began backing out of the driveway. He wasn’t going to win this one. He’d known that from the start. She was coming with him whether he liked it or not. Few forces on this planet were as powerful as his wife’s stubbornness. “Boxlar Road,” he replied. “To see Mr. Silver.”

Don't miss what happens next!  Rushed: A Matter of Time goes on sale Christmas Eve.  Preorder your copy now at

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Writing with Baby

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably already know that I was blessed with a new arrival earlier this year. I’m now a father of three. As a result, I’ve had a serious, but I hope perfectly understandable impediment to my writing. It’s not nearly as easy as it once was to find time to work on my next book, and my progress has slowed down noticeably. Often times, I’ve no more than just found my word flow when Dad is needed again. There’s a diaper emergency. Or the other two kids are fighting. Or someone desperately needs a snack right now, even though mom is feeding the baby. Or someone has their head stuck between the stairs railings. Again. Every day is a new adventure. And a new opportunity to find yourself saying something you never thought you’d hear yourself say. Like, “We don’t put deodorant on the cat,” and, “Because you’re not a licensed dentist! That’s why!” There’s no preparing for this stuff. You just have to wing it.

Regardless of how crazy it gets, I’d never give up this life for anything. Even now that my work is earning enough that my wife was able to cut back her work hours, I refuse to entirely give up my status as “stay-at-home dad.” I’m far too proud of that title to let it go.

I truly have the best two jobs in the world. I have the best kids and the best fans! And I promise you many more dark adventures are on the way. I’m just moving a little slower than usual right now. Thank you so much for reading!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sneak Peek: Hands of the Architects, book 1

Hands of the Architects is a brand new, dark adventure trilogy that should delight fans of both Rushed and The Temple of the Blind.  Book one, Spirit Ears and Prophet Sight, will be available for sale on August 4, but you can preorder it right now on Amazon.

Persephone can see things others can't, like those ghostly ears atop Piper's head. Piper can hear things no one else can, like the eerie whispering that preludes the arrival of the murderous wraiths that will hunt them to the ends of the earth. Their only hope is to obtain an ancient and powerful artifact that has been hidden since the creation of the universe.

Read on for a sneak peek of the first two chapters.

Chapter 1

Persephone Kipp hadn’t slept well the past two nights.  She kept having strange dreams.  They weren’t nightmares, exactly, although there were some nightmare elements strewn throughout the overall chaos that rolled through her mind like a violent storm each time she managed to nod off.  More than once she’d found herself running from some horrible, murderous thing that she couldn’t quite see.  And there was a particularly frightening bit about being lost in an endless darkness.  But mostly the dreams were just strange and meaningless and disturbing in a way that intruded upon her waking life.  It was taking a toll on her, leaving her weary and distracted.  And today was the worst possible day for her to be off her game. 
“Earth to Seph.  Hello?  Do you copy?”
She blinked and sat up.  “Huh?”
Phoenix laughed.  She had an annoying laugh.  It was nasally, and sort of shrill.  Today it was almost painful to hear.  “Better snap out of it fast,” she advised, checking her watch. 
Persephone took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.  “I’m trying,” she said. 
“She can’t help it,” said Alton.  “She’s exhausted from celebrating all weekend.”
“Seph doesn’t celebrate anything that hard,” countered Kaitlyn, brushing aside her pink-streaked hair to give her an admonishing look.  “No matter how hard I try to talk her into it.” 
Alton chuckled and leaned back in his chair.  His naturally dark hair had streaks of blond so bright they were practically yellow.  It was long and unkempt in a way that required a considerable amount of work in the mornings to look just that way. 
Phoenix laughed that annoying laugh again.  Her hair was a more subtle purple, but shaved on one side, better to show off her many earrings and the stream of tattoos that started behind her left ear and ran down the side her of her neck. 
Persephone was the only one at the table who preferred her hair to remain natural.  She liked it just the way she grew it, raven black and fine, cut shoulder-length and simple.
“I’d love to see Seph celebrate that hard,” said Phoenix. 
Almost everyone called her “Seph.”  It was much less of a mouthful than “Persephone,” which she’d hated for most of her childhood.  Teachers rarely pronounced it right.  Kids with normal, simple names like “Ellen” and “Julie” made fun of her.  But by the time she started college, she’d made peace with it, and by the time she’d earned her bachelor’s degree, she’d learned to love it.  She found that she enjoyed having a name that made her different from all the boring Ellens and Julies out there. 
She checked her watch.  It was almost time to leave.  And two espressos hadn’t helped her to find her focus at all. 
“It’s a big deal,” said Alton.  “I’d be too excited to sleep, too.”
It was a big deal.  It was her big opportunity.  A job interview with the area’s leading graphic design company.  It was what she’d worked so hard for.  It was what she wanted to do with her life.  And it all came down to this interview. 
Well…not just this interview.  It was only the first of three.  She’d have to make a very good impression today just to get a second one.  But you only got one first interview.  And if she blew it today… 
She drained the last of her espresso and forced herself to focus on the menu board. 
She was so nervous. 
“You’ll do great,” promised Kaitlyn.  “Relax.” 
Seph gave her a tired smile. 
“Of course she’ll do great,” agreed Phoenix. 
She met Phoenix Carasik, Kaitlyn Jernam, and Alton Ripna in the art department during her first semester of college.  They’d all just kind of clicked, as they said.  And they’d remained friends ever since.  She didn’t see them as much now that they’d all graduated and gone their separate ways, but they managed to get together every couple of months.  Mostly thanks to Kaitlyn, who seemed to have made it her personal crusade to prevent them from ever drifting completely apart. 
“It’s the same thing she always does,” declared Alton as he fingered the silver ring in his left eyebrow.  Both of his eyebrows were pierced, as was his nose and lip.  And he was always touching them.  He couldn’t seem to help himself.  “She can’t just do something great and show the rest of us up.  She has to do it sleep deprived and jacked up on coffee, just to rub it in that much more.” 
“She does!” giggled Kaitlyn.  She leaned forward and poked her tongue ring out between her teeth. 
“I don’t show anyone up,” returned Seph, looking down at her cup.  She hated when Kaitlyn played with that thing.  It was even more annoying than Alton fiddling with the ones on his face. 
All three of them had piercings.  Kaitlyn’s tongue and eyebrow.  Phoenix’s lip and nose.  It was their thing, apparently.  Seph, however, didn’t have anything pierced but her ears.  She had four in each ear, two at the top and two at the bottom, but that was all.  And she didn’t have any tattoos, either.  She liked her body like she liked her hair:  Natural. 
“You always show me up,” argued Alton.  “Anything I can do, you can do better, and during some kind of personal crisis.”
Seph wrinkled her nose at him.  “That’s not true.” 
“Of course it is,” he insisted.  “You could catch ebola and still give the best damn interview.”
Seph gave a snort of a laugh. 
Phoenix sat back in her seat, smiling broadly.  “I’ll bet I know what it is,” she declared, her violet-lensed eyes widening with mischievous delight.  “She says she hasn’t been sleeping well, but she hasn’t said whose bed she hasn’t been sleeping in.”
Seph shot her an unamused look over her cup, which only managed to make her break out into that annoying, nasally laugh again.  Phoenix had a morbid fascination with the scandalous.  Nothing pleased her more than the idea of people caught up in sordid mischief, especially sexual mischief. 
Alton rolled his eyes. 
“I’m just saying,” pressed Phoenix.  “The girl’s not getting any younger.  She should get herself some action.”
“She’s twenty-three,” said Alton.  “I think she’s still got time.”
“Seph’s a good girl,” said Kaitlyn, managing somehow to make it sound like both a defense and a reproach.  “Not like someone else I know.” 
Phoenix bit her lip and made an exaggerated “who me?” face. 
Seph stood up.  “Anyway…  I’m not going to even make it to my interview if I don’t get going.  I have to leave time for traffic.” 
“I’ve got to go, too,” announced Alton, rising to his feet.
Phoenix shrugged.  “Fine.  Me, too.”
“This was fun!” said Kaitlyn.  “We’ll do it again.”
Everyone agreed that it was and they would.  They gathered their jackets and purses.  (Alton insisted his was a satchel, but Seph knew a man purse when she saw one.)
“I’ll talk to you guys later,” said Seph as her friends headed for the door.  “I have to get something to go.”  She waved goodbye and then walked over to the counter and ordered an Americano. 
The barista was a tall, dark-haired young man who looked a couple years younger than her.  Sort of attractive, but also sort of average, with the kind of everyday face that would be hard to pick out of a crowd ten minutes from now.  She barely spared him a glance as he rang up her order and took her money. 
It was as he was handing her back his change that things first turned weird. 
She glanced up at his face as she thanked him, actually looking at him for the first time.  There, on the very top of his head, two strange, hazy shapes protruded from his thick hair. 
He turned away and set about making her drink, but Seph had forgotten about the Americano.  She even forgot about the interview.  It took all her weary mind could manage just to try to process what it was she was seeing. 
It looked like one of those stupid cat-ear headbands, like the ones you see everywhere on Halloween.  But these weren’t made of plastic and fake fur.  They appeared to be made of a strange, luminescent, gray mist. 
He caught her staring at him and stopped.  “Is something wrong?”
Seph blinked.  “What?”
“Are you okay?”
She glanced around the room.  No one else had strange, ghostly ears sprouting from their head.  And no one else seemed to have noticed the ones on the barista.  No one was staring at him like she was.  A few people, however, were staring at her
“No…” she said, blushing.  “I mean, yes.  I’m fine.  I just…”  Her eyes fixed on those ears again.  They looked a little bit like fox ears, tall and triangular, pointy, but not as big in proportion to the head as a real fox’s ears.  As she watched, one of them twitched to the side and then back again. 
And yet they weren’t really there.  They couldn’t be.  She could see through them.  They were faint around the edges, as if made of smoke. 
“Can I get you anything else?” asked the confused barista who clearly didn’t realize that he’d sprouted an extra pair of ears. 
Seph had to make a conscious effort to compose herself.  “No.  I’m fine.”  Then, lamely, she said, “I haven’t been sleeping well.  I’m sorry.”
He assured her that it was no problem and went back to work, but those strange ears seemed to rotate toward her as he turned away, as if watching her.  (Listening to her?)
Needing to find something to focus on besides the top of the barista’s head, she opened her purse and dug out her keys.  When she looked up again, the ears hadn’t gone away and still no one seemed to have noticed them. 
She looked to see if any of her friends were still in the shop, but they’d all three left by now.
Another customer approached the counter, an older woman with a prim look about her, and Seph stepped out of the way. 
This woman looked right at the barista as he assured her that he’d be right with her, and yet she completely ignored the perky, transparent ears, even though they were plainly visible and even appeared to be faintly glowing. 
Was this some kind of elaborate prank?  Was she on camera?  Was this guy one of those street magicians or something? 
Even that didn’t make sense.  How would you pull off an illusion like this?  The ears—or whatever they were—moved with his head, remaining in place even as he moved about behind the counter.  It looked far too perfect to be any kind of holographic manipulation. 
Finally, her Americano came up.  She took it, thanked him and then quickly walked out of the coffee shop, somehow resisting the urge to break into a run. 
She slipped behind the wheel of her truck (a full-sized Ford pickup; she might be small at only five-foot-three, but she was formidable enough on the highway) and sat there for a moment, her eyes closed, trying to make sense of what she’d seen. 
It couldn’t have been real.  It was too ridiculous to be real.  Clearly she’d imagined the whole thing. 
She hadn’t slept well the past two nights.  She’d tossed and turned.  She’d dreamed those strange dreams.  Obviously, she was even more sleep-deprived than she thought.  She was hallucinating. 
She took off her glasses again and rubbed at her weary eyes.  She might’ve laughed, if she wasn’t so worried about the interview.  She still had to drive all the way to Cakwetak, which was practically Milwaukee.  Once there, she’d have to find a way to not look like a total mess in front of the human resources director. 
Returning the glasses to her face, she looked out across the parking lot.  She could see several people walking around.  None of them had spectral ears sprouting from their heads. 
She’d be all right.  It was the stress, she realized.  She was so worried about this interview.  Once it was over, maybe she’d be able to sleep again. 
She pulled out of the parking lot and headed east. 

* * *

The interview went well enough, she supposed.  She didn’t start hallucinating any animal parts on the human resources director and make a complete fool of herself, at least.  She thought she responded with all the right answers.  But she kept thinking that she looked terrible.  She felt twitchy, wired, probably from too much caffeine.  No matter how hard she tried to forget the strange incident at the coffee shop, her mind kept returning to it. 
“He thought I was on drugs,” she said.  “I know it.” 
“Will you just relax already?” sighed Amethyst.  “You did fine.”
Amethyst Wilhoit was Seph’s roommate.  They were paired together by chance their sophomore year in the dorm and hit it off much better than did Seph and her freshman roommate.  (That girl had some serious baggage.)  Now they shared an apartment close to the campus, where Amethyst had moved on to graduate studies.
She was tall and slender, shapely, with long, wavy, brown hair and soft features.  She had a lovely face, except for a faint, wide scar beneath her left eye, a remnant of a nasty fall when she was just a girl.  She was utterly convinced that this blemish was an insurmountable flaw, but Seph thought it gave her a unique kind of character.  And it’d never deterred the boys from flocking to her.  In fact, it was impossible to tell if any man had ever even noticed the scar.  Their eyes didn’t usually go that far up.  They never made it past her huge breasts.
They were sitting at a table at a little cafĂ© just a couple blocks from their apartment, waiting on their lunch.  The place had become a favorite for both of them almost as soon as they moved in.  It was quiet, cozy, within walking distance and the food was tasty and reasonably priced. 
Seph groaned.  “I totally blew it.”
“Stop it,” said Amethyst.  “It’s only been two days.  They probably haven’t even finished interviewing the other applicants yet.”
This was probably true, and yet Seph couldn’t help it.  She was sure she’d botched it.  And it wasn’t even her fault.  It was those dreams.  The restless nights.  That bizarre hallucination at the coffee shop. 
“You couldn’t fail,” Amethyst assured her.  “I was sending you good energy all day.”
“I told you I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“You don’t have to.”  She took a sip of her tea and stared across the table at her. 
Seph didn’t bother arguing with her.  There wasn’t any point in it.  Amethyst was an unwavering believer in the power of positive energy.  She was utterly convinced that people could affect the world around them with little more than a sickening dose of cheerful optimism. 
Okay…so there was a little more to it than that.  Amethyst believed in karma and in the idea that what you fed into the universe determined the quality of your life.  She believed in positive and negative emotional energy, which could somehow be used to affect those around her.  And which could be measured by examining a person’s aura.  Apparently.  Amethyst, who meditated daily and adhered to a strictly vegan diet, supposedly possessed a very clean aura.  Seph, who did neither of those things, was burdened by a “muddy” aura.  Or so Amethyst had informed her. 
Seph’s personal opinion of the matter was that the only thing making anything “muddy” was the large quantity of bullshit, but she was polite enough not to say so. 
“I’m right.  You’ll see.”
Seph stared out the window at nothing in particular.  “If you say so.”  She was too tired to argue about this right now.  She slept a little better after the interview, but only a little.  She was still plagued by those weird dreams, still tossing and turning.  Last night was a little better still.  It seemed to finally be going away, but the damage had been done.  If she’d blown this interview, she was going to be sorely disappointed in herself. 
“You’re totally going to get that second interview.  Just wait.” 
Seph sipped her Coke and let her gaze drift across the room.  Just wait.  She hated the waiting.  The waiting was the worst part.  It could be another two weeks or more before she heard back, regardless of their decision.  And if she didn’t start getting more sleep soon, it was going to be a very long wait. 
She needed this job.  All through college, she’d lived on her student loans and the moderately sizeable bank account that her father left her.  The money would sustain her comfortably for a few more years, even after paying back the loans, but it wouldn’t last forever.  If she didn’t want to end up flat broke she was going to have to find a job with some kind of future.  This might be her one chance to do what she wanted with her life, instead of laboring away in some bleak factory somewhere. 
But then something caught her attention that made her forget about the interview. 
A television was on in the corner of the room.  There was a news story.  A picture of a familiar face.  A sort of average face.  The kind of face that was kind of attractive, but easily forgotten.  Except she hadn’t forgotten the barista’s face at all.  She could still picture him clearly in her mind.  And although she couldn’t see any ghostly animal ears on the young man whose face was on the television, it was clearly him. 
The headline announced that a body had been identified. 
“What’s that about?”
Amethyst turned around, confused, and looked at the television.  “Oh…  You didn’t hear about that?  It was awful.  It was all over the news this morning.”
“I was trying to sleep in.”
“They found that guy in the middle of an empty parking lot.  His body was all…broken.”  A look of revulsion passed over her face as she recalled the gruesome details of the report.  “I guess nobody saw anything, not even on security cameras.  It was like he just dropped out of the sky.  Super creepy.”
Seph stared at the screen, horrified.  “I just saw that guy…” she breathed. 
Amethyst’s eyes grew wide.  “You knew him?”
She shook her head.  “No.  I just…saw him.  He was a barista at this coffee shop where I was meeting some friends.  I’d never seen him before then.”
Amethyst shuddered.  “That’s creepy.”
Creepy wasn’t the half of it.  She stared at the guy’s picture.  His name was Coby Bilk, according to the caption on the screen.  But she never got his name.  She never looked at his nametag.  She was too busy staring at his ghostly ears. 
That this guy, of all guys, should turn up dead… 
What did it mean? 
The news story switched over to something else and Seph lowered her eyes as the waitress appeared with her plate.  Suddenly, she’d lost her appetite.  She decided to get her chicken salad to go. 

* * *

Seph didn’t sleep very well again that night.  She had nightmares about Coby Bilk and his strange, ghostly ears.  It was late at night and even darker than it should’ve been.  The streetlights were all out.  Nobody was around.  He was running for his life, screaming, begging for help. 
But she didn’t know how to help him. 
The next night was a little better.  And the next night was better still.  By the end of the weekend, she was feeling much more like her old self again.  Better still, she was offered a second interview for the graphic design job, scheduled for Thursday afternoon.  She dismissed her curious hallucination as a side-effect of stress and lack of sleep and even managed to push from her mind the strange coincidence of the barista’s terrible death. 
It helped that the news story had been brushed aside in favor of an even more awful story about some kind of freak accident at a manufacturing facility in Sewart, Wisconsin.  Thirty-seven people were dead.  And it seemed as though no one could explain exactly how or why this tragedy happened.  There were too many conflicting and confusing reports.  It might have been either a disgruntled employee, a terrorist attack or some kind of insane viral outbreak, among other bizarre theories.  She’d stopped paying attention to the reports.  It was too disturbing.  As sorry as she was to hear about all the victims and their poor families, there simply wasn’t anything she could do about it.  She had her own life to lead and she needed to stay focused. 
And she did stay focused.  She was well-prepared and much more confident for her second interview.  By the time she left, she was quite proud of herself. 
In all, it was a good day for her.  She walked out of the building with her head held high, confident this time that she’d be asked back for the third and final interview. 
But as she walked to her truck, she looked out across the busy street and glimpsed a middle-aged man pushing his way through the crowd as if in a hurry, a cell phone pressed to his ear, wearing a suit jacket and tie. 
He looked just like any other self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk, except for the ghostly, glowing ears protruding from his graying hair. 
Seph stopped and stood there, her car keys dangling from her hand, staring. 
He didn’t see her looking at him.  He didn’t seem to see anyone.  He practically knocked an old woman over in his rush.  He appeared to be having a heated conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line. 
People saw him perfectly fine.  They gave him dirty looks as he passed.  But none of them stared at him in any way that would suggest that they saw glowing animal ears sprouting from his head. 
She watched him walk, trying to blink away whatever it was that was making her eyes hallucinate this strange vision again, but they wouldn’t go.  The ears stubbornly refused to disappear, no matter how hard she tried to look past them.  They looked different from the ears she’d seen on Coby Bilk.  They were more round than pointy.  More like a bear’s ears, perhaps, although it was difficult to tell from this distance. 
Then the man turned the corner and was gone. 
Seph looked around.  No one else had ghostly animal ears.  Everyone else looked perfectly normal. 
She stood there a moment, confused, and then continued on toward her car. 

* * *

Seph was nervous for the next couple days.  Partly because she was waiting to hear back about the interview, but also because she couldn’t stop thinking of those two, bizarre hallucinations. 
What did it mean?  Why was it happening to her?
She was beginning to fear that she was having some manner of mental breakdown.  And this was a lousy time to have one of those.  She was so close to achieving her career goal. 
It had to be the stress.  She was so worried about this interview process.  It must have been messing with her head.  And as the weekend came and went, that seemed to be precisely the case.  The world went on about its business as she waited to hear back about the job.  She went out several times.  She even went to the mall and had lunch with her mother, who wanted to hear all about her interviews.  She saw hundreds of people.  Thousands, perhaps, and not one of them had a pair of weird, ghostly ears sprouting from their skulls. 
She didn’t tell her mom about her hallucinations, of course.  She didn’t tell anyone.  She didn’t want anyone to know how badly her mind had unraveled itself.  It was no one else’s business. 
Then Wednesday evening came around and Seph found herself sitting in front of the television, staring at another familiar face on the screen. 
Baxter Winger had turned up dead alongside Interstate Ninety-Four, his mangled body left within plain sight of traffic, and yet there were no witnesses.  She stared at his picture, her stomach twisting into a hot, slimy knot inside her.  He didn’t have animal ears in the picture, ghostly or otherwise, but she recognized him immediately as the rude man on the far side of the street in Cakwetak. 
It had happened again. 
Twice she’d seen those strange ears and twice the person had ended up dead.  And violently so.  What was going on?  Why was this happening?  Were the ears some sort of death omen?  And if so, why was she the only one who could see them?  What the hell was she supposed to do about something like that? 
It wasn’t as if she could tell anyone.  They’d tell her she was crazy.  She’d tell her she was crazy.  It was ridiculous! 
She tried to make sense of it.  She must be mistaken.  Maybe these weren’t the same people at all.  Maybe she was only projecting the faces of these dead men onto her memory of those people her stressed brain decided to fool her into thinking had those stupid, phantom ears. 
That had to be it.  It didn’t make much sense, but that was the only possible explanation. 
She turned off the television and went to bed.  But she didn’t sleep well again that night.

* * *

Seph was offered her third and final interview.  It was on Thursday, the sixth of November, about a week after Baxter Winger was reported dead, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Overall, she was confident.  She hadn’t had any more hallucinations to rattle her, and she’d been avoiding the news, just to be certain nothing else would distract her, so she felt well-composed and perfectly professional.  She was even running early that morning, arriving in Cakwetak with plenty of time to spare, so she stopped at a drive-through and treated herself to a pumpkin spice latte. 
That was when her luck turned sour. 
As soon as she pulled out onto the main road again, she was cut off by a moving truck that changed lanes without signaling.  She slammed on the Ford’s brakes and swerved, narrowly avoiding a collision and spilling the latte on her good dress pants. 
She cursed at the other driver—and at the scalding pain of the hot beverage soaking into her pants leg—and merged into traffic.  This was going to be a problem.  She couldn’t possibly expect to be taken seriously if she showed up for this important interview in stained clothes, but it wasn’t as if she’d thought to bring a spare outfit.  She did her best to mop up the spill with a napkin, but the stain wasn’t coming out.  And it wasn’t subtle, either.  It was huge. 
She groaned, frustrated, and checked the time.  She was still early.  There was time to fix this. 
She changed lanes and turned at the next intersection instead of going straight.  The Cakwetak shopping mall was directly ahead.  If she was quick, she could pop in, get a new pair of pants, change and then be on her way again.  It might be cutting it close, but she was certain she could pull it off if there weren’t any more unexpected complications. 
She parked near the bookstore and started inside, resisting the impatient urge to pick up her pace beyond a brisk walk.  It felt like a mile to the nearest apparel store, but she still had time.  She didn’t need to run.  Or even jog.  There was no good reason to tire herself out and show up to the interview looking like she’d just left the gym. 
But that bad luck was still with her.  As she was riding up the escalator to the second floor, gazing down at the storefronts below her, it happened again. 
A young woman emerged from the Bath and Body Works and set off toward the food court.  She was slender and pretty, wearing skinny jeans, stylish boots and a yellow, long-sleeve shirt.  She had a playful, blonde ponytail and a pair of ghostly, glowing ears protruding from her head just above the neat line of her bangs. 
Seph’s heart instantly sank.  No.  She couldn’t deal with this right now.  She didn’t have time. 
But the last two people she saw with those ears had turned up dead, and violently so.  How long would it be before this blonde girl turned up on the news as well, her body brutally mangled?
She couldn’t let it happen again.  She’d never have a good night’s sleep again if she had to deal with that kind of guilt.  But what was she supposed to do?  Just forget about her interview?  Throw away all that she’d worked for?  This was her dream.  This was her chance to do what she wanted with her life. 
Besides, she couldn’t just walk up to this girl and say, “Excuse me, but do you realize that you have a pair of phantom animal ears stuck to your head?  No?  Well it’s no surprise since I’m the only one who seems to be able to see them.  The problem is that I’m pretty sure you’re going to die horribly sometime soon.” 
The only thing the poor girl would be afraid of would be the crazy, bespectacled weirdo with stained pants who approached her in the middle of a crowded mall to tell her this. 
No.  That wouldn’t do at all.  In fact, she couldn’t think of a single thing she could possibly say or do to convince the ponytailed blonde that her life might be in danger without sounding like a complete mental case. 
It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means.  It was downright unfair.  But there simply wasn’t anything she could do.  It wasn’t her duty to protect these people.  She wasn’t responsible for them.  She didn’t even believe in this kind of stuff. 
And she had important things to do today. 
Seph reached the top of the escalator and walked away from the doomed blonde. 


Chapter 2

Piper Holleworth had a lot of nicknames.  She wasn’t sure why.  People just seemed to decide for whatever reason that she needed to be called something different than what she’d been named, as if "Piper" were too long or cumbersome, or simply wasn’t the right fit for her.  Almost nobody called her Piper.  Various people called her Pipe, Pipes, Pip, Pippy, Pips, Pipey, Peeps or sometimes just Pi.  Her childhood best friend, Wanda Janger, for reasons utterly unbeknownst to anyone except Wanda because she refused to explain it to anybody, called her Babs.  And when she was nine, she had a little cousin who took to calling her Peepee, which was mortifying to Piper, but apparently uproariously hilarious to every other member of her family.  She still couldn’t attend a holiday gathering without her uncle bellowing, “Peepee’s here!” the moment he caught sight of her. 
Piper preferred to be Piper.  That was her name, exactly as it appeared on her birth certificate, exactly as her mother had intended, and exactly as it was printed on her Bath and Body Works nametag as she left for lunch that peculiar Thursday afternoon. 
The day hadn’t been peculiar up until this point.  In fact, it’d been a perfectly normal morning, even rather pleasant.  It didn’t become weird until she made a detour to use the restroom at the end of the rental lockers hallway. 
It wasn’t even unusual for her to use this restroom.  She couldn’t count the times she’d made this exact same stop on her way to lunch.  The food court was at the far end of the mall, and the restrooms near there naturally tended to be busy this time of day.  It was almost always much better to use this one.  Today, she had it entirely to herself. 
Or she thought she did. 
As she was washing her hands, and while she was checking her makeup in the mirror, she glimpsed something moving beneath one of the stall doors. 
At first, she thought it was a shoe, but the stall door was cracked open, as if empty.  This made no sense, of course, because who used a public restroom and left the stall open?  Didn’t that defeat the purpose of even having a stall? 
She stared into the mirror as she finished scrubbing her hands, watching for it to appear again, but there was nothing there.  She dismissed it as her imagination and moved over to the automatic dryer. 
The motor was loud enough to drown out most of the surrounding noises, so she didn’t hear anything.  But when she glanced up at the mirror again, she saw one of the stall doors—a different stall this time—swing slowly closed. 
Piper stopped and turned around, her slender hands still damp.
The hand dryer roared on for a moment longer, then wound to a stop.  The silence that followed was heavy.  No music played in here.  No voices drifted this far from the main floor.  She could hear the ventilation system humming faintly.  She could hear the soft buzzing of the overhead lights.  But other than that, the only sound was the thumping of her heart in her breast and the rush of blood in her ears. 
She could see no one from where she stood.  The restroom still seemed to be empty.  Was it only a breeze that nudged the door?  Was that first shadow she glimpsed only a loose strand of tissue gently tossed around by a draft from the heating vents?  She’d been working at one store or another at this mall for the better part of six years and had used this very restroom more times than she could recall.  She’d never had any reason to feel spooked before.  Not here.  But now her heart was pounding.  Her reflection in the mirrors stared back at her with startled eyes.  A frightful panic was building inside her. 
She took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down.  Nothing was happening.  It was her imagination.  It wouldn’t be the first time it got the better of her.  As a little girl, she’d frequently frightened herself.  She was always convinced that there was something hiding under her bed or in her closet or else lurking just outside her window.  She’d run her poor father ragged every night, peering into all the places a boogeyman might be able to fit, sometimes places no one else ever thought to look. 
But that was a long time ago. 
Well…not that long ago.  She was only twenty-four.  But she’d grown up.  She wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore.  She didn’t believe in monsters.  It was just…nerves, perhaps.  Too much caffeine.  Or maybe she hadn’t been getting quite enough sleep.  She needed to stop staying up so late reading those paranormal romances, but she couldn’t help herself.  She was addicted, and had been since she was thirteen. 
Her cell phone buzzed in her purse, startling her as it alerted her to a new text message.  Embarrassed by her own silliness, she fished it out and glanced at the screen. 
It was Meg again. 
As far as roommates went, Meg wasn’t the worst.  She and Piper shared a dorm room their first three years of college, and had since upgraded to an apartment.  They got along fine.  She cleaned up after herself and did her share of the chores.  Even her various boyfriends had all been tolerable.  The only problem with Meg was that she was considerably prone to crises.  It seemed that every few months her world completely fell apart for one idiotic reason or another.  And every time it happened, she could be counted on to behave like a complete lunatic about it.  She became brash, impulsive and paranoid.  She’d jump to the most ludicrous conclusions.  She’d make wild accusations.  And she’d almost always end up doing something regrettable.  Just last night, her fragile plane of existence was once again shattered when she discovered her laptop had gone missing. 
Piper wasn’t all that concerned about the laptop.  It wasn’t that she didn’t care about Meg’s plight.  It was that this was the fourth time she’d misplaced it.  It’d always turned up before, usually having been left somewhere stupid.  But that hadn’t stopped her from completely flipping out about it.  Again. 
The text message was a rambling, poorly-spelled and far-too-long account of her failed attempts to retrieve her lost property.  Her boyfriend, Martin, didn’t have it.  Her friends hadn’t seen it.  It hadn’t turned up at the library or coffee shop or in any of her classrooms.  It seemed to be gone, and she was sure it’d been stolen this time. 
The contents of the missing laptop included three term papers and one essay due first thing Monday morning, yet she seemed far more concerned with her photo album, which contained her only copy of many of the pictures she’d taken throughout her college years. 
(Why these things weren’t properly backed up after having experienced this very same crisis three times previously was unconceivable to Piper, but here she was again.) 
She patiently responded that the last time she’d seen it was the day before yesterday, when she was using Facebook to procrastinate on her homework, and wished her good luck in her search. 
As she slipped the phone back into her purse, she heard a distinct “clunk” from one of the stalls in front of her and she froze. 
That stubborn, childhood fear crept through her again, driving dark things from the long-buried depths of her imagination. 
Seconds ticked by as she stood there, listening, waiting.  The noise didn’t come again.  And she still seemed to be alone in the room, and yet it seemed to her that she could hear something else.  It was a low, drawn-out murmuring…almost whispering…  But she couldn’t tell where it was coming from. 
Maybe it was the plumbing making noise.  It was, after all, a very big building, with no-telling how many miles of pipes running through the walls and ceilings, feeding toilets, sinks, water fountains and kitchens.  A single broken fixture could affect the water pressure and make noise up and down the line, she was sure. 
That was probably it. 
She scolded herself for being so ridiculous and turned back to the mirror.  She checked to make sure her makeup and hair were still as they should be (and also that she didn’t look exactly like someone who’d just had a strange, mini-freakout for no apparent reason in the restroom).  But before she could turn and walk away, she saw a strange, black shape dart over the top of one of the stall walls behind her, out of one and into another.  It happened so quickly she couldn’t possibly perceive what it looked like.  It was little more than an inky, black shadow. 
As if to assert that it had not been her imagination, the door of the stall into which the shadowy thing had just dropped suddenly slammed shut, startling from her a shrill scream. 
She turned and faced the stalls again, her heart pounding harder than ever. 
“Is someone there?” she called. 
Nothing answered her, of course.  Why would it?  What would a scary, black shadow-thing say? 
But she could still hear that eerie whispering noise.  It seemed to float on the air, like a faint stench. 
Her wide, blue eyes flitted toward the door.  It was time to leave.  But would she be able to?  Every horror novel she’d ever read came flooding back to her in a single, blood-curdling instant and her only thought was, Oh god, I’m that pretty, clueless girl who’s body is the first to turn up!
In her defense, her first thoughts about things didn’t usually include something about her being pretty.  She had a fairly good idea that she was an attractive person.  There’d been a seemingly endless line of boys in her life that’d had obnoxious crushes on her.  She enjoyed looking pretty.  She enjoyed fashion.  She liked making her hair cute.  She loved shopping for makeup and accessories.  But she wasn’t obsessed with those things.  Not like she was with her books. 
Still holding her breath, she started moving toward the door.  Slowly.  She didn’t want to provoke the thing into attacking her if she could help it.  For all she knew, it didn’t yet know that she was even there. 
Except, of course, for the fact that she’d just asked it if it was there…  So, yeah…  It knew she was there.  And that she knew it was there. 
It was time to go.  But before she could move, she heard a terrible gurgling noise from right behind her. 
With a startled, “Eek!” she turned and almost tripped herself backing away from the sinks as a strange, gooey mass boiled up out of each of the four drains.  Strange, tentacle-like shapes were rising from the goo and reaching outward.  Some were stretching toward her.  Others were intertwining together, converging into a single, larger shape that crawled up the mirror like a fat, misshapen spider. 
Piper stared at the awful thing, horrified.  Strange, shadowy shapes writhed inside it, shades of gray pulling themselves apart from the black, creating patterns that almost looked like human body parts. 
The whole time, that awful whispering continued.  It felt as if it were inside her very head. 
She didn’t realize she was still backing away until her heel struck the wall.  She stood there, too numb with fear to think what to do next, her mind struggling to find a reasonable explanation for what was happening, but she couldn’t think of one. 
This couldn’t be real.  This had to be some kind of bizarre hallucination. 
Something moved in her peripheral vision and she dared to look away from the thing clinging to the mirror.  More of those strange, black tendrils were slithering out from under the stall doors and across the floor, joining with the ones that oozed down over the edges of the sinks, merging into a single entity. 
It was all one creature, she realized.  An awful thing, like nothing she’d ever seen before.  Like nothing she’d ever even imagined.  Able to pull itself apart and knit itself back together again.  It was coming out of the drains, a blob-like thing emerging from the dark, stinking depths of the sewers. 
Black, pulsing, snake-like tendrils reached across the walls, branching out like veins as the larger shape on the mirror swelled and began to take form.  Within seconds, it had become a crouching, menacing figure that was almost man-shaped. 
This wasn’t happening.  It wasn’t real.  It couldn’t be real because things like this didn’t exist.  Not in the real world.  And yet here it was, perched atop the sinks, clinging to the mirror right before her startled eyes.  She stared at it, her terror growing with each frantic thump of her heart.  She’d never been so afraid in her entire life.  She needed to leave, but she was too scared to move. 
Those queer shades of gray ran together, forming patterns that looked like bones, and a ghastly face emerged, an impossibly gaping mouth and screaming eyes that were somehow both empty and hungry.
It turned its strange head to one side and then the other, as if taking in its surroundings. 
She told herself again that it wasn’t real…but it was right there…she was looking right at it…
The door was only a few feet away.  All she had to do was run.  Yet her brain wasn’t functioning properly.  She couldn’t seem to shift her body into gear.  All she could do was stand there, her mouth open in a frozen, silent scream, staring at the horrible image before her.  
The thing tilted its head and leaned forward, as if studying her.  Then it lifted a hand…or at least, something that vaguely resembled a hand.  It was impossibly long, skeletal, with sharp, hard angles, but also strangely droopy, like a plastic doll that was half-melted.  It seemed to point at her for a moment, as if accusing her. 
Go! she told herself.  Get out of here!
Slowly, her back still pressed against the wall, she began to move sideways toward the door. 
The awful, gaping shape of the thing’s mouth opened even wider, as if in a silent scream, and those creepy, skeleton fingers crept toward her.  Overhead, those strange, vein-like tendrils began to ooze downward, closing in around her like the bars of a hellish cage. 
There was a scream bubbling up from somewhere deep inside her.  She could feel it.  But somehow, it just wouldn’t come.  Her throat wouldn’t open to let it out. 
She reached out with her hand, reaching toward the doorway beside her, and bumped one of the automatic hand dryers.  It roared to life, startling her, and she snatched her hand back a split-second before the creature lashed out at the sudden sound, shattering the dryer’s plastic case. 
She dropped to the floor, terrified, and let out what she thought would be an ear-splitting scream, but turned out to be nothing more than a shrill squeak.
The monster let out an awful groan and slashed at the dryer again. 
She ducked under its outstretched arm and bolted from the restroom.  She ran back down the empty corridor, past the rental lockers to the open space of the mall’s main floor. 
She filled her lungs to scream for help, determined to do much more than just squeak this time, but when she glanced over her shoulder to see how close the thing was, she found that it wasn’t there.  It hadn’t chased her out into the corridor.  She was entirely alone. 
She stopped, her eyes wide, her heart still hammering in her chest.  She was practically panting. 
Where was it?  She knew she didn’t imagine it.  There were still flecks of shattered plastic on her shoulder, as real as her own skin. 
She searched the corridor for the slightest motion, the faintest of creeping shadows, but it was utterly silent.  There was nothing.  Not even that bizarre whispering noise.
No.  That was no hallucination.  She was sure of it. 
She took a step backward.  No one would ever believe her.  They’d say she was crazy.  She’d be locked up for sure. 
Then a thought occurred to her:  She couldn’t see it because it wasn’t in the corridor anymore. 
It was behind her. 
She turned, terrified, to find a black figure standing right there, reaching out for her. 

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