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.
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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:
“You always show me up,” argued Alton.
“Anything I can do, you can do better, and during some kind of personal
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
Seph gave a snort of a
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
“I’m just saying,”
pressed Phoenix. “The girl’s not getting
any younger. She should get herself some
said Alton. “I think she’s still got
“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 tomy 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.
“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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
They were sitting at a table
at a little café 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
“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
“You’re totally going to
get that second interview. Just
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Or she thought she
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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