The story so far:
Riley planned to prep for finals today. Instead, Zoey dragged her to a cave where her parents’ initials were carved. Rose called Riley to have her pick up Connor’s new meds. When she gets there, Ethan quits the general store. Louis returns, and is eaten by a shadow. Riley defeats it, and needs to accept that reality now has monsters in it.
I felt numb all over again as he drove away. Why hadn’t I said anything?
Because of how his face fell when he noticed me out here. And then he quit. Was that my fault, too? It sure felt like it.
Parker erupted onto the porch. “Ungrateful bastard!” he spat. Then he saw me at the bottom of the steps, and growled like an animal. “Take a hint. We’re closed, kid.”
My hands were shaking under the intensity of his rage, but I wasn’t here for me. I couldn’t just leave. “Connor’s meds came in today,” I called up to him, my voice wavering.
He sneered at me. “So? Come back in an hour.”
I balled my hands into fists. “He needs them now,” I insisted.
He slammed his hand against the doorframe, then turned his eyes toward heaven and muttered a prayer. “Fine,” he snarled. As he went inside, I heard him mutter, “Filthy children, messing up my store.” He ducked to look under the counter, then stomped into the back room. I heard something crash to the ground, and he swore. When he returned, his face was crimson and his hands were empty. “It ain’t here yet,” he told me, and waved me toward the door.
I pointed at the shelf behind him. At eye level, Connor’s name was clearly visible on the shipping label. He palmed it in one hand and passed it to me roughly. I left without another word.
As I shuffled down the steps, I felt furious. My fingers were white where they dented the edges of the box, my gaze glued to the road. I would have missed seeing Louis entirely if he hadn’t chosen that moment to cry out.
My head snapped up immediately. Louis was jogging up his steps – which was odd, because he never jogged – and he slammed the door behind him.
Save her, the wind whispered to me, and I felt like that glowing anger and guilt I’d been working into a frenzy just … stopped. I hugged the box to my chest as the world seemed to shimmer, like a concrete road on a hot day. Then I saw someone else sliding up to the porch. They were wearing all black, and there was a fluidity in the way that they moved that seemed… unnatural. The stranger went to the door, and then he passed through it.
I nearly dropped Grandpa’s meds and ran the other way. I would have, if my feet hadn’t been frozen to the ground.
Louis screamed. Terrified, I ran… but not away, like I wanted to. I couldn’t leave him to face whatever was going on alone.
I bounded across the lawn, running as though his life depended on it. For all I knew, it did. Up the stairs. Through the door, shouting “Louis!” over and over. Whatever was chasing him knew that I was here now, but so did Louis… and I knew he had a gun.
Inside, it was dim. Unlike Ms. Tillie’s house, everything here was in its assigned place. Light peeked through where curtained windows met. A newspaper lay in tatters across the floor. I crept through the living room and my ears strained for the sound of danger. For an impossibly long time, the only thing I could hear was my own heartbeat hammering in my ears.
Suddenly there was a burst of noise. Footsteps, dashing through the kitchen. A drawn-out squeal as the screen door in the back whipped open. I followed, my wide eyes as they darted back and forth. If Louis was outside, that didn’t mean whoever was chasing him was, too.
“I’m — Riley’s coming out, Louis,” I called, my voice cracking. It sounded unnaturally loud in the silence of the house. I pushed on the door and its rusted spring squealed, sending a spike of ice down my spine.
I found Louis then, crouched beside his back steps, his gun drawn on me. I threw my hands up in surrender. “It’s me,” I breathed, too scared to make a noise. “Riley. It’s Riley, Louis.”
“Prove it,” he barked up at me.
I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. “Just look at me,” I begged him. “Who’s chasing you?”
He pressed his eyes shut, and fear etched more lines across his forehead. “I swear to God, if you can’t prove that you’re really Riley I will shoot you where you stand!”
Trembling, I latched onto the first thing that came to mind. “I know you’re sleeping with Ms. Tillie!” The words tumbled over each other in a mad race to get out. The hands I had up in surrender covered my face as I recoiled, expecting the worst.
“Riley?” I peeked through my hands. His face was red and his breath came in ragged gasps. “Literally the last person I wanted to see right now. Get down here, quick!” I leapt down beside him, feeling like I was drowning in a wave of relief. He was muttering to himself, his eyes still glued to the back door. “… damn fool, try’na get herself killed.” Louder, he added, “You’re the only one who calls her Ms. Tillie. That’s the only reason you’re breathing right now.”
“What is happening, Louis?” I couldn’t stop shaking. “I saw someone…”
“Something,” he corrected me. Then softer, and more afraid than I’d ever heard his gruff voice: “It’s a monster. An honest to God demon, girl.”
It couldn’t be. Wasn’t possible. It was a man, and men could be… another wave of shaking passed through me. “We need to get out of here.”
He snickered, but there was nothing light about it. “Tried that. I came back for this,” and he lifted the barrel of his gun slightly, “and then it froze my damn engine. I led it right to town.” He glanced across his yard at Tillie’s wall of azaleas, and I knew he was afraid for her, too.
“Then what can we do?”
He shot me a look of disbelief. “Do you think if I knew that, I’d be squatting in the mud with you?”
“Come on,” I urged him. “We have to get Ms. Tillie, and get to the General.”
He nodded at me, and I saw something like respect flit across his face. He pushed himself to his feet and craned his neck to peek around the corner of the house. A tense moment passed. Another.
“Louis?” I ventured. “Do you see anything?”
He backed up a step, and I scrambled to get out of the way. From my new vantage point, I saw the… the demon. Louis was right. It was a shadow: undefined, fluid. Its arms were too long, and uneven. One grabbed Louis’ throat, and pulled him off the ground. No, I realized then. Its arm was a pike that entered Louis’ neck, and pierced him through. I could see the tiniest part of a shadowy dagger where it peeked out from the back of the old man’s neck.
I scrambled backward as it turned an eyeless stare toward me. Its face split into a horrifying grin. In its grip, Louis’ bulging eyes swiveled toward me. “Save … her,” he begged me.
I couldn’t let this happen. I couldn’t let him die.
I couldn’t save her on my own.
I leapt forward, throwing my arms around him to pull him back, away from the shadowy monster. I knew he was muscular under his flannel, but my arms felt like there was nothing inside his clothes. His shoes hit the ground, bouncing off in random directions. His pants crumbled to the grass, followed by his watch.
Then I was hugging his empty shirt, staring as his shoulders liquified into shadow that crept up his neck like slugs toward the demon’s arm. It curled a smoky arm toward me that twisted around my neck.
I forgot who Riley was, and became a scream. A punch. I was terror, and rage, and sorrow, and there wasn’t room for anything else. My anger lashed out at the demon with my tiny, human hands, and that frustration just made the fire burn hotter. Loss trickled down my cheeks as I faced the futility of it all.
But the demon staggered backward, and I closed the gap, knocking it to the ground. I dropped on top of it, trying to pin it there with my weight. I heard a growl, and realized it was mine. My hands clawed at its chest, digging like a mutt at a hole in the ground. My skin turned black, stained with its inky blood. It hurt.
The pressure around my neck was gone. The monster had stopped trying to fight back. My vision cleared enough that I could see my hands buried in its bulk. I pulled them out slowly, and kept pulling. My fingers were longer than they should have been. The tips of my fingers ended in a sharp point, slightly hollowed on the underside like the bowl of a spoon.
I stared at the ground around me; at the pieces of it that littered the lawn. Pieces I had clawed away. It had turned me into monster.
The fragments of the demon melted, shivered, and started to move.
The demon’s smile collapsed, caving in on itself like a rotten pumpkin. It was melting too, soaking into my jeans. My shirt. My skin.
I heard its laugh in my mind, and it sounded like madness. I pressed my hands over my ears, scratching myself with my own fingertips.
And then … I heard the birds chirping happily overhead. The shadow demon was gone, and I knelt on the lawn. My skin was its normal tone, and the bits of demon were gone. I collapsed forward, staring at my hands. My fingers were back to their normal size, but a trickle of blood wound its way down my face where I’d scratched myself.
“Louis?” I called, my throat sore. I looked around at the yard, no longer well kept. The house, no longer well tended. Some of the siding was missing, exposing the plywood beneath. Weeds hugged his side of Tillie’s fence. I staggered to my feet and climbed the back steps. Inside, the house was empty. Dust covered everything. The newspaper still littered the floor, but there was no coffee table in the living room. No couch.
It was vacant, and had been for a long while. There was no sign that Louis had ever lived here.
I raced outside, tripping over my own feet until I was through Ms. Tillie’s gate and panting by her front door. I knocked relentlessly until she came to the door.
“Oh! What a treat!” she called as she crossed the living room. Her expression fell when she saw me, though. I couldn’t imagine what I looked like now. “What’s happened?” she asked, all pretenses forgotten.
“Louis,” I panted. “There was a…” and I hesitated. A what? I wanted her to take me seriously. I wanted her to run away with me, and she wouldn’t if I came off like a crazy person. “Louis is gone,” I said at last, crouching over my knees, and hiding my face in my hands.
She knelt beside me and rubbed my back gently. “Oh, Riley. He must have been very precious to you. I’m so sorry.”
I turned a look of disbelief up to her. “To me? He’s your boyfriend! How are you so calm!”
Genuine concern spread across her face. “Are you feeling okay?” She felt my forehead for a fever. “You know I’ve been dating Jan for ages now. I don’t know your Louis, dear.” She shrugged under my stare of disbelief. “I’m sorry.”
I shook my head slowly, not believing her. Found my feet again. “I’m sorry,” I said, already turning my thoughts elsewhere. I wasn’t crazy. It had happened.
“Do you want me to call Ethan, dear? I’m sure he’d be happy to give you a ride home.”
Ethan? “No,” I protested too strongly. “I’m… fine. I think I need a walk.”
I gathered myself enough to retreat, and made my way through the gate without screaming. As I passed Louis’ house, I saw something brown among the weeds. A box. Grandpa’s meds.
I turned the mundane thing over in my hands. I could actually feel my sanity, stretched out like a rubber band. With no better options, I started toward home.