Swallow

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The very thought of food made Lyle Greer want to plunge a steak knife in his gullet, and yet here was at Chux ‘N More. Legend had it that if the grease used at all the other totally health conscientious fast food restaurants were compiled into a location, one would have almost half as much oil in a single Chux Delux 3000. A side of fries though and the area would have to be expanded at least an extra 15 miles. He definitely would not consider it as first date material, but that’s what he got for letting his date choose the location. With his slicked-back brown hair and blazer, most would say he was way overdressed for this dinner date, with which he would concur.

“How’s it?” A blonde haired, blue eyed, mostly overweight Kathy leaned real close, she probably wanted Lyle to smell the red onions farting in her esophagus. “Pretty fuckin’ good, huh?” Her southern twang was nauseating. Lyle forgot to mention he was also vegetarian on his dating profile.

“It’s,” he was at a loss for words, “pretty fucking good.” Could he vomit yet? “I heard them triple Oreo shakes are amazing, too. You going to try them ones?” His grammar teacher of a mother gave him a cold slap from the grave for such a ridiculous and incorrect question, he felt his soul stiffen a little. He hoped Kathy couldn’t tell he was trying so hard to impress her.

Kathy’s eyes bugged like she just witnessed her prized cow give birth to a beautiful calf; except the calf inherited millions from his great granddaddy, was clutching a crimson faux leather Bible, and was also completely Caucasian. She appeared to have came twice in her chair and one of her eyes glazed over. “Triple Oreo? How much does that cost? Will you…? I mean…” Her puppy dog eyes were almost irresistible.

“Kathy, you have to try it. You have to. You won’t be the same; I promise you that.” Lyle took out his wallet and handed her $5. “This will cover a large for you, or a small for both of us. I’d like one too, but that’s all the money I have right now. You get what you think is–” Kathy snatched the money and galloped to the cashier’s counter. “…Best,” Lyle finished.

After a few minutes, an excited Kathy returned with one massive blue cup. Red lipstick already stained the rim of the straw where she had guzzled down a third of the delicious shake. “Sorry hon’, the girl at the counter said two smalls cost a smidge over five, and she wouldn’t spot a few dimes, but a large was only four and some change. What a bitch, ifyaskmuh,” Kathy started on another thought but she drowned it in the caustic lake of Oreo and regurgitated ground beef and mustard. Lyle’s stomach churned.

“It was probably best that I didn’t get one anyway.”

Kathy’s upper lip stretched, exposing a yellow french fry in her gum. “Come again?”

“A shake,” Lyle pointed at the now mostly emptied cup. “I’m lactose intolerant. That shake would’ve torn me up for days.”

“You ain’t one of them kind are you?” Slurp, slurp.

“A what?”

“Y’know…” Kathy popped the lid off the cup and dumped the rest of the dark chocolate contents down her mouth. A piece of cookie slipped out of her mouth and bounced onto the checked table top. It took less than a second for her to pick it up and put it back in her mouth.

Lyle glared, unsure how much longer he could put up with this lady. Although he was hoping to charm her over at the beginning of the date, it was starting to become obvious to him that maybe that was not going to be possible. “What?” He was getting agitated.

“Well you talk like me and you seem nice, but you dress so fancy like and now you’re lactose intolerant?” She tossed the cup in the trash but missed. “Next thing you be telling me is that you’re gay and vegetarian! Lordy, lordy. Please tell me you’re not a liberal fag.”

Liberal fag. Lyle sat on the words for a few seconds, speechless at how she could have reached that conclusion over the simple fact that he could not consume lactose and that he has a sense for fashion. “Kathy, I’m just like you. Don’t you remember why we sat for dinner in the first place?”

Their first conversation started on a dating website. It all started when Lyle sent a simple, Boy howdy! If I followed you home, would you keep me? Followed by a page full of heart-eye and puppy emojis. To be honest, Lyle didn’t think that despicable pick up line would work on anybody, but it got Kathy’s attention. Shortly after, he discovered her favorite cuisine was American and that she loved Rom-Coms. What a catch.

“Lyle, it’s just I don’t open myself up to a lot of people anymore. You’re the first since…” Kathy shifted uncomfortably, not keen on discussing any of her previous relationships. “It’s just been a while.”

People buzzed around Lyle and Kathy in the restaurant and their asses grew numb as they sat in silence, just staring at each other. Neither of them knew the right way to fix the conversation, not really.

“The movie’s going to start in a few minutes,” Lyle murmured, checking his watch. “I don’t think we could make it, and plus we kind of used my last five for your shake.” His eyes flicked to Kathy’s and then to the tiled floor which was surprisingly clean, unlike their table which was sticky and covered in chocolate.

“That’s okay. Truth is I’ve already seen it have a dozen times,” confessed Kathy. “I just like seeing Ryan Reynolds ass in it.” Lyle laughed, focusing on Kathy once again.

“How about we just take a drive, you and me? I’ve got the gas.” Lyle took Kathy’s hand. He felt an inviting warmth in her that he hadn’t felt before, or perhaps it was just gas from the awful dinner. “It’s getting dark out and the city looks remarkable at night.”

“You sound like we live in Vegas. Have you even seen Tarinberg? We’ve got like three buildings, counting this one. Are you sure you’re not some undercover liberal?” Kathy nudged. “I’m only joking!”

Outside, Lyle brought Kathy to his car, a bright red 2015 Dodge Charger his father bought him as a graduation gift.

Kathy especially loved the muscle cars. “I’d never consider you to be the souped up car type of guy.”

Lyle beamed. “Well, I’m a man of many surprises, what can I say?”

~~~~

Lyle took them down the interstate and through country roads, every mile he could travel to kill time, and Kathy was right. There was nothing to see in Tarinberg except darkness and the occasional stoplight. For the better part of an hour they listened to music and danced to the evening remixes, but after a little while Kathy stopped.

“I apologize for how I acted earlier. I was a bitch, I know I was,” she admitted.

Lyle squints, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve just got so much I haven’t told you.”

“You know you can be honest with me. That’s something we mentioned before to each other online that we’ve had issues with in our previous relationships. Just be yourself, Kathy.” He noticed a pair of headlights form in the distance in his rear view mirror. “If it’s any consolation, I think you’re fantastic.” His mother also hated liars; she wouldn’t have been so fond of him if she had been in the car with them at that moment.

Kathy sighed. “I’ve only had one other relationship, and it was ten years ago. I’ve only told my parents and a couple of people this, mostly for my own safety.” She paused. “I know that there’s a good chance that nothing serious will become of this or us, but I do consider you a friend.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Well, I’m not some killer or anything,” Kathy cackled nervously. “Fuck no, that’s not what this is about! It’s just, ten years ago, I looked a lot different — a lot. I was actually pretty.” She sniffled. “I modeled out of Atlanta and actually had a career. My manager, Eduardo, he promised that if I just trusted him, he’d put me on magazine covers.”

The country road that Lyle had been traveling on suddenly felt longer and longer as Kathy explained her story, and the truck behind them suddenly grew to a line of three vehicles. “Damn! That’s amazing!”

“I ended up marrying Eduardo, but not long after that he fucked me up pretty bad because I refused to whore myself out to other clients of his. So he broke my arm; I had bruises all over my body; teeth missing. My modeling career was over; he made sure of that.” More sniffles came from Kathy, who became almost inconsolable. “And just to see that someone like you, who obviously has a good job and a good mind and just a good everything actually stepped up and gave me a chance — it just means a helluva lot to me.” She reached down and clasped Lyle’s hand. “No matter what comes of tonight, thank you for being kind to me.”

“I, uh, that’s great. I, don’t know what to say -” Lyle was never a wordsmith.

“Are you okay? You’re trembling.”

Lyle slowed down and pulled into the driveway of an old trailer. There was a couple sitting in the front porch, their faces illuminated by a string of Christmas lights. Lights followed a path from the trailer house to a cellar and an old silo.

“Where the fuck are we? Lyle?”

“I think I’m going to be sick. I have to use the bathroom.”

“Lyle you’re not just going up to those strangers and asking them for their bathroom! That’s not how that works.”

“Please just stay in the car.”

As Lyle exited the Charger, three other vehicles stopped behind him. With every step towards the trailer, Lyle did not hear the click of the door handle inside his car — meaning Kathy wasn’t smart enough to try to escape, which was good. She could easily unlock the car and make a run for it.

“I’m here,” Lyle exclaimed, voice fragile. His fingers traced the outline of the car keys in his left pocket.

The couple sitting on the porch is revealed to be two brothers, Douglas and Van. In the darkness they almost looked identical, save for their vastly different height and Douglas’ long beard. “You have what I need as well?”

“In the car.”

The brothers gestured toward Kathy and suddenly two women and a man approached the vehicle, but Douglas held out his hand in a stopping motion. “This is the one, correct? Kathy Pliga?”

Lyle felt his knees buckle and his shoes sink into the earth. “Yes.”

“Unlock the car then.”

“Fuck,” Lyle whispered.

It happened almost instantly. The car unlocked, Kathy raced out, but was napped kicking and screaming by one of the goons. They administered a shot to her neck and in moments she collapsed. Her limp feet drew lines in the dirt as she was dragged into the cellar.

“Very good, Lyle. You did an excellent job,” Van observed. “Everyone, prepare the ceremony. We’ll join shortly.”

“I need the money,” Lyle commanded, his voice cracking the dry night air. “I was promised thirty thousand; I’ve upheld my end. Please.” Lyle’s hands balled up in anticipation.

“You’ll have to forgive me, I left the money in the office. You’ll have to come with me to get it.” There was a peculiar calmness to the night, a kind of order as if nature itself conformed to a new hierarchy — a hierarchy with these brothers leading the pack. “Come now,” they whispered. “We’ll get your reward.” Although Lyle knew the risks, the chances of him escaping were slim enough as it was, so he decided to play nice.

Lyle followed Douglas, Van, and their acolytes into the cellar. The place was kept in pristine condition despite appearing quite old and abandoned from the outside. Inside, the walls were painted black with a single red stripe leading to the center of the cellar: the grand hall. Lyle couldn’t see much else from his position, as he was surrounded by the followers.

“Chieftain, everything has been prepared; the moon is in phase — it is time,” a red cloaked acolyte whispered to the brothers. The brothers nodded and the follower disappeared into another corridor.

Slow, deep instrumental music filled Lyle’s senses as he walked with the brothers through the cellar and into the grand hall. Before Lyle could ask if they were almost to the office, the music grew louder and the brothers turned around. It was the first time Lyle got to really see the two so close up and under bright light.

Douglas was about a foot and a half taller than Van, with a much longer beard, which was neatly combed and braided. He was bald and had a face full of different black tattoos. Van looked far more professional but less menacing, with only a short goatee and no tattoos.

Suddenly, the music stopped playing and the grand hall filled with hooded figures. Everything happened in a flash. Strange symbols appeared on the walls and the ground began to shake. Everyone bowed their head and began to hum. Lyle’s jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. He fell back in horror as two men carried Kathy into the room, now stripped naked and painted white.

“To praise our Brother Thygalsdi, we offer the Harbinger of the Filth. As her life fills us, the Era of Soot comes to an end and the Sacred Cleanse begins!” the brothers chanted, to which the others parroted.

Paralyzation wore off and Lyle finally picked himself up off the floor and scurried to the door, but he was quickly ambushed by the mob.

“Lyle,” the brothers spoke in unison. “You’re not leaving here without your reward.” They motion toward Kathy, now wide awake but completely silent, staring at him. Her eyes glimmered under the bright light. “As Harbinger, it is your duty.” A dagger is forced in Lyle’s hand. “Do it.” A hint of a smirk formed on Kathy’s face, as if she was taunting Lyle. Liberal fag, she mouthed.

The entire room erupted in chants of “DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT HARBINGER! FOR THYGALDSDI!”

But all Lyle could see and hear was the pathetic bitch Kathy. The cow who took his money and refused to get him a shake. The sleaze who considered a dinner at Chux ‘N More and a movie she’d seen a dozen times was a date. The liar who made him believe she was an abuse victim for no fucking reason before he sold her for $30,000. The FUCKING BITCH who scammed him from the very start. Yes, Lyle considered himself a hardcore gun control and anti-violence activist, but, fuck, he wanted to stab Kathy.

So he did. And Kathy didn’t even put up a fight. Nobody did. He plunged the knife first into Kathy’s arm, then into her stomach, and then her neck. Then it became a blur. All of his rage, a lifetime of buried anger and hatred and he decided to take it out right then on Kathy, a girl he met in person only hours earlier. A girl he only intended to sell to a couple of men for $30,000 and then he would leave, no questions asked. Now he was standing over her, relentlessly stabbing her over and over and over and over. He cried because she couldn’t; he never gave her a chance. She didn’t have a chance to take a final breath before he sank the dagger one last time into her heart.

The muffled silence was slowly broken by quietened praises for the cultists’ Thygaldsdi and for their blessed Harbinger, but none was as enthusiastic as before.

Instead of bandages, the cultists pressed cups to Kathy’s stab wounds. Red solo cup after red solo cup was filled with Kathy’s blood and passed around the room. Hearty cheers and happy tears were had, and finally Douglas approached Lyle. Lyle was still beside Kathy’s twitching corpse, dazed, his hand clutching the dagger.

“You did us a great service today, Harbinger; here, drink up. It will complete the ceremony.”

“Don’t… fucking call me that.” Lyle shrugged him away and stood up. “Now let me go.”

“Not without this,” he handed Lyle a suitcase. “Inside is the thirty grand. All you have to do is complete the ceremony, and you can leave.” All eyes were on Lyle and his red solo cup full of Kathy’s blood. “Just swallow.”

Lyle dropped the blade and peeked inside the suitcase. His money was in the case, sure enough. He grabbed the cup. “Here’s to forgetting every fucking thing that happened here tonight,” Lyle toasted, swallowing Kathy along with every ounce of his pride.

~~~~

After Lyle left the cellar and sped off with his $30,000, Douglas made a phone call.

“Valerie, it’s the Chieftain of Station 8B.”

“Y-Y-You’re calling, so, it-it’s done? The Cleansing has…?”

Douglas was quick and quiet. “Alert the council of our success here and begin taking the necessary steps for initiation.”

Click

White Rabbit

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Photo Credit

One by one they march

Their swords drooled blood of the enemy

They won’t stop

It was time to claim the divine reward.

 

Even the seas of magnetic dynamite they pass in stride

A cynic’s illusion, He should have done better

The purest magic wilts against stolid steel, they assure each other

Their eyes glued to the glacier palace, they keep marching.

 

Though the crystalline keep was anything but.

With every inch closer, the tower transforms.

Dreamy beryl walls to tarnished silver

Glimmering treasures to bleached ash

 

The Ivory Prince rises from the levitating tomb

His gaze reverts the silver suits to searing ingot

The soldiers’ knees buckle, but still they march.

He won’t let them stop.

 

Roaring razor storms consume the East

Corrosive lizards creep from the crevasse in the West

The forked tongue of darkness flicks at their heels.

All that remains is the Prince and His keep.

 

One by one they march

Crippled under concrete crowns of thorns.

They’ll be royalty, too

Dreaming of crystalline treasures in the furnace.

For the Silence

 

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Photo credit: Flickr

The way you look at me,

Hide yourself from me.

These euphoric dreams

Are all I need.

 

It’s not impossible

To cure this madness.

It courses through my veins,

But never lasts.

 

Now they’re calling me,

These hollow demons.

Please let them take me.

I’ll be their last.

 

The walls are closing in,

Going dark again.

It’s reaching for my hand;

Nightmare begin.

 

Devils Dance, Ch.4

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Read previous installments:

Chapter One,
Chapter Two,
Chapter Three

They had been on the road for five days, with no hope of ever returning home – not as free citizens at least. Commissioner Davis and his band of taut merry men had caught onto their use of a third party to intercept 911 calls as they reached the station.

Moran hated to drag her nephew, Todd, into all of this, but with his intellect in rather underhanded tactics in receiving information, using him was a no-brainer. “He’ll be okay, won’t he?” Moran asked Robert, closing the door of the 1998 Suburban they just purchased.

The truth was that Robert had no idea as to the security of Todd, or either of them for that matter; that’s what he continually told Moran, too. “Stop your worrying and focus,” he said. “I called Todd yesterday and told him to lay low.” He tossed a folded map over to Moran. “Tell me how to get to Vindeville from here.”

Stephenie trained her eye on a passing squad car, strangled with anxiety. “Just get on the interstate off Herstam and continue for about thirty minutes.” She placed the map into the glove compartment, to Robert’s surprised glare. His bright blue eyes shone under a heavy eyebrow shelf. “What?”

“You’ve been there?”

“I have. We used to have Christmas there, when my uncle still had his river property. The last time I was there was about twenty years ago; the entire town was in shambles.”

Greer started on Herstam and found the interstate. He seemed distracted, but Moran figured he was tensed from the entire situation.

Driving in total silence almost killed Moran. Every opportunity, she would shift in her seat or pretend to thumb through the map – anything to keep her occupied. Each breath and every thought were audible. “So, can I ask?”

“Hm?”

“What’s in Vindeville?”

Greer swerved to avoid a semi in the shoulder. His instincts called for him to stop and assist the semi driver, but then he remembered he was a fugitive, on the run for a crime neither he nor Moran had committed. He had to remind himself many times throughout all this that that was the reason for everything they were doing: to prove their innocence, nothing else. “Something’s going to be there.”

What’s going to be there?”

“I don’t know.”

Stephenie sighed. “You don’t know? What are you saying?” His subtle glance to Moran was plenty an explanation. She gasped. “Again?”

Nodding, yes, Robert reiterated, “Around four last night. Woke up drenched in sweat, with its fucking voice still in my mind. I can’t get it out of my brain, Stephenie.”

“What did it say?”

Robert dared not recall the entirety of the nightmare, or risk their safety on the road. He sipped from a blueberry Slurpee, in hopes of that cooling the hot tinge blistering the back of his throat; it did nothing but leave him with a brain freeze. “I saw it this time, Steph. It didn’t say anything I could understand – just stood there, whispering.” Or sat there, Robert decided would be a better description. He winced, feeling a caustic tentacle scrape his uvula – he swallowed hard. “Something is going to happen there, or already has.” Closing his eyes, he recalled the brutish sight. “If Vindeville is as small as I’m told, I’m sure we’ll pass right by it and I’ll remember. Maybe  we can prevent the catastrophe from occurring.”

“You really think that, Rob?”

“I’ve got to.” He turned to Stephenie, eyes full and face bleached. “By god, I’ve got to.”

Moran held Greer’s hand for the next twenty miles, until they reached the Vindeville welcoming sign. As they passed the sign, her heart dropped. The town was exactly as it was when she left it.

With a population lingering around 2,500 on good years, Vindeville was the last stop anybody would make on their tour of Wisconsin. Every building was run-down; every house chock full of bird shit and useless junk – the place was evidently popular amongst pack-rats and the like. Save for a small gas station, a dilapidated school, a food department, and a few antique stores scattered here and there, the next bout of civilization was an hour away. It was a day trip for Vindevillians to do pretty much anything.

“So what do you remember?” She asked as they passed a shoddy residential area. “Was it a junky house, or a junkier house?” She joked.

Greer abruptly pulled the car to a pull-out and pointed. “That’s the one. It’s hard to see for the hills and trees, but that’s the house it showed me.” Images flashed in his mind, ones of torture and terror confined in a dank room. His recollection of the tarnished chains, broken liquor bottles, and the screams – oh god, the screams – pulsated with a glimmering kerosene lamp. His hands grew hot on the steering wheel, his resilient soul reduced to that of a quivering child. “That’s it,” he repeated.

Stephenie tilted her head, confused. “Rob, that’s not a house,” she said. She remembered her uncle’s wedding ceremony, recollecting its peculiar location despite being one of the town’s hot spots. “That’s Wakersbade First Baptist.” She cleared her throat. “What would it being doing within a church?” She asked, noting that none of the past murder-suicides were committed within a house of worship. This would be a change in its seemingly ironclad pattern.

The two sat still for what seemed like hours, stunned, looking out onto the horizon at the white building, before Robert took the Suburban down a graveled road to Wakersbade. An unsettled silence hushed the vehicle, Greer horrorstruck and frozen. He retracted his lead foot as the white chapel skitted into view, and came to a stop.

Greer could not help noticing the resemblance between himself and the skinny staked man atop the church’s twisted spire. And he felt just as helpless. He felt something calling him, wanting him to approach the courtyard. The air hummed with aggravated energy as Robert hopped out of the vehicle, spellbound, to face the horrors within the church and deep within himself.

Blue Skies

Nothing seemed real after thirteen years in space. The ground felt too mushy, the buildings too large, the people minuscule. This had been Ethan’s second successful mission, the first of which he only spent a few years at ISS so the transition wasn’t that rough, but this time was different.

Ethan watched as his comrades left the station, warm under their family’s embrace. He had been waiting nearly an hour for his beautiful wife Sharon and daughter Beth – the last time, Beth brought him a coffee mug she had painted in Mrs. Gella’s class and Sharon gave him unbelievable sex that night – but they never showed. Suddenly the space exhibition didn’t feel as extensive

It didn’t take long before the taxi arrived. Despite his insistence that Sharon would be there – he needed only be patient – Sergeant Blymh ushered the exhausted astronaut into the yellow cab and called it a day.

On the road, Ethan saw his girls’ faces in everything: they were in the bricks in the sidewalk, they were the faces on the billboards, and they were ripples in the water. Every sound was that of Willie Nelson – not only was he Sharon’s favorite singer, but he woke up to Always on My Mind every morning on the shuttle. It was another way he felt closer to his girls.

The only thing keeping him from going into full panic mode was their crumpled portrait in his pocket. He distinctly remembered taking the photograph during Beth’s seventh birthday party at Giggy’s Pizza – Sharon looked so goddamned beautiful even with a mouth full of pepperoni and his daughter was just as striking.

Suddenly Ethan felt a rise in his stomach: Beth was going to be twenty-one this year. After thirteen years, he wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even remember him; hell, she’d probably moved away.

“Don’t do this, Ethan,” he thought. “All I need is the driver to think I’m a big-ass cry baby.”

But he couldn’t stop. He imagined Sharon wrinkled and gray. Their corgi Vinnie was probably dust in the ground by now, and, shit, she could’ve sold the house and be living with a tight 20-something surging with stamina and a jawline for days.

What an idiot he was to think things could simply go back to normal after he returned, he thought. He pressed his head against the window and firmly shut his eyes, allowing the darkness to drown him. Obscurity was his only friend. He should have told the doctor during the post-exhibition physical of his night terrors and the depression, but all that was on his mind at the time was kissing his girls.

Ethan’s reservations disintegrated as the car came to a stop. The house looked just as he left it; the only difference was the addition of a purple Volkswagen, but his white Saturn was still parked in his spot.

He rang the doorbell three times to no avail; however, he let himself in with the key concealed under the second stepping stone in the front yard. Sharon should have moved their key to a better location, but Ethan was overjoyed that she kept it there throughout the years. Ethan never felt more welcome.

The interior of the house had been renovated, Ethan’s grandparents’ old furniture had been replaced with a modern leather love seat, and the wall was nearly nonexistent behind a massive plasma screen. He heard footsteps in the back. “Sharon?” Ethan called, heading down the hall near their room. “I’m… Oh –”

Sharon had her back turned, fixing Beth’s golden hair. Ethan could not believe his eyes. The last time he saw Beth, she was picking boogers out of her nose waving goodbye.

“Hello?” A voice piped from the bathroom. It was a man’s voice, and something about it felt familiar to Ethan.

Abruptly, Sharon and Beth turned around – their faces horrifyingly cracked, frosted glass. Tiny whispers and raucous whimpers filled the room. Blazing fingers and checkered tongues swiftly tore through the walls, shattering picture frames and setting fire to the floral wallpaper. Thick gobs of black bile dripped from the ceiling, covering the two women in obsidian vomit. Beth charged, narrowly missing Ethan, before shattering into a million pieces on the floor. Sharon emitted a blood-curdling shriek.

Ethan ran before Sharon could attack him. He whipped past Beth’s old room turned office, and hopped over the chic glass coffee table in the living room. He dodged spiraling silverware and planet mobiles in the kitchen. Burning candles exploded as he past them, covering his shirt in clumpy red and orange wax. Tattered scarves and jackets latched onto his hands and feet. The plasma television sparked and blipped, static scrolling the screen.

Hundreds of pages of Ethan’s graduate research blanketed the floor; one in particular – the third page of his dissertation – caught his eye. Etched in gold ink on the page was a peculiar symbol. He recognized it and had seen it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where.

A covered figure blocked the front door. Ethan tried to run for the back, but was once again met with the same shadowed being. He lunged at the dark entity, hoping this was all a twisted dream he was having in the taxi cab.

But suddenly time stopped. Boiling water droplets and broken pickle jars hung frozen in the air, fragments of their family portraits and knives merely props. Ethan’s short breaths stopped. His heart was in his throat as the figure approached him, its brown eyes cutting into Ethan’s own.

“You really shouldn’t have returned,” it croaked. “You don’t belong here. Or don’t you remember?” The entity dropped its cloak and stroked Ethan’s cheek. It had Ethan’s face. It was Ethan. “Let me help you.”

Ethan was released from time’s grip and he closed his eyes. He couldn’t dare look the monster in its face – his face. It didn’t take long for a wave of relaxation to wash over Ethan. He found solace imagining he was back on the shuttle, alongside Blymh and the others. He missed looking out onto the bright expanse, dreaming of being outside cuddled next to his girls stargazing, looking right back at himself in the shuttle years away. The heavy weight of anxiety and loneliness lifted off his body, Ethan embraced the darkness.

Moments pass and suddenly the lyrics of Always on My Mind graced Ethan’s ears, penetrating the thick silence. He opened his eyes and smiled.