Where Do You Go at Night?

The car was parked down the block near the greenbelt. The tiny splash of nature at the end of the street had always given his husband the creeps. Nick liked it so he let Alan park in the driveway. Nights like tonight though, he kicked himself for it.

It wasn’t cold enough to snow, but the air had a damp chill that burrowed right into his bones. The car would be just as cold. It took forever to heat up nowadays, but with the house needing a new roof, and an adoption to consider, things had to fall by the wayside.

When Nick pulled the keys from his pocket, they slid through his fingers and dropped right into a puddle on the side of the road. “Goddammit,” he muttered. as he knelt down to pick them up.

Before he could grab the keys, a pale hand slid up out of the water and caressed his fingers. He jerked back from the puddle. The keys sat in the shallow water, only getting colder. “Too many hours at work,” he thought. “You have to take better care of yourself.”

Nick fished the keys out of the puddle with a shudder and got to the car. It had seen better days, but for a twenty-year old import, it ran remarkably well. He had just settled into the driver’s seat, shivering and wishing for a better heater, when he saw her.

She stared out at him from the cover of the bushes. Her thin t-shirt and jeans were definitely not suitable for the icy weather. Nick wanted to get out of the car, but something inside of him made him stay put. There was no way that she knew he’d seen her. He could just drive away.

He started the ignition, and the heater roared and spit out cold air. With shaking hands, Nick switched the fan off. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that the woman had disappeared.

“Probably just some junkie,” he muttered. “This neighborhood’s going to shit.” He tried to reach over and shift into drive, but his hand was locked to the wheel.

The woman slapped the window. She glared in at him through stringy blonde hair, her eyes filled with anger. Nick shivered under her gaze.

“Where do you go at night?”

Her voice cut through the air like a rusty knife. Nick stared straight ahead. He didn’t want to make eye contact with her. Didn’t want to see the small chunks of ice in her hair, or the skin that hung loosely from her body. He glared at his hand, trying to will the fingers to let go of the wheel. She slapped the window again, and the car shook.

“It’s a simple question, Peter. Why won’t you answer me?”

“You have me confused with someone else,” Nick said, shaking his head. “I don’t know anyone named Peter.”

The car shook again as she slapped the window a second time. For a skinny woman, she was incredibly strong. Wet handprints shone on the glass. She leaned forward, staring in at him. “Don’t fucking lie to me, Peter. Just tell me where you go.”

Nick leaned back away from the window. He could see his own breath in the cold air; hers wasn’t visible. She pressed her face against the glass, staring in at him. Her skin had begun to rot, sliding away from her face in places as it moved against the glass.

“I don’t know anyone named Peter,” he repeated. “My name is Nick and my husband’s name is Alan.”

“All I want is the truth. That isn’t too much to ask.”

Frost formed on the glass where her hands touched it. Nick closed his eyes, and started to pray. He hadn’t been to church in years, but he promised that he’d start going again every Sunday if he just got out of this.

He thought about Alan waiting inside for him. It was late. He was probably already in bed, reading a book. Alan had never really liked Nick’s late night drives but he had learned to accept them. Nick wouldn’t be missed for an hour at least.

“Tell me,” the woman hissed in his ear. “Where do you go at night?”

He jumped. She was sitting behind him now, fingers grazing his neck. Her skin was cold and damp. His eyes moved on their own, looking in the rear view mirror. Her head was cocked at a slight angle. She seemed more confused than angry.

“I just drive,” he said, hating the way his voice shook. “I don’t go anywhere. All I do is drive. It helps me sleep.”

“I needed help,” she said. “And you left me behind.”

“My name is Nick,” he said, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “My husband is Alan. We’re going to have a baby soon.”

“We had a baby. A little girl. She’s alone now.” Her fingers slid around his neck. Her grip was loose. Nick wasn’t sure if his shirt was wet from her skin or soaked through with sweat. Tears streamed down his face. “It’s all your fault.”

“Why did you hurt me?” she asked again, her voice breaking slightly. Her grip tightened. Not enough to stop his breath, but just enough to make the threat of asphyxiation stick. Nick desperately wanted to reach up and pry the fingers from around his throat, but his hands still wouldn’t move.

Her anger flowed through his skin like an electrical current. Nick felt her argument with Peter, the rage overpowering all of his senses. There had been shouting, and things were thrown. This wasn’t the first of these fights. She had been so sure the neighbors would call the cops this time.

Dishes had been thrown. Now there was pain. Her hands touched her stomach and came up bloody. She had run from the house, not long after the fight had begun. Peter yelled for her in the night. Her bare feet slapped against the pavement. The driver never stopped, even after she rolled up onto the hood of the car, the glass shattering beneath her body.

The air tasted red, the coppery flavor of blood. “Colors don’t have a taste,” he thought, trying not to choke on it. Every joint felt like it had been filled with broken glass. He felt her dragging herself to the greenbelt, too scared to go home. She had died in the woods like a wounded animal.

“I’m not Peter,” he gasped. “I don’t know who hurt you. I’m sorry. So sorry.”

The fingers released his neck. He risked a quick glance in the mirror. She sat in the back seat of the car, hands still stretched forward. Dark bruises covered his neck. Slowly, Nick opened the car door and eased the key from the ignition.

He ran back towards the house where his husband was waiting for him. His keys fell from his numbed fingers in the puddle again, but he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted was to get home, to find the safe embrace of someone who loved him.

Jimmy

Jimmy stumbled across the street, trying to ignore the pain in his stomach. The people passing did their best to ignore him. He knew that he smelled bad. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a shower, or even seen soap. Still, a small part of him died a little when the faces of the people around him scrunched up as he got close.

The smell of pizza lingered on the air. Just up the street he spotted a man staring at a cell phone, holding a white box in one hand. The man was dressed nicely enough. Clean clothes, certainly. A blue shirt with a collar and jeans that weren’t faded and thin from everyday use.

Jimmy wrapped his heavy green coat around himself, hoping to hide the smell, and approached the man carefully. People did not like to be surprised. Ducking his head a little, he moved up next to the man, who took an involuntary step back.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have a dollar? Or maybe some food?”

The man looked at him for a second, before sliding his phone into the front pocket of his jeans. “No, sorry, I don’t have anything.”

The lie hung in the air, and Jimmy’s eyes drifted down towards the box. Steam drifted up from it, and the smell was making his mouth water. He looked back up at the man’s face.

“Come on, man. Please. I’m starving here.”

“I really don’t have anything.” The man’s hand shook, rattling the pizza in the box. If anything, the smell was making Jimmy’s stomach hurt even more. He took a step forward, his eyes focused on the box. The man pulled it back against his body, pressing it against his chest with the free hand.

“Fuck you!” Jimmy shouted, lunging forward. He slammed the man up against the wall, the box falling to the ground in between them with a loud slap. The man flailed in his arms, his cries for help coming out as a low whimper.

A few people walked past, keeping their eyes focused on the streets in front of them. It was all Jimmy could do not to scream at them. He was tired of people looking through him every day.

When the punch came, he wasn’t expecting it. For a brief moment, he’d forgotten the man with the pizza. The hit didn’t even hurt, really. The man was swinging wildly as Jimmy backed away. People were watching now, recording with their phones, laughing to their friends.

Jimmy ducked under a punch and darted past the man who was now red-faced and screaming obscenities. He tried to push through the crowd, and get as far away as he could. The shouts of the man mixed in with the crowd around him, a surprising roar of noise.

When the weight of the police officer’s bicycle slammed into him, Jimmy hit the concrete hard, feeling a tooth break in his mouth. He watched from the ground as the crowd began to shuffle away, the pizza box kicked open and the food scattered. He tried to pull himself forward, crawling towards the food that was being mashed into the pavement.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he was pulled to his feet. The officer tried to talk to him, to get his side of the story, but all Jimmy could say was, “I just wanted some food.” The words tumbled out of his mouth over and over. “I just wanted some food.”

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Hardest Part of the Job

Caleb scratched at the implant in his temple. Lyssa had promised it was the easiest way to steal the car but he wasn’t so sure. The transmitter wired his brain directly to the vehicle. It would be like another limb, as long as the connection held. “A bigger rush than driving” she’d said with that same lopsided smile that had convinced him to throw in with Lyssa Nguyen and her gang in the first place.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting.” he heard the scratchy growl of his father’s voice in his head. Suddenly he was thirteen again, white knuckling the wheel. His feet just barely reaching the pedals as his father tried to keep Benny’s guts from leaking all over the backseat.

Caleb closed his eyes, and let the rumble of the motor chase away the feelings. He felt the vibration in his bones and smiled. A quick diagnostic check sent an extra surge of electrical current skittering across his brain. The car was as perfect as it had been the day Damien Hellridge stole it off the assembly line. Gunshots tore into the concrete around him. He hit the gas, and the car shot forward like a bullet.

“Once you’re in it, you’re fine” the memory of his father’s voice came as clearly as if he was riding shotgun. “Adrenaline takes over. Be the guy who can keep his cool and you’ll always get your share of the money.”

He knew his dad wouldn’t know what to make of his only son running with a gang like this. Henry Browner’s boy was better than this mixed bag of petty thieves and psychopaths. Caleb had a pretty good idea which one Lyssa was; he just wasn’t sure he cared anymore.

As the car skidded around the corner, the squeal of tires on hot pavement mixed with the screams of the Hellridge alarms filled the air around him. Caleb didn’t know when he’d ever felt so alive. He hit the straightaway on Lawrence Street with the pedal to the floor, and for a moment got so caught up in the feeling of gliding over the broken road that he forgot to breathe.

The plan itself was surprisingly simple. Lyssa’s schemes normally involved weeks of planning and intricate maneuvering by everyone involved to pull off. This time, all he had to do was get to the Exchange in time to pick up the rest of the crew after they finished robbing the joint.

There was a shriek of metal on metal as a Hellridge car slammed into him. Wincing in pain, Caleb veered into a narrow alley, sending sparks flying as the sides of the car scraped against the walls. Pain crackled up his side, but he forced the car forward towards the next street.

Two more Hellridge cars were on him as soon as he left the alley, forcing him down a side road that led away from the Exchange and the rest of the gang. There was a slight tickle in his left ear, followed by a loud screech of feedback.

“Whatever dumb son of a bitch stole my car, I want you to know that I am going to find you,” Damien Hellridge’s broken bottle voice echoed across the radio waves. “I will scalp you, and whatever family you have. Everyone you love is going to die painfully. Nobody fucks with a Hellridge.”

Caleb’s ribs popped as the Hellridges boxed him in from either side. He slammed on the brakes, causing the cars to collide in front of him. For a moment they drifted back apart from the impact. He hit the accelerator and shot forward through the gap. Behind him, the Hellridges crashed into each other again, sending glass and metal shooting across the road.

He let out a long sigh of relief as the wreckage faded into the background. Another car shot up behind him, lights flashing. The radio chatter exploded. Three more joined the chase before Caleb could blink. He was so focused on the police that he missed the Hellridge car moving up to cut him off. There was a loud tooth-rattling crunch as the car collided with his left fender. Then darkness.

Caleb sat in his chair staring at the dark room around him, trying to ignore the headache that was splitting his skull. “I told her to put the transmitter inside the fucking car,” he muttered, pulling over his computer. It was a lot riskier getting the damn thing inside the vehicle, but it also kept the transmitter from getting knocked off-line. Lyssa hadn’t listened to him the first dozen times, so he wasn’t sure why he was surprised that she’d ignored him this time, too.

His fingers flew over the keys. The car was dead without the transmitter. He’d have to reboot the connection before the anyone traced the signal back to the base. The cops and Hellridges were likely shooting it out over who had rights to the car. It wouldn’t be long before whoever came out on top searched the car, and came gunning for the person at the other end of the line.

He was finally able to find a weak signal from the transmitter. With a grimace, he pressed against his temple and forced the transmitter to reboot. The computer fell to the floor as the car roared to life around him. It lurched forward, sending the Hellridges that had been climbing around the outside sliding to the ground.

The car had spun around from the impact. Caleb found himself staring down a mob of Hellridges and police cars. He weaved between two cop cars, smiling as they stared at the empty vehicle. A Hellridge truck flew past and slammed into the cops as they tried to turn around. Sliding to the right around another Hellridge car, Caleb the familiar rush of adrenaline. This is what he was born to do.

He dodged another couple of police cars and shot off over the hill towards the Exchange. He cleared the top of the hill with a shout of joy, the car lifting briefly off the ground. Down on the street below, Damien Hellridge stared up at him, ten feet of boils, hair and bad teeth squeezed into a five foot frame. Behind him, the gang had built a wall of wrecked cars and garbage across the road, blocking off the only route to the Exchange.

Caleb slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt halfway down the hill. He threw the car into reverse and tried to think of another way around the barricade. At the top of the hill, he watched the police close in on him. Flashing lights bounced off the walls of the buildings as they sped up the hill towards him. The Hellridges followed not far behind.

“Fuck it,” he said with a smile. He waited until the first car crested the hill, then hit the gas. The police followed him over the top and he slammed the brakes, watching them shoot past him and into the wall. The armored vehicles plowed through it, sending Hellridges and pieces of machinery flying through the air.

Before the police or the Hellridges could recover, Caleb drove through the hole they’d opened in the barrier, darting through the debris and sliding to a stop right in front of the Exchange as Lyssa and her boys came running full tilt towards the vehicle. They piled in and he sped away, leaving the witnesses to see Damien Hellridge’s personal vehicle leaving the scene of a robbery.

Caleb smiled to himself as Lyssa climbed behind the wheel and disconnected the transmitter. The pressure in his head immediately stopped and he leaned back in his chair, trying to catch his breath. All that he had to do now was wait for the others to get back.

“The hardest part of the job is waiting,” he whispered to himself with a smile.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Fear of Falling

When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream where I tripped and fell in the backyard. It never hurt when I hit the ground, instead I’d just bounce into the air. Each time I came down, I’d bounce a little higher, a little slower.

Every night, for weeks, I would go to sleep knowing that this dream was waiting for me. I’d lay in bed, waiting for the horrible feeling of my stomach dropping out from under me with each bounce. It’s been practically burned in my memory ever since.

It didn’t take long for me to start looking for ways to recreate that terrifying feeling when I was awake. I hated it, but I needed it. At first, just stepping off a high step would do it. I’d stand on a box with my toes peeking over the edge, my heart beating a mile a minute, and feel the adrenaline pump through my body. Soon, I was leaping off ladders and fences, and even jumped off the roof of Tommy Maddox’s garage once. I couldn’t stop.

The first time I saw her, I’d just gone for my fourth round on the Terror Tower. It was a lime green monstrosity at the county fair that shot you ten stories into the air before dropping you back down again just as fast. It scared the hell out of me, leaving me short of breath and barely able to walk. I was hooked.

“Is he okay?” she asked, as my friends helped me to a bench across from the ride after my fourth time on it. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember was the beautiful girl standing in front of me. In an instant, I was lost in deep brown eyes, tight black curls, and dark skin. She placed a cool hand on the back of mine before telling me that everything would be fine.

She sat down next to me on the bench, and I did my best to not throw up. I don’t think I even noticed when my friends disappeared into the crowd, leaving us alone. I sat with her for awhile in silence. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable, just silence. Finally she looked at me and smiled.

“I’m Alicia,” she said. I knew that instant that I’d never heard a sweeter sounding name.

“Tyrone.” I tried to think of all the things I wanted to say to her. The words crowded each other out in my mind. My brain was grasping for anything to keep the conversation going, convince her that I was cool. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. Whenever I looked at her, I felt that familiar sensation in my stomach

“Your friends seem nice,” she finally said.

I shrugged. “They’re all right, I guess.”

“If they’re just all right,” she said, “why are they your friends?”

“We’ve known each other since we were little.” I stared at my hands. They were shaking, but I didn’t know if it was from the Tower or from how close she was sitting. “Better than not having any friends, right?”

“If you say so,” she said, looking around at the people walking past us. A few kids barreled through the crowd on their way to the Terror Tower, and we both watched the gondola slowly climb to the top. I felt a little shudder run through my body as the car plummeted towards the ground.

“So what happened up there?” she asked, nodding towards the ride.

I closed my eyes, thinking about the rush of adrenaline as I fell, like every inch of my body was screaming at one second. “I’ve been riding it all morning. Every time I come here, it’s the only thing I ride, even though it scares the hell out of me.”

“If you’re so scared of heights, why do you keep making yourself go up to these places?”

”I’m not scared of heights,” I started to say, the words dying before they reached my mouth. I didn’t have a way to explain it to her. I barely understood it myself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I replied. “It’s just something that I have to do. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Maybe you can show me,” she said, taking my hand and dragging me towards the Terror Tower.

The line was short, and we didn’t have to wait long. They strapped us into our seats. The operator slowly made his way around the ride, checking each harness. I had a tight grip on the handle bars, and my heart was racing.
Alicia’s hand settled on mine, and I felt myself relax a little. The gondola began the long climb upwards. She reached out with her other hand, and pulled my face towards hers. I focused on her dark brown eyes, and the feel of her soft skin against mine. For a minute, it felt like we were two parts of the same person.

I was so focused on her that I didn’t notice when we reached the top. Staring in her eyes, I felt that familiar sensation as we dropped. She laughed at the fear on my face, but it wasn’t a mocking kind of laugh. It felt warm and inviting. In that moment, I knew why I’d been obsessed with it, why I’d chased this feeling over and over again. She made it all make sense.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, patting my arm while we were waiting for operator. “Lots of people are afraid of heights.”
“It’s not a fear of heights,” I said to her, staring into her eyes.

“It’s a fear of falling,” she said with a smile, cutting me off as she pulled me in for a kiss.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pulling Teeth

Marion pulled another tooth from her shoulder with the pliers and winced. Three long teeth rested on the bathroom counter. She could hear Gary banging against the garage door. Taking a deep breath, she gritted her teeth and pulled out the last one.

She dabbed peroxide onto the fresh wounds, biting her lip as it sizzled. There were going to be scars, of course, but she already had a matching set on her side and her leg. Marion offered up a silent prayer as she tightened the bandage around her shoulder. She didn’t know if she was praying for herself or Gary, anymore. She just needed it to be over.

Fighting the urge to check on him, she went into the bedroom and turned up the volume on the TV as high as it could go. Blinking back tears, she reminded herself that it was still summer. He wouldn’t freeze out there.

Marion was just settling down on the bed when the house plunged into darkness. Silence filled the air, the only sound was the thudding of her heart in her chest. It was too much to hope that Gary had tired himself out. He must have found the circuit breaker. She held her breath and waited. There was a loud crash as he threw his weight against the wooden door.

She counted back through the steps she’d taken to lock him in. Both deadbolts were secure. The bar had been placed over the door. There was no way he could get through. The windows had been boarded over, and the door would hold him til morning. Still, something was wrong.

He was learning.

She hurried to the kitchen to grab a knife. It wouldn’t help against Gary, but the small bit of reassurance it gave her was better than nothing. Holding her breath, Marion moved slowly towards the door leading to the garage. Everything was still in place. A soft shuffling came from the other side of the door.

“It’s going to be okay, but you need to relax.” she whispered. Seconds passed in silence. “Gary?”

There was a loud bang as the drywall in front of her pushed out from the wall. Marion froze, watching Gary’s blood-stained fist force its way through. His body followed, squeezing and contorting through the hole before falling into the hallway.

Backing away, she held the knife in front of her with shaking hands. Gary craned his head up and sniffed the air. His jaw unhinged, and even in the darkened house she could see the rows of teeth that lined the roof of his mouth. The sandy brown hair on his head had fallen out in clumps, revealing slick patches of black skin.

He crawled towards her, saliva dribbling to the floor from his mouth. His back rose and fell sharply with each breath, the muscles shifting under the skin. Moving faster than she expected, he grabbed her ankle.

Marion crashed to the ground and he was on top of her. His big blue eyes stared into hers, and she saw the fear in them. A low keening whimper came from inside of him, even as his fingers dug into her shoulders. Marion felt the sharp pain from the earlier bite as the wounds split open.

Gary lunged forward and she jammed her forearm between his teeth. He clamped down on it, and she fought back a scream as the skin bubbled where the saliva touched it. Before she could think, Marion shoved the knife up into his ribs with her other hand. Gary shuddered and collapsed. His jaw relaxed and he released her arm. Looking up at him, she saw the look of pain and betrayal in his eyes.

It took a few tries to slide out from under him. He grabbed at the knife, trying to pull it out of his body, but only succeeded in making the wound larger. She leaned against the wall and tried to remember how to breathe.

Marion knew he would recover, just as he had from the dozens of other wounds she’d inflicted. A sharp, violent shock always seemed to slow him down. Forcing herself to get up, she grabbed his foot and began dragging him back to the garage.

It was the longest half hour of her life. Every few feet she’d have to stop and rest. Gary would snarl at her, occasionally snapping his jaws. He weighed so much more in this state. When she got him back to the garage door, she sighed at the trail of thick black blood on the carpet.

Pulling him into the garage, Marion shivered a little despite the warm evening air. Taking several deep breaths, she hauled Gary in behind her. There was too much to do before he healed up again. She tried to force the panic to the back of her mind, get control of her shaking hands.

She gave him one last glance on her way out the door. Every night he seemed to get worse. Thick, segmented skin covered his neck. Even in the darkness, she saw the shine of the dark skin that crept along his shoulders. His eyes were almost gone, covered over in the transformation. She wondered if one day they’d disappear forever.

“Break down later,” she thought. “Right now, you need to move.”

Barring the door again, Marion stared at the hole in the wall. She was too tired to board it up. Dragging a chair from the dining room, she staggered into the bathroom and locked the door. After shoving the chair under the door knob to hold it in place, she grabbed the pliers off the counter with her good hand. It took three tries to work the first tooth free. Gritting her teeth, she dabbed peroxide on each wound, before adding the next tooth to the pile on the counter.

“In the morning, everything will be fine,” Marion told her reflection. “He might even look like your husband again.”

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

 

The Bellringer

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him. He just appeared one day. It seemed like everyone knew about him, but nobody ever talked about him. People would see him shuffling down the street in his ruined clothes and do their best to avoid even looking at him. Some kids would joke about the smell, or the roaches that crawled over his skin, but they gave him a wide berth all the same.

Mostly, I remember the bell. A loud, sharp clang that echoed in the air long after he’d gone. It was a steady monotone, and as he passed you’d feel your heart beat in rhythm with it. After a few seconds, the feeling would pass, and you’d find yourself standing in perfect silence wondering what the hell just happened.

My husband Brian always shivered when he came to. We’d only been married a couple of years at that point, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have left that godforsaken town and taken him with me. It got so bad that when Brian heard the man coming up the street, he’d turn and begin to walk away as quickly as he could. I used to tease him about it. He was right to be afraid.

We lived a mile or so away from the town square, in a small house that Brian inherited from his parents. For the longest time, the bell ringer stayed near the town center. I remember being surprised when I saw him walking up the street in our neighborhood, the sound of his bell puncturing the air with every step. I was even more shocked when I saw Jackson Aldridge following along in lockstep behind him.

At first I thought the boy was mocking him, and I had gone out to shoo him away. I didn’t much like the bell ringer, but it was important to me that the man have some dignity. When I got closer, I noticed that Jackson barely seemed awake at all. He moved forward like he was being yanked by invisible ropes. His eyes were half-closed and he was barely breathing.

I stepped in between them, placing my hands on Jackson’s shoulders. This kid, who barely weighed a hundred pounds, brushed past me as though I weren’t there. I stood in the middle of the street, staring after them in shock. When they turned up the next street and out of my view, I ran back to the house to call the Aldridges.

Tyler Aldridge picked up on the first ring. I know that I must have sounded crazy. I was talking a mile a minute and was still trying to catch my breath. Still, there was something odd about the calmness with which Tyler listened to my story. I could practically hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.

“Rosie, honey, I’m sure you didn’t see Jackson. He’s at school. Why don’t you lie down for a bit. It sounds like something has you over-excited.”

He hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I stared out the window for a few minutes, trying to think of a plan. I had a few hours before the kids were due back from school, and it wasn’t like St. Martin was that big of a town to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard to find where Jackson had gone. Grabbing my coat, I hurried out the door and in the direction I’d seen them go.

They moved along at a slow enough pace that it didn’t take long for me to to catch them. Wherever the bell ringer led, people followed. Every few minutes, another person would wander out of their homes, and fall in with the rest of the crowd shuffling along next to Jackson. I recognized Mrs. Wheeler, who ran the bakery downtown almost immediately. Henry O’Connor also, who used to deliver milk. There were a few others, people I hadn’t met, but recognized from running errands through the city.

The group was already so large that they stayed in the middle of the street. They walked through intersections with no regard for traffic or the other people around them. The only sound was the clanging of the bell in time with each step.

I followed along behind them for an hour or so, until they turned back up towards my street. Finally, I broke away and rushed back towards the house. I still needed to get the kids from school, and Brian would be home from work not long after that. Together, I knew we could figure out what was happening.

The school was practically empty when I arrived. A few teachers stood in the hallway looking confused, comforting the children that were left. I pulled Mrs. Everly aside, feeling my insides turn to water as she started to cry.

The only words I could understand were “sorry” and “couldn’t stop them”. It took me a few moments to understand what she was saying, and even then I still had to ask the question to be sure. “Hannah? What happened to my babies?”

She only cried harder when she tried to tell me. I pictured them shuffling down the street behind the bell ringer, their eyes vacant like Jackson’s had been. For a moment, I felt my heart break, and then I knew what had to be done. I tried to help Hannah to her feet, but she pushed me away.

The entire drive home, I was torn between wanting to chase after my children and wanting to wait for Brian to help. If I couldn’t stop Jackson Aldridge from following the bell ringer, then I’d definitely need help to stop both Helen and Thomas.

I waited for hours, my anxiety growing worse by the second. The house grew darker as the hours passed with still no sign of Brian. Finally, I saw his headlights shine through the window.

He burst through the door, and pulled me against him. “Where are the children?” he asked. With a shaky voice, I told him everything that happened.I had barely finished when I heard the ringing of the bell. Before I could say anything, Brian was rushing towards our bedroom.

He came out a few seconds later with the old pistol he kept in the closet. I don’t think I’d ever seen him shoot it. I didn’t even know if it was loaded.

I saw them at the end of the block. In the orange glow of the street lights, they barely looked human. He walked at the front, still ringing his bell. The crowd pushed along behind him stretching back farther than I could see.

The bell ringer stopped in front of me, hunched over like a monster from some children’s story. His eyes met mine, the irises a strange yellow color. He stared at me with a hopeful grin and pleading eyes. His mouth opened, like he wanted to say something, but his words were drowned out by the angry roar of Brian’s pistol.

He collapsed, blood pumping from a small hole in his chest. The bell hit the ground with a loud clang, and the people behind him froze. They stared at us in confusion for a second before a look of panic spread across their faces.

I found my children in the crowd, right before they turned to ash with the rest of the town. Their bodies collapsed in on themselves, filling the air around me. The whole time, the ringing of the bell echoed in my ears.

In the cloud of ash, I watched Brian walk forward with a dazed look on his face, then reach down and brush the bell off. I wanted to call out to him, tell him to leave it alone, but I choked on the thick  air around me. Brian gave me a sad look over his shoulder as he walked south, ringing the bell with each step.

I tried warning the people of Philipsburg, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would the people of Marshfield. I need you to understand, he isn’t going to stop. He’s coming, step by step, with thousands of people following behind him. You need to evacuate your homes before he gets here. It’s too late for my family, but it might not be for yours.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Old Times

The envelope had arrived at Angela’s office a few weeks ago, the address hand-written on the outside. There was no stamp or return address. The card inside simply read:

“Oolong. February 20th. 8:00 PM. For old times’ sake.”

“You look good,” David said with a smile, as he stood up. She felt that same nervous rush in the pit of her stomach that she had when she’d first met him. She smiled out of habit. For a moment, she was young again.

“You’ve barely aged a day,” she said, in a voice that was equal parts wonder and annoyance. “It’s been what, twenty years?”

“Twenty-three,” he said, pulling her chair out for her. “But who’s counting?”

His hands brushed her shoulders when she sat. Angela was suddenly aware of every gray hair and stretch mark, of the crow’s feet and laugh lines that make-up couldn’t hide. She picked up the menu, staring at the words while she tried to think of something to say.

She watched him over the top of the menu. His thick black hair was neatly trimmed, without a trace of gray. His dark brown skin had the same youthful glow that it had when they met. Lounging back in his chair, he radiated self-confidence. Her thumb drifted down to her wedding ring, sliding over the smooth surface of the band.

“The card was a nice touch.”she said, forcing herself to look at the menu and not the way the candlelight reflected in his eyes. “You did the calligraphy yourself?”

“Modern conveniences have their purpose, but you can’t beat the old ways for style.”

They sat in silence, each looking at their own menu. Angela closed her eyes, listening to the quiet conversations of the diners around her. For a moment, she felt the heat of each flame on every candle prickling against her skin. It had been years since she’d opened herself up to the world. Her heart broke for what she’d given up.

“I was surprised to hear from you after so long,” she said, swallowing the regret.

He raised an eyebrow and then smiled gently. “Why is that? You weren’t exactly easy to track down.”

“I moved on,” she said. “I have a family now. Children. A husband.”

“Clearly your relationship with the humans has treated you well,” he said, gesturing at her body. “You can barely see the years at all.”

Before Angela could reply, the waiter arrived with the wine. She watched as David locked eyes with the young man. The waiter blushed, almost dropping the bottle, and then hurried away from the table. David watched him leave with a lazy smile before appearing to remember that she was there.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “All this time, and you still flirt with anything that moves.”

“Why shouldn’t I?,” he asked with a shrug. “Beauty is still beauty, no matter how much time has passed.”

“So why did you invite me here? What was that plan, we’d have some wine and then go back to your hotel room for the night?”

He smiled, the smug little grin that she had learned to hate over the centuries. “Would it be so bad if it was? You could be young again. Look like your old self.”

“I’m fine the way I am,” she said, struggling to maintain the conviction in her voice. “There isn’t anything you have that I want.”

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately,” he said. “I don’t like the way things ended between us.”

“What part did you not like? The part where I left or the part where it wasn’t your choice?” It was hard not to smile at the look of hurt that passed over David’s face. Thousands of years of pain and heartache welled up in Angela’s chest.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” David said. “I should have handled it better. There were a million things I wish I had done differently.”

Angela sat, absorbing what he just said. In the all the time they’d been together, David never apologized for anything. The last time she’d seen him, with a girl under each arm, he had simply stated that they were better off with other people and that it obviously wasn’t working out. Now he sat across the table from her, watching her as she tried to process everything.

“I don’t forgive you,” Angela said with a shrug. “I had centuries of your bullshit, David. Why would you possibly think I’d believe anything you had to say now?”

“But I apologized–”

“And I appreciate the effort it must have taken to be decent for once,” she said, as she got up from the table. “But I don’t accept the apology.”

“Wait,” he called after her. “We need each other. You’ll die without me. There are so few of us left, as it is. It doesn’t have to end this way.”

“It ended twenty-three years ago,” Angela said, as she made her way out of the restaurant. She felt David stare at her back as she left him for the final time. For a second, the years stretched between them, spread out like miles behind her. At the door, she gave one glance back, and she saw him the way she always remembered him: his wings stretched behind him to fill the room, skin faintly glowing in the starlight.

Her thumb slid down over her ring again, as she turned away from him for the last time. Forcing herself to move forward, she stepped out onto the street and walked slowly to her car, just another person on a crowded city street.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.