A resounding thunk-bang within Tina’s middle-class, suburban home jolted her awake. She lay still, eyes wide in the darkness, listening. What came next wasn’t a “maybe it’s just the wind” type of noise. It was the definite scrunch, scrunch of footsteps on the recently steam-cleaned carpet.
They stopped in front of her closed bedroom door.
The doorknob rattled. Tina considered grabbing the phone or shouting fire. She’d always heard that neighbors were more likely to get involved if they thought their own property was in danger. Then again, if she faked being asleep maybe the intruder would content himself with some jewelry or other fast-snatch items. That hope held her paralyzed.
The door unlatched. It didn’t open right away. What if it’s a rapist or some homicidal maniac... Oh, God, Alex! How do I protect Alex? The thought of her seven-year-old son stumbling into a burglary or being kidnapped brought bile to her throat.
The door creaked open. It swayed so slowly she had time to try to yell “fire” again and again. All that came out was a strangled gargling sound.
A silhouette stood at the doorway. Or maybe it was a shadow. It seemed distorted. Too narrow for its height. And was that a cape around the shoulders? Whatever it was, it sure wasn’t her husband returning early from his shift.
The figure stepped forward. This time Tina screamed. It sounded more like the wail of a banshee than a woman’s cry. The bizarre noise snapped the paralysis that held her. She sucked in a breath ready to shout fire. But the figure vanished.
The room seemed different. Brighter. Ambient light streamed in through the window. A nightlight in the bathroom lit the empty hallway.
Just another stupid nightmare, Tina thought as she struggled to stop hyperventilating. Then again, her bedroom door was open, and she was sure she’d shut it before going to sleep.
She glanced at the empty side of the bed. The problem with being married to a firefighter who worked twenty-four hour shifts was that it meant he wasn’t there ten nights a month. That left her alone to get up and check the house.
First, she looked in on Alex. She needed to make sure he was still there and that she hadn’t scared the bejabbers out of him with that heinous scream. She worked her way across the toy-cluttered floor and tested the latch on the window. She paused on her way out to enjoy the innocent, peaceful way he slept. The thirty-year-old full-time mother and part-time author still couldn’t believe how easily their son had become the center of her world.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the motion of a shadow crossing the doorway. By the time she looked up, it was gone. She peeked into the hall, cautiously checking both directions. Nothing. I’m getting paranoid in my old age, she decided. Not that she wouldn’t finish checking every door and window in the house, but after that she’d go right to sleep.
Instead, she tossed and turned for hours. Then just before dawn, when she’d finally fallen asleep, she heard a man’s voice. Too muffled to make out what he was saying yet near enough that she could feel his warm breath. She didn’t bother going back to bed after checking the house this time.
# # #
Tina’s husband, Richard, returned home that morning exhausted and tense. The shift had been nothing but bullshit calls. Just constant enough bullshit to keep from getting any sleep. All he wanted was to cave up in the den with the remote and a good beer. He figured after working all night it couldn’t be too early for a drink. He opened the screen door and carefully set down his overnight bag, hoping not to attract attention.
Before he made it to the fridge, he felt Tina’s arms wrap around his waist in a reverse hug. “Hi, sweetheart,” she said while nuzzling his back. “Oh, am I glad you’re home.”
He turned to face her, content to surrender some of his cave time to “us time.” Then he spotted the deep shadows under her eyes. “You stayed up all night writing again, didn’t you?”
“No. As a matter of fact, I went to bed pretty early. I was drained after writing Vance’s death scene yesterday... Just couldn’t sleep. Had a bad dream. Don’t know why--”
Richard put his hands on his hips and teased in a mockingly feminine voice, “Oh, don’t know why I had a nightmare. I only spent the day killing off one of my favorite characters.” He bent down and planted a peck of a kiss on her forehead. “Jeez, maybe if you quit killing your characters, you’d sleep better.”
Tina stepped back with a hurt and betrayed glare directed up at her six-foot four husband. “I don’t kill my characters. The story line’s been with me since Junior High. I just write it.”
“You’re talking like it’s real. You created the story. You decide what happens. Admit it: you’re bloodthirsty. Hell, you started the saga off by executing Twyla’s godparents and now you’ve killed her best friend.”
All the stock comeback lines came to mind, but as an author she searched for something deeper. “Screw you,” she said with a playfulness he hadn’t heard from her in months.
“Hmm. Is that a threat or a promise?” He grabbed her and pinned her against the counter. She giggled and tickled him. Then it occurred to Richard to ask, “I take it Alex got off to school okay?”
“Yep.” Her hand worked its way beneath his shirt and up his back.
He kissed her firmly yet chastely on the lips. “Tell you what...Why don’t you let me take a shower while you get some breakfast. Then, well, we’ll see.”
“I’ve got a better idea. Let’s go out. Breakfast and a matinee? That is if you don’t need a nap. You get any sleep last night?”
He calculated whether they could fit in such an outing and still make time for at least a quickie before Alex had to be picked up. He decided they could and nodded. “I’m fine. Or is that your way of telling me you should stay home and write?” He realized he might have to talk her into taking a shower with him before she went on another writing rampage.
“No. I’m taking today off. I think trying to crank out this book before the deadline is getting to me. The nightmare--the intruder--I swore looked like a Sian.”
“Hmm. The same race as Vance.”
“Oh, give it up.” She shook her head, rolled her eyes and set her hands on her hips.
A twitch of a smile crossed Richard’s lips. Pretty soon her Irish twirl would surface. “Hey, I feel sorry for the guy. You create this elegant bird-man, make him fall in love with Twyla. Then you kill him off so she can run away with your big bad hero.”
“Now who’s talking like they’re real?” She gave him a playful shove. “Go take your shower. We’re running out of time.” Her evil grin and wag of the eyebrows told him she also wanted some alone time this afternoon.
He headed off toward the bedroom. Tina pulled a roast from the refrigerator to get a head start on dinner. The rattle of pipes from Richard’s shower made her jump. She laughed at herself and went back to work, chopping up the roast. The chunks of meat made a satisfying plop as she tossed them into the crock-pot.
A shadow came up behind her.
Don’t get goofy, she told herself. It’s just Richard hoping to talk me into showering with him. But her skin crept from scalp to toenail.
She swung around. A translucent figure glimmered not three feet from her. He stood seven feet tall and had huge golden, feathered wings. One hung awkwardly as if broken. His skin was not the beautiful ice-blue it should have been if he were the image of her character, Vance. Instead, he was a sickly gray-green. It reminded her of the belly-bleed patients she used to transport back when she was a paramedic.
His thoracic cavity ruptured, exposing internal organs. He reeled back in shock then grimaced in pain. This had to be her imagination replaying Vance’s death scene. He reached for her and opened his mouth to speak. Coagulated clumps of dark blue blood bubbled out only to evaporate before they hit the floor.
Tina closed her eyes and cringed. She swore to make an appointment with a shrink as soon as this hallucination ended. A hand touched her shoulder. She shrieked. Not the Hollywood, fem-fetal shrill, but a gut wringing cry that shocked even her. Two hands now gripped her shoulders.
She opened her eyes, expecting to find her husband there holding her. He wasn’t. The image of Vance remained. His avian eyes pleaded in desperation. Tracks of tears ran down his hollow cheeks then disappeared into nothingness. Through the blood, he choked, “Cassie.”
“Tina! Tina, are you okay?” Richard shouted as he raced down the hall. The apparition faded away before Richard made it to the kitchen.
“Of course it vanishes so nobody else can see it. ‘Cuz I’m frigging insane.”
Her hysterical mix of laughter and sobbing sure worried him. “What? Who’s insane? What happened?” Richard asked as he secured the towel around his waist.
Tina covered her eyes, too embarrassed to face him. “I--I thought I saw someone.”
She peeked through her fingers but quickly turned away from his “have you completely lost it” expression. “God, I guess working on this book is getting to me more than I thought.” The petite redhead took in the cheery yellow walls and flowered borders. She’d thought that redecorating the kitchen would keep her from going stir crazy now that she spent most of her time at home. How naïve. “I just need to get out of here.”
Richard painted on his poor put-upon husband smile. “Well, if you don’t scare me half to death again, we’ll be on our way in a couple minutes.” He looked around for something, anything that she might have mistaken for a person. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Go get dressed. Unless that’s some new fashion statement you’re wearing.”
# # #
Richard avoided bringing up the incident while they were out. He was relieved that she’d made an appointment with a counselor for Monday. She just hadn’t been herself today. Too quiet. He even missed her obsessive chattering about The Paraxous, that fictitious star cluster she wrote about.
After dinner, he brought the dishes to her at the sink and asked for the hundredth time if she was okay. Tina rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, I’m fine. Just embarrassed.” She let out a sigh and scraped the leftovers off the plates.
“Why don’t you go lay down? I’ll take care of the dishes,” he said in his oh-so-careful-not-to-be-patronizing tone. He assumed she’d refuse, but at least he’d made the offer.
To his surprise she nodded. “Yeah, I think an early night’s just what I need. I’ll read Alex his bedtime story, then hit the hay.”
It shouldn’t have worried him that she accepted his offer. They did have a deal: one cooks, the other one cleans. Still, his Irish spitfire rarely backed off once she started something.
A few dishes later, Richard paused to listen to the soft lilt of her voice as she sang “Danny Boy” to their son. The warmth it generated inside him made Richard smile. At least in some ways she was still the woman he’d fallen in love with over ten years ago.
He lost track of her over the clank and bang of washing pots and pans. So as he headed to the bedroom a half-hour later, it caught him off guard to hear her talking. The light was off in Alex’s room, so he hadn’t conned her into a second story. Light was coming from the computer room and he heard her voice again.
She’d promised no writing today, yet there she was talking out a dialog for some scene. Richard flung the door open, ready to lecture her, then send her to bed. He froze.
Crouched on the floor, a creature with blue skin and golden wings rocked in pain and gargled with every raspy breath. But it couldn’t be. Sians only existed in his wife’s books. The alien looked up. Richard glanced at the illustration of Vance hanging on the wall then back at the phantom. They matched.
“Y--you can see him?” Tina gasped. “Oh God. I figured it was a hallucination... He’s real?” She pulled away from the wall she’d plastered herself against and leaned down to touch Vance. Her fingers went right through his arm. She jerked back so hard she fell on her rear. “Guess not. But what the--”
The apparition rested a hand on hers. All she felt was a strange tingling. “Cassie,” he squawked. More blood gushed from his mouth but disintegrated in midair.
Richard’s flesh crawled with ice-cold terror. “Shit. Tell me he didn’t just say Cassie.” He knew the frighteningly good job Tina had done of creating a bitch of a villain for her saga.
“Yeah. I think he said it last time too. I was just too freaked out to notice.” She studied the figure intensely, unsure how to communicate with a spirit being with an airway full of blood. “I think he needs something from me. You know, like in Sixth Sense.”
“This isn’t a damn movie,” Richard snapped. “He never existed, so how can he be a ghost?”
Vance’s image starting sputtering, but nothing made sense through all the blue-black blood clots. The effort seemed to drain him; he faded some and remained still except for his labored breathing.
Dread gripped Richard’s gut. The mention of the woman who mentally raped her victims and killed someone every few chapters was less than promising. Instincts that had gotten him through twelve years of firefighting told him he had to stop this before it got worse. But how? “I’m going to get help. Tina, come with me. I want you away from that thing.” He glared disdainfully at the apparition that had turned reality upside down.
“What kind of help? I’ve already made an appointment with a shrink.” After a moment, Tina added, “You’re welcome to come with me... Unless you think we’ve both been exposed to a hallucinogenic?”
He ran through the signs and symptoms of such an exposure and ruled it out. He shook his head and motioned for her to follow him. But she turned to Vance as his image faded in and out. “No. There’s got to be some way to help him.”
Knowing it wouldn’t do a bit of good to argue with her, he ran to the phone in their room. Soon he found himself trying to explain the situation to the department’s chaplain. “I know it’s late, but could you come over right away?”
Richard almost mentioned the need for an exorcism but thought it might come across as slightly irrational. He sure didn’t want the priest calling the sheriff in for a psychiatric evaluation, so he said nothing about the ghost, demon or whatever the hell it was. “It’d probably be easiest if you came and saw for yourself.”
Alex came in wearing his favorite dinosaur p.j.’s and Alfalfa hair. Richard told him to go back to bed and stay there.
“But daddy,” Alex insisted, “mommy said to tell you it’s okay.”
“Alex, you went into the computer room?” Richard asked, afraid of what this might do to his son.
“No, mommy shut the door and told me not to come in. She says she’s fixin’ something and to tell you it’s okay now.”
“Like hell,” Richard muttered.
Alex came over and hugged his father’s legs. “Daddy, what’s wrong? I thought I heard crying.”
Richard asked the chaplain to hold and set the phone down. He knelt so he no longer towered over the younger version of himself. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.” He scooped his boy up in his arms. “Let’s get you back to bed.” He carried Alex back to his room and tucked him in with a kiss on the forehead.
As Richard shut the door behind him, the sound of typing caught his attention. He muttered a curse then a prayer and opened the computer room door. It was empty except for Tina pounding away at the keyboard. She didn’t notice him until he asked, “What are you doing?” Then she nearly jumped out of her seat.
She went right back to typing. “I figured out what to do.”
“Somehow, I doubt doing more writing is the answer, Tina.”
She didn’t spare him a glance. “It’s exactly the answer. Somehow, right before he disappeared I knew. I’ve got to make it so he doesn’t die.”
He looked over her shoulder at the monitor. She was rewriting that damn scene where Cassie kills Vance. “Give me a break. Rewriting can’t fix this. I’m asking the chaplain to come over.”
She stopped to stare at him with a “now who’s cracked” look. “To do what? Perform an exorcism?” Tina waved her hands and made a Halloween, “Ooooooooh.” She rolled her eyes and returned to typing. “You’ve watched The Exorcist one too many times.”
“Well, how the hell do you explain having one of your dead characters show up in our house?”
Her confidence wavered. “Um...you know how in my stories there’s an empathic plane where telepaths can travel?” Richard nodded stone-faced, so she rushed on, “Well, it’s kind of like that: a thought plane. Somehow the people I’ve created exist there. And the stuff I write...they have to live.”
She sounded so guilt-ridden at that last statement. It didn’t stop Richard from scoffing, “That’s insane. Writing something can’t make it real.”
She raised a hand to stave off his objections. “You saw him. It was Vance. Somehow my characters do exist. I think they can only cross over to our plane or dimension when they die.”
“Then why the hell didn’t Twyla’s godparents come knocking at our door?”
She seemed stricken by the question. In a shaky voice full of Irish twirl she said, “Oh God. They did. I thought ‘twas just a dream.” She concentrated for a minute. “It’s too late to change what happened to them. That book’s been published. But Vance’s death was just a rough draft. Change it and we should be okay. No more ghost...thought pattern...Whatever.”
Richard waved a hand at the computer. “By all means. Won’t hurt to try. But I’m still making an appointment with the chaplain.” He looked at where the image had been, sure it would reappear any second. “If that don’t work, we’ll both go to that shrink.” He shook his head and returned to the bedroom to talk to the priest.
# # #
Richard sat in bed half the night flipping through cable channels, waiting for Tina. He’d made an appointment with the chaplain for Sunday after church. Though they rarely attended services anymore, he figured a little extra insurance couldn’t hurt. Even if it had been an illusion, they still needed some help. And the more he thought about it, the more he doubted what he’d seen. Tina’s hysteria had just gotten to him.
She entered the bedroom with a determined smile. “It’s done. Vance comes out just fine now.” She swapped into her pajamas, shut off the TV and crawled into bed. “Thank God it’s over.”
He hugged her tightly. Tension eased from his body at her nearness. Yes, tonight was going to require a lot of snuggling. If she believed rewriting got rid of the ghost, maybe it really was over. Trying to bring some humor into the situation he said, “Yeah, but now you have a typical love triangle.”
Her eyes met his with Irish resolve. “That’s fine. Let them sort it out. I’m done with the Paraxous Cluster.”
“You’re going to quit writing?” In spite of what had happened, he couldn’t believe she’d give it up.
“Hell yeah! It’s back to a nice normal teaching job for me.”
Richard hugged her tighter. He finally had his wife back. He just hoped she didn’t decide to refuse the royalties from her first two books. But he’d worry about that tomorrow. Soon they drifted off, clinging to each other like they used to as young lovers.
# # #