Now that the Hands of the Architects trilogy is finally finished, it’s time to see what Eric has been up to! And it looks like the weird is really going to shake things up for him! I’m currently in the process of wrapping up the first draft of the eighth Rushed book. And since we’ve been teasing everyone on Facebook these past few weeks–even dropping a nasty rumor about killing off a character who’s been with us since the first book in the very first chapter–I think maybe we’ll go ahead and share a little sneak peek. So read on and enjoy!
by Brian Harmon
Everything was darkness, pain and fog. Eric drifted through an icy, black void, lost in the crushing depths of a vast, stinging ocean, his thoughts tossed in the strange currents, scattered and broken, grasping at desperate fragments of confused questions churning in the murky waves. What happened to him? Where was he? And why was he in so much pain?
Slowly, he clawed his way back to consciousness and struggled to open his eyes. He was lying on the cold, damp ground, his face pressed against the bare earth, the smell of dirt, dead leaves and blood filling his nose.
This wasn’t how he usually started his morning. Call him a pessimist, but this felt like it was going to be one of those days.
He tried to move his arms and felt a sharp, jarring pain in his left shoulder that jolted him a little more awake. His eyes fluttered open, but they didn’t want to focus. The world around him was a cloudy blur of mottled shadow and churning light. Again, he felt as if he were deep underwater, peering up through murky fathoms.
His head was pounding. There was a throbbing in his left knee. It even hurt to breathe. With a painful grunt, he lifted his head and blinked away the tears in his eyes. Some of the haze peeled away, revealing those deep-sea lights to really be a canopy of bare tree branches looming over him and swaying in the cold breeze.
A forest… But…why was he in the woods? He hated the woods. Bad things tended to happen to him when he went into the woods.
He blinked again, trying to clear away more of that haze, but not all of it was in his head. The day, itself, was gray and foggy. There was a cold and haunting mist hanging in the air.
There was a crow perched on one of the branches, staring down at him like a tired cliché of an ill omen, its head tilted to one side as if it were as baffled about how he’d ended up here as he was.
What the hell happened to him? The last thing he remembered was…
He closed his eyes and groaned. What was the last thing he remembered?
Again, he moved his arms. Again, his shoulder cried out in pain. But he managed to plant the palms of his hands against the ground and push himself up.
Above him, the crow spread its wings and took off into the sky.
The conference. He was at the teacher’s conference. In Oshkosh.
He curled his knees beneath him, grimacing at the pain in the left one as he settled his weight onto it. He coughed and the motion sent shockwaves of pain through his chest and left side.
This wasn’t the sort of thing that usually happened at teachers’ conferences. He was fairly sure he was missing something here.
Reaching up with a shaky hand, he felt a shallow gash on the side of his forehead. That was where the blood was coming from. It’d run down his face, matting his eyebrow and covering his cheek. But it didn’t seem to be gushing. Hopefully he wouldn’t need stitches.
He sat up and looked around, trying to blink away more of that confusing haze.
He was on his way home. He remembered that much. It wasn’t morning but afternoon. But that was all he could recall. How did he end up out here? And for that matter…where was his vehicle?
He blinked hard and then turned and looked behind him.
His silver PT Cruiser was there. It was mangled up among the tree trunks, utterly totaled.
His heart sank at the sight. He’d had it for six years now. It might not have been the coolest of rides. Karen was the one who picked it out. She thought it was cute. But they brought it home brand-new from the dealer with only twelve miles on it. And he’d taken good care if it, too.
Now it was gone.
He closed his eyes again and lowered his head. Was it his fault? Did he fall asleep? Did a deer run out in front of him? He didn’t see any other vehicles. He hoped to God no one else was involved.
With a loud and painful grunt, he rose to his feet and staggered a few steps toward the destroyed Chrysler. It was funny, he was never quite sure what to call the thing. The dealer told them it was technically classified as a truck. But calling it a truck seemed a bit pretentious. The same with just calling it the “Cruiser.” Like he was trying to lump it in with those souped-up Chargers the police used. But it didn’t feel like just a “car,” either. And it certainly wasn’t a van or an SUV.
He stood there a moment, his eyes closed, swaying a little on his feet, just letting himself breathe. His head was still foggy. It was difficult to think straight.
Forget the stupid car. (Or truck or whatever it was…like it really mattered anymore…) Right now, he needed to focus on himself. It was getting late and the sky had been gray and dreary all day. It’d be dark soon. It was a rather unseasonably warm day for late January, but it was going to get colder as the night dragged on.
He opened his eyes and stared at the remains of the vehicle. Then he frowned. He turned and looked back at the place where he woke up. It was at least fifty feet away. Was he thrown that far in the crash? How was that possible? He knew he was wearing his seatbelt. He always wore his seatbelt.
Again, he turned and looked at the mangled wreck. It was crumpled and folded between three different trees. Between the impact and being thrown fifty feet, how was he not dead?
That couldn’t be right. Maybe he’d climbed out of the car, dazed from the crash, and collapsed over there. It made more sense than being thrown clear of the crash in spite of being properly buckled in.
He started walking toward the wreck again, his mind racing. Then something caught his eye. What was that sticking out of the open door? Was that…a sleeve? Was someone there?
But no one was with him when he left the conference…
He paused, startled, as he suddenly imagined walking up and finding himself still in the car, his body mangled in the wreckage, his eyes lifeless and glazed.
Was it possible? Could he be dead?
No. That was stupid. He wouldn’t have such a headache if he was dead.
He walked up to the crumpled door and peered inside. It was his sleeve. More specifically, it was the sleeve of his jacket, which he’d taken off before leaving Oshkosh.
“Get it together…” he muttered, running his hand through his hair. He reached through the broken window and grabbed the jacket. Then he shook off the broken bits of safety glass and put it on.
His chest still hurt on the left side. He felt it when he raised his arms. Had he cracked a rib? He hoped he didn’t end up spending the night in a hospital somewhere. That’d be annoying. Fortunately, the pain in his shoulder and knee seemed to ease a bit as he moved around and loosened his joints. But only just a bit.
Glancing back through the broken window, he saw that the airbags had deployed. Those might explain how he survived such a gruesome-looking impact, at least.
The fuzziness in his aching head was starting to clear up. But with this clarity came another bizarre realization.
He turned all the way around, scanning his surroundings.
Where was the road?
He turned around again, scanning those same surroundings a second time, and then a third, as if he were merely missing it. There was nothing but foggy forest in every direction. He couldn’t even hear any traffic.
How could he have run off the road if there wasn’t a road?
There wasn’t even any clear path by which he could’ve driven to this spot, much less fast enough to have done this kind of damage. He saw no tire tracks. How did he end up here? It didn’t make any sense.
None of this made any sense.
He leaned against the mangled fender and closed his eyes again, trying to think through the headache.
Then he looked up, his senses finally returning to him. “Isabelle!” he gasped. She’d know what happened. He reached for his phone in his front pants pocket, but it was gone. “What…? No!” He checked his other front pocket. His back pockets. His jacket pockets. He leaned into the driver’s window and searched the seats, the console and the cupholders. Then he pried the door all the way open, wincing at the awful sound of grinding metal and cracking fiberglass, and looked in the floorboards and under the seats. Finally, he turned and scanned the ground between here and where he awoke.
He had it when he left the conference. He was certain of that. He’d called Karen from the parking lot to let her know he was on his way home. He was fairly sure he even remembered returning it to his pants pocket.
But the rational part of his mind told him that if it was here and it still worked, he’d hear it ringing. Isabelle would’ve heard him and called before now. In fact, thinking more clearly about it, she should’ve been calling him from the start, trying to wake him up while he was lying unconscious on the ground.
But then where had it gone? It couldn’t have just disappeared.
He turned and searched the vehicle again. He wanted to believe that it was just turned off. Or maybe the battery had died. He only had to find where it fell and plug it into the travel charger. The car battery would probably still be good for that. But he knew better. He always kept it on when he was traveling. Karen insisted. And it was fully charged when he left the house that morning. And he’d kept it off all during the conference. It was either gone or broken. Those were the only possibilities that made any sense.
And he hadn’t even begun to process the fact that his wallet seemed to have gone missing as well. Had he been robbed? Maybe someone witnessed the accident, pulled him out of the wreckage and then relieved him of his valuables. It’d be a dick move, to be sure, but it was a scenario that at least made some sort of sense, he supposed.
He stood there a moment, still leaning over the driver’s seat, still trying to make sense of it all. Then he glanced up at the darkening sky above. There was a flashlight, spare batteries and a first aid kit in the glove box. He reached over and retrieved them, then stepped away from the wreck and filled the empty pockets of his jacket.
This was bad. The PT Cruiser was destroyed. He had no idea where he was, or even where the road was. He’d lost his phone, so he wasn’t going to be able to talk to Isabelle or call for help. Or even to look up where he was. And he had several injuries that seemed minor, but probably should be looked at.
Absently, he dabbed at the gash on his forehead again.
“What the hell happened?” he muttered to himself.
The forest, not surprisingly, offered him no answer.
He wandered off a few steps and then sat down on the cold ground again, wincing at the pain in his ribs.
An accident was one thing. It happened. And the phone could’ve fallen somewhere and broke. Or he might’ve dropped it while stumbling around in whatever unremembered haze carried him to the place on the ground where he eventually awoke. Or it could’ve been stolen with his wallet. Even some memory loss wasn’t unexpected, given that he’d hit his head somewhere along the way. (He should probably have that looked at sooner than later.)
It was the road. That was the part that didn’t add up.
He tried to remember the events leading up to the accident, but it was pointless. His last clear memory was of driving down the highway. He recalled nothing odd at all. Traffic was fairly light. The roads were damp, but clear of ice. It’d been drizzling off and on all day. Given the current light, that must’ve been at least an hour or two ago.
He glanced down to check his watch, as he’d been doing all day, only to remember that it was still at home. The battery had gone dead on him the day before and he hadn’t had time to buy a new one.
Just his luck…
He was starting to have a bad feeling about all this. Or, more precisely, he’d been having that bad feeling this whole time and was starting to run out of excuses to keep trying to rationalize it away.
Something weird was going on. And if he could talk to Isabelle, she’d probably confirm it for him.
What happened during that missing time? And what was he supposed to do now that he was here? Wandering around blind didn’t seem like a good idea. With no idea which way the nearest road might be, he’d only end up more lost.
Maybe he should stay close to the vehicle for now. He’d have the best chance of being found that way. Isabelle would’ve informed Karen of his accident as soon as it happened. And Karen would’ve dispatched his brother, Paul, to come searching for him. He’d be following Isabelle’s directions to the last place she knew him to be.
At the very least, he could just take a moment and rest and let his head clear a little more.
But then something strange happened. The wind abruptly died away and every branch and twig became unnaturally still. An eerie silence fell across the forest, leaving not a single sound but the pounding of his own pulse in his ears. At the same time, an intense and irresistible panic began to rise from deep inside him. Inside his bruised chest, his heart was suddenly racing. He jumped to his feet and turned around, his eyes wide, convinced that he wasn’t alone.
Something was here. He was immediately and absolutely sure of it. Something was watching him. Something in the forest. Something dangerous.
He turned the other way, scanning his surroundings, trying to find the source of this awful feeling. Beneath his shoes, the crunching of the leaves sounded as loud as gunshots in the eerie silence, and the noise he made only intensified his bizarre terror.
He needed to get out of here right now.
He didn’t think about which way he should go.
He just ran.
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There was a strange stillness in the air as the dusty pickup crept onto the empty beach and rumbled to a stop. Was it the calm that followed in the wake of the storm, wondered Everett, or was this merely the way the world appeared when dragged down by a heart too often battered and broken?
He sat behind the wheel for a long moment, staring through the dusty windshield at the wreckage and debris that surrounded him. It was all that was left of the cabin that had stood in this very spot only a week before.
The storm had moved through quickly, and it came very close to missing the little structure. A few short miles up the beach, the only damage had been a few fallen limbs and some washed-out driveways. “Bad luck,” his friends had called it, but his luck was beyond bad.
Everything had seemed to be going great. Just a year ago, he’d had all that he ever needed: a beautiful wife, a great job that put him rubbing elbows with some of the wealthiest people in the world, exotic cars, luxurious vacations, penthouse views. Plenty of the things that made him feel like he was worth something.
Like his private cabin on the beach, for example.
He couldn’t help but wonder where it all went wrong. How did he lose everything so completely? It just didn’t seem possible. One day he was making love to his wife in the shower, and then talking about the trip to Paris they’d been planning for months as they dried each other off. The next thing he knew, he was sitting on his couch staring at the letter she left him—the only goodbye she’d allowed him—and trying his damnedest not to cry.
Then, to make matters worse, he lost a promotion during his struggle to get over her. And the man who took that job wasted no time in letting him go. It wasn’t anything personal, he’d assured Everett. It was simply that his office would look a lot more appealing with the redhead from downstairs sitting at the desk instead of him. After all, he wasn’t qualified to do any of the extra errands for the boss that she supposedly was.
Everett could hardly blame him, he supposed. He had the power, after all. He’d won the position. It was his decision. That was what being on top was all about. You couldn’t be on top and not step on the people beneath you. He might’ve done the exact same thing.
One never knew.
With a heavy sigh, he opened the door and stepped out into the warm sunlight. Debris was scattered as far as he could see across the rocky beach. There would be a lot of work to do before this mess was cleaned up. He didn’t think he could afford to have it rebuilt now. He’d probably be forced to sell it and eat the loss.
He kicked some trash from his path and uncovered a broken and muddy picture. He picked it up, letting the water run from the broken frame. It was the picture of his ex-wife that had hung upon the wall in his bedroom. Her face was distorted and scarred upon the paper…not so unlike the way he had every right to view her now. He thought about dropping the picture back into the mud, even grinding his heel into her washed-out face, but he didn’t. As bitter as he should have been, as he had every right to be, he simply didn’t have it in his heart to be angry with her. He still missed her far too much. He still loved her.
He knew that he was a sentimental fool. But he didn’t care. She’d meant everything to him.
He placed the picture gently atop a heap of dry debris and walked on through the disaster area of his life.
He wasn’t a stupid man. He knew that it was his own, nice-boy attitude that got him into these predicaments. Nice guys finished last. Everything in his life had always ended up this way. He’d rise to the top of the world, only to be tossed aside by the next guy to arrive.
He was too soft.
But such was his nature. He simply couldn’t see how anything would justify being bitter and mean about things. He wished he could be bitter about things. At least bitterness hurt less than heartache.
He shook his head wearily. He remembered the fight he put up in court to keep the cabin. It was the only thing he’d actually cared about at the time. It was just something to hold onto, a lifeboat for his drowning sanity.
“Should’ve kept the Corvette,” he muttered as he stepped through the rubble.
He turned and walked away from the ruins. The past few days—not to mention the past few months—had been so exhausting. Right now his head was pounding and he felt like he needed to take a walk. Perhaps the beach could offer some serenity.
The scent of the ocean drifted across the sand and the rocks as he made his way slowly to the shoreline. He stepped over an old tire and kicked aside what might once have been a suitcase. It was surprising what could sometimes wash up onto the shore, especially after a storm.
He lifted his face toward the sky. “Why me?” he asked loudly. “What did I do?”
A giggle rose from the water just ahead of him and he froze, startled. He gazed out into the warm sea. There, a woman sat up to her neck in the surf, staring back at him. Only her tanned face and sandy hair were visible above the soft waves.
“Do you always talk to yourself?” she asked as she grinned up at him.
He could say nothing. He was shocked that there was anyone out here at all, much less the lovely vision he was seeing now.
The woman giggled again. “What? You’ll talk to yourself, but you won’t talk to me?”
“I…I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I…”
“I’m just out for a swim.” She stood up and began walking toward him. He’d been shocked to find her there at all, and was astonished to see that she wore no bathing suit. “Want to join me?”
He stared at her as she stepped out of the water, stark naked, and crossed the open beach. The sunlight glistened upon her wet skin as she walked right up to him and placed her hands against his chest. He felt the warm seawater soaking into his shirt.
She was like something from a movie. Her every movement, every gesture, was a masterpiece of beauty, grace and sexuality.
He could say nothing. He stood frozen as the woman slowly unbuttoned his shirt and slid her wet fingers down his bare chest.
“Come on,” she pleaded. “Live a little. Have fun.”
He looked down at her, studying her. She had a gorgeous body, lean and fit, a work of art. Her skin was soft and flawless. Her round breasts, still glistening from the surf, shimmered in the gleaming sunlight. Her eyes were brilliant and green. They stared directly into his, bold and unafraid. She was unbelievably beautiful, easily the most perfect woman he’d ever laid eyes on.
She backed away from him, beckoning him with her finger. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
He shook away his astonishment and began to remove the rest of his clothes as she dived back into the waves and slowly swam away from him.
This was exactly what he needed: a little good luck to ease his bad. And this was good luck. How many guys, he asked himself, go for a walk on a beach and find a beautiful, sex-crazed woman swimming naked in the water? Had it ever happened to anyone before? He was willing to bet it had never happened to that cocky jerk who took his job. Oh, if only he could see this!
He cast his clothes aside and followed after her. He didn’t want to waste time wondering who she was or why she was here. This was his chance to have a little fun, like she said. This was his chance to live, to do something he’d never done before.
This was just what he needed!
He swam out into the water, his heart pounding with excitement, following the gorgeous, teasing woman until long after he could no longer touch bottom. Then he stopped and looked around.
The woman was gone.
He turned in a circle, looking, searching every rock and every wave. Where was she? She couldn’t have simply disappeared.
He heard a soft splash behind him and turned, startled to find her right before his eyes. “Were you under water that whole time?” he asked. It seemed to him that she’d been under for quite a while, but perhaps it had only been a moment. After all, he was busy trying to swim out to her. He wasn’t in the best of shape these days. He couldn’t even remember the last time he swam.
She giggled and moved closer to him. “My friends say I have gills,” she replied.
“You know,” she said as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pushed her naked body against his, “I didn’t expect to see anyone out here.”
“You didn’t?” To his own ears, it sounded like a pathetic reply, childish even, but her eyes only brightened at his obvious exhilaration. She seemed amused by him and his fascination with her.
“Must be our lucky day.”
He nodded, excited. He could no longer hold his excitement. He felt like a child on Christmas Morning.
She thrust herself forward and kissed him hard. He could feel himself being pushed under the water, and had to struggle to keep his head above the waves.
She smiled and tugged at his wrist. “Come on. I want to show you something.” Holding onto his hand, she began to descend beneath the surface.
He took a deep breath and followed her into the depths below.
She led him deeper and deeper into the murky darkness. He could feel the pressure growing at his ears and in his chest, and wondered if he’d be able to descend as deep as she wanted him to go. But then his fingertips dipped into the soft sand and the woman turned to face him again. She pulled him close and pressed her lips to his.
He reached out and grasped her breasts, kneading them with his hungry fingers as she thrust herself eagerly toward him.
This was beyond anything he’d ever imagined. He was making love to a gorgeous woman on the ocean floor. This was the sort of thing other men lied about while drinking with their friends. This was the stuff of movies, not of true life…especially not of his life.
But the pressure was growing rapidly in his chest and though he wanted nothing more than to stay with her, he couldn’t. He wasn’t in good enough shape. He couldn’t hold his breath for this long. Reluctantly, he let go of her and began to rise toward the surface.
But she grabbed him by his wrist and pulled him down again. She kissed his neck and his chest, her lips venturing lower and lower as she held him with surprising strength.
He struggled to rise to the surface again, but like before, she wouldn’t let him leave.
My friends say I have gills, she’d said.
His heart began to thump painfully in his chest. His lungs ached. And yet she hadn’t even begun to look as though she needed to surface. He pulled at her, trying to wrench his hand free from her unyielding grip, but she wouldn’t let him go.
She floated just beneath him, gazing up into his eyes, and for the first time, even through the blurry murkiness of the water, he noticed how brilliantly green her eyes were. They seemed almost to glow in the murky depth of the ocean water.
As he stared down at her, she opened her mouth, revealing rows of long and jagged teeth. Terror swallowed him, paralyzing him. In his panic, he wondered absurdly how he’d failed to notice them while kissing her. He struggled to pull his hand away from her, but she was so very strong. Valuable breath belched from his mouth and nose as he fought to free himself.
He was certain that he was about to feel those razor-edged teeth in his flesh, but he was wrong about that. She didn’t snap at him. She didn’t even move toward him. Instead, something appeared from her throat. A long, tongue-like thing snaked from between her lips and rose toward him, gray and dark, like an eel. It hovered before him for a just a moment and then lashed out in the murky depths with the speed of a frog snatching a fly from the air. There was a piercing pain in his stomach, and then something awful was squirming deep inside his belly.
He tried to scream.
On the surface of the water, not far from the beach, the still waves were shattered by the quiet fury of escaping bubbles. Far below, the water became clouded with blood, the blue murkiness filling with the dark red tint of gore as predator and prey struggled in the shallow depths of the sea.
An hour later, the man awoke upon the sand, naked and wet. Slowly, he stood up and staggered back toward his truck. There was a fleshy wound on his stomach, just below his belly button, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was. It was healing fast.
He stopped once to pick up the clothes he’d left strewn upon the sand, but didn’t bother to put them on. He had things to do. His flesh tingled, and he yearned to go back into the sea, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He knew somehow that he only had perhaps a week before he’d have to return to the ocean and remain there, but in the meantime he had some people to visit. First was his lying, ungrateful bitch of an ex-wife. Second was that high-on-his-horse bastard that had stolen his promotion and then fired him for his efforts. Then there were others. Maybe that whore redhead who slept her way into his old office. And plenty more. He would make them all pay. He would make them all hurt. Then he would return to his princess of the deep.
As he walked, a long, snaky thing emerged from his throat and nimbly brushed the sand from his ear.
Eric’s past comes back to haunt him when he arrives home to find old friends waiting for him. Now he’s in for a rough night of magic, mayhem and terror as he races the clock against a murderous coven of dark witches with incredible and gruesome powers. Failure means he and his friends won’t survive the night. But their only chance of seeing the sunrise might mean a fate even worse than death…
Rushed: Something Wickeder will be available on August 15, but keep scrolling for a sneak peek at the first chapter!
Eric sat down behind the wheel of his silver PT Cruiser and started the engine. It’d been a long day, one of the longest he’d had in a long time, and he was happy to finally be at the end of it. He didn’t even stick around to finish up his grading. He just wanted to go home. He was tired. He was irritable. And he was positively done with teenagers.
At least he had dinner to look forward to. Karen promised she’d make him fried chicken. It was one of his all-time favorites, and she didn’t make it very often. She preferred to take a healthier approach to cooking, and rarely fried anything. He didn’t mind, of course. Healthy was good. And she was a fantastic cook, so anything she put on the table was virtually guaranteed to be delicious. But it was an old favorite, his mother’s specialty when he was growing up, so every now and then, just to show him some extra love, she’d indulge him.
(And Karen’s fried chicken was way better than his mother’s…though no one alive was scary enough to make him admit that to Mom.)
But although he was eager to get home, he didn’t shift the Cruiser into gear. Instead, he leaned back in the seat and withdrew his cell phone from the front pocket of his khaki pants.
He’d never really liked cell phones. He was annoyed by all the people in the world who constantly seemed to have them glued to their faces. He found it rude, obnoxious and utterly unnecessary. Especially when it came to high schoolers. He was notorious among students and faculty alike for confiscating cell phones in his classroom. He never would’ve owned one in the first place if Karen hadn’t insisted. She believed it wasn’t safe to be without one. (And she liked for him to never be more than a phone call away, of course.) He absolutely despised them. But in recent years his cell phone had become far more of a necessity than he ever expected it to. Begrudgingly, he was forced to admit to himself that he actually needed the stupid thing.
But he was far too stubborn to admit it to anyone else.
It rang as soon as it was in his hand, as he knew it would. He accepted the call and put it on speaker, just the way Karen had shown him to do. Then, as he looked out at the parking lot, at the last few straggling students making their way home for the day, he said, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay,” replied Isabelle. There was no pause. No hesitation. She knew everything he was going to say well before he said it, after all.
“Really?” he pressed.
This time, there was a pause. “Yeah. I mean, I think so.”
He didn’t push the subject. He merely stared out at the sunny afternoon around him and waited for her to go on in her own time.
It was a beautiful day for mid-November. People were out enjoying the weather. There was a small group of boys walking down the sidewalk, goofing off. On the other side of the street, an old man was walking his dog. A very pretty girl with long, black hair walked past his parking spot. She saw him sitting there and gave him a small, friendly smile and a wave. He didn’t recognize her. She wasn’t one of his students. But he waved anyway.
“I don’t really know if it’s possible for me to not be okay, you know?”
He nodded. He did know. Or at least, he thought he did. Isabelle wasn’t like anyone else in the world. She was different. She was special.
“I’m not sure if I can even feel anything for myself,” she went on. “Sometimes I think all my emotions belong to someone else. They’re stolen. I just feel whatever you’re feeling. You and…” She paused again. “And them,” she finished quietly.
“I don’t believe that,” said Eric.
Isabelle wasn’t a part of this world anymore. She was trapped somewhere outside of the normal flow of time. For her, the passing of days was meaningless. She never grew hungry or thirsty. She never tired or grew bored or felt impatient. She never yearned for anything because she was frozen in place both physically and mentally. The only concept she retained of the passage of time was the three psychic connections she shared. One with Eric, one with her mother and one with her father.
Except that two nights ago, Isabelle’s father suffered a stroke.
Eric could scarcely imagine what she must have already endured. She had a terrifyingly personal perspective of the moment, a back-stage view as the clot began starving his brain of blood. She’d described it to him as something like a strange and disorienting cloud rolling in over his consciousness, leaving him confused and helpless.
Jerrell Albin might have died that night if the phone hadn’t rung so late, waking his wife, Reta. Isabelle hung up without speaking, leaving her mother to wonder whether the call was an exceptionally well-timed wrong number or a sign from heaven. (The truth, of course, would never in a million lifetimes occur to her.)
But although her father was still alive, the true extent of the damage still wasn’t known, and Isabelle had since been overwhelmed by the almost constant deluge of raw emotions gushing from her terrified mother’s tormented mind.
Eric felt awful for the poor woman. She’d already suffered more than any parent ever should. She’d been waiting thirty-eight years for the truth about what really happened to her thirteen-year-old daughter that awful July day. And she had no one left in this world but her husband. If she lost him, too, she’d be all alone. For the rest of her life…
“Don’t worry about me,” she insisted, forcing herself to perk up. “You need to get home and take a load off. You’ve had a rough day.”
The psychic connection only worked one way. She could read his thoughts, feel his emotions and even sense certain things about his surroundings, but he couldn’t do any of those things. If not for this trick with the phone, he, like her parents, might never have even known she was there. But the two of them had shared a lot of conversations since the day she rescued him from the deranged Altrusk House. They’d grown close. And he knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t entirely okay. She was only pretending to be brave because she didn’t want him to worry about her. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I know you will. But I also know you’re tired.”
He was. It wasn’t the worst day he’d ever had by any means, but it certainly wasn’t the best. It’d been exhausting. The students had seemed unusually wound up for some reason. And not just his. Chad Whelt kept blaming it on the full moon. And poor Charlene Tonnes, the new science teacher, was nearly in tears by the end of the day. Even the best and brightest students had all seemed unfocused and restless. The rest were moody, disruptive and even downright disrespectful. Overall, it was a pretty lousy Monday.
“I can’t relax much when I’m worried about you.”
“You’re sweet,” she told him.
“I mean it.”
“I know you do. But there’s nothing you can do. Just go home. Relax. Enjoy your dinner. We can talk more later.”
Without disconnecting the call, he placed the phone into the cup holder and shifted the Cruiser into gear. “We can talk while I drive,” he said. “I don’t want you to be alone right now.”
Isabelle gave a quiet little huff of a laugh. “Always my hero,” she said, almost too soft for him to hear.
“You were mine first,” he reminded her.
He left the parking lot and set off across town toward home. For the first couple minutes, they were quiet. Then, just when Eric was beginning to wonder if she’d disconnected the call on him, she said, “I know how I should feel.”
He glanced down at the phone, surprised.
“I should feel scared. Scared of losing my dad. Scared I won’t be able to find my way home before he dies… Scared of never seeing him or my mom ever again… Scared…” She fell silent for another moment. He waited. Finally, she said, “Scared I’ll never even be able to see them in heaven because I don’t know if I can even die…”
Eric wasn’t sure what to say to that. He couldn’t tell her that would never happen. He didn’t know that for sure. And it wasn’t like he could lie to her.
“I do feel scared,” said Isabelle. “But I just don’t know if I feel scared because I’m scared, or if I only feel scared because I can feel how scared my mom is.”
Most days, she could easily tune everybody out. She wasn’t always in their heads. She let them have their privacy. But strong, negative emotions, like anger, sadness and fear, were impossible for her to ignore. They dragged her into their consciousness and wouldn’t let her go. For as long as this crisis with her father lasted, regardless of the outcome, she was going to be forced to experience every moment of it with them.
“What if I don’t ever find my way out of here?” she continued. “Everybody dies. Nothing I can do will stop that. My parents will die. You’ll die. And when you’re all gone, when you all go silent… What then? What’s going to happen to me? Will I stop feeling anything? Will I be anything when all the voices are gone?”
Eric felt a profound sadness deep in his heart. He wished he had the answers for her. Any answer. But he was just an unremarkable high school English teacher with an odd habit of finding weird and fantastic things. Things like Isabelle. He couldn’t tell her who she was or why these things had happened to her.
Maybe it was just that God was cruel.
He didn’t know.
He pulled into his driveway and killed the engine. For a moment, he just sat there, staring through the windshield, feeling helpless.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle. “I shouldn’t have dumped all that on you.”
“It’s fine,” he insisted, taking the phone out of the cup holder. “I want you to talk to me.”
“I keep thinking I should call them. Talk to them. Tell them the truth. I know they’d want to know. But… I also know they’ve worked so hard to move on. I just… I’m just not sure knowing the truth would make things better. They want to believe that I’m alive and well out there somewhere, but deep down they’re sure I’m in a better place. The truth might bring them some joy…but it would also bring them fresh pain and worry…because I still can’t go home. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go home.”
His heart ached at the thought, but she was right. After all these years, all their hope had almost certainly shriveled and died. Their thirteen-year-old girl would be fifty. They knew by now, no matter how much they might deny it to themselves, that they’d never see her again in this world. Telling them the truth, even if they’d believe such an outlandish story, would only bring all the pain that’s gone numb over the years flooding back.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle.
“Don’t be. I mean it. I’m here for you if you need to talk. Always.”
“There’s nothing either of us can do anyway,” she said. And she was right. The doctors said it could be days before they knew anything more. Jerrell Albin was still alive. For now, there was nothing to do but wait and see what the future held. “We’ll talk later. Go inside. Go to Karen. I like when you’re with Karen. She makes you happy. I could use some happy.”
Eric smiled. “I’ll try my best,” he promised.
Isabelle disconnected the call and the phone went dark. He slipped it back into his pocket and made his way inside, his thoughts swirling like a thunderstorm inside his head.
She was right, of course. Worrying about Isabelle wasn’t going to help her. She was already getting far too much worry from her mother. What she needed was something warmer, more comforting. He tried to focus on Karen. He tried to focus on how happy he was to be home after the day he’d had. He tried to focus on the delicious dinner he’d been looking forward to all day.
But as soon as he stepped into the kitchen, he knew immediately that the fried chicken was canceled and his bad day had only just begun.
“Oh good,” said Karen. “You’re home.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee clasped between her hands. She looked a little frazzled, and understandably so. Right next to her, with her own cup in front of her, sat Delphinium Thorngood.
“Hello, Eric,” said the beautiful witch. “It’s good to see you again.”
Hello everyone. I’d like to thank you all for being so patient with me these past several months. I know I haven’t been posting much on social media. I haven’t been updating my website or my blog. And my next book release is long overdue. I don’t blame you if you’ve become frustrated with me. I’m sorry. The truth is that things have not been well here. You see, I recently lost my father to Leukemia. It’s been a very difficult time for me and for my family. I’m sure at least some of you will know what it’s like all too well. The whole world has changed… Everything feels different than it did before… Heavier… Hollower… And I’ve had trouble finding my way back to the comfort of my fictional worlds. It’s hard to be a writer when all the words in the world seem to fall short… So I hope you’ll bear with me just a little longer while I sort things out and try to get back into the swing of things. I just need a little time. Just a little more… And then I promise I’ll be back again. Thank you.
From the pages of the Southeast Missouri Post
“Who Was Wendell Gilbert?”
By Carlton Hurldon
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Briar Hills, Missouri, like any American city, has its share of dark history. The local police have entire boxes of unresolved cases dating back over a hundred years. But the most intriguing of all these is arguably the disappearance of Wendell Gilbert.
Gilbert was born March 11, 1865 in Chicago. The son of Ruben Gilbert, a tremendously successful investment broker, Wendell spent much of his youth traveling the world with his parents and, at an early age, became fascinated with world architecture. He had a gift for aesthetic design and quickly made a name for himself on the west coast with a number of ambitious projects, including the erection of the Grasby Center in San Diego, perhaps his most famous landmark.
In 1897, Gilbert traveled abroad and spent the next twelve years in Europe, working on increasingly elaborate structures like the Allwardt Building in Great Britain, the Holgado Tower in France and the Winderbaum Center in Germany, as well as other less notable projects in Spain, Sweden and Italy. Many of these projects he oversaw simultaneously, traveling frequently between building sites and leaving his foremen to oversee the daily work.
Upon returning to the states in 1909, Gilbert spent a few short years on the east coast before moving to the upper Midwest, then back to his birthplace of Chicago. A few years later, he moved again to St. Louis and finally found his way to Briar Hills, where he spent the final ten years of what is known of his life.
His most notable work in Briar Hills included the extensive renovations to the city’s police station and hospital, and he designed and built the new courthouse and public library. But although the quality of his work was indisputable, Gilbert was met with harsh criticism for his insistence on using cheap immigrant labor instead of the skilled local tradesmen.
Then, in early 1927, he was contracted by Briar Hills University to design and build a new and much needed men’s dormitory to handle its rapidly growing student body. Unfortunately, the project proved to be doomed from the start.
Gilbert made a number of changes to the project during the planning stage that directly contradicted the university’s requests, not the least of which was that Gilbert moved the structure more than a hundred yards from the university’s intended location. He also changed the building’s materials from brick to a much pricier stone and significantly redesigned the electric and plumbing layouts in such a way that they would have been almost ten times as expensive as in the original plans. The university protested these changes, but was met with resistance at every turn as Gilbert manipulated them through a veritable maze of legal and bureaucratic diversions, which kept them distracted and disassociated from his work for many months.
Eventually, the university’s lawyers stepped in to seize the reigns of the project, but by then it was too late. Gilbert was gone, as were all of his workers, apparently deported back to their own countries. The money was lost and all that was ever completed of the university’s new dormitory was an empty set of useless concrete walls.
It would be another two years before Briar Hills University finally opened the doors of its new men’s dormitory, now Daney Hall, located on Carey Street. Built mostly on funds donated by sympathetic parties and through vigorous fundraising, this new building was considerably smaller than the one Gilbert was contracted to build, but would prove to serve the institution’s needs for several years.
Meanwhile, the site of the original failed project remained untouched. In 1952, a large plot of neighboring farmland was purchased, providing cheaper and more convenient locations on which to build. As a result, the university has never bothered to tear down Gilbert’s useless concrete walls and today the location is little more than an overgrown eyesore, known by many of the locals as “Gilbert House.”
Wendell Gilbert, the famed architect, in spite of his accomplishments, was now considered a fraud and a thief. Local authorities assumed that he took the money and deposited it in an unknown offshore account. His strange behavior (the changes to the university’s plans and the bureaucratic runaround) was assumed to be a smokescreen to keep the university distracted while he committed his crime. And once the money was safe, he obviously left the country. But several details about his crime did not add up. The most glaring of these details was the amount of money Gilbert supposedly stole. It was significantly less than what he left unclaimed in his bank accounts after his disappearance.
What really became of Wendell Gilbert? No evidence has ever been uncovered to shed light on what was really going on. Some historians believe that the brilliant architect must have gone mad. Others insist that his odd behavior indicated that he might have been being blackmailed and was likely murdered by an unknown enemy. A few creative locals have even suggested that Gilbert was caught up in something supernatural. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that he left clues hidden throughout his life’s work around the world, clues that, if correctly deciphered from the many buildings he designed and renovated, would reveal the secret location of the stolen money or perhaps something even more valuable.
[Carlton Hurldon is a local historian and an enthusiastic collector of regional legends and mysteries. He has lived his entire life in the Briar Hills area and is the author of four books and numerous guest articles for the Southeast Missouri Post.]