He never knew how hard a human body could shake from exhaustion and fear. Solitude was once a source of comfort, but now? If a grave in the woods could not safely hide him for a few painful hours, what could?
A heart raced behind hitching lungs as adrenaline surged anew through a frame that still all but sprinted down the foreign street, and it muffled the creeping fatigue for now. A shaking hand ran subconsciously over the wallet in a back pocket, comforted to find it was still there. A phone, a car-
and a bottle may as well have been on the other side of the world. He knew where they were, but where, where was he!?
A shaky exhale pushed through parted lips, and blue eyes lifted for what felt like the first time. For hours, his vision felt so narrow, so constricted, but he forced it to focus. Find something, and focus. His gaze settled on a digital sign outside a bank.
MAGNIFICENT SAVINGS AND LOANS – 3:02AM
Relief washed through his veins, and a shoulder sagged against cold brick as he finally stopped. It never even occurred to him to check his watch, one of the only things left to his name after hours of fleeing. Magnificent didn’t have a branch in his town, but on the edge of the next one over. It would still be an hour’s walk, but at least he knew where he was. That comforting thought was enough to drain some of the adrenaline that kept him standing.
Pull yourself together.
He needed to keep going, god he needed to keep going, but a hand fumbled for his wallet anyway, desperate for something grounding and real. The leather fell open to reveal his own face on a plastic ID, stoic and saner than he felt now. Beside it was a name, solid as the day it was stamped. Chase Brody.
At least that hadn’t changed. Everything was in its place, just where he’d left it. The state ID, the maxed credit cards, the crumpled fast food receipts. The card for the health insurance company that dropped him, holding its spot for no other reason than he hadn’t taken the time to scratch off his information and throw the damn thing away. Therapy sounded great until they told you how much it cost, and that was after your insurance threw in a couple bucks. He couldn’t even make rent, how was he supposed to afford a therapist?
Chase pushed that thought aside as Stacy’s arguments drifted through, as they always did, but that wouldn’t help him now. He just had to get home, try to get some sleep, and email her in the morning. Hopefully his car and his phone were still parked outside the forest. Their differences aside, this god damn nightmare aside, she’d help him. Whether she believed his story or not.
Did he believe it?
Blue eyes slid shut, and he pushed himself away from the warming brick. The moment played in his mind over and over and over, but it still defied explanation. One moment he had been drinking beside a grave in the woods, desperate for the company of the one person on earth who’d loved him just for existing, and the next he was on the roof of a car garage. Chase had felt his stomach drop like he’d plunged over a hill on a roller coaster, but that was his only warning. Ripped from safety and dropped beside a ledge in the blink of an eye. He’d braced both hands to gaze over that edge, and the sheer drop had filled his veins with ice.
It was half a whisper in his mind, but he swore he heard it. There and gone in an instant, just as he had been. Not only had something brought him there, it was still watching.
The first hour was a blur. He’d taken the garage stairs down two at a time, blindly chosen a direction, and ran.
Each step ached more than the last, but exhaustion had finally defeated fear over ownership of his body. His heart wasn’t fluttering like a trapped bird behind his ribs, and it wasn’t terror that narrowed his vision. Chase’s ball cap raised just a bit, and he winced at the sudden flash of red and blue lights in front of his house. A silent police cruiser illuminated the whole street, and it cast an almost glitching shadow behind him. It took a long moment to realize his car was there, safe and sound, and an even longer moment to hear his own name in his ears.
Familiar arms locked around his tired frame before frantic hands found his cheeks. Stacy’s terrified and relieved face swam into focus, and Chase finally, finally relaxed.
“Are you okay!? Chase, it’s been hours! A hiker saw you go into the woods with nothing but a bottle, he called the cops when he went to leave and your car was still there! He was worried you hurt yourself!”
The afternoon itself was a little more than a smear of emotion,
S C R E A M S
and color, but Chase didn’t remember seeing anyone when he’d parked his car a lifetime ago. That whole piece of the world had seemed just… empty. Are you okay? He was a great many things, okay was not one of them. But that didn’t mean Chase had strength left to lie.
“I’m… I’m not hurt.”
God, he hated watching the fear and anger twist her face. It remained all throughout the police questioning, his panicked refusal for medical treatment. Tired and broken as he was, he’d still sprint if it meant avoiding a several thousand-dollar ride in an ambulance and another couple hundred dollars just for an emergency room doctor to tell him to get some rest. Even if he still had insurance, that trip would destroy him financially.
The cop took his report, and left them in deafening silence. It choked the living room and left the air thick in their throats, muffling even their unspoken words. Even in their worst of fights, it was this cloying silence he dreaded most. When neither knew what to do, what to say, and the only taste in their mouths was defeat.
“… Chase…” Stacy’s words shook, “did you try to-”
There was finally weight, conviction in his voice, and his eyes cleared for what felt like the first time since he found himself on that roof.
“I didn’t. I promise I didn’t.”
She didn’t move, but her face softened. Just a bit. She was still hurt, but she at least believed him. Perhaps not the lame story that he’d walked home from the forest to clear his head, but at least about this. Wordlessly, she guided him to a chair, filled a glass of water and waited until he drank it.
“…I can’t stay, my sister has the kids and she has work in the morning. But I’m not going to be able to sleep until you do, come on.”
“Can I still see them tomorrow?”
Stacy sighed as she tugged her estranged husband to his feet, and Chase swayed dangerously without support. An arm slipped around his waist and kept a firm hold for their slow trek to the bedroom.
“Yeah, you can. I’m going to take a personal day since I’d have to get ready in an hour anyway. Get some sleep, then come get them so I can sleep. Deal?”
Chase’s eyes were barely open by the time she steered him to the bed, and Stacy left him long enough to send a text to both her sister and his sister that he’d been found. His phone was recovered from the car, and she brought it with her to charge in his bedroom. That had been the most maddening piece of evidence they’d found, the fact he had abandoned his phone. Who does that except people who don’t want to be found? Leaving him had been painful enough, the idea of burying him-
STOP IT. He’s HERE, he’s ALIVE.
The thought was firmly stamped out before she reached the doorway.
Chase was already deeply asleep, crumpled on his side as if he’d been thrown from a building. He’d only managed to kick off his shoes and jeans, the baseball cap was pressed against the pillow, the brim already digging an indent in his temple. Lightly as she could, gentle hands worked it free and set it on the nightstand. His phone was plugged in, and an alarm was set. The screen glitched as if broken, a brief flash of emerald and then crimson illuminated the dark room before all was normal once more. Christ, that was all they needed, his iPhone to start dying. Stacy sighed and flipped it upside down on the nightstand, took one last relieved look at Chase’s sleeping form, and left. It would be hours before he moved, and she had a very long day ahead.
Electronic beeps filled the bedroom, calling louder and louder the longer they went unheeded. A hand twitched and blindly lurched, skidding the phone further from reach. The hand fell still in defeat for a long moment while the alarm continued to blare its indignation, but a stretch finally snared it.
Chase’s body was slow to reel the phone in, and fogged eyes opened by the barest sliver to silence it. 1:05pm. Stacy must have set his alarm, she was a firm believer in the power of five more minutes. A headache made itself known, but he wasn’t sure if it was dehydration or lack of caffeine. Or both. What he did know was Stacy was still awake from yesterday’s nightmare, and he had to get his kids.
Getting ready at one in the afternoon was just as difficult a task as it was at the crack of dawn. Stumbles and groans and willing the coffeemaker to hurry. Washing down some water and eating a snack he barely tasted. Tugging on clothes barely looked at. Filling a thermos with coffee and dragging himself to the car so he could caffeinate on the way. What he felt right now, she felt worse. Insomnia and sleep deprivation were a curse he wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Traffic streamed past him, but Chase had driven on autopilot more times than he could count. No matter how far the mind wandered, blue eyes always remained locked on the road and steady hands kept absolute control of the wheel. So when his thoughts drifted inevitably to the night before, Chase didn’t resist them.
Twisting around the unfamiliar roof, heart hammering in his chest as his brain filled with static. This couldn’t be happening, this couldn’t be happening, he was just at his mother’s grave, where was he, where was she, MA-
Hands whitened against the steering wheel as he shook the thought away. Chase needed to get past this, one step at a time, and forget it ever happened. He’d made it home and through the night, maybe whatever dragged him there had its fun and moved on. It was a tantalizing hope, and it followed him up the familiar steps of what had once been his home.
That tiny voice left his face melting into a smile, and he knelt as long arms spread wide.
“There’s my little MVP, c’mere!” A laugh bubbled from his throat when his daughter all but dove into him, but he didn’t lift and swing her as he always did. Chase found himself frozen, curled around Ellie as the five-year-old giggled and squirmed in his hold. His son, barely two years older, peeked around the corner and a hand almost desperately waved for him to join.
“You too, Connor, bring it in.”
Connor, as reckless as his dad, sprinted full force down the hall with a charging roar and Chase barely managed to move Ellie out of the way to catch him. To them it was fun and games with dad, but Stacy, horribly exhausted as she was, saw the pain and terror wash over her husband’s face when theirs were safely hidden.
He was folded around his children as if he’d never hold them again.
“Dad, why are you shaking so much?” Connor asked, still effectively trapped against his trembling father, who forced a laugh in return.
“Bad dream, kiddo, I’ll be okay. Humor your old man for a sec.”
“Did the shaky monster get you?”
The sudden seriousness in Ellie’s tone left his heart frozen in his chest. Chase peeled back just enough to look down at her with new eyes.
“What shaky monster, sweetie? Have you had bad dreams, too?”
Stacy cleared her throat then, and Chase’s neck snapped up so fast she nearly flinched. He wasn’t just numbly afraid, he was alarmed. For just that split second, he’d reacted as if she were a threat. The unnerving gesture settled like ice in her stomach, but she pressed on.
“… The shaky monster is something her new imaginary friend told her about. Apparently, her friend has a very vivid imagination.” Chase visibly relaxed, and Stacy let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding when he finally let the kids go, murmuring for them to collect their favorite toys. Connor and Ellie both ran to their rooms, and that familiar deafening silence slammed in their wake.
They’d shared a life together. Children. A home. Why could they never find something to say? Before she could even try to find her voice, Stacy busied herself with packing the kids some snacks, but her sleep-deprived fumbling in the fridge only earned a gentle hand on her arm.
“…Please get some sleep. I’ll pack them up. We’ll be okay.”
When they’d first separated, they both would have blamed exhaustion when she turned and buried herself against him. They’d blame stress, shot nerves, anything. Any excuse was easier than swallowing the fact they still loved each other. Love alone wasn’t enough to make a relationship work, but it had at least kept that bridge from burning. It was creaky, missing many of its planks, and singed in more than one place, but it still stood.
“Don’t scare me like that again. Please.”
Blue eyes slid shut, and those arms resumed that protective hold.
“I won’t. I’m sorry.”
The kids rushed to his room, the only bedroom in his run-down speck of a rental house. The bed was plenty big for both of them, Chase wouldn’t let them take the couch when they stayed with him. Hopefully, one day, he could afford a bigger place.
“Watch that rug, or you’ll faceplant!” He warned over the swell of giggles down the hall. They were already unpacking their things, namely toys, from overnight bags and piling them onto the bed. Ellie was in the process of setting up a tea party with her plushies, and Connor helped as if he knew who sat where. It warmed Chase’s heart to know they hadn’t drifted apart, as everyone warned they would. Sure, they bickered like any siblings, but Connor was fiercely protective of his baby sister, and Ellie looked up to him like a superhero.
Chase wondered if she still thought of her absent dad as a superhero.
“Dad-Dad, can we play Minecraft!?” Conner all but materialized in front of him with hopeful brown eyes, and he couldn’t help but reach out and ruffle his hair.
“Sure, bud. But, you need the gamer hat of POWER!” the Adidas hat was swiped from his own head and planted over Connor’s, and the boy laughed as he had to push the comically large accessory up from his eyes. “GAMER POWERS ACTIVATE! AWAAAAAAAY!”
Connor sprinted down the hall with that triumphant bellow, and Chase leaned back in to check on Ellie’s tea party.
“Do you wanna play Minecraft with us, babygirl, or are you gonna tea party?” Ellie was putting the finishing touches on everything, plushies assembled as she straightened them just so. “We missed tea time already, this is IMPORTANT to Kevin. He gets CRANKY.”
Kevin, the plush Pikachu, would not have been heard one way or another over the sudden gasp of horror as she lifted the plastic tea pot lid.
“Daddy! We’re out of magic tea!”
Chase bit back a laugh at her convincing distress and raised a placating hand. “We’ll get you magic tea, just tell Kevin to hold on. Let me get your brother situated first.” The all-important plastic tea pot was handled with utmost care and set on the kitchen counter before blue eyes spied tiny hands guessing at his computer password.
“AY-” Chase barked and Connor giggled, trying one more ridiculous idea while his dad stormed over and pushed the hat over his eyes, “stop using your gamer powers for evil, I raised you better than that.”
A few parental controls later, and Conner was free to fire up Minecraft, and only Minecraft. There were things online no seven-year-old needed to see. Then there was the matter of magic tea. A special brew only Mommy and Daddy could make, summoned with arcane magic through any kitchen faucet. She was too young for caffeine and only liked drinking the decaf tea with heaping amounts of milk and sugar, which left her entire tea set sticky and in need of a wash. Stacy was the first to propose magic tea, which was just water with a backstory. The set didn’t need washed as often, and tea time was saved.
Chase set the lukewarm kettle in the middle of the blanket Ellie had spread, a compromise over dragging the entire plastic table and chairs to his house. There was a cup in front of each plushie, although Floppy the platypus had been demoted from her usual spot beside his daughter, and a cup rested before an empty seat.
“Who’s sitting there? Was Floppy bad again?”
Ellie shook her head, and Chase winced as she poured the magic tea with all the grace you’d expect of a five-year-old, “No, Daddy, that’s for my new friend! I HOPE they make it. I don’t want a RUDE friend because that would be RUDE.”
The father smiled faintly and shook his head. “Yell if you need me, sweetie, I’m gonna go fight monsters with your brother.”
Connor wailed as a skeleton’s arrow shot him straight into lava, and kept shooting as he propelled frantically to shore. But such was the cruelty of Minecraft; just when you find diamond, disaster strikes. Chase wrapped an arm around his shoulders as the death screen popped up, trying not to laugh out loud at his comic misery.
“We’ll find more, buddy, don’t worry!”
The boy dragged the hat over his face with a dramatic groan, his voice muffled by the fabric.
“Gamer hat of power, you have BETRAYED ME!”
That pulled a laugh from Chase’s throat, loud and warm and shaking against his son when long arms pulled him close. It was infectious, always had been, and Connor found himself giggling through the hat in return.
“It’s not- FUNNY!” Yet he was laughing almost as hard as Chase as he squirmed defiantly free of the man who was indifferent to his suffering.
“It’s not, but the betrayal was. Spawn back in your bed, I’m gonna go check on your sister.”
Ellie’s voice filtered down the hall, chattering away until the sound of his footsteps reached her ears. Chase frowned at her sudden yelp and the clatter of plastic.
Chase all but ran down the hall, and heard her call out “Wait! Come back!” before he crashed through the doorway. She looked dismayed, but perfectly fine, and turned her gaze to her father.
“You scared my friend away.”
Blood thundered in his ears, fear surging through every fiber of his being without knowing why. Chase collapsed on the floor beside her and tugged his daughter close.
“Sorry, princess. Glad your friend wasn’t rude.”
The child snuggled happily against her dad, she loved any and all hugs always. His blue eyes trailed to the plastic tea cup lying on its side across the room, as if it had been thrown rather than simply dropped on the fake wooden slats beyond the blanket.
“They still don’t talk very much, but magic tea doesn’t need talking, only drinking.”
Chase let her go and retrieved the cup himself. Both their kids watched him perform on his under-viewed YouTube channel, they liked pretending for others as well. Maybe one of them would be a successful actor, that would be incredible.
“Did you find out anything about your friend? Do they have a name?”
The girl poured Kevin more magic tea while Chase settled into the vacant spot, and she brightened at the question.
“Yes! I told them I was from Mommy’s house, and they said they were from the void.”
An easy smile slipped like melting wax from Chase’s face as Ellie lifted the toy teacup to Kevin’s lips. She’d always had a vivid imagination, but that single syllable made his blood run cold. The TV, maybe, she soaked up everything like a sponge, maybe she’d heard it from a show they left on too loud after bedtime. He couldn’t fathom why it would be ingrained in any five-year-old girl’s vocabulary.
“… I’ve never heard of that place, did you hear it from the TV?”
She shook her head with her whole body, like she always did, and drank Kevin’s magic tea for him.
“No, Daddy, my friend told me.”
Chase launched to his feet at Connor’s terrified voice, alarmed already by the green light that drenched the barren hallway. His son was transfixed to the chair as the computer screen glitched with sickly green and red static. Chase had never seen such a violent computer error in his life, but walking toward the machine was like wading through mud. The air was thick and resistant while the speakers began to shriek with unexpected feedback. The desk light that had been off since the night before suddenly illuminated and surged with power. Connor covered his ears as the shrieking swelled in volume and morphed into what sounded like twisted, electronic laughter.
“Make it STOOOOOOP!”
The boy’s scream was punctuated by the crack of the desk lamp's bulb, fizzling into nothing. A shape began to form in the static just as Chase wheeled his son back, dove for the power strip, and ripped the plug out of the wall.
Like cutting the strings off a puppet, it was gone.