Writing Distracted
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Coal Ridge

Set in a small, somewhat geographically secluded town in the Midwest, the blue collar people of Coal Ridge are friendly and laid back, enjoying block parties, gossip, and the simple joys that come with being a close knit community. Because everyone knows everyone else, secrets are hard to keep, but some are so well hidden that they've been forgotten. These are a series of short stories that explore a supernatural awakening that tests the bonds of family and community.

Under the Bed

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“Hush little baby, don't say a word, and never mind that noise you heard, it's just the beasts under your bed, in your closet, in your head. Exit liiiight. Enter…”

“Robert John Randle are you trying to give your daughter nightmares?”

Bob turned to his wife, but before he could say anything, little Meaghan replied, “But Mom, he was killing it.”

A smile spread across his face, “It was just a bedtime song, honey.”

“No,” Virginia retorted, putting her hands on her hips, “Rock-a-bye Baby is a bedtime song.”

“That song is terrifying, Mom!” the little girl exclaimed, “What happens to the baby after the bough breaks and the cradle falls? I'll tell you what happens, the baby's skull gets crushed and its eyes pop out of its head.”

Bob put his hands up as the look of shock on his wife's face morphed into one of barely restrained rage. “Don't look at me, I didn't teach her that,” he considered it for a moment, “but she kind of has a point.”

“You’re not helping,” she said, pointing an angry finger at her husband. With her expression softening, Virginia turned her gaze down to her daughter. “Who told you that?”

“Em did.”

Bob turned away, Virginia couldn’t be sure if he was stifling a laugh or hiding a wince, she guessed the former. “And where did Em hear it, sweetheart?” Em was a recent addition to the family; Meaghan’s imaginary friend had first shown up about a week after a bunch of the kids had a scare down by Miller's Pond.

The little girl shrugged her shoulders and her mother let out a frustrated sigh “Alright, fine, it's past time for you to go to sleep.”

“But what about my bedtime song?”

Virginia closed her eyes. “Fine.” She turned to Bob. “No more Metallica.”

As she turned to leave the room, she heard her husband's voice drop into a deep baritone. “Jayne! The man they call Jayne! He robbed from the rich and he gave to the poor. Stood up to the man and he gave him what for. Our love for him now…” She closed the door behind her, smiling and shaking her head.

*          *          *

“Why do I always have to be the bad guy?” Virginia asked as her husband entered their bedroom, still humming that ridiculous song.

“You don't know all the words.”

“I'm serious, Bob. When did I become the authoritarian and you become the fun one.”

“Probably when you married an immature nerd,” he replied, jumping into the bed and kissing her nose. “I specifically recall fully revealing the depths of both before tricking you into marrying me.”

“I don't think you did.”

“Trick you? Yeah, I did. Ask anyone.”

“I meant the full disclosure.”

“Ah. Did you read all that fine print on the back of the marriage certificate?”

“No one reads the fine print,” she replied, folding her arms over her chest.

A big goofy grin spread across his face. “That's why we put it there, so you don't read it and sign up anyway, then it's too late. There's really no one to blame here but you, my love.”

Virginia sat up in the bed. “Seriously though, I'm a little worried about this Em thing.”

“I think it's fairly harmless,” Bob said, kissing her arm and rolling out of bed.

“Don't do that!”

“Don't do what?”

“Dismiss my concerns.”

“I…” He stopped and thought about it for a moment, recalling this exact discussion two days ago. “Okay. I'm not dismissing your concerns, I just don't think an invisible friend is a reason to panic.”

“I am not panicking.”

Between her tone and the look on her face, Bob could see that the situation was not improving. “You’re right, panic was a bad choice of words. What I meant to say was…” Nothing in her posture indicated that he should continue speaking, instead he sat down on the edge of the bed and offered her a smile. “What are your concerns?”

“I've been talking to some of the other moms, I don't know what happened there, but many of the kids seemed genuinely distressed. Timmy O’Connel has been having terrible nightmares every night, Ellie Moore screams crazy things at her Mom and won't let anyone touch her, and Dawn Lawson mumbles to herself about frogs breaking open and won't talk to anyone. Connie says that something is haunting Miller's Pond.”

Bob took his wife's hand. “But Ginny, you grew up here and went to school with her, you know that Connie O’Connell is crazy, you said yourself she called you and the other kids who sat in that electric chair Satan worshippers, and besides Meaghan isn't doing any of that. She just has an imaginary friend.”

Pulling her hand back, Virginia continued. “An imaginary friend who made up a story about that missing city worker getting eaten by a monster, told her to use the internet to look up information on purgatory, and is now breaking down the literal aspects nursery rhymes. She's too young to be coming up with this stuff on her own, so she has to be hearing it from somewhere.”

“Are you blaming me?” Bob asked, standing up and taking a step back.

She paused, staring at him.

“Are you kidding me? You are blaming me.”

“I don’t think you're doing it on purpose,” Virginia replied, her tone softer, “but the themes of some of the things you share with her are a little dark.” Seeing the hurt look on his face, she continued quickly. “Think about the words to some of those songs, Bob, she's not ready for that yet.”

The lyrics of Enter Sandman played through his mind, and as much as he wanted to argue, “All right, you made your point, I'll go more Sesame Street and less Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek.

“Thank you,” she said, patting his arm. “She's growing up fast, it won't be long before you two are nerding out together.”

“Yeah, or until she realizes how lame her old man really is and rolls her eyes when she sees me coming.”

*          *          *

“Daddy!”

The high-pitched scream had both parents sitting up in bed, with Bob sleepily muttering, “What the hell?”

“She's probably having a nightmare,” Virginia said, patting his arm and lying back down. “Tell her it's just a dream.”

“Why don't you tell her?” he asked, stifling a yawn.

“She called for you.”

“Uh...yeah, okay.” Swinging his legs out to put his feet on the floor, Bob rubbed at his eyes and pushed his hair back, glancing at the old clock radio on the dresser; it read 12:18am. A small grunt slipped out of his mouth.

“You better go before…”

“Daddy!”

“Never mind.” There was a hint of amusement in her tone.

Stumbling across the hall to his daughter's bedroom, Bob paused, coming fully awake and hitting the light switch. The figure he thought he saw standing at the edge of the stairs disappeared in the light, but left gooseflesh on his arms. He took two steps down the hall, to peer down into the darkened living room, then shook his head and turned back to the smaller bedroom, pausing to turn the hall light off.

In the nightlight, he could see Meaghan sitting up, she was in the middle of the bed, her back up against the headboard, head down and knees drawn up to her chest. “What's the matter?” He asked, stepping towards the bed.

Both of her hands shot up at him. “No! It’s under there!”

The terrified look on her face made him pause. “What's under where?”

“The beast under my bed.”

In your closet, in your head; the next cadence of the song lyrics played in his mind. Bob closed his eyes. He wasn't sure which was worse, knowing that this was his fault or that Ginny was right about it being his fault. “Sweetpea,” he said, his tone softening as he stifled another yawn and took a step forward, “there's nothing under your bed…”

That was when he felt it, like stepping barefoot into the snow. He looked down into the shadows on the floor and saw one of them move. “The fuck,” he muttered taking a step back; it was an effort to pull his foot free, but he could see nothing there.

He looked up to his daughter. She seemed so small on that bed and the nightlight made it look like there were shadows creeping up the edges. The problem was that the nightlight wasn't moving, but the shadows seemed to be.

“Daddy.” There was a plea in that frightened tone.

Bob's brow furled. Everything in him told him that this could not be happening; shadows don't move independently. But his eyes told him differently. A cloud had descended over his mind making it difficult to think. His gaze roamed over the edges of the bed, his mind refusing to believe what he was seeing.

“Daddy.” A tone of desperation invaded the plea.

He stood dumbfounded, wanting desperately to go to his daughter, but unable to move. “Jump to me.” The voice that came out of his mouth sounded wrong, but the words felt right. He extended his arms. “Come on Meaghan, jump to me,” he said, his voice louder, more commanding.

The little girl looked up at him. A shadow crept over the headboard, seeming to reach for her. “Now Meaghan! Get up and jump to me now!”

Lurching forward, she unknowingly evaded a shadowy form that seemed to coalesce into a claw, took four steps, leaped, and vanished.

“Meaghan!”

A moment later a shadowy form, the same one Bob thought he saw in the hall, seemed to push the little girl out of the darkness and Meaghan slammed into her father, forcing him back through the doorway and into the lit hall. He wrapped his arms around her tiny form and pulled her close as he crashed into the doorframe behind him, sending a wave of agony running up his back.

Something was tugging at his daughter; he ripped her away and stumbled backwards down the hallway, heading towards the stairs. A hand grabbed his arm, just keeping him from going over the brink.

“What the hell, Bob!”

He could see the person in front of him, something between terror and rage writ across her face, amplified into a frightening mask in the darkness. It took him a moment to realize that it was his wife standing in front of him.

“Daddy.”

He looked down at the bundle in his arms. “Meaghan?”

“Daddy, you’re hurting me a little.”

Blinking away the confusion, Bob loosened his group on his daughter, and allowed his wife to lead him away from the steps.

“Bob? You're scaring me,” Virginia whispered.

“Join the club.” He handed his daughter over to his wife, moved past her to the little girl's bedroom, and slapped at the light switch on the wall. All lit up, her room looked exactly as it always had. Pink walls with a purple dragon fathead near the bed. Open toy chest with a series of toys scattered across the floor, some covered in clothes; enough to be cluttered without necessarily being messy.

Stepping into the room, he grabbed bottom of the bed and pulled the whole thing up, flipping it up on its side and spilling the comforter and pillows onto the floor.

“What are you doing, Bob?”

“Em says it's gone, Daddy.”

Virginia turned to her daughter. “What's gone?”

“The beast that was under my bed.”

When Virginia turned to her husband, the expression on her face caused him to take a defensive step back. Worse, she didn't say anything, simply turning and carrying her daughter into their bedroom.

*          *          *

“I don't want to hear it, Bob.”

“But it's true, Mommy.”

Virginia turned a patient look on the little girl lying between them. “I know sweetie, nightmares can seem very real. Please close your eyes, while I talk to your Daddy.”

“But…”

“No more buts, Meaghan; please close your eyes and try to go to sleep, it's late.” The softness in her tone was beginning to fade. She turned an angry gaze back onto her husband; he was staring hard at the closed bedroom door. His behavior would have been concerning, had she been less angry. “Bob!”

His head snapped back around, his eyes wide.

Shaking her head, she said, “Maybe we should just turn off the lights and…”

“No! The lights stay on!” he barked.

“What's the matter with you?”

“There was something in there, I saw it.”

“Stop it, you're going to scare your daughter.”

Bob pointed down. “Look at her, does she look scared.”

Glancing down, the little girl smiled up at her. “I'm not scared, Mommy. Em says that Daddy made the beast go away.”

“This is your fault!” Virginia snapped at her husband. “I told you that…”

“Em says that it’s here because of you, Mommy.”

“What?”

“Em says that it’s here because you're an empty shell, but it can't eat you because there's nothing for it to eat, so it's coming after me and Daddy.”

Virginia looked up at her husband, tears welling in her eyes. Her gaze dropped down to her daughter. “I'm not...I don't…how could you say something like that?” Her tone progressed very quickly towards anger.

“It's not me, Mommy, it's Em,” the little girl pleaded.

“I am sick and tired of hearing this!” Virginia snapped. “I'm done with it; I don't want to hear about Em any more. Nothing. Do you understand me?”

Meaghan looked down and sniffled. “Yes, Mommy.”

“Wait a second,” Bob said, putting two fingers under the little girl's chin and lifting her head, “what else did Em say about the beast, sweetpea?”

“What are you doing, Bob?”

When he looked up at his wife, she saw an intensity that was unusual. The last time she'd seen it was when she was pregnant with Meaghan and he was determined to get them through the snowstorm to the hospital, and nothing was going to stand in his way. “I know you don't believe me, but I saw a, um, form in the hall and in her room.”

“A form?” Virginia stared at him. “Like a ghost? You know who that makes you sound like.”

He hesitated. “I know, but I saw her.”

*Oh, it's a her now?”

“I think so.”

Virginia's brow furled. “So, you're seeing Em now too?”

“I don't know what or who I saw, but someone was there...and there was something under the bed, I felt it touch me.”

“It was the beast under my bed?” their daughter said.

"Right," she scoffed. “That's it, I don't know what kind of game you two are playing with that stupid Metallica song, but it's not funny!”

Bob shook his head. “No, there's nothing funny about this, I don't know if it has anything to do what happened at Miller's Pond, but I'm not making this up and I don't think Meaghan has an imaginary friend.” He looked down at his daughter. “What else did Em say about the beast?”

The little girl looked back down at her lap and took a deep breath. “I'm sorry Mommy, but this is important.” Turning back to her father, she continued. “Em says that it eats people's souls and it feeds on emotions and that she got stuck where it lives, and she can't get out, and she can only talk to some people over here like me.”

“This is ridiculous,” Virginia mumbled, shaking her head. “It's just a story she's making up after what happened at Miller's Pond.”

Bob jumped to his daughter's defense. “How do you know that?”

“Daddy.”

“Because monsters don't exist?”

“Have you looked at the news recently? Monsters absolutely exist.”

“Daddy.”

“And you wonder why she's making up stories when she hears you say things like that?”

“I'm choosing to listen to her, you know, like how you're always telling me that I should be listening to you.”

“Then listen to me now, there is no such thing as ghosts or monsters.”

“Daddy, Em says it's back.”

“You're not listening to me, I saw…” Bob turned to his daughter; the little girl's lower lip was trembling, and she was staring at the window. “Wait. What did you say?”

Virginia looked over at the window and slid out of bed. “Oh my god, this is ridiculous.” Before Bob could say anything, she pushed open both curtains. “See, there's nothing out there.”

Both lamps blinked off for a heartbeat, when they came back on there was a terrifying visage on the other side of the window; it looked like a shark with spider eyes. Two tendrils passed through the window, tentacles with hooks on the end. As she opened her mouth to scream, the tentacles engulfed Virginia and pulled the wife and mother through the window.

“Mommy!”

Bob leapt over his daughter, stumbling and almost falling out of the bed when the lamps briefly blinked off again. When he reached the window, his hands slapped against the glass. “What? No!” He slapped the glass again, then cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned into the window, desperately searching for his wife.

*          *          *

In another place, a figure waited in the yard below the window, watching as the beast fed upon the woman's fear and waited for it to realize that it couldn't eat her soul. She had no idea how the woman had managed to lose her soul, but the creature had done what she needed it to by bringing the woman here.

With luck she might be able to use this woman to escape the purgatory into which she had been trapped; she just had to be patient for a little while longer...

*          *          *

"How can she not be out there?" Bob mumbled as he continued searching out the window.

Quiet sobs from the bed drew his attention. When he turned, his daughter was sitting on the edge, staring at him with big eyes. “The beast took Mommy.”

"I know sweetpea," he said, leaning down and hugging her. Every instinct he had told Bob to run downstairs and start searching the back yard for his wife; she couldn’t have gotten far. But he couldn't leave Meaghan. This beast had come back once, it might come back again. He was trapped in an impossible situation.

Squaring his jaw, he picked up the little girl and started out of the room. “Are we going to chase it?” she asked, her lower lip still quivering.

“Yes.”

Descending the two sets of stairs to reach the family room, Bob set his daughter down for a moment while he retrieved the big flashlight from the storage closet. Turning it on, he handed it to her. “Hold this with both hands and if you see the beast, shine the light on it.”

Picking her up, they went to the sliding glass door. Bob turned the porch light on and opened it. “Shine the light around, sweetpea.”

Between the two lights, nothing in the backyard looked any different. The small trees they'd planted around the stump of the old willow that fell two years ago were beginning to lose their colorful leaves, and the raised garden Bob had built from the home store kit sat alone over by the fence. There were no footprints in the grass, and looking up at their bedroom window, everything looked normal.

Venturing off the porch with his daughter in his arms, he began to call out, “Ginny!” Steam puffed out of his mouth in the cold November night.

Meaghan swept the flashlight around, calling for her Mommy.

After they'd searched through the backyard, Bob let out a frustrated grunt and turned in a circle. He could feel his daughter shivering in his arms; he turned to her. “Does Em have any ideas?”

The little girl shook her head. “Em’s not talking to me.”

“Dammit!” Meaghan winced at the harsh tone in his voice. His face softened as he saw her expression.  “I'm sorry sweetpea.” He gave her a reassuring squeeze. “I'm not sure there's anything more we can do out here, let's get you a blanket and we'll call the police.” He had no idea what to say to them that wouldn't sound completely insane, but he had to do something.

They turned to find Virginia standing behind them, her eyes wide, but her expression blank. “Christ!” Bob exclaimed, nearly falling backwards, while the little girl let out a startled cry. “Ginny, what happened.”

The woman just stood there, staring straight ahead.

Bob grabbed her arm; the flesh was icy. “Ginny. Come on Ginny, talk to me.”

“Mommy…”

At her daughter's voice, the woman blinked. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Not sure what else to do, Bob started leading her to the porch. Though her movements were wooden, she did not resist.

*          *          *

“I really don't know what happened,” Virginia said, pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders while the cup of tea steamed in front of her on the table. “I remember it grabbing me and then everything went dark, the whole thing reminded me of a nightmare I had as a teen. We were playing Kick the Can and...” Her voice trailed off.

Standing next to her, Bob glanced around, confirming that every light in the kitchen and living room was on and repositioned to minimize the possible number of shadows. “Did it just let you go?” he asked, stepping back to make sure that all the lights were still lit on both the upper and lower levels.

“I don't know. I feel like…” she paused, looking for the right words, finally continuing, “I feel like it cast me away, but there was something else there.”

“Like a guardian angel?” Bob was beginning to think that Em might be Meaghan's guardian angel, and it made sense that Em might have been protecting her, but he wasn't ready to share that theory yet.

Virginia stared at the steam coming off the tea. “I don't think so; I'm not sure it was protecting me.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I think it was trying to do something to me.”

“What do you mean?”

Tears dripped down her cheeks. “I think it was trying to get in me.”

“You mean,” his face began to flush red and his hands balled into fists, “it was trying to,” he couldn't say the word, and instead went with, “violate you.”

“No, not like that, it was,” her lower lip began to quiver, “like Meaghan said, I'm an empty shell and it wanted to…” The sobs came unbidden, drowning out her ability to speak.

Bob put his arms around his wife, cradling her head. “You are not an empty shell, don't even think that…” Words we not helping; he simply held her and let her cry.

Neither of them had spoken or moved for a time; the sound of soft footsteps drew their attention and when Meaghan stepped from the living room into the kitchen, tears were running down her little cheeks. Reaching down, Bob picked his daughter up and held both his girls close. His one job was to protect them, and he'd done a shit job of it tonight.

“What's the matter sweetie,” Virginia asked, first wiping her own cheeks and then her daughter's.

“It's Em,” the girl said quietly. “She's going away.”

“I'm sorry…”

“What did she say?” Bob asked, releasing his wife and lifting the little girl so they were eye to eye.

“Bob?”

“Come on Meaghan, what did she say?”

Tears streamed down her face. “She said she was sorry for bringing the beast and scaring Mommy and that she would make sure it didn't come back, and that she had to go because she had to find another way out.” The little girl took a breath. “I don't want her to go Daddy, she was my friend.”

*          *          *

Bob looked over his wife's shoulder at the picture on the computer screen. "I don't know, I really didn't see a person, it was more like a shadowy shape."

"But you're sure it was a woman."

"I think so; it was more of an impression than anything I actually saw though." He read the caption under the picture again: Coal Ridge woman Emily Farrara was last seen walking near Coal Ridge High School on the night of...

He shook his head. "There's just no way I can say for sure."

"It makes sense though," Virginia said, "in addition to the obvious correlation with her name, Em told Meaghan that she got stuck somewhere and couldn't get out. By all reports, Emily Farrara has simply disappeared, and you know the rumors about Cynthia Ramsey disappearing from the stadium, and that was the same day that Connie and the kids saw that stuff down at Millers Pond. It's all so much like that nightmare I had when I was a kid; if it was a nightmare. This can't all be coincidence."

"Yeah but," Bob took a deep breath, "do you have any idea how crazy all this sounds?"

From behind them, Meaghan squealed. "Daddy, can you print that picture of Em for me?"

Bob shifted as a chill ran up his back.

"I think we need to tell someone," Virginia said.

Looking back at the picture of the young woman, he muttered, "I think we should move."