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.

Unforgivable

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Coal Ridge, July 1991

A noxious cloud filled the air over the crumpled hood of the faded silver coup. Coolant leaked onto the grass from the torn hoses and cracked radiator where the car had smashed into the thick maple. Wind moved through the leaves in the tree above, adding a pleasant rustle to the harsh hiss of escaping steam.

Officer Vince Gregory wiped away a tear as he leaned down to the driver’s side window. “Nicky, man, you did it this time. We all tried to help, but ain't nobody gonna have your back now.”

Inside the car, the driver turned towards the voice, his head waving back and forth. Although the man standing outside the car had lived in the same town and gone to the same school, Nick Denisco had pumped his veins so full of heroine that he might as well have been a stranger speaking a foreign language. Struggling to keep his head from falling left or right, he smiled and tried to nod, but ended up hitting his forehead on the steering wheel.

Dropping his eyes to look at the ground, Vince tried to shake away the horror of the situation. When that didn’t work, he took a deep breath, stood up, and spoke into the microphone on his shoulder.

“This is Officer Gregory. The driver is alive, dispatch an ambulance and wrecker to the corner of Hemlock and Second Street.” He paused. “We’ll also need a coroner.”

Hearing the confirmation and additional calls going out, Vince released the mic and bent back down to the driver's side window. The man inside stuck a finger into a gash on his arm and began to tug at the torn flesh. “Ugh. Come on Nicky, stop that,” he said, lifting his hand away from the wound. “I don't know what demons have a hold of you, but this is it man, they won.”

Hearing the ambulance sirens, he stepped back, his gaze drawn back to the scene. The front end of the car was wrapped around the tree trunk, with the handlebars of child's bicycle sticking up over the hood.

*        *        *

Coal Ridge May 2018

At the corner of Seventh Street and Ridge Road a rugged older man with a short graying beard and fresh hair cut stood staring up at the big red water tower with the town’s name scrawled across it in big white letters. Moving around from the driver’s side of the hunter green hybrid parked precariously on the side of the road, a much younger woman in professional dress stepped up beside him, clutching the strap of her thick purse. Neither of them said anything. A small grunt escaped the man’s lips as he wobbled and then bent over at the waist, looking as if he were going to vomit.

She laid one hand on his back. “It's been twenty-seven years Nick. You served your time and have done everything you could to be a better person.”

“You don't get it Ms. Gray,” he replied, still bent over with that uncomfortable tickle in the back of his throat. “What I did is unforgivable. I shouldn't be out of prison. I asked not to be paroled, but they did it anyhow.” He dropped to one knee. “Oh God, I can't breathe.”

“It's anxiety Nicky, and it's perfectly normal. Take a few deep breaths while you're down there.” Mary Gray played the role of councilor very well. She knew when to offer a comforting touch and had a practiced tone that could put people at ease. Patting him lightly on the back, she continued. “You accepted responsibility for what you did, now you have to make peace with it. You have to find a way to forgive yourself, otherwise you’re going to end up right back where you were, strung out on who knows what. I've seen it a million times. Those demons, they will eat at you until you can't take it anymore.” When Nick Denisco looked up at her, she was wearing her most comforting smile. “You worked so hard in prison, no one wants to see you fail.”

“I'm sure the family of Freddy Long doesn't feel that way.”

Resisting the urge to sigh and roll her eyes, she held onto that smile. Of course, he was right, they didn’t want anything to do with him. Her friend Melissa had gotten a job with the city of Coal Ridge specifically to get backgrounds on Nick and a man named Bruce Richards. Mary used that information to reach out to the Long family hoping to get them and Nick together, but they weren’t interested, besides they’d moved away from Coal Ridge shortly after he went to jail. This, however, was not information that he needed, at least not yet. “You don’t know that.”

“No, I know.” He stood up, his face visibly more pale than it had been earlier. “They argued at my hearing that my drug use made it premeditated murder and wanted me to take a ride in old sparky.” Turning away, he muttered. “Can’t say that I blame them. It would have been easier for everyone.”

If she couldn’t get him to confront his emotions, this entire trip would be pointless and after what happened to Melissa, she wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away. “Come on, Nicky. You made a mistake. Sure, it was a tragic mistake, but you can’t think like that.”

“You just don’t get it, Ms. Gray.”

Growing tired of that response, she did her best not to show it. “Listen, I’m new to Coal Ridge, why don't we start with a little tour of your hometown? Show me around, let’s talk about happier times.”

Shaking his head, Nick let out a small laugh. “Sure, fine. It won’t take long. The whole town is like a square mile.”

*        *        *

He’s exhausting, Mary thought to herself, following his directions to turn up Sixth Street.

Soon after they got back in the car, Nick had gone on about how the new elementary school used to be a wooded area where he and his friends had played a variety of games that only boys would play. The most disturbing of which was running around beating each other with sticks. Obvious signs of sociopathy. It’s amazing more of them aren’t spending time in jail.

He then talked endlessly about the new scoreboard at the football stadium and seemed to be genuinely upset that it didn’t have the school mascot on it, like the old one had. Ridiculous. Afterwards he went on a rant about the houses on the other side of the football stadium, complaining that another wooded area was gone and that it seemed like kids today didn’t have any place to play anymore. As if playing alone out in the woods is any kind of safe.

At least he was talking, so she let him prattle on as they weaved through the little town.

“Stop! Stop the car.”

The little hunter green hybrid jerked to a stop as Mary searched in vain for whatever it was that she was about to hit.

“I can’t believe it’s gone.”

Nick was staring at an empty field that made up the entirety of the next block.

Mary hung her head. He’d said the same thing about some old parish school by the Catholic Church on Buckeye Drive. This was getting annoying.

Taking off his seatbelt, he climbed out of the car and staggered over to the field. Pulling off to the side, she parked next a sign that read, No Parking Any Time, and looked up at the street sign. Whiteoak and Sixth Street. It hit her then. She understood his reaction and thought this might be a good place to push him a little.

Joining him on the sidewalk, they gazed at the place where Mary Shelley Elementary School once stood.

After a few moments, he muttered “I'd heard that they were going to tear it down, but…” A tear dropped from the corner of his eye.

“This is part of the real-world Nick,” she adjusted the strap on the purse, its weight was beginning to hurt her shoulder. “The real world moves on. We all hold onto our hometown memories where they exist as unchanging places of comfort, but everything changes. That’s the nature of the world. Look at yourself Nick, look at how much you've changed.” She stepped in front of him, forcing eye contact. “It’s gone now, but this school will always be part of you, just as the accident will always be a part of you, but you're not the same person you were when that happened.”

Shifting his gaze to look past her, she knew that he wasn’t looking at the empty field, he was seeing that old elementary school. While doing her research, she’d come across pictures of the school being torn down. It was a squarish four-story structure made up of dirty beige bricks, with cement block windows around its base.

“There used to be a green fence around a blacktop play area,” he muttered. “I remember playing one-fly-up and tag and pulling girl’s ponytails.”

His eyes we're unfocused and the expression on his face was carefully neutral. The emotions were there but buried. In prison he would have learned to keep everything behind a mask just to survive. It was one of those tells like eating with one arm protecting your food or standing directly behind the person in front of you in line. It wasn't obvious but that empty field was beginning to provoke the emotional response that she wanted.

Wandering a few steps away, she asked, “Didn't I read that something happened to you here as a child?”

“Yeah.” He turned his head to look down the block. She imagined that he was seeing the single-story annex that ran along the back of the playground. “Mrs. Temple used to teach us crafts. She showed us how to make bowls and stuff out of clay. We were getting ready to fire them in the kiln.”

“A kiln?” she asked, already very familiar with this story, but feigning ignorance. Some sidetracking was necessary, knowing too much about his past would be suspicious.

Nick offered her a small grin. “I know. You have to understand it was a different time. We actually had a kiln in the art room. It’s probably not something that someone from your generation can even fathom.” His eyes closed, and his voice dipped in volume as he continued. “I'm not sure how often it got used, but my class was using it that day. And it was my turn to light it. I know that I did everything the way I was taught, but something happened.”

“What happened Nick?”

“Mike said it was my fault. That I primed it but forgot to light it. But that’s not what happened. I did light it, just like I was taught.”

“I’m sure you—”

“He and Tony, they never believed me.”

She noticed him rubbing his fingers together and suppressed a smile. Anxious or agitated, either will be able to crack that mask. “Nick, what happened?”

Shaking his head, he started, but then his voice caught in his throat. He tried again after taking a deep breath. “There was a fire, but…”

“But what?” she pushed, as his voice trailed away.

Nick turned away and looked down. “I-I don't really know what happened next.” His shoulders slumped. “We ended up outside. On the playground inside this old jungle gym.”

Dammit, he’s shutting down. Mary reached over and touched his shoulder. “Who was there with you?”

“Before that we were always together. The four musketeers. Me, Donnie Francone, Tony Yoder, and Mike Ramsey.”

“How did you get away from the fire?” she asked, trying to keep him in the moment. The question may have come across a little too eagerly—his lips creased in a frown and he shook his head once. He turned to face her, and she looked away.

“I said, I don't know.”

She turned back. Their eyes met. She pushed. “I think you do.”

Giving her a small smile, he shook his head and dropped his gaze to the ground.

Putting two fingers under his chin, she directed his gaze back to meet hers. “You know what happened. You know what came out of that fire?”

“Nothing,” he shrugged. Turning, he walked away with his emotions all bottled back up, headed back for the car.

“Dammit,” Mary muttered, scrunching her face and balling her hands into fists. I got greedy. I should have let him just talk it out on his own. Letting out a small sigh, she followed him to the car. The afternoon was starting to drag on and before long people would start getting home from work, people who might recognize him…or her.

I don’t want to have to take him back to the scene of the accident, she thought to herself, resolutely adding, but I will.

*        *        *

“I've always loved this park,” Nick explained, his voice low. “My mom used to bring me down to swing and play on the monkey bars. I met Mike and Donny in the Duck Pond before they took it out.”

“Duck pond?” Mary asked, her brow knit.

He laughed. “It’s what they used to call the kiddie pool. It was only like two feet deep, maybe twenty feet long by ten feet wide, but when we were kids it was huge. When I wasn't having nightmares about the crash, I sometimes dreamed about us playing pirates in that pool. Building cities for our matchbox cars in the big sandbox. Riding on the bike trails.” Staring into the woods he muttered, “All the things I stole from Freddy Long.”

A sigh slipped past his lips.

It was one the saddest sounds that Mary had ever heard.

They had parked in front of a pavilion, its red doors not yet opened for the summer. She was beginning to have doubts. Not about her task here, she was intent on that, it was Nick. Prisoners often regret the actions that landed them in jail, but more because they got caught than any actual remorse for the crime. It’s one reason why there are so many repeat offenders. It was not unreasonable to assume that Nick would be the same way. Since meeting him, she had held firmly to that assumption, even in the face of his grief, which was proving to be all too real.

He killed a child, she reminded herself again, and then took a deep breath. “Do you want to get out and walk around?”

Without responding, Nick continued staring into the woods.

“It's still a couple of hours before school lets out,” she started, offering him an encouraging smile. “There are only a handful of people around and it seems like they’re all clustered around the play area. Now would be the best time to get out and stretch our legs.”

“I-I feel like I don't deserve it.” He was blinking back tears. “Coming back here was a bad idea. I don't have any right to be here.”

Shaking her head, Mary suppressed a sigh, trying to decide if she was frustrated because he was feeling sorry for himself or she was feeling sorry for him. It doesn’t matter, I’ve come too far to stop now. Steeling herself, she pushed, “That's not true and you know it. It's not being here that you don't think you have a right to, it's happiness of any kind. That day in 1991 was tragic. You killed a child, but you didn't die that day.” This is where she should tell him that he could make sure that Freddy Long didn't die in vain by committing himself to helping other children or find some other way to use that tragedy to make a positive difference for himself and his community.

Unfortunately, positive support would not provoke the reaction from him that she needed, so she let him stew, while doing her best to push her own guilt aside. Then, removing any illusion of support, she got out of the car.

“Wait, where are you going?” There was an edge of panic in his voice. That was good.

Walking several paces away, she extended her arms over her head and replied with her back to him. “We've been in the car for hours Nick. You can stay in there and wallow in your despair all you want. I'm going to stretch my legs in this beautiful park.”

As she moved away, Mary realized that she’d left her purse in the car. If this worked, it held the things she’d need, but going back would send the wrong message. I can always go back for it if things look like they’re going in the right direction, she thought to herself and started for the pavilion. She hadn’t gone more than a half dozen steps before hearing the car door open.

A small grin touched the corners of her lips.

“Can we not go that way?” he asked from behind.

Mary hadn't been going in any particular direction but noted that she was headed towards a small concrete bridge. Without turning, she replied, “We can go in whichever direction you like.” When she glanced back, he was still standing next to the car. Turning to walk past the pavilion, she suggested, “How about we go over to Miller's Pond?”

With his brow furled, he watched her move towards the path that led back to the pond. Although his mouth opened to ask how she seemed to know exactly where it was if she was new to Coal Ridge, he hesitated and decided to wait. Closing the car door, he followed, catching up to her at the start of the blacktop path. “This path is new,” he muttered, “it used to be a dirt trail.”

“The real world moves on Nick.”

“Yeah,” he grumbled.

When she turned, he looked quickly away, as if he were just caught staring. It was a behavior she hadn’t yet seen from him and it made her wonder at what had changed.

Looking down the path, she decided to make the big push. “I was thinking that after this we might just walk down Hemlock Road.” She glanced back at the car, thinking about the purse in the backseat and its weight on her shoulder, but decided to continue. “We could head towards Second Street. It will be good for you to face where it happened.”

His footsteps slowed, falling a couple paces behind, before he finally stopped. “No, I don't—”

“I know it's painful” she interrupted, moving back to him, “but you need to face this if you’re going to forgive yourself.”

His brow creased and his hands balled into fists. “You still don’t get it,” he growled. “What I did is not something that you move on from. It’s unforgivable.”

Stepping up to him, Mary put her hands on her hips and met his gaze. This was the emotional reaction for which she had been pushing. For all these years, he’d insulated himself with grief, but once his anger broke through, it should unleash a flood. If what Bruce Richards told her about it being drawn by emotion was accurate, this should light him up like a beacon. “I get that you’re angry,” she started, and stopped.

Dismissing his feelings should send him spiraling, but she didn’t have her purse and, more importantly, had been suddenly overcome with sympathy. It made no sense. This is the moment she’d worked for and she felt prepared, but over the past few hours she’d begun to see him as more than an irresponsible idiot who killed a kid. Maybe she wasn’t really a prison councilor and only used it as a cover to visit him, but she knew that the right words right now might help him to get past his self-loathing. If he could not forgive himself, at least he might be able to make some peace with what he’d done.

Shit.

Taking a deep breath, she knew that her next words would likely mean that she’d be starting over, this time without Melissa to help. “Nick, think about all you’ve seen since we've got here. This town didn't stay in the past, the people didn't sit back and watch as its foundation rotted away. They moved on. They built a new elementary school, paved old trails, and tore down old buildings. You need to do the same thing.”

Nick’s eyes fell away from hers, taking on a faraway look again, but it only lasted a moment. Focusing on something over her shoulder, his eyes narrowed, and his mouth fell open.

“It is possible for you to learn to—” Something in his face made her stop and turn, following his gaze. Down the path, at the edge of the grove that surrounded the pond stood a young girl wearing a white dress. “Marjorie,” she breathed.

Grabbing her shoulders and turning her around, he growled, “How do you know that name?”

Looking away, Mary reached for the purse strap that wasn’t there, and then pretended to rub her shoulder. “What do you mean?”

“Don't give me that!” he shouted, his hands moving to the lapels of her coat. “For someone who needed to be shown around, you seem to know a hell of a lot about this little town.”

“There was a documentary, I think, on Marjorie and uh—”

He lifted her off the ground. “Bullshit!”

“Nick, you have to calm down. I don’t have my purse and—”

“Don’t fucken tell me to calm down,” he interrupted. “Who the hell are you and what do you want with me?”

They both felt it.

For an instant, the world around them took a breath and held it. There were no sounds, no smells, and all at once, the sky blinked.

“Shit. I think it pulled us in,” Mary whispered. She looked down at Nick. “Do you want to put me down now?”

He nodded distractedly, his anger seeming forgotten. “Um, sure.”

Once back on the ground, she pushed his hands away and looked around, “I expected it to be right here waiting. That’s how he said it works.”

“He who? How what works? Who are you—whoa what the fuck?” The lush green grass next to the path began to bleed and quickly formed a crimson puddle. The stark green and red colors contrasted, looking anything but festive.

Mary grabbed his hand and started move back down the path. “Come on, we need to get back to the car before it shows up.”

“Before what shows up?” he barked, shaking her hand away.

“Um, the soul eater.” Her voice trailed off as she said it, while he stared at her with his mouth open. Taking a breath, she added, “That thing that was in the kiln fire when you were a kid.”

“How the fuck do you know about that?”

Several small birds dropped silently out of the air, landing in the growing puddle of blood.

“It’s complex.” She patted at her pockets and then looked back at the car. “I can try to explain, but if we don't move, none of it’s going to matter.”

One by one, the birds were pulled beneath the surface, bobbing back up with their heads torn away and their wings furiously splashing around, but none of it made a sound.

“Christ!” Nick exclaimed, staring at the scene. “What the hell is this?”

“It's a distraction Nick, intended to keep us here to make us easier prey. We need to move.” She grabbed his elbow and began leading him back down the path towards the car. The puddle turned into a stream that moved with them. All at once a series of small headless critters began to bob to the surface—squirrels, rats, rabbits; all flailing about in silent crimson splashes.

“This is seriously fucked—”

“Shit!” She interrupted, stopping suddenly. Ahead of them shadows oozed out from between the pavilion doors, gathering near the car. “It's here.”

“What the—” Nick stopped cold, his face falling slack and going pale as the shadows began to take shape.

“Stay with me Nick,” she commanded, holding his arm with both hands. “We have to get over to the pond before it cuts us off and hope that Marjorie will push us out.”

Despite trying to hold him up, Nick dropped to his knees, his gaze fixed on the shadowy form growing outside of the pavilion. The mass of it already seemed to be reaching for them. “No-no-no. No. They told me it wasn’t real. This can't be happening. This isn't real.”

Punching him hard enough in the shoulder to knock him down, Mary stood menacingly over him. “Did that fucking feel real?” She shouted, her tone shifting into a British accent. “Get your arse up!”

Rolling over, his brow dipped and his lip curled up in a snarl. “What the hell? Is there anything about you that’s real?”

Extending a hand, she said, “I’ll really leave your arse here and let it eat you if you don’t stand up.”

Nick took the hand up. “I think that’s probably the first honest thing I’ve heard from you.” As they started towards the grove, he asked. “Why have you been playing me? Are you even a councilor?”

“It’s complex.”

“So simplify it.” Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw the shadow stretched along the horizon, beginning to roll across the sky like nightmarish thunderclouds. “Holy fuck!” he screamed as they rounded the bend and entered the grove of trees circling Miller's Pond.

“Stop!” she directed, grabbing his arm to hold him back.

“Are you out of your fucking mind, it’s coming?”

“Look you idiot!”

“What?” Turning, he saw it. The pond was filled with blackness and dismembered body parts; a film rippled across the surface, causing them to bob like innertubes in a wave pool. “Oh.” Looking back, he saw the shadow from the pavilion rippling all around the grove, with tendrils extending into the trees.

“I think we’re okay for the moment,” Mary offered, taking a deep breath.

A rat ran up the path at them and popped. Fur and entrails splattered onto the blacktop.

“What could possibly make you think that we’re okay?” he asked, turning around, trying to watch every direction at once.

Nudging him with her elbow, Mary pointed. “Her.”

The little girl in the white dress stood perfectly still at the edge of the pond, seeming to keep it all at bay as she watched them. Taking a few breaths to try to slow his racing heart, Nick whispered, “God, she is so damn creepy.”

“Yeah,” Mary agreed.

Pulling his eyes away from the little girl, he glanced around. “Now what do we do, Miss-pretending-to-be-a-councilor-but-is-actually-a-British-secret-agent.”

“I’m not a secret agent,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I'm from a loose congregation of likeminded people who study the Celestial Twilight phenomenon.” She held up a hand. “And before you ask, think Purgatory.”

“Wait, from the fucking Bible.”

“That is one source, there are others.”

“Are you saying we’re in Purgatory?” She nodded. “Great. So we're dead. And that shadow thing is what, the devil?” She rolled her eyes but didn’t respond. “Well?”

Shaking her head, she glanced around. “No. We are most certainly not dead. At least not yet. The concept of Celestial Twilight was first proposed by Plato around 300 BC. It was later refined by Dante and eventually became a part of the mythos of numerous religions. At its most basic level, this is a place that conducts life energy to wherever it goes next.”

“You mean heaven?”

“There is nothing to conclusive prove that. All we know for certain is that when people die, that energy goes somewhere. Places like this act as conduits that transmits life energy to somewhere.”

“This doesn’t make any sense?”

Taking a deep breath, she resisted rolling her eyes again. “It makes perfect sense. Energy is never created or destroyed, so…” Noting that he was staring with his mouth hanging open, she stopped and let out a quiet sigh. “I told you, it’s complex.”

“This is way beyond fucking complex,” he shouted, waving his hands around. “You’re telling me that we’re in fucking purgatory, but that there ain’t no heaven.” He turned in a circle. “Doesn’t this prove that there’s a heaven.”

“Okay, listen, if you insist on looking at this from a single religious aspect, yes it could provide evidence of a heaven—um, ignore the deer—but, on a broader scientific scope, these pockets prove the existence of additional dimensions.”

“What deer?” Nick turned. It stood about three feet away. “Oh, it’s a doe.” The animal blinked at him, and then leaned forward and cocked its head a moment before its face split open. Flesh peeled away from the muscle beneath and the mouth opened in a soundless cry. “Fuck me!” he screeched, jumping back to put Mary between himself and the deer. “What the holy fucking hell?”

With one hand over her face, she mumbled. “I told you to ignore it.”

“How the fuck can I ignore…oh ugh, its eyes are still moving.” Nick turned, made a burping noise, and emptied the contents of his stomach onto the path with a wet splat.

“I'd look away from—”

“Worms!” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I'm throwing up mother fucking worms?”

Raising her head to look up at the sky, she took a deep breath before reaching out to grab his shirt. Pulling him in close she spoke slowly in a quiet tone. “Listen, you bloody idiot. It's trying to frighten us. It feeds on emotion and right now, all you’re doing is making it stronger. So long as we stay away from the trees and the pond, we are safe for now, but that won't last if you keep feeding it.”

“I'm freaking out here lady.”

“Obviously.” She let him go and looked away.

He followed her gaze to Marjorie. “What the hell is she doing?”

“Nothing. That's the problem.”

“Didn’t you say she could push us out of here?” Mary nodded. “Well then, let's go make it happen.” He took a step towards the little girl. The pond rippled behind Marjorie, causing the dismembered body parts to bob. In a blink, she had moved to the opposite side.

“Um, I don't think she cares for you,” Mary offered as the dark water rose up over the stone edge of the pond, reaching down for the grass.

“Maybe she doesn't like lying Brits,” Nick countered.

“I didn't kill a child while strung out on heroin.”

Around them trees began to disappear into the expanding shadow.

“Fuck you.” He turned away, then pivoted back to stand in front of her. “What the hell lady, you've been pushing my buttons since we got here this morning. Dismissing my feelings and trying to make me relive all these horrible things that happened. I did my best to keep it all in, thinking that you were trying to help me, and then when I can’t take it no more you tell me that this soul eater feeds on emotion…” He stopped, looking away as his mouth fell open. When he turned back, there was a rage in his face she hadn’t seen before.

Taking a step back, she said. “Nick, initially I—”

“Son of a bitch,” he interrupted. “You were using me as bait. Trying to get me to react so that I would draw that thing!”

She took another step back. “There isn’t anything written about a creature like this. It's unknown. If I’d come over here myself, it could have been anywhere. In my research, I had a friend get me some information about you and I met with Bruce Richards a number of times, but without his backpack he could only tell me stories. It was just good luck that you were paroled when you were. Since you’d seen it before, I thought—”

“Thought what,” he stepped towards her, “that you could use a convicted child killer to draw your monster and what? Sacrifice me to it? Leave me here because no one would miss me?”

Behind her, frogs hopped out of the dark water and began to vomit up their still beating hearts.

“Nick, listen to me. You have every right to be angry, but we can still get out of here.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a pair of charms. “These can protect us. If we each hold one, the soul eater won't be able to touch us, but we also can't touch one another.”

He stopped. “Why the fuck did you wait until now to bring those out?”

“I wasn't sure what was going to happen with Marjorie or, well, how rational you would be and if you would believe me. Even without this soul eater,” she pointed at the shadow now consuming all of the trees surrounding the pond, “it seems that different pockets carry different dangers.”

“Different dangers? Shit this just keeps getting better.” Nick look past her. “Ah hell, it looks like the little girl has abandoned us. Give me one of those trinkets.” He put his hand out, she dropped the charm into it. “So, you know how to get us out of here?”

She looked away. “Of course.”

“Oh, fuck me! You don’t know how to get us out of here, do you?”

“I do, I just…I need my purse.”

“Where is it?”

“In the car.” Nick threw his hands up in the air and turned in a circle. Stopping him with a comforting hand on his shoulder, she continued. “But now we’ll be protected so we can get to the car.”

Nick looked around the grove; shadows were closing in on all sides. “Fuck.” He turned back to her. “How do you know these things are going to work?”

“I've done the research. I know they will.” A shadow rose up behind her. “Just don't touch me, they were designed for—” Realization dawned on her a moment too late.

The shadow rolled over Mary like a wave, slamming her down to the ground. He could see her legs kicking from beneath it, like a drowning swimmer.

“Fuck.” Nick turned his palm and let the charm drop from his hand. Closing his eyes, he thought about that day in the art room a lifetime ago.

It hadn’t been a fire that had exploded out of that kiln, it was the shadow. The four of them had been standing in front of it talking about going into the woods after school when the lights had blinked off and back on. Right after that, the kiln started to shake. They all stepped back, and it exploded out, reaching for them. The other three had turned to run, but he saw her. Elizabeth Felger appeared in front of them and stopped the shadow. It had been her who had taken them to the jungle gym. No one believed him, not his friends or his family, but he knew it was her.

The shadow slammed into him, knocking him off his feet.

Nick tumbled in darkness as all the air was sucked out of his lungs, like a long, involuntary exhale. The pressure on his chest would not let him inhale and a different kind of darkness gathered in the corner of his eyes. He tried not to panic, to simply accept what was happening, and then pain exploded in the back of his neck.

Feeling like he was being torn in half with no strength to resist, Nick did not plead for a savior or beg for forgiveness. He took the advice of Mary Gray and made peace with what he'd done. He forgave himself as the gulf of oblivion rushed at him.

A light shined on the edges of that blackness and a familiar figure—the angel that had saved them all those years ago—broke through as death claimed him.

The last thing that Nick Denisco experienced before moving on, was that comforting scent of lavender.