Smoke Girl

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Chapter Two: Awakening

1.

The world blurs. I bolt for the house, breath loud in my ears. He’s behind me. Alvin Gaffrey’s behind me.

The green square of the window has gone dark. The power’s out. I race up the porch, stumbling. My hands fumble against the side of the house until I find the smooth wood of the door. I grab the doorknob and yank. The door comes open and I tumble into the kitchen.

I can’t see a thing. Slam. I lock the door. My pulse pounds.

Time stops. My eyes adjust. There's a square of moonlight on the kitchen floor. The outline of the counter comes into focus.

And then, footsteps.

They creak their way up the deck stairs. The middle stair groans like it always does. Silence follows like the climber's not sure about his footing, and then they approach again. Closer. They're right outside the door. A shadow falls over the square of moonlight. It's pointed. Evil.

I can't move. I can't scream.

There’s a knock on the door. Then another. And another.

"Come on," I whisper to myself. My trance breaks. I reach for the knife block next to the fridge. My hand scrapes counter and meets wood. I close my fingers around a handle and pull the blade out.

Another knock. "Jae," he says. His voice is muffled from the other side of the wood. "Can you let me in?"

I hold the knife in front of me. I'm shaking.

No.

I try to shout the word, but I'm silenced. I can only scream it inside my head.

"Why are you running from me?"

I hold my breath. The doorknob jiggles.

I close my eyes.

He's not real. He's not here.

Alvin Gaffrey is dead.

"Jae?"

I hold my breath.

"Jae?"

A hand wraps around my arm.

I scream, jump, and drop the knife. It clatters to the floor and nicks my foot.

Open my eyes.

The light's on. A figure stands over me. I open my mouth to scream.

"Why were you holding that knife?"

It's Dad.

I stand there and stare at him for what feels like a long time. His bushy eyebrows lift as he studies me. Mom stands behind him, looking from the knife on the floor and back up at me again.

"Jae?" he repeats.

I'm shaking. "There's someone outside. He was knocking on the door right here a minute ago!"

Dad lets go of me and storms towards the door. Mom starts to say something, but he tears it open and leans out into the night.

"Don't!" I lunge for him, but he holds up his hand to say stop.

"Is anyone out here?" he yells into the dark trees and open fields. "Anyone?" He's so loud now I want to cover my ears. "If you ever come back here again, you're getting a bullet between the eyes! You hear me?"

"Dad," I gasp. I'm so relieved that I don't even care what he's yelling.

He shuts the door, locks it, and sighs as he turns to face me.

I wrap my arms around him so tight that he lets out a breath. He's here. Alvin Gaffrey's not.

"No one's out there that I could see," he says, returning my hug. "Nobody messes with my family. It might have been those stupid kids from down the road whose parents never keep them under control."

I wish. Oh, I wish.

Either Alvin Gaffrey was really knocking on the door or I'm going insane. My heart races with both thoughts. I know I started that fire out there and turned that robe to ashes. The fire pit must still be smoking and I left those newspapers and pamphlets out there on the ground. I'll have to go and get those they blow around the yard and Renee sees them. "I was out getting ready to roast some marshmallows and make smores. I came in to get the bag and that's when it happened. Somebody was knocking on this door."

I release Dad. He looks down at me with concern.

Mom stands beside him, equal in her worry. "We thought you'd gone to bed when we pulled in the driveway. All the lights were off. Jae, why didn't you at least leave the porch light on?"

My stomach turns to a cold, heavy stone.

Some of that, at least, was real.

"I...I wasn't thinking. I thought it was on. Honest. Maybe the bulb went out."

"It's on now," Mom says.

"I thought you were going to be home much later." I back away from the door. The night has never had such a sinister air. "Or it might have been one of those power surges." How did I not hear Mom and Dad come in?

"That makes sense," Dad says. He picks up the kitchen knife and studies it like it's some relic from an ancient temple. "I'm glad you were about to defend yourself."

"You should have called nine one one," Mom says, more at Dad than at me. "Where was your cell phone?"

Dad sighs. "Give her a break, Sally."

"I couldn't find it in the dark." I have to get out of here. I have to grab those papers, but I'm terrified to go back out there. Maybe, now that Mom and Dad are here, it will be okay and safe. "I have to go back out and get the newspaper I was going to use for the fire."

"I'm sure you'll be fine," Dad says. "Do it before we go to bed."

I don't want to be closer to that darkness and the fire pit than I have to be. I need to go turn on my music and drown out the night. Tomorrow morning, this will all be a nightmare and nothing more. I flip the porch light on and crack open the side door. That's better.

"How come you came home early?" It's not, of course, like I'm complaining. I back towards the archway of the kitchen and into the living room.

“We decided not to see a movie after all,” Mom says, lighting a cigarette. “Have you seen how it’s getting on weekend nights? I just didn't want to be around them."

She flicks her cigarette over the ashtray and mutters something to Dad. I take the opportunity to head outside. As I suspected, the pamphlets and the bag of newspaper clippings wait on the grass, next to the pit and untouched. I gather them up, put them back in the trash bag, and head back to my room. I hide them on the bottom of my homework box with the album. They'll be there just until I figure out how to dispose of them.

I'm not going to sleep much tonight.

2.

“Jae, you don’t look good.” Ruba leans over her tray of slimy pizza on Monday, black curls brushing against the table. “You worried about History again?”

I sit upright, heart leaping. "I just didn't sleep much this weekend." What did I get--an hour? Two? I haven't dared turn my bedroom light off the past three nights. I've taken naps during the day. I've even gone with Mom and Dad and Renee out on their boring weekend errands, all to avoid being at home by myself.

And yet, I haven't so much as heard that voice calling my name again. Things have been quiet. Renee's started speaking to me again. A check of the fire pit has confirmed that nothing's left of Alvin Gaffrey's robe. I've gotten away clean with my deed and now Renee will never ever know about it.

And now, I can forget about it.

I keep telling myself that, over and over. What I saw Friday night was just my overactive imagination.

"When you don't sleep well, you're worried about something," Ruba says. "I've known you for too long. The last time you were like this, you were worried about your dad losing his job."

"That was two weeks ago. And yes, I'm still a bit stressed about that." I haven't thought about that much in the past few days.

"I understand." Ruba leans over the table and we hug.

Is she embracing a lunatic?

Or should I ask her about hauntings? Ruba's always watching that ghost hunting show at her house when I'm over. She even has a few books on the subject that her dad got her for her birthday last year. She even let me borrow one once, a supposedly true story about a nurse and her daughters dealing with ghosts for several years in this house they bought.

But those things only happen to people who are having hallucinations, nightmares, or paranoia--right? Or it's all liars and attention seekers. At least, it's what they said on that Penn and Teller show that Dad sometimes watches on Youtube. Maybe I should go home and find it. Watch it again. It might calm my nerves and make my mind stop playing these horrible tricks on me. Some nice suggestions for my subconscious won't hurt.

In History, Mr. Landwick calls me up to his desk. My lunch rolls in my stomach. He has my family tree poster open on his desk, staring down at it like a surgeon about to remove a tumor. I'm definitely in for a low grade--and this project is supposed to be twenty percent of our class score.

I try to look cool. “Yeah?”

“Jae,” he says. “You haven’t filled out the section on Lawrence Gaffrey here. I can give you a bit more time to work on it, if you want. Otherwise I’ll have to mark this down. I really don't want to have to do that. You don't want to ruin that B that you're getting right now."

"I'm getting a B?" That's some good news.

"For now," he says. He glances at me over his glasses. "You'll want to keep it that way."

“I…” I need an excuse, and fast. “I didn’t get all the info I needed. My dad’s grandpa…uh…ran off after he had his son, so we don’t know much about him.”

He uncaps a red pen, ready to cut with surgical precision. “You don’t have a birth date? His occupation? I just want to help you raise your grade some.”

"Like I said, he ran off. I only know his name. So does my father."

"You could have looked up the records online if you have his name," Mr. Landwick says with patience. "I'll give you some extra time to do that. I understand these things do happen."

I feel the class watching my back. A prickle runs across my skin. I won’t confess.

“I'll tell you what. Print me out a copy of his birth certificate by the end of the week, and I'll give you full points for research. Sound good?"

"Sounds good. Thanks." My grade is doomed. I am not giving him Alvin Gaffrey's birth certificate.

Why won't this die already?

3.

Dad stares down into a glass of water as I enter the kitchen.

I stop there in the doorway for a second, watching him. He’s never home this early.

Maybe he took a half day. Or maybe they had a power outage at the office. Or maybe there was a bomb threat. But a knot forms in my stomach and constricts every explanation I can think of for him to be home…except for the one I don’t want to hear.

Dad’s eyes are dull. His shoulders, slumped.

Shit.

The air is stifling as I enter the kitchen. Thick. Dad glances at me. "Hi."

"Hi." There are papers strewn out on the table. They're bank statements. Old bills. "I'm...I'm sorry. It sounds like your day was worse than mine." All I have to worry about is a stupid family tree project and how to fudge a birth certificate. Dad's problem is so much worse.

"I am, too." He faces the table again and slides the bank statement under a form for the city taxes like he's trying to hide it from me.

I open the fridge and bury my face in the cool air. I read the label on the tub butter as slow as I can. No trans fats. Now with omega-3 oils for cardiac health. I wait for Dad to say something more, but it never comes. I grab the closest thing in my reach: an old piece of sliced cheese that’s hard around the corners.

"Don't eat too much," Dad says. He manages a smile, but it means so much more.

"Dad, you'll find something else. I know you will."

He breathes out. Dad doesn't seem so sure. "I've been looking," he says. "Trust me, I've been looking for a long time."

I don't like the sound of that. I traverse across the kitchen and out the archway. The air remains stifling as ever.

The stairs creak and groan as I climb them. I toss the cheese down on my desk next to my Algebra homework—which I’ll never be able to concentrate on. I can only stare at the wall as shadows grow across it. The school bus rumbles outside as it drops off Renee. Footfalls come up the stairs and a door closes across from me. She didn't even stop in the kitchen today.

And then, there's silence for a long time.

The door downstairs slams as Mom gets in the door to meet the news that her crappy pay will somehow have to cover all the bills. That we’ll have to cut back on food. Shut our electricity off after a month or so. That one of the cars will have to go.

I lower my forehead to my hands and stare at the wooden patterns in my desk.

It’s not long before Mom and Dad’s voices float up the stairs. They’re indistinct, like a rumble from a bottomless pit of lost souls. But a phrase or two makes it up every minute or so.

“…cancel the camping trip…”

“Bills…have to calculate…”

“…that there might not be a Christmas this year…”

The world turns gray.

What if we lose the house?

Have to move away?

I put my head down on my History book and squeeze my eyes shut. The afterimage of my window swims behind my eyelids, first as an angry green. Then it fades to a dull pink and gives a last gasp as a faint gray.

I drift. The voices downstairs fade. It's not a bad place to be.

Until I feel the pat on my back.

4.

I jump my chair and bang my elbow. Pain surges through my arm, but I ignore it. “Renee!"

But my sister isn’t there.

No one’s there.

I can’t breathe. The air’s freezing. Electric.

That’s it. I’m leaving. I hurry down the stairs and back into warmth.

Mom and Dad are gone from the kitchen. A few new cigarette butts have appeared in the ashtray. Across the hall, the den door is firmly shut to keep out intruders--me and Renee. They don’t want us to hear what they’re cutting yet or that we’ll now have to get lunch tickets from the school. They must be debating on how they're going to tell us this. I creep past the door as quiet as I can, careful not to interrupt.

Escape. I want to escape. But there’s nowhere to go except down the road. But trees and mosquitoes make better company than this. I look around for Renee--she’s still safely in her room--and head for the front door.

Another cold spot of air rushes past me and towards the den. My hair stands on end. I’ve got to leave the house.

I open the door and step out onto the porch, but not before I catch my dad’s angry voice coming through the wall. He must think I’m still upstairs.

“...I tell you, it’s outsourcing...own us before too long. All our jobs..."

I walk to the end of the driveway and start to jog.

5.

Smoke.

The smell wrenches me out of sleep. I open my eyes. My lights are off, even though I know I left them on. Maybe Mom or Dad came in and flipped the switch to save on electricity.

My alarm clock's dark, too. Even my cell phone, which rests on my night table, has gone dead.

I sit up. My heart hammers. My curtains billow in the cold breeze. I stiffen, heart racing. The house might be on fire.

The wind floats in, and with it the smell of burning wood. The smoke’s coming from outside.

The breeze stops and the curtains fall back into place. An orange glow peeks through them, dancing in the wind. Something crackles.

Our fire pit. I shudder and fall back onto my bed. The memory explodes back into my mind. The ball of fire. That knock on the back door. I’ll pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. When I wake up, this will be gone.

My stomach lurches again. That light isn’t coming from the fire pit, which is more on the side of the house. My window faces the field in the back.

I sit back up, take a deep breath, and part the curtains.

In the field towers a twenty-foot-tall fiery cross. Flames spit like an angry monster wanting release. It casts an orange glow on the tall grass around it, on the lawn...and on the single figure robed in black who stands before it.

Alvin Gaffrey raises his face towards mine. His mask is flipped up. He’s no longer hidden. He lifts his bushy eyebrows towards me. They're my father's eyebrows.

He lifts one black-sleeved arm. Silky cloth topples around his wrist. It’s made of nightmares and smoke and ugly secrets. Things that should be buried. Forgotten.

And he waves me down to him. “Jae!”

His voice is a whip cracking through midnight.

I slam the window shut so hard it does all the screaming for me.

6.

“You've got bags under your eyes.”

Mom flips a pancake as her frizzy hair topples around her shoulders. It sizzles in the pan. But I’m not hungry. I want to return to bed and stay there. The lack of sleep weighs on me like a boulder strapped to my feet.

“I know.” I blink, struggling to wake. Last night didn’t happen. A nightmare. That’s all it was. My stress is getting to me. I have to believe that. "I didn't sleep well, with, you know." I nod towards Dad, who waits for breakfast at the table. He's in his jeans and deer T-shirt today. In other words, no work.

Renee hops into a chair and gobbles down her pancake. I join her and Dad at the table. She tells me something about a sleepover she’s going to next week. I nod and pretend to listen. It's clear that Mom and Dad haven't told her the full news yet.

Birds chirp in the backyard. I turn my gaze to the field, dreading what I might see.

No burn marks. No charred weeds. No lumber turned to charcoal and no figure in a silky robe, beckoning to me. There's only calm, waving grass.

Yes. A nightmare. This proves it. I breathe out horror and tension and smoke. I feel better. Lighter.

Dad flips through the paper beside me. His bushy eyebrows narrow at the tiny print. His eyes show nothing. It's like someone’s opened a hatch in the back of his head and sucked out his soul. I can only pray he’ll find a new job soon, so it can return. This isn’t my dad sitting here.

"Jae," Mom asks. "Why did you slam your window shut so loud in the middle of the night?"

* * * * *

Dad is still at the kitchen table when I return from school. More bills are spread out in front of him in a confusing jumble. A calculator rests on top of a piece of notebook paper. Coffee rings stain the wood. It’s been a long day.

He picks up the calculator as I pass and punches something into it.

I wait for him to speak, but he doesn’t. “Do you need help with anything?” I ask.

“No.” His voice is tiny, a shadow of its former self. He doesn’t look up from the mass of papers and depression. “Don’t worry about this, Jae.”

Sure. Don’t worry. Everything’s all right. I could be going insane and about to starve at the same time, but everything’s okay.

It’s also freezing in here, as if all this despair has sucked the life out of the air. I want to get out of the house. I should call Ruba and have her pick me up so we can go see a movie or something. It's better than being here, worrying. I just have to get my homework done first.

I head upstairs. The faster I leave, the better. I hate to leave Dad alone, but Mom should be home by time I get my worksheets finished. He'll have the company, at least.

The curtains are open on the field. And Mom’s opened the window before she left for work. I rush over to close it. The curtains squeak as I pull them together.

Thump.

I let out a gasp and whirl around, heart racing. Something must have fallen. But no. Everything’s the same as ever on my cluttered floor. My stuffed animals, my crumpled clothes, some old papers from school. It was a mouse in the wall, maybe. We’ve had plenty of those before. Or a board settling.

Best to get my studying done. I pull up my chair and settle into it, turning to my desk.

A little scream escapes my throat.

My History book’s open, lying over my Algebra one.

I'm facing the page with the Klan family. They stare out at me with those pit-like eye holes.

"Come on," I mutter. I slam the book shut. The wind from it blows a worksheet off my desk and down into the mess.

You’re going crazy.

Crazy.

No, you’re not going crazy.

Something’s really going on.

I pick up my phone.

Call Ruba and ask her to pick me up.

I go and wait at the end of the driveway.

7.

"Ruba, I know you're going to laugh at me, but can I borrow your books on ghosts?"

We've just left the popcorn line. I pick up one of the buttery kernels with my tongue. Ruba sips out of her five-dollar Mountain Dew.

I swallow. "All of them?"

"That's seven or eight books," she says. "I thought you did not believe in that stuff."

Ruba and I have always argued over that ghost hunting series. It's fake, I'd say. They're fudging all their evidence just because it's TV and they have to entertain. I never thought it was anything more than a crappy reality show. Maybe that particular show isn't the real deal, but what I'm experiencing is different. This isn't those blobs that appear on heat cameras or those electromagnetic spikes they catch on their instruments.

It's a lot more real than that.

"Well...that might be changing." Heat rushes to my cheeks. "I...I just want to look at it closer, is all. Some weird things are happening at home, and I want to make sure it really is just stress that's getting to me."

"What happened?" she asks. We walk into the hallway towards the back theater. Her interest is piqued. Ruba's always been a sucker for any kind of paranormal story.

"I...I felt someone patting me on the back today, and no one was there. I know it was probably nothing, but it freaked me out." How do I tell her about Friday night? Even the ghost hunting show had nothing compared to that.

"Oh," she says. "I'm surprised you're not saying that it was your muscle jumping or--"

"And there's a voice calling my name." We enter the darkness of the theater. What movie are we going to see again?

"You've never said anything like this before," she says.

"It's never happened before."

"I'm surprised, with a house as old as yours. It's what--a hundred and fifty years old?"

"Around there." We make our way to the top of the theater, above everyone else. There's a man and woman sitting halfway down, but no one else. It's a weeknight. No one's here. Maybe Mom and Dad should change their weekly date to one of these nights. So it's not so crowded for them.

"You haven't started moving things around? Sometimes, that can trigger a spirit that's been dormant for a long time."

"No," I lie. "I haven't."

"Nothing in that attic? It hasn't been touched until you went up there. Sometimes, an object that belonged to someone who has died can have traces of their energy still in it. That spirit can still have a connection with something up there."

"No. Nothing." I'm getting uncomfortable.

"It could be all the stress your family's having. Sometimes, they react to that, too. Poltergeists are known to feed off the stress of people. Often, it's teenagers, but it can happen to anyone."

"It could be."

"Have you noticed the temperature dropping? Any lights flickering? Batteries going dead? Sometimes, a spirit can suck the energy from its environment in order to manifest."

I shake my head. She's so right. "No."

"I wouldn't be too scared," Ruba says. "You're the only family who's ever lived in that house. If you do have a spirit, it's probably just a relation of yours. I'll give you my books at school tomorrow. Just remind me when we leave, and I'll put them in a bag for you."

8.

When I return home at ten, Mom yells at me about keeping my bedroom light on.

"We need to save on the electricity," she says. "Things are not good right now. Why are you keeping it on all night? You even left it on when you weren't here."

"Sorry." I feel awful for causing her more stress. "I've...just been having nightmares lately."

"Oh," she says. Understanding comes over her features. "You might want to pull out that night light from your closet. You know, your old My Little Pony one? That won't jack up the electric bill."

"I will." I can't even feel stupid or babyish right now. I am not going to bed without some sort of light. I know that probably won't stop anything bad from happening, but I'll feel more secure.

That photo album is still in my closet. I'd forgotten about it until now. I take it out and shove it under my bed. At last, I dig out my old nightlight and plug it in. I’m six years old again, afraid of the dark. Afraid of the things lurking in the shadows of my room. Afraid of the nightmares creeping under the bed.

Afraid.

The light comes to life with its soft pink glow. The pony smiles out at me like everything’s all right.

I let out a long breath and double check that my window’s locked. I even dare a peek outside. Nothing. A single firefly--probably that same one from a few nights ago--blinks at me, leaving a green trail through the night. It's so alone out there, blazing its path through the expanse of darkness.

I turn off my bedroom light.

The bedcovers are freezing as I pull them over my shins, my chest, my entire head. My breath grows hot underneath them. But I don’t care. It’s secure.

I close my eyes. Time passes. Renee’s music shuts off on the other side of the wall. The door shuts across the hall as Mom and Dad go to bed with worry. A light clicks off.

Silence.

I listen to my breathing. Anything to drown out my thoughts. Anything to drown out Alvin Gaffrey.

I drift. Images that make no sense swim in front of my eyes as my body grows heavy. But I never quite drift off.

An hour passes. I keep glancing at the red numbers of my alarm clock. Eleven twenty-one. Eleven thirty. Eleven fifty-two.

Midnight.

My parents’ door creaks open across the hall.

I open my eyes as my heart leaps into my throat. It makes an eerie creak as if someone is trying to sneak through.

My father steps out.

He’s not in his pajama shorts. He’s fully dressed in his jeans and T-shirt. He moves like a ghost down the hall and out of my sight. Another floorboard creaks. Soft little thumps float into my room as he descends the stairs.

I sit up. Is he sleepwalking? But why fully dressed? He’s done it before, but always in his pajama shorts, and then he always raids the fridge. Stress always did that to him.

I wait for the sounds of a midnight snack run.

It doesn’t come. Instead, the side door creaks open. Then the screen door thwaps shut.

That's not right.

I launch myself out of bed and toss the warm covers off me. Cold air creeps over my skin like wispy fingers. My dad’s going out there. Asleep. Alone. Where I saw--

“No.” The word escapes my lips as I make for the hall. I have to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or try to drive.

I dig my toes in the stairs as I descend. They're cold. Freezing. I listen for Dad to return from outside. He doesn’t. Maybe he just slipped outside to have a smoke. I hope.

I open the side door. The blackened fire pit greets me. The hose still lies tangled from where I dropped it on Friday night. And Dad’s nowhere in sight.

A yellow shirt vanishes around the side of the house.

He’s headed to the backyard.

To the field.

I take a slow breath and follow, careful not to step on the rake that’s laying next to the house. The cold night air wraps around my skin, trying to suck the life out of me. Even the crickets have stopped. I breathe out. Vapor spirals in front of me.

I stop. Maybe I should turn and head back. I can go back to bed. Forget about this. Get up in the morning, and everything will be fine.

Fire crackles. An orange glow erupts from behind the house.

My heart leaps into my throat. I rush over to the corner of the house and squeeze myself into the evergreen bush for cover. Needles stab at my skin and grab at my pajamas. Something runs across my hand. I part one of the branches to peek through.

Bile rises into my throat and I curse.

Flames lick at the air like orange demon tongues. Alvin Gaffrey stands before the fiery cross like a dark wizard from another time. His face looks blurred in front of the fire, like he’s not quite there. There's a table next to him. It's draped in a red cloth. An altar. Something folded lies on it, but I can't make it out.

This is real.

I can't deny it anymore. I'm not asleep. I'm not insane.

Alvin Gaffrey is really haunting us. He's here. I really awakened him.

My eyes adjust to the brightness of the flames.

A figure stands before him. Someone in a yellow shirt. It's Dad.

The breath catches in my throat. Dad! I'm so glad he's out here with me.

But something's wrong.

Dad stands perfectly still in front of Alvin Gaffrey, like prey before a poisonous snake. He’s probably still asleep. Unaware.

I want to run out to him. To pull him back in the house and lock the door. I should go grab Mom and get her help. I should scream and wake them both. But I can’t. My limbs refuse to move.

Alvin Gaffrey raises a sleeved arm and rests it on Dad’s shoulder. “Ted,” he says. The gloom of his voice echoes through the night. “Look at what’s happened to you. To my family.”

I shudder. Is he referring to me? I am not his family. And I never will be.

Dad hangs his head. A long silence follows, as if the two of them are having a secret conversation using only their minds. The fire continues to crackle. An orange glow surrounds the Grand Dragon like a hellish aura. It seems to infuse him with power. A new life.

Dad mutters something to him.

And Alvin Gaffrey sweeps him up in a hug. Smoky cloth envelops Dad and threatens to devour him.

My stomach turns. Ripples of disgust race through me like oily water. No. I’m not seeing this. My dad’s not hugging a ghost. He’s not embracing--

“Ted,” Alvin Gaffrey says, releasing him. His bushy eyebrows stand out now. I can see his face clearly, as if he’s siphoned some life from my dad. “You’ve been shamed. Brought down. And you know who’s to blame. Let me help you. We can fight for what's right.”

Dad speaks. Words float through the air. Some stab through the crackling of the fire. “Taking over the country…”

“Yes.” Alvin Gaffrey puts his hand on Dad’s shoulder again as if to hold him in place. “I know.”

The Grand Dragon reaches over to the altar. He lifts the folded-up cloth. He holds it up to the firelight and lets it unfurl.

It’s a long white robe, complete with the same patch on it that Alvin Gaffrey has on his.

Dad stands for a second. And reaches out to take it.

I stop breathing. He can’t be.

But he is.

Dad slips the robe over his head and wrestles his arms through the sleeves. It topples down over him, all the way down to his shoes. Covering him. Consuming him.

A scream starts to creep up into my throat.

My dad fumbles with something else. It’s cloth and conical and glowing in the firelight.

And then he lowers it onto his head.

I can’t remain silent. I burst out from behind the shrub. "Dad! No! What are you doing?"

Dad turns. His robe billows and swirls around him. And his two dark eye holes lock on me.

Alvin Gaffrey steps in front of him. “Jae,” he says, waving me over. “It’s okay. Come here.”

9.

I'm frozen in terror.

“Ted,” he says. “Can you bring her here?”

I’m not going over there.

But Dad walks towards me so fast his hood bends down in the wind.

His hood. God.

At last I peel my feet from the cold ground. I bolt for the side door. I rip it open so fast it smacks into my face. Spots dance in my vision.

I burst into the house. Shadows lurch on the wall of the kitchen, including one with a conical hood.

I lock the door. It clicks. A second later, the doorknob rattles. A figure draped in white stands on the other side of the door’s window. “Jae, sweetie,” he says in his old bedtime story voice. It floats through the open window by the sink. “Come on out. I want you to meet your great-grandpa.”

I back away and hit the fridge. It's dead. I want to scream daggers at Dad. To shake him awake. To end this nightmare. But nothing comes from my dry throat. Is he still asleep? I pray yes.

He taps on the door. “Come on, sweetie. It’s okay. You’ll love him.”

"No," I manage. I'm hoarse. "Dad--what is wrong with you? Wake up! Take that off!" Mom will have to come down the stairs. So will Renee. But I can't open the door to talk quietly to him. Dad could drag me out to--could drag me out to--

He knocks. "I am awake."

"You're not." I'm begging more than anything. "You just think you are. You're going to feel really stupid when you do wake up and you find out you're in--"

He knocks, louder. "Open the door. Stop throwing such a fit over nothing."

"This isn't nothing!" Where's Mom? I need her. She'll put a stop to this. Why hasn't she woken up yet?

"Now, Jae." The doorknob jiggles again.

I back away.

I have to leave him outside and hope he wakes up on his own. I rush up the stairs.

"Jae!" His shouts are muffled now.

"Mom." I can't wake Renee and have her see this. I peek into my parents' room. There's another distant knock. "Mom--wake up. Dad's sleepwalking again."

She snores.

"Mom!" I speak a bit louder.

Nothing. She's out.

I rush in. She's facing away from me, deep in a slumber. I shake her. She mutters in her sleep and shifts. Why won't she wake? Is Alvin Gaffrey casting some kind of spell over my family?

I can't go back to my room.

My window looks right out in the field.

Instead, I go to Renee's room.

Open the door as quietly as I can.

My sister sleeps in her bunk bed, swathed in her Hello Kitty blankets. She doesn't stir. Only the sound of her windy breathing fills the room.

There's one more knock from downstairs, and then silence.

I'm going to stay here all night.

I have to protect my sister.


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