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the lesser of two evils...

As Gail walked in the door, Olivia greeted her with something she hadn’t expected to hear.

“Got a text from Joel, chick. Says he can’t get a response from you. He wants us to send in all the info we have on the case so far. I told him you had it all on your tablet, but you weren’t here right now. I said I’d tell you as soon as you got back, so you may wanna get that thing fired up ASAP. Hooray for free motel wi-fi, I guess.”

She checked her phone, and sure enough, there they were, four unread messages from Joel Reed. In her distracted state, she hadn’t even heard them come in. Yes, Joel needed to know that they had gone as far as they could with this. Once he saw everything they had seen over the last couple of weeks, he would pull them off the case. It was obvious (living) animals weren’t involved, and he did NOT need to know the truth....the theory...whatever the fucking hell it was that had been going on around here. Then Gail heard Olivia say what she had expected to hear when she first arrived.

“So what did you find out from that James guy? Anything interesting at all?”

Gail spent an hour or so telling Olivia what she and Barnett had discussed, how she felt about it, what she thought about all the way back to Crow’s Rest.

“Wow, that’s...that’s fucked up. I mean, can any of that be true? It all sounds so...”

“70′s horror movie, right? I mean, you know me, I’ve been a dedicated gorehound my whole life. Movies, magazines, comics, whatever. My mom always said that’s what causes my nightmares. I never thought so ’cuz all that shit’s just fantasy, y’know? I know for a fact that none of that’s real. This is different. It’s really starting to get to me.”

“Yeah, that. I can see why you’re so anxious to get this case closed. It has been pretty damned weird, and now it’s gotten a violent shove right into unbelievable. Guess we wasted that trip back home. Then again, who knew it was gonna get this crazy, right? Alright then, let’s get this thing together and get the hell outta the sticks. I’m so ready for the next case, whatever it is. I don’t care if it ends up being chasing baboons across the savanna.”

The next couple of hours were spent connecting, compiling, sorting and typing until a complete report on the Gryder’s Cove incident was ready to send, right down to the Investigator’s Personal Conclusions section. One last tap of the stylus and it was done. A wave of relief washed over Gail’s being; there was no way Joel would leave them on this jacked-up case once he reviewed her report. She slipped out of her shoes, changed into her giant Black Label Society T-shirt and black sleep pants, then flopped onto the bed and clicked the TV on. About an hour passed. Gail had become absorbed in a movie while Olivia was sitting on her bed using her laptop to add more fonts to her collection, which had grown to over three thousand over the last few months. One never knows when one will need just the right one for a website or an image, she would always say. The light tapping sound from the laptop keyboard and the weakly passionate love scene playing out on TV were suddenly overpowered by a blaring blast of Zakk Wylde’s unmistakable guitar work from Gail’s phone.

“Oh but YES!” Gail said with a mixture of glee and relief when she looked at the message she had just received, “Joel says there’s no need to hang around if it isn’t wildlife related, and we can drop by the center tomorrow and get started on something else. Fuck yeah, bitch!”

She was almost laughing as she put the phone on the nightstand, took her nightly dosage of Pericodin and went into the kitchenette to grab a snack. It was finally over. Now she could start a normal case with normal animals doing normal things animals normally do. Olivia went back to her font hunting and Gail settled back in with the rest of her movie. Before long, Olivia had nodded off a couple of times and decided to put her laptop away for the night, and was sound asleep in no time. Gail, however, was having her nightly battle with her condition. Her meds were slow to kick in sometimes, and it made falling asleep extraordinarily frustrating. There had been times she had to just lie there and hope she became exhausted enough to more or less pass out. Finally, that dozy feeling washed over her, and she helped it along by breathing slowly and deeply.

As though teleported, Gail found herself far removed from the comfort of her motel room. She stood in the clearing at Gryder’s Cove, facing that evil house, which was a mere faint outline in the scarce light until lightning came crashing all around without a sound. The rain poured down from the starless sky, but somehow not a single drop touched her. A rumbling sound could at last be heard, faint at first, but threatening all the same. It surrounded her from out there somewhere in the black, closing in, then all at once burst forth like cannon-fire in synchronization with the lightning, and she found herself soaked to the core and running for the house.

The front door swung open as she bounded over the steps and onto the front porch, and she was immediately blown back hard onto the ground by the house’s foul stench of death, hate and decay. No sooner had she fought her way to her feet in the deepening red mud than she slipped and fell to her knees, as though her legs had just suddenly given out. She clawed her way back to the steps, the driving rain coming down so hard now it felt like being pelted by marbles.

‘You’re not here! Wake up, you’re safe in bed!’

This is how she would sometimes end a nightmare if it got out of hand, but this time her body just wasn’t responding. The rain continued to pound down on her, the lightning blinded her while the thunder shook her guts, and the house seemed to back away from her the more she tried to get inside for shelter. The front door had shut again, and she tried to focus on it, thinking that might help her reach it. Somehow she blocked out the chaos going on around her and concentrated on reaching the door, stretching out her hand for the tarnished knob. All fell silent. Nothing mattered but getting inside, getting out of this storm. Why did she want to go in, though? Wasn’t Elsie Gryder’s body in there? Isn’t that where all the horrible things she used in her craft were kept?

Can’t lose focus, don’t think about it. It’s dry and quiet there, it’s just within my reach, I can do this.......

“AAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Elsie’s gotcha now, child!”

The old witch lurched out at Gail from nowhere, her skeletal face twisted up in a wretched, black-toothed smile and grabbed her by the shoulders. She hovered in front of Gail, who was now so petrified she couldn’t think, couldn’t speak or move, damned sure couldn’t wake up. She brought up a long, bony finger and put it against Gail’s chest.

“Bring it back t’ me, ya li’l tramp. You bring my board back t’ me, or you’ll never sleep ag’in, I promise that. Ev’r time y’ close them big, purty brown eyes, I’ll be there. It’d be a shame if anythin’ was to happ’n to yo’ family just cuz ya wanna be mule-headed. I done been inside that empty pumpkin you call a head, girly, an’ I know ev’rt’thang, ev’r’body you love. You ain’t no match for me, you know it, so don’t try n’ be no hero. I got some killin’ to get done.”

Her voice was slimy, hollow and unearthly, but most of all effective.

“I..I will..I’ll bring it back....I swear...” Gail stammered.

Quick as a snake strikes, Elsie grabbed her by the throat and yanked her up out of the mud and far above the ground, putting her putrid face right into hers. Her breath was scalding hot and smelled like maggot shit.

“GODDAMN RIGHT YA WILL!” and dropped her.

Gail snapped awake as though landing after having fallen from the sky and hit the floor of the motel room screaming. Her eyes darted around the room as she sat up, making sure she was really there and that the witch was really gone. Olivia had already vaulted over the bed and was on her knees by Gail’s side, rubbing her back.

“Hey, chick...hey, it’s alright, you’re back here with me now.”

She turned Gail’s face to hers, looking her in the eye, then put her arm around her friend. Gail responded by burying her face into Olivia’s shoulder right before she burst out crying. She was used to Gail waking up from nightmares in some degree of panic, but she could tell this was different. Much, much different.

After telling Olivia the horrid details of the nightmare she just had, Gail decided to step outside. The night air felt good in her lungs and the gentle breeze easing through comforted her a little, chilly as it was. This was one of those times she really, really wished she still smoked weed. Olivia came out soon after, putting her hand on Gail’s shoulder.

“Better now?” she asked, her voice soft and concerned.

“Yeah, yeah I think so,” said Gail with a tiny smile, “God, it was just so....real..intense, y’know? She said she had to get some killing done. I can’t let that happen, and I can’t leave here. She’ll come to me anywhere I go ’til she gets that damned thing back......or I destroy it.”

Gail put her hand over her mouth as her eyes filled with tears.

“Destroy it?” Olivia asked, sounding a little scared herself, “How? How can you do that? This isn’t a movie, Gail. We can’t just take it out and burn it or something. Those things are serious business, and this one is a nasty piece of work if it’s at all like that Barnett James guy says it is.”

“I know, trust me. It has this...power I can’t describe. I felt it inside my soul, all around me while I was...well, while it was using me. It’s like I said when we were driving back here, it came alive. It has a will of its own.”

Gail looked across the room at her backpack, and felt the board goading her from inside. Before she knew it, her mind was somewhere else. That night at her house, the storm, that voice; whose voice was that and why did it speak to her? It sounded crazy at first, but maybe that voice had answers. What was there to lose? This thing was so crazy now, anything sounded feasible. Gail’s disbelief in the supernatural was slowly crumbling to reveal a mind ready to accept whatever was necessary to see this through, and if that meant using the Demon Door to speak to that unholy terror inside, then so be it. Tomorrow she would fabricate some reason to stay on the case and hope Joel buys it. Sheriff Whaley might be of some assistance, so he would have to know they were leaving the case open and staying a while longer.

Morning was a long way off, and sleep was out of the question, at least for her. Olivia had nodded off again while watching a movie on TV. Gail sat on her bed propped on some pillows against the low headboard and occupied herself with updating her tablet apps, working on some of her poems (the ones she didn’t think were entirely pathetic), playing an hour or so of Stealth Reaper Genesis: Wired on her GameVision, and twenty minutes later was out cold, head back against the wall, arms draped at her sides, and her crossed legs wrapped in her comforter.

In what seemed like no time, the sun pounded rudely through the cheap, gauzy curtains and pried Gail’s eyes open. Her neck felt like someone had smashed it by stomping it repeatedly, and every part of her body that wasn’t in its natural position was absolutely screaming. Slowly she raised her head then moved it side to side, forward and back, trying to get her neck to function again. At least she didn’t dream anymore, not that she could remember, anyway, and nothing came to get her in the middle of the night. Olivia was still sound asleep, of course, and there was no pranking her awake with a parked car this time. All at once, the reality of what this day meant flooded Gail’s thoughts, and waking Olivia became a much smaller priority. How could she face this thing she had to do? Where would she find the strength to use the Demon Door intentionally and with purpose..........?

She would face it because she had to, and the strength to do it would come when it was needed. God, this self-pep talk sounded weak, no matter how many times she repeated it in her head. First things first, though, and that meant calling Joel Reed and convincing him to leave her on this case, even if that meant using some creative embellishment. She would give it until this afternoon, enough time to have a “breakthrough” or “discover new evidence”, then call and talk to him. Right now, there was someone else she very desperately needed to call.

“Hey, Pop. What’s up today?”

“Lots o’ nothin’, Cupcake, same as always. You, uh...you alright? You sound a little shaken.”

Gail feigned a laugh. Shaken? Why would she be shaken? Ha..haha..

“Just another nightmare, that’s all. Same bullshit as always. I know I was just there and all, but I still wanted to call and see how you are. Daughter’s prerogative.”

“I see,” Rick laughed, “Everything’s good here, Cupcake. I’m about to meet up with your uncle Bruce and go...let’s use the word ‘collect’...some money this guy owes him for bike parts he fronted him last month.”

“This guy does know Uncle Bruce, right?” asked Gail with a note of disbelief, “What the hell was he thinking?”

“Good question, and we mean to get an answer. I gotta get movin’, but you call me again if ya need to, alright? I love ya, Cupcake. See ya when ya get back.”

“B’bye, Daddy. I love you, too.”

Gail hung up and tossed her phone onto her bed. It felt good to hear her father’s voice when she was feeling this stressed, but she so wished he was there instead of being so far away. This is one of the reasons that her internal pep talk had zero effect.

Now that Olivia was dragging herself out of bed and attempting to wake up, perhaps she might have something supportive to offer her traumatized best friend. What she actually did was go straight to the bathroom, then to the mini-fridge for her breakfast; a beer and microwave chili dog. As she set her cooking time, Gail began telling her what she meant to do in order to find out what her next move was going to be and why. She sat with Olivia at the small table by the windows and explained the details of the dream again and why it meant she couldn’t turn her back to what was going on.

“So, you’re doing what?” Olivia yawned, putting her chili dog back down on the cardboard tray, “I’m not sure I completely get it.”

“I need you awake, Liv. I need you to understand what’s going on here,” said Gail irritably, “You remember what I told you about that board, about that night at my house? ”

“Yeah, the voice and the storm and everything, I remember,” said Olivia sleepily, talking around a bite of chili dog and scratching at the corner of her mouth to dislodge a piece of kidney bean skin.

“I think whoever that voice belongs to may have some answers. It’s all I have to go on, and I’ve got to do it, I can’t just walk away from this, not now.”

“Hey, hey, whoa..you’re gonna open that thing up on purpose? Have you lost your fuckin’ mind?” said Olivia, much more awake and looking at Gail in complete disbelief.

“Not yet, but I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life afraid to fall asleep. I don’t have a lotta time, here. Elsie wants that thing back, and there’s no telling what’ll happen in the time it takes me to figure out what to do.” Gail’s voice trailed off as her imagination began to churn out the worst of possibilities. Right now, though, using that board again seemed to be the lesser of two evils.

Gail’s train of thought was derailed by the guitar assault of her phone, which startled Olivia as well.

“Would ya change that ringtone please? God.....”

“It’s Sheriff Whaley. What the hell could he want?”

Gail’s brow furrowed.

Olivia shrugged and finished off her beer.

“Hello?”

“Ms. Stevens? This is Sheriff Whaley. Sorry t’ bother ya so early, but if you could come by the office today, I’d surely appreciate it. There’s been a couple more o’ those...uh...animal attacks. Looks just like the incident with those kids up there in the Cove.”

“S-sure, Sheriff, no problem. We’ll be by in about an hour.”

“Much obliged, Ms. Stevens. See ya then.”

Gail hung up and stared at her phone as the call disconnected and switched back over to her home screen. It was looking as though she wouldn’t have to make up something to tell Joel after all.

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