Main The Curse Of the House On Cypress Lane Omnibus

The Curse Of the House On Cypress Lane Omnibus

There sits a large house on Cypress Lane in the small town of Ocoee, Louisiana, and its history is intertwined with the town itself. A feud was born within its walls, and it is there where it will die. The Cooley family finds themselves in the middle of a fight that started long before they arrived. Will they make it out alive, or will they become another casualty in the fight between the living and the dead?
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The Curse of the House on Cypress Lane Omnibus





James Hunt





Copyright 2017 All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means without prior written permission, except for brief excerpts in reviews or analysis.

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Contents





The Curse of the House on Cypress Lane: The Beginning



25 Years Ago



Present Day



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8





The Curse of The House on Cypress Lane: Black Water



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13





The Curse of the House on Cypress Lane: Bacalou's Revenge-Book 2



150 Years Ago



Present Day



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



One Week Later





About the Author





The Curse of the House on Cypress Lane: The Beginning





By James Hunt





25 Years Ago





Moonlight penetrated the branches of the old cypress trees that sprouted from the swamp. The black water was still and reflected the night sky. Cicadas buzzed and frogs croaked. A hot breeze blew the dangling strands of Spanish moss that hung from branches. They wiggled like fingers and moved shadows in the dark, breathing life into monsters that didn’t exist, and concealing the ones that did.

Sharon’s bare feet smacked against the thick Louisiana mud on her serpentine sprint through the swamp. She swatted at the Spanish moss dangling from the branches, catching on her hair and arms, tickling her body with scratchy fibers. Her wet, soiled tank top clung to her body like a second skin, and her jeans with the holes in the knees were heavy with water.

The skin around her eyes twitched as she stole a glance behind her on the run, the shadowed figures still in pursuit, and she tripped over an unearthed root. She thrust out her hands to help break the fall, but the deep mud swallowed them whole, slapping her face and chest against the muck.

Sharon struggled to lift herself out of the earth sucking her deeper into the ground. Her hands and knees slid awkwardly in the mud that kept her on all fours, desperately clawing, driving forward. She blinked and wiped away the mask of crud from her eyes, tasting the gritty flecks of Cajun sludge on her lips.

“I think I see something over there!”

The voice was distant but growing closer. Desperation, and the instinct of survival, propelled Sharon to her feet. Slabs of mud fell from her stomach, legs, and arms and then plunked to the ground.

The quicksand-like mud eventually gave way to water that rose to her ankles, and with each noisy splash, she gave away her position to the crazies chasing her.

A cramp bit at her left hamstring and Sharon slowed to a hobbled limp. Her lungs burned and her chest tightened as she waded into warm, waist-high water, the mud dissolving into the black water. She ducked behind a tree, praying that the ripples from her wake calmed before the men saw.

Sharon shivered and hugged her stomach. An adrenaline-laced fear gnawed at her innards. She pictured the bodies back at the house, her family torn apart by that… that… thing. She couldn’t rid herself of that rattling noise, those bones, the screams. She saw the teeth, claws, and black eyes. How could it even see with eyes so black? Part of her believed that it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. But the proof was in the fresh blood oozing from the bite marks on her arms.

Feet splashed quickly in shallow water, then slowed and transformed into a heavy swoosh as the legs submerged deeper into the swamp. The movements sent ripples around the tree where Sharon squatted. She covered her mouth and passed silent breaths through her nose, which filled her nostrils with the hot stink of the swamp. The swooshing ended and the water grew still.

“It’s no use, sweetheart. It’s either death by bullet or claws. I would think a bullet is kinder.” The voice was thick with a Louisiana drawl. What had been charming Southern flattery when she first arrived to the town was now evil and ominous. “You don’t have nowhere else to go, darlin’.”

More water rippled to her left, and Sharon shivered in the dark, covered in blood and mud, and stinking of a young woman fearful of death’s open, waiting arms. Tears squeezed through the corners of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She slowly submerged herself deeper until the water reached her upper lip.

A knee appeared to her left along with the end of a rifle, and Sharon shut her eyes tighter, her head and neck vibrating from the effort it took to remain still. The man took another step forward and ripples from the movement sent water up her nose.

“Fine,” he said, exasperated. “Have it your way, bitch.”

Water swooshed again, the noise drifting away from her, then grew into softer, fading splashes. Sharon kept herself curled in a tight ball, waiting for the monsters to return, but their voices and splashes were replaced by the steady buzz of cicadas.

Slowly, and keeping low in the water, she crept toward the left of the tree trunk, her fingernails clawing rough bark. She craned her neck around the side and saw nothing but still black water, trees, and moonlight. She stood, water droplets falling from the hem of her tank top and elbows.

She took a step forward, and then another, that primal function of survival motoring her forward. Her thoughts wandered to her father’s truck. It was still parked in the drive, but the keys were inside the house. With the bodies.

A sudden wave of sobs curved her body forward, and she buried her face in her dirty palms. All of their eyes would still be open, their bodies lifeless on the living room floor. She thought of wading through the swamp and finding another house or road, but she didn’t know the area, and she remembered her father’s boss talking about gators and snakes. The truck was safer and faster.

Her legs chafed from the wet jeans, and the mud and blood began to harden over her chest and face. It tightened her skin, and the dark shades highlighted the whites of her eyes. She weaved through the path from which she came until she saw the open field that led back to the house.

Sharon paused at the clearing’s edge. She gazed across the waist-high grass and reeds that stood straight and still like the house on the other side. She saw no movement, just the darkened windows of the house and the truck parked out front.

Looking at the structure now, she couldn’t see anything else but death. But inside, amongst the dead, were the keys to her freedom.

Sharon crouched low, using the tall grass and reeds for cover. After the first few steps on her toes she broke into a sprint, and the rush of air stung the bite marks on her arms. She aimed for the front door, and she leapt up the porch steps, then skidded to a stop.

The door was open, the path ahead dark. Heat and a foul stench radiated from that dark plane. She whimpered and twisted the ends of her fingertips like a nervous child.

Bushes rustled to her left, and it provided the needed grit to cross the threshold of darkness, the shadows swallowing her whole as she passed through with her eyes shut.

After two full steps into the house, Sharon kept her head down and slowly opened her eyes. She stared at the floor until the tips of her mud-covered toes appeared in the darkness. She remained frozen in the foyer like a teenager caught coming home late from a curfew. She knew her parents were there on the floor. She didn’t want to look at them but knew stepping on them would be worse. Finally, she gathered the courage to lift her head.

Her father lay on his back, his left leg straight, his right bent at a ninety-degree angle. His arms were stretched out from his body, and for a moment he reminded her of Jesus on the cross, his sacrifice meant to keep her alive. His face was turned toward her, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes open. Blood from the gunshot wound to his chest had pooled in a dark patch on the floor next to him.

Her mother lay on her stomach, her arms bunched under her breasts, one leg tucked under her chest while the other stuck straight out from the bottom of her dress. Her face was turned away, and Sharon stared at the tight black curls of hair on the back of her mother’s head.

Quickly, Sharon skirted around the bodies and raced down the hall to her parents’ bedroom. On the way, she passed the dining room where moonlight shone through the pair of skylights in the ceiling. But she didn’t look up to the second-floor balcony where her and her brother’s rooms had been. For all she knew, that thing was still up there.

She searched for the truck keys in the dark, not daring to turn on the lights and attract those men again. Her hands opened drawers, flung clothes, scoured the night stands, but the keys remained elusive.

She clenched her fists in frustration, and desperation made them shake. She retreated to the wall, unsure where her father could have put them. She knew they weren’t in the truck. They couldn’t be because her father had just gotten back from work when—

Sharon covered her mouth to muffle the frightened gasp. The keys weren’t in her parents’ room because her father never made it out of the living room. The keys were still in her father’s pockets. Her dead father’s pockets.

Sharon walked to the living room like an inmate on death row, her steps slow and hesitant. Her mother watched her enter, and Sharon caught a brief glimpse of the bloody hole where her mother’s jaw used to be. The entire bottom half of her face had been blown away, leaving behind stringy bits of muscles that hung from her cheeks and the roof of her mouth.

Her eyes remained transfixed on her mother’s face while she maintained a slow walk forward until she stepped in something warm. She quickly recoiled her foot from the pool of blood next to her father’s body. She turned away and scrunched her face, fixated on the warm liquid smeared beneath her toes.

Sharon slowly wiped her feet on the floor, refusing to look down at the red streaks staining the hardwood, and then turned back to her father’s corpse. Her knees popped as she bent down, her arm outstretched and rigid.

She paused at the opening to his pants pocket, knowing that she’d have to feel her father’s body. It felt wrong, but she forced herself to do it. She didn’t want to die. Not here, and not now. She shut her eyes as she reached through the hole. She winced at the soft give of muscle and fat, but found nothing but lint. She quickly removed her hand, then reached across her father’s waist to the other pocket, the heat of the body warming the skin of her arm.

As she moved closer to the second pocket, a curious force pulled her eyes toward her father’s head where she saw a few specks of blood amongst the black stubble of his tan face. She remembered how rough it felt as a child when he kissed her goodnight, but also how comforting it was. An impulse to experience that comfort again diverted the direction of her hand. Her lower lip quivered as her fingers grazed the stubble. After the first prick against her fingertip she retracted her hand, clutching it tightly with the other, and she cried.

Snot dribbled from her nose and she quickly wiped it away. The sudden and overwhelming sense of escape flooded through her and Sharon quickly shoved her hand into the second pocket and in one quick pull, she removed the keys and jumped back from her father’s body. She retreated towards the door, the keys clutched in both hands against her chest. “I’m sorry.”

Sharon sprinted out the front door and hurried down the four steps of the porch, missing the last one. She landed awkwardly on her left foot and twisted her ankle. She skidded on her hands and knees in the gravel drive, fresh cuts in her palms, and then reached back for her ankle, baring her teeth with a hiss.

“There she is!”

Sharon jerked her head toward the pair of men aiming their rifles at her from the brush, and she scrambled to get her legs under her. The tiny rocks in the gravel cut into the tender flesh under her bare feet as the men hastened their pursuit. She moaned between sobs, hyperventilating as she fumbled through the ring of keys.

Her ankle throbbed painfully by the time she reached the truck and she tugged at the handle, heaving open the heavy steel door. A gunshot thundered and connected with the side of the truck. Sharon jumped from the violent blast, then climbed inside cab.

Sharon shoved the key into the ignition and jammed her foot down on the clutch as she turned the key. The engine sputtered and another gunshot sounded, this one shattering the driver side window next to her head. She screamed and ducked, lying low on the truck bench as she continued to crank the engine and hold the clutch.

The engine choked then sputtered to life, and Sharon sprung up and shifted into first gear, but as she did, the door flung open and meaty hands grabbed her arm and groped her waist.

“No!” Sharon flailed against the man that pulled her from the truck cabin and flung her helplessly to the ground. Her elbow smacked onto the gravel and a sharp crack of pain sent a thousand tiny needles up her forearm, numbing her fingers.

“Trust us, sweetheart,” the man said, catching his breath. “It’s better this way.” He smiled, and the moonlight reflected off a silver capped tooth.

“Sure you don’t want to have any fun with her first, Billy?” A thick beard covered the second man’s face, a pair of hungry eyes running down the curve of her body.

“No time,” Billy answered, then aimed the rifle at Sharon’s head. “This place isn’t safe.”

Sharon held up her hands in defense, crying. “Please, don’t. Just let me go.” But the cries for mercy didn’t budge the rifle barrel from her head, and some childish instinct curled herself into a ball as she lay on the ground. Thick, heaving sobs shook her body, and she tasted salt and blood on her lips. She shut her eyes and pictured her parents on the floor in the living room. And then she saw her brother in the arms of that creature. They shouldn’t have come here. They should have never moved.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Billy said. “It’s all over now.”

And with the pull of the trigger and a bullet to the brain, it was. At least for her family.





Present Day





The metro rocked back and forth, the wheels clicking in the familiar rhythmic tha-dump, tha-dump, tha-dump every few seconds. A few conversations flitted through the stale air and over the noise of the screeching metal cars, but mostly everyone kept to themselves. Anyone who didn’t have a phone in their hand had their eyes closed, waiting for the train to slow and the automated voice to stir them awake through the crackling speakers.

Owen Cooley didn’t have a phone in his hand. He couldn’t afford one. Nor could he sleep despite the dark circles under his eyes. He rubbed his knobby hands together, the tie around his neck loose with the top button of his shirt undone, the elbow patches of his jacket resting on his thighs. He stared at the black grooves on the metro floor and the piece of gum the man standing in front of him had almost stepped in for the past twenty minutes. Twice the heel of his Nike nearly landed in the pink glob, but he stayed clear, and at the next stop the man walked off, never knowing how close he came to catastrophe.

The train doors closed, the speakers beeped, and the train jolted forward, waking the large black woman who had dozed off across from him. But while the man in the white Nikes escaped doom, nothing had changed for Owen after a day of endless interviews and zero job offers. And if he had to choose between not having a job or gum on his shoe, he’d gladly take the latter.

By the time the train pulled up to his stop, the sun was setting. A nurse stood to exit, and Owen held out his arm to stop her from smashing her toe into the ABC Double-Bubble. She flashed him a pretty smile and softly touched his arm as she stepped ahead of him. It was the first good thing that had happened all day.

Unlike his interaction with the nurse, there were no smiles at the end of his interviews. He either had too much experience, not the right kind, or not enough in general. He’d worked as a welder and machinist for seventeen years. And at only a few years shy of forty, he found himself jobless with a mortgage and family to feed at home.

Owen kept his hands in his pockets, a warm breeze flicking his tie lazily to the left on his walk down the sidewalk. He kept his head down, his eyes scanning for any more gum mines lurking on the concrete. He rotated his shoulders uncomfortably and took his jacket off. His undershirt was soaked with sweat. Partly because of the summer heat, but mostly from nerves.

Sit up straight, make eye contact, nice dry and firm grip, but don’t hold too long, and don’t break off too early. It’s all about the shake. At least that’s what the employee down at the job center had told him. What the desk jockey hadn’t told him was that the jobs he was being interviewed for all required degrees, or computer knowledge, of which he had neither.

Not to mention he was always the oldest applicant in the room. And in most cases, he was older than the hiring manager. Compared to the spry youths that surrounded him in those hip offices, sitting in chairs that looked nothing like chairs, he was an old man. But he didn’t feel old. He still felt useful. There just wasn’t anyone that wanted the skills he had.

So, for the past six months since he’d been laid off at the shipyard, Owen Cooley had gone down to the job center every Monday to speak with the ‘career planner’ to look for jobs that paid more than minimum wage, which was what he was currently making at the McDonalds that only gave him twenty-five hours a week. The burgers and fries were a nice perk though. Not that he was supposed to take them home, but he knew they’d just throw them out at the end of the day anyway. A rich man might call that stealing. A man in his position would call it feeding his family.

A few cars rattled down the street, one of them giving him a honk, and Owen raised his hand in a friendly wave as he watched John Clarence’s old Ford roll toward home. He’d been in the same boat as Owen when the shipyard closed, but he had managerial experience and ended up getting a job for some construction company as an office pusher. It paid just as well as the shipyard did, but at their son’s baseball game last Saturday, he said he didn’t like the environment. Too stuffy. Say the wrong thing and you’re outta there.

But Owen only nodded, his mind wandering to the third notice he received in the mail that morning for being late on the water bill. It shut off the next day, and it was another three before he and Claire managed to scrape up enough cash to get it turned back on. Three fucking days.

Owen stopped and looked up from his shoes. His home was just two houses down, but he didn’t know how much longer it was going to stay that way. Their savings was gone, and what had gnawed at him the most on the train ride back home wasn’t the fact that the interviews hadn’t gone well, or that last week his kids couldn’t shower for three days. What bothered him the most was that it was his fault. A man was supposed to provide, and he’d failed. And now he’d have to walk into that house, look his wife in the eye, and tell her that at the end of the month, they’d have to move out. And go where? He had no idea.

Owen passed the mailbox out front and almost didn’t open it, but knew it was better for him to check the mail, that was if Claire hadn’t gotten to it first. She’d been doing that more lately. It was because he started to hide the bills and late notices from her. He did it so she wouldn’t worry, but that didn’t lessen the hellfire unleashed upon him when she found out.

And it was foolish for him to think he could keep that stuff from her anyway. She knew how much money they had down to the penny. But no matter how low that account got, Claire never wavered, didn’t even flinch. She was tougher than him in that way, and he loved her for it.

The mailbox didn’t give him anything to help lift his spirits. He shuffled through the envelopes stamped with labels in red lettering that spelled out “final notice,” “past due,” and “foreclosure.” He paused on the last one. Those eleven capitalized red letters had been haunting him since the shipyard closed. And now the monster had finally sunk its teeth into him for good.

Owen stuffed the mail in the pocket inside his jacket and walked up the front porch steps. The laughter drifting through the open windows helped lift the weight of the day off his back and brought the only real smile he had all day as he walked inside.

“Daddy!” Chloe lifted her arms in the air triumphantly, dropped the crayon in her hand, and sprinted toward him.

Owen crouched and scooped her off the floor. He planted a kiss on her cheek and walked her back over to the table. “Hey, bug. What are you working on?”

Chloe sighed, the tone behind it decades beyond the five year old that spoke. “I just can’t get the princess’ hair right. It turns out too much like spaghetti.”

Owen laughed, and Chloe giggled as he tickled her sides playfully, then set her back down and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sure you’ll get it. Where’s your mom?”

“In the kitchen!” Claire answered, and then stepped through the cutout in the narrow hallway that was split down the middle of the house that separated the kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms from the dining and living rooms. She clasped her hands together and arched her eyebrows with a hopeful expression. He walked to her, kissed her lips, and shook his head.

It was hard watching the hope disappear from her face. But she didn’t let it keep her down for long. “Well, dinner is almost ready. Matt’s out back with Grandpa. Why don’t you go and get him?”

Owen arched his left eyebrow. “You left them alone?”

Claire squeezed his hand, keeping her voice low. “He was having a good day today. And it made Matt happy to throw the ball around with his granddad.” She kissed his cheek and then called Chloe into the kitchen to help set the table as Owen walked down the hallway toward the back door. Before he even stepped outside, he heard the hard smack of ball in glove.

“Easy there, Ripkin!” Roger shook his hand exaggeratedly, and Matt laughed. “You’re gonna bruise an old man.”

“I didn’t throw it that hard, Grandpa.” Matt turned to the door and his face lit up. “Hey, Dad!”

“Hey, buddy. Dinner’s almost ready, so why don’t you come in and wash up.”

“All right.” Matt peeled his glove off and tucked it under his arm. He walked with his shoulders slouched.

Owen ruffled his son’s hair on his way inside. “And help your sister set the table.”

“Okay.”

Roger tossed the ball into his glove, then closed the mitt and held it with both hands, lingering in the yard. Owen watched him closely. The doctors said the early stages were some of the hardest, and there wasn’t any way to know how fast it would progress.

“You all right, Roger?”

He nodded. “Fine.” He looked up but didn’t smile. “How was work?”

“No work today,” Owen answered.

Roger shook his head, frowning. “Right. I knew that.” He hurried back inside the house, brushing Owen with his shoulder on his way past.

After the dinner table was set, Claire brought out the spaghetti and green beans, dumping conservative-sized portions on everyone’s plate. The food needed to last.

Talk at the dinner table centered around the excitement for the end of school and the start of summer, and Chloe’s urgent plea for more crayons in order to expand her exploration of the color spectrum. Her own words.

“We’ll see what we can do, Picasso,” Claire said, then looked down to Matt, who’d kept himself reserved through most of dinner, picking at his noodles with his fork. “You okay, Matt?”

Owen looked up from the last green bean on his plate and watched his son nod with a half-smile. Owen didn’t buy it. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Matt answered, more confident. “I’m fine.”

Both Chloe and Roger asked for seconds, and Owen declined another plate, though he knew he could have eaten one. Once the dishes were done and homework was finished (after being double-checked by Mom), it was showers and off to bed.

Roger descended into the basement without a goodnight to anyone, one of the smaller behavioral changes that Owen had noticed in the old man. When things worsened, Owen wasn’t sure what they were going to do, especially if he was still unemployed. But all those worries disappeared the moment he stepped into Chloe’s room. It was more gallery than bedroom, the walls adorned with the artwork that she deemed acceptable for people to view. “Night, bug.”

“Night, Dad.”

Owen kissed her forehead and then shut off the light on his way out and closed the door. He walked next door to Matt’s room and saw his son in bed, sitting up and picking at the fringes of his glove. Owen entered and pulled the desk chair next to the bed and sat. “You want to tell me what’s bothering you? And don’t tell me it’s nothing. I know you better than that.”

Matt looked up, his eyes red and misty. “I know about the house.”

His son’s words hit like a one-two combo to the gut. “That’s not something you have to worry about.” Owen moved from the chair to the bed and lifted his son’s chin, a few tears breaking from the cluster of water in his eyes. “We’re going to be fine.” He tapped the glove in Matt’s hands. “Plus, you’ve got summer ball soon. That curve of yours is really coming along.”

Matt wiped his eyes and sniffled. “I don’t think I should do it.”

“Why not? You love it.”

“It’s expensive. And I don’t want to be the reason we’re homeless.”

“We’re not going to be homeless. I promise. Okay?”

Matt nodded and then wrapped his arms around his dad’s neck. The boy was always worrying about things beyond his ten years. It was a trait he shared with his sister, though her worries were more artistic in nature.

“All right,” Owen said, kissing the top of Matt’s head. “Lights out.” Owen helped Matt under the sheets as the boy tucked his glove into his chest. “I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

As Owen shut the door to his son’s room, he lingered in the hallway a moment. Not once in his own childhood did he worry about whether he would be homeless. He’d be damned if he was going to let his own son do it.

After he had time to mentally prepare himself for the last conversation of the night, Owen entered his bedroom. Claire was sitting cross-legged on the bedsheets, his jacket at the foot of the bed, the bills spread out in front of her.

“We can’t get an extension from the bank?” Claire asked, reading through the foreclosure notice. “We’ve been with them for almost fifteen years, and up until the shipyard closed, we never missed a payment.”

Owen leaned back and lay down, resting his head on the pillow, staring at the ceiling, which was void of any chewing gum. “They won’t budge. If we can’t pay by the thirtieth, they’ll kick us out.”

Claire collected the rest of the bills and then tossed them on her nightstand. “Well, I think it’s bullshit.” She rolled over to him and rested her head on his chest. It bounced gently up and down in time with his heartbeat. “How was it out there today?”

Owen groaned. “Bad. You should see some of the looks I get when I walk into those interviews. You’d think I was marked with the plague.” Owen ran his fingers through Claire’s thick, wavy black hair. It was familiar. It was home. “Matt knows about the house.”

“Of course he does,” Claire said. “He is half me, you know.”

“Thank god for that,” Owen said, kissing her head.

Claire propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him. “Hey. You need to quit that. You never give yourself enough credit. Just because you’re not a twenty-two year old with a degree in computer science doesn’t mean you’re not smart.” She grabbed hold of his hands and kissed them. “You are very good at what you do, Owen. It was why the shipyard stayed in business for as long as it did in the first place. It’s not your fault there isn’t anyone hiring right now.”

“You’d think I’d be able to find some welding work, or construction, or—”

“Something will come up,” Claire said. “And until then, we’ll get by. I managed to get a few more hours tutoring next week, so that’ll help.” She kissed him. “We’ll get through this.”

Owen nodded and forced a smile. “I know.” But as he switched off the light and they lay in bed, he wasn’t able to convince himself it was true. If he didn’t get a job by next week, they were going to be evicted. He couldn’t let that happen.



*

Gary sat behind his desk, computer monitor off to the side, and typed mechanically onto his keyboard. His tie was crooked, and his nose was large enough to give his eyes an obstacle in any direction he looked. “Okay, Mr. Cooley, let’s see what we have today.”

Owen sat in the same suit, shirt, and tie as the day before. His manager at McDonalds had cancelled his shift for the day, and with the eminent doom of foreclosure, he couldn’t just sit at home and twiddle his thumbs. “I need something full time. Anything full time. And anything immediate.”

Gary flicked his eyes toward Owen, then back at the screen, then back at Owen. He took his hands off the keyboard and set them down on his desk with a thump. “Mr. Cooley, you have been coming here at least once a week for the past six months. And I can tell you every job in the system available from memory, but that won’t change the fact that no one is hiring for your skillset. It might be time to start looking outside of Baltimore.”

“My family grew up here,” Owen said. “My kids go to school here. My son’s little league team—”

“I’m just saying,” Gary said, lifting his hands passively, “if you’re desperate, and you really want to find something full time, and in your field, maybe it’s time to broaden your horizons. It couldn’t hurt to look, right?”

“No,” Owen answered. “I guess not.”

Uprooting his family had crossed Owen’s mind before, he just didn’t entertain it for very long. Plus, the doctors had told him and Claire to keep things familiar for Roger, and the old man had lived in Baltimore his entire life.

“All right, so let’s see what we have out there.” Gary returned his fingers to the keyboard, a sudden pep in his typing. “Nothing here in the Northeast that was close to your previous salary, so let’s head down south.” He poked a few more keys and then scrolled again. “Oh, here’s something.”

Owen leaned forward in his chair. “Is it full time?”

“It is,” Gary answered. “It’s a supervisor position at an auto parts factory, but it says that they’re willing to look at applicants with no supervisory experience.”

“Where is it?”

“Louisiana.”

Owen frowned. When he considered moving his family, transferring them to the south felt too extreme. And Louisiana was the deep south.

“Health benefits, 401k, and the salary is fifteen thousand more a year than what you were making at the shipyard,” Gary said.

“Fifteen?” Owen’s jaw went slack.

“The position is looking to be filled immediately, and it says here that the company will provide housing and pay for any relocation efforts.” Gary smiled. “What do you say? A position like this isn’t going to stay open for very long.”

“Y-yeah,” Owen said eagerly. “Let’s do it.”



*

Claire stood in front of the small fan in the kitchen, letting the whirling blades cool the sweat collecting on her face. The whole house was hot. And it was only going to get worse the deeper they went into summer. But maybe by then Owen would have found something and they could afford to turn the A/C back on. With the fan just basically blowing hot air in her face, she thought about taking a trip down to the store to browse the aisles and cool off.

She stepped from the fan, and the beads of sweat returned. Traffic noise and the occasional backfire of an exhaust pipe drifted through the open windows. At least that’s where she hoped those loud pops were coming from.

The neighborhood had changed over the fifteen years they’d taken residence. The ups and downs of the economy had shifted people around. When the kids played outside, she made sure it was in the backyard, which was fenced. It wasn’t as much space as the front yard, and Matt groaned over the new rule, but she wouldn’t budge.

“Hey, Dad?” Claire asked, calling down to the basement. No answer. “Roger?”

“What?”

“Are you getting hungry for lunch?”

“I’m fine.”

Claire lingered in the basement doorway, leaning against the frame and drumming her fingers against the wood. Her father was down there somewhere, wandering in the dark, doing his best to find the light switch. He could still find it more times than not, but that wasn’t going to last forever.

The house phone rang, and she walked back to the kitchen and plucked it off the hook. “Hello?” Claire smiled. “Hi, Mrs. Channing. Yes, I’m good, how about yourself?” She paced around the hot linoleum floor in her bare feet. “I got your message this morning, and I called you back earlier just to see—” She paused and her shoulders slumped. “Are you sure? I felt like Freddy still needed some help with those equations. If my rate is too high, I’d be willing to—” She nodded and then rubbed her forehead. “No, I understand. Well, I appreciate the time, and if anything changes, or if you know of any other parents who need a good math tutor, I hope you’ll recommend me. Okay, thank you, Mrs. Channing.”

The call clicked dead in Claire’s ear and the arm holding up the cordless phone fell limp to her side. For six months, she’d held onto the hope that tomorrow would be better. For six months, she did everything she could to stretch their savings. And amid the constant leftovers, power and water outages, bills and late notices, she never would have expected the crushing blow to come from the mother of a fourteen-year-old boy who was struggling in his Algebra I class.

A car horn blared out front, and Claire spun around, phone still clutched in her hand. The horn blasts came in quick, short bursts, with shouting echoing intermittently between the honking. Claire stepped out of the kitchen and into the hallway where she saw the front door open. She jogged to the porch, and it was there she saw her father standing in the middle of the road, looking around, the driver of a rusted, faded yellow Oldsmobile hanging out the window and screaming.

“Stop!” Claire sprinted down the porch steps, her bare feet smacking against the pavement of the walkway that cut through their unkempt front yard. She waved her hands, phone still clutched in her right, as the driver stepped out. His face reddened as he continued to berate her father. “No, please, he has Alzheimer’s!”

“What the fuck is your problem, old timer?” The Oldsmobile driver was short and wore matching grey shirt and sweatpants, neither able to contain the gut that split the space between them. His hair was thinning at the top and he panted heavy breaths. “Are you fucking stupid?”

But even with the driver screaming in his face, Roger kept glancing around the neighborhood, unsure of his surroundings.

“Did you hear me?” The driver shoved Roger hard, and the old man stumbled back a few steps.

“Hey!” Claire slid between the two and raised the phone in her hand to strike. “You don’t touch him, asshole.”

The short, fat driver scoffed, then looked Claire up and down. “And what are you going to do about it, bitch—”

The man’s eyes widened in terror as Owen appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the driver by the throat and slammed him backward onto the hood. Claire jolted backward from the sudden motion as Owen thrust a finger in the fat man’s face, keeping him pinned down.

“Get in your car, and get the hell out of my neighborhood,” Owen said.

The driver squirmed and wiggled on the hot hood, impotently shoving his short, chubby arms into Owen’s chest, his face wiggling in fear. “I-I got it, just lemme go, c’mon, man. He was standing in the middle of the road!”

Owen lifted the driver off the hood, then forcefully walked him to the open car door, flung him inside, and then slammed the door shut. “I see you driving down this road again and you won’t drive out.”

Claire took hold of her father’s hand, which he thankfully didn’t resist, and pulled him from the road. “Are you all right, Dad?”

The Oldsmobile sped forward, swerving down the road as the driver shouted frustrated obscenities out his window. Owen walked over and grabbed hold of Claire’s arm. “What happened?”

“I was on the phone, and I didn’t see him go outside,” Claire answered.

Roger’s cheeks reddened and he let go of Claire’s hand as he stepped away. “I-I just wanted some fresh air. That’s all.” He became lucid once more and cast his gaze to his feet in embarrassment. “I’m fine.” He turned and walked briskly back into the house.

Owen ran his hand through his short crop of brown hair and exhaled, the adrenaline burning off in the light tremor of his thumb and forefinger, and when he burst into a manic chuckle Claire thought her husband had lost his mind.

“What is it?” Claire asked.

Owen flapped his arms at his sides, that wild grin still plastered on his face. “I got a job.”

Claire tilted her head to the side. She pinched her eyebrows together questioningly. “Is this a joke? Are you joking right now, because if you are, this is a very bad tim—” He pressed his lips into hers and squeezed her tight, lifting her off the pavement and into the air. When he set her back down, the news finally sank in. “Oh my god.” She covered her mouth with both hands, tears filling her eyes. “That’s incredible. I just—” She laughed, jumped up and down, and then flung her arms around Owen’s neck and squeezed tight. “I’m so proud of you.” She kissed his cheek and then lowered herself down, unsure of what to ask next. “So what are you doing now? Who hired you?”

And that’s when the excitement from Owen’s face faded. “It’s a factory job, a supervisor position actually. It’s a great opportunity, but it comes with some changes.”

Claire placed one hand on each of Owen’s cheeks and looked her husband in the eye. “You did what you needed to do for our family. We’ll change with you. Whatever it takes.”

Owen smiled and then kissed her once more. They walked back inside, hand in hand, and for the first time since Owen came home with his pink slip, Claire felt good. Really good. Whatever happened, wherever they ended up going together, they would make it work.





1





Eleven hundred miles and two days of driving finally ended as Owen turned the U-Haul truck off the highway and passed the welcome sign that read: “Ocoee, Louisiana. Stop in, have some grub, and stay awhile!” and underneath the sign was the population which sat at fifteen thousand ninety-two, soon to be fifteen thousand ninety-seven.

The cabin of the U-Haul was only large enough for two to ride, and while most of the trip he rode alone, Matt had joined him for the last leg of the journey. Apparently Chloe and Grandpa were talkers, and his son needed some ‘quiet’ time. Owen understood that.

“Do they play baseball in Louisiana?” Matt asked, his glove in his lap, an Orioles cap on his head.

“Sure they do,” Owen answered.

“But they don’t have any professional teams here,” Matt said. “Does that mean we can’t go see any more games?”

“Houston’s not far,” Owen said. “I’m sure we could make a few trips over there this summer.” And with his new salary, they might even be able to squeeze in an actual vacation, though he wasn’t sure how far he wanted to push his new employer. Taking time off after only working at the place for a few months felt arrogant.

“I don’t like the Astros,” Matt said, glancing down at his glove.

“Hey.” Owen gave his son a shove. “I know the move is hard. But this place will be good for us. And who knows? Maybe the Orioles will play in Houston for an away game. That’d be cool, right?”

Matt nodded and then lifted his head, showing the start of a smile. “Yeah.”

The highway aimed straight for the heart of Ocoee’s downtown, and a small cluster of buildings rose on the horizon. Swamp land stretched out on either side of the road, and Owen checked his side mirror where he saw a sliver of the van that Claire was driving with Grandpa and Chloe. They’d leased it last week after the company offered to make the first few months’ payment until Owen and his family was settled.

Trees sprouted up alongside the shops, long strands of Spanish moss dangling from the branches. Large pillow-top clouds drifted lazily past the sun in patches, darkening the town and the first few shops on the left.

With only fifteen thousand residents, Owen knew it would be a bit of a culture shock for the family, seeing as how Baltimore was bursting at the seams with over half a million. But small-town life had its benefits. Less pollution, lower crime rate, a better sense of community.

In his head, their future in Ocoee was filled with the stereotypical Southern hospitality that he’d seen in television shows and movies, his northeastern accent slowly morphing to a Southern twang after a few years in the country. It would take time, but they’d learn to love it here.

“Dad, look!” Matt pointed out his window excitedly. “What is that?”

Owen followed his son’s finger to the sight of a woman standing out front of a shop called “Queen’s.” The woman had long, thick dreads that flowed over her shoulders and down her back. She wore earth-colored tones, and the one-piece jumpsuit sagged in unshapely areas around her body. White paint framed her face in thin lines, which made it hard to guess her age, but she looked older. She leaned against a tall staff, slightly warped near the top, that reached past her head. The storefront behind her had tinted black windows, blocking the views from outside. But a few tables covered with some merchandise were set on the sidewalk, though Owen couldn’t tell what they were.

Owen locked eyes with the woman as they passed, and he shivered from a sudden draft of cold air. “I thought we left all the crazies in Baltimore.”.

“I thought she looked cool!” Matt smiled brightly.

“Well, maybe we can go and check out her store this weekend?” Owen asked. “How does that sound?”

“Awesome.” Matt slipped his glove on and pounded his fist into the mitt excitedly.

The row of shops on Main Street ended and Owen took the next left. He followed the GPS on his new cell phone until he lost reception, then tossed it in the cup holder. He reached for the paper where he’d written the directions down as suggested by his new boss. Reception was spotty on the town’s outskirts.

The trees thickened on both sides of the back roads and Owen understood where their new street name received its origin. He slowed as he approached Cypress Lane, then turned onto the gravel road that led to their home. Tree branches stretched up and over the road, intertwining with one another, forming a shady roof that blocked the sun. The house came into view up ahead, and Matt leaned forward, placing his hands on the dash, his mouth ajar, and let out a low “woooah.”

Sunlight broke through the clouds and hit the house in thick streams that gleamed off the windows of the two-story home with a wrap-around front porch and second-floor balcony. Inside was six bedrooms and four baths, a massive living room, dining room, den, and kitchen. It was nearly three times the square footage of their house in Baltimore, and that was just the inside. They hadn’t seen any pictures of the surrounding property, which was sprawling.

“Is all of that ours?” Matt said, the house growing larger.

“It sure is, buddy,” Owen answered, his own tone awe stricken.

Most of the property looked to be swamp, and Owen wondered about the potential flooding hazards. But with the company paying for the house, the move, the van, and so much more, he wasn’t about to complain. You didn’t bite the hand that fed you, clothed you, and helped pull you from the brink of homelessness.

A truck was already parked in front of the house, and a man stepped out the front door, smiling and giving a friendly wave. Owen parked the U-Haul off to the side of the large patch of dirt that acted as a driveway, and Claire pulled up next to him in the van. He stepped out and gave Chuck a wave in return. “I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“Got here just a few minutes before you did.” Chuck Toussaint offered a handsome smile and a firm handshake as Owen walked up to greet him. “How was the trip?”

“Long,” Owen answered.

Claire snuck up behind him with Chloe on her hip. “You must be Mr. Toussaint.”

“Please, call me Chuck.” Chuck’s southern drawl was followed by a southern charm as he took Claire’s hand and kissed it. “It looks like our town just got a little more attractive.”

Claire snorted and waved her hand as Chuck released it. Owen arched an eyebrow as she blushed. She slapped his arm. “Oh, stop it. He’s just being nice.”

Chuck turned his sights on Chloe. “And who is this southern princess?”

Chloe’s reaction fell short of Claire’s blushing, and Owen couldn’t help but feel proud when his daughter looked Chuck straight in the eye and said, “I’m from Baltimore.”

“Chloe, be nice,” Claire said.

Chuck laughed. “Oh, it’s all right. The South needs more strong ladies like you, Miss Chloe.” He stepped toward the house. “C’mon, I’ll show you inside.”

Owen looked back to Roger as Claire set Chloe down and she raced Matt to the front door. He wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was having one of his moments, or if the old man just didn’t like the move. It could be both. “You coming, Roger?”

The old man shook his head. “You go on. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Claire tugged at Owen’s hand and whispered. “He’s taken the move pretty hard, and he’s nervous about the new environment. He’ll be fine by himself out here for a little bit.”

Owen nodded and placed his arm around Claire’s waist and the pair walked up to their new house.

“Welcome home,” Chuck said, his arms open and another wide grin plastered on his face. And what a home it was.

The entrance opened in to a small foyer that led into a massive, open living room. A chandelier dangled from the thirty-foot vaulted ceiling, and a wall opposite the front door cut the house in half. The living room had three doorways: one directly to the left after entering which led to the kitchen, and one on either side of the brick wall that led to the back of the house. Some older furniture was covered in white sheets, and the kids sprinted around excitedly.

“I know it looks a little dusty, but I have a cleaning service coming next week to give the whole place a good scrubbing,” Chuck said. “And don’t feel the need to keep any of this furniture. If you don’t want it, just let me know and I’ll have someone come and pick it up. Just do me a favor and don’t throw it away. I could sell it for good money.”

“This is incredible,” Claire said.

And it was. But Owen underestimated the age of the house. He’d been so excited to accept the job offer earlier in the week that he would have taken a shack if it meant he got a paycheck again. “When was this place built?”

“Early eighteen hundreds,” Chuck answered. “But the house’s innards are good. All the wiring and plumbing was redone a few years back, but if you find anything that doesn’t work, I will replace it free of charge.”

Owen glanced at some of the cracks high on the walls near the ceiling. The wooden floors underneath his feet groaned as he shifted his weight. A musty scent familiar with older homes graced his nostrils, and he’d started to sweat. He’d read that Louisiana summers were a different kind of hot than the ones he was used to in Baltimore. It was a humid heat. The sweat ring forming around his shirt was a taste of what was to come.

“We appreciate that, Mr. Toussaint,” Claire said, giving Owen a shove with her elbow. “Don’t we.”

“Yes,” Owen said, quickly. “We really do.”

“Do you guys need any help moving in?” Chuck asked.

“No,” Owen answered. “You’ve done enough. We can take it from here.”

“All right then,” Chuck said. “I’ll let y’all get to it. Owen, why don’t you walk me out. I just want a quick word.”

“Sure.”

The pair stepped outside where the temperature felt like it had risen ten degrees. Owen pulled at his shirt collar, trying to fan himself.

Chuck laughed. “I’d like to say you’ll get used to the heat, but I know how you northerners have thick blood.”

“It’s something we pride ourselves on,” Owen said, smiling politely.

Chuck scanned the property and pointed toward the right side of the house where a cluster of trees began after a clearing of tall grass ended. “Now, the property itself is quite large. Over seven acres, and the house is bullseye center of it. I do have to warn you that there is a small cemetery on the property, so if the kiddies go exploring, I do ask that they be respectful.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Owen said, sounding surprised. “In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot mentioned about the house. You’re sure everything inside is in working order?”

Chuck laughed. “I usually choose to omit certain details when selling something, but like I said, if anything doesn’t look up to code, you just let me know and I’ll take care of it.” He stuck out his hand, smiling. “I’m excited to have you on board, Owen. You’re just the man I’ve been looking for.”

“I appreciate the opportunity,” Owen said, and then watched Chuck get in his truck and drive off. As he did, Roger poked his head from the back of the U-Haul, hands in his pockets, and walked toward Owen. “Hey, how are you feeling?”

Roger stopped when he reached Owen, and he looked at the house, squinting from the sunlight. His hair was almost all gone and liver spots dotted his scalp. His skin was wrinkled and his jowls hung loose on his face.

“Seventy-three years I lived in Baltimore,” Roger said, his eyes still locked on the new house. “It was where I grew up, married, raised a family, and then watched my only daughter do the same. It was my home.” He gently messaged his hands, some of the fingers curved from arthritis. “I know the Alzheimer’s will take all those memories from me. The worst part right now is still having the sound mind to realize that. But I want you to promise me something.” He looked at Owen, his eyes red and misty, his voice quivering. “You don’t let the last memories that my grandchildren have of me be an old man that didn’t know them. Understand?”

Owen nodded. “I do.”

Roger kneaded Owen’s shoulder with his fingers. “I don’t say it enough, but you’ve been a good husband and father.” His lip quivered again, and his voice cracked. “And a good son.”

Quickly, Roger clapped Owen on the back and then walked toward the house, his head down as he wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeves. Owen couldn’t imagine the pain and struggle for Roger that was just around the corner. But he promised himself that he would honor the old man’s request. No matter what.



*

After bedrooms were ceremoniously picked by Matt and Chloe, everyone pitched in and carried their belongings off the U-Haul. Claire and Owen handled the larger items - couches, beds, chairs, tables - while the kids brought in what boxes they could, with Roger supervising.

Once everything was unpacked and everyone was sweaty and exhausted, Owen ordered a pizza from the closest Domino’s, which was thirty minutes away. After some haggling with the kid who took his order, he managed to convince them to deliver to their house for a premium fee.

And so with paper plates, napkins, two extra-large supreme pizzas with extra bacon, and a two-liter bottle of root beer to wash it all down, his family sat at the large dining room table underneath enormous skylights and ate. And for the first time in six months, Owen sighed with relief. His family was laughing, smiling, and not worried about what tomorrow would bring. The new job wasn’t just a paycheck, it was safety.

If you ever wanted to know what fear and desperation looked like, Owen would tell you to go down to the local unemployment center and look in the eyes of the men and women waiting in line to speak with a clerk. Beyond the bouncing legs, fidgeting fingers, and long exhales riddled with anxiety, you’ll find the worst combination of fear, anger, and hate swirling around their souls. Anger for failing, fear for failing again, and a hate for everything that put them in their situation.

It had been less than a week since Owen’s interview and simultaneous hire over the phone at Gary’s desk, but he’d never forget those faces or that feeling of helplessness. He was thankful to be done with it.

Chloe belched, the deep burp rattling at an octave lower than any five-year-old girl should be able to do. She covered her mouth, shocked by her own body, and Matt and Roger burst out laughing.

“Chloe Grace Cooley,” Claire said, a smile in her tone. “Excuse you, young lady.”

“I think it was the root beer,” Chloe said, giggling.

Owen reached across the table and grabbed her cup. “I’m cutting you off.”

“Daaaaad,” Chloe said, whining.

“No, Dad’s right,” Claire said. “Time to get ready for bed. Wash that pizza off your face, and your father and I will be up in a little bit to tuck you in.”

Chloe and Matt slid from their chairs and sprinted from the dining room and toward the staircase which led to the second-floor balcony and their rooms, their feet thumping against the old steps as their pizza-and soda-fueled legs carried them up the stairs.

Claire went to reach for their plates, but Roger got up quickly. “I’ll take care of that.”

“Dad, you don’t have to,” Claire said.

Roger waved her off with an ‘eh.’ “And I’ll get the kids to bed. Why don’t you two turn in?”

“You sure?” Claire asked.

“Positive,” Roger answered, kissing the top of her head as he passed.

“Thanks, Dad.”

They retired to the bedroom and Claire flopped on the bed, the sheets piled messily on top of the bare mattress. “If there is a harder test of patience than driving eleven hundred miles with two kids and a geriatric over the course of two days, I don’t want to take it.”

Owen lay down next to her and kissed her cheek. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Claire asked.

“Your dad and the kids aren’t the only ones who left their home.”

“I’ll miss it, but everything I need is still right here.” She rolled closer to him, her lips less than an inch from his. “So what do you want to do now that we don’t have any bedtime responsibilities?”

Owen smiled, kissed her, and turned off the lights.



*

It’d been almost two months since they’d made love, the longest drought in their marriage. They hadn’t even gone that long after Matt and Chloe were born. But with the financial pressures and the stress and exhaustion that came with it, neither of them found themselves in the mood.

The ceiling fan twirled, shaking lightly in a rhythmic cadence. Owen lay naked and exposed, tiny beads of sweat over his body, while Claire had pulled one sheet up and over herself. She lay curled up in a ball. They’d spooned for a little bit after, but it became too hot to be sustainable. Owen wasn’t sure he’d be able to fall asleep in the heat, but with six months of sleepless nights behind him, fatigue won out over sweating.

And as the Cooley family slept, light creaks echoed in the house. Any rational person would have said it was just the old bones sagging from the weight of standing up for the past two hundred years.

But there was something else in the house. Something ancient. It was dark. It was evil. And it was hungry.

“AHHHHHHH!”

Owen jolted upright in bed, his tired eyes flitting around the room while his heart hammered against his chest. Claire woke in the same fright and Owen stumbled from bed, reaching for his shorts as he sprinted from the room. The screams came from upstairs. It was Matt.

Owen’s feet slipped on the steps up to the second floor, and he tripped over his own feet twice, giving Claire time to catch up. He ducked into Chloe’s room first on the way and saw his daughter sitting upright in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her sleepy eyes wide in the dark. “Are you all right?” He didn’t wait for an answer as his feet thumped heavily against the floorboards toward Matt’s room.

Without breaking stride, Owen shouldered open Matt’s door and saw his son flailing on the bed, arms and legs bouncing off the mattress, his throat raw from screaming.

“Matt!” Owen rushed to his son’s bedside and took hold of his shoulders, trying to keep him still. The boy’s eyes were shut, and when Owen wrapped his hand around Matt’s arms, he felt something slick against his fingers. He examined his palm, but it was too dark to see.

The bedroom light flicked on and Owen spun around to see Claire standing in the doorway in her robe, Chloe in her arms and their daughter’s face buried in her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Owen turned back to Matt, who’d calmed down and opened his eyes, the flailing done as he sucked in deep breaths. Owen pressed his hand onto Matt’s forehead, and his son’s skin was ice cold. He brushed the sweaty bangs off and as he did, he smeared blood onto his son’s skin. Owen looked down to Matt’s arm and saw the bite marks. “What the hell?”

Matt continued his hyperventilating breaths as Owen gently took hold of his son’s arm. Three sets of bite marks, two on his forearm and one on his bicep.

“What is that?” Claire asked, now hovering closer. “Is he bleeding?”

Owen turned around. “Put Chloe back to bed.” He didn’t want his daughter to see this. He turned back to his son. “Matt, what happened?”

“Someone—” Matt drew in a breath. “Was in here—” He exhaled. “I felt it.”

Owen’s stomach twisted into knots. He stood, looking around the room. He ripped open the closet to find it empty. He looked under the bed, nothing. He tugged at the window, locked. He turned back to his son, who was now examining his own wounds, his eyes as round as the full moon outside. Owen lifted his son’s chin and felt that his skin had thawed a little. “You’re sure someone was in here?”

Matt nodded, then started to cry, and Owen kissed the top of his head and gently squeezed his neck. “It’s all right. It’s okay, son.” He glanced back down at the bite marks, and as the adrenaline of the moment subsided, his mind slowly shifted gears. The commotion had woken everyone in the house. But not everyone was accounted for.

Owen left the bedroom, heading back down the balcony toward the stairs. “Roger!” His wife looked at him from Chloe’s bedroom on his way past, but he didn’t stop. “Roger!” Once he reached the bottom of the staircase, he walked back toward the den that they’d set up as Roger’s room in the right back corner of the house. When he opened the door, he found it empty.

Claire stepped out of Chloe’s room on the second floor and walked to the banister as Owen passed through the dining room to the front of the house. “Where are you going?”

“Stay with the kids.” The answer came out steelier than intended, but there was a rage boiling in him. The doctors had told them that the disease could cause Roger to become violent, to have what they referred to as “episodes,” but they didn’t mention anything like this.

Owen flung open the front door and was blasted with the thick, humid night air. He swatted away the tiny gnats buzzing around his head, tickling his cheek and neck. The U-Haul truck and van were still parked outside, and he scanned the driveway, looking for any shadowed figures in the night. “Roger!”

His voice echoed over the property, and Owen stepped out onto the gravel drive, tiny rocks poking his bare feet as he made his way to the side of the house, his head on a swivel.

He looked past the tall reeds of the clearing and saw those thick cypress trees and the hanging strands of Spanish moss on the field’s edge. It was there that he saw his father-in-law. “Roger!”

Owen jogged toward the old man, then broke into a sprint, his shins brushing against the long, thin strands of grass and reeds. His bare feet squished in the mud and the farther he ran from the house, the wetter the ground became. Water splashed up onto his shorts and bare stomach, and it slowed his pace. When he reached the old man he yanked Roger’s arm backward, harder than he intended.

“What the hell are you doing?” Owen asked.

Roger looked at Owen then down to his arm and tried to pull himself free. “Let me go.” He used his free arm to try and pry Owen’s grip off him, and he tugged more violently. “Stop! Let me go!”

“Roger, calm down.” Owen eventually muscled the old man still and looked into the pair of eyes that no longer recognized him. “What are you doing out here?”

Owen felt Roger’s muscles relax, and the panic subsided as he blinked. “I-I saw something.” He frowned, looking away. “I think.” He shut his eyes, and Owen released him. The old man held his head between his hands. “I can’t—” He grunted in frustration. “I can’t remember.”

“Were you in Matt’s room?” Owen asked, but his father-in-law kept his hands pressed against the sides of his head, mumbling to himself. “Roger!”

The old man looked up at Owen, squinting. “Who?”

Owen took hold of Roger’s hand, gentler than the forceful stop from earlier, and pulled him back toward the house. “C’mon. Let’s get you inside.”

Roger hesitated a moment, unsure if he should follow, and then turned back to look in the direction he had been walking. “I saw... something.”

Owen gave a more forceful tug, and Roger mumbled to himself on the way back. A memory surfaced in the sea of muddled confusion that was his mind. It was about his late wife, Rebecca, and how they were supposed to go and pick someone up from the airport. He didn’t want to be late, and he kept telling Rebecca that she looked fine.

Owen escorted Roger back to his room and into bed. The old man lay down, but he didn’t sleep, just kept talking to himself. Just before Owen left, Roger called out. “Matt. Is he okay?” His voice was weak and frightened.

Unsure of which Roger he was speaking to, the old man’s words from earlier that day whispered in Owen’s ear. Don’t let them see me when it starts to get bad.

“Good night, Roger.” Owen returned to the dining room, then trudged back up the stairs to the second floor.

Claire was in Chloe’s doorway, frowning. “Is he okay?”

Owen kept silent until his hands were around her waist, the feel of her soft robe underneath his fingertips calming. He wanted to tell her, but didn’t. “How’s Chloe?”

Claire pulled away from him and crossed her arms. It wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “She’s fine. Already fast asleep again.”

“Good.” Owen walked back toward Matt’s room and Claire followed closely behind.

“Owen, what did my dad say?”

“We need to get Matt’s arms looked at,” Owen said, entering his son’s room, who was still wide awake and picking at the wounds on his skin. “Don’t touch that.” Owen shooed his son’s fingers from the bite marks and looked at his wife. “Did you unpack the emergency kit?”

Claire lingered, waiting for the question about her father to be answered, but when Owen didn’t budge, she dropped her arms at her sides. “Yeah, I’ll bring it up.” She left and Owen took a closer look at the bite marks.

They weren’t deep, just enough pressure to break the skin. The bleeding had stopped, but when Owen pressed close to the wounds, Matt winced. “It hurts?”

“Yeah,” Matt answered, his eyes locked on the marks. “It feels achy.”

Owen wanted to ask his son more about what he saw, but wasn’t sure if he would get the truth. Matt knew his grandpa was sick, so he might try and protect him.

“You don’t know who was in your room?” Owen asked.

“No.”

“Matt.” He waited for his son to look him in the eyes and then took hold of his boy’s hand. “It’s important you tell me everything that happened.” Matt gulped, and Owen paused a moment before he spoke again. “Do you know who was in your room?”

“I was sleeping, and then my arm started hurting, then I felt cold. Really cold. Like that time I fell through the lake when I was skating.”

Owen remembered. He was just as scared then as he was right now. “Anything else?”

“No.” Matt’s face scrunched in preparation for tears. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

Owen wrapped his son in a hug, holding on tight. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.” Matt cried into his chest, and Claire returned with the medical box. They cleaned Matt’s wounds, wrapped them, and then tucked him back into bed.

Both stayed in his room until he fell back asleep, and on his way out, Owen took one last look at his boy before closing the door.

In the hallway, Claire crossed her arms in defiance and kept her voice at a whisper. “Well? What did my dad say?”

“He didn’t remember,” Owen answered.

Claire paused, biting her lower lip and rubbing the sleeves of her robe as she hugged herself. “Do you think he did it?”

Owen drew in a breath, trying to find a way to tell her, but his omission of an answer told her more than she wanted to know.

Claire’s eyes watered, and she shook her head. “I just didn’t think he’d ever do something like that. I know the doctors said he might become aggressive, but this?” She arched her eyebrows in an expression of pained disbelief.

“Look, until we can figure something out, I don’t want him alone with the kids. I’ll start looking at places to take care of him tomorrow. Chuck might know of something.”

Claire hugged herself tighter, now unable to control the sobbing. “I just thought we’d have more time.”

Owen wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “I know.” But if the past months had taught him anything, it was that time cared nothing of feelings or circumstances. Time didn’t discriminate or have prejudice, it simply marched forward, ignoring the pleas of anyone asking for it to slow down or speed up. It was a constant, steady force that never wavered. And for Roger Templeton, time was slowly devouring his mind.





2





Machinery buzzed around the factory floor as conveyer belts carried the auto parts down the assembly line. Employees operated the large mechanical arms that stamped the brake pads, and then packaged and stacked them into crates to be shipped.

Watching the process, Owen half-listened to the HR rep. It was all just standard paperwork, going over worker’s rights and all that. He’d been through it before. It was interesting to find that the factory wasn’t unionized. He’d never seen that before. But with the pay, benefits, and working conditions so good, he guessed that there wasn’t need for one here.

“Mr. Cooley?” Jonathan leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly together over the stack of papers that required Owen’s signature. “Did you hear me?”

“No,” Owen answered. “Sorry. Long night.” He’d chosen to wait to tell his new employer about his father-in-law’s condition until after he’d signed on the dotted line.

“By signing this, you acknowledge that the company isn’t liable for any injuries that you or your family sustain while staying on company property.” Jonathan pushed the form forward, the pen resting on top.

“Right,” Owen said, picking up the pen and placing his signature on the form. He dated it, then handed it back to the HR rep, who then checked his watch and shuffled the papers together.

“Well, it’s almost lunchtime,” he said. “Let’s head downstairs and I’ll show you where your locker will be.”

Owen followed the rep through the factory floor, catching a slew of different greetings. Most of them were smiles and friendly, twangy hellos, but there were a few glares, some more menacing than others.

Once Owen had his locker squared away, the lunch whistle sounded, and Owen realized just how much he missed that sound. The room quickly flooded with workers, clustering together in small groups, heading either for their lockers or the breakroom.

“Did you bring anything to eat today, or do you need to step out for lunch?” Jonathan asked.

“I didn’t bring anything,” Owen answered.

“We’ll take care of ’em.”

Owen turned to the sight of three sweaty figures dressed in matching blue uniforms. The man who spoke stuck out his hand and flashed a corn-yellow smile.

“Marty Wiggins,” he said, squeezing Owen’s hand unusually hard. “You must be the new line supervisor. I was wondering who they picked to leap over me.”

“No need for prickly words, Marty,” Jonathan said. “Be nice.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Marty waved it off and once Jonathan was gone, Marty leaned close to Owen, whispering. “I’d be careful with that one. Likes taking it up the exit only hole, if you catch my drift.”

“Ah,” Owen said, nodding, uncomfortable from both Marty’s comments and his smell. “Gotcha.”

Marty turned back to the two men still standing behind him. “Let me introduce you to the crew! This here is Jake Martin and Grandpa.”

“That’s not my goddamn name,” Grandpa said, the wrinkles on his face further accentuated by his grimace.

Marty slapped the old timer on the shoulder. “If you didn’t want the title, you shouldn’t have let me marry your daughter.”

Grandpa shrugged Marty’s hand off him. “I never said you could. You just did it.” He crossed his thin arms over his girthy stomach and turned his pair of glassy eyes away. Owen wondered if the old man was going blind, and then wondered if that was better or worse than losing your mind.

Jake Martin stuck his hand out, breaking the awkward silence and giving a friendly smile. His handshake was firm and lacked Marty’s over-compensating strength. “Good to meet you.” Out of the three of them, Jake was the most put together. Clean shaven, combed hair, and while his uniform was dirty, it wasn’t tattered and ragged like Grandpa’s and Marty’s.

“We’re heading down to Crawl Daddy’s bar for food and a pitcher if you want to come,” Marty said. “Or are we not allowed to drink on the job anymore, boss?”

“I don’t think you were allowed to do it before I got here,” Owen answered, Marty slowly fraying his nerves. Still, he didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Managing people who wanted to slice you open was a lot harder than those who didn’t. “But I’ll tell you what, after work, the first round is on me.”

Marty gave a compromising shrug. “Take what you get, I s’pose.”

Everyone rode in Jake’s truck, Owen taking a back seat with Grandpa, who kept his arms crossed and his cocked toward the window on the ride to Main Street. The trip took less than five minutes, but with Marty yapping away in the front seat, it felt much longer.

“So where ya from, Owen?”

“Baltimore.”

“We got a goddamn Yankee working us now,” Marty said, slapping his hat on his knee. “Now I know how General Lee felt after Grant won the war.”

“What’d ya do in Baltimore, Owen?” Jake asked.

“I worked at a shipyard,” Owen answered. “Welding mostly. But I’m a machinist by trade. I started out in assembly at a GM factory when I was younger.”

“A Jack of all trades, huh?” Marty asked. “Maybe I should have learned more so I coulda got yer job.”

“Knock it off, Marty, will ya?” Jake asked.

“Ah, hell, I’m just poking fun.” Marty turned around in his seat, sweat mixed in with the jet-black stubble along his face. “You can take some poking, can’t you?”

“Sure,” Owen answered. “Just not in the exit only hole.”

Marty bust out laughing and slapped his hat down on his knee a few times, and Jake smiled. Even Grandpa chuckled, though he didn’t break from his staring contest with the view outside.

Marty was more amiable at lunch, now that he was certain Owen didn’t ‘take it in the exit only hole,’ though he still did most of the talking. Jake got in a word when he could, and Grandpa kept his focus on his basket of fried catfish and sweet tea.

And to Owen’s relief, the food was actually good. He wasn’t sure how he’d adjust to Creole cuisine. Thankfully he didn’t mind seafood. He foresaw a lot of that in his diet moving forward.

With full bellies and slightly more tired eyes, they paid the tab, but only after a good ribbing from Marty about how the new ‘boss’ should pick up the check. When they stepped back outside from the frigid A/C, the Louisiana heat clocked Owen in the face and he let out a low woof noise from the dense, humid air.

“You’ll get used to it,” Jake said, noticing the flushed look on Owen’s face. “I had a cousin grew up in Ohio, and he moved down here about ten years ago. Now, it gets below seventy degrees and he starts complaining it’s too cold.”

“Hopefully it won’t take me ten years to get to that point,” Owen said.

“Hey, we got some time before we get back,” Jake said. “Wanna show Owen a little bit of Main Street?”

“Ain’t nothing to see,” Grandpa said. “Just some shitty bricks and cracked concrete.”

“Now, Grandpa,” Marty said. “Don’t go belittling our beloved downtown like that.” Marty leaned over to Owen. “It’s the finest shitty bricks and concrete this side of the Mississippi.”

To be fair, Grandpa’s description wasn’t that far off. A handful of businesses lined the road: barber, grocery shop, gas station, insurance company, realtor, hardware store, a doctor’s office. It was standard small-town America as far as Owen was concerned. Not much different from some of the neighborhoods in Baltimore. It was like its own self-sustaining entity.

“Not a lot of activity today,” Owen said, noting the lack of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

“Most of the town works at the factory,” Jake said.

“The big boss’s family has kept most everyone employed since the thirties,” Marty said.

“And the bastard won’t ever let you forget it,” Grandpa said, spitting on the ground, his arms crossed and that permanent scowl etched on his face.

“Ah, Grandpa’s just sore cuz he’s worked there longer than anybody and still has the same damn job,” Marty said. “Not the big boss’s fault that you never tried to climb that ladder.”

“Ain’t no fucking ladder,” Grandpa said, his mouth downturned in a petulant frown. “Just a bunch of pussies playing dress up in those suits. I ain’t no fucking doll.”

Owen watched the old man carefully. There was a sharp edge to his words. He aimed to cut, but what for, Owen didn’t know.

With his eyes on the old man, Owen missed the table to his left and his leg knocked the corner hard, spilling some of the table’s contents to the pavement. He reached out his arms in a knee-jerk reaction to catch whatever it was that was falling but failed.

“Oh, shit, someone’s gonna have some bad juju now!” Marty exclaimed, hysterical laughter shrieking from his mouth as he jumped up and down like a child.

Owen bent down to pick up the merchandise, unsure of what his hands were touching. They looked like jewelry but were made out of rope, bones, feathers, and rocks. He picked up tiny packets with different-colored dust in them, and small glass tubes with a variety of different-colored liquids inside corked at the top. Two of the glass tubes broke and stained dark patches of grey over the concrete that quickly evaporated in the heat.

Owen stood and put what he could salvage back on the table as a woman stepped out of the shop. He recognized her long dreads and baggy clothes from the day before. She stared at him now the same way she did when he drove past. Her face didn’t have the white paint like before, but the familiar shiver crawled up his back.

“Careful, Owen,” Marty said, taking an over-exaggerated step back. “Miss Voodoo will cast a spell on you!” His accent thickened in satire and he waved his arms and squatted down, making some primitive noises with his mouth, then laughed while Owen gaped at the old woman, getting a better sense of her age now that he was up close. She was older, her face weathered and wrinkled, but what captured his attention most were her eyes. They were a light hazel, and tiny specks of yellow flickered like gold in the sunlight. Owen wasn’t sure if he’d seen a pair of eyes that beautiful before in his entire life.

“It has seen you.” The voodoo woman’s words crawled from her mouth in a deep, slow drawl, hitting Owen like an unexpected wave at the beach. She clutched her staff, which Owen now saw had a large rock tied to the top of it with thin leather straps.

Owen gestured to the broken items. “I can pay for what broke, I—”

“Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so.” She stepped forward and pounded her staff into the pavement. “Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so. Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so.” She repeated the words and motions in a rhythmic cadence as her eyes widened and locked on Owen.

Owen heard Marty’s laugher and felt a tug on his sleeve, but there was something hypnotizing about the way she spoke. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from her.

“C’mon, Owen,” Jake said, pulling Owen’s arm down the sidewalk. “Let’s go!”

Owen stumbled after them, his head turned back to the woman slowly following to the edge of her store and tables of trinkets, repeating the same words over and over until her voice disappeared from the distance.

“You all right?” Jake asked once they were at a safe distance.

“I’m fine,” Owen answered, shaking his head like he had a dizzy spell. “Who was that?”

“Our local crazy woman,” Marty answered. “You didn’t have one in Baltimore?”

Jake’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “Her name is Madame Crepaux. That’s her shop. It’s got all kinds of weird voodoo stuff in it. I wouldn’t go near that place, man. I’m not a religious man, but I don’t need to push my spiritual luck.”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “I can understand that.” He tossed one last glance to the woman’s shop and saw that she’d disappeared. They circled back to the truck at Crawl Daddy’s and drove back to the factory to finish out the day.

But the ride back felt different for a couple reasons. One, Owen was cold, like he just stepped out of a freezer even though he’d been sweating like a pig just minutes before. His skin was almost icy, like how Matt’s felt last night.

And the second was the old man. While Grandpa ignored Owen on the way to lunch, the old man didn’t take his eyes off Owen the whole ride back to the factory. And just before they all clocked back into work, Owen watched the old man snarl at Marty over something he’d said, this time wide enough to reveal a silver-capped tooth. The same silver-capped tooth that a young girl saw under the Louisiana moonlight twenty-five years ago.



*

Claire unpacked the rest of the dishes, loaded them in the washer, and turned it on. It’d been a while since she’d had that luxury. And it felt good. But despite the house, the financial stability, the knowledge that she’d be able to buy groceries next week and not have to stretch one meal into four, Claire couldn’t stop biting her nails.

It was a habit she picked up as a little girl. Her mother scolded her every time she caught her doing it, but the habit wouldn’t break. What Owen had said last night rang in her ears all morning. She’d barely slept a wink because of it, and she’d avoided her father all morning. She glanced out the front kitchen window and saw Matt playing catch with Chloe. When he moved his arms, the sunlight brightened the white of his bandages against his lightly tanned skin.

She just couldn’t believe that her father would do something like that, failing mind or not. But she had to remind herself what the doctors had said. Alzheimer’s could unveil some frightening tendencies, and if that should happen, they should start considering their options. The only problem was that all the options were shit.

“Gah.” Claire winced and looked down at her ring finger. She’d gnawed off a hangnail and was bleeding. She reached for the sink knob, and the pipes groaned. The faucet rattled, and instead of water a black sludge spewed from the pipe, which smelled of sewage.

Claire covered her nose and quickly shut off the sink, letting the black water funnel down the drain. She backed out of the kitchen, still sucking on her finger, making a mental note to tell Owen about the pipes. She hoped that water didn’t funnel through the dishwasher.

In the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, Claire heard the faint murmur of her dad’s television in the den. She’d set it up just like the basement in Baltimore in hopes of giving him some familiarity. But she wasn’t sure if that mattered now.

She paced the dining room, working up the nerve to go and speak to him, and in one swift turn marched down the right rear hallway, the television growing louder.

Roger sat in his favorite chair, unaware of his daughter’s presence. Perhaps even unaware he had a daughter. She knocked on the door frame as she entered. “Dad, I need to talk to you.” When he didn’t respond, her heart cracked, and she took another step inside. “Roger?”

He looked up at her, squinting the way he did when he wasn’t himself. “Yes?”

She hesitated. If he wasn’t lucid, then maybe now wasn’t the best time. She raised her nails to her mouth but stopped herself and knelt at the side of her dad’s chair. She looked up at him like she did when she was a little girl. “Do you know who I am?” Her voice was small and quiet, fearful almost.

Roger smiled. “Of course, Claire-Bear.” He cupped her cheek, his large hand calloused but warm.

Claire leaned into it and then took hold of his hand in both of hers. “Do you remember last night?”

The smile faded. “A little.”

“Something happened to Matt, and—”

“Oh my god.” Roger leaned forward, his voice suddenly frightened. “Did I—”

“He’s fine, Dad.” She gave his hand a reassuring pat. “But there were some marks on his arm. Bite marks.” She felt him shudder. “Do you remember anything like that?”

Roger’s eyes searched the floor as if the answers were written there in front of him. He squeezed her hands. Even at seventy-three, and with Alzheimer’s, he was still strong. Still resilient. “No.” He looked at her. “Did I do it?”

“We’re not sure,” Claire answered.

Roger wiped his mouth, the wheels of his mind slowly turning, some of them completely broken now, and then he dropped his hand and moved close. “Was there blood in my teeth?”

Claire recoiled. “What? No. I-I mean, I don’t think so.” She thought about it last night. She didn’t really see her dad after it happened. But Owen never mentioned seeing anything like that, and she let herself feel hopeful.

“Well,” Roger said. “I would have had blood on me if I did, right?”

Claire reassuringly squeezed his hand back. “Yeah. I guess you would have.” She stood and kissed his forehead. When she pulled back, his face looked confused again.

“Do I know you?”

She smiled sadly, knowing that they’d have so many more interactions like this over the next few months. Just before she spoke to answer, Chloe screamed.

Claire spun on her heel and sprinted out of her father’s room, Chloe’s high-pitched wail guiding Claire toward the front door and then out into the gravel drive. “Chloe! Matt!” The afternoon sun was bright, and she stumbled blindly. “Chloe!”

“Mom!”

Black spots from the sudden brightness clouded her vision, but she pivoted right toward the sound of her daughter’s voice. Shin-high grass brushed her knees as she weaved around trees and rocks. She blinked quickly, ridding herself of the blinding spots, and found Chloe next to a tree.

Bright red blotches sat high on Chloe’s cheeks that were wet from crying. As she rounded the tree, she saw Matt on the ground, unconscious, a snake slithering away from his body.

“Get back, Chloe!” Claire’s voice was angered, and frightened, and the tone only triggered another wail of sobs from her daughter. She knelt by her son’s body, his eyes closed. “Matt, can you hear me? Matt!” She gently shook him, then checked for a pulse. He was sweating profusely, but his skin was cold to the touch. She noticed the pair of punctured holes in his forearm next to one of the bandages. She checked his breathing and felt the light puff of air from his nose. She picked her son off the ground, struggling with his weight. “Chloe, get to the U-Haul, now!”

Her daughter did as she was told, and she stumbled toward the moving truck, running ahead of Claire, who kept Matt close to her chest, her legs sinking into the soft Louisiana mud, slowing her sprint toward the U-Haul.

With the muscles in her arms burning from Matt’s weight and mud speckled over her legs, she heaved Matt into the U-Haul’s passenger seat, and then helped Chloe inside after. “Put your seatbelt on and then put one on your brother.”

Claire skirted around the truck’s hood to the driver side door and climbed inside. The keys were still stuck in the ignition, Owen’s way of testing true Southern hospitality. She cranked the U-Haul to life, then floored the accelerator and swerved down the gravel road.

Matt shivered in his seat, and Claire removed one white-knuckled hand from the wheel and placed it on her son’s arm. His skin was ice-cold but he was moving, and that meant he was alive. Crying, Chloe laid her head down on Matt’s shoulder.

A few low hanging branches smacked the top of the U-Haul and a truck driving in the opposite direction honked at her speed, but she ignored them. The National Guard couldn’t slow her down.

Traffic thickened the closer they moved to town and the tires screeched as Claire maneuvered between the cars, their blaring horns growing angrier. Main Street appeared, and she leaned forward until her chest pressed against the steering wheel, her eyes scanning the row of buildings for Dr. Talbert’s office. She was scheduled to visit today at three for the bite marks on Matt’s arm.

Signs for the hardware store, grocery, and gas station flew by, but she jerked the wheel sharply to the left of the road when she spied the letters MD in her peripheral.

With the engine still running, but the U-Haul in park, Claire grabbed hold of Matt and pulled him across the seats. His limbs dragged behind him as he lay limp, and Claire cradled him in her arms. “Chloe, come on!” Her daughter followed, her short legs struggling to keep up with her mother, who shouldered open the doctor’s office door. “I need help!”

Heads snapped in her direction, looking away from their phones, magazines, computers, and waiting room television playing a rerun of Friends. An elderly woman behind the reception desk rose from her chair as Claire adjusted Matt’s weight in her arms.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Snake bite,” Claire answered, her voice cutting in and out. “I don’t know what kind it was.”

A man stepped out from behind the wall separating the waiting room and the examination rooms, and Claire noticed Dr. Talbert inscribed on his coat. “Let’s get him in the back.”

Claire followed the doctor to the closest available room and laid Matthew on the table.

Dr. Talbert opened Matt’s eyes and flashed a light in them, pressing his fingers against the side of Matt’s neck. “Rachel, bring in the cardiac monitor.” Dr. Talbert removed his stethoscope and checked the boy’s breathing as Rachel wheeled in a machine and lifted Matt’s shirt. She placed small suction cups over his chest and stomach. “Let’s get an IV hooked up as well.”

“What about anti-venom?” Claire asked. “Don’t you have something like that?”

“Without knowing what kind of snake bit him, we don’t know what anti-venom to use,” Dr. Talbert answered. “But the fluids will help keep his organs functional until it passes.”

“How long with that take?”

“I’m not sure.”

Matt convulsed on the table, and foam bubbled from the corners of his mouth. The nurse and doctor stabilized his head and placed a wooden bit in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue off.

“Oh my god,” Claire said, covering her mouth.

“Mommy.”

Claire spun around and saw Chloe in the doorway, her eyes locked on Matt. She went to reach for her, but one of the nurses in the hallway pulled her away from the traumatic scene.

“Keep his arms steady!” Dr. Talbert said, but even with the nurse, they could barely keep all of Matt’s one hundred pounds on the table, the convulsions worsening.

Claire jumped in to help and watched the foam bubbling at the corners of Matt’s mouth turn red. His eyes popped open and he screamed, spewing blood in speckled bits like a volcano. He arched his back, his legs and arms pinned by the three of them, and he squirmed.

The green lines of the cardiac monitor spiked up and down in jagged peaks, beeping wildly. Matt’s body offered one final spasm and then he collapsed on his back, his body limp. The green line plummeted and the fast-paced beeps were replaced with a single monotone beep as Matt flat lined.

“No!” Claire howled like a wounded animal, helplessly clawing at her son’s legs as the doctor pumped Matt’s chest, his small body convulsing with each heavy-handed compression. The nurse pulled at Claire’s arms, but she resisted, taking hold of Matt’s left foot that tilted lifelessly to the side. Her knees buckled as the steady beep of the EKG filled the examination room.

A tightness took hold of Claire’s chest, and she clutched it as the nurse holding her by the arms tried to pull her up. Another wave of sobs scrunched her face and creased her lips into a painful, solid line that lay as flat as the cardiac monitor for her son’s heart.

Dr. Talbert stepped back from the table, his shoulders sagging with his arms limp at his sides. He turned to Claire and said something. But those words weren’t right. They couldn’t be. Matt was ten. He was healthy. He loved baseball and being a big brother. He was a good kid. He was her son. Her first born.

“God, no!” Claire’s face reddened and she grew more hysterical.

“Ma’am, please,” the nurse said, trying to pull Claire back. “It’s best if you don’t stay. Please.”

Claire smacked the hands that reached for her or Matt. “Don’t you touch him!” She hovered over his body protectively, holding his face, his skin still ice cold. She pulled him to her chest and slowly rocked him.

Tears dripped from Claire’s face, raining over her child like an afternoon shower. She shook her head, feral moans escaping her lips. She stroked his hair, pushing the bangs from his forehead, and then gently leaned down and kissed his cheek. When she removed her lips, she laid her head on his chest.

A faint beep echoed through the room. Claire lifted her head and looked back to the monitor, the green line still flat. She looked at the nurse and doctor, both of whom were staring at the screen as well. “Did you hear that?”

Claire turned back to Matt, fanning the flames of hope. “C’mon, Matty. Come back. Please, come back.” She shut her eyes, praying. She wasn’t sure who was listening, or what was listening, but as she whispered promises to a being she wasn’t even sure existed, another beep sounded. And then Matt opened his eyes.





3





When Chuck delivered the news to Owen about his son, he sprinted to his van and sped toward Main Street. The ambulance’s flashing lights revealed the doctor’s office, where he also spotted their U-Haul parked at a slanted angle, half on the street and half off, blocking three other cars from leaving. Owen parked in front of it, blocking another two cars himself.

Claire and a team of paramedics were in the examination room, hovering over Matt, when Owen entered. They checked Matt’s blood pressure and lungs, placing their stethoscope over a skin that looked a sickly pale grey.

Owen saw the red stains at the corners of his son’s mouth and didn’t even notice Claire groping his arm until she started speaking.

“Owen, he came back.” Tears lingered in her eyes as she sniffled. “He was gone, but he came back.”

Owen shook his head, trying to make sense of his wife’s hysteria. “Came back from what?”

“Your son flat lined, Mr. Cooley.” An elderly man in a white coat spoke up, and Owen saw the name Dr. Talbert inscribed on the upper right breast of the coat. “He was dead for almost a full minute.”

Owen slowly reached for his son’s hand. It was ice cold. “I-I don’t understand.” He turned back to Claire. “What happened?”

“It was a miracle,” Claire answered, hugging Owen with the same wondered surprise in her voice. “Our boy came back.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Cooley?” The paramedic on Matt’s right side removed the Velcro blood pressure strap from Matt’s arm. “We’d like to take your son over to Southern General and run a few tests to make sure he’s all right. It’s just a precaution.”

“Okay. Sure,” Owen said.

“We’ll give you guys a minute, and then we’ll load your son into the ambulance.”

“Thank you,” Claire said.

With the medics, nurses, and doctor gone, Owen gently placed his calloused palm against Matt’s cheek. “How are you feeling, bud?”

Matt’s eyes were half-closed, and his lips barely moved when he spoke. “I’m okay.” The words were cracked and dry like a desert earth. “Is Chloe all right? I saw the snake coming, but I didn’t know if she got away in time.”

Another wave of tears flooded Claire’s eyes, and Owen smiled proudly. “She’s okay. But you need to rest. Try to sleep, all right?”

Matt nodded, and Claire kept hold of his hand while Owen beckoned the medics to return. They loaded him onto the stretcher, Claire hovering over their boy protectively.

“I’m going to ride with him,” Claire said, then looked to the paramedics. “That’s okay, right?”

“Yeah, but we only have room for one more, so we can only take you.”

“It’s fine,” Owen said, touching Claire’s arm. “I’ll follow with Chloe in the van.”

Claire gasped. “Oh my god. I forgot about Dad. He’s still at home. I didn’t even tell him we left. I just got in the van and—”

“Claire,” Owen said. “It’s fine. I’ll go home and check on him. Do you have your phone?”

She nodded.

“Call me if anything changes,” Owen said, giving Claire a reassuring kiss. “I’ll see you guys in a little bit.” Owen retrieved Chloe from the nurses in front while Claire accompanied the paramedics into the ambulance that loaded Matt inside, then quickly sped away.

Chloe didn’t say much, just wrapped her arms around Owen’s neck and buried her face into his shoulder. Her little body was hot, and she quickly formed a Chloe-sized sweat stain on his shirt in the sixty seconds it took to walk her out to the van. He strapped her in the seat and gave her a kiss. “You all right, bug?”

She shook her head.

“I know it was scary, but everyone is safe now.” Owen gently stroked her fine light-brown hair. “The doctors are going to make your brother better, and then we’re all going home together.”

“But what about Grandpa?” Chloe asked, her voice small with her head tilted down.

Owen raised his left eyebrow but kept his tone kind. “What do you mean?”

“Matt said that he might have to go away,” Chloe said, her chin buried in her chest as she picked at the hem of her shirt with a large rainbow over the front. It was one of her favorites. “He said that Grandpa was sick.” She looked up at him, those curious eyes searching her father’s face for reassurance. “Can the doctors make him better?”

“They’re going to try.” Owen kissed her cheek and then climbed behind the wheel. He started the van and headed back to the house, hoping Roger hadn’t gotten himself into too much trouble while he’d been alone.



*

Roger’s shirt had soaked through with sweat. He turned in a half circle, his feet sinking in the mud as he stepped in the swampy reeds. As he turned, he saw a house. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in in Baltimore, and the thick trees with long strands of moss weren’t the branches he’d climbed in the city park as a boy. He shut his eyes and tried to remember.

Why did he come outside? Where was he? Why didn’t any of this look familiar? He opened his eyes and looked down at the pair of hands now foreign to him. The gold band he’d worn since his vows was nothing more than a constricting piece of jewelry that he could no longer remove because of his swollen arthritis. When had his hands gotten so old? He clenched those unrecognizable hands into fists and grunted in frustration, his head growing fuzzy.

He stumbled through the hallways of his mind, groping at the darkness, his fingers searching for a light switch that would show him the way, but found nothing. And that’s when he heard it.

A rattle. It echoed down those dark corridors and gave the illusion of an omnipresence. It clanged in a rhythmic dance. The noise was familiar, but he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it before.

Roger turned back to the house. He lived there. Yes, he remembered now. Louisiana. That’s where he was. He glanced down at his legs, which were covered in mud all the way up to his knees, a few hardened specks on his shorts. The rattle sounded again.

Had he followed that noise out here? No. It was coming from the house. He needed to go back inside. Claire would be home soon. At least he thought she would. Where had she gone? The store?

Slowly, Roger lifted one foot in front of the other, the commands from his brain slower than they should have been. His body felt broken, like his muscles were thick with hardening concrete. It hurt to move.

Roger smacked his feet against the steps up the front porch and knocked the mud off, then halfway through the motion, he stopped and stared down at his shoes in confusion. He grunted and then tracked mud into the house.

Inside, he shied away from looking at anything for too long. It worried him that he didn’t recognize where he was. It felt wrong. All of this felt wrong.

A whisper tickled the back of his mind. Roger stopped. He scratched the back of his head. The voice wasn’t his own. He leaned against the wall for support as he started to feel dizzy again. He was sick. Now he remembered. But what was he sick with? He didn’t feel like he had a cold.

Another rattle. It was louder than the one he heard outside, closer. It preceded another whisper, and then the rattling fell into a rhythm with the whispers. Someone was speaking, but he couldn’t understand what was being said. Was it because he was sick? Claire would speak to him sometimes, and he didn’t recognize her words. He didn’t recognize because… of the disease.

He was sick with something bad, but what was it? Cancer? Liver disease? Some vital organ failure? A clouded memory of his doctor visit floated by, and he tried to read the doctor’s lips, but nothing looked familiar. He chased after it for a while, trying to remember, trying to figure out why he couldn’t remember, and then—

Roger stopped in the hall, the sudden recall of his illness slamming into his chest like a pillowcase filled with bricks. A hopeless dread took hold, and he started to hyperventilate. He’d requested the tests and had gone by himself. It was like his mind and body took one step further away from each other every day. It wouldn’t be long until they couldn’t hold onto one another anymore. But such was life. The older you grew, the more you had to say goodbye to.

At first it was the strength of his youth. Then his tenacity. Then his career. Then his sweet Rachel. And now the last pillar of resolve that he clung to, his mind, was crumbling away.

Another rattle, more whispers.

Roger remembered that the doctor told him he would still have moments of lucidity. And when those moments presented themselves, the doctor recommended to focus on a single memory, a very important one. A focal point to rally behind. He closed his eyes and swip