Her father’s eyes held a vitality she’d never seen in them before. He looked much younger, almost her age. When he smiled at her, the expression didn’t look put on. It seemed effortless. He stepped towards her and a warm draft brushed across her face and encircled her. She relaxed in its embrace, feeling at ease for the first time since her world fell apart. Again, she felt removed from her surroundings, but not as she did in the church; she felt instead as if she stood in a different reality, a place behind the scenes of everything familiar.
Her father raised his hand. That strange green light glowed in his palm and he opened his mouth to speak.
“It’s okay,” he said.
He motioned for her to come and she approached belly aflutter, heart still slamming. He approached, too, moving far more confidently than she. They met and locked hands. She cried and felt no shame, because she and this apparition of her father were separate from the rest of the world. She could see it, but she didn’t acknowledge it and it didn’t see her. The veil only existed on their side, like a two-way mirror for the spirit world.
She drew closer to her father. He helped her forward and pulled her in for an embrace. Heat radiated from him. The closer she got, the less comfortable the heat made her. She felt like she did the time she fell asleep on the beach and got a terrible sunburn. He snaked his arms around her. She looked up at him. She needed to see him. She needed to know this was real. Maybe then she could ignore this awful heat.
He opened his mouth and leaned in for a kiss.
“Dad, no,” she said and tried to pull away.
The heat in his core increased. She squealed in revulsion and tried to worm her hands between them to push him off. Her father grinned. His blue eyes turned the color of burning coal. His mouth opened wider. A red tongue lolled between the lips and split in two, leaking yellow pus that dribbled down his chin. Finally, Katie kicked free and fell hard on her butt. Painful vibrations rocked their way up her spine.
When she looked up, she met the burning gaze of the monster that took everything from her. His hands were hooked into claws. Katie screamed and flailed and kicked, too panicked to regain her feet.
But then, something else broke through her fear: a pure rage unlike anything she ever felt in her twenty-one years, a rage she never before thought could live inside her.
She rose and tackled her assailant to the ground, screaming like a banshee with its hair on fire.
The voice cut through her fury, distant and muffled. She swung her fists, pounding the face of the demon who had ruined her and her family. The voice crying her name took on a more anxious tone. A hint of pain slipped through. The face changed into Jake’s. He held her hands, but cringed against her.
She jerked her head side to side, checked her surroundings for any sign of the demon. Dale stood at the edge of the woods, Melissa on his arm. His eyes were soft and wide. Melissa’s eyebrows were cocked.
“Jake, oh my God,” Katie said, and fell into his arms.
“What the hell was that?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know. I thought…never mind…I just…I think I need to lie down.”
“Sure. Sure. I’ll take you to the car.”
He took her to the black Corolla and she plopped down in the passenger seat.
“So, what was that all about?” Jake asked as he lowered the seat for her.
“Fuck if I know. Probably having a goddamn nervous breakdown.”
“Should we call Ruthanne?”
Ruthanne was her therapist, a middle-aged hippy with an office that smelled like cinnamon. The office was the only place Katie felt safe. She wanted to say ‘yes’ so badly, but there was still so much to do.
“I’ll call her, just…after today…after Dad’s house is cleaned up.”
“I can pitch in, too,” Dale said, coming up behind Jake.
“Sure Melissa will be cool with it?” Katie asked.
“She’ll have to be. I want to help you.”
Katie took her brother’s hand and squeezed it. After she released him, Dale and Jake rejoined Melissa and walked back to the church. Katie curled up against the passenger seat and watched the black, swirling storm clouds through the dirty windshield.
Sorry this chapter’s a bit late. I had a lot of things due last week. Chapter 4 should be up Wednesday, and you can get caught up on previous chapters here. Another note: this chapter is when the story really starts to feel like a sequel. If you find yourself feeling lost, you may want to pick up the first book in the series, Flesh and Fire. I’ve posted the Indiebound link to support independent bookstores, but you can grab it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, if that’s more your speed.
Katie didn’t remember much of what happened next, only that somehow she, her mother and father had escaped with their lives, while the strange, dark-haired girl had gone off with that monster to God knew where. Likely, she thought, they’d gone to somewhere God couldn’t reach. Almost six months had passed. A lot had changed since then, but she still dreamed of the man with the fiery eyes. In her dreams, flames engulfed her bedroom. Smoldering tendrils crawled up the wall like burning kudzu. Bright orange tongues swirled overhead, circling a black hole. He stood at the center of it all, as if the fire and the black hole all blossomed from somewhere inside him.
Now, she woke from another of these infernal dreams to find the spot beside her on the bed empty. Jake had been sweet enough to spend the night. But where had he gone? Had he gotten sick of how withdrawn she’d been, and decided to abandon her the night before her father’s funeral? Maybe the fire had consumed him and the black hole had swallowed his ashes.
Neither scenario seemed unlikely. Not after all she’d been through.
Katie sat up and checked her phone for messages from Jake, or from Dale, who swore he’d come home for the funeral. She dialed Jake’s number and gnawed her lip as the phone rang.
“Hey, I’m downstairs making you breakfast.”
“Bad dreams again?”
She pressed her hand against her forehead. Get a grip, Katie. You just have to get through today.
“Yeah, I’ll be right down.”
She hung up and tossed the phone aside. She pulled on a pair of gray yoga pants and stumbled into the hallway, feeling hungover, even though she hadn’t imbibed since that night. In her experience, alcohol didn’t drown trauma. Instead, it it made trauma grow, the way water expanded those Grow-A-Boyfriends that cruel women bought for their single friends.
She paused at the base of the stairs and touched the doorway of what used to be her dad’s neglected study. It now housed miscellaneous clutter. The night before the demon came, she had taken a CD of her dad’s music, gave it a listen and returned it to her father the next morning, an act she felt set so many things in motion.
In the kitchen, Jake stood at the stove, already dressed in black for the funeral. Though his cleanly shaven face made him look boyish and soft, he still looked exhausted. Dark circles shaded his usual bright eyes. Being her emotional anchor had taken its toll on him. Yet, he remained, ever her anchor.
“How’d you sleep?” he said.
“I didn’t.” “I’m sorry, baby,” she said. “Thanks for making me breakfast.”
Jake scooped some eggs onto a plate on the island. He pointed to the chair scooted next to it. “Eat. You may not get a chance until later.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’ll feel less like eating after the funeral.”
“Maybe.” Katie slumped into the chair and poked at her food with a fork. She pushed the eggs around her plate and sighed. “Fucking Dale.”
“You’re gonna drive yourself crazy.” Jake said and put a mug of coffee down next to her.
“I think I punched that one-way ticket a long time ago. I’m just pissed he hasn’t even called, texted, anything.”
“Look, he said he’d be here, right?”
“He had plenty of leave, right?”
“There’s still time until the service. Maybe he’s just running late.”
“Maybe you don’t understand how bad it got between him and my father.” Katie put down her fork and shoved the plate away, imagined she was shoving it into a black hole. “I can’t fucking eat right now.”
“Hey, come on. I’m trying to make you feel better.”
“Yeah, well, what?”
“Yeah, well, it’s not working.”
She held his gaze, watched him wince at the edge in her voice. She knew she was being a bitch and didn’t care. Everything hurt. Didn’t that give her the right? Especially today? She thought again of the black hole from her dream, flames encircling its perfect darkness. Is that where my father is now? Is that what Jake sees whenever he looks at me?
She lowered her gaze and tried again to take a bite of egg. The food had gotten cold.