Austin Comic Con

This weekend I tabled at Wizard World’s Austin Comic Con with my friends Max Booth III and John Wayne Comunale. Between meeting readers, we talked all the joys and frustrations of this writing life. We also debated Midsommar and the new Creepshow series, caught up on small-press gossip, and talked shop in general.

We met a ton of new people, some of them aspiring writers themselves and others just excited about books. I thought about giving shout outs, in case some of these wonderful folks drop by my blog but I’m bound to forget someone and don’t want anyone to feel left out.

It’s been a tumultuous eighteen months for me. Talking to my buddies reminded me I’m not the only one who’s struggled. Due to lots of ongoings in our scene and my own mental health issues, I’ve reevaluated who my friends are and who I intend to keep as mere acquaintances. When I first got into this writing scene, I wanted to be everybody’s close friend. As I’ve continued doing my thing, I’ve been reminded of how unrealistic such a goal is.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to decide whose flaws are worth tolerating and whose aren’t.

But the ones who you really gel with and don’t prove themselves toxic are goddamn priceless. I never expected to get rich doing this writing stuff but I did expect to make some of the best friends I’ve ever had. That expectation has been exceeded over and over.

I’m happy to see John Wayne doing well for himself. He’s one of the hardest working writers I know and it’s nice to see it pay off. The two secrets to his success, I think, are his positivity and his nearly militaristic organizational skills. I work hard and I’m positive. Organized? Not so much. That’s something I intend to work on once National Novel Writing Month is in the rearview.

Speaking of. That’s going well. I’ve got 21,000 words on a new manuscript and had a major breakthrough that allows me to combine two narratives I really enjoy into one book. I won’t say much except it’s a coming of age cosmic horror novel. I think there’s a lot to explore by marrying those subgenres. Lots of cool opportunities to play with opposing themes.

I grabbed and already read the first issues of Chaotic Flux, Kinetic, and Lady Frankenstein and the Mummy’s Brain, plus an old issue of Marvel’s Chamber of Chills and the first trade of a series called Cover of Darkness. I don’t read comics often but when I do, I tend to enjoy them. Indie stuff seems to be where it’s at these days, as in literature as well.

I’ve been able to write the books I want to write thanks to the small press. I hope eventually I’ll get to do this for a living but that’s still a ways off. And honestly, things are pretty good. The reviews for Saint Sadist reflect exactly what I wanted the book to do. I’ve got a decently paying screenplay gig in the works. I’ve got two releases slated for next year.

Also, this anthology just went up for preorder: The Big Book of Blasphemy, edited by David G. Barnet and Regina Garza-Mitchell, it features stories by Brian Keene, Ryan Harding, Wrath James White, Monica O’Rourke, myself, and many, many more. My story, “Sister Scar,” is basically a Hemingway-esque WWI story but nunsploitation. You preorder The Big Book of Blasphemy right here.

Last but not least, Blood and Brimstone, the sequel to Flesh and Fire has come to an end. It’s serialized on my Patreon the last few months. You can read it in its entirety here.

That’s it for now, gang. Take some time this week to appreciate the people in your life. You’ll be glad you did.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 13 – Free Serial Novel

When she finished sessions for the day, she gathered all her notes and her laptop. She flipped to the first page of her legal pad so it would sit more comfortably in her bag. The symbol Katie sketched that morning caught her eye and made her pause. She studied the image, its curves and angles, the herd of animal impressions spiraling toward its center. There was something undeniably captivating about it, though she was sure she had never seen it before. She traced the angles with her index and middle fingers. The paper hissed at her touch.

Having studied the occult during college, she had a hard time believing she didn’t recognize the symbol. She thought of Dr. Carlyle, the professor who she interviewed for her thesis, and wondered if he would know something about the symbol. A part of her wanted to let it go, but she was worried about Katie.

Every once in a while, in her profession, a client came around who she felt connected to. Something deeper than a patient-therapist relationship existed between them. The first time it happened, she fell in love with a patient named Arthur. She had just graduated and Arthur was close to her age. When they spoke, it reminded her of good music, each instrument a complement to the other, shifting between each voice in perfect time. After one particularly passionate session, he kissed her, and she let him. She even returned his affections. Realizing her error, she recommended him to a colleague and told him they couldn’t see each other personally, or professionally, because it just wasn’t right. Six months later, he committed suicide. Hanged himself in the foyer of his parents’s house.

While Ruthanne had no romantic feelings for Katie, she did think of the young woman as a friend. She had a personal investment in Katie’s recovery. Because of this, she had no qualms going above and beyond to figure out ways to help. She would never let Katie go, not like she let Arthur go. Sometimes a therapist lost a patient, but she refused to lose another she cared for this deeply, especially not when a possible answer lay before her. If she could find out more about the symbol, she might better understand what Katie was going through.

Ruthanne reopened her laptop and looked up Dr. Carlyle’s phone number. She dialed, not expecting him to answer. On the third ring, he picked up.

“Dr. Carlyle? It’s Ruthanne. Ruthanne Weiss.”

“Ruthanne, well, hello. How are you this evening?”

“I’m okay. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could look at something for me. Can I scan it to you?”

“Sure, you still have my email?”

She read it back to him.

“That’s the one.”

“Great, I’ll send it right over.”

“What are you sending me?”

“It’s a symbol one of my patients drew. I… don’t recognize it, but I thought you might.”

“Still chasing spirits, I see.”

“Did you ever stop?”

“No, I don’t suppose I have. Go ahead and send me the image.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

“So long, old friend.”

They hung up and she went to the office scanner, typed in his email, and sent the sketch of the symbol. She waited, sitting still for the first fifteen minutes, and then she started pacing. When he didn’t call back a half hour later, she tried calling him. No answer.

It’s okay. Just give him time. Maybe he’ll call tomorrow.

She took the sheet from the scanner and stared again at the symbol. It hypnotized her, until she made herself stuff the paper into her bag, and finally left the office.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 12 – Free Serial Novel

The books became her life. She ate less, slept less. Sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night to start reading again. She read at work, at school, in bed, and on the toilet. She stopped seeing friends. She stopped going to see Ruthanne.

Jake started coming around less and less. The last time she saw him, he said he could tell he wasn’t wanted, told her to call him when she’s ready to come out of her cave. She wanted to stop him at the door, throw her arms around his neck and say, “Of course I want you. Please don’t go.” Instead, she stood and watched him leave. Once he was out the door, she opened The Cosmic Heart and started reading again.

She never stopped to cry for his absence. Never stopped to think about what her obsession was doing to her life. She just kept reading.

Katie believed that within their pages, she could find some kind of meaning. A cure for cosmic ills? Nothing so dramatic, but she hoped to at least find something, some nugget of wisdom, some piece of magic to help her get her thoughts in order. To help her make sense of what had happened to her family. Maybe help her find out what happened to Melissa. Maybe find out what really happened to her father, somehow.

She supposed this was what it was like when someone began to explore a religion, particularly if they were someone who expected a religion, a faith, to fix them somehow. Like alcoholics who swore off the sauce and gave their addiction to a higher power. Like a CEO who loses all his earthly gains and decides to reject materialism altogether, throwing himself into Eastern thought. Like the child whose family is killed by drone strikes, and grows up to be radicalized, a killer for their god. All different degrees of mad devotion. She wondered where she lay on the spectrum.

Something swam behind the veil. She couldn’t see or hear it—couldn’t even see the veil, really—but she knew it was there. Just. Out. Of reach.

The only things that remained from her life before the books were the dreams. Everything on fire, spiraling into that unfathomable black hole.

Three months after she obtained the books, a call from Ruthanne woke her from a midmorning nap. Hearing her therapist’s smooth, clean voice brought Katie, not just out of sleep, but also back from the brink of disappearing completely into her own head.

“Ruthanne, hey, how are you?”

“Concerned about you. I haven’t heard from you since before the funeral.”

“Yeah…”

“Is everything okay?”

The question, standard enough, something people asked each other all the time, carried great magnitude. How Katie answered it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Despite that…

“I, uh, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe I should schedule another appointment.”

And so they did. The next morning Katie entered Ruthanne’s office, comforted by its familiarity. The smells of cinnamon and chili powder. How the building’s temperature never dipped below seventy-two degrees or above seventy eight. She crossed her arms and plopped down in the waiting room, feeling at ease for the first time in months.

She made it a point not to bring the books with her. She wanted to have her head clear for the conversation. Hoped Ruthanne would serve as the perfect sounding board for everything she had been going through.

A door opened and Ruthanne padded down the hallway. She always moved in slow, purposeful strides, feet soft on the ground. Her skin always had a glow to it, like a serene energy pulsed somewhere within her. Katie sometimes wondered if Ruthanne’s catlike manner of movement was all part of an act, something to make it seem like Ruthanne had it all figured out when she was perhaps more damaged than Katie, or any other client. The glow made it seem like more than an act though. Something like that was hard to fake.

Katie knew very little about Ruthanne’s personal life. Once she looked Ruthanne up on Facebook, but most details were hidden from people who weren’t friends, and Katie couldn’t bring herself to send a friend request to her therapist.

Ruthanne smiled and it held a warmth Katie felt she didn’t deserve. When Katie examined the last few months of her life, she saw a woman who had isolated herself, engaged in selfish pursuit of answers while neglecting people who only cared about her. Deserved or not, Ruthanne’s smile Katie even more at ease. She felt okay admitting her own faults around Ruthanne, and part it was because of that smile. So welcoming, so soft. On the way to the office, Katie hadn’t been sure how much she would tell Ruthanne. After that smile, she decided she would confess a good portion.

They said their hellos and Ruthanne led Katie back to the room where their sessions took place. Katie sat in the corner seat of a teal sofa and Ruthanne sat across from her in a flowered armchair. Ruthanne rested a legal pad on her knees, but she seldom wrote in it. For the most part she just listened. Only time she scribbled something down was when Katie said something pivotal, profound, something they could return to later.

Ruthanne waited for Katie to talk. It was a ritual, in and of itself. Sometimes Katie started talking immediately. Sometimes it took almost a minute. Other times, Katie just wanted to scream and beg Ruthanne to talk instead. This time Katie led with an apology.

“I’m sorry I haven’t set an appointment in a while. It’s been a hard few months.”

Ruthanne’s eyebrows raised, imploring Katie to continue.

“The funeral was a nightmare. I had some kind of attack.”

“Like a panic attack?”

“I guess…I mean, I’m not sure. I thought I saw my father in the woods outside the church and…I don’t know. Jake and Dale said when they found me I was just screaming.”

“You said you saw your father?”

“I thought I did. My memory of that day is kind of foggy.”

“I can understand that, but you’re okay now though? No more attacks?”

“None.”

“What about the dreams?”

“They’re still happening. Pretty much every night, whenever I actually sleep anyway.”

“Are you not sleeping?”

“Not a lot. I got these books the day I was cleaning out Dad’s house. They were intended for him, but, you know.”

Ruthanne’s expression grew somber. Right on cue, but genuine.

“Did the sale of the house go okay?”

“Yeah, some developer bought it. Not the ideal buyer, but I just wanted to get rid of it, really.”

Katie stopped talking, let several beats of silence pass. She worried they were getting off track by talking about the house.

“So, these books,” Ruthanne said, as if reading Katie’s mind.

A nervous laugh escaped Katie and she covered her mouth.

“Basically, they’ve been my life for the last few months. I can’t stop reading them or thinking about them.” Ruthanne frowned. “They’re religious texts. I mean, sort of. More like, I don’t know, esoteric mythology or something. I never heard of them until they showed up at Dad’s house.”

“What are they called?”

Katie told her.

“Never heard of them either. Can you describe the symbol?”

“I can draw it.”

Ruthanne handed her the legal pad and a pen. Katie sketched a rough version of the symbol, about the size of her hand, its points and angles exaggerated, the animals mere impressions. She handed back the pad.

“I’ve never seen that before,” said Ruthanne.

“Yeah, I’ve tried occult message boards in every seedy corner of the internet you can imagine and haven’t come up with shit. It’s very obscure. The book explains it—and The Cosmic Heart’s—obscurity by saying people who share the wisdom without permission would be killed.”

Ruthanne laughed. Katie didn’t.

“You don’t believe any of this, do you?”

Katie kept a straight face, said nothing. Ruthanne took a heavy breath. Worry creased the therapist’s features. She wrote something down.

“Anyway,” Katie said, “my brother’s girlfriend went missing the day I got the books. I found my sketch of the man who assaulted me and my mother in her room. Maybe it’s all coincidence, but I don’t know.”

“Did you tell the police?”

“Of course.” Katie peered out the window. Several cars zipped by on the street below. Sunlight reflected off the window of a nearby building and made her eyes water when she stared for too long. “I guess I’m just looking for answers.”

“We all are,” Ruthanne said. “Especially in difficult times. You’ve had a tumultuous year.”

“I think the answers are in those books.”

“Like their message may help all of this make sense? Sure, I can appreciate that.”

“More than that. The books have these rituals and…”

“You’re thinking about trying them?”

“Well…”

“I wouldn’t recommend that.” Her voice hardened. Katie had never heard Ruthanne take such a tone. “When people are in a fragile mental state, dabbling in the occult, hell any religion, can have an adverse effect on your ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. I did a thesis on it.”

“Maybe, I don’t think I’m so fragile.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Except, you did.” Ruthanne’s lips pressed together. Katie gave a dry laugh. “You want to talk about the difference between reality and fantasy? I never told you everything about the day my mother and I were attacked. That woman my father was with, the one the man who kidnapped us wanted back? She was someone from Dad’s past, someone who died and came back.”

“Katie…”

“At least that’s what he told me, and what choice did I have but to believe him after seeing a photo of her standing next to him when he was twenty-two. So, yeah, it’s safe to say, my ability to tell between reality and fantasy is a little skewed.”

“Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have to ask.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. No, I’m not suicidal, homicidal. I don’t own any guns and I’m not fucked up on drugs.”

“I’m worried about you.”

Katie tried to focus on the comforting scents of the office, on Ruthanne’s kind face, even though the jaw was tight and the eyes bore into Katie. She needed to regain her composure. She hadn’t come here to fight.

The session’s time ran out without any other words spoken. This was becoming an uncomfortable pattern in Katie’s human interactions.

Katie handed Ruthanne a check and said, “I’ll call you.”

As she marched down the office stairs to her car, she wondered if she would ever see Ruthanne again.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 6 – Free Serial Novel

“What a fucking dump,” Dale said.

His father’s house stood at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a field off of Route 32. Though newly built, it had a lived-in, old homestead feel. Dale half-expected to see a couple of donkeys in the yard, along with some chickens and goats. He wondered how much of the field belonged to his father. He found it hard to believe the old materialist had traded a three-story, five-bedroom house smack dab in the middle of Suburbia, USA for a shotgun shack, unless the land was part of the deal.

“He wanted something as basic as possible,” Katie said.

“Hmm,” Dale said.

Katie told him their father had gone through some significant changes, but Dale still had a hard time letting go of the image of his father as a stiff banker who dressed in suits and bottom-lined everything. Could his father have changed that much? Was there a whole other side to him Dale had never seen?

As they got closer to the house, Dale saw splintered shards of wood and unraveled strings were strewn across the porch. He recognized the split remains of a guitar’s fretboard laying across the stairs.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Not sure. He broke it a little bit before he died. Can’t imagine why.”

Katie unlocked the door and opened it for Jake and Dale. Melissa had stayed behind, said something about not feeling well. Dale guessed she just didn’t feel like spending the day cleaning a dead man’s house. He couldn’t exactly hold that against her. She probably thought his obligation towards Katie was weird. She’d never met her mother and her father was in and out of rehab. She had no sense of loyalty when it came to family.

Funny thing was he didn’t think he did either, but when he saw Katie break down in the woods something shifted in him. He found himself wanting, more than anything, to help her. To salvage whatever pieces of his family remained. To try to reconnect.

Inside the house, a closet door was hanging open. Notebooks were stacked inside, some pages scattered on the carpet around the door. It looked as if his father had been going through them, maybe even moments before the heart attack.

Dale walked to the closet, picked up a notebook, and flipped to a random page. Song lyrics covered the paper, front and back. Even his father’s handwriting looked different than what it grew into. It looked less rigid, more flowing.

“I had no idea he wrote so much.”

“It used to be his life. Before us.”

“He can’t blame you guys for stopping,” Jake said.

“I second that, Jake,” said Dale and tossed the notebook back into the closet. “It was like he lived a double life. Remember when we were kids? He didn’t even let us in his study.”

“He barely let himself in,” said Katie. “And I’m not blaming him, Jake. There’s a lot about him we don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know.”

“Yeah, well, whatever,” Dale said. “Let’s just get this place cleaned up.”

Jake nodded. Katie wandered upstairs without another word.

Dale bent down among the notebooks and started organizing them, placing them back into their boxes. When he finished, he carried them, one at a time, to the Uhaul Jake rented and loaded them in the back. Down to the last two boxes, stacked on top of each other, he lifted the top one off and the bottom one’s flaps opened. He frowned, lowered the box in his arms, and approached the open box. Several CD cases were resting on top of everything. He grabbed one. The cover showed a much younger version of his father he wouldn’t have recognized had he not seen some old photos at the funeral. His father was holding a black guitar that looked like the one that lay in pieces on the porch. He gripped the CD tightly and hurried to the kitchen where Katie was boxing up some plates.

“Hey,” he said and she turned to him, her eyes pink with irritation from tears and lack of sleep. “I, uh, found one of these CDs. Do you mind if I take this one?”

Her face creased. She went pale, and Dale thought she might puke.

“Forget I asked,” he said and turned to put it back.

“No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. I just…it’s been a trying week.” “Well, I’m here for you, okay? I’m sorry I haven’t been.”

“What about Melissa?” “She’ll be fine. I’ll just promise her a trip to the beach.” They exchanged weak laughs. He held up the CD. “I’m gonna put this in my car before I forget.”

Katie nodded and Dale left the kitchen. He went outside and opened his rental car. He tossed the CD onto the passenger seat and stared into his father’s photographed eyes. He let them hypnotize him and tried to understand who the man used to be and why he changed. He wondered if it had anything to do with why his father died.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 5 – Free Serial Novel

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.

“Dad?”

“Come here.”

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.

“Katie! Katie!”

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.

“Katie?”

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.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 4 – Free Serial Novel

The rented Ford Focus pulled up to the house where Dale grew up. He cut the engine and pressed his forehead against the wheel. The last time he’d been here, he told his father that he didn’t want his life, because his father’s idea of life was complete bullshit, a bad fucking play where the actors weren’t told they were acting but still faked every daily motion. Or at least that how he’d wanted it to come out. Wasn’t hard to envision his diatribe being far less eloquent. Probably a lot more vulgar. Now Todd had died without them ever reconciling.

“Well, here we go,” he said. He turned to Melissa. She had her feet propped up on the dashboard. Her phone rested on her knees and she typed a message to a guy whose name Dale didn’t recognize. Dale felt a flare of jealousy, but pushed it away. “Thanks for doing this with me.”

She finished the message and put the phone back in her purse. “You so owe me a trip to the beach after this.”

The beach was the only place he ever saw Melissa smile.

“It’s a deal,” he said.

“I can’t promise I won’t slap your sister or mom for saying something stupid though.”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that. Who starts a fight at a funeral anyway?”

“You don’t know my family.”

Dale didn’t pursue the matter further. They got out of the car and he slipped his arm around her shoulders. As they neared the front door of his old home, he felt nauseous, and his skin grew hot. He made himself ring the doorbell.

The door swung open. The woman on the other side couldn’t be his sister. She had grown up so much since he left. Her features held a weariness no amount of makeup could hide. He wondered what happened to her. He knew about the break-in, but not much beyond that. Katie had relayed only scant details. When he asked if she needed him to come home, she said not unless he was ready to talk to Dad. Fuck that.

Resentment toward their late father aside, he felt like a real shit right now. He and his sister fell into an embrace. The frame in his arms was thin and frail, as if it would break if he squeezed too hard. He almost cried, but he didn’t want to be weird. Especially not with Melissa standing behind him. She didn’t like oversensitive men.

They broke the hug, made introductions and went inside. Jake met them in the kitchen and offered them breakfast. The four of them sat down around the island in the kitchen. Katie took a gulp of black coffee, but didn’t touch her food.

“So did you lose your phone?” she said.

“What?” Dale said.

“You didn’t answer any of my messages.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“I didn’t think you were coming.”

“He said he was sorry,” Melissa said.

A heavy silence full of shifting gazes fell upon the group. Dale’s face grew hotter.

“You’re right,” Katie said. “Let’s just…I’m glad you’re here. Both of you.”

“Thanks for reaching out,” Dale said.

Melissa gave a tight smile that held anything but warmth, nothing like her smiles at the beach. They finished their food and dressed for the funeral.

A Presbyterian pastor presided over the service, with most of the religious language removed. Katie was never clear on what her father believed or didn’t believe, and her mother was no help, so she went with something in the middle. She sat between Jake and her mother. Dale, Melissa, and Keith all shared the row with them. They showed solidarity, despite how fractured their family had become. The entire time, Katie felt as if she sat in a glass cage. The preacher’s words sounded muffled. Every few minutes, Jake tried to take her hand, but she kept her hands folded in her lap. She focused mostly inward, recalling the day her father died. She remembered the beaten expression on his face and the defeated words that conflicted with his determination to find some sort of answer for everything that had happened, to try to find Chloe.

She hoped he found whatever he was looking for, but resented him all the same. In his last few years, he seemed perplexed more than half the time, lost in his own thoughts, dreaming of that self-fulfillment he neglected for so long, perhaps.

She touched the scar on her cheek. It was mostly faded, but still rough to the touch.

“You okay?” Jake whispered. She lowered her hand and nodded. He tried to touch her knee, but she pulled away.

The pastor called Katie up for the eulogy. She left what she’d prepared in a folded paper stuffed deep in her dress pocket and improvised something formal, but sweet.

Dad was extraordinary. Blah blah blah. He was always a dreamer. Blah blah blah. I love you, Dad.

She finished, but felt no weight lifted off her shoulders. At her pew, she told Jake she needed some air, and she stepped outside.

A gray sky greeted her. She leaned against the cold brick wall and stared across the grassy acreage spread in front of the church. Thick woods surrounded the grounds and made her think of fairy tales and magical places, but there was nothing magic about this place. The preacher’s words rung hollow. Her eulogy, full of sweet words, came out cold. Headstones filled half the field around the church. This was a dead place.

She longed for the fire. At least it was warm.

As if in response, something pale and green glowed between the trees. The amorphous shape expanded and contracted. It floated some five yards into the woods.

Katie pushed away from the cold bricks and tromped down the chapel stairs. She crossed the headstone-laden field, hypnotized by each movement of the illuminated shape. Though she expected it to brighten as she drew closer, it seemed instead to grow dull. She got halfway across the field, and the light slipped behind a thick pine and disappeared.

She glanced over her shoulder. Part of her wanted to go back and write off the strange apparition as some trick of the light. Another part compelled her to move forward. She felt as if something awaited her in the woods she needed to see.

She reached the edge of the field and stepped through a carpet of undergrowth until she reached the tree the light slipped behind and peeked around its trunk. The light was gone. A bizarre scent drifted under her nostrils. It was milky and sweet and reminded her of her childhood friend Maddie. Something about that made her sad. Though she still kept in contact with Maddie, they weren’t nearly as close as they used to be. But it was more than that. It was her father. It was trauma that robbed her of a life without fear. It was something undefinable and very old, something that had been with her since she was born, or maybe even before that.

Her gaze scanned the expanse of pine trees, moss-covered rocks, and bushes she could never name. She heard no animal sounds. Usually the woods were full of life’s music: birds whistling back and forth, bugs click-click-clicking. But now she heard nothing, nothing but her thundering pulse.

Her father stepped out from behind one of the trees.