Creature of Unknown Origin

A short story by


Creature of Unknown Origin By Brianna R. Shaffery

Copyright © 2020 by Brianna R. Shaffery. All rights reserved. This novel or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission or authorization of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review where citation or means of credit to the author or work is given. Published by BRS Writes L.L.C.

Table of Contents

1. The Unknown Creature ................................................................................................... 1

2. Daring Dreams ................................................................................................................ 8

3. Strange Beginnings ....................................................................................................... 11

4. Puzzle Pieces................................................................................................................. 17

5. How Things Crack ........................................................................................................ 22

6. Mind Meld .................................................................................................................... 27

7. Collision Course............................................................................................................ 33

8. How Life Goes On ........................................................................................................ 39

9. Mistakes Were Made .................................................................................................... 46

10. Foundation in Trust..................................................................................................... 51

11. Everything................................................................................................................... 57

12. A Letter Home ............................................................................................................ 63


1. The Unknown Creature

I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know how I got here , or why I was here.

Dust clung to the stale air. Dark, moth-eaten curtains covered the tall windows of the room.

The scratched wood floors creaked with age as I moved about the room. Dust coated every surface

in sight, undisturbed for years. Sheet-covered furniture was stacked against the far wall.

Goosebumps crept over my flesh as my eyes skimmed over the long slashes in the sheets. Anything

could’ve made them, I reasoned. Animals always found their way into empty houses. And

sometimes, they even found their way into occupied homes. Still, every horror story that featured

an old, abandoned house flashed before my mind’s eye. A shudder racked my body. I forced my

eyes to move on.

A small table was left in the near center of the room in front of one window. Other furniture

was spread about the room at random. Perhaps this room was once a parlor or large bedroom. The

house, which might’ve been grand in its time, stored only relics.

Those relics mainly consisted of the faded paintings hung on the walls. Each depicted

something different. One was probably a portrait of a family, though time had done away with the

details of perfection. Despite its age and poor care, a man and woman could be made out, standing

in front of what looked like a fireplace. I thought the woman was holding something, maybe an

infant or perhaps a family pet. The painting a few paces away from it was intriguing, but before I

could examine it further, muffled shuffling caught my attention.

It came from an adjacent room, or at least that’s what I hoped. My eyes darted to what I

prayed was a door to my salvation. Fear gripped me tightly as my heart thudded in my chest. It

pounded much like the tick of a clock, and for a moment I wondered if it was ticking; ticking down

to my inevitable doom. Transfixed by the door, m y skin hummed with anxiety. I couldn’t tell if

the unseen movement was made by man or animal, but I was certain th at I didn’t want to find out.

As quietly as I could, I crept toward the window nearest me and peeled back the curtain.

The moon blessed the night with just enough light to see that I was on the second floor of the

house. Trees cast their shadows in the distance on the expanse of lawn on which the room

overlooked. It would be impossible to get out of the house without alerting the unseen monster of

my presence —that is if it wasn’t already aware. The only way out, it seemed, was through the door

on the other side of the room.


I gulped.

Unbridled terror resided in my throat like a lump. Stifling heat assaulted the room. I knew

that was only my mind, but that wasn’t much of a comfort. The mind was a powerful thing.

Every monster, every nightmare, every long- toothed predator I’d ever heard of bombarded

my mind. I forced a deep breath into my tense lungs and carefully worked my way to the door.

I tested each floorboard before I put my full weight on it. This forced me to move slowly

as I shifted my weight from foot to foot, back to front. The room had seemed cramped with all the

discarded furniture and suffocating emptiness when I first found myself to be here, but as I moved

six inches or so with every step I took, I began to see that the room was quite spacious. A silent

sigh fell from my lips like a puff of air, the only noise I could allow myself to make.

After what felt like hours, I finally reached the ornate promise of freedom. My hand

hovered mere inches from the tarnished brass doorknob. Was it safety or my doom that waited on

the other side? I couldn’t say .

The question plagued my conscious until all I could do was stand there, staring dumbly at

the oval knob, as I failed to swallow my rising fear.

In the end, the choice was made, and I sent up an anxious prayer to any deity that would

listen to the madness of my trepidation. The door’s hinges moaned from having be en woken up

from their slumber and again I heard the unknown creature move.

If there was any debate in its conscious of having heard me, there wasn’t any now. I

swallowed hard and slipped through the slim opening.

The hallway was narrow but long. On one side, the wall had more paintings coated in

timely decay. The other side was only a railing from which one could look downstairs or across

the balcony of the upstairs loft. Tall windows allowed pale moonlight to stream in.

I desperately searched for the welcomed sight of stairs.

My heart sank. I’d have to walk past the room that I believed the beast to be in.

As I passed the door on the right, I peeked inside to see a shadow moving around the room,

its owner out of my line of sight from the slightly ajar door.

Then I saw its eyes.

I hurriedly glanced over its body. Ice spread through my veins.


My quick footsteps echoed through the house as I pounded down the stairs, my breath

already hard to come by and insufficient for the means of escape I sought. The creature huffed and

growled behind me. Its warm pants were a ghostly tail I wished I could ignore.

In my hurry, I stumbled on the overlooked landing and tumbled down a few steps. My feet

futility tried to get under me again.

The monster advanced on me.

I scrambled up, stumbling. In a burst of desperation, I propelled myself over the banister,

the risk of injury long forgotten now.

My body lurched forward. But even as my knees absorbed the shock of the fall, my feet

continued to move swiftly. Something compelled me to look over my shoulder. Those soulless,

feral eyes glared at me, narrowed even further by the predator’s lust for the chase. From one empty

room to the next, I knew the thing was only steps behind me. The downstairs was a blur of rooms,

much in the same state as the upstairs room I discovered myself in only a short time ago to begin

with. I dug deep into my survival instincts.

Every one of them told me to run quickly, and without rest.

After some time —though it couldn’t have been long— my lungs burned. My legs were

numb from exhaustion, but I had to keep pushing. I gritted my teeth as I scrounged for any ounce

of energy I had left, though the well was nearly depleted.

I flung myself around a corner, back into an area I thought looked familiar. My chances for

escape outside were briefly considered, but something told me I’d never make it. At least inside

there was somewhere to go. Out there, it was one open path to my tragic, and probably painful,


The harsh puffs of putrid breath became less frequent against the exposed skin of my legs.

I’d gained a decent lead by taking sharp corners and last -minute turns through the maze of the

dated mansion’s chopped up rooms— until a loose floorboard caught my foot by surprise.

I landed hard. My knees immediately throbbed, protesting any movement. Jolts of pain

traveled up my arms and through my shoulders. The resounding thud of my full weight crashing

onto the wide plank floors sounded like an explosion in the old house. I scrambled up, only for my

knees to flash in pain. Another explosion boomed throughout the house. Air rapidly tore in and

out of my lungs as I gulped down stale air and dust. My knees and wrists might as well have been

shattered, but I let my weight fall on them as I huddled, doubled over, defeated.


I couldn’t run anymore. Tears wet the corners of my eyes. Fire flooded my cheeks.

The floor creaked in a harmonized chorus with the horrid beast’s weight. The eerie song

steadily grew louder with each muffled footstep that brought the hunter closer to its prey. I couldn’t

tell if it was the sweat that slowly traced down my spine or the frigid drop in temperature that made

me shiver.

I squeezed my eyes closed. Somewhere a room much too close to the one I was in, I could

hear the creature’s claws click a gainst the wooden floors. My weight shifted as I lifted a hand to

stifle the panic in my breath. The gouged floorboards beneath me whimpered at the movement.

The beast stopped. Unseen floorboards groaned. My eyes flashed open and shifted from side to

side. What little light came in through the window nearest me was squashed out of existence. I

couldn’t stay here much longer, despite the companionship I’d found in the silence, as the creature

must’ve paused in its search for me.

Again, I tried to get up and found a little more success this time. The floor creaked beneath

me. I was certain that the monster would use even the slightest hum from the friction of my clothes

to hunt me down. I shifted toward the wall and used it to support myself. My feet brought me to

another doorway I’d probably sprinted through a million times. This time, I languidly flipped

around the corner, my hand still skimming over the wall.

My body stiffened. Every joint and muscle locked in place, completely frozen.

The creature’s head snapped in my direction. Its eyes glowed with a hunger never before

seen by the likes of man. Seconds passed while I was held captive under its curse until I forced

myself into action.

I flipped back around the corner with a start. Claws scraped against the floors; the deep

scratches in the hardwood floors finally explained with a sort of dread only realized when on the

brink of death. My legs refused to fly, too stiff, too exhausted, too numb to move at all anymore,

but I forced them to work, pleaded with my body to keep moving.

The beast could take a shot at me anytime it wanted. For the time being, it seemed as though

it wanted to toy with me, and what a sick game it was, too.

Even as I ran, my body was tense. Anticipation pumped through my veins more so than

blood or desperation. It was no longer a matter of if the beast caught me, but when .


Its weight slammed into me from behind. My legs collapsed and my chin hit the floor, my

arms having given out with a feeble tremble. I rolled myself onto my back and the creature moved

away from me. It allowed me to push myself up and scoot away. Its shadow paced in front of me.

The creature was a rigid thing, but somehow graceful in a menacing sort of way. Light

poured into the room, brighter than it had ever been before now. The monster radiated in the

moonlight, though it was anything but heavenly. The moonlight was surely hellfire. I turned away

to escape its taunting gaze and demonic face.

It stalked closer. I weakly tried to crawl across the dusty floorboards, but it was an empty

means of escape.

The beast halted its pacing and faced me straight on, crouching low to the ground, preparing

for the moment of the final blow. It drew itself up from its slinking and wound itself up to pounce.

My conscious folded in on itself and I wished for my body to collapse into nonexistence.

At least that would be a painless end compared to the bone-crunching and thrashing fate I saw

standing before me. The only way to go was backward. And that way, too, would soon cease to


I was cornered.

The creature seemed to enjoy playing with me, its prey. The beast, who was too gruesome

to dutifully describe, reeked of decay and nightmares. Its jaws snapped. It almost seemed to smirk

at me in triumph, a permanent snarl as it studied me.

My heart pounded and sank deeper into the pit of my stomach. My lungs craved fresh air,

though t here wasn’t any.

Any air lef t in the room was musty and filled with dust. Even that would’ve been a relief

compared to the overwhelming odor of acrid smoke and blood and something that could only be

described as aged death.

I glanced at the room around me. There must be a weapon or trap door or angel lurking in

the shadows somewhere. In reality, all there was, were four walls and cobwebbed paintings.

I continued to scramble backward, scooting over the dusty, scratched up floorboards, or

maybe I was shaking so much that I was more so vibrating along the floor like pebbles disturbed

by an earthquake. I was as good as dead, and I knew it.


And yet, I still tried. It was meaningless, yes, but still I tried. Right now, the best I could

do was keep moving into the corner and look away from the beast. My eyes gravitated toward the

painting hung on the adjacent wall.

It depicted a man and wife, each in gothic garb. The frills of the woman’s high -necked

dress reminded me of a noose. I hesitated; my whole body locked in place. The clock unwound its

toll on the painting, only to show me the twisted souls it showcased. The cobwebs parted like

curtains for an exhibit. I didn’t like what was displayed, but all I could do was watch in horrified

silence as the painting went from old to lively once more. The colors that were once faded with

age were bright and crisp with freshness, completely alive again. The figures were eager, like they

were chanting something. The room closed in on me. The painted figures were animated, but not

to save me — no, they encouraged the demon, applauded my sacrifice even. It didn’t matter to them

that I was some poor soul. The couple smiled broadly in the dim light of the disfigured moon,

hungry for my blood.

In the blink of an eye, the gothic faces were composed once more. They no longer smiled

broadly at the dark happenings in the room or awaited the show of my death. If it weren’t for the

sweltering heat of danger suffocating me, I would’ve forgotten about the creature before me.

I hadn’t.

The floor squealed under the beast’ s weight. It rocked back on its haunches. The terror

closed in on me for what was probably the last time. I stole a glance at the painting in the

brightening light that streamed in from the outside world, the only reminder that a safe world

existed beyond this hell house.

The painting was aged as it should be, cobwebs and all. The creature stood in the only bit

of pure night left in the room, as the rest had given way to the pearly gray haze before dawn. Its

teeth snapped and glinted in the dusty light of the pre-dawn hours. I gripped at the floorboards

beneath me, unable to crawl away any farther.

The wall, with its cracked plaster and peeling wallpaper, was cold and solid behind my

back. Any hope that the wall would swallow me whole fled. Even as I tried to push myself into it,

it shoved back at me, holding me firmly in place, like it too wanted to sacrifice me to the creature.

I was nothing more than an offering, a toy.

The creature’s soulless eyes were clouded by lust. Never had I ever seen something so

starved for blood. My heart seemed to stop. In actuality, it beat faster than it ever had.


Every beat pounded like an executioner’s drum in my ears.

The heat that draped over the room grew thicker until I could barely draw air into my frozen

lungs. With each breath I took, I expected to be my last. Each time I drew another inhale was a

surprise. I turned my head into the corner of the wall, my eyes squeezed shut. Whatever happened

next, I didn’t want to see it coming. The anticipation had a tight grip on my throat and the terror

might as well have gripped my heart like a vise.

Every inch of my body was crippled by a burning blaze of what I assumed was hellfire. It

consumed me from the inside out. Its flames licked at every organ, every muscle, every bone inside

my body. A shriek pierced the still air. A moment later, I realized that it belonged to me. Jitters

ran up and down my body.

The beast pounced.

My eyes didn’t need to be open to know that it had. The energy in the room had shifted

with the creature’s victory, and a scythe flashed and sliced in my mind’s eye. A wild, nearly

inhuman screech tore from my throat as the hunger and bloodthirst in its eyes haunted my blind


The stale, hot breath of the monster reached me first. Its claws dug into my flesh, the thin

barrier of my clothes not even a hindrance.

One second. Two seconds. Three.

I turned to ice. The wall disappeared from behind my body. My hands clawed at thin air.

Then there was only darkness.


2. Daring Dreams

Drowning. I was drowning in sobs, choked by my own inability to breathe. My eyes burst

open, blind. Each gasping breath thundered like a silent scream in the darkened room. The blankets

shifted with my movements as I bolted upright in bed. My own fingers clawed at my skin and the

pajamas plastered to my body by the clammy sweat drenched my skin. Panting heavily, my hands

found their way to my flushed face. The calloused skin of my palms scrubbed my cheeks, brushing

sweat-damp hair away from my face. An earthquake plagued my fatigued body, and there was

nothing I could do to stop it. Not with the sobs that threatened to spill over or the gasping breaths

that just weren’t enough. My lungs craved air I couldn’t give them, just as I craved a peace I would

never obtain.

“Ava?” S pencer jerked awake. He sprang up beside me and reached out to hold me. Against

my own volition, I recoiled away from his soft touch. “You’re okay, sweetheart.”

I shuddered, not at his words or the comfort he tried to give me, but at the image of hell’s

lustful eyes, the last remnants of the same old nightmare that cursed me nearly night after night.

Those eyes always remained at the forefront of my tortured mind, yet another thing I couldn’t stop.

“I need air,” I said hoarsely. I swallowed hard and slippe d out of bed, almost vaulting

myself through the ceiling in my haste.

Spencer didn’t say anything. He only watched me leave, as he always did. His gaze on my

retreating back was a weight I couldn’t bear, and in part, it was the excuse I told myself to expl ain

why I didn’t slow to slip on a pair of shoes or even a sweater as I all but sprinted through the

hallway and out the sliding back door of the creaky cabin.

Bitter air kissed my skin. My toes curled against the weathered boards of the wrap-around

porch. The subtle nip of the dirt and spicy scent of the woods beyond tickled my nose.


The aroma was the perfect embodiment of serenity, of peace, and the way it coupled with

the bands of silver moonlight that crowned me from above could almost banish the lingering

nightmare from my shaken conscious, but they failed.

They always failed.

I clenched my jaw against the will of my chattering teeth and wrapped my arms around

myself in a tight embrace. It was the only touch I could seem to stand at the moment, and only

then it was to keep the goosebumps at bay more so than the fact that I actually wanted it. At least


now, I shook from the cold rather than the crippling fear that crept through my bloodstream, just

like the precise elegance of the demon creature of my nightmares.

Sniffling against the crisp air, I let out a shuddering breath. I kept reminding myself to

breathe, in and out, steady. Each quaking breath was a struggle I was tired of fighting for as my

eyes traced the scars on my arms from a battle I couldn’t remember.

Spencer had told me that bad people tried to hurt me. He said they weren’t the reason for

my scars, but I wondered how he could be so sure.

Maybe I shouldn’t believe him, maybe he was one of the bad people, if not the bad person,

but I doubted the validity of my speculation.

All I could remember was him and our days here at the cabin over the last few months.

Before this, before his simple declaration that I was going to be okay, before I slipped into a state

of unconsciousness in his arms, before I woke up at the cabin, was a blank slate in my mind.

I wasn’t so sure I wanted to know more, from before he rescued me from the bad people.

I’d begun to think my memory loss was a blessing, however cruel. My lost memory presented the

chance to start over, and perhaps that was for the better. If bad people were after me, then they

couldn’t find me if even I couldn’t remember who I was.

I shivered uncontrollably. The cold’s numbness was a welcome sensation, an odd comfort

I’ve come to relish, goosebumps and all. Maybe if I was physically numb, I could become numb

to the nightmares altogether. It was wishful thinking, I realized that, but a girl could dare to dream.

The wavering shafts of moonlight shifted across the yard ever so slightly before I could no

longer fight the chattering of my teeth or rub the goosebumps from my raw arms. Only then did I

force myself inside again.

Dim light spilled out from the bedroom onto the old, worn carpet of the hallway. Once he

realized I was hovering in the doorway, Spencer glanced up from the manila file I only ever saw

him read when he thought I wasn’t around. He slipped it back into his bedside drawer as I came

over to the bed.

“Damn, sweetheart, you must be freezing.” He opened his arms to me, and I cur led up

against his chest, the covers drawn up around us. The clean scent of his soap and whatever laundry

detergent we used enveloped me almost as fiercely as Spencer’s arms did. The warmth, both the

heat that rolled off of Spencer and the warm, comforting scent I’ve come to seek out when I needed

to, eased the nightmare from my mind. “You’re like hugging a block of ice.”


I buried my face in the crook of his neck and squeezed my eyes shut. Spencer shifted,

clicking the bedside lamp off, and brought a hand to my hair. Brushing through it gently, he pressed

a soft kiss to the top of my head. “Get some rest, okay?”


3. Strange Beginnings

Gravel crunched under the tires of a beat-up sedan. I set my jaw. My eyes fixated on it,

taking in each and every minute detail, right down to the scratched and sun-bleached license plate.

Turns out the clenched fist in my gut was right: this meeting was anything but normal, even for

me. Still, a job was a job, and a job equaled money in my pocket. That’s all that mattered in the


The car shuddered to a stop in front of the crackling campfire, and I straightened up from

where I leaned against my truck, my hands hidden in the pockets of an old sweater. The passenger

side-door clicked open and closed, but the driver made no move to get out of the vehicle. My eyes

flicked to them, but I could only make out a shadowy silhouette from behind the glare of the

headlights. At least they weren’t LEDs.

The passenger, a woman with striking eyes that pierced my soul, approached me with a file

gripped tightly against her torso in a well- manicured hand. “Mr. Townshend, I presume?”

“Spencer’s fine. You must be Dr. Richards.” I made to shake her hand, but Dr. Richards

flinched away, barely managing to hide her reaction. Her eyes darted toward the car and back to

me again.

“Everything you need to know is in this file. You’ll receive your payment when your task

is complete .”

I eyed her, and the file she extended out to me. Slowly, I took the file from her, glancing

down at it. “And what exactly are you hiring me to do?”

“Everything is—” she began, the lilt of irritation in her voice.

“No, I want you to tell me. I can’t acce pt a job without knowing what it is first, especially

not under these circumstances.” My eyes shot to the car, and to the driver who hadn’t gotten out.

Everything in my blood bade me to damn their file, their money, and get back in my truck and

leave. But my curiosity got the better of me. Delia had warned me that the client was odd, but this

was… this was borderline paranoid, suspect in its own right.

The woman drew in a long breath, shifting on her feet. “There’s a girl, a young woman.

Find her and bring her back to us alive —”

“No thanks, I don’t deal in human trafficking.” I thrust the file back into her hands,

determined to leave.


“We’re not… that’s not what we do! Please, she needs help.” The woman grabbed hold of

my arm. Her eyes widened in desperatio n as I turned to her with a leveled glare. “She’s sick.”

“Why can’t you find her yourself? Sounds to me like she doesn’t want your help.” I pulled

my arm from her grip and turned my back to her, already unlocking my truck.

“Because we’re not you. She doesn’t know she needs help, she’s… she’s a danger to herself

and others.”

I frowned, doubtful of every word the woman said. “How?”

“It’s all in the file.” This time, I took it without hesitation and immediately opened it,

skimming the first page and the next one after it.

With a long sigh, I answered her unasked question. “I’ll need half upfront. Cash.”

The woman glanced over her shoulder at the car, biting her lip. “I’d have to…”

“There’s a bakery on Main. Leave the money under the corner booth’s seat before the end

of the week.”

“But it’s Thursday!” She huffed indignantly.

“You want this job done, and done right?” The woman nodded. “Then figure it out. How

you get the money isn’t my problem.”

I climbed in my pickup, tossing the file on the seat beside me. The woman tapped on my

window, but I only waved as I threw the truck in reverse and backed up, putting the car in drive

once I was sure I had enough swing not to hit the nearby picnic tables or the fuming woman. The

sedan’s darkened windows prevented me from getting a good look at the driver as I drove back up

the path, but something told me I’d see them soon.

And sure enough, illuminated by the glow of my dying campfire, the driver had gotten out

of the car, and neither she nor her passenger looked very happy with the other from what I could

see in my rearview mirror.

~ ~ ~

The money never came. I hadn’t expected it to, but the loss still stung. At least Howie,

Delia’s analyst -turned-hacker, had managed to find the woman they were looking for. He’d found

her thanks to the grainy photograph in Dr. Richards’ file, but other than that, the woman had no

footprint. By all accounts, the woman Dr. Richards was scrambling to find didn’t exist. Not in the

digital world, anyway. In the meantime, Howie and Delia had put some feelers out to see what

they could snuff out about the client.


Last I’d heard from Delia yesterday morning, Dr. Richards had hired Jack Kelman, another

ruthless hitman. The man was a complete ghost on top of it, more so than anyone else, even myself.

I’d considered whether the woman could be more of a ghost than even Kelman, but to be a ghost,

you had to exist in the first place.

When it came to Kelman, at least I knew my competition. The fact didn’t soothe the grim

lines etched into my face or the purse of my lips.

I took a sip of coffee and lounged back against the park bench. A jogger bobbed passed,

the first one of the all too early morning. Across the abandoned campground ’s surrounding park,

the woman I’d been watching, the one Dr. Richards was so desperately det ermined to find, glanced

over her shoulder before disappearing back into the wooded trails.

With one final sip of coffee, I ambled toward the trail she’d gone down. Over the course

of the last two days, the woman had wandered through the forest, eventually stumbling onto the

trails of the national park, which was how Howie had found her in the first place. A wireless trail

cam had captured her, broadcasting her image for Howie to find and confirm her identity.

In the near-distance, the woman strayed from the path. Again. Like she always did. Cursing

under my breath, I followed after her as quietly as I could. I struggled to keep her in sight thanks

to the lush wilds of the forest. She wove her way through the woods like she belonged there.

Though her body kn ew it, she didn’t seem to. With every chirp, every whisper of the wind, she

shrank, curling in on herself. Maybe that was why Dr. Richards claimed she needed help. I doubted

the integrity of the woman’s statement and knew with an unshakeable certainty the file Dr.

Richards had so unwillingly given me was bogus.

I stopped in my tracks, straining my ears for any sign of her. A twig snapping, the rustle of

the underbrush, anything. My eyes roved over the trees. Just like a ghost, I’d lost her.

“Get off of me!” The woman’s shout echoed through the still air.

My heart dropped to my feet. I took off in a sprint toward the crunch of leaves and the

violent rustle of the underbrush. Grunts and the haphazard symphony of a struggle flooded my

ears as I drew closer to the snapping twigs.


He’d found her.


Through the trees, I could just make out two figures, grappling, fighting for the upper hand.

The fact that she was still alive, and conscious, was a great sign by all means, but it was only a

matter of time. Ke lman wasn’t a patient person once he had his prey in sight.

I drew my pistol, coming to a stop several yards away before Kelman could notice me.

Given the fight the woman put up, he probably wouldn’t.

With one more roll, Kelman had her pinned, completely trapped beneath him. The woman

struggled, her attempts growing ever more futile. He’d probably drugged her. I let the breath I’d

been holding go.

All movement ceased with the whisper of the near- silent round. Kelman’s body lurched to

the side. The leaves crunched under the heavy thump of his body. The woman scrambled out from

under his cooling corpse and crawled away on shaking hands and knees.

With a quick check to make sure Kelman was actually dead, though the bullet that’d gone

through his head assured m e he was, I breathed a short sigh of relief. This was one man I didn’t

want on my tail. Now, I had to face the woman.

“Stay… away…” the woman slurred, the hint of a growl in her weak voice.

I tucked my pistol back in my holster, approaching her slowly. With my hands up, I tried

to sound reassuring and less like the killer she now knew me to be. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

She tried to pick herself up but failed to stand. Forced to lean against the nearest tree, she

slunk down, falling forward on her hands and knees once again. I knelt by her side, draping my

jacket over her shoulders. “You’ve been drugged. I’m gonna get you to safety, okay?”

The woman swayed, her body shifting toward me. She looked up at me. Her gaze wavered

as she studied me with as much intensity as she could manage given her state. She swallowed hard,

the last of her strength clear as day in her voice. “How…?”

“I don’t know,” I said, also not knowing what she’d intended to ask . Gathering her up into

my arms, I stood. “You’re going to be okay; I promise.”

Maybe I should’ve viewed her fight against Kelman as a warning, an indicator as to what

she was capable of and what, or rather who , I was dealing with, but those worries could come later

and not while I was hiking back to the empty parking lot.

~ ~ ~

The grainy photographs glared up at me, the poor quality of the gray scale ink a stark

contrast to the printer paper. Despite the smudges, the crossed-out names, and the plain, scrawled


dates beside them, the papers were neat and the manila folder that held them fairly pristine.

Although the corners were worn from being slid in and out of a field pack — a thing that existed

only in my all-too present past — and the pages fluffed out from my repetitive thumbing, I’d ceased

to actually see their contents. I knew what the text and pictures were by heart, whose faces would

never be seen again, and who I still had to find.

Maybe I should be grateful for her, because with her here, I couldn’t go after them like I’d

wanted to anymore. I used to be able to. Now the nightmares were too bad and Ava was retreating

into herself in a way I knew all too well wasn’t healthy. There wasn’t much I could do for her,

what with the uncanny fear of pushing her away that had me in a chokehold every time she flew

from the bed without so much as a sweater or pair of shoes on her feet.

I supposed I should be grateful for the fact that they called me first, and not someone worse.

Even though they’d brought Kelman in to replace me, at least I’d gotten a head start on him. For a

while there, and even now the old sentiment crept up on me. I thought I was among the worst out

there, but I guess even the tin man could find his heart again.

A shadow loomed in the corner of my eye. It shrank back like it wanted to disappear from

sight. The tension drained from my body, the coiled-up muscles loosening as I replaced the file in

the bedside drawer, meeting Ava’s muddy eyes and ice -kissed cheeks.

“Damn, sweetheart, you must be freezing.” Like countless times before, I offered Ava what

little comfort I could possibly give her, and she tentatively came over and curled up against me. I

steeled myself against the shudder that wanted to rip its way through my body, thankful for the

long sleeves that hid the goosebumps blooming on my arms. My toes curled against the bedsheets

as I pulled the blankets up and wrapped them around us until they trapped whatever warmth Ava’s

shivering form hadn’t sucked up yet. I couldn’t stop the quiet laug h and the words that fell from

my tongue next. Maybe they’d bring a little smile to her face, help bring her mind back from

whatever hellscape she’d just traversed. “You’re like hugging a block of ice.”

All Ava did was bury her face in the crook of my neck, her eyes squeezed shut. Her frigid

nose softly nudged a bit of exposed skin, sending another shock of ice through my veins. It was

no use. There was nothing I could say to help her right now, and rather than beat a dead horse to

death, I clicked off the bedside lamp and gently brushed my fingers through her coarse hair,

pressing a soft kiss to her head. “Get some rest, okay?”


Sleep didn’t come for me again until the gray light of twilight filtered through the thin

curtains, illuminating the room in a pale glow.


4. Puzzle Pieces

I inhaled deeply. The savory aroma of bacon coaxed my heavy eyes open. Bright daylight

filtered in through the slits between the wooden blinds. My body groaned when I stretched out my

legs and rolled over onto my side. Spencer had left the bedroom door slightly ajar, the bastard.

He knew what it took to get me out of bed, and that was the sizzle of bacon grease in a pan,

the clinking of breakfast dishes, and the vague promise of normalcy.

I gave myself another minute of soaking up the warmth from the cocoon of blankets I’d

managed to wrap myself in. My joints cracked when I sat up in bed, but that was nothing compared

to my heavy heart when the sweet scent of a vanilla bakery tickled my nose. Spencer always made

pancakes after a night like last night.

A bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich could be taken on the go, but pancakes meant sitting

down together and idle chit-chat. Sometimes it was nice, and I even welcomed it. But after last

night — I shuddered. After last night, I wanted nothing more than space, to be left alone, to ignore

it even though I drowned in it, in those hell-blazed eyes.

The nightmare itched and scratched at the surface of my mind as I changed and stumbled

into the kitchen with a deep frown. An eager smile quickly replaced the worried lines scarring my

face at the sight of warm pancakes and a heap of bacon.

“That’s a record , you know.” Spe ncer flipped what looked to be the last set of pancakes

over on the griddle and tossed me a tired smile. “Thought you’d be up as soon as the bacon hit the


“No, it’s too early for this. Coffee first, lots of it.” I grabbed my favorite mug from the

cup board, pointedly ignoring Spencer’s snickering. Brewed coffee filled my nostrils, warm and

inviting. The coffee pot clicked when I set it back in its place, my spoon clinking against the

ceramic mug as I all but carved circles in the bottom of my mug, absently stirring in my sugar.

“So, I guess the bacon’ s all mine, then?”

“Don’t you even joke about not sharing bacon with me ! That ’s the worst nightmare I could

ever imagine!” I glared over my coffee mug and leaned against the counter to watch him, or more

specifically, the bacon.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Av.” Spencer piled the last of the pancakes on top of the others and

turned off the griddle. The plates thunked against the wooden table as he gently set them down and


we sat in our usual places, with me having a view out the window and Spencer with his back to

the solid wall. “Speaking of nightmares… did you want to talk about it?”

His voice was quiet, like he didn’t want to startle me, but it was too late for that. Even with

the gentle and cozy appearance of the routine Spencer tried to instill, there was always that itch I

couldn’t scratch, that puzzle I’d lost the pieces to, and the creature I couldn’t outrun.

I reached for the syrup, my share of bacon already safe and sound on my plate. “Not really.”

He nod ded, humming quietly. “Pass the syrup when you’re done?”

All conversation died with the crunch of crispy bacon and the tick of the clock. As the

minutes dragged on, each bite was a fight to swallow as the kitchen closed in around me. I steadied

my breathing. The nightmare crept up on me no matter how hard I fought to occupy my mind with

the sweet picture of peace beyond the windowpane. My thoughts had betrayed me, and maybe

airing them out was exactly what I had to do to get rid of them.

“It’s the same. The monster, the old house, the… reality of it all.” I picked at the pancake

remnants on my flooded plate, licking my sticky lips. “I don’t know… and even though I know

that monster isn’t real… I feel like it is. It…”

“It what?” Spencer prompted , his full attention on me now. But as he stared expectantly,

my gaze wandered back to the window and the woods beyond the yard.

“I don’t know.” Glancing down at my lap, my heart constricted . “I think I’ll go for a walk…

clear my head.”

“Okay, just be careful. Bring t he —”

“I know, Spence, I know.”

I left Spencer to clean up the breakfast dishes, something I was all too glad to avoid. He

kept reminding me that it was the little things that mattered, but they didn’t, especially not when I

didn’t get the luxury of choosing between the ‘little’ or the ‘big’ things. That was taken from me,

and I couldn’t even remember why or how.

My disgruntled thoughts faded away with the creak of the screen door and the deck treads

beneath my booted feet. Sunshine warmed my face as I descended the deck steps and strode toward

the wooded trails beyond the yard.

The scent of pine and dirt greeted my nose. Birds chirped sweetly, like a smile on the air.

I tugged the jacket Spencer’s friend Delia had helped me pick out when we went shopping together

tighter around myself. The steady beat of my own footsteps droned on in my ears. That day seemed


like a world away now, but at least I’d remembered my distaste for the color orange, or else Delia

would’ve had me wear this awful burned amber windbreaker. She said the color brought out the

warmth in my eyes. She might’ve been right, but it didn’t change the fact that orange was a horrible


I’d remembered little things like that, but I couldn’t remember anything else, only vague

feelings, like how comforting being surrounded by a seemingly endless forest was to me or the

breathless awe of gazing up at the night sky or my apparent hatred of the color orange, but things

like my real name, the life I’d lived before the ‘bad people’, was still a mystery.

Without a care for direction, I wandered down the path I knew better than myself. Not for

the first time, I wondered what the significance of the creature was.

It wasn’t only a monster of my nightmares, I was certain of that, but nothing I could find

in books or movies or online matched the depiction of my subconscious’ beast. And after one too

many episodes of those monster shows where the investigators try to prove the existence of things

like Big Foot or the big black dog of death, Spencer banned us from watching them. Turns out

researching monsters only led to more nightmares, but at least they’d been better nightmares.

Maybe if I asked him again how everything happened, how he found me, what the ‘bad

people’ wanted, I could figure out my nightmares.

Or… maybe, just maybe, the answers to most, if not all , of my problems were in that file

Spencer never mentions.

I couldn’ t remember the reason why, but I hated file folders like that one, and the secrecy

they seemed to be surrounded by. Perhaps my disdain for them was because of the stark black ink,

notes scribbled in the margins, scrawled handwriting that judged and damned and…

My breath quickened as my pace faltered to a stop. Focused on the blue ink I didn’t know

I’d read a lifetime ago, my eyes screwed shut to better see the memory that had surfaced. Words

like ‘subject’, ‘creature’, ‘natural’, floated in my blurry mind’s eye, all in the same blue ink of a

pen someone would click and click and click . When they were done, their papers would rustle, and

they’d click the pen a final time as the cover of the manila folder flipped closed, locking away the

file’s secrets.

I didn ’t know if my eyes burst open first or if my body lurched into a sprint back the way

I had come before the world blurred around me. All I knew was the hair that stood on end, the

goosebumps that danced on my skin, and the itch I had to scratch. Every step was met with the


swish of my jacket or the occasional snap of a twig beneath my boot until the cabin came back

into sight.

The screen door slammed shut behind me, slapping against its frame. I drew in huffs of air,

not even stopping to wipe my feet. My vision tunneled in on the hallway as I took off for the

bedroom. Spencer called after me, his footsteps close behind mine, but his words were muted

against the pounding of my heart. The old scent of our breakfast bacon sent my stomach churning,

or at least th at’s what I chose to blame. It was either that or the crippling anxiety humming through

my blood, flittering against the underside of my skin.

My feet just barely stopped when I reached Spencer’s nightstand and yanked the drawer

open, doubling over on myself.

“Ava?” Spencer came up behind me, but I pushed him away. He stumbled back into the

dresser, the spare change rattling against the surface.

“Don’t you dare! What is this? Why is my picture in here?” I yelled. My lips curled into a

snarl, a growl already in my chest, when Spencer reached for the file. I held it out of his reach,

ready to push him away again. “What is this?”

The color drained from his face. “Ava, calm down . Let ’s sit down, and I promise I’ll

explain everything. Just let me —”

“Let you? You’ve had this the whole time ! Y ou’ve known something about me this whole


seethed, advancing on him. Every step back he took was another step closer I came to snapping at

him. My bl ood boiled with a fury I couldn’t ever remember having before, lost memory or no.

“You’re the person I should be hiding from!” I growled. My hands curled in on themselves,

not quite a fist, but enough so that the file crumpled in my one hand and the urge to claw Spencer

consumed me. Every second I looked at him filled me with more disgust. The silence between us

echoed like a gunshot.

There wasn’t anything left to say, not for me, anyway. My chest heaved as the walls loomed

closer and closer. My mind raced so far ahead of my body I couldn’t keep up with it. It wanted

one thing, and only one thing, so I listened to it, a sort of trust in my damaged self I hadn’t thought

was possible before.

I fled from the room. My boots stomped against the carpeted hallway and through the living

area. I almost yanked the front door off its hinges in my fury as I hurried from the cabin, from


Spencer, with a determination that thirsted for a fight, for blood. The rickety old screen door didn’t

fare much better when I shoved it open, decidedly out for blood. I just wanted something to lash

out at, but there wasn’t anything. Only the man close on my heels.

“Ava, wait, please. They’re still out there.”

I whirled around, throwing his precious little file in his face. The papers fluttered out as the

file slipped open, falling to the ground like volcanic ash. “And you’re right here!”


“They? No, you , Spence, it’s you ,” I spat. I turned my back to him and started off down the

pitted dirt driveway. Bitter anger sat like a lump in my throat, burning almost as much as the

betrayal in my chest. If I didn’t keep walking, I was certain the rolling waves in my stomach would

force me to double over —that is if the compulsion to punch Spencer didn’t consume me first.

“Ava, please,” Spencer piped up uncertainly, his voice caught by the breeze, “stay?”

This time, my hands did ball into fists. My own nails nearly cut into the flesh of my palm.

I gritted my teeth to steel myself against the anguish of his petty plea.

Spencer — and his cabin — for all the warmth and comfort and support and normalcy,

weren’t safe. It was all an illusion, a trick, an experiment. Just like the stark black ink and blue ink

of the folder from my memory.

But Spencer’s file was worn. Editions made in small, round ed capital letters, signed in red

ink and coffee stains. I bit my lip.

How could I listen to him? How could I trust him to tell the truth now? Even if he did tell

the truth, or his version of it anyway, would it be worse than the illusion that the file just shattered?

I pushed myself forward, toward a town I barely knew how to get to, having never cared

about direction before thanks to a blinding amount of faith in someone willing to kill to save me,

and asked myself where exactly the monster from my nightmares stood. Was it behind me now?

Was this all over? Could I finally rest?

Or was I about to stare it down on some old dirt road in the middle of nowhere?

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