MM Schreier vs. Vincent Baverso

Just One Rule

27

votes

Evie woke, but instead of opening her eyes she snuggled deeper in the fluffy comforter. She employed a trick she had learned as a young girl––if she reviewed her dreams before opening her eyes, she could remember them, fix them in her mind’s eye. Otherwise, they’d slip through her fingers like sugar-fine sand and disappear with the morning mist.

She replayed the images like an old movie reel. Usually, the recall was a little less vivid than real life. From time to time, the scenes would jump, the film damaged and warped around the edges. This time it felt as though she were reliving it all again.

Ash rained down from a fire-streaked sky. A gust of wind whipped her hair around her head. It carried the scents of rotten meat and burnt plastic. Underfoot, the asphalt softened, pulling at her feet like saltwater taffy. Someone screamed. A car alarm blared, raucous and insistent. Strange creatures stalked their prey down the sidewalk. Legs bent at odd angles, they scuttled like crabs. Goat horns sprouted from their heads, and long, pointed snouts seemed overcrowded with glistening fangs. One pounced, and another shriek split the night. The yelp cut short. Turned to a wet gurgle.

Evie shuddered, but kept her eyes squeezed shut, concentrating on the dream.

An eddy of calm blossomed, a lotus flower in the midst of chaos. In its center stood a man, out of place in his neatly pressed trousers and a spotless white silk shirt. The falling ash parted above his head, leaving him untouched. Howling wind bent around him.

Pale grey eyes, the delicate smudge of dove wings, fastened on Evie. Her mouth went dry, and stomach flipped. The stranger held a hand out to her, broad, strong palm face up. “Come.” It was both a command and a plea.

As was the way of dreams, Evie had no control over her feet. She stepped forward and reached for him in slow motion. The moment their fingers touched, lightning danced across her skin. She sucked in superheated air and––

––woke up.

Evie could still feel the electricity between herself and the handsome stranger. All the tiny body hairs, arms, legs, the back of her neck, stood on end. She rubbed her arms.

A hot flash rushed over her and she threw back the covers, fanning her face.

You’re too old to be dreaming about sexy boy toys.

She stretched sleep-stiffened muscles and rubbed her face, swiping at pillow drool and crusty eyelashes. She rolled her shoulders, then opened her eyes. All thoughts of no-longer-thirty-nine aches, the grey-eyed dreamboat, and the disturbing nightmare fled.

This was not her bedroom.

Evie lay in the center of an enormous, canopied bed. The mattress and pillows felt soft as clouds, and the gauzy bed curtains rippled with color––rainbowed dragonfly wings. She still wore the leggings and baggy sweater that she remembered putting on yesterday. No bra. Her favorite Saturday, lounge around the house attire. She groaned.

No pockets. No phone.

A snarky, internal voice replied.

Not that there’s anyone to call.

There’s Amy. Or Fran.

The sister we only speak to on holidays? Or the divorcee friend who dropped us for her meathead new boyfriend?

Shut up. There is no “we.” You are just a manifestation of my self-doubt.

That’s what your therapist says.

Screw you.

Evie ignored the warring voices in her head and looked around. The rest of the room could have been straight off the set of a Victorian romance. A tall, ornately carved armoire stood in one corner. On one side of the bed, a low, end table held a silver candelabra and a vase filled with purple-black orchids. Their heady perfume filled the air. On the other side, a matching dressing table stood with an oval looking glass. A variety of pots and brushes and perfume bottles waited to be put to use. Across the room, warm sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the velvet settee beneath.

Evie jumped out of bed and padded in stocking feet across the rich carpet. She peered out the open window into a formal garden. Tea roses and low hedges and cobbled pathways. Not the busy streets outside her downtown condo. A pair of lacewings danced by. One flitted through the window, brushing downy kisses against her cheek. She thought she imagined a tiny, bell-like voice saying “Welcome!” before it returned to the garden.

What kind of wonderland is this?

She reached one hand up to brush a wisp of hair out of her face and paused. A feathery pattern marked her right hand. She pushed up her sleeve and found the fractal mark extending up to her shoulder. Trembling fingers traced the odd motif. Evie remembered the feeling of lightning striking her, racing up her arm, as the dream man’s hand touched hers. And yet, she felt safe. Sheltered from the storm.

Did he bring me here?

#

Outside the bedroom, a long hallway stretched endlessly in both directions. Lamps lit the corridor, fireflies encased in cut glass globes. Rich hardwood floors felt smooth underfoot, polished to a reflective shine. Evie hesitated, realizing she wasn’t wearing any shoes. She turned back around and opened the door to the bedroom, hoping to find her sneakers. Ragged, but comfortable.

The plain oak door swung open, but the Victorian boudoir had disappeared. A large closet took its place. Racks lined the walls, covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes. Strappy sandals. Shiny patent leather Mary Janes. Stout Doc Martens. Spiked heels and sensible flats. Evie’s jaw dropped, as she picked up a pair of white and teal tennis shoes.

Eight and a half, wide. They’re all just my size!

She rubbed her temples. This was all too weird.

Evie grounded herself, counting to ten. Not seeing much point in wandering around in her socks––what if she found a door out to the garden–– she tugged on the sneakers. They molded themselves to her feet, perfectly broken in. She swallowed, then closed the closet door. On a whim, she turned right down the hallway.

Paintings hung on the walls. Evie peered at the portrait of a woman with golden hair and a fresh-faced smile. A wreath of wildflowers crowned her head. As Evie turned away, the painting changed in her peripheral vision. The flesh melted away from the woman’s skull. Fire burned in her eye sockets. Her hair turned to icy white snakes, tongues tasting the air.

Evie jumped and spun back to the painting. Her stomach roiled. The blonde woman smiled.

You’re seeing things that aren’t there.

Aren't they, though?

Evie shook her head and moved down the hallway. She felt like a character in a book. A grand, bizarre adventure. If only she knew if it was a happy ending or a tragedy.

Up ahead, a door came into view; the first she’d seen since the bedroom. Or the closet. She tried the knob and it opened on well-oiled hinges. Curious, she stepped inside.

The comforting scents of paper and leather and ink filled the air. For a moment, Evie was transported to her childhood. Every Saturday, her father would drive her to the public library. She’d spend hours wandering through the shelves, choosing stacks of new friends to keep her company during the week. Adventures and mysteries and space operas. Magical fantasies and dramas and histories. She read them all.

Back in the present, the sweet nostalgia lingered. Evie smiled and glanced around. Bookcases lined the walls. A wrought iron, spiral staircase led to a mezzanine, hosting a second story of shelves, all packed full of books. Some wore modern, glossy dust covers. Others were clothbound with gilt titles. Overstuffed couches dotted the room, tucked away in cozy reading nooks. Neither glaring nor dim, perfect pools of white light brightened the space, coming from nowhere, and everywhere, all at once.

Enchanted, Evie meandered over to a huge, mahogany roll top writing desk. Fancy pens in multicolored inks lay next to a stack of leather-bound notebooks. She picked one up. Blank pages waited patiently to be filled with words. Promise and potential thrummed through her fingertips. She could almost see the shadows of stories and poems and personal truths that could someday fill the journal. Setting it back down, she straightened the stack reverently.

A creamy linen envelope caught her eye. Elegant letters scribed in crimson ink, read: “Evelyn.” She picked it up and the thick paper felt warm in her hands. Flipping the envelope open, she pulled out a single, folded sheaf of paper, and began to read.


“Dearest Evelyn,


Please feel free to explore the manor. It is yours for creating. I won’t give away its secret. You’ll find it more exciting to discover it on your own. You may go anywhere within the house, but do not step outside. It is no longer safe.

Supper will be served exactly at 8:05 this evening in the formal dining room. I hope you will join me.

Eternally,

Shidonai”

Evie dropped the envelope on the desk, fingers numb.

Shidonai.

The name sounded familiar. Something she was sure she’d never heard before but was somehow branded into her soul. Her thoughts felt fuzzy. A prickle tickled her arm. The weight of dove-grey eyes watched her out of nowhere. She glanced around but saw no one. Still, she felt less alone.

That’s freaking creepy.

No, it’s kind of nice.

Yes. Nice. In a stalkerish sort of way.

8:05 in the formal dining room. Such a specific hour. What time was it now? She hadn’t worn a watch in years, as she usually had her cell phone close by. Hadn’t she just woken up in the Victorian boudoir? And yet, maybe she’d wandered the halls for hours before stumbling onto the library. How would she find the dining room in this strange place, where nothing was as it seemed?

Why would you have dinner with the man who abducted you?

Broad shoulders and auburn hair with a hint of silver at the temples swam in Evie’s vision. She flushed, heat burning the tips of her ears.

A girl still needs to eat.

Riiiight.

Evie didn’t bother telling the voice to shut up. She clenched her fists and slipped out of the library. As she continued down the hallway, her stomach grumbled. Perhaps the dinner hour approached. She glanced at her faded leggings and stretched out sweater. Not ideal for ‘formal dining.’ She turned around, searching for the bedroom in hopes the old armoire held something more suitable for dinner. In her size.

Hey, the sneakers fit, right?

A few minutes later she came upon another door. This one was made of frosted glass. Bright lights shone through from the other side. Evie held her breath and pulled it open. A bell dinged overhead as she stepped inside.

“Welcome to Hades Hair & Boutique! We’ll make you hot as hellfire!” The bubbly voice was attached to an impish Millennial wearing a black halter top and spiked dog collar. Her short hair was styled in bubblegum pink spikes.

“Um, I was just looking for…” Evie faltered.

“A snazzy dinner outfit, right?” The imp tapped her fingers on her lips and looked Evie up and down. “Hmmm. Something classic, with a touch of sass, I think.” She grinned, flashing stark white canines just a smidge too long.

Before Evie could protest, the imp clamped down on her arm and dragged her into the back room. Racks upon racks of dresses filled the space. Taffeta and silk, cotton sundresses and satin evening wear. Simple black sheaths and frothy, jewel-toned cocktail dresses. She even spied a smart pantsuit.

“Let’s see, now.” The imp whirled through the room, poking through the wares. “No. Nope. Yuck. Not quite.” She discarded choice after choice in a flurry of color and fabric. A furrow creased her brow as she studied Evie. “I know I have the perfect thing here somewhere.”

She dove deep and pulled out a masterpiece. “Dope!”

Evie agreed. The 1950’s pinup style dress featured a polka dotted halter that left her shoulders bare and a wide, navy skirt that would complement her curves.

You mean hide them.

Shut. Up.

The imp pushed her into a changing room. “Get dressed. Then we can do... something... with your hair.” She sniffed, taking in Evie’s sloppy ponytail.

An hour later, Evie emerged, her hair curled in perfect victory rolls. They shined, black and glossy as raven feathers. Ruby lips, winged eyeliner, and lush lashes enhanced her heart shaped face. A dusting of golden powder clung to her shoulder and forearm, highlighting the new fractal marking on her right arm. She stepped into the hallway, but when she turned to thank the pink-haired stylist, the frosted door had disappeared.

Somewhere, a clock struck eight. How to find the dining room?

All dressed up, but nowhere to go.

She stepped down the endless hallway. It shifted. She took a few more steps and found herself at the top of a grand staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, a hunchbacked butler in an old-fashioned suit gazed up at her with rheumy eyes.

He cleared his throat and croaked, “The estimable, Lady Evelyn.” A formal, if wavering, announcement.

Evie flushed and descended with slow and measured steps, as if a crowd of lords and ladies observed her debut arrival into society. In the foyer shapes flickered. A man with leathery skin and ram’s horns leered at her. A willowy woman, with skeletal wings bowed her head. The dark horde clapped, not politely but lustily. A cloaked figure made of shadow and starlight drummed his sickle against the marble floor.

Evie blinked, and the crowd disappeared, their heady approval dissipating into the gloaming. When she reached the main floor, the butler offered his arm and escorted her into the dining room.

He led her to a long table, set with two places. Evie took in the expensive crystal, delicate china, and polished silver. Snow white linens draped in graceful lines. A centerpiece of nightshade, monkshood, and foxglove dominated the center of the table––beautiful and deadly.

The hunched butler drew back the chair at the foot of the table. Evie sat. Waited. The grandfather clock in the corner clicked forward, 8:04 to 8:05. At the back of the room, darkness thickened. The clock’s second hand stopped. The present became eternal.

A black door appeared, ebony with shining silver accents. Shidonai stepped through wearing his impeccable white shirt and auburn hair combed back from his face.

“My darling, Evelyn. Welcome.” His voice felt like silk against her ears.

“Evie.” She choked on her own tongue. Heat infused her face. “Everyone calls me Evie.”

Shidonai smiled, sweetness and spice. “Evie.” It rolled off his tongue, languid and sensual.

Gooseflesh dimpled Evie’s arms and her breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she floundered in the depths of his sooty, grey eyes. He gazed at her in rapt intensity. Fire licked at her core.

The spell broke as a gargoyle of a man entered the room, pushing a cart in front of him. His skin bore a rough, pebbled look that made it appear as if he was composed of stone. Evie tried not to stare. Slow and careful, he set out the amuse-bouche, then melted into the background without a word.

Evie could barely see Shidonai at the head of the table, around the giant centerpiece. Silence stretched between them. She nibbled halfheartedly at sweet potato chips crowned with goat cheese and caviar. Course after course arrived. Cold melon and basil soup. Garlicky mushrooms stuffed with Pecorino Romano and herbed breadcrumbs. Salad, then fish. A multi-course meal served to two, isolated ends of a table.

It wasn’t until the main course arrived, that Shidonai cleared his throat. “This is bloody ridiculous.”

That’s one word for it.

Chair legs scraped on the floor as he stood and strode down the length of the table. He carried his plate of roasted duck in an orange-ginger glaze with him. “M’lady.” He offered a courtly bow before pulling up a chair at Evie’s knee. “How are you enjoying the meal?”

Evie stared at her untouched plate, not wanting to offend. “Everything’s exquisite.” The lie burned her throat.

Take out and pub food is more my style.

A strong palm cupped her chin and forced her gaze upward. “That’s not how the manor works, my dear.” His eyes flashed.

The gargoyle bustled in and swept away their plates. He replaced them with platters overflowing with slices of pizza (extra cheese, mushrooms, and sweet peppers) and Buffalo chicken wings. Evie dipped a finger into a dish filled with a creamy sauce. She grinned as she licked it off. Blue cheese, not ranch.

Shidonai laughed, a deep belly chuckle. “We’re not heathens, you know.” He rolled his eyes, and for a moment his sultry mask slipped. “Ranch. As if.”

Evie smiled. Laughter softened his face. It made him seem, not exactly younger, but less timeless and exotic. More human.

You know he’s not, right? He can’t be.

Quiet, you.

Shidonai shook his head and the grin turned to a seductive smirk as he trailed a hand up her arm. She leaned into his touch. “Have you deduced how this place works yet?” He quirked an eyebrow at her.

Evie tried to ignore his fingers interlacing with hers as she pondered. When her feet were bare, the shoe closet appeared. When she thought herself lost in a story, the library materialized. When she needed a change of clothes, the imp and her mystery boutique showed.

She pursed her lips in thought. “The things I need become real?”

Shidonai beamed at her and she basked in his smile. “Clever girl. So close.” He squeezed her hand. “The manor is attuned to your desires. It morphs to your pleasures.” His eyes smoldered and her breath caught in her throat.

Evie shifted in her seat, heat searing through her. She glanced down. The navy dress melted away. In its place, a slinky, blood-red negligee hugged her curves.

Holy crap!

He did say desire, you naughty bird.

Shidonai sucked in a deep breath and raked hungry eyes over her.

Somewhere, a clock began to gong. One, two, three...

“Alas, my love, our time is limited.” One arm snaked around her waist and pulled her close. His hard body pressed against hers.

Four, five, six…

Shidonai leaned closer, his face inches from her own.

Seven…

Evie glanced at his full lips. She imagined them descending. Soft at first, then growing more insistent. Exploring, teasing, tongue and teeth.

Eight, nine…

His hands tangled in her hair.

Ten…

Hot breath played across her skin.

Eleven...

Shidonai rose and slipped through the black door. At the strike of twelve, it melted into smoke and Evie found herself alone.

#

The next day, Evie wandered through the manor, creating rooms on whim and whimsy. First came the Swedish spa, complete with a bubbly hot tub and steamy sauna. Next, she visited a pet store and played with a litter of three-headed puppies. They covered her with slobbery kisses, times three. An indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, tennis courts. It seemed the only rule was that once she closed the door and returned to the hallway, there was no way back. She could visit each room just the once.

At 8:05, her feet drifted, as if in a dream, and she found herself in a quiet kitchen. Shidonai waited, perched on a tall barstool at the counter. His black door loomed in the background. He’d foregone the tailored trousers and snowy button down, in favor of a dark t-shirt and tight blue jeans. Her heart frog-flopped in her chest.

Stop staring at his ass, you hussy!

They ate double-decker turkey club sandwiches––smokey bacon, perfectly crisp lettuce––and chatted about her day. He asked her questions about the rooms she’d created, laughed at the puppies’ antics, complained that he hadn’t gotten to try out the hot tub with her. Evie relaxed, and for the first time in ages, the needling voice in her head quieted.

“You know, Evie…” Shidonai smiled at her. “You’re changing me too.” He gestured to the simple meal, the cozy kitchen, his casual outfit.

Her voice caught and she cleared her throat. “I’m s-ssorry.”

He caught her hand and rubbed a thumb over the fractal mark on her skin. “Don’t be sorry. This isn’t the house’s magic.” Grey eyes bore into her, as if measuring her soul. “It’s yours.”

He leaned over and brushed his lips across hers in a feather light kiss. For a heartbeat, she thought he’d offer more, but the clock on the stove announced the witching hour. With a sad smile, he stepped through the ebony portal and then he and the door both disappeared.


#

Time passed in an unchanging rhythm. Evie spent her days designing new rooms to keep herself amused. Every evening at 8:05, her feet would lead her to Shidonai. Sometimes they’d share a meal and talk. Other times they’d do more before he stepped through the black door at midnight, leaving her breathless and alone. The cycle continued, eternal. Weeks, months, seasons, years. The words lost meaning.

From time to time, Evie would glimpse the outside world through the window––always someplace new. A garden, a sun-drenched forest, a busy street lit with flashing neon lights. A dark cemetery filled with wispy shadows. A quiet, bucolic town that time had forgotten. They called to her, but if she stood at the window too long, some denizen of the house, imp or gargoyle, would pull her away.

She tried again and again to create a door to the outside, but never succeeded. Thinking of the garden, her door would open to a greenhouse, full of exotic scents and colors, but glassed in. She tried conjuring the city street and instead found herself in a deserted subway station where the trains went nowhere.

Evie became obsessed. The only thing that kept her creating rooms was the hope to somehow conjure a door to outside. Unable to sleep, purple smudges ringed her eyes. The voice in her head returned.

He keeps you like a pet, chained against your will.

She stopped telling it to be quiet.

“Are you not hungry, my love?” Shidonai tempted her with a morsel, but she shook her head. “Perhaps you hunger for something else.” He wet his lips and leaned close. Fire flickered in his eyes as she pulled away. “What’s wrong? Don’t I give you everything you desire?”

Everything.

It’s how he keeps you complacent.

Evie stood and paced the room, thinking. “Why do you only come to me at 8:05 every day?”

“Ah, but I don’t. I only come to a specific 8:05. The manor is fixed in time.”

What happened at 8:05 that day?

What day?

Evie folded her arms across her chest. “Then why only stay until midnight?”

Shidonai reached out and twirled a lock of her hair around one long, elegant finger. “At the strike of twelve, the day resets and I lose my portal.” He pointed to the ebony door. “Besides, I have responsibilities.”

“What kind of responsibilities? What do you do out there?” She swallowed. “What are you?” The final question came out in a throttled whisper.

A frown crept across Shidonai’s face. “Why ask questions you don’t want the answers to?” He glanced at the clock. Three minutes to midnight. “Get some rest. Forget about all this silliness.” His voice commanded.

She nodded, thoughts muddled.

He loomed over her, tall and broad shouldered. Bending down he kissed her hard, claiming her mouth. A delicious pain swept through her as he sunk his teeth into her lip.

What were we arguing about?

Wake up, you fool!

Without a word, Shidonai spun and disappeared through the dark door.

One minute to midnight. The ebony portal lingered.

Go! Follow him!

Evie reached for the silver doorknob. When her fingers touched the metal, the fractal mark on her arm sizzled with energy. As she stepped through the door, the tattoo burned away.

#

Ash rained down from a fire-streaked sky. A gust of wind whipped Evie’s hair around her head. It carried the scents of rotten meat and burnt plastic. Underfoot, the asphalt softened, pulling at her feet like saltwater taffy. Someone screamed. A car alarm blared, raucous and insistent.

Evie staggered, tripping over something at her feet. She glanced down and found her cell phone, the screen cracked. The display read 8:05 PM. She gasped and sucked in hot air. Soot coated her tongue.

Glass from shattered storefronts crunched underfoot. Across the street, a man in a tattered business suit darted out from behind a burning car. Overhead, a vast shadow swept over him. Leathery wings snapped and the creature dove. It raked curved talons across the man’s back. He screamed and fell to the ground. The monster landed, making the earth quake. It folded its wings across its back and roared.

Evie squeaked and clapped a hand over her mouth.

The demon turned and regarded her with dove-grey eyes. Dagger-like fangs protruded from beneath black lips. The ruddy skin across its face and chest bore cracked scars, as if burned and healed a hundred times over. She tried to flee, but the gooey asphalt twined like black vines around her legs. Her knees trembled.

Cloven hoofs devoured the ground between them. It paused, a half step away. The hell spawn loomed over her, tall and broad shouldered. A feeling of déjà vu swept over her as it leaned close and breathed deeply, as if taking in her scent. Evie keened through clenched jaws, unable to move. Clawed fingers reached for her hair. She shrank back, and the demon yanked its hand away.

Wings snapped open, blotting out the sky. Evie cowered, then realized the creature was shielding her from the ash fall.

What the…

“Oh, Evelyn, my turtledove. Why?” The silky voice sounded familiar.

“Shidonai?”

“I go by many names, my love. Shamdon. Hammadai.” He paused. When he spoke again, his voice caressed her ears, throaty and husky. “Asmodeus.”

He barked a sharp command in an unknown language, and the sticky ropes of asphalt melted off of her. Her legs felt weak, unable to hold her up, and she stumbled. Strong arms caught her. His skin burned hot against her own. The whiff of fire filled her nostrils––not the bitter odor of burning plastic or trash, but the spicy, clean smell of a campfire.

Careful hands stroked her hair. “I tried to save you from the Apocalypse, dear one.”

Evie looked up into his horrific face and saw the man behind it. “You can just take me back to the house. I won’t try and leave again.” Her voice quivered. “I promise.”

Shidonai’s eyes darkened, no longer dove wings, but nearly black thunderclouds. “You forget. There’s just one rule of the manor. Mortals can only use each door once.”

Evie turned to look over her shoulder. The ebony portal was gone. When she turned back, so was Shidonai.


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Missing Pieces

39

votes

Anita Perkins tucked the mail under her arm as she fumbled her way into the house. Her purse in one hand, her keys in the other, a plastic bag hung from her wrist filled with groceries. She was still adapting to the single life after twelve years of marriage. Her husband used to stop at the store and pick up the everyday essentials on his way home. When Anita returned home every night, the front door unlocked, the lights on, and the house filled with a welcoming glow of life. 

Now Anita dumped her bags on the entry bench and fondled the wall for the light switch. A chill October day, the sun, now set, barely made an appearance all day. The house felt unnaturally cold. 

Anita turned lights on along the way to the kitchen. She pulled the cord to the living room lamp and saw the puzzle. Five hundred jigsaw pieces scattered across an old card table that sat in the same place for over a year, ever since James left. He loved puzzles.

There was a shelf in the basement full of old jigsaws abandoned by her husband. James spent hours at them, searching for the right piece. Anita always saw it as busy work. Even the thousand piece "White Out" that took him six months to complete didn't seem that impressive to Anita. "Eventually a trained monkey could figure out where the pieces go," she said. James shook his head at that, never taking his eyes from the table scattered with oddly cut shapes.

She tortured herself with that puzzle day after day. The first thing she saw in the morning as she came downstairs for coffee. When she watched television, her eyes wandered over to the puzzle during commercials. At meals, her kitchen chair faced the card table as though the puzzle was her dining companion.

  She didn’t feel much like eating. A long day now requiring a hot bath and a good night's rest. She slipped her shoes under the bed into the comfortable spot they sat every night, between the wall and shoe-box of her ex-husband's love letters. She never knew why he left. He never cheated on her. She never cheated on him. James was the most faithful of husbands. That, however, did not stop him from disappearing one day last June. His clothes gone from the closet, his bowling trophy too. Cops ruled him a run away, said it happens all the time.

She lay in bed. A branch, stripped of its dead leaves, screeched along her bedroom window. She glanced at the clock. The giant glowing red letters read 1:15. Another annoying drag of the branch at the window. She tossed off the covers and planted her feet on the cold floor.

Downstairs in the kitchen she made herself a glass of chocolate milk. Her father used to give her chocolate milk that always helped her to sleep. She sipped the milk, wiping a brown mustache from her lips and stared at the puzzle pieces while she drank.

"Why not?" she said to the night air and sat at the table. She worked the edges first, a trick she picked up from James. She had it together quickly and filled in the center. As she worked and exposed more of the picture, she noticed how familiar it all seemed. 

By three o'clock enough of the puzzle was completed for her to recognize the picture. Her bedroom. Not her bedroom last night or last June when James would have still been around to take the photo. No, the image was from tonight, as she left the room before coming down the steps. She could see the shoes she wore today, still tucked neatly under the bed, the blankets in a jumbled heap where she threw them. The glass of water she put on her night stand.

She worked with demonic speed, needing to see the full picture. As she pushed piece after piece into place, she saw something in the puzzle that she did not notice in reality. A shadow at the window scratched by the wind-swept branch. She searched for the pieces to complete the window. She worked like a machine now, picking up a piece and instantly finding the correct spot. She popped the last piece into place. She could see the whole picture now. What she thought a shadow in the window instead revealed her husband's face.

She ran upstairs, the stripped-down tree branch still singing its screeching serenade. Anita pulled aside the curtain. She jumped, expecting to see her husband's face as in the puzzle. 

Only the night and the naked tree branch. She let out a sigh and shook the foolish thoughts of ghosts from her head.

She turned to look at the clock. As she did, a dark figure seized her. She tried to scream, but only a mouse sized squeal escaped her closed trachea. She stared into eyes so familiar, eyes she once fell in love with, but the face dark and expressionless. She collapsed in his arms.

When her boss asked police to investigate why she hadn't been to work in three days, the first place they searched was her house. There they found her clothes removed from the closets, her shoes gone from their little hiding place under the bed, her shoe-box of antique love letters absent. Just another runaway to add to the list, after all, this sort of thing happens all the time.

If the police were more thorough in their search they might have noticed the puzzle on the table. The pieces scattered. If the police had taken the time to examine the puzzle they would have noticed the scene looked eerily like the missing woman's bedroom. If they had taken the time to complete the puzzle, to put the pieces in place, they would have noticed the shadow standing in the window. The shadow of husband and wife, trapped behind the glass, waiting for the next curious hand to assemble their missing pieces.


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