“Come on, one more?”
“Can’t. I gotta drive. Matt and I have to be up early tomorrow.”
“Yep! We’ve only got a few more months.”
“My invite must have gotten lost in the mail.” He laughed.
“Erik, I see you like once a year.”
“How’s the wedding planning going, anyway?”
I shrugged at him over a plastic cup of weak vodka/soda.“Well, it’s all pretty much done. We mostly spend our weekends making centerpieces and waiting around for something to go wrong.”
“Matt holding up alright?”
“Oh yeah, he’s trooper. It’s Gia that I’ve been driving crazy.”
“I heard my name!” Of all the people in the world, Gia was my favorite. We were as close as twins and I was godmother to her son, Wyatt. She leaned into the room from the doorway, two shotglasses in her hands.
“You must be the maid of honor.” Erik laughed.
“Maid of DIS-honor, maybe.” I smiled.
Gia stumbled over and threw her arms around me. “You love me.”
“I do.” I said.
“What are you drinking? Is that water, Laney?”
“Ah…it’s soda water.”
“Just soda water?”
“Relax, Gia,” I rolled my eyes. “It’s the only one I’ve had tonight.”
Gia narrowed her eyes at me and then swung me around and grabbed me by my head, her hazy eyes finding mine. “You’re the one who insisted on driving. And you better be good, you’ve got precious cargo on board!”
“I know, I’ll be careful.”
“Matt’s at home waiting for you.”
“He is.” I smiled.
Erik made the sound of a whipcrack. “Not even married yet and already whipped.”
I stuck out my tongue at him. “It’s love, dumbass.”
“Oh yeah? Why didn’t he come tonight?” Erik shot back.
Gia and I exchanged a look. Matt hadn’t come because he was babysitting my nephew, Wyatt, Gia’s son. The truth was that I didn’t have a whole lot of friends, I never had, and tonight was sort of serving as my bachelorette night, even if it was just my friend Alex’s birthday party.
Having my sister here as well was a gift Matt had given me. Wyatt was three and a lot to handle. He was giving us the gift of time together and I loved him for it.
“He had wedding shit to do.” Gia announced. “Now, come on, Laney, say your goodbyes.”
“Fine.” I said, blowing the hair out of my face.
I made my way around the party leaving hugs and empty promises to catch up in my wake. Eventually there was only the birthday girl left to say goodbye to.
“Hey Eric!” I yelled across the kitchen. “You seen Alex?”
“Basement! Playing cards!”
Of course. Alex loved poker.
I found her down sitting at a table with four other people at the bottom of the basement stairs. They were all hyper-focused on their cards and I made it around the table to her chair before Alex noticed me.
“Laney! Want in for a hand?” She asked.
“Can’t, I’m sorry, I gotta head out. Early morning wedding stuff. What’re you playing?”
“We….we honestly have no idea.” She said, looking off behind me at god knew what. The only thing back there was a wall.
“Poker, sometimes,” the guy sitting next to Alex said. “Also war.”
“We’re also playing Hearts.” Someone else said.
“Are you guys that drunk?” I asked Alex.
“Not drunk,” Alex said, standing up to throw an arm around me. “We are a little high.”
“By high she means tripping balls.” A girl at the table giggled.
“Christ, Alex.” I rolled my eyes.
“What? It’s my birthday!”
“What are you on?”
“Mushrooms,” the first guy answered. “We’ve got some left if you wanna it.”
“Ah no. Thanks but I gotta drive like I said.”
“They take almost an hour to kick in.” He insisted.
“Well…” What could I say to that? I’d never done anything harder than pot in my life.
“Please, Laney, it’s my birthday!”
“But I won’t even be here when they kick in.”
“I know, but just knowing you’re having fun is enough for me. Come on, Lane, live life a little bit! It’s later than you think!”
“But have you seen the state of the world?”
I laughed nervously. “I don’t know. Matt’s the one that’ll have to deal with me tonight if I have a bad trip.”
“You wont, I promise, these are sooooo good. Dylan got them for my birthday. Please? It’s be your present to me.”
I looked around the table, thinking. “Maybe just a quarter dose of whatever you guys took.”
Alex clapped her hands. “Yay! Okay, Dylan, move. Laney, sit down. Miller, make Laney a tea.”
“A tea?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s the best way to take them. Go pour her a glass of hot water.” She barked at the guy named Miller.
“Ehhh,” Dylan hesitated. “You know these aren’t normal mushrooms, Alex.”
“She’ll be fine.” Alex waved her hand dismissively in my direction.
“And what if she’s not?” He asked.
Alex shrugged. “She’s going home. Her fiancé will take care of her.”
“Just shut up, Dylan, she’s fine.”
He sat back in his chair and nothing more, just watched the kid need Miller make my tea. “Um…listen, Alex, I’ve never done mushrooms before so if these are special somehow-“
“All mushrooms are special. It’s your first time, they should be special.”
“Okay, but please you guys, give me the lightest dose possible, a- a- a micro dose.”
Alex snorted and kicked the empty seat next to her. “Sit.”
I sat down and let her deal me into a hand of…whatever they were playing. Dylan set the tea down in front of me and I sipped it as fast as I could. I lost the first hand, and the second, but by the third, I was starting to pick up the game.
“Shit, Laney, good hand.” Alex said a few minutes later.
“Thanks, it was total luck.” I threw my cards on the table and glanced at my empty glass before standing up. “You said these things kick in at an hour? My drive is ten minutes, I’d better go. Don’t wanna risk it.”
“I told you, girl, have a little fun!”
“I will – at home.”
“She’s so responsible for a goat.” Alex giggled and then fell on the floor laughing.
“Okay, well hers have kicked in,” I said and then left them behind to take the stairs back to the party.
“Good luck, Lane!” I heard from behind me. I wouldn’t need luck, I was getting the hell out of here now.
I’d just reached my car when the shrill sound of Thunkstruck by AC/DC cut through the already icy autumn air. I dug my phone out and answered it just as I fell into the car.
“Laney! What the hell were you doing in the basement for so long?” Gia shrieked at me. “Are you really only just leaving?”
“Calm down, I was saying bye to Alex and playing a few hands of cards.”
“No more drinking?”
“No. I told you,I only had half a drink. A weak one at that, I poured it myself.”
“Good. Precious cargo.”
“Drive careful, okay? This time of year there’s a lot of deer out and you’re taking back roads.”
“I know. I will. I gotta go.” I’m on a race against the clock.
I hung up the phone without a goodbye and backed out of Alex’s driveway, surprised that I wasn’t blocked in. The drive home was quiet at first. No music, no podcast. Just silence. I’d lived in rural Missouri all my life. The nights were quieter here. Just bugs and occasionally an melancholy wind.
My phone rang. Matt. I answered with a smile. “Hey baby.”
“Hey, have you left yet?”
“I did. I’m on the 2 now. Why’re you calling?”
“I think you know why I’m calling.”
I laughed. “Maybe I do but tell me anyway.”
“I just really needed to hear your voice.
“Having a tough time with Wyatt?”
“No, I love him.”
“I know you do.”
“I can’t wait to marry you, Laney. I love you.”
I smiled. “I know you do. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“Drive safe. Bye.”
“Bye.” I chucked the phone into the seat beside me.
I was only a few minutes from home when I saw it. I didn’t know what it was, I only saw that it was black, and gangly, like a very long legged deer. The thing was running on all fours, but its limbs were so elongated they seemed to have no joints. It was taller than any deer I’d ever seen and thinner. Darker in color. And I couldn’t see its head – at all.
And it was running alongside my car. My car that was going 40 miles an hour.
“What the fuck!” I jerked the steering wheel to the left, away from the thing.
But it followed me into the other lane.
“What is that?!” I yelled to no one. I jerked the car toward it this time, trying to hit the creature off the road. I felt the car connect with its body and saw it fly up into the air and into the woods beyond.
I struggled to keep my shaking hands on the wheel. I put the pedal down and gunned it as tears of fear ran down my face. The turn-off for my road was only a mile away.
“Oh my god…” I cried to myself. “What…what the fuck…what is it. What is that thing?”
As if called by my whispered questions, I saw the creature again breach my periphery. It was running hard out of the woods, coming straight at my passenger side door. I could see the top of its head now, bent low as it charged my car.
“No!” I screamed and jerked the wheel in the other direction. The creature glanced the car but it didn’t matter. I had over corrected, turned too hard. I slammed my foot onto the brake pedal as the car careened over the other lane, the shoulder, the slight ditch and then rolled. And rolled. And rolled while I held on and begged it to stop.
Please stop. I don’t wanna die.
I didn’t wake up in a mangled car. Or on the side of the road. Or in an ambulance. I woke up in my bed, next to Matt who was stroking my arm and texting on his phone. I stretched my back until it cracked and then took stock of my body, which felt mostly normal.
“Oh my God. What time is it?” I grumbled.
“9ish.” Matt said, bringing my hand to his lips and kissing my palm. I groaned again and stretched out my legs under the covers. It felt like something was biting into my hip. “What is that? It hurts.” I reached my hand down and rubbed the raw spot on my hip. I thought I felt something nip me and sat up to pull back the covers. Nothing was there. And my body looked normal. It didn’t even feel bruised.
I rolled over and looked at Matt. “What happened last night?”
He glanced over at me and frowned, then set his phone down on the nightstand. “You don’t remember what happened last night?”
“No. What time did I get home from the party?”
“Around 11. You were a wreck,” he added laughing.
“Why are you talking like that?”
“Like you need coffee. A lot of coffee.”
“Are you calling me slow?”
“I’m saying you’re talking slow. So ,I drove home fine? The car is fine?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”
“I might’ve…no, I definitely did…take some mushrooms last night.” I said sheepishly.
“Like magic mushrooms?”
“Yes. Don’t give me that look! I’m sorry, okay? Alex was pressuring me, saying it’s all she wanted for her birthday… They must have kicked in on the way home. I saw some…real weird shit on the way home. Fuck, I don’t even remember pulling into the garage.”
“Jesus, Lane, what do you remember?”
I thought for a moment and then laughed. “A demon or something. It was in the road. I swerved to avoid it. It charged me. I remember rolling the car trying to get away from it.” I was silent a moment. “But you said the car’s fine?”
“Yeah, it’s in the garage. Looked fine to me. You definitely weren’t in an accident.” He laughed.
I hopped out of bed and ran down the stairs and into the garage.
The car was there, like Matt said, and it was perfectly fine, also like he’d said. I walked around the entire thing. Not a scratch on it that wasn’t already there.
“You know you really shouldn’t drive on drugs.” I heard from the door behind me. Matt was leaning against the doorjamb, frowning. “It’s dangerous and you could’ve gotten hurt.”
“I left in plenty of time, I swear I did. I don’t know why they kicked in so early.”
“Did you eat last night?”
“I had a late lunch with Gia.”
“Where did you eat?”
Matt sighed and left the doorway. He put his arms around me from behind and rested his head on my shoulder. “Laney, you really shouldn’t do drugs when you know so little about them.”
I turned in his arms and raised an eyebrow at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means…” He said softly, pulling me into his chest. “That drugs always kick in faster if you haven’t eaten.”
“Alex didn’t tell me that!”
“Alex was probably tripping balls.”
“She was.” I tugged my head into his neck. “She thought I was a goat.”
Matt laughed, but his voice was so lethargic I didn’t like the sound. “You are a goat.”
“Greatest Of All Time.” He said.
“Good lord, Matt, talk faster, you’re like a sloth. Go put on some coffee, you’re practically comatose.”
“I’m gonna take a shower. Did Gia pick up Wyatt last night? Or did she come this morning?”
Matt turned back to me. “She came this morning. Around 7.”
“I can’t believe she was up that early.”
“Well, she wasn’t in a great mood.”
“7am? Gia never is.”
I took a shower and got dressed, leaving my hair wet and sad looking because I had no plans to go out in public.
Twenty minutes later I walked into the kitchen, wet hair in a bun, and went to the fridge for a bagel. “We need a new showerhead. Our water pressure is shit this morning.”
I pulled out the cream cheese and dug in the drawer for a knife. “Matt?” I turned around and found him standing at the coffeepot watching it fill from the drip. “Jesus, how slow is that thing? Everything in this house is falling apart.”
“I think it’s just you. You’re going a million miles an hour this morning.”
“What are you talking about? I just took a twenty minute shower.” I laughed.
Matt turned to face me fully and frowned. “Lane, you were only in there for like 3 minutes.”
“What? You’re high.”
“Maybe you’re still high from last night.”
I gave him the side-eye. “I think I would know if I were tripping on mushrooms right now.”
“Didn’t seem like you knew it last night.” He said under his breath.
I hocked the knife into the sink, the resonating clang completely satisfying. “I don’t want to talk about last night anymore. Everything worked out fine, I’m fine, the car is fine. What I want to know is why you’re acting so weird. And why you’re still talking like that.”
“I’m not talking like anything, Lane.”
“Yes, you are, and I really think you’re doing it to piss me off!”
“You know what? Fuck this. I’m going out.” He pulled a mug from the cupboard and dropped it next to the coffeemaker. “That’s for you. I don’t need coffee. And quite frankly, I don’t think you do either. It’s like you’re on coke this morning.”
“Oh fuck you, Matt. And where are you going? We have shit to do today.”
“Yeah, well, maybe we can do it separately.”
“Are you serious right now?” I asked him.
“Yeah, Laney, I am serious right now. I don’t know what the fuck your problem is.”
He started to walk out of the room. “Where are you going?”
Shit. “Matt, wait. Let me come with you. I’m sorry, okay? I really am, I know I’m acting like a bitch this morning.”
“I need a few hours to myself, Laney.” He yelled back at me from the hall.
“Are you sure?”
He let the slam of the garage door be his answer.
I looked down at my perfectly made bagel and then frowned at it and threw it in the trash. I hated that we were fighting this close to the wedding. Why couldn’t I have just dropped it? Matt was having an off day and I had to be a bitch? After he took care of me all night?
I made a sound of disgust and turned toward the coffeepot. It still wasn’t even half full.
“You too, huh? Slow today? It’s goin’ around.” I poured what was there into the mug and added some milk. I knew what I needed to do – talk to Gia. She was good at managing men, Matt included.
I picked up my phone to call her. The dialing – and the ringing – were slow as dirt. Because of course. Everything was today.
Gia picked up. “Hello?”
“I’m coming over.”
There was silence a moment as if Gia was thinking. And then: “Fine. But bring iced coffee.”
I smiled. “Be there in twenty.”
“Aunty Lane!” Wyatt’s little three year old voice was one of the cutest in existance. Seriously, that kid could do voiceover work for Disney.
“Sheriff Wyatt!” I scooped him into my arms. “How you doing, kiddo?”
He giggled. “Bad.”
“I miss Mommy.”
“She’s right here!” I pointed to Gia, seated on the opposite couch who gave her son a big smile.
“Silly Wyatt, Mommy’s right here. Now why don’t you leave Aunty Lane alone and go watch cartoons.”
“Batman.” She echoed.
“Uncle Matt likes Batman.”
“He does,” I laughed. “Now go, scamp! Man, I love being this kid’s aunt.”
“And godmother.” Gia added as Wyatt ran out of the room.
A beat of expectant silence fell. I took a deep breath. “Gia, something is wrong with me today.” Gia frowned and sat up as we heard Batman cartoons flick on in the other room.
“What do you mean? Like doubts about the wedding?”
“No, nothing like that. I’ve been…I feel like I’m going a million miles an hour and everything around me is just…slow. Even you.”
“I was wondering why you were talking so fast.”
“Like this morning, in my car. 40 miles an hour felt like 15. The drive through at starbucks took a very long freakin time.”
Gia scoffed. “Well, that’s not unusual.”
“And everyone is moving and talking really slowly. Ever since I woke up.”
“You said you only had one drink last night.”
“I did! But, like, I also may have…taken some mushrooms.”
“Alex gave them to me for her birthday. I took them and left like 15 minutes later. They weren’t supposed to kick in until after I got home.”
“Well…they did. In the car. On the way there.”
“Please, just listen to me. I was driving and I remember this…this thing, this creature attacking me. I rolled the car trying to get away from it. But when I woke up this morning, the car was parking in the garage without a scratch on it.”
“So you hallucinated all that.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t explain why everything moving slower today than I am. It’s surreal. Could I still be tripping?”
“If Alex gave them to you, yes. She gets some weird designer drugs sometimes.”
“Gia, I even started the stop watch on my phone and counted the seconds myself. Everything is 3 times slower.”
“You’re still tripping. Shit, did you drive over here?”
“You know Matt’s gonna kill you.”
“Well, that’s the other thing. We got in a fight this morning and he left to go cool off at the gym.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “We’ve been together for 5 years and apparently I still know how to push his buttons.”
“Yeah well. At least you a man.”
I frowned. “Have you…have you made any more progress on finding Wyatt’s dad?”
Gia’s eyes fell to the floor. “Honestly, I stopped looking.”
“Because it’s pointless, Laney. He’s never gonna be with me.”
“But he could still be a father to Wyatt, give you a break sometimes. And don’t worry about finding someone, Gia. He’s out there.”
“Yeah.” Gia sighed. “So how are you and Matt? Do you feel…happy? Or is it more like musical chairs where you-“
Thunderstruck filled the room and I glanced down at my phone. “Speak of the devil.”
I held up a finger to my sister and answered the call. “Alright Alex, what the hell did you give me last night?”
“Seriously, I am still on a psychedelic trip right now!”
“That seems very unlikely. I’m just calling to make sure you made it home.”
“Yeah, I did. At least I think I did.” I shot Gia a look and she rolled her eyes. “I hallucinated that I crashed on the 2.”
“Oh fuck. But you didn’t? You made it home, right?”
“You told me I had an hour!”
“I’m freaking out, Alex! Does everything seem slower to you today?”
She sighed. “Just sleep some more and you’ll be okay. And listen, if you need-“
“I need to see a fucking doctor. Bye Alex.” I ended the call and hung up.
“I gotta go.” I nodded at Gia. “Matt and I still have a lot to do today.”
“Are you sure you should be driving?”
“Fuck no, but I don’t have a choice.”
She snorted. “You still have me, let me drive you home.”
“Don’t worry about it. I gotta make a stop anyway.”
My “stop” was the so called ‘crash site’ on the 2. I’d combed over my car that morning – inside and out – but there were no dings, blood, or engine problems. I don’t know what I expected to see out here. Maybe some run over trees or a broken guardrail. But when I arrived, I saw none.
I parked on the shoulder, knowing I was at the site where the crash had taken place in my mind. I walked up and down the shoulder studying the woods. But nothing was out of place.
So there it was. I was simply still under the effects of the mushrooms. And I knew this because the bird calls were lazier. Cars drove by slower. The wind barely moved my hair when it blew around me.
I sat back down in the drivers seat of my car and faced out into the woods, head in hand. What was happening to me? Could a drug permanently damage your brain? Would it always be like this? Thank God I’d be covered under Matt’s health insurance once we were married. I might end up need a neurologist or something…
I lifted my head out of my hands to finally turn the ignition when I saw something move out in the woods. I squinted my eyes, trying to make out shapes in the darkness beyond the tree line. I didn’t see it until moved again and I could make the thing out this time. Its body gained definition…and height.
“Oh my God.”
I immediately knew it for what it was. The thing from the night before, bigger and much taller now. And then I lost it in the shadows again.
The next time it moved, it was much, much closer.
I jumped, adrenalines piked. I looked down at my phone. It was a text from Matt.
I’m sorry, Laney. Please come home. We should talk.
Fuck, I shouldn’t be alone right now. I turned my body into the car before slamming the door. Why couldn’t I have nice hallucinations like puppies or hot, foreign people?
I found Matt in the kitchen making Zuppa Toscana when I came home. As soon as I walked in I could smell the soup. “Oh my god, baby, did you seriously make me my favorite food ever.”
He turned around from the stove and smiled at me. “Apology soup.”
“God, you’re the best.” I walked over and hugged him around the middle. “Smells amazing. You’re getting really good at making this.”
“Anything for my best girl.”
I laughed. “I better be your only girl.”
Matt smiled softly at me before his face sobered. “Listen, Laney…I wanted to say that I’m sorry for this morning.”
I sighed into his chest as he kissed my head. “I’m sorry, too.”
“You’re talking really fast still. I’m guessing you’re still feeling weird.”
I drew in a fortifying breath. “I think I’m still high.”
He laughed humorlessly. “Alex really does get the good stuff, doesn’t she?”
“How’s Wyatt doing?”
I frowned and lifted my head from Matt’s chest to stare at him. “You just saw him last night.”
“Just wanted to know if he missed me.” He teased.
I laughed. “Well, he certainly missed me, he said nothing about you.”
“He was thinkin’ it though.”
“Oh yeah. We’re totally his favorite godparents. How’d you know I went to Gia’s?”
“Ah, because it’s Wyatt’s birthday?” He said as if it were obvious. And it should’ve been. I suddenly felt like falling over.
“Oh my god, it is his birthday! I don’t deserve to be his favorite Godparent or his favorite aunt! I didn’t get him anything, my God, I didn’t even tell him Happy Birthday this morning!”
Matt pulled me back into a hug. “Relax, baby, we have dinner at your parent’s house tomorrow, we can give him presents then. Besides you’ve been busy tripping on mushrooms all day.” He laughed.
“Oh my god, I have to call him at least.”
“You do that, I’ll fix you some soup.”
“Oh God, thank you. I’m not even upset about your sloth voice right now.” I started to walk out of the room.
“Yeah? I asked, turning back, phone already to my ear.
Matt’s face was serious. “Can we talk about something when I get back from Target?”
“Why are you going to Target?”
“To get the centerpiece supplies we didn’t get this morning because I went to the gym and you went to Gia’s.”
“Oh right. Are you sure you wanna talk when I’m still on mushrooms?” I laughed.
“Ha. No. I guess not.” He said.
“It should wear off by tonight.” I offered, though really I had no idea.
“God, I hope so.” Matt pulled a bowl down from the cupboard and started ladling soup in.
“I can’t believe how good you’ve gotten at making Zuppa Toscana.” I said as I watched him.
“I learned it because it’s your favorite.”
“I know.” I blew a kiss at him. “How long are you gonna be gone?”
He shrugged. “Maybe an hour. Longer on the mushroom clock.”
I laughed. “Don’t forget the label maker!”
It was a short call since Wyatt was going down for a nap. I got to talk to Gia for a few before her doorbell rang and she had to go. The soup was delicious was spicy as fuck and my mouth was still burning when I laid down on the couch to catch up on work emails.
I don’t know when I fell asleep. It couldn’t have been long after Matt left, but I woke up in pain. It wasn’t my burning tongue but my hand, which was dangling off the couch while I slept. The pain was sharp and biting.
I tried to pull my hand up and was surprised to feel a tug instead. It was trapped inside of something, two sharp somethings. And the more conscience I became, the more I could feel what it was – gnawing teeth.
I screamed. Rolled away from it. Backed up on the couch and stared at it as I clutched my hand, bitten raw but bleeding very little. But it hardly had my attention.
I saw the animal that had been eating my hand, tearing at my flesh. It was the one from the woods, from the crash, the monster. It was much smaller, very small in fact, the size of a dog at best. I took in a deep breath to scream again and it ran. Jumped through the curtains, out the window… But there was no shatter of glass. No window panes broken. The thing had vanished. It was just…gone.
As soon as I could move, I ran to the kitchen and rinsed my hand for a few seconds, trying to remind myself it was probably a hallucination and I was okay. That thing had run at normal speed. MY speed. It was definitely a figment of my mind. And I confirmed that when I looked down and saw my hand intact.
I kept it under the water anyway and stared out the window above our kitchen sink. Even in my terrified state there was something to see outside. Matt and I had bought a shitty house but with a great view of the city. Our plan had always been to flip it after the wedding but Matt was less enthusiastic about that these days. Still, at least it had an amazing view.
As I looked down over the city, trying to get control of my breathing, I realized there was a part I couldn’t see – the outskirts. It was winter, and getting dark already. There was never a night that I couldn’t see the lights from rural houses near the mountains, the street lamps at least. But tonight…outside of the city everything was as black as if there was nothing there at all.
I couldn’t deal with anymore hallucinations. I was gonna kill Alex.
“It’s still happening, Gia.” I forced in a wobbly breath and tried to keep from crying. By the time Matt had come home the night before I had collected myself just enough. To fake my way through the rest of the night. We made wedding favors and then watched Netflix until he fell asleep.
“I don’t think trips last this long.” She said, studying my eyes. “You eyes aren’t dilated though.”
“Last night I tried to sleep but every minute felt like an hour. TV is pointless because everything I watch is basically in slow motion with even slower sound. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
“Laney, maybe it’s time you went to the hospital.”
“You know I can’t afford that!”
“Urgent care, then.”
“Gia, I’m getting married soon. I don’t have money for urgent care.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“With what?! You’re a single mother without child support! No, I’m not doing that to you.”
“I’m not that bad off, Lane.”
“What are you, hooking it on craigslist for money?” I asked.
That was shitty.
“That was shitty. I’m sorry, that was so shitty. I’m just so frustrated.”
“I know.” She nodded.
“I’ll have insurance as soon as Matt and I get married, it’s a qualifying event. I’ll go get checked then.”
“What if you still feel like this at the wedding?”
Fuck. I hadn’t thought of that. “It’s months away, at least.”
“Months?” She asked.
“You don’t think this is permanent, do you? I can’t be living in this slowed down world by the wedding.”
“So, we can go to the hospital?”
“Urgent Care. It’s cheaper. And I’ll ask Matt to take me.”
“Honestly, I want to take you. I never get to see you anymore, you’re so buried in Matt and wedding stuff.”
The truth was I missed her too. We’d always been close.“Hey Babe!” I yelled out to Matt in the other room. “Can you watch Wyatt for a couple hours? Gia thinks I should go to urgent care.”
Matt walked into the room, Wyatt on his hip squealing. “Oh you mean Batman? Sure I’ll watch Batman.”
Wyatt giggled. “I’m Batman!”
I snorted and looked over at a smiling Gia. “You know what that means for you.”
“Miss Ortega, I’m going to need you to remain still.”
“Sorry. I really am trying not to move.”
“For the EEG to get accurate readings we need to place the nodes pretty precisely. You’re twitching.”
“She’s been going a mile a minute since she took the drugs” Gia told the doctor. “Could they have given her some sort of like…cocaine laced mushrooms?”
“Shut up, Gia, this is serious.” I said.
“I am being serious!”
“Alright, ladies. An argument isn’t helping.” Dr. Patel chided.
“Sorry. I’m just…I’m stressed that I went to urgent care and they sent me here and now the medical bills are stacking up and I won’t have insurance until-“
“I doubt the Urgent Care center will bill you. You needed an MRI and they don’t have one of those machines. That’s why they sent you here.”
“But we did the MRI and you said it didn’t tell you anything.” I said, confused.
“No one’s telling us anything at all.” Gia added.
“I said the MRI didn’t tell me anything conclusive. Can you lie still for the next 30 minutes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I nodded, which earned me a look.
“Completely still. And you – Gia? – why don’t you wait in the chairs outside and I’ll have someone bring you in when we’re finished.”
“Okay. See you in a few Laney.”
“She’s been gone a long time.” Gina grumbled.
“Hey, I’ve been waiting in here twenty minutes longer than you have. She brought a couple other doctors in during the EEG, then you, then they all left.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, Laney. If it wasn’t they’d have a crash cart, wheeling you to the ER.”
I swung my foot back and forth off the side of the bed. “You’re so dramatic. Maybe they didn’t find anything.”
“True, we don’t even know if you have a brain.”
I used my foot to push Gia’s rolling stool away. “You’re a bitch,” I laughed.
We heard a knock at the door and no less than four doctors entered, stone-faced and serious. And they were all looking at me. My cheeks suddenly felt very cold. “What? Why did you find? Am I dying? Will I be like this forever?”
Sobering, Gia rolled back over to me and took my hand. “You’re not dying,” she whispered.
“Elena,” Dr. Patel began. “We need to admit you.”
“Wha- for how long?”
She traded a look with another doctor. “This is Dr. Berg. He’s a neurologist here. He’d like to run some more tests on your brain.”
“What’s wrong with her brain?” Gia asked, detectable anger in her voice.
Dr. Berg sat down on another stool and rolled it closer to the bed. He studied me with a focus that made me uncomfortable, like he thought I was getting away with some sort of trick. “To be honest, Miss Ortega, we can’t understand or explain what is happening to you.”
“What did the test show?” I asked.
He looked back at another doctor who nodded before continuing. “The EEG shows very minimal brain activity.”
I leaned back on my arms to get some distance from this dude’s intensity. “How is that possible? I feel normal for the most part. I’m walking and talking.”
“And that’s what’s baffling, quite honestly,” Dr Patel cut in. “Remember that I had you move around during the test? I pinched you? Had you read and recite things back to me? We do not usually do that during an EEG test.”
“So what were the results?” Gia asked.
“Inconclusive.” Dr. Berg said, crossing his arms. “Her brain activity was almost nonexistant.”
“Does that mean I’m like…functionally dead or something?”
“No, oh no, Miss Ortega. You are very much alive. We’re flying in a specialist from Belgium the day after tomorrow-“
“From Belgium?” I hopped off the bed and began putting on my shoes. “That sounds expensive. Really fucking expensive. Come on, Gia, we’re leaving.”
“Miss Ortega, please, I implore you-“
“No. Schedule it for after the January 14th. That’s when I’ll have insurance.”
“Gia, LET’S GO.”
They tried to stop us from leaving the room, the wing, the floor, they even followed us down to the lobby. Dr. Patel even trailed us to the parking lot, but I refused to stay or listen to anything more she had to say.
We climbed into the car and slammed the doors shut. “Get me outta here.” I mumbled and Gia threw the car into drive.
We drove out of the parking lot and I waited until I could no longer see Dr. Patel in the rearview mirror before I spoke again.
“This never happened. Seriously, Gia, tonight, at Mom and Dad’s for Wyatt’s birthday, please don’t bring this up.”
“Please, I don’t want to talk about this with them, I just want to have a normal dinner. Okay?”
“Okay, but Laney, Wyatt’s birthday was in July.”
I gaped at her. “July? Gia, Wyatt’s birthday was yesterday. I called and sang to him. You were standing right next to him making fun of my singing when we were on the phone!”
The blood left Gia’s face and her knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. “That happened months ages ago, Laney.”
“What? NO! Yesterday was Wyatt’s birthday. I know it was.”
“Wyatt was born on July 17th. Not in November. You know that…”
“You’re wrong.You’re fucking with me. Everybody is fucking with me.”
Gia took her eyes off the road to scowl at me. “I am not ‘fucking’ with you and I’m not wrong, either. I think I know the day my son was born.”
“I’ll call Matt right now.”
“Matt knows Wyatt’s birthday!”
“So do I! It’s July 17th!”
A silence filled the car as Gia let me process what I’d just said. “Oh my god. It’s November. His birthday was… What is happening to me, Gia?”
Gia looked over at me, her face pale. “I don’t know, Laney, but I’m scared.”
“So am I.” I breathed.
“You really need to figure this out.”
“I need to figure this out?” I asked in confusion.
“You need to remember.” She said, nodding to herself.
“Everything. Laney…it’s later than you think it is.”
The tears in my eyes spilled over and ran down my face. “I don’t think I even know what that means.”
Gia gripped the steering wheel tighter and stared out the windshield. “You have to try, Laney.”
“Oh God.” I dropped my head into my hands. What was happening to me? Fuck.
“My god, Elena, slow down, there’s plenty of food.”
“I’ve never seen someone eat so fast. I think she’s on something,” my dad added, throwing my mother a knowing look.
I set my fork down and glanced around at everyone else’s plate. Good god, they were eating at a snail’s pace. I should have been used to this new, slow world I was living in, but goddamn, every time I turned around there was a new annoyance.
“I’m not on anything, I’m just…” I glanced up at Gia and she gave a little shrug, leaving me on my own. “Hungry.”
“Matt, haven’t you been feeding my daughter?” Dad laughed.
Matt, who hadn’t been saying a whole lot all night, paused with a bite of pork halfway to his mouth. “Ah…”
“Leave him alone, Dad, Laney eats fine.” My sister rolled her eyes.
“She’s been talking fast, too. I was starting to wonder if she’s on the yeo.” Mom said.
“They just call it coke now, Carmen.” Dad said, winking at her.
“Jesus!” I snapped. “I’m not on cocaine.”
“Is it wedding jitters?” Mom asked, refilling her glass with wine and then putting it next to my plate. “You know, some of this might help.”
“It’s definitely not wedding jitters. Matt and I are very excited to get married.” I slid my eyes over at my fiancé, who was watching Gia hide asparagus in her mashed potatoes. “Matt!”
His eyes snapped up to mine. “No one has jitters. Everything is great.”
“How are the centerpieces? And the wedding favors?” Mom asked.
“It’s all great, Carmen,” Matt answered. “Hey! Little Man, don’t feed the dog.”
“Oh my god, Wyatt, really?” Gia jumped out of her seat to stop her young son from trying to feed his asparagus to Butcher, my dad’s doberman. “At least learn to hide it,” she whispered to him.
“I don’t like it.” Wyatt whined.
“I dont either,” I told him. “Maybe we can get grandma to make Zuppa Toscana next time.”
“Zuppa Toscana, why on earth would you want that?” My mother laughed. “You hate spicy food.”
I frowned at her. “What are you talking about, it’s my favorite.”
“As I recall, it’s your sister’s favorite.”
“What?” I scoffed.
“Zuppa Toscana has always been too spicy for you.” Dad added, nodding. “It’s Gia’s favorite. But I’m glad to hear you’re becoming more open in a culinary sense, Lane.”
“Hey Wyatt,” Matt interrupted. “You know who does eat their asparagus?”
“No.” Wyatt answered, pouting.
“I think you do.” Matt pushed.
“No.” Wyatt insisted.
“Oh dang. I’ve been telling all my friends that I know Batman. Guess I’ll have to go back and tell them I don’t know Batman, after all. That’ll be so embarrassing.”
“I’ll eat ‘em!” Wyatt yelled, and began furiously shoveling greens into his mouth.
“You’re so good with him, Matt.” Mom said.
“That’ll bode well for us once we’re parents, I guess.” I said, sawing the bone out of my pork chop. “Matt definitely got the Dad gene.” When no one responded I looked up to understand why the silence was so uncomfortable. Everyone was looking down at their plates. “What?”
Mom cleared her throat. “Well, nothing, I just…”
“We think you should maybe get the wedding out of the way first?” Dad winked, breaking the tension.
“It’s only a couple months away, Dad.”
“Um, our wedding?” I said, incredulous that he was confused about what we were talking about.
Everyone at the table shared a look I couldn’t decipher. “What now?” I asked, letting the fork drop loudly onto my plate.
Dad recovered first. “You wedding is on Saturday, Elena.” He said carefully. He looked confused. Mom worried. Gia was definitely panicked and Matt…he didn’t seem to be paying attention at all.
“The wedding is in January.” I said.
“Lane.” Matt said my name quietly and raised his eyes to mine. “It is January.”
“No, it’s- it’s November. Gia?” I asked, needing her to back me up on this.
“The wedding is on Saturday, Laney.” She said quietly. “Five days from now.”
“What?” I said warily and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Jesus, it was January. Fucking January 9th! My eyes snapped back to Gia, the same fear I felt clear on her face.
She schooled her face into nonchalance. “Everybody, relax. Lane’s just under a lot of stress right now. Wedding stuff. We’ll get her a massage and a bottle of champagne, she’ll catch up.” Gia ended, laughing.
“I hope so. It’s pretty late in the game to be so disorganized, Laney.” Dad chided.
“It is very late,” Gia nodded, looking directly at me.
I tried to hide my welling panic by grabbing the bottle of cabernet from my mother and pouring myself another glass. The conversation awkwardly moved on and I slowly sipped my wine, adding nothing to it. Maybe drinking would solve my problems. Maybe it would slow me back down so that I was in sync with the world again. Maybe I’d just have to be drunk every day of my life until I was dead. I shrugged. The way time was going, I’d have kids in college the next time I woke up.
The alcohol didn’t help. Everything stayed the same or got even more confusing. By the end of the night, I was so drunk I was slurring my words. My theory that it might put me in sync with everyone else was solidly disproved. Apparently I just ended up sounding like a crazy person and my parents made me sleep it off in their guest room.
Matt offered to drive Gia and Wyatt home. He kissed me on the head and promised he was coming back for me. God knew that would feel like an eternity. But I did sleep. And when I couldn’t sleep anymore I laid in the dark trying to figure out how to go to war with my own brain.
It was sometime later – in the dead of night – that I felt the tug, and the gnash of teeth. The pain was in my thigh this time. Something was pulling at it. Something was eating.
Of course I knew what it was. It ate with a hunger, like I was the only thing to eat for miles. It tore my flesh with a frenzied greed and I could feel it all.
“You’re not real.” I told it. Because it wasn’t. It was all in my head. But it didn’t care that I’d spoken to it. It just kept eating me. I could see my leg moving under the blanket as it tore through the muscle.
I heard a rip.
“No!” I threw the cover off of me. It was the little black thing from the woods, so much smaller when it was eating me. In fact, looking down, it had eaten much of my leg away. I screamed.
I screamed and this time it didn’t stop. It just kept eating. I kicked at it, ripping my leg away from its mouth. “No!”
My father threw the door open. “Laney!”
“It ate me! It’s eating my leg, Dad!” I screamed. And when I looked down to show him, there was no blood, no tears, not even a scratch on my skin. And the creature was gone.
“Lane, calm down. You’ve just had a nightmare.”
“Where’s Matt? I need Matt!”
“He’s here, we were just down in the kitchen talking.” He told me. “Matt!”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s later than you think, baby.”
“What goddamn time, Dad?!”
“2:10 in the morning.”
“2?! What time did Matt get back?”
“A couple hours ago.”
“What have you guys been talking about for two hours!”
“And why was he gone so long?”
“Lane!” Matt burst into the room. He came straight to the bed and knelt on the floor. “Jesus, I heard you screaming from the bathroom. What’s wrong? What happened, baby?”
“I want to go home, Matt.” I grabbed onto him like I never wanted him to leave , because I didnt. Matt wrapped his arms around me and laid us down on the bed.
“Shhh, we’ll go home as soon as you’re feeling calmer.” He rubbed my back and whispered in my ear, his words like a sedative. Dad gave my arm a squeeze and left the room.
“I’m with you, Lane. I’m not leaving you again tonight. Just breathe, baby.”
My breathing eventually slowed as I relaxed in Matt’s arms. But I didn’t fall back asleep. Instead I spent the many, many hours left of the night staring out the big bay window into the neighborhood I grew up in. And like the outskirts of the city the night before – there was a dark wall of nothing beyond the houses. An emptiness that felt truly void.
My world was shrinking.
When I woke up the following morning the sun was out, which was unexpected. Nights seemed to last forever in this new world of mine. Maybe even more confusing was that I woke up in my own home. I could hear voices from the kitchen. I listened lazily and tried to follow the conversation as I shook off the layers of sleep.
“Now is not a good time for you to do this.” Gia’s voice was hushed but angry.
“It’s for the best for her.” Matt answered.
“It’s for the best for YOU.”
“And for her. Waiting isn’t going to make it any easier. It was always going to happen and I shouldn’t have let the wedding get this far.”
Gia had tears in her voice. “Do you love her? Do you actually love her, Matt?”
“Would I be ripping my entire life apart if I didn’t?”
“Laney…oh my god. Laney is going to be crushed.”
I was now wide awake. Matt was…what? In love with someone else? About to call off the wedding? I sat up in bed, clutching the covers to my chest and listened for more.
“I know,” Matt said softly. And then: “I gotta go.”
“You know where I’ll be. I’m sorry, Gia.”
I sat frozen as I listened to him leave. Our front door opening and closing. Our garage door opening. The Mazda we bought together backing out of the driveway. And then I heard the soft sound of tears.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” I heard Wyatt’s little voice ask.
“Nothing, go play.”
“Where’s Uncle Matt?”
“He went to the gym, baby. Now go.”
I heard Wyatt run into our living room and I slowly stood up from the patted out of my room into the kitchen. As soon as Gia saw my face – she knew. “You heard.” She whispered.
“What I heard-” I breathed, suppressing a sob. “What I heard is Matt telling you he is in love with someone else.” The voice broke on the last word and Gia turned away from me, her hand on her chest.
She took a moment before she spoke, but didn’t turn around. “How could you forget, Elena?” It was quiet, whispered, but I heard it.
“What?” I asked as sob wracked my body.
“How could you not remember what happened that night?”
I snapped; unhinged I began to swing back and forth between uncontrolled rage and drowning in pain. “What night?! What the fuck are you talking about, Gia? The man I have been with six years is FUCKING CHEATING ON ME.”
She spun around, angry now, too. “You need to figure out what the fuck is wrong with you.”
“What’s wrong with me?!”
“Yes, you. It’s not your brain, it’s you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I shot back.
“Don’t pretend this is a huge shock to you. You’ve always known there was someone else. You’ve just been pretending you don’t. And all along I’ve been here quietly, waiting for you to realize it so that I can support you. But even when he makes it obvious as fuck out of sheer desperation, you continue to DENY what you know about him!”
“Get the fuck out of my house!” I swept a dirty wine glass from god knows when off the counter. It sailed lazily through the air before landing in a disinterested, retarded shatter. “You knew and you didn’t tell me!”
Gia didn’t even blink. “Matt goes to the gym all the time, doesn’t he?”
I said nothing.
“But his gym bag is always in the closet, isn’t it? He’s gone long hours. He only answers the phone about half the time. He’s been wanting to talk to you about something.”
“You’re saying this is my fault?” I screamed.
“No, it’s his fucking fault! I’m saying you’ve known it was happening for awhile but you’ve been lying to yourself!”
“Well here we are, my smarty-fucking-pants sister who figured it ALL out before me but didn’t bother to FUCKING TELL ME.”
“You clearly weren’t ready to hear it. You’re not ready to hear it now.”
“Because it doesn’t make sense! Matt loves me!” I cried.
The anger bled out of Gia’s face and she suddenly just looked very sad. And tired. “He does. He does love you, Laney. He just told me that.”
“But he’s sleeping with someone else!” I wailed.
“He’s not right for you. Cut him loose. It’s done.” She shook her head while staring at the floor, as if she were already tired of it. Like this was too much for her. A burden on her fucking back.
My anger returned like a bucket of fire poured on my soul. “Gia. Just because you’re a single mom who can’t hold down a man doesn’t mean that I can’t.”
It was bad. I knew it was bad as soon as it was out. But Gia didn’t tell me to fuck off. She just looked…defeated. My anger disappeared as fast as it had arrived. And in the absence of its intensity all that was left to feel…was pain.
“Time is running out for you, Laney. It’s too late for me. But not for you. You need to wake up.” Gia’s eyes dropped back to the floor and she walked out of the room. I heard her gather up Wyatt and walk out the same front door Matt had closed on us fifteen minutes before. As soon as I heard her car back out of the driveway I slid down the refrigerator into a puddle on the floor.
Everything was wrong in the world. It was all too slow moving and nothing was right.
There were so many times Matt had disappeared. Not just to the gym, to places like the bar with friends or the Home Depot. But what Gia has said was true. He went to the bar for hours and came home sober. He drove across town to Home Depot and returned without any bags. Jesus Christ, she was right. He hadn’t even tried to hide it. He’d been trying to get caught. Because he was too much of a pussy to fucking tell me. But then I remembered all the times he said “we need to talk” and I blew it off. Because deep down I knew. I knew. And I was never going to admit it to myself, much less let him say it.
Jesus Christ, what else was I suppressing? Gia kept telling me to remember that night. The night of the crash.
There wasn’t much in my control right now, and I wasn’t ready to talk to Matt. So maybe I would try and talk to Alex. If everything is connected to that night, I may as well start at the beginning.
The phone rang twice before Alex picked up. “Does this mean you’re not mad at me anymore?”
“I’m still mad – I think – but I need information.”
“That’s a long time to be mad, Laney. You haven’t talked to me in months.”
I took a slow breath. Don’t trust time. It’s not the same for you.
I put the phone on speaker and then paced around my kitchen and living room. I needed to keep my head as much as possible. Matt’s cheating, my existential crisis, the unpredictable flow of time – it was all becoming too fucking much.
“Alex, what was different about the mushrooms you gave me that night?”
“That night in the basement you guys said the mushrooms were special.”
“Yeah, special because they came for Amsterdam. Dylan smuggled them back.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “But why did they kick in so early. Was it because I hadn’t eaten? It hit about twenty minutes in and I was already on the road.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“Yeah, Alex, I was.”
“Okay, first of all, lay off the meth – you’re talking really fast, and second, you were in the basement when they kicked in.”
“No, I wasn’t. I was only down there for fifteen minutes!”
“Laney you had mastered Poke-War-Rummy. It was like an hour at least. You were tripping balls when you left.”
“What the fuck, Alex! I was down there for an hour?”
“Why the fuck did you let me drive home?”
“Because I was also on a mushroom trip and thought cars were what dinosaurs evolved into!”
I dropped the phone to my chest. Holy fuck. Just breathe. I brought the phone back up to my ear. “Was I in a wreck that night?”
“I don’t know, you seemed fine the next day. Was your car wrecked?”
“Fuck. I gotta go.” I hung up on Alex and spend an undeterminable amount of time pacing, thinking, pacing around the house. Eventually I found myself out in the garage inspecting my car again. It was parked normal. It looked normal. No scuffs, scratches or dents I didn’t recognize. The accident was three days ago for me, two months for everyone else. But the car looked the same as always.
I walked over to the driver’s side door and got in, slamming it closed bending me and then hit the clicker to open the garage. As the light slowly lit up the car from top to bottom, I noticed something.
At first it was just one that I saw. A small puddle of brown on the leather of the center console. But then…I saw more. On the floor by my feet. And when I turned around, on the seat I was sitting on. I threw the car door open and fell out of it, turning to look at the driver’s side seat as a whole. Blood was…everywhere. And it was my blood.
“Oh my god.”
It was only out of habit alone that I called Matt. I knew I was brokenhearted. I knew I was unbelievable mad. I even knew we weren’t going to get married. But I was drowning and I needed someone to grab me.
“Lane.” He answered after a few rings.
“Where are you?” I asked, trying to stop my hand from shaking the phone right out of it as I climbed back to my feet.
“I’m at the gym.” He said.
“Matt, I need help. I know there is a lot of shit to say between us, but please. Tell me where to go. Tell me someplace to meet you. I need help.”
There was silence for a moment and then he spoke, his voice softened. “Just meet me at Gia’s.”
I slammed on the brakes outside of my sister’s small house on Poplar. Matt and Gia were on the porch talking, but as soon as he saw my car. Matt hopped over the railing and came running toward me.
My entire body was shaking and I stumbled out of the car, falling onto the pavement. But suddenly Matt was there, pulling me into his chest.
“Look! Look right there, look! Do you see it? All the blood? Look at the seat, the floor, and please tell me you see it, Matt!”
“I’m looking,” he said, staring down into the cab of the car. “Show me where.”
I gaped at him. “Everywhere! Everywhere, look!” I bent down and starting pointing out the huge stains that he would have to be blind to miss. I watched his eyes slowly go from alert and searching to fear and some amount of grief. He stopped looking into the car and brought his eyes to my face.
“You don’t see it, do you?” I asked.
Matt’s eyes rose to mine and I read the answer in them. “Laney. I’m going to call an ambulance. You don’t have to be scared anymore.”
“I won’t leave you for even a moment. I’m going to take care of you.”
He squeezed me tightly once more and then walked toward Gia’s house. I watched him climb the stairs to the porch, phone to ear, until he disappeared inside. My eyes fell back down to the huge stains on the upholstery. And I felt my sister step up behind me. She wrapped her arms around me and leaned her head on my shoulder. “I wish you loved me more, Laney.”
I sniffed, trying to bury the tears. “You know I love you to pieces, Gia.”
She squeezed me tight. “Pieces is right.” She said quietly. “You loved me right into pieces.”
“Can you see it, Gia?”
I felt her nodding against my shoulder before I heard her voice. “I can see it.”
“Why can’t he?” I asked, turning around to look at her. Gia dropped her arms and stepped back, giving me a sad half-smile.
“Because he’s not really here.”
I looked back into the car. “Am I dead?”
“No, you’re not dead.”
“Is anyone really here?”
The smile fell from Gia’s face. “I’m here.”
“So I’m not alone.”
I gestured around. “Has all of this already happened?”
She frowned. “None of it has happened, Laney.”
I stared at her, trying to figure it all out, trying to figure any of it out. “How do you know so much?”
She shook her head.
“You really won’t tell me?”
“I have to go pick up Wyatt from Mom and Dad’s house.”
“You’re not gonna wait here for the ambulance?”
“What ambulance?” She asked, and genuinely looked confused.
“The one Matt just called.”
Gia looked shocked for a moment and then slowly recovered, schooling her features into a calm look. She took my hands in hers. “What day do you think it is, Laney?”
I stared at her and answered honestly. “I don’t know anymore.”
She squeezed my hands and smiled. “It’s your wedding day, Laney.”
I scoffed, speechless for a moment. “I think you know as well as I do that it isn’t.”
Gia suddenly dropped my hands to clap hers together, an immediate excited energy surrounding her. “Go to the church, Laney,” she said, and then started walking back toward her house. “You’re probably already late for the hair people!”
Right. Well, time was like water. Just because mine was speeding up and slowing down randomly did not mean it was going any other direction than forward.
I looked down at my car and then climbed warily back into the driver’s seat, sitting on the puddles of dried blood. My blood. It should have made me disturbed or ill but I felt like it was progress instead. I was remembering things. Slowly, but good or bad I was remembering things.
I had to take the 2 to get to St. Phillips Episcopal. And on the way there I wondered if there would be anything to see, anything to jog my memory a bit more. Maybe some truth would bleed through. Maybe the guardrail would be broken now. Maybe the trees were trampled.
But all I saw was a new set of skid marks. They skidded into a perfectly intact guardrail, and I knew they hadn’t been there before. They could have been mine from that night. Or that could have been someone else’s, a different car that had managed to right itself.
I pulled over next to them anyway. I didn’t get out of the car, as there wasn’t much to see. I knew it was daylight, but the woods were dark. Very dark. In fact, they were pitch black beyond the treeline, lacking even vague shapes.
I leaned forward and tried to see beyond the void but it was all empty. There was nothing on the other side. Just like the edge of town. Just like my parent’s neighborhood.
I didn’t jump this time when I saw the creature. Perhaps it was because it was moving so slow. It was bigger than I’d ever seen it, so large it towered up to the sky and cast a shadow over the entire highway and beyond. It was eating. Eating the trees, eating it all. Shrinking my world even more.
My eyes snapped to my hand, my leg, where the thing had been eating me all this time. But as usual, there were no cuts or scars to be seen. Instead, my eye was drawn to the passenger seat because there was something new there. Something I knew had probably been there all along. Something that I couldn’t see until right now.
Blood. I wasn’t alone. And I never had been.
I parked the car outside the church next to Gia’s. Friends and family were arriving, but no one paid me any attention or oddly even seemed to notice me – the bride – at all. It was as if they were just going through the motions, like actors in a play. They greeted each other, shook hands, talked quietly as they walked together toward the chapel. But their slow, roving eyes never hesitated on my face even once.
It was January – or so I was told – but I was still dressed for early November. I pulled my hoodie tighter around me and began walking toward the front door of the church. I wasn’t sure what I would find inside, but I hoped to God it was answers. I was halfway down the stone path when I heard a sequel from behind the parking lot. I knew that laugh. I quickly changed directions and followed the excited shrieking of my nephew to the cemetery next to the church. Wyatt was running between the tombstones, chasing squirrels. Gia was leaning against one as well, watching her son.
I made my way across the small graveyard toward my sister and sat down across from her. Gia didn’t spare me a glance.
I took in the tea-length violet gown Gia wore. She had her knees bents and the short skirt tucked around them covering as much skin as possible. I had chosen this dress for the bridal party simply because I liked the color and style. I hadn’t considered how inappropriately short it was for the time of year.
“I miss this.” She said, smiling as her son jumped up toward the squirrel laden branches of a tree.
Gia started, as if she hadn’t noticed I was there. But she still didn’t look at me and her eyes continuing to track Wyatt. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“I don’t know,” I answered quietly. Because I didn’t.
She flicked her eyes over to me and took in my hoodie and jeans. “What don’t you know?”
I gestured around the courtyard. “What this is. If any of it is real.”
Gia’s eyes dropped to the grass between us and she nodded. “I think you know it’s not.”
I took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly. “Gia, why is there so much blood in my car?”
“I think you know the answer to that, too.” Gia’s eyes found her son again. “I’m sorry this has to end. I like it here. I miss Wyatt.”
“What do you mean? What happened to Wyatt?”
Instead of answering Gia nodded up at the rapidly darkening sky on the other side of the church. “Do you know what that is?”
“No.” I said, looking toward the darkness nervously. It was a dark storm, a black storm.
Gia sighed. “Everything is getting eaten up.” She nodded toward my legs. “Even you.”
I looked down and gasped. Underneath my jeans, the skin of my legs looked misshapen and bumpy. Dark brown spots were quickly spreading on the denim. In a frenzy I ripped the jeans apart by the holes exposing the angry torn flesh underneath. The flesh was devoured just as I’d seen it when the creature was eating me.
But it didn’t hurt. Not anymore.
“What is this?” I cried softly. “What’s happening to me, Gia?”
“It’s eating you. I’ve tried to tell you. It’s eating everything.” She pointed again toward the sky over the church. The wall of nothing was coming.
“What is it?” I sobbed, still gripping the torn denim of my jeans. “What is that creature?”
Gia looked at me again and sighed as if she’d already told me a thousand times. “It’s time, Laney.”
“Yes. I’ve told you that.”
“It’s later than I think…” I whispered.
“Yes. You will die if you don’t remember it soon.”
“What am I supposed to remember? And how? Gia, help me!”
“Mommy, look! Butterflies!” Wyatt screamed from across the courtyard, pointing up at the sky. I saw nothing above him.
Gia smiled at him and then turned back to me. “Look up, Laney.”
I looked up. Into an infinite hollow sky. So dark it looked like a black hole moving toward me, filling up every horizon. No light escaped it. None at all. And then…
There was something there, in the dark. I could see the barest of outlines, something with definition. A box with sharp corners. And as it came down closer I realized it was a door, falling down on me through the ether. I reached out toward the knob. It was cold. I gripped it, heard an excited hum on the other side. I turned the knob…and pushed.
The party met me on the other side of the basement door, still in full swing. Erik, who’d been whispering in some redhead’s ear, saw me immediately. “Laney! Holy shit ,what happened to you? And what the hell is going on in that basement?” He laughed.
“An orgy!” Someone yelled from across the room.
“No orgy.” I corrected. “Just cards. I have to go.” Holy shit, I was out of it. This didn’t feel like a good place to be. There was too much happening up here, too many eyes, too many voices. The floorboards were longer and the lights, brighter. What was I supposed to do again?
Okay. Keys I had. I gripped them tightly in my head. Next: car. I had to find my car before I was too small to get in. I could feel myself shrinking in this room. Everyone was getting taller and I know that soon someone would step on me.
I somehow made it outside without attracting any attention. It took me a few minutes to find my car because I wasn’t entirely sure what it looked like anymore. This one felt like mine, even if it looked totally unfamiliar to me. I put the key in the lock and turned, waiting to see if it would unlock. I did. If this wasn’t my car, it was a damn convincing replica someone had put here.
“Laney!” I knew that voice. That was a person of mine. Gia! “What the hell were you doing in the basement for so long? Are we really only just leaving now?”
“Calm down. I was saying bye to Alex and playing a few hands of cards. Is this my car?”
Gia narrowed her eyes at me. “How much did you have to drink?”
“I told you, it was just half a drink.” Did she not believe me? Maybe she wasn’t a person of mine. My sister always believed me. Should I trust her? Maybe I didn’t know this person at all. “And it was a weak one. I poured it myself.”
“Good. Precious cargo.”
I raised my eyebrow at her. What was in the car? What was precious? I wanted to ask her. Instead I said: “I remember.”
“Good.” This so-called Gia said, and opened the passenger side door. “Drive careful, okay? This time of year there’s a lot of deer out and we’re taking back roads.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that.” I opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat, buckling my seatbelt. I looked over at Gia, confused to see her climb into the car next to me. Was she coming with me? “I gotta go.” I tried, hoping she’d get out of the car. She looked like my sister, I had no doubt of that. But this felt like a strange version of her, speaking in riddles. Like a sinister clone.
“So go.” She shrugged, and then took out her phone and started texting.
I frowned and then debated which gear was reverse. “R” didn’t look quite right but something told me it was.
I put the car in reverse and made it out onto the road. Gia was frowning and pounding keys on her phone.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked. Perhaps she was talking to the real Gia. Perhaps this person was being told what to say, to convince me she was my real sister. But why would the real Gia do this to me.
The woman next to me shut her phone off and dropped it on top of her purse. “No one.” She said, and then glanced out the window.
Fuck. Fuck, I knew it. “I know who you were talking to.” I said, speeding up and gripping the wheel tighter. Stay between the lines. Just stay between the lines.
“What do you mean?” She asked, looking back at me. She looked…fuck, she looked guilty.
“I know who you’re talking to. How the fuck could my own sister do this to me?” I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t.
Gia looked nervous. “I didn’t do anything to you, Laney.” She said. Her phone started vibrating with a call and she ignored it.
“Not you,” I scoffed. “Gia.”
Gia’s expression went from anxious to something else. Confusion, maybe. Her phone started ringing again in her lap. “Laney, I am Gia.”
“It’s not gonna work, what you guys are doing.” I insisted.
“What are you talking about?” Fear. I definitely heard fear.
“You know what the fuck I’m talking about.” I laughed. Her phone began to ring for the third time. “Aren’t you going to get that? Tell her I’ve figured you two out?”
“‘Her’ who, Laney?”
“‘Her’ Gia! Fine, I’ll tell her myself.” I grabbed the cell phone off of her laugh just as it started to ring for the fourth and final time.
“Laney, stop!” Gia yelled. But it was too late. I’d already hit ‘answer’.
“Hello, this is Laney. The real Laney. Stop the bullshit. She wont admit it, but I know you two are playing me.”
There was a hesitant pause and then an anxious: “Hey, Laney.”
It was Matt. My Matt, not Gia. “What are you doing?” I asked, confused.
“Nothing. Have you left the party yet?”
“I did. I’m on the 2 now. Why are you calling this girl who calls herself my fucking sister?” I asked, flicking my eyes to the nervous doppelgänger in the passenger seat.
“Baby, I was just…” There was a beat of silence. “I can’t do this anymore. Laney, I think you know why I’m calling Gia.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, staring down at the road in front of me. Stay in the lines.
“I really wanted to tell you in person.”
I looked over at this thing pretending to be Gia. “He’s about to tell me everything.” I said to her.
She suddenly looked very afraid. “Lane, what’s wrong with your eyes? Jesus, are you on something?”
I frowned at her. Of course I was.
“It’s about Gia. And I know you know what I’m going to say.” Matt said through the phone.
“No, I don’t.”
“Fuck, yes you do! I love her, Laney.”
“Okay.” I said to him.
“We’ve been seeing each other for years. She’s my fucking soulmate!”
“What does that mean?” I asked, frowning.
“Jesus, Laney. You’re really going to make me say all of it.”
But I said nothing because I was focused on something else. A creature, black and gangly. Running alongside my car. It was familiar to me, like it’d always been there. I knew this creature, just like I already knew the words Matt was saying to me. They’d both always been there, inside of me. The ghost, and the truth.
“I can’t marry you.”
The creature crashed into the side of the car, pushing it into the opposite lane. I swerved, but kept control of the car. The impostor beside me screamed.
“Laney? Was was that? Was that Gia?”
The thing was still there, running beside me. I swerved into it, hitting the creature side long and sending its long, black body flying over the trees and into the woods.
“Lane, what are you doing?!” The girl next to me screamed in my ear.
“Laney?” I heard through the phone. “What’s going on? Elena, do you hear me?”
“Oh my god…” I cried to myself. “What…what the fuck…what is it. What is that thing?”
As if called to us by my broken questions, the thing again came into my periphery. It was on the opposite side now, charging the passenger side door, head bent low in a charge.
“Let me talk to Gia!” Matt yelled into the phone.
“No!” I screamed and jerked the wheel just as the creature hit us. The car jerked hard left and smashed into the guardrail, then immediately flipped. And we were rolling, rolling, rolling as Gia was screaming, screaming, screaming.
Please stop. I thought. I don’t wanna die.
The ringing bells in the chapel’s tower brought me back to the little cemetery. “It’s time.” Gia said, climbing to her feet and pointing upwards.
The entire sky was a void. All that I could see now, all that existed anymore was this tiny church and this tiny graveyard we were sitting in.
“Gia, what happened to you?” I asked her. She said nothing at first, simply watched the people going in and out of the church. Only now did I notice how they were quiet. Somber. How they were all dressed in black.
“You know.” She said quietly.
“You died in the crash. Didn’t you?” I asked. Gia knelt down in front of me and moved a lock of hair from my face. She smiled at me softly and then nodded to something behind me. I turned around and my eyes fell to the words on the tombstone I was leaning against.
“Look at me, Laney,” Gia said. “Focus. It’s too late for me. But not for you.”
“Oh my god. I killed you. I killed my sister.” I wailed.
“And you- you were with Matt. You were sleeping with my fiancé. How could you do that to me!”
Gia’s eyes dropped from mine and she stood up again, gesturing around at our quickly darkening world. “It’s getting late, Laney.”
“I killed you! You’re my sister and you’re dead and you’re a bitch! I don’t know how I’m supposed to fucking feel!”
“You need to wake up. It’s coming.” Gia said, her voice shaking with a thread of fear.
“I can’t. I can’t go back! Not to world where you’re dead! Where the two people I love the most betrayed me so much I wish I was dead!”
Gia fell down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders. “No! You don’t wish that! Listen to me, Laney! I know what’s in the real world. I’ve seen what you’re going back to. They need you. Wyatt needs you. Please, please, don’t blame him for my mistakes. With Matt…it just happened. I don’t know how… and he needs you, too. He loves you, Laney, he fucked up with me, I know. He knows. But he needs you. Wyatt needs you. Mom and Dad need you. Please don’t die, wake up!”
“I don’t wanna go back!” I screamed, tears in my eyes.
“Laney, please! Wake up before it eats you all away!”
“I can’t! I’d rather die than face all that shit!”
“Please, please! You’re my sister and I love you! Do this for me, for my son. He’s so little, he has no father now, he needs a mom. He needs his aunt- you’re his Godmother!”
“Oh God. Oh god.” I cried into my hands. The church was now gone. The gravestones were disappearing into the rolling tide of darkness. It was just me and Gia now.
“Elena.” Gia said soberly. “Don’t be afraid. It’s too late for me but everything is still waiting for you. A long life. A family. A career. Life is beautiful. You’re beautiful. They’re all waiting for you. All you need to do is wake up.”
A wiped my sleeves across my wet face. “How?”
She took both my hands in hers. “Close your eyes. Listen. What do you hear?”
I heard the wind. I heard the creature eating, eating everything away. It was getting closer, and closer.
But then I thought maybe I heard something else. The beep of a machine. More than one. A hushed conversation. “I hear…a room.”
I listened harder. “An intercom. And I feel…pain.”
“You’re doing it. Wake up, Laney.”
Everything felt heavy. Like I no longer had control over my body. “It smells like bleach. Everything hurts.”
“Open you eyes. Open you eyes, Lane.”
I opened them, but it was harder than I thought it’d be. They were heavy, weighted down. And when I tried to lift my lids, the light got in and it burned.
“Christ, turn the lights off!” I knew that voice. I knew it. I tried to say his name, but it came out as air and a wheeze. Matt. He was here.
The room was suddenly darker, I could feel it. Someone pawed at me, took vitals perhaps, murmured excitedly.
“Is she…is she going to live?” I heard Matt ask. He was scared. I could hear it.
“She’s stable and still climbing back to consciousness. Let me get Dr. Patel.” I heard the man leave the room and I tried to call to him again.
“Matt…” I struggled to open my eyes and found that everything was blurry. It took time to adjust but I thought I could see his figure. He came closer to the bed and I could make out more. He was tall and handsome, just like always. His hair was different. Longer, and darker. “How…” I tried to swallow, make my mouth less dry. Every word was agony. “How long?” I asked.
“Too long.” He answered, and sat next to me on the bed.
His eyes fell away from mine. “She didn’t make.”
I closed my eyes for some relief from the strain of vision. I had already known that.
“I’m so happy you’re finally awake, Laney. They tried to take you off life support so many times. I kept blocking them. Injunctions, political pressure, the public… I spent every dime I had blocking them.”
“I’m sorry.” My throat felt like gravel.
“But they finally won. They finally won. They were going to turn it all off on Friday and let you die. I had exhausted every legal route I had. But then you woke up.”
I tried to reach out a hand to him but everything was so heavy.
“After all these years, you woke up.”
I tried to understand his words in the cobwebs of my mind. “Years?”
He turned his head toward me and nodded. I squinted and I could see him a little better when I did. He didn’t look that much older. He noticed what I was doing and smiled.
“I’m 31.” He said.
“You said…” I took a deep breath and tried again. God, everything hurt so much. “Years.”
Matt cocked his head to the side. “Who do you think I am, Laney?”
I didn’t answer. Because I didn’t understand the question.
“Oh, you think I’m Matt. Your fiancé. No.”
“You…are Matt.” I insisted.
He laughed, and it was an ugly sound. “No. I’m Wyatt.”
I closed my eyes and turned my head away from him. That didn’t make sense, so it wasn’t true.
He laughed again. “Hide all you like, Aunt Laney, it doesn’t make it any less true.”
I shook my head. No. Wyatt was 3 years old. I felt someone grip my chin. It was tight, but not painful. The man turned my head back toward him. “Open your fucking eyes and I’ll tell you a story.”
I refused. Brought my arm up to hide my eyes but felt nothing on my face.
“That’s okay,” he said, sitting back. “You can just listen. So. When I was 3 my mom went to her sister’s lame bachelorette party, which happened to be someone else’s birthday party. And just the two of them. My Aunt Laney was kind of a loser.” He laughed.
“So, at the end of the night she was supposed to drive my mom back to her house where Aunt Laney’s fiancé was watching me while they went out. Then my mom would take me home. That was the plan. But guess what Aunt Laney did? Something very naughty. Aunt Laney did Magic mushrooms.
And then she got in the car with my mom and drove away from the party. Tripping on psychedelics, she drove home, in a car, with my mom. And guess what happened? Aunt Laney’s fiancé called. And he told her something she didn’t like. He told her that he was in love with my mother. And that he wasn’t going to marry her. And do you know what Aunt Laney did then?”
I opened my eyes and saw the rage and pain in his. Yes. I remember what I did then.
“Aunt Laney crashed the car and killed my mother. Killed her. And Laney ended up in a coma. And I went to live with my mom’s parents. But the story isn’t over. See, Aunt Laney was on life support for so many years that my grandparents went broke paying her medical bills, trying to keep their only remaining child alive. And then grandma got sick. And there was no money to treat her. She died within a year. And my grandpa just disappeared. Ran away. From everything.
And the court decided I would live with my dad, Matt Stoneburg. He’d been depressed, you see, that’s why he couldn’t take me in when my mom died. He raised me, as best as he could. And the day after my 18th birthday he drove his car off a bridge. He didn’t leave a note, but I know it was the guilt. He blamed himself for my mother’s death. And he hated you.”
“Matt…” I whispered. Matt was dead. I’d killed him, too. If I could cry, I knew I would be. But I didn’t know this body I was in, and I couldn’t make it listen to me.
“You got that he’s my dad, right?” I heard the smile in Wyatt’s voice. Of course I knew it. I think I’d always known it. Wyatt had looked like Matt since he turned one years old. I’d seen it. Everyone had.
But I’d convinced myself it wasn’t true.
“Oh, don’t get upset. It’s not all bad. You wanna know why?”
I closed my eyes. There was a gleeful sheen in Wyatt’s eye, one I didn’t want to know the cause of. This little boy…now my fully grown nephew.
I heard drawers opening and closing as he searched for something. “We have to be quick. Dr. Patel is coming.”
After a moment he must have found what he was looking for because I felt him sit down next to me on the bed. He push a button somewhere which lifted my back and head. He raised it until I was fully sitting up and then released the button. “Here. Look.”
I could’ve kept my eyes shut, could’ve ket him from getting the satisfaction.
“Come on, I’ve been waiting all my life for this. Open your eyes, Aunt Laney.”
Whatever there was to see, I would have to see it anyway. I would have to know. So, I opened my eyes.
The lights were on in the room again. It burned just a little less than before, but it was the imagine before me that truly hurt.
I didn’t know this old woman in the mirror. My hair was short and thin. My face looked 60 years old, and maybe I was. But I had just been 26. And now all these years were gone.
“You’re a looker, eh?” He giggled, just like when he was a kid.
I didn’t know this person looking back at me.
“But you wanna know the best part?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the stranger in the mirror. So I couldn’t tell him no.
“It’s this.” He said, and then dropped the mirror onto my lap. Well, what I had of one.
The sheets were flat and empty where my legs should be. One leg was a stub, the other non-existent. I tried to grab the sheets, pull them away from my body, see what else was missing. But there was nothing to grab them with. No hands. No arms.
“Quadruple amputee!” Wyatt clapped his hands. “I had nothing to do with that. That was karma. That was the universe. It was also the reason I had to fight so hard to keep you on life support.”
“No,” I said, voice gaining a little strength.
“No quality of life was their argument.” His voice dropped low. “Personally I agreed with them.”
I coughed, couldn’t breath, searched again for my voice. I had to know. And somehow, I knew he would know. “Why?”
I could hear people coming down the hallway. “Why what?” Wyatt asked curiously.
I heaved. “Why did she send me back here?”
My heart rate monitor was making an angry and insistent beeping sound. It was fast and agitated, like my heart. I could see shapes filling the room behind my nephew, rushing to save me, to keep me alive, trapped in this fucking prison.
“Gia.” I said to him.
Wyatt simply shrugged. “Maybe she hated you as much as I do.”