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Eric closed the book and looked over the cover. Reassembling the Ashes: A Collection of Historical Accounts of the Reconstruction of Creek Bend, Wisconsin After the Fire of 1881, by local author Emanuel Voskstern. It was a fascinating read. Like anyone who grew up in Creek Bend, Eric had heard stories about the fire all his life, how it’d swept through the city, reducing buildings to smoldering ruins and killing dozens of people. He’d read plenty of books and articles by various local historians on the subject over the years—not to mention countless research papers written by his own students—but this book was different from most of what he’d seen. It focused less on the fire than on the things that were lost that fateful night. Voskstern wrote in fascinating detail about buildings and homes that would’ve been historical treasures if they were still standing today, like the opulent Allendar Mansion that now only existed in a handful of old photographs. And the Gudenhaus Inn that was said to have hosted celebrities, famous writers and powerful world leaders, including foreign dignitaries and presidents both former and future. And then there was the original courthouse and the train station, both of which were said to have been architectural works of art compared to anything standing in the city today. Irreplaceable records were also lost that night, burned to cinders, including, supposedly, documentation that would’ve connected a wealthy tycoon’s socialite wife to a certain governor in a very scandalous way. Local businesses were wiped from the face of the earth, like the Achenbach Restaurant, said to have served the best fruit pies anyone had ever tasted and would ever taste again, given that the owner took every last secret recipe to his grave that night. And of course there was the immeasurable cost of all those human lives, including a talented poet whose work might’ve become the stuff of American Literature textbooks and a man who very likely would’ve become the next state senator and whose untimely death, for all anyone knew, could have altered the course of history for the entire country. There were even rumors of lost fortunes and incredible treasures buried forever in the infernal blaze. Voskstern had gone as far as to piece together a vision of what the city might look like today if not for that costly tragedy, although it could only be speculation, given that historians today couldn’t agree on the exact locations of many of those lost buildings. The city had grown and evolved so much over the past one hundred thirty-seven years that no one was entirely sure anymore how the original streets were laid out.
It was a good book. He liked it. And it was signed, too.
All the books were signed. It was a book signing, after all.
He didn’t usually come to these sorts of things. He wasn’t a very social person. He preferred to spend his Saturday mornings at home. But when your wife was a talented and popular freelance cake decorator and caterer, you found yourself at a lot of different kinds of events. Karen knew both the author’s daughter and Jess Levener, the bookshop owner, and so she’d been hired to provide refreshments. Naturally, she dragged him along to help carry things.
But it was over now. Voskstern had left. No one was browsing the shelves. Of Jess’ two employees, Esther Liler had just left to take her lunch and Hellen Utelman was in the storeroom. The bookshop had fallen quiet.
Karen was gathering the last of the leftovers into the cooler to take home when Jess stepped into the office for a moment, leaving them alone in the shop for the first time since the doors opened. She glanced over at him, eyebrows raised, and whispered, “That was weird.”
“Which thing are we talking about?” Eric whispered back as he rose from his chair and stretched his back. “The pervy old guy in the cowboy hat who came in groping at that girl young enough to be his granddaughter?”
She wrinkled her nose at the memory.
“Or that trashy woman who wanted poor Emanuel to sign her chest so she could add him to her collection of ‘celebrity tattoos’?”
“No, but ew.”
“Or the super-creepy Easter Bunny?”
She glanced toward the corner of the room where the moth-eaten monstrosity was propped up behind a display of Easter decorations and holiday books. It was an old, homemade costume, a little piece of the building’s history from long before Jess bought it and turned it into the adorable Tale As Old As Time Bookshop, and even back before it was a stuffy old place with the not-nearly-as-cute name of Muekler Books that reeked of cheap cigar smoke and was owned by that creepy old man with one blind eye. All around the abomination were pictures of children back in the late forties, when the place was still Gooden Books and Gifts. The thing was much newer in the photographs, but no less creepy. The children were sitting on its furry lap, posing for the camera. Most of them were smiling brightly, apparently unaware that the Easter Bunny shouldn’t look like a vaguely bunny-shaped nightmare given unholy life by a deranged seamstress, but a few of them did look more appropriately uncertain about the horror on which they were perched. She shuddered and turned away from the probably evil rabbit. “Ugh. No. I meant the book. The whole fire thing.”
“Ah,” he said. “Yes.”
Being the subject of the book at the center of the day’s festivities, people had been talking about it nonstop. The fire on February seventeenth of eighteen eighty-one erupted out of nowhere in the middle of the night and spread across half the town in minutes, killing dozens of unfortunate citizens, many as they slept in their own beds. Authorities never determined what started it or even where it started, and it had long been said, often in dramatic, hushed tones, that the flames burned hotter than any natural fire and shrugged off all efforts to put it out. And some swore it had a mind of its own, even, by some reports, defying the very wind.
“It’s so weird that we know what happened,” she whispered, her gaze twitching toward the office door.
“You want to go around telling everybody what really started the fire?”
“No,” she replied without hesitation. “Of course not.”
Most people chalked it up to inadequate safety regulations of the time, but there were plenty of nuts clinging to wild conspiracy theories and ridiculous ideas ranging from government weapons testing to a crashed alien spaceship to a real-life, fire-breathing dragon slumbering somewhere beneath the city.
These things were almost as absurd as the truth.
“I’m just saying, it’s weird that we know something like that and can’t say anything.”
It was weird. Everyone spoke of it with such awe. It was easy to tell that every one of them would’ve loved nothing more than to know the truth of how that fire started. But none of them would ever believe the truth if he told them. And he could hardly blame them. After all, a time-traveling genie wasn’t even as believable as a fairytale dragon.
“Thanks you guys!” exclaimed Jess as she emerged from her office. She was an attractive and dainty woman in her early fifties with a cheerful and charming, girlish sort of energy. She practically bounced with every step she took. “Everything was amazing, Karen. Oh my god, I want that cupcake recipe!”
“I’ll email it to you,” she promised as she knotted the last of the trash bags.
Eric smiled as he closed the cooler. Karen had enough recipes to fill an entire shelf of cookbooks and she was always happy to share them. It didn’t matter. The recipe was only half of it. The rest was talent and passion, and he didn’t know anyone more talented and passionate in the kitchen than his wife. She cooked with love, as his grandmother used to say. And it shined in every bite.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to leave you the rest of the leftovers?” asked Karen.
“Oh, god no!” gasped Jess. “I’d gain fifty pounds by tomorrow morning!”
“Good,” said Eric, picking up the cooler. “More for me.”
“You don’t need all those either,” said Karen.
“Yes I do.”
Jess laughed. “Seriously, though, let’s do it again next time, okay?”
“I’d love to,” said Karen. “Just give me a call.”
“I will! You guys take care!”
“You too,” replied Eric.
They left through the back door, bidding farewell to Hellen on their way out and exiting into the narrow parking lot behind the building. “That was fun,” said Karen as she carried the trash bags to the dumpster enclosure.
“It was alright,” admitted Eric. As far as social gatherings went, he decided he liked book signings better than most. There wasn’t a lot to do. He’d spent most of his time sitting in one of those cozy armchairs, reading, while Karen and Esther attended to the refreshments table. They’d really only needed him for a little heavy lifting. And Jess, Esther and Hellen were all delightfully sweet women to be around. But he still would’ve rather spent a cold, dreary Saturday like this one at home in his pajama pants.
He placed the cooler in the back of the SUV, then closed the liftgate and walked around to the driver’s door, admiring the vehicle as he did so.
Two months ago, his familiar PT Cruiser was totaled. Then it was swallowed into another dimension…which wasn’t even nearly the strangest part of that awful night. But the worst part about the whole ordeal was not knowing what, precisely, they should do about it. He was fairly certain that his insurance didn’t cover anything that happened off-world. He and Karen had considered reporting it stolen. After all, it wasn’t where he left it and he honestly had no idea where it might be… He didn’t like it, but he didn’t think he could afford to just let it go on a teacher’s salary. But after a few days of deliberating about what they would tell the police, the entire situation bizarrely took care of itself in the form of a check from the insurance company. Someone out there, it seemed, had taken care of it for them.
They spent a few more days scratching their heads, wondering if it was really okay to take the money. It felt like a cruel trick. The real world didn’t work like this. But he had made a number of mysterious friends these past few years, like the otherworldly Lady of the Murk or the diminutive gas station attendant and his daughters.
In the end, they decided to be grateful for whatever help they were offered and used the money to put a down payment on a new vehicle. He’d even managed to convince Karen to make an upgrade and was now the proud owner of a brand-new Chevrolet Trailblazer.
The only downside was that it had significantly more cargo capacity than Karen’s Subaru, and so she’d already begun commandeering it for her various catering jobs. It was probably only a matter of time before it became her Trailblazer.
He opened the door and peered into the empty cab. Then he glanced over to see what was taking Karen so long.
She was gone.
Frowning, he closed the door and walked around the front of the vehicle. “Karen?”
Tale As Old As Time was sandwiched between a CPA office and a dentist in a line of seven attached buildings. The parking lot was a narrow strip of asphalt between these buildings and the main warehouse of Stavard Distribution Services, just wide enough for a single row of parking spaces. There was a high fence blocking off one end of the lot, leaving only the one way to leave, and that was in the opposite direction she’d gone.
He called out to her again, a little louder this time.
A deep, primal sort of fear began to spread through him. And it wasn’t an irrational kind of fear. He wasn’t sure there was any such thing as irrational fear. Not for him. Because he knew things about this world that most people didn’t. He knew that real things went bump in the night. He knew that monsters existed. He knew that terrible things happened every day. And he knew how easily people could vanish off the face of the earth in an instant.
He picked up his pace, hurrying toward the enclosure where he last saw her, his stomach tightening into a burning knot. His vivid and rarely helpful imagination was already going to work, feeding him one nightmarish scenario after another.
Something wasn’t right. He could feel it.
But then, as he circled around the enclosure, he found her. She was standing behind the wooden fencing, facing the building.
She turned and looked at him as he approached. She had an odd, confused sort of expression on her pretty face. Her dark eyes looked strangely glazed.
“What’re you doing?”
She blinked at him, then she turned and looked at the wall again. The buildings there weren’t actually attached, he realized. There was a very narrow gap between the dentist office and the appliance shop on the end, barely wide enough for someone to sidle sideways into.
Except as he stepped around the corner of the enclosure, he saw that someone was standing there. A woman. And she wasn’t standing sideways. She was facing straight ahead, seeming to defy the very physical space she was occupying.
Eric stopped and stared at her, confused. Everything about the scene baffled him.
Was that Jess? What was she doing out here?
No… That couldn’t be Jess. First of all, her hair was the wrong color. It was a silvery sort of blonde instead of chestnut brown. And she wasn’t dressed the same. Jess was wearing pants and a button-up shirt. This woman was wearing a sweater, a knee-length skirt and light, summery sandals in spite of the cold. Most of all, however, there was the way she was squeezed into that narrow space. Was it some kind of optical illusion? It was unnatural. She shouldn’t fit there like that, yet somehow she did. His brain couldn’t process what he was seeing. Her body and the space it occupied seemed to be two entirely different things.
The woman that wasn’t Jess turned her eyes on Eric. They had a strange sort of shine to them, he realized, like the eyes of a wild animal.
“Eric…?” creaked Karen, her voice strangely small.
Then the thing launched itself from the alleyway, knocking Karen to the ground and lunging at him.
Four years ago, he might’ve stood there helpless, too flabbergasted to move, but this wasn’t the first time he’d encountered something monstrous. His guard was up in an instant, his arms raised to defend himself, his feet shifting to brace against the assault.
The thing that wasn’t Jess slammed against him. Sharp teeth tore into the sleeve of his jacket, tearing the fabric.
Did this thing always have a dog’s muzzle? He was fairly sure it didn’t. It wouldn’t have looked like Jess if it looked like a snarling dog. But then where did all those teeth come from? They wouldn’t have fit inside a human mouth.
He threw his weight forward, shoving the monster back, taking it by surprise.
It growled at him, a strange, monstrous noise that was neither human nor animal, because this thing was neither a woman nor a beast. It was something else entirely, something that he couldn’t quite comprehend.
It seemed to size him up for a moment, shining, inhuman eyes filled with primal fury, then it turned and darted away on thin, furry legs that didn’t look remotely human yet somehow still fit the sandals it was wearing.
As he watched, it bounded effortlessly up the wall, leapt over the chain link fence and vanished into the next lot, trailing a long tail behind it, no less.
He knelt over Karen. “You okay?”
She nodded, her wide eyes staring after the monstrous thing, still looking dazed. “She had really cute shoes…” she gasped.