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Eric sat down behind the wheel of his silver PT Cruiser and started the engine. It’d been a long day, one of the longest he’d had in a long time, and he was happy to finally be at the end of it. He didn’t even stick around to finish up his grading. He just wanted to go home. He was tired. He was irritable. And he was positively done with teenagers.
At least he had dinner to look forward to. Karen promised she’d make him fried chicken. It was one of his all-time favorites, and she didn’t make it very often. She preferred to take a healthier approach to cooking, and rarely fried anything. He didn’t mind, of course. Healthy was good. And she was a fantastic cook, so anything she put on the table was virtually guaranteed to be delicious. But it was an old favorite, his mother’s specialty when he was growing up, so every now and then, just to show him some extra love, she’d indulge him.
(And Karen’s fried chicken was way better than his mother’s…though no one alive was scary enough to make him admit that to Mom.)
But although he was eager to get home, he didn’t shift the Cruiser into gear. Instead, he leaned back in the seat and withdrew his cell phone from the front pocket of his khaki pants.
He’d never really liked cell phones. He was annoyed by all the people in the world who constantly seemed to have them glued to their faces. He found it rude, obnoxious and utterly unnecessary. Especially when it came to high schoolers. He was notorious among students and faculty alike for confiscating cell phones in his classroom. He never would’ve owned one in the first place if Karen hadn’t insisted. She believed it wasn’t safe to be without one. (And she liked for him to never be more than a phone call away, of course.) He absolutely despised them. But in recent years his cell phone had become far more of a necessity than he ever expected it to. Begrudgingly, he was forced to admit to himself that he actually needed the stupid thing.
But he was far too stubborn to admit it to anyone else.
It rang as soon as it was in his hand, as he knew it would. He accepted the call and put it on speaker, just the way Karen had shown him to do. Then, as he looked out at the parking lot, at the last few straggling students making their way home for the day, he said, “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay,” replied Isabelle. There was no pause. No hesitation. She knew everything he was going to say well before he said it, after all.
“Really?” he pressed.
This time, there was a pause. “Yeah. I mean, I think so.”
He didn’t push the subject. He merely stared out at the sunny afternoon around him and waited for her to go on in her own time.
It was a beautiful day for mid-November. People were out enjoying the weather. There was a small group of boys walking down the sidewalk, goofing off. On the other side of the street, an old man was walking his dog. A very pretty girl with long, black hair walked past his parking spot. She saw him sitting there and gave him a small, friendly smile and a wave. He didn’t recognize her. She wasn’t one of his students. But he waved anyway.
“I don’t really know if it’s possible for me to not be okay, you know?”
He nodded. He did know. Or at least, he thought he did. Isabelle wasn’t like anyone else in the world. She was different. She was special.
“I’m not sure if I can even feel anything for myself,” she went on. “Sometimes I think all my emotions belong to someone else. They’re stolen. I just feel whatever you’re feeling. You and…” She paused again. “And them,” she finished quietly.
“I don’t believe that,” said Eric.
Isabelle wasn’t a part of this world anymore. She was trapped somewhere outside of the normal flow of time. For her, the passing of days was meaningless. She never grew hungry or thirsty. She never tired or grew bored or felt impatient. She never yearned for anything because she was frozen in place both physically and mentally. The only concept she retained of the passage of time was the three psychic connections she shared. One with Eric, one with her mother and one with her father.
Except that two nights ago, Isabelle’s father suffered a stroke.
Eric could scarcely imagine what she must have already endured. She had a terrifyingly personal perspective of the moment, a back-stage view as the clot began starving his brain of blood. She’d described it to him as something like a strange and disorienting cloud rolling in over his consciousness, leaving him confused and helpless.
Jerrell Albin might have died that night if the phone hadn’t rung so late, waking his wife, Reta. Isabelle hung up without speaking, leaving her mother to wonder whether the call was an exceptionally well-timed wrong number or a sign from heaven. (The truth, of course, would never in a million lifetimes occur to her.)
But although her father was still alive, the true extent of the damage still wasn’t known, and Isabelle had since been overwhelmed by the almost constant deluge of raw emotions gushing from her terrified mother’s tormented mind.
Eric felt awful for the poor woman. She’d already suffered more than any parent ever should. She’d been waiting thirty-eight years for the truth about what really happened to her thirteen-year-old daughter that awful July day. And she had no one left in this world but her husband. If she lost him, too, she’d be all alone. For the rest of her life…
“Don’t worry about me,” she insisted, forcing herself to perk up. “You need to get home and take a load off. You’ve had a rough day.”
The psychic connection only worked one way. She could read his thoughts, feel his emotions and even sense certain things about his surroundings, but he couldn’t do any of those things. If not for this trick with the phone, he, like her parents, might never have even known she was there. But the two of them had shared a lot of conversations since the day she rescued him from the deranged Altrusk House. They’d grown close. And he knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t entirely okay. She was only pretending to be brave because she didn’t want him to worry about her. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I know you will. But I also know you’re tired.”
He was. It wasn’t the worst day he’d ever had by any means, but it certainly wasn’t the best. It’d been exhausting. The students had seemed unusually wound up for some reason. And not just his. Chad Whelt kept blaming it on the full moon. And poor Charlene Tonnes, the new science teacher, was nearly in tears by the end of the day. Even the best and brightest students had all seemed unfocused and restless. The rest were moody, disruptive and even downright disrespectful. Overall, it was a pretty lousy Monday.
“I can’t relax much when I’m worried about you.”
“You’re sweet,” she told him.
“I mean it.”
“I know you do. But there’s nothing you can do. Just go home. Relax. Enjoy your dinner. We can talk more later.”
Without disconnecting the call, he placed the phone into the cup holder and shifted the Cruiser into gear. “We can talk while I drive,” he said. “I don’t want you to be alone right now.”
Isabelle gave a quiet little huff of a laugh. “Always my hero,” she said, almost too soft for him to hear.
“You were mine first,” he reminded her.
He left the parking lot and set off across town toward home. For the first couple minutes, they were quiet. Then, just when Eric was beginning to wonder if she’d disconnected the call on him, she said, “I know how I should feel.”
He glanced down at the phone, surprised.
“I should feel scared. Scared of losing my dad. Scared I won’t be able to find my way home before he dies… Scared of never seeing him or my mom ever again… Scared…” She fell silent for another moment. He waited. Finally, she said, “Scared I’ll never even be able to see them in heaven because I don’t know if I can even die…”
Eric wasn’t sure what to say to that. He couldn’t tell her that would never happen. He didn’t know that for sure. And it wasn’t like he could lie to her.
“I do feel scared,” said Isabelle. “But I just don’t know if I feel scared because I’m scared, or if I only feel scared because I can feel how scared my mom is.”
Most days, she could easily tune everybody out. She wasn’t always in their heads. She let them have their privacy. But strong, negative emotions, like anger, sadness and fear, were impossible for her to ignore. They dragged her into their consciousness and wouldn’t let her go. For as long as this crisis with her father lasted, regardless of the outcome, she was going to be forced to experience every moment of it with them.
“What if I don’t ever find my way out of here?” she continued. “Everybody dies. Nothing I can do will stop that. My parents will die. You’ll die. And when you’re all gone, when you all go silent… What then? What’s going to happen to me? Will I stop feeling anything? Will I be anything when all the voices are gone?”
Eric felt a profound sadness deep in his heart. He wished he had the answers for her. Any answer. But he was just an unremarkable high school English teacher with an odd habit of finding weird and fantastic things. Things like Isabelle. He couldn’t tell her who she was or why these things had happened to her.
Maybe it was just that God was cruel.
He didn’t know.
He pulled into his driveway and killed the engine. For a moment, he just sat there, staring through the windshield, feeling helpless.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle. “I shouldn’t have dumped all that on you.”
“It’s fine,” he insisted, taking the phone out of the cup holder. “I want you to talk to me.”
“I keep thinking I should call them. Talk to them. Tell them the truth. I know they’d want to know. But… I also know they’ve worked so hard to move on. I just… I’m just not sure knowing the truth would make things better. They want to believe that I’m alive and well out there somewhere, but deep down they’re sure I’m in a better place. The truth might bring them some joy…but it would also bring them fresh pain and worry…because I still can’t go home. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go home.”
His heart ached at the thought, but she was right. After all these years, all their hope had almost certainly shriveled and died. Their thirteen-year-old girl would be fifty. They knew by now, no matter how much they might deny it to themselves, that they’d never see her again in this world. Telling them the truth, even if they’d believe such an outlandish story, would only bring all the pain that’s gone numb over the years flooding back.
“I’m sorry,” said Isabelle.
“Don’t be. I mean it. I’m here for you if you need to talk. Always.”
“There’s nothing either of us can do anyway,” she said. And she was right. The doctors said it could be days before they knew anything more. Jerrell Albin was still alive. For now, there was nothing to do but wait and see what the future held. “We’ll talk later. Go inside. Go to Karen. I like when you’re with Karen. She makes you happy. I could use some happy.”
Eric smiled. “I’ll try my best,” he promised.
Isabelle disconnected the call and the phone went dark. He slipped it back into his pocket and made his way inside, his thoughts swirling like a thunderstorm inside his head.
She was right, of course. Worrying about Isabelle wasn’t going to help her. She was already getting far too much worry from her mother. What she needed was something warmer, more comforting. He tried to focus on Karen. He tried to focus on how happy he was to be home after the day he’d had. He tried to focus on the delicious dinner he’d been looking forward to all day.
But as soon as he stepped into the kitchen, he knew immediately that the fried chicken was canceled and his bad day had only just begun.
“Oh good,” said Karen. “You’re home.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee clasped between her hands. She looked a little frazzled, and understandably so. Right next to her, with her own cup in front of her, sat Delphinium Thorngood.
“Hello, Eric,” said the beautiful witch. “It’s good to see you again.”