Andover, New Jersey; April 3rd, 2013
But they didn’t see Kierlan again after that and he had no intention of allowing them to find him while he recovered. For months he hid in his hometown, taking up residence in his parents’ home. It was the most obvious place he could think of, and, therefore, the last place anyone would think to look for him, especially Natalia and his mystery employer, whose calls he tirelessly avoided. After a while, he’d thrown the useless cell phone in the lake behind his childhood home, having lost all excuse to use it now.
Each night he slept in vain, tossing and turning against the nightmares and waking in a cold sweat. His mother and father dreamed peacefully in the room beside his, unknowing of all the things he’d experienced last June and the world they didn’t dare imagine. They hadn’t questioned him when he begged to stay with them for a while, too glad to see him for the first time since he graduated high school. He didn’t offer any answers.
Being with them was the best thing he could’ve done, all things considered. He even found that, the longer he stayed in their completely normal world, the more ridiculous his fuzzy recollection of Claire’s death was beginning to seem. Sometimes, he questioned her very existence. He’d come a long way since his first day back to his childhood home.
Now, he only had to worry when he was asleep.
Oh, Kierlan, her sweet voice whispered through his deeply unconscious mind.
Why couldn’t you save me?
His eyes snapped open and adjusted easily to the scarce light filtering through the window pressed against his forehead. It was hot in the taxi from the hot summer outside, but a chill ran down his spine, raising goose bumps across his covered flesh. For the first few seconds following his awakening, he remained in the blissful state that always follows sleep, where nothing can bother you because you can’t remember any of it. His stormy grey eyes were frosted over with a confused glaze. Recollection suddenly flickered to life in their depths, and his eyelids slowly slid closed.
All Kierlan could see behind his lids was her face and hypnotically blue eyes staring back at him. With a defeated groan, he forced himself to open them again and focus on anything around the interior of the cab bound for Andover.
It was difficult to keep his mind off of her and the pain reverberating through his stitched abdomen, it always was, and there was only so much to stare at. He fished through his back pocket for the bottle his doctor had issued and popped two pills dry, but it didn’t soothe the pain his mind was pumping into every inch of his body.
Why couldn’t you save me?
It was very obvious to him that the driver was purposely avoiding any conversation with him because of his obvious emotional trauma, but he couldn’t find it in him to think badly of the man. The soreness in the back of his throat hinted at the fact that Kierlan might have been talking in his sleep, or even screaming. Had their roles been reversed, Kierlan thought he might just deliver the lunatic in the backseat back to the hospital he’d picked him up at.
Thankfully, this guy didn’t seem to care much for Kierlan’s mental health so long as he was paid for his services. Kierlan wasn’t entirely surprised; he’d recently lost all hope for human kind when a group of human beings attempted to sacrifice recently graduated children to a ‘fictional’ god. Worse yet, he’d been one of them.
He could tell already that healing would be easier said than done, but at this point his only hope was that he would someday soon regain the ability to breathe correctly. His chest burned with the memory of her face, her smile, and her angry voice when she yelled.
He wanted to scream, but he didn’t think his throat would manage pushing out any kind of speech at the moment, let alone a scream. Instead, he slammed his already throbbing head against the frigid glass and studied the outside world.
It seemed surreal that there’d still be an outside world after his venture through the catacombs and the incarceration he’d escaped from his hospital room.
The sky outside was dark with the heavy purple clouds, spilling buckets of rain down on the world below. It seemed fitting that the weather would be so dark; how could the sun shine down on a world that had taken away someone as bright as Claire? His eyes followed each raindrop as it trailed down the window, thankful for such an effective distraction, but, eventually, his mind began to wander.
He’d prided himself all his life on being the lone wolf, and now he was crawling back to his mother and father like a frightened pup.
Outside, where no one knew that the end of the world had nearly been upon them, life was going on. Ordinary people in the ordinary world were at work now, going about their daily business like they did every day at noon. For Kierlan and everyone involved in the incident back in the catacombs, life would never be the same. It was a secret shared only by them, and no one would ever believe them if they told it.
It was comical, assuming they pretended it had ended with a happily ever after.
After he woke, the remainder of the ride was short, either by distance or because he desperately didn’t want to answer his mother’s inevitable questions. Nevertheless, the taxi pulled up before the lazily crafted wooden fence and the driver demanded payment. He pulled out his wallet to pay and a picture floated to the ground. It was the picture he’d been given by his employer to find Claire: she stood among her friends from the catacombs, dressed in their Catholic School uniforms.
As he handed the money over to the driver, he bent over to retrieve the photo and froze.
Where James should’ve been standing, one arm thrown casually over Claire’s shoulders while the other wrapped around Alex’s waist, his arms were instead holding Alex and thin air. Any trace of the girl in the photo had vanished, even the bags that should’ve been at her feet. He flipped the picture over and caught her name, written there in blue ink, vanish before his eyes.
He stared, openmouthed at the picture in his hand and felt his eyes slide shut over the tears building there. His fist closed around the paper with a quiet crinkle and his fingernails cut into his palms.
“Sir?” the driver demanded.
Kierlan’s eyes shot open and he cleared his throat with a slight shake of his head. “Umm, yes?”
“Are you alright, sir?” he inquired.
“Yes,” Kierlan replied a bit too hastily. “Ya, I’m fine.”
“Well, would you mind…?” he trailed off, nodding his head toward the car door. “I should be getting back to business.”
“Oh, yeah,” he continued, nodding and clearing his throat a second time. “Of course. Sorry.” Humiliation colored his face as he struggled to exit the vehicle with his crutches in hand. His stitched flesh protested violently to movement while he staggered toward the trunk of the taxi and slammed the door behind him. He stared hopelessly at his luggage in the backseat, knowing there was no possibility he’d be able to carry it all the way to the house.
“Would you like help with your bags, sir?” the driver offered, appearing beside him.
He exhaled heavily with relief. “That’d be…great.”
Kierlan spent a week alone in his room, avoiding his mother, before he allowed himself to leave the house. He was still in a great deal of pain from the stitches, but it was such a welcome reprieve to feel fresh air that he didn’t mind much, as long as he sat for a while between bouts of exertion. Alex and Janie never searched for him after the funeral; he was grateful to be rid of the reminder.
Since Claire had vanished from the photo, it was all too easy to convince himself that he’d become infatuated with a mere figment of his imagination. And so, his physical wounds healed and life went on.
His twisted form of peace was short-lived.
Kierlan had been alone in the house for days while his parents attended a wedding in Pennsylvania. He was charged with the task of picking them up at the airport that night, an hour drive from the house, and he was already late.
As luck would have it, he didn’t realize his keys were missing until he’d made it all the way to the car.
He cursed softly when he ran his hand through his pockets and found them empty. “Damn.” It was a strange, and inconvenient, chance; he’d never forgotten them before, but he thought himself unstable enough to assume his recollection of grabbing them off the counter was entirely of his own fabrication. With his head hung, he trudged reluctantly back toward the building he’d left, in the dark.
The front door was unlocked, just as he’d left it, but he could sense something was amiss the moment he entered the living room. A cold breeze wafted across the room, effectively slapping him in the face and sending a shock through his system. He couldn’t remember if it had been him who’d opened the window, but he could tell that the screen was gone now, and that wasn’t something he would’ve done. From the light streaming in from the streetlights, he could see a puddle forming on the table closest to the window. Instinctively pulling the door shut behind him, he hustled as fast as he could toward the drenched furniture.
“No!” he growled, pulling it away from the wall and wiping it off with his bare hands and sleeves. It was an attempt in vain; the mail he’d left there stuck to the wood, its text dripped off in black raindrops. Nothing intelligible was left. Groaning pathetically, he flopped down on the couch and held his face in his hands. Nothing ever went his way anymore.
“Serves you right, you ass,” a harsh voice snapped from the darkness.
He immediately dropped his hands from his face, forgetting the frustration that had nearly driven him to angry tears, and jumped to his feet. “Who’s there?” he demanded, catching his fervent breath.
The light abruptly flickered on. Across the room, James Bellman stood against the wall beside the door, his finger poised over the light switch. His face was twisted in a cold scowl. It wasn’t him who spoke, though.
His fiancé, Alex Clove, sat on the kitchen cabinet, one leg crossed over the other and her hands folded so tightly in her lap that her knuckles were white. As usual, the scowl on her face was much more impressive than James’s.
“Ugh, I should’ve known,” Kierlan squeaked confidently, though in actuality the sight of their faces was tearing a hole in his chest so raw there’d be no hope of assuaging it tonight.
“You’ve been hiding from us,” Alex accused, narrowing her eyes infinitesimally smaller.
“Have I?” he sneered. “I’d only intended to visit my family…honest.”
“We’ve needed your help all this time and you’ve been nowhere to be found!” she shrieked indignantly.
“I apologize, Alex,” he rolled his eyes, falling back into the couch. Dampness soaked through his black dress shirt, infusing him with the familiar cold.
Alex stared down at him with distaste. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you went to the funeral,” she deadpanned, dropping to her feet.
He could’ve slung insults at her all night, but he was already late. “Sorry I hurt your freaking feelings, bitch, but I’ve gotta go.”
“You’re gonna need these,” James retorted, swinging Kierlan’s car keys around his middle finger.
Kierlan eyes narrowed into slits. “You took my keys?”
“Right out of your pocket,” James mocked, willing the keys to hover through the air toward him. Kierlan pushed himself back into the couch as far as he could go as they neared him, refusing to touch the charmed chain. His eyes took on a crazed look, like a cornered animal. His pupils flickered between them, ready to run. “Take the keys,” James pleaded with a sigh, allowing them to fall on the cushion beside him.
“If you don’t mind, James,” he said, “I think I’ve had just about enough of you two and your weird-ass abilities. It’s done nothing good for me in the past, why would it now?”
“Claire knew what she was getting into when she saved your life,” Alex hissed, crossing the room to face him.
“You don’t know that!” Kierlan yelled. “We have no idea what was going through her head when she did that, so stop pretending like you do!”
She slammed her hands down on the coffee table before his legs. “Shut up, Kierlan! You’re not the only one that misses her!”
“I’m sure as hell the only one acting like it!” he slowly rose to his feet and returned her glare with equal venom.
Alex’s face was turning red with rage. “Shut up!”
“It’s your fault she’s dead!” he bellowed, followed by the slap of Alex’s hand connecting with his cheek.
For a long moment, the three of them didn’t speak, and the only sounds in the room were Kierlan and Alex’s slow, heavy breaths. His face stung, but it wasn’t painful enough to make him wince, though his cheek was turning an angry pink over his gaunt complexion. His eyes were losing their fire in exchange for defeat, and he slumped in on himself, using the coffee table for support. “Why are you here?” he whined without meeting their gazes.
“To show you this,” she answered, pulling a picture from the purse in her lap. It was a blue screen, nothing else.
“Wha—” he began, but halted as she held up a restraining hand.
“Claire gave me this picture. It was her senior picture. It was a picture of just her. And now she’s gone!”
“That’s not the only one either,” James added. “All the pictures we have of her, whether she’s alone or we’re in the picture with her, she’s gone.”
“It’s like she never existed,” she finished.
Kierlan had been nodding since James had begun. “She disappeared from my picture, too, like she was never there. It’s like she was never here. Does anyone ask about her? Does anyone notice?”
“No one,” James assured him.
The rain started coming down harder, now, spilling endlessly against the windowsill. The sound drew Kierlan’s attention. His eyes followed the raindrops outside and noticed for the first time through his distracted state that the living room was on the second floor. He didn’t see a ladder outside the window to split the fifteen foot drop.
“How did you get in here?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
James seemed surprised by the question. “My…as you said before ‘weird-ass abilities’ allow me to transport from one place to another with my mind…but you knew that already?” he mumbled as an afterthought.
“Right,” Kierlan nodded. “Why’d you open my window?”
Alex and James shared a look for a moment before they simultaneously looked back to Kierlan. “We thought you did that?” James murmured.
“It was open when we got here,” Alex added.
Kierlan frowned, growing surer and surer that he wasn’t the one who’d opened the window. There was no way he would’ve removed the screen. “It wasn’t me,” he stated.
“Bu—” Alex began before a strong gust of wind beating against the trees outside silenced her. The breeze was softer when it entered the room, carrying with it the frigid rain. Alex’s back stiffened and her eyes widened.
“Alex? What’s the m—” Kierlan said.
“Shh! Shh!” she snapped, fervently waving her hand. After a few silent minutes of only wind whispering through the room, she looked up at them, losing the glaze that had settled over her eyes. “Do you hear that?” she beseeched.
“Hear what?” James inquired, watching his fiancé intently for anymore odd behavior.
“Listen!” she ordered.
The two men stared at each other first, obviously questioning her mental stability, before another shrill demand came from her lips. Then, they listened intently for anything amiss. At first there was nothing, just a breeze. When they’d just about come to the conclusion that Alex’s grief had finally gotten to her, they started to hear it. The wind…whispering.
“Kierlan,” the wind whistled with a voice so obviously hers that it was painful to his fragile mindset. It stopped.
“Claire?” Kierlan called loudly, a contrast so startling to her whisper that it made the other two jump.
“Kierlan,” it spoke again, this time the slightest bit louder. “Another page lived.”
“Another page? Claire is that you?” he called out again, trying so hard to believe it was true. Silence followed.
Another voice broke the quiet, but it traveled on the wind as hers had. It was the gravelly, obvious voice of a man, and it was angry. It was threatening. It was Mainyu.
“She. Is. Mine.”
“Claire!” Alex yelled. “Get away from him! Do something! Say something! Give us a sign that you’re still there! Please!”
“C’mon, Claire, please!” Kierlan pleaded, his voice cracking. “You have to get away! Talk to me!”
There was no answer to their wishes. Each person in the room looked to each other and slowly deflated. Kierlan was beginning to feel dizzy from the conflicting rush of relief and disappointment warring within him, but he didn’t dare move, for fear she’d speak again and he’d miss it. He steadied himself against the table and slowly breathed in and out through his mouth, as if his concentration would bring her voice back. He gave the floor a withering glare and waited even after the others had given up hope.
In the end, his prayers were answered.
“Kierlan,” her sweet voice called, sending their heads shooting upright. And again, they waited. Her final words assured them that their every fear was realized, but there was nothing any of them could do but listen as she, at last, finished: