“Girl, you scarin’ me. Come in, come in.” Within a few moments Tiana was ensconced on Shay’s comfy sofa with a blanket with a huge glass of red wine. Tiana’s hands shook as she held the glass. “TiTi spill it,” Shay insisted. Tiana downed the wine. “It started three months ago when I went to that big commercial furniture convention in Chicago. I stayed at the Hyatt and my hotel room was nice but it had an interior door with a little plaque that read Room 137 Inside Door,” Tiana said. Her voice sounded stilted almost mechanical. She stared into her empty glass. “I noticed this weird door wasn’t on the room map. But I didn’t think much of it. It was just a nice hotel to have such an old looking door.” “And…” Shay pushed. “Then in Atlanta for that Color Forecast thing I was at a Wyndham and the door was there again. Standing in the corner like a closet but not. The door, the plaque everything was the same. I took the lift to the lobby and tried to explain to the front desk lady but she just looked at me like you’re looking now.” Tiana broke down her body shuddering in tears. Shay held her friend brushing Tiana’s tears with her fingers. “We’ve been through too much together. I believe you. I’ve never seen you this frightened. Is there more?” Shay poured herself and her friend another generous glass. “ What happened when you try the door?” Taking slow breaths, Tiana drank deeply. “The first door I checked and it was locked. I never touched the second door. I can’t stop thinking about this. I called out sick for the Virginia trip but I’d have to call out dead to miss Lamps & Lumieres. I’m a mess. Then it happened.” Shay’s eyes widen. “Dude.” She held her friend tightly. “I was home right watching tv and then I heard something in my basement,” Tiana said, crying on Shay’s shoulder. “I thought it was the heater. Or maybe a window. The lights were out so I grabbed a torch to investigate. And the door was there. Dark oak, brass knob, and a brass plaque Room 137 Inside Door the same as before in my basement. In my basement.” Tiana squeezed Shay. “Something was knocking on the other side of that door!” Shay pulled out of the embrace slightly to look at her friend’s face. “You’re holding me so tight. You’re so scared you don’t even sound like yourself. You’re suddenly British and crap. What happened next?” Suddenly Tiana drew Shay back into her arms. Squeezing harder and harder Tiana said, “silly girl, I answered and let me out.”
Mommy and Isabella were in the attic. They were looking for old clothes for the church jumble. Well Mommy was looking. Isabella was helping by wearing an old lady fur coat and a Sunday hat and dancing. “Careful Izzy!” Mommy shouted as Isabella fell backwards. Kissing away the tears, Mommy lifted her from the floor. “What’s dis?” Isabella turned to glare at the box that tripped her. Slowly Mommy started to back away. Isabella wriggled from Mommy’s stiff fingers. “It’s a princess treasure chest.” Mommy stood in the corner while Isabella explored the chest with tiny eager fingers. It was humped lidded wicker basket with leather straps. A pink ribbon on one strap had a tag that said something Isabella couldn’t read except for her name. “Is it for me?” “Leave it. Just leave it.” Mommy sounded funny. “It’s mine, mine.” Isabella fumbled with the tight buckles. “Help me get it open. Please mommy.” Isabella turned but mommy wasn’t there. She turned back to her treasure chest and the buckles were loosened. Inside her chest, there was a letter with pretty looping words. With her Sunday hat askew, Isabella studied the letter carefully upside down and then tossed it. Next were lace trimmed squares of fabric with pretty flowers made of thread. She swirled the cloths in the air before tossing them aside. Isabella pulled out a heavy silver mirror with a crack. Gently Isabella set it beside her. Beneath the mirror there was a white leather book with whisper thin pages and a gold cross on the cover. Her name was on the inside cover but there were no pictures. The little girl tossed the boring book behind her. A crystal perfume bottle with a real squeezy thing was in her treasure chest. Isabella pretended to spray the empty bottle and put on imaginary makeup in the broken mirror. Somehow the little treasure chest seemed bigger on the inside. Isabella next took out a bundle of tissue paper. Gently and then less gently Isabella torn at the paper. It was a dolly, a boy doll. He worn a navy suit with an ivory frilly shirt and an indigo velvet ribbon tie. He was porcelain with shiny blond hair, a serious face, and the most beautiful grey blue eyes with real lashes. Isabella loved him instantly. She hugged him hard enough to break him. The doll didn’t break. Isabella ran downstairs to show off her treasure. At dinner Mommy and Daddy were not really talking to each other. Instead they are pretending to be polite and spelling things to each other. Isabella talks to her new friend whispering in his perfect ear. At bedtime Mommy made Isabella put the doll in the downstairs closet to keep it safe. Mommy tucked Fluff Bunny, Blake the Tiger, and Mr. Teddy into Isabella’s bed and told her endless bedtime stories. Through the vents Isabella woke to Mommy and Daddy loud talking. Mommy was mad because daddy had promised he threw away a box and daddy told mommy to grow up and something about mommy’s mother. Next there were bad words. Isabella fell asleep to the soft sounds of crying. “ Izzy, quit running up and down the halls and go to bed!” Daddy yelled waking Isabella from a sound sleep. Confused she turned to hug Fluff Bunny’s hard body. In the morning Isabella woke up to her new doll nestled in her arms with a smile on his face. She smiled back. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, not noticing the writing in mommy’s lipstick across her dresser mirror. Yawning she headed down to breakfast.
You came, I thought as my heart raced. The silver wolves sliced the velvet of the night. There were only three of them. My breath crystallized as I exhaled in relief. They froze. The smallest wolf growled. Slowly I shifted from my mountain lion form to human form. I slipped from the shelter of the slender pines and stood bare in the clearing. Now all three wolves growled. Typical, I thought. Legs akimbo, hands on my hips, I stared down the biggest wolf, the shifter at the front of in pack, the top dog. I smiled. That smallest wolf bared his canines. My smile widen. From fox shifters in the South to the bear shifters of the Far North, all of the tribes from around the globe had been been meeting and talking. It began in the sands of Namibia among the lion shifters. The word was wildfire spreading throughout the big cat prides. The word was consolidation, a coming together of all animal shifters to combine their resources, to protect our community. First hatchets had to be buried and alliances formed. It had been a long, hard slog. Big cat ambassadors criss crossed every continent. The last holdouts, in the midst of the great conversation, were the wolves. For months the wisdom of shifters tried to enter into parley with the wolves. Finally the pack leader of the wolves reached out to my elisi. She is level headed and considerate everything I’m not. Despite all that, Grandma selected me to make first contact. Now I was here in this circle of scrub pine and darkness naked surrounded by wolves. Their paws made no sound as they edged closer. I never dropped my gaze from the leader. “Heel!” I growled back. The three wolves shifted. They loomed over me. “What did you—“ the leader said. I brushed past him mid sentence and began to walk away. The words, “little bitch,” landed behind me. I stopped and spoke without turning around, “Technically the only bitch in this situation is your mom. We all know the only reason you haven’t joined in the plan to save our kind is because you’re not alpha. Call me when you’re ready to play ball.” In a blur two of wolf shifters leapt towards me. Twirling I extended my claws drawing first blood. The leader barked and his subordinates instantly dropped to one knee. Dismissive I sniffed and turned. “Gee and I thought dogs liked playing ball,” I said before shifting into my mountain lion. I headed back into the forest dark. The woods erupted into howls. I could scent the leader of the pack, smell his anxiety, and I knew he was eager to save his sliver of forest. He was following me. I walked on.
Geoffrey walked down the crowded aisle. Faces turned his way and smiled. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. Suddenly Geoffrey was back in middle school going to his first high school party. Angela his bio lab partner had invited him to a pool party at her girlfriend’s Joanna’s house. Angela was perfection, flawless tan skin and long wavy jet black hair. Geoffrey was no fool. Overweight with bad skin Geoffrey knew Angela was out of his league but he figured she was buttering him up to cheat off his exam paper. Geoffrey grew clammy. Desperate for air in this cramped space, he tugged at his tie. Geoffrey told himself he was a grown man that belonged here. More faces turned towards him their expectant smiles. When he was a kid at Joanna’s party Geoffrey arrived in his swim trunks with a bottle of Jack he stole from his old man. He wasn’t planning on being cool just accepted. The high schoolers all smiled at him at that party like these strangers around him now. Big smiles, little giggles, hands over mouths, until Mikey Getz screamed, “ Angie for the win! Look at the face on this loser. Girl you found the ugliest…” Geoffrey remembered running from the house running from laughter. Geoffrey elbowed his way to the tiny bar. He knocked over a charcuterie board and grabbed a platter of champagne flutes from the surprised steward. He downed one drink after another drowning the raucous laughs. No matter what he did, lose weight, join the military, get a good paying job, Geoffrey was still the punchline. Panting, Geoffrey gripped the bar’s edge. The flight attendant touched his back, stroking him, worry twisting her face. “Captain, are you okay?”
Mrs. Bradley lived in Room 325 of the Lilac Manor Senior Care. As a hospice chaplain I visited her regularly. With translucent skin and delicate bones, Mrs. Bradley reminded me of a baby bird woman. She listened to me politely each week waiting for me to go away. One afternoon I asked, “I know you’re too nice to tell me to buzz off but I don’t want to bother you. Mrs. Bradley tell me what you want.” “I want,” Mrs. Bradley said tossing her sudoku magazines on the table. “to play poker. The only one who plays here is Midge and she cheats.” We used to play every week. In the nursing home sunroom with the sunburnt pothos and hostile pet parrot, we sat and played cards. I was good and she was better. Eventually we talked, mostly I talked. I covered going to college, dropping out, returning to college and seminary. I covered my little apartment, my ancient car, my parents, my boyfriend not boyfriend. She told me about winning an art prize in high school and working at the perfume counter at Gimbels. I could picture her elegant fingers showing a fancy bottle of scents. “I unload my heart to you every week, Mrs. B. I don’t even know about your family,” I said once walking her back to her room. “Your heart is young and joyful. I’m pleased to listen. I’m old and empty. I married my best friend. We had a good life and two children, so beautiful. Jim died young and my girls well they are focused on their own lives.” As Mrs. Bradley talked her blu veined hands turned upwards holding emptiness. At two am not long after that I got the call she had had a stroke. I rushed to her bedside. Instead of her neat cardigan with jeweled sweater clips and her tidy bun, Mrs. Bradley was in a shapeless hospital gown unable to talk to move each breath labored. I prayed, contacted her family, made final arrangements, the chaplain duties. Then I talked about getting a dog and my cousin’s upcoming wedding and the fight I had with my dad. I stroked these empty hands that lived and lost and put my hand in hers.
Platters of gooey deviled eggs jostled congealing casseroles on the overladen dining room table. Grandma’s house was as crowded as the table. Aunts, uncles, random old people, and cousins he’d didn’t remember huddled in groups talking and eating. Eyes down, Ryan slipped between clusters. He found his dad first drinking brown liquor in the backyard with his Uncle Mitch. Ryan could tell by the set of his father’s shoulders that it was pointless to talk to him about leaving. Next Ryan looked for his mom even though she was a longer shot than his dad. Ryan found his mom in the kitchen with grandma. The kitchen swarmed with ladies. He wished for an invisibility cloak. Ryan pretended to be fascinated with his phone. Aunt Lea started making him a plate of fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, ham, and her weird broccoli casserole. As he tried to explain he wasn’t hungry Great Aunt Billie added a slice of pound cake and a scoop of banana vanilla wafer pudding to his plate. Desperate Ryan gave his mom the I’m bored and I want to go home face. His mom was hugging grandma at the kitchen table and shot him a look of annoyance and sadness. Ryan escaped back into the yard, wandered to the front, and finally decided to eat his unwanted plate on the porch. Sandy was there. The taffy colored Corgi with a fat belly and grey on her snout stood on the porch top stair and ignored Ryan. This was her waiting spot. Ryan patted her head just to be friendly. She was grandma’s dog but Ryan knew Sandy loved to sit with Gramps while his grandfather gardened. Patiently Sandy accepted the pat without taking her eyes from the cars driving past the house. Her ears were erect; her nose twitching searching.
It felt good to be ignored, to not be hugged, or make small talk, to not be asked how you are holding up. Dying was weird enough without out all the talking and crying. Sinking into the quiet, Ryan ate the pound cake. Gramps always ate dessert first because life was too short he said. Ryan smiled around a mouthful. What Ryan saw in the hospital wasn’t his grandfather. Gramps was loud and a little rude and his stories went on forever, not sick. Ryan brushed his cake crumbs on the dog and wiped his fingers on the coat before starting to eat his banana pudding by hand. Surprised Sandy looked at the boy but then ate the buttery crumbs. She realized she was hungry and she whined at the boy. Ryan offered Sandy ham and torn off bits of chicken while he ate potato salad. Next Ryan offered Sandy the broccoli casserole. The dog sniffed and growled at it. Ryan laughed. Sandy wagged her tail, which wagged her whole body. He climbed off the porch and buried the casserole under the mulch in Gramps’ garden. Skipping down the stairs Sandy joined him to investigate the burying. On the bright green grass Ryan sat down not caring about his new suit or the neighbors or anything. Ryan rested his head on the dog’s head the way he had done as a little boy. Laying down, Sandy curled around the boy’s head like she did when he was young. Watching over the boy, the dog found comfort in the smell of his familiar skin when so many strangers in her house, so many changes. She was happy to have his company while she waited for her old man to come home.
Every now and then, it seemed when she opened her mouth two voices came out. One voice was hers, breathy and soft, squeaky when nervous, giggly when happy. She didn’t like to think about the other voice. To think about the voice was to summon the voice. It started in assembly during class elections. She was bored, looking at her split ends wondering if Mrs. Trapp would be on her case if she opened her phone. “As if high school wasn’t bad enough, now we have to listen to this circus. All clowns and monkeys.” She snickered and the others sitting around her laughed. She realized she was the one talking. Her face flushed. In study hall the voice shouted, “Is it okay if I look up how to be a school shooter or does that cross a line?” The room erupted in laughter and she was sent to the vice principal’s office. Mr. Harlan sat on the corner of his desk and told her he was disappointed not angry. No one listened as she tried to explain. In the supermarket where she bagged groceries the voice sang saucy limericks. In class the voice made wisecracks. During detention she launched into sea shanties. Detentions followed more detentions. Then came the suspensions. Her mother screamed and her stepdad grounded her. They couldn’t understand the change in their sweet girl. She couldn’t explain she hadn’t changed that she was still here behind the voice. She became terrified to open her mouth, even to eat, even to drink. She grew pale and thin. Refusing to leave her room, she took to wrapping her head in a scarf tied tight. Her dad even flew in to try to reach her. The voice would only tell his startled face knock knock jokes. Her parents and her stepdad got into a fight. Covering her mouth she ran from the house running from the voice, from the anger, from the pity. She fainted on the Stones’ front yard. She woke up in the hospital on fluids for her dehydration. Her throat hurt. Her limbs were heavy. Kind faced counselors talked at her, her parents sat at her bedside making soothing conversations. Her class sent her a big get well soon card. She traced the names of the kids she didn’t know and who didn’t know her. Inside the voice snickered. But nothing could make her open her mouth.
The inky earth trembled as the King of the Undead thrust a ghastly hand from his grave. Clutching a solitary blood rose, a second hand writhed to the surface. As he clutched his marble resting place, he lifted his maw and roared, “Hell is too small for Dad Ragu!” “Cut!” Ramsay shouted gripping his ginger locks. “Look, Seth, the name is Vlad Dracul. It’s your character’s name, dude.” Seth sneezed as dirt fell from his head. “Dracul, right. Why can’t we use Dracula? It is so hard to remember words and stuff.” “Let’s roll, Action.” “Ivan Magoo!” “Cut.” “Van Da Cool.” “Cut,” “Vlad Achoo.” Seth burst into a series of sneezing. “Is this dirt organic? I specified organic dirt.” “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Ramsay could feel the veil of blood rage slipping behind his eyes. The world was red and black. He buried his head and steadied his ancient heart. “Sorry, I mean let’s take fifteen guys.” “Coffee, Red.” Ramsay’s head snapped up. Jude, sweet Jude of craft services with the Scooby Doo tee shirt and chunky black eyeglasses , smiled up at him. Ramsay recognized the sarcastic shimmer behind those frames. “Not you, not today,” Ramsay said. “What do you want Eupraxia?” Before cell phones and the internet there was NightSpeak, the way powerful vampires can talk to each other through the bodies of especially weak willed humans. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?” Jude/Eupraxia purred and drank from the lidded coffee cup she had brought him. “Bye Felicia.” Ramsay stalked to his trailer. With a burst of super speed, Jude/Eupraxia surged to the trailer door. Blocking his path. “The Cloud of Elders put a lot of money into this production and they are not the kind you want to make unhappy. Our HR guy is literally a guy with an axe. Literally. Honestly from what I’ve seen this morning your film makes Howard the Duck look like Shakespeare. They will not be happy.” Ramsay punched his trailer and the whole thing shivered. It was all he could do to keep from picking it up and throwing it. “You’re right.” Ramsay had glamoured his way into film school and spent most of his career making commercials and dating influencers. But this film was his passion, the history of his kind from the inside. Ramsay had written the script and workshopped it. His blood and sweat was a turning into a B movie. In shame, Ramsay turned away. Stroking his throat, Jude/Eupraxia soothed him in the old language. Ramsay slumped and rested his forehead on her head. She added in English. “Personally I think you’re an asshat but I believe in your script. I believe in this film’s potential. Art can inspire. So stop screwing up.” The old friends laughed. He took the coffee cup and downed the coagulated liquid. “Hey Ram I have a few ideas ‘bout the script I want to spitball.” Quickly their heads in unison. The lead actor instinctively leapt back. Eupraxia stood on Jude’s tip toes and whispered into Ramsay’s ear, “Knock ‘em dead.” Dreamily, Jude walked back to the snack table forgetting the last few minutes with each step. Ramsay spread open his arms, released his fear, and embraced his inner beast. Seth blanched. Ramsay growled, “No instead of the lines let’s discuss your professionalism over a quick bite.”
Well you have to quit fooling around now and go to the damn doctor,” Frankie said. Dustin rubbed his temples as the growing goose egg on his forehead throbbed. “I’m fine, I just need to sleep.” “You slept like a log last night. Go to doctor, bae. “ Dustin half listened to his wife while remembering the restless night before. He had tossed half the night until Frankie ordered him out of the bed and he watched Catfish until the sunrise and he returned to his bedroom.
“So good news according to the results from your sleep apnea test and the at home sleep test you are in great shape…” Dr. Bradley said. “What what do mean. I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in days. I fainted in a Starbucks for Godsakes!” Dr. Bradley continued, “good results here. Try a little melatonin and no screen time after nine pm. Schedule with my girl for a follow up appointment in let’s say six months.” Dustin disconnected the call. Then he threw his cell across the room. Frankie ran and held Dustin as he sobbed. “So Dustin what brings you here.” Dr. Michaels’ office was in a gay Victorian with a wraparound porch and lots of ferns. The waiting room was hippie chic, pillows, tassels, severe Swedish furniture and macramé wall hangings. Dully Dustin repeated his story his doctors’ visits his failing health his endless nights. There was a long pause while Dustin examined the psychiatrist and she appeared to be turning over a thought in her head. “Once I read a case study about a family that couldn’t sleep. It started slowly but as each family member aged they needed less and less sleep until they each fell into a coma and died. “ Dr. Michaels formed her fingers into a triangle and pressed them against her chin. “Is that what I have?” Dustin’s voice squeaked. “ no not at all. You were sleeping in my waiting room. Sleeping like the proverbial baby.” Dustin shouted, “no I was awake! Awake! I read a couple of dusty Highlights magazines.” Dr. Michaels made soothing noises. “I believe you. But I also want you to know I only have Martha Stewart magazines and this.” Dr. Michaels showed Dustin a picture of him sleeping on her phone. The doctor gave Dustin a bottle of water. “Dustin what if your problems is boring dreams?” Dustin choked. Dr. Michaels gave him a tissue. “Hear me out. These are weird times. We are all going through things. I say take these eight hours and live your dreams. Pick one thing you always wanted to do and try it. No risk no chance of failure. Try it. Tell me what you love.” Surprisingly relaxed, Dusty left the old house after his session . With a weary smile, Dr. Michaels watched him walk away and hoped this one would make it.